Part 8 out of 12
other slope of the Esquiline. Vinicius saw in all this a dispensation of
Christ, whose care he felt above him, and his heart was filled more than
ever with love; he swore in his soul to pay with his whole life for
those clear marks of favor.
But all the more did he hurry to Ostrianum. He would find Lygia, find
Linus and Peter; he would take them to a distance, to some of his lands,
even to Sicily. Let Rome burn; in a few days it would be a mere heap of
ashes. Why remain in the face of disaster and a mad rabble? In his
lands troops of obedient slaves would protect them, they would be
surrounded by the calm of the country, and live in peace under Christ's
wings blessed by Peter. Oh, if he could find them!
That was no easy thing. Vinicius remembered the difficulty with which
he had passed from the Appian Way to the Trans-Tiber, and how he must
circle around to reach the Via Portuensis. He resolved, therefore, to
go around the city this time in the opposite direction. Going by the
Via Triumphatoris, it was possible to reach the Æmilian bridge by going
along the river, thence passing the Pincian Hill, all the Campus
Martius, outside the gardens of Pompey, Lucullus, and Sallust, to make a
push forward to the Via Nomentana. That was the shortest way; but
Macrinus and Chilo advised him not to take it. The fire had not touched
that part of the city, it is true; but all the market squares and
streets might be packed densely with people and their goods. Chilo
advised him to go through the Ager Vaticanus to the Porta Flaminia,
cross the river at that point, and push on outside the walls beyond the
gardens of Acilius to the Porta Salaria. Vinicius, after a moment's
hesitation, took this advice.
Macrinus had to remain in care of his house; but he provided two mules,
which would serve Lygia also in a further journey. He wished to give a
slave, too; but Vinicius refused, judging that the first detachment of
pretorians he met on the road would pass under his orders.
Soon he and Chilo moved on through the Pagus Janiculensis to the
Triumphal Way. There were vehicles there, too, in open places; but they
pushed between them with less difficulty, as the inhabitants had fled
for the greater part by the Via Portuensis toward the sea. Beyond the
Septimian Gate they rode between the river and the splendid gardens of
Domitius; the mighty cypresses were red from the conflagration, as if
from evening sunshine. The road became freer; at times they had to
struggle merely with the current of incoming rustics. Vinicius urged
his mule forward as much as possible; but Chilo, riding closely in the
rear, talked to himself almost the whole way.
"Well, we have left the fire behind, and now it is heating our
shoulders. Never yet has there been so much light on this road in the
night-time. O Zeus! if thou wilt not send torrents of rain on that
fire, thou hast no love for Rome, surely. The power of man will not
quench those flames. Such a city,--a city which Greece and the whole
world was serving! And now the first Greek who comes along may roast
beans in its ashes. Who could have looked for this? And now there will
be no longer a Rome, nor Roman rulers. Whoso wants to walk on the ashes,
when they grow cold, and whistle over them, may whistle without danger.
O gods! to whistle over such a world-ruling city! What Greek, or even
barbarian, could have hoped for this? And still one may whistle; for a
heap of ashes, whether left after a shepherd's fire or a burnt city, is
mere ashes, which the wind will blow away sooner or later."
Thus talking, he turned from moment to moment toward the conflagration,
and looked at the waves of flame with a face filled at once with delight
"It will perish! It will perish!" continued he, "and will never be on
earth again. Whither will the world send its wheat now, its olives, and
its money? Who will squeeze gold and tears from it? Marble does not
burn, but it crumbles in fire. The Capitol will turn into dust, and the
Palatine into dust. O Zeus! Rome was like a shepherd, and other
nations like sheep. When the shepherd was hungry, he slaughtered a
sheep, ate the flesh, and to thee, O father of the gods, he made an
offering of the skin. Who, O Cloud-compeller, will do the slaughtering
now, and into whose hand wilt thou put the shepherd's whip? For Rome is
burning, O father, as truly as if thou hadst fired it with thy
"Hurry!" urged Vinicius; "what art thou doing there?"
"I am weeping over Rome, lord,--Jove's city!"
For a time they rode on in silence, listening to the roar of the
burning, and the sound of birds' wings. Doves, a multitude of which had
their nests about villas and in small towns of the Campania, and also
every kind of field-bird from near the sea and the surrounding
mountains, mistaking evidently the gleam of the conflagration for
sunlight, were flying, whole flocks of them, blindly into the fire.
Vinicius broke the silence first,--
"Where wert thou when the fire burst out?"
"I was going to my friend Euricius, lord, who kept a shop near the
Circus Maximus, and I was just meditating on the teaching of Christ,
when men began to shout: 'Fire!' People gathered around the Circus for
safety, and through curiosity; but when the flames seized the whole
Circus, and began to appear in other places also, each had to think of
his own safety."
"Didst thou see people throwing torches into houses?"
"What have I not seen, O grandson of Æneas! I saw people making a way
for themselves through the crowd with swords; I have seen battles, the
entrails of people trampled on the pavement. Ah, if thou hadst seen
that, thou wouldst have thought that barbarians had captured the city,
and were putting it to the sword. People round about cried that the end
of the world had come. Some lost their heads altogether, and, forgetting
to flee, waited stupidly till the flames seized them. Some fell into
bewilderment, others howled in despair; I saw some also who howled from
delight. O lord, there are many bad people in the world who know not
how to value the benefactions of your mild rule, and those just laws in
virtue of which ye take from all what they have and give it to
yourselves. People will not be reconciled to the will of God!"
Vinicius was too much occupied with his own thoughts to note the irony
quivering in Chilo's words. A shudder of terror seized him at the
simple thought that Lygia might be in the midst of that chaos on those
terrible streets where people's entrails were trampled on. Hence, though
he had asked at least ten times of Chilo touching all which the old man
could know, he turned to him once again,--
"But hast thou seen them in Ostrianum with thy own eyes?"
"I saw them, O son of Venus; I saw the maiden, the good Lygian, holy
Linus, and the Apostle Peter."
"Before the fire?"
"Before the fire, O Mithra!"
But a doubt rose in the soul of Vinicius whether Chilo was not lying;
hence, reining his mule in, he looked threateningly at the old Greek and
"What wert thou doing there?"
Chilo was confused. True, it seemed to him, as to many, that with the
destruction of Rome would come the end also of Roman dominion. But he
was face to face with Vinicius; he remembered that the young soldier had
prohibited him, under a terrible threat, from watching the Christians,
and especially Linus and Lygia.
"Lord," said he, "why dost thou not believe that I love them? I do. I
was in Ostrianum, for I am half a Christian. Pyrrho has taught me to
esteem virtue more than philosophy; hence I cleave more and more to
virtuous people. And, besides, I am poor; and when thou, O Jove, wert
at Antium, I suffered hunger frequently over my books; therefore I sat
at the wall of Ostrianum, for the Christians, though poor, distribute
more alms than all other inhabitants of Rome taken together."
This reason seemed sufficient to Vinicius, and he inquired less
"And dost thou not know where Linus is dwelling at this moment?"
"Thou didst punish me sharply on a time for curiosity," replied the
Vinicius ceased talking and rode on.
"O lord," said Chilo, after a while, "thou wouldst not have found the
maiden but for me, and if we find her now, thou wilt not forget the
"Thou wilt receive a house with a vineyard at Ameriola."
"Thanks to thee, O Hercules! With a vineyard? Thanks to thee! Oh,
yes, with a vineyard!"
They were passing the Vatican Hill now, which was ruddy from the fire;
but beyond the Naumachia they turned to the right, so that when they had
passed the Vatican Field they would reach the river, and, crossing it,
go to the Flaminian Gate. Suddenly Chilo reined in his mule,
"A good thought has come to my head, lord!"
"Speak!" answered Vinicius.
"Between the Janiculum and the Vatican Hill, beyond the gardens of
Agrippina, are excavations from which stones and sand were taken to
build the Circus of Nero. Hear me, lord. Recently the Jews, of whom,
as thou knowest, there is a multitude in Trans-Tiber, have begun to
persecute Christians cruelly. Thou hast in mind that in the time of the
divine Claudius there were such disturbances that Cæsar was forced to
expel them from Rome. Now, when they have returned, and when, thanks to
the protection of the Augusta, they feel safe, they annoy Christians
more insolently. I know this; I have seen it. No edict against
Christians has been issued; but the Jews complain to the prefect of the
city that Christians murder infants, worship an ass, and preach a
religion not recognized by the Senate; they beat them, and attack their
houses of prayer so fiercely that the Christians are forced to hide."
"What dost thou wish to say?" inquired Vinicius.
"This, lord, that synagogues exist openly in the Trans-Tiber; but that
Christians, in their wish to avoid persecution, are forced to pray in
secret and assemble in ruined sheds outside the city or in sand-pits.
Those who dwell in the Trans-Tiber have chosen just that place which was
excavated for the building of the Circus and various houses along the
Tiber. Now, when the city is perishing, the adherents of Christ are
praying. Beyond doubt we shall find a countless number of them in the
excavation; so my advice is to go in there along the road."
"But thou hast said that Linus has gone to Ostrianum," cried Vinicius
"But thou has promised me a house with a vineyard at Ameriola," answered
Chilo; "for that reason I wish to seek the maiden wherever I hope to
find her. They might have returned to the Trans-Tiber after the
outbreak of the fire. They might have gone around outside the city, as
we are doing at this momnent. Linus has a house, perhaps he wished to
be nearer his house to see if the fire had seized that part of the city
also. If they have returned, I swear to thee, by Persephone, that we
shall find them at prayer in the excavation; in the worst event, we
shall get tidings of them."
"Thou art right; lead on!" said the tribune.
Chilo, without hesitation, turned to the left toward the hill.
For a while the slope of the hill concealed the conflagration, so that,
though the neighboring heights were in the light, the two men were in
the shade. When they had passed the Circus, they turned still to the
left, and entered a kind of passage completely dark. But in that
darkness Vinicius saw swarms of gleaming lanterns.
"They are there," said Chilo. "There will be more of them to-day than
ever, for other houses of prayer are burnt or are filled with smoke, as
is the whole Trans-Tiber."
"True!" said Vinicius, "I hear singing."
In fact, the voices of people singing reached the hill from the dark
opening, and the lanterns vanished in it one after the other. But from
side passages new forms appeared continually, so that after some time
Vinicius and Chilo found themselves amid a whole assemblage of people.
Chilo slipped from his mule, and, beckoning to a youth who sat near,
said to him,--"I am a priest of Christ and a bishop. Hold the mules for
us; thou wilt receive my blessing and forgiveness of sins."
Then, without waiting for an answer, he thrust the reins into his hands,
and, in company with Vinicius, joined the advancing throng.
