ROME IN THE THIRD CENTURY
IN LETTERS OF LUCIUS M. PISO, FROM ROME, TO FAUSTA, THE DAUGHTER OF GRACCHUS, AT PALMYRA.
AUTHOR OF "ZENOBIA," "JULIAN," ETC.
TWO VOLUMES COMPLETE IN ONE.
NEW YORK: PUBLISHED BY JAMES MILLER, (SUCCESSOR TO C. S. FRANCIS & CO.) 647 BROADWAY. 1874.
Entered, according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1838, By CHARLES S. FRANCIS, in the Clerk's office of the Southern District of New York.
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Entered, according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1866, By MARY WARE, in the Clerk's office of the Southern District of New York.
This book—a sequel to Zenobia—published nearly ten years ago under the name of 'Probus,' was soon republished, in several places abroad, under that of 'Aurelian.' So far from complaining of the innovation, I could not but regard it as a piece of good fortune, as I had myself long thought the present a more appropriate title than the one originally chosen. Add to this, that the publisher of the work, on lately proposing a new edition, urgently advised the adoption of the foreign name, and I have thought myself sufficiently warranted in an alteration which circumstances seemed almost to require, or, at least, to excuse.
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The record which follows, is by the hand of me, NICOMACHUS, once the happy servant of the great Queen of Palmyra, than whom the world never saw a queen more illustrious, or a woman adorned with brighter virtues. But my design is not to write her eulogy, or to recite the wonderful story of her life. That task requires a stronger and a more impartial hand than mine. The life of Zenobia by Nicomachus, would be the portrait of a mother and a divinity, drawn by the pen of a child and a worshipper.
My object is a humbler, but perhaps also a more useful one. It is to collect and arrange, in their proper order, such of the letters of the most noble LUCIUS MANLIUS PISO, as shall throw most light upon his character and times, supplying all defects of incident, and filling up all chasms that may occur, out of the knowledge which more exactly than any one else, I have been able to gather concerning all that relates to the distinguished family of the Pisos, after its connection with the more distinguished one still, of the Queen of Palmyra.
It is in this manner that I propose to amuse the few remaining days of a green old age, not without hope both to amuse and benefit others also. This is a labor, as those will discover who read, not unsuitable to one who stands trembling on the verge of life, and whom a single rude blast may in a moment consign to the embraces of the universal mother. I will not deny that my chief satisfaction springs from the fact, that in collecting these letters, and binding them together by a connecting narrative, I am engaged in the honorable task of tracing out some of the steps by which the new religion has risen to its present height of power. For whether true or false, neither friend nor foe, neither philosopher nor fool, can refuse to admit the regenerating and genial influences of its so wide reception upon the Roman character and manners. If not the gift of the gods, it is every way worthy a divine origin; and I cannot but feel myself to be worthily occupied in recording the deeds, the virtues, and the sufferings, of those who put their faith in it, and, in times of danger and oppression, stood forth to defend it. Age is slow of belief. The thoughts then cling with a violent pertinacity to the fictions of its youth, once held to be the most sacred realities. But for this I should, I believe, myself long ago have been a Christian. I daily pray to the Supreme Power that my stubborn nature may yet so far yield, that I may be able, with a free and full assent, to call myself a follower of Christ. A Greek by birth, a Palmyrene by choice and adoption, a Roman by necessity—and these are all honorable names—I would yet rather be a Christian than either. Strange that, with so strong desires after a greater good, I should remain fixed where I have ever been! Stranger still, seeing I have moved so long in the same sphere with the excellent Piso, the divine Julia—that emanation of God—and the god-like Probus! But there is no riddle so hard for man to read as himself. I sometimes feel most inclined toward the dark fatalism of the stoics, since it places all things beyond the region of conjecture or doubt.
Yet if I may not be a Christian myself—I do not, however, cease both to hope and pray—I am happy in this, that I am permitted by the Divine Providence to behold, in these the last days of life, the quiet supremacy of a faith which has already added so much to the common happiness, and promises so much more. Having stood in the midst, and looked upon the horrors of two persecutions of the Christians—the first by Aurelian and the last by Diocletian—which last seemed at one moment as if it would accomplish its work, and blot out the very name of Christian—I have no language in which to express the satisfaction with which I sit down beneath the peaceful shadows of a Christian throne, and behold the general security and exulting freedom enjoyed by the many millions throughout the vast empire of the great Constantine. Now, everywhere around, the Christians are seen, undeterred by any apprehension of violence, with busy hands reerecting the demolished temples of their pure and spiritual faith; yet not unmindful, in the mean time, of the labor yet to be done, to draw away the remaining multitudes of idolaters from the superstitions which, while they infatuate, degrade and brutalize them. With the zeal of the early apostles of this religion, they are applying themselves, with untiring diligence, to soften and subdue the stony heart of hoary Paganism, receiving but too often, as their only return, curses and threats—now happily vain—and retiring from the assault, leading in glad triumph captive multitudes. Often, as I sit at my window, overlooking, from the southern slope of the Quirinal, the magnificent Temple of the Sun, the proudest monument of Aurelian's reign, do I pause to observe the labors of the artificers who, just as it were beneath the shadow of its columns, are placing the last stones upon the dome of a Christian church. Into that church the worshippers shall enter unmolested; mingling peacefully, as they go and return, with the crowds that throng the more gorgeous temple of the idolaters. Side by side, undisturbed and free, do the Pagans and Christians, Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians, now observe the rites, and offer the worship, of their varying faiths. This happiness we owe to the wise and merciful laws of the great Constantine. So was it, long since, in Palmyra, under the benevolent rule of Zenobia. May the time never come, when Christians shall do otherwise than now; when, remembering the wrongs they have received, they shall retaliate torture and death upon the blind adherents of the ancient superstition!
These letters of Piso to Fausta the daughter of Gracchus, now follow.
FROM PISO TO FAUSTA.
I am not surprised, Fausta, that you complain of my silence. It were strange indeed if you did not. But as for most of our misdeeds we have excuses ready at hand, so have I for this. First of all, I was not ignorant, that, however I might fail you, from your other greater friend you would experience no such neglect; but on the contrary would be supplied with sufficient fulness and regularity, with all that could be worth knowing, concerning either our public or private affairs. For her sake, too, I was not unwilling, that at first the burden of this correspondence, if I may so term it, should rest where it has, since it has afforded, I am persuaded, a pleasure, and provided an occupation that could have been found nowhere else. Just as a flood of tears brings relief to a bosom laboring under a heavy sorrow, so has this pouring out of herself to you in frequent letters, served to withdraw the mind of the Queen from recollections, which, dwelt upon as they were at first, would soon have ended that life in which all ours seem bound up.
Then again, if you accept the validity of this excuse, I have another, which, as a woman, you will at once allow the force of. You will not deem it a better one than the other, but doubtless as good. It is this: that for a long time I have been engaged in taking possession of my new dwelling upon the Coelian, not far from that of Portia. Of this you may have heard, in the letters which have reached you; but that will not prevent me from describing to you, with more exactness than any other can have done it, the home of your old and fast friend, Lucius Manlius Piso; for I think it adds greatly to the pleasure with which we think of an absent friend, to be able to see, as in a picture, the form and material and position of the house he inhabits, and even the very aspect and furniture of the room in which he is accustomed to pass the most of his time. This to me is a satisfaction greater than you can well conceive, when, in my ruminating hours, which are many, I return to Palmyra, and place myself in the circle with Gracchus, Calpurnius, and yourself. Your palace having now been restored to its former condition, I know where to find you at the morning, noon, and evening hour; the only change you have made in the former arrangements being this: that whereas when I was your guest, your private apartments occupied the eastern wing of the palace, they are now in the western, once mine, which I used then to maintain were the most agreeable and noble of all. The prospects which its windows afford of the temple, and the distant palace of the queen, and of the evening glories of the setting sun, are more than enough to establish its claims to an undoubted superiority; and if to these be added the circumstance, that for so long a time the Roman Piso was their occupant, the case is made out beyond all peradventure.
But I am describing your palace rather than my own. You must remember my paternal seat on the southern declivity of the hill, overlooking the course of the Tiber as it winds away to the sea. Mine is not far from it, but on the northern side of the hill, and thereby possessing a situation more favorable to comfort, during the heats of summer—I loving the city, as you well know, better if anything during the summer than the winter months. Standing upon almost the highest point of the hill, it commands a wide and beautiful prospect, especially toward the north and east, the eye shooting over the whole expanse of city and suburbs, and then resting upon the purple outline of the distant mountains. Directly before me are the magnificent structures which crown the Esquiline, conspicuous among which, and indeed eminent over all, are the Baths of Titus. Then, as you will conjecture, the eye takes in the Palatine and Capitol hills, catching, just beyond the last, the swelling dome of the Pantheon, which seems rather to rise out of, and crown, the Flavian Amphitheatre, than its own massy walls. Then, far in the horizon, we just discern the distant summits of the Appenines, broken by Soracte and the nearer hills.
