“You may go.” I say.
Listen to the soft steps as the young servant leaves me alone. Turn my eyes toward the pile of scrolls on another table, just within reach.
I should be reading, while the sun shines. It would not do to stay up late again tonight, burning oil. My eyes still ache from last night’s labor. But I promised Timaeus. I would read, then tell him what I think.
The earth begins to tremble. Stronger this time than yesterday. Instinctively grab the glass on the table. Stop it slowly dancing toward the edge. Keep it from toppling to the floor and shattering. Too precious for that! Timaeus would never forgive me if I let this hand blown piece break. No.
At last, the shaking fades away. I hear a dog howling somewhere; then a woman, weeping in the distance. Finally, the noise of the city starts up again, that rumbling of wagons in the street, the shouting of men and children. Strange, I think, how the quiet suddenly hits us, every time the earth growls. We turn silent for a moment, just as long as it lasts; then we get all noisy again.
Well. It wasn’t always so gentle. I think back, and reflect. These little trembles are not so bad as the great earthquakes seventeen years ago, those shocks that came and smashed this city, Pompeii, and other towns and villas all around here, Herculaneum, Neapolis, Stabiae, Puteoli, Baiae, oh yes, it was much worse then, and it went on for two, no, three years; yes, oh yes, I remember, several strong shocks came, and then after that, many more after-shocks.
Temples were destroyed, houses shattered, walls broken. Hundreds were crushed beneath fallen stones and roof beams. The people were not silent then. The wailing went on for hours. Especially when there was fire.
I was hundreds of miles away, in Rome, when the first earthquake hit. But I was sent, soon after, one of the secretaries assigned to administer imperial relief efforts. I heard many stories after I arrived. Very many. Also, in those first months, I felt the shocks when they came back again. But no, people would tell me, after the shaking settled, this one is not as strong as the first one. As for myself, I had never felt such powerful shocks before – and I had grown up here, spent all my childhood here! This, more than anything, made me realize how terribly strong the first ones must have been.
Yes. I was born here – over in Neapolis, on the other side of the big hill, Vesuvius – and yes I grew up used to the ground always shaking a little now and then. But no one had ever felt such shocks as we had seventeen and sixteen years ago. No.
For two years, and more, people could hardly even start to rebuild, before another shock came and broke their work. Then, at last, in the third and fourth years after the great quake, the largest shocks faded away and became fewer and far between.
We are still rebuilding. Even now. That is why everyone is, however briefly, upset by these new, recent tremors. True, they are nowhere as strong as the great quakes were, seventeen years, ago. But still, with each little rumble, people stop, and quietly ask: Is it all starting over again? Will there be more big ones coming?
So far, no. These shocks, although plentiful, are not as strong. We have almost grown used to them, like an old song you hear now and then and wonder where it came from. They merely vibrate, much as the musical strings of a harp, or kithara, do, instead of violently rocking back and forth. Dishes, if they fall, are broken. Not walls. Besides, as I said before, there are always earthquakes around this land. Even the old books say that. Yes. But….
That is what I am supposed to be studying. I look over at the pile of scrolls. Book after book of natural history, with their few chapters talking about earthquakes and more earthquakes.
I sigh. Then, a memory strikes me, and I burst out laughing.
When was it? The second year after the first earthquake? Yes. That would have been it. A very strange, and troubling time. Funny I should laugh at it now, remembering all the terrible things that happened those days.
I had gone back to the capital, carrying the latest reports and relief expenditures.
While I was there, in Rome, the fire broke out. Burned for three days, and destroyed half the city. I… I won’t think of that now. That is not what made me laugh.
The conflagration was followed almost immediately by Nero deciding to confiscate the burnt areas, in order to build himself a new palace, surrounded by parks, right in the center of the city. “Now, at last,” he muttered, “I can begin to live like a human being.”
But the Romans, rich and poor alike, both the senate and the people, began to complain about this conceit, and to blame him for the fire. So then our boy emperor decided he needed a scapegoat to blame for the fire. The persecutions, and public executions, began. Give the people a circus of death, he said. Then they will let me build my house in peace.
I did not laugh then. No.
