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

The Emperor's Plan

The reigning successor of the great Augustus, the master of some forty legions, the ruler of the Roman world, was in council. But his council was unlike as possible to the assembly which one might have thought he would have gathered together to deliberate on matters that concerned the happiness, it might almost be said, of mankind. Here were no veteran generals who had guarded the frontiers of the Empire, and seen the barbarians of the East and of the West recoil before the victorious eagles of Rome; no Governor of provinces, skilled in the arts of peace; no financiers, practised in increasing the amount of the revenue without aggravating the burdens that the tax-payers consciously felt; no philosophers to contribute their theoretical wisdom; no men of business to give their master the benefit of their practical advice. Nero had such men at his call, but he preferred, and not perhaps without reason, to confide his schemes to very different advisers. There were three persons in the Imperial Chamber; or four, if we are to reckon the page, a lad of singular beauty of form and feature, but a deaf mute, who stood by the Emperor's couch, clad in a gold-edged scarlet tunic, and holding an ivory-handled fan of peacock's feathers, which he waved with a gentle motion.

Let me begin my description of the Imperial Cabinet, for such it really was, with a portrait of Nero himself.

The Emperor showed to considerable advantage in the position which he happened to be occupying at the time. The chief defects of his figure, the corpulence which his excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the table had already, in spite of his youth, increased to serious proportions, and the unsightly thinness of his lower limbs, were not brought into prominence. His face, as far as beauty was concerned, was not unworthy of an Emperor, but as the biographer of the Cæsars says, it was "handsome rather than attractive." The features were regular and even beautiful in their outlines, but they wanted, as indeed it could not be but that they should want, the grace and charm in which the beauty of the man's nature shines forth. The complexion, originally fair, was flushed with intemperance. There were signs here and there of what would soon become disfiguring blotches. The large eyes that in childhood and boyhood had been singularly clear and limpid were now somewhat dull and dim. The hair was of the yellow hue that was particularly pleasing to an Italian eye, accustomed, for the most part, to black and the darker shades of brown. Nero was particularly proud of its color, so much so indeed, that, greatly to the disgust of more old-fashioned Romans, he wore it in braids. On the whole his appearance, though not without a certain comeliness and even dignity, was forbidding and sinister. No one that saw him could give him credit for any kindness of heart or even good nature. His cheeks were heavy, his chin square, his lips curiously thin. Not less repulsive was the short bull neck. At the moment of which I am writing his face wore as pleasing an expression as it was capable of assuming. He was in high spirits and full of a pleased excitement. We shall soon see the cause that had so exhilarated him.

Next to the Emperor, by right of precedence, must naturally come the Empress, for it was to this rank that the adventuress Poppæa had now succeeded in raising herself. Her first husband had been one of the two commanders of the Prætorian Guard; her second, Consul and afterwards Governor of a great province, destined indeed himself to occupy for a few months the Imperial throne; her third was the heir of Augustus and Tiberius, the last of the Julian Cæsars. Older than the Emperor, for she had borne a child to her first husband more than twelve years before, she still preserved the freshness of early youth. Something of this, perhaps, was due to the extreme care which she devoted to her appearance, but more to the expression of innocence and modesty which some strange freak of nature—for never surely did a woman's look more utterly belie her disposition—had given to her countenance. To look at her certainly at that moment, with her golden hair falling in artless ringlets over a forehead smooth as a child's, her delicately arched lips, parted in a smile that just showed a glimpse of pearly teeth, her cheeks just tinged with a faint wild-rose blush, her large, limpid eyes, with just a touch of wonder in their depths, eyes that did not seem to harbour an evil thought, any one might have thought her as good as she was beautiful. Yet she was profligate, unscrupulous, and cruel. Her vices had always been calculating, and when a career had been opened to her ambition she let nothing stand in her way. Nero's mother had perished because she barred the adventuress' road to a throne, and Nero's wife soon shared the fate of his mother.

