Serapis by Georg Ebers
The terrific storm of the preceding night had thrown the whole city into dismay. Everyone knew the danger that threatened Serapis, and what must ensue if he were overthrown; and everyone had thought that the end of the world had indeed come. But the tempest died away; the sun's bright glow dispersed the clouds and mist; sea and sky smiled radiantly blue, and the trees and herbage glistened in revived freshness.
Not yet had the Romans dared to lay hands on the chief of the gods, the patron and protector of the city. Serapis had perhaps sent the lightning, thunder and rain as a message to warn his foes. If only they might abstain from the last, worst crime of desecrating his image!
Nor was this the hope of the heathen only; on the contrary: Jews and Christians no less dreaded the fall of the god and of his temple. He was the pride, the monumental glory of the city of Alexander; the centre of foundations and schools which benefited thousands. The learning which was the boast of Alexandria dwelt under his protection; to the Serapeum was attached a medical Faculty which enjoyed the reputation of being the first in the world; from its observatory the course of the year was forecast and the calendar was promulgated. An hour's slumber in its halls brought prophetic dreams, and the future must remain undivined if Serapis were to fall, for the god revealed it to his priests, not merely by the courses and positions of the stars, but by many other signs; and it was a delight and a privilege to look forward from the certain, tangible present to the mysteries of the morrow.
Even Christian seers answered the questionings of their followers in a way which portended the worst, and it was a grief to many of the baptized to think of their native city without Serapis and the Serapeum, just as we cannot bear to cut down a tree planted by the hand of an ancestor, even though it may darken our home. The temple ought to be closed, bloody sacrifices to the god should be prohibited--but his image--the noblest work of Bryaxis--to mutilate, or even to touch that would be a rash, a fateful deed, treason to the city and an outrage on the world.
Thus thought the citizens; thus, too, thought the soldiers, who were required by military discipline to draw the sword against the god in whom many of them believed.
As the news spread that the troops were to attack the Serapeum early next morning, thousands of spectators collected, and filled the temple itself in breathless anxiety to watch the issue of the struggle.
The sky was as clear and blue as on any other fine day; but over the sea to the north lay a light stratum of clouds--the harbingers perhaps of the appalling blackness which the god would presently bring up against his enemies.
The men who had defended the Serapeum were led away; it had been determined in a council of war that they should be treated with clemency, and Cynegius had proclaimed free and full pardon to every prisoner who would swear never, for the future, to sacrifice to the god or worship in his temple.
Not one of the hundreds who had fallen into the hands of the Romans had refused to take the oath; they dispersed at once, though with suppressed fury, many of them joining the crowd who stood waiting and watching for the next step to be taken by the Romans--for the final crash of the universe, perhaps.
The doors of the temple were thrown wide open; the temple-servants and hundreds of soldiers were busied in clearing the steps and approaches of the stones and fragments of statuary with which the heathen had encumbered them. As soon as this task was finished the dead and wounded were removed; among those who still breathed was Orpheus, the son of Karnis. Those who had been so happy as to escape in the defence of the sanctuary and had mingled with the crowd were besieged with questions, and all agreed that the statue of the god was as yet inviolate.
The citizens were relieved, but ere long were startled by a new alarm; an Ala of heavy cavalry came upon the scene, opening a way for an immensely long procession whose chanted psalms rang out from afar, loud above the cries and murmurs of the mob, the clatter of harness, and stamping of horses. It was clear now where the monks had been. They were not usually absent when there was a skirmish with the heathen; but, till this moment, they had been seen only in twos or threes about the Serapeum. Now they came forward shouting a psalm of triumph, their eyes glaring, wilder and more ruthless than ever.
The Bishop marched at their head, in his vestments, under a magnificent canopy; his lofty stature was drawn to its full height and his lips were firmly closed.
He looked like a stern judge about to mount the tribunal to pronounce sentence with inexorable severity on some execrable crime.
The crowd quailed.
The Bishop and the monks in the Serapeum, meant the overthrow of the statue of the sovereign god--death and destruction. The boldest turned pale; many who had left wife and children at home stole away to await the end of the world with those they loved; others remained to watch the menaced sanctuary, cursing or praying; but the greater number, men and women alike, crowded into the temple, risking their lives to be present at the stupendous events about to be enacted there and which promised to be a drama of unequalled interest.
