Serapis by Georg Ebers
The doubtful light of dawn was beginning to break through the storm-clouds as they exhausted their fury on the Serapeum, but the terrified heathen did not notice it. No captain, no prophet, no comforter had come to revive their courage and hopes; for Olympius and his guests, the leaders of the intellectual life of Alexandria--and among them the chief priests of the sanctuary--were tardy in making their appearance.
The lightning-flash which had fallen on the brassplated cupola, and then discharged its force along a flagstaff, had alarmed even the sages and philosophers; and the Symposium had come to an abrupt end but little more dignified than the orgy in the temple-halls. Few, to be sure, of the high-priest's friends had allowed themselves to be so far scared as to betray their terrors frankly; on the contrary, when the crack of doom really seemed to have sounded, rhetoric and argument grew even more eager than before round Olympius' table; and Gorgo's opinion of her fellow-heathen might not have been much raised if she could have heard Helladius, the famous philologist and biographer, reciting verses from "Prometheus bound," his knees quaking and lips quivering as he heard the thunder; or seen Ammonius, another grammarian who had written a celebrated work on "The Differences of Synonyms," rending his robe and presenting his bared breast as a target to the lightning, with a glance round at the company to challenge their admiration. His heroic display was, unfortunately, observed by few; for most of them, including Eunapius, a neo-platonic philosopher distinguished as a historian and an implacable foe of the Christians, had wrapped their heads in their robes and were awaiting the end in sullen resignation. Some had dropped on their knees and were praying with uplifted hands, or murmuring incantations; and a poet, who had been crowned for a poem entitled: "Man the Lord and Master of the Gods," had fainted with fear, and his laurel-wreath had fallen into a dish of oysters.
Olympius had risen from his place as Symposiarch and was leaning against a door-post awaiting death with manly composure. Father Karnis, who had made rather too free with the wine-cup, but had been completely sobered by the sudden fury of the storm, had sprung up and hastened past the high-priest to seek his wife and son; he knew they could not be far off, and desired to perish with them.
Porphyrius and his next neighbor, Apuleius, the great physician, were among those who had covered their faces. Porphyrius could look forward more calmly than many to the approaching crisis; for, as a cautious man and far-seeing merchant, he had made provision for every contingency. If, in spite of a Christian victory, the world should still roll on, and if the law which declared invalid the will of an apostate should be enforced against him, a princely fortune, out of the reach of Church or State, lay safe in the hands of a wealthy and trustworthy friend for his daughter's use; if, on the other hand, heaven and earth met in a common doom, he had by him an infallible remedy against a lingering and agonizing death.
The whole party had sat during some long and anxious minutes, listening to the appalling thunder-claps, when Orpheus rushed into the banqueting-room, with the same frenzied and terror-stricken haste as before, among the revellers, crying: "It is the end-all is over! The world is falling asunder! Fire is come down from heaven! The earth is in flames already--I saw it with my own eyes! I have come down from the roof. . . .
"Father! Where is my father?"
At this news the company started up in fresh alarm, Pappus, the mathematician, cried out: "The conflagration has begun! Flame and fire are falling from the skies!"
"Lost-lost!" wailed Eunapius; while Porphyrius hastily felt in the folds of his purple garment, took out a small crystal phial and went, pale but calm, up to the high-priest. He laid his hand on the arm of the friend whom he had looked up to all his life with affectionate admiration, and said with an expression of tender regret:
"Farewell. We have often disputed over the death of Cato--you disapproving and I approving it. Now I follow his example. Look--there is enough for us both."
He hastily put the phial to his mouth, and part of the liquid had passed his lips before Olympius understood the situation and seized his arm. The effect of the deadly fluid was instantly manifest; but Porphyrius had hardly lost consciousness when Apuleius had rushed to his side. The physician had succumbed to the universal panic and resigned himself doggedly to Fate; but as soon as an appeal was made to his medical skill and he heard a cry for help, he had thrown off the wrapper from his head and hastened to the merchant's side to combat the effects of the poison, as clear-headed and decisive as in his best hours by the bed of sickness or in the lecture-room.
