|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 young soldier Pudens had been fully employed since
we last heard of him. The work of clearing away the
débris of the fire had proved to be so vast that the
ordinary supply of labour had been insufficient to
meet the demand, and the help of the soldiers had been
called in. A force, half naval and half military, which
was raised from the fleets of Ravenna and Misenum, and
which indeed was accustomed to do the work of
was told off for the purpose, and Pudens, partly
through the interest of his friend Subrius, was
appointed to be second in command. Among the civilians
employed in the same work was an elderly man with whom
he happened to be brought into frequent contact, and
whose manners and conversation interested him very
much. From some chance remark, Pudens learnt that his
new acquaintance was a freedman, who had been
emancipated by Pomponia shortly after her husband's
death, and indeed in obedience to a request made in his
will. The man could not say too much in praise of his
patroness, of her blameless life, her boundless
 charity. "They call her sad and gloomy, sir," he said,
on one occasion; "and indeed she does not care for the
gayeties and pleasures of Rome; but a happier woman
does not live within the borders of the Empire, if to
be always content, to have nothing to repent of in
life, and to fear nothing in death, be happiness." He
was apparently going to say more, but checked himself.
More than once Pudens observed a similar pause, and as
he was not a little interested in the lady herself, and
still more in her young companion Claudia, his
curiosity was greatly excited. It should be said that,
acting on a hint from Subrius, he had not attempted to
improve his acquaintance with the two ladies. Visitors
would attract attention, and it was necessary, he had
been given to understand, that they should live for the
present in complete retirement.
Before long an accident enabled him to penetrate the
secret of the freedman's reserve. Returning to his
quarters one evening in the late summer, he found his
friend—for such the freedman had by this time become—in
the hands of some soldiers. The spot happened to
be on the boundary of two townships, and a statue of
the god Terminus—a pedestal with a roughly carved
head—had been placed there. The men, who were half
tipsy, were insisting that the freedman—whom we may
hereafter call by his name Linus—should pay his
homage to the statue; Linus was resolutely refusing to
 "Hold!" cried Pudens, as he appeared on the scene,
knowing of course nothing of what had happened, and
only seeing a civilian in the hands of some unruly
soldiers. "Hold! what do you mean by assaulting a
"He is an atheist, a Christian; he refuses to worship
the gods," cried one of the men.
"Who made you a champion of the gods?" retorted Pudens.
"You are behaving more like robbers than like
"Lay hold of him, too, comrades," shouted one of the
Pudens recognized the voice of the last speaker. He was
a Deputy-Centurion, who had been for a time one of his
"What, Stertinius!" he cried, "don't you know any
better than to mix yourself up in a brawl, if indeed it
is not a robbery?"
Stertinius, who, like his comrades, was not quite
sober, and in his excitement had not recognized the
newcomer, was taken aback at being thus addressed by
his name. The next moment his memory returned to him.
"Hold, friends!" he shouted to his companions; "it is
the second in command of the pioneers."
The men immediately released their victim, and falling
into line, stood at attention, and saluted.
Stertinius took it upon himself to be their spokesman:
"We are very sorry to have annoyed one of
 your honour's
friends, and hope that you and he will overlook the
"Begone!" cried Pudens, who had a feeling that it
would be better for the freedman's sake not to take the
affair too seriously. "Begone! and in future let your
devotion to Bacchus, at least, be a little less
When the men had disappeared the freedman explained to
his protector what had happened.
"But," asked Pudens, when he had heard the story,
"what made the fellows behave in this fashion to you?
I presume that they don't commonly go about compelling
people to do reverence to wayside statues."
Linus hesitated for a while before he replied to this
question. "Sir," he said at last, "I will be frank with
you. I won't ask you to keep secret what I tell you.
You are not, I know, the man to betray a confidence;
and, besides, there can hardly be any question of
secrecy in this matter hereafter. These men have got
hold of the notion that I do not worship the gods whom
they worship. An ill-conditioned fellow, whom I once
employed, and had to discharge for his laziness and
dishonesty, told them something about me, and since
then I have been very much annoyed by them."
"I don't understand you," said Pudens, who was quite
unused to hear it treated as a serious matter whether a
man did or did not believe in the gods. He was
conscious of not believing in them himself in
 any real
sense of the words; but he went through the usual
forms of respect to their images, would put, for
instance, a portion of food before the household god,
when he remembered it, and, equally when he remembered
it, would salute a wayside Mercury or Terminus. "What
do you believe in then? The Egyptian trio, or what?"
Linus sank his voice to a whisper: "I am a Christian,"
The word conveyed, it may be said, no meaning to the
young soldier. He had heard it, and that was all.
Subrius, he now remembered, had said, when he was about
to introduce him to Pomponia, "A really good woman,
though they do say that she is a Christian," but the
remark had made no impression on him.
"A Christian," he repeated. "What is that?"
