THE EMPEROR - PART 2 - VOLUME 9.
THE EMPEROR - PART 2 - VOLUME 9.
The entertainment which Verus was giving on the eve of his birthday
seemed to be far from drawing to an end even at the beginning of the
third hour of the morning. Besides the illustrious and learned Romans
who had accompanied the Emperor to Alexandria the most famous and
distinguished Alexandrians had also been invited by the praetor. The
splendid banquet had long been ended but jar after jar of mixed wine was
still being filled and emptied. Verus himself had been unanimously
chosen as the king and leader of the feast. Crowned with a rich garland
he reclined on a couch strewn with rose-leaves an invention of his own
and formed of four cushions piled one on another. A curtain of
transparent gauze screened him from flies and gnats and a tightly-woven
mat of lilies and other flowers covered his feet and exhaled sweet odors
for him and for the pretty singer who sat by his side.
Pretty boys dressed as little cupids watched every sign of the 'sham
How indolently he lay on the deep soft cushions! And yet his eyes were
every where and though he had not failed to give due consideration to
the preparations for his feast he devoted all the powers of his mind to
the present management of it. As at the entertainments which Hadrian was
accustomed to give in Rome first of all short selections from new essays
or poems were recited by their authors then a gay comedy was performed;
then Glycera the most famous singer in the city had sung a dithyramb to
her harp in a voice as sweet as a bell and Alexander a skilled
performer on the trigonon had executed a piece. Finally a troop of
female dancers had rushed into the room and swayed and balanced
themselves to the music of the double-flute and tambourine.
Each fresh amusement had been more loudly applauded than the last. With
every jar of wine a new torrent of merriment went up through the opening
in the roof by which the scent of the flowers and of the perfume burnt
on beautiful little altars found an exit into the open air. The wine
offered in libations to the gods already lay in broad pools upon the hard
pavement of the hall the music and singing were drowned in shouts the
feast had become an orgy.
Verus was inciting the more quiet or slothful of his guests to a freer
enjoyment and encouraging the noisiest in their extravagant recklessness
to still more unbridled license. At the same time he bowed to each one
who drank to his health entertained the singer who sat by his side
flung a sparkling jest into one and another silent group and proved to
the learned men who reclined on their couches near to his that whenever
it was possible he took an interest in their discussions. Alexandria
the focus of all the learning of the East and the West had seen other
festivals than this riotous banquet. Indeed even here a vein of grave
and wise discourse flavored the meal of the circle that belonged to the
Museum; but the senseless revelry of Rome had found its way into the
houses of the rich and even the noblest achievements of the human mind
had been made unawares subservient to mere enjoyment. A man was a
philosopher only that he might be prompt to discuss and always ready to
take his share in the talk; and at a banquet a well-told anecdote was
more heartily welcome than some profound idea that gave rise to a
reflection or provoked a subtle discussion.
What a noise what a clatter was storming in the hall by the second hour
after midnight! How the lungs of the feasters were choked with
overpowering perfumes! What repulsive exhibitions met the eye! How
shamelessly was all decency trodden under foot! The poisonous breath of
unchecked license had blasted the noble moderation of the vapor of wine
which floated round this chaos of riotous topers slowly rose the pale
image of Satiety watching for victims on the morrow.
The circle of couches on which lay Florus Favorinus and their
Alexandrian friends stood like an island in the midst of the surging sea
of the orgy. Even here the cup had been bravely passed round and Florus
was beginning to speak somewhat indistinctly but conversation had
hitherto had the upper hand.
Two days before the Emperor had visited the Museum and had carried on
learned discussions with the most prominent of the sages and professors
there in the presence of their assembled disciples. At last a formal
disputation had arisen and the dialectic keenness and precision with
which Hadrian in the purest Attic Greek had succeeded in driving his
opponents into a corner had excited the greatest admiration. The
Sovereign had quitted the famous institution with a promise to reopen the
contest at an early date. The philosophers Pancrates and Dionysius and
Apollonius who took no wine at all were giving a detailed account of
the different phases of this remarkable disputation and praising the
admirable memory and the ready tongue of the great monarch.