When the very backbone of the soul seems to be broken, a sense of duty is the one and last thing that holds it together and keeps it upright; and nature has implanted in us such a strong and instinctive regard for life--which we are so apt to contemn--that even within a few paces of the grave we cherish and foster it as carefully as in its prime, when the end seems still remote.
The merchant's desperate deed had been done under the very eyes of Orpheus, and the newer horror so completely overshadowed the older, that he hastened unbidden to help the physician lay the unconscious man on the nearest couch; but then he went off again in search of his parents. Olympius, however, who at the sight of his friend's weakness had suddenly comprehended how much depended, in these last hours, on his own resolute demeanor, detained the youth, and sternly desired him to give an exact and clear account of what had happened on the roof. The young musician obeyed; and his report was certainly far from reassuring.
A ball of fire had fallen with a terrific noise on the cupola, mingling with flames that seemed to rise like streams of fire from the earth. Then, again the heavens had opened with a blinding flash and Orpheus had seen--with his own eyes seen--a gigantic monster--an uprooted mountain perhaps--which had slowly moved towards the back-wall of the Serapeum with an appalling clatter; and not rain, but rivers, rushing torrents of water, had poured down on the men on guard.
"It is Poseidon," cried the lad, "bringing up the ocean against the temple, and I heard the neighing of his horses. It was not an illusion, I heard it with my own ears. . . ."
"The horses of Poseidon!" interrupted Olympius. "The horses of the Imperial cavalry were what you heard!"
He ran to the window with the activity of a younger man and, lifting the curtain, looked out to the eastward. The storm had vanished as rapidly as it had come up and it was day. Over the rosy skirts of Eos hung a full and heavy robe of swelling grey and black clouds, edged with a fringe of sheeny gold. To the north a sullen flash now and then zigzagged across the dark sky, and the roll of the thunder was faint and distant; but the horses whose neighing had affrighted Orpheus were already near; they were standing close to the southern or back-wall of the temple, in which there was no gate or entrance of any kind. What object could the Imperial cavalry have in placing themselves by that strong and impenetrable spot?
But there was no time for much consideration, for at this instant the gong, which was sounded to call the defenders of the Serapeum together, rang through the precincts.
Olympius needed no spur or encouragement. He turned to his guests with the passion and fire of a fanatical leader, of the champion of a great but imperilled cause, and bid them be men and stand by him to resist the foe till death. His voice was husky with excitement as he spoke his brief but vehement call to arms, and the effect was immense, precisely because the speaker, carried away by the tide of feeling, had not tried to impress the learned and eloquent men whom he addressed by any tricks of elocution or choice of words. They, too, were fired by the spark of the old man's enthusiasm; they gathered round him, and followed him at once to the rooms where the weapons had been deposited for use.
Breastplates girt on to their bodies, and swords wielded in their hands made soldiers of the sages at once, and inspired them with martial ardor. Little was spoken among these heroes of "the mighty word." They were bent on action. Olympius Had desired Apuleius to go into his private room adjoining the hypostyle with Porphyrius, on whose senseless and rigid state no treatment had as yet had any effect. Some of the temple-servants carried the merchant down a back staircase, while Olympius hastily and silently led his comrades in arms up the main steps into the great halls of the temple.
Here the chivalrous host were doomed to surprise and disappointment greater than the most hopeless of them was prepared to meet. Olympius himself for a moment despaired; for his ecstatic adherents had during the night turned to poltroons and tipplers, and the sacred precincts of the sanctuary looked as if a battle had been fought and lost there. Broken and bruised furniture, smashed instruments, garments torn and wet, draggled wreaths, and faded flowers were strewn in every direction. The red wine lay in pools like blood on the scarred beauties of the inlaid pavement; here and there, at the foot of a column, lay an inert body--whether dead or merely senseless who could guess?--and the sickening reek of hundreds of dying lamps filled the air, for in the confusion they had been left to burn or die as they might.
And how wretched was the aspect of the sobered, terror-stricken, worn-out men and women. An obscure consciousness of having insulted the god and incurred his wrath lurked in every soul. To many a one prompt death would have seemed most welcome, and one man--a promising pupil of Helladius, had actually taken the leap from existence into the non-existence which, as he believed, he should find beyond the grave; he had run his had violently against a pillar, and lay at the foot of it with a broken skull.
