On the evening of the day of the great show just described, Nero was again deep in consultation with his two advisers. He had been profoundly impressed by the manifestations of popular feeling that he had that day witnessed in the Circus. Hitherto he had been, on the whole, in spite of his follies and excesses, a popular Emperor. The nobility hated him, not without cause, for the most illustrious among them could not feel that property or life were safe under his rule. The small party of independent patriots, which a hundred and twenty years of despotic rule had left, loathed and despised the young mountebank who was squandering away all the resources, and tarnishing all the glories of Rome. But the multitude had a strange indulgence for their young ruler. His presence, stately enough when the defects of his figure were concealed, his handsome face, his open hand,—for he could give away as well as spend,—his very vices, so magnificent was the scale on which they were practised, attracted a certain interest and even favour. As long as this popular favour lasted, and the soldiers were kept in good humour, a point on which his vigilance never relaxed, Nero felt himself safe, in spite of the hatred of the nobles and the philosophers. Accordingly the seditious cries that he had heard during the day, heard too at the close of an entertainment in which the amusement of the multitude had been provided for with lavish care, alarmed him greatly, and he lost no time in seeking advice.
No direct reference was made to the immediate occasion of the consultation either by the Emperor or by his advisers. It was not etiquette to suppose that any one would venture to utter injurious words against the Augustus, the Master of Rome, the equal of gods. The same silence was observed as to the real truth about the fire. Nero, as we have seen, had not been able to keep his own secret; he had even gone the length, in moments of abandonment, of boasting of his deed, and that to both of the persons present; but nevertheless both he and they agreed in speaking of it as a disastrous event of which the cause was yet to be discovered.
The Emperor opened the discussion:—
"Tigellinus," he said, "the gods have visited Rome with a great calamity. Such things do not happen without a cause. There must have been some great wickedness, some monstrous impiety at work. The people demand, and are right in demanding, the punishment of the guilty. Tell me, how are they to be found? And when they are found, how are they to be punished?"
"Sire," said Tigellinus, "I have inquired of the Triumvirs, and they tell me that they have in custody twenty or thirty wretches who were caught, red-handed, spreading the fire. Some of them were also convicted of robbery, and some of murder. What say you, Sire, to having a public execution of these malefactors? They might suffer together, and the spectacle might be made sufficiently imposing to satisfy the just indignation of the people."
The proposition was made and received with a perfect gravity which did credit to the power of acting possessed by the speaker and his hearers.
Nero affected to meditate. The real thought in his mind was that some of the victims might make awkward revelations. What he said was this:—
"The punishment, however exemplary, of some score of incendiaries, will not suffice. If it had been the case of some provincial municipality destroyed, it might have been otherwise. Is it not possible that the enemies of the Roman people, the Parthians or the Germans, have plotted the destruction of the seat of Empire?"
"The Parthians, Sire," returned Tigellinus with an air of profound humility, "are just now our very good friends, and whether they are guilty or not, it would be inconvenient to accuse them. We must begin by seizing the young Princes whom we have as hostages, and this would most certainly be followed by war."
"But Corbulo and my legions would be more than a match for these barbarians," replied the Emperor haughtily.
"True, Sire, most true," said the vizier with a sarcasm not wholly concealed by the deference with which it was veiled. "But Corbulo thinks that another campaign would not now be for the advantage of the Empire."
The speaker's real meaning was that the military successes of Corbulo made him at least as formidable to his master as to the enemy, and that it would not be politic to give him another opportunity of increasing them.
Nero, who was quick enough to know where his real danger lay, nodded his acquiescence.
"And the Germans?" he said after a pause.
Tigellinus slightly shrugged his shoulders. "That hardly seems probable. Those thick-witted barbarians can scarcely have devised such a plot."
A period of uneasy silence followed. Tigellinus was even more impressed than was Nero with the gravity of the situation, for he knew more of the very deep and widespread feelings to which the cries in the Circus had given expression, and he was absolutely at a loss for a policy. The people suspected Nero of having caused the late disaster, and suspected him with very good reason; what reasonable chance was there of turning these suspicions in some other direction?
Suddenly a great scheme crossed his mind. Himself of the meanest origin, Tigellinus felt a jealous hatred for the old nobility. Not a few of the foremost members had already fallen victims to his craft, and now he seemed to perceive a chance of dealing the order a damaging blow.
"Sire," he began, "it is an enemy from within, rather than an enemy from without, that has to be dreaded. You remember the story of Catiline?"
"Surely," replied the Emperor.
"In those days," went on the favourite, "a set of needy and unscrupulous nobles, beggared by their own extravagance and luxury, plotted to overthrow the Republic, and one of their methods was conflagration. There are the same causes still at work,—pride, poverty, and extravagance. Where these are to be found there will always be a Catiline. Then the play was stopped before the prologue was spoken; now it may well be that we have had the first act."
"Is this a mere suspicion of yours, or do you speak from knowledge?" asked the Emperor.
Before the Minister could answer Poppæa interposed. She had a shrewd idea of what Tigellinus was aiming at—a huge proscription of the nobles, to be brought about by working on the suspicions of Nero, and to result in his own aggrandizement in wealth and power, on a scale equally huge. Such a scheme was not to her taste. Her own sympathies were largely aristocratic; she prided herself on a high descent, at least, on the mother's side. She was willing enough to join in the overthrow of this or that noble, and to share in his spoils, but a general ruin of the order did not suit her wishes or her plans. Among other reasons was her fear lest her associate should become too great. At present he was willing to be her ally, but she knew that he would like far better to be the only power behind the throne. And she had, besides, a scheme of her own to further, and animosities of her own to gratify.