The third member of the Council was, if it is possible to imagine it, worse than the other two. Nero began his reign amidst the high hopes of his subjects, and for a few weeks, at least, did not disappoint them, and Josephus speaks of Poppæa as a "pious" woman; but we hear nothing about Tigellinus that is not absolutely vile. Born in poverty and obscurity, he had made his way to the bad eminence in which we find him by the worst of arts. A man of mature age, for by this time he must have numbered at least fifty years, he used his greater experience to make the young Emperor even worse than his natural tendencies, and all the evil influences of despotic power, would have made him. And he was what Nero, to do him justice, never was, fiercely resentful of sarcasm and ridicule. Nero suffered the most savage lampoons on his character to be published with impunity, but no one satirized Tigellinus without suffering for his audacity.

The scene of the Council was a pleasant room in the Emperor's seaside villa at Antium. This villa was a favourite residence with him. He had himself been born in it. Here he had welcomed with delight, extravagant, indeed, but yet not wholly beyond our sympathies, the birth of the daughter whom Poppæa had borne to him in the preceding year; here he had mourned, extravagantly again, but not without some real feeling, for the little one's death. It was at Antium, far from the wild excitement of Rome, that he had what may be called the lucid intervals in his career of frantic crime.

The subject which now engaged his attention, and the attention of his advisers, was one that seemed of a harmless and even a laudable kind. It was nothing less than a magnificent plan for the rebuilding of Rome. All the ill-ventilated, ill-smelling passages; all the narrow, winding streets; all the ill-built and half-ruinous houses; all, in short, that was unsanitary, inconvenient, and unsightly was to be swept away; a new city with broad, regular streets and spacious promenades was to rise in its place. At last the Empire of the world would have a capital worthy of itself. The plan was substantially of Nero's own devising. He had had, indeed, some professional assistance from builders, architects, and others, in drawing out its details, but in its main lines, certainly in its magnificent contempt for the expedient, one might almost say of the possible, it came from his own brain. And he had managed to keep it a secret from both Poppæa and Tigellinus. To them it was a real surprise, and, as they both possessed competent intelligence, however deficient in moral sense, they were able to appreciate its cleverness. Their genuine admiration, which so practised an ear as Nero's easily distinguished from flattery, was exceedingly pleasing to the Emperor.

"Augustus," he said, after enjoying for a time his companions' unfeigned surprise, "said that he found a city of brick and left a city of marble. I mean to be able to boast that I left a new city altogether. Indeed, I feel that nothing short of this is worthy of me, and I thank the gods that have left for me so magnificent an opportunity."

"And this vacant space," asked Tigellinus, after various details had been explained by the Emperor: "What do you mean, Sire, to do with this?"

A huge blank had been left in the middle of the map, covering nearly the whole of the Palatine and Esquiline Hills.

"That is meant to be occupied by my palace and park," said the Emperor.

The Prime Minister, if one may so describe him, could not restrain an involuntary gesture of surprise.

Nero's face darkened with the scowl that never failed to show itself at even the slightest opposition to his will.

"Think you, then," he cried in an angry tone, "that it is too large? The Master of Rome cannot be lodged too well."

Tigellinus felt that it would be safer not to criticise any further. Poppæa, who, to do her justice, was never wanting in courage, now took up the discussion. The objection that she had to make was in keeping with a curious trait in her character. "Pious" she certainly was not, though Josephus saw fit so to describe her, but she was unquestionably superstitious. The terrors of an unseen world, though they did not keep her back from vice and crime, were still real to her. She did not stick at murder; but nothing would have induced her to pass by a temple without a proper reverence. This feeling quickened her insight into an aspect of the matter which her companion had failed to observe.

"You will buy the houses which you will have to pull down?" she said.

"Certainly," the Emperor replied; "that will be an easy matter."

"But there are buildings which it will not be easy to buy."

The scowl showed itself again on Nero's face.

"Who will refuse to sell when I want to buy?" he cried. "And besides, you may be sure that I shall not stint the price."

"True, Sire, but there are the temples, the chapels; they cannot be bought and sold as if they were private houses."

Nero started up from his couch, and paced the room several times. He could not refuse to see the difficulty. Holy places were not to be bought and pulled down as if they were nothing but so many bricks and stones.

