Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris
Though Rome had extended its conquests over numerous tribes and nations of barbarians, and reduced them to subjection, much of the old love of liberty remained, and many of the later Roman wars were devoted to the suppression of outbreaks among these unwilling subjects. In the reign of Vespasian occurred such a rebellion, followed by so remarkable an instance of womanly devotion that it has since enlisted the sympathy of the world.
Julius Sabinus, a leading chief among the Ligones, a tribe of the Gauls, led by ambition and daring, and stirred by hatred of the Roman dominion, resolved to shake off the yoke of conquest, and by his arts and eloquence kindled the flame of rebellion among his countrymen. Gathering an army, he drove the Romans from the territory of his own people, and then marched into the country of the Sequani, whom he hoped to bring into the revolt.
But the discomfiture of the Romans lasted only until they could bring their forces together. A battle ensued between the hastily-levied followers of Sabinus and a disciplined Roman army, with the inevitable result. The barbarians were defeated with great slaughter, the death of most, the flight of the others, bringing the rebellion to a disastrous end.
Sabinus was among those who escaped the general carnage. He sought shelter from his pursuers in an obscure cottage, and, being hotly and closely tracked, he set fire to his lurking-place and caused a report to be spread that he had perished in the flames. He had been attended in his flight by two faithful freedmen, and one of these, Martialis by name, sought Eponina, the loving wife of the chief, and told her that her husband was no more, that he had perished in the flames of the burning hut.
Giving full credit to the story, Eponina was thrown into a transport of grief which went far to convince the spies of Rome that she must have received sure tidings of her husband's death, and that Sabinus had escaped the vengeance of Rome. For several days her grief continued unabated, and then the same messenger returned and told her that her husband still lived, having spread the report of his death to throw his pursuers off his track.
This information brought Eponina as lively joy as the former news had brought her sorrow; but knowing that she was watched, she affected as deep grief as before, going about her daily duties with all the outward manifestations of woe. When night came she visited Sabinus secretly in his new hiding-place, and was received in his arms with all the joy of which loving souls are capable. Before the dawn of day she returned to her home, from which her absence had not been known.
During seven months the devoted wife continued these clandestine visits, softening by caresses and brave words her husband's anxious care, and supplying his wants as far as she was capable. At the end of that time she grew hopeful of obtaining a pardon for the fugitive chief. For this purpose she induced him to disguise himself in a way that made detection impossible and accompany her on a long and painful journey to Rome.
Here the earnest and faithful woman made every possible effort to gain the ear and favor of the emperor and to obtain influence in high places. She unhappily found that Roman officials had no time or thought to waste on fugitive rebels, and that compassion for those who dared oppose the supremacy of Rome was a sentiment that could find no place in the imperial heart. Repelled, disappointed, hopeless, the unhappy woman and her disguised husband retraced their long and weary journey, and Sabinus again sought shelter in the dens and caves which formed his only secure places of refuge.
THE COLISEUM AT ROME.
And now the faithful wife, abandoning her home, joined him in his lurking-place, and for nine long years the devoted couple lived as homeless fugitives, mutual love their only comfort, obtaining the necessaries of life by means of which we are not aware. By the tenderest affection Eponina softened the anxieties of her husband, the birth of two sons served still more to alleviate the misery of their distressful situation, and all the happiness that could possibly come to two so circumstanced attended the pair in their straitened place of refuge.
At the end of nine years the hiding-place of the fugitives was discovered by their enemies, and they were seized and sent in chains to Rome. Here Vespasian, who had gained a reputation for kindness and clemency, acted with a cruelty worthy of the worst emperors of Rome. The pitiable tale of the captives had no effect upon him; the devotion of the wife roused no sympathy in his heart; Sabinus had dared rebel against Rome, no time nor circumstance could soften that flagitious crime; without hesitation the chief was condemned to death, and instant execution ordered.
This cruel sentence changed the tone of Eponina. She had hitherto humbly and warmly supplicated her husband's pardon. Now that he was dead she resolved not to survive him. With the spirit and pride of a free-born princess she said to Vespasian, "Death has no terror for me. I have lived happier underground than you upon your throne. You have robbed me of all I loved, and I have no further use for life. Bid your assassins strike their blow; with joy I leave a world which is peopled by such tyrants as you."
She was taken at her word and ordered by the emperor for execution. It was the darkest deed of Vespasian's life, a blot upon his character which all his record for clemency cannot remove, and which has ever since lain as a dark stain upon his memory.
Plutarch, who has alone told this story of love unto death, concludes his tale by saying that there was nothing during Vespasian's reign to match the horror of this atrocious deed, and that, in retribution for it, the vengeance of the gods fell upon Vespasian, and in a short time after wrought the extirpation of his entire family.