"But art thou sure that this will please the people in Achaea?"
"By Poilux, it will!" said Petronius.
And he went away satisfied, for he felt certain that Nero, whose whole life was an arrangement of reality to literary plans, would not spoil the subject, and by this alone he would tie the hands of Tigellinus. This, however, did not change his plan of sending Vinicius out of Rome as soon as Lygia's health should permit. So when he saw him next day, he said,—
"Take her to Sicily. As things have happened, on Caesar's part thou art threatened by nothing; but Tigellinus is ready to use even poison,—if not out of hatred to you both, out of hatred to me."
Vinicius smiled at him, and said: "She was on the horns of the wild bull; still Christ saved her."
"Then honor Him with a hecatomb," replied Petronius, with an accent of impatience, "but do not beg Him to save her a second time. Dost remember how Eolus received Ulysses when he returned to ask a second time for favoring winds? Deities do not like to repeat themselves."
"When her health returns, I will take her to Pomponia Graecina," said Vinicius.
"And thou wilt do that all the better since Pomponia is ill; Antistius, a relative of Aulus, told me so. Meanwhile things will happen here to make people forget thee, and in these times the forgotten are the happiest. May Fortune be thy sun in winter, and thy shade in summer."
Then he left Vinicius to his happiness, but went himself to inquire of Theocles touching the life and health of Lygia.
Danger threatened her no longer. Emaciated as she was in the dungeon after prison fever, foul air and discomfort would have killed her; but now she had the most tender care, and not only plenty, but luxury. At command of Theocles they took her to the gardens of the villa after two days; in these gardens she remained for hours. Vinicius decked her litter with anemones, and especially with irises, to remind her of the atrium of the house of Aulus. More than once, hidden in the shade of spreading trees, they spoke of past sufferings and fears, each holding the other's hand. Lygia said that Christ had conducted him through suffering purposely to change his soul and raise it to Himself. Vinicius felt that this was true, and that there was in him nothing of the former patrician, who knew no law but his own desire. In those memories there was nothing bitter, however. It seemed to both that whole years had gone over their heads, and that the dreadful past lay far behind. At the same time such a calmness possessed them as they had never known before. A new life of immense happiness had come and taken them into itself. In Rome Caesar might rage and fill the world with terror—they felt above them a guardianship a hundred times mightier than his power, and had no further fear of his rage or his malice, just as if for them he had ceased to be the lord of life or death. Once, about sunset, the roar of lions and other beasts reached them from distant vivaria. Formerly those sounds filled Vinicius with fear because they were ominous; now he and Lygia merely looked at each other and raised their eyes to the evening twilight. At times Lygia, still very weak and unable to walk alone, fell asleep in the quiet of the garden; he watched over her, and, looking at her sleeping face, thought involuntarily that she was not that Lygia whom he had met at the house of Aulus. In fact, imprisonment and disease had to some extent quenched her beauty. When he saw her at the house of Aulus, and later, when he went to Miriam's house to seize her, she was as wonderful as a statue and also as a flower; now her face had become almost transparent, her hands thin, her body reduced by disease, her lips pale, and even her eyes seemed less blue than formerly. The golden-haired Eunice who brought her flowers and rich stuffs to cover her feet was a divinity of Cyprus in comparison. Petronius tried in vain to find the former charms in her, and, shrugging his shoulders, thought that that shadow from Elysian fields was not worth those struggles, those pains, and those tortures which had almost sucked the life out of Vinicius. But Vinicius, in love now with her spirit, loved it all the more; and when he was watching over her while asleep, it seemed to him that he was watching over the whole world.
NEWS of the miraculous rescue of Lygia was circulated quickly among those scattered Christians who had escaped destruction. Confessors came to look at her to whom Christ's favor had been shown clearly. First came Nazarius and Miriam, with whom Peter the Apostle was hiding thus far; after them came others. All, as well as Vinicius, Lygia, and the Christian slaves of Petronius, listened with attention to the narrative of Ursus about the voice which he had heard in his soul, and which commanded him to struggle with the wild bull. All went away consoled, hoping that Christ would not let His followers be exterminated on earth before His coming at the day of judgment. And hope sustained their hearts, for persecution had not ceased yet. Whoever was declared a Christian by public report was thrown into prison at once by the city watches. It is true that the victims were fewer, for the majority of confessors had been seized and tortured to death. The Christians who remained had either left Rome to wait out the storm in distant provinces, or had hidden most carefully, not daring to assemble in common prayer, unless in sand-pits outside the city. They were persecuted yet, however, and though the games were at an end, the newly arrested were reserved for future games or punished specially. Though it was believed in Rome no longer that Christians had caused the conflagration, they were declared enemies of humanity and the State, and the edict against them remained in former force.
The Apostle Peter did not venture for a long time to appear in the house of Petronius, but at last on a certain evening Nazarius announced his arrival. Lygia, who was able to walk alone now, and Vinicius ran out to meet him, and fell to embracing his feet. He greeted them with emotion all the greater that not many sheep in that flock over which Christ had given him authority, and over the fate of which his great heart was weeping, remained to him. So when Vinicius said, "Lord, because of thee the Redeemer returned her to me," he answered: "He returned her because of thy faith, and so that not all the lips which profess His name should grow silent." And evidently he was thinking then of those thousands of his children torn by wild beasts, of those crosses with which the arena had been filled, and those fiery pillars in the gardens of the "Beast"; for he spoke with great sadness. Vinicius and Lygia noticed also that his hair had grown entirely white, that his whole form was bent, and that in his face there was as much sadness and suffering as if he had passed through all those pains and torments which the victims of Nero's rage and madness had endured. But both understood that since Christ had given Himself to torture and to death, no one was permitted to avoid it. Still their hearts were cut at sight of the Apostle, bent by years, toil, and pain. So Vinicius, who intended to take Lygia soon to Naples, where they would meet Pomponia and go to Sicily, implored him to leave Rome in their company.
But the Apostle placed his hand on the tribune's head and answered,—
"In my soul I hear these words of the Lord, which He spoke to me on the Lake of Tiberias: 'When thou wert young, thou didst gird thyself, and walk whither thou wouldst; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldst not.' Therefore it is proper that I follow my flock."
And when they were silent, not knowing the sense of his speech, he added,
"My toil is nearing its end; I shall find entertainment and rest only in the house of the Lord."
Then he turned to them saying: "Remember me, for I have loved you as a father loves his children; and whatever ye do in life, do it for the glory of God."
Thus speaking, he raised his aged, trembling hands and blessed them; they nestled up to him, feeling that to be the last blessing, perhaps, which they should receive from him.
It was destined them, however, to see him once more. A few days later Petronius brought terrible news from the Palatine. It had been discovered there that one of Caesar's freedmen was a Christian; and on this man were found letters of the Apostles Peter and Paul, with letters of James, John, and Judas. Peter's presence in Rome was known formerly to Tigellinus, but he thought that the Apostle had perished with thousands of other confessors. Now it transpired that the two leaders of the new faith were alive and in the capital. It was determined, therefore, to seize them at all costs, for it was hoped that with their death the last root of the hated sect would be plucked out. Petronius heard from Vestinius that Caesar himself had issued an order to put Peter and Paul in the Mamertine prison within three days, and that whole detachments of pretorians had been sent to search every house in the Trans-Tiber.
