Chapter 6. Goths and Christians

{51} CORNELIUS was full of his subject, and did not attend to the Greek. "The wild-beasts hunts," he continued, "ah, those hunts during the games, Aristo! they were a spectacle for the gods. Twenty-two elephants, ten panthers, ten hyænas (by-the-bye, a new beast, not strange, however, to you here, I suppose), ten camelopards, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros—I can't go through the list. Fancy the circus planted throughout for the occasion, and turned into a park, and then another set of wild animals, Getes and Sarmatians, Celts and Goths, sent in against them, to hunt down, capture and kill them, or to be killed themselves."

"Ah, the Goths!" answered Aristo; "those fellows give you trouble, though, now and then. Perhaps they will give you more. There is a report in the prætorium today that they have crossed the Danube."

"Yes, they will give us trouble," said Cornelius, drily; "they have given us trouble, and they will give us more. The Samnites gave us trouble, and {52} our friends, of Carthage here, and Jugurtha, and Mithridates; trouble, yes, that is the long and the short of it; they will give us trouble. Is trouble a new thing to Rome?" he asked, stretching out his arm, as if he were making a speech after dinner, and giving a toast.

"The Goths give trouble, and take a bribe," retorted Aristo; "this is what trouble means in their case: it's a troublesome fellow who hammers at our door till we pay his reckoning. It is troublesome to raise the means to buy them off. And the example of these troublesome savages is catching; it was lately rumoured that the Carpians had been asking the same terms for keeping quiet."

"It would ill become the majesty of Rome to soil her fingers with the blood of such vermin," said Cornelius; "she ignores them."

"And therefore she most majestically bleeds us instead," answered Aristo, "that she may have treasure to give them. We are not so troublesome as they; the more's the pity. No offence to you, however, or to the emperor, or to great Rome, Cornelius. We are over our cups; it's only a game of politics, you know, like chess or the cottabus. Maro bids you 'parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos;' but you have changed your manners. You coax the Goths and bully the poor African."

"Africa can show fight, too," interposed Jucundus, who had been calmly listening and enjoying his own wine; "witness Thysdrus. That was giving every {53} rapacious Quæstor a lesson that he may go too far, and find a dagger when he demands a purse."

He was alluding to the revolt of Africa, which led to the downfall of the tyrant Maximin and the exaltation of the Gordians, when the native landlords armed their peasantry, killed the imperial officer, and raised the standard of rebellion in the neighbouring town from impatience of exactions under which they suffered.

"No offence, I say, Cornelius, no offence to eternal Rome," said Aristo, "but you have explained to us why you weigh so heavy on us. I've always heard it was a fortune at Rome for a man to have found out a new tax. Vespasian did his best; but now you tax our smoke, and our very shadow; and Pescennius threatened to tax the air we breathe. We'll play at riddles, and you shall solve the following:—Say who is she that eats her own limbs, and grows eternal upon them? Ah, the Goths will take the measure of her eternity!"

"The Goths!" said Jucundus, who was warming into conversational life, "the Goths! no fear of the Goths; but," and he nodded significantly, "look at home; we have more to fear indoors than abroad."

"He means the prætorians," said Cornelius to Aristo, condescendingly; "I grant you that there have been several untoward affairs; we have had our problem, but it's a thing of the past, it never can come again. I venture to say that the power of the prætorians is at an end. That murder of the two emperors {54} the other day was the worst job they ever did; it has turned the public opinion of the whole world against them. I have no fear of the prætorians."

"I don't mean prætorians more than Goths," said Jucundus; "no, give me the old weapons, the old maxims of Rome, and I defy the scythe of Saturn. Do the soldiers march under the old ensign? do they swear by the old gods? do they interchange the good old signals and watchwords? do they worship the fortune of Rome; then I say we are safe. But do we take to new ways? do we trifle with religion? do we make light of Jupiter, Mars, Romulus, the augurs, and the ancilia? then I say, not all our shows and games, our elephants, hyænas, and hippopotamuses, will do us any good. It was not the best thing, no, not the best thing that the soldiers did, when they invested that Philip with the purple. But he is dead and gone." And he sat up and leant on his elbow.

"Ah! but it will be all set right now," said Cornelius, you'll see."

"He'd be a reformer, that Philip," continued Jucundus, "and put down an enormity. Well, they call it an enormity; let it be an enormity. He'd put it down; but why? there's the point; why? It's no secret at all," and his voice grew angry, "that that hoary-headed Atheist Fabian was at the bottom of it; Fabian, the Christian. I hate reforms."

"Well, we had long wished to do it," answered Cornelius, "but could not manage it. Alexander {55} attempted it near twenty years ago. It's what philosophers have always aimed at."

"The gods consume philosophers and the Christians together!" said Jucundus devoutly. "There's little to choose between them, except that the Christians are the filthier animal of the two. But both are ruining the most glorious political structure that the world ever saw. I am not over-fond of Alexander either."

