This excerpt is from the beginning of Chapter 3, where Titus and his brother are discussing the fate of Rome's Christian community when they receive news of a horrific disaster. Enjoy!!
“Well,” said Titus, “this is interesting.” He stood in the dining hall of the Palace on a beautiful autumn afternoon, reading a scroll that had been brought to him.
“What is it?” Domitian asked. He was reclining at the table, enjoying a roasted Tiber bass seasoned with garlic and peppers.
“A letter from a man named Linus – no patronym given – who claims to be the leader of Rome’s Christian community,” Titus explained.
“A Christian leader?” Domitian perked up. “What does he want?”
“He wants me to lift Nero’s decree proscribing his faith, and allow the Christians the freedom to worship their god openly,” the Emperor replied.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Domitian said. “I have heard awful things about these Christians and their rituals! They are atheists – they deny the existence of all the gods of Rome, and on top of that, they drink cups full of blood and eat human flesh at their orgies!”
Titus laughed out loud. “You believe everything the old wives tell you, don’t you, brother?” he said. “Do you remember old Marcus Publius?”
“Yes, he is a retired Praetor, right? Didn’t they used to call him ‘the scourge of the provinces’?”
“That’s the one,” Titus said. “I know something about him not many people do. He is a Christian!”
“Ecastor!” Domitian exclaimed. “A member of the Senate? A holder of the Grass Crown – a Christian?”
“He was both of those things, until a few years ago, and he is still a Christian, so far as I know,” said Titus. “But when Nero stripped him of his titles and decorations, he retired from public life. But once, shortly before that, I repeated some of the same things you just said about the Christians. Old Marcus set me straight, and told me a little about what they really believed. They don’t have orgies and they aren’t cannibals or vampires. They pass around a cup of wine and drink it in memory of the blood shed by their crucified master, and eat small loafs of bread to recall how his body was broken on the cross.”
“Well of course he told you that!” Domitian said. “I never did trust that man.”
Titus sighed. “You are altogether too suspicious and paranoid, dear brother,” he said.
“Are you going to do it then? Will you repeal the proscription of their faith?” asked Domitian.
“Not exactly,” Titus replied. “I will leave Nero’s decree on the books, as a surety for their good behavior. But I will inform the magistrates to stop enforcing it for the time being.”
He strode over to his writing table and penned a short letter, and then he sealed it and handed it to one of his Praetorians, who would take it to the Senator who had delivered it. Titus was debating whether to return to the dinner table or sit at the table and work on his correspondence when he glanced out through the open archway that faced to the south.
“What a peculiar cloud!” he exclaimed, pointing at the far horizon. An enormous column, black at the base and grey at the top, was rising high into the sky, widening like a gigantic funnel the further up it went.
“That doesn’t look like a cloud,” Domitian said.
Titus paled suddenly. “It isn’t!” he said. “That is smoke – but I’ve only seen one column of smoke anywhere near that size in my life, and that was the one rising over the ruins of Jerusalem as we marched away from the Jew’s capitol!”
“But that is so huge!” Domitian said, his voice rising in excitement. “I’m not sure a single city would produce that much -”
As he spoke, the ground beneath their feet shuddered slightly. A small crack appeared in the marble floor, running all the way across the building from south to north.
“Earthquake!” snapped Titus. “Get everyone out!”
Emperor, Praetorians, clerks, and slaves were all in the open-air courtyard moments later, fear abolishing the badges of rank. Everyone stared to the south in horror, wondering what sort of conflagration could have generated such a massive amount of smoke and soot. Titus ordered riders dispatched southward to see what the source of the fire was, but the answer was not long in coming. They met riders an hour south of Rome, coming north hard and fast, their horses plastered with mud where the soot that covered them had melded with their sweat. Three hours after Titus noticed the column hanging in the air, one of the messengers – a soldier of the Fifteenth Legion - was ushered into his presence.
