Part 10 out of 12
his first rebuff ensuing on Galen's tip to me and mine to Vedia. He was so
cautious about not thrusting himself on Vedia that their acquaintance,
quite naturally, warmed again gradually into mutual interest and romantic
affection and was ripening into love when the sight of you yesterday
annihilated his excellent chances of marrying her. He was just about to
buy for her a two-million-sesterce pearl necklace. If she had accepted the
gift it would have been tantamount to a public pledge to marry him. Poor
When he left he gave me a letter from Vedia, a letter as loving as a lover
could wish for. She declared that she would not marry Flavius Clemens nor
anybody except me and would wait for me as long as might be necessary or
stay unmarried until the end of her days, if, by any misfortune, the end
came to her before she and I were free to marry.
She said that we must avoid each other as much as possible and that I must
not spoil my chances of safety either by relying too recklessly on my
disguise or through risking arousing suspicion in Falco by any attempt at
confining myself to my apartment, which would have been altogether
incongruous with the character I had assumed.
The rest of that year and all the winter I passed living the normal life
of an indulged and pampered favorite of an opulent bachelor dilettante
noble. It was a life almost as enjoyable as the life of a wealthy nobleman
to which I had been born and brought up.
I had but one anxiety and that was not small and it steadily increased. It
was caused by a progressive alteration and deterioration in the character
of my master. In all other respects he remained the man he had been when
he first bought me, but as a gem-fancier his hobby became a passion which
deepened into a mania and colored, or discolored, all he did. He had, as
he always had had, a very large surplus of income over and above what was
needful to maintain his huge estates in Africa, his many luxurious villas
and town-palaces there, his yacht and his palaces in Italy at Baiae and at
Rome. The normal accumulation of this surplus had taxed his sagacity as an
investor, for it was always harder for him to find advantageous
investments for his redundant cash than to find cash for tempting
investments. Certainly his excess income more than sufficed for any
reasonable indulgence in gem-collecting.
Yet his outlay for rare gems ran up to and outran and far outran his
resources. The strange result was that he, who had huge revenues from
estates and safe investments, desired a still greater income. He began to
embark in risky ventures which promised large and quick returns. He went
into partnership with two different nobles, who made a practice of bidding
on the taxes of frontier provinces exposed to enemy raids. Bidders were
shy of investing their cash in the problematical returns of such regions
and those who had the hardihood to enter into contracts with the
government made huge profits if lucky. Falco was lucky each time. He
plunged again and again.
He also embarked similarly in bidding for unpromising contracts and in
buying up estates thrown unexpectedly on the market. All his ventures
turned out successfully, he gained great resources for indulging his fad
for gems and rare curios, his collection grew and became one of the most
famous private collections in Rome.
Also his mania for speculation grew as fast as his mania for collecting
This led to my exposure to the oddest and most alarming peril which I had
run since Agathemer and I crawled through the drain-pipe at Villa Andivia;
greater I think, than the risk I ran when I nearly encountered Gratillus
at Placentia. This happened about eleven months after I came to Rome with
Falco, in the spring of the year when Pedo Apronianus and Valerius Bradua
This occurrence and the circumstances which led up to it I cannot forbear
narrating, but I shall not go into details, for it involves at least
allusion to behavior not at all creditable to my owner and I am unwilling
to disparage or seem to disparage one who was to me a dear friend and a
generous benefactor. The truth is that his passion for gem-collecting had
not only undermined his character but had, in a way, sapped the
foundations of his native uprightness. If he had remained the man he was
when he bought me he would not have been capable of entertaining, let
alone of acting on, the considerations which actuated him.
He thought he saw a chance to make vast profits quickly with no risks. But
to achieve this he needed the presence and the countenance of another
wealthy nobleman of the African province, who, like him when he purchased
me, had never been in Rome or, indeed, out of the colony. The name of this
man, whom I had met while in Thysdrus, was Salsonius Salinator. His
wealth, inherited by his father and grandfather from a long line of
wealthy ancestors, came from many vast salt works along the coast, which,
by the custom of the province, remained private property and merely paid
the government a lease-tax or rent. The family had been, many generations
before, named from these works and was very proud of its names.
Now Falco had so far progressed with his negotiations that the other
parties to the proposed bargain were unwilling to close the deal and sign
a contract with Falco and his associates unless Salsonius Salinator, in
person, appeared to make some necessary statements, and were willing and
eager to sign and seal, the projected agreement if he did appear in person
and did make those required statements. I am averse to smirching Falco's
memory by going more minutely into detail.
Now Salinator had written Falco that he was coming to Rome and later, when
he received a letter from Falco outlining the pending negotiations and
their object, he had written promising to be in Rome by a specified date.
He was most enthusiastic as to Falco's project and thought as well of it
as did Falco. Falco told his associates of Salinator's letter and promise
and they adjusted their outstanding investments so as to be able to close
the contract as soon as Salinator appeared.
He did not appear on the date specified. Naturally Falco was perturbed,
his associates vexed and the men with whom they were dealing increasingly
restive. They threatened to break off the negotiations and close a
contract with other bidders. Falco begged for an extension of the time and
they grudgingly granted it. Still no signs of or word from Salinator. The
negotiations appeared likely to fall through.
In his distress Falco conceived and set about putting into practice a
scheme such as he would never have thought of or entertained if he had
been the man he was when he bought me. When he was himself he had been the
reverse of dishonorable. He came to me and said:
"We are at the end of our tether, Pullanius and his gang will break off
negotiations tomorrow if I can't get hold of Salinator. I have no hope of
his arrival, he may have not yet sailed from Carthage; he may have changed
his mind about coming at all. I am not willing to lose so brilliant a
chance. I have thought of just what to do.
"You would look like a Roman if you had your beard trimmed and your hair
cut and all that powder and paint and rouge washed off your face: I took
you for a full-blooded Roman when I first set eyes on you. What is more
you would look so utterly unlike what you look like in your fantastic
fripperies that no one would even suspect you of being the same man.
Anyhow, Pullanius and his crowd have never set eyes on you, not one of
"All you have to do is to have your beard cut to about the fashionable
length and your hair trimmed to conform similarly with current fashions
for Roman noblemen and get into full-dress shoes, a nobleman's tunic and
toga, and you'll pass anywhere for a genuine, free-born, full-blooded
"I'll take you to Pullanius tomorrow and introduce you as Salsonius
Salinator. I'll coach you carefully as to how to behave and what to say.
You are clever enough to assume the natural Roman demeanor to a nicety:
also to rise to any unexpected situations and act and talk precisely as
would Salinator himself.
"It will be sharp practice, in a sense. But I know Salinator would say all
I want him to say, all Pullanius requires him to say, and more, if he were
actually here. He is as keen on closing this contract as I am. So I am not
asking you to be a party to an actual fraud. You will only be bringing
about what would come about without you if something unforeseen had not
prevented Salinator from getting here in time."
Now I had often differed with Falco, argued with him, opposed him, refused
requests of his, and he had acquiesced and had acted as if I were not his
property, but a free man and his complete social equal. But this was a
situation wholly different from any I had encountered before. When it came
to gem-collecting or to anything which gave him or would give him or was
expected to yield him surplus cash for buying more gems for his
collection, Falco was a monomaniac. I dared not refuse, or oppose him or
argue or show any hesitation. A master can change in a twinkling from an
indulgent friend to an infuriated despot. In spite of the laws passed by
Hadrian and his successors limiting the authority of masters over their
slaves and giving slaves certain rights before magistrates, in practice an
angry master can go to any length to coerce a recalcitrant slave. I saw
not only privations, discomforts, hunger, confinement and chains
threatening me, but scourging and torture.
Now I am not going into any details as to what I did and said to induce
Pullanius and his associates to execute the desired contract. I acted the
part of Salinator to perfection and my imposture succeeded completely.
But the negotiations dragged, for all that, and I had to impersonate
Salsonius Salinator not only before Pullanius and his partners but
generally all over Rome: had to submit to being shown the sights in my
character of a provincial magnate in Rome for the first time; had to allow
myself to be dragged to morning receptions of senators and wealthy
noblemen and introduced to them; had to accept invitations to dinners
given by noblemen and senators; even had to attend a public morning
reception in the Audience Hall of the Palace. That I escaped undetected
was more than miraculous; I could not believe it myself. But I did escape.
I escaped unsuspected the ordeal of being haled to a morning reception of
Vedius Vedianus and presented to him as Salsonius Salinator of Carthage,
Nepte and Putea. I should have been lost had he had at his elbow to jog
his memory if he forgot a visitor's name the slave he had had in that
capacity seven years before, since that alert _nomenclator_ would have
recognized me at once. But he had died of the plague and his successor had
never set eyes on me. Vedius himself would certainly have known me for my
true self but for his inveterate selfishness, and self-absorption and his
incapacity for being diverted from whatever thought or idea happened to be
uppermost in his narrow mind. He was, for some reason, eager to be done
with his reception and had no eyes for any visitors except those from whom
he expected immediate and positive advantage to himself. I escaped, but I
went out sweating and limp with excitement.
I was even more faint and weak after having to attend a Palace levee.
Fortunately Commodus had wearied of his father's methods of holding
receptions and had reverted to the regulations in vogue under Trajan and
Hadrian, according to which only such senators as were summoned approached
the throne and were personally greeted by the Prince; the rest of the
senators and all the lesser noblemen merely passed before the Emperor as
he stood in front of the throne, passing four abreast along the main
pavement at the foot of the steps of the dais and saluting him as they
passed. Amid this crush of mediocrities I passed unnoticed, unremarked,
But I marvelled at my luck, for I knew many eyes of secret-service experts
scanned that slow-moving column of togaed noblemen and such adepts have a
marvellous memory for the shape of an ear, a nose, a chin, or any such
feature. After my hair and beard had been trimmed to suit Falco's notions
and my face was innocent of powder, rouge and paint and I was habited in a
tunic and toga with stripes of the width belonging to Salinator's rank and
dress-boots of the cut and color proper for him I conned my reflection in
the mirror in my dressing-room and was certain that anyone who had known
me as myself must recognize me at first glance.
My two worst ordeals came when I went out with Falco to my second and
fourth formal dinner in Rome in my character of provincial magnate. I went
with him, altogether, to eight different dinners at the houses of
capitalists associated with or supposed to have influence with Pullanius.
Not once, in any of these eight perilous expeditions, did it occur to
Falco to inform me beforehand where I was to dine. And I thought it best
not to ask him, since I reflected that his complete ignorance of my past
was an important factor in my chances of continued concealment and safety;
and since I felt that some word, tone or look of mine might put him on the
road to suspecting the truth about me. Therefore I set out to each of
these eight dinners totally ignorant of our destination.
The first time I knew I was to dine with Appellasius Clavviger, a Syrian
capitalist who had been in Rome not much longer than Falco himself. Judge
of my feelings when, in the mellow light which bathes Rome just after the
sun has set from a clear sky and before day has begun to fade, I perceived
that my litter-bearers, following Falco's, were turning into the street
where I had lived before my ruin! Imagine my sensations when we halted
before the palatial dwelling which had been my uncle's abode and mine! I
was even more perturbed and overwhelmed by my emotions when on entering
behind Falco I found nothing changed, scarcely anything altered from what
had been there on the fatal morning on which, without any premonition of
disaster, I had set off to the Palace levee and had, on my way, been saved
by Vedia's intervention and letter. The appointments of the vestibule, of
the porter's lodge, were as I had known them in my uncle's lifetime. So
were the furnishings of the atrium and _tablinum_. Scarcely a statue had
been added or so much as moved, most of the pictures being where my uncle
had had them hung. Appellasius, a fat, jovial, jolly man, did not see my
confusion. We were the last guests to arrive and he was hungry. We passed
at once into the _triclinium_. There also the wall-decorations were
precisely as I had last seen them; but the square table and three square
sofas had vanished and, in their place, was a new C-shaped sofa and a
circular table covered with a magnificent embroidered cloth. In the
course of the dinner, the company, as was natural with vulgarians newly
enriched, fell to talking of their residences, of their size, convenience,
and cost. I took the opportunity to compliment Appellasius on his abode
and, as he warmed to the subject, I inquired whether he had inherited it
or bought it.
