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Title: Darkness and Dawn - Or Scenes in the Days of Nero. An Historic Tale
Author: Farrar, Frederic W.
Language: English
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DARKNESS AND DAWN

OR

SCENES IN THE DAYS OF NERO



NINTH ISSUE.



TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES


Punctuation has been standardized.

Characters in small caps have been replaced by all caps.

Non-printable characteristics have been given the following
transliteration:
    Italic text: --> _text_
      bold text: --> =text=.

This book was written in a period when many words had not become
standardized in their spelling. Words may have multiple spelling
variations or inconsistent hyphenation in the text. These have been
left unchanged unless indicated with a Transcriber’s Note.

Footnotes are identified in the text with a number in brackets [2]
and have been accumulated in a single section at the end of the text.

Transcriber Notes are used when making corrections to the text or to
provide additional information for the modern reader. These notes are
identified in the text with an asterisk and number in brackets [*2]
and have been accumulated in a single section at the end of the book.



DARKNESS AND DAWN

OR

SCENES IN THE DAYS OF NERO


An Historic Tale


BY

FREDERIC W. FARRAR, D.D., F.R.S.

ARCHDEACON AND CANON OF WESTMINSTER, AUTHOR OF “THE LIFE OF CHRIST,”
ETC., ETC.


NEW YORK

LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO.

LONDON AND BOMBAY

1897



_Copyright_, _1891_,

BY F. W. FARRAR


First Edition, September, 1891. Reprinted December, 1891;
  January and April, 1892; January and September, 1893;
  February, 1895; May, 1896.


University Press:

JOHN WILSON AND SON, CAMBRIDGE.



                     VXORI

                 DILECTISSIMAE

          LIBERORVM PIENTISSIMAE MATRI

LABORUM OMNIUM ET CURARUM PARTICIPI FIDELISSIMAE

                  HVNC LIBRVM

                    D. D. D.

          FREDERICVS GVILIELMVS FARRAR



    Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro,
      Che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
      Dell’aer puro infino al primo giro,
    Agli occhi miei ricomincio diletto,
      Tosto ch’io usci fuor dell’aura morta,
      Che m’avea contristato gli occhi e’l petto.

                                DANTE, _Purgatorio_, I. 13-18.


    The orient sapphire’s hue of sweetest tone,
      Which gathered in the aspect calm and bright
      Of that pure air as far as heaven’s first zone,
    Now to mine eyes brought back the old delight
      Soon as I passed forth from the dead dank air
      Which eyes and heart had veiled with saddest night.

                                                    PLUMPTRE.



PREFACE


I have endeavoured to choose a title for this book which shall
truly describe its contents. The ‘Darkness’ of which I speak is
the darkness of a decadent Paganism; the ‘Dawn’ is the dawn of
Christianity. Although the story is continuous, I have called it
‘_Scenes_ in the Days of Nero,’ because the outline is determined by
the actual events of Pagan and Christian history, more than by the
fortunes of the characters who are here introduced. In other words,
the fiction is throughout controlled and dominated by historic facts.
The purport of this tale is no less high and serious than that which
I have had in view in every other book which I have written. It
has been the illustration of a supreme and deeply interesting
problem--the causes, namely, why a religion so humble in its origin
and so feeble in its earthly resources as Christianity, won so
majestic a victory over the power, the glory, and the intellect
of the civilised world.

The greater part of the following story has been for some years in
manuscript, and, since it was designed, and nearly completed, several
books have appeared which deal with the same epoch. Some of these I
have not seen. From none of them have I consciously borrowed even the
smallest hint.

Those who are familiar with the literature of the first century will
recognise that even for the minutest allusions and particulars I
have contemporary authority. Expressions and incidents which, to
some, might seem to be startlingly modern, are in reality suggested
by passages in the satirists, epigrammatists, and romancers of
the Empire, or by anecdotes preserved in the grave pages of Seneca
and the elder Pliny. I have, of course, so far assumed the liberty
accorded to writers of historic fiction as occasionally to deviate,
to a small extent, from exact chronology, but such deviations are
very trivial in comparison with those which have been permitted to
others, and especially to the great masters of historic fiction.

All who know most thoroughly the real features of that Pagan darkness
which was deepest before the Christian dawn will see that scarcely
even by the most distant allusion have I referred to some of the
worst features in the life of that day. While I have not extenuated
the realities of cruelty and bloodshed, I have repeatedly softened
down their more terrible incidents and details. To have altered that
aspect of monotonous misery which pained and wearied its ancient
annalist would have been to falsify the real characteristics of the
age with which I had to deal.

The book is not a novel, nor is it to be judged as a novel. The
outline has been imperatively decided for me by the exigencies of
fact, not by the rules of art. I have been compelled to deal with
an epoch which I should never have touched if I had not seen, in the
features which it presented, one main explanation of an historical
event the most sacred and the most interesting on which the mind can
dwell.

The same object has made it inevitable that, at least in passing
glimpses, the figures of several whose names are surrounded with
hallowed associations should appear in these pages. I could not
otherwise bring out the truths which it was my aim to set forth. But
in this matter I do not think that any serious reader will accuse me
of irreverence. Onesimus, Pudens, Claudia, and a few others, must be
regarded as imaginary persons, except in name, but scarcely in one
incident have I touched the Preachers of early Christianity with
the finger of fiction. They were, indeed, men of like passions with
ourselves, and as St. Chrysostom says of St. Paul, ‘Even if he was
Paul, he was yet a man;’ but recognising their sacred dignity, I have
almost entirely confined their words to words of revelation. Even
if I had done more than this, I might plead the grave sanction and
example of Dante, and Milton, and Browning. But the small liberty
which I have dared to use has only been in directions accorded by the
cycle of such early legends as may be considered to be both innocent
and hallowed.

                                                        F. W. FARRAR.



              CONTENTS


        I. THE SOLILOQUIES OF AGRIPPINA

       II. AGRIPPINA AND NERO

      III. INSTRUMENTA IMPERII

       IV. THE CRIME

        V. THE MOCKERY OF DEATH

       VI. THE ACCESSION OF NERO

      VII. SENECA AND HIS FAMILY

     VIII. SENECA AND HIS VISITORS

       IX. NERO AND HIS COMPANIONS

        X. PRINCE BRITANNICUS

       XI. ‘A FOREIGN SUPERSTITION’

      XII. ONESIMUS

     XIII. THE ADVENTURES OF A RUNAWAY

      XIV. MOTHER AND SON

       XV. EMPEROR AND ÆSTHETE

      XVI. EVENTS IN THE VILLA POLLUX

     XVII. AMUSEMENTS OF AN EMPEROR

    XVIII. VESPASIAN’S FARM

      XIX. OTHO’S SUPPER AND WHAT CAME OF IT

       XX. BROTHER AND SISTER

      XXI. AMONG THE CHRISTIANS

     XXII. BRITANNICUS AND HIS SONG

    XXIII. PERILS OF BRITANNICUS

     XXIV. BRITANNICUS UNDERGOES A NEW EXPERIENCE

      XXV. LOCUSTA

     XXVI. A BANQUET AND A CONVERSATION

    XXVII. DEATH IN THE GOBLET

   XXVIII. THE LAST OF THE CLAUDII

     XXIX. AGRIPPINA AT BAY

      XXX. A PRIVATE TRIAL

     XXXI. THE INTERIOR OF A SLAVE-PRISON

    XXXII. WANDERINGS OF AN OUTCAST

   XXXIII. TITUS AND THE VESTAL

    XXXIV. AN EVIL EPOCH

     XXXV. THE MATRICIDE

    XXXVI. SELF-AVENGED

   XXXVII. VICTOR OVER THE PUBLIC SERVITUDE

  XXXVIII. THE GLADIATORS’ SCHOOL

    XXXIX. THE FIGHT IN THE ARENA

       XL. THE SPOLIARIUM

      XLI. THE KING OF THE GROVE

     XLII. A MASSACRE OF SLAVES

    XLIII. A NOTABLE PRISONER

     XLIV. A SUPPER AT VESPASIAN’S

      XLV. POPPÆA VICTRIX

     XLVI. THE DEATH OF OCTAVIA

    XLVII. A FETTERED AMBASSADOR

   XLVIII. ENSLAVED AND FREE

     XLIX. THE DEPTHS OF SATAN

        L. A CITY IN FLAMES

       LI. AN INFERNAL SUGGESTION

      LII. ALITURUS AMONG THE CHRISTIANS

     LIII. ‘HE WHO SAW THE APOCALYPSE’

      LIV. IN THE BURNING FIERY FURNACE

       LV. TWO MARTYRDOMS

      LVI. LIVING TORCHES

     LVII. A CONSPIRACY AND ITS COLLAPSE

    LVIII. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF SENECA

      LIX. THE AGONY OF AN EMPRESS

       LX. THE DOOM OF VIRTUE

      LXI. BEFORE THE LION

     LXII. NERO IN GREECE

    LXIII. MUTTERING THUNDER

     LXIV. AT THE THREE FOUNTAINS

      LXV. IN THE CLUTCH OF NEMESIS

     LXVI. L’ENVOI

           FOOTNOTES

           NOTES

           TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES



                    BOOK I

       *       *       *       *       *

             ‘_CLOTHO FERT FUSUM_’



CHAPTER I

_THE SOLILOQUIES OF AGRIPPINA_

   ‘Oramus, cave despuas, ocelle,
    Ne pœnas Nemesis reposcat a te:
    Est vehemens Dea; lædere hanc caveto.’

                                  CATULL. _Carm._ L. 18-20.


The Palace of the Cæsars was a building of extraordinary spaciousness
and splendour, which had grown with the growing power of the emperors.
The state entrance was in the Vicus Apollinis, which led into the Via
Sacra. It was an Arch, twenty-nine feet high, surmounted by a statue
of Apollo and Diana driving a chariot of four horses, the work of
Lysias. Passing the Propylæa the visitor entered the sacred area,
paved with white marble and surrounded by fifty-two fluted columns
of Numidian giallo antico, with its soft tints of rose and gold.
Between these stood statues of the Danaides, with their father
Danaus brandishing a naked sword. In the open spaces before them
were the statues of their miserable Egyptian husbands, each reining
his haughty steed. Here, too, among other priceless works of art,
stood the famous Hercules of Lysippus, clothed in his lion’s skin
and leaning on his club. On one side was the Temple of Apollo, built
of the marble of Luna, designed by Bupalos and Anthermos of Chios.
On the top of its pediment was the chariot of Apollo in gilt bronze,
and the great bronze valves were encrusted[*1] with ivory bas-reliefs
of the triumph over Niobe, and the panic-stricken flight of the Gauls
from Delphi. Behind this temple was the shrine of Vesta, and on the
west side the famous Palatine Library, large enough to accommodate
the whole Senate, and divided into two compartments, Greek and Latin.
In its vestibule was a bronze statue, fifty feet high, which is said
to have represented Augustus with the attributes of Apollo.[1]

To the Palace and Propylæa of Augustus, with their open spaces,
and shrubs, and flowers, and fountains, Tiberius had added a separate
palace, known as the Domus Tiberiana, which overlooked the Velabrum;
and Gaius--more commonly known by his nickname of Caligula--had
filled with buildings the entire space between the Palace and the
Forum. He had also purchased the House of Gelotius, and in that
humble annex had delighted to spend nights of riotous orgies with
the grooms and charioteers of his favourite green faction. Since
his time it had been utilised as a training-school for the imperial
pages, whose scribblings, sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes
humorous and satirical, can still be traced on the fast-crumbling
walls. Vast as was the whole composite structure, it received immense
additions from the restless extravagance of Nero, Domitian, and later
emperors.

But if it surpassed all the other buildings of imperial Rome in
magnificence, it surpassed them also in misery and guilt. Here, in
the days of Augustus, the Empress Livia had plotted the murder and
removal of all who stood in the way of her son’s succession. Here
in the days of Tiberius the conscious walls had witnessed the
deadly intrigues of Ælius Sejanus. In A.D. 23, that daring and
cruel conspirator had secured the poisoning of Drusus, the only son
of Tiberius, by insinuating himself into the affections of Livia,
his faithless wife. Here in A.D. 33, the younger Drusus, son of the
hero Germanicus, was slowly starved to death by order of Tiberius. In
one of the subterranean vaults he had poured out his mad reproaches
against the tyrant, had writhed under the savage rebukes of the
centurion, and had been beaten by the brutal slaves who guarded
his dungeon. For nine days he had lingered on, chewing in his agony
the tow with which his mattress was stuffed. Here the young Tiberius
Gemellus, grandson of Tiberius, piteously ignorant how to kill
himself, had been shown how to drive the poniard into his throat by
the tribune sent for that purpose by his cousin and adoptive brother,
Caligula. Chamber after chamber in that huge structure had witnessed
the wild and brutal freaks of that madman-emperor and the tortures
which he inflicted upon nobles and senators, whose mouths he ordered
to be gagged with their own bloodstained garments. Here he had been
visited with the dire vengeance of his crimes; for in the covered
gallery which he had built as a passage between his palace and the
theatre, he had been smitten by the fierce sword of the tribune
Cassius Chærea. Hard by--the stains of blood were still upon the
wall--his empress, the blue-eyed Cæsonia, had been stabbed in the
throat as she wailed and wept over the dead body of her lord; and her
little infant, Julia Drusilla, had been dashed against the stones.

Such was the Palace of pagan Rome in the days of Christ and His
Apostles.

It might well have seemed, even to the most callous worshipper of
the old gods, that a dark spirit was walking in that house; that the
phantoms of the unavenged dead haunted it; that ghostly footfalls
glided through its midnight corridors; and that in hidden corners the
lonely wanderer might come on some figure ‘weeping tears of blood,’
which vanished with ‘hollow shriek’ before the presence of the
innocent.

No such feelings of dread disturbed the thoughts of the Empress
Agrippina on a certain September evening, A.D. 54. The world was
at her feet. Her brave and good father, Germanicus, her chaste and
virtuous mother, the elder Agrippina, had been the idols alike of the
Roman soldiers and the Roman people. She was the great-granddaughter
of the Emperor Augustus; the granddaughter of the victorious Agrippa;
the great-niece of the Emperor Tiberius; the sister of the Emperor
Gaius: and now at last her unwearied intrigues had made her the sixth
wife of her uncle, the Emperor Claudius. Not content with such near
bonds to so many of those who were honoured as gods on earth, did she
not mean that her boy also--her darling Nero--should ere long mount
the throne of the Cæsars, and that she herself should govern for
many a long year in his name, as she now governed in the name of her
husband Claudius? Her ancestress Livia, the stately wife of Augustus,
had received the imperial title of Augusta, but not until her
husband’s death; Agrippina had received it, and with it every honour
which a servile Senate could devise, in her early prime. Had she not
sat on a throne, in unwonted splendour, by the side of her weak and
prematurely aged husband at the reception of foreign ambassadors? Was
she not privileged, alone of Roman princesses, to ride in a chariot
to the Capitol? Was not her fine head and lovely face stamped on
thousands of coins and medals? Had she not shown, in contrast to her
predecessor, the beautiful and abandoned Messalina, how dignified
could be a matron’s rule?

Yes, the world was at her feet; and by every glance and every gesture
she showed her consciousness of a grandeur such as no woman had
hitherto attained. Her agents and spies were numberless. The Court
was with her, for in the days of Claudius the Court meant the
all-powerful freedmen, who impudently ruled and pillaged their
feeble master; and if she could not seduce the stolid fidelity of
his secretary Narcissus, she had not disdained to stoop to the still
more powerful Pallas. The people were with her, for she was the sole
surviving child of the prince whom they had regarded with extravagant
affection. The intellect of Rome was on her side, for Seneca, always
among her favourites, had been recalled by her influence from his
banishment in feverous Corsica, and, holding the high position of
tutor to her son, was devoted to her cause. The Prætorian guards were
on her side, for Burrus, their bold and honest commander, owed his
office to her request. The power of gold was hers, for her coffers
had been filled to bursting by an immeasurable rapacity. The power
of fascination was hers, for few of those whom she wished to entangle
were able to resist her spells. Above all she could rely absolutely
upon herself. Undaunted as her mother, the elder Agrippina; popular
as her father, the adored Germanicus; brilliant and audacious as
her grandmother, Julia, the unhappy daughter of Augustus; full
of masculine energy and aptitude for business as her grandfather
Agrippa--who else could show such gifts or command such resources?
--But she had not yet drunk to the dregs the cup of ambition which
she had long ago lifted to her eager lips.

She was sitting on a low broad-backed seat, enriched with gilding
and ivory, in the gorgeous room which was set aside for her special
use. It was decorated with every resource of art, and the autumnal
sunlight which was falling through its warm and perfumed air glinted
on statuettes of gold and silver, on marble bas-reliefs of exquisite
fancy, and on walls which glowed with painted peacocks, winged genii,
and graceful arabesques.

Her face was the index of a soul which only used the meaner passions
as aids to the gratification of the grander ambitions. No one who
saw her, as she leant back in her easy half-recumbent attitude, could
have doubted that he was in the presence of a lady born to rule, and
in whose veins flowed the noblest blood of the most ancient families
of Rome. She was thirty-seven years old, but was still in the zenith
of her imperious charms, and her figure had lost none of the smooth
and rounded contour of youth. Her features were small and delicate,
the forehead well shaped, the eyes singularly bright, and of a light
blue, under finely marked eyebrows. Her nose was slightly aquiline,
the mouth small and red and beautiful, while the slight protrusion
of the upper lip gave to it an expression of decided energy. Her hair
was wavy, and fell in multitudes of small curls over her forehead and
cheeks, but was confined at the back of the head in a golden net from
which a lappet embroidered with pearls and sapphires fell upon her
neck, half concealed by one soft and glowing tress.

She sat there deep in thought, and her mind was not occupied with
the exquisite image of herself reflected from the silver mirror which
hung bright and large upon the wall before her. Her expression was
that which she wears in her bust in the Capitol--the expression of
one who is anxious, and waits. One sandalled foot rested on the ankle
of the other, and her fair hands were lightly folded on her robe.
That robe was the long _stola_ worn by noble matrons. It swept down
to her feet and its sleeves reached to the elbows, where they were
fastened by brooches of priceless onyx, leaving bare the rest of her
shapely arms. Two large pearls were in her ears, but she had laid
aside her other ornaments. On a little marble abacus beside her lay
her many-jewelled rings, her superb armlets set with rubies, and the
_murenula_--a necklace of linked and flexile gold glittering with
gems--which had encircled her neck at the banquet from which she just
had risen. Her attitude was one of rest; but there was no rest in the
bosom which rose and fell unequally with her varying moods--no rest
in the countenance with its look of proud and sleepless determination.
She was alone, but a frequent and impatient glance showed that she
expected some one to enter. She had dismissed her slaves, and was
devoting her whole soul to the absorbing design for which at that
moment she lived, and in the accomplishment of which she persuaded
herself that she was ready to die. That design was the elevation of
her Nero, at the first possible moment, to the throne whose dizzy
steps were so slippery with blood.

In the achievement of her purpose no question of right and wrong for
a moment troubled her. Guilt hid no horror for that fair woman. She
had long determined that neither the stings of conscience nor the
fear of peril should stop her haughty course. To her, as to most of
the women of high rank in the Rome of the Empire, crime was nothing
from which to shrink, and virtue was but an empty name. Philosophers
she knew talked of virtue. It was interesting to hear Seneca descant
upon it, as she had sometimes heard him do to her boy, while she
sat in an adjoining room only separated from them by an embroidered
curtain. But she had long ago convinced herself that this was fine
talk, and nothing more. Priests pretended to worship the gods; but
what were the gods? Had not the Senate made her ancestor Augustus
a god, and Tiberius, and her mad brother Caligula, and his little
murdered baby, the child of Cæsonia, which had delighted its father
by its propensity to scratch? If such beings were gods, to whom
incense was burned and altars smoked, assuredly she need not greatly
trouble herself about the inhabitants of Olympus.

Nemesis? Was there such a thing as Nemesis? Did a Presence stalk
behind the guilty, with leaden pace, with feet shod in wool, which
sooner or later overtook them--which cast its dark shadow at last
beyond their footsteps--which gradually came up to them, laid its
hand upon their shoulders, clutched them, looked them in the face,
drove into their heads the adamantine nail whose blow was death?
For a few moments her countenance was troubled; but it was not long
before she had driven away the gloomy thought with a disdainful smile.
It was true that there had been calamity enough in the bloodstained
annals of her kinsfolk: calamity all the more deadly in proportion to
their awful growth in power and wealth. Her thoughts reverted to the
story of her nearest relatives. She thought of the days of Tiberius,
when men scarcely dared to speak above a whisper, and when murder
lurked at the entrance of every noble home. Her uncles Gaius and
Lucius Cæsar had died in the prime of their age. Had they been
poisoned by Sejanus? Her other uncle, the young Agrippa Posthumus
--born after the death of his father, Agrippa--had been killed in a
mad struggle with the centurion whom Livia had sent to murder him in
his lonely exile. Her mother had been cruelly murdered; her aunt, the
younger Julia, had died in disgrace and exile on a wretched islet.
Her two brothers, Nero and Drusus, had come to miserable ends in
the flower of their days. Her third brother, the Emperor Caligula,
had been assassinated by conspirators. The two Julias, her sister
and her cousin, had fallen victims to the jealous fury of the Empress
Messalina. The name of her sister Drusilla had been already stained
with a thousand shames. She was the sole survivor of a family of
six princes and princesses, all of whom, in spite of all the favours
of fortune, had come, in the bloom of life, to violent and shameful
ends. She had herself been banished by her brother to the island
of Pontia, and had been made to carry on her journey, in her bosom,
the inurned ashes of her brother-in-law, Lepidus, with whom, as with
others, her name had been dishonourably involved. She had already
been twice a widow, and the world said that she had poisoned her
second husband, Crispus Passienus. What did she care what the world
said? But even if she had poisoned that old and wealthy orator--what
then? His wealth had been and would be very useful to her. Since
that day her fortunes had been golden. She had been recalled from
her dreary banishment. Her soul had been as glowing iron in the flame
of adversity; but the day of her adversity had passed. When the time
was ripe she had made her magnificent way in the Court of her uncle
Claudius until she became his wife, and had swept all her rivals out
of her path by her brilliant beauty and triumphant intrigues.

She thought of some of those rivals, and as she thought of them an
evil smile lighted up her beautiful features.

Messalina, her predecessor--did not everything seem to be in her
favour? Claudius had doted on her; she fooled him to the top of his
bent. She had borne him two fair children, and the emperor loved
them. Who could help loving the reserved but noble Britannicus, the
gentle and innocent Octavia? No doubt Messalina had felt certain that
her boy should succeed his father. But how badly she had managed! How
silly had been her preference for pleasure over ambition! How easily
Agrippina had contrived that, without her taking any overt share
in the catastrophe, Messalina should destroy herself by her own
shamelessness, and perish, while still little more than girl, by
the sword of the executioner, in a pre-eminence of shame!

And Lollia Paulina? What might she not have done with her enormous
riches? Agrippina could recall her--not at one of the great Court
gatherings, but at an ordinary marriage supper, in which she had
appeared in a dress embroidered from head to foot with alternate
rows of pearls and emeralds, with emeralds in her hair, emeralds of
deepest lustre on her fingers, a carcanet of emeralds--the finest
Rome had ever seen--around her neck. Yet this was not her best dress,
and her jewels were said to be worth eighty millions of sesterces.[2]
She remembered with what a stately step, with what a haughty
countenance the great heiress, who had for a short time been Empress
as wife of Caligula, passed among the ranks of dazzled courtiers,
with the revenues of a province upon her robes. Well, she had dared
to be a competitor with Agrippina for the hand of Claudius. It
required no small skill to avert the deeply seated Roman prejudice
against the union of an uncle with his niece; yet Agrippina had won
--thanks to the freedman Pallas, and to other things. She procured the
banishment of Lollia, and soon afterwards a tribune was sent and she
was bidden to kill herself. The countenance of the thinker darkened
for a moment as she remembered the evening when the tribune had
returned, and had taken out of its casket the terrible proof that
her vengeance was accomplished. How unlike was that ghastly relic
to the head whose dark locks had been wreathed with emeralds!

And Domitia Lepida, her sister-in-law, the mother of the Empress
Messalina, the aunt of her son Nero, the former wife of her own
husband, Crispus Passienus? She was wealthy as herself, beautiful as
herself, noble as herself, unscrupulous as herself. She might have
been a powerful ally, but how dared she to compete for the affections
of Nero? How dared she to be indulgent when Agrippina was severe? The
boy had been brought up in her house when his father was dead and his
mother an exile. His chances had seemed very small then, and Lepida
had so shamefully neglected him that his only tutors were a barber
and a dancer. But now that he held the glorious position of Prince of
the Roman Youth; now that he wore the manly toga, while Britannicus
only stood in humble boy’s dress--the embroidered robe, and the
golden bulla round his neck to avert the evil eye; now that it seemed
probable to all that Nero, the adopted son of Claudius, would be the
future Emperor instead of Britannicus, his real son, it was all very
well for Domitia to fondle and pamper him. It was a hard matter to
get rid of Lepida, for Narcissus, the faithful guardian of Claudius,
had opposed the attempt to get her put to death. Nevertheless,
Agrippina seldom failed in her purposes; and as for Lepida and
Narcissus--their turn might come!

She could only recall one insult which she had not avenged. The
senator Galba was rich, and was said by the astrologers to have an
imperial nativity. She had therefore made love to him so openly that
his mother, Livia Ocellina, had once slapped her in the face. If
she had not made Galba and his virago-mother feel the weight of her
vengeance, it was only because they were too insignificant to be any
longer worthy of her attention. She was too proud to take revenge
on minor opposition. The eagle, she thought, does not trouble itself
about the mole.

Enough! Her thoughts were getting too agitated! She must go step by
step; but who would dare to say that she would not succeed? The wit
and purpose of a woman against the world! ‘Yes, Nero, my Nero, thou
shalt be Emperor yet! Thou shalt rule the world, and I have always
ruled thee, and will rule thee still. Thy weak nature is under
my dominance; and I, whose heart is hard as the diamond, shall be
Empress of the world. Nemesis--if there be a Nemesis--must bide her
time.’

She murmured the words in a low tone to herself; but at this point
her reverie was broken.



CHAPTER II

_AGRIPPINA AND NERO_

    ‘Occidat dum imperet.’--TAC. _Ann._ xiv. 9.


A voice was heard in the corridor, the curtain was drawn aside, and a
youth of sixteen, but who had nearly completed his seventeenth year,
entered the room.

He was still in the bloom of his youthful beauty. His face was
stamped with all the nobility of the Domitian race from which
he sprang. It had not as yet a trace of that ferocity engendered
in later years from an immense vanity clouded by a dim sense of
mediocrity. It was perfectly smooth, and there was nothing to give
promise of the famous brazen beards of his ancestors, unless it were
the light hair, with its slight tinge of red, which was so greatly
admired in antiquity, and which looked golden when it caught the
sunlight. Round the forehead it was brushed back, but it covered
his head with a mass of short and shining curls, and grew low down
over the white neck. His face had not yet lost the rose of youth,
though its softness spoke of a luxurious life. The eyes were of light
grey, and the expression was not ungenial, though, owing to his short
sight, his forehead often wore the appearance of a slight frown. He
was of middle height, and of those fine proportions which made his
flatterers compare him to the youthful God of Song.

‘Nero!’ exclaimed his mother: ‘I thought you were still in the
banquet hall. If the Emperor awakes he may notice your absence.’

‘There is little fear of that,’ said Nero, laughing. ‘I left the
Emperor snoring on his couch, and the other guests decorously trying
to suppress the most portentous yawns. They, poor wretches, will have
to stay on till midnight or later, unless Narcissus sets them free
from the edifying spectacle of a semi-divinity quite intoxicated.’

‘Hush!’ said Agrippina, severely. ‘This levity is boyish and
ill-timed. Jest at what you like, but never at the majesty of the
Imperial power--not even in private, not even to me. And remember
that palace walls have ears. Did you leave Octavia at the table?’

‘I did.’

‘Imprudent!’ said his mother. ‘You know what pains I have taken
to keep her from seeing too much of her father except when we are
present. Claudius sometimes sleeps off the fumes of wine, and after
a doze he can talk as sensibly as he ever does. Was Britannicus in
the Hall?’

‘Britannicus?’ said Nero. ‘Of course not. You have taken pains
enough, mother, to keep _him_ in the background. According to the
antique fashion which the Emperor has revived of late, you saw him
at the banquet, sitting at the end of the seat behind his father. But
the boys have been dismissed with their pedagogues long ago, and, for
all I know, Britannicus has been sent to bed.’

‘And for whose sake do I take these precautions?’ asked the Empress.
‘Is it not for your sake, ungrateful? Is it not that you may wear the
purple, and tower over the world as the Imperator Romanus?’

‘For my sake,’ thought Nero, ‘and for her own sake, too.’ But he
said nothing; and as he had not attained to the art of disguising his
thoughts from that keenest of observers, he bent down, to conceal a
smile, and kissed his mother’s cheek, with the murmured words, ‘Best
of mothers!’

‘Best of mothers! Yes; but for how long?’ said Agrippina. ‘When
once I have seated you on the throne--’ She broke off her sentence.
She had never dared to tell her son the fearful augury which the
Chaldeans had uttered of him: ‘He shall be Emperor, and shall kill
his mother.’ He had never dreamed that she had returned the answer:
‘Let him slay me, so he be Emperor.’

‘_Optima mater_, now and always,’ he replied. ‘But I am angry with
Britannicus--_very_ angry!’ and he stamped his foot.

‘Why? The boy is harmless enough. I thought you had him completely
under your power. You seem to be very good friends, and I have seen
you sitting together, and training your magpies and jays to talk,
quite amicably. Nay, though Britannicus hates me, I almost won his
heart--for two minutes--by promising to give him my talking-thrush,
which eyes us so curiously from its cage.’[3]

‘Give it to me, mother,’ said Nero. ‘A thrush that can talk as yours
can is the greatest rarity in the world, and worth ten times over its
weight in gold.’

‘No, Nero; Britannicus shall have it. I like to see him devoting
himself to such trifles. I have other views for you. But what has
the poor boy done to offend you?’

‘I met him in the Gelotian House,’ said Nero, ‘and how do you think
he dared to address me? _Me_--by sacred adoption the son of Claudius,
and, therefore, his elder brother?’

‘How?’

‘I said to him, quite civilly, “Good morning, Britannicus.” He
had actually the audacity to reply, “Good morning, _Ahenobarbus_!”
Ahenobarbus, indeed! I hate the name. I stand nearer to the divine
Augustus than he does.[4] What did he mean by it?’

Agrippina broke into a ripple of laughter. ‘The poor harmless lad!’
she said. ‘It merely was because his wits were wool-gathering, as his
father’s always are. No doubt he dislikes you--he has good reason to
do so; but he meant nothing by it.’

‘I doubt that,’ answered the youth. ‘I suspect that he was prompted
to insult me by Narcissus, or Pudens, or the knight Julius Densus or
some of the people who are still about him.’

‘Ah!’ said Agrippina, thoughtfully, ‘Narcissus is our most dangerous
enemy. He is much too proud of his ivory rod and prætor’s insignia.
But he is not unassailable. The Emperor was not pleased with the
failure of the canal for draining Lake Fucinus, and perhaps I can
get Domitius Afer or some one else, to accuse him of embezzling the
funds. How else could he have amassed 400,000,000 sesterces? He has
the gout very badly, and I will persuade him that it is necessary for
him to go to Campania for the benefit of his health. When once he is
out of the way--. But, Nero, I am expecting a visit from Pallas, with
whom I have much important business. Go back to the hall, my boy,
and keep your eyes open always as to what is going on.’

‘I will go back,’ said Nero; ‘but, mother, I sometimes wish that all
this was over. I wish I had not been forced to marry Octavia. I shall
never like her. I should like to have--’

He stopped, and blushed crimson, for his mother’s eagle eye was
upon him, and he had almost let out the secret of his sudden and
passionate love for Acte, the beautiful freedwoman of his wife.

‘Well?’ said Agrippina suspiciously, but not ill-pleased to see how
her son quailed before her imperious glance. ‘Go on.’

‘I meant nothing particular,’ he stammered, his cheek still dyed
with its deep blush, ‘but that I sometimes wish I were not going
to be Emperor at all. Julius was murdered. Augustus, they say, was
poisoned. Tiberius was suffocated. My uncle Gaius was stabbed with
many wounds. The life is not a happy one, and the dagger-stab too
often finds its way through the purple.’

‘Degenerate boy!’ said Agrippina; ‘I do not wonder that you blush. Is
it such a nothing to be a Lord of the World? Have you forgotten that
you are a grandson of Germanicus, and that the blood of the Cæsars as
well as of the Domitii flows in your veins? One would think you were
as ordinary a boy as Britannicus. For shame!’

‘Well, well, mother,’ he said, ‘you always get your own way with
every one. Pallas is in the anteroom, and I must go.’

Nero kissed her, and took his leave. Immediately afterwards the
slave announced that Pallas was awaiting the pleasure of the Empress.



CHAPTER III

_INSTRUMENTA IMPERII_

   ‘It is the curse of kings to be attended
    By slaves who take their humours for a warrant
    To break into the bloody house of life.’

                              SHAKESPEARE, _King John_.


The autumn twilight had by this time faded, but one silver lamp,
standing on a slab of softly glowing marble, shed a dim light through
the room when the freedman was ushered into it. He was a man of
portly presence, and of demeanour amazingly haughty for one who had
once bawled ‘Sea-urchins for sale!’ in the Subura, and come over the
sea from his native Arcadia with his feet chalked as a common slave.
His immense wealth, his influence over the Emperor, and his advocacy
of the claims of Agrippina to her uncle’s hand, together with the
honours bestowed upon him by the mean adulation of the Senate, had
raised him to the pinnacle of his power. Agrippina had stooped to the
lowest depths to purchase his adherence, and now there was absolute
confidence between them. He was ready to betray the too-indulgent
master who had raised him from the dust and heaped upon him gifts and
privileges, for which the noblest Consul might have sighed in vain.

Pallas was in a grave mood. The air was full of portents. A tale was
on every lip among the common people that a pig had been born with
the talons of a hawk. A swarm of bees had settled on the top of the
Capitol. The tents and standards of the soldiers had been struck
with fire from heaven. In that year a quæstor, an ædile, a tribune, a
prætor, and a consul had all died within a few months of each other.
Claudius had nominated two consuls, but had only nominated them for a
single month. Had he misgivings about his approaching fate? Agrippina
was not superstitious, and she listened to these stories of the Greek
freedman with the indifference of disdain. But it was far otherwise
when he told her that Narcissus had been heard to utter very
dangerous speeches. He had said that whether Britannicus or Nero
succeeded, he himself was doomed to perish. Britannicus would
hate him as the man who had brought about the death of his mother
Messalina. Nero would hate him, because he had opposed his adoption,
and the marriage of his mother to the Emperor, both which events had
been achieved by the rival influence of Pallas. Still Narcissus was
faithful to his kind master, and Britannicus was the Emperor’s son.
The freedman had been seen to embrace Britannicus; he had spoken of
him as the ‘true image of Claudius;’ had stretched forth his hands
now to him and now to heaven, and had prayed ‘that the boy might grow
speedily to man’s estate, and drive away the enemies of his father,
even if he also took vengeance on the slayer of his mother.’

Agrippina listened to this report with anxious disquietude, and
Pallas told her further that lately the Emperor had often pressed
Britannicus and Octavia to his heart; had spoken of their wrongs;
had declared that they should not be ousted from their place in his
affections by the crafty and upstart son of such a wretch as Domitius
Ahenobarbus, of whom it might be said, as the orator Licinius Crassus
said of his ancestor, ‘No wonder his beard was of brass, since his
tongue was of iron, and his heart of lead.’ Claudius often repeated
himself, and when he saw his son he had several times used the Greek
proverb, ὁ τρώσας καὶ ἰάσεται, ‘he who wounded shall also heal you.’

But worse news followed, and Agrippina grasped the side of her couch
with an impulse of terror, when, last of all, Pallas told her that,
on that very evening, the Emperor, in his cups, had been heard to
mutter to some of his intimates ‘that he more than suspected the
designs of his wife; and that it had always been his destiny to bear
the flagitious conduct of his consorts for a time, but at last to
avenge it.’

As she heard these words Agrippina stood up, her arms outstretched,
her fine nostril dilated, her whole countenance inflamed with rage
and scorn. ‘The dotard!’ she exclaimed, ‘the miserable, drivelling,
drunken dotard! He to speak thus of me! Pallas, the hour for delay
is over. It is time to act. But,’ she added, ‘Narcissus is still
here. He loves his master; he watches over him with sleepless
vigilance. I dare attempt nothing while he remains about the Court.’

‘He is crippled with the gout,’ answered Pallas. ‘He suffers
excruciating agony. He cannot hold out much longer. I told him that
you strongly recommended him to try the sulphur baths of Sinuessa.
He is nearly certain to take the hint. In a week or two at the latest
he will ask leave of absence, for his life is a torture.’

‘Good!’ whispered the Empress; and then, dropping her voice to a
whisper, she hissed into the ear of the freedman, ‘Claudius must
not live.’

‘You need not drop your voice, Augusta,’ said Pallas. ‘No slave is
near. I placed one of my own attendants in the corridor, and forbade
him on pain of death to let anyone approach your chamber.’

‘You ventured to tell him that?’ asked Agrippina, amazed at the
freedman’s boldness.

‘Not to _tell_ him that,’ answered Pallas. ‘Do you suppose that I
would degrade myself by speaking to one of my own slaves, or even
of my own freedmen--I who, as the senate truly says, am descended
from Evander and the ancient kings of Arcadia, though I deign to be
among Cæsar’s servants? No! a look, a sign, a wave of the hand is
sufficient command from me. If anything more is wanted I write it
down on my tablets. I rejoice--as I told the senate when they offered
me four million sesterces--to serve Cæsar and retain my poverty.’

‘The insolent thrall!’ thought Agrippina; ‘and he says this to me who
know that he was one of the common slaves of Antonia, the Emperor’s
mother, and still has to conceal under his hair the holes bored in
his ears. And he talks of his _poverty_ to me, though I know as well
as he does how he has amassed sixty million sesterces by robbery in
fourteen years!’ But she instantly concealed the disdainful smile
which flitted across her lips, and repeated in a low voice, ‘Claudius
must die!’

‘The plan has its perils,’ said the freedman.

‘Not if it remains unknown to the world,’ she replied. ‘And who will
dare to reveal it, when they know that to allude to it is death?’

‘If you are the daughter of the beloved Germanicus,’ he said, ‘the
Emperor is his brother. The soldiers would never rise against him.’

‘I did not think of the Prætorians,’ said Agrippina. ‘There are other
means. In the prison beneath this palace is one who will help me.’

‘Locusta?’ whispered Pallas, with an involuntary shudder. ‘But the
Emperor has a _prægustator_ who tastes every dish and every cup.’

‘Yes! The eunuch Halotus,’ answered Agrippina. ‘He is in my pay; he
will do my bidding.’

‘But Claudius also has a physician.’

‘Yes! The illustrious Xenophon of Cos,’ answered the Empress, with a
meaning smile.

Pallas raised his hands, half in horror, half in admiration. Careless
of every moral consideration, he had never dipped his hands in blood.
He had lived in the midst of a profoundly corrupt society from his
earliest youth. He knew that poisonings were frequent amid the gilded
wickedness and hollow misery of the Roman aristocracy. He knew that
they had been far from infrequent in the House of Cæsar, and that
Eudemus, the physician of Drusus, son of the Emperor Tiberius, had
poisoned his lord. Yet before the cool hardihood of Agrippina’s
criminality he stood secretly appalled. Would it not have been better
for him, after all, to have followed the example of Narcissus, and to
have remained faithful to his master? How long would he be necessary
to the Empress and her son? And when he ceased to be useful, what
would be his fate?

Agrippina read his thoughts in his face, and said, ‘I suppose that
Claudius is still lingering over the wine cup. Conduct me back to
him. Acerronia, my lady-in-waiting, will follow us.’

‘He has been carried to his own room,’ said Pallas; ‘but if you wish
to see him, I will attend you.’

He led the way, and gave the watchword of the night to the Prætorian
guards and their officer, Pudens. The room of the Emperor was only
across the court, and the slaves and freedmen and pages who kept
watch over it made way for the Augusta and the all-powerful freedman.

‘The Emperor still sleeps,’ said the groom of the chamber as they
entered.

‘Good,’ answered Agrippina. ‘You may depart. We have business to
transact with him, and will await his wakening. Give me the lamp.
Acerronia will remain without.’

The slave handed her a golden lamp richly chased, and left the
chamber. There on a couch of citron-wood lay the Emperor, overcome,
as was generally the case in the evening, with the quantities of
strong wine he had drunk. His breathing was deep and stertorous; his
thin grey hairs were dishevelled; his purple robe stained, crumpled,
and disordered. His mouth was open, his face flushed; the laurel
wreath had fallen awry over his forehead, and, in the imbecile
expression of intoxication, every trace of dignity and nobleness
was obliterated from his features.

They stood and looked at him under the lamp which Agrippina uplifted
so that the light might stream upon his face.

‘Sot and dotard!’ she exclaimed, in low tones, but full of scorn and
hatred. ‘Did not his own mother, Antonia, call him “a portent of a
man”? I am not surprised that my brother Gaius once ordered him to be
flung into the Rhone; or that he and his rude guests used to slap him
on the face, and pelt him with olives and date-stones when he fell
asleep at the table. I have often seen them smear him with grape
juice, and draw his stockings over his hands, that he might rub his
face with them when he awoke! To think that such a man should be
lord of the world, when my radiant Nero, so young, so beautiful, so
gifted, might be seated on his throne for all the world to admire
and love!’

‘The Emperor has learning,’ said Pallas, looking on him with pity.
‘His natural impulses are all good. He has been a very kind and
indulgent master.’

‘He ought never to have been Emperor at all,’ she answered,
vehemently. ‘That he is so is the merest accident. We owe no thanks
to the Prætorian Gratus, who found him hidden behind a curtain on
the day that my brother Gaius was murdered, and pulled him out by the
legs: still less thanks to that supple intriguing Jew, Herod Agrippa,
who persuaded the wavering senate to salute him Emperor. Why, all his
life long he has been a mere joke. Augustus called him “a poor little
wretch,” and as a boy he used to be beaten by a common groom.’

‘He has been a kind master,’ said the freedman once more; and as he
spoke he sighed.

The Empress turned on him. ‘Will you dare to desert me?’ she said.
‘Do you not know that, at this moment, Narcissus has records and
letters in his possession which would hand me over to the fate of
Messalina, and you to the fate of the noble C. Silius?’

‘I desert you not,’ he answered, gloomily; ‘I have gone too far. But
it is dangerous for us to remain alone any longer. I will retire.’

He bowed low and left the room, but before he went out he turned and
said, very hesitatingly, ‘He is safe with you?’

‘Go!’ she answered, in a tone of command. ‘Agrippina does not use the
dagger; and there are slaves and soldiers and freedmen at hand, who
would come rushing in at the slightest sound.’

She was alone with Claudius, and seeing that it would be many hours
before he woke from his heavy slumber, she gently drew from his
finger the beryl, engraved with an eagle--the work of Myron--which he
wore as his signet ring. Then she called for Acerronia, and, throwing
over her face and figure a large veil, bade her show the ring to the
centurion Pudens, and tell him to lead them towards the entrance of
the Palace prisons, as there was one of the prisoners whom she would
see.

Pudens received the order and felt no surprise. He who had anything
to do with the Palace knew well that the air of it was tremulous
with dark intrigues. He went before them to the outer door of the
subterranean cells, and unlocked it. Even within the gate slaves were
on guard; but, although no one recognised the veiled figure, a glance
at the signet ring sufficed to make them unlock for her the cell in
which Locusta was confined.

Agrippina entered alone. By a lamp of earthernware sat the woman
who had played her part in so many crimes. She was imprisoned on
the charge of having been concerned in various murders, but in those
awful times she was too useful to be put to death. The phials and
herbs which had been her stock-in-trade were left in her possession.

‘I need,’ said the Empress, in a tone of voice which she hardly took
the trouble to disguise, ‘a particular kind of poison: not one to
destroy life too suddenly; not one which will involve a lingering
illness; but one which will first disturb the intellect, and so bring
death at last.’

‘And who is it that thus commands?’ asked Locusta, lifting up to her
visitor a face which would have had some traces of beauty but for its
hard wickedness. ‘It is not to everyone that I supply poisons. Who
knows but what you may be some slave plotting against our lord and
master, Claudius? They who use me must pay me, and I must have my
warrant.’

‘Is that warrant enough?’ said Agrippina, showing her the signet ring.

‘It is,’ said Locusta, no longer doubtful that her visitor was, as
she had from the first suspected, the Empress herself. ‘But what
shall be my reward, Aug--’

‘Finish that word,’ said the Empress, ‘and you shall die on the rack
to-morrow. Fear not, you shall have reward enough. For the present
take this;’ and she flung upon the table a purse full of gold.

Suspiciously yet greedily the prisoner seized it, and opening it with
trembling fingers saw how rich was her guerdon. She went to a chest
which lay in the corner of the room and, bending over it with the
lamp, produced a small box, in which lay some flakes and powder of
a pale yellow colour.

‘This,’ she said, ‘will do what you desire. Sprinkle it over any
well-cooked dish, and it will not be visible. A few flakes of it
will cause first delirium, then death. It has been tested.’

Without a word Agrippina took it, and, slightly waving her hand,
glided out of the cell. Acerronia awaited her, and Pudens again went
before them towards the apartments of the Empress and her ladies.



CHAPTER IV

_THE CRIME_

    ‘Une grande reine, fille, femme, mère de rois si puissants.’
    --BOSSUET, _Oraison Funèbre d’Henriette de France_.

    ‘Boletos ... optimi quidem hos cibi, sed immenso exemplo
    in crimen adductos.’--PLINY, _N. H._ xxii. 46.


A fortnight had elapsed since the evening which we have described.
Claudius, worn out with the heavy cares of state, to which he
always devoted a conscientious, if somewhat bewildered, attention,
had fallen into ill health, which was increased by his unhappy
intemperance. Unwilling at all times to allow himself a holiday,
even in his advancing years, he had at last been persuaded to visit
Sinuessa, near the mouth of the River Vulturnus, in the hope that its
charming climate and healing waters might restore him to his usual
strength. He had there enjoyed a few days of quiet, during which his
suspicions had been lulled to sleep by the incessant assiduities of
Agrippina. His children had accompanied him, and Agrippina had been
forced to conceal the furious jealousy with which she witnessed the
signs of affection which he began to lavish upon them. She did not
dare to delay any longer the terrible crime which she had for some
time meditated. She stood on the edge of a precipice. There was
peril in every day’s procrastination. What if Pallas, whose scruples
she had witnessed, should feel an impulse of repentance--should
fling himself at his master’s feet, confess all, and hurry her to
execution, as Narcissus had hurried Messalina? The weak mind of
Claudius was easily stirred to suspicions. He had already shown
marked signs of uneasiness. Halotus, Xenophon, Locusta--they knew
all. Could so frightful a secret be kept? Might not any whisper or
any accident reveal it? If she would end this harassing uncertainty
and reap the glittering reward of crime, there must be no delay.

She had intended to carry out the fatal deed at Sinuessa, but
Claudius felt restless; and as a few days of country air had
refreshed his health and spirits, he hurried back to Rome on October
13, A.D. 54. She felt that, if she was not prompt, Narcissus, the
vigilant guardian of his master, might return, and the opportunity
might slip away for ever.

They had scarcely reached the Palace when she bade Acerronia to
summon Halotus to her presence as secretly as possible.

The eunuch entered--a wrinkled and evil specimen of humanity, who had
grown grey in the household of Claudius.

‘The Emperor,’ she said, ‘is far from well. His appetite needs to
be enticed by the most delicate kinds of food. You will see that his
tastes are consulted in the supper of this evening.’

‘Madam,’ said the slave, ‘there is nothing of which the noble
Claudius is fonder than boletus mushrooms. They are scarce, but a
small dish of them has been procured.’

‘Let them be brought here, that I may see them.’

Halotus returned in a few moments, followed by a slave, who set the
mushrooms before her on a silver dish, and retired. They were few in
number, but one was peculiarly fine.

‘I will consult the physician Xenophon, whether they will suit the
Emperor’s health,’ said Agrippina. ‘He is in attendance.’

Passing into an adjoining room, which was empty, she hastily drew
from her bosom the little box which Locusta had given her, and
sprinkled the yellow flakes and powder among the sporules on the
pink inner surface of the mushroom. Then returning she said,

‘Halotus, this dainty must be reserved for the table of the Emperor
alone, and I design this mushroom particularly for him. He will be
pleased at the care which I have taken to stimulate his appetite. And
if I have reason to be satisfied with you, your freedom is secured
--your fortune made.’

The eunuch bowed; but as he left the room he thrust his tongue into
his cheek, and his wrinkled face bore an ugly smile.

The evening came. The supper party was small, for Claudius still
longed for quiet, and had been glad, in the retirement of Sinuessa,
to lay aside the superb state of the imperial household. Usually
when he was at Rome the hall was crowded with guests; but on this
day he had desired that only a few friends should be present. At the
_sigma_, or semicircular table at which he reclined, there were no
others except Agrippina, who was next to him, Pallas, Octavia, and
Nero. Burrus, the commander of the Prætorian camp, was in attendance,
and Seneca, Nero’s tutor; but they were at another sigma, with one or
two distinguished senators who had been asked to meet them.

Except Halotus and Pallas, there was not one person in the room who
had the least suspicion of the tragedy which was about to be enacted.
Yet there fell on all the guests one of those unaccountable spells
of silence and depression which are so often the prelude to great
calamities. At the lower table, indeed, Burrus tried to enliven the
guests with the narrative of scenes which he had witnessed in Germany
and Britain in days of active service, and told once more how he had
received the wound which disabled his left hand. But to these stories
they listened with polite apathy, nor could they be roused from their
languor by the studied impromptus of Seneca. At the upper table Nero,
startled by a few vague words which his mother had dropped early in
the day, was timid and restless. The young Octavia--she was but
fourteen years old--was habitually taciturn in the presence of
her husband, Nero, who even in these early days had conceived an
aversion, which he was not always able to conceal, for the bride who
had been forced upon him by his mother’s ambition. Claudius talked
but little, for he was intent, as usual, on the pleasures of the
table, and all conversation with him soon became impossible, as he
drained goblet after goblet of Massic wine. Agrippina alone affected
cheerfulness as she congratulated the Emperor on his improving
health, and praised the wisdom which had at last induced him to
yield to her loving entreaties, and to take a much-needed holiday.

‘And now, Cæsar,’ she said, ‘I have a little surprise for you. There
is, I know, nothing which you like better than these rare boleti.
They are entirely for ourselves. I shall take some; the rest are for
you, especially this--the finest I could procure.’

With her own white and jewelled hand she took from the dish the fatal
mushroom, and handed it to her husband. He greedily ate the dainty,
and thanked her. Not long after he looked wildly round him, tried in
vain to speak, rose from the table, and, staggering, fell back into
the arms of the treacherous Halotus.

The unfortunate Emperor was carried out of the triclinium by his
attendants. Such an end of the banquet was common enough after he
had sat long over the wine, but that he should be removed so suddenly
before the supper was half over was an unwonted circumstance.

The slaves had carried him into the adjoining Nymphæum, a room
adorned with rare plants, and were splashing his face with the water
of the fountain. Xenophon was summoned, and gave orders that he
should be at once conveyed to his chamber. The guests caught one
last glimpse of his senseless form as the slaves hurriedly carried
it back through the dining-hall.

Seneca and Burrus exchanged terrified glances, but no word was spoken
until Agrippina whispered to Pallas to dismiss the guests. He rose,
and told them that the Emperor had suddenly been taken ill, but
that the illness did not seem to be serious. A night’s rest would
doubtless set him right. Meanwhile the Empress was naturally anxious,
and as she desired to tend her suffering husband, it was better that
all strangers should take their farewell.

As they departed, they heard her ordering the preparation of heated
cloths and fomentations, as she hurried to the sick room. The Emperor
lay gasping and convulsed, sometimes unconscious, sometimes in a
delirium of agony; and it was clear that the quantities of wine
which he had drunk might tend to dilute the poison, possibly even
to counteract its working. Hour after hour passed by, and Claudius
still breathed. Xenophon, the treacherous physician, saw the danger.
Assuring those present in the chamber of the dying man that quiet was
essential to his recovery, he urged the Empress to have the room
cleared, and to take upon herself the duties of nurse. His commands
were obeyed, and under pretence that he might produce some natural
relief by irritating the throat, Xenophon sent for a large feather.
The feather of a flamingo was brought, and when the slaves had
retired, he smeared it with a rapid and deadly poison. The effect
was instant. The swollen form of the Emperor heaved with the spasm
of a last struggle, and he lay dead before them.

Not a tear did Agrippina shed, not one sigh broke from the murderess,
as her uncle and husband breathed his last.

‘It must not be known that he is dead,’ she whispered. ‘Watch here.
I will give out that he has fallen into a refreshing sleep, and will
probably awake in his accustomed health. Fear not for your reward; it
shall be immense when my Nero reigns. But much has first to be done.’

She hurried to her room, and despatched messengers in all directions,
though it was now near midnight. She sent to the Priests, bidding
them to offer vows to all the gods for the Emperor’s safety; she
ordered the Consuls to convoke the Senate, and gave them secret
directions that, while they prayed for Claudius, they should be
prepared for all emergencies. Special despatches were sent to Seneca
and Burrus. The former was to prepare an address which Nero might, if
necessary, pronounce before the Senate; the latter was to repair to
the Palace at earliest dawn and await the issue of events.

Meanwhile she gave the strictest orders that the Palace gates should
be guarded, and that none should be allowed to enter or to leave
unless they could produce written permission. All this was easy for
her. The Palace was full of her creatures. Britannicus and Octavia
had been gradually deprived of nearly all who were known to be
faithful to their interests. They were kept in profound ignorance
that death had robbed them of the one natural protector, who loved
them with a tenderness which had often been obscured by the bedazed
character of his intellect, but which had never been for one moment
quenched. All that they learnt from the spies and traitors who
were placed about their persons was that the Emperor had been taken
suddenly ill, but was already recovering, and was now in a peaceful
slumber.

Having taken all these precautions, and secured that no one except
Pallas or herself should be admitted during the night into the room
where Xenophon kept watch beside the corpse, Agrippina retired to
her chamber. One thing alone troubled her. Before she retired she had
looked for a moment on the nightly sky, and saw on the far horizon a
gleam unknown to her. She called her Greek astrologer and asked him
what it was. He paused, and for a moment looked alarmed. ‘It is a
comet,’ he said.

‘Is that an omen of disaster?’

The learned slave was too politic to give it that interpretation. ‘It
may,’ he said, ‘portend the brilliant inauguration of a new reign.’

She was reassured by the answer, and laid herself down to rest.
Though greatly excited by the events of the day, and the immense
cares which fell upon her, she slept as sweetly as a child. No pale
faces looked in upon her slumber; no shriek rang through her dreams;
no fancy troubled her of gibbering spectre or Fury from the abyss.
She had given orders that she should be awakened in a few hours,
and by the time that the first grey light shuddered in the east she
had dressed herself in rich array, and, with a sense of positive
exultation, stepped out of her room, calm and perfumed, to achieve
that which had been for years the main ambition of her life.



CHAPTER V

_THE MOCKERY OF DEATH_

   ‘Esse aliquos Manes et subterranea regna

       *       *       *       *       *

    Nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum ære lavantur,
    Sed tu vera puta.’--JUV. _Sat._ ii. 149-153.


Agrippina had long contrived to secure the absolute devotion of her
slaves, clients, and freedmen. In that vast household of at least
sixteen hundred persons, all courteously treated and liberally paid,
there were many who were ready to go any lengths in support of their
patroness. Among them was the freedman Mnester, who knew but little
of her crimes, but was enthusiastic in her interests. She made
constant use of him on that eventful day.

Among her slaves were some of the Chaldæai and casters of horoscopes,
so common in those times, in whom she placed a superstitious
confidence. Her first care was to consult them, and she determined
to take no overt step until they should announce that the auspicious
hour had come. She then hastened to the chamber where Xenophon still
kept his watch beside the man whom he had murdered. He kept that
watch with perfect indifference. His was a soul entirely cynical and
atheistic; greedy of gain only, case-hardened by crime. The bargain
between him and the Empress was perfectly understood between them.
Enormous wealth would be the price of his silence and success; death
would punish his failure.

There was nothing to be seen but the dead form covered from head to
foot by a purple coverlet.

She pointed to it. ‘He must still be supposed to be alive,’ she said.
‘The Chaldæans say that the omens are still inauspicious. How are we
to keep the secret for some hours longer?’

‘Asclepiades teaches,’ answered the physician, with the scarcely
veiled sneer which marked his tone of voice, ‘how good it is that
the pains of dying men should be dissipated by comedy and song. The
Empress can order some comedians to play in the adjoining chamber.
If they cannot avail the divine Claudius, they will at least serve
to amuse my humble self, and I have now been in this room for many
hours.’

‘Does any one suspect that he is dead?’

‘No, Augusta,’ he answered. ‘To dissipate the too suspicious silence,
I have occasionally made curious sounds, at which I am an adept. They
will delude any chance listener into the belief that my patient is
still alive.’

For a moment her soul was shocked by the suggestion of sending for
the mummers. But she saw that it would help to prevent the truth from
leaking out. For one instant she lifted the purple robe and looked on
the old man of sixty-four, who had thus ended his reign of fourteen
years. She dropped it over the features, which, in the majesty of
death, had lost all their coarseness and imbecility, and showed the
fine lineaments of his ancestors. The moment afterwards she was sorry
that she had done it. That dead face haunted all her after life.

Leaving the chamber without a word, she gave orders that, as the
Emperor was now awake, and had asked for something to amuse him, some
skilled actors of comedy should be sent for to play to him from the
adjoining room. They came and did their best, little knowing that
their coarse jests and riotous fun did but insult the sacred majesty
of death. After an hour or two Xenophon, who had been laughing
uproariously, came out, thanked them in the Emperor’s name, and
dismissed them.

But Agrippina had hastened to one of the audience rooms, in which the
Palace abounded, and sent for Britannicus and Octavia, and for their
half-sister Antonia. She embraced them with effusive fondness. It
was her special object to detain Britannicus in her presence, lest
if but one faithful friend discovered that Claudius was dead, he
might summon the adherents of the young prince, and present him to
the people as the true heir to the throne. With pretext after pretext
she detained him by her side, telling him of the pride and comfort
which she felt in his resemblance to the Emperor, calling him a true
Cæsar, a true Claudius. Again and again she drew him to her knee;
she held him by the hand; she passed her jewelled fingers through his
hair; she amused him with the pretence of constant messages to the
sick-room of his father. And all the while her soul was half-sick
with anxiety, for the Chaldæans still sent to say that the hour was
inauspicious, and she did not fail to observe that the boy, as much
as he dared to show his feelings, saw through her hypocrisy, resented
her caresses. He burned to visit the bedside of his father, and was
bitterly conscious that something was going on of which he and his
sisters were the special victims. For he was a noble and gifted boy.
Something he had of the high bearing of his race, something, too, of
the soft beauty of his mother. His tutor, the grammarian Sosibius,
had done for him all that had been permitted, and though Britannicus
had purposely been kept in the background by the wiles of his
stepmother, the teacher had managed to inspire him with liberal
culture, and to enrich his memory with some grand passages of
verse. Nero was more than three years his senior, and in superficial
qualities and graces outshone him; but keen observers whispered that
though Britannicus could not sing or paint or drive a chariot like
his stepbrother, and was less fascinating in manner and appearance,
he would far surpass Nero in all manly and Roman virtues. The heart
of Octavia was full of unspeakable misgivings. Motherless, unloved,
neglected, she had known no aspect of life except its tragedy, and
none had as yet taught her any possible region in which to look for
comfort under the burden of the intolerable mystery.

The morning hours passed heavily, and Agrippina was almost worn out
by the strain put upon her. In vain she tried to interest Britannicus
in the talking-thrush, which had greatly amused him on previous
occasions. She went so far as to give him her white nightingale,
which was regarded as one of the greatest curiosities in Rome. It
had been bought for a large sum of money, and presented to her.
Pliny, among his researches in natural history, had never heard of
another.[5] At another time Britannicus would have been enraptured
by so interesting and valuable a gift; but now he saw that it was the
object of the Empress simply to detain him and his friends from any
interference with her own designs. He thanked her coldly, and
declined to rob her of a possession which all Rome desired to see.

At last he grew beyond measure impatient. ‘I am certain,’ he said,
‘that my father is very ill, and that he would wish to see me.
Augusta, must I be kept in this room like a child among women? Let
me go to the Emperor.’

‘Wait,’ she said, ‘for a little longer, dear Britannicus. You surely
would not waken the Emperor from the sleep which may prove to be the
saving of his life? It is getting towards noon; you must be hungry.
The slaves shall bring us our _prandium_ here.’

It was said to save time, but Britannicus saw that it would be vain
to escape. The door was beset with soldiers and with the slaves and
freedmen of the Empress. Some great event was evidently at hand. The
halls and corridors were full of hurrying footsteps. Outside they
heard the clang of armed men, who marched down the Vicus Apollinis,
and stopped at the vestibule of the Palace.

Then Pallas entered, and, with a deep obeisance, said, ‘Augusta, I
grieve to be the bearer of evil tidings. The Emperor is dead.’

Octavia burst into a storm of weeping at the terrible intelligence,
for she had been partially deceived by the protestations of
Agrippina. Britannicus sat down and covered his face with his hands.
He had always assumed that he would at least share the throne with
the youth whom Claudius, at the wearying importunities of his mother,
had needlessly adopted, and had repented of having adopted. But
he loved his father, who had always been kind to him, and at that
dreadful moment no selfish thought intruded on his anguish. After the
first burst of sorrow, he got up from his seat, and tenderly clasped
the hand of his sister.

‘Octavia,’ he said, ‘we are orphans now--fatherless, motherless, the
last of our race. We will be true to each other. Take courage. Be
comforted. Antonia,’ he added, gently taking his half-sister by the
hand, ‘I will be a loyal brother to you both.’



CHAPTER VI

_THE ACCESSION OF NERO_

    ‘Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!’

    ‘Agrippina terris alterum venenum, sibique ante omnes, Neronem
    suum dedit.’--PLINY, _N. H._ xxii. 46.


Agrippina did not attend any longer to the children of Claudius; she
threw off the mask. For by this time the sundial on the wall marked
the hour of noon, and the Chaldæans were satisfied with the auspices.
Her quickened sense of hearing caught the sounds for which she had
long been listening. She heard the Palace doors thrown open. She
heard the voice of Burrus commanding the soldiers to salute their
Emperor. She heard shout on shout, ‘Nero Emperor! Nero Emperor! Long
live Nero! Long live the grandson of Germanicus!’

She sprang out into the balcony, and there caught one glimpse of her
son. His fair face was flushed with pride and excitement; the sun
shone upon his golden hair which flowed down his neck; his slight but
well-knit limbs were clothed in the purple of an Emperor. She saw him
lean on the arm of the Prætorian Præfect as, surrounded by some of
the chief military tribunes, he walked to the guard-house of the
cohort which protected the imperial residence.

‘Prætorians,’ said Burrus, in a loud voice, ‘behold your Emperor,
Nero Claudius Cæsar.’

‘Nero?’ asked one or two voices. ‘But where is Britannicus?’

They looked round. No one was visible but Nero, and their question
was drowned in the cheers of their comrades.

‘Bring out the richest lectica,’ they cried; and it was ready in
an instant. Nero was placed in it, and Burrus, springing on his
war-horse, and followed by the select cohort of imperial cavalry,
rode by his side. The Præfect was in full armour, and his cuirass
was enriched with gems and gold. He held his drawn sword in his hand,
lifting it again and again to excite the soldiers to louder cheers.

Then followed the very delirium of Agrippina’s triumph. Messenger
after messenger entered to tell her that the air was ringing with
endless acclamations in honour of her son. The beautiful and happy
youth promised to the soldiers the same donative of fifteen sestertia
to each man which Claudius had given at his succession, and the
guardsmen accepted him with rapture, and hastily swore to him their
oaths of allegiance.

Then with gleaming ensigns, and joyous songs, and shouting, and
clapping of hands, they bore him in long procession to the Senate
House, to obtain the ratification which the Conscript Fathers
dared not refuse. At first, indeed, there had been a few shouts,
‘Britannicus! Where is Britannicus? Where is the true son of
Claudius?’ And she inwardly made a note of the fact that the
centurion Pudens and the knight Julius Densus had been among the
number of those who raised the shout. Britannicus, too, had heard the
cry, faint as it was by comparison; but when he attempted to escape
out of the room, Agrippina imperiously waved him back, and Pallas
detained him by the arm. He sat down in despair, and once more
covered his face with his hands, while now it was the turn of Octavia
to caress and comfort him. But the plot was already accomplished.
The few who would have favoured his cause seemed to be swept away
by the general stream. The boy had been kept so designedly in the
background, that many of the people hardly knew whether he was alive
or dead. He felt that he was powerless, and he had heard among the
shouts of the soldiers the cry, ‘All hail, Augusta! All hail, the
daughter of our Germanicus!’ He resigned himself to his fate, and
Agrippina, intent on her own plans, and absorbed in the intensity
of her emotions, no longer noticed his presence.

Suddenly, however, he started from his seat, and stood before her.
His face was pale as death, but his eyes shone with indignant light.

‘Why am not I, too, proclaimed Emperor?’ he exclaimed. ‘I do not
believe that my father meant to rob me of my inheritance. I am
his son, not his _adopted_ son. This is a conspiracy. Where is my
father’s will? Why is it not taken to the senate, and there recited?’

The Empress was amazed at the sudden outburst. Was this the boy who
seemed so meek and so helpless? This must be seen to!

‘Foolish boy,’ she said; ‘you are but a child. You have not yet
assumed the manly garb. How can a boy like you bear the burden of the
world’s empire? Fear not; your brother Nero will take care of you.’

‘Take care of me!’ repeated Britannicus, indignantly, restraining
with difficulty the torrent of wild words which sprang to his lips.
‘It is a conspiracy!’ he cried. ‘You have robbed me of my inheritance
to give it to your son Ahenobarbus.’

Agrippina lifted up her arm as if she would have struck him, but
Pallas interposed. Firmly, but not ungently, he laid his hand on
the young prince’s mouth.

‘Hush,’ he said, ‘ere you do yourself fatal harm. Boy, these
questions are not for you or me to settle. They are for the Senate,
and the Prætorians, and the Roman people. If the soldiers have
elected Nero, and the senators have confirmed their choice, he is
your Emperor, and you must obey.’

‘It is useless to resist, my brother,’ said Octavia, sadly. ‘Our
father is dead. Narcissus has been sent away. We have none to help
us.’

‘None to help you, ungrateful girl!’ said Agrippina. ‘Are not you now
the Empress? Have you not the glory of being Nero’s bride?’

Octavia answered not. ‘Our father is dead,’ she said again. ‘May we
not go, Augusta, and weep by his bedside?’

‘Go!’ answered Agrippina; ‘and I for my part will see that he is
enrolled among the gods, and honoured with a funeral worthy of the
House of Cæsar.’ Then, turning to her attendants, she issued her
orders.

‘Put a cypress at the door of the Palace. Let the body be dressed in
imperial robes, and incense burned in the chamber. See that every
preparation is made for a royal funeral, and that the flute-players,
the wailing-women, the _designatores_, with their black lictors, be
all in readiness.’

But while Agrippina was giving directions to the _archimimus_ who was
to represent the dead Emperor at the funeral, and was examining the
waxen masks of his ancestral Claudii, which were to be worn in the
procession, the boy and girl were permitted to visit the chamber
of the dead. They bent over the corpse of their father, and fondled
his cold hands, and let their tears fall on his pale face, and felt
something of the bitterness of death in that sudden and shattering
bereavement, which changed for ever the complexion of their lives.

Nero, meanwhile, was addressing the Senate amidst enraptured plaudits
in the finely turned and epigrammatic phrases of Seneca, which
breathed the quintessence of wise government and Stoic magnanimity.
He would rule, he said, on the principles which guided Augustus; and
the senators seemed as if they would never end their plaudits when to
the offer of the title ‘Father of his Country’ he modestly replied,
‘Not till I shall have deserved it.’

Agrippina, after having ordered the details of the funeral procession,
finally dismissed her murdered husband from her thoughts, and gave
directions that her son, on his return to the Palace, should be
received with a fitting welcome. She summoned all the slaves and
freed men of that mass of dependants which made of the Palace not
a household, but a city. They were marshalled in throngs by their
offices and nationalities in the vast hall. They were arrayed in
their richest apparel, and were to scatter flowers and garlands under
the feet of the new Emperor as he advanced. The multitudes of the
lowest and least distinguished slaves were to stand in the farther
parts of the hall; next to them the more educated and valuable
slaves, and next to them the freedmen. In the inner ring were placed
all the most beautiful and accomplished of the pages, their long and
perfumed curls falling over their gay apparel, while some who had
the sweetest voices were to break out into a chorus of triumphal
songs. Then Nero was to be conducted to the bath, and afterwards a
sumptuous banquet was to be served to a hundred guests. There was but
a short time for these preparations; but the wealth of the Cæsars was
unbounded, and their resources inexhaustible, and since the slaves
were to be counted by hundreds, and each had his own minute task
assigned to him, everything was done as if by magic.

The afternoon was drawing in when new bursts of shouting proclaimed
that, through the densely crowded streets, in which every lattice
and balcony and roof was now thronged with myriads of spectators,
Nero was returning from the Curia to the Palace with his guard of
Prætorians.

Walking between the two Consuls, with Burrus and Seneca attending him
in white robes, followed by crowds of the greatest Roman nobles, and
by the soldiers clashing their arms, singing their rude songs, and
exulting in the thought of their promised donative, the young ruler
of the world returned. The scene which greeted him when the great
gates of the Palace were thrown open was gay beyond description.
The atrium glowed in zones of light and many-coloured shadow. The
autumnal sunbeams streamed over the gilded chapiters, glancing from
lustrous columns of yellow and green and violet-coloured marble, and
lighting up the open spaces adorned with shrubs and flowers. The
fountains were plashing musically into marble and alabaster basins.
Between rows of statues, the work of famed artificers, were crowded
the glad and obsequious throngs of the rejoicing house.

Agrippina was seated on a gilded chair of state at the farther end of
the hall, her arms resting on the wings of the two sphinxes by which
it was supported. She was dressed in the chlamys, woven of cloth
of gold, in which Pliny saw her when she had dazzled the spectators
as she sat by the side of Claudius in the great festival at the
opening of the Emissarium of the Fucine Lake. Beneath this was her
rich _stola_, woven of Tarentine wool and scarlet in colour, but
embroidered with pearls. It left bare from the elbow her shapely
arms, which were clasped with golden bracelets enriched with large
stones of opal and amethyst.

The moment that she caught sight of her son she descended from her
seat with proud step, and Nero advanced to meet her. He was bending
to kiss her hand, but the impulses of nature overcame the stateliness
of Roman etiquette, and for one instant mother and son were locked
in each other’s arms in a warm embrace, amid the spontaneous
acclamations of the many spectators.

That evening Agrippina had ascended to the giddiest heights of her
soaring ambition. Her son was Emperor, and she fancied he would be as
clay in her strong hands. Alone of all the great Roman world it would
be her unspeakable glory that she was not only the descendant of
emperors, but the sister, the wife, and the mother of an Emperor.
She was already Augusta and Empress in title, and she meant with
almost unimpeded sway to rule the world. And while she thus let loose
every winged wish over the flowery fields of hope, and suffered her
fancy to embark on a sea of glory, the thought of her husband lying
murdered there in an adjoining room did not cast the faintest shadow
over her thoughts. She was about to deify him, and to acquire a sort
of sacredness herself by becoming his priestess--was not that enough?
She sat revolving her immense plans of domination, when Nero joined
her, flushed from the banquet, and weary with the excitement of the
day. While he was bidding her good night, and they were exchanging
eager congratulations on the magnificent success of his commencing
rule, the tribune of the Palace guard came to ask the watchword for
the night.

Without a moment’s hesitation Nero gave as the watchword, THE BEST OF
MOTHERS.

       *       *       *       *       *

But late into the darkness, in the room of death, unnoticed, unasked
for, Britannicus and Octavia mingled their sad tears and their
low whispers of anguish, beside the rapidly blackening corpse of
the father who had been the lord of the world. Yesterday--though
his impudent freedmen had for years been selling, plundering, and
murdering in his name--two hundred millions of mankind had lifted up
their eyes to him as the arbiter of life and death, of happiness and
misery. By to-morrow nothing would be left but a handful of ashes
in a narrow urn. Of all who had professed to love and to adore
him, not one was there to weep for him except these two; for their
half-sister, Antonia, had been content merely to see the corpse, and
had then retired. No one witnessed their agony of bereavement, their
helplessness of sorrow, except the dark-dressed slave who tended
the golden censer which filled the death chamber with the fumes of
Arabian incense. And for them there was no consolation. The objects
of their nominal worship were shadowy and unreal. The gods of the
heathen were but idols, of whom the popular legends were base and
foolish. Such gods as those had no heart to sympathise, no invisible
and tender hand to wipe away their orphan tears.



CHAPTER VII

_SENECA AND HIS FAMILY_

   ‘Palpitantibus præcordiis vivitur.’--SENECA, _Ep._ lxxii.

                  ‘Sæculo premimur gravi,
    Quo scelera regnant.’

                                      ID. _Octav._ act. ii.


If there was one man in all Rome whom the world envied next to the
young Emperor, or even more than the Emperor himself, it was his
tutor, Seneca. He was the leading man in Rome. By the popular critics
of the day his style was thought the finest which any Roman had
written, though the Emperor Gaius, in one of his lucid intervals,
had wittily remarked that it was ‘sand without lime.’ His abilities
were brilliant, his wealth was immense. In all ordinary respects
he was innocent and virtuous--he was innocence and virtue itself
compared with the sanguinary oppressors and dissolute Epicureans
by whom he was surrounded on every side.

But his whole life and character were ruined by the attempt to
achieve an impossible compromise, which disgraced and could not save
him. A philosopher had no place in the impure Court of the Cæsars.
To be at once a Stoic and a minister of Nero was an absurd endeavour.
Declamations in favour of poverty rang hollow on the lips of a man
whose enormous usury poured in from every part of the Empire. The
praises of virtue sounded insincere from one who was living in
the closest intercourse with men and women steeped in unblushing
wickedness. And Seneca was far from easy in his own mind. He was
surrounded by flatterers, but he knew that he was not ranked with
patriots like Pætus Thrasea, and genuine philosophers like Cornutus
and Musonius Rufus. Unable to resist temptations to avarice and
ambition, he felt a deep misgiving that the voice of posterity would
honour their perilous independence, while it spoke doubtfully of his
endless compromises.

Yet he might have been so happy! His mother, Helvia, was a woman who,
in the dignity of her life and the simplicity of her desires, set an
example to the matrons of Rome, multitudes of whom, in the highest
circles, lived in an atmosphere of daily intrigue and almost
yearly divorce. His aunt, Marcia, was a lady of high virtue and
distinguished ability. His wife, Paulina, was tender and loving.
His pretty boy, Marcus, whose bright young life was so soon to end,
charmed all by his mirthfulness and engaging ways. His gardens were
exquisitely beautiful, and he never felt happier than when he laid
aside his cares and amused himself by running races with his little
slaves. His palace was splendid and stately, and he needed not
to have burdened himself with the magnificence which gave him no
pleasure and only excited a dangerous envy. It would have been well
for him if he had devoted his life to literature and philosophy. But
he entered the magic circle of the Palace, and with a sore conscience
was constantly driven to do what he disapproved, and to sanction what
he hated.

Short as was the time which had elapsed since the death of Claudius,
he was already aware that in trying to control Nero he was holding
a wolf by the ears. Some kind friend had shown him a sketch, brought
from Pompeii, of a grasshopper driving a griffin, and he knew that,
harmless as it looked, the griffin was meant for himself and the
grasshopper for Nero. Men regarded him as harnessed to the car of
the frivolous pupil whom he was unable to control.

He was sitting in his study one afternoon, and the low wind
sounded mournfully through the trees outside. It was a room of
fine proportions, and the shelves were crowded with choice books.
There were rolls of vellum or papyrus, stained saffron-colour at
the back, and fastened to sticks of ebony, of which the bosses
were gilded. All the most valuable were enclosed in cases of
purple parchment, with their titles attached to them in letters of
vermilion. There was scarcely a book there which did not represent
the best art of the famous booksellers, the Sosii, in the Vicus
Sandalarius, whose firm was as old as the days of Horace. A glance
at the library showed the taste as well as the wealth of the eminent
owner--the ablest, the richest, the most popular, the most powerful
of the Roman senators.

They who thought his lot so enviable little knew that his pomp and
power brought him nothing except an almost sleepless anxiety. Every
visitor who came to him that morning spoke of subjects which either
tortured him with misgivings or vexed him with a touch of shame.

The first to visit Seneca that day was his brother Gallio, with
whom he enjoyed a long, confidential, and interesting conversation.
Gallio, to whom every one gave the epithet of ‘sweet’ and ‘charming,’
and of whom Seneca said that those who loved him to the utmost did
not love him enough, had recently returned from the proconsulship
of Achaia. He had just been nominated Consul as a reward for his
services. The brothers had much to tell each other. Gallio described
some of his experiences, and made Seneca laugh by a story of how a
Jewish Rabbi had been dragged before his tribunal by the Jews of
Corinth, who were infuriated with him because he had joined this
new, strange, and execrable sect of Christians. This Jew’s name was
Paulus, and his countrymen accused him of worshipping a malefactor
who, for some sedition or other--but probably only to please the
turbulent Jews--had been crucified, in the reign of Tiberius, by
the Procurator Pontius Pilatus.

‘I naturally refused to have anything to do with their abject
superstition,’ said Gallio.

‘Abject enough,’ answered Seneca; ‘but is our mythology much better?’

Gallio answered with a shrug of the shoulders.

‘They are the gods of the mob,’ he said, ‘not ours; and they are
useful to the magistrates.’

‘A new god has recently been added to their number,’ said Seneca,
‘the divine Claudius.’

‘Yes,’ said Gallio, significantly; ‘he has been dragged to heaven
with a hook! But you have not let me finish my story. It appears that
this Paulus was a tent-maker, and for some reason or other, in spite
of his absurd beliefs, he had gained the confidence of Erastus, the
city chamberlain, and of a great many Greeks; for, strange to say,
he had--so I am told--preached a very remarkable and original code
of ethics. It is almost inconceivable that a man can hold insane
doctrines, and yet conform to a lofty morality. Yet such seems to
have been the case with this strange person. I looked at him with
curiosity. He was dressed in the common Eastern costume of the Jews,
wearing a turban and a coarse striped robe flung over his tunic.
He was short, and had the aquiline nose and general type of Judaic
features. But though his eyes were sadly disfigured by ophthalmia,
there was something extraordinary about his look. You know how those
Jews can yell when once their Eastern stolidity is roused to fury.
Even in Rome we have had some experience of that; and you remember
how Cicero was once almost terrified out of recollection of his
speech by the clamour they made, and had to speak in a whisper that
they might not hear what he said. To stand in the midst of a mob of
such dirty, wildly gesticulating creatures, shouting, cursing, waving
their garments in the air, flinging up handfuls of dust, is enough to
terrify even a Roman. I, as you know, am a tolerably cool personage,
yet I was half appalled, and had to assume a disdainful indifference
which I was far from feeling. But this man stood there unmoved. If
he had been a Regulus or a Fabricius he could not have been more
undaunted, as he looked on his infuriated persecutors with a glance
of pitying forgiveness. Every now and then he made a conciliatory
gesture, and tried to speak; but though he spoke in Hebrew, which
usually pacifies these fanatics to silence, they would not listen
to him for an instant. But the perfect dignity, the nobleness of
attitude and aspect, with which that worn little Jew stood there,
filled me with admiration. And his face! that of Pætus Thrasea is
not more striking. The spirit of virtue and purity, and something
more which I cannot describe, seemed to breathe from it. It is an
odd fact, but those Jews seem to produce not only the ugliest and the
handsomest, but also the best and worst of mankind. I sat quiet in my
curule chair, and let the Jews yell, telling them once more that, as
no civil crime was charged against Paulus, I refused to be a judge in
matters of their superstition. At last, getting tired, I ordered the
lictors to clear the prætorium, which they did with infinite delight,
driving the yelling Jews before them like chaff, and not sparing the
blows of their fasces. I thought I had done with the matter then; but
not at all! It was the turn of the Greeks now. They resented the fact
that the Jews should be allowed to make a riot, and they sided with
Paulus. He was hurried by his friends into a place of safety; but
the Greeks seized the head of the Jewish Synagogue--a fellow named
Sosthenes--and administered to him a sound beating underneath my very
tribunal.’

‘Did you not interfere?’ asked Seneca.

‘Not I,’ said Gallio. ‘On the contrary, I nearly died with laughing.
What did it matter to a Roman and a philosopher like me whether a
rabble of idle Greeks, most of them the scum of the Forum, beat any
number of Jews black and blue? It is what we shall have to do to the
whole race before long. But, somehow, the face of that Paulus haunted
me. They tell me that he was educated at Tarsus, and he was evidently
a man of culture. I wanted to get at him, and have a talk with him.
I heard that he had been lodging in a squalid lane of the city with
a Jewish tent-maker named Aquila, who was driven from Rome by the
futile edict of Claudius. But my lictor either could not or would
not find out the obscure haunt where he hid himself. The Christians
were chary of information, and perhaps, after all, it was as well
not to demean myself by talking to a ringleader of a sect whom
all men detest for their enormities. If report says true, the old
Bacchanalians, whose gang was broken up two hundred years ago, were
nothing to them.’[6]

‘I have heard their name,’ said Seneca. ‘Our slaves probably know a
good deal more about the matter than we do, if one took the trouble
to ask them. But unless they stir up a riot at Rome I shall not
trouble the Emperor by mentioning them.’

At this point of the conversation a slave announced that Seneca’s
other brother, the knight Marcus Annæus Mela, and his son Lucan, were
waiting in the atrium.

‘Admit them,’ said Seneca. ‘Ah, brother, and you, my Lucan, perhaps
it would have been a better thing for us all if we had never left our
sunny Cordova.’

‘I don’t know that,’ said Mela. ‘I prefer to be at Rome, a senator
in rank, though I choose the station of a knight. To be procurator of
the imperial demesnes is more lucrative, as well as more interesting,
than looking after our father’s estates in Spain.’

‘What does the poet say?’ asked Gallio, turning to the young
Spaniard, a splendid youth of seventeen, whose earlier poems had
already been received with unbounded applause, and whose dark eyes
glowed with the light of genius and passion. ‘Is he content to stand
only second as a poet--if second--to Silius Italicus, and Cæsius
Bassus, and young Persius?’

‘Well,’ said Lucan, ‘perhaps a man might equal Silius without any
superhuman merit. Persius, like myself, is still young, but I would
give up any skill of mine for his delightful character. And, as for
Rome, if to be a constant guest at Nero’s table and to hear him read
by the hour his own bad poetry be a thing worth living for, then I am
better off at Rome than at Cordova.’

‘His poetry is not so very bad,’ said Seneca.

‘Oh! it is magnificent,’ answered Lucan, and, with mock rapture, he
repeated some of Nero’s lines:--

   ‘Witness thou, Attis! thou, whose lovely eyes
    Could e’en surprise the mother of the skies!
    Witness the dolphin, too, who cleaves the tides,
    And flouncing rides on Nereus’ sea-green sides;
    Witness thou likewise, Hannibal divine,
    Thou who didst chine the long ribb’d Apennine!’[7]

What assonance! What realism! What dainty euphuistic audacity! As
Persius says, ‘It all seems to swim and melt in the mouth!’

‘Well, well,’ replied the philosopher, ‘at least you will admit that
he might be worse employed than in singing and versifying?’

‘An Emperor might be better employed,’ said the young man; ‘and
with him I live on tenter-hooks. I heartily wish that he had never
summoned me from Athens, or done me the honour of calling me his
intimate friend. Frankly, I do not like him. Much as he tries to
conceal it, he is horribly jealous of me. He does all he can to make
me suppress my poems, though he affects to praise them; and though,
of course, when he reads me his verses, I cry “_Euge!_” and “Σοφῶς!”
at every line, as needs must when the master of thirty legions
writes, yet he sees through my praise. And I really cannot always
suppress my smiles. The other day he told me that the people called
his voice “divine.” A minute after, as though meaning to express
admiration for his verses, I repeated his phrase--

    ‘“Thou d’st think it thundered under th’ earth.”[8]

He was furious! He took it for a twofold reflection, on his voice and
on his alliteration; and I was desperately alarmed. It was hard work
to pacify him with a deluge of adulation.’

Seneca sighed. ‘Be careful, Lucan,’ he said, ‘be careful! The
character of Nero is rapidly altering. At present I have kept back
the tiger in him from tasting blood; but when he does he will bathe
his jaws pretty deeply. It is ill jesting when one’s head is in a
wild beast’s mouth.’

‘And yet,’ said Gallio, ‘I have heard you say that no one could
compare the mansuetude even of the aged Augustus with that of the
youthful Nero.’

Seneca thought it disagreeable to be reminded of his politic
inconsistencies. ‘I wish to lead him to clemency,’ he said, ‘even
if he be cruel. But he is his father’s son. You know what Lucius
Domitius was. He struck out the eye of a Roman knight, and he
purposely ran over and trampled on a poor child in the Appian road.
Have I ever told you that the night after I was appointed his tutor
I dreamt that my pupil was _Caligula_?’

There was an awkward pause, and to turn the conversation, Lucan
suddenly asked, ‘Uncle, do you believe in Babylonians and their
horoscopes?’

‘No,’ said the philosopher. ‘The star of each man’s destiny is in his
heart.’

‘Do you not? Well, I will not say that I do. And yet--would you
like to hear what a friend told me? He said that he had been a
_mathematicus_ under Apollonius of Tyana.’

‘Tell us,’ said his father, Mela. ‘I am not so wise as our Seneca,
and I feel certain that there is something in the predictions of the
astrologers.’

‘He told me,’ said Lucan, ‘that he had read by the stars that,
before ten years are over, you, my uncles, and you, my father, and I,
and’--here the young poet shuddered--‘my mother, Atilla--and all of
you through my fault--would die deaths of violence. Oh, ye gods, if
there be gods, avert this hideous prophecy!’

‘Come, Lucan,’ said Seneca, ‘this is superstition worthy of a Jew,
almost of a Christian. The Chaldæans are arrant quacks. Each man
makes his own omens. I am Nero’s tutor; you, his friend; our whole
family is in the full blaze of favour and prosperity.--But, hark!
I hear a soldier’s footstep in the hall. Burrus is coming to see
me on important state business. Farewell, now, but sup with me this
evening, if you will share my simplicity.’

‘Simplicity!’ answered Mela, with a touch of envy, ‘your humble
couches are inlaid with tortoise-shell; and your table shines with
crystal and myrrhine vases embossed with gems.’

‘What does it matter whether the goblets of a philosopher be of
crystal or of clay?’ answered Seneca gaily; ‘and as for my poor
Thyine tables with ivory feet, which every one talks of, Cicero was a
student, and he was not rich, yet he had one table which cost 500,000
sesterces. One may surely admire the tigrine stripes and panther-like
spots of the citron-wood without being a Lucullus or an Apicius.’

‘But you have five hundred such tables,’ said Mela, ‘worth--I am
afraid to say how many million sesterces.’

Seneca smiled a little uneasily. ‘_Accepimus peritura perituri_; we
and our possessions are but for a day,’ he said, ‘and even calumny
will bear witness that on those citron tables nothing more sumptuous
is usually served to me personally than water and vegetables and
fruit.’

Then with a whispered caution to Lucan to control his vehement
impulses and act with care, the ‘austere intriguer’ said farewell
to his kinsmen, and rose to greet his colleague Burrus.



CHAPTER VIII

_SENECA AND HIS VISITORS_

    ‘Videtur mihi cadere in sapientem ægritudo.’--CIC. _Tusc.
    Disp._ iii. 4.


Burrus was a man in the prime of life, whose whole bearing was that
of an honest and fearless Roman; but his look was gloomy, and those
who had seen him when he escorted Nero to the camp and the senate
house, noticed how fast the wrinkles seemed to be gathering on his
open brow.

We need not repeat the conversation which took place between the
friendly ministers, but it was long and troubled. Burrus felt,
no less strongly than Seneca, that affairs at Court were daily
assuming a more awkward complexion. The mass of the populace, and
of the nobles, rejoicing in the general tranquillity, were happily
ignorant of facts which filled with foreboding the hearts of the two
statesmen. The nobles and the people praised with rapture the speech
which Nero had pronounced before the Senate after the funeral honours
had been paid to the murdered Claudius. ‘I have,’ he said, ‘no
wrongs to avenge; no ill feeling towards a single human being. I
will maintain the purity and independence of legal trials. In the
Palace there shall be no bribery and no intrigues. I will command
the army, but in no particular will I encroach upon the prerogatives
of the Conscript Fathers.’ Critics recognised in the speech the
style and sentiments of Seneca, but that only showed that at last
philosophy was at the helm of state. And the Fathers had really been
allowed to enact some beneficent and useful measures. It was the
beginning of a period of government of which the public and external
beneficence was due to Seneca and the Prætorian Præfect, who acted
together in perfect harmony, and with whom Nero was too indolent to
interfere. Long afterwards, so great a ruler as Trajan said that he
would emulate, but could not hope to equal, the fame of Nero’s golden
_quinquennium_.

But, meanwhile, unknown to the Roman world in general, the ‘golden
quinquennium’ was early stained with infamy and blood; and the
contemporary Pliny says that _all through his reign_ Nero was an
enemy of the human race.[9]

The turbulent ambition of Agrippina was causing serious misgivings.
When the senators were summoned to meet in the Palace she contrived
to sit behind a curtain and hear all their deliberations. When
Nero was about to receive the Armenian ambassadors she would have
scandalised the majesty of Rome by taking her seat unbidden beside
him on the throne, if Seneca had not had the presence of mind to
whisper to the Emperor that he should step down to meet his mother
and lead her to a seat. Worse than this, she had ordered the murder,
not only of Narcissus, but of the noble Junius Silanus, whose
brother, the affianced suitor of Octavia before her marriage with
Nero, she had already got rid of by false accusations which broke
his heart. She was doubly afraid of Junius, both because the blood
of Augustus flowed in his veins, and because she feared that he might
one day be the avenger of his brother, though he was a man of mild
disposition. She sent the freedman Helius and the knight Publius
Celer, who were procurators in Asia, to poison him at a banquet,
and the deed was done with a cynical boldness which disdained
concealment. So ended the great-great-grandson of Augustus, whom
his great-great-grandfather had just lived to see. It was only
with difficulty that Seneca and Burrus had been able to stop more
tragedies, and they had succeeded in making the world believe in
Nero’s unique clemency by the anecdote, everywhere retailed by
Seneca, that when called upon to sign a death-warrant he had
exclaimed, ‘I wish I did not know how to write!’ It was looked on
as a further sign of grace that he had forbidden the prosecution of
the knight Julius Densus, who was charged with favour towards the
wronged Britannicus.

But now a new trouble had arisen. Nero began to seek the company of
such effeminate specimens of the ‘gilded youth’ of Rome as Otho and
Tullius Senecio. They were his ready tutors in every vice, and he was
a pupil whose fatal aptitude soon equalled, if it did not surpass,
the viciousness of his instructors.

Partly through their bad influence, he had devoted himself heart and
soul to Acte, the beautiful freedwoman of Octavia. It was impossible
that any secret of the Palace could long be concealed from the
vigilant eyes of Agrippina. She had discovered the amour, and had
burst into furious reproaches. What angered her was, not that the
Emperor should disgrace himself by vice, but that a freedwoman should
interfere with the supremacy of her will, and be a rival with her
for the affections of her son. A little forbearance, a little calm
advice, might have proved a turning point in the life of one who
was not yet an abandoned libertine, but rather a shy and timid youth
dabbling with his first experiences of wrong. His nature, indeed, was
endowed with the evil legacy of many an hereditary taint, but if it
was as wax to the stamp of evil, it was not as yet incapable of being
moulded into good. But Agrippina committed two fatal errors. At first
she was loudly indignant, and when by such conduct she had terrified
her son into the confidence of Otho and Senecio, she saw her mistake
too late, and flew into the opposite extreme of complaisance. Nero at
that time regarded her with positive dread, but his fear was weakened
when he saw that, on the least sign of his displeasure, she passed
from fierce objurgations to complete submission. In dealing with her
son, Agrippina lost the astuteness which had carried her triumphantly
through all her previous designs.

But at this point Seneca also made a mistake no less ruinous. If he
had remonstrated, and endeavoured to awaken his pupil to honourable
ambition, it was not impossible that the world might have found in
Nero a better Emperor than most of his predecessors. Instead of
this, the philosopher adopted the fatal policy of concession. He
even induced his cousin Annæus Serenus, the Præfect of the police,
to shield Nero by pretending that he was himself in love with Acte,
and by conveying to her the presents which were, in reality, sent
to her by the Emperor. Seneca soon learnt by experience that the
bad is never a successful engine to use against the worst, and that
fire cannot be quenched by pouring oil upon it. When Nero had been
encouraged by a philosopher to think lightly of immorality,
the reins of his animal nature were seized by ‘the unspiritual
god Circumstance,’ and with mad pace he plunged into the abyss.

Burrus had come to tell Seneca that Nero’s passion for Acte was going
to such absurd lengths that he talked of suborning two Romans of
consular dignity to swear that the slave girl, who had been brought
from Asia, was in reality a descendant of Attalus, King of Pergamus!
The Senate would be as certain to accept the statement as they had
been to pretend belief that Pallas was a scion of Evander and the
ancient kings of Arcadia; and Nero had actually expressed to Burrus
a desire to divorce Octavia[*2] and marry Acte!

‘What did you say to him?’ asked Seneca.

‘I told him frankly that, if he divorced Octavia, he ought to restore
her dower.’

‘Her dower?’

‘Yes--the Roman Empire. He holds it because Claudius adopted him as
the husband of his daughter.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He pouted like a chidden boy, and I have not the least doubt that he
will remember the answer against me.’

‘But, Burrus,’ said Seneca, ‘I really think that we had better
promote, rather than oppose, this love-affair. Acte is harmless and
innocent. She will never abuse her influence to injure so much as a
fly; nay, more, she may wean Nero from far more dangerous excesses.
I think that in this case a little connivance may be the truest
policy. To tell you the truth, I have endeavoured to prevent scandal
by removing all difficulties out of the way.’

‘You are a philosopher,’ said Burrus, ‘and I suppose you know best.
It would not have been my way. We often perish by permitted things.
But, since you do not take so serious a view of this matter as I did,
I will say no more. Forgive a brief interview. My duties at the camp
require my presence. Farewell.’

Seneca, as we have seen, had spent a somewhat agitated day, but
he had one more visitor before the afternoon meal. It was the
philosopher Cornutus, who had been a slave in the family of the
Annæi, but was now free and had risen to the highest literary
distinction by his philosophical writings.

‘Cornutus is always a welcome visitor,’ he said, as he rose to greet
him; ‘never more so than this morning. I want to consult you, in deep
confidence, about the Emperor’s education.’

‘Can Seneca need any advice about education?’ said Cornutus. ‘Who has
written so many admirable precepts on the subject?’

Seneca, with infinite plausibility, related to his friend the
arguments which he had just used to Burrus. He felt a restless
desire that the Stoic should approve of what he had done. To fortify
his opinion he quoted Zeno and other eminent philosophers, who had
treated graver offences than that of Nero as mere _adiaphora_--things
of no real moment. Cornutus, however, at once tore asunder his web of
sophistry.

‘A thing is either right or wrong,’ he said; ‘if it is wrong no
amount of expediency can sanction it, no skill of special pleading
can make it other than reprehensible. The passions cannot be checked
by sanctioning their indulgence, but by training youth in the
manliness of self-control. You wish to prevent the Emperor from
disgracing himself with the crimes which rendered execrable the
reigns of Tiberius and Gaius. Can you do it otherwise than by
teaching him that what he _ought_ to do is also what he _can_ do?
Is the many-headed monster of the young man’s impulses to be checked
by giving it the mastery, or rather by putting it under the dominion
of his reason?’

‘I cannot judge by abstract considerations of ethics. I must judge as
a statesman,’ said Seneca, somewhat offended.

‘Then, if you are only a statesman, do not pretend to act as a
philosopher. I speak to you frankly, as one Stoic to another.’

Seneca said nothing. It was evident that he felt deeply hurt by the
bluntness of Cornutus, who paused for a moment, regarding him with a
look of pity. Then he continued.

‘If it pains you to hear the truth I will be silent; but if you wish
me to speak without reserve, you are committing two fatal errors.
You dream of controlling passion by indulging it. You are conceding
liberty in one set of vices in the vain hope of saving Nero from
another. But all vices are inextricably linked together. And you
have committed a second mistake, not only by addressing your pupil
in language of personal flattery, but also by inflating him with a
belief in his own illimitable power.’[10]

‘Nero is Emperor,’ answered Seneca curtly, ‘and, after all, he can
do whatever he likes.’

‘Yet even as Emperor he can be told the truth,’ replied Cornutus. ‘I
for one ventured to offend him yesterday.’

‘In what way?’

‘Your nephew Lucan was belauding Nero’s fantastic verses, and said he
wished Nero would write four hundred volumes. “Four hundred!” I said;
“that is far too many.” “Why?” said Lucan; “Chrysippus, whom you are
always praising, wrote four hundred.” “Yes,” I answered, “but they
were of use to mankind!” Nero frowned portentously, and I received
warning looks from all present; but if a true man is to turn
flatterer to please an Emperor, what becomes of his philosophy?’

‘Yes,’ sighed Seneca: ‘but _your_ pupil Persius is a youth of the
sweetest manners and the purest heart; whereas Nero is--Nero.’

‘A finer young Roman than Persius never lived,’ replied the Stoic,
‘but if I had encouraged Persius in the notion that vice was
harmless, Persius might have been--Nero.’

‘Cornutus,’ said the statesman--and as he said it he sighed deeply
--‘your lot is humbler and happier than mine. I do not follow, but I
assent; I am crushed by an awful weight of uncertainty, and sometimes
life seems a chaos of vanities. I wish to rise to a loftier grade
of virtue, but I am preoccupied with faults. All I can require of
myself is, not to be equal to the best, but only to be better than
the bad.’[11]

‘He who aims highest,’ said the uncompromising freedman, ‘will reach
the loftiest ideal. And surely it is hypocrisy to use fine phrases
when you do not intend to put your own advice into practice.’

Seneca was always a little touchy about his style, and he was now
thoroughly angry, for he was not accustomed to be thus bluntly
addressed by one so immeasurably beneath him in rank. ‘Fine phrases!’
he repeated, in a tone of deep offence. ‘It pleases you to be rude,
Cornutus. Perhaps the day will come when the “fine phrases” of
Seneca will still be read, though the name of Cornutus, and even
of Musonius, is forgotten.’

‘Very possibly,’ answered the uncompromising freedman. ‘Nevertheless,
I agree with Musonius that stylists who do not act up to their own
precepts should be called fiddlers and not philosophers.’

When Cornutus rose to leave, the feelings of the most envied man in
Rome were far from enviable. He would have given much to secure the
Stoic’s approval. And yet the sophistries by which he blinded his
own bitter feelings were unshaken. ‘Cornutus,’ he said to himself,
‘is not only discourteous but unpractical. Theory is one thing; life
another. We are in Rome, not in Plato’s Atlantis.’

Seneca lived to find out that facing both ways is certain failure,
and that a man cannot serve two masters.

In point of fact the struggle was going on for the preponderance of
influence over Nero. Agrippina thought that she could use him as a
gilded figurehead of the ship of state, while she stood at the helm
and directed the real course. Burrus and Seneca, distrusting her
cruelty and ambition, believed that they could render her schemes
nugatory, and convert Nero into a constitutional prince. Both efforts
were alike foiled. The passions which were latent in the temperament
of the young Emperor were forced into rank growth by influences
incomparably less virile than that of his mother, and incomparably
more vile than those of the soldier and the philosopher. Otho was a
more effective tutor than Seneca, and Seneca’s own vacillation paved
the way for Otho’s corrupting spell. Claudius had been governed by
an ‘aristocracy of valets;’ Nero was to be governed neither by the
daughter of Germanicus nor by the Stoic moralist, but by a despicable
fraternity of minions, actors, and debauchees.



CHAPTER IX

_NERO AND HIS COMPANIONS_

   ‘Res pertricosa est, Cotile, bellus homo.’--MARTIAL, iii. 63.


Nero had been spending the morning with some of the new friends whose
evil example was rapidly destroying in his mind every germ of decency
or virtue. Though it was still but noon, he was dressed in a loose
_synthesis_--a dress of light green, unconfined by any girdle, and
he had soft slippers on his feet. This negligence was due only to
the desire for selfish comfort, for in other respects he paid extreme
attention to his personal appearance. His fair hair was curled and
perfumed, and his hands were covered with splendid gems.

But even a brief spell of imperial power, with late hours, long
banquets, deep gambling, and reckless dissipation, had already left
their brand upon his once attractive features. His cheeks had begun
to lose the rose and glow of youth and to assume the pale and sodden
appearance which in a few years obliterated the last traces of beauty
and dignity from his ruined face.

With him sat and lounged and yawned and gossiped and flattered a
choice assemblage of spirits more wicked than himself.

The room in which they were sitting was one of the most private
apartments of the Palace. It had been painted in the reign of Gaius
with frescoes graceful and brilliant, but such as would now be
regarded as proofs of an utterly depraved taste. As he glanced at
the works of art with which the chamber was decorated, Otho thought,
not without complacency, of the day when the prediction made to him
by an astrologer should be fulfilled, and he too would be Emperor of
Rome. He highly approved of frescoes such as these, though even Ovid
and Propertius had complained of their corrupting tendency.

Otho was now nearly twenty-three years old, and was a characteristic
product of imperial civilisation. His face was smooth, for he had
artificially prevented the growth of a beard. To hide his baldness,
which he regarded as the most cruel wrong of the unjust gods, he wore
a wig, so natural and close-fitting as scarcely to be recognisable,
and this was arranged in front in the fashion which he set, and which
Nero followed. Four rows of symmetrical curls half hid the narrow
forehead. Those curls had cost his barber two hours’ labour that
morning, and they were dyed with a Batavian pomade into the blonde
colour which was the most admired. In figure Otho was small; his legs
were bowed, and his feet ill-shaped, but his large eyes and beautiful
mouth gave him a sweet and engaging, though effeminate, expression.
Indeed, effeminacy was his main characteristic, and there was a touch
of effeminacy even in the much belauded suicide to which his destiny
was leading him. When he was a boy, his father was so disgusted by
his ways that he flogged him like the lowest of his slaves. He was
one of those creatures of perfumed baths, delicate languor, soft
manners, and disordered appetites, who, in that age, so often took
refuge from a depraved life in a voluntary death.[12] He was entirely
impecunious, and was loaded with debts--a circumstance which he did
not regard as any obstacle to a life of boundless extravagance. In
order to get introduced to Nero he had the effrontery to make love
to a plain and elderly freedwoman, who had some influence at Court.
When he had once secured an introduction he became the ardent friend
of Nero, and the intimate accomplice of his worst dissipations. Being
six years older than the Emperor, and far more accomplished in vice,
he exercised a spell which rapidly undermined the grave lessons
of Burrus and Seneca. Precociously corrupt, serenely egotistical,
cynical in dishonour, and gangrened to the depth of his soul by
debauchery, Otho, though still a youth, had so completely got rid of
the moral sense as to present to the world a spectacle of unruffled
self-content. A radiant and sympathetic softness reigned smiling on
his smooth and almost boyish face.

By the side of Otho lounged another youth, whose name was Tullius
Senecio. He was wealthy and reckless, and he had made himself a
leader of fashion among the young Roman nobles. With them was the
brilliant Petronius Arbiter, a man of refined culture and natural
wit, but the most cynically shameless liver and talker even in
Rome. The group was completed by the able and rough-tongued but
not over-scrupulous Vestinus, the dissolute Quintianus, and the
singularly handsome Tigellinus, who was as yet only at the beginning
of his career, but who, of all the minions of that foul Court, became
the most cruel, the most treacherous, and the most corrupt.

And yet weariness reigned supreme over these luxurious votaries of
fashion. They had at first tried to get some amusement out of the
antics of Massa, a half-witted boy, and Asturco, a dwarf; but when
they had teased Massa into sullenness, and Asturco into tears and
bellowings of rage, Petronius interfered, and voted such amusements
boorish and in bad taste. Then they tried to kill time by betting
and gambling over games at marbles and draughts. The ‘pieces’
(_latrunculi_ and _ocellata_) of glass, ivory, and silver lay
scattered over tables, just as they were when the players got tired
of the games, and the draught boards (_tabulæ latrunculariæ_) had
been carelessly tossed on the floor. Then they sent for plates of
honey-apples, and bowls of Falernian wine, and took an extemporised
meal. Nero even condescended to amuse himself with rolling little
ivory chariots down a marble slab, and betting on their speed. Still
they all felt that the hours were somewhat leaden-footed, till a
bright thought struck the Emperor. He had passed some of his early
years in poverty, and this circumstance, together with his æsthetic
appreciation of things beautiful, made him delight in showing his
treasures to his intimates. By way of finding something to do,
he suggested to his friends that they should come and look at the
wardrobes of the former empresses, which were under the charge of a
multitude of dressers, folders, and jewellers. Orders were given that
everything should be laid out for their inspection. Except Petronius,
they all had an effeminate passion for jewellery, and they whiled
away an hour in inspecting the robes, stiff with gold brocade and
broideries of pearl, sapphire, and emerald.

By this time Nero was in high good-humour, and seized the opportunity
of a little ostentation towards the ‘lisping hawthorn-buds’ of
fashion by whom he was surrounded.

He chose out a superb cameo, on which was carved a Venus Anadyomene,
and gave it to Otho. ‘There,’ he said; ‘that will adorn the neck of
your fair Poppæa. Vestinus, this opal was the one for the sake of
which Mark Antony procured the proscription of the senator Nonius.
You don’t deserve it, for you can be very rude--’

‘Free speech is a compliment to strong emperors,’ said Vestinus,
hardly concealing the irony of his tone.

‘Ah, well!’ continued Nero, ‘I shall not give it you for your
deserts, but because it will look splendid on the ivory arm of your
Statilia. A more fitting present to you would be this little viper
enclosed in amber;[13] the viper is your malice, the amber your
flattery. And what on earth am I to give you, Senecio? or you,
Petronius? You are devoted to so many fair ladies, that I should
have to give you the whole wardrobe; but I will give you, Senecio,
a silken fillet embroidered with pearls; and, Petronius, Nature has
set out this agate--I believe it is from the spoils of Pyrrhus--for
no one but you, for she has marked on it an outline of Apollo and the
Muses. Quintianus, this ring with Hylas on it will just suit you.’

There was a hidden sarcasm in much which he had said even while
he distributed his gifts, and not a few serpents hissed among the
flowery speeches interchanged in this bad society. But they all
thanked him effusively for presents so splendid.

