Chacun a ses vertus.Crebillon’s Xerxes
Antiochus Epiphanes is very generally looked upon as the Gog of the prophet Ezekiel. This honour is however more properly attributable to Cambyses, son of Cyrus. And, indeed the character of the Syrian king does by no means stand in need of any extraneous embellishment. His accession to the throne, or rather his usurpation of the sovereignty, a hundred and seventy one years before the coming of Christ — his attempt to plunder the temple of Diana at Ephesus — his implacable hostility to the Jews — his pollution of the Holy of Holies — and his miserable death at Taba after a tumultuous reign of eleven years, are circumstances of a prominent kind, and therefore more particularly noticed by the historians of his time than the impious, dastardly, cruel, silly, and whimsical achievements which make up the sum total of his private life and reputation.
Let us suppose, gentle reader, that it is now the year of the world three thousand, eight hundred, and thirty, and let us, for a few minutes, imagine ourselves at that most grotesque habitation of man, the remarkable city of Antioch. To be sure there were, in Syria and other countries, sixteen cities of that name besides the one to which I more especially allude — but I mean that Antoich which went by the title of Antiochia Epidaphne from its vicinity to the little village Daphne, where stood a temple to that divinity. The city was built — although about this matter there is some dispute— by Seleucus Nicanor, the first king of the country after Alexander the great. He created it in memory of his father Antiochus, and became immediately the residence of the Syrian monarchy. In the flourishing times of the Roman empire, it was the ordinary station of the prefect of the Eastern provinces, and many of the emperors of the queen city — among whom Verus and Valens may be mentioned — spent here the greater part of their time ——— but I perceive we have arrived at the city itself —— let us ascend this battlement, and throw our eyes around upon the town and neighbouring country.
‘What broad and rapid river do I see forcing its passage through the wilderness of buildings?’
‘The Orontes. It is the only water in sight — save only the blue Mediterranean which stretches like a mirror about twelve miles off to the southward. Every one has beheld the Mediterranean, but let me tell you there are few who have had a peep at Antioch. By few, I mean few who, like you and me, I have had, at the same time, the advantages of a modern education. Therefore cease to regard that sea and give your whole attention to the mass of houses that lie beneath us. You will remember that it is now the year of the world three thousand, eight hundred and thirty — were it later, for example were it unfortunately the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and thirty three, we should be deprived of this extraordinary spectacle. In the nineteenth century Antioch is — that is, I should say Antioch will be in a lamentable state of decay. It will have been by that time totally destroyed at three different periods by three successive earthquakes. Indeed, to say the truth, what little of its former self may then remain will be in so desolate and ruinous a state that the patriarch will have removed his residence to Damascus. This is well. I see you profit by my advice, and are making the most of your time in inspecting the premises. Does not the appearance of Epidaphne justify me in calling it grotesque?’
‘It is well fortified — being in this respect is as much indebted to nature as to art’.
‘There is a prodigious number of stately palaces’.
‘And the innumerable temples, sumptuous and magnificent, may challenge a comparison with the most lauded of antiquity’.
‘All this I must acknowledge. Still there is an infinity of mud huts and hovels. We cannot help perceiving abundance of filth in every kennel — and were it not for the overpowering fumes of idolatrous incense I have no doubt we should find an intolerable stench. Did you ever behold streets so insufferably narrow, or houses so miraculously tall? What a gloom their shadows cast upon the ground! It is well the swinging lamps in those endless colonnades are kept burning throughout the day — we should otherwise have the darkness of Egypt in the time of her desolation.’
‘It is a most wild-looking and whimsical place! What is the meaning of yonder singular building? See! — it towers above all others, and lies to the eastward of what I take to be the royal palace.’
‘That is the new temple of the sun, who is adored in Syria under the title of Elah-Gabalah. Hereafter a very notorious Roman emperor will institute this worship in Rome, and thence derive a cognomen Heliogabalus. I dare say you would like a peep at the divinity of the temple. You need not look upwards at the Heavens — his Sunship is not there — at least not the one adored by the Syrians. That deity will be found in the interior of yonder building. He is worshipped under the figure of a large stone pillar, terminating at the summit in a cone or pyramid, whereby is denoted Fire.’
‘Hark! — behold! — who can those ridiculous beings be, half naked, with their faces painted — shouting and gesticulating to the rabble?’
‘Some few are mountebanks. Others more particularly belong to the race of philosophers. The greatest portion however, those especially who belabour the populace with clubs, are the principal courtiers of the palace executing, as in duty bound, some laudable comicality of the king’s.’
