Chapter 5. Jucundus at Supper

{39} THE house of Jucundus was closed for the night when Juba reached it, or you would see, were you his companion, that it was one of the most showy shops in Sicca. It was the image-store of the place, and set out for sale, not articles of statuary alone, but of metal, of mosaic work, and of jewellery, as far as they were dedicated to the service of paganism. It was bright with the many colours adopted in the embellishment of images, and the many lights which silver and gold, brass and ivory, alabaster, gypsum, talc, and glass reflected. Shelves and cabinets were laden with wares; both the precious material, and the elaborated trinket. All tastes were suited, the popular and the refined, the fashion of the day and the love of the antique, the classical and the barbarian devotion. There you might see the rude symbols of invisible powers, which, originating in deficiency of art, had been perpetuated by reverence for the past: the mysterious cube of marble sacred among the Arabs, the pillar which was the emblem of Mercury or Bacchus, the broad-based cone of Heliogabalus, the pyramid of Paphos, and the tile or brick of Juno. {40}

There, too, were the unmeaning blocks of stone with human heads, which were to be dressed out in rich robes, and to simulate the human form. There were other articles besides, as portable as these were unmanageable: little Junos, Mercuries, Dianas, and Fortunas, for the bosom or the girdle. Household gods were there, and the objects of personal devotion: Minerva or Vesta, with handsome niches or shrines in which they might reside. There, too, were the brass crowns, or nimbi, which were intended to protect the heads of the gods from bats and birds. There you might buy, were you a heathen, rings with heads on them of Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Serapis, and above all Astarte. You would find there the rings and signets of the Basilidians; amulets too of wood or ivory: figures of demons, preternaturally ugly; little skeletons, and other superstitious devices. It would be hard, indeed, if you could not be pleased, whatever your religious denomination—unless indeed you were determined to reject all the appliances and objects of idolatry indiscriminately—and in that case you would rejoice that it was night when you arrived there, and, in particular, that darkness swallowed up other appliances and objects of pagan worship, which to darkness were due by a particular title, and by darkness were best shrouded, till the coming of that day when all things, good and evil, shall be made light.

The shop, as we have said, was closed, concealed from view by large lumbering shutters, and made secure by heavy bars of wood. So we must enter by {41} the passage or vestibule on the right side, and that will conduct us into a modest atrium, with an impluvium on one side, and on the other the triclinium or supper-room, backing the shop. Jucundus had been pleasantly engaged in a small supper-party; and, mindful that a symposium should lie within the number of the Graces and of the Muses, he had confined his guests to two, the young Greek Aristo, who was one of his principal artists, and Cornelius the son of a freedman of a Roman of distinction, who had lately got a place in one of the scrinia of the proconsular officium, and had migrated into the province from the imperial city where he had spent his best days.

The dinner had not been altogether suitable to modern ideas of good living. The grapes from Tacape, and the dates from the lake Tritonis, the white and black figs, the nectarines and peaches, and the watermelons, address themselves to the imagination of an Englishman, as well as of an African of the third century. So also might the liquor derived from the sap or honey of the Getulian palm, and the sweet wine, called melilotus, made from the poetical fruit found upon the coast of the Syrtis. He would have been struck, too, with the sweetness of the mutton; but he would have asked what the sheep's tails were before he tasted them, and found how like marrow the firm substance ate of which they consisted. He would have felt he ought to admire the roes of mullets, pressed and dried, from Mauritania; but he would have thought twice before he tried the lion cutlets, {42} though they had the flavour of veal, and the additional goût of being imperial property, and poached from a preserve. But when he saw the indigenous dish, the very haggis and cock-a-leekie of Africa, in the shape of—(alas! alas! it must be said, with whatever apology for its introduction)—in shape, then, of a delicate puppy, served up with tomatos, with its head between its fore-paws, we consider he would have risen from the unholy table, and thought he had fallen upon the hospitality of some sorceress of the neighbouring forest. However, to that festive board our Briton was not invited, for he had some previous engagement that evening, either of painting himself with woad, or of hiding himself to the chin in the fens; so that nothing occurred to disturb the harmony of the party, and the good humour and easy conversation which was the effect of such excellent cheer.

Cornelius had been present at the Secular Games in the foregoing year, and was full of them, of Rome, and of himself in connection with it, as became so genuine a cockney of the imperial period. He was full of the high patriotic thoughts which so solemn a celebration had kindled within him. "O great Rome!" he said, "thou art first, and there is no second. In that wonderful pageant which these eyes saw last year was embodied her majesty, was promised her eternity. We die, she lives. I say, let a man die. It's well for him to take hemlock, or open a vein, after having seen the Secular Games. What was there to live for? I felt it; life was gone; its best gifts flat and insipid {43} after that great day. Excellent—Tauromenian, I suppose? We know it in Rome. Fill up my cup. I drink to the genius of the emperor."

