|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 situation with which the young soldier found
himself compelled to deal was one of great difficulty.
Subrius' country house had been a sufficient shelter
for the two ladies as long as it was only illegal
violence on the part of Poppæa that they had to fear.
But the case would be different when a regular
proscription, in which they would certainly be
included, had been ordered. The little fort-like house
might resist a coup de main such as had been attempted
at Pomponia's mansion, but it would have to open its
gates at a summons from the Imperial authority, and
that the Imperial authority would be invoked, and
invoked without delay, by the animosity of Poppæa,
could not be doubted for a moment. If resistance was
impossible, what remained? Nothing but flight, and
flight from a power which embraced, or in the view of a
Roman seemed to embrace, the whole of the habitable
world, was notoriously impossible.
 There was a third alternative—concealment. Could that
be contrived? Possibly; but where? Obviously under
ordinary circumstances in Rome itself, for there is no
hiding-place so safe as a crowded city. But then Rome,
of which a third lay still in ruins from the fire, and
another third was in process of rebuilding, was
certainly not as suitable for the purpose as usual.
Suddenly an idea struck him. There was a certain
grotesqueness about it which made him laugh in spite of
the gravity of the situation. A little consideration
showed him that this very grotesqueness was no small
recommendation. His foster-mother was the wife of a
temple servant who had the charge of a temple dedicated
to one of the minor deities with which the Roman
Pantheon was crowded. The temple itself, which had
stood near the Circus, had
 perished in the fire, but
the residence, which was at a considerable distance,
had escaped, and as it did not come within the area of
the projected improvements of the city, was not likely
to be disturbed. It was here, then, that Pudens fancied
he could find a fairly safe hiding-place for the two
ladies. In his foster-mother's fidelity and devotion to
him he could implicitly trust. Childless herself,—for
she had lost all her offspring in their infancy,—she
lavished all her mother's love upon her foster-child.
Nothing that he could do was wrong in her eyes. She
would give, he was sure, an asylum to the worst of
criminals, if only he came with a recommendation from
him. Her husband was an easy, good-natured man,
accustomed to follow without a question the guidance of
his wife, and not more zealous for the honour of the
deity whom he served, than those who were behind the
scenes of any temple commonly were.
Pudens' idea was to tell the wife the truth about her
inmates, and to leave it to her to decide how much she
would communicate to her husband. There was no time to
be lost. He had one day before him, but no more. The
Christian assembly had been held as usual in the very
early morning, and it still wanted several hours to
noon. All arrangements would have to be made before
sunset; as soon as it was dark the ladies must leave
their present abode, and they would have to be in their
new asylum before the next morning.
 The first thing to be done was to provide the shelter.
Pudens made the best of his way to his foster-mother's
house, and was lucky enough to find her before she went
out to make her daily purchases in the market.
The good woman's astonishment when she heard the errand
on which he had come was great. She had just heard of
the Christians, but had the very vaguest ideas as to
what they were. These ideas naturally reflected the
"Of course," she said, "we will do anything that we
can." Like the wise woman that she was, she always
associated her husband with herself as far as words
went. "We will do anything that we can for friends of
yours; but I have heard that these Christians are very
"Wicked, mother!" cried the young man; "these are two
of the best women that ever lived."
"But why does the Emperor want to harm them, then?"
"Need you ask, mother, when you have such a woman as
Poppæa stirring him up to all kinds of wickedness?"
There was still such a prestige about the Emperor that
it was still the custom, at least in speaking,
whatever the real belief may have been, to attribute
his misdoings to bad advisers.
Statia—this was the foster-mother's name—had all the
dislike that a good woman would be likely to
 feel for
Poppæa, while she had a certain weakness for the
handsome young Emperor, of whom she was ready to
believe as much good and as little evil as the utmost
stretch of charity would allow.
"Ah!" she cried; "so it is one of that mischievous
"And how about your husband?"
"Oh, it will be all right with him. I shall tell him
that the ladies are people whom Poppæa hates. That will
be enough for him. He thinks as ill of her as I do. You
see it was Otho, her first—no, I am wrong, her second
husband, that got him his present place, and he thinks
that she has treated him very badly."
