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THE BURNING OF ROME.
The furious madness of Nero had arrived at its paroxysm. It was the most horrible adventure the world had ever passed through. The absolute necessity of the times had delivered up everything to one alone, to the inheritor of the great legendary name of Cæsar: another Government was impossible and the provinces usually found it well enough; but it concealed a terrible danger. When the Cæsar lost his mind, when all the arteries of his poor head, disturbed by an unheard of power shivered at the same moment, then there were madnesses without name! People were delivered up to a monster with no means of ridding themselves of him; his guard, made up of Germans who had everything to lose if he fell, were desperate around his person; the beast driven to bay acted like a wild boar and defended itself with fury. As for Nero, there was at the same time something frightful and grotesque, grand and absurd, about him. As Cæsar was well educated, his madness was chiefly literary. The dreams of all the ages, all the poems, all the legends, Bacchus and Sardanapalus, Ninus and Priam, Troy and Babylon, Homer, and the insipid poetry of the time, shook about in the poor brain of a mediocre, but very satisfied, artist to whom chance had entrusted the power of realising all his chimeras. We figure to ourselves a 61man very nearly as rational as the heroes of M. Victor Hugo, a Shrove-Tuesday character, a mixture of fool, cotquean and actor, clothed in all power and charged with the government of the world He had not the dark wickedness of Domitian, the love of evil for the sake of evil; he was not an extravagant like Caligula; he was a conscientious romancer, an emperor of the opera, a music-madman trembling before the pit and making it tremble, just like a citizen of our days whose good sense might be perverted by the reading of modern poems and who believed himself obliged to imitate Han of Islande and the Burgraves in his conduct. Government being the practical thing par excellence, romanticism is altogether out of place. Romance is with him in the domain of art; but action is the inverse of art. In what concerns the education of a prince especially, romance is fatal. Seneca, on this point, certainly did more harm to his pupil, by his bad literary taste, than good by his fine philosophy. He had a great mind, a talent above the average, and was a man at bottom respectable, in spite of more than one blemish, but quite spoiled by declamation and literary vanity, incapable of feeling or reasoning without phrases. By dint of exercising his pupil to express things he did not think, by composing in advance sublime sentences, he made a jealous comedian of him, a mendacious rhetorician, saying some words of humaneness when he was sure people were listening to him. The old pedagogue saw deeply into the evil of his time, that of his pupil and his own when he wrote in his moments of sincerity: Literarum intemperantia laboramus.
These ridiculous things appeared at first very offensive to Nero; the ape sometimes was circumspect and watched the position that had been taken towards him. Cruelty did not show itself till after Agrippina’s death; soon it took complete possession of him. Every year, henceforth, is marked by his crimes; Burrhus is no 62more, and everybody believes that Nero killed him; Octavia has left the world filled with shame; Seneca is in retirement, expecting his arrest every hour, dreaming of nothing but tortures, strengthening his thoughts by meditation on punishment, trying to prove to himself that death is deliverance. Tigellinus being master of everything the saturnalia was complete. Nero proclaims daily that art alone should be held as a serious matter, that all virtue is a lie, that the brave man is he who is frank and avows his complete immodesty, and that the great man is he who can abuse, lose, and waste everything. A virtuous man is to him a hypocrite, a seditious person, a dangerous personage, and, above all, a rival; when he discovers some horrible baseness which gives proof to his theories, he shows great delight. The political dangers of bombast and that false spirit of emulation, which was from the first the consuming worm of the Latin culture, unveiled themselves. The player had succeeded in obtaining the power of life and death over his auditory; the dilettante threatened the people with the torture if they did not admire his verses. A monomaniac drunk with literary glory, who, turning the fine maxims which they have taught him into pleasantries of a cannibal, a ferocious gamin looking for the applauses of the street roughs—that is the master to which the empire is subjected. Nothing equal in extravagance has ever been seen. The Eastern despots, terrible and grave, had nothing of these mad jests, these debauches of a perverted æsthetic. Caligula’s madness had been short; it was a fit, and he was, above all, a buffoon, although he certainly possessed some wit; on the contrary, the folly of this man, commonly nasty, was sometimes shockingly tragical. It was one of the most horrible things to see him, by way of declamation, playing with his remorse, making this the material for his verse. With that melodramatic air which belonged to himself, he spoke of himself as being tormented by the furies, and quoted Greek verses on 63the parricides. A jocular God appeared to have created him to present him as the horrible charivari of a human nature, all whose springs grated on each other, the obscene spectacle of an epileptic world, such as might a Saraband of Congo apes, or a bloody orgy of a king of Dahomey.
By his example all the world seemed struck with vertigo. He had formed a company of odious fellows who were called “the chevaliers of Augustus,” having as their occupation to applaud the follies of the Cæsar, and to invent for him some amusements as prowlers in the night. We shall soon see an emperor coming forth from that school. A flood of fancies, bad tastes, platitudes, expressions claiming to be comic, a nauseous slang, analogous to the wit of the smallest journals, entered Rome and became the fashion. Caligula had already created this sort of wretched imperial actorship. Nero took him for his perfect model. It was not enough for him to drive chariots in the circus, to wrestle in public, or to make singing excursions in the country; people saw him fishing with golden nets which he drew with purple cords, arranging his claqueurs himself, and obtaining false triumphs, decreeing to himself all the crowns of ancient Greece, organising unheard-of fêtes, and playing at the theatres in nameless parts.
