|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 |
 "LET me present to you my friend Subrius, a Tribune of
the Prætorians," said Lateranus, addressing Pomponia.
"I sent for him as soon as your message reached me."
"You are very good in coming so readily to help a
stranger," said Pomponia with a gracious smile.
"I do not think of the Lady Pomponia as a stranger,"
replied the Tribune. "I had the honour of serving my
first campaign under her husband. Allow me, in my turn,
to present to you my friend and kinsman, Marcus Annius
Pudens. He has just returned on furlough from the
Euphrates, and is staying with me in camp."
"I thank you, too, sir," said Pomponia. "It is very
pleasant to find that one has so many friends."
"Well," said Lateranus, "you are come in time. Just now
we don't want your swords, but we certainly want your
counsel. Have I your permission," he went on,
addressing himself to Pomponia, "to put the whole state
of the case before these gentlemen?"
Pomponia signified her assent.
"Matters then stand thus. For reasons which it
needless at present to explain, the Lady Pomponia has
incurred the enmity of Poppæa. I recognized the
Empress' most trusted freedman as the leader of the
attack which I had the good fortune to be able to
repulse. If I know anything of her and him they won't
accept defeat. The question is, what is to be done?
What say you, Subrius?"
The Tribune considered awhile. "It is quite clear that
Poppæa and her agent are taking advantage of an
exceptional time. Commonly, even she would not have
ventured so far. Men have not forgotten what Aulus
Plautius did for Rome, and his widow could not have
been murdered with impunity. But the city is now in an
extraordinary state. Law is absolutely suspended. The
Watch seems to have received instructions to do
nothing, or even worse than nothing. I am convinced
that this fire is not an accident; or, if it was so in
the beginning, it is not in the extent to which it has
reached. I am positive that this morning, as I was
making my way to the camp, I saw a scoundrel throw a
lighted torch through the window of a house. I seized
the fellow; but his companions rescued him, and when I
called for help to a squad of the Watch that happened
to be close by, they stood still and did nothing."
"A big fire," remarked Pudens, "gives a fine
opportunity for thieves, and they naturally make the
best of it."
"True," replied the Tribune; "but why do the
behave as if they were in league with them? Did not
the same thing strike you last night, Lateranus?"
"Yes," said Lateranus. "At first I thought that they
were simply dazed by the magnitude of the disaster;
afterwards I could not help seeing that they were
deliberately increasing it."
"Well, then," resumed Subrius, "to come to the point
that immediately concerns us. We have to reckon with an
exceptional state of things. For the present, as I
said, law is suspended. We can't reckon on the
guardians of the peace; nor, so occupied is every one
with saving themselves or their property, on the help
of the public. And supposing that this house catches
fire, what then? Just now it is not in danger; but who
can tell what may happen? The wind may change, and then
the flames might be down upon it in an hour. Or it may
be deliberately set on fire. That, if I can trust my
own eyes, is being done elsewhere. What would happen
then? Depend upon it, Poppæa and the villains that do
her bidding will be watching their opportunity, and
what a terrible chance they would have of working their
will amidst all the confusion of a burning house. That
is my view of the situation."
"What, then, would you advise?" asked Pomponia in a
tone that betrayed no agitation or alarm.
"I should say—seek some safer place," replied
 "For myself," said Pomponia after a pause, "I should be
disposed to stay where I am."
"But, dearest aunt," cried Lateranus, "if what Subrius
says is true, and I do not doubt for an instant that it
is, that means certain death."
"And if it does, dear Aulus," replied Pomponia, "that
does not seem so dreadful to me."
"But there are others," said Lateranus.
"You are right," Pomponia answered after a few minutes'
reflection; "there are others. I should like, if it
will not offend you, gentlemen, to ask for the counsel
of one whom I greatly trust."
She pressed her hand-bell, and when the attendant
appeared, said to him, "I would speak with Phlegon, if
he is at leisure."
In the course of a short time, Phlegon, a Greek
freedman, who was the superintendent of Pomponia's
household, made his appearance. He was a man of
singularly venerable appearance, nearly eighty years of
age, but hale and vigorous.
"Phlegon," said Pomponia, "these gentlemen are agreed
that if we stay here our lives are not safe, and they
counsel us to flee. What say you? My feeling is for
staying. Are we not ready? Have we not been living for
twenty years past as if this might come any day? And
does not the holy Paul say in that letter of which
Clemens of Philippi
sent us a
 copy the other day, 'I have a desire to
depart and be with Christ'?"
"True, lady," said Phlegon; "but he goes on, if I
remember right, 'But to abide in the flesh is more
needful for you.' And you have others to think of, as
he had. And did not the Master Himself say, 'When they
persecute you in one city, flee ye to another'?"
"You are right, as usual, Phlegon," said Pomponia. "I
will go; but whither? As you know, nephew," she went
on, turning to Aulus, "I have sold all my country
houses, as my husband's will directed me, except,
indeed, the one at Antium."
