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For several days in 64AD the Great Fire of Rome burned. Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned, then use the fire-cleared land to whip himself up a new palace?

Well, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet. And it would be ten centuries more before it was. However one report has Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus dressed up in a costume and singing the Ilou persis during the great blaze.

It’s true that Nero wasn’t a very popular figure, making the State’s tax-records public, lowering taxes, upholding the rights of slaves and freed slaves, limiting fines and lawyers fees, rooting out corrupt officials, and embarking on charity and public works projects that shocked the Senate with their extravagance. It isn’t really certain that Nero’s goals were the public good – he may have been doing it simply to spite his enemies.

What he wasn’t doing was faffing about during the Great Fire of Rome.

According to more reliable accounts, at the time of the fire Nero was in Antium, some 12 miles South of Rome. When messengers arrived (somewhat belatedly) with the news, Nero rushed back to Rome, and put together a massive relief effort, housed homeless survivors in his palaces, and arranged for food to be freighted in. And he, not the State, paid for it.

Nero arranged a new urban development, with stone and brick buildings, spaced well apart, and sheltering porticos facing the roads. Now, that astronomical expense didn’t come out of Nero’s pocket, but came from tributes imposed on the provinces.

And yes, he also built a palace (the Domus Aurea) in one of the fire-cleared areas formerly occupied by members of the aristocracy, and that was more than somewhat of an extravagance, as well as a calculated insult, which may partly be why the other story circulated about him afterwards.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus committed suicide four years later, during a tax revolt and attempted military coup, rather than face execution by being beaten to death.

Categories: Culture, Everybody Knows.

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