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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.3

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 3

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series

 

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2
 


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  CHAPTER XVII: BEATA URBS

  "Many prophets and kings have desired to see the things which ye see."

  [29] THE enemy on the Danube was, indeed, but the vanguard of themighty invading hosts of the fifth century. Illusively repressed justnow, those confused movements along the northern boundary of the Empirewere destined to unite triumphantly at last, in the barbarism, which,powerless to destroy the Christian church, was yet to suppress for atime the achieved culture of the pagan world. The kingdom of Christwas to grow up in a somewhat false alienation from the light and beautyof the kingdom of nature, of the natural man, with a partly mistakentradition concerning it, and an incapacity, as it might almost seem attimes, for eventual reconciliation thereto. Meantime Italy had armeditself once more, in haste, and the imperial brothers set forth for theAlps.

  Whatever misgiving the Roman people may [30] have felt as to theleadership of the younger was unexpectedly set at rest; though withsome temporary regret for the loss of what had been, after all, apopular figure on the world's stage. Travelling fraternally in thesame litter with Aurelius, Lucius Verus was struck with sudden andmysterious disease, and died as he hastened back to Rome. His deathawoke a swarm of sinister rumours, to settle on Lucilla, jealous, itwas said, of Fabia her sister, perhaps of Faustina--on Faustinaherself, who had accompanied the imperial progress, and was anxious nowto hide a crime of her own--even on the elder brother, who, beforehandwith the treasonable designs of his colleague, should have helped himat supper to a favourite morsel, cut with a knife poisoned ingeniouslyon one side only. Aurelius, certainly, with sincere distress, his longirritations, so dutifully concealed or repressed, turning now into asingle feeling of regret for the human creature, carried the remainsback to Rome, and demanded of the Senate a public funeral, with adecree for the apotheosis, or canonisation, of the dead.

  For three days the body lay in state in the Forum, enclosed in an opencoffin of cedar-wood, on a bed of ivory and gold, in the centre of asort of temporary chapel, representing the temple of his patronessVenus Genetrix. Armed soldiers kept watch around it, while choirs ofselect voices relieved one another in the chanting of hymns ormonologues from the great tragedians.

  [31] At the head of the couch were displayed the various personaldecorations which had belonged to Verus in life. Like all the rest ofRome, Marius went to gaze on the face he had seen last scarcelydisguised under the hood of a travelling-dress, as the wearer hurried,at night-fall, along one of the streets below the palace, to someamorous appointment. Unfamiliar as he still was with dead faces, hewas taken by surprise, and touched far beyond what he had reckoned on,by the piteous change there; even the skill of Galen having been notwholly successful in the process of embalming. It was as if a brotherof his own were lying low before him, with that meek and helplessexpression it would have been a sacrilege to treat rudely.

  Meantime, in the centre of the Campus Martius, within the grove ofpoplars which enclosed the space where the body of Augustus had beenburnt, the great funeral pyre, stuffed with shavings of variousaromatic woods, was built up in many stages, separated from each otherby a light entablature of woodwork, and adorned abundantly with carvedand tapestried images. Upon this pyramidal or flame-shaped structurelay the corpse, hidden now under a mountain of flowers and incensebrought by the women, who from the first had had their fondness for thewanton graces of the deceased. The dead body was surmounted by a waxeneffigy of great size, arrayed in the triumphal ornaments. [32] At lastthe Centurions to whom that office belonged, drew near, torch in hand,to ignite the pile at its four corners, while the soldiers, in wildexcitement, flung themselves around it, casting into the flames thedecorations they had received for acts of valour under the deademperor's command.

  It had been a really heroic order, spoiled a little, at the lastmoment, through the somewhat tawdry artifice, by which an eagle--not avery noble or youthful specimen of its kind--was caused to take flightamid the real or affected awe of the spectators, above the perishingremains; a court chamberlain, according to ancient etiquette,subsequently making official declaration before the Senate, that theimperial "genius" had been seen in this way, escaping from the fire.And Marius was present when the Fathers, duly certified of the fact, by"acclamation," muttering their judgment all together, in a kind of low,rhythmical chant, decreed Caelum--the privilege of divine rank to thedeparted.

  The actual gathering of the ashes in a white cere-cloth by the widowedLucilla, when the last flicker had been extinguished by drops of wine;and the conveyance of them to the little cell, already populous, in thecentral mass of the sepulchre of Hadrian, still in all the splendour ofits statued colonnades, were a matter of private or domestic duty;after the due accomplishment of which Aurelius was at [33] liberty toretire for a time into the privacy o his beloved apartments of thePalatine. And hither, not long afterwards, Marius was summoned asecond time, to receive from the imperial hands the great pile ofManuscripts it would be his business to revise and arrange.

