The Debunker: What Was Nero Doing While Rome Burned?

by Ken Jennings

It's now September, which means we've entered that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is clearly the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth month), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth month) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month yada). This confusion is all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Let's stick it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by having Ken Jennings debunk four bits of persistent historical malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Nero Fiddle While Rome Burned?

The fifth emperor of Rome was, even by the low, low standards of Roman politics, a realis opus frustrum: a real piece of work. Lots of Roman emperors wallowed in luxury while neglecting their people, but Nero was also a cruel tyrant who ordered scores of executions - including those of his own mother and brother! But he was not an inventor or a time traveler, as the common myth about how he "fiddled while Rome burned" implies. The violin and its cousins, you see, weren't invented until the 11th century.

Nero was so unpopular that, even in his own time, rumors spread that he might have been responsible for the great fire that destroyed much of Rome in the summer of 64 AD. (According to the popular conspiracy lore of the day, Nero wanted to clear ground for a massive new palace complex.) Rome's citizens muttered that, even if he wasn't the arsonist, Nero had been spotted singing and playing his lyre during the fire.

The historian Tacitus, however, wrote that these rumors were untrue. Tacitus even gives Nero a Law & Order-worthy alibi: he wasn't in Rome when the blaze started. He was 35 miles away, at his villa in Actium. Tacitus also records that Nero rushed back to Rome to lead the relief efforts, personally leading search-and-rescue efforts and paying for food supplies out of his own pocket. The fiddling was just a legend - but apparently a pretty successful one, since we're still using it two thousand years later as a metaphor for neglectful leadership.

Quick Quiz: The biggest hit ever for the Charlie Daniels Band describes a fiddle-playing contest in what state?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.