Imperial Purple/Chapter IV

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The Pursuit of the Impossible[edit]

"Another Phaethon for the universe," Tiberius is reported to have muttered, as he gazed at his nephew Caius, nicknamed Caligula, who was to suffocate him with a mattress and rule in his stead.

To rule is hardly the expression. There is no term in English to convey that dominion over sea and sky which a Caesar possessed, and which Caligula was the earliest to understand. Augustus was the first magistrate of Rome, Tiberius the first citizen. Caligula was the first emperor, but an emperor hallucinated by the enigma of his own grandeur, a prince for whose sovereignty the world was too small.

Each epoch has its secret, sometimes puerile, often perplexing; but in its maker there is another and a more interesting one yet. Eliminate Caligula, and Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla and Heliogabalus would never have been. It was he who gave them both raison d'etre and incentive. The lives of all of them are horrible, yet analyze the horrible and you find the sublime.

Fancy a peak piercing the heavens, shadowing the earth. It was on a peak such as that the young emperors of old Rome balanced themselves, a precipice on either side. Did they look below, a vertigo rose to meet them; from above delirium came, while the horizon, though it hemmed the limits of vision, could not mark the frontiers of their dream. In addition there was the exaltation that altitudes produce. The valleys have their imbeciles; it is from mountains the poet and madman come. Caligula was both, sceptred at that; and with what a sceptre! One that stretched from the Rhine to the Euphrates, dominated a hundred and fifty million people; one that a mattress had given and a knife was to take away; a sceptre that lashed the earth, threatened the sky, beckoned planets and ravished the divinity of the divine.

To wield such a sceptre securely requires grace, no doubt, majesty too, but certainly strength; the latter Caligula possessed, but it was the feverish strength of one who had fathomed the unfathomable, and who sought to make its depths his own. Caligula was haunted by the intangible. His sleep was a communion with Nature, with whom he believed himself one. At times the Ocean talked to him; at others the Earth had secrets which it wished to tell. Again there was some matter of moment which he must mention to the day, and he would wander out in the vast galleries of the palace and invoke the Dawn, bidding it come and listen to his speech. The day was deaf, but there was the moon, and he prayed her to descend and share his couch. Luna declined to be the mistress of a mortal; to seduce her Caligula determined to become a god.

Nothing was easier. An emperor had but to open his veins, and in an hour he was a divinity. But the divinity which Caligula desired was not of that kind. He wished to be a god, not on Olympus alone, but on earth as well. He wished to be a palpable, tangible, living god; one that mortals could see, which was more, he knew, than could be said of the others. The mere wish was sufficient--Rome fell at his feet. The patent of divinity was in the genuflections of a nation. At once he had a temple, priests and flamens. Inexhaustible Greece was sacked again. The statues of her gods, disembarked at Rome, were decapitated, and on them the head of Caius shone.

Heretofore his dress had not been Roman, nor, for that matter, the dress of a man. On his wrists were bracelets; about his shoulders was a mantle sewn with gems; beneath was a tunic, and on his feet were the high white slippers that women wore. But when the god came the costume changed. One day he was Apollo, the nimbus on his curls, the Graces at his side; the next he was Mercury, wings at his heels, the caduceus in his hand; again he was Venus. But it was as Jupiter Latialis, armed with the thunderbolt and decorated with a great gold beard, that he appeared at his best.

The role was very real to him. After the fashion of Olympians he became frankly incestuous, seducing vestals, his sisters too, and gaining in boldness with each metamorphosis, he menaced the Capitoline Jove. "Prove your power," he cried to him, "or fear my own!" He thundered at him with machine-made thunder, with lightning that flashed from a pan. "Kill me," he shouted, "or I will kill you!" Jove, unmoved, must have moved his assailant, for presently Caligula lowered his voice, whispered in the old god's ear, questioned him, meditated on his answer, grew perplexed, violent again, and threatened to send him home.

