Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Jake Jaqua
by Talbot Mundy
I. IN THE REIGN OF THE EMPEROR COMMODUS
Golden Antioch lay like a jewel at a mountain's throat. Wide,
intersecting streets, each nearly four miles long, granite-paved, and
marble-colonnaded, swarmed with fashionable loiterers. The gay
Antiochenes, whom nothing except frequent earthquakes interrupted from
pursuit of pleasure, were taking the air in chariots, in litters, and on
foot; their linen clothes were as riotously picturesque as was the
fruit displayed in open shop-fronts under the colonnades, or as the
blossom on the trees in public gardens, which made of the city, as seen
from the height of the citadel, a mosaic of green and white.
The crowd on the main thoroughfares was aristocratic; opulence was
accented by groups of slaves in close attendance on their owners; but
the aristocracy was sharply differentiated. The Romans, frequently less
wealthy (because those who had made money went to Rome to spend it)--
frequently less educated and, in general, not less dissolute--despised
the Antiochenes, although the Romans loved Antioch. The cosmopolitan
Antiochenes returned the compliment, regarding Romans as mere duffers in
depravity, philistines in art, but capable in war and government, and
consequently to be feared, if not respected. So there was not much
mingling of the groups, whose slaves took example from their masters,
affecting in public a scorn that they did not feel but were careful to
assert. The Romans were intensely dignified and wore the toga, pallium
and tunic; the Antiochenes affected to think dignity was stupid and its
trappings (forbidden to them) hideous; so they carried the contrary
pose to extremes. Patterning herself on Alexandria, the city had become
to all intents and purposes the eastern capital of Roman empire. North,
south, east and west, the trade-routes intersected, entering the city
through the ornate gates in crenelated limestone walls. From miles away
the approaching caravans were overlooked by legionaries brought from
Gaul and Britain, quartered in the capitol on Mount Silpius at the
city's southern limit. The riches of the East, and of Egypt, flowed
through, leaving their deposit as a river drops its silt; were ever-
increasing. One quarter, walled off, hummed with foreign traders from
as far away as India, who lodged at the travelers' inns or haunted the
temples, the wine-shops and the lupanars. In that quarter, too, there
were barracks, with compounds and open-fronted booths, where slaves were
exposed for sale; and there, also, were the caravanserais within whose
walls the kneeling camels grumbled and the blossomy spring air grew
fetid with the reek of dung. There was a market-place for elephants and
other oriental beasts.
Each of Antioch's four divisions had its own wall, pierced by arched
gates. Those were necessary. No more turbulent and fickle population
lived in the known world--not even in Alexandria. Whenever an
earthquake shook down blocks of buildings--and that happened nearly as
frequently as the hysterical racial riots--the Romans rebuilt with a
view to making communications easier from the citadel, where the great
temple of Jupiter Capitolinus frowned over the gridironed streets.
Roman officials and the wealthier Macedonian Antiochenes lived on an
island, formed by a curve of the River Orontes at the northern end
within the city wall. The never-neglected problem of administration was
to keep a clear route along which troops could move from citadel to
island when the rioting began.
On the island was the palace, glittering with gilt and marble, gay with
colored awnings, where kings had lived magnificently until Romans saved
the city from them, substituting a proconsular paternal kind of tyranny
originating in the Roman patria potestas. There was not much sentiment
about it. Rome became the foster-parent, the possessor of authority.
There was duty, principally exacted from the governed in the form of
taxes and obedience; and there were privileges, mostly reserved for the
rulers and their parasites, who were much more numerous than anybody
liked. Competition made the parasites as discontented as their prey.
But there were definite advantages of Roman rule, which no Antiochene
denied, although their comic actors and the slaves who sang at private
entertainments mocked the Romans and invented accusations of injustice
and extortion that were even more outrageous than the truth. Not since
the days when Antioch inherited the luxury and vices of the Greeks and
Syrians, had pleasure been so organized or its commercial pursuit so
profitable. Taxes were collected rigorously. The demands of Rome,
increased by the extravagance of Commodus, were merciless. But trade was
good. Obedience and flattery were well rewarded. Citizens who yielded
to extortion and refrained from criticism within hearing of informers
lived in reasonable expectation of surviving the coming night.
But the informers were ubiquitous and unknown, which was another reason
why the Romans and Antiochenes refrained from mixing socially more than
could be helped. A secret charge of treason, based on nothing more than
an informer's malice, might set even a Roman citizen outside the pale of
ordinary law and make him liable to torture. If convicted, death and
confiscation followed. Since the deification of the emperors it had
become treason even to use a coarse expression near their images or
statues; images were on the coins; statues were in the streets.
Commodus, to whom all confiscated property accrued, was in ever-
increasing need of funds to defray the titanic expense of the games that
he lavished on Rome and the "presents" with which he studiously nursed
the army's loyalty. So it was wise to be taciturn; expedient to
choose one's friends deliberately; not far removed from madness to be
seen in company with those whose antecedents might suggest the
possibility of a political intrigue. But it was also unwise to woo
solitude; a solitary man might perish by the rack and sword for lack of
witnesses, if charged with some serious offense.
So there were comradeships more loyal the more that treachery stalked
abroad. Because seriousness drew attention from the spies, the deepest
thoughts were masked beneath an air of levity, and merrymaking hid such
counsels as might come within the vaguely defined boundaries of treason.
Sextus, son of Maximus, rode not alone. Norbanus rode beside him, and
behind them Scylax on the famous Arab mare that Sextus had won from
Artaxes the Persian in a wager on the recent chariot races. Scylax was
a slave but no less, for that reason, Sextus' friend.
Norbanus rode a skewbald Cappadocian that kicked out sidewise at
pedestrians; so there was opportunity for private conversation, even on
the road to Daphne of an afternoon in spring, when nearly all of
fashionable Antioch was beginning to flow in that direction. Horses,
litters and chariots, followed by crowds of slaves on foot with the
provisions for moonlight banquets, poured toward the northern gate, some
overtaking and passing the three but riding wide of the skewbald
Cappadocian stallion's heels.
"If Pertinax should really come," said Sextus.
"He will have a girl with him," Norbanus interrupted. He had an
annoying way of finishing the sentences that other folk began.
"True. When he is not campaigning Pertinax finds a woman irresistible."
"And naturally, also, none resists a general in the field!" Norbanus
added. "So our handsome Pertinax performs his vows to Aphrodite with a
constancy that the goddess rewards by forever putting lovely women in
his way! Whereas Stoics like you, Sextus, and unfortunates like me, who
don't know how to amuse a woman, are made notorious by one least lapse
from our austerity. The handsome, dissolute ones have all the luck. The
roisterers at Daphne will invent such scandalous tales of us tonight as
will pursue us for a lustrum, and yet there isn't a chance in a thousand
that we shall even enjoy ourselves!"
"Yes. I wish now we had chosen any other meeting place than Daphne,"
Sextus answered gloomily. "What odds? Had we gone into the desert
Pertinax would have brought his own last desperate adorer, and a couple
more to bore us while he makes himself ridiculous. Strange--that a man
so firm in war and wise in government should lose his head the moment a
woman smiles at him."
"He doesn't lose his head--much," Sextus answered. "But his father was
a firewood seller in a village in Liguria. That is why he so loves money
and the latest fashions. Poverty and rags--austerity inflicted on him
in his youth--great Jupiter! If you and I had risen from the charcoal-
burning to be consul twice and a grammarian and the friend of Marcus
Aurelius; if you and I were as handsome as he is, and had experienced a
triumph after restoring discipline in Britain and conducting two or
three successful wars; and if either of us had such a wife as Flavia
Titiana, I believe we could besmirch ourselves more constantly than
Pertinax does! It is not that he delights in women so much as that he
thinks debauch is aristocratic. Flavia Titiana is unfaithful to him.
She is also a patrician and unusually clever. He has never understood
her, but she is witty, so he thinks her wonderful and tries to imitate
her immorality. But the only woman who really sways him is the proudish
Cornificia, who is almost as incapable of treachery as Pertinax himself.
He is the best governor the City of Rome has had in our generation. Can
you imagine what Rome would be like without him? Call to mind what it
was like when Fuscianus was the governor!"
"These are strange times, Sextus!"
"Aye! And it is a strange beast we have for emperor!"
Sextus glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Scylax followed
closely and prevented any one from overhearing. There was an endless
procession now, before and behind, all bound for Daphne. As the riders
passed under the city gate, where the golden cherubim that Titus took
from the Jews' temple in Jerusalem gleamed in the westering sun, Sextus
noticed a slave of the municipium who wrote down the names of
individuals who came and went.
"There are new proscriptions brewing," he remarked. "Some friends of
ours will not see sunrise. Well--I am in a mood to talk and I will not
"Better laugh then!" Norbanus advised. "The deadliest crime nowadays is
to have the appearance of being serious. None suspects a drunken or a
Sextus, however, was at no pains to appear gay. He inherited the
moribund traditions that the older Cato had typified some centuries ago.
His young face had the sober, chiseled earnestness that had been
typically Roman in the sterner days of the Republic. He had blue-gray
eyes that challenged destiny, and curly brown hair, that suggested
flames as the westering sun brought out its redness. Such mirth as
haunted his rebellious lips was rather cynical than genial. There was
no weakness visible. He had a pugnacious neck and shoulders.
"I am the son of my father Maximus," he said, "and of my grandsire
Sextus, and of his father Maximus, and of my great-great-grandsire
Sextus. It offends my dignity that men should call a hog like Commodus
a god. I will not. I despise Rome for submission to him."
"Yet what else is there in the world except to be a Roman citizen?"
"As for being, there is nothing else," said Sextus. "I would like to
speak of doing. It is what I do that answers what I am."
"Then let it answer now!" Norbanus laughed. He pointed to a little
shrine beside the road, beneath a group of trees, where once the image
of a local deity had smiled its blessing on the passer-by. The bust of
Commodus, as insolent as the brass of which the artist-slaves had cast
it, had replaced the old benign divinity. There was an attendant near
by, costumed as a priest, whose duty was to see that travelers by that
road did their homage to the image of the human god who ruled the Roman
world. He struck a gong. He gave fair warning of the deference
required. There was a little guard-house, fifty paces distant, just
around the corner of the clump of trees, where the police were ready to
execute summary justice, and floggings were inflicted on offenders who
could not claim citizenship or who had no coin with which to buy the
alternative reprimand. Roman citizens were placed under arrest, to be
submitted to all manner of indignities and to think themselves fortunate
if they should escape with a heavy fine from a judge who had bought his
office from an emperor's favorite.
Most of the riders ahead dismounted and walked past the image, saluting
it with right hands raised. Many of them tossed coins to the priest's
attendant slave. Sextus remained in the saddle, his brow clouded with
an angry scowl. He drew rein, making no obeisance, but sent Scylax to
present an offering of money to the priest, then rode on.
