The Close of the First Millennium by August Strindberg
In the year 998 A.D. Rome had become a German Empire and the German
Emperor had become a Roman. Otto III, brought up by his
Graeco-Byzantine mother Theofano, had inherited her love of the
southern lands, and therefore generally occupied his palace on the
Aventine, installed himself as Emperor, and cherished a plan of
converting Rome into the capital of the German Empire. He was now
twenty years old, ambitious, crochety, pious, and cruel.
During one of his absences, the old Roman spirit had revived, and
the high-born senator Crescentius had set up himself as Tribune of the
people, freed Rome from the Germans, driven away Pope Gregory V, and
installed John XVI in his place. The Emperor returned quickly to Rome,
took Crescentius and his Pope prisoner, and then presented the Romans
with a vivid spectacle, the like of which they had not seen, though
their fathers had.
The Leonine quarter, which embraced the Vatican Hill, with the
oldest St. Peter's Church and a papal palace, was connected with the
town by the Pons Aelius or Bridge of Hadrian. At the head of the
bridge, on the right side, was the sepulchre of Hadrian, a tower-shaped
building in which the Emperors up to the time of Caracalla had been
buried. When the Goths took Rome, the sepulchre became a fortress, and
remained so for a long time.
When the Romans woke up on that memorable morning of the year 998
A.D., they saw twelve wooden crosses erected on Hadrian's Tower
terrace. Right above them was to be seen the image of the Archangel
Michael, with his drawn sword, which had been erected by Gregory the
Great. Many people were assembled on the Aelian Bridge to see the
spectacle, and among them were a French merchant and a Gothic pilgrim
who had come from the west across the Leonine quarter. The sword of the
Archangel flamed in the beams of the sun, which was now high.
“What are those crosses for?” asked the pilgrim, shading his eyes.
“There are twelve! Perhaps they are intended to represent the twelve
“No, they have finished their sufferings, and the pious Emperor does
not crucify the disciples of the Lord anew.”
“Yes, the Emperor! The Saxon! Neither the Goth, nor the Longobard,
nor the Frank were to have Rome, but the Saxon—one of the cursed
nation whom Charles the Great thought that he had extirpated. He sent
ten thousand to Gaul, in order to make a present of these savages to
the enemy, and he beheaded four thousand five hundred in a single day,
without its costing him a sleepless night. Wonderful are the ways of
“The last are often the first.”
“O Lord Jesus, Redeemer of the world! there is something moving on
the crosses! Do you see?”
“Yes, by heaven! No, I cannot look! They are crucified men!”
Two Romans stood by the strangers: “Hermann, you are avenged,” said
“Was Hermann a Saxon?” objected the other.
“Probably, since he lived in the Harz district.”
“A thousand years ago Thusnelda passed through the streets in the
triumph-train of Germanicus, and carried the unborn Thumelicus under
her heart! To think that a thousand years had to pass before she was
“A thousand years are as a day! But are not these our Roman brothers
on the cross martyrs for Rome's freedom?”
“Martyrs for our cause! But this time they were wrong, because the
gods so willed it.”
Now there was a change in the scene. Under the tower a band of
soldiers made a passage through the crowd of people. Pope John XVI came
riding backwards on an ass. His ears and nose had been cut off, and his
eyes had been dug out. It was a gruesome sight. A wine-bladder, waving
over his head in the wind, made it worse. The people were silent, and
shuddered simultaneously, for he was, after all, Christ's
representative and St. Peter's successor, although no martyr.
A Sicilian stood on the bridge close to a Jew.
The Sicilian was a Muhammedan, for Sicily was then in the possession
of the Saracens, and had been so for about two hundred years.
“He must be suffering for his predecessors' sins,” said the Jew;
“that is the Christian belief: satisfactio vicaria.”
“Suffering is necessary,” answered the Moslem; “and I do not grieve
at such an end to the pornocracy. For a hundred years the Popes have
lived like cannibals. You remember Sergius III, who lived with the
harlot Theodora and her daughters. John X continued with Marozia, who
with her own hand first killed her brother and then suffocated the Pope
with a cushion. John XII was only nineteen when he became Pope. He took
bribes, and consecrated a ten year-old boy as bishop in a stable. He
committed incest, and turned the Lateran into a brothel. He played
cards, drank and swore by Jupiter and Venus.... You know it well.”
