|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 |
 SCAEVINUS had been for some time repenting, if not of
his share in the conspiracy, certainly of the impulse
which had prompted him to demand the most prominent
place in the execution of its purpose. It was now
impossible to draw back; if pride had not forbidden—and
with all his weakness he was still a Roman—his
associates might suspect him of treachery, and
summarily silence him. The only thing left for him was
to fortify his courage as best he could.
His first step was to choose for the deed what he
conceived to be a peculiarly lucky weapon. Though, like
most of his contemporaries, he believed in little or
nothing, he was curiously superstitious, a combination
of apparent opposites which has never been uncommon,
and which in the pleasure-loving society of Rome was
peculiarly frequent. He happened to be the head of a
family in which the care of a famous provincial temple,
the shrine of Fortune at the little Latin town of
Ferentinum, was hereditary. Among the most cherished
treasures of this place was an ancient dagger with
which a family legend was connected. In the days when
the Gauls had captured
 Rome and were desolating Italy,
a Scænvinus had struck down with this weapon the leader
of a band of the barbarians which had cone to plunder
the temple. His descendant now took it down from its
place on the walls with much formality, and carried it
about with him, not without throwing hints of some
great achievement for which it was destined.
This, unfortunately, was only the beginning of
follies. On the evening of the 18th of April he
invited his freedmen to a sumptuous dinner, to which he
carefully gave the character of a farewell
entertainment. During the repast he was by turns
obstreperously gay and depressed even to tears. After
dinner he followed up the usual libation to the gods by
drinking to the memories of the Elder and the Younger
Brutus. This done he drew the sacred dagger from its
sheath and handed it to the most trusted of his
freedmen, Milichus by name, with the injunction to get
it sharpened. "Mind," he said at the same time, "that
you see to the point, that it be properly sharp, for it
has a great work to do." When the weapon was brought
back he had other instructions scarcely less
significant to give.
"See, Milichus," he said to the freedman, "that you
have plenty of bandages ready. One can never tell how
soon they may be wanted."
The bandages duly provided, he proceeded to execute
with the usual solemnities a new will. When this had
been signed and sealed, he seemed still
un-  satisfied.
"Why," he said to his guests, "should you wait for my
death before you can enjoy my liberality, though
indeed you will very likely not have to wait long."
Two favourite slaves were called up and set free. To
others he gave presents of money. To the freedmen at
his table he distributed keepsakes, rings, bracelets,
writing-tablets, and valuables of all sorts. He might
have been a father on his deathbed bidding farewell to
his children with an appropriate remembrance of each.
And this was the more remarkable because Scævinus, in
ordinary life, was not a particularly generous person.
For some time Milichus had noticed a curious change in
his patron's demeanour. Ordinarily, as has been said,
Scævinus was not a man who took life seriously, and
Milichus' sole employment had been to minister to his
pleasures. For some months past all this had been
changed. He had, to a certain extent, reformed his
ways, and had assumed a more than proportionate gravity
of demeanour. Not infrequently he had dropped hints of
important business which he had in hand, and great
functions in the State which he might be called upon to
If these things had not aroused definite suspicions in
Milichus they had certainly prepared him to entertain
them when he witnessed the proceedings just related.
That his patron had something on his mind, and that
this something was approaching a critical
 time, he now
felt convinced. When, shortly before midnight, Scævinus
dismissed him with an unusually affectionate
good-night, he resolved to take his wife into counsel.
The two discussed the matter for a long time. The woman
was far more decided than her husband in her views,
both of what was going on and of what he ought to do.
"Depend upon it," she said, "this is a big thing, and
means a chance for you and me such as we never had
before, and are not likely to have again. My belief is
that there is something on foot against people who are
very high up indeed. Go to the palace at once,—that is
my advice,—and tell the people there what you have
The freedman hesitated. He had a feeling of kindness
for his patron, stronger, perhaps, than he would have
had for a better man. Scævinus had given him his
liberty, had made him some handsome presents, and
treated him generally with the kindness which commonly
goes a long way further than money. It was always an
odious thing for a freedman to turn against his patron;
in his case it was particularly hateful. And then, if
the whole business should turn out to have meant
nothing at all! That would mean simple ruin and
The wife took a more severely practical view of the
situation. Of the personal feeling she made no account
whatever. Naturally she did not share it herself, for
Scævinus was almost a stranger to her.
