|The Burning of Rome|
|by Alfred J. Church|
|Vivid story of Rome in the days of Nero, beginning with the burning of the city, seemingly ordered by Nero himself. The narrative revolves around a set of characters who suffer acutely in the cruel persecutions of the Christians, set in motion by Nero after the fire to deflect blame for the conflagration from himself and fasten it on the Christians. Ages 12-15 |
 THE conspirators had not been indifferent spectators of
the events recorded in the preceding chapters.
Everything combined to raise their hopes. The Emperor
seemed to be madly rushing on to his own ruin. The
monstrous freak, which common report more and more
confidently attributed to him, of burning his own
capital, the revolting cruelty with which he had sought
to divert suspicion from himself to a set of poor
creatures, who, at the worst, were harmless fanatics,
the unseemly buffoonery by which he lowered his
Imperial dignity, were all helping, they thought, to
overthrow the throne. Every day appeared to be giving
to their schemes a more certain prospect of success.
As long as this was so, it naturally seemed a mistake
to hurry on their execution. Give the wretch time
enough, so they said to each other, and he will destroy
himself; he will not have a single friend left among
nobles, people, or army.
There were some, the Tribune Subrius among them, who
chafed angrily at this delay. He never could rid
himself of the idea that he had already missed a great
chance, when he abandoned his plan
 of striking down
Nero in his private theatre, and he strongly protested
against losing more time. Conspiracies that are long
in hatching were, he knew, infallibly betrayed either
by treachery or by chance. "There are too many of us,"
he said to one of his military confederates; "we are
too powerful; had we been only a few desperate fellows
with nothing to lose, it would have been settled, and
probably settled in the right way, long ago.
In this impatient mood Epichris found him a few days
after that on which Fannius had breathed his last. In
the morning he had been present at a meeting of the
conspirators, and had again urged on them the necessity
of speedy action. Pudens, who had been formally
enrolled among the associates, as heartily supported
him. He agreed with him in theory, and he found
additional reason in the imminent danger of Claudia, of
which he had by this time become aware. Their
arguments were in vain; the majority overbore them.
The two friends, as they discussed the question in
Subrius' quarters, became more and more convinced that
in one way or another a crisis must be precipitated.
"These men," said Subrius to his companion, "are
thinking of something else besides the one thing
needful, which is to get rid of the tyrant. Laternus,
for instance, is thinking about his own life; Piso is
thinking about his own chances of the Empire. Now
man ought to care for nothing but how he may drive home
"Right!" cried Pudens. "Why should we not act for
ourselves? Let us give them another seven days, and
then cast lots who shall strike, you or I."
"Agreed!" said Subrius, stretching out his hand.
Just as he spoke, a soldier servant knocked at the door
of the room, and, bidden to enter, announced that a
young man wished to speak with the Tribune.
"Show him in," said the Prætorian, and the visitor was
ushered into the room.
The newcomer wore the heavy hood which the Romans
commonly used for purposes of disguise. Its depths hid
the features of the face more effectually, as the
wearer carefully took a place where the light fell from
"Do I speak to Subrius the Prætorian?" said the
"That is my name," replied the soldier.
"And this?" the speaker went on, indicating Pudens
with a slight wave of the hand.
"My friend, Marcus Annius Pudens, from whom I have no
"Then I may speak freely?"
Throwing back the hood, the visitor revealed the
features of Epicharis.
Pudens had never seen her before, but Subrius
immediately remembered the features of the girl whom
 he had seen speaking to Fannius in the school of
The name of the ex-gladiator, whom, indeed, he had
missed for some days, without knowing anything of his
fate, naturally rose to his lips.
"And Fannius?" he said. "How does he fare?"
"I have now another besides Octavia to avenge,"
answered the girl in a low voice.
"What?" cried the Prætorian. "Hath any evil overtaken
Epicharis told him the story that we know. When she had
finished she went on: "Fannius told me—it was when we
were newly betrothed,"—the girl's voice broke for a
moment as she uttered the word, but was firm again the
next moment,—"that there were some who were minded
not to suffer the wrongs which Rome has suffered to go
unpunished any longer. He gave me no names; I asked him
for none, though I think I can keep a secret. But ever
since I first knew him he used to speak of you; and to
you, accordingly, I have come. Let me speak plainly. If
you have in your mind the purpose that I suppose you to
have, let me help you. I have now only one thing to
live for, to punish the monster who first killed my
mistress, and then did to death my lover. If you have
no such thoughts, if you think me a criminal for
cherishing them, then give me up to Nero. I shall be
content, for I have no more desire to live."
