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In Rome in the year 66 A.D., hedonistic Emperor Nero burns the city of Rome and blames it on the Christians, who threaten his belief that he is the master of the world. When Titus, an elderly apostle of Christ, arrives in Rome to deliver St. Paul's message, he draws half of the sign of the cross in the sand, to which the Roman Flavius responds with the other half, after which they are arrested. Marcus Superbus, the prefect of Rome, intervenes and pardons them at the request of Mercia, a beautiful and virtuous Christian woman. Then Dacia, a courtier, reports to the Empress Poppaea, who is in love with Marcus, that he has fallen for a Christian. Tigellinus, who is Marcus' rival for Nero's devotion, sees his chance to prove that Marcus is disloyal by arresting the very Christians Marcus has pardoned. That evening, when Mercia sends young Stephanus to fetch the bread for dinner, Tigellinus arrests and tortures him to confess the whereabouts of the secret Christian meeting. Stephanus faints, however, before he can name Mercia a Christian. Marcus learns of the arrest and nurses Stephanus' wounds, then leaves with troops to stop Tigellinus. Poppaea orders Marcus to come to her, however, and he is detained as Tigellinus' men attack the Christians with arrows. By the time Marcus arrives at the meeting, both Titus and Flavius have been killed. Marcus commands the troops to end the massacre and rescues Mercia, ordering that those still alive be taken to prison. Mercia is brought to the palace that night and Poppaea, determined to make Marcus forget Mercia, swears her love to him. Tigellinus then convinces Nero to make an example of Marcus by executing him for treason, but Poppaea intervenes, insisting his motives are not religious, but sexual. She then orders that Mercia be taken from him. Marcus, meanwhile, proposes to Mercia, but when she accuses him of wanting her only as his sexual slave, he curses her Christianity. Later, during a palace orgy, Marcus mocks Mercia's virtue by having the court temptress Ancaria perform a lascivious dance for Mercia in a futile attempt to arouse her. Meanwhile, outside the palace, the Christians sing a dirge as they are led to the prison. The eerie music frightens Ancaria, and she is unable to continue dancing, and Marcus is forced to end the orgy. Mercia then explains that Marcus' love cannot out-power Christian truth, and he nearly forces himself on her, but Tigellinus interrupts with an order for her arrest. Marcus, in a rage, begs Nero to spare Mercia, but Poppaea insists Mercia be killed. The next day, thousands of Romans gather at the arena to witness the execution of one hundred Christians by lions, as well as a host of bloody spectacles planned by Nero to please the blood-thirsty crowd. As the barbaric audience cheers and makes wagers, gladiators kill each other, African pygmies fight half-naked amazon women to the death, and men wrestle wild beasts. The orgy continues as tigers devour maidens and gorillas and naked girls are tied to posts. Finally, the Christians are led, praying, out of the dungeon and into the arena. When Stephanus becomes paralyzed with fear, Mercia promises to meet him in heaven. Marcus arrives moments before Mercia walks up the steps to the arena, begging her to renounce her faith so that she might live. He admits he prayed the night before, and she swears her love, promising to teach him the Christian faith. Suddenly he is full of strange hope and is willing to die in order to have her as his wife in heaven. As Marcus and Mercia walk to their death, the dungeon doors close, creating the shadow of the sign of the cross.