Imperial Purple/Chapter II

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Conjectural Rome[edit]

"I received Rome in brick; I shall leave it in marble," said Augustus, who was fond of fine phrases, a trick he had caught from Vergil. And when he looked from his home on the Palatine over the glitter of the Forum and the glare of the Capitol to the new and wonderful precinct which extended to the Field of Mars, there was a stretch of splendor which sanctioned the boast. The city then was very vast. The tourist might walk in it, as in the London of to-day, mile after mile, and at whatever point he placed himself, Rome still lay beyond; a Rome quite like London--one that was choked with mystery, with gold and curious crime.

But it was not all marble. There were green terraces and porphyry porticoes that leaned to a river on which red galleys passed; there were theatres in which a multitude could jeer at an emperor, and arenas in which an emperor could watch a multitude die; there were bronze doors and garden roofs, glancing villas and temples that defied the sun; there were spacious streets, a Forum curtained with silk, the glint and evocations of triumphal war, the splendor of a host of gods, but it was not all marble; there were rents in the magnificence and tatters in the laticlave of state.

In the Subura, where at night women sat in high chairs, ogling the passer with painted eyes, there was still plenty of brick; tall tenements, soiled linen, the odor of Whitechapel and St. Giles. The streets were noisy with match-peddlers, with vendors of cake and tripe and coke; there were touts there too, altars to unimportant divinities, lying Jews who dealt in old clothes, in obscene pictures and unmentionable wares; at the crossings there were thimbleriggers, clowns and jugglers, who made glass balls appear and disappear surprisingly; there were doorways decorated with curious invitations, gossipy barber shops, where, through the liberality of politicians, the scum of a great city was shaved, curled and painted free; and there were public houses, where vagabond slaves and sexless priests drank the mulled wine of Crete, supped on the flesh of beasts slaughtered in the arena, or watched the Syrian women twist to the click of castanets.

Beyond were gray quadrangular buildings, the stomach of Rome, through which, each noon, ediles passed, verifying the prices, the weights and measures of the market men, examining the fish and meats, the enormous cauliflowers that came from the suburbs, Veronese carrots, Arician pears, stout thrushes, suckling pigs, eggs embedded in grass, oysters from Baiae, boxes of onions and garlic mixed, mountains of poppies, beans and fennel, destroying whatever had ceased to be fresh and taxing that which was.

On the Via Sacra were the shops frequented by ladies; bazaars where silks and xylons were to be had, essences and unguents, travelling boxes of scented wood, switches of yellow hair, useful drugs such as hemlock, aconite, mandragora and cantharides; the last thing of Ovid's and the improper little novels that came from Greece.

On the Appian Way, through green afternoons and pink arcades, fashion strolled. There wealth passed in its chariots, smart young men that smelt of cinnamon instead of war, nobles, matrons, cocottes.

At the other end of the city, beyond the menagerie of the Pantheon, was the Field of Mars, an open-air gymnasium, where every form of exercise was to be had, even to that simple promenade in which the Romans delighted, and which in Caesar's camp so astonished the Verronians that they thought the promenaders crazy and offered to lead them to their tents. There was tennis for those who liked it; racquets, polo, football, quoits, wrestling, everything apt to induce perspiration and prepare for the hour when a gong of bronze announced the opening of the baths--those wonderful baths, where the Roman, his slaves about him, after pasing through steam and water and the hands of the masseur, had every hair plucked from his arms, legs and armpits; his flesh rubbed down with nard, his limbs polished with pumice; and then, wrapped in a scarlet robe, lined with fur, was sent home in a litter. "Strike them in the face!" cried Caesar at Pharsalus, when the young patricians made their charge; and the young patricians, who cared more for their looks than they did for victory, turned and fled.

It was to the Field of Mars that Agrippa came, to whom Rome owed the Pantheon and the demand for a law which should inhibit the private ownership of a masterpiece. There, too, his eunuchs about him, Mecaenas lounged, companioned by Varus, by Horace and the mime Bathylle, all of whom he was accustomed to invite to that lovely villa of his which overlooked the blue Sabinian hills, and where suppers were given such as those which Petronius has described so alertly and so well.

In the hall like that of Mecaenas', one divided against itself, the upper half containing the couches and tables, the other reserved for the service and the entertainments that follow, the ceiling was met by columns, the walls hidden by panels of gems. On a frieze twelve pictures, surmounted by the signs of the zodiac, represented the dishes of the different months. Beneath the bronze beds and silver tables mosaics were set in imitation of food that had fallen and had not been swept away. And there, in white ungirdled tunics, the head and neck circled with coils of amaranth--the perfume of which in opening the pores neutralizes the fumes of wine--the guests lay, fanned by boys, whose curly hair they used for napkins. Under the supervision of butlers the courses were served on platters so large that they covered the tables; sows' breasts with Lybian truffles; dormice baked in poppies and honey, peacock-tongues flavored with cinnamon; oysters stewed in garum--a sauce made of the intestines of fish--sea- wolves from the Baltic; sturgeons from Rhodes; fig-peckers from Samos; African snails; pale beans in pink lard; and a yellow pig cooked after the Troan fashion, from which, when carved, hot sausages fell and live thrushes flew. Therewith was the mulsum, a cup made of white wine, nard, roses, absinthe and honey; the delicate sweet wines of Greece; and crusty Falernian of the year six hundred and thirty-two. As the cups circulated, choirs entered, chanting sedately the last erotic song; a clown danced on the top of a ladder, which he maintained upright as he danced, telling meanwhile untellable stories to the frieze; and host and guests, unvociferously, as good breeding dictates, chatted through the pauses of the service; discussed the disadvantages of death, the value of Noevian iambics, the disgrace of Ovid, banished because of Livia's eyes.

Such was the Rome of Augustus. "Caesar," cried a mime to him one day, "do you know that it is important for you that the people should be interested in Bathylle and in myself?"

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.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.