Nero- Arsonist and Fiddler? by David Coplowe



Nero is popularly remembered as the Emperor who started the Great Fire of Rome, fiddled while it burned and then fed Christians to the lions in the Coliseum; but did he? The first documented persecution of Christians certainly occurred during his reign but got scant mention in the early sources; since there were probably less than 1000 Christians worldwide,[1]  it would suggest that the persecutions were not on a large scale and were exaggerated by later Christian chroniclers.

Cassius Dio accused Nero of starting the fire, but he is silent regarding the prosecution and execution of Christians.[2]

Suetonius states categorically that Nero instigated the fire;[3] however he makes no direct connection between the fire and the punishments inflicted on the ‘Christians’. He has only a single line concerning this: “punishments were inflicted on the Christians, a race of humans having a new and criminal superstition“.[4] This line occurs where Suetonius is recording Nero’s reform of public abuses, twenty two paragraphs before the fire is mentioned, implying that they were not connected.[5]

Tacitus avoids making any direct connection between Nero and the start of the fire but makes some thinly veiled assertions: “A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor is uncertain…”.[6] There is no such ambiguity in his description of Nero’s actions once he began to be blamed for the fire: “…he fabricated scapegoats and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, the notoriously depraved Christians”.[7] Since Dio and Suetonius are both silent about this, the real reason for the executions may not have been the fire. There are discrepancies in Tacitus’ account of events subsequent to the fire and there is a time gap between the fire and the subsequent prosecutions and execution. This is implied by Tacitus’ assertion that the city had been rebuilt and that the grounds of Nero’s new ‘Domus Aurea’, were used for the spectacle.[8] Tacitus is clear that Nero’s intent was to divert attention by fixing the blame on a group already the object of contempt and even hatred, and is very convenient for his thesis that Nero was being blamed for the fire and looking for scapegoats.

The prosecutions are not attested in any other source,[9] and I suggest that they are for different crimes.[10] Tacitus can be read that some Christians were prosecuted as self-confessed arsonists, for which the standard punishment was burning to death, usually after crucifixion, and others for refusing to worship the local gods, ‘atheism’, for which the Roman punishment was execution by wild beast in the arena. There is no suggestion in any of the extant sources that the executions were other than legal. The passage in which Tacitus describes the punishments is in that part of the Annals which report Nero’s legitimate actions, rather than the part detailing his ‘crimes’.[11] While Suetonius, notorious for gossip, reports him as ‘fiddling while the city burned’,[12]  no other sources do!


David Coplowe    

David Coplowe, BA(Hons), MA







[1] Lampe, Peter. 2003. Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: p83.

[2] Dio: History LX11.16.2.

[3] Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Nero 38.

[4] Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Nero 16.2: my translation – the usual translation ‘mischievous superstition’ seems inadequate.

[5] At this time the usual charge against Christians would have been asebeia – contempt for the gods resulting from their failure to offer sacrifices to local gods.

[6] Tacitus: Annals XV.38.

[7] Tacitus: Annals XV.44.

[8] Tacitus: Annals XV.42-44.

[9] De Ste. Croix 1963 ‘Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted’, Past and Present, 26, p32n1: argues that the confessions mentioned by Tacitus refers not to arson but to being a Christian.

[10] Tacitus: Annals XV.44.4.

[11] Lampe, Peter. 2003. Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, p83.

[12] Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Nero 38.


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