The most overused and abused term of the past five or six years is, without a doubt, “fake news.” It makes it much more difficult to identify true instances of fake news, like the news that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned in a great fire. According to a new book, the fire wasn’t so great, Nero didn’t start it, he certainly didn’t fiddle – literally nor figuratively – and in fact, may have been a hero. Wait … what?
“In Rome Is Burning, distinguished Roman historian Anthony Barrett sets the record straight, providing a comprehensive and authoritative account of the Great Fire of Rome, its immediate aftermath, and its damaging longterm consequences for the Roman world. Drawing on remarkable new archaeological discoveries and sifting through all the literary evidence, he tells what is known about what actually happened—and argues that the disaster was a turning point in Roman history, one that ultimately led to the fall of Nero and the end of the dynasty that began with Julius Caesar.”
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the fifth Roman emperor, ruling from 54 to 68, and most famously known for having a corrupt and cruel reign, starting the Great Fire that destroyed much of Rome so that he could build a new palace, stood by ‘fiddling’ while it burned and committed suicide to avoid being beaten to death as a declared public enemy. That’s been the story for nearly 2,000 years … until, according to Anthony A. Barrett – distinguished historian and author of books on Caligula, Agrippina (mother of Nero) and Livia (wife of Caesar Augustus and mother of Tiberius) -- archeologists found new evidence that only 15-20 percent of Rome was actually destroyed the fire in July 64 CE. This confirms what one lone ancient Roman historian – Tacitus – said about the fire and its aftermath.
The evidence shows that the fire was probably accidental and mostly in the rich area of Rome – mansions and properties of the elite in the Palatine and Esquiline Hills who prospered under Nero’s rule. They tolerated Nero’s idiosyncrasies (he liked to act in plays, a possible source for the ‘fiddling’ story) but their feelings about him turned almost immediately when they had to pay for their own repairs and were assessed higher taxes by Nero to help the poor who were affected. Instead of helping them, Barret says he brought in new building regulations to try to prevent fires like that in the future, established welfare measures, provided free shelter for the homeless and incentives for them to rebuild.
That sounds like a hero, not a villain, doesn’t it?
In the review in the Daily Mail, Barrett blames the rich for the fake news about Nero – falsehoods that were propagated by historians Pliny the Elder, Suetonius and Cassius Dio and exaggerated by virtually everyone afterwards. Case in point: Nero couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned because the fiddle wasn’t invented until the 10th century as the bowed lira. About the only thing that was true in the accounts was that Nero was hated by the elite and he did die, although it’s not clear it was by suicide and the Senate didn’t declare him a public enemy until after his death. While there were celebrations upon the news, they were limited to the rich, and Barrett focuses on the crises – financial and political – that had longterm consequences for the Roman empire, making the Great Fire and its aftermath a turning point in Roman history that ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
Nero himself wasn’t a victim of the fake news about the Great Fire – he was already dead – but the Roman empire and history definitely suffered from it. Will “Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty” change that? Probably not. Should it? Anything that puts an end to the cries of ‘fake news’ – not to mention the actual falsehoods peddled under the name of news -- that have so permeated modern culture would be welcome.
In the meantime, “Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty” by Anthony A. Barrett is available wherever you get your reading material.