|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 |
IN THE PRISON
 THE story which Pansa heard on his way was briefly
this. Part of it we know already. An old comrade and
antagonist had informed against him. The man had been
vanquished by Fannius in the arena, and, what was a
more deadly offence, had been detected by him in a
fraudulent attempt to bring about a result that would
have greatly profited some disreputable patrons. The
arrest of Fannius had followed. But the malignant spite
of his enemy had not been satisfied. He had induced
the officer in charge of the business to thrust this
particular prisoner into the most noisome dungeon in
Fannius had a great reputation for courage and skill in
arms, and it was not difficult to make the officer
believe, by dwelling on his lawless and violent temper,
that he was a highly dangerous person. Accordingly, all
other places of confinement being full, and even more
than full, Fannius was thrust into the Tullianum, an
underground cell, damp and fetid to a degree that made
it almost intolerable. In fact, its original use had
been as a place of execution rather than of
confinement. In this King Jugurtha, after being led in
 triumph by his conqueror, had been left to starve. Here
the profligate nobles who had conspired with Catiline
against the Senate and people of Rome had been
strangled by the hands of the public executioner. In
fact, whether the executioner was there or no,
imprisonment in this frightful dungeon, at least if
continued for more than a few hours, was a sentence of
death. So Fannius had found it. Though he had
apparently recovered from the wounds received in his
conflict with his savage antagonist, loss of blood and
long confinement to his bed had really weakened him. On
the third day of his imprisonment a malarial fever, due
to the loathsome condition of the place, declared
itself, and before forty-eight hours had passed his
condition was desperate.
Happily he was not suffered to die in this miserable
dungeon. His jailer was an old soldier, who would
probably have viewed with indifference the sufferings
of a civilian prisoner, but who had a soft spot in his
heart for any one who had served under the eagles. The
man sent for a physician, and the physician
peremptorily ordered removal. "He can hardly live," he
told the jailer, when he had examined his patient; "but
a dry chamber and wholesome air might give him a
chance." The jailer had him forthwith taken to his own
house. This was technically considered to be part of
the prison, so that he might plead that he was only
transferring his charge from one cell to another, and
one practically as safe, considering that
 the sick man
could not so much as put a foot to the ground, and
indeed was more than half unconscious.
The change of air and the careful nursing of the
jailer's wife brought about a temporary amendment.
Fannius recovered sufficient strength to be able to
speak. Summoning his host, as he may be called, to his
bedside, he whispered to him the names of two persons
whom he particularly desired to see. One of them was
Sisenna, an old comrade in arms, whom he was anxious to
make executor of his will; the other was Epicharis.
Sisenna was at hand, and, as we have seen, was fetched
"You are a true friend," said Fannius to him, as he
entered the room; "you are not afraid of coming to see
a prisoner; a prisoner, too, charged with the most
odious of crimes."
"Afraid! No," said the soldier energetically. "And as
for crime, whatever they may say, I know that you are
altogether incapable of it. But tell me, how can I
"I wish you," replied Fannius, "to undertake the charge
of distributing what little property I shall leave
behind me. Subrius the Tribune has the charge of it. It
is but a trifle, some two hundred thousand
sesterces in all; but I should like some people
to know that I have not forgotten them. I shall make my
will by word of mouth, for there is no time now for
writing. All will be left to you without the mention of
any trust; but what I want you
 to do with the money is
this. Half of the money is to go to the freedwoman
Epicharis, lately in the service of the Empress
Octavia. She is living with her aunt, Galla by name, at
the Farm of the Two Fountains near Gabii. Of the other
half I wish you to keep twenty thousand
sesterces for yourself; as to the remainder, I
have to give you a charge which may prove to be
somewhat troublesome. Inquire whether I have any
kinsfolk on the mother's side—such as I have on the
father's side, are, I know, fairly well-off—who are
both deserving and in need. Divide the money among such
as you may find to be so, exactly as you think fit. If
there are none, then distribute it among the poor at
"Nay, my friend," said the soldier; "but it is a
formidable thing to be trusted in this way. How do you
know that I am fit for it?"
"How do I know?" replied Fannius with a smile. "Why,
just in the same way that you knew I could not commit a
crime. Do not refuse. You are a soldier, and,
therefore, they are less likely to dispute the will,
which, as made by a prisoner, is of doubtful force."
"Let it be, then, as you will," said Sisenna.