The cause of these aberrations was the bad taste of the century, and the misplaced importance they yielded to a declamatory art, looking at the enormous, dreaming only of monstrosities. In fact, what ruled him was the want of sincerity, an insipid taste like that of the tragedies of Seneca, a skill in painting unfelt sentiments, the art of speaking like a virtuous man without being one. The gigantic passed for great; the æsthetic was nowhere seen; it was the day of colossal statues, of that material theatrical and falsely pathetic art whose chef d’œuvre is the Laocoon, certainly an admirable statue, but the pose being that of a first 64tenor singing his canticum, and where all the emotion is drawn from the pain of the body. They did not content themselves longer with the entirely moral pain of the Niobes, shining forth in beauty; they wished the likeness of physical torture. They would have delighted as the seventeenth century did in a marble by Puget. The senses were served; some grosser resources which the Greeks scarcely permitted in their most popular representations, became the essential element of art. The people were, thus literally, fascinated by shows, not serious spectacles, instructive tragedies, but scenes for effect, phantasmagoria. An ignoble taste for “tableaux vivants” had widely spread. People were no longer content to enjoy in imagination the exquisite stories of the poets; they wished to see the myths represented in the flesh, in whatever was most cruel or obscene; they went into ecstacies before the groupings and the attitudes of the actors; they sought there the effects of statuary. The applauses of 50,000 people, gathered together in an immense building, exciting one another, were such an intoxicating thing, that the sovereign himself came to envy the charioteer, the singer and the actor; the glory of the theatre passed as the first of everything. Not one of the emperors whose head had a weak spot was able to resist the temptations to gather crowns from these wretched plays. Caligula had left there the little reason he had; he passed his days in the theatre amusing himself with the idlers; and later, Commodus and Caracalla disputed with Nero for the palm of madness.
It became necessary to pass laws to prevent senators and knights from descending into the arena, from fighting the gladiators, or pitting themselves against the beasts. The circus had become the centre of life; the rest of the world seemed only made for the pleasures of Rome. There were unceasingly new inventions, each stranger than the other, conceived and ordered by the choragic sovereign. The people went from fête to fête, 65speaking only of the last day, waiting for the one that was promised them, and ended by becoming much attached to the prince who made such an endless bacchanalia of his life. The popularity Nero obtained by these shameful means cannot be doubted; it is sufficient that after his death Otho could obtain the government by reviving his memory, by imitating him, and by recalling the fact that he had himself been one of the minions of his coterie.
One cannot exactly say that this wretched man was wanting in heart, or all sentiment of the good and beautiful. Far from being incapable of friendship, he often showed himself to be a good companion, and it was that very fact which made him cruel; he wished to be loved and admired for himself, and was irritated against all who had not those feelings towards him. His nature was jealous and susceptible, and petty treasons put him beside himself. Nearly all his revenges were exercised on persons whom he had admitted to his intimate circle (Lucain, Vestinus), but who abused the familiarity he encouraged to wound him with their jests; for he felt his weaknesses and feared their being detected. The chief cause of his hatred to Thraseas was that he despaired of obtaining his affection. The absurd quotation of the bad hemistitch, Sub terris tonuisse putes, destroyed Lucain. Without putting aside the services of a Galvia Crispinilla, he really loved some women; and these women, Poppea and Actea, loved him. After the death of Poppea, accomplished by his brutality, he had a sort of repentance of feeling, which was almost touching; he was for a long time possessed by a tender sentiment, sought out everyone who resembled her, and pursued after the most absurd substitutions; Poppea on her side had for him feelings which a woman so distinguished would not have confessed for a common man. A courtesan of the great world, clever in increasing, by the charms of pretended modesty, the attractions of a 66rare beauty of the highest elegance, Poppea preserved in her heart, in spite of her crimes, an instinctive religion which inclined to Judaism. Nero seems to have been very sensible of that charm in women, which results from a certain piety associated with coquetry. These alternations of abandon and boldness, this woman who never went out but with her face partly veiled, this admirable conversation, and above all this touching worship of her own beauty which acted so that, her mirror having shown her some blemishes in it, she had a fit of perfectly womanlike despair, and wished to die; all this seized in a lively manner the imagination of a young debauches, on whom the semblances of modesty exercised an all-powerful illusion. We shall soon see Nero, in his rôle as the Antichrist, creating in a sense the new æsthetic, and being the first to feast his eyes on the spectacle of unveiled Christian modesty.
The devout and voluptuous Poppea retained him by analogous feelings. The conjugal reconciliation which led to her death supposes that in her most intimate relations with Nero she had never abandoned that hauteur which she affected at the outset of their connection. As to Actea, if she was not a Christian, as it has been thought she was, she could not have so much of this. She was a slave originally from Asia, that is to say, from a country with which the Christians of Rome had daily correspondence. We have often remarked. that the beautiful freed women who had the most adorers were much given to the oriental religions. Actea always kept her simple tastes, and never completely separated herself from her little society of slaves. She belonged first to the family of Annæa, about whom we have seen the Christians moving and grouping themselves; it was asserted by Seneca that she played in the most monstrous and tragical circumstances, a part which, seeing her servile condition, cannot perhaps be described as honourable This poor girl, humble, gentle, and whom many occasions show 67surrounded by a family of people bearing names almost Christian, Claudia, Felicula, Stephanus, Crescens, Phœbe Onesimus, Thallus, Artemas, Helpis, was the first love of Nero as a youth. She was faithful to him even to death; we find her at the villa of Phaon, rendering the last offices to the corpse from which every one drew aside in horror.
