Burning of Rome - Alfred J. Church


Scaevinus — for we must do the poor cowardly wretch such justice as he deserves — had made an effort to save his friends, and, one ought perhaps to add, himself. While Natalis was being interrogated, he entered into conversation with the slave who had been told off to attend on him. The slave was a young man of mixed Greek and Asiatic race, with an extremely intelligent countenance, but sickly and lame. It was impossible for any one with the least insight into character to look at him and to hear him speak without perceiving that there was something out of the common about him. In after years he was to become one of the most notable exponents of the Stoic philosophy, for this Phrygian cripple was no less a person than the philosopher Epictetus. At the time of which I am writing he was only a feeble lad with, however, a certain air of ability and courage which greatly impressed an intelligent observer. Scævinus, feeling that his situation was practically desperate, resolved to make a last effort. If it failed he could hardly be in a worse position than the present; if it succeeded it was just possible that the fortunes of the conspiracy might yet be retrieved.

"Can you take a message for me to a friend?" he said in Greek to Epictetus.

The soldiers who were guarding the door of the apartment heard without understanding.

"Certainly," said the slave, "if any good is to be achieved."

"You shall have ten gold pieces for your trouble."

"Nay, this is a thing which I would sooner do without payment. That is not only more honourable, but also more safe."

"I cannot write it, indeed, there is no need; all that is needed can be said in a few words. Go to Caius Piso, and say to him, 'All is discovered; act.' And mind—not a word of this to any one else. Let not wild horses wring it out of you. That would be fatal to both you and me."

The slave smiled. "They might as well try to wring words out of a stump or a stone. For, indeed, what else is a slave? When my old master kicked me and broke my leg—" and he held out as he spoke the maimed limb—"I said, 'Why do you damage your own property?' So I should say to them. If they choose to kill me, that is their own lookout; all that concerns me, for a slave has something of a man about him after all, as Aristotle says, is that I don't dishonour myself."

When Scævinus was recalled into the Emperor's audience-chamber, Epictetus lost no time in making his way to Piso's house. Some of the prominent persons connected with the conspiracy were assembled, and were busy making their final arrangements for the proceedings of the day.

Epictetus, as soon as he was safe within the doors, wrote down on a tablet the following words: "The bearer of a message from Scævinus asks for admission." He was brought up without loss of time into an ante-chamber, where Piso saw him alone. He delivered his message, and immediately departed.

Piso rejoined his assembled friends, and told them what had happened. Subrius, with characteristic promptitude, rose to the occasion.

"Piso," he said, "the task before us is different from that which we had planned,—different and possibly more difficult, but certainly not hopeless. We shall not proclaim you Emperor after Nero is dead; we shall have to proclaim you while he is yet alive. And I must own that the affair is now more to my taste than it was. I was ready, as you know, to play the assassin, when it was a question of delivering the human race from a tyrant; but I would sooner play the soldier, and meet him in the field. That, Piso, is what we must do. Let us go to the Forum, and appeal to the people, or, as I would rather advise, to the camp, and appeal to the soldiers. In both places, among both audiences, we shall have friends. They will shout their applause, and others, who at present know nothing of the matter, will join in. That is a line of action for which, depend upon it, Nero is not prepared. Even brave men are sometimes confounded by so sudden an attack; how will a stage-playing Emperor and his miserable minion encounter it? Don't think for a moment that we can escape; there are too many in the secret. Some one will be sure to sell his honour for money, or find his courage ooze away in the presence of the rack. Indeed, we know that the treachery has begun. Let us act, and at once, for even while I am urging you on, opportunities are passing away."

These spirited words made no impression on Piso's somewhat sluggish and inactive nature. He was one of those men who are slow to move from their course, and have an inexhaustible supply of passive endurance. He shrugged his shoulders.

"The Empire," he said, "does not approve itself to me if it is to be won in a street broil."

"I understand," said the soldier. "It would be more seemly, I acknowledge, if the Senate, headed by the Magistrates, and the Prefects, and Tribunes of the Prætorians, with the Vestal Virgins in the front of the whole procession, were to come and salute you as Emperor. But that is not the question. The question is this: You have two alternatives; think which suits your dignity, your name, your ancestors, the better. One is to put your fortune to the trial, if things go well, to be the successor of Augustus; if the fates will otherwise, to die, sword in hand. The other is to wait here till Nero's myrmidons come to chain you, to drag you off to the place of execution; or, if the tyrant strains his prerogative of mercy to the utmost, to suffer you to fall on your own sword, or open your own veins."

