Crassus. Hugo no doubt refers to M. Licinius Crassus (died 53 B.C.), the Triumvir, who, when praetor, led an army against the revolted gladiators under Spartacus. He twice defeated them and subsequently crucified or hung, along the road from Capua to Rome, six thousand slaves who had been taken prisoners.
Epaphrodite. Epaphroditus, a freedman and favourite of the Emperor Nero, was the master of Epictetus, the lame slave and Stoic philosopher, who was amongst the greatest of pagan moralists. Epaphroditus, who treated his slave with great cruelty, is said to have been one day twisting his leg for amusement. Epictetus said, ‘If you continue, you will break my leg.’ Epaphroditus went on, the leg was broken, and Epictetus only said, ’Did I not tell you that you would break it?’
Hugo seems to have in mind the short reigns of Galba (r. A.D. 68-9), Otho (r. A.D. 69), and Vitellius (r. A.D. 69), all of whom perished by violence.
Vitellius was famous even among the later Romans for his gluttony and voracious appetite. During the four months of his reign he is said to have spent seven millions sterling on the pleasures of his table. When at last the people rose against him, and the soldiers proclaimed another emperor, Vitellius was found hiding in his palace. He was dragged out into the Forum and killed on the Gemoniae (les Gemonies), a staircase which went up the Capitoline Hill and on which the corpses of criminals were exposed before being thrown into the Tiber. This is the Escalier referred to in the next line.
l. 57. These tortures were not known in Rome. They suggest rather the Middle Ages.
le cirque. The circus where chariot-races took place. Hugo seems to be confusing it with the Colosseum, where the gladiatorial combats were fought.
Le noir gouffre cloaque. The Cloaca Maxima was the great sewer of Rome. It is still in existence and in use. Hugo here first makes it the symbol of the destruction towards which the Roman Empire was tending, and then treats it half as a concrete reality, half as a figure for some underworld in which dethroned but living emperors meet. This blending of the symbol and the thing symbolized is characteristic of the poet.
chiffres du fatal nombre: the figures or digits that stand for the doomed number, i.e. the number with which a doomed man is marked.
Attila, the famous king of the Huns, ‘the Scourge of God’ as he was called, reigned A.D. 434-53.
The poem is founded on the ‘Chanson de Girart de Viane,’ one of the Carolingian cycles of epic poems, written by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, a poet of Champagne who lived in the first half of the thirteenth century.
The story, as told in the Chanson, is as follows:—