Page images

manded from him to whom they should confide the responsible duty, and on whose skill he would himself place the greatest reliance, than he uttered the name of " Alexander the Christian."

CHAP. II. The Roman legions in the mean time had been welcomed on the coast of Britain, and had prepared to begin the war with their accustomed vigour: but they found in the northern parts of the island, as they had been led to expect, an enemy more easily dispersed than vanquished.

Scarcely any commotion had taken place in the South ; and whatever grounds of discontent might exist, not a murmur was heard on the approach of the Roman army. Indeed, the inhabitants of this part of the island had now become so familiar with the manners and customs of their invaders, had been so much benefited by the improve. ments they had introduced, had begun to prize so highly the security from danger which could only be preserved by the presence of a strong Roman force, and had lost so much of their natural character by associating with foreigners, that the majority of them received the new army as friends and harbingers of peace and safety; and there were only a comparative few who still longed for the wild indepen. dence of their forefathers, and stigmatized as cowards and slaves all who would not assert their natural right to freedom. In the North, such a feeling was universal: for however frequently the tribes residing in this part of the island had been obliged to sue for peace, they had never been conquered. But in the southern division of the island the natives were very differently circumstanced. They had made some important advances in civilization, and had engaged in a lucrative trade with distant nations. They had also begun to take an interest in the peaceful employments of agriculture, so that they not only exported those mineral productions of the island with the value of which they were acquainted, but great quantities of corn likewise : and although foreigners chiefly engrossed the trade in tin, from their superior skill in working the mines, yet the Britons themselves derived no small advantage from the rapid increase of commerce, by which they were gradually enriching themselves, and began to value as of the highest importance their long-established connexion with the Romans.

But the traces of improvement speedily vanished as the army proceeded through the country. Small indeed was the effect produced by their conquerors on the inhabitants of the interior. The marks of civilization disappeared, and the practice of agriculture became less and less frequent, till the earth bore no traces of ever having been cultivated. Scarcely was a flock or a herd to be found subsisting on the luxuriant repast which nature had provided; and at length the legions arrived amongst a people who were almost entirely unacquainted with the means of tilling their own productive soil, and whose chief resource for food was the uncertain produce of the chase. Even the fertile pastures disappeared, as they advanced yet further northward; and long-extended morasses, barren hills and impenetra. ble forests, alone presented themselves to the eye.

“How surprising,” said Octavius to Maturus, as they surveyed

this dreary and uncultivated region, “ that a people possessed of such splendour and wealth as the Romans, should send their armies hither to triumph over the inhabitants of this wild and mountainous country !"

" It is the love of glory that inspires them,” answered Maturus; “not the mere desire to extend their territory. These barbarians have again and again bowed their necks to the yoke, and have ever rebelled when they found themselves superior to the legions stationed amongst them. Even now they fear to come to a general engagement: and wherefore not submit ?”

“ They love their country too well,” rejoined Octavius; “for, though wild and uncultivated, it is their home. They have parents, wives and children to protect, and hence they are superior even to the fear of death. But is the thirst of glory, alone, a sufficient reason for depriving them of the little they have, and carrying them away into slavery, or utterly destroying them by the sword ? This is not, however, the sole inducement; for dost thou not remember how the citizens of Rome spoke of the wealth of Britain ? It is true that the prowess of the natives is also magnified, and that it is represented as the very height of Cæsar's fame to have invaded and partially subdued them. But the glory of conquest, trust me, Maturus, is not all. It is chiefly the love of wealth and a boundless ambition.-But what thinkest thou, my friend, shall this island for ever remain the uncultivated region that we now behold it? May not a time arrive when the inhabitants of this remote province shall cause even Rome herself to tremble ?"

“Incredible ! impossible !” exclaimed Maturus. “The glory of Rome is established on too solid a foundation ever to be destroyed : and the inhabitants of this uncultivated island are sunk too low in ignorance ever to indulge a thought of rivalling that glory! This can never be !"

“I do not say it will be," added Octavius, “but the thought came over my mind, and I gave it utterance. However, greater changes than this have taken place in the history of the world."

“Nothing is more barbarous amongst the inhabitants of this wretched climate," observed Maturus, “ than their religion. To what torments do they expose the prisoners taken in war; but half-destroying them, in order, as their frenzied priests declare, that they may pry into futurity by witnessing their convulsions !"