"Neither," said he. "I have merely leased it, and leased it furnished. It
belongs to the _fiscus_; it was confiscated some years ago when its owner
was proscribed for joining in one of the conspiracies against, the
Emperor. It is a pearl. I am told that the father of its last owner was an
art connoisseur. Anyhow I could not improve on its decorations or
furnishings. I have made few changes, chiefly installing this up-to-date
dining-outfit. The fittings of this room were all of one hundred years
old, very fine in material and ornamentation, but unbearably
I had learned all I hoped for or dared attempt, and for the rest of the
entertainment I kept to subjects as far as possible from anything likely
to compromise me.
My second and far my severest ordeal was when a few evenings later I was
dazed to realize that my litter, behind Falco's, was halting before the
well-known residence of that booby, Faltonius Bambilio. But I was not
afraid of him. I rated him such a dolt, such an ass, that even if he
exclaimed that I was the image of Andivius Hedulio I had no doubt I could
convince him that I was what I pretended to be and could even expunge from
his mind any recollections of his having noticed such a striking
resemblance. In fact he did not make any remark on my appearance or seem
to have any inkling that he had ever seen me before, but accepted me as an
I dreaded what guests he might have and the actuality surpassed my
capacities to forecast possibilities.
I found the middle sofa at his table, for he adhered to the old-fashioned
furnishings for a _triclinium_, occupied by his wife, Nemestronia and
Vedia! Vedia, after one tense moment of incredulous numb staring,
regained her composure.
Evidently she had not confided in anyone the fact of my survival and
existence. For, if she had, she would have taken dear old Nemestronia into
her confidence, since she was as able to keep a secret as any woman who
ever lived and had loved me as if I had been her own and only grandson.
For Nemestronia manifestly had believed me dead. At sight of me she was as
thunderstruck as if she had seen an indubitable specter. She was smitten
dumb and rigid and her discomposure was remarked by all present. But she
recovered herself in time, passed off her agitation as having been due to
one of her sudden attacks of pain in the chest. After that she did as much
as Vedia to dispel any tendency to suspicions which she might have
aroused. She was plainly, to my eyes, overjoyed at the sight of me in the
I have branded on my memory for life the picture I saw as I entered the
_triclinium_. Its wall decorations expressed old Bambilio's enthusiasm for
Alexandrian art and literature. The ceiling was adorned with a copy of
Apellides' Dance of the Loves; and the walls were decorated with copies of
equally celebrated paintings by masters of similar fame. The wall niches
were filled with statues of the Alexandrian poets, the two opposite the
entrance door with those of Euphorion and Philetas, the brilliant hues of
the paint on them depicting garments as gaudy as I myself had been wearing
a few days before. From the pink faces of the bedizened poets their
jeweled eyes sparkled as if they were chuckling at the situation. Under
the mellow light shed by the numerous hanging lamps, against the intricate
particolored patterns of the wall between the statue-niches, I saw the
vacuous baby face of Asellia, Bambilio's pretty doll of a wife, between
Vedia's countenance cleverly assuming a normal social expression after her
brief glare at me, and Nemestronia's mask of horror, accentuated by the
agony of the gripping spasm which throttled her, for the pain in her chest
was induced by anything which startled her, and was not assumed.
Once we were composed on the sofas the dinner passed off almost
comfortably. For Nemestronia played her part in my behalf fully as well as
did Vedia, who conversed with me easily, her demeanor precisely as if I
had been Salsonius Salinator, a stranger whom she had just met, our talk
mostly about Carthage, salt-works, the lagoons of the edge of the desert,
date palms, local fruits, gazelles and such like topics, Nemestronia
seconding her with questions about temple libraries, the cult of Isis in
Hippo, and such matters. I became almost gay, I was enjoying myself.
The enjoyment, toward the close of the banquet, was marred by Bambilio,
who, inevitably, had told Falco of his capture by brigands on the
Flaminian Highway and, after his tale was told at great length, insisted
on Vedia telling hers.
Worst of all, when she came to her night in her travelling carriage, alone
(as of course all supposed) and surrounded by escaped beasts, hyenas,
leopards, panthers, tigers and lions, Bambilio must needs remark:
"I'll wager you wished that the ghost of your old lover, Hedulio, had come
to your assistance. He could wrestle with leopards; perhaps even his ghost
might be able to control wild beasts."
"Perhaps," Vedia rejoined, unruffled, "maybe he was there to help me and
maybe that was why I never felt really afraid that any beast would burst
into my coach and seize me, though several snuffed at its panels and I
could see them plain in the clear moonlight. Perhaps, in spirit, he was
close to me to keep off the ravenous beasts and to strengthen my heart."
After she also had ended her story Bambilio eyed me:
"Did you ever hear a story excel hers and mine, Salsonius?" he queried.
"Never," I admitted, my gaze full on his.
The booby showed not a gleam of suspicion!
Inwardly I could not but remark that whereas I despised and loathed
Bambilio for his pomposity and self-esteem, he made and kept friends.
Plainly both Nemestronia and Vedia liked him, esteemed him and respected
After we left, I felt positively exhilarated at having had an evening in
Vedia's company and having talked with her. Her escort, fortunately for
me, had not been Flavius Clemens but young Duillius Silanus, son of the
consul, who had never met me before.
PALUS THE INCOMPARABLE
Within a very few days after my encounter with Vedia at Bambilio's dinner
Falco and I had just ascended the stair of his residence after returning
from a conference with Pullanius and his partners at which both sides had
finally agreed on terms to the last detail and the contracts had been
drawn up, executed, signed and sealed. He said:
"Phorbas, I am pleased with you. Such imposture as I have enticed you into
cannot have been palatable to a man of your character. You have manifestly
disrelished it, but you have valiantly stomached it for my sake. Actually
you may be comforted, for it has not really been dishonest or
dishonorable; you have only acted and spoken vicariously for Salinator: to
a certainty he would have done and said just what you have, had he been
present in person.
"You are a wonderful actor. No Greek or part Greek or half Greek or
quarter Greek or thirty-second Greek I ever knew or heard of, clever as
Greeks are at histrionics, could so perfectly act a Roman noble in every
detail of demeanor, manner and word: down to the most trifling expression
of every prejudice inherent in a Roman born. I admire you. Also I thank
"And I am as relieved as you will be to be able to tell you that your
masquerade is at an end, successful and unsuspected.
"Now the important thing is for Salsonius Salinator to vanish from Rome at
"I suppose you have the wigs and false-beards you said you would buy or
"They are in my dressing-room," I replied.
"Then," he continued, "have yourself waked early, have your valet paint
you and powder you and rouge you and fit you out with a wig like the head
of hair you had before I made you impersonate Salinator, and with a false
beard no one will suspect; have him rig you up in your favorite attire and
load you with jewelry, then set off in my travelling-carriage for Baiae.
Be out of Rome by sunrise. Travel straight to Baiae as rapidly as you find
practicable without fatiguing yourself. At Baiae you will have the Villa
and servants all to yourself. Stay there until you have grown your hair
and beard as it was before your masquerade. Then return to Rome as
He paused, gazed at me and added:
"And I mean to make a new will. Besides leaving you your freedom and the
legacy specified in my last will I mean to leave you my gem-collection and
a full fourth of all my other estate. You deserve a lavish reward and I
believe I love you better than any living human being."
I thanked him with my best imitation of the manner of a Greek, but with
genuine feeling and from a full heart.
Actually I was glad to get out of Rome, glad to linger at Baiae. I made my
time as long as I could and resisted several importunities from Falco
before I finally returned to the city more than a year after I had left
it. Thus I was out of Rome during the great fire, which destroyed, along
with the Temple and Altar of Peace, the Temples of the Divine Julius and
the Divine Augustus, the Temple of Vesta, the Atrium of Vesta and most of
the other buildings about the great Forum, also the Porticus Margaritaria
and the shop of Orontides. Strangely enough, when, at Baiae, I read
letters from Falco, Tanno and Agathemer describing the devastation, my
mind dwelt more on the annihilation of the shop where I had encountered
Vedia than on the destruction of the Palace records and most of the public
records, or of the many revered temples which had vanished in the flames.
When I returned to Rome the ruins were already largely cleared, and
rebuilding, especially of the Temple of Vesta, was vigorously under way.
In Falco's household and manner of life I found few changes, except that
Falco, really in excellent health, had become concerned about his trifling
ailments, and, after trying one and another physician, had enrolled
himself among the patients of the most distinguished exponent of the
healing arts. Galen therefore, was a frequent visitor at my home and I saw
him not infrequently. When I had some minor discomfort, Falco, always
pampering me, called Galen in and enrolled me also among his charges.
After my return to the City the chief topic of conversation among persons
of all grades of society and the pivot, so to speak, on which the
spectacles of the amphitheater revolved was Palus the Gladiator.
I may set down here that I, personally, am now, as I was when I saw him
appear as a charioteer for the last time, certain that Palus was Commodus
in person. And I set this down as a fact. It will be seen later that I had
more opportunity than any man in Rome, outside of the Palace, to know the
Many people then believed and not a few still maintain that Palus was
merely a crony of Commodus. Some whispered that he was a half-brother of
Commodus, a son of Faustina and a favorite gladiator, brought up by the
connivance of her too-indulgent husband; which wild tale suits neither
with Faustina's actual deportment, as contrasted with the lies told of her
by her detractors, nor with the character of Aurelius. Others even hinted
that Palus was a half-brother of Commodus on the other side, off-spring of
Aurelius and a concubine. This invention consorts still worse with the
nature of Aurelius, who was one of the most uxorious of men and by nature
monogamic and austere, almost ascetic. Some contented themselves with
conjecturing that Palus accidentally resembled Commodus, which was not so
far from the truth.
For I knew Ducconius Furfur from our boyhood and I solemnly assert that
Palus was Commodus and that, whenever Palus appeared in the circus and,
later, in the amphitheater, while the Imperial Pavilion was filled by the
Imperial retinue, with the throne occupied apparently by the Emperor, the
throne was occupied by a dummy emperor, Ducconius Furfur, in the Imperial
attire, and Commodus was in the arena as Palus. Anyone who chooses may,
from this pronouncement, set me down as a credulous ninny, if it suits his
When Palus drove a chariot in the circus he never appeared with his face
fully exposed, but invariably wore over its upper portion the half-mask of
gauze, which is designed to protect a charioteer's eyes from dust and
flying grains of sand. Similarly, when Palus entered the arena as a
gladiator he never fought in any of those equipments in which gladiators
appear bareheaded or with faces exposed: as a _retiarius_, for instance.
He always fought as a _secutor_ or _murmillo_, or in the armor proper to a
Samnite, Thracian, or heavy-armed Greek or Gaul; all of which equipments
include a heavy helmet with a vizor. Palus always fought with his vizor
It seems to me that the plain inference from these facts corroborates my
opinions concerning Palus: certainly it strengthens my belief in my views.
And these facts were and are known to be facts by all who, as spectators
in the circus or in the amphitheater, beheld Palus as charioteer or as
As a gladiator he was more than marvellous, he was miraculous. I was
present at all his public appearances from the time of my return from
Baiae. Also I had seen him closer, from the senatorial boxes in the
amphitheater, three several times during my impersonation of Salsonius
Salinator. Moreover I had seen him as a gladiator not a few times before
that, since Falco, soon after we came to Rome from Africa, because of his
affection for me and his tendency to indulge me in every imaginable way
and to arrange for me every conceivable pleasure, had contrived to use the
influence of some new-found friends to make possible my presence at shows
in the Colosseum, and that in as good a seat as was accessible to any
free-born Roman not a noble or senator.
The very first time I saw Palus in the arena I felt sure he was Commodus
in person, for he had to a marvel every one of his characteristics of
height, build, outline, agility, grace, quickness and deftness and all his
tricks of attitude and movement. The two were too identical to be anything
except the very same man.