"Well," said Lateranus, "it would hardly do for you to
have Poppæa for a neighbour. But all my villas are at
your disposal. There is one at Tibur; indeed, two at
Tibur; only the second is but a poor place; one at
Baiæ, another at Misenum, three at the Lake of Comum,
one on Benacus, and—"
"Ah," said Subrius, laughing, "you never are able to go
through the list of your country houses without
stumbling. But I have an idea of my own for which I
venture to think something may be said. There is a
place belonging to me near Gabii. It can hardly be
called a country house, it is so small, but it has, for
the present purpose, some advantages. In the first
place, it is very much out of the way; and in the
second, it is very strong. In fact, it is an old
fortress, dating back, I have been told by people who
 learned in these matters, from the time of the
Kings. It has a deep moat all round it, crossed only by
a single bridge which can be removed at pleasure, and
the walls are high and strong. In short, it is a place
that would stand a siege, if need be. Anyhow, it is
safe against a surprise. If the Lady Pomponia can put
up with a very poor place and mean accommodation, the
house, such as it is, is entirely at her service."
"An admirable plan!" cried Lateranus. "What say you, my
dear aunt? I know that you do not set much store on
"No, indeed, I do not," replied Pomponia. "The offer of
the Tribune Subrius I most gladly accept, but how to
thank him sufficiently I do not know."
"There is no need of thanks, lady," said Subrius. "I
owe everything to Aulus Plautius, who made a soldier of
me when I might have been—I am not ashamed to own it—a
poltroon. Do what I may, I shall never repay the
"And when shall we start?" asked Pomponia.
"At once, to-night, I would suggest," answered Subrius.
"The moon is nearly full, and you will barely reach my
house before it sets."
Arrangements were made accordingly for a start that
evening. Subrius would not be able to accompany them,
for he had to be on duty in the camp, and thought it as
well not to ask for leave of absence. His place was to
be taken by his friend Pudens, an
 arrangement which
would have its advantages, as the person of Pudens
would not be known. For the same reason Lateranus, one
of the best known, as he was one of the most popular
men in Rome, determined to absent himself. But he
furnished the two litters with their bearers, which
were to convey Pomponia and Claudia, each with a single
female attendant, and he also sent, by way of guard,
the same detachment of his cohort which he had brought
to the relief of the house in the morning. Pomponia's
establishment, it should be said, was on the smallest
scale, not because she was either poor or
parsimonious, but because her great wealth was devoted
to the benevolence which her faith was already
beginning to make a new factor in human life.
Punctually at sunset the party started. The route
chosen was naturally that which took them by the
shortest way out of the city. But, small as was the
space which they traversed, the sights which they
encountered were harrowing in the extreme. The fire
itself, in its active force, had passed elsewhere, but
it had left behind it a hideous scene of desolation.
Some of the larger buildings were still burning,
sending up huge volumes of smoke, out of which a tongue
of flame would now and then shoot forth. In some places
the blackened walls stood erect, with a ghastly
semblance of the human habitation which they had once
contained; in others everything had fallen prostrate in
undistinguishable confusion on the
 ground. Here and
there an arch or portico tottered to its fall in a way
that threatened the passer-by with instant destruction.
Sometimes the traveller could see the pathetic remnant
of a ruined home which by some strange chance the
flames had spared, a hearth with the chairs still
standing about it, a table spread with the remnants of
a meal, a picture on a wall, a draught-board left just
as the players had started up from it in their alarm, a
harp, a baby's cradle. Now and then they came across
the corpse of some unhappy inmate who had been struck
by a falling stone, or half buried under some huge
beam. There had not been time to remove these ghastly
remains, or the calamity was so overpowering that men
had lost their respect for the remains of the dead,—always
one of the worst signs of a general despair. In
many places poor creatures who had lost their all were
groping among the yet smoking ruins for any possession
of a more durable kind that might have survived or
escaped the ravages of the flames. Elsewhere, sufferers
too broken by their loss to make any effort, sat by the
smouldering remains of what had once been a happy home,
in a mute and tearless despair. Outside the walls, the
scene, though deplorable enough, was yet diversified
with a more cheerful element. Groups of people,
surrounded many of them by a strange and incongruous
medley of possessions which they had contrived to
rescue from the flames, were camping out round fires
which they had
 lighted. Many were cooking their evening
meal; some were staring motionless into the flames;
not a few, with the irrepressible gayety of a southern
nature, were singing merry songs or joining in some
The sight of all this distress so affected the
compassionate heart of Pomponia that she could
scarcely be induced to pass on. It was not, indeed,
till she had exhausted all the stock of money that she
had brought with her, in relieving what seemed the most
urgent cases of need, that she could be persuaded to
continue her journey. It was, perhaps, well for her
comfort that Phlegon, who was more prudent, though not
less kindly than his mistress, made a point of keeping
a secret store, which he produced when everything
seemed exhausted. On this occasion, when banking, in
common with all other business was suspended, this
resource was found particularly useful.
The party had left Rome and its environs some way
behind them, when a turn of the road brought them into
a full view of the quarter where the conflagration was
then raging most furiously. The twilight had now
passed, and the moon was low in the heavens, so that
the darkness brought the awful spectacle into more
"Oh, mother!" cried Claudia, who had begun to use this
endearing name to the elder lady, "do you think that
this is the end of the world that is come?"
 "Nay, my daughter; there is much to happen before that
"But is Rome, think you, to be destroyed? Did not the
holy Clement say something to this purpose the other
day? Did he not speak—you know that I know very
little of these things—of cities that had been
destroyed for their wickedness? Is not Rome very
"Truly, my daughter; yet the Lord hath much people
there, and will have more before the end shall come."
Both felt it to be a relief when another turn of the
road hid again the terrible spectacle. Both turned
their eyes southward, where the stars were beginning to
come out in the dark purple depths of the summer night.
Another half-hour's journey brought them without
further adventure to their journey's end.
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