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Nero: The Scapegoat Arsonist

Updated on December 10, 2016

The "Fiddler"

In today’s language Nero is almost always synonymous with evil as he is known as the cruel and corrupt emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned” and brutally prosecuted Christians. He is commonly blamed with starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD which lasted about five days and destroyed much of the city, however this common preconception of Nero may not be deserved as many modern historians challenge this controversy that was started by only a few ancient historians almost two thousand years ago. Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Tacitus are our main ancient sources on Roman history, yet there are countless modern historians who challenge the historical accuracy and motives of these ancient writers and question why they portrayed Nero in such as grim manner. The dark legacy that is written about Nero and forever attached to his name is usually associated with the Great Fire, yet many believe that Nero’s legacy was intentionally damned despite his actual innocence in starting the fire and his good intentions in rebuilding the city.

Ancient Descriptions of the Fire

In July of 64AD a fire broke out in the city of Rome which would go on to burn for about five days[1] and destroy much of the city. It began near the Circus Maximus by the Palatine and Caelian hills, an area that is densely populated with wooden tenements and shops which quickly became engulfed in flames and a rapid wind carried the fire throughout the city[2]. However, before even mentioning the fire two of the ancient sources begin their narrative of the fire by foreshadowing it with an ominous portrayal of Nero. Suetonius begins his narrative with a conversation between Nero and an unnamed person who repeated a quote that said “when I am dead, may fire consume the earth”, to which Nero replied that the first part of the quote should be “while I yet live”[3]. Dio takes a more direct approach in addressing Nero’s evil intentions by stating that “Nero had the wish---or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his---to make an end of the whole city in his lifetime” and that Priam had been fortunate to see Troy destroyed under his reign[4]. Before Dio and Suetonius even mention the fire they foreshadow that Nero’s intentions are to destroy and burn Rome. Their bias against Nero gives their audience a negative view before reading their narratives about the fire, thus already creating a grim opinion of the emperor. When it comes to the cause of the fire however, the ancient sources begin their differences in the story. Suetonius blatantly states that Nero himself and some accomplices “brazenly set fire to the city” after pretending to be disgusted with the old buildings, and even knocking down stone walls with siege equipment to set the interiors of granaries on fire[5], while Dio states that Nero hired men to act drunk and mischievous while starting small fires that gradually engulfed the city[6]. While both claim that Nero is to blame for the fire, their reasoning for how the fire started varies, which gives the modern reader and historian reason to suspect that neither account may be entirely true. Also, both descriptions of the fire involved terrorized people screaming and running through the streets and desperately trying to help neighbors as well as saving themselves. In Dr. Jonathan Markley’s article “The Reign of Nero” he mentions that the Roman educator Quintilian condoned lying “in the pursuit of justice” and to use vivid descriptions in such scenes[7], which makes sense considering that the historical narratives of these events were written in some cases over one hundred years after they occurred, therefore it is almost impossible to accurately say what a specific person said or did during an event as chaotic as the fire. With this in mind we can safely assume that both Suetonius and Dio are not completely historically accurate in their descriptions.


Inaccuracies of Ancient Historians

The assumed inaccuracies of Suetonius and Dio are not the only form of ancient evidence there is to presume that Nero was not completely to blame. Tacitus does not attempt to foreshadow the fire or any intentions by Nero but merely states “A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts”[8]. Tacitus does not completely say that Nero did or did not start the fire, but does make mention that there were accounts that state his innocence. Out of all the surviving accounts of the fire, Tacitus is the only one that says not only is it unknown if Nero did cause the fire (as opposed to Suetonius and Dio who outright say he did), but he mentions that there were accounts that Nero was not to blame, which we now know did not survive. This possibility of proving Nero’s innocence is supported by many modern historians such as Michael Gray-Fow and Edward Champlin. In his article “Nero Reconsidered” Edward Champlin argues that while there is a possibility that Nero did start the fire, ancient historians condemn him with the legacy of an incendiary because he was unpopular with the higher social classes and even attacked certain aristocrats, which would cause those who wrote history, those either in such social standing or under the influence of the aristocrats, to portray him in as negative a light as possible as a sort of revenge[9]. Gray-Fow’s article “Why the Christians? Nero and the Great Fire” mentions that fires were common in ancient Rome, especially since most of the city was crowded with wooden buildings and shops with flammable ware, and that this was actually the third fire within that generation[10]. Lastly, the common opinion of modern historians that contradicts ancient historians such as Suetonius and Dio in which Nero did not start the fire was emulated in the book A History of Rome by concluding that the Great Fire “was beyond doubt the result of accident”[11].

