Gateway to the Classics: The Burning of Rome by Alfred J. Church
The Burning of Rome by  Alfred J. Church

The Hatching of a Plot

On the very day of the meeting described in my last chapter, a party of six friends was gathered together in the dining-room—I should rather say one of the dining-rooms—of a country house at Tibur. The view commanded by the window of the apartment was singularly lovely. Immediately below, the hillside, richly wooded with elm and chestnut, and here and there a towering pine, sloped down to the lower course of the river Anio. Beyond the river were meadow-lands, green with the unfailing moisture of the soil, and orchards in which the rich fruit was already gathering a golden hue. The magnificent falls of the river were in full view, but not so near as to make the roar of the descending water inconveniently loud. At the moment, the almost level rays of the setting sun illumined with a golden light that was indescribably beautiful the cloud of spray that rose from the pool in which the falling waters were received. It was an effect that was commonly watched with intense interest by visitors to the villa, for, indeed, it was just one of the beauties of nature which a Roman knew how to appreciate. Landscape, especially of the wilder sort, he did not care about; but the loveliness of a foreground, the greenery of a rich meadow, the deep shade of a wood, the clear water bubbling from a spring or leaping from a rock, these he could admire to the utmost. But on the present occasion the attention of the guests had been otherwise occupied. They had been listening to a recitation from their host. To listen to a recitation was often a price which guests paid for their entertainment, and paid somewhat unwillingly and even ungraciously. Rich dishes and costly wines, the rarest of flowers, and the most precious of perfumes were not very cheaply purchased by two hours of boredom from some dull oration or yet duller poem. There was no such feeling among the guests who were now assembled in this Tibur villa. The entertainment, indeed, had been simple and frugal, such as it befitted a young disciple of the Stoic school to give to a party of like-minded friends. But the intellectual entertainment that followed when the tables were removed had been a treat of the most delightful kind. This may be readily understood when I say that the host of the evening was Lucan, and that he had been reciting from his great poem of the Pharsalia  the description of the battle from which it took its name. To modern readers of Latin literature who find their standard of excellence in Virgil and Horace, the Pharsalia  sounds artificial and turgid. But it suited the taste of that age, all the more from the very qualities which make it less acceptable to us. And, beyond all doubt, it lent itself admirably to recitation. A modern reader often thinks it rhetoric rather than poetry. But the rhetoric was undeniably effective, especially when set off by the author's fiery declamation, and when the recitation came to an end with the well-known lines:—

"Italian fields of death, the blood-stained wave

That swept Sicilian shores, and that dark day

That reddened Actium's rocks, have wrought such woe,

Philippi's self seems guiltless by compare."

It was followed by a round of genuine, even enthusiastic applause. When the applause had subsided there was an interval of silence that was scarcely less complimentary to the poet. This was broken at last by a remark from Licinius, a young soldier who had lately been serving against the Parthians under the great Corbulo, for many years the indefatigable and invincible guardian of the Eastern frontier of the Empire.

"Lucan," he said, "would you object to repeat a few lines which occurred in your description of the sacrifices on either side before the beginning of the battle? We heard how all the omens were manifestly unfavourable to Pompey, and then there followed something that struck me very much about the prayers and vows of Cæsar."

"I know what you mean," replied the poet; "I will repeat them with pleasure. They run thus:—

" 'But what dark thrones, what Furies of the pit,

Cæsar, didst thou invoke? The wicked hand

That waged with pitiless sword such impious war

Not to the heavens was lifted, but to Gods

That rule the nether world and Powers that veil

Their maddening presence in Eternal night.' "

"Exactly so," said Licinius. "Those were the lines I meant. But will you recite this in public? How will Nero, who, after all, is the heir of Cæsar, and enjoys the harvests reaped at Mutina, and Actium, and Philippi, how will Nero relish such language?"

"He is not likely to hear it. In fact, he has forbidden me to recite. He does not like rivals," he added with an air of indescribable scorn.

"Indeed," said the young soldier; "then you have seen reason to change your opinions. I remember having the great pleasure of hearing you read your first book. I was just about to start to join my legion. It must have been about two years ago. I can't exactly recollect the lines, but you mentioned, I remember, Munda, and Mutina, and Actium, and then went on:—

" 'Yet great the debt our Roman fortunes owe

To civil strife, if this its end, to make

Great Nero lord of men. . . .' "

The other guests grew hot and cold at the more than military frankness with which their companion taxed their host with inconsistency. The inconsistency was notorious enough; but now that the poet had abandoned his flatteries and definitely ranged himself with the opposition, what need to recall it?

