July 18, 64: Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day

Just whose fault was it anyway? Was it a cow kicking over a lantern, that strange new sect known as Christians, or the Emperor himself whom rumor would have wailing on a fiddle during the conflagration? It started in the central slums, spread rapidly through the market area and neroeventually engulfed most of the city. When the flames finally died out more than a week later, nearly two-thirds of Rome had been destroyed.

History likes to blame Emperor Nero, suggesting that he not only started the fire because he did not find the city architecturally pleasing, but staged his one-man concert as the flames surrounded him. History does not recall the name of the tune or tunes he played. History is funny that way. He did use the fire as an opportunity to rebuild Rome in a more orderly Greek style. And he did blame the curious Christian cult for the fire, responding with what became the popular Roman pastime of feeding them to the lions and other pagan parlor games.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, Nero was 35 miles away when the fire started, couldn’t play a lick on the fiddle (which hadn’t been invented anyway), and let his palace be used as a homeless shelter (no Christians need apply, of course).

Actually, Nero wasn’t musically inept. He could play a mean lyre, an ancient Greek stringed instrument sort of like a zither but sort of not. This is probably why conspiracy theorists determined to blame him for the fire, chanted “Lyre, lyre, pants on fire.”

I was much distressed by next door people who had twin babies and played the violin; but one of the twins died, and the other has eaten the fiddle, so all is peace. — Edward Lear