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   Chapter 6 THE EMPEROR COMMODUS

Caesar Dies By Talbot Mundy Characters: 21574

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The imperial palace was a maze of splendor such as Babylon had never seen. It had its own great aqueducts to carry water for its fountains, for the gardens and for the imperial baths that were as magnificent, if not so large, as the Thermae of Titus. Palace after palace had been wrecked, remodeled and included in the whole, under the succeeding emperors, until the imperial quarters on the Palatine had grown into a city within a city.

There were barracks for the praetorian guard that lacked not much of being a fortress. Rooms and stairways for the countless slaves were like honeycomb cells in the dark foundations. There were underground passages, some of them secret, some notorious, connecting wing with wing; and there was one, for the emperor's private use, that led to the great arena where the games were held, so that he might come and go with less risk of assassination.

Even temples had been taken over and included within the surrounding wall to make room for the ever-multiplying suites of state apartments, as each Caesar strove to outdo the magnificence of his predecessor. Oriental marble, gold-leaf, exotic trees, silk awnings, fountains, the majestic figures of the guards, the bronze doors and the huge height of the buildings, awed even the Romans who were used to them.

The throne-room was a place of such magnificence that it was said that even Caesar himself felt small in it. The foreign kings, ambassadors and Roman citizens admitted there to audience were disciplined without the slightest difficulty; there was no unseemliness, no haste, no crowding; horribly uncomfortable in the heavy togas that court etiquette prescribed, reminded of their dignity by colossal statues of the noblest Romans of antiquity, and ushered by magnificently uniformed past masters of the art of ceremony, all who entered felt that they were insignificant intruders into a golden mystery. The palace prefect in his cloak of cloth of gold, with his ivory wand of office, seemed a high priest of eternity; subprefects, standing in the marble antechamber to examine visitors' credentials and see that none passed in improperly attired, were keepers of Olympus.

The gilded marble throne was on a dais approached by marble steps, beneath a balcony to which a stair ascended from behind a carved screen. Trumpets announced the approach of Caesar, who could enter unobserved through a door at the side of the dais. From the moment that the trumpet sounded, and the guards grew as rigid as the basalt statues in the niches of the columned walls, it was a punishable crime to speak or even to move until Caesar appeared and was seated.

Nor was Caesar himself an anticlimax. Even Nero, nerveless in his latter days, when self-will and debauchery had pouched his eyes and stomach, had possessed the Roman gift of standing like a god. Vespasian and Titus, each in turn, was Mars personified. Aurelius had typified a gentler phase of Rome, a subtler dignity, but even he, whose worst severity was tempered by the philosophical regret that he could not kill crime with kindliness, had worn the imperial purple like Olympus' delegate.

Commodus, in the minutes that he spared from his amusements to accept the glamor of the throne, was perfect. Handsomest of all the Caesars, he could act his part with such consummate majesty that men who knew him intimately half-believed he was a hero after all. Athletic, muscular and systematically trained, his vigor, that was purely physical, passed readily for spiritual quality within that golden hall, where the resources of the world were all put under tribute to provide a royal setting. He emerged. He smiled, as if the sun shone. He observed the rolled petitions, greetings, testimonials of flattery from private citizens and addresses of adulation from distant cities, being heaped into a gilded basket as the silent throng filed by beneath him. He nodded. Now and then he scowled, his irritation growing as the minutes passed. At each gesture of impatience the subprefects quietly impelled the crowd to quicker movement. But at the end of fifteen minutes Commodus grew tired of dignity and his ferocious scowl clouded his face like a thunderstorm.

"Am I to sit here while the whole world makes itself ridiculous by staring at me?" he demanded, in a harsh voice. It was loud enough to fill the throne-room, but none knew whether it was meant for an aside or not and none dared answer him. The crowd continued flowing by, each raising his right hand and bowing as he reached the square of carpet that was placed exactly in front of Caesar's throne.

Commodus rose to his feet. All movement ceased then and there was utter silence. For a moment he stood scowling at the crowd, one hand resting on the golden lion's head that flanked the throne. Then he laughed.

"Too many petitions!" he sneered, pointing at the overflowing basket; and in another moment he had vanished through the door behind the marble screen. Met and escorted up the stairs by groups of cringing slaves, he reached a columned corridor. Rich carpets lay on the mosaic floor; sunlight, from under; the awnings of a balcony glorious with potted flowers, shone on the colored statuary and the Grecian paintings.

"What are all these women doing?" he demanded. There were girls, half- hidden behind the statues, each one trying, as he passed her, to divine his mood and to pose attractively.

