Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Firing of Rome
By George Croly (1780–1860)
From ‘Salathiel the Immortal’

INTELLIGENCE in a few days arrived from Brundusium of the Emperor’s landing, and of his intention to remain at Antium on the road to Rome, until his triumphal entry should be prepared. My fate now hung in the scale. I was ordered to attend the imperial presence. At the vestibule of the Antian palace my careful centurion deposited me in the hands of a senator. As I followed him through the halls, a young female richly attired, and of the most beautiful face and form, crossed us, light and graceful as a dancing nymph. The senator bowed profoundly. She beckoned to him, and they exchanged a few words. I was probably the subject; for her countenance, sparkling with the animation of youth and loveliness, grew pale at once; she clasped both her hands upon her eyes, and rushed into an inner chamber. She knew Nero well; and dearly she was yet to pay for her knowledge. The senator, to my inquiring glance, answered in a whisper, “The Empress Poppæa.”  1
  A few steps onward, and I stood in the presence of the most formidable being on earth. Yet whatever might have been the natural agitation of the time, I could scarcely restrain a smile at the first sight of Nero. I saw a pale, undersized, light-haired young man sitting before a table with a lyre on it, a few copies of verses and drawings, and a parrot’s cage, to whose inmate he was teaching Greek with great assiduity. But for the regal furniture of the cabinet, I should have supposed myself led by mistake into an interview with some struggling poet. He shot round one quick glance on the opening of the door, and then proceeded to give lessons to his bird. I had leisure to gaze on the tyrant and parricide.  2
  Physiognomy is a true science. The man of profound thought, the man of active ability, and above all the man of genius, has his character stamped on his countenance by nature; the man of violent passions and the voluptuary have it stamped by habit. But the science has its limits: it has no stamp for mere cruelty. The features of the human monster before me were mild and almost handsome; a heavy eye and a figure tending to fullness gave the impression of a quiet mind; and but for an occasional restlessness of brow, and a brief glance from under it, in which the leaden eye darted suspicion, I should have pronounced Nero one of the most indolently tranquil of mankind.  3
  He remanded the parrot to his perch, took up his lyre, and throwing a not unskillful hand over the strings, in the intervals of the performance languidly addressed a broken sentence to me. “You have come, I understand, from Judea;—they tell me that you have been, or are to be, a general of the insurrection;—you must be put to death;—your countrymen give us a great deal of trouble, and I always regret to be troubled with them.—But to send you back would only be encouragement to them, and to keep you here among strangers would only be cruelty to you.—I am charged with cruelty: you see the charge is not true.—I am lampooned every day; I know the scribblers, but they must lampoon or starve. I leave them to do both. Have you brought any news from Judea?—They have not had a true prince there since the first Herod; and he was quite a Greek, a cut-throat, and a man of taste. He understood the arts.—I sent for you to see what sort of animal a Jewish rebel was. Your dress is handsome, but too light for our winters.—You cannot die before sunset, as till then I am engaged with my music master.—We all must die when our time comes.—Farewell—till sunset may Jupiter protect you!”  4
  I retired to execution! and before the door closed, heard this accomplished disposer of life and death preluding upon his lyre with increased energy. I was conducted to a turret until the period in which the Emperor’s engagement with his music-master should leave him at leisure to see me die. Yet there was kindness even under the roof of Nero, and a liberal hand had covered the table in my cell. The hours passed heavily along, but they passed; and I was watching the last rays of my last sun, when I perceived a cloud rise in the direction of Rome. It grew broader, deeper, darker, as I gazed; its centre was suddenly tinged with red; the tinge spread; the whole mass of cloud became crimson: the sun went down, and another sun seemed to have risen in his stead. I heard the clattering of horses’ feet in the courtyards below; trumpets sounded; there was confusion in the palace; the troops hurried under arms; and I saw a squadron of cavalry set off at full speed.  5
  As I was gazing on the spectacle before me, which perpetually became more menacing, the door of my cell slowly opened, and a masked figure stood upon the threshold. I had made up my mind; and demanding if he was the executioner, I told him “that I was ready.” The figure paused, listened to the sounds below, and after looking for a while on the troops in the courtyard, signified by signs that I had a chance of saving my life. The love of existence rushed back upon me. I eagerly inquired what was to be done. He drew from under his cloak the dress of a Roman slave, which I put on, and noiselessly followed his steps through a long succession of small and strangely intricate passages. We found no difficulty from guards or domestics. The whole palace was in a state of extraordinary confusion. Every human being was packing up something or other: rich vases, myrrhine cups, table services, were lying in heaps on