|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 EMPEROR'S PLAN
 THE reigning successor of the great Augustus, the
master of some forty legions, the ruler of the Roman
world, was in council. But his council was unlike as
possible to the assembly which one might have thought
he would have gathered together to deliberate on
matters that concerned the happiness, it might almost
be said, of mankind. Here were no veteran generals who
had guarded the frontiers of the Empire, and seen the
barbarians of the East and of the West recoil before
the victorious eagles of Rome; no Governor of
provinces, skilled in the arts of peace; no
financiers, practised in increasing the amount of the
revenue without aggravating the burdens that the
tax-payers consciously felt; no philosophers to
contribute their theoretical wisdom; no men of
business to give their master the benefit of their
practical advice. Nero had such men at his call, but he
preferred, and not perhaps without reason, to confide
his schemes to very different advisers.
 There were three persons in the Imperial Chamber; or
four, if we are to reckon the page, a lad of singular
beauty of form and feature, but a deaf mute, who stood
by the Emperor's couch, clad in a gold-edged scarlet
tunic, and holding an ivory-handled fan of peacock's
feathers, which he waved with a gentle motion.
Let me begin my description of the Imperial Cabinet,
for such it really was, with a portrait of Nero
The Emperor showed to considerable advantage in the
position which he happened to be occupying at the time.
The chief defects of his figure, the corpulence which
his excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the table
had already, in spite of his youth,
increased to serious proportions, and the unsightly
thinness of his lower limbs, were not brought into
prominence. His face, as far as beauty was concerned,
was not unworthy of an Emperor, but as the biographer
of the Cæsars says, it was "handsome rather than
attractive." The features were regular and even
beautiful in their outlines, but they wanted, as indeed
it could not be but that they should want, the grace
and charm in which the beauty of the man's nature
shines forth. The complexion, originally fair, was
flushed with intemperance. There were signs here and
there of what would soon become disfiguring blotches.
 eyes that in childhood and boyhood had been
singularly clear and limpid were now somewhat dull and
dim. The hair was of the yellow hue that was
particularly pleasing to an Italian eye, accustomed,
for the most part, to black and the darker shades of
brown. Nero was particularly proud of its color, so
much so indeed, that, greatly to the disgust of more
old-fashioned Romans, he wore it in braids. On the
whole his appearance, though not without a certain
comeliness and even dignity, was forbidding and
sinister. No one that saw him could give him credit for
any kindness of heart or even good nature. His cheeks
were heavy, his chin square, his lips curiously thin.
Not less repulsive was the short bull neck. At the
moment of which I am writing his face wore as pleasing
an expression as it was capable of assuming. He was in
high spirits and full of a pleased excitement. We shall
soon see the cause that had so exhilarated him.
Next to the Emperor, by right of precedence, must
naturally come the Empress, for it was to this rank
that the adventuress Poppæa had now succeeded in
raising herself. Her first husband had been one of the
two commanders of the Prætorian Guard; her second,
Consul and afterwards Governor of a great province,
destined indeed himself to occupy for a few months the
Imperial throne; her third was the heir of Augustus
and Tiberius, the last of the Julian Cæsars. Older than
the Emperor, for she had
 borne a child to her first
husband more than twelve years before, she still
preserved the freshness of early youth. Something of
this, perhaps, was due to the extreme care which she
devoted to her appearance,
but more to the expression of innocence and modesty
which some strange freak of nature—for never surely did
a woman's look more utterly belie her disposition—had
given to her countenance. To look at her certainly at
that moment, with her golden hair falling in artless
ringlets over a forehead smooth as a child's, her
delicately arched lips, parted in a smile that just
showed a glimpse of pearly teeth, her cheeks just
tinged with a faint wild-rose blush, her large, limpid
eyes, with just a touch of wonder in their depths, eyes
that did not seem to harbour an evil thought, any one
might have thought her as good as she was beautiful.
Yet she was profligate, unscrupulous, and cruel. Her
vices had always been calculating, and when a career
had been opened to her ambition she let nothing stand
in her way. Nero's mother had perished because she
barred the adventuress' road to a throne, and Nero's
wife soon shared the fate of his mother.