Lucan could not restrain the blush that rose to his cheek, but he was ready with his answer.

"The Nero of to-day is not the Nero of three years ago, for it was then that I wrote those lines."

"Yet even then," whispered another of the guests to his neighbour, "he had murdered his brother and his mother."

A somewhat awkward silence followed. Subrius, a tribune of the Prætorians, broke it by addressing himself to Licinius.

"Licinius," he cried, "tell our friends what you were describing to me the other day."

"You mean," said Licinius, "the ceremony of Tiridates' submission?"

"Exactly," replied Subrius.

"Well," resumed the other, "it was certainly a sight that was well worth seeing. A more magnificent army than the Parthian's never was. How the King could have given in without fighting I cannot imagine, except that Corbulo fairly frightened him. I could hardly have believed that there were so many horse-soldiers in the world. But there they were, squadron after squadron, lancers, and archers, and swordsmen, each tribe with its own device, a serpent, or an eagle, or a star, or the crescent moon, till the eye could hardly reach to the last of them. The legions were ranged on the three sides of a hollow square, with a platform in the centre, and on the platform an image of the Emperor, seated on a throne of gold."

"A truly Egyptian deity!" muttered the poet to himself.

"King Tiridates," the soldier went on, "after sacrificing, came up, and kneeling on one knee, laid his crown at the feet of the statue."

"Noble sight again!" whispered Lucan to his neighbour. "A man bowing down before a beast."

"And Corbulo?" asked one of the guests, Lateranus by name, who had not hitherto spoken. "How did he bear himself on this occasion?"

"As modestly as the humblest centurion in the army," replied Licinius.

"Yes, it was a glorious triumph for Rome," said Subrius the Prætorian; "but—"

He paused, and looked with a meaning glance at Lateranus.

Lateranus, who was sitting by the side of Lucan (indeed, it was to him that the poet had whispered his irreverent comments on the ceremony by the Euphrates), rose from his seat. The new speaker was a striking figure, if only on account of his huge stature and strength. But he had other claims to distinction; after a foolish and profligate youth, he had begun to take life seriously.

"Will you excuse me?" he said to the host, and walking to the door opened it, examined the passage that led to it, locked another door at the further end, and then returned to his place.

"Walls have ears," he said, "but these, as far as I can judge, are deaf. We can all keep a secret, my friends?" he went on, looking round at the company.

"To the death, if need be," cried Lucan.

The four other guests murmured assent.

"We may very likely be called upon to make good our words. If any one is of a doubtful mind, let him draw back in time."

"Go on; we are all resolved," was the unanimous answer of the company.

"Did there seem nothing strange to you when our friend Licinius told us of the Parthian king laying his crown at the feet of Nero's statue? What has Nero done that he should receive such gifts? Our armies defend with their bodies the frontiers of Euphrates and the Rhine? They toil through Scythian snows and African sands. And for what? Who reaps the rewards of their valour and their toil? Why, this harp-player, this buffoon, who sets the trivial crowns which reward the victories of the stage above all the glories of Rome. And why? Because, forsooth, he is the grandson of Julia the adulteress! I acknowledge the greatness of Julius, of Augustus, even of Tiberius. It was not unworthy of Romans, if the gods denied them liberty, to be ruled by such men. But Caius the madman, and Claudius the pedant,—did some doubtful drops of Imperial blood entitle them to be masters of the human race? And Nero, murderer of his brother, his mother, his wife, how much longer is he going to pollute with riot and bloodshed the holy places of Rome? If a Brutus could be found to strike down the great dictator, will no one dare to inflict the vengeance of gods and men on this profligate boy?"

"The man and the sword will not be wanting when the proper time shall come," said Subrius the Prætorian in a tone of grim resolve. "But Rome must have a ruler. When we shall have rid her of this tyrant, who is to succeed?"

"Why not restore the Republic?" cried Lucan. "We have a Senate, we have Consuls, and all the old machinery of the Government of freedom. The great Augustus left these things, it would seem, of set purpose, against the day when they might be wanted again."

