|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 |
 POPPAEA and her advisers were not inclined, it may
easily be supposed, to rest satisfied with their double
defeat in the matter of Pomponia. That she had escaped
from the illegal violence of the first attack was
vexatious enough, but it was a thing that had to be
endured. It was a different thing when she was found to
have eluded a legal order for her arrest. The question
was, how was the hiding-place of the fugitives to be
discovered? Nothing was learnt by the strictest
inquiries at Subrius' country house. The inmates, some
of whom Tigellinus did not scruple to torture,
evidently knew nothing about the matter. The two ladies
had disappeared a few hours before the arrival of the
arresting party; beyond that, nothing could be learnt.
Supposed confessions, which were wrung out of one of
the slaves, were found not to lead to any discoveries.
It was soon seen that they were fictions, produced to
obtain an immediate release from pain, as confessions
obtained by pressure of torture frequently were. A more
hopeful plan was to search through the multitude of
arrested persons for some one who might really be
willing and able to give such information as would
to a discovery. Slaves who had been in Pomponia's
household in Rome were found, but they could easily
prove that they knew nothing more of her movements
beyond her departure from the city. It was when she
left Subrius' house that she seemed to have vanished
into space. Poppæa, however, was not to be baffled. One
person, she learnt, had accompanied Pomponia on her
journey; this was the old steward. It was probable that
he was in possession of the secret of her hiding-place.
If he was arrested, it might be extorted from him. The
detectives were immediately put upon his track, and it
was not long before their search was successful. Sad to
say, it was a fellow-believer, or, at least, one who
professed himself to be such, that betrayed him. Even
in days when nothing, it would seem, that could
attract, was to be gained by the profession of
Christian belief, there were some who made that
profession without adequate conviction. The mere
reckless desire of change, or a passing emotion that
was mistaken for genuine faith, led them into a false
position. Or they were of that class, who, as the
Master had foreseen, would receive the word gladly, and
in times of persecution fall away; and, it must be
confessed, the trial was terrible. Under such pressure,
strong natures might well have failed; much more this
poor young slave, feeble in frame, and of a selfish,
pleasure-loving temper, who gave the fatal information
about Phlegon. The bribe of freedom, safety, and a
of fifty thousand sesterces, that seemed to
assure him of a future livelihood, were too much for
his constancy and good faith. The information that he
gave enabled the officers, before three days were over,
to arrest the old man.
Even then Poppæa and her friends did not seem much
nearer to the attainment of their object. Questioned
as to whether he was acquainted with Pomponia's
hiding-place, he did not affect to deny it. His sturdy
principle forbade him to speak anything but the truth,
however much it might be to his own injury. But at this
acknowledgment he stopped. He could not, indeed, bring
his lips to say the thing that was not; but beyond this
he did not feel his obligation to go. Any information
that might help the persecutors to secure their prey,
he resolutely refused to give. Bribes were tried at
first; they were contemptuously rejected. Threats were
freely used, but seemed to make no impression. Torture
was then employed. The old Roman rule that it was never
to be applied to free persons had long since fallen
into neglect. For some years past persons of much
higher rank than the old steward had been exposed to
it. When even Senators and knights had been stretched
on the rack, and tortured with the heated plates of
metal, it was not likely that an insignificant freedman
But even torture seemed little likely to be
successful. Indeed, the limits of its possible
application were very soon reached. Phlegon was old and
feeble; a few minutes sufficed to throw him into a long
faint from which it was no easy matter to recall him.
The physician slave, who was in attendance, to guard
against this very risk, warned the executioner that
another application would very probably be fatal.
Yet, curiously enough, the very patience and courage of
the sufferer helped to reveal the secret which he would
gladly have given his life to keep. Phlegon had been
confined in the Tullianum, though not in one of its
lower dungeons; and the jailer, as being responsible
for his prisoners, had been present when the torture
was applied. Hardened as he was by more than twenty
years of office, the events of the last few days had
touched him. He had seen innocent men suffer before,
but never men of quite the same stamp as Fannius and
Phlegon. So full was he of the feelings thus raised,
that as soon as he was released from his duties, he
went to talk the subject over with his friends, the
temple servant and his wife. And thus the tidings
reached Claudia. From Pomponia herself all such things
were carefully kept.
Statia had not heard from the jailer the name of the
sufferer; but Claudia recognized in her
descrip-  tion of
him Pomponia's steward. And when she further heard that
he was being tortured in order to compel him to reveal
the hiding-place of a noble lady who was accused of
being a Christian, any doubt that she may have had of
his identity was removed.