This matter satisfactorily settled, the next thing was
to provide for the safe conveyance of the fugitives
from the one place to the other. Here Pudens found
himself face to face with a huge difficulty. The litter
in which they had journeyed from Rome was out of the
question. A secret known to eight bearers would hardly
be a secret long. The younger woman would certainly be
able to ride, and possibly to walk, for the distance
was not beyond the strength of an active girl. The
elder would as certainly be incapable of either
"What is to be done, Statia?" he asked, after turning
the matter over for some time in his own mind.
For a time the good woman was utterly perplexed. At
last an idea occurred to her.
 "The ladies will come as early as possible to-morrow,"
she said. "That is your plan, is it not?"
"Just so," replied the young man.
"When the market carts come in from the country."
"Then they must come in a market cart."
"Admirably thought of, mother; but how about the cart?"
"My brother Marcus, who has a farm for vegetables in
the suburbs, will lend me one. I shall tell him that I
am borrowing it for a friend who is moving her goods
into the city. You will have to act the wagoner."
"That I can manage easily enough. It is not the first
time that I have done it."
It had been a favourite frolic with Pudens, in his
somewhat turbulent youth, to seek adventures in the
disguise of a countryman. He had still the rough smock
frock and leggings laid up somewhere in his house.
"I shall go to my brother this afternoon, and make
everything ready for you. You must come dressed as a
wagoner; and mind, you must not have the dress only,
but the speech also. Can you manage this? Let me hear
Pudens gave so excellent an imitation of rustic speech
that the woman burst out laughing.
"That will do," she cried; "nothing could be better."
Shortly after noon Pudens might have been seen
from his house. He was on horseback, and was apparently
bound on a journey, for he carried behind him a
travelling valise. It contained, besides his own
disguise, two plain cloaks, such as the country women
commonly wore when they came into Rome; these were
intended for the use of the two ladies. When he had got
about six miles from the city, he dismounted, concealed
the valise in a little wood by the wayside, and then
mounting again, rode on to a little inn, a haunt of his
earlier days, where he was consequently well known, and
where no questions would be asked, and scarcely any
curiosity felt about his proceedings. Here he put up
his horse; and then, retracing his steps to the wood,
assumed the wagoner's dress. Pudens had a certain
genius for acting, and no one would have recognized the
elegant and fashionable young soldier in the
middle-aged, slouching countryman, a rustic of the
rustics, as any one would have thought him, who plodded
along the road in the direction of the farm where he
was to find the vehicle.
Everything went well. Statia had been better than her
word. She had induced her brother to provide a covered
wagon, as being far more convenient for the purpose
than a common cart. It was drawn by a couple of horses,
about whose welfare the farmer gave many cautions to
the supposed wagoner. "My sister tells me," he said,
"that you are a careful man, who knows how to treat a
good beast as he deserves.
 Don't you overdrive the poor creatures; be gentle with
them up the hills if you have much of a load; see with
your own eyes that they get their food when you put
them up at the tavern—you know the place, the
Phœnix, just outside the gate; an honest place
enough, but hostlers will have their little tricks
Pudens, who had commended himself to the farmer by some
judicious praise of his animals, promised to take all
imaginable care of wagon and horses, and had the
satisfaction of getting away, without exciting, as he
hoped, the slightest suspicion as to his real
character. His promise, however, did not prevent him
from putting the animals to a sharp trot, that would
probably have struck dismay into their owner's heart,
as soon as he was well out of sight of the farm. Time,
indeed, was precious. He had to reach the old fort, to
tell his story, to persuade the ladies to follow his
advice, itself likely, he fancied, to be a task of some
difficulty, and to get back to Rome before sunrise the
The sun was just setting when he reached the fort.