They entered the excavation after a while, and pushed on through the
dark passage by the dim light of lanterns till they reached a spacious
cave, from which stone had been taken evidently, for the walls were
formed of fresh fragments.
It was brighter there than in the corridor, for, in addition to tapers
and lanterns, torches were burning. By the light of these Vinicius saw
a whole throng of kneeling people with upraised hands. He could not see
Lygia, the Apostle Peter, or Linus, but he was surrounded by faces
solenm and full of emotion. On some of them expectation or alarm was
evident; on some, hope. Light was reflected in the whites of their
upraised eyes; perspiration was flowing along their foreheads, pale as
chalk; some were singing hymns, others were repeating feverishly the
name of Jesus, some were beating their breasts. It was apparent that
they expected something uncommon at any moment.
Meanwhile the hymn ceased, and above the assembly, in a niche formed by
the removal of an immense stone, appeared Crispus, the acquaintance of
Vinicius, with a face as it were half delirious, pale, stern, and
fanatical. All eyes were turned to him, as though waiting for words of
consolation and hope. After he had blessed the assembly, he began in
hurried, almost shouting tones,--
"Bewail your sins, for the hour has come! Behold the Lord has sent down
destroying flames on Babylon, on the city of profligacy and crime. The
hour of judgment has struck, the hour of wrath and dissolution. The
Lord has promised to come, and soon you will see Him. He will not come
as the Lamb, who offered His blood for your sins, but as an awful judge,
who in His justice will hurl sinners and unbelievers into the pit. Woe
to the world, woe to sinners! there will be no mercy for them. I see
Thee, O Christ! Stars are falling to the earth in showers, the sun is
darkened, the earth opens in yawning gulfs, the dead rise from their
graves, but Thou art moving amid the sound of trumpets and legions of
angels, amid thunders and lightnings. I see Thee, I hear Thee, O
Then he was silent, and, raising his eyes, seemed to gaze into something
distant and dreadful. That moment a dull roar was heard in the cave,--
once, twice, a tenth time, in the burning city whole streets of partly
consumed houses began to fall with a crash. But most Christians took
those sounds as a visible sign that the dreadful hour was approaching;
belief in the early second coming of Christ and in the end of the world
was universal among them, now the destruction of the city had
strengthened it. Terror seized the assembly. Many voices repeated,
"The day of judgment! Behold, it is coming!" Some covered their faces
with their hands, believing that the earth would be shaken to its
foundation, that beasts of hell would rush out through its openings and
hurl themselves on sinners. Others cried, "Christ have mercy on us!"
"Redeemer, be pitiful!" Some confessed their sins aloud; others cast
themselves into the arms of friends, so as to have some near heart with
them in the hour of dismay.
But there were faces which seemed rapt into heaven, faces with smiles
not of earth; these showed no fear. In some places were heard voices;
those were of people who in religious excitement had begun to cry out
unknown words in strange languages. Some person in a dark corner cried,
"Wake thou that sleepest!" Above all rose the shout of Crispus, "Watch
ye! watch ye!"
At moments, however, silence came, as if all were holding the breath in
their breasts, and waiting for what would come. And then was heard the
distant thunder of parts of the city falling into ruins, after which
were heard again groans and cries,--"Renounce earthly riches, for soon
there will be no earth beneath your feet! Renounce earthly loves, for
the Lord will condemn those who love wife or child more than Him. Woe
to the one who loves the creature more than the Creator! Woe to the
rich! woe to the luxurious! woe to the dissolute! woe to husband, wife,
Suddenly a roar louder than any which had preceded shook the quarry.
All fell to the earth, stretching their arms in cross form to ward away
evil spirits by that figure. Silence followed, in which was heard only
panting breath, whispers full of terror, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" and in
places the weeping of children. At that moment a certain calm voice
spoke above that prostrate multitude,--
"Peace be with you!"
That was the voice of Peter the Apostle, who had entered the cave a
moment earlier. At the sound of his voice terror passed at once, as it
passes from a flock in which the shepherd has appeared. People rose from
the earth; those who were nearer gathered at his knees, as if seeking
protection under his wings. He stretched his hands over them and
"Why are ye troubled in heart? Who of you can tell what will happen
before the hour cometh? The Lord has punished Babylon with fire; but
His mercy will be on those whom baptism has purified, and ye whose sins
are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will die with His name on your
lips. Peace be with you!"
After the terrible and merciless words of Crispus, those of Peter fell
like a balm on all present. Instead of fear of God, the love of God
took possession of their spirits. Those people found the Christ whom
they had learned to love from the Apostle's narratives; hence not a
merciless judge, but a mild and patient Lamb, whose mercy surpasses
man's wickedness a hundredfold. A feeling of solace possessed the whole
assembly; and comfort, with thankfulness to the Apostle, filled their
hearts, Voices from various sides began to cry, "We are thy sheep, feed
us!" Those nearer said, "Desert us not in the day of disaster!" And
they knelt at his knees; seeing which Vinicius approached, seized the
edge of Peter's mantle, and, inclining, said,--
"Save me, lord. I have sought her in the smoke of the burning and in
the throng of people; nowhere could I find her, but I believe that thou
canst restore her."
Peter placed his hand on the tribune's head.
"Have trust," said he, "and come with me."
The city burned on. The Circus Maximus had fallen in ruins. Entire
streets and alleys in parts which began to burn first were falling in
turn. After every fall pillars of flame rose for a time to the very
sky. The wind had changed, and blew now with mighty force from the sea,
bearing toward the Cælian, the Esquiline, and the Viminal rivers of
flame, brands, and cinders. Still the authorities provided for rescue.
At command of Tigellinus, who had hastened from Antium the third day
before, houses on the Esquiline were torn down so that the fire,
reaching empty spaces, died of itself. That was, however, undertaken
solely to save a remnant of the city; to save that which was burning was
not to be thought of. There was need also to guard against further
results of the ruin. Incalculable wealth had perished in Rome; all the
property of its citizens had vanished; hundreds of thousands of people
were wandering in utter want outside the walls. Hunger had begun to
pinch this throng the second day, for the immense stores of provisions
in the city had burned with it. In the universal disorder and in the
destruction of authority no one had thought of furnishing new supplies.
Only after the arrival of Tigellinus were proper orders sent to Ostia;
but meanwhile the people had grown more threatening.
The house at Aqua Appia, in which Tigellinus lodged for the moment, was
surrounded by crowds of women, who from morning till late at night
cried, "Bread and a roof!" Vainly did pretorians, brought from the
great camp between the Via Salaria and the Nomentana, strive to maintain
order of some kind. Here and there they were met by open, armed
resistance. In places weaponless crowds pointed to the burning city,
and shouted, "Kill us in view of that fire!" They abused Cæsar, the
Augustians, the pretorians; excitement rose every moment, so that
Tigellinus, looking at night on the thousands of fires around the city,
said to himself that those were fires in hostile camps.
Besides flour, as much baked bread as possible was brought at his
command, not only from Ostia, but from all towns and neighboring
villages. When the first instalment came at night to the Emporium, the
people broke the chief gate toward the Aventine, seized all supplies in
the twinkle of an eye, and caused terrible disturbance. In the light of
the conflagration they fought for loaves, and trampled many of them into
the earth. Flour from torn bags whitened like snow the whole space from
the granary to the arches of Drusus and Germanicus. The uproar
continued till soldiers seized the building and dispersed the crowd with
arrows and missiles.
Never since the invasion by the Gauls under Brennus had Rome beheld such
disaster. People in despair compared the two conflagrations. But in
the time of Brennus the Capitol remained. Now the Capitol was encircled
by a dreadful wreath of flame. The marbles, it is true, were not
blazing; but at night, when the wind swept the flames aside for a
moment, rows of columns in the lofty sanctuary of Jove were visible, red
as glowing coals. In the days of Brennus, moreover, Rome had a
disciplined integral people, attached to the city and its altars; but
now crowds of a many-tongued populace roamed nomad-like around the walls
of burning Rome,--people composed for the greater part of slaves and
freedmen, excited, disorderly, and ready, under the pressure of want, to
turn against authority and the city.
But the very immensity of the fire, which terrified every heart,
disarmed the crowd in a certain measure. After the fire might come
famine and disease; and to complete the misfortune the terrible heat of
July had appeared. It was impossible to breathe air inflamed both by
fire and the sun. Night brought no relief, on the contrary it presented
a hell. During daylight an awful and ominous spectacle met the eye. In
the centre a giant city on heights was turned into a roaring volcano;
round about as far as the Alban Hills was one boundless camp, formed of
sheds, tents, huts, vehicles, bales, packs, stands, fires, all covered
with smoke and dust, lighted by sunrays reddened by passing through
smoke,--everything filled with roars, shouts, threats, hatred and
terror, a monstrous swarm of men, women, and children. Mingled with
Quirites were Greeks, shaggy men from the North with blue eyes,
Africans, and Asiatics; among citizens were slaves, freedmen,
gladiators, merchants, mechanics, servants, and soldiers,--a real sea of
people, flowing around the island of fire.
Various reports moved this sea as wind does a real one. These reports
were favorable and unfavorable. People told of immense supplies of
wheat and clothing to be brought to the Emporium and distributed gratis.
It was said, too, that provinces in Asia and Africa would be stripped of
their wealth at Cæsar's command, and the treasures thus gained be given
to the inhabitants of Rome, so that each man might build his own
dwelling. But it was noised about also that water in the aqueducts had
been poisoned; that Nero intended to annihilate the city, destroy the
inhabitants to the last person, then move to Greece or to Egypt, and
rule the world from a new place. Each report ran with lightning speed,
and each found belief among the rabble, causing outbursts of hope,
anger, terror, or rage. Finally a kind of fever mastered those nomadic
thousands. The belief of Christians that the end of the world by fire
was at hand, spread even among adherents of the gods, and extended
daily. People fell into torpor or madness. In clouds lighted by the
burning, gods were seen gazing down on the ruin; hands were stretched
toward those gods then to implore pity or send them curses.
Meanwhile soldiers, aided by a certain number of inhabitants, continued
to tear down houses on the Esquiline and the Cælian, as also in the
Trans-Tiber; these divisions were saved therefore in considerable part.
But in the city itself were destroyed incalculable treasures accumulated
through centuries of conquest; priceless works of art, splendid temples,
the most precious monuments of Rome's past, and Rome's glory. They
foresaw that of all Rome there would remain barely a few parts on the
edges, and that hundreds of thousands of people would be without a roof.
Some spread reports that the soldiers were tearing down houses not to
stop the fire, but to prevent any part of the city from being saved.
Tigellinus sent courier after courier to Antium, imploring Cæsar in each
letter to come and calm the despairing people with his presence. But
Nero moved only when fire had seized the "domus transitoria," and he
hurried so as not to miss the moment in which the conflagration should
be at its highest.
