|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 |
IN THE CIRCUS
 TWO days after the conversation related in my last
chapter Subrius and Lateranus were deep in
consultation in the library of the latter's mansion on
the Esquiline Hill. The subject that occupied them was,
of course, the same that had been started on that
"Licinius tells me," said the Prætorian, "that he has
spoken to Piso, and that he caught eagerly at the
notion. I must confess that at first I was averse to
the man. It seemed a pity to throw away so magnificent
an opportunity. What good might not an honest, capable man
do, if he were put in this place? It is no flattery,
but simple truth, that the Emperor is a Jupiter on
earth. But it seems hopeless to look for the ideal man.
That certainly Piso is not. But he is resolute, and
he means well, and he will be popular. He is not the
absolute best, the four-square and faultless man that
the philosophers talk about; very far from it. But
then the faultless man would not please the Romans,
if I know them; and to do the Romans, or,
for the matter of that, any men, good, you must please
 "And how does the recruiting go on?" asked Lateranus.
"Excellently well," said Subrius, "within the limits
that are set, that every man should choose one
associate. Asper and Sulpicius have both chosen
comrades, and can answer for their loyalty as for
themselves. Lucan has taken Scævinus. I should hardly
have thought that the lazy creature had so much energy
in him; but these sleepy looking fellows sometimes wake
up with amazing energy. Proculus has chosen Senecio,
who is one of the Emperor's inner circle of friends."
"Ah!" interrupted Lateranus, "that sounds dangerous."
"There is no cause for fear; Senecio, I happen to know,
has very good reasons for being with us, and, of
course, he is a most valuable acquisition. When the
hour comes to strike, we shall know how and where to
deal the blow. Then there is Proculus, whom you have
chosen. And finally I, I flatter myself, have done
well. Whom think you I have secured?"
"Well, it would be difficult to guess. Your fellow
tribune Statius, perhaps. I should guess that he is
an honest man, who would like to serve a better master
than he has got at present."
"Statius is well enough, and we shall have him with us
sure enough when the time shall come. But meanwhile I
have been doing better things than
 that. What should
you say," he went on, dropping his voice to a whisper,
"if I were to tell you that it is Fænius Rufus?"
"What, the Prefect?" asked Lateranus in tones of the
"Yes" replied Subrius; "the Prefect himself."
"That is admirable!" cried the other. "We not have
hoped for anything so good. But how did you approach him?"
"Oh! that was not so difficult. To tell you the truth,
he met me at least half-way. These things are always in
the air. Depend upon it, there are hundreds of people
thinking much the same things that you and I are
thinking, though not, perhaps, in quite so definite a
way. And why not? The same causes have been at work
in them as in us, and brought about much the same
"True! but we must be first in the field. So we must
"There I agree heartily with you. Delay in such matters
is fatal. The secret is sure to leak out. And with
every new man we take into our confidence—and we must
add a good many more to our number—the danger becomes
greater. Will you come with me on a little visit that I
am going to pay? I have an acquaintance whom I should
like you to see. He may be useful to us in this matter.
I will tell you about him. In the first place, I would
have you know that my friend is a gladiator."
 Lateranus raised his eyebrows. "A gladiator!" he
exclaimed in a doubtful tone. "He might be useful in
certain contingencies. But he would hardly suit our
purpose just now."
"Listen to his story," said Subrius. "I assure you that
it is well worth hearing; and I shall be much
surprised, if, when you have heard it, you don't agree
with me that Fannius, for that is my friend's name, is
a very fine fellow. Well, to begin with, he is a Roman
"Great Jupiter!" interrupted Lateranus, "you astonish
me more and more. A citizen gladiator, and yet a fine
fellow! I never knew one that was not a thorough-paced
"Very likely," replied the Prætorian calmly. "Yet
Fannius you will find to be an exception to your rule.
But to my story. The elder Fannius rented a farm of
mine three or four miles this side of Alba. He might
have made a good living out of it. There was some
capital meadow land, a fair vineyard, and as good a
piece of arable as is to be found in the country. His
father had had it before him. In fact, the family were
old tenants, and the rent had never been raised for at
least a hundred years. Then there was only one son, and
he was a hard-working young fellow who more than
earned his own keep. The father ought, I am sure, to
have laid by money; but he was one of those weak,
good-natured fellows, who seem incapable of keeping a
single denarius in their
pock-  ets. It is only fair to
say that he was always ready to share his purse with a
friend. In fact, his practice of foolishly lending
helped him to his ruin as much as anything else. That,
and the wine-cup, and the dice-box were too much for
him. About five years ago, a brother-in-law—his dead
wife's brother, you must understand—died suddenly,
leaving an only daughter, with some fifty thousand
sesterces for her fortune, not a bad sum for a girl in
her rank of life. He had been living, if I remember
right, at Tarentum, and, knowing nothing about his
brother-in-law's embarrassments, he had naturally made
him his daughter's guardian and trustee. Fannius, who
was at his wit's end to know where to find money, his
farm being already mortgaged up to the hilt, accepted
the trust only too willingly. The son, disgusted at
seeing extravagance and waste which he could not stop,
had gone away from home, and was serving under Corbulo.