At this point a sudden thought suggested itself to Nero. He had not
seen much of his mother for the last few days, and being in buoyant
spirits, and thoroughly pleased with himself, he chose out the most
splendid robe and ornaments, and bade some of the wardrobe-keepers
to carry them to the apartments of the Augusta, with the message
that they were a present from her son. ‘And do you,’ he said to his
freedman Polycletus, ‘bring me back word of what the Empress says in
thanks.’

Nero and his friends returned to the room in which they had been
sitting, and had begun to play at dice for large stakes, when
Polycletus came back, flushed and excited.

Nero was himself a little uneasy at what he had done. His mother,
with her unlimited resources, hardly needed a present of this kind.
As long as she was Empress, all these robes had been her own; and
Nero was exercising an unwonted sort of patronage when he sent this
gift by the hands of an attendant. There was a certain vulgarity in
his attention, which was all the worse because it was ostentatious.
And yet, if Agrippina had been wise, she would have shown greater
command over her temper, and have prevented that tragic widening of
the ‘little rift within the lute’ which soon silenced the music of a
mother’s love.

‘Well, and was the Augusta pleased?’ asked Nero, looking up from his
dice.

‘I will report to the Emperor when he is alone,’ said the freedman.

‘Tush, man!’ answered Nero, nervously. ‘We are all friends here, and
if my mother was very effusive in her compliments, they will pardon
it.’

‘She returned no praises and no thanks.’

‘Ha! that was ungracious. Tell me exactly what she did.’

‘She asked me who were with you, and I mentioned the names of those
present.’

‘What business is it of hers?’ said Nero, reddening, as he noticed
the significant glances interchanged between Otho and Vestinus, the
latter of whom whispered a Greek proverb about boys tied to their
mother’s apron-strings.

‘She then asked whether you had given any other presents, and I said
that you had. “To whom?” she asked.’

‘A regular cross-examination!’ whispered Vestinus.

‘I said that you had made presents to Otho, Vestinus, and others.’

‘You need not have been so very communicative, Polycletus,’ said
Nero; ‘but go on.’

‘Her lip curled as I mentioned the names.’

‘We are not favourites of the Augusta, alas!’ lisped Otho.

‘But what did she say about the robe?’

‘She barely glanced at the robe and jewels, and when she had finished
questioning me, she stamped her foot, tossed the dress over a seat,
and scattered the gems over the floor.’

Nero grew very red, and as the freedman again remained silent, he
asked whether the Augusta had sent no message.

Polycletus hesitated.

‘Go on, man!’ exclaimed Nero, impatiently. ‘In any case _you_ are not
to blame for anything she said.’

‘I am ashamed to repeat the Augusta’s words,’ said the messenger.
‘But, if I must tell you, she said: “My son gives a part to me, who
have given all to him. Whatever he has he owes to me. He sends me
these, I suppose, that I may put in no claim to the rest. Let him
keep his finery. There are things that I value more highly.” And then
she rose, and spurning with her foot the robe which lay in her way,
she swept out of the room.’

Nero bit his lip, and his eyes gleamed with rage. He was maddened
by the meaning smiles of Senecio, and the expression of cynical
amusement which passed over the face of Petronius.

Otho came to the rescue. ‘Do not be disturbed, Nero,’ he said.
‘Agrippina only forgot for the moment that you are now Emperor.’

‘The Augusta evidently thinks that you are still a boy in the
purple-bordered toga,’ sneered Tigellinus.

Nero dashed down his dice-box, overturned the table at which they
were sitting, and began to pace the room in extreme agitation. He had
not yet quite shaken off the familiarity of his mother’s dominance.
He was genuinely afraid of her, and he knew to what fearful lengths
she might be hurried by her passion and her hate.

‘I cannot stand it,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I am no match for
Agrippina. Who knows but what she may prepare a mushroom, or
something else, for me? I hate Rome. I hate the Empire. I will lay
aside the purple. I only want to enjoy myself. I will go to Rhodes
and live there. I can sing, if I can do nothing else, and if all
else fails, I will support myself with singing in the streets of
Alexandria. The astrologers have promised me that I shall be king
in Jerusalem, or somewhere in the East. Here I am utterly wretched.’

He flung himself angrily on a couch, and a red spot rose upon his
cheeks. ‘I wonder how she dares to insult me thus! If I had sent the
robe and jewels to Octavia, the poor child would have touched heaven
with her finger. If I had sent them to Acte, her soft eyes would have
beamed with love. Of what use is it to be Emperor, if my mother is to
flout and domineer like this?’

‘Does not Cæsar know what gives her this audacity?’ asked Tigellinus,
in a low tone.

‘No,’ answered Nero; ‘except it be that she has ruled me from a
child.’

‘It is,’ said the adventurer, ‘because Pallas abets her, and
because--’

He paused.

‘Pallas? Who is Pallas?’ said the Emperor. ‘An ex-slave--nothing
more. I am not afraid of him. I will dismiss him at once, and if he
gives the least trouble, I will threaten him with an inquisition into
his account. He shall go and end his Pallas-ship.[14] But what else
were you going to say?’

‘Agrippina domineers,’ he whispered in the Emperor’s ear, ‘because
Britannicus is alive.’

‘Britannicus?’ answered Nero.

He said no more, but his brow became dark as night.



CHAPTER X

_PRINCE BRITANNICUS._

                        ‘We were, fair queen,
    Two lads that thought there was no more behind,
    But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
    And to be boy eternal.’

                  SHAKESPEARE, _The Winter’s Tale_, i. 2.


There were few youths in Rome more deserving of pity than the
son of Claudius. Britannicus saw himself not only superseded, but
deliberately neglected and thrust into the background. The intrigues
of his stepmother had succeeded, and he, the true heir to the Empire,
was a cipher in the Palace of the Cæsars. The suite of apartments
assigned to his use and that of his immediate attendants was in one
of the least frequented parts of the Palace. He often heard from the
banquet hall and reception rooms, as he passed by them unnoticed, the
sounds of revelry, in which he was only allowed on rare occasions to
participate. Agrippina, in her varying moods, treated him sometimes
with studied coolness and insulting patronage, sometimes with a sort
of burning and maudlin affection, as though she were touched by the
furies of remorse. The latter mood was more intolerable to him than
the former. Sometimes, when she strained him to her steely heart,
he felt as if he could have thrust her from him with loathing, and
he made his relations with her more difficult because he was too
little of an actor to conceal his dislike. Nero usually met him with
sneering banter, but he, too, at times, seemed as though he would
like to be treated by him with at least the semblance of brotherly
cordiality. He found his chief comfort in the society of Octavia. She
was, nominally, the Empress, and Nero, though he shunned her to the
utmost of his power, had not yet dared to rob her of the dignities
which surrounded her exalted rank. It was in the company of his
sister that Britannicus spent his happiest hours. Octavia, as often
as she dared, invited him to be present on festive occasions, and in
her apartments he could find refuge for a time from the most detested
of the spies with whom his stepmother had surrounded him from his
early boyhood.

There was but one person about him whom he really trusted and loved.
It was the centurion Pudens, who, being one of the imperial guard
called _excubitores_, was often stationed at one point or other of
the Palace. So vast was the interior of that pile of architecture,
so intricate its structure, owing to the numerous additions which had
been made to it by each succeeding Emperor, that for a boy bent, as
Britannicus was, on occasionally eluding the intolerable watchfulness
of his nominal slaves, it was not difficult to conceal his movements.
Happily, too, he had one boyish friend whom he loved, and who loved
him, with entire affection. It was Titus, the elder son of Vespasian.
Even as a boy he gave promise of the fine moral qualities by which
he was afterwards distinguished. His father was a soldier who had
risen by merit to high command, and had even been Consul; but his
grandfather was only a humble provincial, and, as his family was
poor, he little dreamed that he too was destined to the purple of
which his friend had been deprived. He was only a month or two older
than Britannicus. They shared the same studies and the same games,
and there was something contagious in his healthy vigour and
imperturbable good humour. It was at least some alleviation to the
sorrows of the younger boy that this manly and virtuous lad, with
his short curly hair and athletic frame, was always ready to exert
himself to brighten his loneliness and divert his thoughts. Painters
might have called the features of Titus plebeian, but in his eyes and
mouth there was an expression of honesty and sweetness which endeared
him to the heart of the lonely prince, who admired him far more than
any of the boys in the noblest families.

The political insignificance of the Flavian family had been one
reason why Agrippina had chosen Titus as a companion for the son of
Claudius, instead of some scion of the old aristocracy of Rome. It
was well for Britannicus that his fellow-pupil came of a race purer
and simpler than that of the youthful patricians.

The two boys had been educated together for some years; and Titus,
when he became Emperor, still retained a fond affection for the
companion of his youth, to whom he erected an equestrian statue.
There was a story, known to very few, which might have endangered the
life of Titus, had it been divulged. One day, when the two boys were
learning their lessons together, Narcissus had brought in one of the
foreign physiognomists who were known as _metoposcopi_, to look at
them from behind a curtain. The man did not know who they were; he
only knew that they were in some way connected with the Palace. After
carefully studying their faces, he said that the elder of the two,
Titus, should certainly become Emperor, but the younger as certainly
should not. At that time Britannicus was heir to the throne.
Narcissus was superstitious, and his heart misgave him; but he
derived some comfort from the absurd improbability of a prophecy
that a boy who had been born in so humble a house, and was only the
descendant of a Cisalpine haymaker, should ever wear the purple of
the Cæsars. He was too kind-hearted to let the anecdote be generally
known, for even as a boy Titus was liked by every one, if he was not
yet ‘the darling of the human race.’

One day, as Titus went across the viridarium, or chief green court
of the Palace, he saw a little slave-boy struggling hard to repress
his sobs. His kindly nature was touched by the sight. He had not
been trained in the school of those haughty youths who thought it a
degradation to speak to their slaves; his father, Vespasian, being
himself of lowly origin, held, with Seneca, that slaves, after all,
were men, and might become dear and faithful friends.

‘What is your name, and why do you weep, my little man?’ asked Titus.

‘They call me Epictetus,’ said the child; ‘and I am the slave of
Epaphroditus, the Emperor’s secretary. I fell and hurt my leg very
badly against the marble rim of the fountain. Don’t be angry with me.
I will bear the pain.’[15]

‘A born Stoic!’ said Titus, smiling. ‘But what is the matter with
your leg?’

‘I will tell you, sir,’ answered Epictetus. ‘Being deformed and
useless, as you see, my master thought that he might turn me to some
account by having me taught philosophy, and he made me _capsarius_[16]
to his son, who attends the lectures of Musonius Rufus. Musonius, who
is kind and good, let me sit in a corner and listen. I am not a Stoic
yet, but I shall try to be one some day.’

‘But even now you have not told me how you came to be lame.’

The young slave blushed. ‘Eight weeks ago,’ he said, ‘I was walking
past the door of the triclinium, when a slave came out with some
crystal vases on a tray. He ran against me, and one of the vases fell
and was broken. He charged me with having broken it, and Epaphroditus
ordered my leg to be twisted. It hurt me terribly, but Musonius had
taught me to endure, and I only cried out, “If you go on, you will
break my leg.” He went on, and broke it. I did not give way then,
and I am ashamed that you saw me crying now.’

‘Poor lad! Come with me to Prince Britannicus and tell him that
story. He is kind, and will pity you, and perhaps get the Empress
Octavia to do something for you.’

Epictetus limped after Titus, and Britannicus was pleased with the
slave-boy’s quaint fortitude and the preternatural gravity of his
face. He often sat on the floor while the two friends talked or
played at draughts, and would sometimes retail to them what he had
heard in the lectures of Musonius. They laughed at his _naïveté_, but
something of the teaching stuck. The Stoicism of Titus had its germ
in those boyish days.

One other friend, strange to say, Britannicus had near at hand,
though she could not openly have much conversation with him. It
was the fair freedwoman Acte. Her situation in the Palace did
not argue in her a depraved mind. She had not been trained in an
atmosphere which made her suppose that there was anything sinful in
her relations with the Emperor. Brought from Asia in early youth, she
was practically no more than a slave, though she had been emancipated
by Claudius. The will of a master, even if that master was far below
an Emperor, was regarded as a necessary law.[17] But Acte had a good
heart, and so far from being puffed up by the ardent affection of
Nero, her one desire was to use her influence for the benefit of
others. For Britannicus she felt the deepest pity. She had even
aroused the anger of her lover by pleading in his behalf, and though
it was impossible that she should do more than interchange with him
an occasional salutation, the boy gratefully recognised that Acte did
her best to gain for him every indulgence and relaxation in her power.

Britannicus had inherited some of his father’s fondness for history.
He was never happier than when Titus told him some of the stories
which he had heard from Vespasian about his campaigns in Britain.
He had even persuaded Pudens to go with him to visit the old British
chief, Caractacus--or, to give him his right name, Caradoc--who
had kept the Romans at bay for nine years, until he was betrayed
to them by the treacherous Queen Cartismandua. And much had come of
this visit; for there Pudens saw for the first time the daughter of
Caradoc, the yellow-haired British princess Claudia, and had fallen
deeply in love with her. The grey King of the Silures, whose manly
eloquence had moved the admiration of Claudius on the day when he
had been led along in triumph, was eating away his heart in a strange
land. He rejoiced to see the son of the Emperor who had spared his
life, and he delighted the boy’s imagination with many a tale of the
Druids, and Mona, and the wild Silurian hills and the vast rushing
rivers, and the hunting of the wolf and the wild-boar in the marshes
and forests of Caer Leon and Caer Went. While Caractacus was telling
these stories there was ample opportunity for Pudens to improve his
acquaintance with the fair Claudia, who talked to him with a yearning
heart of her home on the silver Severn, which Pudens had once visited
as a very young soldier.

These interviews made Britannicus eager to form the acquaintance
of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of the southern part of that far
island. Plautius stood well at Court, and had been greatly honoured
by Claudius, who had condescended to walk by his side in the ovation
which rewarded the successful campaigns of four years. Britannicus
gained easy permission to visit the old general, and at his house
he met his wife, Pomponia Græcina.

This lady was regarded at Rome as a paragon of faithful friendship.
She had been deeply attached in early youth to her royal kinswoman
Julia, the granddaughter of Tiberius. Julia had been one of the
victims of the cruelty of Messalina, and from the day of her
execution, for forty years, Pomponia never appeared but in mourning
garments, and it was said, though without truth, that she never
wore a smile upon her face.

But though she smiled but rarely, the beauty of Pomponia was
exquisite from her look of serenity and contentment. She was unlike
the other ladies of Roman society. She never tinged her face with
walnut juice, or painted it with rouge and cerussa, or reared her
tresses into an elaborate edifice of curls, or sprinkled them with
gold dust, or breathed of Assyrian odours. Her life and her dress
were exquisitely simple. She wore no ornaments, or few. She rarely
appeared at any banquet, and then only with her husband at the houses
of the graver and more virtuous senators. Vice was involuntarily
abashed at her presence. The talk which Roman matrons sometimes
did not blush to hear was felt to be impossible where Pomponia was
present, nor would any one have dreamed of introducing loose gymnasts
or Gaditanian dancers as the amusement of any guests of whom she was
one. Hence she was more and more neglected by the jewelled dandies
and divorced ladies, who fluttered amid the follies of a heartless
aristocracy, and gradually the gossiping pleasure-hunters of
Rome came to hate her because her whole life was a rebuke of
the degradation of a corrupt society.

Hatred soon took the form of whispered accusations. The suspicion
was first broached by Calvia Crispinilla, a lady whose notoriously
evil character elevated her high in the confidence of Nero, and who,
in spite of her rank, was afterwards proud of the infamy of being
appointed keeper of the wardrobe of his favourite Sporus.

Talking one day to Ælia Petina, a divorced wife of Claudius and
mother of his daughter Antonia, she expressed her dislike of
Pomponia, and said, ‘It is impossible that any worshipper of our
gods should live a life so austere as Pomponia’s. Hark, in your ears,
Petina. She must be’--and sinking her voice to a tragic whisper she
said--‘she must be a secret Christian.’

‘Well,’ said Petina, ‘what does it matter? Nero himself worships the
Syrian goddess, and they say that the lovely Poppæa Sabina, the wife
of Otho, is a Jewess.’

‘A Jewess! oh, that is comparatively respectable,’ said Crispinilla.
‘Why, Berenice, the charming sister--ahem! the very deeply attached
sister--of Agrippa, you know, is a Jewess; and what diamonds that
woman has! But a Christian! Why, the very word has a taint of
vulgarity about it, and leaves a bad flavour in the mouth! None but
unspeakable slaves and cobblers and Phrygian runaways belong to those
worshippers of the god Onokoites and the head of an ass.’[18]

What malice had invented as a calumny happened in this instance to
be a truth. Pomponia was indeed a secret Christian. The wind bloweth
where it listeth, and none can tell whence it cometh or whither
it goeth. She had accompanied her husband when he had been sent
to subdue Britain, and had known the agonies of long and intensely
anxious separation from him, and during those periods of trial she
had been compelled to be much alone, and part of the time she had
spent in Gaul. Persis, her confidential handmaid, had met one of
the early missionaries of the faith, had heard his message, had been
converted. Accident had revealed the fact to the noble Roman lady;
and as she talked with Persis in many a long and lonely hour, her
heart too had been touched by grace, and a life always pure had now
become the life of a saint of God.

Plautius was glad to notice the manly interest taken by Britannicus
in the country from which his name had been derived, and in martial
achievements rather than in the debasing effeminacies of the Roman
nobles. He always welcomed the boy’s presence, and introduced him
to the kind hospitalities of his wife. Both parents were glad that
a scion of the Cæsars who seemed to show the old Roman virtues of
modesty and manliness should be a frequent companion of their own
son, the young Aulus. To Pomponia the son of Claudius felt strongly
drawn. She was wholly unlike any type of woman he had ever seen;
she seemed to be separated by whole worlds of difference from such
ladies as his own mother, Messalina, or his stepmother, Agrippina;
and though she only dressed in simple and sombre garments, yet the
peace and sweetness which breathed from her countenance made her more
lovely in his eyes than the great wives of Consuls and senators whom
he had so often seen sweeping through gilded chambers on the Palatine
in their gleaming and gold-embroidered robes. He noticed, too, that
his sister, the Empress Octavia, never visited her without coming
home in a happier and more contented mood.

One day, being more than ever filled with admiration for her
goodness, he had spoken to her freely of all his bitter trials, of
all his terrible misgivings. She had impressed on him the duties of
resignation and forgiveness; and had tried to show him that in a mind
conscious of integrity he might have a possession better and more
abiding than if he sat amid numberless temptations to baseness on an
uneasy throne.

‘You speak,’ he said, ‘like Musonius Rufus; for the young Phrygian
slave, Epictetus, whom Titus took compassion on and sometimes brings
to our rooms, has told me much about his Stoic lectures. But there is
something--I know not what--in your advice which is higher and more
cheerful than in his.’

Pomponia smiled. ‘Much that Musonius teaches is true and beautiful,’
she said; ‘but there is a diviner truth in the world than his.’

Britannicus was silent for a moment, and then, hesitatingly and with
reluctance, he said, ‘Will you forgive me, noble Pomponia, if I ask
you a question?’

The pale countenance of the lady grew a shade paler, and she replied,
‘You might ask me what I should not think it right to answer.’

‘You know,’ said the boy, ‘that at banquets and other gatherings I
cannot help hearing the gossip and scandal which they talk all the
day long. And all the worst ladies--persons like Crispinilla and
Petina and Silana--seem to hate you, I know not why; and they said
that you would be accused some day of holding a foreign superstition.’

Pomponia clasped her hands, and uttered a few words which Britannicus
could not hear. Then, turning to him, she said, ‘Perhaps Musonius has
quoted those lines of Cleanthes, “Lead me, O Father of the world. I
will follow thee, even though I weep.”[19] We can never prevent the
wicked from accusing us, but we can always give the lie to their
accusations by innocent lives.’

‘What they said besides, _must_ have been an absurd and wicked lie,’
continued Britannicus. ‘They said’--and here he made the sign of
averting an evil omen which has been prevalent in Italy from the
earliest days--‘that--you--were--dare I speak the vulgar word?--a
Christian.’

‘And what do you know about the Christians, Britannicus?’

‘In truth I know very little, for I am not allowed to go about much;
but Titus, who hears more than I do, tells me that they meet at
night, and kill a babe, and drink its blood; and bind themselves by
horrid oaths; and tie dogs to the lamp-stands, and hark them on to
throw over the lamps, and are afterwards guilty of dreadful orgies.
And they worship an ass’s head.’

‘What makes you believe that slanderous nonsense?’

‘Why, Titus is fond of scratching his name on the wall, and when we
were going out of the pædagogium in the House of Gelotius, which,
you know, is now used as a training school for the pages, he scrawled
_Titus Flavius Vespasianus leaves the pædagogium_, and then drew a
little sketch of a donkey, and underneath it _Toil, little ass, as I
have done, and it will do you good_. I laughed at him for scribbling
on the wall, and to make fun of him I wrote underneath--

    ‘“I wonder, oh wall, that your stones do not fall,
      Bescribbled all o’er with the nonsense of all.”

And I told him that I should put up a notice like that at the Portus
Portuensis, which begs boys and idlers not to scarify (_scarificare_)
the walls. But while I was writing the lines, I caught sight of an
odd picture which some one had scratched there. It was a figure with
an ass’s head on a cross, and underneath it “Alexamenos adores God.”
I asked Titus what it meant, and suggested that it was a satire on
the worship of the Egyptian Anubis. But Titus said, “No! that is
intended to annoy the Christians.”’[20]

‘Well, Britannicus,’ said Pomponia, ‘I know something more about
these poor Christians than that. All these are lies. I dare say you
have read, or Sosibius has read to you, some of the writings of
Seneca?’

‘No,’ said Britannicus, reddening. ‘Seneca is my brother Nero’s
tutor. It is he, and Agrippina, and Pallas, who have done away with
the will of my father, Claudius. I don’t care to hear anything he
says. He is not a true philosopher, like Musonius or Cornutus. He
only writes fine things which he does not believe.’

‘A man may write very true things, Prince,’ said Pomponia, ‘yet not
live up to them. I have here some of his letters, which his friend
Lucilius has shown me. Let me read you a few passages.’

She took down the scroll of purple vellum, on which she had copied
some of the letters, and, unrolling it, read a sentence here and
there:--

‘“_God is near you, is with you, is within you. A sacred spirit
dwells within us, the observer and guardian of all our evil and our
good; there is no good man without God._”

‘“_What advantage is it that anything is hidden from man? Nothing is
closed to God._”

‘“_Even from a corner it is possible to spring up into heaven. Rise,
therefore, and form thyself into a fashion worthy of God._”

‘“_Do you wish to render the gods propitious? Be virtuous; to honour
them it is enough to imitate them._”

‘“_You must live for another, if you wish to live for yourself._”

‘“_In every good man, God dwells._”[21]

‘I could read you many more thoughts like these from Seneca’s
letters. Are they not true and beautiful?’

‘I wish his own acts were as true and beautiful,’ answered
Britannicus. ‘But what has this to do with the Christians?’

‘This: every one of those thoughts, and many much deeper, are
commonplaces among Christians; but the difference between them and
the worshippers of the gods is that they possess other truths which
make these _real_. They alone are innocent.’

‘And they do not worship an ass’s head? Well, at any rate, Christus
or Chrestus, whom they do worship, was crucified in Palestine by
Pontius Pilatus.’

‘And does suffering prevent a man from being divine? All Romans
worship Hercules, yet they believe, or profess to believe, that he
was burnt alive on Œta.’

Britannicus was silent, for he had always thought it a colossal
insanity on the part of the Christians to worship one who had been
crucified like a slave.

‘Tell me,’ said Pomponia, ‘when Epictetus reads you his notes of the
lectures of Musonius, does not the name of Socrates sometimes occur
in them?’

‘Yes,’ said the young prince; ‘it occurs constantly. Musonius talked
of Socrates as a perfect pattern, and all but divine.’

‘And how did Socrates die?’

‘He was poisoned by the Athenians with hemlock in their common
prison.’

‘As a malefactor?’

‘Yes.’

‘Does it, then, prove him to be worthless that he, too, died the
death of a felon? And are all philosophers fools for extending so
much reverence to a poisoned criminal?’

‘I never thought of that,’ said Britannicus.

‘And are all the other stories about these Christians lies?’ he asked
after a pause.

‘They are,’ said Pomponia. ‘Some day, perhaps, you shall judge for
your own self.’



CHAPTER XI

‘_A FOREIGN SUPERSTITION_’

    ‘Quos, per flagitia invisos, vulgus Christianos appellabat.’
    --TACITUS, _Ann._ xv. 44.


The young son of Claudius, burdened as he was by a sense of wrong,
was not only cheered by the kindness of the conqueror of Britain,
but had been deeply interested in all that he had heard from his
high-minded wife. Pomponia had warned him that to mention the subject
of their conversation might needlessly imperil her life, and to no
one did he venture to say a word on the subject except to Pudens.
It struck him that in the words and bearing of the handsome young
soldier there was something not unlike the moral sincerity which he
admired and loved in Pomponia Græcina.

‘Pudens,’ he said to him the next morning, when Titus was absent,
‘what do you think of the Christians?’

Pudens started; but, recovering himself, he said, coldly, ‘The
Christians in Rome are humble and persecuted. Most persons confuse
them with the Jews, but many Jews are nobler specimens than the
beggars on the bridges, and many Christians are not Jews at all.’

‘Are they such wretches as men say?’

‘No, Britannicus, they are not. A man may call himself a Christian,
and be a bad man; but it is so perilous to be a Christian that
most of them are perfectly sincere. They preach innocence, and they
practise it. You know well enough that the air is full of lies, and
certainly not one-tenth part of what is said of the Christians has
in it the least truth.’

The time had not yet come for Pudens to avow that his Claudia had
been secretly baptised by an early missionary in Britain, as Pomponia
had been in Gaul; and that he himself was beginning seriously to
study the doctrines of the hated sect.

But the next time Britannicus was able to visit Pomponia, he asked
her if there were any Christian books which he might read.

‘There are the old Jewish books,’ said Pomponia, ‘which Christians
regard as sacred, and which a few Romans have read out of curiosity,
for they were translated into Greek nearly four hundred years ago.
But they are rare, and it is not easy to get them. And even if you
read them, there is much in them which we Romans cannot understand.’

‘But has no Christian written anything?’

‘Scarcely anything,’ she said. ‘You know the Christians are mostly
very poor, and some of them quite illiterate. But there is a great
Christian teacher named Paulus of Tarsus, and many who have heard him
preach in Ephesus and in Philippi, and even in Athens and Corinth,
say that his words are like things of life. My friend Sergius Paulus,
the late Proconsul of Cyprus, has met him, and spoke of him with
enthusiastic reverence. He has written nothing as yet except two
short letters to the Christians in Thessalonica. They are only casual
_letters_, and do not enter into the life of Jesus the Christ, or
the general belief of Christians. But I have them here, and will
read parts of them to you if you like.’

She read to him the opening salutation, and on his expressing
astonishment that he could join ‘much affliction’ with ‘joy,’
she explained to him that this was the divine paradox of all
Christianity, in which sorrow never destroyed joy, but sometimes
brought out a deeper joy, even as there are flowers which pour
forth their sweetest perfumes in the midnight.

Then she read him the exhortations to purity and holiness,[22]
and asked him ‘whether that sounded like the teaching of men who
practised the evil deeds of which the Christians were accused by
the popular voice.’

He sat silent, and she read him the passage about the coming day of
the Lord, and the sons of light, and the armour of righteousness.[23]
Lastly, she read him the concluding part of the Second Letter, with
its exhortations to diligence and order.

‘I think,’ she said, ‘that in one passage Paulus may perhaps refer in
a mysterious way to your father, the late Emperor. He is speaking of
the coming of some lawless tyrant and enemy of God before the day of
the Lord; and he adds, “only _he who letteth_ will let, until he be
taken away.”’

‘The Greek words ὁ κατέχων,’ she said, ‘might be rendered in Latin
_qui claudit_. The Christians are so surrounded by enemies that
they are sometimes obliged to express themselves in cryptograms, and
Linus tells me that some Christians see in the words _qui claudit_ an
allusion to your father, Claudius. If so, Paulus seems to think that
the day of the Lord’s return is very near.’

The young prince, though he had but a dim sense of what some of the
phrases meant, was struck with what he had heard. There was something
in the morality more vivid and more searching than anything which
Epictetus had reported, or than Sosibius had read to him out of Zeno
and Chrysippus. And besides the high morality there were tones which
caused a more thrilling chord to vibrate within him than anything
of which he had yet dreamed. The morality seemed to be elevated to
a purer region of life and hope, and, in spite of the strange style,
to be transfused through and through with a divine emotion.

‘And these,’ he said, ‘are the men whom they charge with every kind
of atrocity! Surely, Pomponia, the world is rife with lies! Would
it be too dangerous for you to let me see and speak to some of the
Christian teachers? You might disguise me; it is quite easy. Even
Pudens need not know; he never feels dull,’ he added with a smile,
‘if he may talk to Claudia, who is staying with you now.’

‘There was an excellent Jewish workman here named Aquila of Pontus,’
she said. ‘You might have talked to him, but he left Rome when the
Jews were banished in your father’s days. He used to mend the awning
over the viridarium, and those which kept the sun from blazing too
hotly into our Cyzicene room.[24] He sometimes brought with him his
still more excellent wife, Prisca. They knew Paulus, and said that
he had promised some day to come to Rome. I am obliged to be very
careful; but perhaps you can speak to Linus, who is the Elder of the
Christians in Rome.’

‘But, Pomponia, the Christians believe, you tell me, in a leader
named Jesus; is he the same as Christus or Chrestos?’

‘He is.’

‘Is there any one in Rome who has seen him?’

‘He was put to death,’ said Pomponia, bowing her head, ‘more than
twenty years ago, when Tiberius was Emperor. But His disciples, who
lived with Him, whom He called Apostles or messengers, were many of
them young men, and they are living still.’

‘Had Paulus of Tarsus ever seen him?’

‘In heavenly vision, yes; but not when He was teaching in Palestine.
But there was one disciple whom He loved very dearly, and who is now
living in Jerusalem, though Agrippa I. beheaded his elder brother.
Perhaps he may some day come to Rome.’

‘But you, Pomponia, must have heard much about Christus. Tell me,
then, something about him. How could a Judæan peasant be, as you say
Jesus was, divine?’

‘Self-sacrifice for the sake of others is always divine,’ said
Pomponia. ‘Even in Greek mythology the gods assume the likeness of
men in order to help and deliver them. Does not the poet tell us
how Apollo once kept, as a slave, the oxen of Admetus? how Hercules
was the servant of Eurystheus? how Jupiter came to visit Baucis and
Philemon? Is it so strange that the God of all should reveal Himself
to man as man? Doubtless you have read with your tutor the grandest
play of Æschylus--the “Prometheus Bound.” Does not the poet there
sing that Prometheus, who is the type of humanity, can never be
delivered _until some god descends for him into the black depths
of Tartarus_? And does not Plato say that man will never know God
until He has revealed Himself in the guise of suffering man; and
that “when all is on the verge of destruction, God sees the distress
of the universe, and, placing himself at the rudder, restores
it to order”?[25] And does not Seneca teach that man cannot save
himself?[26] Seneca even says, “Do you wonder that men go to the
gods? God comes to men--yea, even into men.” No one laughs at such
thoughts in the most popular of our philosophers; why should they
laugh at Christians for believing them?’

‘But what made his disciples believe that Christus was a Son of God?’
he asked.

Sitting quietly there, she told him, that day, of the Jews as the
people who had kept alive for centuries the knowledge of the one true
God; of their age-long hopes of a Deliverer; of their prophecies;
and of the coming of the Baptist. On his next visit she told him
of Jesus, and read to him parts of one of the old sketches of His
ministry which were current, in the form of notes and fragments,
among Christians who had heard the preaching of Peter or other
Apostles. Lastly, she told him some of His miracles, and the story
of His death and resurrection. ‘He spake,’ she said, ‘as never man
spake. He did what man never did. Above all, He rose from the dead
the third day. Even the centurion who watched the crucifixion
returned to Jerusalem and said, “Truly this was a Son of God!”’

Britannicus felt almost stunned by the rush of new emotions. His
mind, like that of most boys of his age at Rome, was almost a blank
as regards any belief in the old mythology. In Stoicism he had found
some half-truths which attracted his Roman nature; but its doctrines
were stern, and proud, and harshly repressive of feelings which he
felt to be natural and not ignoble. Here, at last, in Christianity,
he heard truths which, while they elevated the character of man
even to heaven--while they kindled his aspirations and fortified his
endurance--were suited also to soothe, to calm, to console. He had
heard them to the best advantage. They had been told him, not by lips
of untaught slaves and humble workmen, but by the noblest of Roman
matrons. She spoke in Latin worthy of the best days of Cicero, and
adorned all she said not only by the sweetness of her voice and
the grace of her language, but also by her broad sympathies and her
cultivated intelligence. Most of all, her words came weighty with
the consistency of a life which, in comparison with that of the women
around her, shone like a star in the darkness. It was this beauty of
holiness which won him first and most. He saw it in Pudens, whom he
suspected of stronger Christian leanings than he had acknowledged.
He saw it conspicuously in Claudia,

    ‘A flower of meekness on a stem of grace,’

before whose beautiful personality the tinsel compliments of her many
admirers seemed to sink into shamed silence. The precocious maidens
of the great consular families hated Claudia because, in her white
and simple dress, and her long natural fair hair, unadorned by a
single flower or gem, she outshone their elaborate beauty. Yet they
saw, and were astonished to see, that no youth--not even an Otho or
a Petronius or any of the most hardened libertines--dared to speak
a light word to one who looked as chaste as ‘the consecrated snow
on Dian’s lap.’

Britannicus did not venture to breathe a word to Titus of a secret
which was not his own; but there was one person from whom he could
have no secret, and that was the young Empress, his sister Octavia.
When he could be secure that no spy was at hand, that no ear was
listening at the door, that no eye was secretly watching him, he
would talk to her with wonder and admiration of all that he had
heard. She was no less impressed than he, and without venturing to
embrace the new faith, both sister and brother found a vague source
of hope and strength in what they had learnt from Pomponia. To them
it was like a faint rose of dawn, seen from a dark valley, shining
far off upon the summit of icy hills. And as they learnt more of
what the Gospel meant, and learnt even to pour forth dim prayer
into the unknown, they were able to discover, by certain signs, that
not a few of the slaves in the household of Cæsar--Patrobas, Eubulus,
Philologus, Tryphæna, and others--were secret Christians. The manner
in which they discovered that these slaves were Christians was very
simple. Pomponia, implicitly trusting the young Cæsar, had ventured
to teach him the Greek Christian watchword, Ἰχθύς, ‘fish.’[27] The
brother and sister found that if, in the presence of several slaves,
they brought in this word in any unusual manner, a slave who was
a Christian would at once, if only for a second, glance quickly up
at them. When they had thus assured themselves of the religion of a
few of their attendants, whom they invariably found to be the most
upright and trustworthy, they would repeat the word again, in a lower
voice and a more marked manner, when they passed them; and if the
slave in reply murmured low the word ἰχθύδιον or _pisciculus_ (i. e.
little fish), they no longer felt in doubt. The use which they made
of their knowledge was absolutely innocent. Often they did not say
a word more on the subject to their slaves and freedmen. Only they
knew that, among the base instruments of a wicked tyranny by whom
they were on every side surrounded, there was at least a presumption
that these would be guilty of no treacherous or dishonourable deed.

And thus, while Agrippina was growing daily more furious and
discontented; while Seneca and Burrus were plunged into deeper and
deeper anxieties; while Pætus Thrasea, and Musonius, and Cornutus
found it more and more necessary to entrench themselves in the armour
of a despairing fortitude; while Nero was sinking lower and lower
into the slough of vice--Octavia and Britannicus began to draw nearer
to the Unknown God, and found that when the sea of calamity does not
mingle its bitter waters with the sea of guilt, calamity itself might
be full of divine alleviations. Agrippina and Nero were provoked by
their appearance and bearing. The last thing which they would have
suspected was that the Christianity which, in common with all Rome,
they regarded as an execrable superstition, should have found its
way into patrician circles--should even have met with favourable
acceptance under the roof of the Cæsars. When they saw the
disinherited Britannicus playing ball in the tennis-court, or beating
his young fellow-pupils in races in the gardens, or wrestling not
unsuccessfully with the sturdy and ruddy Titus, they were astonished
to think that a boy who had been robbed of all his rights should be
poor spirited enough to throw himself into enjoyments in which his
merry and musical laugh often rang out louder than that of any of
his companions. What hope or what consolation could sustain him? They
jealously fancied that some plot must be afoot; but suspicion was
disarmed by the boy’s transparent frankness and innocence of manner.
And Octavia--they treated her as a nullity; they permitted themselves
to indulge in every sneer and slight which they could devise. More
than once Nero, fresh from some revel and lost to shame, had seized
her by her long, dark tresses, or struck her with his brutal hand.
Yet no passionate murmur had betrayed her resentment. What could be
the secret of a beatitude which no misfortunes seemed wholly able to
destroy?



CHAPTER XII

_ONESIMUS_

    ‘Non tressis agaso.’--PERSIUS, v. 76.


But we must now turn for a time from the Palace of the Emperor
and the grand houses of the nobles crowded with ancestral images,
gleaming with precious marbles, enriched with Greek statues of
priceless beauty, to the squalid taverns and lodging-houses of the
poorest of that vast and mongrel populace which surged through the
streets of Rome.

It was not an Italian populace, but was composed of the dregs of
all nations, which had been flowing for several generations into the
common sewer of Rome. It congregated in all the humbler and narrower
streets; in the Velabrum it bawled mussels and salt fish for sale;
it thronged the cook-shops of the Esquiline; it crowded densely into
the cheaper baths; it swarmed in the haunts of vice which gave so
bad a name to the Subura. Long ago the Syrian Orontes had flowed into
the Tiber, and brought with it its flute-players, and dancers, and
immoralities.[28] Long ago, when the Forum loungers dared to howl at
him, the great Scipio had stormed at them as step-sons of Italy--as
people who had no father and no mother--and bidden them to be silent.

The city was almost as much a Greek as it was a Roman city. But,
besides this, it abounded in Orientals. Here would be heard the
shaken sistra of the Egyptian Serapis, whose little temple in the
Campus Martius was crowded by credulous women. Here you would be
met by the drunken Galli of the Phrygian Cybele, whose withered,
beardless faces, cracked voices, orgiastic dances, and gashings of
themselves with knives, made their mendicancy more offensive than the
importunities of the beggars who lounged all day about the Sublician
and Fabrician bridges, or half-stormed the carriages of the nobles
as they slowly drove up the steep hill of Aricia. Of this promiscuous
throng--to say nothing of Asiatics, Gauls, Germans, Spaniards, and
Scythians--some were

                      ‘From farthest south,
    Syene, and where the shadow both way falls,
    Meroe, Nilotic isle; and more to west
    The realm of Bocchus to the Blackmoor sea;
    From India and the Golden Chersonese,
    And utmost Indian isle, Taprobane,
    Dusk faces with white silken turbans wreathed.’

One quarter of the city--that across the Tiber--was largely given up
to Jews. They had flocked to Rome in extraordinary numbers after the
visit of Pompey to Jerusalem. Sober Roman burghers long remembered
with astonishment, and something of alarm, the wild wail which they
raised at the funeral of Julius Cæsar, who had always been their
generous patron. They were numerous enough, and organised enough,
to make it a formidable matter to offend them, though the majority
of them--conspicuous everywhere by the basket and hay which they
carried to keep their food clean from Gentile profanation--pursued
the humblest crafts, and sold sulphur-matches or mended broken
pottery, while the lowest of all told fortunes, or begged, or
cheated, with cringing mien. The persistence and ability of many of
their race had, however, gained them a footing in the houses of the
great. Aliturus, the actor, was at this moment a favourite of Nero,
and of Rome. The authors of that age--Martial, Juvenal, Persius,
Tacitus--abound with wondering and stinging allusions to the votaries
of Mosaism.

They made many converts, and the splendid beauty of Berenice and
Drusilla, the daughters of Herod Agrippa I., together with the wealth
of their brother, Agrippa II., had given them a prominent position
in distinguished circles. To their father, the brilliant adventurer
Agrippa I., the favourite of Caligula, Claudius had practically owed
his elevation to the Empire, since he it was who induced the senators
to acquiesce in that uncouth dominion.

The streets of Rome were full of persons who lived in semi-pauperism;
lazzaroni who had nothing to depend upon but the _sportula_ or dole
supplied by noble and wealthy families, or grants of corn made at
nominal prices by the Emperor. They lived anyhow, by their wits and
by their vices. In that sunny climate the wants of life are few, and
they found abundance of excitement and amusement, while they could
hardly be left to starve amid the universal profusion which sometimes
squandered millions of sesterces over a single meal.

But few of the dregs of the people presented a more miserable aspect
than a Phrygian youth who was loitering aimlessly about the Forum
near the hour of noon. The Forum was nearly deserted, for most of
the people were taking their siesta, and the youth sat down, looking
the picture of wretchedness. He was pale and thin, as though he had
gone through many hardships. His tunic was soiled and ragged, and he
appeared to be, as he was, a homeless and friendless stranger, alone
among the depraved and selfish millions of the world’s capital.

While he was thinking what he had best do to allay the pangs of
hunger, he saw a young student enter the Forum followed by a little
slave. He paid no particular attention to them, but a few moments
later his curiosity was aroused, first by hearing the blows of an
axe, and then by seeing the student run hastily out of the Forum with
the slave-child at his heels. Strolling to the corner from which the
sounds had come, he found himself opposite to the lattice-work which
projected over the shops of the silversmiths, and seeing an axe lying
on the ground, picked it up, and examined it. Alarmed by a rush of
feet, he looked up and saw the ‘bucket-men’[29] (as the mob nicknamed
the police) running up to him. While he was wondering what they could
want, he found himself rudely arrested, and saluted with a volley of
violent abuse.[30]

‘What have I done?’ he asked in Greek.

‘What have you done, you thievish rascal? You ask that, when we have
caught you, axe in hand, hewing at and stealing the lead of the roof?’

The youth, who knew Latin imperfectly, was too much puzzled and
confused to understand the objurgations addressed to him; but a
crowd of idlers rapidly collected, and speaking to one of them, he
was answered in Greek that the people of the neighbourhood had long
been blamed for stealing the lead from the silversmiths. They had not
done it, and were indignant at being falsely accused. And now, as he
had been caught in the act, he would be haled off to the court of the
City Prætor, and it would be likely to go hard with him. If he got
off with thirty lashes he might think himself lucky. More probably he
would be condemned to branding, or--since an example was needed--to
the cross.

The youth could only cry, and wring his hands, and protest his
innocence; but his protests were met by the jeers of the crowd.

‘Ah!’ said one, ‘how will you like to have the three letters branded
with a hot iron right across your forehead? That won’t make the girls
like your face better.’

‘Whose slave are you?’ asked another. ‘Won’t you catch it from your
master! You’ll have to work chained in the slave-jail or at the mill,
and may bid good-bye to the sunlight for a year or two at least.’

‘Slave?’ said another. ‘I don’t believe he’s a slave. He looks too
ragged and starved. He’s had no regular rations for a long time, I’ll
be bound.’

‘A runaway, I expect,’ said a third. ‘Well, anyhow he’ll have to give
an account of himself, unless he likes to have a ride on the little
horse,[31] or have his neck wedged tight into a wooden fork.’

‘_Furcifer?_ Gallows-bird!’ cried others of the crowd. ‘And we honest
citizens are to be accused of stealing because of his tricks!’

‘It’s a sad pity, too,’ said a young woman; ‘for look how handsome he
is with those dark Asiatic eyes!’

As most of these remarks had been poured out in voluble and
slang Latin, the young Phrygian could only make out enough to know
that he was in evil case; and, weakened as he was by exposure and
insufficient food, he could but feebly plead for mercy, and protest
that he had done no wrong.

But the police had not dragged him far when they saw Pudens and Titus
approaching them down the Viminal Hill, on which the centurion lived.
At the sight of a centurion in the armour of the Prætorians, and
a boy who wore a golden bulla, and whom some of them recognised as
a son of the brave general Vespasian, the crowd made way. As they
passed by, Titus noticed the youth’s distress, and, compassionate
as usual, begged Pudens to ask what was the matter. The _vigiles_
briefly explained how they had seized their prisoner, who must have
been guilty of the lead-stealing complained of, for the axe was in
his hand, and no one else was near.

‘What have you to say for yourself?’ asked the centurion.

‘I am innocent,’ said the prisoner, in Greek; ‘the axe is not mine.
I only picked it up to look at it. It must have been a young student
who was using it, for I saw him run out of the Forum with his slave.’

Pudens and Titus exchanged glances, for they had met the student and
slave still hurrying rapidly along. He was the real culprit, but he
had heard the silversmiths call for the police, and had taken to his
heels. Pudens had seen him stop at the house of a knight a street or
two distant, and run up the steps with a speed which a Roman regarded
as very undignified.

‘Come with me,’ he said to the police, ‘and I think I can take you to
the real offender. This youth is innocent, though things look against
him.’

Followed by the crowd, who grumbled a little at losing the enjoyment
of watching the trial, Pudens led them to the knight’s house. The
little slave was amusing himself with hopping to and fro under the
vestibule.

‘Keep back, Quirites,’ said the head _vigil_. ‘The centurion and I
will ask a question here.’

‘Do you know this axe, my small _salaputium_[32]?’ said Pudens.

‘Yes,’ said the child with alacrity, for he was too young to
understand the situation. ‘It is ours. We dropped it not long ago.’

‘The case is clear,’ said Pudens. ‘I will be witness;’ and he offered
his ears for the officer to touch.[33] ‘Meanwhile you can set this
youth free.’

The officer touched his ear with the recognised formula. ‘Remember,
you will be my witness in this case.’

The student was arrested, but his father got him off by a large
secret bribe to the police and to the silversmiths. The crowd
dispersed, and Pudens and Titus, without waiting to watch the issue
of the affair, turned their steps towards the Vicus Apollinis, which
led to the Palace.

Soon afterwards they heard footsteps behind them, and, turning round,
saw the youth whom they had rescued.

‘What more do you want?’ said Pudens, in answer to his eager,
appealing look. ‘I have got you out of your trouble; is not that
enough?’

‘I am weak, and hungry, and a stranger,’ said the youth, humbly.

‘He wants money,’ whispered Titus, and drawing a denarius from the
breast of his toga, he put it into his hand.

But, kneeling down, the stranger seized the hem of the scarlet sagum
which Pudens happened to be wearing, and kissing it, exclaimed, ‘Oh,
sir, take me into your household! I will do anything!’

‘Who are you?’

‘My name is Onesimus.’

‘A good name, and of good omen.[34] _What_ are you? You look like a
slave. Not a runaway slave, I hope?’

‘No sir,’ said Onesimus, to whom a lie came as easy as to most of his
race. ‘I lived at Colossæ. I was kidnapped by a slave-dealer, but I
escaped.’

‘And you want to go back to Colossæ?’

‘No sir. I am left an orphan. I want to earn my living here.’

‘Take him,’ said Titus. ‘You have plenty of room for an extra slave,
and I like his looks.’

But Pudens hesitated.

‘A Phrygian slave!’ he said; ‘why even proverbs warn me against him.’
He quoted two, _sotto voce_, to Titus--‘Worst of the Mysians,’ used
of persons despicably bad; and ‘More cowardly than a Phrygian hare.’

‘Well,’ said Titus, ‘I will give you proverb for proverb; “Phrygians
are improved by scourging.”’[35]

‘Yes,’ answered Pudens; ‘but I am not accustomed to rule my slaves by
the whip.’

The boy had not heard them, for they spoke in low tones, but he
marked the hesitation of Pudens, and, still crying bitterly, stooped
as though to make marks with his finger on the ground. His motion
was quick, but Pudens saw that he had drawn in the dust very rapidly
a rude outline of a fish, which he had almost instantaneously
obliterated with a movement of his palm.

Pudens understood the sign. The youth was, or had been, a Christian,
and knew that if Pudens happened to be a Christian too his favour
would be secured.

‘Follow me,’ he said. ‘My household is small and humble, but I have
just lost my lacquey, who died of fever. I will speak to my head
freedman. Perhaps, when we have heard something more about you, he
will let you fill the vacant place.’



CHAPTER XIII

_THE ADVENTURES OF A RUNAWAY_

    Ἕκαστος δὲ πειράζεται ὑπὸ τῆς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας ἐξελκόμενος καὶ
    δελεαζόμενος.--S. JAC. _Ep._ i. 14.

    Φρύγα οἰκέτην ἔχω πονηρόν.--ALCIPHR. _Ep._ iii. 38.


The real history of Onesimus was this. He had been born at Thyatira;
his parents had once been in a respectable position, but his father
had been unfortunate, and when the boy became an orphan he had sunk
so low in the world that, to save him from the pangs of hunger,
the creditors sold him as a slave to the purple-factory of which
Lydia--who afterwards became St. Paul’s convert at Philippi--was
part-owner. There he had learnt a great deal about the purple-trade
and the best way of folding and keeping purple robes. But he was wild
and careless and fond of pleasure, and the head workman, not finding
him profitable or easy to manage, had again offered him for sale. He
was a quick, good-looking boy, and Philemon, a gentleman of Colossæ,
touched with his forlorn look as he stood on the slave-platform
(_catasta_) with his feet chalked and a description (_titulus_) round
his neck, had felt compassion for him and had bought him. Not long
after this, Philemon, with his wife Apphia, his son Archippus, and
several slaves of their household, had been converted by St. Paul.
The Apostle had not, indeed, visited the strange Phrygian city, where
the Lycus flows under its natural bridges of gleaming travertine;
but Philemon and his party had gone down to witness the great Asian
games at Ephesus, and to view the treasures of the famous Temple of
Artemis, which was one of the wonders of the world. There they had
heard Paul preach in the hall of the rhetorician Tyrannus, and, being
of sweet and serious disposition, had been profoundly impressed by
the message of the gospel. The grace of God had taken possession of
their hearts. They exulted in the purity, the hope, and the gladness
of Christianity, and under the fostering care of Epaphras, to whose
charge St. Paul had entrusted the churches of the Lycian valley, they
had finally been led to the full acceptance of the gospel, and had
been baptised in the waters of their native river.

Onesimus had not been baptised with them, though he had learnt
something of Christianity as a young catechumen. He had lived in
daily contact with these good people from early boyhood, and they
had treated him with a kindness and consideration which was in marked
contrast to the brutal manner of most Pagans towards the human beings
whom they regarded as chattels of which they were the indefeasible
owners. But Colossæ was a sleepy and decaying city. It offered
none of the pleasures and excitements which Onesimus had tasted at
Thyatira and Ephesus. He longed to escape from the narrow valley of
the dull town; to hear in the streets of Ephesus the shrill wail of
the priests of Cybele; to gaze at the superb Artemisian processions;
to sit palpitating with enthusiasm as he watched the chariots dash
past him in wild career in the circus, or the gorgeous spectacles
of the amphitheatre. Above all he sighed and yearned for Rome, for
he had often heard of its glory, its magnificence, its unchecked
indulgencies. He was only a slave--only one of those Phrygian slaves,
who were the least esteemed; but he had been free born. The passions
of the Asiatic Greek were strong in him. Other slaves had made their
way--why should not he? He was strong, clever, good-looking--was he
not certain to secure some fortune in the world?

The ‘tempting opportunity’ met the ‘susceptible disposition.’
Philemon was engaged in the wool-dyeing which formed the most
prosperous industry of Colossæ, and on a certain day after the great
fair of Laodicea considerable sums were paid to him. He had never
had any reason to distrust Onesimus, and the youth knew where the
money was kept. One day, when Philemon had been summoned by business
to Hierapolis and was likely to be absent for a week, Onesimus
abstracted some of the gold coins--enough, he thought, to take him
safely to Rome if necessary--and absconded to Ephesus. There, for a
few days, he enjoyed himself in visiting the marvels and amusements
of the city. But a fair youth, in servile dress, alone, in a crowded
town, could hardly escape falling among companions of the lowest
type. Fain would they have plunged him into vice and dissipation;
but though the runaway was not always truthful, and had fallen into
dishonesty, he was far from being depraved. One who had breathed in
a pure Christian household the dewy dawn of the Christian faith, and
had watched its purple glow transfiguring the commonest elements of
life, could hardly sink to the depths of Satan in the great weltering
sea of heathen wickedness. Fallen as he was, he never wholly lost his
self-respect, and when he had satisfied his first wild impulse he
longed to return and plead for forgiveness. After all, how infinitely
more happy had he been in sleepy Colossæ than in tumultuous Ephesus!
But for a slave to abscond from a kind master, and in absconding
to steal his master’s gold, was not only a heinous but a capital
offence. He did not know but what Philemon, good and kind as he was,
might still deem it right to uphold the laws of the State, and to
hand him over to the magistrates. And then he shuddered to think of
what awaited him: what blows, what brandings, what wearing of the
furca, or thrusting into the stocks, or being made to work in the
mines or the galleys, or among the chained wretches of some public
slave-prison. The soft nature of the Eastern shrank from such horrors,
and almost more from the intolerable sense of shame which would
overwhelm him when he stood for the first time a convict-fugitive
in his master’s house.

His ill-got money was soon ill-gone. A little of it was lost in
gambling; some he had to squander on worthless companions, who tried
to insinuate themselves into his favour, or to terrify him with their
suspicions; the rest was stolen one night in the low lodging which
he had been obliged to seek. Penniless, and sick at heart, he hurried
down to the great quay of the city, and offered to work his passage
to Italy in a galley. Landed in Italy he had begged his way to
Rome, and in Rome he had sunk to the wretchedness in which we first
saw him. No career seemed open to him but a career of vice; no
possibility offered of earning his daily bread but by criminal
courses. He sank back horrified from the rascality which he had
witnessed on every side, among those who, being past feeling, and
having their consciences seared as with a hot iron, wrought all
uncleanness with greediness. He grew more and more emaciated, more
and more wretched, sleeping under arches or porticoes, and depending
for his scant supply of polenta on the chance of a farthing flung to
him now and then in scornful alms. The accident which threw him in
the path of Pudens came only just in time to save him from ruin and
despair.

Nereus, the freedman of Pudens, was not unwilling to get for nothing
an active youth who might turn out to be a useful slave; and in that
household he once more found kindness and happiness. It is true that
Pudens was not yet an open Christian, but several of his slaves were,
as Onesimus soon discovered; and he had learnt by experience that,
among Christian men and women, he was safe from a thousand miseries
and a thousand temptations. The busy thronging, rushing life of Rome
delighted his quick intelligence, and all the more from the contrast
it presented to the silent streets of Colossæ, and the narrow valley
of its strange white stream.

He had several adventures, and such principles of righteousness
as were left to him were severely tried. Some of the young slaves
whom he encountered took him to the theatres, and in the pantomimic
displays and Atellan fables a cynical shamelessness reigned supreme.
To witness the acting of a Paris or an Aliturus was to witness
consummate human skill and beauty pandering to the lowest instincts
of humanity. Yet Onesimus could not keep away from these scenes,
though Stachys and Nereus and Junia and others of the Christian
slaves of Pudens did their best, when the chance offered, to save
him from the vortex of such perilous dissipation.

Still more brutalising, still more destructive of every element
of pureness and kindness were the gladiatorial games. Of these he
had no experience. In the provinces they were comparatively rare,
and Philemon had forbidden his slaves ever to be present in the
amphitheatre when they were exhibited. Onesimus, who had nothing
cruel in his nature, had so far preserved a sort of respect for the
wishes of Philemon, that he determined not to witness a gladiatorial
show. When the great day came, all the slaves were talking of the
prowess of Gallina and Syrus, two famous gladiators, and of the
magnificent number of lions and tigers which were to be exhibited.

He could not help being interested in a topic which seemed so
absorbing, but he still meant to keep away. Some of his comrades,
however, thought that scruples which might suit a Cicero and a Seneca
were quite out of place in a Phrygian foot-boy, and seized him in
the street and said, ‘We are going to take you to the amphitheatre
by force.’

‘It is of no use to take me,’ said Onesimus, repeating a sentiment
which he had heard from Philemon. ‘I am not going to see fine
fellows--fine Dacians and Britons--hack one another to pieces to
please a multitude of whom the majority deserve life much less than
the gladiators themselves.’

‘_Di magni, salaputium disertum!_’ exclaimed Lygdus, one of the
gay and festal company who belonged to Cæsar’s household. ‘I heard
Epictetus say something of the kind, and we all know that the poor
little fellow is only a small echo of Musonius. But you, Onesimus,
cannot pretend to be a philosopher, and instead of talking seditious
nonsense against the majesty of the Roman people, go you shall.’

‘Well then, you will have to drag me there by force,’ said Onesimus.

‘Never mind; go you shall,’ said Lygdus; and, seizing him by the neck
and arms, they hurried him along with them into the top seats set
apart for slaves and the proletariat.

When once there, Onesimus had not the wisdom to behave as young
Alypius did three centuries later, and to close his eyes. On the
contrary, he caught fire, almost from the first moment, with the wild
excitement, and returned home paganised in every fibre of his being
by the horrid voluptuous maddening scene which he had witnessed--in
which he had taken part. All that was sweet and pure and tender in
the lessons which he had learnt in the house of Philemon seemed to
have been swept away for the time in that crimson tide of blood, in
that demoniac spectacle of strong men sacrificed as on a Moloch-altar
for the amusement of the idle populace. The more splendid the agility
of the nets-man, the more brawny the muscles of the Samnite, the
more dazzling the sweep of the mirmillo’s steel, the more vivid was
the excitement of watching the glazing eye and ebbing life. It was
thrilling to see the supreme moments and most unfathomed mysteries
of existence turned into the spectacle of a holiday; and even to help
in deciding by the movement of a thumb whether some blue-eyed German
from the Teutobergian forests should live or die. What wonder was it
that waves of emotion swept over the assembled multitude as the gusts
of a summer tempest sweep over the waving corn? What wonder that
the hearts of thousands, as though they were the heart of one man,
throbbed together in fierce sympathy, and became like a wild Æolian
harp, of which the strings were beaten into murmurs or shrieks or
sobs by some intermittent hurricane? In the concentrated passion
of those hours, when every pulse leapt and tingled with excitement,
the youth seemed to live through years in moments; his whole being
palpitated with a delicious horror, which annihilated all the
ordinary interests of life. Here, for the mere dissipation of time,
the most consummate tragedies were enacted as part of a scenic
display. The spasms of anguish and the heroism of endurance were
but the passing incidents of a gymnastic show.

When Onesimus returned to his cell that night he was a changed
being. For a long time he could not sleep, and when he did sleep
the tumult of the arena still rolled through his troubled dreams.
His fellow-slaves, long familiar with such games, were amused to hear
him start up from his pallet with shouts of _Habet! Occide! Verbera!_
and all the wild cries of the amphitheatre, and from these bloodshot
dreams he would awake panting as from a nightmare, while the chant of
the gladiators, _Ave, Cæsar! Morituri te salutamus_, still woke its
solemn echoes in his ears.

All life looked stale and dull to the Phrygian slave when the glow
of an Italian morning entering his cell aroused him to the duties of
the day. Slaves, even in a humble home like that of Pudens, were so
numerous as to make those duties inconceivably light. For the greater
part of the day his time was his own, for all he had to do was to
wait on Pudens when he went out, carrying anything which his master
might require. But henceforth his thoughts were day-dreams, and,
when not engaged in work, he found nothing to do but to join in
the gossip of his fellow-slaves. Their talk turned usually on three
subjects--their masters, and all the low society slanders of the
city; the delights of the taverns; the merits of rival gladiators and
charioteers, whose names were on every lip. Such conversation led of
course to incessant betting, and many a slave lost the whole amount
of his savings again and again by backing the merits of a Pacideianus
or a Spicillus; or by running up too long scores at the cook-shop
(_popina_) to which his fellow-slaves resorted; or by trying to win
the affections of some favourite female flute-player from Syria or
Spain.

Gambling, too, was the incessant diversion of these idle hordes. The
_familia_ of Pudens only consisted of the modest number of thirty,
but the slave population of Rome was of colossal magnitude, and there
was a terrible free-masonry among the members of this wretched and
corrupted class. The companions of Onesimus were not chiefly to
be found in the household to which he belonged, but among the lewd
idlers whom he picked up as acquaintances in every street. With these
he played at dice, and sauntered about, and jested, and drank, and
squabbled, and betted, until he was on the high road towards being
as low a specimen of the slave-world as any of them all--a beautiful
human soul caught in the snare of the devil, lured by the glittering
bait of vice, to be dragged forth soon to die lacerated and gasping
upon the shore.

Hitherto a very little had sufficed him, but now he began to need
money--money for gambling, money for the taverns, money to spend in
the same sins and follies in which the slaves about him spent their
days. He could indeed have gained it, had he sunk so low, in a
thousand nefarious ways; and, gifted as he was with a quick and
supple intelligence, as well as with no small share of the beauty
of his race, he might have run away once more, or have secured his
purchase into many a pagan household, where he might have become the
pampered favourite of some luxurious master. Such, in such a city as
Rome, would have been the certain fate of any youth like him, had it
not been for the truths which he had heard from Epaphras in the house
of Philemon. When he was most willing to forget those holy lessons
they still hung about him and gave him checks. The grace of God still
lived as a faint spark, not wholly quenched, under the whitening
embers of his life. He could not forget that what were now his
pleasures had once been pains, and sometimes amid the stifling
atmosphere of a dissipation which rapidly tended to become
pleasureless, his soul seemed to ‘gasp among the shallows,’ sore
athirst for purer air.

But he resisted these retarding influences, and by fiercer draughts
of excitement strove to dispel the pleadings of the still small
voice.

It was not long before he felt hard pressed, for he had gambled away
the little he had earned.

He had stolen before--he would steal again.

The slaves of Pudens were mostly of a simpler and more faithful class
than those of the more luxurious houses. There was no need for Pudens
to take great precautions about the safety of his money. Most of it
was safe in the hands of his banker (_mensarius_), but sums which
to a slave would seem considerable were locked up in a chest under
the charge of Nereus. Nereus, as we have already mentioned, was a
Christian, and Onesimus, until he had begun to degenerate, had felt
warmly drawn towards his daughter Junia. He thought, too, that the
simple maiden was not wholly indifferent to him. But Nereus had
watched his career, and as it became too probable that the Phrygian
would sink into worthlessness, he had taken care that Onesimus and
his daughter should scarcely ever meet.

But when, as in every Roman house, a multitude live in a confined
space, the whole ways of the house become known to all, and Onesimus
knew the place where Nereus kept the ready money of his master. He
watched his opportunity when all but a few members of the household
were absent to witness a festival, from which he had purposely
absented himself on a plea of sickness. The only persons left at
home were Nereus and others who, being Christians, avoided giving
the smallest sanction to pagan ceremonies. The house was still as
the grave in the noontide, when the youth glided into the cell of
the sleeping Nereus, and deftly abstracted from his tunic the key
which he wanted. Armed with this, he slipped into the _tablinum_,
or private room, of Pudens--whom he knew to be on duty at the
Palace--and had already opened the casket in which he kept his
money, when he was startled by a low voice and a gliding footstep.

He had not been unobserved. Nereus was too faithful, and too much
aware of the dishonesty of the unhappy class to which he belonged,
to leave his master’s interests unprotected. He had directed his
daughter always to be watchful at the hour when he knew that a theft
was most feasible. Junia, from the apartments of the female slaves,
on the other side of the house, had heard some one moving stealthily
along the passage. Hidden behind a statue, she had observed a slave
stealing into her father’s cell, had followed lightly, and with a
pang of shame had seen the youth of whom she had thought as a lover
make his way noiselessly to the room of his master.

She followed him to the entrance; she saw him open the casket; and
she grew almost sick with terror when she thought of the frightful
punishment--possibly even crucifixion itself--which might follow the
crime he was on the eve of committing. She would fain have stopped
him, but did not dare to enter the chamber; and, meanwhile, for some
reason the youth was lingering.

He was lingering because there rang in his ear a voiceless memory
of words which Epaphras had quoted as a message of Paul of Tarsus.
The still voice said to him: ‘Let him that stole steal no more; but
rather let him labour, working with his hands.’

He was trying to suppress the mutiny of ‘the blushing shamefast
spirit’ within him, as he thought of the games and the dice-box and
the Subura, when he was thrilled through and through by a terrified
and scarcely audible whisper of his name--

‘Onesimus!’

He turned round, and with nervous haste relocking the casket, hurried
into the passage. There, with head bowed over her hands, he saw the
figure of a young girl. For one instant she raised her face as he
came out, and he exclaimed--‘Junia!’

She raised her hand with a warning gesture, put her finger to her
lips, and vanished. She fled towards the garden behind the farthest
precincts of the house, and he overtook her in a walk sheltered from
view by a trellis covered with the leaves of a spreading vine.

‘Junia,’ he said, flinging himself on his knees, ‘will you betray me?’

The girl stood pale and trembling. ‘Onesimus,’ she said, ‘I conceal
nothing from my father.’

‘From your father? Oh, Junia, he would drag me before Pudens. Would
you see me beaten, perhaps to death, with the leaded thongs? Would
you hear me shriek under the horrible _scutica_? Could you bear to
see the crows tearing my flesh as I hung on the cross?’

‘Pudens is just and kind,’ she said, faintly, ‘he never inflicts upon
his slaves such horrors as these.’

‘No,’ answered Onesimus, bitterly; ‘it would suffice to send me,
chained, to work in some sunless pit to the music of clanking fetters.
It would suffice to brand three letters on my forehead, and turn me
into the world to starve as a spectacle of shame.’

‘Onesimus,’ she said, ‘would God I could--’ She stopped, confused
and terrified, for she did not know that Onesimus had ever heard the
truths of Christianity.

‘Junia,’ he exclaimed, ‘you are a Christian; so am I’--and he marked
on the gravel the monogram of Christ.

‘Alas!’ she answered, ‘a Christian you cannot be. It seems that you
have heard of Jesus; but Christians cannot steal, and cannot live as
you have been living. Christians are innocent.’

‘Then you will betray me? Ah! but if you do, you are in my power.
Christianity is a foreign superstition. The City Prætor--’

‘Base,’ she answered, ‘and baser than I thought. Know you not’--and
a light came into her eye, and a glow over all her face--‘that a
Christian can suffer? that even a Christian slave-girl does not fear
at all to die?’

He thought that she had never looked so beautiful--so like one of
the angels of whom he had heard in the gatherings at Colossæ. But
the sight of the gladiators hacking each other to pieces had inured
him to cruelty and blood--had filled him with fierce egotism, and
indifference to human life. A horrible thought suddenly leapt upon
him as with a tiger’s leap. Why not get rid of the sole witness of
his crime?

‘Then you will betray me to chains, to branding, to the scourge, to
the cross?’ he asked, fiercely.

Weeping, hiding her face in her hands, she said: ‘What duty tells me,
I must do. I must tell my father.’

In an instant the devil had Onesimus in his grip. He thrust his right
hand into his bosom, where he had purposely concealed a dagger.

‘Then die!’ he exclaimed, seizing her with his left hand, while the
steel gleamed in the sun.

The girl moved not; but his own shriek startled the air, as he felt
a hand come down on his shoulder with the grasp of a vice. The dagger
was wrenched out of his hand; he was whirled round, the blow of a
powerful fist stretched him on the path, and a foot which seemed as
if it would crush out his life was placed upon his breast.

‘Oh, father, spare him!’ said Junia.

Nereus still kept his foot on the prostrate youth, still held the
dagger in his hand; his eyes still flashed, his whole frame was
dilated with righteous indignation. He had misunderstood the meaning
of the scene.

‘Explain!’ he said. ‘Junia! You here alone with Onesimus in the
vine-walk, at the lonely noon! How did he inveigle you here? Did he
dare to insult you?’

The girl had risen; and while Onesimus lay on the ground, stunned
with the violence of his fall, she told her father all that had
happened.

Nereus spurned the youth with his foot.

‘And I once thought,’ he said, ‘that he was a secret Christian! I
once thought that some day he might be worthy to be the husband of
my Junia! A thief! a would-be murderer! This comes of harbouring a
strange Phrygian in an honest household.’

‘Father, forgive him!’ said Junia. ‘Are not we forgiven?’

‘The wrong to me--the threat against the life of the child I love
--yes, that might be forgiven,’ said Nereus; ‘forgiven if repented
of. But how can I do otherwise than tell Pudens? How can I keep this
youth a member of the household?’

And again, moved by strong passion, he spurned him with his foot.

‘Is there one house in Rome, father,’ she said, ‘in which there are
not thieves? in which there are not men--aye, and women too--who
steal, and would murder if they could? Is he worse than thousands
whom yet we do not see chained in the prisons or rotting on the
crosses? And have we not all sinned? and did not Jesus say, “Forgive
one another your trespasses”?’

A half-suppressed groan from Onesimus stopped the conversation.

‘I know not what to do,’ said Nereus. ‘Go back, my child, to your
cell and to your distaff. I will see you soon. And you,’ he said,
‘thrice-wretched boy, come with me.’

He dragged Onesimus from the ground, and was in such a transport of
wrath that he could not refrain from shaking him by the shoulders
with the roughest and most contemptuous violence, before he thrust
him into the house, and into the cell which had been assigned to
him. Then, calling two of his fellow-slaves, Stachys and Amplias,
Christians like himself, whom he could implicitly trust, he bade them
bind Onesimus hand and foot, and leave him, not unwatched, till he
should have time to consider his case.



CHAPTER XIV

_MOTHER AND SON_

    ‘Asper et immitis, breviter vis omnia dicam?
        Dispeream si te mater amare potest.’

                                      SUETON. _Tib._ 59.


Nero was now firmly seated on the throne of the Empire. Its cares sat
lightly on him. The government went on admirably without him. He had
nothing to do but to glut himself with enjoyments, and to make what
he could of the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.

At first, like one dazed with a sudden outburst of light, he had been
unable to understand the immensity of his own power. For the first
month of his reign he could hardly realise that he was more than
a boy. He had always been passionately fond of chariot races, which
as a boy he had not been permitted to frequent. One day, while
at his lessons, he had been deploring to his companions the fate
of a charioteer of the green faction who had been thrown out of
his chariot and dragged to death by his own horses. His master,
overhearing the conversation, reproved him, and the boy, with a
clever and ready lie, said, ‘I was only talking about Hector being
dragged round the walls of Troy by Achilles.’ And now he might watch
the races all day long and plunge into the hottest rivalry of the
factions, and neither in this pursuit nor in any other was there a
single human being to say him nay.

The only thing which troubled him was the jealous interference of
his mother. Agrippina still clutched with desperate tenacity at the
vanishing fruits of the ambition for the sake of which all her crimes
had been committed. She had sold her soul, and was beating back the
conviction that she had sold it for nought. How could that slight boy
of seventeen, whom as a child she had so often chastised with her own
hand, dream of resisting her? Was not her nature, compared with his,
as adamant to clay? She had been a princess of the blood from infancy,
surrounded by near relatives who had been adored in life and deified
after death; she had enjoyed power during two reigns, and now at last
she had fancied that she would control the Empire for the remainder
of her life. Was not her skill in intrigue as great as that of Livia?
Was not her indomitable purpose even more intense? She forgot that
Livia had been, what Caligula called her, _Ulysses stolatus_, ‘a
Ulysses in petticoats,’ a woman with absolute control over her own
emotions. Agrippina, on the other hand, was full of a wild passion
which ruined her caution and precipitated her end.

And she forgot, more fatally, the total collapse of all Livia’s
soaring ambitions. Livia had procured the death of prince after
prince who stood between her son Tiberius and the throne. Tiberius
did indeed become Emperor, but ‘had Zimri peace who slew his master’?
Pliny calls Tiberius ‘confessedly the gloomiest of men.’ He himself
wrote to the Senate that he felt himself daily destroyed by all the
gods and goddesses. And, after all, his only son died, and he was
succeeded by Caligula, the bad and brutal son of the hated and
murdered Germanicus and the hated and murdered Agrippina the elder.
He might have said with the bloodstained usurper of our great
tragedy:--

   ‘Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
    And put a barren sceptre in my gripe;
    Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
    No son of mine succeeding.’

Was it likely to be otherwise with her son Nero?

Nero--slight boy as she thought him--had hardly been seated on the
throne when he began to slip out of her control. Pallas, her secret
lover, her chief supporter, was speedily ejected and disgraced.
Seneca and Burrus were both opposed to her influence, and neither
of them dreaded her vengeance. Suitors for favours were more anxious
to secure the intercession of Acte than hers. Nero, surrounded by
dissolute young aristocrats, and also by adventurers, buffoons and
parasites, was daily showing himself more indifferent to her threats,
her commands, even her reasonable wishes. He liked to parade his
new-born freedom. She felt sure that among the circle of his familiar
companions, she and her pretensions were turned into ridicule. Her
proud cheek flushed even in solitude to think that she, who, for
Nero’s sake, had dared all, should have been superseded in her
influence by such curled and jewelled weaklings as Otho, and ousted
from her son’s affections by a meek freedwoman like Acte. How
terribly had she miscalculated! In the reign of Claudius she had
been the mightiest person in the Court and in the State. Had she
become the murderess of her husband only to transfer from herself
into the hands of men whom she despised too much to hate, the power
which was once her own? Had she flung away the substance and only
grasped a flickering shadow?

A thousand plans of revenge crossed her mind, only to be rejected.
The die was cast. The deeds done were irrevocable. It only remained
for her to dree the judgment for her crimes, and to take such few
steps as still were possible to her along the precipice’s edge.
She had plucked a tempting fruit, and she found that its taste was
poison; she had nursed a serpent in her bosom, and its sting was
death.

But she would not resign her power without at least one mad struggle
to retain it. She still had access to the Emperor whenever she
desired, and many a wild scene had occurred between the mother
and the son. In such interviews she let her tongue run riot. She
refrained from nothing. She no longer attempted to conceal from him
that Claudius had died by her hand. She wrapped the youth round in
the whirlwind of her sulphurous passion; she raised her voice so
loud in a storm of reproaches and recriminations that sometimes
even the freedmen and soldiers outside the imperial apartments heard
the fierce voices of altercation, and were in doubt whether they
should not rush in and interfere. And often the feeble nature of
Nero cowered before her menaces as she poured on him a flood of
undisguised contempt. Sometimes she wrapped him in a storm of satire
and sarcasm. She upbraided him with his unmanliness; she contrasted
him unfavourably with Britannicus; she told him that he was more
fit to be an actor of melodrama, or a tenth-rate charioteer, or a
fiftieth-rate singer, than to be the Emperor of Rome.

‘To think,’ she said, raising her voice almost to a scream, as he sat
before her in sullen silence--‘to think that the blood of the Domitii
and of the Neros and of the Cæsars is in your veins! You an emperor!
Yes; an emperor of pantomime! You have nothing of the Roman, much
less of the ruler, nay, not even of the man, in you. Who made you
Emperor? Who but I?’

‘I wish you had left me alone, then,’ he answered, desperately. ‘It
is no such pleasure to be Emperor with you to spy on me and domineer
over me.’

‘Spy on you? Domineer over you? Ungrateful! Infamous! You, who
have made a slave-girl the rival of your mother! Let me tell you,
Ahenobarbus, that I at least am the daughter of Germanicus, though
you are wholly unworthy to be his grandson. Whence did you get your
pale and feeble blood? Not from me, coward and weakling as you are;
not from your father Domitius, who, if he was cruel, was at least a
man! He would not have chosen such creatures as Otho and Senecio for
his friends. He had a man’s taste and a man’s ambition. He would have
blushed to be father of a singing and painting girl like you! But
beware! You are an _agrippa_; you were born feet-foremost--a certain
augury of future misery.’[36]

Stung to the quick by these reproaches, trembling with impotent
anger to hear his effeminate vanity--to which his comrades burnt
daily incense--thus ruthlessly insulted, and angry, above all, that
his mother dared to pour contempt on his cherished accomplishments,
Nero’s timid nature at last turned in self-defence.

‘I am Emperor now, at any rate,’ he said; ‘and ere now the wives and
sisters, if not the mothers, of the Cæsars have had to cool their
rage on the rocks of Gyara or Pontia!’

‘You dare to threaten me?’ she cried. ‘_You_ to threaten _me_; me,
your mother; me, who have toiled and schemed, aye, and committed
crimes for you, from a child; me, whose womb bare you, whose hand
has often beaten you; me, to whom you owe it that you are not at this
moment a disgraced and penniless boy!’

‘You call me an actor. Are not you more than half an actress?’ he
said, in a sneering tone.

Agrippina sprang from her seat in a burst of passion.

‘Oh, if there be gods!’ she exclaimed, uplifting her hands, ‘let them
hear me! Infernal Furies at least there are, for I have felt them!
Oh! may they avenge on you my wrongs!’

Nero cared but little for the curse. He was not superstitious. He
thought how Senecio and Petronius would laugh at the notion of there
being real Furies or subterranean gods!

‘You know more of the Furies than I do, then,’ he said, in a mocking
tone. ‘Besides, I have an amulet. Look at this!’

He handed to her the _icuncula puellaris_--the wooden doll which
had been given him in the streets, with the mysterious promise that
it would prove to be a charm against every malignant influence. He
honoured it as Louis XI. did the little leaden saint which he wore
in his hat when he had ceased to honour anything else. She glanced at
it with utter scorn; then, to his horror, flung it on the ground and
spurned it away.

‘And you are Pontifex Maximus!’ she said, concentrating into the
words a world of unmitigated scorn.

Nero was silent, but his look was so dark that, fearing lest she
should have gone too far, she said in calmer tones, ‘You have a
better amulet than that paltry image, and one which your mother gave
you. But your follies render it unavailing.’

She pointed to a golden armlet, in which was set the skin of a
serpent, which he wore on his right arm. The serpent had been found
gliding in his room near his cradle; or, perhaps, according to
another story, its cast-off skin had been found beside his pillow.
Many legends had sprung up about it. The populace believed that it
was a sacred spirit which had protected him, and had driven from his
infant cradle the murderers sent by Messalina to destroy him. But,
while Nero was yet a child, Agrippina had had the skin of the serpent
curiously set in a jewelled armlet of great value, with rubies for
its eyes, and emeralds marking the traces of its scales, and had
clasped it on Nero’s arm, and bidden him to wear it forever. And as
his life advanced in golden prosperity she had come to believe, or
to half believe, that there was some mysterious charm about it--for
a mind may be atheistical and yet profoundly superstitious.

But as she gazed at it with a sort of fascination, she was seized
by one of the violent reactions of feeling which often sweeps over
a mind untrained in the control of its passions. It brought before
her the image of a little boy, whose sweet and sunny face looked
the picture of engaging innocence; whose golden hair, when it caught
the sunlight, shone like an aureole round his head; whose blue eyes
danced with childish glee at the sight of what was beautiful; to whom
his mother was all in all; who had often flung his arms round her
neck, in joy and in sorrow, with the fondness of a loving child. That
child stood before her--through her crimes Emperor of Rome. He stood
there, hateful and hating her--on his lips the flickering smile of
mockery; on his once bright forehead the scowl of anger. Yet whom
had she in all the world besides? Her father had been murdered; her
mother murdered; three of her brothers murdered; her sisters were
dead, and had died in shame; her first husband dead; two others of
her husbands poisoned--and by her; her lovers dead, or banished far
away. She knew that a chaos of hatred yawned wide and deep around
her; she knew that in all the wide world no single person, except
possibly one or two of her freedmen, cared for her. In her agony,
in her loneliness, she had tried of late to win something like
forgiveness, something like tolerance, if not affection, from the
deeply injured Britannicus and Octavia. She pitied the sorrows and
wrongs which she had herself inflicted on them. She had even learnt
to admire some gracious quality in them both, for which she could
find no name. But, alas! she soon found that, while they were perfect
in courtesy, they could never love her. The life, the affection of
her son was the sole thing left her; and he was turning against her
with a feeling akin to loathing stamped upon his face.

All these thoughts rushed over her mind like a tornado. Unable to
bear them, she ended the interview by a passion of uncontrollable
weeping. And, as she wept, she held out her appealing arms to her
son, and wailed:

‘Oh, Nero, forgive my wild words. Whom have we but one another? In
this drowning sea must we not sink or rise together? My son! my son!
your mother pleads with you. Forgive me--kiss me; let Agrippina feel
once more that she has the love of the son for whose sole sake she
has lived--for whom she would gladly die!’

A noble nature would have been moved by the tragic appeal of so
proud a mother; but the nature of Nero, essentially mean, had become
constantly meaner. He trembled before those who confronted him with
boldness; but he triumphed over all who showed that they feared
him. He wanted to feel perfectly independent. The only person whose
power he feared was his mother. And here was this all-dreaded mother
pleading with him, at whose lightest look he had been accustomed for
years to tremble! He was not in the least moved; he only intended
to secure the ascendency of which, in that struggle, he had won the
first step.

‘You curse me,’ he said, ‘one moment, and the next you are all tears
and entreaties. Do you think that it is only _your_ amulet that keeps
me from your Furies? You have dishonoured my image; see how much I
care for your amulet. I will never wear it again.’

He unclasped the armlet from his wrist, and flung it to the other end
of the room.

‘There!’ he said. ‘_You_ may have it; I have done with it!’ And
with these words he turned his back upon her, and went out without
a farewell.

It seemed a small matter, and what else could she expect from such a
being as her son--a youth soft without tenderness, caressing without
affection, cruel without courage?

She stood and looked towards the curtain through which he had
disappeared. She stood with gleaming eyes and dilated nostrils, and
firm-set lips. Every tear was dried up in her burning glance, as she
outstretched her clenched hand and vowed a terrible vengeance.

‘O wronged Britannicus!’ she murmured; ‘O wronged Octavia! cannot I
even now redress your wrongs? Alas! it cannot be. Their first act
would be to avenge the injured manes of Claudius. But does not
Rubellius Plautus live, and Cornelius Sulla? Could I not even yet
brush this mean and thankless actor like an insect from my path--son
though he be--and seat one of them upon the throne of the Cæsars?’

She picked up the armlet with the serpent’s skin. ‘It shall be as he
said,’ she murmured; ‘he shall never wear or see it more.’

When his hour of doom had come, Nero searched for that amulet in vain!



CHAPTER XV

_EMPEROR AND ÆSTHETE._

   ‘The skipping king, he ambled up and down
    With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
    Soon kindled and soon burned, carded his state,
    Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
    Had his great name profaned with their scorns.’

                                 1. _Henry IV._ iii. 2.


Nero tried to persuade himself that he cared little for such scenes
as that which we have witnessed; but in reality they troubled him.
It required a strong effort to shake off their effects, and they left
his small pleasure-loving nature in a state of tremor and disgust. He
longed to escape from them to some complete retirement, where, away
from all pomp, he could give himself up, heart and soul, to selfish
æstheticism and voluptuous delight.

He had villas at Antium and at Baiæ, but even they were more public
than he desired, and he determined to escape from the noise and heat
and worry of Rome to an enchanting lodge which had been designed by
the architects, Severus and Celer, in one of the wildest gorges of
the Simbruine ridge of the Apennines, a little above the modern town
of Subiaco. Through this gorge the icy stream of the Anio forces its
way, leaping down into the valley beneath in tumultuous cataracts.
By damming the river the architects had with consummate taste and
skill, caused it to spread into three mountain lakes, three hundred
feet above the valley. On either side of the gorge they had built
a hunting-lodge half hidden amid the dense foliage, and the two
villas--for such they practically were--had been united by a bridge
which spanned the abyss with a graceful arch at a stupendous height
above the valley. Nature and art combined to make the scene supremely
beautiful. The grounds and gardens of the villas spread down to the
smiling vale beneath, by walks under overhanging rocks, tapestried
with the luxuriant growth of creepers and wild flowers. Underfoot
the moss of softest emerald was now variegated with the red autumnal
leaves. Where the pure runnels trickled down little gullies of the
rocks they were brightened with maidenhair and arborescent ferns.
The artificial sheets of water, in which many water-fowl swam
undisturbed, were overshadowed by beeches and oaks and golden
platanes which late autumn had touched with her fiery finger.

It was an enchanting spot. Gay shallops were always ready on the
artificial lakes if any guest cared to row or to plunge in the cool
bright water. On the smooth lawn the ‘gemmy peacocks,’ as the Latin
poets called them, strutted and displayed their Indian glories,
mingled with tame pheasants and partridges. Kids leaped and sported
about the rocky slopes. The cushat-doves cooed from the groves,
and white pigeons from the dove-cotes would come crowding round
for maize-grain at the slightest call. The Rhodian hens clucked
contentedly about the farmyard, which was crowded also with geese
and guinea-fowls. The long-haired young town-slaves, full of frolic,
worked in the garden in mock obedience to the orders of the country
bailiff; but the gardener did not attach much importance to their
labours, for they were far more intent on pilfering the best fruit
they could find in the granaries than on cultivating the soil; and
the rustics knew that to offend them was as much as their place was
worth.

The lodges themselves made no pretence to the Cæsarean magnificence
of the Palace at Rome. But their simplicity did not exclude the
exercise of luxurious taste in their construction and adornment. All
the rooms were brightened with lovely frescoes painted by the most
famous rhyparographists. On the walls of the richer apartments there
were orbs of porphyry and lapis lazuli. The impluvium, into which
fell the ceaseless plash of a musical fountain, was a basin of
Thasian stone, once a rarity even in temples, and the stop which
regulated the play of the water was formed into the winged figure
of a child moulded in silver. In the centre of the hall, which was
tessellated with small pieces of blue and white marble, there was
an exquisite copy of the doves of Scopas. Statues by such masters
as Myron and Praxiteles stood between the pillars of the peristyle.
The windows were filled with glass, and between them were abaci
of peacock-marble, supported on the gilded wings of Cupids, and
of griffins which looked in opposite directions. On these slabs of
marble stood some of the gold and silver plate which Augustus had
ordered to be made out of the statuettes of precious metals which
had been erected to him by too-adulatory provincials. On other
tables of ivory and fragrant woods lay engraved gems and cameos,
or curiosities, brought from all lands. The walls of the small but
precious library were covered, in imitation of the famous library of
Apollo, with medallions of the most famous Greek and Roman authors
in repoussé work of gold and silver, or moulded of Corinthian bronze.
Poets, historians, jurists, orators were grouped together, and
between the groups were framed specimens of the most exquisite
palæography.

Nero was going for the first time to take possession of this
enchanting retreat, the loveliness of which had kindled the surprise
and admiration of the few who had seen it. He started from Rome with
a splendid retinue. He himself rode in a light car, inlaid with ivory
and silver, and was followed by an army of a thousand slaves and
retainers. One of the earliest lessons which he learnt was that his
resources were practically boundless, so that from the first he broke
out into unheard-of extravagance. His mules were shod with silver.
The muleteers were dressed in liveries of Canusian wool, dyed
scarlet. The runners in front of his chariot, and the swarthy cohort
of outriders from Mazaca in Numidia, selected for their skill in
horsemanship, were adorned with bracelets and trappings of gold.
The more delicate slaves had their faces covered with masks, or
tinged with cosmetics, lest their complexions should suffer from the
sunlight. Many of the slaves had no other office than to carry, with
due care, the lyres and other musical instruments which were required
for the theatrical entertainments.

Agrippina, devoured with chagrin and resentment, had indeed been
asked to accompany him, but in a way so insultingly ungracious, that
she declined. She dreaded to share with him a place so retired, in
which she knew that almost every hour would fill her with disgust
and anger. She had chosen instead to go alone to her stately villa
at Bauli, on the Campanian shore. There, if she had little else to
occupy her time, she could continue her own memoirs, or amuse herself
with the lampreys and mullets, which were so tame that they would
come at her call, and feed out of her hand. Her husband’s mother,
Antonia, had attached earrings to one pet lamprey, so that people
used to visit the villa to see it. Agrippina followed her example.

Octavia followed Nero. She had not been suffered to possess any
villa which she could call her own, and much as Nero would have
liked to leave her behind, he was compelled by public opinion to
observe a certain conventional respect for his Empress, the daughter
of Claudius. The sedan in which she travelled was carried by eight
stalwart Bithynian porters, but she was not honoured with any
splendour or observance, and had only a modest retinue out of her
six hundred nominal attendants. Still humbler was the following
of Britannicus. He had been bidden to come partly because it would
have seemed shameful to leave him alone in Rome during an unhealthy
season, when even persons of low position were driven into the
country by the month in which Libitina claimed her most numerous
victims; and also because Nero was glad to keep him in sight. He
was happy enough, for Titus was with him, and Pudens was one of the
escort; and as Epaphroditus necessarily attended his master, Nero,
it was not difficult to get leave for Epictetus to come in his
train. The two kind-hearted boys thought that the pale face of the
slave-child might gain a touch of rose from the fresh winds of the
Apennines.

Very few ladies were invited. It was necessary, indeed, that one or
two should accompany Octavia; and Nero, for his own reasons, wished
Junia Silana and Calvia Crispinilla to be of the party. These were
ladies with whom a young matron like Octavia could scarcely exchange
a word, but happily for her, Flavia Domitilla, the wife of Vespasian,
was asked to accompany the Empress. Vespasian, who had just returned
from his proconsulate, had been summoned to have an interview with
Nero on the state of affairs in Africa, and to stay for some days.
Acte was in the train of Nero, but, though she rarely saw Octavia,
the unfortunate Empress little knew that the presence of Domitilla,
the only lady to whom she could speak without a shudder, was
really due to the private suggestion of the lovely and kind-hearted
freedwoman. Flavia Domitilla was of the humblest origin, and her
father had occupied no higher office than that of a quæstor’s clerk.
That no nobler companion had been sought for her would have been
regarded as an insult by any lady of haughty character; but Octavia
preferred the society of the honest matron to that of a thousand
Crispinillas.

Seneca and Burrus were invited for a brief visit only, and as Nero
liked to give a flavour of intellectuality to the society which he
gathered round him, Lucan was asked, as the rising poet of the day;
and Silius Italicus, as a sort of established poet laureate; and
Persius, the young Etrurian knight, who, though but twenty-one years
old, was so warmly eulogised by his tutor, Cornutus, that great
things were expected of him. None of his satires had yet seen the
light, but his head would hardly have been safe if Nero could have
read some of the lines locked up in his writing-desk. With these had
been also invited C. Plinius Secundus, a wealthy knight, thirty-four
years of age, in whose encyclopædic range of knowledge it was hoped
that the guests might find an endless fund of amusement and anecdote
in their more serious moments.

But while Nero liked to keep up the credit of dabbling in literary
pursuits, the choice spirits to whom he looked for his real delight
were very different from these graver personages. The fashionable
elegance of Otho and the luxurious cynicism of Petronius were
indispensable for his amusement. Tigellinus was too intimate to be
excluded; and with these came Vatinius, the witty buffoon and cobbler
of Beneventum, an informer of the lowest class. This cobbler’s chief
recommendations were personal deformity, an outrageous tongue, and
an abnormally prominent nose. He avenged himself on society for the
wrongs inflicted on him by nature. He rejoiced in the immortality of
having given his name to a drinking-cup with a long nozzle, which has
preserved his memory in the verse of Juvenal and Martial.

Here Nero enjoyed life to his heart’s content. The happy accident
that the villa really consisted of two edifices, separated by the
bridge across the glen, enabled him to keep his least welcome guests
in the Villa Castor, and his chosen companions in the Villa Pollux.

In the grounds of the Villa Castor, Seneca and Burrus had rooms in
which they could transact with their secretaries their ministerial
and military business. Pliny could bury himself among the rarer
treasures of the library, or amuse his leisure by seeing what further
he could learn about the habits of the flamingoes and other foreign
birds, which were carefully kept in cages and fed from the hands of
the visitors. For Britannicus and Titus, who often asked Persius to
be their companion, there was the resource of the tennis-court, the
gymnastic room, and rowing, bathing, and fishing in the lakes; and
Persius, who had heard all about Epictetus from his young patron,
sometimes let the little slave sit at his feet while he read choice
passages of old Roman poems in works which had been found for him by
the clever librarian.

The meals were held separately in the two villas, though sometimes
all the guests were invited to Nero’s table. He varied his amusements
in every possible way. Sometimes he would take a long swim in the
cold lake; sometimes he would fish with a purple line and a golden
hook, though he caught fewer fish in a morning than Britannicus would
catch in an hour. He delighted to spend hours at a time with the
harpist Terpnos or the singer Diodorus, who trained him how to use
what it had become the fashion to describe as his celestial voice.

He soon got tired of the small restraint upon his amusements which
resulted from the presence of the graver guests across the bridge.
But they helped to form an audience for him in the room which had
been fitted up as a theatre. One evening he had been displaying
his accomplishments to all the guests at both villas, and had been
received by the listening slaves and courtiers with tumults of
applause. The others were obliged, or felt themselves obliged, to
join in the clapping; but Nero could read in their faces that they
were unwilling listeners. Seneca blushed, and his smooth tongue
stumbled, as he attempted to express his gratification. Burrus looked
on with profound disapproval. A look of involuntary scorn stole
over the grave features of Persius, whom Nero already hated, because
the young man’s virginal modesty formed such a contrast to his own
shamelessness. But, worst of all, the blunt soldier, Vespasian, to
the intense amusement of Titus and Britannicus, had first of all
begun to nod, and then had fallen asleep with his mouth wide open,
and had snored--had actually and audibly snored, so that all the
audience heard it, while Nero was chanting his own divine verses
with the most bewitching trills of his own divine voice!

Nero, in his rage, half thought of having him arrested on the charge
of high treason--an accusation of which the meshes were equally
adapted to entangle the most daring criminals and the most trivial
offenders. But when he poured out his wrath to Petronius, his elegant
friend laughed immoderately, and pacified Nero’s offended vanity by
dwelling on Vespasian’s somnolence as a proof of his vulgarity.

‘I suppose, then,’ said Nero, ‘I must say with Horace, “_solvuntur
risu tabulæ_”?’

‘Yes,’ said Petronius, ‘and you may add “_tu missus abibis_.” Why not
make a clean sweep of these dreadful old fogies in the Villa Castor?
Pliny has told us all we care to know about flamingoes and lampreys.
Seneca’s pomposities grow stale. We have been sufficiently amused for
the present by the blushes of Persius, and the good Silius Italicus
is as tedious as his own epic. Give them a respectful farewell. Send
for Paris the actor, and Aliturus the pantomime, and some of your
fairest slaves to wait on us at our choicest banquets. Let us dismiss
this humbug of respectability and pluck the blossom of the days.’

The advice fell on congenial ears. It was intimated to the guests
in the Villa Castor that they might present their respects to the
Emperor, and disperse where they chose. They were not sorry to depart
from such dubious neighbours as those in the Villa Pollux. Vespasian
and Titus were rudely sent off the next morning, without being
permitted to see Nero again. Flavia Domitilla accompanied them, and
as the presence of Britannicus was always a trouble to Nero, he was
allowed to spend the rest of the autumn in the humble Sabine villa of
Vespasian’s family at Phalacrine, near Reate, where he would not only
have Titus as a companion, but also his cousins--the two young sons
of Vespasian’s brother, Flavius Sabinus.

‘Among those dull farmers,’ said Nero, ‘he is not likely to have any
nonsense put into his head. Let him eat beans and bacon, and grow as
sluggish as his friends.’

To Nero and the fashionable nobles of his time every man was sluggish
and plebeian who did not care to season his recreation with a variety
of vices.



CHAPTER XVI

_EVENTS IN THE VILLA POLLUX_

          ‘Who dares, who dares,
    In purity of manhood stand upright
    And say “This man’s a flatterer”? If one be,
    So are they all ...
                          the learned pate
    Ducks to the golden fool.’

                            _Timon of Athens_, iv. 3.


More and more luxurious and irregular became the amusements of the
Villa Pollux. Paganism is protected from complete exposure by the
enormity of its own vices. To show the divine reformation wrought by
Christianity it must suffice that, once for all, the Apostle of the
Gentiles seized heathendom by the hair, and branded indelibly on her
forehead the stigma of her shame.

Leaving altogether on one side the darker aspects of the life to
which Nero and his boon companions now abandoned themselves, neither
shall we dwell much upon

   ‘Their gorgeous gluttonies and sumptuous feasts
    On citron table and Atlantic stone.’

If the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life
could have brought to Nero and Otho any happiness, they might have
been happy. They could lift to their lips the cup of pleasure crowned
to the brim. They soon found it to be an envenomed goblet, sparkling
with the wine of demons. The rage of luxury, the insanity of egotism,
the abandonment to every form of self-indulgence, served only to
plunge them into deeper lassitude, and, last of all, into more
irretrievable disgust. For, though men have bodies, they still are
spirits, and when their bodies have command over their spirits, they
only become a lower kind of beast.

To Nero, while he was yet a boy, had been offered all that carnal
minds think the highest boons. The ancient philosophers used to
discuss the question, ‘Whether any one would still remain perfectly
virtuous if he were endowed with the ring of Gyges, which had the
power to make a man invisible.’ To Nero had been given alike the
ring of Gyges and the lamp of Aladdin. While he was still young
and beautiful, and not ungifted, all that was fell and foul in the
seductions of the Palace and the Amphitheatre assailed his feeble
nature. It was hardly strange that his whole being gave way and
he became a prodigy of wickedness. At heart, perhaps, he was not
essentially worse than thousands of youths have been, but his crimes,
unchecked by any limitations of law or of resources, were enacted
under the glare of publicity, on the world’s loftiest stage.

Nor must it be forgotten that he saw and enjoyed all the best, the
loveliest, the most intoxicating that could be devised by an epoch
which strove madly after pleasure. Thus, when Paris and Aliturus came
to the villa, the guests saw in those two actors the most perfect
grace set off by the highest advantages, and trained for years by the
most artistic skill. They represented the finished result of all that
the world could produce in seductive art. Such actors, originally
selected for their beauty and genius, made it the effort of their
lives to express by the poetry of movement every burning passion
and soft desire which can agitate the breast. Their rhythmic action,
their mute music, their inimitable grace of motion in the dance,
brought home to the spectator each scene which they impersonated more
powerfully than description, or painting, or sculpture. Carried away
by the glamour of involuntary delusion, the gazers seemed to see
before them every incident which they chose to represent. Nothing was
neglected which seemed likely to add to the pleasure of the audience.
The rewards of success were splendid--wealth, popularity, applause
from numberless spectators, the passionate admiration of society, the
partiality even of emperors and empresses, and all the power which
such influence bestowed. A successful mimic actor, when he sprang on
the stage in his glittering and close-fitting dress, knew that if he
could once exercise on the multitude his potent spell he might easily
become the favourite of the rulers of the world, as Bathyllus was
of Mæcenas, and Mnester of Caligula, and another Paris was of the
Empress Domitia.

Paris was a Greek, and his face was a perfect example of the fine
Greek ideal, faultless in its lines and youthful contour. Aliturus
was by birth a Jew, and was endowed with the splendid beauty which
still makes some young Arabs the types of perfect manhood. Both of
them danced after supper on the day which succeeded their arrival,
and it was hard to say which of them excelled the other.[37]

First Paris danced, in his fleshings of the softest Canusian wool,
dyed a light red. His dress revealed the perfect outline of a figure
that united fineness with strength. He represented in pantomimic
dance the scene of Achilles in the island of Scyros. He brought every
incident and person before their eyes--the virgins as they spun in
the palace of their father, Lycomedes; the fair youth concealed as a
virgin in the midst of them, and called Pyrrha from his golden locks;
the maiden Deidamia, whom he loved; the eager summons of Ulysses
at his gate; the ear-shattering trumpet of Diomedes; the presents
brought by the disguised ambassadors; the young warrior betraying
himself by the eagerness with which he turns from jewels and
ornaments to nodding helmet and bright cuirass; the doffing of his
feminine apparel; the leaping forth in his gleaming panoply. Nothing
could be more marvellous than the whole impersonation. So vivid was
the illusion that the guests of Nero could hardly believe that they
had seen but one young man before them, and not a company of varied
characters.

Yet hardly less subtle was the kindling of the imagination when
Aliturus ‘danced,’ as it was called, the ‘Death of Hector’ in the
tragic style which had first been introduced by the celebrated
Bathyllus of Alexandria. They seemed to see the hero bid farewell to
his Andromache, and go bounding forth to meet the foe; to see enacted
before them the flight of Hector; the deceitful spectre of Deiphobus;
the combat; the dying prophecy; the corpse of the gallant Trojan
dragged round the walls of Troy; Priam and Hecuba tearing their grey
locks. They seemed to hear the wild wail of Andromache, the tender
plaint of Helen, the frenzied utterances of Cassandra; and when the
scene ended there was not one of them who was not thrilled through
and through with pity, with terror, with admiration.

These scenes were innocent and not ignoble, but softer and more
voluptuous impersonations followed; for when another and less known
actor named Hylas--painted blue, and dragging a fish’s tail behind
him--had acted the part of the sea-god Glaucus, to rest the two chief
performers, then Paris set forth the story of Ariadne and Bacchus;
and Aliturus sank to yet lower depths in dancing the favourite
pantomime of Leda.

Such were among the amusements of Nero’s evenings, and part of the
pleasure consisted in knowing that he and his guests were enjoying at
their leisure a near view of the unequalled genius which enraptured
the shouting myriads of Rome when witnessed from a distance after
long hours of waiting to secure a place. Further, they had the
advantage of watching the speaking faces of the mimists, which
in the theatre were hidden by a mask. It is needless to add that
Nero rewarded with immense donations the artists whose skill he
so passionately admired. And yet for Paris it had been happier if,
instead of dazzling the multitude, he had remained the humble slave
of Domitia. For in later days Nero, envying him the tumults of
applause he won, tried to emulate his skill. Paris did his best to
teach him, but the attempt was hopeless. Nothing could then make the
obese form of the Emperor graceful, or his thin legs agile. And since
he could not rival him, he made the poor wretch pay the penalty by
putting him to death.

But no such dread foreboding was in the happy actor’s mind as he
witnessed the spell which he cast over the minds of his audience--and
audience it might fitly be called, for the actor had _spoken to_ them
in the eloquence of rhythmic gesture.

The conversation turned naturally on the art of dancing.

‘Paris,’ said Petronius, whose æsthetic sympathies had been intensely
gratified, ‘I know not whether you missed the usual accompaniments
of pipes and flutes, and still more the thundering reverberations
of applause from the enraptured myriads, but I never heard you to
greater advantage.’

‘Heard me? _Saw_ me, you mean,’ said Paris, with a pleasant smile.

‘No!’ said Petronius, ‘we have heard, not seen, you. You have not
spoken a word, but your feet and your hands have surpassed the
eloquence even of lips “tinct with Hyblean honeycombs.”’

‘You remind me of what Demetrius the Cynic said to me,’ answered
Paris.

‘What was that?’

‘Do not think me vain if I tell the story,’ said the actor. ‘I do not
tell it in my own honour, but only for the glory of my art. Demetrius
had been railing and snarling at us poor pantomimes, and said
that the only pleasure of the spectators was derived, not from our
dancing, but from the flutes and songs. I asked him to let me show
him a specimen of what I could do.’

‘Happy Demetrius!’ said Lucan.

‘He was fair-minded enough to consent, and I danced to him the story
of Mars and Venus. I tried to bring before him their love, their
betrayal by Helios, the rage and jealousy of Vulcan, their capture
in the golden net, their confusion, the entreaties of Venus, the
intercession of the gods. Demetrius was fairly conquered, and he said
to me, “Fellow!” (you observe that he was anything but civil!), “I
don’t merely see but I hear your acting, and you seem to me to speak
with your very hands.”’

‘Well done, Demetrius!’ said Otho. ‘And perhaps you don’t know,
Paris, that a Greek writer, Lesbonax, calls you, not philosophers,
but _cheirosophers_--hand-wise.’

‘I can cap your story, Paris,’ said Nero. ‘The other day a barbarian
nobleman from Pontus came to me on some foreign business and brought
me some splendid presents. When he left I asked him if I could do
anything for him. “Yes,” he said. “Will you make me a present of the
beautiful dancer whom I saw in the theatre?” That was you, Paris;
and of course I told him that you were much too precious to be given
away, and that, if I did, we should have Rome in an uproar. “But,”
I said, “of what possible use would he be to you?” “He can interpret
things without words,” he replied; “and I want some one to explain my
wishes to my barbarous neighbours”!’

‘Nobody has said any of these fine things about _me_,’ remarked
Aliturus, ruefully.

‘Well, I will tell you a compliment paid to you, Aliturus,’ said
Petronius. ‘Another barbarian, who came to me with a letter of
introduction from the Proconsul of Africa, saw you act a scene which
involved five impersonations. He was amazed at your versatility.
“That man,” he observed, “has but one body, but he has many minds.”’

‘Thank you, kind Petronius!’ said Aliturus.

‘But now tell us,’ asked Nero, ‘whether in acting you really feel the
emotions you express.’

‘When the character is new to us we feel them intensely,’ said the
Jewish pantomime. ‘Have you never heard, Cæsar, what happened to
Pylades, when he played the part of the mad hero of “Ajax”? It seemed
as if he really went mad with the hero whom he personated. He sprang
on one of the attendants who was beating time to the music, and rent
off his robe. The actor who represented the victorious Ulysses stood
by him in triumph, and Pylades, tearing a heavy flute from the hands
of one of the choraulæ, dealt Ulysses so violent a blow on the head
that he broke the flute and would have broken the head too, if the
actor had not been protected by his helmet. He even hurled javelins
at Augustus himself. The audience in the theatre was so powerfully
affected by the passion of the scene that they went mad too, and
leapt up from their seats and shouted, and flung off their garments.
Finally, Pylades, unconscious of what he was doing, walked down from
the stage to the orchestra and took his seat between two Consulars,
who were rather alarmed lest Ajax should flagellate them with his
scourge as he had been flagellating the cattle which in his madness
he took for Greeks.’

‘A curious and interesting anecdote, my Aliturus,’ said Petronius;
‘but Paris has not yet told us whether he misses the multitudinous
applause of Rome.’

‘All Rome is here,’ said Paris with a bow to the Emperor. ‘We actors
need nothing but the sunshine of approval, and did not the sun, even
before it rose above the horizon, bathe Nero in its rays?’

‘So my nurses have told me,’ said Nero.

‘Trust an actor to pay a compliment,’ whispered Vatinius to
Tigellinus.

‘Or a poet either,’ said Tigellinus, with a glance at Lucan.

‘Or an adventurer and a parasite either,’ returned the irascible
Spaniard, who had overheard the innuendo.

‘Now, if I am to be the _arbiter elegantiarum_, I will allow no
quarrels,’ said Petronius. ‘And I at least am grateful to Paris
and Aliturus, and mean to show my gratitude by a compliment. Don’t
class me among the poets who recite in the dog-days, for my little
poem--written while Paris was dancing “Achilles”--is only four lines
long. Spare my blushes and let Lucan--as he is a poet--read it.’

‘Don’t let him read it,’ whispered Tigellinus; ‘he will read it badly
on purpose.’

But Petronius handed his little waxen tablets to Lucan, who, with a
glance of disdain at Tigellinus, read with perfect expression the
four celebrated lines:

   ‘He fights, plays, revels, loves and whirls, and stands,
    Speaks with mute eloquence and rhythmic hands.
    Silence is voiceful through each varying part,
    In each fair feature--’tis the crown of Art.’[38]

A loud exclamation of ‘_Euge!_’ and ‘Σοφῶς!’ burst from the hearers
when Lucan had read these admirable lines; and the two actors repaid
the poet by the most gracious of their bows and smiles. Nor did they
confine their gratitude to smiles, but gave further specimens of
some of the laughable dances which were in vogue, such as ‘the owl’
and ‘the grimace,’ ending with a spectacle at once graceful and
innocent--namely, the lovely flower-dance with its refrain of

   ‘Where are my roses, where my violets, where my parsleys fair?’

