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I have always been fascinated by the history of ancient Rome and this is one of the topics, I always wanted to know a little bit more about.

The rumor about Nero himself giving the order to burn down parts of the city is a widespread assumption about this part of history. In some books I read about Tacitus mentioning Neros involvement, at least when it comes to accusing the Christians of setting the city on fire.

I would like to ask:

  • What did Tacitus write exactly? Was he believing, that Nero was involved?

  • Are there any other reasonable theories? Have some been written down by "contemporary witnesses" of this period?

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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

One way to determine this is to go to a translation of the source, which should provide you with all the Tacitus you can eat on the subject.

In short, Tacitus suggests that Nero may well have been the primary motivation for the fire starting where and when it did, although Nero himself was in Antium when the fire started (again, according to Tacitus).

As far as alternate theories, I'm not aware of any, but that's not to say they don't exist. If you don't buy into the whole "Nero wanted to build himself a bigger house in the middle of Rome" angle, I think the next most reasonable guess would be that a fire accidentally started in the wrong part of town at the wrong time, and grew out of control. Accidental fires in Rome were hardly uncommon, even if this particular fire was a whopper.

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Thank you for your answer. Interesting point and link about Tacitus, thanks. I'm accepting this answer now, altough I was hoping to maybe get a bit more about alternative theories :) –  GNi33 Oct 19 '11 at 11:35
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The alternative theory is put forward by Suetonius (Nero, 38-39) who strongly supports the idea that the fire was Nero's doing, and that common people saw his agents with torches but didn't dare stop or detain them. 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned' is a reference to Suetonius's account of Nero singing a poem (probably of his own composition) about the fall of Troy, standing atop Maecenas's tower on the Esquiline (the exact location of the tower is not known, but it could be on or near the spot of Teatro Brancaccio in today's Rome).

Incidentally, Nero couldn't fiddle, of course, because string instruments of that kind were not invented yet.

Both sources agree that Nero led a major relief effort after the fire, making the city safer and cleaner. One should keep in mind that our main sources were written during the reign of dynasties hostile to Nero, and badmouthing him could be a side effect of that. Also, Nero committed suicide when he was only 30, so the idea of a lecherous and depraved old or at least middle-aged man on the Roman 'throne' is not very realistic.

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In my hometown there was once a major riot that burned down the "black side" of town (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_riot ). Afterwards, a lot of the newly abandoned land was snapped up by white developers and early "urban renewal" proponents. This started conspiracy theories among the victims that those folks purposedly caused the riot somehow specifically so they could have the land. This story about Nero always struck me as the exact same kind of conspiracy theory. I think Hanlon's Razor needs to be applied here. –  T.E.D. May 7 '12 at 18:50
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In a recent book, "The Great Fire of Rome" Stephen Dando Collins puts forward the theory that Tacitus didn't say that Nero blamed the Christians, but that he blamed an Egyptian sect for the fire. Later writers, "knowing" that Nero persecuted Christians, changed the text.

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What evidence does Collins marshal for such a claim? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 11 at 17:55
    
Part was that there were too few Christians to be threatening or credible. Another bit of evidence that burning or tearing apart by dogs would have been religiously 'unclean' for that sect and not Christians. –  Oldcat Jan 13 at 20:33
    
What is that whooshing sound I hear? Oh, right, Occam's razor is nearby... :) –  Felix Goldberg Jan 13 at 21:30
    
Besides the new theory, the book does go into detail on the timeline of the fire and the theories about Nero's culpability that the original post is asking about. It's worth a look as a more in-depth view than we can give on this site, and then you can judge the theory as you like. –  Oldcat Jan 13 at 22:34
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