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William Ware (1797-1852) was an American romancer. He graduated at Harvard (1816), studied for the Unitarian ministry, and preached in New York and later in Massachusetts. He achieved literary recognition chiefly from his authorship of two historical romances Zenobia; or, The Fall of Palmyra (1837) and Aurelian; or, Rome in the Third Century (1838).
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Copyright © 2016 by William Ware
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IT IS WITH DIFFICULTY that I persuade myself, that it is I who am sitting and writing to you from this great city of the East. Whether I look upon the face of nature, or the works of man, I see every thing different from what the West presents; so widely different, that it seems to me, at times, as if I were subject to the power of a dream. But I rouse myself, and find that I am awake, and that it is really I, your old friend and neighbor, Piso, late a dweller upon the Coelian hill, who am now basking in the warm skies of Palmyra, and, notwithstanding all the splendor and luxury by which I am surrounded, longing to be once more in Rome, by the side of my Curtius, and with him discoursing, as we have been wont to do, of the acts and policy of the magnificent Aurelian.
But to the purpose of this letter, which is, in agreement with my promise, to tell you of my fortunes since I parted from you, and of my good or ill success, as it may be, in the prosecution of that affair which has driven me so far from my beloved Rome. O, Humanity! why art thou so afflicted? Why have the immortal gods made the cup of life so bitter? And why am I singled out to partake of one that seems all bitter? My feelings sometimes overmaster my philosophy. You can forgive this, who know my sorrows. Still I am delaying to inform you concerning my journey and my arrival. Now I will begin.
As soon as I had lost sight of you weeping on the quay, holding in your hand the little Gallus, and of the dear Lucilia leaning on your arm, and could no longer, even by mounting upon the highest part of the vessel, discern the waving of your hands, nor cause you to see the fervor with which I returned the sign of friendship, I at once left off thinking of you, as far as I could, and to divert my thoughts, began to examine, as if I had never seen them before, the banks of the yellow Tiber. At first the crowds of shipping, of every form and from every part of the world, distracted the sight, and compelled me to observe what was immediately around me. The cries of the sailors, as they were engaged in managing different parts of their vessels, or as they called out in violent and abusive terms to those who passed them, or as their several galleys struck against each other in their attempts to go up or down the river, together with the frequent roarings and bellowings of whole cargoes of wild beasts from the deserts of Asia and Africa destined to the amphitheatre, intermingled with the jargon of an hundred different barbarian languages from the thousands who thronged the decks of this fleet of all nations,—these sights and sounds at first wholly absorbed me, and for a moment shut all the world besides—even you—out of my mind. It was a strange yet inspiring scene, and gave me greater thoughts than ever of the power and majesty of Rome. Here were men and ships that had traversed oceans and continents to bring the offerings of their toil, and lay them at the feet of the mistress of the world. And over all this bustle, created by the busy spirit of commerce, a splendor and gayety were thrown by numerous triremes and boats of pleasure, which, glittering under the light of a summer’s morning sun, were just setting out upon some excursion of pleasure, with streamers floating from the slender masts, music swelling up from innumerable performers, and shouts of merry laughter from crowds of the rich and noble youths of the city, who reclined upon the decks, beneath canopies of the richest dyes. As these Cleopatra barges floated along with their soft burden, torrents of vituperative epithet were poured upon them by the rough children of Neptune, which was received with an easy indifference, or returned with no lack of ability in that sort of warfare, according to the temper or breeding of the parties.
When the novelty of this scene was worn out, for though often seen it is ever new, and we had fallen a few miles below the city, to where the eye first meets the smiling face of the country, I looked eagerly around, first upon one, and then upon the other bank of the river, in search of the villas of our fortunate citizens, waiting impatiently till the well-known turn of the stream should bring me before yours, where, with our mutual friends, we have passed so many happy days. It was not long before I was gratified. Our vessel gracefully doubled the projecting point, blackened with that thick grove of pine, and your hospitable dwelling greeted my eyes; now, alas! again, by that loved and familiar object, made to overflow with tears. I was obliged, by one manly effort, to leap clear of the power of all-subduing love, for my sensibilities were drawing upon me the observation of my fellow-passengers. I therefore withdrew from the side of the vessel where I had been standing, and moving to that part of it which would best protect me from what, but now, I had so eagerly sought, sat down and occupied myself in watching the movements and the figures of the persons whom chance had thrown into my company, and with whom I was now, for so many days, to be shut up in the narrow compass of our merchant-barque. I had sat but a little while, when the master of the ship, passing by me, stopped, and asked if it was I who was to land at Utica—for that one, or more than one, he believed, had spoken for a passage only to that port.
‘No, truly,’ I replied; and added: ‘Do you, then, cross over to Utica?—that seems to me far from a direct course for those bound to Syria.’
‘Better round-about,’ rejoined he, in his rough way, ‘than risk Scylla and Charybdis; and so would you judge, were the bowels of my good ship stored with your wealth, as they are, it may be, with that of some of your friends. The Roman merchant likes not that narrow strait, fatal to so many, but prefers the open sea, though the voyage be longer. But with this wind—once out of this foul Tiber—and we shall soon see the white shores of Africa. Truly, what a medley we seem to have on board! Jews, Romans, Syrians, Greeks, soldiers, adventurers, merchants, pedlers, and, if I miss not, Christians too; and you, if I miss not again, the only patrician. I marvel at your taking ship with so spotted a company, when there are these gay passenger-boats, sacred to the trim persons of the capital, admitting even not so much as a case of jewels besides.’
