Serapis by Georg Ebers
The town of Alexandria was stirred to its very foundations. From dawn till night every centre of public traffic and intercourse was the scene of hostile meetings between Christians and heathen, with frequent frays and bloodshed, only stopped by the intervention of the soldiery. Still, as we see that the trivial round of daily tasks is necessarily fulfilled, even when the hand of Fate lies heaviest on a household, and that children cannot forego their play even when their father is stretched on his death-bed, so the minor interests of individual lives pursued their course, even in the midst of the general agitation and peril.
The current of trade and of public business was, of course, checked at many points, but they never came to a stand-still. The physician visited the sick, the convalescent made his first attempt, leaning on a friendly arm, to walk from his bedroom to the "viridarium," and alms were given and received. Hatred was abroad and rampant, but love held its own, strengthening old ties and forming new ones. Terror and grief weighed on thousands of hearts, while some tried to make a profit out of the prevailing anxiety, and others--many others--went forth, as light-hearted as ever, in pursuit of pleasure and amusement.
Horses were ridden and driven in the Hippodrome, and feasts were held in the pleasure-houses of Canopus, with music and noisy mirth; in the public gardens round the Paneum cock-fighting and quail-fighting were as popular as ever, and eager was the betting in new gold or humble copper. Thus may we see a child, safe on the roof of its father's house, floating its toy boat on the flood that has drowned them all out; thus might a boy fly his gaudy kite in the face of a gathering storm; thus does the miser, on whom death has already laid its bony hand, count his hoarded coin; thus thoughtless youth dances over the heaving soil at the very foot of a volcano. What do these care for the common weal? Each has his separate life and personal interests. What he himself needs or desires--the greatest or the least--is to him more important and more absorbing than the requirements of the vast organism in which he is no more than a drop of blood or the hair of an eyelash.
Olympius was still in concealment in the house of Porphyrius--Olympius, whose mind and will had formerly had such imperious hold on the fate of the city, and to whose nod above half of the inhabitants were still obedient. Porphyrius and his family shared his views and regarded themselves as his confederates; but, even among them, the minor details of life claimed their place, and Gorgo, who entered into the struggle for the triumph of the old gods, gave but a half-hearted attention to the great cause to which she was enthusiastically devoted, because a companion of her childhood, to whose attentions she had every claim, delayed his visit longer than was kind.
She had performed her 'Isis' lament the day before with all her heart and soul, and had urgently claimed Agne's assistance; but to-day, though she had been singing again and well, she had stopped to listen whenever she heard a door open in the adjoining room or voices in the garden, and had sung altogether with so much less feeling and energy than before that Karnis longed to reprove her sharply enough. This, however, would have been too indiscreet, so he could only express his annoyance by saying to his son, in a loud whisper:
"The most remarkable gifts, you see, and the highest abilities are of no avail so long as Art and Life are not one and the same--so long as Art is not the Alpha and Omega of existence, but merely an amusement or a decoration."
Agne had been true to herself, and had modestly but steadfastly declared that she could not possibly enter the temple of Isis, and her refusal had been accepted quite calmly, and without any argument or controversy. She had not been able to refuse Gorgo's request that she would repeat to-day the rehearsal she had gone through yesterday, since, to all appearance, her cooperation at the festival had been altogether given up. How could the girl guess that the venerable philosopher, who had listened with breathless admiration to their joint performance, had taken upon himself to dissipate her doubts and persuade her into compliance?
Olympius laid the greatest stress on Agne's assistance, for every one who clung to the worship of the old gods was to assemble in the sanctuary of Isis; and the more brilliant and splendid the ceremony could be made the more would that enthusiasm be fired which, only too soon, would be put to crucial proof. On quitting the temple the crowd of worshippers, all in holiday garb, were to pass in front of the Prefect's residence, and if only they could effect this great march through the city in the right frame of mind, it might confidently be expected that every one who was not avowedly Jew or Christian, would join the procession. It would thus become a demonstration of overwhelming magnitude and Cynegius, the Emperor's representative, could not fail to see what the feeling was of the majority of the towns folk, and what it was to drive matters to extremes and lay hands on the chief temples of such a city.
