Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XIII. The Soul of Rome
The library in Basil's house was a spacious, graceful room, offering at this day very much the same aspect as in the time of that ancestral Anician, who, when Aurelian ruled, first laid rolls and codices upon its shelves. Against the walls stood closed presses of wood, with bronze panelling, on which were seen in relief the portraits of poets and historians; from the key of each hung a strip of parchment, with a catalogue of the works within. Between the presses, on pedestals of dark green serpentine, ranged busts of the Greek philosophers: Zeno with his brows knitted, Epicurus bland, Aratus gazing upward, Heraclitus in tears, Democritus laughing. These were attributed to ancient artists, and by all who still cared for such things were much admired. In the middle stood a dancing faun in blood red marble, also esteemed a precious work of art. Light entered by an arched window, once glazed, now only barred with ornamental iron, too high in the wall to allow of any view; below this, serving as table, was an old marble sarcophagus carved with the Calydonian hunt.
Here, one day of spring, Decius sat over his studies. Long ago he had transferred hither all the books from the great house across the Tiber, and had made his home on the Caelian. As he read or wrote a hard cough frequently interrupted him. During the past half year his health had grown worse, and he talked at times of returning to the Surrentine villa, if perchance that sweeter air might soothe him, but in the present state of things--Totila had just laid siege to Neapolis--the removal did not seem feasible. Moreover, Decius loved Rome, and thought painfully of dying elsewhere than within her walls.
There was a footfall at the door, and Basil entered. He was carelessly clad, walked with head bent, and had the look of one who spends his life in wearisome idleness. Without speaking, however, he threw himself upon a couch and lay staring with vacant eye at the bronze panels of the vaulted ceiling. For some minutes silence continued; then Decius, a roll in his hand, stepped to his kinsman's side and indicated with his finger a passage of the manuscript. What Basil read might be rendered thus:
'I am hateful to myself. For though born to do something worthy of a man, I am now not only incapable of action, but even of thought.'
'Who says that?' he asked, too indolent to glance at the beginning of the roll.
'A certain Marcus Tullius, in one of his letters,' replied the other, smiling, and returned to his own couch.
Basil moved uneasily, sighed, and at length spoke in a serious tone.
'I understand you, best Decius. You are right. Many a time I have used to myself almost those very words. When I was young--how old I feel!--I looked forward to a life full of achievements. I felt capable of great things. But in our time, what can we do, we who are born Romans, yet have never learnt to lead an army or to govern a state?'
He let his arm fall despondently, and sank again into brooding silence.
At root, Basil's was a healthy and vigorous nature. Sound of body, he needed to put forth his physical energies, yet had never found more scope for them than in the exercise of the gymnasium, or the fatigue of travel; mentally well-balanced, he would have made an excellent administrator, such as his line had furnished in profusion, but that career was no longer open. Of Marcian's ascetic gloom he knew nothing: not all the misery he had undergone in these last six months could so warp his wholesome instincts. Owning himself, in the phrases he had repeated from childhood, a miserable sinner, a vile clot of animated dust, at heart he felt himself one with all the beautiful and joyous things that the sun illumined. With pleasure and sympathy he looked upon an ancient statue of god or hero; only a sense of duty turned his eyes upon the images of Christian art.
