|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 |
A PLACE OF REFUGE
 THE freedman Linus had lost no time in making his way
to the mansion of Lateranus. He found everything there
in a state of the wildest confusion. The wife and
children of the dead man had fled for refuge to the
house of a relative, taking with them nothing but what
they could carry, and leaving everything else at the
mercy of the slaves. These had thoroughly ransacked the
house; they had broken into the cellars, where some of
the plunderers lay at that moment in a state of
hopeless intoxication. Others, of a more prudent type,
had carried off whatever valuables they could lay their
hands on. All the money and plate, in fact, every scrap
of the precious metals that could be discovered, had
disappeared. The chambers had been stripped of
coverlets, curtains, and hangings. The handles of the
doors had been removed, and even some of the best
designs in the tessellated pavements had been pulled
up. A more deplorable scene of ruin than that presented
by the house when the freedman entered it could hardly
He found, however, to his great relief, that
Pom-  ponia and Claudia had not been molested. The soldiers sent
to arrest Lateranus had received no mandate about the
two women, and had accordingly left them alone. One
faithful slave had remained, and had been doing his
best to minister to their wants. For these, indeed,
there still remained in the house a sufficient supply,
though much had been wasted by the pillagers. But the
outlook before the two women was gloomy in the extreme.
They had no friend or kinsman to whom they could look
for help. They could not even hope to remain long
forgotten. At present the thoughts of all were
engrossed by the examination and discovery of the
conspirators. But it could hardly be long before Poppæa
would bethink herself of her victims. All the Christian
fortitude of Pomponia was wanted to keep up her own
courage and to administer comfort to her young
It may be imagined then that the coming of the freedman
was welcome in the extreme. He had not been able to
reach the house in time to do anything that day. Even
after nightfall, as long as the streets were full, it
would not be safe to make a move. It was necessary for
the party to wait with as much patience as they could
exercise, till the quietest period of the twenty-four
hours, the time between midnight and dawn.
The place in which Linus hoped to find a refuge for his
patroness and her young companion was a
 spot which was
then known only to a few, but which has since attained
a world-wide fame, the Catacombs of Rome. The greater
part of the vast subterranean region now known by that
name did not then exist. But a beginning of the
excavations had been made. Already there were chambers
which could be used for temporary dwellings, others in
which worship could be celebrated, and others, again,
in which the remains of the dead could find a final
The entrance to the excavations was by a sand-pit which
had been long since disused. Happily for the secrecy
which it was so essential to maintain, the place had an
evil reputation. More than one murder had been
committed there in former times,
and every one, therefore, was careful to avoid it.
Linus succeeded in removing the two ladies to their new
shelter without attracting any attention. About thirty
persons were already assembled there. The bishop or
chief presbyter of Rome was not there; he had been
called away, it happened, on Church business some time
before, but one of his principal colleagues was acting
in his stead, and had charge of the little community.
He gave the newcomers a hearty welcome, and committed
the two women to the special charge of a deaconess, who
conducted them to
 the chamber which was assigned to them, and did her
best with the very scanty means at her command to
provide for their comfort.
A few hours of rest were exceedingly grateful; but both
insisted on attending the service which was held
shortly after sunrise in a little chamber set apart for
purposes of worship.
It was the first day of the week, and the minister
celebrated, according to custom, the rite of the Holy
Eucharist. It was the first time that Claudia was
admitted to partake of the Elements. It had been
arranged some months before, immediately, in fact,
after her arrival at Rome, that she should present
herself at the Communion, but no opportunity had
occurred for her to carry out her intention. The delay,
though it had troubled her much, was not without its
use. Her feelings had been deepened and strengthened
in no common degree by all that she had gone through.
As she knelt by the side of her adopted mother to
receive the bread and wine from the hands of the
minister, she felt raised to a spiritual height which
it is seldom granted to human nature to attain.