They went to bed that night each of them the happy possessor of
twelve thousand sesterces. When Agrippina, a month later, heard this,
she reproached Nero for his gross extravagance.

‘What did I give them?’ he asked.

‘You paid them twelve thousand sesterces each for a night’s dancing.’

‘Did I?’ said Nero, glad to show his defiance. ‘I never knew before
that I was so mean;’ and he immediately ordered the sum to be doubled.



CHAPTER XVII

_AMUSEMENTS OF AN EMPEROR_

    Οὐ παύσομαι τὰς Χάριτας
    Μούσαις συγκαταμιγνύς.

                    EURIPIDES.

   ‘Esclave! apporte-moi des roses,
    Le parfum des roses est doux.’

                              VICTOR HUGO.


Among the pleasant distractions of the villa, the dilettantism of
literature and art were not forgotten. Nero regarded it as one of his
serious occupations to practice singing and harp-playing. Afterwards,
when his friends gathered round him, they would write verses, or
recite, or lounge on purple couches, listening to Epaphroditus as he
read to them the last news from the teeming gossip of Rome. Satires
and scandalous stories often created a flutter of excitement in
the reception-rooms of the capital, and were keenly enjoyed by all,
except those, often entirely innocent and worthy persons, who were
perfectly defenceless against these calumnies, and felt them like
sparks of fire, or poisoned arrows rankling in the flesh.

One morning, when the stay of the courtiers at the villa was drawing
to a close, Epaphroditus announced to them that he had a sensation
for them of the first magnitude. The trifle which he would read
to them was perhaps a little broad in parts, but he was sure that
Cæsar would excuse it. It was called, he said, by a curious name,
_Apokolokyntosis_. This was in truth a clever invention of the
librarian himself, for he did not venture to mention its real title,
which was _Ludus de morte Claudii Cæsaris_.

‘Apokolokyntosis?’[*3] asked Nero; ‘why, that means gourdification or
pumpkinification! One has heard of deification, but what on earth
does “gourdification” mean?’

‘Perhaps, Cæsar, in this instance it means the same thing,’ said
Epaphroditus; ‘but have I your permission to read it?’

The guests--Lucan among them--settled themselves in easy positions
and listened. The reader had not finished a dozen sentences before
they found that they were hearing the most daring and brilliant
satire which antiquity had as yet produced.

It was a satire on the death of Claudius, and it was not long before
peal after peal of astonished laughter rang from all the group.

It began by a jesting refusal to quote any authority for the events
the writer was going to relate. If any one wanted evidence he
referred to the senator who had sworn that he had seen Drusilla
mounting to heaven, and would be equally ready to swear that he
had seen Claudius stalking thitherward with unequal steps along the
Appian road, by which Augustus and Tiberius had also gone to heaven.

‘It was late autumn, verging on winter--it was, in fact, October 13.
As for the hour, that was uncertain, but might be generally described
as noontide, when Claudius was trying to die. Since he found it hard
to die, Mercury, who had always admired his learning, began to abuse
one of the Fates for keeping him alive for sixty-three years. Why
could not she allow the astrologers to be right for once, who had
been predicting his demise every month? Yet, no wonder! for how could
they cast the horoscope of a man so imperfect that he could hardly be
said to have ever been born? “I only meant,” pleads Clotho, “to keep
him alive a little longer, till he had made all the rest of the world
Roman citizens. But since you order it, he shall die.” Thereupon she
opened a casket, and took out three spindles--one on which was wound
the life-thread of Claudius, and on the other two those of the two
idiots, Augurinus and Baba, both of whom, she said, should die about
the same time, that Claudius might have fitting company.

‘She said, and broke short the royal period of stolid life.’ At
this point the author bursts into poetry, and describes how Lachesis
chooses a thread of gold instead of wool, and joyously weaves a web
of surpassing loveliness. The life it represents is to surpass the
years of Tithonus and of Nestor. Phœbus comes and cheers her on her
task with heavenly song, bidding her weave on.

‘Let him whose thread you are weaving,’ he sings, ‘exceed the space
of mortal life, for he is like me in countenance, like me in beauty,
and not inferior in song or voice. He shall accord happy times to the
weary, and shall burst the silence of the laws, like the rising of
the morning or the evening star, or of rosy dawn at sunrise. Such
a Cæsar is at hand, such a Nero shall Rome now behold! his bright
countenance beams with attempered lustre, and his neck is lovely
with its flowing locks!’ So sang Apollo, and Lachesis did even more
than he required. Meanwhile, Claudius died while listening to the
comedians. Then, after a touch of inconceivable coarseness, the
writer adds, ‘What happened on earth I need not tell you, for we none
of us forget our own felicity, but I will tell you what happened in
heaven.’ Jupiter is informed that a being is approaching who is tall,
grey-haired, and looks menacing, because he shakes his head and drags
his right foot. He is asked to what country he belongs, and returns
an entirely unintelligible answer in no distinguishable dialect. As
Hercules is a travelled person, Jupiter sends him to enquire to what
class of human beings the new-comer appertains. Hercules had never
seen a portent like this, with a voice like that of a sea-monster,
and thought that this must be his thirteenth labour; but, on looking,
perceived that it was a sort of man, and addressed him in Greek.
Claudius answers in Greek, and would have imposed on Hercules, had
not Fever, who had accompanied Claudius, said, ‘He is not from Ilium;
he is a genuine Gaul, born near Lyons, and, like a true Gaul, he took
Rome.’ Claudius got into a rage at this, but no one could comprehend
his jargon; he had made a signal that Fever should be decapitated,
and one might have thought that all present were his freedmen, for no
one cared for what he said. Hercules addresses him in severe tones,
and Claudius says, ‘You of all the gods, Hercules, ought to know me
and support me, for I sat all July and August listening to lawyers
before your temple.’ A discussion follows, and then Jupiter asks
the gods how they will vote. Janus thinks there are too many gods
already. Godhead has become cheap of late. He votes that no more men
shall be made gods. Claudius, however, since he is akin to the divine
Augustus, and has himself made Livia a goddess, seems likely to gain
the majority of votes; but Augustus rises and pleads against this
strange candidate for godship with indignant eloquence. ‘This man,’
he pleads, ‘caused the death of my daughter and my grand-daughter,
the two Julias, and my descendant, L. Silanus. Also he has condemned
many unheard. Jupiter, who has reigned so many years, has only broken
one leg--the leg of Vulcan--and has once hung Juno from heaven:
but Claudius, inspired by female jealousies and the intrigues of a
varletry of pampered freedmen, has killed his wife, Messalina, and
a multitude of others. Who would believe that _they_ were gods, if
they made this portent a god? Rather let him be expelled from Olympus
within three days.’

Accordingly, Mercury puts a rope round his neck, and drags him
towards Tartarus. On the way they meet a vast crowd, who all rejoice
except a few lawyers. It was, in fact, the funeral procession of
Claudius himself, and he wants to stop and look at it; but Mercury
covers him with a veil, that no one may recognize him, and drags him
along. Narcissus had preceded him by a shorter route, and Mercury
bids the freedman hurry on to announce the advent of Claudius to the
shades. Narcissus speedily arrives among them, gouty though he was,
since the descent is steep, and shouts in a loud voice, ‘Claudius
Cæsar is coming.’ Immediately a crowd of shades shouts out, ‘We have
found him; let us rejoice!’ They advance to meet him--among them
Messalina and her lover, Mnester the pantomime, and numbers of his
kinsmen whom he had put to death. ‘Why, all my friends are here!’
exclaims Claudius, quite pleased. ‘How did you all get here?’ ‘Do
_you_ ask us?’ said Pedo Pompeius; ‘you most cruel of men, who
killed us all?’ Pedo drags him before the judgment-seat of Æacus,
and accuses him on the Cornelian law of having put to death thirty
senators, three hundred and fifteen Roman knights, and two hundred
and twenty-one other persons. Claudius, terrified, looks round him
for an advocate, but does not see one. Publius Petronius wants to
plead for him, but is not allowed to do so. He is condemned. Deep
silence falls on them all, as they wait to hear his punishment. It
is to be as endless as that of Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion; it is
to be a toil and a desire futile and frustrate and without end. He
is to throw dice forever in a dice-box without a bottom!

No sooner said than done! Claudius began at once to seek the dice,
which forever escaped him. Every time he attempted to throw them they
slipped through, and the throw, though constantly attempted, could
never be performed.

Then all of a sudden appears Caligula, and demands that Claudius
should be recognised as his slave. He produces witnesses who swear
that they have seen Caligula scourge him and slap him, and beat him.
He is assigned to Caligula, who hands him over to his freedman,
Menander, to be his legal assessor.

Such was this daring satire, of which we can hardly estimate the
audacity and wit--written as it was within a year of events which
the Roman Senate and Roman people professed to regard as profoundly
solemn.

Nero was convulsed with laughter throughout, and was equally
delighted by the insults upon his predecessor and the flattery of
himself.

When the speaker’s voice ceased, a burst of applause came from the
lips of the hearers; and Lucan turned to the gratified Nero and
repeated the lines which described his radiant beauty, his song,
and the brilliant prognostications of his coming reign.

‘Yes,’ said Otho; ‘that is true poetry--

    ‘“Such is our Cæsar; such, O happy Rome,
      Thy radiant Nero gilds his Palace home;
      His gentle looks with tempered splendour shine,
      Round his fair neck his golden tresses twine.”’--

and, in the intimacy of friendship, he ventured to pass his hand
over the soft golden hair which flowed over the neck of the proud
and happy youth.

‘How witty it is, and how powerful!’ said Petronius. ‘Who could have
written it?’

Lucan gave a meaning smile. He had not been dismissed from the Villa
Castor with the other guests, because the Emperor, although jealous
of him, could not help admiring his fiery, original, and declamatory
genius.

‘You smile, Lucan,’ said Otho; ‘surely your uncle Seneca--that grave
and stately philosopher--could not have written this sparkling farce?’

‘Seneca?’ said Vestinus; ‘what, he who grovelled at the feet of the
freedman Polybius, and told him that the one supreme consolation to
him for the loss of his wife would be the divine beneficence of the
Pumpkinity whom here he paints as an imbecile slaverer?’

‘I think Seneca deserves to be brought up on a charge of treason, if
he really wrote it,’ said Tigellinus.

‘Nonsense, Tigellinus,’ said Petronius; ‘you need not be so
sanguinary. The thing is but a jest, after all. On the stage we
allow the freest and broadest jokes against the twelve greater gods,
and even the Capitoline Jupiter; why should not a wit jest harmlessly
upon the deified Claudius, now that he has died of eating a mushroom?’

‘You are right,’ said Nero; ‘the author is too witty to be punished;
and now I always call mushrooms “the food of the gods.” But _was_
Seneca the writer?’ he asked, turning to Lucan.

‘I think I may say quite confidently that he was _not_,’ said Lucan,
a little alarmed by the savage remark of Tigellinus. In point of
fact, he believed that the brochure had been written by his own
father, Marcus Annæus Mela, but he felt it desirable that the secret
should be kept.

‘We all know that the Annæi are loyal,’ sneered Tigellinus.

‘As loyal, at any rate, as men who would sell their souls for an
aureus,’ answered the Spaniard. He looked full at Tigellinus, who
remembered the scene, and put it down in his note-book for the day
of vengeance.

But Petronius loved elegance, and did not care for quarrels, and he
tried to turn the conversation from unpleasant subjects. ‘Lucan,’ he
asked, ‘have you written any verses about Nero? If so, pray let us
have the pleasure of hearing them.’

Lucan was far from unwilling to show that he too could flatter, and
he recited the lines of colossal adulation from the opening of the
‘Pharsalia.’ Even the civil wars, he sang, with all their slaughter,
were not too heavy a price to pay for the blessing of having obtained
a Nero; and he begs him to be careful what part of Olympus he chooses
for his future residence, lest the burden of his greatness should
disturb the equilibrium of the world![39]

Nero had just heard the deification of Claudius torn to shreds with
mortal sarcasm, but his own vanity was impervious to any wound, and
he eagerly drank in the adulation which--with no more sincerity than
that which had been addressed to his predecessor by the Senate and
people of Rome--assured him of the honour of plenary divinity among
the deities of heaven in whom, nevertheless, he scarcely even
affected to believe.

He turned to Petronius and asked him to recite his poem on the
Sack of Troy. Petronius did so, and the Emperor listened with eager
interest. It was a subject which fascinated him.

‘Ah!’ he said, ‘to see a city in flames--that would be worth living
for! I have tried to write something on that subject myself.’

All present, of course, pressed him to favour them with his poem, and
after a little feminine show of reluctance, and many protestations of
mock modesty, he read them, in an affected voice, some verses which
were marked in every phrase by the falsetto of the age. It was
evident that they had been painfully elaborated. Indeed, as they
looked at the note-book from which the Emperor read they saw that the
_labor limæ_ had been by no means wanting. The book, which afterwards
fell into the hands of Suetonius, was scratched and scrawled over
in every direction, and it showed that many a turn of expression
had been altered twenty times before it became tinkling enough and
fantastic enough to suit Nero’s taste. It was clear from the tone
in which he read them that the most bizarre lines were exactly those
that pleased him best, and they were therefore the ones which his
flatterers selected for their loudest applause.

    ‘“Filled the grim horns with Mimallonean buzz”’--

repeated Lucan. ‘How energetic! how picturesque!’

‘He is laughing at you in his sleeve, Cæsar,’ whispered Tigellinus;
‘and he thinks his own most impromptu line far superior.’

Lucan did not overhear the remark, and he proceeded to quote and
praise the three lines on the river Tigris, which

    ‘“Deserts the Persian realms he loved to lave,
      And to non-seekers shows his sought-for wave.”

Now those lines I feel sure will live.’

‘Of course they will,’ said Tigellinus, ‘long after your poems are
forgotten.’

The young poet only shrugged his shoulders, and turned on the
adventurer a glance of disdain. Petronius, however, who disliked and
despised Tigellinus, was now thoroughly disgusted by his malignity,
and did not hesitate to express his contempt. ‘Tigellinus,’ he said.
‘if you are so rude I shall ask Cæsar to dismiss you. What nonsense
on your part to pretend to know anything about poetry! You know even
less than Calvisius Sabinus, who confounds Achilles with Ulysses, and
has bought ten slaves who know all the poets by heart to prompt him
when he makes a mistake.’[40]

Tigellinus reddened with anger, but he did not venture to reply.

‘For my part,’ said Senecio, ‘I prefer the line

    ‘“Thou who didst chine the long-ribb’d Apennine,”

not to speak of the fine effect of the spondaic, there is the daring
image.’

‘There is something finer than both,’ said Petronius, and he quoted a
line of real beauty which Seneca has preserved for us in his ‘Natural
Questions,’ and in which Nero describes the ruffled iridescence of a
dove’s neck:

   ‘Fair Cytherea’s startled doves illume
    With sheeny lustre every glancing plume.’[41]

‘Many,’ said the polished courtier, ‘have seen the mingled amethyst
and emerald on the necks of doves and peacocks, but it has been
reserved for Cæsar to describe it.’

Somehow or other, in spite of all they said, Nero was not satisfied.
He had an uneasy misgiving that all of them except Petronius--whom he
knew to be genuinely good-natured--were only fooling him to the top
of his bent. Not that this misgiving at all disturbed his conceit. He
was convinced that he was a first-rate poet, as well as a first-rate
singer and lyrist, and indeed a first-rate artist in all respects.
It was the thing of which he was most proud, and if these people were
only _pretending_ to recognise his enormous merits, that was simply
the result of their jealousy.

‘Thank you, friends,’ he said. ‘What you say of me, Lucan, is very
kind, but’--he felt it necessary to show his superiority by a little
criticism--‘I should not recommend you to publish your poem just yet.
It is crude in parts. It is too Spanish and provincial. It wants a
great deal of polishing before it can reach the æsthetic standard.’

Lucan bowed, and bit his lip. He felt that among these poetasters he
was like a Triton among minnows, and his sense of mortification was
so bitter that he could not trust himself to speak, lest he should
risk his head by insulting Nero to his face.

The group broke up. Only Petronius, Paris, and Tigellinus remained.

‘Petronius,’ said Nero, ‘you are a genuine poet. What do you think of
Persius and Lucan as poets?’

‘Lucan is more of a rhetorician than a poet,’ said Petronius, ‘and
Persius more of a Stoic pedagogue. Both have merits, but neither
of them can say anything simply and naturally. They are laboured,
artificial, declamatory, monotonous, and more or less unoriginal.
Their “honeyed globules of words” are only a sign of decadence.’[42]

‘And what do you think of _my_ poetry?’ asked the Emperor, sorely
thirsting for a compliment.

‘A Cæsar must be supreme in all he does,’ said Petronius, with one of
his enigmatical smiles.

He rose, and bowed as he left the room, leaving Nero puzzled and
dissatisfied.

‘Oh, Paris!’ exclaimed Nero, flinging his arm round the actor’s neck,
‘you alone are to be envied. You are a supreme artist. No one is
jealous of you. When I see you on the stage, moving the people at
your will to tears or to laughter, or kindling them to the most
delicious emotions--when I hear the roar of applause which greets you
as you stand forth in all your grace, and make the huge theatre ring
with your fine penetrating voice, I often wish we could change our
parts, and I be the actor, and you the Emperor.’

‘You mock a poor mummer, Cæsar,’ said Paris; ‘but if I am to amuse
you after the banquet to-night you must let me go and arrange
something with Aliturus.’

Nero was left alone with Tigellinus. He yawned wearily. ‘How tedious
all life is!’ he said. ‘Well, never mind, there is the banquet of the
night to look forward to.’

‘Yes,’ said Tigellinus, ‘and when we are heated with wine we will
wander out into the grounds; and in the caves and winding pathways
Petronius and Crispinilla have invented a new amusement for you.’

‘What is it?’

‘Do not ask me, Cæsar, and you will all the more enjoy its novelty.’

‘Yes, but our time here is rapidly drawing to a close, and then comes
Rome again, and all the boredom of the Senate, and of hearing causes,
and entertaining dull people of consequence. And there I must more or
less play at propriety.’

‘Why must you, Cæsar? Cannot you do exactly as you like? Who is there
to question you?’

‘My mother, Agrippina, if no one else.’

‘You have only one reason to fear the Augusta.’

‘What is that?’

‘Because, Cæsar, as I have already warned you, she is making much of
Britannicus. I have reason to believe that she is also plotting to
secure the elevation of Rubellius Plautus or Sulla. She is not at all
too old to marry either of them, and both of them have imperial blood
in their veins.’

‘Rubellius Plautus?’ asked Nero; ‘why, he is a peaceful pedant. And
that miserable creature Sulla cares for nothing but his dinner.’

‘We shall see in time,’ said Tigellinus; ‘but meanwhile, so long as
Britannicus lives--’

‘Finish your sentence.’

‘So long as Britannicus lives, Nero is not safe.’

Nero sank into a gloomy reverie. He had not suspected that the
dark-eyed adventurer had designs as deep as those of Sejanus himself.
That guilty and intriguing minister of Tiberius was only a Roman
knight, and the whole family of Germanicus, as well as the son and
the grandson of Drusus, stood in the direct line of descent as heirs
to the throne. Yet he had for years worked on with the deliberate
intention of clearing every one of them from his path, and climbing
to that throne himself.

Why should not Tigellinus follow a similar[*4] course? He had
persuaded Nero that he knew something about soldiership. He had
made himself popular among the Prætorian guards. Burrus might be
got rid of, and Tigellinus, by pandering to Nero’s worst instincts,
encouraging his alarms, and awakening his jealousies, might come to
be accepted as an indispensable guardian of his interests, and so be
made the Prætorian Præfect. Once let him gain that position, and he
might achieve almost anything. Octavia would evidently be childless.
Nero was the last of his race. It would be just as well to get rid,
beforehand, of all possible rivals to his ambitious designs. Plautus
and Sulla might wait, but nothing could be done till Britannicus was
put out of the way. It would then be more easy to deal with Agrippina
and with Octavia.

So he devised; and the spirits of evil laughed, knowing that he was
but paving the road for his own headlong destruction.

But that night no one was gayer and more smiling than he at the soft
Ionian festival, where they were waited on by boys robed in white and
crowned with roses. It had been spread in the _viridarium_, a green
garden surrounded by trees cut and twisted into quaint shapes of
birds and beasts by the _ars topiaria_. The larger dishes were spread
on the marble rim of a fountain, while the smaller ones floated among
the water-lilies in vessels made in the shape of birds or fish. By
one novel and horrible refinement of luxury, a fish was caught and
boiled alive during the feast in a transparent vase, that the guests
might watch its dying gleams of ruby and emerald. When the drinking
was finished they went into the groves and gardens of the villa,
and the surprise which had been prepared for Nero was a loose sylvan
pageant. Every grove and cavern and winding walk had been illuminated
at twilight by lamps which hung from tree to tree. In the open spaces
naiads were bathing in the lake, and leaving trails of light in
the water, and uplifting their white arms, which glittered like
gold in the moonlight; and youths with torches sprang out of the
lurking-places dressed like fauns or satyrs, and danced with maidens
in the guise of hamadryads, and crowned the guests with flowers, and
led them to new dances and new orgies and new revelries, while their
cries and songs woke innumerable echoes, which mocked the insulted
majesty of the night.

       *       *       *       *       *

And in those very caves, four hundred years later, there came and
lived a boy a little younger than Nero was, and amid the pleasances
of the villas, which had fallen to ruin, and in the lonely caverns
high up among the hills, he made his solitary home. He had deserted
the world, disgusted and disillusioned with the wickedness of Rome.
And once, when the passions of the flesh seemed to threaten him, he
rushed out of his cave and rolled his naked body on the thorns where
now the roses grow. And multitudes were struck by his holiness and
self-devotion, and monasteries rose on every crag, and the scene,
once desecrated by the enchantments of the sorceress Sense, was
purified by the feet of saintly men, and the cavern where young
slaves had lurked in the guise of the demons of the Gentiles is now
called the Holy Cave.

That boy of fourteen was Benedict. The name of Nero has rotted
for more than eighteen centuries, but to this day the memory of
St. Benedict is fragrant as his own roses; for

   ‘Only the actions of the just
    Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.’



CHAPTER XVIII

_VESPASIAN’S FARM_

   ‘At secura quies, et nescia fallere vita,
    Dives opum variarum, at latis otia fundis,

           *       *       *       *       *

    Mugitusque boum, mollesque sub arbore somni,

           *       *       *       *       *

    Et patiens operum exiguoque assueta juventus,
    Sacra Deum, sanctique patres.’

                              VIRG. _Georg._ ii. 467.


Octavia was left in the comparative desertion of the Villa Castor,
without even the homely companionship of Vespasian’s wife. The
respectable guests had departed. There was scarcely a person about
her to whom she could speak. As for her young husband, he treated
her with habitual neglect and open scorn. His conduct towards her was
due partly to the indifference which he had always felt, partly to
jealousy--lest he should be thought to owe the Empire to his union
with her. He therefore followed his own devices; and she desired no
closer intercourse with him, for she shrank from the satyr which lay
beneath his superficial graces. She was best pleased that he should
be out of her sight. The void of an unloved heart was preferable to
the scenes which took place between them when Nero’s worst qualities
were evoked by the repulsion which she could not wholly conceal.
Accustomed to hourly adulation, it was intolerable to him that from
those who constituted his home circle he never received the shadow of
a compliment. He was disturbed by the sense that those who knew him
most intimately saw through him most completely. His mother did not
abstain from telling him what he really was with an almost brutal
frankness; his wife seemed to shrink from him as though there were
pollution in his touch.

As there was little occasion for him to pay any regard to
conventionalities in the retirement of Subiaco, he rarely paid the
Empress even a formal visit--rarely even crossed the bridge which
divided one villa from the other.

Octavia spent the long hours in loneliness. She sometimes relieved
the tedium of her days by sending loving letters to her brother at
Phalacrine, and sometimes summoned one of the young slave-maidens to
sit and read to her. While Nero associated with the most worthless
slaves, Octavia selected for her attendants the girls whose modest
demeanour had won her notice, and whom she generally found to be
Christians. Christianity, though overwhelmed with slanders, was not
yet suppressed by law; and in the lowest ranks of society, where no
one cared what religion any one held, the sole reason which induced
the slaves to conceal their faith was the ridicule which the
acknowledgment of it involved. The cross, which was in those days the
gibbet of the vilest malefactors, was to all the world an emblem only
of shame and horror. It was a thing scarcely to be mentioned, because
its associations of disgrace and agony were so intense as to disturb
the equanimity of the luxurious. And when a Christian slave was
taunted with the gibe that he worshipped ‘a crucified malefactor,’
how could he explain a truth which was to the Jews a stumbling-block,
and to the Greeks foolishness?

Octavia, whom sorrow had taught to be kind, was gentle in her
demeanour to her slaves. The multitude of girls who waited on a
patrician matron had a terrible time of it when their mistresses
happened to be in an ill-humour. The gilded boudoirs of the Aventine
not unfrequently rang with shrieks. As one entered the stately hall
one heard the clanking chain of the _ostiarius_, who, with his dog
and his staff, occupied the little cell by the entrance; and if a
visitor came a little too soon for the banquet he might be greeted
by the cries which followed the whistling strokes of the scourge, or
might meet some slave-girl with dishevelled hair and bleeding cheeks,
rushing from the room of a mistress whom she had infuriated by the
accidental displacement of a curl. The slaves of Octavia had no such
cruelties to dread. Lydus, who kept her chair; Hilara, who arranged
her robes; Aurelia, who had charge of her lap-dog; Aponia, who
adorned her tresses; Verania, who prepared her sandals, had nothing
to fear from her. There was not one of her slaves who did not love
the young mistress, whose lot seemed less happy than that of the
humblest of them all.

And thus it happened that Tryphæna and others of her slaves were not
afraid to speak freely, when she seemed to invite their confidence.
From Britannicus she had heard what Pomponia had taught him; she had
found from these meek followers of the ‘foreign superstition,’ that
their beliefs and practice were inconceivably unlike the caricatures
of them which were current among the populace. Because all men
hated them, they were accused of hating all men; but Octavia found
that love, no less than purity and meekness, was among their most
essential duties. She was obliged to exercise the extremest caution
in the expression of her own opinions, but she felt an interest
deeper than she could express in all that Tryphæna told her of
the chief doctrines of Christianity. And though she could scarcely
form any judgment on what she heard, she felt a sense of support in
truths which, if they did not convince her reason, yet kindled her
imagination and touched her heart. One doctrine of the Christians
came home to her with quickening power--the doctrine of the life
everlasting. In Paganism that doctrine had no practical existence.
The poets’ dream of meadows of asphodel and islands of the blest,
where Achilles and Tydides unbound the helmets from their shadowy
hair, and where the thin _eidola_ of kings and heroes pursued a
semblance of their earthly life, had little meaning for her. Like
Britannicus, she was fond of reading the best Greek poets. But there
was no hopefulness in them. In Pindar she read--

           ‘By night, by day,
            The glorious sun
    Shines equal, where the blest,
            Their labours done,
    Repose forever in unbroken rest.’[43]

And in Homer--

   ‘Thee to the Elysian plain, earth’s farthest end,
    Where Rhadamanthus dwells the gods shall send;
    There mortals easiest pass the careless hour,
    No lingering winter there, nor snow, nor shower;
    But Ocean ever, to refresh mankind,
    Breathes the shrill spirit of the western wind.’

But she had only to unroll the manuscript a little further, and was
chilled to the heart by the answer of Agamemnon to the greeting of
Ulysses:--

   ‘Talk not of reigning in this dolorous gloom,
    Nor think vain words, he cried, can ease my doom
    Better by far laboriously to bear
    A weight of woe, and breathe the vital air,
    Slave to the meanest hind that begs his bread,
    Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead!’

And though Cicero had written his Tusculan disputations to prove
the doctrine of immortality, had he not, in his letters and speeches,
spoken of that doctrine as a mere pleasing speculation, which might
be discussed with interest, but which no one practically held? Yet to
these good Christians that doctrine was an unshakable conviction, a
truth which consoled their heaviest afflictions. To them the eternal,
though unseen, was ever present. It was not something future, but a
condition of which they breathed the atmosphere both here and now.
To them the temporal was the shadowy; the eternal was the only real.

While Octavia was thus silently going through the divine education
which was to prepare her for all that was to come, Britannicus was
supremely happy in the Sabine farm. Its homeliness and security
furnished a delightful contrast to the oppressive splendour of the
Palace at Rome. There, in the far wild country, he had none but farm
labourers about him, except the members of the Flavian family, who,
on the father’s side, rose but little above the country folk. He was
as happy as the day was long. He could lay aside all thoughts of rank
and state, could dress as he liked, and do as he liked, and roam over
the pleasant hills, and fish in the mountain streams, with no chance
of meeting any one but simple peasant lads. With Titus and his two
cousins, young Flavius Sabinus and Flavius Clemens, he could find
sympathy in every mood, whether grave or gay. Titus with his rude
health, his sunny geniality, his natural courtesy--a boy ‘tingling
with life to the finger tips’--was a friend in whose society it was
impossible to be dull. Flavius Clemens was a youth of graver nature.
The shadow of far-distant martyrdom, which would dash to the ground
his splendid earthly prospects, seemed to play over his early years.
He had already been brought into contact with Christian influences,
and showed the thoughtfulness, the absence of intriguing ambition,
and the dislike to pagan amusements, which stamped him in the
vulgar eyes of his contemporaries as a youth of ‘most contemptible
indolence.’ A fourth boy was often with them. It was Domitian, the
younger brother of Titus, destined hereafter to be the infamy of his
race. He was still a child, and a stranger unable to read the mind’s
construction in the face would have pronounced that he was the
best-looking of the five boys. For his cheeks wore a glow of health
as ruddy as his brother’s, and his features were far softer. But
it was not a face to trust, and Britannicus, trained in a palace to
recognize what was indicated by the expression of every countenance,
never felt any liking for the sly younger son of Vespasian.

Vespasian was proud of his farm, and was far more at home there than
in the reception-rooms of Nero. He was by no means ashamed of the
humility of his origin. As he sat in his little villa, he used to
tell people that his ancestor was only one of the Umbrian farmers,
who, during the civil war between Marius and Sylla, had settled at
Reate and married a Sabine maiden. Amazed indeed would those humble
progenitors have been if they had been told that their great-grandson
would be an Emperor of Rome! Nothing made him laugh more heartily
than the attempt of his flatterers to deduce his genealogy from
a companion of Hercules. He had not a single bust or waxen image
of any illustrious ancestor to boast of, but was proud that the
cities of Asia had reared a statue to his father, Sabinus, with the
inscription, ‘To the honest publican.’

He delighted to recall the memories of Cincinnatus and Fabricius and
the old dictators, who had been taken from the plough-tail, and to
whom their wives had to bring the single toga they possessed in order
that they might meet the ambassadors of the Senate when they were
summoned to subdue the enemies of Rome. He was never happier than
when he took the boys round with him to visit his horses and his
cows, and even Domitilla’s hens. He delighted in the rude plenty of
the house, the delicious cream, the fresh eggs, the crisp oat-cakes,
the beautiful apples at breakfast, the kid and stewed fruits of the
midday meal. Any one who watched those rustic meals would little have
conjectured that, in that low, unadorned room, with the watch-dogs
slumbering before the hearth, they saw before them three emperors,
two consuls and a princess. Still less would he have dreamed that
one of them only would die peacefully in his bed; that, of those five
boys, four would be the victims of murder, and one of martyrdom; and
that the younger Domitilla, though she did not share her husband’s
martyrdom,[*5] would die in a bleak and lonely island as a confessor
of the faith. Our life lies before us, and the mercy of Divine
Providence hides its issues in pitchy night.

Vespasian alone of that little company was old enough to feel in
all its fulness the blessing of a temporary escape from the horrible
world of Rome, which tossed like a troubled sea whose waters cast
up mire and dirt. He knew, as those lads could hardly know, that
it was a world of insolence and passion, of treachery and intrigue,
of ruthless cruelty and unfathomable corruption. He had seen the
government of it pass from a madman like Caligula to a half-dazed
blunderer like Claudius, and knew that the two had been preceded by
a Tiberius, and succeeded by a Nero. One morning, when the weather
did not permit them to go out to their usual outdoor sports, the boys
had amused themselves with a genealogy of the Cæsars, in which they
had become interested in consequence of some questions about the
descendants of Augustus. As the blunt soldier looked at them while
they bent over the genealogy, he became very thoughtful. For that
stem of the Cæsars had something portentous in its characteristics.
It was a grim reflex of the times. Here were emperors who had
married five or six wives, and empresses who had married four or
five husbands, and some of these marriages had been fruitful; and
yet the Cæsars were hardly Cæsars at all, but a mixed breed of
ancient Claudii, Domitii, Silani, and of modern Octavii and Agrippas.
The genealogy showed a confused mass of divorces and adoptions, and
neither the men nor the women of the royal house were safe. Many
of the women were adulteresses; many of the men were murderers or
murdered victims. Out of sixteen empresses, six had been killed and
seven divorced. Julia, daughter of Augustus, after three marriages,
had been banished by her father for shameless misconduct, and
Tiberius had ordered her to be starved to death at Rhegium. Could
Augustus have felt no anguish in his proud spirit, when he had to
write to a young patrician ‘You have committed an indiscretion in
going to visit my daughter at Baiæ’? or when on hearing that Phœbe,
Julia’s freedwoman, had hanged herself, he cried ‘Would that I had
been the father of that Phœbe’? And, alas! what multitudes of his
descendants had equalled Julia alike in misery and shame! Death and
infamy had rioted in that deplorable family. Well might Augustus
exclaim, in the line of Homer:

    ‘Would I had died unwed, nor been the father of children!’

When the people demanded the recall of the two Julias, after five
or six years of exile, he exclaimed in a burst of indignation and
anguish, ‘I wish you similar wives and similar daughters.’ He
described his wife Scribonia, his daughter Julia, and his
granddaughter Julia the younger as ‘his three cancers.’[44]

But while the boys were eagerly talking together, and discussing
those Cæsars, and members of their family, who from the time of
Julius Cæsar downward had been deified, Vespasian suddenly grew
afraid lest the same thought which struck him should strike them. In
those days he did not dream that he too should wear the purple and
die the apparent founder of a dynasty. He was not, indeed, unaware of
various prognostics which were supposed to portend for him a splendid
fate. At Phalacrine, his native hamlet, was an ancient oak sacred
to Mars, which had put out a new branch at the birth of each of the
three children of his father, Sabinus. The third, which represented
himself, grew like a great tree. Sabinus, after consulting an augur,
told his mother, Tertulla, that her grandson would become a Cæsar.
But Vespasian shared the feelings of the old lady, who had only
laughed immoderately at the prophecy, and remarked, ‘How odd it is
that I am in my senses, while my son has gone raving mad!’

Seeing that the boys were fascinated by the grandeur of Cæsarism, he
rolled up the stemma. ‘Do not be ambitious, lads,’ he said. ‘Could
the name of _Imperator_ or the sight of your radiated heads upon a
coin, give you more happiness than you are enjoying here and now?’

The advice of Vespasian was perfectly sincere. In his homely way
he saw too deeply into the heart of things to care for the outside
veneer. It was his mother, Vespasia Polla--the daughter of the
military tribune--who, led on by dreams and omens, had forced him
into the career of civil honours. His brother obtained the right
to wear the laticlave, or broad purple stripe on the toga, and the
silver C on the boots, which marked the rank of senator. Vespasian
was unwilling to lay aside the narrow stripe, the angusticlave, which
showed him to be of equestrian rank. He only yielded to the pressure,
and even to the abuse, of his mother, who asked him how long he meant
to be the lacquey--the _anteambulo_--of his brother. He had nearly
thrown up his public life in disgust, when during his ædileship Gaius
had ordered the soldiers to cover him with mud, and to heap mud into
the folds of his embroidered magisterial robe, because he found the
roads insufficiently attended to. He had practised the advice he was
now giving.

‘My head has been struck on coins,’ said Britannicus, with a sigh;
‘but I can’t say that it has made me much happier.’

‘You are as happy as Nero is,’ said Titus. ‘I am quite sure that all
the revels at Subiaco will not be worth the boar-hunt we mean to have
to-morrow.’

‘Clemens,’ said Vespasian, ‘Domitilla tells me that yesterday morning
you were learning my favourite poem, the “Epode” of Horace about
the pleasures of country life, and the lines of Virgil on the same
subject. As we have nothing special to do this morning, suppose you
repeat the poems to us, while the boys and I make a _formido_ for our
next deer-hunt.’

The boys got out the long line of string, and busied themselves with
tying to it, at equal distances, the crimson feathers which were to
frighten the deer into the nets; while Flavius, standing up, recited
feelingly and musically the well-known lines of the Venusian poet,
whose Sabine farm lay at no great distance from the place where they
were living--

   ‘Blessed is he--remote as were the mortals
      Of the first age, from business and its cares--
    Who ploughs paternal fields with his own oxen,
      Free from the bonds of credit or of debt.
    No soldier he, roused by the savage trumpet,
      Not his to shudder at the angry sea;
    His life escapes from the contentious Forum,
      And shuns the insolent thresholds of the great.’[45]

And when, to the great delight of his uncle, he had finished
repeating this poem, he repeated the still finer lines of Virgil, who
pronounces ‘Happy above human happiness the husbandmen for whom far
beyond the shock of arms earth pours her plenteous sustenance.’[46]

The boys talked together on all sorts of subjects; only if Domitian
was with them, they were instinctively careful about what they said.
For Domitian could never forget that Britannicus was a prince. If
Britannicus became Emperor he might be highly useful in many ways,
and it was worth Domitian’s while to insinuate himself into his
favour. In this he soon saw that he would fail. The young prince
disliked him, and could not entirely conceal his dislike under
his habitual courtesy. Domitian then changed his tactics. He would
try to be Nero’s friend, and if he could find out anything to the
disadvantage of Britannicus, so much the better. He had already
attracted the notice of two courtiers--the dissolute Clodius Pollio,
who had been a prætor, and the senator Nerva, both of whom stood well
with the Emperor. Already this young reprobate had all the baseness
of an informer. But in this direction also his little plans were
defeated, for in his presence Britannicus was as reticent as to Titus
he was unreserved.

Britannicus was to have had a room to himself, in consideration of
his exalted rank, but he asked to share the sleeping-room of Titus
and Clemens. They went to bed at an early hour, for Vespasian was
still a poor man, and oil was expensive. But they often talked
together before they fell asleep. Titus would rarely hear a word
about the Christians. He declared that they were no better than
the worshippers of the dog-headed Anubis, and he appealed to the
caricature of the Domus Gelotiana as though it proved the reality of
the aspersions against them. He was, however, never tired of talking
about the Jews. He had seen Agrippa; he had been dazzled into
a boyish love by the rich eastern beauty of Berenice. The dim
foreshadowing of the future gave him an intense interest in the
nation whose destiny he was to affect so powerfully in after years.
Stories of the Jewish Temple seemed to have a fascination for him.
But he was as credulous about the Jews as the rest of his race, and
believed the vague scandals that they were exiles from Crete, and
a nation of lepers, and about Moses and the herd of asses--which
afterwards found a place in Tacitus and later historians.

Another subject about which he liked to talk was Stoicism. He thought
nothing so grand as the doctrine that the ideal wise man was the
most supreme of kings. He was full of high arguments, learnt through
Epictetus, to prove that the wise man would be happy even in the
bull of Phalaris, and he quoted Lucretius and Virgil to prove that
he would be always happy--

                    ‘If to know
    Causes of things, and far below
    His feet to feel the lurid flow
    Of terror, and insane distress,
    And headlong fate, be happiness.’

At all of which propositions Britannicus was inclined to laugh
good-naturedly, and to ask--much to the indignation of his friend--if
Musonius was happy when he had a bad toothache.

Finding him unsympathetic on the subject of the Christians,
Britannicus ceased to speak of them. On the other hand, he soon
discovered that Clemens knew more about them than himself.

‘Are you a Christian, Flavius?’ asked Britannicus, when they were
alone, after one of these conversations.

‘I have not been baptised,’ he answered. ‘No one is regarded as
a full Christian until he has been admitted into their church by
baptism.’

‘Baptism? What is that?’

‘It is the washing with pure water,’ said Clemens. ‘Our Roman
ceremonies are pompous and cumbersome. It is not so with the
Christians. Their symbols are the simplest things in the world.
Water, the sign of purification from guilt; bread and wine, the
common elements of life, taken in remembrance of Christ who died
for them.’

‘And are the elders of these Christians--the presbyters, as they call
them--the same sort of persons as our priests?’

‘I should hope not!’ said Clemens. ‘They are simple and blameless
men--more like the best of the philosophers, and more consistent,
though not so learned.’

The entrance of Domitian--whom they more than suspected of having
listened at the door--stopped their conversation. But what
Britannicus had heard filled him with deeper interest, and he felt
convinced that the Christians were possessors of a secret more
precious than any which Seneca or Musonius had ever taught.

But the happy days at the Sabine farm drew to an end. When November
was waning to its close it was time to return from humble Phalacrine
and its russet hills, to the smoke and wealth and roar of Rome.



CHAPTER XIX

_OTHO’S SUPPER AND WHAT CAME OF IT_

   ‘Quoi cum sit viridissimo nupta flore puella
    Et puella tenellulis delicatior hædis,
    Asservanda nigellulis diligentius uvis,
    Ludere hanc sinit, ut lubet.’

                             CATULL. _Carm._ xvii. 14.


We left Onesimus bound hand and foot in his cell, and expecting
the severest punishment. His crimes had been heinous, although
the thought of escaping detection by slaying Junia had only been
a momentary impulse, such as could never have flashed across his
mind if it had not been inflamed by the furies of the amphitheatre.
As he looked back in his deep misery, he saw how fatally all his
misfortunes dated from the self-will with which he had resisted light
and knowledge. He might by this time have been good and honoured in
the house of Philemon, less a slave than a brother beloved. He might
have been enfranchised, and in any case have enjoyed that happy
freedom of soul which he had so often witnessed in those whom Christ
had made free indeed. And now his place was among the lowest of the
low. Nereus had of course reported to Pudens his attempt at theft.
Pudens was sorry for the youth, for he had liked him, and saw in him
the germs of better things. But such a crime could not be passed over
with impunity. Onesimus was doomed to the scourge, as well as to a
trinundine[47] of solitude on bread and water, while he remained
fettered in his cell.

The imprisonment, the shame, the solitariness which was a cruel trial
to one of his quick disposition, were very salutary to him. They
checked him in a career which might have ended in speedy shipwreck.
And while his heart was sore every kind influence was brought to
bear upon him. Pudens visited him and tried to rouse him to penitence
and manliness. Nereus awoke in his mind once more the dying embers
of his old faith. Above all, Junia came one day to the door of his
prison, and spoke a few words of courage and hope, which more than
all else made him determined to struggle back to better ways.

His punishment ended, and he was forgiven. He resumed his duties, and
took a fresh start, in the hope of better things.

Nero had returned to Rome, and drew still closer his bond of intimacy
with Otho. Otho was his evil genius. In vain did Agrippina attempt to
keep her son in the paths of outward conformity with the requirements
of his position. In vain did Seneca and Burrus remind him of the
responsibilities of an Emperor of Rome. Otho became his model,
and Otho represented to one half of the Roman population the ideal
which they themselves most desired and admired. All the voluptuous
æstheticism, all the diseased craving in Nero’s mind for the bizarre,
the monstrous, and the impossible; all the ‘_opéra bouffe_’ elements
of his character, with its perverted instincts as of a tenth-rate
artist, were strengthened and stimulated by his intercourse with Otho.

As a matter of course, the command of unlimited treasures followed
the possession of an unchallenged autocracy. Though there was a
theoretical distinction between the public exchequer and the privy
purse, there was no real limit between the two. This ‘deified gamin’
had complete command of the resources of Italy and the provinces.
Cost was never allowed to stand in the way of his grotesque
extravagance. A boy was the lord of the world--_a bad boy_--who
delighted in such monkey-tricks as taking his stand secretly on
the summit of the proscenium in the theatre, setting the actors and
pantomimes by the ears, and flinging missiles at people’s heads.

Shortly after his return to Rome he gave a banquet, and the chief new
feature of the entertainment was that the head of each guest had been
sprinkled with precious perfumes. Otho determined that he would not
be outdone. He was laden with debts; but what did that matter when
he might look forward some day to exhausting some rich province with
rapine? He asked Nero to sup with him, and determined that he would
set the fashion to imperial magnificence.

The banqueters were nine in number: Otho and Nero; Petronius, as the
‘arbiter of elegance’; Tigellinus, as the most pliable of parasites;
the actor Paris, because of his wit, grace, and beauty; Vatinius,
as the most unspeakable of buffoons; Clodius Pollio, an ex-prætor,
Pedanius Secundus, the Præfect of the city, and Octavius Sagitta, a
tribune of the people, whom Nero liked for their dissolute manners.

Pricelessness and refinement--as refinement was understood by the
most effeminate of Roman exquisites--were to be the characteristics
of the feast. The dining-room was a model of the latest and most
fashionable art. It was not large, but its roof was upheld by
alternate columns of the rare marbles of Synnada and Carystus--the
former with crimson streaks, the latter green-veined--while the two
columns at the entrance showed the golden yellow of the quarries
of Numidia, and the fretted roof was richly gilded and varied
with arabesques of blue and crimson. The walls were inlaid with
mother-of-pearl, alternated with slabs of ivory delicately flushed
with rose-colour. The chandeliers were of antique shapes, and further
light was given by candelabra of gold. In front of Nero was one of
exquisite workmanship, which represented Silenus lying on a rock,
with his head leaning against a tree which overshadowed it. The table
was of cedar wood, supported by pillars of ivory, and it sparkled
with goblets of gold and silver embossed by Mys and Mentor, among
which were scattered amber cups, and chrysendeta which were of silver
rimmed with gold. The bowls in which the rare wines were mixed were
of pure crystal or the rubied glass of Alexandria. Although it was
winter, garlands of exotic roses were provided for every guest, and
these garlands were fastened to lappets of perfumed silk. None but
the most youthful and beautiful of Otho’s slaves--bright Greeks, and
dark Egyptians, and fair-haired Germans, in sumptuous dresses, one
or two of whom Otho had purchased for no less than eight hundred
pounds--were permitted to wait upon the guests.

The supper was no supper of Trimalchio, with its coarse and heavy
gluttonies. Everything was delicate and _recherché_. The oysters were
from Richborough; the lampreys from the fishponds of a senator who
was said to have flung into them more than one slave who had offended
him; the mullet came from Tauromenos; the milk-cheeses from Sarsina;
the fruits seemed to have been produced in defiance of the seasons,
and the roses were as plentiful as though it were midsummer. There
were two tiny dishes which represented the last and most extravagant
devices of Roman _gourmandise_, for one was composed of the tongues
of nightingales, the other of the brains of Samian peacocks and
African flamingoes, of which the iridescent and crimson feathers
adorned the silver plates on which they lay. Sea and land had been
swept with mad prodigality to furnish every luxury which money could
procure. The wines were of the rarest vintages; and whereas four
kinds of wine were thought an extravagance in the days of Julius
Cæsar, Otho set eighty different sorts of wine before his guests,
besides other kinds of delicate drinks. To relieve the plethora of
luxuries the guests sometimes alternated hot burning mushrooms with
pieces of ice.

But the most admired invention of extravagance was the one in which
Otho had specially designed to outdo the luxury of Cæsar. The Romans
were devoted to delicious odours. Nero had ordered perfumes to be
sprinkled on the hair of his guests; but after this had been done to
those who reclined at Otho’s banquet, the boys who stood behind them
took off their loose slippers and bathed their feet also in liquid
essences--a device of which, up to this time, the luxury of an
Apicius had never dreamed. And while the guests were still admiring
this daring innovation, Otho made a sign with his jewelled hand to
Polytimus, the chief favourite among his slaves, who immediately
turned two taps of ivory and gold, and then, to the soft breathing
of flutes, two fountains sprang into the air, from silver basins,
and refreshed the banqueters with a fine dew of the most exquisite
fragrance.

To those frivolous spirits all this unbridled materialism seemed to
be the one thing which raised them nearest to the gods; and they felt
a thrill of delight when it was whispered that for that single supper
Otho had expended a sum of four million sesterces.[48]

The conversation during the meal was vapid and licentious. Beginning
with the weather, it proceeded to discuss the gladiators, actors,
dancers, and charioteers. Then it repeated all the most recent
pasquinades and coarse jokes which had been attached to the statues
in the Forum. Then it turned to scandal, and

   ‘Raged like a fire among the noblest names,
    Imputing and polluting,’

until it might have seemed that in all Rome not one man was honest,
nor one woman pure. To say such things of many of the leading
senators and patricians would have been not far from the truth; but
the gossip became far more piquant when it dwelt on the immense usury
of Seneca, and gave vent to the worst innuendoes about his private
life; or when it tried to blacken with its poisonous breath the fair
fame of a Pætus Thrasea or a Helvidius Priscus. Yet another resource
was boundless adulation of the Emperor and abuse of every other
authority, particularly of the Senate, of which Nero, like Gaius, was
intensely jealous. It was on this occasion that Vatinius surpassed
himself by the celebrated remark, ‘I hate you, Cæsar, because you are
a senator.’ After a time, however, scandal and adulation palled, as
did the smart procacity of the young slaves, who were trained to say
witty and impudent things. And as by that time the drinking bout had
begun, after the healths were finished the guests were amused by the
strains of the choraulæ and the dances of Andalusian girls.

Among the amusements which Otho had provided was a ventriloquist, who
took off all the chief lawyers of the day in a fashion first set by
Mutus, in the reign of Tiberius. But the jaded, rose-crowned guests
found that the evening was beginning to drag, and then they took to
gambling. Nero caught the epidemic of extravagance, and that night
he bet four hundred sesterces, not on each cast only, but on each
_point_ of the dice.

It was understood that, though the supper and its concomitant orgies
were prolonged for hours, there was to be no deliberate drunkenness.
Claudius had habitually indulged in a voracity which, on one
occasion, had made him turn aside from his own judgment-seat to
intrude himself as a guest at one of the celebrated banquets of the
Salian priests, of which the appetising smell had reached him from
the Temple of Mars. But by Otho and Petronius such forms of animalism
were condemned as betraying a want of æsthetic breeding, and they
sought to stimulate the lassitude of satiety by other forms of
indulgence. That night they proposed to initiate Nero into a new
sensation, by persuading him to join the roysterers who, like the
Mohawks in the reign of Queen Anne, went about the streets insulting
sober citizens, breaking open shops, and doing all the damage
and mischief in their power. It was this which made that evening
memorable in Nero’s reign, because it was the first instance of
a folly which filled genuine Romans with anger and disdain.

But before we touch on these adventures, another incident must be
mentioned, which produced a far deeper effect upon the annals of
the world. It was on the evening of that supper that Nero first saw
Poppæa Sabina.

Poppæa Sabina, though before her marriage to Otho she had been
married to Rufius Crispinus, the Prætorian Præfect of Claudius,
and had been the mother of a boy, still retained the youthful and
enchanting loveliness which became an Empire’s curse. She was a
bride well suited in all respects to the effeminate and reckless
Otho. If he paid priceless sums for the perruque which no one could
distinguish from his natural hair, and used only the costliest silver
mirrors, she equalled his absurdities by having her mules shod with
gold, and by keeping five hundred she-asses to supply the milk in
which she bathed her entire person, with the object of keeping her
beautiful complexion in all its softness of hue and contour. And,
when she travelled, the hot sunbeams were never allowed to embrown
her cheeks, which she entirely covered with a fine and fragrant
unguent.

Otho was sincerely attached to her. He was proud of possessing as his
bride the haughtiest, the most sumptuous, and the most entrancingly
fair of all the ladies in Rome. Before the death of Rufius Crispinus
he had estranged her affections from her husband; and it was more
than suspected that her object in accepting Otho had not only been
her admiration for his luxurious prodigality, but also an ulterior
design of casting her sorcery over the youthful Nero. Otho had often
praised her beauty to the Emperor, for it was a boastfulness from
which he could not refrain. But he did not wish that Nero should see
her. He knew too well the inflammable disposition of the youthful
Cæsar, and the soaring ambition of his own unscrupulous consort.
In this purpose he had been abetted secretly by Agrippina, who felt
an instinctive dread of Poppæa, and who, if the day of her lawless
exercise of power had not been ended within two months of her son’s
accession, would have made Poppæa undergo the fate which she had
already inflicted on Lollia Paulina. By careful contrivance Otho had
managed to keep Poppæa at a distance from Nero. The task was easier,
because Nero was short-sighted, and Poppæa, either in affectation of
modesty, or from thinking that it became her, adopted the fashion of
Eastern women, in covering the lower part of her face with a veil
when she went forth in public.

But that evening Nero, for the first time, saw her near at hand and
face to face, and she had taken care that he should see her in the
full lustre of her charms.

Beyond all doubt she was not only dazzlingly beautiful, but also
possessed that spell of brilliant and mobile expression, and the
consummate skill in swaying the minds of men, which in earlier days
had enabled Cleopatra to kindle the love of Julius Cæsar, and to hold
empery over the heart of Marcus Antonius. Her features were almost
infantile in their winning piquancy, and wore an expression of the
most engaging innocence. Her long and gleaming tresses, which almost
the first among the ladies of Rome she sprinkled with gold, were not
tortured and twisted into strange shapes, but parted in soft, natural
waves over her forehead, and flowed with perfect grace over her white
neck, setting off the exquisite shape of her head. She was dressed
that evening in robes which made up for their apparent simplicity
by their priceless value. They were of the most delicate colours and
the most exquisite textures. The tunic was of that pale shining gold
which the ancients described by the word ‘hyaline’; the stola was
of saffron colour. Her dress might have been described in terms like
those which the poet applies to his sea-nymph--

   ‘Her vesture showed the yellow samphire-pod,
    Her girdle the dove-coloured wave serene;’

and, indeed, the sea-nymph’s robe had already been described by Ovid,
speaking of the dress known as _undulata_--

   ‘Hic, undas imitatus, habet quoque nomen ab undis,
    Crediderim nymphas hac ego veste tegi.’

She had divined the reasons which led Otho to prevent her from
meeting the Emperor; but she was ambitious of a throne, and, while
using neither look nor word which awoke suspicion in her husband’s
mind, she smiled to think how vain would be his attempt to set a
man’s clumsy diplomacy against a woman’s ready wit.

‘My Otho,’ she had said to him, ‘you are about to entertain the
Emperor this evening at a supper such as Rome has not yet seen. The
feast which Sestius Gallus gave to Tiberius, the supper which Agrippa
the Elder gave to Gaius, and which helped him to a kingdom, were very
well in their way; but they were vulgar and incomplete in comparison
with that of which your guests will partake to-night.’

‘I know it, Poppæa,’ he said; ‘and though my own taste sets the
standard in Rome, I know how much the arrangements of my banquet will
owe to the suggestions of my beautiful wife.’

‘And ought not the wife, whom you are pleased to call beautiful, at
least to welcome into the house our imperial guest? Will it not be a
marked rudeness if the matron of the house has no word wherewith to
greet the Cæsar as he steps across her threshold? Will he be content
with the croaking “_Salve, Cæsar!_” of the parrot whom you have hung
in his gilded cage at the entrance of the atrium?’

‘Poppæa is lovely,’ said Otho, ‘and Nero is--what he is. Would you
endanger the life of the last of the Salvii, merely for the pleasure
of letting a short-sighted youth, perhaps a would-be lover, stare at
you a little more closely?’

A pout settled on the delicate lips of Poppæa, as she turned away
with the remark: ‘I thought, Otho, that I had been to you too
faithful a bride to find in you an unreasonable husband. Is there
any lady in Rome except myself who would be deemed unworthy to see
the Emperor when he sups in her house? Have I deserved that you
should cast this slur upon me as though I--I, whose piety is known
to all the Romans--were a Julia or an Agr-- I mean, a Messalina?’

Otho tried to bring back her lips to their usual smile, but he did
not wish to give way unless he were absolutely obliged to do so. He
said:

‘You must not adopt these tragic tones, my sweet Poppæa. This is
but a bachelor’s party. You shall meet Nero some day in this house
when all the noblest matrons of Rome are with you to sanction your
presence, and you shall outshine them all. But there are guests
coming to-night whom I should not care for Poppæa to greet, though
I have asked them as companions of Nero. Surely you would not demean
yourself by speaking to a Vatinius or a Paris, to say nothing of a
Tigellinus or a Sagitta.’

‘I need not see or speak to any of the others, Otho,’ said Poppæa;
‘but surely I have a right to ask that when the slave sees the gilded
letica with its purple awnings I may for one moment advance across
the hall, and tell Nero that Poppæa Sabina greets the friend of her
lord, and thanks him for honouring their poor house with his august
presence.’

‘Well, Poppæa,’ said Otho, ‘if it must be so it must. You know that
I can never resist your lightest petition, and I would rather give up
the banquet altogether than see tears in those soft eyes, and that
expression of displeasure against Otho on your lips.’

So, when Nero arrived, Poppæa met him, and, brief as was the
interview, she had thrown into it all the sorcery of a potent
enchantress. A sweet and subtle odour seemed to wrap her round in
its seductive atmosphere, and every word and look and gesture, while
it was meant to seem exquisitely simple, had been profoundly studied
with a view to its effect. Poppæa was well aware that Nero was
accustomed to effrontery, and that Acte had won his heart by her
maidenly reserve. Nothing, therefore, could have been more sweetly
modest than Poppæa’s greeting. Only for one moment had she unveiled
her whole face and let the light of her violet eyes flow through
his soul. There was one observer who fully understood the pantomime.
It was Paris, who read the real motives of Poppæa and was lost
in admiration at so superb a specimen of acting. His knowledge of
physiognomy, his insight into human nature, his mastery of his art,
enabled him to see the truth which Nero did not even suspect, that
this lovely lady with the infantile features was ‘a fury with a
Grace’s mask.’

She saw that her glance had produced the whole effect which she had
intended. Nero was amazed, and for the moment confused. He had never
experienced such witchery as this. Acte was modest and beautiful, but
to compare Acte with Poppæa was to set a cygnet beside a swan. Poppæa
vanished the moment her greeting had been delivered, but Nero stood
silent. Almost the first word he said to his host struck like a
death-knell on Otho’s heart.

‘Otho,’ he said, ‘how much luckier you are than I am! You have the
loveliest and most charming wife in Rome; I have the coldest and
least attractive.’

‘Let not Cæsar disparage the sharer of his throne,’ said Otho,
concealing under measured phrases his deep alarm. ‘The Empress
Octavia is as beautiful as she is noble.’

But Nero could hardly arouse himself to admire and enjoy the best
banquet of his reign, until he had called for his tablets, and
written on them a message for Poppæa. ‘I am thanking your lovely
lady for her entertainment,’ said the Emperor, as he handed his
tablets to his freedman Doryphorus, and told him to take them to the
lady of the house. But what he had really written was a request that
Poppæa would deign to greet him for a moment during some pause in the
long feast.

He made the requisite opportunity by saying that he would cool
himself in the viridarium, and again he found Poppæa a miracle of
reserve and sweetness. From that moment he determined, if it could
in any way be compassed, to take her from her husband.

       *       *       *       *       *

But this, as we have said, was not the only adventure of the evening.
When the revel was over, the guests, instead of going home in pompous
retinue attended by their slaves, determined to enjoy a frolic in the
streets. ‘Flown with insolence and wine,’ they persuaded the Emperor
to disguise himself in the dress of a simple burgher and to roam with
them along the Velabrum and the Subura and every street in which they
were likely to meet returning guests.

They all accompanied him except Vatinius, who was too weak and
deformed to suit their purpose. The streets of Rome were dark
at night. The expedient of public lamps, or even of lamps hung
outside each house, had never occurred to a people that revelled in
expensiveness. Hence it was dangerous for unprotected persons to go
out at night, and the police had more than they could really do. Nero
and his companions were able, with perfect impunity, to insult, annoy
and injure group after group of sober or peaceful citizens, whom
the exigencies of duty or society had compelled to return to their
homes after dark without a slave to bear a lantern or a torch. They
enjoyed the novel sensation of terrifying timid women and of throwing
harmless passengers into the gutters, indulging in every form of
rowdyism which could furnish a moment’s excitement.

The custom of ‘tossing in a blanket’ is not modern but ancient; only
that among the ancients a large _sagum_ or war-cloak was used, as our
schoolboys use a blanket.[49] That night the party of aristocratic
Mohawks caught several poor burghers, and amused themselves with
terrifying them almost out of their wits by this boisterous amusement.
It needed, however, a spice of cruelty to make it still more piquant;
and when they had tossed one of their victims as high as they could
they suddenly let go of the sagum, and suffered him to fall, bruised,
and often stunned, to the ground, while they made good their escape.

But they were not allowed to have it all their own way. As they were
near the Milvian Bridge it happened that Pudens met them. He was
accompanied by Onesimus, who carried a lantern of bronze and horn,
and by Nereus and Junia, who followed at a little distance. They had
been, in considerable secrecy, to a Christian gathering, and were
on their way homewards when they met these roving sons of Belial,
two of whom also carried lanterns. The stalwart form of Pudens looked
sufficiently formidable in the circle of dim light to prevent them
from annoying him; but when they caught sight of the veiled figure of
Junia they thought that her father Nereus, who was evidently only a
slave, would be unable to protect her from their rude familiarities.

‘Ha, maiden!’ exclaimed Otho. ‘What, veiled though it is night? Do
you need protection from Cotytto? Come, bring me the lantern here;
let us look at a face which will be presumably pretty.’

Junia shrank back, and Otho seized, and was attempting by force to
uplift her veil when a blow from the oaken cudgel of Nereus benumbed
his arm. But the Emperor, secure in the numbers of his companions,
came up to the trembling slave-girl, who little dreamed whose was the
hand laid upon her robe.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘when slave-girls are so modest there is nothing
so effective for their education as the _sagatio_. What say you,
comrades? It will be a novel excitement to toss a girl.’

‘Brutes!’ said Pudens, ‘whoever you are--brutes and not Romans! Would
you insult and injure a modest maiden, slave though she be? Stand
back at your peril.’

But Nero, excited with wine, and closely followed by Pollio and
Sagitta, was still endeavouring to drag away Junia, who clung
convulsively to her father, when a blow from the strong hand of
Pudens sent him staggering to the wall. He stumbled over a stone
in the street, the mask slipped down from his face, and Pudens
saw who it was. The sense of the peril in which he and his slaves
were involved, at once flashed upon his mind. There was at least a
chance that Nero had not recognised him in the darkness. He hastily
whispered to Onesimus to put out his lantern and, if possible,
those of their assailants also. The Phrygian rose to the occasion.
Springing upon Petronius, he dashed the lantern out of his grasp by
the suddenness of his assault, and, whirling his staff into the air,
struck with all his force at the hand of Paris, who held the other
lantern. The lights were extinguished by the fall of the lanterns,
and covering his own under his tunic he called on Pudens and Nereus
to follow him closely, and seized Junia by the hand. The by-ways of
the streets had become familiar to him, and while the revellers were
discomfited, and were absorbed in paying attention to Nero, whose
face was bleeding, they all four made their escape, and got home by
a more circuitous route.

‘The bucket-men are coming, Emperor,’ said Paris.

None of the party wanted the police to recognise them, or to have the
trouble of an explanation which was sure to get talked of to their
general discredit, and feeling a little crestfallen, they all hurried
off, to a secret entrance of the Palatine.

This was a rough beginning for Nero in his career of a practical
joker. But the delights of such adventures were too keen to be
foregone. He had not recognised Pudens, who took care not to look too
closely at the bruise on Nero’s cheek when he went next morning to
the Palace. In general he was safe in attacking small, and feeble
parties of citizens; but not long afterwards he received another
rebuff from the senator Julius Montanus, whose wife he insulted as
they were returning from supper at a friend’s house. Montanus, like
Pudens, had recognised the Emperor, but he had not the prudence to
conceal his knowledge. Alarmed that he should have struck and wounded
the sacrosanct person of a Cæsar, he was unwise enough to apologise.
The consequence was natural. Had he held his tongue he might have
escaped. Nero did not care to be detected in his escapades, and he
ordered Montanus to commit suicide.

Having, however, been hurt more than once in these nocturnal
encounters by men who had some courage, he made assurance doubly sure
by taking with him some gladiators who were always to be within call
if required. He was thus able to continue his pranks with impunity
until they, too, lost their novelty, and began to pall upon a mind
in which every spark of virility was dead, and which was rapidly
degenerating into a mass of sensuous egotism.



CHAPTER XX

_BROTHER AND SISTER_

                  ‘Hopes have precarious life:
    They are oft blighted, withered, snapped sheer off
    In vigorous growth, and turned to rottenness;
    But faithfulness can feed on suffering
    And knows no disappointment.’

                                GEORGE ELIOT.


Far different was the way in which Britannicus had spent the
memorable evening of Otho’s supper.

He was thrown largely upon himself and his own resources. If Titus
happened to be absent; if Epaphroditus did not chance to bring
with him the quaint boy Epictetus; if the duties of Pudens summoned
him elsewhere, he had few with whom he could converse in his own
apartments. Sometimes Burrus visited him, and was kind; but he could
hardly forgive Burrus for his share in Agrippina’s plot. Seneca
occasionally came to see him, and Seneca felt a genuine wish
to alleviate the boy’s unhappy lot. But Seneca had been Nero’s
supporter, and Britannicus could not quite get over the misgiving
that his fine sentences were insincere. And at last an incident
occurred which made it impossible for him ever to speak to Seneca
without dislike. One day Nero had sent for his brother, and
Britannicus, entering the Emperor’s room before he came in, saw
a copy of[*6] the _Ludus de morte Claudii Cæsaris_ lying on the
table. Naturally enough he had not heard of this ferocious satire
upon his unhappy father. Attracted by the oddness of the title
‘_Apokolokyntosis_,’ which the librarian had written on the outer
case, he took up the book, and had read the first few columns
when Nero entered. As he read, his soul burned with inexpressible
indignation. His father had received a sumptuous Cæsarean funeral;
he had been deified by the decree of the Senate; a grand temple
had been reared in his honour on the Cœlian hill; priests and
priestesses had been appointed to worship his divinity. He knew very
well that this might be regarded as a conventional officialism; but
that the writer of this book should thus openly laugh in the face
of Rome, her religion, and her Empire; that he should class Claudius
with two miserable idiots like Augurinus and Baba; that he should
brutally ridicule his absence of mind, his slavering lips, his
ungainly aspect, and represent the Olympian deities in consultation
as to whether he was a god, a human being, or a sea-monster--this
seemed to him an act of shameless hypocrisy. He had seen how the
Romans prostrated themselves in the dust before his father in his
lifetime, as it were to lick his sandals; how Seneca himself had
blazoned his earthly godship in paragraphs of sonorous eloquence.
Yet here, on the table of his successor and adopted son, was a satire
replete in every line with enormous slanders. And who could have
written it? Britannicus could think of no one but Seneca; and all
the more since the marks on the manuscript showed that Nero had read
it, and read it with amused appreciation.

When Nero entered he found Britannicus standing by the table
transfixed with anger. His cheeks were crimson with shame and
indignation. Panting with wrath, he was unable even to return the
greeting of Nero, who looked at him with astonishment till he saw the
scroll from which he had been reading. Nero instantly snatched it out
of his hand. He was vexed that the boy had seen it. It had not been
intended for his eyes. But now that the mischief was done he thought
it better to make light of it.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I see that you have been reading that foolish satire.
Don’t be in such a state of mind about it. It is meant for a mere
jest.’

‘A jest!’ exclaimed Britannicus, as soon as he found voice to speak.
‘It is high treason against the religion of Rome, against the majesty
of the Empire.’

‘Nonsense!’ said Nero, with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘If I don’t
mind it, why should you? You are but a boy. Leave such matters to
those who understand them, and know more of the world.’

‘Why do you always treat me as a child?’ asked Britannicus
indignantly. ‘I am nearly fifteen years old. I am older than you
were when my father allowed you to assume the manly toga.’[50]

‘Yes,’ said the Emperor; ‘but there are differences. I am Nero, and
you are--Britannicus. I shall not let you have the manly toga just
yet; the golden bulla and the prætexta suit you a great deal better.’

Britannicus turned away to conceal the emotion which pride forbade
him to show. He was about to leave the audience-room when Nero called
him.

‘Listen, Britannicus,’ he said. ‘Do not provoke me too far. Do not
forget that I am Emperor. When Tiberius came to the throne there was
a young prince named Agrippa Posthumus. When Gaius came to the throne
there was a young prince named Tiberius Gemellus.’

‘The Emperor Gaius adopted Tiberius Gemellus, and made him Prince of
the Youth,’ said Britannicus; ‘you have never done that for me.’

‘You interrupt me,’ said Nero. ‘Do you happen to remember what became
of those two boys?’

Britannicus remembered only too well. Through the arts of Livia,
Agrippa Posthumus, accused of a ferocious temperament, had been first
banished to the Island Pandataria, then violently murdered. Tiberius
Gemellus had not been murdered, because the news of such a death
would have sounded ill; but he had had the sword placed against his
heart, and had been taught to kill himself, so that his death might
wear the semblance of suicide.

Nero left time for such recollections to pass through his brother’s
mind, and then he slowly added, ‘And now that Nero has come to the
throne, there happens to be a young prince named Britannicus.’

Britannicus shuddered. ‘Do you menace me with murder?’ he asked.

Nero only laughed. ‘What need have I to menace?’ he asked. ‘Do you
not know that I have but to lift a finger, if it so pleases me, and
you die? But don’t be alarmed. It does not please me--at present.’

Britannicus turned very pale. He knew that Nero’s words conveyed
no idle boast. He was but a down-trodden boy--the orphan son
of a murdered mother; of a father foully dealt with, infamously
calumniated. What cared the Roman world whether he perished or not,
or how he perished? He choked down the sob which rose, and left his
brother’s presence in silence; but, as he traversed the long corridor
to the room of Octavia, he could not help asking himself, with dread
forebodings, what would be his fate? Would he be starved, like the
younger Drusus? or poisoned, like the elder? or bidden to end his
own life, like poor young Tiberius Gemellus? or assassinated by
violence, like Agrippa Posthumus? How was he better than they? And if
he perished, who would care to avenge him? But, oh God! if there were
such a God as He in whom the Christians believed, what a world was
this into which he had been plunged! What sin had he or his ancestors
committed, that these hell-dogs of wrong and murder banned his steps
from birth? The old Romans had been strong and noble and simple. Even
in the days of Augustus they could thrill to the lesson of Virgil:

   ‘Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
    Hæ tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem,
    Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos.’

Whence the present dearth of all nobleness? What creeping paralysis
of immoral apathy had stricken this corrupt and servile aristocracy,
this nerveless and obsequious Senate? From what black pit of Acheron
had surged up the slime of universal corruption which polluted every
class around him with ignoble debaucheries? He saw on every side
of him a remorseless egotism, an unutterable sadness, the fatalism
of infidelity and despair. A poisoning of the blood with physical
and moral madness seemed to have become the heritage of the ruling
Cæsars. Where could he look for relief? Men had ceased to believe in
the gods. The Stoics had nothing better to offer than hard theories
and the possibility of suicide--and what a thing must life be if it
had no more precious privilege than the means of its own agonising
and violent suppression!

Britannicus was intelligent beyond his years, and thoughts like these
chased each other through his mind as he made his way with slow and
painful steps to the rooms of his sister. For an instant the thought
of a rebellion flashed across his mind, but it was at once rejected.
What could he do? He was but a friendless boy. He felt as if he had
heard the sentence of early death; as if his innocence were nothing
to such gods as those whom his childhood had been taught to name; as
if the burden of an intolerable world were altogether too heavy for
him to understand or to bear. And yet he was not unsupported by some
vague hope in the dim, half-explored regions of that new gospel of
which he now had heard.

To Octavia the visits of her brother were almost the only happiness
left. As he entered she dismissed the slaves, for she saw at a glance
that some profound emotion had swept over his mind, and longed to
give him consolation.

In their forlornness the brother and sister always tried to spare
each other any needless pang. Octavia had never hinted to Britannicus
that Nero’s base hand had often been lifted to strike her. She did
not tell him that on that morning he had seized her by the hair, and
in the frenzy of his rage had almost strangled her. Nor would he tell
her about the infamous attack on their father’s memory which he had
seen on Nero’s table. He little dreamt that she knew of it already,
nay, even that, with coarse malice, Nero had shown it to her, and
read passages aloud in her tortured hearing on purpose to humiliate
and trouble her. Still less would he reveal the threat which seemed
to give fresh significance to the feline gleam which he had caught a
few days before in the eyes of the horrible Locusta.

Yet by secret intuition each of them divined something of what was in
the heart of the other.

When Britannicus entered he found his sister gazing with a sad smile
at a gold coin of the island of Teos, which lay on the palm of her
hand.

‘What amuses you in that coin?’ he asked.

‘Look at it,’ she said, pointing to the inscription Θεὰν Ὀκταβίαν--
‘the _goddess_ Octavia.’[51] ‘I was thinking, Britannicus, that if
the other goddesses are as little happy as I am, I should prefer to
be a mortal!’

Her brother smiled too, but remained silent. He dreaded to deepen her
sorrow.

‘Have you nothing to tell me, Britannicus?’ she asked. ‘What is it
which makes you so much sadder than your wont?’

‘Nothing that I _can_ tell you,’ he answered. ‘But oh, Octavia, what
thoughts strike you when you look round upon this Palace and society?
Is there no such thing as virtue?’ he asked impetuously. ‘The Romans
used to honour it. Who cares for virtue now, except one or two
philosophers ? and--’

‘Speak on, Britannicus,’ she said. ‘Agrippina is less our enemy than
she was. She has withdrawn her spies. We are not worth the hatred
of any one else. Of the slaves who chiefly wait on me, most are
faithful, and some are Christians.’

‘You have guessed my meaning, Octavia. Of the men and women around
us, how very few there are, except the Christians, who are pure and
good. How comes it?’

‘Their strange faith sustains them.’

‘But does it not seem inconceivable that the gods--or that God, if
there be but one, should have revealed the truth to barbarian Jews?’

‘I don’t know, Britannicus. Who is the most virtuous person you
know--I mean, excepting the Christians?’

‘Have we met any--except perhaps Persius and my Titus? and--well,
perhaps the most virtuous of all is that little slave, Epictetus.’

‘Yet Epictetus is a Phrygian, and a slave, and deformed, and lame.
And as for the Jews, you know that your friend Titus thinks them the
most interesting people in the world; and it is whispered that some
of the noblest ladies in Rome--Otho’s wife among them--have secretly
embraced Judaism.’

‘Poppæa does little credit to their religion if all be true that is
said of her. But Pomponia is a Christian, and Claudia, the fairest
maiden in Rome. Whether they hold truth or falsehood I know not, but
if religion has anything to do with goodness there seems to be no
religion like theirs.’

‘Britannicus,’ she answered, ‘like you, I am deeply interested in
all that Pomponia has told me; but I will tell you what has struck
me most. Nero, and Seneca, and Agrippina, and all the rest of them,
are full of misery and despair, though they are rich, and praised,
and powerful; but these Christians, on the other hand, are paupers,
hated, persecuted--and yet happy. It is that which amazes me most of
all.’

Britannicus sighed. ‘Octavia,’ he said, ‘I would gladly know more of
this foreign superstition, which makes men good amid wickedness, and
joyful amid afflictions; which makes women like Pomponia, and girls
like Claudia, and boys like Flavius Clemens.’

‘Let us, then, sup to-night with Pomponia,’ said Octavia. ‘She
knows that I am lonely, and she has told me that her old general and
herself will always delight to see us, if I will come without state
and share their simplicity. Nero sups to-night with Otho. No one will
prevent us from going together to the house of one whose loyalty is
so little suspected as that of Aulus Plautius.’

And thus it was that while Nero revelled, and drank, and made the
streets of his capital unsafe with riot and assault, Britannicus was
present at the first Christian assembly which he had ever witnessed.



CHAPTER XXI

_AMONG THE CHRISTIANS_

    Αὐτίκα οἱ εἰς Χριστὸν πεπιστευκότες χρηστοί τέ εἰσι καὶ
    λέγονται.--CLEM. ALEX. _Strom._ ii. 4.


Aulus Plautius, without any pretence to be a philosopher or a
republican, prided himself on retaining the antique fashion of Roman
simplicity. His house was in every way a contrast to that of Otho.
It excited the laughter of the dandies of the new school, with its
old rude statuary, its hard couches, its plain tables, its floor of
simple black and white marble, the limited number of faithful and
sober slaves, among whom but few were Greeks, and not one resembled
the pampered pages who were the pride of more modern establishments.
The whole service of the house was modest and yet stately; and the
conqueror of Britain, so far from blushing at the moderate fortune
and Roman surroundings which showed that he at least had not
plundered the provinces which he had governed, was, on the contrary,
pleased that men should see this example of honesty and justice.

Pudens was in command of the escort of the Empress; and it was on
his return from the Palace to his own house that the rencontre with
Nero occurred which has been already narrated. Caractacus, too, and
Claudia were present, though the guests were few; and young Flavius
Clemens had been invited to meet the children of Claudius. After
the modest supper was over, the Empress and her brother enjoyed
a conversation with their noble hostess, and learnt from her that
in one of the outer offices of the house of Plautius the Christian
assembly was that night to be held. It would have been too dangerous
for Octavia to be present, but Pomponia had many Christian slaves
and some freedmen who shared her secret, and were men and women of
unquestioned fidelity. Britannicus had now heard from her a great
deal about the elementary doctrines of the new faith. There seemed
to be no reason why she should any longer refuse his desire to be an
eye-witness of Christian worship. She had spoken on the subject to
Linus, the bishop of the Gentile community; and, without revealing
any name, had told him that a young stranger, for whom she could
vouch as one who would not be guilty of any treachery, would be
entrusted with the watchword, and would be present at the evening
prayers. Flavius Clemens was also to be present as a companion to
Britannicus. Pomponia’s own son, a bright boy, named Aulus Plautius
after his father, had not yet been taught any of the truths of
Christianity. His mother had trained him in all high and noble
things; but the general, who knew that she had ‘taken up unusual
religious views,’ had laid on her his injunctions not to teach them
without his permission to their son.

So retired had been the life of the young prince, and so intentional
the seclusion in which he had been brought up, that few knew him
by sight. But to prevent the danger of his being recognised by any
chance informer, Pomponia so altered his appearance that even Octavia
might have failed to recognise him. The Flavian boy was at that time
a person of little or no importance, and it was not necessary that
he should be disguised. Pomponius, who stayed with the Empress,
entrusted Britannicus to the charge of Pudens, who, though not yet
baptised, was now a recognised catechumen. He had been at Christian
gatherings before, and was all the more glad to go this evening,
because Claudia also was to be present, in whom the soul of the
centurion was more and more bound up. But to avoid all possibility
of suspicion he placed his faithful Nereus in charge of the young
stranger, while he himself stood a little apart, and watched.

The heart of the noble boy beat fast as he entered that unwonted
scene. The room in which the Christians met was a large granary in
which Plautius stored the corn which came from his Sicilian estates.
It was as well lighted as circumstances admitted, but chiefly by the
torches and lanterns of those who had come from all parts of the city
to be present at this winter evening assembly.

Britannicus was astonished at their numbers. He was quite unaware
that a religion so strange--a religion of yesterday, whose founder
had perished in Palestine little more than twenty years before--
already numbered such a multitude of adherents in the imperial city.
Clemens whispered to him that this was but one congregation, and
represented only a fraction of the entire number of believers in Rome,
who formed a multitude which no single room could have accommodated.
He told him, further, that though the Jewish and the Roman--or, as
they call them, the Gentile--converts formed a common brotherhood,
only separated from each other by a few national observances, they
usually worshipped at Rome in separate communities.

If Britannicus was surprised by the numbers of the Christians, he was
still more surprised by their countenances. The majority were slaves,
whose native home was Greece or Asia. Their faces bore the stamp
which had been fixed on them by years of toil and hardship; but even
on the worn features of the aged there was something of the splendour
and surprise of the divine secret. The young prince saw that they
were in possession of something more divine than the world could
understand. For the first time he beheld not one or two only, but
a blessed company of faithful people who had felt the peace of God
which passeth all understanding.

The children also filled him with admiration. He had seen lovely
slaves in multitudes; there were throngs of them in the Palace and
in the houses of men like Otho and Petronius. But their beauty was
the beauty of the flesh alone. How little did it resemble the sweet
and sacred innocence which brightened the eyes of these boys and
girls who had been brought up in the shelter of Christian homes!

But he was struck most of all with the youths. How many Roman youths
had he seen who had been trained in wealthy households, in whom had
been fostered from childhood every evil impulse of pride and passion!
He daily saw the young men who were the special favourites of his
brother Nero. Many of them had inherited the haughty beauty of
patrician generations; but luxury and wine had left their marks
upon them, and if they had been set side by side with these, whose
features glowed with health and purity and self-control, how would
the pallid faces of those dandies have looked like a fulfilment of
the forebodings which even Horace had expressed!

Nothing could have been more simple than the order of worship. The
Christians had ended the Agape, the common meal of brotherly love,
consisting of bread and fish and wine. They had exchanged the kiss
of peace. The tables had now been removed by the young and smiling
acolytes, and the seats arranged in front of the low wooden desk at
which Linus and the elders and deacons stood. They had no distinctive
dress, but wore the ordinary tunic or cloak of daily life, though
evidently the best and neatest that they could procure. In such a
community, so poor, so despised, there could be no pomp of ritual,
but the lack of it was more than compensated by the reverent
demeanour which made each Christian feel that, for the time being,
this poor granary was the house of God and the gate of heaven. They
knelt or stood in prayer as though the mud floor were sacred as the
rocks of Sinai, and every look and gesture was happy as of those who
felt that not only angels and archangels were among them, but the
invisible presence of their Lord Himself.

First they prayed;--and Britannicus had never before heard real
prayers. But here were men and women, the young and the old, to
whom prayer evidently meant direct communion with the Infinite and
the Unseen; to whom the solitude of private supplication, and the
community of worship, were alike admissions into the audience-chamber
of the Divine. Never had he heard such outpourings of the soul,
in all the rapture of trust, to a Heavenly Father. How different
seemed such intercourse with the Eternal from the vague conventional
aspirations of the Stoics towards an incomprehensible Soul of the
Universe, which had no heart for pity and no arm to save!

But a new and yet more powerful sensation was kindled in his mind,
when at the close of the prayers they sang a hymn. It was a hymn to
Christ, beginning--

   ‘Faithful the saying,
    Great the mystery--Christ!
    Manifested in the flesh,
    Justified in the spirit;
    Seen of angels;
    Preached among the nations;
    Believed on in the world;
    Received up in glory!’

Britannicus listened entranced to the mingled voices as they rose
and fell in exquisite cadence. He had heard in theatres all the
most famous singers of Rome; he had heard the chosen youths and the
maidens chanting in the temple processions; he had heard the wailing
over the dead, and the Thalassio-chorus of the bridal song. But he
had heard nothing which distantly resembled this melody and harmony
of voices wedded to holy thoughts; and, although there were no
instruments, the ‘angelical soft trembling voices’ seemed to him
like echoes from some new and purer region of existence. He rejoiced,
therefore, when they began yet another hymn, of which the first verse
was--

   ‘Awake thee, O thou sleeper,
      And from the dead arise,
    And Christ shall dawn upon thee,
      To light thy slumbering eyes.’[52]

When the hymn was over they sat down, and Linus rose to speak to
them a few words of exhortation. He reminded them that they had
been called from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto
God. He told them that they had fled to the rock of Christ amid a
weltering sea of human wickedness, and though the darkness was around
them he bade them to walk in the light, since they were the children
of light. Many of them had lived of old in the vices and sins of
heathendom, but they were washed, they were justified, they were
sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of their
God. Were not their bodies temples of the Holy Ghost which dwelt in
them, except they were reprobates? Since, then, they were in the
Spirit, let them bring forth the fruits of the Spirit--love, joy,
peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, charity--
against which there was no law. The world was passing away and the
fashion of it; their own lives were but as the withering grass and
the fading flower; and was not the day of the Lord at hand? Would He
not speedily return to judge His people? Would not that day come as
a thief in the night, and how should they stand its probatory fire
unless they were safe in the love of their Redeeming Lord?

So far had he proceeded when a mighty answering ‘MARANATHA’ of the
deeply-moved assembly smote the air, and immediately afterwards
Britannicus stood transfixed and thrilled to the very depths of his
whole being.

For now a voice such as he had never heard--a sound unearthly and
unaccountable--seemed not only to strike his ears but to grasp his
very heart. It was awful in its range, its tone, its modulations,
its startling, penetrating, appalling power; and although he was
unable to understand its utterance, it seemed to convey the loftiest
eloquence of religious transport, thrilling with rapture and
conviction. And, in a moment or two, other voices joined it. The
words they spoke were exalted, intense, impassioned, full of mystic
significance. They did not speak in their ordinary familiar tongue,
but in what seemed to be as it were the essence and idea of all
languages, though none could tell whether it was Hebrew, or Greek,
or Latin, or Persian. It resembled now one and now the other, as some
overpowering and unconscious impulse of the moment might direct. The
burden of the thoughts of the speakers seemed to be the ejaculation
of ecstasy, of amazement, of thanksgiving, of supplication, of
passionate dithyramb or psalm. They spoke not to each other, or
to the congregation, but seemed to be addressing their inspired
soliloquy to God. And among these strange sounds of many voices, all
raised in sweet accord of entranced devotion, there were some which
no one could rightly interpret. The other voices seemed to interpret
themselves. They needed no translation into significant language,
but spontaneously awoke in the hearts of the hearers the echo of the
impulse from which they sprang. There were others which rang on the
air more sharply, more tumultuously, like the clang of a cymbal or
the booming of hollow brass, and they conveyed no meaning to any but
the speakers, who, in producing these barbarous tones, felt carried
out of themselves. But there was no disorderly tumult in the various
voices. They were reverberations of one and the same supernatural
ecstasy--echoes awakened in different consciousnesses by one and the
same intense emotion.

Britannicus had heard the Glossolalia--the gift of the tongue. He
had been a witness of the Pentecostal marvel, a phenomenon which
heathendom had never known.

Nor had he only heard it, or witnessed it. For as the voices began
to grow fainter, as the whole assembly sat listening in the hush
of awful expectation, the young prince himself felt as if a spirit
passed before him, and the hair of his flesh stood up; he felt as
if a Power and a Presence stronger than his own dominated his being;
annihilated his inmost self; dealt with him as a player does who
sweeps the strings of an instrument into concord or discord at his
will. He felt ashamed of the impulse; he felt terrified by it; but it
breathed all over and around and through him, like the mighty wind;
it filled his soul as with ethereal fire; it seemed to inspire, to
uplift, to dilate his very soul; and finally it swept him onward as
with numberless rushings of congregated wings. The passion within
him was burning into irresistible utterance, and, in another
moment, through that humble throng of Christians would have rung
in impassioned music the young voice of the last of the Claudii
pouring forth things unutterable, had not the struggle ended by his
uttering one cry, and then sinking into a faint. Before that unwonted
cry from the voice of a boy the assembly sank into silence, and after
two or three moments the impulse left him. Panting, unconscious,
not knowing where he was, or whether he had spoken or not, or how
to explain or account for the heart-shaking inspiration which had
seemed to carry him out of himself beyond all mountain barriers and
over unfathomable seas, the boy sank back into the arms of Pudens,
who, alarmed and amazed and half ashamed, had sprung forward to catch
him as he fell.

As he seemed to be in a swoon, one of the young acolytes came to him,
and gently bathed his face with cold water. And meanwhile as the hour
was late, and they all had to get home in safety through the dark
streets and lanes through which they had come--some of them from
considerable distances--Linus rose, and with uplifted hand dismissed
the congregation with the words of blessing in the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Pudens and Nereus carried back the still half-unconscious boy into
the house of Pomponia, where his sister awaited him. Octavia was
alarmed at the wildness of his look, but the fresh air had already
revived him. ‘I am quite well,’ he said, as the Empress bent
anxiously over him, ‘but I am tired, and should like to be silent.
Let us go home, Octavia.’

‘The escort is waiting,’ said Pudens.

So they bade farewell to Pomponia, and the soldiers saw them safely
to the Palace.

When they had started, Claudia said: ‘Oh, Pomponia, while he was at
the gathering the Power came upon him; he seemed scarcely able to
resist it; but for his fainting I believe that he would have spoken
with the tongue!’

Pomponia clasped her hands, and bowed her head in silent prayer.



CHAPTER XXII

_BRITANNICUS AND HIS SONG_

                                    ‘Even then
    The princely blood flows in his cheek, he sweats,
    Strains his young nerves, and puts himself in posture.’

                              SHAKESPEARE, _Cymbeline_, iii. 3.


Nero was chary of showing his bruised face. He daily smeared it with
the juice of an herb called _thapsia_ from the island of Thapsos
where it was found, and with a mixture of wax and frankincense,
but it retained for some days the marks of the buffet which he had
received from the arm of Pudens. From Octavia he did not care to
conceal either that or any other disgrace. He had reduced his unhappy
girl-bride to such a condition that she dared ask him no question.
From Agrippina he would gladly have concealed it, but he had been
unable as yet to break the habit of paying her a daily visit.
Intensely miserable was that visit to them both, and, except when
Nero chose to bring his friends and attendants with him, the
salutations often ended with the stormiest scenes.

They did on this occasion.

The Augusta at once noticed the bruise on Nero’s cheek, and she
was perfectly aware of the cause of it; for she had not sunk so
completely out of the old habits of power as not to have spies in
her pay who kept her well informed of the Emperor’s proceedings.

Supremely wretched, but even in her wretchedness agitated by the
furies of pride and passion, she had scarcely received his cold kiss
when she began to taunt her son.

‘Cæsar looks gallantly to-day,’ she said; ‘for all the world like
some clumsy gladiator who has been hit while practising with wooden
foils.’

Nero maintained a sulky silence.

She added: ‘No doubt it is as worthy of a Roman Emperor to roam about
at night and join in street brawls with slaves as it is for him to
sing, and write verses, and dance on the stage.’

‘How do you know that I have roamed the streets?’

Unwittingly she had betrayed herself, but in an instant she recovered
from her confusion.

‘What Otho and your other boon companions do--such as they are--is
notorious; and when Cæsar has a black eye the event is hard to
account for in any ordinary way.’

‘Say rather that your spies have told you about it,’ said Nero.

‘And if they have,’ she said defiantly--‘what then?’

‘Why this,’ he answered; ‘that, as I have told you before, I am
Emperor, and mean to be Emperor; and if you do not choose to be
taught it by fair means, by all the gods, you shall be taught it by
foul.’

‘By all the gods?’ said Agrippina, repeating his oath. ‘Are you not
afraid of their wrath?’

Nero smiled a peculiar smile. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘Why should I
fear gods when I can make them myself?’[53]

Agrippina was stung by the sense of her impotence, and maddened by
the shipwreck of her ambition; but she was too proud and fierce to
abandon the contest.

‘If you do not fear any gods,’ she said, ‘you shall fear me.
Britannicus has nearly arrived at the age of manhood. He is the son
of Claudius; you are not. But for me he would have been Emperor; by
my aid he may yet sit upon his father’s throne. Then once more Rome
shall see a man ruling her, and not a singer and a dandy.’

Nero, filled with fury, clenched his fist, and strode forward as
though he would strike her.

She sprang up with flashing eyes. ‘Would you dare to strike me?’ she
shrieked. ‘By heavens, if you did, I would that moment stab you to
the heart.’

At the word she drew from her robe a dagger which she always carried
there, and raised it in her right hand, while her bosom heaved with
passion.

Nero sprang back, but Agrippina, as though in the revulsion of
disdain, dropped the dagger at her feet.

‘You would make a fine tragedian, mother,’ said Nero, with a bitter
sneer.

The excess of Agrippina’s rage seemed to stifle her. ‘One hope, at
least, the gods have left me,’ she gasped forth, as soon as she could
find voice to speak. ‘Britannicus yet lives; I will take him with me
to the Prætorian camp. I will see whether the soldiers will listen to
the daughter of Germanicus, or to Burrus with his mutilated hand and
Seneca with his professorial tongue.’

‘I am tired of all this,’ answered Nero. ‘Only remember that some
day you may provoke me too far. There are such persons as informers;
there is such a law as that of _læsa majestas_.’

He left her, as he almost always left her now, in angry displeasure,
but he did not seriously fear her threats. He had been trained to
think himself incomparably superior to Britannicus. Agrippina herself
had encouraged the widespread scandal that it was one thing to be a
son of Messalina, and quite another to be a son of Claudius. Besides,
he traced no steady ambition in the boy. So long as he was left to
amuse himself with Titus, he gave hardly any trouble, nor had he, so
far as Nero knew, a single partisan who could for a moment withstand
the combined authority and popularity of such men as Seneca and the
Prætorian Præfect. Still he disliked being threatened so constantly
with the claims of the son of Claudius. Tigellinus was always hissing
his name in his ears, and Agrippina blazoning him as a resource
wherewith to secure her vengeance. If Britannicus were not so
insignificant, it might be well to put him out of the way.

A few days afterwards, when his face had nearly resumed its ordinary
hue, he determined to celebrate the Saturnalia with a party mainly
composed of youthful nobles.

Otho of course was there, and the guests whom he had invited to the
villa in the Apennines. Among the others were Nerva, now a young
man of twenty-three, and Vespasian, with his two sons, Titus and
Domitian, who, with a few other boys, were asked to meet Britannicus.
Piso Licinianus, a youth of seventeen, of high lineage and blameless
manners, was of a very different stamp from Nero’s favourite
companions, but Nero chose to pay him the compliment of commanding
his presence. Among the elder guests of the miscellaneous party were
invited Galba, a man in the prime of life, who since his return from
Africa had been living in retirement, and Vitellius, who, though only
forty, had been already infamous under four emperors, and who rose to
the highest position in spite of the fact that he was notorious for
gluttony alone.

A curious incident occurred at the beginning of the banquet. Among
the crowded slaves who waited on the guests was a Christian who,
like Agabus and the daughters of Philip, possessed in a high degree
that peculiar gift of prophecy which is known as second sight. His
name was Herodion; and Apelles, one of his fellow-slaves in Cæsar’s
household, in pointing out the guests, mentioned the rumour that
Nerva’s horoscope had been cast by an astrologer, who had predicted
that he should succeed to the Empire; and that Augustus had laid his
hands on the head of Galba when he was a boy, and had said to him,
‘Thou too, my child, shalt have a taste of empire.’

‘I do not believe in horoscopes,’ said Herodion.

‘Not believe in the Chaldæans?’ replied the other. ‘Ah, I remember,
thou art one of those Christians, who worship--well, never mind. But
canst thou deny that the prognostications of our augurs, and the
answers of our oracles, often come true?’

‘They do,’ said Herodion. ‘We believe that the demons have such power
sometimes permitted them. There was, for instance, a maid with the
spirit of Python at Philippi, whose fame has even reached to Rome.
But--’ and here he paused long, and gazed with earnest and troubled
countenance on the assembled guests.

‘What is it?’ asked Apelles.

‘Apelles,’ answered Herodion, ‘thou art honest, and lovest me. Dare
I tell thee that as I gaze on these guests I seem to see them as
through a mist of blood?’

‘Thou art safe with me,’ answered Apelles. ‘Should I be likely to
betray the kind sharer of my cell, who nursed me last year through
that long and terrible fever?’

But Herodion sank into silence, though his glance grew more and more
troubled as he looked around him. Whatever it may have been granted
him to see or to divine, he spoke no more. But among those guests
there were no less than eight future emperors--Galba, Otho, Vitellius,
Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan, then a little child,
who was led in by a slave; and six of these, as well as Nero and
Britannicus, and Piso Licinianus, were destined to violent deaths.
Apelles recalled the scene years afterwards, when he too had become
a convert to Christianity.

The joyous licence of the Saturnalia put an end to all stiffness of
ceremonial. The banquet was gay and mirthful, and as so many youths
and boys were present the amusements were purposely kept free from
such scenes as disgraced the suppers at Subiaco and the palace of
Otho. It was agreed that the younger guests should cast lots which
should be the king of the feast. Nero threw the Venus-throw of four
sixes, and was accordingly elected with acclamation to the mirthful
office. The _rex_ ruled with undisputed sway, and all were obliged to
obey his bidding. Good taste and natural kindness usually prevented
him from any flagrant abuse of his office.

While the staid elders looked on with smiles, Nero and the younger
part of the company amused themselves with various games.

‘And now,’ said the Emperor, ‘you must all obey your symposiarch, and
I am going to tell you each in turn what to do.’

Otho was bidden to take off his garland, and place it on the head of
the person whom he loved best; and of course he placed it on the head
of Nero.

Lucan, as he was fond of stories, was bidden to tell a complete story
in one minute; and with surprising readiness he quoted the two Greek
lines--

   ‘A, finding some gold, left a rope on the ground;
    B, missing his gold, used the rope which he found.’[54]

‘Piso Licinianus, you are to pay me the highest compliment you can.’

Piso was no flatterer, and did not like the command, but after a
moment’s hesitation he quoted Horace’s lines--

   ‘How great thy debt to Nero’s race,
      O Rome, let red Metaurus say,
    Slain Hasdrubal, and Victory’s grace,
      First granted on that glorious day.’


‘That is a compliment to my ancestors, not to me,’ said Nero; ‘but
I will let you off, for, though I am Rex, I am not Tyrannus.’

‘Now, Petronius, you are a poet, so I am going to give you a hard
command. I will give you five minutes, and you are to produce a line
which shall read the same backwards and forwards.’

‘Impossible, Cæsar,’ said Petronius.

‘Nevertheless, I require the impossibility, or you will have to drink
by way of fine at least nine cyathi of neat Falernian.’

With humble apologies, Petronius seized his tablets, and before the
five minutes had expired he read the line--

    ‘Roma tibi subito motibus ibit Amor.’


‘Your line is not Latin, and does not make sense,’ said Nero. ‘I
should have told you to make me a compliment instead of our grave
Licinianus. But now, Senecio, I order you to quote the epitaph which
best expresses your view of life.’

Senecio obeyed, and his selection was very characteristic.

It was--

    ‘Eat, drink, enjoy thyself: the rest is nothing.’[55]

‘What would our small Epictetus say to that?’ whispered Titus in the
ear of Britannicus.

Other guests achieved the tasks appointed them with more or less
success, and they awaited with some curiosity the injunction which
Nero would lay on Britannicus. Britannicus did not feel much anxiety
about it, for he supposed it would be of the same playful and
frivolous character as the rest. He did not imagine that his brother
would single him out at a genial gathering to put upon him a public
insult by ordering him to do anything which would cause a blush. He
was therefore struck with amazement when Nero said:

‘And now, Britannicus, get up, walk into the middle of the room, and
there sing us a song.’

A low and scarcely audible murmur of disapproval ran round the
room. As it was the Saturnalitian festival, the slaves were not only
present as spectators of these social games, but were allowed by
custom to indulge in an almost unlimited licence of satire even
against their masters. But that a prince of the blood should be
called upon to sing--to sing in public, before a number of noble
Romans, and even in the presence of slaves, was regarded as an
indignity of the deadliest description. It was a violation of
immemorial custom. It was a demand entirely outrageous. The hot
blood rushed to the cheeks of Britannicus, and suffused his brow and
neck. An indignant refusal sprang to his lips. If Pudens had been
near he would at least have glanced at him to see what he would
advise; but, to his deep grief, Pudens had been removed to a post
in the camp, and his place had been taken by a tribune named Julius
Pollio, whom Britannicus distrusted at a glance. The pause was
becoming seriously awkward, and many of the guests betrayed
uneasiness, when Britannicus heard Titus, who sat next to him,
whisper in a low voice, ‘It is a shame; but you had better try,
for fear worse should happen.’

Then Britannicus summoned up all his courage and all his dignity. He
rose and walked with a firm step into the middle of the triclinium,
asked the harpist Terpnos, whom he saw standing near with his harp
in his hand, to give him a note, and in a voice sweet and clear began
to sing one of the finest choruses from the ‘Andromache’ of the old
Roman poet, Ennius. It described the ruin of the House of Priam. ‘I
have seen,’ says Andromache, the captive wife of Hector, ‘the palace
with its roof embossed and fretted with gold and ivory, and all its
lofty portals, wrapped in conflagration. I have seen Priam slain
with violence, and the altar of Jove incarnadined with blood. What
protection shall I seek? Whither shall I fly? What shall be my place
of exile? Robbed of citadel and city, whither shall I fare? Shattered
and scattered are the altars of my home and native land! The shrines
are calcined by flame; scorched are their lofty walls, and warped
their beams of fir by the strong heat.’[56]

Nero listened in astonishment and alarm. The strain which the boy
had chosen for his song was conceived in the grandest and most
heroic style of the old Roman poetry, and was incomparably nobler
and manlier than the conceits and tintinnabulations which were in
modern vogue. The taste, the knowledge, the readiness, shown in the
selection of such a strain were remarkable. And was this Britannicus
who sang? Nero was always displaying and boasting of his divine
voice, but it was harsh as a crow’s in comparison with the ringing
notes of his modest brother. And then the meaning of the song? Was
it not aimed at Nero and his usurpation? Did it not show decisively
the thoughts which were filling the soul of the dispossessed prince,
and his clear consciousness that he had been robbed of his hereditary
rights?

But there was something worse than this. For by the time that
Britannicus had ended his song, the brief winter twilight had
nearly ended, and the banqueting-room lay deep in shadow. It was too
dark to distinguish individual faces, and this fact, together with
the liberty of the jocund season, made those present less careful to
conceal their thoughts. No sooner had the voice of Britannicus ceased
than a murmur of spontaneous applause arose on every side, and not
only of applause, but of pity and favour. Nero had meant to humiliate
his brother: but, on the contrary, his brother had so behaved under
trying circumstances as to win all hearts!

Jealousy, rage, hatred, swept in turbulent gusts across the Emperor’s
soul. He would have liked to strike Britannicus, to scourge those
insolent guests. But he did not dare to take any overt step, for
there had been no overt offence. Britannicus had been bidden to obey
the festive order of the King of the Feast, and he had accomplished
the behest as the others had done, in a way which kindled admiration.
To act as if the chorus from Ennius had been aimed at himself would
have been to betray uneasiness and confess wrongdoing.

He could not, however, conceal, and took no pains to conceal, his
petulant spleen. Praise of another was poison to Nero. That the
merit of any one else should be admitted seemed like a reflection on
himself. ‘They call Britannicus as good as me!’ was a thought which
filled his little soul with spite and wrath.

‘This is poor stuff,’ he said, in high dudgeon, pretending to yawn
in the most insulting way he could. ‘Who would have expected mock
heroics at the Saturnalia?’ Then he rose, and said, with a slight
wave of the hand, ‘I am tired of this. I bid farewell to the guests.
You may go without ceremony.’

Every one felt that the Emperor’s ill-humour had thrown a deadly
chill over the gladdest night of the year. With mutual glancings,
and slight shrugs of the shoulder, and almost imperceptible liftings
of the eyebrow, they departed. Only Tigellinus remained.

‘What does Cæsar think of Britannicus now?’ he asked in malignant
triumph.

‘I think,’ said Nero, savagely, ‘that swans sing sweetest before they
die.’

‘Ah-h!’ said the base plotter; and he knew that now the first step in
the Sejanus-course of his ambition was accomplished.

But Britannicus went straight from the supper to the rooms of his
sister. Octavia sat there in the old Roman fashion of matronly
simplicity. She was spinning wool at her distaff, and with kind heart
she often gave what she spun to the children of her slaves. And while
she spun, a maiden was reading to her.

It was the Christian girl Tryphæna. Usually she read from the Roman
poets, and Octavia was never tired of hearing the finer odes of
Horace, or the Æneid and Bucolics of Virgil. Sometimes she listened
to the history of Livy, and to the treatises of Seneca, which she
liked better than their author. But this evening Tryphæna--between
whom and her young mistress there was a confidence akin to affection
--had timidly asked ‘whether she might read a Christian writing.’ She
knew that the Empress had been interested in the Christians by the
conversation of Pomponia, and she was anxious to show how shamefully
her brethren and sisters in the faith were misrepresented and
slandered.

She drew forth from her bosom a manuscript, which had been lent her
as a precious favour by the Christian Presbyter Cletus. It was a
copy of a general letter of the Apostle Peter, which had been written
to encourage the struggling Christian communities. It was not the
letter which we now know as the First Epistle of St. Peter, which
was written perhaps ten years later, but one of those circular
addresses which touched, as did so many of the Epistles, upon the
same universal duties, and used in many passages the same form
of words. She had read the beautiful passage about obeying the
ordinances of man for the Lord’s sake, and putting to silence by
well-doing the ignorance of foolish men. And pausing there, she
asked ‘whether Octavia was interested in it, and whether she should
continue.’

‘Yes, Tryphæna,’ she said, ‘continue this strange letter. How
different it is from the treatise of Seneca which you were reading
to me the other day! There rings through it I know not what accent
of elevation and sincerity.’

The girl then read the noble advice to slaves, and Octavia no
longer wondered that Christian slaves so invariably deserved
the comprehensive epithet of _frugi_. How well would it be if
the worthless multitude of the slave population--the cunning
_veteratores_, the impudent _vernæ_, the abject _copreæ_, the
pampered minions of luxury, the frivolous Greeklings--could act
in the spirit of such exhortations!

Then she read the duty of husbands towards their wives, and of wives
towards their husbands. Octavia bowed her head. She thought of all
the numberless divorces; of the ladies who reckoned their years by
the number of their husbands; of the scandals caused by the women
who stooped to court gladiators and charioteers; of the fires of hell
which Nero’s unfaithfulness had kindled on her own hearth. She could
think of the home of Pætus Thrasea as happy; but scarcely of another
except that of Pomponia--and Pomponia was a Christian.

Tryphæna had just begun the following passage:--

    ‘Finally, be ye all like-minded--’

when Britannicus entered. He did not know what was being read, and
Octavia put her finger on her lip, and made a sign to him to sit down
and listen.

The slave-girl continued--

   ‘Finally, be ye all like-minded, compassionate, loving
   as brethren, tender-hearted, humble-minded; not rendering
   evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise
   blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should
   inherit a blessing. For,

        He that would love life,
        And see good days,
        Let him refrain his tongue from evil,
        And his lips that they speak no guile:
        And let him turn away from evil, and do good;
        Let him seek peace, and pursue it.’


Britannicus listened in astonishment. ‘Who wrote those noble words?’
he asked. ‘It cannot be Chrysippus; the Greek is too modern, and too
unpolished. Is this some new philosopher? Has something been recently
published by Cornutus or Musonius?’

‘Perhaps you will see, if Tryphæna reads a little further,’ said the
Empress.

The slave-girl continued--

    ‘And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of
    that which is good? But if ye suffer for the sake of
    righteousness, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear,
    neither be troubled; but sanctify in your hearts Christ
    as Lord--’


‘It is a Christian writing!’ exclaimed the boy, in a low voice; and
when he again caught the thread of the exhortation, Tryphæna was
reading--

    ‘For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye
    suffer for well-doing rather than for evil-doing; because
    Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the
    unrighteous, that He might bring us to God.’

