|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 |
A NEW ALLY
 "LATERANUS," said the Prætorian to his friend, as they
sat together after dinner, "did you notice the face of
the girl who was taking leave of our friend Fannius
when we first espied him this afternoon?"
"Yes, indeed, I did," said the Consul elect; "it was a
face that no one could help noticing, and having once
seen, could hardly forget."
"That is exactly as it struck me; and I am sure that I
have seen it before; and not so very long ago. But
where? That puzzles me. Now and then I seem to have it,
but then it slips away again. Depend upon it, she is
no ordinary woman. Very beautiful she is, but somehow
it is not the beauty, but the resolute strength of her
face that impresses one. And what did the man mean
when he said that she 'thought about other things.' I
have a sort of presentiment that she will help us."
"You surprise me," said Lateranus. "And yet—"
At this point he was interrupted by the appearance of
a slave who announced the arrival of the expected
 For some time the conversation was general, Fannius
taking his part in it with an ease and readiness that
surprised Lateranus, and even exceeded the
expectations of his old friend and landlord. It
naturally turned, before very long, on the details of
life in the "gladiators' school." Fannius explained
that he had only a few more weeks to serve. After the
next show, which was to take place in September, he
would be entitled to his discharge. He had been
extraordinarily successful in his profession, and the
"golden youth" of Rome, who had backed him against
competitors, and won not a little by his victories,
had made him liberal presents. "You have always taken a
kind interest in my fortunes," he said to Subrius, "and
I am not afraid of worrying you with these matters. If
I live to receive the wooden sword,
I shall have a comfortable independence. But who knows
what may happen? a gladiator, least of all. You know,
sir, the proverb about the pitcher and the fountain.
And that reminds me of a little service that I have
been thinking of asking you to do for me. I should even
have ventured to call, if you had not been kind enough
to come. I want you to take charge of what I have been
able to save. I should have made a will, and asked you
to do me the service of seeing its provisions carried
out in case of need, but I feel doubtful whether,
situated as I am, I can
 make a will that would be
valid. What I will ask you to do, then, will be this,
to take charge of my property now, and if anything
should happen to me, to distribute it according to the
directions contained in this paper."
"Very good," replied Subrius. "The gods forbid that
there should arise any need for my services, but, if
there should, you may be sure that I will not fail in
my duty as your friend."
"Many thanks, sir," said Fannius, producing some papers
from his pocket. "These are acknowledgments from
Cassius, the banker, of deposits which I have made with
him. Thras has charge of what I possess in coin, and
will have instructions to hand it over to you. And here
is the paper of directions. Will you please to read it?
Is it quite plain?"
"Perfectly so," answered the Tribune. "But there is one
question which I must take the liberty of asking. You
mention a certain Epicharis. Who is she? Where am I to
look for her?"
"She lives with her aunt by marriage. Galla is the
aunt's name, and she cultivates a little farm on this
side of Gabii. Any one there will direct you to it.
She is the young woman whom you saw speaking to me this
"I guessed as much," said Subrius, "and I have been
puzzling myself ever since trying to make sure whether
I had seen her before."
"That you might very easily have done," replied
gladiator. "She was much with the Empress Octavia.
Indeed, she was her foster-sister."
"Ah!" cried Subrius; "that accounts for it. Now I
remember all about it. I was on guard in the Palace
with my cohort on the day when the Empress Octavia was
sent away to Campania. My men were lining the stairs
as the Empress came down. The poor Empress was almost
fainting. Two of her women were supporting her, one on
each side. I remember how much struck I was with the
look of one of them, far more Imperial, I thought, than
that of the unhappy creature she was holding up. 'That
is a woman,' I said to myself, 'whom no man will wrong
with impunity!' It was not a face to be forgotten. I
remembered it at once when I saw it this afternoon;
but I could not fix the time and place. Now you have
"Yes, yes," said Fannius, "you are right; she was
with the Empress then; indeed, she remained with her
till her death. Oh! sir, it is a piteous story that
she tells. But perhaps I had better not speak about
"Speak on without fear," replied the Prætorian. "I am
one of the Emperor's soldiers, and my friend here has
received the honour of the Consulship from him; but we
have not therefore ceased to be Romans and men.
Whatever you may tell us will be safely kept—"
The speaker paused, and then added in a deliberate and
meaning tone, "As long as it may be necessary to keep
 The gladiator cast a quick glance at him, and resumed.
"Well, Epicharis was with her mistress from the unlucky
day when she was carried across the threshold of her
down to the very end. They were both children then,
only twelve years of age, and the poor Empress was
really never anything else. But Epicharis soon learnt
to be a woman. From almost the first she had to protect
her mistress. Nero never loved his wife. Epicharis says
she was too good for him, or, indeed, for almost any
man; that she ought to have had a philosopher or a
priest for her husband."