The principal apartments are on the northern side of the palace, opening upon a portico of Corinthian columns, running its entire length and which would not disgrace Palmyra itself. At the eastern extremity, are the rooms common to the family; in the centre, a spacious hall, in the adorning of which, by every form of art, I have exhausted my knowledge and taste in such things; and at the western extremity, my library, where at this moment I sit, and where I have gathered around me all in letters and art that I most esteem. This room I have decorated for myself and Julia—not for others. Whatever has most endeared itself to our imaginations, our minds, or our hearts, has here its home. The books that have most instructed or amused; the statuary that most raises and delights us; the pictures on which we most love to dwell; the antiquities that possess most curiosity or value, are here arranged, and in an order that would satisfy, I believe, even your fastidious taste.
I will not weary you with any more minute account of my new dwelling, leaving that duty to the readier pen of Julia. Yet I cannot relieve you till I have spoken of two of the statues which occupy the most conspicuous niche in the library. You will expect me to name Socrates and Plato, or Numa and Seneca—these are all there, but it is not of either of them that I would speak. They are the venerable founders of the Jewish and Christian religions, MOSES and CHRIST. These statues, of the purest marble, stand side by side, at one extremity of the apartment; and immediately before them, and within the wondrous sphere of their influences stands the table at which I write, and where I pursue my inquiries in philosophy and religion. You smile at my enthusiasm, Fausta, and wonder when I shall return to the calm sobriety of my ancient faith. In this wonder there are a thousand errors—but of these hereafter. I was to tell you of these sculptures. Of the statue of Moses, I possess no historical account, and know not what its claim may be to truth. I can only say, it is a figure truly grand, and almost terrific. It is of a size larger than life, and expresses no sentiment so perfectly as authority—the authority of a rigorous and austere ruler—both in the attitude of the body and the features of the countenance. The head is slightly raised and drawn back, as if listening, awe-struck, to a communication from the God who commissioned him, while his left hand supports a volume, and his right grasps a stylus, with which, when the voice has ceased, to record the communicated truth. Place in his hands the thunderbolt, and at his feet the eagle, and the same form would serve for Jupiter the Thunderer, except only that to the countenance of the Jewish prophet there has been imparted a rapt and inspired look, wholly beyond any that even Phidias could have fixed upon the face of Jove. He who wrought this head must have believed in the sublimities of the religion whose chief minister he has made so to speak them forth, in the countenance and in the form; and yet who has ever heard of a Jew sculptor?
The statue of Christ is of a very different character; as different as the Christian faith is from that of the Jewish, notwithstanding they are still by many confounded. I cannot pretend to describe to you the holy beauty that as it were constitutes this perfect work of art. If you ask what authority tradition has invested it with, I can only say that I do not know. All I can affirm with certainty, is this, that it once stood in the palace of Alexander Severus, in company with the images of other deified men and gods, whom he chiefly reverenced. When that excellent prince had fallen under the blows of assassins, his successor and murderer, Maximin, having little knowledge or taste for what was found in the palace of Alexander, those treasures were sold, and the statue of Christ came into the hands of a distinguished and wealthy Christian of that day, who, perishing in the persecution of Decius, his descendants became impoverished, and were compelled to part with even this sacred relic of their former greatness. From them I purchased it; and often are they to be seen, whenever for such an object they can steal away from necessary cares, standing before it and renewing, as it would seem, their vows of obedience, in the presence of the founder of their faith. The room is free to their approach, whenever they are thus impelled.
The expression of this statue, I have said, is wholly different from that of the Hebrew. His is one of authority and of sternness; this of gentleness and love. Christ is represented, like the Moses, in a sitting posture, with a countenance, not like his raised to Heaven, but bent with looks somewhat sad and yet full of benevolence, as if upon persons standing before him. Fraternity, I think, is the idea you associate with it most readily. I should never suppose him to be a judge or censor, or arbitrary master, but rather an elder brother; elder in the sense of wiser, holier, purer; whose look is not one of reproach that others are not as himself, but of pity and desire; and whose hand would rather be stretched forth to lift up the fallen than to smite the offender. To complete this expression, and inspire the beholder with perfect confidence, the left hand rests upon a little child, who stands with familiar reverence at his knee, and looking up into his face seems to say, 'No evil can come to me here.'
Opposite this, and at the other extremity of the apartment, hangs a picture of Christ, representing him in very exact accordance with the traditional accounts of his features and form, a description of which exists, and is held by most authentic, in a letter of Publius Lentulus, a Roman of the same period. Between this and the statue there is a close resemblance, or as close as we usually see between two heads of Caesar, or of Cicero. Marble, however, is the only material that suits the character and office of Jesus of Nazareth. Color, and its minute effects, seem in some sort to degrade the subject. I retain the picture because of its supposed truth.
Portia, as you will believe, is full of wonder and sorrow at these things. Soon after my library had received its last additions, my mother came to see what she had already heard of so much. As she entered the apartment, I was sitting in my accustomed seat, with Julia at my side, and both of us gazing in admiration at the figures I have just described. We were both too much engrossed to notice the entrance of Portia, our first warning of her presence being her hand laid upon my head. We rose and placed her between us.
'My son,' said she, looking intently as she spoke upon the statues before us, 'what strange looking figures are these? That upon my left might serve for Jupiter, but for the roll and the stylus. And why place you beings of character so opposite, as these appear to have been, side by side? This other upon my right—ah, how beautiful it is! What mildness in those eyes, and what a divine repose over the form, which no event, not the downfall of a kingdom nor its loss, would seem capable to disturb. Is it the peace loving Numa?'
'Not so,' said Julia; 'there stands Numa, leaning on the sacred shield, from the centre of which beams the countenance of the divine Egeria.'
'Yes, I see it,' replied Portia; and rising from her seat, she stood gazing round the apartment, examining its various appointments. When her eye had sought out the several objects, and dwelt upon them a moment, she said, in tones somewhat reproachful, as much so as it is in her nature to assume:
'Where, Lucius, are the gods of Rome? Do those who have, through so many ages, watched over our country, and guarded our house, deserve no honor at your hands? Does not gratitude require at least that their images should be here, so that, whether you yourself worship them or not, their presence may inspire others with reverence? But alas for the times! Piety seems dead; or, with the faith that inspires it, it lives, but in a few, who will soon disappear, and religion with them. Whose forms are these, Lucius? concerning one I can now easily surmise—but the other, this stern and terrific man, who is he?'
'That,' I replied, 'is Moses, the founder of Judaism.'
'Immortal gods!' exclaimed Portia, 'the statue of a Jew in the halls of the Pisos! Well may it be that Rome approaches her decline, when her elder sons turn against her.'
'Nay, my mother, I am not a Jew.'
'I would thou wert, rather than be what I suppose thou art, a Christian. The Jew, Lucius, can boast of antiquity, at least, in behalf of his religion. But the faith which you would profess and extend, is but of yesterday. Would the gods ever leave mankind without religion? Is it only to-day that they reveal the truth? Have they left us for these many ages to grope along in error? Never, Lucius, can I believe it. It is enough for me that the religion of Rome is old as Rome, to endear it to my heart, and commend it to my understanding. It is not for the first time, to-day, that the gods have spoken.'
'But, my dear mother,' I rejoined, 'if age makes truth, there are older religions than this of Rome. Judaism itself is older, by many centuries. But it is not because a religion is new or old, that I would receive or reject it.' The only question is, does it satisfy my heart and mind, and is it true? The faith which you engrafted upon my infant mind, fails to meet the wants of my nature, and upon looking for its foundations, I find them not.'
'Is thy nature different from mine, Lucius? Surely, thou art my own child! It has satisfied me and my nature. I ask for nothing else, or better.'
'There are some natures, mother, by the gods so furnished and filled with all good desires and affections, that their religion is born with them and is in them. It matters little under what outward form and administration of truth they dwell; no system could injure them—none would greatly benefit. They are of the family of God, by birth, and are never disinherited.'
'Yes, Portia,' said Julia, 'natural and divine instincts make you what others can become only through the powerful operation of some principle out of, and superior to, anything they find within. For me, I know not what I should have been, without the help which Christianity has afforded. I might have been virtuous, but I could not have been happy. You surely rejoice, when the weak find that in any religion or philosophy which gives them strength. Look, Portia, at that serene and benignant countenance, and can you believe that any truth ever came from its lips, but such as must be most comforting and exalting to those who receive it?'
