Chapter 1. Sicca Veneria

{1} IN no province of the vast Roman empire, as it existed in the middle of the third century, did Nature wear a richer or a more joyous garb than she displayed in Proconsular Africa, a territory of which Carthage was the metropolis, and Sicca might be considered the centre. The latter city, which was the seat of a Roman colony, lay upon a precipitous or steep bank, which led up along a chain of hills to a mountainous track in the direction of the north and east. In striking contrast with this wild and barren region was the view presented by the west and south, where for many miles stretched a smiling champaign, exuberantly wooded, and varied with a thousand hues, till it was terminated at length by the successive tiers of the Atlas, and the dim and fantastic forms of the Numidian mountains. The immediate neighbourhood of the city was occupied by gardens, vineyards, cornfields, {2} and meadows, crossed or encircled here by noble avenues of trees or the remains of primeval forests, there by the clustering groves which wealth and luxury had created. This spacious plain, though level when compared with the northern heights by which the city was backed, and the peaks and crags which skirted the southern and western horizon, was discovered, as light and shadow travelled with the sun, to be diversified with hill and dale, upland and hollow; while orange gardens, orchards, olive and palm plantations held their appropriate sites on the slopes or the bottoms. Through the mass of green, which extended still more thickly from the west round to the north, might be seen at intervals two solid causeways tracking their persevering course to the Mediterranean coast, the one to the ancient rival of Rome, the other to Hippo Regius in Numidia. Tourists might have complained of the absence of water from the scene; but the native peasant would have explained to them that the eye alone had reason to be discontented, and that the thick foliage and the uneven surface did but conceal what mother earth with no niggard bounty supplied. The Bagradas, issuing from the spurs of the Atlas, made up in depth what it wanted in breadth of bed, and ploughed the rich and yielding mould with its rapid stream, till, after passing Sicca in its way, it fell into the sea near Carthage. It was but the largest of a multitude of others, most of them tributaries to it, deepening as much as they increased it. While channels had been cut from the larger rills for the irrigation {3} of the open land, brooks, which sprang up in the gravel which lay against the hills, had been artificially banked with cut stones or paved with pebbles; and where neither springs nor rivulets were to be found, wells had been dug, sometimes to the vast depth of as much as 200 fathoms, with such effect that the spurting column of water had in some instances drowned the zealous workmen who had been the first to reach it. And, while such were the resources of less favoured localities or seasons, profuse rains descended over the whole region for one half of the year, and the thick summer dews compensated by night for the daily tribute extorted by an African sun.

At various distances over the undulating surface, and through the woods, were seen the villas and the hamlets of that happy land. It was an age when the pride of architecture had been indulged to the full; edifices, public and private, mansions and temples, ran off far away from each market-town or borough, as from a centre, some of stone or marble, but most of them of that composite of fine earth, rammed tight by means of frames, for which the Saracens were afterwards famous, and of which specimens remain to this day, as hard in surface, as sharp at the angles, as when they first were finished. Every here and there, on hill or crag, crowned with basilicas and temples, radiant in the sun, might be seen the cities of the province or of its neighbourhood, Thibursicumber, Thugga, Laribus, Siguessa, Sufetula, and many others; while in the far distance, on an elevated table-land {4} under the Atlas, might be discerned the Colonia Scillitana, famous about fifty years before the date of which we write for the martyrdom of Speratus and his companions, who were beheaded at the order of the proconsul for refusing to swear by the genius of Rome and the emperor.

If the spectator now takes his stand, not in Sicca itself, but about a quarter of a mile to the south-east, on the hill or knoll on which was placed the cottage of Agellius, the city itself will enter into the picture. Its name, Sicca Veneria, if it be derived (as some suppose) from the Succoth benoth, or "tents of the daughters," mentioned by the inspired writer as an object of pagan worship in Samaria, shows that it owed its foundation to the Phoenician colonists of the country. At any rate, the Punic deities retained their hold upon the place; the temples of the Tyrian Hercules and of Saturn, the scene of annual human sacrifices, were conspicuous in its outline, though these and all other religious buildings in it looked small beside the mysterious antique shrine devoted to the sensual rites of the Syrian Astarte. Public baths and a theatre, a capitol, imitative of Rome, a gymnasium, the long outline of a portico, an equestrian statue in brass of the Emperor Severus, were grouped together above the streets of a city, which, narrow and winding, ran up and down across the hill. In its centre an extraordinary spring threw up incessantly several tons of water every minute, and was inclosed by the superstitious gratitude of the inhabitants with the peristylium of a {5} sacred place. At the extreme back, towards the north, which could not be seen from the point of view where we last stationed ourselves, there was a sheer descent of rock, bestowing on the city, when it was seen at a distance on the Mediterranean side, the same bold and striking appearance which attaches to Castro Giovanni, the ancient Enna, in the heart of Sicily.