Piso heard unmoved. His courage was of the passive kind. He could meet death when it came with an undaunted face, but he could not go, so to speak, to seek it.

"The gods have declared against us, and I shall not resist their will. I thank you for your good-will and your counsel; but you must permit a Piso to judge for himself what best suits his own dignity and the glory of his ancestors. I am determined to await my fate."

The bold spirit of the Tribune was not crushed, nor his resources exhausted by this failure. There was still a possible claimant to the throne in Lateranus. He had not, it is true, the pretensions of Piso, neither his personal popularity nor his noble birth. Still, he had courage, favour with some classes of the people, and a commanding presence. Here another disappointment awaited him. Lateranus had been arrested. Apparently, Nero had had the same thought that had occurred to the Prætorian, that the Consul-elect was among the dangerous characters of Rome. The house was in the utmost confusion; indeed, the soldiers had only just left it. Subrius' inquiries were answered by the Chamberlain. He, poor man, came wringing his hands and weeping, overwhelmed, it was evident, by terror and grief. "Ah! my poor master," he said; "we shall never see him again. They hurried him off without a moment's notice."

"Who?" asked the soldier.

"Statius the Tribune," replied the Chamberlain, "who had some twenty men with him. He would not give him time even to say good by to his children. And when my poor master said, 'If I must die, let me die by my own hand,' even that was refused him. 'We allow nothing to traitors,' the brute answered. They bound him hand and foot and dragged him off."

"We allow nothing to traitors, indeed," murmured Subrius to himself. "What, I wonder, does Statius call himself? I hope that he, anyhow, will get his deserts."

Statius, it should be said, had been one of the most active promoters of the conspiracy.

Again the Tribune's hopes were dashed to the ground. Still he refused to think that all was lost. A last chance remained. The conspiracy had spread widely among his brother officers of the Prætorians; and they, at least, he hoped, would make a struggle for their lives. Civilians might be content to fold their arms and bare their necks to the sword of the executioner, but soldiers would die, if die they must, with arms in their hands. And then, if they wanted a great name to catch the popular ear, was there not Seneca? I don't think much of philosophers," Subrius thought to himself, "but perhaps I may be wrong. Anyhow, the men of the world have failed us. They are as weak as water. Perhaps there may be sterner stuff in the man of books."

Obviously there was no time to be lost. He must hurry to the Prætorian camp at once, and urge Fænius Rufus, who was one of the joint Prefects, and, as we know, was involved in the conspiracy, to act.

Calling to the driver of a car which was plying for hire, he proceeded at the utmost speed to which the horse could be put, to the camp. Just outside the gate he met the officer of whom he was in search.

Rufus, who was on horseback, and was followed by an escort of ten troopers, signed to his brother officer to halt. "Well met, Subrius!" he cried. "I am on my way to the palace, and I want you to come with me. Give the Tribune your horse," he went on, turning to the orderly who was riding behind him; "go back and get a fresh mount for yourself, and come on after us."

The man dismounted and held the horse while the Tribune jumped into the saddle.

"Not a word," whispered the Prefect to his companion, as they rode along; "not a word; we must brave it out, and all may yet be well. But leave it to me.

The Tribune had no choice but to obey. His superior officer's conduct was unintelligible, even astounding. Still he could do nothing. It would have been sheer madness for him, a simple Tribune, to stand up in the camp and bid the Prætorians abandon the Emperor. If such a movement was to begin at all it must begin with the Prefect. Meanwhile, he could only obey orders and possess his soul in patience.

Rufus, anxious, it would seem, not to give his subordinate a chance of any further speech, beckoned to the Centurion who was in command of the escort, and kept him in conversation till they reached the palace gates.

The two Prætorians were ushered into the chamber where Nero had just taken his seat, and was preparing to examine some of the prisoners who had been named by the informers. The Emperor was evidently in a state of great agitation and alarm, and Subrius observed that the detachment of the body-guard in attendance was exclusively composed of Germans. He hardly knew whether the circumstance was encouraging or not. For the present, indeed, it would make any attempt very difficult, if not impossible, but it was an ominous thing for Nero if he had begun to find that only barbarians could be trusted.

The Emperor signed to Rufus to take a seat immediately on his left hand, the chair on the right being occupied by Tigellinus. Subrius himself sat immediately below his superior officer, and within a few feet of the Emperor.