It will occur to any reader of these memoirs that Palus was a left-handed
fighter, and that Commodus not only fought left-handed, but wrote, by
preference, with his left hand and with it more easily, rapidly and
legibly than with his right. But I do not lay much stress on this for
about one gladiator in fifty fights left-handed, so that the fact that
Palus was left-handed, while it accords with my views, does not, in my
opinion, help to prove them.
What, to my mind, much more tends to confirm my views, is the well-known
fact that Palus was always equipped with armor and weapons more
magnificent and more expensive than any ever seen on other gladiators.
Everything he used or wore was of gold or heavily gilt; even his spear
heads and sword blades were brilliantly gilded; so were his helmets,
shields, bucklers, corselets, breastplates, the scales of his kilt-straps
when he fought as a Greek, and his greaves, whether of Greek pattern or of
some other fashion. If he appeared in an armament calling for arm-rings,
leg-rings, or leg-wrappings, these were always also heavily gilt. So was
his footgear, whether he wore thigh-boots, full-boots, half-boots,
soldiers' brogues, half-sandals or sandals. His shoulder-guards (called
"wigs" in the slang of the prize-ring) were, apparently, of pure cloth of
gold, which also appeared to be the material of his aprons when his
accoutrements did not include a kilt.
Now it may be said that this merely indicates that his equipment was the
most extravagant instance of the manner in which opulent enthusiasts
lavished their cash on the outfitting of their favorites in the arena. To
me it seems too prodigal for the profusion of any or all of such
spendthrifts: it appears to me more like the self-indulgence of the
vainglorious master of the world. Palus often wore a helmet so bejeweled
that its cost would have overtaxed the wealth of Didius Julianus.
I consider that my opinions are corroborated by the well-known fact that
whenever Palus appeared as a gladiator in the amphitheater, Galen was
present in the arena as chief of the surgeons always at hand to dress the
wounds of victors or of vanquished men who had won the approbation or
favor of the spectators or of the Imperial party. True, Galen was often
there when Palus was not in the arena, for he was always on the watch for
anatomical knowledge to be had from observation of dying men badly
wounded. But, on the other hand, while he was often in the arena when
Palus was not there, he was never absent when Palus was fighting.
Similarly, after Aemilius Laetus was appointed Prefect of the Palace, he
was always present in person in the arena whenever Palus appeared in it.
This, too, makes for my contentions.
The first fight in which I saw Palus revealed to me, and brought home to
me with great force, the reason for his nickname, its origin and its
astonishing appropriateness. The word "_palus_" has a number of very
different meanings: manifestly its fitness as a pet name for the most
perfect swordsman ever seen in any arena came from its use to denote the
paling of a palisade, or any stake or post. Palus, in a fight, always
appeared to stand still: metaphorically he might be said to seem as
immobile as the post upon which beginners in the gladiatorial art practice
their first attempts at strokes, cuts, thrusts and lunges. So little did
he impress beholders as mobile, so emphatically did he impress them as
stationary, that he might almost as well have been an upright stake,
planted permanently deep in the sand.
I first saw him fight as a _secutor_, matched against a _retiarius_. This
kind of combat is, surely, the most popular of all the many varieties of
gladiatorial fights; and justly, for such fights are by far the most
exciting to watch and their incidents perpetually varied, novel and
unpredictable. It is exciting because the _retiarius_, nude except for one
small shoulder-guard and a scanty apron, appears to have no chance
whatever against the _secutor_ with his big vizored helmet, his complete
body-armor, his kilt of lapped leather straps plated with polished metal
scales, his greaves or leg-rings or boots and his full-length, curved
shield and Spanish sword. The _secutor_, always the bigger man and fully
armed and armored, appears invincible against the little manikin of a
_retiarius_ skipping about bareheaded and almost naked and armed only with
his trident, a fisherman's three-tined spear, with a light handle and
short prongs, his little dagger and his cord net, which, when spread, is
indeed large enough to entangle any man, but which he carries crumpled up
to an inconspicuous bunch of rope no bigger than his head.
Yet the fact is the reverse of the appearance. No one not reckless or
drunk ever bet even money on an ordinary _secutor_. The odds on the
_retiarius_ are customarily between five to three and two to one. And most
_secutors_ manifestly feel their disadvantage. As the two men face each
other and the _lanista_ gives the signal anyone can see, usually, that the
_retiarius_ is confident of victory and the _secutor_ wary and cautious or
even afraid. Dreading the certain cast of the almost unescapable net, the
_secutor_ keeps always on the move, and continually alters the direction
and speed and manner of his movement, taking one short step and two long,
then three short and one long, breaking into a dogtrot, slowing to a
snail's-pace, leaping, twisting, curving, zigzagging, ducking and in every
way attempting to make it impossible for the _retiarius_ to foretell from
the movement he watches what the next movement will be.
Palus behaved unlike any other _secutor_ ever seen in the arena. He
availed himself of none of the usual devices, which _lanistae_ taught with
such care, in the invention of which they gloried and in which they
drilled their pupils unceasingly. He merely stood still and watched his
adversary. The cunning cast of the deadly net he avoided by a very slight
movement of his head or body or both. No _retiarius_ ever netted him, yet
the net seldom missed him more than half a hand's breadth. When the
disappointed _retiarius_ skipped back to the length of his net-cord and
retrieved his net by means of it, Palus let him gather it up, never dashed
at him, but merely stepped sedately towards him. If the _retiarius_ ran
away, Palus followed, but never in haste, always at a slow, even walk. No
matter how often his adversary cast his net at him, Palus never altered
his demeanor. The upshot was always the same. The spectators began to jeer
at the baffled _retiarius_, he became flustered, he ventured a bit too
near his immobile opponent, Palus made an almost imperceptible movement
and the _retiarius_ fell, mortally wounded.
I was never close enough to Palus to see clearly the details of his
lunges, thrusts and strokes. I saw him best when I was a spectator in the
Colosseum while impersonating Salsonius Salinator, for in my guise as
colonial magnate I sat well forward. Even then I was not close enough to
him to descry the finer points of his incomparable swordsmanship. Yet what
I saw makes me regard as fairly adequate the current praises of him
emanating from those wealthy enthusiasts who were reckoned the best judges
of such matters. By the reports I heard they said that Palus never cut a
throat, he merely nicked it, but the tiny nick invariably and accurately
severed the carotid artery, jugular vein or windpipe.
I can testify, from my own observation, to his having displayed comparable
skill in an equally effective stab in a different part of his adversary's
body. As is well known, a deep slash of the midthigh, inside, causes death
nearly as quickly as a cut throat; if the femoral artery is divided the
blood pours out of the victim almost as from an inverted pail, a horrible
cascade. Most of the acclaimed gladiators use often this deadly stroke
against the inside midthigh, slashing it to the bone, leaving a long,
deep, gaping wound. Palus never slashed an adversary's thigh; in killing
by a thigh wound he always delivered a lunge which left a small puncture,
but invariably also left the femoral artery completely severed, so that
the life-blood gushed out in a jet astonishingly violent, the victim
collapsing and dying very quickly. Such a parade requires altogether
transcendant powers of accuracy from eye and hand.
Besides fighting as a _secutor_ against a _retiarius_ Palus in the same
accoutrements fought with men similarly equipped, or accoutred as Greeks,
Gauls, Thracians, Samnites, or _murmillos;_ also he appeared in the
equipment of each of these sorts of gladiators against antagonists
equipped like himself or in any of the other fashions.
In all these countless fights he was never once wounded by any adversary
nor did he ever deliver a second stroke, thrust or lunge against any: his
defence was always impregnable, his attack always unerring; when he lunged
his lunge never missed and was always fatal, unless he purposely spared a
Besides the exhibitions of bravado and self-confidence traditional with
gladiators, all of which he displayed again and again, Palus devised more
than one wholly original with himself.
For instance, he would take his stand in the arena equipped as a
_secutor_, the _lanista_ would have in charge not one _retiarius_, but
ten, or even a dozen. One would attack Palus and when, after a longer or
shorter contest, he was killed, the _lanista_, would, without any respite,
allow a second to rush at Palus; then a third; and so on till everyone had
perished by the _secutor's_ unerring sword. No other secutor ever killed
more than one _retiarius_ without a good rest between the first fight and
the second. Palus, as was and is well known, killed more than, a thousand
adversaries, of whom more than three hundred wore the accoutrements of a
Palus was even more spectacular as a _dimachaerus_, so called from having
two sabers, for a _dimachaerus_ is a gladiator accoutred as a Thracian,
but without any shield and carrying a naked saber in each hand. Such a
fighter is customarily matched against an adversary in ordinary Thracian
equipment. He has to essay the unnatural feat of guarding himself with one
sword while attacking with the other. Such a feat is akin to those of
jugglers and acrobats, for a sword is essentially an instrument of assault
and cannot, by its very nature, take the place of a shield as a
protection. Everybody, of course, knows that showy and startling ruse said
to have been invented by the Divine Julius, which consists in surprising
one's antagonist by parrying a stroke with the sword instead of with the
shield and simultaneously using the shield as a weapon, striking its upper
rim against the adversary's chin. But this can succeed only against an
opponent dull-witted, unwary, clumsy and slow, and then as a surprise. A
_dimachaerus_ has to depend on parrying and his antagonist knows what to
Palus was the most perfect _dimachaerus_ ever seen in the Colosseum.
Without a shield he fought and killed many Thracians, Greeks, Gauls,
_murmillos_, Samnites and _secutors_. He even, many times, fought two
Thracians at once, killing both and coming off unscathed. I saw two of
these exhibitions of insane self-confidence and I must say that Palus made
good his reliance on his incredible skill. He pivoted about between his
adversaries, giving them, apparently, every chance to attack
simultaneously, distract him and kill him. Yet he so managed that, even if
their thrusts appeared simultaneous, there was between them an interval,
brief as a heart-beat, but long enough for him to dispose of one and turn
on the other, or escape one and pierce the other. I could not credit my
own eyes. With my belief as to the identity of Palus I marvelled that a
man whose life was dominated by the dread of assassination, who feared
poison in his wine and food, who hedged himself about with guards and then
feared the guards themselves, who distrusted everybody, who dreaded every
outing, who was uneasy even inside his Palace, felt perfectly at ease and
serenely safe in the arena with no defence but two sabers, and he between
two hulking ruffians, as fond of life as any men, and knowing that they
must kill him or be killed by him. In this deadly game he felt no qualms,
only certitude of easy victory.
The controversies over the identity of Palus have produced a whole
literature of pamphlets, some maintaining that he was Commodus, others
professing to prove that he was not, of which some rehearse every possible
theory of his relationship to Aurelius or Faustina. Among these the most
amazing are those which set forth the view that Palus was Commodus, but no
skillful swordsman, rather a brazen sham, killing ingloriously helpless
adversaries who could oppose to his edged steel only swords of lath or
This absurdity is in conflict with all the facts. Manifestly the
antagonists of Palus were as well armed as he, both for defence and
And, what is much more, the populace clamored for Palus, booed and cat-
called if Palus did not appear in the arena; cheered him to the echo when
he did appear; yelled with delight and appreciation at each exhibition of
his prophetic intuition as to what his adversary was about to do, of his
preternaturally perfect judgment as to what to do himself, of the
instantaneous execution of whatever movement he purposed, of its complete
success; and applauded him while he went off as no other gladiator ever
was applauded. It was the popular demand for him which made possible and
justified the unexampled fee paid Palus for each of his appearances in the
arena. The managers of the games were obliged to include Palus in each
exhibition or risk a riot of the indignant populace.
Now no sham fighter could fool the Roman populace. A make-believe
swordsman, such as the pamphlets which I have cited allege Commodus to
have been, might, if Emperor, have overawed the senators and nobles of
equestrian rank and compelled their unwilling applause of sham feats. But
no man, not even an Emperor, could coerce the Roman proletariat into
applauding a fighter unworthy of applause. Our populace, once seated to
view a show of any kind, cannot be controlled, cannot even be swayed. No
fame of any charioteer, beast-fighter or gladiator can win from them
tolerance of the smallest error of judgment, defect of action, attempt at
foul play or hint of fear: they boo anything of which they disapprove and
not Jupiter himself could elicit from them applause of anything except
exhibitions of courage, skill, artistry and quickness fine enough to rouse
their admiration. They admired Palus, they adored him.
