If there’s a line dividing history from mythology, it’s so fine that it’s practically invisible. No matter how widely read or clued up we might be, our understanding of the past is saturated with errors, inaccuracies, and myth. But having holes in our historical knowledge is no bad thing. For a start it drives us to learn more; if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be on this page. It also teaches us something valuable about history itself: that it’s not about having an impeccable memory of dates and events, but about being able to ask why certain “truths” have become established where others have not.
Our word history comes from the Greek istoria (Ιστορία) which actually means “inquiry”. The translation is telling. And the fact that we need inquiry to get to the bottom of what really happened tells us we have a lot of untruths to sift through first. Such untruths might come about for any number of reasons: they might be the result of innocent misunderstandings, lazy attention to detail, or purposeful distortion (history being written by the victors).
As historians, it’s ultimately our job to put these untruths right—ideally, though admittedly not always, in an entertaining and interesting way. But as the recent phenomenon of fake news goes to show, trying to put across the truth in a world drowning in false information is nothing if not an uphill struggle. Every struggle has to start somewhere though; so here are the first ten steps.
Myth 1) Nero fiddled while Rome burned
The story of the deranged Emperor Nero watching his beloved city burn to the ground while twanging on his fiddle is so deeply rooted in Western culture that it has become a staple idiom across most European languages, coming to describe someone doing something pointless or trivial in the midst of an emergency. Yet as powerful as this image is, unfortunately, it’s also certainly entirely fictional.
Three ancient sources describe Nero’s behavior during the Great Fire of 64 AD. The first is Suetonius, an imperial courtier, who wrote his biographies of the first twelve emperors around 50 years after Nero’s reign in the 110s – 120s. He describes how, as if upset by the ugliness of Rome’s architecture and narrow streets, Nero ordered the city to be set ablaze. Watching from the Tower of Maecenas and dressed up, as he often was, in stage costume, Nero proceeded to sing “The Fall of Troy”; a musical throwback to another famous and fire-consumed city.
The great historian Tacitus is less sure about Nero’s involvement. He tells us that Nero was away from Rome when the fire broke out (though he may well have arranged it) before going on to describe how—for mysterious reasons—certain groups wandered around the city preventing others from extinguishing the flames. But Tacitus tells us that Nero actually did his best to help: throwing open his private gardens to house the homeless and reducing the corn-price to help the poor. He tells us of a rumor that went around about Nero singing “the Fall of Troy”. But he’s adamant it was just that: a rumor.
Our third source, Cassius Dio, is of little use. Writing around 150 years after the event described, it seems he based his history on Suetonius’s biography, as he reports Nero’s complicity in the fire as concrete fact. But if the disagreement among our three sources isn’t enough to debunk this myth, there’s one final detail: the fiddle wasn’t invented until around the eleventh century. So even if Nero did indeed accompany himself to “the Fall of Troy”, it would have had to be with a cithara.
While we’re here, it’s also worth mentioning that Nero never threw Christians to the lions in the Colosseum. True, in the aftermath of the Great Fire he scapegoated this minority group for starting it, and in a particularly grisly spectacle the emperor had many Christians crucified and set alight along the Appian Way. But we know he didn’t execute them in the Colosseum for the same chronologically anachronistic reason as the fiddle—the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre as it was then known, wasn’t built until after Nero’s death.