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Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned?

Nero was the fifth of the Roman Emperors. He reigned for 14 years, from 54 to 68 A.D., with the official name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Although not mentioned specifically by name in the Holy Scriptures (for the 3 Roman Emperors that are, see the Fact Finder question below), from a Christian point of view, he was one of the most barbaric persecutors of the early church.

Was Nero Really A "Fiddle" Player?

Nero was born at Antium (Anzio), Italy, on December 15 37 A.D. His father was Gnaeus Domitius Anenobarbus, a great-grandson of Caesar Augustus - the Roman emperor at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:1). Nero's mother, Agrippina II, was the great-granddaughter of Caesar Augustus, and brother of Caligula, the third Roman emperor.

Rome Burning Nero's father died when he was about 3 years old. After Caligula confiscated their family wealth, he and his mother found themselves quite poor for a time. Things changed dramatically when Agrippina married her uncle, the emperor Claudius. That marriage was the means of Nero's rise to power. Agrippina managed to get Nero adopted not only as a son of Claudius, but the heir to the throne before Claudius' actual sons. With the line of succession taken care of, Agrippina took the final step on October 13 54 A.D. by murdering her husband/uncle with poisoned mushrooms. Nero became the emperor of the mighty Roman empire at the age of 17.

Agrippina was very influential with the young Nero at first, but as might be expected from the example that she had set, he gradually became estranged with her. He had her removed from the palace in 55 A.D., and then ordered his mother's murder 4 years later. From then on, Nero became increasing brutal and depraved.

Nero is perhaps most famous for the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. It started in the Circus Maximus before raging through the city for 9 days. It is unlikely that Nero himself started the fire, as is popularly believed, because he was in Antium at the time. Whether he ordered it started is another matter - he had long wanted to make room for a grand new city that he had designed.

Although Nero did consider himself a musician, mostly on the Lyre, it is impossible that Nero "fiddled" while Rome burned, as most people have come to think of it - the violin wasn't invented until about 15 centuries later. In fact, the legend that Nero "fiddled" while Rome burned itself began centuries after Nero's time, in referring to how Nero fiddled away his time on frivolous pursuits. As a noun, "fiddle" came to refer to a violin, but as a verb, "fiddle" originally meant either to avoid one's responsibilities, or to commit fraud. The verb form of fiddle was what was originally meant about what Nero was doing when the great fire of Rome began; it later came to mean that he was playing the violin, which wasn't even invented in his time.

At any rate, to divert suspicion away from himself, Nero blamed the great fire on the Christians, thereby beginning a persecution of innocent people that has never been surpassed. Many were killed by wild animals before crowds of spectators in the arena, while others were tied to posts, covered with flammable material, and used as human street lamps for Nero's gardens. It is difficult to imagine a more evil man.

As was nearly always the case with the Roman emperors, plots were continuously in the making to overthrow Nero, including the Pisonian Conspiracy in 65 A.D. However, Nero was sly enough to avoid all the traps for a number of years. Every failed plot just made him more vicious.

Nero's reign ended June 9 68 A.D. when he committed suicide. He was 31 years old.

Fact Finder: Who are the Roman Emperors that were specifically mentioned by name in the Holy Bible?
See Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius

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