by Alton C. Thompson
The fire, in 64 CE, that destroyed much of Rome came to have associated with it the claim that then-Emperor Nero “fiddled” while the city was burning. Although Italy gave birth to the violin, this did not occur until the sixteenth century—making Nero’s “fiddling” in 64 CE impossible.
This is not to say that Nero was unmusical, however:
Roman historians record that Nero had a real passion for the cithara [an instrument that resembled the harp]. In conquered lands, Nero coordinated festivals that featured musical competitions on such dates that he could attend and compete in them all. Nero is said to have been very emotionally invested in these competitions [source: [Mary Francis] Gyles].
One can, of course, “fiddle” without playing a musical instrument—for one meaning of the word is to “to waste time; trifle; dally.” The word “fiddle” (or its equivalent in Latin)—having, that is, the meaning “waste time”—may not have existed in 64, but can it be said that Nero “wasted time” during the fire? Apparently not:
To the contrary, Nero actually did take immediate and expansive measures to provide relief for his citizens. He rushed back to the city when news of the fire reached him at his palace at Antium, on the outskirts of Rome. The historian Tacitus, who was a boy in Rome during the blaze, provides accounts of the steps Nero took in the midst of the fire. The emperor himself coordinated fire fighting efforts on the first night. He also opened the public buildings and his own gardens as temporary shelter for homeless residents. Nero imported grain from nearby cities and supplied his citizens with food at a fraction of the normal cost.
Although Nero’s rule was notorious for its “tyranny and extravagance,” on this one occasion he demonstrated some humanity, evidently.
When most people today hear, or use, the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns, they are not alleging that Nero played the violin while Rome burned—or even “fiddled” in the sense of “wasted time” while that fire occurred. Few people today have much interest in history, and most are ill-informed about Nero—except that some associate his name with the persecution of Christians. The interpretation that most people give to the phrase is that “fiddling while Rome burns” is wasting time—but without any geographical reference.
That’s an ironic fact, because although there is little need today to be concerned about what’s going on in Rome (Roman Catholics, though, would take exception to this), there is great need to be concerned about what’s going on with Earth.
A better way of putting this is that it’s unfortunate that there was not widespread concern for Earth 30 or more years ago. Had there been such concern then, what might have occurred is that decisive actions may have been taken by our leaders—political and corporate—to address the problem of global warming. It has been known since the late 1930s that global warming was a potential problem, but to date nothing of significance has been done to address the problem.
The reason that is a problem is that it’s likely too late now to halt the further “progress” of global warming—meaning that it’s “just a matter of time” before our species will go the way of the dinosaurs (but for a different set of reasons). It’s conceivable that our “leaders” will, at some point, “wake up,” and begin introducing geo-engineering measures in an attempt to halt global warming. But if that occurs, who’s to say that the unintended consequences of such efforts will not be “worse than the disease”?
I can’t think of a more succinct way of describing what has been, and is, occurring in our world today—led by the United States—than to say that we have been, and are, “fiddling while Rome burns.” Examples could be given of this, but given our unfortunate destiny, the question that arises in my mind is: Why should I waste my time, and the time of readers, by elaborating on a point of so little importance?!
Irrelevance is the appropriate descriptor of most thought and action today (including most of what appears on internet sites!—Guy’s being one of the few exceptions), given the predicament that we humans are in at present. But virtually no one recognizes this fact! Thus, when the end comes—within a few decades, if not years—virtually everyone will be surprised.
Usually, one welcomes surprises; few, however, will welcome the surprise that lies ahead for us humans.
What should those who know that that surprise will not be a pleasant one do? This really separates into two questions:
- What should one do now?
- What should one do “when the time comes”?
As to the first question, there is no single right answer; each individual will need to choose a course for himself or herself. As to the second question, I suspect that many will “put their loved ones out of their misery,” and then themselves accomplish suicide. I realize that this is a grisly prospect, but it is also a reasonable one. (Given that the only gun in my possession is a percussion cap pistol, and that I have no (a) percussion caps, (b) no black powder, and (c) no balls, I frankly don’t know what I will do when “the time comes”—although, at 74, it’s possible that I will have died beforehand.)
McPherson was featured in a newspaper article after his recent trip to Chico, California. Read it here.