With reeling brains, aching brows, and dejected hearts, the unhappy creatures had got so far as to curse the present; and those who dared to contemplate the future thought of it only as a bottomless abyss, towards which the flying hours were dragging them with unfelt but irresistible force. Time was passing--each could feel and see that; night was gone, it would soon be day; the storm had passed over, but instead of the inexorable powers of nature a new terror now hung over them: the no less inexorable power of Caesar. To the struggle of man against the gods there was but one possible end: Annihilation. In the conflict of man against man there might yet be, if not victory, at least escape. The veteran Memnon, with his one arm, had kept watch on the temple-roof during that night's orgy, planning measures for repulsing the enemy's attack, till the storm had burst on him and his adherents with the "artillery of heaven." Then the greater portion of the garrison had taken refuge in the lower galleries of the Serapeum, and the old general was left alone at his post, in the blinding and deafening tempest. He threw his remaining arm round a statue that graced the parapet of the roof to save himself from being swept or washed away; and he would still have shouted his orders, but that the hurricane drowned his voice, and none of his few remaining adherents could have heard him speak. He, too, had heard the champing of horses and had seen the moving mountain which Orpheus had described. It was in fact a Roman engine of war; and, faithful though he was to the cause he had undertaken, something like a feeling of joy stirred his warrior's soul, as he looked down on the fine and well-drilled men who followed the Imperial standards under which he had, ere now, shed his best blood. His old comrades in arms had not forgotten how to defy the tempest, and their captains had been well advised in preparing to attack first what seemed the securest side of the temple. The struggle, he foresaw, would be against tried soldiers, and it was with a deep curse and a smile of bitter scorn that he thought of the inexperienced novices under his command. It was only yesterday that he had tried to moderate Olympius' sanguine dreams, and had said to him: "It is not by enthusiasm but by tactics that we defeat a foe!"
The skill and experience he had to contend with were in no respect inferior to his own; and he would know, only too soon, what the practical worth might be of the daring and enthusiastic youths whom he had undertaken to command, and of whom he still had secret hopes for the best.
The one thing to do was to prevent the Christians from effecting the breach which they evidently intended to make in the back-wall, before the Libyan army of relief should arrive; and, at the same time, to defend the front of the temple from the roof. There was a use for every one who could heave a stone or flourish a sword; and when he thought over the number of his troops he believed he might succeed in holding the building for some considerable time. But he was counting on false premises, for he did not know how attractive the races had proved to his "enthusiastic youth" and how great a change had come over most of them.
As soon as the wind had so far subsided that he could stand alone, he went to collect those that still remained, and to have the brass gong sounded which was to summon the combatants to their posts. Its metallic clang rang loud and far through the dim dawn; a deaf man might have heard it in the deepest recess of the sanctuary--and yet the minutes slipped by--a quarter of an hour--and no one had come at its call. The old captain's impatience turned to surprise, his surprise became wrath. The messengers he sent down did not return and the great moving shed of the Romans was brought nearer and nearer to the southern side of the temple, screening the miners from the rare missiles which the few men remaining with him cast clown by his orders.
The enemy were evidently making a suitable foundation on which to place the storming engine--a beam with a ram's head of iron-to make a breach in the temple-wall. Every minute's delay on the part of the besieged was an advantage to the enemy. A hundred-two hundred more hands on the roof, and their tactics might yet be defeated.
Tears of rage, of the bitter sense of impotence, started to the old soldier's eyes; and when, at length, one of his messengers came back and told him that the men and women alike seemed quite demented, and all and each refused to come up on the roof, he uttered a wrathful curse and rushed down-stairs himself.
He stormed in on the trembling wretches; and when he beheld with his own eyes all that his volunteers had done dining that fateful night, he raved and thundered; asked them, rather confusedly perhaps, if they knew what it was to be expected to command and find no obedience; scolded the refractory, driving some on in front of him; and then, as he perceived that some of them were making off with the girls through the door leading to the secret passage, he placed himself on guard with his sword drawn, and threatened to cut down any who attempted to escape.