But now? Yes. Here in the safety of my old friend Timaeus’ house, here in Pompeii, fifteen years later, I cannot help laughing, not at the fire, not at the killing, no, but at what came a little later, yes, I laugh when I remember the figure of our young emperor, standing in the public theater at Neapolis, just a dozen miles from here, oh my, it was ridiculous, the divine ruler himself, onstage in his purple tunic like a common actor plucking the strings of a golden harp, intoning some doggerel about Jupiter and Alcmene, and believing that the people would all instantly understand the metaphorical message: that he, the young emperor, was Hercules, reborn into our own, degenerate time.
He was trying, you see, to prove how popular he still was with the people of Italy. The senators, and many of the common businessmen back in Rome, were… well, let us just say they were disappointed. Complaining. First he had taken all that burnt land in the heart of the city where they wanted to build new apartment houses and shops; then he had taxed them extra for the food and emergency supplies for all the homeless from the fire; and last, when the rumors about him got worse, he produced proof – from slaves under torture, of course – that the Jewish Christians had started the great fire that destroyed half of Rome. Why had they done this? In order to bring about the end of the world.
To make their prophet come back to life – again – and save them.
Of course no one believed it. But Nero went ahead and slaughtered hundreds of them in his Vatican circus stadium, throwing them to wild beasts in between the usual gladiatorial combats, or crucifying them and letting them die, slowly, all day long, while the show went on, or he had some soaked in heavy lamp oil, then hung them on crosses and set them on fire, using them as giant torches to light up his gardens at night, both of which events – the Vatican circus and gardens across the river – he threw open to the public at large so that all the people could watch the lions and wolves rip into and tear apart men and women who would not even fight back – although the younger children did cry – or who in the evening would mostly stare down at us in fiery agony, groaning their prayers, which I, unfortunately, know by heart….
No, I was not laughing. Not then.
And no. No one was impressed, or at least no one I knew believed that this little cult from the east was guilty of destroying Rome.
Least of all, I, who had met their prophet many years before, and more recently argued philosophy on the sea, and right here in Italy, with several of their leaders who died that year. But, I digress. One thing is true: after that ghastly spectacle of persecution, we were all more frightened of Nero than we had been before the fire.
If he would do this to these obscure fanatics, what else was he capable of ordering for our own small selves, if we should upset or trouble him?
I, I must confess, consider myself guilty. I kept my silence through almost all of that horrible process. Being an old and trusted secretary of the imperial household, I was required, many a day and night, to attend the emperor, as I had attended his uncles before him, and to write down his every word and command. I never spoke out in public against him, but there was the one time in private that he point blank asked me, in Greek (of course) if I considered them to be guilty.
“No, divine Caesar, I do not.”
Now, reader, you must understand that Nero knew me very well. I had a long, hard-won, reputation, of being honest. Not a mere Greek scholar who always said yes yes yes to the great king. Not that he was a king, mind you. That is only a metaphor. The divine emperor was much more.
But I digress. As it was, the bearded Nero merely sneered at me, indulgently, and muttered, this time in Latin, “Yes, you would say that, Nikos, wouldn’t you?”
He did not like my name. Never had. Although I suspected he liked me, even grudgingly admired me. But you see, in Greek, my name Nikos reminded him a little too much of “Nike” – the word for “victory” – something which he felt he deserved more than I. Probably he thought I should have been named faithful or scribbler or some such more simple word. Whatever the case, he was not about to make a pun in my favor, so he had switched to Latin. Or so I imagine, in my own little selfish vanity.
“I could have you killed for disagreeing with me, you know,” he smiled, amused at his power and wit, “but I find I still need you to tell me when others are lying to me.”
He was playing with a dagger, carefully slipping the point under his fingernails, delicately seeking out bits of dust. We had just come in from the arena, and he had sat down on a chair of carved wood inlaid with gold, that stood on a raised dias at one end of the room, near the windows. I was a step down, below him, still standing, my wax tablet ready to write down anything he ordered.
“You know them, don’t you?”
“The Christians, my lord?”
“You know who I mean.”
“I… I have argued at length with one of their leaders, yes.”
“Onboard the ship, you mean, when you were coming back from the east, four years ago.”
“I wrote that all in my reports, divine Caesar.”
