Fiddling while Rome burned
Professional classicists have a habit of pouring cold water on popular facts about the ancient world. Take something that everyone thinks they know about Greece and Rome, and the finger-wagging scholar loves nothing better than saying it’s wrong. My own curmudgeonly assault a few posts ago on “Et tu Brute” was a case in point. It must rank as one of the most famous phrases in the Latin language – and guess what, smirks the don, it was written by Shakespeare.
Well, for a change, the good news is that Nero did fiddle while Rome burned. It just depends what you mean by fiddle.
Most people, I fear, take “fiddling” in the wrong sense.
This struck me when I was reading the previews in the weekend papers of the new BBC series of Roman drama-docs I’ve been involved with. The first episode features Nero (don’t ask me to explain here and now, but the episodes don’t move in chronological order: the “earliest” programme, featuring Tiberius Gracchus, is actually episode three).
With good historical credentials, Nero is shown being an energetic and responsible emperor in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. He provides emergency housing for the victims and sets about rebuilding the city in a way that wouldn’t make it such a tinderbox in the future. This idea obviously appealed to the TV critics – more than one of whom wrote something along the lines of “So Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. Rather he returned to his capital to help his people . . “. In fact, the same thought appeared so often that I began to suspect, correctly as it turned out, that they had lifted it straight from the BBC’s own publicity material.
Hang on, thought the smirking don. These guys obviously think that Nero has wrongly been accused of “fiddling” in the sense of “footling around”. In fact Nero’s “fiddling” was a wholly musical gesture. What the phrase refers to is his playing, if not the violin (=fiddle), then its nearest ancient equivalent, the lyre.
For, before he got into his emergency response mode, according to the historian Dio, he went up on the roof of the palace, put on his lyre playing outfit and sang a song on an all too apt subject – the “Fall of Troy”. Suetonius in his biography of Nero has a similar story of the singing (though minus the lyre). Nero’s crime was not “footling around”. It was that his first instinct in the face of crisis was to take refuge in the arts and high culture.
Whether we will ever now rescue what I think of as the “real meaning” of this phrase is doubtful. In fact, it may be a better idea to celebrate the shift of meaning rather than pedantically lament it. It certainly makes it more easily applicable. When George W Bush was widely accused of “fiddling while Rome burned” as New Orleans drowned, I don’t think his detractors had in mind a misplaced devotion to high culture.