And we must say that singular as this should appear, we can quite imagine that in spite of everything, women loved him. He was a monster, an absurd creature, badly formed, an incongruous product of nature; but he was not a common monster. It has been said that fate, by a strange caprice, wished to realize in him the hircocerf of logicians, a hybrid bizarre, and incoherent being, most frequently detestable, but whom yet at times people could not refrain from pitying. The feeling of women resting more upon sympathy and personal taste than the vigorous appreciation of ethics, a little beauty or moral kindness, even terribly warped, is sufficient for their indignation to melt into pity. They are especially indulgent to the artist, misguided by the intoxication of his art, for a Byron, the victim of his chimera, and pushing artlessness so far as to translate his inoffensive poetry into acts. The day on which Actea laid the bleeding corpse of Nero in the sepulchre of Domitius she no doubt wept over the profanation of natural gifts known to her alone; that same day, we can believe more than one Christian woman prayed for him
Although of mediocre talent, he had some parts of an artist’s soul; he painted and sculptured well, his verses were good, notwithstanding a certain scholarly pomposity, and, in spite of all that can be said, he made them himself; Suetonius saw his autograph drafts covered with erasures. He was the first to appreciate the admirable landscape of Subiaco, and made a delicious summer residence there. His mind, in the observation of natural things, was just and curious: he 68had a taste for experiments, new inventions, and in curious things he wanted to know the causes, and separated charlatanism clearly from pretended magical sciences, as well as the nothingness of the religions of his age. The biography we are now quoting from preserves to us the account of the manner in which the vocation of singer awoke in him. He owed his initiation to the most renowned harpist of the century, Terpnos. We see him pass entire nights seated by the side of the musician, studying his play, lost in what he heard, in suspense, panting, intoxicated, breathing with avidity the air of another world which opened before him through contact with a great artist. There was there also the origin of his disgust for the Romans, generally weak connaisseurs, and his preference for the Greeks, according to him, alone capable of appreciating him, and for the Orientals, who applauded him to distraction. Thenceforth he admitted no other glory than that of art: a new life revealed itself to him; the emperor was forgotten; to deny his talent was the. State-crime par excellence; the enemies of Rome were those who did not admire him.
His desire in everything to be the head of fashion was certainly absurd. Yet it must be said that there was more policy in that than one would think. The first duty of the Cæsar (seeing the baseness of the times) was to occupy the people. The sovereign was above all a grand organizer of fêtes; the amuser-in-chief must be made to expose his own person to danger. Many of the enormities with which they reproached Nero had their gravity only from the point of view of Roman manners, and the severe attitude to which people had been accustomed till then. This manly society was revolted by seeing the emperor give an audience to the senate in an embroidered dressing gown, and conducting his reviews in an intolerable négligé, without a belt, with a sort of scarf round his neck to preserve his voice. The true Romans were rightly indignant at the introduction 69of those Eastern customs. But it was inevitable that the most ancient and most worn-out civilization should dominate the younger by its corruption. Already Cleopatra and Antony had dreamed of an oriental empire There was suggested to Nero a royalty of the same kind; reduced to despair, he will think of asking the prefecture of Egypt. From Augustus to Constantine every year represents progress in the conquest of the portion of the empire which speaks Greek over the portion which speaks Latin.
It must be recollected, moreover, that madness was in the air. If we except the excellent nucleus of aristocratic society which shall arrive at power with Nerva and Trajan, a general want of the serious made the most considerable men play in some sort with life. The personage who represented and summed up the time, “the honest man” of this reign of transcendent immorality, was, Petronius. He gave the day to sleep, the night to business and amusements. He was not one of those dissipated men who ruin themselves by grosser debaucheries, he was a voluptuary, profoundly versed in the science of pleasure. The natural ease and abandon of his speech and actions gave him an air of simplicity which charmed. While he was pro-consul in Bithynia and later on consul, he shewed himself capable of great management. Coming back to vice or the boasting of vice, he was admitted into the inner court of Nero, and become the judge of good taste in everything; nothing was gallant or delightful Petronius did not approve. The horrible Tigellinus, who ruled by his baseness and wickedness, feared a rival whom he saw surpassing him in the science of pleasures; he determined to destroy him. Petronius respected himself too much to fight with this miserable man. He did not wish however to quit life rudely. After having opened his veins he closed them again, then he opened them anew, conversing on trifles with his friends, hearing them talk, not upon the immortality of the soul and the opinions of 70philosophers, but of songs and light poems. He chose this moment to reward some of his slaves and to have others chastised. He set himself down to table and fell asleep. This sceptical Merimée, with a cold and exquisite tone, has left us a romance of an accomplished and verve polish, at the same time of refined corruption, which is the perfect mirror of the time of Nero. After all, it is not the king of fashion who orders things. The elegance of life has its freedom outside of science and morality. The joy of the universe would want something if the world was only peopled by iconoclastic fanatics and virtuous blockheads.
It cannot be denied that the taste for art was not lively and sincere among the men of that age. They could scarcely produce any beautiful things, but they sought greedily for the beautiful things of the past ages This same Petronius an hour before his death made them break his myrrh vase so that Nero should not have it. Objects of art rose to a fabulous price. Nero was passionately fond of them. Fascinated by the idea of the great, but joining to that as little good sense as was possible, he dreamed fantastical palaces, of towns like Babylon, Thebes, and Memphis. The imperial dwelling on the Palatine (the ancient house of Tiberius), had been modest enough and of a thoroughly private character until Caligula’s reign. This emperor, whom we must consider in everything as the creator of the school of government, in which it can be readily believed that Nero was not the master, considerably enlarged the house of Tiberius. Nero affected to find himself straitened there, and had not jests enough for his predecessors, who were content with so little. He made the first draught in provisional materials of a residence which equalled the palaces of China and Assyria. This house which he called “transitory,” and which he meditated soon making real, was quite a world. With its porticos three miles long, its parks where great flocks fed, its interior solitudes, its lakes surrounded 71by perspectives of fantastic towns, its vines, its forests, it covered a space larger than the Louvre, the Tuileries and the Champs-Elysées put together; it stretched from the Palatine to the gardens of Mecœnus, situated upon the heights of the Esquiline. It was a perfect fairy land; the engineers Severus and Celer were surpassed there. Nero wished to have it executed in such a way that it could be called the “Golden House.” People charmed him by speaking of foolish enterprises, which might make his memory eternal. Rome especially preoccupied his mind. He wished to rebuild it from top to bottom, and to have it called Neropolis.