Meanwhile fire had reached the Via Nomentana, but turned from it at once
with a change of wind toward the Via Lata and the Tiber. It surrounded
the Capitol, spread along the Forum Boarium, destroyed everything which
it had spared before, and approached the Palatine a second time.
Tigellinus, assembling all the pretorian forces, despatched courier
after courier to Cæsar with an announcement that he would lose nothing
of the grandeur of the spectacle, for the fire had increased.
But Nero, who was on the road, wished to come at night, so as to sate
himself all the better with a view of the perishing capital. Therefore
he halted, in the neighborhood of Aqua Albana, and, summoning to his
tent the tragedian Aliturus, decided with his aid on posture, look, and
expression; learned fitting gestures, disputing with the actor
stubbornly whether at the words "O sacred city, which seemed more
enduring than Ida," he was to raise both hands, or, holding in one the
forminga, drop it by his side and raise only the other. This question
seemed to him then more important than all others. Starting at last
about nightfall, he took counsel of Petronius also whether to the lines
describing the catastrophe he might add a few magnificent blasphemies
against the gods, and whether, considered from the standpoint of art,
they would not have rushed spontaneously from the mouth of a man in such
a position, a man who was losing his birthplace.
At length he approached the walls about midnight with his numerous
court, composed of whole detachments of nobles, senators, knights,
freedmen, slaves, women, and children. Sixteen thousand pretorians,
arranged in line of battle along the road, guarded the peace and safety
of his entrance, and held the excited populace at a proper distance.
The people cursed, shouted, and hissed on seeing the retinue, but dared
not attack it. In many places, however, applause was given by the
rabble, which, owning nothing, had lost nothing in the fire, and which
hoped for a more bountiful distribution than usual of wheat, olives,
clothing, and money. Finally, shouts, hissing, and applause were
drowned in the blare of horns and trumpets, which Tigellinus had caused
to be sounded.
Nero, on arriving at the Ostian Gate, halted, and said, "Houseless ruler
of a houseless people, where shall I lay my unfortunate head for the
After he had passed the Clivus Delphini, he ascended the Appian aqueduct
on steps prepared purposely. After him followed the Augustians and a
choir of singers, bearing citharæ, lutes, and other musical instruments.
And all held the breath in their breasts, waiting to learn if he would
say some great words, which for their own safety they ought to remember.
But he stood solemn, silent, in a purple mantle, and a wreath of golden
laurels, gazing at the raging might of the flames. When Terpnos gave him
a golden lute, he raised his eyes to the sky, filled with the
conflagration, as if he were waiting for inspiration.
The people pointed at him from afar as he stood in the bloody gleam. In
the distance fiery serpents were hissing. The ancient and most sacred
edifices were in flames: the temple of Hercules, reared by Evander, was
burning; the temple of Jupiter Stator was burning, the temple of Luna,
built by Servius Tullius, the house of Numa Pompilius, the sanctuary of
Vesta with the penates of the Roman people; through waving flames the
Capitol appeared at intervals; the past and the spirit of Rome was
burning. But he, Cæsar, was there with a lute in his hand and a
theatrical expression on his face, not thinking of his perishing
country, but of his posture and the prophetic words with which he might
describe best the greatness of the catastrophe, rouse most admiration,
and receive the warmest plaudits. He detested that city, he detested
its inhabitants, beloved only his own songs and verses; hence he
rejoiced in heart that at last he saw a tragedy like that which he was
writing. The verse-maker was happy, the declaimer felt inspired, the
seeker for emotions was delighted at the awful sight, and thought with
rapture that even the destruction of Troy was as nothing if compared
with the destruction of that giant city. What more could he desire?
There was world-ruling Rome in flames, and he, standing on the arches of
the aqueduct with a golden lute, conspicuous, purple, admired,
magnificent, poetic. Down below, somewhere in the darkness, the people
are muttering and storming. But let them mutter! Ages will pass,
thousands of years will go by, but mankind will remember and glorify the
poet, who in that night sang the fall and the burning of Troy. What was
Homer compared with him? What Apollo himself with his hollowed-out
Here he raised his hands and, striking the strings, pronounced the words
"O nest of my fathers, O dear cradle!" His voice in the open air, with
the roar of the conflagration, and the distant murmur of crowding
thousands, seemed marvellously weak, uncertain, and low, and the sound
of the accompaniment like the buzzing of insects. But senators,
dignitaries, and Augustians, assembled on the aqueduct, bowed their
heads and listened in silent rapture. He sang long, and his motive was
ever sadder. At moments, when he stopped to catch breath, the chorus of
singers repeated the last verse; then Nero cast the tragic "syrma" [A
robe with train, worn especially by tragic actors] from his shoulder
with a gesture learned from Aliturus, struck the lute, and sang on.
When at last he had finished the lines composed, he improvised, seeking
grandiose comparisons in the spectacle unfolded before him. His face
began to change. He was not moved, it is true, by the destruction of
his country's capital; but he was delighted and moved with the pathos of
his own words to such a degree that his eyes filled with tears on a
sudden. At last he dropped the lute to his feet with a clatter, and,
wrapping himself in the "syrma," stood as if petrified, like one of
those statues of Niobe which ornamented the courtyard of the Palatine.
Soon a storm of applause broke the silence. But in the distance this
was answered by the howling of multitudes. No one doubted then that
Cæsar had given command to burn the city, so as to afford himself a
spectacle and sing a song at it. Nero, when he heard that cry from
hundreds of thousands, turned to the Augustians with the sad, resigned
smile of a man who is suffering from injustice.
"See," said he, "how the Quirites value poetry and me."
"Scoundrels!" answered Vatinius. "Command the pretorians, lord, to fall
Nero turned to Tigellinus,--
"Can I count on the loyalty of the soldiers?"
"Yes, divinity," answered the prefect.
But Petronius shrugged his shoulders, and said,--
"On their loyalty, yes, but not on their numbers. Remain meanwhile
where thou art, for here it is safest; but there is need to pacify the
Seneca was of this opinion also, as was Licinus the consul. Meanwhile
the excitement below was increasing. The people were arming with
stones, tent-poles, sticks from the wagons, planks, and various pieces
of iron. After a while some of the pretorian leaders came, declaring
that the cohorts, pressed by the multitude, kept the line of battle with
extreme difficulty, and, being without orders to attack, they knew not
what to do.
"O gods," said Nero, "what a night!" On one side a fire, on the other a
raging sea of people. And he fell to seeking expressions the most
splendid to describe the danger of the moment, but, seeing around him
alarmed looks and pale faces, he was frightened, with the others.
"Give me my dark mantle with a hood!" cried he; "must it come really to
"Lord," said Tigellinus, in an uncertain voice, "I have done what I
could, but danger is threatening. Speak, O lord, to the people, and
make them promises."
"Shall Cæsar speak to the rabble? Let another do that in my name. Who
will undertake it?"
"I!" answered Petronius, calmly.
"Go, my friend; thou art most faithful to me in every necessity. Go,
and spare no promises."
Petronius turned to the retinue with a careless, sarcastic expression,--
"Senators here present, also Piso, Nerva, and Senecio, follow me."
Then he descended the aqueduct slowly. Those whom he had summoned
followed, not without hesitation, but with a certain confidence which
his calmness had given them. Petronius, halting at the foot of the
arches, gave command to bring him a white horse, and, mounting, rode on,
at the head of the cavalcade, between the deep ranks of pretorians, to
the black, howling multitude; he was unarmed, having only a slender
ivory cane which he carried habitually.
When he had ridden up, he pushed his horse into the throng. All around,
visible in the light of the burning, were upraised hands, armed with
every manner of weapon, inflamed eyes, sweating faces, bellowing and
foaming lips. A mad sea of people surrounded him and his attendants;
round about was a sea of heads, moving, roaring, dreadful.
The outbursts increased and became an unearthly roar; poles, forks, and
even swords were brandished above Petronius; grasping hands were
stretched toward his horse's reins and toward him, but he rode farther;
cool, indifferent, contemptuous. At moments he struck the most insolent
heads with his cane, as if clearing a road for himself in an ordinary
crowd; and that confidence of his, that calmness, amazed the raging
rabble. They recognized him at length, and numerous voices began to
"Petronius! Arbiter Elegantiarum! Petronius! Petronius!" was heard on
all sides. And as that name was repeated, the faces about became less
terrible, the uproar less savage: for that exquisite patrician, though
he had never striven for the favor of the populace, was still their
favorite. He passed for a humane and magnanimous man; and his
popularity had increased, especially since the affair of Pedanius
Secundus, when he spoke in favor of mitigating the cruel sentence
condemning all the slaves of that prefect to death. The a slaves more
especially loved him thenceforward with that unbounded love which the
oppressed or unfortunate are accustomed to give those who show them even
small sympathy. Besides, in that moment was added curiosity as to what
Cæsar's envoy would say, for no one doubted that Cæsar had sent him.
He removed his white toga, bordered with scarlet, raised it in the air,
and waved it above his head, in sign that he wished to speak.
"Silence! Silence!" cried the people on all sides.
After a while there was silence. Then he straightened himself on the
horse and said in a clear, firm voice,--
"Citizens, let those who hear me repeat my words to those who are more
distant, and bear yourselves, all of you, like men, not like beasts in
"We will, we will!"
"Then listen. The city will be rebuilt. The gardens of Lucullus,
Mæcenas, Cæsar, and Agrippina will be opened to you. To-morrow will
begin the distribution of wheat, wine, and olives, so that every man may
be full to the throat. Then Cæsar will have games for you, such as the
world has not seen yet; during these games banquets and gifts will be
given you. Ye will be richer after the fire than before it."
A murmur answered him which spread from the centre in every direction,
as a wave rises on water in which a stone has been cast. Those nearer
repeated his words to those more distant. Afterward were heard here and
there shouts of anger or applause, which turned at length into one
universal call of "Panem et circenses!!!"
Petronius wrapped himself in his toga and listened for a time without
moving, resembling in his white garment a marble statue. The uproar
increased, drowned the roar of the fire, was answered from every side and
from ever-increasing distances. But evidently the envoy had something
to add, for he waited. Finally, commanding silence anew, he cried,--"I
promised you panem et circenses; and now give a shout in honor of Cæsar,
who feeds and clothes you; then go to sleep, dear populace, for the dawn
will begin before long."
He turned his horse then, and, tapping lightly with his cane the heads
and faces of those who stood in his way, he rode slowly to the pretorian
ranks. Soon he was under the aqueduct. He found almost a panic above,
where they had not understood the shout "Panem et circenses," and
supposed it to be a new outburst of rage. They had not even expected
that Petronius would save himself; so Nero, when he saw him, ran to the
steps, and with face pale from emotion, inquired,--
"Well, what are they doing? Is there a battle?"