'It would seem so indeed, my child,' replied Portia, musingly, 'and I would not deprive any of the comforts or strength which any principle may impart. But I cannot cease to think it dangerous to the state, when the faith of the founders of Rome is abandoned by those who fill its highest places. You who abound in leisure and learning, may satisfy yourselves with a new philosophy; but what shall these nice refinements profit the common herd? How shall they see them to be true, or comprehend them? The Romans have ever been a religious people; and although under the empire the purity of ancient manners is lost, let it not be said that the Pisos were among those who struck the last and hardest blows at the still stout root of the tree that bore them.'
'Nothing can be more plain or intelligible,' I replied, 'than the principles of the Christian religion; and wherever it has been preached with simplicity and power, even the common people have readily and gratefully adopted it. I certainly cannot but desire that it may prevail. If any thing is to do it, I believe this is the power that is to restore, and in a still nobler form, the ancient manners of which you speak. It is from Christianity that in my heart I believe the youthful blood is to come, that being poured into the veins of this dying state, shall reproduce the very vigor and freshness of its early age. Rome, my mother, is now but a lifeless trunk—a dead and loathsome corpse—a new and warmer current must be infused, or it will soon crumble into dust.'
'I grieve, Lucius, to see you lost to the good cause of your country, and to the altars of her gods; for who can love his country, and deny the gods who made and preserve it? But then who am I to condemn? When I see the gods to hurl thunderbolts upon those who flout them, it will be time enough for us mortals to assume the robes of judgment. I will hope that farther thought will reclaim you from your truant wanderings.'
Do not imagine, Fausta, that conversations like this have the least effect to chill the warm affections of Portia towards us both. Nature has placed within her bosom a central heat, that not only preserves her own warmth, but diffuses itself upon all who approach her, and changes their affections into a likeness of her own. We speak of our differing faiths, but love none the less. When she had paused a moment after uttering the last words, she again turned her eye upon the statue of Christ, and, captivated by its wondrous power, she dwelt upon it in a manner that showed her sensibilities to be greatly moved. At length she suddenly started, saying:
'If truth and beauty were the same thing, one need but to look upon this and be a believer. But as in the human form and face, beauty is often but a lie, covering over a worse deformity than any that ever disfigures the body, so it may be here. I cannot but admire and love the beauty; it will be wise, I suppose, not to look farther, lest the dream be dissolved.'
'Be not afraid of that, dearest mother; I can warrant you against disappointment. If in that marble you have the form of the outward beauty, here, in this roll, you will find the inward moral beauty of which it is the shrine.'
'Nay, nay, Lucius, I look no farther or deeper. I have seen too much already.'
With these words, she arose, and we accompanied her to the portico, where we walked, and sat, and talked of you, and Calpurnius, and Gracchus.
Thus you perceive I have told you first of what chiefly interests myself: now let me turn to what at this moment more than everything else fills all heads in Rome—and that is Livia. She is the object of universal attention, the centre of all honor. It is indescribable, the sensation her beauty, and now added to that, her magnificence, have made and still make in Rome. Her imperial bearing would satisfy even you; and the splendor of her state exceeds all that has been known before. This you may be surprised to hear, knowing what the principles of Aurelian have been in such things; how strict he has been himself in a more than republican simplicity, and how severe upon the extravagances and luxuries of others, in the laws he has enacted. You must remember his prohibition of the use of cloth of gold and of silk, among other things—foolish laws to be suddenly promulged among so vain and corrupt a population as this of Rome. They have been the ridicule and scorn of rich and poor alike; of the rich, because they are so easily violated in private, or evaded by the substitution of one article for another; of the poor, because, being slaves in spirit, they take a slave's pride in the trappings and state of their masters; they love not only to feel but to see their superiority. But since the eastern expedition, the reduction of Palmyra, and the introduction from abroad of the vast flood of foreign luxuries which has inundated Rome and Italy itself the principles and the habits of the Emperor have undergone a mighty revolution. Now, the richness and costliness of his dress, the splendor of his equipage, the gorgeousness of his furniture, cannot be made to come up to the height of his extravagant desires. The silk which he once denied to the former Empress for a dress, now, variously embroidered, and of every dye, either hangs in ample folds upon the walls, or canopies the royal bed, or lends its beauty to the cushioned seats which everywhere, in every form of luxurious ease, invite to repose. Gold, too, once prohibited, but now wrought into every kind of cloth, or solid in shape of dish, or vase, or cup, or spread in sheets over the very walls and ceilings of the palace, has rendered the traditions of Nero's house of gold no longer fabulous. The customs of the eastern monarchs have also elevated or perverted the ambition of Aurelian, and one after another are taking place of former usages. He is every day more difficult of access, and surrounds himself, his palaces, and apartments, by guards and officers of state. In all this, as you will readily believe, Livia is his willing companion, or rather, I should perhaps say, his prompting and ruling genius. As without the world at her feet, it would be impossible for her insane pride to be fully satisfied, so in all that is now done, the Emperor still lags behind her will. But beautifully, it can be denied by none, does she become her greatness, and gives more lustre than she receives, to all around her. Gold is doubly gold in her presence; and even the diamond sparkles with a new brilliancy on her brow or sandal.
Livia is, of all women I have ever seen or known; made for a Roman empress. I used to think so when in Palmyra, and I saw her, so often as I did, assuming the port and air of imaginary sovereignty. And now that I behold her filling the very place for which by nature she is most perfectly fitted, I cannot but confess that she surpasses all I had imagined, in the genius she displays for her great sphere, both as wife of Aurelian, and sovereign of Rome. Her intellect shows itself stronger than I had believed it to be, and secures for her the homage of a class who could not be subdued by her magnificence, extraordinary as it is. They are captivated by the brilliancy of her wit, set off by her unequalled beauty, and, for a woman, by her rare attainments, and hover around her as some superior being. Then for the mass of our rich and noble, her ostentatious state and imperial presence are all that they can appreciate, all they ask for, and more than enough to enslave them, not only to her reasonable will, but to all her most tyrannical and whimsical caprices. She understands already perfectly the people she is among; and through her quick sagacity, has already risen to a power greater than woman ever before held in Rome.
We see her often—often as ever—and when we see her, enjoy her as well. For with all her ambition of petty rule and imposing state, she possesses and retains a goodness of heart, that endears her to all, in spite of her follies. Julia is still her beloved Julia, and I her good friend Lucius; but it is to Zenobia that she attaches herself most closely; and from her she draws most largely of the kind of inspiration which she covets. It is to her, too, I believe, that we may trace much of the admirable wisdom—for such it must be allowed to be—with which Livia adorns the throne of the world.
Her residence, when Aurelian is absent from the city, is near us in the palace upon the Palatine; but when he is here, it is more remote, in the enchanted gardens of Sallust. This spot, first ennobled by the presence of the great historian, to whose hand and eye of taste the chief beauties of the scene are to be traced, then afterward selected by Vespasian as an imperial villa, is now lately become the chosen retreat of Aurelian. It has indeed lost a part of its charms since it has been embraced, by the extension of the new walls, within the limits of the city; but enough remain to justify abundantly the preference of a line of emperors. It is there that we see Livia most as we have been used to do, and where are forcibly brought to our minds the hours passed by us so instructively in the gardens of Zenobia. Often Aurelian is of our company, and throws the light of his strong intellect upon whatever subject it is we discuss. He cannot, however, on such occasions, thoroughly tame to the tone of gentle society, his imperious and almost rude nature. The peasant of Pannonia will sometimes break through, and usurp the place of emperor; but it is only for a moment; for it is pleasing to note how the presence of Livia quickly restores him to himself; when, with more grace than one would look for, he acknowledges his fault, ascribing it sportively to the fogs of the German marshes. It amuses us to observe the power which the polished manners and courtly ways of Livia exercise over Aurelian, whose ambition seems now as violently bent upon subduing the world by the displays of taste, grace, and magnificence, as it once was to do it—and is still indeed—by force of arms. Having astonished mankind in one way, he would astonish them again in quite another; and to this later task his whole nature is consecrated with as entire a devotion as ever it was to the other. Livia is in all these things his model and guide; and never did soldier learn to catch, from the least motion or sign of the general, his will, than does he, to the same end, study the countenance and the voice of the Empress. Yet is there, as you will believe knowing the character of Aurelian as well as you do, nothing mean nor servile in this. He is ever himself, and beneath this transparent surface, artificially assumed, you behold, feature for feature, the lineaments of the fierce soldier glaring forth in all their native wildness and ferocity. Yet we are happy that there exists any charm potent enough to calm, but for hours or days, a nature so stern and cruel as to cause perpetual fears for the violences in which at any moment it may break out. The late slaughter in the very streets of Rome, when the Coelian ran with the blood of fifteen thousand Romans, butchered within sight of their own homes, with the succeeding executions, naturally fill us with apprehensions for the future. We call him generous, and magnanimous, and so he is, compared with former tyrants who have polluted the throne—Tiberius, Commodus, or Maximin; but what title has he to that praise, when tried by the standard which our own reason supplies of those great virtues? I confess it was not always so. His severity was formerly ever on the side of justice; it was indignation at crime or baseness which sometimes brought upon him the charge of cruelty—never the wanton infliction of suffering and death. But it certainly is not so now. A slight cause now rouses his sleeping passions to a sudden fury, often fatal to the first object that comes in his way. But enough of this.
