The Terrible Banquet
Titus was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who began his reign in a most praiseworthy way. Unfortunately, however, Domitian was a gambler and a lover of pleasure. He was lazy, too, and soon banished all the philosophers and mathematicians from Rome, saying that he had no use for such tiresome people.
No other emperor ever gave the people so many public shows. Domitian delighted in the circus, in races of all kinds, and in all athletic games and tests of skill. He was a good marksman and a clever archer. Such was his pride in his skill that he often forced a slave to stand up before him, at a certain distance, and then shot arrows between the fingers of his outspread hand. Of course this was very cruel, because if the emperor missed his aim, or if the man winced, it meant either maiming or death to the poor slave.
Domitian, however, was cruel in many things besides sport, and delighted in killing everything he could lay hands on. We are told that he never entered a room without catching, torturing, and killing every fly. One day a slave was asked whether the emperor were alone, and he answered: "Yes; there is not even a fly with him!"
Domitian's cruelty and vices increased with every day of his reign, and so did his vanity. As he wished to enjoy the honors of a triumph, he made an excursion into Germany, and came back to Rome, bringing his own slaves dressed to represent captives.
Jealous of the fame of Agricola, the general who had subdued Britain, Domitian summoned him home, under the pretext of rewarding him. While Agricola was in Rome, the northern barbarians made several invasions, and the King of the Dacians inflicted a severe defeat on the Roman legion.
So great, however, was the emperor's jealousy of his best general, that he made Agricola stay at home rather than let him win any more victories. Before many years, too, this great general was found dead, and no one knew the cause of his death; so the Romans all believed that Domitian had hired some one to murder him.
As Domitian was not brave enough to fight the Dacians himself, he bribed them to return home. Then, coming back to Rome, he had a triumph awarded him just as if he had won a great victory. Not content with these honors, he soon ordered that the Romans should worship him as a god, and had gold and silver statues of himself set up in the temples.
Domitian was never so happy as when he could frighten people, or cause them pain. You will therefore not be surprised to hear about the strange banquet, or dinner party, to which he once invited his friends.
When the guests arrived at the palace, they were led to a room all hung in black. Here they were waited upon by tiny servants with coal-black faces, hands, and garments. The couches, too, were spread with black, and before each guest was a small black column, looking like a monument, and bearing his name. The guests were waited upon in silence, and given nothing but "funeral baked meats," while mournful music, which sounded like a wail, constantly fell upon their ears.
Knowing how cruel and capricious Domitian could be, the guests fancied that their last hour had come, and that they would leave the banquet hall only to be handed over to the executioner's hands. Imagine their relief, therefore, when they were allowed to depart unharmed!
On the next day, the children who had waited upon them at table, and whose faces and hands had been blackened only for that occasion, came to bring them the little columns on which their names were inscribed. These, too, had lost their funeral hue, and the guests could now see that they were made of pure gold.