“Yes. I recently read them, before I decided to… punish these fanatics.” He sighed. “And now I am told that the senate, and the wealthier citizens, do not believe me.”
I was suddenly struck by horror that something I had written might have helped him condemn those innocent people. He saw me suppress my shudder of fear, and laughed, “Aha! That made you start, did it? It isn’t often I catch you, old man, in your own thoughts.”
“My lord Caesar is not any ignorant young man to be fooled so quickly.”
He growled, rather loudly, “Have a care what you say in double meanings to your emperor, Mister Secretary!”
A guard, hearing the emperor’s voice raised in anger, suddenly stepped forward from beyond the open terrace door. Nero waved him off, “Can’t you see I am only playing with my old secretary? Please, fall back to your place on guard.”
The preatorian, resplendant in armor and helmet, nodded, and retired behind the silken curtains once again.
He looked at me. “Put down the tablet and stylus. On that table.”
I did as he said.
“Come here. Kneel.”
I obeyed, dropped slowly to my knees, holding my hands together in front of me, with my eyes downcast, toward the floor.
“Look up at me. Tell me what you see.”
I gazed up into his face. He was hungry for something. I could feel that.
“Caesar, I see a strong young man.”
“Hmmm. Young, yes, certainly young, compared to you, you old Neapolitan Greek. You philosopher. Secretary. Scholar. Astrologer. How old are you? Sixty?”
“Next year, Caesar.”
“Yes. So I would certainly look young to you.”
“But a strong young man, you say. Now there’s a word with many different meanings. Strong. A strong word, in fact.” He smiled at himself. Looked back at me. Touched my head with the dagger. “Get up. Write on your tablet this command I am about to give.”
“Yes, Caesar.” I stood up, and picked up the wax writing tablet.
“I shall tour Italy this year, so that the people may see me. You, secretary Nikos, and Gnaeus, my master of the horse, shall make all the arrangements. I shall appear in every great theater, in all the larger cities, and sing for the people.”
Quickly, struggling not to smile, I pressed his words into the wax.
He paused, watching me. Then, “Now let me see it. Hand it over.”
I gave it him. He scowled. Looked up at me. “You have written this in Latin. I spoke to you in Greek.”
“Divine Caesar, it is an imperial Roman command. For others to see and obey.”
“Oh yes. Well. Then you did right. As usual, you damned old fool, yes, as usual, you did it just right.” He sighed, and pressed the seal mark of his ring into the wax. Thrust the tablet back at me. “Now go. We are leaving tomorrow for Neapolis.” Glanced up into my eyes. I saw that his were suddenly sparkling. “Your home town, I believe.”
“Yes, my lord. It is.”
And so, only a week and a few days later, Nero Ahenobarbus, Augustus Caesar, Emperor of Rome, stood on the stage in the theater at Neapolis, singing his song of the seduction of Alcmene by Zeus – or Jupiter, or Jove – a coupling which would lead to the birth of Hercules – or Heracles, as we call him in Greek – half human, half-divine, that ancient hero who wandered the Earth performing feats of strength, and great cunning, too – he was not just a strong-man, no, but also a crafty, mentally powerful hero – and here now was Nero, a thousand years later, ruler of the Roman empire, descendant of emperors and generals, great grandson of both Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony, plucking the strings of a harp and singing the history of one of the mightiest men ever to have lived.
He was perhaps halfway through his performance when another after-shock earthquake struck the city of Neapolis. This was fifteen years ago, remember, and more than a year after the first quakes, and as I have said before, many other sharp temblors followed for months and months, and they were still quite strong, some of them knocking down buildings that had previously only been damaged.
That evening, in the theater, I felt this one when it first hit, and I knew it would be a bad one. First came that primary thrust of the ground up and down and up, and then, a few moments later, the secondary rocking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.
oWhen the first thrust hit, Nero froze on the stage, alone, in front of the packed auditorium filled with thousands of Neapolitan citizens, as well as hundreds more from the surrounding towns and villas. He caught himself, balanced, slammed one foot on the stage, did not fall, then steadied his legs against the waves that now came rocking back and forth, and plucked a loud chord on his lyre.