To Olympius the orator, grown grey in the exercise of logic and eloquence, it seemed but a small matter to confute the foolish doubts of a wilful girl. He would sweep her arguments to the winds as the storm drives the clouds before it; and any one who had seen the two together--the fine old man with the face and front of Zeus, with his thoughtful brow and broad chest, who could pour forth a flood of eloquence fascinatingly persuasive or convincingly powerful, and the modest, timid girl--could not have doubted on which side the victory must be.
To-day, for the first time, Olympius had found leisure for a prolonged interview with his old friend Karnis, and while the girls were in the garden, amusing little Papias by showing him the swans and tame gazelles, the philosopher had made enquiries as to the Christian girl's history and then had heard a full account of the old musician's past life. Karnis felt it as a great favor that his old friend, famous now for his learning--the leader of his fellow-thinkers in the second city of the world, the high-priest of Serapis, to whose superior intellect he himself had bowed even in their student days--should remember his insignificant person and allow him to give him the history of the vicissitudes which had reduced him--the learned son of a wealthy house--to the position of a wandering singer.
Olympius had been his friend at the time when Karnis, on leaving college, instead of devoting himself to business and accounts, as his father wished, had thrown himself into the study of music, and at once distinguished himself as a singer, lute-player and leader of heathen choirs. Karnis was in Alexandria when the news reached him of his father's death. Before quitting the city he married Herse, who was beneath him alike in birth and in fortune, and who accompanied him on his return to Tauromenium in Sicily, where he found himself the possessor of an inheritance of which the extent and importance greatly astonished him.
At Alexandria he had been far better acquainted with the theatre than with the Museum or the school of the Serapeum; nay, as an amateur, he had often sung in the chorus there and acted as deputy for the regular leader. The theatre in his native town of Tauromenium had also been a famous one of old, but, at the time of his return, it had sunk to a very low ebb. Most of the inhabitants of the beautiful city nestling at the foot off Etna, had been converted to Christianity; among them the wealthy citizens at whose cost the plays had been performed and the chorus maintained. Small entertainments were still frequently given, but the singers and actors had fallen off, and in that fine and spacious theatre nothing was ever done at all worthy of its past glories. This Karnis deeply regretted, and with his wonted energy and vigor he soon managed to win the interest of those of his fellow-citizens who remained faithful to the old gods and had still some feeling for the music and poetry of the ancient Greeks, in his plans for their revival.
His purpose was to make the theatre the centre of a reaction against the influence of the Christians, by vieing with the Church in its efforts to win back the renegade heathen and confirming the faithful in their adhesion. The Greeks of Tauromenium should be reminded from the stage-boards of the might of the old gods and the glories of their past. To this end it was needful to restore the ruined theatre, and Karnis, after advancing the greater part of the money required, was entrusted with the management. He devoted himself zealously to the task, and soon was so successful that the plays at Tauromenium, and the musical performances in its Odeum, attracted the citizens in crowds, and were talked of far and wide. Such success was of course only purchased at a heavy cost, and in spite of Herse's warnings, Karnis would never hesitate when the object in view was the preservation or advancement of his great work.
Thus passed twenty years; then there came a day when his fine fortune was exhausted, and a time when the Christian congregation strained every nerve to deal a death-blow to the abomination of desolation in their midst. Again and again, and with increasing frequency, there were sanguinary riots between the Christians who forced their way into the theatre and the heathen audience, till at last a decree of the Emperor Theodosius prohibited the performance of heathen plays or music.
