Gateway to the Classics: Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by Alfred J. Church
Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church

The Death of Mithradates

Time went on without bringing much change to our hero. The Roman armies under their new leader had been victorious everywhere; but still his deliverance seemed not any nearer than it had been. At times he even began to fear that it was farther off. Mithradates had gathered all the troops that were left to him, had made his way, partly by force, partly by persuasion, through the wild tribes that dwelt about the eastern end of the Black Sea, and was now, it seemed, secure in the possession of his kingdom of the Bosphorus. For Pompey, as yet at least, had not seen fit to follow him. There was still plenty to be done in more accessible regions, and to pursue the king to the place in which he had taken refuge could not be done without the sacrifice of many lives.

Happily for Lucius, who might otherwise have spent half his life in imprisonment, the restless spirit of the old man, who had never enjoyed, or indeed cared to enjoy, a year of peace from his boyhood, would not allow him to remain quiet. The scheme which he had conceived was magnificently large and bold. He had failed, he argued to himself, because he had not used the right materials. It was useless to match Asiatics against Europeans. He might gather hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Syrians and bastard tribes, half Greek, half barbarians, from Western Asia, but they would not be able to stand against Roman armies of only one-fifth their number. But there were enemies to whom Rome had been obliged to bow her head more than once. The Gauls under Brennus had actually taken their capital, and had had to be bought off with gold; only thirty years before the Cimbri and Teutones had reduced her to her last army, and it was only the supreme genius of one man that had saved her in that extremity. Here was material enough out of which to raise a tremendous conflagration. Why should he not march along the north coast of the Black Sea, calling all the nations to arms as he went along? They would be ready enough to answer, for there was not one which did not fear and hate the power of Rome. An army would thus be gathered as he advanced: there would be no limit to its numbers, except his own convenience. With these new forces joined to his own—and the latter he was straining every nerve to increase—he would do as Hannibal had done before him, burst through the barrier of the Alps, and make Rome fight for her life before her own gates.

It was a splendid plan, but it was too great for his means. And just at the time, too, when all his powers were most wanted his health failed him. For more than a year he suffered from a disease which not only weakened him in body and mind, but was so horribly disfiguring that he could not bear that any one should see him, but sent out all his orders through the two or three attendants who alone were permitted to approach. Still he persevered. He had accumulated enormous treasures of gold and silver, coined and uncoined; and he spent them profusely in making preparations for this last effort. Crowds of the men who were always ready to sell their swords to the highest bidder came to take his pay. From these and from the veterans who had served under him in many campaigns a large army was raised, to be increased, it was hoped, manifold as it went westward, calling the wild tribes of the interior to war against Rome, or, an object that would probably attract them more, to plunder the rich countries of the South. To the chiefs of such tribes as could be approached envoys were sent with rich presents. Meanwhile, in all the Greek towns upon the coast the docks were busy with ship-building.

At last, in the summer of 63 b.c. , nearly four years after Lucius' arrival at Phanagoria, every thing was ready for a final effort. The king, too, had recovered his health, and intended himself to unfold his plans to the army. Lucius, who, like every one else, had been excluded from his presence, was now sent for to the palace at Panticapćum. The king's manner to him was sterner and colder than it had ever been before.

"To-day," he said, "you shall hear my plans, and you must decide your own part. I have waited long enough."

The assembly to which the king intended to set forth his scheme of a grand war against Rome did not, of course, comprise the whole army. No man could possibly have made his voice heard by so vast a multitude; but it consisted of all the officers of every degree, with as many of the private soldiers as could find standing-room in the place where it had been summoned to meet, the market-place of the capital. The officers of superior rank stood in front. As to the others, pains had been taken to bring into the neighborhood of the king such as were most devoted to him; these were to lead the applause when he should begin to unfold his scheme, and it was hoped that the rest would follow their example. The scheme itself was unknown, though rumors of it were in the air. Mithradates was carried down to the market-place in a litter. A platform had been erected for him on the flight of steps leading up to the temple of the Twin Brethren. His appearance was greeted with a shout of welcome, for it was many months since he had been seen in public; but the welcome was hardly as hearty as Lucius, who had been bidden to take his place behind him on the platform, expected to hear. He bowed his thanks to the assembly, and then proceeded to address them. His speech, which was delivered with remarkable fervor and energy, we shall not attempt to give. It set forth the plan that has been described above, of raising the nations of the North against Rome, and avenging on Italy the miseries which Italy had inflicted on the world. It was listened to in profound silence, and when it ended with a glowing picture of the prizes which Rome, full as she was of the plunder of the world, would furnish to her conquerors, there was some sound of applause; but Lucius, who watched the faces of the crowd with an attention which the orator, rapt in his subject, could not give, saw that they gathered an expression of astonishment and even of dismay as the wild scheme was unfolded before them. Whether the king perceived or no that he had not carried his hearers with him, Lucius could not tell; anyhow his policy and his pride alike forbade him to acknowledge any thing like failure. He had expressed his will, and it was their duty to fulfill it. He gave the crowd a dignified salute, entered his litter, and, signing to Lucius to follow him, returned to the palace.

