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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 Apostles.”

“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 Lord!”

“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 one.

“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 avenged!”

“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 platform.

“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.”

“Tell me.”

“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 world.”

“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 Apocalypse.”

“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 forthwith.”

“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 dawn.”

“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 towards heaven.

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,” he sang.

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 free.”

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 early Church.

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 vault.

“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 tremble.

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 silence ensued.

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 of need.”

“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 body?”

“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 Emperor.”

“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 your friends.'“

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.

 
 
 

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