“Yes,” answered the Jew, “the Christians live in hell since they
have abandoned the one true God. The fools have, however, stolen from
us the Messianic promise; but the promise to Abraham we still possess.
Rome is a mad-house, Germany a slaughter-house, and France a brothel.
It is a matter to rejoice at, to see how they destroy each other.”
He placed himself by the balustrade of the bridge, in order to be
able to see better what now followed.
Between the twelve patriots, who writhed on their crosses like worms
on hooks, appeared five men dressed in red, who began to construct a
“Those are the executioners—on the Emperor's grave!” said the Jew.
“Against Crescentius I have nothing; he was a noble man who fought for
the Roman State. But there is one Christian the less!”
“The Christians have always two ways of explaining a man's
sufferings. If he is innocent, his suffering is a test, and if he is
guilty, well! he deserved his fate. There he comes!”
Crescentius, the last Roman, was led forth. His head fell, and
thereby Rome became German, or Germany Roman—till 1806! In the
afternoon the nomination of the new Pope (for one could not call it an
election) took place, and Gerbert of Auvergne was made Pope, with the
title of Silvester II.
* * * * *
The Emperor sat in his palace on the Aventine, and did not venture
to go out, for the Romans hated him. In the little hermitage on the
slope of the hill, where his friend Adalbert of Prague, the missionary
martyr recently killed by the Saxons, used to live, the Emperor shut
himself up with his teacher, the new Pope, Silvester II.
The latter—a Frenchman—had studied in Cordova, where the Caliph
had built a university, where Arabian philosophy, itself derived from
Greece and India, was taught. In Rheims Silvester has also studied
philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry. He had been Abbot of
Bobbio, Archbishop of Rheims and Ravenna, and, after protesting in many
ecclesiastical assemblies against the corruption of the Papacy, had
himself become Pope.
The excitement caused by the execution of Crescentius compelled him
to seek refuge on the Aventine with his pupil, the Emperor. From the
cell of the little convent, near Adalbert's chapel, he guided the
destinies of Europe, while at leisure moments he devoted himself to his
favourite sciences. For this reason he was reported to be a wizard.
One night as he sat, sunk in thought, at his table, which was
covered with letters, the Emperor entered unannounced. He was a tall
young man, dressed in an extraordinary garb, a dalmatica adorned with
symbols from the Book of the Apocalypse, the Wild Beast and the Harlot,
the Book of Seven Seals, and so on.
“Let me talk,” he said; “I cannot sleep.”
“What has happened, my son?”
“Letters have come—warnings—dreams.”
“Yes; you listen to me, but you don't believe me, when I tell you
the truth, and you are afraid of all new thoughts.”
“What is new under the sun? Does not St. Augustine say regarding our
holy faith, 'What is called in our days Christianity, already existed
since the creation of mankind to the birth of Christ. It was then that
they began to call Christianity the true religion, which had already
existed before. The truths taught by Christ are the same as the ancient
ones, only more developed'?”
“Heretic, beware! You do not know what is taking place in the
“Let me hear.”
“Pilgrims from many lands have been here, and tell of prodigies,
visions, and wonders. In the south of France there are pestilence and
famine, and human flesh has been sold in the butchers' shops; in
Germany a fiery iron rod has been seen in the sky, and here in Italy
these endless pilgrimages have recommenced. In Jerusalem the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre has been plundered, and the temple of the False
Prophet erected. The whole of Christendom is trembling, for in the
immoral Popes of the last century they have seen the Antichrist.
Christ's ambassador is murdered; yes, my friend Adalbert was the last
up there in Poland: the heathen have reconquered all Christ's conquests
in Asia and Africa. The followers of the False Prophet are in Spain,
Sicily, and Naples, and threaten Rome. This can mean nothing less than
the Last Judgment and destruction of the world, as announced in the
“So it is the old story again?”
“Story! Get thee hence Satan, for thou savourest not the things
which be of God, but those which be of men.”
“Do you call me Satan?”
