Before the temple of Jupiter Latiaris in Rome, two men of the middle classes met each other. They both remained standing in order to contemplate the new temple, which was different from all others, and looked as if it had felt the effects of an earthquake. The basement had the shape of a roof; the columns stood reversed with their capitals below, and the roof was constructed like a basement with cellar-windows.
“So we meet here again, Hebrew,” said one of the two, who resembled a Roman merchant. “Was it not in Joppa that we last met?”
“Yes,” answered the Hebrew. “One meets the Roman everywhere; he is at home everywhere; one also meets the Hebrew everywhere, but he is at home nowhere. But tell me, whose temple is this?”
“This is the Temple of the Wild Beast, the Emperor Caligula, the madman, the murderer, the incestuous. He has erected it to himself; his image stands within; and the madman comes every day to worship himself.”
So saying, the Roman made a sign on his forehead, moving the forefinger of his right hand first from above, below, and then from left to right.
The Hebrew looked at him in astonishment.
“Are you not a Roman?”
“Yes, I am a Roman Christian.”
“Where do you live?” “Here under Rome, in the catacombs.”
He pointed to a hole in the ground, which resembled those that led down to the cloacae.
“Do you live here under the ground?”
“Yes, that is where we Christians live; there we lie like seed in the earth, and germinate.”
“Those are grave-vaults down there.”
“Yes, we are buried with Christ, and await the resurrection.”
“Have you a temple down there?”
“We have our religious service there, and to-day we celebrate the birth of Christ.”
“Someone is coming down the street,” said the Hebrew. The Roman opened the trap-door in the ground in order to descend. From below the sounds of a choral hymn were heard. “The City hath no need of the moon, neither of the sun, for the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”
“Who is the Lamb?” asked the Hebrew.
“Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.”
“Do you think the world is redeemed, while this mad Caligula….”
“The world will be redeemed, if we continue to hope.”
“You have, then, taken the promise away from Israel?”
“No, we have inherited the promise, for Christ was of the stock of Israel.”
“Someone is coming.”
“Then farewell. We shall always meet, for the earth is ours.”
In the temple, which people called “the world turned upside down,” a man slunk along the walls in a state of panic, as though he were afraid to display his back. He had the face of a youth without any hair round it. His upper lip was drawn upwards on the left side, and showed a long canine tooth, while at the same time his right eye shot a sharp glance like a poisonous arrow.
He glided along the wall to the apse, where an image was erected. It was a likeness of the timid man himself, representing him exactly even to his clothes.
“Is the priest there?” the mad Emperor whispered, for it was he.
No answer followed.
“Priest, dear priest, I am so frightened. Are you not coming?”
A sacrificial priest came forward, fell on his knee before the Emperor, and worshipped him.
“Jupiter, Optimus, Maximus, Latiaris, frighten away thy foes.”
“Have I foes, then? Yes, and that is what frightens me. Do you believe that I am God?”
“Let us then have thunder, to frighten my foes.”
The priest beat upon a kettledrum, and the echoes rolled through the temple.
The Emperor laughed, so that all his teeth were visible.
“Priest!” he cried as he seated himself on his throne, “now you shall sacrifice to me.”
The priest kindled a fire on the little altar before the madman.
The Emperor said, “The scent is good. Now I am the mightiest in heaven and on earth. I rule over living and dead; I cast into Tartarus and lift into Elysium. How mighty I am! I tame the waves of the sea, and command the storm to cease: I hold sway over the planets in their courses; I myself have created chaos, and the human race lie at my feet, from the primeval forests of Britain to the sources of the Nile, which I alone have discovered. I have made my favourite horse consul, and the people have acknowledged his consulship. Priest! Worship me! Or do you forget who I am? No, I am I, and I shall always worship myself in my own image. Caius Caesar Caligula, I honour thee, Lord of the world, how I honour myself! Jupiter Latiaris Caligula!”
He fell before the image on his knee.
“Some one is coming,” said the priest warningly.
“It is the tribune, Cassius Chaeraea!”
“Frighten him away.”
“Chaeraea does not let himself be frightened.”
The tribune came in fearlessly and without ceremony.
“Caius Caesar, your wife is dead.”
“All the better,” answered the Emperor.
“They have dashed your only child against a wall.”
“Ah, how pleasant!” laughed the madman.
“And now you are to die.”
“No, I cannot. I am immortal.”
“I wait for you outside. It shall not take place here.”
“Creep away, ant! My foot is too great to reach thy littleness.”
