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ACT IV, SCENE i
LEO, SABATIUS, BASILIUS, PAPIAS, PROCLUS, BALBUS, THEOPHILUS, MOROCCHUS, LICTORS
Balbus is sentenced to be burned alive, despite Theophilus’ vain entreaties.
LEO You see, my lords, on what a fickle wheel the state of one’s government teeters, unless Themis controls realms with her well-founded auspices. She weighs right and wrong in her scale. In her justice, she blesses the deserving and comes down hard on the guilty. Heaven will affirm what I am about to say. As far as I am concerned, in my fond hopes my love is to reward even slight merits with royal gifts, rather than to punish crimes with just punishment. But when a mad passion for the purple and a thirst for power thus inspires and impels my servants to act by means of unspeakable deceptions, so that they challenge Jove with their rebellious enterprise, and seek to destroy me, upon whom depends all the security of the realm, with their deceit, their crime, and their murder, then Astraea must sometimes hurl her sacred lightning. Let her hurl it, and burn with her forked weapon an ingrate upon wealth, honors, and gifts have made no previous impression. Come, son, disclose these abominable evils on this earth and their hellish counsels. Let their scheme be revealed to this royal theater, so that Balbus may likewise stand revealed.
SAB. Why require me to publish crimes that are known to one and all? With his bitter mouth he reproached you, calling you a whelp of a Getulan lion which surpassed its father in its harsh rule. But these are trifling complaints. Lest anyone imagine this guilt is being attributed to an innocent man, I swear that he intended to kill you with that horrible hand of is, while concealing his outrage by a show of drunken frenzy. Come forth as a witness, Morocchus, bring these dark schemes to light.
MOR. Augustus and you noble company of lords, I swear by the fires of the everlasting vault that what I shall say is the established true. Midnight had despoiled the heaven of its light when Balbus betook himself homewards. Here, having foully raged against Leo, he marked him down for death. Present were accomplices who harbored the same crime in their minds. No men were permitted to hear a word of their plans. They swore an oath that the house of Leo and all his children must suffer their downfall.
LEO Come, my antagonist, what evidence can you produce against these accusations? How do you veil your felony? Why keep your silence.
SAB. Do you still stand mute? Where’s the former arrogance of your haughty mind? Where’s your passion for battle? Did your Giant’s passion expend itself on an act of deceit?
BAS. And yet his Furies remain untamed, he’s still arrogant. I am quite familiar with your monstrosities. But his mind, aware of its abominable evil, refuses to make way for his eloquent tongue.
PRO. He who stands mute convicts himself.
LEO You great monster! Born in the pool of Dis! Worse than that triple-headed monster, than the Harpies, the Styx, and the Furies, with what reproach had you been insulted, by what crime had you been harmed that made you attribute such things to Leo? You plague of a brute, let you mind slake its thirst for blood at last, let it slake it. Behold, my breast is bared. (He removes his shirt and exposes his breast.) Here’s my breast. Strike, you viper. Take a drink, you cruel leech. And bloody my inmost fibers, since the purple I gave you was not sufficiently red. Balbus, you will serve as an example for all the age that no fierce fellow should rise up against his king. Come, with your just votes you must weigh this felony. What manner of punishment do you choose? Oppressed by what torment shall he spew forth his hateful life’s breath?
SAB. Having been exposed to every kind of punishment, let him take a dive into the Styx.
BAS. Let him be burned.
PAP. Albeit it is a foul felony to imagine a bloody end for a king, nevertheless his life’s high honor and the distinction of his rank require an honorable execution. I vote for death by beheading.
BAS. Whoever rebels forfeits the rights of his high station. Let this enemy die the death of a dog.
PRO. The merits of this high–minded lord demand we show him favor.
SAB. The criminality of this fierce tiger deny him any favor.
LEO You vote for beheading?
PAP. So that nobody rises up to avenge his execution, I so vote.
THE. Oh Caesar, hold your vengeful hand. Oh, hold back your lightning.
LEO What sad sound strikes my ears?
THE. Spare my father, Leo.
LEO Go far away, you unspeakable plague, together with that grief of yours.
THE. Oh, if the title of a fostering father sways you at all, do not scorn a son, Caesar.
SAB. Get going. You ask pardon for a rebel?
THE. Oh, if the sweet title of son moves you at all, return a father to his son, noble Sabatius.
SAB. Go very far away. The courtroom has been closed, You are too late in speaking up on your father’s behalf.
THE. Thus may Leo your father live for many years, Augustus.
LEO Leo, whom your father would despoil of those years.
