Valerius. A Roman Story, page 1
A ROMAN STORY
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS EDINBURGH AND LONDON
_BOOK I. CHAPTER I._
Since you are desirous, my friends, that I should relate to you, at lengthand in order, the things which happened to me during my journey to Rome,notwithstanding the pain which it must cost me to throw myself back intosome of the feelings of that time, I cannot refuse to comply with yourrequest. After threescore years spent in this remote province of anempire, happy, for the most part, in the protection of enlightened, just,and benevolent princes, I remember, far more accurately than things whichoccurred only a few months ago, the minutest particulars of what I saw andheard while I sojourned, young and a stranger, among the luxuries andcruelties of the capital of the world, as yet imperfectly recovered fromthe effects of the flagitious tyranny of the last of the Flavii.
My father, as you have heard, came with his legion into this island, andmarried a lady of native blood, some years before the first arrival ofAgricola. In the wars of that illustrious commander, during the reigns ofVespasian and Titus, he had the fortune to find opportunities ofdistinguishing himself; but when his general was recalled, by the jealousyof Domitian, he retired from public life, and determined to spend theremainder of his days in peace, on the lands which belonged to him inright of his wife here in Britain. He laid the foundations of the house inwhich I have now the pleasure of receiving you; and here, in thecultivation of his fields, and in the superintendence of my education, hefound sufficient employment for an active, though no longer an ambitiousmind. Early in the reign of Trajan he died. Never did either Roman orBritish dwelling lament a more generous master.
I cannot pretend to regret the accident which immediately afterwardsseparated me from a gentle mother--never to see her more upon the earth.Yet deeply was the happiness of my returning hour stained by thatprivation. It is the common rule of nature, that our parents shouldprecede us to the grave; and it is also her rule, that our grief for themshould not be of such power as to prevent us from entering, after they aregone, into a zealous participation both of the business and the pleasuresof life. Yet, in after years, the memory of that buried tenderness risesup ever and anon, and wins rather than warns us to a deliberatecontemplation of our own dissolution.
Towards the end of the winter following the death of my father, therearrived letters which engaged anxious consideration. They were frommembers of his family, none of whom either my mother or myself had seen.It was explained, especially by Caius Licinius, the lawyer, (who was nearof kin to our house,) that by the death of a certain Patrician, CneiusValerius by name, I had become legally entitled to a very considerablefortune, to claim and take possession of which, demanded my immediatepresence in the metropolis. My rights, said this jurist, were indeedcalled in question by another branch of the family, but were I on thespot, his professional exertions, with whatever interest he or any of hisfriends could command, should be at my service, for the sake of my fatherand of my name.
The love of travel had never before been excited in my bosom; but now thatI knew I was so soon to embark for Italy, the delights which I might therehope to experience came crowding upon my imagination. The dark andpine-clad banks of my native Anton, said I, shall now be exchanged forthat golden-waved Tiber, of which so many illustrious poets have sung.Instead of moving here among the ill-cemented and motley fabric of aninsulated colony, and seeing only the sullen submission of barbarians onthe one hand, or the paltry vanity of provincial deputies on the other, Ishall tread the same ground with the rulers of the earth, and wear, amongnative Romans, the gown of my ancestors. I shall behold the Forum, whichhas heard the eloquence of Cicero and Hortensius; I shall ascend to theCapitol, where Caesar triumphed; I shall wander in the luxurious gardens ofSallust, or breathe the fresh air in the fields of Cato: I shall gaze uponthe antique majesty of temples and palaces, and open my eyes on all thatart and nature have been able to heap together through eight centuries,for the ornament of the chosen seat of wisdom and valour.
A single trusty slave was selected to accompany me. It was not certainlyon account of his accomplishments that Boto had been chosen for this duty;for although he had lived all his days in the vicinity of the colonists atVenta, there was scarcely a person within the bounds of the British Belgaethat spoke worse Latin. He was, however, a man of natural sagacity,possessing shrewd discernment concerning whatever things had fallen underhis customary observation; and he shewed no symptom either of diffidencerespecting his qualifications for this new office, or of regret at beingseparated from those in whose company many years of gentle servitude hadglided over his sun-burnt countenance. It was reported to me, that heinvited several of our rustics to drink with him in one of the out-houses,where his exultation knew no limits. He was going to Rome, for his youngmaster very well knew he could never get on in such a journey without thehelping eye and hand of Boto; and he had a brother in Italy already, (hehad gone over with a distinguished legionary some ten years before,) andfrom him (for he would of course meet with him as soon as our arrivalshould be known) he would receive all requisite information concerning thedoings of the great city. The usefulness which, he doubted not, I shouldbe constrained to acknowledge in his manifold qualifications, would,without all question, entitle him to some signal reward--perhaps nothingless than manumission on his return.
