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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - Resting-Place Of Caesars--Picture Of A Beautiful Heretic
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Saunterings - Resting-Place Of Caesars--Picture Of A Beautiful Heretic Post by :joannent Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2419

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Saunterings - Resting-Place Of Caesars--Picture Of A Beautiful Heretic

Very different from the tomb of Dante, and different in the associations it awakes, is the Rotunda or Mausoleum of Theodoric the Goth, outside the Porta Serrata, whose daughter, Amalasuntha, as it is supposed, about the year 530, erected this imposing structure as a certain place "to keep his memory whole and mummy hid" for ever. But the Goth had not lain in it long before Arianism went out of fashion quite, and the zealous Roman Catholics despoiled his costly sleeping-place, and scattered his ashes abroad. I do not know that any dead person has lived in it since. The tomb is still a very solid affair,--a rotunda built of solid blocks of limestone, and resting on a ten-sided base, each side having a recess surmounted by an arch. The upper story is also decagonal, and is reached by a flight of modern stone steps. The roof is composed of a single block of Istrian limestone, scooped out like a shallow bowl inside; and, being the biggest roof-stone I ever saw, I will give you the dimensions. It is thirty-six feet in diameter, hollowed out to the depth of ten feet, four feet thick at the center, and two feet nine inches at the edges, and is estimated to weigh two hundred tons. Amalasuntha must have had help in getting it up there. The lower story is partly under water. The green grass of the inclosure in which it stands is damp enough for frogs. An old woman opened the iron gate to let us in. Whether she was any relation of the ancient proprietor, I did not inquire; but she had so much trouble in, turning the key in the rusty lock, and letting us in, that I presume we were the only visitors she has had for some centuries.

Old women abound in Ravenna; at least, she was not young who showed us the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Placidia was also prudent and foreseeing, and built this once magnificent sepulcher for her own occupation. It is in the form of a Latin cross, forty-six feet in length by about forty in width. The floor is paved with rich marbles; the cupola is covered with mosaics of the time of the empress; and in the arch over the door is a fine representation of the Good Shepherd. Behind the altar is the massive sarcophagus of marble (its cover of silver plates was long ago torn off) in which are literally the ashes of the empress. She was immured in it as a mummy, in a sitting position, clothed in imperial robes; and there the ghastly corpse sat in a cypress-wood chair, to be looked at by anybody who chose to peep through the aperture, for more than eleven hundred years, till one day, in 1577, some children introduced a lighted candle, perhaps out of compassion for her who sat so long in darkness, when her clothes caught fire, and she was burned up,--a warning to all children not to play with a dead and dry empress. In this resting-place are also the tombs of Honorius II., her brother, of Constantius III., her second husband, and of Honoria, her daughter.

There are no other undisturbed tombs of the Caesars in existence. Hers is almost the last, and the very small last, of a great succession. What thoughts of a great empire in ruins do not force themselves on one in the confined walls of this little chamber! What a woman was she whose ashes lie there! She saw and aided the ruin of the empire; but it may be said of her, that her vices were greater than her misfortunes. And what a story is her life! Born to the purple, educated in the palace at Constantinople, accomplished but not handsome, at the age of twenty she was in Rome when Alaric besieged it. Carried off captive by the Goths, she became the not unwilling object of the passion of King Adolphus, who at length married her at Narbonne. At the nuptials the king, in a Roman habit, occupied a seat lower than hers, while she sat on a throne habited as a Roman empress, and received homage. Fifty handsome youths bore to her in each hand a dish of gold, one filled with coin, and the other with precious stones,--a small part only, these hundred vessels of treasure, of the spoils the Goths brought from her country. When Adolphus, who never abated his fondness for his Roman bride, was assassinated at Barcelona, she was treated like a slave by his assassins, and driven twelve miles on foot before the horse of his murderer. Ransomed at length for six hundred thousand measures of wheat by her brother Honorius, who handed her over struggling to Constantius, one of his generals. But, once married, her reluctance ceased; and she set herself to advance the interests of herself and husband, ruling him as she had done the first one. Her purpose was accomplished when he was declared joint emperor with Honorius. He died shortly after; and scandalous stories of her intimacy with her brother caused her removal to Constantinople; but she came back again, and reigned long as the regent of her son, Valentinian III.,--a feeble youth, who never grew to have either passions or talents, and was very likely, as was said, enervated by his mother in dissolute indulgence, so that she might be supreme. But she died at Rome in 450, much praised for her orthodoxy and her devotion to the Trinity. And there was her daughter, Honoria, who ran off with a chamberlain, and afterward offered to throw herself into the arms of Attila who wouldn't take her as a gift at first, but afterward demanded her, and fought to win her and her supposed inheritance. But they were a bad lot altogether; and it is no credit to a Christian of the nineteenth century to stay in this tomb so long.