Petronius drew air into his lungs, breathed deeply, and answered,--"By
Pollux! they are sweating! and such a stench! Will some one give me an
epilimma?--for I am faint." Then he turned to Cæsar.
"I promised them," said he, "wheat, olives, the opening of the gardens,
and games. They worship thee anew, and are howling in thy honor. Gods,
what a foul odor those plebeians have!"
"I had pretorians ready," cried Tigellinus; "and hadst thou not quieted
them, the shouters would have been silenced forever. It is a pity,
Cæsar, that thou didst not let me use force."
Petronius looked at him, shrugged his shoulders, and added,--
"The chance is not lost. Thou mayst have to use it to-morrow."
"No, no!" cried Cæsar, "I will give command to open the gardens to them,
and distribute wheat. Thanks to thee, Petronius, I will have games; and
that song, which I sang to-day, I will sing publicly."
Then he placed his hands on the arbiter's shoulder, was silent a moment,
and starting up at last inquired,--
"Tell me sincerely, how did I seem to thee while I was singing?"
"Thou wert worthy of the spectacle, and the spectacle was worthy of
thee," said Petronius.
"But let us look at it again," said he, turning to the fire, "and bid
farewell to ancient Rome."
THE Apostle's words put confidence in the souls of the Christians. The
end of the world seemed ever near to them, but they began to think that
the day of judgment would not come immediately, that first they would
see the end of Nero's reign, which they looked on as the reign of Satan,
and the punishment of God for Cæsar's crimes, which were crying for
vengeance. Strengthened in heart, they dispersed, after the prayer, to
their temporary dwellings, and even to the Trans-Tiber; for news had
come that the fire, set there in a number of places, had, with the
change of wind, turned back toward the river, and, after devouring what
it could here and there, had ceased to extend.
The Apostle, with Vinicius and Chilo, who followed him, left the
excavation also. The young tribune did not venture to interrupt his
prayers; hence he walked on in silence, merely imploring pity with his
eyes, and trembling from alarm. Many approached to kiss Peter's hands,
and the hem of his mantle; mothers held out their children to him; some
knelt in the dark, long passage, and, holding up tapers, begged a
blessing; others, going alongside, sang: so there was no chance for
question or answer. Thus it was in the narrow passage. Only when they
came out to broader spaces, from which the burning city was in view, did
the Apostle bless them three times, and say, turning to Vinicius,--
"Fear not. The hut of the quarryman is near; in it we shall find Linus,
and Lygia, with her faithful servant. Christ, who predestined her to
thee, has preserved her."
Vinicius tottered, and placed his hand against the cliff. The road from
Antium, the events at the wall, the search for Lygia amidst burning
houses, sleeplessness, and his terrible alarm had exhausted him; and the
news that the dearest person in the world was near by, and that soon he
would see her, took the remnant of his strength from him. So great a
weakness possessed him on a sudden that he dropped to the Apostle's
feet, and, embracing his knees, remained thus, without power to say a
"Not to me, not to me, but to Christ," said the Apostle, who warded off
thanks and honor.
"What a good God!" said the voice of Chilo from behind, "but what shall
I do with the mules that are waiting down here?"
"Rise and come with me," said Peter to the young man.
Vinicius rose. By the light of the burning, tears were visible on his
face, which was pale from emotion. His lips moved, as if in prayer.
"Let us go," said he.
But Chilo repeated again: "Lord, what shall I do with the mules that are
waiting? Perhaps this worthy prophet prefers riding to walking."
Vinicius did not know himself what to answer; but hearing from Peter
that the quarryman's hut was near by, he said,--
"Take the mules to Macrinus."
"Pardon me, lord, if I mention the house in Ameriola. In view of such
an awful fire, it is easy to forget a thing so paltry."
"Thou wilt get it."
"O grandson of Numa Pompilius, I have always been sure, but now, when
this magnanimous prophet also has heard the promise, I will not remind
thee even of this, that thou hast promised me a vineyard. Pax vobiscum.
I shall find thee, lord. Pax vobiscum."
They answered, "And peace with thee."
Then both turned to the right toward the hills. Along the road Vinicius
"Lord, wash me with the water of baptism, so that I may call myself a
real confessor of Christ, for I love Him with all the power of my soul.
Wash me quickly, for I am ready in heart. And what thou commandest I
will do, but tell me, so that I may do it in addition."
"Love men as thy own brothers," answered the Apostle, "for only with
love mayst thou serve Him."
"Yes, I understand and feel that. When a child I believed in the Roman
gods, though I did not love them. But I so love Him the One God that I
would give my life for Him gladly." And he looked toward the sky,
repeating with exaltation: "For He is one, for He alone is kind and
merciful; hence, let not only this city perish, but the whole world, Him
alone will I confess and recognize."
"And He will bless thee and thy house," concluded the Apostle.
Meanwhile they turned into another ravine, at the end of which a faint
light was visible. Peter pointed to it and said,--
"There is the hut of the quarryman who gave us a refuge when, on the way
from Ostrianum with the sick Linus, we could not go to the Trans-Tiber."
After a while they arrived. The hut was rather a cave rounded Out in an
indentation of the hill, and was faced outside with a wall made of
reeds. The door was closed, but through an opening, which served for a
window, the interior was visible, lighted by a fire. Some dark giant
figure rose up to meet them, and inquired,--"Who are ye?"
"Servants of Christ," answered Peter. "Peace be with thee, Ursus."
Ursus bent to the Apostle's feet; then, recognizing Vinicius, seized his
hand by the wrist, and raised it to his lips.
"And thou, lord," said he. "Blessed be the name of the Lamb, for the
joy which thou wilt bring to Callina."
He opened the door then, and entered. Linus was lying on a bundle of
straw, with an emaciated face and a forehead as yellow as ivory. Near
the fire sat Lygia with a string of small fish, intended evidently for
supper. Occupied in removing the fish from the string, and thinking
that it was Ursus who had entered, she did not raise her eyes. But
Vinicius approached, and, pronouncing her name, stretched his hand to
her. She sprang up quickly then; a flash of astonishment and delight
shot across her face. Without a word, like a child who after days of
fear and sorrow had found father or mother, she threw herself into his
He embraced her, pressed her to his bosom for some time with such
ecstasy as if she had been saved by a miracle. Then, withdrawing his
arms, he took her temples between his hands, kissed her forehead and her
eyes, embraced her again, repeated her name, bent to her knees, to her
palms, greeted her, did her homage, honored her. His delight had no
bounds; neither had his love and happiness.
At last he told her how he had rushed in from Antium; had searched for
her at the walls, in the smoke at the house of Linus; how he had
suffered and was terrified; how much he had endured before the Apostle
had shown him her retreat.
"But now," said he, "that I have found thee, I will not leave thee near
fire and raging crowds. People are slaying one another under the walls,
slaves are revolting and plundering. God alone knows what miseries may
fall yet on Rome. But I will save thee and all of you. Oh, my dear,
let us go to Antium; we will take a ship there and sail to Sicily. My
land is thy land, my houses are thy houses. Listen to me! In Sicily we
shall find Aulus. I will give thee back to Pomponia, and take thee from
her hands afterward. But, O carissima, have no further fear of me.
Christ has not washed me yet, but ask Peter if on the way hither I have
not told him my wish to be a real confessor of Christ, and begged him to
baptize me, even in this hut of a quarryman. Believe, and let all
Lygia heard these words with radiant face. The Christians formerly,
because of Jewish persecutions, and then because of the fire and
disturbance caused by the disaster, lived in fear and uncertainty. A
journey to quiet Sicily would put an end to all danger, and open a new
epoch of happiness in their lives. If Vinicius had wished to take only
Lygia, she would have resisted the temptation surely, as she did not
wish to leave Peter and Linus; but Vinicius said to them, "Come with me;
my lands are your lands, my houses your houses." At this Lygia inclined
to kiss his hand, in sign of obedience, and said,--
"Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia."
Then confused that she had spoken words which by Roman custom were
repeated only at marriage, she blushed deeply, and stood in the light of
the fire, with drooping head, in doubt lest he might take them ill of
her. But in his face boundless homage alone was depicted. He turned
then to Peter, and continued,--
"Rome is burning at command of Cæsar. In Antium he complained that he
had never seen a great fire. And if he has not hesitated at such a
crime, think what may happen yet. Who knows that he may not bring in
troops, and command a slaughter? Who knows what proscriptions may come;
who knows whether after the fire, civil war, murder, and famine may not
"Hide yourselves, therefore, and let us hide Lygia. There ye can wait
till the storm passes, and when it is over return to sow your grain
Outside, from the direction of the Vatican Field, as if to confirm his
fears, distant cries were heard full of rage and terror. At that moment
the quarryman entered, the master of the hut, and, shutting the door
hastily, he cried,--
"People are killing one another near the Circus of Nero. Slaves and
gladiators have attacked the citizens."
"Do ye hear?" said Vinicius.
"The measure is full," said the Apostle; "and disasters will come, like
a boundless sea." Then he turned, and, pointing to Lygia, said, "Take
the maiden, whom God has predestined to thee, and save her, and let
Linus, who is sick, and Ursus go with you."
But Vinicius, who had come to love the Apostle with all the power of his
impetuous soul, exclaimed: "I swear, my teacher, that I will not leave
thee here to destruction."
"The Lord bless thee for thy wish," answered Peter; "but hast thou not
heard that Christ repeated thrice on the lake to me, 'Feed my lambs'?"
Vinicius was silent.
"If thou, to whom no one has confided care over me, sayest that thou
wilt not leave me to destruction, how canst thou wish me to leave my
flock in the day of disaster? When there was a storm on the lake, and
we were terrified in heart, He did not desert us; why should I, a
servant, not follow my Master's example?"
Then Linus raised his emaciated face and inquired,--
"O vicegerent of the Lord, why should I not follow thy example?"
Vinicius began to pass his hand over his head, as if struggling with
himself or fighting with his thoughts; then, seizing Lygia by the hand,
he said, in a voice in which the energy of a Roman soldier was
"Hear me, Peter, Linus, and thou, Lygia! I spoke as my human reason
dictated; but ye have another reason, which regards, not your own
danger, but the commands of the Redeemer. True, I did not understand
this, and I erred, for the beam is not taken from my eyes yet, and the
former nature is heard in me. But since I love Christ, and wish to be
His servant, though it is a question for me of something more than my
own life, I kneel here before thee, and swear that I will accomplish the
command of love, and will not leave my brethren in the day of trouble."
Then he knelt, and enthusiasm possessed him; raising his hands and eyes,
he cried: "Do I understand Thee, O Christ? Am I worthy of Thee?"