‘Doubtless it would have been better on some accounts,’ I replied, ‘but my business was urgent, and I could not wait for the sailing of the packet-boats; and besides, I am not unwilling to adventure where I shall mix with a greater variety of my own species, and gain a better knowledge of myself by the study of others. In this object I am not likely to be disappointed, for you furnish me with diverse samples, which I can contemplate at my leisure.’
‘If one studied so as to know well the properties of fishes or animals,’ rejoined he, in a sneering tone, ‘it would be profitable, for fishes can be eaten, and animals can be used: but man! I know little that he is good for, but to bury, and so fatten the soil. Emperors, as being highest, should be best, and yet, what are they? Whether they have been fools or madmen, the Tiber has still run blood, and the air been poisoned by the rotting carcasses of their victims. Claudius was a good man, I grant; but the gods, I believe, envied us our felicity, and so took him.’
‘I trust,’ said I, ‘that the present auspices will not deceive us, and that the happiness begun under that almost divine ruler, will be completed under him whom he designated as most worthy of the sceptre of the world, and whose reign—certainly we may say it—has commenced so prosperously. I think better of man than you do, and I cannot but believe that there will yet rise up among us those who shall feel what power, almost of a god, is lodged in the will of a Roman emperor, and will use it like a god to bless, not curse mankind. Why may not Nature repeat the virtuous Antonines! Her power is not spent. For myself, I have faith that Aurelian will restore not so much the greatness, as the peace and happiness of the empire.’
‘So have not I,’ cried the master of the ship: ‘is he not sprung from the loins of a peasant? Has not the camp been his home? Was not a shield his cradle? Such power as his will craze him. Born to it, and the chance were better. Mark a sailor’s word: he will sooner play the part of Maximin, than that of Antonine or Severus, or of our late good Claudius. When he feels easy in the saddle, we shall see what he will do. So far, the blood of barbarians, slain in battle, has satisfied him: when once in Rome, that of citizens will be sweeter. But may the gods befriend us!’
At this point of our discourse, we were interrupted by loud vociferations from the forward part of the vessel, where I had long observed a crowd of the passengers, who seemed engaged in some earnest conversation. The tones now became sharp and angry, and the group suddenly dispersed, separating this way and that, as the hoarse and commanding voice of the master of the ship reached them, calling upon them to observe the rules of the vessel, which allowed of no riot or quarrelling. Toward me there moved one whom I hardly know how to describe, and yet feel that I must. You will here doubtless exclaim, ‘Why obliged to describe? Why say so much of accidental companions?’ But you will answer yourself, I feel persuaded, my Curtius, by supposing that I should not particularly notice a mere companion of the voyage, unless he had connected himself in some manner with my fortunes. Such has been the case with this person, and one other whom I will shortly introduce to you. As I was saying, then, when that group dispersed, one of its number moved toward me, and seated himself at my side. He was evidently a Roman and a citizen. His features were of no other nation. But with all the dignity that characterized him as a Roman, there were mixed a sweetness and a mildness, such as I do not remember to have seen in another. And in the eye there was a melancholy and a deepness, if I may say so, more remarkable still. It was the eye of one who was all sorrow, all love, and all purity; in whom the soul had undisputed sway over the passions and the senses. I have seen an expression which has approached it, in some of our priests, but far below it in power and beauty. My first impulse was to address him, but his pallid and thoughtful countenance, together with that eye, restrained me, and I know not how I should have overcome this strange diffidence, had not the difficulty been removed by the intervention of a third party. This was no other than one of those travelling Jews, who infest all cities, towns and regions, and dwell among all people, yet mix with none. He was bent almost double by the weight of large packages of goods, of all descriptions, which he carried, part before and part behind him, and which he had not laid aside, in the hope, I suppose, of effecting some sales among the passengers.
‘Here’s old Isaac the Jew,’ cried he, as he approached toward where I sat, and then stood before me resting his pannier of articles upon a pile of merchandise, which lay there—’here’s old Isaac the Jew, last from Rome, but a citizen of the world, now on his way to Carthage and Syria, with all sorts of jewelry and ornaments: nothing that a lady wants that’s not here—or gentleman either. Most noble Sir, let me press upon you this steel mirror, of the most perfect polish: see the setting too; could the fancy of it be better? No? You would prefer a ring: look then at this assortment—iron and gold rings—marriage, seal, and fancy rings—buckles too: have you seen finer? Here too are soaps, perfumes, and salves for the toilet—hair-pins and essences. Perhaps you would prefer somewhat a little more useful. I shall show you then these sandals and slippers; see what a charming variety—both in form and color: pretty feet alone should press these—think you not so? But, alas! I cannot tempt you.’
‘How is it possible,’ said I, ‘for another to speak when thy tongue wags so fast? Those rings I would gladly have examined, and now that thou hast discharged that volley of hoarse sounds, I pray thee open again that case. I thank thee for giving me an occupation.’
‘Take care!’ replied the voluble Jew, throwing a quick and mischievous glance toward the Roman whom I have already mentioned—’take care how my friend here of the new faith hears thee or sees the, an’ thou wouldst escape a rebuke. He holds my beauties here and my calling in high contempt, and as for occupation, he thinks one never need be idle who has himself to converse with.’
‘What you have last uttered is true,’ replied the person whom he addressed: ‘he need never want for employment, who possesses the power of thought. But as to thy trade, I object not to that, nor to what thou sellest: only to being myself a buyer.’
‘Ha! thou wilt not buy? Trust Isaac for that. I keep that which shall suit all, and enslave all. I would have made thee buy of me before, but for the uproar of those soldiers.’
While uttering these words, he had placed the case of rings in my hands to examine them, and was engaged himself in exploring the depths of a large package, from which he at length triumphantly drew forth a parchment roll.
‘Now open all thine eyes, Nazarene,’ cried the Jew, ‘and thou shalt see what thou shalt. Look!’