‘Go, Tryphæna,’ said Octavia, deeply moved. ‘I would talk with my
brother alone.’

‘A Christian writing!’ said Britannicus again, as the slave-girl
quietly glided out of the room. ‘Who wrote it?’

‘Tryphæna says it is part of a letter written to Christians, who
are scattered everywhere, by a fisherman, Peter of Galilee, who,
she says, was one of the apostles of Christus.’

‘Octavia,’ said Britannicus, ‘I feel as if voices out of heaven
were calling me. I feel as if this unknown Christus were drawing me
irresistibly to Himself. It is a message to me--and a message before
my death.’

‘Your death, Britannicus?’ said the Empress, starting, and turning
pale. ‘Oh, withdraw those ill-omened words.’

‘Do not fear omens, Octavia. But you must hear what has happened to
me.’

‘You have been at the Saturnalitian feast, and you are soon to
lay aside the golden ball and the embroidered toga,’ said Octavia,
proudly; ‘and very well you will look in your new manly toga and the
purple tunic underneath it.’

‘Yes, but it reminds me of Homer. It is a “purple death,” as
Alexander the Great called it.’

‘Why are your thoughts so full of gloom?’ asked his sister, pushing
back the hair from his forehead, and looking into his face.

He told her all that had happened that night. She saw the fatal
significance of what had occurred.

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, sobbing, ‘the gods are too cruel. What have we
done that they should thus afflict our innocence? I lift up my hands
against them.’

‘Hush, Octavia! All these ridiculous and polluted deities--who
believes in them any longer? But they represent the Divine, and what
the Divine does must be for some good end, and we must breast the
storm like Romans and like rulers, if we cannot reach the peace of
which this poor Christian fisherman has written.’

‘Our mother disgraced and slain; our father murdered; ourselves
surrounded with perils; Nero on the throne. Oh, Britannicus! wherein
have we offended?’

‘We have not offended, my Octavia. The good suffer as well as the
bad. The good are often made better by their sufferings.’

‘Oh, my brother! my brother!’ sobbed Octavia. ‘I will not spare you.
I cannot part from you. I have no one left but you. You shall not,
you must not, die.’

He gently disengaged the arms of his sister from his neck, and kissed
her cheek.

‘I must not linger here any longer to-night,’ he said. ‘Farewell;
not, I trust, forever, though I see that Nero has dismissed our
friend Pudens, and put an ill-looking stranger in his place. But,
Octavia, something--some voice like that of a god within me--tells
me that it will be happier to die than to live.’

       *       *       *       *       *

That evening, when Tigellinus left him, Nero first realised, with a
start of horror, that he was on the eve of a fearful crime. By a rare
accident he was alone. One of the reasons why he knew so little of
himself was that he scarcely ever endured a moment’s solitude. From
the time that he awoke in the morning till the latest hour of his
nightly revels, he was surrounded by flatterers and favourites,
by dissolute young nobles or adoring slaves. It was only for an
occasional hour or two of state business that he saw any person of
dignity or moral worth. This evening he would have been encircled
by his usual throng of idlers if he had not broken up the banquet
in anger long before the expected time.

He was alone, and his thoughts naturally reverted to the song of
Britannicus, and to his own fierce mortification. The words ‘=_He
shall die!_=’ broke from his lips. But at that moment, looking up,
his glance was arrested by two busts of white marble, standing out
from the wall on pedestals of porphyry. He remembered the day on
which they had been placed there by the orders of Claudius, in whose
private _tablinum_ he chanced to be sitting. One was a beautiful
likeness of Britannicus at the age of six years. The other was a bust
of himself in the happy and radiant days of his early boyhood, before
guilt had clouded his brow and stained his heart.

He rose and stood before the bust of Britannicus. For some years
they had been inmates of the same palace. They had been playmates,
and at first, before the development of Agrippina’s darker plots,
there had been between them some shadow of affection. Nero had always
felt that there was a winning charm about the character and bearing
of his adoptive brother. Anger and jealousy whispered, ‘Kill him;’
conscience pleaded, ‘Dip not your young hands in blood. There has
been enough of crime already. You know how Claudius died, and who was
his murderess, and for whose gain. Let it suffice. Britannicus is no
conspirator. It is not too late, even yet, to make him your friend.’

He turned to his own bust. It represented a face fairer, more joyous,
more mobile than that of the son of Claudius. ‘I was a very pretty
child,’ said Nero, and then gazed earnestly into the mirror which
hung between the busts. It showed him a face, of which the features
were the same, but of which the expression was changed, and on which
many a bad passion, recklessly indulged, had already stamped its
debasing seal.

‘Ye gods! how altered I am!’ he murmured; and he hid his face in his
hands, as though to shut out the image in the mirror.

And then his dark hour came upon him. The paths of virtue which he
had abandoned looked enchantingly beautiful to him. He saw them,
and pined his loss. Was amendment hopeless? Might he not dismiss
his evil friends, send Tigellinus to an island, banish Poppæa from
his thoughts, return to the neglected Octavia, abandon his vicious
courses, live like a true Roman? Was he about to develop into a
Tiberius or a Caligula--he who had hated not long ago to sign the
death-warrant of a criminal? Should history record of him hereafter
that he had dyed the commencement of his power with the indelible
crimson of a brother’s blood?

‘I am a tyrant and a murderer,’ he cried. ‘I am falling, falling
headlong. Cannot I check myself in this career? Ye gods! ye gods!’

Whom had he to help him to choose the difficult course? Who would
encourage him to turn his back on his past self? The philosophers,
he felt, despised him. He could recall the cold, disapproving glances
of Musonius, and Cornutus, and Demetrius the Cynic, on the rare
occasions when he had seen them. And as for Seneca, of what use
would it be to send for _him_? ‘I have learnt to distrust Seneca,’
he said to himself. ‘He might have advised me better than he did in
the matter of Acte.’

But the powers of evil never lightly resign a soul in which they
have once planted their throne, and they took care to bring back upon
Nero’s heart a great flood of jealousy, suspicion, and dislike. And
as he gave himself up to these ill-feelings, he began to feel how
disagreeable it would be to grow up year by year with such a youth
as Britannicus beside him. It would be impossible to keep him in
leading-strings, or to thrust him wholly into the background. What
if the virtues of Britannicus should only throw into relief the vices
of Nero? ‘No,’ he said; ‘Britannicus must die.’

So Nero deliberately chose the evil and refused the good, and the
narrow wicket-gate of repentance was closed behind him, and the
enemies of his soul flung wide open before him the portals of crime,
and the wild steeds of his passions, as they sprang forth on their
down-hillward path, soon flung from his seat the charioteer who had
seemed inclined for one brief instant to tighten the reins and check
their headlong speed.



CHAPTER XXIII

_PERILS OF BRITANNICUS_

                      ‘Cast thine eye
    On yon young boy. I’ll tell thee what, my friend,
    He is a very serpent in my way;
    And, wheresoe’er this foot of mine doth tread,
    He lies before me. Dost thou understand me?
    Thou art his keeper’

                            SHAKESPEARE, _King John_, iii. 3.


At this time a change came over the fortunes of Onesimus.

Pudens had been dismissed from his post among the _excubitors_ of the
Palace, under the semblance of honourable promotion, but in reality
because Nero was doubly displeased by his fidelity to Britannicus
and by the blow which (as he had accidentally discovered) Pudens
had given him during the nocturnal encounter. But, as he had been
an excubitor for so long, he had been accustomed to keep some of his
armour and a few books in a room in the Palace, and he sent Onesimus
to fetch them.

As he went to this room under the guidance of one of Cæsar’s slaves,
Onesimus heard a low voice singing the burden of one of the Phrygian
songs with which he had been familiar in old days at Thyatira.

He was a creature of impulse, and, without thinking what he was
doing, he took up the refrain of the song.

Immediately the door opened, and a beautiful dark-eyed girl asked in
an agitated voice, and in the dialect of Phrygia, who had taken up
the song.

The sound of his native tongue sent through the heart of Onesimus
that indescribable thrill which we feel when past recollections are
suddenly brought home to us in long-accumulated arrears. Greek had
been spoken in the household of Philemon. He had scarcely heard his
native Phrygian since he had been a free-born child, before he had
incurred the stain of being sold as a slave. He answered in Phrygian
that he had known the song since he was a child at his mother’s knee
in Thyatira.

‘In Thyatira?’ said the girl; then gazing at him long and earnestly,
she flung up her arms and exclaimed, ‘Can this be Onesimus?’

‘Do you know my name, lady?’ he asked in surprise.

‘Look at me,’ she answered. ‘It is twelve years since we met, but do
you not recall--’

He fixed his eyes on her face and said in a troubled voice, ‘You
are like Eunice, the daughter of my mother’s sister, with whom I
was brought up as a child.’

‘Hush!’ she exclaimed; ‘step aside for a moment, Onesimus; I _am_
Eunice, but for many years I have not been known by that name. When
the fortunes of our house were ruined I too was sold as a slave with
you to the purple factory of Lydia; but a freedman of the Emperor
Claudius saw me and brought me to wait upon the Empress Messalina.
He thought my name too fine, and changed it to Acte.’

‘Acte?’ burst out Onesimus; ‘then you are,’--he broke off and
remained silent.

A blush suffused the girl’s cheek. ‘A slave,’ she said, ‘is forced
to do her master’s bidding. Nero loved me sincerely, and I loved him,
and I was ignorant and very young. But it is past. The affections of
Nero are turned elsewhere; yet none can say that I have ever used my
influence for any but kind ends.’

‘I reproached you not, Acte,’ said Onesimus, ‘if I must call you by
your new name. I have far too much wherewith to reproach myself.’

‘Meet me here,’ said Acte, ‘two hours after noon, and you shall tell
me all your story, and how I can help you.’

Onesimus came that afternoon. He and Acte had been like brother and
sister in the house at Thyatira in happier days, and he told her his
sad story and all his sufferings, and how he had been rescued by the
compassion of Pudens, and how, even in the house of Pudens, he had
not shown himself worthy of the centurion’s kindness, and how he
loved Junia--and all his fears and all his hopes.

‘Should you like to be one of Cæsar’s household?’ asked Acte. ‘If so,
I do not doubt that I can get you a place by mentioning your name to
the steward of the Empress.’

For the slave of a poor soldier the offer involved immense promotion
and still larger possibilities. The thought of Junia checked Onesimus
for a moment, but Acte told him that, if he rose in the house of
Cæsar, there lay before him the far nearer chances of emancipation
and riches, so that he would be more likely in due time to make Junia
his own. She did not conceal from him that, in such a community as
the sixteen hundred imperial slaves, the temptations to every form
of wrong-doing were far deadlier than in a humble and more modest
_familia_; but she longed to have near her one whom she could trust
as a brother and a friend. Onesimus had acquired at Thyatira a good
knowledge of all that concerned the purchase and the preservation
of purple. It would not be difficult for Acte, without her name
appearing in the matter, to secure him a place as the purple-keeper
in the household of Octavia. She knew that Parmenio, the _servus a
purpura_, had died recently, and that the qualifications for the post
were a little less common than those which sufficed for the majority
of slaves.

Onesimus, therefore, grasped at the dazzling bait of better pay
and loftier position. That evening he spoke to Nereus, who, after
consulting Pudens, told him that there would be no difficulty,
whether by exchange or otherwise, in permitting his acceptance of
the offer which had been made to him.

The great men who visited Cæsar looked down upon the hundreds of
slaves who thronged the Palace as beings separated from themselves
by an immeasurable abyss of inferiority; but to the mass of paupers
who formed the chief part of the population servitude to the Emperor
seemed a condition of enviable brilliance. We are told that when
Felicio was promoted to the post of _Cæsar’s_ cobbler, he at once
became a personage of importance, and was flattered on every side.
Onesimus had much the same experience. Among those who knew him
he found that he had risen indefinitely by the exchange which
transferred him to the office of _servus a purpura_ in the household
of Octavia.

He was received into the slaves’ quarters with the showers of
sweetmeats and the other humble festivities which welcomed the
advent of a new slave; and on the evening of his admission Acte
sent for him.

‘Onesimus,’ she said, ‘I have it in my power to befriend you; and if
you will be faithful you may rise to posts of the greatest importance.
But such promotion must depend on your character. May I trust you?’

‘Surely, Acte!’

‘Then let me confide to you a secret of the deepest import. You have
seen the Prince Britannicus?’

‘Yes. He looks a noble boy.’

‘I fear that his life is imperilled--it is not necessary to say by
whom. I could weep when I think of the dangers which threaten him.
Your office will give you opportunities of sometimes seeing him.
It is not possible that I should meet you often; but here is a coin
which has on it the head of Britannicus. If ever I send you one of
these coins, as though I wanted you to purchase something, will you
come to me at once? It will be a sign that he is menaced.’

Onesimus promised; and, in truth, the need for watchfulness was
very pressing; for, on the day which followed the evening of the
Saturnalitian games, Nero, fretting with jealousy and alarm, summoned
Julius Pollio, the tribune on whom had been bestowed the post which
Pudens had occupied, and sent him with a message to Locusta. She was
allowed to move about the Palace, but was under the nominal charge of
the guardsmen.

It might well seem amazing that a youth whose disposition was not
innately cruel, and who a few years before had been a timid, blushing
boy, caring mainly for art and amusement, should have developed, in
so brief a space of time, into the murderer of his brother. But the
effects produced by the vertigo of autocracy on a mean disposition
are rapid as well as terrible. He had soon discovered that it was
in his power to do exactly what he liked; and when he had learnt to
regard himself as a god on earth, to whose wishes every law, divine
and human, must give way, there was no vice of which he did not
rapidly become capable. What was the life of a young boy, who stood
in his way, to one who had unchallenged power over the life and death
of millions of subjects over all the civilised world?

And yet the fate of his predecessors showed him that the pinnacle
of absolute power was a place of constant peril. The loss of empire
would mean inevitably the loss also of life. Was this peevish lad to
be a source of constant danger to the darling of the soldiers, of the
mob, and of the world?

He had no reason to approach Julius Pollio with any of the
circumspection with which Shakespeare represents King John as opening
his designs to Hubert. When, at the suggestion of Tigellinus, he had
appointed Pollio to supersede Pudens, he knew the sort of man whom he
would have at his beck. He simply said to the tribune--

‘I want some poison. Locusta is under your charge. Tell her to
prepare some for me.’ He did not trouble himself to mention the
person for whom the poison was intended.

Locusta was too familiar with her trade to hesitate. Had she not
taught many a guilty wife, in spite of rumour, in spite of the
populace, to bury undetected the blackening body of her husband? Her
fiendish nature rejoiced at the consciousness of secret power. She
supplied Pollio with a poison which was, she assured him, of tried
efficacy, and she again received a large sum of money in reward for
her services. Nero knew that among the wretches by whom his mother
had surrounded Britannicus, and not all of whom had been removed, it
would be easy to find some one who would administer the poison. He
decided that the deed should be done at some private meal, and by the
hands of one of the boy’s tutors, who never thought of shrinking from
the infamy. In that midnight and decadence of a dying Paganism the
crime of ordinary murder was too cheap to excite remorse.

But it was impossible that all this should pass unobserved. Acte had
been brought under Christian influences, and was anxious by all means
in her power to atone for the unintended wrong which her beauty had
inflicted upon Octavia. Nero was no longer her lover, though she
still lived in the Palace, and held a high position as one for whom
the Emperor had once conceived so strong an infatuation. She had her
own slaves assigned to her, and of these some were Christians. In
her self-imposed task of watching over the life of Britannicus she
asked them to obtain information of any circumstance that seemed to
threaten him with danger. From them she learnt that Nero had been
closeted with Julius Pollio; that Pollio had paid a visit to Locusta;
and that, when Locusta had sent a small vial to Nero, the Emperor
had summoned to his presence the tutor of Britannicus, who had been
observed to carry away the vial in his closed hand. Her spies further
told her that, by watching and listening, they had ascertained that
the poison was to be given to the son of Claudius, not at supper but
at the light midday meal which he took with Titus. After they had
been enjoying vigorous exercise in the morning the boys usually
showed an excellent appetite.

More than this they could not discover; but this much Acte confided
to Onesimus, and implored him to keep watch, and if possible, devise
some means by which to forewarn Britannicus of his imminent peril.

At first the quick Phrygian youth, who was understood to be under
the patronage of Acte, had been a favourite in the household, and
he found little difficulty in making friends with the cooks and
other slaves who superintended the meals of the imperial family. By
a visit to the kitchen--in which he flattered the cook and his young
assistants by the lively curiosity which he expressed about the
various dishes, and the enthusiasm with which he admired their
skill--he learnt that, as a special treat, a beccafico was to be
sent in for the _prandium_ of Britannicus, and he conjectured that
it would be poisoned. That the cook was innocent of any evil design
he was sure, and he guessed that the fig-pecker would be poisoned by
some slave of higher office about the young prince’s person. But he
knew not how to forewarn the unsuspecting boy. The time was short.
It was not easy to find an excuse by which he--whose duty lay in a
different part of the Palace--could find access to the apartments of
Britannicus. And whom could he warn? There was scarcely an instance
known in which any one had dared to interfere between an emperor and
his victims. In the general paralysis of servility, in the terror
inspired by the little despicable human god, in the indifference to
bloodshed caused by the games of the amphitheatre, why should any one
be troubled by one death the more?

But Onesimus, less familiar with a world so plague-stricken with
torpid corruption, felt in his heart a spring of pity for the doomed
boy. After rejecting plan after plan as impossible, it flashed upon
him that he might get a message conveyed to Titus. He had but a few
minutes left, and Titus could not be found until he and the prince,
still warm and glowing from their game of ball, entered the parlour.
Onesimus grew desperate, and, boldly summoning a young slave, sent
him to Titus with the extemporised message that the centurion Pudens
urgently desired to speak with him.

Titus went into the hall, and recognised Onesimus as the youth whom
his own kindness had first brought under the notice of Pudens. The
Phrygian led him to a remote part of the hall, behind one of the
statues of the Danaides, and whispered to him, ‘Britannicus is in
danger. Let him not touch the bird which has been provided for his
lunch. Oh, stay not to ask me anything,’ he added, when Titus seemed
inclined to question him further; ‘hurry back, if you would save his
life.’

Titus hurried back, but the meal was quite informal, and Britannicus,
hungry with exercise, had already helped himself to the dainty set
before him.

‘Give me some of that fig-pecker,’ said Titus desperately; ‘I am very
fond of those birds; we catch them at Reate.’

Britannicus at once handed the dish to him with a smile. ‘I don’t
know what Epictetus would think,’ he said, ‘of a Stoic who is fond of
dainties.’

‘It is meant exclusively for you, Sir,’ said the _pædagogus_, hastily.
‘I wonder that Titus should be so greedy.’

Titus blushed; but the remark helped him out of a serious difficulty.
He had thought in vain how he could avoid eating the bird which
Onesimus had told him was poisoned.

‘After that remark,’ he answered, ‘of course I cannot touch it.’

‘Then give it back to Britannicus,’ said the tutor.

‘Nay,’ said the prince; ‘if Titus is to be called greedy for liking
it, I must be greedy too. I have had enough. Besides there is a taste
about it which I do not like. Bread and a few olives are more than
enough.’

He pushed away his plate, and when they had risen from the table, he
looked curiously at his friend.

Titus blushed again. ‘I know,’ he whispered, ‘that _you_ will not
think me greedy, Britannicus.’

‘Titus,’ he answered, ‘you know something.’

‘Ask me nothing,’ said Titus; ‘I was only just in time, if, indeed,
I have been in time.’

Britannicus was silent. He suspected that some attempt had been
made upon his life, and that it had been partially frustrated by the
faithfulness of his friend. He had no doubt on the subject, when,
a little later, he was seized with violent pains. Happily, however,
he had scarcely more than tasted of the beccafico, and in the fit of
sickness which followed, nature came to his relief. His recovery was
aided by the pure and glowing state of his health. After a few hours
of excruciating agony he sank into a long refreshing sleep.

He woke in the twilight, to find himself lying on a couch, while
Octavia and Titus, sitting on either side of him, were rubbing his
cold hands.

‘Where am I?’ he asked. ‘Oh, I remember!’ And he said no more; but
he took the hand of Titus, and drew his sister near to him and kissed
her.

The hearts of all three were too full for words, but as they sat
there a message came that the Augusta was coming to visit them.

Agrippina was of course admitted, and left her attendants at the
door. As the lovely haughty lady entered, they could not help
observing, even by the dim light of the two silver lamps which
had just been lit, that a change had passed over her features, and
that she had been weeping. Haughty they still were, but wrath and
disappointment and failure, purchased at the cost of crime, had
stamped them with an expression of agony, as though she wore the
brand of Cain. When she heard of the sudden illness of Britannicus,
she divined its cause too well. While her power was waning so
rapidly, she had been no longer able to maintain the elaborate system
of espionage which had helped her when she was Empress; but she, too,
was aware that Pollio had visited Locusta, and the misgiving had
seized her that the poison might be meant for herself. That it turned
out to be for Britannicus was hardly less appalling to her. She felt
that her imprudence had made Nero jealous of him, and that his death
would deprive her of her last resource. She rejoiced, therefore,
unfeignedly at the boy’s recovery, and when she visited him he saw
that, for the first time, she spoke with genuine kindness to Octavia,
and that her expressions of pity and condolence to himself were
sincere. There was no feigning in the hot teardrops which fell on
his cheek when she kissed him, and as he lay there, weak and pale,
she felt, with deepening remorse for the wrongs which she had
inflicted on him, that he did not shrink from her embrace.

Nero, too, sent messages of enquiry to ‘his beloved brother’ by his
freedman, Claudius Etruscus. As he heard them, the old spirit of
Britannicus flashed out.

‘Tell Cæsar,’ he said, ‘that this time his poi--’

Before the word could be spoken, Titus with hasty gesture placed his
hand over his friend’s mouth, and Agrippina, knowing well that every
syllable would be reported, and interpreted in the most malignant
manner, turned her queenly head to the freedman who had brought the
message.

‘Tell the Emperor that his brother is much better, but is still
light-headed. Claudius Etruscus,’ she said, ‘you pass for an honest
man. I pray you, do not mention to Nero anything which Britannicus
has spoken in his delirium.’

Etruscus bent low, and, touched by passing pity at the scene which
he had witnessed, he determined to abstain from reporting what he had
heard. ‘The Augusta,’ he said, ‘has always been kind to me. Her wish
shall be obeyed.’

But Nero was restless and anxious, and was pacing to and fro like a
caged wild beast. The thought of plots and perils haunted him. That
morning, as he passed along the covered way which led from the Palace
into the theatre, he had seen the red stain of the blood of Caligula
on the walls--a red stain which could not be washed out--and felt
a spasm of suffocation as if a dagger were at his throat. He was
frightened to hear from Etruscus that Agrippina was with his brother.
Were they conspiring to bring about a revolution? He would himself
go and see.

He had been drinking, and as he entered took no notice of Titus or
of Octavia. To Agrippina he only vouchsafed a cold salute, and she,
dreading another scene in the presence of witnesses, rose and left
the chamber. He took the cold hand of Britannicus in his own hot and
feverish grasp, and a pang of hatred shot through him as he felt it
shrink at his touch. The boy was propped up on his couch with pillows,
and a hectic spot burned on each of his pallid cheeks; but his eyes
were filled with strange light, and, as he fixed them on the face of
Nero, they seemed to read his inmost soul.

Nero averted his glance. He dared not look upon his victim. Indeed,
under that steady gaze, the consciousness of his crime brought the
tell-tale crimson over his face. He was not yet too far gone to
blush, though the days were rapidly approaching in which he would
wear a front of brass.

He muttered some hypocritical words of condolence, which rang false
and were overdone. Britannicus spoke not.

Octavia said, ‘Pardon his silence, Nero; he is too weak to thank you.’

‘I did not ask _you_ to interfere,’ answered Nero brutally.

‘I give you such thanks as are due,’ said Britannicus in a faint
voice; but he tried to withdraw his hand from Nero’s grasp.

Nero rose in a towering passion. ‘I came to inquire about your
illness. You meet me with scowls and ingratitude,’ he said, flinging
away the hand of Britannicus. ‘If you do not choose to behave as a
brother, I will make you feel that you are a subject. Octavia and
Titus, you may retire.’

‘Oh, do not leave me alone. I am very ill,’ pleaded the poor prince.
‘Indeed, indeed I cannot be left alone.’

The terrible thought which had flashed through the mind of Nero--the
thought that, if left alone, the boy might be killed that night--had
woke its reflection in the mind of Britannicus. But Nero strode
angrily out of the room, and neither repeated nor withdrew his
command.

‘May the spirits of all the good protect thee!’ said Octavia, as she
fondly kissed her brother. ‘I dare not stay; it might be the worse
for thee if I did.’

‘But I will stay, Empress,’ said Titus, ‘and I will do my best for
him.’

When the young Empress had withdrawn, Titus beckoned to her faithful
freedwoman Pythias, and told her to send for Onesimus. He came, and
Titus, after slipping into his hand an aureus, which the Empress had
left for him as a reward for his faithful warning, begged him to be
on the alert, and to return in an hour. The Phrygian went to Acte,
and told her all that had occurred. She kept him near at hand, and
in a short time informed him that two of Nero’s worst creatures
--Tigellinus and Doryphorus--were closeted with the Emperor, and
that there was too much reason to fear that some deadly measure would
be attempted that evening.

Such was indeed the case. For now, to the joy of Tigellinus, Nero had
openly declared that Britannicus must be swept out of his path; had
even admitted to him that poison had been attempted, and had failed.

‘How soon do you wish the deed to be done?’ asked the wicked
adventurer.

‘If we are to prevent some accursed plot,’ said Nero, ‘it cannot be
too soon.’

‘To-night?’

‘To-night, if you will,’ answered Nero, ‘but it must be secret. There
must be no scandal. A story must be trumped up. The Augusta must be
deceived. Octavia must be deceived. None of his adherents must know
of it, unless they can be trusted to hold their tongues.’

‘Nearly all the people about him are in our pay,’ said Tigellinus.
‘I think it can be done.’

That night no soldier was on guard near the room of Britannicus, and
Titus regarded this as a fatal sign. When he received from Onesimus
the intelligence which Acte had given him, he said that he would draw
his own bed across the door of the Prince’s room inside, so that none
could enter without his knowledge. He asked Onesimus to keep watch in
concealment outside, and make a noise if any one should approach.

‘I can imitate exactly the bark of the Empress’s lap-dog,’ said
Onesimus, ‘for Aponia, who has charge of it, often lets me tease it.
If I make this noise in the quiet of the night it is sure to set
other dogs barking, and then I will spring out of my hiding-place as
if the sound had awoke me.’

Proud of the confidence reposed in him, proud to be the guard of a
Cæsar’s life, Onesimus put on a black lacerna, shrouded himself in
a dark corner, hidden behind the shield of an Amazon. The Palace
sank to deep silence, broken only by the faint, distant tramp of
the sentinel who kept watch outside the passage which led to the
cubiculum of the Emperor.

About an hour after midnight he heard a stealthy footstep
approaching, and saw the occasional gleam of a lantern which was
hidden under the cloak of the murderer. Breathless with anxiety, he
watched and listened. The slave came near to the room of Britannicus.
Noiselessly he placed his lantern on the floor, then he drew a large
dagger, and Onesimus saw its blade flash in the light as the wretch
examined it. One instant more and his hand was thrusting an oiled key
into the lock.

Then it was that Onesimus gave a short, sharp sound like the bark
of a pet dog. The murderer started violently. Onesimus repeated the
sound, which was immediately taken up by a dog which belonged to one
of the freedwomen. Hesitating no longer, he leapt out of his shelter
with the challenge, ‘Who goes there?’ and at the same moment Titus,
who had slept in his clothes, unfastened the door, and sprang in
front of it with a sword in his hand.

Without staying an instant longer the murderer dashed down his
lantern and fled, for slaves and freedmen were heard stirring on
every side. Onesimus did not attempt to pursue him, but quietly
slipped back to his own cell. He knew that for that night the dark
plot was frustrated and Britannicus was safe.

To the slaves whom the noise had disturbed Titus only said that he
had been troubled by the nightmare, and bade them return to sleep.
But not a few of them shrewdly suspected that they had not been told
the whole truth.



CHAPTER XXIV

_BRITANNICUS UNDERGOES A NEW EXPERIENCE_

   ‘For life, with all it yields of joy and woe,
    And hope and fear--believe the aged friend--
    Is just a chance of the prize of learning love;
    How love might be, hath been indeed, and is;
    And that we hold thenceforth to the uttermost
    Such prize, despite the envy of the world.’

                      BROWNING, _A Death in the Desert_.


It was New Year’s Day in Rome. The day was kept as a universal
holiday. Everybody aimed at cheerfulness, and abstained from any
word of evil omen. Quarrels were suspended; calumny was hushed. Fires
were kindled on every side, and fed with scented woods and leaves of
odorous saffron. The gilded fretwork of every temple-roof glimmered
with twinkling reflections of the sacred flames. All the people were
clad in white, and went in procession to the Capitol. The lictors
were provided with new fasces; the magistrates were clad in new
purple, and assumed, for the first time, their curule chairs of
ivory. The white oxen of Clitumnus were led for sacrifice to the
altar of Jupiter, their necks wreathed with garlands. Friends
exchanged presents, which, even when they were of trifling value,
yet served to show that they had not forgotten to express their love.
Among presents from Octavia, and Titus, and Pudens, and Pomponia,
and other friends, Britannicus, who had now recovered, was greeted by
Epictetus with the customary gift of gilded dates--called _strenæ_,
whence the French _étrennes_--and a little honey in its snowy comb.
These the poor lame boy had bought, with such copper coins as he had
been able to save, at the little market for such trifles near the
Porta Mugionis; and he had not forgotten to bring a few sprigs of
vervain, good-naturedly given to him as an augury of blessing by one
of the priests at the half-forgotten shrine of Vacuna, on the Sacred
Way. But Britannicus had received more splendid presents than these.
Agrippina had given him a double-branched silver candelabrum, up
the shaft of which crept a wild-cat towards two unsuspecting birds
perched on either dish above. But when he showed it to Octavia she
shuddered. To her fancy it seemed as if Nero were the wild-cat, and
herself and her brother the harmless birds.

Never had Britannicus and Octavia been more sad than in the days
which followed Nero’s frustrated plots to assassinate his brother.
They knew that further attempts would not be long delayed. On
February 13 Britannicus would be fifteen years old, and it would be
impossible to withhold from him the manly toga. But he felt sure that
the sword was dangling by a hair over his neck, and that he would not
long be suffered to live.

And thus, in the dawn of youth, he found himself in a situation so
terrible that it has shaken the fortitude of many a full-grown man.
Even the iron nerves of Cromwell were affected by the daily danger of
assassination; and now Britannicus never sat down to a meal without
dread of treachery, and never went to bed without a misgiving as
to whether that sleep would not be his last. From the latter terror
Titus relieved him as much as he could, by nightly drawing his own
couch across the door. Onesimus had told Titus that if any deed of
darkness were in immediate contemplation he would be almost sure to
hear of it from Acte. Yet, in spite of all, the poor boy’s mind might
have been unhinged by the secret and manifold dangers with which the
hatred of the Emperor surrounded him, had it not been for the lessons
which he had heard from the humble followers of the gospel. Never
could he forget the awful expansion and dilatation of spirit which
had accompanied the emotion he had experienced at the Christian
gathering. At that moment he had felt a foretaste of immortality.

And, happily for the Empress and himself, there remained one more
transcendent experience before the fall of the thunderbolt which
separated them from each other.

The Ides of January were kept as a festival to Jupiter, and the next
day was also the anniversary on which Octavianus had been saluted by
the title of Augustus. The day was therefore observed with various
ceremonies, and, as they were chiefly of a public character, it
was easier for the children of Claudius to move about with less
observation than usual. They had long desired to hear the words of
one who had seen Jesus, and on the morning of January 14 a letter
reached Octavia from Pomponia, conveying a cautious intimation
that now their wish could be granted. Their young companion Flavius
Clemens was to visit the Palace in the afternoon, and after they had
supped with Aulus Plautius they were to arrange the way in which the
rest of the evening should be spent.

When the supper was over, the two boys, Clemens and Britannicus,
disguised in the dress of humble slaves, went with Pudens down the
Velabrum and along the bank of the Tiber, which they crossed by the
island and the Fabrician and Cestian bridges. The region in which
they found themselves was poor and squalid, and was largely inhabited
by Jews. The Jewish and Gentile Christians at this early period
worshipped in separate communities, but they met together on so great
an occasion as the visit of an Apostle. But the laws about assemblies
and foreign superstitions were a two-edged sword which might easily
be wielded with fatal effect, and it was desirable for the Christians
to hold their gatherings with as little publicity as possible, in
order to escape the hatred both of Jews and Pagans. This meeting,
therefore, was to be held at a remote spot in the hollow of one
of the _arenariæ_, or sand-pits, and those who attended it were to
use one or other of the Christian watchwords. They were to approach
the place in scattered groups and from different directions, while
scouts were stationed in the neighbourhood to give instant signal of
approaching danger.

Using these precautions, Britannicus and his attendants found
themselves among the latest arrivals at the rendezvous. The winter
darkness, deepened by the overhanging sides of the tufa quarry,
rendered it necessary to have a few lights, but most of the assembled
Christians extinguished or concealed their lamps. The dimness, the
silence, the starry sky which overhung them, the strained expectation,
the signs of intense devotion, made the scene overwhelming in its
solemnity. At last a little group of the chief Christian presbyters,
headed by Linus, was seen to approach. They passed under the shadow
of the cliffs, and emerged before the table, on which one or two
lamps were burning. Then the presbyters divided to the right and
left hand, and the light fell full on the face and figure of one man
who stepped a pace or two to the front.

He was dressed, as was not unusual at Rome, in Eastern costume. He
was a man a little past the prime of life. The hair which escaped
from under his turban was already sprinkled with grey. His dark eyes
seemed to be lighted from within by a spiritual fire; his figure
was commanding, his attitude full of dignity. His face was a perfect
oval, and the features were of the finest type of Eastern manhood.
When once you had gazed upon him it seemed impossible to take
the eyes from a countenance so perfect in its light and spiritual
beauty--a countenance in which a fiery vehemence was exquisitely
tempered by a pathetic tenderness. His whole appearance was magnetic.
It seemed to flash into all around him its own nobleness, and to
kindle there that flame of love to God and man which burnt on the
altar of his own heart. That such a soul should be convinced of
a truth seemed alone sufficient to convince others. That such
lips should testify to a fact rendered all disbelief of the fact
impossible to those who once fell under his influence. That such
a man could be the herald of a new religion seemed like a certain
pledge that the faith which he held must sooner or later overcome
the world.

In his aspect was something indescribably different from that worn
by the noblest philosophers of Rome. On all sides, in the Roman
amphitheatre and in the Roman streets, you saw faces which were
cruel, and proud, and seamed with every evil passion; faces cunning,
and sly, and leering, and degraded; the slavish faces of those who
were slaves in soul, and the ignoble faces of those whom an ignoble
society had cowed by its terror and degraded by its vice. Even in the
Senate you saw noble lineaments on which servility, and care, and a
life spent under tyrants and in households where every slave might
be a potential enemy, had impressed the stamp of gloom and fear. But
in the face of this Apostle there was softness as well as strength,
and hope as well as courage. His eyes shone with a joy which seemed
to brighten in the midst of affliction, as the stars brighten in the
deepening twilight.

As he entered the whole assembly rose to their feet by a spontaneous
movement of reverence, and then no less spontaneously some of those
present fell upon their knees. But instantly his voice was heard,
as, in an accent of command, almost of sternness, he bade them rise.

‘Rise,’ he said, ‘brethren and saints. What homage is this? We are
men of like passions with yourselves. I do not mistake your feelings.
Ye think that such reverence must be due to a disciple whom, unworthy
as he was, yet Jesus loved. But know ye not that every true saint
among you is nearer to Him now by His Spirit than it was possible for
us to be in the days of His flesh? Has not our brother Paul taught
you in his preaching that your bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost,
who dwelleth in you, except ye be reprobate?’

Then Linus rose and said, ‘Let us kneel and thank God in prayer that
He has suffered an Apostle of His Son to visit us, and then we will
join in a common hymn.’

When the simple prayer was over they united their voices in that
earliest Christian hymn which has been happily preserved for us by
Clement of Alexandria. They began in accents soft and sweet and low--

   ‘Shepherd of sheep that own
    Their Master on the throne,
    Stir up Thy children weak
    With guileless lips to speak,
    In hymn and song, Thy praise,
    Guide of their infant ways.’

Then the strain swelled louder--

   ‘O King of saints, O Lord,
    Mighty, all-conquering Word;
    Son of the highest God,
    Wielding His wisdom’s rod;
    Our stay when cares annoy,
    Giver of endless joy;
    Of all our mortal race
    Saviour, of boundless grace,
        O Jesus, hear!’[57]

They knelt down once more, and the strain of thanksgiving rose among
them, with no confusion in its blended utterance, as they responded
to the words of their bishop. And when the voices ceased Nereus, the
slave of Pudens, said, after a brief pause, ‘O that John of Bethsaida
would tell us first of that Resurrection whereof he is one of the
appointed witnesses!’

John rose, and gave them the narrative which long years after he
embodied in his Gospel.

He told them of the startling words of Mary of Magdala on that first
glad Easter morning; and how he himself and Peter ran together to the
empty tomb, ere yet they knew the Scripture that He must rise again
from the dead.

He told them of the vision of angels which appeared in the tomb to
Mary, and how Jesus had spoken to her in the garden.

He told of the appearance to the Ten, and the words of peace; and
again, on the next Sunday, to the Eleven, when He convinced the
doubting Thomas, and bade him to be not faithless, but believing.

He told them of the appearance on the shore of the misty silver sea,
and of His last behest to Simon Peter; and he corrected the false
impression as to what had been said concerning himself, which had not
been, as had been mistakenly reported, that he should not die, but
‘If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?’

And as he spoke these words, in a voice which rose like a divine
melody, the attention grew more and more rapt, and, as he ended, the
awful, penetrating, thrilling sound of the tongue began to be heard.
But John checked it by a gentle lifting of his hand, and Linus said,
‘Let the spirits of the prophets be subject to the prophets. Let us
rather hear the witness of the Lord.’

Then Hermas, slave of Pedanius Secundus, the City Prætor, rose, and
asked, ‘What meant the Lord by those words, “that he tarry _till I
come_”? When should be the day of His coming?’

‘That question we also asked,’ said John, ‘before His death; and
though He spake of signs of the times, like the redness and lowering
of the sky, yet He added to us, “Of that day and that hour knoweth no
man--no, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father.”’

‘And are there no signs of the time now?’ asked Linus.

‘There are many,’ he answered, ‘by which we may know that the coming
of the Lord is even at the door. I have walked through this Babylon,
and have seen all the splendour of her merchandise, as of Tyrus in
old days, and amid it all--slaves and souls of men. Yea, and as I
have witnessed all the cruelty and all the vileness, like the scum of
that seething caldron which the prophet saw of old, I feel compelled
to ask with him, “Shall I not judge for these things?” saith the
Lord; “shall not My soul be avenged on such a nation as this?” Yea,
sometimes a voice seems to ring within me which says, “Woe, woe! to
the dwellers upon earth!” The great tribulation must come of which
the Lord spake and the Antichrist must be revealed, and God must
accomplish the number of the elect.’

‘The night is drawing in, O brother, revered in the Lord,’ said
Linus; ‘and it were well that we should speedily separate to our
homes. But ere we part give to us one word of exhortation of how
we are to save ourselves from this untoward generation.’

The Apostle raised his hands towards heaven, and his eye seemed to be
lit with heavenly ecstasy as he answered in this brief exhortation:
‘My children, love one another. Love is the fulfilling of the law.
There is no fear in love. Perfect love casteth out fear, because fear
hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. And this
commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother
also.’

When he had thus exhorted them they broke out with passionate
jubilance in the hymn--

   ‘Fisher of men, the blest,
    Out of the world’s unrest,
    Out of sin’s troubled sea
    Taking us, Lord, to Thee,
    With choicest fish, good store,
    Drawing thy nets to shore,

   ‘Lead us, O Shepherd true;
    Thy mystic sheep, we sue!
    O path where Christ hath trod,
    O way that leads to God,
    O Word, abiding aye,
    O endless Light on high,
    O glorious Life of all
    That on their Maker call,
        Christ Jesus, hear.’

All present knelt in prayer, ending with the united utterance of the
words that the Lord had taught; and the great _Amen_ rose like the
low sound of distant thunder. Then the Apostle raised his hands and
blessed them. Again the _Amen_ and the solemn _Maranatha_ rolled
through the air like the sound of mighty waters, and after a moment
of deep stillness the assembly peaceably departed.

Britannicus and his attendants, wishing to avoid notice, waited for
a time, until the twinkling streams of light from the torches and
lanterns carried by the worshippers grew fainter and more scattered.
Hence it happened that they were left the last in the _arenaria_,
except the little group of deacons and presbyters who stood round
John of Bethsaida. The young prince had been deeply moved by the
look and by the words of the Beloved Disciple. He wished to see him
nearer, and whispered to Pudens not to go until he had passed them,
for never yet had he seen so glorious a specimen of lofty and holy
manhood.

But the boy’s heart thrilled with strange emotion as the Apostle
paused on his way, and, standing before the little group, fixed his
eyes upon his face, approached him, and softly laid his hand upon his
shoulder.

He motioned to all except Flavius Clemens to stand aside, and he was
left speaking to the two youths.

‘My sons,’ he asked, ‘do ye believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?’

The youths were silent, till Britannicus, who felt in his heart the
confidence of an exceeding peace, said--

‘My father, I know not. All that you have said to us is beautiful
as a song of heaven. It stirs my heart; it seems to give wings to my
spirit; but I know too little, and all is yet too strange.’

‘My son,’ said the Apostle, ‘go in peace. It is given me to know
who thou art; thy slave’s attire does not conceal thee from me. Nay,
start not; none else shall know. But the seed hath been sown in thy
young heart; it shall blossom and bear fruit in a life beyond. For
there is a baptism, not of water only, but of blood. Would to God
that thou mightest remain for the furtherance of the kingdom of His
Son; but it may not be. And my message to thee is, “Be strong, and
He shall comfort thine heart, and put thou thy trust in the Lord.”’

He laid his right hand gently on the young prince’s head and blessed
him, and his whole soul seemed to thrill under that holy touch.

‘And hast thou no word for me, my father?’ said Flavius Clemens.

The Apostle turned towards him, and kindly laying his left hand on
the boy’s dark curls, he said--

‘I say to thee, as the Lord said to another, “And thou too, my son,
when thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself and wentest whither thou
wouldest; but when thou shalt be old another shall gird thee and
carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” Thy life shall be prolonged,
and thou shalt rise to great things; but thy heart shall be the
Lord’s, and many a year hence thou too shalt be His witness. One of
you shall see my face no more, but the Angel of His Presence bless
you both.’

He spoke, and passed out of their sight into the gloom, leaving in
their hearts a sound as of angelic music, a light as of purple wings.
Neither of them spoke, or could speak. In silence and haste they
made their way back over the dark flowing river to the house of Aulus
Plautius. Flavius was conducted home by faithful Christian slaves,
while the escort of the Empress accompanied her and her brother to
the Palace, which still rang with sounds of revelry. And that night
Titus wondered at the radiant serenity of the countenance of his
friend, and Britannicus slept as sweetly as a child; and as he
slumbered the spirits of the blessed dead seemed to keep guard over
him, and he smiled to hear strange snatches of immortal melody.



CHAPTER XXV

_LOCUSTA._

    ‘Circe inter vernas nota Neronis.’--TURNUS, _Fr._


Nero had been angered beyond measure by the failure of both his
attempts upon the life of his brother, but he had also been a little
terrified. A feeling of the eternal sanctity of the moral law had
scarcely ever found a place in his slight and frivolous mind; but he
was by no means free from superstition. He did not believe seriously
in the gods; but he believed more or less in omens, and for a time he
wavered in the dreadful purpose of committing his earliest
unpardonable crime.

But he could not waver long. Britannicus was rapidly approaching
his fifteenth year. It was evident that he was also developing new
powers. He was already nearly as tall as Nero, and while Nero’s
early beauty was beginning to fade the face of Britannicus became
constantly nobler. All this Nero observed with deepening rancour,
and to this was added a secret terror. He began to fear lest the
Prætorians should find out their mistake in rejecting this princely
boy for one who, in spite of his small accomplishments, was so far
his inferior. He never visited Agrippina without noticing that in
some way she regarded Britannicus, if not as the mainstay of her
hopes, at least as the ultimate resource of her vengeance and despair.

But it was Sophonius Tigellinus who had the chief hand in goading
Nero to the final consummation of his guilt. The Emperor was not by
nature sanguinary; his cruelty was only developed amid the rank
growth of his other vices.

He was planning with Tigellinus a banquet of unusual splendour which
was to be held at the Feralia--the Roman All Souls’ Day, a festival
in honour of the dead--on February 7.

‘You will have to give another banquet, Cæsar,’ said Tigellinus, ‘on
the Ides (February 13).’

‘Why?’

‘Because that day is the fifteenth birthday of Britannicus; and I
presume that then you will let him assume the manly toga.’

‘You are always dragging in the name of Britannicus,’ said Nero. ‘I
hate it, and I hate him.’

‘On the contrary,’ said the Prætorian; ‘I should say that you love
him very much. Who can tell how soon he may be your successor?’

‘My successor?’ answered Nero, scowling. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I meant no offence, Cæsar,’ said Tigellinus; ‘forgive the
faithfulness of a friend and an honest soldier who loves you. Do
you not see what a fine young fellow Britannicus is growing? Octavia
brings you no children. He must in any case succeed you.’

Nero paced the room, as he always did when he felt agitated; and,
after leaving his remarks to work, Tigellinus added--

‘Besides it is not easy to divine the plans of the Augusta, with whom
at present you are on such bad terms?’

Nero strode up and down with still more passion, and Tigellinus
continued at intervals to heap fuel on the flames of his fury.

‘You heard the murmurs of applause which greeted his insolent song
the other night?’

Nero nodded.

‘Do you think that the Prætorians are absolutely loyal to you? I
have heard them talking about Britannicus among themselves. Pudens,
I know, is a favourite officer of theirs, and he adores Britannicus.
Supposing it came to civil war, do you think that you would be quite
sure to win?’

Nero still said nothing.

‘Why not put an end to the difficulty? Rome is sick at the thought
of another civil war. Every one would be glad if you put your
brother out of the way. And really, why should you hesitate? You
have attempted it twice already, only you have been unlucky.’

By this time the subtle tempter had worked the Emperor into a frenzy
of wrath and fear. The crime had long been assuming shape in his
mind, and in point of fact he had already incurred its guilt.

‘It shall be done on the Ides,’ he said. ‘Send Julius Pollio to me.’

Tigellinus struck while the iron was hot, and the tribune was in
attendance before Nero’s rage had had time to cool.

‘Bring Locusta here at once,’ he said.

The tribune executed the command, and Locusta’s green eye gleamed
even more balefully than was its wont when the tribune ushered her
into the Emperor’s chamber.

But Nero received them both with a burst of petulant anger.

‘You have failed me!’ he exclaimed. ‘You are traitors, both of you.
While you are taking measures to shield yourselves you leave me
obnoxious to the worst perils. I told you to provide me with a sure
poison.’

‘We were but anxious to avert suspicion, Emperor,’ said Locusta, in
the soft tones which involuntarily reminded the hearer of a serpent’s
hiss. ‘You know there is a Julian law against murder and poisoning.’

The anger of Nero showed itself in mean, ignoble ways, and, like a
bad boy in a passion, he was not ashamed to strike Locusta in the
face.

‘Don’t talk of the Julian law to me, woman,’ he said; ‘as if I
was afraid of the laws! Make me a poison which shall work like a
dagger-stab, or you shall be ordered off for execution to-morrow on
the old charges.’

Locusta shrank from his blow, and for one instant glared at him as
though she would have liked to poison _him_. But she knew his power,
and felt sure of his rewards; so she merely said--

‘Britannicus is such a strong, healthy boy, that the task is less
easy. But Cæsar shall have his wish. I have a poison here which will
do the work.’

‘Try it, then, on some animal,’ he said.

‘I dare say the tribune could procure me a kid,’ said Locusta.

A slave was despatched to find a kid, and when the bounding, playful
creature was brought Locusta dropped some of the poison on a piece of
bread dipped in milk.

The kid ate the bread and milk, and frisked no more but lay down and
curled up its limbs, which quivered with convulsive twitchings.

‘Leave the poison to work,’ she said, ‘and if Cæsar will summon me an
hour hence the kid will be dead.’

An hour later she was summoned. The kid lay on the ground, feeble and
with glazing eyes; but it was not dead, and Nero was in the worst of
humours. He pointed to the little creature and said--

‘Woman, you are trifling with me! Add henbane, or hemlock, or any
other infernal thing you like, to your accursed poison. It must be
made stronger.’

Locusta dropped other ingredients into the phial, and another animal
was sent for. The slave brought a little pig. Some of the poison was
sprinkled on a leaf of lettuce. The creature ate it, and in a few
moments died in spasms.

‘That will do,’ said Nero, flinging to the woman a purse of gold. ‘If
all goes as I desire, you shall have ample recompense. But breathe
one syllable about this matter, and you shall die under the scourge.’

She went, leaving the phial in his hands. He struck a silver bell,
and ordered Tigellinus to be summoned.

‘I have decided,’ he said to the Prætorian. ‘Britannicus shall die.’

‘You will deserve the title of “father of your country,” which you
so modestly rejected,’ said Tigellinus. ‘Augustus received that title
on the Nones of February, more than eighty years ago; doubtless the
Senate will confer it upon you soon after the Ides.’

‘But how is the deed to be done?’ asked Nero gloomily. ‘I shrink from
the business even if it be necessary.’

‘What are you afraid of, Cæsar?’

‘The voice of the people. It can shake the throne of the greatest.’

‘How will the people know anything about it?’

‘Britannicus has a _prægustator_, just as I and Agrippina have.
If that wretch is poisoned too, every one will know what has taken
place.’

‘His _prægustator_ is--?’

‘A freedman named Syneros.’

‘In your pay, of course?’

Nero nodded.

‘And you can trust him?’

Nero nodded again.

‘Then leave the rest to me,’ said Tigellinus, ‘and do not trouble
yourself any further in the matter. If I have your orders, regard the
deed as done.’

‘I give no orders,’ said Nero; ‘but here is Locusta’s poison.’

       *       *       *       *       *

Glad of her success in having twice saved the life of Britannicus,
Acte was more than ever determined to be a watchful guardian over
him. She was feverishly anxious to ascertain every plot formed
against him, and had gone so far as to take a step of extreme peril.
She had heard that, in the reign of Tiberius, when evidence had been
wanted against the Consular Sabinus, three persons of no less rank
than senator had concealed themselves in the roof, and looked down
through Judas-holes, to report his conversation. Might she not use
for good the devices which had been perverted to such deadly ends? At
any rate she would try. She ascertained from Tigellinus that Nero had
been amusing himself by trying the efficacy of certain poisons, and
he mentioned this in answer to Acte’s inquiries as to the reason why
his slaves had carried a dead kid out of Nero’s room.

But Acte learnt more by her other devices. The rooms which she
occupied happened to adjoin the apartment assigned to Tigellinus;
and by pretending a desire for some small repairs she had ordered
the marble panelling of her room to be removed in one corner, and
a cupboard to be constructed behind it. A person concealed in this
recess could, by the aid of a few holes perforated in the walls,
hear what was going on in the room of Tigellinus. Then she sent to
Onesimus the coin on which was the head of Britannicus, and when he
came to her room she concealed him in the recess, and he overheard
enough to make him suspect that Britannicus was to be poisoned a week
later.

The information was vague, and to act upon it was perilous; but Acte
told Onesimus to inform Titus, and then to use their combined wit to
defeat, at all costs, the wicked plan.

And this Onesimus meant to do, and might have done but for his own
misconduct.

He was weak in character, and if he had gone astray in the safe
obscurity of the house of Pudens he was liable to far worse
temptations in the _familia_ of the Palace. All his old companions
cringed to the handsome slave of Octavia, who might rise, as others
had done, to be an all-powerful freedman. With his youth, his
quickness, his good looks, who could tell whether he might not even
become a favourite of Cæsar himself, and have untold influence and
power? Onesimus found himself the centre of flattering attention in
the slave world both of the Palace and the city. He began to think
himself a person of importance. Was he not under the immediate
patronage of Acte, and, in order to avoid scandal, had it not
even been necessary to make it known that he was her kinsman and
foster-brother, brought up under the same roof?

Onesimus was too unstable to withstand the combined temptations by
which he was surrounded. The image of Junia might have acted as an
amulet, but he scarcely ever got an opportunity of seeing her, for
Nereus looked upon him with anything but favour. He kept aloof from
Christians, for he never heard them mentioned except with contempt
and hatred, and he liked the atmosphere of compliment and pleasure.
Slaves naturally imitate the vices of their masters, and the wicked
world of the aristocracy was reflected in darker colours in the
wicked world of servile myriads. Flinging all that he had learnt of
morals to the winds, betting, gambling, frequenting the lewdest shows
of the theatre and the most sanguinary spectacles of the games, and
forever haunting the cook-shops, the taverns, and the =_Subura_=, he
spent his almost unlimited leisure in that vicious idleness above
which only the best slaves had strength to rise.

And so it happened that at the time when he ought to have been most
on the alert he got entangled in a low dispute at a drinking bout,
and returned to the Palace not only wounded and smeared with blood,
but also in a state of shameful intoxication. In this guise Nero had
seen him, and, without even knowing his name, or anything about him,
had furiously ordered him to be taken to his steward, Callicles,
for severe punishment. He had again been scourged, put into fetters,
thrust into a prison, and fed on bread and water. This disgrace
was concealed from Acte, and while she was relying upon his quick
intelligence to convey a warning to Britannicus, and to devise means
of frustrating the plot of Tigellinus, Onesimus lay sick, and shamed,
and fettered in a prison among the lowest of offending slaves.



CHAPTER XXVI

_A BANQUET AND A CONVERSATION_

   ‘The citron board, the bowl embossed with gems,
    And tender foliage wildly wreathed around
    Of seeming ivy ... whate’er is known
    Of rarest acquisition; Tyrian garbs,
    Neptunian Albion’s high testaceous food,
    And flavoured Chian wines with incense fumed,
    To slake patrician thirst.’

                                  DYER, _Ruins of Rome_.


We are far more likely to underrate than to exaggerate the splendour
of a great Cæsarean banquet. It differed wholly from the soft,
luxurious, disreputable feast of voluptuous debauchees at which
we have been present in the house of Otho. Nothing was allowed to
disturb its magnificent decorum.

Nero’s feast was arranged in the highest style of imperial grandeur.
Many a gilded and ivory lectica, borne by African slaves in rich
liveries and surrounded by crowds of freedmen and clients, had been
carried down the Sacred Way and the Street of Apollo; and if any
distinguished nobles looked through the curtains the populace raised
a cheer. The guests were set down under the great arch of the state
entrance.

The noblest senators were there, and the representatives of the
oldest families of Rome, and not a few who were destined to wear
hereafter the purple shroud of imperial power. Most of them came
dressed in togas of dazzling whiteness, and there were few who did
not display the broad purple band of the senator, or at least the
narrower band of the Roman knight. The knights were conspicuous by
their large gold rings, the senators by the crescent of silver or of
ivory which they wore in the front of their shoes. Those who, like
Otho, were professional dandies were clothed in the most elaborate
dresses, but nearly all the guests wore gay tunics under their white
togas, which, during the banquet, they laid aside for the lighter
and more elegant loose dress of green, violet, or other vernal
colours. Nero himself received them in a paludament bordered with
golden stars. Agrippina was dressed in robes of rich violet, and on
her neck was a great opal from the spoils of Mithridates. Octavia had
arrayed herself in one of the most costly dresses from the imperial
wardrobe, and her stola was of that amethystine tint the use of which
Nero afterwards reserved for himself alone.

But many of the other ladies were hardly less splendid in their
attire. The necklaces which reached to their breasts had often as
many as fifty fine rubies dependent from their links of gold. Some of
them carried fans of peacocks’ feathers. Some were dressed in robes
variegated with soft and brilliantly coloured plumage; the mantles of
others had broad bands of gold sewed across the folds at the breast;
others wore robes of interchanging sheen, or of the favourite
mallow-colour, or Coan dresses of fine linen, woven with gold thread.
The whole atrium looked like a bed of flowers, and even the pavement
flashed with the light of jewelled feet.

When the guests entered the vast triclinium they were almost dazzled
with the display of splendour which greeted them. Beautiful statues
of youths stood round the room, holding in their hands lamps of gold,
which filled the house with the fragrance of perfumed oil. Other
cressets of fantastic workmanship hung by golden chains from the
gilded fretwork of the roof, which was so constructed that its aspect
and colouring could be altered between each course, and that scented
essences and little presents of flowers and ornaments could be
showered down upon the guests. The great triclinia and sigma-tables
of Mauretanian citron and ivory blazed with gold and silver. The
goblets from which the guests drank were enriched with gems. The
oldest and richest wines of the Opimiam, Falernian, and Setine
vintages stood cooling in vases full of snow, round which were twined
wreaths of ivy and of roses. In front of Nero’s seat was a superb
candelabrum of solid gold representing a tree with lamps hanging from
its boughs like golden fruit. It belonged to the Palatine Temple of
Apollo, and had been one of the spoils taken by Alexander the Great
at the sack of Thebes.[58] Among the other ornaments of the table
were a handled vase of white and purple, for which Nero had paid a
million sesterces, and the myrrhine goblet which alone Augustus had
reserved for himself from the treasures of Cleopatra. There were
also some of the _vasa diatreta_, curious triumphs of art in which a
reticulated shell-work of pale blue was fastened by threads of glass
to the opalescent vase within. Even the sawdust which was scattered
over the polished floor was dyed with minium and breathed of saffron.
Underneath the tables had been sprinkled a mixture of vervain and
maidenhair, which was believed to promote hilarity in the guests.[59]
Vitellius, as he gloated on the veins of the thyine table at which he
sat, and the glories with which it was laden, exclaimed, ‘If Jupiter
and Nero were both to invite me to dinner, I should accept the
invitation of Nero.’[60]

Even the ancients had a custom closely analogous to our ‘saying
grace.’ Before the guests sat down, a number of boys, in white robes
of byssus, placed upon the table figures of the lares, and carrying
round a jar of wine, exclaimed, ‘May the gods be favourable!’

When the ice had been broken by the usual commonplaces, there was
no lack of animated and even brilliant conversation among the most
polished representatives of a society in which conversation was an
art. Much of the talk, indeed, was trivial, and much was scandalous.
This was the inevitable result of a tyranny which had driven even
literature into such safe ineptitudes as the imaginary conversations
between a mushroom and a fig-pecker, which had earned an immense
reward from the Emperor Tiberius. Seneca, Burrus, and Pætus Thrasea,
who were present and sat at the same _sigma_, talked on the foreign
affairs of the Empire, canvassed the doings of Felix in Palestine and
the movements of Tiridates in Armenia. Lucan was eagerly discussing
with Otho the sources of the Nile. Not a few of the ladies were
listening to stories of magic and vampires and were-wolves told them
by travelled youths from Athens or Ephesus, and gossip amply filled
up the talk of others.

Britannicus, with some of the youngest scions of noble families,
sat, instead of reclining, at a lower table than the elder guests.
Augustus had introduced, and Claudius had kept up, the custom of
young guests dining on these public occasions in less state, and
being served with a less luxurious meal.

The boy had no suspicion of danger, for Acte, though surprised not to
have heard from Onesimus, did not know that her purpose had failed in
consequence of the levity and folly of her foster-brother. The face
of the young prince was radiant, for his heart was full of peace.
His whole soul seemed to be expanded by the larger horizons which had
opened before him since he had learnt about the truths and promises
of the new faith. The light of the dawn, which shone for him upon
the distant hills, seemed to shed its rays even upon the evil and
troubled world. He maintained a pleasant talk, broken by many a happy
and innocent laugh. His peril had been mercifully hidden from him,
and on the previous night he had had a dream so happy, and so unlike
anything which he had imagined as possible, that he hardly knew how
to tell it to Titus and Clemens, who sat on either side of him.

In his dream he had seemed to himself to be sinking to sleep amid
strains of melody more tender than any which he had ever heard. And,
while his soul was thus lapped in Elysium, a winged youth, whose face
looked pure as the flowers of spring, and whose wings were coloured
like the rainbow, had come to him and offered him his choice between
purple with a diadem, and a white robe with a wreath of lilies.
He had chosen the white robe, and with a radiant smile the Vision
dropped on the ground the purple robe, and Britannicus saw that it
was rent with dagger-thrusts and stained with blood. Then the youth
had taken Britannicus by the hand and led him through a vale of fire
unhurt into a pleasant land beyond. Bright hands had there clothed
him in the robe of shining white, and had placed the wreath of lilies
round his hair. After that he looked up, and on every side of him
were clouds of light, full of glittering faces; and two other winged
youths grasped him by the hands, and led him along a vista of light
towards a throne, which looked like a sapphire; but, before he
could see who sat thereon, he awoke in such an ecstasy that he lay
quivering with joy till the music and the fragrance died away. Never
in all his life had he experienced such unutterable blessedness, and
it seemed to him as if he could never be unhappy again.

But while Britannicus was thus supremely happy the lord of the
banquet was miserable. How could he be happy? On one side of him
reclined his mother, once so passionately fond of him, now bitter,
furious, and sarcastic--a woman whose life was poisoned by the
disappointment of her ambition. On the other side of him reclined his
wife, Octavia, young, beautiful, not unaccomplished, but to him cold
as death. He could buy the venal love of as many as he chose, but he
could command no love that was not either purchasable or shameful.
The fires of Tartarus were burning on the altar of his Penates, and
his own heart was smouldering with secret crimes, which could only be
shared with the most villainous or the most despicable of mankind.

And of all the guests how few were even tolerably happy, except one
or two of the boys at the table of Britannicus! Under that thin film
of iridescence what abysses of misery filled the Stygian pool of the
society which lay beneath!

       *       *       *       *       *

Among the guests that night was the young king Herod Agrippa II. He
sat in a conspicuous position at the highest table. As a boy he had
been at Rome, but this was the first time that he had been present
at any public gathering for many years. He had only just arrived on a
mission from Palestine. He had inherited Chalcis, the little kingdom
of his uncle Herod, but he was anxious to add to this domain the city
of Tiberias and part of Galilee, where Herod Antipas had ruled, and
this year the Emperor granted his wish. Nero had entrusted him to
the care of Gallio, with whom he was eagerly conversing in Greek,
and whom he overwhelmed with multitudes of questions. They spoke low,
and, as they reclined at the banquet side by side, there was little
chance of their being overheard, though their conversation was often
of that kind which was the more interesting from its being somewhat
dangerous.

‘How gay Cæsar’s guests must be,’ said Agrippa; ‘they are all smiles!’

‘It is with many of them the fixed smile of a mask,’ said Gallio.
‘They smile to hide their misery.’

It was necessary for the success of Agrippa’s mission that he should
stand well at Rome, and know something about the chief members of
Roman society. He therefore asked Gallio the names and history of
some of the guests. We will follow his pointed fingers, and perhaps
the answers of Gallio may enable us to realise something more of the
condition of things in pagan Rome. For Gallio did not spare a single
reputation. He did not require to invent. Malignity had no need to
search with candles. She only had to tell the truth, and there were
few guests there whose reputation did not wither at her breath.

Agrippa first wanted to know something about the ladies who were
present, and Gallio drew caustic sketches of Poppæa, on whom Nero’s
eyes were constantly fastened, and of Calvia Crispinilla. Agrippa’s
attention was next attracted by Domitia Lepida, whose _tutulus_, or
conical head-dress, it was the exclusive task of a slave-maiden to
adorn.

‘That lady,’ said Gallio, ‘is the Emperor’s aunt. She used to neglect
him, but now that he is Emperor she worships the very ground on which
he treads.’

‘And who is that lady in the sea-green Coan dress whose hair seems to
be powdered with gold dust?’

‘That is Junia Silana, nominally a bosom friend of Agrippina, really
her deadliest enemy. Observe that lady near her, whose grey hairs
are so elaborately dyed, and her cheeks so thickly rouged, and who is
dressed with such juvenility. She is Ælia Catella. Would you believe
that, though she is nearly eighty, she still dances?’

‘O tempora! O mores!’ said Agrippa. ‘That exclamation sufficed for
Cicero a hundred years ago; but he would want stronger expletives
now.’

‘I will give you Horace for your Cicero. Did he not sing--

    ‘“What has not cankering Time made worse?
        Viler than grandsires, sires beget
      Ourselves, yet baser, soon to curse
        The world with offspring baser yet.”’


‘Is there _no_ honest and virtuous woman here?’ asked the young king.

Gallio pointed a little mockingly to the king’s sister, the beautiful
Berenice, who had come with him to Rome. She was now twenty-six,
but had lost none of her voluptuous loveliness. In her ears were
earrings, each formed of three orient pearls, and the famous diamond
on her finger--a gem of priceless value, her brother’s gift--blazed
conspicuously at every movement of her hand.

Agrippa blushed and bit his lips; and Gallio always courteous, added
with seriousness, ‘There are some, but not many. My brother, Seneca,
is not complimentary to the ladies. He speaks of them as “animal
impudens, ferum, cupiditatum incontinens,”[61] which is, to say the
least, ungrateful of him, for our mother, Helvia, was perfect; and
our aunt, Marcia, gained him his earliest honours; and his own wife,
Paulina--she sits there--is one of the Roman matrons who almost
deserve the obsolete epitaph, “She stayed at home; she spun wool.”
I think, however, that Seneca exaggerates the number of the ladies,
who, he says, count the years not by the consuls, but by the number
of their divorced husbands.’[62]

‘Point me to another such lady as Paulina,’ said Agrippa.

‘There is one,’ answered Gallio, bending his head towards the Empress
Octavia; ‘and there is another.’ He pointed to a lady dressed simply
in a white stola beneath a light-blue palla, who wore no jewels
except the cameos which fastened the loops of her sleeve. It was
Antistia, the wife of Antistius Verus, the daughter of Rubellius
Plautus. ‘Antistia,’ said Gallio[*7] ‘is as pure and devoted a lady
as you could find anywhere. There, too, sits Servilia, daughter of
Barea Soranus; and yonder is Arria, wife of Pætus Thrasea. Pomponia
Græcina, wife of Aulus Plautius, is the sweetest and noblest matron
in Rome; but she avoids Court society, and she is not here. Nor is
Claudia, the fairest of maidens, the daughter of King Caractacus.’

‘And who is that handsome and venerable old man at the second table?’

‘The handsome and venerable old man--his name is Domitius Afer--is,
I am sorry to say, a handsome and venerable old scoundrel. He is, or
rather was, the greatest orator of his day--as the Emperor Tiberius
said, a born orator, _suo jure disertus_. But he has been neither
more nor less than an informer, and one of bad character. He
would have lost his head under Caligula, but he pretended to be so
thunderstruck and overwhelmed by the mad Emperor’s eloquence that
he not only saved his life but rose into high favour. But it is time
for him to leave off making speeches. Whenever he attempts a great
oration now, half his hearers laugh and the other half blush.’

‘And the young man near him?’

‘King,’ said Gallio, ‘I shall begin to think that you are a
physiognomist, and are picking out some of the worst persons present.
That is another informer; his name is M. Aquillius Regulus. He is
a fortune-hunter as well as an informer. He has earned by infamy a
fortune of sixty million sesterces. I had better tell you at once
that there are several of them nearly as bad. That brazen-faced man
is Suilius Nerulinus, who helped Messalina to ruin Valerius Asiaticus.
He was convicted of taking bribes as a judge even in the reign of
Tiberius. And, worst of the whole company, there is Eprius Marcellus,
a splendid orator, but a man, as you see, of savage countenance,
whose eyes flash their fiercest flame, and whose voice rolls its
loudest thunder, when he is denouncing any person of special virtue.’

‘Well,’ said Agrippa, ‘unless I am tiring your courtesy I will turn
to another table. Who is that extremely stout personage with a red
face, bushy eyebrows, and apoplectic neck, who is devouring his
dainties with such brutal voracity?’

‘He is a very distinguished person named Vitellius, chiefly
distinguished, however, for eating and drinking. He is descended
from a cobbler and a cook. He began his childhood with Tiberius at
Capreæ. His father set up golden statues of the freedmen Narcissus
and Pallas among his household gods, by which merit he won a statue
on the rostra. Our friend then turned charioteer to please Gaius,
gambler to please Claudius, and has now curried favour with Nero by
urging him to sing. His domestic history is not amiable. He had by
his first wife a son named Petronianus, to whom she left her wealth.
Vitellius made him drink a cup of poison, which he says that the
youth had prepared for _him_.’

‘I shall begin to believe,’ said Agrippa, ‘that the Greek sage was
right when he said, “Most men are bad.” Why, Berytus would not show
more dubious characters--nor even Jerusalem.’

‘But there are some honest men,’ said Gallio, ‘as well as virtuous
women. Burrus is fairly honest; Fenius Rufus is indifferently
honest; Pætus Thrasea is honest, though in these days even he has to
dissemble; Helvidius Priscus, Barea Soranus, and Arulenus Rusticus,
friends of Thrasea, are as honest as the day. So is that old man
Lucius Saturninus, who, strange to say, in spite of his worth, has
reached the age of ninety-three without being either killed or
banished.’

‘I will only ask you one more name. Who is the man to whom Domitius
Afer is talking?’

‘His name is Fabricius Veiento. At present he is only known as the
editor of a book called “_Codicilli_,” which is immensely popular and
is bringing him in a fortune. It is composed of the spiciest libels
against every senator of note whom he ventures to attack. He has
found that one secret of getting rich is to pander to the appetite
for scandal, and half the people who are talking so fast around us
are whispering stories which he has discovered or invented for them.’

At this moment their conversation was rudely interrupted.



CHAPTER XXVII

_DEATH IN THE GOBLET_

    ‘Fratrum, conjugum, parentum neces, alia solita parentibus
    ausi.’--TAC. _Hist._ v. 3.


A cry rang through the banquet-room!

It was the cry of Titus. Every guest started as if a thunderbolt had
fallen. In that guilty time, when obscene wings flapped about so many
gilded roofs, when the sword dangled by a hair over so many noble
heads, when foes cut throats by a whisper, when any day might expose
a man to denunciation for imaginary crimes by one of the slaves
whom he regarded as his natural enemies, any sudden movement, any
unexpected event, was enough to drive the blood from the blanching
cheek. But when such a cry--so wild, so startling--rang over the
tumultuous sounds of an imperial banquet, they knew not whether the
very earth was not about to open beneath their feet.

What had happened?

Britannicus, as we have said, was in no alarm that evening. Of all
times and places it seemed the least likely to attempt his poisoning.
The fact that at this feast he had his appointed _prægustator_, and
that two deaths would terribly reveal a crime, was, he thought, a
sufficient safeguard.

But these were the very reasons why Tigellinus had arranged that
Nero’s desire for his brother’s murder should be carried out that
night. He fancied that no one would suspect Nero of choosing a scene
of such festive splendour and unusual publicity for a crime so dark.

The ingenuity of wickedness easily got over the difficulty about
the _prægustator_. This man was one of the smooth, civil, plausible
wretches who abounded at that epoch. He was a Greek slave named
Syneros, trained in the worst vices and ready to sell his soul at any
time for a few sestertia. He handed to Britannicus a myrrhine goblet
filled with some mulled Falernian, which he tasted first. It had been
purposely made so hot that no one could drink it. The prince gave
it back, and told Syneros to put some cold water to it. The slave
did so, and into that cold water--which he had hidden in a vial of
Alexandrian glass behind one of the coolers full of snow--had been
already dropped the deadly potion which Locusta had given to Nero.

Britannicus drank it unsuspectingly, and Titus had taken it up and
drunk a little, when his eye caught sight of Britannicus, and with
the cry which had alarmed those three hundred guests he had dropped
the myrrhine vase, crashing it to shivers on the mosaic floor.

For Britannicus had scarcely finished his draught when with one
wild look he clutched the arm of Titus, and then, half supported
by Clemens, sank speechless and breathless from his seat. It seemed
as if in one instant the swift poison had pervaded all his limbs.
His last conscious thought had been for another. Titus remembered
with undying gratitude, that the clutch upon his arm had saved his
life. He felt sure that with one and the same flash of intuition
Britannicus had recognised that the draught was poisoned, and had
tried to prevent Titus from drinking it.

But when the guests turned their eyes to the table where the young
prince was sitting they saw the terror-stricken look on the faces
of Titus and the other boys, and Flavius Clemens supporting in his
arms the white and convulsed form of the son of Claudius. At that
spectacle many of them leapt from their couches, and even began to
fly in different directions. Who could tell what charges of plots
might be founded on such an incident, and who might be involved in
them? But those who were more familiar with the mysteries of the
Court, though they had started to their feet, stood rooted in their
places with their eyes fixed on Nero, waiting for some sign to guide
or reassure them.

And then Nero showed the consummate coolness of villainy which
could hardly have been expected from so young a murderer. He was
short-sighted, but he could very well guess what had happened,
and he had his little speech ready prepared. Indeed, he had been
repeating it over to himself while he vainly endeavoured to get up
a conversation with his mother or his wife. Putting his emerald to
his eye,[63] he raised himself on one elbow from his soft mass of
cushions, and said, amid the dead silence--

‘Oh, I see what is the matter. My brother Britannicus, poor boy,
has been afflicted from childhood with the comitial disease. His
epileptic fit will soon be over, and all his senses will return. Pray
resume your places, my friends. Do not let the mirth of the banquet
be disturbed by this little accident.’

Agrippina was in a ferment of alarm. She could scarcely believe her
ears. That ready lie about the epilepsy! She knew--and many of the
guests knew--that Britannicus was a fine strong lad, who had never
had an epileptic attack in his life. One thing only could have
happened. Britannicus, in whom rested the last hopes of her vengeance
and her ambition, must have been poisoned by his brother. Infernal
gods! was it possible? Could this have been the deed of that youth
whom it seemed but yesterday that she had clasped to her bosom as a
lovely, rosy, smiling child? Panic, consternation seized her. ‘How
long,’ she thought, ‘will he abstain from the prophesied murder
of me, his mother?’ She panted; she shuddered in every limb; she
required all her efforts not to faint; she grew white and red by
turns, and those who were watching her saw the cup of wine which
she seized shake so violently in her trembling hand that she spilled
half its contents over her bosom.

‘She, at least, is as innocent of this as Octavia herself,’ whispered
Seneca to Burrus. ‘But, oh! horror! where will these things end?’

Octavia looked as though she had been turned to marble. She spoke no
word; she made no sign. Agrippina had tried in vain to prevent her
speaking countenance from betraying the violence of her emotions; but
Octavia, young as she still was, and little more than a child, had
been taught from her earliest years to hide her emotions under a mask
of impassibility; and, indeed, the blow which had thus fallen upon
her was beyond her power to realise. The awful grief struck her dumb.
One shrinking motion, one stifled scream, and she reclined there
as though she were dead--as pale and as motionless, seeing nothing,
hearing nothing, conscious of nothing, her white cheek looking all
the more ghastly from the crimson roses which circled her dark
tresses and fell twining over her fair neck.

But how should the mirth of the banquet be resumed? The stereotyped
smile on the features of Seneca looked like a grin of anguish.
The brow of Pætus Thrasea was dark as a thunder-cloud. Clemens
and several of the prince’s boyish friends were weeping audibly
and uncontrollably, while Titus, already feeling ill as well as
terrified, was sobbing with his head on the table. Nero himself in
vain attempted a fitful hilarity, which could wake no echo among
guests of whom many--

   ‘Like the Ithacensian suitors of old time,
    Stared with great eyes, and laughed with alien lips,
    And knew not what they meant.’


So dense a cloud fell over their minds that it was a relief to all
when, without waiting for the termination of the banquet, Nero
dismissed his guests, availing himself of the excuse that the
comitial disease had always been regarded as an evil omen, and that,
though he hoped his brother’s attack would prove but slight, he saw
how deeply it had affected the spirits of his friends.

They had come to that superb feast in pride and gaiety; they hurried
home in horror and alarm.



CHAPTER XXVIII

_THE LAST OF THE CLAUDII_

              ‘Tu quoque extinctus jaces
    Deflende nobis semper, infelix puer,
    Modo sidus orbis, columen Augustæ domus,
    Britannice.’

                                SENECA, _Octavia_.


The poor young prince was carried by the slaves to his cubiculum. The
poison had been like a dagger-thrust; but he was not quite dead. He
lay at first unconscious, his breast heaving with irregular spasmodic
sighs. Acte stole into his chamber, wept over him, strove to revive
him, and, if possible, to assuage his pangs. It was too late. He did
not recognise her. The moment he could escape from the triclinium
Titus came, and found the slave-boy Epictetus sitting at the foot
of the couch, with his head covered. ‘He yet lives,’ said the boy,
raising for one moment a cheek down which, in spite of every Stoic
lesson, the tears chased each other fast. Titus sat down by his
friend, called his name, clasped his hand, and wailed aloud without
restraint. One almost imperceptible pressure of the hand proved
that there was an instant recognition. A Christian slave had
secretly brought Linus into the room, which was easy in so numerous
a household; and bending over him Linus sprinkled his brow with pure
water, raising up his eyes and his hands to heaven. None present
knew what it meant; but Britannicus knew. A lambent smile lit his
features for a moment, like the last gleam of a fading sunset, for
he understood that he had been baptised.

It was the last conscious impression of his young life. The moment
that the banquet ended, Octavia, still in her splendid apparel,
hurried wildly to the chamber. It was a chamber of death. Already
the incense was burning, already the cypress had been placed before
the Propylæa of the Palatine. The boy lay there, silent, noble,
beautiful, pale as a statue carved in alabaster; and Octavia
disburdened the long-pent agony of repression in such a storm of
weeping that her attendants tried to lead her away. But she tore
off her jewels, and flung her arms round the corpse of her brother,
and laid her head upon his breast, and sobbed aloud. Father, mother,
brother, her first young and noble lover, Silanus--all who had ever
loved and cared for her were gone. He was the last of all his race.
The last male Claudius, whose line was derived through that long and
splendid ancestry of well-nigh seven hundred years, was lying before
her on that lowly bed!

He was to be buried that very night, as though he had been a pauper
and not the noblest boy of an imperial aristocracy. There was
something fatally suspicious in the rapidity with which every
preparation was made.

The obolus for Charon was put under his tongue; the fair young body
was arrayed in its finest robe, was laid on a bier, and was carried
to the vestibule with its feet towards the door; and as it lay there
Titus brought in his hand a wreath of lilies, which he had begged
from the keeper of the exotic flowers, and placed it on the innocent
forehead of his friend. He turned away with the words, which could
scarcely make their way through sobs, ‘Farewell! forever farewell!’
But he never forgot that boyish affection; and long years after, when
he was Emperor, he placed in the Palace a statue of Britannicus in
gold, and at solemn processions he had an equestrian statuette of
ivory carried before him which represented the young prince whose
love to him had been far truer and closer than that of his own
brother.

Only for one instant did Nero venture to look on his handiwork. He
came into the vestibule in his festal robes, his eyes heavy, the
garland still on his dishevelled hair, accompanied by Tigellinus
and Senecio.

‘I suppose he died in the fit?’ he said to one of the slaves.

‘He breathed his last,’ answered the man, ‘within an hour of being
carried from the feast.’

Something disquieted Nero. Furtively pointing his finger towards the
dead boy, he said something to Tigellinus.

‘A little chalk will set that right,’ whispered Tigellinus in reply,
and he gave an order into the ear of his confidential slave. Leave
the corpse a moment,’ he said aloud to the attendants; ‘the Emperor
wishes to take a last look at his brother.’

The slave of Tigellinus brought a piece of chalk; and Nero, with his
own hand, chalked over some livid patches on the dead boy’s face,
which already betrayed the horrible virulence of the poison.

‘Why linger in the charnel-house?’ said Senecio affectedly. ‘Cæsar,
may we not have some more wine to refresh our sorrow?’

They turned away, and, before they were outside the hall, a light
laugh woke a shuddering echo along the fretted roof.

The bearers were on the point of lifting the bier when Agrippina
entered. The dullest of the spectators could see that there was
nothing feigned in her anguish as she wept and tore her hair. She
grieved for Britannicus, whom she had so irreparably wronged, but
hers was a wild and selfish grief, the grief of rage and frustrated
purposes. She had built upon this boy’s life to keep her son in
terror of her influence. She saw now of what crimes Nero had already
become capable. He who in so brief a space had developed into a
fratricide, how long would it be ere he would spare the life of an
obnoxious mother? She felt, even then, in a bitterness of soul which
could not be expressed, that even-handed justice was commending the
ingredients of the poisoned chalice to her own lips.

The obsequies were not only disgracefully hurried, but disgracefully
mean. Every ceremony which marked a great public funeral was omitted.
There were no lictors dressed in black; no _siticines_ with mourning
strains; nor _præficæ_, or wailing women; no _lessus_, or funeral
dirge. Happily too, as some thought, there were not the customary
buffoons, nor the _archimimus_ to imitate the words and actions of
the deceased. Though he was the noblest of the noble, no liberated
slaves walked before his bier, nor men who wore the waxen images
of his long line of ancestors. No relations followed him--men with
veiled heads, women with unbound tresses. Many a freedman, even many
a slave, had a longer funeral procession than the last of the Claudii.

They bore him to his funeral amid storms of rain, which seemed to
betoken the wrath of Heaven. The spectators were few, but those few
saw by the struggling light of their lanterns that where the rain had
washed off the chalk the pale face was marked with patches of black.
They saw this, and pointed it out to one another in silence.

The last offices were paid in haste by the drenched and
half-frightened attendants. The body was laid on the small rough
pyre. Julius Densus was there, and Pudens, and Titus, and Flavius
Clemens. Nero had not the grace to be present. With averted face
Pudens thrust in the torch. The rain had damped the wood, and at
first it would not kindle, but they threw oil and resin into it. At
last it blazed up; the body was consumed: the glowing embers were
quenched with wine. A handful of white ashes in a silver urn, a sad
memory in a few loving hearts, were all that remained on earth of
the poisoned son of an emperor of Rome.

But, when all were gone, a few Christians stole from under the dense
shadow of the trees in that lonely spot, and bowed their heads in
prayer, and sang a low hymn. And among them was he whose hand of
blessing had rested on the young prince’s head, and whose voice of
prophecy had foretold his doom.

And to Pomponia Græcina and her husband, and to Pudens, Claudia,
Titus, Epictetus, and one or two faithful slaves, the world was
poorer than before; but in the heart of the hapless Octavia there
was a void which on earth could never be filled up. And her heart
would haply have broken altogether but for the consolations which
she received from Pomponia, and from Tryphæna, her Christian slave.
For Pomponia had received a letter from Ephesus, where, at that time,
Paul of Tarsus was labouring; and the friend who wrote it told her
something of Paul’s teaching respecting the resurrection of the dead.
One passage in particular, which this friend quoted to her, rang in
her memory: ‘It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption;
it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in
weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is
raised a spiritual body.’ And so, as there remained for Octavia less
and less hope of any joy on earth, glimpses were opened to her more
and more of a hope beyond the grave. And one passage in particular
from one of the old Jewish books, which Linus had pointed out to
Pomponia, seemed to her more lovely than any fragment of lyric song,
and constantly woke a sweet echo in her thoughts. It was--

   ‘Thy dead men shall live; together with my dead body shall
   they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for
   thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall bring
   to life her shades.’



CHAPTER XXIX

_AGRIPPINA AT BAY_

    ‘Caritas quæ est inter natos et parentes dirimi nisi
    detestabili scelere non potest.’--CIC. _Læl._ viii. § 28.


There were some who thought it an unparalleled tragedy that
Britannicus should not only have died so young, but also at a
banquet, and so suddenly, and by the hand of a bitter enemy, and
under his very eyes. There were few in the Pagan world who realised
the truth that he who needed their shuddering pity was not the boy
who perished, but the youth who murdered him.

At first Nero was alarmed by what he had done. He thought that he
would be haunted by the manes of the wronged Britannicus. He shunned
Octavia, and if he met her was forced to avert his glance. He faced
his mother with shy moroseness. He never dared to sleep alone. The
sound of a shaken leaf terrified him. A thunderstorm, which happened
a few days later, drove him into a paroxysm of terror, during which,
like Gaius before him, he hid himself under a bed, and sent for the
skin of a seal as a fancied protection against the flame of heaven.

But it was not thus that he was to feel the wrath of God. The doom
was past, but the punishment deferred. The most terrible part of his
retribution was that he was let alone to fill to the brim the cup
of his iniquity. Sin was to be to him the punishment of sin, and the
avenging scourge was put into the hand of his own vices. The first
fearful crime which he had committed ought to have lit up his dark
conscience with its fierce, unnatural, revealing glare. It did so for
a moment, but only to leave him in deeper darkness. His moral sense
was hardened to a still deadlier callosity, until he developed into
the execration of mankind.

What helped him to this rapid obduracy was the vileness and hypocrisy
of the world around him.

The death of Britannicus had to be announced to the Senate. The eyes
of Nero had to weep crocodile tears, and the pen of Seneca to be
employed in venal falsities. No one could doubt the hand of Seneca in
the elegant pathos of the sentence which told the Conscript Fathers
that deaths so immature as that of Britannicus were subjects of such
bitter grief that his funeral had been hurried over in accordance
with the ancestral custom which forbade the protraction of anguish
by public oration or funeral obsequies.

‘I have lost the aid of my brother,’ continued the specious oration
which Nero learnt by heart; ‘no hopes are left to me save in the
commonwealth. A prince like myself, who is now the sole survivor of
a family born to the supremest dignity, needs all the love and all
the help of the Senate and the people.’

Even the semblance of sorrow was abandoned almost before the cypress
had been moved from the doors of the Palatine. Nero was anxious to
implicate others as far as possible in the frightful responsibility
which he had himself incurred. Britannicus had left a considerable
heritage in houses, villas, and personal possessions, which
had come to him from his father and mother. Nero, who as yet
had not squandered a treasure which might well have been deemed
inexhaustible, had no need of these things, and was eager to get
rid of them. He therefore distributed them among leading senators,
giving a pleasant villa to Seneca and a town house to Burrus. He
thought that gifts would serve as a sort of hush-money, and both
statesmen felt with inward anguish that they were the price of blood.
Seneca was specially humiliated. He knew what men thought and said
of him in secret, and his own conscience could not accept the facile
excuse that it would have been fatal to refuse a largesse which was
meant to bind his destiny irrevocably with that of the guilty Emperor.
He thanked Nero for his munificence, and acted as if nothing had
happened. Yet the inward voice spoke to him with unmistakable
clearness. He called himself a Stoic: he wrote grand eulogies of
virtue and simplicity. Ought he to have entered the magic circle of
a court steeped in licentiousness and blood? Ought he to have yielded
to the avarice which made his usury so notorious? Would Pætus Thrasea
have accepted gifts intended to screen complicity with murder? Would
such gifts have been offered to the modest poverty of Cornutus or
Musonius? or, if so, would they not have faced exile or death rather
than accept them? Conscience worked so painfully that he could not
induce himself to visit the villa which had been presented to him on
the death of Britannicus. ‘Alas!’ he moaned sadly to himself in the
watches of the night, ‘it is a _viscosum beneficium_,--a kindness
smeared with birdlime.’

But the great mass of the Roman world, lying as it did in wickedness,
was pleased rather than otherwise to hear of the death--which
they all knew to have been the murder--of the son of Claudius. The
horrors of the civil wars were still vivid in many recollections, and
knowing that rival princes rarely lived in concord, they hailed with
satisfaction the bold iniquity which had succeeded in ridding them
of a nightmare of the future. The story of the murder of a young and
innocent prince, the only son of their late deified Emperor, sounded
rather ugly, no doubt; but did not nine-tenths of them expose their
own superfluous children? Had not Claudius himself exposed the infant
of his wife Petina? And what was death? Was it not a dreamless sleep,
which anyone might be glad to exchange for the present state of
things, and which many of them would probably seek by suicide?

And why should Nero trouble himself any more about a death which
scarcely caused so much as a ripple on the bitter and stagnant pool
of Roman society? On the contrary he and all Rome felt a glow of
conscious virtue when, a few days later, an order was given to
execute a knight, named Antonius, as a poisoner, and publicly to burn
his poisons. When Locusta heard that fact she smiled grimly. But what
had she to fear?

There was one breast in which the earthquake of excitement, caused
by the murder of Britannicus, did not soon subside. Octavia, in
the depth of her anguish, had known where to find something of
consolation. Not so Agrippina. To her also Nero had offered presents,
which she refused with disdainful sullenness. Her soul was full of
madness. Was she to be totally defeated by the slight, contemptible
son on whom she had built all her hopes?

Not without a struggle would she abandon the power which it had been
the object of her life to attain, and the fabric of which she had
with her own hand shattered to the dust.

Suddenly as the Nemesis had come upon her, she would not yet admit
herself to be defeated. She was rich; she would be yet richer. She
had friends, and she held many a secret interview with them. Octavia
might still become in her hands an engine for political purposes,
and Agrippina constantly embraced and consoled her. Every tribune
and centurion who attended her levées was received with extreme
graciousness. She paid her court to all the nobles of high birth and
promising ability. She thought that even now it was not too late to
create a conspiracy, and put a fitting leader at the head of it.

But all her efforts were broken like foam on the rock of the
Emperor’s deified autocracy and the unscrupulous wickedness of the
favourites by whom he was surrounded. At the suggestion of Otho and
Tigellinus, Nero dealt blow after blow at the dignity of his mother.
One day she no longer saw the two lictors who attended her litter,
and was told that they had been discharged by the Emperor. Soon
afterwards she missed the accustomed escort of soldiers who guarded
her chambers, and heard with sinking heart that they had been
removed. Worst of all, she was suddenly deprived of the body-guard
of tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired Germans, to whom she had grown
attached, and who were the most splendid outward sign of her imperial
station. And, as though all this were not enough, at last the final
thunderbolt was launched. She received a message from her son that he
had assigned to her, as her residence, the house of his grandmother
Antonia. She was dismissed from the Palace in which so many of her
years had been spent in order that the courtiers who thronged the
audience-hall of the Emperor might have no excuse for paying their
respects at the same time to her.

Her feelings, as she left the chambers of the Palatine for a private
residence, must be imagined rather than described. Her heart was too
dry for tears. She felt humiliated to the very dust, and tasted the
bitterness of a thousand deaths. All hope of re-establishing her
empire over the heart of her son was gone. Thenceforth he scarcely
saw her. If he came to visit her, he came, as though to evidence his
distrust, amid a throng of soldiers and centurions, did not speak
to her in private, and departed after a cold, hurried, and formal
interview.

She felt how poisonous was the fruit of ambition by which she had
been allured. Her power had never been more than the pale reflection
of the imperial despotism, and after her breach with Nero it crumbled
to ashes.

From that moment she felt that the coloured bubble of her life had
burst. Never had she been so wretched. Her exile at Pandataria had
been but brief, and she was then young, and she had many schemes
on hand, and might hope for immeasurable success. But now her last
arrow had sped from the string, and had fallen useless to the ground.
The cold shadow of her son’s displeasure blighted her whole being.
She--in whose honour coins had been struck; in whose name decrees
had run; under whose auspices colonies had been founded; to whom
kings and governors had once made their appeal, and for whose
ambition kingdoms had been too small--suddenly found she was nothing
and nobody. Even such a creature as Calvia Crispinilla had more
influence, and was more sought after than she. The house of Antonia,
in which she lived, was shunned like a lazar-house by all who wished
to stand well with Nero. No one visited her, no one consoled her, no
one helped to dissipate her weariness. The only exceptions were a few
ladies whom she knew too well to trust. They did not come to see her
out of affection, but because they hated her, and liked to annoy her
with the cold curiosity of an insulting pity. Among these was Junia
Silana. In old days she had been a bosom-friend of the Augusta, but
the ostensible friendship gave ample opportunity for feline amenities
on both sides. Junia had been the wife of the handsome Silius, who
had fallen a victim to the love of Messalina. In her early widowhood
she had been sought in marriage by Sextius Africanus, but Agrippina,
not wishing to see him made too powerful by the ample wealth of the
childless Silana, had confidentially dissuaded him from the marriage,
by telling him that Silana was a woman of dissolute character, and
was now getting on in years. The secret had reached the ears of
Silana, and while openly she continued to speak of her ‘sweetest and
dearest Agrippina,’ she vowed an exemplary revenge.

And now that the time seemed ripe, she matured her plans.

It would be useless to trump up the old charges that Agrippina
mourned the murder of Britannicus, or spread abroad the wrongs of
Octavia. She determined to devise something entirely new, and to
charge Agrippina with the design of marrying and forming a conspiracy
with Rubellius Plautus, who, like Nero, was, on the mother’s side, a
great-great-grandson of the deified Augustus. Silana sent two of her
freedmen, Iturius and Calvisius, with this intelligence to Atimetus,
a freedman of Domitia, Nero’s aunt. Atimetus had once been a
fellow-slave with Paris. He went to his old friend, and urged him
to go at once to Nero, and to denounce the supposed plot with all
his consummate vehemence and skill.

The actor was not naturally a villain, but he had been trained in an
abominable school, and had erased the words ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’
from his vocabulary as completely as most of his contemporaries.
That night, at a late hour, he hurried to the Emperor, not in the
glittering dress which usually set off his perfect beauty, but in
dark and disordered array. His familiarity with Nero procured him
at all times a ready entrance into the Palace. He found the Emperor
still carousing amid his favourites, and he was received with a burst
of welcome by the flushed and full-fed guests.

‘Now this is good of you, Paris,’ said Nero. ‘You alone were wanting
to our mirth. Come, brim this crystal vase with our best Falernian,
and then let us see a spectacle which would thrill the Muses and the
Graces even if Apollo were with them. But--can this be Paris?--our
bright, gay, lovely Paris? Why, what is the matter?’

‘Matter enough,’ said Paris, in such accents of woe, and with such
a flood of tears, that the guests could not help weeping with him.
‘Dare I speak, Cæsar?’

‘Tell us all,’ said Nero, raising himself on his elbow in agitation.
‘What has happened? Have the legions revolted? Is the prætorium in an
uproar?’

‘Not yet,’ said Paris; ‘but--Agrippina--’

‘Ha!’ said Nero. ‘Go on’--for the actor’s voice seemed to be
speechless with emotion.

‘Agrippina--and--Rubellius Plautus--’

Nero was listening with painful interest; and, pretending to recover
himself with a great effort, Paris told them the fictitious plot,
and succeeded in rousing the Emperor to such a pitch of terror that
he started from his couch and tore his hair.

‘Agrippina shall die!’ he exclaimed; ‘and Rubellius Plautus shall
die. Here, give me my tablets. Despatch instant orders for their
arrest and execution. And send for Burrus--no! he is the creature of
my mother; she made him Prætorian Præfect. My foster-brother Cæcina
Tuscus shall command the Prætorians, and Burrus shall die. Quick,
quick, send for Seneca; not a moment is to be lost!’

Late as was the hour, one of the centurions on guard was despatched
to the Palace of Seneca. He was reading the ‘Republic’ of Plato to
his wife, Paulina, and his friend Fabius Rusticus, after a frugal
supper in a modestly furnished room. When the slave announced that
he was summoned by soldiers from the Palace, Paulina and Rusticus
grew deadly pale; and Seneca, though he strove to conceal his emotion,
trembled in every limb. He ordered the centurion to be admitted, and,
striving to conceal the agitation of his voice, asked if he knew why
the Emperor desired his presence at so late an hour. The centurion
did not know, but said that the Emperor seemed to be alarmed about
something, and needed the advice of his minister. Seneca demanded
his toga, and hastened to the Palace. Nero told him what Paris had
disclosed. He did not believe in the reality of the plot, but in
those days anything was possible. He, however, pledged his own life
on the fidelity of Burrus, and urged the Emperor to summon him into
his presence. Burrus came, and listened gravely.

‘It is a serious matter,’ he said, ‘to order the execution of anyone
without allowing an opportunity for defence. It would be still more
serious to execute without a trial an Augusta, and your own mother.’

‘Think again,’ said Nero. ‘Rubellius Plautus has the blood of the
Cæsars in his veins, and my mother is capable of anything to get
power.’

‘I need not think again,’ answered Burrus, bluntly. ‘When once I have
made up my mind, I do not alter it.’

Nero frowned, but Burrus only added: ‘There are no accusers. You are
relying on the sole voice of Paris, a freedman of a hostile family,
and you have only heard his story late at night during a drinking
bout. Surely the life of even a common citizen ought not to be sworn
away so cheaply, much less the life of an Empress.’

Nero, sobered by the gravity of these considerations, still kept a
sullen silence; but Burrus would not yield.

‘Cæsar, we will examine her at earliest dawn. If we find her guilty
she shall die.’

By this time the Emperor’s terror had exhausted itself, and he was
weary. Agrippina’s residence was surrounded with a guard, and at
daylight Seneca and Burrus went together to question her. They were
accompanied by a number of Nero’s most trusted freedmen, who were to
report the trial, and to act as spies both on the ministers and the
Augusta.

To be summoned from her sleep into such a presence--to see her house
surrounded with soldiers--to be aware that some unknown crisis of
the utmost gravity was at hand, might well have shaken the strongest
nerves. But, in spite of the horror of this unknown mystery, the
indomitable woman swept into the presence of the two statesmen with a
demeanour not only undaunted, but conspicuously haughty. The soldier
and the philosopher rose at her entrance, and the freedmen bowed low.
The freedmen she did not deign to notice, but slightly inclined her
head as she motioned the two ministers to be seated, and herself sat
down on a stately chair covered with purple cushions.

‘And now,’ she said, ‘as this seems to be a solemn audience, I
am informed that the Emperor has sent you two, and these other--
persons’--glancing at the freedmen--‘to speak with me. What may be
my son’s pleasure?’

‘Augusta,’ said Burrus in his sternest tones, ‘this is, as you have
said, a serious occasion; you are accused of nothing short of high
treason.’

The charge in days like those was awful enough to have forced back
the blood into her heart, and for one instant she felt as if the
solid earth were about to yawn beneath her feet. But in that instant
she rallied all the forces of her nature. She looked, indeed, pale as
a statue, but not the faintest tremor was perceptible in her accents
as she exclaimed in a tone of the most freezing irony,--

‘Indeed? _I_ am accused? and of high treason?’

‘You are accused,’ said Burrus, ‘of desiring to form a party among
the legionaries to raise Rubellius Plautus to the throne and then to
marry him.’

Agrippina’s only answer was a scornful laugh.

‘Poor Rubellius Plautus! the “golden sheep” of my brother Gaius!’

‘You will find it no matter for laughter. The Emperor is seriously
alarmed,’ said Burrus.

‘I have no other answer to an accusation so ridiculous.’

‘The Augusta has not been so careful as she might have been,’ said
Seneca, in his mildest manner. ‘Those frequent secret meetings with
her friends; that courting of senators of influence; those attentions
to military personages; those open complaints about the children of
Claudius, have aroused suspicion.’

Agrippina turned upon the speaker her flashing glance, and he quailed
beneath it. ‘Is this your philosophic gratitude?’ she said. ‘But for
me, you might have been dying of malaria in Corsica; and you, Burrus,
might have remained a tenth-rate tribune.’

‘We are but obeying the Emperor’s behests,’ said Burrus, in a less
threatening tone.

‘And, pray, who are my accusers?’

‘Late last night this charge was laid before the Emperor by Paris--’

‘By Paris!’ said Agrippina, in tones of crushing scorn. ‘Paris is
an actor, a buffoon, a pantomime, a thing of infamy whom I scarcely
brook to name. Pray, go on.’

‘He had been sent by Atimetus, the freedman of Domitia.’

‘Domitia--and her slave concubine!’ said Agrippina. ‘Of him I deign
no word; but she--what has she been doing all these years? While I
was arranging the adoption of Nero, his marriage with Octavia, his
promotion to the proconsular dignity, his nomination as a future
Consul, all that led to his imperial elevation--what was _she_ doing?
Improving her fishponds! And now she wants to rob me of my Nero,
and for that purpose gets up a pantomime with her paramour and her
dancer! Pray, is that all?’

‘The sources of the information were Iturius and Calvisius.’

‘Iturius and Calvisius!--ex-slaves, spendthrifts, debauchees, the
scum of the earth, who want to repair their squalid bankruptcies by
the gain of turning informers. They are nobodies; poor pieces on the
draughts-board. Who moved them?’

‘Junia Silana.’

‘Junia Silana! Ah! now I understand it all--the whole vile plot from
beginning to end! Silana--false wife, false friend, evil woman--what
does she know of the sacredness of motherhood? Children cannot be got
rid of by their mother so easily as lovers are by an adulteress. So!
I am to be branded with the fictitious infamy of parricide, and Nero
with its actual guilt, that two broken-down freedmen may repay their
debts to the old woman their mistress?

‘And you, sirs,’ she said, raising herself to the full height of her
stature, ‘ought you not to blush for the sorry part you have played?
Instead of repaying me the gratitude which you owe to one who
recalled you, Seneca, from your disgraceful exile, and raised
you, Burrus, from the dust--instead of making the Emperor ashamed
of attaching a feather’s-weight of importance to this paralytic
comedy of pantomimes, scoundrels, and rancorous old women--you have
encouraged him to try and humiliate me! I am ashamed of you,’ she
cried, with the imperious gesture which had often made bold men
tremble; ‘for as for these--gentlemen’--and she glanced at the
freedmen--‘they, of course, must do as they are bid. And so, _such_
are my accusers! Who will bear witness that I have ever tampered
with the city cohorts? who that I have intrigued in the provinces?
who that I have bribed one slave or one freedman? They charge me
with mourning for the death of Britannicus. Why, had Britannicus
become emperor, whose head would have fallen sooner than that of
his mother’s enemy and his own? And Rubellius Plautus--if he were
emperor--would he be able for a single month to protect me from
accusers who, alas! would be able to charge me, not with the
incautious freedom of a mother’s indignant utterance, but with deeds
from which I can be absolved by no one but that son for whose sake
they were committed.’

For one moment her nature broke down under the rush of her emotion,
and her glowing cheek was bathed in tears; but, recovering herself
before she could dash the tears aside, she repudiated the awkward
attempts at consolation offered by her judges, who themselves were
deeply moved.

‘Enough!’ she said. ‘Sirs, I have done with you. By the claims of
the innocent and the calumniated, if not by the rights of a mother, I
demand an interview with my son this very day--this very hour.’

While yet the two ministers, and even the freedmen--in spite of the
open scorn which she had manifested towards them--were under the
spell of her powerful ascendency, they declared to Nero her complete
innocence of the charges laid against her. Relieved from his alarm,
Nero came to her. Receiving him with calm dignity, she said not a
word about her innocence, which she chose to assume as a matter of
course; not a word about the gratitude which he owed to her, lest
she should seem to be casting it in his teeth. She only begged
for rewards for her friends, and the punishment of her defeated
adversaries. Nero was unable to resist her demands. Silana was
banished from Italy; Calvisius and Iturius were expelled from Rome;
Atimetus was executed. Paris alone was spared, because he was too
dear to the Emperor to permit of his being punished. The men for
whom Agrippina asked favours were men of honour. Fænius Rufus was
made commissioner of the corn market; Arruntius Stella was made
superintendent of the games which Nero was preparing to exhibit;
the learned Balbillus was made governor of Egypt. Nero was intensely
jealous of Rubellius Plautus, but his hour had not yet come.

It was the last flash of Agrippina’s dying power, and it encouraged a
few to visit her once more. One or two independent senators, pitying
her misfortunes, came to salute her, and some of the Roman matrons.
Yet among these women there was not one whom she could either respect
or trust. She had sinned so deeply in her days of power that women
like the younger Arria, wife of Pætus Thrasea, and Servilia, the
daughter of Barea Soranus, and Sextia, the mother of Antistius Vetus,
held aloof from her. Paulina, the wife of Seneca, cordially disliked
her, and the Vestal Virgins had never lent her the countenance of
their private friendship.

But one noble lady came to her, who had never paid her the least
court in the days of her splendour. It was Pomponia Græcina. She
came on the evening of that memorable trial, and found the Empress
prostrate with the reaction which followed the tumultuous passion
of the scenes through which she had passed. She lay on her couch
an object for even her enemies to pity. The strong, imperial,
ambitious princess was utterly broken down in her--only the weeping,
broken-hearted woman remained. In spite of her apparent victory, her
life, and all its aims, and all it held dear, lay in ruins around
her. Even hope was gone. What remained for her but remorse, and
anguish, and the cup of humiliation, and the agonising recollection
of a brilliant past which she had herself destroyed? There were no
loyal friends around her. No children’s faces smiled upon her. There
was no brother, or sister, or daughter to comfort her. Those to whom
she had been a benefactress either felt no gratitude, or did not dare
to show it, or deemed that she had forfeited it by crimes. Homeless,
desolate, unloved, left like a stranded wreck by the ebbing tide upon
a naked shore, she lay there weeping like a child. Oh! that she had
been innocent, like her own mother--like one or two whom she had
known;--but, alas! she could only look back upon a life of guilt,
flecked here and there with blood which nothing could wash out. And
now the Retribution which she had doubted and defied--the Retribution
which had been stealing with silent footstep behind her--had broken
upon her crowned with fire, and had smitten her into the dust with a
blow from which she never could uprise.

And while her head burned and throbbed, and her veins seemed to be
full of liquid flame, and ghosts of those who had perished by her
machinations glimmered upon her haunted imagination in the deepening
gloom, her lady in waiting, Acerronia, came to announce a visitor.

‘Did I not say that I would see no one else to-day?’ said Agrippina,
wearily. ‘I am worn out, and fain would sleep.’

‘It is Pomponia Græcina. She told the janitor that though you might
not see others who belong to the Court, perhaps you would see her.’

‘Yes; I will see _her_. She is not like the rest of them. She is
sincere, and her presence is like balm.’

Pomponia entered, and could scarcely believe that the lady who lay
there, with her dress disregarded, her face haggard and stricken, her
eyes dim, her cheeks stained with tears, her hair dishevelled, and,
as Pomponia thought, of a perceptibly greyer tinge than when she
had seen her last--was indeed the once magnificent and all-powerful
Augusta.

An impulse of pity overcame her, and she knelt down by the couch of
the unhappy Empress, who pressed her fevered lips to her cheeks, and
then wept uncontrollably with her head on Pomponia’s shoulder.

The two ladies presented a strange contrast, not only in their
dress, but in their entire aspect. Agrippina was still arrayed in
the magnificent robes in which she had received her son, and which,
irksome as they were, she had been too weary to lay aside. Pomponia
was in the dark mourning dress which she had worn for so many
years since the death of the friend of her childhood, Julia, the
grand-daughter of Tiberius and mother of Rubellius Plautus. The
tresses of Agrippina, though disarranged, showed the elaborate
care of the ornatrix. Pomponia wore her dark hair, now beginning to
silver, in the simplest bands, and without an ornament. But the chief
difference was in their faces. Pride and cruel determination, as well
as calamity, had left their marks on the noble lineaments of the
daughter of Germanicus; over the calm face of the wife of Plautius it
was evident that the shadows of many a sorrow had been cast, but the
sorrow was irradiated by hope and gladness, and in her eyes was the
sweet light of the Peace of God.

