Imperial Purple/Chapter III
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.
When matrimony occurred, divorce was its natural consequence. Incompatibility was sufficient cause. Cicero, who has given it to history that the best women counted the years not numerically, but by their different husbands, obtained a divorce on the ground that his wife did not idolize him.
Divorce was not obligatory. Matrimony was. According to a recent law whoso at twenty-five was not married, whoso, divorced or widowed, did not remarry, whoso, though married, was without children, was regarded as a public enemy and declared incapable of inheriting or of serving the state. To this law, one of Augustus' stupidities which presently fell into disuse, only a technical observance was paid. Men married just enough to gain a position or inherit a legacy; next day they got a divorce. At the moment of need a child was adopted; the moment passed, the child was disowned. But if the law had little value, at least it shows the condition of things. Moreover, if in that condition Tiberius participated, it was not because he did not differ from other men.
"Ho sempre amato la solitaria vita," Petrarch, referring to himself, declared, and Tiberius might have said the same thing. He was in love with solitude; ill with efforts for the unattained; sick with the ingratitude of man. Presently it was decided that he had lived long enough. He was suffocated--beneath a mattress at that. Caesar had dreamed of a universal monarchy of which he should be king; he was murdered. That dream was also Antony's; he killed himself. Cato had sought the restoration of the republic, and Brutus the attainment of virtue; both committed suicide. Under the empire dreamers fared ill. Tiberius was a dreamer.
In a palace where a curious conception of the love of Atalanta and Meleager was said to figure on the walls, there was a door on which was a sign, imitated from one that overhung the Theban library of Osymandias--Pharmacy of the Soul. It was there Tiberius dreamed.
On the ivory shelves were the philtres of Parthenius, labelled De Amatoriis Affectionibus, the Sybaris of Clitonymus, the Erotopaegnia of Laevius, the maxims and instructions of Elephantis, the nine books of Sappho. There also were the pathetic adventures of Odatis and Zariadres, which Chares of Mitylene had given to the world; the astonishing tales of that early Cinderella, Rhodopis; and with them those romances of Ionian nights by Aristides of Milet, which Crassus took with him when he set out to subdue the Parthians, and which; found in the booty, were read aloud to the people that they might judge the morals of a nation that pretended to rule the world.
Whether such medicaments are serviceable to the soul is problematic. Tiberius had other drugs on the ivory shelves--magic preparations that transported him to fabulous fields. There was a work by Hecataesus, with which he could visit Hyperborea, that land where happiness was a birthright, inalienable at that; yet a happiness so sweet that it must have been cloying; for the people who enjoyed it, and with it the appanage of limitless life, killed themselves from sheer ennui. Theopompus disclosed to him a stranger vista--a continent beyond the ocean--one where there were immense cities, and where two rivers flowed--the River of Pleasure and the River of Pain. With Iambulus he discovered the Fortunate Isles, where there were men with elastic bones, bifurcated tongues; men who never married, who worshipped the sun, whose life was an uninterrupted delight, and who, when overtaken by age, lay on a perfumed grass that produced a voluptuous death. Evhemerus, a terrible atheist, whose Sacred History the early bishops wielded against polytheism until they discovered it was double-edged, took him to Panchaia, an island where incense grew; where property was held in common; where there was but one law--Justice, yet a justice different from our own, one which Hugo must have intercepted when he made an entrancing yet enigmatical apparition exclaim:
- "Tu me crois la Justice, je suis la Pitie."
And in this paradise there was a temple, and before it a column, about which, in Panchaian characters, ran a history of ancient kings, who, to the astonishment of the tourist, were found to be none other than the gods whom the universe worshipped, and who in earlier days had announced themselves divinities, the better to rule the hearts and minds of man.
With other guides Tiberius journeyed through lands where dreams come true. Aristeas of Proconnesus led him among the Arimaspi, a curious people who passed their lives fighting for gold with griffons in the dark. With Isogonus he descended the valley of Ismaus, where wild men were, whose feet turned inwards. In Albania he found a race with pink eyes and white hair; in Sarmatia another that ate only on alternate days. Agatharcides took him to Libya, and there introduced him to the Psyllians, in whose bodies was a poison deadly to serpents, and who, to test the fidelity of their wives, placed their children in the presence of snakes; if the snakes fled they knew their wives were pure. Callias took him further yet, to the home of the hermaphrodites; Nymphodorus showed him a race of fascinators who used enchanted words. With Apollonides he encountered women who killed with their eyes those on whom they looked too long. Megasthenes guided him to the Astomians, whose garments were the down of feathers, and who lived on the scent of the rose.
In his cups they all passed, confusedly, before him; the hermaphrodites whispered to the rose-breathers the secrets of impossible love; the griffons bore to him women with magical eyes; the Albanians danced with elastic feet; he heard the shrill call of the Psyllians, luring the serpents to death; the column of Panchaia unveiled its mysteries; the Hyperboreans the reason of their fear of life, and on the wings of the chimera he set out again in search of that continent which haunted antiquity and which lay beyond the sea.