"That is well," said the sick man. "We shall need seven
witnesses. There is the jailer and his wife and son;
let them send for four others, for you, of course,
The witnesses were easily found. The seven were
 made up
of the three inmates of the house, three soldiers
belonging to Sisenna's own company, and the temple
servant, in whose house Pomponia had taken refuge. It
so happened that this man was an old friend of the
The form of making the verbal or nuncupatory
will, as it was called, was of the simplest and
briefest kind. The testator simply said:—
"I, Caius Fannius, hereby nominate Marcus Sisenna,
Centurion in the fourth Prætorian Cohort, as heir to my
Immediately afterwards the will was reduced to writing
and signed by the witnesses.
The whole of this business was finished about the
seventh hour, or one o'clock in the afternoon. Just
about sunset Epicharis arrived.
The physician had just paid his patient his evening
visit, and was describing his condition to the jailer
when Epicharis reached the house. She caught the sound
of his voice through the door which happened to be
ajar, and guessing from the first words that she heard
who he was, and what was his errand in that house,
stood in almost breathless suspense to listen. A rapid
intuition told her that not to discover herself would
be her best chance of knowing the whole truth. If he
knew her relation to the sick man the physician would
probably, after the fashion of his class, deceive her
with some kindly meant misrepresentation of the truth.
 "It is as I feared," said the old man. "The
improvement of yesterday was a last flicker. They
might as well strangle a man as throw him into that
pit. Does he wish to see any one?"
The jailer told him that he made his will that morning,
and that the woman to whom he was betrothed was
coming. Would the excitement of seeing her harm him?
"Harm him!" cried the physician. "Nothing can harm him
now. Let him have his will in everything. He can scarce
live beyond sunrise to-morrow. I will see him again,
though I can do no good. Now I have others to visit."
As he spoke the physician opened the door, and found
himself face to face with the girl outside. What she
had heard had equalled, even surpassed, her worst
fears. That something was wrong, she had not doubted;
else why should she have been sent for. Very likely
there had been a relapse; he had been doing too much in
Rome, and she would take him away again to country
quiet and pure air, and nurse him back to health. And
the girl, in the newly waked tenderness of her heart,
remembered what a happy time the first nursing had
been, the danger once over, and she took herself to
task for a selfish wish that she might have the same
delight again. And now to hear that the man she loved
was within a few hours of his death. She stood,
petrified with dismay, unable to speak or move.
 The old physician at once guessed who she was.
Assuming his set, professional smile, he said in as
cheerful a tone as he could command, for, used as he
was to suffering, his patient's case had touched him,
"Ah, my dear girl, you have come, I suppose, to set our
friend all right. You will find him a little low, and
must be careful with him."
"Ah, sir," cried the girl, recovering her speech, "do
not seek to deceive me. I heard all that you said, as I
The old man's manner changed at once to a grave
kindliness. "You know it, then," he said. "You are a
brave girl, I see; control yourself; you will have time
for tears hereafter; now make his last hour as happy as
you can. The gods comfort you!"
He pressed her hand with a friendly grasp, and hurried
away, but it was long before he forgot the look of
hopeless sorrow that was written on that beautiful
"I am Epicharis, whom you sent for," she said to the
jailer's wife as she entered the room. "Stay," she went
on, lifting up her hand as she spoke, "I know the whole
truth. And now let me sit here a while and recover
myself somewhat before I see him."
She sat down, and resolutely set herself to master the
passion of grief that was struggling within for
expression. A flood of tears would have been an
in-  expressible relief; but did she once give way to
them, when could she recover her calm? Time was
precious, and she must not risk losing it. By degrees
she controlled herself, fighting down with success the
dry, tearless sobs that for a time would rise in her
breast. She consented, though loathing it in her heart,
to drink the cup of wine which her hostess pressed upon
her, and it certainly helped her in her struggle. In
about half an hour's time she was calm enough to enter
the sick man's chamber.
Fannius had fallen into a light sleep, but awoke as she
came in. For a time, as will often happen in cases of
weakness, he failed to collect his thoughts. He had
been dreaming of past times, days in which Epicharis
had been cold and disdainful, and the girl's real
presence seemed only to carry on the visionary scene
which sleep had conjured up before his eyes.
"Why does she come to torment me?" he said. "I had best
forget her, if she cannot love me."
The girl's eyes filled with tears. It is hard to say
which pained her more, the thought of the happiness
which she might have had, had she been less set on her
own purposes, or that of which she had had a brief
glimpse, but could now see no more.
She threw herself on her knees by the bedside, and
kissed the pale hand which rested on the coverlet.
The touch of her warm lips recalled the dying man
himself. His eyes lightened with a smile of
"You are come, darling," he said. "I knew that you
would. You will stay with me now," he whispered after
a pause. "It will not be for long."
