The arrest at the chapel had been made so early that it still wanted more than an hour of noon when the prisoners were brought into the presence of the Governor. Pliny, aware of the importance of the case which he was about to try, had called in the help of a trained lawyer—an advocate of high reputation—who had some time before retired from his profession, and who now sat as his assessor. At the same time he had invited Tacitus, as a senator and ex-consul, to take a seat on the bench. The prosecution was conducted by the principal lawyer of the town, and Lucilius, Arruns, with several of the Nicæan merchants, supported him by their presence. The accused, numbering more than thirty in all, of whom two thirds belonged to the labouring class, were undefended. All the slaves had contrived to escape arrest. The lower part of the hall was densely crowded with a mass of interested spectators. All available space, indeed, had been filled up within a few minutes of the arrival of the prisoners, and the approaches to the hall were thronged by eager candidates for admission.
When the prisoners had answered to their names, and had stated their several occupations and condition of life, the inquiry began. A long harangue by the prosecutor on the subject of the importance of the worship of the gods was cut short by the Governor, who intimated that his eloquence, if it should be wanted at all, would be more relevant after his evidence had been produced. Thus checked, the advocate began his examination, addressing it in the first instance to Anicetus.
"You are one of the leaders of the society which calls itself by the name of Christus?'
"Is this the matter, or among the matters, of which you accuse me?"
"Certainly it is."
"Then you hold it to be a crime to belong to this society of Christus?"
"Certainly, seeing that it is not one of the societies that are permitted to exist by the constitution of the Roman Sate and the will of our sovereign lord, Trajan Augustus."
"If that be so, I appeal to the Governor whether by the law of Rome I can be compelled to make such answer as would criminate myself."
The appeal was so manifestly just that the Governor did not think it necessary to consult his assessor, but decided that the question need not be answered.
Baffled at this point, the prosecutor re-commenced his attack at another.
"You do not deny that you and your associates were assembled this morning in the guild-house of the wool-combers?"
"We do not deny it."
"For what purpose, then, did you meet?"
"Before I answer that question, I would myself wish to know whether you have the right to ask it. Are free men and women, against whom there is no evidence of wrong-doing, to be questioned by any one as to the purpose of their meeting? That we have the right to use the guild-house of the wool-combers is proved by this document."
So saying, Anicetus produced from his pocket a small parchment, which simply recited that the wool-combers, in consideration of a sum of four hundred drachmæ yearly, permitted the use of their guild-house to Anicetus.
"You see, then," resumed Anicetus, "that we have not taken possession of a place to which we are not entitled, nor is there any evidence against us of unlawful dealings. Were we found with weapons in our hands, or preparing noxious drugs, or practising forbidden acts, or plotting against the safety of the State and the life of the Emperor, then might you justly ask us for our defence. But you do not attempt to prove against us any unlawful deed or words."
The prosecutor then tried a third method of attack. "Are you and your associates willing to worship the gods of the Roman State, and to pay the customary homage to the image of our lord, Trajan Augustus?"
Without answering this question Anicetus turned to the governor: "Is it permitted to us, most excellent Plinius, that we see the accusation under which we have been this day brought before you?"
"There are many accusations," replied the Governor; "they are substantially the same, and it will probably suffice for the purpose that one should be read.—Scribe," he went on, turning to an official that sat near, "read the information of Lucilius against the people called Christians."
The document was read. It charged a number of persons, including all of the prisoners then before the court, and many who were not in custody. Treason, impiety towards the gods and towards the Emperor, hatred of mankind, licentiousness, were among the accusations brought against them.
