Imperial Purple/Chapter VII

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The Poison in the Purple[edit]

Rome never was healthy. The tramontana visited it then as now, fever, too, and sudden death. To emperors it was fatal. Since Caesar a malaria had battened on them all. Nerva escaped, but only through abdication. The mantle that fell from Domitian's shoulders on to his was so dangerous in its splendor, that, fearing the infection, he passed it to Ulpius Trajanus, the lustre undimmed.

Ulpius Trajanus, Trajan for brevity, a Spaniard by birth, a soldier by choice; one who had fought against Parthian and Jew, who had triumphed through Pannonia and made it his own; a general whose hair had whitened on the field; a consul who had frightened nations, was afraid of the sheen of that purple which dazzled, corroded and killed. He bore it, indeed, but at arm's-length. He kept himself free from the subtlety of its poison, from the microbes of Rome as well.

He was in Cologne when Domitian died and Nerva accepted and renounced the throne. It was a year before he ventured among the seven hills. When he arrived you would have said another Augustus, not the real Augustus, but the Augustus of legend, and the late Mr. Gibbon. When he girt the new prefect of the pretorium with the immemorial sword, he addressed him in copy-book phrases--"If I rule wisely, use it for me; unwisely, against me."

Rome listened open-mouthed. The change from Domitian's formula, "Your god and master orders it," was too abrupt to be immediately understood. Before it was grasped Trajan was off again; this time to the Danube and beyond it, to Dacia and her fens.

Many years later--a century or two, to be exact--a Persian satrap loitered in a forum of Rome. "It is here," he declared, "I am tempted to forget that man is mortal."

He had passed beneath a triumphal arch; before him was a glittering square, grandiose, yet severe; a stretch of temples and basilicas, in which masterpieces felt at home--the Forum of Trajan, the compliment of a nation to a prince. Dominating it was a column, in whose thick spirals you read to-day the one reliable chronicle of the Dacian campaign. Was not Gautier well advised when he said only art endures?

There were other chronicles in plenty; there were the histories of AElius Maurus, of Marius Maximus, and that of Spartian, but they are lost. There is a page or two in the abbreviation which Xiphilin made of Dion; Aurelius Victor has a little to add, so also has Eutropus, but, practically speaking, there is, apart from that column, nothing save conjecture.

Campaigns are wearisome reading, but not the one that is pictured there. You ask a curve a question, and in the next you find the reply. There is a point, however, on which it is dumb--the origin of the war. But if you wish to know the result, not the momentary and transient result, but the sequel which futurity held, look at the ruins at that column's base.

The origin of the war was Domitian's diplomacy. The chieftain whom he had made king, and who had been surprised enough at receiving a diadem instead of the point of a sword, fancied, and not unreasonably, that the annuity which Rome paid him was to continue forever. But Domitian, though a god, was not otherwise immortal. When he died abruptly the annuity ceased. The Dacian king sent word that he was surprised at the delay, but he must have been far more so at the promptness with which he got Trajan's reply. It was a blare of bugles, which he thought forever dumb; a flight of eagles, which he thought were winged.

In the spirals of the column you see the advancing army, the retreating foe; then the Dacian dragon saluting the standards of Rome; peace declared, and an army, whose very repose is menacing, standing there to see that peace is kept. And was it? In the ascending spiral is the new revolt, the attempt to assassinate Trajan, the capture of the conspirators, the advance of the legions, the retreat of the Dacians, burning their cities as they go, carrying their wounded and their women with them, and at last pressing about a huge cauldron that is filled with poison, fighting among themselves for a cup of the brew, and rolling on the ground in the convulsions of death. Farther on is the treasure of the king. To hide it he had turned a river from its source, sunk the gold in a vault beneath, and killed the workmen that had labored there. Beyond is the capture of the capital, the suicide of the chief, a troop of soldiers driving captives and cattle before them, the death of a nation and the end of war.

The subsequent triumph does not appear on the column. It is said that ten thousand beasts were slaughtered in the arenas, slaughtering, as they fell, a thousand of their slaughterers. But the spectacle, however fair, was not of a nature to detain Trajan long in Rome. The air there had not improved in the least, and presently he was off again, this time on the banks of the Euphrates, arguing with the Parthians, avoiding danger in the only way he knew, by facing it.