These interviews humanized him. He forgot the moon and mingled with men, inviting them to die. The invitation being invariably accepted, he became a connoisseur in death, an artist in blood, a ruler to whom cruelty was not merely an aid to government but an individual pleasure, and therewith such a perfect lover, such a charming host!

"Dear heart," he murmured to his mistress Pryallis, as she lay one night in his arms, "I think I will have you tortured that you may tell me why I love you so." But of that the girl saw no need. She either knew the reason or invented one, for presently he added: "And to think that I have but a sign to make and that beautiful head of yours is off!" Musings of this description were so humorous that one evening he explained to guests whom he had startled with his laughter, that it was amusing to reflect how easily he could have all of them killed.

But even to a god life is not an unmixed delight. Caligula had his troubles. About him there had settled a disturbing quiet. Rome was hushed, the world was very still. There was not so much as an earthquake. The reign of Augustus had been marked by the defeat of Varus. Under Tiberius a falling amphitheatre had killed a multitude. Caligula felt that through sheer felicity his own reign might be forgot. A famine, a pest, an absolute defeat, a terrific conflagration--any prodigious calamity that should sweep millions away and stamp his own memory immutably on the chronicles of time, how desirable it were! But there was nothing. The crops had never been more abundant; apart from the arenas and the prisons, the health of the empire was excellent; on the frontiers not so much as the rumor of an insurrection could be heard, and Nero was yet to come.

Perplexed, Caligula reflected, and presently from Baiae to Puzzoli, over the waters of the bay, he galloped on horseback, the cuirass of Alexander glittering on his breast. The intervening miles had been spanned by a bridge of ships and on them a road had been built, one of those roads for which the Romans were famous, a road like the Appian Way, in earth and stone, bordered by inns, by pink arcades, green retreats, forest reaches, the murmur of trickling streams. So many ships were anchored there that through the unrepleted granaries the fear of famine stalked. Caligula, meanwhile, his guests behind him, made cavalry charges across the sea, or in a circus-chariot held the ribbons, while four white horses, maddened by swaying lights, bore him to the other shore. At night the entire coast was illuminated; the bridge was one great festival, brilliant but brief. Caligula had wearied of it all. At a signal the multitude of guests he had assembled there were tossed into the sea.

By way of a souvenir, Tiberius, whom he murdered, had left him the immensity of his treasure. "I must be economical or Caesar," Caligula reflected, and tipped a coachman a million, rained on the people a hail of coin, bathed in essences, set before his guests loaves of silver, gold omelettes, sausages of gems; sailed to the hum of harps on a ship that had porticoes, gardens, baths, bowers, spangled sails and a jewelled prow; removed a mountain, and put a palace where it had been; filled in a valley and erected a temple on the top; supplied a horse with a marble home, with ivory stalls, with furniture and slaves; contemplated making him consul; made him a host instead, one that in his own equine name invited the fashion of Rome to sup with Incitatus.

In one year Tiberius' legacy, a sum that amounted to four hundred million of our money, was spent. Caligula had achieved the impossible; he was a bankrupt god, an emperor without a copper. But the very splendor of that triumph demanded a climax. If Caligula hesitated, no one knew it. On the morrow the palace of the Caesars was turned into a lupanar, a little larger, a little handsomer than the others, but still a brothel, one of which the inmates were matrons of Rome and the keeper Jupiter Latialis.

After that, seemingly, there was nothing save apotheosis. But Caligula, in the nick of time, remembered the ocean. At the head of an army he crossed Gaul, attacked it, and returned refreshed. Decidedly he had not exhausted everything yet. He recalled Tiberius' policy, and abruptly the world was filled again with accusers and accused. Gold poured in on him, the earth paid him tribute. In a vast hall he danced naked on the wealth of nations. Once more he was rich, richer than ever; there were still illusions to be looted, other dreams to be pierced; yet, even as he mused, conspirators were abroad. He loosed his pretorians. "Had Rome but one head!" he muttered. "Let them FEEL themselves die," he cried to his officers. "Let me be hated, but let me be feared."

