|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 |
 SCAEVINUS — for we must do the poor cowardly wretch such
justice as he deserves — had made an effort to save his
friends, and, one ought perhaps to add, himself. While
Natalis was being interrogated, he entered into
conversation with the slave who had been told off to
attend on him. The slave was a young man of mixed Greek
and Asiatic race, with an extremely intelligent
countenance, but sickly and lame. It was impossible for
any one with the least insight into character to look
at him and to hear him speak without perceiving that
there was something out of the common about him. In
after years he was to become one of the most notable
exponents of the Stoic philosophy, for this Phrygian
cripple was no less a person than the philosopher
Epictetus. At the time of which I am writing he was
only a feeble lad with, however, a certain air of
ability and courage which greatly impressed an
intelligent observer. Scævinus, feeling that his
situation was practically desperate, resolved to make a
last effort. If it failed he could hardly be in a worse
position than the present; if it succeeded it was just
 that the fortunes of the conspiracy might yet
"Can you take a message for me to a friend?" he said in
Greek to Epictetus.
The soldiers who were guarding the door of the
apartment heard without understanding.
"Certainly," said the slave, "if any good is to be
"You shall have ten gold pieces for your trouble."
"Nay, this is a thing which I would sooner do without
payment. That is not only more honourable, but also
"I cannot write it, indeed, there is no need; all that
is needed can be said in a few words. Go to Caius Piso,
and say to him, 'All is discovered; act.' And mind—not
a word of this to any one else. Let not wild
horses wring it out of you. That would be fatal to both
you and me."
The slave smiled. "They might as well try to wring
words out of a stump or a stone. For, indeed, what else
is a slave? When my old master kicked me and broke my
leg—" and he held out as he spoke the maimed limb—"I
said, 'Why do you damage your own property?' So I
should say to them. If they choose to kill me, that is
their own lookout; all that concerns me, for a slave
has something of a man about him after all, as
Aristotle says, is that I don't dishonour myself."
When Scævinus was recalled into the Emperor's
 audience-chamber, Epictetus lost no time in making his
way to Piso's house. Some of the prominent persons
connected with the conspiracy were assembled, and were
busy making their final arrangements for the
proceedings of the day.
Epictetus, as soon as he was safe within the doors,
wrote down on a tablet the following words: "The bearer
of a message from Scævinus asks for admission." He was
brought up without loss of time into an ante-chamber,
where Piso saw him alone. He delivered his message, and
Piso rejoined his assembled friends, and told them what
had happened. Subrius, with characteristic promptitude,
rose to the occasion.
"Piso," he said, "the task before us is different from
that which we had planned,—different and possibly more
difficult, but certainly not hopeless. We shall not
proclaim you Emperor after Nero is dead; we shall have
to proclaim you while he is yet alive. And I must own
that the affair is now more to my taste than it was. I
was ready, as you know, to play the assassin, when it
was a question of delivering the human race from a
tyrant; but I would sooner play the soldier, and meet
him in the field. That, Piso, is what we must do. Let
us go to the Forum, and appeal to the people, or, as I
would rather advise, to the camp, and appeal to the
soldiers. In both places, among both audiences, we
shall have friends. They will shout their applause, and
others, who at present
 know nothing of the matter, will
join in. That is a line of action for which, depend
upon it, Nero is not prepared. Even brave men are
sometimes confounded by so sudden an attack; how will
a stage-playing Emperor and his miserable minion
encounter it? Don't think for a moment that we can
escape; there are too many in the secret. Some one will
be sure to sell his honour for money, or find his
courage ooze away in the presence of the rack. Indeed,
we know that the treachery has begun. Let us act, and
at once, for even while I am urging you on,
opportunities are passing away."
These spirited words made no impression on Piso's
somewhat sluggish and inactive nature. He was one of
those men who are slow to move from their course, and
have an inexhaustible supply of passive endurance. He
shrugged his shoulders.
"The Empire," he said, "does not approve itself to me
if it is to be won in a street broil."
"I understand," said the soldier. "It would be more
seemly, I acknowledge, if the Senate, headed by the
Magistrates, and the Prefects, and Tribunes of the
Prætorians, with the Vestal Virgins in the front of the
whole procession, were to come and salute you as
Emperor. But that is not the question. The question is
this: You have two alternatives; think which suits your
dignity, your name, your ancestors, the better. One is
to put your fortune to the trial, if things go well, to
be the successor of Augustus; if
 the fates will
otherwise, to die, sword in hand. The other is to wait
here till Nero's myrmidons come to chain you, to drag
you off to the place of execution; or, if the tyrant
strains his prerogative of mercy to the utmost, to
suffer you to fall on your own sword, or open your own
Piso heard unmoved. His courage was of the passive
kind. He could meet death when it came with an
undaunted face, but he could not go, so to speak, to
"The gods have declared against us, and I shall not
resist their will. I thank you for your good-will and
your counsel; but you must permit a Piso to judge for
himself what best suits his own dignity and the glory
of his ancestors. I am determined to await my fate."