Two days passed more quickly than any I ever remember to have spent amidsta strange mixture of mirth, and sorrow, and noisy preparation.
Where that single tall naked pine now stands buffeted by the wind, thengrew a thick grove, of which that relic alone survives. It was there thatI turned round to gaze once more on the quiet verdure of these paternalfields, and our small pastoral stream glistening here and there beneaththe shady covert of its margin.
I had at first intended to cross over to Gaul, and traversing thatprovince, enter Italy, either by the route of the Alps, in case we couldprocure convenient guides and companions, or by some vessel sailing fromMarseilles or Forum Julii to Ostium. But the advice of one of myneighbours, who had himself been a great traveller, made me alter thisplan, and resolve to commit myself to the care of an experienced marinerwho was just about to sail for Italy, by the way of the pillars ofHercules, in a vessel laden chiefly with tin; and on reaching theClausentum, I found this man, with several passengers, ready for thevoyage.
For the first three or four days, I was so afflicted by the motion of thevessel, that I could bestow little attention on any external object; myeyes were so confused and dazzled, that I saw nothing beyond the corner ofthe deck on which I had caused my carpets to be laid; and a fewejaculations to Castor and Pollux were all the articulate sounds that Iuttered. By degrees, however, the weight of my depression began to bealleviated; and at intervals, more particularly during the night watches,if I was not altogether in possession of myself, I was at least wellenough to enjoy a sort of giddy delight in watching the billows as theyrose and retreated from the prow. There were moments, also, in which thebehaviour of Boto, under this new species of calamity, could furnish me,as it had already done the more hardy of my fellow-voyagers, with store ofmirth. Near us frequently, upon the deck, sat a Captain of the PraetorianBands, who, more than any other of these, displayed a florid complexionand cheerful eye, unalterable
This good-natured man sat down beside my suffering peasant, endeavouringto withdraw his attention from the pangs of his sickness, by pointing outthe different boats which came in view as we held on from the Gobaeanrocks, keeping close to the shore as we went, in order to shun, as well aswe could, the customary fury of the Aquitanic Ocean. "Behold thesefishing-vessels," he would cry, "which have undoubtedly been upon thecoast of Rutupia for oysters, or it may be about the mouth of yonderLigoris for turbot, and are now stretching all their canvass to get homewith their booty to Italy. Smooth be your winds and fair your passage, ohrare fish!" To which the downcast Boto would reply, "Lavish not, ohmaster, your good wishes upon the mute fish, which have been tossed aboutall their lives, but reserve them rather for me (unhappy) who am thustormented in an unnatural and intolerable manner;" or perhaps, "Speak not,I beseech you, of oysters, or of turbot, or of any other eatable, for Ibelieve I shall never again feel hungry, so grievously are all my internalparts discomposed. Oh, that I had never left my native fields, andbartered the repose of my whole body for the vain hope of gratification tomy eyes!"
By degrees, however, custom reconciled all of us to the motion of thebark, and the weather being calm during the greater part of the voyage, Ienjoyed, at my leisure, the beauties, both of the sea, and of the shoresalongst which we glided. From time to time, we put in for water and othernecessaries, to various sea-ports of the Spanish Peninsula; but our staywas never so long at any place as to admit of us losing sight of ourvessel. Our chief delight, indeed, consisted in the softness and amenityof the moonlight nights we spent in sailing along the coasts ofMauritania,--now the dark mountains of the family of Atlas throwing theirshadows far into the sea--and anon, its margin glittering with the whitetowers of Siga, or Gilba, or Cartenna, or some other of the rich cities ofthat old Carthaginian region. On such nights it was the custom of all thepassengers to be congregated together upon the deck, where the silentpleasures of contemplation were, from time to time, interrupted by somemerry song chanted in chorus by the mariners, or perhaps some wildbarbarian ditty, consecrated by the zeal of Boto to the honour of someancient indigenous hero of the North. Nor did our jovial Praetorian disdainto contribute now and then to the amusement of the assembly, by someboisterous war-song, composed, perhaps, by some light-hearted youngspearman, which our centurion might have learned by heart, without anyregular exertion, from hearing it sung around many a British and Dacianwatch-fire.
