|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 company which Lateranus called his "cohort"
consisted of about thirty men, divided into three
guards, as we may call them, of ten. They were armed
after the fashion of the "gowned" or civilian cohort of
the Prætorians, which was accustomed to keep guard in
the Emperor's palace; that is, they had neither helmet
or shield or pike, but carried swords and lances. Even
these arms they never wore except within the precincts
of the house, and then only when they were being
drilled and practised in sword play and other military
exercises. Lateranus always spoke of the cohort as a
plaything of his own which had no serious purpose, and
it may readily be understood that he was careful not to
make any display of it. Any master was at liberty to
put weapons into the hands of his dependents in an
emergency. The only difference was that these
dependents had been trained to use these weapons
skilfully and in concert. And now the emergency was
come which was to put their utility to a practical
test. One of the guards of ten was left to protect the
house. Lateranus, who was apparently unarmed, but
 carried a short sword underneath his outer tunic,
proceeded with the other two at the "double" to the
scene of action.
The relieving force was not a moment too soon in
arriving. The outer gates of the mansion had been
forced open, and the assailants were applying crowbars
to the door which led to the private apartments of
Pomponia. This, indeed, had given way; naturally it had
not been made strong enough to resist a violent
assault; but the domestics within had piled up a
quantity of heavy furniture which had to be removed
before the besiegers could make good their entrance.
This obstacle saved the house. Before it could be got
rid of, the relieving party arrived, and took the
assailants in the rear. The leader of the latter at
once recognized that his purpose had been defeated, and
desisted from his attempt without challenging a
struggle with the new arrivals. His bearing, however,
was curiously unlike what might have been expected from
the ringleader of a lawless gang surprised by a
superior force. So far from displaying any
embarrassment, he appeared to be perfectly at his ease,
and accosted Lateranus with all the air of an equal.
"You have been beforehand with me this time, sir," he
said in a quiet tone, which nevertheless was full of
suppressed fury. "I shall not forget it."
"Neither will they for whom I act," went on the other,
"and that you will find no laughing matter."
 "I shall always be ready to answer for myself," said
Lateranus firmly. "Since when has your mistress taken
it upon herself to send storming parties against the
houses of innocent citizens?"
To this the man made no reply. "You will not hinder our
departure," he went on after a pause. "You will find it
better not to do so."
Lateranus shrugged his shoulders. "You can go," he
said; "it is not my business to do the duty of the
guards, but if there is any justice in Rome, you shall
hear of this again."
"Justice!" cried the fellow with an insolent laugh;
"we know something much better than that."
Meanwhile the cohort had been waiting with eagerness
for the end of the colloquy. All had their hands on the hilt
of their swords, and all were ready to use them.
Profound was their disappointment when, instead of the
expected order to draw, came the command to stand at
ease. One by one the assailants filed out of the court,
their leader being the last to leave the place.
"What ails the master?" said one of the younger men, in
an angry whisper to his neighbour.
"Hush!" replied the man addressed. "Don't you see that
it is Theodectes?"
"Theodectes!" said the other; "who is Theodectes?"
"The favourite freedman of Poppæa. Is not that enough
 Meanwhile Lateranus, leaving instructions that the
cohort should remain for the present in the court, made
his way to the apartment where Pomponia was awaiting
"Welcome!" she said, coming forward and taking his
hand with a peculiarly gracious smile; "the Lord has
sent you in good time."
Pomponia Græcina, to give the lady her full name, was a
woman of singularly dignified presence. She was now not
far from her seventieth year, and her abundant hair,
which, contrary to the fashion of the ladies of her
time, she wore with a severe plainness, was of a
silvery whiteness. But her figure was erect; her
complexion retained no little of the bloom of youth,—a
bloom which, again in opposition to contemporary
custom, owed nothing to the resources of art; and her
eyes could flash, on occasion, with a fire which years
had done nothing to quench. Her history was one of
singular interest. She came of a house not originally
noble, but distinguished by having produced many
eminent citizens and soldiers. Perhaps the most famous
of these had been Pomponius Atticus, the friend and
correspondent of Cicero. Atticus, to speak of him by
the name by which he is commonly known, had played with
extraordinary skill the part of an honest man who
desires to be on good terms with all parties at once.
He had been so loyal to the vanquished Republicans,
that Cicero, till very near the time of his death, kept
affection-  ate correspondence with him; and was yet
so friendly with the victorious Imperialists that his
daughter married the chief friend of Augustus, and his
granddaughter became the wife of Tiberius. These great
alliances did not result in happiness to his
descendants, for one of the last of his race, Julia,
the granddaughter of Tiberius, was put to death by the
Emperor Claudius, prompted by his wicked wife
Messalina. Julia's death was a lasting grief to her
kinswoman, the Pomponia of my story. Never afterwards
could she bear to mix in the brilliant society of the
Imperial Court. But there was another reason why she
held herself aloof from the fashionable world of Rome.
