Burning of Rome - Alfred J. Church

A Great Bribe

The fire continued to devour its prey almost without let or hindrance. Even before the end of the performance described in my last chapter it had come so near that the heat could be distinctly felt by the spectators. Nero, whose ambition it was to imitate the imperturbable self-possession of a great actor, affected to be unconscious of what everybody else felt to be inconvenient, if not alarming. He gave the whole of the piece down to the very last flourish or roulade,  and, when at last it was concluded, came forward again and again to receive the applause which a clique  of duly practised flatterers did not fail time after time to renew.

In spite, however, of this seeming composure, the Emperor was seriously agitated. The fire was a monster which he had created, but which he could not control. It did not limit its ravages to what he wished to see swept away. Even the most reckless of rulers could not view with total indifference the destruction of relics of antiquity which he knew that his subjects regarded with universal reverence. The damage indeed was incredibly great. It may be said, in fact, that all ancient Rome disappeared. Among the losses was the very oldest structure in the city, one that dated from before its foundation, going back to the little Greek colony which had once existed on the Palatine, the altar which Evander the Arcadian consecrated to Hercules, and at which, it was said, the hero himself had feasted. Another was the temple vowed to Jupiter the Stayer by Romulus in the anxious moment when the fate of the infant Empire seemed to be hanging in the balance; a third was the palace of Numa, still roofed with the primitive thatch under which the earliest of the Roman law-givers had been content to find shelter. A fourth, the most disastrous loss of all, as appealing most strongly to the public sentiment, was what may be called the Hearth of the Roman People, the Temple of the Household Gods of Rome, which stood on the summit of the Palatine Hill. Not only was the building destroyed, but the images themselves, said to be the very same that Æneas had carried out of burning Troy, and, undoubtedly, of an immemorial antiquity, perished with it.

Active exertions were now taken to check the conflagration. On the sixth day a huge gap was made by the destruction of a great block of buildings at the foot of the Esquiline, the Emperor himself superintending the operation. For a time this energetic remedy promised to be effective; but, after nightfall, the fire broke out again, and raged for three days longer, this time consuming regions of the city which Nero himself in his wildest mood would never have dreamt of destroying. When at last the second outburst was checked, it was found that out of the fourteen districts into which Rome was divided, four only remained untouched. In three there was absolutely nothing left; in the other seven some buildings, most of them bare walls, still stood, but many more had perished, or were in such a state that they would have to be pulled down.

Eager as he was to commence the building of a new and more splendid Rome, Nero was obliged first to consider the pressing needs of the houseless multitude which crowded every open space in the neighbourhood of the city. Policy, for of sympathy he seems to have been hardly capable, made him spare neither trouble nor expense in relieving their wants. To house them he gave up the splendid structures which Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, had erected in the Field of Mars. The noble colonnades, the baths, commonly reserved for the Imperial use, the vast enclosures where the people still met, not indeed to elect, but to register their master's choice of Consuls, Prætors, and Tribunes; even the temples were thrown open to shelter the houseless crowds. As these did not suffice, huts and tents were hastily erected in the Emperor's own gardens, slight structures, of course, but still sufficient for the purpose, for it was the height of summer, and it was the sun rather than the rain from which shelter was chiefly wanted.

The sufferers, of course, had to be fed as well as lodged. The gratuitous distributions of corn, which it was customary to make, were more frequent and more extensive, for there was a total suspension of business, and many who were not usually pensioners on the bounty of the State had to be relieved. To meet the case of those who were too independent to receive alms, and yet were scarcely above the need of them, the price of corn was lowered by a subvention to the merchants from the Emperor's purse. Wheat became cheap beyond all precedent, a bushel being sold for two shillings. The wealthy nobles, either from compassion for the sufferers, or, where this was wanting, at a peremptory suggestion from Nero, supplemented the Emperor's bounty by a copious distribution of gifts. These gifts were always common, even respectable people condescending to supplement their income by what they received from the great houses to which they were attached by the tie of clientship; now they became more frequent and more extensive, and were on a much more liberal scale.

The enormous operations of clearing away the ruins and building a new city furnished an immense amount of employment and stimulated trade; in fact, in one way or another, put a great deal of money in circulation. But, in addition to food, shelter, and employment, the people wanted another thing, if they were to be kept in good humour, and that was amusement. In furnishing this Nero consulted his own tastes as well as his interests. As soon as was possible, and even while much that would have been thought far more necessary yet remained to be done, Nero made preparations to give a grand entertainment, the splendour of which could not fail, he hoped, to put Rome into a good humour. It is quite possible that from his point of view he was right. The passion of the populace for these great shows was boundless. Of the two things for which they were said to have bartered their freedom, gratuitous food and gratuitous spectacles, the latter was the more coveted. Rome would have preferred being hungry to being dull.