“Yes, when you deny the Word. Is it not written in John's
Apocalypse, 'And when the thousand years are accomplished, Satan will
be let loose from his prison. And he shall go to deceive the nations
which are in the four ends of the earth, Gog and Magog'? There you have
the northern peoples who are now in England, Normandy, and Sicily. Is
not Theodora the great Babylonian Harlot? Is not the deceiver Muhammed
the Wild Beast?”
“Wait, my son! I might quote a verse from the same chapter: 'He who
hath part in the first resurrection shall reign with Christ a thousand
years.' So that the Millennium is beginning now, and cannot end
“The old one ends, and the new begins.”
“Just so! The old dark age is past, and we await Christ's second
coming on earth. If you retained the hope, you would see the new era
“I do not believe a word of what you say. The last year of the
thousand years is here, and now I go out in the desert to await, with
fasting, prayer, and penance, the day of the Lord, and the coming of my
Redeemer. I will pray for you, my father, but here our ways part, and
you will see me no more.”
The Emperor departed, and Silvester remained alone.
“I wait!” he said to himself, “but meanwhile I look after our
worldly affairs.” And he unfolded a map of the then known world. With a
piece of red chalk he drew crosses and crowns, for the most part in the
North. But above Jerusalem he drew a flag with a lance.
* * * * *
The year 999 approached its end, and the Christians lived in a state
of deadly anxiety. In Rome and its neighbourhood, all the active
business of life had ceased. The fields were not sown, but lay covered
with weeds; trade was at a stand-still; the shops were closed. Those
who had anything gave it away, and had difficulty in finding anyone to
take it. The churches stood open day and night for three months, and
each day was like Sunday. People wore their best clothes, for there was
no object in keeping them, and they wished to be well dressed in order
to meet the Redeemer on His arrival. Christmas had been kept with
unwonted solemnity, and men lived at peace with one another. The guards
of the city had nothing to do, for the fear of what was coming sufficed
to maintain order. People slept with open doors, and no one dared to
steal or to deceive. There was no need to do so, for everyone received
what he asked for; bakers distributed bread gratis, and innkeepers
allowed unlimited credit; the payment of debts was not exacted. The
churches were crowded day and night; there was a ceaseless round of
confessions, absolutions, masses and communions.
It was the day before New Year's Eve. Views were divided as to the
nature of the coming catastrophe—whether it would come as a flood or
as an earthquake. Most of the people remained outside their houses,
some on the plain, others on the hills; all with their eyes directed
In the morning, the Plain of Mars was full of men, and a crowd
formed a circle round a pile of wood. A madman stood on the pile and
spoke, with a quantity of papers and parchments in his hand. He was a
rich citizen who for three months had practised fasting and penance,
and now, reduced to a skeleton, wished to escape the wrath to come. He
had collected a large quantity of dry wood under the pretext of giving
warmth to all passing beasts of burthen. Since nobody troubled about
what others did, he was allowed to do as he liked.
Near the pile of wood stood the remains of an old orator's pulpit,
and in that he took his stand after he had kindled the pile. “In the
name of the Eternal God,” he said, “so surely as I burn these bonds,
will God the Lord erase my sins from His Book. For all sufferings which
I have caused others, I will now suffer myself. Purifying fire, burn my
wretched body with all its sins! Mounting flames, let me follow you
upwards! Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He leaped from the pulpit, and
fell in the midst of the flames, where he remained on his knees with
folded hands till he was suffocated.
In the Forum a man was seen working with a miner's iron bar at a
rubbish-heap which should cover him: “Say to the mountains, Cover us,”
From the Pons Sublicius a young couple sprang into the river, locked
in an embrace which death could not loosen.
At mid-day the prisons were opened, and the prisoners were received
as heroes and martyrs. They were taken to the houses of the nobility,
made to sit at table, and senators and their wives washed their feet.
“We are all sinners,” people said, “and have nothing to boast of.
These prisoners have endured their punishment while we went about
Never had there been such a display of philanthropy and mercy since
the early days of Christianity.
The sick in the hospitals wanted to come outside, and their beds
were carried into the streets and market-places. Everyone, in fact,
wanted to be in the open air, and families brought their furniture into
the streets. Birds were liberated from their cages, and horses from
their stables. At first the latter ran about in the town, but as they
scented the fresh air and reached the town gates they galloped off to
the Campagna, to seek green pasture. Many, however, remained in the
town, and lay about here and there, while children clambered on their
backs. The children were the only ones who felt no fear. They jumped
about and played as usual, rejoicing in their freedom and the unusual
aspect of things. No one wanted to restrain them, and as they did not
understand what was the matter, they remained free from anxiety and
went on playing.
