The Court Of Antiochus

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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