Rome for a century back had been the wonder of the world; she equalled in grandeur the ancient capitals of Asia. Her buildings were beautiful, strong, and solid, but the streets appeared mean to the people of fashion, who every day went more and more in the direction of vulgar and decorative constructions; they aspired to those effects of harmony which make the delight of cockneys; they sought for frivolities unknown to the ancient Greeks. Nero was the head of the movement. The Rome which he imagined would have been something like the Paris of our day, or one of those artificial cities built by superior order on the plan which one has especially seen win the admiration of country people and foreigners. The irrational youth was intoxicated by these unwholesome plans. He desired also to see something strange, some grandiose spectacle worthy of an artist; he wished for an event which should mark a date in his reign. “Until me,” said he “people did not know the extent that was permitted to a prince.” All these inner suggestions of a disordered fancy appeared to take shape in a bizarre event which had for the subject which occupies us the most important consequences.
The incendiary mania being contagious and often complicated by hallucination, it is very dangerous to awake it in weak heads where it sleeps. One of the 72features of Nero’s character was his inability to resist the fixed idea of a crime. The burning of Troy which he had played since his infancy, took possession of him in a terrible manner. One of the pieces which he had represented in one of his fêtes was the Incendium of Afranius, where a conflagration was seen upon the stage. In one of his fits of egotistical rage against fate, he cried: “Happy Priam, who could see with his own eyes his empire and his country perish at the same time!” On another occasion, having quoted a Greek verse from the Bellerophon of Euripedes, which signifies:—
When I am dead, the earth and the fire can mingle together;
“Oh, no,” said he, “But while I am living!” The tradition according to which Nero burned Rome, only to have a repetition of the burning of Troy, is certainly exaggerated, since, as we shall show, Nero was absent from the city when the fire shewed itself. Yet this story is not destitute of all truth. The demon of perverse dramas who had taken possession of him was, as among wicked people of another age, one of the essential actors in the horrible crime.
On the 19th of July, 64, Rome took fire with a fear-fill violence. The conflagration began near the Capena gate, in the portion of the Grand Circus contiguous to the Palatine hill and Mons Cœlius. That quarter contained many shops, full of inflammable material, where the fire spread with a prodigious rapidity. From that point it made the tour of the Palatine, ravaged the Velabra, the Forum, the Cannes, and mounted the hills, greatly damaged the Palatine, went down again to the valleys, consuming during six days and nights some districts which were compact and full of tortuous streets. An enormous abatis of houses which had been built at the foot of the Esquiline arrested it for some time; then it flamed up again and lasted three days more. The number of deaths was considerable. Of fourteen 73districts of which the city was composed, three were entirely destroyed, while other seven were reduced to blackened walls. Rome was a prodigious city closely built, with a very dense population. The disaster was frightful and such as has never been seen equalled.
Nero was at Antium when the fire broke out. He only entered the city at the moment the flames approached his “transitory” house. It was impossible for anything to resist the flames. The imperial mansions of the Palatine, the “transitory” house itself, with its dependencies, and the whole surrounding quarter, were destroyed. Nero evidently did not care much whether his residence could be saved or not. The sublime horror of the spectacle fascinated him. It was afterwards said that, mounted on a tower, he had contemplated the fire, and that there, in a theatrical dress, with a lyre in his hand, he had sung, to the touching rhythm of the ancient elegy, the ruin of Troy.
There was here a legend, a fruit of the age and of successive exaggerations; but one point upon which universal opinion pronounced itself was this, that the fire was ordered by Nero, or at least revived by him when it was about to go out. It was believed that members of his household were recognized setting fire to it at different points. In certain directions, the fire was kindled, it was said, by men feigning drunkenness. The conflagration had the appearance of having been raised simultaneously at many points at the same time. It is said that, during the fire, there had been seen the soldiers and the watchmen charged with extinguishing it, stirring it up, and hindering the efforts which were made to circumscribe it, and that with an air of threatening and in the style of people who executed official orders. Some large constructions of stone, in the neighbourhood of the imperial residence, and whose site he coveted, were turned over as in a siege. When the fire began again, it commenced in some buildings which belonged to Tigellinus. What confirmed these suspicions 74is that after the fire Nero, under pretext of cleaning the ruins at his expense to leave a free place to the owners took charge of removing the ruins, so much that he did not permit any person to approach them. It was much worse, when they saw him collect a good part of the ruins of the country, when they saw the new palace of Nero, that “House of Gold” which for a long time had been the plaything of his delirious imagination, rising upon the site of the old temporary residence, increased by the space which the fire had cleared. It was thought he had wished to prepare the grounds of this new palace, to justify the reconstruction which he had projected for a long time, to procure himself money by appropriating to himself the debris of the fire, in short, to satisfy his mad vanity, which made him desire to have Rome rebuilt, that it might date from him and that he might give it his name.
Everything leads us to believe that there was no calumny in that. The truth, so far as it concerns Nero, can scarcely be probable. It may be said that with his power he had more simple means than fire to procure the lands he desired. The power of the emperor, without bounds in one sense, soon found on another side its limit in the customs and prejudices of a people conservative in the highest degree of its religious monuments. Rome was full of temples, of holy places, of areæ, of buildings which no law of expropriation could cause to disappear. Cæsar and many other emperors had seen their designs of public utility, especially in what concerns the rectification of the course of the Tiber, met by this obstacle. To execute his irrational plans, Nero had but really one means—fire. The situation resembled that of Constantinople and in the great Mussulman cities, whose renovation is prevented by the mosques and the ouakouf. In the East, fire is only a weak expedient; for, after the fire, the ground, considered as a sort of inalienable patrimony of the faithful, remains sacred. At Rome, where 75religlon is attached more to the edifice than to the site, the measure was efficacious. A new Rome, with large and stretched out streets, was reconstructed quickly enough according to the plans of the emperor and on the premiums which he offered.
