Friday, September 08, 2006


A silver eagle rose, wings out-stretched across seven hills. Above, a vulture soared, then another and another. The eagle grew mighty; kings and nations prostrated and became its slaves. As the third vulture flew, four letters flamed in majesty beneath the eagle’s wings: S.P.Q.R.-- Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and the Roman People). The seventh vulture soared into a blood-drenched sky—the implacable eagle had crushed the nations with its iron claws. All submitted or were obliterated. Riches grew, culture, religion and learning flourished in its fearsome wake. Terror guarded peace, a ruthless martial song a tranquil symphony.

Four more vultures flew. The invincible eagle, full of glory and strength, faltered. Its flaming fire became uncertain. Darkness swarmed from the North, strangling it. The eagle fell, crushing the seven hills, its life fleeing away. The final vulture soared--the twelfth. The eagle screamed as it was eaten alive by clawing flames…

Romulus Augustus awoke, screaming.

The twelve vultures of Romulus
Father of Rome
The twelve centuries of Rome
Then her hour.

Was the ancient prophecy true? Romulus Augustus, Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, rose slowly from his bed, perspiration drenching his tunic of seamless Egyptian cotton. Anno Domini 455, the twelfth century of Rome was almost over. And so was her reign.

A huge Vandal fleet was fast closing in on Ostia, Rome’s port. Romulus Augustus chuckled bitterly at the irony: he was named after the founder of Rome—Romulus, and the first Emperor of Rome—Caesar Augustus. And now he will be the last of their line. Are mortals truly the playthings of the gods, or God?

Yet it should not have ended this way. Rome was no longer Babylon the whore—she was the New Zion, the center of the new Christian faith that should have brought peace, not fatal catastrophe. Was Rome to be judged for her ancient sins? Could it be divine justice that the Vandal fleet had sailed from Carthage, which Rome had once razed to the ground? But is not the true God one of forgiveness and love--One who is slow to anger and rich in mercy? Why, why then?

Romulus buried his face in his rough soldierly hands and wept.


Romulus raised his head. It was Theodoric, the captain of the Praetorian Guard--the personal bodyguards of the Emperor. Theodoric, like most of his men, was a German ‘barbarian’ who had converted to Christianity. Distinguished by over twenty years of unwavering loyalty to an often-helpless Emperor, Theodoric had taken over the reins of the Praetorian Guard five years ago.

‘Yes, General Theodoric, what tidings?’ Romulus asked gruffly as he rapidly blinked back his tears.
‘Sire, Geiseric’s Vandals have landed in Ostia. The two legions that should have guarded the port have fled.’
‘Fled? Fled! They have abandoned Rome? Without a fight?’
‘Yes. General Titus and Claudius were the first to flee. Not surprisingly, their centurions and mercenaries have followed suit.’

Theodoric reported all these emotionlessly, as if resigned to such cowardice. Romulus slowly rose from his bed, a dread, cold fist gripping his gut.

‘Then Rome is defenseless.’
‘Sire, you must leave the capital immediately. I have prepared…’
‘No, Theodoric, I am Rome. If she burns, I too must share her fate.’

Theodoric paused, a faint gleam of tenderness in his eyes. Romulus had been his general before he became Caesar. He had always loved Romulus for his courage and fidelity—qualities so rare in the degenerate Roman race.

‘If you live, Sire, Rome lives.’
‘Rome does not live in the bosom of a coward. I have not reigned as a Roman should, at least let me die like one.’

Romulus stood up—hard, still and filled with a desperate strength. He ignored the clawing, gnawing sorrow that rended his insides, and resolutely removed his imperial ring. Then he unlocked a drawer and took out the imperial seal. He gazed at the letters--S.P.Q.R. and fought back tears. He then clasped the hands of Theodoric with an iron grip.

‘My friend, my dear friend, take these safely to the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople. This is Rome’s, and my last command. You are henceforth released from your duties.’

Theodoric fell to his knees and looked up to the old misty eyes of his sovereign.

‘No, my lord, you must come with me. All is not lost; we could take back Rome and drive out the Vandals. You must not die!’
‘Take back Rome? It is but a cadaver. Her spirit has long died. You, of all people, should know that.’

Theodoric lowered his head, silently grim.

‘Theodoric, you are more Roman than any Roman—courageous, strong and most importantly, free. Dignitas, maiestas, auctoritas, libertas populi Romani--the dignity, majesty, authority and freedom of the Roman people. Where is all that now? The future belongs to your people, Theodoric. Now endure the unendurable—for Rome, if not, then for my sake.’

‘But you must…’
‘Theodoric!’ The voice was a command now. ‘Go!’

Theodoric rose, soldierly again, but his voice was forced and filled with pain. ‘Then my lord, I bid you…farewell.’ Theodoric took the ring and seal, saluted and left.

The Emperor went over to his window. The horizon was red—drenched with old blood. The flames of Ostia or of Rome? Or the dawn, perhaps? He chuckled at the thought. The Night had come; a swarming barbaric darkness, and only the Lord knew how long it would last.

He felt a tap on his shoulder and the fragrance of Arabia filled the room. He turned and looked into the eyes of Olivia, his wife of forty years. With a passion born of death’s embrace, he kissed her deeply and tenderly on the mouth.

‘Olivia, you are still as beautiful as that young girl I once knew in the vineyards of Capua.’
‘And you, Romulus, are still as headstrong and foolish as that mad young lad of long ago.’
Romulus smiled, ‘And see where my foolishness has landed us now?’
Olivia sighed softly as Romulus ran his hands down her soft silks, one of the final batches from the East. She was cold, trembling with passion and fear. Already the first distant screams could be heard. The Vandals had entered Rome.

‘Is all truly lost?’
‘Yes,’ Romulus whispered, lowering his head before continuing, ‘I have lost the world and now I may have lost my soul. I despair, Olivia. Why, my love, if God is true, then why this? Why?’
‘Subtle, subtle is the Lord, my friend. Perhaps we share the fate of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. They perished in burning Troy, but Aeneas their nephew founded Rome—the city that would outshine Troy and rule the world.’

Romulus raised his eyes, thoughtful and silent.

‘But who is our Aeneas?’
‘Who else could it be?’

Then Romulus understood. The wisdom of his wife liberated what he had already perceived deep inside. Romulus looked at the map of his Empire—or at least what it once was: stretching around the Mediterranean, from Britain to Dacia, North Africa to Mesopotamia, with Rome in the middle. Seemingly in a waking dream, or a vision of grace, he again saw the dying eagle atop Rome’s seven hills. But this time, instead of anguish, it was at peace. As flames consumed it, tongues of glory rose up and shot forth, touching many parts of the collapsing Empire. Like branches from one vine, these grew, till they covered the earth. The darkness that strangled the eagle triumphed, but only for a time, before being swept away by a dawn exceeding the light of fallen Rome.

Rome will be the mother of many nations and her faith will be the sovereign of their hearts.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,’ Olivia quoted, as if reading Romulus’ mind.

Romulus smiled and whispered with a quiet joy in his old heart, ‘Subtle, subtle indeed is the Lord.’

(1326 words)

Historical information:

Romulus Augustus was the last emperor of the western Roman empire. However he did not perish in the Vandal sack of Rome in 455. The imperial seat had also moved away to the fortress of Ravenna some time ago. Romulus Augustus did not come to a heroic end; he was simply fired by a barbarian king in 476. Historical liberties have been taken in the story above.