"I told you," he said, "that you would have to decide your own part to-day. The time is come. It is now war to the knife with Rome. I have offered peace, even submission, but your general has demanded that I should go myself, and lay my neck upon the ground for him to trample upon. That, then, is over. Henceforth every Roman is my enemy. Make your choice between Rome and me; but remember that if you choose Rome, you die. Do not be in a hurry to answer. I have never seen one of your countrymen for whom I felt so kindly as I feel for you, and I should be sorry to harm you."

Lucius did not waver for an instant in his resolution. Yet a man may be excused if he hesitates for a few moments before he pronounces his own death-warrant. For a brief space he remained silent; then bidding farewell in his thoughts to all that he held dear at Rome and elsewhere, he prepared to speak.

"Sire," he began, "there is but one answer "—He had got so far when he was interrupted by a succession of loud shouts. The market-place, which could be seen from the window of the chamber, was crowded with a multitude of people, soldiers and citizens being mingled together in the greatest confusion. As they looked, a figure, which was at once recognized as the king's son Pharnaces, appeared upon the platform from which the king had addressed the soldiers. Pharnaces was the favorite son, and had been declared heir to the throne. In spite of this favor he had plotted against his father. The plot had been discovered. Still the old man, who spared neither child nor friend when they stood in his way, had kept a soft spot in his heart for this favorite of his age, and had pardoned him. His appearance on the platform was received with a roar of applause; the soldiers waved their swords above their heads; the citizens threw their caps into the air. The applause became more frantic than ever when an officer, in whom Mithradates recognized one of his most trusted generals, stepped to the youth's side and placed upon his head a large crown, which had been cut for the occasion out of a paper roll. The king ground his teeth together with rage as he looked on. "Curse the viper!" he said. "Fool that I was not to crush him when I had the chance!"

Still his anger did not make him lose his mastery of himself. Power had slipped from his grasp, but he might still save life, and while life remained there was always the chance of power. He sat down and hastily wrote on a scroll of paper these words:

"Mithradates resigns of his own free-will the kingdoms of Pontus and the Bosphorus to Pharnaces, and engages not to disturb the said Pharnaces therein, if he on his part will grant him a safe passage to whatsoever place without the said kingdoms of Pontus and the Bosphorus he may choose."

The scroll was taken by a messenger. The man could be seen to force his way with difficulty through the crowd, to reach Pharnaces, and to put the message into his hand. The young man read it, seemed to reflect for a moment, and tore the paper. The messenger did not return.

Mithradates had not yet lost all hope. He hastily indited another scroll:

"The father implores his son, in the name of the gods that protect and avenge the family, to suffer him to depart unharmed."

This second message, it could be seen, made Pharnaces hesitate for some time. He read it again and again, and then showed it to two or three of the officers that stood near him. It could be seen that there was a debate; from the vehemence of gesture in the speakers it might be guessed an angry debate. But the result was too plain to be mistaken. The second scroll was torn like the first, and thrown upon the ground.

Mithradates now hesitated no longer. The game had finally gone against him, the chances were past all retrieving, and he had nothing more to do but to pay the forfeit. He would at least do it without useless complaining. He turned to an attendant and said:

"Go to the princesses and bid them come hither."

To another he said: "Fetch a flagon of wine and three cups."