"Your dignity appears to me expensive!" Norbanus remarked, grinning.
"He may have my gold, if I may keep my self-respect!"
"Incorrigible stoic! He will take that also before long!"
"I think not. Commodus has lost his own and destroyed Rome's, but mine
not yet. I wish, though, that my father were in Antioch. He, too, is
no cringer to images of beasts in purple. I wrote to my father recently
and warned him to leave Rome before Commodus's spies could invent an
excuse for confiscating our estates. I said, an absent man attracts
less notice, and our estates are well worth plundering. I also hinted
that Commodus can hardly live forever, and reminded him that tides flow
in and out--by which I meant him to understand that the next emperor may
be another such as Aurelius, who will persecute the Christians but let
honest men live in peace, instead of favoring the Christians and ridding
Rome of honest men."
Norbanus made a gesture with his right hand that sent the Cappadocian
cavorting to the road's edge, scattering a little crowd that was trying
"Why be jealous of the Christians?" he laughed. "Isn't it their turn
for a respite? Think of what Nero did to them; and Marcus Aurelius did
little less. They will catch it again when Commodus turns on his
mistress Marcia; he will harry them all the more when that day comes--
as it is sure to. Marcia is a Christian; when he tires of her he will
use her Christianity for the excuse and throw the Christians to the
lions by the thousand in order to justify himself for murdering the only
decent woman of his acquaintance. Sic semper tyrannus. Say what you
will about Marcia, she has done her best to keep Commodus from making a
public exhibition of himself."
"With what result? He boasts he has killed no less than twelve hundred
poor devils with his own hand in the arena. True, he takes the
pseudonym of Paulus when he kills lions with his javelin and drives a
chariot in the races like a vulgar slave. But everybody knows, and he
picks slaves for his ministers--consider that vile beast Cleander, whom
even the rabble refused to endure another day. I don't see that
Marcia's influence amounts to much."
"But Cleander was executed finally. You are in a glum mood, Sextus.
What has happened to upset you?"
"It is the nothing that has happened. There has come no answer to that
letter I wrote to my father in Rome. Commodus's informers may have
Norbanus whistled softly. The skewbald Cappadocian mistook that for a
signal to exert himself and for a minute there were ructions while his
master reined him in.
"When did you write?" he demanded, when he had the horse under control
"A month ago."
Norbanus lapsed into a moody silence, critically staring at his friend
when he was sure the other was not looking. Sextus had always puzzled
him by running risks that other men (himself, for instance) steadfastly
avoided, and avoiding risks that other men thought insignificant. To
write a letter critical of Commodus was almost tantamount to suicide,
since every Roman port and every rest-house on the roads that led to
Rome had become infested with informers who were paid on a percentage
"Are you weary of life?" he asked after a while.
"I am weary of Commodus--weary of tyranny--weary of lies and hypocrisy--
weary of wondering what is to happen to Rome that submits to such
bestial government--weary of shame and of the insolence of bribe-fat
"Weary of your friends?" Norbanus asked. "Don't you realize that if
your letter fell into the hands of spies, not only will you be
proscribed and your father executed, but whoever is known to have been
intimate with you or with your father will be in almost equal danger?
You should have gone to Rome in person to consult your father."
"He ordered me to stay here to protect his interests. We are rich,
Norbanus. We have much property in Antioch and many tenants to oversee.
I am not one of these modern irreligious wastrels; I obey my father--"
"And betray him in an idiotic letter!"
"Very well! Desert me while there is time!" said Sextus angrily.
"Don't be a fool! You are not the only proud man in the empire, Sextus.
I don't desert my friend for such a coward's reason as that he acted
thoughtlessly. But I will tell you what I think, whether or not that
pleases you, if only because I am your true friend. You are a rash,
impatient lover of the days gone by, possessed of genius that you betray
by your arrogant hastiness. So now you know what I think, and what all
your other friends think. We admire--we love our Sextus, son of
Maximus. And we confess to ourselves that our lives are in danger
because of that same Sextus, son of Maximus, whom we prefer above our
safety. After this, if you continue to deceive yourself, none can blame
me for it!"
Sextus smiled and waved a hand to him. It was no new revelation. He
understood the attitude of all his friends far better than he did his
own strange impulses that took possession of him as a rule when
circumstances least provided an excuse.
"My theory of loyalty to friendship," he remarked, "is that a man should
dare to do what he perceives is right, and thus should prove himself
entitled to respect."
"And your friends are, in consequence, to enjoy the privilege of
attending your crucifixion one of these days!" said Norbanus.
"Nonsense. Only slaves and highwaymen are crucified."
"They call any one a highwayman who is a fugitive from what our 'Roman
Hercules' calls justice," Norbanus answered with a gesture of
irritation. His own trick of finishing people's sentences did not annoy
Sextus nearly as much as Sextus's trick of pounding on inaccuracies
irritated him. He pressed his horse into a canter and for a while they
rode beside the stream called the "Donkey-drowner" without further
conversation, each man striving to subdue the ill-temper that was on the
verge of outbreak.
Romans of the old school valued inner calm as highly as they did the
outer semblances of dignity; even the more modern Romans imitated that
distinctive attitude, pretending to Augustan calmness that had actually
ceased to be a part of public life. But with Sextus and Norbanus the
inner struggle to be self-controlled was genuine; they bridled
irritation in the same way that they forced their horses to obey them--
captains of their own souls, as it were, and scornful of changefulness.
Sextus, being the only son of a great landowner, and raised in the
traditions of a secluded valley fifty leagues away from Rome, was almost
half a priest by privilege of ancestry. He had been educated in the
local priestly college, had himself performed the daily sacrifices that
tradition imposed on the heads of families and, in his father's frequent
absence, had attended to all the details and responsibilities of
managing a large estate. The gods of wood and stream and dale were very
real to him. The daily offering, from each meal, to the manes of his
ancestors, whose images in wax and wood and marble were preserved in the
little chapel attached to the old brick homestead, had inspired in him a
feeling that the past was forever present and a man's thoughts were as
important as his deeds.
Norbanus, on the other hand, a younger son of a man less amply dowered
with wealth and traditional authority, had other reasons for adopting,
rather than inheriting, an attitude toward life not dissimilar from that
of Sextus. Gods of wood and stream to him meant very little, and he had
not family estates to hold him to the ancient views. To him the future
was more real than the past, which he regarded as a state of ignorance
from which the world was tediously struggling. But inherently he loved
life's decencies, although he mocked their sentimental imitations; and
he followed Sextus--squandered hours with him, neglecting his own
interests (which after all were nothing too important and were well
enough looked after by a Syracusan slave), simply because Sextus was a
manly sort of fellow whose friendship stirred in him emotions that he
felt were satisfying. He was a born follower. His ugly face and rather
mirth-provoking blue eyes, the loose, beautifully balanced seat on
horseback and the cavalry-like carriage of his shoulders, served their
notice to the world at large that he would stick to friends of his own
choosing and for purely personal reasons, in spite of, and in the teeth
"As I said," remarked Sextus, "if Pertinax comes--"
"He will show us how foolish a soldier can be in the arms of a woman,"
Norbanus remarked, laughing again, glad the long silence was broken.
"Orcus (the messenger of Dis, who carried dead souls to the underworld.
The masked slaves who dragged dead gladiators out of the arena were
disguised to represent Orcus) take his women! What I was going to say
was, we shall learn from him the real news from Rome."
"All the names of the popular dancers!"
"And if Galen is there we shall learn--"
"About Commodus' health. That is more to the point. Now if we could
get into Galen's chest of medicines and substitute--"
"Galen is an honest doctor," Sextus interrupted. "If Galen is there we
will find out what the philosophers are discussing in Rome when spies
aren't listening. Pertinax dresses himself like a strutting peacock and
pretends that women and money are his only interests, but what the wise
ones said yesterday, Pertinax does today; and what they say today, he
will do tomorrow. He can look more like a popinjay and act more like a
man than any one in Rome."
"Who cares how they behave in Rome? The city has gone mad," Norbanus
answered. "Nowadays the best a man can do is to preserve his own goods
and his own health. Ride to a conference do we? Well, nothing but
words will come of it, and words are dangerous. I like my danger
tangible and in the open where it can be faced. Three times last week I
was approached by Glyco--you remember him?--that son of Cocles and the
Jewess--asking me to join a secret mystery of which he claims to be the
unextinguishable lamp. But there are too many mysteries and not enough
plain dealing. The only mystery about Glyco is how he avoids indictment
for conspiracy--what with his long nose and sly eyes, and his way of
hinting that he knows enough to turn the world upside down. If Pertinax
talks mystery I will class him with the other foxes who slink into holes
when the agenda look like becoming acta. Show me only a raised standard
in an open field and I will take my chance beside it. But I sicken of
all this talk of what we might do if only somebody had the courage to
stick a dagger into Commodus."
"The men who could persuade themselves to do that, are persuaded that a
worse brute might succeed him," Sextus answered. "It is no use killing
a Commodus to find a Nero in his shoes. If the successor were in sight
--and visibly a man not a monster--there are plenty of men brave enough
to give the dagger-thrust. But the praetorian guard, that makes and
unmakes emperors, has been tasting the sweets of tyranny ever since
Marcus Aurelius died. They despise their 'Roman Hercules' (Commodus'
favorite name for himself)--who doesn't? But they grow fat and enjoy
themselves under his tyranny, so they would never consent to leaving him
unguarded, as happened to Nero, for instance, or to replacing him with
any one of the caliber of Aurelius, if such a man could be found."
"Well, then, what do we go to talk about?" Norbanus asked.
"We go for information."
"Dea dia! (the most mysterious of all the Roman deities) We inform
ourselves that Rome has been renamed 'The City of Commodus'--that
offices are bought and sold--that there were forty consuls in a year,
each of whom paid for the office in turn--that no man's life is safe--
that it is wiser to take a cold in the head to Galen than to kiss a
mule's nose (it was a common superstition that a cold in the head could
be cured by kissing a mule's nose)--and then what? I begin to think
that Pertinax is wiser to amuse himself with women after all!"
Sextus edged his horse a little closer to the skewbald and for more than
a minute appeared to be studying Norbanus' face, the other grinning at
him and making the stallion prance.
"Are you never serious?" asked Sextus.
"Always and forever, melancholy friend of mine! I seriously dread the
consequences of that letter that you wrote to Rome! Unlike you, I have
not much more than life to lose, but I value it all the more for being
less encumbered. Like Apollonius, I pray for few possessions and no
needs! But what I have, I treasure; I propose to live long and make
use of life!"
"And I!" retorted Sextus.
With a gesture of disgust, he turned to stare behind him at the crowd on
its way to Daphne, making such a business of pleasure as reduced the
pleasure to a toil of Sisyphus (who had to roll a heavy stone
perpetually up a steep hill in the underworld. Before he reached the top
the stone always rolled down again).