All honest men who were in the city were enraged. The most precious antiquities of Rome, the houses of the ancient leaders decorated yet with triumphal spoils, the most sacred objects, the trophies, the ex-voto antiques, the most esteemed temples—all the material of the old worship of the Romans had disappeared. It was like the funeral of the reminiscences and legends of the fatherland. Nero had in vain taken on himself the expense of assuaging the misery he had caused; it was stated in vain that everything was limited in the last analysis to an operation of clearing up and rendering wholesome; that the new city would be very superior to the old; no true Roman would believe it; all those for whom a city is anything more than a mass of stones were wounded to the heart; the conscience of the country was hurt. This temple built by Evander, that other erected by Servius Tullius, of the sacred enceinte of Jupiter Stator, the palace of Numa, those penates of the Roman people, those monuments of so many victories, those triumphs of Grecian art, how could the loss be repaired? What value compared with that was there is sumptuousness of parades, vast monumental perspective, and endless straight lines? They conducted expiatory ceremonies, they consulted the Sibyl’s books, and the ladies especially celebrated divers piacula. But there remained the secret feeling of a crime, an infamy; Nero began to feel that he had gone a little too far.76
MASSACRE OF THE CHRISTIANS—THE ÆSTHETICS OF NERO.
An infernal idea then came into his mind. He asked himself if there were not in the world some wretches still more detested than he by the Roman citizens, on whom he had brought down the odium of the fire. He thought of the Christians. The honor which those last showed for the temples and the buildings most venerated by the Romans rendered acceptable enough the idea that they were the authors of a fire, the effect of which had been to destroy those sanctuaries. Their gloomy air before the monuments appeared an insult to the country. Rome was a very religious city, and one person protesting against the national cults was very quickly observed. It must be remembered that certain rigorous Jews went even so far as not to touch a coin bearing an effigy, and saw as great a crime in the fact of looking at or carrying about an image, as in that of carving it. Others refused to pass through a gate of the city surmounted by a statue. All this provoked the jests and the bad will of the people. Perhaps the talk of the Christians upon the grand final conflagration, their sinister prophecies, their affectation in repeating that the world was soon to finish, and to finish by fire, contributed to make them be taken for incendiaries. It is not even inadmissable that many believers had committed imprudences and that men had had some pretexts to accuse them for having wished, by preluding the heavenly flames, to justify their oracles at any price. What piaculum, in any case, could be more efficacious than the punishment of those enemies of the 77gods. In seeing them atrociously tortured the people would say: “Ah! no doubt, these are the culprits!” It must be recollected that public opinion regarded as established facts the most odious crimes laid to the charge of the Christians.
Let us put far from us the idea that the pious disciples of Jesus had been culpable to any degree of the crime of which they were accused: let us only say that many indications might mislead opinion. This fire it may be they had not lit, but surely they rejoiced at it. The Christians desired the end of society and predicted it. In the Apocalypse, it is the secret prayers of the saints which burn the earth and make it tremble. During the disaster, the attitude of the faithful would appear equivocal: some no doubt were wanting in showing respect and regret before the consumed temples, or even did not conceal a certain satisfaction. One could imagine such a conventicle at the base of the Transtevere, where it might be said: “is this not what we foretold?” Often it is dangerous to show oneself too prophetic. “If we wished to revenge ourselves,” said Tertullian, “a single night and some torches would be sufficient” The accusation of incendiarism was very common against the Jews, because of their separate life. This very crime was one of these flagitia cohærentia nomini which made up the definition of a Christian.
Without having at all contributed to the catastrophe of the 19th July, the Christians could therefore be held, if one could so express it, incendiaries at heart. In four years and a half the Apocalypse will present a song on the burning of Rome, to which the event of 64 probably furnished more than one feature. The destruction of Rome by flames was indeed a Jewish and Christian dream; but it was nothing but a dream the pious secretaries were certainly contented to see in spirit the saints and angels applauding from high heaven what they regarded as a just expiation.78
One can scarcely believe that the idea of accusing the Christians of the fire of the month of July should come of itself to Nero. Certainly, if Cæsar had known the good brothers closely, he would have strangely hated them. The Christians naturally could not comprehend the merit which lay in posing as an actor on the stage of the society of his age: now what exasperated Nero was when people misunderstood his talent as an artist and head of entertainments. Yet Nero could not but hear them speak of the Christians; he never found himself in personal relations with them. By whom was the atrocious expedient on which he acted suggested? It is probable besides that on many sides in the city some suspicions were entertained. The sect, at that time, was well known in the official world. We have seen that Paul had certain relations with some person attached to the service of the imperial palace. One thing very extraordinary is that among the promises which certain people had made to Nero, in case he should come to be deprived of the empire, was that of the government of the east and particularly of the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Messianic ideas among the Jews at Rome often took the form of vague hopes of a Roman oriental empire; Vespasian profited at a later date by those fancies. From the accession of Caligula up till the death of Nero, the Jewish cabals at Rome did not cease. The Jews had contributed greatly to the accession and to the support of the family of Germanicus. Whether through the Herods or other intriguers, they besieged the palace, too often to have their enemies destroyed. Agrippa II. had been very powerful under Caligula and Claudius; when he resided at Rome he played the part of an influential person. Tiberius Alexander on the other hand, occupied the loftiest functions. Josephus indeed shows himself to be very favourable to Nero; he says they have caluminated him, and lays all his crimes upon his evil surroundings. As to Poppea, he makes her out to be a 79pious person because she was favourable to the Jews, because she seconded the solicitations of the zealots, and also perhaps because she adopted a portion of their rites. He knew her in the year 62 or 63, obtained through her pardon for the arrested Jewish priests, and cherished the most grateful remembrance of her. We have the touching epitaph of a Jewess named Esther born at Jerusalem and freed by Claudius or Nero, who charges her companion Arescusus to keep watch that they put nothing on her tomb contrary to the Law, as for example, the letters D.M. Rome possessed some actors and actresses of Jewish origin: under Nero, there was in that a natural way of finding access to the emperor. There is named in particular a certain Alityrus, a Jewish player, much liked by Nero and Poppea; it was by him that Josephus was introduced to the empress. Nero, full of hatred for everything that was Roman, loved to turn to the east, to surround himself with orientals, and to concoct some intrigues in the east.