When he heard this, Vinicius resolved to warn the Apostle. In the evening he and Ursus put on Gallic mantles and went to the house of Miriam, where Peter was living. The house was at the very edge of the Trans-Tiber division of the city, at the foot of the Janiculum. On the road they saw houses surrounded by soldiers, who were guided by certain unknown persons. This division of the city was alarmed, and in places crowds of curious people had assembled. Here and there centurions interrogated prisoners touching Simon Peter and Paul of Tarsus.
Ursus and Vinicius were in advance of the soldiers, and went safely to Miriam's house, in which they found Peter surrounded by a handful of the faithful. Timothy, Paul's assistant, and Linus were at the side of the Apostle.
At news of the approaching danger, Nazarius led all by a hidden passage to the garden gate, and then to deserted stone quarries, a few hundred yards distant from the Janiculum Gate. Ursus had to carry Linus, whose bones, broken by torture, had not grown together yet. But once in the quarry, they felt safe; and by the light of a torch ignited by Nazarius they began to consult, in a low voice, how to save the life of the Apostle who was so dear to them.
"Lord," said Vinicius, "let Nazarius guide thee at daybreak to the Alban Hills. There I will find thee, and we will take thee to Antium, where a ship is ready to take us to Naples and Sicily. Blessed will the day and the hour be in which thou shalt enter my house, and thou wilt bless my hearth."
The others heard this with delight, and pressed the Apostle, saying,
"Hide thyself, sacred leader; remain not in Rome. Preserve the living truth, so that it perish not with us and thee. Hear us, who entreat thee as a father."
"Do this in Christ's name!" cried others, grasping at his robes.
"My children," answered Peter, "who knows the time when the Lord will mark the end of his life?"
But he did not say that he would not leave Rome, and he hesitated what to do; for uncertainty, and even fear, had been creeping into his soul for some time. His flock was scattered; the work was wrecked; that church, which before the burning of the city had been flourishing like a splendid tree, was turned into dust by the power of the "Beast." Nothing remained save tears, nothing save memories of torture and death. The sowing had yielded rich fruit, but Satan had trampled it into the earth. Legions of angels had not come to aid the perishing,—and Nero was extending in glory over the earth, terrible, mightier than ever, the lord of all seas and all lands. More than once had that fisherman of the Lord stretched his hands heavenward in loneliness and asked: "Lord, what must I do? How must I act? And how am I, a feeble old man, to fight with this invincible power of Evil, which Thou hart permitted to rule, and have victory?"
And he called out thus in the depth of his immense pain, repeating in spirit: "Those sheep which Thou didst command me to feed are no more, Thy church is no more; loneliness and mourning are in Thy capital; what dost Thou command me to do now? Am I to stay here, or lead forth the remnant of the flock to glorify Thy name in secret somewhere beyond the sea?"
And he hesitated, He believed that the living truth would not perish, that it must conquer; but at moments he thought that the hour had not come yet, that it would come only when the Lord should descend to the earth in the day of judgment in glory and power a hundred times greater than the might of Nero.
Frequently it seemed to him that if he left Rome, the faithful would follow; that he would lead them then far away to the shady groves of Galilee, to the quiet surface of the Lake of Tiberias, to shepherds as peaceful as doves, or as sheep, who feed there among thyme and pepperwort. And an increasing desire for peace and rest, an increasing yearning for the lake and Galilee, seized the heart of the fisherman; tears came more frequently to the old man's eyes.
But at the moment when he made the choice, sudden alarm and fear came on him. How was he to leave that city, in which so much martyrs' blood had sunk into the earth, and where so many lips had given the true testimony of the dying? Was he alone to yield? And what would he answer the Lord on hearing the words, "These have died for the faith, but thou didst flee"?
Nights and days passed for him in anxiety and suffering. Others, who had been torn by lions, who had been fastened to crosses, who had been burnt in the gardens of Caesar, had fallen asleep in the Lord after moments of torture; but he could not sleep, and he felt greater tortures than any of those invented by executioners for victims. Often was the dawn whitening the roofs of houses while he was still crying from the depth of his mourning heart: "Lord, why didst Thou command me to come hither and found Thy capital in the den of the 'Beast'?"
For thirty-three years after the death of his Master he knew no rest. Staff in hand, he had gone through the world and declared the "good tidings." His strength had been exhausted in journeys and toil, till at last, when in that city, which was the head of the world, he had established the work of his Master, one bloody breath of wrath had burned it, and he saw that there was need to take up the struggle anew. And what a struggle! On one side Caesar, the Senate, the people, the legions holding the world with a circle of iron, countless cities, countless lands,—power such as the eye of man had not seen; on the other side he, so bent with age and toil that his trembling hand was hardly able to carry his staff.
At times, therefore, he said to himself that it was not for him to measure with the Caesar of Rome,—that Christ alone could do that.
All these thoughts were passing through his care-filled head, when he heard the prayers of the last handful of the faithful. They, surrounding him in an ever narrowing circle, repeated with voices of entreaty,—
"Hide thyself, Rabbi, and lead us away from the power of the 'Beast.'"
Finally Linus also bowed his tortured head before him.
"O lord," said he, "the Redeemer commanded thee to feed His sheep, but they are here no longer or to-morrow they will not be here; go, therefore, where thou mayst find them yet. The word of God is living still in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, and in other cities. What wilt thou do by remaining in Rome? If thou fall, thou wilt merely swell the triumph of the 'Beast.' The Lord has not designated the limit of John's life; Paul is a Roman citizen, they cannot condemn him without trial; but if the power of hell rise up against thee, O teacher, those whose hearts are dejected will ask, 'Who is above Nero?' Thou art the rock on which the church of God is founded. Let us die, but permit not the victory of Antichrist over the viceregent of God, and return not hither till the Lord has crushed him who shed innocent blood."
"Look at our tears!" repeated all who were present.
Tears flowed over Peter's face too. After a while he rose, and, stretching his hands over the kneeling figures, said,—
"May the name of the Lord be magnified, and may His will be done!"
About dawn of the following day two dark figures were moving along the Appian Way toward the Campania.
One of them was Nazarius; the other the Apostle Peter, who was leaving Rome and his martyred co-religionists.
The sky in the east was assuming a light tinge of green, bordered gradually and more distinctly on the lower edge with saffron color. Silver-leafed trees, the white marble of villas, and the arches of aqueducts, stretching through the plain toward the city, were emerging from shade. The greenness of the sky was clearing gradually, and becoming permeated with gold. Then the east began to grow rosy and illuminate the Alban Hills, which seemed marvellously beautiful, lily-colored, as if formed of rays of light alone.
The light was reflected in trembling leaves of trees, in the dew-drops. The haze grew thinner, opening wider and wider views on the plain, on the houses dotting it, on the cemeteries, on the towns, and on groups of trees, among which stood white columns of temples.
The road was empty. The villagers who took vegetables to the city had not succeeded yet, evidently, in harnessing beasts to their vehicles. From the stone blocks with which the road was paved as far as the mountains, there came a low sound from the bark shoes on the feet of the two travellers.
Then the sun appeared over the line of hills; but at once a wonderful vision struck the Apostle's eyes. It seemed to him that the golden circle, instead of rising in the sky, moved down from the heights and was advancing on the road. Peter stopped, and asked,—
"Seest thou that brightness approaching us?"
"I see nothing," replied Nazarius.
But Peter shaded his eyes with his hand, and said after a while,
"Some figure is coming in the gleam of the sun." But not the slightest sound of steps reached their ears. It was perfectly still all around. Nazarius saw only that the trees were quivering in the distance, as if some one were shaking them, and the light was spreading more broadly over the plain. He looked with wonder at the Apostle.