"I have more than gold," said Sextus, "which it seems to me that any
crooked-minded fool may have. I have a spirit in me and a taste for
philosophies; I have a feeling that a man's life is a gift entrusted to
him by the gods--for use--to be preserved--"
"By writing foolish letters, doubtless!" said Norbanus. "Come along,
let us gallop. I am weary of the backs of all these roisterers."
And so they rode to Daphne full pelt, greatly to the anger of the too
well dressed Antiochenes, who cursed them for the mud they splashed from
wayside pools and for the dung and dust they kicked up into plucked and
II. A CONFERENCE AT DAPHNE
It was not yet dusk. The sun shone on the bronze roof of the temple of
Apollo, making such a contrast to, and harmony with, marble and the
green of giant cypresses as only music can suggest. The dying breeze
stirred hardly a ripple on the winding ponds, so marble columns, trees
and statuary were reflected amid shadows of the swans in water tinted by
the colors of the sinking sun. There was a murmur of wind in the tops
of the trees and a stirring of linen-clad girls near the temple
entrance--voices droning from the near-by booths behind the shrubbery--
one flute, like the plaint of Orpheus summoning Eurydice--a blossom-
scented air and an enfolding mystery of silence.
Pertinax, the governor of Rome, had merely hinted at Olympian desire,
whereat some rich Antiochenes, long privileged, had been ejected with
scant ceremony from a small marble pavilion on an islet, formed by a
branch of the River Ladon that had been guided twenty years ago by
Hadrian's engineers in curves of exquisitely studied beauty. From
between Corinthian columns was a view of nearly all the temple precincts
and of the lawns where revelers would presently forget restraint. The
first night of the Daphne season usually was the wildest night of all
the year, but they began demurely, and for the present there was the
restraint of expectation.
Because there was yet snow on mountain-tops and the balmy air would
carry a suggestion of a chill at sunset, there were cunningly wrought
charcoal braziers set near the gilded couches, grouped around a
semicircular low table so as to give each guest an unobstructed view
from the pavilion. Pertinax--neither guest nor host, but a god, as it
were, who had arrived and permitted the city of Antioch to ennoble
itself by paying his expenses--stretched his long length on the middle
couch, with Galen the physician on his right hand, Sextus on his left.
Beyond Galen lay Tarquinius Divius and Sulpicius Glabrio, friends of
Pertinax; and on Sextus' left was Norbanus, and beyond him Marcus Fabius
a young tribune on Pertinax' staff. There was only one couch
Galen was an older man than Pertinax, who was already graying at the
temples. Galen had the wrinkled, smiling, shrewd face of an old
philosopher who understood the trick of making himself socially
prominent in order to pursue his calling unimpeded by the bitter
jealousies of rivals. He understood all about charlatanry, mocked it in
all its disguises and knew how to defeat it with sarcastic wit. He wore
none of the distinguishing insignia that practising physicians usually
favored; the studied plainness of his attire was a notable contrast to
the costly magnificence of Pertinax, whose double-purple-bordered and
fringed toga, beautifully woven linen and jeweled ornaments seemed
chosen to combine suggestions of the many public offices he had
He was a tall, lean, handsome veteran with naturally curly fair hair and
a beard that, had it been dark, would have made him look like an
Assyrian. There was a world of humor in his eyes, and an expression on
his weathered face of wonder at the ways of men--an almost comical
confession of his own inferiority of birth, combined with matter-of-fact
ability to do whatever called for strength, endurance and mere ordinary
"You are almost ashamed of your own good fortune," Galen told him. "You
wear all that jewelry, and swagger like the youngest tribune, to conceal
your diffidence. Being honest, you are naturally frugal; but you are
ashamed of your own honesty, so you imitate the court's extravagance and
made up for it with little meannesses that comfort your sense of
extremes. The truth is, Pertinax, you are a man with a boy's
enthusiasms, a boy with a man's experience."
"You ought to know," said Pertinax. "You tutored Commodus. Whoever
could take a murderer at the age of twelve and keep him from breaking
the heart of a Marcus Aurelius knows more about men and boys than I do."
"Ah, but I failed," said Galen. "The young Commodus was like a nibbling
fish; you thought you had him, but he always took the bait and left the
hook. The wisdom I fed to him fattened his wickedness. If I had known
then what I have learned from teaching Commodus and others, not even
Marcus Aurelius could have persuaded me to undertake the task--medical
problem though it was, and promotion though it was, and answer though it
was to all the doctors who denounced me as a charlatan. I bought my
fashionable practise at the cost of knowing it was I who taught young
Commodus the technique of wickedness by revealing to him all its
sinuosities and how, and why, it floods a man's mind."
"He was a beast in any case," said Pertinax.
"Yes, but a baffled, blind beast. I removed the bandage from his eyes."
"He would have pulled it off himself."
"I did it. I turned a mere golden-haired savage into a criminal who
knows what he is doing."
"Well, drink and forget it!" said Pertinax. "I, too, have done things
that are best forgotten. We attain success by learning from defeat, and
we forget defeat in triumph. I know of no triumph that did not blot out
scores of worse things than defeat. When I was in Britain I subdued
rebellion and restored the discipline of mutinying legions. How? I am
not such a fool as to tell you all that happened! When I was in Africa
men called me a great proconsul. So I was. They would welcome me back
there, if all I hear about the present man is true. But do you suppose
I did not fail in certain instances? They praise me for the aqueducts I
built, and for the peace I left along the border. But I also left dry
bones, and sons of dead men who will teach their grandsons how to hate
the name of Rome! I sent a hundred thousand slaves from Africa.
Sometimes, when I have dined unwisely and there is no Galen near to
freshen up my belly juices, I have nightmares, in which men and women
cry to me for water that I took from them to pour into the cities. I
have learned this, Galen: Do one thing wisely and you will commit ten
follies. You are lucky if you have but ten failures to detract from one
success--as lucky as a man who has but ten mistresses to interfere with
his enjoyment of his wife!"
He spoke of mistresses because the girls were coming down the temple
steps to take part in the sunset ceremony. The torches they carried
were unlighted yet; their figures, draped in linen, looked almost
super-humanly lovely in the deepening twilight, and as they laid their
garlands on the marble altar near the temple steps and grouped
themselves again on either side of it their movements suggested a
phantasmagoria fading away into infinite distance, as if all the
universe were filled with women without age or blemish. There began to
be a scent of incense in the air.
"We only imitate this kind of thing in Rome," said Pertinax. "A larger
scale, a coarser effect. What I find thrilling is the sensation they
contrive here of unseen mysteries. Whereas--"
"There won't be any mystery left presently! They'll strip your last
veil from imagination!" Sextus interrupted, laughing. "Men say Hadrian
tried to chasten this place, but he only made them realize the artistic
value of an appearance of chastity, that can be thrown off. Hark! The
The torches suddenly were lighted by attendant slaves. The stirring,
shaken sistra wrought a miracle of sound that set the nerves all
tingling as the high priest, followed by his boys with swinging censers
and the members of the priestly college, four by four, came chanting
down the temple steps. To an accompanying pleading, sobbing note of
flutes the high priest laid an offering of fruit, milk, wine and honey
in the midst of the heaped-up garlands (for Apollo was the god of all
fertility as well as of healing and war and flocks and oracles). Then
came the grand Homeric hymn to Glorious Apollo, men's and boys' and
women's voices blending in a surging paean like an ocean's music.
The last notes died away in distant echoes. There was silence for a
hundred breaths; then music of flute and lyre and sistra as the priests
retreated up the temple steps followed by fanfare on a dozen trumpets as
the door swung to behind the priests. Instantly, then, shouts of
laughter--torchlight scattering the shadows amid gloom--green cypresses
--fire--color splurging on the bosom of the water--babel of hundreds of
voices as the gay Antiochenes swarmed out from behind the trees--and a
cheer, as the girls by the altar threw their garments off and scampered
naked along the river-bank toward a bridge that joined the temple island
to the sloping lawns, where the crowd ran to await them.
"Apollo having healed the world of sin, we now do what we like!" said
Sextus. "Pertinax, I pledge you continence for this one night! Good
Galen, may Apollo's wisdom ooze from you like sweat; for all our sakes,
be you the arbiter of what we drink, lest drunkenness deprive us of our
reason! Comites, let us eat like warriors--one course, and then
discussion of tomorrow's plan."
"Your military service should have taught you more respect for your
seniors, as well as how to eat and drink temperately," said Pertinax.
"Will you teach your grandmother to suck eggs? I was the first
grammarian in Rome before you were born and a tribune before you felt
down on your cheek. I am the governor of Rome, my boy. Who are you,
that you should lecture me?"
"If you call that a lecture, concede that I dared," Sextus answered. "I
did not flatter you by coming here, or come to flatter you. I came
because my father tells me you are a Roman beyond praise. I am a Roman.
I believe praise is worthless unless proven to the hilt--as for
instance: I have come to bare my thoughts to you, which is a bold
compliment in these days of treachery."
"Keep your thoughts under cover," said Pertinax, glancing at the steward
and the slaves who were beginning to carry in the meal. But he was
evidently pleased, and Sextus's next words pleased him more:
"I am ready to do more than think about you, I will follow where you
lead--except into licentiousness!"
He lay on both elbows and stared at the scene with disgust. Naked girls,
against a background of the torchlit water and the green and purple
gloom of cypresses, was nothing to complain of; statuary, since it could
not move, was not as pleasing to the eye; but shrieks of idiotic
laughter and debauchery of beauty sickened him.
There came a series of sounds at the pavilion entrance, where a litter
was set down on marble pavement and a eunuch's shrill voice criticized
the slow unrolling of a carpet.
"What did I warn you?" Norbanus whispered, laughing in Sextus's ear.
Pertinax got to his feet, long-leggedly statuesque, and strode toward
the antechamber on his right, whence presently he returned with a woman
on his arm, he stroking her hand as it rested on his. He introduced
Sextus and Norbanus; the others knew her; Galen greeted her with a
wrinkled grin that seemed to imply confidence.
"Now that Cornificia has come, not even Sextus need worry about our
behavior!" said Galen, and everybody except Sextus grinned. It was
notorious that Cornificia refined and restrained Pertinax, whereas his
lawful wife Flavia Titiana merely drove him to extremes.
This Roman Aspasia had an almost Grecian face, beneath a coiled
extravagance of dark brown hair. Her violet eyes were quietly
intelligent; her dress plain white and not elaborately fringed, with
hardly any jewelry. She cultivated modesty and all the older graces
that had grown unfashionable since the Emperor Marcus Aurelius died. In
all ways, in fact, she was the opposite of Flavia Titiana--it was hard
to tell whether from natural preference or because the contrast to his
wife's extremes of noisy gaiety and shameless license gave her a
stronger hold on Pertinax. Rome's readiest slanderers had nothing
scandalous to tell of Cornificia, whereas Flavia Titiana's inconstancies
were a by-word.