"Here," said Anicetus, when the reading was finished, "are many terrible things brought against us, whereof no proof has been given by our accuser. Is it lawful, most excellent Plinius, that, such proof failing him, he should seek thus to raise prejudice against us? What right has this advocate, being but a private person, to call upon his fellow-citizens to do sacrifice to the gods or to the Emperor? What right has he to fix the time, the place, the manner of worship? Were an Egyptian, a worshipper of Isis, standing here, could he be lawfully compelled to do sacrifice to Jupiter? Or should a German—a worshipper, as I have heard, of Hertha—be condemned because he does not pay reverence to Apollo? For tell me now," he went on, addressing the accuser, "you that charge us with impiety, are you diligent in the performance of your own duties in divine things?"
The accuser was notoriously a man who believed in nothing, and was known not to spend a drachma on any religious duty. A hum of approval ran round the court at this manifest hit. So far, the line of defence taken by Anicetus had been successful. It might easily have failed with another Governor, a man of more imperious and tyrannical temper than Pliny; but the Elder had skillfully taken into account the Governor's mild and tolerant character, and his probable desire to avoid any measure of severity. But it was now to be overthrown in an unexpected way. A tablet was passed from among the crowd of spectators and put into the hands of the prosecuting counsel. On it were written the words, "Challenge the free condition of Rhoda, commonly called the daughter of Bion and Rhoda his wife, and call as your witness the freedman Eudoxus." This document bore the name of Lucilius, and the prosecutor at once perceived its importance. Indeed, it was his last hope, if his case was not to break down completely. He resumed his address.
"As your regard for freedom, most excellent Plinius, protects the silence of Anicetus and his companions, I will address myself to the case of one of the accused who cannot claim this same protection. I maintain that the woman Rhoda—the reputed daughter of Bion and Rhoda—is not of free condition, but is a slave."
Had a thunderbolt fallen in the court, judge, assessor, accused, and audience could not have been more astonished. The first feeling was one of absolute incredulity. To no one did the statement seem more absurd than to the girl herself.
"This is a strange contention," remarked the Governor, "and not lightly to be made against a family of good repute. What evidence can you produce?"
"I call the freedman Eudoxus," replied the prosecutor.
The freedman Eudoxus was present, it soon appeared, in court, for he answered when his name was called. Most of those present knew him, but none, it may safely be said, knew any good of him. He did a little pettifogging business as an informer—a person who performs functions that may sometimes be useful, but are certainly always odious. If a baker gave short weight, if a wine-seller hammered the sides or thickened the bottoms of his measures, Eudoxus was commonly the man to bring his misdeeds home to him, getting for his reward half the penalty. Had he been content with this, he might have been endured; but he was not content—his gains had to be increased. If he did not find offences he manufactured them. All the little traders and shopkeepers of the place—for he did not fly at high game—were in terror of him, and most of them submitted to the blackmail which he levied of them. As he spent his ill-gotten gains in the most discreditable way, it may be guessed that Eudoxus had about as bad a reputation as any one in Nicæa. Great was the wonder among the audience what this miserable creature could know about the family of the respectable Bion. A few of the older people, however, had the impression that he had once been in the farmer's employment.
Eudoxus, a man of dwarfish stature, with a large misshapen head, whose countenance bore manifest tokens of a life of excess, stood up in the witness-box. The usual oath was administered to him.
"Tell us," said the Governor, "what you know about this case."
"Twenty years ago I was in the service of Bion. He is my patron. He enfranchised me. I was his bailiff."
"Why did you leave him?" asked the Governor.
"We had a difference about my accounts."
"I understand," said Pliny, who, like the rest of the world, was not impressed with the appearance of the witness; "you made things better for yourself and worse for him than he thought right. But go on; what do you know about this matter? You understand what it is; practically this, that the accused Rhoda is not truly the daughter of Bion. Do you know this said Rhoda?"
"Perfectly well, and her sister Cleoné also."