‘But again! what have we here? Heavens! the town is swarming with wild beasts! — what a terrible spectacle! — what a dangerous peculiarity!’
‘Terrible if you please, but not in the least degree dangerous. Each animal, if you will take the pains to observe, is following very quietly in the wake of its master. Some few, to be sure, are led with a rope about the neck, but these are chiefly the lesser or more timid species. The lion, the tiger, and the leopard are entirely without restraint. They have been trained without difficulty to their present profession, and attend upon their respective owners in the capacity of men-at-arms. It is true there are occasions when Nature asserts her violated dominion — but then the devouring of a freeman, or the throtling of a courtezan or a consecrated bull are circumstances of too little moment to be more than hinted at in Epidaphne!’
‘But what extraordinary tumult do I hear? Surely this is a loud noise even for Antioch — it argues some commotion of unusual interest!’
‘Yes undoubtedly. The king has ordered some favourite spectacle — some exhibition at the Hippodrome — or perhaps the massacre of the Scythian prisoners — or the conflagration of his new palace — or the tearing down of a handsome temple — or indeed, a bonfire of a few Jews. The uproar increases. Shouts of laughter ascend the skies. The air becomes dissonant with wind instruments, and horrible with the clamour of a million throats. Let us descend for the love of fun, and see what is going on. This way — be careful. Here we are in the principal street which is called the street of Timarchus after one of the calamities of the king. The sea of people is coming this way, and we shall find a difficulty in stemming the tide. They are pouring through the alley of Heraclides which leads directly from the palace, therefore the king is most probably among the rioters. Yes! I hear the shouts of the herald proclaiming his approach in the pompous phraseology of the East. We shall have a glimpse of his person as he passes by the temple of Ashimah. Let us ensconce ourselves in the vestibule of the Sanctuary — he will be here anon. In the meantime let us survey this image — what is it? Oh! it is the god Ashimah in proper person. You perceive, however, that he is neither a goat, nor a lamb, nor a Satyr — neither has he any resemblance to the Pan of the Arcadians — yet all these appearances have been given — I beg pardon, will be given by the learned of future ages to the Syrian Ashimah. Put on your spectacles and tell me what it is — what is it?’
‘Bless me it is an ape!’
‘True! — a baboon — but by no means the less a deity. His name is a derivation of the Greek Σιμια, and great fools are antiquarians.’
‘But see! — see! — yonder scampers a ragged little urchin — where is he going? — what is he bawling about? — what does he say?’
‘He says the king is coming in triumph — that he is dressed in state — and that he has just finished putting to death with his own hand a thousand chained Israelitish prisoners. For this exploit the ragamuffin is lauding him to the skies. Hark! — here comes a troop of a similar kind — they have made a Latin hymn upon the valor of the king, and are singing it as they go.’
Mille, mille, mille
Mille, mille, mille
Decollavimus, unus homo!
Mille, mille, mille, mille, decollavimus!
Mille, mille, mille!
Vivat qui mille, mille occidit!
Tantum vini habet nemo
Quantum sanguinis effudit!
—— which may be thus paraphrased:
A thousand, a thousand, a thousand!
A thousand, a thousand, a thousand!
We with one warrior have slain.
A thousand, a thousand, a thousand, a thousand!
Sing a thousand over again.
Soho! let us sing
Long life to our king,
Who knocked over a thousand so fine.
Soho! let us roar
He has given us more
Red gallons of gore
Than all Syria can furnish of wine!
‘Do you hear that flourish of trumpets?’
‘Yes! — the king is coming. See! the people are aghast with admiration, and lift up their eyes to the heavens in reverence. He comes! — he is coming! — there he is!’
‘Who? where? — the king? — I do not behold him — cannot say that I perceive him.’
‘Then you must be blind.’
‘Very possible — still I see nothing but a tumultuous mob of idiots and madmen who are busy in prostrating themselves before a gigantic cameleopard, and endeavouring to obtain a kiss of the animal’s hoofs. See! the beast has very justly kicked one of the rabble over — and another — and another — and another. Indeed I cannot help admiring the animal for the dexterous use he is making of his feet.’