"I don't know that philosophers or priests are better
than other men," interrupted Subrius; "but go on."
"Well, as I said, Nero never loved her, but, for a
time, he was decently civil to her. Then her brother
"Was poisoned, you were going to say," said Subrius.
"That is no secret. Everybody in Rome knows it."
"Epicharis tells me that the Empress never shed a tear.
She had learnt to hide her feelings, as children do
when they are afraid of their elders. Then the
Empress-mother came by her end. As long as she was
alive the wife's lot was tolerable. But after that—oh!
gentlemen, I could not bring myself to say a tenth of
the things that I have heard. They
 are too dreadful.
The poorest, unhappiest woman had not so much to bear.
I used to think when I was a boy that the fine ladies
who lived in great houses, and were dressed in gay
silks, and rode about in soft cushioned carriages, must
be happy; but now that I have had a look at what goes
on behind palace walls, I don't think so any more. Then
came what you saw, sir, on the palace stairs. It is no
wonder that the poor Empress should look miserable
after what she had gone through in those days, seeing,
for instance, her slave-girls tortured in the hope that
something might be wrung out of them against her.
Epicharis herself they did not touch; she was free, you
see; but they threatened her. I warrant they got
nothing by that. She has a tongue, and knows how to use
it. She let that monster Tigellinus know what she
thought of him, and his master too. She has told me
that she saw the Emperor wince once and again at the
answers she made. Then Octavia was sent away. It was a
great relief to go; to be away from the dreadful
palace. She ran about the gardens and grounds of the
villa,—it was to Burrus' house near Misenum, you will
remember, she was sent,—and made friends with the
little children; in fact, she was happier than she had
ever been in her life before. 'Now that I am out of
their way, and do not interfere with their plans, they
will let me alone, and, perhaps, forget me.' This is
what she would say to Epicharis. 'I am sure that I
don't want to marry
 again, and you had better follow my
example, dear sister,'—she would often call
Epicharis 'sister.' 'Husbands seem very strange
creatures, so difficult to please, and always imagining
such strange things about one. You and I will live
together for the rest of our lives, and take care of
the poor people. It really is much nicer than Rome,
which, you know, I never really liked.' So she would go
on. She did not seem to have any fears, the relief of
being free after eight years' slavery—for really her
life was nothing else—was so great. But Epicharis never
deceived herself, though she had not the heart to
undeceive her mistress. Indeed, what would have been
the good? The poor woman was fast in the toils, and the
hunters were sure to come. But it was of no use to
tell her so, and make her miserable before the time.
But, as I said, Epicharis was clever enough to know
what the end must be. She was sure that Nero would
never let Octavia alone."
"No," said Subrius; "he had wronged her far too deeply
ever to be able to forgive."
"Just so," observed Lateranus; "and if he could have
done it there was Poppæa, and a woman never spares a
rival, especially a rival who is better than herself.
Besides he dared not let his divorced wife live. You
see she was the daughter of Claudius, and her husband,
supposing that she had married again, would have been
dangerously near the throne. And then the people loved
her; that was even more against her than anything
 "That is exactly what Epicharis thought, so she has
often told me. After a few days came news that there
had been great disturbances in Rome; that the people
had stood up like one man in the Circus, and shouted
out to the Emperor, 'Give us back Octavia!' and that
Nero had annulled the divorce. Some of the poor woman's
attendants were in high spirits. You see they did not
like Campania and a quiet country house as much as
their mistress did. 'Now,' they said, 'we shall get
back to Rome; after all, a palace is better than a
villa.' Next day the news was more exciting than ever.
There had been a great demonstration all over Rome as
soon as it was known that the divorce had been
cancelled, and that Octavia was Empress again. The
people had crowded into the capital and returned thanks
in the temples. Poppæa's image had been thrown down,
and Octavia's covered with flowers and set up in the
public places. The Empress' women, foolish creatures
that they were, were more delighted than ever. 'Now,'
they said, 'we shall be going back to Rome in
triumph.' But Epicharis knew better; she was quite
sure that this was only the beginning of the end. And,
as you know, gentlemen, she was right; before the end
of another week the soldiers had come from Rome."