"Rabbi! what ails thee?" cried he, with alarm.
The pilgrim's staff fell from Peter's hands to the earth; his eyes were looking forward, motionless; his mouth was open; on his face were depicted astonishment, delight, rapture.
Then he threw himself on his knees, his arms stretched forward; and this cry left his lips,—
"O Christ! O Christ!"
He fell with his face to the earth, as if kissing some one's feet.
The silence continued long; then were heard the words of the aged man, broken by sobs,—
"Quo vadis, Domine?"
Nazarius did not hear the answer; but to Peter's ears came a sad and sweet voice, which said,—
"If thou desert my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time."
The Apostle lay on the ground, his face in the dust, without motion or speech. It seemed to Nazarius that he had fainted or was dead; but he rose at last, seized the staff with trembling hands, and turned without a word toward the seven hills of the city.
The boy, seeing this, repeated as an echo,—
"Quo vadis, Domine?"
"To Rome," said the Apostle, in a low voice.
And he returned.
Paul, John, Linus, and all the faithful received him with amazement; and the alarm was the greater, since at daybreak, just after his departure, pretorians had surrounded Miriam's house and searched it for the Apostle. But to every question he answered only with delight and peace,—
"I have seen the Lord!"
And that same evening he went to the Ostian cemetery to teach and baptize those who wished to bathe in the water of life.
And thenceforward he went there daily, and after him went increasing numbers. It seemed that out of every tear of a martyr new confessors were born, and that every groan on the arena found an echo in thousands of breasts. Caesar was swimming in blood, Rome and the whole pagan world was mad. But those who had had enough of transgression and madness, those who were trampled upon, those whose lives were misery and oppression, all the weighed down, all the sad, all the unfortunate, came to hear the wonderful tidings of God, who out of love for men had given Himself to be crucified and redeem their sins.
When they found a God whom they could love, they had found that which the society of the time could not give any one,—happiness and love.
And Peter understood that neither Caesar nor all his legions could overcome the living truth,—that they could not overwhelm it with tears or blood, and that now its victory was beginning. He understood with equal force why the Lord had turned him back on the road. That city of pride, crime, wickedness, and power was beginning to be His city, and the double capital, from which would flow out upon the world government of souls and bodies.
AT last the hour was accomplished for both Apostles. But, as if to complete his service, it was given to the fisherman of the Lord to win two souls even in confinement. The soldiers, Processus and Martinianus, who guarded him in the Mamertine prison, received baptism. Then came the hour of torture. Nero was not in Rome at that time. Sentence was passed by Helius and Polythetes, two freedmen to whom Caesar had confided the government of Rome during his absence.
On the aged Apostle had been inflicted the stripes prescribed by law; and next day he was led forth beyond the walls of the city, toward the Vatican Hill, where he was to suffer the punishment of the cross assigned to him. Soldiers were astonished by the crowd which had gathered before the prison, for in their minds the death of a common man, and besides a foreigner, should not rouse such interest; they did not understand that that retinue was composed not of sightseers, but confessors, anxious to escort the great Apostle to the place of execution. In the afternoon the gates of the prison were thrown open at last, and Peter appeared in the midst of a detachment of pretorians. The sun had inclined somewhat toward Ostia already; the day was clear and calm. Because of his advanced age, Peter was not required to carry the cross; it was supposed that he could not carry it; they had not put the fork on his neck, either, so as not to retard his pace. He walked without hindrance, and the faithful could see him perfectly.
At moments when his white head showed itself among the iron helmets of the soldiers, weeping was heard in the crowd; but it was restrained immediately, for the face of the old man had in it so much calmness, and was so bright with joy, that all understood him to be not a victim going to destruction, but a victor celebrating his triumph.
And thus it was really. The fisherman, usually humble and stooping, walked now erect, taller than the soldiers, full of dignity. Never had men seen such majesty in his bearing. It might have seemed that he was a monarch attended by people and military. From every side voices were raised,—
"There is Peter going to the Lord!"
All forgot, as it were, that torture and death were waiting for him. He walked with solemn attention, but with calmness, feeling that since the death on Golgotha nothing equally important had happened, and that as the first death had redeemed the whole world, this was to redeem the city.
Along the road people halted from wonder at sight of that old man; but believers, laying hands on their shoulders, said with calm voices,—
"See how a just man goes to death,—one who knew Christ and proclaimed love to the world."
These became thoughtful, and walked away, saying to themselves, "He cannot, indeed, be unjust!"
Along the road noise was hushed, and the cries of the street. The retinue moved on before houses newly reared, before white columns of temples, over whose summits hung the deep sky, calm and blue. They went in quiet; only at times the weapons of the soldiers clattered, or the murmur of prayer rose. Peter heard the last, and his face grew bright with increasing joy, for his glance could hardly take in those thousands of confessors. He felt that he had done his work, and he knew now that that truth which he had been declaring all his life would overwhelm everything, like a sea, and that nothing would have power to restrain it. And thus thinking, he raised his eyes, and said: "O Lord, Thou didst command me to conquer this world-ruling city; hence I have conquered it. Thou hast commanded me to found here Thy capital; hence I have founded it. This is Thy city now, O Lord, and I go to Thee, for I have toiled greatly."
As he passed before temples, he said to them, "Ye will be temples of Christ." Looking at throngs of people moving before his eyes, he said to them, "Your children will be servants of Christ"; and he advanced with the feeling that he had conquered, conscious of his service, conscious of his strength, solaced,—great. The soldiers conducted him over the Pons Triumphalis, as if giving involuntary testimony to his triumph, and they led him farther toward the Naumachia and the Circus. The faithful from beyond the Tiber joined the procession; and such a throng of people was formed that the centurion commanding the pretonians understood at last that he was leading a high-priest surrounded by believers, and grew alarmed because of the small number of soldiers. But no cry of indignation or rage was given out in the throng. Men's faces were penetrated with the greatness of the moment, solemn and full of expectation. Some believers, remembering that when the Lord died the earth opened from fright and the dead rose from their graves, thought that now some evident signs would appear, after which the death of the Apostle would not be forgotten for ages. Others said to themselves, "Perhaps the Lord will select the hour of Peter's death to come from heaven as He promised, and judge the world." With this idea they recommended themselves to the mercy of the Redeemer.
But round about there was calm. The hills seemed to be warming themselves, and resting in the sun. The procession stopped at last between the Circus and the Vatican Hill. Soldiers began now to dig a hole; others placed on the ground the cross, hammers, and nails, waiting till all preparations were finished. The crowd, continuing quiet and attentive, knelt round about.
The Apostle, with his head in the sun-rays and golden light, turned for the last time toward the city. At a distance lower down was seen the gleaming Tiber; beyond was the Campus Martius; higher up, the Mausoleum of Augustus; below that, the gigantic baths just begun by Nero; still lower, Pompey's theatre; and beyond them were visible in places, and in places hidden by other buildings, the Septa Julia, a multitude of porticos, temples, columns, great edifices; and, finally, far in the distance, hills covered with houses, a gigantic resort of people, the borders of which vanished in the blue haze,—an abode of crime, but of power; of madness, but of order,—which had become the head of the world, its oppressor, but its law and its peace, almighty, invincible, eternal.
