Fiddling while Rome burns

Posted by Teach on December 13, 1999

In Reply to: Fiddling while Rome burns posted by ESC on December 11, 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! and Other Curious Sayings 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."

When we are made aware that a company director has 'Fiddled the Books" we do not immediately find ourselves inundated with letters to the press and irate phone calls to talk radio pointing out that it's impossible to get a tune out of a book and certainly that there are no know book section in any reputable orchestra. Rather we assume a different meaning for the word "fiddled" with the majority of people correctly assuming that the director had made fraudulent entries in his company accounts.

Given this ability of humans to establish meaning based on context why, historically, has there been this debate as to what Nero did when Rome burned. Surely almost everybody knew that violins did not exist at that time and those who didn't where probably in no position to comment on it; given the levels of illiteracy in most of the know world until the 1800's.

I'm therefore fascinated to know how the question regarding Nero's fiddling ever arose, or was it one of those well managed myths created as a dinner party conversation piece designed to confer a level of erudition on the teller.