Imperial Purple/Chapter IX

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The Agony[edit]

The high virtues are not complaisant, it is the cad the canaille adore. In spite of everything, Nero had been beloved by the masses. For years there were roses on his tomb. Under Vespasian there was an impostor whom Greece and Asia acclaimed in his name. The memory of his festivals was unforgetable; regret for him refused to be stilled. He was more than a god; he was a tradition. His second advent was confidently expected; the Jews believed in his resurrection; to the Christian he had never died, and suddenly he reappeared.

Rome had declined to accept the old world tenet that the soul has its avatars, yet, when Commodus sauntered from that distant sepulchre, into which, poison aiding, he had placed his putative father, Rome felt that the Egyptians were wiser than they looked; that the soul did migrate, and that in the blue eyes of the young emperor Nero's spirit shone.

Herodian, who has written very agreeably on the subject, describes him as another Prince Charming. His hair, which was very fair, glistened like gold in the sun; he was slender, not at all effeminate, exceedingly graceful, exceedingly gracious; endowed with the promptest blush, with the best intentions; studious of the interests of his people; glad of advice, seeking it even; courteous and deferential to the senate and his father's friends-- in short, an adolescent Nero--a trifle more guileful, however; already a parricide, a comedian as well; one who in a moment would toss the mask aside and disclose the mongrel; the offspring, not of an empress and an emperor, but the tiger-cub that Faustine had got by a gladiator.

The tender-hearted philosopher, who in a campaign against some fretful Teutons, had taken Commodus with him, knew that he was not his son; knew, too, when the agony seized him, from whose hand the agony came; but in earlier life he had jotted in his notebook, "Forgive, forgive always; die forgiving"; and, as he forgave the mother, so he forgave the child, recommending him with his last breath to the army and to Rome.

As the people had loved Nero, so did the aristocracy love Marcus Aurelius; his foster-father Antonin excepted, he was the only gentleman that had sat on the throne. No wonder they loved him; and seeing this early edition of the prince in the fairy tale emerge from the bogs of Germany, his fair face haloed by the glisten and gold of his hair, hearts went out to him; the wish of his putative father was ratified, and the son of a gladiator was emperor of Rome.

Lampridus--or Spartian was it? The title-page bears Lampridus' name, but there is some doubt as to the authorship. However, whoever made the abridgment of the life of Commodus which appears among the chronicles of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, says that before his birth Faustine dreamed she had engendered a serpent. It is not impossible that Faustine had been reading Ctzias, and had stumbled over his account of the Martichoras, a serpent with a woman's face and the talons of a bird of prey. For it was that she conceived.

It would have been interesting to have seen that young man, the mask removed, frightening the senate into calling Rome Commodia, and then in a linen robe promenading in the attributes of a priest of Anubis through a seraglio of six hundred girls and mignons embracing as he passed. There was a spectacle, which Nero had not imagined. But Nero was vieux jeu. Commodus outdid him, first in debauchery, then in the arena. Nero had died while in training to kill a lion; Commodus did not take the trouble to train. It was the lions that were trained, not he. A skin on his shoulders, a club in his hand, he descended naked into the ring, and there felled beasts and men. Then, acclaimed as Hercules, he returned to the pulvina, and a mignon on one side, a mistress on the other, ordered the guard to massacre the spectators and set fire to Rome. After entering the arena six or seven hundred times, and there vanquishing men whose eyes had been put out and whose legs were tied, the colossal statue which Nero had made after his own image was altered; to the top came the bust of Commodus, to the base this legend: THE VICTOR OF TEN THOUSAND GLADIATORS, COMMODUS- HERCULES, IMPERATOR.

Meanwhile conspirators were at work. Like Nero, Commodus could have sought in vain for a friend. His life was attempted again and again; he escaped, but never the plotters; only when they had gone there were more. He knew he was doomed. There was the usual comet; the statue of Hercules had perspired visibly; an owl had been caught above his bedroom, and once he had wiped in his hair the hand which he had plunged in the warm wound of a gladiator, dead at his feet. These omens could mean but one thing. None the less, if he were doomed, so were others. One day one of those miserable children that the emperors kept about them found a tablet. It was as good as anything else to play with; and, as the child tossed it through the hall, the one woman that had loved Commodus caught it and read on it that she and all the household were to die. Within an hour Commodus was killed.

There is a page in Lampridus, which he quotes as coming from the lost chronicles of Marius Maximus, and which contains the joy of the senate at the news. It is too long for transcription, but as a bit of realism it is unique. There is a shiver in every line. You hear the voices of hundreds, drunk with fury, frenzied with delight; the fierce welcome that greeted Pertinax--a slave's grandson, who was emperor for a minute--the joy of hate assuaged.

The delight of the senate was not shared by the pretorians. Pertinax was promptly massacred; the throne was put up at auction; there were two or three emperors at once, and presently the purple was seized by Septimus Severus, a rigid, white-haired disciplinarian, who, in his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, founded that second dynasty of the Antonins with which antiquity may be said to end.

