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   Chapter 5 ROME—THE THERMAE OF TITUS

Caesar Dies By Talbot Mundy Characters: 18991

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There were even birds, to fill the air with music. All the known world, and the far-away mysterious lands of which Alexander's followers had started legends multiplying centuries ago, had contributed to Rome's adornment; plunder and trade goods drifted through in spite of distances. The city had become the vortex of the energy, virility and vice of east and west-a glory of marble and gilded cornices, of domes and spires, of costumes, habits, faces, languages-of gorgeousness and squalor-license, privilege and rigid formalism-extravagance-and of innumerable gods.

There was nobility and love of virtue, cheek by jowl with beastliness, nor was it always easy to discover which was which; but the birds sang blithely in the cages in the portico, where the long seat was on which philosophers discoursed to any one who cared to listen. The baths that the Emperor Titus built were the supreme, last touch of all. From furnaces below-ground, where the whipped slaves sweated in the dark, to domed roof where the doves changed hue amid the gleam of gold and colored glass, they typified Rome, as the city herself was of the essence of the world.

The approach to the Thermae of Titus was blocked by litters, some heavy enough to be borne by eight matched slaves and large enough for company. Women oftener than men shared litters with friends; then the troupe of attendants was doubled; slaves were in droves, flocks, hordes around the building, making a motley sight of it in their liveries, which were adaptations of the every-day costumes of almost all the countries of the known world.

Under the entrance portico, between the double row of marble columns, sat a throng of fortune-tellers of both sexes, privileged because the aedile of that year had superstitious leanings, but as likely as not to be driven away, and even whipped, when the next man should succeed to office. In and out among the crowd ran tipsters, touts for gambling dens and sellers of charms; most of them found ready customers among the slaves, who had nothing to do but wait, and stare, and yawn until their masters came out from the baths. They were raw, inexperienced slaves who had not a coin or two to spend.

Within the entrance of the Thermae was a marble court, where better known philosophers discoursed on topics of the day, each to his own group of admirers. A Christian, dressed like any other Roman, held one corner with a crowd around him. There was a tremendous undercurrent of reaction against the prevalent cynical materialism and the vortex of fashion was also the cauldron of new aspirations and the battle-ground of wits.

Beyond the inner entrance were the two disrobing rooms-women to the left, men to the right where slaves, whose insolence had grown into a cultivated art, exchanged the folded garments for a bracelet with a number. Thence, stark-naked, through the bronze doors set in green- veined marble, bathers passed into the vast frigidarium, whose marble plunge was surrounded by a mosaic promenade beneath a bronze and marble balcony.

There men and women mingled indiscriminately, watching the divers, conversing, matching wits, exchanging gossip, some walking briskly around the promenade while others lounged on the marble seats that were interspaced against the wall between the statues.

There was not one gesture of indecency. A man who had stared at a woman would have been thrown out, execrated and forever more refused admission. But out in the street, where the litter-bearers and attendants whiled away the time, there were tales told that spread to the ends of the earth.

On a bench of black marble, between two statues of the Grecian Muses, Pertinax sat talking with Bultius Livius, sub-prefect of the palace. They were both pink-skinned from plunging in the pool, and the white scars, won in frontier wars, showed all the more distinctly. Boltius Livius was a clean-shaven, sharp-looking man with a thin-lipped air of keenness.

"This dependence on Marcia can easily be overdone," he remarked. His eyes moved restlessly left and right. He lowered his voice. "Nobody knows how long her hold over Caesar will last. She owns him at present owns him absolutely-owns Rome. He delights in letting her revoke his orders; it's a form of self-debauchery; he does things purposely to have her overrule him. But that has already lasted longer than I thought it would."

"It will last as long as she and her Christians spy for him and make life pleasant," said Pertinax.