"No harm, certainly," Linus answered; "but, on the
contrary, I hope much good. One thing I have learnt
from it, that there is but one God in heaven and earth,
and that all these gods, as they call them, are but
vain things, or worse. But don't suppose," he went on,
"that I go out of my way to insult what others hold in
reverence. That I have not learnt to do. Only, when
any one would compel me, as those drunken soldiers
would have compelled me, to pay honour to the idols, as
we call them, I cannot do it. 'Thou shalt not bow down
to them nor worship them,' says my law, and I should be
false and disobedient if I did. They say dreadful
things about us, sir, I
 know, things that it would be a
shame to repeat; but they are not true, believe me,
sir, they are not true. I have done many wrong things
in other days, but my dear Lord, who died for me, has
delivered me from the curse of evil."
He uttered these last words with a fervent earnestness
which greatly impressed his hearer, though he had
scarcely even the dimmest notion of what was meant. The
young man, whose heart was touched and purified by an
honest emotion which made the follies of the past seem
hateful to him, was deeply interested and eager to hear
In the course of the next few weeks many conversations
on the subject followed. Linus at first expressed
himself with much reserve. Already a bitter experience
had taught the disciples the need of their Master's
caution, that they were not to cast their pearls before
swine. But the earnestness of the inquirer was so
manifest, he was so unmistakably absorbed in what he
heard, that the freedman soon told him all that he
himself knew. He even permitted him to see what he
held to be the choicest of all his possessions, a
record of the Master's life. Pudens was half disposed
to be disappointed when the treasure, kept, it was
evident, with the most elaborate care,—for three
caskets, each fastened with the most elaborate locks
that the ingenuity of the age could devise, had to be
opened before it could be seen,—proved to be a
parchment volume of the very
 plainest kind. None of the
customary ornaments of a book were there. The edges had
been left in their native roughness; the knobs of the
wooden pin, so to call it, round which the parchment
had been rolled, were not painted, much less gilded. A
bailiff's account-book or tradesman's ledger could not
well have had a plainer exterior. But when Linus opened
the volume and read some of its contents, there was no
more disappointment. He made choice of what was most
suitable to his listener with much care. If we had the
book now in our hands we should not be able, it may be,
actually to identify it with any one of the four
Gospels which we now possess. Still, it is not
impossible that it may have been an early draft of that
which bears the name of St. Luke, the companion, it
will be remembered, of the long imprisonment of St.
Paul, and not unreasonably believed by many to have
availed himself of this opportunity of putting
together his "narrative concerning those matters which
were fully established among" the early believers. If
so, what could have been more appropriate for the needs
of the inquirer than the story of the Prodigal's Return
to his Father, of the Rich Man and the Beggar, of the
Good Samaritan? As the reader went on to other
passages less easy of comprehension, Pudens began to
ask questions to which the freedman was not able to
give a satisfactory answer. "He was unlearned and
ignorant," he hastened to explain, "knowing and
under-  standing enough to satisfy his own wants, but not
competent to explain difficulties."
"But you have teachers and wise men among you, I
presume," said the young soldier." Why should I not go
Linus hesitated. Circumstances had compelled him to put
his own life in the young man's hands, for though there
had been as yet no persecution, a man who owned himself
to be a Christian felt himself to be doing as much as
that. But to bring the lives of others into the same
danger, to trust the safety of the little community to
one who, a few weeks before, had been an absolute
stranger, was another matter. And then the interests of
the young man himself were to be considered. It was no
light thing to suggest that he should openly associate
with people of whom Rome, as far as it had heard
anything at all about them, had the very worst opinion.
Hence he had never proposed to his friend a visit to
the Christian places of assembly, and when the young
man himself had suggested it, he was conscious of no
little perplexity. However, he had now gone too far to
be able to draw back. If the young soldier had been
trusted so far, he would have to be trusted altogether.
Without making any further difficulty, Linus agreed to
take his friend to an assembly that was to be held on
the following day.
The meeting-place was outside the city walls. It
the old club-house of a guild of artisans, disused
partly because it had fallen into bad repair, partly
because the burial-ground in which it stood, and which
had much to do with its original purpose, had been
filled up by interments. The guild had removed its
quarters to larger and more commodious premises
elsewhere, and had been glad to lease what was almost a
valueless property to the representative of the
Christian community, in this case no other than Linus
himself. It was an oblong building with a semicircular
end, something like that form of chancel which we know
under the name of apse. The place was absolutely
without ornament, though at the back of the seat which
lined the apse were curtains of some very rough
material. No religious symbol of any kind was visible.
It was important that in case of any investigation
nothing should be seen that could give the meeting the
character of a secret society. Against secret societies
the government of the Empire was then, as always,
Pudens was not destined on that occasion to hear any
such exposition of mysteries as he had been expecting
from the authorized teachers to whom Linus had referred
him. The community were intensely agitated by an
unexpected blow which had suddenly fallen upon them. It
had always, indeed, a certain consciousness of danger,
for it was aware that it was undisturbed only because
it was unknown; but some
 years had passed without any
interference from the authorities, and a general
feeling of security had been the result. This was now
to be destroyed, and, indeed, till more than two
centuries and a half had passed, was not to be known
again by the Christian Church.
