|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 |
WHAT THE SOLDIERS THOUGHT
 THE temple servant was not the only one among the
spectators who had crowded the gardens of Nero, that
had viewed the sight there presented to his gaze with
disgust and horror. The Prætorians were particularly
free and outspoken in the expressions of their
feelings. Already they had begun to look upon
themselves as the prop of the Imperial throne. It was
to their camp that Nero had been carried almost before
the breath had left the body of his predecessor
Claudius; it was to them that the ambitious Agrippina
had looked to give effect to the intrigue by which her
son was preferred to the rightful heir;
it was by their voices that Nero had been proclaimed
Emperor, the vote of the Senate only following and
confirming their previous determination.
On the morning after the exhibition described in my
last chapter a wine shop, which stood just outside the
Prætorian camp, and was a favourite resort
 of the men,
was crowded with soldiers taking their morning meal.
"Well, Sisenna," cried a veteran, putting down his
empty cup, after a hearty draught of his customary
morning beverage of hot wine and water, sweetened with
honey and flavoured with saxifrage, "what think you of
last night's entertainment?"
The soldier appealed to was a young man who had just
been drafted into the Prætorian force as a reward for
some good service done on the Asiatic frontier. He did
not answer at once, but looked round the room with the
air of one who doubts whether he may safely express his
"Ha! ha!" laughed the veteran, "you are cautious, I
see. That's the way among the legions, I am told, and
quite right, too; but it's all liberty here. Speak out,
man; we are all friends here, and there is no one to
call us to account for what we say. Cæsar knows too
well what our voices are worth to him to hinder our
"Well, Rufus," said Sisenna after a pause, "I will say
frankly that it did not please me. It was not Roman,
it was barbarian, though I must say that I never heard
even of barbarians doing things quite so horrible."
"Who are these Christians?" asked a third speaker.
"What have they done?"
"Didn't you read the Emperor's edict?" said a fourth
soldier. "They set the city on fire, because
 they hate
their fellow-creatures, and wish to do them as much
damage as they can."
"Well," said Sisenna, "that, anyhow, is not my
experience of them. They may hate their
fellow-creatures in general, but they are certainly
very kind to some of them in particular. Let me tell
you what I know about them of my own knowledge. I was
very bad with fever when I was campaigning on the
Euphrates, and had to be invalided to Antioch. There I
was treated by an old Jew physician, who was one of
them—there are a good many of these Christians, you
must understand, in the city, and many of them are
Jews. Well, I was a long time getting well; these marsh
fevers are obstinate things; come back again and again
when one thinks that one is quit of them. So I got to
know the old man very well, and we had a great deal of
talk together. He used to tell me about his Master, as
he called him; Christus was the name he gave him,—that's
how these people came to be called Christians.
Another of his names was Jesus; the old man told me
what that meant, but I couldn't understand it
altogether. But, anyhow, this Master seemed to have
been a very good man."
"A good man!" interrupted one of his listeners. "Why, I
have always heard that he was a turbulent Jew whom
Claudius banished with a number of his countrymen from
 "No, no," Sisenna went on, "you are mistaken; at
least, if my friend the physician told me true;
Christus was never in Rome, and he was crucified, if I
remember right, eight years before Claudius came to the
"Crucified, was he?" said one of the previous speakers.
"Then he must have been a slave. Fancy a number of
people calling themselves by the name of a slave!"
"No," answered Sisenna; "as far as I could understand,
he was not a slave; but of course, he was not a
citizen. He was a workman of some kind, a carpenter, I
think the physician told me; but whatever he was, he
was a wonderful man. He seems to have gone about
healing sick people, and making blind men see, and lame
men walk; aye, and dead men live again."
There was a general outcry at this. "No! no!" said one
of the audience, expressing the common feeling; "that
is too much to believe; the other things might be;
but making the dead alive! you are laughing at us."
"I can only tell you," said Sisenna, "what the old man
told me; he said that he had seen these things with his
own eyes. One of the dead men was a friend of
 his own,
aye, and had been his patient, too, in his last
illness. 'I saw him die!' he said. I remember his very
words, for I was as little disposed to believe the
story as you are. 'I saw him die, for I had been with
him all the time; I had done my very best to save him;
and I saw him buried, too; then comes this Christus—he
had been away, you must understand, when the man
died—and makes them roll away the stone from the door
of the tomb, and cries to the dead man, "Come forth!"
I saw the dead man come out, just as he had been
buried, with the grave clothes about him, and his chin
tied up with a napkin, just as I had tied it with my
own hands, when I knew beyond all doubt that he was
dead.' These were the old physician's very words."