Do not forget to tell me again of the Old Hermit of the mountains, and that you have visited him—if indeed he be yet among the living.
Even with your lively imagination, Fausta, you can hardly form an idea of the sensation which my open assertion of Christian principles and assumption of the Christian name has made in Rome. I intended when I sat down to speak only of this, but see how I have been led away! My letters will be for the most part confined, I fear, to the subjects which engross both myself and Julia most—such as relate to the condition and prospects of the new religion, and to the part which we take in the revolution which is going on. Not that I shall be speechless upon other and inferior topics, but that upon this of Christianity I shall be garrulous and overflowing. I believe that in doing this, I shall consult your preferences as well as my own. I know you to be desirous of principles better than any which as yet you have been able to discover, and that you will gladly learn whatever I may have it in my power to teach you from this quarter. But all the teaching I shall attempt will be to narrate events as they occur, and state facts as they arise, and leave them to make what impression they may.
When I just spoke of the sensation which my adoption of the Christian system had caused in Rome, I did not mean to convey any idea like this, that it has been rare for the intelligent and cultivated to attach themselves to this despised religion. On the contrary, it would be true were I to say, that they who accept Christianity, are distinguished for their intelligence; that estimated as a class, they rank far above the lowest. It is not the dregs of a people who become reformers of philosophy or religion; who grow dissatisfied with ancient opinions upon exalted subjects, and search about for better, and adopt them. The processes involved in this change, in their very nature, require intelligence, and imply a character of more than common elevation. It is neither the lowest nor the highest who commence, and at first carry on, a work like this; but those who fill the intermediate spaces. The lowest are dead as brute matter to such interests; the highest—the rich, the fashionable, the noble, from opposite causes just as dead; or if they are alive at all, it is with the rage of denunciation and opposition. They are supporters of the decent usages sanctioned by antiquity, and consecrated by the veneration of a long line of the great and noble. Whether they themselves believe in the system which they uphold or not, they are equally tenacious of it. They would preserve and perpetuate it, because it has satisfied, at any rate bound and overawed, the multitude for ages: and the experiment of alteration or substitution is too dangerous to be tried. Most indeed reason not, nor philosophize at all, in the matter. The instinct that makes them Romans in their worship of the power and greatness of Rome, and attachment to her civil forms, makes them Romans in their religion, and will summon them, if need be, to die for the one and the other.
Religion and philosophy have accordingly nothing to hope from this quarter. It is those whom we may term the substantial middle classes, who, being least hindered by prejudices and pride of order, on the one hand, and incapacitated by ignorance on the other, have ever been the earliest and best friends of progress in any science. Here you find the retired scholar, the thoughtful and independent farmer, the skilful mechanic, the enlightened merchant, the curious traveller, the inquisitive philosopher—all fitted, beyond those of either extreme, for exercising a sound judgment upon such questions, and all more interested in them. It is out of these that Christianity has made its converts. They are accordingly worthy of universal respect. I have examined with diligence, and can say that there live not in Rome a purer and more noble company than the Christians. When I say however that it is out of these whom I have just specified, that Christianity has made its converts, I do not mean to say out of them exclusively. Some have joined them in the present age, as well as in every age past, from the most elevated in rank and power. If in Nero's palace, and among his chief ministers, there were Christians, if Domitilla, Domitian's niece, was a Christian, if the emperor Philip was a Christian, so now a few of the same rank may be counted, who openly, and more who secretly, profess this religion. But they are very few. So that you will not wonder that when the head of the ancient and honorable house of the Pisos, the friend of Aurelian, and allied to the royal family of Palmyra, declared himself to be of this persuasion, no little commotion was observable in Rome—not so much among the Christians as among the patricians, among the nobility, in the court and palace of Aurelian. The love of many has grown cold, and the outward tokens of respect are withheld. Brows darkened by the malignant passions of the bigot are bent upon me as I pass along the streets, and inquiries, full of scornful irony, are made after the welfare of my new friends. The Emperor changes not his carriage toward me, nor, I believe, his feelings. I think he is too tolerant of opinion, too much a man of the world, to desire to curb and restrain the liberty of his friends in the quarter of philosophy and religion. I know indeed on the other hand, that he is religious in his way, to the extreme of superstition, but I have observed no tokens as yet of any purpose or wish to interfere with the belief or worship of others. He seems like one who, if he may indulge his own feelings in his own way, is not unwilling to concede to others the same freedom.
* * * * *
As I was writing these last sentences, I became conscious of a voice muttering in low tones, as if discoursing with itself, and upon no very agreeable theme. I heeded it not at first, but wrote on. At length it ran thus, and I was compelled to give ear:
Patience, patience—greatest of virtues, yet hardest of practice! To wait indeed for a kingdom were something, though it were upon a bed of thorns; to suffer for the honor of truth, were more; more in itself, and more in its rewards. But patience, when a fly stings, or a fool speaks, or worse, when time is wasted and lost, is—the virtue in this case mayhap is greater after all—but it is harder, I say, of practice—that is what I say—yet, for that very reason, greater! By Hercules! I believe it is so. So that while I wait here, my virtue of patience is greater than that of these accursed Jews. Patience then, I say, patience!'
'What in the name of all antiquity,' I exclaimed, turning round as the voice ceased, 'is this flood of philosophy for? Wherein have I offended?'
'Offended!' cried the other; 'Nay, noble master, not offended. According to my conclusion, I owe thee thanks; for while I have stood waiting to catch thy eye and ear, my virtue has shot up like a wild vine. The soul has grown. I ought therefore rather to crave forgiveness of thee, for breaking up a study which was so profound, and doubtless so agreeable too.'
'Agreeable you will certainly grant it, when I tell you I was writing to your ancient friend and pupil, the daughter of Gracchus.'
'Ah, the blessings of all the gods upon her. My dreams are still of her. I loved her, Piso, as I never loved beside, either form, shadow, or substance. I used to think that I loved her as a parent loves his child—a brother his sister; but it was more than that. Aristotle is not so dear to me as she. Bear witness these tears! I would now, bent as I am, travel the Syrian deserts to see her; especially if I might hear from her mouth a chapter of the great philosopher. Never did Greek, always music, seem so like somewhat more divinely harmonious than anything of earth, as when it came through her lips. Yet, by Hercules! she played me many a mad prank! 'Twould have been better for her and for letters, had I chastised her more, and loved her less. Condescend, noble Piso, to name me to her, and entreat her not to fall away from her Greek. That will be a consolation under all losses, and all sorrows.'
'I will not fail to do so. And now in what is my opinion wanted?'
'It is simply in the matter of these volumes, where thou wilt have them bestowed. The cases here, by their superior adorning, seem designed for the great master of all, and his disciples; and it is here I would fain order them. Would it so please thee?'
'No, Solon, not here. That is designed for a very different Master and his disciples.'
Solon looked at me as if unwilling to credit his ears, hoping that something would be added more honorable to the affronted philosopher and myself. But nothing coming, he said:
'I penetrate—I apprehend. This, the very centre and post of honor, thou reservest for the atheistical Jews. The gods help us! I doubt I should straight resign my office. Well, well; let us hope that the increase of years will bring an increase of wisdom. We cannot look for fruit on a sapling. Youth seeks novelty. But the gods be thanked! Youth lasts not long, but is a fault daily corrected; else the world were at a bad pass. Rome is not fallen, nor the fame of the Stagyrite hurt for this. But 'tis grievous to behold!'
So murmuring, as he retreated to the farther part of the library, with his bundle of rolls under his arm, he again busied himself in the labors of his office.
I see, Fausta, the delight that sparkles in your eye and breaks over your countenance, as you learn that Solon, the incomparable Solon, is one of my household. No one whom I could think of, appeared so well suited to my wants as librarian, as Solon, and I can by no means convey to you an idea of the satisfaction with which he hailed my offer; and abandoning the rod and the brass tablets, betook himself to a labor which would yield him so much more leisure for the perusal of his favorite authors, and the pursuit of his favorite studies. He is already deep in the question, 'whether the walls of Troy were accommodated with thirty-three or thirty-nine gates,' and also in this, 'what was the method of construction adopted in the case of the wooden horse, and what was its capacity?' Of his progress in these matters, I will duly inform you.