‘Augusta,’ she said, ‘I have come to congratulate you on the defeat
of a nefarious conspiracy. I thought I should find you happier after
many trials. Pardon me if I have thrust myself too presumptuously
upon your sorrow.’

‘Not so,’ said Agrippina. ‘You are always welcome; and more so now
than ever. You sought me not in my hour of prosperity. No one would
come to me in my hour of ruin who did not wish me well.’

‘It is not, I trust, an hour of ruin. The plot against you has been
ignominiously defeated. You may have many happy days in store.’

‘Nay, Pomponia; happiness can never be linked again with the name
of Agrippina. It is a dream. I did not find it in the days of my
splendour; it is little likely that I should find it when all desert
me and I am brought low. I know no one who is happy. We are the
slaves and playthings of a horrible destiny, which is blind and
pitiless and irresistible. Are you happy?’

‘Yes, Augusta, I am happy, though hardly, perhaps, in the sense you
mean. To me, as to all of us, life has brought bitter trials. These
dark robes tell of the loss of one whom I loved as my own soul, and
even at this moment I am threatened with terrible calamity--perhaps
with exile, perhaps with death. On all sides, there are terrors and
anxieties, and the state of society seems to portend catastrophe and
the vengeance of heaven, for wickedness can hardly go to any greater
lengths than now. Yet I am happy.’

‘Oh, that you would give me your secret!’ said the Empress. ‘I can
read character; I can detect the accents of sincerity. These words of
yours are no pompous and hollow Stoic paradox.’

Pomponia hesitated. The woman before her was, as she well knew,
steeped in crime from her childhood. Of what avail would it be,
without any of the evangelic preparation, to tell her of Jesus and
the Resurrection? Could there be the remotest possibility of exciting
in her mind anything but contempt by telling her at that moment of
the Cross which was to the Romans something between a horror and a
jest?

‘Agrippina,’ she answered, ‘the day may come when I may tell you more
of the strange secret. It is not mine only; it is meant for all the
world. But it cannot be attained, it cannot be approached, without
humility and repentance for wrong-doing, and the love of virtue, and
of something higher than virtue, and the lifting to heaven of holy
hands.’

‘Alas!’ said Agrippina; ‘you speak to me in a strange language. The
Greek tragedians are always telling us that when blood has fallen to
the ground it has fallen for ever. Can wrong be atoned for? Can guilt
be washed away?’

‘It can,’ said Pomponia, gently; and she longed to speak the words
which lingered in her memory from the letter of Peter of Bethsaida--
‘Redeemed ... with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and
without spot, even the blood of Christ.’ But to Agrippina they would
at that time have been simply meaningless.

‘I have heard of the mysteries,’ said the Empress, ‘and of the
taurobolies. Would it be of any avail if I too were to crouch in a
hollow, and let the blood of a bull which has been sacrificed to the
gods drop over me?’

‘It would not,’ said Pomponia. ‘God does not require of us things so
revolting, nor any mere external ceremonies and superstitions. What
that sacred and supreme Majesty requires of us is innocence alone.[64]
Can you not pray to Him, Augusta? You have read Homer, and you know
how the old poet sings about _Atè_, and the _Litai_, the Prayers
which follow in her path.’

‘Atè? Ah! I know that fearful deity,’ groaned Agrippina. ‘She is the
Fury Megæra. I have seen her petrifying face turned towards me. She
is the Harpy Celæno. I have often heard her in the banquet-halls of
the Palatine, and thought of Phineus and his polluted feasts. But
the Prayers--will you not repeat me the lines, Pomponia?’

Pomponia repeated the famous lines of the old bard of Chios:--

   ‘The gods (the only great and only wise)
    Are mov’d by offerings, vows, and sacrifice;
    Offending man their high commission wins,
    And daily prayers atone for daily sins.
    Prayers are Jove’s daughters of celestial race,
    Lame are their feet, and wrinkled is their face;
    With humble mien, and with dejected eyes
    Constant they follow, where Injustice flies.
    Who hears these daughters of almighty Jove,
    For him they mediate to the throne above;
    When man rejects the humble suit they make
    The Sire revenges for the daughters’ sake.’[65]

‘Alas! they have been strangers to me, those Prayers,’ said
Agrippina; ‘and though you have spoken truth to me, I see that
you have not told me all.’

‘There are times for all things,’ said Pomponia, as she rose to
leave; ‘and perhaps, if you will think of what we have said, the day
may come when you will be able to bear more. Farewell, Augusta; you
need rest and quiet. Pardon me if I have wearied you.’

‘Farewell, Pomponia,’ said the Empress; ‘you are good and true. Your
words have been to me as soft and pure as the falling snow. I know
not whether the Litai of whom Homer speaks may plead for us through
another.’

‘They may.’

‘Then will you ask them to say something which may avert the fury
of Atè from one who, to you, is not ashamed to confess that she is
wretched above all women?’

‘May you find peace!’ murmured the noble lady, as the Empress once
more kissed her, and pressed her to her heart. ‘All may find it who
seek it rightly from the Heavenly Powers.’



CHAPTER XXX

_A PRIVATE TRIAL_

   ‘Tanto vogl’io che vi sia manifesto,
      Pur che mia coscïenza non mi garra,
      Che alla fortuna, come vuol, son presto.’

                              DANTE, _Inf._ XV. 91-93.


Pomponia had incidentally mentioned to Agrippina that she was
threatened by a calamity, and it was indeed a serious one. It was
strange that one so retired in her mode of life, and so entirely free
from rancour and malice, should yet have been the butt of calumny.
Yet such was the case. It was the tribute which vice paid to virtue.
The base mob of Roman matrons avenged themselves on the chaste wife
of the conqueror of Britain for the involuntary shame which they felt
as they contrasted her life with theirs. Her constancy; her silence
amid the universal buzz and roar of gossip and spite; her aloofness
from the cliques and coteries of a scandalous society; her love of
good works; her discountenance of their loose talk and complicated
intrigues; her absence from the games and theatres; the simplicity
of her dress, her home, her manners, her hospitality; the calmness of
her temper, and even the sort of sacred beauty on which time seemed
to make no impression, made her an object of hatred to the Calvia
Crispinillas and the Ælia Catellas of the capital. Her presence among
them was like a perpetual reproach, and they determined, if possible,
to get rid of her. They would have said of her what the wicked say of
the righteous in the Book of Wisdom, that they would lie in wait for
her, because she was ‘clean contrary to their doings, and objected to
their infamy.’

But how was it to be done? Would it not be easy to set an informer
to work? Pomponia was wealthy, and since an informer got a grant
of a fourth part of the property of any one who was condemned on
his accusation, there were men who sat watching for their opportunity
like a crowd of obscene and greedy vultures. Aulus Plautius was a
person of distinction, and it might be dangerous to offend him; but
if an informer of the front rank, like the eloquent Eprius Marcellus,
could not be induced to undertake the risk, surely they might secure
the services of a Veiento, a Messallinus, or a Regulus. And as for
corroborative evidence of any charge, they thought that it could be
obtained with the utmost ease among the herd of dehumanised slaves
who thronged every considerable house. If they could not witness
to facts, they were first-rate hands at inventing fictions. If the
masters were a terror to their slaves, a slave might any day become
a terror to an obnoxious master. It was personally disagreeable
to tremble before beings who seemed so abject, but there was some
convenience in having such agents at hand for the ruin of an enemy.

But what charge could be brought against a lady so blameless as
Pomponia? To accuse her of conspiracy, or poisoning, or magic, would
sound too preposterous; and it would be impossible to find against
her the sort of evidence of evil manners which had amply sufficed
in old and even in recent days to confound a lady who was disliked.
The question was carefully discussed in a secret meeting of some of
the worst beldames of social distinction, and as it was clear that
Pomponia took no part in the public religious ceremonies, they agreed
to get her charged with being guilty of ‘a foreign superstition.’

The wretches whose business it was to work up a case of this kind,
and who were largely bribed to enable them to carry out their
designs, began secretly to worm their way on various pretexts into
the household of Plautius. Their success was smaller than their
hopes. They found that there was some peculiar element in that
_familia_. Many of the slaves and the few chief freedmen were
Christians, but the secret was faithfully kept. Danger made them
vigilant, and they had been carefully selected for worth and
character. The female slaves, without exception, were devoted to a
mistress who never addressed to them an unkind word, and who made
their lives a paradise of happiness when compared with those who
attended the toilettes of pagan ladies. The male slaves were no
less faithful to the heads of a household in which they were treated
with generosity and consideration. The spies of the informers could
scarcely find a slave in the whole family whom they could tempt to
drunkenness and indiscreet babbling. All that they could learn from
the gossip of the least worthy was that Pomponia did not burn incense
in the Lararium, or attend the temples. The informers had to content
themselves with these meagre facts, trusting to perjury and invention
to do the rest. Regulus undertook the case. The sound of his name was
sufficient to strike a chill into an innocent and honest heart, and
feeling certain of success, or, at the worst, of impunity, he laid
before the Emperor a public information that Pomponia Græcina was the
guilty votary of a foreign superstition.

The friends and relatives of Pomponia had heard rumours that some
attack of the kind was in contemplation; but in the days of the
Empire such rumours were rife, and they often came to nothing. When
the charge was published they were filled with consternation. They
knew that it mattered very little whether it was true or false. The
result would turn on the influences which had been brought to bear on
Nero. If Nero favoured the prosecution, Pomponia might be as innocent
as a new-born child, yet it was certain that she would be condemned.
One could commit no fault so slight but what Cæsar’s house might be
mixed up with it. Had not Julius Græcinus been put to death under
Gaius simply because he was too honest a man? Were not the wretched
little islets of Gyara and Tremerus crowded with illustrious and
innocent exiles? If beauty and wealth and imperial blood had not
saved the two Julias, or the two Agrippinas, what should save a lady
so alien from the common interests of Roman society as the wife of
Plautius?

One thing saved her.

Nothing had been more remote from her mind than any thought of
self-interest when she visited Agrippina. She had gone to see her
chiefly because she knew that the threshold, once thronged with
suitors and applicants, had now become so solitary, and because
an habitual sense of pity drew her to the side of the unfortunate.
Her sole object had been, if possible, to bring a little peace and
consolation to a sister-woman, whose dejection and misery could
only be measured by the height from which she had fallen. True that
Agrippina was guilty. True that every law of the moral world must
have been violated if impunity were granted her as the sequel of
so many and such various crimes. But there was nothing Pharisaic
in Pomponia’s heart. Familiar with sorrow, she was sensitive to
the influence of compassion, and she had learnt from the lips of
Christian teachers that there may be recovery and forgiveness even
for the most fallen. She had gone to the Empress with no desire but
to speak gentle and healing words.

Yet it was that little unnoticed impulse of natural kindness and
Christian charity which saved her fortunes, perhaps even her life.

For Regulus was rich, eloquent, unscrupulous, formidable; and
Nero was intensely timid and suspicious. The notion of a ‘foreign
superstition’ was mixed up with that of magic; and magic was supposed
to be chiefly practised for treasonable ends. If a panic were created
in Nero’s mind, it was certain that the feeble Senate would interpose
no barrier to his suggestions of punishment.

But at the moment of consternation in the heart of Pomponia’s
friends, Agrippina did one of the few good deeds of her unhappy life.
Availing herself of the momentary resuscitation of her influence, she
no sooner heard of the information laid against Pomponia, than she
wrote a letter to the Emperor strongly urging the innocence and
goodness of the wife of Plautius, and entreating him not to stain
with a deed of needless injustice the annals of his rule. Nero was
struck with his mother’s letter, and with the fact that she should
have taken the trouble to intercede for one who had never pretended
to pay court to her, and whose character was the antithesis of her
own. Octavia also ventured to say a few words of pleading earnestness
for her friend. Nero had as yet no grudge, either against Pomponia,
whose sombre robe was rarely visible in the Palace, or against her
brave, loyal, and simple-minded husband. On the other hand, he did
not like to check the activity of the informers. Domitian said in
after years, ‘The prince who does not check informers, encourages
them.’ Nero did not dream of checking them. Seneca, who was a friend
of Plautius, and who had been grieved by the news of this attack
upon one whom he and the ladies of his family highly esteemed,
suggested to Nero a way out of the difficulty. ‘Follow,’ he said,
‘the ancient custom, and permit Pomponia to be tried at home by her
husband, relatives, and friends.’

The Emperor accepted the suggestion, and the meeting of the domestic
tribunal was fixed to take place on the next nundine. When Pomponia
was told of the Emperor’s decision, she felt that her prayers had
been heard, and that her pardon was secured, although it was not
impossible that the trial might elicit painful secrets, which, for
the sake of others, she thought it her duty to conceal.

She asked Seneca himself to undertake her defence, and he gladly
assumed the task. Plautius sat in his own atrium, and had summoned
only those of his family whom he could trust. The evidence on which
the informers and their patrons relied was slight and negative, and
Seneca had no difficulty in tearing it to pieces. To the intense
relief and heartfelt gratitude of Pomponia, she was not definitely
charged with being a Christian. Indeed, that specific charge could
hardly be urged, because no proof was forthcoming. Regulus skilfully
made the most of old precedents. He told how, nearly a hundred years
ago, the Senate had decreed the destruction of the Temples of Isis
and Serapis (B.C. 46), and how Æmilius Paulus had been the first to
shatter the doors with an axe. He mentioned the stern dealings with
the Bacchanalians (B.C. 186). He told how (B.C. 139) the priests
of Sabazius had been driven from Rome. Referring to the days of the
Empire, he mentioned the edict of Claudius against the Jews, and
reminded Aulus that Tiberius had banished four thousand Jews to
Sardinia. He appealed triumphantly to the old law of the Twelve
Tables, ‘Let no one separately worship foreign gods.’ When the
accusers had mentioned every unfavourable circumstance, and when,
on the other hand, an abundance of testimony had been elicited to
prove the habitual purity and blamelessness of Pomponia’s life,
Seneca rose to argue for her honourable acquittal.

‘What was meant,’ he asked, ‘by a “foreign superstition”? Was the
worship of Isis a foreign superstition? Was the worship of the
Pessinuntian Cybele a foreign superstition? Was the worship of
Iaô--if that were the secret name of the deity--by the Jews a foreign
superstition? The State was entirely unconcerned with any of these
private beliefs. When, indeed, the votaries of any strange cult
were guilty of riotous, licentious, and dishonest conduct, they were
justly punished. Referring to the precedents quoted by Regulus, he
said that the priests of Isis had deserved the vengeance which fell
upon them for having betrayed the stupid credulity of a Roman lady.
The Jews, who had been guilty of cheating and embezzlement in the
matter of purple hangings for the Temple, were rightly punished.
Claudius had been justified in driving all the Jews from Rome when
they made tumults at the instigation of one Chrestus; but on the
other hand, Julius Cæsar had always been favourable to the Jews, and
Augustus had by public edict protected their Sabbath. The priests
of the Syrian goddess were for the most part worthless vagabonds,
and no one was sorry when they were detected and executed for their
nefarious practices. The State took no cognisance of opinions,
but only of evil practices. A Roman matron, by way of supposed
purification, had gone down to the wintry Tiber, had broken the ice,
had plunged into the freezing waters, and had crawled across the
Campus Martius with bleeding knees. In such acts we might see the
workings of a foreign superstition[*8]; but of no such act--of no
secret visit to the base temple of Serapis--of no dealings with
the mutilated priests of Cybele--of no lightings of lamps at Jewish
festivals, had Pomponia been guilty. And who, he asked, can allege
one immoral deed, one malefic practice against the noble wife of the
conqueror of Britain? Is it to her discredit that she differs from
so many of the noble ladies in Rome? Do we blame her or rather admire
her, that she has never betrayed a friend, or changed a husband, or
exposed an infant, or plundered a province, or ruined a reputation?
Is it to be her destruction that her life has ever been simple, and
her words sincere? Or is she to be banished because, through long
years, she has continued to mourn for a friend, when so many forget
their dearest relatives in less than a month? Cicero mourned the
death of a slave, though he was half ashamed of his sensibility;
Crassus wept for the death of a favourite lamprey. Is it a crime to
cherish a beloved memory? What evidence is there against Pomponia?
Have not her slaves, though Regulus has tampered with them, shown
themselves entirely faithful? And what wonder? Most of us treat our
slaves as though they were enemies--as though they could not claim
the rights of human beings. She has treated her slaves as men and
women like ourselves; as sharers of her home; as heirs with her of
the common slavery of life and death. She has asked their aid; she
has admitted them to festive tables; she has sought their love, and
not their fear. She has lived, as we should all live, like a member
of one great brotherhood, of which all are bound to mutual assistance.
She has done good in secret. In the midst of wealth she has been as
one who is poor. She has stretched her hand to the shipwrecked; shown
his path to the wanderer; divided her bread with the hungry; and has
been, as so few are, a friend to the distressed.

‘But she does not go to the theatre! Is that to be accounted a crime?
Rather let us erect a statue to a virtue which can still blush for
infamies at which so many women dare to be spectators. Is the licence
of the Fescennines, and the grossness of the Atellan plays, acted by
slaves whom the ancient laws branded with shame, a fit amusement for
pure matrons? If these be deemed tolerable, what shall be said of the
softer luxury, the subtler indecency, the more fascinating corruption
of the modern mimes? Instead of blaming Pomponia for not patronising
such spectacles, let us commend her example!

‘Or is it a sign of moroseness and alienation from the customs of her
country, that she is never to be seen among the multitudes of every
rank and age who gaze with frenzied delight at the gladiatorial
shows? Nay, she is to be applauded for shunning scenes so fatal to
true morality! It is shocking enough to see noble beasts ruthlessly
mangled, and once, at least, a cry of compassion has risen from
the dense throngs when they saw that frightful combat between five
hundred Gætulians and twenty elephants. But their compassion was
for the elephants![66] How much deeper is the compassion due to the
unhappy human beings whose carcases encrimson the white sands of the
amphitheatre! Augustus tried to check and limit this savagery. To
see men torn by wild beasts in the morning, and hacking each other
to pieces in the afternoon--and that as a mere amusement, to kill
the time--is simply degrading, however much custom may sanction
it. It is true that Cicero invented an excuse for his brutality
of pleasure, this delirium of homicide, by the absurd plea that it
stimulated courage. The courage of the tiger, which leaps with bare
breast on the hunter’s steel, exists in the lowest of the human race,
without the need for this bloody stimulus. Man should be to man a
sacred thing; the only result of gazing at such scenes is to destroy
this generous sense of a common humanity. It may be said that the
gladiators, or those who fight the wild beasts, are often criminals.
Be it so; but are _we_ criminals also? If not, why should we condemn
ourselves to the shame of gloating over the supreme agony and mystery
of death?

‘But Pomponia is charged with speaking as though there were but one
God. Well, do we not read even in the sacred poems of Orpheus--

    ‘“One God, one Hades, one Sun, and one Dionysus?”

Does not Varro, one of the most honoured of Roman writers,
distinguish carefully between the mythology of poets, the religion
of the commonwealth, and the beliefs of philosophers? It is true
that he deprecated the revelation of these truths to the multitude,
because there is no way to keep them in order but by illusions.
Yet scarcely an old woman or beardless boy in Rome really believes
in these fables; and it is a good thing that they do not. If they
attached genuine credence to the supposed deeds of this rabble of
gods, they would have patrons and examples of every lust and of
every crime. But they are dimly aware that Stator, Liber, Hercules,
Mercury, are but names or manifestations of one Divine Existence.
The mysteries are divulged; the oracles are dumb; and as the wailing
spirits cried to Epitherses thirty years ago as he sailed past the
promontory of Paludes, “Great Pan is dead.”[67]

‘A person, then, who can regard it as criminal to reject the popular
belief must be ignorant of all philosophy and all literature. Is any
one bound to suppose that there really is such a god as Panic; or
such goddesses as Muta, Febris, and Strenia? Are the Greek poets
to be condemned who have repeatedly spoken of one God? God is
everywhere. He is that without which nothing is. He comes to men;
He comes into men. No one is good without God. Pomponia’s character
alone is sufficient to prove that there is nothing harmful in her
belief. To the God who is near us, to the sacred Spirit who dwells
with us, the observer and guardian of all our evil and our good, she
has been supremely true. The image of the gods cannot be formed with
gold and silver, or such materials, but with the beauty and dignity
of human souls. God is best worshipped, not by sacrifices of bulls,
but by innocence and rectitude.

‘And you, O Aulus, you know what a wife Pomponia has been to you,
how chaste, how gentle, how faithful! How often have you found her
quietly spinning wool among her modest maidens, when other matrons
are sitting at riotous banquets, or gazing at dishonourable scenes!
How wisely and quietly has she managed your fortunes, and governed
your family! How true and tender she was as a mother to the little
boy whose immature death you wept, whose ashes are inurned in the
tomb of your house! How purely has she trained your youthful Aulus!
To whom save to her does he owe that beautiful mixture of manly
courage and virginal modesty which distinguishes him among the youth
of Rome? And will you, at the word of a vile informer actuated by
base greed, and set on by female rancour--will you desecrate the
shrine of your own household gods? Will you dishonour the fame of
your ancestors? Will you sever a union which has been to you so
fruitful of blessings? Remember how she smiled on you on the day
that you walked in proud ovation with Cæsar by your side! Remember
how she shared the toils, the hardships, the anxieties of your
campaigns in that far-off Thule, which was subdued by your valour!
Remember how by her sympathy she has diminished all your troubles,
and intensified all your joys! And will you hand over such a wife,
and such a mother--so gentle, so pure, so noble--to the fury of the
executioner? Will you see the sword flash down upon a head which has
often rested on your breast? Or will you coldly and sternly dismiss
your innocent and well-loved wife to end her days on some dreary
island-rock, amid the storms of Adria or the Tyrrhene Sea? Yours,
O Aulus, yours and not hers, will be the infamy; yours, not hers,
will be the loss! Not hers the shame--for no informer, and no
unjust condemnation can fix a stain upon the guiltless; not hers
the misery--for wherever she goes she will carry the God within her,
since in each one of us, as our great poet says,

    ‘“Some god is dwelling, though we know not who.”

You may banish her to Pontia or Pandataria, but everywhere she
will see the sunlight and the stars, and will feel that she is not
abandoned. When we enter a dense forest, we are struck with awe
at its huge tree-trunks, its spreading boughs, its dark shade, and
we feel that the Divine is there; when we enter some cavern in the
hills, we feel the presence of a Deity: but we feel it much more
when we see a brave and pure soul rising superior to the menaces of
calamity. Look at her, Aulus, where she sits. In her calmness, in
her fortitude, in the serene and tranquil beauty of a countenance on
which no vice has set its mark, see the living proof of her freedom
from all blame! Proclaim to Cæsar, to Regulus, to the society of
Rome, to all the world, that Pomponia has done or thought nothing
unworthy of the immortal gods, nothing unworthy of her ancestors,
of her husband, and of her home!’

Many a cry of applause had greeted Seneca, as he thus ventured to
pour forth, in the secrecy of a domestic tribunal, the thoughts
which he had often uttered to his friends, and even published in his
writings. He sat down amid a murmur of admiration, during which not a
few of the noblest of his auditors pressed round him with expressions
of warmest congratulation, and Amplias, the Christian freedman of
Pomponia, in a burst of enthusiasm, bent down and kissed his hand.
He was deeply gratified by the impression he had made, for when there
was nothing to arouse his fear or imperil his ambition, he felt a
genuine happiness in doing deeds of kindness. But he raised his hands
for silence while the assembly awaited the decision of those whom
Plautius had asked to be his assessors in the judgment.

They consulted together for a few moments, and then, amid the deepest
silence, Plautius rose. He was almost too much moved to speak. It
required all his Roman firmness and dignity to force back the tears
which were brimming in his eyes, and to control into steadiness the
voice which seemed ready to break; but he succeeded. Rising with
dignity, he said:

‘Friends and kinsmen, I have consulted with those who have shared
with me the responsibility of judgment. We are agreed. The evidence
is altogether worthless. Pomponia is innocent of anything hostile to
religion, or forbidden by the laws of Rome. Friends and kinsmen, I
thank you for your presence and your counsel, and I thank you most of
all, illustrious Seneca. I thank the Emperor, that he has spared us
the pain and anxiety of a public trial, and I shall announce to him,
and to all Rome, that Aulus Plautius will thank the gods, even till
death, that they have given him a wife so innocent, so noble, and so
chaste.’

Pomponia raised her eyes and her clasped hands to heaven in a
transport of gratitude, and as she did so a sudden burst of sunshine
streamed through the window, and glorified her face. The lambent
flame played over her hair, and lit up her features, and gave to
her calm beauty a heavenly radiance. This was regarded as a complete
justification of the sentence of acquittal, and a visible proof of
the divine favour. The hall resounded with acclamations, and Claudia,
who had been among the witnesses of the scene, flung herself into the
arms of Pomponia, who tenderly folded the fair British maiden to her
heart, while Pudens looked on with a happy smile.

And when Pomponia retired to her own room, she knelt down, and with
bowed head, and clasped hands, and outstretched arms, poured out her
thanks to Him who had been her protector in this most painful trial
of her life. She was a confessor and a martyr, in will if not in
deed; for though she had not been called upon to declare herself a
Christian, she had been prepared to do so if the question had been
put to her. When Plautius entered he found her praying, and as she
rose at his entrance he saw upon her features a beauty even brighter
than that which she had caught from the sunbeam which had shone upon
her in the hall.

‘My wife,’ he said to her very tenderly, as he kissed her. ‘I know
not what to think of thy beliefs. Thou hast not concealed from _me_
that thou art of this new sect. I know that men call it despicable
and execrated; but if it makes its votaries such as thou art, it is
more blessed and more potent than the worship of the gods of Rome.’

‘My Aulus,’ she answered, ‘I know well that as yet thou canst not
think with me. Yet thou, too, art dear to God, for thou hast felt
after Him if happily thou mightest find Him. Our teachers say that He
is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that seeketh
Him and doeth righteousness, as thou dost, is accepted of Him. Fear
not, my husband; in the next world, as in this, we shall be united,
for thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven.’



CHAPTER XXXI

_THE INTERIOR OF A SLAVE-PRISON_

    ‘Magnam rem sine dubio fecerimus si servulum infelicem in
    ergastulum miserimus.’--SENECA, _De Ira_, iii. 32.


We left Onesimus in a prison cell among the substructions of the
Palatine, his back sore with scourging, his soul torn with shame and
indignation. He cursed his folly, without repenting of his faults.
Once more he had thrown away every element of prosperity; and his
manner of looking on life was so entirely selfish that the source of
his self-reproach was rather the shipwreck of his chances than the
moral instability which had led to it. No news reached him in his
prison. It was not till his liberation that he learnt the fate of
Britannicus--a fate which, if he had continued steadfast in duty,
he might have averted or delayed.

He knew that he could not be restored to his trusted position as the
_servus a purpura_ of the Empress. He would lose that, and with it
lose all the flattery and gain which accrued so easily to the higher
slaves of Cæsar’s household. He doubted whether even Acte’s influence
could screen him from the consequences of an offense so deadly as
misconduct in the august presence of the imperial divinity. But he
felt a desperate pride and a morbid shame which made him determine
to conceal all traces of himself and his misdemeanour from Acte’s
knowledge.

His behaviour in prison was refractory, for the jailer had taken a
strong dislike to him, and delighted to humiliate this bird of finer
feather than those who usually came under his charge. He was quite
safe in doing so. There was little compassion in the breast of the
steward who managed the slaves, and rarely, if ever, did he take
the trouble to inquire how a prisoner was getting on, or whether
he was alive or dead. Amid blows and insults the heavy days dragged
on, and seemed interminable to the poor Phrygian youth. In the
desperation of idleness he tried to find some amusement from
scribbling with a nail on the plaster wall of his dungeon, and one
day, thinking of the drunken bout which had reduced him to this
level, he defiantly scrawled ‘When I am set free, I will drain every
wine-jar in the house.’[68]

‘Will you?’ said the jailer, who had entered unobserved as he
finished his scrawl. ‘You won’t have a chance just yet, my fine
friend.’

He gave Onesimus a blow with his whip, which made him writhe with
anguish, and said, ‘Thank Anubis, I shall be rid of you to-day. You
are sent to the slave-prison (_ergastulum_).’

‘Who sends me?’ asked Onesimus shuddering.

‘What’s that to you, _crucisalus_?’ said the slave, dealing him
another blow. ‘Oh you writhe, do you, my fine bird? What will you
do when the bulls’ hides rattle the _cottabus_ on your shoulders?’

What he said was true. That evening Onesimus was loaded with fetters
and taken into the country.

The sight of slaves in chains being hurried off to punishment was far
too familiar to excite much notice in the streets of Rome, but it was
torture to Onesimus to be thus exposed to the gaze and jeers of idle
passers-by. He felt a painful dread lest any of his friends--above
all, lest Acte, or Pudens, or Titus, or Junia--should see him in this
wretched and disgraceful guise. No one, however, saw him, and that
evening he was safely lodged in the slave-jail attached to Nero’s
villa at Antium.

The slave-jail was a perfect hell on earth. It presented the
spectacle of human beings in their worst aspect, entirely dehumanised
by despair and misery. The slaves who were imprisoned there were
treated like wild beasts, and became no better than wild beasts,
with less of rage but more of malice and foulness. They worked in
chains, and were driven to work with scourges. Torture and starvation
were the sole methods of government. They were a herd of wretches
clothed in rags, ill-fed, untended, unpitied, passing their days
and nights under filthy conditions and in pestilential air, hateful
and hating one another. Some of them were men half mad and wholly
untameable, who could not be depended upon except so far as they were
coerced by violence. Others were pure barbarians, only speaking a few
words of any intelligible language, and therefore useless in a town
_familia_. Others were criminals only exempted from death because of
the value of their labour. Some of them knew that there was little
chance of their being taken thence, unless it were to be crucified,
and that when death released them, their bodies would be carelessly
flung to rot amid the seething abominations of the corpse-pits
(_puticuli_) like that which Onesimus had once seen in Rome near
the Esquiline hill.

The only slaves who retained any vestige of decency and self-respect
in these seething masses of human misery and degradation, were those
who found themselves denizens of an _ergastulum_ for a short period,
at the caprice of a master or mistress. The experience was so
terrible that it cowed the most contumacious into trembling servility.
A few came there for no real fault, who were far less guilty of
any misdoing than the owners who subjected them to this dreaded
punishment. Sometimes a page or favourite who had been tempted to
speak pertly in consequence of too much petting, or a youth who had
been goaded into rebellion by the intolerable tyranny of a freedman,
or a slave whose blood had been turned into flame by some atrocious
wrong, learnt forever the hopelessness of his condition, and the
abjectness of his servitude, by being sent there for a week or even
for a month. Emerging from that den of despair, a human being felt
the conviction enter like iron into his soul, that slaves were not
men, and had none of the rights of men; and that, unless they wished
to throw away their lives altogether, no complaisance to an owner
could be too abject, and nothing must be considered criminal which
an owner required of his human chattel.

Oaths, and curses, and the lowest abysses of vileness in human
conduct, and that blackness of darkness which follows the extinction
of the last spark of humanity in the soul of man, and the clanking
of fetters all day long, and the shrieks of the tortured, and the
yelling of the scourged, and jests more horrible than weeping, and
the manifold leprosies of all moral and physical disease--all this
Onesimus had to witness, and had to endure, in the slave-jail at
Antium. We have read what prisons were before the days of Howard;
what penal settlements and convict ships were forty years ago; but
men trained in the most rudimentary principles of Christianity could
not, under the worst circumstances, sink quite so low, or be so
wholly beyond the sphere of pity, as the offscourings of pagan
slavery, the scum of the misery of all nations, huddled into these
abodes of death.

It was soon whispered among the wretches there that the handsome
Phrygian youth had been high in place among the attendants of
Octavia, and had been favoured and promoted by Acte. In their
baseness they exulted at his humiliation, and the extent to which
his soul revolted from their malice happily helped to preserve
him from the contamination which would have been involved in their
friendliness. He lived from day to day in the sullen silence of an
indomitable purpose. He did not know how long he would be kept there.
He waited a month, sustained by fierce resolve, and then determined
that, at the cost of life itself--even if it should end in feeding
the crows upon a cross--he would attempt his escape. He knew that he
had many foes among the struggling envies of Cæsar’s palace, and he
suspected that Nero’s _dispensator_ purposely intended to forget him,
and to leave him there to rot.

After a few days he was left comparatively unmolested by his
companions in misfortune, for there was no amusement to be got out
of his savage taciturnity. Once, when one of the ruder denizens had
tried to molest him, Onesimus struck him so furious a blow with his
fettered hands that he was looked upon as dangerous. As he glanced
round at the degraded ugliness of the majority of the prisoners,
whose faces only varied in degrees of villany, he had less than no
desire to join their society. He saw but one on whom he could look
with any pleasure, or from whom he could hope for any sympathy. This
was a young man of honest and pleasant countenance, whose name, he
learnt, was Hermas, and who bore himself under his misfortunes with
sweetness and dignity. Like Onesimus, he seemed to find his only
relief in the strenuous performance of the tasks allotted to him by
the _ergastularius_, and as Onesimus watched him he felt convinced
that he was there for no crime, and also that he was a Christian.

His conjecture was turned into a certainty by an accident. One day,
as Hermas was digging the stubborn soil, something dropped out of the
fold of his dress. He snatched it up hastily and in confusion, and
seemed relieved when he noticed that no one but Onesimus had seen
him. But the quick eyes of the Phrygian had observed that what he
dropped was a tiny fish rudely fashioned in glass, on which had
been painted the one word CΩCΙC, ‘May’st thou save!’ They were not
uncommon among Christians, and some of them have been found in the
catacombs.

The fettered slaves were taken out in gangs every morning under the
guardianship of armed drivers, whose whips enforced diligence, and
whose swords protected them from assault. The refractory were soon
reduced to discipline, but those who worked diligently were not often
tormented. In the various works of tillage, Onesimus, hampered though
he was by his intolerable manacles, found some outlet for his pent-up
anguish and hard remorse. But no one can live without some human
intercourse, and one day, when Hermas was working beside him, and
none of the rest were near, Onesimus glanced up at him and said the
one word Ἰχθὺς, ‘Fish.’

Quick as lightning came the whispered answer Ἰχθύδιον, ‘a little
fish,’ by which Hermas meant to imply that he was a weak and humble
Christian.

‘And you?’ he asked. ‘Are you one of us?’

Onesimus sadly shook his head. ‘Perhaps I was, or might have been, a
Christian once.’

‘Have you been illuminated and fallen away, unhappy one?’

‘Ask me no more,’ said Onesimus. ‘I am a lost wretch.’

‘The Good Shepherd,’ said Hermas, ‘came to seek and save the lost.’

‘It[*9] is vain to talk to me,’ said Onesimus. ‘Tell me of yourself.
You are not a criminal, or a madman, or a barbarian, like these.’

‘Talk not of them with scorn,’ said Hermas. ‘Are they worse than the
harlots and sinners whose friend Christ was?’

Onesimus would not talk of Christ. ‘I never saw you,’ he said, ‘in
Cæsar’s household.’

‘No,’ said Hermas; ‘I was the slave of Pedanius Secundus, the city
Præfect. He has no rustic prison, and, being a friend of Nero, he
asked his freedman to get leave to send me here.’

‘But why?’

‘He bade me do what I could not do. Seeing that I was strong
and vigorous, he wanted me to marry one of his slave-girls. The
worshippers of the gods know nothing of what marriage means. I
loved a Christian maiden; I refused the union with a girl of evil
character, who, being beautiful, had been the victim of Pedanius
already. He scourged me; he tortured me; he threatened to fling me
into his fish-ponds; and, when I still held out, he sent me here.’

‘Is there no escape from this horrible place?’

‘When you go in again, look round you, and see how hopeless is the
attempt. The ergastulum is half subterranean. Its windows are narrow,
and high above our heads. If we attempted to escape, the least noise
would wake the jailers, and some of these around us would be the
first to curry favour by helping to defeat our plan.’

‘Is bribery useless?’

‘Even if I could get the money, I do not think it right to bribe.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I think that Christ means us to endure all He sends. I
trust in Him. If He sends me hunger, I bear it. If He casts me down,
I believe that in due time He will lift me up. If He suffers me to be
sent to prison, I try to turn the prison into His Temple. But I feel
sure that He will deliver me--and that soon.’

Hermas was not wrong. His incarceration was short, because he was
one of the few slaves in the family of Pedanius whom the Præfect
could trust. Pedanius was a man whose cruel indifference and
imperious temper made him more than usually obnoxious to his slaves.
He lived in terror of them, and tried to avert danger by inspiring
terror into them. He could not do without Hermas. He did not know
that he was a Christian; but he knew that in other houses besides
his own there had recently sprung up a class of slaves honest and
faithful, and that Hermas was one of them. He married his slave-girl
to another youth, and Hermas was set free.

And then Onesimus, seeing that every other method of escape was
impossible, tried the effects of bribery. He had managed, though
with infinite difficulty, to conceal the gold piece which Octavia
had given him, and he had noted that one of the underlings of the
prison-keeper seemed to be not unkindly disposed to him. He was a man
named Croto, chosen for the office because his stalwart proportions
and herculean strength would make him formidable to any unruly slave;
but there was a certain rough honesty and kindliness in his face
which made Onesimus think that he might move his compassion.

Seizing his opportunity one day, as Croto passed him in the field, he
boldly whispered,

‘Croto, if I gave you an _aureus_, would you swear to let me have a
chance to escape?’

Croto looked long and hard at his beautiful face, and walked on
without a word. But as he returned from his rounds he touched him,
and said,

‘Yes; I pity you. You are not like the rest of this herd of swine.
Such things as an escape have happened ere now, and no one is the
wiser. Masters don’t care to ask many questions.’

‘I will trust you,’ said Onesimus; and tearing the _aureus_ from the
hem of his dark serge dress, he slipped it into Croto’s hand.

‘Keep awake to-night. The two who guard the door shall be drunk.
Get up a disturbance after midnight; be near the door, and when it
opens-- The plan may fail, but it is the only chance I can give you.’

Onesimus pointed in despair to the fetters on his feet.

‘When a slave has shown himself quiet and reasonable, they are
sometimes removed; and yours shall be. But the manacles on your
wrists must remain; they are never removed at night.’

Onesimus made his plans. At the dead of night, when the prison
was plunged in darkness--for oil was much too dear to be wasted
on chained slaves--he raised a great outcry, as though he had been
suddenly attacked. The slaves sprang up from their pallets, heavy
and confused with sleep. But Onesimus had all his senses on the alert,
and by violently pushing one, jostling against another, and striking
a third, he soon had the whole place in a tumultuous uproar of rage
and panic, during which he quietly crouched down beside the door. It
was opened by the sleepy and drunken guardians, to find the cause of
the disturbance, and, before they could be reinforced by their more
sober colleagues, Onesimus dashed the lamp out of the hand of one
of them, tripped up the other, and ran to hide himself in the dark
corner of an adjacent street, behind the Temple of Fortune. He
succeeded, though with great pain, in forcing one hand free from
the chain; and hiding the other, with the manacle which dangled from
it, under his sleeve, he determined, at the first gleam of light, to
try and find some assembly of Christians. He knew that it was their
custom to meet at earliest dawn in secret places--generally, if
possible, the secluded entrance to some sand-pit--to sing hymns to
Christ as God, before the slumbering pagan population began to stir.
He was fortunate, for soon, with senses preternaturally quickened
by peril, he heard at no great distance the faint sound of a hymn.
He made his way towards the spot, and concealed himself till the
congregation should break up. He knew that the last to leave was
generally the Presbyter; and, waiting for him, he called him as he
passed.

The Presbyter started, and said, ‘Who goes there?’

Onesimus stepped out of his hiding-place, and said, ‘Oh, for the love
of Christ, help me to get free from this chain!’

‘Thou usest the language of a Christian,’ said the Presbyter, ‘but
thy chain would prove thee a fugitive or a criminal.’

‘I have erred,’ said Onesimus; ‘but I am not a criminal.’

The Presbyter fixed on him a long and troubled look.

‘Thou hast adjured me,’ he said, ‘in the name of Christ: I dare not
refuse. But neither must I, for thy sake, imperil the brethren. Hide
thyself again. I will send my son, Stephanus, to file thy chain, and
then thou must depart. If thou hast erred, may Christ forgive thee!’

It was not many minutes before the young man came, and, without a
word, filed the thinnest part of the manacle till Onesimus was free.

‘Peace be with thee, brother!’ said Stephanus. ‘Men begin to stir.
Thou wilt be in danger. We dare not shelter thee. It were best to
hide here till nightfall. Food shall be brought thee.’

Onesimus saw that the advice was good. Search might be made for
him; but Antium was a large place, and the sand-pit might escape
observation. It was so; bread and water were left near his
hiding-place, and at night he made his way to Gaieta, which was
twenty miles away from Antium.



CHAPTER XXXII

_WANDERINGS OF AN OUTCAST_

        ‘Matrisque Deum chorus intrat, et ingens
    Semivir, obscæno facies reverenda minori,

       *       *       *       *       *

    Jam pridem cui rauca cohors, cui tympana cedunt
    Plebeia, et Phrygia vestitur bucca tiara.’

                                  JUV. _Sat._ vi. 511.


Onesimus was still in evil case. Everywhere he was looked upon with
suspicious eyes. The mass of the population felt an aversion for
fugitive slaves, and such, at the first glance, they conjectured him
to be. His dress was a slave’s dress--he had no means of changing
it--and his hand still bore the bruises of the manacle. There was
nothing for him to do but to beg his way, and he rarely got anything
but scraps of food which barely sufficed to keep body and soul
together. In those days there had long been visible that sure sign
of national decadence,

          ‘Wealth, a monster gorged
    ‘Mid starving populations.’

‘Huge estates,’ says Pliny, ‘ruined Italy.’ Along the roads villas
were visible here and there, among umbrageous groves of elm and
chestnut, and their owners, to whom belonged the land for miles
around, often did not visit these villas once in a year. Onesimus
would gladly have laboured, but labour was a drug in the market.
The old honest race of Roman farmers, who ate their beans and bacon
in peace and plenty by fount and stream, and who each enlisted the
services of a few free labourers and their sons, had almost entirely
disappeared. The fields were tilled by gangs of slaves, whose only
home was often an ergastulum, and who worked in chains. Luxury
surrounded itself with hordes of superfluous and vicious ministers;
but these were mainly purchased from foreign slave-markets, and a
slave who had already been in service was regarded as a _veterator_,
up to every trick and villany--for otherwise no master would have
parted with him. A good, honest, sober, well-behaved slave, on whose
fidelity and love a master could trust, was regarded as a treasure;
and happy were the nobles or wealthy knights and burghers who
possessed a few such slaves to rid them from the terror of being
surrounded by thieves and secret foes. But how was Onesimus, now for
a second time a fugitive, to find his way again into any honourable
household? As he thought of the fair lot which might have befallen
him, he sat down by the dusty road and wept. He was hungry, and in
rags. Life lay wasted and disgraced behind him, while the prospect
of the future was full of despair and shame. He was a prodigal among
the swine in a far country, and no man gave him even the husks to eat.

Misery after misery assailed him. One night as he slept under a
plane tree in the open air the wolves came down from the neighbouring
hills, and he only saved his life from their hungry rage by the
agility with which he climbed the tree. One day as he came near a
villa to beg for bread he was taken for a spy of bandits. The slaves
set a fierce Molossian dog upon him, and he would have been torn to
pieces if he had not dropped on all fours, and confronted the dog
with such a shout that the Molossus started back, and Onesimus had
time to dash a huge stone against his snarling teeth, which drove him
howling away.

For one who thus wandered through the country there were abundant
proofs of the wretchedness and wickedness of the lower classes
of Pagan life. He observed one day the blackened ruins of a large
farm-house with its ricks and cattle-sheds, and not far from it he
saw the white skeleton of a man chained to the hollow trunk of an
aged fig-tree. The spot seemed to be shunned by all human beings,
as though the curse of God were upon it. Onesimus was wandering
curiously about it, and trying to appease his hunger with a few
ears of corn from one of the half-burnt ricks, when the shout of a
shepherd on a distant hill attracted his attention. He went to the
man, who shared with him some of his black barley-bread, and told him
that he had shouted to warn him from an ‘ill-omened and fatal place.’
‘Why ill-omened and fatal?’ asked Onesimus. ‘The place belonged,’
answered the peasant, ‘to a master who had entrusted the care of it
to a head slave. This man, though married, deserted his wife for a
free woman of foreign extraction, whom his master had brought to the
villa. The fury of his slave-wife turned into raging madness. She
burnt all her husband’s accounts and possessions. She thrust a torch
into every rick and barn, and when she saw the flames mount high,
tied herself to her little son, and precipitated herself with him
into a deep well. The master, furious at his losses, and shocked by
such a tragedy, inflicted a terrible vengeance on the guilty slave.
Stripping him naked, he chained him to the fig-tree, of which the
hollow trunk had been the immemorial nest of swarms of bees. He
smeared the wretch’s body with honey, and left him to perish.’ The
bleaching skeleton had become the terror of the neighbourhood. No
one dared to touch it, and the place, haunted with dark spirits of
crime and retribution, was shunned far and wide as an accursed spot.

Sickened with miseries, Onesimus gradually made his way to Pompeii.
Every street and wall of the bright little Greek town bore witness to
the depths of degradation into which the inhabitants had fallen, and
the youth found that the radiant scene, under the shadow of Vesuvius
and its glorious vineyards by that blue and sparkling sea, was a
garden of God indeed, but, like that of the Cities of the Plain,
awaiting the fire and brimstone which were to fall on it from heaven.
He was specially disgusted because, alien as he was now from all
Christian truth, he saw on the walls of a large assembly-room in
the Street of the Baths a mass of scribblings full of deadly insults
towards the Christians. One in particular offended him, for, by way
of coarse satire on some Christian teacher, it said:--

    ‘Mulus hic muscellas docuit.’
    ‘Here a mule taught small flies.’

It was evidently no place for any one who still loved Christianity.
Hurrying from its fascination of corruption, to which he felt it only
too possible that he might succumb, he was for some time reduced to
the very brink of starvation, and was at last driven to live on such
fruits and berries as he could pluck from the trees and hedges. Once,
while he was trying to reach some wild crab-apples in a place by the
side of a little stream, which was overgrown with dense foliage, he
slipped, and fell crashing through the brushwood into the deep and
muddy water which was hidden by the undergrowth. Too weak to rise and
struggle, he could only just support himself by clinging to a bough,
when his cries were heard. A labourer came and rescued him, and
left him sitting in the sunlight to dry his soaking rags. And now
he thought that there was nothing left him but to die, and seriously
meditated whether it would not be best to fling himself into the
green-covered sludge of black water from which he had been rescued,
and so to end his miseries.

A sound arrested him, and, lifting his head, he saw a group of the
eunuch priests of the Syrian goddess approaching along the road, one
of whom shook the jingling sistrum which had attracted his attention.
They were a company of seven, and were men taken from the dregs of
the populace. With them was a stout youth, who rode an ass which
carried their various properties, the chief of which were musical
instruments, and the image of the goddess wrapped in an embroidered
veil.

As they passed they eyed him curiously, and stopped a few paces
beyond him as though for a consultation.

‘A likely youth,’ he heard one of them say, ‘though now he looks thin
and miserable. We have long wanted another servant. Would not he do
for us, Philebus?’

‘Probably a runaway slave,’ said another.

‘What does that matter to us?’ said Philebus. ‘We can say that he
called himself free-born, and told us that he ran away from the
cruelties of a step-mother--or anything else we choose to invent.
I will go and question him.’

Philebus was an old man with a wizened and wrinkled face. The top of
his head was bald; the rest of his grey locks were trained to hang
round his head in long curls.

‘Are you hungry?’ he asked.

Onesimus nodded.

‘Here is bread for you, and some flesh of kid, and some wine.’

Onesimus ate and drank with ravenous eagerness, and the old man asked
him, ‘A fugitive slave?’

‘I was free born.’

‘Hum-m!’ muttered Philebus, incredulously. ‘Well, you are wet,
hungry, ragged, miserable. Will you be our servant?’

‘I am not going to be a priest of the Syrian goddess,’ said Onesimus,
with horror.

‘No one asked you to be,’ answered Philebus, with a sneer. ‘You will
have light work, good pay, good food.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Only to help in tending the ass, and cooking our meals, and going
round with the bag for us when we perform.’

The youth paused. Could he, once a Christian, accept this degrading
servitude to the vilest of mankind? Yet, after all, what was
servitude? What was degradation? Could he be more miserable than he
was? To be a servant of the Galli was better than the suicide and the
dimly imagined horrors of that unknown world which he had just been
about to brave.

‘I will come,’ he said.

The old man brought him a tunic in place of his soaked and torn
dress, gave him more wine and food, and taking him to the rest
congratulated them on their new and handsome servant.

Then began a mode of life which Onesimus could never recall in after
years without a blush of shame and indignation--a life of squalor,
mendacity[*10], and imposture, made more vile by the sanction of
abject superstition. In the morning, when the priests drew near to
any place where a few spectators could be gathered together, they set
out in motley array, dressed in many-coloured robes, and with yellow
caps of linen or woollen on their heads. They smeared their faces
with a dye, and painted their eyes with henna. Some of them put on
white tunics, embroidered with stripes of purple, and fastened with
a girdle, and on their feet they wore shoes dyed of a saffron colour.
They placed on the back of the ass the image of their goddess in
its silken covering, and then, with wild cries, began a dervish-like
dance to the tones of the flute played by their youthful attendant.
During this dance they bared their arms to the shoulder, and
flourished aloft swords and axes. In this way they wandered through
various hamlets till they reached the villa of a wealthy landowner.
Here they determined to exhibit the full extent of their mercenary
fanaticism. Looking on the ground, turning from side to side with
various contortions, whirling themselves round and round till their
long curls streamed from their heads, they bit their arms, and at
length cut some of their veins with the weapons which they carried.
Then Philebus simulated a sort of epileptic fit. Falling to the
ground, with long sobs, which seemed to shake his whole body, he
rolled about, accusing himself of the deadliest crimes, like one
possessed. After this he seized a scourge, of which the long leathern
thongs were studded with bones, and scourged himself with all the
endurance of a fakir, till the soil was wet with the blood which
streamed from his own wounds and the gashes of his comrades. The
crowd looked on with a sort of stupor at the hideous spectacle,
and when it ended it was the part of Onesimus, on the attraction of
whose personal appearance the wretches relied, to go round with a bag
for the offerings of copper and silver coins which were abundantly
bestowed on them by the distorted religionism of the spectators. The
Galli were further rewarded with gifts in kind. One peasant brought
them milk, another bread, and corn, and cheeses, and barley; and a
farmer gave them a cask of wine. All these were placed in sacks, side
by side with the image of the goddess, upon the ass, which, as the
flute-player wittily remarked to Onesimus, ‘was now both a barn and
a temple.’ In this way they made spoil of all the country side.

Occasionally they were even more successful. If they found a farmer
specially credulous, they would tell him that their goddess was
thirsty, and needed the blood of a ram, promising him a prophecy of
the future if he would provide one for sacrifice. The sacrificial
victim afforded them an excellent banquet, to which they would invite
the lowest scoundrels, and fearlessly reveal themselves in their
true colours. Once one of the country landowners, named Britinnus,
awe-struck by their supposed sanctity, invited the whole company to
the hospitality of his farm. Their stay might have been prolonged
but for two accidents. The cook had been ordered to prepare a side
of venison for a feast, but this was stolen; and, while he was in
despair at the punishment which would be inflicted on him for the
loss, his wife suggested that they should secretly kill the ass of
the priests, and cook part of it instead of the lost venison. But
when the cook came to the stable, the ass took fright, and rushed
straight through the house into the dining-room of the farmer,
upsetting the table with a huge crash. The next day a boy burst in,
with his face as white as a sheet, and told the terrified Britinnus
that a dog had gone mad, had sprung among the hounds, and had bitten
not only some of them and some of the farm-cattle, but also Myrtilus,
the muleteer, and Hephæstion, the cook, and Hypatius, the footman. On
this Britinnus assumed that the Galli had brought him ill luck, and
sent the whole troupe about their business.

In the neighbourhood of one town they took to fortune-telling.
Binding each person who consulted them to absolute secrecy, they
showed their lack of invention by returning the same oracle to all.
It was simplicity itself, consisting of the two lines--

    ‘The oxen plough the furrowed soil,
    And harvests rich repay their toil.’

Whether they were asked about plans for a matrimonial alliance, or
the heirdom to an estate, or anything else, this oracle admitted of
any interpretation they chose to put upon it.

Altogether sickened with his companions and with their way of living,
Onesimus was further troubled by the insight into every hidden wound
and portent of pagan wickedness which came to his ears, or which he
witnessed in these country wanderings. Long afterwards, when he was
an old man in Ephesus, he used to tell these stories to his friends,
to urge them to yet more zealous effort for the healing of that
heathen wickedness of which the whole head was sick and the whole
heart faint.

On one occasion, for instance, in his wanderings, the Galli had been
unable to collect an audience, because the entire population of the
little town of Varia was absorbed in the interest of a trial which
affected the family of one of their prominent residents. A wealthy
burgher had been left a widower with an only son, a boy of modest
character, and devoted to his studies. Some years afterwards he
married again, and another son was born to him. By the time this
second boy was twelve years old his half-brother had grown into
manhood, and his step-mother, who hated him for his virtues,
determined to poison him. Summoning a slave who was in her
confidence, she sent him to a physician to purchase poison, which
she mixed in a cup of wine and placed ready for the youth at the
next meal. It happened, however, that her own boy, returning hot and
thirsty from school, saw the wine on the table and drank it. He had
scarcely finished the draught, when he fell to the ground as dead.
The slave who attended him filled the air with his clamour, and when
the inmates of the house came flocking in, one accused another of
the crime. The master of the house was out, and his wife sent to
inform him that her boy had been poisoned, that her step-son was
the murderer. The husband was crushed to the earth by the double
calamity. His boy was dead; the elder son, of whom he had been so
proud, was to be tried for murder. Scarcely were the boy’s obsequies
finished when the hapless father, his grey hairs defiled with
dust, hastened to the Forum, and there embraced the knees of the
magistrates, and besought them to avenge him on the fratricide.
The local Senate was assembled, and the herald summoned the accuser.
Onesimus, who had nothing to do that day, was present at the trial.
He heard the old man plead pathetically against the son who had been
the pride of his life and home; he heard the youth, with all the
calm of innocence, deny the charge. There was no evidence against him
but the word of his step-mother and her confidential slave. This man
stood up with a front of brass, and declared that the youth had been
actuated by jealousy of his brother, and had poisoned him. There was
nothing to rebut this evidence, and every jury-man was prepared to
drop into the brazen urn the fatal ticket marked with the letter C,
for _condemno_, which would have handed over the offender to be first
scourged until his bones were laid bare, and then to be sewed up in
a sack with a cock, a dog, and a viper, and to be flung into the sea.
The heart of Onesimus bled for the youth. With his instinctive power
of reading character, he felt convinced of his innocence. But while
with palpitating heart he awaited the voting, an aged physician
arose, and, covering the orifice of the voting-urn with his hand, he
said: ‘Fathers, let me prevent the triumph of an infamous woman and
a perjured slave. That wretch came to me as a physician, and offered
me a hundred gold pieces for a poison. I read crime in the man’s
face, and put the gold in a purse, which I made him stamp with his
seal. Here is the bag. Seize his hand, take off his iron ring, and
see whether this be not his seal. If it is, clearly he, and not the
poor youth yonder, was the purchaser of the poison.’ Onesimus turned
his eyes on the slave. His face had assumed a deadly pallor, and all
his limbs had burst into a cold sweat; but even when his seal was
recognised, he continued to stammer protestations of his innocence.
He was tortured, but would not confess. Then the physician rose with
a mysterious smile. ‘Enough of tortures,’ he said. ‘The time has come
to unravel this web of villany. I sold to yonder wretch, not poison,
but mandragora. If, indeed, the boy drank that draught, he does but
sleep. About this time he will be awakening, and may be brought back
to the light of day.’ The magistrates at once sent messengers to the
sepulchre where the boy’s body had been laid. The father with his own
hands removed the cover of the tomb, and there lay the little lad,
unchanged, and just beginning to awake, with intense astonishment
depicted on his features. Striving in vain to express his joy in
words, the happy father--father once more of two dear sons, both of
whom he thought that he had lost--folded the child to his heart in a
close embrace, and carried him as he was, with all his grave-clothes
about him, to the judgment seat. Terror-stricken by such a portent,
the woman confessed her crime, and was sentenced to perpetual
banishment; the slave was crucified.[69]

Next morning Onesimus, as he accompanied the priests and their ass,
saw the criminal hanging naked on his cross. He was a man of fine
proportions and in the prime of life, and his strength was slowly
ebbing away in horrible and feverish torture. The Galli as they
passed spat on him, but Onesimus stayed behind. The wretch was not
only living, though in extreme agony, but would probably continue
to live for two days more, unless the wolves got at him or the
magistrates thought fit to send their lictors to end his life by two
blows of a ponderous mallet in order to save the trouble of having
the cross watched. It was no base curiosity which made the Phrygian
linger by that spectacle of shame and anguish. It was rather an awful
pity--a heart-rending remembrance. Sunk, fallen, ruined, guilty as he
himself was, he yet could not see without horror this awful reminder
of One who had perished, since his own birth, in Palestine, and in
whom he had not yet ceased to believe as a Saviour, though he had
fallen away from his heavenly calling.

The man turned towards him his tortured face and glazing eyes. ‘By
all the infernal gods,’ he said, ‘give me something to quench my
thirst.’

‘There are no infernal gods,’ Onesimus said, ‘but I will give thee;’
and taking out from the bag which he carried a bottle of the common
_posca_--sour wine which was the ordinary drink of the peasantry--he
poured a full draught into an earthenware cup and held it to the
sufferer’s lips. This he could easily do, for the cross (as always)
was raised but a little from the ground.

‘God help thee!’ he said, as he turned away. ‘He helped the robber on
Golgotha,’ he murmured to himself; ‘who knows whether he may not find
even this poor wretch in his hour of agony--yea, and even me?’

‘My blessing would be a curse,’ moaned the crucified slave, ‘or I
would say, “The gods bless _thee_ who canst pity such as I am.”’

Onesimus left him there in the pathos and tragedy of his awful
helplessness. The youth’s soul was appalled by the sense of the
mystery of human life and human agony, and it came home to him, as
it had never done before, that the solution of the fearful riddle of
human wickedness could only lie, if anywhere, in the life and death
of Him in whom in some sense he believed, but whose peace he did not
know.

Before he joined his base troupe of companions he looked back for a
moment. There, in the blinding sunlight of the Italian noon, stood
the cross, accursed of God and man, the gibbet of the malefactor,
the infamy of the slave, confronting the eye of heaven with a sight
which, no less than that of the Thyestean banquet, might have made
the sun itself turn dark; and there, upon it, a mass of living agony,
conscious, and burning with thirst, and blinded with glare, and
unpitied, and burdened with an awful load of guilt, hung the human
victim who had once played an innocent child beside his mother’s
knee. The soul of Onesimus was harrowed as he gazed on that awful
insult to humanity. The existence of crucifixion showed how far the
shadow had advanced on the dial-plate of Rome’s history. That form
of punishment--so cynical, so ruthless, so abhorrent, which less
than three centuries later was to be abolished by the indignation of
mankind--had been not indigenous in the Western world. It had only
been borrowed by Rome, in the days of her commencing corruption, from
the dark and cruel East. That such a spectacle should be permitted to
the gaze of women and little children; that it should indurate still
further the callosity of hardened hearts, was in itself a token of
degeneracy. The heart of Onesimus was full even to bursting as he saw
that fearful instrument of inhuman vengeance standing there by the
roadside among the darting lizards and chirping cicalas and murmuring
bees; and the goats stared at it with glassy eyes as they cropped the
luxuriant grass at the very feet of the victim in whom the majestic
ideal of manhood was thus horribly laughed to scorn.

Onesimus, as he finally turned away, felt it more degrading than
ever to continue his present life. Its plenty and coarse comfort,
accompanied as it was by the necessity of spending his days with
these sexless and lying vagabonds, filled him with a sense of
nameless humiliation. Yet what could he do? What other choice had he
save to starve or to commit suicide? For then he remembered with a
start that he was twice a thief, twice a fugitive, almost a murderer;
that he had betrayed the trust reposed in him by Acte; that by his
mad drunkenness he had insulted the majesty of Nero. In every sense
even his fellow-slaves would have called him _furcifer_. And if he
were once detected, in spite of the dye with which he had stained
his face, and the blond wig by which the Galli had tried at once to
conceal his identity and to enhance his beauty, what awaited him? Was
he, too, destined to feed the wild birds upon the cross?

It seemed as if that would be better than to beg from the gulled
throngs of peasants, and dupe the credulity of farmers, and witness
day by day the stupid and loathly self-gashing and self-scourging of
these deplorable eunuch priests. More than once he thought that he
would get up by night, seize the image of the Syrian goddess, and
fling her into the greenest and slimiest pool he could find, among
the efts and water-beetles and frogs; while he himself would plunge
into the pathless wastes until he should gain the sea-shore, work
his passage on board a ship to Troas or Ephesus, and so making
his way back to quiet Colossæ, would fling himself at the feet of
Philemon and implore the forgiveness which he felt sure would not be
long withheld.

But that ‘unseen Providence which men nickname chance’ came to rescue
him from his unhealthy bondage. As they were starting for one of
their exhibitions in their usual motley and many-coloured gear, the
Galli suddenly heard the sound of horses’ hoofs, and, before they
knew where to turn, a body of mounted soldiers came thundering
down upon them, drew their swords, surrounded and seized the whole
company, and, beating the wretched priests with their fists and the
flat of their swords, called them thieves and all other opprobrious
names, and charged them with having stolen a golden beaker from a
neighbouring temple of the Mother of the Gods. In vain the Galli
protested and swore their innocence and threatened the soldiers with
the vengeance of the Syrian goddess for this insult to her ministers.
The soldiers silenced their curses with blows, and, tearing away the
covering of the image, found the golden beaker wrapped up within it.

Detected in their theft, the priests were still unabashed. After an
evening sacrifice they had watched their opportunity, concealed the
sacred cup of Cybele, and at the grey dawn had made their way out of
the pomœrium of the city, trusting to get sufficiently far to elude
pursuit. The beaker was, however, ancient and valuable, and the
police asked the mounted soldiers to help them in tracking the
fugitives.

‘It was not a theft,’ said Philebus, who was _archigallus_. ‘The
Mother of the Gods freely lent the beaker to her sister the Syrian
goddess, who intended shortly to return it to her. You cannot escape
her wrath for this outrage.’

The soldiers and their _decurio_ broke into loud laughter at the
threat, and without ceremony put gyves on the wrists of the seven
Galli. They consulted whether they should also arrest Onesimus and
the flute-player, but Onesimus said that he was ignorant of the
theft, that neither he nor his companion--who were acting as slaves
of the priests--had ever been permitted to see the contents of the
silken veil. The soldiers believed him, and all the more because they
did not care to burden themselves with too many prisoners. They took
the Galli to Naples, where Onesimus was afterwards told that they had
been scourged, imprisoned, and mulcted of all they possessed.

Free once more, and not troubling himself about their fate, Onesimus
asked the flute-player what he meant to do. Finding that he regarded
his present calling as too comfortable a berth to be given up,
Onesimus left him and made his way disconsolately to Baiæ.



CHAPTER XXXIII

_TITUS AND THE VESTAL_

    ‘Laudabile est infelicis scire misereri.’--VAL. MAX. v. i. 8.


Cast once more on his own resources, Onesimus tried his chance of
earning a living in the streets. He had a little money in hand, and,
seeing that the street vendors drove a brisker trade in drink than in
anything else, he bought two or three dozen bottles of _posca_, and
sold them at a small profit to the poorer wayfarers. In this, as in
all his adventures, his good looks were of use to him, for men and
women alike were more inclined to buy of a lively and pleasant youth
than of the wandering Jews and beggars who sometimes attempted the
same trade. He began to think that, for the present, he could keep
soul and body together in this way; but he had been rash in choosing
a place so near Rome, and still more rash in discarding his disguise.

For one day, as he was calling out the merits of his wine in his
clear, ringing voice, and making the people laugh with his jokes,
Dama, the steward of the lovely villa which Nero owned at Baiæ,
caught sight of him. The man had often been to the Palace on business
connected with his accounts, and had noticed Onesimus, then dressed
in gay attire and at the zenith of his prosperity, as a youth high in
favour in the imperial household. He had heard from Callicles, Nero’s
dispensator, of the drunken escapade which had put so sudden an end
to his good fortune, and of his subsequent flight from the ergastulum.
Now the flight of any slave, but above all of one of Cæsar’s slaves,
was so capital an offence that Callicles had asked his friend to keep
a good lookout for the recovery of the fugitive. A glance made him
nearly sure of the identity of Onesimus, but to be quite certain
he took out a copy of the reward which had been offered. It ran as
follows:--

                 ‘Wanted, a fugitive slave,
                       Aged about 17.
              Handsome, with dark curly hair,
                      Named Onesimus.
         Any one who will give him up, or indicate
    where he may be arrested, shall receive a reward of
                   a thousand sesterces.’

To be quite sure of his prey, Dama stole away so as to approach
Onesimus from behind, and coming up to him tapped him smartly on
the shoulder and said ‘Onesimus.’

‘Yes?’ said Onesimus with a violent start, taken completely off his
guard.

‘I thought so,’ said Dama, with an unpleasant smile. ‘Come with me,
my gay fugitive. Cæsar can’t possibly spare such a lively and
good-looking slave as you; and I shall be very glad of a thousand
sesterces.’

Onesimus tried to dart away in flight, but the remorseless hand of
Dama clutched his shoulder with too tight a grasp, and with a gesture
of despair he remained silent.

‘Rescue! rescue!’ cried some of the crowd who pitied him, and with
whom he was a favourite; and as no soldiers or police were in sight
one or two stepped forward to give the youth a chance.

‘Rescue?’ said Dama, looking around him with cool contempt. ‘Don’t
you know who I am? Do you dare to interfere with the arrest of a
runaway from Cæsar’s Palace?’

The crowd fell back awe-struck before the awful name of Cæsar, and
Dama despatched a slave to bring fetters from Nero’s villa hard by.
Onesimus was once more a chained criminal with a destiny before him
even more horrible than any of which he had yet been in danger. He
thought of the poor wretch to whom he had given drink as he hung on
his cross. Would that be his own fate of agony now in the flush and
heyday of his youth?

Next morning he was sent off towards Rome. He thought of trying to
communicate with Acte, who had been deeply grieved by losing sight
of him. But this was impossible. There was no one to take any message
for him. He was told that not only Callicles--on whom fell in part
the disgrace of his escape--but Nero himself was bitterly incensed
against him, first, for his unpardonable indiscretion, then for his
flight, and lastly--though this was a secret motive--because it had
come to his ears that Onesimus had been the slave who had defeated
the midnight attempt on the life of Britannicus. Onesimus, when he
had drunk too much Sabine wine, had sometimes forgotten all reticence,
and Nero believed that it was through him that certain dark secrets
of the Palace had come to be whispered among the lower orders of the
Roman population. Acte herself would have been powerless to defend
him. One day Octavia, finding that her purple robes had been looked
after less skilfully than they had been when under his care, had
asked some question about him in the presence of Nero. The Emperor
was angry at the mention of his name. Some slaves had been in the
room on the occasion, and the circumstance had become notorious in
the gossip of the Palace. The unhappy young Phrygian was told that
he would probably be crucified; but if not, he would be tied to the
furca and scourged, perhaps to death, with the horrible thongs.

On his arrival at Rome the order was given. He was to be beaten--
practically to death. In indescribable anguish of soul he spent what
he believed to be his last night on earth.

Next morning the furca--two pieces of wood nailed together in the
shape of the letter Λ--was placed on his neck, his hands were fast
bound to the ends of the wood, and he was led out towards the
Esquiline, where afterwards his corpse would be flung into the
common pit.

He was too much stunned and stupefied even to pray. The iron had
entered deep into his soul. He looked on himself as a lost apostate
who would end a life of miserable failure by entering into the outer
gloom beyond, where he feared that the face of the Saviour of whom
he once had heard would be utterly turned away from him.

But his hour had not yet come.

Stooping under the furca, with his arms already cramped by their
unnatural position, he was led by the slaves and lictors who were
to preside at his execution into the Vicus Tuscus on the way to
the Esquiline. But as they entered the long street a boy who was
strolling towards the Gelotian house caught sight of them, and
no sooner had his quick eye seen them than he took in the whole
situation at a glance.

It was Titus, much sobered from the gay lad he once had been, and
still pale from the illness caused by the sip he had taken of the
poison which had carried off Britannicus. He recognised Onesimus,
and a Palace rumour had that morning made him aware of the Phrygian’s
peril. He looked on the slave-youth as a _protégé_ of his own, for
his admission into the family of Pudens had been mainly due to his
intercession. He also felt grateful to him for his ready services
towards the murdered friend of his youth, and his kindly heart was
filled with pity.

A way of saving him had flashed across his mind, and, bidding his
slaves follow him, he darted off at a pace too swift for Roman
dignity. In an adjoining street he met--as he was well aware that he
should meet--a beautiful and stately lady whom he knew, and who was
very fond of him. It was Lælia, the senior vestal, the Virgo Maxima.

Greeting her with extreme reverence, he yet ventured to make her an
unsuspecting agent in his little plot.

‘Noble Lælia,’ he said, with the charm of manner which few could
resist, and with a ready fertility of invention, ‘I have just seen
in the book-shop of Atrectus, in the Argiletum, just opposite the
Forum of Julius, a charming little copy of Virgil’s Eclogues with
such a good portrait! You promised me a present on my last birthday,
and said I should choose it myself. May I have that book, and will
you come and buy it for me? It is my birthday to-day.’

‘Certainly,’ said the vestal, with a smile. ‘For a boy like you,
so good and steady, I would do much more than that.’ She little
guessed that the birthday was a fib extemporised by Titus for his
own purposes, for his birthday was on December 30.

‘Thanks, dear vestal,’ said Titus. ‘Will you not come by this short
cut?’

He led her by the hand, her lictor following, into the Vicus Tuscus,
which was close by the Argiletum, where he well knew that she would
not fail to meet Onesimus and his escort. As they approached he said:

‘Oh, Lælia, how I should like to have your privilege of saving the
lives of the wretched! See, there is some miserable slave whom they
are taking to scourge or crucify. Will you not intercede for him?’

‘For a poor _furcifer_ like that?’ asked Lælia. ‘Our high privilege
is used for nobles--at the lowest, for freedmen.’

‘Are not slaves men like ourselves?’ he asked. ‘Musonius says so; and
Seneca says so. Look, what a fine youth he is! He looks as if he had
been free-born; and I dare say he has done nothing really wrong.’

Lælia glanced at the pallid, beautiful face of the sufferer. It would
hardly have touched her heart, accustomed as she had been to the
massacres of the arena, to which Nero of late years had invited the
vestal virgins. But there was something in his youth, and something
in the earnest pleading of her favourite Titus--something perhaps
also in the sense of power--which decided her to interfere.

‘Stop!’ she said to the lictors and soldiers, as they bowed
reverently before her majestic presence. ‘By virtue of my office, I
bid you take off that furca, and spare the life of your prisoner.’

‘He is a runaway slave, whom for great misdemeanours the Emperor has
ordered to be scourged,’ said Callicles, stepping forward.

‘Dare you disobey the Virgo Maxima?’ asked Lælia, with flashing eye.
‘Do you think that even the Emperor will insult the majesty of Vesta
and her sacred fire, by questioning the immemorial prerogative of her
eldest vestal? Take off the furca at once!’

The very lictors were overawed by her gesture of command. They
hastily unbound the tired arms of Onesimus, and took the furca off
his neck. What would happen to him he knew not, but he knew that for
the time his life was saved.

‘Thanks, kindest of vestals,’ said Titus, gratefully kissing the
purple hem of her _suffibulum_, and not betraying by look or sign
that Onesimus was known to him. ‘I never saw a vestal exercise her
prerogative before, and I am so glad to have seen it. May Vesta
reward your sleep with her divinest dreams! May Opiconsiva bless
you!’

‘Opiconsiva?’ said the vestal with difficulty suppressing a smile;
‘is the boy laughing at me? What do you know of Opiconsiva?’

‘Not much,’ said Titus, ‘except that she has something to do with
vestals; and if so, Lælia must be very dear to her!’

Onesimus, with his usual quickness, took his cue from the conduct
of Titus. The right of the vestals was well known in Rome, though
it was rarely used, for they were not often seen in the streets. But
it was understood that, in order to be valid, the meeting of vestal
and criminal must be accidental. Lælia would have been seriously
displeased had she known that she was in reality the victim of a
little plot on the part of her boy-friend, and Titus was in some
trepidation till he had hurried the vestal past the prisoner, and
to the choice book-stall which was spread with the purple bindings
of Atrectus. There she not only purchased for him the copy of Virgil,
but, as he had quoted Seneca, she also gave him a radiant little
volume of some of his treatises from the shop of his bookseller,
Dorus, hard by. When she gave him this second gift the delighted
youth felt a little compunction at his manœuvre.

No one knew what he had done; but, when he narrated the incident to
Pudens, the tribune suspected the real state of the case, for the
boy’s eye twinkled suspiciously as he told his little story with the
most innocent candour.



                    BOOK II

       *       *       *       *       *

              ‘_LACHESIS ROTAT!_’



CHAPTER XXXIV

_AN EVIL EPOCH_

   ‘Inde metus maculat pœnarum præmia vitæ,
    Circumretit enim vis atque injuria quemque ...
    Nec facile est placidam ac pacatam degere vitam
    Qui violat facteis communia federa vitæ.’

                            LUCRET. _De Rer. Nat._ v. 1151.


The career and character of Nero grew darker every year, for every
year more fully revealed to him the awful absoluteness of his
autocracy. No one dreamed of disputing his will. Every desire,
however frivolous, however shameful, however immense, was instantly
gratified. His Court was prolific of the vilest characters. There was
scarcely a man near his person who did not daily extol his power, his
wit, his accomplishments, his beauty, his divinity. ‘Do you not yet
know that you are Cæsar?’ they whispered to him if he hesitated for a
moment to commit some deadly crime, or plunge into some unheard-of
prodigality.

All things went on much as usual in the corrupt, trembling world of
Rome. To-day some wealthy nobleman would commit suicide, amid the
laudations of his friends, out of utter weariness of life. To-morrow
all Rome would be talking of the trial of some provincial governor
who had gorged himself with the rapine of a wealthy province.
Or everybody would be whispering a series of witty pasquinades,
attributed to Antistius Sosianus or Fabricius Veiento, full of
lacerating innuendoes, aimed now at the Emperor and now at some
prominent senator. Pætus Thrasea and the peril he incurred by his
opposition to the Court furnished a frequent subject of conversation,
both to his Stoic admirers and to the rabble of venal senators, who
cordially hated him. ‘To put Thrasea to death would be to slay virtue
itself,’ said the graver citizens. ‘He is a pompous sham, who wants
taking down,’ said the gilded youth.

It was a fearful comment on the wretchedness of the times that most
of the prominent thinkers and statesmen looked on self-destruction as
the sole path to freedom, and the best boon of heaven. They thought
it a proof of philosophic heroism when a man died calmly by his own
hand, though the act involves no more courage than the vilest of
mankind can evince. Seneca tells with rapture the story of the death
of Julius Canus. The Emperor Gaius had said to him, after a quarrel,
‘That you may not deceive yourself, I have ordered you to be led
to execution.’ ‘I thank you, excellent prince,’ said Canus. Ten
days passed, and Canus spent them without the smallest sign of
trepidation, awaiting the tyrant’s mandate. When the centurion
arrived at his house with the order that he was to die, he was
playing at draughts. He first counted the pieces, and then said
with a smile to his friend, ‘Mind you don’t claim the victory when
I am dead. You, centurion, will be the witness that I have one piece
more than he has.’ Observing the grief of his friends, he said, ‘Why
are you sad? You are perplexed about the question whether souls are
immortal or not. In a moment or two I shall know. If I can come back
I will tell you.’[70]

The letters, and all the latest writings, of Seneca vibrate with
terror. They are full of the thought of death, and doubtless he lived
with the sense of such grim satisfaction as could be derived from
the thought that if life became too unbearable he could end it. ‘And
death,’ he said to himself, ‘means only “not to be.”’[71]

And all this was felt even in Nero’s ‘golden quinquennium’! Men
boasted of the happiness of the days in which their lot was cast,
but they knew that under their vineyards burnt the fires of a
volcano. Common conversation, home life, dinner parties, literature,
philosophy, virtue, wealth, were all dangerous. Neither retirement
nor obscurity always availed to save a man. The only remedy was to
learn endurance; not to fill too prominent a place; not to display
too much ability; never to speak in public without a digression in
flattery of the Emperor; to pretend cheerfulness though one felt
anguish; and to thank the tyrant for the deadliest injuries, like
the rich knight who thanked Gaius when he had killed his son.

Now and then some painful incident, like the bitumen which floats up
from the Dead Sea depths, showed the foulness which lay beneath the
film of civilisation. Such, for instance, was the fate of Octavius
Sagitta, the tribune of the people, and one of Nero’s intimates, who
was banished for the brutal murder of a married lady who had played
fast and loose with his affections. Such, too, was the savage attack
made upon Seneca in the Senate by the aged informer Publius Suillius,
whose sneers and denunciations caused bitter anguish to the unhappy
philosopher. But Nero recked little of such scenes; and as time went
on, he fell wholly under the influence which, even more than that
of Tigellinus, developed his worst impulses. He became more and more
enslaved by the fatal fascinations of the wife of Otho.

Poppæa had every charm and every gift except that of virtue. From
the moment that she had riveted the wandering fancy of Nero at the
banquet of her husband, she felt sure that her succession to the
splendour of an Augusta was only a matter of time. There were
obstacles in the way. Otho loved her to distraction. Nero still
admired him, and did not think of putting him to death. Nor did
he venture to defy public opinion by taking her from her husband,
as Augustus had taken Livia from the elder Tiberius. Octavia was
Empress, and as the daughter of Claudius, she had a hold on the
affections of the people. As the niece of Germanicus, she was dear
to the soldiers. Her life was blameless, and Agrippina was anxious
to protect her, though she knew that it was impossible to make Nero
a faithful husband. Octavia retained the distinction of a consort,
if she had none of the love which was a wife’s due.

Poppæa determined to surmount these difficulties, and she it was
who gradually goaded her imperial lover to the worst crimes which
disgrace his name. Through two murders and two divorces she waded
her way to a miserable throne.

Her first husband was Rufius Crispinus, by whom she had a son. She
had accepted the advances of Otho, who passed for the finest of the
young Roman aristocrats; but she aimed from the first at becoming
Empress, and it was with this aim that she had flung her spells over
Nero. Her consummate beauty was enhanced by the utmost refinements of
a coquette. She pretended to love Nero passionately for his own sake,
as though she had become enamoured of his personal beauty; yet while
she thus allured his devotion, she carefully checked his advances
with a bewitching semblance of modesty. She played the part of the
honourable Roman matron. She extolled the open-handed liberality
and artistic grace of Otho. She taunted Nero with his love for
a freedwoman like Acte. Above all, she missed no opportunity of
deepening his irritation against his mother. She saw the instinctive
fear of Agrippina which Nero could never quite throw off, and feeling
convinced that so long as the Empress-mother lived she could not
supplant Octavia, she made it her aim to goad Nero to her murder
or banishment. Whenever she saw him most enraptured with her
charms--when his hand wandered to the golden tresses, full of
burning gleams in the sunlight, which Nero had astonished the poets
by describing as ‘amber-hued,’ and which were the despair and envy
of the Roman ladies--she would push his hand aside, and tell him
that she was much happier as the wife of Otho than she could be in a
palace where her lover was still subject to the maternal sway of one
who detested her. Nero became haunted by the fixed impression that he
could never be free and never be happy while Agrippina lived. Poppæa
did not even hesitate to taunt him. ‘You a Cæsar!’ she said. ‘Why,
you are not even a free man! You are still a schoolboy tied to your
mother’s girdle!’

Nero saw but little of Agrippina. She spent much of her time at one
or other of her numerous villas, and rarely occupied the palace of
Antonia at Rome. Yet he felt sure that during her sullen isolation
she had never abandoned her designs. She might seem to be living
in retirement, busy with the improvement of her gardens, or amusing
herself with her talking starlings and nightingales; but he knew her
too well to imagine that she acquiesced in a defeat which she might
yet retrieve. She was but forty-two years old, and in past days
she had shown that she knew how to wait. It was known that she was
writing her own memoirs, and that their scandalous pages abounded in
accusations against others, so dark as to render men more credulous
of the worst accusations which were launched against herself. How
could Nero tell what might be passing between her and Octavia when
they exchanged visits? His timid and conscience-stricken nature often
imagined that she might be intriguing with Faustus Sulla or Rubellius
Plautus, both of whom, like himself, were scions of the imperial
family of the Cæsars. He saw in her the one fatal obstacle to the
fulfilment of his desires.

And she, in those grim years of terror, knew well that Poppæa was
no gentle girl like Acte, but would strive to trample on her rivals
as Agrippina herself had done in former years. The struggle against
Poppæa and her beauty and her ambition would be a struggle of life
and death. And, indeed, the bitterness of death was almost past, for
her son stooped to the most ignoble methods for rendering her life
miserable, and humiliating her even to the dust. At Rome he set on
his emissaries to harass her with lawsuits; and, stooping to yet
more vulgar baseness, he paid the lowest of the populace to annoy her
with coarse jests and infamous reproaches, which they shouted at her
from boat or roadside, when she was resting at her country houses.

An attempt was made to poison her at a banquet given by Otho; but
Agrippina was wary and abstemious. She had watchful slaves and
freedmen near her person, and the attempt failed. Nero persuaded
himself that his mother was watching him like a tiger-cat in act to
spring. It was not only Poppæa who inflamed his hatred. Tigellinus
also had his own designs. He suggested that Otho should first be got
out of the way, and then that the death of Agrippina should leave the
path open for Nero’s union with the siren who had mastered his soul.
Octavia, without Agrippina to help her, was hardly considered in the
light of an obstacle. She could be swept aside with ease.

The first step was soon taken. Otho was sent as governor to
Lusitania. So long as he was there he could not stand in Nero’s
way. The exile cherished his love for Poppæa to the last; and during
his brief spell of empire he induced the Senate to honour her with
statues. But he never saw her more.

One day, as Nero sat, with Tigellinus by his side, looking on at a
sham sea-fight, for the purpose of which the arena had been flooded,
they were struck with one of the novelties which Arruntius Stella,
the president of the games, had devised for the amusement of the
populace. During the fight one of the vessels had been so constructed
as to go to pieces, to pour a number of armed men out of its hold,
and then to be reunited into a trireme as before.

Tigellinus touched the arm of Nero, and Nero, filled with the same
thought, turned to him a glance of intelligence.

‘The sea is a treacherous element,’ said Tigellinus. ‘All sorts of
strange and unaccountable accidents happen at sea.’

‘I wonder who could make me a ship of that kind,’ said the Emperor.

‘Your old tutor, Anicetus. He is at this moment admiral of the
fleet at Misenum. Stella would put at his disposal the artist who
contrived this vessel. One like it could be made in a few weeks,
and magnificently adorned for the use of the Empress.’

‘How could she be induced to go on board?’

‘She is at Antium; you are going to Baiæ. The Feast of Minerva is
coming on. You must be reconciled to her publicly, must invite her
to your villa, and must place the galley at her disposal.’

The sea-fight went on, but it was observed that after the new
contrivance of the mechanical ship, Nero did not pay much attention
to it. He was apparently lost in thought. He was impatiently
revolving in his mind the intolerable conditions by which he was
surrounded. On the one side was his mother, haughty, menacing,
powerful in spite of her dethronement; and, on the other, Poppæa
entangling him in her sorceries, worrying him with importunities,
goading him to matricide with envenomed taunts. And behind them
both stood the spectre of his tormenting conscience, with thrilling
whisper and outstretched hand.

And thus it was that the world went on. In that age morality had
well-nigh vanished because faith was well-nigh dead. Man cannot live
without a conscience or without God. Guilty pleasure is brief-lived,
and afterwards it stingeth like a serpent. It is self-slain by the
Nemesis of satiety. The wickedest age the world has ever seen was
also the most incurably sad.

But for the poor Christians of Rome, though the days were so evil,
life had neither tumult nor terror. They had found that which more
than compensated them for the trials of the world. Their life was
a spiritual life. To them, to live was Christ. They possessed the
strange secret of joy in sorrow, the boast of which upon the lips
of the Stoics was an idle vaunt. That secret lay in a spiritual
conviction, an indomitable faith, above all, in an In-dwelling
Presence which breathed into their souls a peace which the world
could neither give nor take away. The life which was to most of their
contemporaries a tragedy without dignity, or a comedy without humour,
was to them a gift sweet and sacred, a race to be bravely run under
that lucent cloud which shone with the faces of angel witnesses,--a
mystery indeed, yet a mystery luminous with a ray which streamed to
them out of God’s Eternity from the Glory of their Risen Lord.



CHAPTER XXXV

_THE MATRICIDE_

   ‘It was not in the battle,
      No tempest gave the shock;
    She sprang no fatal leak,
      She ran upon no rock’----

                            COWPER.

                  ‘Hæc monstra Neroni
    Nec jussæ quondam præstiteratis aquæ.’

                                MART. iv. 63.


Baiæ in the springtide of A.D. 59 must have been as lovely a place
as the world can show. Its blue sky, its soft air, its sparkling sea,
its delightful shore, its dry hard yellow sands and rocks gleaming
in the clear water, its green and wooded heights, combined with
its healing waters and splendid buildings to make it a fairyland of
beauty and enjoyment. Marius, Pompey, Cæsar, had built villas there,
and the whole line of coast to Puteoli had gradually become crowded
with the gay houses of the Roman aristocracy. Temples, and baths,
and theatres, and palaces rose on every side, among groves enriched
with grottoes and blooming like a garden of enchantment with fruits
and flowers. Passing the promontory of Misenum, the traveller first
arrived at the bright town of Baiæ itself, and then at the more
quiet and exclusive Bauli, until he reached the lakes of Lucrine and
Avernus, of which the former had been joined to the sea by a canal,
and protected by the magnificent causeway of Agrippina’s grandfather
Agrippa. Beyond these was Puteoli, with the stately and pillared fane
of Serapis, the ruins of which still attest its former magnificence.

The festive splendour of the lovely and dissolute resort was
heightened by the universal holiday of the Quinquatrus, or Feast
of Minerva. It was kept almost like our Christmastide. All the
boys had five days’ holiday, beginning on March 19, and were at
home from their various schools, adding fresh mirth to the joyous
watering-place. There were exhibitions of wild beasts, and plays,
and poetic and oratorical contests; and on the fifth day of the
festival, which was called the Tubilustrium, all the trumpets were
blown, and the sacred implements of the temples lustrated.

By this time Nero had accustomed himself to the thought of getting
rid of his mother by treacherous violence. His five years of empire
had inspired him with audacity and confidence. His passion for Poppæa
burned with ever fiercer flame. His hatred for Agrippina, as the
main obstacle in the path of his desires, grew daily more sullen;
and Poppæa had aroused his fears by persuading him that his mother
was plotting against his life. Since poison had failed, and he
shrank from using the dagger, he had determined to follow the deadly
suggestion of Tigellinus, and to make it appear that the Augusta had
perished in an accident at sea.

To prepare the way for his purpose, he began to express his
determination to be reconciled with his mother. ‘The anger of
parents,’ he said, ‘must be cheerfully borne. It is my duty as a
son to soothe my mother’s irritation. I long to be on good terms
with her once more.’ Again and again he repeated these sentiments
to various persons, and he took care that they should reach the ears
of his mother. Octavia herself, grateful for the efforts of Agrippina
on her behalf, told the Augusta that Nero’s feelings seemed to
be undergoing a change, and that perhaps he would restore to
her, spontaneously, her former honours. The hope kindled by this
intelligence fell on the last days of the Empress-mother like a ray
of cruel sunshine out of the thunder-clouds which had so long been
gathering around her. It was natural that in her misery she should be
credulous of good tidings, and perhaps her heart was softened to her
son by the fact that she was now living in the villa at Antium where
she had given him birth, and in which nearly every room recalled the
memories of his childish brightness, and the winning trustfulness
of a heart as yet unstained, of a beauty as yet unshadowed by evil
secrets and base desires. The villa was full of splendour. The Apollo
Belvedere and the Fighting Gladiator were but two of the many statues
which adorned it. But what was art, what was splendour to a mind
diseased? She found more happiness in the tame birds which would
settle on her finger, and the yellow brown-marbled lampreys which
came to feed out of her hand.

On March 18, the day before the Feast of Minerva began, her heart
throbbed with pleasure to receive a delightful letter from her
son. Couched in the most loving terms, it conveyed to her a genial
invitation to come to him at Baiæ, and there to spend, in due
mirth and feast, the first day of the festival. ‘Fancy that I am a
schoolboy once more,’ wrote Nero, ‘and that you, my loving mother,
are welcoming me home for my holidays.’ How could Agrippina help
indulging the hope that better days had at last begun to dawn? The
next morning, gladder than she had ever been since her husband’s
murder, she made her way through the grounds of her villa to the
little haven where was moored the Liburnian galley which she used
for excursions along the shore.

Agrippina thought that Nature had never looked lovelier as she glided
over the flashing waves, and her stalwart rowers in gay liveries,

   ‘Bending to their oars with splash and strain,
    Made white with foam the green and purple sea.’

They had hardly rounded Cape Misenum when they met the imperial yacht
in which Nero had sailed to meet her. He came on board her galley,
warmly embraced her, and accompanied her to the landing-stage of her
villa at Bauli, where he bade her farewell, saying that they would
meet again in the evening. ‘And look, mother,’ he said, ‘I have
provided that you shall be conducted to Baiæ with proper splendour.’

He pointed to a yacht anchored under the trees of her villa, manned
with the imperial marines, and superb with fluttering pennons and
decorations of gilding and vermilion. It was more splendid than
any to which she had been accustomed in the days when, as the sole
Augusta and as all-powerful with Claudius, she wielded the resources
of the Empire. This yacht, he told her, was to be rowed in front
of her Liburnian, and to announce her arrival. There it lay, making
a lovely show, and casting its bright broken reflection on the
dancing sunlit waters. She was delighted, for she loved magnificence,
both for its own sake and for the impression which it makes on the
multitude; and she took this as an omen that Nero would restore
to her the body-guard of Germans and the escort of Prætorians the
withdrawal of which had cut her most deeply to the heart.

As Agrippina rested after her voyage, she prepared to array herself
in her richest and most jewelled robes. She was full of bright
anticipations, and thought that now the tortures of the last five
years were at an end. The whole world had turned for her to thorns;
would some new rose-bud now unfold itself among them? Hardly! It was
the custom of ladies on the first day of the Quinquatrus to consult
astrologers and fortune-tellers, and the answers of those whom
Agrippina consulted that day were far from encouraging. And a
disagreeable incident occurred during the morning. While she was
being dressed, the message was brought her that, in the concourse of
vessels which had attended the Emperor, one of them had accidentally
crashed into her own galley, and so broken its sides that it was
temporarily unfit for service; happily, however, she could now sail
on board the bright vessel which had been sent to wait upon her.

Little did the unhappy woman know that all this had been pre-arranged,
and that the chief reason why Nero had sailed to meet her was in
order to make the disabling of her galley wear the aspect of a
colourable accident!

But she felt an unaccountable unwillingness to go on board the
untried vessel. She had heard mysterious hints of danger, too
impalpable to be understood, but sufficient to awaken a dim
suspicion. Her astrologer, whom she again consulted, vaguely
indicated that a storm might arise, and it might be as well for
her to go to Baiæ by the road. These faint surmises were emphasised
by the arbitrary foreboding of her own heart, which every now and
then seemed to pause in its beating, and to chill her happiness with
the suspense of the unknown. In vain she tried to dispel these vague
spiritual fears. At the last moment she ordered her litter to be
prepared, and, making some excuse about the better protection of her
robes, had herself conveyed to Baiæ by land.

She was received with open arms from the moment that, with queenly
step, she descended from her litter. The guests, and the many slaves,
all in their finest array, were grouped around the entrance, and
broke into a respectful murmur of greeting and applause as the gleam
of the westering sun flashed on the diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires
which encircled her neck and arms and thickly encrusted the broidery
of her inner robe. The assembled nobles and courtiers bowed low, the
attendants almost prostrated themselves as she advanced towards her
son. He seemed to be in his brightest mood of hilarity and affection.
He welcomed her with playful sentences and attractive tenderness. He
himself conducted her to the banquet, which, to add to its delight,
was spread in a room where the couches were so arranged that each
guest could have a full view on one side of that ‘golden shore of
happy Venus,’ proud with the gifts of nature and of art; and, on
the other side, of the river with its painted shallops and merry
holiday-makers. No refinement of luxury or beauty was lacking to the
banquet. Nero assured her--but she knew that no one could believe
a word he said--he had himself caught the fish by a line from the
window beneath which the sea-waves flowed. Then there were plates of
melimela, sweet as honeycombs, glowing rosily from their baskets of
silver filagree, and olives from Picenum, and cinnamon from the shop
of Niceros in Rome, which was so choice that, as he solemnly assured
his wealthy purchasers, it could only be procured from the nest of
the Phœnix.

Nero insisted that Agrippina should occupy the seat of honour at the
table above himself. When she gently remonstrated, he said, ‘To whom
is the precedence due but to the mother who gave me both my life and
my Empire?’ Never had he seemed to her to shine with more princely
charm than at that entertainment! He exerted himself to display all
his geniality and all his accomplishments. He bade her look at the
sea, and quoted some lines of young Martial to her:

   ‘The wavelets wake from their purple sleep,
    The soft breeze ruffles the dimpling deep,
    Gently the painted shallops glide,
    Borne by the breeze o’er the rippling tide.’

Sometimes he entered with grave dignity upon questions of State,
which he respectfully submitted to her maturer judgment; at other
times, dropping the tone of confidential inquiry, he plunged into
almost boyish gaiety, and interchanged witticisms with the younger
nobles to beguile her into laughter. His conduct was a consummate
piece of acting, which would not have disgraced Paris or Aliturus,
and Agrippina fell into the snare. At first the shadowy foreboding
flitted every now and then across her soul, but now she dismissed it.
Surely all those blandishments were sincere! After all, was not she
his mother? was not he her son? What was more natural than such a
reconciliation between two who were so dear to each other? The hours
sped by almost unnoticed, and the exhilaration of the rich wine of
which, on an occasion so joyful, she freely partook, added to the
hope and bliss which for four weary summers had been strangers to
her heart.

But at last it was time to leave, for the banquet and its amusements
had prolonged themselves far into the evening. Even Nero, frivolous,
corrupt, abandoned as he was, felt the awful solemnity of the moment
when he would for the last time behold in life the mother to whom he
owed so immense a debt. He strained her again and again to his heart;
he gazed long and earnestly into the eyes which were so soon to be
closed forever; he covered her hands and her cheeks and even her eyes
with his passionate kisses. Almost he wished that the terrible deed
had never been contemplated, that the sham reconciliation had indeed
been real. ‘Farewell, dear mother,’ he said, almost with a sob, which
came easily to a nature so superficially emotional. ‘Take care of
your health for my sake.’ And then, handing her to the charge of
Anicetus, he turned hastily away.

With deep obeisances, but with a smile in his evil eye, the admiral,
who had once been a slave, conducted her on board the fatal ship,
along the planks which had been covered with purple for her proud
footsteps. He led her to the stern, where a canopy of purple silk,
fringed with golden broiderings, overshadowed the sumptuous couch on
which she was now glad to rest. There were but two attendants with
her, her lady-in-waiting, Acerronia Polla, and Crepereius Gallus.
Little did those three dream that it was to be their last night on
earth!

The night was as enchanting as only a night of the spring on the
shores of Italy can be. Overhead, in the deep blue vault, numberless
stars seemed to hang like golden cressets, raining their large lustre
over that unequalled scene. Beneath the rhythmic strokes of the
rowers the sea flashed into brighter phosphorescence in the shadow
of the boat, and the waves rolled away in molten gold. From the
near coast, as they steered northwards, the air seemed to come laden
with the perfume of flowers from the gardens and blossoming trees.
Countless spectators watched the gilded barque, and their torches
glimmered along the crowded sands, and the music of their gay songs
and serenades came to the happy voyagers. The balm and peacefulness
and beauty of the night seemed to set its seal on the reunion of
hearts too long divided, and for that hour of blessedness it almost
seemed worth while to have lived.

Acerronia, bending over the feet of the Empress as she reclined on
the couch, was congratulating her with all her heart on the warmth
with which she had been received, and was indulging in a hundred
flattering auguries of the future. Surely Agrippina would now be
restored to her full honours as Augusta! Once more she would have
her home in the Palace of the Cæsars, and ride in a carriage to the
capital, and be surrounded by her tall and glittering body-guard!
‘He kissed your _eyes_, Augusta,’ said Acerronia, ‘as though he would
embrace your very soul.’[72] To Agrippina also at that moment

    ‘Hope enchanted smiled, and waved her golden hair.’

Crepereius stood near them, only joining in the conversation by an
occasional word of congratulation, but enjoying with the two ladies
the happy events of the day and the splendour of the balmy night.

Suddenly a whistle was heard from near the prow, where Anicetus was
standing. The whistle was followed by a frightful crash. The gay
canopy over the Empress had been weighted with lead, and so contrived
that by the pulling of a rope it could be freed from its supports.
Down it rushed upon the heads of the unsuspecting victims. Crepereius,
who was standing up, was instantly crushed to death; but not so the
two ladies. They were protected by the side of the boat and of the
couch on which the Empress was resting. Half stunned by the terrible
accident, they had scarcely realised what had occurred before they
saw the galley in a state of indescribable confusion. Only a few
of the sailors shared the hideous secret with Anicetus; and as the
machinery had failed to act--for the loosing of the canopy ought to
have been accompanied by the dissolution of the vessel--they rushed
to the larboard in order to upset the boat by their weight. Those who
had not been warned of the intended murder rushed to the starboard to
prevent an accident. Fierce cries and discordant commands sounded on
every side. Half wild with selfish terror, Acerronia struggled from
the débris of the canopy and screamed out, ‘I am the Empress; help
the mother of the Cæsar.’ A shower of fierce blows, dealt on her
head with oars and boat-hooks, was the answer to her cry and the
punishment of her faithlessness. In a moment she too lay outstretched
in death. Agrippina was sobered by peril from the fumes of the
Falernian of which she had plentifully partaken, and was enabled,
by her familiarity with guilty plots, to take in at a glance the
significance of the scene. She kept perfect silence. The murder
of Acerronia showed her that it was her own life which was being
deliberately attempted under pretence of a shipwreck; but she clung
fiercely to that life, horrible as it had become, and little as she
could now hope ultimately to escape the machinations of her son.
Taking advantage of the confusion and the darkness, she dropped
herself unobserved into the sea. She was a good swimmer, and boldly
struck out for the land; though she then first became conscious that
during the scuffle she had received a wound in the shoulder, either
from the falling canopy or from the oar of one of the conspirators.
Every stroke was painful; she was weighted by her heavy robes, and
she doubted whether her strength would hold out; but still she swam
for the land with all her remaining force. Surely the silent stars
had never looked down on a stranger scene! Here was a matron who
but recently had swayed the world, a half-deified Empress, the
great-granddaughter of Augustus, the daughter of Germanicus, the
wife and priestess of one deified Emperor, and the mother of the
reigning Cæsar, swimming for her life in the jewelled robes which she
had worn at the imperial banquet--swimming for her life in the dark
waves, which became phosphorescent at every stroke, and thus trying
to escape to land from the gilded barge which had been murderously
wrecked by the contrivance of her son!

It happened that Pudens as one of the officers in charge of the
Prætorian escort, was spending his holiday at Baiæ, and had asked
Titus to accompany him. King Caractacus and Claudia were also there,
and had accepted the invitation of Pudens to join him and their young
favourite Titus for a moonlight sail on one of the scores of painted
shallops in which the visitors to the watering-place were enjoying
the beauty of the night. The youth’s eyes had been following the gay
vessel which bore Agrippina to Bauli. He saw that there had been some
strange disaster; he had heard the crash of the falling canopy, and
the discordant tumult of cries and groans which followed. He had seen
a splash in the water, and observed the golden divided ripple behind
some one who was evidently swimming to escape. He instantly steered
the pleasure-boat toward the swimmer, as did some fishermen in
another vessel who, then as now, were plying their trade by night.
The unhappy Empress first reached the boat of Pudens, and the
centurion stretched out his strong arm to rescue her. As she grasped
it the light of a torch upheld by Titus shone on his face, and she
recognised the young friend of Britannicus. He, too, by the same
light caught the flash of her jewels, and saw who she was.

‘Immortal gods!’ he exclaimed, ‘it is the Empress Agrippina!’

Claudia at once pressed to her side. Her face was deadly pale, and
the blood of Acerronia had left on it some ghastly spots of crimson.
The sleeve of her robe was stained with blood from the wound[*11] in
her shoulder. She was almost too exhausted to speak, but she faintly
whispered, ‘Hush! Do not mention my name. Let me be unknown.’

They laid her on the cushioned seat, and Claudia, sitting beside her,
clasped her hand, wrung the sea-water from the folds of her dripping
robe, tenderly parted the wet disordered tresses which clung about
her face, and covered her with a mantle, while, at her request,
they rowed her towards the Lucrine lake and the landing-place of
her villa. Titus bade the fisher-boat accompany them, for their own
little pinnace was overloaded. When they touched the land he offered
to run up to the villa and order her slaves to bring a litter for
their mistress. The Empress, however, entreated them not to wait, but
to carry her as best they could, for she was too weak to walk. A rude
litter was hastily constructed from a bench of the fishing-boat, and
in this humble and pathetic guise the Augusta was carried by Pudens
and Titus into the hall of her house, where a group of wondering and
terrified slaves awaited her.

The news had spread like wildfire among the thousands of idlers who
were promenading on the shore, and tumult reigned among them. What
did it mean? The night was absolutely calm. There were no rocks in
the bay. No collision had occurred. That there could have been a real
shipwreck was impossible. The gods themselves, by the exceptional
calmness of sea and air, seemed to have interfered to expose the
hypocritical pretence of any accident. But if there could have been
no accident, what was it that had happened? What were they to do?
They were in wild excitement. All along the shore of the bay were
crowds of men and women, who had streamed out of the villas at the
news of some variously reported disaster. No one knew the real facts
of the case. The strangest tales were repeated from mouth to mouth,
and on all sides were heard agitated questions and startling but
discordant answers. The sea-road and the sands and the causeway
of the Lucrine lake glimmered with countless torches, which flowed
now in one direction, now in another, like streams of fire. The one
steady report was that the Empress had been shipwrecked, and was
in danger of her life; and the one object was to get a share in
the credit of saving her. The piers and boats were crowded with an
impatient throng. Some stood at the very edge of the summer waves;
others waded neck deep into the warm and glowing water, and stood
with outstretched hands staring over the sea to catch sight of any
floating form. Amid the confusion, the little pleasure-boat of Pudens
was seen rippling its golden path toward Baiæ from the landing-stage
of Agrippina’s villa, and was instantly surrounded by throngs of
eager questioners. In answer to the confused inquiries, Pudens and
Titus said that undoubtedly the splendid state galley had, in some
way or other, been shipwrecked, but that the Empress-mother had
escaped by swimming, and was now safe at her own villa.

As the news spread among the multitudes, they streamed off to the
villa at Bauli to convey their congratulations and to surround
the house and gardens with applauding cries. Most of them felt
an agreeable sensation in the fact that a first-rate incident had
occurred to break the monotony of idleness and vulgar dissipation.

But Agrippina was lying in her chamber, shivering, agitated, with
aching body and despairing soul. The undaunted woman had betrayed to
her slaves and household no sign that she was aware of what had been
intended. She only told them that her galley had been shipwrecked,
and her life marvellously preserved. She expressed her deep regret
at the loss of her friends Acerronia and Crepereius, and ordered the
will of the former to be produced, and all her effects sealed. Not
till then did she withdraw into privacy, to meditate on what she
should do. All was too plain now! She understood that sugared letter
which had summoned her from Antium! She understood why her son had
sailed to Cape Misenum to meet her; why her own galley had been
purposely run into; why the gorgeous state-barge had been pressed
upon her acceptance! She saw through the exquisite banquet, the
hypocritical caresses, the murder so deliberately and diabolically
planned.... Alas! alas!

Revenge, the appeal to force, was out of the question. She was ill
and miserable, and felt drained of all her energies. The crowd buzzed
and shouted outside; but she gauged too well their cowardly and
vacillating nature to rely on any protection from them. She knew that
at the sight of a dozen soldiers they would be scattered like the
chaff. And who would strike a blow for her? Not the mob, for she was
universally hated; not the nobles or the Senate, for they loved her
not, and were in any case too selfish, too servile, and too much
steeped in dissolute luxury to lift a hand on her behalf. Would the
Prætorians rise at her bidding? It was more than doubtful, and if
they would, she was at Bauli and they at Rome.

But one thistledown of hope remained to bear the weight of her ruined
fortunes. Was it possible that, at the last moment, her son would
relent? Those farewell embraces seemed to express something genuine.
Perhaps when he found that he had, in spite of himself, escaped the
guilt of actual matricide, he might come to a better mind. The gods
had offered him one more opportunity for repentance: would he embrace
it? Yes; she came to the decision that her best course was to feign
ignorance of the design of which she had been the victim, and to
trust to the reawakenment of filial affection in Nero’s mind.

She summoned to her presence her freedman Lucius Agerinus.

‘Go to the Emperor,’ she said, ‘and tell him that, by the merciful
protection of the gods, his mother has been saved from a terrible
disaster. Anxious as he must naturally be about my safety, ask him
not to cherish any solicitude, but to postpone for the present the
visit which he will wish to pay me. I am greatly in need of rest.’

Agerinus set out, little foreseeing that he too was potentially a
murdered man. Agrippina--ill, disenchanted, utterly weary of the
world--once more lay on her couch, with throbbing brows and lacerated
soul, a prey to unspeakable anguish. A single slave-maiden was her
attendant; a single golden lamp shed its dim light from its marble
stand over her room. In her utmost need there was not one to whom she
could speak, or in whom she could confide. Oh, how she longed for one
hour of Pomponia’s company, for one whisper of the consolation which
had once fallen for a moment like the dew upon her soul! But Baiæ was
the last place where Pomponia would be likely to be found.

The slave-girl, withdrawn into the shadow, and engaged in spinning
wool, looked up furtively again and again at the face of the Empress,
who was too much absorbed in her own thoughts to notice her. The girl
saw passion after passion chase each other like dark clouds across
Agrippina’s face. At one moment the clenched hand, the quivering
nostril, the flashing glance, showed that the thought of possible
vengeance was passing through her soul. Then for a moment a
softer expression would smooth her features, as she dreamed of the
possibility of her son’s remorse. Then terror would express itself
on her features as she recognised the frightfulness of her position.
Last of all, an infinite languor seemed to droop through her whole
being, as she resigned herself to sullen despair.

