“I would despise myself if I should be untrue to Rome,” Sextus answered after a moment. “Commodus is not Rome. Neither is the mob Rome.”
“What is then?” Narcissus asked. “The bricks and mortar? The marble that the slaves must haul under the lash? The ponds where they feed their lampreys on dead gladiators? The arena where a man salutes a dummy emperor before a disguised one kills him? The senate, where they buy and sell the consulates and praetorships and guaestorships? The tribunals where justice goes by privilege? The temples where as many gods as there are, Romans yell for sacrifices to enrich the priests? The farms where the slave-gangs labor like poor old Sysyphus and are sold off in their old age to the contractors who clear the latrines, or to the galleys, or, if they’re lucky, to the lime-kilns where they dry up like sticks and die soon? There is a woman in a side-street near the fish-market, who is very rich and looks like Rome to me. She has so many gold rings on her fingers that you can’t see the dirt underneath; and she owns so many brothels and wine-shops that she can even buy off the tax-collectors. Do I love her? Do I love Rome? No! I love you, Sextus, son of Maximus, and I will go with you to the world’s end if you will lead the way.”
“I love Rome,” Sextus answered. “Possibly I want to see her liberties restored because I love my own liberty and can’t imagine myself honorable unless Rome herself is honored first. When you and I are sick we need a Galen. Rome needs Pertinax. You ask me what is Rome? She is the cradle of my manhood.”
“A befouled nest!” said Narcissus.
“An Augean stable with a Hercules who doesn’t do his work, I grant you! But we can substitute another Hercules.”
“Pertinax is too old,” Narcissus objected, weakening, a trifle sulkily.
“He is old enough to wish to die in honor rather than dishonor. You and I, Narcissus, have no honor—you a slave and I an outlaw. Let us win, then, honor for ourselves by helping to heal Rome of her dishonor!”
“Oh well, have it your own way,” said Narcissus, unconvinced. “A brass as for your honor! The alternative is death or liberty in either case, and as for me, I prefer friendship to religion, so I will follow you, whichever road you take. Now go. These fellows mustn’t recognize you. It is time to take them one by one into the exercising yard. I daren’t take more than one at a time or they’d kill me even with the blunted practise-weapons. I wish they might face Commodus as boldly as they tackle me! I am a weary man, and many times a bruised one, I can tell you, when the night comes, after putting twenty of them through their paces.”