Imperial Purple/Chapter VI

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The House of Flavia[edit]

It was in those days that the nebulous figure of Apollonius of Tyana appeared and disappeared in Rome. His speech, a commingling of puerility and charm, Philostratus has preserved. Rumor had preceded him. It was said that he knew everything, save the caresses of women; that he was familiar with all languages; with the speech of bird and beast; with that of silence, for silence is a language too; that he had prayed in the Temple of Jupiter Lycoeus, where men lost their shadows, their lives as well; that he had undergone eighty initiations of Mithra; that he had perplexed the magi; confuted the gymnosophists; that he foretold the future, healed the sick, raised the dead; that beyond the Himalayas he had encountered every species of ferocious beast, except the tyrant, and that it was to see one that he had come to Rome.

Nero was quite free from prejudice. Apart from a doll which he worshipped he had no superstitions. He had the plain man's dislike of philosophy; Seneca had sickened him of it, perhaps; but he was sensitive, not that he troubled himself particularly about any lies that were told of him, but he did object to people who went about telling the truth. In that respect he was not unique; we are all like him, but he had ways of stilling the truth which were imperial and his own.

Promptly on Apollonius he loosed his bull-dog, Tigellin, prefect of police.

Tigellin caught him. "What have you with you?" he asked.

"Continence, Justice, Temperance, Strength and Patience," Apollonius answered.

"Your slaves, I suppose. Make out a list of them."

Apollonius shook his head. "They are not my slaves; they are my masters."

"There is but one," Tigellin retorted--"Nero. Why do you not fear him?"

"Because the god that made him terrible made me without fear."

"I will leave you your liberty," muttered the startled Tigellin, "but you must give bail."

"And who," asked Apollonius superbly, "would bail a man whom no one can enchain?" Therewith he turned and disappeared.

At that time Nero was in training to suffocate a lion in the arena. A few days later he killed himself. Simultaneously there came news from Syracuse. A woman of rank had given birth to a child with three heads. Apollonius examined it.

"There will be three emperors at once," he announced. "But their reign will be shorter than that of kings on the stage."

Within that year Galba, who was emperor for an instant, died at the gates of Rome. Vitellius, after being emperor in little else than dream, was butchered in the Forum; and Otho, in that fine antique fashion, killed himself in Gaul. Apollonius meanwhile was in Alexandria, predicting the purple to Vespasian, the rise of the House of Flavia; invoking Jupiter in his protege's behalf; and presently, the prediction accomplished, he was back in Rome, threatening Domitian, warning him that the House of Flavia would fall.

The atmosphere was then charged with the marvellous; the world was filled with prodigies, with strange gods, beckoning chimeras and credulous crowds. Belief in the supernatural was absolute; the occult sciences, astrology, magic, divination, all had their adepts. In Greece there were oracles at every turn, and with them prophets who taught the art of adultery and how to construe the past. On the banks of the Rhine there were girls who were regarded as divinities, and in Gaul were men who were held wholly divine.

Jerusalem too had her follies. There was Simon the Magician, founder of gnosticism, father of every heresy, Messiah to the Jews, Jupiter to the Gentiles--an impudent self-made god, who pretended to float in the air, and called his mistress Minerva--a deification, parenthetically, which was accepted by Nicholas, his successor, a deacon of the church, who raised her to the eighth heaven as patron saint of lust. To him, as to Simon, she was Ennoia, Prunikos, Helen of Troy. She had been Delilah, Lucretia. She had prostituted herself to every nation; she had sung in the by-ways, and hidden robbers in the vermin of her bed. But by Simon she was rehabilitated. It was she, no doubt, of whom Caligula thought when he beckoned to the moon. In Rome she had her statue, and near it was one to Simon, the holy god.

But of all manifestations of divinity the most patent was that which haloed Vespasian. He expected it, Suetonius says, but it is doubtful if any one else did. One night he dreamed that an era of prosperity was to dawn for him and his when Nero lost a tooth. The next day he was shown one which had been drawn from the emperor's mouth. But that was nothing. Presently at Carmel the Syrian oracle assured him that he would be successful in whatever he undertook. From Rome word came that, while the armies of Vitellius and Otho were fighting, two eagles had fought above them, and that the victor had been despatched by a third eagle that had come from the East. In Alexandria Serapis whispered to him. The entire menagerie of Egypt proclaimed him king. Apis bellowed, Anubis barked. Isis visited him unveiled. The lame and the blind pressed about him; he cured them with a touch. There could be no reasonable doubt now; surely he was a god. On his shoulders Apollonius threw the purple, and Vespasian set out for Rome.