Is all this enough on which to found a plausible hypothesis? Is it allowable to attribute to the hatred of the Jews against the Christians the cruel caprice which exposed the most inoffensive of men to the most monstrous punishments? It was surely a pity that the Jews had this secret interview with Nero and Poppea at the moment when the emperor conceived such a hateful thought against the disciples of Jesus. Tiberius Alexander especially was then in his full favour, and such a man would detest the saints. The Romans usually confounded the Jews and the Christians. Why was the distinction so clearly made on this occasion? Why were the Jews, against whom the Romans had the same moral antipathy and the same religious grievances as against the Christians, not meddled with at this time? The sufferings of some Jews would have been a piacalum quite as effectual. Clemens Romanus, or the author (certainly a Roman) of the 80epistle which is attributed to him, in the passage where he makes allusion to the massacres of the Christians ordered by Nero, explains them in a manner very obscure to us, but very characteristic. All these misfortunes are “the result of jealousy,” and this word “jealousy” evidently signifies here some internal divisions, some animosities among the members of the same confraternity. From that was born a suspicion, corroborated by this incontestable fact that the Jews, before the destruction of Jerusalem, were the real persecutors of the Christians, and neglected nothing which would make them disappear. A widespread tradition of the fourth century asserts that the death of Paul and even that of Peter, which they did not separate from the persecution of the year 64, had as its cause the conversion of the mistresses and one of the favourites of Nero. Another tradition sees in this a result of the defeat of Simon the magician. With a personage so fanciful as Nero every conjecture is hazarded. Perhaps the choice of the Christians for the frightful massacre was only a whim of the emperor or Tigellinus. Nero had no need of anyone to conceive for him a design capable of baffling, by its monstrosity, all the ordinary rules of historical induction.
At first a certain number of persons suspected of forming part of the new sect were arrested, and they were put together in a prison, which was already a punishment in itself. They confessed their faith, which was considered an avowal of the crime which was judged inseparable from it. These first arrests led to a great number of others. The larger portion of the accused appear to have been proselytes, observing the precepts and the rules of the pact of Jerusalem. It is not to be admitted that any true Christians had denounced their brethren; but some papers might be seized; some neophytes scarcely initiated might yield to the torture. People were surprised at the multitudes of adherents who had accepted these gloomy doctrines; they 81did not speak of them without fear. All sensible men considered the accusation of having caused the fire extremely weak. “Their true crime,” it was said, “is hatred to the human race.” Although persuaded that the fire was Nero’s crime, many of the thoughtful Romans saw in this cast of the police net a way of delivering the city from a most fatal plague. Tacitus, in spite of some pity, is of that opinion. As to Suetonius, he ranks among Nero’s praiseworthy measures the punishments to which he subjected the partisans of the new and malevolent superstition
These punishments were something frightful. Such refinements of cruelty had never been seen. Nearly all the Christians arrested were of the humiliores, people of no position. The punishment of those unfortunates, when it was a matter of lese-majesty or sacrilege, consisted in being delivered to the beasts or burned alive in the amphitheatre, with accompaniments of cruel scourgings. One of the most hideous features of Roman manners was to have made of punishment a fête, and the witnessing of slaughter a public game. Persia, in its moments of fanaticism and terror had known frightful exhibitions of torture; more than once it has tasted there a sort of gloomy pleasure; but never before the Roman domination had there been this looking at these horrors as a public diversion, a subject for laughter and applause. The amphitheatres had become the places of execution; the tribunals furnished the arena. The condemned of the whole world were led to Rome for the supply of the circus and the amusement of the people. Let us join to that an atrocious exaggeration in the penalty which caused simple offences to be punished by death; let us add numerous judicial blunders, resulting from a defective criminal procedure, and we shall conceive that all the ideas were perverted. The punished were considered very soon to be as much unfortunate as criminal; as a whole, they were looked on as nearly innocent, innoxia corpora.82
To the barbarity of the punishments, this time they added insult. The victims were kept for a fête, to which no doubt an expiratory character was given. Rome reckoned few days so extraordinary. The ludus matutinus, dedicated to the fights with animals, made an extraordinary exhibition. The condemned, covered with the skins of wild beasts, were thrust into the arena, where they were torn by the dogs; others were crucified, others again, clothed in tunics steeped in oil, pitch, or resin, were fastened to stakes and kept to light up the fête at night. As the dusk came on they lit those living flambeaux. Nero gave for the spectacle the magnificent gardens he possessed across the Tiber, and which occupied the present site of the Borgo and the piazza and church of St. Peter. He had found there a circus, commenced by Caligula, continued by Claudius, and of which an obelisk brought from Hierapolis (that which at the present day marks the centre of the piazza of St. Peter) was the boundary. This place had already seen massacres by torchlight. Caligula caused to be beheaded there by the light of flambeaux a certain number of consular personages, senators, and Roman ladies. The idea of replacing those lights by human bodies impregnated by inflammable substances may appear ingenious. This punishment, this fashion of burning alive was not new; it was the ordinary penalty for incendiaries, what was termed the tunica molesta; but a system of illumination had never been made out of it. By the light of these hideous torches Nero, who had put evening races in fashion, showed himself in the arena, sometimes mingling with the people in the dress of a jockey, sometimes driving his chariot and seeking for their applause. But yet there were some signs of compassion. Even those who believed the Christians culpable and who confessed that they had deserved the last punishment, were horrified by these cruel pleasures. Wise men wished that they would do only what public 83utility demanded, that the city should be cleared of dangerous men, but that there should not be the appearance of sacrificing criminals to the cruelty of a single person.