The solid structure of the great Circus had, as has been said, resisted the fire. What had perished was hastily renewed, and no pains or money, scarce as money was at a time of such vast expenditure, was spared in collecting ample materials for exhibition. Gladiators were, of course, abundant, and gladiators were always the staple of a popular show. Give the Roman spectator bloodshed enough and he could not fail to be satisfied. Of the curiosities of the Circus, as they may be called, the rare beasts, the performing animals, and the like, there was a less plentiful supply. Many had been destroyed in the fire, and substitutes could not be provided in a hurry; still a certain number were available. The menageries of the great provincial towns were swept bare to supply this sudden demand from the capital, and private owners were eager to do their best to supply an Imperial customer, who paid well for what he bought, and had a way of taking by force what he wanted, if the persuasion of a large price was not enough.

The day of exhibition was in the latter end of September, somewhat less than three months, i.e.;  after the catastrophe of the fire. It had not been possible to make the arrangements sooner, and indeed the Romans preferred the spring and autumn weather for their great shows. The more temperate weather suited the spectators better than did either the cold of winter or the extreme heat of summer. Everything favoured the spectacle. The day was both cloudless and windless, both circumstances that contributed to its success. Nothing, indeed, could have been finer than the sight of the vast building filled from end to end with a crowd of spectators, the men wearing spotless white gowns and crowned with garlands of flowers, the women habited in a rich variety of colours. The effect of the sun shining through the red and purple awning that was stretched over the heads of the people was itself very striking.

The show began, as usual, with the exhibition of rare and beautiful animals. Bloodshed, as has been said, was the staple of the entertainment; but as the hors d'œuvres,  the soup, the fish, and the various dishes lead up to the pièces de résistance  in a banquet, so the appetite of the Roman public was whetted with various curiosities before it was allowed to reach the great business of the day. Ostriches, whose white plumage was dyed with vermilion, for the false taste of the Romans was not satisfied with nature, lions with gilded manes, and antelopes and gazelles, curiously adorned with light-colored scarves and gold tinsel, trooped in succession across the arena, each under the charge of its keeper. The tameness of some of these animals was wonderful. If one could not praise the art with which it had been sought to heighten their natural beauty of form and hue, yet the skill with which their innate savagery and wildness had been subdued was truly admirable. Lions yoked with tigers, and panthers harnessed with bears, were seen drawing carriages with all the docility of the horse. Wild bulls were seen, now permitting boys and girls to dance upon their backs, and now, at the word of command, standing erect on their hind legs. A still more wonderful sight was when a lion hunted a hare, caught it, and carried it in its mouth, unhurt, to its master. This performance, indeed, brought down a tremendous round of applause. Nero summoned the trainer of the lion to his seat, and praised him highly for his skill. The man answered him with a compliment which may fairly be described as having been as neat as it was false. "It is no skill of mine, my lord," he said, "that has worked this marvel; the beast is gentle because he knows how gentle is the Emperor whom he serves."

Gentleness, certainly, was not the prevailing characteristic of the sports that followed. A Roman's curiosity and love of the marvellous were easily satisfied. Of fighting he never could have enough. He loved best to do it himself,—it is but justice to say so much for him,—and next he loved to see others do it. The first kind of combat exhibited was of beast against beast. A dog of the Molossian breed, much the same as our mastiff, a breed famous then, as now, for strength and courage, was matched with a bull, and came off victorious. A lion was pitted against a tiger, but proved to be far inferior not only in courage, but in strength. A combat between a bull and a rhinoceros was a great disappointment to the spectators, who expected a novel sensation from combatants which, as far as was known, had never contended together before. First, the rhinoceros was very reluctant to engage with his adversary. Amidst yells and shouts of derision from the crowd he retreated into his cage. It was only after hot iron had been applied to its hide, the extraordinary thickness of which resisted the application of the goad, and trumpets had been blown into its ears, that the creature was induced to advance. And then the conflict, when it did take place, was of the very briefest. The bull, a naturally savage animal, who had been goaded into madness by fluttering pennons of red and by the pricks of spears, rushed furiously forward to vent its rage, after the manner of its kind, on the first object that it saw. The rhinoceros lifted its head and sent the bull flying into the air as easily as if it had been a truss of straw. When the bull came to the ground, it was absolutely dead, its enemy's horn having pierced a vital part.

Another novel spectacle, a lion matched against a crocodile, was scarcely more successful. The lion approached its strange antagonist, and laid hold of it, but rather it seemed from curiosity than from anger. A short inspection seemed to satisfy the beast that the strange, scaly creature was not a desirable or even possible prey. Loosing his hold, he carelessly turned away, and cantered round the arena, glaring in a very alarming way through the grating which separated him from the lowest tier of spectators. As for the crocodile, whatever its intentions, it was helpless. Its movements on land were far too cumbrous to allow it to force a battle on its antagonist.