 The situation in which Subrius found himself was
perplexing in the extreme. That the woman was in
earnest he did not doubt for a moment. He had heard, we
know, her story from Fannius, and had been greatly
impressed by it. And now her look, her words, carried
with them an irresistible conviction of her
earnestness; but he hesitated. The lives and fortunes
of others besides himself were at stake. To confide in
a woman was certainly a novel experiment, and at first
sight at least dangerous. If failure was the result,
how overpowering the shame and the disgrace of having
made it. After a hurried review of the circumstances he
resolved to temporize. Probably he was wrong.
Everything did go wrong in this unlucky undertaking.
But almost every one, viewing the circumstances as he
viewed them, would have said that he was right.
"Lady," he began, "I will be as frank with you as you
have been with me. If you have put your life in my
hands, so will I put mine in yours. I do not deny that
I and my friends have had the purposes of which you
speak, yes, and have them still. But these things are
not done in a hurry; we must watch our time, our
opportunity; when that comes we shall not be wanting,
nor shall we fail, if we need your help, to ask for it.
Till then we must be patient and silent."
Epicharis was bitterly disappointed at this
procrastinating answer. She was not in a mood to wait
and be patient. Action, immediate action, was an
im-  perative necessity. She rose to go, wrapping the hood
again round her face.
"I am only a woman," she said, "and know less and can
do less than you; yet I think that you are wrong. You
say that these things cannot be done in a hurry; it
seems to me that they must be so done, if they are to
be done at all."
The next moment she was gone.
"By all the gods in heaven, she is right!" cried
Subrius to Pudens when they found themselves alone. "I
wish that I could have trusted her. But it was
impossible. If any mishap were to come of it, what
would not the others have said—'wheedled out of his
senses by a woman,' and all the rest of it. It would be
intolerable. And yet, I have a feeling that it would
have been better."
Better it would certainly have been.
Epicharis, as has been said, was not content to wait.
If Subrius would not help her, where, she asked
herself, could she find some one who would? In a
moment, for she was in that condition of exaltation
and excitement when ideas have a rapid birth, a daring
scheme presented itself to her mind. Nowhere was Nero
more easily approached than when he was at one of his
favourite seaside haunts. There he was accustomed to
dispense with the etiquette and ceremony which
surrounded him at Rome. His bodyguard, whom he always
regarded more as a part of Imperial state than as a
 was often dismissed. He would
spend many hours with not more than one or two
companions, either wandering on the shore, or rowing in
a boat, or fishing from the rocks. What could be
easier, she thought, if only she could find an
accomplice, to surprise him in one of those unguarded
Resolving to seek such an accomplice herself, the first
necessity that she perceived was of an effectual
disguise. The man's dress which she had assumed in
order to find her way to the quarters of Subrius had
served its purpose well enough on that occasion. But it
would not now suffice, and she accordingly resolved to
assume the character of a singing-girl. This she could
do with great ease; she had a particularly sweet
voice, and could sing and play with more than usual
skill. A further disguise was secured by wearing Syrian
dress and ornaments, and by adding a deeper brown to
her complexion. Another device, which she felt might be
useful in carrying out her scheme, was to pretend
ignorance of any language but Greek, except so far as
the use of a few words of broken Latin might go.
Thus apparelled and equipped, she made her way down to
Misenum, where a squadron of the fleet was stationed.
She began by singing outside the wine shops to which
the sailors were accustomed to resort, and speedily
achieved a great success. Her reputation as an
accomplished performer spread among the higher circles,
and it was not long before she was
en-  gaged to perform
at a banquet given by one of the captains to his
colleagues. Other similar invitations followed. As the
guests spoke freely before her, presuming on her
supposed ignorance of Latin, while she always kept her
ears open, and listened with an eager attention which
suffered nothing to escape her, she soon learnt much
about the characters and tempers of the officers in
One of these men, Proculus by name, she recognized as
an old acquaintance. He had once been in command of the
yacht which belonged to Agrippina, the Emperor's
mother. It was one of the very few pleasures of
Octavia's unhappy life to join her mother-in-law in
occasional excursions round the Campanian coast. At
these times Epicharis had often been in waiting, and
Proculus had regarded her with much admiration. She
gathered now from words that he let drop in her
hearing, and from what was said by others, that he was
in a dissatisfied frame of mind. He was accustomed to
talk vaguely of great services which he had rendered to
the Emperor, and which had received a very inadequate
reward. This seemed to promise some sort of an opening,
and she resolved, in default of anything better, to
avail herself of it. It is true that she did not like
or trust the man. In old times he had not been a
favourite; his openly expressed admiration had, on the
contrary, been extremely offensive to her. But she was
almost in despair. She had not found in the fleet any
 explosive material, so to speak, which she had
hoped to discover there. Nero seemed to be highly
popular. He mixed freely with the sailors, treated
them in a friendly fashion, and was liberal in his
presents. Still, for her present purpose, one such
adherent as Proculus would suffice. Carried out of
herself by her eagerness for revenge, with her mind, in
fact, thrown off its balance by this excitement, she
resolved to make the trial.