the floors; books, costly dresses, instruments of music, all the appendages of luxury, were flung loose in every direction, from the sudden breaking up of the court. I might have plundered the value of a province with impunity. Still we wound our hurried way. In passing along one of the corridors, the voice of complaining struck the ear; the mysterious guide hesitated; I glanced through the slab of crystal that showed the chamber within. It was the one in which I had seen the Emperor, but his place was now filled by the form of youth and beauty that had crossed me on my arrival. She was weeping bitterly, and reading with strong and sorrowful indignation a long list of names, probably one of those rolls in which Nero registered his intended victims, and which in the confusion of departure he had left open. A second glance saw her tear the paper into a thousand fragments, and scatter them in the fountain that gushed upon the floor.  6
  I left this lovely and unhappy creature, this dove in the vulture’s talons, with almost a pang. A few steps more brought us into the open air, but among bowers that covered our path with darkness. At the extremity of the gardens my guide struck with his dagger upon a door; it was opened: we found horses outside; he sprang on one; I sprang on its fellow; and palace, guards, and death, were left far behind.  7
  He galloped so furiously that I found it impossible to speak; and it was not till we had reached an eminence a few miles from Rome, where we breathed our horses, that I could ask to whom I had been indebted for my escape. But I could not extract a word from him. He made signs of silence, and pointed with wild anxiety to the scene that spread below. It was of a grandeur and terror indescribable. Rome was an ocean of flame.  8
  Height and depth were covered with red surges, that rolled before the blast like an endless tide. The billows burst up the sides of the hills, which they turned into instant volcanoes, exploding volumes of smoke and fire; then plunged into the depths in a hundred glowing cataracts, then climbed and consumed again. The distant sound of the city in her convulsion went to the soul. The air was filled with the steady roar of the advancing flame, the crash of falling houses, and the hideous outcry of the myriads flying through the streets, or surrounded and perishing in the conflagration.  9
  Hostile to Rome as I was, I could not restrain the exclamation:—“There goes the fruit of conquest, the glory of ages, the purchase of the blood of millions! Was vanity made for man?” My guide continued looking forward with intense earnestness, as if he were perplexed by what avenue to enter the burning city. I demanded who he was, and whither he would lead me. He returned no answer. A long spire of flame that shot up from a hitherto untouched quarter engrossed all his senses. He struck in the spur, and making a wild gesture to me to follow, darted down the hill. I pursued; we found the Appian choked with wagons, baggage of every kind, and terrified crowds hurrying into the open country. To force a way through them was impossible. All was clamor, violent struggle, and helpless death. Men and women of the highest rank were on foot, trampled by the rabble, that had then lost all respect of conditions. One dense mass of miserable life, irresistible from its weight, crushed by the narrow streets, and scorched by the flames over their heads, rolled through the gates like an endless stream of black lava.  10
  We turned back, and attempted an entrance through the gardens of the same villas that skirted the city wall near the Palatine. All were deserted, and after some dangerous leaps over the burning ruins we found ourselves in the streets. The fire had originally broken out upon the Palatine, and hot smoke that wrapped and half blinded us hung thick as night upon the wrecks of pavilions and palaces: but the dexterity and knowledge of my inexplicable guide carried us on. It was in vain that I insisted upon knowing the purpose of this terrible traverse. He pressed his hand on his heart in reassurance of his fidelity, and still spurred on.  11
  We now passed under the shade of an immense range of lofty buildings, whose gloomy and solid strength seemed to bid defiance to chance and time. A sudden yell appalled me. A ring of fire swept round its summit; burning cordage, sheets of canvas, and a shower of all things combustible, flew into the air above our heads. An uproar followed, unlike all that I had ever heard,—a hideous mixture of howls, shrieks, and groans. The flames rolled down the narrow street before us, and made the passage next to impossible. While we hesitated, a huge fragment of the building heaved as if in an earthquake, and fortunately for us fell inwards. The whole scene of terror was then open. The great amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus had caught fire; the stage with its inflammable furniture was intensely blazing below. The flames were wheeling up, circle above circle, through the seventy thousand seats that rose from the ground to the roof. I stood in unspeakable awe and wonder on the side of this colossal cavern, this mighty temple of the city of fire. At length a descending blast cleared away the smoke that covered the arena. The cause of those horrid cries was now visible. The wild beasts kept for the games had broken from their dens. Maddened by affright and pain, lions, tigers, panthers, wolves, whole herds of the monsters of India and Africa, were inclosed in an impassable barrier of fire. They bounded, they fought, they screamed, they tore; they ran howling round and round the circle; they made desperate leaps upwards through the blaze; they were flung back, and fell only to fasten their fangs in each other, and with their parching jaws bathed in blood, died raging.  12