"And you did not even see him at his best" exclaimed Favorinus the
Gaul the sophist and rhetorician. "He has received an unfavorable
oracle and the stars seem to confirm the prophecy. This puts him out
of tune. Between ourselves let me tell you I know a few who are his
superiors in dialectic but in his happiest moments he is irresistible-
irresistible. Since we made up our quarrel he is like a brother to me.
I will defend him against all comers for as I say Hadrian is my
The Gaul had poured out this speech in a defiant tone and with flashing
eyes. He grew pale in his cups touchy boastful and very talkative.
"No doubt you are right" replied Apollonius "but it seemed to us that
he was bitter in discussion. His eyes are gloomy rather than gay."
"He is my brother" repeated Favorinus "and as for his eyes I have seen
them flash--by Hercules! like the radiant sun or merry twinkling stars!
And his mouth! I know him well! He is my brother and I will wager that
while he condescended--it is too comical--condescended to dispute with
you--with you there was a sly smile at each corner of his mouth--so--
look now--like this he smiled."
"I repeat he seemed to us gloomy rather than gay" retorted Apollonius
with annoyance; and Pancrates added:
"If he does really know how to jest he certainly did not prove it to us."
"Not out of ill-will" laughed the Gaul "you do not know him but I--I
am his friend and may follow wherever--he goes. Now only wait and I will
tell you a few stories about him. If I chose I could describe his whole
soul to you as if it lay there on the surface of the wine in my cup.
Once in Rome he went to inspect the newly-decorated baths of Agrippa and
in the undressing-room he saw an old man a veteran who had fought with
him somewhere or other. My memory is greatly admired but his is in no
respect inferior. Scaurus was the old man's name--yes--yes Scaurus.
He did not observe Caesar at first for after his bath his wounds were
burning and he was rubbing his back against the rough stone of a pillar.
Hadrian however called to him: 'Why are you scratching yourself my
friend?' and Scaurus not at once recognizing Caesar's voice answered
without turning round: 'Because I have no slave to do it for me.' You
should have heard Caesar laugh! Liberal as he is sometimes--I say
sometimes--he gave Scaurus a handsome sum of money and two sturdy slaves.
The story soon got abroad and when Caesar who--as you believe--cannot
jest a short time after again visited the bath two old soldiers at once
placed themselves in his way scrubbed their backs against the wall like
Scaurus and called out to him 'Great Caesar we have no slaves.'--'Then
scratch each other' cried he and left the soldiers to rub themselves."
"Capital!" laughed Dionysius.
"Now one more true story" interrupted the loquacious Gaul. "Once upon
a time a man with white hair begged of him. The wretch was a low fellow
a parasite who wandered round from one man's table to another feeding
himself out of other folks' wallets and dishes. Caesar knew his man and
warned him off. Then the creature had his hair dyed that he might not be
recognized and tried his luck a second time with the Emperor. But
Hadrian has good eyes; he pointed to the door saying with the gravest
face: 'I have just lately refused to give your father anything.' And a
hundred such jokes pass from mouth to mouth in Rome and if you like I
can give you a dozen of the best."
"Tell us go on out with your stories. They are all old friends!"
stammered Florus. "But while Favorinus chatters we can drink."
The Gaul cast a contemptuous glance at the Roman and answered promptly:
"My stories are too good for a drunken man."
Florus paused to think of an answer but before he could find one the
praetor's body-slave rushed into the hall crying out: "The palace at
Lochias is on fire."
Verus kicked the mat of lilies off his feet on to the floor tore down
the net that screened him in and shouted to the breathless runner.
"My chariot-quick my chariot! To our next merry meeting another evening
my friends with many thanks for the honor you have done me. I must be
off to Lochias."