Then a sound of singing rose from the basement of the temple, or from the earth; they were children’s voices.
The Emperor was again alarmed, and crept under his chair.
Chaeraea, who had waited at the door, lost patience.
“Dog! are you coming? Or shall I strike you dead here?”
“Chaeraea,” whimpered the Emperor, “do not kill me! I will kiss your foot.”
“Then kiss it now when I trample you to death.”
The gigantic tribune threw the chair to one side, leapt on the madman and crushed his windpipe beneath his heel; the tongue, protruded from his jaws, seemed to be spitting abuse even in death.
* * * * *
The Wild Beast had three heads; the name of the second was Claudius. He played dice with his friend Caius Silius, who was famous for his wealth and his beauty.
“Follow the game,” hissed Caesar.
“I am following it,” answered his friend.
“No, you are absent-minded. Where were you last night?” “I was in the Suburra.”
“You should not go to the Suburra; you should stay with me.”
“Follow the game.”
“I am following it; but what are the stakes we are playing for?”
“You are playing for your life.”
“And you, Caesar?”
“I am also playing for your life.”
“And if you lose?” asked Silius.
“Then you will lose your life.”
The Emperor knocked with the dice-box on the table. His secretary Narcissus came in.
“Give me writing materials, Narcissus. The antidote for snake-bites is yew-tree resin….”
“And the antidote to hemlock?”
“Against that there is no antidote.”
“Follow the game, or I shall be angry.”
“No, you cannot be angry!” answered Silius.
“Yes, that is true,–I cannot! I only said so!”
Messalina, the Emperor’s wife, had entered.
“Why is Silius sitting here and playing,” she asked, “when he should accompany me to the theatre?”
“He is compelled,” answered the Emperor.
“Wretch! what rights have you over him?”
“He is my slave; all are slaves of the Lord of the world. Therefore Rome is the most democratic of all States, for all its citizens are equal–equal before Men and God.”
“He is your slave, but he is my husband,” said Messalina.
“Your husband! Why, you are married to me.”
“What does that matter?”
“Do you go and marry without asking my permission?”
“Yes, why not?”
“You are certainly droll, Messalina! And I pardon you. Go, my children, and amuse yourselves. Narcissus will play with me.”
When the Emperor was left alone with Narcissus, his expression changed.
“Follow them, Narcissus!” he hissed. “Take Locusta with you, and give them the poison. Then I shall marry Agrippina.”
But when Silius and the Empress had gone without, Silius asked innocently: “Have you yourself prepared the mushrooms which he will eat this evening?”
“I have not done it myself, but Locusta has, and she understands her business.”
* * * * *
The name of the third head of the Wild Beast was Nero. He was Agrippina’s worthy son, had poisoned his half-brother Britannicus, murdered his mother, kicked his wife to death, and committed unnatural crime. He falsified the coinage and plundered the temples. He made an artistic tour to Greece, where he first appeared as a public singer and brought eight hundred wreaths home, then as a charioteer, in which capacity he upset everything, but received the prize because nobody dared to refuse it to him.
To such a depth had Rome and Greece sunk. Claudius was an angel compared to this monster; but he also received apotheosis.
To-day the Emperor had returned home from his artistic tour, and found his capital in flames. Since, in his fits of intoxication, he had so often raged against his old-fashioned Rome, with its narrow streets, and had on various occasions expressed the wish that fire might break out at all its corners, he came under the suspicion of having set it in flames.
He sat in his palace on the Esquiline in a great columned hall, and feasted his eyes on the magnificent conflagration. It was a marble hall with only a few articles of furniture, because the Emperor feared they might afford lurking-places for murderers. But in the background of the hall was a strong gilded iron grating, behind which could be caught a glimpse of two yellow-brown lions from Libya. These the Emperor called his “cats.”
At the door of the grating stood two slaves, Pallas and Alexander, and watched every change in the Emperor’s face.
“He smiles,” whispered Pallas; “then it is all over with us. Brother, we shall meet again. Pray for me and give me the kiss of peace.”
“The Lord shall deliver thee from all evil, and preserve thee for His heavenly kingdom. This mortal must put on immortality, and this corruptible, incorruption.”
The red face of the Emperor, red with wine and the light of the conflagration, began to assume a look of attention, and it could be seen from his eyes and ears that he was listening. Did he hear perhaps how the masses of people whispered their suspicions of the “incendiary”?
“Pallas!” he roared, “Rome is burning!”