Perhaps if he had been here, he might have been able to
put a stop to the business. Well, to make a long story
short, the elder Fannius appropriated the money little
by little. Of course he was always intending to make it
good. There was to be a good harvest, or a good
vintage, or, what, I believe, he really trusted in more
than anything else, a great run of luck at the
gaming-table. Equally of course he never got anything
of the kind. Then came the crash. The younger Fannius
came back with his discharge from the East,
 and found
his father lying dead in the house. There can be no
doubt he had killed himself. The son discovered in the
old man's desk a letter addressed to himself in which
he told the whole story. The girl was living with an
aunt. He had always continued, somehow or other, to pay
the interest on her money. She was going to be married,
and the capital would have to be forthcoming. This, I
take it, was the final blow, and the old man saw no
other way of getting out of his trouble but suicide.
Suicide, by the way, is pretty often a way of shoving
one's own trouble on to somebody else's shoulders.
Well, the poor fellow came to me. He had brought home a
little pay and prize-money. I forgave him what rent was
due, and bought whatever there was to sell on the farm—not
that there was much of this, I assure you. So he
got a little sum of money together, enough to pay the
old man's debts. But then there was the niece's
fortune. How was that to be raised? It was absolutely
gone; not a denarius of it left. I would have helped if
I could, but I was positively at the end of my means.
Still I could have raised the money, if I had known
what young Fannius was going to do. But he said
nothing to me or to any one else. He went straight to
the master of the gladiators' school and enlisted. You
see his strength and skill in arms were all he had to
dispose of, and so, to save his father's honour and his
cousin's happiness, he sold them, and, of course,
himself with them. It
 was indeed selling himself. You
know, I dare say, how the oath runs which a free man
takes when he enlists as a gladiator?"
"No; I do not remember to have heard it."
"Well, it runs thus:—
" 'I, Caius Fannius, do take hereby the oath of
obedience to Marius, that I will consent to be burnt,
bound, beaten, slain with the sword, or whatever else
the said Marius shall command, and I do most solemnly
devote both soul and body to my said master, as being
legally his gladiator.'
"The young man had no difficulty in making good terms
for himself. He was the most famous swordsman of his
tribe. Indeed, I don't know that he had his match in
the whole Field of Mars. He got his fifty thousand
sesterces, paid the money over just in time to prevent
the truth coming out, and thus cheerfully put his neck
under this yoke. What do you say to that? Have I made
good my words?"
"To the full," cried Lateranus enthusiastically. "He is
a hero; nothing less."
The two friends had by this time arrived at their
destination, "the gladiators' school," as it was
called, kept by a certain Thraso. Subrius inquired at
one of the doors whether he could see Fannius, the
Samnite—for it was in this particular corps of
gladiators, distinguished by their high-crested helmet
and oblong shield, that the young man was enrolled.
"He has just sat down to the midday meal," said the
 "Then we will not disturb him, but will wait till he has
finished," replied Subrius.
"Would you like to see the boys at their exercises, sir?"
asked the man, an old Prætorian, who had served under
Subrius when the latter was a centurion. "They have
their meal earlier, and are at work now."
"Certainly," said Subrius, and the doorkeeper called an
attendant, who conducted the two friends to the
training-room of the boys.
It was a curious spectacle that met their eyes. The
room into which they were ushered was of considerable
size and was occupied at this time by some sixty lads,
ranging in age from ten to sixteen, who were practising
various games or exercises under the eyes of some
half-a-dozen instructors. Some were leaping over the
bar, either unaided or with the help of a pole; others
were lunging with blunt swords at lay figures; others,
again, were practising with javelins at a mark. With
every group there stood a trainer who explained how the
thing was to be done, and either praised or blamed the
performance. Every unfavourable comment, it might have
been noticed, was always emphasized by the application
of a whip. Did the competitor fail to clear the bar at
a certain height, fixed according to his age and
stature, did he strike the lay figure outside a certain
line which was supposed to mark the vital parts, did
his javelin miss the mark by a certain distance, the
 with an unfailing certainty on the
unlucky competitor's shoulders. Even the vanquished of
two wrestlers, whose obstinate struggle excited a keen
interest in the visitors, met with the common lot,
though he had shown very considerable skill, and had
indeed been vanquished only by the superior weight and
strength of his adversary.