In those dark uncertain hours she realised all the error and
infatuation of her life. Impunity, after so many crimes? Impunity,
when the menacing spectres of perjury and adultery and murder kept
starting upon her out of the darkness? Crispus Passienus poisoned;
Lucius Silanus hounded to death by lying informers; his murdered
brother Junius; her husband Claudius--were they all to be unavenged?
Had the gods no thunderbolts? Had the guilty ever escaped them? Had
Tiberius died in peace after his atrocities and crimes? Had Gaius
died in peace amid the tears of his beloved? Had Messalina escaped
the consequences of her debaucheries and murders? Did not the
violated laws of heaven put into the hand of their transgressors
their whips of flame? And as she began to realise that Retribution
dogs guilt like its own inevitable shadow, the line of the old Greek
poet rang ominously in her memory:--

   ‘Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind
        exceeding small.
    Though in patience long He waiteth, with exactness grinds
        He all.’


And, all the while, the nightingales in the gardens of her villa were
pealing forth their ecstasy, and the stars shone, and the soft wind
breathed of perfume.



CHAPTER XXXVI

_SELF-AVENGED_

    ‘Sua quemque fraus, suum facinus, suum scelus, sua audacia,
    de sanitate ac mente deturbat. Hæ sunt impiorum furiæ,
    hæ flammæ, hæ faces.’--CIC. _In Pisonem_, xx. 46.


Nero, in a mood of fearful restlessness, awaited news of the issue of
his design. Long ere this he ought to have received the intelligence
which would relieve his life of a great burden. Hardly for a moment
did the enormity of the crime he was committing press upon a soul
given up to shameful self-indulgence. He only yearned to be rid of a
figure which frightened him, and checked the rushing chariot-wheels
of his passions. Once free from his mother and her threats, he would
marry Poppæa and give himself up to whatever his heart desired. Too
uneasy to sleep, too much occupied with anxiety to follow his usual
pleasures, he talked to Tigellinus, who alone was with him, pacing up
and down the hall of his villa, tossing down goblet after goblet of
wine, and trying to conjure before his imagination the scene which
was being enacted. Surely it could not fail! And, if it succeeded,
the dead tell no tales, and the sea-waves would keep the secret!
Every one had seen the warmth of his attention to his mother, and
the affectionate tenderness with which he had bidden her farewell.
What remained but publicly to deplore with tears the sad bereavement
which had been inflicted on his youth by the treachery of winds and
waves, and then to decree to his mother’s memory the temples and the
altars which would be ostentatious proofs of his filial regard?

But how was it that no news had reached him? Three or four hours
had passed. By this time the deed must have been done. Something had
happened--so much was certain; for though he dared not send out to
inquire, as though he suspected that anything was wrong, yet from
the balcony he saw the torches moving in hurried streams hither and
thither, and he could hear the distant cries of excitement and alarm.

A messenger was announced.

‘Who is it?’ asked Nero anxiously.

‘The centurion Pudens,’ said the slave; ‘and he is accompanied by
Titus Flavius.’

Nero started at the name, for it recalled the night of the murder of
Britannicus.

‘What do they want?’

‘They have important tidings, which they will tell to Cæsar’s ears
alone.’

‘Admit them. See that the guard is on duty close at hand.’

Pudens and the youth were ushered into Nero’s presence, and, in
answer to his agitated inquiries, told him all that had occurred, and
how they had helped to rescue the Empress as she was saving herself
by swimming. They were dismissed, each with a handsome gift; and
scarcely had they left the room when Nero, pale as death, and with
a heart which throbbed with painful palpitations, flung himself on
a couch and turned a terrified look on his accomplice.

‘The plan has been bungled,’ he said. ‘I am ruined. My mother has
been wounded. She knows all.’

Tigellinus feared that in his terror he would swoon away, and
sprinkled his face with water.

‘What will she do?’ asked Nero in a faint voice. ‘Will she arm her
slaves to attack and murder me? Will she rouse the soldiers? Will
she go to Rome and accuse me of matricide before the Senate and the
people?’

The older and robuster villany of Tigellinus was not terrified by
these alarms; but he too saw that the situation was serious, and did
not know what to advise.

Nero, shaking with alarm, sent messengers in fiery haste for Burrus
and Seneca, both of whom had come from Rome to Baiæ at his request to
attend upon him during the Quinquatrus. They were roused from their
beds at the dead of night, and hurried to Nero’s villa. He told them
that, after his mother had left him, her vessel had been wrecked, and
that she had swam to land with no worse hurt than a slight wound; but
he added, ‘She suspects that I have attempted her life: and how am I
to escape her vengeance?’

Burrus and Seneca stood silent and thunderstricken. They were
innocent of the vile attempt. Dim rumours of some grave crime which
was in contemplation had indeed reached them; and in Nero’s court
everything seemed credible. The murder had been the design of the
execrable Anicetus and the yet more execrable Tigellinus, and had
only been revealed to kindred spirits such as Poppæa. But they at
once saw through the story which Nero told them, in which he had
indeed betrayed himself.

It was a moment of anguish and of degradation for them both. The
blunt, honest soldier was thinking of his happier youth, in which
virtue was not compelled to breathe so contaminated an atmosphere. He
was secretly cursing the day on which ambition had led him to espouse
the cause of Nero, and so to be dragged into loathed complicity with
so many crimes.

And through the heart of Seneca there shot a pang of yet keener
agony. He a philosopher; he a Stoic; he a writer of so many
high-soaring moral truths; he so superior to the vile and vulgar
standard of his age--to what had he now sunk! Was this corrupt
fratricide--this would-be murderer of his mother--the timid boy
who, little more than five years before, had been entrusted to his
tutelage? And was he now called upon to advise the most feasible way
in which a matricide could be accomplished? Was he, of all men, to
be the Pylades to _this_ viler Orestes? Was it to the edge of such
a precipice that he had been led by the devious ways of a selfish
ambition?

A nobler path was open to him had he desired it. Why should he not
have urged Nero to visit his mother, to expostulate with her if need
be, to be reconciled with her in reality? Might he not have told him
that, if Agrippina were really conspiring, it would be better for
him to run that risk than to stain his hands in a mother’s blood?
Titus was not a professed philosopher like Seneca, yet Titus rose
spontaneously to that height of virtue in later years. He knew that
his brother Domitian was working in secret as his deadly enemy,
yet he only took him gently aside, and entreated him to behave more
worthily of a brother. And when he saw that his entreaty had failed,
he did indeed weep as he sat at the games, but he would not shed his
brother’s blood.

Alas! the conscience of Seneca did not suggest to him this means
by which he could extricate himself. That Agrippina was, at such a
crisis, preparing to rebel against her son he did not believe; but
might she not--so whispered to him once more the demon of concession
--might she not become dangerous hereafter? In other words, must he
not help the Emperor to accomplish his fell purpose? The silence
became intolerable.

At last Seneca turned his troubled eyes on Burrus, as though to
inquire whether it would be safe to command the execution of
Agrippina by the Prætorians.

Burrus understood his look and bluntly replied that such a thing was
not to be thought of. The Prætorians would never lift a hand against
the daughter of Germanicus. The same thought had been in his mind as
in that of Seneca, though he had blushed to give it utterance. But
now that he saw the drift of his colleague’s purpose, he gulped down
his scruples, and said with sullen brevity, ‘Let Anicetus complete
what he has begun.’

Anicetus had been on board the deceitful vessel, and, on the failure
of the device, had made his way with all speed in a rowing boat to
the Emperor’s villa. He entered at the moment when Burrus spoke. Nero
turned on him a look of rage, and, walking up to him, stammered into
his ear the threat that his life should pay the penalty of his clumsy
failure.

‘Be calm, Cæsar,’ he replied in a whisper; ‘your wish shall still be
accomplished. Only give me your authority to end the business.’

Anicetus hated Agrippina for private reasons, and he knew that,
if she were not put to death, she would demand vengeance upon him,
since the treachery on board the vessel could not have been effected
without his cognizance. ‘Leave it in my hands,’ he said. ‘If Seneca
and Burrus are too timid to strike a blow for their Emperor, at least
Anicetus will not shrink.’

‘Thanks, Anicetus,’ said Nero, changing his mood. ‘To-day, for the
first time, I feel secure. Now I begin to recognise that I am indeed
Emperor. And a freedman is the author of the boon!’

He frowned at his two ministers to reprove their backwardness in
murder, and effusively grasped the hand of the admiral. Burrus, as
he looked at his scowling countenance, felt a fresh pang of remorse
that he had ever deserted the cause of Britannicus. Seneca said to
his agonised conscience, ‘If one would be the friend of a tyrant,
one must not only wink at crimes, but commit them without a moment’s
hesitation, however heinous they may be.’

While Anicetus was hastily suggesting the steps to be taken,
the announcement came that one of Agrippina’s attendants--Lucius
Agerinus--was waiting outside with a verbal message from the Augusta.
Before he was admitted Nero whispered something to Anicetus. ‘Yes,
yes,’ said the admiral, ‘the plan is excellent.’

Both Seneca and Burrus were amazed and shocked at the stupid and
shameless comedy which was then enacted before their eyes. Agerinus
had hardly begun to deliver his message when Nero, stepping up to
him, dropped a sword at his feet. It fell with a clang on the white
and purple mosaic, and instantly Nero and Anicetus began to clamour,
‘Murder! treason! murder! he has been sent by Agrippina to stab the
Emperor!’

At this shout the body-guard came running in, and Agerinus was loaded
with chains. Anicetus now had the excuse he needed. He summoned a
band of soldiers and marines, and, accompanied by Herculeius, one
of his naval captains, and Obaritus, an officer of the marines, he
made his way to the villa at Bauli, giving out that he was ordered
to execute Agrippina, who had just been detected in an attempt to
assassinate her son.

They found the precincts of the villa thronged by a curious crowd.
These they drove away, and surrounded the grounds with guards. The
slaves dispersed in all directions. Agrippina was still in her dimly
lighted room, growing momently more alarmed because Agerinus did not
return and she received no message from Nero. Nearer and nearer came
the tread of feet till they heard the soldiers enter the atrium.
There followed a brief altercation as the murderers scattered the
few faithful attendants who would still have guarded the door of
the chamber. The slave-girl rose to fly.

‘Dost thou also desert me?’ said the Empress bitterly.

But the girl’s figure had scarcely disappeared when the door was
rudely burst open, and she saw the cruel face of her enemy Anicetus,
who held his drawn sword in his hand.

For a moment they stopped before her imperious gesture.

‘If you have come from my son to inquire after my health,’ she said,
‘tell him that I am better. If you have come to commit a crime, I
will not believe that you have his authority.’

‘We have his authority,’ said Anicetus. ‘Behold his signet-ring!’

They advanced upon her. She sprang from her couch and stood erect.
Then the brutal Herculeius struck her a blow on the head with his
baton, and Anicetus aimed his sword at her breast. She avoided the
stroke, and, rending her tunic, ‘Strike here,’ she said, pointing to
her womb; ‘it bore a monster!’

She fell, stricken down, and thrust through with many deadly wounds.

Thus ended that career of wickedness and splendour. Almost from the
day which consummated her many crimes she heard behind her the fatal
footstep of the avenger. Her murder of Claudius had placed the diadem
upon the brow of her own murderer. For that young murderer she had
felt the frantic love of a tigress for the cub which she licks and
fondles. And now the tiger-whelp had shown the nature which it
inherited.

       *       *       *       *       *

When Nero received the news that his mother was dead, he would not
trust to any testimony. With wild haste and utmost secrecy he went
to the villa at Bauli. With trembling hand he drew the winding-sheet
from the face, and gazed on the corpse. The colour fled from his
cheeks; but after a moment or two he grew bolder. The matricide
was still the æsthete. ‘I did not know,’ he said, ‘that I had so
beautiful a mother.’ Then he hurried back.

That same night they carried her corpse to the funeral pyre. It was
laid upon a couch from her banquet-hall, for lack of a regular bier.
Hurried and scant and humble were her obsequies. Her ashes were laid
in a mean grave near the road to Misenum, where the villa of the
dictator Cæsar crowned an eminence which commanded a wide view of
the gulf.

During the remaining ten years of her son’s reign, the site of her
sepulchre was left unhonoured and no mound was raised above her ashes.
But the spot was not forgotten, and to this day the peasant points
to the Sepolcro d’ Agrippina. One instance of faithfulness gave a
yet more pathetic interest to the spot where so many lofty hopes were
quenched in blood. Before the pyre was kindled, Mnester, her loyal
freedman, stabbed himself over her corpse. He would not survive a
mistress who, whatever had been her crimes, had been kind to him,
and whom he loved.

What pathos is there in the fact that even the worst and most
criminal of human souls have rarely died entirely unloved! Even a
Marat, even a Robespierre, even a Borgia, even an Agrippina, found
at least one to mourn when they were dead.



CHAPTER XXXVII

_VICTOR OVER THE PUBLIC SERVITUDE_

              ‘Palliduamque visa
    Matris lampade respicis Neronem.’

                          STAT. _Sylv._ II. vii. 118.

          ‘Prima est hæc ultio, quod se
    Judice nemo nocens absolvitur.’

                                JUV. _Sat._ xiii. 2.


There is a marvellous force of illumination in a great crime, but
it is the lurid illumination of the lightning-flash, revealing to
the lost Alpine wanderer the precipices which yawn on every side of
him. While the murder was yet to do, Nero could talk of it lightly
and eagerly among the accomplices who were in the secret. To the
irresponsible Emperor of the world it did not seem so great a matter
to order the murder of a mother. But when the deed was done, when
he had got back to his Baian villa, when the pale face flecked with
crimson bloodstains came hauntingly back upon his memory, a horror
of great darkness fell upon him. Then first he realised the atrocious
magnitude of his crime, and every moment there rang in his ears a
damning accusation. The very birds of the air seemed to flit away
from him, twittering ‘Matricide! matricide!’ He drank more Falernian
from the glittering table, on which yet lay the remains of the
banquet, but it seemed as if all his senses were too preternaturally
acute with horror to be dulled by wine. He lay down to sleep, but
strange sounds seemed to be creeping through the dead stillness of
the night, which made him shudder with alarm. If he closed his eyes,
there flashed at once upon them the pale face, the firm-set lips, the
splashes of blood. The dead eyes of his mother seemed to open upon
him with a gleam of vengeance. Till that night he had never known
what it was to dream. He started up with a shriek and summoned his
attendants round him, and paced up and down in a frenzy of delirium,
declaring that when the dawn came he would certainly be slain. They
persuaded him to lie down again, but scarcely had he dropped into an
uneasy sleep when it seemed to him as though he saw the three Furies
sweeping down upon him with the blue snakes gleaming in their hair
and the torches shaken in their hands, while his mother, who pointed
them to him, shrieked aloud, ‘Ho! murderer of thy mother! no sleep
henceforth for thee!’

Leaping once more from that couch of agony, he sat mute, and
trembling in every limb, his clenched hands buried in his hair,
waiting in anguish the break of day. When the first beam of dawn
lit the east, it showed a youth whose pallid features were haggard
with agonies of fear.

If there had been a spark of nobleness in the Roman world, the
indignation of a people’s moral sense might have sprung to arms
and smitten the tyrant while he was yet red-handed from his crime.
Nothing was farther from the general intention. The universal
desire was to ‘skin and film the ulcerous place’ with adulation and
hypocrisy. Men, not naturally evil or case-hardened, were carried
away by the tide of complaisance to the imperial murderer. As though
to leave no chance for any feelings of penitence to work, all classes
began to flood him with congratulations. The fears which at the
moment he half mistook for remorse vanished like the early dew, for
society seized upon the convention that Agrippina, detected in a plot
against the life of her son, had been justly executed. The tribunes
and centurions of the Prætorians, Burrus at their head, came to
Nero that morning, poured their felicitations upon him, pressed
his hands, expressed their effusive joy that he had escaped from so
sudden a peril created by his mother’s crime. His friends crowded to
the temples to thank the gods for his safety. There was scarcely a
town of Campania which did not express its joy by sending deputations
and offering victims. Distant provinces caught the infection, and
Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul surpassed all the rest by the fulsome
entreaty which they sent by their ambassador, Julius Africanus, ‘that
Nero would endure his felicity with fortitude!’ Certainly it did not
seem as if there were much cause for fear! In a few days Nero became
an adept at the counter-hypocrisy with which he feigned to weep over
the fate of his mother, and to be grieved by his own deliverance!

But places cannot change their aspect as do the looks of men. From
the windows and gardens of Nero’s villa were always visible the
sea which he had attempted to pollute, the long line of shore which
he had stained with a mother’s blood. The aspect of nature in that
lovely spot had lost its fascination. It seemed to be eloquent with
mute reproach. And what were those sounds which assailed his ears at
the dead of night? What meant that blast of a solitary trumpet, blown
by no earthly breath, from the promontory of Misenum? What meant
those ghostly wailings which seemed to shriek around his mother’s
grave? He could not endure this haunted place. He fled to Naples.

From thence he despatched to the Senate a letter, of which the
conceits betrayed, alas! the hand of Seneca. ‘As yet,’ he wrote, ‘I
cannot believe, I do not rejoice, that I am safe.’ Men of letters
admired the euphuistic phrases and despised their author. The
letter did not mention any details, but left it to be inferred that
Agrippina, detected in an attempt to murder her son, had committed
suicide. And then with unmanly malignity it dwelt on the long
catalogue of her crimes--her bitter enmities, her immense ambition,
her unscrupulous intrigues. To her it attributed all the cruelties
of the reign of Claudius, and it ended by saying that her death was
a public blessing. The more cynical of the senators laughed at the
absurdities of this missive, for it narrated Agrippina’s shipwreck
as though it had been accidental, and tried to gain credence for the
gross absurdity that a woman barely saved from drowning had chosen
the moment of her rescue to send off to murder her only son in the
midst of his fleets and cohorts!

But though men shook their heads at Seneca, they plunged no less
emulously into the vortex of criminal adulation. Public thanksgivings
were decreed to all the gods; annual games at the Quinquatrus; a
golden statue to Minerva in the senate-house, with a statue of the
Emperor beside it. The birthday of Agrippina was pronounced accursed.
Such abject servility was too much for the haughty spirit of Pætus
Thrasea. He rose from his seat and left the senate-house in silence,
and a blush rose to the cheek of not a few who did not dare to follow
him.

Yet, after all, Nero was so timid that six months elapsed before he
ventured once more to face the people of his capital. An eclipse of
the sun had happened during the thanksgiving decreed by the Senate.
Fourteen regions of the city had been struck by lightning. Would
these portents of heaven awaken the tardy indignation of men? Every
piece of news, however trivial, frightened him. He was told the
ridiculous story that a woman had given birth to a snake. Was that
meant by the gods, if there were any, for a scornful symbol of
himself? There were hours in which it seemed to him as if the Empire
itself would be a poor price for the purchase of one day of the
innocence which he had so frightfully sacrificed.

But the foul creatures who swarmed about him assured him with the
effrontery of experienced villany that he need not be in the least
anxious as to the obsequiousness of the Senate and the zeal of the
people.

‘You will find yourself more popular than before,’ they said. ‘Every
one detested Agrippina. Go to Rome with confidence, and you will see
that you are as much adored as ever.’

They were right in their conjectures. Even Nero was amazed at the
_abandon_ of welcome, the delirium of ostentatious applause with
which he was received, while his hands were still red-wet with his
mother’s blood. The people thronged forth by their tribes to greet
him. The senators were in festal array. They were surrounded by
their wives and children. Stages had been built all along the road,
in which the spectators had purchased their places to look on as at
a triumph. Incense burned in the streets; the shouts of myriads of
voices rent the air. Rome received him not as a murderer, but rather
as a great conqueror or a human god. And he, as he rode in his gilded
chariot through those serried files of cheering flatterers, proudly
upheld his head, tossed back the curls from his forehead, smiled, and
bent low, and, accepting these greetings as a tribute to his merits,
drowned deep within his heart all sense of shame. With long retinue
and dazzling pomp he visited the Capitol, gave thanks to Jupiter,
best and greatest, and returned to the Palace ‘a victor over the
public servitude.’

Yet even so he could not escape. He dared not be left alone. The
manes of his mother haunted him by day and by night. In vain he
practised the old expiatory rites to rid himself of the menacing
phantom. On the night of May 13, two months after Agrippina’s death,
he determined to go through the mummery of the Lemuralia, which
some of his credulous advisers had told him would be efficacious.
At midnight, amid the dead silence, he stole with naked feet to
the water of the fountain in the atrium, and there, trembling with
excitement, washed his hands thrice. Then with his thumb and finger,
he filled his mouth with nine black beans, and, full of superstitious
horror, flung them one by one behind him over his shoulder, saying
each time, ‘With these beans redeem me and mine.’ Arrived at his
chamber he again dipped his hands in water, and beat a great brazen
gong to terrify the pursuing ghost.[73] Then he turned round,
and peered with a frightened glance into the darkness; and as
he peered--was even this expiation all in vain?--what were those
glimmering lights? What was that white and wavy form? A shriek
rang through the villa, and Nero sank fainting into the arms of the
timid minions who had awaited the result of the expiation and rushed
forward at his cry.

The following year, when he had returned to the city, he repeated
this antiquated rite, and he commanded the vestals to bear him
specially in mind when, on the Ides of May, they flung from the
Sublician Bridge into the Tiber the thirty little figures called
_argei_, made of bulrushes, which were supposed to be in lieu of
human sacrifices.

Then he tried yet further forms of magic and yet darker rites of
propitiation to the infernal powers, in which it was whispered
that human blood--the blood of murdered infants--formed part of the
instruments of sorcery. But he could learn no secrets of the future;
he could evoke no powers who could ward away that white menacing
spectre which gleamed upon him if at any moment he found himself
alone in the hours of night.

Nero became a haunted man. The whole earth seemed to him to be ‘made
of glass’ to reveal his turpitude. He knew in his miserable heart
that the very street boys of Rome--the ragged urchins of the slaves
and gladiators--were aware of the crime which he had committed. Kind
friends kept him informed, under pretence of officious indignation,
that one night an infant had been found exposed in the Forum with
a scrap of parchment round its neck, on which was written, ‘_I
expose you, lest you should murder your mother_;’ and that, another
night, a sack had been hung round the neck of his statue as though to
threaten him with the old weird punishment of parricides. Once, when
he was looking on at one of the rude plays known as Atellane, the
actor Datus had to pronounce the line,

    ‘Good health to you, father; good health to you, mother;’

and, with the swift inimitable gestures of which the quick Italian
people never missed the significance, he managed to indicate Claudius
dying of poison and Agrippina swimming for her life. The populace
roared out its applause at an illusion so managed that it could
hardly be resented; and once again, when coming to the line,

    ‘Death drags you by the foot.’

Datus indicated Nero’s hatred to the Senate by pointing significantly
to Nero at the word ‘_death_’ and to the senatorial seats as he
emphasized the word ‘_you_.’

But Nero was liable to insults still more direct. Could he not read
with his own eyes the _graffito_ scrawled upon every blank space of
wall in Rome: ‘_Nero, Orestes, Alcmæon, matricidæ_’? He could not
detect or punish these anonymous scrawlers, but he would have liked
to punish men of rank, whom he well knew to have written stinging
satires against him, branding him with every kind of infamy.

Two resources alone were adequate to dissipate the terrors of
his conscience--the intoxication of promiscuous applause and the
self-abandonment to a sensuality which grew ever more shameless as
the restraints of Agrippina’s authority and Seneca’s influence were
removed.

Nero had long delighted to sing to the harp at his own banquets
in citharœdic array. To the old Roman dignity such conduct seemed
unspeakably degrading in the Emperor of the legions. Yet Nero
divulged his shame to the world by having himself represented in
statues and on coins in the dress of a harpist, his lips open as
though in the act of song, his lyre half supported on a baldric
embossed with gems, his tunic falling in variegated folds to his
feet, and his arms covered by the chlamys, while with his delicate
left hand he twanged the strings, and with his right struck them with
the golden plectrum. The pains which he took to preserve his voice,
which after all was dull and harsh, were almost incredible. Following
the advice of every quack who chose to pass himself off as an expert,
he used to walk about with his thick neck encircled in a puffy
handkerchief, to sleep with a plate of lead on his chest, and to
live for a month at a time on peas cooked in oil.

To give him more opportunities for display he instituted the
Juvenalia to celebrate his arrival at full manhood, as marked by the
shaving of his beard. His first beard was deposited in a box of gold,
adorned with costly pearls, and he dedicated it to the Capitoline
Jupiter. But even this event in his life was accompanied by a crime.
Shortly before he laid aside his beard he paid a visit to his aunt
Domitia, who was ill.

Laying her hand on the soft down, she said to him in her blandishing
way, ‘As soon as I have received this, I am ready to die.’

Nero turned round to the loose comrades who usually attended him and
whispered, with a coarse jest, ‘Then I will shave it off at once.’

From that sick-bed Domitia, who was almost the last of Nero’s living
relatives, never rose again. The Roman world suspected foul play on
the part of the physicians at Nero’s order. Certain it is that he
seized all her ample possessions, and suppressed her will.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

_THE GLADIATORS’ SCHOOL_

    ‘Commorabor inter homicidas, inclusus turpiore custodia
    et sordido cellarum situ.’ ‘In ludo fui, qua pœna nullam
    graviorem scelera noverunt, cujus ad comparationem
    ergastulum leve est.’--QUINCTILIAN.


Although the intervention of the vestal and the kindly ruse of Pudens
had saved the life of Onesimus, his condition was far from enviable.
He was once more--now for the third time in his life--in overwhelming
disgrace. It is true that all the legal customs were observed, in a
house controlled by that respect for archæology which the fashion had
been set by Augustus. The chains were taken off his limbs and flung
out of the court through the impluvium. None the less he felt that
he was marked and shunned. One day, after his escape, Nero passed him
in one of the corridors, and, struck by the appearance of a handsome
youth, beckoned him to approach. He came forward trembling, and the
Emperor, peering into his face, recognised the purple-keeper of
Octavia. Inspired by sudden disgust at the memories thus called to
his recollection, he summoned his dispensator Callicles into his
presence, and ordered him to get rid of ‘that worthless Phrygian.’

‘Shall I put him in prison, or have him sent again to the ergastulum
at Antium?’ asked Callicles.

‘Neither,’ said Nero. ‘The City Prætor, Pedanius Secundus, is about
to give some votive games of beasts and gladiators. Make a present to
him of this youth.’

Onesimus heard the words, and his heart sank within him. But
resistance was useless. On his way he passed the door of Acte’s
apartments, and not without peril ventured to sing a few notes of
the old Thyatiran ballad which had first attracted her notice. She
heard it, and came out.

‘That youth comes from my native land,’ she said to the dispensator.
‘Step back a few paces and let me have a word with him.’

Callicles would hardly have granted the favour to any one else,
but every one loved Acte, and he only said, ‘If Nero should come?’...

‘I will hold you clear,’ said Acte.

Onesimus, overcome with shame, knelt on one knee, kissed the fringe
of her robe, and whispered, ‘Oh, Acte, I am condemned to be a
gladiator.’

‘In which school?’

‘Under Rutulus, the trainer of Pedanius Secundus--the cruellest man
in Rome.’

He told her something of his story, and she saw that to help him
was beyond her power. All she could do was to slip into his hand her
own purse, and to tell him that if ever the day came when she could
befriend him she would do her utmost. More she dared not say, for the
suspicious eyes of Callicles were upon her, and she had to repress
the emotion which agitated her frame.

In the school of Rutulus, Onesimus experienced a phase of misery
even deeper than in the slave-prison of Antium. Once more he was the
companion of felons of every dye and fugitives of every nationality.
Every day came the severe drill, the coarse food which was worse than
hunger, the odious society of hardened ruffians, the recounting of
the brutal tragedies with which they were familiar. Among them all he
found but one whose society he could tolerate. He was a dark-haired,
blue-eyed Briton, young like himself, but in all other respects
unlike him. For Æquoreus, as they called him, was full of manly pride
and hardihood, and had none of the subtle softness of the Asiatic
in his temperament. He had been reduced to his hard lot for no other
crime than the outburst of a passionate independence. He had been
brought over with Caractacus, as one of the Britons pre-eminent
in stature and beauty to grace the ovation of Claudius and Aulus
Plautius. He had not been treated cruelly, for the admiration
inspired by the dauntless bearing of the British king had secured
protection to his countrymen; but Glanydon--to give him his Silurian
name--loathed the effeminate luxuries of Rome, and, forgetting that
he was a captive, had once struck in the face a Prætorian officer
who insulted him. For this offence he had been first scourged and
then handed over to the master of the gladiators. It was ordered
that he should fight, as soon as he was trained, in some great
display. Onesimus saw that the young Briton shared his own disgust
at the orgies of ribald talk in which their fellows indulged. The two
had no other friends, and they were drawn together for mutual defence
against the rude horse-play of their comrades. Glanydon was one of
the class of gladiators called Samnites, who fought in heavy armour,
while, after various trials, the trainer (_lanista_) decided that
the exceptional activity of Onesimus marked him out for the work of
a net-thrower (_retiarius_). Their training had to be hurried on at
the utmost speed, for the games were to take place within a month.

The other gladiators sometimes talked of their lot with pretended
rapture. They spoke of the liberal supply of food, of the presents
sent them, of the favour with which they were regarded by fair
ladies--even by the wives and daughters of great patricians--of
the fame they acquired, so that their prowess and the comparison
of their merits was one of the commonest topics of talk at Roman
dinner-parties. They boasted of the delight of seeing their
likenesses painted in red on the play-bills; of the shouts with
which a favourite fighter was welcomed; of the yell of applause which
greeted them when they had performed a gallant feat; of the chance
of retiring with wreaths and gifts and money, when they had earned
by their intrepidity the wooden foil.[74]

‘Poor wretches,’ said Onesimus to Glanydon; ‘they do not talk of the
panic which sometimes seizes them, and how they are howled at when,
in ignominious defeat, they fly to the end of the arena to beg for
their lives; how, when they see overwhelming odds against them and
grim death staring them in the face, they are still driven into
the fight with cracking scourges and plates of iron heated red hot;
nor--but what is the use of talking of all this, Glanydon? you know
it all better than I do.’

‘Brutal, bloody, slaves and women, are these Romans,’ cried Glanydon.
‘The Druids of my native land served the gods with cruel rites, but
they did not play with death as though it were a pretty toy, as these
weaklings do. And to think that by arms and discipline they conquered
my countrymen! Oh, for one hour again under Caradoc or under Boudicca!
I would never leave another field alive.’

‘You do not, then, fear death?’ said Onesimus.

‘Why should I? What has life for me? The maiden I loved is in her
hut on my Silurian hills. I shall never see her more, nor set foot
on those purple mist-clad mountains. I shall be butchered to amuse
these swine. Death! No,’ he said, while he indignantly dashed away
the tear which had burst forth at the thought of his home--‘I do not
fear death, but I hate to die thus.’

‘Did your Druids think that death ended all?’

Glanydon turned his blue eyes on the speaker. ‘I do not think they
did. There were mysteries which they hid from us. But’....

With amazement Onesimus saw him sketch in the dust the helmet of
a mirmillo, of which the crest was a dolphin. The Phrygian said
nothing, but scratched in the dust the same symbol. Glanydon started
up and seized his hand. ‘A Christian?’ he asked in amazement; ‘and
yet here?’

‘You too are here,’ said Onesimus, hanging his head.

‘Ah, yes!’ said the Briton; ‘but surely for no crime. What could I do
but strike a wretch viler than a worm? Nor have I been illuminated--
my teacher would not baptise me till he could see proof that I had
controlled the fierce outbursts of passion.’

‘Your teacher?’

‘There came from Jerusalem an old white-haired man. They called him
Joseph. He had seen the Christ; he had buried Him in his own tomb.
--But you, Onesimus?’

‘I am no better than a renegade. My own follies have brought me here.
There is no more hope for me. Ask me no more.’

‘Do you fear death?’ asked the Briton. ‘If so, I pity your lot.’

‘The gods--or God if there be but one God--cannot be _worse_ than
men,’ answered Onesimus gloomily.

Glanydon was silent. After a pause, he said, ‘I am a rude barbarian,
as they call me here; yet he who taught me spoke much of “love for
all and hope for all.”’

Onesimus sat with bowed head, and the Briton was moved. ‘We are
brothers,’ he said. ‘Even in this hell we can love one another.’

But one sickening thought was in the breasts of both of them.
They had sat side by side in daily intercourse; their common
friendlessness, their common sympathies, had thrown them together
in the closest bonds, and those bonds had been strengthened by the
discovery that both had been taught at least the rudiments of a holy
faith. But the day of the games was rapidly approaching, and the
chances of the lot, or the caprice of the Prætor, might easily cause
them to be pitted against each other. It was horrible to think that
either of them might be compelled to drive sword or dagger into the
throat or heart of his friend.

‘Supposing that we are matched together?’ said Glanydon, the evening
before the display.

‘Then we must fight,’ said Onesimus. ‘Have we not taken the oath “to
be bound, to be burned, to be scourged, to be slain,” or do anything
else that is required of us as legitimate gladiators, giving up alike
our souls and our bodies?’[75]

‘Which of us will win?’ asked Glanydon, with a sad smile.

‘You,’ said the Phrygian. ‘You are stronger than I am, and taller.’

‘Yes, but you are quicker and more active, and you can’t tell how I
hate that net of yours. I know you will catch me in it--’

‘If I do, you will still have fought so well that the people will all
turn down their thumbs, and you will be spared. A tall fine fellow
like you is just the gladiator whom the Roman ladies like to look at,
and they won’t have you killed in your first fight. But as for me--a
mere Phrygian slave!--Yes, Glanydon, to-morrow your short sword will
perhaps be red with my blood.’

‘Never!’ said Glanydon. ‘I will fight because I must, and will do my
best; and when my blood is up I might kill you or any other opponent
in the blind heat of the combat; but as for slaughtering in cold
blood I could not do it--least of all could I murder the friend I
love.’

‘You won’t be able to help yourself, Glanydon. And we netsmen (worse
luck!) have our faces uncovered. Many of the spectators, like the
late “divine” Claudius, as they call him, like to see us killed,
because our dying expression is not concealed by a helmet.’

‘But why should we not both escape?’ asked the Briton. ‘Perhaps
before this time to-morrow we may each be the happy possessor of
the ivory ticket with “_Sp._”[76] upon it, or even of the palm and
the foil. Who knows but what by our bravery we may be _rude donati_?’

‘Don’t you know, then, that to-morrow’s games will very likely be
_sine missione_? We must either die or kill.’

The Briton had not been aware of it. He sank into gloomy silence.
Onesimus gently laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder, and said,
‘Well, perhaps, like Priscus and Verrus, we may both be victors and
both vanquished. _Pugnavere pares, succubuere pares._’

Glanydon shook his head. He said, ‘Let us talk no more, or we shall
both be unmanned. Life--death--to-morrow; the _rudis_ or the stab?
Which shall it be?’

‘It is in God’s hands,’ said Onesimus, ‘if what we have been taught
is true.’

With that awful issue before them, overshadowed by misgivings and
almost with despair, finding life horrible, yet shrinking from the
death which neither of them dared to regard with full Christian hope,
the two youths lay down on their pallets. Before they closed their
eyes in sleep, each of them had breathed some sort of unuttered cry
into the dim unknown.



CHAPTER XXXIX

_THE FIGHT IN THE ARENA_

           ‘Quid vesani sibi vult ars impia ludi?
    Quid mortes juvenum? quid sanguine parta voluptas?’

                                                 PRUDENTIUS.

    ‘Mera homicidia sunt.’--SENECA, _Ep._ 7.


The morning broke in cloudless splendour. Long before the dawn
thousands of the Roman populace had thronged into the amphitheatre
to secure the best places. The City Præfect was known to be a man of
taste and a favourite of Nero, and the Emperor himself was certain to
grace the display with his idolised presence. The pairs of gladiators
were not numerous, nor were there many wild beasts; but everything
was to be choice of its kind, and it was rumoured that some beautiful
foreign youths were to make their first appearance as fighters.

About eleven o’clock the rays of the sun became too strong for
comfort, and a huge awning, decorated with gay streamers, was drawn
over the audience by gilded cords.

By this time the amphitheatre, except the seats reserved for
distinguished persons, was thronged from the lowest seats to the
topmost ambulatory, where stood a dense array of slaves and of the
lowest proletariat. They did not get tired of waiting, for the scene
was one of continual bustle and brightness, as group after group
of burghers, in their best array, took their seats with their wives
and families. Any well-known patrician or senator was greeted with
applause or with hisses. The buzz of general conversation sometimes
rose into a roar of laughter, and sometimes sank into a hush of
expectancy. Little incidents kept occurring every moment. Interlopers
tried to thrust themselves into the fourteen rows of seats which were
set apart for the knights, and an altercation often ensued between
the seat-keeper, Oceanus, and these impostors. Now the people laughed
at the unceremonious way in which he shook one of them who, to escape
notice, had pretended to be asleep. They were still more amused when
the impatient official turned out a finely dressed personage who
protested that he was a knight, but unluckily dropped in the scuffle
a large key, which showed him to be a slave.

At last the shouting of the multitude who thronged about the
principal entrance announced the arrival of the Præfect. Amid the
acclamations of the populace, the magnificent procession by which
Pedanius was accompanied passed round the arena to the reserved
seats. Pedanius was scarcely seated, when the Emperor, surrounded
by a group of his most brilliant courtiers, took his place in the
imperial box. As the roar of applause continued, he rose again
and again with his hand on his heart, to bow and cringe before the
public--_omnia serviliter pro imperio_. For the mob of Rome was at
once his master and his slave, and was as ready at slight excuse
to burst into open menaces as into blasphemous adulation. Nero was
as well aware as Tiberius that ‘he was only holding a wolf by the
ears;’ and he often quoted the saying of that keen observer, that
few realised ‘what a monster Empire was.’

Then Pedanius rose in his seat and flung down the scarlet napkin
which was the signal that the sports were to begin.

The opening amusements were harmless and curious. First a number
of German aurochs were led round the circus. They had been trained
to stand still while boys hung from their huge horns, or danced
and fenced standing on their broad backs. A tiger was guided by
its keeper with a chain of flowers. Four chariots swept past in
succession, the first drawn by leopards with gay silken harness,
the second by stags champing golden bits, the third by shaggy bisons,
the fourth by four camels who amused the people by their expression
of supercilious disapproval. Then an elephant performed some clumsy
dances under the bidding of its black keeper. Next a winged boy
led in a wild boar by a purple halter. Last of all, a tame lion was
introduced, which, to the delight of the shouting populace, dandled
a hare in its paws without hurting it, and then suffered its keeper
to put his head and his hand in its open mouth. But at this point a
frightful tragedy occurred. Wherever the dazzling white sand of the
arena chanced to have been disturbed or stained, it was raked smooth,
and fresh sand sprinkled, by boys dressed as Cupids with glittering
wings. One of these boys, presuming on the lion’s tameness, hit
it rather sharply with his rake. The royal brute had been already
excited by hearing the howling of the animals of all sorts with
which the _vivarium_ was crowded, as well as by the shouts of the
spectators, and its keeper had stupidly neglected to notice the signs
of its rising rage. But when the sharp edge of the rake struck it,
the lion’s mane bristled, and with a terrific snarl he first laid
the poor lad dead with one stroke of his paw, and then sprang with a
mighty bound upon a second lad, on whose quivering limbs he fleshed
his claws and teeth.[77] A cry of horror and alarm rose from the
people, and those who sat just above the level of the amphitheatre
started up in terror, for they were only protected from the wild
beasts by rails, which had been finished off with amber and silver,
but did not look very strong. The brute, which had thus shown ‘a wild
trick of its ancestors,’ was soon overpowered, for the keeper was
skilled in the use of the lasso. But this incident did but whet
the appetite of the spectators for blood. They shouted to Pedanius
to begin the _venatio_ and the wild-beast fights which formed the
morning show. No expense had been spared to sate the insatiable
cruelty of the mob. For an hour or two longer they were gratified
with a prodigality of anguish. Ostriches and giraffes were chased
round and round, and shot to death with arrows. Wild beasts fought
with tame beasts and with wild beasts, and beasts with men. Bears,
lions, and tigers were worried and hacked by armed _bestiarii_, and
sometimes a _bestiarius_ in his turn lay rolling on the sand, crushed
by a bear or torn by the fierce struggles of a panther. Lastly,
some unskilled, defenceless criminals were turned loose into the
amphitheatre amid a fresh batch of animals, infuriated by hunger
and mad with excitement. None of the poor weaponless wretches--_sine
armis, sine arte, seminudi_--could stand up for a moment against
the bear’s hug or the tiger’s leaps. They stood in attitudes of
despairing stupefaction, watching the horrible rolling gait of the
bears, or the crouching of the tigers as they glared on them with
yellow eyeballs and bristling manes, lashing their haunches with
their tails, and at last, with a hoarse carnivorous roar, curving
their backs for the final spring. The _venatio_ degenerated into a
mere butchery meant to fill up the time.[78]

All this was regarded as child’s play in comparison with the luxury
of courage, skill, and massacre which was expected in the afternoon;
but it was already too much for one of the spectators. This was
the philosophic thaumaturge Apollonius of Tyana, who happened to be
paying a brief visit to Pætus Thrasea. Thrasea had been compelled to
be present, because he knew that everything which he did or failed to
do was watched with deadly suspicion; and Apollonius had accompanied
his host from a desire to see the strange animals which were to be
exhibited. At first he had looked on with real delight and interest;
but when he saw the noble creatures wantonly killed, his Greek
instinct for the beautiful was disgusted. He had been shocked by
the callousness with which the vast audience had recovered from its
momentary fright when the two poor boys had been slain by the lions;
but when he saw them shouting with delight while the arena was wet
with the blood of mangled men and tortured beasts, he turned his back
on the amphitheatre with disdain and horror, and whispered in the ear
of his companion, ‘Rome is a Bacchante rolling in blood and mud.’

Of all these scenes Onesimus and Glanydon had been spectators;
and such spectacles were little calculated to dispel the gloom of
dreadful anticipation which hung over the coming afternoon. They
had marched in the procession of gladiators which formed part of
the opening pomp, and from behind a lattice-work of one of the
dressing-rooms they could see all that was going on. But now the rays
of the early summer were pouring a dazzling flood of warmth and light
which penetrated even through the awning. The vast audience required
a little rest. The awning was sprinkled with perfumes. Saffron-water
fell in a delicate dew upon the hot and tired multitude. The passages
between the seats were flushed with pure cold water. Refreshments
and baskets of fruit were freely handed about, and while they were
enjoying the light mid-day meal every one chatted freely with his
neighbour.

‘Who are those in the _podium_ with the Emperor?’ asked a provincial
from Gaul of the young Spaniard who sat beside him.

‘Don’t you know?’ said Martial, for he it was. ‘That well-dressed,
handsome, smiling man is Petronius. The tall senator with the
intellectual face is Seneca. He is a countryman of whom I am proud.’

‘Seneca!’ said the provincial; ‘the greatest man of his age! Only to
think that I have seen Seneca!’

Martial only smiled. Such enthusiasm was refreshing.

‘The young man with black hair who sits just behind him with a frown
on his forehead is his nephew Lucan, the poet. The king in purple
robe is Herod Agrippa II., with his lovely sister Berenice by his
side. Just watch the flash of that diamond on her neck. That splendid
fellow with fair hair, all smiles, who has grace and beauty in every
movement, is the actor Paris, and beside him is his friend and rival,
Aliturus. The exquisite, who looks as if he would be paralyzed by the
weight of his own rings, is Senecio.’

‘And that lady with her face half veiled, so that you only catch a
glimpse now and then of her loveliness?’

‘That is Poppæa, Otho’s wife. No wonder Nero loves her better than
that pale sad lady who sits among the six vestals.’

‘Yet she, too, is young and beautiful. Who is she?’

‘The Empress.’

‘Octavia, the daughter of Claudius? May the gods bless her!’

The provincial gazed long at Octavia.

‘But now tell me,’ he continued, ‘who is that purpureal personage,
with large rings, scarlet boots, and a very white forehead?’

Martial laughed aloud. ‘His forehead may well be white,’ he said. ‘Do
you know what it is made of?’

‘Made of?’ asked the young Gaul in astonishment.

‘Yes. It is made of sticking-plaster! If you took it off, what do you
think you would see under it?’

‘His skin, I suppose.’

‘His skin, yes! But with three letters on it.’

‘What three letters?’

‘_O Simplicitas!_’ said Martial; ‘the three letters F. U. R.’

‘Is he a thief?’ asked the Gaul. ‘Then why do they let him sit there
among the knights?’

‘Because his thieving has made him rich,’ answered Martial.

‘But his riches don’t make him honest; and every one seems to be
treating him with great respect.’

Martial laughed long and loud. ‘_O Sapientia!_’ he exclaimed, ‘_O
Innocentia!_ From what new Atlantis do you come? Don’t you know that
at Rome the rule always is “Riches first, virtue next”?’

‘If that be the rule at Rome,’ said the other, ‘I should prefer to
live at Ulubræ or at Venta Belgarum.’

But Martial had no more time to listen to a morality so refreshingly
unsophisticated. ‘Hush!’ he said. ‘They are going to scatter down the
presents and the lottery tickets on us.’

First came a shower of countless coins of thin metal, every one
of which was stamped with a wanton image. Then all kinds of little
presents like those exchanged at the Saturnalia. The audience did
not exert themselves to catch these, but it was very different when
handfuls of lottery tickets were flung among them. For these they
scrambled wildly, and with many a curse and blow; for he who secured
one might find himself the happy possessor of a slave, a statue, a
fine vase, a rare foreign bird, a suit of armour, a Molossian dog, a
Spanish horse, or even a villa; although the mystery which the number
concealed could not be made known till he presented the ticket the
next day.

But by this time the attendants with rakes were scraping the surface
of the arena smooth, and sprinkling it afresh with dazzling white
sand brought in ship-loads from Africa, to hide the crimson stains of
the life-blood of animals and men. For now was to begin the splendid
exhibition of strength and skill and pluck, and the awful pageantry
of death, under that blue sky, under that gleaming sunlight; and men
and women were preparing themselves to be thrilled with sanguinary
and voluptuous excitement which would make the blood course through
their veins like fire. Most of the gladiators were men of approved
prowess, stalwart and well known; and from the senators’ seats to
the topmost gallery bets were being freely laid on their chances
of victory, and on those who should be left dead at evening,
indifferent forever to those wild shouts. The only two who were not
_spectati_--the only two tiros who were to make their appearance--
were the young British captive and the young Phrygian slave.

The long defiant blast of a trumpet smote the air; the folding doors
of the main entrance were flung open, and, headed by their trainer,
the gladiators in a body marched in proud procession and with firm
steps to the space beneath the podium, on which stood the gilded
chair of the Emperor. They were only sixty in number, but had been
selected for their skill and physique, and belonged to various
classes of gladiators. They were clad in glittering array--their
helmets, their shields, and even their greaves, richly embossed and
gilded.

And none were more curiously scanned than Onesimus, who walked
last of the net-throwers, and Glanydon, who closed the file of the
Samnites. It was impossible not to observe the towering stature and
herculean mould of the Briton, the lithe and sinewy frame of the
dark-eyed Asiatic. Then the Prætor once more flung down the napkin,
in sign that the fighting should begin. Grouped under the Emperor’s
seat, they all uplifted to him their right hands and chanted in
monotone their sublime greeting: ‘Hail, Cæsar! we who are about to
die salute thee!’

Nero flung them a careless glance, and scarcely broke the animated
conversation which he was holding with Petronius.

Before the hard fighting began there was some preliminary skirmishing
among all the gladiators, with blunt weapons, merely to display
their skill; and a pair of _andabatæ_ amused the people by their
difficulties in fighting practically blindfold, for their loose
helmets had no eyelet-holes.

Then the trumpet blew once more, and a herald cried out, ‘Lay aside
your blunt swords and fight with sharp swords;’ and Pedanius examined
the weapons to see that they were duly sharp. The display began with
the contests of the horsemen and the charioteers (_essedarii_).
It was not long before two of the chariots were broken, and their
wounded occupants flung down under the hoofs of their own plunging
horses.

Next, two horsemen, both of them popular favourites, of well-tried
prowess and well-matched strength, rode out on white horses to fight
each other in mortal conflict. Hippias wore a short mantle of blue,
and rode from the east side of the arena; Aruns, in a red mantle,
rode from the western side. Both wore on their heads golden helmets,
and military standards were carried before them.[79] The combat
between them was long and fierce, for each knew that it was to be
his last. They charged each other furiously, raining on heads and
shoulders a tempest of blows, till, after a tremendous bout, Aruns
thrust his spear through a joint in the armour of Hippias, and the
stream of crimson blood which followed was greeted by the roar of
‘Habet!’ from eighty thousand throats. The rider fell lifeless. He
required no finishing stroke, and the mob cried, ‘Peractum est!’
(‘There’s an end of him!’) This contest had excited much interest
from the fame of the fighters, and large sums of money changed hands
on the result. One of the senators, named Cæcina, had hit on an
ingenious way of telling his distant friends whether they had lost or
gained. Since Hippias was in blue, and Aruns in red, he had carried
with him into the amphitheatre a number of swallows in two cages, of
which some were painted blue and some red; and, since Aruns had slain
his adversary, he let loose those which were painted red.[80]

After this the other mounted gladiators joined combat. In a very
short time nearly all were wounded, and three acknowledged their
defeat. Dropping their swords or javelins, they upheld their clenched
hands with one finger extended to plead for mercy. The plea was vain.
No handkerchief was waved in sign of mercy, and, standing over them,
the victors callously drove their swords into the throats of their
defeated comrades. The poor conquered fighters did not shrink. They
looked up at the shouting populace with something of disdain on their
faces, as though to prove that they thought nothing of death, and did
not wish to be pitied. To see that none were shamming dead, a figure
entered disguised as Charon, who smote them with his hammer; but the
work of the sword had been done too faithfully--he only smote the
corpses of the slain.[81]

By this time the whole atmosphere of the place seemed to reek with
the suffocating fumes of blood, which acted like intoxication on
the brutalised passions of the multitude. They awaited with savage
eagerness the next combat, which was to be the main show of the
afternoon. Twelve Samnites and mirmillos were to be matched against
as many net-throwers and chasers; and the contest was all the more
thrilling because the latter were very lightly clad, so that every
wound and gash was visible in all its horror on their naked limbs,
while the unhelmed faces showed every triumphant or agonised
expression which swept across them in that stormy scene.

After half an hour’s fighting in terrible earnest, in which each
side had exchanged many a well-aimed blow, and had shown prodigies of
skill, valour, and swiftness, many of the gladiators had fallen, and
others dropped their arms in sign of defeat. Their vanquishers strode
over them awaiting the signal to be executioners of their brethren.
The fight was stopped till the signal had been given with ruthless
unanimity. The defeated men, like those who had been killed before
them, gazed without blenching on the hard and lolling multitude, as
though to show by their calm demeanour how easy a thing it was to die.

But to make sure that they had been really killed, once more a
slave entered, who, for variety’s sake, was dressed in the wings
and carried the serpent-rod of Mercury. He touched each corpse with
a red-hot iron wand. No limb shrank from his touch. Other attendants,
therefore, laid the dead on biers--which the admiring spectators
observed to be inlaid with amber--and they were carried out through
the gate of Libitina into the spoliarium, where they were carelessly
flung out in a heap.[82]

So far both the tiros had escaped. They had instinctively avoided
each other, and neither had butchered his opponent except in fair
fight. Of the eight who survived, four were Samnites and mirmillos,
four were net-throwers. They thought that the fight was over and that
they might severally be regarded as victors, and might look for the
gifts of crowns and money, or even of the foil which set them free
from the horrid trade. They stepped back beyond the lines which
the trainer had marked, resting on their arms, and expecting to be
ushered out of the triumphal gate.

The multitude had far other intentions. They were not yet sated with
slaughter; they had not yet gloated long enough on faces convulsed
with the death-agony; they wanted to see how the beautiful young
Phrygian would look when an opponent stood over him with a sword at
his throat.

But the soul of Glanydon was filled with disgust and disdain. He
loathed those fat, shouting, comfortable burghers, those hard-faced
women, those finical dandies, of whom he felt that he could have
driven a score before him like sheep. He strode to the barriers and
set his back against them, refusing to fight.

A yell of fury rose from the people. ‘Kill him!’ they shouted. ‘Kill
him! scourge him! burn him! Why is he so afraid of cold steel? Why
can’t he die like a man? Ho! scourgers, lash the youth into the
combat again, to make the sides equal.’

The Briton stood as in a dream, and as his thoughts reverted to his
home and the maiden whom he loved, the amphitheatre swam before his
eyes. Five or six mastigophori came running up to him, and he felt
the curling lash of one of them come stinging round his body. The
agony aroused him. With a cry as of a wounded lion he sprang on the
scourger, and with one buffet laid him senseless, while the others
fled in confusion before him. Then, with the boldness of despair, he
strode under the podium, and, raising his clenched fist, cursed the
Emperor aloud.

‘Murderer of thy mother!’ he cried; ‘thou infamy of manhood, I will
fight again. But think not that thou shalt escape. Speedily the
doom shall overtake thee, and thy death shall be more shameful and
horrible than mine.’

He had thundered forth so loudly his indignant words that they rang
through the whole amphitheatre, and the wildest tumult arose. The
Emperor cowered back in his seat, pale with superstitious terror,
yet almost suffocated with rage; and his favourite page, springing
up from the low stool at his feet, began to sprinkle his face with
perfume.

The Prætorians drew their swords, and in one moment would have slain
the criminal who thus dared to blaspheme their human god. That a
common gladiator--a thing to flesh men’s swords upon--should dare
to curse the Emperor! It was a portent! But there was no time
to interfere, for, with a shout, Glanydon sprang back among the
gladiators, and began so furious an affray that the other side gave
way and fled. He sprang on an opponent, and the crimson rush that
followed his sword-thrust again awoke the deep ‘Habet!’ of the
excited crowd. But as he pressed on, now blind with fury, he fell,
face forward, over the loose helmet of a slain mirmillo, and before
he could recover himself a netsman, seizing his opportunity, flung
his net, entangled the limbs of the Briton by a dexterous twist, and,
without waiting for any signal, drove his trident into his breast.
The Briton died without a groan. But the advantage of the light-armed
fighters was only momentary. Their courage had been daunted by
Glanydon, and, after a few moments of flight and fight, the Samnites
were victorious and the net-throwers were all wounded and dropped
their arms, except Onesimus. They knelt with their forefingers
uplifted, and, as they had fought with courage and had been hardly
used, handkerchiefs began to be waved in their favour and thumbs to
be turned downwards. Octavia and Acte had both recognised the face
of Onesimus as he retreated before one of the Samnites, and failed to
entangle him by the throw of his net. Filled with pity, they turned
their thumbs downward in sign that the combat should be stopped and
the lives of the defeated be spared.

But unhappily Onesimus was only a few feet distant from Nero, and
Nero had recognised him too. The curse of Glanydon had shaken the
Emperor’s nerves. He was in a peculiarly brutal mood, and, with
thumb turned towards his breast, he gave the fatal sign that the four
netsmen should be slain. Three of them were so deeply wounded already
that their limbs were bathed in blood, and without an instant’s
pause the Samnites thrust their swords through them to the hilt. But
the sight seemed to inspire Onesimus with some divine despair. He
seized his trident and dagger--he had already gathered the net round
his shoulder--and, springing towards one of the Samnites, flung,
entangled, tripped, and stabbed him. Plucking his trident from the
wound, but not waiting to recover his net, he flew on the second and
smote him down. The third, who was already staggering from a wound
received earlier in the fight dropped his arms and upheld his
forefinger, and, before the fourth could recover from his amazement,
Onesimus, leaving the defeated combatant, had again seized his net
and chased his opponent with it in act to throw. Being far superior
in speed, he swiftly overtook him, flung the net and, hurling his
opponent to the ground, brandished his dagger over him. The peopled
walls of the amphitheatre rang with shouts of delight and admiration.
Never had they seen a more astonishing and gallant feat. This
retiarius--and he a mere tiro--had, single-handed, defeated four
Samnites in succession. The thing was unheard of. Every thumb was
turned up for Onesimus to give the finishing stroke to his conquered
enemy, and thousands of voices clamoured that, as the sole surviving
victor of the combat, he should be rewarded with the palm and foil.

But the brief spasm of wrath was over. Onesimus could not and would
not butcher his comrades in cold blood. He recognised in the young
Samnite a gladiator named Kalendio, one of the least objectionable of
his fellows in the school--the only one who had never gone out of his
way to annoy or taunt him. At the same moment he caught sight of the
body of Glanydon. A rush of tears blinded him; he flung down net and
dagger and trident, and, retreating to the barrier, stood there with
folded arms. The acclamations which had greeted his prowess were
followed by a groan of astonishment and disappointment. Kalendio had
by this time torn and cut himself free from the net, and sprang upon
the unhappy Phrygian who had spared his life. Onesimus did not resist
him or appeal for mercy; the Samnite, who was an utter stranger to
the scruples and compunctions which had led Onesimus to spare him,
drove his sword into him; life and sense flowed from him, and he fell
heavily upon the bloody sand.



CHAPTER XL

_THE SPOLIARIUM_

    ‘Sanguinem quoque gladiatorum bibunt, ut viventibus poculis,
    comitiales morbi ... At hercule illi ex homine ipso sorbere
    efficacissimum putant calidum spirantemque, et una ipsam
    animam ex osculo vulnerum.’--PLINY, _N. H._ xxviii. 2.


A few days before the scene described in the last chapter there had
been gladness in the bright but humble home of Pudens. He had risen
to the rank of a primipilar centurion, and was now in a position to
ask the British king Caradoc for the hand of his lovely Claudia. He
had only delayed his nuptials until he felt himself able to give his
bride a secure and fitting home. Everything was fresh and beautiful
in the adornments of the house. The atrium was full of flowers
and statues, the door was hung with garlands, the frescoes in the
tablinum and triclinium were all new. No mythological scene had been
admitted, but the walls of the triclinium were painted with festoons
of fruit and flowers and trellises of roses, among which little
winged genii held their sports; and the tablinum with scenes of
street life and the toils of agriculture, and purple vineyards, as
perfect as the pencil of Dorotheus could make them. One little corner
of the fresco was universally admired as a masterpiece. Pudens had
asked the painter to imitate one of the vases of iridescent glass
which were then in fashion, and, in honour of Claudia, to fill it
with lilies. Pudens had greatly admired a similar painting on the
wall of the house of Germanicus on the Palatine (where it may be seen
to this day), and in reproducing it Dorotheus had surpassed himself.

The betrothal had taken place some time before, and on that occasion
Pudens had given to his future bride a golden necklace of old
Etrurian workmanship, with pendants of amethyst. It gleamed round
her fair neck as she sat waiting for the bridal summons in her
father’s house, trying to dispel the gloom which fell on the old king
when he recalled that he was losing for a time the light of his home.

All the ordinary conventions of a Roman marriage were carried out,
except such as were purely pagan. Claudia was dressed in a long white
tunic with purple fringe, bound round the waist with an embroidered
girdle. Her bridal veil and her shoes were of bright yellow, as
custom required, and the long fair hair which fell over her shoulders
had been duly parted with the point of a spear. It was evening, and
the three youths who were to accompany her stood laughing in the
vestibule, and ready to start. One of them was Titus, who was to
carry before her a torch of white-thorn; the other two were Flavius
Clemens and young Aulus Plautius, who walked on either side to
support her arms. The fourth lad, who was called the camillus,
and who carried in a vase some of the bride’s jewels and childish
playthings, was Marcus, the bright little son of Seneca. She herself
bore in her hand a distaff and spindle full of wool, as a type of
domestic industry. Outside the door waited her friends, five of whom
carried wax candles and the others pine-wood torches. And so, with
songs and laughter and snatches of the old Thalassio, the happy
procession made its way through the streets till they reached the
door of Pudens. When she had wound wool round the doorposts and
touched them with wolf’s fat, his groomsmen--who were chiefly his
brother-officers--lifted Claudia across the threshold to prevent
any ill-omened stumble. Within the vestibule stood Pudens, with fire
and water. These she had to touch, as symbols of purification, which
might be regarded as Christian no less than pagan; and then she spoke
the marriage formula--‘Where thou art Gaius I am Gaia.’ After this
she was led to a seat upon an outspread sheepskin, and Pudens handed
to her the keys of the house. The bridal supper followed, and its
mirth was none the less sparkling from its perfect innocence.

By the wish of both Pudens and Claudia, the slaves of the household
were invited to have their share in the festivities, which lasted for
several days. But the newly wedded pair had in store for Nereus and
his daughter Junia a bliss which they had not dared to anticipate.
At the close of the week of rejoicing he bade them, with a smile, to
accompany him to the Prætor’s tribunal. The order could have but one
meaning--that he meant to set them free. The tears rushed into the
old slave’s eyes. Nereus and Junia had, indeed, learnt to be content
with any condition to which God called them, but now that liberty had
spontaneously been offered they felt an almost incommunicable joy.

Pudens sympathised with them in their emotion, and, with a few
cheering words, bade them walk behind him towards the Forum. The
ceremony of emancipation was very brief. The centurion stated to
the Prætor that he wished to manumit Nereus and Junia--of whom the
latter had been born in his house--for their great merits and long
faithfulness. The Prætor’s lictor laid a rod on each of their heads,
with a slight blow, and turned them each round; then the Prætor
declared them free in accordance with the right of citizens, and they
became _liberti_. On their return home, the rest of the _familia_,
formerly their fellow-slaves, received them with showers of
sweetmeats and clapping of hands and congratulations, and were
allowed to hold one more humble banquet in their honour.

Nereus still wished to serve Pudens and Claudia as their freedman;
but it was arranged that he should live in lodgings near the house.
He and Junia soon made the new home of their freedom look as pleasant
as their circumstances admitted, and one evening they were sitting
hand in hand thanking the Lord of their life for His mercy, when
a timid knock was heard. Opening the door, Junia saw a pretty
slave-girl, who asked to speak with her in private. Junia had known
her as one of the slaves of Pedanius Secundus, and felt the deepest
pity for her because she was afflicted with epilepsy--a disease which
among the ancients was so ill-omened as to be the cause of endless
trouble and distress.

There was but one remedy for the disease which the ancients thought
perfectly efficacious, and it is conceivable that the desperate
nature of this remedy may have had some mysterious effect upon the
nerves, and have proved in some cases to be a real cure through its
influence on the mind of the sufferer. It was to drink blood from a
recent wound.

The consequences of a fit of epilepsy were disastrous. It was called
the comitial disease, because its occurrence put an end to the
most important business of the commonwealth by necessitating
the dissolution of any public assembly. Consequently, persons so
afflicted were condemned to a life of misery, and could never move
about with freedom. Their presence in a house was regarded as a
misfortune, and they were sometimes got rid of to save trouble. The
pretty face and winning ways of poor young Syra had saved her, but
since she heard of the supposed cure for her malady her one desire
had been to avail herself of it.

This had made her go frequently to the games of the amphitheatre, and
linger near the gate of Libitina, through which the confector, who
had, when necessary, to give the finishing stroke, dragged the dead
and wounded gladiators into the spoliarium. She had thus attracted
the notice of the young slave Phlegon, who held this horrible office.

That he did so was not his own fault. He too was a slave of Pedanius,
who had cruelly degraded him to this place in the amphitheatre
as a punishment for a trivial offence, followed by an outbreak
of resentment, when, in his younger days, he had been a favourite
cup-bearer of his master. It would be useless to aver that his
character had not been somewhat brutalised by the hideous duties
forced upon him; but he regarded himself as the victim of necessity,
and therefore as not responsible--a view not without a grim element
of truth in the case of a pagan slave. Seeing Syra as she lingered
about the amphitheatre, he had been struck by her helpless prettiness,
and she had learnt to admire a face which still retained its good
looks, if not its good expression. They fell in love with each other;
but when she was forced to tell him of her misfortune, he declared
all question of marriage to be impossible unless she were cured
of her comitial disease. He had himself persuaded her to come this
evening to the spoliarium after the games, and to try the remedy
which alone seemed to offer any chance of success.

But poor Syra dared not go alone through the darkening, crowded, and
vicious streets, and thought that Junia, as she was now a freedwoman,
could protect her. Junia was always actuated by the principle as well
as by the instinct of kindness. Not guessing the object of the girl’s
errand, but knowing her hapless love for Phlegon, she consented to
accompany her. It cost her a pang to leave her father on that happy
evening, but she knew that with him, no less than with herself, the
claims of charity were paramount, and all the more towards those who
seemed to need it most.

‘Could you find no better youth to love than one of so dire a trade,
Syra?’ she gently asked the girl, as, with their heads covered with
shawls, they went in the deepening dusk down the Via Sacra towards
the amphitheatre.

‘It is not his fault, Junia. He hates it. His heart is naturally
pitiful. He was brought up in the midst of luxury in the house of
Pedanius, where he was a favourite. But Pedanius is a wretch, and
once he treated Phlegon so cruelly that, in a fit of rage, the boy
struck him. He might have been crucified for it, or flung to the
lampreys; but, instead of that, Pedanius made him take to this work
in the amphitheatre. How else could he live?’

‘There are some lives worse than death,’ said Junia.

‘Well,’ answered Syra; ‘many a time he has longed to stab himself
with his own sword; but ... he loves me.’

‘I did not mean that he should have killed himself,’ said Junia;
‘none of us have a right to fling away the life which God gives us.
I meant that it would be worth while facing any risk to escape doing
wrong.’

‘Nothing can be wrong which our masters make us do,’ answered Syra
simply; and Junia could only sigh, for she knew that this was an
axiom with both slaves and their masters.

By this time they had reached the outer door of the spoliarium,
and, in answer to a whispered watchword, Phlegon admitted Syra, who
promised to return very speedily, while Junia waited for her outside.

A few moments only had elapsed when Syra sprang out of the door
agitated and breathless.

‘Oh, Junia!’ she cried; ‘I did it! I did it!’

‘Did what?’

‘I have drunk some blood from a fresh wound, and I am cured.’

‘Horrible!’ said Junia, with a shudder, now for the first time
understanding what Syra had come for.

‘Yes; it _was_ horrible,’ said the girl; ‘but how could I help it?
Every one who saw me in a fit, however slight, used to spit so as to
avert the omen. I tried everything first. I tried galbanum, garlic,
hellebore; I ate some young swallows; I tried to get a bit of the
liver of an elephant, or the brain of a camel, which they say is a
certain remedy.[83] But how could I? Never mind! I am cured now. But
oh, Junia!’ exclaimed the girl, ‘as he lay there’--

‘As _who_ lay there?’

‘The young gladiator who fought so bravely to-day, and was dragged
out by the hook as dead--well, he is not dead! His limbs were warm.
I put my hand on his heart; there was a faint pulse.’

‘But who is he?’

‘I thought you knew him, for he was once a slave in your house--that
young Phrygian.’

‘Onesimus!’ exclaimed Junia, with a startled cry.

‘Yes; that was his name. Did you not know that he fought as a
net-thrower to-day?’

‘No,’ she answered faintly. ‘We never go to the games. I had long
lost sight of him, and thought that he had left Rome, or was dead.
Syra, save him!’

‘Phlegon will be glad to save him, if it can be done undiscovered. He
loathes stabbing the poor gladiators when they have not quite been
killed. Yet, if it were discovered that he spared but one of them,
he would certainly be torn to pieces or crucified.’

Junia’s mind was instantly made up. At all costs, Onesimus should
have such chance of life secured to him as nature rendered possible.
She told Syra to let Phlegon speak with her. Entering the spoliarium,
and repressing the awful sense of repugnance which almost made her
faint as the dim light of his lamp glimmered over the heap of mangled
corpses, she recognised the features of Onesimus, and convinced
herself that the spark of life was not wholly quenched in him. Then,
putting into the hand of the confector a gold coin which had been the
gift of Claudia, she entreated him to let her come back and remove
the hapless youth. He consented, and touched by her anguish, he
himself took the body of the gladiator in his arms, laid him on his
own pallet of straw, and poured some common Sabine wine down his
throat. Junia, meanwhile, thankful now for the slave-girl’s company,
went to the house of Linus, which was near at hand, and implored his
aid. The good old pastor readily consented, and, when it was quite
dark, took a mule and went with the two girls to the door of the
spoliarium, where Phlegon awaited them.

He had not been idle. With such rough kindness as was possible to him
he had washed away in tepid water the stains of blood from the breast
and face of the poor gladiator, and had bandaged the deep wounds in
his breast.

With tender care they lifted the still unconscious Phrygian upon a
bundle of soft clothes which they had laid upon the mule. Linus,
though the task was not without peril, agreed to tend and give him
shelter for that night.

Then Junia fled back through the deserted streets. Nereus had begun
to be anxious at her long delay, and listened to her story with a
grave face. He had never liked Onesimus, and the youth’s many sins
and errors might well have shaken his confidence. But he and Junia
had read not long before the letter which Paul of Tarsus had written
to their brother-Christians in Corinth; and, if he wavered for a
moment, he was decided in the cause of mercy by Junia’s whispered
words, ‘Love suffereth long and is kind; love thinketh no evil;
beareth all things; believeth all things; endureth all things;
hopeth all things.’

It was agreed that after dark next evening Nereus should remove the
dreadfully wounded sufferer from the house of Linus. Pudens, to whom
he told the whole story, arranged, with Claudia’s full consent, that
Onesimus, as a former member of the household, should be concealed
and tended in the hut of one of their country slaves who had charge
of a little farm not far from Aricia. This peasant was a Christian,
and he carried out the injunctions of his master with faithful
kindness.

For many weeks Onesimus hung between life and death; at last, slowly,
very slowly, he began to recover. Youth and the natural strength of
his constitution, aided by the fresh air of the country, the pure
milk, the quiet, the simple wholesome food, and the fact that there
was nothing to thwart the recuperative forces of nature, won the day
in the battle, and once more Death released the victim whom he seemed
to hold securely in his grasp.



CHAPTER XLI

_THE KING OF THE GROVE_

    ‘Vallis Aricinæ sylva præcinctus opaca
        Est lacus, antiqua religione sacer.’

                                  OVID, _Fast._ iii. 263.


When Onesimus recovered full consciousness he did not recognise
his unfamiliar surroundings, and was too weak to piece together the
broken threads of his memory. Gradually he recalled the incidents
of the past. He remembered the gladiators’ school, the fight in the
amphitheatre, the death of Glanydon, the recoil of feeling which
prevented him from killing the Samnite Kalendio, even the sensation
which he felt when the sword-thrust pierced his ribs. All the
rest was darkness. Where was he? How had he been rescued from the
spoliarium? How had he escaped the finishing blow of the confector?

Old Dromo, the vineyard-keeper, was very reticent, for he did not
wish to endanger any of those who had taken part in the youth’s
deliverance. But the quick intelligence of Onesimus, working upon
broken hints conjectured that Nereus and Junia, as members of his
old _familia_, must have had some share in saving his life. Pudens,
when he visited his vineyard to receive his accounts, came and saw
him, and spoke a few kindly words; but the youth could see that the
centurion had lost his old regard for him. He saw no one else, except
occasionally one of the peasant neighbours. Junia, of course, came
not. Such a visit would have been impossible to her maiden modesty.
What could she do but silently combat a love which she felt to be
hopeless? How could she ever marry a gladiator with such a past, and
with so hopeless a probable future--a renegade, to all appearance,
from the faith of Christ? She could but pray for him, and then strive
to prevent her thoughts from turning to him any more. And Nereus came
not to see him. He distrusted him, as he thought of all the crimes
through which he must have fallen, from the position of a Christian
brother, into such a sink of degradation as a gladiators’ school.

Lonely, disgraced, abandoned, in deadly peril of his life from
a hundred sources if once he should be recognised, prostrated by
weakness, often suffering torments from the pain of wounds which
as yet were but half healed, Onesimus sank deeper and deeper into
despair. Repentance and the love of God may often grow in the midst
of adversity, like some Alpine gentian amid the snows; but sometimes
there is a deadliness in the chill of hopeless misfortune which kills
every green leaf of faith. The youth, smitten by so many calamities,
began to feel as though the river of his life, which might have been
so full and rejoicing, had lost itself in mud and sand. His sun had
gone down while it yet was day. What was he to do? How could he live?
Why had they saved him? If Nereus and Junia and Pudens had done it,
by what means he knew not, it was a cruel kindness. Why should they
have preserved him to a destiny so miserable? Junia must despise him
now: why should she have wished that his life should be spared?

He murmured against God in his heart. He cursed the day of his birth.
He had had many chances and recklessly flung away one after another.
Sometimes he thought of Christ and of all that he had heard from the
lips of Paul in Ephesus about the Friend of publicans and sinners.
But had he not denied the faith? Had he not lived like an apostate?
If Christ could still love him, why was he left in all this misery
and hopelessness? Why did no ray of light gleam through his darkened
sky?

And thus he made his heart like the clay which the fire does but
harden, not like the gold which it melts. But, notwithstanding his
despair, he grew stronger. In two or three months his wounds healed,
and he was free to leave his couch of hay and beechen leaves and to
wander about the exquisite scenery of his temporary home. Aricia was
built in a valley, the crater of an extinct volcano, at the foot of
the Alban Mount. Below it the Lacus Nemorensis, ‘the Mirror of Diana,’
lay gleaming like a transparent emerald, while the steep lava slopes
which descended to its level were rich with vineyards and groves and
flowers.

But he seldom ventured out in the broad daylight. Aricia lay on the
Appian road, only sixteen miles from Rome, and its hill was the haunt
of a throng of clamorous beggars, who assailed with their importunity
every vehicle that passed along that ‘queen of ways.’ Hundreds were
familiar with the features of Onesimus, and, though their beauty was
now impaired by pallor and emaciation, he might again be recognised,
with fatal consequences. He only went out after sunset, and by the
unfrequented paths which led him towards the grove of Diana and
the Nemorensian lake. The lower slopes of the Alban Mount were so
overshadowed with dense foliage that, among the woods, he could
easily escape observation and indulge without disturbance in his
melancholy thoughts.

One day, as he sat under a huge chestnut-tree, he heard the pipe of a
shepherd lad driving home his herd of goats from the upland pastures;
and, as the hut of the boy’s parents adjoined the lodge of Pudens’
vineyard, he recognised him as an acquaintance whose name was Ofellus.
But instead of coming up to talk with him, as usual, the boy gave a
low whistle and beckoned. Onesimus thought that Ofellus only wanted
to play a game at _mora_ after he had herded his goats, but the boy
laid a finger on his lip, and made signs to him to be on his guard
until they had got some distance from the place where he was sitting.

‘What is the matter?’ whispered the Phrygian, in alarm. ‘Is any one
pursuing me?’

‘No,’ answered Ofellus, ‘but if the king sees you he will think you
mean mischief.’

‘The king! What king?’

‘Don’t you know?’ said the boy. ‘Come and help me to drive in my
goats, and I will tell you.’

When they were well out of the grove, and the goats, with their
frisking kids, which gave Ofellus so much trouble, were safe in their
pen, the boy said: ‘We may speak aloud now; but don’t you really know
who the king is?’

‘I did not know that Romans had had a king since Tarquin the Proud,’
said Onesimus, laughing; ‘unless you mean some Jewish or Eastern
Alabarch, like Herod or Izates.’

‘No, no,’ said Ofellus, ‘but the priest of yon temple has been called
for ages “the King of the Grove.”’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know why, except that there are some sacrifices which only a
king can offer; so they have to call him king, just as they call one
of the priests at Rome “the King of the Sacred Rites.”’

‘Well, but why were you in such terror of this so-called king?’

Again the boy lifted up his hands in astonishment, with the question,
‘Don’t you know?’

Onesimus explained that he was an Asiatic, and did not know much
about the neighbourhood of Rome. Ofellus therefore garrulously poured
out the legend of the place. ‘There was once some Greek or other,’
he said, ‘named Hippolytus, who had vowed to live a virgin life for
Diana. He was killed by the jealousy of his father, who got Neptune
to frighten his chariot horses with a sea monster. So the poor
youth was flung out of his chariot, and dragged to death. Then
Diana brought him here, and raised him to life again, and called him
Virbius, and he was her priest. But, because he was raised to life,
every priest has to murder his predecessor before he can be priest
himself.’

‘And may any one kill the priest who can?’

‘Yes, but first they’ve to pluck the golden bough.’

‘The golden bough?’

‘Yes. It is not really golden, you know; it is that yellow-white
plant, which grows on an old oak in the wood.’

‘Mistletoe?’ said Onesimus.

‘Yes. If a man wants to be king he has to pluck it, and then fight
or murder the present king. If he fails he is killed; if he wins he
kills the king, and becomes king in his place.’

‘Is the king often killed?’

‘Very often. Some runaway slave is sure to kill him, and so escape
the cross or the branding-iron. Hardly a year passes that he is not
attacked. My father says that, before I was born, one king, who was
very strong and fierce, was priest for a good many years; and then
the Emperor Caligula, out of sheer mad malice, sent a strong young
slave on purpose to kill him.’

‘But what harm would the king have done to us?’

‘None to a boy like me, nor to one who is free-born; but--’

‘You take me for a runaway slave?’ asked Onesimus.

Ofellus nodded his head, and added, ‘I saw the king among the trees.’
And then he quoted an old Roman song about--

   ‘The dim lake that sleeps
      Beneath Aricia’s trees;
    The trees in whose dim shadow
      The ghastly priest doth reign:
    The priest who slew the slayer,
      And shall himself be slain.’

Onesimus, too, had seen the Priest of Diana; but, as he was some
distance off, had not observed him closely. Now, however, the
goat-boy’s words seized his attention. Whoever succeeded in killing
the Nemorensian King was secure from the consequences of all past
misdeeds, and had ample maintenance and a fine spacious temple to
live in. Wandering down the rocky bed of the stream sacred to Egeria,
Onesimus had seen the shrine, and had wondered why the trees around
it were hung with so many gay woollen streamers, and so many votive
tablets; and why women came to it from Rome with garlands on their
heads and torches in their hands; and why they treated the priest
with so much reverence.

Surely the man’s life was a ghastly one, with a murder on his
conscience and a murderer on his track! Yet a terrible purpose
gradually fixed itself in the mind of Onesimus. He persuaded himself
that he was utterly God-forsaken; that such a deluge of calamities
could not otherwise have come upon him. Every hope of his life was
frustrated; for him there seemed no future possibility of honesty, or
happiness, or home, and his heart was burdened with the sore weight
of a hopeless love. Why should he not become the King of the Arician
Grove? ‘_The king is always a runaway slave._’ Those words of Ofellus
rang in his ear. He was regaining strength. He was swift of foot. His
gladiatorial training had taught him how to wield a sword. If Christ
had forsaken him, why should not he forsake Christ? What mattered it
that he would soon be murdered in his turn? For a few years, at any
rate, he might keep his life, and be in honour, and share in gay
festivals. He resolved to watch for his opportunity, and to try his
chance.

Full of his desperate purpose, he stole under the dark shadows of the
trees, with no guide but the straggling starlight, to find the great
oak which Ofellus had described to him. It grew deep in the green
hollow close beside the lake, and the hoary mistletoe tufted its
upper branches. He climbed the tree, plucked ‘the golden bough,’ and
waited for the rising of the moon to attack the Arician priest if he
came out of the temple, as he usually did, before he went to rest.

It was not long before the moon began to silver the dense foliage of
the grove, and then he heard a wicket open, and from the place where
he knelt crouched among the brushwood he saw the tall figure of the
priest, whose shadow fell across the sward and almost reached his
hiding-place. He was a gaunt-looking man, but of powerful frame. He
carried a large sword in his hand and looked round him suspiciously
on every side.[84] In his excitement Onesimus moved, and a fallen
branch snapped under his foot. The priest looked round with a
startled glance, and Onesimus could see his features working in the
moonlight. He had armed himself for his frightful purpose with the
only weapon he could find--a reaping-hook, which he took down from
Dromo’s wall. Listening intently, the priest walked along the grassy
path, but as no other sound followed he seemed to relax his vigilance
and turned back. Then, with a sudden shout, Onesimus sprang upon him.

But habitual terror had made the priest an adept at self-defence. It
was impossible to take him wholly off his guard. At the first sound
he turned, quick as lightning, and, dropping his sword, seized with
one arm the hand which grasped the reaping-hook--the gleam of which
he had caught in the moonlight--and with the other dealt Onesimus a
blow on the face which knocked him stunned upon the turf. To stoop
over his prostrate form and wrench from his grasp the reaping-hook,
was the work of a moment. With a scornful laugh he flung the weapon
over the wall which enclosed the sacred shrine, and then placed his
foot on the youth’s breast.

Onesimus came to his senses, felt the heavy foot on his breast, and
opened his eyes.

‘So,’ said the priest, with a grim laugh, ‘you wanted to be Rex
Nemorensis, did you? It’s none so enviable a post, let me tell you;
and it will take a stronger and craftier man than you to kill Croto
when his day comes.’

‘Kill me at once,’ said the Phrygian, with a groan.

Croto stooped to pick up his sword, and placed its point at the
throat of his assailant; but he paused. ‘By Hercules,’ he said--‘or
perhaps officially I ought to say by Virbius--I have seen this face
before!’

Onesimus looked up at him, and dimly recalled the slave-prison at
Antium.

‘Do you know me?’ asked the priest.

‘I once gave an _aureus_ to a man named Croto to let me escape from a
slave-prison. You are like him.’

‘I am Croto,’ said the priest, again laughing grimly. ‘Is that how
you repay your benefactor? Do you know that it is through you I am
here, and am never sure any day of not being murdered before evening?
Some sneaking slave betrayed that I had let you escape from Antium.
I was threatened with chains and torture. I had seen enough of that
sort of thing, so I fled. I thought of Aricia; plucked the golden
bough, as I see you have done; and killed Manius, my predecessor.’

‘I did not know,’ answered Onesimus. ‘Kill me. I ask nothing better.’

But Croto still did not drive home the sword. ‘Poor wretch!’ he said.
‘You are but a youth, and are you tired of life already?’

‘Utterly tired, or I should not have been the wicked fool I have
shown myself to-night.’

‘Why should I kill thee?’ said Croto. ‘Swear never again to attack
me, and thou shalt go unscathed.’

‘It would be kinder to kill a wretch whom God hates.’

‘Go,’ said Croto. ‘Diana has so many victims, she can spare this one.
Give me your “golden bough,” and let us part good friends.’

Onesimus rose, miserable and crestfallen. ‘I am penniless,’ he said,
‘or I would try to show myself grateful.’

‘Tush!’ answered Croto. ‘I am King of the Grove and priest of Diana
and of Virbius--whoever Virbius was,’ he added under his breath. ‘The
women give me so many offerings that, but for the never knowing where
or when the sword will smite, I should be as fat as a Salian, and I
feed nearly as well. Nay, poor lad, I can well do something for thee
and never feel the loss. I have more money than I know what to do
with, for I can never leave the grove. Take some. I dare say you will
need it.’

He forced into the youth’s hands a leather bag, full of silver coins,
and turned away. Onesimus stood abashed in the moonlight. Then he
burst into tears. He had found pity and magnanimity in the heart
of the doomed and murderous fugitive! Was there no hope for such a
man? Shall any germ of good in man’s soul perish unperfected? Shall
generosity and forgiveness pass without their reward? The unexpected
mercy extended to him by the grim priest of Virbius, in that dark
wood of Nemi, brought a blessing to Onesimus, and as he went back
to Dromo’s hut, the whole scene--the lake, the white mist, the
moonlit-silvered foliage, the twinkling of the stars, the song of the
nightingale, the silence of the hills--fell with a healing touch on
the anguish of his heart.



CHAPTER XLII

_A MASSACRE OF SLAVES_

    ‘Frigidus a rostris manat per compita rumor.’

                                      HOR. _Sat._ II. vi. 50.

    ‘Servos in numero hominum esse non pateris?’--SEN. _Ep._
    xlvii., ap. Macrob. _Sat._ i. 11.


Rome was in a state of wild excitement. The city had hardly been
more agitated when the news of Caligula’s murder had spread among
the citizens. The assassination of an emperor was always a possible
event. The little human divinity was certain to make so many enemies,
and was envied by so many powerful rivals, that the fate of Cæsar
after Cæsar made it no more than a nine days’ wonder if another fell.
But the victim this time was not a Cæsar. It was one of the chief
men in the city, a man of consular rank--no less a person than the
Præfect of the city, Pedanius Secundus.

And the dread news was whispered from mouth to mouth that he had been
murdered by one of his own slaves!

The people in the Forum and the Velabrum and the Subura and at Libo’s
Well, and the merchants at the Janus, and the patricians in their
palaces, and the priests in the temples, and the boys of Rome as they
played on the steps of the Julian Basilica, were all discussing this
sinister event.

Tigellinus and Petronius, and a group of courtiers, were standing
together under the porch of the Temple of Castor when the news
reached them. They eagerly questioned the messenger.

‘Is it certain that the murderer was a slave?’ asked Tigellinus in
tones of horror.

‘He was caught red-handed,’ said the messenger. ‘The dagger was
wrenched from him, dripping with blood. His name is Vibius and he
does not deny the crime.’

‘And what was his motive?’

‘Some say that the Præfect had promised him his liberty for a certain
sum of money. The slave pinched himself for years to raise it, and
when he brought the money Pedanius broke his bargain.’

The hearers only shrugged their shoulders.

‘That happens commonly enough,’ said Cæcina Tuscus, Nero’s
foster-brother, who had himself been born a slave.

‘It only meant,’ said Senecio, ‘that the Præfect had changed his
mind.’

‘Others say,’ continued the man, ‘that Pedanius had a favourite, who
had been also a favourite of Vibius, who was driven wildly jealous.’

‘The notion of a slave presuming to have a favourite!’ lisped the
effeminate Quintianus. ‘What next?’

‘How many slaves had Pedanius?’ asked Petronius.

‘Four hundred.’

‘Is that all?’ said Tigellinus. ‘It is lucky that he had no more.
They will be executed, every one of them--that’s one comfort. Let us
thank the gods for the Silanian law.’

They saw Seneca approaching them; and it was evident that he had
heard the news, for his face wore a look of sorrow and alarm.

‘How say you, Seneca?’ asked Lucan; ‘is the Silanian law to be
carried out, and are all Pedanius’s four hundred slaves to die?’

‘I should hope not,’ said the philosopher, indignantly. ‘What! are we
to butcher this multitude, of whom three hundred and ninety-nine are
probably innocent? The Silanian law is fit for barbarians. Every good
feeling within us abhors the cruel wrong of murdering young and old,
innocent and guilty, in one promiscuous massacre.’

‘But that the Præfect of Rome should be murdered by one of his own
slaves!’ murmured his hearers.

‘By one of his own slaves--but maddened, report says, by an
intolerable wrong.’

‘Wrong?’ answered Vestinus, in surprise. ‘Are not, then, our slaves
our chattels? Has a slave rights?’

‘He has the rights of a human being,’ answered Seneca. ‘Are not our
slaves of the same flesh and blood as we? Has not a slave feelings?
Has not a slave passions?’

‘Yes; very bad passions,’ said young Vedius Pollio.

‘Do they stand alone in that respect?’ asked Seneca, fixing a keen
look on him. ‘Do masters never show bad passions?’

Every one understood the allusion, for in the days of Augustus the
young man’s ancestor, Vedius Pollio, had ordered a slave to be flung
into the fish-pond to feed the lampreys, merely because he fell and
broke a crystal vase. Augustus, who was dining with Pollio that day,
was so indignant that he ordered the slave to be set free, and every
crystal vase in the house to be broken.

‘Seneca will begin to think himself mistaken if I say that _I_ agree
with him,’ said Petronius. ‘Nevertheless, I do. I cannot bear to
enter a friend’s house and hear it clanking with chains and ringing
with yells, like an ergastulum.’

‘Petronius is the soul of good nature,’ said Cassius Longinus; ‘but I
pity Rome if those maudlin views prevail.’

‘Yes,’ echoed the fierce Cingonius Varro; ‘so many slaves so many
foes. We nobles live all our lives in a sort of beleaguered garrison.
If the Senate does not do its duty, I shall emigrate.’

‘Who makes our slaves our foes?’ answered Seneca. ‘Mine are not. Most
of them are faithful to me. They are my humble friends. I believe
they love me. I know that many of them would die for me. We become
slaves ourselves because we have so many.’

‘Tush!’ said Scævinus. ‘These sentimentalities will ruin us. Why,
some of us have a thousand slaves, and some of us have more. We don’t
know their names, and have to keep a nomenclator to tell us. Galba is
the only person I know who keeps up the ridiculous old fashion of all
the slaves and freedmen coming in twice daily, to say “Good morning”
and “Good evening.” Are we to waste our time in trying to curry
favour with them? I _rule_ mine by the lash and the chain and the
torture. Ha! Pudens, my grave newly-wedded primipilar; here will be
some work for you.’

‘Never!’ said Pudens. ‘I would rather resign my commission than carry
out the Silanian law and superintend the slaughter of the innocent.’

‘And you, my young Titus?’ asked Petronius. ‘I hear you are going
soon to see some military service. Do you think that your step-mother
Cænis and the boy Domitian will be able to keep your slaves in order?’

‘We have but few, Petronius,’ said Titus; ‘but they love us. When I
was ill, all the _familia_ were as tender in their attentions as if
they had been brothers.’

‘Like to like,’ whispered Tigellinus. ‘He is half of slave-origin
himself.’

‘And what may _your_ origin be?’ asked Vestinus, to whom the remark
had been made, and who loathed Tigellinus.

The rumour had spread that all the slaves of Pedanius were to be
executed, and the attitude of the people grew very threatening.
Many of them had been slaves themselves, and many of them lived
in intimacy with the slave population, which immensely outnumbered
the freedmen. Familiar with the insolence and the exactions of the
wealthy, they assembled in throngs and demanded that there should
be a trial, and that the innocent should be spared. Their language
became so menacing that the Senate was hastily convened. It was hoped
by all the more just and kind of the senators that mild counsels
would prevail, and the Silanian decree be repealed or modified.
They pointed out that the extreme rarity of the crime showed that
the peril was not great; that, in this particular instance, Pedanius,
besides being a merciless master, had provoked his own fate; that
there was not a tittle of evidence to prove the complicity of the
_familia_ in this deed of isolated vengeance; that it would be
monstrous to kill innocent boys and girls, and faithful men and
women, for one madman’s crime. But the Senate was carried away
partly by the selfish fears of many of its members, and partly by
the impassioned speech of Cassius Longinus. An eminent jurist, a
conservative who considered the traditions of the past incomparably
superior to the wisdom of the present, a man of great wealth, high
rank, and a certain Roman integrity, he rose in his place, and threw
the weight of his influence into the scale of the old pagan
ruthlessness.

‘Often have I been present, Conscript Fathers,’ he said, ‘at meetings
of the Senate in which I have only protested by my silence against
the innovations which are almost invariably for the worse. I did not
wish you to think that I was unduly biassed by my personal studies,
nor did I wish to weaken such weight as I may possess by too frequent
and fruitless interpositions. But to-day the commonwealth demands my
undivided efforts. A consular of Rome has been murdered in his own
house by a slave’s treachery, and an unrepealed decree of the Senate
threatens punishment to the whole family of slaves who neither
prevented nor revealed the plot. Decree impunity for them, that when
the chief magistracy of the city has been no protection we may each
of us, forsooth, be defended by our own dignity! Who can be protected
by any number of slaves, if four hundred were not enough to protect
Pedanius Secundus? If fear did not suffice to make his slaves
vigilant, which of us will be safe? There are some who do not blush
to pretend,’ he continued, darting an angry glance at Seneca, ‘that
the murderer did but avenge his own wrongs! Let us, then, pronounce
at once that Pedanius was justly murdered! Are we to argue a case
which our wiser ancestors have already decided? Why, even if the
decision had now to be made for the first time, do you imagine that
a slave would have had the daring to murder his master without one
threat, without one rash murmur about his design? He concealed his
plan, forsooth; he prepared his dagger, and no one knew of it! Could
he, then, with equal facility pass through the slaves who were on
night-watch, unfasten the doors of the bedchamber, carry in a light,
perpetrate the bloody deed, without one person being aware of it?
Guilt betrays itself beforehand in many ways. If slaves reveal to us
our peril, we can live, though we be single among multitudes, safe
among those who tremble for themselves--at the worst not unavenged
among the guilty. Our ancestors looked with suspicion on the
character of slaves, even when the slaves, born on their estates or
in their houses, had learnt from infancy to love their master. But in
these days we count _nations_ among our households. Their rites are
different; their religions are foreign or _nil_. We cannot keep in
order this sink and scum of humanity except by fear. But, you say,
“some of the innocent will perish among them.” Be it so! Are no brave
soldiers beaten to death with rods when a routed army is punished by
decimation? No great example can be inflicted without some unfairness,
but the public advantage outweighs the individual injustice; and in
any case, if four hundred slaves do perish, it will be a cheap loss.’

There was more than one senator who burned to refute the glittering
sophisms and cruel hardness of the jurist’s speech; but Pætus Thrasea
was absent, as he often was, and Seneca was cowed by his habitual
timidity. He felt how easily he could have torn the speech of
Longinus into shreds, and with what genuine lightnings of indignant
conviction he could have shattered its pedantries and its inhumanity.
But he had not the nerve to confront the impulses of a selfish panic.
He longed to plead the cause of mercy and of justice, as he was
so well capable of doing, and had the murmurs of dissent which the
speech of Cassius evoked been but a little louder he might have
plucked up courage and have saved the Senate from a deed of blood.
But it was whispered on all sides that Nero leaned to severity,
and Seneca’s heart failed him once more. The murmurs died away; and
Cingonius Varro, emboldened by the devilish plea of necessity, rose
to propose further that not only the slaves of Pedanius should be
killed, but all the freedmen who lived under his roof be banished.
Nero, however, made known that, while he did not wish the ancient
severity to be mitigated, neither did he wish it to be increased,
and the proposal dropped without a seconder.

But let us notice in passing that retribution followed cruelty. The
merciless met with no mercy themselves. Cassius, who meanwhile had
become blind, was not long afterwards banished by Nero to unwholesome
Sardinia. Varro, a little later, was put to death by Galba just after
he had become Consul elect. Many who thus voted for the murder of the
innocent were murdered though innocent themselves.

The Senate might decree, but the people were indignant even to fury.
Those who knew one or other of these poor slaves, and knew their
innocence of what had been an act of sudden fury on the part of
Vibius, did their utmost to raise a tumult. Hermas, the slave of
Pedanius, whom Onesimus had seen in the Antian ergastulum, was known
to all the Christians as one of their brethren; and though their
principles forbade them to resist the decree of the state by violence,
their lamentations and appeals that some pity should be extended to
the victims stirred the hearts of the multitude. And they knew that
many senators and Prætorians were in their favour. At one time an
attempt at rescue seemed probable. A crowd armed with stones and
torches gathered in front of the house of Pedanius, where the four
hundred slaves were now in chains under a guard of soldiers. But they
were terrified by the blind deification of the imperial authority,
and a mixed and cowardly mob found no leader to inspirit them to
attack the house.

Titus was deeply moved and excited, and he went to his old friend
Pudens to see if anything could be done. Pudens was dreading lest he
should be appointed to see the execution carried out. When Claudia,
hanging on his shoulder and looking into his manly face with her
innocent blue eyes, entreated him to fear God rather than man, he
assured her with a kiss and a smile, that at all costs, even at the
cost of martyrdom, he would refuse. But Nereus had told him about
poor Hermas, and the sweet and engaging character of that young man
was so well known in the Christian community, that Pudens would have
been ready if possible to provide for his escape.

‘I wish,’ said Titus, ‘that Onesimus had not been killed as he
is said to have been at the last gladiatorial show. There is a
rumour that, after all, he escaped with his life, but if so he has
disappeared, poor fellow, no one knows where. He helped us when
Britannicus was in danger. He might help us now.’

The centurion shook his head. He knew nothing of the attack on the
King of the Grove, and supposed that Onesimus was still with Dromo
at Aricia, but he thought it safest to say nothing about him even to
Titus.

They could think of no step to take; but Nereus, who, as a
confidential freedman, had been present, heard the hint, and he
determined to act upon it on his own responsibility. He knew that
Onesimus was not available, but he knew a young Christian slave-boy
named Protasius in the house of Pudens who had been acquainted with
some of the home-born slaves of Pedanius, and was thus familiar[*12]
with the slaves’ cells in his house. There was no time to lose. The
massacre was to be carried out the next day. Nereus went to the boy,
who said that he knew of a little neglected window half hidden by
thick bushes in the peristyle, and if he could only get there he
could make his way to the cell of Hermas. The night would be dark and
moonless, yet the risk would be terrific, the chance almost hopeless.
But the Christians were taught not to hold their lives dear unto
themselves, and they considered that martyrdom in the cause of duty
was the most glorious of crowns. Further than this, they always
acted together, as a faithful, secret, well-organized body. With
the connivance of the Prætorian Vitalis, who was a Christian, Nereus
found means to get the boy introduced into the house, and, creeping
along in the darkness, he found Hermas tied with cords in his cell.
He had taken a knife with him, the rope was quickly severed, and
both he and Hermas, knowing every intricacy of the house and grounds,
got away in safety with an ease which they attributed to the special
interposition of Heaven in their behalf. What were those glimmering
lights which seemed to flash and fade in the dim silence as they
stole through the peristyle? Was not some white angel of God helping
to deliver them, as angels had stood by the three youths in the
furnace, and had liberated Peter and John from prison? The belief
aided them, for it gave them a confidence which was ready for any
emergency, and contributed in no small measure to the unheard-of
facility of their escape.

Nereus had confided to Junia his secret attempt to save Hermas, and
she pleaded that something should be done at the same time to save
the hapless Syra, who in the mean time had been married to Phlegon.
But this proved to be impossible. All the women slaves were shut up
in the triclinium together, and the door was carefully guarded. Syra
remained among the doomed. Phlegon was still technically the slave of
Pedanius, but as he was not in the household he had been passed over.
This was poor Syra’s only comfort, and it was taken from her. Phlegon
left his duties at the spoliarium, and behaved so menacingly in the
mob that he was seized and, on the evidence of a freedman, included
in those set apart for execution.

Meanwhile, after the humiliating adventure in the grove of Diana,
Onesimus was unwilling to linger at Aricia. With no plan, but in the
restlessness of despair, he disguised himself as well as he could,
and by unfrequented paths slunk back to Rome, not knowing and not
caring what might befall him there. He slept under the vestibule of
the Temple of Mars, and next morning, mingling with the crowd that
surged through the streets, he heard that the dreadful sentence
against the slaves of Pedanius was to be carried into immediate
execution. All thoughts of a rescue had been abandoned, for Nero had
published a notice that any interference with the sentence would be
treated with the extremest penalty. The clang of soldiers’ armour was
heard on every side, and Prætorians lined the entire distance between
the house of Pedanius and the remote part of the Esquiline, where the
slaves were to be killed. The poor victims, tied together by fours,
were led out of the house. Eagerly Onesimus scanned their faces, and
was glad that he did not see the face of Hermas among them.

A little delay occurred when the soldiers on guard discovered that
Hermas had escaped, but as they themselves ran serious peril of being
punished for carelessness in the matter, they prudently held their
tongues.

When the procession began to move, the wail which rose from the
doomed victims was taken up by the multitude, and they abandoned
themselves to their emotions with all the passion of a Southern
people. They wept and wrung their hands, and raised their arms
to heaven, as though to appeal for vengeance. But the Prætorians
surrounded the slaves with drawn swords, and armed gladiators, who
lined the streets, sternly thrust back the surging mob. A ghastly
sense of fascination drew Onesimus to the scene of execution. There
was no time to be particular as to the mode of death. The soldiers,
dreading a riot, were chiefly anxious to get through their odious
task as quickly as possible. One after another, amid groans and
shrieks, and pools of blood, old grey-haired men and women, and young
boys and little children and fair girls, had the sword driven into
their throats or through their hearts. The agony of the boys was
pitiable to witness. Some of them had belonged to the order of slaves
who were chosen for their beauty, were dressed in rich robes, and
pampered with every form of luxury and indulgence. Their mode of life
had left no courage in them, and death meant to them the end of all
things, or some tormenting Tartarus. But in vain they wept, in vain
they pleaded for mercy.

On the other hand, the high bearing of some of the slaves moved a
deeper pity than the fate of these victims of luxury and cruelty.
For some of the Christians in the household of Pedanius, who had not
been so fortunate as Hermas, knew that their brethren were looking on
with prayer and sympathy, and went to their fate, not only with Stoic
dignity, but with beautiful humility and simple peace. They felt
something of the glory of martyrdom. A light shone in their upturned
faces, and there was an accent as of music in their murmured prayers.
There were a few of their heathen fellow-sufferers who bared their
breasts to the sword with stolid indifference, and even with unseemly
levity; but the Christians went to death as to a coronation. One poor
boy--his name was Verus--moved many to tears. When first he heard the
groans of those who fell as the sword smote them, he shrank back and
trembled, for he was little more than a child. His father had become
a convert of Linus, and he had caused his children to be baptised
in infancy, and this was his favourite son. Even in that evil
slave-household the boy had grown up unstained, like some white lily
whose roots are in the mud. When Verus saw the sword driven into
his father’s heart, he sprang back with a cry, and in his excitement
grasped the hand of one of the legionaries. The brutal executioner
flung him back so violently that he fell. Instantly regaining his
composure, he rose to his knees, clasped his hands, and turning his
eyes heavenwards, began to pray--‘Our Father, which art in heaven.’
At that moment the sun shone forth out of dark clouds, and as the
light streamed over him, and made a natural aureole round his bright
hair, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. Even the
soldier who had raised his hand to strike stood amazed, and delayed
his blow. But with a jeer the ruffian who had flung him back, brought
down his sword on the boy’s head. He fell without a word, and the
blood streamed over the bright face, and bedabbled the fair hair. As
for Syra and Phlegon, they stood hand in hand in mute despair, and
perished together, having known no consolation in life but their pure
love for each other, and appalled by the mystery which crowned lives
so miserable as theirs had been with a death so cruel and undeserved.

In vain the agonised spectators cursed the soldiers, cursed the
dead Pedanius, cursed the Senate, and in their madness did not even
refrain from cursing Nero. Before an hour was over the deed was
done. The yet warm bodies, the yet palpitating limbs, of these three
hundred and ninety-eight victims, were flung into one of the deep
pits of the Esquiline, and a cartload of sawdust soaked up the bloody
traces of that slaughter of the innocent.

Sickened, dazed, horrified, Onesimus left the dreadful scene, and
went back to the Forum, where he sat half-stunned, on the steps of
the great Julian Basilica. The life of Rome was going on as though
nothing had happened. Peasants were selling chestnuts and olives
and macerated chickpeas to the crowd. Idlers were sauntering up and
down, occasionally stopping to listen to the lampoons of a bawling
poetaster, or to watch the tame vipers of a snake-charmer. Others,
who could not stand poets reciting in the dog-days, were devoting
their attention to the performances of a learned pig.[85] The vestal
Rubria passed by in all the pride of her stola, and tasselled pallium,
and jewelled necklace, amid the deep reverence of the people, and
unconscious of the coming doom which Nero’s vileness had soon in
store for her. Boys were playing at draughts on the circles which
they had cut in the marble pavement, where they may still be seen.
The swallows twittered and chased each other about under the blue
sky; but nothing could charm away the gloom of the Phrygian’s heart,
and with his head bent over both palms he sat, the picture of despair.

A touch on the shoulder, the whisper of his name, made him spring to
his feet in alarm; but looking round he saw the bright, honest face
of Titus smiling down on him.

‘How did you recognise me?’ he asked.

‘A disguise does not often deceive me,’ said Titus; ‘but I recognised
you by your figure and attitude. I won’t betray you. Come here,
behind the shrine of Vesta, and tell me about yourself.’

‘How wretched and ill you look!’ he said, as they stood alone under
the shadow of the little circular temple and the House of the Vestals.
‘Where have you been this long time? What has happened to you? Why
are you here? I was mentioning you to Pudens only this morning, and
if we had known that you were in Rome you might have been of use.’

‘You once helped to save my life,’ said Onesimus, ‘when I did not
deserve it. I will tell you all.’

He gave an outline of what had befallen him, concealing only the
shameful attack on the Rex at Aricia.

‘And what will you do now?’ asked Titus.

‘Starve--beg--die!’ he answered, in deep dejection.

‘Listen,’ said Titus. ‘I have just heard from Pudens that he is
likely to be sent to a command in Britain, and I shall go with him.
Claudia will accompany him, and the old British king, Caractacus. I
think that when you left Aricia you might have come to Pudens and
shown yourself more grateful for his kindness. But the centurion is
very good and forgiving, and, if I ask him, I am sure that he will
let you go with us to Britain.’

Onesimus longed to accept the offer, but he thought of Junia. He was
near her now.

‘Is Nereus to go?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Titus. ‘Nereus is a freedman now, and he is too old for so
distant a voyage and so hard a service.’

Then Onesimus confessed his love for Junia, and the wild hope which
he still entertained that he might some day be accepted by her.
Humbly he took the hand of Titus and kissed it, and said--

‘Forgive me; I will struggle on as best I may.’

‘Nay,’ said Titus; ‘I have not forgotten what you once did for me and
Britannicus, though in that matter, too, you fell short afterwards.
I never forget Britannicus,’ he added, sadly, and stood for a moment
silent. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I know two people in Rome, besides Pudens,
who are good and kind. One is my uncle, Flavius Sabinus; the other
is Pomponia Græcina. I am sure that one of them would find some place
for you. Acte has asked about you more than once, and was, I know,
fond of you. But it would not be safe for you to enter Nero’s Palace
again.’

‘Then let me serve the lady Pomponia, if I may.’

‘Follow me,’ said Titus; ‘I will see what I can do for you.’

Their way led towards the Capenian Gate, where the Appian Road enters
the city. They had not proceeded far when they met a procession of
humble people thronging round a band of soldiers, who were entering
Rome in charge of several prisoners.



CHAPTER XLIII

_A NOTABLE PRISONER_

   ‘He that hath light within his own clear breast,
    May sit i’ the centre, and enjoy bright day;
    But he that hath a dark soul, and foul thoughts,
    Benighted walks under the mid-day sun;
    Himself is his own dungeon.’

                          MILTON, _Comus_.


A Roman centurion, whose armour gleamed in the sun, was walking at
the head of the decuria of soldiers, several of whom were attached
by a loose coupling chain to the arms of various prisoners. The
spectacle was common enough, and in the varied turmoil of the
principal thoroughfare, with the stream of travellers which swept to
and fro about the capital of the world, there was nothing in it to
attract notice. But the interest felt in one of the prisoners had
induced a throng of people--mostly foreigners, slaves, and artisans--
to go and meet him.

Titus recognised in the centurion an old friend. ‘Ha, Julius!’ he
cried; ‘so you have returned from Cæsarea. You will have long stories
to tell us about those curious and turbulent Jews. Will you sup with
my father to-night? You will be welcome.’

‘Yes!’ said Julius, ‘gladly, for I am tired with a long day’s march.’

‘You know our frugal ways. You will have to recline on couches made
only by Archias, and sup mainly on vegetables off earthenware plates,’
said Titus laughing, and quoting Horace.

‘It will be a supper of the gods after our fare in the nights and
days of storm on the Adramyttian ship off Clauda and Malta,’ said
Julius. ‘But I must hurry on now to hand over my prisoners to the
Prætorian Præfect.’

‘Who are your prisoners?’

‘They are of the ordinary sort except one. He is the strangest,
bravest, wisest man I ever met; and yet he is a fanatical Jew--one
of this new sect which the mob calls Christians.’

‘Which is he?’

