The Guardians of Rome
"Thus," said the Abbot Finnian, "having kissed the hallowed earth of our Lord's country for the last time, we repaired to Joppa, and took ship for Rome. Now I come to the strangest part of my story. Many have visited the Holy Places, and many will visit them in days to come; but what I saw in Rome, that sacred city of the martyrs, eyes never looked on before; and never, I think, will the like be seen again."
The abbot sat on the steps of the cross upon the green knoll. The brethren, grouped about him on the grass, drew still closer to listen. The red and yellow leaves fluttered softly down on the little beehive huts of stone in the clearing. On the blue lough lay the warm light of the autumn sun, drowsing towards eventide.
"How we fared on the windy sea-ways," said the abbot, "there is little need to tell. At Syracuse, where doubtless we landed on the very stones trodden by Paul the Blessed, we learned that Rome was sore beleaguered. Under their young King Baduila—Totila, the Latins called him—the fair-haired giants of the Gothic forests had swept all before them, while the imperial commanders, divided by their jealousies and corrupted by luxury, pillaged the land they could not defend and revelled in shameful safety behind their fortress walls.
"The Goths encompassed the city as with a ring of iron; and at the mouth of the Tiber the one man who could yet save Italy, and that was the great Belisarius, awaited the corn-ships from Syracuse, for Rome was starving.
"The river Tiber, you must know, runs to sea in two channels, and there are two havens. Portus was held by Belisarius with a few thousand Thracian recruits, paid out of his own purse—so grudging was the emperor and so envious of his most famous soldier; Ostia was held by the Goths; between them lay the Sacred Isle, a green spot full of roses; but four miles inland from the sea Baduila had blocked the Tiber with a boom and iron chain, guarded by a bridge with a tower at each end.
"When by good providence we got safe to Portus, the place was in a hum and stir of preparation. The corn-ships had come in; Rome was to be relieved. Swift dromons, manned with archers, were loading with provisions; stout barges and fire-ships were making ready for the bursting of the boom. Despite the pressure of his affairs, the illustrious Belisarius received us. Such a man! bronzed and dark, great-statured and powerful, still in the prime of life; but, first and last, it was the proud head and the kingly eyes lit with the splendour of victory which made him master of men.
"At daybreak on the morrow the flotilla set out for the succour of Rome, and horse and foot advanced along the river-bank to support the attack. Isaac the Armenian was left in command of the station, and his one charge was to remain at his post whatever befell. Towards noon we saw clouds of smoke rising far away on the plain, and a great cheer went up for there was little doubt that the Gothic towers were burning. Perchance the boom had been broken and the dromons were rowing hard for Rome.
"Then was the daring venture brought to nought by the folly of one man. Carried away by vainglory the Armenian abandoned his trust, dashed across the Sacred Isle, and attacked Ostia with a hundred horsemen. The Goths pretended flight; the horsemen fell to plunder, and were cut down or captured by the enemy. Meanwhile clouds of arrows from the dromons swept the Gothic bridge; the iron chain was severed; the towers were set on fire, and the boom was being hewn with axes when a messenger brought Belisarius news that Isaac was a prisoner.
"The great soldier stood aghast. Then Portus, his camp, his stores, his treasure must have been captured. All was lost and his ruin irretrievable, unless he could recover them from the enemy. In an instant the retreat was sounded, and horse and foot, dromons and archers were streaming back in fiery haste to the sea-shore. He found all safe, but the victory which might have saved the Immortal City had been snatched from his hand. That night Belisarius sickened with fever, and for many days he lay between life and death.
"No worse enemy had the Romans than their own governor, Bessas, who crammed his coffers with the treasure wrung from their miseries. Bran was sold at the price of corn. The cost of wheat beggared all but the wealthiest. Dogs, mice, and nameless vermin were killed and eaten. Nettles became the common food of rich and poor. Men's faces grew green with famine. Among the rubbish heaps of the ruined palaces the patrician sank down and died clutching a handful of the stinging weeds. One poor wretch, distracted by the wail of his children for bread, led them to a bridge over the Tiber. 'Here,' he said, 'are the fields in which sorrow and hunger are unknown,' and covering his head with his robe, plunged into the yellow waters.