And so saying, he unfolded the first portion of the roll, upon which the eye of the Roman had no sooner fallen, than his face suddenly glowed as if a god shone through him, and reverently seizing the book, he exclaimed:
‘I thank thee, Jew; thou hast conquered: I am a customer too. Here is my purse—take what thou wilt.’
‘Hold, hold!’ interrupted the Jew, laughing, ‘I have not done with thee yet; what thou hast bought in Greek, I would now sell thee again in Latin. Thy half convert, the soldier Macer, would greet this as a cordial to his famishing soul. Take both, and thou hast them cheaper.’
‘Your cunning hardly deserves such a reward,’ said the Christian, as I now perceived him to be, ‘but you have said well, and I not unwillingly obey your suggestions. Pay yourself now for both, and give them to me carefully rolled up.’
‘No better sale than this shall I make to-day, and that too to a Jew-hating Nazarene. But what matters it whom I tax for the upholding of Jerusalem? Surely it is sweeter, when the cruel Roman or the heretic Christian is made unconsciously to build at her walls.’
Thus muttered the Jew to himself, as he skilfully bound into a parcel the Christian’s books.
‘And now, most excellent Sir,’ said he, turning toward me, ‘what do you find worthy your own or your lady’s finger? Here is another case—perhaps these may strike you as rarer for their devices, or their workmanship. But they are rather better suited to the tastes of the rich Palmyrenes, to whom I am bearing them.’
‘Ah!’ I exclaimed, ‘these are what I want. This seal ring, with the head of Zenobia, for which I sought in vain in Rome, I will buy, nor care for its cost, if thou canst assure me of its resemblance to the great Queen. Who was the artist?’
‘As I stand here, a true son of Abraham,’ he replied, ‘it was worked by a Greek jeweller, who lives hard by the Temple of Fortune, and who has engraved it after a drawing made by a brother, an inhabitant of Palmyra. Two such artists in their way are not to be found. I myself, moreover, bore the original drawing from Demetrius to his brother in Rome, and that it is like the great Queen, I can well testify, for I have often seen her. Her marvellous beauty is here well expressed, or as well as that which partakes so much more of heaven than of earth can be. But look at these, too! Here I have what I look to do well with. See! heads of Odenatus! Think you not they will take well? These also are done with the same care as the others, and by the same workmen. Nothing of the kind has as yet been seen in Palmyra, nor indeed in Rome. Happy Isaac!—thy fortune is made! Come, put them on thy finger, and observe their beauty. King and Queen—how lovingly they sit there together! ‘Twas just so when Odenatus was alive. They were a noble and a loving pair. The Queen yet weeps for him.’
‘Jew,’ said I, ‘on thy word I purchase these. Although thy name is in no good repute, yet thy face is honest, and I will trust thee so far.’
‘The name of the unfortunate and the weak is never in repute,’ said Isaac, as he took my money and folded up the rings, his whole manner suddenly changing. ‘The Jew is now but a worm, writhing under the heel of the proud Roman. Many a time has he, however, as thou well knowest, turned upon his destroyer, and tasted the sweetness of a brief revenge. Why should I speak of the massacres of Egypt, Cyrene, and Syria in the days of Trajan? Let Rome beware! Small though we seem, the day will yet arrive when the glory of Zion shall fill the whole earth—and He shall come, before whom the mighty Emperor of Rome shall tremble in his palaces.—This is what I say. Thanks to the great Aurelian, that even a poor son of Abraham may speak his mind and not lose his head. Here’s old Isaac: who’ll buy of old Isaac—rings—pins—and razors,—who’ll buy?’
And so singing, he turned away, and mixed with the passengers in the other parts of the vessel. The wild glare of his eye, and deep, suppressed tone of his voice, as he spoke of the condition and hopes of his tribe, startled and moved me, and I would willingly have prolonged a conversation with one of that singular people, about whom I really know nothing, and with none of whom had I ever before come in contact. When I see you again, I shall have much to tell you of him; for during the rest of the voyage we were often thrown together, and, as you will learn, he has become of essential service to me in the prosecution of my objects.
No sooner had Isaac withdrawn from our company, than I embraced the opportunity to address myself to the remarkable-looking person whom I have already in part described.
‘It is a great testimony,’ I said, turning toward him, ‘which these Jews bear to their national religion. I much doubt if Romans, under similar circumstances of oppression, would exhibit a constancy like theirs. Their attachment too is to an invisible religion, as one may say, which makes it the more remarkable. They have neither temples, altars, victims, nor statues, nor any form of god or goddess, to which they pay real or feigned adoration. Toward us they bear deep and inextinguishable hate, for our religion not less than for our oppressions. I never see a Jew threading our streets with busy steps, and his dark, piercing eye, but I seem to see an assassin, who, with Caligula, wishes the Roman people had but one neck, that he might exterminate the whole race with a single blow. Toward you, however, who are so nearly of his own faith, I suppose his sentiments are more kindly. The Christian Roman, perhaps, he would spare.’
‘Not so, I greatly fear,’ replied the Christian. ‘Nay, the Jew bears a deeper hatred toward us than toward you, and would sooner sacrifice us; for the reason, doubtless, that we are nearer him in faith than you; just as our successful emperors have no sooner found themselves securely seated, than they have first turned upon the members of their own family, that from this, the most dangerous quarter, there should be no fear of rival or usurper. The Jew holds the Christian—though in some sort believing with him—as a rival—a usurper—a rebel; as one who would substitute a novelty for the ancient creed of his people, and, in a word, bring ruin upon the very existence of his tribe. His suspicions, truly, are not without foundation; but they do not excuse the temper with which he regards us. I cast no imputation upon the virtues of friend Isaac, in what I say. The very spirit of universal love, I believe, reigns in his soul. Would that all of his race were like him.’