But I weary your patience. Farewell.
* * * * *
Piso, alluding in this letter to the slaughter on the Coelian Hill, which happened not long before it was written, I will add here that whatever color it may have pleased Aurelian to give to that affair—as if it were occasioned by a dishonest debasement of the coin by the directors of the mint—there is now no doubt, on the part of any who are familiar with the history of that period, that the difficulty originated in a much deeper and more formidable cause, well known to Aurelian himself, but not spoken of by him, in alluding to the event. It is certain, then, that the civil war which then befel, for such it was, was in truth the breaking out of a conspiracy on the part of the nobles to displace Aurelian—'a German peasant,' as they scornfully designated him—and set one of their own order upon the throne. They had already bought over the chief manager of the public mint—a slave and favorite of Aurelian—and had engaged him in creating, to serve the purposes which they had in view, an immense issue of spurious coin. This they had used too liberally, in effecting some of the preliminary objects of their movement. It was suspected, tried, proved to be false, and traced to its authors. Before they were fully prepared, the conspirators were obliged to take to their arms, as the only way in which to save themselves from the executioner. The contest was one of the bloodiest ever known within the walls of the city. It was Aurelian, with a few legions of his army, and the people—always of his part—against the wealth and the power of the nobility, and their paid adherents. In one day, and in one battle, as it may be termed, fifteen thousand soldiers and citizens were slain in the streets of the capital. Truly does Piso say, the streets of the Coelian ran blood. I happily was within the walls of the queen's palace at Tibur; but well do I remember the horror of the time—especially the days succeeding the battle, when the vengeance of the enraged conqueror fell upon the noblest families of Rome, and the axe of the executioner was blunted and broken with the savage work which it did.
No one has written of Aurelian and his reign, who has not applauded him for the defence which he made of his throne and crown, when traitorously assailed within the very walls of the capital; but all unite also in condemning that fierce spirit of revenge, which, after the contest was over and his power secure, by confiscation, banishment, torture and death, involved in ruin so many whom a different treatment would have converted into friends. But Aurelian was by nature a tyrant; it was accident whenever he was otherwise. If affairs moved on smoothly, he was the just or magnanimous prince; if disturbed and perplexed, and his will crossed, he was the imperious and vindictive tyrant.
FROM PISO TO FAUSTA.
You need not, dear Fausta, concern yourself on our behalf. I cannot think that your apprehensions will be realized. Rome never was more calm than now, nor apparently has there ever a better temper possessed its people. The number of those who are sufficiently enlightened to know that the mind ought not to be in bondage to man, but be held answerable to God alone for its thoughts and opinions, is becoming too great for the violences and cruelties of former ages to be again put in practice against us. And Aurelian, although stern in his nature, and superstitious beyond others, will not, I am persuaded, lend himself either to priests or people to annoy us. If no principle of humanity prevented him, nor generosity of sentiment, he would be restrained, I think, by his attachments to so many who bear the hated name.
And this opinion I maintain, notwithstanding a recent act on the part of the Emperor, which some construe into the expression of unfavorable sentiments toward us. I allude to the appointment of Fronto, Nigridius Fronto, to be chief priest of the temple of the Sun, which has these several years been building, and is now just completed. This man signalized himself, both under Decius and Valerian, for his bitter hatred of the Christians, and his untiring zeal in the work of their destruction. The tales which are told of his ferocious barbarity, would be incredible, did we not know so well what the hard Roman heart is capable of. It is reported of him, that he informed against his own sisters, who had embraced the Christian faith, was with those who hunted them with blood-hounds from their place of concealment, and stood by, a witness and an executioner, while they were torn limb from limb, and devoured. I doubt not the truth of the story. And from that day to this, has he made it his sole office to see that all the laws that bear hard upon the sect, and deprive them of privileges and immunities, are not permitted to become a dead letter. It is this man, drunk with blood, whom Aurelian has put in chief authority in his new temple, and made him, in effect, the head of religion in the city. He is however not only this. He possesses other traits, which with reason might commend him to the regard of the Emperor. He is an accomplished man, of an ancient family, and withal no mean scholar. He is a Roman, who for Rome's honor or greatness, as he would on the one hand sacrifice father, mother, daughter, so would he also himself. And Rome, he believes, lives but in her religion; it is the life-blood of the state. It is these traits, I doubt not, that have recommended him to Aurelian, rather than the others. He is a person eminently fitted for the post to which he is exalted; and you well know that it is the circumstance of fitness, Aurelian alone considers, in appointing his own or the servants of the state. Probus thinks differently. And although he sees no cause to apprehend immediate violence, confesses his fears for the future. He places less reliance than I do upon the generosity or friendship of Aurelian. It is his conviction that superstition is the reigning power of his nature, and will sooner or later assert its supremacy. It may be so. Probus is an acute observer, and occupies a position more favorable to impartial estimates, and the formation of a dispassionate judgment, than I.
This reminds me that you asked for news of Probus, my 'Christian pedagogue,' as you are wont to name him. He is here, adorning, by a life of severe simplicity and divine benevolence, the doctrine he has espoused. He is a frequent inmate of our house, and Julia, not less than myself, ever greets him with affectionate reverence, as both friend and instructor. He holds the chief place in the hearts of the Roman Christians; for even those of the sect who differ from him in doctrine and in life, cannot but acknowledge that never an apostle presented to the love and imitation of his followers an example of rarer virtue. Yet he is not, in the outward rank which he holds, at the head of the Christian body. Their chiefs are, as you know, the bishops, and Felix is Bishop of Rome, a man every way inferior to Probus. But he has the good or ill fortune to represent more popular opinions, in matters both of doctrine and practice than the other, and of course easily rides into the posts of trust and honor. Ho represents those among the Christians—for, alas! there are such among them—who, in seeking the elevation and extension of Christianity, do not hesitate to accommodate both doctrine and manner to the prejudices and tastes of both Pagan and Jew. They seek converts, not by raising them to the height of Christian principle and virtue, but by lowering these to the level of their grosser conceptions. Thus it is easy to see that in the hands of such professors, the Christian doctrine is undergoing a rapid process of deterioration. Probus, and those who are on his part, see this, are alarmed, and oppose it; but numbers are against them, and consequently power and authority. Already, strange as it may seem, when you compare such things with the institution of Christianity, as effected by its founder, do the bishops, both in Rome and in the provinces, begin to assume the state and bearing of nobility. Such is the number and wealth of the Christian community, that the treasuries of the churches are full; and from this source the pride and ambition of their rulers are luxuriously fed. If, as you walk through the street which crosses from the Quirinal to the Arch of Titus, lined with private dwellings of unusual magnificence, you ask whose is that with a portico, that for beauty and costliness rather exceeds the rest, you are told, 'That is the dwelling of Felix, the Bishop of Rome;' and if it chance to be a Christian who answers the question, it is done with ill-suppressed pride or shame, according to the party to which he belongs. This Felix is the very man, through the easiness of his dispositions, and his proneness to all the arts of self-indulgence, and the imposing graciousness of his carriage, to keep the favor of the people, and at the same time sink them, without suspicion on their part, lower and lower toward the sensual superstitions, from which, through so much suffering and by so many labors, they have but just escaped, and accomplish an adulterous and fatal union between Christianity and Paganism; by which indeed Paganism may be to some extent purified and exalted, but Christianity defiled and depressed. For Christianity, in its essence, is that which beckons and urges onward, not to excellence only, but to perfection. Of course its march is always in advance of the present. By such union with Paganism then, or Judaism, its essential characteristic will disappear; Christianity will, in effect, perish. You may suppose, accordingly, that Probus, and others who with him rate Christianity so differently, look on with anxiety upon this downward tendency, and with mingled sorrow and indignation upon those who aid it—oftentimes actuated, as is notorious, by most corrupt motives.
* * * * *
I am just returned from the shop of the learned Publius, where I met Probus, and others of many ways of thinking. You will gather from what occurred, better than from anything else I could say, what occupies the thoughts of our citizens, and how they stand affected.
I called to Milo to accompany me, and to take with him a basket in which to bring back books, which it was my intention to purchase.
'I trust, noble master,' said he, 'that I am to bear back no more Christian books.'
'Because the priests say that they have magical powers over all who read them, or so much as handle them; that a curse sticks wherever they are or have been. I have heard of those who have withered away to a mere wisp; of others who have suddenly caught on fire, and vanished in flame and smoke; and of others, whose blood has stood still, frozen, or run out from all parts of the body, changed to the very color of your shoe, at their bare touch. Who should doubt that it is so, when the very boys in the streets have it, and it is taught in the temples? I would rather Solon, noble master, went in my stead. Mayhap his learning would protect him.'
