It was daybreak of a March morning in the year of Christ 92. Outside the long Semita Alta was already thronged with people, with buyers and sellers, callers and strollers, for the Romans were so early-rising a people that many a Patrician preferred to see his clients at six in the morning. Such was the good republican tradition, still upheld by the more conservative; but with more modern habits of luxury, a night of pleasure and banqueting was no uncommon thing. Thus one, who had learned the new and yet adhered to the old, might find his hours overlap, and without so much as a pretence of sleep come straight from his night of debauch into his day of business, turning with heavy wits and an aching head to that round of formal duties which consumed the life of a Roman gentleman.
So it was with Emilius Flaccus that March morning. He and his fellow senator, Caius Balbus, had passed the night in one of those gloomy drinking bouts to which the Emperor Domitian summoned his chosen friends at the high palace on the Palatine. Now, having reached the portals of the house of Flaccus, they stood together under the pomegranate-fringed portico which fronted the peristyle and, confident in each other’s tried discretion, made up by the freedom of their criticism for their long self-suppression of that melancholy feast.
“If he would but feed his guests,” said Balbus, a little red-faced, choleric nobleman with yellow-shot angry eyes. “What had we? Upon my life, I have forgotten. Plovers’ eggs, a mess of fish, some bird or other, and then his eternal apples.”
“Of which,” said Flaccus, “he ate only the apples. Do him the justice to confess that he takes even less than he gives. At least they cannot say of him as of Vitellius, that his teeth beggared the empire.”
“No, nor his thirst either, great as it is. That fiery Sabine wine of his could be had for a few sesterces the amphora. It is the common drink of the carters at every wine-house on the country roads. I longed for a glass of my own rich Falernian or the mellow Coan that was bottled in the year that Titus took Jerusalem. Is it even now too late? Could we not wash this rasping stuff from our palates?”
“Nay, better come in with me now and take a bitter draught ere you go upon your way. My Greek physician Stephanos has a rare prescription for a morning head. What! Your clients await you? Well, I will see you later at the Senate house.”
The Patrician had entered his atrium, bright with rare flowers, and melodious with strange singing birds. At the jaws of the hall, true to his morning duties, stood Lebs, the little Nubian slave, with snow-white tunic and turban, a salver of glasses in one hand, whilst in the other he held a flask of a thin lemon-tinted liquid. The master of the house filled up a bitter aromatic bumper, and was about to drink it off, when his hand was arrested by a sudden perception that something was much amiss in his household. It was to be read all around him—in the frightened eyes of the black boy, in the agitated face of the keeper of the atrium, in the gloom and silence of the little knot of ordinarii, the procurator or major-domo at their head, who had assembled to greet their master. Stephanos the physician, Cleios the Alexandrine reader, Promus the steward each turned his head away to avoid his master’s questioning gaze.
“What in the name of Pluto is the matter with you all?” cried the amazed senator, whose night of potations had left him in no mood for patience. “Why do you stand moping there? Stephanos, Vacculus—is anything amiss? Here, Promus, you are the head of my household. What is it, then? Why do you turn your eyes away from me?”
The burly steward, whose fat face was haggard and mottled with anxiety, laid his hand upon the sleeve of the domestic beside him.
“Sergius is responsible for the atrium, my lord. It is for him to tell you the terrible thing that has befallen in your absence.”
“Nay, it was Datus who did it. Bring him in, and let him explain it himself,” said Sergius in a sulky voice.
The patience of the Patrician was at an end. “Speak this instant, you rascal!” he shouted angrily. “Another minute, and I will have you dragged to the ergastulum, where, with your feet in the stocks and the gyves round your wrists, you may learn quicker obedience. Speak, I say, and without delay.”
“It is the Venus,” the man stammered; “the Greek Venus of Praxiteles.”