At the bottom of the ascent the Comes rode forth to meet the Bishop, leaped from his saddle and greeted him with reverence. The Imperial legate had not made his appearance; he had preferred to remain for the present at the prefect's house, intending to preside, later in the day, at the races as the Emperor's representative, side by side with the Prefect Evagrius--who also kept aloof during the attack on the Serapeum. After a brief colloquy, Romanus signed to Constantine, the captain of the cavalry; the troop dismounted, and, led by their officer, marched up the slope that led to the great gate of the Serapeum. They were followed by the Comes with his staff; next to him pale and somewhat tremulous came some of the city officials and a few Christian members of the senate; and then the Bishop--who had preferred to come last--with all the Christian priesthood and a crowd of chanting monks. The train was closed by a division of heavy-armed infantry; and after them the populace rushed in, unchecked by the soldiers who stood outside the temple.
The great halls of the Serapeum had been put in order as well as possible in so short a time. Of all those who, the day before, had crowded in to defend the god and his house, none were left but Porphyrius and those who were nursing him. After a long and agonizing period of silence heavy fists came thundering at the door. Gorgo started up to unbolt it, but Apuleius held her back; so it was forced off its hinges and thing into the temple-aisle on which the room opened. At the same instant a party of soldiers entered the room and glanced round it enquiringly.
The physician turned as pale as death, and sank incapable of speech on a seat by his patient's couch; but Gorgo turned with calm dignity to the centurion who led the intruders, and explained to him who she was, and that she was here under the protection of the leech to tend her suffering father. She concluded by asking to speak with Constantine the prefect of cavalry, or with the Comes Romanus, to whom she and her father were well known.
There was nothing unusual in a sick man being brought into the Serapeum for treatment, and the calm, undoubting superiority of Gorgo's tone as well as the high rank of the men whose protection she appealed to, commanded the centurion's respectful consideration; however, his orders were to send every one out of the temple who was not a Roman soldier, so he begged her to wait a few minutes, and soon returned with the legate Volcatius, the captain of his legion. This knightly patrician well knew--as did every lover of horses--the owner of the finest stable in Alexandria, and was quite willing to allow Gorgo and Apuleius to remain with their patient; at the same time he warned them that a great catastrophe was imminent. Gorgo, however, persisted in her wish to be by her father's side, so he left her a guard to protect them.
The soldiers were too busy to linger; instead of replacing the door they had torn down, they pushed it out of their way; and Gorgo, seeing that her father remained in precisely the same condition, drew back the curtain which was all that now divided them from the hypostyle, and looked out over the heads of a double row of soldiers. They were posted close round the lower step of the platform that raised the hypostyle above the nave and the colonnades on each side of it.
In the distance Gorgo could see a vast body of men slowly approaching in detachments, and with long pauses at intervals. They stopped for some time in the outer hall, and before they entered the basilica twenty Christian priests came in with strange gestures and a still stranger chant; these were exorcists, come to bann the evil spirits and daemons that must surely haunt this high place of idolatry and abominations. They carried crosses which they flourished like weapons against an unseen foe, and touched the columns with them, the pavement and the few remaining statues; they fell on their knees, making the sign of the cross with the left hand; and, finally, they ranged themselves like soldiers in three ranks in front of the niche containing the statue, pointed their crosses at the god, and recited in loud, angry, and commanding tones the potent anathemas and mysterious formulas which they thought calculated to expel the most reprobate and obdurate of all the heathen devils. A host of acolytes, following at their heels, swung their censers about the plague-spot--the shrine of the king of idols; while the exorcists dipped wands into a cauldron carried by their attendants, and sprinkled the mystical figures on the hanging and on the mosaic pavement.
All this occupied several minutes. Then--and Gorgo's heart beat high--then Constantine came in, armed and equipped, and behind him an Ala of picked men, the elite of his troop; bearded men with tanned and scarred faces. Instead of swords they carried axes, and they were followed by sappers bearing tall ladders which, by Constantine's orders, they leaned up against the niche. The infantry ranged under the colonnades at the sides were evidently startled at the sight of these ladders, and Gorgo could perceive by the trembling of the curtain near which she and Apuleius were standing, how deeply the physician was agitated. It was as though the axe had been displayed with which a king was about to be decapitated.