Now, the theatre at Tauromenium, for which Karnis had either given or advanced his whole inheritance, had ceased to exist, and the usurers who, when his own fortune was spent, had lent him moneys on the security of the theatre itself--while it still flourished--or on his personal security, seized his house and lands and would have cast him into the debtor's prison if he had not escaped that last disgrace by flight. Some good friends had rescued his family and helped them to follow him, and when they rejoined him he had begun his wanderings as a singer. Many a time had life proved miserable enough; still, he had always remained true to his art and to the gods of Olympus.
Olympius had listened to his narrative with many tokens of sympathy and agreement, and when Karnis, with tears in his eyes, brought his story to a close, the philosopher laid his hand on his friend's shoulder and drawing him towards him, exclaimed:
"Well done, my brave old comrade! We will both be faithful to the same good cause! You have made sacrifices for it as I have; and we need not despair yet. If we triumph here our friends in a thousand towns will begin to look up. The reading of the stars last night, and the auguries drawn from this morning's victims, portend great changes. What is down to the ground to-day may float high in the air to-morrow. All the signs indicate: 'A fall to the Greatest;' and what can be greater than Rome, the old tyrant queen of the nations? The immediate future, it is true, can hardly bring the final crash, but it is fraught with important consequences to us. I dreamed of the fall of the Caesars, and of a great Greek Empire risen from the ruins, powerful and brilliant under the special protection of the gods of Olympus; and each one of us must labor to bring about the realization of this dream. You have set a noble example of devotion and self-sacrifice, and I thank you in the name of all those who feel with us--nay, in the name of the gods themselves whom I serve! The first thing to be done now is to avert the blow which the Bishop intends shall strike us by the hand of Cynegius--it has already fallen on the magnificent sanctuary of the Apamaean Zeus. If the ambassador retires without having gained his purpose the balance will be greatly--enormously, in our favor, and it will cease to be a folly to believe in the success of our cause."
"Ah! teach us to hope once more," cried the musician. "That in itself is half the victory; still, I cannot see how this delay. . ."
"It would give us time, and that is what we want," replied Olympius. "Everything is in preparation, but nothing is ready. Alexandria, Athens, Antioch, and Neapolis are to be the centres of the outbreak. The great Libanius is not a man of action, and even he approves of our scheme. No less a man than Florentin has undertaken to recruit for our cause among the heathen officers in the army. Messala, and the great Gothic captains Fraiut and Generid are ready to fight for the old gods. Our army will not lack leaders. . ."
"Our army!" exclaimed Karnis in surprise. "Is the matter so far advanced?"
"I mean the army of the future," cried Olympius enthusiastically. "It does not count a man as yet, but is already distributed into several legions. The vigor of mind and body--our learned youth on one hand and strong-armed peasantry on the other--form the nucleus of our force. Maximus could collect, in the utmost haste, the army which deprived Gratian of his throne and life, and was within a Hair-breadth of overthrowing Theodosius; and what was he but an ambitious rebel, and what tempted his followers but their hopes of a share in the booty? But we--we enlist them in the name of the loftiest ideas and warmest desires of the human heart, and, as the prize of victory, we show them the ancient faith with freedom of thought--the ancient loveliness of life. The beings whom the Christians can win over--a patch-work medley of loathsome Barbarians--let them wear out their lives as they choose! We are Greeks--the thinking brain, the subtle and sentient soul of the world. The polity, the empire, that we shall found on the overthrow of Theodosius and of Rome shall be Hellenic, purely Hellenic. The old national spirit, which made the Greeks omnipotent against the millions of Darius and Xerxes, shall live again, and we will keep the Barbarians at a distance as a Patrician forbids his inferiors to count themselves as belonging to his illustrious house. The Greek gods, Greek heroism, Greek art and Greek learning, under our rule shall rise from the dust--all the more promptly for the stringent oppression under which their indomitable spirit has so long languished."
"You speak to my heart!" cried Karnis. "My old blood flows more swiftly already, and if I only had a thousand talents left to give. . ."
"You would stake them on the future Greek Empire," said Olympius eagerly. "And we have adherents without number who feel as you do, my trusty friend. We shall succeed--as the great Julian would have succeeded but for the assassins who laid him low at so early an age; for Rome. . ."
