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Alfred J. Church

What the Soldiers Thought

The temple servant was not the only one among the spectators who had crowded the gardens of Nero, that had viewed the sight there presented to his gaze with disgust and horror. The Prætorians were particularly free and outspoken in the expressions of their feelings. Already they had begun to look upon themselves as the prop of the Imperial throne. It was to their camp that Nero had been carried almost before the breath had left the body of his predecessor Claudius; it was to them that the ambitious Agrippina had looked to give effect to the intrigue by which her son was preferred to the rightful heir; it was by their voices that Nero had been proclaimed Emperor, the vote of the Senate only following and confirming their previous determination.

On the morning after the exhibition described in my last chapter a wine shop, which stood just outside the Prætorian camp, and was a favourite resort of the men, was crowded with soldiers taking their morning meal.

"Well, Sisenna," cried a veteran, putting down his empty cup, after a hearty draught of his customary morning beverage of hot wine and water, sweetened with honey and flavoured with saxifrage, "what think you of last night's entertainment?"

The soldier appealed to was a young man who had just been drafted into the Prætorian force as a reward for some good service done on the Asiatic frontier. He did not answer at once, but looked round the room with the air of one who doubts whether he may safely express his thoughts.

"Ha! ha!" laughed the veteran, "you are cautious, I see. That's the way among the legions, I am told, and quite right, too; but it's all liberty here. Speak out, man; we are all friends here, and there is no one to call us to account for what we say. Cæsar knows too well what our voices are worth to him to hinder our using them."

"Well, Rufus," said Sisenna after a pause, "I will say frankly that it did not please me. It was not Roman, it was barbarian, though I must say that I never heard even of barbarians doing things quite so horrible."

"Who are these Christians?" asked a third speaker. "What have they done?"

"Didn't you read the Emperor's edict?" said a fourth soldier. "They set the city on fire, because they hate their fellow-creatures, and wish to do them as much damage as they can."

"Well," said Sisenna, "that, anyhow, is not my experience of them. They may hate their fellow-creatures in general, but they are certainly very kind to some of them in particular. Let me tell you what I know about them of my own knowledge. I was very bad with fever when I was campaigning on the Euphrates, and had to be invalided to Antioch. There I was treated by an old Jew physician, who was one of them—there are a good many of these Christians, you must understand, in the city, and many of them are Jews. Well, I was a long time getting well; these marsh fevers are obstinate things; come back again and again when one thinks that one is quit of them. So I got to know the old man very well, and we had a great deal of talk together. He used to tell me about his Master, as he called him; Christus was the name he gave him,—that's how these people came to be called Christians. Another of his names was Jesus; the old man told me what that meant, but I couldn't understand it altogether. But, anyhow, this Master seemed to have been a very good man."

"A good man!" interrupted one of his listeners. "Why, I have always heard that he was a turbulent Jew whom Claudius banished with a number of his countrymen from Rome.

"No, no," Sisenna went on, "you are mistaken; at least, if my friend the physician told me true; Christus was never in Rome, and he was crucified, if I remember right, eight years before Claudius came to the throne."

"Crucified, was he?" said one of the previous speakers. "Then he must have been a slave. Fancy a number of people calling themselves by the name of a slave!"

"No," answered Sisenna; "as far as I could understand, he was not a slave; but of course, he was not a citizen. He was a workman of some kind, a carpenter, I think the physician told me; but whatever he was, he was a wonderful man. He seems to have gone about healing sick people, and making blind men see, and lame men walk; aye, and dead men live again."

There was a general outcry at this. "No! no!" said one of the audience, expressing the common feeling; "that is too much to believe; the other things might be; but making the dead alive! you are laughing at us."

"I can only tell you," said Sisenna, "what the old man told me; he said that he had seen these things with his own eyes. One of the dead men was a friend of his own, aye, and had been his patient, too, in his last illness. 'I saw him die!' he said. I remember his very words, for I was as little disposed to believe the story as you are. 'I saw him die, for I had been with him all the time; I had done my very best to save him; and I saw him buried, too; then comes this Christus—he had been away, you must understand, when the man died—and makes them roll away the stone from the door of the tomb, and cries to the dead man, "Come forth!"  I saw the dead man come out, just as he had been buried, with the grave clothes about him, and his chin tied up with a napkin, just as I had tied it with my own hands, when I knew beyond all doubt that he was dead.' These were the old physician's very words."