The prisoner under examination at the moment was the poet Lucan. The Emperor and Tigellinus had been questioning him for some time, but hitherto with little or no result. He had denied all knowledge of the conspiracy. Still the keen eyes of his judges had not failed to perceive signs of waning courage. Nero whispered to Tigellinus, and the Minister beckoned to an attendant. The man drew aside a curtain and revealed the rack.

"Marcus Annacus Lucanus," said Tigellinus, using almost the same words that he had addressed to Scævinus, "when the life of the Emperor is at stake, the law permits and even enjoins all means of discovering the truth."

The wretched man turned pale. Still he made an effort to brave it out. "You are more likely to wring out falsehood than truth by such means," he said in a faint voice.

"Of that you must leave us to judge," answered Tigellinus with a sneer.

The executioner advanced and laid his hand on the prisoner's shoulder. He started at the touch, and grew ghastly pale.

"Cæsar," he cried, appealing as a last chance to the feelings of the Emperor, "Cæsar, we were once friends, and worshipped the Muses together. Will you suffer this?"

Nero only smiled. He had long ago steeled his heart against pity. Lucan he hated with that especially bitter hatred which wounded vanity sometimes inspires. He aspired to be a poet, as he aspired to be an actor, a singer, a charioteer, and he could not conceal from himself that the author of the Pharsalia  far surpassed him.

Then the unhappy man's courage broke down. "Stop!" he cried, "I will confess. I am guilty of conspiring against the Emperor."

"That we know," said Tigellinus. "What we want to hear from you is the names of your confederates."

"Must I speak, Cæsar?" moaned the wretched man. "Is it not enough that I have confessed the crime myself?"

"You have confessed nothing," said Nero. "Your guilt I knew already. And you I could afford to despise, for you can only strike with your pen, but doubtless you know others who know how to use their swords."

Lucan then gave two or three names, all of them, as it happened, already known.

"Still we have learnt nothing new from you," said Tigellinus. "If you wish to merit the Emperor's clemency, you must tell us something that we have not heard before."

In a voice half stifled with shame the accused said: "My mother knew of the affair almost as soon as I did."

A thrill of disgust went through the audience as these humiliating words were uttered. Even to these men, hardened as they were, the son who could betray his own mother seemed a monster.

"That is enough," cried the Emperor, making a sign to a Centurion; "remove him!"

A shameful scene of baseness and cowardice followed. One after another the accused were brought before the tribunal; one after another they failed in the hour of trial. Men of noble birth, men who had served their country in high offices, and who had distinguished themselves in the field, could not summon up courage enough to endure this ordeal. Some volunteered confession, and neither force, nor even the threat of force, was needed to make them betray their comrades. Others stood firm at first, but failed when they were confronted with the engines of torture. Subrius sat filled with a disgust and a shame which hardly left him time to think of his own danger, as friend after friend, men of courage and honour as he had always believed them to be, proved themselves to be traitors and cowards.

As for the behaviour of Rufus, he watched it with ever increasing astonishment. The Prefect took an active part in the examination. Not even Tigellinus was more truculent, more savage, more brutal. He cross-examined the prisoners, he plied them with threats, and still by a strange agreement in silence, his name was not mentioned by one of them.

"What is his plan?" thought Subrius to himself. "Can he hope that he will escape altogether, that no one out of these scores of accomplices will name him, or is he biding his time?"

"Tigellinus," said Nero to his Minister, after some six or seven confessions had been taken, "do you remember that Greek freedwoman whom Proculus accused? Let her be brought before us again. Perhaps she may have a different story to tell. Meanwhile, while she is being fetched, we will adjourn for a brief space. A cup of Falernian will not be ungrateful after this morning's work."

He rose from his seat, and left the Court, leaning on the arm of Tigellinus. The Prefect of the Prætorians followed immediately behind, and the Tribune, again, was close to his commanding officer. Behind these again were some dozen German body-guards.

"Is this the chance that he has been waiting for?" said Subrius to himself.

"Shall I strike?" he whispered to the Prefect, laying his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Rufus hesitated for a moment. That there was an opportunity such as never might occur again, he saw; the chances were ten to one that if Subrius were to strike, he would not strike in vain. But then, could he hope to escape himself if the deed was done? The German body-guards were devoted to their master, and would infallibly avenge his death on his assassin, and, it could hardly be doubted, on himself.

"Hush!" he whispered to his subordinate. "It is not the time; we shall have a better opportunity than this."

Subrius muttered a curse under his breath, but the habit of obedience was strong in him, and he held his hand.