New Year's Eve had arrived, and the universal alarm rose to a great
height. Masters and servants were seen embracing each other and
weeping, the former lamenting their severity—the latter, their
dishonesty. Old enemies, who met each other on the street, grasped
hands and led each other about like children, singing hymns of praise.
It was something like the Golden Age as imagined by the Fathers of the
The air was as mild as that of a spring day, and the sky was clear
till noon. Then it became overclouded. No one ate or drank, but all
bathed and put on their festal attire. During the afternoon processions
of priests and monks marched through the town, and sang litanies, in
which the people joined. Their Kyrie Eleison, “Christ, have mercy upon
us,” rang all over the town. All Rome was preparing for its own
judgment and execution.
There were, however, a number of unbelieving and profligate persons
who expected nothing new; they had assembled themselves in the
catacombs and ruins, where they celebrated Bacchanalian feasts and
orgies. In the ruins of Nero's Golden House a banquet on a large scale
had been arranged. In the centre on the ground there burned a fire,
surrounded by tables and seats. There was abundance of victuals and
wine, for which they only needed to go to the store-room and cellar.
There were music, dancing, and singing, and between whiles they amused
themselves by watching the bats and owls, which flitted about, scorch
and singe themselves in the fire.
Their hilarity was loud, but not unforced. Here, too, philosophising
and prophecy were in evidence.
“There is not going to be any Last Judgment to-day,” said a young
man, who looked as though he were a descendant of the Emperor Nero.
“Anyhow, if it comes, death cannot introduce us to anything worse
than we have had in life.”
“It has always seemed to me that we are in hell. Headaches every
morning, debts and disgrace, varied by occasional imprisonments.”
“The Emperor sits naked in a grotto at the foot of Soracte.”
“Vides ut alta stet nive candidum, Soracte.”
“As we are speaking, life the envious flits away. Enjoy the present
day, nor trust the morrow!”
“And the Pope is going to hold a midnight mass—he who has no faith
in it himself.”
“But he must put a good face on it, and go through with it.”
“I know one woman who will not go to mass to-day.”
“That is the beautiful Stephania, the widow of Crescentius.”
“But she watches for vengeance.”
“What have these Germans to do in Rome? I wish the owner of this
Golden House could rise from the dead. He was the last Roman!”
“He was a man who did not caress his enemies. He feared nothing
between heaven and earth, not even the lightning. Once there was a
lightning-flash in his dining-hall as he reclined at table. What do you
think he said? 'To your health!' and raised his goblet.”
At this moment a heated stone fell from the vaulted roof into the
fire, and caused a shower of sparks. The night wind rushed through the
hole thus formed, and blew the smoke into the feasters faces. At first
they were amused at the occurrence, but were soon obliged to leave the
“Let us go out and witness the end of the world!” cried one of the
youths. They formed a procession of Bacchanals and Maenads, one in
front carrying a filled wineskin. There were flute-players among them,
and all carried goblets in their hands.
* * * * *
Below, in the old Basilica of St. Peter, stood the Pope before the
altar, and performed in silence the midnight mass. The church was
crowded, and everyone was on his knees. The silence was so deep that
the rustle of the white sleeve of the officiant could be heard when he
elevated the cup. But another sound was audible, which seemed to be
measuring out the last moments of the Millennium. It beat like the
pulse in the ear of a feverish man, and at the same rate. The door of
the sacristy stood open, and the great clock which hung there ticked
calmly and steadfastly, once in a second.
The Pope, who was outwardly just as calm, had probably left the door
open in order to produce the utmost effect at the great moment, for his
face was pale with emotion, but he did not move, and his hands did not
The mass was over, and a death-like silence ensued. The people
expected the Lord's servant at the altar to speak a few words of
comfort. But he said nothing; he seemed absorbed in prayer, and had
stretched out his hands towards heaven.
The clock ticked, the people sighed, but nothing happened. Like
children afraid of the dark, the congregation lay with their faces
towards the ground, and dared not look up. A cold sweat of anxiety
dropped from many brows, knees which had gone to sleep caused pain, or
were numb, and felt as though they had been amputated.