"He must have been mad," said one of the audience.
"Possibly," returned Sisenna; "but he wasn't in the
least mad in other matters. He talked as sensibly as a
man could, and a better physician I never hope to see."
"But tell me," said a soldier who had been listening
attentively to Sisenna's word, "how did this strange
man come to such a bad end? If he could do such
wonderful things, couldn't he have prevented it
somehow? And couldn't he have made himself alive again,
if he made other people?"
A murmur of approval followed the speaker's words, as
if he had succeeded in expressing the general feeling.
 "Well," replied Sisenna, "that is just what I asked,
and the old man did try to explain it to me, but I
could not rightly understand what he said. Only I made
out that he needn't have died if he had not been
"No," cried the soldier; "that can't be true. A man
choosing to die in such a way! It is past all belief."
"Well, so I thought," said Sisenna; "but as for what
you said about his making himself alive again, that is
just what the old man told me he did."
"Did he ever see him alive again?" some one asked.
"No, he did not. I particularly asked him, and he said
he was not one of those who did. But he believed it. He
knew scores of people, he said, who had seen him."
"This is all very strange," said the veteran who had
begun the conversation, "and for my part, I can't make
head or tail of it. But tell us, what sort of people
are these Christians? do they do the horrible things
that people charge them with?"
"I can't believe it," replied Sisenna. "I know nothing
but what is good of them; and I never found any one who
did know, though there are plenty who are ready to say
it. My old physician spent all his time in visiting
sick people, and I am sure not one in ten paid him
anything. He wouldn't have taken anything from me, but
that I told him I could afford
 it. They had a house, he
told me, where they took in sick folks to care for
them; not people that could pay, you must understand,
but poor workmen and slaves and lepers, all the poor
wretches that no one else took any heed of."
At this point in the conversation a newcomer entered
the room. He was greeted with a cry of welcome. "Ha!
Pansa," said one of the company, "you are just the man
whom we want to see. Do you know anything about these
folk that men call Christians?"
"Well, I ought to," replied the man. "Don't you know
that the prisoner whom Celer and I had charge of up to
the spring of this year was one of their chief men? He
was a Jew, but a citizen. Paulus was his name. He got
into trouble with his countrymen at Jerusalem, and was
brought before the Governor; but thinking that he
should not get a fair trial there he appealed to Cæsar;
so the Governor sent him over here. For some reason or
other it was a long time before his trial came on, and
meanwhile he was allowed to live in a house of his own
here in Rome. Well, as I said, Celer and I had charge
of him all that time. I don't know whether there is any
one here who has had a charge of a prisoner. If there
is, he won't need to be told that you get in that way
to know as much about a man as there is to be known.
You can never get away from him, nor he from you;
chained for twelve hours to me, and then twelve to
 Celer, that is how Paulus lived for two years. And if
Celer were here—he got his discharge, you know, about
three months ago—he would say what I say, that one
couldn't have believed that there was such a good man
in the world as our prisoner was. And I do maintain
that if the other Christians are anything like him,
they are a very admirable set of people. In the first
place, his patience was quite inexhaustible. I needn't
say that it is a trying thing to a man's temper to be
chained to another man. If it was to his own brother,
he would not much like it. Of course, it is part of our
business, and it all comes in the day's work. But we
don't like it. And I am ashamed to say that till I got
to know what sort of man this Paulus was, I was often
rough with him, and Celer was worse; you know Celer had
a rough temper sometimes. But we neither of us ever
heard so much as an angry word from him. But he had
other things to try him besides us, and we, anyhow at
first, were bad enough. He had but poor health; his
eyes, I remember in particular, were sometimes very
painful. Sometimes, too, he was very short of money.
You see he had to live on what his friends sent him,
and now and then their contributions fell short or were
delayed on the way. Anyhow, he had sometimes scarcely
enough for food and firing. But he never said a word of
complaint. And whenever he had anything he was always
ready to give it away. Prisoners, for the most part, I
fancy, think very little of any one but themselves,
 but he was thinking day and night of people all over
the world, I may say. There were letters always coming
and going. He could not write himself—his eyes were too
bad—though he would add commonly just a few big,
sprawling letters with his own hand at the end of a
I don't pretend to understand what they were all about.
They were in Greek in the first place, and I know very
little Greek; and, indeed, however much I might have
known, I should hardly have been much the wiser. But I
could see this, that they gave him a vast amount of
trouble and care. He was thinking about what was in
them day and night. I could hear him talking to
himself, and he would pray. I have seen him for an hour
together, aye, a couple of hours, on his knees
"Why, Pansa," cried one of the soldiers, "I do believe
that you are more than half a Christian yourself."