To one who watched the rite from without—for he was
not privileged to enter the sacred precincts—Claudia
seemed to wear a look of more than human sanctity. This
observer was Pudens. He had carried out the
instructions of Subrius to the letter, had parted with
his chief on the friendliest terms, and,
concealing himself during the day, had managed, but not
without meeting with one or two dangerous adventures,
to reach the spot indicated by the freedman. Here the
password, communicated to him by Linus, had secured his
admission from the guardians of the entrance. He had
arrived in time to witness the solemn scene just
described, and to listen to the address, partly of
thanksgiving, for the deliverance vouchsafed in the
past, partly of exhortation to courage and
faithfulness in the future, which the minister
addressed to his little congregation at the close of
the holy rite.
The days which followed, were full, for the young man,
of curiously mingled emotions.
It was a delight to be near the woman whom he loved,
and yet how remote she seemed from him! The follies of
his youth, even the scheme in which he had been lately
engaged, with its self-seeking and the pettiness of its
motives and aims, as he now looked upon them, seemed to
separate her hopelessly from him. The girl herself, on
the few occasions which he had of seeing her, was
friendly; she was more than friendly, she was
profoundly grateful. But her looks, her demeanour,
everything about her showed plainly enough that he was
not in her thoughts in the way in which he wished to
Happily for him this painful ordeal—for such he felt it
to be—did not last very long. About a week after his
arrival there came tidings from the upper
 world, if so
it may be called, which materially altered the
prospects of the refugees. The intelligence was brought
by a slave from the palace, one of the sympathizers
whose presence at headquarters was, as we have already
seen, often useful to the Christian community.
The main fact which the newcomer had to communicate to
his friends was the death of Poppæa. Every one felt
that the worst enemy of the Church was removed.
"When did she die?" asked one of the Elders.
"Yesterday," said the messenger.
"Cæsar struck her a violent blow with his foot. He had
been driving his chariot, and came into the room where
she was sitting, in his charioteer's dress. She was
sick and suffering. Something, too, had happened to
cross her temper. She taunted him. 'A pretty dress for
Cæsar!' she said. 'I shall dress as I please,' he
answered. 'At least you should do such things well,'
she went on. That touched him to the quick, you may be
sure. To be a charioteer does not trouble him, but to
be a bad charioteer—that is intolerable. He fell into a
furious rage, and kicked her. Three hours afterwards
she died. The physicians could do nothing for her. I
believe that she never spoke again. Indeed, she was not
conscious. Cæsar, when his rage was over, was fairly
mad with grief. He could not endure to
 be present at
which was made last night."
"Poor creature!" said one of the audience. "May God
show her more mercy than she showed to others!"
"She is to be embalmed and buried in the Mausoleum of
Augustus, but there is to be a great burning all the
same. Orders have been given for an image of the
deceased to be made, and this to be burnt on the pyre.
And Cæsar is to pronounce her funeral oration himself."
"Will this affect us?" asked the Elder who had first
"Greatly," replied the slave. "I have with me a copy of
an edict which will be published in the course of a few
The edict was produced and read.
"Seeing that the people called Christians have
already suffered sufficiently for their misdeeds, Cæsar
decrees that they shall henceforth be permitted to
live in peace, provided that they do not again offend
against the safety of the Roman people."
As soon as the edict was posted up in the city—and
this was done on the day of the funeral oration—the
refugees returned to their homes. Pudens took the same
opportunity of making his escape from Rome.
 His original intention was, as has been said, to return
to the army of Corbulo; but this plan, fortunately for
him, was not carried out.
The causes that prevented it, however, very nearly cost
him his life. He arrived at Antioch, on his way
eastward, just at the beginning of the summer heats.
Malarial fever, following the subsidence of the spring
floods, was rife in the city, and Pudens, predisposed
to infection by the fatigue of a very rapid journey, as
well as by anxiety and distress, was soon prostrated by
it. Happily a travelling companion, whom he had joined
at Corinth, and who had found out that they possessed
many mutual acquaintances, had hospitably invited him
to take up his quarters at his house. Pudens, who could
hardly have survived the neglect that would probably
have been his lot at the public inn, was carefully
nursed. Even then he had a hard fight for his life, and
summer was passing into early autumn before he could be
said to be on a fair way to recovery.