"Exactly. But that is the difficulty," Livius answered, moving his eyes again restlessly. There was not much risk of informers in the Thermae, but a man never knew who his enemies were. "Marcia represents the Christians, and the idiots won't let well enough alone. By Hercules, they have it all their own way, thanks to Marcia. They are allowed to hold their meetings. All the statutes against them are ignored. They even go unpunished if they don't salute Caesar's image! They are allowed to preach against slavery. It has got so now that if a man condemned to death pretends he is a Christian they're even allowed to rescue him out of the carceres! That's Juno's truth: I know of a dozen instances. But it's the old story: Put a beggar on a horse and he will demand your house next. There's no satisfying them. I am told they propose to abolish the gladiatorial combats! Laugh if you like. I have it from unquestionable sources. They intend to begin by abolishing the execution of criminals in the arena. Shades of Nero! They keep after Marcia day and night to dissuade Caesar from taking part in the spectacles, on the theory that he helps to make them popular."

"What do they propose to substitute in popular esteem?" asked Pertinax.

"I don't know. They're mad enough for anything, and their hold over Marcia is beyond belief. The next thing you'll know, they'll persuade her it's against religion to be Caesar's mistress! They're quite capable of sawing off the branch they're sitting on. By Hercules, I hope they do it! Some of us might go down in the scramble, but-"

"Does Marcia give Christian reasons to the emperor?" asked Pertinax, his forehead puzzled.

"No, no. No, by Hercules. No, no. Marcia is as skillful at managing Commodus as he is at hurling a javelin or driving horses. She talks about the dignity of Caesar and the glory of Rome-uses truth adroitly for her own ends-argues that if he continues to keep company with gladiators and jockeys, and insists on taking part in the combats, Rome may begin to despise him."

"Rome does!" murmured Pertinax, his eyes and lips suggesting a mere flicker of a smile. "But only let Commodus once wake up to the fact and-"

Bultius Livius nodded.

"He will return the compliment and show us how to despise at wholesale, eh? Marcia's life and yours and mine wouldn't be worth an hour's purchase. The problem is, who shall warn Marcia? She grows intolerant of friendly hints. I made her a present the other day of eight matched German' litter-bearers-beauties-they cost a fortune-and I took the opportunity to have a chat with her. She told me to go home and try to manage my own wife! Friendly enough-she laughed-she meant no enmity; but shrewd though she is, and far-seeing though she is, the wine of influence is going to her head. You know what that portends. Few men, and fewer women, can drink deeply of that wine and-"

"She comes," said Pertinax.

There was a stir near the bronze door leading to the women's disrobing hall. Six women in a group were answering greetings, Marcia in their midst, but no man in the Thermae looked at them a moment longer than was necessary to return the wave of the hand with which Marcia greeted every one before walking down the steps into the plunge. She did not even wear the customary bracelet with its numbered metal disk; not even the attendants at the Thermae would presume to lose the clothing of the mistress of the emperor. Commodus, who at the age of twelve had flung a slave into the furnace because the water was too hot, would have made short work of any one who mislaid Marcia's apparel.

She did not belie her reputation. It was no wonder that the sculptors claimed that every new Venus they turned out was Marcia's portrait. Her beauty, as her toes touched water, was like that of Aphrodite rising from the wave. The light from the dome shone golden on her brown hair and her glossy skin. She was a thing of sensuous delight, incapable of coarseness, utterly untouched by the suggestion of vulgarity, and yet-

"It is strange she should take up with fancy religions," said Pertinax under his breath.

She was pagan in every gesture, and not a patrician. That was indefinable but evident to trained eyes. Neither he, who knew her intimately, nor the newest, newly shaven son of a provincial for the first time exploring the wonders of Rome, could have imagined her as anything except a rich man's mistress.

She plunged into the pool and swam like a mermaid, her companions following, climbed out at the farther end, where the diving-boards projected in tiers, one above the other, and passed through a bronze door into the first of the sweating rooms, evidently conscious of the murmur of comment that followed her, but taking no overt notice of it.

"Who is to be the next to try to reason with her-you?" asked Boltius

Livius.