" True, too true," replied his friend; “but there are inconsistencies even in our own religion; and the charge brought against the Britons will apply to other nations. If the enlightened Romans are not free from errors, how shall we accuse the barbarous Britons? It is the crime of the priesthood, rather than the people; and it is no doubt dangerous to regard any body of men as capable of averting the anger of the gods from their fellow-mortals. These religious customs of the Druids are detestable; though some of their doctrines indicate a vast comprehensiveness of mind.—But to look at the subject in another point of view, observe, my friend, what different religious notions are adopted by different persons, and how some men even of enlightened minds reject the mode of worship sanctioned by their forefathers, and embrace new and unheard-of opinions. Nor are such men less moral or less intellectual than the world at large."

“Yes : our friend Attalus is a striking and unfortunate example," said Maturus. “He has forsaken the religion of his country for the most surprising of all delusions : he now occupies his place in the legion, he assures us, rather from necessity than choice; and when we bid him unite with us in the sacrifice, he answers, “I am a Christian! But though he looks forward, he says, to persecution, and ultimately to death,—which surely were a just punishment for those who reject the religion of their forefathers, and abandon themselves to a defenceless superstition !--he still resolutely perseveres, endures all our taunts, resists all our entreaties, and sets at defiance every danger! To fall in battle, contending with the foes of the empire, were indeed a glorious end! But to what degradation does Attalus expose himself by incurring the risk of death to support this dangerous delusion!”

“Yet he is not the worse subject,” observed Octavius; “perhaps he is the better man: why then should the state decree his death ? Does it not become us to teach men a good and a true religion, rather than punish them because they profess an imperfect or a bad one ? The superstition of Attalus is harmless : we know him to be a virtuous man; and though he is honest enough to confess himself a Christian, is honesty become a crime amongst us? Or is sincerity in religion an offence against the state? Men will differ in their opinions : and let all be permitted to worship the gods according to the dictates of their own minds, as long as their religion interferes not with their duty as citizens. Were it my fortune to be placed in the exalted station pow occupied by Antoninus, I would decree, that as in philosophy every one supports his favourite system, so in religion should every one be at liberty to worship the gods according to his own convictions."

“ What! wouldst thou not punish the Christians ?” said Maturus. “Not even the Christians !" answered Octavius.

Chap. III. The legions, as they advanced, were perpetually harassed by the vigilant and cautious natives; and small parties of them, separated from the main body, were frequently cut off or taken prisoners.

To accomplish the object in view, which was nothing less than the entire subjugation of these northern tribes, the Romans found it necessary to divide their forces into several detachments, under different leaders: but Octavius and Maturus, with their Christian friend Attalus, still continued with the main army. The Britons were now defeated in all directions : their numerous small bodies were obliged to unite for mutual defence : and being thus driven to the point where the chief force of the Romans was stationed, they adopted the resolution of coming to a general engagement, trusting for success to their superiority in numbers. When the Romans perceived this to be their intention, even the boldest amongst them dreaded the consequences; for though confident of their own advantage in a knowledge of military affairs, they could scarcely flatter themselves that so small a number even of the best-disciplined soldiers could resist the impetuous attack of a foe of perhaps a hundred times their own amount. They were assured also that the natives regarded this as a final effort, and were influenced by the conviction that their liberty and their very lives depended on the struggle about to ensue; that every motive concurred to induce them to exert themselves to the utmost; and that they were resolved to take ample vengeance for all the losses they had previously sustained, should their attempt prove successful. Messengers were therefore despatched, urging the distant legions to join them with all possible speed: but they were too remote to afford the necessary assistance; and the soldiers retired to their tents in gloomy silence, not without an apprehension of defeat in the approaching combat.

In these circumstances, it was the fate of Attalus and Maturus to be stationed together on guard; and it was impossible that even they, resolute and intrepid as they were, and perhaps as little fearful of the consequences as any in the camp, could avoid participating in the anxiety which had diffused itself throughout the army.—About to engage, as if by mutual consent, in a deadly conflict, the superiority of numbers being with the one party, and of discipline and experience with the other, a thousand considerations must needs present themselves to the mind, which, under different circumstances, would be overlooked or forgotten: the thoughts must be busy with objects at a distance: memory must dwell on the past, and hope or fear shape out the future: for even the soldier is a man; and it is only in the heat of battle that he forgets he is a father, a son, a husband ; that he has a home perhaps in a distant land, and friends who will rejoice in his welfare or mourn his loss! When he reflects on these things, his courage must often fail and his heart sink within him!