This is well known to all men and proves Palus a consummate artist as a
gladiator. Not only would the populace howl a bungler or coward off the
sand, they know every shade of excellence; only a superlatively perfect
swordsman could kindle their enthusiasm and keep it at white heat year
after year as did Palus.
Palus, I may remark, was always a gallant fighter, and a combination of
skill and gallantry in an adversary so won his goodwill that he never
killed or seriously wounded such an opponent. If his antagonist had an
unusually perfect guard and a notably dangerous attack, was handsome,
moved gracefully, displayed courage and fought with impeccable fairness
Palus felt a liking for him, showed it by the way in which he stood on the
defensive and mitigated the deadliness of his attacks, played him longer
than usual to demonstrate to all the spectators the qualities he discerned
in him, and, when he was convinced that the onlookers felt as he felt,
disabled his admired match with some effective but trifling wound.
Then, when his victim collapsed, Palus would leap back from him, sheath
his sword, and saw the air with his empty left hand, fingers extended and
pressed together, thumb flat against the crack between the roots of the
index finger and big finger, twisting his hand about and varying the angle
at which he sawed the air, so that all might see that he wished his fallen
adversary spared and was suggesting that the spectators nearest him
imitate his gesture and give the signal for mercy by extending their arms
thumbs flat to fingers.
Except Murmex Lucro I never saw any other gladiator presume to suggest to
the spectators which signal he would like them to display; and Murmex had
the air of a man taking a liberty with his betters and not very sure
whether they would condone his presumption or resent his insolence;
whereas Palus waved his arm much as Commodus raised his from the Imperial
throne when, as Editor of the games, he decided the fate of a fallen
gladiator concerning whom the populace were so evenly divided between
disfavorers and favorers that neither the victor nor his _lanista_ dared
to interpret so doubtful a mandate.
The most amazing fact concerning Palus was that his audiences never
wearied of watching him fence. It is notorious that the spectators in the
Colosseum always have been and are, in general, impatient of any
noticeable prolongation of a fight. Only a very small minority of the
populace and a larger, but still small, minority of the gentry and
nobility, take delight in the fine points of swordsmanship for themselves.
Most spectators, while acclaiming skilled fence and expecting it, look
upon it merely as a means for adding interest to the preliminaries of what
they desire to behold. Even senators and nobles admit that the pleasure of
viewing gladiatorial shows comes from seeing men killed. Contests are
thrilling chiefly because of their suggestion of the approach of the
moment which brings the supreme thrill.
The populace, quite frankly, rate the fighting as a bore; they do not come
to watch skilled swordsmen fence; they want to see two men face each other
and one kill the other at once. It is the killing which they enjoy. The
upper tiers of spectators in the amphitheater seldom give the signal for
mercy when a defeated man is down and helpless, even though he be handsome
and graceful and has fought bravely, skillfully and gallantly. One seldom
sees an outstretched arm, with the hand extended, fingers close together
and thumb flat against them, raised anywhere from the back seats; their
occupants habitually, in such cases, wave their upraised arms with the
hands clenched and thumbs extended, waggling their thumbs by half rotating
their wrists, to make the thumb more conspicuous, yelling the while, so
that the amphitheater is full of their insistent roar and the upper tiers
aflash with flickering thumbs. They weigh no fine points as to the worth
of the vanquished man, they do not value a good fighter enough to want him
saved to fight again, they come to see men die and they want the defeated
man slaughtered at once.
They are habituated to acquiescing if the Emperor--or the Editor, if the
Prince is not present--or the nobility contravene their wishes and give
the signal for mercy when a gallant fighter is down by accident,
misadventure or because he was outmatched. But there is often a burst of
howls if the signal for mercy comes not from the Imperial Pavilion or the
whole _podium_, but merely from some part of the nobility or senators.
Generally, if the Emperor has not given or participated in the signal for
mercy, scattered individuals among the proletariat proclaim their
disappointment by booing, cat-calls, or strident whistlings.
Now Palus was so popular, so beloved by the slum-dwellers, that whenever
he showed a disposition to spare an opponent, the whole mass of the
populace were quick with the mercy-signal: the moment they saw Palus
sheathe his blade their arms went up with his, almost before his, thumbs
as flat as his, never a thumb out nor any fingers clenched.
More than this, no spectator, while Palus played an adversary, ever yelled
for a prompt finish to the bout, as almost always happened at the first
sign of delay in the case of any other fighter. So comprehensible, so
unmistakable, so manifest, so fascinating were the fine points of the
swordsmanship displayed by Palus that even the rearmost spectator, even
the most brutish lout could and did relish them and enjoy them and crave
the continuance of that pleasure.
Most of all the Colosseum audiences not only insisted on Palus appearing
in each exhibition, not only longed for his entrance, not merely came to
regard all the previous fights of the day as unwelcome postponements of
the pleasure of watching Palus fence, but were manifestly impatient for
the crowning delight of each day, the ecstacy of beholding a bout between
Palus and Murmex Lucro, which contests were always bloodless.
Customarily, while Palus flourished, each day began with beast-fights, the
noon pause was filled in by exhibitions of athletes, acrobats, jugglers,
trained animals and such like, and the surprise; then the gladiatorial
shows lasted from early afternoon till an hour before sunset. Palus and
Murmex appeared about mid-afternoon and were matched against the victors
in the earlier fights. Each located himself at one focus of the ellipse of
the arena, at which points two simultaneous fights were best seen by the
entire audience. There they began each fight, not simultaneously, but
alternately, till all their antagonists were disposed of, most killed and
some spared. The spectators seldom hurried Murmex to end a fight; they
never hurried Palus. His longest delay in finishing with an adversary,
even his manifest intention to exhaust an opponent rather than to wound
him, never elicited any protest from any onlooker. All, breathless,
fascinated, craned to watch the perfection of his method, every movement
of his body, all eyes intent on the point of his matchless blade.
Last of the day's exhibitions, came the fencing match between Palus and
Murmex, at the center of the arena, empty save for those two and their two
_lanistae_. All others in the arena, including the surgeons, their helpers
and the guards, drew off to positions close under the _podium_ wall.
Murmex and Palus fenced in all sorts of outfits, except that neither ever
fought as a _retiarius_. Mostly both were equipped as _secutors_, but they
fought also as _murmillos_, Greeks, Gauls, Thracians, Samnites and
_dimachaeri_, or one in any of these equipments against the other in any
Sometimes they delighted the populace by donning padded suits liberally
whitened with flour or white clay, their _murmillos'_ helmets similarly
whitened, and then attacking each other with quarter-staffs of ash,
cornel-wood or holly. A hit, of course, showed plainly on the whitened
suits. As neither could injure the other in this sort of fight, and as
they were willing to humor the populace, each was careless about his guard
and reckless in his attack. Even so hits were infrequent, since each, even
when most lax, had an instinctive guard superior to that of the most
expert and cautious fencer among all other contemporary fighters. Even
when, very occasionally, if Palus happened to be in a rollicking mood,
each substituted a second quarter-staff for his shield and, as it were,
travestied a _dimachaerus_, as what might be called a two-staff-man or a
double-staff-man, hits were still not frequent. Each had a marvellously
impregnable defence and they were very evenly matched in the use of the
quarter-staff in place of a shield as they were in everything else. Palus
fought better with his left hand attacking and his right defending, Murmex
better the other way, but each was genuinely ambidextrous and used either
hand at will, shifting at pleasure. When, amid the flash of their staffs,
either scored, the hit brought a roar of delight from the upper tiers,
even from the front rows, for the most dignified senators caught the
infection of the general enthusiasm and so far forgot themselves as to
yell like street urchins in their ecstasy.
Except in this farcical sort of burlesque fight neither ever scored a hit
on the other, in all the years throughout which their combats finished
each day of every gladiatorial exhibition. Yet the audience never tired of
their bloodless bouts and, while the nobility and gentry never joined in,
the populace invariably roared a protest if they saw the _lanistae_ make a
move to separate them, and yelled for them to go on and fence longer.
The interest of the populace was caused by the fact, manifest and plain to
all, that, while Murmex and Palus loved each other and had no intention of
hurting each other, their matches had no appearance whatever of being sham
fights. From the first parade until they separated every stroke, feint,
lunge and thrust appeared to be in deadly, venomous earnest and each
unhurt merely because, mortal as was his adversary's attack, his guard was
It seemed, in fact, as if each man felt so completely safe, felt so
certain that his guard would never fail him, and at the same time felt so
sure that his crony's guard was equally faultless, that there was no
danger of his injuring his chum, that each attacked the other precisely as
he attacked any other adversary. It was commonly declared among expert
swordsmen and connoisseurs of sword-play, as among recent spectators,
when, talking over the features of an exhibition after it was over, that
practically every thrust, lunge or stroke of either in these bouts would
have killed or disabled any other adversary; certainly it appeared so to
me every time I saw them fence and especially while watching their bouts
after I returned from my year at Baiae, for after that I never missed a
gladiatorial exhibition in the Colosseum. To my mind Palus and Murmex were
manifestly playing with each other, like fox-cubs or Molossian puppies or
wolf-cubs; yet the sport so much resembled actual attack and defence, as
with nearly grown wolf-cubs, that it gave less the impression of play
between friends than that of deadly combat between envenomed foes. Many a
time I have heard or overheard some expert or connoisseur or enthusiast or
provincial visitor, prophesy somewhat in this fashion:
"Some day one of those two is going to kill the other unexpectedly and
unintentionally and by mistake. Each thinks the other will never land on
him; each thinks the other has a guard so impregnable that it will never
be pierced; each uses on the other attacks so unexpected, so sudden, so
subtle, so swift, so powerful, so sustained, so varied that no third man
alive could escape any one of them. It is almost a certainty that that
sort of thing cannot go on forever. One or the other of them may age
sufficiently to retire from the arena, as did Murmex Frugi, safe and
unscarred, as he was not. But it is far more likely, since both are full
of vitality and vigor, that neither will notice the very gradual approach
of age, so that they will go on fighting with eyes undimmed, muscles
supple and minds quick, yet not so quick, supple and keen as now: but the
preternatural powers of one will wane a bit sooner than those of the
other. And sooner or later one will err in his guard and be wounded or
Most spectators agreed with such forecasts. What is more, most of the
spectators admitted that, as they watched, each attack seemed certain to
succeed; every time either man guarded it seemed as if he must fail to
This, I think, explains the unflagging zest with which the entire
audience, senators, nobles and commonality, watched their bouts, revelled
in them, gloated over the memory of them and longed for more and more.
Consciously or unconsciously, every onlooker felt that sometime, some bout
would end in the wounding, disabling or death of one of the two. And so
perfect was their sword-play, so unfeigned their unmitigated fury of
attack, so genuine the impeccable dexterity of their defence that every
spectator felt that the supreme thrill, even while so long postponed, was
certain to arrive. More, each felt, against his judgment, that it was
likely to arrive the next moment. It was this illogical but unescapable
sensation which kept the interest of the whole audience, of the whole of
every audience, at a white heat over the bouts of Murmex and Palus. I
myself experienced this condition of mind and became infected with the
common ardor. I found myself rehearsing to myself the incidents of their
last-seen bout, anticipating the next, longing for it: though I never had
rated myself as ardent over gladiatorial games, but rather as lukewarm
towards them, and considered myself much more interested in paintings,
statuary, reliefs, ornaments, bric-a-brac, furniture, fine fabrics and all
artistries and artisanries. Yet I confessed to myself that, from the time
I saw first a bout between them, anticipation of seeing them fence, or
enjoyment of it, came very high among my interests and my pleasures.
To some extent, I think, the long and unequaled vogue of their popularity
was due to the great variety of their methods and almost complete absence
of monotony in their bouts.
Palus was left-handed, but for something like every third bout or a third
of each bout he fought right-handed, merely for bravado, as if to
advertise that he could do almost as well with the hand less convenient.