And now, withdrawing our eyes from the panorama, whether in its distant or nearer objects, if we would at length contemplate the spot itself from which we have been last surveying it, we shall find almost as much to repay attention, and to elicit admiration. We stand in the midst of a farm of some wealthy proprietor, consisting of a number of fields and gardens, separated from each other by hedges of cactus or the aloe. At the foot of the hill, which sloped down on the side furthest from Sicca to one of the tributaries of the rich and turbid river of which we have spoken, a large yard or garden, intersected with a hundred artificial rills, was devoted to the cultivation of the beautiful and odoriferous khennah. A thick grove of palms seemed to triumph in the refreshment of the water's side, and lifted up their thankful boughs towards heaven. The barley harvest in the fields which lay higher up the hill was over, or at least was finishing; and all that remained of the crop was the incessant and importunate chirping of the cicadę, and the rude booths of reeds and bulrushes, now left to wither, in which the peasant boys found shelter from the sun, while in an earlier month they frightened {6} from the grain the myriads of linnets, goldfinches, and other small birds who, as in other countries, contested with the human proprietor the possession of it. On the southwestern slope lies a neat and carefully dressed vineyard, the vine-stakes of which, dwarfish as they are, already cast long shadows on the eastern side. Slaves are scattered over it, testifying to the scorching power of the sun by their broad petasus, and to its oppressive heat by the scanty subligarium, which reached from the belt or girdle to the knees. They are engaged in cutting off useless twigs to which the last showers of spring have given birth, and are twisting those which promise fruit into positions where they will be safe both from the breeze and from the sun. Everything gives token of that gracious and happy season which the great Latin poets have hymned in their beautiful but heathen strains; when, after the heavy rains, and raw mists, and piercing winds, and fitful sun-gleams of a long six months, the mighty mother manifests herself anew, and pours out the resources of her innermost being for the life and enjoyment of every portion of the vast whole;—or, to apply the lines of a modern bard—

                  "When the bare earth, till now
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorned,
Brings forth the tender grass, whose verdure clads
Her universal face with pleasant green;
Then herbs of every leaf, that sudden flower,
Opening their various colours, and make gay
Her bosom, swelling sweet; and, these scarce blown,
Forth flourishes the clustering vine, forth creeps
The swelling gourd, up stands the corny reed
Embattled in her fields, and the humble shrub,
And bush with frizzled hair implicit; last
Rise, as in dance, the stately trees, and spread
Their branches hung with copious fruit, or gem
Their blossoms; with high woods the hills are crowned
With tufts the valleys, and each fountain side
With borders long the rivers; that earth now
Seems like to heaven, a seat where gods might dwell,
Or wander with delight, and love to haunt
Her sacred shades."

A snatch from some old Greek chant, with something of plaintiveness in the tone, issues from the thicket just across the mule-path, cut deep in the earth, which reaches from the city gate to the streamlet; and a youth, who had the appearance of the assistant bailiff or procurator of the farm, leaped from it, and went over to the labourers, who were busy with the vines. His eyes and hair and the cast of his features spoke of Europe; his manner had something of shyness and reserve, rather than of rusticity; and he wore a simple red tunic with half sleeves, descending to the knee, and tightened round him by a belt. His legs and feet were protected by boots which came half up his calf. He addressed one of the slaves, and his voice was gentle and cheerful.

"Ah, Sansar!" he cried, "I don't like your way of managing these branches so well as my own; but it is a difficult thing to move an old fellow like you. You never fasten together the shoots which you don't cut off, they are flying about quite wild, and the first {8} ox that passes through the field next month for the ploughing will break them off."

He spoke in Latin; the man understood it, and answered him in the same language, though with deviations from purity of accent and syntax, not without parallel in the talkee-talkee of the West Indian negro.

"Ay, ay, master," he said, "ay, ay; but it's all a mistake to use the plough at all. The fork does the work much better, and no fear for the grape. I hide the tendril under the leaf against the sun, which is the only enemy we have to consider."

"Ah! but the fork does not raise so much dust as the plough and the heavy cattle which draw it," returned Agellius; "and the said dust does more for the protection of the tendril than the shade of the leaf."

"But those huge beasts," retorted the slave, "turn up great ridges, and destroy the yard."

"It's no good arguing with an old vinedresser, who had formed his theory before I was born," said Agellius good-humouredly; and he passed on into a garden beyond.

Here were other indications of the happy month through which the year was now travelling. The garden, so to call it, was a space of several acres in extent; it was one large bed of roses, and preparation was making for extracting their essence, for which various parts of that country are to this day celebrated. Here was another set of labourers, and {9} a man of middle age was surveying them at his leisure. His business-like, severe, and off-hand manner bespoke the villicus or bailiff himself.