When he had gone, his elder son, Bastian, renamed Aurelius Antonin, and because of a cloak he had invented nicknamed Caracalla, bounded like a panther on the throne. In a moment he was gnawing at his brother's throat, and immediately there occurred a massacre such as Rome had never seen. Xiphilin says the nights were not long enough to kill all of the condemned. Twenty thousand people were slaughtered in twenty hours. The streets were emptied, the theatres closed.

The blood that ran then must have been in rillets too thin to slake Caracalla's thirst, for simultaneously almost, he was in Gaul, in Dacia--wherever there was prey. African by his father, Syrian on his mother's side, Caracalla was not a panther merely; he was a herd of them. He had the cruelty, the treachery and guile of a wilderness of tiger-cats. No man, said a thinker, is wholly base. Caracalla was. He had not a taste, not a vice, even, which was not washed and rewashed in blood. In a moment of excitement Commodus set his guards on the spectators in the amphitheatre; the damage was slight, for the Colosseum was so constructed that in two minutes the eighty or ninety thousand people which it held could escape. Caracalla had the exits closed. Those who escaped were naked; to bribe the guards they were forced to strip themselves to the skin. In the circus a vestal caught his eye. He tried to violate her, and failing impotently, had her buried alive. "Caracalla knows that I am a virgin, and knows why," the girl cried as the earth swallowed her, but there was no one there to aid.

Such things show the trend of a temperament, though not, perhaps, its force. Presently the latter was displayed. For years those arch-enemies of Rome, the unconquerable Parthians, had been quiet; bound, too, by treaties which held Rome's honor. Not Caracalla's, however; he had none. An embassy went out to Artobane, the king. Caracalla wished a bride, and what fairer one could he have than the child of the Parthian monarch? Then, too, the embassy was charged to explain, the marriage of Rome and Parthia would be the union of the Orient and the Occident, peace by land and sea. Artobane hesitated, and with cause; but Caracalla wooed so ardently that finally the king said yes. The news went abroad. The

Parthians, delighted, prepared to receive the emperor. When Caracalla crossed the Tigris, the highroad that led to the capital was strewn with sacrifices, with altars covered with flowers, with welcomings of every kind. Caracalla was visibly pleased. Beyond the gates of the capital, there was the king; he had advanced to greet his son-in-law, and that the greeting might be effective, he had assembled his nobles and his troops. The latter were armed with cymbals, with hautbois, and with flutes; and as Caracalla and his army approached, there was music, dancing and song; there were libations too, and as the day was practically the wedding of East and West, there was not a weapon to be seen--gala robes merely, brilliant and long. Caracalla saluted the king, gave an order to an adjutant, and on the smiling defenceless Parthians the Roman eagles pounced. Those who were not killed were made prisoners of war. The next day Caracalla withdrew, charged with booty, firing cities as he went.

A little before, rumor reached him that a group of the citizens of Alexandria had referred to him as a fratricide. After the adventure in Parthia he bethought him of the city which Alexander had founded, and of the temple of Serapis that was there. He wished to honor both, he declared, and presently he was at the gates. The people were enchanted; the avenues were strewn with flowers, lined with musicians. There were illuminations, festivals, sacrifices, torrents of perfumes, and through it all Caracalla passed, a legion at his heels. To see him, to participate in the succession of prodigalities, the surrounding country flocked there too. In recognition of the courtesy with which he was received, Caracalla gave a banquet to the magnates and the clergy. Before his guests could leave him they were killed. Through the streets the legion was at work. Alexandria was turned into a cemetery. Herodian states that the carnage was so great that the Nile was red to its mouth.

In Rome at that time was a prefect, Macrin by name, who had dreamed the purple would be his. He was a swarthy liar, and his promises were such that the pretorians were willing that the dream should come true. Emissaries were despatched, and Caracalla was stabbed. In his luggage poison was found to the value of five million five hundred thousand drachmae. What fresh turpitude he was devising no one knew, and the discovery might serve as an epitaph, were it not that by his legions he was adored. No one had abandoned to the army such booty as he.

Meanwhile, in a chapel at Emissa, a boy was dancing indolently to the kiss of flutes. A handful of Caracalla's soldiers passed that way, and thought him Bacchus. In his face was the enigmatic beauty of gods and girls--the charm of the dissolute and the wayward heightened by the divine. On his head was a diadem; his frail tunic was of purple and gold, but the sleeves, after the Phoenician fashion, were wide, and he was shod with a thin white leather that reached to the thighs. He was fourteen, and priest of the Sun. The chapel was roomy and rich. There was no statue--a black phallus merely, which had fallen from above, and on which, if you looked closely, you could see the image of Elagabal, the Sun.

The rumor of his beauty brought other soldiers that way, and the lad, feeling that Rome was there, ceased to dance, strolling through pauses of the worship, a troop of galli at his heels, surveying the intruders with querulous, feminine eyes.

