Imperial Purple/Chapter VIII
Anyone who has loitered a moment among the statues in the Salle des Antonins at the Louvre will recall the bust of the Empress Faustina. It stands near the entrance, coercing the idler to remove his hat; to stop a moment, to gaze and dream. The face differs from that which Mr. Swinburne has described. In the poise of the head, in the expression of the lips, particularly in the features which, save the low brow, are not of the Roman type, there is a commingling of just that loveliness and melancholy which must have come to Psyche when she lost her god. In the corners of the mouth, in the droop of the eyelids, in the moulding of the chin, you may see that rarity--beauty and intellect in one --and with it the heightening shadow of an eternal regret. Before her Marcus Aurelius, her husband, stands, decked with the purple, with all the splendor of the imperator, his beard in overlapping curls, his questioning eyes dilated. Beyond is her daughter, Lucille, less fair than the mother, a healthy girl of the dairymaid type. Near by is the son, Commodus. Across the hall is Lucius Verus, the husband of Lucille; in a corner, Antonin, Faustine's father, and, more remotely, his wife. Together they form quite a family group, and to the average tourist they must seem a thoroughly respectable lot. Antonin certainly was respectable. He was the first emperor who declined to be a brute. Referring to his wife he said that he would rather be with her in a desert than without her in a palace; the speech, parenthetically, of a man who, though he could have cited that little Greek princess, Nausicaa, as a precedent, was too well-bred to permit so much as a fringe of his household linen to flutter in public. Besides, at his hours, he was a poet, and it is said that if a poet tell a lie twice he will believe it. Antonin so often declared his wife to be a charming person that in the end no doubt he thought so. She was not charming, however, or if she were, her charm was not that of exclusiveness.
It was in full sight of this lady's inconsequences that Faustine was educated. Wherever she looked, the candors of her girlhood were violated. The phallus then was omnipresent. Iamblicus, not the novelist, but the philosopher, has much to say on the subject; as has Arnobius in the Adversus gentes, and Lactance in the De falsa religione. If Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, are more reticent, it is because they were not Fathers of the Church, nor yet antiquarians. No one among us exacts a description of a spire. The phallus was as common to them, commoner even. It was on the coins, on the doors, in the gardens. As a preservative against Envy it hung from children's necks. On sun-dials and water clocks it marked the flight of time. The vestals worshipped it. At weddings it was used in a manner which need not be described.
It was from such surroundings that Faustine stepped into the arms of the severe and stately prince whom her father had chosen. That Marcus Aurelius adored her is certain. His notebook shows it. A more tender-hearted and perfect lover romance may show, but history cannot. He must have been the quintessence of refinement, a thoroughbred to his finger-tips; one for whom that purple mantle was too gaudy, and yet who bore it, as he bore everything else, in that self-abnegatory spirit which the higher reaches of philosophy bring.
He was of that rare type that never complains and always consoles.
After Antonin's death, his hours ceased to be his own. On the Euphrates there was the wildest disorder. To the north new races were pushing nations over the Danube and the Rhine. From the catacombs Christ was emerging; from the Nile, Serapis. The empire was in disarray. Antonin had provided his son-in-law with a coadjutor, Lucius Verus, the son of Hadrian's mignon, a magnificent scoundrel; a tall, broad-shouldered athlete, with a skin as fresh as a girl's and thick curly hair, which he covered with a powder of gold; a viveur, whose suppers are famous still; whose guests were given the slaves that served them, the plate off which they had eaten, the cups from which they had drunk--cups of gold, cups of silver, jewelled cups, cups from Alexandria, murrhine vases filled with nard--cars and litters to go home with, mules with silver trappings and negro muleteers. Capitolinus says that, while the guests feasted, sometimes the magnificent Verus got drunk, and was carried to bed in a coverlid, or else, the red feather aiding, turned out and fought the watch.
It was this splendid individual to whom Marcus Aurelius entrusted the Euphrates. They had been brought up together, sharing each others tutors, writing themes for the same instructor, both meanwhile adolescently enamored of the fair Faustine. It was to Marcus she was given, the empire as a dower; and when that dower passed into his hands, he could think of nothing more equitable than to ask Verus to share it with him. Verus was not stupid enough to refuse, and at the hour when the Parthians turned ugly, he needed little urging to set out for the East, dreaming, as he did so, of creating there an empire that should be wholly his.
At that time Faustine must have been at least twenty-eight, possibly thirty. There were matrons who had not seen their fifteenth year, and Faustine had been married young. Her daughter, Lucille, was nubile. Presently Verus, or rather his lieutenants, succeeded, and the girl was betrothed to him. There was a festival, of course, games in abundance, and plenty of blood.
It would have been interesting to have seen her that day, the iron ring of betrothal on her finger, her brother, Commodus, staring at the arrangement of her hair, her mother prettily perplexed, her father signing orders which messengers brought and despatched while the sand took on a deeper red, and Rome shrieked its delight. Yes, it would have been interesting and typical of the hour. Her hair in the ten tresses which were symbolic of a fiancee's innocence, must have amused that brute of a brother of hers, and the iron ring on the fourth finger of her left hand must have given Faustine food for thought; the vestals, in their immaculate robes, must have gazed at her in curious, sisterly ways, and because of her fresh beauty surely there were undertones of applause. Should her father disappear she would make a gracious imperatrix indeed.
But, meanwhile, there was Faustine, and at sight of her legends of old imperial days returned. She was not Messalina yet, but in the stables there were jockeys whose sudden wealth surprised no one; in the arenas there were gladiators that fought, not for liberty, nor for death, but for the caresses of her eyes; in the side- scenes there were mimes who spoke of her; there were senators who boasted in their cups, and in the theatre Rome laughed colossally at the catchword of her amours.