Now the Bishop came in with the municipal dignitaries; priests and monks, chanting as they walked, filled the broad hall, incessantly making the sign of the cross; and the crowd that poured into the hypostyle pressed as far forward as they were allowed by the chain which the soldiers held outstretched between them and their superiors.
The populace-heathen and Christian of every sect and degree-filled the aisles, too; but the chain also kept them off the upper end, on to which the room opened in which Porphyrius lay; so that Gorgo's view of the curtain and apse remained unhindered.
The psalm rang loudly through the temple-courts above the murmur and grumble of the angry, terrified and expectant mob. They were prepared for the worst; each one knew the crime which was to be perpetrated, and yet few, perhaps, really believed that any one would dare to commit it. Whichever way she looked Gorgo saw only white faces, stamped with passion, dismay, and dread. The very priests and soldiers themselves had turned pale, and stood with bloodless cheeks and set teeth, staring at the ground; some, to disguise their alarm, cast wrathful and defiant glances at the rebellious mob, who tried to drown the psalm-singing in loud menaces and curses, and the echoes of the great building doubled their thousand voices.
A strange unrest seethed in this dense mass of humanity. The heathen were trembling with rage, clutching their amulets and charms, or shaking angry fists; the Christians thrilled with anxiety and pious zeal, and used their hands to lift the cross or to ward off the evil one with outstretched fingers. Every face and every gesture, the muttered curses and pious hymns--all showed that some terrible and fateful event was impending over all. Gorgo herself felt as though she were standing on the brink of a crater, while air and earth heaved around her; she felt and saw the eruption of the volcano threatening, every instant, to burst at her feet, and to choke and ruin every living thing.
The uproar among the heathen grew louder and louder; fragments of stone and wood came flying towards the spot where the Bishop and officials were standing; but, suddenly, the tumult ceased, and, as if by a miracle, there was silence--perfect silence--in the temple. It was as though at a sign from the Omnipotent Ruler the storm-lashed ocean had turned to the calm of a land-locked lake. At a nod from the Bishop some acolytes had stepped up to the niche where the statue of the god was shrouded and the curtain, which till now had hidden it, slowly began to fall.
There sat Serapis, looking down in majestic indifference, as cold and unapproachable as if his sublime dignity was far removed above the petty doings of the crawling humanity at his feet; and the effect was as impressive now as it had been the evening before. How beautiful--how marvellously grand and lofty was this work of human hands! Even the Christians could not repress a low, long-drawn murmur of surprise, admiration, and astonishment. The heathen were at first silent, overcome by pious awe and ecstasy; but then they broke out in a loud and triumphant shout, and their cries of "Hail to Serapis!" "Serapis, reign forever!" rang from pillar to pillar and echoed from the stony vault of the apse and ceiling.
Gorgo crossed her hands over her bosom as she saw the god revealed in his glorious beauty. Spotlessly pure, complete and perfect, the noble statue stood before her; an idol indeed, and perishable--but still divine as a matchless work, wrought by the loving hands of a votary of the god, inspired by the immortals. She gazed spell-bound on the form which, though human, transcended humanity as eternity transcends time, as the light of the sun transcended the blazing beacon on Pharos; and she said to herself that it was impossible that an irreverent hand should be laid on this supremely lovely statue, crowned with the might of undying beauty.
She saw that even the Bishop drew back a step when the curtain had fallen, and his lips parted involuntarily to utter a cry of admiration like the others; but she saw, too, that he closed them again and pressed them more firmly together; that his eye sparkled with a fiercer light as the shout of the heathen rose to heaven, that the knotted veins on his high forehead swelled with rage as he heard the cry of "Serapis, Hail, all hail!" Then she noted the Comes, as he whispered soothing words in the prelate's ear, praying him perhaps to spare the statue--not as an idol, but as a work of art; as he turned from Theophilus with a shrug; and then--her heart stood still, and she had to cling to the curtain--he pointed to the statue, with a nod of intelligence to Constantine. The young officer bowed with military formality and gave a word of command to his men, which was drowned by the wild cries of the heathen as soon as they apprehended with dismay what its import was.
The veterans were stirred. A subaltern officer, putting the standard he bore into the hands of the man next to him and taking his axe from him instead, rushed towards the statue, gazed up at it--and then, letting the axe sink, withdrew slowly to rejoin the others who still stood hesitating, looking at each other with doubting and defiant eyes.
