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- Imperial Purple - 3/15 -


The mime was right. The sovereign of Rome was not the Caesar, nor yet the aristocracy. The latter was dead. It had been banished by barbarian senators, by barbarian gods; it had died twice, at Pharsalus, at Philippi; it was the people that was sovereign, and it was important that that sovereign should be amused--flattered, too, and fed. For thirty years not a Roman of note had died in his bed; not one but had kept by him a slave who should kill him when his hour had come; anarchy had been continuous; but now Rome was at rest and its sovereign wished to laugh. Made up of every nation and every vice, the universe was ransacked for its entertainment. The mountain sent its lions, the desert giraffes; there were boas from the jungles, bulls from the plains, and hippopotami from the waters of the Nile. Into the arenas patricians descended; in the amphitheatre there were criminals from Gaul; in the Forum philosophers from Greece. On the stage, there were tragedies, pantomimes and farce; there were races in the circus, and in the sacred groves girls with the Orient in their eyes and slim waists that swayed to the crotals. For the thirst of the sovereign there were aqueducts, and for its hunger Africa, Egypt, Sicily contributed grain. Syria unveiled her altars, Persia the mystery and magnificence of her gods.

Such was Rome. Augustus was less noteworthy; so unnecessary even that every student must regret Actium, Antony's defeat, the passing of Caesar's dream. For Antony was made for conquests; it was he who, fortune favoring, might have given the world to Rome. A splendid, an impudent bandit, first and foremost a soldier, calling himself a descendant of Hercules whom he resembled; hailed at Ephesus as Bacchus, in Egypt as Osiris; Asiatic in lavishness, and Teuton in his capacity for drink; vomiting in the open Forum, and making and unmaking kings; weaving with that viper of the Nile a romance which is history; passing initiate into the inimitable life, it would have been curious to have watched him that last night when the silence was stirred by the hum of harps, the cries of bacchantes bearing his tutelary god back to the Roman camp, while he said farewell to love, to empire and to life.

Augustus resembled him not at all. He was a colorless monarch; an emperor in everything but dignity, a prince in everything but grace; a tactician, not a soldier; a superstitious braggart, afraid of nothing but danger; seducing women to learn their husband's secrets; exiling his daughter, not because she had lovers, but because she had other lovers than himself; exiling Ovid because of Livia, who in the end poisoned her prince, and adroitly, too; illiterate, blundering of speech, and coarse of manner--a hypocrite and a comedian in one--so guileful and yet so stupid that while a credulous moribund ordered the gods to be thanked that Augustus survived him, the people publicly applied to him an epithet which does not look well in print.

After Philippi and the suicide of Brutus; after Actium and Antony's death, for the first time in ages, the gates of the Temple of Janus were closed. There was peace in the world; but it was the sword of Caesar, not of Augustus, that brought the insurgents to book. At each of the victories he was either asleep or ill. At the time of battle there was always some god warning him to be careful. The battle won, he was brave enough, considerate even. A father and son begged for mercy. He promised forgiveness to the son on condition that he killed his father. The son accepted and did the work; then he had the son despatched. A prisoner begged but for a grave. "The vultures will see to it," he answered. When at the head of Caesar's legions, he entered Rome to avenge the latter's death, he announced beforehand that he would imitate neither Caesar's moderation nor Sylla's cruelty. There would be only a few proscriptions, and a price--and what a price, liberty!--was placed on the heads of hundreds of senators and thousands of knights. And these people, who had more slaves than they knew by sight, slaves whom they tossed alive to fatten fish, slaves to whom they affected never to speak, and who were crucified did they so much as sneeze in their presence--at the feet of these slaves they rolled, imploring them not to deliver them up. Now and then a slave was merciful; Augustus never.

Successes such as these made him ambitious. Having vanquished with the sword, he tried the pen. "You may grant the freedom of the city to your barbarians," said a wit to him one day, "but not to your solecisms." Undeterred he began a tragedy entitled "Ajax," and discovering his incompetence, gave it up. "And what has become of Ajax?" a parasite asked. "Ajax threw himself on a sponge," replied Augustus, whose father, it is to be regretted, did not do likewise. Nevertheless, it were pleasant to have assisted at his funeral.

A couch of ivory and gold, ten feet high, draped with purple, stood for a week in the atrium of the palace. Within the couch, hidden from view, the body of the emperor lay, ravaged by poison. Above was a statue, recumbent, in wax, made after his image and dressed in imperial robes. Near by a little slave with a big fan protected the statue from flies. Each day physicians came, gazed at the closed wax mouth, and murmured, "He is worse." In the vestibule was a pot of burning ilex, and stretching out through the portals a branch of cypress warned the pontiffs from the contamination of the sight of death.

