Chapter 17. Christianos ad Leones

{189} BY the time that they had got round again to the unlucky baker's, the mob had been swollen to a size which even the area of the Forum would not contain, and it filled the adjacent streets. And by the same time it had come home to its leaders, and, indeed, to every one who used his reason at all, that it was very far from certain that there were any Christians in Sicca, and if so, still very far from easy to say where they were. And the difficulty was of so practical a character as to keep them inactive for the space of several hours. Meanwhile their passions were excited to the boiling point by the very presence of the difficulty, as men go mad of thirst when water is denied them. At length, after a long season of such violent commotion, such restless pain, such curses, shrieks, and blasphemies, such bootless gesticulations, such aimless contests with each other, that they seemed to be already inmates of the prison beneath, they set off in a blind way to make the circuit of the city as before they had paraded round the Forum, still in the knight-errant line, looking out for what might turn up where they were sure of nothing, and relieving the intense {190} irritation of their passions by locomotion, if nothing more substantial was offered to them.

It was an awful day for the respectable inhabitants of the place; worse than anything that even the most timid of them had anticipated, when they had showed their jealousy of a popular movement against the proscribed religion; for the stimulus of famine and pestilence was added to hatred of Christianity, in that unreasoning multitude. The magistrates shut themselves up in dismay; the small body of Roman soldiery reserved their strength for the defence of themselves; and the poor wretches, not a few, who had fallen from the faith, and offered sacrifice, hung out from their doors sinful heathen symbols, to avert a storm against which apostasy was no sufficient safeguard. In this conduct the Gnostics and other sectaries imitated them, while the Tertullianists took a more manly part, from principle or pride.

It would require the brazen voice which Homer speaks of, or the magic pen of Sir Walter, to catalogue and to picture, as far as it is lawful to do either, the figures and groups of that most miserable procession. As it went forward it gained a variety and strength, which the circuit of the Forum could not furnish. The more respectable religious establishments shut their gates, and would have nothing to do with it. The priests of Jupiter, the educational establishments of the Temple of Mercury, the Temple of the Genius of Rome near the Capitol, the hierophants of Isis, the Minerva, the Juno, the Esculapius, viewed the popular {191} rising with terror and disgust; but these were not the popular worships. The vast homestead of Astarte, which in the number and vowed profligacy of its inhabitants rivalled the vaults upon the Forum; the old rites, many and diversified, if separately obscure, which came from Punic times; the new importations from Syria and Phrygia, and a number of other haunts and schools of depravity and crime, did their part in swelling or giving character to the concourse. The hungry and idle rabble, the filthy beggars who fed on the offal of the sacrifices, the drivers and slaughterers of the beasts sacrificed; the tumblers and mountebanks who amused the gaping market-people; dancers, singers, pipers from low taverns and drinking-houses; infamous creatures, young and old, men and boys, half naked and not half sober; brutal blacks, the aboriginal race of the Atlas, with their appetites written on their skulls and features; Canaanites, as they called themselves, from the coast; the wild beast-keepers from the amphitheatre; troops of labourers from the fields, to whom the epidemic was a time of Saturnalia; and the degraded company, alas! how numerous and how pitiable, who took their nightly stand in long succession at the doors of their several cells in the deep galleries under the Thermę; all these, and many others, had their part and place in the procession. There you might see the devilish emblems of idolatry borne aloft by wretches from the great Punic Temple, while frantic forms, ragged and famished, wasted and shameless, leapt and pranced around {192} them. There too was a choir of Bacchanals, ready at a moment with songs as noisy as they were unutterable. And there was the priest of the Punic Saturn, the child-devourer, a sort of Moloch, to whom the martyrdom of Christians was a sacred rite; he and all his attendants in fiery-coloured garments, as became a sanguinary religion. And there, moreover, was a band of fanatics, devotees of Cybele or of the Syrian goddess, if indeed the two rites were distinct. They were bedizened with ribbons and rags of various colours, and smeared over with paint. They had long hair like women, and turbans on their heads. They pushed their way to the head of the procession, being quite worthy of the post of honour, and, seizing the baker's ass, put their goddess on the back of it. Some of them were playing the fife, others clashing cymbals, others danced, others yelled, others rolled their heads, and others flogged themselves. Such was the character of the frenzied host, which progressed slowly through the streets, while every now and then, when there was an interval in the hubbub, the words "Christianos ad leones" were thundered out by some ruffian voice, and a thousand others fiercely responded.

Still no Christian was forthcoming; and it was plain that the rage of the multitude must be discharged in other quarters, if the difficulty continued in satisfying it. At length some one recollected the site of the Christian chapel, when it existed; thither went the multitude, and effected an entrance without {193} delay. It had long been turned to other purposes, and was now a store of casks and leather bottles. The miserable sacristan had long given up any practical observance of his faith, and remained on the spot a keeper of the premises for the trader who owned them. They found him, and dragged him into the street, and brought him forward to the ass, and to the idol on its back, and bade him worship the one and the other. The poor wretch obeyed; he worshipped the ass, he worshipped the idol, and he worshipped the genius of the emperor; but his persecutors wanted blood; they would not submit to be cheated of their draught; so when they had made him do whatever they exacted, they flung him under the feet of the multitude, who, as they passed on, soon trod all life and breath out of him, and sent him to the powers below, to whom he had just before been making his profession.