Verus flew out of the hall without throwing on his cloak and hot as he
was into the cold night and at the same time most of his guests had
started up to hurry into the open air to see the fire and to hear the
latest news; but only very few went to the scene of the conflagration to
help the citizens to extinguish it and many heavily intoxicated drinkers
remained lying on the couches.
As Favorinus and the Alexandrians raised themselves on their pillows
"No god shall make me stir from this place not if the whole house is
burnt down and Alexandria and Rome and for aught I care every nest and
nook on the face of the earth. It may all burn together. The Roman
Empire can never be greater or more splendid than under Caesar! It may
burn down like a heap of straw it is all the same to me--I shall lie
here and drink."
The turmoil and confusion on the scene of the interrupted feast seemed
inextricable while Verus hurried off to Sabina to inform her of what had
occurred. But Balbilla had been the first to discover the fire and quite
at the beginning for after sitting industriously at her studies and
before going to bed she had looked out toward the sea. She had instantly
run out cried "Fire!" and was now seeking for a chamberlain to awake
The whole of Lochias flared and shone in a purple and golden glow. It
formed the nucleus of a wide spreading radiance of tender red of which
the extent and intensity alternately grew and diminished. Verus met
the poetess at the door that led from the garden into the Empress'
apartments. He omitted on this occasion to offer his customary greeting
but hastily asked her:
"Has Sabina been told?"
"I think not yet."
"Then have her called. Greet her from me--I must go to Lochias"
"We will follow you."
"No stay here; you will be in the way there."
"I do not take much room and I shall go. What a magnificent spectacle."
"Eternal gods! the flames are breaking out too below the palace by the
King's harbor. Where can the chariots be?"
"Take me with you."
"No you must wake the Empress."
"You women must stay where you are."
"For my part I certainly will not. Caesar will be in no danger?"
"Hardly--the old stones cannot burn."
"Only look! how splendid! the sky is one crimson tent. I entreat you
Verus let me go with you."
"No no pretty one. Men are wanted down there."
"How unkind you are."
"At last! here are the chariots! You women stay here; do you understand
"I will not take any orders; I shall go to Lochias."
"To see Antinous in the flames! such a sight is not to be seen every
day to be sure!" cried Verus ironically as he sprang into his
chariot and took the reins into his own hand.
Balbilla stamped with rage.
She went to Sabina's rooms fully resolved to go to the scene of the fire.
The Empress would not let herself be seen by any one not even by
Balbilla till she was completely dressed. A waiting-woman told Balbilla
that Sabina would get up certainly but that for the sake of her health
she could not venture out in the night-air.
The poetess then sought Lucilla and begged her to accompany her to
Lochias; she was perfectly willing and ready but when she heard that her
husband had wished that the women should remain at the Caesareum she
declared that she owed him obedience and tried to keep back her friend.
But the perverse curly-haired girl was fully determined precisely
because Verus had forbidden her--and forbidden her with mocking words to
carry out her purpose. After a short altercation with Lucilla she left
her sought her companion Claudia told her what she intended doing
dismissed that lady's remonstrance with a very positive command gave
orders herself to the house-steward to have horses put to a chariot and
reached the imperilled palace an hour and a half after Verus.
An endless many-headed crowd of people besieged the narrow end of
Lochias on the landward side and the harbor wharves below where some
stores and shipyards were in flames. Boats innumerable were crowded
round the little peninsula. An attempt was being made with much
shouting and by the combined exertions of an immense number of men to
get the larger ships afloat which lay at anchor close to the quay of the
King's harbor and to place them in security. Every thing far and wide
was lighted up as brightly as by day but with a ruddier and more
restless light. The north-east breeze fanned the fire aggravating the
labors of the men who were endeavoring to extinguish it and snatching
flakes of flame off every burning mass. Each blazing storehouse was a
gigantic torch throwing a broad glare into the darkness of the night.
