|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 GREAT FIRE
 THE two friends hurried to the window. At the very
moment of their reaching it a great flame shot up into
the air. It was easy to distinguish by its light the
outline of the Circus, the white polished marble of
which shone like gold with the reflection of the blaze.
"It can scarcely be the Circus itself that is on
fire," cried Subrius; "the light seems to fall upon it
from without. But the place must be dangerously near to
it. Hurry back, Fannius, as quick as you can. We shall
come after you as soon as possible, and shall look out
for you at the Southeastern Gate."
The gladiator ran off at the top of his speed, and the
two friends lost no time in making themselves ready to
follow him. Discarding the dress of ceremony in which
they had sat down to dinner, for indeed, the folds of
the toga were not a little encumbering, they both
equipped themselves in something like the costume which
they would have assumed for a hunting expedition, an
outer and an inner tunic, drawers reaching to the knee,
leggings and boots. Lateranus was by far the larger man
 the two; but one of his freedmen was able to furnish
the Prætorian with what he wanted.
"Don't let us forget the hunting-knives," said
Lateranus; "we may easily want something wherewith to
defend ourselves, for a big fire draws to it all the
villains in the city."
By this time all Rome knew what was going on, and the
friends, when they descended into the street, found
themselves in the midst of a crowd that was eagerly
hurrying towards the scene of action. A fire exercised
the same fascination on the Roman public that it
exercises to-day in London or Paris. No one allowed his
dignity to stand in the way of his enjoying it; no one
was so weak but that he made shift to be a spectator.
Senators and Knights struggled for places with artisans
and slaves; and of course, women brought their babies,
as they have brought them from time immemorial on the
most inconvenient and incongruous occasions.
Arrived at the spot, the friends found that the
conflagration was even more extensive and formidable
than they had anticipated. The Circus was still
untouched, but it was in imminent danger. A shop where
oil for the Circus lamps had been sold was burning
fiercely, and it was separated from the walls of the
great building only by a narrow passage. As for the
shop itself, there was no hope of saving it; the.
flames had got such a mastery over it that had the
Roman appliances for extinguishing fire been ten
more effective than they were, they could hardly have
made any impression upon them. To keep the adjoining
buildings wet with deluges of water was all that could
be done. A more effective expedient would have been, of
course, to pull them down. Subrius, who was a man of
unusual energy and resource, actually proposed this
plan of action to the officer in command of the Watch,
a body of men who performed the functions of a
fire-brigade. The suggestion was coldly received. The
officer had received, he said, no orders, and could
not take upon himself so much responsibility. And who
was to compensate the owners, he asked. And indeed, the
time had hardly come for the application of so extreme
a remedy. As a matter of fact, it is always employed
too late. Again and again enormous loss might be
prevented if the vigorous measures which have to be
employed at the last had been taken at the first. No
one, indeed, could blame the Prefect of the Watch for
his unwillingness to take upon himself so serious a
responsibility, but the conduct of his subordinates was
less excusable. They did nothing, or next to nothing,
in checking the fire. More than this, they refused, and
even repulsed with rudeness, the offers of assistance
made by the bystanders. A cordon was formed to keep the
spectators at a distance from the burning houses; for
by this time the buildings on either side had caught
fire. This would have been well enough, if it had been
desired that the firemen
 should work unimpeded by the
pressure of a curious mob; but, as far as could be
seen, they did nothing themselves, and suffered nothing
to be done by others.
Subrius and Lateranus, though they were persons of too
much distinction to be exposed to insult, found
themselves unable to do any good. They were chafing
under their forced inaction, when they were accosted
by the gladiator.
"Come, gentlemen," he said; "let us see what can be
done. The fire has broken out in two fresh places, and
this time inside the Circus."
"In two places!" cried Subrius in astonishment. "That
is an extraordinary piece of bad luck. Has the wind
carried the flames there?"