  One year had passed since his first visit to the palace; and as heclimbed the stairs to-day, the great cypresses rocked against thesunless sky, like living creatures in pain. He had to traverse a longsubterranean gallery, once a secret entrance to the imperialapartments, and in our own day, amid the ruin of all around it, assmooth and fresh as if the carpets were but just removed from its floorafter the return of the emperor from the shows. It was here, on suchan occasion, that the emperor Caligula, at the age of twenty-nine, hadcome by his end, the assassins gliding along it as he lingered a fewmoments longer to watch the movements of a party of noble youths attheir exercise in the courtyard below. As Marius waited, a secondtime, in that little red room in the house of the chief chamberlain,curious to look once more upon its painted walls--the very placewhither the assassins were said to have turned for refuge after themurder--he could all but see the figure, which in its surrounding lightand darkness seemed to him the most melancholy in the entire history ofRome. He called to mind the greatness of that popularity and early[34] promise--the stupefying height of irresponsible power, from which,after all, only men's viler side had been clearly visible--theoverthrow of reason--the seemingly irredeemable memory; and still,above all, the beautiful head in which the noble lines of the race ofAugustus were united to, he knew not what expression of sensibilityand fineness, not theirs, and for the like of which one must passonward to the Antonines. Popular hatred had been careful to destroyits semblance wherever it was to be found; but one bust, in darkbronze-like basalt of a wonderful perfection of finish, preserved inthe museum of the Capitol, may have seemed to some visitors thereperhaps the finest extant relic of Roman art. Had the very seal ofempire upon those sombre brows, reflected from his mirror, suggestedhis insane attempt upon the liberties, the dignity of men?--"Ohumanity!" he seems to ask, "what hast thou done to me that I should sodespise thee?"--And might not this be indeed the true meaning ofkingship, if the world would have one man to reign over it? The likeof this: or, some incredible, surely never to be realised, height ofdisinterestedness, in a king who should be the servant of all, quite atthe other extreme of the practical dilemma involved in such a position.Not till some while after his death had the body been decently interredby the piety of the sisters he had driven into exile. Fraternity [35]of feeling had been no invariable feature in the incidents of Romanstory. One long Vicus Sceleratus, from its first dim foundation infraternal quarrel on the morrow of a common deliverance sotouching--had not almost every step in it some gloomy memory ofunnatural violence? Romans did well to fancy the traitress Tarpeiastill "green in earth," crowned, enthroned, at the roots of theCapitoline rock. If in truth the religion of Rome was everywhere init, like that perfume of the funeral incense still upon the air, soalso was the memory of crime prompted by a hypocritical cruelty, downto the erring, or not erring, Vesta calmly buried alive there, onlyeighty years ago, under Domitian.

  It was with a sense of relief that Marius found himself in the presenceof Aurelius, whose gesture
of friendly intelligence, as he entered,raised a smile at the gloomy train of his own thoughts just then,although since his first visit to the palace a great change had passedover it. The clear daylight found its way now into empty rooms. Toraise funds for the war, Aurelius, his luxurious brother being no more,had determined to sell by auction the accumulated treasures of theimperial household. The works of art, the dainty furniture, had beenremoved, and were now "on view" in the Forum, to be the delight ordismay, for many weeks to come, of the [36] large public of those whowere curious in these things. In such wise had Aurelius come to thecondition of philosophic detachment he had affected as a boy, hardlypersuaded to wear warm clothing, or to sleep in more luxurious mannerthan on the bare floor. But, in his empty house, the man of mind, whohad always made so much of the pleasures of philosophic contemplation,felt freer in thought than ever. He had been reading, with lessself-reproach than usual, in the Republic of Plato, those passageswhich describe the life of the philosopher-kings--like that of hiredservants in their own house--who, possessed of the "gold undefiled" ofintellectual vision, forgo so cheerfully all other riches. It was oneof his happy days: one of those rare days, when, almost with none ofthe effort, otherwise so constant with him, his thoughts came rich andfull, and converged in a mental view, as exhilarating to him as theprospect of some wide expanse of landscape to another man's bodily eye.He seemed to lie readier than was his wont to the imaginative influenceof the philosophic reason--to its suggestions of a possible opencountry, commencing just where all actual experience leaves off, butwhich experience, one's own and not another's, may one day occupy. Infact, he was seeking strength for himself, in his own way, before hestarted for that ambiguous earthly warfare [37] which was to occupy theremainder of his life. "Ever remember this," he writes, "that a happylife depends, not on many things--en oligistois keitai."+ And to-day,committing himself with a steady effort of volition to the mere silenceof the great empty apartments, he might be said to have escaped,according to Plato's promise to those who live closely with philosophy,from the evils of the world.

