Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned

On Saturday afternoon, I decided I felt more like writing (this) while having a coffee in town (apparently the average noise level in a coffee shop is quite inducive to writing), rather than at home, so after wandering around a bit (I had to finish the album I was listening to, of course), I settled on a branch of Caffè Nero.

While queuing, I began thinking about the fact that I’m going to visit Rome next month. I’d always assumed the chain was named after the Roman emperor Nero, and considered that even though they seemed to use a lot of Ancient-Roman style design in their décor, the coffee shop probably doesn’t offer an authentic Ancient-Roman experience. And then I got to thinking about the famous myth that Nero sang and played the fiddle while the Great Fire of Rome raged around him (he probably didn’t: it’s more than likely propoganda spread by the Flavian dynasty that succeeded him).

And then I thought: why do we sometimes call a violin a fiddle?

There are clear differences in tone between the words violin and fiddle. Fiddle is more informal, and is often used when the instrument is used to play more popular music in an informal setting, like a traditional Irish-music session in a pub. We mainly use violin in more formal situations like when it’s used to play classical music.

I theorised that, as is often the case, fiddle is of Germanic origin and was used by poorer people, while violin is more Latin-based and was used by the richer and more powerful.

Funnily enough though, both words probably share the same etymology. It’s believed that they’re both derived ultimately from the Medieval Latin vitula (stringed instrument), and even though fiddle and violin are quite different, you can imagine both arriving at their current form following a few divergent steps from vitula.

I expect fiddle was used by poorer folk as it sounded more like the Germanic words they used every day, and it then became the “lower form,” in contrast to the more Latin-sounding violin.

All of which, if there’s any basis to it, makes it interesting that we say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Given the classical context, why not say he played the violin? Well, fiddled just fits better, doesn’t it? The expression is meant to emphasise Nero’s madness and callousness, doing trivial things while his city burned around him. Saying he played the fiddle makes it sound like he was just doing it for fun. If you said Nero played the violin while Rome burned, it would sound much more poetic, wouldn’t it? You might imagine that he was playing a sad lament for the great city, and not just amusing himself while his citizens died around him.

I have to wonder if this image of Nero has contributed to the use of to fiddle as a verb in a more general sense, meaning to fidget, occupy your fingers in a restless manner. Certainly it’s related to the instrument, and the quick movements of someone who’s fiddling with something resemble the movements of a fiddler’s fingers as they play. I imagine the myth of Nero fiddling also influenced this use of the word though. After all, wasn’t it the ultimate case of fiddling: doing nothing important or useful during a great tragedy?

Oh, and if you speak more Italian than I do (which is quite possible), you might be wondering why I ever assumed that Caffè Nero was named after the emperor, because you know, of course, that caffè nero means black coffee in Italian. I’ve actually been brushing up on my Italian in advance of my holiday, and just that very Saturday evening, mere hours after sitting in the coffee shop, I came across an exercise on Duolingo which contained the phrase caffè nero.

Ma certo! I said to myself, of course that’s black coffee! I knew that, but as I’d come across the coffee-shop chain before I learned a little Italian, I’d initially assumed that it referred to Nero. Even after learning that caffè nero means black coffee, I never thought to apply that knowledge to the name of the chain. Probably because in Italian, nero is pronounced like nay-ro, whereas I pronounce Nero like every other English speaker (knee-ro).

Still, now that I’ve realised where the name comes from, I’m sure no-one will be remotely annoyed when I insist on pronouncing it the “proper” Italian way (with the short sound of the è too).

11 thoughts on “Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned

  1. I always found that a troubling phrase, since I didn’t think they had fiddles back then – I presumed it was something more like a Lyre – but fiddle as in to fidget, works well.

    Rome is by far my favourite city. One of my happy memories is of sitting in the Forum with a copy of I Claudius reading in the afternoon sunshine.

    Have a wonderful time – but watch out for the heat, it’s crazy

    Liked by 1 person

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