Turbida...et amentis populi male sana tumultu.
Ausonius, Ord. Nob. Urbium.
February 26, a.d.387, was a memorable day in the fortunes of Antioch, the loveliest and one of the most famous capitals of the Eastern Empire.
On that morning a herald had proclaimed to the people that, owing to the necessities of the imperial exchequer, the great Emperor Theodosius had decided to levy a subsidy on the most opulent cities of his dominion; and that Antioch, renowned all over the world for her luxurious prosperity, would be required loyally to pay her share.
The ignorant impatience of taxation' is inherent in human nature, and there is no monopoly of it either in modern times or in the British nation. If it was necessary that cities should be taxed in proportion to their wealth, the contribution of Antioch would form a large quota of the sum which had to be raised. She had Phoenicia to the south, and Asia Minor to the north. The rich beauty of the vegetation which clothed her plain testified to the unwonted fertility of her soil. Nowhere were more blooming vineyards than those which clothed the slopes of her Mount Silpius. The deep and rapid waters of her river -- the legendary Orontes -- not only clothed the banks with flowering masses of pink oleander and delicately scented jasmine, but also refreshed her groves of laurel and myrtle and irrigated her gardens full of every delicious fruit. Caravans from Mesopotamia and Arabia brought to her all the riches of the East through the passes of Lebanon. Her fresh lake and her rushing rivulets supplied her with fish and ample stores of food. Ships from every port of the Mediterranean poured the abundance of many lands into her harbour of Seleuceia. Wealthy proprietors -- Greeks, Romans, Jews, Syrians -- had thronged to her suburbs, to fix their voluptuous homes in scenes where they could enjoy the soft western winds which, even in winter, tempered her climate. There, in courts and villas lustrous with marble and enriched with the finest works of ancient art, they would loll on soft couches beside fountains which cooled the summer heat. No wonder that Antioch on the Orontes was one of the favourite residences of all who loved the delights of effeminate indolence, diversified by wild dissipations of thrilling excitement. And was not the delightful grove of Daphne only five miles distant -- enchanting Daphne, with its rose-gardens and perennial fountains and abounding shades? Who could be dull if he went there to watch the Pagan pilgrimages which at one time had made it 'a perpetual festival of vice'? The self-restraint of Christianity had, indeed, controlled the Daphnic morals' which had once filled the sanctuary of Apollo with gayest revelries. Constantine's statue to his mother, St. Helena, had usurped the reverence once given to the marble colossus of the god of song. But the road to Daphne still passed through gardens and palaces, and in the ten-mile circuit of the old Paradise of Heathendom the possibilities of pleasure and amusement were not yet utterly extinct.
But if the delightfulness of Antioch had made it the chosen home of so many hereditary millionaires, successful merchants, and gorgeous criminals,' what was more reasonable than the demand that the city should contribute its fair share to the urgent needs of the Empire? Theodosius was compelled to gratify his hungry soldiery by some sort of donative, and that was impossible without fresh taxation. It was not a question of choice, or of display and luxury, but of dire necessity, if the army, on which depended the defence of the whole Empire, was to be kept in allegiance and good humour.
The soft Antiochenes did not see the matter in this light. The proclamation of the imperial requisition had been received in the most indignant spirit by the multitude assembled in the great Forum. Usually, all public business was accompanied by shouts, acclamations, and intense excitement, and not infrequently by the jests and witticisms for which the quick and volatile multitude of Antioch was celebrated. But on the present occasion there had been neither applause, nor shouts, nor jokes. The grim silence struck chill into men's hearts, like the hush before the outburst of a storm.
The governor of the city, who rejoiced in the sounding title of 'Count of the East,' had been accompanied to the scene by all his high officials, and by his side sat the most celebrated literary man of the day, the Pagan sophist Libanius, the chief instructor of all the intellectual youths who aimed at oratorical distinction. Libanius was a native of Antioch, and, struck by the ominous stillness, the Count turned to him with uplifted eyebrows, as though to ask for an explanation of the strange phenomenon.
This is something quite new to me,' said Libanius. 'When a multitude is too sullen even to roar or hiss there is room for anxiety. "I fear lest from this silence calamity should burst forth."'
Tush!' said the angry Governor. It is only another phase of the foolery of this mongrel population of Syrians, Greeks, and Jews. I beg pardon of your patriotism, Libanius, but you are too cosmopolitan not to recognise that the ordinary Antiochene is an amalgam of frivolity and prejudice.'
This subsidy will heavily tax their resources,' said the orator.