Marcus Aurelius then was occupied with affairs of state. In similar circumstances so was Claud--Messalina's husband--so, too, was Antonin. But Claud was an imbecile, Antonin a man of the world, while Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher. When fate links a woman to any one of these varieties of the husband, she is blessed indeed. Faustine was particularly favored.
The stately prince was not alone a philosopher--a calling, by the way, which was common enough then, and has become commoner since-- he was a philosopher who believed in philosophy, a rarity then as now. The exact trend of his thought is difficult to define. His note-book is filled with hesitations; materialism had its allurements, so also had pantheism; the advantages of the Pyrrhonic suspension of judgment were clear to him too; according to the frame of mind in which he wrote, you might fancy him an agnostic, again an akosmist, sometimes both, but always the ethical result is the same.
"Revenge yourself on your enemy by not resembling him. Forgive; forgive always; die forgiving. Be indulgent to the wrong-doer; be compassionate to him; tell him how he should act; speak to him without anger, without sarcasm; speak to him affectionately. Besides, what do you know of his wrong-doing? Are all his thoughts familiar to you? May there not be something that justifies him? And you, are you entirely free from reproach? Have you never done wrong? And if not, was it fear that restrained you? Was it pride, or what?"
In the synoptic gospels similar recommendations appear. Charity is the New Testament told in a word. Christians read and forget it. But Christians are not philosophers. The latter are charitable because they regard evil as a part of the universal order of things, one which it is idle to blame, yet permissible to rectify.
From whatever source such a tenet springs, whether from materialism, stoicism, pyrrhonism, epicureanism, atheism even, is of small matter; it is a tenet which is honorable to the holder. This sceptred misanthrope possessed it, and it was in that his wife was blessed. Years later he died, forgiving her in silence, praising her aloud. Claud, referring to Messalina, shouted through the Forum that the fate which destined him to marry impure women destined him to punish them. Marcus Aurelius said nothing. He did not know what fate destined him to do, but he did know that philosophy taught him to forgive.
It was this philosophy that first perplexed Faustine. She was restless, frivolous, perhaps also a trifle depraved. Frivolous because all women were, depraved because her mother was, and restless because of the curiosity that inflammable imaginations share--in brief, a Roman princess. Her husband differed from the Roman prince. His youth had not been entirely circumspect; he, too, had his curiosities, but they were satisfied, he had found that they stained. When he married he was already the thinker; doubtless, he was tiresome; he could have had little small-talk, and his hours of love-making must have been rare. Presently the affairs of state engrossed him. Faustine was left to herself; save a friend of her own sex, a woman can have no worse companion. She, too, discovered she had curiosities. A gladiator passed that way-- then Rome; then Lesbos; then the Lampsacene. "You are my husband's mistress," her daughter cried at her. "And you," the mother answered, "are your brother's." Even in the aridity of a chronicle the accusation and rejoinder are dramatic. Fancy what they must have been when mother and daughter hissed them in each other's teeth. Whether the argument continued is immaterial. Both could have claimed the sanction of religion. In those days a sin was a prayer. Religion was then, as it always had been, purely political. With the individual, with his happiness or aspirations, it concerned itself not at all. It was the prosperity of the empire, its peace and immortality, for which sacrifices were made, and libations offered. The god of Rome was Rome, and religion was patriotism. The antique virtues, courage in war, moderation in peace, and honor at all times, were civic, not personal. It was the state that had a soul, not the individual. Man was ephemeral; it was the nation that endured. It was the permanence of its grandeur that was important, nothing else.
To ensure that permanence each citizen labored. As for the citizen, death was near, and he hastened to live; before the roses could fade he wreathed himself with them. Immortality to him was in his descendants, the continuation of his name, respect to his ashes. Any other form of future life was a speculation, infrequent at that. In anterior epochs Fright had peopled Tartarus, but Fright had gone. The Elysian Fields were vague, wearisome to contemplate; even metempsychosis had no adherents. "After death," said Caesar, "there is nothing," and all the world agreed with him. The hour, too, in which three thousand gods had not a single atheist, had gone, never to return. Old faiths had crumbled. None the less was Rome the abridgment of every superstition. The gods of the conquered had always been part of her spoils. The Pantheon had become a lupanar of divinities that presided over birth, and whose rites were obscene; an abattoir of gods that presided over death, and whose worship was gore. To please them was easy. Blood and debauchery was all that was required. That the upper classes had no faith in them at all goes without the need of telling; the atmosphere of their atriums dripped with metaphysics. But of the atheism of the upper classes the people knew nothing; they clung piously to a faith which held a theological justification of every sin, and in the temples fervent prayers were murmured, not for future happiness, for that was unobtainable, nor yet for wisdom or virtue, for those things the gods neither granted nor possessed; the prayers were that the gods would favor the suppliant in his hatreds and in his lusts.
Such was Rome when Verus returned to wed Lucille. Before his car the phallus swung; behind it was the pest. A little before, the Tiber overflowed. Presently, in addition to the pest, famine came. It was patent to everyone that the gods were vexed. There was blasphemy somewhere, and the Christians were tossed to the beasts. Faustine watched them die. At first they were to her as other criminals, but immediately a difference was discerned. They met death, not with grace, perhaps, but with exaltation. They entered the arena as though it were an enchanted garden, the color of the emerald, where dreams came true. Faustine questioned. They were enemies of state, she was told. The reply left her perplexed, and she questioned again. It was then her eyes became inhabited by regret. The past she tried to put from her, but remorse is physical; it declines to be dismissed. She would have killed herself, but she no longer dared. Besides, in the future there was light. In some ray of it she must have walked, for when at the foot of Mount Taurus, in a little Cappadocian village, years later, she died, it was at the sign of the cross.