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The Court Of Antiochus

Source: Hebrew Heroes

Fierce had been the rage and disappointment of Antiochus Epiphanes on
hearing of the result of the night attack on his forces at Emmaus, and
the subsequent retreat of Giorgias without striking a blow. In vain
the troops of that too cautious leader endeavoured, by exaggerating the
account of the numbers of their enemies, to cover their own shame.
Antiochus was furious alike at what he termed the insolence of a
handful of outlaws, and the cowardice of his picked troops, who had
flaunted their banners and gone forth as if to assured victory, and had
then fled like some gay-plumed bird before the swoop of the eagle. Not
only the oppressed inhabitants of Jerusalem and its environs had cause
to tremble at the rage of the tyrant, but his own Syrian officers and
the obsequious courtiers who stood in his presence. And none more so
than Pollux, once the chosen companion and special favourite of the
Syrian king. Pollux had been so loaded with wealth and honours by his
capricious master, as to have become an object of envy to his
fellow-courtiers, and especially so to Lysimachus, a Syrian of high
birth, who had seen himself passed in the race for royal favour by a
rival whom he despised. But there was little cause for envying Pollux,
the wretched parasite of a tyrant. Alas, for him who has bartered
conscience and self-respect to win a monarch's smile! He has left the
firm though narrow path of duty, to find himself on a treacherous
quicksand, where the ground on which he places his foot soon begins to
give way beneath him!

A few months before the time of which I am writing, Pollux, after a
long sojourn in Antioch, then the capital of the Syrian dominions, had
rejoined Antiochus in Jerusalem, where the monarch was holding his
court in a luxurious palace which he had caused to be erected. It was
here that Pollux first experienced the fickleness of royal favour. The
courtier had been present at the trial of Solomona and her brave sons
without making the slightest effort to save them, though their fate had
moved him to something more than pity. But though Pollux could to a
certain extent trample down compunction, and force his conscience to
silence, he had not perfect command over his nerves. He might consent
to the perpetration of horrors, but he could not endure to witness
them; and, as we have seen, he had quietly, and, as he hoped, without
attracting notice, quitted the chamber of torture.

The keen eye of jealousy had, however, keenly watched the movements of
Pollux, and Lysimachus had not failed to make the most of the weakness
betrayed by his rival.

"Pollux has sympathy with the Hebrews," observed Lysimachus to the
tyrant, when Antiochus was chafing at being baffled by the fortitude of
his victims. "Pollux may wear the Syrian garb, and he loaded with
favours by the mighty Syrian king, but he remains at heart a Jew."

From that day Pollux found himself an object of suspicion, and having
once reached the quicksand, he gradually sank lower and lower,
notwithstanding his desperate efforts to save himself from impending
ruin. His most costly gifts, his most fulsome flattery, his assurances
of deathless devotion to "the greatest, noblest of the kings who sway
realms conquered by Alexander, and surpass the fame of Macedonia's
godlike hero," met but the coldest response. Pollux had once been wont
to delight the king with his brilliant wit; now his forced jests fell
like sparks upon water. Antiochus was growing tired of his favourite,
as a child grows tired of the toy which he hugs one day, to break and
fling aside on the next.

All the more embarrassed from having to simulate ease, all the more
wretched because forcing himself to seem merry, with the sword of
Damocles ever hanging over his head, Pollux, in the midst of luxury and
pomp, was one of the most miserable of mankind. The court became to
him at last an almost intolerable place. In an attempt at once to free
himself from its restraints, and to win back the favour of the king by
military service, in an evil hour for himself, he had volunteered to
join the forces of Nicanor. The courtier was incited by no military
ardour; he had no desire to fall on the field of victory; Pollux was
not a coward, but he clung to life as those well may cling who have
forfeited all hope of anything but misery beyond it. Pollux, as we
have seen, had accompanied Giorgias when that general led a detachment
of chosen troops to make that night attack upon Judas which had proved
so unsuccessful. With Giorgias, Pollux had returned to Jerusalem,
covered with shame instead of glory. More than his fair share of the
obloquy incurred had fallen to the unfortunate courtier.

"Be assured, O most mighty monarch"--thus had Lysimachus addressed the
disappointed tyrant--"that had there been no sympathizers with the
Hebrew rebels in the army of the king, Giorgias would have returned to
Jerusalem with the head of Judas Maccabeus hanging at his saddle-bow."