She refused to let Galen yield the couch on Pertinax's right hand but
took the vacant one at the end of the half-moon table, saying she
preferred it--which was likely true enough; it gave her a view of all
the faces without turning her head or appearing to stare.
For a long time there was merely desultory conversation while the feast,
restricted within moderate proportions by request of Pertinax, was
There were eels, for which Daphne was famous; alphests and callichthys;
pompilos, a purple fish, said to have been born from sea-foam at the
birth of Aphrodite; boops and bedradones; gray mullet; cuttle-fish;
tunny-fish and mussels. Followed in their order pheasants, grouse,
swan, peacock and a large pig stuffed with larks and mincemeat. Then
there were sweetmeats of various kinds, and a pudding invented in
Persia, made with honey and dates, with a sauce of frozen cream and
strawberries. By Galen's order only seven sorts of wine were served, so
when the meal was done the guests were neither drunk nor too well fed to
carry on a conference.
No entertainers were provided. Normally the space between the table and
the front of the pavilion would have been occupied by acrobats, dancers
and jugglers; but Pertinax dismissed even the impudent women who came
to lean elbows on the marble railing and sing snatches of suggestive
song. He sent slaves to stand outside and keep the crowd away, his
lictor and his personal official bodyguard being kept out of sight in a
small stone house near the pavilion kitchen at the rear among the trees,
in order not to arouse unwelcome comment. It was known he was in
Daphne; there was even a subdued expectation in Antioch that his
unannounced visit portended the extortion of extra tribute. The Emperor
Commodus was known to be in his usual straits for money. Given a
sufficient flow of wine, the sight of bodyguard and lictor might have
been enough to start a riot, the Antiochenes being prone to outbreak
when their passions were aroused by drink and women.
There was a long silence after Pertinax had dismissed the steward.
Galen's old personal attendant took charge of the amphora of snow-cooled
Falernian; he poured for each in turn and then retired into a corner to
be out of earshot, or at any rate to emphasize that what he might hear
would not concern him. Pertinax strolled to the front of the pavilion
and looked out to make sure there were no eavesdroppers, staring for a
long time at the revelry that was warming up into an orgy. They were
dancing in rings under the moon, their shadowy figures rendered weird by
smoky torchlight. Cornificia at last broke on his reverie:
"You wish to join them, Pertinax? That would dignify even our Roman
Hercules--to say nothing of you!"
He shrugged his shoulders, but his eyes were glittering.
"If Marcia could govern Commodus as you rule me, he would be safer on
the throne!" he answered, coming to sit upright on the couch beside her.
It was evident that he intended that speech to release all tongues; he
looked from face to face expectantly, but no one spoke until Cornificia
urged him to protect himself against the night breeze. He threw a
purple-bordered cloak over his shoulders. It became him; he looked so
official in it, and majestic, that even Sextus--rebel that he was
against all modern trumpery--forebore to break the silence. It was
Galen who spoke next:
"Pertinax, if you might choose an emperor, whom would you nominate?
Remember: He must be a soldier, used to the stench of marching legions.
None could govern Rome whose nose goes up in the air at the smell of
sweat and garlic."
There was a murmur of approval. Cornificia stroked the long, strong
fingers of the man she idolized. Sextus gave rein to his impulse then,
brushing aside Norbanus' hand that warned him to bide his time:
"Many more than I," he said, "are ready to throw in our lot with you,
Pertinax--aye, unto death! You would restore Rome's honor. I believe my
father could persuade a hundred noblemen to take your part, if you would
lead. I can answer for five or six men of wealth and influence, not
reckoning a friend or two who--"
"Why talk foolishness!" said Pertinax. "The legions will elect
Commodus' successor. They will sell Rome to the highest bidder,
probably; and though they like me as a soldier they dislike my
discipline. I am the governor of Rome and still alive in spite of it
because even Commodus' informers know it would be silly to accuse me of
intrigue. Not even Commodus would listen to such talk. I lead the gay
life, for my own life's sake. All know me as a roisterer. I am said to
have no ambition other than to live life sensuously."
"That may deceive Commodus," he said. "The thoughtful Romans know you
as a frugal governor, who stamped out plague and--"
"You did that," said Pertinax.
"Who enabled me?"
"It was a simple thing to have the tenements burned. Besides, it
profited the city--new streets; and there was twice the amount of tax
on the new tenements they raised. I, personally, made a handsome profit
on the purchase of a few burned houses."
"And as the governor who broke the famine," Galen continued.
"That was simple enough, but you may as well thank Cornificia. She found
out through the women who the men were who were holding corn for
speculation. All I did was to hand their names to Commodus; he
confiscated all the corn and sold it--at a handsome profit to himself,
since it had cost him nothing!"
"While we sit here and cackle like Asian birds, Commodus renames Rome
the City of Commodus and still lives!" Sextus grumbled.
"Nor can he be easily got rid of," remarked Daedalus the tribune. "He
goes to and fro from the palace through underground tunnels. Men sleep
in his room who are all involved with him in cruelties and infamy, so
they guard him carefully. Besides, whoever tried to murder him would
probably kill Paulus by mistake! The praetorian guard is contented,
being well paid and permitted all sorts of privileges. Who can get past
the praetorian guard?"
"Any one!" said Pertinax. "The point is not, who shall kill Commodus?
But who shall be raised in his place? There are thirty thousand ways to
kill a man. Ask Galen!"
Old Galen laughed at that.
"As many ways as there are stars in heaven; but the stars have their
say in the matter! None can kill a man until his destiny says yes to
it. Not even a doctor," he added, chuckling. "Otherwise the doctors
would have killed me long ago with jealousy! A man dies when his inner
man grows sick and weary of him. Then a pin-prick does it, or a sudden
terror. Until that time comes you may break his skull, and do not more
than spoil his temper! As a philosopher I have learned two things:
respect many, but trust few. But as a doctor I have learned only one
thing for certain: that no man actually dies until his soul is tired of
"Whose soul should grow sick sooner than that of Commodus?" asked
"Not if his soul is evil and delights in evil--as his does!" Galen
retorted. "If he should turn virtuous, then perhaps, yes. But in that
case we should wish him to live, although his soul would prefer the
contrary and leave him to die by the first form of death that should
appear--in spite of all the doctors and the guards and tasters of the
"Some one should convert him then!" said Sextus. "Cornificia, can't
Marcia make a Christian of him; Christians pretend to oppose all the
infamies he practises. It would be a merry joke to have a Christian
emperor, who died because his soul was sick of him! It would be a
choice jest--he being the one who has encouraged Christianity by
reversing all Marcus Aurelius' wise precautions against their seditious
"You speak fanatically, but you have touched the heart of the problem,"
said Cornificia. "It is Marcia who makes life possible for Commodus--
Marcia and her Christians. They help Marcia protect him because he is
the only emperor who never persecuted them, and because Marcia sees to
it that they are free to meet together without having even to bribe the
police. There is only one way to get rid of Commodus: Persuade Marcia
that her own life is in danger from him, and that she will have a full
voice in nominating his successor."
"Probably true," remarked Pertinax. "Whom would she nominate? That is
"It would be simpler to kill Marcia," said Daedalus. "Thereafter let
things take their course. Without Marcia to protect him--"
"No man knows much," Galen interrupted. "Marcia's soul may be all the
soul Commodus has! If she should grow sick of him--!"
"She grew sick long ago," said Cornificia. "But she is forever thinking
of her Christians and knows no other way to protect them than to make
Commodus love her. Ugh! It is like the story of Andromeda. Who is to
(In the fable, Andromeda had to be chained to a cliff to be devoured by
a monster, in order to save her people from the anger of the god
Poseidon. Perseus slew the monster.)
"There are thirty thousand ways of killing," Pertinax repeated, "but if
we kill one monster, four or five others will fight for his place,
unless, like Perseus, we have the head of a Medusa with which to freeze
them into stone! There is no substitute for Commodus in sight. The
only man whose face would freeze all rivals is Severus the
"We are none of us blind," said Cornificia.
"You mean me? I am too old," answered Pertinax. "I don't like tyranny,
and people know it. It is something they should not know. An old man
may be all very well when he has reigned for twenty years and men are
used to him, and he used to the task, as was Augustus; but an old man
new to the throne lacks energy. And besides, they would never endure a
man whose father was a charcoal-seller, as mine was. I have made my way
in life by looking at facts and refusing to deceive myself; with the
exception of that, I have no especial wisdom, nor any unusual ability."
"If wisdom were all that is needed," said Sextus, "we should put good
Galen on the throne!"
"He is too old and wise to let you try to do it!" Galen answered. "But
you spoke about the head of a Medusa, Pertinax, and mentioned Lucius
Septimius Severus. He commands three legions at Caruntum in Pannonia.
(Roughly speaking, the S.W. portion of modern Hungary whose frontiers
were then occupied by very warlike tribes.) If there is one man living
who can freeze men's blood by scowling at them, it is he! And he is not
as old as you are."
"I have thought of him only to hate him," said Pertinax. "He would not
follow me, nor I him. He is one of three men who would fight for the
throne if somebody slew Commodus, although he would not run the risk of
slaying him himself, and he would betray us if we should take him into
confidence. I know him well. He is a lawyer and a Carthaginian. He
would never ask for the nomination; he is too crafty. He would say his
legions nominated him against his will and that to have disobeyed them
would have laid him open to the punishment for treason. (This is what
Severus actually did, later on, after Pertinax's death.) The other two
are Pescennius Niger, who commands the legions in Syria, and Clodius
Albinus who commands in Britain. We must find a man who can forestall
all three of them by winning, first, the praetorian guard, and then the
senate and the Romans by dint of sound reforms and justice."
"You are he! Rome trusts you. So does the senate," said Cornificia.
"Marcia trusts me. The praetorian guard trusts her. If I can persuade
Marcia that her life is in danger from Commodus--"
"But how?" Daedalus interrupted.
"We can take the praetorian guard by surprise," Cornificia went on,
ignoring him. "They can be tricked into declaring for the man whom
Marcia's friends nominate. Having once declared for him they will be
too proud of having made an emperor, and too unwilling to seem
vacillating, to reverse themselves in any man's favor, even though he
should command six legions. The senate will gladly accept one who has
governed Rome as frugally as Pertinax has done. If the senate confirms
the nominee of the praetorian guard, the Roman populace will do the rest
by acclamation. Then, three months of upright government--deification
by the senate--"
Pertinax laughed explosively--an honest, chesty laugh, unqualified by
any subtleties, suggesting a trace of the peasantry from which he
sprang. It made Cornificia wince.
"Can you imagine me a god?" he asked.
