The city of Misenum gave name to the promontory which it crowned, a few miles southwest of Naples. An account of ruins is all that remains of it now; yet in the year of our Lord 24 -- to which it is desirable to advance the reader -- the place was one of the most important on the western coast of Italy.
The Roman government, it will be remembered, had two harbors in which great fleets were constantly kept -- Ravenna and Misenum.
In the year mentioned, a traveller coming to the promontory to regale himself with the view there offered, would have mounted a wall, and, with the city at his back, looked over the bay of Neapolis, as charming then as now; and then, as now, he would have seen the matchless shore, the smoking cone, the sky and waves so softly, deeply blue, Ischia here and Capri yonder; from one to the other and back again, through the purpled air, his gaze would have sported; at last -- for the eyes do weary of the beautiful as the palate with sweets -- at last it would have dropped upon a spectacle which the modern tourist cannot see -- half the reserve navy of Rome astir or at anchor below him. Thus regarded, Misenum was a very proper place for three masters to meet, and at leisure parcel the world among them.
In the old time, moreover, there was a gateway in the wall at a certain point fronting the sea -- an empty gateway forming the outlet of a street which, after the exit, stretched itself, in the form of a broad mole, out many stadia into the waves.
The watchman on the wall above the gateway was disturbed, one cool September morning, by a party coming down the street in noisy conversation. He gave one look, then settled into his drowse again.
There were twenty or thirty persons in the party, of whom the greater number were slaves with torches, which flamed little and smoked much, leaving on the air the perfume of the Indian nard. The masters walked in advance arm-in-arm. One of them, apparently fifty years old, slightly bald, and wearing over his scant locks a crown of laurel, seemed, from the attentions paid him, the central object of some affectionate ceremony. They all sported ample togas of white wool broadly bordered with purple. A glance had sufficed the watchman. He knew, without question, they were of high rank, and escorting a friend to ship after a night of festivity. Further explanation will be found in the conversation they carried on.
|No, my Quintus,| said one, speaking to him with the crown, |it is ill of Fortune to take thee from us so soon. Only yesterday thou didst return from the seas beyond the Pillars. Why, thou hast not even got back thy land legs.|
|By Castor! if a man may swear a woman's oath,| said another, somewhat worse of wine, |let us not lament. Our Quintus is but going to find what he lost last night. Dice on a rolling ship is not dice on shore -- eh, Quintus?|
|Abuse not Fortune!| exclaimed a third. |She is not blind or fickle. At Antium, where our Arrius questions her, she answers him with nods, and at sea she abides with him holding the rudder. She takes him from us, but does she not always give him back with a new victory?|
|The Greeks are taking him away,| another broke in. |Let us abuse them, not the gods. In learning to trade they forgot how to fight.|
With these words, the party passed the gateway, and came upon the mole, with the bay before them beautiful in the morning light. To the veteran sailor the plash of the waves was like a greeting. He drew a long breath, as if the perfume of the water were sweeter than that of the nard, and held his hand aloft.
|My gifts were at Praeneste, not Antium -- and see! Wind from the west. Thanks, O Fortune, my mother!| he said, earnestly.
The friends all repeated the exclamation, and the slaves waved their torches.
|She comes -- yonder!| he continued, pointing to a galley outside the mole. |What need has a sailor for other mistress? Is your Lucrece more graceful, my Caius?|
He gazed at the coming ship, and justified his pride. A white sail was bent to the low mast, and the oars dipped, arose, poised a moment, then dipped again, with wing-like action, and in perfect time.
|Yes, spare the gods,| he said, soberly, his eyes fixed upon the vessel. |They send us opportunities. Ours the fault if we fail. And as for the Greeks, you forget, O my Lentulus, the pirates I am going to punish are Greeks. One victory over them is of more account than a hundred over the Africans.|
|Then thy way is to the Aegean?|
The sailor's eyes were full of his ship.