But Peter, surrounded by soldiers, looked at the city as a ruler and king looks at his inheritance. And he said to it, "Thou art redeemed and mine!" And no one, not merely among the soldiers digging the hole in which to plant the cross, but even among believers, could divine that standing there among them was the true ruler of that moving life; that Caesars would pass away, waves of barbarians go by, and ages vanish, but that old man would be lord there unbrokenly.
The sun had sunk still more toward Ostia, and had become large and red. The whole western side of the sky had begun to glow with immense brightness. The soldiers approached Peter to strip him.
But he, while praying, straightened himself all at once, and stretched his right hand high. The executioners stopped, as if made timid by his posture; the faithful held the breath in their breasts, thinking that he wished to say something, and silence unbroken followed.
But he, standing on the height, with his extended right hand made the sign of the cross, blessing in the hour of death,—
Urbi et orbi! (the city and the world).
In that same wonderful evening another detachment of soldiers conducted along the Ostian Way Paul of Tarsus toward a place called Aquae Salviae. And behind him also advanced a crowd of the faithful whom he had converted; but when he recognized near acquaintances, he halted and conversed with them, for, being a Roman citizen, the guard showed more respect to him. Beyond the gate called Tergemina he met Plautilla, the daughter of the prefect Flavius Sabinus, and, seeing her youthful face covered with tears, he said: "Plautilla, daughter of Eternal Salvation, depart in peace. Only give me a veil with which to bind my eyes when I am going to the Lord." And taking it, he advanced with a face as full of delight as that of a laborer who when he has toiled the whole day successfully is returning home. His thoughts, like those of Peter, were as calm and quiet as that evening sky. His eyes gazed with thoughtfulness upon the plain which stretched out before him, and to the Alban Hills, immersed in light. He remembered his journeys, his toils, his labor, the struggles in which he had conquered, the churches which he had founded in all lands and beyond all seas; and he thought that he had earned his rest honestly, that he had finished his work. He felt now that the seed which he had planted would not be blown away by the wind of malice. He was leaving this life with the certainty that in the battle which his truth had declared against the world it would conquer; and a mighty peace settled down on his soul.
The road to the place of execution was long, and evening was coming. The mountains became purple, and the bases of them went gradually into the shade. Flocks were returning home. Here and there groups of slaves were walking with the tools of labor on their shoulders. Children, playing on the road before houses, looked with curiosity at the passing soldiers. But in that evening, in that transparent golden air, there were not only peace and lovingness, but a certain harmony, which seemed to lift from earth to heaven. Paul felt this; and his heart was filled with delight at the thought that to that harmony of the world he had added one note which had not been in it hitherto, but without which the whole earth was like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
He remembered how he had taught people love,—how he had told them that though they were to give their property to the poor, though they knew all languages, all secrets, and all sciences, they would be nothing without love, which is kind, enduring, which does not return evil, which does not desire honor, suffers all things, believes all things, hopes all things, is patient of all things.
And so his life had passed in teaching people this truth. And now he said in spirit: What power can equal it, what can conquer it? Could Caesar stop it, though he had twice as many legions and twice as many cities, seas, lands, and nations?
And he went to his reward like a conqueror.
The detachment left the main road at last, and turned toward the east on a narrow path leading to the Aquae Salviae. The red sun was lying now on the heather. The centurion stopped the soldiers at the fountain, for the moment had come.
Paul placed Plautilla's veil on his arm, intending to bind his eyes with it; for the last time he raised those eyes, full of unspeakable peace, toward the eternal light of the evening, and prayed. Yes, the moment had come; but he saw before him a great road in the light, leading to heaven; and in his soul he repeated the same words which formerly he had written in the feeling of his own finished service and his near end,—
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness."
ROME had gone mad for a long time, so that the world-conquering city seemed ready at last to tear itself to pieces for want of leadership. Even before the last hour of the Apostles had struck, Piso's conspiracy appeared; and then such merciless reaping of Rome's highest heads, that even to those who saw divinity in Nero, he seemed at last a divinity of death. Mourning fell on the city, terror took its lodgment in houses and in hearts, but porticos were crowned with ivy and flowers, for it was not permitted to show sorrow for the dead. People waking in the morning asked themselves whose turn would come next. The retinue of ghosts following Caesar increased every day.
Piso paid for the conspiracy with his head; after him followed Seneca, and Lucan, Fenius Rufus, and Plautius Lateranus, and Flavius Scevinus, and Afranius Quinetianus, and the dissolute companion of Caesar's madnesses, Tullius Senecio, and Proculus, and Araricus, and Tugurinus, and Gratus, and Silanus, and Proximus,—once devoted with his whole soul to Nero,—and Sulpicius Asper. Some were destroyed by their own insignificance, some by fear, some by wealth, others by bravery. Caesar, astonished at the very number of the conspirators, covered the walls with soldiery and held the city as if by siege, sending out daily centurions with sentences of death to suspected houses. The condemned humiliated themselves in letters filled with flattery, thanking Caesar for his sentences, and leaving him a part of their property, so as to save the rest for their children. It seemed, at last, that Nero was exceeding every measure on purpose to convince himself of the degree in which men had grown abject, and how long they would endure bloody rule. After the conspirators, their relatives were executed; then their friends, and even simple acquaintances. Dwellers in lordly mansions built after the fire, when they went out on the street, felt sure of seeing a whole row of funerals. Pompeius, Cornelius, Martialis, Flavius Nepos, and Statius Domitius died because accused of lack of love for Caesar; Novius Priscus, as a friend of Seneca. Rufius Crispus was deprived of the right of fire and water because on a time he had been the husband of Poppaea. The great Thrasea was ruined by his virtue; many paid with their lives for noble origin; even Poppaea fell a victim to the momentary rage of Nero.
The Senate crouched before the dreadful ruler; it raised a temple in his honor, made an offering in favor of his voice, crowned his statues, appointed priests to him as to a divinity. Senators, trembling in their souls, went to the Palatine to magnify the song of the "Periodonices," and go wild with him amid orgies of naked bodies, wine, and flowers.
But meanwhile from below, in the field soaked in blood and tears, rose the sowing of Peter, stronger and stronger every moment.
VINICIUS to PETRONIUS:
"We know, carissime, most of what is happening in Rome, and what we do not know is told us in thy letters. When one casts a stone in the water, the wave goes farther and farther in a circle; so the wave of madness and malice has come from the Palatine to us. On the road to Greece, Carinas was sent hither by Caesar, who plundered cities and temples to fill the empty treasury. At the price of the sweat and tears of people, he is building the 'golden house' in Rome. It is possible that the world has not seen such a house, but it has not seen such injustice. Thou knowest Carinas. Chilo was like him till he redeemed his life with death. But to the towns lying nearer us his men have not come yet, perhaps because there are no temples or treasures in them. Thou askest if we are out of danger. I answer that we are out of mind, and let that suffice for an answer. At this moment, from the portico under which I write, I see our calm bay, and on it Ursus in a boat, letting down a net in the clear water. My wife is spinning red wool near me, and in the gardens, under the shade of almond-trees, our slaves are singing. Oh, what calm carissime, and what a forgetfulness of former fear and suffering! But it is not the Parcae as thou writest, who spin out our lives so agreeably; it is Christ who is blessing us, our beloved God and Saviour. We know tears and sorrow, for our religion teaches us to weep over the misfortunes of others; but in these tears is a consolation unknown to thee; for whenever the time of our life is ended, we shall find all those dear ones who perished and who are perishing yet for God's truth. For us Peter and Paul are not dead; they are merely born into glory. Our souls see them, and when our eyes weep our hearts are glad with their joy. Oh, yes, my dear friend, we are happy with a happiness which nothing can destroy, since death, which for thee is the end of everything, is for us only a passage into superior rest.