Once more Constantine shouted his order, louder and more positively than before; but the men did not move. The subaltern flung his axe on the ground and the rest followed his example, pointing eagerly to the god, and vehemently adjuring their prefect--refusing apparently to obey his commands--for he went to the recalcitrant standard-bearer, a grey-haired veteran, and laying his hand on the man's shoulder shook him angrily, evidently threatening him and his comrades.
In these brave souls a struggle was going on, between their sense of discipline and devotion to their fine young leader, and their awe of the god; it was visible in their puzzled faces, in their hands raised in supplication. Constantine, however, relentlessly repeated his order; and, when they still refused to obey, he turned his back on their ranks with a gesture of bitter contempt, and shouted his commands to the infantry posted by the colonnade behind which Gorgo was watching all these proceedings.
But these also were refractory. The heathen were triumphant, and encouraged the soldiers with loud cries to persist.
Constantine turned once more to his own men, and finding them obstinate in their disobedience, he went forward himself to where the ladders were standing, moved one of them from the wall and leaned it up against the body of the statue, seized the axe that lay nearest, and mounted from rung to rung. The murmurs of the heathen were suddenly silenced; the multitude were so still that the least sound of one plate of armor against another was audible, that each man could hear his neighbor breathe, and that Gorgo fancied she could hear her own heart throb.
The man and the god stood face to face, and the man who was about to lay hands on the god was her lover. She watched his movements with breathless interest; she longed to call out to him, to follow him as he mounted the ladder, to fall on his neck and keep him from committing such sacrilege--not out of fear of the ruin he might bring upon the world, but only because she felt that the first blow he should deal to this beautiful and unique work of art might wreck her love for him, as his axe would wreck the ivory. She was not afraid for him; he seemed to her inviolable and invulnerable; but her whole soul shuddered at the deed which he was steeling himself to perpetrate. She remembered their happy childhood together, his own artistic attempts, the admiration with which he had gazed at the great works of the ancient sculptors--and it seemed impossible that he, of all men he, should lay hands on that masterpiece, that he, of all men, should be the one to insult, mutilate and ruin it. It was not--could not be true!
But there he was, at the top of the ladder; he passed the axe from his left hand to his right, and leaning back a little, looked at the head of the god from one side. She could see his face plainly, and note every movement and look; she watched him keenly, and saw the loving and compassionate expression with which he fixed his gaze on the noble features of Serapis, saw him clutch his left hand to his heart as if in pain. The crowd below might fancy that he lacked courage, that he was absorbed in prayer, or that his soul shrank from dealing the fateful blow to the great divinity; but she could see that he was bidding a silent farewell, as it were, to the sublime work of an inspired artist, which it pained and shocked him to destroy. And this comforted her; it gave her views of the situation a new direction, and suggested the question whether he, a soldier and a Christian, when commanded by his superior to do this deed ought to shrink or hesitate, if he were indeed, heart and soul, what, after all, he was. Her eyes clung to him, as a frightened child clings to its mother's neck; and the expectant thousands, in an agony of suspense, like her, saw nothing but him.
Stillness more profound never reigned in the heart of the desert than now in this vast and densely-crowded hall. Of all man's five senses only one was active: that of sight; and that was concentrated on a single object a man's hand holding an axe. The hearts of thousands stood still, their breath was suspended, there was a singing in their ears, a dazzling light in their eyes--eyes that longed to see, that must see--and that could not; thousands stood there like condemned criminals, whose heads are on the block, who hear the executioner behind them, and who still, on the very threshold of death, hope for respite and release.
Gorgo found no answer to her own questionings; but she, too, wanted to see--must see. And she saw Constantine close his eyes, as though he dared not contemplate the deed that Fate had condemned him to do; she saw him lay his left hand on the god's sacred beard, saw him raise his right for the fatal blow--saw, heard, felt the axe crash again and again on the cheek of Serapis--saw the polished ivory fall in chips and shavings, large and small, on the stone floor, and leap up with an elastic rebound or shiver into splinters. She covered her face with her hands and hid her head in the curtain, weeping aloud. She could only moan and sob, and feel nothing, think nothing but that a momentous and sinister act had been perpetrated. An appalling uproar like the noise of thunder and the beating of surf rose up on every side, but she heeded it not; and when at length the physician called her by her name, when she turned from the curtain and once more looked out, instead of the sublime image of the god she saw in the niche a shapeless log of wood, a hideous mass against which several ladders were propped, while the ground was heaped and strewed with scraps of ivory, fragments of gold-plate, and chips of marble. Constantine had disappeared; the ladders and the plinth of the statue were covered with a swarm of soldiers and monks who were finishing the work of destruction. As soon as the young officer had struck the first blow, and the god had submitted in abject impotence, they had rushed upon him and saved their captain the trouble of ending the task he had begun.