And this natural tendency was encouraged by his education, which, like that of all well-born Romans, even in the sixth century after Christ, had savoured much more of paganism than of Christianity. Like his ancestors, before the age of Constantine, he had been taught grammar and rhetoric; grammar which was supposed to include all sciences, meaning practically a comment on a few classical texts, and rhetoric presumed a preparation for the life of the Forum, having become an art of declamation which had no reference to realities. Attempts had been made--the last, only a few years ago, by Cassiodorus--to establish Christian schools in Rome, but without success, so profoundly were the ancient intellectual habits rooted in this degenerate people. The long resistance to the new religion was at an end, but Romans, even while confessing that the gods were demons, could not cast off their affection for the mythology and history of their glorious time. Thus Basil had spent his schooldays mostly in the practice of sophistic argument, and the delivery of harangues on traditional subjects. Other youths had shown greater aptitude for this kind of eloquence; he did not often carry off a prize; but among his proud recollections was a success he had achieved in the form of a rebuke to an impious voluptuary who set up a statue of Diana in the room which beheld his debauches. Here was the nemesis of a system of education which had aimed solely at the practical, the useful; having always laboured to produce the man perfectly equipped for public affairs, and nothing else whatever. Rome found herself tottering with senile steps in the same path when the Empire and the ancient world lay in ruins about her. Basil was not studious. Long ago he had forgotten his 'grammatical' learning--except, of course, a few important matters known to all educated men, such as the fact that the alphabet was invented by Mercury, who designed the letters from figures made in their flight by the cranes of Strymon. Though so ardent a lover, he had composed no lyric or elegy in Veranilda's honour; his last poetical effort was made in his sixteenth year, when, to his own joy, and to the admiration of his friends, he wrote a distich, the verses of which read the same whether you began from the left hand or the right. Nowadays if he ever opened a book it was some historian of antiquity. Livy, by choice, who reminded him of his country's greatness, and reawakened in him the desire to live a not inglorious life.
Of his latter boyhood part had been spent at Ravenna, where his father Probus, a friend as well as kinsman of the wise minister Cassiodorus, now and then made a long sojourn; and he had thus become accustomed to the society of the more cultivated Goths, especially of those who were the intimates of the learned Queen Amalasuntha. Here, too, he learned a certain liberality in religious matters; for it was Cassiodorus who, in one of the rescripts given from the Gothic court, wrote those memorable words: 'Religious faith we have no power to impose, seeing that no man can be made to believe against his will.' Upon the murder of Amalasuntha, when the base Theodahad ruled alone, and ruin lay before the Gothic monarchy, Probus, despairing of Italy, following the example of numerous Roman nobles, migrated to Byzantium. His wife being dead, and his daughter having entered a convent, he was accompanied only by Basil, then eighteen years of age. A new world thus opened before Basil's mind; its brilliancy at first dazzled and delighted him, but very soon he perceived the difference between a noble's life at Rome or Ravenna under the mild rule of the Goths, and that led by so-called Romans in the fear of Justinian and of Theodora. His father, disappointed in hopes of preferment which had been held out to him, gladly accepted a mission which would take him back to Italy: he was one of the envoys sent to Belisarius during the siege of Ravenna, to urge the conclusion of the Gothic war and command the return of the Patricius as soon as might be for service against the Persians; and with him came Basil. On the journey Probus fell ill; he was able to cross the Adriatic, but no sooner touched Italian Soil than he breathed his last.
Then it was that Basil, representing his father in the Imperial mission, came face to face with Belisarius, and conceived a boundless enthusiasm for the great commander, whose personal qualities--the large courtesy, the ready kindliness, the frequent laugh--made intimate appeal to one of his disposition. He stayed in the camp before Ravenna until the city surrendered, and no one listened with more ardent approval to the suggestion which began as a whisper between Italians and Goths that Belisarius should accept the purple of the Western Empire. This, to be sure, would have been treachery, but treachery against Justinian seemed a small thing to Basil, and a thing of no moment at all when one thought of Rome as once more an Imperial city, and Italy with such a ruler as the laurelled Patricius. Treachery the general did commit, but not against Byzantium. Having made pretence of accepting the crown which the Goths offered him, he entered into Ravenna, took possession in Justinian's name, and presently sailed for the East, carrying with him the King Vitiges and his wife Matasuntha, grand-daughter of Theodoric. It was a bitter disappointment to Basil, who had imagined for himself a brilliant career under the auspices of the new Roman Emperor, and who now saw himself merely a conquered Italian, set under the authority of Byzantine governors. He had no temptation to remain in the North, for Cassiodorus was no longer here, having withdrawn a twelvemonth ago to his own country by the Ionian Sea, and there entered the monastery founded by himself; at Ravenna ruled the logothete Alexandros, soon to win a surname from his cleverness in coin-clipping. So Basil journeyed to Rome, where his kinsfolk met him with news of deaths and miseries. The city was but raising her head after the long agony of the Gothic siege. He entered his silent home on the Caelian, and began a life of dispirited idleness.