"Rome is still powerful."
"Rome is a colossus built up of a thousand blocks; but among them a hundred and more be but loosely in their places, and are ready to drop away from the body of the foul monster--sooner rather than later. Our shout alone will shake them down, and they will fall on our side, we may choose the best for our own use. Ere long--a few months only--the hosts will gather in the champaign country at the foot of Vesuvius, by land and by sea; Rome will open its gates wide to us who bring her back her old gods; the Senate will proclaim the emperor deposed and the Republic restored. Theodosius will come out against us. But the Idea for which we go forth to fight will hover before us, will stir the hearts of those soldiers and officers who would gladly--ah! how gladly-sacrifice to the Olympian gods and who only kiss the wounds of the crucified Jew under compulsion. They will desert from the labarum, which Constantine carried to victory, to our standards; and those standards are all there, ready for use; they have been made in this city and are lying hidden in the house of Apollodorus. Heaven-sent daemons showed them in a vision to my disciple Ammonius, when he was full of the divinity and lost in ecstasy, and I have had them made from his instructions."
"And what do they represent?"
"The bust of Serapis with the 'modius' on his head. It is framed in a circle with the signs of the zodiac and the images of the great Olympian deities. We have given our god the head of Zeus, and the corn-measure on his head is emblematic of the blessing that the husbandman hopes for. The zodiac promises us a good star, and the figures representing it are not the common emblems, but each deeply significant. The Twins, for instance, are the mariner's divinities, Castor and Pollux; Hercules stands by the Lion whom he has subdued; and the Fishes are dolphins, which love music. In the Scales, one holds the cross high in the air while the other is weighed down by Apollo's laurel-wreath and the bolts of Zeus; in short, our standard displays everything that is most dear to the soul of a Greek or that fills him with devotion. Above all, Nike hovers with the crown of victory. If only fitting leaders are to be found at the centres of the movement, these standards will at once be sent out, and with them arms for the country-folk. A place of meeting has already been selected in each province, the pass-word will be given, and a day fixed for a general rising."
"And they will flock round you!" interrupted Karnis, "and--I, my son, will not be absent. Oh glorious, happy, and triumphant day! Gladly will I die if only I may first live to see the smoking offerings sending up their fragrance to the gods before the open doors of every temple in Greece; see the young men and maidens dancing in rapt enthusiasm to the sound of lutes and pipes, and joining their voices in the chorus! Then light will shine once more on the world, then life will once more mean joy, and death a departure from a scene of bliss."
"Aye, and thus shall it be!" cried Olympius, fired by this eager exposition of his own excitement, and he wrung the musician's hand. "We will restore life to the Greeks and teach them to scorn death as of yore. Let the Christians, the Barbarians, make life miserable and seek joy in death, if they list! But the girls have ceased singing. There is still much to be done to-day, and first of all I must confute the objections of your recalcitrant pupil."
"You will not find it an easy task," said Karnis. "Reason is a feeble weapon in contending with a woman."
"Not always," replied the philosopher. "But you must know how to use it. Leave me to deal with the child. There are really no singing-women left here; we have tried three, but they were all vulgar and ill taught. This girl, when she sings with Gorgo, has a voice that will go to the heart of the audience. What we want is to fire the crowd with enthusiasm, and she will help us to do it."
"Well, well. But you, Olympius, you who are the very soul of the revulsion we hope for, you must not be present at the festival. Indeed, sheltered as you are under Porphyrius' roof, there is a price on your head, and this house swarms with slaves, who all know you; if one of them, tempted by filthy lucre . . ."
"They will not betray me," smiled the philosopher. "They know that their aged mistress, Damia, and I myself command the daemons of the upper and lower spheres, and that at a sign from her or from me they would instantly perish; and even if there were an Ephialtes among them, a spring through that loop-hole would save me. Be easy, my friend. Oracles and stars alike foretell me death from another cause than the treason of a slave."