To divert a hungry populace, now six months besieged, Bessas was offering entertainments such as suited the Saturnalian season. To-day he had invited Rome to the Circus Maximus, where, because no spectacle could be provided imposing enough to fill the whole vast space, half a dozen shows were presented simultaneously; the spectators grouped here and there, in number not a fiftieth part of that assembly which thundered at the chariots in olden time. Here they sat along the crumbling, grass-grown, and, as their nature was, gladly forgot their country’s ruin, their own sufferings, and the doom which menaced them. Equestrians, contortionists, mimes, singers, were readily found in the city, where a brave or an honest man had become rare indeed. What a performance lacked in art, he supplied by shamelessness; and nowhere was laughter so hearty, or the crowd so dense, as in that part of the circus where comic singers and dancers vied with the grossest traditions of the pagan theatre.
Heliodora could not miss such an opportunity of enjoyment and of display. She sat amid her like, the feline ladies and the young nobles, half brute, half fop, who though already most of them fasted without the merit of piety, still prided themselves on being the flower of Roman fashion. During one of the pauses of the festival, when places were changed, and limbs stretched, some one whispered to her that she was invited to step towards that place of honour where sat the Emperor’s representative. An invitation of Bessas could not lightly be declined, nor had Heliodora any reluctance to obey such a summons. More than a year had gone by since her vain attempt, on Marcian’s suggestion, to enslave the avaricious Thracian, and, since then, the hapless Muscula had had more than one successor. Roman gossip, always busy with the fair Greek, told many a strange story to account for her rigour towards the master of Rome, who was well known to have made advances to her. So when to-day they were seen sitting side by side, conversing vivaciously, curiosity went on tiptoe. The entertainment over, Heliodora was carried home in her litter, no friend accompanying her. Few nowadays were the persons in Rome who bade guests to their table; even the richest had no great superfluity of viands. After sunset, the city became a dark and silent desert, save when watch-fires glared and soldiers guarded the walls.
As was the case with all Romans who not long ago had commanded a multitude of slaves and freedmen, Heliodora’s household was much reduced. Even before the siege began, many of the serving class stole away to the Goths, who always received them with a welcome; and since the closing of the gates this desertion had been of daily occurrence, the fugitives having little difficulty in making their escape from so vast a city so sparsely populated. No longer did the child from far-off Anglia ride about on his mistress’s errands; a female slave, punished for boxing his ears, had