"And so days and months pass here in calmness of heart. Our servants and slaves believe, as we do, in Christ, and that He enjoins love; hence we love one another. Frequently, when the sun has gone down, or when the moon is shining in the water, Lygia and I talk of past times, which seem a dream to us; but when I think how that dear head was near torture and death, I magnify my Lord with my whole soul, for out of those hands He alone could wrest her, save her from the arena, and return her to me forever. O Petronius, thou hast seen what endurance and comfort that religion gives in misfortune, how much patience and courage before death; so come and see how much happiness it gives in ordinary, common days of life. People thus far did not know a God whom man could love, hence they did not love one another; and from that came their misfortune, for as light comes from the sun, so does happiness come from love. Neither lawgivers nor philosophers taught this truth, and it did not exist in Greece or Rome; and when I say, not in Rome, that means the whole world. The dry and cold teaching of the Stoics, to which virtuous people rally, tempers the heart as a sword is tempered, but it makes it indifferent rather than better. Though why do I write this to thee, who hast learned more, and hast more understanding than I have? Thou wert acquainted with Paul of Tarsus, and more than once didst converse long with him; hence thou knowest better if in comparison with the truth which he taught all the teachings of philosophers and rhetors are not a vain and empty jingle of words without meaning. Thou rememberest the question which he put thee: 'But if Caesar were a Christian, would ye not all feel safer, surer of possessing that which ye possess, free of alarm, and sure of to-morrow?' Thou didst say to me that our teaching was an enemy of life; and I answer thee now, that, if from the beginning of this letter I had been repeating only the three words, 'I am happy!' I could not have expressed my happiness to thee. To this thou wilt answer, that my happiness is Lygia. True, my friend. Because I love her immortal soul, and because we both love each other in Christ; for such love there is no separation, no deceit, no change, no old age, no death. For, when youth and beauty pass, when our bodies wither and death comes, love will remain, for the spirit remains. Before my eyes were open to the light I was ready to burn my own house even, for Lygia's sake; but now I tell thee that I did not love her, for it was Christ who first taught me to love. In Him is the source of peace and happiness. It is not I who say this, but reality itself. Compare thy own luxury, my friend, lined with alarm, thy delights, not sure of a morrow, thy orgies, with the lives of Christians, and thou wilt find a ready answer. But, to compare better, come to our mountains with the odor of thyme, to our shady olive groves on our shores lined with ivy. A peace is waiting for thee, such as thou hast not known for a long time, and hearts that love thee sincerely. Thou, having a noble soul and a good one, shouldst be happy. Thy quick mind can recognize the truth, and knowing it thou wilt love it. To be its enemy, like Caesar and Tigellinus, is possible, but indifferent to it no one can be. O my Petronius, Lygia and I are comforting ourselves with the hope of seeing thee soon. Be well, be happy, and come to us."
Petronius received this letter in Cumae, whither he had gone with other Augustians who were following Caesar. His struggle of long years with Tigellinus was nearing its end. Petronius knew already that he must fall in that struggle, and he understood why. As Caesar fell lower daily to the role of a comedian, a buffoon, and a charioteer; as he sank deeper in a sickly, foul, and coarse dissipation,—the exquisite arbiter became a mere burden to him. Even when Petronius was silent, Nero saw blame in his silence; when the arbiter praised, he saw ridicule. The brilliant patrician annoyed his self-love and roused his envy. His wealth and splendid works of art had become an object of desire both to the ruler and the all-powerful minister. Petronius was spared so far in view of the journey to Achaea, in which his taste, his knowledge of everything Greek, might be useful. But gradually Tigellinus explained to Caesar that Carinas surpassed him in taste and knowledge, and would be better able to arrange in Achaea games, receptions, and triumphs. From that moment Petronius was lost. There was not courage to send him his sentence in Rome. Caesar and Tigellinus remembered that that apparently effeminate and aesthetic person, who made "day out of night," and was occupied only in luxury, art, and feasts, had shown amazing industry and energy, when proconsul in Bithynia and later when consul in the capital. They considered him capable of anything, and it was known that in Rome he possessed not only the love of the people, but even of the pretorians. None of Caesar's confidants could foresee how Petronius might act in a given case; it seemed wiser, therefore, to entice him out of the city, and reach him in a province.
With this object he received an invitation to go to Cumae with other Augustians. He went, though suspecting the ambush, perhaps so as not to appear in open opposition, perhaps to show once more a joyful face devoid of every care to Caesar and the Augustians, and to gain a last victory before death over Tigellinus.
Meanwhile the latter accused him of friendship with the Senator Scevinus, who was the soul of Piso's conspiracy. The people of Petronius, left in Rome, were imprisoned; his house was surrounded by pretorian guards. When he learned this, he showed neither alarm nor concern, and with a smile said to Augustians whom he received in his own splendid villa in Cumae,—
"Ahenobarbus does not like direct questions; hence ye will see his confusion when I ask him if it was he who gave command to imprison my 'familia' in the capital."
Then he invited them to a feast "before the longer journey," and he had just made preparations for it when the letter from Vinicius came.
When he received this letter, Petronius grew somewhat thoughtful, but after a time his face regained its usual composure, and that same evening he answered as follows:—
"I rejoice at your happiness and admire your hearts, for I had not thought that two lovers could remember a third person who was far away. Ye have not only not forgotten me, but ye wish to persuade me to go to Sicily, so that ye may share with me your bread and your Christ, who, as thou writest, has given you happiness so bountifully.
"If that be true, honor Him. To my thinking, however, Ursus had something to do with saving Lygia, and the Roman people also had a little to do with it. But since thy belief is that Christ did the work, I will not contradict. Spare no offerings to Him. Prometheus also sacrificed himself for man; but, alas! Prometheus is an invention of the poets apparently, while people worthy of credit have told me that they saw Christ with their own eyes. I agree with thee that He is the most worthy of the gods.
"I remember the question by Paul of Tarsus, and I think that if Ahenobarbus lived according to Christ's teaching I might have time to visit you in Sicily. In that case we could converse, in the shade of trees and near fountains, of all the gods and all the truths discussed by Greek philosophers at any time. To-day I must give thee a brief answer.
"I care for two philosophers only: Pyrrho and Anacreon. I am ready to sell the rest to thee cheaply, with all the Greek and Roman Stoics. Truth, Vinicius, dwells somewhere so high that the gods themselves cannot see it from the top of Olympus. To thee, carissime, thy Olympus seems higher still, and, standing there, thou callest to me, 'Come, thou wilt see such sights as thou hast not seen yet!' I might. But I answer, 'I have not feet for the journey.' And if thou read this letter to the end, thou wilt acknowledge, I think, that I am right.
"No, happy husband of the Aurora princess! thy religion is not for me. Am I to love the Bithynians who carry my litter, the Egyptians who heat my bath? Am I to love Ahenobarbus and Tigellinus? I swear by the white knees of the Graces, that even if I wished to love them I could not. In Rome there are a hundred thousand persons at least who have either crooked shoulders, or big knees, or thin thighs, or staring eyes, or heads that are too large. Dost thou command me to love these too? Where am I to find the love, since it is not in my heart? And if thy God desires me to love such persons, why in His all might did He not give them the forms of Niobe's children, for example, which thou hast seen on the Palatine? Whoso loves beauty is unable for that very reason to love deformity. One may not believe in our gods, but it is possible to love them, as Phidias, Praxiteles, Miron, Skopas, and Lysias loved.
