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The Four Emperors

The Four Emperors

Book excerpt



Made of Cyclopean stones, the Tullianum was a prison without bars. There was nothing whatsoever to prevent a prisoner from walking out into the open air.

Yet Symeon did not escape. It was a perverse honour to be held in such a place, where for centuries Romans had executed kings, generals, and noble traitors. A mark of respect.

As the breaking dawn illuminated the cell, Symeon began to pace, repeating and polishing newly-memorized phrases until the language was clear in his mind. His friends had often pleaded with him to set the words down, but he had always deferred. “There will be time,” he'd assured them.

But there was no more time. Fifty-nine years old on the day of his death, and still learning only through mistakes. The story of his life. Always he had to stumble in order to see the path.

One of his guards entered. “Guest to see you.” By law, Symeon was allowed no light after dark, nor writing instruments. But out of kindness his guards allowed him one visitor. Not his love, nor his child. No, it was a man Symeon had spent much of his life cursing. A fellow Jew called Saul.

Symeon and Saul were a study in opposites. Tall but stooped, Symeon was bald on top with a long white beard, whereas Saul's thinning hair was clipped close, his greying beard nearly squared. Symeon exuded calm, perpetually smiling in the face of sadness. Short, Saul suffered all a short man's failings—temper, arrogance, envy, bombast. And Symeon had never understood the other man's disdain for women.

Yet a man in prison does not sneer at company. “Good morrow, my friend.”

Saul had no time for pleasantries. “I am to be executed! Can you believe it? I am to die today! You as well,” he added in after-thought.

“Ah.” Having expected it for weeks, Symeon took the news philosophically. “Did they say how?”

“As a citizen, I shall lose only my head. You…” Momentarily, Saul focused on someone other than himself. “I am very sorry to say, old friend, that you will be given the death of a slave.”

Symeon closed his eyes. Had it come to this? The rest of his flock sold into slavery, including his other half and their darling child. Far from what he had imagined when he'd set sail from Judea. Once again he'd failed to protect his family. And now Symeon faced the unthinkable: crucifixion.

I must brave it as a man with not only an example to set, but one to follow.

Turning his mind from his own fate, he said, “But why are you to die? They can't be charging you with the fire. You were already in custody.”

“I'm to die for my Judean crimes.” Saul's bitterness was acid enough to taste in the air. “It is a pretext. The crowds are becoming increasingly violent and Caesar needs someone to blame for the fire. Who better than we troublesome Hebrews?”

Symeon had no time for railing. Lowering his voice he asked, “Marcus is here?”

“Yes.” Saul sniffed. “You know I disapprove. Judaism is for the Jews.”

“That was not His message.” Symeon called to his guards. “Gentlemen, Caesar has spoken. I must die today. If you wish to hear the end to my tale, I must speak quickly.”

Entering, the two Romans sat on either side of the door, their wooden staves across their laps. Saul sat in his accustomed place, closing his eyes to behold the story as he dreamed it should be.

Framed in the light from the doorway, Symeon remained standing to recite his story, careful to get each word right:


And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they called together the whole band. And they clothed him in purple, and platted a crown of thorns…


Just outside the cell, the young man called Marcus crept forward. He was not Judean, but from the Italian region of Picenum, with blond hair, freckles, and a pugnacious nose. Taking up a post beside the door, he began making frantic shorthand notes upon a wax tablet, preserving Symeon's words for ever and ever.

* * *

Not far away, a god stalked among the charred ruins of the Esquiline Hill. Short and stocky, well muscled and fit, the rising sun revealed streaks of red among his blond hair, echoing the crimson glint in his eye. The god's name was Nero.