Some women, some maidens, were mixed up with these horrible games. A fête was made out of the nameless indignities they suffered. The custom was established under Nero of making the condemned in the amphitheatre play certain mythological parts, involving the death of the actor. Those hideous operas, where the science of machinery attained prodigious results, were a new thing; Greece would have been surprised if they had suggested to it a similar attempt to apply ferocity to æsthetics, to produce art by torture. The unfortunate was introduced into the arena richly dressed as a god or a hero doomed to death, then represented by his punishment some tragic scene of fables consecrated by sculptors and poets. Sometimes it was the furious Hercules, burned upon mount Œta, drawing over his skin the lit tunic of pitch; sometimes it was Orpheus torn in pieces by a bear; Dedalus thrown from the sky and devoured by beasts; Pasipháe submitting to the embrace of the bull, or Attys murdered; at other times, there were horrible masquerades, where the men were dressed as priests of Saturn, with a red mantle on their backs; the women as priestesses of Ceres, with fillets on their foreheads; and lastly some dramatic pieces, in the course of which the hero was really put to death, like Laureolus, or representations of tragical acts like that of Mucius Scævola. At the close, Mercury, with a rod of red hot iron, touched every corpse to see if it moved; some masked servants, representing Pluto or the Orcus, drew away the dead by the feet, killing with mallets all who still breathed.
The most respectable Christian ladies bore their part in these monstrosities. Some played the part of the Danaïdes, others those of Dircé. It is difficult to say 84why the fable of the Danaïdes could furnish a bloody tableau. The punishment which all mythological tradition attributes to these guilty women, and in which they are represented, was not cruel enough to minister to the pleasure of Nero and the habitués of his amphitheatre. Probably they marched bearing urns, and received the fatal blow from an actor representing Lynceus; or Anonyms, one of the Danaïds, was seen pursued by a Satyr and outraged by Neptune. Perhaps, in short, these unfortunates passed through the punishment of Tartarus one after the other, and died after hours of torment. Representations of hell were in fashion. Some years before (41) certain Egyptians and Nubians came to Rome, and had a great success by giving exhibitions at night, where they showed the horrors of the lower world, according to the paintings on the Syringe of Thebes, especially those on the tomb of Sethos I.
As to the sufferings of the Dircés there can be no doubt, We know the colossal group known by the name of the Farnese Bull, now in the museum at Naples. Amphion and Zethus fasten Dirce to the horns of an untamed bull which would draw her across the rocks and precipices of Cithero. This mediocre Rhodian marble, brought to Rome in the time of Augustus, was the object of universal admiration. What finer subject for this hideous art which the cruelty of the age had put in vogue and which consisted in making tableaux vivants of famous statues? A text and a fresco from Pompeii appear to prove that this temple scene was often represented in the arena, when the person to be punished was a woman. Bound naked by the hair to the horns of a furious bull, the unfortunates satiated the lustful glances of the cruel people. Some of the Christian women thus sacrificed were weak in body; their courage was superhuman: but the infamous crowd had no eyes save for their opened entrails and their torn bosoms.85
Nero was doubtless present at these spectacles. As he was short-sighted he had the habit of wearing in his eye, when he followed the gladiatorial fights, a concave emerald which he used as a lorgnon. He loved to parade his knowledge of sculpture; it is asserted that he made odious remarks over the corpse of his mother, praising this and disparaging that. Flesh palpitating under the teeth of the beasts, a poor timid girl veiling her nudity by a modest gesture, then tossed by a bull, and torn in pieces on the pebbles of the arena, would present some plastic forms and colours worthy of a connaisseur like him. He was there in the first rank upon the podium, mingling with the vestals and the curule magistrates, with his bad figure, his mean face, his blue eyes, his chestnut hair twisted in rows of curls, his cruel lips, his wicked and beastly air; at once the figure of a big ugly baby, happy, puffed up with vanity, while a brassy music vibrated in the air, waving through a stream of blood. He doubtless dwelt like an artist upon the modest attitude of these new Dirces, and found, I imagine, that a certain air of resignation gave to these poor women about to be torn in pieces a charm which he had never known till then.
For a long time that hideous scene was remembered, and even under Domitian when an actor was put to death in his part, especially one Loreolius, who really died upon the cross, they thought of the piacula of the year 64 and imagined him to represent an incendiary of the city of Rome. The names of sarmentitii or sarmentarii (people preparing the fagots) semaxii (the stakes) the popular cry of “The Christians to the lions” appeared also to date from that time. Nero, with a sort of clever art, had struck budding Christianity with an indelible impress; the bloody nœvus inscribed on the forehead of the martyr church shall never be effaced.
Those of the brethren who were not tortured had in some sort their part in the sufferings of the others by 86the sympathy which they shewed them and the care which they took to visit them in prison. They bought often this dangerous favour at the price of all their goods; the survivors of the crisis were utterly ruined. They scarcely thought of that, however, they saw nothing but the enduring reward of heaven and said continually: “Yet a little while, and he that shall come will come.”
Thus opened this strange poem of martyrdom, this epopee of the amphitheatre, which was to last for 250 years, and from which would come forth the ennoblement of women, the rehabitation of the slaves by such episodes as these: Blandina on the cross turning her eyes upon her companions, who saw in the gentle and pale slave the image of Jesus crucified: Potanugina protected from outrage by the young officer who was leading her to punishment. The crowd was seized with horror when it perceived the humid breasts of Felicita; Perpetua in the arena pinning up her hair trampled by the beasts not to appear disconsolate. Legend tells that one of these saints proceeding to punishment met a young man who, touched by her beauty, gave her a look of pity. Wishing to leave him a souvenir she took the kerchief which covered her bosom and gave it to him; intoxicated by this gage of love the young man ran a moment later to martyrdom. Such was in fact the dangerous charm of those bloody dramas of Rome, Lyons, and Carthage. The joy of the sufferers in the amphitheatre became contagious as under the Terror the resignation of the “Victims.” The Christians presented themselves above all to the imagination of the times as a race determined to suffer. The desire for death was henceforward their mark. To arrest the too deep desire for martyrdom the most terrible threatenings became necessary—the stamp of heresy, expulsion from the church.