It was with the greatest difficulty that the girl
retained her self-control, while her hostess gossiped
on, repeating, in her usual fashion, the description of
the suffering and the fortitude of Phlegon, which the
jailer had given her. Left at last to think over the
matter, she was in sore perplexity. Should she keep
what she had heard to herself, or should she
communicate it to Pomponia? She could not, of course,
entirely forget that her own life was at stake, and she
grew sick and faint when she remembered the horrors of
which she had been told. Still it was not this, it was
her duty to Pomponia, that made her hesitate. Pomponia,
beyond all doubt, would give herself up to save the old
man's life. But would she save it? Would she not be
only sacrificing her own? The old man was most
certainly doomed. Why should another be uselessly
involved in his fate? All this seemed reasonable
enough. Still she could not persuade herself that it
was right. What would Pomponia herself say? Supposing
that she kept the matter from her now, would she ever
be able to reveal it? Could she ever go to her and say,
"I knew that your faithful servant was being tortured,
and I kept it from you?" This thought in the end
 It must, she felt, be wrong so to act that
there would be a lifelong secret between herself and
her nearest friend.
Her resolution once arrived at, she lost no time in
carrying it out. "Mother," she said to Pomponia, "the
persecutors have laid hands on Phlegon, and have
tortured him to wring out the secret of our
Pomponia's spirits had for some time been drooping and
depressed. She knew that her fellow-believers were
suffering. Why was she not among them? Why, when they
were bravely confessing their Lord, was she in hiding?
And yet she could not bring herself to feel that duty
bade her deliver herself up, and still less that she
ought to endanger her young companion. Her courage rose
instantaneously to the occasion.
"Brave old man!" she cried. "And of course he has been
silent. Nothing, I am sure, could wring from his lips a
word that was false or base. But he must not suffer.
They shall not have to ask him again. They shall hear
what they want from me. But, my child, what shall we do
with you? "
"Can you ask, mother? " cried the girl. "Whithersoever
you go, I go also."
"Nay, my child," said Pomponia; "there is no need for
The girl stood up with flashing eyes, a true daughter
of kings. "I hope you do not hold me unworthy
 of your
company. Mother," she added in a softer tone, while she
threw her arms round the elder woman's neck, "you will
not bid me leave you?"
"Let us pray," said Pomponia.
The two women knelt together, hand clasped in hand.
Such supplications, whether expressed in words, or only
conceived in the heart, are too sacred to be written
down. They rose comforted and strengthened, the path of
duty plain before them. Whatever burden it might be the
will of their Master to put upon them, they would bear
"Bid our hostess send for a litter," said Pomponia. "We
will go without delay to the palace."
An hour afterwards as Nero sat in council with Poppæa
and Tigellinus a freedman announced that the Lady
Pomponia, together with Claudia, daughter of
Cogidumnus, King of the Regni in Britain, were below,
and awaited the Emperor's pleasure.
Poppæa's eyes gleamed with a sinister joy.
On the other hand, neither Nero nor his Minister were
particularly pleased. Tigellinus' spies and agents, of
whom he had a vast number in Rome, had reported to him
that popular sympathy was now turning in favour of the
sufferers. Had they been the worst of criminals, the
ferocity of the punishments inflicted on them would
have roused a feeling of pity; and it was doubtful
whether they were criminals at all. Of course the
 of the Prætorians at what had
happened were not unknown to him. If this had been the
case in the case of obscure and insignificant persons,
what would happen when the victim was a high-born and
"How is it your pleasure to deal with them, Sire?"
asked Tigellinus after a short pause.
"Let them be sent to the Tullianum," cried Poppæa,
carried by her spite out of her usual prudence.
Nero turned upon them with an angry scowl.
"Peace, woman," he shouted in a voice of thunder. "You
know not what you say. These ladies are ten times
better born than you."
The Empress, furious as she was at the rebuff, choked
down her rage, and murmured, "As you will, Sire."
"Let them be handed over to the keeping of Lateranus
till it be convenient to hear their case," was the
"The Emperor remembers," said Tigellinus, "that
Lateranus is the nephew of the Lady Pomponia."
"I know it," answered the Emperor. "It will serve well
enough. She will be honourably kept and safely. That is
enough. See that the necessary orders be given. Pardon
me, my dearest," he went on, turning to Poppæa. "I
would not willingly thwart you in anything, but there
are reasons, which I am sure you will see, if you give
yourself time to
 think. I will not ask you," he added
with a bitter smile, "to be lenient to these prisoners
because they are women. That, I have found out, is
scarcely a passport to a woman's favour. But you must
remember that Pomponia is the widow of a great general,
whose name is still remembered among the soldiers,
while her companion is the daughter of a King. You
cannot deal with such as if they were the wife and
daughter of a freedman."
"You know best, Sire," said the Empress in a voice from
which she vainly endeavoured to banish all traces of
"Thanks, my Poppæa," replied Nero; "we shall doubtless
agree. And now to more serious business. This is the
first draft of what I propose to recite at the games."
Four years before Nero had instituted what was to be a
Roman rival to the Olympian games. The second
celebration was at hand, and he had been preparing a
poem on the Deification of Romulus, which he proposed
to recite in public. It was this that he now submitted
to the criticism of his privy council.
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