In the Circus, and Afterwards
On the day that followed the events described in the last chapter, the popular discontent was displayed at the games in the Circus. Some pains had been taken to make them more imposing and attractive than usual. The wild beasts exhibited were the finest and rarest varieties; some performing elephants were to exhibit their choicest feats, carrying a sick comrade, for instance, in a litter on a tight rope stretched across the arena; some favourite gladiators were advertised as about to contend. But all these attractions failed to conciliate the multitude. The Emperor headed the procession in order to give further éclat to the show. He was received, however, with sounds suspiciously like a hiss, and when his ministers passed, a deafening shout of "Bread! bread! Give us our bread!" arose on every side. The Emperor, who knew, and, indeed, was allowed to know, very little of what was going on in Rome, was not a little frightened at the demonstration, and for that reason all the more angry. When he was brought to take an interest in anything outside his dining-hall and his library—he was as great a glutton of books as of dainties—he could show himself both capable and energetic. His ministers were not unprepared for the rare occasions on which their master asserted himself. They bent before the storm, which would soon, they knew, blow over, and leave them to follow their usual intrigues in peace.
"What is this about bread?" cried Claudius.
Narcissus explained that wheat had risen greatly in price, and that it had been necessary to diminish the allowance made to the ticket-holders. The explanation did not explain anything to the imperial mind. If Claudius had ever felt the want of money, and it is quite possible that he had in the days before he came to the throne, he had forgotten all about it. His ministers carefully kept all matters of finance from his knowledge, and he had simply no idea of there being any limit to what the treasury could or could not do.
"I don't understand what you mean," he cried. "My Romans must have as much bread as they want. It is not for the Augustus to chaffer about how many denarii are to be paid for this wheat that is wanted. I suppose that I have money enough."
"Certainly, sire," answered Narcissus, with a low bow. "Everything shall be arranged according to your Highness' pleasure. But meanwhile will you please to proceed to your place and give the signal for the Games to commence. Afterwards, if you will condescend to listen, I will set the whole case before you, and we shall then have the advantage of your counsel."
The Games, which it is not necessary to describe, passed over without any untoward incident, though the populace was obviously in a very bad humour. One or two unsuccessful and unlucky gladiators received a death sentence which they would probably have escaped had the masters of their fate been better content with themselves and the world. The comic business of the spectacles moved very little laughter, and their splendours very little admiration. But the whole passed over without any positive outburst, and the authorities felt that they had at least obtained a reprieve.
It was clear, however, that no time was to be lost, and a council in which the situation was to be discussed, and if possible dealt with, was to be held that very day. The Roman hours for business were very early, and it was only a very great emergency that could be held to justify so late an hour for meeting as the time fixed, 4 p.m. The Emperor, who was for once genuinely interested in the affairs of the present—the affairs of the past could always attract his attention, if they were sufficiently remote and obscure—took the hastiest meal that he had ever had in his life, without complaint, and presided in person. The first business was to make a statement of the affairs of the treasury. It was not complete, such statements seldom are, but it was quite sufficient to show the Emperor that the state of things was serious. It came upon him as a surprise; he had always entertained a belief, quite vague and unfounded, but never questioned, that the public purse was inexhaustible. His only idea now was to sell the gold plate of the palace. The ministers received the suggestion with due respect and complimented the Emperor on his generosity and self-sacrifice.
