By Martijn Icks
“Politicians fiddling while the NHS burns,” wrote an editor in the Belfast Telegraph last week.
“Tweeting while the world burns,” an angry blogger denounced Donald Trump’s stance on climate change.
Wherever we turn, it seems, powerful men and women have an irrepressible itch to hit the strings as soon as something or other goes up in flames. The expression has become a veritable cliché, indicating a penchant to lose oneself in trivialities in times of great peril, ignoring the call to immediate action.
Cartoonists love it, too. Caricatures abound of US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, among others, playing the violin while the world is burning in the background.
The original expression, of course, is “fiddling while Rome burns” and the original fiddler was the notorious Emperor Nero, which is why so many of the politicians depicted in the cartoons are wearing laurel wreaths.
Ancient authors claim that Nero loved the stage. Declaring that “hidden music counts for nothing”, he frequently treated his baffled subjects to musical performances. The violin hadn’t been invented yet, so Nero didn’t actually fiddle, but he accompanied himself on the lyre while singing. Although the emperor apparently had a rather weak voice, his ego was sufficiently large that he didn’t let that hold him back. He even made a grand tour of Greece, competing in every musical contest the country had to offer. It will come as no surprise that he won first prize every time. According to the biographer Suetonius,
While he was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall, since the gates at the entrance were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial. (Life of Nero 23.2)
There is clearly a fair degree of exaggeration to these stories. The upper class senators and knights who chronicled Nero’s reign considered singing in public beneath the dignity of a gentleman, let alone an emperor. They thought that he was making a spectacle of himself. Of course, that was exactly what Nero was doing. Although there is no reason to doubt the emperor’s musical aspirations were genuine, they were also a way to court favour with the crowd.
In other words, Nero went against aristocratic norms to establish himself as the people’s emperor. His performances may have had more popular appeal than our sources give him credit for. That would have made them all the more preposterous to the senators, who felt that the emperor should act like one of them and should primarily rely on their support. As soon as Nero was safely dead, they mocked him mercilessly for his theatrical and musical inclinations, cementing his legacy as a “bad” emperor.
The story of the Great Fire of Rome fits this pattern. When large parts of the city went up in flames in 64 CE, Nero used much of the freed-up space to build a grand palace, the Golden House. Inevitably, rumours started circulating that the emperor had personally ordered the city to be set on fire. Reports differ, but several ancient authors record that Nero had used the calamity as a source of artistic inspiration. According to the historian Cassius Dio,
While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the lyre-player’s garb, he sang the “Capture of Troy,” as he styled the song himself, though to the enemies of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome. (History of Rome 62.18.1)
It strains credulity that Nero really acted this way. In fact, our sources admit that the emperor made a serious effort to relieve the victims of the fire, which suggests that he was not quite as heartless as his critics would have us believe, or at least was aware of his duties as a ruler. But the story of the emperor serenading the flames and exulting in the destruction of the Eternal City was just too good to be ignored. It served as a showpiece for the 1951 Hollywood blockbuster Quo Vadis, starring Peter Ustinov in the role of the mad tyrant. The scene in which Nero croons “Burn on, oh ancient Rome”, while the camera pans over the raging inferno, is hard to forget.
“Fiddling while Rome burns” is an accusation that has been leveled at many politicians with varying degrees of fairness. More than anyone, it has come to define Nero – the emperor who strove for the people’s love, but has gone down in history as a madman and arsonist. Perhaps he would have been better off suppressing his musical aspirations after all.