‘What you say is new and strange,’ I replied. ‘I may possibly bring shame upon myself, by saying so, but it is true. I have been accustomed to regard Christians and Jews as in effect one people; one, I mean, in opinion and feeling. But in truth I know nothing. You are not ignorant of the prejudice which exists toward both these races, on the part of the Romans. I have yielded, with multitudes around me, to prevailing ideas, taking no steps to learn their truth or error. Our writers, from Tacitus to the base tools—for such they must have been—who lent themselves to the purposes of the bigot Macrianus, and who filled the city with their accounts of the Christians, have all agreed in representing your faith as a dark and mischievous superstition. I have, indeed, been struck with the circumstance, that while the Jews make no converts from among us, great numbers are reported to have joined the Christians; and of those, not a few of the higher orders. The late Emperor Philip, I think it clear, was a Christian. This might have taught me that there is a wide difference between the Christian and the Jew. But the general hatred toward both the one and the other, together with the persecutions to which they have been exposed, have made me more than indifferent to their merits,’
‘I trust the time will come,’ replied the Christian, ‘when our cause will be examined on the ground of its merits. Why may we not believe that it has now come? The Roman world is at peace. A strong and generous prince is upon the throne. Mild and just laws restrain the furious bigotry of an ignorant and sanguinary priesthood. Men of intelligence and virtue adorn our profession, from whom those who are anxious to know the truth can hear it; and copies of our sacred books both in Greek and Latin abound, whence may easily be learned the true principles of our faith, and the light of whose holy pages would instantly dispel the darkness by which the minds of many, even of the virtuous and well-disposed, are oppressed. It is hardly likely that a fitter opportunity will soon offer for an examination of the claims of Christianity. We have nothing to dread but the deadness and indifference of the public mind. It is not credible that polytheism should stand a day upon any fair comparison of it with the religion of Christ. You yourself are not a believer (pardon my boldness) in the ineffable stupidities of the common religion. To suppose you were—I see by the expression of your countenance—would be the unpardonable offence. I sincerely believe, that nothing more is wanting to change you, and every intelligent Roman, from professed supporters of the common religion, (but real infidels,) into warm believers and advocates of the doctrine of Christ—but simply this—to read his sayings, and the delineation of his character, as they have been written down by some of his followers. You are, I see, incredulous, but not more so than I was myself only a year ago; yet you behold me a Christian. I had to contend against, perhaps, far more adverse influences than would oppose you. You start with surprise that I should give evidence that I know you; but I have many a time seen you at the shop of Publius, and have heard you in your addresses to the people.
‘I am the son of a priest of the Temple of Jupiter—of a man, who, to a mildness and gentleness of soul that would do honor to the Christian, added a faith in the religion of his fathers, deep-struck and firm-rooted as the rocks of ocean. I was his assistant in the duties of his office. My childish faith was all he could wish it; I reverenced a religion which had nurtured virtues like his. In process of time, I became myself a father. Four children, more beautiful than ever visited the dreams of Phidias, made my dwelling a portion of Elysium, as I then thought. Their mother—but why should I speak of her? It is enough to say, she was a Roman mother. At home, it was my supreme happiness to sport with my little ones, or initiate them into the elements of useful knowledge. And often, when at the temple preparing for the days of ceremony, my children were with me; and my labors were nothing, cheered by the music of their feet running upon the marble pavements, and of their merry voices echoing among the columns and arches of the vast interior. O days thrice happy! They were too happy to last. Within the space of one year—one cruel year—these four living idols were ravished from my arms by a prevailing disease. My wife, broken-hearted, soon followed them, and I was left alone. I need not describe my grief: I will only say, that with bitter imprecations I cursed the gods. ‘Who are ye,’ I cried, ‘who sit above in your secure seats, and make your sport of human wo? Ye are less than men. Man though I am, I would not inflict upon the meanest slave the misery ye have poured upon my defenceless head. Where are your mercies?’ I was frantic. How long this lasted I cannot tell, for I took no note of time. I was awakened, may I not say saved, by a kind neighbor whom I had long known to be a Christian. He was a witness of my sufferings, and with deep compassion ministered to my necessities. ‘Probus,’ said he, ‘I know your sorrows, and I know your wants. I have perceived that neither your own thoughts, nor all the philosophy of your venerable father, have brought you peace. It’s not surprising: ye are but men, and ye have but the power and the wisdom of men. It is aid from the Divinity that you want. I will not discourse with you; but I leave with you this book, which I simply ask you to read.’ I read it—and read it—again and again; and I am a Christian. As the Christian grew up within me, my pains were soothed, and days, once days of tears and unavailing complaints, are now days of calm and cheerful duty: I am a new man.’
I cannot describe to you, my Curtius, the effect of this little narrative upon myself, or upon those who, as he spoke, had gathered round, especially those hard-featured soldiers. Tears flowed down their weather-beaten faces, and one of them—Macer, as I afterward learned—cried out: ‘Where now are the gods of Rome?’ Probus started from his seat, apparently for the first time conscious of any other listener beside myself, and joined the master of the vessel at the helm. I resigned myself to meditation; and that night fell asleep, thinking of the Christian and his book.