 Anyhow she was
sure that it must not stand in the way of business. Of
the risk of being found to have made a groundless
charge she made light. The circumstances were too
suspicious. They must mean something. She wound up with
the most cogent argument of all. "There were others
present, you say, freedmen and slaves. Do you suppose
that you were the only one who saw anything strange in
the Senator's behaviour? If you don't go to the palace,
you may depend upon it some one else will. And if
anybody anticipates you, where will you be? It was you
to whom he gave the dagger to sharpen; you who had to
prepare the bandages; it is you, therefore, who are
bound to speak. You won't save your patron by holding
your tongue, you will only lose your own chance, and
very likely involve yourself in his ruin."
This reasoning was too much for Milichus. "I will go,"
he said, "though I hate it."
"And at once," cried the wife. "There is not a moment
to be lost."
The energetic woman seized him by the arm, and hurried
him off. The day was just beginning to dawn, and it was
only just light when the two reached the Pavilion
gardens, where Nero was residing. At that untimely hour
they had some difficulty in making themselves heard,
and the porter, when roused, summarily bade them go
about their business. Milichus would gladly have
availed himself of the excuse, and postponed his odious
task, but his wife was made of
 sterner stuff. She
warned the doorkeeper that if he refused to admit them,
he would do so at his own peril; they had come, she
said, on urgent business, in fact, on a matter of life
or death. Thus urged, the man gave way, and admitted
the visitors, feeling that he would thus at least shift
the responsibility from off his own shoulders. He sent
the couple on to Epaphroditus, who may be described as
the Emperor's Private Secretary.
Epaphroditus heard the outline of Milichus' story, and
recognizing the gravity of the facts, determined that
Nero himself should hear them without delay.
At first the Emperor was but little disposed to
believe. He had a profound belief in his own
inviolability, and the breaking down of the charge
which Proculus had brought against Epicharis, had
confirmed him in his incredulity. The sight of the
dagger which Milichus, at his wife's suggestion, had
brought with him, rather staggered him. It proved
nothing, it is true. Still the sight of an actual
weapon, which it was possible might be used against
himself, seemed to make the whole thing closer and more
"Send for Scævinus," he said to his Secretary. "Let us
confront him with this fellow, and hear what he has to
Scævinus, who had just risen from his bed, and was
already disturbed by finding that Milichus had gone, no
one knew whither, and had taken the dagger with him,
was still further alarmed by the arrival of a
 quaternion of soldiers, bearing an order for his
arrest. When, however, he was brought within the
Emperor's presence, his courage rose to the occasion.
The story of the dagger he ridiculed.
"It belongs to my family," he said, and briefly told
the story connected with it. "I found that it was being
devoured by rust, and took it down from the wall. I may
have told this fellow to clean it, but certainly said
nothing else. As for the bandages, that is a pure
fiction, invented to back up the other story. As for
the new will, I have often made wills, as any of my
friends can testify; as for the presents that I made to
my freedmen and slaves, what is there in that? It is my
way to be liberal to them, perhaps beyond my means.
Answer me, Milichus," he went on, turning to the
informer, "have you not had money and valuables from me
The freedman acknowledged that this was so.
"And now, Cæsar," said Scævinus, "to be perfectly
frank, as indeed the occasion demands, I have a special
reason for being generous, if it is generous to give
what is scarcely one's own. My affairs are not
prosperous, and my creditors have begun to press me.
Legacies would be of no use if there should be a
balance on the wrong side when my estate is wound up;
services have been rendered me which it was a matter of
honour to repay, and I felt that I could do it only by
The accused spoke so calmly and coolly, and with
an appearance of frankness, that the Emperor was
"It is the Epicharis case over again," he said to
Tigellinus, who had by this time been summoned. "People
seem to be making a trade of these lying accusations.
They shall find that they are not to my taste."
Scævinus saw his advantage, and pursued it. "I ask you,
Cæsar, to protect me against the unfaithfulness and
falsehood of this man, this villain, who owes to me all
that he has, and now seeks to raise himself higher on
the ruins of my fortune. About other things I care not
so much, but it is terrible that he should seek to make
a profit for himself out of the loss of my honour.
Cæsar, I implore your protection against him."
"And you shall have it, Scævinus," said the Emperor.
"As for you," he went on in a voice of thunder,
turning to the freedman, "you have a patron who is far
too good for you. Henceforth he will treat you, I
hope, as you deserve. He has my leave to squeeze out of
you again all that he has given you, to the uttermost
drop. Assuredly it was the unhappiest hour of your
life when you came to me with this cock-and-bull story
of a dagger and bandages. And now, Tigellinus," he went
on, "it is time to be getting ready for the Circus."
The freedman stood struck dumb with disappointment and
dismay. But his wife did not lose her courage and
presence of mind.