"Should I wish to go whither thou wouldst lead me, I could not. But since I do not wish, I am doubly unable. Thou believest, like Paul of Tarsus, that on the other side of the Styx thou wilt see thy Christ in certain Elysian fields. Let Him tell thee then Himself whether He would receive me with my gems, my Myrrhene vase, my books published by Sozius, and my golden-haired Eunice. I laugh at this thought; for Paul of Tarsus told me that for Christ's sake one must give up wreaths of roses, feasts, and luxury. It is true that he promised me other happiness, but I answered that I was too old for new happiness, that my eyes would be delighted always with roses, and that the odor of violets is dearer to me than stench from my foul neighbor of the Subura.
"These are reasons why thy happiness is not for me. But there is one reason more, which I have reserved for the last: Thanatos summons me. For thee the light of life is beginning; but my sun has set, and twilight is embracing my head. In other words, I must die, carissime.
"It is not worth while to talk long of this. It had to end thus. Thou, who knowest Ahenobarbus, wilt understand the position easily. Tigellinus has conquered, or rather my victories have touched their end. I have lived as I wished, and I will die as pleases me.
"Do not take this to heart. No God has promised me immortality; hence no surprise meets me. At the same time thou art mistaken, Vinicius, in asserting that only thy God teaches man to die calmly. No. Our world knew, before thou wert born, that when the last cup was drained, it was time to go,—time to rest,—and it knows yet how to do that with calmness. Plato declares that virtue is music, that the life of a sage is harmony. If that be true, I shall die as I have lived,—virtuously.
"I should like to take farewell of thy godlike wife in the words with which on a time I greeted her in the house of Aulus, 'Very many persons have I seen, but thy equal I know not.'
"If the soul is more than what Pyrrho thinks, mine will fly to thee and Lygia, on its way to the edge of the ocean, and will alight at your house in the form of a butterfly or, as the Egyptians believe, in the form of a sparrowhawk. Otherwise I cannot come.
"Meanwhile let Sicily replace for you the gardens of Hesperides; may the goddesses of the fields, woods, and fountains scatter flowers on your path, and may white doves build their nests on every acanthus of the columns of your house."
PETRONIUS was not mistaken. Two days later young Nerva, who had always been friendly and devoted, sent his freedman to Cumae with news of what was happening at the court of Caesar.
The death of Petronius had been determined. On the morning of the following day they intended to send him a centurion, with the order to stop at Cumae, and wait there for further instructions; the next messenger, to follow a few days later, was to bring the death sentence.
Petronius heard the news with unruffled calmness.
"Thou wilt take to thy lord," said he, "one of my vases; say from me that I thank him with my whole soul, for now I am able to anticipate the sentence."
And all at once he began to laugh, like a man who has came upon a perfect thought, and rejoices in advance at its fulfilment.
That same afternoon his slaves rushed about, inviting the Augustians, who were staying in Cumae, and all the ladies, to a magnificent banquet at the villa of the arbiter.
He wrote that afternoon in the library; next he took a bath, after which he commanded the vestiplicae to arrange his dress. Brilliant and stately as one of the gods, he went to the triclinium, to cast the eye of a critic on the preparations, and then to the gardens, where youths and Grecian maidens from the islands were weaving wreaths of roses for the evening.
Not the least care was visible on his face. The servants only knew that the feast would be something uncommon, for he had issued a command to give unusual rewards to those with whom he was satisfied, and some slight blows to all whose work should not please him, or who had deserved blame or punishment earlier. To the cithara players and the singers he had ordered beforehand liberal pay. At last, sitting in the garden under a beech, through whose leaves the sun-rays marked the earth with bright spots, he called Eunice.
She came, dressed in white, with a sprig of myrtle in her hair, beautiful as one of the Graces. He seated her at his side, and, touching her temple gently with his fingers, he gazed at her with that admiration with which a critic gazes at a statue from the chisel of a master.
"Eunice," asked he, "dost thou know that thou art not a slave this long time?"
She raised to him her calm eyes, as blue as the sky, and denied with a motion of her head.
"I am thine always," said she.
"But perhaps thou knowest not," continued Petronius, "that the villa, and those slaves twining wreaths here, and all which is in the villa, with the fields and the herds, are thine henceforward."
Eunice, when she heard this, drew away from him quickly, and asked in a voice filled with sudden fear,—
"Why dost thou tell me this?"
Then she approached again, and looked at him, blinking with amazement. After a while her face became as pale as linen. He smiled, and said only one word,—
A moment of silence followed; merely a slight breeze moved the leaves of the beech.
Petronius might have thought that before him was a statue cut from white marble.
"Eunice," said he, "I wish to die calmly."
And the maiden, looking at him with a heart-rending smile, whispered,—
"I hear thee."
In the evening the guests, who had been at feasts given by Petronius previously, and knew that in comparison with them even Caesar's banquets seemed tiresome and barbarous, began to arrive in numbers. To no one did it occur, even, that that was to be the last "symposium." Many knew, it is true, that the clouds of Caesar's anger were hanging over the exquisite arbiter; but that had happened so often, and Petronius had been able so often to scatter them by some dexterous act or by a single bold word, that no one thought really that serious danger threatened him. His glad face and usual smile, free of care, confirmed all, to the last man, in that opinion. The beautiful Eunice, to whom he had declared his wish to die calmly, and for whom every word of his was like an utterance of fate, had in her features a perfect calmness, and in her eyes a kind of wonderful radiance, which might have been considered delight. At the door of the triclinium, youths with hair in golden nets put wreaths of roses on the heads of the guests, warning them, as the custom was, to pass the threshold right foot foremost. In the hall there was a slight odor of violets; the lamps burned in Alexandrian glass of various colors. At the couches stood Grecian maidens, whose office it was to moisten the feet of guests with perfumes. At the walls cithara players and Athenian choristers were waiting for the signal of their leader.
The table service gleamed with splendor, but that splendor did not offend or oppress; it seemed a natural development. Joyousness and freedom spread through the hall with the odor of violets. The guests as they entered felt that neither threat nor constraint was hanging over them, as in Caesar's house, where a man might forfeit his life for praises not sufficiently great or sufficiently apposite. At sight of the lamps, the goblets entwined with ivy, the wine cooling on banks of snow, and the exquisite dishes, the hearts of the guests became joyous. Conversation of various kinds began to buzz, as bees buzz on an apple tree in blossom. At moments it was interrupted by an outburst of glad laughter, at moments by murmurs of applause, at moments by a kiss placed too loudly on some white shoulder.
The guests, while drinking wine, spilled from their goblets a few drops to the immortal gods, to gain their protection, and their favor for the host. It mattered not that many of them had no belief in the gods. Custom and superstition prescribed it. Petronius, inclining near Eunice, talked of Rome, of the latest divorces, of love affairs, of the races, of Spiculus, who had become famous recently in the arena, and of the latest books in the shops of Atractus and the Sozii. When he spilled wine, he said that he spilled it only in honor of the Lady of Cyprus, the most ancient divinity and the greatest, the only immortal, enduring, and ruling one.
His conversation was like sunlight which lights up some new object every instant, or like the summer breeze which stirs flowers in a garden. At last he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and at that signal the citharae began to sound lightly, and youthful voices accompanied. Then maidens from Kos, the birthplace of Eunice, danced, and showed their rosy forms through robes of gauze. Finally, an Egyptian soothsayer told the guests their future from the movement of rainbow colors in a vessel of crystal.