He was a true father of his country, who was willing to give up anything rather than that his people should suffer. They were equally complimentary when he suggested that he should give a public recitation, tickets for which should be sold at five gold pieces each. This idea was put off, for some sufficiently plausible reason. Then Narcissus gave his advice, introducing it with the usual assurance of submission to the superior wisdom of the Emperor. The substance of what he said was, that in his judgment the difficulty was temporary, sufficiently serious indeed to demand prompt remedy—he was too sagacious to minimize a matter about which Claudius, he saw, was very anxious—but not beyond treatment by temporary measures. There was scarcity, but it would pass away. Meanwhile those who had wealth ought to put a sufficient portion of it at the service of the State for immediate uses. "I will give," he went on, "two million sesterces." The sum sounded imposing, but to any one who knew the circumstances of the case, it was but a small fraction of the wealth which, by means more or less nefarious, the donor had stolen out of the public revenue. Still it had a magnificent sound. Pallas, who was supposed to be his equal, if not his superior, in wealth, followed with the offer of a similar sum. Two other officials who had had fewer opportunities, though equal desire, for plunder, named smaller amounts. At this point the Prefect of the Praetorians broke in with a suggestion of a more radical policy. He praised the munificence of the freedmen, though he contrived in doing it to convey the idea which we know to have been perfectly in accord with the truth, that they were but giving back a part of what they had received or taken. "But," he went on, "their gifts will only help us for a time; we must remove, if we can, the cause of the evil. And what is the cause? I say that it is the avarice and rapacity of the Jews. Rome has never been the same since they began to settle here, and the more of them come, the poorer she grows."
One of the freedmen ventured to say that so far as he had an opportunity of observing them they seemed sober and industrious.
"Sobriety and industry," replied the soldier, "are admirable virtues if the man who possesses them is a patriot. If he is not, they do but make him more dangerous. These Jews are a turbulent, discontented and disloyal lot. I saw something of them when I was in command of one of the legions in the time of Caius Caesar. They got into a state of furious excitement for some trifle or other, and there was very nearly a rebellion."
"My nephew," said the Emperor, "was, I think, a little unreasonable. He wanted to set up a statue of himself in their chief temple, and they objected to it. I cannot but think that they were in the right."
"You are very kind, Sire, to say so, but for my part I hold that the dogs should have felt honoured by the proposal. Who are they to flout at Caesar's statue?"
"My friend," said the Emperor, with a dignity which he sometimes knew how to assume, "you are scarcely an authority on such matters. But what think you," he went on, turning to Narcissus, "of these Jews?"
"Sire," said the freedman, "I do not deny that they are temperate and hard-working; but this does not necessarily make them good citizens or good neighbours. The fact is that they push our people out of the best places, and they make themselves masters. They have always got money at command, and they lend it. I know something about money lending; I was once in the business myself, and I still have agents who employ part of my capital in that way. They tell me that in nine cases out of ten when they have an application for a loan, they find that a Jew has got a first mortgage on the house, or the stock-in-trade, or the tools, or whatever it is that the man wants to borrow on. They always take care to have the best in any matter they meddle with."
"But are they extortionate?" asked the Emperor.
"I can't say that they are, and yet they are unpopular; of that I am quite certain, though it is difficult to say why. It would certainly please the people generally if they were banished from Rome."
"Banished from Rome!" cried Claudius. "That would be harsh dealing."
"I am sure, Sire," said Narcissus, "there are precedents, but your Highness is better acquainted with these things than any of us. Was there not something of the kind done with the Greek professors some two hundred years ago?"
This artful appeal to the Emperor's erudition had the effect which it was intended to have. Claudius mounted his hobby and was fairly carried away.
"Yes," said he, "you are right. One hundred and ninety-nine years ago, to be exact, the Greek philosophers and teachers of rhetoric were banished by the censors of Rome." He went on with a list of precedents which we need not be at pains to repeat, finishing up with a recent example. "As many living persons remember, in the third year of Tiberius, the astrologers were banished from Rome; I myself have more than once contemplated doing the same thing."
By this time the Emperor had talked himself into a complete forgetfulness of the events of the case, and showed no hesitation in signing the decree, artfully made ready for the opportunity.
As the council broke up, Narcissus whispered to Pallas—
"After all, our millions may not be so badly laid out; there will be some shipwrecks, I take it, pretty soon; and it will be strange if there are not some valuables to be picked up on the shore."