Read CHAPTER III - EMPRESS AND SLAVE of Valeria The Martyr of the Catacombs, free online book, by William Henry Withrow, on

Using the time-honoured privilege of ubiquity accorded to imaginative writers, we beg to conduct our readers to a part of the stately palace of Diocletian, where, if they had really been found in their own proper persons, it would have been at the peril of their lives. After fifteen long centuries have passed, we may explore without let or hindrance the most private apartments of the once all-potent masters of the world. We may roam through their unroofed banquet-chambers. We may gaze upon the frescoes, carvings, and mosaics which met their eyes. We may behold the evidences of their luxury and profligacy. We may thread the secret corridors and galleries connecting the chambers of the palace all now open to the light of day.

We may even penetrate to the boudoirs and tiring rooms of the proud dames of antiquity. We may even examine at our will the secrets of the toilet the rouge pots and vases for cosmetics and unguents, the silver mirrors, fibulas or brooches, armlets and jewels, and can thus reconstruct much of that old Roman life which has vanished forever from the face of the earth.

By the light of modern exploration and discovery, therefore, we may enter the private apartments of ladies of the Imperial household, and in imagination re-furnish these now desolate and ruinous chambers with all the luxury and magnificence of their former prime. A room of commodious size is paved with tesselated marble slabs, adorned with borders and designs of brilliant mosaic. The walls are also marble, save where an elegant fresco on a stucco ground flowers or fruit or graceful landscape greet the eye. A small fountain throws up its silver spray, imparting a grateful coolness to the air. Windows, void of glass, but mantled and screened by climbing plants and rare exotics, look out into a garden where snowy marble statues are relieved against the dark green of the cypress and ilex. Around the room are busts and effigies of the Imperial household or of historical characters. There is, however, a conspicuous absence of the mythological figures, whose exquisite execution does not atone for their sensuous conception, which, rescued from the debris of ancient civilization, crowd all the Art-galleries of Europe. That this is not the result of accident but of design is seen by an occasional empty pedestal or niche. Distributed at intervals are couches and tables of costly woods, inlaid with ivory, and bronze and silver candelabra, lamps and other household objects of ornament or use. Sitting in an ivory chair amid all this elegance and luxury was a lady in the very flower of her youth, of queenly dignity and majestic beauty. She wore a snowy stola, or robe of finest linen, with purple border, flowing in ample folds to her sandaled feet Over this was negligently thrown a saffron-coloured veil of thinnest tissue. She held in her hand a burnished silver mirror, at which she glanced carelessly from time to time, while a comely slave with dark lustrous eyes and finely-formed features carefully brushed and braided her long and rippling hair.

This queenly presence was the young and lovely Empress Valeria, the daughter of Diocletian and Prisca, and wife of the co-Emperor, Galerius Caesar. The object of envy of all the women of Borne, she lived to become within a few short years the object of their profoundest commiseration. Of her even the unsympathetic Gibbon remarks that “her melancholy adventures might furnish a very singular subject for tragedy.”

“Nay, now, Callirhoe,” said the Empress, with a weary smile, “that will do! Put up my hair and bind it with this fillet,” and she held out a gold-embroidered ribband. “Thou knowest I care not for the elaborate coiffure that is now so fashionable.”

“Your Majesty needs it not,” said the slave, speaking Greek with a low sweet voice, and with an Attic purity of accent. “As one of your own poets has said, you appear ‘when unadorned, adorned the most.’”

“Flatterer,” said the Empress, tapping her gaily and almost caressingly with a plumy fan of ostrich feathers which she held lightly in one hand, “you are trying to spoil me.”

“Such goodness as thine, sweet mistress,” said the slave, affectionately kissing her hand, “it would be impossible to spoil.”

“Dost know, Callirhoe,” said the young Empress, with a smile of bewitching sweetness, “that I have a surprise for thee? It is, thou knowest, my birthday, and in my honour is the banquet given to-day. But I have a greater pleasure than the banquet can bestow. I give thee this day thy freedom. Thou art no more a slave, but the freedwoman of the Empress Valeria. See, here are the papers of thy manumission,” and she drew from the girdle of her robe a sealed and folded parchment, which she handed to the now emancipated slave.

“Dearest mistress!” exclaimed the faithful creature, who had thrown herself on the marble pavement and was kissing the sandaled feet of the beautiful Empress, but an outburst of sobs and tears choked her utterance.

“What! weeping!” exclaimed Valeria. “Are you sorry then?”

“Nay, they are tears of joy,” exclaimed the girl, smiling through her tears, like the sun shining through a shower; “not that I tire of thy service; I wish never to leave it. But I rejoice that my father’s daughter can serve thee no longer as thy slave, but as thy freedwoman.”