"Ah!" said Subrius, "a lucky fever-fit saved me from
being sent on that errand. My cohort had been detailed
for the duty; the sealed orders, which I
 was not to
open till I reached the villa, had been handed to me;
and then at the last moment, when I was racking my
brain, thinking how I could possibly get off, there
fortunately came this attack. I never had thought
before that I should be positively glad to have the
"Well, sir, from what Epicharis has told me, you were
spared one of the most pitiable sights that human eyes
ever saw. Octavia was sitting in the garden when the
Tribune came up and saluted her. She gave him her hand
to kiss. 'I suppose you have come to take me back to
Rome,' she said. 'Well, I am sorry to leave this
beautiful place; but if my husband and the people
really want me, I am willing to come. Can you give me
till to-morrow to get ready?' The Tribune turned
away. Epicharis says that she saw him brush his hand
over his eyes."
"Well," interrupted the Prætorian, "it must have been
something to make that brute Severus—for he was on
duty in my place, I remember—shed a tear."
" ' Madam,' said the Tribune, 'you mistake. We have
come on another business. You are not to return to
Rome. We are to take you to Pandataria.' 'Pandataria!'
cried the poor child, roused to anger, as even the
gentlest will sometimes be; 'but that is a place for
wicked people. I have done nothing wrong; else why
should the Emperor have made me his wife again!'
'Madam,' said the Tribune, 'I have to obey my orders.'
After that she said nothing
 more. After all, she was a
little relieved that she was not to return to Rome, and
she did not know what going to Pandataria really meant.
Well, that very night she was hurried off; only one
attendant was allowed her. Tigellinus, I fancy, had
forgotten that Epicharis, whom he had plenty of reason
to distrust and hate, was with her. Anyhow he had given
no directions to the Tribune, and the Tribune was not
disposed to go beyond his orders in making the poor
banished woman unhappy. So Epicharis went. The island,
she told me, was a wretched place; as to the house, it
was almost in ruins. The shepherd who looks after the
few sheep, which are almost the only creatures on the
island, said that scarcely anything had been done to it
since the Princess Julia
left it, and that must have been nearly sixty years
before. However, she seemed to reconcile herself to the
place easily enough. It was her delight to wander about
on the shore, picking up shells and seaweeds. Such
things pleased her as they please a child, Poor
creature! she had not time to get tired of it. In the
course of about fourteen or fifteen days a ship came
with some soldiers on board—"
"They told us in Rome," said Subrius, "that she was
killed by falling from a cliff, and possibly had thrown
 "Epicharis tells a very different story. When the
Empress saw the soldiers, she said in a very cheerful
voice—you see she had not the least idea that her life
was in danger, and Epicharis had never had the heart to
tell her,—'Well, gentlemen, what is you business this
time? Where are you going to take me now? I must
confess that I liked Misenum better than this.'
'Madam,' said the Centurion in command 'with your
permission I will explain my business when I get to the
house, if you will be pleased to return thither.' He
said this, you see, to gain time. On the way back he
contrived to whisper into Epicharis' ear what his
errand really was. She knew it already well enough, you
may be sure. 'You must break it to her,' he said. That
was an awful thing for the poor girl to do. She is not
of the tearful sort,—you know; but she sobbed and wept
as if her heart would break, when she told me the
story. The Empress went up to her bed-chamber to make
some little change in her dress. As she was sitting
before the glass, Epicharis came and put her arms round
her neck. The Empress turned round a little surprised.
You see she would often kiss and embrace her
foster-sister, but it was always she that began the
caress and the other that returned it. 'What ails you,
darling?' she said, for Epicharis' eyes were full of
tears. 'O dearest lady, I cannot help crying when I
think that we shall have to part!' 'Surely,' said the
Empress, 'they are not going to be so cruel as to take
 away from me. I will write to the Emperor about it;
he can't refuse me this little favour.' 'O lady,' said
Epicharis, who was in despair what to say,—how could
one break a thing of this sort?—he will grant you
nothing, not even another day.' 'What do you mean?'
said Octavia, for she did not yet understand. 'O
lady,' she cried, 'these soldiers are come—' and she
put into her look the meaning that she could not put
into words. 'What!' cried the poor woman, her voice
rising into a shrill scream, 'do you mean that they are
come to kill me?' and she started up from her chair.
