Chapter 8. The New Generation

{80} JUCUNDUS, then, set out to see how the land lay with his nephew, and to do what he could to prosper the tillage. His way led him by the temple of Mercury, which at that time subserved the purpose of a boy's school, and was connected with some academical buildings, the property of the city, which lay beyond it. It cannot be said that our friend was any warm patron of literature or education, though he had not neglected the schooling of his nephews. Letters seemed to him in fact to unsettle the mind; and he had never known much good come of them. Rhetoricians and philosophers did not know where they stood, or what were their bearings. They did not know what they held, and what they did not. He knew his own position perfectly well, and, though the words "belief" or "knowledge" did not come into his religious vocabulary, he could at once, without hesitation, state what he professed and maintained. He stood upon the established order of things, on the traditions of Rome, and the laws of the empire; but as to Greek sophists and declaimers, he thought very much as old Cato did about them. The Greeks were {81} a very clever people, unrivalled in the fine arts; let them keep to their strong point; they were inimitable with the chisel, the brush, the trowel, and the fingers; but he was not prepared to think much of their calamus or stylus, poetry excepted. What did they ever do but subvert received principles without substituting any others? And then they were so likely to take some odd turn themselves; you never could be sure of them. Socrates, their patriarch, what was he after all but a culprit, a convict, who had been obliged to drink hemlock, dying under the hands of justice? Was this a reputable end, a respectable commencement of the philosophic family? It was very well for Plato or Xenophon to throw a veil of romance over the transaction, but this was the plain matter of fact. Then Anaxagoras had been driven out of Athens for his revolutionary notions; and Diogenes had been accused, like the Christians, of atheism. The case had been the same in more recent times. There had been that madman, Apollonius, roaming about the world; Apuleius, too, their neighbour, fifty years before, a man of respectable station, a gentleman, but a follower of the Greek philosophy, a dabbler in magic, and a pretender to miracles. And so, in fact, of letters generally; as in their own country Minucius, a contemporary of Apuleius, became a Christian. Such, too, had been his friend Octavius; such Cæcilius, who even became one of the priests of the sect, and seduced others from the religion he had left. One of them had been the public talk for several years, and he {82} too originally a rhetorician, Thascius Cyprianus of Carthage. It was the one thing which gave him some misgiving about that little Callista, that she was a Greek.

As he passed the temple, the metal plate was sounding as a signal for the termination of the school, and on looking towards the portico with an ill-natured curiosity, he saw a young acquaintance of his, a youth of about twenty, coming out of it, leading a boy of about half that age, with his satchel thrown over his shoulder.

"Well, Arnobius," [Note] he cried, "how does rhetoric proceed? are we to take the law line, or turn professor? Who's the boy? some younger brother?"

"I've taken pity on the little fool," answered Arnobius; "these schoolmasters are a savage lot. I suffered enough from them myself, and 'miseris succurrere disco.' So I took him from under the roof of friend Rupilius, and he's under my tutelage. How did he treat thee, boy?"

"He treated me like a slave or a Christian." answered he.

"He deserved it, I'll warrant," said Jucundus; "a pert, forward imp. 'Twas Gete against Briton. Much good comes of schooling! He's a wicked one already. Ah, the new generation! I don't know where the world's going."

"Tell the gentleman," said Arnobius, "what he did first to you, my boy." {83}

"As the good gentleman says," answered the boy, "first I did something to him, and then he did something to me."

"I told you so," said Jucundus; "a sensible boy, after all; but the schoolmaster had the best of it, I'll wager."

"First," answered he, "I grinned in his face, and he took off his wooden shoe, and knocked out one of my teeth."

"Good," said Jucundus, "the justice of Pythagoras. Zaleuchus could not have done better. The mouth sins, and the mouth suffers."

"Next," continued he, "I talked in school-time to my chum; and Rupilius put a gag in my jaws, and kept them open for an hour."

"The very Rhadamanthus of schoolmasters!" cried Jucundus: "and thereupon you struck up a chant, divine though inarticulate, like the statue of Memnon."

"Then," said the boy, "I could not say my Virgil, and he tore the shirt from off my back, and gave it me with the leather."

"Ay," answered Jucundus, "'arma virumque' branded on your hide."

"Afterwards I ate his dinner for him," continued the boy, "and then he screwed my head, and kept me without food for two days."

"Your throat, you mean," said Jucundus; "a cautious man! lest you should steal a draught or two of good strong air."

"And lastly," said he, "I did not bring my pence, {84}and then he tied my hands to a gibbet, and hung me up in terrorem."

"There I came in," said Arnobius; "he seemed a pretty boy, so I cut him down, paid his æra, and took him home."

"And now he is your pupil?" asked Jucundus.