The bold spirit of the Tribune was not crushed, nor his
resources exhausted by this failure. There was still a
possible claimant to the throne in Lateranus. He had
not, it is true, the pretensions of Piso, neither his
personal popularity nor his noble birth. Still, he had
courage, favour with some classes of the people, and a
commanding presence. Here another disappointment
awaited him. Lateranus had been arrested. Apparently,
Nero had had the same thought that had occurred to the
Prætorian, that the Consul-elect was among the
dangerous characters of Rome. The house was in the
utmost confusion; indeed, the soldiers had only just
left it. Subrius' inquiries were
 answered by the
Chamberlain. He, poor man, came wringing his hands and
weeping, overwhelmed, it was evident, by terror and
grief. "Ah! my poor master," he said; "we shall never
see him again. They hurried him off without a moment's
"Who?" asked the soldier.
"Statius the Tribune," replied the Chamberlain, "who
had some twenty men with him. He would not give him
time even to say good by to his children. And when my
poor master said, 'If I must die, let me die by my own
hand,' even that was refused him. 'We allow nothing to
traitors,' the brute answered. They bound him hand and
foot and dragged him off."
"We allow nothing to traitors, indeed," murmured
Subrius to himself. "What, I wonder, does Statius call
himself? I hope that he, anyhow, will get his deserts."
Statius, it should be said, had been one of the most
active promoters of the conspiracy.
Again the Tribune's hopes were dashed to the ground.
Still he refused to think that all was lost. A last
chance remained. The conspiracy had spread widely among
his brother officers of the Prætorians; and they, at
least, he hoped, would make a struggle for their lives.
Civilians might be content to fold their arms and bare
their necks to the sword of the executioner, but
soldiers would die, if die they must, with arms in
their hands. And then, if they wanted
 a great name to
catch the popular ear, was there not Seneca? I don't
think much of philosophers," Subrius thought to
himself, "but perhaps I may be wrong. Anyhow, the men
of the world have failed us. They are as weak as water.
Perhaps there may be sterner stuff in the man of
Obviously there was no time to be lost. He must hurry
to the Prætorian camp at once, and urge Fænius Rufus,
who was one of the joint Prefects, and, as we know, was
involved in the conspiracy, to act.
Calling to the driver of a car which was plying for
hire, he proceeded at the utmost speed to which the
horse could be put, to the camp. Just outside the gate
he met the officer of whom he was in search.
Rufus, who was on horseback, and was followed by an
escort of ten troopers, signed to his brother officer
to halt. "Well met, Subrius!" he cried. "I am on my way
to the palace, and I want you to come with me. Give the
Tribune your horse," he went on, turning to the orderly
who was riding behind him; "go back and get a fresh
mount for yourself, and come on after us."
The man dismounted and held the horse while the Tribune
jumped into the saddle.
"Not a word," whispered the Prefect to his companion,
as they rode along; "not a word; we must brave it out,
and all may yet be well. But leave it to me.
 The Tribune had no choice but to obey. His superior
officer's conduct was unintelligible, even astounding.
Still he could do nothing. It would have been sheer
madness for him, a simple Tribune, to stand up in the
camp and bid the Prætorians abandon the Emperor. If
such a movement was to begin at all it must begin with
the Prefect. Meanwhile, he could only obey orders and
possess his soul in patience.
Rufus, anxious, it would seem, not to give his
subordinate a chance of any further speech, beckoned to
the Centurion who was in command of the escort, and
kept him in conversation till they reached the palace
The two Prætorians were ushered into the chamber where
Nero had just taken his seat, and was preparing to
examine some of the prisoners who had been named by the
informers. The Emperor was evidently in a state of
great agitation and alarm, and Subrius observed that
the detachment of the body-guard in attendance was
exclusively composed of Germans. He hardly knew whether
the circumstance was encouraging or not. For the
present, indeed, it would make any attempt very
difficult, if not impossible, but it was an ominous
thing for Nero if he had begun to find that only
barbarians could be trusted.