The senator gave a cry of apprehension and rushed to the corner of the atrium, where a little shrine, curtained off by silken drapery, held the precious statue, the greatest art treasure of his collection—perhaps of the whole world. He tore the hangings aside and stood in speechless anger before the outraged goddess. The red perfumed lamp which always burned before her had been spilled and broken; her altar fire had been quenched, her chaplet had been dashed aside. But worst of all—insufferable sacrilege!—her own beautiful nude body of glistening Pantelic marble, as white and fair as when the inspired Greek had hewed it out five hundred years before, had been most brutally mishandled. Three fingers of the gracious outstretched hand had been struck off, and lay upon the pedestal beside her. Above her delicate breast a dark mark showed, where a blow had disfigured the marble. Emilius Flaccus, the most delicate and judicious connoisseur in Rome, stood gasping and croaking, his hand to his throat, as he gazed at his disfigured masterpiece. Then he turned upon his slaves, his fury in his convulsed face; but, to his amazement, they were not looking at him, but had all turned in attitudes of deep respect towards the opening of the peristyle. As he faced round and saw who had just entered his house, his own rage fell away from him in an instant, and his manner became as humble as that of his servants.
The newcomer was a man forty-three years of age, clean shaven, with a massive head, large engorged eyes, a small clear-cut nose, and the full bull neck which was the especial mark of his breed. He had entered through the peristyle with a swaggering, rolling gait, as one who walks upon his own ground, and now he stood, his hands upon his hips, looking round him at the bowing slaves, and finally at their master, with a half-humorous expression upon his flushed and brutal face.
“Why, Emilius,” said he, “I had understood that your household was the best-ordered in Rome. What is amiss with you this morning?”
“Nothing could be amiss with us now that Caesar has deigned to come under my roof,” said the courtier. “This is indeed a most glad surprise which you have prepared for me.”
“It was an afterthought,” said Domitian. “When you and the others had left me, I was in no mood for sleep, and so it came into my mind that I would have a breath of morning air by coming down to you, and seeing this Grecian Venus of yours, about which you discoursed so eloquently between the cups. But, indeed, by your appearance and that of your servants, I should judge that my visit was an ill-timed one.”
“Nay, dear master; say not so. But, indeed, it is truth that I was in trouble at the moment of your welcome entrance, and this trouble was, as the Fates have willed it, brought forth by that very statue in which you have been graciously pleased to show your interest. There it stands, and you can see for yourself how rudely it has been mishandled.”
“By Pluto and all the nether gods, if it were mine some of you should feed the lampreys,” said the Emperor, looking round with his fierce eyes at the shrinking slaves. “You were always overmerciful, Emilius. It is the common talk that your catenoe are rusted for want of use. But surely this is beyond all bounds. Let me see how you handle the matter. Whom do you hold responsible?”
“The slave Sergius is responsible, since it is his place to tend the atrium,” said Flaccus. “Stand forward, Sergius. What have you to say?”
The trembling slave advanced to his master. “If it please you, sir, the mischief has been done by Datus the Christian.”
“Datus! Who is he?”
“The matulator, the scavenger, my lord. I did not know that he belonged to these horrible people, or I should not have admitted him. He came with his broom to brush out the litter of the birds. His eyes fell upon the Venus, and in an instant he had rushed upon her and struck her two blows with his wooden besom. Then we fell upon him and dragged him away. But alas! alas! it was too late, for already the wretch had dashed off the fingers of the goddess.”
The Emperor smiled grimly, while the Patrician’s thin face grew pale with anger.
“Where is the fellow?” he asked.
“In the ergastulum, your honour, with the furca on his neck.”
“Bring him hither and summon the household.”
A few minutes later the whole back of the atrium was thronged by the motley crowd who ministered to the household needs of a great Roman nobleman. There was the arcarius, or account keeper, with his stylum behind his ear; the sleek praegustator, who sampled all foods, so as to stand between his master and poison, and beside him his predecessor, now a half-witted idiot through the interception twenty years before of a datura draught from Canidia; the cellarman, summoned from amongst his amphorae; the cook, with his basting-ladle in his hand; the pompous nomenclator, who ushered the guests; the cubicularius, who saw to their accommodation; the silentiarius, who kept order in the house; the structor, who set forth the tables; the carptor, who carved the food; the cinerarius, who lit the fires—these and many more, half-curious, half-terrified, came to the judging of Datus. Behind them a chattering, giggling swarm of Lalages, Marias, Cerusas, and Amaryllides, from the laundries and the spinning-rooms, stood upon their tiptoes and extended their pretty wondering faces over the shoulders of the men. Through this crowd came two stout varlets leading the culprit between them. He was a small, dark, rough-headed man, with an unkempt beard and wild eyes which shone, brightly with strong inward emotion. His hands were bound behind him, and over his neck was the heavy wooden collar or furca which was placed upon refractory slaves. A smear of blood across his cheek showed that he had not come uninjured from the preceding scuffle.