The third member of the Council was, if it is possible
to imagine it, worse than the other two. Nero began his
reign amidst the high hopes of his subjects, and for a
few weeks, at least, did not disappoint them, and
Josephus speaks of Poppæa as a "pious" woman;
 but we
hear nothing about Tigellinus that is not absolutely
vile. Born in poverty and obscurity, he had made his
way to the bad eminence in which we find him by the
worst of arts. A man of mature age, for by this time he
must have numbered at least fifty years, he used his
greater experience to make the young Emperor even worse
than his natural tendencies, and all the evil
influences of despotic power, would have made him. And
he was what Nero, to do him justice, never was,
fiercely resentful of sarcasm and ridicule. Nero
suffered the most savage lampoons on his character to
be published with impunity, but no one satirized
Tigellinus without suffering for his audacity.
The scene of the Council was a pleasant room in the
Emperor's seaside villa at Antium. This villa was a
favourite residence with him. He had himself been born
in it. Here he had welcomed with delight, extravagant,
indeed, but yet not wholly beyond our sympathies, the
birth of the daughter whom Poppæa had borne to him in
the preceding year; here he had mourned, extravagantly
again, but not without some real feeling, for the
little one's death. It was at Antium, far from the
wild excitement of Rome, that he had what may be called
the lucid intervals in his career of frantic crime.
The subject which now engaged his attention, and the
attention of his advisers, was one that seemed of a
harmless and even a laudable kind. It was nothing less
than a magnificent plan for the rebuilding of
 Rome. All
the ill-ventilated, ill-smelling passages; all the
narrow, winding streets; all the ill-built and
half-ruinous houses; all, in short, that was
unsanitary, inconvenient, and unsightly was to be swept
away; a new city with broad, regular streets and
spacious promenades was to rise in its place. At last
the Empire of the world would have a capital worthy of
itself. The plan was substantially of Nero's own
devising. He had had, indeed, some professional
assistance from builders, architects, and others, in
drawing out its details, but in its main lines,
certainly in its magnificent contempt for the
expedient, one might almost say of the possible, it
came from his own brain. And he had managed to keep it
a secret from both Poppæa and Tigellinus. To them it
was a real surprise, and, as they both possessed
competent intelligence, however deficient in moral
sense, they were able to appreciate its cleverness.
Their genuine admiration, which so practised an ear as
Nero's easily distinguished from flattery, was
exceedingly pleasing to the Emperor.
"Augustus," he said, after enjoying for a time his
companions' unfeigned surprise, "said that he found a
city of brick and left a city of marble. I mean to be
able to boast that I left a new city altogether.
Indeed, I feel that nothing short of this is worthy of
me, and I thank the gods that have left for me so
magnificent an opportunity."
"And this vacant space," asked Tigellinus, after
 various details had been explained by the Emperor:
"What do you mean, Sire, to do with this?"
A huge blank had been left in the middle of the map,
covering nearly the whole of the Palatine and Esquiline
"That is meant to be occupied by my palace and park,"
said the Emperor.
The Prime Minister, if one may so describe him, could
not restrain an involuntary gesture of surprise.
Nero's face darkened with the scowl that never failed
to show itself at even the slightest opposition to his
"Think you, then," he cried in an angry tone, "that it
is too large? The Master of Rome cannot be lodged too
Tigellinus felt that it would be safer not to
criticise any further. Poppæa, who, to do her justice,
was never wanting in courage, now took up the
discussion. The objection that she had to make was in
keeping with a curious trait in her character. "Pious"
she certainly was not, though Josephus saw fit so to
describe her, but she was unquestionably superstitious.
The terrors of an unseen world, though they did not
keep her back from vice and crime, were still real to
her. She did not stick at murder; but nothing would
have induced her to pass by a temple without a proper
reverence. This feeling quickened her insight into an
aspect of the matter which her companion had failed to
 "You will buy the houses which you will have to pull
down?" she said.
"Certainly," the Emperor replied; "that will be an easy
"But there are buildings which it will not be easy to
The scowl showed itself again on Nero's face.
"Who will refuse to sell when I want to buy?" he cried.