One day, as he was returning from the theatre, the dagger did its usual work. Rome had lost a genius; in his place there came an ass.

There is a verse in Greek to the effect that the blessed have children in three months. Livia and Augustus were blessed in this pleasant fashion. Three months after their marriage a child was born--a miracle which surprised no one aware of their previous intimacy. The child became a man, and the father of Claud, an imbecile whom the pretorians, after Caligula's death, found in a closet, shaking with fright, and whom for their own protection they made emperor in his stead.

Caligula had been frankly adored; there was in him an originality, and with it a grandeur and a mad magnificence that enthralled. Then, too, he was young, and at his hours what the French call charmeur. If at times he frightened, always he dazzled. Of course he was adored; the prodigal emperors always were; so were their successors, the wicked popes. Man was still too near to nature to be aware of shame, and infantile enough to care to be surprised. In that was Caligula's charm; he petted his people and surprised them too. Claud wearied. Between them they assimilate every contradiction, and in their incoherences explain that incomprehensible chaos which was Rome. Caligula jeered at everybody; everybody jeered at Claud.

The latter was a fantastic, vacillating, abstracted, cowardly tyrant, issuing edicts in regard to the proper tarring of barrels, and rendering absurd decrees; declaring himself to be of the opinion of those who were right; falling asleep on the bench, and on awakening announcing that he gave judgment in favor of those whose reasons were the best; slapped in the face by an irritable plaintiff; held down by main force when he wanted to leave; inviting to supper those whom he had killed before breakfast; answering the mournful salute of the gladiators with a grotesque Avete vos--"Be it well too with you," a response, parenthetically, which the gladiators construed as a pardon and refused to fight; dowering the alphabet with three new letters which lasted no longer than he did; asserting that he would give centennial games as often as he saw fit; an emperor whom no one obeyed, whose eunuchs ruled in his stead, whose lackeys dispensed exiles, death, consulates and crucifixions; whose valets insulted the senate, insulted Rome, insulted the sovereign that ruled the world, whose people shared his consort's couch; a slipshod drunkard in a tattered gown--such was the imbecile that succeeded Caligula and had Messalina for wife.

It were curious to have seen that woman as Juvenal did, a veil over her yellow wig, hunting adventures through the streets of Rome, while her husband in the Forum censured the dissoluteness of citizens. And it were curious, too, to understand whether it was her audacity or his stupidity which left him the only man in Rome unacquainted with the prodigious multiplicity and variety of her lovers. History has its secrets, yet, in connection with Messalina, there is one that historians have not taken the trouble to probe; to them she has been an imperial strumpet. Messalina was not that. At heart she was probably no better and no worse than any other lady of the land, but pathologically she was an unbalanced person, who to-day would be put through a course of treatment, instead of being put to death. When Claud at last learned, not the truth, but that some of her lovers were conspiring to get rid of him, he was not indignant; he was frightened. The conspirators were promptly disposed of, Messalina with them. Suetonius says that, a few days later, as he went in to supper, he asked why the empress did not appear.

Apart from the neurosis from which she suffered, were it possible to find an excuse for her conduct, the excuse would be Claud. The purple which made Caligula mad, made him an idiot; and when in course of time he was served with a succulent poison, there must have been many conjectures in Rome as to what the empire would next produce.

The empire was extremely fecund, enormously vast. About Rome extended an immense circle of provinces and cities that were wholly hers. Without that circle was another, the sovereignty exercised over vassals and allies; beyond that, beyond the Rhine on one side, were the silenced Teutons; beyond the Euphrates on the other, the hazardous Parthians, while remotely to the north there extended the enigmas of barbarism; to the south, those semi- fabulous regions where geography ceased to be.