The Emperor signed to Rufus to take a seat immediately
on his left hand, the chair on the right being occupied
by Tigellinus. Subrius himself sat
imme-  diately below
his superior officer, and within a few feet of the
The prisoner under examination at the moment was the
poet Lucan. The Emperor and Tigellinus had been
questioning him for some time, but hitherto with little
or no result. He had denied all knowledge of the
conspiracy. Still the keen eyes of his judges had not
failed to perceive signs of waning courage. Nero
whispered to Tigellinus, and the Minister beckoned to
an attendant. The man drew aside a curtain and revealed
"Marcus Annacus Lucanus," said Tigellinus, using almost
the same words that he had addressed to Scævinus, "when
the life of the Emperor is at stake, the law permits
and even enjoins all means of discovering the truth."
The wretched man turned pale. Still he made an effort
to brave it out. "You are more likely to wring out
falsehood than truth by such means," he said in a faint
"Of that you must leave us to judge," answered
Tigellinus with a sneer.
The executioner advanced and laid his hand on the
prisoner's shoulder. He started at the touch, and grew
"Cæsar," he cried, appealing as a last chance to the
feelings of the Emperor, "Cæsar, we were once friends,
and worshipped the Muses together. Will you suffer
 Nero only smiled. He had long ago steeled his heart
against pity. Lucan he hated with that especially
bitter hatred which wounded vanity sometimes inspires.
He aspired to be a poet, as he aspired to be an actor,
a singer, a charioteer, and he could not conceal from
himself that the author of the Pharsalia far surpassed
Then the unhappy man's courage broke down. "Stop!" he
cried, "I will confess. I am guilty of conspiring
against the Emperor."
"That we know," said Tigellinus. "What we want to hear
from you is the names of your confederates."
"Must I speak, Cæsar?" moaned the wretched man. "Is it
not enough that I have confessed the crime myself?"
"You have confessed nothing," said Nero. "Your guilt I
knew already. And you I could afford to despise, for
you can only strike with your pen, but doubtless you
know others who know how to use their swords."
Lucan then gave two or three names, all of them, as it
happened, already known.
"Still we have learnt nothing new from you," said
Tigellinus. "If you wish to merit the Emperor's
clemency, you must tell us something that we have not
In a voice half stifled with shame the accused said:
"My mother knew of the affair almost as soon as I did."
 A thrill of disgust went through the audience as these
humiliating words were uttered. Even to these men,
hardened as they were, the son who could betray his own
mother seemed a monster.
"That is enough," cried the Emperor, making a sign to a
Centurion; "remove him!"
A shameful scene of baseness and cowardice followed.
One after another the accused were brought before the
tribunal; one after another they failed in the hour of
trial. Men of noble birth, men who had served their
country in high offices, and who had distinguished
themselves in the field, could not summon up courage
enough to endure this ordeal. Some volunteered
confession, and neither force, nor even the threat of
force, was needed to make them betray their comrades.
Others stood firm at first, but failed when they were
confronted with the engines of torture. Subrius sat
filled with a disgust and a shame which hardly left him
time to think of his own danger, as friend after
friend, men of courage and honour as he had always
believed them to be, proved themselves to be traitors
As for the behaviour of Rufus, he watched it with ever
increasing astonishment. The Prefect took an active
part in the examination. Not even Tigellinus was more
truculent, more savage, more brutal. He cross-examined
the prisoners, he plied them with threats, and still by
a strange agreement in silence, his name was not
mentioned by one of them.
 "What is his plan?" thought Subrius to himself. "Can he
hope that he will escape altogether, that no one out of
these scores of accomplices will name him, or is he
biding his time?"
"Tigellinus," said Nero to his Minister, after some six
or seven confessions had been taken, "do you remember
that Greek freedwoman whom Proculus accused? Let her be
brought before us again. Perhaps she may have a
different story to tell. Meanwhile, while she is being
fetched, we will adjourn for a brief space. A cup of
Falernian will not be ungrateful after this morning's
He rose from his seat, and left the Court, leaning on
the arm of Tigellinus. The Prefect of the Prætorians
followed immediately behind, and the Tribune, again,
was close to his commanding officer. Behind these again
were some dozen German body-guards.
"Is this the chance that he has been waiting for?"
said Subrius to himself.
"Shall I strike?" he whispered to the Prefect, laying
his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Rufus hesitated for a moment. That there was an
opportunity such as never might occur again, he saw;
the chances were ten to one that if Subrius were to
strike, he would not strike in vain. But then, could he
hope to escape himself if the deed was done? The German
body-guards were devoted to their master, and would
infallibly avenge his death on his assassin, and, it
could hardly be doubted, on himself.
 "Hush!" he whispered to his subordinate. "It is not the
time; we shall have a better opportunity than this."
Subrius muttered a curse under his breath, but the
habit of obedience was strong in him, and he held his
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