From the boys' apartment the friends went in to see the
The show of these creatures was indeed magnificent,
and, in fact, unheard of sums had been expended on
obtaining them. The Emperor was determined to outdo all
his predecessors in the variety and splendour of his
exhibitions. Nor were his extravagances wholly
unreasonable. A ruler who was not a soldier, who could
not, therefore, entertain the Roman populace with the
gorgeous display of a triumph, had now to fall back
upon other ways of at once keeping them in good humour
and impressing them with a sense of his greatness. The
whole world, so to speak, had been ransacked to make
the collection complete. Twenty lions, magnificent
specimens most of them, had been brought from Northern
Africa. To secure these monarchs of the desert, the
most famous hunters of Mauretania had been engaged for
pay commensurate with the perils and hardships which
they had to undergo.
"I am told, sir," said the doorkeeper, "that they cost,
one with another, fifty thousand sesterces apiece.
 It is the taking them alive, you see, that makes it so
expensive. And the pits, too, which are one way of
doing this, often break their bones. So they are mostly
netted; and netting a lion is nasty work. That fellow
there"—he pointed as he spoke to a particularly
powerful male—"killed, they tell me, four men before
they got him into the cage."
Next to the lions were the tigers. They, it seemed, had
been even more costly than their neighbours, for they
had come considerably further. Secured among the
Hyrcanian Mountains, they had been brought down to the
Babylonian plains, embarked on board rafts on the
Euphrates, and so carried down to the sea. The long and
tedious journey had killed half of them before they
could be landed at Brindisium, and their average cost
had been at least half as much again as that of the
lions. Panthers from Cilicia, bears from the Atlas
Mountains, and from the Pyrenees, elks from the forests
of Gaul and Germany, were also to be seen, and with
them multitudes of apes and monkeys, and whole flocks
of ostriches, flamingoes, and other birds conspicuous
either for size or plumage.
The man was particularly communicative about the
elephants. An Indian, he said, had been hired to bring
over a troop of performing animals of this kind, and
their cleverness and docility were almost beyond
"One of them," he told Subrius and his
compan-  ion," can
write his name with his trunk in Greek characters on
the sand. Another has got, the keeper tells me, as far
as writing a whole verse. A third can add and subtract.
This last, having failed one day in his task, and being
docked of part of his food, was found studying his
lesson by himself in his house. You smile, sir," he
said, seeing that Lateranus could not keep his
countenance. "I only tell you what the keeper told me,
but I can almost believe anything after what I have
seen myself. And then their agility, sir, is something
marvellous, even incredible. Who would think that these
big creatures, which look so clumsy, can walk on a
tight-rope. Yet that I have seen with my own eyes. And
the man promises a more wonderful display than that.
We are to have four elephants walking on the tight-rope
and carrying between them a litter with a sick
companion in it." At this the friends laughed
"Clemens," said Subrius, "what traveller's tales
"I can only say," returned the man, "that my head is
all in a whirl from what I have seen with my own eyes
and heard during the last few days."
"Fannius will have finished by this time," said
 Subrius, when they had completed the round of the
cages. "Lead the way, Clemens."
It was a singular sight that presented itself to the
two friends as they stood surveying the scene at the
door of the room in which the gladiators had been
taking their meal. It was a large chamber, not less
than a hundred feet in length by about half as many in
breadth. The number of gladiators was about eighty, but
as this was one of the afternoons on which the men were
accustomed to receive their relatives and friends,
there must have been present nearly four times as many
persons. Some of the better known men were surrounded
by little circles of admirers, who listened to
everything that they had to say with a devotion at
least equal to that with which the students of
philosophy or literature were accustomed to hang upon
the lips of their teachers. The gladiators bragged of
what they had done or were about to do, or, putting
themselves into attitudes, rehearsed a favourite
stroke, or explained one of those infallible ways to
victory which seem so often, somehow or other, to end
in defeat. Others sat in sullen and stupid silence,
others were already asleep, somnolence being, as
Aristotle had long before remarked, a special
characteristic of the athletic habit of body. The men
were of various types and races, but the faces were,
almost without exception, marked by strong passions and
"On the whole," said Lateranus, after watching
scene for a few minutes, "I prefer the brutes that do
not pretend to be men. Lions and tigers are far nobler
animals than these wretches; and as for elephants,
whether or no we believe our friend Clemens' marvellous
stories about them, it would be an insult even to
compare them, so gentle, so teachable, so sagacious as
they are, with these savages."