THE. Thus may the beloved company of sons come to your father’s mind. Thus may you happily fare better than your highest hopes, mighty both in your scepter and in your age.
LEO Offspring for whom you wish welfare, but Balbus wishes them eternal ruination. Take him to his execution, Lictor.
THE. By your scepter, Caesar —
LEO Which your father tramples.
THE. By your hand —
LEO Damaged by his false faith.
THE. By God, I beg you, you should always relieve the afflicted.
LEO God is always harsh to a guilty rebel. Cease.
THE. Where do you bid me be taken, Caesar? To my home? My home is squalid with everlasting grief. To my mother? But she is passed away and lies among the shades. To my kinsmen? No man feels kinship with such a foul fate. Shall I invoke the law of friendship. A friend’s fidelity in wretched times is a rare thing. Thus I stand abandoned and despised because of my unlucky lot, an exile, wretched because my father has been taken from me. What corner of the world, what harbor can receive me? What evil remains for my unhappy self, a boy who has lost his mother long ago, and whose father, his single support in his infirmity, is being trundled off to his execution? My kinsmen are harsh, the faith of my friends is fickle, everything is hostile. Oh the hard course of my affairs! (Turning to his father.) Can I continue to live, father, after you have been put to death? Am I to breathe the air of life, with my father taken away? I refuse. Your son will be your companion in enduring your final doom. Go, unhappy father of an unhappy son, you lead the way, and I shall follow along as your partner.
LEO Oh, how this living example of filial affection touches my mind. Against my better judgment, I am swayed.
SAB. What’s this? Surely you are not making the mistake of pardoning a parricide?
LEO I am a father, shattered by the squalor of an afflicted son.
SAB. Leo shattered?
BAS. A child can sway a Caesar?
SAB. I shudder. If there’s any safety for Balbus, we are ruined.
BAS. This boy is feigning grief, resorting to his father’s fraudulence.
PRO. Why are you dragging your heels? This situation is not such that his rescue can be considered safe. He who has lashed out at his enemy must lay him low. A fool pulls back his hand after striking a foe. Let the punishment which began continue, and satisfy your resentment once it has been provoked. Granting pardon to great lords rarely turns out happily. The severity of their rulers remains buried deep in their minds, just though it was. By dying, let Balbus free the Augustus of his fear, let him die, having been the ringleader of this plot that stands revealed. Finish weaving your web, lest you knot a noose for yourself.
SAB. Lightning is wont to strike few, but to frighten many. Let your hand sometimes hurl its avenging lightning: by the single death of Balbus you’ll terrify the world. By observing the perils of others, let your royal court learn to cultivate good faith. If the lion sometimes makes the Libyan desert tremble with its roaring, the general run of beasts grow fearful far and wide, and, acknowledging their ruler in their cowed minds, retreat to their lairs. A lion who does not know how to roar does not deserve to live.
LEO Reborn, my wrath increases. My chagrin swells up. Sooner could Balbus swindle severe Rhadamanthus than he could escape my clutches. Get away, you deceitful brat, let your father die.
BALB. Oh you accursed, horrible, deadly soul! You are always savage to others, and hateful to your own. Thus you disdain the prayers of a child, and show yourself fierce to his tears. Go, burst my guts and sate your hunger on their remnants, I shall not plead for mercy. This is a greater torment for Balbus, that I did not first manage to destroy your arrogant house with the fire of my lightning, and that it was not granted me to remove the progeny of your house root and branch. You were supposed to have been burned.
LEO Are you so fond of fire, Balbus? Have no fear, I’ll give you flames. Go, lictor, build an open-air pyre in the market place. I shall be present myself as a spectator at the execution of this sacrilegious fellow. Remove his son far from my site, my servants.
THE. Allow me to embrace my father.
LEO Let him be dragged far from his father’s embrace. (Theophilus is ejected from the royal court.)
THE. Just Themis requires that Balbus’ stock be wholly eliminated. But my old affection softens my mind and my punishment. I keep my hands off his son, let me be summoned to his father’s killing. Let us go, my lords. Lictor, lead the way to the market place.
At the behest of his empress, who by means of a messenger urges him not to defile the Vigil of Christmas by bloodshed, Leo postpones Balbus’ execution.
A boy interrupts them.
LEO But why is this boy flying hither? Tell me what calamity brings you here so unexpectedly?
