|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 HATCHING OF A PLOT
 ON the very day of the meeting described in my last
chapter, a party of six friends was gathered together
in the dining-room—I should rather say one of the
dining-rooms—of a country house at Tibur. The
commanded by the window of the apartment was singularly
lovely. Immediately below, the hillside, richly wooded
with elm and chestnut, and here and there a towering
pine, sloped down to the lower course of the river
Anio. Beyond the river were meadow-lands, green with
the unfailing moisture of the soil, and orchards in
which the rich fruit was already gathering a golden
hue. The magnificent falls of the river were in full
view, but not so near as to make the roar of the
descending water inconveniently loud. At the moment,
the almost level rays of the setting sun illumined with
a golden light that was indescribably beautiful the
cloud of spray that rose from the pool in which the
falling waters were received. It was an effect that was
commonly watched with intense interest by visitors to
the villa, for, indeed, it was just one of the beauties
of nature which a Roman knew how to
appre-  ciate. Landscape, especially of the wilder sort, he did not
care about; but the loveliness of a foreground, the
greenery of a rich meadow, the deep shade of a wood,
the clear water bubbling from a spring or leaping from
a rock, these he could admire to the utmost. But on the
present occasion the attention of the guests had been
otherwise occupied. They had been listening to a
recitation from their host. To listen to a recitation
was often a price which guests paid for their
entertainment, and paid somewhat unwillingly and even
ungraciously. Rich dishes and costly wines, the rarest
of flowers, and the most precious of perfumes were not
very cheaply purchased by two hours of boredom from
some dull oration or yet duller poem. There was no such
feeling among the guests who were now assembled in
this Tibur villa. The entertainment, indeed, had been
simple and frugal, such as it befitted a young disciple
of the Stoic school to give to a party of like-minded
friends. But the intellectual entertainment that
followed when the tables were removed
had been a treat of the most delightful kind. This may
be readily understood when I say that the host of the
evening was Lucan, and that he had been reciting from
his great poem of the Pharsalia the
description of the
battle from which it took its name.
 To modern readers
of Latin literature who find their standard of
excellence in Virgil and Horace, the
artificial and turgid. But it suited the taste of that
age, all the more from the very qualities which make it
less acceptable to us. And, beyond all doubt, it lent
itself admirably to recitation. A modern reader often
thinks it rhetoric rather than poetry. But the rhetoric
was undeniably effective, especially when set off by
the author's fiery declamation, and when the recitation
came to an end with the well-known lines:—
"Italian fields of death, the
That swept Sicilian shores, and
that dark day
That reddened Actium's rocks,
have wrought such woe,
Philippi's self seems guiltless
It was followed by a round of genuine, even
enthusiastic applause. When the applause had subsided
there was an interval of silence that was scarcely less
complimentary to the poet. This was broken at last by a
remark from Licinius, a young soldier who had lately
been serving against the Parthians under the great
Corbulo, for many years the indefatigable and
invincible guardian of the Eastern frontier of the
"Lucan," he said, "would you object to repeat a
lines which occurred in your description of the
sacrifices on either side before the beginning of the
battle? We heard how all the omens were manifestly
unfavourable to Pompey, and then there followed
something that struck me very much about the prayers
and vows of Cæsar."
"I know what you mean," replied the poet; "I will
repeat them with pleasure. They run thus:—
" 'But what dark thrones, what Furies of the pit,
Cæsar, didst thou invoke? The wicked hand
That waged with pitiless sword such impious war
Not to the heavens was lifted, but to Gods
That rule the nether world and Powers that veil
Their maddening presence in Eternal night.' "
"Exactly so," said Licinius. "Those were the lines I
meant. But will you recite this in public? How will
Nero, who, after all, is the heir of Cæsar, and
the harvests reaped at Mutina, and Actium, and
Philippi, how will Nero relish such language?"
"He is not likely to hear it. In fact, he has
forbidden me to recite. He does not like rivals," he
added with an air of indescribable scorn.
"Indeed," said the young soldier; "then you have seen
reason to change your opinions. I remember having the
great pleasure of hearing you read your first book. I
was just about to start to join my legion. It must have
been about two years ago. I can't exactly recollect the
lines, but you mentioned,
 I remember, Munda, and
Mutina, and Actium, and then went on:—
" 'Yet great the debt our Roman fortunes owe
To civil strife, if this its end, to make
Great Nero lord of men. . . .' "
The other guests grew hot and cold at the more than
military frankness with which their companion taxed
their host with inconsistency. The inconsistency was
notorious enough; but now that the poet had abandoned
his flatteries and definitely ranged himself with the
opposition, what need to recall it?
