Burning of Rome - Alfred J. Church

A Great Fire

The two friends hurried to the window. At the very moment of their reaching it a great flame shot up into the air. It was easy to distinguish by its light the outline of the Circus, the white polished marble of which shone like gold with the reflection of the blaze.

"It can scarcely be the Circus itself that is on fire," cried Subrius; "the light seems to fall upon it from without. But the place must be dangerously near to it. Hurry back, Fannius, as quick as you can. We shall come after you as soon as possible, and shall look out for you at the Southeastern Gate."

The gladiator ran off at the top of his speed, and the two friends lost no time in making themselves ready to follow him. Discarding the dress of ceremony in which they had sat down to dinner, for indeed, the folds of the toga were not a little encumbering, they both equipped themselves in something like the costume which they would have assumed for a hunting expedition, an outer and an inner tunic, drawers reaching to the knee, leggings and boots. Lateranus was by far the larger man of the two; but one of his freedmen was able to furnish the Prætorian with what he wanted.

"Don't let us forget the hunting-knives," said Lateranus; "we may easily want something wherewith to defend ourselves, for a big fire draws to it all the villains in the city."

By this time all Rome knew what was going on, and the friends, when they descended into the street, found themselves in the midst of a crowd that was eagerly hurrying towards the scene of action. A fire exercised the same fascination on the Roman public that it exercises to-day in London or Paris. No one allowed his dignity to stand in the way of his enjoying it; no one was so weak but that he made shift to be a spectator. Senators and Knights struggled for places with artisans and slaves; and of course, women brought their babies, as they have brought them from time immemorial on the most inconvenient and incongruous occasions.

Arrived at the spot, the friends found that the conflagration was even more extensive and formidable than they had anticipated. The Circus was still untouched, but it was in imminent danger. A shop where oil for the Circus lamps had been sold was burning fiercely, and it was separated from the walls of the great building only by a narrow passage. As for the shop itself, there was no hope of saving it; the. flames had got such a mastery over it that had the Roman appliances for extinguishing fire been ten times more effective than they were, they could hardly have made any impression upon them. To keep the adjoining buildings wet with deluges of water was all that could be done. A more effective expedient would have been, of course, to pull them down. Subrius, who was a man of unusual energy and resource, actually proposed this plan of action to the officer in command of the Watch, a body of men who performed the functions of a fire-brigade. The suggestion was coldly received. The officer had received, he said, no orders, and could not take upon himself so much responsibility. And who was to compensate the owners, he asked. And indeed, the time had hardly come for the application of so extreme a remedy. As a matter of fact, it is always employed too late. Again and again enormous loss might be prevented if the vigorous measures which have to be employed at the last had been taken at the first. No one, indeed, could blame the Prefect of the Watch for his unwillingness to take upon himself so serious a responsibility, but the conduct of his subordinates was less excusable. They did nothing, or next to nothing, in checking the fire. More than this, they refused, and even repulsed with rudeness, the offers of assistance made by the bystanders. A cordon  was formed to keep the spectators at a distance from the burning houses; for by this time the buildings on either side had caught fire. This would have been well enough, if it had been desired that the firemen should work unimpeded by the pressure of a curious mob; but, as far as could be seen, they did nothing themselves, and suffered nothing to be done by others.

Subrius and Lateranus, though they were persons of too much distinction to be exposed to insult, found themselves unable to do any good. They were chafing under their forced inaction, when they were accosted by the gladiator.

"Come, gentlemen," he said; "let us see what can be done. The fire has broken out in two fresh places, and this time inside the Circus."

"In two places!" cried Subrius in astonishment. "That is an extraordinary piece of bad luck. Has the wind carried the flames there?"

"Hardly, sir," replied the man, "for the night, you see, is fairly still, and both places, too, are at the other end of the building."

"It seems that there is foul play somewhere," said Lateranus. "But come, we seem to be of no use here."

The three started at full speed for the scene of the new disaster, Fannius leading the way. One of the fires, which had broken out in the quarters of the gladiators, had been extinguished by the united exertions of the corps. The other was spreading in an alarming way, all the more alarming because it threatened that quarter of the building in which the wild beasts were kept. The keeper of the Circus, who had, within the building, an authority independent of the Prefect of the Watch, exerted himself to the utmost in checking the progress of the flames, and was zealously seconded by his subordinates; but the buildings to be saved were unluckily of wood. The chambers and storehouses underneath the tiers of seats were of this material, and were besides, in many cases, filled with combustible substances. In a few minutes it became evident that the quarters of the beasts could not be saved. The creatures seemed themselves to have become conscious of the danger that threatened them, and the general confusion and alarm were heightened by the uproar which they made. The shrill trumpeting of the elephants and the deep roaring of the tigers and lions, with the various cries of the mixed multitude of smaller creatures, every sound being accentuated by an unmistakable note of fear, combined to make a din that was absolutely appalling. The situation, it will be readily understood, was perplexing in the extreme. The collection was of immense value, and how could it be removed? For a few of the animals that had recently arrived the movable cages in which they had been brought to the Circus were still available, for, as it happened, they had not yet been taken away. Others had of necessity to be killed; this seemed better than leaving them to perish in the flames, for they could not be removed, and it was out of the question to let them loose. This was done, to the immense grief of their keepers, for each beast had its own special attendant, a man who had been with it from its capture, and who was commonly able to control its movements. The poor fellows loudly protested that they would be responsible for the good behaviour of their charges, if they could be permitted to take them from their cages; but the Circus authorities could not venture to run the risk. An exception was made in the case of the elephants. These were released, for they could be trusted with their keepers. A part of the stock was saved—saved at least from the fire—by a happy thought that struck one of the officials of the Circus. A part of the arena had been made available for an exhibition of a kind that was always highly popular at Rome—a naval battle. This portion was on a lower level than the rest, and could be flooded at pleasure by turning on the water from a branch of one of the great aqueducts. This was now done, and a good many of the creatures were turned into the place to take their chance. They would at least suffer less from being drowned than from being burnt alive.