Then the clock suddenly ceased ticking.
Had the works run down? Was it an omen? Was everything going to
stand still, time to be at an end, and eternity begin? From the
congregation rose some stifled cries, and, lifeless with terror, some
bodies dropped on the stone pavement.
Then the clock began to strike—One, Two, Three, Four.... The
twelfth stroke sounded, and the echoes died away. A fresh death-like
Then Silvester turned round, and, with the proud smile of a victor,
he extended his hands in blessing. At the same moment all the bells in
the tower rang out joyfully, and from the organ-loft a choir of voices
began to sing, somewhat unsteadily at first, but soon firmly and
clearly, “Te Deum Laudamus!”
The congregation joined in, but it was some time before they could
straighten their stiffened backs, and recover from the spectacle of
those who had died of fright. When the hymn was over, the people fell
in each other's arms, weeping and laughing like lunatics, as they gave
each other the kiss of peace.
So ended the first Millennium after the birth of Christ.
In the little castle Paterno on Mount Soracte, the Emperor had spent
the Christmas week and New Year's Eve in the strictest fast and
penance. But when New Year's Day was come, and nothing had happened, he
returned to Rome to meet Silvester and take measures for the future.
The Emperor's friend and teacher received him with a smile which was
easy to interpret. But the monarch was still so much under the effect
of his fit of alarm that he did not venture to be angry.
“Will you now return to earth, my son, and look after your mundane
affairs?” said Silvester.
“I will, but I must first fulfil two vows which I made in the hour
“Fulfil them certainly.”
“I go to the grave of my friend Adalbert in Gnesen, and I must visit
the funeral vault of Charles the Great in Aachen.”
“Do so, but you must at the same time fulfil some commissions which
I give you for the journey.”
So they parted.
* * * * *
Two years had passed, when, one day in January, Pope Silvester was
summoned to Paterno, the little castle on Soracte, where the
Roman-German Emperor dwelt, and now lay ill.
When Silvester entered the sick-room, the Emperor sat upright, but
looked troubled. “You are ill,” said Silvester: “is it the soul or
“I am tired.”
“Already, at twenty-two years of age.”
“I am despondent.”
“You are despondent although you saw the world awake from its
nightmare. Consider, ungrateful man, all that these two years have
brought, what triumphs for Christ, who really seems to have returned. I
will enumerate them: listen! Bohemia has received its Duke, who has
eradicated heathenism; Austria has concentrated itself as a
Danube-state the heathen Magyar has allowed himself to be baptized, and
received the crown from our own hand as Stephen the First; Boleslaw in
Poland has also received a crown and an archbishop; the new kingdom of
Russia has accepted baptism and Vladimir the Great protects us against
the Saracens, who are on the decline, and Seljuks or Turks, who are in
the ascendant; Harold of Denmark and Olaf of Sweden have established
Christianity in their dominions; so has Olaf Tryggveson in Norway and
Iceland, in the Faroe Island, in Shetland and Greenland; and the Dane
Sven Tveskagg has secured Britain for Christianity. France is under the
pious Robert II, of the new race of the Capets, but also of Saxon
descent like you. In Spain, the northern States Leon, Castille, Aragon,
Navarre, have at last united, and protect us from the Moors in Cordova.
All this in five years, and under the aegis of Rome! Is not all this
the return of Christ, and do you understand now what Providence means
by the Millennium? Those who are alive at the end of another thousand
years will perhaps see the ripe fruits, while we have only seen the
blossoms. The world is certainly not a paradise, but it is better than
when we had savages in the North and East. And all kings receive the
crown and the pallium from Rome. You are a ruler over the nations, my
“I? You rule their minds, not I, and I will not rule.”
“So I have heard, for you have accepted the rule of a woman.”
“Who is that?”
“They say, and you know the report as well as I do, that it is the
widow of Crescentius, the beautiful Stephania. Well, that is your own
affair, but Solomon says,—'Beware of your enemies, but be wary with
The Emperor looked as though he wished to defend himself, but could
not, and so the conversation was at an end.
Some days after, Otto III was dead, poisoned, so ran the report, in
some way or other, by the beautiful Stephania.
A year later Silvester II died also.