WootBot


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It's now September, which means we've entered that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is clearly the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth month), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth month) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month yada). This confusion is all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Let's stick it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by having Ken Jennings debunk four bits of persistent historical malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Nero Fiddle While Rome Burned?

The fifth emperor of Rome was, even by the low, low standards of Roman politics, a realis opus frustrum: a real piece of work. Lots of Roman emperors wallowed in luxury while neglecting their people, but Nero was also a cruel tyrant who ordered scores of executions - including those of his own mother and brother! But he was not an inventor or a time traveler, as the common myth about how he "fiddled while Rome burned" implies. The violin and its cousins, you see, weren't invented until the 11th century.

Nero was so unpopular that, even in his own time, rumors spread that he might have been responsible for the great fire that destroyed much of Rome in the summer of 64 AD. (According to the popular conspiracy lore of the day, Nero wanted to clear ground for a massive new palace complex.) Rome's citizens muttered that, even if he wasn't the arsonist, Nero had been spotted singing and playing his lyre during the fire.

The historian Tacitus, however, wrote that these rumors were untrue. Tacitus even gives Nero a Law & Order-worthy alibi: he wasn't in Rome when the blaze started. He was 35 miles away, at his villa in Actium. Tacitus also records that Nero rushed back to Rome to lead the relief efforts, personally leading search-and-rescue efforts and paying for food supplies out of his own pocket. The fiddling was just a legend - but apparently a pretty successful one, since we're still using it two thousand years later as a metaphor for neglectful leadership.

Quick Quiz: The biggest hit ever for the Charlie Daniels Band describes a fiddle-playing contest in what state?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

dcobranchi


quality posts: 0 Private Messages dcobranchi

The Devil went down to Georgia. He was looking for for a soul to steal.

gewoodworth


quality posts: 0 Private Messages gewoodworth

Texas...oh wait, you mean there's a country song NOT about Texas???

jawlz


quality posts: 12 Private Messages jawlz
dcobranchi wrote:The Devil went down to Georgia. He was looking for for a soul to steal.



He was in a bind because he was way behind, and he was willing to make a deal.

goblynn


quality posts: 2 Private Messages goblynn
jawlz wrote:He was in a bind because he was way behind, and he was willing to make a deal.



When he came across this young man sawin' on a fiddle and playin' it hot.

phileoca


quality posts: 9 Private Messages phileoca
goblynn wrote:When he came across this young man sawin' on a fiddle and playin' it hot.



And the Devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said "Boy, let me tell you what."

My wife woots too

Elara


quality posts: 1 Private Messages Elara
phileoca wrote:And the Devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said "Boy, let me tell you what."




"I guess you didn't know it But I'm a fiddle player too,"

LarryLars


quality posts: 65 Private Messages LarryLars
Elara wrote:"I guess you didn't know it But I'm a fiddle player too,"



And if you'd care to take a dare,
I'll make a bet with you


!

Have you checked your Private Messages lately?

vigilante1987


quality posts: 11 Private Messages vigilante1987
LarryLars wrote:And if you'd care to take a dare,
I'll make a bet with you



Now you play pretty good fiddle boy
But give the devil his due

dmort


quality posts: 0 Private Messages dmort

I'll bet a fiddle of gold, against your soul, 'cause I think i'm better than you.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

Hm. This seems to indulge in it's own bit of myth.

First, there's the assumption that "fiddling" must mean playing a fiddle, which...well, when you fiddle around with a gizmo, you're usually not serenading it.

Second, Nero gets a pretty bad rap. The family assassinations were at worst defensive (it's not like they didn't try to kill him), and actually not too hard to trace to his guards acting without his knowledge. His laws were fairly reasonable, considering that he was a Roman emperor. Plus, Nero was out of town (presumably the "fiddling" reference) during the fire, and led his own search-and-rescue teams when he returned, and fed and sheltered survivors in the palace.

When Nero died, Romans variously hoped or feared that he might come back ("Nero Redivivus") and return to the throne. Since he did persecute Christians, the early Christians took this immortality myth as evidence that Nero was the Antichrist.

Oh, and there was a Nero imposter a few years after the original's death that nearly brought Rome to a Civil War, which probably didn't help his reputation much. Doesn't say much for the Romans, either, but whatever...

So...try go easy on the poor guy. He's had a bad couple of millennia.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

jcolag wrote:
First, there's the assumption that "fiddling" must mean playing a fiddle, which...well, when you fiddle around with a gizmo, you're usually not serenading it.



The origin of the myth is Suetonius's story of Nero playing a lyre during the fire. Shakespeare, in The Taming of the Shrew, seems to have been the first to call Nero a "fiddler." Any association with "fiddling around" is a coincidence, and probably a 20th-century error. Here's Mary Francis Gyles, writing in The Classical Journal on the second meaning of "fiddle":

"To all appearances, its attachment to 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned' is comparatively recent. No written evidence has been discovered for this phrase. It seems likely that an impression has developed among the younger, educated group that, since the denial that Nero played a fiddle has been so insistent, the correct interpretation must be that 'he fiddled around.' "


Plus, Nero was out of town (presumably the "fiddling" reference) during the fire, and led his own search-and-rescue teams when he returned, and fed and sheltered survivors in the palace.



As is pointed out in the original piece. Come on, it was only three paragraphs!

Neither of us has yet mentioned Nero's greatest crime: having the dumb Eric Bana villain in Star Trek named after him.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

Fair on the fiddling.

whoiskenjennings wrote:As is pointed out in the original piece. Come on, it was only three paragraphs!



My mistake, and I read it through, too, which is...odd.

whoiskenjennings wrote:Neither of us has yet mentioned Nero's greatest crime: having the dumb Eric Bana villain in Star Trek named after him.



Messing with repressed memories is very dangerous...