The Last Galley Impressions and Tales HTML version

The Contest
In the year of our Lord 66, the Emperor Nero, being at that time in the twenty-ninth year
of his life and the thirteenth of his reign, set sail for Greece with the strangest company
and the most singular design that any monarch has ever entertained. With ten galleys he
went forth from Puteoli, carrying with him great stores of painted scenery and theatrical
properties, together with a number of knights and senators, whom he feared to leave
behind him at Rome, and who were all marked for death in the course of his wanderings.
In his train he took Natus, his singing coach; Cluvius, a man with a monstrous voice, who
should bawl out his titles; and a thousand trained youths who had learned to applaud in
unison whenever their master sang or played in public. So deftly had they been taught
that each had his own role to play. Some did no more than give forth a low deep hum of
speechless appreciation. Some clapped with enthusiasm. Some, rising from approbation
into absolute frenzy, shrieked, stamped, and beat sticks upon the benches. Some--and
they were the most effective--had learned from an Alexandrian a long droning musical
note which they all uttered together, so that it boomed over the assembly. With the aid of
these mercenary admirers, Nero had every hope, in spite of his indifferent voice and
clumsy execution, to return to Rome, bearing with him the chaplets for song offered for
free competition by the Greek cities. As his great gilded galley with two tiers of oars
passed down the Mediterranean, the Emperor sat in his cabin all day, his teacher by his
side, rehearsing from morning to night those compositions which he had selected, whilst
every few hours a Nubian slave massaged the Imperial throat with oil and balsam, that it
might be ready for the great ordeal which lay before it in the land of poetry and song. His
food, his drink, and his exercise were prescribed for him as for an athlete who trains for a
contest, and the twanging of his lyre, with the strident notes of his voice, resounded
continually from the Imperial quarters.
Now it chanced that there lived in those days a Grecian goatherd named Policles, who
tended and partly owned a great flock which grazed upon the long flanks of the hills near
Heroea, which is five miles north of the river Alpheus, and no great distance from the
famous Olympia. This person was noted all over the countryside as a man of strange gifts
and singular character. He was a poet who had twice been crowned for his verses, and he
was a musician to whom the use and sound of an instrument were so natural that one
would more easily meet him without his staff than his harp. Even in his lonely vigils on
the winter hills he would bear it always slung over his shoulder, and would pass the long
hours by its aid, so that it had come to be part of his very self. He was beautiful also,
swarthy and eager, with a head like Adonis, and in strength there was no one who could
compete with him. But all was ruined by his disposition, which was so masterful that he
would brook no opposition nor contradiction. For this reason he was continually at
enmity with all his neighbours, and in his fits of temper he would spend months at a time
in his stone hut among the mountains, hearing nothing from the world, and living only for
his music and his goats.
One spring morning, in the year of 67, Policles, with the aid of his boy Dorus, had driven
his goats over to a new pasturage which overlooked from afar the town of Olympia.