Chapter 16. Worse and Worse

{178} "O WRETCHED minds of men! O blind hearts!" truly cries out a great heathen poet, but on grounds far other than the true ones. The true ground of such a lamentation is, that men do not interpret the signs of the times and of the world as He intends who has placed these signs in the heavens; that when Mane, Thecel, Phares, is written upon the ethereal wall, they have no inward faculty to read them withal; and that when they go elsewhere for one learned in tongues, instead of taking Daniel, who is used to converse with Angels, they rely on Magi or Chaldeans, who know only the languages of earth. So it was with the miserable population of Sicca now; half famished, seized with a pestilence which was sure to rage before it assuaged, perplexed and oppressed by the recoil upon them of the population whom they had from time to time sent out into the surrounding territory, or from whom they had supplied their markets, they never fancied that the real cause of the visitation which we have been describing was their own iniquity in their Maker's sight, that His arm inflicted it, and that its natural and direct {179} interpretation was, "Do penance, and be converted." On the contrary, they looked only at their own vain idols, and at the vain rites which these idols demanded, and they thought there was no surer escape from their misery than by upholding a lie, and putting down all who revolted from it; and thus the visitation which was sent to do them good turned through their wilful blindness to their greater condemnation.

The Forum, which at all times was the resort of idleness and dissipation, now became more and more the haunt of famine and sickness, of robust frames without work, of slavish natures virtually and for the time emancipated and uncontrolled, of youth and passion houseless and shelterless. In groups and companies, in and out of the porticoes, on the steps of the temples, and about the booths and stalls of the market, a multitude grows day by day, from the town and from the country, and of all the various races which town and country contain. The civil magistracy and the civil force to which the peace of the city was committed, were not equal to such an emergency as the present; and the milites stationarii, a sort of garrison who represented the Roman power, though they were ready to act against either magistrates or mob impartially, had no tenderness for either, when in collision with each other. Indeed the bonds of society were broken, and every political element was at war with every other, in a case of such great common calamity, when every one was angry with {180} every one else, for want of some clearly defined object against which the common anger might be discharged with unanimity.

They had almost given over sacrificing and consulting the flame or the entrails; for no reversal or respite of their sufferings had followed their most assiduous acts of deprecation. Moreover the omens were generally considered by the priests to have been unpropitious or adverse. A sheep had been discovered to have, instead of a liver, something very like a gizzard; a sow had chewed and swallowed the flowers with which it had been embellished for the sacrifice; and a calf, after receiving the fatal blow, instead of lying down and dying, dashed into the temple, dripping blood upon the pavement as it went, and at last fell and expired just before the sacred adytum. In despair the people took to fortune-telling and its attendant arts. Old crones were found in plenty with their strange rites, the stranger the more welcome. Trenches were dug in by-places for sacrifices to the infernal gods; amulets, rings, counters, tablets, pebbles, nails, bones, feathers, Ephesian or Egyptian legends, were in request, and raised the hopes, or beguiled and occupied the thoughts, of those who else would have been directly dwelling on their sufferings, present or in prospect.

Others were occupied, whether they would or no, with diversions fiercer and more earnest. There were continual altercations between farmers, small proprietors of land, government and city officials,—altercations {181} so manifold and violent, that, even were there no hubbub of voices, and no incoherence of wrath and fear to complicate them, we should despair of setting them before the reader. An officer from the camp was expostulating with one of the municipal authorities that no corn had been sent thither for the last six or seven days, and the functionary attacked had thrown the blame on the farmer, and he in turn had protested that he could not get cattle to bring the waggons into Sicca; those which he had set out with had died of exhaustion on the journey. A clerk, as we now speak, in the Officium of the society of publicans or collectors of annona was threatening a number of small tenants with ejection for not sending in their rated portion of corn for the Roman people:—the Officium of the Notarius, or assistant prefect, had written up to Sicca from Carthage in violent terms; and come it must, though the locusts had eaten up every stack and granary. A number of half-starved peasants had been summoned for payment of their taxes, and in spite of their ignorance of Latin, they had been made to understand that death was the stern penalty of neglecting to bring the coin. They, on the other hand, by their fierce doggedness of manner, seemed to signify by way of answer that death was not a penalty, unless life was a boon.