 "Ask him," she whispered, "whether he has not lately
had many conferences with Natalis, and whether he is
not an intimate friend of Caius Piso's."
The freedman caught eagerly at the suggestion. "Cæsar,"
said he, "ask Scævinus what dealings he has lately had
with Natalis and Caius Piso."
Scævinus could not repress a start when he heard the
names of two of the most prominent conspirators thus
openly joined with his own, and the start did not
escape the watchful eye of Tigellinus.
"There may be more in this, Sire, than you think," he
whispered in Nero's ear. "Natalis is a notorious
busy-body, and Piso is the most dangerous man in Rome."
"What do you advise, then?" asked the Emperor,
impressed by his Minister's earnestness.
"Send for Natalis," replied Tigellinus, "and question
him; but don't question him in the presence of the
accused. Ask them separately what they have been
interesting themselves in; if there is anything that
they don't want to have known, they will certainly
contradict each other."
The suggestion was immediately carried out. Natalis,
arrested just as he was setting out for the Circus,
and having a dagger actually concealed upon his person,
lost his presence of mind. Interrogated by Tigellinus
as to the business discussed at recent interviews with
Scævinus, with a scribe sitting close by to take down
his words, he hesitated and
stam-  mered. His invention
seemed to fail him as well as his courage. At last he
managed to blunder out a few words to the effect that
Scævinus had been consulting him about the best way of
investing some sums of money which would shortly be
coming in to him from the paying off of sundry
mortgages and loans. This was a peculiarly unlucky
venture in the face of Scævinus' recent confession of
poverty. Tigellinus smiled an evil smile as he
listened. Natalis caught the look, and stammered worse
than ever, for he knew that he had blundered.
"Thank you, my friend," said the Minister in the
blandest of voices. "I am sure that the Senator
Scævinus is a lucky man to have so admirable an
adviser. Still you will pardon me for saying that you
are a trifle obscure in your description. It will be
instructive to call in the Senator himself, and hear
his account of the matter."
Scævinus accordingly was brought in. The look of terror
which came over his face as soon as he caught sight of
Natalis was as good as a confession. Tigellinus, who
hated him, as he hated every man better born and better
bred than himself, smiled again.
"The Emperor," he began, in his soft, unctuous voice,
"who feels a paternal interest in the affairs of his
subjects, is anxious to know what was the subject of
discussion when you were closeted yesterday so long
with our friend Natalis."
 Scævinus, who had by this time recovered his
self-possession, answered without hesitation. His
course was, it need hardly be said, clear before him.
Indeed, he congratulated himself on the happy thought
of having pleaded his poverty to the Emperor.
"I was consulting my friend about raising a loan on
more moderate interest than what I am now paying." The
Emperor laughed outright.
"Scribe," said Tigellinus to the slave who had been
taking down the depositions in shorthand—for
shorthand was an art well known to the Romans by that
time,—"scribe, read aloud the answer of Antonius
"One of you has certainly lied," said Tigellinus, "and
probably both; but there are means of making you speak
He made a sign to a guard who stood at the door of the
apartment. In a few minutes half-a-dozen slaves
appeared, bringing with them a rack and other
instruments of torture.
Scævinus started at the sight. "Cæsar," he cried, "is
this with your permission? Torture to a Senator of
"Silence, villain!" said the Minister. "You know that
when the life of the Emperor is concerned—and what else
meant you by the dagger?—all means of discovering the
truth are permitted by the law."
The slaves began to prepare the rack for use. Natalis
lost all his fortitude at the ghastly sound of
creaking beams, as the executioners worked the hideous
thing backwards and forwards to see that it was in
"Spare me, Caesar," he cried, falling on his knees,
"and I will confess all that I know."
Scævinus was not so lost to shame. He hesitated. He was
even ready, if his companion had backed him up, to
brave it out. But the cowardice of the other was
contagious. If Natalis was to save himself by
confession, why not he? His friends were lost anyhow;
they would not fare one whit the worse for anything
that he might say.
"Caesar," he said, still striving to keep up some show
of dignity, "if you will deign to listen, I have
something to say."
Tigellinus gloated with malignant pleasure over the
man's useless humiliation. A Senator, offering to
betray his friends and refused! What could be more
welcome hearing to a parvenu!
"Nay, sir," he said; "we must observe due
precedence. Every man according to his rank. In
honourable things the Senator before the knight; in
dishonourable the knight before the Senator. Is not
that so, Sire?"
"Yes," said Nero; "speak on, Antonius Natalis.
Meanwhile let our honourable Senator be removed. It has
already been very interesting to observe how his
account of things differed from his confederate's, and
it may be interesting again."
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