Nero fiddled while Rome burned

The problem is, Nero actually didn’t, and we know this because the violin wasn't “invented" for another 1,500 years after the fire that ravaged the city of Rome.  And the ancient precursor of the violin — the lira — finds no mention in the history of Europe until the 9th century CE.  So it is historically inaccurate to state that the Emperor Nero was so callous and indifferent to the suffering of his people that he literally entertained himself with a little music during this civic tragedy.  But the saying persists to this day, and is all the more relevant as President Trump is seen golfing, posing for pictures with cans of beans on his desk in the oval office flashing a simpleton’s grin and a double-fisted thumbs up, and ignoring the advice and guidance put out by his own government as regards masks, large gatherings, and school/business reopenings.

Trump-Goya photo

For six days and seven nights the citizens of ancient Rome watched helplessly as their city burned.  The great fire that threatened to wipe Rome off the face of the planet in 64 CE spread quickly and spared no one.  After it was over, 70% of the city had been destroyed.  "Of Rome's 14 districts, only four remained intact.  Three were leveled to the ground.  The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins," wrote the Roman historian Tacitus in 116 CE, having witnessed and lived through the great fire himself.  With a population of one million, it is estimated that half — 500,000 — was made homeless by the fire.

As is usually seen in such mass tragedies, rumors as to the great fire’s cause began to spread as rapidly as the flames had.  Reports emerged that some men had been seen fanning the flames, claiming they were following orders.  As a result of the tremendous loss of life and property, the Roman people blamed their emperor — Nero.  In the aftermath of the devastation, Nero rebuilt Rome in a style more to his liking; some speculated that Nero himself had set the fire, others that he had ordered it.  To cast blame elsewhere, Nero searched for a scapegoat for the fire, choosing the fledgling and largely powerless Christians; he persecuted them ruthlessly, torturing and executing them in truly hideous ways, resulting in the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul, both of whom were executed during Nero's persecutions.

Despite this public spectacle, Nero still found himself blamed for the fire.  The story that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned conjures up images of the emperor, divorced from the reality of the burning city, calmly "playing his fiddle" while his people suffered.  To the contrary, however, Nero actually did take measures to provide relief for his citizens.  On hearing of the fire, Nero rushed back to the city from his palace at Antium, on the outskirts of Rome.  Tacitus records the steps Nero took in the midst of the fire, including opening the public buildings and his own gardens as temporary shelter for those made homeless, as well as importing grain from nearby cities and supplying his citizens food at a fraction of the normal cost.

Yet the idea that he “fiddled" while Rome burned persisted, and still does to this day.  One has to wonder — why?

Classicist Mary Francis Gyles at the University of North Carolina suggests Nero's “fiddling" may not have anything to do with music at all, but rather is a metaphor for his ineffectiveness — fiddling, after all, can mean that a person is expending energy on something useless or misguided, so if Nero's response to the fire were perceived by the citizenry as inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis, saying "Nero fiddled while Rome burned” could possibly be the oldest mistake with regard to history in the book — taking a figurative expression literally!

Ultimately, the great fire of Rome was Nero's downfall.  Discontent with his reign, his military threatened mutiny, and he was declared a public enemy by the Senate.  Faced with execution, Nero committed suicide by pushing a dagger into his throat four years later.

Fast forward to 2020, and the United States recorded 77,255 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, Thursday, topping the previous high set two days ago, according to Johns Hopkins University.  943 people died yesterday, the most ever in a single day.  But President Donald Trump talked about dishwasher reform yesterday:

Dishwashers, you didn't have any water so the people that do the dishes, you press it and it goes again and you do it again and again.  So, we made it so dishwashers now have a lot more water.

Trump said this on the South Lawn of the White House yesterday as he stood between two pickup trucks, a blue one (for Democrats) weighed down with weights representing regulations and a red (Republican) one whose weights were being lifted by a large crane festooned with a "Trump Administration" banner.  This delusion borders on criminal negligence.

There’s more.

Also yesterday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, "We believe this President has great approval in this country.  His historic COVID response speaks for itself.”   What kind of bizarre parallel universe are they living in?  The Trump Administration seems to think one of the most disastrous governmental failures of the modern age is a roaring success.

This seems like a good place to remind you thoughtful reader that the country Donald Trump leads had 77,255 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, and 943 of its citizens died, yesterday.  And while the United States burned, this is what your president chose to do…

Meanwhile, back in the real world, France, with a population of 67 million, reported 534 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 new deaths, while the US state of Florida, where 21 million people live, had 13,965 new cases and 156 deaths on the same day, while its pro-Trump governor Ron DeSantis blamed the media for the virus running out of control.  That sounds like Nero blaming the Christians to me.  And even if the media was to blame, isn’t it a governor’s and a president’s job to protect the people who elected them from any enemy?  All Trump and his acolytes want to do is blame.

Meanwhile, back in the weird parallel universe where Trump and his supporters live, another pro-Trump Republican governor, Brian Kemp of Georgia, issued an executive order on Wednesday blocking his state's cities from issuing orders requiring masks to be worn in public places and then on Thursday sued Atlanta, Georgia Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for putting her citizens’ health ahead of reckless ideology and sticking by her city's mask order.

Trump’s self-absorbed “look at me” truck stunt came a day after he flew to Atlanta, one of the spiking coronavirus hotspots, not to hold emergency brainstorming sessions at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention located there, but for an event on transportation projects, where he did not wear a mask — a simple step we all can and must take that has been proven to decrease transmission of the novel coronavirus infecting our cities and killing our friends, neighbors, and family members.

The absurd and staggering negligence of Mr. Trump and his obliviousness to or unwillingness to confront the tragedy unfolding in America are truly dumbfounding as there now appears to be little expectation from governors or public health experts or frontline healthcare workers that leadership to protect Americans — the first and fundamental duty of any President during a national emergency — will ever be forthcoming.

Nero may not have fiddled, but Trump is playing with trucks, staging photo-ops, and talking about dishwashers.

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