Lucan could not restrain the blush that rose to his
cheek, but he was ready with his answer.
"The Nero of to-day is not the Nero of three years ago,
for it was then that I wrote those lines."
"Yet even then," whispered another of the guests to his
neighbour, "he had murdered his brother and his
A somewhat awkward silence followed. Subrius, a tribune
of the Prætorians, broke it by addressing himself
"Licinius," he cried, "tell our friends what you were
describing to me the other day."
"You mean," said Licinius, "the ceremony of Tiridates'
"Exactly," replied Subrius.
"Well," resumed the other, "it was certainly a sight
that was well worth seeing. A more
magnifi-  cent army
than the Parthian's never was. How the King could have
given in without fighting I cannot imagine, except that
Corbulo fairly frightened him. I could hardly have
believed that there were so many horse-soldiers in the
world. But there they were, squadron after squadron,
lancers, and archers, and swordsmen, each tribe with
its own device, a serpent, or an eagle, or a star, or
the crescent moon, till the eye could hardly reach to
the last of them. The legions were ranged on the three
sides of a hollow square, with a platform in the
centre, and on the platform an image of the Emperor,
seated on a throne of gold."
"A truly Egyptian deity!" muttered the poet to
"King Tiridates," the soldier went on, "after
sacrificing, came up, and kneeling on one knee, laid
his crown at the feet of the statue."
"Noble sight again!" whispered Lucan to his neighbour.
"A man bowing down before a beast."
"And Corbulo?" asked one of the guests, Lateranus by
name, who had not hitherto spoken. "How did he bear
himself on this occasion?"
"As modestly as the humblest centurion in the army,"
"Yes, it was a glorious triumph for Rome," said Subrius
the Prætorian; "but—"
He paused, and looked with a meaning glance at
 Lateranus, who was sitting by the side of Lucan
(indeed, it was to him that the poet had whispered his
irreverent comments on the ceremony by the Euphrates),
rose from his seat. The new speaker was a striking
figure, if only on account of his huge stature and
strength. But he had other claims to distinction; after
a foolish and profligate youth, he had begun to take
"Will you excuse me?" he said to the host, and walking
to the door opened it, examined the passage hat led to
it, locked another door at the further end, and then
returned to his place.
"Walls have ears," he said, "but these, as far as I can
judge, are deaf. We can all keep a secret, my friends?"
he went on, looking round at the company.
"To the death, if need be," cried Lucan.
The four other guests murmured assent.
"We may very likely be called upon to make good our
words. If any one is of a doubtful mind, let him draw
back in time."
"Go on; we are all resolved," was the unanimous answer
of the company.
Did there seem nothing strange to you when our friend
Licinius told us of the Parthian king laying his crown
at the feet of Nero's statue? What has Nero done that
he should receive such gifts? Our armies defend with
their bodies the frontiers of
Euphrates and the Rhine? They toil through Scythian
snows and African sands. And for what?
 Who reaps the
rewards of their valour and their toil? Why, this
harp-player, this buffoon, who sets the trivial crowns
which reward the victories of the stage above all the
glories of Rome. And why? Because, forsooth, he is the
grandson of Julia the adulteress! I acknowledge the
greatness of Julius, of Augustus, even of Tiberius. It
was not unworthy of Romans, if the gods denied them
liberty, to be ruled by such men. But Caius the madman,
and Claudius the pedant,—did some doubtful drops
Imperial blood entitle them to be masters of the human
race? And Nero, murderer of his brother, his mother,
his wife, how much longer is he going to pollute with
riot and bloodshed the holy places of Rome? If a Brutus
could be found to strike down the great dictator, will
no one dare to inflict the vengeance of gods and men
on this profligate boy?"
"The man and the sword will not be wanting when the
proper time shall come," said Subrius the
a tone of grim resolve. "But Rome must have a ruler.
When we shall have rid her of this tyrant, who is to
"Why not restore the Republic?" cried Lucan. "We have a
Senate, we have Consuls, and all the old machinery of
the Government of freedom. The great Augustus left
these things, it would seem, of set purpose, against
the day when they might be wanted again."
"The Republic is impossible," cried Subrius; "even
impossible than it was a hundred years ago. What is
the Senate but an assembly of worn-out nobles and
cowardly and time-serving capitalists? I know there are
exceptions; one of them is here to-night," he went
on with a bow to Lateranus; "and there is Thrasea, who, I
know, will make one of us, as soon as he knows what we
are meditating. But the Senate as a whole is incapable.
