Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Triumph of Aurelian

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Triumph of Aurelian

By William Ware (1797–1852)

[From Zenobia; or the Fall of Palmyra. 1838.]

AURELIAN has arrived—the long expected day has come—and is gone. His triumph has been celebrated, and with a magnificence and a pomp greater than the traditionary glories of those of Pompey, Trajan, Titus, or even the secular games of Philip.

I have seen Zenobia!

The sun of Italy never poured a flood of more golden light upon the great capital and its surrounding plains than on the day of Aurelian’s triumph. The airs of Palmyra were never more soft. The whole city was early abroad, and, added to our own overgrown population, there were the inhabitants of all the neighboring towns and cities, and strangers from all parts of the empire, so that it was with difficulty and labor only, and no little danger too, that the spectacle could be seen. I obtained a position opposite the capitol, from which I could observe the whole of this proud display of the power and greatness of Rome.

A long train of elephants opened the show, their huge sides and limbs hung with cloth of gold and scarlet, some having upon their backs military towers or other fanciful structures, which were filled with the natives of Asia or Africa, all arrayed in the richest costumes of their countries. These were followed by wild animals, and those remarkable for their beauty, from every part of the world, either led, as in the case of lions, tigers, leopards, by those who from long management of them possessed the same power over them as the groom over his horse, or else drawn along upon low platforms, upon which they were made to perform a thousand antic tricks for the amusement of the gaping and wondering crowds. Then came not many fewer than two thousand gladiators in pairs, all arranged in such a manner as to display to the greatest advantage their well-knit joints, and projecting and swollen muscles. Of these a great number have already perished on the arena of the Flavian, and in the sea fights in Domitian’s theatre. Next, upon gilded wagons, and so arranged as to produce the most dazzling effect, came the spoils of the wars of Aurelian—treasures of art, rich cloths and embroideries, utensils of gold and silver, pictures, statues, and works in brass, from the cities of Gaul, from Asia, and from Egypt. Conspicuous here over all were the rich and gorgeous contents of the palace of Zenobia. The huge wains groaned under the weight of vessels of gold and silver, of ivory, and of the most precious woods of India. The jewelled wine cups, vases, and golden sculpture of Demitrius attracted the gaze and excited the admiration of every beholder. Immediately after these came a crowd of youths richly habited in the costumes of a thousand different tribes, bearing in their hands, upon cushions of silk, crowns of gold and precious stones, the offerings of the cities and kingdoms of all the world, as it were, to the power and fame of Aurelian. Following these came the ambassadors of all nations, sumptuously arrayed in the habits of their respective countries. Then an innumerable train of captives, showing plainly in their downcast eyes, in their fixed and melancholy gaze, that hope had taken its departure from their breasts. Among these were many women from the shores of the Danube, taken in arms fighting for their country, of enormous stature, and clothed in the warlike costume of their tribes.

But why do I detain you with these things, when it is of one only that you wish to hear. I cannot tell you with what impatience I waited for that part of the procession to approach where were Zenobia and Julia. I thought its line would stretch on forever. And it was the ninth hour before the alternate shouts and deep silence of the multitudes announced that the conqueror was drawing near the capitol. As the first shout arose, I turned toward the quarter whence it came, and beheld, not Aurelian as I expected, but the Gallic Emperor Tetricus—yet slave of his army and of Victoria—accompanied by the prince his son, and followed by other illustrious captives from Gaul. All eyes were turned with pity upon him, and with indignation too that Aurelian should thus treat a Roman, and once—a Senator. But sympathy for him was instantly lost in a stronger feeling of the same kind for Zenobia, who came immediately after. You can imagine, Fausta, better than I can describe them, my sensations, when I saw our beloved friend—her whom I had seen treated never otherwise than as a sovereign Queen, and with all the imposing pomp of the Persian ceremonial—now on foot and exposed to the rude gaze of the Roman populace—toiling beneath the rays of a hot sun, and the weight of jewels, such as both for richness and beauty, were never before seen in Rome—and of chains of gold, which, first passing around her neck and arms, were then borne up by attendant slaves. I could have wept to see her so—yes, and did. My impulse was to break through the crowd and support her almost fainting form—but I well knew that my life would answer for the rashness on the spot. I could only therefore, like the rest, wonder and gaze. And never did she seem to me, not even in the midst of her own court, to blaze forth with such transcendent beauty—yet touched with grief. Her look was not that of dejection, of one who was broken and crushed by misfortune—there was no blush of shame. It was rather one of profound heart-breaking melancholy. Her full eyes looked as if privacy only was wanted for them to overflow with floods of tears. But they fell not. Her gaze was fixed on vacancy, or else cast toward the ground. She seemed like one unobservant of all around her, and buried in thoughts to which all else were strangers, and had nothing in common with. They were in Palmyra, and with her slaughtered multitudes. Yet though she wept not, others did; and one could see all along, wherever she moved, the Roman hardness yielding to pity, and melting down before the all-subduing presence of this wonderful woman. The most touching phrases of compassion fell constantly upon my ear. And ever and anon as in the road there would happen some rough or damp place, the kind souls would throw down upon it whatever of their garments they could quickest divest themselves of, that those feet, little used to such encounters, might receive no harm. And as when other parts of the procession were passing by, shouts of triumph and vulgar joy frequently arose from the motley crowds, yet when Zenobia appeared, a death-like silence prevailed, or it was interrupted only by exclamations of admiration or pity, or of indignation at Aurelian for so using her. But this happened not long. For when the Emperor’s pride had been sufficiently gratified, and just there where he came over against the steps of the capitol, he himself, crowned as he was with the diadem of universal empire, descended from his chariot, and, unlocking the chains of gold that bound the limbs of the Queen, led and placed her in her own chariot—that chariot in which she had fondly hoped herself to enter Rome in triumph—between Julia and Livia. Upon this the air was rent with the grateful acclamations of the countless multitudes. The Queen’s countenance brightened for a moment as if with the expressive sentiment, “The gods bless you!” and was then buried in the folds of her robe. And when after the lapse of many minutes it was again raised and turned toward the people, every one might see that tears burning hot had coursed her cheeks, and relieved a heart which else might well have burst with its restrained emotion. Soon as the chariot which held her had disappeared upon the other side of the capitol, I extricated myself from the crowd and returned home. It was not till the shades of evening had fallen, that the last of the procession had passed the front of the capitol, and the Emperor reposed within the walls of his palace.