His hands trembled; his eyes glistened with tears; his body trembled
with faith and love. Peter took an earthen vessel with water, and,
bringing it near him, said with solemnity,--
"Behold, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Then a religious ecstasy seized all present. They thought that some
light from beyond this world had filled the hut, that they heard some
superhuman music, that the cliffs had opened above their heads, that
choirs of angels were floating down from heaven, and far up there they
saw a cross, and pierced hands blessing them.
Meanwhile the shouts of fighting were heard outside, and the roar of
flames in the burning city.
CAMPS of people were disposed in the lordly gardens of Cæsar, formerly
gardens of Domitius and Agrippina; they were disposed also on the Campus
Martius, in the gardens of Pompey, Sallust, and Mæcenas, in porticos,
tennis-courts, splendid summer-houses, and buildings erected for wild
beasts. Peacocks, flamingoes, swans, ostriches, gazelles, African
antelopes, and deer, which had served as ornaments to those gardens,
went under the knives of the rabble. Provisions began to come in now
from Ostria so abundantly that one might walk, as on a bridge, over
ships, boats, and barges from one bank of the Tiber to the other. Wheat
was sold at the unheard-of low price of three sestertia, and was given
gratis to the indigent. Immense supplies of wine, olives, and chestnuts
were brought to the city; sheep and cattle were driven in every day from
the mountains. Wretches who before the fire had been hiding in alleys
of the Subura, and were perishing of hunger in ordinary times, had a
more pleasant life now. The danger of famine was averted completely,
but it was more difficult to suppress robbery, murder, and abuses. A
nomadic life insured impunity to thieves; the more easily since they
proclaimed themselves admirers of Cæsar, and were unsparing of plaudits
wherever he appeared. Moreover, when, by the pressure of events, the
authorities were in abeyance, and there was a lack of armed force to
quell insolence in a city inhabited by the dregs of contemporary
mankind, deeds were done which passed human imagination. Every night
there were battles and murders; every night boys and women were snatched
away. At the Porta Mugionis, where there was a halting-place for herds
driven in from the Campania, it come to engagements in which people
perished by hundreds. Every morning the banks of the Tiber were covered
with drowned bodies, which no one collected; these decayed quickly
because of heat heightened by fire, and filled the air with foul odors.
Sickness broke out on the camping-grounds, and the more timorous foresaw
a great pestilence.
But the city burned on unceasingly. Only on the sixth day, when the
fire reached empty spaces on the Esquiline, where an enormous number of
houses had been demolished purposely, did it weaken. But the piles of
burning cinders gave such strong light yet that people would not believe
that the end of the catastrophe had come. In fact the fire burst forth
with fresh force on the seventh night in the buildings of Tigellinus,
but had short duration for lack of fuel. Burnt houses, however, fell
here and there, and threw up towers of flame and pillars of sparks. But
the glowing ruins began to grow black on the surface. After sunset the
heavens ceased to gleam with bloody light, and only after dark did blue
tongues quiver above the extended black waste, tongues which rose from
piles of cinders.
Of the fourteen divisions of Rome there remained only four, including
the Trans-Tiber. Flames had consumed all the others. When at last the
piles of cinders had been turned into ashes, an immense space was
visible from the Tiber to the Esquiline, gray, gloomy, dead. In this
space stood rows of chimneys, like columns over graves in a cemetery.
Among these columns gloomy crowds of people moved about in the daytime,
some seeking for precious objects, others for the bones of those dear to
them. In the night dogs howled above the ashes and ruins of former
All the bounty and aid shown by Cæsar to the populace did not restrain
evil speech and indignation. Only the herd of robbers, criminals, and
homeless ruffians, who could eat, drink, and rob enough, were contented.
People who had lost all their property and their nearest relatives were
not won over by the opening of gardens, the distribution of bread, or
the promise of games and gifts. The catastrophe had been too great and
unparalleled. Others, in whom was hidden yet some spark of love for the
city and their birthplace, were brought to despair by news that the old
name "Roma" was to vanish, and that from the ashes of the capital Cæsar
would erect a new city called Neropolis. A flood of hatred rose and
swelled every day, despite the flatteries of the Augustians and the
calumnies of Tigellinus. Nero, more sensitive than any former Cæsar to
the favor of the populace, thought with alarm that in the sullen and
mortal struggle which he was waging with patricians in the Senate, he
might lack support. The Augustians themselves were not less alarmed,
for any morning might bring them destruction. Tigellinus thought of
summoning certain legions from Asia Minor. Vatinius, who laughed even
when slapped on the face, lost his humor; Vitelius lost his appetite.
Others were taking counsel among themselves how to avert the danger, for
it was no secret that were an outburst to carry off Cæsar, not one of
the Augustians would escape, except, perhaps, Petronius. To their
influence were ascribed the madnesses of Nero, to their suggestions all
the crimes which he committed. Hatred for them almost surpassed that
for Nero. Hence some began to make efforts to rid themselves of
responsibility for the burning of the city. But to free themselves they
must clear Cæsar also from suspicion, or no one would believe that they
had not caused the catastrophe. Tigellinus took counsel on this subject
with Domitius Afer, and even with Seneca, though he hated him. Poppæa,
who understood that the ruin of Nero would be her own sentence, took the
opinion of her confidants and of Hebrew priests, for it had been
admitted for years that she held the faith of Jehovah. Nero found his
own methods, which, frequently terrible, were more frequently foolish,
and fell now into terror, now into childish delight, but above all he
On a time a long and fruitless consultation was held in the house of
Tiberius, which had survived the fire. Petronius thought it best to
leave troubles, go to Greece, thence to Egypt and Asia Minor. The
journey had been planned long before; why defer it, when in Rome were
sadness and danger?
Cæsar accepted the counsel with eagerness; but Seneca when he had
thought awhile, said,--
"It is easy to go, but it would be more difficult to return."
"By Heracles!" replied Petronius, "we may return at the head of Asiatic
"This will I do!" exclaimed Nero.
But Tigellinus opposed. He could discover nothing himself, and if the
arbiter's idea had come to his own head he would beyond doubt have
declared it the saving one; but with him the question was that Petronius
might not be a second time the only man who in difficult moments could
rescue all and every one.
"Hear me, divinity," said he, "this advice is destructive! Before thou
art at Ostia a civil war will break out; who knows but one of the
surviving collateral descendants of the divine Augustus will declare
himself Cæsar, and what shall we do if the legions take his side?"
"We shall try," answered Nero, "that there be no descendants of
Augustus. There are not many now; hence it is easy to rid ourselves of
"It is possible to do so, but is it a question of them alone? No longer
ago than yesterday my people heard in the crowd that a man like Thrasea
should be Cæsar."
Nero bit his lips. After a while he raised his eyes and said:
"Insatiable and thankless. They have grain enough, and they have coal
on which to bake cakes; what more do they want?"
"Vengeance!" replied Tigellinus.
Silence followed. Cæsar rose on a sudden, extended his hand, and began
"Hearts call for vengeance, and vengeance wants a victim." Then,
forgetting everything, he said, with radiant face: "Give me the tablet
and stilus to write this line. Never could Lucan have composed the
like. Have ye noticed that I found it in a twinkle?"
"O incomparable!" exclaimed a number of voices. Nero wrote down the
line, and said,--
"Yes, vengeance wants a victim." Then he cast a glance on those around
him. "But if we spread the report that Vatinius gave command to burn
the city, and devote him to the anger of the people?"
"O divinity! Who am I?" exclaimed Vatmius.
"True! One more important than thou is demanded. Is it Vitelius?"
Vitelius grew pale, but began to laugh.
"My fat," answered he, "might start the fire again."
But Nero had something else on his mind; in his soul he was looking for
a victim who might really satisfy the people's anger, and he found him.
"Tigellinus," said he after a while, "it was thou who didst burn Rome!"
A shiver ran through those present. They understood that Cæsar had
ceased to jest this time, and that a moment had come which was pregnant
The face of Tigellinus was wrinkled, like the lips of a dog about to
"I burnt Rome at thy command!" said he.
And the two glared at each other like a pair of devils. Such silence
followed that the buzzing of flies was heard as they flew through the
"Tigellinus," said Nero, "dost thou love me?"
"Thou knowest, lord."
"Sacrifice thyself for me."
"O divine Cæsar," answered Tigellinus, "why present the sweet cup which
I may not raise to my lips? The people are muttering and rising; dost
thou wish the pretorians also to rise?"
A feeling of terror pressed the hearts of those present. Tigellinus was
pretorian prefect, and his words had the direct meaning of a threat.
Nero himself understood this, and his face became pallid.
At that moment Epaphroditus, Cæsar's freedman, entered, announcing that
the divine Augusta wished to see Tigellinus, as there were people in her
apartments whom the prefect ought to hear.
Tigellinus bowed to Cæsar, and went out with a face calm and
contemptuous. Now, when they had wished to strike him, he had shown his
teeth; he had made them understand who he was, and, knowing Nero's
cowardice, he was confident that that ruler of the world would never
dare to raise a hand against him.
Nero sat in silence for a moment; then, seeing that those present
expected some answer, he said,--
"I have reared a serpent in my bosom."
Petronius shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that it was not difficult
to pluck the head from such a serpent.
"What wilt thou say? Speak, advise!" exclaimed Nero, noticing this
motion. "I trust in thee alone, for thou hast more sense than all of
them, and thou lovest me."
Petronius had the following on his lips: "Make me pretorian prefect, I
will deliver Tigellinus to the people, and pacify the city in a day."
But his innate slothfulness prevailed. To be prefect meant to bear on
his shoulder's Cæsar's person and also thousands of public affairs. And
why should he perform that labor? Was it not better to read poetry in
his splendid library, look at vases and statues, or hold to his breast
the divine body of Eunice, twining her golden hair through his fingers,
and inclining his lips to her coral mouth? Hence he said,--
"I advise the journey to Achæa."
"Ah!" answered Nero, "I looked for something more from thee. The Senate
hates me. If I depart, who will guarantee that it will not revolt and
proclaim some one else Cæsar? The people have been faithful to me so
far, but now they will follow the Senate. By Hades! if that Senate and
that people had one head!--"
"Permit me to say, O divinity, that if thou desire to save Rome, there
is need to save even a few Romans," remarked Petronius, with a smile.
"What care I for Rome and Romans?" complained Nero. "I should be obeyed
in Achæa. Here only treason surrounds me. All desert me, and ye are
making ready for treason. I know it, I know it. Ye do not even imagine
what future ages will say of you if ye desert such an artist as I am."
Here he tapped his forehead on a sudden, and cried,--
"True! Amid these cares even I forget who I am."
Then he turned to Petronius with a radiant face.
"Petronius," said he, "the people murmur; but if I take my lute and go
to the Campus Martius, if I sing that song to them which I sang during
the conflagration, dost thou not think that I will move them, as Orpheus
moved wild beasts?"