Presently a whisper filtered that the lad was Caracalla's son. There were centurions there that remembered Semiamire, the lad's mother, very well; they had often seen her, a superb creature with scorching eyes, before whom fire had been carried as though she were empress. It was she who had put it beyond Caracalla's power to violate that vestal when he tried. She was his cousin; her life had been passed at court; it was Macrin who had exiled her. And with the whisper filtered another--that she was rich; that she had lumps of gold, which she would give gladly to whomso aided in placing her Antonin on the throne. There were gossips who said ill-natured things of this lady; who insinuated that she had so many lovers that she herself could not tell who was the father of her child; but the lumps of gold had a language of their own. The disbanded army espoused the young priest's cause; there was a skirmish, Macrin was killed, and Heliogabalus was emperor of Rome.

"I would never have written the life of this Antonin Impurissimus," said Lampridus, "were it not that he had predecessors." Even in Latin the task was difficult. In English it is impossible. There are subjects that permit of a hint, particularly if it be masked to the teeth, but there are others that no art can drape. "The inexpressible does not exist," Gautier remarked, when he finished a notorious romance, nor does it; but even his pen would have balked had he tried it on Heliogabalus.

In his work on the Caesars, Suetonius drew breath but once--he called Nero a monster. Subsequently he must have regretted having done so, not because Nero was not a monster, but because it was sufficient to display the beast without adding a descriptive placard. In that was Suetonius' advantage; he could describe. Nowadays a writer may not, or at least not Heliogabalus. It is not merely that he was depraved, for all of that lot were; it was that he made depravity a pursuit; and, the purple favoring, carried it not only beyond the limits of the imaginable, but beyond the limits of the real. At the feet of that painted boy, Elephantis and Parrhasius could have sat and learned a lesson. Apart from that phase of his sovereignty, he was a little Sardanapalus, an Asiatic mignon, who found himself great.

It would have been curious to have seen him in that wonderful palace, clothed like a Persian queen, insisting that he should be addressed as Imperatrix, and quite living up to the title. It would not only be interesting, it would give one an insight into just how much the Romans could stand. It would have been curious, also, to have assisted at that superb and poetic ceremonial, in which, having got Tanit from Carthage as consort for Elagabal, he presided, girt with the pomp of church and state, over the nuptials of the Sun and Moon.

He had read Suetonius, and not an eccentricity of the Caesars escaped him. He would not hunt flies by the hour, as Domitian had done, for that would be mere imitation; but he could collect cobwebs, and he did, by the ton. Caligula and Vitellius had been famous as hosts, but the feasts that Heliogabalus gave outranked them for sheer splendor. From panels in the ceiling such masses of flowers fell that guests were smothered. Those that survived had set before them glass game and sweets of crystal. The menu was embroidered on the table-cloth--not the mere list of dishes, but pictures drawn with the needle of the dishes themselves. And presently, after the little jest in glass had been enjoyed, you were served with camel's heels; combs torn from living cocks; platters of nightingale tongues; ostrich brains, prepared with that garum sauce which the Sybarites invented, and of which the secret is lost; therewith were peas and grains of gold; beans and amber peppered with pearl dust; lentils and rubies; spiders in jelly; lion's dung, served in pastry. The guests that wine overcame were carried to bedrooms. When they awoke, there staring at them were tigers and leopards--tame, of course; but some of the guests were stupid enough not to know it, and died of fright.

All this was of a nature to amuse a lad who had made the phallus the chief object of worship; who had banished Jupiter, dismissed Isis; who, over paths that were strewn with lilies, had himself, in the attributes of Bacchus, drawn by tigers; by lions as Mother of the Gods; again, by naked women, as Heliogabalus on his way to wed a vestal, and procure for the empire a child that should be wholly divine.

It amused Rome, too, and his prodigalities in the circus were such that Lampridus admits that the people were glad he was emperor. Neither Caligula nor Nero had been as lavish, and neither Caligula nor Nero as cruel. The atrocities he committed, if less vast than those of Caracalla's, were more acute. Domitian even was surpassed in the tortures invented by a boy, so dainty that he never used the same garments, the same shoes, the same jewels, the same woman twice.

In spite of this, or perhaps precisely on that account, the usual conspirators were at work, and one day this little painted girl, who had prepared several devices for a unique and splendid suicide, was taken unawares and tossed in the latrinae.

In him the glow of the purple reached its apogee. Rome had been watching a crescendo that had mounted with the years. Its culmination was in that hermaphrodite. But the tension had been too great--something snapped; there was nothing left--a procession of colorless bandits merely, Thracians, Gauls, Pannonians, Dalmatians, Goths, women even, with Attila for a climax and the refurbishing of the world.

Rome was still mistress, but she was growing very old. She had conquered step by step. When one nation had fallen, she garrotted another. To vanquish her, the earth had to produce not only new races, but new creeds. The parturitions, as we know, were successful. Already the blue, victorious eyes of Vandal and of Goth were peering down at Rome; already they had whispered together, and over the hydromel had drunk to her fall. The earth's new children fell upon her, not one by one, but all at once, and presently the colossus tottered, startling the universe with the uproar of her agony; calling to gods that had vacated the skies; calling to Jupiter; calling to Isis; calling in vain. Where the thunderbolt had gleamed, a crucifix stood. On the shoulders of a prelate was the purple that had dazzled the world.


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.