He was full of his subject, and soon resumed it. "Fancy the Campus Martius lighted up from one end to the other. It was the finest thing in the world. A large plain, covered, not with streets, not with woods, but broken and crossed with superb buildings in the midst of groves, avenues of trees, and green grass, down to the water's edge. There's nothing that isn't there. Do you want the grandest temples in the world, the most spacious porticoes, the longest race-courses? there they are. Do you want gymnasia? there they are. Do you want arches, statues, obelisks? you find them there. There you have at one end the stupendous mausoleum of Augustus, cased with white marble, and just across the river the huge towering mound of Hadrian. At the other end you have the noble Pantheon of Agrippa, with its splendid Syracusan columns, and its dome glittering with silver tiles. Hard by are the baths of Alexander, with their beautiful groves. Ah! my good friend! I shall have no time to drink if I go on. Beyond are the numerous chapels and fanes which fringe the base of the Capitoline hill; the tall column of Antoninus comes next, with its adjacent basilica, where is kept the authentic list of the provinces of the empire, and of the governors, each a king in power and dominion, who are sent out to them. Well, I am now only beginning. Fancy, I say, this magnificent region all {44} lighted up; every temple to and fro, every bath, every grove, gleaming with innumerable lamps and torches. No, not even the gods of Olympus have anything that comes near it. Rome is the greatest of all divinities. In the dead of night all was alive; then it was, when nature sleeps exhausted, Rome began the solemn sacrifices to commemorate her thousand years. On the banks of the Tiber, which had seen Æneas land, and Romulus ascend to the gods, the clear red flame shot up as the victims burned. The music of ten thousand horns and flutes burst forth, and the sacred dances began upon the greensward. I am too old to dance; but, I protest, even I stood up and threw off. We danced through three nights, dancing the old millenary out, dancing the new millenary in. We were all Romans, no strangers, no slaves. It was a solemn family feast, the feast of all the Romans."

"Then we came in for the feast," said Aristo; "for Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to all freemen all over the world. We are all of us Romans, recollect, Cornelius."

"Ah! that was another matter—a condescension," answered Cornelius. "Yes, in a certain sense, I grant it; but it was a political act."

"I warrant you," retorted Aristo, "most political. We were to be fleeced, do you see? so your imperial government made us Romans, that we might have the taxes of Romans, and that in addition to our own. You've taxed us double; and as for the privilege of {45} citizenship, much it is, by Hercules, when every snob has it who can wear a pileus or cherish his hair."

"Ah! but you should have seen the procession from the Capitol," continued Cornelius, "on, I think, the second day; from the Capitol to the Circus, all down the Via Sacra. Hosts of strangers there, and provincials from the four corners of the earth, but not in the procession. There you saw, all in one coup-d'œil, the real good blood of Rome, the young blood of the new generation, and promise of the future; the sons of patrician and consular families, of imperators, orators, conquerors, statesmen. They rode at the head of the procession, fine young fellows, six abreast; and still more of them on foot. Then came the running horses and the chariots, the boxers, the wrestlers, and other combatants, all ready for the competition. The whole school of gladiators then turned out, boys and all, with their masters, dressed in red tunics, and splendidly armed. They formed three bands, and they went forward gaily, dancing and singing the Pyrrhic. By-the-bye, a thousand pair of gladiators fought during the games—a round thousand, and such clean-made, well-built fellows, and they came against each other so gallantly! You should have seen it; I can't go through it. There was a lot of satyrs, jumping and frisking, in burlesque of the martial dances which preceded them. There was a crowd of trumpeters and horn-blowers; ministers of the sacrifices with their victims, bulls and rams, dressed up with gay wreaths; drivers, butchers, haruspices, {46} heralds; images of gods with their cars of ivory or silver, drawn by tame lions and elephants. I can't recollect the order. O! but the grandest thing of all was the Carmen, sung by twenty-seven noble youths, and as many noble maidens, taken for the purpose from the bosoms of their families to propitiate the gods of Rome. The flamens, augurs, colleges of priests, it was endless. Last of all came the emperor himself."

"That's the late man," observed Jucundus, "Philip; no bad riddance his death, if all's true that's said of him."

"All emperors are good in their time and way," answered Cornelius; "Philip was good then, and Decius is good now;—whom the gods preserve!"

"True," said Aristo, "I understand; an emperor cannot do wrong, except in dying, and then everything goes wrong with him. His death is his first bad deed; he ought to be ashamed of it; it somehow turns all his great virtues into vices."

