In AD 64, Rome burned for six days and seven nights. Its citizens watched helplessly as the fire spread quickly and savagely. When the fire died down, only 30% of the city was left standing. Only four districts remained, three were flattened to the earth. The remaining seven became charred remains. This was the eyewitness account of the Roman historian, Tacitus.
In coming to grips with what happened, stories circulated that the flames were fanned, supposedly under orders. These tremendous losses were looking for someone to be held accountable for the fire – and they pointed the finger at Nero.
Some said Nero started the fire by his lonesome. Some say Nero ordered the fires to be set. As Rome was being rebuilt, people saw that it was being built more to Nero’s liking – and causing them to wonder if the fire was just an excuse to rebuild Rome in Nero’s image. The most enduring of all stories was that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned.
The tale conjures images of a ruthless mad emperor with a city in flames as a backdrop, playing a fiddle, eating grapes, lying on a couch while the Romans plunged into misery.
Tacitus however disputes the tale noting that Nero actually did something for the citizens of Rome. He rushed back to the city when he heard of the news. Nero proceeded to his palace in the outskirts of Rome. He coordinated the firefighting efforts starting at the first night of the seven night disaster. Nero had the public buildings opened, had his gardens used as temporary shelter. He imported grain from nearby citizens and provided food at a very low cost.
Yet, the story still persists today that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
It was impossible for Nero to play the fiddle because it wasn’t invented yet. However Nero did like to play the harp-like cithara. It is said that he coordinated music festivals and competitions in conquered lands and had a deep emotional connection to these festivities.
These of course, bothered his rivals in the Senate who felt that Nero competing in these festivals was not appropriate to his office.
Which leads to another interpretation. It refers to Nero’s fiddle not as an instrument but as a metaphor for indecisiveness and/or ineffectiveness. Fiddling in this sense means “To occupy oneself in an aimless or desultory way: liked to fiddle with all the knobs and dials”; “to waste or squander: fiddled away the morning with unnecessary tasks.”.
If Nero’s actions during the fire are seen as misdirected and aimless, then the story about Nero fiddling while Rome burned takes on a new turn.
What has this got to do with the Philippines?
I caught a glimpse of the inauguration while having lunch at the Filipino restaurant (yes, I patronize Filipino restaurants – I love the deep-fried galunggong and the pakbet or sinigang that goes with the hot white rice).
Seeing Gloria on the screen reminded me of Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned. I don’t have to reprise how that story goes.
Seeing Noynoy and his past performance at the Senate reminded me of Nero doing aimless and misdirected activities while Rome burned.
Given the gargantuan challenges we face today, I was hoping for a more somber inauguration. But certainly I am not one to deny people their right to celebrate. At the same time that leads me to ask what the hell are we celebrating for?
As one Nero leaves, another Nero steps in. Rome is burning. Will he fiddle with the instrument – or fiddle our time.
I guess this becomes a case of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall burn some more.
Good Luck Penoy Aquino.