The insinuation was understood--the instilled poison worked its effect.
Antiochus had met his former favourite with an ominous frown. He did
not, however, consign Pollux to irremediable ruin; he gave him a chance
of redeeming his character from the imputation of treachery towards the
Syrian cause. Pollux received a commission from Antiochus to attack
and seize a party of Hebrews who, according to information brought by
spies, were to celebrate the Passover Feast in Salathiel's house, in
defiance of the edict by which the king had endeavoured to crush the
religion of those who still worshipped the God of their fathers.

An office more repugnant to the feelings of Pollux could scarcely have
been assigned to him, but he dared not show the slightest hesitation in
obeying the mandate; nay, the courtier even feigned joy at the
opportunity given him of serving the king by rooting out the religion
which, in the secret depths of his heart, Pollux regarded as the only
true one; for he could not obliterate from memory lessons once learned
on his mother's knee. The poor wretch was, as it were, sunk in the
quicksand up to his lips, and would have clutched at red-hot iron, had
such been the only means of drawing him upwards out of the living grave
in which he was being gradually entombed.

Wearing the mask of mirth to conceal his misery, Pollux, before setting
out on his hateful mission, jested in regard to the number of fanatic
Jews whom he would enclose in his toils, and bring to make sport before
the king, to fight wild beasts in the large gymnasium, which had been
erected within Jerusalem for games which the Jews regarded as unlawful
and sinful. The courtier, in the presence of Antiochus, affected the
gay delight of the hunter, trying to cover with a garb of levity the
remorse which was gnawing at his heart, and not betray even by a look,
the secret torture which he felt.

We know what followed the attack upon Salathiel's house: the flight of
the Hebrews, the fall of Abishai, whose last word and dying look
inflicted upon Pollux a pang keen enough to have satisfied the fiercest
thirst for revenge.

When tidings were brought to the palace that the result of the boasted
exertions of Pollux was the death of a single Hebrew and the capture of
one young girl, the wrath of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes rose higher
than before. His courtiers, catching the infection of the anger of the
king, showed something of what would have been the indignant rage of an
audience crowding the Coliseum at Rome in the expectation of gloating
on the sight of many victims flung to the lions, had the spectacle been
reduced to the sacrifice of one.

Antiochus, however, determined to have what sport he could out of the
single poor gazelle that had been run down by his hounds. One
who--albeit, of the weaker sex--had been venturesome enough to keep the
Passover feast, might make sufficient resistance to his arbitrary will
to afford him a little amusement, when none more exciting could be had.
The monarch, therefore, after he had enjoyed his noonday siesta, gave
command that the Hebrew prisoner should be brought into his presence in
his grand hall of audience.

There sat the tyrant of Syria on an ivory throne, his footstool a
crouching silver lion, over his head a canopy of gold. In front of the
king was a splendid altar, on which fire was constantly burning before
a small image of Jupiter; and the luxurious fragrance of incense,
frequently thrown on this fire, filled the magnificent hall. Many
courtiers, in splendid apparel, clustered on either side below the dais
which raised the throned monarch above them all. Behind these were
numerous slaves, mostly Nubians, richly and gaudily dressed, some of
whom held aloft large fans of the peacock's many-tinted plumes. The
whole scene was one of gorgeous magnificence, the pomp and glory of the
world throwing its false halo of beauty over guilty power.

Antiochus himself wore a robe crusted over with sparkling jewels, worth
the tribute of a conquered province. He was, as his appearance has
been handed down to us on coins, a kingly-looking man, with short
curled hair, and regular, strongly-marked features, but a receding
forehead, and an expression cold and hard. No one would expect from
him "the milk of human kindness." Antiochus looked what he was--a
stern, merciless tyrant. There was at this period no premonitory sign
in the appearance of the king of that frightful disease which, within a
year's time, was to render him an object of horror and loathing to all
who approached him--a disease so exquisitely painful, that it seemed to
combine and exceed all the tortures which the tyrant had made his
victims endure. Antiochus, glittering on his ivory throne, appeared to
be in the prime of health as well as the zenith of power; none guessed
how brief was the term of mortal existence remaining to the despot, on
the breath of whose lips now hung fortune or ruin, whose angry frown
was a sentence of death.

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