She had come, how it is impossible to say, under the
influence of some early preacher of the Christian
faith; and a Christian woman, when the life of the
court was such as we know it to have been in the days
of Claudius and Nero, had no alternative but to live in
retirement. So marked was her attitude that it excited
suspicion; and she was actually accused—on what
grounds we cannot say, possibly on the testimony of
some member of her household—of being addicted to a
superstition not recognized by Roman law. With a woman
of ordinary rank it might have gone hard, but Pomponia
had a powerful protector in her husband. He was one of
the most distinguished soldiers of Rome, and was,
happily for himself, too old to excite the jealous
fears of the Emperor. When he made it a matter of
 favour that in the case of his wife an ancient
practice should be revived, and that he as her husband
should be constituted her judge, his request was
granted. That he himself shared her faith we can hardly
suppose, but he had seen its results in the
blamelessness of her life, and the trial held by a
family council, over which he himself presided, ended,
as was doubtless his wish, in the acquittal of the
accused. Since that time she had lived unmolested,
though, as we have seen, she had enemies.
Pomponia went on: "Here is some one else who has to
thank you for your timely aid. I will present you to
She drew aside as she spoke the curtains that hung over
an arch leading into a smaller apartment. Into this she
disappeared for a moment, and then returned leading by
the hand a girl who may have numbered some eighteen
"Claudia," she said, "this is Plautius Lateranus, my
husband's nephew, whom we are to have for our Consul
next year, and who meanwhile has delivered us from a
very great danger. And this," she went on, turning to
Lateranus, "is Claudia, whom I venture to call my
daughter, as indeed she is, though not after the
The Roman, though he had known all the beauties of the
Imperial Court for more than twenty years, was fairly
surprised by the loveliness of the girl, a loveliness
that was all the more startling because it
 was in some
respect so different from that which he had been
accustomed to admire in Italian maids and matrons. Her
eyes, as far as he could see them, for they were bent
downwards under their long lashes, were of a deep
sapphire blue, the eyebrows exquisitely pencilled, the
forehead somewhat broader and higher than agreed with
the commonly accepted canons of taste, but of a noble
outline, and full, it seemed, of intelligence. The nose
was slightly retroussé, but this departure from the
straight line of the Greek and the acquiline curve of
the Roman feature seemed to give the face a peculiar
piquancy; the lips were full and red; the complexion,
while exquisitely clear, had none of the pallor which
comes from the indoor habit of life. Claudia had never
been afraid of the sun and the wind, and they had dealt
kindly with her, neither freckling nor tanning her
face, but giving it an exquisite hue of health. Her
hair, of glossy chestnut hue, was not confined in the
knot which Roman fashion had borrowed from the art of
Greece, but fell in long curling locks on her
shoulders. Lateranus bowed over the girl's hand, and
carried it to his lips.
"I greet you, fair cousin," he said with an admiring
glance, "for if my aunt, who always speaks the truth,
calls you daughter, my cousin you must needs be."
Claudia muttered a few words that probably were meant
for thanks. They did not catch the listener's
though he noticed that they were spoken with the
hesitation of one who was using an unfamiliar language.
Then the colour which had covered the girl's cheek, as
she came forward, with a brilliant flush, faded as
suddenly. She cast an imploring look, as if asking for
help, on the elder lady.
"Ah! my child," cried Pomponia, "you suffer. I have
lived so long alone that I have grown thoughtless and
selfish, or I should have known that you wanted rest
after all that you have gone through. Sit you here till
I can call Chloris." And she made the girl sit in the
chair from which she had herself risen, while she
pressed a hand-bell that stood on a table close by.
A Greek waiting-maid speedily appeared in answer to the
"Have the litter brought hither," said Pomponia, "and
carry the Lady Claudia to her room."
"Nay, mother," said the girl, "I should be ashamed to
give so much trouble, and indeed, I do not want the
litter. I will go to my room indeed, but it will be
enough if Chloris will give me her arm."
"You are sure?" said the elder lady. "I have seen so
little of young people of late years that I am at a
"Yes, indeed, mother, quite sure," and she withdrew,
supporting herself by the attendant's arm, but more in
show than in reality, for indeed the faintness, quite a
new sensation to Claudia's vigorous health, had quite
 "My dear aunt," said Lateranus, when the girl had left
the room, "this is indeed a surprise. From what quarter
of the world have you imported this marvellous beauty?
That she is not Latin or Greek I saw at a glance, and I
have been puzzling my brain ever since to find out to
what nation she belongs. Is she Gaul, or perhaps German?"
"Nay," replied Pomponia; "you must go further than
Gaul or even Germany."
"Ah!" said Lateranus after reflecting for a minute
or two. "By all the gods!—pardon me, aunt," he went
on, seeing a shadow pass over his aunt's gentle face,—"I
had forgotten. Verily, I have it! She must be
"Now you are right."
"And how long has she been with you? I heard nothing
of her when I was last here."
"A month only. Her coming, indeed, was quite
unexpected, and to be quite candid, at first
unwelcome. You know my way of life. I had grown so
accustomed to being alone that I almost dreaded the
sight of a new face."
"Well," said Lateranus, "a face like that need hardly
"Ah, you think her beautiful?" cried Pomponia, her
face lighted up with one of her rare smiles. "And don't
you see just a little likeness to my dearest Julia?"