After that he seemed content to be silent. Indeed, he
was almost too weak to speak. But, to judge from the
happy smile upon his face, it was bliss to feel her
hand in his, and to keep his eyes fixed upon her face.
About an hour short of midnight he fell asleep.
Epicharis sat on in the same posture, watching him as
he slept with an intense earnestness. A little after
dawn he woke.
"Give me," he said, "a cordial. I have something to
say, and need a little strength."
The physician had left a cordial, some old Falernian
wine with bettany root dissolved in it, in case the
occasion for it should arise.
Epicharis raised the sick man's head from the pillow,
and put the cup to his lips. He took a few sips and
then spoke: "Tell Subrius the Prætorian that he is
embarked on an ill business. It will not prosper. And
you, too, beware of it. Put away these thoughts from
you. It has been borne in upon me that these things
will be your ruin. I have had a dreadful dream since I
slept. I saw Nero sitting on his throne, and the ground
round him was covered with dead bodies, as thickly as
if there had been a battle. But I could not see their
 "But you told me yourself," said Epicharis, "of this
undertaking, and seemed glad that it was set on foot."
"Ah! but things are changed since then with me. I did
not know what I know now."
The fact was, that it was only a few days before his
arrest that Fannius had discussed the subject with one
of the Christian teachers. Probably there have always
been two ways of thinking about the lawfulness of
resistance to power, unrighteous in itself or
unrighteously exercised. But among the early
Christians there was certainly a greater weight of
authority on the side of submission. "The powers that
be are ordained of God" was the teaching of the great
Apostle who had formed the views of the Church in Rome;
and this view had been strongly enforced on Fannius by
the teacher whom he consulted, one of those who had
learnt all that they knew at the feet of St. Paul.
The mind of the soldier had been much agitated by
conflicting emotions. The old loyalty to the Emperor,
which was part of a soldier's training, was now
reinforced by a religious sanction. On the other hand,
he was deeply committed to comrades with whose desire
to free Rome from the shame of its present degradation
he strongly sympathized. And then there was Epicharis.
She lived, he knew, to avenge a cruel wrong to one whom
she loved. This aim was the thing nearest to her heart,
nearer, he was
 aware, than her love for him. Could he
endure to disappoint her?
Then came the arrest and imprisonment of the
Christians. The tyrant who had given the order now
seemed doubly hateful. Still it did not change the
soldier's newly acquired views of duty. In one way it
emphasized them. The more difficult submission
appeared, the greater the obligation to it. "Not only
to the good and gentle, but also to the froward," were
words that rung in his ears. And in the near presence
of his death this call of duty, as he conceived it,
became louder and more imperative. To see Epicharis,
and to implore her to abandon her scheme, became a
"I implore you," he said, "as you love me, to give up
your schemes. Leave the wrong-doer to be punished by
God. His vengeance is stronger and surer than ours."
It was a critical moment. The girl indeed did not
understand the reason which moved Fannius to speak in
this way. She fancied that he was more concerned for
her safety than for anything else. Still his entreaty
weighed greatly with her. He was a dying man, and the
last requests of the dying are hard to refuse; and she
felt, too, that she owed him some redress. The words "I
promise" were almost on her lips. Had she spoken them
the fate of many persons with whom our story is
concerned might have been different. But at the very
 was about to speak there came a sudden
An official sent to inspect the prison had discovered
the change which the keeper of the Tullianum had taken
upon himself to make in the custody of Fannius. As he
had been specially instructed to allow no relaxation in
the severity of imprisonment, he at once directed that
the man should be carried back to the dungeon from
which he had been transferred. The jailer in vain
represented that the prisoner was dying. "That makes no
difference," was the answer. "I must obey my orders,"
and he pushed his way, followed by two attendants, into
the chamber of death.
"There he is," he cried to the men; "carry him back,
dead or alive."
At the sound of his voice, Epicharis rose from where
she had been kneeling by the bedside, and confronted
the two men.
"You shall not touch him," she cried.
The attendants fell back astonished, so majestic was
she in the white heat of her wrath.
"Thrust her aside," cried their more hardened master,
from where he stood in the background.
The men hesitated; she might have a weapon in her
dress, and looked quite capable of dealing a mortal
The inspector, infuriated at this delay, now himself
made a forward movement.
 At this moment a voice from behind changed the woman's
"Epicharis!" said the dying man feebly.
She turned to him with a gesture of tenderness.
"Hinder them not," he whispered. "I can die as easily
there as here. Kiss me, dearest. The Lord Christ bless
and keep you, and bring us to meet again."
She stooped to kiss him.
Even the brutal official could not interrupt this
parting. When it was over, his victim was out of the
reach of his cruelty. Fannius was dead.
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