Throughout the night Subrius and Lateranus exerted themselves to the utmost, and their efforts were ably seconded by the gladiator. The day was beginning to break when, utterly worn out by their labours, they returned to the house. Fannius was permitted by his master to accompany them. The man had contrived to collect his slave gladiators, with the exception of two who had perished in a drunken sleep. These he had removed to a house which he possessed in the suburbs, and which was commonly used as a sanatorium for the sick and wounded. Fannius, who, as a freeman, bound by his own voluntary act, and serving for purposes of his own, was not likely to run away, he allowed to accompany Lateranus to his home.

They were not permitted to enjoy for long their well-earned repose. It was barely the second hour when a loud knocking at the outer gate roused the porter, who, having himself watched late on the preceding night, was fast asleep. Looking through the little opening which permitted him to take a preliminary survey of all applicants for admission, he saw an elderly slave, who, to judge from his breathless and dishevelled condition, had been engaged in a personal struggle.

The slave was really an old acquaintance, but the porter was still stupid with sleep, and the newcomer was greatly changed in appearance from the neat and well-dressed figure with which the guardian of the door was familiar.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" he asked in a surly tone. "The master can see no callers this morning; he was up late and is fast asleep,—though, indeed," he added in an undertone, "you do not look much like a caller."

"Waste no time," cried the man; "I must see him, whether he be awake or asleep. It is a matter of life and death."

"Good Heavens!" cried the porter, recognizing the voice; "is it you, Dromio? What in the world brings you here in such a plight?"

"The furies seize you!" cried Dromio, shaking the gate in a fury of impatience; "why don't you open?"

Thus adjured the porter undid the bar, calling at the same time to a slave in the inner part of the house, who was to take the visitor to Lateranus' apartment.

"You must see the master, you say?" said the porter. "I don't like to wake him without necessity. He did not come back last night till past the middle of the fourth watch."

"Must see him? Yes, indeed," cried Dromio. "The gods grant that I may not be too late."

The other slave appeared at this moment. "Lead me to your master," said Dromio; "quick, quick!"

Lateranus, roused from the deep sleep into which he had fallen, was at first almost as much perplexed as the porter had been.

"Who is this?" he cried to the slave; "did you not understand that I would have no—"

"Pardon me, my lord," cried Dromio, as he took one of Lateranus' hands and kissed it. "I come from the Lady Pomponia."

"There is nothing wrong, I hope?"

"Dreadfully wrong, I fear. The gods grant that she may be still alive!"

"What has happened?"

"Her house is attacked, and she begs your help. I will tell you the story afterwards, but I implore you, by all the gods, do not lose a moment!"

Lateranus touched three times a hand-bell that stood by his side, at the same time springing from his couch on to the floor and beginning to dress. The summons of the bell, signifying as it did that the presence of the steward was required, soon brought that official to the chamber.

"Arm the cohort at once," said Lateranus, "and send a runner to tell the Tribune Subrius that he is wanted."

The "cohort" was not of course the regular military division known by that name, but a retinue of young freedmen and slaves who were regularly drilled in arms.

"It shall be done, my lord," said the steward, saluting.

"And now," said Lateranus, "while I am dressing tell me what it is all about."

Dromio then told his story.

"Rather more than an hour ago a man knocked at the door, and said that he wished to see the Lady Pomponia. You know my mistress' ways—what a number of strange pensioners she has. In her house it is impossible to be surprised at any visitor. Still there was something about this man that made the porter suspicious. One thing was that the fellow spoke with a strong Jewish accent, and many of the Jews have a very great hatred against the mistress. Anyhow the porter kept the door shut, and said that he must have the stranger's name and business. 'Lucian is my name,' said the man, 'and I bring a message from Clemens the Elder.' That, you know, is one of the priests whom my lady makes so much of. That seemed satisfactory, and the porter opened the gate. Then what does this fellow do but put his foot on the threshold so that the door should not be shut again, and whistles a signal to his companions, who, it seems, were in waiting round the next corner. Anyhow some five and twenty as ill-looking ruffians as you ever set eyes on came running up. By good luck the porter had his youngest son Geta sitting in the lodge, 'Help!' he cries, and Geta who is a regular Hercules, comes running out, seizes the first fellow by the throat and throws him out, deals just in the same fashion with a second, who was half over the threshold, and bangs to the gate. At that a regular howl of rage came from the party outside. 'Open, or we will burn the house down,' shouted their leader. Pomponia, by this time, had been roused by the uproar. She understood what was to be done in a moment; she always does; we sometimes say that she must have learned something of this art from the old General. 'Haste, Dromio,' she said to me, 'by the back way, before they surround the house, and tell Lateranus that I want his help.'"

"That she shall have as quick as I can give it," said Lateranus; "but where are the Watch? Are houses to be besieged in Rome as if it were a city taken by storm?"

"My lord," answered Dromio, "that is just what Rome seems to be. The Watch are fairly dazed, I think, by this dreadful fire, which is growing worse every hour, and if we waited for them to help us we should certainly all have our throats cut in the meanwhile."

At this moment the steward entered the room. "The cohort is ready," he said.