The extent of the Great Fire left much of urban Rome devastated, which called for Nero to rebuild Rome from a "city held together by matches" to a more sustainable city.
The extent of the Great Fire left much of urban Rome devastated, which called for Nero to rebuild Rome from a "city held together by matches" to a more sustainable city. | Source

Why is Nero Condemned?

With many modern historians as well as Tacitus exploring the possibility or in some cases the conclusion that Nero did not start the fire, where does this preconceived notion come from; why do most of the ancient sources blame Nero? One very simple answer can be found in Robert Bohm’s article “Nero as Incendiary” which describes that part of Nero’s reconstruction efforts called for the intentional burning of a small surrounding area of land in order to even out the area for easier construction[12]. However, most modern historians agree that the condemning rumor was created for two reasons: the expensive reconstruction campaign and Nero’s use of Christians as a scapegoat.

The fire destroyed about two-thirds of the city[13] which caused costly reconstruction, yet Nero’s reconstruction campaign was highly criticized by ancient historians. It is reported that Nero stole money from the Roman people using the fire as an excuse[14] and “bled the provincials white and practically beggared all private citizens”[15]. Tacitus even goes as far as saying “even the gods fell victims to the plunder”[16]. It is believed that one of the main reasons the rumor of Nero starting the fire was due to the fact that he appropriated 120 acres of burnt land between the Palatine and Esquiline hills to contrast himself a new palace, which some modern historians believe caused him to “forfeit whatever goodwill he may have earned” from his relief and reconstruction programs[17]. However, the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, and its impact on Roman society has been a subject of controversy among many modern historians. While some see the new palace as Nero’s expensive personal pleasure ground[18], others see it as a not only a city wide display of imperial power but also a public area for common citizens to pay respects to the head of the household, admire the lavish decorations and architecture, and overall enjoy the luxury and generosity of the imperial family in their mostly public home[19]. In addition to the Golden House being allowed for public enjoyment, Nero created vigorous relief measures to help those left homeless by the fire as well as creating new building codes and regulations to prevent such a tragedy from happening again[20]. Some scholars even deem Nero’s actions heroic because of his relief to his suffering citizens not only physically by building codes that will protect future generations, but spiritually with religious relief as well by trying to please the gods[21].


Persecution of Christians

This leaves the condemnation of Nero’s legacy to his persecution of the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire. Nero is reported to have arrested a multitude of Christians and were “covered with the skins of beasts, [and] were torn by dogs” or crucified and made into human lanterns[22]. The controversy of Nero’s supposedly evil nature isn’t over the fact that he persecuted Christians, many emperors before and after Nero did as well, but rather his purpose for their persecution. Tacitus as well as modern historian Markley argue that Nero used them as a scapegoat in order to please the gods with sacrifices, as well as a public demand to blame someone for the destruction of their city[23]. Tacitus displays this public demand by stating that their deaths were for the public good rather than personal cruelty by Nero as “even…criminals deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, [and] there arose a feeling of compassion”[24]. This public demand for punishment was met with immense public enjoyment. These executions became a public spectacle with the condemned suffering the consequences of criminal actors in reenactments of ancient myths which seemed fit to the crime of arson[25]. In addition to the public demand and entertainment, Nero persecuted the Christians simply to place the blame on someone and get attention away from himself. It is argued by modern scholars that Nero simply chose the Christians as his scapegoat simply because he could. There was already anti-Christian sentiment in Rome as Tacitus describes them as a “class hated for their abominations” and that they deserved their fate[26] and Suetonius reports that Christians have been punished before as “a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition”[27]. With this sentiment in place it is rather obvious why Nero would chose Christians as his scapegoat. Modern historians agree that Christians proved to be the ideal scapegoat as they had no allies or political ties such as the Jews, no Christian held any position of importance in Rome, and by following an increasingly popular trend, Nero would not be creating radical change within the empire[28]. Because Suetonius and Dio, our main anti-Nero ancient sources, both neglect to mention Nero specifically torturing Christians as a scapegoat for the fire, it is safe to say that the people of Rome were not upset about their persecution. This seems to be the one aspect of Nero’s rule that both ancient and modern scholars can agree on; Nero’s persecution of the Christians after the Great Fire did not contribute to anti-Nero sentiment among ancient Romans.

