The streets were beginning to fill as Pudens made the best of his way from the temple servant's dwelling to his own house. Fortunately for him, as he naturally wished to escape notice, the attention of the passers-by was engrossed by the copies of the edict against the Christians, which the Imperial officers were now busy posting up in all the public places of the city. He was thus able to reach his home without attracting any observation. Once there, he hastened to put away his disguise in the safest hiding-place that he could find. The proceedings of the night he proposed to keep for as long as possible an absolute secret. The most honourable of men, he reflected, are less likely to divulge what they do not know than what they do.
A veritable reign of terror now began in Rome. In the course of a few days the prisons were crowded to overflowing. It was, indeed, a strange and medley multitude with which they were filled. The first victims were the more prominent members of the Christian congregations that were scattered throughout the city. Many of these were Jews who had separated themselves, or rather had been expelled, from the synagogues. Their names were naturally known to their unbelieving countrymen, who regarded them with a hatred that was peculiarly intense, and who eagerly seized the opportunity of wreaking their vengeance upon them. Accordingly, the officers charged with the execution of the decree were supplied by the rulers of the synagogues with lists of Jews, who, as they said, had abandoned the faith of their fathers to adopt a gloomy and odious superstition. These, then, were the first that were arrested under the terms of the Imperial decree. Next came a great number of persons who were more or less closely connected with the new faith. The Christian meetings had been conducted with as little ostentation as possible, but they had not passed unnoticed, and many were arrested because they had been known to attend them. Some of these had frequented the meetings from no other motive than curiosity, and these, finding themselves involved in what seemed to be a formidable danger, hastened to win the favour of the authorities by informing against others. So far the prisoners were either genuine Christians, or, at least, had been seen to consort with them. But mingled with these were others who had really nothing to do with the matter: persons who were suspected, in some cases, it may be, with reason, in many more, we may be certain, without any ground whatsoever, of having caused or spread the late fire, were seized and accused. In this way private grudges were often gratified. A creditor or a rival could be got rid of, and that with very little difficulty, if he happened to be unpopular, by a whisper dropped into the right place. Altogether it was a strange crowd that was thus swept as it were by a net into the prisons out of the streets of Rome.
Among the prisoners was the gladiator, or rather ex-gladiator, Fannius. He had made the acquaintance of Glaucon, a young man belonging to Pomponia's household, who, when that lady was obliged to leave Rome, had been given some employment by her nephew, Lateranus. Glaucon was a native of Cyprus, had been employed there by the Proconsul Sergius Paulus, and had witnessed the memorable scene in which the Apostle Paul had confounded the hostile sorcerer, and convinced the Proconsul of the truth of his message. When Paulus, on the expiration of his term of office, returned to Rome, he took Glaucon with him, and not long after recommended him to a situation of trust in the household of Pomponia. Glaucon was a fervent Christian, and he did not fail to use the opportunities of commending his faith to his new acquaintance. Fannius was just in the mood to listen with eagerness to his teaching. For some years past life had been a very serious affair to him, and all the more so because there was so much in his surroundings as an inmate of a "school" of gladiators that was hateful to him. His brutal comrades, whose sole virtue, it may be said, was courage, and who followed with a revolting simplicity the maxim of "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die," set off by contrast this refined and pure-minded young Greek, who seemed moved by springs of action belonging to quite another world. Such an act of filial devotion as had brought Fannius into his present position, unfavourable to goodness as this may have been in itself, could not fail to elevate his character, while another purifying influence had been his faithful attachment to Epicharis. In the course of a few weeks, though not knowing enough to fit him for baptism, which indeed he could hardly have received while still a gladiator, Fannius was at heart a Christian.
And now occurred a difficulty of the most serious kind. The performance which Nero exhibited after the fire was the last in which Fannius would have to appear. Did he survive this, he would be entitled to his discharge. But could he consent to appear? Would the principles of his new faith permit him to exhibit his prowess in the arena? That he could not engage in combat with one of his fellow-men was perfectly plain. That would be a manifest breach of an elementary law of morals. The question was, could he take any part in the spectacle? Opinions were divided. Advisers of the severer sort declared against any participation; others were content with saying that he must do nothing that would endanger human life. This was the course which he followed. He went to the trainer, and declared, without giving his reasons, that he would not fight except against wild beasts. At first the man was furious. Fannius was, as has been said, a remarkably skilful swordsman, and his dexterity and force made him perhaps the most popular performer in the whole school; all this would be thrown away if he were matched with a lion or a tiger.
"What!" cried the man; "you, my best fighter! I am not going to waste you in such a shameful way."
"There is no help for it," replied Fannius. "Set me to fight against a gladiator, and I shall simply drop my arms. Against a beast I will do my best."
And there was no help for it. The trainer had to make the best of it. He even consoled himself with the idea that he should be able to present a novelty to the spectators. Commonly it was a condemned criminal that had to combat with a wild beast, and it was very seldom that these wretched creatures made any real resistance. They were usually without skill in arms or physical strength; and they were terrified into helplessness. A practised gladiator of the very first class engaging in one of these desperate combats—and a struggle with a lion or tiger at close quarters was then, as it would be now without the help of fire-arms, well nigh desperate—might have a great success. At the same time, as Fannius' time of engagement was up, there was no risk. If he was killed there would be no loss; if he survived there would be the credit of having provided a novel and exciting entertainment.