The man was exhausted, his features smudged black, his eyes red, his breath rasping and short. His horse was so worn out it had collapsed after Titus’ Praetorians stopped him, and he had finished the journey to the palace on a borrowed mount.
Although anxious to hear the news, Titus first saw to it that the man was given a flagon of water, followed by a goblet of wine to soothe his throat and help him gather his wits. The legionary gratefully swallowed the cool liquids, but when he was done, the first sound to escape his lips was a sob. He tried to speak, but his throat was still clogged with emotion.
“Calm down, Legionary,” the Emperor said. “Tell us what happened.”
“It’s gone, sir. All of Pompeii, Herculaneum, all the villas on the slope of the mountain – all destroyed.” He coughed and spat out a gobbet of blackened saliva. “Just about everyone is dead.”
Cries and moans came from the surrounding crowd. A few began to weep, others shouted questions.
“How?” Titus asked him. “What could destroy such a large district?”
“Mount Vesuvius exploded,” the man said. “Fire and lava came pouring down the slopes, and ash rained down from the heavens. As I looked back, I could see that much of Pompeii was already buried, and the ash was still falling. Waves of heat came from the mountain – so intense my first horse died of it, and my exposed skin turned red as if I’d spent a day sleeping naked under the summer sun! I was a league distant by then; I imagine that the people in the city must have been roasted where they stood. One man I encountered said that he saw hundreds diving into the bay, trying to escape the heat, only to start screaming and die almost immediately – the water in the bay must have been near boiling. The gods have surely poured out their wrath this day!”
As Titus listened, his blunt and honest features seemed to crumble, replaced by the rawest of grief. He balled his fists up in the front of his tunic, and when the soldier was finished speaking, he slowly sank to his knees, ripping his tunic and toga open with his bare hands, and howling with grief. He rubbed dirt on his forehead and cheeks, and then slowly stood.
“Ah, my people!” he said. “All those poor people, to die so horribly! Praetorians – send messengers out to all the merchants and vendors of Rome. All who sell clothing and food will be required to donate a tithe of their inventory, all others a tithe of their coin. Rent wagons, and purchase tents and bedding. Gather all you can that the refugees will need, for we set out for Pompeii on the morrow!”
With that he turned and strode quickly back towards the palace. Under the archway he paused a moment, facing the crowd again.
“Summon the Senate for an emergency session! We shall be there within the hour!” he snapped.
Inside his quarters, the Emperor stripped out of his toga and donned his military attire – cuirass, leggings, and boots – and strapped on his sword. He left his torn tunic on, and did not wash his face or comb his hair. He was so intent on his dress that he did not notice Domitian standing in the doorway until he was fully attired.
“Why are you standing here watching?” he snapped when he saw his brother. “Get dressed for marching, and make sure you bear the marks of mourning!”
“Mourning for who?” Domitian asked. “I don’t know of any family members we have in Pompeii.”
Titus’ face turned red with anger. He advanced on his brother, slapping him in the face, hard, three times. The blows echoed like thunderclaps down the marble hall, and Domitian recoiled, too stunned to resist.
“YOU SELFISH BRAT!” roared the Emperor of Rome. “An entire district lies buried in ash and ruin, and your response is nonchalance because your relatives weren’t involved? You are the brother of Rome’s Emperor, you fool! All of Rome is now our family! These were our subjects, our children, and you WILL show all the proper signs of grief and respect. Now get out of my sight, and when I see you again your clothes had better be torn and your face smeared with dirt. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Princeps!” Domitian stuttered, fleeing before his brother’s wrath. He had seen Titus angry, more than once, but this was the first time since they were children that the anger had been directed at him, and he did not like the prospect one bit. It was too easy for him to forget that his brother could order him to death on any pretext, because Titus made a point of treating him as an equal and a valuable colleague. But the threat was there, he knew, and moments like this were a stark reminder of the scope of his brother’s imperium.