Tying up the horses to a tree he approached the
building, knocked, or to speak more accurately, kicked
at the door, and asked for the old steward. The old man
came to the door, expecting to be interviewed on some
ordinary business, and of course failed to recognize
his visitor, whom, indeed, he had seen once only in his
natural semblance. Pudens intimated
 that his business
was of a private kind, and on finding himself alone
with the steward revealed his name, recalling to the
old man's recollection the occasion on which they had
met before. Nothing could exceed his astonishment. But
when the soldier went on to unfold his errand,
describing the imminent danger in which Pomponia and
her young companion were placed, and the scheme by
which he hoped to rescue them, the old man became cool
and practical at once.
"Yes," he said, "there is a hope that you may succeed;
but the first difficulty will be to persuade my lady.
Her own inclination would be to stay here and face the
danger, whatever it was."
"Shall I see her?"
"Not, I should say, before I have told her the story.
The affair is enough to confound any one, much more a
woman who has lived out of the world for many years,
and it must be broken to her."
"Very good; arrange it as you think best. But remember
that there is no time to be lost. I should be starting
in an hour at the most, if I am to get to Rome before
sunrise to-morrow, and I ought not to be later."
The old man hastened away at once to seek an interview
with Pomponia. In about half an hour he returned.
"Come with me," he said. "My lady wishes to speak with
Pudens followed him to a room where the two
 ladies were
sitting together. Ushered into their presence, he felt,
and was ashamed of feeling, somewhat embarrassed by the
consciousness of a ludicrous disguise, all the more
when he perceived that Claudia, notwithstanding the
gravity of the situation, could not resist a little
"You have my thanks," began Pomponia, "for all the
trouble that you have taken and the risk that you have
run. But I must confess that I would sooner await here
whatever God may please to send."
The steward broke in with the freedom of speech often
accorded to, or at least assumed by, an old servant.
"Madam, if I may be permitted to say so much, there
spoke the wife of a Roman Consular rather than the
handmaid of Christ."
Pomponia flushed at the rebuke, but answered gently,
"How so? I would not willingly forget my duty."
"Madam," went on the old man, "it seems to me that what
God has sent, as far as we can see at present, is this
young man. He comes with a well contrived scheme which
he has taken much pains to carry out so far. But
because it does not suit your dignity to fly from your
enemies, or to put on a disguise, you refuse to avail
yourself of it. Did the blessed Paul think it below his
dignity to be let down in a basket out of a window in
the wall of Damascus? Not so; he took the means of
deliverance that God sent him, and did not wait for
some-  thing else that might be more to his taste. And let
me say again, madam, what I have said before. You may
think it right for yourself to stop here and face the
enemy; but you have no right to involve others, this
dear young lady for instance, with you. She is young;
she is new in the faith,—she will pardon an old man
for speaking his mind,—and she may not have your
strength when she is brought to the fiery trial. Nay,
madam,"—he hesitated a moment before he uttered words
that might imply possible doubt of his mistress' own
courage and endurance,—"Nay, madam, who knows but what
your own strength may fail, if you persist in trying it
in a place to which you are not called."
The last two arguments affected Pomponia powerfully.
What if this were a call? It would be a sin if she did
not follow it, for herself and her young companion.
"Phlegon is right," she said after a short pause; "we
will do as you think best."
It was arranged that the two female attendants who had
accompanied the visitors should remain where they were.
It was difficult, if not impossible, otherwise to
dispose of them. Probably they would escape unmolested,
passing as part of the small establishment which the
owner of the house was accustomed to maintain. Phlegon
would find shelter with friends in Rome, and would keep
up, if possible, some communication with his mistress.
 It is needless to describe the journey to Rome. It was
affected without any difficulty; but one incident that
occurred in the course of it proved how narrow an
escape the fugitives had had. When about half the
distance had been traversed, Pudens halted at a wayside
inn to rest and bait the horses. At the very moment
that he did so, a party of horse soldiers which was
travelling the other way drew up before the door of the
hostelry. It consisted of two troops, numbering
together about sixty men, and was commanded by an
officer of some rank, who was accompanied by a
civilian. Pudens guessed their errand in a moment. They
had come, he was sure, to arrest Pomponia, and it was
quite possible that they might insist on searching the
wagon. Boldness, he felt, was the only policy. Any
attempt to escape would certainly be fatal. He came
forward, made a clumsy salutation to the officer in
command, and began to converse with some of the
troopers. He ordered a flagon of the coarse wine of the
country, and shared it with the newcomers. The liquor
set the men's tongues wagging, and Pudens soon learnt
that his suspicions were correct. They were bound, said
one of the men, for an old country house to arrest some
"Who are they? What have they done?" asked the supposed
"By Bacchus!" cried the man; "I know nothing about it.