The great idol was desecrated. Serapis was no more--the heaven of the heathen had lost its king. The worshippers of the deposed god, sullen, furious, and bitterly disabused, made their way out of the temple and looked up at the serene blue sky, the unclouded sunshine, for some symptoms of an avenging tempest; but in vain.
Theophilus had also quitted the scene with the Comes, leaving the work of devastation in the competent hands of the monks. He knew his skin-clad adherents well; and he knew that within a very few days not an idol, not a picture, not a token would remain intact to preserve the memory of the old gods; a thousand slaves charged to sweep the Serapeum from the face of the earth would have given his impatience twenty times as long to wait. The Comes went off at once to the Hippodrome, preceded by hundreds who had hurried off to tell the assembled multitude that Alexandria had lost her god.
Constantine, however, had not left the temple; he had withdrawn into one of the aisles and seated himself on the steps, where he remained, sunk in thought and gazing at the ground. He was a soldier and took service and discipline in earnest. What he had done he had been forced to do; but no one could guess how hard it had been to him to fulfil this terrible duty. His own act was abominable in his eyes, and yet he would have done it again to-morrow, if it had again been required of him under similar circumstances. He bewailed the beautiful statue as a lost treasure of art; but he felt that it was indispensable that it should perish out of the world. And at the same time he thought of Gorgo, wondering how she--who had only the day before pledged herself to him, whom he loved with fervent passion, to whom, as he well knew, his faith was something monstrous in its contempt for beauty--would bear to learn that he, her lover, was the man who, like some coarse barbarian, had defaced this noble work and ruined this vision of beauty, no less dear to him than it was to her. Still, as he sat brooding and searching the very depths of his soul, he could not help feeling that he had certainly acted rightly and would do the same again, even at the risk of losing her. To him Gorgo, was the noblest of God's creatures, and how could he have borne to go through life at her side with a stain on his honor? But he did not conceal from himself the fact that his deed had opened a wide gulf between them; and it was with deep pathos that his thoughts recurred to the antique conception of tragedy--of fate which pursues its innocent victims as though they were guilty. This day perhaps would witness the sunset of his life's joy, would drive him forth once more to war--to fight, and do nothing but fight, till death should meet him on the battle-field. And as he sat there his eyes grew dim and heavy and his head fell on his heaving breast.
Suddenly he felt a light touch on his shoulder, and turning round, he saw Gorgo standing with her hand outstretched; he started to his feet, seized it with eager passion and looking sadly into the young girl's eyes said, with deep emotion:
"I would I might hold this hand forever--but you will leave me, you will turn from me when I tell you of the deed that mine has done."
"I know it," she said firmly. "And it was a hard task even for you--a painful duty--was it not?"
"Terrible! horrible!" he exclaimed with a shudder, as he recalled the feelings of that momentous instant. She looked sympathetically into his eyes.
"And you did it," she cried, "because you felt that you must and will be wholly what you profess to be? It is right--the only right; I feel it so. I will try to imitate you, and rise above the half-heartedness which is the bane of existence, and which makes the firm path of life a trembling, swaying bridge. I am yours, wholly yours; I have none other gods but yours, and for love of you I will learn to love your God--for you have often and often called him a God of Love."
"And He is a God of Love!" cried Constantine, "and you will know him and confess him even without teaching; for our Saviour lives in every heart that is filled with love. Oh! Gorgo, I have destroyed that beautiful idol, but I will let you see that even a Christian can duly value and cherish beauty in his home and in his heart."
"I am sure of it," she exclaimed joyfully. "The world goes on its way and does not quake, in spite of the fall of Serapis; but I feel as though in my inmost soul a world had perished and a new one was created, nobler and purer, and perhaps even more lovely than the old one!"
He pressed her hand to his lips; she signed to him to follow her and led the way to her father's couch. Porphyrius was sitting up, supported in the physician's arms; his eyes were open, and as they entered he greeted them with a faint smile.