"I can imagine you an emperor," said Sextus. "It is true; you have no
following among the legions just at present. But I make one, and there
are plenty of energetic men who think as I do. My friend Norbanus here
will follow me. My father--"
Noises near the open window interrupted him. An argument seemed to be
going on between the slaves whom Pertinax had set to keep the roisterers
away and some one who demanded admission. Near at hand was a woman's
voice, shrilling and scolding. Then another voice--Scylax, the slave
who had ridden the red mare. Pertinax strode to the window again and
leaned out. Cornificia whispered to Galen:
"If the truth were known, he is afraid of Flavia Titiana. As a wife she
is bad enough, but as an empress--"
"If you love your Pertinax," he answered, "keep him off the throne! He
has too many scruples."
She frowned, having few, which were firm and entirely devoted to
"Love him? I would give him up to see him deified!" she whispered; and
again Galen nodded, deeply understanding.
"That is because you have never had children," he assured her, smiling.
"You mother Pertinax, who is more than twice your age--just as Marcia
has mothered that monster Commodus until her heart is breaking."
"But I thought you were Pertinax' friend?"
"So I am."
"And his urgent adviser to--"
"Yes, so I was. I have changed my opinion; only the maniacs never do
that. Pertinax would make a splendid minister for Lucius Severus; and
the two of them could bring back the Augustan days. Persuade him to it.
He must forget he hates him."
"Let him come!" said the voice of Pertinax. He was still leaning out,
with one hand on a marble pillar, much more interested in the moonlit
view of revelry than in the altercation between slaves. He strolled
back and stood smiling at Cornificia, his handsome face expressing
satisfaction but a rather humorous amusement at his inability to
understand her altogether.
"Are you like all other women?" he asked. "I just saw a naked woman
stab a man with her hairpin and kick his corpse into the shrubbery
before the breath was out of it!"
"Galen has deserted you," said Cornificia. The murder was
uninteresting; nobody made any comment.
"Not he!" Pertinax answered, and went and sat on Galen's couch. "You
find me not man enough for the senate to make a god of me--is that it,
"Too much of a man to be an emperor," said Galen, smiling amid wrinkles.
"By observing a man's virtues one may infer what his faults are. You
would try to rule the empire honestly, which is impossible. A more
dishonest man would let it rule itself and claim the credit, whereas you
would give the praise to others, who would shoulder off the work and all
the blame on to you. An empire is like a human body, which heals itself
if the head will let it. Too many heads--a conference of doctors--and
the patient dies! One doctor, doing nothing with an air of confidence,
and the patient gets well! There, I have told you more than all the
Came Scylax, out of breath, less menial than most men's slaves, his head
and shoulders upright and the hand that held a letter thrust well
forward as if what he had to do were more important than the way he did
"This came," he said, standing beside Sextus' couch. "Cadmus brought
it, running all the way from Antioch."
His hand was trembling; evidently Cadmus had by some means learned the
contents of the letter and had told.
"I and Cadmus--" he said, and then hesitated.
"--are faithful, no matter what happens."
Scylax stood erect with closed lips. Sextus broke the seal, merely
glancing at Pertinax, taking permission for granted. He frowned as he
read, bit his lip, his face growing crimson and white alternately. When
he had mastered himself he handed the letter to Pertinax.
"I always supposed you protected my father," he said, struggling to
appear calm. But his eyes gave the story away--grieved, mortified,
indignant. Scylax offered him his arm to lean on. Norbanus, setting
both hands on his shoulders from behind, obliged him to sit down.
"Calm!" Norbanus whispered, "Calm! Your friends are your friends. What
Pertinax read the letter and passed it to Cornificia, then paced the
floor with hands behind him.
"Is that fellow to be trusted?" he asked with a jerk of his head toward
Scylax. He seemed nearly as upset as Sextus was.
Sextus nodded, not trusting himself to speak, knowing that if he did he
would insult a man who might be guiltless in spite of appearances.
"Commodus commanded me to visit Antioch, as he said, for a rest," said
Pertinax. "The public excuse was, that I should look into the
possibility of holding the Olympic games here. Strangely enough, I
suspected nothing. He has been flatteringly friendly of late. Those
whom I requested him to spare, he spared, even though their names were
on his proscription list and I had not better excuse than that they had
done no wrong! The day before I left I brought a list to him of names
that I commended to his favor--your father's name among them, Sextus."
Pertinax turned his back again and strode toward the window, where he
stood like a statue framed in the luminous gloom. The only part of him
that moved was his long fingers, weaving together behind him until the
Cornificia, subduing her contralto voice, read the letter aloud:
"To Nimius Secundus Sextus, son of Galienus Maximus, the freedman Rufus
Glabrio sends humble greeting.
"May the gods give solace and preserve you. Notwithstanding all your
noble father's piety--his respect for elders and superiors--he was
accused of treason and of blasphemy toward the emperor, by whose orders
he was seized yesterday and beheaded the same day. The estates have
already been seized. It is said they will be sold to Asinus Sejanus,
who is probably the source of the accusation against your father.
"I and three other freedmen made our escape and will attempt to reach
Tarentum, where we will await instructions from you. Titus, the son of
the freedman Paulinus, will convey this letter to Brundisium and thence
by boat to Dyrrachium, whence he will send it by post in the charge of a
Jew whom he says he can trust.
"It is a certainty that orders will go forth to seize yourself, since
the estates in Antioch are known to be of great value. Therefore, we
your true friends and devoted servants, urge you to make all speed in
escaping. Stay not to make provision for yourself, but travel without
encumbrances. Hide! Hasten!
"We commend this letter to you as a sure proof that we ourselves are to
be trusted, since, if it should fall into the hands of an informer by
the way, our lives undoubtedly would pay the forfeit. We have not much
money, but enough for the expenses of a journey to a foreign land. The
place where we will hide near Tarentum is known to you. In deep
anxiety, and not without such sacrifices to the gods and to the manes of
your noble ancestors as means permit, we will await your coming."
--RUFUS GLABRIO "Freedman of the illustrious Galienus Maximus."
Pertinax turned from the window. "The Jews have a saying," he said,
"that who keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from
trouble. Often I warned Maximus that he was too free with his speech.
He counted too much on my protection. Now it remains to be seen whether
Commodus has not proscribed me!"
Sextus and Norbanus stood together, Scylax behind them, Norbanus
whispering; plainly enough Norbanus was urging patience--discretion--
deliberate thought, whereas Sextus could hardly think at all for anger
that reddened his eyes.
"What can I do for you? What can I do?" wondered Pertinax.
Then Cornificia was on her feet.
"There is nothing--nothing you can do!" she insisted. She avoided
Galen's eyes; the old philosopher was watching her as if she were the
subject of some new experiment. "Let Commodus learn as much as that
Sextus was here in this pavilion and--"
Sextus interrupted, very proudly:
"I will not endanger my friends. Who will lend me a dagger? This toy
that I wear is too short and not sharp. You may forget me, Pertinax.
My slaves will bury me. But play you the man and save Rome!"
Then the tribune spoke up. He was younger than all of them.
"Sextus is right. They will know he was here. They will probably
torture his slaves and learn about that letter that has reached him. If
he runs and hides, we shall all be accused of having helped him to
"What?" Galen asked him as he hesitated.
"If he dies by his own hand, he will not only save all his slaves from
the torture but remove the suspicion from us and we will still be free
to mature our--"
"Cowardice!" Norbanus finished the sentence for him.
"Aye, some of us would hardly feel like noble Romans!" Pertinax said
grimly. "Possibly I can protect you, Sextus. Let us think of some
great favor you can do the emperor, providing an excuse for me to
interfere. I might even take you to Rome with me and--"
Galen laughed, and Cornificia drew in her breath, bit her lip.
"Why do you laugh, Galen?" Pertinax strode over to him and stood
"Because," said Galen, "I know so little after all. I cannot tell a
beast's blood from a man's. Our Commodus would kill you with all the
more peculiar enjoyment because he has flattered you so often publicly
and called you 'father Pertinax.' He poisoned his own father; why not
you? They will tell him you have frequently befriended Sextus. They
will show him Sextus' father's name on that list of names that you
commended to his favor. Do you follow me?"
"By Jupiter, not I!" said Pertinax.
"He is sure to learn about this letter that has come." said Galen. "If
you, in fearful loyalty to Commodus, should instantly attempt to make a
prisoner of Sextus; if, escaping, he is killed, and you bear witness--
that would please Commodus almost as much as to see gladiators killed in
the arena. If you wept over the death of Sextus, that would please him
even more. He would enjoy your feelings. Do you remember how he picked
two gladiators who were brothers twins they were--and when the slayer of
his twin-brother saluted, Commodus got down into the arena and kissed
him? You yourself must announce to him the news of Sextus' death, and
he will kiss you also!"
"Vale!" remarked Sextus. "I die willingly enough."
"You are dead already," Galen answered. "Didn't Pertinax see some one's
body kicked into the bushes?"
There was silence. They all glanced at one another. Only Galen,
sipping at his wine, seemed philosophically calm.
"I personally should not be an eye-witness," Galen remarked. "I am a
doctor, whose certificate of death not even Commodus would doubt. In
the dark I might recognize Sextus' garments, even though I could not see
his features. And--" he added pointedly--"neither I nor any one can
tell a beast's blood from a man's."
"Daedalus!" said Pertinax with sudden resolution. "Get my purse. My
slave has it. Sextus shall not go empty-handed."
Sorbanus brought the skewbald stallion. Not far away a group of women
danced around a dozen drunken men, who sang uproariously. Seen against
the background of purple and dark-green gloom, with crimson torchlight
flaring on the quiet water and the moon descending behind trees beyond
them, they were mystically beautiful--seemed not to belong to earth, any
more than the pan-pipe music did.
"Ride into their midst!" Norbanus urged, pointing. "Tickle the stallion
The Cappadocian lashed out savagely.
"Here is a bottle of goat's blood. I will bring weapons, and I will
join you as soon as possible after I have made sure that the temple
priests, and all Daphne, are positive about your death. Now mount and
Sextus swung on to the stallion's back as if a catapult had thrown him.
Until then he had let others do the ordering; he had preferred to let
them take their own precautions, form their own plans and subject
himself to any course they wished, after which he should be free to face
his destiny and fight it without feeling he had handicapped his friends
by wilfulness. He had not even issued a direct command to Scylax, his
own slave. That was characteristic of him. Nor was it at his
suggestion that Norbanus volunteered to share his outlawry. But it was
also characteristic that he made no gesture of dissent; he accepted
Norbanus' loyalty with a quiet smile that rather scorned words as
Now he drove his heels into the Cappadocian with vigor, for the die was
cast. The stallion, impatient of new mastery, reared and plunged,
snorted, came back on the bit in an attempt to get it in his teeth, and
bolted straight for the group of roisterers, who scattered away, men
swearing, women screaming. Throwing back his weight against the reins,
he brought the stallion to a plunging, snorting, wheeling halt in the
midst of men and women--a terrifying monster blowing clouds of mist out
of his nostrils! As they ran he let the brute rear--pulled him over--
rolled from under him, and lay still, with goat's blood from the broken
bottle splashed around his face and seeming to flow from his mouth. One
woman stooped to look, groped for a purse or anything of value, screamed
"Sextus!" she yelled. "Sextus who was dining in the white pavilion!"