He then took a casket, undid the fastenings, which Lucius noticed to be curiously intricate, and took from it a sealed earthenware jar, holding it might be half a pint. The persons present in the chamber were the king, the gigantic Galatian body-guard of whom mention has been made before, two attendants, Lucius, and the young Cilician. The princesses now entered the room. They had neglected in their haste to put on their veils, and Lucius could see that neither of them was the sparkling young beauty who had used the artillery of her eyes upon him four years before. Both indeed were handsome women, for they had inherited the clear-cut features and brilliant eyes of their father; but they were past the first bloom of their youth. They had indeed the worn and faded look of women whose lives have been a failure, and in truth their lot had been an unhappy one. Both had been betrothed to kings; Nyssa, the elder, to the King of Egypt, Mithradatis, the younger, to the King of Cyprus. But the alliances planned in the days of their father's prosperity had been broken off when his fortunes suffered a change; and for the last ten years they had dragged on a weary, purposeless life, only relieved from time to time by their having to share one of their father's perilous journeys.

"My children," said Mithradates, "I am no longer king. There is your ruler," and he pointed to Pharnaces, who still stood upon the platform in the market-place, receiving the homage of the soldiers and the citizens. "I will not live under him even were he willing that I should live. What will you do? Your choice is free. Only remember that the man who has betrayed his father will not hesitate to sell his sisters. Pompey will pay a high price to have such ornaments for his triumph."

The women's eyes flashed with a fire that seemed to bring back to them their lost youth.

"Father! we will die with you," they said in one voice.

"It is well, my children. You have decided as become, the daughters of a king. And now, there is no time to be lost. Unless you make haste, Pharnaces may come and compel you to live. Here is the readiest and easiest way of escaping from him. I have some experience in these matters," he added, pointing with a smile to the jar of poison, and you may trust me. It will not cost you a pang. But that you may be sure, let me take it first, and you will see that I have not deceived you."

"Father," said Nyssa, "pardon us if we seem to oppose your will; but you have given our choice to live or die, and we have taken death. Grant us the favor that we may die before you'"

"Let it be as you will," said Mithradates. Breaking the seal of the jar, he poured a small portion of the poison into two of the cups which he had just half-filled with wine. Lucius started forward when he saw the women take the cups, with a half involuntary impulse to dash them from their hands. The king checked him by a gesture of the hand, and he felt that it was not for him to interfere. Trained, too, in Roman ways of thinking about suicide, he could not but confess to himself that they were right. With untremblng hands they took the cups and drained them. They then kissed their father's hand, and covering their faces with their mantles, sat down. The poison did its work as swiftly and as painlessly as had been promised. They drew two or three deep sighs. Then, at almost the same moment the head of each drooped upon her shoulder. They were dead. Mithradates felt the wrist of each, lifted the mantle, and closed the staring eyes. Lucius, who watched him closely, could not see a sign of emotion in his face. He then emptied what remained in the jar into the third cup.

"This must not fail me," he was heard to mutter to himself. He had reason to doubt its power. Living in constant fear of poison he had so fortified himself with antidotes that he had become proof against this danger. Still he hoped that what he had taken, a potent drug which few but himself possessed or even knew of, might have the desired effect. For some time he sat waiting the result. Finding that the poison was not acting he rose from his seat and walked rapidly to and fro. His skill taught him that movement might increase its power. All, however, was useless. "Happily," he said to himself; "there is yet another way. Against that at least there is no antidote."

He turned to the giant who stood, still impassive in the midst of all these horrors, by his chair.


The death of Mithradates and his daughters.

"Man," he said, "you have served me well many a day. I want one service more. I have fortified myself too well against poison. I have not fortified myself against the treachery of friends and children. Against this your sword is the only antidote. Strike here." He pointed out the very spot where the dagger could pass between the ribs and pierce the heart without an effort. The Galatian, still stolid and unmoved, did exactly as he was bidden, and drove the steel well home. But when he saw his master fall a sudden fury seemed to seize him, and he turned furiously upon Lucius. The young Roman's eyes were fixed intently upon the king, and he was entirely off his guard. But for his Galatian attendant his days had been numbered. The young man threw himself between the giant and his victim, and received in his own heart the steel that was aimed 279 against his master. At that very moment the door of the chamber was burst open, and a party of soldiers sent by the new king entered. The body-guard hastily withdrew the steel from the body of his victim, plunged it into his own heart, and fell dead across the body of Mithradates.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: A Change of Scene  |  Next: Return
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.