One day, about the middle of September, he was taking a
walk in the garden, when he was joined by his host, a
Roman knight, it may be said in passing, who managed
some extensive affairs connected with the public
revenue of the province of Syria.
"I must be thinking of going on," said Pudens, after
the usual inquiries about health had been duly
"That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you
returned his host. "Of course you know that the longer
you stay with me as my guest the better pleased I shall
be. But you have your own plans, and naturally want to
carry them on. Now let me be frank, and tell you
exactly what I know, and what I think you ought to do.
It would not surprise you to hear that you have been
Pudens nodded assent. There were blank spaces in his
memory, and other spaces all but blank, but haunted
with a dim sense of disturbance and trouble. Without
any remembrance of actual pain he could easily believe
that he had been in the condition which his host
"No, indeed," said our hero. "It is no surprise to me;
I must have given you a world of trouble."
"Not a word of that; but hark!" and the speaker
dropped his voice to a whisper, "you said things which
made me take care that no one should watch you but
myself and my wife."
Pudens could not help starting.
"Yes!" went on the other, "high matters of State which
would touch a man's life. Now I do not ask for your
confidence, but if there is anything in which I can
help you, I am at your service."
Pudens saw at once that absolute frankness was his best
policy, and related the story of the conspiracy.
"That is exactly what I supposed," returned his host,
"and you thought of taking up again your service with
 "That was my idea," said Pudens.
"And not a bad idea either, in some cases. There are
camps where you would be safe, even though you were
known to have had a hand in the conspiracy, supposing,
I mean of course, the general-in-command wished it to
be so. You would be safe with Verginius on the Rhine,
or with Galba in Spain. They are too big men for the
Emperor to disturb, and if they don't choose to give a
fugitive up, he has to be content. Corbulo is big
enough in one way, but he has no idea of disputing the
Emperor's will. It is more than fidelity with him. It
is subservience, except that he does not think of
getting anything by it. If Nero sends a Centurion for
Corbulo's head, he will put out his neck, mark my
words, without a murmur. And they are after you; that I
know. While you were lying insensible, a Centurion
passed through here with a warrant for the arrest of a
conspirator, whose name I happened to hear,—indeed, I
was applied to for my help,—and the name was Caius
Pudens. No! you must not go back to Corbulo; it would
be putting your head into the lion's mouth."
"It is a disappointment," said Pudens. "I had counted
upon Corbulo. But what do you suggest?"
"That is exactly what I have been thinking of. It would
be a risk to go westward again; though once in Spain or
Germany you might be safe. No; I should advise you to
stay here, or hereabouts. I have an idea," he resumed,
after a few minutes' silence.
 "You must tell me what
you think about it. Briefly, it is this; enlist under
another name in the local force which our King here
keeps up. It is a somewhat audacious plan, but none the
worse for that. You can wear the beard which you have
grown during your three months' illness. It is not
uncommon in the force. That will be something of a
The suggestion was carried out, and with success. No
one thought of looking for a conspirator in hiding
among the troops of King Antiochus, and so no one found
him. The events of the years that followed may be told
in a few words. Two years after his enlistment Pudens
heard of the fate of Corbulo, a fate which singularly
justified his friend's conception of his character. Not
long after he had the relief of hearing that Nero was
dead. In the year of civil strife that followed this
event, the year which saw three Emperors fall in rapid
succession, he was, happily for himself, better
employed than in supporting one pretender or another.
Vespasian, appointed to command the legions of Syria in
the year of Corbulo's death, had a keen eye for a good
soldier; he saw the capacity of Pudens, and offered him
a place on his personal staff, during the earlier
operations of the Jewish war. Vespasian, going to Rome
in the autumn of 69 to take possession of the Imperial
throne, handed over his aide-de-camp to Titus. A
brilliant period of service followed. The most famous
siege in history, the siege of Jerusalem, was going on,
and Pudens had a share in all its perils and glories.
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