BOY August prince, your empress has been filling the royal household with her complaints, and has commanded me to hasten here to deliver this message: “Why are you persisting in staining your hand with so much sin, and why, in the heat of your feverish mind, are you trampling on the laws of heaven and earth? The Christmas holiday has dawned far and wide, yet you cruelly put a man to death? Happy peace returns to the world, yet you are waging war? Our garlanded churches are warm with Panchaean incense, and yet you drench the soil with a rain of gore? Human salvation arises with blessed omens, yet you take away human salvation and likewise human life? Desist from your undertaking. The time summons us to prayers, not to bloodshed. If you profane this holiday with a foul sin, you must dread God’s vengeance. He wields weapons fearful even to the pinnacles of Caesars. Put off the execution a while, postpone the punishment. This happy day demands peace. I swear by our conjugal ties, if you do not bridle your mind, heaven threatens a final downfall for Leo and all his brood.”
LEO My mind hangs doubtfully amidst this uncertain turmoil. If his punishment drags on, I fear the rebel. If it does not drag on, I fear the Thunderer. Which road is better to take?
PAP. Fear the Thunderer. The laws of piety forbid you to defile this holiday by shedding blood.
SAB. Piety commands you to chastise the guilty.
PRO. God has commanded that human endeavors be relegated to their proper times.
BAS. Caesar should chastise a rebel at a time of his choosing.
SAB. Sacred majesty is the property of rulers. Does a man who defends this do damage to sacred things.
PAP. No, he cultivates them. Nevertheless blood should not be on Leo’s hands.
LEO So that blood may flow from Leo’s throat.
PAP. Who are you so afraid of?
LEO. The man whom delay encourages.
PAP. Who would ever be hurt by a single day’s delay.
LEO No time is too short to work deceit.
PRO. Let him be kept in chains.
LEO Fraud breaks chains.
PAP. Let many guards attend him.
SAB. Soldiers yield to gold.
PAP. They have pledged their loyalty.
LEO But to whom?
PAP. To Leo.
SAB. Loyalty is bested by money.
PAP. I think it is the mark of a coward’s mind to fear everything.
SAB. I think that it is the mark of a madman’s mind to fear nothing. I regard any man who makes the mistake of indulging an enemy with a single day as an enemy of Caesar, our nation, and myself.
LEO Although my unhappy fear objects to delay, I must nevertheless comply. Against my better judgment I postpone his execution The care of this unspeakable person is delegated to you, Papias. Weigh him down with chains. Let the key to his locked door be brought tome. Tomorrow will give his person to the flames.
Theophilus mourns his father, whom he imagines to have been executed.
THE. Theophilus, why are you standing here? Why are you relucant to walk farther? Your father is hastening to the flames, and an early death befell your mother. Both have been taken from you. I — oh, the Fates! — am the sole survivor of so great a family. I am left alone, a wretch, to my protracted grievings. Who will lend me a hand? Who will supervise the impressionable time of my early life? Who will provide me with life’s ornaments, or who will offer me protection? A lion rears its cub, a mother ewe defends her lambs, a vine feeds its shoots, and the earth preserves and cherishes the flowers it creates. Anything produced by Nature supports its young. I alone, alas, am an unhappy boy bereft of his father, bereft of his mother! I am bereft, and with my father butchered, no salvation shines for his son. No, I am wrong. Even now my father draws the breath of life and confronts his death. I shall go, I shall go. My piety will give me indomitable strength. I shall defend my father, rescued from a fiery death. A tiny dog often wards off a wild boar, I shall defeat a lion. I shall break my father’s bonds, I shall attack the fatal pyre, I shall overturn everything. Yet where are you directing your passionate steps in such a rash enterprise, bold boy? Your hands lack weapons, your arms lack strength. Better, oh better, to mediate on your new Father. He who lacks a father on earth must seek one in heaven. Being mild and merciful, Christ always cherishes His children in His fatherly embrace, always giving them refreshment. Or if you crave to enjoy a mother’s breasts, see how the Virgin offers hers in heaven. Thrice, four times blessed boy, favored by the Virgin Mother and Father Christ. Having this hope, I go home. Alas, how things change! Is this the house of Balbus with its royal splendor? Where’s a servant? Where that distinguished crew of dependents? Where the erstwhile luxury of his gold, the ivory of his table? Where do his tapestries lie, that were painted with barbaric splendor? See how black hangings cover his sad walls. This lute is left behind (oh, the joke of this vain fortune!), so that the instrument which used to hymn our blessed household when our fortune flourished might sing of it prostrated with its miserable misfortune. Well then, let me deplore the doom of my dead father. Come, Philodus, you trusty guardian of our overturned house, play this mournful lute with your quill, deploring the downfall of Balbus with that fine voice of yours. (At this point, Philodus sings with his instrument and his voice, until Theophilus drifts off to sleep.)