The white marble of the tallest beacon tower in the world on the island
of Pharos reflected a rosy hue but its far gleaming light shone pale
and colorless. The dark hulls of the larger ships and the flotilla of
boats in the background were afloat in a fiery sea and the still water
under the shore mirrored the illumination in which the whole of Lochias
Balbilla could not tire of admiring this varying scene in which the most
gorgeous hues vied with each other and the intensest light contrasted
with the deepest shadows. And she had ample time to dwell on the
marvellous picture before her eyes for her chariot could only proceed
slowly and at a point where the street led up from the King's harbor to
the palace lictors stood in her way and declared positively that any
farther advance was out of the question. The horses much scared by the
glare of the fire and the crowd that pressed round them could hardly be
controlled first rearing and then kicking at the front board of the
chariot. The charioteer declared he could no longer be answerable. The
people who had hurried to the rescue now began to abuse the women who
ought to have staid at home at the loom rather than come stopping the way
for useful citizens.
"There is time enough to go out driving by daylight!" cried one man; and
another: "If a spark falls in those curls another conflagration will
The position of the ladies was becoming every instant more unendurable
and Balbilla desired the charioteer to turn round; but in the swarming
mass of men that filled the street this was easier said than done. One
of the horses broke the strap which fastened the yoke that rested on his
withers to the pole started aside and forced back the crowd which now
began to scold and scream loudly. Balbilla wanted to spring out of the
chariot but Claudia clung tightly to her and conjured her not to leave
her in the lurch in the midst of the danger. The spoilt patrician's
daughter was not timid but on this occasion she would have given much
not to have followed Verus. At first she thought "A delightful
adventure! still it will not be perfect till it is over." But presently
her bold experiment lost every trace of charm and repentance that she
had ever undertaken it filled her mind. She was far nearer weeping than
laughing already when a man's deep voice said behind her in tones of
"Make way there for the pumps; push aside whatever stops the way."
These terrible words reduced Claudia to sinking on to her knees but
Balbilla's quelled courage found fresh wings as she heard them for she
had recognized the voice of Pontius. Now he was close behind the
chariot high on a horse. He then was the man on horseback whom she had
seen dashing from the sea-shore up to the higher storehouses that were
burning down to the lake and hither and thither.
She turned full upon him and called him by his name. He recognized her
tried to pull up his horse as it was dashing forward and smilingly shook
his head at her as much as to say: "She is a giddy creature and deserves
a good scolding; but who could be angry with her?" And then he gave his
orders to his subordinates just as if she had been a mere chattel a bale
of goods or something of the kind and not an heiress of distinction.
"Take out the horses" he cried to the municipal guards; "we can use them
for carrying water."--"Help the ladies out of the chariot."--"Take them
between you Nonnus and Lucanus."--"Now stow the chariot in there among
the bushes."--"Make way there in front make way for our pumps." And
each of these orders was obeyed as promptly as if it was the word of
command given by a general to his well-drilled soldiers.
After the pumps had been fairly started Pontius rode close up to Balbilla
"Caesar is safe and sound. You no doubt wished to see the progress of
the fire from a spot near it and in fact the colors down there are
magnificent. I have not time to escort you back to the Caesareum; but
follow me. You will be safe in the harbor-guard's stone house and from
the roof you can command a view of Lochias and the whole peninsula. You
will have a rare feast for the eye noble Balbilla; but I beg you not to
forget at the same time how many days of honest labor what rich
possessions how many treasures earned by bitter hardship are being
destroyed at this moment. What may delight you will cost bitter tears to
many others and so let us both hope that this splendid spectacle may now
have reached its climax and soon may come to an end."
"I hope so--I hope it with all my heart!" cried the girl.
"I was sure you would. As soon as possible I will come to look after
you. You Nonnus and Lucanus conduct these noble ladies to the harbor-
"Tell him they are intimate friends of the Empress. Only keep the pumps
going! Till we meet again Balbilla!" and with these words the architect
gave his horse the bridle and made his way through the crowd.