Murmex was right-handed, but he too fought often left-handed, perhaps one-
fifth of the time. So, in whatever equipment, one saw each of them fight
both ways. Therefore as _murmillos_ they fought both right-handed, both
left-handed, and each right-handed against the other fighting left-handed.
This gave a perpetually shifting effect of novelty, surprise and interest
to every bout between them. They similarly had four ways of appearing as
Greeks, Gauls, Samnites, Thracians, _secutors_ or _dimachaeri_.
Their bouts as _dimachaeri_ were breathlessly exciting, for it was
impossible, from moment to moment, to forecast with which saber either
would attack, with which he would guard; and, not infrequently, one
attacked and the other guarded with both. When they fought in this fashion
Galen, it always appeared to me, looked uneasy, keyed up and apprehensive.
Yet neither ever so much as nicked, flicked or scratched the other in
their more than sixty bouts with two sabers apiece.
More than a dozen times they appeared as Achilles and Hector, with the
old-fashioned, full-length, man-protecting shield, the short Argive sword
and the heavy lance, half-pike, half-javelin, of Trojan tradition. Murmex
threw a lance almost as far and true as Palus and the emotion of the
audience was unmistakably akin to horror when both, simultaneously, hurled
their deadly spears so swiftly and so true that it seemed as if neither
could avoid the flying death. Palus, true to his nickname, never visibly
dodged, though Murmex's aim was as accurate as his own; he escaped the
glittering, needle-pointed, razor-edged spear-head by half a hand's-breath
or less by an almost imperceptible inclination of his body, made at the
last possible instant, when it seemed as if the lance had already pierced
him. It was indescribably thrilling to behold this.
Besides fencing equipped as Gauls, Samnites, Thracians and _secutors_ they
appeared in every combination of any of these and of Greeks and
_murmillos_ with every other. Palus as a _dimachaerus_ against Murmex as a
_murmillo_ made a particularly delectable kind of bout. Almost as much so
Murmex as a Gaul against Palus as a Thracian. And so without end.
After my return from Baiae Falco pampered me more than ever and, in
particular, arranged to take me with him to all amphitheater shows and
have me sit beside him in the front row of the nobles immediately behind
the boxes of the senators on the _podium_. This does not sound possible in
our later days, when amphitheater regulations are strictly enforced, as
they had been under the Divine Aurelius and his predecessors. But, while
Commodus was Prince much laxity was rife in all branches of the
government. After the orgies of bribe-taking, favoritism and such like in
the heyday of Perennis and of Cleander, all classes of our society became
habituated to ignoring contraventions of rules. Under Perennis and later
under Cleander not a few senators took with them into their boxes
favorites who were not only not of senatorial rank, nor even nobles, but
not Romans at all: foreign visitors, alien residents of Rome, freedmen or
even slaves, and the other senators, as a class exquisitely sensitive to
any invasion of their privileges by outsiders, winked at the practice
partly because some of them participated in it, much more because they
feared to suffer out-and-out ruin, if, by word or look, they incurred the
disfavor of Perennis while he was all-powerful or, later, of the more
omnipotent Cleander. When a senator saw another so violate propriety,
privilege and law, he assumed that the acting Prefect of the Palace had
been bribed and so dared not protest or whisper disapprobation.
Much more than the senators the nobles obtained secret license to ignore
the rules, or ignored them without license, since, when so many violated
the regulations, no one was conspicuous or likely to be brought to book.
Falco, being vastly wealthy, probably bribed somebody, but I never knew:
when I hinted a query he merely smiled and vowed that we were perfectly
So I sat beside him through that unforgettable December day, at the end of
which came the culmination of what I have been describing.
The day was perfect, clear, crisp, mild and windless. It was not cold
enough to be chilling, but was cold enough to make completely comfortable
a pipe-clayed ceremonial toga over the full daily garments of a noble or
senator, so that the entire audience enjoyed the temperature and basked in
the brilliant sunrays; for, so late in the year, as the warmth of the sun
was sure to be welcome, the awning had not been spread. I, in my bizarre
oriental attire, wore my thickest garments and my fullest curled wig and
felt neither too cold nor too warm.
I never saw the Colosseum so brilliant a spectacle. It was full to the
upper colonnade under the awning-rope poles, not a seat vacant. Spectators
were sitting on the steps all up and down every visible stair; two or even
three rows on each side of each stair, leaving free only a narrow alley up
the middle of each for the passage in or out of attendants or others.
Spectators filled the openings of the entrance-stairs, all but jamming
each. In each of the cross-aisles spectators stood or crouched against its
back-wall, ducking their heads to avoid protests from the luckier
spectators in the seats behind them. The upper colonnade was packed to its
full capacity with standees.
The program was unusual, gladiatorial exhibitions from the beginning of
the show; and nothing else. The morning was full of brisk fights between
young men; provincials, foreigners and some Italians, volunteer
enthusiasts. The noon pause was filled in by routine fights of old or
aging gladiators nearly approaching the completion of their covenanted
term of service. It ended with a novelty, the encounter of two tight-rope
walkers on a taut rope stretched fully thirty feet in the air. It was
proclaimed that they were rivals for the favor of a pretty freedwoman and
that they had agreed on this contest as a settlement of their rivalry.
Certainly the two, naked save for breech-clouts and each armed with a
light lance in one hand and a thin-bladed Gallic sword in the other,
neared each other with every sign of caution, enmity and courage. Their
sparring for an opening lasted some time, but was breathlessly
interesting. The victor kept his feet on the rope and pierced his rival,
who fell and died from the spear-wound or the fall or both.
During the noon pause the Emperor had left his pavilion. When he returned
I, from my nearby location, was certain that Commodus himself had presided
all the morning, but that now Furfur was taking his place. Certainly Palus
and Murmex entered the arena soon after the noon pause and gave an
exhibition almost twice as long as usual, killing many adversaries. Before
the sun was half way down the sky, as Palus finished an opponent with one
of his all but invisible punctures of the thigh-artery, the upper tiers
first and then all ranks acclaimed this as the death of the twelve-
hundredth antagonist who had perished by his unerring steel.
The daylight had not begun to dim when Murmex and Palus faced each other
for the fencing bout which was to end the day. Each was equipped as a
_secutor_, Murmex in silvered armor, Palus all in gold or gilded arms.
Their swords were not regulation army swords, such a _secutors_ normally
carried, but long-bladed Gallic swords, the longest-bladed swords ever
used by any gladiators.
They made a wonderful picture as the _lanistae_ placed them and stepped
back: Murmex, burly, stocky, heavy of build, thick-set, massive, with vast
girth of chest and bull-neck, his neatly-fitting plated gauntlet, huge on
his big right hand, his big plated boots planted solidly on the sand, his
polished helmet, the great expanse of his silvered shield, his silvered
kilt-strap-scales and silvered greave-boots brilliant in the cool late
light; opposite him Palus, tall, lithe, graceful, slim, agile, all in
gleaming gold, helmet, corselet, shield, kilt, greave-boots and all. They
shone like a composite jewel set in the arena as a cameo in the bezel of a
ring. And the picture they made was framed in the hoop of spectators
crowding the slopes of the amphitheater, all silent after the gusts of
cheers which had acclaimed the two as they took their places.
If possible, their feints and assaults were more thrilling than ever,
unexpected, sudden, swift, all but successful. As always neither capered
or pranced, Murmex not built for such antics, Palus by nature steady on
his feet. But, except that their feet moved cannily, every bit of the rest
of either's body was in constant motion and moved swiftly. The gleam and
flicker of thrust and parry were inexpressibly rapid. Even the upper tiers
craned, breathless and fascinated; and we, further forward, were numb and
quivering with excitement.
I have heard a hundred eye-witnesses describe what occurred. There was
close agreement with what I seemed to see as I watched.
Palus lunged just as Murmex made a brilliantly unpredictable shift of his
position. The shift and lunge came so simultaneously that neither had, in
his calculated, predetermined movement, time to alter his intention;
Murmex, you might say, threw his throat at the spot at which Palus had
aimed his lunge. The sword-point ripped his throat from beside the gullet
to against the spine, all one side of it. He collapsed, the blood
Palus cast the dripping sword violently from him, the gleaming blade
flying up into the air and falling far off on the sand. The big shield
fell from his right arm. Both his hands caught his big helmet, lifted it
and threw it behind him. On one knee he sank by Murmex and, with his left
hand, strove to staunch the gushing blood.
Before Galen, before even the _lanistae_ could reach the two, Murmex died.
Palus staggered to his feet and put up his gory hand to his yellow curls,
with a convincingly agonized gesture of grief and horror.
He uttered some words, I heard his voice, but not the words. Folk say he
"I have killed the only match I had on earth, the second-best fighter
earth ever saw."
The audience, I among them, stared, awe-struck and fascinated, at Commodus
laying a bloody hand on his own head; we shuddered: I saw many look back
and forth from Palus in the arena to the figure on the Imperial throne.
The guards ran, the surgeons' helpers ran, even Galen ran, but Aemilius
Laetus reached Palus first, and, between the dazed and stunned _lanistae_,
picked up the big golden helmet and replaced it on his head, hiding his
features. The distance from the _podium_ wall to the center of the arena
is so great, the distance from any other part of the audience so much
greater, that, while many of the spectators were astounded, suspicious or
curious, not one could be certain that Palus was, beyond peradventure, the
Prince of the Republic in person. Palus stood there, alternately staring
at his dead crony and talking to Laetus and Galen.
The heralds had run up with the guards. Laetus, without any pretense of
consultation with the dummy Emperor on the throne, spoke to the heralds
and each stalked off to one focus of the ellipse of the arena. Thence each
bellowed for silence, their deep-toned, resonant, loud, practiced voices
carrying to the upper colonnade everywhere. Silence, deep already since
Murmex received his death-wound and broken only by whispers, deepened. The
amphitheater became almost still. Into the stillness the heralds
proclaimed that next day the funeral games of Murmex Lucro would be
celebrated in the Colosseum where he had died; that all persons entitled
to seats in the Colosseum were thereby enjoined to attend, unless too ill
to leave their homes: that all should come without togas, but, in sign of
mourning for Murmex, wearing over their garments full-length, all-
enveloping rain-cloaks of undyed black wool and similarly colored umbrella
hats; that any person failing to attend so habited would be severely
punished; that the show would be worth seeing, for, in honor of the Manes
of Murmex, to placate his ghost, no defeated fighter would be spared and
all the victors of the morning would fight each other in the afternoon.
Surely the tenth day before the Kalends of January, in December of the
nine hundred and forty-fourth year of the City, [Footnote: 191 A.D.] the
year in which Commodus was nominally consul for the seventh time, and
Pertinax consul for the second time, saw the strangest audience ever
assembled in the amphitheater of the Colosseum. I was there, seated, as on
the day before, next my master, my gaudy Asiatic garments, like his garb
of a noble of equestrian rank, hidden under a great raincoat and my face
shaded by the broad brim of an umbrella hat.
The universal material conventional for mourners' attire is certainly
appropriate and proper for mourning garb. For the undyed wool of black
sheep, when spun and woven, results in a cloth dingy in the extreme. The
wearing of garments made of it suits admirably with grief and gloom of
spirit, deepens sadness, accentuates woe, almost produces melancholy. And
the sight of it, when one is surrounded by persons so habited, conduces to
dejection and depression. This equally was felt by the whole audience.
Instead of being a space glaring in the sunlight shining on an expanse of
white togas, the hollow of the amphitheater was a dingy area of brownish
black under a lowering canopy of sullen cloud, for the sky was heavily
overcast and threatened rain all day, though not a drop fell. The windless
air was damp and penetratingly chilly, so that we almost shivered under
our swathings. The discomfort of not being warm enough and the dispiriting
effect of the grim sky and gloomy interior of the amphitheater was
manifest in a sort of general impression of melancholy and apprehension.
