"Nero played music while Rome was burning."

I just copied it from one English workbook for primary school. If it was watched, saw... I would take it as correct. This really bothers me, I cannot think of any grammar rule that this sentence makes correct, perhaps I am wrong.

I am confused since the book is for 7th graders and they are just about to learn the basic form like...a simple somehow 'interrupts' or 'stops' a long action in continuous form ( just basic like she broke her arm while she was skiing) it never occurred to me it actually is present participle....

It is why I mention see and watch as in 'I saw them playing, running..)

I still cannot grasp Nero one since there must be some other ways it to be described...yes that lack of connection...

Wouldn't it be easier to say that he played/was playing while watching the burning Rome?

  • 1
    Hello, Jenny. ''Petro helped with the fire-fighting while Rome was burning''. You can use past simple alongside the past continuous. Perhaps you're worried about the apparent lack of connection between a city burning and a ruler playing music. "The citizens of Istria went about their normal business while Rome was burning" is equally grammatical. Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 23:44

3 Answers 3


The specific phrase refers the a story that Emporer Nero played music instead of organising the firefighters in the great fire of Rome.

The grammar is correct. The past tense for the action in the past:

Nero played music.

and a "while" phrase using a continuous tense is typical and correct

while Rome was burning.

This tells us when Nero played music, and suggests that the fire was burning for a period of time. This is the past continuous form of the verb "burn"

Burn is a verb that can have a two senses, one with and one without an object:

I burn the paper

The paper burns

Compare this to

I close the door

The door closes.

So it is correct to say "Rome was burning", to mean "Rome was on fire."


First: "was burning" in this context is middle-voice = passive voice using active voice.

Second, we have 2 actions:

  • was burning = needs to be in continuous mode, because it denotes an ongoing, longer activity;
  • played (music) = it is a (rather short) action (event) which happened during the long(er) activity (the burning)

In that sentence burning is not a verb (one of the telltale signs is that there is no object), and so that clause is not a past continuous clause but rather a past simple clause where the word burning is a present participle(a type of adjective) and the verb is was.

as in: He is annoying.

annoying is not a verb, it is an adjective, a predicate nominative not an object.

it might be more obvious in: the burning man struggled for his life.

also from dictionary.com:



  1. aflame; on fire.

  2. very hot; simmering: The water was burning.

  3. very bright; glowing: She wore a burning red bathing suit.

  • 'Burning' is the present participle here; intransitive verbs (more accurately, verbs used intransitively) have no objects. A better check is 'while Rome was burning to the ground'. Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 23:45
  • I think the dictionary is quite clear on this case. Burning is synonymous to aflame. Example 2 clearly shows that it is the same structure and burning is an adjective there. a better check is : He is happy to a fault; does that mean happy is a verb ? Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 23:55
  • Think about 'Rome burned to the ground while Nero was playing.' (Just the construction, not the time he'd have to keep fiddling.) 'Playing', like 'burning' in OP's example, is a verb-form. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 0:22
  • I understand it now, that object part :D I am not allowed to thank, nevertheless I will, Big thank you Mr Ashworth. x
    – Jenny G.
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 10:06
  • burning man is not the same as X was burning.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 21:28

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