"True in a general way," said the Prætorian, "yet even
here Terence's dictum
could be applied. Even here there is something of human
interest. Look at that stout fellow there."
Lateranus turned his eyes in the direction to which his
companion pointed. The "stout fellow" was a gigantic
"Good Heavens!" cried Lateranus in astonishment, for a
pure-blood negro was still a somewhat uncommon sight
in Rome. "Did you ever see the like? Or have they
trained some gigantic ape to bear himself like a man?"
"No," replied the Prætorian, who had a soldier's
appreciation of an athletic frame. "If so, they have
trained it very well. I warrant he will be an awkward
adversary for any one whom the lot may match with him
when the day shall come."
"May be," said the other; "but what a face! what lips!
what a nose! what hair! To think that nature should
ever have created anything so hideous!"
 "But see," cried Subrius, "there is one person at least
who seems not to have found our black friend so very
And, indeed, at the moment there came up to the negro a
pretty little woman whose fair complexion and
diminutive stature exhibited a curious contrast to his
ebony hue and gigantic proportions. To judge from the
blue colour of her eyes and the reddish gold of her
hair, she was a Gaul, possibly belonging to one of the
tribes which had been settled for many generations in
the Lombard plains, possibly from beyond the Alps.
Further Gaul had now been thoroughly latinized, and its
people were no longer strangers in Italy. She carried
in her arms a little whitey brown baby, whose
complexion, features, and half woolly hair indicated
clearly enough his mixed parentage. The negro took the
child from her arms, his mouth opening with a grin of
delight which showed a dazzlingly white array of
"See," cried Lateranus, "Hector, Andromache, and
Astyanax over again! Only Hector seems to have borrowed
for the time the complexion of Memnon!"
"But we are forgetting our friend Fannius," said
Subrius. "Where is he? Ah! there I see him," he
exclaimed, after scanning for a minute or so the motley
crowd which so thronged the room as to make it
difficult to distinguish any one person. "And he, too,
seems to have an Andromache. I thought he
 was an
obstinate bachelor. But in that matter there are no
surprises for a wise man."
Fannius was just at that moment bidding farewell to two
women. About the elder of the two there was nothing
remarkable. She was a stout, elderly, commonplace
person, respectably dressed in a style that seemed to
indicate the wife of a small tradesman or well-to-do
mechanic. The younger woman was a handsome, even
distinguished looking girl of one and twenty or
thereabouts. Her features were Greek, though not,
perhaps, of the finest type. A deep brunette in
complexion, she had soft, velvety brown eyes that
seemed to speak of a mixture of Syrian blood. This,
too, had given an arch to her finely chiselled nose,
and a certain fulness, which was yet remote from the
suspicion of anything coarse, to her crimson lips.
Perhaps her mouth was her most remarkable feature. Any
one who could read physiognomies would have noticed at
once the firmness of its lines. The chin, just a little
squarer than an Apelles, seeking absolutely ideal
features for his Aphrodite, would perhaps have
approved, but still delicately moulded, harmonized with
the mouth. So did the resolute pose of her figure, and
the erect, vigorous carriage of the head. She was
dressed in much the same manner as the elder woman,
naturally with a little more style, but with no
pretension to rank. Yet at the moment when the two
friends observed the group she was reaching her hand to
 Fannius with the air of a princess, and the gladiator
was kissing it with all the devotion of a subject. The
next moment she dropped a heavy veil over her face and
The gladiator stood looking at her as she moved away,
so lost in thought that he did not notice the approach
of Subrius and his companion.
"Well, Fannius," cried the Prætorian, slapping him
heartily on the shoulder, "shall we find you, too,
keeping festival on the Kalends of March?"
Fannius turned round and saluted. The Prætorian, after
formally returning the salute, warmly clasped his odd
acquaintance by the hand, a token of friendship which
made the gladiator, who remembered only too acutely the
degradation of his position, blush with pleasure.
"You are pleased to jest, noble Subrius, about the
worshipful goddess. What has a poor gladiator, who
cannot call his life his own for more than a few hours
to do with marriage? And Epicharis, though Venus knows
I love her as my own soul, has her thought on very
 "Well, well, never despair!" returned the Tribune.
"Venus will touch the haughty fair some day with her
whip. But, Fannius, when are you coming to see me? It
seems an age since we had a talk together. My friend
here, too, who is to be Consul next year, wishes to
make your acquaintance."
"I am not my own master, you know; but if I can get
leave, I will come to-night."
"So be it; at the eleventh
hour I shall expect you."
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