"Thank you in the name of philosophy," said the Greek.

"And thank you in the name of the Christians," chimed in Juba.

"That's good!" cried Jucundus; "the first word that hopeful youth has spoken since he came in, and he takes on him to call himself a Christian."

"I've a right to do so, if I choose," said Juba; "I've a right to be a Christian."

"Right! O yes, right! ha, ha!" answered Jucundus, "right! Jove help the lad! by all manner of means. Of course, you have a right to go in malam rem in whatever way you please."

"I am my own master," said Juba; "my father was a Christian. I suppose it depends on myself to follow him or not, according to my fancy, and as long as I think fit."

"Fancy! think fit!" answered Jucundus, "you pompous little mule! Yes, go and be a Christian, my dear child, as your doting father went. Go, like him, to the priest of their mysteries; be spit on, {56} stripped, dipped; feed on little boys' marrow and brains; worship the ass; and learn all the foul magic of the sect. And then be delated and taken up, and torn to shreds on the rack, or thrown to the lions and so go to Tartarus, if Tartarus there be, in the way you think fit. You'll harm none but yourself, my boy. I don't fear such as you, but the deeper heads."

Juba stood up with a look of offended dignity, and, as on former occasions, tossed the head which had been by implication disparaged. "I despise you," he said.

"Well, but you are hard on the Christians," said Aristo. "I have heard them maintain that their superstition, if adopted, would be the salvation of Rome. They maintain that the old religion is gone or going out; that something new is wanted to keep the empire together; and that their worship is just fitted to the times."

"All I say to the vipers," said Jucundus, "is, 'Let well alone. We did well enough without you; we did well enough till you sprang up.' A plague on their insolence; as if Jew or Egyptian could do aught for us when Numa and the Sibyl fail. That is what I say, Let Rome be true to herself and nothing can harm her; let her shift her foundation, and I would not buy her for this water-melon," he said, taking a suck at it. "Rome alone can harm Rome. Recollect old Horace, 'Suis et ipsa Roma viribus ruit.' He was a prophet. If she falls, it is by her own hand." {57}

"I agree," said Cornelius; "certainly, to set up any new worship is treason; not a doubt of it. The gods keep us from such ingratitude! We have grown great by means of them, and they are part and parcel of the law of Rome. But there is no great chance of our forgetting this; Decius won't; that's a fact. You will see. Time will show; perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next day," he added, mysteriously.

"Why in the world should you have this frantic dread of these poor scarecrows of Christians," said Aristo, "all because they hold an opinion? Why are you not afraid of the bats and the moles? It's an opinion: there have been other opinions before them, and there will be other opinions after. Let them alone and they'll die away; make a hubbub about them and they'll spread."

"Spread?" cried Jucundus, who was under the twofold excitement of personal feeling and of wine, "spread, they'll spread? yes, they'll spread. Yes, grow, like scorpions, twenty at a birth. The country already swarms with them; they are as many as frogs or grasshoppers; they start up everywhere under one's nose, when one least expects them. The air breeds them like plague-flies; the wind drifts them like locusts. No one's safe; any one may be a Christian; it's an epidemic. Great Jove! I may be a Christian before I know where I am. Heaven and earth! is it not monstrous?" he continued, with increasing fierceness. "Yes, Jucundus, my poor man, you may wake and find yourself a Christian, without knowing it, {58} against your will. Ah! my friends, pity me! I may find myself a beast, and obliged to suck blood and live among the tombs as if I liked it, without power to tell you how I loathe it, all through their sorcery. By the genius of Rome something must be done. I say, no one is safe. You call on your friend; he is sitting in the dark, unwashed, uncombed, undressed. What is the matter? Ah! his son has turned Christian. Your wedding-day is fixed, you are expecting your bride; she does not come; why? she will not have you; she has become a Christian. Where's young Nomentanus? Who has seen Nomentanus? in the forum, or the campus, in the circus, in the bath? Has he caught the plague or got a sunstroke? Nothing of the kind; the Christians have caught hold of him. Young and old, rich and poor, my lady in her litter and her slave, modest maid and Lydia at the Thermæ, nothing comes amiss to them. All confidence is gone; there's no one we can reckon on. I go to my tailor's: 'Nergal,' I say to him, 'Nergal, I want a new tunic.' The wretched hypocrite bows, and runs to and fro, and unpacks his stuffs and cloths, like another man. A word in your ear. The man's a Christian, dressed up like a tailor. They have no dress of their own. If I were emperor, I'd make the sneaking curs wear a badge, I would; a dog's collar, a fox's tail, or a pair of ass's ears. Then we should know friends from foes when we meet them."

"We should think that dangerous," said Cornelius; "however, you are taking it too much to heart; you {59} are making too much of them, my good friend. They have not even got the present, and you are giving them the future, which is just what they want."