"Where is Marcia? What will she do to me next? Is this some new scheme of hers to keep me from enjoying my manhood? Send them away! The next girl I catch in the corridor shall be well whipped. Where is Marcia?"

Throwing away his toga for a slave to catch and fold he turned between gilded columns, through a bronze door, into the antechamber of the royal suite. There a dozen gladiators greeted him as if he were the sun shining out of the clouds after a month of rainy weather.

"This is better!" he exclaimed. "Ho, there, Narcissus! Ho, there, Horatius! Ha! So you recover, Albinus? What a skull the man has! Not many could take what I gave him and be on their feet again within the week! You may follow me, Narcissus. But where is Marcia?"

Marcia called to him through the curtained door that led to the next room-

"I am waiting, Commodus."

"By Jupiter, when she calls me Commodus it means an argument! Are some more of her Christians in the carceres, I wonder? Or has some new highwayman-By Juno's breasts, I tremble when she calls me Commodus!"

The gladiators laughed. He made a pass at one of them, tripped him, scuffled a moment and raised him struggling in the air, then flung him into the nearest group, who broke his fall and set him on his feet again.

"Am I strong enough to face my Marcia?" he asked and, laughing, passed into the other room, where half a dozen women grouped themselves around the imperial mistress.

"What now?" he demanded. "Why am I called Commodus?"

He stood magnificent, with folded arms, confronting her, play-acting the part of a guiltless man arraigned before the magistrate.

"O Roman Hercules," she said, "I spoke in haste, you came so much sooner than expected. What woman can remember you are anything but Caesar when you smile at her? I am in love, and being loved, I am-"

"Contriving some new net for me, I'll wager! Come and watch the new men training with the caestus; I will listen to your plan for ruling me and Rome while the sight of a good set-to stirs my genius to resist your blandishments!"

"Caesar," she said, "speak first with me alone." Instantly his manner changed. He made a gesture of impatience. His sudden scowl frightened the women standing behind Marcia, although she appeared not to notice it, with the same peculiar trick of seeming not to see what she did not wish to seem to see that she had used when she walked naked through the Thermae.

"Send your scared women away then," he retorted. "I trust Narcissus.

You may speak before him."

Her women vanished, hurrying into another room, the last one drawing a cord that closed a jingling curtain.

"Do you not trust me?" asked Marcia. "And is it seemly, Commodus, that

I should speak to you before a gladiator?"

"Speak or be silent!" he grumbled, giving her a black look, but she did not seem to notice it. Her genius-the secret of her power-was to seem forever imperturbable and loving.

"Let Narcissus bear witness then; since Caesar bids me, I obey! Again and again I have warned you, Caesar. If I were less your slave and more your sycophant I would have tired of warning you. But none shall say of Marcia that her Caesar met Nero's fate, whose women ran away and left him. Not while Marcia lives shall Commodus declare he has no friends."

"Who now?" he demanded angrily. "Get me my tablet! Come now, name me your conspirators and they shall die before the sun sets!"

When he scowled his beauty vanished, his eyes seeming to grow closer like an ape's. The mania for murder that obsessed him tautened his sinews. Cheeks, neck, forearms swelled with knotted strength. Ungovernable passion shook him.

"Name them!" he repeated, beckoning unconsciously for the tablet that none dared thrust into his hand.

"Shall I name all Rome?" asked Marcia, stepping closer, pressing herself against him. "O Hercules, my Roman Hercules-does love, that makes us women see, put bandages on men's eyes? You have turned your back upon the better part of Rome to-"

"Better part?" He shook her by the shoulders, snorting. "Liars, cowards, ingrates, strutting peacocks, bladders of wind boring me and one another with their empty phrases, cringing lick-spittles-they make me sick to look at them! They fawn on me like hungry dogs. By Jupiter, I make myself ridiculous too often, pandering to a lot of courtiers! If they despise me then as I despise myself, I am in a bad way! I must make haste and live again! I will get the stench of them out of my nostrils and the sickening sight of them out of my eyes by watching true men fight! When I slay lions with a javelin, or gladiators-"

"You but pander to the rabble," Marcia interrupted. "So did Nero. Did they come to his aid when the senate and his friends deserted him?"

"Don't interrupt me, woman! Senate! Court!" he snorted. "I can rout the senate with a gesture! I will fill my court with gladiators! I can change my ministers as often as I please-aye, and my mistress too," he added, glaring at her. "Out with the names of these new conspirators who have set you trembling for my destiny!"

"I know none-not yet," she said. "I can feel, though. I hear the whispers in the Thermae-"

"By Jupiter, then I will close the Thermae."