I heard something about their being
Chris-  tians, whatever that may mean. All that I can tell you is that
it is some affair of Poppæa. You see that fat man by
our chief's side? He has had a bad time of it, I fancy.
He is not used to riding, I take it, and we have been
pushing on at a good rate. Well, he is one of Poppæa's
freedmen. That fellow there," he pointed as he spoke to
a slave who was evidently in charge of a couple of
troopers," is our guide. He knows, it seems, where the
parties whom we want are, and was to have a turn on the
'little horse' if he didn't tell."
This, Pudens imagined, must be some poor wretch
belonging to Pomponia's household in Rome, who had been
unlucky enough to overhear the name of the place where
his mistress was to find shelter.
The easy bearing of Pudens had exactly the effect which
he hoped from it, while the accident of the two parties
meeting at the halting-place was all in favour of his
escape. Probably, had the soldiers encountered him on
the road, they would have challenged him, and
overhauled the contents of his wagon. As matters turned
out, the idea never occurred either to the officer in
command or to any of his men. He acted his part so
thoroughly well, that no notion of his being
more than a countryman on his way to the Roman market
with a load of produce, crossed any one's mind. Anxious
to avoid the remotest cause of suspicion, he purposely
prolonged his halt, though, it need not be said,
intensely anxious to be off, till the soldiers had
started again. It was with intense relief that he heard
the officer in command give the order to mount. When
the last of the troopers had disappeared in the
darkness, he climbed to the driver's seat, tossed the
hostler his fee,—which he was careful not to make
the smallest fraction larger than usual,—and set his
horses in motion. The two women, who had sat all this
time under the covering of the wagon, hand clasped in
hand, in a perfect agony of suspense, breathed a
fervent thanksgiving when they felt themselves to be
once more upon the way.
Nothing else happened to alarm the travellers during
the rest of their journey; but the most critical time
was yet to come. While they were still out of sight of
the inn where the wagon and horses were to be put up,
the two ladies alighted. Each was disguised beyond
recognition, Pudens hoped, in the coarse cloaks usually
worn by the market-women when they travelled by night,
and each carried a large basket filled, or apparently
filled, with goods that they were about to offer for
sale. At the inn, of course, the wagon and the horses
were well known, but Pudens, as a stranger, excited
 "Well," he said, in answer to some question, "old Caius
has a touch of fever,"—he had taken the precaution of
ascertaining the name of the man whom the farmer
usually employed,—"and I am taking his place. It is
not to my liking at all," he went on; "I had sooner be
in my bed, by a long way."
At the city gate the porter grumbled a little at being
roused so early, but asked no questions. Catching a
glimpse of Claudia's beautiful face, he paid the girl a
rough compliment which made her shiver with fear and
disgust. Pudens would have dearly liked to knock the
fellow down, but, anxious above all things to avoid a
scene, restrained himself.
"Hold your tongue," he growled to the man in the
harshest country accent that he could put on, "and
leave her alone. She is not your sort."
"Nor yours, either," retorted the man; "for a rougher
bumpkin I never saw."
The "bumpkin," however, he perceived to be unusually
tall and stout, and one who would be a formidable
fellow to quarrel with. He returned into the
gate-house, and the party passed on without further
molestation. The streets were almost deserted, so early
was the hour. Beyond one or two late revellers
staggering home, and a few workmen engaged in some
occupation that had to be begun betimes, no one met
them. When they reached the temple servant's door where
Statia was waiting to receive her new inmates, they had
escaped, so Pudens had good reason to hope, all hostile
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