"Hardly, sir," replied the man, "for the night, you
see, is fairly still, and both places, too, are at the
other end of the building."
"It seems that there is foul play somewhere," said
Lateranus. "But come, we seem to be of no use here."
The three started at full speed for the scene of the
new disaster, Fannius leading the way. One of the
fires, which had broken out in the quarters of the
gladiators, had been extinguished by the united
exertions of the corps. The other was spreading in an
alarming way, all the more alarming because it
threatened that quarter of the building in which the
wild beasts were kept. The keeper of the Circus, who
had, within the building, an authority
independ-  ent of
the Prefect of the Watch, exerted himself to the utmost
in checking the progress of the flames, and was
zealously seconded by his subordinates; but the
buildings to be saved were unluckily of wood. The
chambers and storehouses underneath the tiers of seats
were of this material, and were besides, in many cases,
filled with combustible substances. In a few minutes it
became evident that the quarters of the beasts could
not be saved. The creatures seemed themselves to have
become conscious of the danger that threatened them,
and the general confusion and alarm were heightened by
the uproar which they made. The shrill trumpeting of
the elephants and the deep roaring of the tigers and
lions, with the various cries of the mixed multitude of
smaller creatures, every sound being accentuated by an
unmistakable note of fear, combined to make a din that
was absolutely appalling. The situation, it will be
readily understood, was perplexing in the extreme. The
collection was of immense value, and how could it be
removed? For a few of the animals that had recently
arrived the movable cages in which they had been
brought to the Circus were still available, for, as it
happened, they had not yet been taken away. Others had
of necessity to be killed; this seemed better than
leaving them to perish in the flames, for they could
not be removed, and it was out of the question to let
them loose. This was done, to the immense grief of
their keepers, for each beast
 had its own special
attendant, a man who had been with it from its capture,
and who was commonly able to control its movements. The
poor fellows loudly protested that they would be
responsible for the good behaviour of their charges, if
they could be permitted to take them from their cages;
but the Circus authorities could not venture to run the
risk. An exception was made in the case of the
elephants. These were released, for they could be
trusted with their keepers. A part of the stock was
saved—saved at least from the fire—by a happy thought
that struck one of the officials of the Circus. A part
of the arena had been made available for an exhibition
of a kind that was always highly popular at Rome—a
naval battle. This portion was on a lower level than
the rest, and could be flooded at pleasure by turning
on the water from a branch of one of the great
aqueducts. This was now done, and a good many of the
creatures were turned into the place to take their
chance. They would at least suffer less from being
drowned than from being burnt alive.
Throughout the night Subrius and Lateranus exerted
themselves to the utmost, and their efforts were ably
seconded by the gladiator. The day was beginning to
break when, utterly worn out by their labours, they
returned to the house. Fannius was permitted by his
master to accompany them. The man had contrived to
collect his slave gladiators, with the exception of two
who had perished in a drunken
 sleep. These he had
removed to a house which he possessed in the suburbs,
and which was commonly used as a sanatorium for the
sick and wounded. Fannius, who, as a freeman, bound by
his own voluntary act, and serving for purposes of his
own, was not likely to run away, he allowed to
accompany Lateranus to his home.
They were not permitted to enjoy for long their
well-earned repose. It was barely the second hour
when a loud knocking at the outer gate roused the
porter, who, having himself watched late on the
preceding night, was fast asleep. Looking through the
little opening which permitted him to take a
preliminary survey of all applicants for admission, he
saw an elderly slave, who, to judge from his breathless
and dishevelled condition, had been engaged in a
The slave was really an old acquaintance, but the
porter was still stupid with sleep, and the newcomer
was greatly changed in appearance from the neat and
well-dressed figure with which the guardian of the door
"Who are you, and what do you want?" he asked in a
surly tone. "The master can see no callers this morning;
he was up late and is fast asleep,—though, indeed,"
he added in an undertone, "you do not look much like a
 "Waste no time," cried the man; "I must see him,
whether he be awake or asleep. It is a matter of life
"Good Heavens!" cried the porter, recognizing the
voice; "is it you, Dromio? What in the world brings
you here in such a plight?"