"When I pass through the streets I read men's faces-"

"Snarled, have they? My praetorian guard shall

show them what it is to be bitten! Mobs are no new things in Rome. The old way is the proper way to deal with mobs! Blood, corn and circuses, but principally blood! By the Dioscuri, I grow weary of your warnings, Marcia!"

He thrust her away from him and went growling like a bear into his own apartment, where his voice could be heard cursing the attendants whose dangerous duty it was to divine in an instant what clothes he would wear and to help him into them. He came out naked through the door, saw Marcia talking to Narcissus, laughed and disappeared again. Marcia raised her voice:

"Telamonion! Oh, Telamonion!"

A curly-headed Greek boy hardly eight years old came running from the outer corridor-all laughter-one of those spoiled favorites of fortune whom it was the fashion to keep as pets. Their usefulness consisted mainly in retention of their innocence.

"Telamonion, go in and play with him. Go in and make him laugh. He is bad tempered."

Confident of everybody's good-will, the child vanished through the curtains where Commodus roared him a greeting. Marcia continued talking to Narcissus in a low voice.

"When did you see Sextus last?" she asked.

"But yesterday."

"And what has he done, do you say? Tell me that again."

"He has found out the chiefs of the party of Lucius Septimius Severus. He has also discovered the leaders of Pescennius Niger's party. He says, too, there is a smaller group that looks toward Clodius Albinus, who commands the troops in Britain."

"Did he tell you names?"

"No. He said he knew I would tell you, and you might tell Commodus, who would write all the names on his proscription list. Sextus, I tell you, reckons his own life nothing, but he is extremely careful for his friends."

"It would be easy to set a trap and catch him. He is insolent. He has had too much rein," said Marcia. "But what would be the use?" Narcissus answered. "There would be Norbanus, too, to reckon with. Each plays into the other's hands. Each knows the other's secrets. Kill one, and there remains the other-doubly dangerous because alarmed. They take turns to visit Rome, the other remaining in hiding with their following of freedmen and educated slaves. They only commit just enough robbery to gain themselves an enviable reputation on the countryside. They visit their friends in Rome in various disguises, and they travel all over Italy to plot with the adherents of this faction or the other. Sextus favors Pertinax-says he would make a respectable emperor- another Marcus Aurelius. But Pertinax knows next to nothing of Sextus' doings, although he protects Sextus as far as he can and sees him now and then. Sextus' plan is to keep all three rival factions by the ears, so that if anything should happen-" he nodded toward the curtain, from behind which came the sounds of childish laughter and the crashing voice of Commodus encouraging in some piece of mischief-"they would be all at odds and Pertinax could seize the throne."

"I wonder whether I was mad that I protected Sextus!" exclaimed Marcia.

"He has served us well. If I had let them catch and crucify him as

Maternus, we would have had no one to keep us informed of all these

cross-conspiracies. But are you sure he favors Pertinax?"

"Quite sure. He even risked an interview with Flavia Titiana, to implore her influence with her husband. Sextus would be all for striking now, this instant; he has assured himself that the world is tired of Commodus, and that no faction is strong enough to stand in the way of Pertinax; but he knows how difficult it will be to persuade Pertinax to assert himself. Pertinax will not hear of murdering Caesar; he says: 'Let us see what happens-if the Fates intend me to be Caesar, let the Fates show how!'"

"Aye, that is Pertinax!" said Marcia. "Why is it that the honest men are all such delayers! As for me, I will save my Commodus if he will let me. If not, the praetorian guard shall put Pertinax on the throne before any other faction has a chance to move. Otherwise we all die-all of us! Severus-Pescennius Niger-Clodius Albinus-any of the others would include us in a general proscription. Pertinax is friendly. He protects his friends. He is the safest man in all ways. Let Pertinax be acclaimed by all the praetorian guard and the senate would accept him eagerly enough. They would feel sure of his mildness. Pertinax would do no wholesale murdering to wipe out opposition; he would try to pacify opponents by the institution of reforms and decent government."

"You must beware you are not forestalled," Narcissus warned her. "Sextus tells me there is more than one man ready to slay Commodus at the first chance. Severus, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus keep themselves informed as to what is going on; their messengers are in constant movement. If Commodus should lift a hand against either of those three, that would be the signal for civil war. All three would march on Rome."

"Caesar is much more likely to learn of the plotting through his own informers, and to try to terrify the generals by killing their supporters here in Rome," said Marcia. "What does Sextus intend? To kill Caesar himself?"

Narcissus nodded.