‘Rabble, indeed! — why these are the noble and free citizens of Epidaphne. Beast, did you say?— take care you are not overheard. Do you not perceive that the animal has the visage of a man? Why, my dear Sir, that cameleopard is no other than Antiochus Epiphanes, Antiochus the Illustrious, King of Syria, and the most potent of the autocrats of the East! It is true that he is entitled at times Antiochus Epimanes, Antiochus the madman — but that is because all people have not the capacity to appreciate his merits. It is also certain that he is at present ensconced in the hide of a beast, and is doing his best to play the part of a cameleopard — but this is for the better sustaining his dignity as king. Besides, the monarch is of a gigantic stature, and the dress is therefore neither unbecoming nor over large. We may, however, presume he wears it upon some occasion of especial state. Such you will allow is the massacre of a thousand Jews. With how superior a dignity the monarch perambulates upon all fours! His tail, you perceive, is held aloft by his two principal concubines Elline and Argelais; and his whole appearance would be infinitely prepossessing were it not for the protuberance of his eyes which will certainly start out of his head, and the queer colour of his face which has become nondescript from the quantity of wine he has swallowed. Let us follow to the Hippodrome whither he is proceeding and listen to the song of triumph which he is commencing.’
Who is king but Epiphanes?
Say do you know?
Who is God but Epiphanes?
Say do you know?
There is none but Epiphanes,
No — there is none:
So tear down the temples
And put out the sun!
‘Well and strenuously sung! The populace are hailing him ‘Prince of Poets’, as well as ‘Glory of the East’, ‘Delight of the Universe’, and ‘Most remarkable of Camelopards.’ They have encored his effusion, and (do you hear?) he is singing it over again. When he arrives at the Hippodrome he will be crowned with the poetic wreath in anticipation of the time when he shall obtain it at Olympia.’
‘But, good Jupiter! what is the matter in the crowd behind us?’
‘Behind us did you say? oh! ah! — I perceive. My friend, it is well that you spoke in time — let us get into a place of safety as soon as possible. Here! — let us conceal ourselves in the arch of this aqueduct and I will inform you presently of the origin of this commotion. It has turned out as I have been anticipating. The singular appearance of the cameleopard with the head of a man has, it seems, given offence to the notions of propriety entertained in general by the wild animals domesticated in the city. A mutiny has been the result; and, as is usual upon such occasions, all human efforts will be ineffectual in quelling the mob. Several of the Epidaphnians have already been devoured, but the general voice of the four-footed patriots seems to be for eating up the Cameleopard. The Prince of Poets, therefore, is on his hinder legs and running for his life. His courtiers have left him in the lurch, and his concubines have let go their hold upon his tail. Delight of the Universe! thou art now in a sad predicament! Glory of the East! — thou art in danger of mastication! Thy tail will be draggled in the mud, and for this there is no help — look not behind thee, then, at its unavoidable degradation — but take courage! ply thy legs with vigor, and scud for the Hippodrome! Remember that the beasts are at thy heels! Remember that thou art Antiochus Epiphanes, Antiochus, the Illustrious, — also ‘Prince of Poets’, ‘Glory of the East’, ‘Delight of the Universe’ and ‘Most remarkable of Cameleopards’! Heavens! what a power of speed thou art displaying! — what a capacity for leg-bail thou art developing! — Run, Prince! — Bravo! Epiphanes! hurrah! cameleopard! — glorious Antiochus! He runs — he moves — he flies! Like a shell from a catapult he approaches the Hippodrome! He leaps! — he shrieks! — he is there! Ah! had’st thou, Glory of the East! been half a second longer in arriving at the amphitheatre, there is not a bear’s cub in Epidaphne who would not have had a nibble at thy carcass! Let us be off! — let us take our departure! for we shall find our delicate modern ears unable to endure the vast uproar which is about to commence in celebration of the king’s escape. Listen! — it has already commenced! — see! — the whole town is topsy-turvy!’
‘Surely this is the most populous city of the East! — what a wilderness of people! — what a jumble of all ranks and ages! — what a multiplicity of sects and nations! — what a variety of costumes! what a Babel of languages! — what a screaming of beasts! — what a tinkling of instruments! — what a parcel of philosophers! — what a swarm of children! — what a deal of women! — what a devil of a noise!’
‘Come — let us be off!’
‘Stay a moment! I see a vast hubbub in the Hippodrome. What is the meaning of it, I beseech you?’
‘That? — oh nothing! The noble and free citizens of Antioch being, as they declare, well satisfied of the faith, valour, wisdom, and divinity of their king; and having moreover been witnesses of his late superhuman agility, do think it no more than their duty to invest his brows (in addition to the Poetic crown) with the wreath of victory in the stadium or foot-race, a wreath which is esteemed the most honourable of all, and which it is evident he must obtain at the celebration of the next Olympiad.’
Edgar Allan Poe
Originally Published in 1833. Poem “Latin Hymn.”