When they had enough of these amusements, Petronius rose somewhat on his Syrian cushion, and said with hesitation,—
"Pardon me, friends, for asking a favor at a feast. Will each man accept as a gift that goblet from which he first shook wine in honor of the gods and to my prosperity?"
The goblets of Petronius were gleaming in gold, precious stones, and the carving of artists; hence, though gift giving was common in Rome, delight filled every heart. Some thanked him loudly: others said that Jove had never honored gods with such gifts in Olympus; finally, there were some who refused to accept, since the gifts surpassed common estimate.
But he raised aloft the Myrrhene vase, which resembled a rainbow in brilliancy, and was simply beyond price.
"This," said he, "is the one out of which I poured in honor of the Lady of Cyprus. The lips of no man may touch it henceforth, and no hand may ever pour from it in honor of another divinity."
He cast the precious vessel to the pavement, which was covered with lily-colored saffron flowers; and when it was broken into small pieces, he said, seeing around him astonished faces,—
"My dear friends, be glad and not astonished. Old age and weakness are sad attendants in the last years of life. But I will give you a good example and good advice: Ye have the power, as ye see, not to wait for old age; ye can depart before it comes, as I do."
"What dost thou wish?" asked a number of voices, with alarm.
"I wish to rejoice, to drink wine, to hear music, to look on those divine forms which ye see around me, and fall asleep with a garlanded head. I have taken farewell of Caesar, and do ye wish to hear what I wrote him at parting?"
He took from beneath the purple cushion a paper, and read as follows:—
"I know, O Caesar, that thou art awaiting my arrival with impatience, that thy true heart of a friend is yearning day and night for me. I know that thou art ready to cover me with gifts, make me prefect of the pretorian guards, and command Tigellinus to be that which the gods made him, a mule-driver in those lands which thou didst inherit after poisoning Domitius. Pardon me, however, for I swear to thee by Hades, and by the shades of thy mother, thy wife, thy brother, and Seneca, that I cannot go to thee. Life is a great treasure. I have taken the most precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there are many things which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that I am offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother; that thou didst burn Rome and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy dominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man; from thee other deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy one's ear for whole years with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a Domitius on slim legs whirled about in Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music, thy declamation, thy doggerel verses, wretched poet of the suburbs,—is a thing surpassing my power, and it has roused in me the wish to die. Rome stuffs its ears when it hears thee; the world reviles thee. I can blush for thee no longer, and I have no wish to do so. The howls of Cerberus, though resembling thy music, will be less offensive to me, for I have never been the friend of Cerberus, and I need not be ashamed of his howling. Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write no verses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on a cithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by the—Arbiter Elegantiae."
The guests were terrified, for they knew that the loss of dominion would have been less cruel to Nero than this blow. They understood, too, that the man who had written that paper must die; and at the same time pale fear flew over them because they had heard such a paper.
But Petronius laughed with sincere and gladsome joy, as if it were a question of the most innocent joke; then he cast his eyes on all present, and said,—
"Be joyous, and drive away fear. No one need boast that he heard this letter. I will boast of it only to Charon when I am crossing in the boat with him."
He beckoned then to the Greek physician, and stretched out his arm. The skilled Greek in the twinkle of an eye opened the vein at the bend of the arm. Blood spurted on the cushion, and covered Eunice, who, supporting the head of Petronius, bent over him and said,—
"Didst thou think that I would leave thee? If the gods gave me immortality, and Caesar gave me power over the earth, I would follow thee still."
Petronius smiled, raised himself a little, touched her lips with his, and said,—
"Come with me."
She stretched her rosy arm to the physician, and after a while her blood began to mingle and be lost in his blood.
Then he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and again the voices and cithariae were heard. They sang "Harmodius"; next the song of Anacreon resounded,—that song in which he complained that on a time he had found Aphrodite's boy chilled and weeping under trees; that he brought him in, warmed him, dried his wings, and the ungrateful child pierced his heart with an arrow,—from that moment peace had deserted the poet.
Petronius and Eunice, resting against each other, beautiful as two divinities, listened, smiling and growing pale. At the end of the song Petronius gave directions to serve more wine and food; then he conversed with the guests sitting near him of trifling but pleasant things, such as are mentioned usually at feasts. Finally, he called to the Greek to bind his arm for a moment; for he said that sleep was tormenting him, and he wanted to yield himself to Hypnos before Thanatos put him to sleep forever.
In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again.
At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharae accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,
"Friends, confess that with us perishes—"
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.
The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time,—poetry and beauty.
AT first the revolt of the Gallic legions under Vindex did not seem very serious. Caesar was only in his thirty-first year, and no one was bold enough to hope that the world could be freed so soon from the nightmare which was stifling it. Men remembered that revolts had occurred more than once among the legions,—they had occurred in previous reigns,—revolts, however, which passed without involving a change of government; as during the reign of Tiberius, Drusus put down the revolt of the Pannonian legions. "Who," said the people, "can take the government after Nero, since all the descendants of the divine Augustus have perished?" Others, looking at the Colossus, imagined him a Hercules, and thought that no force could break such power. There were those even who since he went to Achaea were sorry for him, because Helius and Polythetes, to whom he left the government of Rome and Italy, governed more murderously than he had.
No one was sure of life or property. Law ceased to protect. Human dignity and virtue had perished, family bonds existed no longer, and degraded hearts did not even dare to admit hope. From Greece came accounts of the incomparable triumphs of Caesar, of the thousands of crowns which he had won, the thousands of competitors whom he had vanquished. The world seemed to be one orgy of buffoonery and blood; but at the same time the opinion was fixed that virtue and deeds of dignity had ceased, that the time of dancing and music, of profligacy, of blood, had come, and that life must flow on for the future in that way. Caesar himself, to whom rebellion opened the road to new robberies, was not concerned much about the revolt of the legions and Vindex; he even expressed his delight on that subject frequently. He did not wish to leave Achaea even; and only when Helius informed him that further delay might cause the loss of dominion did he move to Naples.
There he played and sang, neglecting news of events of growing danger. In vain did Tigellinus explain to him that former rebellions of legions had no leaders, while at the head of affairs this time was a man descended from the ancient kings of Gaul and Aquitania, a famous and tried soldier. "Here," answered Nero, "the Greeks listen to me,—the Greeks, who alone know how to listen, and who alone are worthy of my song." He said that his first duty was art and glory. But when at last the news came that Vindex had proclaimed him a wretched artist, he sprang up and moved toward Rome. The wounds inflicted by Petronius, and healed by his stay in Greece, opened in his heart anew, and he wished to seek retribution from the Senate for such unheard-of injustice.
On the road he saw a group cast in bronze, representing a Gallic warrior as overcome by a Roman knight; he considered that a good omen, and thenceforward, if he mentioned the rebellious legions and Vindex, it was only to ridicule them. His entrance to the city surpassed all that had been witnessed earlier. He entered in the chariot used by Augustus in his triumph. One arch of the Circus was destroyed to give a road to the procession. The Senate, knights, and innumerable throngs of people went forth to meet him. The walls trembled from shouts of "Hail, Augustus! Hail, Hercules! Hail, divinity, the incomparable, the Olympian, the Pythian, the immortal!" Behind him were borne the crowns, the names of cities in which he had triumphed; and on tablets were inscribed the names of the masters whom he had vanquished. Nero himself was intoxicated with delight, and with emotion he asked the Augustians who stood around him, "What was the triumph of Julius compared with this?" The idea that any mortal should dare to raise a hand on such a demigod did not enter his head. He felt himself really Olympian, and therefore safe. The excitement and the madness of the crowd roused his own madness. In fact, it might seem in the day of that triumph that not merely Caesar and the city, but the world, had lost its senses.