When the wild beast show had been finished there was an interval for refreshment. The Emperor, anxious to please the multitude, had provided for the gratuitous distribution of an immense quantity of food. Slaves carrying huge baskets of loaves were followed by others with baskets, equally huge, of sausages. Almost every one who cared to have his food supplied in this way was able to get it for nothing. Wine was not absolutely given away, but it was sold at a rate so cheap that the poorest spectator could purchase enough or even more than enough. The smallest coin, an as, equivalent to something less than a half-penny, could purchase half a sextarius—a sextarius  may be taken as roughly equivalent to a pint—of very fair liquor, rough, of course, but well-bodied and sound, and far superior to the posca  or diluted vinegar which formed the staple drink of the lowest class. When the exhibition recommenced, about two hours after noon, the spectators were in a state of uproarious good humour.

The first exhibition of the afternoon was a chariot-race. The competing chariots were kept in a set of chambers, technically called "prisons," which were furnished with folding doors that opened out on to the race-course. When the presiding officer gave the usual signal for starting by dropping a napkin, slaves who were told off to perform this office simultaneously opened the doors of the "prisons," and the chariots, which were standing ready for a start within, made the best of their way out. In theory this was as fair a method of proceeding as possible; but in practise difficulties arose. The slaves did not always work with absolute uniformity. It was whispered that they were sometimes bribed to bungle over their task; and as the business of racing, and especially horse-racing, has always given occasion to a great deal of rascality, the suspicion was probably well-founded. On the present occasion there was certainly a hitch which may or may not have been accidental, but which certainly caused a great amount of irritation among the spectators. The doors of one of the "prisons" stuck fast for a few moments, and the chariot inside had, in consequence, a most unfavourable start. As the driver was a special favourite with the people, wore the most popular colours, and had the reputation of never having been beaten in a fair race, this contretemps  was received with a perfect howl of execration. Man and horses did their best as soon as they were able to get away; chariot after chariot was passed, till of the six that had started, only one was left to vanquish. But this competitor could not be overtaken. He had got a start of nearly half a lap out of the seven which made up the course; and as he was a skilful driver, with an excellent team of horses, this advantage gave him the victory. For a moment, indeed, the race seemed undecided. Just as the two remaining competitors, all other rivals having by this time been distanced, were nearing the turning-point in the last lap, the charioteer who had been so unluckily delayed made a supreme effort to secure the advantage of the nearer curve. In his excitement he used the lash too freely. The spirited animal which he struck resented the blow, and swerved so violently as to throw the charioteer. The man burst into tears of vexation and rage, due at least as much to the feeling of self-reproach as to vexation at his ill-fortune. Not even the purse of gold which Nero threw to him, nor the sympathizing cries from his friends among the crowd, consoled him.

Chariot Race


After this everything seemed to go wrong. When the gladiators came on the scene, which they did immediately after the decision of the chariot-race, the popular favourite was almost uniformly unlucky. A veteran net-fighter, who had been victorious in a hundred battles, and who was accustomed to charm the spectators by the easy dexterity with which he would entangle his adversary, made an unlucky slip as he was throwing his net, and was stabbed to the heart by a mere tyro, who had never before appeared in the arena. Another old favourite, a mirmillo, from some unaccountable cause lost his nerve, when confronted with an active young Thracian, in whom he had not expected to find a formidable enemy, and having delivered to no purpose his favourite stroke, actually turned to fly. The populace, forgetting as usual the poor fellow's many successes, expressed its disapprobation by an angry howl, and when the fugitive was struck down, absolutely refused to spare his life.

When at last the show was over, when the dead, of whom some thirty lay on the sand, had been examined by an attendant habited as Charon, ferryman of the Styx, and removed under the superintendence of another official who bore the wand of Hermes the Conductor of Souls, the irritation of the populace broke forth in angry cries levelled against no less a personage than the Emperor himself. The Circus, it must be remembered, was the place where something of the old liberty of the Roman people still remained. There it was still permitted to them to express their wants and their dislikes. The Emperors, despotic as they were, were prudent enough to allow a safety-valve for a discontent which, if always suppressed, might have become really dangerous; nor were they averse to thus learning without the intervention of others what their humbler subjects really thought and felt. On this occasion there was a really formidable manifestation of feeling. Loud cries of "Incendiary!" "Paris the Firebrand!" and, with allusion to former misdeeds, of "Orestes the Matricide!" "Vengeance for Agrippina!" "Vengeance for Octavia!" "Vengeance for Britannicus!" "Give us back the children of Augustus!" rent the air. The Emperor at first affected indifference or disdain. Coming to the front of the magnificent box from which he had witnessed the spectacle, he threw the contents of bags of coin among the crowd. Many of the malcontents were not proof against this bribe, and scrambled for the coins with the usual eagerness, but some were seen to spit upon what they had picked up, and throw them away again with a gesture of disgust. Nero then hastily left the Circus, closely guarded by a cohort of Prætorians. He had at last learnt that there was a formidable amount of discontent which he must find some means of allaying.