Posted by ESC on December 11, 1999
In Reply to: Fiddling while Rome burns posted by bluebaron on December 08, 1999
: In this case, the fiddling is euphemistic, but the burning actual. Refers to the Emperor Nero, who "fiddled around" while Rome actually was burning.
FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS - According to the "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" refers to ".heedless and irresponsible behavior in the midst of a crisis. Legend has it that in A.D. 64 the emperor Nero (A.D. 37 - A.D. 68), last of the Caesars, set fire to Rome to see 'how Troy would look when it was in flames' and to serve as a suitable background for a recitation of his poetry while accompanying himself on the lyre."
"Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" has some additional information on this phrase: "The notion that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is nonsense because the fiddle wasn't invented until many centuries after he ruled Rome, from 54 to 68 A.D. He may have toyed with a lute, but certainly not a fiddle. What's more, Nero seems to have been something less than all bad. For one thing, he was a pioneer in what we would now call 'urban renewal.' He planned to rebuild much of Rome and ran into a lot of trouble with property owners who resented his condemnation proceedings. When the big fire broke out in 64 A.D. (it burned nine days and destroyed two thirds of the city), Nero didn't do much to win the hearts and minds of his people by ordering some other buildings burned to stop the fire's progress. But in the end, Nero proved to be a pretty smart politician. He blamed the fire on the Christians, who were then a much put-upon sect and a handy scapegoat. The truth seems to be that while the Christians didn't actually start the fire, they didn't do much about putting it out either, because they saw it as the sign of the second coming of Christ." As an interesting (I think) fiddling side note, I found a phrase in "Heavens to Betsy" by Mr. Charles Earle Funk that I'd never heard -- "'to have one's face made of a fiddle' was to be exceptionally good-looking." Fiddles had such pleasing qualities ".as to invite complimentary comparisons to humans."