Apprehension, or, certainly, uneasiness, pervaded the audience and, as it
were, seemed to diffuse itself from the Imperial Pavilion, crowded, not,
as usual, with jaunty figures in gaudy apparel, all crimson, blue, and
green, picked out and set off by edgings of silver and gold, but with a
solemn retinue, all hidden under dingy umbrella hats and swathed in rain-
cloaks. To see the throne occupied by a human shape so obscured by its
habiliments gave all beholders an uncanny feeling in which foreboding
deepened into alarm. The appearance of the whole audience, still more of
the Imperial retinue, was one to cause all beholders to interpret the garb
of the spectators as ill-omened, almost as inviting disaster.
In the center of the arena was built up the pyre which was to consume all
that was left of Murmex. It was constructed of thirty-foot logs, each tier
laid across the one below it, the lower tiers of linden, willow, elm and
other quick-burning woods, their interstices filled with fat pine-knots;
the upper tiers of oak and maple, at which last I heard not a few
whispered protests, for old-fashioned folk felt it almost a sacrilege that
holy wood should be used to burn a gladiator, a man of blood. The pyre was
thus a square structure thirty feet on a side and fully twenty feet high;
each side showing silvered log-butts or log-ends, with gilded pine-knots
all between; its top covered with laurel boughs, over which was laid a
crimson rug with golden fringe, setting off the corpse of Murmex, which
lay in the silver armor he had worn in his last fight, high on the mound
of laurel boughs.
At each focus of the arena was placed a round marble altar, one to Venus
Libitina, one to Pluto. By these the heralds took their stands and
proclaimed that no offerings would be made at the altars except one black
lamb at each, that every man slain in the day's fighting would be an
offering to the Manes of Murmex, since the day would be occupied solely
with the celebration of funeral games for the solace of his ghost.
The games began with a set-to of sixteen pairs of gladiators fighting
simultaneously. After this was over the sixteen victors drew off towards
one end of the arena and sixteen other pairs fought simultaneously. After
them the victors of the first set paired off as the _lanistae_ arranged
and the eight pairs fought. The eight victors again rested while the
survivors of the second set simultaneously fought as eight pairs. So they
alternated till only two men survived. A third batch of thirty-two
gladiators then fought in sixteen pairs: then the two survivors of the
first and second batches fought. The heralds proclaimed that the sole
survivor of the first sixty-four would fight again in the afternoon. So
with the sole survivor of the third and fourth batches. This grim butchery
gave a savage tone to the whole day. All the morning many pairs fought,
till one of each pair was killed. But, after the fourth batch, every
victor in any fight was reserved to fight again in the afternoon.
To my eyesight the figure on the throne, even under that broad hat-brim
and enveloped in that thick rain-cloak, was manifestly Commodus in person.
Unmistakably his was every Imperial gesture as he presided as Editor of
During the noon interval, as usual, the Emperor retired to his robing-room
under the upper tiers of the amphitheater. When again, after the noon
interval, the throne was reoccupied, I felt certain that its occupant was
At any rate Palus appeared at once after the noon interval and the first
fight was between him and the survivor of the sixty-four wretches, who had
begun the day's butchery. Palus, of course, killed his man, but with more
appearance of effort and less easily than any adversary he had ever faced
under my observation. The people cheered his victory, but not so
enthusiastically as usual. He did not appear again till the last event of
the day, which was a series of duels between champions in two-horse
chariots, driven by expert charioteers, they and the fighters equipped
with arms and armor such as was used by both sides at the siege of Troy.
Horses are seldom seen in the Colosseum and these pairs, frantic at the
smell of blood, taxed to the utmost the skill and strength of their
drivers, particularly as they were controlled by the old-fashioned reins
of the Heroic period, the manipulation of which calls for methods
different from those effective with our improved modern reins.
The charioteers were capable and their dexterous maneuvering for every
advantage of approach and relative position won many cheers. Eight pairs
fought, then the eight victors paired off, then the four victors, then the
two. The sole survivor then retired and while he was out of the arena
there entered a superb pair of bay horses, drawing a chariot of Greek
pattern, in which, to the amazement of all beholders, was Narcissus, the
wrestler, himself, habited as Automedon and acting as charioteer; while
beside him, magnificent in a triple crested crimson-plumed helmet of the
Thessalian type, in a gilded corselet of the style of the Heroic age, with
gilded scales on its kilt-straps, with gilded greaves, with a big gilded
Argive shield embossed with reliefs, and holding two spears, manifestly
habited as Achilles, stood Palus.
When his refreshed antagonist reentered in a Trojan chariot and armored
and armed as Hector of Troy, Palus handed his two spears to his Automedon,
leapt from his chariot, walked over to Hector's, and spoke to him. I heard
it reported afterwards that he said:
"It would spoil the program for Hector to slay Achilles, but you have as
much chance of killing me as I of killing you. I am so shaken by Murmex's
death that I am not the man I was yesterday morning and up till then. I
never felt so nearly matched as by you, not even by Murmex. Attack and
spare not. I have given orders that, if you kill me, you shall not suffer
for it in any way. I don't want to live, anyhow, now Murmex is dead."
Whether he said this or something else, he spoke earnestly and walked back
to his chariot nearby, without any elasticity in his tread.
Narcissus, the wrestler, to the astonishment of the spectators, proved
himself a paragon horse jockey. Everyone knew him as a wrestler, as
reported the strongest man alive, as claimed by his admirers to have a
more powerful hand-grasp than any rival, as the favorite wrestling-mate of
the Emperor; all the notabilities had seen him and Commodus wrestle in the
Stadium of the Palace; all Rome knew him for a crony of the Prince; yet no
one had ever heard him praised or even mentioned as a charioteer. Yet he
showed himself a matchless horseman. Hector's charioteer was a master, yet
Narcissus outmaneuvered him, gained the advantage of angle of approach
and, after many turns, gave Palus his chance. The two great lances flew
almost simultaneously; but, as Achilles dodged, Hector fell dying of a
mortal wound in the throat.
What followed was, apparently, according to the prearranged program and
was indubitably in keeping with the equipment of the two champions and
their charioteers; yet it horrified me, and I think all the senators and
nobles as well as most of the audience. As Hector sprawled horridly on the
sand Narcissus veered his pair and, as they passed the fallen man,
Achilles leapt from his chariot. Drawing his Argive sword he slashed the
dying man across his abdomen; then, sheathing his blade, he stood, one
foot on his adversary's neck and, raising his lance and shield, shouted:
"Enalie! Enalie! Enalie!" the old Greek invocation to the war-god. Then he
threw aside his lance and shield and stripped off the armor from the dead.
Arena-slaves carried it to the pyre and placed it upon it, by Murmex.
Narcissus had wheeled the chariot in a short circle and halted it as near
Palus as he could keep it and control the frantic horse. Palus took from
one of the hand-holds at the back of the chariot-rail a long leathern
thong. With his dirk he slit each foot of the corpse between the leg-bone
and the heel-tendon; through the slit he passed the thong, knotting it to
his liking. The doubled thong he tied securely to the rear rim of the
chariot-bed. Retrieving his lance and shield he posed an instant, every
inch Achilles, stepped over Hector's naked corpse and mounted the chariot.
From Automedon he took the reins and the whip, passing him his lance, yet
retaining his great circular shield, nowise hampered by which he drove the
chariot round and round the pyre, the picture, as all could see, he felt,
of Achilles placating the ghost of Patroclus.
This exhibition shocked the whole audience, upper tiers and all. The ghost
of a hiss breathed under the tense hush of the silent beholders. A shudder
ran over the hollow of the amphitheater, as the dragged corpse, mauled by
the sand and turning over, became a mere lump of pounded meat. The chill
of the onlookers appeared to reach Palus. He halted his team near the
pyre, arena-slaves dragged away Hector's corpse, one brought a lighted
torch and Palus himself kindled the pyre at each of its four corners,
walking twice round it. When it was enveloped in crackling flames, he
mounted the chariot and Narcissus drove him out; drove him out, to the
horror of all beholders by the Gate of Ill-omen.
After he vanished through that gate no amphitheater ever again beheld
Palus the Gladiator.
When he was gone all eyes were fixed on the kindling pyre. The flames
blazed up all round it and above it, the smoke mounted skyward in a thick
column, the crackle and roar of the flames was audible all over the
amphitheater; so deep was the solemn stillness. I shall carry to my last
living hour the vivid recollection of that picture: under the grim gray
sky, framed in by the sable hangings which draped the upper colonnade, and
by the clingy audience, against the yellow sand, that column of sooty
smoke and below it the red glare of the blazing pyre.
After my seclusion at Baiae, up to the terrible events which I am about to
narrate, by far the most important of my experiences had been my personal
observations of the fights of Palus the Gladiator and what I had heard and
thought about him. Therefore I have narrated those at length and first.
Now I approach the story of my most dreadful miseries.
From my return to Rome my life had gone on much as it had before my master
had compelled me to impersonate Salsonius Salinator and, in so doing, to
resume my natural appearance as I had looked while my genuine self, and
thus, undisguised, to mingle with the associates of my normal early life.
After my hair and beard had regained their previous luxuriance and I was
again painted, rouged, frizzed, bejeweled, and bedizened, I felt safe and,
was in fact, almost entirely safe. In this guise I enjoyed life. Falco was
indulgent to me and I had every luxury at my command.
Falco's mania for gem-collecting did not wane, but, if possible, grew on
him. His ventures all prospered, his profits from risky speculations
poured in, his normal income from his heritage increased; and, of all this
opulence, every surplus denarius was paid out for gems and curios. Yet he
never was so much a faddist as to lose a day from the games of the circus
and the amphitheater. He viewed every show of gladiators, every day of
racing, almost every combat and every race.
The day after the spectacular games for Murmex and his more spectacular
cremation, the eighth day before the Kalends of January, was nominally the
last racing day of the year. The weather was fair and mild. The Circus
Maximus was crowded, the Imperial Pavilion blazed with the retinue about
the Emperor, he and all of us enjoyed the thirty races of four four-horsed
chariots to each. I mention this because it was his last public
The festivities of the Saturnalia, which I had prepared for according to
Falco's orders with lavish prodigality, left me more than a little weary.
I spent some days mostly in resting and dozing, being drowsy all day, even
with long nights of sound sleep.
On the fatal last day of the year I did not go out, but read or dozed and
went early to bed. I slept heavily, knowing nothing from composing myself
in bed until I wakened suddenly in the almost complete darkness of the
first hint of light at the dawn of a cloudy, windless winter day, I woke
with a sense of having been roused, of something unusual; and, vaguely
descrying a human figure by my bed asked, sleepily:
"Is that you, Dromo?"
"No," said Agathemer's voice, "it is I."
I raised myself on one elbow, shot through with foreboding. But my
apprehensions were mastered by an idle curiosity. I knew he had some
imperative reason for coming to me, yet I did not ask his errand, but
"How on earth did you get in?"
"The house-door was open," he said simply.
"But," I marvelled, "I am surprised that the janitor was awake so early."
"He was not," said Agathemer with deliberate emphasis, "he was as fast
asleep in his cell on the right of the vestibule as was the watch-dog in
his on the left."
"And you walked past both unnoticed?" I hazarded.
"I did," said he, "and you had best warn Falco somehow or induce him to
sell his janitor and buy one he can trust or to put in his place some
trusty home-slave. That is no sort of a janitor for the house containing
the second-largest private gem-collection in all Rome. Nor any sort of
"How came the door unbarred?" I wondered, "who showed you up here?"
"I came up alone," said Agathemer, significantly. "I have not seen a human
being except the snoring janitor. This house is at the mercy of any sneak-
thief. But you can return to that later. I have come to tell you good
news. Commodus is dead!"
"Really?" I quavered.
Oddly enough I felt no sense of relief. Before my eyes arose the picture
of Commodus as I had seen him facing the mutineers from Britain before he
condemned Perennis: I recalled how often I had heard said of him that he
was the noblest born of all our Emperors from the Divine Julius down; that
he was the handsomest and the strongest man in any assembly about him,
however large; that in his Imperial Regalia he looked more imperial than
any man ever had: I contrasted his possession of these qualities with his
pitiful squandering of his boundless opportunities, with his frittering
away his life on horse-racing, sword-play and such like frivolities. I
could not think of myself, only of what Commodus might have been and had
not been. I mourned for him and Rome.