"He must have been mad," said one of the audience.

"Possibly," returned Sisenna; "but he wasn't in the least mad in other matters. He talked as sensibly as a man could, and a better physician I never hope to see."

"But tell me," said a soldier who had been listening attentively to Sisenna's word, "how did this strange man come to such a bad end? If he could do such wonderful things, couldn't he have prevented it somehow? And couldn't he have made himself alive again, if he made other people?"

A murmur of approval followed the speaker's words, as if he had succeeded in expressing the general feeling.

"Well," replied Sisenna, "that is just what I asked, and the old man did try to explain it to me, but I could not rightly understand what he said. Only I made out that he needn't have died if he had not been willing."

"No," cried the soldier; "that can't  be true. A man choosing  to die in such a way! It is past all belief."

"Well, so I thought," said Sisenna; "but as for what you said about his making himself alive again, that is just what the old man told me he did."

"Did he ever see him alive again?" some one asked.

"No, he did not. I particularly asked him, and he said he was not one of those who did. But he believed it. He knew scores of people, he said, who had seen him."

"This is all very strange," said the veteran who had begun the conversation, "and for my part, I can't make head or tail of it. But tell us, what sort of people are these Christians? do they do the horrible things that people charge them with?"

"I can't believe it," replied Sisenna. "I know nothing but what is good of them; and I never found any one who did know, though there are plenty who are ready to say it. My old physician spent all his time in visiting sick people, and I am sure not one in ten paid him anything. He wouldn't have taken anything from me, but that I told him I could afford it. They had a house, he told me, where they took in sick folks to care for them; not people that could pay, you must understand, but poor workmen and slaves and lepers, all the poor wretches that no one else took any heed of."

At this point in the conversation a newcomer entered the room. He was greeted with a cry of welcome. "Ha! Pansa," said one of the company, "you are just the man whom we want to see. Do you know anything about these folk that men call Christians?"

"Well, I ought to," replied the man. "Don't you know that the prisoner whom Celer and I had charge of up to the spring of this year was one of their chief men? He was a Jew, but a citizen. Paulus was his name. He got into trouble with his countrymen at Jerusalem, and was brought before the Governor; but thinking that he should not get a fair trial there he appealed to Cæsar; so the Governor sent him over here. For some reason or other it was a long time before his trial came on, and meanwhile he was allowed to live in a house of his own here in Rome. Well, as I said, Celer and I had charge of him all that time. I don't know whether there is any one here who has had a charge of a prisoner. If there is, he won't need to be told that you get in that way to know as much about a man as there is to be known. You can never get away from him, nor he from you; chained for twelve hours to me, and then twelve to Celer, that is how Paulus lived for two years. And if Celer were here—he got his discharge, you know, about three months ago—he would say what I say, that one couldn't have believed that there was such a good man in the world as our prisoner was. And I do maintain that if the other Christians are anything like him, they are a very admirable set of people. In the first place, his patience was quite inexhaustible. I needn't say that it is a trying thing to a man's temper to be chained to another man. If it was to his own brother, he would not much like it. Of course, it is part of our business, and it all comes in the day's work. But we don't like it. And I am ashamed to say that till I got to know what sort of man this Paulus was, I was often rough with him, and Celer was worse; you know Celer had a rough temper sometimes. But we neither of us ever heard so much as an angry word from him. But he had other things to try him besides us, and we, anyhow at first, were bad enough. He had but poor health; his eyes, I remember in particular, were sometimes very painful. Sometimes, too, he was very short of money. You see he had to live on what his friends sent him, and now and then their contributions fell short or were delayed on the way. Anyhow, he had sometimes scarcely enough for food and firing. But he never said a word of complaint. And whenever he had anything he was always ready to give it away. Prisoners, for the most part, I fancy, think very little of any one but themselves, but he was thinking day and night of people all over the world, I may say. There were letters always coming and going. He could not write himself—his eyes were too bad—though he would add commonly just a few big, sprawling letters with his own hand at the end of a letter. I don't pretend to understand what they were all about. They were in Greek in the first place, and I know very little Greek; and, indeed, however much I might have known, I should hardly have been much the wiser. But I could see this, that they gave him a vast amount of trouble and care. He was thinking about what was in them day and night. I could hear him talking to himself, and he would pray. I have seen him for an hour together, aye, a couple of hours, on his knees praying."

"Why, Pansa," cried one of the soldiers, "I do believe that you are more than half a Christian yourself."