The villicus of one of the decurions, who had an estate in the neighbourhood, was laying his miseries before the man of business of his employer. "What are we to do?" he said. "Half the gang of slaves {182} is dead, and the other half is so feeble, that I can't get through the work of the month. We ought to be sheep-shearing; you have no chance of wool. We ought to be swarming the bees, pressing the honey, boiling and purifying the wax. We ought to be plucking the white leaves of the camomile, and steeping the golden flowers in oil. We ought to be gathering the wild grapes, sifting off the flowers, and preserving the residue in honey. We ought to be sowing brassicum, parsley, and coriander against next spring. We ought to be cheese-making. We ought to be baking white and red bricks and tiles in the sun: we have no hands for the purpose. The villicus is not to blame, but the anger of the gods." The country employé of the procurator of the imperial Baphia protests that the insect cannot be found from which the dye is extracted; and argues that the locusts must have devoured them, or the plant on which they feed, or that they have been carried off by the pestilence. Here is old Corbulus in agonies for his febrifuge, and a slave of his is in high words with the market-carrier, who tells him that Mago, who supplied it, is dead of a worse fever than his master's. "The rogue," cried the slave, "my master has contracted with him for the year, and has paid him the money in advance." A jeering and mocking from the crowd assailed the unfortunate domestic, who so truly foreboded that his return without the medicine would be the signal for his summary committal to the pistrinum. "Let old Corbulus follow {183} Mago in his passage to perdition," said one of the rabble; "let him take his physic with Pluto, and leave us the bread and wine on which he's grown gouty." "Bread, bread!" was the response elicited by this denunciation, and it spread into a circle larger than that of which the slave and the carrier were part.

"Wine and bread, Ceres and Liber!" cried a young legionary, who, after a night of revelry, was emerging still half-intoxicated from one of the low wine-shops in the vaults which formed the basement of the Thermę or hot baths; "make way there, you filthy slime of the earth, you half-kneaded, half-fermented Africans, who never yet have quite been men, but have ever smelt strong of the baboon, who are three quarters must, and two vinegar, and a fifth water,—as I was saying, you are like bad liquor, and the sight of you disagrees with the stomach and affects the eyes."

The crowd looked sullenly, and without wincing, at his shield, which was the only portion of his military accoutrements which he had preserved after his carouse. The white surface, with a silver boss in the centre, surrounded by first a white and then a red circle, and the purple border, showed that he belonged to the Tertiani or third Italic Legion, which had been stationed in Africa since the time of Augustus. "Vile double-tongued mongrels," he continued, "what are you fit for but to gather the fruits of the earth for your owners and lords, {184} 'Romanos dominos rerum'? And if there are now no fruits to reap, why your service is gone. Go home and die, and drown yourselves, for what are you fit for now, except to take your dead corpses away from the nostrils of a Roman, the cream of humankind? Ye base-born apes, that's why you catch the pestilence, because our blood mantles and foams in our ruddy veins like new milk in the wine cup, which is too strong for this clime, and my blood is up, and I drink a full measure of it to great Rome; for what does old Horace say, but 'Nunc est bibendum'? and so get out of my way."

To a good part of the multitude, both peasantry and town rabble, Latin was unintelligible; but they all understood vocabulary and syntax and logic, as soon as he drew his knuckles across one fellow's face who refused to move from his path, and as soon as his insult was returned by the latter with a thrust of the dagger. A rush was made upon him, on which he made a face at them, shook his fist, and leaping on one side, ran with great swiftness to an open space in advance. From his quarrelsome humour rather than from fear, he raised a cry of alarm; on which two or three fellow-soldiers made their appearance from similar dens of intoxication and vice, and came up to the rescue. The mob assailed them with stones, and the cream of human nature was likely to be roughly churned, when, seeing matters were becoming serious, they suddenly took to their heels, and got into the Temple of {185} Esculapius on one side of the Forum. The mob followed, the ministers of the sacred place attempted to shut the gates, a scuffle ensued, and a riot was in progress. Self-preservation is the first law of man; trembling for the safety of his noble buildings, and considering that it was a bread riot, as it really was, the priest of the god came forward, rebuked the mob for its impiety, and showed the absurdity of supposing that there were loaves in his enclosure to satisfy its wants; but he reminded them that there was a baker's shop at the other end of the Forum, which was one of the most considerable in Sicca.