"And besides, you may be sure that I shall not stint
"True, Sire, but there are the temples, the chapels;
they cannot be bought and sold as if they were private
Nero started up from his couch, and paced the room
several times. He could not refuse to see the
difficulty. Holy places were not to be bought and
pulled down as if they were nothing but so many bricks
"What say you, Tigellinus?" he cried after a few
minutes of silence. "Cannot the Emperor do what he
will? Cannot the priests or the augurs, or some one
smooth the way? Speak, man!" he went on impatiently,
as the minister did not answer at once.
"The gods forbid that I should presume to limit your
power!" said Tigellinus. "But yet—may I speak freely?"
"Freely!" cried Nero; "of course. When did I ever
resent the truth?"
Tigellinus repressed a smile. His own rise was
certainly not due to speaking the truth. He went on:—
 "One sacred building, or two, or even three, might be
dealt with when some great improvement was in question.
That has been done before, and might be done again, but
when it comes to a matter of fifty or sixty, or even a
hundred,—very likely there are more, for they stand
very thick in the old city,—the affair becomes
serious. I don't say it would be impossible, but there
would be delay, possibly a very long delay. The people
feel very strongly on these things. Some of these
temples are held in extraordinary reverence, places
that you, Sire, may very likely have never heard of,
but which are visited by hundreds daily. To sweep them
away in any peremptory fashion would be dangerous.
There would have to be ceremonies, expiations, and all
the thousand things which the priests invent."
"Well," exclaimed the Emperor after a pause, "what is
to be done?"
"Sire," replied Tigellinus, "cannot you modify your
plan? Much might be done without this wholesale
"Modify it!" thundered the Emperor. "Certainly not. It
shall be all or nothing. Do you think that I am going
to take all this trouble, and accomplish, after all,
nothing more than what any ædile could have done?"
He threw himself down on the couch and buried his face
in the cushions. The Empress and the Minister watched
and waited in serious disquiet. There
 was no knowing
what wild resolve he might take. That he had set his
heart to no common degree on this new scheme was
evident. In all his life he had never given so much
serious thought to any subject as he had to this, and
disappointment would probably result in some dangerous
outburst. After about half an hour had passed, he
"I have it," he cried; "it shall be done,—the plan,
the whole plan."
"Sire, will you deign to tell us what inspiration the
gods have given you?" said Tigellinus.
"All in good time," said the Emperor. "When I want your
help I will tell you what it is needful for you to
know. But now it is time for my harp practice. You
will dine with us, Tigellinus, and for pity's sake
bring some one who can give us some amusement. Antium
is delightful in the daytime, but the evenings! . . ."
"Madam," said Tigellinus, when the Emperor had left the
room, "have you any idea what he is thinking of?"
"I have absolutely none," replied Poppæa; "but I fear
it may be something very strange. I noticed a dangerous
light in his eyes. It has been there often lately. Do
you think," she went on in a low voice, "there is any
danger of his going mad? You know about his uncle
"Don't trouble yourself with such fears," replied
 Tigellinus. "It is not likely. His mother had the
coolest head of any woman that I have ever seen; and
his father, whatever he was, was certainly not mad. And
now, if you will excuse me, I have some business to
He saluted the Empress and withdrew. Poppæa, little
reassured by his words, remained buried in thought,—thought
that was full of disquietude and alarm. She had
gained all, and even more than all, that she had aimed
at. She shared Nero's throne, not in name only, but in
fact. But how dangerous was the height to which she had
climbed! A single false step might precipitate her into
an abyss which she shuddered to think of. He had spared
no one, however near and dear to him. If his mood
should change, would he spare her? And his mood might
change. At present he loved her as ardently, she
thought, as ever. But—for she watched him closely, as
a keeper watches a wild beast—she could not help
seeing that he was growing more and more restless and
irritable. Once he had even lifted his hand against
her. It was only a gesture, and checked almost in its
beginning, but she could not forget it. "Oh!" she
moaned to herself,—for, wicked as she was, she was a
woman after all,—"Oh, if only my little darling had
lived! Nero loved her so, and she would have softened
him. But it was not to be! Why did I allow them to do
all these foolish idolatries? And yet, how could I stop
it? Still, I am sure that God
 was angry with me about them, and took the child away
from me. And now there are these new troubles. I will
send another offering to Jerusalem. This time it shall
be a whole bunch of grapes for the golden vine."
Poor creature! the thought of a sacrifice of justice
and mercy never entered into her soul.
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