"No, not I. I have shot my bolt," said Pertinax and closed his eyes, as if to shut out something from his memory-

or possibly to banish thoughts he did not relish. There came a definite, hard glint into Livius's eyes; he had a name for being sharper to detect intrigue and its ramifications than even the sharp outline of his face would indicate.

"You have heard of her latest indiscretion?" he asked, narrowly watching Pertinax. "There is a robber at large, named Maternus-you have heard of him? The man appears and disappears. Some say he is the same Maternus who was crucified near Antioch at about the time when you were there; some say he isn't. He is reported to visit Rome in various disguises, and to be able to conduct himself so well that he can pass for a patrician. Some say he has a large band; some say, hardly any followers. Some say it was he who robbed the emperor's own mail a month ago. He is reported to be here, there, everywhere; but there came at last reliable information that he lives in a cave in the woods on an estate that fell to the fiscus (the government department into which all payments were made, corresponding roughly to a modern treasury department) at the time when Maximus and his son Sextus were proscribed."

Pertinax looked bored. He yawned.

"I think I will go in and sweat a while," he remarked.

"Not yet. Let me finish," said Livius. "It was reported to Caesar that the highwayman Maternus lives in a cave on this Aventine estate, and that the slaves and tenants on the place, who, of course, all passed to the new owner when the estate was sold, not only tolerate him but supply him with victuals and news. Caesar went into one of his usual frenzies, cursed half the senators by name, and ordered out a cohort from a legion getting ready to embark at Ostia. He ordered them to lay waste the estate, burn all the woods and if necessary torture the slaves and tenants, until they had Maternus. Dead or alive, they were not to dare to come without him, and meanwhile the rest of the legion was kept waiting at Ostia, with all the usual nuisance of desertions and drunkenness and what not else."

"Everybody knows about that," said Pertinax. "As governor of Rome it was my duty to point out to the emperor the inconvenience of keeping that legion waiting under arms so near the city. I was snubbed for my pains, but I did my duty."

"Your duty? There were plenty of people more concerned than you," said

Livius, looking again as if he thought he had detected an intrigue.

"There were the Ostian authorities, for instance, but I did not hear of

their complaining."

"Naturally not," said Pertinax, suppressing irritation. "Every day the legion lingered there meant money for the enterprising city fathers. I am opposed to all the petty pouching of commissions that goes on."

"Doubtless. Being governor of Rome, you naturally-"

"I have heard of peculations at the palace," Pertinax interrupted.

"Be that as it may, Commodus ordered out the cohort, sent it marching and amused himself inventing new ingenious torments for Maternus. Alternatively, he proposed to himself to have the cohort slaughtered in the arena, officers and all, if they should fail of their mission; so it was safe to wager they were going to bring back some one said to be Maternus, whether or not they caught the right man. Commodus was indulging in one of his storms of imperial righteousness. He was going to stamp out lawlessness. He was going to make it safe for any one to come or go along the Roman roads. Oh, he was in a fine Augustan mood. It wasn't safe for any one but Marcia to come within a mile of him. Scowl-you know that scowl of his-it freezes the very sentries on the wall if he looks at their backs through the window! I don't suppose there was a woman in Rome just then who would have cared to change places with Marcia! He sent for her, and half the palace betted she was ripe for banishment to one of those island retreats where Crispina (the wife of Commodus who was banished to the isle of Capreae and there secretly put to death) lived less than a week! But Marcia is fertile of surprises. She won't surprise me if she outlives Commodus-by Hercules, she won't surprise me if-"

He stared at Pertinax with impudently keen eyes. Pertinax looked at the bronze door leading to the sweating room, shrugging himself as if the frigidarium had grown too cool for comfort.

"Marcia actually persuaded Commodus to countermand the order!" Livius said, emphasizing each word. "Almighty Jove can only guess what argument she used, but if Maternus had been one of her pet Christians she couldn't have saved him more successfully. Commodus sent a messenger post-haste that night to recall the cohort."