Leaving now Ostia and its fleet, greater even than that of the Tiber, five days brought us in sight of the African shore, but quite to the west of Utica. So, coasting along, we presently came off against Hippo, and then doubling a promontory, both Utica and Carthage were at once visible—Utica nearer, Carthage just discernible in the distance. All was now noise and bustle, as we rapidly drew near the port. Many of our passengers were to land here, and they were busily employed, with the aid of the sailors, in collecting their merchandise or their baggage. The soldiers destined to the African service here left us, together with the Jew Isaac and the Christian Probus. I was sorry to lose them, as beside them there was not one on board, except the governor of the ship, from whose company or conversation I could derive either pleasure or knowledge. They are both, however, destined to Palmyra, and I shall soon expect them to join me here. You smile at my speaking thus of a travelling Jew and a despised Christian, but in the issue you will acknowledge your as well as my obligations to them both. I confess myself attached to them. As the Jew turned to bid me farewell, before he sprang on shore, he said:
‘Most noble Piso, if thou forsakest the gods of Rome, let it be for the synagogue of the children of Abraham, whose faith is not of yesterday. Be not beguiled by the specious tongue of that heretic Probus. I can tell thee a better story than his.’
‘Fear not, honest Isaac,’ I cried; ‘I am not yet so weary of the faith of my ancestors. That cannot be altogether despicable, which has had power to bind in one mass the whole Roman people for so many ages I shall be no easy convert to either you or Probus. Farewell, to meet in Tadmor.’
Probus now passed me, and said: ‘If I should not see you in the Eastern capital, according to my purpose, I trust I shall in Rome. My dwelling is in the Livian way not far from the Pantheon, opposite the well-known house of Vitruvius, still so called; or, at the shop of the learned Publius, I may be seen every morning, and may there be always heard of.’
I assured him, that no affairs could be so pressing, after I should return to Rome, as not to allow me to seek him, but that I hoped the fates would not interpose to deprive me of the pleasure of first seeing him in Palmyra.
So we parted. And very soon after, the merchandise and passengers being all landed, we set sail again, and stood out to sea. I regretted that we were not to touch at Carthage, as my desire had always been strong to see that famous place. An adverse wind, however, setting in from the North, drove us farther toward the city than the pilot intended to have gone, and I thus obtained quite a satisfactory glimpse of the African capital. I was surprised at the indications of its vastness and grandeur. Since its attempted restoration by Augustus, it has advanced steadily to almost its former populousness and magnificence. Nothing could be more imposing and beautiful, than its long lines of buildings, its towers, walls, palaces, and columns, seen through the warm and rosy mist of an African sky. I could hardly believe that I was looking but upon a provincial city, a dependant upon almighty Rome. It soon sank below the horizon, as its glory had sunk once before.
I will not detain you long with our voyage, but will only mark out its course. Leaving the African shore, we struck across to Sicily, and coasting along its eastern border, beheld with pleasure the towering form of Aetna, sending up into the heavens a dull and sluggish cloud of vapors. We then ran between the Peloponnesus and Crete, and so held our course till the Island of Cyprus rose like her own fair goddess from the ocean, and filled our eyes with a beautiful vision of hill and valley, wooded promontory, and glittering towns and villas. A fair wind soon withdrew us from these charming prospects, and after driving us swiftly and roughly over the remainder of our way, rewarded us with a brighter and more welcome vision still—the coast of Syria and our destined port, Berytus.
As far as the eye could reach, both toward the North and the South, we beheld a luxuriant region, crowded with villages, and giving every indication of comfort and wealth. The city itself, which we rapidly approached, was of inferior size, but presented an agreeable prospect of warehouses, public and private edifices, overtopped here and there by the lofty palm, and other trees of a new and peculiar foliage. Four days were consumed here in the purchase of slaves, camels, and horses, and in other preparations for the journey across the Desert. Two routes presented themselves, one more, the other less direct; the last, though more circuitous, appeared to me the more desirable, as it would take me within sight of the modern glories and ancient remains of Heliopolis. This, therefore, was determined upon; and on the morning of the fifth day we set forward upon our long march. Four slaves, two camels, and three horses, with an Arab conductor, constituted our little caravan; but for greater safety we attached ourselves to a much larger one than our own, in which we were swallowed up and lost, consisting of travellers and traders, from all parts of the world, and who were also on their way to Palmyra, as a point whence to separate to various parts of the vast East. It would delight me to lay before you with the distinctness and minuteness of a picture, the whole of this novel, and to me most interesting route; but I must content myself with a slight sketch, and reserve fuller communications to the time when, once more seated with you upon the Coelian, we enjoy the freedom of social converse.
Our way through the valleys of Libanus, was like one long wandering among the pleasure grounds of opulent citizens. The land was every where richly cultivated, and a happier peasantry, as far as the eye of the traveller could judge, nowhere exists. The most luxuriant valleys of our own Italy are not more crowded with the evidences of plenty and contentment. Upon drawing near to the ancient Baalbec, I found on inquiry of our guide, that we were not to pass through it, as I had hoped, nor even very near it, not nearer than between two and three miles. So that in this I had been clearly deceived by those of whom I had made the most exact inquiries at Berytus. I thought I discovered great command of myself, in that I did not break the head of my Arab, who doubtless, to answer purposes of his own, had brought me thus out of my way for nothing. The event proved, however, that it was not for nothing; for soon after we had started on our journey, on the morning of the second day, turning suddenly round the projecting rock of a mountain ridge, we all at once beheld, as if a veil had been lifted up, Heliopolis and its suburbs, spread out before us in all their various beauty. The city lay about three miles distant. I could only, therefore, identify its principal structure, the Temple of the Sun, as built by the first Antonine. This towered above the walls, and over all the other buildings, and gave vast ideas of the greatness of the place, leading the mind to crowd it with other edifices that should bear some proportion to this noble monument of imperial magnificence. As suddenly as the view of this imposing scene had been revealed, so suddenly was it again eclipsed, by another short turn in the road, which took us once more into the mountain valleys. But the overhanging and impenetrable foliage of a Syrian forest, shielding me from the fierce rays of a burning sun, soon reconciled me to my loss—more especially as I knew that in a short time we were to enter upon the sandy desert, which stretches from the Anti-Libanus almost to the very walls of Palmyra.