"I might be something much worse, my man," said the
"Well, it is lucky for you that you are not one just
now," retorted the other, "or we should have had you
blazing away in a pitch tunic last night."
"Ah," said Pansa, "you may say what you like, but there
is something in this business, you may be sure. You
should have seen Paulus when the Emperor
 heard his
cause. The boldest man in Rome would not have liked to
stand as he did before the Emperor alone, with not a
friend to back him up; Nero with a frown on his face
as black as thunder, and Poppæa at Nero's side,
whispering, as any one might have known, all kinds of
mischief against him. You know she hates these
Christians just as much as she loves the Jews. Well, I
have been on guard pretty often at the hearing of a
prisoner, but I never saw a man less disturbed."
"Well, what became of him?" inquired one of Pansa's
"He was acquitted. At first, I could see plainly
enough, Nero was dead against him. He would not let him
speak a couple of sentences without interruption, and
every now and then would burst out laughing. But he
came round little by little. Even Poppæa was silenced.
At last the Emperor said,
'Paulus, whether you are mad or not, only the gods know;
if you are, your madness is better than most men's
sound judgment. You seem to me not to have offended
either against the majesty of the Roman people, or
against the welfare of the human race. My sentence is
that you are acquitted.' Then the smith, who was
waiting outside, was sent for to strike off the
prisoner's chain. While he was doing this the Emperor
said, 'How long have you been bound with that chain?'
Paulus answered, 'For five years, wanting a month; that
is to say, for two years and
 four months at Cæsarea,
and for two years and two months here in Rome, and the
journeying hither was five months, seeing that I
suffered shipwreck on the way.' Nero said, 'You have
endured a wrong.' Then turning to Tigellinus, he said,
'See that he be paid two hundred gold pieces.' That
evening Paulus sent for me to his house—the place where
we had been in charge of him. When I got there, he said
to me, 'Pansa, I fear that I have been a great trouble
to you and your comrades these two years past. Pardon
me, if I have offended you in aught. I have not been
ashamed of my chain, but I know that it tries a man's
patience sorely, and I may have erred in hastiness of
speech.' I declared, as indeed I had every reason to
do, that no one could have borne himself more
admirably. He went on, 'I have given you no gifts in
these years past, such as it is customary, I am told,
for prisoners to give to them that keep them; I judged
it not right to do aught that might savour of
corruption, and indeed, I but seldom had the means out
of which I might give. But now I am no longer bound
with this constraint; will it therefore please you to
take these twenty-five pieces out of Cæsar's liberality?'
Twenty-five gold pieces, gentlemen, do not often
come in a poor soldier's way; still I was loth to take
them. 'Surely, sir,' I said, 'you need them for
yourself.' 'Nay,' said he, 'I am otherwise provided
for.' And I happen to know that he did not keep a
single piece for himself. He gave
 to Celer the same sum
that he gave to me; the rest he distributed among the
poor. After this he said to me, 'Pansa, it may and will
be that you and I shall not meet again. Now I have
never spoken to you at any time during these two years
past of that which was nearest to my heart. I thought—my
God knows whether wrongly or rightly—that I should
not, because you would be constrained to listen,
whether you would or not; my Master would have free
servants only. But now it is permitted to me to speak.'
After this he said many things which I cannot now
"But he did not persuade you?" said one of the
"Nay; he seemed to ask too much. On my faith, it seemed
to me that to be a Christian was to be little better
than being dead. Yet I have often wished it otherwise;
and, if I see him again—but perhaps it is better to
"So you don't think there is any harm in these
Christians?" said the soldier who had first questioned
"None at all, as I am a Roman," said Pansa.
"And you don't believe they set the city on fire?"
"Impossible! The Emperor has been deceived, and it is
not difficult to see who deceived him."
After this there was a silence. Though the soldiers
might boast of their freedom of speech, every one knew
that there were limits to what might safely
 be said,
and that now they were very near to dangerous ground.
Before long the silence was broken by the entrance of a
newcomer. The man, who was evidently in a state of
great excitement, looked hurriedly round the room, and
caught sight of Sisenna.
"Sisenna," he cried, "you know Fannius, the gladiator?"
"I know him well," replied Sisenna. "I served with him
in Armenia, and an excellent soldier he was. Well, what
"He is near his end, and has sent for you."
"Near his end!" cried Pansa in dismay. "Why, he had
recovered from his wounds when I saw him a few days
ago; and he told me that he was quite well. What ails
"I will tell you as we go," said the messenger; "but
make haste, for there is no time to lose."
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