Vast was the change produced in the Roman's daily existence by the destruction of the aqueducts. The Thermae being henceforth unsupplied with water, those magnificent resorts of every class of citizen lost their attraction, and soon ceased to be frequented; for all the Roman's exercises and amusements were associated with the practice of luxurious bathing, and without that refreshment the gymnasium, the tennis-court, the lounge, no longer charmed as before. Rome became dependent upon wells and the Tiber, wretched resource compared with the never-failing and abundant streams which once poured through every region of the city and threw up fountains in all but every street. Belisarius, as soon as the Goths retreated, ordered the repairing of an aqueduct, that which served the transtiberine district, and was indispensable to the working of the Janiculan mills, where corn was ground; but, after his departure, there was neither enough energy nor sufficient sense of security in Rome for the restoration of even one of the greater conduits. Nobles and populace alike lived without the bath, grew accustomed to more or less uncleanliness, and in a certain quarter suffered worse than inconvenience from the lack of good water.
Formerly a young Roman of Basil's rank, occupied or not by any serious pursuit, would have spent several hours of the day at one or other of the Thermae still in use; if inclined to display, he would have gone thither with a train of domestic attendants, and probably of parasites; were the season hot, here he found coolness; were it cold, here he warmed himself. Society never failed; opportunity for clandestine meetings could always be found; all the business and the pleasure of a day were regulated with reference to this immemorial habit. Now, to enter the Thermae was to hear one's footsteps resound in a marble wilderness; to have statues for companions and a sense of ruin for one's solace. Basil, who thought more than the average Roman about these changes, and who could not often amuse himself with such spectacles as the theatres or the circus offered, grew something of a solitary in his habits, and was supposed by those who did not know him intimately, to pass most of his time in religious meditation, the preface, perhaps, to retirement from the world. Indolence bringing its wonted temptations, he fell into acquaintance with Heliodora, a Neapolitan Greek of uncertain origin, whose husband that year held the office of City Prefect. Acquaintance with Heliodora was, in his case, sure to be a dangerous thing, and might well prove fatal, for many and fierce were the jealousies excited by that brilliant lady, whose husband alone regarded with equanimity her amorous adventures. Happily, Basil did not take the matter very much to heart; he scarce pretended to himself that he cared whether Heliodora was his for a day only or for a month; and he had already turned his thoughts to the sweetness of Aemiliana, that young sister of Gordian, whom, if he chose, he might make his wife.
Now again had sluggishness taken possession of him, and with it came those promptings of the flesh which, but a few months ago, he easily subdued, but which the lapse of time had once more made perilous. To any who should have ventured to taunt him with forgetfulness of Veranilda, he would have fiercely given the lie; and with reason, for Veranilda's image was as vivid to him as on the day when he lost her, and she alone of women had the power to excite his deepest and tenderest emotions. Nevertheless, he had more than once of late visited Heliodora, and though these visits were in appearance only such as he might have paid to any lady of his acquaintance, Basil knew very well whither they tended. As yet Heliodora affected a total forgetfulness of the past; she talked of Veranilda, and confessed that her efforts to make any discovery regarding the captive were still fruitless, though she by no means gave up hope; therewithal, she treated Basil only half seriously, with good-naturedly mocking smiles, as a mere boy, a disdain to her mature womanhood. Of this was he thinking as he tossed on the couch in the library; he had thought of it too much since leaving Heliodora yesterday afternoon. It began to nettle him that his grief should be for her merely an amusement. Never having seen the Gothic maiden, whose beauty outshone hers as sunrise outdoes the lighting of a candle, this wanton Greek was capable of despising him in good earnest, and Basil had never been of those who sit easy under scorn. He felt something chafe and grow hot within him, and recalled the days when he, and not Heliodora, had indulged contempt--to his mind a much more natural posture of affairs, The animal that is in every man had begun to stir; it urged him to master and crush and tame this woman, whom, indeed, he held rather in hate than in any semblance of love. Her beauty, her sensuality, had power over him still; he resented such danger of subjection, and encouraged himself in a barbarism of mood, which permitted him to think that even in yielding he might find the way of his revenge.
There had been a long silence since his reply to the hint offered by Decius. The student spoke again.
