Rome: October, 64 AD
The last of the smoldering embers had been put out weeks before, but the city of Rome still reeked of smoke and death. The Great Fire had swept across the city like a scourge from the gods, destroying three of the fourteen districts of Rome and severely damaging seven others. Tens of thousands were dead, and many others still missing, their charred remains buried beneath the fallen houses and shops that sprawled across the seven hills of the Tiber. The Great Forum had been spared from some of the damage by the frantic demolition of the many wooden buildings that surrounded it, but still two temples had lost their roofs and some of the shops along the far edge of the plaza had burned to the ground.
The Senate of Rome had gathered in the Curia Julia, the meeting hall built for them a century before by order of Gaius Julius Caesar, the Divus Julius that many Romans still worshipped as a god. Barely begun before Caesar’s life was cut short by treachery, the Curia had been finished by his great-nephew and adopted son, Caesar Augustus, the first true Emperor of Rome. The hall was crowded when the Senate was at its full capacity, but the purges and executions carried out by Augustus’ three successors had nearly reduced the Senate to its original size of three hundred members.
The mood of the city was ugly, and the Senate’s mood reflected that. No one knew for sure how the fire had started, but rumors had swept the city for weeks – and the most persistent rumors involved none other than Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the Princeps and Imperator of Rome. Some said that he had set the fires himself, riding out incognito with a gang of young hellions that he enjoyed carousing with. Others said that he had ordered his minions to set the fires, and then stood on the balcony of his villa and played the lyre, singing about the sack of Ilium while Rome burst into flames all round him. The official story was that the Emperor had been away from the city, inspecting an aqueduct project in Antium when the fires broke out. According to his Praetorians, the Emperor had rushed back to the city, organizing companies of firefighters and relief efforts for those rendered homeless by the blaze. It was a measure of how much the people had come to despise Nero that very few people believed the official version of events. There were stories that the young emperor had been jeered and even pelted with stones by an angry crowd in the forum when he last showed his face, a month before.
So now this emergency meeting of the Senate had been called, and the Conscript Fathers of Rome waited impatiently for the Imperator to make his appearance. Laecenius Bassus, the senior Consul, shifted impatiently in his curule chair, glancing at his consular colleague, Licinius Crassus. During the days of the Republic, the Consuls had been the highest elected officials of Rome, chief executives who commanded armies and conducted foreign policy during their year in office. But since Augustus’ great reforms of Rome’s government, the Consuls had become senior magistrates who served at the Emperor’s pleasure. Nero had initially restored some of the Senate’s powers when he inherited the purple at the age of sixteen, but in recent years he had become more and more arbitrary and tyrannical, and neither Consul dared call the Senate to order without him.
The tramping steps of the Praetorian guards echoed across the Forum, audible through the open doors of the Curia. The murmuring of the crowds in the Forum swelled excitedly, and the members of the Senate turned their gaze to the bronze doors. The marching boots came to a halt, and then the slapping of sandals mounting the marble steps announced the Emperor’s approach even before he reached the doorway. The Senate stood in respect as he entered the chamber.
Nero, the ruler of a quarter of the world’s population, and the last surviving heir of Caesar Augustus, passed through the corridor that bisected the interior of the Curia Julia and took his place behind the two consuls on a raised dais. His marble throne was behind and above the curule chairs of Rome’s chief magistrates, but he remained standing for the moment, surveying the chamber nervously. He was not a popular man with the Senate or the People of Rome, and he knew it.
Nero was twenty-six years old, and he had ruled over Rome since the death of his great uncle and adoptive father, Claudius Caesar, ten years before (some said Nero had engineered that death, poisoning Claudius with deadly mushrooms). Once muscular and athletic, his over-indulgence in wine and fine foods had added a sheath of fat to his waist, but he was still taller than the average Roman, and broad-shouldered. His face had grown plump, and his nose was slightly reddened from too much drinking. His toga, once gleaming white and trimmed with the Imperial purple, was stained with soot, ash, and wine spills. His eyes constantly shifted back and forth, as if fearing an assassin’s dagger at any moment. His mouth was always in motion, going from a grim, straight line that bespoke determination and cruelty, to a quivering, soft orifice that reeked of fear and a desperate desire for popularity. His nose was not the proud, stern beak that Romans treasured, but rather was somewhat short and bulbous. Nor was he clean shaven, as the previous Emperors had been, but grew a short, scruffy beard that swept from his shaggy locks and met under his chin. Only the area immediately surrounding his mouth was devoid of hair. The Emperor of Rome was a petulant, angry, fearful, neurotic child, and the Senate and People of Rome paid dearly for his insecurities.
“Conscript Fathers,” he said, his booming tenor echoing from the marble walls, “The auguries have been taken and the omens deemed favorable. The pontiffs have given offerings to Vesta and Fortuna, to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and to the divine Emperors past, Julius, Augustus, and Claudius, imploring their blessing on the rebuilding of our great city, and their healing to the wounded hearts and bodies of our citizens.”