His antecedents were less propitious. The descendant of an obscure centurion, he had been a veterinary surgeon; then, having got Caligula's ear, he flattered it abominably. Caligula disposed of, he flattered Claud, or what amounted to the same thing, Narcissus, Claud's chamberlain. Through the influence of the latter he became a lieutenant, fought on remote frontiers--fought well, too--so well even that, Narcissus gone, he felt Agrippina watching him, and knowing the jealousy of her eyes, prudently kept quiet until that lady did.

With Nero he promenaded through Greece--sat at the Olympian games and fell asleep when his emperor sang. Treason of that high nature--sacrilege, rather, for Nero was then a god--might have been overlooked, had it occurred but once, for Nero could be magnanimous when he chose. But it always occurred. To Nero's tremolo invariably came the accompaniment of Vespasian's snore. He was dreaming of that tooth, no doubt. "I am not a soporific, am I?" Nero gnashed at him, and sent the blasphemer away.

For a while Vespasian lived in constant expectation of some civil message inviting him to die. Finally it came, only he was invited to die at the head of an army which Nero had projected against seditious Jews. When he returned, leaving his son Titus to attend to Jerusalem, it was as emperor.

Only a moment before Vitellius had been disposed of. That curious glutton, whom the Rhenish legions had chosen because of his coarse familiarity, would willingly have fled had the soldiery let him. But not at all; they wanted a prince of their own manufacture. They knew nothing of Vespasian, cared less; and into the Capitol they chased the latter's partisans, his son Domitian as well. The besieged defended themselves with masterpieces, with sacred urns, the statues of gods, the pedestals of divinities. Suddenly the Capitol was aflame. Simultaneously Vespasian's advance guard beat at the gates. The besiegers turned, the mob was with them, and together they fought, first at the gates, then in the streets, in the Forum, retreating always, but like lions, their face to the foe. The volatile mob, noting the retreat, turned from combatant into spectator. Let the soldiers fight; it was their duty, not theirs; and, as the struggle continued, from roof and window they eyed it with that artistic delight which the arena had developed, applauding the clever thrusts, abusing the vanquished, robbing the dead, and therewith pillaging the wineshops, crowding the lupanars. During the orgy, Vitellius was stabbed. The Flavians had won the day, the empire was Vespasian's.

The use he made of it was very modest. In spite of his manifest divinity he had nothing in common with the Caesars that had gone before; he had no dreams of the impossible, no desire to frighten Jupiter or seduce the moon. He was a plain man, tall and ruddy, very coarse in speech and thought, open-armed and close-fisted, slapping senators on the back and keeping a sharp eye on the coppers; taxing the latrinae, and declaring that money had no smell; yet still, in comparison with Claud and Nero, almost the ideal; absolutely uninteresting also, yet doing what good he could; effacing at once the traces of the civil war, rebuilding the Capitol, calming the people, protecting the provinces, restoring to Rome the gardens of Nero, clipping the wings of the Palace of Gold, throwing open again the Via Sacra, over which the Palace had spread; draining the lake that had shimmered before it, and erecting the Colosseum in its place.

In spite of Serapsis, Anubis and Isis, he had not the faintest odor of myth about him; absolutely bourgeois, he lacked even that atmosphere of burlesque that surrounded Claud; he was not even vicious. But he was a soldier, a brave one; and if, with the acquired economy of a subaltern who has been obliged to live on his pay, he kept his purse-strings tight, they were loose enough if a friend were in need, and he paid no one the compliment of a lie. He was projected sheer out of the republic. The better part of his life had been passed under arms; the delicate sensuality of Rome was foreign to him. It was there that Domitian had lived.

It were interesting to have watched that young man killing flies by the hour, while he meditated on the atrocities he was to commit--atrocities so numberless and needless that in the red halls of the Caesars he has left a portrait which is unique. Slender, graceful, handsome, as were all the young emperors of old Rome, his blue, troubled eyes took pleasure, if at all, only in the sight of blood.

In accordance with the fashion which Caligula and Nero had set, Domitian's earliest manners were those of an urbane and gentle prince. Later, when he made it his turn to rule, informers begged their bread in exile. Where they are not punished, he announced, they are encouraged. The sacrifices were so distressing to him that he forbade the immolation of oxen. He was disinterested, too,

refusing legacies when the testator left nearer heirs, and therewith royally generous, covering his suite with presents, and declaring that to him avarice of all vices was the lowest and most vile. In short, you would have said another adolescent Nero come to Rome; there was the same silken sweetness of demeanor, the same ready blush, in addition to a zeal for justice and equity which other young emperors had been too thoughtless to show.

His boyhood, too, had not been above reproach. The same things were whispered about him that had been shouted at Augustus. Manifestly he lacked not one of the qualities which go to the making of a model prince. Vespasian alone had his doubts.

"Mushrooms won't hurt you," he cried one day, as Domitian started at the sight of a ragout a la Sardanapale, which he fancied, possibly, was a la Locuste, "It is steel you should fear."