The two friends took their station in silence, and though each pursued his round with a resolute step, they had lost their wonted gaiety of heart. Maturus sent back his thoughts to his native country, his cheerful, happy home; and almost reproached himself that he had not yielded to the entreaties of his dearest friends. Attalus had left behind him objects not less dear, and he now felt all the father in his heart. He looked forward to the violence and bloodshed by which the approaching contest would be marked, and silently prayed to Him who overrules all things, that, if he should fall beneath the deadly weapons of the foe, He would be a father to the fatherless!

Thus did the two sentinels employ themselves, as they walked their rounds, till all was silent. Maturus then, rousing himself from the dreams he had been indulging, abruptly exclaimed, “ They sleep soundly on both sides, Attalus : how will they awake in the morning ?"

"I know not that,” replied Attalus; “but this I know: the next sleep shall be the last to many an eye that has to-day glanced proudly and haughtily !"

" Thou dost not fear those barbarians, whom we have so often put to flight ?" said Maturus.

"Fear them! Thou knowest, my friend, that I fear them not; that I fear not death in any shape. Both of us are above the fear of our fellow-men, although our courage is founded on widely different principles. I am a Christian ; and I devoutly hope that all my feelings are influenced by the religion I profess! Mine is a religion of peace and love, not of war and bloodshed. I would not now enter upon a military life, but having embraced the Christian religion after I became a soldier, I am reluctantly compelled to bear arms. I am a Christian! I look upon present existence as only the commencement of my being; and though I fall to-morrow, I hope to live again, and trust to the mercy of God that I shall live in happiness for ever! Hence my superiority to the fear of death. Thine is occasioned by the love of glory; a confidence in thine own strength; the hope, perhaps, of victory; or a resolution to fall doing thy duty, and deserving to be honoured by thy country, and remembered with affection by thy friends."

“ Can this be the language of a Roman soldier ?" said Maturus : “and would this Christian superstition permit the empire to be overrun by barbarians, under the pitiful pretext that religion forbids us to wage war? The gods forbid! It is not thy case, my friend; but how many a trembling slave would take advantage of the plea, from the fear of death! Away with so despicable a theory! I should term it a religion of cowardice, rather than of peace and love."

What!” replied Attalus, “when it is notorious that so many Christians have sought, nay courted and even prayed for death! The Christian is the truest of all heroes; and if the sentiments which influence his mind were universal, what would become of the horrid trade of war? The Christian looks on death only as a passport to future life.”

“It may be so," said Maturus; “I care not; but the doctrine of a future life is not peculiar to the believers in thy religion. I have myself discoursed with Octavius on the subject of another state of existence, and having studied the writings of many of our sages, he did not deny its possibility. I have likewise heard my father reason on the notion : but I am content to live, and perform my duty as a Roman soldier, in this world, leaving all that is beyond,-if aught there be, as thou supposest, -to the gods.”

“I do not suppose,” replied Attalus. “My religion does not leave me at liberty to doubt: it compels me to believe."

“Wonderful infatuation! Wilt thou tell me then,” said Maturus, “ that any one has ever appeared again, after death, and demonstrated the certainty of a future life ?”

“Yes; even this I will tell thee, and more, I assure thee, is my solemn belief !-Jesus of Nazareth, whom I glory to call my Master and my Saviour, the Jews, his countrymen, caused to be put to death, not only in the most public, but in the most ignominious manner: for he suffered crucifixion! But, as he had himself foretold, he rose again from the grave on the third day, and publicly appeared to his disciples; thus sealing his mission from the almighty and only God, and thus attesting the truth of his previous declarations."

“What a wretched superstition is this !” indignantly exclaimed Maturus. “And wouldst thou believe the doctrines of one who suffered the death of the vilest malefactor ?"

“Even so," replied Attalus, “and I would gladly die in defence of these doctrines ! Nor is this all; but I believe him to have been sent into the world to teach a purer and nobler system of religion and morals than could be compiled from all the writings of our wisest and most illustrious philosophers !—But these things, as yet, thou canst not perhaps comprehend, although, if thou wilt hear me at more seasonable opportunities, thou wilt not be able to resist the strong

« PreviousContinue »