The throne-room was a place of such magnificence that it was said that even Caesar himself felt small in it. The foreign kings, ambassadors and Roman citizens admitted there to audience were disciplined without the slightest difficulty; there was no unseemliness, no haste, no crowding; horribly uncomfortable in the heavy togas that court etiquette prescribed, reminded of their dignity by colossal statues of the noblest Romans of antiquity, and ushered by magnificently uniformed past masters of the art of ceremony, all who entered felt that they were insignificant intruders into a golden mystery. The palace prefect in his cloak of cloth of gold, with his ivory wand of office, seemed a high priest of eternity; subprefects, standing in the marble antechamber to examine visitors’ credentials and see that none passed in improperly attired, were keepers of Olympus.
The gilded marble throne was on a dais approached by marble steps, beneath a balcony to which a stair ascended from behind a carved screen. Trumpets announced the approach of Caesar, who could enter unobserved through a door at the side of the dais. From the moment that the trumpet sounded, and the guards grew as rigid as the basalt statues in the niches of the columned walls, it was a punishable crime to speak or even to move until Caesar appeared and was seated.
Nor was Caesar himself an anticlimax. Even Nero, nerveless in his latter days, when self-will and debauchery had pouched his eyes and stomach, had possessed the Roman gift of standing like a god. Vespasian and Titus, each in turn, was Mars personified. Aurelius had typified a gentler phase of Rome, a subtler dignity, but even he, whose worst severity was tempered by the philosophical regret that he could not kill crime with kindliness, had worn the imperial purple like Olympus’ delegate.
Commodus, in the minutes that he spared from his amusements to accept the glamor of the throne, was perfect. Handsomest of all the Caesars, he could act his part with such consummate majesty that men who knew him intimately half-believed he was a hero after all. Athletic, muscular and systematically trained, his vigor, that was purely physical, passed readily for spiritual quality within that golden hall, where the resources of the world were all put under tribute to provide a royal setting. He emerged. He smiled, as if the sun shone. He observed the rolled petitions, greetings, testimonials of flattery from private citizens and addresses of adulation from distant cities, being heaped into a gilded basket as the silent throng filed by beneath him. He nodded. Now and then he scowled, his irritation growing as the minutes passed. At each gesture of impatience the subprefects quietly impelled the crowd to quicker movement. But at the end of fifteen minutes Commodus grew tired of dignity and his ferocious scowl clouded his face like a thunderstorm.
“Am I to sit here while the whole world makes itself ridiculous by staring at me?” he demanded, in a harsh voice. It was loud enough to fill the throne-room, but none knew whether it was meant for an aside or not and none dared answer him. The crowd continued flowing by, each raising his right hand and bowing as he reached the square of carpet that was placed exactly in front of Caesar’s throne.