Most of the audience by now had leapt to their feet, and were holding on to one another, almost deciding to run for the exits, but at the sound of those notes, we froze. Then, Nero actually stomped his foot a second time on the stage floor, stretched out his arm, and shouted, “Stop!”
We all stood there, swaying back and forth, not daring to leave him, but afraid to sit down, just waiting for the shaking to fade away, praying that it would fade away quickly. Soon. Please, gods.
Then, Nero surprised all of us.
He plucked the strings of his harp again, in time, it seemed, to the shaking of the earth, and only now our emperor commenced to sing once more.
By chance, the earthquake had struck at the very moment Nero was telling the hour when Alcmene, deep in the pains of labor, struggles to bring forth the baby Heracles – and his mortal half-twin brother Iphicles – from out her aching womb.
Most of you know, dear readers, that this was a long and difficult process, held back by the intervention of the goddess Hera herself, who hated Heracles – even in the womb – and caused Almene to delay and suffer giving birth. But, again, I digress.
Still, it was at the height of the earthquake, that our boy emperor, as if inspired now by the trembling Earth, shook back and forth on his bowed legs, cried out like a goddess in agony, and sang at the top of his voice, rocking to and fro, plucking desperate chords upon the lyre, and intoning the birth-song of Alcmene. As the shaking faded away, our divine Caesar, singing lower and softer, sank down into a wide-legged squat and bent over to give birth to one of his more artful moments of silence. We first wept with him, then shouted out, wildly applauding.
The earthquake was over. Nero rose to acknowledge our applause, and then continued. For another hour he sang of the childhood of the hero, then his youth, and at last, told how he was driven mad by the goddess Hera, killed his own children, and was sent out into the world to perform his famous labors, as judgement for his horrible crime.
Here, he ended his performance. The final applause that followed was stupendous. Thunderous.
Later that night, hours after everyone had left the theater, a much smaller aftershock came along, and the theater, evidently weakened by all it had suffered, collapsed into a heap of broken stone walls and mounds of rubble.
Nero, of course, believed it was proof that he was a god. Or at least, half-god, like Heracles. He might not have stopped the earthquake, but he had at least held it back, and saved all of our lives. Or so we small mortals let ourselves believe.
I never would have said such things back then, but… well, I am getting older, and I dare to think them, at least.
My hand reaches for the delicate glass. Take a sip of water.
There. That’s better.
Eleven years since Nero died. He is only a memory. Gone.
Yet the world is still here. Flowers bloom, fruit ripens on the tree, fishermen bring in their catch from the deep, blue sea. The afternoon breeze moves across the roofs of Pompeii, reaches down into my friend’s little garden, stirs the leaves on his small trees, then gently caresses my face and arms. Summer has turned toward autumn, and our fierce southern heat seems to be fading. The days definitely feel shorter now, and the hours shrink with them. Another two or three months and winter will be hard upon us, with its twelve hours of night stretching out long and dark, and daytime, even around the tranquil bay of Neapolis, daytime will be shortened, with its twelve short winter hours flying by so quickly I will have no choice but to read and write by night. I must remember to have extra oil brought to our house on the island. I read so much at night every winter that I almost always run out before spring finally comes around with its longer days, and larger hours.
I have known many different winters and summers, in so many different parts of the empire, the cold north, the warm south, the far and exotic east of Egypt and Syria, and the nearer, rougher west of Italy and Gaul. My life has been long, and multicolored. I have served six emperors, from the day Tiberius kidnapped me as a child, through the madness of his nephew Caligula, that wild young horse, then the more sober but rather jealous years of Claudius, into the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes brutal, days of Nero, until at last the more moderate, but still strong, Vespasian, who only left us this last summer, may he rest in divine peace in the Elysian Fields, or heaven, if you like – although to tell the truth I am not certain what I believe. Now we have his son, Titus, a decent sort of man. The only dark cloud on the horizon is the persistent… presence… of his younger brother, Domitian.
One emperor after another has taken the seat of power. That is the way of the world. One tree falls, another grows to take its place. None of them are the same, yet they are all like unto each other in certain respects.
I thank the gods, or the One God, whatever or whoever it or he – or she – may be, for the fact that at last I am retired.