Little by little, through the patience of a people that felt itself eternal, this immensity had been assimilated and fused. A few fortresses and legions on the frontiers, a stretch of soldiery at any spot an invasion might be feared; a little tact, a maternal solicitude, and that was all. Rome governed unarmed, or perhaps it might be more exact to say she did not govern at all; she was the mistress of a federation of realms and republics that governed themselves, in whose government she was content, and from whom she exacted little, tribute merely, and obeisance to herself. Her strength was not in the sword; the lioness roared rarely, often slept; it was the fear smaller beasts had of her awakening that made them docile; once aroused those indolent paws could do terrible work, and it was well not to excite them. When the Jews threatened to revolt, Agrippa warned them: "Look at Rome; look at her well; her arms are invisible, her troops are afar; she rules, not by them, but by the certainty of her power. If you rebel, the invisible sword will flash, and what can you do against Rome armed, when Rome unarmed frightens the world?"

The argument was pertinent and suggestive, but the secret of Rome's ascendency consisted in the fact that where she conquered she dwelt. Wherever the eagles pounced, Rome multiplied herself in miniature. In the army was the nation, in the legion the city. Where it camped, presto! a judgment seat and an altar. On the morrow there was a forum; in a week there were paved avenues; in a fortnight, temples, porticoes; in a month you felt yourself at home. Rome built with a magic that startled as surely as the glint of her sword. Time and again the nations whom Caesar encountered planned to eliminate his camp. When they reached it the camp had vanished; in its place was a walled, impregnable town.

As the standards lowered before that town, the pomoerium was traced. Within it the veteran found a home, without it a wife; and the family established, the legion that had conquered the soil with the sword, subsisted on it with the plow. Presently there were priests there, aqueducts, baths, theatres and games, all the marvel of imperial elegance and vice. When the aborigine wandered that way, his seduction was swift.

The enemy that submitted became a subject, not a slave. Rome commanded only the free. If his goods were taxed, his goods remained his own, his personal liberty untrammelled. His land had become part of a new province, it is true, but provided he did not interest himself in such matters as peace and war, not only was he free to manage his own affairs, but that land, were it at the uttermost end of the earth, might, in recompense of his fidelity, come to be regarded as within the Italian territory; as such, sacred, inviolate, free from taxes, and he a citizen of Rome, senator even, emperor!

Conquest once solidified, the rest was easy. Tattered furs were replaced by the tunic and uncouth idioms by the niceties of Latin speech. In some cases, where the speech had been beaten in with the hilt of the sword, the accent was apt to be rough, but a generation, two at most, and there were sweethearts and swains quoting Horace in the moonlight, naively unaware that only the verse of the Greeks could pleasure the Roman ear.

The principalities and kingdoms that of their own wish [a wish often suggested, and not always amicably either] became allies of Rome and mingled their freedom with hers, entered into an alliance whereby in return for Rome's patronage and protection they agreed to have a proper regard for the dignity of the Roman people and to have no other friends or enemies than those that were Rome's--a formula exquisite in the civility with which it exacted the renunciation of every inherent right. A king wrote to the senate: "I have obeyed your deputy as I would have obeyed a god." "And you have done wisely," the senate answered, a reply which, in its terseness, tells all.

Diplomacy and the plow, such were Rome's methods. As for herself she fought, she did not till. Italy, devastated by the civil wars, was uncultivated, cut up into vast unproductive estates. From one end to the other there was barely a trace of agriculture, not a sign of traffic. You met soldiers, cooks, petty tradesmen, gladiators, philosophers, patricians, market gardeners, lazzaroni and millionaires; the merchant and the farmer, never. Rome's resources were in distant commercial centres, in taxes and tribute; her wealth had come of pillage and exaction. Save her strength, she had nothing of her own. Her religion, literature, art, philosophy, luxury and corruption, everything had come from abroad. In Greece were her artists; in Africa, Gaul and Spain, her agriculturists; in Asia her artisans. Her own breasts were sterile. When she gave birth it was to a litter of monsters, sometimes to a genius, by accident to a poet. She consumed, she did not produce. It was because of that she fell.

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.