Genesius, Comedian and Martyr, by Madder Browne

small pewter statue of Saint Genesius, artist unknownOne bright spring morning, in the year a.d. 303, the streets of Rome were filled with an excited throng. Here and there stood eager groups discussing some news of an evidently pleasing and unexpected nature; while others might be seen hurrying, with faces scared and averted, to seek shelter and protection in their homes. That morning Diocletian had published an edict which heralded in a fresh persecution of the Christians. The vivaria were to be filled with wild beasts, and the adherents of the hated sect were once more to be hunted and dragged from their hiding places, to feast the Roman holiday-makers with the blood they were only too proud to shed for the name of their Lord.

While the new edict was being eagerly discussed in the streets by the people who were already enjoying in anticipation the festivals promised them by the Emperor, somewhat apart from the Forum under the shelter of the Aventine Hill, a young girl of rare beauty stood on the balcony of one of the most sumptuous houses in Rome, lost in reverie. The far off murmur of the excited multitude hardly reached her ear or interfered with her thought. She had stood there already for some time when a sound of footsteps in the pinacotheca caused her to turn her head. A slave was in the act of crossing the court.

Claudia beckoned, and asked him what he sought.

The slave, making a deep reverence, replied: “The lord Murena and the poet Fulvius crave audience with the lady Claudia.”

She made a sign of assent and, soon after the slave had withdrawn, the two Romans entered, bringing with them the celebrated actor Genesius who had just arrived.

This renowned comedian enjoyed the marked favour of the Emperor Diocletian, and had followed him to Rome for the purpose of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the day of Maximian Hercules’ association with the imperial crown. Numbers of fêtes given to the people had borne witness to the good will of the twin Augustan emperors, who, while on the throne had given many tokens of mutual affection.

Genesius had announced his intention of playing, or rather of improvising, at these festas one of those comedies in which the freedom of the dialogue lends itself to satire, and wherein the misdeeds of the great, the injustice of the powerful, and the absurdities of the effeminate can be represented with a realism and truth of which Aristophanes himself might have been proud.

The visitors had come to pay their homage to her whom they called, for her beauty, the Queen of Rome; and to inquire if the fatigues of the preceding day had not over-wearied her.

“By no means,” replied Claudia, “but I love not sights such as I witnessed in the arena yesterday, and I have made up my mind never to give any more such, because they excite the evil passions of the common people.”

“It seems, however,” said Fulvius, “that our divine Emperor is going to take upon himself the task of catering for the pleasures of his subjects; for he has published a new edict against the Christians, and has given orders for the vivaria to be filled.”

“So I have heard,” interrupted Claudia, “but hast thou no fresh news of interest?”

“Indeed we have,” said Genesius, “our inspired and ever delightful poet Fulvius has completed his latest poem.”

“His latest poem! Why, Fulvius,” turning towards the poet, “how is it thou hast given us no hint of this?”

“And the subject of it is beyond all praise,” continued Genesius.

“And what is it?” demanded she;

“Rhea Sylvia.”

“It is indeed a beautiful theme,” said Claudia, looking at Fulvius, “but is it not a somewhat strange one?”

Genesius, with an amused smile, went on; “I was much tempted to learn by heart some of the most remarkable passages and declaim them in the theatre before the Emperor, only – well, Fulvius had a fit of modesty, so instead of reciting the works of others, I must find a subject for myself.”

“What! have you not already settled on a subject for your comedy?”

“Not altogether,” replied Genesius, “and I want to ask advice from you my friends, for a poet and a woman, together, are better than all the critics in Rome. First of all, I do not want to have any wearisome, conventional characters in my comedy – no miserly father, no wicked heroine, no prodigal son. But as of course it must touch upon the events and vices of the day, I am turning over in my mind something that has been suggested by the Emperor’s last edict.”

“The edict against the Christians.” interrupted Fulvius.

“Yes,” answered Genesius.

“Poor creatures; they will be destroyed at last,” added Claudia in a softened voice.

Vae Victis!” laughed Fulvius.

“Explaining the habits and customs of the abominable sect?” suggested Murena.

“Do not use the word ‘abominable,'” said Genesius in a grave voice, “for the word is not a true one. I have studied the question deeply, and have found among them impossibilities and absurdities in abundance, but nothing more. And thou,” turning towards Fulvius, “wouldst find in them a subject for a lovely poem, a poem, it is true, of humble life, but very charming, for one of their legends tells of a Maiden-Mother with a little Child in her arms, a lowly stable giving shelter to a God, and, side by side with them, slaves, their worshippers, who become god-like in their endurance; and there are ceremonies and rites practised by the Christians which are full of deep mystery and high philosophy.”

