Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero

Author: Henryk Sienkiewicz

Chapter V

AULUS had judged rightly that he would not be admitted to Nero’s presence. They told him that Caesar was occupied in singing with the lute-player, Terpnos, and that in general he did not receive those whom he himself had not summoned. In other words, that Aulus must not attempt in future to see him.

Seneca, though ill with a fever, received the old general with due honor; but when he had heard what the question was, he laughed bitterly, and said, — "I can render thee only one service, noble Plautius, not to show Caesar at any time that my heart feels thy pain, or that I should like to aid thee; for should Caesar have the least suspicion on this head, know that he would not give thee back Lygia, though for no other reason than to spite me."

He did not advise him, either, to go to Tigellinus or Vatinius or Vitelius. It might be possible to do something with them through money; perhaps, also, they would like to do evil to Petronius, whose influence they were trying to undermine, but most likely they would disclose before Nero how dear Lygia was to Plautius, and then Nero would all the more resolve not to yield her to him. Here the old sage began to speak with a biting irony, which he turned against himself: "Thou hast been silent, Plautius, thou hast been silent for whole years, and Caesar does not like those who are silent. How couldst thou help being carried away by his beauty, his virtue, his singing, his declamation, his chariot-driving, and his verses? Why didst thou not glorify the death of Britannicus, and repeat panegyrics in honor of the mother-slayer, and not offer congratulations after the stifling of Octavia? Thou art lacking in foresight, Aulus, which we who live happily at the court possess in proper measure.

Thus speaking, he raised a goblet which he carried at his belt, took water from a fountain at the impluvium, freshened his burning lips, and continued, — "Ah, Nero has a grateful heart. He loves thee because thou hast served Rome and glorified its name at the ends of the earth; he loves me because I was his master in youth. Therefore, seest thou, I know that this water is not poisoned, and I drink it in peace. Wine in my own house would be less reliable. If thou art thirsty, drink boldly of this water. The aqueducts bring it from beyond the Alban hills, and any one wishing to poison it would have to poison every fountain in Rome. As thou seest, it is possible yet to be safe in this world and to have a quiet old age. I am sick, it is true, but rather in soul than in body."

This was true. Seneca lacked the strength of soul which Cornutus possessed, for example, or Thrasea; hence his life was a series of concessions to crime. He felt this himself; he understood that an adherent of the principles of Zeno, of Citium, should go by another road, and he suffered more from that cause than from the fear of death itself.

But the general interrupted these reflections full of grief.

"Noble Annaeus," said he, "I know how Caesar rewarded thee for the care with which thou didst surround his years of youth. But the author of the removal of Lygia is Petronius. Indicate to me a method against him, indicate the influences to which he yields, and use besides with him all the eloquence with which friendship for me of long standing can inspire thee."

"Petronius and I," answered Seneca, "are men of two opposite camps; I know of no method against him, he yields to no man’s influence. Perhaps with all his corruption he is worthier than those scoundrels with whom Nero surrounds himself at present. But to show him that he has done an evil deed is to lose time simply. Petronius has lost long since that faculty which distinguishes good from evil. Show him that his act is ugly, he will be ashamed of it. When I see him, I will say, ’Thy act is worthy of a freedman.’ If that will not help thee, nothing can."

"Thanks for that, even," answered the general.

Then he gave command to carry him to the house of Vinicius, whom he found at sword practice with his domestic trainer. Aulus was borne away by terrible anger at sight of the young man occupied calmly with fencing during the attack on Lygia; and barely had the curtain dropped behind the trainer when this anger burst forth in a torrent of bitter reproaches and injuries. But Vinicius, when he learned that Lygia had been carried away, grew so terribly pale that Aulus could not for even an instant suspect him of sharing in the deed. The young man’s forehead was covered with sweat; the blood, which had rushed to his heart for a moment, returned to his face in a burning wave; his eyes began to shoot sparks, his mouth to hurl disconnected questions. Jealousy and rage tossed him in turn, like a tempest. It seemed to him that Lygia, once she had crossed the threshold of Caesar’s house, was lost to him absolutely. When Aulus pronounced the name of Petronius, suspicion flew like a lightning flash through the young soldier’s mind, that Petronius had made sport of him, and either wanted to win new favor from Nero by the gift of Lygia, or keep her for himself. That any one who had seen Lygia would not desire her at once, did not find a place in his head. Impetuousness, inherited in his family, carried him away like a wild horse, and took from him presence of mind.

"General," said he, with a broken voice, "return home and wait for me. Know that if Petronius were my own father, I would avenge on him the wrong done to Lygia. Return home and wait for me. Neither Petronius nor Caesar will have her."

Then he went with clinched fists to the waxed masks standing clothed in the atrium, and burst out, — "By those mortal masks! I would rather kill her and myself." When he had said this, he sent another "Wait for me" after Aulus, then ran forth like a madman from the atrium, and flew to Petronius’s house, thrusting pedestrians aside on the way.

Aulus returned home with a certain encouragement. He judged that if Petronius had persuaded Caesar to take Lygia to give her to Vinicius, Vinicius would bring her to their house. Finally, the thought was no little consolation to him, that should Lygia not be rescued she would be avenged and protected by death from disgrace. He believed that Vinicius would do everything that he had promised. He had seen his rage, and he knew the excitability innate in the whole family. He himself, though he loved Lygia as her own father, would rather kill her than give her to Caesar; and had he not regarded his son, the last descendant of his stock, he would doubtless have done so. Aulus was a soldier; he had hardly heard of the Stoics, but in character he was not far from their ideas, — death was more acceptable to his pride than disgrace.

When he returned home, he pacified Pomponia, gave her the consolation that he had, and both began to await news from Vinicius. At moments when the steps of some of the slaves were heard in the atrium, they thought that perhaps Vinicius was bringing their beloved child to them, and they were ready in the depth of their souls to bless both. Time passed, however, and no news came. Only in the evening was the hammer heard on the gate.

After a while a slave entered and handed Aulus a letter. The old general, though he liked to show command over himself, took it with a somewhat trembling hand, and began to read as hastily as if it were a question of his whole house.

All at once his face darkened, as if a shadow from a passing cloud had fallen on it.

"Read," said he, turning to Pomponia.

Pomponia took the letter and read as follows: —

"Marcus Vinicius to Aulus Plautius greeting. What has happened, has happened by the will of Caesar, before which incline your heads, as I and Petronius incline ours."


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Chicago: Henryk Sienkiewicz, "Chapter V," Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Stanley Young in Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1NQLNH6SWMBGC.

MLA: Sienkiewicz, Henryk. "Chapter V." Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Stanley Young, in Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1NQLNH6SWMBGC.

Harvard: Sienkiewicz, H, 'Chapter V' in Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1NQLNH6SWMBGC.