An Imperial Musician
Nero, as my readers will have guessed, had not been able to keep his secret. The audacity of his plan—an Emperor setting his own capital on fire that he might rebuild it after his own designs—had inspired him with a delight that quite exceeded his powers of self-control. He could not help letting drop hints of his purpose in the presence of Poppæa, and these were further explained by words which she overheard him muttering in his sleep. Tigellinus, though no confidences were made to him, was equally well aware of what his master intended. No department in the public service but contained some of his creatures, and the secret instructions that the Emperor gave to the commanding officers of the watch, summoned, it should be said, to Antium for the purpose of receiving them, did not long escape him. The despot's two councillors were rendered, as may readily be supposed, not a little anxious by their master's frantic caprice. Both were ready enough to use it for their own purposes. Poppæa, as we have seen, found in it, as she hoped, an opportunity of destroying Pomponia; while Tigellinus had grudges of his own to pay off under cover of the general terror and confusion. But they could not help feeling great apprehensions of the effect on the popular feeling. An Emperor might murder and confiscate as much as he pleased, so long as it was only the noble and wealthy who suffered; but when his oppression began to touch common folk, the trader or the artisan, then danger was at hand. If the Romans began to suspect that they had been burnt out of their homes to gratify a caprice of their ruler, not all his legions would be able to save him.
The anxiety of Nero's advisers was greatly increased by his obstinacy in refusing to go to Rome. Relays of messengers came from the capital in rapid succession, bringing tidings of the progress of the fire, but the Emperor positively refused to leave Antium.
Tigellinus ventured on a strong remonstrance.
"Pardon me, Sire," he said, "if I say that the Roman people will take your absence at this time very ill. It has pleased the gods"—he was careful, it will be seen, not to hint that he knew the truth—"to visit them with a great calamity, and they will expect some sympathy and help from him whom they regard as a god upon earth. No ruler could endure to be away when the seat of Empire is in flames, much less one who is justly styled the Father of his Country."
The advice, sugared though it was with flattery, was decidedly unpalatable. Nero's brow darkened, as he listened, with the frown that always gathered upon it when any one ventured to hint that there were any limitations on his power, or that he could be called to account by any one for the way in which he exercised it.
"What do you say?" he cried, with an angry stamp of the foot. "A pretty thing, indeed, that a father should be called to account by his children! Who will venture to say whether I ought to go or to stay?"
In the course of the second day news arrived that the palace itself was in danger. If Tigellinus hoped that this intelligence would move the Emperor he was greatly disappointed. Nero received the tidings with what appeared to be complete indifference.
"A paltry place," he cried with a contemptuous shrug of his shoulders, "and not in the least worthy of an Emperor! Let it burn, and welcome! I shall be saved the trouble of pulling it down. And besides," he added with a laugh, "the people about whom you think so much, my Tigellinus, will surely be satisfied now. What can they want more than to see my house burning as well as their own?"
Tigellinus was in despair. So imperious was the necessity that he was meditating another remonstrance, which yet he felt would probably do nothing more than endanger his own head, when Poppæa's woman's wit suggested a way out of the difficulty.
"What a spectacle it must be!" she said to Tigellinus in a low tone that was yet carefully modulated to catch the Emperor's ear. "All Rome in flames! There never has been anything like it before; there never will be again. If we are to have the city burnt, let us at least have the consolation of seeing the blaze."
Nero fell promptly into the trap. "You are right, my soul," he cried. "It must be a splendid sight, and I am losing it. Why did you not think of it before? Tigellinus, we will start at once. There is not a moment to be lost."
The Emperor's impatience to be gone, now that the idea had been suggested to him, was as great as his indifference had been before. He would allow no time for the preparations for departure. The slaves would follow, he said, with what was wanted. Too much of the sight had been lost already. "Good Heavens!" he cried, "what a fool I have been! The finest spectacle of the age, and I am not there to see it!"
Within an hour's time he was on horseback, and was riding at full speed northward, accompanied by Tigellinus and by such an escort as could hastily be got ready. Poppæa followed in a carriage as rapidly as she could.
The distance between Antium and Rome, which was something like thirty miles, was covered by the horsemen in less than three hours. From the first a heavy cloud of smoke was visible in the northeastern sky; as the riders went on they encountered other signs of the disaster. There was a constant stream of carts and wagons loaded with furniture and other miscellaneous effects, that were travelling southward. The owners of the property accompanied them on foot, though now and then a child or an old man or woman might be seen perched on the top of the goods. These, of course, were people who had been burnt out by the fire, and who were now seeking a temporary home with relatives or friends whom they were fortunate enough to possess in the country. As they approached the walls, the fields on either side of the road were covered with tents and huts in which the homeless refugees had found shelter. The roads themselves were lined with people who, indeed, had no other occupation but to watch the passers-by. The beggars, always numerous along the great thoroughfares, were now in greater force than ever. Tigellinus, who, vicious as he was, was a man of intelligence and foresight, had brought with him all the money that he could collect. This Nero scattered with a liberal hand among the crowds as he rode along. This is a kind of bounty that has always an effective appearance, though the money commonly falls into the hands of those who need it least. The spectators cheered the Emperor, whose well-known features were recognized everywhere, with tumultuous shouts. But there were not a few who turned away in silent disgust or wrath. They did not, indeed, attribute directly to him the calamity which had overtaken them, as they might have done had they known the truth, but they laid it at his door all the same. He was a great criminal, a murderer, and a parricide; his offences were rank before heaven, and had brought down, as the offences of rulers are apt to bring down, the anger of the gods upon his people.
