|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 |
AN IMPERIAL MUSICIAN
 NERO, as my readers will have guessed, had not been
able to keep his secret. The audacity of his plan—an
Emperor setting his own capital on fire that he might
rebuild it after his own designs—had inspired him
with a delight that quite exceeded his powers of
self-control. He could not help letting drop hints of
his purpose in the presence of Poppæa, and these were
further explained by words which she overheard him
muttering in his sleep. Tigellinus, though no
confidences were made to him, was equally well aware of
what his master intended. No department in the public
service but contained some of his creatures, and the
secret instructions that the Emperor gave to the
commanding officers of the watch, summoned, it should
be said, to Antium for the purpose of receiving them,
did not long escape him. The despot's two councillors
were rendered, as may readily be supposed, not a little
anxious by their master's frantic caprice. Both were
ready enough to use it for their own purposes. Poppæa,
as we have seen, found in it, as she hoped, an
opportunity of destroying Pomponia; while Tigellinus
 of his own to pay off under cover of the
general terror and confusion. But they could not help
feeling great apprehensions of the effect on the
popular feeling. An Emperor might murder and confiscate
as much as he pleased, so long as it was only the noble
and wealthy who suffered; but when his oppression
began to touch common folk, the trader or the artisan,
then danger was at hand. If the Romans began to suspect
that they had been burnt out of their homes to gratify
a caprice of their ruler, not all his legions would be
able to save him.
The anxiety of Nero's advisers was greatly increased by
his obstinacy in refusing to go to Rome. Relays of
messengers came from the capital in rapid succession,
bringing tidings of the progress of the fire, but the
Emperor positively refused to leave Antium.
Tigellinus ventured on a strong remonstrance.
"Pardon me, Sire," he said, "if I say that the Roman
people will take your absence at this time very ill. It
has pleased the gods"—he was careful, it will be
seen, not to hint that he knew the truth—"to visit
them with a great calamity, and they will expect some
sympathy and help from him whom they regard as a god
upon earth. No ruler could endure to be away when the
seat of Empire is in flames, much less one who is
justly styled the Father of his Country."
The advice, sugared though it was with flattery, was
decidedly unpalatable. Nero's brow darkened, as he
listened, with the frown that always gathered
 upon it
when any one ventured to hint that there were any
limitations on his power, or that he could be called to
account by any one for the way in which he exercised
"What do you say?" he cried, with an angry stamp of
the foot. "A pretty thing, indeed, that a father should
be called to account by his children! Who will venture
to say whether I ought to go or to stay?"
In the course of the second day news arrived that the
palace itself was in danger. If Tigellinus hoped that
this intelligence would move the Emperor he was greatly
disappointed. Nero received the tidings with what
appeared to be complete indifference.
"A paltry place," he cried with a contemptuous shrug of
his shoulders, "and not in the least worthy of an
Emperor! Let it burn, and welcome! I shall be saved the
trouble of pulling it down. And besides," he added with
a laugh, "the people about whom you think so much, my
Tigellinus, will surely be satisfied now. What can they
want more than to see my house burning as well as their
Tigellinus was in despair. So imperious was the
necessity that he was meditating another remonstrance,
which yet he felt would probably do nothing more than
endanger his own head, when Poppæa's woman's wit
suggested a way out of the difficulty.
"What a spectacle it must be!" she said to
Tigellinus in a low tone that was yet carefully
modulated to catch the Emperor's ear. "All Rome in
 There never has been anything like it before;
there never will be again. If we are to have the city
burnt, let us at least have the consolation of seeing
Nero fell promptly into the trap. "You are right, my
soul," he cried. "It must be a splendid sight, and I am
losing it. Why did you not think of it before?
Tigellinus, we will start at once. There is not a
moment to be lost."
The Emperor's impatience to be gone, now that the idea
had been suggested to him, was as great as his
indifference had been before. He would allow no time
for the preparations for departure. The slaves would
follow, he said, with what was wanted. Too much of the
sight had been lost already. "Good Heavens!" he
cried, "what a fool I have been! The finest spectacle
of the age, and I am not there to see it!"
Within an hour's time he was on horseback, and was
riding at full speed northward, accompanied by
Tigellinus and by such an escort as could hastily be
got ready. Poppæa followed in a carriage as rapidly as
The distance between Antium and Rome, which was
something like thirty miles, was covered by the
horsemen in less than three hours. From the first a
heavy cloud of smoke was visible in the northeastern
sky; as the riders went on they encountered other signs
of the disaster. There was a constant stream
 of carts
and wagons loaded with furniture and other
miscellaneous effects, that were travelling southward.
The owners of the property accompanied them on foot,
though now and then a child or an old man or woman
might be seen perched on the top of the goods. These,
of course, were people who had been burnt out by the
fire, and who were now seeking a temporary home with
relatives or friends whom they were fortunate enough to
possess in the country. As they approached the walls,
the fields on either side of the road were covered with
tents and huts in which the homeless refugees had found
shelter. The roads themselves were lined with people
who, indeed, had no other occupation but to watch the
passers-by. The beggars, always numerous along the
great thoroughfares, were now in greater force than
ever. Tigellinus, who, vicious as he was, was a man of
intelligence and foresight, had brought with him all
the money that he could collect. This Nero scattered
with a liberal hand among the crowds as he rode along.