“Are you Datus the scavenger?” asked the Patrician.
The man drew himself up proudly. “Yes,” said he, “I am Datus.”
“Did you do this injury to my statue?”
“Yes, I did.”
There was an uncompromising boldness in the man’s reply which compelled respect. The wrath of his master became tinged with interest.
“Why did you do this?” he asked.
“Because it was my duty.”
“Why, then, was it your duty to destroy your master’s property?”
“Because I am a Christian.” His eyes blazed suddenly out of his dark face. “Because there is no God but the one eternal, and all else are sticks and stones. What has this naked harlot to do with Him to whom the great firmament is but a garment and the earth a footstool? It was in His service that I have broken your statue.”
Domitian looked with a smile at the Patrician. “You will make nothing of him,” said he. “They speak even so when they stand before the lions in the arena. As to argument, not all the philosophers of Rome can break them down. Before my very face they refuse to sacrifice in my honour. Never were such impossible people to deal with. I should take a short way with him if I were you.”
“What would Caesar advise?”
“There are the games this afternoon. I am showing the new hunting-leopard which King Juba has sent from Numidia. This slave may give us some sport when he finds the hungry beast sniffing at his heels.”
The Patrician considered for a moment. He had always been a father to his servants. It was hateful to him to think of any injury befalling them. Perhaps even now, if this strange fanatic would show his sorrow for what he had done, it might be possible to spare him. At least it was worth trying.
“Your offence deserves death,” he said. “What reasons can you give why it should not befall you, since you have injured this statue, which is worth your own price a hundred times over?”
The slave looked steadfastly at his master. “I do not fear death,” he said. “My sister Candida died in the arena, and I am ready to do the same. It is true that I have injured your statue, but I am able to find you something of far greater value in exchange. I will give you the truth and the gospel in exchange for your broken idol.”
The Emperor laughed. “You will do nothing with him, Emilius,” he said. “I know his breed of old. He is ready to die; he says so himself. Why save him, then?”
But the Patrician still hesitated. He would make a last effort.
“Throw off his bonds,” he said to the guards. “Now take the furca off his neck. So! Now, Datus, I have released you to show you that I trust you. I have no wish to do you any hurt if you will but acknowledge your error, and so set a better example to my household here assembled.”
“How, then, shall I acknowledge my error?” the slave asked.
“Bow your head before the goddess, and entreat her forgiveness for the violence you have done her. Then perhaps you may gain my pardon as well.”
“Put me, then, before her,” said the Christian.
Emilius Flaccus looked triumphantly at Domitian. By kindness and tact he was effecting that which the Emperor had failed to do by violence. Datus walked in front of the mutilated Venus. Then with a sudden spring he tore the baton out of the hand of one of his guardians, leaped upon the pedestal, and showered his blows upon the lovely marble woman. With a crack and a dull thud her right arm dropped to the ground. Another fierce blow and the left had followed. Flaccus danced and screamed with horror, while his servants dragged the raving iconoclast from his impassive victim. Domitian’s brutal laughter echoed through the hall.
“Well, friend, what think you now?” he cried. “Are you wiser than your Emperor? Can you indeed tame your Christian with kindness?”
Emilius Flaccus wiped the sweat from his brow. “He is yours, great Caesar. Do with him as you will.”
“Let him be at the gladiators’ entrance of the circus an hour before the games begin,” said the Emperor. “Now, Emilius, the night has been a merry one. My Ligurian galley waits by the river quay. Come, cool your head with a spin to Ostia ere the business of State calls you to the Senate.”
Merci pour la lecture!