"Not yet," answered Arnobius; "he is still a day-scholar of the old wolf's; one is like another; he could not change for the better: but I am his bully, and shall tutorize him some day. He's a sharp lad, isn't he, Firmian?" turning to the boy; "a great hand at composition for his years; better than I am, who never shall write Latin decently. Yet what can I do? I must profess and teach, for Rome is the only place for the law, and these city professorships are not to be despised."

"Whom are you attending here?" asked Jucundus, drily.

"You are the only man in Sicca who needs to ask the question. What! not know the great Polemo of Rhodes, the friend of Plotinus, the pupil of Theagenes, the disciple of Thrasyllus, the hearer of Nicomachus, who was of the school of Secundus, the doctor of the new Pythagoreans? Not feel the presence in Sicca of Polemo, the most celebrated, the most intolerable of men? That, however, is not his title, but the 'godlike,' or the 'oracular,' or the 'portentous,' or something else as impressive. Every one goes to him. He is the rage. I should not have a chance of success if I could not say that I had attended his {85} lectures; though I'd be bound our little Firmian here would deliver as good. He's the very cariophyllus of human nature. He comes to the schools in a litter of cedar, ornamented with silver and covered with a lion's skin, slaves carrying him, and a crowd of friends attending, with the state of a proconsul. He is dressed in the most exact style; his pallium is of the finest wool, white, picked out with purple; his tresses flow with unguent, his fingers glitter with rings, and he smells like Idalium. As soon as he puts foot on earth, a great hubbub of congratulation and homage breaks forth. He takes no notice; his favourite pupils form a circle round him, and conduct him into one of the exedræ, till the dial shows the time for lecture. Here he sits in silence, looking at nothing, or at the wall opposite him, talking to himself, a hum of admiration filling the room. Presently one of his pupils, as if he were præco to the duumvir, cries out, 'Hush, gentlemen, hush! the godlike'—no, it is not that. I've not got it. What is his title? 'the Bottomless,' that's it—'the Bottomless speaks.' A dead silence ensues; a clear voice and a measured elocution are the sure token that it is the outpouring of the oracle. 'Pray,' says the little man, 'pray, which existed first, the egg or the chick? Did the chick lay the egg, or the egg hatch the chick?' Then there ensues a whispering, a disputing, and after a while a dead silence. At the end of a quarter of an hour or so, our præco speaks again, and this time to the oracle. 'Bottomless man,' he says, 'I have to represent to you that no one of {86} the present company finds himself equal to answer the question, which your condescension has proposed to our consideration!' On this there is a fresh silence, and at length a fresh effatum from the hierophant: 'Which comes first, the egg or the chick? The egg comes first in relation to the causativity of the chick, and the chick comes first in relation to the causativity of the egg,' on which there is a burst of applause; the ring of adorers is broken through, and the shrinking professor is carried in the arms or on the shoulders of the literary crowd to his chair in the lecture-room."

Much as there was in Arnobius's description which gratified Jucundus's prejudices, he had suspicions of his young acquaintance, and was not in the humour to be pleased unreservedly with those who satirized anything whatever that was established, or was appointed by government, even affectation and pretence. He said something about the wisdom of ages, the reverence due to authority, the institutions of Rome, and the magistrates of Sicca. "Do not go after novelties," he said to Arnobius; "make a daily libation to Jove, the preserver, and to the genius of the emperor, and then let other things take their course."

"But you don't mean I must believe all this man says, because the decurions have put him here?" cried Arnobius. "Here is this Polemo saying that Proteus is matter, and that minerals and vegetables are his flock; that Proserpine is the vital influence, and Ceres the efficacy of the heavenly bodies; that there are mundane spirits, and supramundane; and then his {87} doctrine about triads, monads, and progressions of the celestial gods?"

"Hm!" said Jucundus; "they did not say so when I went to school; but keep to my rule, my boy, and swear by the genius of Rome and the emperor."

"I don't believe in god or goddess, emperor or Rome, or in any philosophy, or in any religion at all," said Arnobius.

"What!" cried Jucundus, "you're not going to desert the gods of your ancestors?"

"Ancestors?" said Arnobius; "I've no ancestors. I'm not African certainly, not Punic, not Libophœnician, not Canaanite, not Numidian, not Gætulian. I'm half Greek, but what the other half is I don't know. My good old gaffer, you're one of the old world. I believe nothing. Who can? There is such a racket and whirl of religions on all sides of me that I am sick of the subject."

"Ah, the rising generation!" groaned Jucundus; "you young men! I cannot prophesy what you will become, when we old fellows are removed from the scene. Perhaps you're a Christian?"

Arnobius laughed. "At least I can give you comfort on that head, old grandfather. A pretty Christian I should make, indeed! seeing visions, to be sure, and rejoicing in the rack and dungeon! I wish to enjoy life; I see wealth, power, rank, and pleasure to be worth living for, and I see nothing else."