“Does no blood flow in their sacrifices?” asked Claudia.

“No, except such as the fury of the lion sheds in the arena. This they count as a most honoured fate.”

“And thou knowest their rites – their customs.”

“Yes – thanks to the peace they have enjoyed during these last few years, I have had an opportunity of making their religion an object of study; and in order to represent them with greater truth, I shall have before long the honour of showing you all the ceremony of Baptism, with many other curious practices which are yet unknown to the public?”

“And when will this representation take place?”

“In a few days, I hope.”

“Then,” said Claudia, “we shall all be there to learn and to applaud.”

Murena looked up with a meaning glance, “And Galerius too,” he said, “next to Diocletian?”

“Yes,” said Genesius bitterly, “I make fun of the Christians, but he murders them. Galerius is a wild beast, he kills, not to punish, but purely for the love of killing. He will be, I am sure, the cause of Diocletian’s downfall.”

“And his own punishment,” added Claudia.

New-comers now interrupted the conversation which was becoming, not only grave, but dangerous, for had one of Galerius’ spies overheard the talk of Claudia and her friends, doubtless before the night an order for their imprisonment would have come, and surprised them in the midst of their lives devoted to luxury and pleasure.

The games given in the Circus always drew large crowds of spectators, but on this occasion when they were graced by the presence of the Emperors and the Caesars, the multitude which thronged the theatre was greater. Already, long before the hour indicated, the building was invaded by the impatient people. Along the roads, through the streets, under the Arch of Triumph, pranced and curvetted the well groomed horses of the Patricians; there, the four-wheeled pilenta, covered with garlands, and escorted by slaves, were to be seen bearing rapidly onwards the proud beauties of that imperial city, where Messalina and Agrippina so scornfully asserted and exploited the title of woman.

There, also passed in hot haste the carpentum of the Vestals with its royal blazonry, the chariot of the Fiamens drawn by white horses and preceded by a iictor who cleared the way with his dread fasces. The trampling of fidgety horses, the cries of drivers and people resounded on all sides. It seemed as if a living sea was surging onwards to the portals of the theatre.

The Circus was built in a perfect semi-circle; round the sides were arranged, tier above tier, a series of steps or seats, high enough for comfort, having at every seventh tier, a step larger and broader than the others, which served as a pathway and was called a praecentio, The whole house, as we should say in modern talk, was filled with a clamorous crowd; not a single seat was unoccupied, while above all the stamping of feet and the noise made by new-comers trying in vain to find room where there was none, could be heard on all sides impatient calls for the arrival of the Emperor and the princes. At length the curtain which covered the private entrance was seen to move and the imperial party made their appearance, their arrival being greeted by deafenimg cries and acclamations. Galerius placed himself immediately behind the two Emperors, and the shouts of the people gradually died away in the anticipation of the spectacle which was about to begin.

Meanwhile behind the curtain there was almost as much confusion and noise as in the auditorium, for the actors had no dressing-rooms and were standing about the stage, putting the last touches to their costumes. Some were arranging the draping of their tunics, others struggling with a refractory buskin, and a few complaining bitterly of their masks (which all Roman actors then wore) being so thickly lined that their voice could hardly be heard. Fulvius, as poet and friend of Genesius, had accompanied him on to the stage and was helping him to dress.

Genesius himself was pale and nervous; he seemed to have lost for the moment all his energy and brilliancy. That wonderful spirit of sympathetic action, which had so often drawn forth thunders of applause and which made him the idol of the populace, seemed gone out of him. He appeared possessed by a feeling of approaching failure, a feeling that no longer was he the great actor, but some one else. Spiritless and weak, for a moment he felt half inclined to plead illness and throw up his part.

Fulvius noticed the growing pallor of his friend, and placing his hand on his shoulder, said:

“Genesius, my friend, thou seemest nervous and ill at ease. What hath come to thee? hath an evil dream clouded thy brain? Thou art usually so full of contagious fun that thou even darest to mock Diocletian to his face without fear of punishment.”

“What is the matter?” replied Genesius, “I have had no evil dream. My brain is clear, and I feel fully able to do justice to my subject. But I have a presentiment that my destiny is fulfilling itself. Something, I know not what, tells me I am about to tread the stage for the last time. It may be that Death is awaiting me this very night, and, if it be so, if the dread angel come in the midst of my triumph, I will bid him welcome. For methinks if the soldier ought to die on the field of battle, a comedian can wish for no better lot than to meet his fate before the public who applaud him.”