One day, in the course of an entertainment, Proculus
had paid her some compliment on her musical skill and
gone on to express his admiration for her beauty.
Crushing down disgust at his advances, for the man was
personally odious to her, Epicharis gave an answer that
encouraged further conversation, and induced him, with
no little skill, to speak of himself, his
disappointments, and his claims. Artfully expressing a
sympathetic surprise that he had not reached a position
more commensurate with his merits, of which he had
indeed an unbounded opinion, she led him on to use
language which certainly had an almost treasonable
sound. As a matter of fact, this talk was mere bluster.
He would not have used it to any one who would, he
thought, have taken it seriously. But this was exactly
what Epicharis did. When she judged that he had to a
certain extent committed himself, she revealed her
identity. The man, though somewhat confused with the
wine which he had been drinking, at once perceived that
there was something
 serious in the affair. Epicharis he
had almost forgotten, but he was perfectly well aware
that Octavia had left devoted friends behind her. He
listened with attention when she began to hint at the
scheme which was in her mind. She would tell him no
names, but she gave him to understand that there were
powerful people behind her, people who would be able
and willing to remunerate him handsomely for any
service that he might render. Only, she was careful to
impress upon him, he must lose no time; he must not let
any one else anticipate him.
For a time the man wavered. It might be worth his
while, he thought, to make the venture. It might be
possible to secure a position really worth having under
a new order of things. He was ambitious, so far as a
greedy, pleasure-loving temper could make him so, and
for a few moments he seemed to see within his reach
great power and wealth, and all the opportunities of
pleasure which these two things command. And though he
was a dull, brutal, utterly selfish creature, the
enthusiasm of Epicharis, backed as it was by the charm
of her beauty, touched his fancy if not his heart.
But when the magic of her presence was removed, he
began to see impossibilities in the way which had not
occurred to him before. In fact, the man's past was
such that if Epicharis had but known it, he would have
been the very last person in the world in whom she
would have confided. The services
 which he had rendered
to Nero, and for which he conceived himself to have
been insufficiently paid, were such as to put an
absolutely impassable gulf between him and the
revolutionists. He had been Nero's tool in the
perpetration of the very worst of his crimes, the
murder of his mother. It was he who had been in command
of the yacht in which she nearly met with her death. He
was actually present and assisting when the hideous
deed was finally accomplished. Nero might not be duly
grateful for such services, but from any one else they
would meet with no other reward than the halter or the
axe. When Nero had received his due, then those who had
helped to rid him of his mother and his wife would not
be long in meeting with theirs. Epicharis' schemes,
therefore, had, when he came to examine them, nothing
attractive about them. Still, as he soon began to
reflect, they might be made to yield a profit. Why not
use them to put Nero under a second obligation? Why not
give information of them, and pose as the saviour of
the Emperor's life?
This last purpose was almost immediately carried out.
Before the next day had dawned Proculus was at Antium,
where Nero was then residing, and in the course of a
few hours Tigellinus was in possession of all that he
had to communicate. The Minister acted promptly.
Epicharis, who had been eagerly waiting for some
communication from Proculus, was arrested in her
lodging by a Centurion, conveyed in a litter to
 the Emperor's villa at Antium, and almost immediately
after confronted with her accuser.
She did not lose her self-possession and presence of
mind for a moment. Proculus told his story, not, of
course, without exaggeration, and the addition of
details which made it more picturesque and effective.
She met it with a flat denial. He had no witnesses to
produce; and for the present, at least, her word was as
good as his.
As for herself, she made no attempt at concealment.
She had been a waiting woman of the Empress, and she
had loved her mistress.
Questioned as to the reason why she had disguised
herself as a singing-girl, she smiled and shrugged her
shoulders. It was partly, she explained, a frolic, but
chiefly because she was desperately poor. "My
mistress," she explained with the utmost simplicity of
manner, "left me a legacy, which would have put me
beyond poverty; but it has not yet been paid to me."
The shaft struck home, as it had been intended to
strike, though the intention was admirably concealed.
Nero blushed and winced. He had had the meanness to
refuse, or, rather, to postpone indefinitely, the
payment of the few legacies which Octavia had left to
Every inquiry she met with the same imperturbable
composure. She missed no opportunity of planting a
sting in the consciences of her questioners—if
consciences they had; but no one could be sure that
was done with intention. In the end, she came out of
the cross-examination, which was protracted and severe,
without having made a single damaging admission.
When accuser and accused were removed from the
presence, the Emperor summed up the case after this
fashion. "Well, the woman has much more the look of
telling the truth than the man. And he is, I know, a
thorough scoundrel. However, where there is smoke there
is pretty sure to be fire. See that she is kept in safe
custody, Tigellinus, but don't let any harm come to
her. We shall see what happens."
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