"At length a bribe secured what prayers had failed to obtain. The people were allowed to quit the city. Many were slain by the outposts, more perished in the open country; but a small number reached safety, and lived to look back on those evil days. Then the grasping governor brought about his own undoing. The troops were stinted of their rations. One of the gates was sold to the enemy. At dead of night twenty thousand Goths poured into the city. Rome awoke in uproar and a tumult of hurrying torches. The garrison abandoned their posts. Bessas and his creatures fled, leaving his blood-stained hoard for the spoiler.
"The Gothic ranks stood steady through the hours of darkness. With the grey of dawn the sack of Rome began; but the king had sternly marked its limits. Outrage and bloodshed were forbidden; the churches were declared sanctuaries which it was death to violate. Again and again Baduila had warned them of the retribution that follows the abuse of victory. 'Remember,' he said, 'how when we were an exulting host, two hundred thousand strong, rich in treasure, in war-gear, in horses, a little band of Greeks overthrew us. Now we are but the remnant of a people, and Italy is ours. What but this has made the difference? Of old we forgot justice, our hands were filled with violence and wickedness, and the wrath of God was laid upon us. To-day we are of one mind to be upright and just to all men, and God has been gracious. Of one thing be sure—the heavenly light forsakes a nation when it departs from righteousness.'
"Think now of the swarms of fair-haired Goths hurrying through street and square, and raiding with fierce joy and with wonder the splendid palaces of the lords of Rome. Think, too, of the despairing crowds who had sought refuge in the churches, and expected to hear the savage war-cries of the barbarians. Pope Vigilius was in exile, but the flock of Christ was not without a shepherd. The faithful Deacon Pelagius pleaded with the king to succour his starving people, and Baduila himself came with food and fed the sufferers from the altars of the saints.
"On the morrow the king announced the fate of the city to the fallen senators: 'Your wives, your children are free; you I hold as hostages. I grant your citizens their lives; but let them seek other homes. Here they can remain no longer. Never again shall this proud and ungrateful city be the stronghold of an enemy. Rome shall perish. Its walls shall be cast down. Never again shall the blood of the Goths be shed like water before them. The flames shall consume the stately buildings of which you made your boast. Your seven hills shall be a pasture, and the shepherd-lad shall pipe on the wreck of the Golden Milestone.'
"In all that glorious capital once so thronged with people scarce five hundred citizens survived. A lamentable sight it was to behold beautiful women, noble children, proud old patricians going forth with a multitude of slaves in that dishonoured exodus.
"Then began the work of destruction. The massive gates were carried off and burnt; the lofty towers were tumbled down; already a third of the giant walls had been laid in ruins when Belisarius, from his sick bed, appealed to the king to withhold his hand from that wonder of the world, which had been the growth of many centuries, of a storied line of kings and emperors. 'Pause in thy hour of triumph,' he wrote, 'and consider whether in the imperishable record of generations thou wouldst have men read, He who destroyed—or he who preserved—the world's greatest city was Baduila the Goth.'
"The plea of the great soldier, the magnificence of Rome, the heroic legend of the past, the new saga in which he himself should appear in undying splendour moved the conqueror to magnanimity. 'Tell Belisarius,' he said to the ambassador, 'that I relent and forego my revenge. The monuments of Rome shall stand unharmed, but henceforth it shall be a city of the dead.'
"Then, in a little while, the Gothic legions departed. A detachment encamped on the Alban Hills to watch Portus, and Baduila, carrying off the hostages with him, marched into the south-east. In Rome no living soul, man or beast, was left behind.