To this Tullius Senecio, who was impatient to return to his slave women
brought in from Antium, and who had been impatient a long time,
"Beyond doubt, O Cæsar, if they permit thee to begin."
"Let us go to Hellas!" cried Nero, with disgust.
But at that moment Poppæa appeared, and with her Tigellinis. The eyes of
those present turned to him unconsciously, for never had triumphator
ascended the Capitol with pride such as his when he stood before Cæsar.
He began to speak slowly and with emphasis, in tones through which the
bite of iron, as it were, was heard,--
"Listen. O Cæsar, for I can say: I have found! The people want
vengeance, they want not one victim, but hundreds, thousands. Hast
heard, lord, who Christos was,--he who was crucified by Pontius Pilate?
And knowest thou who the Christians are? Have I not told thee of their
crimes and foul ceremonies, of their predictions that fire would cause
the end of the world? People hate and suspect them. No one has seen
them in a temple at any time, for they consider our gods evil spirits;
they are not in the Stadium, for they despise horse races. Never have
the hands of a Christian done thee honor with plaudits. Never has one
of them recognized thee as god. They are enemies of the human race, of
the city, and of thee. The people murmur against thee; but thou hast
given me no command to burn Rome, and I did not burn it. The people
want vengeance; let them have it. The people want blood and games; let
them have them. The people suspect thee; let their suspicion turn in
Nero listened with amazement at first; but as Tigellinus proceeded, his
actor's face changed, and assumed in succession expressions of anger,
sorrow, sympathy, indignation. Suddenly he rose, and, casting off the
toga, which dropped at his feet, he raised both hands and stood silent
for a time. At last he said, in the tones of a tragedian,--
"O Zeus, Apollo, Here, Athene, Persephone, and all ye immortals! why did
ye not come to aid us? What has this hapless city done to those cruel
wretches that they burnt it so inhumanly?"
"They are enemies of mankind and of thee," said Poppæa.
"Do justice!" cried others. "Punish the incendiaries! The gods
themselves call for vengeance!"
Nero sat down, dropped his head to his breast, and was silent a second
time, as if stunned by the wickedness of which he had heard. But after
a while he shook his hands, and said,--
"What punishments, what tortures befit such a crime? But the gods will
inspire me, and, aided by the powers of Tartarus, I will give my poor
people such a spectacle that they will remember me for ages with
The forehead of Petronius was covered with a sudden cloud. He thought
of the danger hanging over Lygia and over Vinicius, whom he loved, and
over all those people whose religion he rejected, but of whose innocence
he was certain. He thought also that one of those bloody orgies would
begin which his eyes, those of an æsthetic man, could not suffer. But
above all he thought: "I must save Vinicius, who will go mad if that
maiden perishes"; and this consideration outweighed every other, for
Petronius understood well that he was beginning a game far more perilous
than any in his life. He began, however, to speak freely and
carelessly, as his wont was when criticising or ridiculing plans of
Cæsar and the Augustians that were not sufficiently æsthetic,--
"Ye have found victims! That is true. Ye may send them to the arena,
or array them in 'painful tunics.' That is true also. But hear me! Ye
have authority, ye have pretorians, ye have power; then be sincere, at
least, when no one is listening! Deceive the people, but deceive not
one another. Give the Christians to the populace, condemn them to any
torture ye like; but have courage to say to yourselves that it was not
they who burnt Rome. Phy! Ye call me 'arbiter elegantiarum'; hence I
declare to you that I cannot endure wretched comedies! Phy! how all
this reminds me of the theatrical booths near the Porta Asinaria, in
which actors play the parts of gods and kings to amuse the suburban
rabble, and when the play is over wash down onions with sour wine, or
get blows of clubs! Be gods and kings in reality; for I say that ye can
permit yourselves the position! As to thee, O Cæsar, thou hast
threatened us with the sentence of coming ages; but think, those ages
will utter judgment concerning thee also. By the divine Clio! Nero,
ruler of the world, Nero, a god, burnt Rome, because he was as powerful
on earth as Zeus on Olympus,--Nero the poet loved poetry so much that he
sacrificed to it his country! From the beginning of the world no one
did the like, no one ventured on the like. I beseech thee in the name
of the double-crowned Libethrides, renounce not such glory, for songs of
thee will sound to the end of ages! What will Priam be when compared
with thee; what Agamenmon; what Achilles; what the gods themselves? We
need not say that the burning of Rome was good, but it was colossal and
uncommon. I tell thee, besides, that the people will raise no hand
against thee! It is not true that they will. Have courage; guard
thyself against acts unworthy of thee,--for this alone threatens thee,
that future ages may say, 'Nero burned Rome; but as a timid Cæsar and a
timid poet he denied the great deed out of fear, and cast the blame of
it on the innocent!'"
The arbiter's words produced the usual deep impression on Nero; but
Petronius was not deceived as to this, that what he had said was a
desperate means which in a fortunate event might save the Christians, it
is true, but might still more easily destroy himself. He had not
hesitated, however, for it was a question at once of Vinicius whom he
loved, and of hazard with which he amused himself. "The dice are
thrown," said he to himself, "and we shall see how far fear for his own
life outweighs in the monkey his love of glory."
And in his soul he had no doubt that fear would outweigh.
Meanwhile silence fell after his words. Poppæa and all present were
looking at Nero's eyes as at a rainbow. He began to raise his lips,
drawing them to his very nostrils, as was his custom when he knew not
what to do; at last disgust and trouble were evident on his features.
"Lord," cried Tigellinus, on noting this, "permit me to go; for when
people wish to expose thy person to destruction, and call thee, besides,
a cowardly Cæsar, a cowardly poet, an incendiary, and a comedian, my
ears cannot suffer such expressions!"
"I have lost," thought Petronius. But turning to Tigellinus, he
measured him with a glance in which was that contempt for a ruffian
which is felt by a great lord who is an exquisite.
"Tigellinus," said he, "it was thou whom I called a comedian; for thou
art one at this very moment."
"Is it because I will not listen to thy insults?"
"It is because thou art feigning boundless love for Cæsar,--thou who a
short while since wert threatening him with pretorians, which we all
understood as did he!"
Tigellinus, who had not thought Petronius sufficiently daring to throw
dice such as those on the table, turned pale, lost his head, and was
speechless. This was, however, the last victory of the arbiter over his
rival, for that moment Poppæa said,--
"Lord, how permit that such a thought should even pass through the head
of any one, and all the more that any one should venture to express it
aloud in thy presence!"
"Punish the insolent!" exclaimed Vitelius.
Nero raised his lips again to his nostrils, and, turning his
near-sighted, glassy eyes on Petronius, said,--
"Is this the way thou payest me for the friendship which I had for
"If I am mistaken, show me my error," said Petronius; "but know that I
speak that which love for thee dictates."
"Punish the insolent!" repeated Vitelius.
"Punish!" called a number of voices.
In the atrium there was a murmur and a movement, for people began to
withdraw from Petronius. Even Tullius Senecio, his constant companion
at the court, pushed away, as did young Nerva, who had shown him
hitherto the greatest friendship. After a while Petronius was alone on
the left side of the atrium, with a smile on his lips; and gathering
with his hands the folds of his toga, he waited yet for what Cæsar would
say or do.
"Ye wish me to punish him" said Cæsar; "but he is my friend and comrade.
Though he has wounded my heart, let him know that for friends this heart
has naught but forgiveness."
"I have lost, and am ruined," thought Petronius.
Meanwhile Cæsar rose, and the consultation was ended.
PETRONIUS went home. Nero and Tigellinus went to Poppæa's atrium, where
they were expected by people with whom the prefect had spoken already.
There were two Trans-Tiber rabbis in long solemn robes and mitred, a
young copyist, their assistant, together with Chilo. At sight of Cæsar
the priests grew pale from emotion, and, raising their hands an arm's
length, bent their heads to his hands.
"Be greeted, O ruler of the earth, guardian of the chosen people, and
Cæsar, lion among men, whose reign is like sunlight, like the cedar of
Lebanon, like a spring, like a palm, like the balsam of Jericho,"
"Do ye refuse to call me god?" inquired Nero.
The priests grew still paler. The chief one spoke again,--
"Thy words, O lord, are as sweet as a cluster of grapes, as a ripe fig,-
-for Jehovah filled thy heart with goodness! Thy father's predecessor,
Cæsar Caius, was stern; still our envoys did not call him god,
preferring death itself to violation of the law."
"And did not Caligula give command to throw them to the lions?"
"No, lord; Cæsar Caius feared Jehovah's anger."
And they raised their heads, for the name of the powerful Jehovah gave
them courage; confident in his might, they looked into Nero's eyes with
"Do ye accuse the Christians of burning Rome?" inquired Cæsar. "We,
lord, accuse them of this alone,--that they are enemies of the law, of
the human race, of Rome, and of thee; that long since they have
threatened the city and the world with fire! The rest will be told thee
by this man, whose lips are unstained by a lie, for in his mother's
veins flowed the blood of the chosen people."
Nero turned to Chilo: "Who art thou?"
"One who honors thee, O Cyrus; and, besides, a poor Stoic-"
"I hate the Stoics," said Nero. "I hate Thrasea; I hate Musonius and
Cornutus. Their speech is repulsive to me; their contempt for art,
their voluntary squalor and filth."
"O lord, thy master Seneca has one thousand tables of citrus wood. At
thy wish I will have twice as many. I am a Stoic from necessity. Dress
my stoicism, O Radiant One, in a garland of roses, put a pitcher of wine
before it; it will sing Anacreon in such strains as to deafen every
Nero, who was pleased by the title "Radiant," smiled and said,-"Thou
dost please me."
"This man is worth his weight in gold!" cried Tigellinus.
"Put thy liberality with my weight," answered Chilo, "or the wind will
blow my reward away."
"He would not outweigh Vitelius," put in Cæsar.
"Eheu! Silver-bowed, my wit is not of lead."
"I see that thy faith does not hinder thee from calling me a god."
"O Immortal! My faith is in thee; the Christians blaspheme against that
faith, and I hate them."
"What dost thou know of the Christians?"
"Wilt thou permit me to weep, O divinity?"
"No," answered Nero; "weeping annoys me."
"Thou art triply right, for eyes that have seen thee should be free of
tears forever. O lord, defend me against my enemies."
"Speak of the Christians," said Poppæa, with a shade of impatience.
