Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned is an often repeated bit of trivia. It's most often quoted during times of chaos or unrest, especially when a leading figure is absent from their duties. But is there any truth to it? The short answer, like many bits of trivia related to Ancient Rome, is that we simply don't know. But it's very unlikely to be true.
Nero was not as careless and cruel as history often makes him out to be. Many of the more immoral stories about Nero are fabricated or at the very least embellished by later emperors or dynasties as a way of discrediting him, which is something that happened to many emperors throughout Roman history.
The aforementioned Great Fire of Rome occurred in the year 64, possibly starting in the Circus Maximus and spreading from there. The fire raged for 9 days total and contrary to popular belief, Nero actually returned to the city immediately upon hearing of what had happened. In response to the fire and devastation it caused he used his own personal fortune to contain the spread and help those affected. Nero allegedly helped search for survivors and even allowed those found to take refuge in the imperial palace.
What is not clear is how the fire started. Some blamed Nero as he was quick to use some of the cleared space to build a new palatial complex that was complete with a 30ft statue of Nero himself. However he also commissioned a number of public buildings and even designed the affected areas to reduce spread of further fires in the future by adding things like wider roads.
Nero clearly benefited from the fire on a personal level, but that is not enough to assume he actually caused the fire himself. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and some even admitted to starting it, however this may have been confessed to under duress. Regardless of who is to blame for the fire, Nero did in fact play a key role in organised a relief effort for the affected areas of the city.
Although the story regarding Nero's absence and prioritisation of music over mayhem is compelling, it is likely to be untrue – besides, the fiddle did not even exist until the 11th century. Alas, Nero was a cruel emperor, but in this one instance he has probably been judged unfairly.