  In his "conversations with himself" Marcus Aurelius speaks often ofthat City on high, of which all other cities are but singlehabitations. From him in fact Cornelius Fronto, in his late discourse,had borrowed the expression; and he certainly meant by it more than thewhole commonwealth of Rome, in any idealisation of it, however sublime.Incorporate somehow with the actual city whose goodly stones were lyingbeneath his gaze, it was also implicate in that reasonable constitutionof nature, by devout contemplation of which it is possible for man toassociate himself to the consciousness of God. In that New Rome he hadtaken up his rest for awhile on this day, deliberately feeding histhoughts on the better air of it, as another might have gone for mentalrenewal to a favourite villa.

  "Men seek retirement in country-houses," he writes, "on the sea-coast,on the mountains; and you have yourself as much fondness for suchplaces as another. But there is little proof of culture therein; sincethe privilege is yours of [38] retiring into yourself whensoever youplease,--into that little farm of one's own mind, where a silence soprofound may be enjoyed." That it could make these retreats, was aplain consequence of the kingly prerogative of the mind, its dominionover circumstance, its inherent liberty.--"It is in thy power to thinkas thou wilt: The essence of things is in thy thoughts about them: Allis opinion, conception: No man can be hindered by another: What isoutside thy circle of thought is nothing at all to it; hold to this,and you are safe: One thing is needful--to live close to the divinegenius within thee, and minister thereto worthily." And the firstpoint in this true ministry, this culture, was to maintain one's soulin a condition of indifference and calm. How continually had publicclaims, the claims of other persons, with their rough angularities ofcharacter, broken in upon him, the shepherd of the flock. But afterall he had at least this privilege he could not part with, of thinkingas he would; and it was well, now and then, by a conscious effort ofwill, to indulge it for a while, under systematic direction. The dutyof thus making discreet, systematic use of the power of imaginativevision for purposes of spiritual culture, "since the soul takes colourfrom its fantasies," is a point he has frequently insisted on.

  The influence of these seasonable meditations--a symbol, or sacrament,because an intensified [39] condition, of the soul's own ordinary andnatural life--would remain upon it, perhaps for many days. There wereexperiences he could not forget, intuitions beyond price, he had comeby in this way, which were almost like the breaking of a physical lightupon his mind; as the great Augustus was said to have seen a mysteriousphysical splendour, yonder, upon the summit of the Capitol, where thealtar of the Sibyl now stood. With a prayer, therefore, for inwardquiet, for conformity to the divine reason, he read some selectpassages of Plato, which bear upon the harmony of the reason, in allits forms, with itself--"Could there be Cosmos, that wonderful,reasonable order, in him, and nothing but disorder in the worldwithout?" It was from this question he had passed on to the vision ofa reasonable, a divine, order, not in nature, but in the condition ofhuman affairs--that unseen Celestial City, Uranopolis, Callipolis, UrbsBeata--in which, a consciousness of the divine will being everywhererealised, there would be, among other felicitous differences from thislower visible world, no more quite hopeless death, of men, or children,or of their affections. He had tried to-day, as never before, to makethe most of this vision of a New Rome, to realise it as distinctly ashe could,--and, as it were, find his way along its streets, ere he wentdown into a world so irksomely different, to make his practical efforttowards it, with a soul full of [40] compassion for men as they were.However distinct the mental image might have been to him, with thedescent of but one flight of steps into the market-place below, it musthave retreated again, as if at touch of some malign magic wand, beyondthe utmost verge of the horizon. But it had been actually, in hisclearest vision of it, a confused place, with but a recognisable entry,a tower or fountain, here or there, and haunted by strange faces, whosenovel expression he, the great physiognomist, could by no means read.Plato, indeed, had been able to articulate, to see, at least inthought, his ideal city. But just because Aurelius had passed beyondPlato, in the scope of the gracious charities he pre-supposed there, hehad been unable really to track his way about it. Ah! after all,according to Plato himself, all vision was but reminiscence, and this,his heart's desire, no place his soul could ever have visited in anyregion of the old world's achievements. He had but divined, by a kindof generosity of spirit, the void place, which another experience thanhis must fill.

  Yet Marius noted the wonderful expression of peace, of quiet pleasure,on the countenance of Aurelius, as he received from him the rolls offine clear manuscript, fancying the thoughts of the emperor occupied atthe moment with the famous prospect towards the Alban hills, from thoselofty windows.

  NOTES

  37. +Transliteration: en oligistois keitai. Definition "it lies inthe fewest [things]."

 
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