Friday, June 22, 2012

Nero’s Flaming Fiddle

Burn, baby, burn.

The politics of the Roman Empire were messy, often with multiple legitimate emperors at a time. There were around 80-85 Emperors of Rome over the history of the Roman Empire. Most people can name about four: Julius Caesar (which is incorrect – he wasn’t actually an emperor), Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (because they saw Gladiator), and flaming, fiddling, Nero.

Everyone knows two things about Nero:

1) He played the fiddle while watching the city burn.

2) He was the one who burned down Rome, so he could clear the land to build a new palace.

Why? Because he was crazy, and crazy people do unexplainable things, right?

1) He played the fiddle while watching the city burn.

Nero was born on the 15th of December in the year 37. The earliest “fiddle” was an instrument called a lyra, and was invented around the year 900. So either Nero was a time traveler who made musical journeys 850 some years into the future, or he had no idea what a fiddle was. 

Byzantine, ivory casket c.1000 (from Museo Nazionale, Florence, Coll. Carrand, No.26)

This is the earliest picture of a lyra. Fiddles didn’t start to look like they do today until the early 16th century. So if Nero had one, he was way more epic than people make him out to be.

2) He was the one who burned down Rome, so he could clear the land to build a new place.

On 19 July, 64 (possibly more familiar as 64 AD) a fire started in Rome, and spread. This wasn’t actually that unusual – Rome also burned in in 69 and 80 -- fires in cities is a huge problem even today, because they spread fast, and this was back in an era before modern fire trucks. This much we know. Only one contemporary account of it still exists, by the historian Tacitus (you can read his complete works here: HERE). All the others we have came about much later, and say a lot of different, conflicting things.

The problem with the “Nero Burned Rome” idea is that Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire began; he was in Antium, a little over 36 and a half miles away (59 km away). You could argue that he had someone set fire to the city while he was away, but it would have just been a lot cheaper for him to buy the land outright, since he paid out-of-pocket for the food and emergency shelter for those whose homes and businesses had burned down.

He was feeling more than just a pocket pinch, since his own palace, the Domus Transitoria, burned down in the fire. He built the new Domus Aurea after the fire to replace it. Also, the area where the fire started was more than half a mile from where he eventually built the newer Domus Aurea, which kind of puts a hole in the theory that he started the fire to build a new palace. Much of the Domus Aurea was built to be identical to the burned-down Domus Transitoria, and a lot of the Domus Aurea was actually built from what parts survived of the Domus Transitoria.

So why did Nero get the blame? Mostly because he was unpopular with the nobility – he was suspected of helping assassinate the emperor before him. He was popular with the lower classes during his life and after his death (which probably didn’t help his popularity with the nobility), but once Christianity became the official religion of Rome his persecution of Christians during his reign meant the stories vilifying him surged in popularity. Hence the story of the completely vile and crazy Nero. 

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