"The furies seize you!" cried Dromio, shaking the
gate in a fury of impatience; "why don't you open?"
Thus adjured the porter undid the bar, calling at the
same time to a slave in the inner part of the house,
who was to take the visitor to Lateranus' apartment.
"You must see the master, you say?" said the porter. "I
don't like to wake him without necessity. He did not
come back last night till past the middle of the fourth
"Must see him? Yes, indeed," cried Dromio. "The gods
grant that I may not be too late."
The other slave appeared at this moment. "Lead me to
your master," said Dromio; "quick, quick!"
Lateranus, roused from the deep sleep into which he had
fallen, was at first almost as much perplexed as the
porter had been.
"Who is this?" he cried to the slave; "did you not
understand that I would have no—"
"Pardon me, my lord," cried Dromio, as he took one of
Lateranus' hands and kissed it. "I come from the Lady
"There is nothing wrong, I hope?"
 "Dreadfully wrong, I fear. The gods grant that she may
be still alive!"
"What has happened?"
"Her house is attacked, and she begs your help. I will
tell you the story afterwards, but I implore you, by
all the gods, do not lose a moment!"
Lateranus touched three times a hand-bell that stood by
his side, at the same time springing from his couch on
to the floor and beginning to dress. The summons of the
bell, signifying as it did that the presence of the
steward was required, soon brought that official to the
"Arm the cohort
at once," said Lateranus, "and send a runner to tell
the Tribune Subrius that he is wanted."
The "cohort" was not of course the regular military
division known by that name, but a retinue of young
freedmen and slaves who were regularly drilled in arms.
"It shall be done, my lord," said the steward,
"And now," said Lateranus, "while I am dressing tell me
what it is all about."
Dromio then told his story.
"Rather more than an hour ago a man knocked at the
door, and said that he wished to see the Lady
You know my mistress' ways—what a number of strange
pensioners she has. In her house it is impossible to be
surprised at any visitor. Still there was something
about this man that made the porter suspicious. One
thing was that the fellow spoke with a strong Jewish
accent, and many of the Jews have a very great hatred
against the mistress. Anyhow the porter kept the door
shut, and said that he must have the stranger's name
and business. 'Lucian is my name,' said the man, 'and
I bring a message from Clemens the Elder.' That, you
know, is one of the priests whom my lady makes so much
of. That seemed satisfactory, and the porter opened the
gate. Then what does this fellow do but put his foot on
the threshold so that the door should not be shut
again, and whistles a signal to his companions, who, it
seems, were in waiting round the next corner. Anyhow
some five and twenty as ill-looking ruffians as you
ever set eyes on came running up. By good luck the
porter had his youngest son Geta sitting in the lodge,
'Help!' he cries, and Geta who is a regular Hercules,
comes running out, seizes the first fellow by the
throat and throws him out, deals just in the same
fashion with a second,
who was half over the threshold, and bangs to the gate.
At that a regular howl of rage came from the party
outside. 'Open, or we will burn the house down,'
shouted their leader. Pomponia, by this time, had been
roused by the uproar. She understood what
 was to be
done in a moment; she always does; we sometimes say
that she must have learned something of this art from
the old General.
'Haste, Dromio,' she said to me, 'by the back way,
before they surround the house, and tell Lateranus
that I want his help.'"
"That she shall have as quick as I can give it," said
Lateranus; "but where are the Watch? Are houses to be
besieged in Rome as if it were a city taken by storm?"
"My lord," answered Dromio, "that is just what Rome
seems to be. The Watch are fairly dazed, I think, by
this dreadful fire, which is growing worse every hour,
and if we waited for them to help us we should
certainly all have our throats cut in the meanwhile."
At this moment the steward entered the room. "The
cohort is ready," he said.
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