"Always here," said he, "as if you were a slave, not a Roman, my good fellow; yet slaves have their Saturnalia; always serving, not worshipping the all-bounteous and all-blessed. Why are you not taking holiday in the town?"

"Why should I, sir?" asked Agellius; "don't you recollect old Hiempsal's saying about 'one foot in the slipper, and one in the shoe.' Nothing would be done well if I were a town-goer. You engaged me, I suppose, to be here, not there."

"Ah!" answered he, "but at this season the empire, the genius of Rome, the customs of the country, demand it, and above all the great goddess Astarte and her genial, jocund month. 'Parturit almus ager;' you know the verse; do not be out of tune with Nature, nor clash and jar with the great system of the universe."

A cloud of confusion, or of distress, passed over Agellius's face. He seemed as if he wished to speak; at length he merely said, "It's a fault on the right side in a servant, I suppose."

"I know the way of your people," Vitricus replied, "Corybantians, Phrygians, Jews, what do you call yourselves? There are so many fantastic religions now-a-days. Hang yourself outright at your house-door, if you are tired of living—and you are a sensible fellow. How can any man, whose head sits right upon {10} his shoulders, say that life is worth having, and not worth enjoying?"

"I am a quiet being," answered Agellius, "I like the country, which you think so tame, and care little for the flaunting town. Tastes differ."

"Town! you need not go to Sicca," answered the bailiff, "all Sicca is out of town. It has poured into the fields, and groves, and river side. Lift up your eyes, man alive, open your ears, and let pleasure flow in. Be passive under the sweet breath of the goddess, and she will fill you with ecstasy."

It was as Vitricus had said; the solemn feast-days of Astarte were in course of celebration; of Astarte, the well-known divinity of Carthage and its dependent cities, whom Heliogabalus had lately introduced to Rome, who in her different aspects was at once Urania, Juno, and Aphrodite, according as she embodied the idea of the philosopher, the statesman, or the vulgar; lofty and intellectual as Urania, majestic and commanding as Juno, seductive as the goddess of sensuality and excess.

"There goes the son of as good and frank a soldier as ever brandished pilum," said Vitricus to himself, "till in his last years some infernal god took umbrage at him, and saddled him and his with one of those absurd superstitions which are as plentiful here as serpents. He indeed was too old himself to get much harm from it; but it shows its sour nature in these young shoots. A good servant, but the plague's in his bones, and he will rot." {11}

His subordinate's reflections were of a different character: "The very air breathes sin today," he cried; "oh that I did not find the taint of the city in these works of God! Alas! sweet Nature, the child of the Almighty, is made to do the fiend's work, and does it better than the town. O ye beautiful trees and fair flowers, O bright sun and balmy air, what a bondage ye are in, and how do ye groan till you are redeemed from it! Ye are bond-slaves, but not willingly, as man is; but how will you ever be turned to nobler purpose? How is this vast, this solid establishment of error, the incubus of many thousand years, ever to have an end? You yourselves, dear ones, will come to nought first. Anyhow, the public way is no place for me this evening. They'll soon be back from their accursed revelry."

A sound of horns and voices had been heard from time to time through the woods, as if proceeding from parties dispersed through them; and in the growing twilight might be seen lights, glancing and wandering through the foliage. The cottage in which Agellius dwelt was on the other side of the hollow bridle-way which crossed the hill. To make for home he had first to walk some little distance along it; and scarcely had he descended into it for that purpose, when he found himself in the front of a band of revellers, who were returning from some scene of impious festivity. They were arrayed in holiday guise, as far as they studied dress at all; the symbols of idolatry were on their foreheads and arms; {12} some of them were intoxicated, and most of them were women.

"Why have you not been worshipping, young fellow?" said one.

"Comely built," said another, "but struck by the furies. I know the cut of him."

"By Astarte," said a third, "he's one of those sly Gnostics! I have seen the chap before, with his hang-dog look. He is one of Pluto's whelps, first cousin to Cerberus, and his name's Channibal."

On which they all began to shout out, "I say, Channibal, Channibal, here's a lad that knows you. Old fellow, come along with us;" and the speaker made a dash at him.

On this Agellius, who was slowly making his way past them on the broken and steep path, leapt up in two or three steps to the ridge, and went away in security; when one woman cried out, "O the toad, I know him now; he is a wizard; he eats little children; didn't you see him make that sign? It's a charm. My sister did it; the fool left me to be one of them. She was ever doing so" (mimicking the sign of the cross). He's a Christian, blight him! He'll turn us into beasts."

"Cerberus, bite him!" said another, "he sucks blood;" and taking up a stone, she made it whiz past his ear as he disappeared from view. A general scream of contempt and hatred followed. "Where's the ass's head? put out the lights, put out the lights! gibbet him! That's why he has not been with honest {13} people down in the vale." And then they struck up a blasphemous song, the sentiments of which we are not going even to conceive, much less to attempt in words.

Chapter 2

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