"And a good thing too," Pertinax remarked. "It isn't a legion's business to supply cohorts to do the work of the district police. There were five thousand raw men on the verge of mutiny in Ostia-"

"And-wait a minute-and," said Livius, "don't go yet-this is interesting: Marcia, that same night, sent a messenger of her own to find Maternus and to warn him."

"How do you know?" Pertinax let a sign of nervousness escape him.

"In the palace, those of us who value our lives and our fortunes make it a business to know what goes on," Livius answered with a dry laugh, "just as you take care to know what goes on in the city, Pertinax."

The older man looked worried.

"Do you mean it is common gossip in the palace?" he demanded.

"You are the first man I have spoken with. There are therefore only three who know, if you count the slave whom Marcia employed; four if you count Marcia. I had the great good luck not long ago to catch that slave in flagrante delicto-never mind what he was doing; that is another story altogether-and he gave me an insight into a number of useful secrets. The point is, that particular slave takes care not to run errands nowadays without informing me. There is not much that Marcia does that I don't know about." Livius' eyes suggested gimlets boring holes into Pertinax's face. Not a change of the other's expression escaped him. Pertinax covered his mouth with his hand, pretending to yawn. He slapped his thighs to suggest that his involuntary shudder was due to having sat too long. But he did not deceive Livius. "It is known to me," said Livius, "that you and Marcia are in each other's confidence."

"That makes me doubt your other information," Pertinax retorted. "No man can jump to such a ridiculous conclusion and call it knowledge without making me doubt him on all points. You bore me, Livius. I have important business waiting; I must make haste into the sweating room and get that over with."

But Livius' sharp, nervous laugh arrested him.

"Not yet, friend Pertinax! Let Rome wait! Rome's affairs will outlive both of us. I suspect you intend to tell Marcia to have my name included in the next proscription list! But I am not quite such a simpleton as that. Sit down and listen. I have proof that you plotted with the governor of Antioch to have an unknown criminal executed in place of a certain Norbanus, who escaped with your connivance and has since become a follower of the highwayman Maternus. That involves you rather seriously, doesn't it! You see, I made sure of my facts before approaching you. And now-admit that I approached you tactfully! Come, Pertinax, I made no threats until you let me see I was in danger. I admire you. I regard you as a brave and an honorable Roman. I propose that you and I shall understand each other. You must take me into confidence, or I must take steps to protect myself."

There was a long pause while a group of men and women came and chattered near by, laughing while one of the men tried to win a wager by climbing a marble pillar. Pertinax frowned. Livius did his best to look dependable and friendly, but his eyes were not those of a boon companion.

"You are incapable of loyalty to any one except yourself," said Pertinax at last. "What pledge do you propose to offer me?"

"A white bull to Jupiter Capitolinus! I am willing to go with you to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and to swear on the altar whatever solemn oath you wish."

Pertinax smiled cynically.

"The men who slew Julius Caesar were under oath to him," he remarked. "Most solemn oaths they swore, then turned on one another like a pack of wolves! Octavian and Anthony were under oath; and how long did that last? My first claim to renown was based on having rewon the allegiance of our troops in Britain, who had broken the most solemn oath a man can take-of loyalty to Rome. An oath binds nobody. It simply is an emphasis of what a man intends that minute. It expresses an emotion. I believe the gods smile when they hear men pledge themselves. I personally, who am far less than a god and far less capable of reading men's minds, never trust a man unless I like him, or unless he gives me pledges that make doubt impossible."

"Then you don't like me?" asked Livius.

"I would like you better if I knew that I could trust you."

"You shall, Pertinax! Bring witnesses! I will commit myself before your witnesses to do my part in-"

His restless eyes glanced right and left. Then he lowered his voice.

"-in bringing about the political change you contemplate."

"Let us go to the sweating room," Pertinax answered. "Keep near me. I will think this matter over. If I see you holding speech not audible to me, with any one-"

"I am already pledged. You may depend on me," said Livius. "I trust you more because you use caution. Come."

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