And the people, where is that to be found? Certainly
not in this mob that cares for nothing but its dole of
bread, its gladiators, and its chariot-races. No; the
Republic is a dream. Rome must have a master. The gods
send her one who is righteous as well as strong."
"What say you of Corbulo, Licinius?" asked Sulpicius
Asper, a captain of the Prætorians, who had
taken no part in the conversation. "His record is not
altogether spotless. But he is a great soldier, and one
might conjure with his name. And then his presence is
magnificent, and the people love a stately figure. Do
you think that the thought has ever crossed his mind?"
"Corbulo," replied Licinius, "is a soldier, and nothing
but a soldier. And he is absolutely devoted to the
Emperor. I remember how ill he took it when some one at
his table said something that sounded like censure.
'Silence!' he thundered. 'Emperors and gods are above
praise and dispraise.' I verily believe that if Nero
bade him kill himself he would plunge his sword into
his breast without a murmur.
 No, it is idle to think of Corbulo. In fact he is one
of the great difficulties that we should have to reckon
with. Happily he is far off, and the business will be
done before he hears of it."
"There is Verginius on the Rhine," said Subrius. "What
"An able man, none abler, if he will only consent."
"And Sulpicius Galba in Spain. What of him?"
"He is half worn-out," said Lateranus; "but he has the
advantage of being one of the best born men in Rome.
And the old names have not yet lost their power."
"Why not a philosopher?" asked Lucan after a pause.
"Plato thought that philosophers were the fittest men
to rule the world."
"Are you thinking of your uncle Seneca?" asked
Lateranus. "For my part I think that it would be a pity
to take him away from his books; and to speak the
truth, if I may do so without offence, Seneca, though
he is beyond doubt one of the greatest ornaments of
Rome, has not played the part of an Emperor's teacher
with such success that we could hope very much from
him, were he Emperor himself."
"There are, and indeed must be, objections to every
name," said Licinius after a pause.
"The soldiers will take it ill if the dignity should go
to a civilian; and if the choice falls on a soldier,
then all the other
 soldiers will be jealous. Tell me,
Subrius, would you Prætorians be content if the
were to choose an Emperor?"
Subrius shrugged his shoulders.
"As for the armies of the East," Licinius went on, "I
know how fiercely they would resent dictation from the
West! Our friend Asper here, who, if I remember
right, has been aide-de-camp to Verginius, knows
whether the German legions would be more disposed to
submit to a mandate from the Euphrates. What say you,
Asper could do nothing better than imitate the action
of his superior officer.
Licinius went on: "I am a soldier myself, and can
therefore speak more freely on this subject. We have to
choose between evils. Jealousy between one great army
and another can scarcely fail to end in war. The
general discontent of all the armies, if a civilian
succeeds to the throne, will be less acute, and
therefore less dangerous. What say you to Calpurnius
"At least," cried Lucan, "he has the merit of not being
There was a general laugh at this sally. Piso was a
noted bon vivant and man of fashion, and generally as
unlike a philosopher in his habits and ways of life as
could be conceived.
"Exactly so," said Licinius, undisturbed by the remark;
"and this, strange as it may seem, is one of
qualities which commend him to those who look at things
as they are, and not as they ought to be. This is not
the time for Consuls who leave their ploughs to put on
the robes of office. The age is not equal to such
simple virtues. It wants magnificence; it demands that
its heroes should be well-dressed and drive fine horses
and keep up a splendid establishment. It is not averse
to a reputation for luxury. Piso has such a reputation,
and I must own that it does not do him injustice. But
he is a man of honour, and he has some solid and many
showy qualities. He has noble birth; a pedigree that
shows an ancestor who fought at Cannæ is more
respectable. He is eloquent, he is wealthy, but can
give with a liberal hand as well as spend, and he has
the gift of winning hearts. And then he is bold. We may
look long, my friends, before we find a better man than
"There is a great deal of truth in what you say; more
truth than it is pleasant to acknowledge," said
Lateranus. "But we must weigh this matter seriously.
Meanwhile, will Piso join us?"
"I feel as certain of it as I could be of any matter
not absolutely within my knowledge," replied Licinius.
"Will you authorize me to sound him? Whether he agree
or not, I can guarantee his silence."
Many other matters and men were discussed; and before
the party separated it was arranged that each of the
six friends should choose one person to be enrolled in
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