The popular myth that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is not true—even in the first century CE, Rome was filled with poorly constructed slums that easily caught fire.

Illustration by M. de Lipman, from Quo Vadis, Nero and the burning of Rome (1897)

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    On July 19, 64 CE, a fire started in the enormous Circus Maximus stadium in Rome, now the capital of Italy. When the fire was finally extinguished six days later, 10 of Rome’s 14 districts were burned.
     
    Ancient historians blamed Rome’s infamous emperor, Nero, for the fire. One historian said Nero was playing the fiddle while his city went up in flames. Other historians say Nero wanted to raze the city so he could build a new palace. Nero himself blamed a rebellious new cult—the Christians.
     
    Most modern historians don’t blame Nero for the Great Fire of Rome. Ancient Rome was a city of more than two million people, with thousands living in slums. These slums were filled with poorly constructed wooden apartment buildings. A fire in one apartment could quickly engulf the entire block. 
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Rome Noun

    civilization founded on the Mediterranean Sea, lasting from the 8th century BCE to about 476 CE.

    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    Christian Noun

    people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

    construct Verb

    to build or erect.

    cult Noun

    system of spiritual or political devotion, usually derided by more mainstream organizations.

    destroy Verb

    to ruin or make useless.

    emperor Noun

    ruler of an empire.

    engulf Verb

    to surround or submerge.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    extinguish Verb

    to put out a fire or flame.

    fiddle Verb

    to play a stringed instrument, or the stringed instrument itself.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    infamous Adjective

    having a very bad reputation.

    palace Noun

    large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.

    raze Verb

    to destroy completely, especially by tearing down.

    rebel noun, adjective

    person who resists the authority of government.

    slum Noun

    area of a city that is crowded, often lacking basic services such as electricity or sewage, and inhabited by poor people.

    stadium Noun

    large structure, often used for sports or other entertainment events, with a central event area surrounded by raised seats for viewers.

    temple Noun

    building used for worship.