Upon this boundless desert we now soon entered. The scene which it presented was more dismal than I can describe. A red moving sand—or hard and baked by the heat of a sun such as Rome never knows—low gray rocks just rising here and there above the level of the plain, with now and then the dead and glittering trunk of a vast cedar, whose roots seemed as if they had outlasted centuries—the bones of camels and elephants, scattered on either hand, dazzling the sight by reason of their excessive whiteness—at a distance occasionally an Arab of the desert, for a moment surveying our long line, and then darting off to his fastnesses—these were the objects which, with scarce any variation, met our eyes during the four wearisome days that we dragged ourselves over this wild and inhospitable region. A little after the noon of the fourth day, as we started on our way, having refreshed ourselves and our exhausted animals at a spring which here poured out its warm but still grateful waters to the traveller, my ears received the agreeable news that toward the east there could now be discerned the dark line, which indicated our approach to the verdant tract that encompasses the great city. Our own excited spirits were quickly imparted to our beasts, and a more rapid movement soon revealed into distinctness the high land and waving groves of palm trees which mark the site of Palmyra.
It was several miles before we reached the city, that we suddenly found ourselves—landing as it were from a sea upon an island or continent—in a rich and thickly peopled country. The roads indicated an approach to a great capital, in the increasing numbers of those who thronged them, meeting and passing us, overtaking us, or crossing our way. Elephants, camels, and the dromedary, which I had before seen only in the amphitheatres, I here beheld as the native inhabitants of the soil. Frequent villas of the rich and luxurious Palmyrenes, to which they retreat from the greater heats of the city, now threw a lovely charm over the scene. Nothing can exceed the splendor of these sumptuous palaces. Italy itself has nothing which surpasses them. The new and brilliant costumes of the persons whom we met, together with the rich housings of the animals they rode, served greatly to add to all this beauty. I was still entranced, as it were, by the objects around me, and buried in reflection, when I was roused by the shout of those who led the caravan, and who had attained the summit of a little rising ground, saying, ‘Palmyra! Palmyra!’ I urged forward my steed, and in a moment the most wonderful prospect I ever beheld—no, I cannot except even Rome—burst upon my sight. Flanked by hills of considerable elevation on the East, the city filled the whole plain below as far as the eye could reach, both toward the North and toward the South. This immense plain was all one vast and boundless city. It seemed to me to be larger than Rome. Yet I knew very well that it could not be—that it was not. And it was some time before I understood the true character of the scene before me, so as to separate the city from the country, and the country from the city, which here wonderfully interpenetrate each other and so confound and deceive the observer. For the city proper is so studded with groups of lofty palm trees, shooting up among its temples and palaces, and on the other hand, the plain in its immediate vicinity is so thickly adorned with magnificent structures of the purest marble, that it is not easy, nay it is impossible at the distance at which I contemplated the whole, to distinguish the line which divided the one from the other. It was all city and all country, all country and all city. Those which lay before me I was ready to believe were the Elysian Fields. I imagined that I saw under my feet the dwellings of purified men and of gods. Certainly they were too glorious for the mere earth-born. There was a central point, however, which chiefly fixed my attention, where the vast Temple of the Sun stretched upward its thousand columns of polished marble to the heavens, in its matchless beauty casting into the shade every other work of art of which the world can boast. I have stood before the Parthenon, and have almost worshipped that divine achievement of the immortal Phidias. But it is a toy by the side of this bright crown of the Eastern capital. I have been at Milan, at Ephesus, at Alexandria, at Antioch; but in neither of those renowned cities have I beheld any thing that I can allow to approach in united extent, grandeur, and most consummate beauty, this almost more than work of man. On each side of this, the central point, there rose upward slender pyramids—pointed obelisks—domes of the most graceful proportions, columns, arches and lofty towers, for number and for form, beyond my power to describe. These buildings, as well as the walls of the city, being all either of white marble, or of some stone as white, and being every where in their whole extent interspersed, as I have already said, with multitudes of overshadowing palm trees, perfectly filled and satisfied my sense of beauty, and made me feel for the moment, as if in such a scene I should love to dwell, and there end my days. Nor was I alone in these transports of delight. All my fellow-travellers seemed equally affected: and from the native Palmyrenes, of whom there were many among us, the most impassioned and boastful exclamations broke forth. ‘What is Rome to this?’ they cried: ‘Fortune is not constant. Why may not Palmyra be what Rome has been—mistress of the world? Who more fit to rule than the great Zenobia? A few years may see great changes. Who can tell what shall come to pass?’ These, and many such sayings, were uttered by those around me, accompanied by many significant gestures and glances of the eye. I thought of them afterward. We now descended the hill, and the long line of caravan moved on toward the city.
I FEAR LEST THE length of my first letter may have fatigued you, my Curtius, knowing as I so well do, how you esteem brevity. I hope at this time not to try your patience. But, however I may weary or vex you by my garrulity, I am sure of a patient and indulgent reader in the dear Lucilia, to whom I would now first of all commend myself. I salute her, and with her the little Gallus. My writing to you is a sufficient proof that I myself am well.