The slave remained speechless from fright.
“Pallas! Are you deaf?”
“Pallas! Are you dumb? They say down there that I have fired the town, but I have not. Run out in the streets and spread about the report that the Christians have done it.”
“No, I will not!” answered the slave.
Nero believed that his ears had deceived him.
“Do you not know,” he said, “that the Christians are magicians, and live like rats in the catacombs, and that all Rome is undermined by them? I have thought of making the Tiber flow in to drown them, or of opening the walls of the cloacas and submerging the catacombs in filth. Their Sibylline books have prophesied the fall of Rome, though they use the name ‘Babylon.’ See, now the Capitol takes fire. Pallas, run out, and say the Christians have done it.”
“That I will not do,” answered Pallas loud and clearly, “because it is not true.”
“This time my ears have not deceived me,” roared the Emperor rising. “You will not go into the town; then go in through the grating-door and play with my lions.”
He opened the door, and pushed Pallas into the fore-court of the lions.
“Alexander!” said Pallas, “I have prayed you to be firm and courageous!”
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the latter day He shall raise me from the earth.”
“What is that you are saying?” said the Emperor, and pulled a cord, which opened the second door to the lions.
“Alexander, go out into the town, and spread the report that the Christians have set Rome on fire.”
“No,” answered Alexander, “for I am a Christian.”
“What is a Christian?”
“God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“Will you not perish? Have I not the power to destroy you?”
“You have no power over me, except it be given from above.”
“He does not fear death. Lentulus! bring fire here; I will set fire to your clothes, that we may see if you can burn, I will set your hair, your beard, your nails on fire; but we will first soak you in oil and naphtha, in pitch and sulphur. Then we will see whether you have an everlasting life. Lentulus!”
Lentulus rushed in: “Emperor! The city is in an uproar! Fly!”
“Must I fly? First bring fire!”
“Spain has revolted, and chosen Galba as Emperor.”
“Galba! Eheu! fugaces, Postume … Galba! Well, then, let us fly, but whither?”
“Through the catacombs, sire.”
“No! the Christians live there, and they will kill me.”
“They kill no one,” said Alexander.
“Not even their enemies?”
“They pray for their enemies.”
“Then they are mad! All the better!”
* * * * *
The Christians were assembled in one of the crypts of the catacombs. “The Capitol is burning; that is the heathen’s Zion,” said Alexander.
“The Lord of Hosts avenges his destroyed Jerusalem.”
“Say not ‘avenges,’ say ‘punishes.’”
“Someone is coming down the passage.”
“Is it a brother?”
“No, he makes no obeisance before the cross.”
“Then it is an executioner.”
The Emperor appeared in rags, dirty, with a handkerchief tied round his forehead. As he approached the Christians, whom in their white cloaks he took for Greeks, he became quiet and resolved to bargain with them.
“Are you Greeks?”
“Here is neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but all are brothers in Christ! Welcome, brother!”
“It is the Wild Beast,” said Alexander.
The Emperor now recognised his escaped slave, and in his terror fell on his knees.
“Kill me not! I am a poor stone-cutter, who has lost his way. Show me the way out, whether right or left.”
“Do you know me?” asked Alexander.
“Alexander!” answered the Emperor.
“He whom you wished to burn. It is I!”
“Mercy! Kill me not!”
“Stand up, Caesar! Thy life is in God’s hand.”
“Do I find mercy?”
“You shall have a guide.”
“Say whether right or left; then I can help myself.”
“Keep to the left.”
“And if you lie.”
“I cannot lie! Do you see, that is the difference.”
“Why do you not lie? I should have done so.”
“Keep to the left.”
The Emperor believed him, and went. But after going some steps, he stood still and turned round.
“Out upon you, slaves! Now I shall help myself.”
It was a terribly stormy night, when Nero, accompanied by the boy Sporus, and a few slaves, reached the estate of his freedman Phaon. Phaon did not dare to receive him, but advised him to hide in a clay-pit. But the Emperor did not wish to creep into the earth, but sprang into a pond, when he heard the pursuers approaching, and remained standing in the water. From this place he heard those who were going by seeking him, say that he was condemned to be flogged to death. Then, after some hesitation, he thrust a dagger into his breast.
His nurse Acte, who had also been his paramour, buried him in a garden on Monte Pincio. The Romans loved him after his death, and brought flowers to his grave. But the Christians saw in him the Wild Beast and the Antichrist of the Apocalypse.