A quarter of an hour later Balbilla was standing on the roof of the
little stone guard-house. Claudia was utterly exhausted and incapable of
speech. She sat in the dark little parlor below on a rough-hewn wooden
bench. But the young Roman now gazed at the fire with different eyes
than before. Pontius had made her feel a foe to the flames which only a
short time before had filled her with delight as they soared up to the
sky wild and fierce. They still flared up violently as though they had
to climb above the roof; but soon they seemed to be quelled and
exhausted to find it more and more difficult to rise above the black
smoke which welled up from the burning mass. Balbilla had looked out for
the architect and had soon discovered him for the man on horseback
towered above the crowd. He halted now by one and now by another burning
storehouse. Once she lost sight of him for a whole hour for he had gone
to Lochias. Then again he reappeared and wherever he stayed for a
while the raging element abated its fury.
Without her having perceived it the wind had changed and the air had
become still and much warmer. This circumstance favored the efforts of
the citizens trying to extinguish the fire but Balbilla ascribed it to
the foresight of her clever friend when the flames subsided in souse
places and in others were altogether extinguished. Once she saw that he
had a building completely torn down which divided a burning granary from
some other storehouses that had been spared and she understood the
object of this order; it cut off the progress of the flames. Another
time she saw him high on the top of a rise in the ground. Close before
him in a sheet of flame was a magazine in which were kept tow and casks
of resin and pitch. He turned his face full towards it and gave his
orders now on this side now on that. His figure and that of his horse
which reared uneasily beneath him were flooded in a crimson glow--a
splendid picture! She trembled for him she gazed in admiration at this
calm resolute energetic man and when a blazing beam fell close in
front of him and after his frightened horse had danced round and round
with him he forced it to submit to his guidance the praetor's
insinuation recurred to her mind that she clung to her determination
to go to Lochias because she hoped to enjoy the spectacle of Antinous in
the flames. Here before her was a nobler display and yet her lively
imagination which often sometimes indeed against her will gave shape to
her formless thoughts--called up the image of the beautiful youth
surrounded by the glowing glory which still painted the horizon.
Hour after hour slipped by; the efforts of the thousands who endeavored
to extinguish the blaze were crowned by increasing success; one burning
mass after another was quenched if not extinguished and instead of
flames smoke mingled with sparks rose from Lochias blacker and blacker-
and still Pontius came not to look after her. She could not see any
stars for the sky was overcast with clouds but the beginning of a new
day could not be far distant. She was shivering with cold and her
friend's long absence began to annoy her. When presently it began to
rain in large drops she went down the ladder that led from the roof and
sat down by the fire in the little room where her companion had gone fast
She had been sitting quite half an hour and gazing dreamily into the
warming glow when she heard the sound of hoofs and Pontius appeared.
His face was begrimed and his voice hoarse with shouting commands for
hours. As soon as she saw him Balbilla forgot her vexation greeted him
warmly and told him how she had watched his every movement; but the
eager girl so readily fired to enthusiasm could only with the greatest
difficulty bring out a few words to express the admiration that his mode
of proceeding had so deeply excited in her mind.
She heard him say that his mouth was quite parched and his throat was
longing for a draught of some drink and she--who usually had every pin
she needed handed to her by a slave and on whom fate had bestowed no
living creature whom she could find a pleasure in serving--she with her
own hand dipped a cup of water out of the large clay jar that stood in a
corner of the room and offered it to him with a request that he would
drink it. He eagerly swallowed the refreshing fluid and when the little
cup was empty Balbilla took it from his hand refilled it and gave it
Claudia who woke up when the architect came in looked on at her foster-
child's unheard-of proceedings with astonishment shaking her head. When
Pontius had drained the third cupful that Balbilla fetched for him he
exclaimed drawing a deep breath: