Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

The Slave-Dealer

The entertainment which the consul provided for his guests was of the simplest and most frugal kind, in curious contrast with the costly plate on which it was served. His cook knew his tastes, which were those of the Sabine farming folk from whom he came, and catered for him accordingly; but the furnishing of the table was naturally that of the place where he was quartered, the official residence of the chief magistrate of Corinth, and this was filled with the finest specimens of the city's famous ware.

The repast ended, the quĉstor, who had been one of the guests, explained to Polybius what Mummius had instructed him to do. "The consul," he said, "has commissioned me to use forty talents of silver in redeeming slaves. You are to draw up a list, and as the sale begins the day after to-morrow, you should lose no time in doing so. As to the price, he has instructed the official agent to value the persons selected, so they will not be actually put up for sale. More than this the consul did not feel he could do. 'If I were to interfere with the prices,' he said, 'I should be making a very dangerous precedent. It must all be done on strict business principles.' A more scrupulously honourable man than Lucius Mummius does not live, though it must be allowed that he does not know much about art. However, you will have fairly easy terms, I don't doubt."

"I am greatly obliged to you," said Polybius. "And now there is another thing in which you can help me. My young friend here and I have been talking the matter over, and we are agreed in wanting to do something more in the same direction. He has been actually under the spear, and I, though I have never gone through that experience, know something of the bitterness of being at another man's bidding. Well, fate has dealt kindly with both of us, and we both want to show our gratitude. Between us we can raise another forty talents, and we want to use it in the same way. Our idea is this. The money that comes from Diĉus' estate should, we think, be used on the public account. Our own we should employ as our private feelings may suggest. In the list that I shall draw up for the official agent I shall put the names of men whose official standing, or services to their country, or any other public reason, seem to call for their selection. In regard to our own money, we shall consider private friendship or acquaintance. Now, can you help us in laying this out to the best advantage?"

The quĉstor reflected. "You must not go," he said after a pause, "to the agent. I feel quite sure that the consul would not like it. I do not see that you can do anything better, or, indeed, anything else than approach one of the slave-dealers. The way of these sales, I may say of all sales, is pretty much the same everywhere. There is a regular gang which has it all its own way. The members of it don't bid against each other, except where they have a commission to purchase this or that lot. But when an outsider tries to get anything for himself, they agree to run him up to a most extravagant price. Yes, you must get one of the dealers to take a friendly interest in you."

"And whom do you recommend?" asked Polybius.

"That is not so easy to say," replied the quĉstor. "They are not a nice lot, as I dare say you know. Most of them would sell their own fathers and mothers. It is not an improving occupation. But, on the whole, I should recommend Judas the Jew. He has principles; very queer principles they are, but still they are something. Yes, Judas is your man. One of my orderlies shall bring him to you early to-morrow."

Early the next day, accordingly, Judas presented himself, showing a curious contrast, with his slight, wiry figure and keen intelligent face, to the stoutly-built, stolid-looking soldier who accompanied him.

"Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" he began. "There will be some bargains to be picked up, I dare say. But the really good things always fetch their price. There is never a glut of them."

Polybius had drawn up a list, which he proceeded to hand to the Jew. He had put down the names, and, as far as he knew or could guess them, the ages of the persons whom he wished to purchase. The Jew's eyes opened wider and wider as he read it.

"But what," he asked, his astonishment over-coming for the moment his usual somewhat servile civility, "what do you want with all these old men and women? They can't all be your fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts. Excuse me, gentlemen," he added, recovering himself, "but this is not the sort of commission I am in the habit of getting from my customers."

Polybius explained, to the best of his power, his own and his friend's motives. As the Jew listened a gentler expression came into his face. "By the God of my fathers," he exclaimed when the historian had finished, "I have never come across such a thing in my life! I don't mean that I haven't known of sons buying back fathers and mothers and that sort of thing, but this is quite outside my experience. Well," he went on with a smile, "you will at all events find that your fancy won't cost you very dear. How much do you propose to spend?"

Polybius named the sum. "But of course," he added, "we must consider your commission. What will that be on this amount?"

Judas meditated a while. "By Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," he broke out after a time, "I won't take a drachma. I have been about the world in this line of business for thirty years, and I have never seen anything like it. I should not have supposed it possible," he muttered to himself in his own language, "that these Gentile dogs should have thought of such a thing. Well, I must not shame Father Abraham by behaving worse than they do. No, gentlemen, "he went on, "I shall not charge anything for commission. This is a quite uncommon piece of business, and you must let me please myself by managing it in my own way. Well, you can get a whole ship-load of the old people for this money. Some of the young men will be more expensive. But the really costly articles are the young women, and I don't see one on your list. Depend upon it, you shall have your money's worth. There are some of the meanest scoundrels in the world in Corinth at this moment, but they know better than to bid against Judas."