At that time, with a father for emperor and a brother who was sacking Jerusalem, Domitian had but one cause for anxiety, to wit --that the empire might escape him. It was then he began his meditations over holocausts of flies. For hours he secluded himself, occupied solely with their slaughter. He treated them precisely as Titus treated the Jews, enjoying the quiver of their legs, the little agonies of their silent death.

Tiberius had been in love with solitude, but never as he. Night after night he wandered on the terraces of the palace, watching the red moon wane white, companioned only by his dreams, those waking dreams that poets and madmen share, that Pallas had him in her charge, that Psyche was amorous of his eyes.

Meanwhile he was a nobody, a young gentleman merely, who might have moved in the best society, and who preferred the worst--his own. The sudden elevation of Vespasian preoccupied him, and while he knew that in the natural course of events his father would move to Olympus, yet there was his brother Titus, on whose broad shoulders the mantle of purple would fall. If the seditious Jews only knew their business! But no. Forty years before a white apparition on the way to Golgotha had cried to a handful of women, "The days are coming in which they shall say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; to the hills, 'Cover us.'" And the days had come. A million of them had been butchered. From the country they had fled to the city; from Acra they had climbed to Zion. When the city burst into flames their blood put it out. Decidedly they did not know their business. Titus, instead of being stabbed before Jerusalem's walls, was marching in triumph to Rome.

The procession that presently entered the gates was a stream of splendor; crowns of rubies and gold; garments that glistened with gems; gods on their sacred pedestals; prisoners; curious beasts; Jerusalem in miniature; pictures of war; booty from the Temple, the veil, the candelabra, the cups of gold and the Book of the Law. To the rear rumbled the triumphal car, in which laurelled and mantled Titus stood, Vespasian at his side; while, in the distance, on horseback, came Domitian--a supernumerary, ignored by the crowd.

When the prisoners disappeared in the Tullianum and a herald shouted, "They have lived!" Domitian returned to the palace and hunted morosely for flies. The excesses of the festival in which Rome was swooning then had no delights for him. Presently the moon would rise, and then on the deserted terrace perhaps he would bathe a little in her light, and dream again of Pallas and of the possibilities of an emperor's sway, but meanwhile those blue troubled eyes that Psyche was amorous of were filled with envy and with hate. It was not that he begrudged Titus the triumph. The man who had disposed of a million Jews deserved not one triumph, but ten. It was the purple that haunted him.

Domitian was then in the early twenties. The Temple of Peace was ascending; the Temple of Janus was closed; the empire was at rest. Side by side with Vespasian, Titus ruled. From the Euphrates came the rumor of some vague revolt. Domitian thought he would like to quell it. He was requested to keep quiet. It occurred to him that his father ought to be ashamed of himself to reign so long. He was requested to vacate his apartment. There were dumb plots in dark cellars, of which only the echo of a whisper has descended to us, but which at the time were quite loud enough to reach Vespasian's ears. Titus interceded. Domitian was requested to behave.

For a while he prowled in the moonlight. He had been too precipitate, he decided, and to allay suspicion presently he went about in society, mingling his hours with those of married women. Manifestly his ways had mended. But Vespasian was uneasy. A comet had appeared. The doors of the imperial mausoleum had opened of themselves, besides, he was not well. The robust and hardy soldier, suddenly without tangible cause, felt his strength give way. "It is nothing," his physician said; "a slight attack of fever." Vespasian shook his head; he knew things of which the physician was ignorant. "It is death," he answered, "and an emperor should meet it standing."

Titus' turn came next. A violent, headstrong, handsome, rapacious prince, terribly prodigal, thoroughly Oriental, surrounded by dancers and mignons, living in state with a queen for mistress, startling even Rome with the uproar of his debauches--no sooner was Vespasian gone than presto! the queen went home, the dancers disappeared, the debauches ceased, and a ruler appeared who declared he had lost a day that a good action had not marked; a ruler who could announce that no one should leave his presence depressed.

Though Vespasian had gone, his reign continued. Not long, it is true, and punctuated by a spectacle of which Caligula, for all his poetry, had not dreamed--the burial of Pompeii. But a reign which, while it lasted, was fastidious and refined, and during which, again and again, Titus, who commanded death and whom death obeyed, besought Domitian to be to him a brother.

Domitian had no such intention. He had a party behind him, one made up of old Neronians, the army of the discontented, who wanted a change, and greatly admired this charming young prince whose hours were passed in killing flies and making love to married women. The pretorians too had been seduced. Domitian could make captivating promises when he chose.

As a consequence Titus, like Vespasian, was uneasy, and with cause. Dion Cassius, or rather that brute Xiphilin, his abbreviator, mentions the fever that overtook him, the same his father had met. It was mortal, of course, and the purple was Domitian's.