“What a strange presentiment!” said Fulvius. “But the Gods grant it may not come to pass. Thou wilt delight us yet for many a year.”

“Yes, it is a strange feeling, such as I have never before experienced; and stranger, inasmuch as it brings no sadness in its train. But the moment has come for me to appear,” and Genesius pressed the hand of Fulvius, adding with a smile, “Moriturus te salutai.”

Fulvius went to take his place in the body of the theatre by the side of Claudia, and a moment after the curtain rose.

The attentive audience saw the actor standing magnificently dressed. As soon as the accustomed salutations had been made, the prologue was begun, and at the end of it was announced that the actor was about to parody some of the curious ceremonies and rites of the Christian worship. At these words the people broke into loud applause, while the curtain fell for a moment, to mark the distinction between the prologue and the play proper.

When the curtain again rose, the stage represented a chamber draped with black cloth, and in the midst Genesius, seeming to be in great agony, was seen reclining on a bed. Around him stood various friends and servants. One of them was bending over the couch gazing into his face, as if to read there the cause of his pain.

“O friends,” said Genesius in feigned agony, “I suffer, I suffer cruelly.”

“What is it that hurts thee? Where is it that the pain attacks thee? Wouldst thou that we offer a sacrifice to AEsculapius for thy recovery?”

“Alas!” said Genesius, “Hygeia, AEsculapius and Serapis together would be powerless to assuage this terrible suffering;” and he fell back fainting, into the arms of his friends.

“Speak,” cried they, “speak! is there naught that can give thee ease from this pain, or find thee some relief?”

The frame of Genesius seemed convulsed with agony, and with sighs and groans he gasped:

** There is one thing only, that can, give relief, only, one thing, that can quench the burning fires, within me, only one thing – Baptism!”

At this the entire audience broke into roars of laughter, for the Emperor himself had given the signal to applaud.

The friends of Genesius fetched a long white robe, and with many grimaces and ridiculous attitudes, proceeded to clothe him in it.

One then brought water and poured it into a brazen basin, another got a huge scroll covered with symbols and mystic characters, while the rest half carried Genesius towards a marble vase which was also filled with clean water.

The audience, who had never before beheld anything like this, kept their eyes steadfastly fixed on the actor. Never had the comedian found a subject so fascinating for them, and while jewels and golden collars fell heaped upon the stage, the applause, hitherto somewhat restrained by the presence of the Emperor, changed into subdued murmurings, which were even more flattering than the previous tumult.

When Genesius had been led to the front of the stage, one of the attendant priests took the water in the basin and poured it over the sufferer’s head, pronouncing at the same time the mysterious words which the Christians made use of when a convert was received into the glory of Baptism.

No sound broke the stillness which seized hold of that vast building whilst Genesius leaned forward to receive the water and inclined his body in a mock reverence. No voice, no movement told the breathless interest with which the mighty crowd followed the action of the play. But still, there remained Genesius with head bowed and hands crossed before his breast. Amidst a profound silence every eye was turned upon him, following his slightest movement, when suddenly, with a wild sobbing voice, bounding erect, his arms stretched out towards heaven, he tore off his mask:

Christianus sum!” he cried, “I am a Christian, I am a Christian!” Loud and continuous was the applause. Diocletian himself clapped his hands, and even the sombre Galerius gave a mark of approbation.

Genesius stood for a moment there motionless clothed in his white robes, his face now illumined with a heavenly splendour that seemed to shine forth from his very soul. Then he advanced nearer towards the people and said in a voice broken with emotion:

“People of Rome! behold, I am a Christian!”

His wrapt gaze and the majesty of his pose only produced another round of that thunderous applause of which he had been so proud. At this fresh access of popular favour, his face suddenly became deadly pale, his arms gradually dropped, his hands were clasped together, while he sank on his knees to the ground.

So he remained, his eyes still lifted towards heaven, his whole attitude at once full of dignity and humility.

“By the Gods above,” cried Claudia turning towards Fulvius, “this is no comedy that he is playing now.”

“Thou art right, lady, ’tis his life.”

At this moment the emotion which possessed the being of the actor culminated. A glory that belonged not to this earth transfigured him: the ovation, which was accompanied by a rain of flowers and garlands, seemed only to pain and hurt him.

Presently he rose calm and radiant, and advancing slowly, even to the extreme edge of the stage, he spoke in a voice which though low, thrilled and vibrated through every corner of the vast theatre.

“O Emperor, and ye who are here present, soldiers, philosophers and senators, men and women, hearken to what I am about to say.”

A silence, deep and solemn, now reigned throughout the building, and all ears were strained to catch every syllable which fell from Genesius.