It was then that the sheen of the purple glowed. If lustreless at home, it was royally red abroad. In a campaign that was little more than a triumphant promenade he doubled the empire. To the world of Caesar he added that of Alexander. Allies he turned into subjects, vassals into slaves. Armenia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, were added to the realm. Trajan's footstools were diadems. He had moved back one frontier, he moved another. From Britain to the Indus, Rome was mistress of the earth. Had Trajan been younger, China, whose very name was unknown, would have yielded to him her corruption, her printing press, her powder and her tea.

That he would have enjoyed these things is not at all conjectural. He was then an old man, but he was not a good one--at least not in the sense we use the term to-day. He had habits which are regarded now less as vices than perversions, but which at that time were taken as a matter of course and accepted by everyone, even by the stoics, very calmly, with a grain of Attic salt at that. Men were regarded as virtuous when they were brave, when they were honest; the idea of using the expression in its later sense occurred, if at all, in jest merely, as a synonym for the eunuch. It was the matron and the vestal who were supposed to be straight, and their straightness was wholly supposititious. The ceremonies connected with the phallus, and those observed in the worship of the Bona Dea, were of a nature that no virtue could withstand. Every altar, Juvenal said, had its Clodius, and even in Clodius' absence there were always those breaths of Sapphic song that blew through Mitylene.

It is just that absence of a quality which we regard as an added grace; one, parenthetically, which dowered the world with a new conception of beauty that makes it difficult to picture Rome. Modern ink has acquired Nero's blush; it comes very readily, yet, however sensitive a writer may be, once Roman history is before him, he may violate it if he choose; he may even give it a child, but never can he make it immaculate. He may skip, indeed, if he wish; and it is because he has skipped so often that one fancies that Augustus was all right. The rain of fire which fell on the cities that mirrored their towers in the Bitter Sea, might just as well have fallen on him, on Vergil, too, on Caligula, Claud, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Titus, Domitian, and particularly on Trajan.

As lieutenant in the latter's triumphant promenade, was a nephew, AElius Hadrianus, a young man for whom Trajan's wife is rumored to have had more than a platonic affection, and who in younger days was numbered among Trajan's mignons. During the progress of that promenade Trajan fell ill. The command of the troops was left to Hadrian, and Trajan started for Rome. On the way he died. In what manner is not known; his wife, however, was with him, and it was in her hand that a letter went to the senate stating that Trajan had adopted Hadrian as his heir. Trajan had done nothing of the sort. The idea had indeed occurred to him, but long since it had been abandoned. He had even formally selected someone else, but his wife was with him, and her lover commanded the troops. The lustre of the purple, always dazzling, had fascinated Hadrian's eyes. Did he steal it? One may conjecture, yet never know. In any event it was his, and he folded it very magnificently about him. Still young, a trifle over thirty, handsome, unusually accomplished, grand seigneur to his finger-tips, endowed with a manner which is rumored to have been one of great charm, possessed of the amplest appreciation of the elegancies of life, he had precisely the figure which purple adorns. But, though the lustre had fascinated, he too knew its spell; and presently he started off on a journey about the world, which lasted fifteen years, and which, when ended, left the world the richer for his passing, decorated with the monuments he had strewn. Before that journey began, at the earliest rumor of Trajan's death, the Euphrates and Tigris awoke, the cinders of Nineveh flamed. The rivers and land that lay between knew that their conqueror had gone. Hadrian knew it also, and knew too that, though he might occupy the warrior's throne, he never could fill the warrior's place. To Armenia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, freedom was restored. Dacia could have had it for the asking. But over Dacia the toga had been thrown; it was as Roman as Gaul. A corner of it is Roman still; the Roumanians are there. But though Dacia was quiet, in its neighborhood the restless Sarmatians prowled and threatened. Hadrian, who had already written a book on tactics, knew at once how to act. Domitian's policy was before him; he followed the precedent, and paid the Sarmatians to be still. It requires little acumen to see that when Rome permitted herself to be blackmailed the end was near.