The fault which the educated classes of the empire committed in provoking this feverish enthusiasm cannot be blamed enough. To suffer for his belief is a thing so sweet to man that this attraction is alone sufficient to 87make him believe. More than one unbeliever was converted without any other reason than that; in the east, one even sees impostors lying only for the sake of lying and being victims of their own lies. There was no sceptic who did not regard the martyr with a jealous eye, and did not envy him that supreme happiness of affirming something. A secret instinct leads us besides to favour those who are persecuted. Whoever imagines that a religious or social movement can be arrested by coercive measures gives therefore a proof of his complete ignorance of the human heart, and shews that he does not know the true means of political action.
What happened once may happen again. Tacitus would have turned away with indignation if he had been shewn the future of those Christians whom he treated as wretches. The honest people of Rome would have cried out if any observer endowed with a prophetic spirit had dared to say to them: “These incendiaries will be the salvation of the world.” Hence an eternal objection against the dogmatism of conservative parties, an irremediable warping of conscience, and a secret perversion of judgment. Some wretches despised by all fashionable people have become saints. It would not be good if madnesses of this kind were frequent. The safety of society demands that its sentences shall not be too frequently reformed. Since the condemnation of Jesus, since the martyrs have been found to have had success for their cause in their revolt against the law, there had always been in the matter of social crimes as a secret appeal from the thing judged. Not one of the condemned but could say: “Jesus was smitten thus. The martyrs were held to be dangerous men of whom society must be purged, and yet the following centuries have shewn that this was right.” A heavy blow this to those clumsy assertions by which a society seeks to represent to itself that its enemies are wanting in all reason and morality.88
After the day when Jesus expired on Golgotha, the day of the festivals of the gardens of Nero (one can fix it about the 1st of August in the year 64) was the most solemn in the history of Christianity. The solidity of a construction is in proportion to the sum of virtues, sacrifices and devotion which are laid as its foundations. Fanatics alone found anything. Judaism endures still by reason of the intense frenzy of its prophets and zealots; Christianity, because of the courage of its first witnesses. The orgy of Nero was the grand baptism of blood, which marked out Rome as the city of the martyrs to play a part in the history of Christianity, and to be the second holy city. It was the taking possession of the Vatican hill by these conquerors of a kind unknown till then.
The odious madcap who governed the world did not perceive that he was the founder of a new order, and that he signed for the future a character written with cinnebar, whose effects would be reclaimed at the end of eighteen hundred years. Rome, made responsible for all the bloodshed, became, like Babylon, a sort of sacramental and symbolic city. Nero took in any case that day a place of the first order in the history of Christianity. This miracle of horror, this prodigy of perversity, was an evident sign to all. A hundred and fifty years after Tertullian writes: “Yes, we are proud that our position outside of the law has been inaugurated by such a man. When one has come to know him he understands that he who was condemned by Nero could not but be great and good.” Already the idea had spread that the coining of the true Christ would be preceded by the coming of a sort of an infernal Christ who should be in everything the contrary of Jesus. That could not longer be doubted; the Antichrist, the Christ of evil, existed. The Antichrist was this monster with a human face made up of ferocity, hypocrisy, immodesty, pride, who paraded before the world as an absurd hero, celebrated his triumph as a chariot driver with torches of human flesh, 89intoxicated himself with the blood of the saints, and perhaps did worse than that. One is tempted to believe in fact that it is to the Christians that a passage in Suetonius refers as to a monstrous game which Nero had invented. Some youths, men, women and young girls were fastened to stakes in the arena. A beast came forth from the caves glutting itself upon these bodies. The freed man Doryphorus made as if he were fighting the beast. Now if the beast was Nero clothed in the skin of a wild beast, Doryphorus was a wretch to whom Nero had been married sending forth cries like a virgin when she is violated . . . The name of Nero has been discovered; it shall be THE BEAST. Caligula had been the Anti-God. Nero shall be the Anti-Christ, the Apocalypse. The Christian virgin who, attached to a stake, was subjected to the hideous embraces of the beast, will carry that fearful image with her into eternity!
That day was likewise the one upon which was created by a strange autithesis, the charming ambiguity on which humanity has lived for centuries and partly lives still. This was an hour reckoned in Heaven as that in which Christian chastity, until then so carefully concealed, should appear in the full light before fifty thousand spectators, and placed, as in the studio of a sculptor, in the attitude of a virgin about to die. Revelations of a secret which antiquity does not know! Brilliant proclamation of this principle that modesty is a joy and a beauty itself alone! Already we have seen the great magician who is called fancy, and who modifies from century to century the ideal of woman, working incessantly to place above the perfection of the form the attraction of modesty (Poppea only ruled by putting that on) and of a resigned humility (in that was the triumph of the good Actea). Accustomed to march always at the head of his age in the paths of the unknown, Nero was, it appears, the introducer of this sentiment, and discovered in his artistic 90debauches the philtre of love in the Christian female esthetic. His passion for Actea and Poppea proves that he was capable of delicate feelings, and as the monstrous mingled with everything he touched, he wished to realise for himself the spectacle of his dreams. The image of the grandmother of Cymodocea refracted itself like the heroine of an antique cameo in the focus of his emerald. By obtaining the applause of a connaisseur, so exquisite, a friend of Petronius, who perhaps saluted the Moritura by some of those quotations from the classical poets whom he loved, the timid nudity of the young martyr became the rival of the nudity, confident in itself, of a Greek Venus. When the brutal hand of this worn out world which sought its festival in the torments of a young girl had drawn aside the veil from Christian modesty, that might have said, “And I also am beautiful.” It was the beginning of a new art. Hatched under the eyes of Nero, the aesthetic of the disciples of Jesus, which did not know itself till then, owes the revelation of its magic to the crime which tearing aside its robe despoiled it of its virginity.91
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