Saturday, June 21, 2014


How accurate are our popular symbols and sayings? And how sharp is the line dividing rumour from history?
Take Nero, his infamous fiddle and the great Roman fire, for instance. The ruler is famously and variously believed to have " sung, played his flute or fiddled" as Rome burnt." The real allegation is that he "fiddled" as fire torched Rome and it is hard to say where the flute came into the myth/history of the emperor. Perhaps an Indian adaptation of the rumour.
So the first thing to determine is whether he "dang" or "played fluted" or "fiddled". Actually, did none of it.
The saying " fiddled while Rome burnt" really gained currency full 1600 years after Nero died. (The fire happened in 64 AD. and lasted six days) The expression "fiddled while Rome burnt" refers to his alleged conduct during the fire that ravaged three of the 14 districts of Rome, and seriously affected seven more. It happened in 64 AD, and lasted six days.
Did he "fiddle"? The Romans didn't even know the 'fiddle' ! The man who reported that Nero indulged in his musical hobbies - Tacitus - actually emphasized that this was only a rumour and no one ever saw the man indulging in any of his pet musical hobbies. But stories went round that when Nero heard about the fire, he was excited and overjoyed, and ran upstairs to have "a glorious glimpse of the great spectacle." ( Rumours are never short on delightful linguistic indulgence!) Others said that on each of the six days that fire lasted, Nero, the emperor, gave a performance of his vocal skills - e was an accomplished singer - on the city stage. A minor worry that the stage on which he is said to have performed was burnt down on day one !
Further, Nero's record in controlling the fire is believed to be "exceptionally good." Historians say he "did not slept at all while the fires raged." Some eye witnesses even reported that they saw the King "sobbing uncontrollably" over the tragedy of his people being burnt alive in thousands.
Further, judging by the standards of those times, Nero's response to the calamity faced was unbelievably good -much better than the response of many of our rulers these days. He not only marshalled all government resources to provide relief and rehabilitation to the hapless victims of the ravaged city, but actually rebuilt large portions of it for the people at his personal expense, something that has no parallel in history.
So what was the reason behind the popular allegation - or the rumour?
Nero was a man of great aesthetic sensibility and considerable artistic skills, including in music. When fire destroyed large parts of the city, he decided to use one ravaged portion to build a huge complex which was to include a palace and a theater for arts. As is common these days too, this decision was greeted with wild allegations that Nero had actually himself conspired to cause the fire and burn Rome in order to create the space for this large complex - a ridiculous allegation even by the standards of modern 24/7 Sunday Blockbuster "Breaking News" television, but it was an allegation that sounded plausible because of Nero's reputed love for arts and his extravagant indulgence in luxuries..
The fact is that Nero had not only done all he could to fight and control the fire but had even spent large parts of his personal wealth to help his people by rebuilding large parts of the burnt city and restored it to them - free of cost.
The allegation of his "fiddling" had no recorded proof while his efforts to save and rebuild the city are well documented. As for the flute, I guess it probably has something to do with the Indian imagination, except that the Indian version has water instead of fire and semi-clad or nude women instead of the Romans to link with the flute !
Nero was a man with controversial tastes and hobbies. This meant that the allegation would not only stick but would become a house hold proverb for pleasure-seeking and inefficient rulers. The expression is used most sumptuously even by those who know nothing about Nero, and sometimes even without knowing the difference between a flute and lyre.
The next time you hear of someone "singing while Rome was burning", please do cross check about the record of the fiddler and of the accuser. (By the way, I have heard even educated bureaucrats blissfully using the expression, sometimes even replacing Rome with Paris. ...... Takalluf bartaraf !)

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