"Well said, my lad," cried Jucundus, "well said; stick to that. I declare you frightened me. Give up {88} all visions, speculations, conjectures, fancies, novelties, discoveries; nothing comes of them but confusion."

"No, no," answered the youth; "I'm not so wild as you seem to think, Jucundus. It is true I don't believe one single word about the gods; but in their worship was I born, and in their worship I will die."

"Admirable!" cried Jucundus in a transport; "well, I'm surprised; you have taken me by surprise. You're a fine fellow; you are a boy after my heart. I've a good mind to adopt you."

"You see I can't believe one syllable of all the priests' trash," said Arnobius; "who does? not they. I don't believe in Jupiter or Juno, or in Astarte or in Isis; but where shall I go for anything better? or why need I seek anything good or bad in that line? Nothing's known anywhere, and life would go while I attempted what is impossible. No, better stay where I am; I may go further, and gain a loss for my pains. So you see I am for myself, and for the genius of Rome."

"That's the true principle," answered the delighted Jucundus. "Why, really, for so young a man, surprising! Where did you get so much good sense, my dear fellow? I've seen very little of you. Well, this I'll say, you are a youth of most mature mind. To be sure! Well! Such youths are rare now-a-days. I congratulate you with all my heart on your strong sense and your admirable wisdom. Who'd have thought it? I've always, to tell the truth, had a little suspicion of you; but you've come out nobly. {89} Capital! I don't wish you to believe in the gods if you can't; but it's your duty, dear boy, your duty to Rome to maintain them, and to rally round them when attacked." Then with a changed voice, he added, "Ah, that a young friend of mine had your view of the matter!" and then, fearing he had said too much, he stopped abruptly.

"You mean Agellius," said Arnobius. "You've heard, by-the-bye," he continued in a lower tone, "what's the talk in the Capitol, that at Rome they are proceeding on a new plan against the Christians with great success. They don't put to death, at least at once; they keep in prison, and threaten the torture. It's surprising how many come over."

"The Furies seize them!" exclaimed Jucundus: "they deserve everything bad, always excepting my poor boy. So they are cheating the hangman by giving up their atheism, the vile reptiles, giving in to a threat. However," he added gravely, "I wish threats would answer with Agellius; but I greatly fear that menace would only make him stubborn. That stubbornness of a Christian! O Arnobius!" he said, shaking his head and looking solemn, "it's a visitation from the gods, a sort of nympholepsia."

"It's going out," said Arnobius, "mark my words; the frenzy is dying. It's only wonderful it should have lasted for three centuries. The report runs that in some places, when the edict was published, the Christians did not wait for a summons, but swept up to the temples to sacrifice, like a shoal of tunnies. The {90} magistrates were obliged to take so many a day; and, as the days went on, none so eager to bring over the rest as those who have already become honest men. Nay, not a few of their mystic or esoteric class have conformed."

"If so, unless Agellius looks sharp," said Jucundus, "his sect will give him up before he gives up his sect. Christianity will be converted before him."

"Oh, don't fear for him!" said Arnobius; "I knew him at school. Boys differ; some are bold and open. They like to be men, and to dare the deeds of men; they talk freely, and take their swing in broad day. Others are shy, reserved, bashful, and are afraid to do what they love quite as much as the others. Agellius never could rub off this shame, and it has taken this turn. He's sure to outgrow it in a year or two. I should not wonder if, when once he had got over it, he went into the opposite fault. You'll find him a drinker and a swaggerer and a spendthrift before many years are over."

"Well, that's good news," said Jucundus; "I mean, I am glad you think he will shake off these fancies. I don't believe they sit very close to him myself."

He walked on for a while in silence; then he said, "That seems a sharp child, Arnobius. Could he do me a service if I wanted it? Does he know Agellius?"

"Know him?" answered the other; "yes, and his farm too. He has rambled round Sicca, many is the mile. And he knows the short cuts, and the blind ways, and safe circuits."{91}

"What's the boy's name?" asked Jucundus. "Firmian," answered Arnobius. "Firmian Lactantius."

"I say, Firmian," said Jucundus to him, "where are you to be found of a day, my boy?"

"At class morning and afternoon," answered Firmian, "sleeping in the porticoes in midday, nowhere in the evening, and roosting with Arnobius at night."

"And you can keep a secret, should it so happen?" asked Jucundus, "and do an errand, if I gave you one?"

"I'll give him the stick worse than Rupilius, if he does not," said Arnobius.

"A bargain," cried Jucundus; and, waving his hand to them, he stept through the city gate, and they returned to their afternoon amusements.

Chapter 9

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Here is an anachronism, as regards Arnobius and Lactantius, of some twenty or thirty years.
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