"It will be at thy command, O Isis," answered Chilo. "From youth I
devoted myself to philosophy, and sought truth. I sought it among the
ancient divine sages, in the Academy at Athens, and in the Serapeum at
Alexandria. When I heard of the Christians, I judged that they formed
some new school in which I could find certain kernels of truth; and to
my misfortune I made their acquaintance. The first Christian whom evil
fate brought near me was one Glaucus, a physician of Naples. From him I
learned in time that they worship a certain Chrestos, who promised to
exterminate all people and destroy every city on earth, but to spare
them if they helped him to exterminate the children of Deucalion. For
this reason, O lady, they hate men, and poison fountains; for this
reason in their assemblies they shower curses on Rome, and on all
temples in which our gods are honored. Chrestos was crucified; but he
promised that when Rome was destroyed by fire, he would come again and
give Christians dominion over the world."
"People will understand now why Rome was destroyed," interrupted
"Many understand that already, O lord, for I go about in the gardens, I
go to the Campus Martius, and teach. But if ye listen to the end, ye
will know my reasons for vengeance. Glaucus the physician did not
reveal to me at first that their religion taught hatred. On the
contrary, he told me that Chrestos was a good divinity, that the basis
of their religion was love. My sensitive heart could not resist such a
truth; hence I took to loving Glaucus, I trusted him, I shared every
morsel of bread with him, every copper coin, and dost thou know, lady,
how he repaid me? On the road from Naples to Rome he thrust a knife
into my body, and my wife, the beautiful and youthful Berenice, he sold
to a slave-merchant. If Sophocles knew my history--but what do I say?
One better than Sophocles is listening."
"Poor man!" said Poppæa.
"Whoso has seen the face of Aphrodite is not poor, lady; and I see it at
this moment. But then I sought consolation in philosophy. When I came
to Rome, I tried to meet Christian elders to obtain justice against
Glaucus. I thought that they would force him to yield up my wife. I
became acquainted with their chief priest; I became acquainted with
another, named Paul, who was in prison in this city, but was liberated
afterward; I became acquainted with the son of Zebedee, with Linus and
Clitus and many others. I know where they lived before the fire, I know
where they meet. I can point out one excavation in the Vatican Hill and
a cemetery beyond the Nomentan Gate, where they celebrate their
shameless ceremonies. I saw the Apostle Peter. I saw how Glaucus
killed children, so that the Apostle might have something to sprinkle on
the heads of those present; and I saw Lygia, the foster-child of
Pomponia Græcina, who boasted that though unable to bring the blood of
an infant, she brought the death of an infant, for she bewitched the
little Augusta, thy daughter, O Cyrus, and thine, O Isis!"
"Dost hear, Cæsar?" asked Poppæa.
"Can that be!" exclaimed Nero.
"I could forgive wrongs done myself," continued Chilo, "but when I heard
of yours, I wanted to stab her. Unfortunately I was stopped by the
noble Vinicius, who loves her."
"Vinicius? But did she not flee from him?"
"She fled, but he made search for her; he could not exist without her.
For wretched pay I helped him in the search, and it was I who pointed
out to him the house in which she lived among the Christians in the
Trans-Tiber. We went there together, and with us thy wrestler Croton,
whom the noble Vinicius hired to protect him. But Ursus, Lygia's slave,
crushed Croton. That is a man of dreadful strength, O Lord, who can
break a bull's neck as easily as another might a poppy stalk. Aulus and
Pomponia loved him because of that."
"By Hercules," said Nero, "the mortal who crushed Croton deserves a
statue in the Forum. But, old man, thou art mistaken or art inventing,
for Vinicius killed Croton with a knife."
"That is how people calumniate the gods. O lord, I myself saw Croton's
ribs breaking in the arms of Ursus, who rushed then on Vinicius and
would have killed him but for Lygia. Vinicius was ill for a long time
after that but they nursed him in the hope that through love he would
become a Christian. In fact, he did become a Christian."
"And, perhaps, Petronius too?" inquired Tigellinus, hurriedly.
Chilo squirmed, rubbed his hands, and said,--
"I admire thy penetration, O lord. He may have become one! He may very
well have become one."
"Now I understand why he defended the Christians."
Nero laughed: "Petronius a Christian! Petronius an enemy of life and
luxury! Be not foolish; do not ask me to believe that, since I am ready
not to believe anything."
"But the noble Vinicius became a Christian, lord. I swear by that
radiance which comes from thee that I speak the truth, and that nothing
pierces me with such disgust as lying. Pomponia Græcina is a Christian,
little Aulus is a Christian, Lygia is a Christian, and so is Vinicius.
I served him faithfully, and in return, at the desire of Glaucus the
physician, he gave command to flog me, though I am old and was sick and
hungry. And I have sworn by Hades that I will not forget that for him.
O lord, avenge my wrongs on them, and I will deliver to thee Peter the
Apostle and Linus and Clitus and Glaucus and Crispus, the highest ones,
and Lygia and Ursus. I will point out hundreds of them to you,
thousands; I will indicate their houses of prayer, the cemeteries, all
thy prisons will not hold them! Without me ye could not find them. In
misfortunes I have sought consolation; hitherto in philosophy alone, now
I will find it in favors that will descend on me. I am old, and have
not known life; let me begin."
"It is thy wish to be a Stoic before a full plate," said Nero.
"Whoso renders service to thee will fill it by that same."
"Thou art not mistaken, O philosopher."
But Poppæa did not forget her enemies. Her fancy for Vinicius was,
indeed, rather a momentary whim, which had risen under the influence of
jealousy, anger, and wounded vanity. Still the coolness of the young
patrician touched her deeply, and filled her heart with a stubborn
feeling of offence. This alone, that he had dared to prefer another,
seemed to her a crime calling for vengeance. As to Lygia, she hated her
from the first moment, when the beauty of that northern lily alarmed
her. Petronius, who spoke of the too narrow hips of the girl, might
talk what he pleased into Cæsar, but not into the Augusta. Poppæa the
critic understood at one cast of the eye that in all Rome Lygia alone
could rival and even surpass her. Thenceforth she vowed her ruin.
"Lord," said she, "avenge our child."
"Hasten!" cried Chilo, "hasten! Otherwise Vinicius will hide her. I
will point out the house to which she returned after the fire."
"I will give thee ten men, and go this moment," said Tigellinus.
"O lord! thou hast not seen Croton in the arms of Ursus; if thou wilt
give fifty men, I will only show the house from a distance. But if ye
will not imprison Vinicius, I am lost."
Tigellinus looked at Nero. "Would it not be well, O divinity, to finish
at once with the uncle and nephew?"
Nero thought a moment and answered,--
"No, not now. People would not believe us if we tried to persuade them
that Petronius, Vinicius, or Pomponia Græcina had fired Rome. Their
houses were too beautiful. Their turn will come later; to-day other
victims are needed."
"Then, O lord, give me soldiers as a guard," said Chilo.
"See to this, Tigellinus."
"Thou wilt lodge meanwhile with me," said the prefect to Chilo.
Delight beamed from the face of the Greek.
"I will give up all! only hasten!--hasten!" cried he, with a hoarse
ON leaving Cæsar, Petronius had himself borne to his house on the
Carinæ, which, being surrounded on three sides by a garden, and having
in front the small Cecilian Forum, escaped the fire luckily. For this
cause other Augustians, who had lost their houses and in them vast
wealth and many works of art, called Petronius fortunate. For years it
had been repeated that he was the first-born of Fortune, and Cæsar's
growing friendship in recent times seemed to confirm the correctness of
But that first-born of Fortune might meditate now on the fickleness of
his mother, or rather on her likeness to Chronos, who devoured his own
"Were my house burnt," said he to himself, "and with it my gems,
Etruscan vases, Alexandrian glass, and Corinthian bronze, Nero might
indeed have forgotten the offence. By Pollux! And to think that it
depended on me alone to be pretorian prefect at this moment. I should
proclaim Tigellinus the incendiary, which he is really; I should array
him in the 'painful tunic,' and deliver him to the populace, protect the
Christians, rebuild Rome. Who knows even if a better epoch would not
begin thus for honest people? I ought to have taken the office, simply
out of regard for Vinicius. In case of overwork I could have
surrendered command to him, and Nero would not have even tried to
resist. Then let Vinicius baptize all the pretorians, nay, Cæsar
himself; what harm could that be to me? Nero pious, Nero virtuous and
merciful,--this would be even an amusing spectacle."
And his carelessness was so great that he began to laugh. But after a
time his thoughts turned in another direction. It seemed to him that he
was in Antium; that Paul of Tarsus was saying to him, "Ye call us
enemies of life, but answer me, Petronius: If Cæsar were a Christian,
and acted according to our religion, would not life be safer and more
And remembering these words, he continued: "By Castor! No matter how
many Christians they murder here, Paul will find as many new ones; for
he is right, unless the world can rest on scoundrelism. But who knows
that this will not be the case soon? I myself, who have learned not a
little, did not learn how to be a great enough scoundrel; hence I shall
have to open my veins. But in every case it must have ended thus, and
if not thus, in some other way. I am sorry for Eunice and my Myrrhene
vase; but Eunice is free, and the vase will go with me. Ahenobarbus
will not get it, in any event! I am sorry also for Vinicius. But,
though I was bored less of late than before, I am ready. In the world
things are beautiful; but people are so vile for the greater part that
life is not worth a regret. He who knew how to live should know how to
die. Though I belong to the Augustians, I was freer than they supposed."
Here he shrugged his shoulders. "They may think that my knees are
trembling at this moment, and that terror has raised the hair on my
head; but on reaching home, I will take a bath in violet water, my
golden-haired herself will anoint me; then after refreshment we will
have sung to us that hymn to Apollo composed by Anthemios. I said once
to myself that it was not worth while to think of death, for death
thinks of us without our assistance. It would be a wonder if there are
really Elysian fields, and in them shades of people. Eunice would come
in time to me, and we should wander together over asphodel meadows. I
should find, too, society better than this. What buffoons, tricksters,
a vile herd without taste or polish! Tens of Arbiters Elegantiarum
could not transform those Trimalchilons into decent people. By
Persephone! I have had enough!"
And he noted with astonishment that something separated him from those
people already. He had known them well earlier, and had known what to
think of them; still they seemed to him now as farther away and more
deserving of contempt than usual. Indeed, he had had enough of them!
But afterward he began to think over his position. Thanks to his
acuteness, he knew that destruction was not threatening him directly.
Nero had seized an appropriate occasion to utter a few select, lofty
phrases about friendship and forgiveness, thus binding himself for the
moment. "He will have to seek pretexts, and before he finds them much
time may pass. First of all, he will celebrate the games with
Christians," said Petronius to himself; "only then will he think of me,
and if that be true, it is not worth while to take trouble or change my
course of life. Nearer danger threatens Vinicius!"
And thenceforth he thought only of Vinicius, whom he resolved to rescue.