|What grace, what freedom! A bird hath not less care for the fretting of the waves. See!| he said, but almost immediately added, |Thy pardon, my Lentulus. I am going to the Aegean; and as my departure is so near, I will tell the occasion -- only keep it under the rose. I would not that you abuse the duumvir when next you meet him. He is my friend. The trade between Greece and Alexandria, as ye may have heard, is hardly inferior to that between Alexandria and Rome. The people in that part of the world forgot to celebrate the Cerealia, and Triptolemus paid them with a harvest not worth the gathering. At all events, the trade is so grown that it will not brook interruption a day. Ye may also have heard of the Chersonesan pirates, nested up in the Euxine; none bolder, by the Bacchae! Yesterday word came to Rome that, with a fleet, they had rowed down the Bosphorus, sunk the galleys off Byzantium and Chalcedon, swept the Propontis, and, still unsated, burst through into the Aegean. The corn-merchants who have ships in the East Mediterranean are frightened. They had audience with the Emperor himself, and from Ravenna there go to-day a hundred galleys, and from Misenum| -- he paused as if to pique the curiosity of his friends, and ended with an emphatic -- |one.|
|Happy Quintus! We congratulate thee!|
|The preferment forerunneth promotion. We salute thee duumvir; nothing less.|
|Quintus Arrius, the duumvir, hath a better sound than Quintus Arrius, the tribune.|
In such manner they showered him with congratulations.
|I am glad with the rest,| said the bibulous friend, |very glad; but I must be practical, O my duumvir; and not until I know if promotion will help thee to knowledge of the tesserae will I have an opinion as to whether the gods mean thee ill or good in this -- this business.|
|Thanks, many thanks!| Arrius replied, speaking to them collectively. |Had ye but lanterns, I would say ye were augurs. Perpol! I will go further, and show what master diviners ye are! See -- and read.|
From the folds of his toga he drew a roll of paper, and passed it to them, saying, |Received while at table last night from -- Sejanus.|
The name was already a great one in the Roman world; great, and not so infamous as it afterwards became.
|Sejanus!| they exclaimed, with one voice, closing in to read what the minister had written.
|Sejanus to C. Coecilius Rufus, Duumvir.
|ROME, XIX. Kal. Sept.
|Caesar hath good report of Quintus Arrius, the tribune. In particular he bath heard of his valor, manifested in the western seas, insomuch that it is his will that the said Quintus be transferred instantly to the East.
|It is our Caesar's will, further, that you cause a hundred triremes, of the first class, and full appointment, to be despatched without delay against the pirates who have appeared in the Aegean, and that Quintus be sent to command the fleet so despatched.
|Details are thine, my Caecilius.
|The necessity is urgent, as thou will be advised by the reports enclosed for thy perusal and the information of the said Quintus.
Arrius gave little heed to the reading. As the ship drew more plainly out of the perspective, she became more and more an attraction to him. The look with which he watched her was that of an enthusiast. At length he tossed the loosened folds of his toga in the air; in reply to the signal, over the aplustre, or fan-like fixture at the stern of the vessel, a scarlet flag was displayed; while several sailors appeared upon the bulwarks, and swung themselves hand over hand up the ropes to the antenna, or yard, and furled the sail. The bow was put round, and the time of the oars increased one half; so that at racing speed she bore down directly towards him and his friends. He observed the manoeuvring with a perceptible brightening of the eyes. Her instant answer to the rudder, and the steadiness with which she kept her course, were especially noticeable as virtues to be relied upon in action.