Nonsense!' said the Governor. A little hæmorrhage will do all the good in the world to their plethora. Do the fools think they can have all the privileges of government for nothing? To what do they owe their wealth, if not to the decade of peace and economy which the great Theodosius has secured for them? And yet they murmur at this very modest proposal. They treated your friend, the Emperor Julian, in just the same way. He asked for necessary funds, and they yelled at him in the Circus, "Plenty of everything; everything dear!" What would happen to the Empire but for our strong Emperor? It would break into fragments, like the vertebræ of a serpent which an eagle has dropped out of its talons, and each vertebra would turn into a new serpent to sting all the rest. Here are the Goths and the Isaurians and the Vandals, and I know not how many nameless barbarians, hanging on all our frontiers and threatening to merge us in floods of ignorance and rapine. After the defeat of Adrianople there seemed to be nothing between us and destruction. Theodosius has given us peace, unity, fiscal reform, and wise administration. But for him Antioch would have been more surely laid in ruin long ago than by the worst of her earthquakes.'
He might economise,' said Libanius.
Nay,' said the Count, you are not fair to him, Libanius. You are a Pagan, and he has done more to suppress the worship of the old gods than anyone since Constantine. This requisition is in reality a signal proof of his economy. This is the ninth year of his reign, and, nominally, the fifth year of the boy Arcadius. You know that on such anniversaries every soldier in the army expects to receive five gold pieces. The sum required would drag a Croesus into the mire. It cost the young Valentinian sixteen hundred pounds of gold. It was to avoid the necessity for two ruinous donatives that Theodosius determined to antedate by a year his own decennalia, and unite them with the quinquennalia of his son. The poor are already overtaxed. What could he do but turn to the rich?'
Let us get back to the Prætorium,' said Libanius hurriedly. 'I don't like the look of the mob and their sinister silence.'
Oh! it is nothing,' said the Governor. Half an hour hence they will be roaring for the Green or the Blue factions of charioteers in the Circus, or crowding round a sword-juggler in the street of Tiberius.'
Nevertheless, let us hurry back,' said Libanius. There have been riots in Alexandria, and it required strong measures to put them down.'
The party of officials, surrounded by their small but glittering escort, made its way to the Prætorium, which was at no great distance. Libanius was in bad spirits.
Look,' he said, at yonder grim, gigantic head on the slope of Mount Silpius.' He pointed to the Charonium which stood out in the sunshine, but cast a dark shadow on the mountain behind. The huge features seem to frown terribly on this lovely city.'
Sheer imagination!' said the Governor; but -- what is that?'
One of the imperial archers, who had been posted at the omphalos in the centre of the Colonnade of Antiochus Epiphanes, came running up to the Governor's escort at full speed and in obvious alarm.
What means this rudeness, you white-faced coward?' said the captain of the escort to him in a stern voice. 'Where are your manners? Do you want to know the feel of the rhinoceros-hide round your shoulders?'
No more coward than you, sir captain,' said the archer; 'but this is no time to bandy words.'
What is the matter?' asked the Governor, who had overheard the brief altercation. Bring the archer here.'
The city is in an uproar, my lord,' said the man, stepping forward. Listen!'
They listened, and there came to their ears a dull roar like the sound of many waters. It was the angry hum of voices, broken every now and then by cries for vengeance. The Count of the East looked uneasy; the fine features of Libanius had settled into the deepest pallor.
Is the crowd dangerous?' asked the Governor.
Most dangerous,' answered the soldier. This is no mere faction fight of the amphitheatre. I was standing by the statue of Apollo, in the Tetrapylon, when fierce groups came surging from Singon Street in one direction and Herod's Colonnade in another, in mad rage. I never heard so many hot curses in my life, and I have heard a good many. A yelling mob was gathered round the statue of the "Fortune of Antioch," calling down the vengeance of the gods with uplifted hands. Only one man tried to allay the excitement. It was John the Preacher; and though all the Christians love him, and even the Jews and Pagans respect him, his words were of no avail. If some of the Church-people had not forced him away he would have been half torn to pieces by the mob. Hark, my lord! I see them in the distance, I hear the trampling of their feet. In ten minutes more they will be upon you. Take refuge in the palace.'
Is it the riff-raff of the Forum?'
No, your Excellency,' said the archer. I saw some of the chief men of the city among them, even senators and old officers of the army. The whole city is in wild fury.'
Make your way home with all speed by back streets,' said the Count to Libanius. Captain, take a dozen of my escort, ride under the wall to the Golden Gate, and make your way to Daphne. To the palace, soldiers!'
He drew the sword with which he was girded in sign of his office, and the escort rode at a gallop, across the bridge which spanned the Orontes, into the gorgeous palace of the old Seleucid kings, which was used as the residence of the governor. They were not a moment too soon.