'Basil, leave Rome.'
'It is forbidden,' answered the other dully, his face averted.
'Many things are forbidden which none the less are done. Did you learn that Veranilda awaited you at Asculum, how long would it be before you set forth?'
'Not one hour, good Decius.'
'Even. so. You would pass the gates disguised as a peasant or as a woman--no matter how. Will you do less to save all that makes life dear to an honourable man? Be gone, be gone, I entreat you.'
'To Picenum, which is not yet subject to the Goths. There gather your capable men and arm them, and send to the King Totila, offering to serve him where he will, and how he will. You know,' pursued Decius earnestly, 'that I speak this something against my conscience, but, alas! we can only choose between evils, and I think Totila is less of a tyrant than Justinian. You will not go to Constantinople, nor would I bid you, for there, assuredly, is nothing to be done worthy of a man; but you must act, or you perish. For me, a weakling and a dreamer, there is solace in the vita umbratilis; to you, it is naught. Arise, then, O Basil, ere it be too late.'
The listener rose from his recumbent attitude; he was stirred by this unwonted vigour in Decius, but not yet did resolve appear on his countenance.
'Did I but know,' he murmured, 'that Veranilda is not in Rome!'
Innumerable times had he said it; the thought alone held him inert. Impossible to discover, spite of all his efforts, whether Veranilda had been delivered to the Greeks, or still lay captive in some place known to the deacon Leander. From the behaviour of Bessas nothing could be certainly deduced: it was now a long time since he had sent for Basil, and Marcian, though believing that the commander's search was still futile, had no more certainty than his friend. Soon after Petronilla's death, the Anician mansion had been thoroughly pillaged and everything of value removed to the Palatine. Bessas condescended to justify this proceeding: having learnt, he said, that the question of Aurelia's orthodoxy lay in doubt, some declaring that she was a heretic, some that she had returned to orthodoxy before her father's death, he took charge of the property which might be hers until she appeared to claim it, when, having the testament of Maximus in his hand, he would see that justice was done. With Leander, Basil had succeeded in obtaining an interview, which was altogether fruitless. The deacon would answer no question, and contented himself with warning his visitor of the dangers incurred by one who openly sought to defeat the will of the Emperor.
'Is it farewell?' asked Decius, stepping towards his kinsman, who seemed about to leave the room.
'I will think.'
'Go speak with Gordian. He says that he can obtain you permission to leave the city.'
'I doubt it,' replied Basil. 'But I will see him--ere long.'
Decius went forth for his morning's exercise, which sometimes took the form of a gentle game of ball, but was generally a ramble on foot and unaccompanied, for he never felt at ease when an attendant followed him. His habits were solitary; ever absorbed in thought, or lost in dreams, he avoided the ways where he would be likely to encounter an acquaintance, and strayed among ruins in deserted gardens, such as were easily found in the remoter parts of the Caelian. To-day, tempted on by the delicious air, and the bright but not ardent sunshine, he wandered by such unfrequented paths till a sound of voices broke upon his meditation, and he found himself in view of the Lateran. Numbers of poor people were streaming away from the open space by the Pope's palace, loud in angry talk, its purpose intelligible enough to any one who caught a few words. Decius heard maledictions upon the Holy Father, mingled with curses no less hearty upon the Greeks who held Rome.
'It was not thus,' cried an old man, 'in the time of King Theodoric, heretic though he might be. We had our bread and our hog's flesh, prime quality both, and plenty for all.'
'Ay,' cried a woman, 'and our oil too. Since these Greek dogs came, not a drop of oil has there been in my cruse. Heretics, forsooth! What better is the Holy Father who lets Christians die of hunger while he eats and drinks his fill?'
'Evil go with thee, O Vigilius! The pest seize thee, O Vigilius! May'st thou perish eternally, O Vigilius!' shrilled and shouted all manner of voices, while fists were shaken towards the pontifical abode.
Decius hastened away. The sight of suffering was painful to him, and the cries of the vulgar offended his ear; he felt indignant that these people should not be fed, as Rome for so many ages had fed her multitude, but above all, he dreaded uproar, confusion, violence. His hurried pace did not relax until he was lost again amid a wilderness of ruins, where browsing goats and darting lizards were the only life.
