Although the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has been around for centuries, its veracity has been doubted for centuries as well. Naysayers will cite a variety of reasons for why this particular scenario never could have happened, not the least of which being the fact that at the time Rome burned, the “fiddle” (as we now know it) was still several hundred years away from being invented. Personally, I’ve always thought that the historical accuracy of the saying was irrelevant: it seems more likely that whoever coined the phrase was simply struck by the lyricism of it; in other words, they couldn’t let something as trivial as the facts get in the way of a good story. (Something my daughter Clementine claims happens on a weekly basis right here in this very column.) And, you must admit that, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” does sound a whole lot better than “Nero tickled the ivories while Rome burned.”
Recently, however, new information has come to light (at least for me) that might make this whole theory moot: perhaps the word that has gone wrong in this phrase is not fiddled at all: it’s while, meaning that the correct phrase is not “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” but actually “Nero fiddled, so Rome burned.” In other words, Nero wasn’t playing a not-yet-invented violin at all; he was just screwing with stuff.
I developed this new theory after watching Clementine pick up a half-full gallon of milk, tip it upside down over the floor, tilt it back upright again, check the seal on the lid, and then repeat the whole process over again. And again. And again. It only stopped when I couldn’t take it anymore and erupted with a shout of “Quit fiddling with it!” at which point she got up and, with a sigh, moved into the living room, where she no doubt experimented with seeing how close to the edge of a table she could put a glass of grape juice before it spilled onto the carpet, or how many times she could toss a pillow up into the air before it knocked a blade off of the ceiling fan–either of which scenarios would result in howls of anger and disbelief on my part, looks of shocked incredulity on hers, and, of course, the inevitable words, “But it was an accident!”
The “accidental indemnity” clause is a favorite of Clementine’s, even though when it comes to awarding claims I am about as likely to buy the “accident” story after the lid comes flying off the top of the catsup bottle the 53rd time you spin it up into the air as an insurance company is to approve a claim of “accidental death” for someone who has spent his last few hours on Earth playing an extended game of Russian Roulette. Not that this stops her from employing it, even when–especially when–she is standing in the middle of the pile of debris that usually follows her depraved indifference to the laws of probability.
Of course, in her defense, it’s not like she’s the only one living in a state of “accident” denial: if she were, then car insurance premiums for teenage boys wouldn’t be equal to the monthly payments on a new Lexus. Still, that does not stop it from galling me when, after the open bottle of fingernail polish she has just attempted to pick up with her toes flips upside down and spills onto the couch, she is shocked–shocked!–by my “harsh” reaction to what was so clearly an “accident.” Nor does it stop her from taking that reaction as further proof of my unfitness to walk amongst decent human beings. That, and the fact that I took her brother’s side after he broke her scooter trying to ride it down the slide. “Lighten up,” I said. “It was just an accident.”