"If Jucundus will listen to me," said Aristo, "I could satisfy him that the Christians are actually falling off. They once were numerous in this very place; now there are hardly any. They have been declining for these fifty years; the danger from them is past. Do you want to know how to revive them? Put out an imperial edict, forbid them, denounce them. Do you want them to drop away like autumn leaves? Take no notice of them."

"I can't deny that in Italy they have grown," said Cornelius; "they have grown in numbers and in wealth, and they intermarry with us. Thus the upper class becomes to a certain extent infected. We may find it necessary to repress them; but, as you would repress vermin, without fearing them."

"The worshippers of the gods are the many, and the Christians are the few," persisted Aristo; "if the two parties intermarry, the weaker will get the worst of it. You will find the statues of the gods gradually creeping back into the Christian chapel; and a man must be an honest fellow who buys our images, eh, Jucundus?"

"Well, Aristo," said the paterfamilias, whose violence never lasted long, "if your sister's bright eyes win back my poor Agellius you will have something more to say for yourself than at present, I grant." {60}

"I see," said Cornelius, gravely, "I begin to understand it. I could not make out why our good host had such great fear for the stability of Rome. But it is one of those things which the experience of life has taught me. I have often seen it in the imperial city itself. Whenever you find a man show special earnestness against these fanatics, depend on it there is something that touches him personally in the matter. There was a very great man, the present Flamen Dialis, for whom I have unbounded respect; for a long time I was at a loss to conceive why a person of his weight, sound, sensible, well-judging, should have such a fear of the Christians. One day he made an oration against them in the senate-house; he wanted to send them to the rack. But the secret came out; the good man was on the rack himself about his daughter, who persisted in calling herself a Christian, and refused to paint her face or go to the amphitheatre. To be sure, a most trying affair this for the old gentleman. The venerable Pater Patratus, too, what suppers he gave! a fine specimen of the Lucullus type; yet he was always advocating the lictor and the commentariensis in the instance of the Christian. No wonder; his wife and son were disgracing him in the eyes of the whole world by frequenting the meetings of these Christians. However, I agree with Decius, they must be put down. They are not formidable, but they are an eyesore."

Here the rushing of the water-clock which measured time in the neighbouring square, ceased, signifying {61} thereby that the night was getting on. Juba had already crept into the dark closet which served him for a sleeping-place; had taken off his sandals, and loosened his belt; had wrapt the serpent he had about him round his neck, and was breathing heavily. Jucundus made the parting libation, and Cornelius took his leave. Aristo rose too; and Jucundus, accompanying them to the entrance, paid the not uncommon penalty of his potations, for the wine mounted to his head, and he returned into the room, and sat him down again with an impression that Aristo was still at table.

"My dear boy," he said, "Agellius is but a wet Christian; that's all, not obstinate, like his brother there. 'Twas his father; the less we say about him the better; he's gone. The Furies make his bed for him! an odious set! Their priests, little ugly men. I saw one when I was a boy at Carthage. So unlike your noble Roman Saliares, or your fine portly priest of Isis, clad in white, breathing odours like spring flowers; men who enjoyed this life, not like that sour hypocrite. He was as black as an Ethiopian, and as withered as a Saracen, and he never looked you in the face. And, after all, the fellow must die for his religion, rather than put a few grains of golden incense on the altar of great Jove. Jove's the god for me; a glorious, handsome, curly god—but they are all good, all the gods are good. There's Bacchus, he's a good, comfortable god, though a sly, treacherous fellow—a treacherous fellow. There's Ceres, too; Pomona; the {62} Muses; Astarte, too, as they call her here; all good;—and Apollo, though he's somewhat too hot in this season, and too free with his bow. He gave me a bad fever once. Ah! life's precious, most precious; so I felt it then, when I was all but gone to Pluto. Life never returns, it's like water spilt; you can't gather it up. It is dispersed into the elements, to the four winds. Ah! there's something more there than I can tell; more than all your philosophers can determine."

He seemed to think awhile, and began again: "Enjoyment's the great rule; ask yourself, 'Have I made the most of things?' that's what I say to the rising generation. Many and many's the time when I have not turned them to the best account. Oh, if I had now to begin life again, how many things should I correct! I might have done better this evening. Those abominable pears! I might have known they would not be worth the eating. Mutton, that was all well; doves, good again; crane, kid; well, I don't see that I could have done much better."

After a few minutes he got up half asleep, and put out all the lights but one small lamp, with which he made his way into his own bed-closet. "All is vanity," he continued, with a slow, grave utterance, "all is vanity but eating and drinking. It does not pay to serve the gods except for this. What's fame? what's glory? what's power? smoke. I've often thought the hog is the only really wise animal. We should be happier if we were all hogs. Hogs keep the end {63} of life steadily in view; that's why those toads of Christians will not eat them, lest they should get like them. Quiet, respectable, sensible enjoyment; not riot, or revel, or excess, or quarrelling. Life is short." And with this undeniable sentiment he fell asleep.

Chapter 7

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