"Ah! no one was so good an emperor as our man, Gordianus," said Jucundus, "a princely old man, living and dead; patron of trade and of the arts; such villas! he had enormous revenues. Poor old gentleman! and his son too. I never shall forget the day when the news came that he was gone. Let me see, it was shortly after that old fool Strabo's death—I mean my brother; a good thirteen years ago. All Africa was in tears; there was no one like Gordianus." {47}

"That's old world philosophy," said Aristo; "Jucundus, you must go to school. Don't you see that all that is, is right; and all that was, is wrong? 'Te nos facimus, Fortuna, deam,' says your poet; well, I drink 'to the fortunes of Rome,'—while it lasts."

"You're a young man," answered Cornelius, "a very young man, and a Greek. Greeks never understand Rome. It's most difficult to understand us. It's a science. Look at this medal, young gentleman; it was one of those struck at the games. Is it not grand? 'Novum sæculum,' and on the reverse, 'Æternitati.' Always changing, always imperishable. Emperors rise and fall; Rome remains. The eternal city! Isn't this good philosophy?"

"Truly, a most beautiful medal," said Aristo, examining it, and handing it on to his host. "You might make an amulet of it, Jucundus. But as to eternity, why, that is a very great word; and, if I mistake not, other states have been eternal before Rome. Ten centuries is a very respectable eternity; be content, Rome is eternal already, and may die without prejudice to the medal."

"Blaspheme not," replied Cornelius: "Rome is healthier, more full of life, and promises more, than at any former time, you may rely upon it. 'Novum sæculum!' she has the age of the eagle, and will but cast her feathers to begin a fresh thousand."

"But Egypt," interposed Aristo, "if old Herodotus speaks true, scarcely had a beginning. Up and up, {48} the higher you go, the more dynasties of Egyptian kings do you find. And we hear strange reports of the nations in the far east, beyond the Ganges."

"But I tell you, man," rejoined Cornelius, "Rome is a city of kings. That one city, in this one year, has as many kings at once as those of all the kings of all the dynasties of Egypt put together. Sesostris, and the rest of them, what are they to imperators, prefects, proconsuls, vicarii, and rationales? Look back at Lucullus, Cæsar, Pompey, Sylla, Titus, Trajan. What's old Cheops' pyramid to the Flavian amphitheatre? What is the many-gated Thebes to Nero's golden house, while it was? What the grandest palace of Sesostris or Ptolemy but a second-rate villa of any one of ten thousand Roman citizens? Our houses stand on acres of ground, they ascend as high as the Tower of Babylon; they swarm with columns like a forest; they pullulate into statues and pictures. The walls, pavements, and ceilings are dazzling from the lustre of the rarest marble, red and yellow, green and mottled. Fountains of perfumed water shoot aloft from the floor, and fish swim in rocky channels round about the room, waiting to be caught and killed for the banquet. We dine; and we feast on the head of the ostrich, the brains of the peacock, the liver of the bream, the milk of the murena, and the tongue of the flamingo. A flight of doves, nightingales, beccaficoes are concentrated into one dish. On great occasions we eat a phœnix. Our saucepans are of silver, our dishes of gold, our vases of onyx, and our cups of {49} precious stones. Hangings and carpets of Tyrian purple are around us and beneath us, and we lie on ivory couches. The choicest wines of Greece and Italy crown our goblets, and exotic flowers crown our heads. In come troops of dancers from Lydia, or pantomimes from Alexandria, to entertain both eye and mind; or our noble dames and maidens take a place at our tables; they wash in asses' milk, they dress by mirrors as large as fish-ponds, and they glitter from head to foot with combs, brooches, necklaces, collars, ear-rings, armlets, bracelets, finger-rings, girdles, stomachers, and anklets, all of diamond and emerald. Our slaves may be counted by thousands, and they come from all parts of the world. Everything rare and precious is brought to Rome: the gum of Arabia, the nard of Assyria, the papyrus of Egypt, the citron-wood of Mauretania, the bronze of Ægina, the pearls of Britain, the cloth of gold of Phrygia, the fine webs of Cos, the embroidery of Babylon, the silks of Persia, the lion-skins of Getulia, the wool of Miletus, the plaids of Gaul. Thus we live, an imperial people, who do nothing but enjoy themselves and keep festival the whole year; and at length we die—and then we burn: we burn—in stacks of cinnamon and cassia, and in shrouds of asbestos, making emphatically a good end of it. Such are we Romans, a great people. Why, we are honoured wherever we go. There's my master, there's myself; as we came here from Italy, I protest we were nearly worshipped as demi-gods." {50}

"And perhaps some fine morning," said Aristo, "Rome herself will burn in cinnamon and cassia, and in all her burnished Corinthian brass and scarlet bravery, the old mother following her children to the funeral pyre. One has heard something of Babylon, and its drained moat, and the soldiers of the Persian."

A pause occurred in the conversation as one of Jucundus's slaves entered with fresh wine, larger goblets, and a vase of snow from the Atlas.

Chapter 6

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