"As the days went by, the thought of this city of the dead lay upon me like a spell. I pondered over what I had been told of the talk of holy men on Mount Cassin. For as they spoke together of the Goths, the priest Sabine said, 'This king will so destroy Rome that no longer shall any man dwell therein;' but the abbot Benedict answered him, 'Not in that wise shall this city be removed, but wasted by storms and lightning and earthquake, it shall weather away within its borders.' Lo now! it seemed as if both of these foretellings were to come to pass; and I said within myself, To Rome shall I go whatever befall, so that in time to come it may be written, 'In those days of desolation pilgrims from Erin came to worship at the tombs of the Fisherman and Tent-maker.'
"How shall I tell of the amazement and the deep awe with which we entered Rome? For the first time in thirteen hundred years that spot of earth was empty and silent. The sadness and stillness of the grave had fallen upon the glory of the Seven Hills. I thought of the word of the prophet, 'Hell from beneath is moved for thee;' but there was no movement. The noise and glitter of the quellers of the world had vanished, even as summer clouds. Like the dead of old and the kings of forgotten nations, this mighty race had departed. We three alone—for I had taken Aidan and Gall with me—were living men in the desert of houses. We went together speaking under our breath, for a fear over-shadowed us as of the presence of unseen people.
"Already the wild creatures had stolen in from the Campagna, and as we looked over those wide spaces still coloured with the gold and crimson of the withering of tall fennel and thistles, we wondered how long it would be before these streets and palaces of marble would sink down in grass-grown mounds and be lost in the open wilds. On the Garden Hill the crows had swarmed back to the gigantic walnut tree which had sprung out of Nero's tomb. During the famine they had flown to the Alban Hills, rising away to the south in their winter tints of sapphire and amethyst. But stranger than these sights was the splashing of the numberless fountains, the sound of living waters in the city of silence.
"We visited the great churches. The doors were wide open. The lamps had burned out, but we found means to light them again, and that first night we slept in the sanctuary of St. Peter, singing before we lay down, 'The sparrow hath found a house and the swallow a nest, even thine altars, O Lord of Hosts.'
"Open too were the portals of the stately houses, and though at first a nameless uneasiness held us back, we entered and passed through the halls and chambers, noting wreck and ravage of such luxury and wealth as we had never dreamed of.
"The overthrow of the walls seemed the labour of giants. As we gazed on the tumbled masses, I saw in my mind's eye the trains of barbarian captives sculptured on column and triumphal arch. How had Babylon fallen; how had the radiant one been cut down, which weakened the nations! But even these gaps of destruction did not speak so eloquently of humbling and helplessness as the hollow arches from which the great gates had been carried away. The poorest hut has its hide or hurdle, but into Rome there was no one but might enter, and who should say him nay? It was as though I heard the voice of the Prophet. 'The fire shall devour thy bars, thy nobles shall dwell in the dust. Thy people is scattered upon the mountains.' And yet, had God willed, even then, in the twinkling of an eye, a breath of life might have raised a legion of kings and captains, of horsemen and chariots, so many were the statues of heroes in Rome.
"We knelt and prayed in that wondrous arena, the dust of which had been drenched with the blood of the martyrs. We walked in Nero's gardens, wherein the 'living torches ' of the tyrant burned in the darkness. We went forth beyond the Gate Capena, where, it is said, Peter fleeing from this city, met the Lord carrying His cross, and having asked, 'Lord, whither dost Thou go?' Jesus answered, 'To Rome, to be crucified again for thee.' But the sun would go down before I had finished, were I to tell of all we saw and did.
"Three days we tarried in that place of many memories, for we thought not ever to see it again. And on the third night, though I lay wearied in body, I could not sleep for the tumult and passion of soul that worked within me. I rose, leaving the others sleeping, and stole abroad. The moon was at the full, and I wandered on in its clear shining. As I approached the Forum, I was startled by the sound of flutes and cymbals, and then of voices raised in a chant such as I had not heard before. Stepping noiselessly into the deep shadows I glided into the Forum, and I saw within its moonlit space a little group of men, clothed in white, standing near an altar of incense before the Temple of Janus. The men chanted to the music of the flutes and cymbals; the incense rose in pale blue smoke; the roof and walls of the small temple, all overlaid with brass, glittered like gold in the silvery light.