"Sire," she began, "there are men in Rome who are enemies not only of the Roman people, but of the whole human race, and these may very well have begun their impious work by attempting to destroy the most glorious of the habitations of mankind. You have heard of Christus, and the people who call themselves after his name?"
"Surely," replied Nero. "Was not that Paulus, a Jew of Tarsus, if I remember right, a chief man among them?"
"Yes, indeed," cried Poppæa; "and a most pernicious fellow, a ringleader in all their mischievous doings!"
Poppæa, in fact, regarded the Apostle with feelings of the strongest aversion. Not long after his arrival at Rome, rather more than two years before, some rumour about him had reached her, and had greatly excited her curiosity. A famous Jewish teacher, she heard, had come to Rome. He was a prophet, it was said, and what was still more interesting, a worker of wonders. Accordingly she had sent for him. The interview had been a disappointment, and worse than a disappointment. She was then intriguing for a share in the Imperial throne, and wanted this wonderful seer to predict the future for her. She heard from his lips no prophecy in her sense of the word, but certain plain words about purity, justice, mercy, such as it is the highest function of the prophet to utter. She concealed her vexation, and even pretended to be impressed by what she had heard. "Would he," she said, "confirm his authority, as a teacher, by performing one of the wonders which he had the power, she was told, to work?" The Apostle peremptorily refused. He was permitted, he said, sometimes thus to relieve the sick and suffering, but he would not gratify an idle curiosity. With this the interview had ended, and she had never sought to repeat it. In process of time to this personal offence had been added another cause of dislike. Poppæa's Jewish friends in Rome had received communications from Jerusalem, which made them actively hostile to the Apostle, and she, though of course understanding little or nothing about the difference between Jew and Christian, had taken their side. When the Apostle was brought to answer for his life before the Emperor, all her influence had been used to bring about his condemnation, and his acquittal and subsequent release had caused her the greatest annoyance.
"Ah!" said Nero, "I always thought, my sweetest Poppæa, that you were somewhat too hard on the poor man. You would have had me condemn him, but I really could see no harm in him. I will allow that he did not appear to be quite in his right senses. He talked some quite unintelligible nonsense about his Master, as he called him. At one time he said that he was a man, and at another that he was a god. He maintained that he had died. That seemed a great point with him, though why any one should make so much of his Master having been crucified, it is hard to see. And then again he insisted that he was alive. Altogether he made the strangest jumble that I have ever heard from human lips. And he spoke Greek, I remember, but poorly, and with a very strong accent. Still, he had the air of a learned man, and he talked as if he really believed what he said. And certainly, whether he was in his senses or not, I could find no harm in him. No, my Poppæa, you were always a little unreasonable about this Paulus. If his followers are no worse than he, there can be nothing very wrong about them."
"Sire," replied Poppæa, "the kindness of your heart makes you unwilling to believe the truth. I cannot tell you a tenth part of the horrible things that are said, and I believe truly said, about these followers of Christus—Christiani they call them."
"Surely, my dearest," said Nero with a smile, "they are nothing worse than a new kind of Jew, and for the Jews, you have, I know, a liking."
"Sire," said Poppæa with no little heat, "they are as different from Jews as darkness is different from light. They are atheists, though they worship, I believe, some strange demons; they have no love for their country; they will not serve in the legions; in fact, as I said, they are the enemies of mankind. And as to the dreadful things which they do at their feasts, they are beyond belief. That they sacrifice children, and banquet on their flesh, is among the least of the horrors which they commit."
"Tigellinus," said Nero, "do you know anything about these Christians whom the Empress seems to dislike so much?"
"They are a strange people," replied the Minister, "who cling to their gloomy superstition with a most invincible obstinacy. That they never sacrifice to the gods, or even eat of the sacrifices of others, that they will not enter the Circus or the theatre, and lead altogether a joyless life—this I know. That they never serve in the legions can hardly be true. I heard that when you last gave a donation to the Prætorians, and the men came to receive it, wearing garlands on their heads, one man alone came carrying his garland in his hand. "The law of Christus, his Master," he said, "forbade him to crown himself." And to this he adhered most inflexibly, though he not only lost his gold pieces, but was almost beaten to death by the Centurions for disobeying orders."
"And what about these crimes that are laid to their charge?" asked the Emperor. "Are they really guilty of them, think you?"
"That I cannot say," Tigellinus answered; "but that the people believe them to be guilty I know for certain."
"And are they guilty, think you," Nero went on, "of this wickedness concerning the city?"
"That the people will believe them to be guilty, I do not doubt," said Tigellinus.
Nero caught eagerly at the idea. An obscure sect, for whom no one would feel any sympathy or compassion, who, on the contrary, were hated by all who had heard of them,—just the victims that he wanted.
"Doubtless," cried Nero, "we have found, thanks to the prudence and wisdom of the Empress, and to my own good fortune, the real criminals. I charge you, Tigellinus, with the care of seeing that these miscreants are properly punished."
"It shall be done, Sire, without delay; and that so completely that no one will have reason to complain of slackness of justice."
It was one of the arts by which this unscrupulous politician retained the Emperor's favour that he knew how to yield. His own scheme he was content for the present to postpone. It would be difficult and even dangerous to execute it. It might be more safely carried on piecemeal. Meanwhile, there was an urgent need which had to be met, and Poppæa's scheme seemed to provide for it in the best possible manner. Better scapegoats than these obscure sectaries, of whom few professed to know anything, and those few nothing that was not bad, could not well be found. He bowed his acquiescence and left the Imperial presence to devise a plan for carrying out his orders.