As mercurial as his uncle Gaius, and nearly as bloody, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Princeps Senatus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribune of the Plebs, father of his country, and Imperator of Rome's Legions had been recently given one more title: Divus. A godhead voted him by the whole Senate under the stony gaze of Rome's more traditional deities. Primus inter pares indeed.f us notion, elevating men to such lofty levels. the notion of Nero touting his godhead. It was un-Roman.s could se

Trailing in the god's wake was a mere mortal, Titus Flavius Sabinus. In his early thirties, Sabinus owned a strong chin, a long straight nose, and bright blue eyes. His was a recently ennobled family, having only been in the Senate for the last hundred years. His great-grandfather had been a soldier-farmer in the best Roman tradition, fighting in the great civil war at Pharsalus—on the losing side.

From opposing the Caesars, the Flavians now served them. As did the rest of the world.

The god spoke. “What's the delay?”

Sabinus was briskly concise. “Caesar, the engineers assure me they are working as fast as they can. There are acres of rubble to shift—”

“Not nearly good enough,” retorted Nero grimly. “Commandeer more slaves. Homeless Romans are suffering, I among them! I refuse to inhabit that shabby relic any longer than necessary.” The god pointed back towards the magnificent structure on Palatine Hill that had once belonged to the Divine Augustus. Somehow it had been spared the ravages of the seven-day fire.

What else was there for Sabinus to say? “Yes, Caesar.”

In private, Sabinus ascribed to the Stoic philosophy, believing violent emotions stemmed from errors in reason. The philosopher Zeno declared the goal of life was to live in accord with nature, that virtue itself was enough cause for happiness.

To be forced to serve a man so unpredictable, so ruled by passion, was a trial for Sabinus. But he was no idealist – no Cato of Utica, certainly! Though a Stoic at heart, Sabinus lived in the real world.

The greatest Stoic of the modern age had been Nero's own tutor, Seneca. Dead less than a year, forced to kill himself when his name was unfairly linked to a plot to kill his pupil. Seneca dead, and Nero a god. The world was in chaos.

They strode on, the mortal and the god, followed by the phalanx of freedman-assistants, licker-fish, and ass-spongers that Nero invariably collected. He called them his Augustiani. Preceding them all were the Praetorians, led by the two Prefects, Tigellinus and Nymphidius – men who lived only to do Caesar's will. Dressed in pure white, Caesar's bodyguards appeared like deadly doves against the charred, black remains of the bodies underfoot.

The crowd retreated at the approach of the white-clad soldiers. Most of these gawkers were capite censi, mere Head Count citizens, too poor to belong to any of the five economic classes. But while some had come for alms, a few onlookers were here to search for kin. That they still searched a full three months after the fire spoke to the depth of their despair. They had lost everything. Many of their kindred had chosen to perish in the flames rather than exist in a world with nothing.

It had been a terrifying night. The fire had broken out in the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Winds blew it away from the Tiber, where it might have been snuffed out, sending it instead east across the Caelian hill and the space beyond. Then it had spread north again, roaring across the Carinae and the Subura, firing palaces and insulae alike. Temples built in ancient times were immolated, and nowhere seemed safe.

Like Aeneas with Anchises, Sabinus had taken his father over his shoulder and, with his nephew and sons, he'd run for the open road, where so much of the city had gathered to watch as over six days their homes, business, and temples vanished into smoke. In the end, Sabinus' house had been spared. So many others had not. Of Rome's famous seven hills, four had been damaged. Of Rome's fourteen districts, only four emerged intact. Three had gone beyond all hope of salvage. The rest were ravaged and scorched in part, if not whole. The fire had acted as if driven by a will, sweeping through the city as if encouraged by the gods.

Or one god.

Watching the mourners, Nero murmured to Sabinus, “Poor fools. They claim I sang an ode to Venus while the city burned. As though that would be appropriate! I'd have picked the Song of Troy, particularly the sacking of the city and the death of Priam. More apt by far.” He began to sing in that high, carrying voice that commanded so much applause:


Then son to mother, mother to her son, pointing to the place where Troy lies prostrate, will mark it afar with pointing finger, saying: “Yonder is Ilium where the smoke curls high to heaven, where the foul vapours hang.” The Trojans by that sign only will see their fatherland…


Breaking off, Nero grinned. The humor eluded Sabinus, but he produced a smile nonetheless. His uncle, the retired general Vespasian, had once been inattentive during one of Nero's concerts, and the next day found himself called up out of retirement to govern the unruly Africa Province. The lesson was simple—appreciate Caesar's artistic talents or suffer the consequences.