For the time being, however, there was peace, and in its interest Hadrian set out on that unequalled journey over a land that was his. Had fate relented, Trajan could have made a wider one still. But in Trajan was the soldier merely, when he journeyed it was with the sword. In Hadrian was the dilettante, the erudite too; he travelled not to conquer, but to learn, to satisfy an insatiable curiosity, for self-improvement, for glory too. Behind him was an army, not of soldiers, but of masons, captained by architects, artists and engineers. Did a site please him, there was a temple at once, or if not that, then a bridge, an aqueduct, a library, a new fashion, sovereignty even, but everywhere the spectacle of an emperor in flesh and blood. For the first time the provinces were able to understand that a Caesar was not necessarily a brute, a phantom and a god.

It would have been interesting to have made one of that court of poets and savants that surrounded him; to have dined with him in Paris, eaten oysters in London; sat with him while he watched that wall go up before the Scots, and then to have passed down again through a world still young--a world beautiful, ornate, unutilitarian; a world to which trams, advertisements and telegraph poles had not yet come; a world that still had illusions, myths and mysteries; one in which religion and poetry went hand in hand--a world without newspapers, hypocrisy and cant.

Hadrian, doubtless, enjoyed it. He was young enough to have enthusiasms and to show them; he was one of the best read men of the day; he was poet, painter, sculptor, musician, erudite and emperor in one. Of course he enjoyed it. The world, over which he travelled, was his, not by virtue of the purple alone, but because of his knowledge of it. The prince is not necessarily cosmopolitan; the historian and antiquarian are. Hadrian was an early Quinet, an earlier Champollion; always the thinker, sometimes the cook. And to those in his suite it must have been a sight very unique to see a Caesar who had published his volume of erotic verse, just as any other young man might do; who had hunted lions, not in the arena, but in Africa, make researches on the plain where Troy had been, and a supreme of sow's breast, peacock, pheasant, ham and boar, which he called Pentapharmarch, and which he offered as he had his Catacriani--the erotic verse--as something original and nice.

Insatiably inquisitive, verifying a history that he was preparing in the lands which gave that history birth, he passed through Egypt and Asia, questioning sphinxes, the cerements of kings, the arcana of the temples; deciphering the sacred books, arguing with magi, interrogating the stars. For the thinker, after the fashion of the hour, was astrologer too, and one of the few anecdotes current concerning him is in regard to a habit he had of drawing up on the 31st of December the events of the coming year. After consulting the stars on that 31st of December which occurred in the twenty-second year of his reign, he prepared a calendar which extended only to the 10th of July. On that day he died.

The calendar does not seem to have been otherwise serviceable. It was in Bithynia he found a shepherd whose appearance which, in its perfection, was quite earthly, suggested neither heaven nor hell, but some planet where the atmosphere differs from ours; where it is pink, perhaps, or faintly ochre; where birth and death have forms higher than here.

Hadrian, captivated, led the lad in leash. The facts concerning that episode have been so frequently given that the repetition is needless here. Besides, the point is elsewhere. Presently the lad fell overboard. Hadrian lost a valet, Rome an emperor, and Olympus a god. But in attempting to deify the lost lackey, the grief of Hadrian was so immediate, that it is permissible to fancy that the lad's death was not one of those events which the emperor- astrologer noted beforehand on his calendar. The lad was decently buried, the Nile gave up her dead, and on the banks a fair city rose, one that had its temples, priests, altars and shrines; a city that worshipped a star, and called that star Antinous. Hadrian then could have congratulated himself. Even Caligula would have envied him. He had done his worst; he had deified not a lad, but a lust. And not for the moment alone. A half century later Tertullian noted that the worship still endured, and subsequently the Alexandrine Clement discovered consciences that Antinous had reproached.

Antinous, deified, was presently forgot. A young Roman, wonderfully beautiful, Dion says, yet singularly effeminate; a youth who could barely carry a shield; who slept between rose- leaves and lilies; who was an artist withal; a poet who had written lines that Martial might have mistaken for his own, Cejonius Verus by name, succeeded the Bithynian shepherd. Hadrian, who would have adopted Antinous, adopted Verus in his stead. But Hadrian was not happy in his choice. Verus died, and singularly enough, Hadrian selected as future emperor the one ruler against whom history has not a reproach, Pius Antonin.

Meanwhile the journey continued. The Thousand and One Nights were realized then if ever. The beauty of the world was at its apogee, the glory of Rome as well; and through secrets and marvels Hadrian strolled, note-book in hand, his eyes unwearied, his curiosity unsatiated still. To pleasure him the intervales took on a fairer glow; cities decked themselves anew, the temples unveiled their mysteries; and when he passed to the intervales liberty came; to the cities, sovereignty; to the temples, shrines. The world rose to him as a woman greets her lover. His travels were not fatigues; they were delights, in which nations participated, and of which the memories endure as though enchanted still.