The palace was not, it was found, in immediate danger. All the efforts of the Watch and of two cohorts of Prætorians, which had been called in to help them, had been directed to saving it. How long it would escape was doubtful. If the wind, which had lulled a little, were to rise again, its destruction was certain.
The Emperor would have been disappointed if this destruction had been finally averted. We have seen that one of the great features of the new Rome that he had planned was an Imperial palace far larger and more splendid than anything that the world had ever seen before. Still he was glad of the respite, for it enabled him to put into execution a scheme, extravagantly strange, even for him, which he had conceived during his rapid journey from Antium to Rome.
"A spectacle," he thought to himself, "and if so, why not a performance? What a splendid opportunity! We always feel that there is something of a sham in the scenery of a theatre, but here it will be real. An actual city on fire! What could be more magnificent? I have it," he went on after a pause. "Of course it must be the Sack of Troy. What a pity it is that I did not think of it sooner, and I might have written something worthy of the occasion. The Lesser Iliad is but poor stuff, but we must make the best of it."
This grotesque intention was actually carried out.
The first care of the Emperor on reaching the palace was to have a rehearsal of his contemplated performance. If there were any cares of Empire pressing for attention,—and it may be supposed that the ruler of the civilized world returning to his capital had some business to attend to,—they were put aside. The rest of the day Nero spent in practising upon the harp some music of his own composition, while a Greek freedman recited from the Lesser Iliad a passage in which the sack and burning of Troy were related.
In the evening the performance took place. A large semicircular room in the upper story of the palace, commanding from its windows a wide prospect of the city, was hastily fitted up into the rude semblance of a theatre. An audience, which mainly consisted of the Emperor's freedmen and of officers of the Prætorian Guard, sat on chairs ranged round the curve of the chamber. In front of them was the extemporized stage, while the burning city, seen through the windows, formed, with huge masses of smoke and flame, such a background as the most skilful and audacious of scene-painters had never conceived. The performance had been purposely postponed till a late hour in the evening, and no lights were permitted in the room. On the stage were the two figures, the reciter and the Imperial musician, now thrown strongly into relief as some great sheet of flame burst out in the background, and then, as it died away again, becoming almost invisible. An undertone of confused sound accompanied the music throughout. Every now and then the voice of the reciter and the notes of the harp were lost in some shrill cry of agony or the thunderous crash of a falling house. Seldom in the history of the world has there been a stranger mixture of the ludicrous and the terrible than when "Nero fiddled while Rome was burning."
At one time it was not unlikely that this strange farce might have been turned into a genuine tragedy. Subrius was one of the Prætorian officers invited to witness the performance, and chance had placed him close to the stage. Again and again as the Emperor moved across it, intent upon his music, and certainly unsuspicious of danger, he came within easy reach of the Tribune's arm.
"Shall I strike?" he whispered into the ear of Lateranus, who sat by his side. "I can hardly hope for a better chance."
Probably a prompt assent from his companion would have decided him; but Lateranus felt unequal to giving it. He was staggered by the suddenness of the idea. The decision was too momentous, the responsibility too great. Was it right to act without the knowledge of the other conspirators? Then nothing had been prepared. Nero might be killed, but no arrangements had been made for presenting a successor to the soldiers and to the people. Finally, there was the immediate danger to themselves. It would indeed be a memorable deed to strike down this unworthy ruler in the very act of disgracing the people, to strike him down before the eyes of the creatures who flattered and fawned on him. But could they who did it hope to escape? "The desire of escape," says the historian who relates the incident, "is always the foe of great enterprises," and it checked that night a deed which might have changed the course of history.
"No!" whispered Lateranus in reply, "it is too soon; nothing, you know, is ready. We shall not fail to find another opportunity."
Half reluctant, half relieved, Subrius abandoned his half-formed purpose. But he could not rid himself of the feeling that he had missed a great chance.
"Do you believe in inspirations?" he asked his friend, as they were making their way to the camp, where Lateranus was his guest.
"I hardly know," replied the other. "Perhaps there are such things. But, on the whole, men find it safer to act after deliberation."
"Well," said Subrius, "if ever I felt an inspiration, it was to-night when I whispered to you. I fear much that we shall never have so fair a chance again."
"But nothing was ready," urged his companion.
"True," replied Subrius; "but then one does not prepare for such an enterprise as this as one prepares for a campaign."
"And the risk?"
"True, the risk. It is not that one is afraid to venture one's life; but one wants to see the fruit of one's deed. Yet I much misdoubt me whether this is not a fatal weakness. One ought to do the right thing at the time, and think of nothing else. If Cassius Chærea had taken any thought for his own safety, he would never have slain the monster Caius. I feel that hereafter we shall be sorry for what we have done, or, rather, not done, to-day."