Everywhere around them were signs of the fire. In fairness, Sabinus reflected that Nero had actually managed the crisis well. He'd raised the required tribute all across Rome's client kingdoms to fund the rebuilding of Rome – better by far than imposing a tax upon an already suffering people. Suspending all military exercises on the Campus Martius (the field of Mars where young Romans learned to fight), he'd ordered up a sea of tents to house Rome's flotsam and thrown open the doors to Rome's public buildings to the homeless. Free bread for the hungry, and employment for all as the rebuilding began.

The execution for all these arrangements fell on Sabinus' narrow shoulders. Elected one of this year's aediles, he was in charge of public maintenance. So, though Nero's orders had been excellent, it was Sabinus who had seen them through.

Sabinus had thought this dawn stroll through the rubble was for Nero to view the reconstruction. Instead the young god was outlining the grand new domicile he'd conceived. “Not that the Domus Aurea will be a true domicile! No sleeping chambers, just room after room of delights: fountains, statuary, mosaics, frescoes, music, dance, mime! A place fit to recreate and fill the natural artist within! Open to everyone, of course. Rome's fault lies in too much engineering, not enough art!”

Thinking of engineering, Sabinus had a promise to keep. “Caesar, I have a proposal from one of our contractors, Quintus Flavius Gaudentius.”

Nero smiled. “Nepotism?”

Sabinus flushed. As the family name Flavius indicated, Gaudentius was not just a hungry young architect, but also a distant cousin. “Yes. He wants to experiment with building materials.”

“Pompeian bread?”

Sabinus' smile was nearly genuine. “Almost as hard. Concrete. He claims it will reduce building time by two-thirds.”

“If he lives up to that boast, I'll make him Caesar's personal architect!” Nero's pace suddenly slowed, and Sabinus traced Nero's darkening expression to several lowly denizens of the crossroads colleges. Officially a part of the cult of the Divine Augustus, these men existed off of low criminality and extortion. Those bully-boys had prevented anyone from fighting the fire in certain districts, beating anyone who tried. What could Caesar care about such low scum?

Yet care he did, for he said, “Tigellinus. See them off.”

“Yes, Caesar.” Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus was a venal soul with an appetite for power, having attained as much as a man outside the Senate possibly could. He was a member of the Ordo Equester, a knight. In the earliest days of Rome, cavalry were recruited from among those men who could supply their own horses, and so being a knight became synonymous with the highest rank of the First Class, just below senator. In Tigellinus' case, his membership in the Ordo Equester was particularly appropriate – he had achieved his office as Nero's Praetorian Prefect because he bred the most fantastic chariot horses.

Tigellinus served as Nero's right hand, carrying out deeds that might revolt any other man, always striving to surprise Caesar with cruel and perverse innovations. Rumours regarding the fire swirled about him, as well. Oddly, just when they had all thought the blaze contained, it had broken out afresh – in Tigellinus' palace.

As the white-clad Tigellinus marched over to disperse the criminals, Nero noted Sabinus' look of surprise. “You know them, Titus Flavius?”

Sabinus answered carefully. “Yes, Caesar. I've encountered them several times this year. Rigging scales, selling 'protection' and the like.”

“And they were in my company during the fire,” observed the god.

Sabinus hadn't said so. Nor would he now. “Were they? I was much engaged.”

Nero smiled. “Even villains, Sabinus, have their uses.”

Sabinus was not a fanciful fellow, but in that moment he was certain the rumours were true. Even if Nero had not started the fire, the new god had fanned it until two-thirds of the city had vanished in flames. Allowing Rome to be rebuilt from Caesar's pure brain.

Even for a man without imagination, Sabinus found that a terrifying prospect.

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