"I might be something much worse, my man," said the soldier.

"Well, it is lucky for you that you are not one just now," retorted the other, "or we should have had you blazing away in a pitch tunic last night."

"Ah," said Pansa, "you may say what you like, but there is something in this business, you may be sure. You should have seen Paulus when the Emperor heard his cause. The boldest man in Rome would not have liked to stand as he did before the Emperor alone, with not a friend to back him up; Nero with a frown on his face as black as thunder, and Poppæa at Nero's side, whispering, as any one might have known, all kinds of mischief against him. You know she hates these Christians just as much as she loves the Jews. Well, I have been on guard pretty often at the hearing of a prisoner, but I never saw a man less disturbed."

"Well, what became of him?" inquired one of Pansa's audience.

"He was acquitted. At first, I could see plainly enough, Nero was dead against him. He would not let him speak a couple of sentences without interruption, and every now and then would burst out laughing. But he came round little by little. Even Poppæa was silenced. At last the Emperor said, 'Paulus, whether you are mad or not, only the gods know; if you are, your madness is better than most men's sound judgment. You seem to me not to have offended either against the majesty of the Roman people, or against the welfare of the human race. My sentence is that you are acquitted.' Then the smith, who was waiting outside, was sent for to strike off the prisoner's chain. While he was doing this the Emperor said, 'How long have you been bound with that chain?' Paulus answered, 'For five years, wanting a month; that is to say, for two years and four months at Cæsarea, and for two years and two months here in Rome, and the journeying hither was five months, seeing that I suffered shipwreck on the way.' Nero said, 'You have endured a wrong.' Then turning to Tigellinus, he said, 'See that he be paid two hundred gold pieces.' That evening Paulus sent for me to his house—the place where we had been in charge of him. When I got there, he said to me, 'Pansa, I fear that I have been a great trouble to you and your comrades these two years past. Pardon me, if I have offended you in aught. I have not been ashamed of my chain, but I know that it tries a man's patience sorely, and I may have erred in hastiness of speech.' I declared, as indeed I had every reason to do, that no one could have borne himself more admirably. He went on, 'I have given you no gifts in these years past, such as it is customary, I am told, for prisoners to give to them that keep them; I judged it not right to do aught that might savour of corruption, and indeed, I but seldom had the means out of which I might give. But now I am no longer bound with this constraint; will it therefore please you to take these twenty-five pieces out of Cæsar's liberality?' Twenty-five gold pieces, gentlemen, do not often come in a poor soldier's way; still I was loth to take them. 'Surely, sir,' I said, 'you need them for yourself.' 'Nay,' said he, 'I am otherwise provided for.' And I happen to know that he did not keep a single piece for himself. He gave to Celer the same sum that he gave to me; the rest he distributed among the poor. After this he said to me, 'Pansa, it may and will be that you and I shall not meet again. Now I have never spoken to you at any time during these two years past of that which was nearest to my heart. I thought—my God knows whether wrongly or rightly—that I should not, because you would be constrained to listen, whether you would or not; my Master would have free servants only. But now it is permitted to me to speak.' After this he said many things which I cannot now repeat."

"But he did not persuade you?" said one of the listeners.

"Nay; he seemed to ask too much. On my faith, it seemed to me that to be a Christian was to be little better than being dead. Yet I have often wished it otherwise; and, if I see him again—but perhaps it is better to be silent."

"So you don't think there is any harm in these Christians?" said the soldier who had first questioned him.

"None at all, as I am a Roman," said Pansa.

"And you don't believe they set the city on fire?"

"Impossible! The Emperor has been deceived, and it is not difficult to see who deceived him."

After this there was a silence. Though the soldiers might boast of their freedom of speech, every one knew that there were limits to what might safely be said, and that now they were very near to dangerous ground.

Before long the silence was broken by the entrance of a newcomer. The man, who was evidently in a state of great excitement, looked hurriedly round the room, and caught sight of Sisenna.

"Sisenna," he cried, "you know Fannius, the gladiator?"

"I know him well," replied Sisenna. "I served with him in Armenia, and an excellent soldier he was. Well, what of him?"

"He is near his end, and has sent for you."

"Near his end!" cried Pansa in dismay. "Why, he had recovered from his wounds when I saw him a few days ago; and he told me that he was quite well. What ails him?"

"I will tell you as we go," said the messenger; "but make haste, for there is no time to lose."