For a year and a day thereafter you would have thought Titus still at the helm. There was the same clemency, the same regard for justice, the same refinement and fastidiousness. The morose young poet had developed into a model monarch. The old Neronians were perplexed, irritated too; they had expected other things. Domitian was merely feeling the way; the hand that held the sceptre was not quite sure of its strength, and, tentatively almost, this Prince of Virtue began to scrutinize the morals of Rome. For the first time he noticed that the cocottes took their airing in litters. But litters were not for them! That abuse he put a stop to at once. A senator manifested an interest in ballet-girls; he was disgraced. The vestals, to whose indiscretions no one had paid much attention, learned the statutes of an archaic law, and were buried alive. The early distaste for blood was diminishing. Domitian had the purple, but it was not bright enough; he wanted it red, and what Domitian wanted he got. Your god and master orders it, was the formula he began to use when addressing the Senate and People of Rome.

To that the people were indifferent. The spectacles he gave in the Flavian amphitheatre were too magnificently atrocious not to be a compensation in full for any eccentricity in which he might indulge. Besides, under Nero, Claud, Caligula, on en avait vu bien d'autres. And at those spectacles where he presided, crowned with a tiara, on which were the images of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, while grouped about him the college of Flavian flamens wore tiaras that differed therefrom merely in this, that they bore his image too, the people right royally applauded their master and their god.

And it was just as well they did; Domitian was quite capable of ordering everybody into the arena. As yet, however, he had appeared little different from any other prince. That Rome might understand that there was a difference, and also in what that difference consisted, he gave a supper. Everyone worth knowing was bidden, and, as is usual in state functions, everyone that was bidden came. The supper hall was draped with black; the ceiling, the walls, the floor, everything was basaltic. The couches were black, the linen was black, the slaves were black. Behind each guest was a broken column with his name on it. The food was such as is prepared when death has come. The silence was that of the tomb. The only audible voice was Domitian's. He was talking very wittily and charmingly about murder, about proscriptions, the good informers do, the utility of the headsman, the majesty of the law. The guests, a trifle ill at ease, wished their host sweet dreams. "The same to you," he answered, and deplored that they must go.

On the morrow informers and headsmen were at work. Any pretext was sufficient. Birth, wealth, fame, or the lack of them--anything whatever--and there the culprit stood, charged not with treason to an emperor, but with impiety to a god. On the judgment seat Domitian sat. Before him the accused passed, and under his eyes they were questioned, tortured, condemned and killed. At once their property passed into the keeping of the prince.

Of that he had need. The arena was expensive, but the drain was elsewhere. A little before, a quarrelsome people, the Dacians, whom it took a Trajan to subdue, had overrun the Danube, and were marching down to Rome. Domitian set out to meet them. The Dacians retreated, not at all because they were repulsed, but because Domitian thought it better warfare to pay them to do so. On his return after that victory he enjoyed a triumph as fair as that of Caesar. And each year since then the emperor of Rome had paid tribute to a nation of mongrel oafs.

Of course he needed money. The informers were there and he got it, and with it that spectacle of torture and of blood which he needed too. Curiously, his melancholy increased; his good looks had gone; Psyche was no longer amorous of his eyes. Something else haunted him, something he could not define; the past, perhaps, perhaps the future. To his ears came strange sounds, the murmur of his own name, and suddenly silence. Then, too, there always seemed to be something behind him; something that when he turned disappeared. The room in which he slept he had covered with a polished metal that reflected everything, yet still the intangible was there. Once Pallas came in her chariot, waved him farewell, and disappeared, borne by black horses across the black night.

The astrologers consulted had nothing pleasant to say. They knew, as Domitian knew, that the end was near. So was theirs. To one of them, who predicted his immediate death, he inquired, "What will your end be?" "I," answered the astrologer--"I shall be torn by dogs." "To the stake with him!" cried Domitian; "let him be burned alive!" Suetonius says that a storm put out the flames, and dogs devoured the corpse. Another astrologer predicted that Domitian would die before noon on the morrow. In order to convince him of his error, Domitian ordered him to be executed the subsequent night. Before noon on the morrow Domitian was dead.

Philostratus and Dion Cassius both unite in saying that at that hour Apollonius was at Ephesus, preaching to the multitude. In the middle of the sermon he hesitated, but in a moment he began anew. Again he hesitated, his eyes half closed; then, suddenly he shouted, "Strike him! Strike him once more!" And immediately to his startled audience he related a scene that was occurring at Rome, the attack on Domitian, his struggle with an assailant, his effort to tear out his eyes, the rush of conspirators, and finally the fall of the emperor, pierced by seven knives.

The story may not be true, and yet if it were!


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.