Their next adventure was with a Tertullianist, who stationed himself at his shop-door, displayed the sign of the cross, and walking leisurely forward, seized the idol on the ass's back, broke it over his knee, and flung the portions into the crowd. For a few minutes they stared on him with astonishment, then some women fell upon him with their nails and teeth, and tore the poor fanatic till he fell bleeding and lifeless upon the ground.

In the higher and better part of the city, which they now approached, lived the widow of a Duumvir, who in his day had made a bold profession of Christianity. {194} The well-connected lady was a Christian also, and was sheltered by her great friends from the persecution. She was bringing up a family in great privacy, and with straitened means, and with as much religious strictness as was possible under the circumstances of the place. She kept them from all bad sights and bad company, was careful as to the character of the slaves she placed about them, and taught them all she knew of her religion, which was quite sufficient for their salvation. They had all been baptized, some by herself in default of the proper minister, and, as far as they could show at their tender ages, which lay between thirteen and seven, the three girls and the two boys were advancing in the love of truth and sanctity. Her husband, some years back, when presiding in the Forum, had punished with just severity an act of ungrateful fraud; and the perpetrator had always cherished a malignant hatred of him and his. The moment of gratifying it had now arrived, and he pointed out to the infuriated rabble the secluded mansion where the Christian household dwelt. He could not offer to them a more acceptable service, and the lady's modest apartment was soon swarming with enemies of her God and His followers. In spite of her heart-rending cries and supplications, her children were seized, and when the youngest boy clung to her, the mother was thrown senseless upon the pavement. The whole five were carried off in triumph; it was the greatest success of the day. There was some {195} hesitation how to dispose of them; at last the girls were handed over to the priestesses of Astarte, and the boys to the loathsome votaries of Cybele.

Revenge upon Christians was the motive principle of the riot; but the prospect of plunder stimulated numbers, and here Christians could not minister to their desires. They began the day by the attack upon the provision-shop, and now they had reached the aristocratic quarter of the city, and they gazed with envy and cupidity at the noble mansions which occupied it. They began to shout out, "Bread, bread!" while they uttered threats against the Christians; they violently beat at the closed gates, and looked about for means of scaling the high walls which defended them in front. The cravings of famished men soon take form and organization; they began to ask relief from house to house. Nothing came amiss; and loaves, figs, grapes, wine, found their way into the hands and mouths of those who were the least exhausted and the least enfeebled. A second line of fierce supplicants succeeded to the first; and it was plain that, unless some diversion were effected, the respectable quarter of Sicca had found a worse enemy than the locust.

The houses of the government susceptor, or tax collector, of the tabularius or registrar, of the defensor or city counsel, and one or two others, had already been the scene of collisions between the domestic slaves and the multitude, when a demand was made upon {196} the household of another of the Curia, who held the office of Flamen Dialis. He was a wealthy, easy-going man, generally popular, with no appetite for persecution at all, but still no desire to be persecuted. He had more than tolerated the Christians, and had at this time a Christian among his slaves. This was a Greek, a splendid cook and perfumer, and he would not have lost him for a large sum of money. However, life and limb were nearer to him even than his dinner, and a Jonah must be cast overboard to save the ship. In trepidation, yet with greater satisfaction, his fellow-domestics thrust the poor helpless man out of the house, and secured the door behind him. He was a man of middle age, of a grave aspect, and he looked silently and calmly upon the infuriated and yelling multitude, who were swarming up the hill about him, and swelling the number of his persecutors. What had been his prospects, had he remained in his earthly master's service? his fill of meat and drink while he was strong and skilful, the stocks or scourge if he ever failed to please him, and the old age and death of the worn-out hack who once has caracoled in the procession, or snorted at the coming fight. What are his prospects now? a moment's agony, a martyr's death, and the everlasting beatific vision of Him for whom he died. The multitude cry out, "To the ass or to the lion!" worship the ass, or fight the lion. He was dragged to the ass's head and commanded to kneel down before the irrational beast. In the course of a minute he had lifted up {197} his eyes to heaven, had signed himself with the cross, had confessed his Saviour, and had been torn to pieces by the multitude. They anticipated the lion of the amphitheatre.

A lull followed, sure to be succeeded by a fresh storm. Not every household had a Christian cook to make a victim of. Plunder, riot, and outrage were becoming the order of the day; successive messengers were sent up in breathless haste to the capitol and the camp for aid, but the Romans returned for answer that they had enough to do in defending the government buildings and offices. They suggested measures, however, for putting the mob on a false scent, or involving them in some difficult or tedious enterprise, which would give the authorities time for deliberation, and for taking the rioters at disadvantage. If the magistrates could get them out of the city, it would be a great point; they could then shut the gates upon them, and deal with them as they would. In that case, too, the insurgents would straggle, and divide, and then they might be disposed of in detail. They were showing symptoms of returning fury, when a voice suddenly cried out, "Agellius the Christian! Agellius the sorcerer! Agellius to the lions! To the farm of Varius—to the cottage of Agellius—to the south-west gate!" A sudden yell burst forth from the vast multitude when the voice ceased. The impulse had been given as at the first; the tide of human beings ebbed and retreated, and, licking the base of the hill, rushed {198} vehemently on one side, and roared like a torrent towards the south-west. Juba, thy prophecy is soon to be fulfilled! The locusts will bring more harm on thy brother's home than imperial edict or local magistrate. The decline of day will hardly prevent the visitation.

Chapter 18

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