  I looked anxiously to see whether any human being was involved in this fearful catastrophe. To my great relief I could see none. The keepers and attendants had obviously escaped. As I expressed my gladness I was startled by a loud cry from my guide, the first sound that I had heard him utter. He pointed to the opposite side of the amphitheatre. There indeed sat an object of melancholy interest; a man who had either been unable to escape, or had determined to die. Escape was now impossible. He sat in desperate calmness on his funeral pile. He was a gigantic Ethiopian slave, entirely naked. He had chosen his place, as if in mockery, on the imperial throne; the fire was above him and around him; and under this tremendous canopy he gazed, without the movement of a muscle, on the combat of the wild beasts below: a solitary sovereign with the whole tremendous game played for himself, and inaccessible to the power of man.  13
  I was forced away from this absorbing spectacle, and we once more threaded the long and intricate streets of Rome. As we approached the end of one of these bewildering passages, scarcely wide enough for us to ride abreast, I was startled by the sudden illumination of the sky immediately above; and rendered cautious by the experience of our hazards, called to my companion to return. He pointed behind me, and showed the fire bursting out in the houses by which we had just galloped. I followed on. A crowd that poured from the adjoining streets cut off our retreat. Hundreds rapidly mounted on the houses in front, in the hope by throwing them down to check the conflagration. The obstacle once removed, we saw the source of the light—spectacle of horror! The great prison of Rome was on fire. Never can I forget the sights and sounds—the dismay—the hopeless agony—the fury and frenzy that then overwhelmed the heart. The jailers had been forced to fly before they could loose the fetters or open the cells of the prisoners. We saw those gaunt and woe-begone wretches crowding to their casements, and imploring impossible help; clinging to the heated bars; toiling with their impotent grasp to tear out the massive stones; some wringing their hands; some calling on the terrified spectators by every name of humanity to save them; some venting their despair in execrations and blasphemies that made the blood run cold; others, after many a wild effort to break loose, dashing their heads against the walls, or stabbing themselves. The people gave them outcry for outcry; but the flame forbade approach. Before I could extricate myself from the multitude a whirl of fiery ashes shot upwards from the falling roof; the walls rent into a thousand fragments; and the huge prison with all its miserable inmates was a heap of red embers.  14
  Exhausted as I was by this restless fatigue, and yet more by the melancholy sights that surrounded every step, no fatigue seemed to be felt by the singular being that governed my movements. He sprang through the burning ruins,—he plunged into the sulphurous smoke,—he never lost the direction that he had first taken; and though baffled and forced to turn back a hundred times, he again rushed on his track with the directness of an arrow. For me to make my way back to the gates would be even more difficult than to push forward. My ultimate safety might be in following, and I followed. To stand still and to move were equally perilous. The streets, even with the improvements of Augustus, were still scarcely wider than the breadth of the little Italian carts that crowded them. They were crooked, long, and obstructed by every impediment of a city built in haste, after the burning by the Gauls, and with no other plan than the caprice of its hurried tenantry. The houses were of immense height, chiefly wood, many roofed with thatch, and all covered or cemented with pitch. The true surprise is that it had not been burned once a year from the time of its building.  15
  The memory of Nero, that hereditary concentration of vice, of whose ancestor’s yellow beard the Roman orator said, “No wonder that his beard was brass, when his mouth was iron and his heart lead,”—the parricide and the poisoner—may yet be fairly exonerated of an act which might have been the deed of a drunken mendicant in any of the fifty thousand hovels of this gigantic aggregate of everything that could turn to flame.  16
  We passed along through all the horrid varieties of misery, guilt, and riot that could find their place in a great public calamity: groups gazing in woe on the wreck of their fortunes, rushing off to the winds in vapor and fire; groups plundering in the midst of the flame; groups of rioters, escaped felons, and murderers, exulting in the public ruin, and dancing and drinking with Bacchanalian uproar; gangs of robbers trampling down and stabbing the fugitives to strip them of their last means; revenge, avarice, despair, profligacy, let loose naked; undisguised demons, to swell the wretchedness of this tremendous infliction upon a guilty and blood-covered empire.  17
  Still we spurred on, but our jaded horses at length sank under us; and leaving them to find their way into the fields, we struggled forward on foot.  18

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