A whispered introduction from Linus to the door-keeper
was sufficient to secure the admission of Pudens. The
building was nearly full, rather more than half the
congregation being composed of slaves. The majority of
the remainder were artisans, farmers, or small
tradesmen, most of them showing by their features a
Jewish origin. The sprinkling of men of higher rank was
very small. Two wore a toga fringed with the narrow
purple stripe that was the sign of equestrian rank.
There were a few women, numbering, perhaps, a sixth
part of the whole, who sat together on the hindermost
Just as Linus and Pudens entered, the presiding
minister rose from the seat which he occupied by the
wall of the apse with a paper in his hand. He came
forward as far as the railing which separated the
semicircle from the rest of the building, and after a
brief salutation addressed the assembled congregation.
"Brethren and sisters," he said, "a great danger
threatens us. To-morrow, possibly to-day, if
sufficient copies can be made, the edict which I am
about to read to you will be published throughout Rome.
Listen and judge for yourselves.
 " 'NERO CLAUDIUS CAESAR DRUSUS GERMANICUS AUGUSTUS
IMPERATOR TO THE SENATE AND PEOPLE OF ROME, GREETING:—
" 'Whereas it has come to my knowledge as a certain
fact that that most terrible disaster by which the city
of Rome has lately been visited, to wit, the
conflagration, which, raging continuously for many
days and nights, destroyed not only the dwellings of
men, but the most precious monuments of our ancestors
and the very temples of the immortal gods, was brought
about by the malice of certain abandoned persons, who
have assumed to themselves the name of Christians, and
who, inflamed with an insatiable hatred of the human
race, conceived the idea of destroying this, its
fairest and noblest seat, I hereby charge and command
all men whatsoever, that they do forthwith give up to
the magistrates, and to other persons whom I shall
appoint for that purpose, the names of all, whether
men, women, or children,—for this infection has not
spared even the tenderest age,—whom they know or
suspect to be poisoned with this detestable
superstition. And I hereby declare that such as shall
be found guilty of this wickedness shall forthwith be
visited with the most condign punishment. Farewell.' "
The dismay which followed the reading of this document
defies description. Of petty social persecution the
Christians knew something; they had suffered also from
one or two outbreaks of mob violence;
 already their
heathen neighbours had begun to connect them with dear
food and unhealthy seasons, as cause and effect; but
this formal arraignment of them as men who had
inflicted on their fellow-citizens the most frightful
of sufferings, was an unprecedented and wholly
After a short pause the minister spoke again. "Brethren
and sisters," he said in a voice whose calm and
measured accents contrasted strangely with the
excitement of his audience: "We do not now for the
first time learn the truth of the Master's words, 'They
shall accuse you falsely for My name's sake.' Yet I
must confess that this charge, so monstrous in itself,
and so far reaching in its application, exceeds the
very worst that we could have feared. And now what
shall I say to you? Great, indeed, is this
tribulation, but the grace of Him who loved you and
gave Himself for you is more than sufficient. It may be
that He will deliver you even now from the mouth of the
lion, even as he delivered our holy brother Paul from
it not many months ago; but if not"—the speaker paused
awhile, and then raising his voice went on with the
world-famous defiance of the dauntless three to the
Chaldaean tyrant—"if not, be it known unto thee, O
King, that we will not serve the golden image which
thou hast set up."
The bold utterance met with an immediate response from
the congregation. A subdued murmur of approval went
round, and every head was lifted higher.
 The speaker went on: "But it is not so much to courage
as to caution that I would at this moment exhort you.
If it may be, do the Master's bidding when he said, 'If
they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another.' If
you must needs stay in Rome, be not overbold. Confess
your faith, if you are called, but do not flaunt it in
the faces of the persecutors. The Lord will support
you in trials to which He brings you, not in those that
you find for yourselves. Let us pray for His grace that
we may be found faithful even unto death."
The whole congregation fell upon their knees and prayed
in a silence that was only broken by some deep sob that
could not be controlled. At last the minister rose, and
stretching out his hands over his people, committed
them with words of blessing to the Divine protection.
"How is it that your chief became possessed of that
document so soon?" asked Pudens of his companion.
Linus smiled. "We have always had friends in Cæsar's
household. It will not avail much now, I fear, but it
at least gives us time to think."
"You will flee, of course," resumed the young man.
"Impossible," replied his companion. "I have a
bedridden sister, and my place is with her. But let us
hope that no one saw you to-day among us, no one, at
least, who should not have seen you."
"But have you traitors among you?"
"Who has not? Do you not remember that the Master
Himself had one in His own small company of twelve? But
anyhow we must part; you must not be seen with me."
Pudens saw the prudence of this advice, and could not
refuse to follow it. He wrung his new friend's hand,
and with a fervent prayer, "Your Master keep you!"
For his own safety he had little fear. He could truly
say that he was not a Christian, though he was
conscious of a strange feeling that there would be
something shameful about such a denial. The next moment
he had forgotten all about himself. A thought had shot
across his mind that made his blood run cold. What
would be the fate of Pomponia? And if she was
arrested,—and that she had a deadly enemy in Poppæa he
knew,—how would it fare with Claudia?
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