In the midst of all this Olympius and his party had come into the ball and seeing the commander struggling, sword in hand, with the recalcitrant fugitives, where the noise was loudest, he and his guests hastened to the rescue and defended the door against the hundreds who were crowding to fly. The old man was grieved to turn the weapons they had seized in their sacred ardor, against the seceders from their own cause; but it had to be. While the loyal party--among them Karnis and Orpheus--guarded the passage to the underground rooms with shield and lance, Olympius took council of the veteran captain, and they rapidly decided to allow all the women to depart at once and to divide the men into two parties-one to be sent to fight on the roof, and the other to defend the wall where the Roman battering-ram was by this time almost ready to attack.
The high-priest took his stand boldly between his adherents and the would-be runaways and appealed to them in loud and emphatic tones to do their duty. They listened to him silently and respectfully; but when he ended by stating that the women were commanded to withdraw, a terrific outcry was raised, some of the girls clung to their lovers, while others urged the men to fight their way out.
Several, however, and among them the fair Glycera who a few hours since had smiled down triumphantly on her worshippers as Aphrodite, availed themselves at once of the permission to quit this scene of horrors, and made their way without delay to the subterranean passages. They had adorers in plenty in the city. But they did not get far; they were met by a temple-servant flying towards the great hall, who warned them to return thither at once: the Imperial soldiers had discovered the entrance to the aqueduct and posted sentries in the timber-yard. They turned and followed him with loud lamentations, and hardly had they got back into the temple when a new terror came upon them: the iron battering-ram came with a first heavy shock, thundering against the southern wall.
The Imperial troops were in fact masters of the secret passage; and they had begun the attack on the Serapeum in earnest. It was serious--but all was not yet lost; and in this fateful hour Olympius and Memnon proved their mettle. The high-priest commanded that the great stone trap-doors should be dropped into their places, and that the bridges across the gulfs, in the underground rooms reserved for the initiated, should be destroyed; and this there was yet time to do, for the soldiers had not yet ventured into those mysterious corridors, where there could not fail to be traps and men in ambush. Memnon meanwhile had hurried to the spot where the battering-ram had by this time dealt a second blow, shouting as he went to every man who was not a coward to follow him.
Karnis, Orpheus and the rest of the high-priest's guests obeyed his call and gathered round him; he commanded that everything portable should be brought out of the temple to be built into a barricade behind the point of attack, and that neither the most precious and beautiful statues, nor the brass and marble stelae and altar-slabs should be spared. Screened by this barricade, and armed with lances and bows--of which there were plenty at hand--he proposed, when the breach was made, to check the further advance of the foe.
He was not ill-pleased that the only way of escape was cut off; and as soon as he had seen the statues dragged from their pedestals, the altar-stones removed from the sacred places they had filled for half a century, benches and jars piled together and a stone barricade thus fairly advanced towards completion, he drafted off a small force for the defences on the roof. There was no escape now; and many a one who, to the very last, had hoped to find himself free, mounted the stairs reluctantly, because he would there be more immediately in the face of the foe than when defending the breach.
Olympius distributed weapons, and went from one to another, speaking words of encouragement; presently he found Gorgo who, with the bereaved widow, was still sitting at the foot of the statue of justice. He told her that her father was ill, and desired a servant to show her the way to his private room, that she might help the leech in attending on him. Berenice could not be induced to stir; she longed only for the end and was persuaded that it could not be far off. She listened eagerly to the blows of the battering-engine; each one sounded to her like a shock to the very structure of the universe. Another--and another--and at last the ancient masonry must give way and the grave that had already opened for her husband and her son would yawn to swallow her up with her sorrows. She shuddered and drew her hood over her face to screen it from the sun which now began to shine in. Its light was a grievance to her; she had hoped never to see another day.
The women, and with them a few helpless weaklings, had withdrawn to the rotunda, and before long they were laughing as saucily as ever.
From the roof blocks of stone and broken statues were hailing down on the besiegers, and in the halls below, the toiler who paused to wipe the sweat from his brow would brook no idleness in his comrade; the most recalcitrant were forced to bestir themselves, and the barricade inside the southern wall soon rose to a goodly height. No rampart was ever built of nobler materials; each stone was a work of art and had been reverenced for centuries as something sacred, or bore in an elegant inscription the memorial of noble deeds. This wall was to protect the highest of the gods, and among the detachment told off to defend it, were Karnis, his son, and his wife.