Now this temple was one of the venerable relics of bygone generations, and no enemy had despoiled it. It contained the giant brazen statue of Janus of the Two Faces, whereof one was turned to the dawn and one to the setting sun. When Rome was pagan, its brazen doors were kept shut in the good times of peace and abundance, but in time of war they were thrown open for the god to march to battle with the legions.
"As I listened I discovered that these men were secret adherents of the old paganism, enchanters and worshippers of devils. They called upon Janus to awake, to come forth and arouse the fallen gods to resume their sway in Rome. By what evil sorcery it was I know not, but the brazen doors of the temple swung wide, and the hideous idol leaped forth with a war-cry of ancient days, which rang through the night. Far-off voices answered. The air was beaten with the rushing of many feet. The white ground was mottled with the shapes and shadows of men and women—some dark, some pallid, some shining; and then I saw it was the gods and goddesses of Rome, the fauns and satyrs, the tyrants and persecutors—shall I not rather say, demons and lost souls?—taking possession of the old-world statues of bronze and marble, and giving them a semblance of life.
"It was in my mind to fling myself into that welter of evil, when a hand was laid upon me, and in the shadow beside me I saw a man. Tall he was rather than short, old rather than young, pleasant featured yet commanding. He was bare-footed and in fisher's garb, and on his shoulder he carried an oar. 'Do not show yourself,' he said, 'but hearken! The sleepers of the Colosseum and the Catacombs have wakened. I hear their voices; I hear them coming.'
"And I too heard. The earth was stirred beneath our feet with a deep murmur; vague risings of sound came to us, as of distant harps played by the wind. Then from the Sacred Way streamed in a radiant multitude, rosy children and tender maidens, men and women in their prime, old age in its serene beauty; and as their joyous song filled the Forum,
the spirits of the nether darkness fled before them.
"'Thou hast seen the Guardians of Rome,' said the Fisherman, and now I knew who it was that spoke to me, for until then I had not deemed that the blessed apostles walked in guise so lowly. 'Return when it is day to Portus, and say that the city hath yet many legions to defend it, and albeit the walls be fallen there is yet a host to raise them up again. Go now to thy rest for the dawn is nigh.'
"Sleep, indeed, now lay heavily upon me, so that I scarce knew when that Holy One of the Rock departed, or how I lay down again beside my companions.
"On the morrow we came quickly to Portus, and when the great captain heard that I had brought tidings, he received me without delay. I spoke as I had been bidden, and when I had told him of all I saw in Rome, he rose from his bed with new life, and forthwith all was astir again in camp and harbour.
"He himself visited the City, and on the fortieth day that it had lain desert he entered with all his troops; the Tiber was thronged with merchant ships, and the wharfs under the Hill Capitoline hummed with traffic. It was a world to see the soldiers and the peasants, who flocked in from the Campagna, stockading the trenches and roughly filling up the breaches in the walls, so that in fifteen days their vast circuit was made strong again around the Seven Hills. More helpers perchance were there with rubble and stone than any one was aware.
"Not yet had there been time to make good the great gates when Baduila returned with his Gothic swarms. They bivouacked by the yellow river and attacked at sunrise; but in the open gateways Belisarius set his best and bravest, and strewed the approaches with four-spiked caltrops—thistle-heads of iron, which put up ever one sting against a horse's hoof throw them how you will.
"Twice the assailants were beaten back, and in the thick of the fight, when the long-haired horsemen were struck down, it may be the Fisherman's oar was not far away. On the third day Baduila's standard-bearer fell. The royal ensign was snatched up from the dust with a severed hand grasping the staff.
"That was the end. The Goths drew sullenly away from the Eternal City, to whose annals they had added the strangest incident in her many-centuried story. Belisarius completed the great gates, clamped and studded with iron, and hung them in the open gateways. Even in a city protected by unseen guardians there was need for them, for the holy ones do not help us until we have done all that we may to help ourselves."