Nero played the fiddle, Cleopatra was Egyptian: Two myths busted

Nero: Historical myth about playing the fiddle while Rome burnt shattered
Nero: Historical myth about playing the fiddle while Rome burned shattered
Emperor Nero: Historical myth about playing the fiddle while Rome burnt shattered
Emperor Nero: Historical myth about playing the fiddle while Rome burnt shattered

By Prateek Dasgupta

Few sources depict Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus as a tyrant who persecuted political opponents. Some historians have falsely portrayed him as a madman who didn’t care about his people’s misery. During the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, his opponents accused Nero of “playing the fiddle while Rome burned.” The expression has become synonymous with apathy. Some have even blamed Nero for starting the fire, though we now know it was accidental. Nero wasn’t present in Rome when the fire broke out.

But did Nero really play the fiddle when Rome burned?

The first flaw in this narrative is that the fiddle did not exist in ancient Rome.

The second and most important argument against this is that recorded evidence shows Nero worked tirelessly to extinguish Rome’s great fire. He immediately rushed to the city on hearing the news of the fire and opened his private gardens to stranded Romans. Nero was directly involved in putting out the fire and relief operations.

Because Nero’s interests in the arts were considered blasphemous in Roman society, many of the records depicting him in a negative light are politically motivated.

Nero’s ruthless persecution of his opponents did not help his reputation. This included blaming Christians for the fire followed by executing and imprisoning them, often without a trial.

However, not everyone agrees with this negative portrayal of Nero. Emperor Trajan, considered one of Rome’s five good emperors, praised Nero’s reign. Trajan’s approval of Nero divided historians. Many argue that Trajan saw Nero’s reign favorably during the early years, when Nero was under the tutelage of the famous Roman philosopher Seneca.

Regardless of your feelings about Nero, blaming him for being careless during the Great Fire of Rome is wrong. It is time to bury this myth.

Cleopatra was Egyptian

Cleopatra was Egypt’s queen, but she was not Egyptian.

The outrage over Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Cleopatra for an upcoming Hollywood film is amusing. Critics have accused the filmmakers of “whitewashing African history.”

That may be an issue in many Hollywood films, but this is not one of them. Gal Gadot, who is from the Mediterranean, is better suited to play Cleopatra than an African actress.

Cleopatra was not African, despite her importance in Egyptian history. She was Macedonian Greek. In fact, she was the first person in her entire family to speak Egyptian, and she was its last ruler.

Egypt fell into the hands of Alexander the Great after the Macedonians defeated the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Following the death of Alexander, a succession war among his generals resulted in Ptolemy (also known as Ptolemy I Soter) receiving Egypt in 305 BCE. Cleopatra was a Ptolemaic descendant. She wasn’t the first Cleopatra in her family, either; she was the seventh Cleopatra in the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Because the Greek rulers of Egypt were so concerned with preserving their lineage, they married within the family. Cleopatra, like her forefathers, married her brother Ptolemy XVIII, with whom she shared power in Egypt.

Her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony have inspired Shakespearean plays, romance novels, and Hollywood films.

Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BCE, following the final war of the Roman Republic between Mark Antony and Augustus.

Egypt became a Roman province after her death thus ending the Macedonian era.

*Excerpted from an essay by Dasgupta in History of Yesterday

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