So it was arranged. After a number of pairs of gladiators had fought without any particularly brilliant result, the herald came forward, and made the following announcement, permission having been first obtained from the presiding authorities. Fannius, it should be said, had nothing to do with the terms in which it was made.
"C. Fannius, having fought many times with men, and having as often secured victory, claims permission to fight with more formidable antagonists. He will, therefore, with the help of certain associates who have been allotted to him for this purpose, contend with a lion, a lioness, and a bear."
The "associates" were criminals who would in any case have had to undergo the ordeal.
The combat that followed proved to be a success, at least from the point of view of a Roman sight-seer. To us it would have seemed a peculiarly brutal exhibition. The result was that the lioness and the bear were killed, Fannius' companions perishing in the struggle. Fannius, in fact, dispatched both animals while they were mangling the dead. A fierce conflict with the lion ended in the victory of the gladiator; though sadly mangled by the claws and teeth of his savage antagonist, he escaped with his life, and, of course, received his discharge, together with a handsome present from the Emperor. He was taken down to the farm, and nursed with indefatigable patience and care by Epicharis and her aunt. The girl's heart was softened as she tended her suffering lover, and she consented to become formally betrothed to him, though only on the condition that before their marriage the vengeance for which she lived should have been first exacted.
It was in the midst of the joy and pride which he felt in securing an affection of which he had begun to despair, that Fannius imparted to Epicharis the secret of the conspiracy, the secret into which he had been himself initiated by Subrius. The matter had been left to his discretion by his superior, and he thought himself justified in what he did, by the belief, perfectly well founded, as we shall see, that he could not have secured a more zealous or more loyal associate. On her part the girl was almost frantic with delight. An object which had seemed almost unattainable was now within reach. It was not a weak woman; it was a powerful association of great nobles and great soldiers that had vowed vengeance against the tyrant. At the same time the love, for which hitherto there had scarcely been room in her heart by the side of the engrossing passion for vengeance, grew up and flourished apace. Before cold and distant, she now lavished upon her lover an affection which astonished as much as it delighted him.
Then the blow fell. To the trainer the conduct of Fannius in choosing to fight with beasts rather than men had been unintelligible. If he guessed at any motive he would have said that it was a desire for notoriety. But a rival gladiator, who conceived himself to be affronted by the terms of the proclamation, which indeed, though, as had been said, not through any fault of Fannius, had a certain arrogance about them—was more acute. He knew something about Fannius, and was sure that he would not have committed himself to a desperate venture without some motive of solid worth. Fannius, he was sure, had every reason for wanting to live, and there must be some grave reason for his thus risking his life. What could it be but the same motive which prevented these gloomy sectaries, the Christians, from ever enjoying the spectacles of the Circus and the amphitheatre. On the strength of this conjecture he informed against Fannius as belonging to the forbidden sect of the Christians. The young man, who had now entirely recovered his health, came to Rome for the first time after his illness on the very day on which the edict was published, and was promptly arrested and thrown into prison.
Another of the prisoners was Phlegon, Pomponia's steward. He had been arrested at Subrius' country house. Whether the soldiers arrived before he expected them, or whether he deliberately lingered because he knew that they would not be satisfied without making some arrest, it is not easy to say. Two slaves belonging to the household were seized along with him. Both, it so happened, were heathen, and were therefore in no danger; and he had the satisfaction of knowing, on the other hand, that the two women servants, left behind by Pomponia and Claudia, contrived to escape the notice of the soldiers. To his own peril, now that it had come to him in the way of duty, he was wholly indifferent. He had long since counted the cost of his Christian profession, and had resolved to pay it.
The authorities were seriously perplexed by the abundance of prey which they secured. They did not know where to lodge their prisoners. It must be remembered that the Romans did not habitually use imprisonment, after conviction, as a punishment. Commonly the criminal, if he was not executed, was banished. Sometimes he was consigned to the safe keeping of some distinguished person, or was kept in his own house; but the long-continued imprisonment with which it is now customary to visit serious offences was unknown. Nero resolved to cut the knot of this difficulty in his own fashion. To the guilt or innocence of the prisoners he was absolutely indifferent. That they had nothing to do with the particular crime with which they were charged he had the best means of knowing; as to their offence in being Christians, he knew and cared nothing. What he did want was to shift upon them the notoriety which he wanted to divert from himself.
One means of doing this would be by the singularity of the punishment to be inflicted on them. To make a conspicuous example of some, and to permit the rest to escape, was the course which commended itself to him. How he succeeded will now have to be told.
During the two centuries and a half during which the Christian Church had to endure from time to time the hostility of the rulers of Rome, there were many persecutions that reached further, that lasted longer, that were in many ways more fatal; but there was not one that left on the minds of men so deep an impression of horror.