Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned
By Mary Francis Gyles
The Classical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (1947)
Introduction: Curiosity concerning the origin and development of the expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” leads to an investigation which has traversed the fields of History, Philology, Literature, and Music. The extent to which this phrase is used by the public in everyday speech and its frequent appearance in popular literature have placed it in the position of an adage. On examination its usage is found to hinge upon the meaning of the word fiddle. This word is defined by the New English Dictionary as “fiddle, substantive, a stringed instrument of music; usually the violin, but also, (with defining word as in bass fiddle) applied to other instruments of the viol kind.” The verb, as given by the same dictionary, means to play a fiddle. Since musical historians agree that the viol class of instruments did not develop about the eleventh century, it is conclusive that Nero could not have fiddled in this sense of the word while Rome burned.
There is another meaning of the word fiddle in use today. It is often employed to indicate the idea of accomplishing nothing, and is so defined by the New English Dictionary. The common remark, “He’s just fiddling around,” is an excellent illustration of this usage. It suggests a lack of proficiency and an aimless or frivolous attitude.
The phrase “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is used to express both these meanings of the word fiddle. First it presents the picture of an individual playing a musical instrument as he took a sadistic pleasure in the terrible misfortunes of others. Secondly it represents ineffectual effort. That is, Nero, who should have made himself useful, was fiddling. Although this conception is, in point of fact, unjust, it does not curtail the frequency with which it has been so used.