Sextus crawled among the oleanders. Presently Norbanus came, hurrying
out of gloom, accompanied by Cadmus, the slave who had brought from
Antioch the letter that came from Rome. They were dragging a body
between them. They laid it down exactly where Sextus had fallen from
the horse. There was a sickening thwack as Cadmus made the face
unrecognizable. Then came the lanky, hurrying figure of Pertinax
leading a group of people, Cornificia among them--Galen last.
Sextus lay still until all their backs were toward him. Then he crept
out of the oleanders and walked along the river-bank in no haste,
masking his face with a fold of his toga. He chose a path that wound
amid the shrubbery, where marble satyrs grinned in colored lantern
light. He had to avoid couples here and there. A woman followed him,
laying a hand on his arm; he struck her, and she ran off, screaming for
Presently he reached the winding track that led toward the high-road,
with the gloom of cypresses on either hand and, beyond that, the glow of
the lights in the caterers' booths. He was as safe now as if he were
fifty miles away; none noticed him except the beggars at the bridges,
who exposed maimed limbs and whined for charity. A leper, banking on
his only stock in trade--the dread men had of his affliction--cursed
"You waste breath," said Sextus and passed on. He was smiling to
himself--sardonically. "Lepers live by threats--" he thought.
No more than any leper now could he expect protection from society
beyond what he could force society to yield. He had no name, for he was
dead; that thought amused him. Suddenly it dawned on him how safe he
was, since none in Antioch would dare to question the word of Pertinax,
backed by Galen and all the witnesses whom Pertinax would be sure to
summon. He remembered then to protect the honest freedmen who had sent
him warning--strode to a fire near a caterer's booth and burned the
letter, stared at by the slaves who warmed their shins around the
One of those might have recognized him, in spite of the toga drawn over
"If any one should ask which way Maternus went, say I have gone home,"
he commanded, and strode away into the gloom.
He wondered why he had chosen the name Maternus. Not even his remotest
ancestor had borne it, yet it came to his lips as naturally, instantly,
as if it were his own by right. But as he walked away it came to mind
that ten, or possibly twelve, nights ago he and his friends had all been
talking of a highwayman Maternus, who had robbed the caravans on the
mountain road from Tarsus. For the moment that thought scared him.
Should he change the name? The slaves by the embers had stared; they
showed him respect, but there was a distinct sensation mingled with it--
hardly to be wondered at! Where was it he heard--who told him--that
Maternus had been caught? He could not remember.
It dawned on him how difficult it is to decide what to do when the old
familiar conditions and the expectations on which we habitually base
decisions are all suddenly stripped away. He understood now how a
general in the field can fail when suddenly confronted with the unknown.
Shall he do this, or do that? There was not a habit or a circumstance to
guide him. He must choose, the while the gods looked on and laughed!
Maternus. It was a strange name to adopt, and yet he liked the sound of
it, nor would it pass out of his mind. He tried to think of other
names, but either they had all been borne by slaves, and were
distasteful, or else by famous men or by his friends, whom he did not
propose to wrong; he only had to imagine his case reversed to realize
how bitterly he would resent it if an outlawed man should take his own
name and make it notorious.
Yet he perceived that notoriety would be his only refuge, paradox though
that might be. As a mere fugitive, anonymous and having no more object
than to live and avoid recognition, he would soon reach the end of his
tether; there was little mercy in the world for men without a home or
means. Whether recognized or not, he would become like a hunted animal
--might, in fact, end as a slave unless he should prefer to prove his
identity and submit to Commodus's executioners. Suicide would be
preferable to that; but it seemed almost as if the gods themselves had
vetoed self-destruction by providing that roisterer's corpse at the
critical moment and putting the plan for its use into Galen's wise old
He must take the field like Spartacus of old; but he must have a goal
more definite and more attainable than Spartacus had had. He must avoid
the mistake that weakened Spartacus, of accepting for the sake of
numbers any ally who might offer himself. He would have nothing
whatever to do with the rabble of runaway slaves, whose only guiding
impulse would be loot and license, although he knew how easy it would be
to raise such an army if he should choose to do it. Out of any hundred
outlaws in the records of a hundred years, some ninety-nine had come to
grief through the increasing numbers of their following and lack of
discipline; he could think of a dozen who had been betrayed by paid
informers of the government, posing as friendly brigands.
And besides, he had no intention of adopting brigandry as a profession,
though he realized that he must make a reputation as a brigand if he
hoped to be anything else than a helpless fugitive. As a rebel against
Commodus it might be possible to raise a good-sized army in a month or
two, but that would only serve to bring the Roman armies out of camp,
led by generals eager for cheap victories. He must be too resourceful
to be taken by police--too insignificant to tempt the legions out of
camp. Brigandry was as distasteful to him and as far beneath his
dignity as the pursuit of brigands was beneath the dignity of any of
those Roman generals who owed their rank to Commodus. For them, as for
himself, the pettiness of brigandry led nowhither. Only one object
appealed to them--fame and its perquisites. Only one object appealed to
himself: to redeem his estates and to avenge his father. That could be
accomplished only by the death of Commodus: He laughed, as he thought
of himself pitted alone against Commodus the deified, mad monster who
could marshal the resources of the Roman empire!
Such thoughts filled his mind until he reached the lonely cross-road,
where the narrower, tree-lined road to Daphne met the great main highway
leading northward over the mountains. There was the usual row of
gibbets reared on rising ground against the sky by way of grim reminder
to slaves and other would-be outlaws that the arm of Rome was long, not
merciful. Five of the gibbets were vacant, except for an arm on one of
them, that swayed in the wind as it hung by a cord from the wrist. The
sixth had a man on it--dead.
Scylax, who was waiting for him, rode out of the gloom on the mare,
leading the Cappadocian, and reined in near the gibbet, not quite sure
yet who it was who strode toward him. Scared by the stench, the horses
became difficult to manage. The leading-rein passed around one of the
gibbets. Sextus ran forward to help. The Cappadocian broke the rein and
Scylax galloped after him.
So Sextus stood alone beside the rough-hewn tree-trunk, to which was
tied the body of a man who had been dead, perhaps, since sunset. He had
not been torn yet by the vultures. Morbid curiosity--a fellow feeling
for a victim, as the man might well be, of the same injustice that had
made an outlaw of himself--impelled Sextus to step closer. He could not
see the face, which was drooped forward; but there was a parchment,
held spread on a stick, like a sail on a spar, suspended from the man's
neck by a string. He snatched it off and held it toward the moon, now
low on the horizon. There were only two words, smeared with red paint
by a forefinger, underneath the official letters S.P.Q.R.:
He began to wonder who Maternus might have been, and how he took the
first step that had led to crucifixion. It was hard to believe that any
man would run that risk unless impelled to it by some injustice that had
changed pride into savagery or else shot off all opportunity for decent
living. The cruelty of the form of execution hardly troubled him; the
possible injustice of it stirred him to his depths. He felt a sort of
superstitious reverence for the victim, increased by the strange
coincidence that he had made use, without previous reflection, of
Presently he saw Norbanus riding the horse that he himself had ridden
that afternoon from Antioch to Daphne, followed on a mule by Cadmus, the
slave who had brought the letter which had pulled the trigger that set
the catapults of destiny in motion. Making a wide circuit, they helped
Scylax catch the Cappadocian.
Norbanus came cantering back. He was dressed for the road in a brown
woolen tunic contributed by some one in Pertinax' suite. He shook a bag
"Cornificia was generous," he said. "Old Pertinax thought he had done
well enough by you. She cried shame on him and threatened to send for
her jewelry. So he borrowed money from the priests. You are as dead as
that." He looked up at the tortured body of the robber. "What name
will you take? We had better begin to get used to it."
"It is written here," said Sextus, showing him the parchment. But the
moon had gone down in a smother of silvery cloud; Norbanus could not see
to read. "I am Maternus-Latro."
"I was told they had crucified that fellow."
"This is Maternus. Being dead, he will hardly grudge me the use of his
name! However, I will pay him for it. He shall have fair burial. Help
me down with him."
Norbanus beckoned to the slaves, who tied the horses to a near-by tree.
They sought in the dark for a hole that would do for a grave, since they
had no burying tools, stumbling on a limestone slab at last, that lay
amid rank weeds near a tomb hollowed out of the rock that had been
rifled, very likely, centuries ago. They lowered the already stiffened
body into it, with a coin in its fingers for Charon's ferry-fare across
the Styx, then set the heavy slab in place, all four of them using their
Then Sextus, having poured a little water from his hollowed hands on to
the slab, because he had no oil, and having murmured fragments of a
ritual as old as Rome, bidding the gods of earth and air and the unseen
re-absorb into themselves what man no longer could perceive or cherish
or destroy, turned to the two slaves.
"Scylax," he said, "Cadmus--he who was your master is as dead as that
man we have buried. I am not Sextus, son of Maximus. I fare forth like
a dead man on an unknown road, now being without honor on the lips of
men. Nor have I any claim on you, being now an outlaw, whom the law
would crucify if ill-luck should betray my feet. Nor can I set you
free, since all my household doubtless is already confiscated; ye
belong by law to whomsoever Commodus may have appointed to receive my
goods. Do then at your own risk, of your own will, what seems good to
Being slaves, they knelt. He bade them rise.
"We follow you," said Scylax, Cadmus murmuring assent.
"Then the night bear witness!" Sextus turned toward the row of gibbets,
pointing at them. "That is the risk we take together. If we escape
that, you shall not go unrewarded from the fortune I redeem. Norbanus,
you accept my leadership?"
"I insist on it!" he answered. He, too, pointed at the row of gibbets.
"To be frightened will provide us with no armor against destiny! There
was little I had to lose; lo, I have left that for the mice to nibble!
Let us see what destiny can do to bold men! Lead on, Sextus!"
IV. THE GOVERNORS OF ROME AND ANTIOCH
Dawn was sparkling on the mountain peaks; the misty violet of half-
light crept into the passes and the sun already bathed the copper roofs
of Antioch in gleaming gold above a miracle of greenery and marble.
Like a sluggish, muddy stream with camel's heads afloat in it, the
south-bound caravan poured up against the city gate and spread itself to
await inspection by the tax-gatherers, the governor's representatives
and the police. There was a tedious procedure of examination, hindered
by the swarms of gossipers, the merchants' agents, smugglers, and the
men to whom the latest news meant livelihood, who streamed out of the
city gate and mingled with the new-comers from Asia, Bythinia, Pontus,
Pisidia, Galatia and Cappadocia.