This is a kind of bounty that has always an effective
appearance, though the money commonly falls into the
hands of those who need it least. The spectators
cheered the Emperor, whose well-known features were
recognized everywhere, with tumultuous shouts. But
there were not a few who turned away in silent disgust
or wrath. They did not, indeed, attribute directly to
him the calamity which had overtaken them, as they
might have done had they known the
 truth, but they laid
it at his door all the same. He was a great criminal, a
murderer, and a parricide; his offences were rank
before heaven, and had brought down, as the offences of
rulers are apt to bring down, the anger of the gods
upon his people.
The palace was not, it was found, in immediate danger.
All the efforts of the Watch and of two cohorts of
Prætorians, which had been called in to help them, had
been directed to saving it. How long it would escape
was doubtful. If the wind, which had lulled a little,
were to rise again, its destruction was certain.
The Emperor would have been disappointed if this
destruction had been finally averted. We have seen that
one of the great features of the new Rome that he had
planned was an Imperial palace far larger and more
splendid than anything that the world had ever seen
before. Still he was glad of the respite, for it
enabled him to put into execution a scheme,
extravagantly strange, even for him, which he had
conceived during his rapid journey from Antium to Rome.
"A spectacle," he thought to himself, "and if so, why
not a performance? What a splendid opportunity! We
always feel that there is something of a sham in the
scenery of a theatre, but here it will be real. An
actual city on fire! What could be more magnificent? I
have it," he went on after a pause. "Of course it must
be the Sack of Troy. What a pity it is that I did not
think of it sooner, and I might have written something
worthy of the occasion. The
 Lesser Iliad is but poor
stuff, but we must make the best of it."
This grotesque intention was actually carried out.
The first care of the Emperor on reaching the palace
was to have a rehearsal of his contemplated
performance. If there were any cares of Empire pressing
for attention,—and it may be supposed that the ruler
of the civilized world returning to his capital had
some business to attend to,—they were put aside. The
rest of the day Nero spent in practising upon the harp
some music of his own composition, while a Greek
freedman recited from the Lesser Iliad a passage in
which the sack and burning of Troy were related.
In the evening the performance took place. A large
semicircular room in the upper story of the palace,
commanding from its windows a wide prospect of the
city, was hastily fitted up into the rude semblance of
a theatre. An audience, which mainly consisted of the
Emperor's freedmen and of officers of the Prætorian
Guard, sat on chairs ranged round the curve of the
chamber. In front of them was the extemporized stage,
while the burning city, seen through the windows,
formed, with huge masses of smoke and flame, such a
background as the most skilful and audacious of
scene-painters had never conceived. The performance
had been purposely postponed till a late hour in the
evening, and no lights were permitted in the room. On
the stage were the
 two figures, the reciter and the
Imperial musician, now thrown strongly into relief as
some great sheet of flame burst out in the background,
and then, as it died away again, becoming almost
invisible. An undertone of confused sound accompanied
the music throughout. Every now and then the voice of
the reciter and the notes of the harp were lost in some
shrill cry of agony or the thunderous crash of a
falling house. Seldom in the history of the world has
there been a stranger mixture of the ludicrous and the
terrible than when "Nero fiddled while Rome was
At one time it was not unlikely that this strange farce
might have been turned into a genuine tragedy. Subrius
was one of the Prætorian officers invited to witness
the performance, and chance had placed him close to the
stage. Again and again as the Emperor moved across it,
intent upon his music, and certainly unsuspicious of
danger, he came within easy reach of the Tribune's arm.
"Shall I strike?" he whispered into the ear of
Lateranus, who sat by his side. "I can hardly hope for
a better chance."
Probably a prompt assent from his companion would have
decided him; but Lateranus felt unequal to giving it.
He was staggered by the suddenness of the idea. The
decision was too momentous, the responsibility too
great. Was it right to act without the knowledge of the
other conspirators? Then
 nothing had been prepared.
Nero might be killed, but no arrangements had been made
for presenting a successor to the soldiers and to the
people. Finally, there was the immediate danger to
themselves. It would indeed be a memorable deed to
strike down this unworthy ruler in the very act of
disgracing the people, to strike him down before the
eyes of the creatures who flattered and fawned on him.
But could they who did it hope to escape? "The desire
of escape," says the historian who relates the
incident, "is always the foe of great enterprises,"
and it checked that night a deed which might have
changed the course of history.
"No!" whispered Lateranus in reply, "it is too soon;
nothing, you know, is ready. We shall not fail to find
Half reluctant, half relieved, Subrius abandoned his
half-formed purpose. But he could not rid himself of
the feeling that he had missed a great chance.
"Do you believe in inspirations?" he asked his friend,
as they were making their way to the camp, where
Lateranus was his guest.
 "I hardly know," replied the other. "Perhaps there are
such things. But, on the whole, men find it safer to
act after deliberation."
"Well," said Subrius, "if ever I felt an inspiration,
it was to-night when I whispered to you. I fear much
that we shall never have so fair a chance again."
"But nothing was ready," urged his companion.
"True," replied Subrius; "but then one does not prepare
for such an enterprise as this as one prepares for a
"And the risk?"
"True, the risk. It is not that one is afraid to
venture one's life; but one wants to see the fruit of
one's deed. Yet I much misdoubt me whether this is not
a fatal weakness. One ought to do the right thing at
the time, and think of nothing else. If Cassius Chærea
had taken any thought for his own safety, he would
never have slain the monster Caius. I feel that
hereafter we shall be sorry for what we have done, or,
rather, not done, to-day."
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