Later in the day, when he sat alone in the peristyle, a visitor was introduced, whom he rose to welcome cordially and respectfully. This was a man of some threescore years, vigorous in frame, with dry, wrinkled visage and a thin, grey beard that fell to his girdle. As he approached, Decius saw that he was bleeding from a wound on the head and that his cloak was torn.
'What means this, dear master?' he exclaimed. 'What has befallen you?'
'Nothing worth your notice, gentle Decius,' the philosopher replied, calmly and gravely. 'Let us rather examine this rare treatise of Plotinus, which by good fortune I yesterday discovered among rubbish thrown aside.'
'Nay,' insisted Decius, 'but your wound must be washed and dressed; it may else prove dangerous. I fear this was no accident?'
'If you must know,' answered the other with good-natured peevishness, 'I am accused of magic. The honest folk who are my neighbours, prompted, I think it likely, by a certain senator who takes it ill that his son is my disciple, have shown me of late more attention than I care for, and to-day as I came forth, they pursued me with cries of "Sorcerer!" and the like, whereupon followed sticks and stones, and other such popular arguments. It is no matter. Plotinus begins--'
Simplicius was one of the last philosophers who taught in Athens, one of the seven who were driven forth when Justinian, in his zeal for Christianity, closed the schools. Guided by a rumour that supreme wisdom was to be found in Persia, the sages journeyed to that kingdom, where disappointment awaited them. After long wanderings and many hardships, Simplicius came to Rome, and now had sojourned here for a year or two, teaching such few as in these days gave any thought to philosophy. Poor, and perhaps unduly proud, he preferred his own very humble lodging to the hospitality which more than one friend had offered him; and his open disregard for religious practices, together with singularities of life and demeanour, sufficiently explained the trouble that had come upon him. Charges of sorcery were not uncommon in Rome at this time. Some few years ago a commission of senators had sat in judgment upon two nobles accused of magic, a leading article of proof against one of them being that he had a horse which, when stroked, gave off sparks of fire. On this account Decius was much troubled by the philosopher's story. When the wound had been attended to, he besought Simplicius not to go forth again to-day, and with some difficulty prevailed.
'Why should it perturb you, O most excellent Decius,' said the sage, 'that a lover of wisdom is an offence to the untaught and the foolish? Was it not ever thus? If philosophy may no longer find peace at Athens, is it likely that she will be suffered to dwell at ease in Rome?'
'Alas, no!' admitted Decius. 'But why, dear master, should you invite the attacks of the ignorant?'
'I do no such thing. I live and act as seems good to me, that is all. Should no one have the courage to do that, what hope would there be, O Decius, for that most glorious liberty, the liberty of the mind?'
The listener bent his head abashed. Then Simplicius began to read from the manuscript, and Decius, who knew Greek fairly well--he had lately completed certain translations from Plato, left unfinished by Boethius--gave reverent attention. At a certain point the philosopher paused to comment, for the subject was difficult--nothing less than the nature of God. In God, according to the system here expounded, there are three principles or hypostases, united but unequal--the One, the Intelligence, the Soul; which correspond, respectively, to the God of Plato, the God of Aristotle, the God of Zeno. Usually curt and rather dry in his utterances, Simplicius rose to a fervid eloquence as he expounded this mysticism of Alexandria. Not that he accepted it as the final truth, it was merely a step, though an important one, towards that entire and absolute knowledge of which he believed that a glimpse had been vouchsafed to him, even to him, in his more sublime hours. As for Decius, the utmost effort never enabled him to attain familiarity with these profound speculations: he was soon lost, and found his brain whirling with words that had little or no significance. At home in literature, in philosophy he did but strive and falter and lose himself. When at length there came a silence, he sighed deeply, his hand propping his forehead.
'Master, how few men can ever know God!'
'Few, few,' admitted the philosopher, his gaze upwards.
'I think I should be content,' said Decius, 'to love and praise Him. Yet that meseems is no less hard.'
'No less,' was the reply. 'For, without knowledge, love and praise are vain.'
But Decius' thought had another meaning.