I, laughing, bade him come on. 'You are not withered away yet, Milo, nor has your blood run out; yet you have borne many a package of these horrible books. Surely the gods befriend you.'
'I were else long since with the Scipios.' After a pause of some length, he added, as he reluctantly, and with features of increased paleness, followed in my steps:
'I would, my master, that you might be wrought with to leave these ways. I sleep not for thinking of your danger. Never, when it was my sad mischance to depart from the deserted palace of the great Gallienus, did I look to know one to esteem like him. But it is the truth when I affirm, that I place Piso before Gallienus, and the lady Julia before the lady Salonina. Shall I tell you a secret?'
'I will hear it, if it is not to be kept.'
'It is for you to do with it as shall please you. I am the bosom friend, you may know, of Curio, the favorite slave of Fronto—'
'Must I not publish it?'
'Nay, that is not the matter, though it is somewhat to boast of. There is not Curio's fellow in all Rome. But that may pass. Curio then, as I was with him at the new temple, while he was busied in some of the last offices before the dedication, among other things, said: 'Is not thy master Piso of these Christians?' 'Yes,' said I, 'he is; and were they all such as he, there could be no truth in what is said of them.' 'Ah!' he replied, 'there are few among the accursed tribe like him. He has but just joined them; that's the reason he is better than the rest. Wait awhile, and see what he will become. They are all alike in the end, cursers, and despisers, and disbelievers, of the blessed gods. But lions have teeth, tigers have claws, knives cut, fire burns, water drowns.' There he stopped. 'That's wise,' I said, 'who could have known it?' 'Think you,' he rejoined, 'Piso knows it? If not, let him ask Fronto. Let me advise thee,' he added, in a whisper, though in all the temple there were none beside us, 'let me advise thee, as thy friend, to avoid dangerous company. Look to thyself; the Christians are not safe.' 'How say you,' I replied, 'not safe? What and whom are they to fear? Gallienus vexed them not. Is Aurelian——' 'Say no more,' he replied, interrupting me, 'and name not what I have dropped, for your life. Fronto's ears are more than the eyes of Argus, and his wrath more deadly than the grave.'
'Just as he ended these words, a strong beam of red light shot up from the altar, and threw a horrid glare over the whole dark interior. I confess I cried out with affright. Curio started at first, but quickly recovered, saying that it was but the sudden flaming up of the fire that had been burning on the altar, but which shortly before he had quenched. 'It is,' said he, 'an omen of the flames that are to be kindled throughout Rome.' This was Curio's communication. Is it not a secret worth knowing?'
'It tells nothing, Milo, but of the boiling over of the wrath of the malignant Fronto, which is always boiling over. Doubtless I should fare ill, were his power equal to his will to harm us. But Aurelian is above him.'
'That is true; and Aurelian, it is plain, is little like Fronto.'
'But still I would that, like Gallienus, thou couldst only believe in the gods. The Christians, so it is reported, worship and believe in but a man,—a Jew,—who was crucified as a criminal, with thieves and murderers.' He turned upon me a countenance full of unaffected horror.
'Well, Milo, at another time I will tell you what the truth about it is. Here we are now, at the shop of Publius.'
The shop of Publius is remarkable for its extent and magnificence, if such a word may be applied to a place of traffic. Here resort all the idlers of learning and of leisure, to turn over the books, hear the news, discuss the times, and trifle with the learned bibliopole. As I entered, he saluted me in his customary manner, and bade me 'welcome to his poor apartments, which for a long time,' he said, 'I had not honored with my presence.'
I replied that two things had kept me away: the civil broils in which the city had just been involved, and the care of ordering the appointments of a new dwelling. I had come now to commence some considerable purchases for my vacant shelves, if it might so happen that the books I wanted were to be found in his rooms.
'There is not,' he replied, 'a literature, a science, a philosophy, an art, or a religion, whose principal authors are not to be found upon the walls of Publius. My agents are in every corner of the empire, of the east and west, searching out the curious and the rare, the useful and the necessary, to swell the catalogue of my intellectual riches. I believe it is established, that in no time before me, as nowhere now, has there been heard of a private collection like this for value and for number.'
'I do not doubt what you say, Publius. This is a grand display. Your ranges of rooms show like those of the Ulpian. Yet you do not quite equal, I suppose, Trajan's for number?'
'Truly not. But time may bring it to pass. What shall I show you? It pleases me to give my time to you. I am not slow to guess what it is you now, noble Piso, chiefly covet. And I think, if you will follow me to the proper apartment, I can set before you the very things you are in search of. Here upon these shelves are the Christian writers. Just let me offer you this copy of Hegesippus, one of your oldest historians, if I err not. And here are some beautifully executed copies, I have just ordered to be made, of the Apologies of Justin and Tertullian. Here, again, are Marcion and Valentinus; but perhaps they are not in esteem with you. If I have heard aright, you will prefer these tracts of Paul, or Artemon. But hold, here is a catalogue. Be pleased to inspect it.'
As I looked over the catalogue, I expressed my satisfaction that a person of his repute was willing to keep on sale works so generally condemned, and excluded from the shops of most of his craft.
'I aim, my dear friend—most worthy Piso—to steer a midway course among contending factions. I am myself a worshipper of the gods of my fathers. But I am content that others should do as they please in the matter, I am not, however, so much a worshipper—in your ear—as a bookseller. That is my calling. The Christians are become a most respectable people. They are not to be overlooked. They are, in my judgment, the most intelligent part of our community. Wasting none of their time at the baths and theatres, they have more time for books. And then their numbers too! They are not fewer than seventy thousand!—known and counted. But the number, between ourselves, Piso of those who secretly favor or receive this doctrine, is equal to the other! My books go to houses, ay, and to palaces, people dream not of.'
'I think your statements a little broad,' said a smooth, silvery voice, close at our ears. We started, and beheld the Prefect Varus standing at our side. Publius was for a moment a little disconcerted; but quickly recovered, saying in his easy way, 'A fair morning to you! I knew not that it behooved me to be upon my oath, being in the presence of the Governor of Rome. I repeat, noble Varus, but what I hear. I give what I say as the current rumor. That is all—that is all. Things may not be so, or they may; it is not for me to say. I wish well to all; that is my creed.'
'In the public enumerations of the citizens,' replied the Prefect, inclining with civility to Publius, 'the Christians have reached at no time fifty thousand. As for the conjecture touching the number of those who secretly embrace this injurious superstition, I hold it utterly baseless. It may serve a dying cause to repeat such statements, but they accord not with obvious fact.'
'Suspect me not, Varus,' hastily rejoined the agitated Publius, 'of setting forth such statements with the purpose to advance the cause of the Christians. I take no part in this matter. Thou knowest that I am a Roman of the old stamp. Not a Roman in my street is more diligently attentive to the services of the temple than I. I simply say again, what I hear as news of my customers. The story which one rehearses, I retail to another.'
'I thank the gods it is so,' replied the man of power.
'During these few words, I had stood partly concealed by a slender marble pillar. I now turned, and the usual greetings passed with the Prefect.
'Ah! Piso! I knew not with certainty my hearer. Perhaps from you'—smiling as he spoke—'we may learn the truth. Rome speaks loudly of your late desertion of the religion and worship of your fathers, and union with the Galileans. I should say, I hoped the report ill founded, had I not heard it from quarters too authentic to permit a doubt.'
'You have heard rightly, Varus,' I rejoined. 'After searching through all antiquity after truth, I congratulate myself upon having at last discovered it, and where I least expected, in a Jew. And the good which I have found for myself, I am glad to know is enjoyed by so many more of my fellow-citizens. I should not hesitate to confirm the statement made by Publius, from whatever authority he may have derived it, rather than that which has been made by yourself. I have bestowed attention not only upon the arguments which support Christianity, but upon the actual condition of the Christian community, here and throughout the empire. It is prosperous at this hour, beyond all former example. If Pliny could complain, even in his day, of the desertion of the temples of the gods, what may we now suppose to be the relative numbers of the two great parties? Only, Varus, allow the rescript of Gallienus to continue in force, which merely releases us from oppressions, and we shall see in what a fair trial of strength between the two religions will issue.'
'That dull profligate and parricide,' replied Varus, 'not content with killing himself with his vices, and his father by connivance, must needs destroy his country by his fatuity. I confess, that till that order be repealed, the superstition will spread.'
'But it only places us upon equal ground.'
'It is precisely there where we never should be placed. Should the conspirator be put upon the ground of a citizen? Were the late rebels of the mint to be relieved from all oppression, that they might safely intrigue and conspire for the throne?'
'Christianity has nothing to do with the empire,' I answered, 'as such. It is a question of moral, philosophical, religious truth. Is truth to be exalted or suppressed by edicts?'
