The astrologers consulted had nothing pleasant to say. They knew, as Domitian knew, that the end was near. So was theirs. To one of them, who predicted his immediate death, he inquired, “What will your end be?” “I,” answered the astrologer—“I shall be torn by dogs.” “To the stake with him!” cried Domitian; “let him be burned alive!” Suetonius says that a storm put out the flames, and dogs devoured the corpse. Another astrologer predicted that Domitian would die before noon on the morrow. In order to convince him of his error, Domitian ordered him to be executed the subsequent night. Before noon on the morrow Domitian was dead.
Philostratus and Dion Cassius both unite in saying that at that hour Apollonius was at Ephesus, preaching to the multitude. In the middle of the sermon he hesitated, but in a moment he began anew. Again he hesitated, his eyes half closed; then, suddenly he shouted, “Strike him! Strike him once more!” And immediately to his startled audience he related a scene that was occurring at Rome, the attack on Domitian, his struggle with an assailant, his effort to tear out his eyes, the rush of conspirators, and finally the fall of the emperor, pierced by seven knives.
The story may not be true, and yet if it were!
THE POISON IN THE PURPLE
Rome never was healthy. The tramontana visited it then as now, fever, too, and sudden death. To emperors it was fatal. Since Caesar a malaria had battened on them all. Nerva escaped, but only through abdication. The mantle that fell from Domitian’s shoulders on to his was so dangerous in its splendor, that, fearing the infection, he passed it to Ulpius Trajanus, the lustre undimmed.
Ulpius Trajanus, Trajan for brevity, a Spaniard by birth, a soldier by choice; one who had fought against Parthian and Jew, who had triumphed through Pannonia and made it his own; a general whose hair had whitened on the field; a consul who had frightened nations, was afraid of the sheen of that purple which dazzled, corroded and killed. He bore it, indeed, but at arm’s-length. He kept himself free from the subtlety of its poison, from the microbes of Rome as well.
He was in Cologne when Domitian died and Nerva accepted and renounced the throne. It was a year before he ventured among the seven hills. When he arrived you would have said another Augustus, not the real Augustus, but the Augustus of legend, and the late Mr. Gibbon. When he girt the new prefect of the pretorium with the immemorial sword, he addressed him in copy-book phrases—“If I rule wisely, use it for me; unwisely, against me.”
Rome listened open-mouthed. The change from Domitian’s formula, “Your god and master orders it,” was too abrupt to be immediately understood. Before it was grasped Trajan was off again; this time to the Danube and beyond it, to Dacia and her fens.