"The Republic is impossible," cried Subrius; "even more impossible than it was a hundred years ago. What is the Senate but an assembly of worn-out nobles and cowardly and time-serving capitalists? I know there are exceptions; one of them is here to-night," he went on with a bow to Lateranus; "and there is Thrasea, who, I know, will make one of us, as soon as he knows what we are meditating. But the Senate as a whole is incapable. And the people, where is that to be found? Certainly not in this mob that cares for nothing but its dole of bread, its gladiators, and its chariot-races. No; the Republic is a dream. Rome must have a master. The gods send her one who is righteous as well as strong."

"What say you of Corbulo, Licinius?" asked Sulpicius Asper, a captain of the Prætorians, who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation. "His record is not altogether spotless. But he is a great soldier, and one might conjure with his name. And then his presence is magnificent, and the people love a stately figure. Do you think that the thought has ever crossed his mind?"

"Corbulo," replied Licinius, "is a soldier, and nothing but a soldier. And he is absolutely devoted to the Emperor. I remember how ill he took it when some one at his table said something that sounded like censure. 'Silence!' he thundered. 'Emperors and gods are above praise and dispraise.' I verily believe that if Nero bade him kill himself he would plunge his sword into his breast without a murmur. No, it is idle to think of Corbulo. In fact he is one of the great difficulties that we should have to reckon with. Happily he is far off, and the business will be done before he hears of it."

"There is Verginius on the Rhine," said Subrius. "What of him?"

"An able man, none abler, if he will only consent."

"And Sulpicius Galba in Spain. What of him?"

"He is half worn-out," said Lateranus; "but he has the advantage of being one of the best born men in Rome. And the old names have not yet lost their power."

"Why not a philosopher?" asked Lucan after a pause. "Plato thought that philosophers were the fittest men to rule the world."

"Are you thinking of your uncle Seneca?" asked Lateranus. "For my part I think that it would be a pity to take him away from his books; and to speak the truth, if I may do so without offence, Seneca, though he is beyond doubt one of the greatest ornaments of Rome, has not played the part of an Emperor's teacher with such success that we could hope very much from him, were he Emperor himself."

"There are, and indeed must be, objections to every name," said Licinius after a pause. "The soldiers will take it ill if the dignity should go to a civilian; and if the choice falls on a soldier, then all the other soldiers will be jealous. Tell me, Subrius, would you Prætorians be content if the legions were to choose an Emperor?"

Subrius shrugged his shoulders.

"As for the armies of the East," Licinius went on, "I know how fiercely they would resent dictation from the West! Our friend Asper here, who, if I remember right, has been aide-de-camp to Verginius, knows whether the German legions would be more disposed to submit to a mandate from the Euphrates. What say you, Asper?"

Asper could do nothing better than imitate the action of his superior officer.

Licinius went on: "I am a soldier myself, and can therefore speak more freely on this subject. We have to choose between evils. Jealousy between one great army and another can scarcely fail to end in war. The general discontent of all the armies, if a civilian succeeds to the throne, will be less acute, and therefore less dangerous. What say you to Calpurnius Piso?"

"At least," cried Lucan, "he has the merit of not being a philosopher."

There was a general laugh at this sally. Piso was a noted bon vivant  and man of fashion, and generally as unlike a philosopher in his habits and ways of life as could be conceived.

"Exactly so," said Licinius, undisturbed by the remark; "and this, strange as it may seem, is one of the qualities which commend him to those who look at things as they are, and not as they ought to be. This is not the time for Consuls who leave their ploughs to put on the robes of office. The age is not equal to such simple virtues. It wants magnificence; it demands that its heroes should be well-dressed and drive fine horses and keep up a splendid establishment. It is not averse to a reputation for luxury. Piso has such a reputation, and I must own that it does not do him injustice. But he is a man of honour, and he has some solid and many showy qualities. He has noble birth; a pedigree that shows an ancestor who fought at Cannæ is more than respectable. He is eloquent, he is wealthy, but can give with a liberal hand as well as spend, and he has the gift of winning hearts. And then he is bold. We may look long, my friends, before we find a better man than Piso."

"There is a great deal of truth in what you say; more truth than it is pleasant to acknowledge," said Lateranus. "But we must weigh this matter seriously. Meanwhile, will Piso join us?"

"I feel as certain of it as I could be of any matter not absolutely within my knowledge," replied Licinius. "Will you authorize me to sound him? Whether he agree or not, I can guarantee his silence."

Many other matters and men were discussed; and before the party separated it was arranged that each of the six friends should choose one person to be enrolled in the undertaking.

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