Happily, there were good people in Rome, even noble families, with whom sacrifice had still a sacred power, and who practised the four virtues of honor, bravery, wisdom, and temperance. In rural Latium, rich and poor clung to the old faith, and everywhere a plebeian feared alike the assessor and the gods, and sacrificed to both.
It is no wonder the gods were falling when even Jupiter had been outdone by a modest man who dwelt on the Palatine. One might have seen him there any day—a rather delicate figure with shiny blue eyes and hair now turning gray. He flung his lightning with unerring aim across the great purple sea into Arabia, Africa, and Spain, and northward to the German Ocean and eastward to the land of the Goths. The genius of this remarkable man had outdone the imagination of priest and poet. A genius for organization, like that of his illustrious uncle, gave to Augustus a power greater than human hands had yet wielded.
A bit of gossip had travelled far and excited his curiosity. It spoke of a new king, with power above that of men, who was to conquer the world. Sayings of certain learned men came out of Judea into the land of lost hope. They told of the king of promise—that he would bring to men the gift of immortal life, that the heavens would declare his authority. Superstitious to the blood and bone, not a few were thrilled by the message.
The minds of thinking men were sad, fearful, and beset with curiosity. “If there be no gods,” they were wont to ask, “have we any hope and responsibility?” They studied the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and were unsatisfied.
The nations were at peace, but not the souls of men. A universal and mighty war of the spirit was near at hand. The skirmishers were busy—patrician and plebeian, master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. Soon all were to see the line of battle, the immortal captains, the children of darkness, the children of light, the beginning of a great revolution.
Rome was like a weary child whose toys are gods and men, and who, being weary of them, has yet a curiosity in their destruction.
Those days it was near twelve o’clock by the great dial of history. One day, about mid-afternoon, the old capital lay glowing in the sunlight. Its hills were white with marble and green with gardens, and traced and spotted and flecked with gold; its thoroughfares were bright with color—white, purple, yellow, scarlet—like a field of roses and amarantus.
The fashionable day had begun; knight and lady were now making and receiving visits.