By reason of our delaying so long on that little hill, and at other points, for the sake of drinking in full draughts of the unrivalled beauty which lay spread over all the scenery within the scope of our vision, we did not approach the walls of the city till the last rays of the sun were lingering upon the higher buildings of the capital. This rendered every object so much the more beautiful; for a flood of golden light, of a richer hue, it seemed to me, than our sun ever sheds upon Rome, rolled over the city, and plain, and distant mountains, giving to the whole a gorgeousness altogether beyond any thing I ever saw before, and agreeing well with all my impressions of oriental magnificence. It was soon under the right aspect. Not one expectation was disappointed but rather exceeded as we came in sight of the vast walls of the city, and of the ‘Roman Gate’—so it is called—through which we were to make our entrance. It was all upon the grandest scale. The walls were higher, and more frequently defended by square massy towers springing out of them, than those of Rome. The towers, which on either side flanked the gateway, and which were connected by an immense arch flung from one to the other, were particularly magnificent. No sooner had we passed through, than we found ourselves in a street lined as it were with palaces. It was of great width–we have no street like it in this respect—of an exact level, and stretched onward farther than the eye could distinctly reach, being terminated by another gate similar to that by which we had entered. The buildings on either side were altogether of marble, of Grecian design—the city is filled with Greek artists of every description—frequently adorned with porticos of the most rich and costly construction and by long ranges of private dwellings, interrupted here and there by temples of religion, edifices of vast extent belonging to the state, or by gardens attached to the residences of the luxurious Palmyrene nobility.
‘It is well for Palmyra,’ here muttered my slave Milo, ‘that the Emperor has never, like us, travelled this way.’
‘Why so, Milo?’ said I.
‘I simply think,’ rejoined he, ‘that he would burn it down; and it were a pity so many fine buildings should be destroyed. Was there not once a place called Carthage? I have heard it said that it was as large as Rome, and as well garnished with temples, and that for that reason the Romans ‘blotted it out.’ The people here may thank the desert which we have crossed, that they are not as Carthage. Aurelian, I trow, little dreams what glory is to be won here in the East, or else he would not waste his time upon the savage Goths,’
‘The Romans are no longer barbarians,’ I replied, ‘as they were once. They build up now, instead of demolishing. Remember that Augustus rebuilt Carthage, and that the first Antonine founded that huge and beautiful temple which rose out of the midst of Baalbec; and besides—if I am not mistaken—many of the noblest monuments of art in this very city are the fruit of his munificence.’
‘Gods, what a throng is here!’ ejaculated Milo, little heeding, apparently, what I had said; ‘how are we to get our beasts along? They pay no more regard to us, either, than if we were not Romans. Could any one have believed that a people existed of such strange customs and appearance? What carriages!—what wagons!—what animals!—what fantastical attire!—and from every corner of the earth, too, as it would seem! But it is a pretty sight. Pity though but they could move as quick, as they look well. Fellow, there! you will gratify us if you will start your camels a little out of our way. We wish to make toward the house of Gracchus, and we cannot pass you.’
The rider of the camel turned round his turbaned head, and fixing upon Milo a pair of fierce eyes, bade him hold his peace:
‘Did he not see the street was crowded?’
‘I see it is filled with a set of dull idlers,’ replied Milo, ‘who want nothing but Roman rods to teach them a quick and wholesome movement. Friend, lend me thy cudgel; and I will engage to set thy beasts and thee too in motion. If not, consider that we are new comers, and Romans withal, and that we deserve some regard.’
‘Romans!’ screamed he: ‘may curses light on you You swarm here like locusts, and like them you come but to devour. Take my counsel: turn your faces the other way, and off to the desert again! I give you no welcome, for one. Now pass on—if on you still will go—and take the curse of Hassan the Arab along with you.’
‘Milo,’ said I, ‘have a care how you provoke these Orientals. Bethink yourself that we are not now in the streets of Rome. Bridle your tongue betimes, or your head may roll off your shoulders before you can have time to eat your words to save it’
‘I am a slave indeed,’ answered Milo, with some dignity for him, ‘but I eat other food than my own words. In that there hangs something of the Roman about me.’
We were now opposite what I discovered, from the statues and emblems upon it and surrounding it, to be the Temple of Justice, and I knew therefore that the palace on the other side of the street, adorned with porticos, and partly hidden among embowering trees and shrubs, must be the dwelling of Gracchus.
We turned down into a narrower street, and after proceeding a little way, passed under a massy arched gateway, and found ourselves in the spacious court-yard of this princely mansion. Slaves soon surrounded us, and by their alacrity in assisting me to dismount, and in performing every office of a hospitable reception, showed that we were expected guests, and that my letters announcing my intended visit had been received. Leaving my slaves and effects to the care of the servants of the house, I followed one who seemed to be a sort of head among them, through walks bordered with the choicest trees, flowers and shrubs, opening here and there in the most graceful manner to reveal a statue of some sylvan god reclining under the shade, and soon reached the rear of the house, which I entered by a flight of marble steps. Through a lofty hall I passed into a saloon which seemed the reception-room of the palace, where I had hardly arrived, and obtained one glance at my soiled dress and sun-burnt visage in the mirror, than my ear caught the quick sound of a female foot hastening over the pavement of the hall, and turning suddenly I caught in my arms the beautiful Fausta. It was well for me that I was so taken by surprise, for I acted naturally, which I fear I should not have done if I had had a moment to deliberate before I met her; for she is no longer a girl, as in Rome, running and jumping after her slave to school, but a nearly full-grown woman, and of a beauty so imposing as might well cause embarrassment in a youth of even more pretensions than myself.