Agathemer sat down on the edge of my bed and told his story.
"You know," he said, "that, as gem-expert and as salesman for Orontides, I
have many friends in the Palace. I have carefully kept out of it myself
and Orontides has acquiesced, for I told him I had good reason to avoid
going in there, as you well know I have. If Marcia had seen me she would
have recognized me and I should not have lived many hours, for she,
believing you dead, would regard me as, of all men, the most likely to see
through the utilization of Ducconius Furfur as a dummy Emperor to free
Commodus for masquerading as Palus. She would want me out of the way as
the only man in Rome who had known Furfur in Sabinum. Therefore I kept
away from the Palace.
"But my good friends among the valets and chamberlains and secretaries,
and even higher officials have not only kept me posted as to the most
interesting happenings, intrigues and rumors, but one or two close to the
Emperor have regularly communicated to me many details of Palace gossip."
Daily, since the death of Murmex, Agathemer had been informed of long,
heated and ever longer and more violent discussions between Commodus and
Marcia, often, with Eclectus also present and participating, for he had
been acting towards Commodus more as an equal toward a crony than as Head
Chamberlain of the Palace towards his master. Laetus, too had also
participated, sometimes in place of Eclectus, sometimes along with him,
for he also had been comporting himself more as a chum of Commodus than as
Prefect of the Praetorium towards his Emperor.
The substance of the discussions had been always the same. Commodus, at
once after the death of Murmex, announced his intention of turning his
Imperial duties and dignities over to Ducconius Furfur and of going to the
Choragium, there and thenceforward to live and to die as Palus the
Gladiator. He declared that as Emperor he never had an hour free from
anxiety, always in dread of assassination by poison or otherwise, whereas,
as a gladiator among gladiators, he felt perfectly safe and carefree,
beloved and watched over by all his companions and certain to win all his
"As Emperor," he said, "I'll not live a year; as Palus I'll most likely
die of old age, forty years or more from now. Furfur and I are so alike
that no one can tell us apart, so no one will ever suspect that the man
acting as Emperor is not the same man who has filled that place ever since
Marcia had talked to him of his duty and he had rejoined that he had
always known that he was unfit to be the Emperor, had feared his
responsibilities, had undertaken them unwillingly, had mostly bungled
them, and the world would be far better off with anybody else as Emperor,
that everybody knew it and that he was despised by the whole Senate and
nobility and for that reason more unhappy although he was unhappy enough
so anyhow, without the covert jeers of the magistrates; whereas he was the
best gladiator ever and all gladiators and experts acknowledged and
acclaimed him peerless; as a gladiator he would be happy and enjoy life up
to whatever end came to him, preferably an unexpected accidental sudden
death such as had befallen Murmex. Ducconius Furfur had not only sat in
his throne at shows, but had received embassies, read better than he the
addresses composed for him by his Prefects of the Praetorium and
Secretaries, knew all the tricks of the office and could and would be a
better Emperor than ever he had been.
When Eclectus and Laetus argued with him the results were similar.
Then Marcia admonished him that while Furfur had escaped detection in mere
routine matters he was certain to be detected within a few days if he
essayed all the Imperial duties before all sorts of people. In that case
some sort of revolt would abolish him and put a new Emperor in place of
him and any such chosen autocrat would quickly order the death of Palus
the Gladiator to assure himself the throne. To this line of argument
Commodus had been as deaf as to all other lines.
"Why," he had said, "if I change clothes with Furfur you wouldn't know the
difference yourself. If we both were garbed as Emperor, Laetus wouldn't
know which to obey. And if my wife and most loyal servant cannot tell
which is which when we are side by side and habited alike, who will ever
suspect that Furfur is not I when I am out of the way, far off, living as
Palus the Swordsman, never alongside the Emperor or in sight at the same
time? The plan cannot miscarry."
He had announced that he meant on the Kalends of January to take up his
abode in the Choragium and leave the Palace and its adjuncts and all his
prerogatives to Ducconius Furfur. He had Furfur in and the five had a
heated wrangle. Furfur, after the discussion, had another with Marcia,
Eclectus and Laetus, declaring that he thought the scheme as insane as
they thought it, but dared not show reluctance for fear of being put to
death at once: as an impostor Emperor he would, at least, have a chance,
if a faint chance, of success and survival.
Then they all had a long altercation on the last day of the year, during
which Commodus cursed Marcia and Eclectus and Laetus and vowed he would
have them all executed if they mentioned the subject again. He imperiously
bade them acquiesce and so silenced them.
Then he made Furfur, who pretended to him that he was delighted, remain to
drink with him. They drank till both were dead drunk and snoring.
Marcia, finding them so, held a consultation with Eclectus and Laetus and
proposed to have Narcissus strangle Furfur, saying that with Furfur out of
the way Commodus might come to his senses: she would risk his wrath and be
resigned to death if she failed to placate him; for, with Furfur dead, he
could not carry out his crazy intentions. She said she loved Commodus so
much that she was willing to save him even at the cost of her own life.
Eclectus and Laetus acclaimed her plan and were overjoyed at their
opportunity, for all three hated Furfur. Yet, all three shrank from going
into the room with Narcissus. He, entering alone, mistook the two
sleepers, who had changed clothes, and by mistake for Furfur, strangled
Commodus. After his victim was indubitably dead and past any possibility
of reviving he summoned his accomplices and, when Marcia shrieked and
fainted, for the first time realized his blunder.
Then, frantic, he seized Furfur and strangled him to death long before
Eclectus had revived Marcia from her swoon.
As Agathemer told it to me all this came out in a haphazard tangle of
unfinished sentences, interruptions, fresh starts, questions, answers,
repetitions and explanations.
Meanwhile the day had dawned gray and lowering. Of all my strange
experiences none were more eery than that talk with Agathemer, beginning
in the dark and, with his form and features and expressions effaced,
gradually becoming more and more visible. And towards the end of his
disclosures he checked himself in the middle of a word and, raising his
Silent and tense, we listened. Even in my bedroom, opening on the side
gallery of the peristyle, we heard, from over the roofs, cries of:
"The tyrant is dead! The despot is dead! The prize-fighter is dead! The
murderer is dead!"
"The news is out!" Agathemer ejaculated, and he breathed a prayer to
Mercury, in which I joined. When finally he had told all he had to tell I
"Can it be possible that the most intimate and secret conversations of the
Prince of the Republic, of the most sedulously guarded man on earth, are
thus overheard by underlings and so promptly communicated even to
outsiders presumably to be reckoned among his enemies?"
"I conjecture," Agathemer rejoined, "that I am not the only outsider in
receipt of information of this kind."
"If you have been, all along," I asked, "in receipt of such information,
why have you always talked of Furfur's presence in the Palace and his
utilization as a dummy Emperor while Commodus masqueraded as Palus, as a
conjecture of yours which you believed, but of which you could not be
certain? Why have you not frankly spoken of it as a fact, which many knew
of and of which some in a position to know, repeatedly informed you?"
"Because no one ever did so inform me," Agathemer answered, "they merely
dropped hints, mostly hints, unnoticed by themselves, unintentionally
dropped by them, and uncertainly pieced together by me. While Commodus was
alive each of my informants, however fond of me, however under obligations
to me, however anticipative of profit from me, however eager to curry
favor with me, yet had vividly before him the dread of death, of death
with torture, if any disloyalty of his, any dereliction in deed, word or
thought, came to the notice of Commodus or Laetus or Eclectus, or if any
one of them came to harbor any suspicion of him. All were vague, guarded,
"Since midnight all that has changed. None fears any retribution for
blabbing; all feel an overmastering urge towards confiding in some one.
The three who, each unknown to the others, have resorted to me, told me
unreckonably more than I previously conjectured. I comprehend the entire
"If so," I said, "make me comprehend it. I do not. How could Furfur be
coerced or persuaded to such an imposture? How could he be domiciled in
the Palace along with Marcia and Commodus and the deception maintained?
How could the three personally endure or even sustain the difficulties of
"It all hinged," Agathemer explained, "on the fact that Furfur was
insanely in love with Marcia, that Marcia hated and loathed him and that
Commodus realized how each felt to the other. He was so sure of Marcia's
detestation of Furfur that he was never jealous of him, so sure of
Furfur's complete subserviency to Marcia that he never feared betrayal by
him. Actually, from what I hear, Furfur complied as he did partly from
loyalty to Commodus, partly from fear of him, partly, perhaps, from a sort
of relish for his risky impersonation, but chiefly because he was wax in
Marcia's hands; as, indeed, was every man who came within reach of her
fascinations. Does that explain it?"
"Enough," I agreed. "Perhaps as far as it can or could be explained."
"The main thing," said Agathemer, "is that Commodus is dead."
"I should be pleased to hear that," I said, "and I am and I thank you.
But, somehow, I am unable to think of myself. Uppermost in my mind is the
thought of the dead autocrat, of his unlimited power, of his inability to
surround himself with trustworthy dependents, and of all you have had
hinted to you and, even to-night, told you. In such a world, who can
consider himself safe?"
Agathemer looked piqued.
"I reckoned," he said, "that you would feel, if not safe, at least less
unsafe upon hearing my announcement."
"I do," said I, "for, under any other Prince, I should be less in danger,
and, when we learn who is chosen Emperor, it may turn out that I have some
chance of rehabilitation."
"Laetus and Eclectus," said Agathemer, "have decided to make Pertinax
Emperor. When my informer left the Palace they had already set off to find
Pertinax, presumably at his home, and offer him the Principate."
"That," I gloried, "is truly good news. I knew him as a young noble knows
many an older senator: he may remember me. He should have nothing against
me. You raise my hopes high!"
"By all means be hopeful and cheerful," said Agathemer, "but stick to your
present disguise and continue your present way of life until we are sure.
Do not be rash."
We consulted further and he said:
"I'll keep away from you except when it seems imperative to talk with you.
I shall not send any more letters than I must. Do not write to me. If you
must see me, it will be safe to come to Orontides' shop, as Falco is
continually sending you there about gems. You can nod to me without any
uttered word and I'll then come here as soon as may be."
He left just as dawn brightened into full day.
Among the first proclamations of our new Emperor was one expressly
abolishing the court for prosecuting accusations for infringement of the
Imperial Majesty by incautious words or inadvertent acts and at the same
time decreeing the recall of every living exile banished for such
transgressions; also specifically rehabilitating the memory of all persons
who had been under Commodus, put to death on the pretext of this sort of
guilt. Before the end of the day on which this decree was promulgated I
received a letter from Agathemer in which he wrote:
"Beware! Keep close. Already it is rumored that exceptions to this
decree have been made. Marcia is still alive, is married to Eclectus,
and Eclectus is confirmed as Palace Chamberlain. With Marcia close to
the Emperor you are not safe, no matter who is Emperor. Keep close!"
I followed his advice, which was easy for me to do, as I was very
comfortable and well habituated to my life. Moreover I was buoyed up with
hope of early rehabilitation and of then marrying Vedia, who sent me one
cautiously worded note, congratulating me on the disappearance of my most
dangerous foeman, warning me that I still had formidable enemies alive and
in high places, and begging me to be prudent. She reiterated her
expressions of love, devotion and fidelity.
From Tanno also I received a letter warning me to be on guard and to
efface myself as much as possible.
Falco, who had loathed Commodus, but had been careful to keep a still
tongue on all matters except horse-racing, sword-play, social pleasures
and gem-collecting, was much relieved at his death, and heartily delighted
with his successor. He took pains to be present among the auditors of
Pertinax whenever nobles were admitted along with the senators to listen
to his addresses, which was almost always. He took to heart the new
Emperor's adjurations as to economy and his invectives against the evils
of speculative enterprises of all kinds. Over our wine after dinner, when
we two dined alone together, much as Agathemer and I had when I was my
former self, he unbosomed himself to me.
