Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar [37-68]) is best known for his mad self-indulgence and whimsical cruelty while emperor of Rome. He was the adopted son of the emperor Claudius. While still in his teens, Nero succeeded Claudius; it is generally believed that Nero's mother, Agrippina, poisoned Claudius so that her son could take over the throne. (Nero later had Agrippina killed to consolidate his own power.) In 64 A.D. a great fire swept through Rome, destroying much of the city. The historian Suetonius states that Nero himself ordered the fires set, and that Nero watched the flames from a tower while singing a song about the destruction of Troy. (Other historians call these merely rumors.) True or not, this image of Nero "fiddling while Rome burned" has endured. Nero's high living angered citizens and senators alike, and in 68 A.D. he was forced to commit suicide. He was replaced by the emperor Galba.
Nero couldn't have played an actual fiddle, since the violin wasn't invented until the 16th century; he might have played a lyre, a type of small harp. Nero himself blamed the fires on Christians, thus setting the stage for years of persecution of Christians in Rome.
One characteristic of Nero that Suetonius describes was Nero's fascination with music. Suetonius describes Nero as being a gifted musician. Nero would often give great concerts with attendance compelled for upper class Romans. These concerts would last for hours on end, and some women were rumored to give birth during them, or men faking death to escape (Nero forbid anyone from leaving the performance until it was completed).
Nero's eccentricities continued in the tradition of his predecessors in mind and personal perversions. According to Suetonius, Nero had one boy castrated, and then had sex with him as though he were a woman. Suetonius quotes one Roman who lived around this time who remarked that the world would have been better off if Nero's father Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus had married someone more like the castrated boy.
It is in Suetonius we find the beginnings of the legend that Nero "fiddled as Rome burned." Suetonius recounts how Nero, while watching Rome burn, exclaimed how beautiful it was, and sang an epic poem about the sack of Troy while playing the lyre.
Suetonius describes Nero's suicide, and remarks that his death meant the end of the reign of the Julio-Claudians (because Nero had no heir). According to Suetonius, Nero was condemned to die by the Senate. After five years of misrule, the Senate declared Nero a public enemy whose death sentence was particularly painful. He was to be stripped naked and flogged until dead. A slave refused Nero’s orders to stab him in the neck, forcing the ex-emperor had to commit suicide. Fancying himself a genius poet and composer, he lamented over and over as he bled to death, “What an artist dies with me!”
Ah, the Roman orgy. Caligula probably did it better (if you could survive it), especially considering that Nero was reportedly to be grossly overweight and castrated at least one man so that he could treat him as a woman.