‘Are you indeed,’ said I, retaining each hand in mine, but feeling that in spite of all my assumed courage I was covered with blushes, ‘are you indeed the little Fausta? Truly there must be marvellous virtues in the air of Palmyra. It is but six years since you left Rome, and then, as I remember–shall I mention such a thing?—you were but twelve, and now though but’—
‘O,’ cried she, ‘never begin such a speech! it will only trouble you before you can end it. How glad I am to see you! Welcome, dear Lucius, to Palmyra! If open hearts can make you happy here, you will not fail to be so. But how did you leave all in Rome? First, your friend Marcus? and Lucilia? and the noble, good Portia? Ah! how happy were those days in Rome! Come sit on these cushions by this open window. But more than all, how does the dear pedagogue and dialectician, the learned Solon? Is he as wise yet as his great namesake? O what days of merriment have his vanity and simplicity afforded me! But he was a good soul. Would he could have accompanied you. You are not so far out of leading-strings that you could not have taken him with you as a travelling Mentor. In truth, nothing could have given me more pleasure.’
‘I came away in great haste, dear Fausta,’ said I, ‘with scarce a moment for preparation of any kind. You have but this morning received my letter, which was but part of a day in advance of me. If I could have done it, I should have given you more timely notice. I could not therefore look out for companions for the way. It would however have been a kindness to Solon, and a pleasure to me. But why have I not before asked for your father? is not Gracchus at home?—and is he well?’
‘He is at home, or rather he is in the city,’ replied Fausta, ‘and why he makes it so late before returning, I cannot tell: but you will soon see him. In the mean time, let my slaves show you where to find your rooms, that you may rest and prepare for supper.’
So saying, she clapped her hands, and a tall Ethiopian, with a turban as white as his face was black, quickly made his appearance and took me in his charge.
‘Look well after your toilet,’ cried Fausta, laughing as I left the room; ‘we think more of costume here than they do in Rome.’
I followed my dark conductor through many passages to a distant part of the building, where I found apartments furnished with every luxury, and already prepared for my use.
‘Here I have carefully placed your baggage,’ said the slave as I entered the room, ‘and whatever else I thought you might need. Call Hannibal when you wish for my services; I am now yours. This door leads to a small room where will lodge your own slave Milo; the others are in the stables.’ Thus delivering himself, he departed.
The windows of my apartment opened upon the wide street by which we had entered the city, not immediately, but first upon a border of trees and flowers, then upon a low wall, here and there crowned with a statue or a vase, which separated the house from the street, and last upon the street itself, its busy throngs and noble structures. I stood for a moment enjoying the scene, rendered more impressive by the dim but still glowing light of the declining day. Sounds of languages which I knew not fell upon my ear, sent forth by those who urged along through the crowds their cattle, or by those who would draw attention to the articles which they had to sell. All was new and strange, and tended, together with my reflections upon the business which had borne me so far from my home and you, to fill me with melancholy. I was roused from my reverie by the voice of Milo.
‘If,’ said he, ‘the people of these eastern regions understand better than we of Rome the art of taking off heads, they certainly understand better, as in reason they should, the art of making them comfortable while they are on: already I have taken a longer draught at a wine skin than I have been blessed with since I was in the service of the most noble Gallienus. Ah, that was life! He was your true philosopher who thought life, made for living. These Palmyrenes seem of his school.’
‘Leave philosophy, good Milo, and come help me dress; that is the matter now in hand. Unclasp these trunks and find something that shall not deform me.’
So desirous was I, you perceive, to appear well in the eyes of the fair Fausta.
It was now the appointed hour to descend to the supper room, and as I was about to leave my apartment, hardly knowing which way to move, the Ethiopian, Hannibal, made his appearance, to serve as my conductor.
I was ushered into an apartment, not large, but of exquisite proportions—circular, and of the most perfect architecture, on the Greek principles. The walls, thrown into panels between the windows and doors, were covered with paintings, admirable both for their design and color; and running all around the room, and attached to the walls, was a low and broad seat, covered with cushions of the richest workmanship and material. A lofty and arched ceiling, lighted by invisible lamps, represented a banquet of the gods, offering to those seated at the tables below a high example of the manner in which the divine gifts should be enjoyed. This evening, at least, we did not use the privileges which that high example sanctioned. Fausta was already in the room, and rose with affectionate haste to greet me again.
‘I fear my toilet has not been very successful, Fausta,’ said I, ‘for my slave Milo was too much elated by the generous wines with which his companions had plied him, as a cordial after the fatigues of the journey, to give me any of the benefit of his taste or assistance. I have been my own artificer on this occasion, and you must therefore be gentle in your judgments.’
‘I cannot say that your fashions are equally tasteful with those of our Palmyrenes, I must confess. The love of the beautiful, the magnificent, and the luxurious, is our national fault, Lucius; it betrays itself in every department of civil and social life, and not unfrequently declines into a degrading effeminacy. If any thing ruin us, it will be this vice. I assure you I was rather jesting than in earnest, when I bade you look to your toilet. When you shall have seen some of our young nobles, you will find reason to be proud of your comparative simplicity. I hear, however, that you are not now far behind us in Rome—nay, in many excesses, you go greatly beyond us. We have never yet had a Vitellius, a Pollio, or a Gallienus. And may the sands of the desert bury us a thousand fathoms deep, ere such monsters shall be bred and endured in Palmyra!’
‘I perceive,’ said I, ‘that your sometime residence in Rome has not taught you to love your native country less. If but a small portion of the fire which I see burning in your eye warm the hearts of the people, it will be no easy matter for any external foe to subdue you, however vice and luxury may do it.’
‘There are not many, I believe,’ replied Fausta, ‘of your or my sex in Palmyra, who would with more alacrity lay down their lives for their country and our sweet and noble Queen, than I. But believe me, Lucius, there are multitudes who would do it as soon. Zenobia will lead the way to no battle-field where Fausta, girl though she be, will not follow. Remember what I say, I pray you, if difficulty should ever again grow up—which the gods forefend!—between us and Rome. But, truth to say, we are in more danger from ourselves than from Rome.’
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