"Well, when Sextus thinks that time has come, you kill him! Let that be your task. We must save the life of Commodus as long as possible. When nothing further can be done, we must involve Pertinax so that he won't dare to back out. It was he, you know, who persuaded me to save Maternus the highwayman's life; it was he who told me Maternus is really Sextus, son of Maximus. His knowledge of that secret gives me a certain hold on Pertinax! Caesar would have his head off at a word from me. But the best way with Pertinax is to stroke the honest side of him -the charcoal-burner side of him-the peasant side, if that can be done without making him too diffident. He is perfectly capable of offering the throne to some one else at the last minute!"

A step sounded on the other side of the curtain. "Caesar!" Narcissus whispered. As excuse for being seen in conversation with her he began to show her a charm against all kinds of treachery that he had bought from an Egyptian. She snatched it from him.

"Caesar!" she exclaimed, bounding toward Commodus and standing in his way. Not even she dared lay a hand on him when he was in that volcanic mood. "As you love me, will you wear this?"

"For love of you, what have I not done?" he retorted, smiling at her.

"What now?"

She advanced another half-step, but no nearer. There was laughter on his lips, but in his eye cold cruelty.

"My Caesar, wear it! It protects against conspiracy."

He showed her a new sword that he had girded on along with the short tunic of a gladiator.

"Against the bellyache, use Galen's pills; but this is the right medicine against conspiracy!" he answered. Then he took the little golden charm into his left hand, tossing it on his palm and looked at her, still smiling.

"Where did you get this bauble?"

"Not I. One of those magicians who frequent that Forum sold it to

Narcissus."

"Bah!" He flung it through the window. "Who is the magician? Name him! I will have him thrown into the carceres. We'll see whether the charms he sells so cheap are any good! Or is he a Christian?" he asked, sneering.

"The Christians, you know, don't approve of charms," Marcia answered.

"By Jupiter, there's not much that they do approve of!" he retorted. "I begin to weary of your Christians. I begin to think Nero was right, and my father, too! There was a wisdom in treating Christians as vermin! It might not be a bad thing, Marcia, to warn your Christians to procure themselves a charm or two against my weariness of their perpetual efforts to govern me! The Christians, I suppose, have been telling you to keep me out of the arena? Hence this living statuary in the corridor, and all this talk about the dignity of Rome! Tscharr-rrh! There's more dignity about one gladiator's death than in all Rome outside the arena! Woman, you forget you are only a woman. I remember that! I am a god! I have the blood of Caesar in my veins. And like the unseen gods, I take my pleasure watching men and women die! I loose my javelins like thunderbolts-like Jupiter himself! Like Hercules-"

He paused. He noticed Marcia was laughing. Only she, in all the Roman empire, dared to mock him when he boasted. Not even she knew why he let her do it. He began to smile again, the frightful frown that rode over his eyes dispersing, leaving his forehead as smooth as marble.

"If I should marry you and make you empress," he said, "how long do you think I should last after that? You are clever enough to rule the fools who squawk and jabber in the senate and the Forum. You are beautiful enough to start another siege of Troy! But remember: You are Caesar's concubine, not empress! Just remember that, will you! When I find a woman lovelier than you, and wiser, I will give you and your Christians a taste of Nero's policy. Now-do you love me?"

"If I did not, could I stand before you and receive these insults?" she retorted, trusting to the inspiration of the moment; for she had no method with him.

"I would willingly die," she said, "if you would give the love you have bestowed on me to Rome instead, and use your godlike energy in ruling wisely, rather than in killing men and winning chariot races. One Marcia does not matter much. One Commodus can-"

"Can love his Marcia!" he interrupted, with a high-pitched laugh. He seized her, nearly crushing out her breath. "A Caius and a Caia we have been! By Jupiter, if not for you and Paulus I would have left Rome long ago to march in Alexander's wake! I would have carved me a new empire that did not stink so of politicians!"

He strode into the anteroom where all the gladiators waited and Narcissus had to follow him-well named enough, for he was lithe and muscular and beautiful, but, nonetheless, though taller, not to be compared with Commodus-even as the women, chosen for their good looks and intelligence, who hastened to reappear the moment the emperor's back was turned, were nothing like so beautiful as Marcia.

In all the known world there were no two finer specimens of human shapeliness than the tyrant who ruled and the woman whose wits and daring had so long preserved him from his enemies.

"Come to the arena," he called back to her. "Come and see how Hercules throws javelins from a chariot at full pelt!"

But Marcia did not answer, and he forgot her almost before he reached

the entrance of the private tunnel through which he passed to the arena.

She had more accurately aimed and nicely balanced work to do than even

Commodus could do with javelins against a living target.

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