Conclusion and Nero's Legacy

In conclusion, despite many modern scholar’s attempts to claim Nero’s innocence and disprove his grim legacy, old rumors are hard to break. As Dr. Markley mentions that as the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it was rather easy and common for ancient scholars to tarnish Nero’s reputation in order to enhance the new Flavian dynasty’s reputation[29]. It is also worth noting that Nero had a strong taste for Greek culture and performing arts, which in the view of the Roman aristocrats did not befit the image of an emperor, therefore tarnishing his reputation among the higher social levels. After Nero’s death there are accounts of men claiming to be Nero, which proves that he was admired, and probably the most telling sign of Nero falling victim to the writers of history was Suetonius’ mention that while aristocrats rejoiced in Nero’s death, the common people wept[30]. Modern historians view this account as verification of the theory that Nero fell victim to being the last of a dynasty; loved by the common Roman people yet he had no heir to prevent any, particularly aristocratic historians, from speaking negatively about him. Despite the controversy between ancient and modern scholars, and the widely agreed modern narratives of Nero’s reign, Nero will remain in history as the evil ruler who “fiddled while Rome burned”.


[1] The exact duration of the fire is unknown; Tacitus reports that it lasted five days (Annals XV.38) and Suetonius reports it lasted for “six days and seven nights” (Nero 38).

[2] Tacitus Annals XV.38

[3] Suetonius Nero 38

[4] Cassius Dio Roman History LXII.16

[5] Suetonius Nero 38

[6] Dio Roman History LXII.16

[7] Markley, Jonathan. “The Reign of Nero,” The Annals of Tacitus (Ancient History Documentary Research Center: Macquarie University, 2006), VII.4

[8] Tacitus Annals XV.38

[9] Champlin, Edward. 1998. “Nero Reconsidered”. New England Review (1990-) 19 (2). Middlebury College Publications: 97–108

[10] Gray-Fow, Michael J. G.. 1998. “Why the Christians ? Nero and the Great Fire”. Latomus 57 (3). Societe d’Etudes Latines de Bruxelles: 595

[11] Cary, M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1975) 359

[12] Robert K. Bohm. 1986. “Nero as Incendiary”. The Classical World 79 (6). [Johns Hopkins University Press, Classical Association of the Atlantic States]: 400–401

[13] Cassius Dio Roman History LXII.18

[14] Cassius Dio Roman History LXII.18

[15] Suetonius Nero 38.

[16] Tacitus XV.45

[17] Cary, M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1975) 359

[18] Cary, M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1975) 359

[19] Buckley, Emma and Dinter, Martin. Companion to the Neronian Age (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) 115

[20] Cary, M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1975) 359 and Jonathan Markley, “The Reign of Nero,” The Annals of Tacitus (Ancient History Documentary Research Center: Macquarie University, 2006), VII.16

[21] Champlin, Edward. 1998. “Nero Reconsidered”. New England Review (1990-) 19 (2). Middlebury College Publications: 103

[22] Tacitus Annals XV.44

[23] Markley, Jonathan. “The Reign of Nero,” The Annals of Tacitus (Ancient History Documentary Research Center: Macquarie University, 2006), VII.17.

[24] Tacitus Annals XV.44

[25] Champlin, Edward. 1998. “Nero Reconsidered”. New England Review (1990-) 19 (2). Middlebury College Publications: 104

[26] Tacitus Annals XV.44

[27] Suetonius Nero 16

[28] Gray-Fow, Michael J. G.. 1998. “Why the Christians ? Nero and the Great Fire”. Latomus 57 (3). Societe d’Etudes Latines de Bruxelles: 615-616

[29] Markley, Jonathan. “The Reign of Nero,” The Annals of Tacitus (Ancient History Documentary Research Center: Macquarie University, 2006), VII.21

[30] Suetonius Nero 47.


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