Julius pointed to a prisoner chained to the foremost soldier, on
either side of whom nearly all the visitors were grouped, listening
eagerly to every word he uttered, and showing him every sign of love
and reverence. He was a man with the aquiline nose and features of
his race, somewhat bent, somewhat short of stature, evidently from
his gestures a man of nervous and emotional temperament. His hair
had grown grey in long years of hardship. Many a care and peril and
anxiety had driven its ploughshare across his brow. His cheeks were
sunken, and the eyes, though bright, were disfigured by ophthalmia.
He was evidently short-sighted, but as he turned his fixed and
earnest look now on one, now on another of his companions, the
expression of his deeply-marked face was so translucent with some
divine light within, that those who once saw him felt compelled to
look long on a countenance of no ordinary type of nobleness.

Titus gazed at him. Nothing could be more unlike the worn and weary
Jew who had been buffeted by so many storms and escaped from so many
terrific perils, than was the athletic young Roman, with his short
fair hair which curled round a face ruddy in its prime of youth and
health. In the prisoner’s aspect there was none of the Roman dignity
which marked the look and bearing of Pætus Thrasea; none of the manly
independence which looked the whole world in the face from the eyes
of Cornutus or Musonius Rufus; none certainly of the rich Eastern
beauty which marked Aliturus or the Herodian princes. Yet Titus as
he watched him was, for a moment, too much astonished to speak.

‘He looks all you say of him,’ he murmured. ‘Who is he?’

‘His name is Paulus of Tarsus. He is evidently a great leader among
these Christians.’

Hitherto Onesimus, absorbed in his own sad reflections, had neither
heeded the throng, nor attended to the conversation between Titus and
Julius. But suddenly he caught the name, and looked up with a hasty
glance.

He saw before him not a few of the Christian community of Rome. Many
of them were known to him. Nereus was there and Junia; and from the
household of Cæsar he recognised Tryphæna and Tryphosa and Herodion;
and there were Linus, and Cletus, and the soldiers Urban and
Celsus, and Claudia Dicæosyne, wife of a freedman of Narcissus,
and Andronicus, and Alexander, and Rufus, sons of Simon of Cyrene
who had borne Christ’s cross, and many more.

In a single glance he took in the presence of these, and a sense
of danger flashed across him, lest any one of them, perhaps a false
brother, should penetrate his disguise as Titus had done. But it
was not at them that he looked. His whole being was absorbed in the
gaze which he fixed on him whom he had always heard spoken of as the
Apostle Paulus.

Yes, there he stood; his face thinner and more worn than of old, his
hair now almost white with an age which was reckoned less by years
than by labours and sorrows; but otherwise just as he was when
Philemon had gone from Colossæ and taken with him his boy-slave to
listen to the words of impassioned reasoning and burning inspiration
which Paul poured forth at Ephesus in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
What a flood of memories surged over the young Phrygian’s soul as
he saw him! As though his life, since then, had been written in
lightning, he thought in one instant of that long tale of shame and
sorrow--from the theft at Colossæ to the wanderings with the priests
of the Syrian goddess, the gladiators’ school, the attempted murder
at Aricia. It all flashed upon his recollection, and he felt as if
he could sink to the earth for shame. His first impulse was to spring
forward and cast himself at the Apostle’s feet. But he heard Julius
say that they had halted too long, and that he must press forward
with his charge. The word ‘Forward, soldiers!’ was given, and
Onesimus hid himself behind a tomb, only rejoining Titus when the
Christians had passed by. Titus seemed lost in thought, but as they
were near Pomponia’s house, he said:

‘Onesimus, did you see that prisoner?’

‘Yes. And I saw him when I was a boy in Ephesus.’

‘I know _men_ when I see them,’ said Titus. ‘He is a man,’ and then
he repeated the Greek line--

    ‘How gracious a thing is a man, if he be but a man.’[86]

‘He is a Jew; he is small and bent; he is ugly; yet somehow his
ugliness is more beautiful tenfold than the beauty of Paris or
Tigellinus.’

‘You should hear him speak!’ said Onesimus.

Titus shrugged his shoulders. ‘A Christian!’ he said; ‘a worshipper
of a Jew whom they tell me Pilatus crucified! And yet,’ he added,
‘there is something more in these Christians than I can fathom.
Britannicus was very much struck by them, and I believe Pomponia is
a Christian. She told me once that “no weapon forged against these
Christians prospers.” Pilatus, they say, came to a bad end.’

‘What happened to him?’ asked Onesimus.

‘They say he became a haunted man. His wife Claudia Procula turned
Christian. He was banished to Helvetia and there committed suicide;
and his ghost haunts a bare mountain, and is forever wringing and
washing its hands. But I believe it is all nonsense,’ said Titus;
‘and here we are at Pomponia’s house.’

They found the gracious noble lady with her boy by her side in the
peristyle tending her flowers among her doves, which were so tame
that they would perch on her head and shoulder, and coo softly, as
they suffered both her and the young Aulus to smooth their plumage.

   ‘Bathed in such hues as when the peacock’s neck
    Assumes its brightest tint of amethyst
    Embathed in emerald glory.’

The heart of Pomponia was open to every kind impulse, and as there
was little difficulty in finding room for another slave in the ample
palace of a Roman noble like Aulus Plautius, Onesimus, saved once
more from ruin and destitution, slept that night in the cell of a
new master.

Meanwhile Julius and his prisoner had proceeded on their way. Leaving
the Circus Maximus on their left, and going along the Vicus Tuscus,
amid temples and statues and arches of triumph, they passed the
Prætorian Camp, built by Sejanus, near the Nomentan Road, and reached
the Excubitorium and the barracks of that section of the Prætorians
whose turn it was to keep guard over the person of the Emperor.
Here the centurion found Burrus, and in consigning to his charge the
prisoner who had appealed unto Cæsar, handed to him at the same time
some letters respecting him from Felix Festus, and King Agrippa.
Burrus read them with interest.

‘This is a remarkable prisoner,’ he said. ‘The Jews accuse him of
sedition and profanity; but they have sent neither evidence nor
witnesses.’

‘We passed through a fearful storm off Crete,’ said Julius, ‘and were
shipwrecked at Malta. I hear rumours that another large vessel, which
sailed soon after us from Cæsarea, with many Jews on board, foundered
at sea. I expect that some of the accusers of Paulus perished with
her.’

‘Well, if so, his case will be delayed. He is innocent, I suppose?’

‘Perfectly innocent, I am certain. Christian as he is, it is such men
whom the gods love. We all of us should have perished at sea but for
his wisdom and good sense, and if we had listened to his advice we
should not have been wrecked at all.’

‘Ha!’ said Burrus; ‘he shall be well treated.’ He called to a
Prætorian and said: ‘The prisoner in the outer room may hire a
lodging for himself. He will, of course, be in custody. The men
must take their turns to be chained to him; but mark--choose out the
kindest and most honest men for the work, and let them understand
that I order him to be as gently dealt with as can be, consistently
with his security.’

That night the dream of the life of Paul of Tarsus was accomplished;
he was sleeping in Rome. He was an ambassador, though an ambassador
in bonds.



CHAPTER XLIV

_A SUPPER AT VESPASIAN’S_

   ‘You’ll have no scandal while you dine,
    But honest talk and wholesome wine.’

                                        TENNYSON.

                    ‘Arma quidem ultra
    Littora Juvernæ promovimus, et modo captas
    Orcadas et minima contentos nocte Britannos.
    Sed quæ nunc populi fiunt victoris in urbe
    Non faciunt illi quos vicimus.’

                                JUV. _Sat._ ii. 159-163.


The centurion Julius was genuinely pleased with the invitation of
Titus, and duly presented himself at the modest house of Vespasian.
The other guests were Aulus Plautius and Pomponia, King Caradoc,
Pudens and Claudia, and Seneca, together with several members of
the family, and among them Vespasian’s brother, Flavius Sabinus, who
had just been appointed Præfect of the City, in the place of Pedanius
Secundus. The fortunes of the Flavian house were rising rapidly; but
Sabinus, an eminent soldier, with his blushing honours fresh upon
him, was regarded as the head of the family.

Vespasian was poor, and was also fond of money. That he had not
amassed a fortune in his various commands was much to his credit.
His house, afterwards occupied by Josephus, was so unpretending as
to excite the wonder of those who saw it after he had become Emperor,
and his entertainments were usually marked by a more than Sabine
simplicity.

On this occasion, however, since a king, a prime minister, and a
consular--his old commander--who had enjoyed the honour of sharing an
Emperor’s triumphs, were among his guests, Vespasian had donned the
unwonted splendour of his ‘triumphal ornaments,’ a flowered tunic,
over which flowed a purple robe, embroidered with palm branches in
gold and silver thread. He was not half at ease in this splendid
apparel, and told his wife Cænis that he was an old fool for his
pains. The entertainment was sufficient, though Otho would have
thought it hardly good enough for his freedmen. The board was graced
with old Sabine and Etruscan ware of great antiquity and curious
workmanship, as well as with objects of interest which Vespasian
had bought when he was an officer in Thrace, Crete, and Cyrene.

But Vespasian himself, who was sturdily indifferent to fashion, and
took pleasure in showing how little he regarded the criticisms of
Roman dandyism, drank out of a little silver cup which had belonged
to his grandmother, and which he would not have exchanged for the
loveliest crystal on the table of Petronius. And Caradoc, as he sat
there in his simple dress and golden torque, was far more happy at
that modest entertainment than he would have been at the house of any
other of the Roman nobles.

The party was, so to speak, a British party, for most of them were
familiar with the storm-swept Northern island, which was regarded
as the Ultima Thule of civilisation. That day Pudens had received
an appointment to go to Britain and support as well as he could the
wavering fortunes of Suetonius Paulinus. Caradoc was permitted to
return with him and take up his abode at Noviomagus, the town of the
Regni. They were to sail as early as possible from Ostia. More than
this, Aulus Plautius, to whose powerful influence these appointments
had been due, had secured for his young friend Titus the excellent
position of a tribune of the soldiers to the army in Britain. It was
a graceful recognition of the services which Vespasian had rendered
to him twenty years before, when, as his legate of the legion, he had
fought thirty battles, captured more than twenty towns, and reduced
the Isle of Wight to subjection. It was in Britain, as Tacitus says,
that Vespasian had first been ‘_shown to the Fates_.’ The whole party
were in the highest spirits. The old king rejoiced to think that he
should rest at last in the land of his fathers. Claudia longed to
escape from the suffocating atmosphere of Roman luxury. Pudens knew
that in Rome his Christian convictions might speedily bring him
into peril, and that in far-off Britain he could breathe a freer and
purer air. Vespasian had much to tell of the glories of the country.
Lastly, Titus felt all the ardour of a young soldier entering on high
command in new and deeply interesting fields of adventure, and in the
company of the officer whom he most respected and loved.

It was natural, therefore, that the conversation should turn on
Britain, and the tremendous events of which it had recently been the
scene. Aulus Plautius had heard from Suetonius Paulinus himself the
story how he had carried his soldiers on flat-bottomed boats across
the Straits of Mona, while the horses swam behind; how the British
women, with dishevelled hair, stood thick upon the shore in dark
robes, and, with torches in their hands, ran to and fro among
the soldiers like Furies; above all, how the Druids stood there
conspicuous, their long white beards streaming to the winds, and,
with hands uplifted to heaven, cursed the Romans; and how at last,
‘falling on the barbarous and lunatic rout, he had beaten them
down, scorched and rolling in their own fires.’ But darker news had
followed. Roman emissaries--‘and those bad young Romans are the curse
of Rome,’ said the old commander, looking up from the tablets of
Suetonius--had behaved with infamous cruelty to Boadicea, the heroic
Queen of the Iceni, and she was burning to revenge her wrongs.
Paulinus described her as ‘a woman big and tall, of visage grim and
stern, harsh of voice, her hair of bright colour flowing down to
her hips, who wore a plighted garment of divers colours, and a great
golden chain under a large flowing mantle.’

‘He has sent me some fierce British verses, King,’ said Aulus,
turning to Caradoc, ‘which one of his literary officers--Laureatus,
of the island of Vectis--has translated from British into Latin
galliambics, the metre which, he says, most resembles their
tumultuous lilt. The translator must be a true poet, for not even
the “Atys” of Catullus is more impassioned. I shall be half afraid to
read them to you, for they will stir your blood like the sound of a
trumpet, and you will fancy yourself charging us again at the head of
your Silures.’

‘Ah!’ said the old warrior, sadly; ‘my fires have long sunk into
white embers. A king who has been led in fetters through the
capital of his enemies can fight no more for a free nation, however
intolerably it may have been wronged.’

Claudia pressed her father’s hand, and tears shone in her blue eyes.

‘Nay, Claudia,’ said the king; ‘I did not wish to sadden thee. Thou
and I have other and brighter hopes than once we had, and it will
be like new life to us to tread once more by the broad rivers of
Britain, and on her heathy hills. I am an exile and poor. My jewels
and trappings were carried before me at the triumph of Claudius and
Aulus;--though Cartismandua, who betrayed me, still has her golden
corslet and her enamelled chariot. These things are, I know, as the
gods decide, and sometimes they suffer wickedness to triumph. But let
Aulus Plautius read us the verses.’

Aulus read the galliambics into which the poet of Vectis had
translated the British war-song,[87]

   ‘They that scorn the tribes, and call us Britain’s barbarous
        populaces,
    Shall I heed them in their anguish? Shall I brook to be
        supplicated?
    Hear, Icenian, Catieuchlanian; hear, Coritanian, Trinobant!
    Must their ever-ravening eagle’s beak and talon annihilate us?
    Bark an answer, Britain’s raven! bark and blacken innumerable!
    Hear it, gods! The gods have heard it, O Icenian, O Coritanian!
    Doubt not ye the gods have answered, Catieuchlanian, Trinobant!
    Lo! their precious Roman bantling, lo! the colony Camulodune,
    Shall we teach it a Roman lesson? shall we care to be pitiful?
    Shout, Icenian, Catieuchlanian; shout, Coritanian, Trinobant!
    Bloodily, bloodily fall the battle-axe, unexhausted, inexorable!
    Take the hoary Roman head, and shatter it, hold it abominable,
    Cut the Roman boy in pieces in his lust and voluptuousness.
    Fall the colony, city, and citadel, London, Verulam, Camulodune!’

‘Ye gods! What cannot a poet do?’ exclaimed Seneca, with enthusiasm.
‘Those lines would have made me die in battle, if I had been a
Briton.’

‘They have caused eighty thousand to die in battle,’ said Aulus.
‘A later letter of Paulinus tells us that, after a fearful massacre
of the Romans at the three colonies of Londinium, Verulamium, and
Camulodunum, the Britons assembled two hundred and thirty thousand
warriors, with whom he fought a tremendous battle near Verulamium.
But how could those woad-painted fighters withstand the skill, the
discipline, the heavy armour of our legionaries? We lost but four
hundred, Paulinus says; and Boadicea, who, in a chariot with her two
daughters, had raged through the battle like an angry lioness, has
taken poison in despair.’

The wild passionate verses had produced strangely different effects
on the little audience. The old king started up from his couch, his
breast panting, his eyes full of fire, and then sank back again and
hid his face in his mantle. For the lines recalled to him his own
heroic struggles, and his great father, Cunobalin, and his noble
brothers. Claudia mused in silence, thinking of the day when the
Prince of Peace should come again--a thought which Pomponia divined
as she laid her hand on the fair head of her friend. Vespasian looked
grave, and thought it rather treasonous of a Roman poet to turn such
verses into Latin. Pudens and Titus felt a pang of regret that, in
combat with a free people, the name of Rome should be stained with
the infamies of scamps and weaklings who had provoked that terrible
revolt.

Seneca little knew that Aulus, in reading extracts from the letter
of Suetonius, had suppressed a passage in which the general had
indignantly stated as one cause of the insurrection, not only the
wrongs of Boadicea, but the fact that Seneca himself had suddenly
called in large sums of money which he had lent to the British at
usurious interest, and that the demand for repayment had reduced the
poor Iceni to bankruptcy and despair.

‘We have been talking about Britain all this time,’ said Titus; ‘but
here is our friend Julius straight from Palestine, and he must have
plenty of news to tell us about those odd fanatics, the Jews.’

‘How goes the world in Jerusalem?’ asked Vespasian. ‘The question
is very interesting to an old soldier like me. We constantly hear of
risings there. I am told that affairs are getting desperate, and who
knows but what the Emperor may some day despatch me thither at the
head of a legion?’

‘Nothing is more likely,’ said Julius.

‘Unless you snore while the Emperor is singing, father, as you did at
Subiaco,’ said Titus, laughing, as did all the guests.

‘Impudent boy!’ said Vespasian, joining in the laugh. ‘Let Julius go
on.’

Julius told them that ever since the days when Pontius Pilatus had
half maddened the Jews by bringing the Roman ensigns into Jerusalem,
and Caligula had reduced them to stupefaction by proposing to set up
his own image in their Temple, they had been on the verge of sedition.

‘Felix,’ he added, ‘only got off their impeachment by the influence
of his brother, Pallas. Festus had hard work with their bandits. At
present they are raging in a first-rate quarrel with young King
Agrippa.’

He proceeded to tell them how Agrippa, for the delectation of his
friends, had built a dining-room at the top of his Palace, so that
his guests as they lay at the banquet could enjoy the highly curious
spectacle of all that was going on in the Temple precincts. Indignant
at this encroachment, the Jews built up a blank wall of such a height
as not only to exclude the view from the Asmonæan Palace of Agrippa,
but also to shut out the surveillance of the Roman soldiers in
the tower Antonia. Agrippa was furious, and Festus ordered them to
demolish the wall. But they said that they would die rather than
consent to do this. They appealed to Nero, and Festus allowed them to
send their High Priest, Ishmael ben Phabi, with nine others, to plead
their cause with the Emperor.

‘I suspect that this deputation was on board the vessel whose
shipwreck I mentioned,’ said Julius.

‘Will this appeal be successful?’ asked Vespasian.

‘I believe it will,’ answered the centurion; ‘for Poppæa is very
favourable to the Jews.’

‘Shall we really see a Jewish High Priest in Rome?’ asked Pomponia.

‘Yes, lady,’ answered Julius; ‘but a very unworthy one. He rules by
terror. He robs and defrauds the inferior priests to such an extent
that they die of starvation, and his blows have become proverbial.
To the disgust of the Jews he wears silk gloves when he is offering
sacrifice, in order to keep his hands clean. And yet, so scrupulous
are these oddest of people, that they would not let his father
perform the very greatest sacrifice in their whole year because
of the most insignificant accident.’

‘What was it?’ asked Pomponia.

‘You will really hardly believe it. On the eve of the great festival
which they call the _Kippurim_--a sort of day of expiation--the
father of this High Priest was talking to Aretas, king of Arabia,
and by an accident a speck of the Emir’s saliva fell on Ishmael’s
beard. This made him “unclean,” in their opinion; and a deputy, whom
they call the Sagan, had to perform its principal function!’

The guests laughed.

‘But tell us now,’ said Vespasian, ‘about these new Christians. I
suppose they, and their Christus, are more turbulent even than the
Jews?’

‘So we Romans are led to believe,’ said Julius. ‘It is exactly
the reverse. The Christians are the most peaceful of men, and they
reverence the Roman power.’

‘Have you seen much of them?’ asked Aulus.

‘I witnessed a remarkable scene,’ said Julius, ‘just before I left
Jerusalem. Festus, as you are aware, died the other day, worn out
with cares and worries. Pending the appointment of his successor,
Agrippa appointed a new High Priest--Annas, son of the priest before
whom Christus was tried. This Annas took upon himself unwonted
authority. He summoned the head of the Christians--James, a brother
of their Christus--before their Sanhedrin, and ordered him to be
stoned to death. But this James was almost worshipped by the people,
who called him “the Just.” To give him a chance of life, they asked
him what he thought of Christus, and he called him a God. On hearing
this answer they flung him down from the roof of the Temple. The fall
did not kill him; he was able to rise to his knees and pray for them.
It was a wonderful sight--that man of noble presence, with the long
locks streaming over his shoulders, and his white robe stained with
blood, kneeling in the Temple court among his furious enemies! One of
the bystanders pleaded for him; but a fuller came up and dashed out
his brains with a club.’

‘The cup of that nation’s iniquity is full,’ said Pomponia, who had
listened with a shudder to this tale of martyrdom.

‘It is,’ said Julius. ‘Immediately after I had witnessed this sad
scene, I was talking to a brilliant young priest in Jerusalem named
Josephus, of whose abilities they think highly, and who evidently has
a great future before him. He made the same remark.’

‘But tell us something about that wonderful prisoner whom you brought
to Rome,’ said Titus.

Julius detailed to them his voyage, the storm when they drifted so
long up and down Adria in the starless nights and sunless days; the
strong influence of the Jewish prisoner over the whole crew; the
spirit which he breathed into their despair; the practical wisdom
of all his counsels; the intense gratitude which he had kindled in
the Protos of Malta and in the barbarous inhabitants, by what they
believed to be a miraculous healing. ‘His teaching,’ he added, ‘is
the most wonderful thing I ever heard.’

‘What can a Jew really teach?’ asked Seneca, with some disdain.

‘He preaches that their Prophet whom Pilatus crucified, was God
Himself,’ said Julius; ‘and no sane man can believe that. But there
is a sort of supernatural spell about the goodness of this Paulus;
and when I hear him speak to “the brethren,” as he calls the
Christians, I am always reminded of Homer’s lines--

                      ‘In thought profound
    His modest eyes he fixed upon the ground;
    But when he speaks, what elocution flows,
    Soft as the fleeces of descending snows!
    The copious accents fall with easy art,
    Melting they fall, and sink into the heart.’

‘He may have the gift of speech,’ said Seneca; ‘many Orientals have.
But it is monstrous to suppose that a fanatical Jew, with a senseless
creed, should have anything to teach us.’

‘Has he written anything?’ asked Flavius Sabinus.

‘Yes; he has written some wonderful letters--a strange mixture (as
friends in Palestine told me) of fantastic doctrine and perfect
ethics.’

‘Has he taught a single moral truth which has not been taught for
four centuries, since Aristotle and Plato and Chrysippus?’ asked
Seneca.

‘I have not read his letters,’ said Julius. ‘They were difficult to
get hold of, for the Christians are very shy about their writings.
But he _lives_ the truth he teaches.’

‘Ah!’ said Seneca; ‘if he has the secret of that--! As for us, too
many of us are open to the reproach that we are only philosophers by
wearing beards.’

‘Well,’ said Titus, ‘I have been to hear the lectures of Musonius
Rufus, and I defy any mortal man to teach better truths than he and
Cornutus do; for I must not speak of the illustrious Seneca in his
presence. We have no need to consult barbarian Jews with insane new
mythologies.’

Pomponia and Claudia and Pudens were of necessity silent in that
mixed company; but they thought that the good soil of the Christian
faith was the one thing lacking to Seneca, which might have made
the roses of his moral teaching produce something better than mere
perfume.

And if Titus had but laid aside the ignorant disdain which marked
him in common with the mass of philosophic Pagans, his manly virtues
might have shone forth with yet more beautiful lustre, and he might
have been saved from the sins and errors wherewith he afterwards
defiled a noble name.



CHAPTER XLV

_POPPÆA VICTRIX_

   ‘On that hard pagan world disgust
      And secret loathing fell;
    Deep weariness and sated lust
      Made human life a hell.’

                          MATTHEW ARNOLD.


Not long after the arrival of Paul at Rome, Burrus died. He was
seized with inflammation of the throat, and Nero, under the pretence
of solicitude, betrayed an ill-concealed satisfaction. He had not
dared to get rid of Burrus, whom the Prætorians loved; but he fretted
under the restraint of the soldier’s presence, and resented an
influence which endeavoured to exert itself for good. Nero could not
mistake the innuendos of Tigellinus, that this was a good opportunity
to set himself free. He promised to send Burrus a remedy recommended
by his own physician. The remedy was a poison. Burrus perceived the
fact too late. When Nero came to visit his sick bed, he turned away
from him, with undisguised aversion.

‘How are you, Præfect?’ asked the Emperor, taking his hand as it lay
on the coverlet.

Burrus hastily withdrew his hand. The question recalled to him the
scene of the death of Scipio, the father-in-law of Pompey, who,
seeing his ship in the possession of the enemy, stabbed himself,
and on hearing the question, ‘Where is the general?’ answered, ‘The
general is well.’ Burrus remained silent, but when the Emperor once
more asked how he was, answered, ‘I am well.’ They were the last
words he spoke, and every good man in Rome mourned the loss of one
of the few virtuous men of whom the state could yet boast.

Nero might have bestowed the vacant command on the best soldier of
his time, the brave and honest Corbulo, who had supported the fame
of Roman courage on so many a hard-fought field.

He thought of no such man. In spite of Corbulo’s utter loyalty Nero
feared to trust him. He divided the office between Fenius Rufus and
Sophonius Tigellinus. The former was popular from his generosity
as corn commissioner in a time of famine, and it was hoped that the
appointment would cover the deadly unpopularity of his colleague.
But it was with Tigellinus that the real power rested. In his hands
was the sword of Nero, and the secret of his influence lay in the
similarity of his vices to those of the Emperor. The career of the
man from boyhood upwards had been a career of infamy. He had been a
lover of Agrippina, and of her sister, and he had paraded his crime
with cynical coolness. With him Nero could always throw off the mask,
and display the depths of his own turpitude. He was a tenth-rate
Sejanus, only more deeply dyed in infamies. If he pandered to Nero’s
vices with sumptuous profligacy, this was part of a deep-laid design
to drag the imperial purple through the foulest mire. But the scum of
many nations which called itself the populace of Rome applauded each
vileness, in proportion to its monstrosity, and was glad to see its
Emperor the slave of passions as abject as its own. The degeneracy
caused by such scenes was incredible. The ultimate result was that--

   ‘Rome now might nowhere rid herself of Rome:
    The heavens were all distempered with the breath
    Of her old age. She, very nigh to death,
    Paced through her perishing world in search of air
    Unpoisoned by herself.’

Though Britannicus had been done to death, there were still two men
who might stand seriously in the way of the new favourite’s schemes.
One was Faustus Cornelius Sulla, the last of that famous name. He was
poor and slothful, but he had for a time been the husband of Antonia,
the daughter of Claudius, and the freedman Graptus had already
persuaded Nero to banish him to Marseilles, on a trumpery charge
of complicity in a plot. Tigellinus persuaded Nero that Sulla only
simulated indolence, and that he was tampering with the legions in
Gaul. Executioners were sent to Marseilles, and Sulla was murdered
as he lay at supper. Rubellius Plautus was the next victim. He had
imperial blood in his veins, and many had fixed their eyes upon him
with hope, for he was a man of Stoic dignity and domestic virtue.
In A.D. 60, a comet had been interpreted to indicate a change in the
Empire, and Nero recommended Plautus, though he was only living the
quiet life of an ordinary citizen, to retire to his estates in Asia.
He obeyed without a murmur, living in simple duties with his wife
Antistia, and devoting his thoughts to philosophy. Soldiers were now
despatched to murder him. A faithful freedman, at imminent risk of
his life, made his way to Asia, arrived before Nero’s centurion,
and warned Rubellius of his impending doom. He was the bearer of a
letter from his father-in-law, Antistius Vetus, urging Rubellius not
tamely to submit. Only sixty soldiers were coming to carry out the
iniquitous mandate of Nero; let him repulse them, throw himself under
the protection of Corbulo, and all would be well. But Rubellius was
sickened by the thought of doubtful hopes. He wished, if possible,
to avert, by submission, the future ruin of the wife and children
whom he loved. Further than this, his philosophic teacher, Cœranus,
persuaded him that a firm death was preferable to troubled and
uncertain life. He therefore took no step in self-defence. The
centurion found him at mid-day, stripped of his clothes, taking
athletic exercise in his gymnasium, and butchered him on the spot,
in the sight of the worthless eunuch, Pelago, whom Nero, as though
he were some Asiatic despot, had sent to keep watch over the officer
and soldiers. According to the ghastly fashion of the times his head
was carried back to Nero. ‘Why did you want to be a Nero?’ said the
brutal jester. ‘Gods! what a nose the man had!’

Thus it was reserved for a Domitius Ahenobarbus to put to death
Rubellius Plautus, the last descendant of Tiberius, as he afterwards
put to death L. Junius Silanus, the last descendant of Augustus.

But there was an influence over Nero which was more powerful than
that of all the other wretches of his Court. It was the influence of
Poppæa. His infatuation for this beautiful, evil, astute woman had
taken complete possession of him. She had led him on step by step,
now alluring, now repelling him, keeping him ever in a maddening
fever of passion, on which she played as on an instrument. Already
she had sufficiently established her empire over him to permit of his
sending Otho to Lusitania. Nor had she hesitated to leave her home
and to become an inmate of Nero’s Palace. But it was far from her
intention to sink into the humble position which had been enough for
Acte, who, in her ignorance, had felt for Nero a love ten times more
genuine than that which she had inspired. Poppæa, whose infantine and
cherubic loveliness could easily have secured for her the hand of the
noblest of the patricians, intended to be Empress and nothing less.
She knew the evanescent character of such love as she had kindled,
and she bent the powers of her mind to rule Nero by playing with
his hopes. There was but one obstacle in the path of her ambition.
Octavia still lived, and Octavia must be got rid of.

It is true that the hapless Empress had long been reduced to a
cipher by the mutual repulsion of herself and her husband. She could
scarcely help shrinking from his touch. To look in his face made
her shudder. While still in the charm of youth he had been odious
to her. Now that his face was unhealthy with excess, his cruel frown
and lowering countenance wore in her eyes the look of a demon. His
faithlessness did not wound her, for the gleams of happiness which
rarely illumined the tragedy of her life came to her only when he
neglected her utterly. Nevertheless, she was Empress. She had the
undeniable rights of her position, and in public it was necessary for
Nero to treat with decency the daughter of the divine Claudius and
the granddaughter of the beloved Germanicus.

Yet Poppæa had determined that, on one pretext or other, she should
be set aside, and never doubted that sooner rather than later she
would goad the timid Emperor to repudiate his wife, that he might be
free for another marriage.

One day when Poppæa knew that Nero intended to visit her she
prepared all her wiles. He came in after the mid-day prandium, and
he found her reclining on her couch of ivory and silver in the cool,
well-shaded, voluptuously-furnished room. She had let loose over her
shoulders the splendid ripples of her golden tresses. An odour as
of blown roses clung to her person and her robes. Every jewel that
she wore, whether ruby, or sapphire, or emerald, or diamond, was so
arranged as to set off her soft and glowing complexion, and there was
exquisite grace in her way of handling the fan of peacock’s feathers
which swept in iridescent glory over her dress from the golden handle
which drooped from her right hand. Nero, as he took his seat beside
her, felt like a clumsy and awkward boy.

‘Why do you pretend to love me, Nero?’ she asked.

‘Love you!’ he said. ‘It is not love, it is passion, it is adoration!’

‘Words are all very well, Nero,’ she said, in a voice which seemed
to tremble with tears; ‘but see how you treat me! When I came to the
Palace you were not Emperor, but the slave of Agrippina. I helped you
to free yourself from that bondage. You have taken me from Otho, my
dear and noble husband--’

Nero frowned angrily, but Poppæa took no notice.

‘You have,’ she continued, ‘banished him to Lusitania, and have
brought me to this dull Court, under pretence that you would make
me Empress. Yet I am no nearer becoming your wife. Go to your pale,
sad Octavia: doubtless you think her common features fairer than
mine. Her dreary talk and drearier silence cannot fail to be more
fascinating.’

‘I loathe her,’ said Nero.

‘And she loathes you, whereas I worship the ground you tread upon.
No, no!’ she said, as he attempted to seize her hand; ‘I will not
live here to be your mere plaything. I will rejoin Otho in Lusitania.
He loves me, and knows how to treat me properly.’

Nero rose in a passion. Fearful lest she should goad him too far,
Poppæa called him to her side and changed her tone.

‘Your home is empty, Nero,’ she said. ‘No child will succeed you. I
have a little son. Octavia must be dismissed, if you would have an
heir to be Emperor of Rome.’

‘How can I dismiss her?’ said Nero gloomily. ‘Even my freedmen
espouse her cause. Doryphorus is for her, and Pallas.’

‘Doryphorus! Pallas!’ she repeated, with a laugh of ringing scorn.
‘An effeminate slave-minion; a miserly dotard! Tush, Cæsar! be a
man. Sweep aside these flies. Poison them both; no one will miss
Doryphorus, and Pallas has riches which will prove very convenient
to you.’

‘That shall be done,’ said Nero. ‘I am sick of Doryphorus, and Pallas
has lived long enough. But to repudiate Octavia is different. She is
strong in the name of her father, and stronger still in the favour of
the people and the Prætorians.’

‘Is Cæsar truly Cæsar?’ she asked, with contempt.

‘Cæsar can do what he likes in his own private life,’ he answered;
‘but woe to Cæsar if he degrade the majesty of Empire by any public
deed.’

He said truly, and she knew it; but she knew also that he had not yet
fathomed, as she had done, the abysses of Roman servility. Had they
not applauded him after the murder of Agrippina? Had they not passed
in silence the murder of Britannicus? Had they not suffered the doom
of Sulla and of Plautus to pass by without creating so much as a
ripple on the surface of the general tranquillity?

By her urgency, by her wiles, by her taunts, by the supreme
ascendency which she had now acquired over the Emperor, she prevailed
on him at length to divorce Octavia on the plea of her barrenness,
and to make Poppæa his wife. This, however, did not content her,
while her unhappy rival remained an inmate of the Palace. Poppæa
therefore endeavoured to blacken her character. She put into play
every poisonous art of slander. In most cases nothing was easier than
to trump up a false charge against any one whom the Emperor desired
to ruin. The white innocence of Octavia, her stainless purity in that
age of infamy, were no protection to her. The faithful love of her
few attendants was a partial safeguard. Most of them were tampered
with in vain. At last, however, a worthless Alexandrian flute-player,
who had sometimes played before her to while away a heavy hour, was
induced by a great bribe to swear that he had been her lover. The
charge was too monstrous to deceive a single person, but on this
pretext Octavia’s handmaids were seized and tortured. The majority,
however, stood firm even against the torture-chamber, and one of
them, named Pythias, cried out to Tigellinus, as he heightened the
torture and pressed her with questions, that Octavia’s worst offence
was white as snow beside the blackness of his best virtues. It was
impossible to pretend a conviction on evidence which would have been
invalid against the humblest slave.

It was, nevertheless, decided that Octavia should be removed from
the Palatine, and she was sent from the home of her father with the
ill-omened gifts of the estate of Plautus as her dower, and the house
of Burrus as her residence.

The unhappy girl--she was but nineteen--obeyed without a murmur. She
had wept floods of tears when her husband, instigated by his cruel
paramour, had attempted to stain her name. She shed no tear when
she laid aside the purple of the Empress, and, clad in the simplest
garb of a Roman matron, was conveyed to her new home. Thither,
too, were sent her unhappy maidens. Those who had most enjoyed her
confidence--and among these the poor Christian girl, Tryphæna--were
still disabled by the dislocations of the torture. With tenderest
solicitude Octavia herself visited their cells, and ministered to
their infirmities. She flung her arms, weeping, round Tryphæna’s
neck, and thanked her and Pythias for the heroic constancy with which
they had held out and, when stretched on the rack, had unflinchingly
asseverated the stainless honour of their mistress.

‘How could you endure it, Tryphæna?’ she asked. ‘The blood of the
Claudii and of deified emperors flows in my veins, yet if my frame
had been wrenched with such pangs, I know not what my lips might not
have said.’

‘Lady,’ said the slave-girl, ‘I hardly felt it. The spirit sustained
the body. I thought of--’

‘Go on,’ said Octavia.

‘I thought of Him of whom I have read to you in the letter of Peter
of Bethsaida; and how He had endured the contradiction of sinners
against Himself; and I was not weary, and did not faint in my mind.’

‘How could the Crucified One help you?’

‘He is not the Crucified One now,’ answered Tryphæna. ‘He is the
Risen, the Ascended: and He sits on the right hand of the Father.’

‘Oh that I could believe all this!’ said Octavia. ‘I have scarcely
had a happy hour in all my life. I have been more miserable than any
slave-girl. If He whom you called the Risen One were all that you
say, why does He not help the innocent?’

‘He does help them,’ she said. ‘Not by delivering them out of all
their troubles, but by enabling them to bear, and by making them feel
that their brief troubles, which are but for a moment, are nothing to
the eternal weight of glory.’

‘Did He help you?’

‘He did. As I lay outstretched on the rack I saw Him for a moment,
His hand upraised to bless.’

‘Does He do so for all Christians when they suffer?’

‘I think He does, for all His true children. Lady, do you know that
Paulus of Tarsus--the Apostle whose letters to the churches I have
read to you--is in Rome?’

‘So Pomponia told me,’ said Octavia, ‘and she asked if I would not
see him. But how can I? Burrus is dead, and Paulus sits chained to a
Prætorian soldier in his own lodging.’

‘He has friends who would bring you his teachings,’ said Tryphæna.
‘One of them I have seen. His name is Lucas of Antioch, and he is
a physician. To comfort me after I had been tortured, he told me
how Paulus, before his conversion--when he was a blasphemer, and
persecutor, and injurious--had witnessed and even incited the stoning
of our first martyr, the young deacon Stephen; and how when Stephen
stood before the Council, and they were all gnashing their teeth at
him, his face was as an angel’s. And he says that Stephen saw the
heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’

While Octavia stood talking with the young slave-girl, she was
told that Pomponia had come to see her, and humbly kissing the poor
sufferer on the brow, she went to the tablinum to receive her guest.

‘Wherever sorrow is, there Pomponia comes,’ she said, embracing her.

‘That is not my individual virtue,’ said Pomponia. ‘We Christians are
_all_ taught to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one
another, even as God in Christ forgives us.’

‘Your faith seems to make you all very happy.’

‘It does indeed. Oh, if you could see our Paulus, how would he
comfort you!’

‘What made him a Christian?’ asked Octavia. ‘Tryphæna has just been
telling me that he was once a persecutor.’

‘He saw a vision of Christ, as he went to extirpate the Christians
at Damascus. From that time he has preached the faith which he once
destroyed. While Burrus lived the guards were bidden to leave him
when his friends came, but since Tigellinus has been Præfect his
lot is harder. I know not how you can with safety visit him. But his
friend and companion is Lucas the physician. Why should you not have
him sent for to tend your poor wounded slaves?’

The hint was taken. Octavia’s household was now a very simple and
quiet one. The swarm of courtiers had deserted her. None of the fine
ladies of Rome who desired the approval of Nero, came near her gate.
The last of the great house of the Claudii, the wife and daughter and
descendant of emperors, was left to her seclusion, and she rejoiced
in it. She spun wool among her maidens; she was considerate of the
happiness of her slaves. She manumitted Pythias and Tryphæna, who
had suffered for her. Fair peace began to reign around her, and she
nursed the hope that she might be suffered to live out her life in
quietude until a fairer day should haply dawn. Lucas was summoned,
and to her, as to the Christians of her household, he proved himself
to be indeed also a physician of the soul.

He was an Asiatic in the prime of life, with a countenance singularly
radiant and refined. He spoke the purest Greek, and had been
accustomed to the society of Theophilus of Antioch and other persons
of rank, to whom he had been endeared by his medical skill. Already,
during the imprisonment of Paulus at Cæsarea, he had busied himself
in the collection of those facts which he was soon to enroll in
‘the most beautiful book in all the world.’ It was common for Roman
families to listen to readings from accomplished Greeks, and it was
not difficult for Octavia, with the aid of Pomponia and her Christian
slaves, to arrange that Lucas should read to them his yet unfinished
records of the Life of the Saviour. Those records, and the
conversations which she held with the Evangelist, and his answers
to her questions, at last convinced the heart of the Empress. She
saw that in the faith of the gospel there was a peace, a beauty, a
blessedness, such as she had never known, of which she had never
dreamed. Perilous as the decision was, she determined to be admitted
by baptism into the flock of Christ. One morning, at break of day,
in the presence of Lucas, Pomponia, and Tryphæna, but otherwise in
the deepest secrecy, she was baptised by Linus.

And thenceforth there reigned in her heart a peace which no further
waves of trouble could disturb. She began to understand why it was
that, in spite of her mourning garb, in spite of her many trials,
Pomponia, though her face was often sad, was far happier than any
of the Roman matrons. She began to experience that there is a bliss
in faith and hope and love which the world can neither give nor take
away.

And this boon of heaven only came just in time to save her from
sinking into utter despair under the horrible tempest of afflictions
which fell upon her.

For though Nero would have been content to dismiss her into obscurity
and oblivion, Poppæa was not content. She wearied the Emperor with
her insistence that he should take still further steps against his
repudiated wife. Nero ordered Octavia to leave Rome and live in
Campania.

As she was preparing to obey the insulting order, which was rendered
still more insulting by the addition that she was to be kept under
military surveillance, it struck Pomponia that it might add to the
comfort and safety of the Empress if she could once more command the
services of Onesimus. Octavia had been pleased with his assiduity
when he was her purple-keeper, and she knew that he had once rendered
a high service to her beloved Britannicus. In the solitudes of
Campania it would be well for her to have at hand a slave and
messenger whom she could implicitly trust. With the precaution
of a disguise he might remain unrecognised, and serve as a medium
of communication between the ex-Empress and her friends in Rome.
Onesimus was more than willing to undertake the charge. At Rome he
was never safe. After all that had occurred, he did not dare to enter
the secret assemblies of the Christians, though it was there alone
that he could hope to see Junia. After Octavia had started with
her despised and scanty retinue, he made his way to her villa with
letters from Pomponia, and was retained in her service as a Greek
reader, under a changed name.

But scarcely had his wife vanished from Rome when Nero became alarmed
by the temper of the people. They openly murmured at his conduct. In
the circus and the amphitheatre they received him with grim silence
or cold applause. He knew that the mob was his ultimate master, and,
being a coward, he hastily sent word that Octavia might return to
Rome and resume the style and title of his wife.

When this edict was published, the people went wild with joy. All
loved Octavia. No base, no cruel action, no rapacity or folly,
could be laid to her charge. If deadly crimes were committed,
they knew that Octavia disapproved of them no less entirely than
themselves. Every honest citizen who enjoyed but one gleam of
happiness on his own domestic hearth pitied the pale and neglected
daughter of Claudius, and felt inclined to protect her from further
wrongs. Their enthusiasm communicated itself to the crowd. When
Octavia re-entered Rome they surrounded her litter with tumults of
delight. Their affection cheered her heart, and, stirred by her words
of gratitude, they broke into dangerous excitement. Rushing through
the city, they flung down and trampled and spat upon the statues of
Poppæa. Those of Octavia they uplifted on their shoulders, showered
blossoms over them, and, carrying them to the Forum and the temples,
crowned them with garlands. They shouted their approval of Nero’s
tardy repentance, and, donning their holiday attire, organised
an immense procession to the Capitol, to thank Jupiter for the
restoration of their Empress. Returning from this procession
they crowded to the Palatine, and Nero in alarm appealed to the
Prætorians. Tigellinus let loose the soldiers upon the people. He had
armed them with batons, and they struck out without discrimination
among the swaying mob. When this was insufficient to disperse the
crowd, they drew their swords, and charged them in close array. It
was night before they had swept the streets clear of obstruction,
and replaced the statues of Poppæa upon their pedestals.

Poppæa was nearly wild with fear and hatred. After Nero had supped
she entered his room, and, flinging herself at his feet with
dishevelled hair, burst into passionate tears. She wailed that,
though to wed with him was dearer to her than life, she had now
come, not to plead for her marriage, but for mere safety. Who did
he suppose was the real author of that disgraceful riot? Octavia,
of course. He thought her simple. Her simplicity was but the veneer
of deeply-seated cunning. Was it the people who had broken into
sedition? Not at all. It was only the clientage and varletry of
Octavia who had dared to assume the people’s name. If they had but
found a leader, who could say whether Nero might not by this time
have been a fugitive or a mangled corpse?

‘The tumult has been aimed at you,’ she cried, ‘not at me. What
harm have I done to any one, that they should hate me? Do they hate
me because I shall give Cæsar a genuine heir? Do they prefer the
offspring of Octavia and some Egyptian flute-player? Be a man,
Nero! It only needs the smallest display of resolution to suppress
these disorders. But if you show yourself timid and incapable, the
rebellion may become formidable. If the people despair of making you
Octavia’s husband, they may make Octavia another’s wife.’

The daring and indomitable purpose of the woman succeeded. She goaded
his timidity; she fired his rage. He sent for Tigellinus, determined
at last to stop short at nothing.

With Tigellinus he needed no concealment.

‘Præfect,’ he said, ‘Octavia must at all costs be got rid of.’

‘Locusta is here,’ said Tigellinus, with alacrity.

‘No, no,’ said Nero, stamping on the ground; ‘I will not have the
scene of Britannicus acted over again. I am haunted by too many
ghosts already.’

‘Devise something,’ he said, impatiently, while Tigellinus mused.
‘Poppæa, suggest something to this fool.’

‘A charge must be made against her,’ said Poppæa, eager if possible
to shame as well as to kill.

‘The last charge broke down.’

‘Nonsense!’ answered Poppæa. ‘Say that you have positive evidence
that she has made away with her own unborn child.’

‘No one will believe it. And, besides, I have just divorced her on
the charge of barrenness.’

‘Say it all the same, Nero. Some person of importance must be induced
to confess.’

‘Who would be so infamous?’ said Nero. ‘After all, Poppæa, you know
she is innocent--ten times more innocent than you.’

‘Call me some infamous name at once,’ said Poppæa, bursting into
passion. ‘And is it for you to taunt me? Was it not for love of
you that I became faithless to my Otho? No,’ she cried, as Nero
approached her; ‘keep away from me! I will return to the wronged
Otho. He loved me. He will take me back.’ And she rushed towards
the door.

‘Poppæa,’ pleaded Nero, hasting to intercept her flight, ‘forgive me.
You see how miserable I am. I have no one to love me but you.’

‘And who could help loving you?’ she continued, weeping crocodile
tears in floods. ‘Who could resist those golden locks, that lovely
countenance, that divine voice?’

Her cajolery won the day. Nero played with her hand, and turned an
inquiring look on the Prætorian Præfect.

‘I have it,’ said Tigellinus. ‘Send for Anicetus.’

Nero winced at the name. Anicetus was still admiral of the fleet
at Misenum; but, since his share in the murder of Agrippina, Nero
could never see him without recalling the image of his mother’s
bloodstained corpse. He had practically banished Anicetus from Court,
and when the sunshine of court favour was withdrawn from him, the
wretch had sunk into contempt. But now his unscrupulosity was once
more needed for a crime which was, if possible, still blacker. He
had murdered Nero’s mother by violence; he was to murder Nero’s
wife by calumny. He was offered a vast reward, and a purely nominal
punishment, if he would confess and make it public that Octavia
had treasonably tampered with him, to seduce the allegiance of the
imperial sailors at Misenum, and that, in furtherance of her object,
she had not stopped short of offering him her hand.

The infamous tale was published; and since Nero proclaimed his
conviction of its truth, the world was compelled to profess belief
in it also, although every man and woman in Rome knew it to be a
lie. An edict was published proclaiming Octavia’s guilt, and she was
banished to the dreary islet of Pandataria.



CHAPTER XLVI

_THE DEATH OF OCTAVIA_

    ‘O gioia! O ineffabile allegrezza!
        O vita intera d’amore e di pace!
        O senza brama sicura ricchezza!’

                      DANTE, _Paradiso_, xxvii. 7-9.


In one sense all the people of Rome were the friends of Octavia; in
another she was nearly friendless. For the multitudes of every rank
were degraded by selfishness and cowed by terror. So long as they
were personally untouched by the orgies and crimes of the Emperor,
and so long as he was supported by the swords of the Prætorians, they
neither wished nor dared to interfere. Rome lay helpless under the
bonds of the tyranny which her own vices had riveted. Nero might
indeed be murdered, but in what respect would the Empire be better
off? There was no Cæsar left. If Nero died, there seemed to be
no prospect for Rome except the horrors of civil war with all its
attendant pillage, massacre, and crime. It seemed better to endure
Nero’s infamies than to see the Empire torn to pieces. After all,
were not many of the senators, of the generals, of the aristocracy,
capable of becoming as licentious and as cruel as he was, and would
not their elevation make their vices loom as monstrous as his?

They rejoiced, therefore, that the popular tumult had been so
speedily repressed, and they steeped their consciences in immoral
acquiescence. The bad plunged themselves yet more shamelessly into
vice, and manœuvred to make their vices known as a passport to
imperial favour. As for the better Romans, they tried to bury
themselves in such obscurity as would shelter them from notice;
or they sought solace in the refined egotism of the Epicureans; or
inured themselves to the chances of death and ruin by assuming the
haughty self-dependence of the later Stoics. Pætus Thrasea and his
friends took refuge in the belief that it would be an absurdity to
attempt the impossible. The heart of Seneca was torn with misgivings;
but was not he himself in peril? What could he do? He had never
spoken out against any one of Nero’s crimes, or lifted a finger to
prevent them. Lucan longed to overwhelm the Emperor with invective;
but he could only brood in silence over his wrongs, and gloomily
await the day of vengeance.

From none of these did Octavia receive any help. If they
compassionated her misery, no murmur of pity reached her ears. But
from those who were now her fellow-Christians she received both help
and consolation. Pomponia, whose gentle influence moved fearlessly
with halcyon wings over the turbid abyss of crime, exerted herself
to add comfort to the dreary retreat of the Empress in the volcanic
isle. With her strong good sense she made arrangements for Octavia’s
comfort. She obtained the leave of her husband, Aulus Plautius,
to despatch some of her slaves to Pandataria the very day that the
decree of Octavia’s banishment was published, with directions to
secure for her as fitting a home as was possible, and to take with
them such things as might conduce to her well-being. In this she was
secretly aided by Acte. The beautiful and generous girl sought an
interview with Octavia before she left Campania, fell at her knees,
and begged the daughter of Claudius to pardon the wrong which in
earlier days her beauty had inflicted. ‘I was but a slave once,’ she
said; ‘nor did I know the truths which have since been taught me. I
have forsaken the past. Empress, you will forgive me, and accept such
little services as I can render?’

‘Rise, Acte!’ said Octavia, with tender dignity. ‘I know that thy
heart was innocent, and that no wiles of thine were spread to catch
Nero’s love. I forgive thee. Who am I, in my misery, that I should
condemn thee?’

She raised the weeping girl from the ground, and gently kissed her.
‘Do not weep any more,’ she said. ‘Acte, it has been told me that
thou art a Christian. Nay, start not, and see how much I trust thee.
I am a Christian, too.’

Acte was almost speechless with surprise; but Octavia continued:
‘Yes; thou seest that I put my life in thy hands; but are we not
sisters now? I used to talk with my brother Britannicus about this
new faith, and often with Pomponia, and now I have seen Lucas of
Antioch, and from him I have heard of Jesus. Lucas has lent me the
letters of Paulus of Tarsus. He has written that “not many rich, not
many noble, not many mighty are called;” but though I am noble, I am
poor, and weak, and unhappy except for that consolation which He who
died for us sends to the sorrowful.’

‘God be praised,’ said Acte, ‘that thou hast found that peace.’

‘Yes,’ answered the Empress; ‘peace I can truly say in the midst of
shame, and slander, and tumult. My life will be short; but for us,
Acte, the islands of the blest, of which the poets sang, are neither
dreams nor fables. Farewell.’

‘Farewell, Empress,’ said Acte. ‘Day and night will our brethren lift
up holy hands for thee, and many a purer prayer than mine will rise
for thee like incense.’

As Acte left the villa she passed Onesimus. She had long been
ignorant of his fate, and shame prevented him from speaking to her.
He recognised her at a glance, but she did not penetrate the disguise
which changed him into a fair-haired slave, and he shrank back
from her presence. He regretted when it was too late that he had
not revealed himself to her, for even now she might possibly have
retarded the tragedies which were to ensue. Alas! when once men have
shown themselves unfaithful, how often do their best impulses come
too late!

But he devoted himself heart and soul to the service of the young
Empress. She had been permitted to take with her into exile one or
two only of her hundreds of slaves. She had chosen Tryphæna to be one
of these, though the poor girl, after her cruel torments, was still
barely able to stand. She had also chosen Onesimus, by the advice of
Pomponia, though she did not yet know that he had been brought under
Christian influence.

Nor was he the only disguised Christian in that small and saddened
household. The position of Hermas since his rescue from the house
of Pedanius had been very perilous. If he were recognised, the fact
of his having escaped might be fatal to others besides himself. The
Christians were mostly too poor to introduce a stranger into their
households. They would have been willing to share with each other
the last crust; but the crowded state of the _insulæ_,[88] in which
they mostly lived, rendered it difficult and dangerous to procure
extra accommodation. The only thing possible, therefore, had been
to conceal him in the house of Pudens; but as it was now necessary
to find a new home for him he had been enrolled among the out-door
slaves in the villa of the Empress, and was selected to accompany
her to the lonely island, until his history and face should have
been forgotten.

Anicetus, who had been made the vile instrument of Octavia’s
destruction, received the guerdon of his infamy, and was dismissed
into nominal exile in Sardinia. To such a man--a slave by birth and
a villain by nature--the exile was nothing. He had never regarded
life as anything but a feeding-trough, and as long as he had wealth
to spend on his own indulgences Sardinia served him as well as Rome.
It happened that the ship which was to carry him to Caralis, the
Sardinian capital, sailed from Ostia on the day that Octavia was to
be conveyed to Pandataria. Thousands of spectators, and among them
many Christians, had flocked to Ostia to see her embark. If they
dared not express their feelings, they longed at least silently to
show their sympathy. They recognised Anicetus. He embarked amid a
tempest of groans and hootings so full of execration that he trembled
lest he should be torn to pieces by the mob, and abjectly entreated
the protection of his guards. Thenceforth he vanishes from history.
He died in Sardinia, rich and impenitent; but even there he did not
escape the hatred which he felt more than the load of infamy with
which he had crushed down his worthless soul.

Later in the afternoon the multitudes caught sight of the litter
which was bearing Octavia to the shore. A trireme was waiting to take
her away forever from the home of the rulers of the world. Prætorian
guards marched on either side of her with drawn swords. Behind her,
in a humble _carruca_, came her few household slaves, and the scanty
possessions which alone she could take with her. A deep murmur of
pity arose, and as she approached the quay it swelled into a cheer,
in which the spectators gave vent to the indignation which they felt
against her oppressors. At one time it seemed as if they might break
out into violence; but the Prætorians menaced them with their swords,
and the angry murmurs died away.

The Christians--who recognised Tryphæna and others of their brethren
among Octavia’s slaves, and who, though they did not know the secret
of Octavia’s conversion, knew her innocence--showed their sympathy in
more quiet ways. They sighed forth prayers and blessings, and strewed
with flowers her pathway to the vessel. Onesimus, as he passed,
caught sight of Nereus and Junia. No one knew him, but he felt almost
certain that he had seen a flash of recognition in Junia’s eyes.
Beyond doubt she stood gazing intently on him as he leaned over
the vessel’s side. Ah, well! the day might come, he thought, when,
purified from shame by suffering, he might obliterate the memories of
his dishonoured past, and be worthy once more to stand by her side.

And one incident occurred which, not for him only, but for all that
little company, was fraught with blessed consequences. Linus stood
with Luke of Antioch in the undistinguished throng, but neither of
them had been forgetful of the sorrowful sighing of those who were
going into captivity. Linus had told to Paul the prisoner, in deep
secrecy, the story of Octavia’s baptism, and the heart of the Apostle
was sad at the thought of her sufferings. He had written her a brief
letter of comfort, which Linus slid into the hand of Hermas amid the
bustle of the embarkation. Nor was this all. Luke also had not been
forgetful of the anguish of the last of the Claudian house. Filled
with that deep sense of brotherhood which linked all ranks together
in the Christian community, he had written out for the exiles some
inestimably precious fragments of the materials which he had been
collecting for his Gospel. He found means unobserved to give them to
Tryphæna, when ceasing for a moment to lean on the arms of the two
slaves who were supporting her feeble footsteps, she turned to bid
farewell to her mother, Nympha.

The emotion of the spectators made it more easy for the watchful
Christians to communicate with each other. For there were few dry
eyes among them. Some of them were old enough to have seen Julia, the
lovely daughter of Augustus, sail to the same sad bourne. They had
seen her daughter, the younger Julia, banished by Claudius to the yet
more distant island of Tremerus. They had wept tears almost as bitter
when they saw the elder Agrippina driven to the same prison by the
insatiable malice of Tiberius. But the case of Octavia was far sadder
than that of her noble kinswomen. The elder Julia was steeped in
shame, and had well-nigh broken the heart of her father. The younger
Julia had also disgraced her high lineage. The wife of Germanicus
had been a Roman matron of the purest stamp, yet her passionate
haughtiness had diminished the sympathy which would otherwise have
been felt with her in her calamities. And, further, these others had
enjoyed their days of superb sunlight and prosperity. Ruin had not
overtaken them till the happiness and beauty of their youth were
past. Not so the pale and hapless girl who was now embarking. Octavia
had known no joy. Her childhood had been darkened by the three
murders of those whom she best loved. From the first her husband had
hated her. His youthful love had been given, not to her, but to her
freedwoman; and now, unprotected by her own white innocence, she had
been smitten to the earth by a horribly false condemnation. She was
still scarcely twenty years old![89] And she was being conducted
amid centurions and soldiers to a barren rock, which was haunted
by memories of death and anguish. She was as one dead, but without
the peace of death:--so thought her pagan sympathisers, and were
confirmed in their misgiving that either there are no gods or they
care not for the affairs of men.

And Octavia did not deceive herself. She well knew that those islets
of the Tyrrhene Sea were wet with the blood of noble exiles; and that
Caligula, on being told by one who had been recalled from banishment
that the exiles spent their time in praying for the death of the
reigning Emperor, had sent soldiers round the islands to put all
the prisoners to death. She knew her peril, but she clung to life
with the tenacity of youth. Nero had no child. She thought that his
excesses would precipitate his end, and that some virtuous man might
be chosen by the Senate to succeed. After the death of Narcissus she
had been told the anecdote of the physiognomist who had prophesied
that Titus would one day be Emperor, and she thought that under her
brother’s devoted friend there might be the dawn of brighter days.
She therefore wrote a letter to Nero, before the trireme started, in
which she said she would but live as his widow and his sister, with
no thought of returning to the Palace. She even ventured to remind
him that she had always experienced his mother’s protection, and
that, as long as Agrippina lived, her marriage dignity had not been
assailed.

All was now ready. The sailors drew up the anchor, and the assembled
crowd watched the white sails of the trireme till they became rosy in
the light of sunset, and the vessel dipped beneath the horizon.

Octavia awaited, in deep anxiety, the answer to her letter. There
were points in it which might perhaps have touched the heart of Nero
if Poppæa and Tigellinus had not been at his elbow as the evil genii
of his degradation. But, when the tablets of Octavia came, Nero
was sitting with the enchantress. Taking them out of his hands, she
turned the letter into such ridicule, and laughed over it so sweetly
and so immoderately, and mixed her silvery laughter with so many acts
of fascination, that the fear of her ridicule--to which, like all
vain persons, Nero was inordinately sensitive--quenched in his heart
all thoughts of mercy. She also played upon his fears. ‘As long as
Octavia lives,’ she said, ‘neither you nor I will be safe. You saw
how the people rose in her behalf. You do not know what assassins she
may have in her pay. All that the spirit of insurrection needs is a
leader, and, while Octavia lives, conspirators have only to provide
her with a husband, and she will bring him the Empire as her dower,
as she did to you. The tomb is the only safe prison. The dead excite
no tumult and tell no tales.’

So the messenger was sent back without an answer, and Octavia knew
that she had only to prepare for her fate. No day dawned that might
not be her last; no sail shone on the horizon which might not be
bringing her executioners from Rome--nay, the orders might even now
be in possession of her military guard, and the tramp of the changing
sentries each morning and evening might be to her the echoing
foot-fall of death. No situation in the world is more harrowing or
more terrific than this. We can confront death when we know that we
stand face to face with him; but to have his sword dangling over our
necks by a thread of gossamer, and not to know at what moment it will
fall; to know that somewhere near us he lies in wait, but not to know
where or how he will leap out upon us--this adds a nameless dread
to the king of terrors, and it has been sufficient to break down the
iron nerves even of trained soldiers who have ridden fearlessly to
many a bloody fight.

There was not a person on the little island who was not aware that
Octavia was thus standing on the edge of the awful precipice. Great,
therefore, was the astonishment of all, and especially of the Roman
soldiers, at the strange placidity, the sweet fortitude which she
displayed. None else could laugh during those sad days; but she
could laugh--laugh more gaily than she had ever done in the gorgeous
chambers of the Palatine. As escape was impossible, she was left
free, and she loved to sit on the rocks in the evening sunlight and
enjoy the cooler breeze. Unfamiliar with the sea-shore, it was a
pleasure to her to watch the black-headed sea-mews rising and falling
on the gentle swell of the tideless waters, or waving over it their
immaculate white wings, or suddenly dashing down on some fish, and
breaking the surface into concentric rings of rippled gold. She found
pleasure in the shells, and sea-weeds, and purple medusæ, and laughed
again and again as she noticed for the first time the curious motion
of the hippocampi as they gambolled in the shallow waves. It was
strange, too, to the few islanders to see her gathering garlands
of their wild flowers, and having them placed in her bare,
half-furnished rooms. She had never cared for splendour. It wearied
a soul which had never seen it dissociated from guilt. The simplicity
of her new life had a charm for her, and if Nero would but relent she
could gladly live here, reading and doing her little acts of kindness
and musing on the high thoughts which had recently become so radiant
to her--sustained by the hope that better days would come on earth,
or that, if not, there was a heaven beyond.

There were three of her household who knew the secret of the calm and
resignation which struck her Prætorian custodians with astonishment.
One of the officers, a rough youth named Vulfenius, had been heard
saying to his comrade that the Empress must have been getting private
lessons from the Stoics or Cynics;--‘only,’ he said, ‘a hundred of
those philosophers are not worth a cracked farthing--arrant humbugs
nearly all of them. But this girl--she smiles death in the face!--Or
is it that she does not know?’

Yes, she knew; but the source of her cheerful courage lay in those
scrolls which had been handed to her attendants by Linus and by Luke.
Ever since the lustral dews of baptism had touched her brow, she had
felt a change in her whole being, but her deep peace was confirmed by
what was now read to her daily by Onesimus, or Hermas, or Tryphæna.

It was with strange feelings that when she broke the silken thread
of the small waxen tablets of Linus, she had read the salutation
in which Paulus, the prisoner, wished grace, mercy, and peace to
Octavia, Empress, and now beloved in Christ. But as she eagerly read
the few lines which he had engraved with his trembling stylus--for
he had written this message in large letters with his own hand--she
felt his words thrill into her soul with strange power. He rejoiced
and thanked God that He had called her out of darkness into His
marvellous light, and told her that this was a boon more precious
than all the kingdoms of the world. He comforted her under all the
affliction with which she was afflicted, with the comfort wherewith
he too was comforted of God. He told her that she was a partaker of
the sufferings of Christ, and that the sufferings of this present
time were not worthy to be compared with that glory which shall be
revealed in us. He exhorted her to look, not at the things which are
seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are
seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

Such words fall too often on our cold and careless ears with the
triteness of long familiarity; but to Octavia, as to all who first
learnt to feel their meaning in that despairing age, they seemed to
be written in sunbeams. The new wine of the Kingdom of Heaven filled
them as with divine intoxication; that which to the Pagans appeared
like a half-insane enthusiasm or a blank obstinacy[90] was, in
truth, but the exhilaration of conviction, in comparison with whose
preciousness the whole world and all the glory of it seemed but as
the light dust of the balances. Octavia had not been unaccustomed to
hear the paradoxes of the Stoics; and she regarded them as spurious
ornaments of life’s misery--spangles sewed upon its funeral pall.
But in the words of Paul the prisoner, and of the poor persecuted
Christians, there rang tones of perfect sincerity. Their doctrines
were not _learnt_, but _lived_. They came attested by the evidence
of characters not only innocent but holy; such as had been hitherto
unknown to the world, and had no antitype even in the fabled age
of gold. They came, morever, as the revelation of a law, not only
general, but individual. In those who had grace to accept them, the
Spirit Himself bore witness to their spirit that they were children
of God.

Knowing the doom which trembled over Octavia’s head, and the
impossibility of her escape, the soldiers who were in charge were
ordered to allow her such liberty as the little islet permitted, and
not to intrude upon the occupations of her household. Hence, during
the early evening hours, it was possible for her to call one or two
of her Christian handmaids around her, while Onesimus, as the Greek
reader, read to them the scrolls which Luke had sent as his parting
present. He had selected those which he thought would convey the
deepest consolation. As Onesimus read them to that little circle,
they were as the oracular gems on Aaron’s breast--Urim and Thummim
ardent with the light of heaven. One of them was the Parable of the
Prodigal Son. To Onesimus it was as the voice of God calling him
back from the far country and the rags and the swine. As he read its
concluding verses, again and again his voice was broken with sobs.
Even when he had read it aloud on several evenings he could never
come to the verse--

    ‘I will arise, and go unto my Father, and will say unto Him,
    Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee--’

without stopping to recover from the emotion which stifled his
utterance, and the tears which blinded his sight.

Another little fragment contained the Evangelist’s record of the
Sermon on the Mount. As Octavia heard it she felt more and more that
her miseries had been blessings in disguise, and that if her life had
been spent in the blaze of luxury and prosperity she could never have
become an inheritor of that kingdom of which the commands were not
burdens but beatitudes.

But what came most deeply home to all of them was that scroll on
which Luke had written the story of the Crucifixion. They could never
hear it read without requiring Onesimus to read after it the record
of the last scroll, which contained the story of the two disciples
at Emmaus, of whom it was privately thought among the Christians
that Luke himself had been one. As Octavia listened to those inspired
records, if the dreadful act of dying had not lost its horror, yet
the grave had lost its victory, and death his sting.

       *       *       *       *       *

Entranced by the rapture of these wondrous narratives, they had
been reading later than usual. It was the ninth of June. The dusk of
evening had fallen; the lamps had been lit. They had been too much
absorbed to notice the Liburnian galley whose red sail on the horizon
had attracted all the inhabitants of their rocky prison to the shore.
They had not seen the Prætorians from Rome, who landed at the little
jetty.

Ah! but they could not be deaf to the unwonted murmur which began to
swell about the villa, nor to the clank of legionaries, nor to the
gruff unfamiliar voices of command. They knew too well the meaning
of those sounds. With faces whitened by terror they heard the summons
at the gate, and the tramp of armed feet, and the cry, ‘A message
from the Emperor!’ Hardly knowing what they did, Onesimus and Hermas
barred the entrance to the chamber where they were sitting, while
Tryphæna and the two other maidens grouped themselves round their
mistress. There came a thundering challenge, followed by fierce
blows rained upon the door. A moment afterwards it gave way with a
crash. Hermas and Onesimus, as if by an instinctive motion, thrust
themselves in the path of the advancing soldiers. A legionary struck
down Hermas with the flat of his sword; Onesimus was dashed aside by
a blow of the centurion’s iron glaive. They tore away the slave-girls
who clung to their fainting mistress. Her they fettered, and opened
her veins in many places. But she had sunk into a swoon, and the
blood would not flow. Then they dragged her to the bath, heated it
to boiling heat, and suffocated her in the burning vapour.

Nor was this enough for Nero’s vengeance. The corpse of the daughter
of Claudius, the chaste wife of the Emperor, was not suffered to rest
in peace. Poppæa would not be satisfied with anything short of the
visible proof that her rival had been swept forever out of her path.
There lay the fair form, with its long dark hair and girlish beauty,
and more beautiful than in life, for a look as of rapturous surprise
had lit up her pale features. It availed not. The head was struck off
by the centurion, and he carried to Rome the ghastly relic, at once
to claim his reward, and to glut the eyes of Poppæa with the sight
of ‘death made proud by pure and princely beauty.’

And for this crime the slavish and degraded Senate vowed gifts to the
temples! In those days every unjust banishment, every judicial murder
inflicted by the Emperor, was the signal for a fresh outburst of
infamous adulation. The thanksgivings to the gods, which had once
been the signs of public prosperity, became the certain memorials
of private infamy and public disaster.



CHAPTER XLVII

_A FETTERED AMBASSADOR_

    Ὥστε τοὺς δεσμοὺς μου φανεροὺς ἐν Χριστῷ γενέσθαι ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ
    Πραιτωρίῳ καὶ τοῖς λοιποῖς μᾶσι.--Ep. S. Paul ad Phil. i. 13.


There was one spot in Rome which was calm amid all tumults, happy
amid all calamities, though it was the last place where any of the
Roman world would have deemed it possible for happiness to dwell.
It was the narrow room which served as a prison to Paul of Tarsus.

As long as Burrus was Præfect of the Prætorians the prisoner’s lot
had been made as easy as the strictness of Roman discipline allowed.
He had been allowed to hire a lodging of his own, and no hindrance
was placed on the visits or kindly offices of his friends. He was,
indeed, compelled to submit to the one intolerable condition of being
fastened night and day by a coupling-chain to the wrist of a Roman
soldier; but Julius and others had spoken to Burrus about him in such
warm terms that, as in the case of Agrippa I., care was taken that he
should be consigned to the charge of a kind centurion, and that the
Prætorians to whom in turn he was chained should, as far as possible,
be good-tempered and reasonable men.

There was no service which the soldiers more hated than this of
guarding prisoners. Each soldier was for the time as much a prisoner
as the prisoner to whom he was chained. To be chained to a Jew was
regarded by most of the Prætorians as an intolerable humiliation.
If indeed the Jew happened to be a handsome and cosmopolitan young
prince like Agrippa, the duty had its alleviations; but at the
present time the soldiers had in charge some Jewish priests sent to
Rome by Festus, who shuddered to be brought into contact with them.
To be chained to these haughty hierarchs, who did not conceal their
disdain for their gentile guards, was a cause of incessant annoyance,
and there was not a Prætorian who did not groan when it was rumored
that Julius had consigned to them another Jew, of weak bodily
presence, and with health enfeebled by toil and hardship.

But the soldiers to whose lot it first fell to be coupled to the
new prisoner soon spread a favourable report of him. They told their
comrades that though he was not only a Jew, but a _Christian_, he was
yet so sweetly reasonable, so generously considerate, so anxious to
alleviate the necessary tedium of their duty, that it was a pleasure,
and not a misery, to take a turn in guarding him. Unlike the priests,
he seemed to take a human interest in everything human. He would talk
freely with them on gentile subjects. He listened earnestly to all
they had to tell him of Rome, its daily incidents and accidents, its
senatorial debates, its foreign campaigns, the edicts of the Emperor,
and the fortunes of the imperial family. It was whispered that
everything which he did and said was worthy and noble, and the
centurions observed a marked change for the better in some of the
men who had been brought into contact with him. The Jews, it was
noticed, looked on him with hatred as a renegade, and even of the
Jewish Christians there were few who visited him. But some Christian
was almost always with him, and these friends of his, particularly
the modest and engaging Timotheus, deepened the favourable impression
which the prisoner himself had made.

In truth, this was not the least happy period of Paul’s career. He
was freed from the fret of endless anxiety and embittered opposition;
he was no longer harassed by the multiform and terrible perils by
which for so many years his life had been assailed. To many the
forced cessation of the great work of their careers would have seemed
an intolerable trial, and faith would have been weakened by the
semblance of God’s desertion. It was not so with Paul. He knew
that he was where God meant him to be, and that he was still an
ambassador, though, as he playfully said to his friends, an
ambassador in a coupling-chain.

He ought in justice to have been brought to speedy trial, seeing that
he had already been imprisoned for two years at Cæsarea on a charge
wholly without foundation. But in his shipwreck the documents sent by
Felix and Festus had been lost, and when fresh documents came Nero’s
capricious idleness put off the trial from month to month. So Paul
continued in prison, and became a missionary to the Prætorium, and
to many Romans. His imprisonment was not lacking in elements of
interest. Linus and many of the Roman Christians sought his lodging,
and showed him every mark of affection. Luke was constantly with him,
consulted with him about every detail of his Gospel, and took charge
of his health. He was in frequent correspondence with his friends and
with the converts of the churches which he had founded. Timotheus,
who was the child of his heart, treated him with all the tenderness
of a son. Tychicus and Epaphras came from Asia, and brought him
news of the Church of Ephesus and of the valleys of the Lycus. Mark,
the cousin of his first companion, Barnabas, came to cheer him with
news of Peter and of Jerusalem, and of his travels in many lands.
Epaphroditus ministered to his necessities by bringing him a gift
from his beloved and generous Philippians. The soldiers heard the
letters which he dictated to his converts, and heard what Luke read
to him of his Gospel. Many of them were deeply influenced by the new
world of thought and holiness which was thus revealed to them. Some
were converted and baptised, and found that the lodging of the Jewish
prisoner was to them the vestibule of the house of God.

And when the soldier on guard was a brother, the intercourse
which the prisoner could hold with any who came to visit him was
unconstrained. Most of all was this the case when the Prætorian
Celsus was chained to him, and the veteran soldier was so happy
in the charge that he was ready to relieve any Prætorian by taking
his turn in addition to his own. It was the armour of Celsus, as it
lay beside him on the floor, dinted with the blows of many a battle,
which suggested to Paul his beautiful description of the Christian
panoply.

One day there came to the Apostle a lady deeply veiled attended by a
Christian freedwoman. She was so agitated that, when she had sunk on
one of the humble seats, she could scarcely find words in which to
pour forth her anguish. When she grew a little calmer, she lifted her
veil, and Celsus rose and made her a respectful salutation, for he
recognised the mourning robes and sad but beautiful face of the wife
of Aulus Plautius.

‘The Lady Pomponia,’ he said, ‘may speak freely, and fear not. I will
unloose the coupling-chain, and go into the outer room,’

Pomponia thanked him, and told the Apostle that she had long been a
baptised sister, and had read his letters to Rome and other churches,
and had now come to him for consolation in unutterable distress of
heart. She had but one son--the young and beautiful Aulus, the heir
and the hope of their great house. But Nero had begun to hate her
husband and herself, and was jealous lest some day the army should
prefer the Conqueror of Britain to the tenth-rate actor and singer.
For Agrippina, in one of her fits of rage, had, before her death,
unwisely and unkindly mentioned the youthful Aulus as a virtuous
boy who might one day wear the purple more worthily than Nero, who
disgraced it; and Nero, wounded in his vanity, had determined on
revenge. With a wicked cruelty which would have been infamous even
in a Tiberius or a Caligula, he had invited the boy to the Palace,
had subjected him to the deadliest insults, and had then ordered him
to be slain, accompanying the order with a brutal jest against his
mother Agrippina. And the people knew of the crime, and hardly did
more than laugh and shrug their shoulders; and the Senate knew of the
crime, and did not cease for a single day from its adulation to the
tyrant; and the army knew of the crime, and not one sword flashed
from its scabbard; and the philosophers and the poets knew of the
crime, and not one denunciation scathed that deed of hell.

Pomponia’s heart was broken. Did God deal thus with His servants? Was
the Christ far away in His blue heaven, and heeded not these things?
And was it not lawful, was it not a duty, for Christians to help to
sweep away from the earth such a monster of iniquity? Might she not
rouse her husband, Aulus Plautius--not to avenge the individual wrong
which was breaking his heart, and bringing him down to the gates of
the grave--but to rid mankind from the incubus of an intolerable
curse?

The Apostle saw that his task was difficult. For a moment he bowed
his head, and clasped his hands in prayer. He needed threefold
wisdom--to console the mother’s anguish; to avert the thought of
vengeance; to strengthen the faith which had been assailed by sore
perplexity. And the grace came to him. He banished from Pomponia’s
heart the dread that because her Aulus had died unbaptised, he was
doomed to perish: he told her not to dream that the boy, who had thus
gone home, had departed unloved by his Heavenly Father. Fearful times
were coming on the earth, and her beloved son, in whom the signs of
virtue had not been wanting, might have been taken only to save him
from the furnace of moral temptation and the wrath to come. Then
taking from the hand of Luke the scroll in which he had been writing
the great discourse on the Mount of Olives, he read to her the words
of Jesus: ‘Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. And yet
a hair from your head shall not perish. In your endurance ye shall
acquire your souls.’

‘Alas!’ she cried, ‘how may I interpret this promise that a hair of
our heads shall not fall, when my very heart is cleft in twain?’

He answered that the Lord spake not of earthly things. He warned us
that in the world we should have tribulation; but He has overcome
the world. And he prayed her not to dream of hastening the tyrant’s
punishment. ‘Leave him in God’s hands. “Vengeance is mine; I will
repay, saith the Lord.”’

When his voice ceased, the passion of Pomponia’s grief had sunk to
rest. The tears which still coursed down her cheeks were but the
natural tears of a mother’s bereavement. Her beautiful soul was
prepared for consolation, and her faith had but bowed for a moment
like the upper foliage of a tree under the stress of some mighty
storm. To calm her yet further, the Beloved Physician began to read
aloud a passage here and there from the Evangel which occupied his
daily thoughts. He read of the love of Jesus for children; he read
the beatitudes; he read the story of the Cross. The music of the
words and thoughts, borne on the music of his sweet and solemn voice,
sank into Pomponia’s soul. She thanked the Evangelist, and, asking
for the blessing of the Apostle, dropped her veil and departed to her
desolate home.

The Heavenly Father who had suffered anguish to fall upon her had
also sent medicine and a physician of the soul to heal her sickness.
When she reached her palace on the Aventine, she was able to devote
her whole strength to save her husband from succumbing to a sorrow
which for him was beyond the reach of consolation. He had chosen for
the epitaph of his boy’s tomb the defiant words, ‘I Aulus, the son of
Aulus Plautius, uplift my hands against the gods, who took me hence
in my innocence, at the age of fifteen years.’[91] But she dissuaded
him. ‘Why complain,’ she said, ‘against the decree of Heaven? It may
be good, and even the best, did we but know it. Nay, my Aulus, carve
rather on his tomb a green leaf, and the two words, “In peace,” and
add, if thou wilt, the line of Euripides,

    ‘“Who knows if life be death, and death be life?”’



CHAPTER XLVIII

_ENSLAVED AND FREE_

   ‘These rags, this grinding, is not yet so base
    As was my former servitude, ignoble
    Unmanly, ignominious, infamous,
    True slavery.’

                            _Samson Agonistes._


Pomponia Græcina was only one of many to whom Paul of Tarsus from
his prison-lodging brought joy and consolation. There was a twofold
element in the happiness which seems to rise to exultation in the
letter which he wrote from Rome to his Philippians. On the one hand
he felt that from his bonds there streamed illumination, so that the
grace of Christ became manifest even in Cæsar’s household, and among
his chosen soldiers; and, on the other, he was enabled to hear the
groanings of them who were in a captivity far sorer than his own--to
undo many a heavy burden, and let the oppressed go free.

Shortly after the visit he had received from Pomponia, he was told
that a young man was waiting outside who desired to speak with him.
His sympathy with the young in their trials and temptations was
always deep, and he asked Luke to admit the visitor. With hesitating
step and downcast mien he entered, and the Apostle bade him come and
sit by his side.

‘Dost thou recognise me?’ asked the visitor, in a low voice.

‘I have met many youths in many cities,’ answered the Apostle, ‘and
I have seen thy face before, but where I cannot remember. Art thou
Eutychus of Troas?’

‘No,’ he answered, glancing at the Prætorian; ‘but,’ he added in a
whisper, ‘I am, or rather I was, a Christian.’

‘Speak without fear,’ said Celsus; ‘I, too, am one of the brethren.’

‘Thou wilt soon remember me,’ said the youth to Paul, removing
the disguise which covered his dark locks and greatly altered his
appearance. ‘I saw thee in the school of Tyrannus at Ephesus, when
I came there with my master, Philemon of Colossæ.’

‘Onesimus!’ said the Apostle. ‘Welcome, my son--though I have heard
sad things of thee from many.’

‘It is true, it is all true, that thou hast heard of me, O my
father!’ said Onesimus, as he knelt before the Apostle, and kissed
the hand on which his tears were falling fast. ‘Yes; I stole money
from Philemon, my beloved master. I ran away from him; I am a
worthless fugitive, a thievish Phrygian slave, whom most masters
would crucify. And worse--I have denied the faith; I have done all
things vile. Can there be forgiveness, can there be hope, for such
as I am?’

‘My son,’ said the Apostle, ‘there is forgiveness, there is hope,
for all who seek it.’

‘But oh, thou knowest not, my father, to what depths I have sunk.
I have stolen a second time. I have been drunken with the drunken,
slothful with the slothful, unclean with the unclean. I have been
false to my trust. I have been in the slaves’ prison, and the
gladiators’ school. I have fought in the amphitheatre. I have served
the shameful wandering priests of the Syrian goddess. Twice over have
I been all but a murderer. Can all this be forgiven?’

‘My son,’ said Paul, deeply touched, ‘thou hast sinned deeply; but so
have many, who now are washed, cleansed, justified, sanctified in the
name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God.’

‘Ah, but,’ cried the youth, ‘they have never been renegades.’

‘Onesimus,’ answered Paul, ‘hast thou not heard how the Lord Jesus
told us to forgive our brethren, not only seven times, but seventy
times seven? Will He be less merciful than He has bidden us to be? I
bid thee hope in His infinite forgiveness. The blind and the leper,
the publican and the harlot, the impotent man, and she out of whom he
cast seven devils, went to Him, and were forgiven. Go thou, if thou
canst not otherwise, as a leper, as a demoniac, as a paralytic, and
He will abundantly pardon. Hast thou, indeed, sought Him?’

‘Nay, father, I could not,’ said Onesimus. ‘Ever since that theft
from Philemon, ever since that flight, I have prayed but faintly; I
felt as if I could not pray, as if no prayer of mine could be heard.
A cloud of despair has hidden God’s face from me. Oh!’ he cried,
wringing his hands, ‘I am an outcast--I am a castaway. I have no
part in Him. My lot is now with this world, of which I have seen
the infamies and loathe the crimes. It was but two weeks ago that
any gleam of hope came back to me.’

‘What gave thee hope?’

‘Lucas of Antioch, whom I see with thee, gave some parts of his
records of Jesus to one of Octavia’s slaves. I, too, went with the
unhappy Empress to Pandataria, and there I read the Master’s parable
of the Prodigal Son, and I tried to say, “I will arise and go to my
father, and will say--”’

But here Onesimus stopped, and though he made an effort, he was
unable to proceed.

With all his heart the great Apostle pitied him; indeed he pitied him
so much that he found no words to speak. He could only lay his hand
gently on the suppliant’s head, and uplift his eyes to heaven in
prayer.

So Luke spoke and said, ‘I can tell thee, Onesimus, of other words
of the Master. He cried: “Come unto me, all that are weary and
heavy-laden, and I will refresh you;” and “him that cometh unto me,
I will in no wise cast out.”’

‘Did He say that? Did He say that?’ asked Onesimus, eagerly.

‘He did,’ said Luke, ‘and no word of His can pass away.’

The Prætorian Celsus had heard the conversation, and he too was
touched. ‘Those words,’ he said, ‘called me from Satan to God. I was
as deep a sinner as any man in the cohort, and no man can be much
worse than that. I used to shrink from no cruelty, and to abstain
from no sin. I was one of the soldiers employed in the massacre of
the innocent slaves of Pedanius Secundus. So deep was my misery that
one night I went in full armour to the Sublician Bridge, meaning
to end a life so shamed and empty. But as I climbed the parapet,
I was seized by the strong arm of a man in a slave’s dress. I drew my
dagger and asked him, with a savage oath, if he held his life cheap,
since he, a slave, thus dared to interfere with me, a Prætorian
soldier. He fixed his steady eyes on me, and said, “I am unarmed;
you can slay me if you will; but I will try to prevent you from
self-murder.” “My life is my own,” I answered sullenly. “It is not
your own,” he answered. “It is God’s, who gave it. He set you here,
and you have no right to desert your post.” The man was Nereus, now
the freedman of Pudens. He drew me away from the bridge, and I talked
long with him. He was the first to give me the hope that I might live
for better things. He taught me about Christ, and Christ’s promise
that He would cast out none who came to Him. That saved me. When I
was a Pagan I knew shame and guilt, but never knew that it could be
washed away.’

‘Thanks be to God for His great goodness,’ said the Apostle. ‘And
thou, my son, Onesimus, hear what Celsus has said. Thou hast had no
fruit in the things of which thou art now ashamed, for the end of
those things is death. But now, if thou wilt return to Christ, thy
fruit shall be to holiness, and the end shall be eternal life.’

That interview completed the change in the heart of the Phrygian
youth. He had returned from Pandataria a freedman, for on the night
before her murder Octavia had freed her Christian slaves. He had
also received gifts from his generous mistress which placed him
above present need. He had therefore hired himself a lodging, and
now, being readmitted, at Paul’s intercession, into the Christian
assemblies, he recovered life and happiness. He waited on the Apostle
with ceaseless assiduity, and anticipated all his wants. If ever Paul
needed one to serve him--which was often the case, for Timotheus had
been sent on a message to Ephesus--the Phrygian was at hand, and
the Apostle found in his society and cheerful vivacity a great
alleviation of a captive’s weariness. It was not long before he
confided to the Apostle his whole story, concealing nothing, and
he asked for his advice as to his future course.

That advice fell like a death-blow on all his hopes. With the
impetuosity of youth he had entirely lost sight of the fact that he
was still Philemon’s slave, and that the manumission conferred on
him by Octavia, in her ignorance that he was the personal chattel
of another, was legally invalid. He was, therefore, stricken with
amazement when the Apostle told him that he was not a freedman, but
still a slave. At those words the fabric of his life seemed once
more to be smitten into ruins. He had exulted with passionate joy at
the thought that he was no longer at the beck and call of a master,
no longer liable to the horrors of the cross and the branding-iron,
of the scourge or the furca. To be told that he was still a Phrygian
slave, that duty required him to go back to the _familia_ of Philemon,
to restore what he had stolen, to face any punishment which the
law of Colossæ might inflict on him, to place his future life
unreservedly in the hands of his owner, and to face the humiliation
of returning to the company of his old companions as a thief and a
runaway--this was like a sentence of hopeless condemnation. And there
was yet another circumstance which made the pang more deadly. He
still cherished for the gentle daughter of Nereus a love which might
not have seemed hopeless. If he stayed at Rome, if as a freedman he
could strike out for himself an honourable career--which his Greek
education rendered possible--he felt sure that he could yet win the
hand of the Christian girl. But to return to Colossæ as a slave, and
a guilty slave, and to be perhaps compelled to grow old in servitude
on the banks of the Lycus--it seemed too terrible a sacrifice!

Yet his sincerity stood the test. After a great struggle with himself
he bowed his head, and answered: ‘If it is my duty, my father, I will
do it.’

‘It is thy duty, my son Onesimus, and doubt not that the path of
thy duty will also be the path of thy happiness. Thou wilt gain by
losing. I know and I love Philemon, and his wife Apphia, and their
son Archippus; and I will write to Philemon for thee, and I do not
doubt that now he will set thee free--for indeed I need thee. Thou
art as a son to me; I have begotten thee in my bonds, and thou art
true to thy name in all thy help to me. But even if Philemon does
not set thee free, he is now thy fellow-Christian, and therefore thy
brother beloved, and no slavery can make thee other than the Lord’s
freedman.’

The letter to Philemon was written--the Magna Charta of ultimate
emancipation--and Onesimus was sent with it to his former master.
He was accompanied by Tychicus of Ephesus, who was charged with the
circular letter to that and other cities, as well as with the letter
to the Colossians. They had an affecting parting with the Apostle,
for though he was full of hope, yet the issue of his approaching
trial was uncertain, and they knew not whether they should ever see
his face again. He shed tears as he embraced Onesimus, to whom he
had grown deeply attached, but they left him in the kind care of
Aristarchus, and of the two Evangelists Mark and Luke. Above all,
Timotheus had again come from Ephesus to stay with him, and Timotheus
was to him as the son of his old age.

His case excited little attention. When it was heard in Nero’s
presence the Emperor was amusing himself with composing a loose
satire, paragraphs of which he handed from time to time to some
delighted favourite. He polished his wicked verses again and again,
till his note-book was almost illegible with erasures, and he paid
little heed to the Apostle’s accusers. The evidence, scanty as it
was, broke down completely, and testimony in favour of the innocence
and the services of the prisoner was given gladly by gentile
witnesses.

The impeachment might have been more formidable but for the shipwreck
of the vessel which, as Julius had told Vespasian, was conveying to
Rome a commission of his accusers among whom were two persons no less
important than Josephus, the young and learned Rabbi of Jerusalem,
and Ishmael ben Phabi,[92] the High Priest. But their ship foundered
in a terrible storm. Its entire cargo was lost, including the
documents on which the Sadducean hierarchs of Jerusalem had relied
to procure the Apostle’s condemnation. Of the two hundred souls on
board only eighty had been picked up, by a ship of Cyrene, after
they had swum or floated all night in the tempestuous waves. Ishmael
and Josephus had indeed been saved, but several of their witnesses
had perished. On the other hand, when men so different as Felix
the brother of Pallas, and the honourable Festus, and the centurion
Julius, and Publius the Protos of Melite, and Lysias the chief
captain at Jerusalem, all wrote in Paul’s favour, and when the
good-natured King Agrippa II. and Berenice had taken the trouble to
subscribe to this favourable testimony with their own hands, there
could be no reason for detaining him. Not even Tigellinus had any
object in keeping his clutch upon a prisoner who was too poor for
purposes of extortion. The Apostle was acquitted. Accompanied by
rejoicing friends, he went to Ostia, and thence set sail for Ephesus.
After a brief sojourn in the city of Artemis, he paid his promised
visit to Philemon at Colossæ. The first to greet him with happy
smiles in the house of the Colossian gentleman was Onesimus, and
as the Apostle pressed him to his heart, he learnt that all his
hopes had been fulfilled. Philemon, on receiving Paul’s letter,
had summoned the fugitive to his presence, and frankly forgiven
him. Orders were given to all the slaves of the household that no
reference was to be made to the past. Apphia and Archippus treated
the runaway with marked kindness, and he himself restored the full
sum which he had stolen and strove in every way to repair the old
wrong. Philemon had not thought it advisable, under the circumstances,
at once to set Onesimus free, but now in honour of Paul’s visit he
manumitted him and others of his Christian slaves, and allowed him
henceforth to devote his grateful services to the comfort of the
Apostle, with whom he set forth for Crete.



CHAPTER XLIX

_THE DEPTHS OF SATAN_

   ‘He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
      And crowned his hair with flowers--
    No easier nor no quicker passed
      The impracticable hours.’

                          MATTHEW ARNOLD.


It became daily more difficult for Nero to stimulate the jaded pulse
of appetites at once sated and insatiable; but in the year A.D. 64 a
new and immense sensation broke the tedious monotony of a life cursed
with the gratification of every desire. The influence of Poppæa grew
irresistible when it became evident that she was about to make Nero a
father. In due time she gave birth to a daughter, who seemed destined
to continue the imperial line. Nero went wild with joy. The child
was born in the villa at Antium, where he himself had first seen the
light. The highest of all titles, that of Augusta, was immediately
conferred not only upon Poppæa, but even on the unconscious infant.
Public vows, which had already been undertaken for her safety, were
paid and multiplied. Thanksgivings on the most superb scale were
given to the gods. A temple was reared to the goddess Fecundity.
Golden statues of the Antian goddesses of Fortune were placed on the
throne of the Capitoline Jupiter. Coins were struck on which the baby
was glorified under the names of Claudia Augusta. The entire Senate
set forth in long procession from Rome to congratulate the Emperor
and Empress. Nero seized the opportunity to indulge his hatred
against Pætus Thrasea. When the other senators were received into his
presence, he sent an order that Thrasea was not to be admitted. Every
one understood the significance of the message. It was a presage of
certain doom. But Thrasea received it with unmoved countenance, and
set out on his return to Rome with undiminished cheerfulness. To a
noble and virtuous Roman all life was at that time the valley of the
shadow of death.

The birth of Nero’s child greatly strengthened his position as
Emperor. While he remained childless there was the possibility that
when he died, or was swept away, the Senate might be able to summon
to the purple some worthier successor. That hope was now cut off.
Seneca withdrew himself to the utmost from public notice. The fate of
Pallas was an additional warning to him. The boundless extravagances
of Nero were rapidly exhausting a treasure which would have sufficed
for anything except a superhuman rapacity. The wealth of Pallas
proved too strong a temptation for Nero. He had the freedman
poisoned, and seized his ill-gotten gains. To avoid a similar fate,
Seneca entreated the Emperor to accept all his possessions and to
suffer him to retire. Nero received the request with hypocritical
assurances. How, he asked, could Seneca possibly suspect a prince
who was so deeply indebted to his care? But, though Nero refused to
accept either his resignation or his property, the philosopher did
not deceive himself. He shut himself up in a seclusion into which
he suffered none but his most intimate friends to intrude. He found
his sole relief in writing to his friend Lucilius letters which were
meant to console those who were living like himself under the daily
pressure of agonising anticipations.

But the extravagant joy of Nero was rudely quenched. Before four
months had ended the infant Claudia Augusta died, and Nero was
plunged in a grief as extravagant as had been his delight. The
birth of his child was to him a proof that the gods had averted
their wrath, by omens of which he was frequently terrified. To train
youths for the Neronian games, he had built a gymnasium, in which
was placed a bronze statue of himself. The gymnasium had been struck
by lightning, and the statue had been fused and disfigured into a
mass of shapeless metal. The omen was horrific, and was followed by
the news that the bright and wanton little cities of Pompeii and
Herculaneum had been shaken almost into ruins by an earthquake
of unusual severity. The safe birth of a child had alleviated the
haunting fears which these events had excited in his mind; but they
returned when the little Claudia died, nor were they greatly eased by
making her a goddess, by striking coins with the inscription ‘_Diva
Claudia Neronis_,’ and by appointing in her honour a pulvinar, a
temple, and a priest!

Those who understood his needs and his character saw that life could
only be made tolerable for him by excitements still more intense,
and crimes still more colossal, than those to which he had grown
accustomed. It had become his constant boast that the Emperor could
do anything he chose, and that he had been the first Emperor to find
out the fact. He therefore never hesitated to secure the death of
any one whom he disliked. If they were insignificant persons, he had
them poisoned and seized their goods. As no instinct of gratitude
prevented him from thus murdering Pallas, who had been the chief
agent in procuring his adoption and his succession to the Empire,
he had the less hesitation in sacrificing others of less fame.
Since Torquatus Silanus was the great-great-grandson of Augustus, he
determined to get rid of him on charges of ostentation and seditious
practices. When he had driven him to suicide he proclaimed that he
had intended to forgive him. Against the Senate he cherished so deep
a grudge that with his intimates he discussed the plan of putting
all the members of the order to death and distributing its functions
among the knights and freedmen. Cruelty had not been among his
natural vices, but he now became athirst for blood.

But hatred could only be gratified by spasms of brief indulgence,
and the animal passions also required something ever new to galvanise
their decrepitude. No one understood this better than Tigellinus.
Himself a voluptuary, who had exhausted the resources of every
base pleasure, he sought to supply by effrontery the lack of new
sensations. With this view he organised continuous revelries which
should be unparalleled either for costly extravagance or for
outrageous infamy.

Ruinous to the well-being of the State as were these portents of
materialism, they were innocent in comparison with the deliberate
corruption of public morals. Things are at their worst when vice
is so hardened that, instead of seeking concealment, it courts
notoriety. All Rome, even her ordinarily vicious population, recalled
with shame the orgies, at once monstrous and vulgar, which were
planned and paid for by Tigellinus to please his patron. Happily the
world has never seen or heard of an entertainment more abominable. In
the centre of the Campus Martius, near the Pantheon, was the Lake of
Agrippa, surrounded by a park full of groves, gardens, and shrines.
On the lake Tigellinus had constructed a raft for the guests. The
gondolas moored by the margin to convey the banqueters to the raft
were decorated with gilding, and vermilion, and silken streamers, and
rowed by boy-slaves from Britain, Greece, and Asia, with long curled
hair and bracelets of gold on their bare arms and ankles. On the
raft were erected pavilions, filled with delicacies, and furnished
as luxuriously as the tents of Eastern kings. When the actual
feasting was over the whole of the gardens were filled with choirs
of musicians, and all the varletry of either sex that could be
assembled from the confines of Rome. Not one honest or honourable
person was invited. It was to be a banquet of reprobates. Slaves, and
gladiators, and nobles, and women of consular families, and soldiers,
and men who had held high offices, and the gilded youth of Roman
effeminacy, and Greeklings skilled in all refinements of evil, roamed
promiscuously under the light of numberless cressets, their heads
crowned with roses, their hearts inflamed with wine. It was a chaos
of abomination, such as would not have been possible in any other
age than the first century after Christ, or in any other place than
imperial Rome. No Christian pen can paint that revelry of Antichrist,
or do more than distantly allude to the scenes which followed, when
Nero, disguised in the skin of a bear, crawled on all fours among the
vilest of those wretches, and gave to him ‘who saw the Apocalypse’
the image of the wild beast who sprang from the foul scum of the
world’s most turbid sea.

Yet though there was no truce to such scenes of darkness, except
such as was imposed by the premature paralysis of excess, they were
insufficient to occupy Nero’s tedium, or fill to the brim the cup of
his desires. To be an actor, to be a public singer--that seemed to
him to be the culmination of earthly bliss. Nothing would satisfy
his burning caprice but to appear before the multitude as Paris and
Aliturus did. But he dared not as yet insult the majesty of Rome with
the spectacle of a stage Augustus, and therefore determined to sing
first before an enchanted provincial audience, and thence to proceed
to Greece, not displaying himself in the theatre of the capital
till he could return as a victor in the Olympic and Pythian games.
But when he had got as far as Beneventum he changed his mind, and
determined to visit Egypt and the Eastern provinces instead of
Greece. In Egypt he meant to re-enact with unheard-of splendour the
old revelries of Antony and Cleopatra, and thought that in the hot,
luxurious valley of the Nile he might hear of new forms of pleasure
and luxury. Magnificent preparations were set on foot for his
reception, and his foster-brother, Cæcina Tuscus, was sent to
superintend them. Tuscus ventured to bathe in a sumptuous bath
constructed for Nero’s use, and for this harmless act Nero sentenced
him to exile. But the visit to Egypt was never paid. On his return
to the Palace, he entered the Temple of Vesta, beside the Forum.
Whether he was suddenly smitten with superstitious dread from the
recollection of his crimes or from some other cause, he was there
seized with a violent fit of shivering. His conscience smote him,
not for other enormities, but for a crime which, in mere wanton
wickedness, he had committed against the majesty of Vesta and the
most sacred beliefs of Rome. In defiance of every law, human and
divine, he had recently seized Rubria, one of the vestal virgins. It
had become one of the horrible characteristics of his mind that half
the fascination of wickedness consisted for him in the scandal which
it caused. His rank elevated him above human vengeance, but in that
circular shrine, and in presence of the ever-burning fire, he felt
as if he were in the power of the goddess, and swooned away. The omen
frightened him. Pretending that he could not endure to see his people
saddened by the thought of his absence, he abandoned his journey, and
announced that he would not leave them.

What new thing could be devised to dispel his weariness? He
passionately longed for some tremendous sensation to dissipate his
lassitude. If the hours had passed with leaden pace when he first
tasted the sweets of autocracy, how unutterably weary had they now
become!

‘Tigellinus, cannot you invent for me some new excitement?’ he asked.
‘I shall commit suicide from sheer fatigue. Tiberius went to Capri,
but a rock like that would not suit me. I cannot live in the vulgar
respectability of an Augustus or a Claudius.’

‘Shall I give you another feast like that at the Lake of Agrippa?’

‘That was all very well,’ said Nero, ‘but things grow tedious by
repetition. Petronius used to be suggestive, but even he has long
ago exhausted his inventiveness.’

‘I never knew why you gave up going to Greece,’ said the Præfect.

‘I thought it better to put it off till my voice was still more
perfect. But what am I to do now? I am dying for a new experience.
Of what use is life except to concentrate its essence into thrilling
sensations?’

‘Was it not a new sensation, Cæsar, when the elephant walked on the
tight rope with the knight Julius Drusus on his back?’

‘It amused me for once,’ said Nero. ‘It would be stale a second time.’

‘Well, then, when you had the “Conflagration” of Afranius put on the
stage, and let the actors pillage the burning house?’

‘Aye,’ said Nero, ‘that was worth seeing. It gave me a hint or two
for my poem on the “Taking of Troy.” What might not art gain, and how
might not my poem be enriched, if I had an actual scene to draw from!’

‘You would hardly like to see Rome in flames, Cæsar?’

‘Indeed I should. It would be worth living for. Happy Priam, who
_saw_ the Burning of Troy, about which I can only _write_.’

‘But Rome is something different from Troy,’ said Tigellinus.

‘Rome!’ answered the Emperor. ‘I am sick of it. Look at these close,
narrow, crowded streets. I should like to see a city of broad streets,
and palaces, and gardens, like Thebes, or Memphis, or Babylon. Ninus
and Sardanapalus had cities worth living in.’

Their conversation was held in a spacious room of the _Domus
Transitoria_, with which Nero had filled up the whole space from
the Palatine to the Esquiline.

‘Does not this Palace suffice you?’ asked the Præfect.

‘Not at all,’ replied Nero. ‘Many of the neighbouring[*13] houses and
temples are in my way, and I should like to clear them off, and give
myself air to breathe.’

‘Are you serious, Cæsar?’

‘Of course I am,’ he answered, petulantly.

Tigellinus shrugged his shoulders, and quoted a line from the
Bellerophon of Euripides:--

    ‘When I am dead, let earth be rolled in flame.’

‘Nay, while I _live_ let earth be rolled in flame,’ answered the
Emperor, altering the iambic. ‘Anything would be better than to
smoulder to death for want of something to amuse me.’

Nero was _not_ altogether in earnest. His conversation was habitually
grandiose, because he fed a perverse imagination with phantasmagorias
and monstrosities. He was suffering from that blood-poisoning of
unchecked vice which has so often maddened Eastern despots.

The fixed idea of watching a conflagration, and getting illustrations
for his Trojan epic, often returned to this Emperor of melodrama.
Without resolutely entertaining the purpose of wrapping Rome in
flames, he allowed himself to hint at it and to play with it. But
he had made Tigellinus much more in earnest than himself. That evil
genius of the Emperor thought that from such a calamity he at least
would have nothing to lose, and might have everything to gain. He had
inexhaustible riches at his disposal, and numberless wretches in his
pay. He meant to see what could be done. Not long after the above
conversation Nero went for a few days of literary leisure and musical
practice to his villa at Antium, and Tigellinus gave him hints that
at Antium he might expect startling news, and that a first-rate
sensation was in store for him. For the magnitude and horror of that
sensation even Nero was not prepared.

       *       *       *       *       *

To us it all seems incredible. It did not seem incredible to Tacitus,
and it is positively affirmed by Suetonius, Dion Cassius, and even by
the grave and learned Pliny the Elder, who, as a contemporary, must
have known infinitely better than we can do ‘the depths to which
despotism in delirium can descend.’



CHAPTER L

_A CITY IN FLAMES_

    ‘Hoc incendium e turri Mæcenatiana prospectans, lætusque
    _flammæ_, ut aiebat, _pulchritudine_, ἅλωσιν Ilii in illo
    suo scenico habitu decantavit.’--SUET. _Nero_, 38.

    Ἔκραζον ὁρῶντες τὸν καπὸν τῆς πυρώσεως αὐτῆς--Apoc. xviii. 9.


Nero set out for Antium on July 17. Two days afterwards Rome was in a
sea of surging flame. Men noticed that it was the anniversary of the
day on which, four and a half centuries earlier, the city had been
burnt by the Gauls. The fire had burst forth in the neighbourhood
of the Circus Maximus. The shops and storehouses which surrounded
that huge structure were full of combustible materials, including
the machinery and properties used in the public spectacles. Here the
flames seized a secure hold, and, raging about the Cœlian, rolled
toward the eastern front of the Palatine. Checked by the steep sides
of the hill and its cyclopean architecture, the fire swept down the
valleys on either side--to the right, along the Via Nova; to the
left, along the Triumphal Way. It ravaged the Velabrum and the Forum;
it consumed the temple and altar reared to Hercules by the Arcadian
Evander, the palace of Numa, and the circular Temple of Vesta, which
enshrined the ever-burning hearth and Penates of the Roman people.
Sweeping into the Carinæ, which was crowded by consular palaces, it
devoured those stately structures, and the many trophies of ancient
victories with which they were enriched. On the Aventine it destroyed
the temple which Servius Tullius had erected to the Moon, and in it
the priceless relics of Greek art which L. Mummius had brought from
Corinth. Rolling back to the Palatine with more victorious violence,
it reduced to a blackened ruin the venerable temple which Romulus
had vowed to Jupiter Stator. Then, licking up everything which lay in
its path, it rioted with voluptuous fury in the more densely crowded
regions of the city, raging and crackling among the old, tortuous
purlieus and crazy habitations of the Subura. With its hot breath
it purged the slums and rookeries, foul with a pauper population of
Oriental immigrants, who were massed round the ill-famed shrines of
Isis and Serapis. When it had acquired irresistible volume in these
lower regions, it again rushed up the hills as with the rage of
a demon, to sweep down once more in tumultuous billows over the
helpless levels. For six days and seven nights it maintained its
horrible and splendid triumph--now bounding from street to street
with prodigious rapidity, now seeming to linger luxuriously in some
crowded district, flinging up to heaven great sheets of flame, and
turning the nightly sky into a vault of suffocating crimson.

No words can paint the horror of a scene which transformed into
a Gehenna of destruction a city enriched with the magnificence of
nearly eight centuries of victory. There were districts in which
the heat was so intense that they were unapproachable, and the
rarefaction of the atmosphere, joined to a strong breeze which seemed
in league with the destroying element, filled the air with a roar as
of ten thousand wild beasts. Here stores of resinous material made
the consuming flames white with intensity; and there the burning and
smouldering _débris_, which for a time half choked the conflagration,
poured forth black volumes of smoke, which hid its progress under a
pall of midnight. Here an _insula_, many stories high, collapsed with
a crash which was heard for miles; and there whole streets, falling
simultaneously on both sides, caused continuous bursts of sound like
the long roll of incessant thunder.