'The religion of the state,' replied Varus, 'is a part of the state; and he who assails it, strikes at the dearest life of the state, and—forgive me—is to be dealt with—ought to be dealt with—as a traitor.'
'I trust,' I replied, 'that that time will never again come, but that reason and justice will continue to bear sway. And it is both reasonable and just, that persons who yield to none in love of country, and whose principles of conduct are such as must make good subjects everywhere, because they first make good men, should be protected in the enjoyment of rights and privileges common to all others.'
'If the Christians,' he rejoined, 'are virtuous men, it is better for the state than if they were Christians and corrupt men. But still that would make no change in my judgment of their offence. They deny the gods who preside over this nation, and have brought it up to its present height of power and fame. Their crime were less, I repeat, to deny the authority of Aurelian. This religion of the Galileans is a sore, eating into the vitals of an ancient and vigorous constitution, and must be cut away. The knife of the surgeon is what the evil cries out for and must have—else come universal rottenness and death. I mourn that from the ranks of the very fathers of the state, they have received an accession like this of the house of Piso.'
'I shall think my time and talent well employed,' I replied, 'in doing what I may to set the question of Christianity in its true light before the city. It is this very institution, Varus, which it needs to preserve it. Christianize Rome, and you impart the very principle of endurance, of immortality. Under its present corruptions, it cannot but sink. Is it possible that a community of men can long hold together as vicious as this of Rome?—whose people are either disbelievers of all divine existences, or else ground to the earth by the most degrading superstitions? A nation, either on the one hand governed by superstition, or, on the other, atheistical, contains within itself the disease which sooner or later will destroy it. You yourself, it is notorious, have never been within the walls of a temple, nor are Lares or Penates to be found within your doors.'
'I deny it not,' rejoined the Prefect. 'Most who rise to any intelligence, must renounce, if they ever harbored it, all faith in the absurdities and nonsense of the Roman religion. But what then? These very absurdities, as we deem them, are holy truth to the multitude, and do more than all bolts, bars, axes, and gibbets, to keep them in subjection. The intelligent are good citizens by reflection; the multitude, through instincts of birth, and the power of superstition. My idea is, as you perceive, Piso, but one. Religion is the state, and for reasons of state must be preserved in the very form in which it has so long upheld the empire.'
'An idea more degrading than yours, to our species,' I replied, 'can hardly be conceived. I cannot but look upon man as something more than a part of the state. He is, first of all, a man, and is to be cared for as such. To legislate for the state, to the ruin of the man, is to pamper the body, and kill the soul. It is to invert the true process. The individual is more than the abstraction which we term the state. If governments cannot exist, nor empires hold their sway, but by the destruction of the human being, why let them fall. The lesser must yield to the greater. As a Christian, my concern is for man as man. This is the essence of the religion of Christ. It is philanthropy. It sees in every human soul a being of more value than empires, and its purpose is, by furnishing it with truths and motives, equal to its wants, to exalt it, purify it, and perfect it. If, in achieving this work, existing religions or governments are necessarily overturned or annihilated, Christianity cares not, so long as man is the gainer. And is it not certain, that no government could really be injured, although it might apparently, and for a season, by its subjects being raised in all intelligence and all virtue? My work therefore, Varus, will be to sow truth in the heart of the people, which shall make that heart fertile and productive. I do not believe that in doing this Rome will suffer injury, but on the contrary receive benefit. Its religion, or rather its degrading superstitions, may fall, but a principle of almighty energy and divine purity will insensibly be substituted in their room. I labor for man—not for the state.'
'And never, accordingly, most noble Piso, did man, in so unequivocal words, denounce himself traitor.'
'Patriot! friend! benefactor! rather;' cried a voice at my side, which I instantly recognized as that of Probus. Several beside himself had drawn near, listening with interest to what was going on.
'That only shows, my good friend,' said Varus, in his same smiling way, and which seems the very contradiction of all that is harsh and cruel, 'how differently we estimate things. Your palate esteems that to be wholesome and nutritious food, which mine rejects as ashes to the taste, and poison to the blood. I behold Rome torn and bleeding, prostrate and dying, by reason of innovations upon faith and manners, which to you appear the very means of growth, strength, and life. How shall we resolve the doubt—how reconcile the contradiction? Who shall prescribe for the patient? I am happy in the belief, that the Roman people have long since decided for themselves, and confirm their decision every day as it passes, by new acts and declarations.'
'If you mean,' said Probus, 'to say that numbers and the general voice are still against the Christians, I grant it so. But I am happy too in my belief, that the scale is trembling on the beam. There are more and better than you wot of, who hail with eager minds and glad hearts, the truths which it is our glory, as servants of Christ, to propound. Within many a palace upon the seven hills, do prayers go up in his name; and what is more, thousands upon thousands of the humbler ranks, of those who but yesterday were without honor in their own eyes, or others'—without faith—at war with themselves and the world—fit tools for and foe of the state to work with—are to-day reverers of themselves, worshippers of God, lovers of mankind, patriots who love their country better than ever before, because they now behold in every citizen not only a citizen, but a brother and an immortal. The doctrine of Christianity, as a lover of man, so commends itself, Varus, to the hearts of the people, that in a few more years of prosperity, and the face of the Roman world will glow with a new beauty; love and humanity will shine forth in all its features.
'That is very pretty,' said Varus, his lip slightly curling, as he spoke, but retaining his courteous bearing, 'yet methinks, seeing this doctrine is so bewitching, and is withal a heaven-inspired wisdom, the God working behind it and urging it on, it moves onward with a pace something of the slowest. Within a few of three hundred years has it appealed to the human race, and appealed in vain. The feeblest and the worst of mankind have had power almost to annihilate it, and more than once has it seemed scarce to retain its life. Would it have been so, had it been in reality what you claim for it, of divine birth? Would the gods suffer their schemes for man's good to be so thwarted, and driven aside by man? What was this boasted faith doing during the long and peaceful reigns of Hadrian, and the first Antonine? The sword of persecution was then sheathed, or if it fell at all, it was but on a few. So too under Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Commodus, Severus, Heliogabalus, the Philips, Gallienus, and Claudius?'
'That is well said,' a Roman voice added, of one standing by the side of Varus, 'and is a general wonder.'
'I marvel it should be a wonder,' rejoined Probus. 'Can you pour into a full measure? Must it not be first emptied? Who, Varus, let him try as he may, could plant the doctrine of Christ in thy heart? Could I do it, think you?—or Piso?'
'I trow not.'
'And why, I pray you?'
'It is not hard to guess.'
'Is it not because you are already full of contrary notions, to which you cling tenaciously, and from which, perhaps, no human force could drag you? But yours is a type of every other Roman mind to which Christianity has been offered. If you receive it not at once, should others? Suppose the soul to be full of sincere convictions as to the popular faith, can the gospel easily enter there? Suppose it skeptical, as to all spiritual truth; can it enter there? Suppose it polluted by vice can it easily enter there? Suppose it like the soul of Fronto,——'
'Hush! hush!' said several voices. Probus heeded them not.
'Suppose it like the soul of Pronto, could it enter there? See you not then, by knowing your own hearts, what time it must demand for a new, and specially a strict doctrine, to make its way into the minds of men? 'Tis not easier to bore a rock with one's finger, than to penetrate a heart hardened by sin or swelled with prejudice and pride. And if we say, Varus, this was a work for the God to do—that he who originated the faith should propagate it—I answer, that would not be like the other dealings of the divine power. He furnishes you with earth and seed, but he ploughs not for you, nor plants, nor reaps. He gives you reason, but he pours not knowledge into your mind. So he offers truth; but that is all. He compels no assent; he forces no belief. All is voluntary and free. How then can the march of truth be otherwise than slow? Truth, being the greatest thing below, resembles in its port the motion of the stars, which are the greatest things above. But like theirs, if slow, it is ever sure and onward.'
'The stars set in night.'
'But they rise again. Truth is eclipsed often, and it sets for a night; but never is turned aside from its eternal path.'
'Never, Publius,' said the Prefect, adjusting his gown, and with the act filling the air with perfume 'never did I think to find myself within a Christian church. Your shop possesses many virtues. It is a place to be instructed in.' Then turning to Probus, he soothingly and in persuasive tones, added, 'Be advised now, good friend, and leave off thy office of teacher. Rome can well spare thee. Take the judgment of others; we need not thy doctrine. Let that alone which is well established and secure. Spare these institutions, venerable through a thousand years. Leave changes to the gods.'