"Bion bought me about a month after he came to the farm which he now cultivates. I was there when he brought thither his newly married wife, Rhoda by name. I lived in the house for five years following that time. They had no children. Of this I am sure, for I saw the said Rhoda day after day, without the intermission of more than a day at the most, during the said five years. It was a matter of common talk among us of the household that this want of children was a great grief to the master and his wife. There years after his coming, one morning—it was, I remember, the first day of May—Bion called us all into the dining-chamber. There was a cradle with two children in it. I should judge that they were a few days old. He said, 'See the daughters whom God has given me.' The same day he enfranchised me. To the other slaves he gave presents, and promised them their liberty in due time, according to their age, if they should show themselves worthy of it."
"He called them his daughters, then?" asked the Governor.
"Truly; but no pretence was made that they were so in truth, for his wife did not keep her chamber."
"Who were the women that waited upon her? Are they yet alive?"
"The elder, who was called the mistress's nurse, died, I believe, some ten years since. The younger is married to Lucas the butcher, that has his stall in the north-east corner of the market-place."
The Governor gave directions that the wife of Lucas the butcher should be sent for. Meanwhile he adjourned the proceedings for half an hour.
On the re-assembling of the court the witness was ready to be examined. Happily for herself, as will be seen, she had been emancipated before her marriage. She gave her testimony with evident reluctance, but it was clear and conclusive.
"I was waiting-maid of Rhoda, wife of Bion. Bion bought me of a dealer in Ephesus a few days before his marriage, that I might wait on his wife. I went to her at once, and never left her till I was married, now ten years ago. She never had a child born to her. It is impossible that she should have done so without my knowing. It was commonly said that this was a great grief to her. I have seen her weeping, and knew that this was the cause. One day, when I had been with her about three years, the old woman whom we used commonly to call her nurse said to me: 'Come now, Myrto'—that was my name—'see the mistress's lovely babies.'—'What?' I said; 'it is impossible.'—'Nay, say nothing,' she said, and put her hand on my mouth. Then she took me into a chamber next to the mistress's, and sure enough, there were two lovely little girl-babies, twins, as one could see at once, not more than a few days old, as I judged. Nurse said, 'You are a wise girl, and can keep a quiet tongue in your head. From to-day these two are Rhoda and Cleoné, daughters of Bion and Rhoda. And now, mind, not a word to any one; and, above all, not a word to the little ones themselves when they grow up. For love's sake, I know, you will keep silence, nor will you miss your reward.'"
"And did you know whose the children really were?" asked the Governor.
"I did not know."
"Could they have belonged to any one in the household?"
"Certainly not. Of this I am sure."
"Some one, I suppose, knew?"
"Yes, nurse knew, but she never told. She has been dead some years. The matter was never mentioned. We were the only women in the house. Eudoxus was the only man. The other slaves were outdoor laborers. None of them, as far as I know, are in this neighbourhood now. The girls, when they grew up, always supposed that they were the daughters of the house. It was never doubted; nothing was ever said to make a doubt."
The witness, whose self-control utterly broke down as soon as she had finished her evidence, now left the box. After a brief consultation with his assessor and with Tacitus, the Governor directed that Bion and Rhoda his wife should be called.
The two were of course present. One of the slaves who had left the assembly, at the bidding of Anicetus, had made them acquainted with Rhoda's proceedings. As the girl herself failed to return at the usual time, their fears were aroused, and they were turned into certainty by the news that reached them from the town that a large company of Christians had been arrested at their meeting-house. On hearing these tidings they had hurried down to the town, accompanied by Cleoné, whom nothing indeed could at such a time have kept away from her sister.
The two answered to their names.
"Let Rhoda, the reputed mother of the person whose condition is questioned, be first called," said the Governor.
A way was made for her through the throng with no little difficulty, and she made her way with tottering steps and face pale as death, into the witness-box.
"You have heard," said the Governor, "the testimony of Eudoxus, and Myrto the wife of Lucas?"
"I have heard," she answered.
"Nevertheless, for the more assurance, let the depositions be read over."
A scribe accordingly read the depositions.
'What have you to say to this evidence?"