“Hitherto, never have I heard the word Christian without horror and disgust. Even those of my friends who professed that religion I have hated. I learned these mysteries and rites for no purpose but to make a mockery of them, and a spectacle for your amusement.”

He was interrupted by a cry of “Glory to the Gods of the Empire!” and some added, “Health to Augustus and Galerius Caesar!” but this interruption instead of troubling Genesius appeared only to give him more courage. He continued:

“But, O strange, O wonderful marvel! no sooner had the water of this pretended baptism touched my brow, no sooner had I answered that I really believed in the truth of what I was making but a mockery of, than I saw descending before me a countless throng of heavenly spirits who were clothed in shining robes of dazzling splendour, and shone with a flood of celestial light. No mortal tongue could tell their number, or describe their surpassing loveliness. One held a scroll from which others read all the crimes and sins I had committed since my childhood; sins, which I thought had been buried for ever in the darkness of the past. Even my guilty hopes and fears were written there – and as they read in passionless voices, the endless record of my sinful life, shame and horror seized upon me and overwhelmed me. In agony of soul I cried to God, to the God of the Christians I had mocked, that He would complete the work He had so wonderfully begun.

“Hardly were the words of prayer framed upon my lips, when one of the angelic host, as if reading my inmost thought turned upon me a face beaming with divine compassion and love, and taking the scroll in his hand plunged it in the baptismal water at my side. Then, O marvel! he withdrew it cleansed from all stain of writing and showed it to me shining and whiter than snow – O touching symbol of a heart cleansed from guilt and restored to purity!”

Here Genesius paused, while tears streamed from his eyes. Then stretching out his arms entreatingiy, as if he would take all in his loving embrace, he continued:

“Thou, then, O powerful Emperor and ye people of Rome who hear me, ye who have persecuted the Christians and derided their God, believe and confess with me, that Jesus Christ is the true God, that He is the very Truth and the very Light, and that through Him alone can ye obtain the pardon of your errors and crimes.”

Genesius stopped. He stood silent and motionless. He knew – none better – what he had to expect, and calmly he waited for the outburst of frenzy that was to come.

He had not long to wait; for this profession of faith, so unexpected, hurled as it was, in the face of the Emperor and the gods, could hardly fail to kindle the rage of the populace.

This man, for whom but now, the people had no praise too high, no gifts too costly, would soon know what was the value of the favour of the mob.

From the moment he had thus proclaimed himself a Christian the grossest insults seemed nothing but a just punishment.

Covered with his white robe, standing amidst the flowers and wreaths and jewels that had been thrown to him, he seemed to have already won his palm, and to have received the crown even before having fought the fight. Doubtless his enraptured eyes, at that moment still followed the angelic vision and his ears still heard the heavenly music; for amidst the uproar that surrounded him he stood serene, and his lips still wore a divine smile.

Diocletian even now hesitated to arrest him, but Galerius whispered in his ear, and the Emperor sent for the prefect Plautianus.

“Away with him!” he said.

And Genesius was dragged away by the guards amid the shrieks and cries of the infuriated crowd, who now clamoured for the blood of him they had delighted to honour but a few moments before.

A few hours later and Genesius had undergone a cruel scourging.

The leathern straps had eaten into the flesh and torn it away in strips. Yet the martyr’s face preserved its sweet serenity. It seemed as if the glory of his thoughts prevented him from feeling the agony of his torture.

When the executioner at length lowered his arm from very weariness, the Prefect, angry at having failed to overcome the steadfastness of Genesius, ordered the martyr to be stretched on the wheel. Then for the first time a pitiful shuddering passed over his features. But soon the smile returned and he spoke the blessed Name of Jesus and gave praise to the Christ of God with all joyfulness.

“Plautianus,” said he, “there is no other God but Him whom I have had the joy to see, Him alone do I adore and serve and His am I though a thousand deaths await me. No torture can drag Him from my heart, or prevent my lips from praising His Holy Name. One grief only troubles me now, that I have so outraged Him in my life, and that now so late have I come to know Him.”

After this every conceivable torture was applied to him, but in vain. Iron hooks tore his sides, and his bleeding body was slowly roasted over fire; yet still did he pray, and still did he smile.

Death was just about to release him when a young man pushed his way to the front and caught the fading glance of Genesius.

“Thanks, Fulvius,” he whispered to his friend. “I await thee above:” then he slowly added, “Claudia will come too.”

A few broken words trembled on his lips, and with a smile he expired.

The same night the body of the martyred comedian, Genesius, was secretly bought from the executioners, and his friends buried it in the gardens of Claudia.