|By the Nymphae!| said one of the friends, giving back the roll, |we may not longer say our friend will be great; he is already great. Our love will now have famous things to feed upon. What more hast thou for us?|
|Nothing more,| Arrius replied. |What ye have of the affair is by this time old news in Rome, especially between the palace and the Forum. The duumvir is discreet; what I am to do, where go to find my fleet, he will tell on the ship, where a sealed package is waiting me. If, however, ye have offerings for any of the altars to-day, pray the gods for a friend plying oar and sail somewhere in the direction of Sicily. But she is here, and will come to,| he said, reverting to the vessel. |I have interest in her masters; they will sail and fight with me. It is not an easy thing to lay ship side on a shore like this; so let us judge their training and skill.|
|What, is she new to thee?|
|I never saw her before; and, as yet, I know not if she will bring me one acquaintance.|
|Is that well?|
|It matters but little. We of the sea come to know each other quickly; our loves, like our hates, are born of sudden dangers.|
The vessel was of the class called naves liburnicae -- long, narrow, low in the water, and modelled for speed and quick manoeuvre. The bow was beautiful. A jet of water spun from its foot as she came on, sprinkling all the prow, which rose in graceful curvature twice a man's stature above the plane of the deck. Upon the bending of the sides were figures of Triton blowing shells. Below the bow, fixed to the keel, and projecting forward under the water-line, was the rostrum, or beak, a device of solid wood, reinforced and armed with iron, in action used as a ram. A stout molding extended from the bow the full length of the ship's sides, defining the bulwarks, which were tastefully crenelated; below the molding, in three rows, each covered with a cap or shield of bull-hide, were the holes in which the oars were worked -- sixty on the right, sixty on the left. In further ornamentation, caducei leaned against the lofty prow. Two immense ropes passing across the bow marked the number of anchors stowed on the foredeck.
The simplicity of the upper works declared the oars the chief dependence of the crew. A mast, set a little forward of midship, was held by fore and back stays and shrouds fixed to rings on the inner side of the bulwarks. The tackle was that required for the management of one great square sail and the yard to which it was hung. Above the bulwarks the deck was visible.
Save the sailors who had reefed the sail, and yet lingered on the yard, but one man was to be seen by the party on the mole, and he stood by the prow helmeted and with a shield.
The hundred and twenty oaken blades, kept white and shining by pumice and the constant wash of the waves, rose and fell as if operated by the same hand, and drove the galley forward with a speed rivalling that of a modern steamer.
So rapidly, and apparently, so rashly, did she come that the landsmen of the tribune's party were alarmed. Suddenly the man by the prow raised his hand with a peculiar gesture; whereupon all the oars flew up, poised a moment in air, then fell straight down. The water boiled and bubbled about them; the galley shook in every timber, and stopped as if scared. Another gesture of the hand, and again the oars arose, feathered, and fell; but this time those on the right, dropping towards the stern, pushed forward; while those on the left, dropping towards the bow, pulled backwards. Three times the oars thus pushed and pulled against each other. Round to the right the ship swung as upon a pivot; then, caught by the wind, she settled gently broadside to the mole.
The movement brought the stern to view, with all its garniture -- Tritons like those at the bow; name in large raised letters; the rudder at the side; the elevated platform upon which the helmsman sat, a stately figure in full armor, his hand upon the rudder-rope; and the aplustre, high, gilt, carved, and bent over the helmsman like a great runcinate leaf.
In the midst of the rounding-to, a trumpet was blown brief and shrill, and from the hatchways out poured the marines, all in superb equipment, brazen helms, burnished shields and javelins. While the fighting-men thus went to quarters as for action, the sailors proper climbed the shrouds and perched themselves along the yard. The officers and musicians took their posts. There was no shouting or needless noise. When the oars touched the mole, a bridge was sent out from the helmsman's deck. Then the tribune turned to his party and said, with a gravity he had not before shown:
|Duty now, O my friends.|
He took the chaplet from his head and gave it to the dice-player.
|Take thou the myrtle, O favorite of the tesserae!| he said. |If I return, I will seek my sestertii again; if I am not victor, I will not return. Hang the crown in thy atrium.|
To the company he opened his arms, and they came one by one and received his parting embrace.
|The gods go with thee, O Quintus!| they said.
|Farewell,| he replied.
To the slaves waving their torches he waved his hand; then he turned to the waiting ship, beautiful with ordered ranks and crested helms, and shields and javelins. As he stepped upon the bridge, the trumpets sounded, and over the aplustre rose the vexillum purpureum, or pennant of a commander of a fleet.