Probus was about to reply, when we were strangely interrupted. While we had been conversing, there stood before me, in the midst of the floor of the apartment, a man, whose figure, face, and demeanor were such that I hardly could withdraw my eye from him. He was tall and gaunt, beyond all I ever saw, and erect as a Praetorian in the ranks. His face was strongly Roman, thin and bony, with sunken cheeks, a brown and wrinkled skin—not through age, but exposure—and eyes more wild and fiery than ever glared in the head of Hun or hyena. He seemed a living fire-brand of death and ruin. As we talked, he stood there motionless, sometimes casting glances at our group, but more frequently fixing them upon a roll which he held in his hands.
As Varus uttered the last words, this man suddenly left his post, and reaching us with two or three strides, shook his long finger at Varus, saying, at the same time,
The Prefect started as if struck, and gazing a moment with unfeigned amazement at the figure, then immediately burst into a laugh, crying out,
'Ha! ha! Who in the name of Hecate have we here? Ha! ha!—he seems just escaped from the Vivaria.'
'Thy laugh,' said the figure, 'is the music of a sick and dying soul. It is a rebel's insult against the majesty of Heaven; ay, laugh on! That is what the devils do; it is the merriment of hell. What time they burn not, they laugh. But enough. Hold now thy scoffing, Prefect Varus, for, high as thou art, I fear thee not: no! not wert thou twice Aurelian, instead of Varus. I have somewhat for thee. Wilt hear it?'
'With delight, Bubo. Say on.'
'It was thy word just now, 'Rome needs not this doctrine,' was it not?'
'If I said it not, it is a good saying, and I will father it.'
''Rome needs not this doctrine; she is well enough; let her alone!' These were thy words. Need not, Varus, the streets of Rome a cleansing river to purify them? Dost thou think them well enough, till all the fountains have been let loose to purge them? Is Tarquin's sewer a place to dwell in? Could all the waters of Rome sweeten it? The people of Rome are fouler than her highways. The sewers are sweeter than the very worshippers of our temples. Thou knowest somewhat of this. Wast ever present at the rites of Bacchus?—or those of the Cyprian goddess? Nay, blush not yet. Didst ever hear of the gladiator Pollex?—of the woman Caecina?—of the boy Laelius, and the fair girl Fannia—proffered and sold by the parents, Pollex and Caecina, to the loose pleasures of Gallienus? Now I give thee leave to blush! Is it nought that the one half of Rome is sunk in a sensuality, a beastly drunkenness and lust, fouler than that of old, which, in Judea, called down the fiery vengeance of the insulted heavens? Thou knowest well, both from early experience and because of thy office, what the purlieus of the theatres are, and places worse than those, and which to name were an offence. But to you they need not be named. Is all this, Varus, well enough? Is this that venerable order thou wouldst not have disturbed? Is that to be charged as impiety and atheism, which aims to change and reform it? Are they conspirators, and rebels, and traitors, whose sole office and labor is to mend these degenerate morals, to heal these corrupting sores, to pour a better life into the rotting carcass of this guilty city? Is it for our pastime, or our profit, that we go about this always dangerous work? Is it a pleasure to hear the gibes, jests, and jeers of the streets and the places of public resort? Will you not believe that it is for some great end that we do and bear as thou seest—even the redemption, and purifying, and saving of Rome? I love Rome, even as a mother, and for her am ready to die. I have bled for her freely in battle, in Gaul, upon the Danube, in Asia, and in Egypt. I am willing to bleed for her at home, even unto death, if that blood might, through the blessing of God, be a stream to cleanse her putrifying members. But O, holy Jesus! why waste I words upon one whose heart is harder than the nether millstone! Thou preachedst not to Pilate, nor didst thou work thy wonders for Herod. Varus, beware!'
And with these words, uttered with a wild and threatening air, he abruptly turned away, and was lost in the crowds of the street.
While he raved, the Prefect maintained the same unruffled demeanor as before. His customary smile played around his mouth, a smile like no other I ever saw. To a casual observer, it would seem like every other smile, but to one who watches him, it is evident that it denotes no hilarity of heart, for the eyes accompany it not with a corresponding expression, but on the contrary, look forth from their beautiful cavities with glances that speak of anything rather than of peace and good-will. So soon as the strange being who had been declaiming had disappeared, the Prefect, turning to me, as he drew up his gown around him, said,
'I give you joy, Piso, of your coadjutor. A few more of the same fashion, and Rome is safe.' And saluting us with urbanity, he sallied from the shop.
I had been too much amazed, myself, during this scene, to do anything else than stand still, and listen, and observe. As for Probus, I saw him to be greatly moved, and give signs of even deep distress. He evidently knew who the person was—as I saw him make more than one ineffectual effort to arrest him in his harangue—and as evidently held him in respect, seeing he abstained from all interruption of a speech that he felt to be provoking wantonly the passions of the Prefect, and of many who stood around, from whom, so soon as the man of authority had withdrawn, angry words broke forth abundantly.
'Well did the noble Prefect say, that that wild animal had come forth like a half-famished tiger from the Vivaria,' said one.
'It is singular,' observed another, 'that a man who pretends to reform the state, should think to do it by first putting it into a rage with him, and all he utters.'
'Especially singular,' added a third, 'that the advocate of a religion that, as I hear, condemns violence, and consists in the strictness with which the passions are governed, should suppose that he was doing any other work than entering a breach in his own citadel, by such ferocity. But it is quite possible his wits are touched.'
'No, I presume not,' said the first; 'this is a kind of zeal which, if I have observed aright, the Christians hold in esteem.'
As these separated to distant parts of the shop, I said to Probus, who seemed heavily oppressed by what had occurred, 'What daemon dwells in that body that has just departed?'
'Well do you say daemon. The better mind of that man seems oft-times seized upon by some foul spirit, and bound—which then acts and speaks in its room. But do you not know him?'
'No, truly; he is a stranger to me, as he appears to be to all.'
'Nevertheless, you have been in his company. You forget not the Mediterranean voyage?'
'By no means. I enjoyed it highly, and recall it ever with delight.'
'Do you not remember, at the time I narrated to you the brief story of my life, that, as I ended, a rough voice from among the soldiers exclaimed, 'Where now are the gods of Rome?' This is that man, the soldier Macer; then bound with fellow soldiers to the service in Africa, now a Christian preacher.'
'I see it now. That man impressed me then with his thin form and all-devouring eyes. But the African climate, and the gash across his left cheek, and which seems to have slightly disturbed the eye upon that side, have made him a different being, and almost a terrific one. Is he sound and sane?'
'Perfectly so,' replied Probus, 'unless we may say that souls earnestly devoted and zealous, are mad. There is not a more righteous soul in Rome. His conscience is bare, and shrinking like a fresh wound. His breast is warm and fond as a woman's—his penitence for the wild errors of his pagan youth, a consuming fire, which, while it redoubles his ardor in doing what he may in the cause of truth, rages in secret, and, if the sword or the cross claim him not, will bring him to the grave. He is utterly incapable of fear. All the racks and dungeons of Rome, with their tormentors, could not terrify him.'
'You now interest me in him. I must see and know him. It might be of service to him and to all, Probus, methinks, if he could be brought to associate with those whose juster notions might influence his, and modify them to the rule of truth.'
'I fear not. What he sees, he sees clearly and strongly, and by itself. He understands nothing of one truth bearing upon another, and adding to it, or taking from it. Truth is truth with him—and as his own mind perceives it—not another's. His conscience will allow him in no accommodations to other men's opinions or wishes; with him, right is right, wrong is wrong. He is impatient under an argument as a war-horse under the rein after the trumpet sounds. It is unavoidable therefore but he should possess great power among the Christians of Rome. His are the bold and decisive qualities that strike the common mind. There is glory and applause in following and enduring under such a leader. Many are fain to believe him divinely illuminated and impelled, to unite the characters of teacher and prophet; and from knowing that he is so regarded by others, Macer has come almost to believe it himself. He is tending more and more to construe every impulse of his own mind into a divine suggestion, and I believe honestly experiences difficulty in discriminating between them. Still, I do not deny that it would be of advantage for him more and more to come in contact with sober and enlightened minds. I shall take pleasure, at some fitting moment, to accompany you to his humble dwelling; the rather as I would show you also his wife and children, all of whom are like himself Christians.'
'I shall not forget the promise.'
Whereupon we separated.
I then searched for Publius, and making my purchases, returned home, Milo following with the books.
As Milo relieved himself of his burden, discharging it upon the floor of the library, I overheard him to say,
'Lie there, accursed rolls! May the flames consume you, ere you are again upon my shoulders! For none but Piso would I have done what I have. Let me to the temple and expiate.'
'What words are these?' cried Solon, emerging suddenly at the sound from a recess. 'Who dares to heap curses upon books, which are the soul embalmed and made imperishable? What have we here? Aha! a new treasure for these vacant shelves, and most trimly ordered.'