At high noon on the seventh day the funeral crossed the city. First were the flaming torches; the statues of the House of Octavia; senators in blue; knights in scarlet; magistrates; lictors; the pick of the praetorian guard. Then, to the alternating choruses of boys and girls, the rotting body passed down the Sacred Way. Behind it Tiberius in a travelling-cloak, his hands unringed, marched meditating on the curiosities of life, while to the rear there straggled a troop of dancing satyrs, led by a mime dressed in resemblance of Augustus, whose defects he caricatured, whose vices he parodied and on whom the surging crowd closed in.

On the Field of Mars the pyre had been erected, a great square structure of resinous wood, the interior filled with coke and sawdust, the exterior covered with illuminated cloths, on which, for base, a tower rose, three storeys high. Into the first storey flowers and perfumes were thrown, into the second the couch was raised, then a torch was applied.

As the smoke ascended an eagle shot from the summit, circled a moment, and disappeared. For the sum of a million sesterces a senator swore that with the eagle he had seen the emperor's soul.

III

FABULOUS FIELDS

Mention Tiberius, and the name evokes a taciturn tyrant, devising in the crypts of a palace infamies so monstrous that to describe them new words were coined.

In the Borghese collection Tiberius is rather good-looking than otherwise, not an Antinous certainly, but manifestly a dreamer; one whose eyes must have been almost feline in their abstraction, and in the corners of whose mouth you detect pride, no doubt, but melancholy as well. The pride was congenital, the melancholy was not.

Under Tiberius there was quiet, a romancer wrote, and the phrase in its significance passed into legend. During the dozen or more years that he ruled in Rome, his common sense was obvious. The Tiber overflowed, the senate looked for a remedy in the Sibyline Books. Tiberius set some engineers to work. A citizen swore by Augustus and swore falsely. The senate sought to punish him, not for perjury but for sacrilege. It is for Augustus to punish, said Tiberius. The senate wanted to name a month after him. Tiberius declined. "Supposing I were the thirteenth Caesar, what would you do?" For years he reigned, popular and acclaimed, caring the while nothing for popularity and less for pomp. Sagacious, witty even, believing perhaps in little else than fate and mathematics, yet maintaining the institutions of the land, striving resolutely for the best, outwardly impassable and inwardly mobile, he was a man and his patience had bounds. There were conspirators in the atrium, there was death in the courtier's smile; and finding his favorites false, his life threatened, danger at every turn, his conception of rulership changed. Where moderation had been suddenly there gleamed the axe.

Tacitus, always dramatic, states that at the time terror devastated the city. It so happened that under the republic there was a law against whomso diminished the majesty of the people. The republic was a god, one that had its temple, its priests, its altars. When the republic succumbed, its divinity passed to the emperor; he became Jupiter's peer, and, as such, possessed of a majesty which it was sacrilege to slight. Consulted on the subject, Tiberius replied that the law must be observed. Originally instituted in prevention of offences against the public good, it was found to change into a crime, a word, a gesture or a look. It was a crime to undress before a statue of Augustus, to mention his name in the latrinae, to carry a coin with his image into a lupanar. The punishment was death. Of the property of the accused, a third went to the informer, the rest to the state. Then abruptly terror stalked abroad. No one was safe except the obscure, and it was the obscure that accused. Once an accused accused his accuser; the latter went mad. There was but one refuge--the tomb. If the accused had time to kill himself before he was tried, his property was safe from seizure and his corpse from disgrace. Suicide became endemic in Rome. Never among the rich were orgies as frenetic as then. There was a breathless chase after delights, which the summons, "It is time to die," might at any moment interrupt.

Tiberius meanwhile had gone from Rome. It was then his legend began. He was represented living at Capri in a collection of twelve villas, each of which was dedicated to a particular form of lust, and there with the paintings of Parrhasius for stimulant the satyr lounged. He was then an old man; his life had been passed in public, his conduct unreproved. If no one becomes suddenly base, it is rare for a man of seventy to become abruptly vile. "Whoso," Sakya Muni announced--"whoso discovers that grief comes from affection, will retire into the jungles and there remain." Tiberius had made the discovery. The jungles he selected were the gardens by the sea. And in those gardens, gossip represented him devising new forms of old vice. On the subject every doubt is permissible, and even otherwise, morality then existed in but one form, one which the entire nation observed, wholly, absolutely; that form was patriotism. Chastity was expected of the vestal, but of no one else. The matrons had certain traditions to maintain, certain appearances to preserve, but otherwise morality was unimagined and matrimony unpopular.


Imperial Purple - 3/15

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