The unhappy woman did not hesitate a moment. Nothing could have induced her to go aside by one hair's-breadth from the truth. She lifted her eyes, looked the Governor in the face and answered in a low firm voice: "It is true. The children are not mine."
"And do you know whose children they are?"
"I know not."
"Nor whence they came?"
"Not even that. My nurse, as I called her, said that I had best not know. I think that they had been deserted; but even of this I am not sure. I can only guess it, because I never heard so much as a word about the parents. Nurse would never speak on the subject. Even when she was dying—for I was with her, and asked her again, as I thought it right to do—she would tell me nothing. 'They are your children by the will of God,' she said; 'no one else has part or lot in them.' "
A whispered consultation now took place between the Governor and his assessor. As the result of it, Bion was called.
"You have heard," said the Governor, "the testimony of your wife. What say you to it?"
It would have been useless to deny it, even if Bion, who was as truthful as his wife, could have wished to do so. "It is true," he said.
"Do you know whence the children came?"
"I know nothing more than my wife. The nurse knew, but she would say no more to me than she would to her."
"Then you cannot say whether they are bond or free by birth?"
The force of the question did not strike the witness, overpowered as he was by the situation, though there were many in the court who saw its significance, while an evil smile crept over the face of the prosecutor.
"Free, my lord!" he answered, after a pause; "of course they are free—they are my adopted children."
The Governor saw the course that things were taking, and was glad to leave the matter to the prosecutor, being ready to interfere if he saw a chance of helping the imperilled women.
"Excuse me, sir," said the prosecutor; "you speak of them as being your adopted children, but can you produce the instrument of adoption?"
The poor man was staggered by the question. "I never adopted them in that way. I never thought it necessary. But I have treated them as my children; they have lived with us as children. I have divided everything that I have between them in my will."
"Pardon me," said the prosecutor, with his voice most studiously gentle, and his smile more falsely sweet, as he saw his toils closing round his prey, "I do not doubt your kindness to them; but if you cannot produce the usual legal instrument—which, indeed, I understand you to say you have never executed—they are not your adopted children. And if you have not adopted them, may I ask whether you have emancipated them?"
The purport of the examination now made itself clear to the unhappy man. He had, of course, done nothing of the kind. Taking it for granted that their condition would never be questioned—ignorant, too, of law, as a man of his training and occupation would almost certainly be—he had never dreamt of either adopting or emancipating the two girls. He had simply treated them as his daughters, and never doubted for a moment that all the world would do so likewise.
"I have established then, most excellent sir," said the prosecutor, "that the woman Rhoda and her sister Cleoné, with whom, indeed, I am not at present concerned, are of the condition of slaves. I demand, therefore, that the woman Rhoda be questioned in the customary way."
The Governor interposed, "Doubtless the accused will answer such questions as will be put to her."
"Pardon me, sir, if I say that the law knows but one way only of questioning a slave."
"But if the slave be willing to speak?"
"Even then, I submit, the law presumes that he will speak the truth only under this compulsion. I demand, therefore, that the woman Rhoda be questioned by torture."
A movement of horror went through the whole assembly.
Another consultation followed between the Governor and his assessor. "This seems to me a needless severity," said Pliny, when it was finished. "Why not reserve this compulsion if the witness should be obstinate?"
The prosecuting counsel, hardened as he was, was staggered by this appeal. He turned to Lucilius for further instructions. Lucilius was pitiless. He had been enraged by the cool and skilful defence of Anicetus, and he was determined not to lose his grasp on the victim that had fallen into his power. "Keep to your point," he whispered to the accuser.
"I demand the question by torture against the woman Rhoda."
"It is granted," said the Governor, "but so that nothing that she shall say be used against Bion and Rhoda his wife."
Cleoné, who was standing by the side of the elder Rhoda, had gone on hoping against hope till the fatal words were spoken. Then she rushed forward and caught her sister in her arms. "We will suffer together," she said.