“I should indeed be sorry to lose thee,” said the august lady with a wistful smile. “If I thought I should, I would almost regret thy manumission; for believe me, Callirhoe, I have need of true friends, and thou, I think, wilt be a faithful one.”

“What! I, but this moment a poor slave, the friend of the fairest and most envied lady in all Rome! Nay, now thou laughest at me; but believe me I am still heart and soul and body thy most devoted servant.”

“I do believe it, child,” said the Empress; “but tell me, pray, why thou speakest in that proud melancholy tone of thy father? Was he a freedman?”

“Nay, your Majesty, he was free-born; neither he nor his fathers were ever in bondage to any man,” and the fair face of the girl was suffused with the glow of honest pride in the freeborn blood that flowed in her veins.

“Forgive me, child, if I touched a sore spot in thy memory. Perchance I may heal it. Money can do much, men say.”

“In this case, dearest mistress, it is powerless. But from thee I can have no secrets, if you care to listen to the story of one so long a slave.”

“I never knew thou wert aught else, child. My steward bought thee in the slave market in the Suburra. Tell me all.”

“’Tis a short story, but a sad one, your Majesty,” said the girl, as she went on braiding her mistress’s hair. “My father was a Hebrew merchant, a dealer in precious stones, well esteemed in his nation. He lived in Damascus, where I was born. He named me after the beautiful fountain near the Jordan of his native land.”

“I thought it had been from the pagan goddess,” interrupted the Empress.

“Nay, ’twas from the healing fountain of Callirhoe, in Judea,” continued the girl “When my mother died, my father was plunged into inconsolable grief, and fell ill, well-nigh to death. The most skilled physician in Damascus, Eliezer by name, brought him back to life; but his friends thought he had better let him die, for he converted him to the hated Christian faith. Persecuted by his kinsmen, he came to Antioch with my brother and myself, that he might join the great and flourishing Christian Church in that city. While on a trading voyage to Smyrna, in which we children accompanied our father, we were captured by Illyrian pirates, and carried to the slave market at Ravenna. There I was purchased by a slave dealer from Rome, and my father and brother were sold I know not whither. I never saw them again,” and she heaved a weary and hopeless sigh.

“Poor child!” said the Empress, a tear of sympathy glistening on her cheek, “I fear that I can give thee little help. ’Tis strange how my heart went out toward thee when thou wert first brought so tristful and forlorn into my presence. ’Tis a sad world, and even the Emperors can do little to set it right.”

“There is One who rules on high, dear lady, the God of our fathers, by whom kings rule and princes decree judgment. He doeth all things well.”

“Yes, child, I am not ignorant of the God of the Jews and Christians. What a pity that there should be such bitter hate on the part of your countrymen towards those who worship the same great God.”

“Yes,” said Callirhoe, “blindness in part hath happened to Israel. If they but knew how Jesus of Nazareth fulfils all the types and prophecies of their own Scriptures, they would hail Him as the true Messiah of whom Moses and the prophets did write.”

“Well, child, I will help thee to find thy father, if possible, though I fear it will be a difficult task. Ask me freely anything that I can do. As my freedwoman, you will, of course, bear my name with your own. Now send my slave Juba to accompany me to the banquet-hall.”

Callirhoe, or as we may now call her, after the Roman usage, Valeria Callirhoe, fervently kissed the outstretched hand of her august mistress and gracefully retired.

It may excite some surprise to find such generous sentiments and such gentle manners as we have described attributed to the daughter of a persecuting Emperor and the wife of a stern Roman general. But reasons are not wanting to justify this delineation. Both Valeria and her mother Prisca, during their long residence at Nicomedia, where the Emperor Diocletian had established his court, became instructed in the Christian religion by the bishop of that important see. Indeed, Eusebius informs us that among them there were many Christian converts, both Prisca and Valeria, in the Imperial palace. Diocletian and his truculent son-in-law, Galerius, were bigoted pagans, and the mother of the latter was a fanatical worshipper of the goddess Cybele. The spread of Christianity even within the precincts of the palace provoked her implacable resentment, and she urged on her son to active persecution. A council was therefore held in the palace at Nicomedia, a joint edict for the extirpation of Christianity was decreed, and the magnificent Christian basilica was razed to the ground. The very next day the edict was torn from the public forum by an indignant Christian, and the Imperial palace was almost entirely destroyed by fire. The origin of this disaster is unknown, but it was ascribed to the Christians, and intensified the virulence of the persecution. Diocletian proceeded to Rome to celebrate a military triumph and to concert with his western colleagues more vigorous methods of persecution. It is at this period that the opening scenes of our story take place.