The Last Galley Impressions and Tales HTML version

An Iconoclast
It was daybreak of a March morning in the year of Christ 92. Outside the long Semita
Alta was already thronged with people, with buyers and sellers, callers and strollers, for
the Romans were so early-rising a people that many a Patrician preferred to see his
clients at six in the morning. Such was the good republican tradition, still upheld by the
more conservative; but with more modern habits of luxury, a night of pleasure and
banqueting was no uncommon thing. Thus one, who had learned the new and yet adhered
to the old, might find his hours overlap, and without so much as a pretence of sleep come
straight from his night of debauch into his day of business, turning with heavy wits and
an aching head to that round of formal duties which consumed the life of a Roman
So it was with Emilius Flaccus that March morning. He and his fellow senator, Caius
Balbus, had passed the night in one of those gloomy drinking bouts to which the Emperor
Domitian summoned his chosen friends at the high palace on the Palatine. Now, having
reached the portals of the house of Flaccus, they stood together under the pomegranate-
fringed portico which fronted the peristyle and, confident in each other's tried discretion,
made up by the freedom of their criticism for their long self-suppression of that
melancholy feast.
"If he would but feed his guests," said Balbus, a little red-faced, choleric nobleman with
yellow-shot angry eyes. "What had we? Upon my life, I have forgotten. Plovers' eggs, a
mess of fish, some bird or other, and then his eternal apples."
"Of which," said Flaccus, "he ate only the apples. Do him the justice to confess that he
takes even less than he gives. At least they cannot say of him as of Vitellius, that his teeth
beggared the empire."
"No, nor his thirst either, great as it is. That fiery Sabine wine of his could be had for a
few sesterces the amphora. It is the common drink of the carters at every wine-house on
the country roads. I longed for a glass of my own rich Falernian or the mellow Coan that
was bottled in the year that Titus took Jerusalem. Is it even now too late? Could we not
wash this rasping stuff from our palates?"
"Nay, better come in with me now and take a bitter draught ere you go upon your way.
My Greek physician Stephanos has a rare prescription for a morning head. What! Your
clients await you? Well, I will see you later at the Senate house."
The Patrician had entered his atrium, bright with rare flowers, and melodious with
strange singing birds. At the jaws of the hall, true to his morning duties, stood Lebs, the
little Nubian slave, with snow-white tunic and turban, a salver of glasses in one hand,
whilst in the other he held a flask of a thin lemon-tinted liquid. The master of the house
filled up a bitter aromatic bumper, and was about to drink it off, when his hand was
arrested by a sudden perception that something was much amiss in his household. It was