The caravan guards piled their spears and breakfasted apart, their duty
done. They had the air of men to whom the constantly repeated marches
to and fro on the selfsame stage of a mountainous road had grown
displeasing and devoid of all romance. Two were wounded. One, with a
dent in the helmet that hung from his arm by the chin-strap, lay leaning
against a rock; refused food, and slowly bled to death, his white face
almost comically disappointed.
A military tribune, followed by a slave with tablets, and by a mounted
trooper for the sake of his official dignity, rode out from the city and
took the report from the guards' decurion, a half-breed Dacian-Italian,
black-bearded and taciturn, who dictated it to the slave in curt,
staccato sentences, grudging the very gesture that he made toward the
wounded men. The tribune glanced at the report, signed it, turned his
horse and rode into the city, disregarding the decurion's salute, his
military cloak a splash of very bright red, seen against the limestone
and above the predominant brown of the camels and coats of their owners.
He cantered his horse when he passed through the gate, and there went up
a clamor of newsy excitement behind him as group after group loosed
tongues in competition of exaggeration.
Being bad, the news spread swiftly. The quadruple lines of columns all
along the Corso, as the four-mile-long main thoroughfare was called,
began to look like pier-piles in a flowing tide of men. Yellow, blue,
red, striped and parti-colored costumes, restless as the flotsam on a
mill-race, swirled into patterns, and broke, and reblended. The long
portico of Caesar's baths resounded to the hollow hum of voices.
Streaming lines of slaves in the midst of the street were delayed by the
crowd, and abused for obstructing it. Gossip went up like the voice of
the sea to the cliffs and startled clouds of spray-white pigeons,
faintly edged with pink against an azure sky; then ceased as suddenly.
The news was known. Whatever Antioch knew, bored it. Nine days'
wonders were departed long ago into the limbo of the days of Xerxes.
Nine hours had come to be the limit of men's interest--nine minutes the
crucial phase of excitement, during which the balance of emotion hovered
between rioting or laughter.
Antioch grew quiet, conscious of the sunny weather and the springtime
lassitude that is a luxury to masters but that slaves must overcome.
The gangs went forth to clear the watercourses in advance of floods,
whips cracking to inspire zeal. Wagon-loads of flowers, lowing milk-
white oxen, white goats--even a white horse, a white ass--oil and wine
in painted cards, whose solid wooden wheels screamed on their axles like
demons in agony-threaded the streets to the temples, lest the gods
forget convenience and send the floods too soon.
The Forum--gilt-edged marble, tinted statuary, a mosaic pavement like a
rich-hued carpet from the looms of Babylon--began to overflow with
leisured men of business. Their slaves did all the worrying. The
money-changers' clerks sat by the bags of coin, with scales and shovel
and the tables of exchange. The chaffering began in corn-shops, where
the lawless agreements for delivery of unsown harvests changed hands ten
times in the hour, and bills on Rome, scrawled over with endorsements,
outsped currency as well as outwitted the revenue men. No tax-farmer's
slave could keep track of the flow of intangible wealth when the bills
for a million sesterces passed to and fro like cards in an Egyptian
game. Men richer than the fabled Croesus carried all their wealth in
leather wallets in the form of mortgages on gangs of slaves,
certificates of ownership of cargoes, promises to pay and contracts for
delivery of merchandise.
Nine-tenths of all the clamor was the voice of slaves, each one of them
an expert in his master's business and often richer than the owners of
the men he dealt with, saving his peculium--the personal savings which
slaves were sometimes encouraged to accumulate--to buy his freedom when
a more than usually profitable deal should put his master in a good
The hall of the basilica was almost as much a place of fashion as the
baths of Julius Caesar, except that there were some admitted into the
basilica whose presence, later in the day, within the precincts of the
baths would have led to a riot. Whoever had wealth and could afford to
match wits with the sharpest traders in the world might enter the
basilica and lounge amid the statuary. Thither well dressed slaves came
hurrying with contracts and the news of changing prices. There, on
marble benches, spread with colored cushions, at the rear under the
balcony, the richer men of business sat chattering to mask their real
thoughts--Jews, Alexandrians, Athenians--a Roman here and there,
cupidity more frankly written on his face, his eyes a little harder and
less subtle, more abrupt in gesture and less patient with delays.
"That is a tale which is all very well for the slaves to believe, and
for the priests, if they wish, to repeat. As for me, I was born in
Tarsus, where no man in his senses believes anything except a bill of
"But I tell you, Maternus was scourged, and then crucified at the place
of execution nearest to where he committed his last crime. That is,
where the crossroad leads to Daphne. There is no doubt about that
whatever. He was nearly four days dying, and the sentries stood guard
over him until he ceased to breathe, a little after sunset yesterday
evening. So they say, at all events. A little before midnight, in
Daphne, near one of those booths where the caterers prepare hot meals, a
man strode up to where some slaves were seated around a fire. He burned
a piece of parchment. All nine slaves agree that he was about Maternus'
height and build; that he strode like a man who had been hurt; that he
had mud and grass stains on his knees, and covered his face with a toga.
They also swear he said he was Maternus, and that he was gone before
they could recover their wits. They say his voice was sepulchral. One
of the slaves, who can read, declares that the words on the parchment he
burned were "Maternus Latro," and that it was the identical parchment he
had seen hanging from Maternus' neck on the cross. They tortured that
slave at once, of course, to get the truth out of him, and on the rack
he contradicted himself at least a dozen times, so they whipped him and
let him go, because his owner said he was a valuable cook; but the fact
remains that the story hasn't been disproved.
"And there is absolutely no doubt whatever about this: The caravan from
Asia came in just a little after dawn, having traveled the last stage by
night, as usual, in order to arrive early and get the formalities over
with. They came past the place of execution before sunrise. They had
heard the news of the execution from the north-bound caravan that passed
them in the mountains. They had all been afraid of Maternus because he
had robbed so many wayfarers, so naturally they were interested to see
his dead body. It was gone!"
"What of it? Probably the women took it down for burial. Robbers always
have a troupe of women. Maternus never had to steal one, so they say.
They flocked to him like Bacchanalians."
"No matter. Now listen to this: between the time when they learned of
Maternus' execution and their passing the place of execution that is to
say at the narrowest part of the pass, where it curves and begins to
descend on this side of the mountain--they were attacked by robbers who
made use of Maternus' war-cry. The robbers were beaten off, although
they wounded two men of the guard and got away with half-a-dozen horses
and a slave-girl."
"That means nothing--Pardon me a moment while I see what my man has been
doing. What is it, Stilchio? Are you mad? You have contracted to
deliver fifty bales at yesterday's price? You want to ruin me? Oh.
You are quite sure? Very well: A good man, that--went out and met the
caravan--bought low--sold high, and the price is falling. But as I was
saying, your story is simply a string of coincidences. All the robbers
use Maternus' war-cry, because of the terror his name inspires; they
probably had not heard he had been crucified."
"Well, that was what the caravan folk thought, until they passed the
place of execution and saw no body there."
"The robbers possibly themselves removed it and were seeking to avenge
"Much more likely somebody was bribed to let him escape! We all know
Maternus was scourged, for that was done in Antioch; but they did not
scourge him very badly, for fear he might die on the way to the place of
execution. There is no doubt he was crucified, but he was only tied,
not nailed. It would have been perfectly simple to substitute some
other criminal that first night--somebody who looked a little like him;
they would give the substitute poppy juice to keep him from crying out
"Substitution has often been done, of course. But it takes a lot of
money and considerable influence to bribe the guard. They are under the
authority of a centurion, who would have to look out for informers. And
besides, you can't persuade me that a man who had been scourged, and
crucified, if only for one day, could walk into Daphne two or three
nights afterward and carry on a conversation. Why should he visit
Daphne? Why should he choose that place, of all places in the world,
and midnight, to destroy the identification parchment? Having destroyed
it, why did he then tell the slaves who he was? It sounds like a tale
out of Egypt to me."
"Well, the priests are saying--"
"Tchutt-tchutt! Priests say anything." "Nevertheless, the priests are
saying that Maternus, after he was captured, managed to convey a message
to his followers commanding them to offer sacrifices to Apollo, who
accordingly intervened in his behalf. And they say he undoubtedly went
to Daphne to return thanks at the temple threshold."
"Hah-Hah! Excellent! Let us go to the baths. You need to sweat the
superstition out of you! Better leave word where we are going, so that
our factors will know where to find us in case any important business
In the palace, in the office of the governor, where the lapping of water
and irises could be heard through the opened windows, Pertinax sat
facing the governor of Antioch across a table heaped with parchment
rolls. A dozen secretaries labored in the next room, but the door
between was closed; the only witnesses were leisurely, majestic swans,
seen down a vista of well pruned shrubbery that flanked the narrow lawn.
An awning crimsoned and subdued the sunlight, concealing the lines on
the governor's face and suggesting color on his pale cheeks.
He was a fat man, pouched under the eyes and growing bald--an almost
total contrast to the lean and active, although older Pertinax. His
smile was cynical. His mouth curved downward. He had large, fat hands
and cold, dark calculating eyes.
"I would feel more satisfied," he said, "if I could have Norbanus'
"Find him then!" Pertinax answered irritably. "What is the matter with
your police? In Rome, if I propose to find a man he is brought before
"This is not Rome," said the governor, "as you would very soon discover
if you occupied my office. I sent a lictor and a dozen men to Norbanus'
house, but he is missing and has not been seen, although it is known,
and you admit, that he dined with you last night at Daphne. He has no
property worth mentioning. His house is under lien to money-lenders.
He is well known to have been Sextus' friend, and the moment this order
arrived proscribing Sextus I added to it the name of Norbanus in my own
handwriting, on the principle that treason keeps bad company.
"My own well known allegiance to the emperor obliges me to tear out the
very roots of treason at the first suggestion of its presence in our
midst. I have long suspected Sextus, who was a cross-grained,
obstinate, quick-witted, proud young man--a lot too critical. I am
convinced now that he and Norbanus were hatching some kind of plot
between them--possibly against the sacred person of our emperor--a
frightful sacrilege!--the suggestion of it makes me shudder! There is,
of course, no doubt about Sextus; the emperor's own proscription brands
him as a miscreant unfit to live, and he was lucky to have died by
accident instead of being torn apart by tongs. It seems to me
unquestionable that Norbanus shared his guilt and took care to escape
before he could be seized and brought to justice. What is in doubt,
most noble Pertinax, is how you can excuse yourself to our sacred
emperor for having let Sextus escape from your clutches, after you had
seen that letter! How can you excuse yourself for not pouncing the
letter, to be used as evidence against rascally freedmen who forewarned
the miscreant Sextus about the emperor's intentions?--and for not
realizing that Norbanus was undoubtedly in league with him? How can you
explain your having let Norbanus get away is something I confess I am
unable to imagine."