Through the flowers and the piles of wreaths no one could see the precipice. Still that same evening columns and walls of temples were covered with inscriptions, describing Nero's crimes, threatening him with coming vengeance, and ridiculing him as an artist. From mouth to mouth went the phrase, "He sang till he roused the Gauls." Alarming news made the rounds of the city, and reached enormous measures. Alarm seized the Augustians. People, uncertain of the future, dazed not express hopes or wishes; they hardly dared to feel or think.
But he went on living only in the theatre and music. Instruments newly invented occupied him, and a new water-organ, of which trials were made on the Palatine. With childish mind, incapable of plan or action, he imagined that he could ward off danger by promises of spectacles and theatrical exhibitions reaching far into the future, Persons nearest him, seeing that instead of providing means and an army, he was merely searching for expressions to depict the danger graphically, began to lose their heads. Others thought that he was simply deafening himself and others with quotations, while in his soul he was alarmed and terrified. In fact, his acts became feverish. Every day a thousand new plans flew through his head. At times he sprang up to rush out against danger; gave command to pack up his lutes and citharae, to arm the young slave women as Amazons, and lead the legions to the East. Again he thought to finish the rebellion of the Gallic legions, not with war, but with song; and his soul laughed at the spectacle which was to follow his conquest of the soldiers by song. The legionaries would surround him with tears in their eyes; he would sing to them an epinicium, after which the golden epoch would begin for him and for Rome. At one time he called for blood; at another he declared that he would be satisfied with governing in Egypt. He recalled the prediction which promised him lordship in Jerusalem, and he was moved by the thought that as a wandering minstrel he would earn his daily bread,—that cities and countries would honor in him, not Caesar, the lord of the earth, but a poet whose like the world had not produced before. And so he struggled, raged, played, sang, changed his plan, changed his quotations, changed his life and the world into a dream absurd, fantastic, dreadful, into an uproarious hunt composed of unnatural expressions, bad verses, groans, tears, and blood; but meanwhile the cloud in the west was increasing and thickening every day. The measure was exceeded; the insane comedy was nearing its end.
When news that Galba and Spain had joined the uprising came to his ears, he fell into rage and madness. He broke goblets, overturned the table at a feast, and issued orders which neither Helius nor Tigeliinus himself dared to execute. To kill Gauls resident in Rome, fire the city a second time, let out the wild beasts, and transfer the capital to Alexandria seemed to him great, astonishing, and easy. But the days of his dominion had passed, and even those who shared in his former crimes began to look on him as a madman.
The death of Vindex, and disagreement in the revolting legions seemed, however, to turn the scale to his side. Again new feasts, new triumphs, and new sentences were issued in Rome, till a certain night when a messenger rushed up on a foaming horse, with the news that in the city itself the soldiers had raised the standard of revolt, and proclaimed Galba Caesar.
Nero was asleep when the messenger came; but when he woke he called in vain for the night-guard, which watched at the entrance to his chambers. The palace was empty. Slaves were plundering in the most distant corners that which could be taken most quickly. But the sight of Nero frightened them; he wandered alone through the palace, filling it with cries of despair and fear.
At last his freedmen, Phaon, Sporus, and Epaphroditus, came to his rescue. They wished him to flee, and said that there was no time to be lost; but he deceived himself still. If he should dress in mourning and speak to the Senate, would it resist his prayers and eloquence? If he should use all his eloquence, his rhetoric and skill of an actor, would any one on earth have power to resist him? Would they not give him even the prefecture of Egypt?
The freedmen, accustomed to flatter, had not the boldness yet to refuse him directly; they only warned him that before he could reach the Forum the people would tear him to pieces, and declared that if he did not mount his horse immediately, they too would desert him.
Phaon offered refuge in his villa outside the Nomentan Gate. After a while they mounted horses, and, covering Nero's head with a mantle, they galloped off toward the edge of the city. The night was growing pale. But on the streets there was a movement which showed the exceptional nature of the time. Soldiers, now singly and now in small groups, were scattered through the city. Not far from the camp Caesar's horse sprang aside suddenly at sight of a corpse. The mantle slipped from his head; a soldier recognized Nero, and, confused by the unexpected meeting, gave the military salute. While passing the pretorian camp, they heard thundering shouts in honor of Galba. Nero understood at last that the hour of death was near. Terror and reproaches of conscience seized him. He declared that he saw darkness in front of him in the form of a black cloud. From that cloud came forth faces in which he saw his mother, his wife, and his brother. His teeth were chattering from fright; still his soul of a comedian found a kind of charm in the horror of the moment. To be absolute lord of the earth and lose all things, seemed to him the height of tragedy; and faithful to himself, he played the first role to the end. A fever for quotations took possession of him, and a passionate wish that those present should preserve them for posterity. At moments he said that he wished to die, and called for Spiculus, the most skilled of all gladiators in killing. At moments he declaimed, "Mother, wife, father, call me to death!" Flashes of hope rose in him, however, from time to time,—hope vain and childish. He knew that he was going to death, and still he did not believe it.
They found the Nomentan Gate open. Going farther, they passed near Ostrianum, where Peter had taught and baptized. At daybreak they reached Phaon's villa.
There the freedmen hid from him no longer the fact that it was time to die. He gave command then to dig a grave, and lay on the ground so that they might take accurate measurement. At sight of the earth thrown up, however, terror seized him. His fat face became pale, and on his forehead sweat stood like drops of dew in the morning. He delayed. In a voice at once abject and theatrical, he declared that the hour had not come yet; then he began again to quote. At last he begged them to burn his body. "What an artist is perishing!" repeated he, as if in amazement.
Meanwhile Phaon's messenger arrived with the announcement that the Senate had issued the sentence that the "parricide" was to be punished according to ancient custom.
"What is the ancient custom?" asked Nero, with whitened lips.
"They will fix thy neck in a fork, flog thee to death, and hurl thy body into the Tiber," answered Epaphroditus, abruptly.
Nero drew aside the robe from his breast.
"It is time, then!" said he, looking into the sky. And he repeated once more, "What an artist is perishing!"
At that moment the tramp of a horse was heard. That was the centurion coming with soldiers for the head of Ahenobarbus.
"Hurry!" cried the freedmen.
Nero placed the knife to his neck, but pushed it only timidly. It was clear that he would never have courage to thrust it in. Epaphroditus pushed his hand suddenly,—the knife sank to the handle. Nero's eyes turned in his head, terrible, immense, frightened.
"I bring thee life!" cried the centurion, entering.
"Too late!" said Nero, with a hoarse voice; then he added,—
"Here is faithfulness!"
In a twinkle death seized his head. Blood from his heavy neck gushed in a dark stream on the flowers of the garden. His legs kicked the ground, and he died.
On the morrow the faithful Acte wrapped his body in costly stuffs, and burned him on a pile filled with perfumes.
And so Nero passed, as a whirlwind, as a storm, as a fire, as war or death passes; but the basilica of Peter rules till now, from the Vatican heights, the city, and the world.
Near the ancient Porta Capena stands to this day a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?