When sundry details of business had been disposed of, the old Jew grew very communicative about his occupation. He had been a slave himself, carried away by some Syrian marauders in his childhood from a village of Galilee. Bought by a soldier, a captain in the army of the third Antiochus, he had regained his liberty in the rout which followed the victory of Magnesia. After this had come a period of service in the patriot armies raised by the Maccabee brothers. In this he gained some distinction, but he found himself destitute when a severe wound received at the battle of Elaim compelled him to give up the profession of arms. He had no relative in the world; his native place had absolutely perished. A countryman offered him a clerk's place. When he found that his new employer was a dealer in slaves he felt a strange thrill of pleasure. He was to make his living out of the miseries of these heathen who had marred his own life. To his own people he never ceased to be tender and generous. To the rest of the world he seemed to be absolutely callous and heartless. On this occasion he related to his hearers experiences so horrible that their blood ran cold at hearing them. His comments on these were often curiously cynical. "What a piece of folly it was that Flamininus committed at Chelys!" he remarked when some chance had brought the conversation round to that subject. Cleanor listened, we may be sure, with all his ears, when he caught the name. "In a fit of stupid passion he threw away at least fifty talents of good money. Imagine the absolute idiocy of a man who kills some scores of able-bodied men when he might have sold them! What did he do it for? For revenge? Didn't he know that nine out of ten would far sooner have been killed than made slaves of? Why, I always have to watch any spirited young fellow for the first month or so lest he should slip out of my hands. After that they seem to lose heart, and can't even pluck up spirit enough to stab themselves. Of course the order to kill is never really carried out. The soldiers have knack of stunning those whom they seem to kill. I have had some pretty cargoes of corpses who came to life again when they were safely out of the way. You give a soldier a hundred sesterces, and you get a stout young fellow whom you can sell for five thousand."

Polybius and Cleanor had the satisfaction of seeing their efforts crowned with even more success than they could have expected. The public agent had taken a very liberal view of his duties, and the Jew dealer had carried out his part of the business with great success. Nearly seven hundred of the oldest and most helpless victims of the siege were restored to freedom. It was but a small fraction of the miserable whole, but it was something to have done. None of the rescued captives knew the names of their benefactors, though somehow the secret leaked out afterwards, but the friends felt that their pains had been well bestowed and well rewarded when they stood by and marked, unmarked themselves, the happiness which they had been able to secure to their unfortunate compatriots.

If in this respect Polybius went, and was content to go, without the praises of his countrymen, there was another matter in the conduct of which he deservedly won almost universal applause. Some miserable sycophants—and sycophants were only too common among the Greeks of the time—proposed to Mummius that the statues of Philopœmen should be thrown down. He had been always, they alleged, an energetic opponent of Rome, and it was a contradiction that monuments erected in his honour should be permitted to stand now that Rome had finally triumphed. The consul, who, to tell the truth, had but the slightest acquaintance with even recent history, was at first impressed by the argument. This Philopœmen had been the chief of the Achĉan League, and it was the Achĉan League that had defended, or tried to defend, Corinth against him.

Polybius, who, of course, knew what was meditated, begged to be allowed to defend the departed patriot, and Mummius consented to hear him. A kind of impromptu court was constituted. The consul and his quĉstor, with the legates or generals of division, formed the bench of judges. Polybius, who spoke with a depth of personal feeling that touched the hearts of all who heard him, delivered a most eloquent and convincing apology for the venerable man whom he had once been privileged to call his friend. He allowed that Philopœmen had struggled for the independence of Greece as long as that independence was possible. What honest Greek, he asked, could have done less? But he had always been an honourable enemy, and as soon as he saw that the true interests of his country demanded it he had always been a loyal ally. The judges gave an unanimous verdict in his favour.

"He was an honest man," said the consul with emphasis. "His statue shall remain standing here and everywhere, whatever may be thrown down, and as honest men are not too common, it shall be set up in every city of Greece."

It was now time for the friends to part. Polybius had received a commission from Rome to arrange the affairs of the other cities of the Peloponnese, and he would gladly have taken his young friend with him in the capacity of secretary. But Cleanor felt irresistibly called, and by more motives than one, to Italy. There awaited him there an honourable and lucrative employment, which would be all the more welcome because it was wholly remote from the scenes, so full of painful associations, through which he had passed during the last two years of his life. This, as my readers will remember, was the translation of the famous treatise on Agriculture. And he never forgot for a moment that Italy now contained the two beings who were dearest to him in the world. Corinth, which the savage decree of the Senate had doomed to the flames, both were anxious to leave without delay. They parted on the deck of the Ino, the ship which carried Polybius to Sicyon, the first city which he was to visit in his official capacity, and which was to take Cleanor further westward to Rome. "Farewell!" said Polybius. "I shall be busy with my history when these affairs are settled. Remember that you have promised to criticise it. I shall not like to give it to the world till it has had your approval."