It would have been interesting, no doubt, to have dined with him in Paris; to have quarried lions in their African fens; to have heard archaic hymns ripple through the rushes of the Nile; to have lounged in the Academe, to have scaled Parnassus, and sailed the AEgean Sea; but, a history and an arm-chair aiding, the traveller has but to close his eyes and the past returns. Without disturbing so much as a shirt-box, he may repeat that promenade. Triremes have foundered; litters are out of date; painted elephants are no more; the sky has changed, climates with it; there are colors, as there are arts, that have gone from us forever; there are desolate plains, where green and yellow was; the shriek of steam where gods have strayed; advertisements in sacred groves; Baedekers in ruins that never heard an atheist's voice; solitudes where there were splendors; the snarl of jackals where once were birds and bees-- yet, history and the arm-chair aiding, it all returns. Any traveller may follow in Hadrian's steps; he is stayed but once-- on the threshold of the Temple of Eleusis. It is there history gropes, impotent and blind, and it is there the interest of that journey culminated.

Beyond the episode connected with Antinous, Hadrian's journey was marked by another, one which occurred in Judaea. Both were infamous, no doubt, but, what is more to the point, both mark the working of the poison in the purple that he bore.

Since Titus had gone, despairful Judaea had taken heart again. Hope in that land was inextinguishable. The walls of Jerusalem were still standing; in the Temple the offices continued. Though Rome remained, there was Israel too. Passing that way one afternoon, Hadrian mused. The city affected him; the site was superb. And as he mused it occurred to him that Jerusalem was less harmonious to the ear than Hadrianopolis; that the Temple occupied a position on which a Capitol would look far better; in brief, that Jehovah might be advantageously replaced by Jove. The army of masons that were ever at his heels were set to work at once. They had received similar orders and performed similar tasks so often that they could not fancy anyone would object. The Jews did. They fought as they had never fought before; they fought for three years against a Nebuchadnezzar who created torrents of blood so abundant that stones were carried for miles, and who left corpses enough to fertilize the land for a decade. The survivors were sold. Those for whom no purchasers could be found had their heads amputated. Jerusalem was razed to the ground. The site of the Temple was furrowed by the plow, sown with salt, and in place of the City of David rose AElia Capitolina, a miniature Rome, whose gates, save on one day in the year, Jews were forbidden under penalty of death to pass, were forbidden to look at, and over which were images of swine, pigs with scornful snouts, the feet turned inward, the tail twisted like a lie.

It was not honorable warfare, but it was effective; then, too, it was Hadrianesque, the mad insult of a madman to a race as mad as he. The purple had done its work. History has left the rise of this emperor conjectural; his fall is written in blood. As he began he ended, a poet and a beast.

Presently he was in Rome. It was not homesickness that took him there; he was far too cosmopolitan to suffer from any such malady as that. It was the accumulations of a fifteen-year excursion through the metropoles of art which demanded a gallery of their own. Another with similar tastes and similar power might have ordered everything which pleasured his eye to be carted to Rome, but in his quality of artifex omnipotens Hadrian embellished and never sacked. There were painters and sculptors enough in that army at his heels, and whatever appealed to him was copied on the spot. So much was copied that a park of ten square miles was just large enough to form the open-air museum which he had designed, one which centuries of excavation have not exhausted yet.

The museum became a mad-house. Hadrian was ill; tired in mind and body, smitten with imperialia. It was then the young Verus died, leaving for a wonder a child behind, and more wonderful still, Antonin was adopted. Through Rome, meanwhile, terror stalked. Hadrian, in search of a remedy against his increasing confusion of mind, his visible weakness of body, turned from physicians to oracles; from them to magic, and then to blood. He decimated the senate. Soldiers, freemen, citizens, anybody and everybody were ordered off to death. He tried to kill himself and failed; he tried again, wondering, no doubt, why he who commanded death for others could not command it for himself. Presently he succeeded, and Antonin--the pious Antonin, as the senate called him-- marshalled from cellars and crypts the senators and citizens whom Hadrian had ordered to be destroyed.


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.