"Conjure your imagination!" Pertinax retorted. "I am to inquire into
the suitability of Antioch or Daphne as the site of the Olympic games
that the emperor proposed to preside over in person. You can imagine, I
suppose, how profitable that would be for Antioch--and you. Am I to
tell the emperor that robbers in the mountains and the laxity of local
government make the selection of Antioch unwise?"
They stared at each other silently across the table, Pertinax erect and
definite, the governor of Antioch indefinite and stroking his chin with
fat, white fingers.
"It would be simplest," said the governor of Antioch at last, "to have
"Some one should always be executed when the emperor signs proscription
lists!" said Pertinax. "Has it ever occurred to you to wonder how many
soldiers in the legions in the distant provinces were certified as dead
before they left Rome?"
The governor of Antioch smiled meanly. He resented the suggestions that
there might be tricks he did not understand.
"I have a prisoner," he said, "who might be Norbanus. He has been
tortured. He refused to identify himself."
"Does he look like him?"
"That would be difficult to say. He broke into a jeweler's and was very
badly beaten by the slaves, who slashed his face, which is heavily
bandaged. He appears to be a Roman and is certainly a thief, but beyond
"Much depends on who is interested in him," Pertinax suggested. "Usually
a man's relatives--"
But the governor of Antioch's fat hand made a disparaging careless
gesture. "He has no friends. He has been in the carceres (the cells in
which prisoners were kept who had been sentenced to death. Under Roman
law there was practically no imprisonment for crime. Fines, flogging,
banishment were the substitutes for execution.) more than a month. I
was reserving him for execution by the lions at the next public games.
Truth to tell, I had almost forgotten him. I will write out a warrant
for Norbanus' execution and it shall be attended to this morning. And by
the way--regarding the Olympic games--"
"The emperor, I think, would like to see them held in Antioch," said
The merchants strolling to the baths stood curiously for a while to
watch one of the rapidly increasing sect of Christians, who leaned from
a balcony over the street and exhorted a polyglot crowd of freedmen,
slaves and idlers. He was bearded, brown-skinned from exposure, brown-
robed, scrawny, vehement.
"Peculiar times!" one merchant said. "If you and I should cause a crowd
to gather while we prated about refusal to do homage to the gods--of
whom mind you, the emperor is one, and not the least--"
"But let us listen," said the other.
The man's voice was resonant. He used no tricks of oratory such as
Romans over-valued, and was not too careful in the choice of phrases.
The Greek idiom he used was unadorned--the language of the market-place
and harbor-front. He made his points directly, earnestly, not arguing
but like a guide to far-off countries giving information:
"Slaves--freedmen--masters--all are equal before God, and on the last
day all shall rise up from the dead--"
A loiterer heckled him:
"Hah! The crucified too?--what about Maternus?"
The preacher, throwing up his right hand, snatched at opportunity:
"There were two thieves crucified, one on either hand, as I have told
you. To the one was said: 'This day shalt thou be with me in
paradise'; but to the other nothing. Nevertheless, all shall rise up
from the dead on the last day--you, and your friends, and the wise and
the fools, and the slave and the free--aye, and Maternus also--"
One merchant grinned to the other:
"Yet I think it was on the first night that Maternus rose up! They
stiffen if they stay a whole night on the cross. If he could walk to
Daphne three nights later, he had not been crucified many hours. Come,
let us go to the baths before the crowd gets there. If one is late
those insolent attendants lose one's clothing, and there is no chance
whatever of getting a good soft-handed slave to rub one down. Don't you
hate to be currycombed by a rascal with corns on his fingers?"
V. ROME--THE THERMAE OF TITUS
There were even birds, to fill the air with music. All the known world,
and the far-away mysterious lands of which Alexander's followers had
started legends multiplying centuries ago, had contributed to Rome's
adornment; plunder and trade goods drifted through in spite of
distances. The city had become the vortex of the energy, virility and
vice of east and west--a glory of marble and gilded cornices, of domes
and spires, of costumes, habits, faces, languages--of gorgeousness and
squalor--license, privilege and rigid formalism--extravagance--and of
There was nobility and love of virtue, cheek by jowl with beastliness,
nor was it always easy to discover which was which; but the birds sang
blithely in the cages in the portico, where the long seat was on which
philosophers discoursed to any one who cared to listen. The baths that
the Emperor Titus built were the supreme, last touch of all. From
furnaces below-ground, where the whipped slaves sweated in the dark, to
domed roof where the doves changed hue amid the gleam of gold and
colored glass, they typified Rome, as the city herself was of the
essence of the world.
The approach to the Thermae of Titus was blocked by litters, some heavy
enough to be borne by eight matched slaves and large enough for company.
Women oftener than men shared litters with friends; then the troupe of
attendants was doubled; slaves were in droves, flocks, hordes around
the building, making a motley sight of it in their liveries, which were
adaptations of the every-day costumes of almost all the countries of the
Under the entrance portico, between the double row of marble columns,
sat a throng of fortune-tellers of both sexes, privileged because the
aedile of that year had superstitious leanings, but as likely as not to
be driven away, and even whipped, when the next man should succeed to
office. In and out among the crowd ran tipsters, touts for gambling
dens and sellers of charms; most of them found ready customers among
the slaves, who had nothing to do but wait, and stare, and yawn until
their masters came out from the baths. They were raw, inexperienced
slaves who had not a coin or two to spend.
Within the entrance of the Thermae was a marble court, where better
known philosophers discoursed on topics of the day, each to his own
group of admirers. A Christian, dressed like any other Roman, held one
corner with a crowd around him. There was a tremendous undercurrent of
reaction against the prevalent cynical materialism and the vortex of
fashion was also the cauldron of new aspirations and the battle-ground
Beyond the inner entrance were the two disrobing rooms--women to the
left, men to the right where slaves, whose insolence had grown into a
cultivated art, exchanged the folded garments for a bracelet with a
number. Thence, stark-naked, through the bronze doors set in green-
veined marble, bathers passed into the vast frigidarium, whose marble
plunge was surrounded by a mosaic promenade beneath a bronze and marble
There men and women mingled indiscriminately, watching the divers,
conversing, matching wits, exchanging gossip, some walking briskly
around the promenade while others lounged on the marble seats that were
interspaced against the wall between the statues.
There was not one gesture of indecency. A man who had stared at a woman
would have been thrown out, execrated and forever more refused
admission. But out in the street, where the litter-bearers and
attendants whiled away the time, there were tales told that spread to
the ends of the earth.
On a bench of black marble, between two statues of the Grecian Muses,
Pertinax sat talking with Bultius Livius, sub-prefect of the palace.
They were both pink-skinned from plunging in the pool, and the white
scars, won in frontier wars, showed all the more distinctly. Boltius
Livius was a clean-shaven, sharp-looking man with a thin-lipped air of
"This dependence on Marcia can easily be overdone," he remarked. His
eyes moved restlessly left and right. He lowered his voice. "Nobody
knows how long her hold over Caesar will last. She owns him at present
owns him absolutely--owns Rome. He delights in letting her revoke his
orders; it's a form of self-debauchery; he does things purposely to
have her overrule him. But that has already lasted longer than I
thought it would."
"It will last as long as she and her Christians spy for him and make
life pleasant," said Pertinax.
"Exactly. But that is the difficulty," Livius answered, moving his eyes
again restlessly. There was not much risk of informers in the Thermae,
but a man never knew who his enemies were. "Marcia represents the
Christians, and the idiots won't let well enough alone. By Hercules,
they have it all their own way, thanks to Marcia. They are allowed to
hold their meetings. All the statutes against them are ignored. They
even go unpunished if they don't salute Caesar's image! They are
allowed to preach against slavery. It has got so now that if a man
condemned to death pretends he is a Christian they're even allowed to
rescue him out of the carceres! That's Juno's truth: I know of a dozen
instances. But it's the old story: Put a beggar on a horse and he will
demand your house next. There's no satisfying them. I am told they
propose to abolish the gladiatorial combats! Laugh if you like. I have
it from unquestionable sources. They intend to begin by abolishing the
execution of criminals in the arena. Shades of Nero! They keep after
Marcia day and night to dissuade Caesar from taking part in the
spectacles, on the theory that he helps to make them popular."
"What do they propose to substitute in popular esteem?" asked Pertinax.
"I don't know. They're mad enough for anything, and their hold over
Marcia is beyond belief. The next thing you'll know, they'll persuade
her it's against religion to be Caesar's mistress! They're quite
capable of sawing off the branch they're sitting on. By Hercules, I
hope they do it! Some of us might go down in the scramble, but--"
"Does Marcia give Christian reasons to the emperor?" asked Pertinax, his
"No, no. No, by Hercules. No, no. Marcia is as skillful at managing
Commodus as he is at hurling a javelin or driving horses. She talks
about the dignity of Caesar and the glory of Rome--uses truth adroitly
for her own ends--argues that if he continues to keep company with
gladiators and jockeys, and insists on taking part in the combats, Rome
may begin to despise him."
"Rome does!" murmured Pertinax, his eyes and lips suggesting a mere
flicker of a smile. "But only let Commodus once wake up to the fact
Bultius Livius nodded.
"He will return the compliment and show us how to despise at wholesale,
eh? Marcia's life and yours and mine wouldn't be worth an hour's
purchase. The problem is, who shall warn Marcia? She grows intolerant
of friendly hints. I made her a present the other day of eight matched
German' litter-bearers--beauties--they cost a fortune--and I took the
opportunity to have a chat with her. She told me to go home and try to
manage my own wife! Friendly enough--she laughed--she meant no enmity;
but shrewd though she is, and far-seeing though she is, the wine of
influence is going to her head. You know what that portends. Few men,
and fewer women, can drink deeply of that wine and--"
"She comes," said Pertinax.
There was a stir near the bronze door leading to the women's disrobing
hall. Six women in a group were answering greetings, Marcia in their
midst, but no man in the Thermae looked at them a moment longer than was
necessary to return the wave of the hand with which Marcia greeted every
one before walking down the steps into the plunge. She did not even
wear the customary bracelet with its numbered metal disk; not even the
attendants at the Thermae would presume to lose the clothing of the
mistress of the emperor. Commodus, who at the age of twelve had flung a
slave into the furnace because the water was too hot, would have made
short work of any one who mislaid Marcia's apparel.
She did not belie her reputation. It was no wonder that the sculptors
claimed that every new Venus they turned out was Marcia's portrait. Her
beauty, as her toes touched water, was like that of Aphrodite rising
from the wave. The light from the dome shone golden on her brown hair
and her glossy skin. She was a thing of sensuous delight, incapable of
coarseness, utterly untouched by the suggestion of vulgarity, and yet--
"It is strange she should take up with fancy religions," said Pertinax
under his breath.
She was pagan in every gesture, and not a patrician. That was
indefinable but evident to trained eyes. Neither he, who knew her
intimately, nor the newest, newly shaven son of a provincial for the
first time exploring the wonders of Rome, could have imagined her as
anything except a rich man's mistress.
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