But the physical horrors of the scene, as it was witnessed by a
million or more spectators who thronged from every town of Latium
and Campania to behold it, were nothing compared with the prodigies
of human agony and the multiform images of death and crime. At
first there had been wild efforts on the part of many to save their
homes. But their efforts were rendered futile by many causes. The
conflagration seemed to break forth, not in one spot, but from
various quarters, which rolled together their concurrent seas of
flame. No means were adequate to resist a foe which seemed to be
ubiquitous. The scorching heat drove back the boldest firemen. The
buckets, from which the police derived their nickname of _sparteoli_,
were ludicrously inadequate for an emergency so tremendous. The
supplies of water were not available in the wild confusion. It
was rumoured on every side that slaves and agents of the imperial
household were seen with tow and torches in their hands, which they
flung into the houses of the nobles; and, if any attempted to check
them, they menacingly declared that they had authority for their
doings. If a senator tried to organise his slaves to quench the
flames or impede their advance, he was bidden to take care what
he was about. Burglary and rapine were let loose. The criminal
population of the city seized the opportunity to plunder every
burning palace into which they could force their way. Nor was it
long before self-preservation became the one absorbing passion of
the multitude, surprised by the ever-swelling dimensions of the
catastrophe. Here a group of women, as they stood shrieking and
tearing their hair, unwilling to leave their homes or unable to save
their little ones, were trampled down under the hurrying rush of
some group of fugitives. Here the father of a family, hindered in
his flight by the helplessness of age or childhood, found himself
swept along by reckless pillagers, and with unutterable anguish was
compelled to abandon some little child or decrepit grandsire who
had been flung down on the pavement with bruised or broken limbs. As
the inhabitants of regions which the fire had freshly invaded rushed
to escape, they plunged into winding alleys overarched by meeting
flames, or their flight was impeded by smouldering ruins, or they
were overwhelmed by the thunderous fall of some huge building, many,
losing their heads altogether, stood stupefied with despair, and
the smoke stifled them, or the fire scorched them, until the streets
were filled with charred corpses. Others in raging defiance, seeing
themselves reduced to penury by the loss of all they possessed, or
with hearts lacerated by the death of their beloved, leapt madly into
the flames. Rome during all that week was a pandemonium of horror, in
which, amid shrieks and yells and every sound of ruin, were witnessed
the wrath of the elements, the passions of devils, and tragedies of
despair, and anguish which no heart can conceive, no tongue describe.

At the first news that Rome was in flames, and that they were already
approaching his Domus Transitoria, Nero hurried back from Antium.
Now indeed he had a sensation to his heart’s content. At first he
was shocked by the magnitude of a catastrophe more overwhelming than
had ever before happened to Rome or any other city. He mounted the
tower of Mæcenas, and gazed for hours upon the scene--thrilling
with excitement which was not without its delicious elements.
Safe himself, he was looking down on a storm of tempestuous[*14]
agony, which he could regard in the light of a spectacle. He was
accustomed to gaze unmoved on human pangs in the bloody realism of
the amphitheatre, and to see slave after slave flung to the lions,
with their arms bound in chains concealed with flowers. But what
scene of the circus, when the gilded chariots were reduced to a
crashing wreck of collisions, in which the horses kicked one another
and their charioteers to death--what gladiatorial massacre, filling
the air with the reek of blood, was for a moment comparable to the
sight of Rome in flames? The sublime horror of the moment stimulated
in him all the genius of melodrama and artificial epic. Surrounded by
his parasites, he compared Rome, now to a virgin whom the tigers of
flame devoured, now to a gladiator wrestling with troops of lions in
the arena. He was lost in admiration of the _beauty_ of the fire. Now
he called it a splendid rose, with petals of crimson; now a diadem
of flaming and radiating gold; now again an enormous hydra with
smoky pinions and tongue of flickering gleam. He wrote many a quaint
and fantastic phrase in the notebooks which were crowded with his
much-lined commonplaces of poetic imagery! Here were the materials
for many future poems before him. He could, for instance, write
an Ode on Tartarus--its horrible spaces of silent anguish, its
black vapours, its brazen gates, and iron pillars, its ghosts and
demons gibbering and shrieking in the shade, its torments and its
Pyriphlegethon with cataracts of blood and fire. He felt sure that
after these incitements of emotion and infusions of realism, his poem
on the Burning of Troy would be immortal, since it could not fail to
catch from such a scene a tinge of voluptuous sublimity!

And as he gazed for hours together of the day and of the night,
he endeavoured to realise the aspect of the spectacle, and did not
allow himself to be disturbed by the multitudinous agonies which it
implied. He did, indeed, accept some suggestions of Seneca, who,
abandoning his seclusion from generous impulse, hurried to him
as soon as it became evident that the fire meant wide-spread
destitution. Nero felt a spasm of terror when the philosopher
expressed a doubt whether sullen misery might not flash up into rage,
and cause a formidable rebellion. For want of houses, the people
were huddling into tombs and catacombs. Nero, therefore, took the
hint that he should offer the Campus Martius and the monuments of
Agrippa--his porticoes, baths, gardens, and the Temple of Neptune--as
a refuge for the shivering throngs whom the flames had driven from
their homes. But, this done, he flattered himself that the public
disaster would redound to his popularity; and as it never occurred
to him that any one would suspect his complicity, he gave himself
up once more to æsthetic enjoyment. He ordered masses of roses to be
strewn around him on the summit of the tower; he twanged his harp as
he thought of refrains and songs which he intended to write on the
subject; and he meant that Troy should stand as a transparent symbol
of Rome. When he was for a time tired of watching, he induced his
minions to ask him for an opportunity of hearing once more his
celestial voice; and putting on his tragic _syrmos_, appeared on
a private stage, harp in hand, and affectedly chanted to them his
insipid strophes and emasculate conceits.

But even these first-rate sensations became in time monotonous.
He had seen as much as he wanted, and to his great delight the
conflagration had destroyed the buildings near the Palace on which
he had cast covetous eyes. When after a pause the fire, which had
been checked on the seventh night, broke out a second time from the
Æmilian estate of Tigellinus, and raged fitfully for three days more,
he was tired of it. There was no object in suffering the whole of
Rome to be destroyed. He assented to a proposition that masses of
buildings should be pulled down on the Esquiline, in order that
the progress of the flames might be checked. The expedient was
successful. There was now time to note the extent of the devastation.
Rome was divided into fourteen districts. Three of these were reduced
to utter wreck and destruction. Seven more were in a condition
of desperate ruin; four alone remained untouched. The loss of
antiquities, of venerable buildings rich in historic associations,
of precious manuscripts, of priceless relics of the past, above all,
of works of art,

            ‘the hand of famed artificers
    In cedar, marble, ivory, or gold,’

was such as none could estimate. The rumour arose that Nero was
about to rebuild the city with unparalleled magnificence and call
it Neronia; but whatever gain might accrue to another generation
from endless straight lines, ‘vast monumental perspectives, and
sumptuosities of parade,’ those who regarded cities as something
more than official masses of architectural monotony were wounded to
the heart. No new Rome could ever make up to them for the loss of
the old beloved city which sat dreaming on her seven hills among the
glorious memories of the past.[93]

The name of Nero was on every lip, and it was blended with curses not
loud but deep. As he wandered over the blackened areas, his lictors
accompanying him, his head crowned with garlands and his thoughts
full of magnificent schemes of reconstruction, he became aware
that the blank walls of the ruins were already scribbled over with
infamies with which his name was connected, and that scowling brows
were bent upon him and looks of hatred mingled with terror. His
proclamation that none were to approach the ruins of their own
houses, since he would charge himself with the burial of the human
remains and the clearance of the _débris_, was interpreted into a
design to enrich himself with any objects of value, or uninjured
works of art, which might be disencumbered[*15] from the general
destruction. He found it necessary to take measures to prevent the
indignation of the multitude from finding vent in furious outbreak.
Inviting aid from the senators, he started a sort of patriotic fund,
which did not differ greatly from a forced loan. He threw open his
gardens to the desolate paupers, who had no distant villas such
as those in which the rich took refuge; he ordered the erection of
multitudes of temporary huts; he decreed that the necessaries of
subsistence should be imported with all haste from Ostia and the
neighbouring municipalities, and he reduced the fixed price of corn
to the lowest possible limit. Under ordinary circumstances such
measures would have been welcomed with gratitude, as they were some
years later in the reign of Titus. As it was, they were insufficient
to remove the odium with which rumour surrounded his name. The public
voice accused him of being the author of a misery which it was beyond
his power to alleviate. It was all very well for him to lavish a
liberality which cost him nothing, and came from national resources;
but while he was still steeped to the lips in superhuman luxury,
who could restore to that nation of ruined men their lost children
and relatives, their lost homes and cherished possessions, their lost
materials and opportunities for gaining an honourable livelihood?
The story that he had harped and sung and poetised while the city
was crashing into ruins had first been whispered as a secret, but was
now familiar to every lip; and it filled all hearts with execration
and contempt. The ruthless egotism of the Emperor seemed likely to
cost him dear.

All that was left of religious feeling in the old Paganism was
overwhelmed with a sense that the gods were wroth. There rose a
clamour that expiations and purifications were necessary. But
litanies, and vigils, and sacred banquets were in vain, and Rome
presented the piteous scene of a starving and homeless populace who
regarded the past with horror and the future with despair, having no
hope, and without God in the world.



CHAPTER LI

_AN INFERNAL SUGGESTION_

   ‘I, under fair pretence of friendly ends,
    And well-placed words of glozing courtesy,
    Baited with reasons not unplausible,
    Wind me into the easy-hearted man,
    And hug him into snares.’

                            MILTON, _Comus_.


Nero was harassed night and day by a new terror. The grand spectacle
of Rome in flames, and the touches of local colouring, æsthetic and
realistic, which it had enabled him to add to his poem on the Taking
of Troy, would have been dearly purchased if they were to involve
the forfeiture of his throne and life. Yet the sinister attitude of
the people could not be mistaken, nor their menacing murmurs hushed.
Tigellinus began to doubt whether the allegiance of the Prætorians,
Germans and other foreign mercenaries as many of them were, would
remain unshaken. They showed inclination to sympathise with the
proletariat in their dangerous disaffection.

Except Tigellinus and Poppæa there was no one to whom the Emperor
dared open his secrets. Both of them were closeted with him, but
could suggest nothing to awaken him from the abject alarm into
which he was sinking. It was evident that alike the people and the
Senate held him responsible for the late conflagration, and it was
impossible to detect the author of the rumours which had made his
actions the common theme of Roman gossip. The only way to save
himself from the hatred which threatened to destroy him, would be to
divert the suspicion of the masses into some other channel. But whom
could Nero accuse with any semblance of probability? Tigellinus was
unscrupulous and Poppæa shrewd, but they knew not what to advise.

While they were thus consulting, a slave announced that Aliturus, the
Jewish pantomimist, accompanied by the High Priest of Jerusalem and a
distinguished Rabbi, desired an audience.

‘Aliturus is welcome,’ said Nero; ‘but I do not want to be troubled
by his countrymen.’

‘Give them an audience, Cæsar,’ said Poppæa, who was secretly
addicted to Judaism, and had even been admitted as a proselyte of
the gate. ‘Aliturus presented them to me at Puteoli. They are worth
conciliating. This High Priest is so rich that his mother (I am told)
once presented him with a tunic worth a hundred minæ, and he only
deigned to wear it once. You know the prophecy of the astrologer,
that you are to have an Oriental Empire, and perhaps to reign at
Jerusalem.’

Nero consented, and Aliturus, who was always among his favourites,
was ushered into his presence. The actor wore the ordinary dress of
a wealthy Roman youth, but the two friends who accompanied him were
in the costume of the East, with rich robes and silken turbans. The
elder of the two was an old man, whose white beard flowed in waves
over his breast, and whose sumptuous dress and haughty bearing
accorded with the dignity, if not with the humility, of the
High-Priesthood. The younger was a man not yet thirty years old,
splendidly handsome and full of the genius of his race.

‘Welcome, Aliturus,’ said the Empress. ‘Cæsar, this is the venerable
Ishmael ben Phabi, High Priest of the Jews, on whose ephod has hung
the twelve-gemmed oracle, and who has worn the golden robes; and this
is Josephus of Jerusalem, son of the Priest Matthias, a Priest, a
Rabbi, and a soldier.’

The High Priest and the Rabbi bowed almost to the ground, and
kissed the hand which Nero extended to them as he asked them on what
business they had come to consult him.

‘Half of our task in Rome has failed,’ said the High Priest. ‘We
came, commissioned by our nation to impeach Paulus of Tarsus, a
ringleader of the Galileans, for a sedition which he stirred up in
Jerusalem; but while our shipwreck detained us your clemency has
acquitted the criminal. We came also to entreat the liberation of
some of our priests who are here in prison, sent hither on frivolous
charges by the Procurator Festus.’

‘I will intercede for them,’ said Poppæa. ‘Those Procurators of Judæa
constantly maltreat an innocent and venerable people.’

‘The last Procurator is of your appointment, Poppæa,’ said the
Emperor. ‘I only nominated Gessius Florus, because you are a friend
of his wife Cleopatra.’

‘And he is the worst of them all,’ whispered Josephus to Aliturus.
‘He takes bribes from the bandits. He impales Jews who are knights
and Roman citizens, and he would not desist, though Berenice went
before his tribunal barefooted and with dishevelled hair.’

‘I have no doubt that Florus will be kinder than his predecessors,’
said Poppæa. ‘The others have stirred up against Rome the anger of
the Jewish God.’

‘Who is that?’ asked Nero. ‘Is it Moses?’

‘Moses,’ said Ishmael, ‘was a great law-giver, to whom was granted
more than human wisdom; but we worship not a mortal man. Our God is
He who made heaven and earth.’

‘Anchialus?’ asked Nero.[94]

‘Anchialus is some gentile scoff which I understand not,’ said the
High Priest, with dignity.

Nero whispered to Poppæa a line of Lucan’s:--

    ‘Judæa, votaress of a dubious God.’

‘Suffer _me_ to answer,’ said Josephus; ‘and as the Emperor is
learned in Greek I will answer in the line of an oracle given by the
Clarian Apollo himself:--

    ‘“Deem that the God Supreme, the Lord of Lords, is IAO”’[95]

‘And do you mean to say that this God of yours--Iaô, as you call
him--can injure Rome?’

‘He punishes all who insult His majesty,’ answered the young Rabbi,
‘and He blesses those that honour Him. Cæsar, in his wisdom, knows
how Pompeius burst into our Holy of Holies, and found that we did
not worship, as men lyingly said, the image of an ass, but that the
shrine was dark and empty. But from that time forth, Pompeius was
overwhelmed in that sea of ruin which flung him, a headless corpse,
on the shore of Alexandria. Heliodorus, the treasurer of Seleucus
Philopator, was scourged out of our Holiest by a vision of angels.
But Alexander the Great bowed before our High Priest Iaddua, and God
gave him unexampled victories. And Julius, your mighty ancestor, was
dear to our race, and he prospered through our prayers.’

‘Yea,’ said the High Priest, ‘and when the Cæsar Gaius would have
profaned our Temple with a statue of himself, our God smote him with
madness, and ere a year was over the dagger reached his heart.’

Nero had fits of superstition, and he listened with greedy ears.
‘I thought,’ he said, ‘that you Jews hated all mankind except
yourselves.’

‘We hate them not,’ answered Ishmael. ‘On the contrary, we pray for
all the seventy nations of mankind, and we offer daily sacrifices for
their welfare. If those sacrifices ceased, the world would perish.’

‘Listen, Cæsar, to the High Priest’s words,’ said Poppæa, ‘and set
these priests free.’

‘What Poppæa asks is done,’ said Nero. ‘But,’ he continued, turning
to the Jews, ‘is not your nation seditious and turbulent?’

‘It is not,’ answered Ishmael. ‘We never stir unless we are wronged.
We would fain sit in peace, each under his own vine and his own
fig-tree. We offer sacrifices in our Temple for the Emperor’s safety.’

‘Nero must not confuse us with the Christians,’ said Josephus,
quietly. ‘The Romans and Greeks have not yet learnt the difference
between us; and all _their_ crimes are set down to us.’

‘The Christians?’ said Nero. ‘Who are they? I have heard of them as
malefactors, the scum of the earth, but always thought they were a
sect of Jews.’

‘Forbid it Heaven!’ said the High Priest, vehemently. ‘They worship a
crucified _mesîth_, who deceived the people. Some of them, I confess
with anguish, are of our race, but far more are Gentiles.’

‘But did not Claudius drive the Jews from Rome, because they were
always rioting at the instigation of one Chrestus? Indeed, I thought
they were called Chr_e_stians.’

‘They like to be called Chrestians,’ said Josephus, ‘as though
they were _chrestoi_, or excellent. But Christos is the Greek for
“anointed,” and they use it for our Hebrew Messiah. It was not the
Jews who rioted in the days of Claudius, Emperor, but the sect of
Christians. Their Christus was crucified, thirty years ago, by
Pontius Pilatus. This Paulus of Tarsus is their chief man now.’

‘Paulus?’ said Nero. ‘I vaguely remember his being tried and
acquitted a month ago. He seemed to me a harmless sort of man. He
spoke, as I remember, very eloquently. Agrippa, and Berenice, and
Festus, and even Felix, spoke well of him.’

‘They are the enemies of our race,’ said the High Priest, ‘and they
deceive thee, O Emperor. It is this very Paulus who turns the world
upside down, and not only preaches against our holy law, but forbids
to pay tribute to Cæsar, and teaches men to worship Jesus as their
king.’

‘Do they dare to set up another king than Cæsar?’ exclaimed Nero,
hotly. ‘This must be seen to.’

‘I have heard of them,’ said Poppæa. ‘It is they, and not the Jews,
who hate the whole human race.’

‘I am sorry I let that Paulus go,’ said Nero. ‘Tigellinus, have you
any complaints against these imprisoned priests?’

‘None,’ said Tigellinus; ‘they cost nothing, for they live chiefly on
olives and figs.’

‘Then set them free this evening.’

‘We thank Cæsar for his goodness,’ said the High Priest, once more
making a low obeisance; ‘and we hope that he will deign to accept our
present.’

The present was a golden box, in which were many vials of rose-tinted
alabaster, full of the most precious balsam of Jericho, which filled
the chamber with perfume as Josephus took it from an attendant slave
and laid it at Nero’s feet.

‘This shall be for Poppæa,’ said the Emperor, ‘and on her behalf I
will send you a purple hanging for your Temple. I hope you will ask
Iaô to be propitious to me.’

They were ushered out, and no sooner had they left the room than
Tigellinus rose, and impetuously exclaimed--‘I have it! Those Jews
have taught me the secret. Strange that it never occurred to me
before.’

‘What is the secret, Præfect?’ asked Poppæa.

‘The Christians! we must accuse _them_ of being the incendiaries of
Rome. Cæsar, dismiss your fears. The propitiated gods have found a
victim, and the people will be satisfied.’

Nero’s spirits instantly rose. ‘Excellent!’ he exclaimed; ‘and thanks
to that handsome Rabbi for the hint; but who will tell us something
more about them?’

‘Aliturus will,’ said Poppæa. ‘As an actor he moves constantly among
the people.’

Aliturus had hardly left the Palace when he was summoned back to
the imperial conclave, and asked to tell what he knew about the
Christians. He retailed all the vile calumnies which were current in
antiquity about the ass-worship, the drinking of the blood of slain
children, the promiscuous orgies of darkness, the deadly hatred to
all mankind, the Thyestean banquets and Œdipodean unions. He told all
these things because he had heard them from common report, and had
never taken the trouble to ascertain the truth.

‘Have they any friends among the populace?’ asked the Præfect.

‘None,’ replied the actor. ‘The people hate them. They are foes to
all pleasure: they will not enter a theatre. They spit when they pass
a temple; they turn away with horror from sacrifices. They hate wine,
and will never wear a garland. They are morose misanthropes, devoutly
brutal, and capable of any crime.’

‘It would be a good thing to get rid of such enemies of gods and men,’
said Tigellinus. ‘Do you think they could have been the authors of
the late conflagration?’

‘It is more than possible,’ answered Aliturus. ‘I hear that they
often talk about the burning up of the world.’

‘Yes,’ said Poppæa; ‘and the part of the city which has most
completely escaped being burned is the region across the Tiber where
most of them live.’

Nero clapped his hands with delight. ‘Suspicion all points in that
direction,’ he said; ‘but how could we get evidence against them?’

‘It would not be easy, Cæsar. They meet in the most secret places,
and have their watchwords.’

‘That looks bad,’ said Nero. ‘I do not like secret meetings.’

‘Could you not get into one of their assemblies and bribe some of
them?’ asked Tigellinus.

‘I will try,’ said Aliturus, ‘if Cæsar wishes it. I can at any time
disguise myself and alter my face so that no one can recognise me;
and I dare say some slave will find out their watchword for me.’

‘Manage this for us, Aliturus, and your reward shall be gold enough
to make you a rich man for life. I gave a senator’s property to
Menecrates, the harpist, and a Consul’s patrimony to Spicillus, the
mirmillo, and a town-house and a villa to Paneros, the usurer. Cæsar
knows how to reward with a princely hand those that serve him.’

‘Cæsar is a god,’ said the supple actor; ‘and Aliturus will not fail
him.’



CHAPTER LII

_ALITURUS AMONG THE CHRISTIANS_

    Ἐὰν δὲ πάντες προφητεύωσιν, εἰσέλθῃ δὲ τις ἄπιστος,
    ἐλέγχεται ὑπὸ πάντων, ἀνακρίνεται ὑπὸ πάντων.--S. Pauli
    I. ad Cor. xiv. 24.


Aliturus did not find it easy to fulfil his promise. Ishmael Ben
Phabi, stimulated by Sadducean hatred, made every inquiry among the
Jews of Rome, and learnt much that was useful to him. Josephus, who
had no special hatred against the Christians, but wished to know
more about them, because, as a Pharisee, he was interested in their
doctrine of the Resurrection, was able to give him some useful hints.
Esther, a Jewish freedwoman of Nero, wife of Arescusus, was still
more serviceable. At one time she had been drawn to the Christians by
their sanctity of life, but she was an intense enthusiast of Mosaism,
and, shocked by the views of gentile converts respecting the nullity
of the Law, she had felt the reaction of antipathy against them.[96]
But Primitivus, who had succeeded Phlegon (the lover of the epileptic
girl Syra), as keeper of the Spoliarium, gave him the key he needed.
Primitivus, in his work at the amphitheatre, had more than once come
in contact with Christians, and Phlegon had told him what he had
heard about them from Syra. He revealed to Aliturus the mystic
watchword of the Fish.

Armed with this watchword, the actor managed to establish relations
with Philetus, a slave of dubious character, who had nominally joined
the Christians because he found among them a sympathy and a kindness
which he had forfeited in his gentile surroundings. This thankless
traitor conducted him one evening, in the disguise of an Ephesian
merchant, into the remote sand-pit where the Christians held their
largest gatherings.

He found himself in an assembly of at least a thousand persons, who
had come by various roundabout obscure paths. A narrow opening led
to the half-subterranean place of rendezvous, and this was strongly
guarded by a body of Christian youths, who challenged and scrutinised
every comer. As they entered, the worshippers extinguished their
lamps and torches, and the vast space was in complete darkness,
except that a few lights glimmered in its deepest recesses. Aliturus
was accustomed to scenes of hardened wickedness, but he shuddered in
expectation of the nameless horrors which pagan slander led him to
suppose he would witness. How deep was his astonishment at the order,
the decorum, the innocent fervour, the holy devotion, the almost
childlike simplicity of the entire ceremony! Truly these men and
women were no orgiastic rioters! Linus was in the chair of the chief
pastor, and he was assisted by Cletus and other presbyters. Sometimes
he offered up prayers for all, sometimes the whole assembly joined in
common prayer, and the deep ‘Amen’ swelled like the sound of a mighty
wave. They joined in hymns addressed to God and to Christ, and then
the assembly was swept by the indescribable emotion of Spiritual
Presence which found vent in speaking in the Tongue. But there was
nothing disorderly or tumultuous in the manifestations, for the
worshippers had taken to heart the warnings which Paul had given
to the Church of Corinth. The pantomimist was struck with the
awful depth and penetrative force of those strange sounds, which no
skill of his--trained as he had been for years--would enable him to
reproduce. When some rose to interpret the mysterious utterances, he
heard many allusions to Babylon--which his Jewish origin made him
recognise as a cryptogram for Rome--and references to the recent
fire. But it was only spoken of as an awful judgment of God, a sign
of Christ’s second Advent, a prelude to the conflagration of the
world. He heard nothing wicked, nothing seditious. On the contrary,
every exhortation inculcated innocence and purity of life; and
prayers were offered for the Emperor, and all in authority. In Roman
society he had heard many a bitter jest, many a mordant innuendo
aimed at the Emperor, by men who were too vain to conceal their
sarcasms, even when they were perilous.[97] But here he heard no
such objurgations. When the interpretation of tongues was over,
Linus rose to address his flock.

He spoke first of the conflagration, and of all the disasters which
they had recently witnessed. He alluded with many tears to the
brethren who had perished in the burning streets, or lay buried under
the ruins of fallen houses, and he bade them not to sorrow as men
without hope, since the dead who die in the Lord were blessed. How
far more awful was the fate of those worshippers of false gods, who
had lived in defiant wickedness, and who, instead of passing from
life to life, had passed from death unto death, and a fiery looking
for of judgment! One practical duty he pressed upon them. Most of
them were poor; but God had given them the true riches. And now that
so many of their brethren were left destitute, it was their duty to
show that they believed the words of the Lord Jesus, that it is more
blessed to give than to receive. The heathen said, ‘See how these
Christians love one another.’ Yes, they loved one another, and all
who were of the household of faith; but let them also be kind and
gentle to those who treated them despitefully, remembering Him who
had said, ‘I say unto you, “Love your enemies.”’

From this topic he passed to the duty of watchfulness. All around
them lay the kingdom of Satan and of darkness. They knew its
grossness, its misery. Their beloved Apostle Paul had painted it
for them to the life in his letter to their Church. ‘Be sober, then,’
he said, ‘be vigilant! Already there are wars and rumours of wars,
and earthquakes, and famines, the sea and the waves roaring, and
men’s hearts failing them for fear of the things coming on the
earth. Is not the mighty calamity which we have witnessed one of the
birth-throes of the Messiah? Love not the world, therefore, brethren,
nor the things of the world. Count the things that are, as though
they are not. For, speaking in the Spirit, I tell you that very soon
will the great tribulation begin, which must be before the end. But
ye know the words of the Master, “He that shall endure to the end,
the same shall be saved.”’

A deep murmur rose from the multitude, and many wept at the thought
of coming woes. But they did not shrink from the peril of that
baptism of blood which they knew would be to them the portal of
salvation, and the murmur swelled into an Hosanna and a Hallelujah
which rang with steadfastness and exultation.

Then Cletus, the second presbyter, rose and said: ‘Our father Linus
has spoken. He has warned us that evil days are at hand. Already it
is whispered, we cannot tell by whom, that _our_ hands kindled this
great conflagration. You know, brethren, that we would rather die
than be guilty of such a monstrous crime. But at the bar of the
Gentiles innocence will not avail us; nor will pity touch the hearts
of our enemies in Babylon, where Satan’s throne is. But though a host
should encamp against us, yet will we not be afraid. He who set His
angel to stand by the three children in the furnace; He who saved
Daniel from the lions, and Jonah in the belly of the whale, will not
forsake us. We thank God in this great crisis that Paul, the Apostle
to us Gentiles, has been set free. He knew not what was coming, or he
would have stayed with us; but John the beloved is on his way to us,
and he will comfort us in all our afflictions.’

At the close of his address, young men, clad in white, of modest
demeanour, went round among the worshippers and received in earthen
vessels the humble contributions of men and women, of whom not a
few were themselves in deep poverty. Aliturus, moved to an extent of
which he could give no account, dropped into the vessel every piece
of gold which he had with him, and amazed those who afterwards
counted the offerings. With uplifted arms and solemn voice, Linus
pronounced the benediction. Lanterns and torches were rekindled, and
silently, in twos and threes, by the same secret paths, the multitude
melted away.

But as he made his way home with the attendant slave, the heart of
Aliturus burned within him. He had come to curse and to betray; he
went back blessing these Christians altogether. How unlike was the
reality to the lies which he had confidently believed! These men and
women, whose name was the synonym of malefactor--those of whom the
scum of the Forum spoke as incestuous cannibals--they were innocent,
they were holy! they alone were innocent, they alone were holy!
Aliturus had heard the philosophers talking together. How hard and
unnatural were their doctrines; how inconsistent their lives; how
hopeless their aspirations; how hollow their vaunts of blessedness
compared with those of these men! Among these was happiness, or
it was nowhere. He had seen palaces--their gilded misery, their
monotonous weariness, their reckless guilt--he had experienced the
emptiness of that intoxicating fame which shouted in the voice of
innumerable spectators. Alas, alas! what a bubble was the life of
the gentile world, and what spectres followed those who chased it!

His thoughts went back to the days of a childhood spent in Hebron
under the rustling boughs of the oak of Mamre. Happier for him
had he lived and died in his native Palestine, unknown, innocent,
faithful to the religion of his people. But his grandfather had been
implicated in the tearing down of the golden eagle, instigated by the
two bold young Rabbis Judas and Matthias, in the days of Herod the
Great, and had been put to death. His father had struggled in vain
against adversity, and his widowed mother, left in utter destitution,
had died of a broken heart. Penniless and an orphan, the boy had been
carried down to Gaza by a villanous agent of Herod, and had been sold
to a Roman slave-dealer. This trader in human flesh had seen in him
the promise of extraordinary beauty, which would enable him to repay
himself in a few years a hundred times over the paltry sum which he
had paid for the Jewish orphan. He kept him with care, fed him well,
had him taught Greek, and gave him an artistic education--not from
any feelings of kindness, but solely with a view to ultimate gain. He
kept him apart from the other slave-boys of his shop, who were meant
for less luxurious destinies, and would only command moderate prices
as grooms or foot-boys. They, with chalked feet, were exposed for
sale on the public _catasta_ in sight of every passer-by, and could
be purchased for little more than five hundred sesterces; but those
who wished to see the brilliant Aliturus must be persons of wealth
and distinction, who were admitted into the inner apartments, and
who would be willing to pay at least eight thousand sesterces. He had
been purchased by the wealthy and luxurious Sulla, who, charmed by
his vivacity, grace, and genius, saw a means of enriching himself by
having him trained as a pantomime. During these years Aliturus had
not only seen the darkest side of pagan life, but had grown familiar
with its viciousness in every form. Abandoning the religion of Moses,
he had found no other in its place, and lived only for the present.
On the stage he had rapidly surpassed all competitors, with the
exception of Paris, who shared with him the position of a favourite
of the Roman people. The large sums of money which he amassed by his
art enabled him to purchase his freedom before he was twenty-three;
and, in a career of unchecked outward prosperity he had become a
familiar inmate of the noblest patrician houses, and even of the
imperial circle. For some years he had been the favourite of all the
gilded youth, the darling of the Roman ladies. But the faith of his
childhood still hung about him. Amid the giddiest whirl of vice and
pleasure, he still felt in his heart an aching void; and the events
of this evening had revealed to him not only how aching the void was,
but also the misery and failure in which his life would end, with no
vista beyond it save the darkness of the grave. Often before, in his
lonelier moments, he had seen virtue and pined for its loss; but now
that pure ideal shone before him with a more heavenly lustre, and
remorse pierced him like a sword.

He awaited the next gathering of the Christians with feverish
impatience--not with his first purpose of accumulating evidence for
their extirpation, but rather for the sake of his own soul and that
he might leave no stone unturned to save them. He was also deeply
anxious to see him whom Cletus had described as ‘John the beloved.’
He longed to hear more of the Master whom the Christians worshipped
with such passionate devotion, and to know wherein lay the secrets of
the hope which He had kindled, of the peace which He had bequeathed,
of the righteousness which He had placed within reach of attainment,
not only by the noble and the learned, but by the despised and by
paupers and by slaves.

It was to him a time of anxiety and trial. He had to act that week
one of his favourite, most exciting, and most unworthy parts. He
was pledged to it; myriads were expecting to see him in it; he
had already received for it a large sum of money from Varro, the
president of the games, and he had neither the courage to withdraw
from it nor any appreciable excuse for doing so. He acted it with
all his accustomed supremacy of skill, but he acted it mechanically
and with a wounded conscience; and he listened to the thunders of
applause which his grace evoked with loathing for himself and for
his degraded audience. He returned to his house physically weary,
but even more mentally prostrate, and, flinging himself on a couch,
turned his face to the wall and wept. A summons from the Palace
forced him to rouse himself, to put on a court dress, and assume
his usual aspect of easy gaiety.[*16] Nero asked him with feverish
eagerness whether he had succeeded in tracking the Christians to
their haunts, and what evidence he had been able to collect against
them.

‘Give me time, Cæsar,’ he said. ‘I went three days ago to their
assembly and I heard nothing which could be construed into sedition,
and I saw nothing to their discredit. I am driven to disbelieve what
I told you about them.’

‘They are sly foxes,’ said Nero. ‘Poppæa has heard more about them
from the Jew Josephus. You are not initiated into their mysteries,
so that you did not really see what they are.’

‘And what matters it what they are?’ said Tigellinus. ‘We must have
_some_ criminals to accuse of having caused the fire; and who so
handy as this secret, morose, man-hating, child-killing, flesh-eating
sect of darkness, whom the people detest, and whom in any case it
would be a merit to exterminate?’

‘Poor wretches!’ said Aliturus. ‘I should be sorry to do them more
harm than I have done already; but after the next nundine I may have
more to tell you.’

‘That man is wavering,’ said Tigellinus, when Aliturus had gone. ‘He
is a Jew, and he is not so much in earnest as he was. He seems to be
touched by the squeamish effeminacy of pity.’

‘Poppæa says that the Jews hate these Christians even more than we
do,’ answered Nero.

‘Nevertheless, Cæsar, you may be certain that the two superstitions
spring from the same root. I will find out the Christian haunts for
myself. It is high time to strike a blow.’



CHAPTER LIII

‘_HE WHO SAW THE APOCALYPSE_’

   ‘Questi è colui, che giacque sopra ‘l petto
      Del nostro Pellicano; e questi fue
      Di su la croce al grande ufficio eletto.’

                      DANTE, _Paradiso_, xxv. 112-114.


The slave Philetus came to the house of Aliturus on the next Sunday
evening, and told him that the Christians now knew themselves to be
menaced by imminent peril. They had consequently changed their place
of meeting to another sand-pit near the Appian road, where they would
be assembled in unusual numbers, expecting the presence of John,
one of the twelve companions of Jesus whom they called Apostles.
Aliturus, seeing the character of the man, who was one of those who
are ever ready to sell their souls for gain, said as little to him
as possible; but while he donned his Ephesian disguise he determined
to do his utmost to warn the Christians secretly of the toils which,
before he knew their true character, he himself had designed to
spread for them.

The worship of the congregation resembled that on the previous
First-day evening, except that the impression of solemn expectation
was even more thrilling and intense. Aliturus was at a distance from
the Apostle, whom his fellow-Christians surrounded with a reverence
akin to awe, and whose bearing, though full of love and humility, was
yet more full of natural dignity than Aliturus had ever observed in
Consul or Emperor. During the day the Apostle had walked through the
areas of encumbered ruin and blackened waste, which in ten regions
of the city were all that was left of Rome. He had walked along the
lines of temporary huts in the Campus Martius, and heard the wail of
men and women who refused to be comforted for the loss of all. He had
stood behind the base of a half-calcined pillar on the Aventine when
Nero had been carried past him in an open litter of silver, in which
he lolled on purple cushions. He was discinctured and clad in a
light Coan _synthesis_, looking the picture of cruel and dissolute
effeminacy. A young Greek slave shared his litter, and some of his
worst associates laughed and jested by his side. The sight of the
Antichrist had stirred the heart of John to uttermost indignation,
and as he now rose in the assembly, the mystic golden _petalon_ of
priesthood upon his forehead flashing under the light of the lamps
in the far recess of the sand-pit, his whole figure seemed to burn
and dilate with inspired passion. He spoke at times with something
of the holy frenzy of a Hebrew prophet, in language purposely couched
in Eastern metaphors. To those who were unfamiliar with the style
of Jewish Apocalypses, much of what he said might have seemed wholly
unintelligible; but most of those who heard him had a clue to his
utterances, either from their Jewish birth or from familiarity with
sacred books of the Hebrews. Among these was Aliturus. Knowing the
high authority of the speaker, the whole assembly listened with
beating hearts to the tones of a voice which throbbed with fire
and life, and sometimes rose to awful power.

In imagery afterwards embodied in his Apocalypse he spoke of a
wild beast, rising out of the sea with a name of blasphemy on his
forehead. And men worshipped the beast, and said, ‘Who is like the
wild beast?’ and ‘Who can fight against him?’ Those who had heard of
Nero in his disguise at the infamous banquet on the Lake of Agrippa
knew that by the wild beast he meant the Emperor, and by the sea
the sea of nations, and by the name of blasphemy the divine title
Augustus, and by his superhuman exaltation the adoring flattery of
his votaries. He described the misery of the people as of men gnawing
their tongues for pain; and he spoke of a war of the wild beast
against the saints, and of blood rolling in a great river; and of the
vengeance which should follow, and of the vain rage of the nations
against Him which is, and was, and is to come.

His voice ceased. He sat down, and an awful hush fell over the
listeners. And then the whole assembly knelt down as with one great
sob, and Aliturus sobbed with them. Pitying their emotion, the
Beloved arose once more, and said: ‘Nay, brethren, you must not
return thus with broken hearts to your homes. It is given unto me to
foresee that ye must resist unto blood. Many of you must be tortured,
many slain. At this moment there is a traitor among you, and it is no
longer possible to escape. And there is another, not a traitor, but
who meant to be an open enemy.’ The speaker paused, and the heart
of Aliturus became chill as a stone within him. ‘But,’ continued
the Apostle, ‘the grace of God hath called this one to repentance,
and he shall be saved, though through much tribulation. And now, my
children, give your customary gifts to God and to the suffering ones,
for many are now in depths of affliction, and there are not a few of
you whose children shall be fatherless and their wives widows, who
must be the care of the Church hereafter. But I say to you all,
as our Lord said the night that He was betrayed, “Fear not, little
flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
And as my last words, take this His new commandment: “Little children,
love one another.”’

He bade them sing a hymn to calm their troubled souls, and they
sang:--

   ‘Curb for the stubborn steed,
    Making its will give heed;
    Wing that directest right
    The wild bird’s wandering flight;
    Helm for the ships that keep
    Their pathway on the deep;
    Our stay when cares annoy,
    Giver of endless joy,
                O Jesus, hear!

   ‘Thine infant children seek,
    With baby lips all weak,
    Filled with the Spirit’s dew
    From that dear bosom true,
    Thy praises pure to sing,
    Hymns meet for Thee, their King;
                O Jesus, hear!

   ‘We, heirs of peace unpriced,
    We, who are born in Christ,
    A people pure from stain,
    Praise we our God again!
                O Jesus, hear!’[98]

The deacons went round among the worshippers, and collected the
alms. Aliturus, more deeply moved than ever in his life, flung into
the offering the large sum of gold which he had received for his
unhallowed dance. Linus rose and said, ‘Beloved, the times are
perilous. We know not when or where the cloud will burst. Let us
meet again on the third day hence, and hear the word of exhortation.’

Then the Apostle committed them to God’s gracious mercy and
protection, and to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the
communion of the Holy Spirit; and once more, like phantoms, that
great throng melted into the darkness.

But Aliturus, telling Philetus that it would be better for them
to separate, dismissed him, and waited for the presbyters who were
conducting John to the house of Linus.

‘I would speak to thee,’ he said, addressing the Apostle in Hebrew,
which he had not entirely forgotten since the day when he learnt it
at his brave father’s knee. ‘I am--’

‘I know thee who thou art, my son,’ answered the Apostle, in the
same language. ‘Thou wast born a child of Abraham; thou hast become
a firstborn of Satan. Yea, weep, for thy sins have been many; yet
rejoice, for thou shalt be snatched as a brand out of the burning.’

‘I have never been a Christian, O Apostle,’ said Aliturus; ‘I have
never heard the name of Christ except in mockery; but now, convinced
of all, judged of all, I see that the secret of God is with you. I
have led you into peril, but I did it ignorantly, and now, if thou
wouldst direct me, I fain would do my utmost to save you all.’

‘Thou shalt be forgiven, my son, because (as thou sayest) thou didst
it ignorantly: but save us thou canst not. Nevertheless, do what thou
canst, and may God be with thee!’

‘Oh that I might ask for thy blessing; for my heart is sore even to
breaking.’

‘My son,’ said the Apostle, laying his hand on the bowed head of the
actor; ‘the blessing of God is with them that repent, and the Lord
rejecteth none who come to Him.’

They parted in the darkness, and the next day Aliturus sought an
audience with the Emperor alone. He had been so great a favourite
that Nero always rejoiced to see him, and to while away an hour under
the spell of his natural brightness. But, to his surprise, Aliturus
had no sooner kissed his hand than he flung himself at his feet and
craved his indulgence.

‘What ails the gay actor?’ asked Nero. ‘Is it something more about
these Christians?’

‘It is,’ said the actor. ‘Spare them, Emperor. Spare them, I entreat
you. I have ascertained that they are perfectly innocent. Cæsar has
no more virtuous subjects.’

‘Virtue?’ said Nero. ‘It is three-fourths humbug, and the other
fourth hypocrisy. Give me pleasure; give me art. These fanatics
would quench all joy in the world. They would kill Venus and starve
Bacchus. I hate them.’

‘Would Cæsar slay the innocent?’

‘Innocent? They are anything but innocent. They are conspirators, and
sorcerers, and murderers, and haters of mankind.’

‘Oh, Cæsar,’ exclaimed the actor, in despair. ‘I, too, believed this;
but these are only the lies of the multitude.’

‘At any rate, they are gloomy and pestilent fanatics. Why should
Aliturus care for the wretches who worship a man whom Pilatus
crucified? What is their execrable superstition to Rome’s favourite
pantomime? I am to be king of the East, and these Galileans set up
another king, whom they call Christus. It is flat sedition! Besides,
how am I to appease the populace, if I do not find them some victims?’

‘You may yet find the true criminals, Cæsar; it may be that they are
nearer your own person than these poor Christians.’

‘Don’t let Tigellinus hear you say that, or you may yet know what the
_tunica molesta_ is like, and may leave a trail of burning pitch on
the sand of the amphitheatre! Come, Aliturus, this is tedious. Enough
of it. I prefer your dancing.’

At this moment Poppæa entered, and the young man withdrew. As he
passed down the corridor the slaves were surprised to see the bright
darling of the populace wringing his hands and muttering ‘Too late!
too late!’

On one point he was determined. No word, no sign of his should do
any further injury to the Christians. He would not reveal their
meeting-place, nor help their enemies.

Alas! his aid was no longer needed. We can abstain from evil deeds,
but when we have done them their consequences are beyond us, nor can
we escape their punishment. Tigellinus, by his spies, had put himself
in communication with Philetus; he knew enough to palliate in the
eyes of the people the arrest of a community which they regarded
with detestation. His nets were spread in every direction. Unless
the Christians abandoned all attempt at meeting together, it was
impossible that they could escape the agents of the tyranny which
had determined to destroy them as the scapegoat of its own crimes.
To warn them would in any case have been in vain, and Aliturus was
unable to warn them, for Tigellinus did not make him a confidant of
his intentions.

Unaccompanied by Philetus, the actor went to the meeting which Linus
had announced, and found the Christians gathered in undiminished
numbers, anxious to hear once more the words of him who at the Last
Supper had leaned his head on the bosom of their Lord.

Again--lest in the presence of traitors and enemies he should use
language which might be turned into an engine of condemnation against
the brethren--the Apostle addressed them in allegoric terms. The
Christians understood his words, and the rich comfort which lay
beneath their poetic imagery. But he had not been speaking long,
when from the narrow entrance which led into the sandpit--for
the Christians had barricaded every approach but one--there arose
first a cry of surprise, then a sound of struggling, and a clash
of arms, and a tramp of feet. The youths to whom was entrusted
the guardianship of the approach were borne back by numbers, and
flying into the assembly raised a shout of ‘Fly, brethren, fly!
the Prætorians are upon us.’ The lamps flashed on the gilded armour
of a centurion, who leapt, sword in hand, into the midst of the
worshippers. In a moment every lamp was extinguished, and by the
straggling starlight might be caught glimpses of a scene of wild
confusion, as men and shrieking women sprang in vain to the egress,
and, driven back on each other by the swords of the soldiers,
struggled in mad panic towards the various subterranean hiding-places
and passages, which branched out of the sandpit, and were the
beginning of the catacombs. Many made their escape in the tumult,
for they were more familiar than the soldiers with the exits and
winding ways. Except that one or two Christians were struck to
earth and trampled upon in the obscurity, no blood was shed; for the
principles of the Christians forbade them to resist lawful authority.
The centurion, the moment he entered, strode straight towards the
group of presbyters, and arrested Linus, who sat in the seat of the
bishop. Another officer laid his hand on the robe of the Apostle,
but while Aliturus involuntarily sprang forward to make him release
his hold, a gigantic _fossor_--whose trade it was to hew graves in
the tufa for all the brethren--flung his arms round the officer,
and pinned them to his side, while Cletus, seizing the hand of John,
hurried him along a tortuous and half-subterranean path by which they
emerged into the upper air. They lay concealed among the thick leaves
of a vineyard, until they heard the tramp of the soldiers who marched
off with about a hundred prisoners, whose arms they had tied behind
their backs. Aliturus was in no personal danger, but he had followed
the escaping steps of Cletus and the Apostle, and he lay hidden with
them in the vineyard till the sound of footsteps had died away in the
echoing gloom.

‘Alas, father, what can I do?’ exclaimed the presbyter. ‘I am but a
freedman in the house of the senator Nerva. I have no home, no refuge
to offer thee which would not be full of hardship and the peril of
certain death.’

‘Come to my house,’ exclaimed Aliturus to the Apostle, eagerly. ‘I
am not a Christian--I am but a pantomime. But, if thou wilt trust me,
thy life will be safer with me than in any house in Rome, till
opportunity enables thee to escape to Asia.’

‘My son,’ said the Apostle, ‘I trust thee. Lead me on.’

That night the son of Zebedee was sheltered in the house of the
actor, who told his most confidential slaves to treat with all
honour a friend of Jewish race who had come from Palestine. But all
night long the Apostle was on his knees, praying for his brethren.
For the Great Tribulation--the first of the ten great Christian
persecutions--had begun.



CHAPTER LIV

_IN THE BURNING FIERY FURNACE_

    Ἀγαπητοὶ μὴ ξενίζεσθε τῇ ἐν ὑμῖν πυρώσει πρὸς πειρασμὸν
    ὑμὶν γινομένῃ.--1 Pet. iv. 12.

    ‘Christianus etiam extra carcerem sæculo renuntiavit, in
    carcere autem etiam carceri.’--TERT. _Ad Mart._ 2.


The prisoners, men and women alike, were hurried into promiscuous
dungeons, in a suffocating confinement which was itself an
anticipated death. Next day an edict was published by the Emperor,
saying that the Christians were the incendiaries of Rome, and would
be set apart for exemplary punishment. He characterised the whole
sect as public enemies, enemies of the gods, and of the human race,
whom he should make it his duty as far as possible to exterminate.
The edict was well received. It was at first supposed that its
allegations were true, and that the Emperor had really succeeded
in lifting from his rule the vast weight of indignation which had
threatened to endanger it.

Next day, half suffocated and half starved, and altogether in
miserable plight, a number of the prisoners were put to the torture,
to enforce confession and a betrayal of their accomplices. Tigellinus
personally presided, and gloated over their torments. It had become
known that Linus was their leader, and he was the first to suffer.
The old man remained nobly constant. Urged to confess his crime,
he said, ‘I am a Christian; but to be a Christian is not a crime.’
Charged with complicity in the deeds of darkness which were
attributed to Christians, he indignantly repudiated them, and said
that the laws of Christians branded not only such deeds with infamy,
but even those vices which the heathen regarded as indifferent or
venial. Bidden to give up the names of his fellow-Christians, he said
that they were many, but that he would rather die than betray them.
No added intensity of torment could wring from him anything further,
and he was carried back to prison, a pitiable sufferer, dislocated
in every limb. Indeed, so nigh was he unto death, that the jailors,
burdened by the crowded and horrible condition of the prisoners,
accepted a bribe from the Christians to allow him to be removed. He
was taken, by Pomponia’s kindness, into her own house, and there was
lovingly tended many days. He lived to send a greeting to Timotheus
by St. Paul some years later; but he was never again able to resume
his functions as the bishop of the little community. Stricken to the
heart by the anguish of witnessing the apparent destruction of the
Church, and hopelessly maimed by torture, he was removed in secrecy
to one of the country villas of Aulus Plautius, and after being
long confined to his bed, he died no less a martyr of the Neronian
persecution than any of his brethren.

Others showed equal fortitude. Foiled and savage, Tigellinus noticed
among the prisoners a timid, shrinking boy, and ordered him to be
stripped and laid upon the rack, confident that anything might be
wrung from him. But the poor boy could only keep repeating,

‘I am a Christian! I am a Christian! but we are innocent. We do no
wrong. The crimes you charge us with are false.’

‘Give up the names of your accomplices, jail-bird,’ said Tigellinus,
striking him fiercely on the cheek.

‘I am no jail-bird,’ said the boy; ‘I am free-born. Oh, set me free
from this anguish! I have done no wrong.’

‘You shall try another turn or two of the rack first, _crucisalus_,’
said Tigellinus. ‘Confess, and you shall not only be set free, but
rewarded.’

His limbs were stretched still further. A groan of agony burst from
his lips, and the sweat stood in thick dews over the face which had
become pale as death; but he spoke not, and fainted. When they were
taken back to prison, the Christians did their utmost to tend and
console the glorious young confessor.

‘How were you strengthened,’ they asked him, ‘to endure such pangs?’

‘When all was at the worst,’ he said, ‘it seemed to me that music
sounded in my ears, and a fair youth with wings stood by me who wiped
the perspiration from my forehead. And seeing him I felt that I could
hold out even to death.’

‘Try a woman this time,’ said Tigellinus.

The executioners seized the deaconess Phœbe, who, since she left
Cenchreæ with the Epistle to the Romans, had stayed and worked
in Rome; and with her they seized two other virgins who were also
deaconesses.

But the constancy of womanhood also remained unshaken, and the
Præfect began to fear that the attempt to secure evidence would fail
as completely as in his plot against Octavia. He stamped, and cursed
the Christians by all his gods, and raved impotently against their
brutal obstinacy, as effort after effort failed. Then he ran his
experienced eyes over the throng, and fixed them on one man whose
abject face seemed to promise good effects from the application of
terror. His name was Phygellus.

‘Seize that man,’ he said to the lictors.

‘Oh, do not torture me!’ exclaimed the wretch. ‘I am not--I am not,
indeed, a Christian.’

The other Christians turned their eyes upon him with a look of
reproach, and he trembled; but he continued to asseverate, ‘I am
not a Christian.’

‘Then how came you to be arrested in the assembly of those vagabonds?’

‘They seduced me; they bewitched me; they are sorcerers.’

‘Then throw these grains of frankincense on the fire in honour of
Jupiter, and worship the Genius of the Emperor.’

The man did as he was required, though the Christians murmured to
him--

‘Will you be an apostate? Will you deny the cross of Christ?’

‘Now then,’ said Tigellinus, ‘tell us the names of their ringleaders.’

Phygellus hesitated. He had been ready to save himself; but he had
not contemplated the destruction of his fellows.

‘On to the rack with him!’ said Tigellinus.

The man was laid shrieking on the instrument of torture, but the
moment the screw was turned, he cried,

‘I will confess; I will confess.’

‘Do the Christians kill infants, and eat their flesh?’

‘No.’

‘Do you persist in that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Try the rack again.’

‘Spare me! spare me!’ he cried. ‘If you torture me, I shall say
anything--any lie you ask me; but these stories about the Christians
are not true.’

‘Will you now tell us all you know, without any more torture?’

‘I will.’

‘Did the Christians set fire to Rome?’

‘I did not see them doing it; but they were always talking about
Christ being manifested in flaming fire, and about the burning of
the world.’

‘That will do. Now give us some names.’

‘There are hundreds--there are thousands of them,’ said the renegade.

‘Then it will be all the easier for you to tell us some of them.’

‘Must I?’ he pleaded. ‘They have done no harm.’

‘On to the rack with him,’ said Tigellinus, furiously. ‘He trifles
with us and wastes our time.’

‘No, no,’ moaned the coward; ‘I will tell you. There is Linus the
bishop, and Cletus the presbyter, and Prisca, and Aquila.’

‘Who are they?’

They are Jewish tent-makers, and they live on the Aventine; but they
left Rome recently. And Amplias, Claudia, Stachys, Apelles, of the
household of Narcissus; Persis, a freedwoman of Pomponia Græcina;
Asyncritus, Patrobas, slaves of Flavius Clemens; and Nereus and his
daughter Junia, manumitted by the centurion Pudens.’

‘We want more names still.’

‘There are Marcus, Felicitas, Phœbe, Helpis, in the house of Aulus
Plautius; and there are Tryphæna, Tryphosa, Stephanus, Crescens,
Thallus, Herodion, and Artemas, of Cæsar’s household.’

‘None but slaves and freedmen?’

‘There is Aristobulus, the auctioneer, who has a house in the Subura.
He and all his family are Christians. And Andronicus, and Junius--
they are merchants who import goats’ hair from Cilicia, and are
relations of Paulus of Tarsus, whom they call an Apostle.’

‘Come, this is to the purpose,’ said Tigellinus, rubbing his hands.
‘Are there any soldiers?’

‘Yes; Vitalis and Celsus, the Prætorians, and, I think, Pudens the
centurion, who has gone to Britain and--’

He stopped suddenly, and his face assumed a look of terror. For the
soldier Urbanus who stood behind the chair of Tigellinus was one who,
though not yet a Christian, had been among those who had been chained
to Paul, and had acquired a kindly feeling towards the persecuted
brethren. Fixing his eyes on the apostate, he made so menacing a
gesture with his hand on his dagger, that Phygellus began to stammer.

‘I do not know,’ he said, ‘the names of any more soldiers.’

‘Are there any persons of rank?’

Fortunately Phygellus had never found much favour among the
Christians. Their leaders had not entrusted to him their secrets.
He was unaware that Pomponia was a Christian, and had not heard of
the conversion of Flavius Clemens and Domitilla. But he ventured at
haphazard to mention Aliturus, whom he had seen in the tumult.

But Tigellinus knew that it was not yet time to interfere with such a
man as Aliturus. He laughed aloud.

‘What!’ he said; ‘do you think that on the evidence of such scum as
you we are going to arrest the delight of the populace--the gayest
and fairest pantomime in Rome? There, we have had enough of you.’

And, spurning him with his foot, he bade the lictors to keep him safe
till more evidence was required.

There were a few others--chiefly neophytes and catechumens of
unformed character--who, either from indifference and insincerity,
or to escape for the moment from the tormentors, gave evidence
sufficient for the nefarious purpose of the Præfect. The consequence
was a wholesale series of arrests, till every prison in Rome was
crowded to deadliness with innocent confessors, who, while they
denied all crime, admitted themselves to be Christians, and were
ready, if God so willed, to die for their faith.

Tigellinus savagely recommended to Nero that they should be executed
in a mass.

‘Rome,’ he said, ‘is too crowded. As it is, Cæsar, you are
maintaining many thousands of the destitute, and among them hundreds
of these Christians, whose lodgings have been burnt. Why not get rid
of such criminal wretches?’

‘All the people hate them,’ said Poppæa, ‘as despisers of the gods,
and all the Jews hate them. From Josephus, and the High Priest, and
Tiberius Alexander, the nephew of their great writer Philo, who once
headed a deputation to the Emperor Gaius, I hear nothing of them but
evil.’

‘Their arrest has made a wonderful difference already,’ said
Tigellinus, ‘and has silenced many inconvenient rumours. Publish
another edict, Emperor, saying that you have now the amplest evidence
of their guilt, and that they shall be executed when you have decided
the method of their death.’

‘I will reserve some of their ringleaders for more conspicuous
punishment,’ said Nero. ‘The common herd can be dealt with
afterwards.’

‘We have got the man they call their bishop,’ said the Præfect. ‘He
is an artisan named Linus. He has been tortured, and is said to be
dying. But we can strike a deadlier blow yet. My spies tell me that
one of the Twelve they call Apostles, whose name is John, is in Rome,
and that another is on his way whose name is Peter. They were friends
of him whom they call Christus. We have lost sight of John for the
moment; but we shall make sure of having them both soon.’

       *       *       *       *       *

The Church in Rome was smitten to the very dust by the terrible blow
which had befallen her, and it was necessary that the brethren should
take the utmost precautions, and meet only in the deepest secrecy.
In this they were aided by Aliturus. He had a villa a short distance
from Rome on the Salarian road, the grounds of which could be
approached by country paths known to few but shepherds and goatherds.
To this villa he took the Apostle John for safety, and there he
received from him such wise and loving instruction that he became
a catechumen. Meanwhile he freely used the wealth which he had
acquired, to alleviate the sufferings of the brethren. The visiting
of those in prison was regarded as one of the primary duties of
the Christian’s life, and no considerations of personal safety were
allowed to interfere with it. The Apostle went from prison to prison
breaking bread, and entrusting to the officers of the Church, or to
those who had been longest in the faith, the money which was supplied
to him by Pomponia and by the actor. In this way he and others, who
were as yet unmolested, were enabled to minister to the necessities
of the captives, and also to speak to them such words of hope as fell
upon their souls like dew from heaven. It was inevitable that his
noble and venerable figure should soon be recognised. The spies of
the Præfect were everywhere, and, noticing the profound reverence
with which the Elder was received, they were soon able to identify
him. He had prepared Aliturus to expect that if on any day he did not
return to the villa it would be because he was lodged in prison. The
ordinary dungeons were so full that the Apostle was confined in the
wet and rocky vault of the Mamertine.

In that prison he was visited by Pomponia, who contributed by every
means in her power to mitigate his hardships, and received his
counsel and his apostolic blessing. She no longer hesitated to go
in person to console the confessors. She found, indeed, that they
needed but little consolation. The majority of them were in a
state of spiritual exaltation which made their faces radiant and
transformed their hard fare into manna which was angels’ food. They
turned their prisons into minsters, and the coarse pagan jailors
and German guards were amazed when they heard those abodes of misery
ringing with sweet voices and the holy melodies of unknown songs. In
each place of confinement they held their daily worship, conducted by
presbyter, or deacon, or reader, and broke with one another the bread
of Holy Communion. They knew that death awaited them, but death was
to be a martyrdom, and they looked to it, not as a curse, but as a
coronation. Pomponia, sharing all their feelings, found that it was
only to their bodily wants that she had need to minister.

She did not shrink from personal danger: if arrested, she would have
at once avowed that she was a Christian. But her name had not been
mentioned by those who gave evidence. Having once been tried on
the charge of holding a foreign superstition and acquitted, it was
contrary to the principle of the Roman law that she should again
be accused. The deadly wrong which Nero’s wickedness had already
inflicted on Aulus Plautius had excited an indignation among all the
best elements of Roman society, which, though it was voiceless, had
made itself felt; and among the populace Pomponia was half worshipped
for her abounding kindness and large-handed charities. Her visiting
of the prisons was set down to the same strange but harmless
eccentricity which made her eschew jewels and wear robes of such
sombre hue.

One day, during a visit to the largest prison, she encountered
Tigellinus, who was going his rounds with an escort of Prætorians to
exult over the multitudes of his victims. He inspired such dread that
the noblest senators cringed to him, and Pomponia had reason to know
that he hated her with all the energy of wickedness which is reproved
by the spectacle of virtue.

He made her a low obeisance of mock respect, which she scarcely
noticed by the slightest inclination of her head.

‘The fair Pomponia is fond of prisons,’ he said, with a sneer, ‘but
she despises the poor Præfect of the Prætorians.’

‘Pomponia,’ she replied, ‘is not accustomed to the language of
insincere and empty compliment. She despises none; but, if the
Præfect desires her opinion, there are some of his humblest soldiers
whom she respects more than him.’

Tigellinus cast on her a glance of savage hatred. He quailed before
her queenly dignity of goodness, but could not bear to be foiled in
the hearing of his escort, whose smiles had scarcely been suppressed.

‘Let Pomponia take care that she does not herself become the denizen
of a prison. Some have whispered that she is as much a Christian as
these whom she visits, and deserves the same fate.’

‘I deserve it,’ she says, ‘as much and as little as these do, for
none knows better than Tigellinus that they are perfectly innocent.’

Tigellinus lost all self-control. ‘Do you not know, woman,’ he
exclaimed[*17] hoarsely, ‘that your life is in my power?’

‘Man!’ she answered, with the calmest disdain, ‘you are addressing
the wife of Aulus Plautius. My life is not in your power, but in the
power of Him who gave it. I leave you, and shall continue to tend
these hapless prisoners.’

She passed by him and he dared not meet her glance. To beard
Tigellinus required a courage of which scarcely one person was
capable. But Pomponia thought it her duty to attempt a yet more
dangerous effort, and, if possible, to have an appeal made to the
Emperor on behalf of the doomed Christians. She went to Seneca
in his retirement. She found him anxious and miserable, full
of disappointment and self-disgust. He did not respond to her
entreaties. ‘I have no sympathy,’ he said, ‘with the Christians.
They are only a sect of the Jews, and I should like to see their
whole superstition eradicated.’

‘You call it their superstition,’ said Pomponia. ‘Is it more of a
superstition than the worship of what you have called “our ignoble
crowd of gods”?’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Seneca. ‘But the popular religion is one thing,
and philosophy is another.’

‘Would you, then, be content to see the mass of the pagan population
unjustly tortured, unjustly slain, because their religion is a
noxious superstition?’

‘They do not render themselves amenable to the laws.’

‘Nor do these poor Christians. I know their tenets. Their moral
teaching again and again reminds me of your own, which it sometimes
resembles almost to verbal identity.’

‘I have heard,’ said Seneca, ‘that their Paulus of Tarsus has
genius and style; but it is to me incredible. What can he know of
philosophy?’

‘Pardon me, dear friend,’ replied Pomponia, ‘he knows a philosophy
far diviner than that of the Porch, far nobler than that of the
Garden or the Lyceum. It is a philosophy which may not puff up the
pride of intellect, but can sway the motives of the life. You may
perhaps find in Rome--though I doubt it--ten philosophers who live
purely and simply, but I could find you many hundreds of Christians.’

‘Men of the common herd,’ he said, in a tone of some disdain.

‘Are they not our fellow-men? Did not one God make them and us? Did
He mean only a handful to be blessed, and the rest to perish? Have
you no pity for them? Have not you yourself said, “Man is a sacred
thing to man”?’

‘Why should I waste my life in an unavailing pity? Pity is a weakness
which the true philosopher should suppress.’

‘Ah!’ replied Pomponia, ‘I see the secret why Stoicism fails. It
talks of following nature, and it flings away its sweetest elements.’

‘I could do nothing for you, Pomponia, even if I would,’ said Seneca,
wearily; ‘I live a daily death.’

‘A daily death?’ she replied--‘in this splendid palace, with every
resource of wealth, with slaves, with villas, with books, with
gardens, with boundless fame, with a wife faithful and beloved,
with a host of friends?’

‘What avail such things,’ said Seneca, ‘with the sword of Damocles
trembling over my neck? My only safety is the life which I describe
in my little tragedy of “Thyestes”--a life which causes neither
jealousy nor fear, and where one does not dread to drink poison in
golden goblets.[99] If I am alive at this moment, I believe I owe it
to the fact that my freed man Cleonicus, whom Nero bribed to poison
me, failed to do so because I only eat fruits from the tree, and
drink nothing but running water.[100] Yet I am wretched. Sometimes
I all but accept the view that, after all, men are no better than a
laughing-stock of the gods, whatever gods there be.’

‘And are you so miserable, Seneca,’ she said, ‘and so hopeless? Come
with me to the prisons of the poor Christians, and I will show you
men who are poor and yet happy; ground to the dust by daily hatred
and cruelty, in hunger, and nakedness, and prison, and yet happy;
with torture and the vilest deaths immediately awaiting them, and
yet happy. Shall I tell you how Paulus of Tarsus describes himself
and them? “We are troubled on every side,” he wrote to Corinth, “yet
not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not
forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”’

‘That is very eloquent,’ said Seneca. ‘I should like to read more
that this Christian has written.’

‘You shall,’ she answered; ‘and you will find in his letters
something better than eloquence of style. But will you despise, will
you do nothing to assist, the men and women whose faith enables them
not only to _write_ thus, but thus to live?’

Seneca sighed deeply. ‘My power with the Emperor is gone, and I am
menaced with death and confiscation. But I am rich still, Pomponia.
Take the sum of gold in this purse. It may at least help to relieve
the sufferings of these poor creatures, perhaps even to secure by
bribes the escape of some of them. It is all that I can do.’

Pomponia did not refuse it, and bade him a kindly farewell. But
she never visited the philosopher without feeling, in spite of her
affection for him and her gratitude to him, how ineffectual were his
half-truths, how vain the pomp of declamatory epigram in which they
were enshrined. The same ineffectualness, having its roots in an
insincerity so insincere as to be habitual and unconscious, marked
the whole of the contemporary morality. It ended, and was understood
to end, in self-deceiving words.

But, having failed with Seneca, Pomponia hardly knew what to do. To
the Emperor himself she would not go. His mere presence, since his
foul murder of her young Aulus, made her tremble with loathing as
though she stood before an incarnate demon. His leering sensuous
looks, his slothful obesity, his face deformed by an eczema caused
by gluttony, intemperance, and uncleanness, filled her with such
repulsion that she could not speak to him. But she had sometimes
met Poppæa in her least guilty days, when she was the wife of Rufius
Crispinus, and she hoped that there might remain some spot in the
heart of the lovely Empress which was not wholly callous to the
appeal of pity.

To her surprise she found Poppæa bathed in tears, and gently asked
her why she wept. There was something about Pomponia which seemed at
once to awaken confidence. She had that temperament which in modern
times would be called magnetic, and she always called out the
best feelings of those with whom she spoke. The haughty, beautiful,
triumphant wife of Nero would not have dreamed of suffering any one
to be admitted to her in a moment of sorrow and weakness, except
the wife of Aulus Plautius. To others she never appeared except in
dresses such as the world could not parallel, surrounded by luxury,
and breathing of the most delicate perfumes. But as Pomponia entered
she did not even attempt to remove the stain of tears from her
glowing cheeks, or to arrange the disordered tresses of her gleaming
hair.

‘Pomponia is welcome,’ she said. ‘She does not often deign to visit
the poor Empress. She should have been a vestal virgin, and moved
about surrounded by sanctities. But we wicked people have our sorrows
too. I was thinking of my boy Rufius. I love him more than anything
on earth, and Nero hates to see him, and will not let him visit me.
The poor boy might just as well have no mother.’

Pomponia paused before she spoke, and had to gulp down a choking sob.
‘I can sympathise with you, Empress. My son Aulus was a little older
than your charming Rufius. He was manly; he was beautiful; he gave
promise of all his father’s virtues.’

‘I know, I know,’ said Poppæa, turning away her face, on which rose,
in spite of herself, a burning blush. ‘He offended Nero in some way,
and he is dead.’

‘He offended him not,’ said Pomponia. ‘How could an innocent lad like
my Aulus have been guilty of treason? Let us speak no more of him.
There are those for whom death is more merciful than life, and I did
not come here to bewail my own bereavements.’

‘I pleaded for your boy, Pomponia--indeed, I did. I deigned to
prostrate myself before Nero that he would not injure him, that he
would not have him slain. Would you believe that I--I, the Empress,
--have fears lest something evil should be done to my young Rufius?’

‘May Heaven protect his youth!’ said Pomponia. ‘If it will be any
comfort to you I will see him, and ask him to our palace. My husband
is kind to all the young, and will love him for the sake of his own
lost boy. And I will take your messages to him.’

‘Thanks, Pomponia, thanks,’ said the Empress. ‘Nowhere could he be
better than in your virtuous home. But why have you sought me--you
to whom the Palace is justly hateful?’

‘I come,’ answered Pomponia, ‘to plead for your pity. There is not
a prison in Rome which is not full of innocent men and women, called
Christians. They are charged with having set fire to Rome, and with
many other atrocities. Empress, they are innocent! Will you not use
your influence for them? If you have ever done evil--forgive me,
Poppæa, but I know not the language of falsehood, or of flattery--
will you not now try to do a great deed of good?’

‘Your kindness deceives you,’ answered the Empress. ‘From all that I
have heard they thoroughly deserve their fate.’

‘Your mind has been poisoned against them by their enemies the Jews.
Believe me, Poppæa--for I know them well--their lives are almost the
only beautiful lives spent in this wicked city.’

‘Anything I could say for them would be in vain, Pomponia. I am not
as you are--would that I were!--but let me tell you what no other
living being should hear from me. Since our child Claudia died, I
am no longer all-powerful with Nero. I can stimulate his course in
evil--a touch will do that; but I cannot turn him from any wrong on
which he and Tigellinus have agreed.’

Seeing that her efforts were useless, Pomponia left her, and would
have kissed her hand; but the Empress kissed her on the cheek, and
said, ‘Oh, Pomponia, deign to be the friend of the hapless Poppæa.
The work of her ambitious guilty dreams is already crumbling into
ruins. She needs to have one friend who is not wicked.’

       *       *       *       *       *

In times so oppressive the Christians who were still free could not
forego the duty and support of common prayer and Holy Communion,
however great might be the risk. Accustomed to hatred and
persecution, they were also accustomed to precautions and secret
signs, and by ways of communicating with each other unobserved and
unexpected they made it known that on the next Sunday, deep in the
night, they would meet in a secluded vineyard at the back of the
villa of Aliturus, and that Peter of Bethsaida, the Apostle of
Christ, had arrived in Rome, and would be present.

By far routes, under the curtain of darkness, they met in the
vineyard, a deeply sorrowing and diminished band. But they felt
reasonably secure. Aliturus was beloved by his slaves, to whom he was
always generous, and he had trusted those in whom he most confided
to watch on every side, and give signals by waving a torch at the
slightest approach of danger. He himself went to the assembly, and,
though as a catechumen he could not receive the holy mysteries, he
joined in the prayers, and received the blessing of Peter, as he
had received the blessing of John. Nothing could have been more
comforting than the brief words of the great Apostle. His gray hair
added to the venerable aspect of his advancing years; but his eye
was undimmed, his cheek still ruddy with the long years of the winds
of Galilee, and holy courage shone in his weather-beaten features.
There was a certain fire and force in all he said which gave it
an impressiveness beyond that which was contained in the words
themselves. Plain and practical as was ‘the pilot of the Galilean
Lake,’ there hung about him a reflection of something which elevated
him above himself--as though the sunlight of Gennesareth still played
around him, and the glory of Hermon shone upon his face. Everywhere
among the good he commanded the deep reverence which his simplicity
did not seek; and everywhere among the evil, he inspired the awe
which his humble manliness might seem to deprecate. He told the
Christians that he had hastened his journey to Rome, when he had
heard at Corinth the frightful perils with which his beloved brethren
were surrounded. Were they suffering as Christians? Then happy were
they! Had not Jesus said, ‘Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s
sake; but he that endureth to the end shall be saved’? Only let them
give no ground for the enemy to blaspheme. ‘It is the will of God,
brethren,’ he said--and every syllable came home to their hearts
in the deep stillness--‘that by well-doing ye put to silence the
ignorance of foolish men; as free, yet not using your freedom as a
pretext for vice, but as the servants of God. Christ suffered for us;
let us be ready to suffer for Him. Be united, then, brethren; have
compassion one for another in this dread crisis; be not afraid of
their faces; be not afraid of their words; be not afraid of their
terror; neither be troubled, but sanctify the Lord God, and the peace
which passeth understanding shall stand sentry over your hearts.’

The Apostle ceased, and Cletus, who during the desperate illness
of Linus was the leading presbyter, told the brethren that, from
information which had reached him, a fresh edict would be immediately
proclaimed, which declared Christianity to be an unlawful religion,
and threatened with the worst forms of death any one who was
convicted of it. Under these circumstances they could not find a
securer place of meeting than the present, but they were surrounded
by spies, and in spite of all caution must be prepared for the worst.
And John the Beloved, from the vault of the Tullianum, had sent them
his blessing, and messages of peace.



CHAPTER LV

_TWO MARTYRDOMS_

   ‘And as the Apostle, on the hill
      Facing the Imperial town,
    First gazed upon his fair domain,
      Then on the Cross lay down:

    So thou, from out the streets of Rome
      Didst turn thy failing eye
    Unto that mount of martyrdom,
      Take leave of it, and die.’

                              NEWMAN.

    ‘... aut crucibus affixi, aut flammandi.’--TAC. _Ann._ xv. 44.


The Apostle Peter, whose friends were chiefly among the Jewish
Christians, went to his humble quarters across the Tiber, where
Miriam, a Jewish widow, had provided a lodging for him, his wife
Plautilla, and his daughter Petronilla. If he had held his life dear
unto himself, he would have left Rome without delay, or only have
walked out at night and in secrecy. So long as he stayed in the
Trastevere, it was not likely that the myrmidons of Tigellinus could
find out his hiding-place. But this he would not do. The restless
energy of his character rendered inaction impossible to him, and a
voice ever rang in his ears from the lilied fields of Galilee, ‘I
was hungry, and ye gave me meat. I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink;
naked, and ye clothed me: sick and in prison, and ye visited me....
And inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these my brethren, ye did
it unto Me.’ He asked Miriam’s son to guide him to the prisons, and
spent the whole day among his suffering brethren. Wherever he went,
his presence was to them as the sunlight, and the most wavering could
not but be confirmed by his calm wisdom, his genial tenderness, and
the lessons which he so freely imparted to them from his personal
memories of the Divine Example. It needed money to secure admission
into their places of confinement, and Aliturus and Pomponia had seen
that sufficient was provided for all his needs. But the inevitable
result followed. The jailors noticed the tumult of joy which
hailed his presence, and saw that he was some great leader among
the Christians. Tigellinus had given orders that the ringleaders of
the baleful superstition should be seized, and especially those whom
they called Apostles. His emissaries, listening to the conversations
of the Christians among themselves, were not long in ascertaining
that this was Peter of Bethsaida, and that in securing him and John
they would have seized two chief personages of the entire Christian
community throughout the world, and two who had been personal friends
and followers of the Crucified founder of the sect. Before evening
the spies had ascertained the quarter of the city where Peter was
lodged.

It was from Simon the Sorcerer that Tigellinus learnt who Peter was,
and how important was the place which he filled in the new community.
This miserable impostor--the father of all heresies--had won himself
wealth and power, and something not far short of adoration, not
only in Samaria, but in many kingdoms. It was owing to his detestable
machinations that Drusilla, the sister of Agrippa, had been persuaded
to desert her husband, King Azizus of Emesa, and to become the
mistress of Felix, brother of Pallas, who, by his brother’s
influence, had risen from a slave to be Procurator of Judæa, and
the husband, or lover, of three queens. Simon had now come to Rome
to push his fortunes, and his keen eye had caught sight of the
Apostle in the streets. He had set a savage dog upon him, which
instantly became gentle when the Apostle laid his hand upon its
head. He was afraid of his counter-influence, and still remembered
with burning wrath the old days when Peter, shaming him before his
Samaritan votaries, had overwhelmed him with the apostrophe, ‘Thy
money perish with thee!’ He gave immediate notice to Tigellinus
that the leading Christian was in Rome. He felt more secure in his
attempted miracles and professed inspiration, when Peter was in
prison, and he was left unchecked to dupe the Emperor or the gullible
women of the Roman aristocracy.

That evening there was a little meeting of Jewish Christians who had
met together in the house of Rufus and Alexander, sons of Simon of
Cyrene, to eat the Supper of the Lord. The meeting was surprised, and
many were thrown into bonds. But Rufus, at the first sound of alarm,
hurried the Apostle to his lodging by a path at the back of the
house. Before they reached it, Miriam’s son, Nazarius, a bright
and active boy, met them with the warning that his mother’s house
had been seized; but that Plautilla and Petronilla, being unknown,
had taken refuge in the house of the Samaritan Thallus. The weeping
Christians entreated Peter to fly from Rome while there yet was time:
for the brethren at Rome he could do nothing more; to stay among
them meant death, and his life was sorely needed by the Church
of God. Overcome by their entreaties, and those of his wife and
daughter, he started at the grey dawn with the young Nazarius for
his guide, and proceeded about two miles on the Appian Way. There,
as Nazarius afterwards described the scene, a light seemed to shine
round them; the Apostle stopped as if amazed, fell on his knees with
uplifted hands, spoke earnest words, and then, with wet eyes, said,
‘We must return, my boy. It is the will of Christ.’ To him he said no
more; but he afterwards told his fellow-Apostle that (near the spot
where now stands the little church of ‘_Domine quo vadis_’?) he had
seen a vision of Christ walking towards Rome, and bearing His Cross.
‘Whither goest thou, Lord?’ he asked, in amazement. ‘I go to Rome,’
He said, ‘to be crucified again.’ ‘Lord, I return,’ said the Apostle,
‘to be crucified with Thee.’ And the Vision smiled upon him, and
vanished.

So Peter went back with the boy to the house of Thallus, and next day
began to visit the prisons once more. Seeking for Miriam to console
her, and tell her of the safety of her son, he found that she was a
prisoner. He had hardly entered the first dungeon when he was roughly
arrested, and carried off to the rock-hewn Tullianum. He was chained
to the floor beside his brother-Apostle John, in that damp and
dreary vault. There King Jugurtha, before he was strangled, had
complained so bitterly of the cold; there the brave Gaulish patriot,
Vercingetorix, had been led aside from Julius Cæsar’s triumph to
pay the forfeit of his life; there the Catilinarian conspirators,
Lentulus and Cethegus, had expiated their crimes. Fervently did the
Apostles embrace one another, and between the two there blossomed
up reminiscences of early days, infinitely tender and sacred. They
talked of the summer hours when they had played in boyhood on the
strip of silver sand beside the limpid lake at Bethsaida; of the
fisherboats, and draughts of fish, and straining nets, in the years
when they were partners together; of bright Capernaum, with its
marble synagogue, throwing its white reflection on the waves lit
with the rose of eventide; of the green hills beyond, with the naked
demoniacs among the tombs. Then they spoke of the time when they had
gone with Andrew and Nathanael to see the prophet of the wilderness,
whose notes of warning had made the flinty echoes ring with the
preaching of repentance. Then, with hushed voices, in regions of
sacred thought where we may not follow them, they spoke of the days
of the Son of Man.

They who looked down into that vault from the upper aperture would
have seen a rocky chamber, lighted only by one iron lamp, bare of
all but the merest necessaries. The prisoners had nothing but a water
jar, and two wooden seats, and mats upon the rocky floor, on which at
night they could stretch their cramped and wearied limbs, and which
Pomponia had bribed the jailor for permission to supply. And in this
cell would have been seen two men of Jewish aspect and poor clothing,
of whom the elder had exceeded man’s threescore years and ten, and
the younger was long past life’s prime. Chilly, and in chains, and
fed only on bread and water, and the leaders of a cause on which the
world poured its most passionate execration they yet felt perfect
trust in God. With Emperor and mob alike arrayed against them, and
with hundreds of their brethren in the same evil case, and with death
in its ghastliest form striding visibly upon them, amid what looked
like the extreme of uttermost failure--might not even their enemies
have pitied them? Pity? Nay, Nero might have given all the kingdoms
of the earth and the glory of them, and Seneca have bartered all his
wisdom and his wealth, for one hour of their radiant serenity, of
their unshaken peace!

In the evening the jailor, Martinianus--who had been so much touched
by their bearing, and by all that he had heard from them as they
talked, that he was already in heart almost a Christian--came full
of sorrow, to tell them that on the morrow they should die. To his
amazement a light as of heaven dawned upon their faces, and they
turned and looked on each other with a smile. They asked him in what
way they were to suffer. He either was uninformed or shrank from
telling them, and they were content that the morrow should reveal it.

‘I knew it, my brother, I knew it,’ said Peter. ‘Again and again a
Voice has repeated in my dreams, “Verily I say to thee, When thou
wast young thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest;
but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and
another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”
And I am not troubled that I know not yet by what death I shall
glorify God. But thou, my brother, shalt not die yet.’

‘How that may be I know not,’ replied the other, deeply musing. ‘But
to us to live is to die. Said He not, “He who is near Me is near the
fire; he who is far from Me is far from the kingdom”?’

The jailer had told them truly. The execution of the Christians was
to be hurried on with all speed, for Nero had on hand the weighty
business of supervising the reconstruction of his capital and of
his Golden House. He could only recover the popularity necessary for
these undertakings by sacrificing a holocaust of victims to assuage
the popular suspicions. And the most diabolic feature of this
massacre of the innocent was to be that they were not only to be
slain, but that their tortures were to subserve the amusement of the
people. The solemn moment of each Christian’s death was to be the
motive for delighted acclamations and shouts of laughter--in which,
surely, all the demons joined! To any feelings less exalted, to
any hope less fervent than theirs, it would have been the most
intolerable aggravation to die amid pagan pageants and brutal
idleness, insulted by bacchanalia of revelry and sanguinary pomp.

But the inventiveness of cruelty which Tigellinus and Nero studied
and planned together amid the faint, unavailing remonstrances of
Poppæa, had to be hastened, for the special reason that already their
victims were beginning to escape them fast through the narrow gate
of death. Owing to the suffocating atmosphere of over-peopled prisons
in the malarious autumn air, a dangerous form of typhoid had broken
out among the Christians. Not a few had died, robbed, as they
feared, of the crown of martyrdom. It had required all the wisdom
and tenderness of their fellows to persuade them that they had
deserved no less than others the longed-for amaranth, and that they
would not be losers by not surviving until that second coming which
many of them were expecting from hour to hour. Tigellinus was not
more anxious to bestow than they to receive the death of violence.
All Nero’s aims would be frustrated, if, with so great a multitude
of victims ready for them, the wild beasts of the amphitheatre, human
as well as animal, were baulked of their infernal festival and their
infernal joy.

Pending, therefore, the necessary preparations to deal with the rest
in mass, bizarre and insulting forms of death were devised for the
leaders on the following day. Notice was given that of the two Jewish
ringleaders of the Christian sect, whom they called Apostles, one
would be crucified head downwards by the obelisk in the Circus on the
Mons Vaticanus, under the terebinth tree, and that the other would be
flung into a caldron of boiling oil on the Latin Road.

And that night a great joy was permitted them. They had noticed that
again and again Martinianus had not only shown them kindnesses to
which the prisoners of the Tullianum were little accustomed, but also
that he had humbly lingered in their presence, had asked permission
to listen to them when they spake of Jesus, had put many questions
to them, had evidently felt in his heart some stirrings of heavenly
grace. That night he came to them, and, falling on his knees, said
that they had taught him to believe in Christ, and begged baptism at
their hands. The spring was there welling up, as it still does, from
its native rock. Nothing hindered. Martinianus received baptism at
the hands of the Apostles, and afterwards died a martyr.

The morning dawned sulphurously hot, and there seemed to be menace
and meaning in the sky which glowed overhead like molten copper. At
the entrance of the Tullian vault the Apostles enfolded one another
in a long farewell embrace. They reminded each other, with faces
which smiled through the tears of parting, of the blessings and words
of Christ, and, being then rudely separated, were led in opposite
directions by two decurions with their soldiers, amid accompanying
throngs. The places of execution had been fixed in order that
spectators might have their free choice of delightful horror, and
that the division of the multitudes might enable all to have a good
view.

A fresh trial awaited the elder Apostle. He had hardly been set free
from his chains, that he might walk to the place of execution with
his hands tied behind his back, when he saw his wife, who was also
being led on her way to die. Brief, and free from all anguish, were
the words that they interchanged.

‘Be of good cheer,’ he said, ‘true yokefellow. He will be with thee
who raised thy mother from the great fever at Capernaum. I rejoice
that thou, too, art going home.’

‘Farewell, my beloved,’ she replied, in a firm voice; ‘I am not
afraid. In one short hour we shall be with Him where He is.’

He cast one long look upon her, and said in Hebrew, ‘Yea, though I
walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil,
for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.’ And
when they were parted he still turned round to her once more, and
said, ‘Oh, remember the Lord!’

Most of the spectators who accompanied the procession had seen the
then common spectacle of crucifixion; but to see a man crucified head
downwards was a novelty sufficient to have assembled all the dregs
of the populace, but for the counter-attraction at what, for the sake
of brevity, we will call the Latin Gate.[101] In point of fact, Nero
had read in Seneca’s ‘Consolation to Marcia’[102] that tyrants had
been known to adopt this grotesque form of cruelty, and he himself
suggested it to Tigellinus, and said that he meant to witness it.
When St. Peter was told what awaited him, he only smiled. He well
knew that what had been intended for insult was overruled to him for
mercy. He would be spared the long unspeakable pangs of lingering
death. On the ordinary cross he might have lived for three days in
complications of agony, but crucified head downwards, he knew that
in a very short time he would pass from unconsciousness to death.

Nero, as he had promised, was present to see the new sight. While
the cross was being prepared, Peter caught sight of the Emperor,
and lifting the right hand, which for a moment the executioner had
loosened, fixed his gaze on him till he shrank.

He spoke not, but one of the Christians, who had noticed the
Emperor’s alarm, exclaimed--

‘O murderer of the saints, yet a little time hence, and thou, too,
shalt be summoned before the bar of God.’

‘Crucify him!’ said Nero, passionately. ‘Stop his ill-omened and
blaspheming mouth!’

But the speaker had shrunk back into the dense multitude.

They nailed St. Peter to the cross, and lifted it with his head
downwards; but while the brutal heathen laughed, and the fear
of death could not suppress the wail of the Christians, he said
only--and they were the last words of the great Apostle--‘I rejoice
that ye crucify me thus, for my Master’s sake. I am much unworthy to
die in the same manner as He died.’

The old man passed speedily and almost painlessly away, and in the
glimmering, flashing sky, over which, in the far distance, began to
roll the chariot wheels of gathering storm, the brethren thought that
they saw the wings of angels and shadows of the avengers.

The Christians always perplexed and irritated their pagan persecutors
by behaving in a manner the very opposite to what was expected. After
their first shuddering emotion at witnessing the martyrdom of their
great Apostle, they seemed rather radiant than depressed. But the
reason for this was that their young deacon, Clemens, speaking to
them in Greek, said, ‘I see him, not head downwards, but upright on
the cross, and the angels crown him with roses and lilies, and the
Lord is putting a book into his hands from which he reads.’

It was natural that they should desire to keep his mortal remains.
Marcellus, who had been a pupil of Simon Magus, but whom Peter had
converted, obtained his body from the executioner for a great sum of
money, bathed it in milk and wine, and had it embalmed. That night
they conveyed it to a spot, secretly remembered, at the foot of the
Vatican hill.

Marcellus watched by the grave that night; but as he watched he
thought that the Apostle came to him in vision, and said, ‘Let the
dead bury their dead. Preach thou the gospel of God.’ On that spot
was reared the humble ‘trophy,’ or memorial cell, which the presbyter
Gaius saw there in the second century. Thence, in due time, the
relics were removed to that unequalled shrine, where the tomb which
enclosed them is encircled by ever-burning lights, and visited
century after century by the devotion of tens of thousands. Fools
counted his life madness and his end to be without honour. How is he
numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints!

The procession which accompanied the Apostle John had taken longer
to arrive at the scene of martyrdom. The awful heat of the morning,
the more crowded parts of the city through which they had to pass,
the greater throngs which accompanied them, had caused delay. The
Apostle walked with firm step in the midst of the ten soldiers.
Though his hands were tied behind his back, his appearance struck
all beholders with involuntary dread. The high forehead, the long
hair which streamed over his shoulders, the perfect self-possession,
the beauty of holiness, gave to his movements an unconscious majesty.
His face was mostly lifted heavenward in prayer, but whenever he
turned on those around him his bright and searching glance their
eyes fell before him. If any began to jeer at him and utter words of
ribald blasphemy, he had but to look towards them, and in spite of
themselves they stopped short. An unwonted hush fell on the throng
which surged around the soldiers--a silence of which the multitudes
themselves could give no account.

‘He is a sorcerer, that is certain,’ said Tullius Senecio as he
looked down on the passing procession from a window in the house of
Crispinilla.

‘He must be,’ she answered. ‘I never saw the crowd of the Forum so
strangely quiet.’

‘Let me see the Christian,’ said a boy in the crowd. ‘Soldier, lift
me up that I may see him.’

‘What, Gervasius? How camest thou here? But thou art a soldier’s son,
and I will humour thee,’ said the decurio. ‘Thy father and I were
comrades in Palestine, and it was once his lot to see a scene after
which he never had one happy day.’

He lifted the boy in his arms, and he gazed long.

‘Is that the Christian?’ he said. ‘Yon man does not look like an
enemy of the gods, or an eater of children’s flesh.’

The Apostle heard him, and turned towards him with a soft light of
blessing in his eyes.

‘I should not mind being like thee,’ said the boy, ‘and I will not go
to see thee killed.’

Fifty years later he remembered that gentle glance when in a later
persecution he, too, was led out to die.

At the scene of execution a high scaffolding had been erected so
that many thousands could be gratified by witnessing the new form of
death. On the summit, on ten rows of bricks, had been kindled a fire,
and over this was placed a huge caldron of iron, full of boiling oil.
Not blenching in a single feature, with a step of perfect dignity,
without assistance, without the slightest tremor, the Apostle mounted
the wooden steps and stood in the sight of all, the fire flinging its
red glare over him as the executioner tore off his outer robe.

But meanwhile the storm, gathering into its bosom the fierce heat
of that day in late August, had begun to burst over Rome. The
thunderclouds passed from threatening purple into midnight blackness,
and roll after roll of thunder throbbed and crashed as though to
menace the guilty city with the doom of its congregated iniquity.
Then blazed forth the lightning, and filled the air, and ran along
the ground. So tremendous were the explosions of sound, whose
rending, cracking, and splitting outbursts settled into a long,
continued roar, and so vivid were the flashes of forked lightning
which gleamed like dazzling dagger-stabs aimed at an enemy who must
at all costs be slain, that the soldiers and the executioners and
the spectators grew livid with dread. Women shrieked and cowered, and
clung to their husbands, and men looked round them uneasily, and some
began to hurry away, and the hearts of all were benumbed as with some
strange misgiving.

An exceptionally terrific crash of the artillery of heaven, a flash
of levin which seemed to wrap them all in a white robe of dazzling
flame, a shriek from hundreds of voices! And when the crash
ended, the Christians were murmuring together in awestruck voices,
_Maranatha! Maranatha!_ and there arose scattered cries from the
multitude. ‘He is a sorcerer! Stay the execution! We are all dead
men! The wrath of the gods is upon us!’ The ancients, from ignorance
combined with superstition, were far more terrified than the moderns
by thunderstorms. It was evident that they were in the centre of the
storm. The scaffold and the caldron formed its inmost focus, having
attracted the electric fluid by their woodwork and iron. The decurion
himself and his soldiers and the executioners were terrified. They
dared not disobey their orders, yet amid the general terror they
seemed paralysed into helplessness. Aliturus, hoping that he might
in some way render some kindness, had asked to be one of those
spectators, of higher position than the mob, who were allowed to
stand on the scaffold. Seizing his opportunity, he hastily whispered,
‘The executioner has untied your hands. You have friends in the
crowd. Escape! Fear not the lightning--this skin of a seal which I
brought under my robe, expecting a thunderstorm, is an amulet against
lightning.’

‘I thank thee, my son,’ said the Apostle; ‘unless the will of God be
clearly manifested, I cannot fly. And if we trust in God we need no
amulet, for neither the pestilence nor the arrow can hurt us.’

Again the thunder roared, again they were wrapped in a blinding
flash. Hardly conscious what he did, the Apostle uplifted his right
hand. It became the nucleus of the electric phenomenon known as St.
Elmo’s fire, and at once appeared to burn like a torch with lambent
flame. A cry of fresh terror rose from the heathen multitude. ‘Fly,
fly!’ they exclaimed; ‘he is a sorcerer or a god. He lifts against
us his flaming hand, tipped with the fire of Castor and Pollux. We
shall all be killed by fire from heaven. The spot is accursed. It
is a _bidental_.’[103]

A rush took place, and the crowd fled promiscuously in every
direction. The soldiers could not resist the contagion. They leapt
down and fled, and the decurio followed, shouting to them in vain.
The executioners joined the soldiers in their flight. For a moment
the Apostle and Aliturus stood alone on the scaffold, and then
hurried down the steps. Scarcely had they reached the ground when
the lightning struck the metal caldron and tore it from its chains.
It fell with a mighty crash, and the oil streaming over the flame
burst up in a fierce blaze which would very rapidly have reduced the
whole scaffold to ashes had not the deluging rain begun to fall in
cataracts, quenching the fire, but leaving a charred and shapeless
ruin.

The news was brought to Nero and Tigellinus that evening by
multitudes of witnesses when the storm had cleared and the heavens
had resumed their azure sleep. They shared the superstition of
the mob, and thought that, by magic powers unusually terrible, the
Apostle had brought down the wrath of Heaven. At the same time this
could have nothing to do with the Christians in general, for had
not the execution of the other Apostle been carried out with perfect
ease? They were officially informed that the Apostle, of his own free
will, had thought it right to return to the door of the Tullianum and
surrender himself as a prisoner. Such strange security deepened the
impression that he could wield supernatural powers. Afraid to detain
him in Rome, Nero ordered him to banishment in the rocky Ægean island
of Patmos.[104]

Thither the Apostle was conveyed, and there, gazing on the sea that
burned like glass in the sunlight, he wrote his Apocalypse. In that
strange book we can still read the echo of the horror kindled in
the heart of an eyewitness by an Emperor who had degenerated into a
portent of iniquity, fighting with empoisoned breath and dragon-like
fury against the saints of God. The Apocalypse is the ‘thundering
reverberation’ of the Apostle’s mighty spirit, smitten into wrathful
dissonance amid its heavenly music by the plectrum of the Neronian
persecution. All the horrors of that frightful age of storms, and
eruptions, and earthquakes, and falling meteors, and famine, and
pestilence, and threatenings of Parthian invasion and imminent
massacres of civil war, threw gigantic and blood-red shadows across
the Apostle’s page. The air was being shattered by the trumpet-blasts
of doom which would bury in flame and ruin alike the Harlot City on
the seven hills which had made herself so drunken with the blood of
the saints, and the Holy City which had become a den of murderers--
which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt--where the Lord was
crucified. When he wrote his vision, three or four years later, the
souls of those who had been slain in the great Neronian tribulation
for the Word of God and the testimony which they held were still
under the altar, and cried, ‘How long, O Lord, how long dost thou
not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’ But white
robes were given them, and they were bidden to rest yet a little
while till the number of their brethren was fulfilled. And afterwards
one of the four-and-twenty elders who sat around the throne asked
him, ‘Who are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence
came they?’ And he said unto him, ‘Sir, thou knowest.’ And the Elder
answered, ‘These are they which came out of THE GREAT TRIBULATION,
and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the
Lamb.’



CHAPTER LVI


    Ὁ νειδισμοῖς τε καὶ θλίψεσι θεατριζόμενοι.--Hebr. x. 33.

      ‘SEC. BR.             O night and shades!
    How are ye joined with hell in triple knot.

       *       *       *       *       *

                  Is this the confidence
    You gave me, brother?

      ELD. BR.            Yes, and keep it still.

       *       *       *       *       *

                                      If this fail
    The pillared firmament is rottenness,
    And earth’s base built on stubble.’

                                    MILTON, _Comus_.


The news of the Neronian persecution did not reach St. Paul at
once. When he left the hospitable home of Philemon he first rejoined
Timothy at Ephesus. He left him to arrange the affairs of the Church
of Ephesus, and Onesimus took the place which had been filled by the
son of Eunice in former years. He became the Apostle’s travelling
companion, to lend him the affectionate attendance now necessary to
his age and infirmities. It was not till they reached Corinth that
they heard the heart-shaking intelligence that the Christian Church
at Rome had been smitten by Antichrist as with red-hot thunderbolts.
Though no accurate details reached them, Paul’s first impulse was to
fly to the succour of his Roman brethren; but Titus of Corinth, who
was with him, urged him to remember that two of his brother Apostles
were at Rome; that the persecution was now certain to break out in
nearly every Church of the Empire, and that his presence was more
needed in Crete and in the Churches of Asia and Europe of which he
had been the immediate founder. Anxious to confront the growth of
subtle heresies, more perilous in his eyes than persecution, he
reluctantly abandoned his wish to return to Italy, and sailed to
Crete. It was some time before he learnt that St. Peter had sealed
his testimony by martyrdom and that St. John was a prisoner at Patmos.

But Onesimus was distressed at heart by the perils which would
befall the beloved daughter of Nereus, and he entreated the Apostle
to let him be the bearer to Rome of his messages of consolation and
encouragement. Receiving ready permission, he hurried to the capital
by the earliest ship, and arrived on the very day of the storm
which had witnessed the crucifixion of St. Peter and the miraculous
deliverance of the Beloved Disciple.

With amazement he saw Rome lying in ruins and the Christian cause
apparently destroyed forever. ‘Christian’ was now the synonym of
incendiary and desperate malefactor. His heart sank within him as he
went from house to house only to find that the Christian inhabitants
had disappeared. So great a multitude had been arrested that for the
time being the prisons were the only churches. He went to the palace
of Aulus Plautius, thinking that there he was certain to receive
information; but there, too, he found that scarcely one of the
Christian slaves was left, and that Pomponia herself had caught the
virulent typhoid which had broken out among the crowded sufferers,
and lay unconscious and dangerously ill.

Risking everything, he visited the prisons, and in one of them he
found Nereus, wasted and haggard, but still animated by a cheerful
courage. From him he learnt, with a deep sense of relief, that at
the first outbreak of danger he had sent Junia to the safe refuge
of Aricia. Pudens, when he sailed for Britain, felt a prescient
intuition of the days which were to come, and told the Christian
members of his household that they might always find a place of
shelter with Dromo in the little country farm. Thither Junia had gone
with a few others, obedient to the wish and command of her father,
though reluctant to leave him. There Onesimus found her, and carried
to her the blessing and the messages of Nereus. Nereus sent her word
that he was doomed to die, as they were all doomed to die, though by
what form of death was as yet unknown to them. He bade her to stay at
Aricia. She could do nothing for him, and to come to Rome would only
be to throw away her life. In the few lines he was able to write
to her he commended Onesimus. He confessed that in former days
the youth had been altogether displeasing to him, but now he was a
changed character. Paulus had won him back to the paths of holiness.
He had been illuminated. He had tasted of the heavenly calling, and
had devoted himself to the personal tendance of the aged Apostle.
In Rome he had given proof of his courage and consistency by showing
pity for the prisoners and not being ashamed of their chains. It was
no time now to talk of marrying or giving in marriage, for surely the
day of the Lord was very nigh at hand; yet, if Junia loved the youth,
Nereus would not forbid their plighting troth to each other, and
awaiting the day when the marriage might be possible. And this he
granted the more readily, for he feared that very soon Junia would be
left alone, a helpless and friendless Christian maiden in the midst
of an evil world.

So the lovers met, but the interchange of their common vows were
solemn and sacred, under the darkening skies of persecution, and as
it were in the valley of the shadow of death. For Junia entreated
Onesimus to return to Rome and do his utmost to watch over her father
and to save him if by any means it were possible or lawful. He bade
her farewell, and found time to pay one brief visit to the temple
at Aricia that he might express his gratitude to the priest of
Virbius for having spared his life. Alas, he was too late! A new
Rex Nemorensis--the ex-gladiator Rutilus--reigned in Croto’s room.
He had surprised and murdered him the evening before, and Onesimus
saw the gaunt corpse of Croto outstretched upon its wooden bier
awaiting burial in the plot assigned to the succession of murdered
priests.

Sick at heart, Onesimus hurried from the dark precincts, and by the
morning dawn he was in Rome.

On that day the terrible massacres began which were to baptise the
infant Church in a river of blood, and to consecrate Rome in the
memory of Christendom as the city of slaughtered saints. For there
Paganism was to display herself, naked and not ashamed, a harlot
holding in her hand the brimming goblet of her wickedness, drunken
with the blood of the beloved of God. Mankind was to see exhibited a
series of startling contrasts: human nature at its best and sweetest;
human nature at its vilest and worst:--unchecked power smitten with
fatal impotence; unarmed weakness clothed with irresistible strength:
--pleasure and self-indulgence drowned in wretchedness; misery and
martyrdom exulting with joy unspeakable, and full of glory. On the
one side was the splendour and civilisation of the City of the Dragon
revelling in brutal ferocity and lascivious pride; on the other side
the down-trodden and the despised of the City of God rose to a height
of nobleness which no philosophy had attained, and enriched with
sovereign virtues the ideal of mankind. While the deified lord of the
empire of darkness with his nobles and his myrmidons sank themselves
below the level of the beasts, paupers and nameless slaves, young
boys and feeble girls towered into tragic dignity, faced death with
unflinching heroism, and showed that even amid satyrs and demons
humanity may still be measured with the measure of a man--that is,
of the angel.

Herein lay the secret of the victory of Christianity. In the Rome of
Nero heathendom showed the worst that she could _be_, and the worst
that she could _do_; and Christianity showed, coinstantaneously,
that manhood can preserve its inherent grandeur when it seems to be
trampled into the very mire under the hoofs of swine. The sweetness
and the dignity with which the Christians suffered kindled not only
amazement but admiration in many a pagan breast. It was seen that
with the Church in its poverty and shame, not with the world in
its gorgeous criminality, lay the secret of all man’s happiness and
hope. Many a senator, as he looked on the saturnalia of lubricity
and blood, felt that the Christian slave-girl, tied naked to a stake
in the amphitheatre for the wild beasts to devour, was more blessed
than the jewelled lady by his side, whom he knew to be steeped in
baseness; and there were youths to whose taste the apples of the Dead
Sea had already crumbled into dust, who in their secret hearts felt
themselves nothing less than abject compared with those Christian
boys who, with the light of heaven on their foreheads and the name
of Jesus on their lips, faced without flinching the grotesque horror
of their doom.

But Nero and Tigellinus, and those who advised with them, never
wavered in their hideous policy of purchasing popularity by making
the murder of thousands of the innocent subserve the brutal passions
of the multitude. They thought to abase the Christians, and they
kindled round their brows an aureole of light. They thought to
flatter the people, but made them vile by a carnival which showed
that their natures had become a mixture of the tiger and the ape.

The jubilee of massacre began with cruel flagellations, for the
intention was to combine amusement with utility and to represent
these unnumbered agonies as a festival of expiation. So low had the
Romans sunk since the days when they had believed that the wrath of
the gods had been kindled because before some public games a master
had scourged his slave round the arena!

As they wished to add derision to torture, it did not suffice them
that at these piacular displays men should merely fight with wild
beasts who would soon be glutted with the multitude of victims. A
novelty was devised for the delight of the spectators.

The first batch of martyrs were clad in the skins of wolves and
leopards and torn to death by hordes of fierce and hungry dogs.

Others had to take part in mythologic operas. Among them was the
soldier Urbanus. Clad in the guise of Hercules on Œta, he was burned
alive upon a funeral pyre. Another martyr, Celsus, had to figure
as Mucius Scævola, and to burn his hand to ashes in a flame upon
an altar, with the promise that his life should be given him if,
in carrying out his historic rôle, he would voluntarily consume his
right hand, and not once shrink. Vitalis had to take his part in
the favourite drama of Laureolus, in which character, after being
made a laughing-stock, he was first crucified, and then, while
yet living, devoured upon the cross by a bear. It was thought a
favourable opportunity to try experiments. Simon Magus, after
securing the arrest of Peter, had been admitted to an interview
with Poppæa, whose superstitious turn of mind inclined her to
consult every charlatan who visited the capital, and through her he
gained admittance to the Emperor. He awakened Nero’s interest in a
machine by which he pretended that he could enable men to fly. Nero
determined to test the capabilities of the machine _in corpore vili_.
The story of Dædalus and Icarus should be enacted, and as a slim and
graceful youth was needed for the part of Icarus, poor Nazarius, the
son of Miriam, was selected for this character. A lofty wooden tower
was erected in the mimic scene. The wild beasts were roaming loose in
the amphitheatre, and if either Dædalus or Icarus was not killed by
a fall from the tower, he would be devoured in the arena. The martyr
Amplias, who represented Dædalus, was precipitated at once, and
killed by a lion. The broad wings of the machine upbore for a moment
the light form of Nazarius as he sprang from the tower, but he fell
on the very podium of the Emperor, and so close beside him that, to
the horror of all, and with an omen of the worst import, he spattered
the white robe of Nero with his blood.[105]

Unsated by these scenes the spectators demanded the sacrifice of
the women victims. Hundreds of them were crowded in cells under the
amphitheatre, and were informed that they were to appear in a series
of pageants representing the torments of the dead. The spectacle
was deemed impious by many, but it had been exhibited by Egyptians
and Ethiopians in the days of Caligula. Fifty of these poor female
martyrs were to be clothed in scarlet mantles as the daughters of
Danaus, and, after undergoing nameless insults, were to be stabbed
by an actor who personated Lynceus.[106] To many of them it was an
anguish worse than death that they should have to bear part in dramas
which represented the idolatries of heathendom; but Prisca, the wife
of Aquila, who had returned from Ephesus to Rome with her husband on
matters connected with their trade, visited the sufferers in prison,
and effectually consoled them. This Jewish matron, to whom with her
husband had been granted the honour of no inconspicuous share in
the founding of the three great churches of Rome, of Corinth, and
of Ephesus, had not been arrested by any informer, owing to long
residence in Achaia and Asia. She told the poor women that resistance
was in vain, and that no insult inflicted on them by the heathen
could dim the lustre of their martyr-crown. Cheered by her calm
wisdom, they paced across the stage carrying vases on their
shoulders, and bore their fate without a cry.

More terrible was the destiny of others. They were to enact the part
of Dirce. One after another, in imitation of the much-admired statue
now known as the Farnese Bull, which had recently been brought from
Rhodes, they were tied by actors representing Amphion and Zethus,
to the horns of furious oxen, and so were tossed or gored to death.
They, too, were sustained by the presence of the Invisible, and the
modesty of their bearing, even in such agonies, caused a pang in the
hearts of all but the most hardened spectators.

At all these spectacles of shame Nero looked on. There he sat
day after day in the podium, lolling on cushions of gold and
purple, staring through the concave emerald which helped his
short-sightedness, and finding new sensations in the spectacle of
insulted innocence. He was never tired of wondering whence these
wretches got their ‘blank callosity.’ And they, ere their eyes opened
on that other land, where they knew they should gaze upon their King
in His beauty, saw as their last glimpse of earth, this despicable
Antichrist, with his face like that of a base overgrown boy, watching
with greedily curious stare the agony of their immolation.

But there were too many martyrs to render it easy to dispose of them.
After they had exhausted the inventiveness of cruelty, after they
had heaped up the _puticuli_ even to the danger of pestilence with
crucified, charred, and mangled corpses, at least a thousand of the
great multitude still rotted in the feverous prisons. Then an idea
truly infernal presented itself to the mind of Nero. Were not these
masses of human beings supposed to be expiating their crimes as
incendiaries? But the proper and congruous punishment of incendiaries
was the _tunica molesta_, or robe of pitch. He wondered that he had
never thought of it before! It would, indeed, be somewhat tame merely
to burn alive a certain number of people in succession. At first
there might be an agreeable sense of curiosity in studying the faces
of men and women in such circumstances, and in hearing their groans
and cries. But after watching the first dozen or so, that pleasure
would grow monotonous. He determined to prevent the danger of any
satiety in the gratification by concentrating it all into one hour
of multiplex and complicated agony.

He possessed magnificent gardens, stretching from the Vatican Hill to
the Tiber. There was a circus, rich with gilding and marble, of which
the _meta_ was the obelisk, brought from Heliopolis, now standing in
the piazza of St. Peter’s. He would throw open these gardens to the
public, for one of the nightly spectacles of which he had copied the
fashion from the mad Caligula. Every one should wander at will about
the green copses, and the umbrageous retreats, and he would furnish
them with an illumination unseen, unheard of, in the world’s history
before or since. It should be the illumination