"Yes; there is certainly a likeness, especially about
 "As soon as I saw that, I began to love her; and indeed
I soon found that she is worth loving for her own sake.
And there is another reason, too, which I fear, my dear
nephew, you will not understand."
"Ah! I see; she is of the same sect, I suppose. It has
reached to Britain itself then. Wonderful!"
"Wonderful indeed, and more than wonderful if it were
what you call it, a sect. Oh, dear Aulus,
if you would
"All in good time, dear aunt, perhaps when my
Consulship is over. It would certainly be awkward if
you made a proselyte of me before."
"In good time, dear Aulus! Nay, there is no time so
good as this. Who knows what may happen before your
Consulship is over?"
"Nay, nay, dear aunt; good words, good words! But tell
me, who is this lovely Claudia?"
"You have heard your uncle speak of King Cogidumnus?"
"Yes, I remember the name. He lived somewhere, if I
remember right, on the edge of the great
south-  ern forest, of which my uncle used to tell such wonders."
"Just so; he was the King of the Regni. Indeed, he is
living still. Well, the King took our side. Claudius
made him a Roman citizen, and allowed him to assume his
own names, so that he is a Tiberius Claudius; and also
enlarged his kingdom with some of the country which
your uncle conquered."
"Yes, I remember now hearing about it from my friend
Pudens. He was wrecked on the coast in one of those
terrible storms that they have out there, and made his
way to the chief town of the Regni.
He found it, he told me, quite a little Rome, with a
Senate, and a Forum, and baths, and a library, and I
know not what besides. The King himself was quite a
polished gentleman, spoke Latin admirably and even
could quote Virgil and Horace. No one, to look at him,
would have thought, so my friend Pudens used to say,
that ten years before he had been running wild in the
woods with very little on besides a few stripes of blue
"Well," resumed Pomponia, "Claudia is his daughter."
"You astonish me more and more," cried Lateranus. "And
pray, what brings her to Rome?"
"A prince who pays tribute to Rome in Britain can
hardly feel quite safe. His countrymen are sure to hate
him, and I am afraid that we who are his
 allies do not
always treat him as we should. Claudia's father had a
terrible fright three years ago, when Boadicea and the
Iceni rebelled. His city would have been the next to be
attacked after London, if Paulinus had not come up in
time to stop them. London, you must know, is scarcely
more than seventy miles off, and the Britons don't take
much time over seventy miles. The King had everything
ready to embark,—you see he has the advantage of
being near the sea,—his wife, who is since dead, and
Claudia, who is his only child, were actually on board
a galley with the best part of his treasure. If the
news had been bad instead of good, they would have
sailed at once. Lately, it seems, he has been getting
anxious again, and though he loves his daughter dearly,—the
poor girl cannot speak of him without tears,—he
felt that he should be much happier if she were safe.
Then the death of the mother, who was an admirable
woman, decided him. His nearest kinswomen are not
people into whose charge he would like to put his
daughter. So he sent her here, appealing to me on the
score of his old friendship with my husband. I could
not refuse, though I must confess that the idea was
very distasteful to me. What should I do, I thought,
with a young barbarian in my house? It was a wicked
idea, even if it had been true, which it certainly is
not. Who am I," she added in a low voice which she did
not mean to reach her nephew's ears, "Who am I, that I
 call aught that He has made common or unclean?
In Him there is 'neither barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor
"You interest me greatly in your Claudia. But, my dear
aunt, we have to consider the future, both for you and
her. You know, of course, who is at the bottom of this
"Yes, I know—Poppæa."
"But tell me, for I confess it puzzles me, why does
Poppæa hate you? That she will spare no one who stands
in the way of her pleasure or her ambition I
understand; but you, how do you interfere with her?"
"Listen, Aulus. Poppæa has another thing that she cares
for besides pleasure and power, and that is what she
calls her religion."
"But I thought—pardon me for mentioning such a
creature in the same breath with you—I thought that
you and she were of somewhat the same way of thinking
in this matter."
"It was natural that you should. Most people who know
anything at all about such things have the same notion.
But it is not so. Briefly, the truth is this. The
religion to which Poppæa inclines is the religion of
the Jews; the faith to which, by God's mercy, I have
been brought, rose up among the same nation. A Jew
first gave it to men; Jews have preached it since. But
those who still walk in the old ways hate them that
follow the new, hate them worse than they hate the
heathen. Poppæa, poor creature, knows
 nothing about
such matters, but the men to whom she goes for counsel,
the men who she hopes will find a way for her to go on
sinning and yet escape the punishment of sin, the men
who take her gifts for themselves and their temple, and
pay for them with smooth words, they know well enough
the difference between themselves and us; it is they
who stir her up; it is they who have told her to make
a first victim of me."
"I understand, at least in part, but what you say only
makes me feel more anxious. What will you do? She has
been baffled this time; but she won't take her defeat.
If I am not mistaken, there is going to be a dreadful
time in Rome when the law will be powerless; and I may
not be able to protect you."
As he finished speaking, a slave knocked at the door of
the apartment. Bidden to enter, he ushered in Subrius
the Prætorian and a friend.
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