A slight impulse determines the movements of an excited multitude. Off they went to the quarter in question, where certainly there was the very large and handsome store of a substantial dealer in grain of all sorts, and in other produce. The shop, however, seemed on this occasion to be but poorly furnished; for the baker was a prudent man, and feared a display of provisions which would be an invitation to a hungry multitude. The assailants, however, were not to be baffled; some one cried out that the man had withdrawn his corn from the market for his own ends, and that great stores were accumulated within. They avail themselves of the hint; they pour in through the open front, the baker escapes as he may, his mills and ovens are smashed, the house is ransacked; whatever is found is seized, thrown about, wasted, eaten, as the case may be; and the mob gains strength and appetite for fresh exploits. {186}

However, the rioters have no definite plan of action yet. Some of them have penetrated into the stable behind the house in search of corn. They find the mill-ass which ground for the baker, and bring it out. It is a beast of more than ordinary pretensions, such as you would not often see in a mill, showing both the wealth of the owner and the flourishing condition of his trade. The asses of Africa are finer than those in the north; but this is fine for an African. One fellow mounts upon it, and sets off with the world before him, like a knight-errant, seeking an adventure, the rabble at his tail acting as squire. He begins the circuit of the Forum, and picks up its riff-raff as he goes along—here some rascal boys, there some drunken women, here again a number of half-brutalized country slaves and peasants. Partly out of curiosity, partly from idleness, from ill temper, from hope of spoil, from a vague desire to be doing something or other, every one who has nothing to lose by the adventure crowds around and behind him. And on the contrary, as he advances, and the noise and commotion increase, every one who has a position of any sort, the confidential vernę of great families, farmers, shopkeepers, men of business, officials, vanish from the scene of action without delay.

"Africa, Africa!" is now the cry; the signal in that country, as an ancient writer tells us, that the parties raising it have something new in hand, and have a mind to do it.

Suddenly, as they march on, a low and awful growl {187} is heard. It comes from the booth of a servant of the imperial court. He is employed as a transporter of wild beasts from the interior to the coast, where they are shipped for Rome; and he has charge at present of a noble lion, who is sitting majestically, looking through the bars of his cage at the rabble, who now begin to look at him. In demeanour and in mental endowments he has the advantage of them. It was at this moment, while they were closing, hustling each other, staring at the beast, and hoping to provoke him, that a shrill voice cried out, "Christianos ad leones, Christianos ad leones!" the Christians to the lions! A sudden and dead silence ensued, as if the words had struck the breath out of the promiscuous throng. An interval passed; and then the same voice was heard again, "Christianos ad leones!" This time the whole Forum took it up from one end to the other. The fate of the day, the direction of the movement, was decided; a distinct object was obtained, and the only wonder was that the multitude had been so long to seek and so slow to find so obvious a cause of their misfortunes, so adequate a subject of their vengeance. "Christianos ad leones!" was shouted out by town and country, priests and people. "Long live the emperor! long live Decius! he told us this long ago. There's the edict; it never has been obeyed. Death to the magistrates! To the Christians! to the Christians! Up with great Jove, down with the atheists!"

They were commencing their march when the ass caught their eye. "The Christians' god!" they shouted out; "the god of the Christians! "Their first impulse was to give the poor beast to the lion, their next to sacrifice it, but they did not know to whom. Then they said they would make the Christians worship it; and dressing it up in tawdry finery, they retained it at the head of their procession.

Chapter 17

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