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, eyeing his audience to measure their response to what he said. Surrounded by slaves, prostitutes, and sycophants for most of his days, he had lost much of the oratorical skills that his tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, had taught him - mainly due to lack of practice. But as he spoke, the words came easier, and he seemed to gain confidence.
“The destruction of the City of Romulus was a great crime, the blackest crime our fair city has known since the foul murder of the Divus Julius,” he said. “I realize that there has been much speculation about the cause of the fires since that dreadful day in the month of the Julii when they began. Some of those rumors are simply too ridiculous to merit mention in such an august assembly, but I can assure you that no one has been more eager to find out the truth of this matter than your own Emperor. Ever since the last of the fires were extinguished, my agents have been scouring the city, seeking to find the culprits responsible for such massive destruction and bring them to justice.”
The Senators began to look at one another with interest. Many of them half believed the charges that Nero himself had set the fires, or ordered them set – he was already measuring one badly burned out area to see if it was large enough to contain the massive villa he wanted to build for himself. But, if not the Emperor, then who did set the fires? They returned their attention to Nero as he continued. His expression had grown more stern and commanding, as if he was remembering who and what he was.
“You notice that I say culprits, not culprit,” he said. “No one man, not even your Emperor, could have set so many fires in so many places at once. This was a vast conspiracy involving many evil men, and it very nearly succeeded in destroying our entire city! Who could hate the citizens of Rome so much? Who could possibly wish to destroy our Eternal City? Carthage tried and failed, the Gauls nearly succeeded once, four hundred years ago. The great Italian revolt during the Social Wars dreamed of bringing Rome crashing to the earth. But they failed! They went down into Tartarus with their dreams of our destruction unfulfilled. Even those Romans who have turned our own armies upon us – Lucius Sulla, Gaius Marius, and Julius Caesar himself! They marched on Rome not to destroy it but to capture it and win it over to their causes. So I ask again, who could hate the citizens of Rome so much?”
He cast his gaze around the chamber, his eyes narrowing above his pudgy cheeks. He had the Senate’s attention now, and even some of those who had regarded him with contempt as he entered were now watching him with renewed interest. He smiled grimly and continued.
“It took all of my Praetorians, as well as the work of many of my other agents, to ferret out the truth,” he declared. “The conspirators were diabolical in their cleverness, walking among us unnoticed. Their fanatical creed had drawn slaves, freedmen, and Roman citizens into its secret rituals. Wealthy plebs and even a few Senators and patricians were counted among its members! They did not speak openly of what they had done, but their attitudes and actions in the wake of the fires raised my suspicions, and vigorous interrogation brought out the truth. Now I have come to lay bare their foul plot! For this crime was not just an assault on the Senate and People of Rome, but an attack on our very gods themselves! It was our temples that drew the ire of these animals, and their fanatical desire to blot out the worship of every god whose image can be shaped with men’s hands!”
The Senators began to whisper among themselves. Could this be true? Could the fires have actually been an attempt by a band of fanatics to destroy Rome’s traditional religion? Nero watched their reaction and nodded to himself. He had them now, he thought to himself.
“So who did this thing?” he asked rhetorically. “Who tried, and nearly succeeded, in destroying our city? Who longs to end the worship of our gods? Who resents every sacrifice, every offering, every temple, and every attempt we make to appease our spiritual guardians?”
His voice rang through the chamber, high and clear now, echoing from the marble pillars. Seneca’s old lessons on oratory had been remembered, and the Emperor was putting on a powerful performance.
“It was the Christians!” he shouted. “Members of a disgusting cult of religious perverts who worship a crucified criminal! It is not enough that they engage in shameful orgies called “love feasts,” or that they eat and drink the bodies and blood of infants! Those things are despicable enough, but now they seek to destroy the very gods of Rome! So what shall we do with these animals, these monsters, these vile criminals?”
“Death!” cried one Senator. “Proscriptions!” cried another. The anger of the house had swung away from Nero and found a new target, and the Emperor smiled as he heard their angry cries.
“Conscript fathers!” he raised his voice, and the angry shouts died down. “I call on you for a measure that has not been taken in a generation. I call on you to pass an Ultimate Decree of the Senate and People of Rome, declaring all Christians to be hostis, their lives forfeit, their property confiscated and granted to whoever turns them in. I call on you to name all Christians as enemies of the state!”
Loud shouts of agreement echoed through the chamber. The Senate had become putty in the Emperor’s hands. Nero’s mouth turned in a cruel sneer, and he held up his hands one more time.
“But, it is tradition, before passing such a decree, that I ask if there is anyone here who might object to it. So I put the question before you now – will anyone here speak up for these degenerates? Is there any member of the Senate of Rome who will oppose the permanent criminalization of all Christians?”
Silence fell, and the Senators looked at one another for a moment. Nero soaked up his triumph, and then opened his mouth to speak again – when he was interrupted by a voice from near the back of the chamber.
“I will,” said a middle-aged Senator as he stepped out from the ranks and into the aisle. He was slim, but his shoulders were broad and he moved with the confidence that came with physical strength and grace. A faded, worn crown of grass was wrapped around his bald scalp. “I will speak for them!”
Nero shook his head and sighed. “Marcus Publius! I might have known,” he said.