What was Emperor Nero really doing while Rome burned?

Diana Preston

THE WASHINGTON POST – The name Nero immediately conjures an image of a demented, olive-wreathed emperor demonically fiddling in the red glow of a burning Rome – a picture that has endured to modern times, providing irresistible fodder for plays, operas, films, even rock songs.

In Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty, historian Anthony A Barrett, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, navigates through the complex evidence surrounding the Great Fire of 64AD to show that much popular perception of Nero is illusory.

The written sources’ paucity, obvious bias and distance in time from the event, together with ambiguities in the archaeological evidence – Barrett draws on new research here – present formidable obstacles.

As he disarmingly and frankly acknowledges, little is certain beyond that the fire started near the Circus Maximus and, with a brief respite, burned for nine days. The wind-whipped blaze’s precise extent and the number of casualties, as people ran through narrow streets to escape, can only be guessed.

By an ironic quirk of fate, later fires, particularly one in 80AD, destroyed many records of this earlier conflagration. Rome Is Burning is therefore an analysis of the causes and broad course of the Great Fire and its political, economic and architectural consequences, rather than a detailed narrative of events and people.

Perhaps, as Barrett suggests, no comparable historical disaster is so closely associated with one individual. Barrett shows how, on becoming emperor in 54AD, aged just 16, Nero was Rome’s ‘Golden Boy’ – a ‘people’s emperor’. Yet just four years after the fire, his position untenable, he took his own life. Deducing how and to what extent the fire contributed to this is tricky. The three main textual sources are Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, none of them Nero’s contemporaries, thus reliant on earlier sources, and all hostile to him. As a scholar who has written widely on imperial Rome, including about Nero’s reign, Barrett – who provides translations of the three accounts – guides the reader expertly through the complexities of interpretation, giving an object lesson in handling sources.

In so doing, he dismisses as “very unlikely” the suggestion that Nero ordered the burning of his capital – an act that would have been both illogical and difficult. In explaining why contemporaries suspected he did, he lays some responsibility on the emperor himself. In the aftermath of the fire – as so often with disasters – grieving, homeless survivors wanted someone to blame, and Nero seemed a credible villain. After all, this was a man who had his own mother, Agrippina, murdered, and also his wife.

Subsequent generations of writers built on the rumours, some even suggesting that Nero sang about the destruction of Troy while watching his city go up in flames. (The idea that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” was a still later embellishment – Romans did not have fiddles.) A particularly potent and dubious part of the mythology, repeated in novels like Henryk Sienkiewicz’s late-19th-Century Quo Vadis, is that, to deflect suspicion from himself, Nero blamed Rome’s Christians for the fire, orchestrating wholesale and gruesome public executions. Barrett shows the sole source of this idea to be a short – fewer than 100 words – and much-disputed passage by Tacitus.

What seems clear is that the Great Fire created a gulf between the emperor and the Roman elite. Many resented being expected to help pay for Nero’s grandiose plans to rebuild Rome, including the construction of his extravagant Domus Aurea (Golden House). The debasing of the currency in the fire’s aftermath – the proportion of pure silver in Roman coinage at one stage fell to 80 per cent – also alarmed them. Convinced that Nero had become a self-aggrandising liability, they decided he must go.

Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had ruled Rome since the first emperor, Augustus. Henceforth emperors would compete for the throne. Barrett suggests that the political and economic instability wrought by this regime change – together with radical building innovations initiated by Nero in the wake of the fire, such as using concrete to produce dramatic, distinctive vaulting that revolutionised Roman architecture – makes the event a tipping point in classical history. Rome Is Burning is part of Princeton University Press’s Turning Points in Ancient History series.

This is an intriguing argument. Nero’s death was certainly followed by political turmoil – the notorious ‘Year of the Four Emperors’. Yet significant though the fire’s impact was, the Battle of Actium a century earlier, and mentioned by Barrett, perhaps has greater claims as a classical watershed.

It ended Antony’s and Cleopatra’s aspirations to reshape the Roman Empire by softer Greek concepts of “harmonia”, and it precipitated the end of the 500-year-old Roman Republic, which had some elements of democracy, and replaced it with an imperial dictatorship that could produce a Nero.

Whatever the case, Rome Is Burning is a lucid analysis of Nero and the Great Fire, enhanced by Barrett’s clear, engaging style, his obvious love of his subject, and an extensive selection of maps, schematics and photographs. Historically minded visitors to Rome as well as Roman-history enthusiasts will appreciate the erudition and context with which he illuminates one of the great stories – and personalities – of the ancient world.