Near this mausoleum is the magnificent Basilica of St. Vitale, built in the reign of Justinian, and consecrated in 547, I was interested to see it because it was erected in confessed imitation of St. Sophia at Constantinople, is in the octagonal form, and has all the accessories of Eastern splendor, according to the architectural authorities. Its effect is really rich and splendid; and it rather dazzled us with its maze of pillars, its upper and lower columns, its galleries, complicated capitals, arches on arches, and Byzantine intricacies. To the student of the very early ecclesiastical art, it must be an object of more interest than even of wonder. But what I cared most to see were the mosaics in the choir, executed in the time of Justinian, and as fresh and beautiful as on the day they were made. The mosaics and the exquisite arabesques on the roof of the choir, taken together, are certainly unequaled by any other early church decoration I have seen; and they are as interesting as they are beautiful. Any description of them is impossible; but mention may be made of two characteristic groups, remarkable for execution, and having yet a deeper interest.

In one compartment of the tribune is the figure of the Emperor Justinian, holding a vase with consecrated offerings, and surrounded by courtiers and soldiers. Opposite is the figure of the Empress Theodora, holding a similar vase, and attended by ladies of her court. There is a refinement and an elegance about the empress, a grace and sweet dignity, that is fascinating. This is royalty,--stately and cold perhaps: even the mouth may be a little cruel, I begin to perceive, as I think of her; but she wears the purple by divine right. I have not seen on any walls any figure walking out of history so captivating as this lady, who would seem to have been worthy of apotheosis in a Christian edifice. Can there be any doubt that this lovely woman was orthodox? She, also, has a story, which you doubtless have been recalling as you read. Is it worth while to repeat even its outlines? This charming regal woman was the daughter of the keeper of the bears in the circus at Constantinople; and she early went upon the stage as a pantomimist and buffoon. She was beautiful, with regular features, a little pale, but with a tinge of natural color, vivacious eyes, and an easy motion that displayed to advantage the graces of her small but elegant figure. I can see all that in the mosaic. But she sold her charms to whoever cared to buy them in Constantinople; she led a life of dissipation that cannot be even hinted at in these days; she went off to Egypt as the concubine of a general; was deserted, and destitute even to misery in Cairo; wandered about a vagabond in many Eastern cities, and won the reputation everywhere of the most beautiful courtesan of her time; reappeared in Constantinople; and, having, it is said, a vision of her future, suddenly took to a pretension of virtue and plain sewing; contrived to gain the notice of Justinian, to inflame his passions as she did those of all the world besides, to captivate him into first an alliance, and at length a marriage. The emperor raised her to an equal seat with himself on his throne; and she was worshiped as empress in that city where she had been admired as harlot. And on the throne she was a wise woman, courageous and chaste; and had her palaces on the Bosphorus; and took good care of her beauty, and indulged in the pleasures of a good table; had ministers who kissed her feet; a crowd of women and eunuchs in her secret chambers, whose passions she indulged; was avaricious and sometimes cruel; and founded a convent for the irreclaimably bad of her own sex, some of whom liked it, and some of whom threw themselves into the sea in despair; and when she died was an irreparable loss to her emperor. So that it seems to me it is a pity that the historian should say that she was devout, but a little heretic.

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