fiddling while Rome burns

To occupy oneself with unimportant matters and neglect priorities during a crisis.

The source of this phrase is the story that Nero played the fiddle or violin while Rome burned, during the great fire in 64 CE.

There are two major flaws with the story. First, there was no such instrument as the fiddle,  or violin, in first century Rome. There’s no definite date for the invention of the violin, but it certainly wasn’t until at least the 16th century. If Nero played anything during the Rome fire, it was probably the lyre.

Second, the story may be completely false. Nero died four years later, and we must remember that history is written by the victors. The historian Suetonius records that Nero was responsible for the fire and that he watched it from a tower while playing a musical instrument and singing about the destruction of Troy. Others say this story is merely a rumor.

Nero certainly appears to have been a bizarre character, but that doesn’t make this story true. Roman scholars differ over interpretations of events surrounding the fire. The rivalries and conflicting accounts, even those in contemporary reports, make the ‘fiddling’ story uncertain.

So, does playing solitaire on my desktop while the potatoes boil to mush on the kitchen stove match the criteria? No, not even close. Nero was supposed to have played and sung as a tribute to the fire he was watching. I’m merely forgetful.

  One thought on “fiddling while Rome burns

  1. May 12, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for clearing all this up for me, Lea. That’s the trouble with history being “written by the victors”, as you said. The truth gets buried under more layers of lies than is fair the further you go back in time, since less and less people are able to read and write and communicate and disseminate a message as you go back, and an objective picture becomes harder to find. I’m surprised that objective scholarship can be done on the Roman Empire for this reason, but it still gets done, from Edward Gibbon in the past to Mary Beard today.

    Of course, you have to remember that Nero only became Emperor because his mother Agrippina apparently poisoned the guy who had the job before him. And he himself was probably one of the most tyrannical rulers Rome ever had. But they were used to tyrannical rulers, after getting through Julius Caesar and Caligula.

    In the movies and television, he’s always portrayed as a hard core villain, or an unlikeable person at best. For example: Charles Laughton in “The Sign of the Cross”, or Peter Ustinov in “Quo Vadis”. Or, more comically, Dom DeLuise in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part 1.”

    No better in my beloved cartoons. In the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Roman Legion Hare”, they have him bellowing “Get me a victim! Get me a victim!”, and then when none is produced, he tells the Captain of the Guards (Yosemite Sam) “Get me a victim right away, or you’ll be the victim!”.

    Stephen Harper, eat your heart out.

    “Peabody’s Improbable History” got it all wrong, too, like they usually did. They had Nero not only playing the violin, but arrangements Gerry Mulligan had written for him, yet!

    So it’s been very nice for me to discover that, perhaps, history might have given this guy a bum rap. Emphasis on “might”.


    • May 12, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Yes, “might” is the operative word! I don’t believe there’s any way to prove or disprove that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Maybe he did, but maybe an enemy thought saying so would be a sharp slap in the face for him. I admire those people who do the research. An archeology of words, I guess.


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