"What say you, Tigellinus?" he cried after a few minutes of silence. "Cannot the Emperor do what he will? Cannot the priests or the augurs, or some one smooth the way? Speak, man!" he went on impatiently, as the minister did not answer at once.

"The gods forbid that I should presume to limit your power!" said Tigellinus. "But yet—may I speak freely?"

"Freely!" cried Nero; "of course. When did I ever resent the truth?"

Tigellinus repressed a smile. His own rise was certainly not due to speaking the truth. He went on:—

"One sacred building, or two, or even three, might be dealt with when some great improvement was in question. That has been done before, and might be done again, but when it comes to a matter of fifty or sixty, or even a hundred,—very likely there are more, for they stand very thick in the old city,—the affair becomes serious. I don't say it would be impossible, but there would be delay, possibly a very long delay. The people feel very strongly on these things. Some of these temples are held in extraordinary reverence, places that you, Sire, may very likely have never heard of, but which are visited by hundreds daily. To sweep them away in any peremptory fashion would be dangerous. There would have to be ceremonies, expiations, and all the thousand things which the priests invent."

"Well," exclaimed the Emperor after a pause, "what is to be done?"

"Sire," replied Tigellinus, "cannot you modify your plan? Much might be done without this wholesale destruction."

"Modify it!" thundered the Emperor. "Certainly not. It shall be all or nothing. Do you think that I am going to take all this trouble, and accomplish, after all, nothing more than what any ædile could have done?"

He threw himself down on the couch and buried his face in the cushions. The Empress and the Minister watched and waited in serious disquiet. There was no knowing what wild resolve he might take. That he had set his heart to no common degree on this new scheme was evident. In all his life he had never given so much serious thought to any subject as he had to this, and disappointment would probably result in some dangerous outburst. After about half an hour had passed, he started up.

"I have it," he cried; "it shall be done,—the plan, the whole plan."

"Sire, will you deign to tell us what inspiration the gods have given you?" said Tigellinus.

"All in good time," said the Emperor. "When I want your help I will tell you what it is needful for you to know. But now it is time for my harp practice. You will dine with us, Tigellinus, and for pity's sake bring some one who can give us some amusement. Antium is delightful in the daytime, but the evenings! . . ."

"Madam," said Tigellinus, when the Emperor had left the room, "have you any idea what he is thinking of?"

"I have absolutely none," replied Poppæa; "but I fear it may be something very strange. I noticed a dangerous light in his eyes. It has been there often lately. Do you think," she went on in a low voice, "there is any danger of his going mad? You know about his uncle Caius."

"Don't trouble yourself with such fears," replied Tigellinus. "It is not likely. His mother had the coolest head of any woman that I have ever seen; and his father, whatever he was, was certainly not mad. And now, if you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to."

He saluted the Empress and withdrew. Poppæa, little reassured by his words, remained buried in thought,—thought that was full of disquietude and alarm. She had gained all, and even more than all, that she had aimed at. She shared Nero's throne, not in name only, but in fact. But how dangerous was the height to which she had climbed! A single false step might precipitate her into an abyss which she shuddered to think of. He had spared no one, however near and dear to him. If his mood should change, would he spare her? And his mood might change. At present he loved her as ardently, she thought, as ever. But—for she watched him closely, as a keeper watches a wild beast—she could not help seeing that he was growing more and more restless and irritable. Once he had even lifted his hand against her. It was only a gesture, and checked almost in its beginning, but she could not forget it. "Oh!" she moaned to herself,—for, wicked as she was, she was a woman after all,—"Oh, if only my little darling had lived! Nero loved her so, and she would have softened him. But it was not to be! Why did I allow them to do all these foolish idolatries? And yet, how could I stop it? Still, I am sure that God was angry with me about them, and took the child away from me. And now there are these new troubles. I will send another offering to Jerusalem. This time it shall be a whole bunch of grapes for the golden vine."

Poor creature! the thought of a sacrifice of justice and mercy never entered into her soul.

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