"Pertinax is right," he averred, "there is a real difference between
enterprises which enrich only the participants and those which, while
profiting their promoters, also add to the wealth of the Republic. I
applaud his distinction between the two. I agree with him that wealthy men
like me should invest their capital in nothing which does not benefit
mankind as well as themselves. I have realized with a shock of shame that
my greed for cash to spend on jewels has led me to embark in ventures
which merely divert into my coffers the proceeds of other men's efforts,
without adding anything to the sum-total of usable wealth. I mean to
withdraw from all such monetary acrobatics and utilize my surplus in
extending my estates, in buying others, in cattle-breeding, sheep-raising,
goat-herding, and in the cultivation of olives, vines, and other such
remunerative growths, along with wheat-farming. Thus I will add to the
resources of the Republic, while increasing my own cash income.
"Our conscientious Prince is equally correct in exhorting us to eschew all
frivolities. I'll buy no more gems. Nay, I'll auction my collection, as
soon as Rome recovers its calm and purchasers are as eager as last year.
I'll invest the proceeds in productive enterprise. Thus, as Pertinax says,
I shall be a more useful citizen and an even happier man."
Actually he at once initiated his arrangements for closing out the
speculative ventures which he controlled and for withdrawing from those in
which he participated. And he bought no more gems, though he talked gems
as much as previously, or even more, and took great pride in showing
visitors over his collection or in conning his treasures in company with
me or even entirely alone by himself.
His enthusiasm for Pertinax grew warmer day by day and he talked of him,
praising him, lauded him, prophesied for him great things and from him
great benefits to the Republic and the Empire.
The alleged conspiracy against Pertinax of Consul Sosius Falco and his
disgrace and relegation to his estates was a great shock to my master.
That his cousin should plot against the Prince of our Republic, or lay
himself open to accusation of such plotting, appeared to him hideous and
shameful. He felt disgraced himself, as bearing the same family name. He
gloomed and mourned over the matter.
The murder of Pertinax, by his own guards, on the fifth day before the
Kalends of April, when he had been less than three months Emperor, was
even a more violent shock to Falco, who was crushed with horror at such a
crime. He was even more horrified at the arrogance of the guilty
Praetorians and at their shameless effrontery in offering the Imperial
Purple to the highest bidder and in, practically, selling the Principiate
to so bestial a Midas as Didius Julianus, who, of all the senators, seemed
most to misbecome the Imperial Dignity and who had nothing to recommend
him except his opulence.
During the days of rioting which followed the murder of Pertinax we,
naturally, kept indoors. When the disorders abated and the streets of Rome
resumed their normal activities, Falco continued to remain at home. I
expostulated with him, but he appeared, suddenly, a changed man, as if
dazed and stunned by recent events. He, who had been continually on the
go, living in a round of social pleasures, became averse to much of what
he had before revelled in. My most ingenious pleadings were required to
induce him to go to the Public Baths, which fashionable clubhouses he had
frequented every afternoon from his first arrival at Rome. Until the death
of Pertinax he had only very occasionally dined alone with me: nearly
every day he went out to a formal dinner or entertained a large batch of
guests at a lavish banquet. After Pertinax's murder he began to refuse
invitations to dine and he gave fewer dinners. He spent a great deal of
his time with his lawyers and accountants and went over the affairs of his
African estates, minutely, one by one and all of them. He made a new will
and told me of it.
"Phorbas," he said, "I am troubled with forebodings. I have never thought
of death until recently, except as of something far off and to be
considered much later: since the murder of our good Emperor I think of it
continually. If I live long enough to see normal conditions restored I
shall follow the suggestions given to me by the addresses of Pertinax and
shall auction my gems. Meanwhile I dread that I may not live to do so.
Therefore I have made a will leaving my entire collection to you. I hereby
enjoin you, should you come into possession of them, to sell the gems at
auction, as soon as you see fit, and to invest the proceeds in enterprises
which shall add to the wealth of the Republic. This bequest is a trust.
Besides I have, as in former wills, bequeathed to you your freedom, and a
legacy sufficient to make you comfortable for life. Moreover I have made
you the heir of one-fourth of my estate, what remains of it after the gem
collections is yours and all specific legacies are paid. I do not love my
nephews and cousins and have bequeathed to them more than they deserve; as
to the toadies who have hung about me and fawned on me in the hope of
legacies, I despise them all. You are my best friend and chief heir."
I thanked him effusively and was so much affected that I myself began to
have uncomfortable, vague forebodings. Agathemer happened to visit me and
I confided to him the contents of my old leather amulet-bag. Of course I
had not worn it since I began life with Falco, as a greasy old amulet-bag
of the meanest material and pattern was wholly out of keeping with the
character I had assumed. I wore instead a flat locket of pure gold,
containing a talisman from the Pontic fastnesses. I had kept my share of
our mountain trove of stolen jewels, not needing to part with any after
Falco bought me and unconcerned for the gems, as I now needed no such
store of savings. Now, suddenly, I felt uneasy about myself, my future and
my possessions. These jewels I therefore placed in Agathemer's keeping,
sure that they would be safer with him than with me and certain that he
could realize on them quickly and transmit to me promptly whatever sums I
I did all I could to rouse Falco from his lethargy and succeeded to some
extent. But, all through April and May, he went out little, accepted few
invitations and gave few dinners. Much of his time he spent among his
jewels, conning them, handling them, taking curios from their cases and,
as it were, caressing them. The rooms which held them were on the left
hand side of the peristyle on the upper floor, across the court from my
apartment and not precisely opposite it. There were three rooms; the
larger with a door on the gallery, and a smaller on either side of it,
opening from it and lit by windows towards the gallery. Each room had a
marble table in the middle, small and round in both side cabinets,
rectangular and large in the main room. Each of the three rooms was walled
with cases and shelves; on the shelves were displayed his larger curios,
vases, cameos, intaglios, plaques, murrhine bowls and such like; in the
cases were necklaces, bracelets, rings, seals and trays of unset gems of
all sorts and sizes. Here Falco spent hours each day, gloating over his
"Phorbas," he said, "I am resolute never to buy another gem, equally
resolute to auction all I have whenever conditions make a profitable sale
probable. Yet, although I feel that I shall never live to see them
auctioned, the very thought of parting with them cuts me to the quick. I
am almost in tears to think of it. I love every piece I own. I hate to
think I must either live to see them sold or die and leave them. I cannot
be with them enough of my time. I could spend all my waking hours enjoying
their loveliness and my luck in owning them."
I thought this condition of mind positively unhealthy and consulted Galen.
"You are right," he said, "and you are wrong too. Your master is badly
shaken by the horrors of this appalling year, but he is not deranged nor,
at this present time, in any more danger of derangement than most of the
senators and nobles with whom he associates. Yet you are correct in being
uneasy. Don't antagonize him, but do all you can, tactfully and
unobtrusively, to keep him away from those jewels and to get him out to
the Baths of Titus or to dinners. Do your utmost to induce him to
entertain. A jolly dinner with a bevy of jovial guests will be the very
medicine for him."
Had I been a Greek I could not have been, more wily or more successful. He
spent less time with his gems, went out to the Baths oftener, accepted
some dinner invitations and gave a few dinners. He even took some interest
in preparing for these and in giving orders about them. He had five
complete sets of silverware for his _triclinium_ and had a fancy for using
this or that set, according to the characters of his prospective guests.
Early in May he had invited a carefully selected company of concordant
guests, three senators and the rest nobles like himself, and was
anticipating a delightful evening. He had bidden me to see to the
selection of the flowers for decorating the _triclinium_, for the
garlands, and for sprinkling on the floor; to choose the wines I thought
would be most appropriate and to have brought out and used his most prized
set of silver, the work of Corinnos of Rhodes, embossed with scenes from
Ovid's Metamorphoses and acclaimed one of the finest services in Rome.
Besides the two tall mixing-bowls for tempering the wine before serving
it, the set had four smaller ones, about the size of well-buckets, and
much like them, for each was provided with two hinged handles, just like a
water-pail. I saw to the polishing of every piece in this magnificent
service, to their proper disposal, to the decoration of the _triclinium_
with flowers, verified the wines I had chosen, inspected every detail of
the preparations for the feast, and, just before the first guest might be
expected to arrive, went out and back into the kitchen to make sure that
every dish of each course was being properly prepared and that nothing
would be lacking.
When I returned to the _triclinium_ I found it swept clean of silver,
except the two big wine mixers. The four two-handled pails were gone and
with them the salt-cellars, the wine strainers, every soup-spoon, every
oyster-spoon, in fact every small piece, to the last. The thieves must
have been deft, agile and keen, for nothing was overset or disturbed and I
had heard no noise.
I rushed to the house-door, found it ajar and, each sleeping in his cell,
on the one side the snoring janitor, on the other our fat, pursy, overfed
I omit my hasty measures for pursuing the thieves and attempting their
capture or at least the recovery of their booty; and my urgent and
important efforts to arrange that our guests should be properly received
and the dinner should not be spoiled. Towards this last I did what could
be done and with fair success, Falco playing up to my suggestions and
dissimulating his chagrin.
More important to record was his amazing indifference to his loss. Not
that he did not feel it acutely, but that he seemed to feel no proper
indignation against those at fault.
He questioned the janitor and all the slaves concerned, but instead of
ordering scourged the two servitors whom I had left in the _triclinium_
when I went out of it to visit the kitchen and who should have remained
there until my return, he merely reprimanded them mildly. He did not so
much as have the undutiful janitor flogged, let alone sent away for sale.
He even laughed at the luck, alertness, dexterity and swiftness of the
thieves; picturing their glance into the unshut door, their glances up and
down the street, their eyeings of the watchdog and janitor, their
noiseless dash into the atrium, their invasion of the _triclinium_, their
gathering of the smaller pieces into the four handled wine-mixers, and
their escape, each with two silver pails stuffed with goblets, salt-
cellars, and bowls and, brimming with strainers, spoons and other small
He commented on their luck in not encountering any of his approaching
"Mercury," he said, "to whom you chiefly pray, must have been good to
them, as his votaries."
I was horrified at the levity of his attitude of mind. When we were alone
I remonstrated with him, saying that such leniency was certain to
demoralize his household; would ruin any set of slaves. I told him that
his retention of the janitor after Agathemer's unnoticed entrance on the
first day of the year was bad enough, far worse was it to condone a second
lapse, and that having had consequences so serious. I expostulated that it
was madness to entrust his housedoor to a watchman already twice caught
asleep at his post. I reminded him of the cash value of his gem-collection
and of its value in his eyes, not to be reckoned in cash. He listened
indulgently and said:
"I thank you, Phorbas. All you say is true. And, any time last year, I
should have sold that janitor without a thought, after your information
against him last January. But, somehow, since the murder of Commodus, yet
more since the murder of Pertinax, I seem less prone to severity and more
inclined to mercy. The waiter-boys deserve flogging, but I cannot harden
my heart and order it. The janitor merits being sold without a character,
after a severe scourging; yet I feel for him, too. I'll give him another
I could not move him.
I again consulted Galen:
"You are right!" he exclaimed. "A Roman nobleman who hesitates to have his
slaves flogged or sold and merely reprimands them, is certainly deranged.
Any natural Roman would insist on scourgings and even severer punishments,
But his eccentricity is not dangerous to him or anybody as yet. Humor him,
do not oppose his worship of his treasures, but entice him away from them
all you can by devices he does not suspect.
"And let me add, keep away from me, for your own sake. Keep away from
Vedia and Tanno and Agathemer. Do not write letters. True, Julianus has
put Marcia to death and you are rid of a pertinacious and alert enemy. But
he has recalled into favor most of the professional informers who
flourished under Commodus and they are on the watch for victims to win
them praise and rewards. Several of the exiles recalled by Pertinax have
been rearrested and re-banished or even executed since Julianus came into
power. Keep close and beware!"
The murder or assassination or execution of Julianus on the Kalends of
June shocked Falco even more than the deaths of Commodus and Pertinax. As
the June days passed I had to exercise my greatest adroitness to keep him
from spending all his waking hours indoors, chiefly in moping about his
collection of gems. I did pretty well with him, for I wheedled him into
going to the Baths of Titus three afternoons out of four, into going out
to dine one evening in three, and I even induced him to give several
formal dinners, each of which was a great success.