Thus we contrived to pass the time in a cheerful manner, till we reachedthe Lilybaean promontory. We tarried there two days to refit some part ofour rigging, and then stretched boldly across the lower sea, towards themouth of the Tiber. We were becalmed, however, for a whole day and night,after we had come within sight of the Pharos of Ostium, where, but for thesmall boats that came out to us with fresh fish and fruit, we should havehad some difficulty in preserving our patience; for, by this time, ourstock of wine was run to the last cup, and nothing remained to be eat butsome mouldy biscuit which had survived two voyages between Italy andBritain. During this unwelcome delay, the Praetorian endeavoured to give meas much information as he could about the steps necessary to be pursued onmy arrival in the city. But, to say truth, his experience had lain chieflyamong martial expeditions and jovial recreations, so that I could easilyperceive he was no great master of the rules of civil life. From him,however, I was glad to find, that the reputation of Licinius was really asgreat at Rome as it had been represented in our province; and, indeed, hetreated me with a yet greater measure of attention after he was informedof my relationship to that celebrated jurist.
Early in the morning, a light breeze sprung up from the west, and withjoyful acclamations the sails were once again uplifted. The number ofmariners on board was insufficient for impelling the heavily laden vesselaltogether by the force of oars, but now they did not refuse to assist thefavouring breeze with strenuous and lively exertion. The Praetorian cheeredand incited them by his merry voice, and even the passengers were notloath to assist them in this labour. My slave, among the rest, joined inthe toil; but his awkwardness soon relieved him from his seat on thebench; a disgrace which he would have shared with his master, had I beenequally officious.
Ere long, we could trace with exactness those enormous structures by whichthe munificence of Augustus had guarded and adorned that great avenue ofnations to the imperial city. Those mountains of marble, projected oneither side into the deep, surpassed every notion I had formed of theextent to which art may carry its rivalry of nature. Their immovablemasses were garnished here and there with towers and battlements, on whichthe Praetorian pointed out to me the frame-work of those terriblecatapults, and other engines of warfare, of which no specimens have everbeen seen in Britain.
No sooner had we stept upon the shore, than we were surrounded by a greatthrong of hard-favoured persons, who pulled us by the cloak, withinnumerable interrogations and offers of service. Among these, thevarieties of form, complexion, and accent, were such, that we could notregard them without especial wonder; for it appeared as if every tribe andlanguage under heaven had sent some representative to this great seaportof Rome. The fair hair and blue eye of the Gaul or German, might here beseen close by the tawny skin of the Numidian or Getulian slave, or theshining blackness of the Ethiopian visage. The Greek merchant was ready,with his Thracian bondsman carrying his glittering wares upon his back;the usurer was there, with his arms folded closely in his mantle; nor wasthe Chaldean or Assyrian soothsayer awanting, with his air of abstractionand his flowing beard.
Boto, as if alarmed with the prevailing bustle, and fearful lest someuntoward accident should separate us, kept close behind me, grasping mygown. But our good friend Sabinus did not long leave us in thisperplexity; for, having hastily engaged the master of a small barge tocarry him to Rome, he insisted that I should partake of this easy methodof conveyance. We found the vessel small but convenient, furnished with ared awning, under which cushions and carpets were already stretched outfor our repose. The oars were soon in motion, and we began to emerge fromamong the forest of masts with a rapidity which astonished me; for themultitude of vessels of all sizes, continually crossing and re-crossing,was so great, that at first I expected every moment some dangerousaccident might occur.
By degrees, however, such objects failed to keep alive my attention; thesleeplessness of the preceding night, and the abundance of an Ostianrepast, conspiring to lull me into a gentle doze, which continued for Iknow not what space. I awoke, greatly refreshed, and found we had madeconsiderable progress; for the continual succession of stately edificesalready indicated the vicinity of the metropolis. The dark green of
Through a forest of triremes, galleys, and all sorts of craft, we thenshot on to the bridge--beneath the centre arch of which our steersmanconducted us. Beyond, such was the hum of people on the quays, and suchthe star-like profusion of lights reflected in the water, that we doubtednot we had already reached the chief seat of the bustle of Rome. On,however, we still held our course, till the theatre of Marcellus rose likea mountain on our right. It was there that we ran our bark into the shore,not far from the little bridge--the third as you ascend the river--whichconducts to the Island and the Temple of AEsculapius. While our friend wassettling matters with the master, and the attendants were bringing out ourbaggage, I stood by myself on the elevated quay. Here a long tier ofreflected radiance bespoke, it may be, the vicinity of some splendidportico--of palace, or temple, or bath, or theatre; there a broad andsteady blaze of burning red, indicated the abode of artizans, resolved, asit seemed, on carrying their toil into the bosom of the night.Between--some speck of lustre betrayed, perhaps, the lamp of the solitarystudent, or the sober social hour of some peaceful family, assembledaround the hearth of their modest lares. Behold me then, said I, in thecapital of the globe; but were I to be swallowed up this moment in thewaves of Tiber, not one of all these lights would be dimmed.