Epicharis has told me that the sight of her face,
ghastly pale, with the eyes wide open with fear, haunts
her night and day. 'Oh, I cannot die! I cannot die!'
she cried out. 'I am so young. Can't you hide me
somewhere?' 'O dearest lady!' said Epicharis, 'I would
die to save you. But there is no way. Only we can die
together.' Then she took out of her robe two poniards,
which she always carried about in case they should be
wanted in this way. 'Let me show you. Strike just as
you see me strike. After all it hurts very little, and
it will all be over in a moment.' 'No, no, no!'
screamed the unhappy lady, 'take the dreadful things
away. I cannot bear to look at them. I will go and beg
the soldiers to have mercy.' And she flew out of the
room to where the Centurion was standing with his men
in the hall. She threw herself at the man's feet—it
was a most pitiable thing to see, Epicharis said when
she told me
 the story—and begged for mercy. Poor
thing, she clung to life, though the gods know she had had
very little to make her love it. The Centurion was
unmoved,—as for some of the common soldiers, they were
half disposed to rebel,—and said nothing but, 'Madam,
I have my orders.' 'But the Emperor must have
forgotten,' she cried out; 'I am not Empress now, I am
only a poor widow, and almost his sister.' Then again,
'Oh, why does Agrippina let him do it?' seeming to
forget in her terror that Agrippina was dead. After
this had gone on for some time, the officer said to one
of his men, 'Bind her, and put a gag in her mouth.'
Epicharis saw one or two of the men put their hands to
their swords when they heard the order given. But it
was useless to think of resisting or disobeying. They
bound her hand and foot, and gagged her, and then carried
her into the house. They had brought a slave with them
who knew some thing about surgery. This man opened the
great artery in each arm, but somehow the blood did not
flow. 'It is fairly frozen with fear,' Epicharis heard
him say to the Centurion. Then the two whispered
together, and after a while the men carried the poor
woman into the bath-room. Epicharis was not allowed to
go with her; but she heard that she was suffocated with
the hot steam, and that, as far as any one knew, she
never came to herself again. That, anyhow, is something
to be thankful for."
"They told a story in Rome," said Lateranus,
 "that the
head was brought to Poppæa. Do you think that it is
true? Did Epicharis ever say anything about it to you
"No," replied Fannius; "she never knew what became of
the body. She was never allowed to see it; it was burnt
that night, she was told."
"And so this is the true story of Octavia," said
Subrius after a pause. "You remember, Lateranus, there
was a great thanksgiving for the Emperor's deliverance
from dangerous enemies, and the enemy was this poor
girl. Why don't the gods, if they indeed exist (which I
sometimes doubt), rain down their thunderbolts upon
those who mock them with these blasphemous pretences?"
"Verily," cried Lateranus, "if they had been so minded
Rome would have been burnt up long ago. Have you not
observed that we are particularly earnest in thanking
heaven when some more than usually atrocious villainy
has been perpetrated?"
The gladiator looked with a continually increasing
astonishment on the two men who used language of such
unaccustomed freedom. Subrius thought it time to make
another step in advance.
"As you have taken us into your confidence," he said,
"about the contents of your will, you will not mind my
asking you a question about these matters."
"Certainly not," answered the man. "You need not be
afraid of offending me."
"If things go well with you, as there is every hope
their doing, and you get your discharge all right, what do
you look forward to?"
The gladiator shifted his position two or three times
uneasily, and made what seemed an attempt to speak, but
did not succeed in uttering a word.
"If Epicharis does not become your legatee, as I
sincerely hope she may not, is she to have no interest
in your money?"
"Ah, sir, she will make no promises, or rather, she
talks so wildly that she might as well say nothing
"What do you mean?"
"I may trust you, gentlemen, for I am putting her life
as well as my own in your hands?"
"Speak on boldly. Surely we have both of us said enough
this evening to bring our necks into danger, if you
chose to inform against us. We are all sailing in the
"It is true. I ought not to have doubted. Well, what she
says to me is this, 'Avenge my dear mistress on those
who murdered her, and then ask me what you please.' She
won't hear of anything else. I have asked her what I
could do, a simple gladiator, who has not even the power
to go hither or thither as he pleases. She has only one
answer, 'Avenge Octavia!' "
"It is not so hopeless as you think. There many who
hold that Octavia should be avenged, aye, and others
besides Octavia. We are biding our
 time, and there are
many things that seem to show that it is not far off.
You will be with us then, Fannius?"
"Certainly," said the gladiator. "I want to hear
nothing more; the fewer names I know, the better, for
then I cannot possibly betray them. Only give me the
word, and I follow. But how about Epicharis?" he went
on; "is she to hear anything?"
"I don't like letting women into a secret," said
"Nor I," said Subrius, "as a rule; but if there is any
truth in faces, this particular woman will keep a
secret and hold to a purpose better than most of us.
Shall we leave it to Fannius' discretion?"
To this Lateranus agreed.
After some more conversation the gladiator rose to take
his leave. A minute or so afterwards he returned to the
room. "Gentlemen," he said, "there is a great fire to
be seen from a window in the passage, and from what I
can see it must be in the Circus, or, anyhow, very
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