Four sturdy Bithynians bore his litter quickly through ruins, ash-heaps,
and stones with which the Carinæ was filled yet; but he commanded them
to run swiftly so as to be home at the earliest. Vinicius, whose
"insula" had been burned, was living with him, and was at home,
"Hast seen Lygia to-day?" were the first words of Petronius.
"I have just come from her."
"Hear what I tell thee, and lose no time in questions. It has been
decided this morning at Cæsar's to lay the blame of burning Rome on the
Christians. Persecutions and tortures threaten them. Pursuit may begin
any instant. Take Lygia and flee at once beyond the Alps even, or to
Africa. And hasten, for the Palatine is nearer the Trans-Tiber than is
Vinicius was, indeed, too much of a soldier to lose time in useless
queries. He listened with frowning brows, and a face intent and
terrible, but fearless. Evidently the first feeling of his nature in
presence of peril was a wish to defend and give battle.
"I go," said he.
"One word more. Take a purse of gold, take weapons, and a handful of
thy Christians. In case of need, rescue her!"
Vinicius was in the door of the atrium already.
"Send me news by a slave!" cried Petronius.
When left alone, he began to walk by the columns which adorned the
atrium, thinking of what had happened. He knew that Lygia and Linus had
returned after the fire to the former house, which, like the greater
part of the Trans-Tiber, had been saved; and that was an unfavorable
circumstance, for otherwise it would have been difficult to find them
among throngs of people. Petronius hoped, however, that as things were,
no one in the Palatine knew where they lived, and therefore in every
case Vinicius would anticipate the pretorians. It occurred to him also
that Tigellinus, wishing to seize at one attempt as many Christians as
possible, would extend his net over all Rome. "If they send no more
than ten people after her," thought he, "that giant Lygian will break
their bones and what will it be if Vinicius comes with assistance?"
Thinking of this he was consoled. True, armed resistance to the
pretorians was almost the same as war with Cæsar. Petronius knew also
that if Vinicius hid from the vengeance of Nero, that vengeance might
fall on himself; but he cared little. On the contrary, he rejoiced at
the thought of crossing Nero's plans and those of Tigellinus, and
determined to spare in the matter neither men nor money. Since in
Antium Paul of Tarsus had converted most of his slaves, he, while
defending Christians, might count on their zeal and devotion.
The entrance of Eunice interrupted his thoughts. At sight of her all
his cares and troubles vanished without a trace. He forgot Cæsar, the
disfavor into which he had fallen, the degraded Augustians, the
persecution threatening the Christians, Vinicius, Lygia, and looked only
at her with the eyes of an anthetic man enamoured of marvellous forms,
and of a lover for whom love breathes from those forms. She, in a
transparent violet robe called "Coa vestis," through which her maiden-
like form appeared, was really as beautiful as a goddess. Feeling
herself admired meanwhile, and loving him with all her soul, ever eager
for his fondling, she blushed with delight as if she had been an
"What wilt thou say to me, Charis?" asked Petronius, stretching his
hands to her.
She, inclining her golden head to him, answered,--"Anthemios has come
with his choristers, and asks if 'tis thy wish to hear him."
"Let him stay; he will sing to us during dinner the hymn to Apollo. By
the groves of Paphos! when I see thee in that Coan gauze, I think that
Aphrodite has veiled herself with a piece of the sky, and is standing
"Come hither, Eunice, embrace me with thy arms, and give thy lips to me.
Dost thou love me?"
"I should not have loved Zeus more."
Then she pressed her lips to his, while quivering in his arms from
happiness. After a while Petronius asked,--
"But if we should have to separate?"
Eunice looked at him with fear in her eyes.
"How is that, lord?"
"Fear not; I ask, for who knows but I may have to set out on a long
"Take me with thee-"
Petronius changed the conversation quickly, and said,--
"Tell me, are there asphodels on the grass plot in the garden?"
"The cypresses and the grass plots are yellow from the fire, the leaves
have fallen from the myrtles, and the whole garden seems dead."
"All Rome seems dead, and soon it will be a real graveyard. Dost thou
know that an edict against the Christians is to be issued, and a
persecution will begin during which thousands will perish?"
"Why punish the Christians, lord? They are good and peaceful."
"For that very reason."
"Let us go to the sea. Thy beautiful eyes do not like to see blood."
"Well, but meanwhile I must bathe. Come to the elæothesium to anoint my
arms. By the girdle of Kypris! never hast thou seemed to me so
beautiful. I will give command to make a bath for thee in the form of a
shell; thou wilt be like a costly pearl in it. Come, Golden-haired!"
He went out, and an hour later both, in garlands of roses and with misty
eyes, were resting before a table covered with a service of gold. They
were served by boys dressed as Cupids, they drank wine from ivy-wreathed
goblets, and heard the hymn to Apollo sung to the sound of harps, under
direction of Anthemios. What cared they if around the villa chimneys
pointed up from the ruins of houses, and gusts of wind swept the ashes
of burnt Rome in every direction? They were happy thinking only of
love, which had made their lives like a divine dream. But before the
hymn was finished a slave, the chief of the atrium, entered the hall.
"Lord," said he, in a voice quivering with alarm, "a centurion with a
detachment of pretorians is standing before the gate, and, at command of
Cæsar, wishes to see thee."
The song and the sound of lutes ceased. Alarm was roused in all
present; for Cæsar, in communications with friends, did not employ
pretorians usually, and their arrival at such times foreboded no good.
Petronius alone showed not the slightest emotion, but said, like a man
annoyed by continual visits,--
"They might let me dine in peace." Then turning to the chief of the
atrium, he said, "Let him enter."
The slave disappeared behind the curtain; a moment later heavy steps
were heard, and an acquaintance of Petronius appeared, the centurion
Aper, armed, and with an iron helmet on his head.
"Noble lord," said he, "here is a letter from Cæsar."
Petronius extended his white hand lazily, took the tablet, and, casting
his eye over it, gave it, in all calmness to Eunice.
"He will read a new book of the Troyad this evening, and invites me to
"I have only the order to deliver the letter," said the centurion.
"Yes, there will be no answer. But, centurion, thou mightst rest a
while with us and empty a goblet of wine?"
"Thanks to thee, noble lord. A goblet of wine I will drink to thy
health willingly; but rest I may not, for I am on duty."
"Why was the letter given to thee, and not sent by a slave?"
"I know not, lord. Perhaps because I was sent in this direction on
"I know, against the Christians?"
"Is it long since the pursuit was begun?"
"Some divisions were sent to the Trans-Tiber before midday." When he had
said this, the centurion shook a little wine from the goblet in honor of
Mars; then he emptied it, and said,--
"May the gods grant thee, lord, what thou desirest."
"Take the goblet too," said Petronius.
Then he gave a sign to Anthemios to finish the hymn to Apollo.
"Bronzebeard is beginning to play with me and Vinicius," thought he,
when the harps sounded anew. "I divine his plan! He wanted to terrify
me by sending the invitation through a centurion. They will ask the
centurion in the evening how I received him. No, no! thou wilt not
amuse thyself overmuch, cruel and wicked prophet. I know that thou wilt
not forget the offence, I know that my destruction will not fail; but if
thou think that I shall look into thy eyes imploringly, that thou wilt
see fear and humility on my face, thou art mistaken."
"Cæsar writes, lord," said Eunice, "'Come if thou hast the wish'; wilt
"I am in excellent health, and can listen even to his verses," answered
Petronius; "hence I shall go, all the more since Vinicius cannot go."
In fact, after the dinner was finished and after the usual walk, he gave
himself into the hands of hairdressers and of slaves who arranged his
robes, and an hour later, beautiful as a god, he gave command to take
him to the Palatine.
It was late, the evening was warm and calm; the moon shone so brightly
that the lampadarii going before the litter put out their torches. On
the streets and among the ruins crowds of people were pushing along,
drunk with wine, in garlands of ivy and honeysuckle, bearing in their
hands branches of myrtle and laurel taken from Cæsar's gardens.
Abundance of grain and hopes of great games filled the hearts of all
with gladness. Here and there songs were sung magnifying the "divine
night" and love; here and there they were dancing by the light of the
moon, and the slaves were forced repeatedly to demand space for the
litter "of the noble Petronius," and then the crowd pushed apart,
shouting in honor of their favorite.
He was thinking of Vinicius, and wondering why he had no news from him.
He was an Epicurean and an egotist, but passing time, now with Paul of
Tarsus, now with Vinicius, hearing daily of the Christians, he had
changed somewhat without his own knowledge. A certain breeze from them
had blown on him; this cast new seeds into his soul. Besides his own
person others began to occupy him; moreover, he had been always attached
to Vinicius, for in childhood he had loved greatly his sister, the
mother of Vinicius; at present, therefore, when he had taken part in his
affairs, he looked on them with that interest with which he would have
looked on some tragedy.
Petronius did not lose hope that Vinicius had anticipated the pretorians
and fled with Lygia, or, in the worse case, had rescued her. But he
would have preferred to be certain, since he foresaw that he might have
to answer various questions for which he would better be prepared.
Stopping before the house of Tiberius, he alighted from the litter, and
after a while entered the atrium, filled already with Augustians.
Yesterday's friends, though astonished that he was invited, still pushed
back; but he moved on among them, beautiful, free, unconcerned, as self-
confident as if he himself had the power to distribute favors. Some,
seeing him thus, were alarmed in spirit lest they had shown him
indifference too early.
Cæsar, however, feigned not to see him, and did not return his
obeisance, pretending to be occupied in conversation. But Tigellinus
approached and said,-
"Good evening, Arbiter Elegantiarum. Dost thou assert still that it was
not the Christians who burnt Rome?"
Petronius shrugged his shoulders, and, clapping Tigellinus on the back
as he would a freedman, answered,--
"Thou knowest as well as I what to think of that."
"I do not dare to rival thee in wisdom."
"And thou art right, for when Cæsar reads to us a new book from the
Troyad, thou, instead of crying out like a jackdaw, wouldst have to give
an opinion that was not pointless."
Tigellinus bit his lips. He was not over-rejoiced that Cæsar had
decided to read a new book, for that opened a field in which he could
not rival Petronius. In fact, during the reading, Nero, from habit,
turned his eyes involuntarily toward Petronius, looking carefully to see
what he could read in his face. The latter listened, raised his brows,
agreed at times, in places increased his attention as if to be sure that
he heard correctly. Then he praised or criticised, demanded corrections
or the smoothing of certain verses. Nero himself felt that for others
in their exaggerated praises it was simply a question of themselves,
that Petronius alone was occupied with poetry for its own sake; that he
alone understood it, and that if he praised one could be sure that the
verses deserved praise. Gradually therefore he began to discuss with
him, to dispute; and when at last Petronius brought the fitness of a
certain expression into doubt, he said,--
"Thou wilt see in the last book why I used it."
"Ah," thought Petronius, "then we shall wait for the last book."