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Once the highest heads in Rome had bowed before Acte, the former favorite of Nero. Even then she showed no desire to interfere in public issues, and if she ever used her influence over the young ruler, it was only to plead for mercy on someone's behalf. Quiet and unassuming, she won the gratitude of many and made no enemies. Even Octavia was unable to hate her. To those who envied her she seemed completely harmless. It was known that she continued to love Nero with a sad and pained love that lived not in hope but only in the memories of the time when Nero was younger, more loving, and a better man. It was known that she could not tear her heart and soul from those memories even though she expected nothing. There was no real fear that Nero would return to her; thus, she was looked upon as a wholly inoffensive person and was left in peace. Poppaea considered her as a quiet servant, so harmless that she did not even try to drive her from the palace.
Since Caesar had once loved her, and had dropped her without offense in a quiet and somewhat friendly manner, she continued to have a degree of respect from those around her. Nero allowed her to live in the palace, and gave her special apartments with a few servants. And as in their time Pallas and Narcissus, freedmen of Claudius, not only sat at feasts with Claudius but held places of honor as powerful ministers, so too Acte was invited at times to Caesar's table. This was done perhaps because her beauty ornamented the feast.
Caesar, for that matter, had long ignored the questions of position in his choice of company. At his table the most varied medley of people of every position and calling found places. Among them were somesenators, but mainly those who were content to serve as jesters as well. There were patricians, old and young, eager for luxury, excess, and enjoyment. There were women with great names who yet did not hesitate to put on a yellow wig some evening and seek adventures on dark streets for amusement's sake. There were also high officials, and priests who--with full goblets--were willing to jeer at their own gods. At their side was a rabble of every sort: singers; mimes; musicians; dancers of both sexes; poets who, while declaiming, thought only of the sesterces that might fall to them at their praise of Caesar's verses; hungry philosophers who followed the dishes with eager eyes; and, finally, noted charioteers, tricksters, miracle-workers, tale-tellers, jesters, and the most varied adventurers brought through fashion or folly to a few days' notoriety. Among these were even men who covered their pierced ears, a sign of slavery, with their long hair.
The most noted sat directly at the tables. The lesser in rank provided amusement while the greater were eating, and waited for the moment at which the servants would permit them to consume the remnants of food and drink. Guests of this sort were furnished by Tigellinus, Vatinius, and Vitelius, who were more than once forced to find for them clothing befitting Caesar's chambers. Caesar liked their society, however, as he felt the most freedom with them.
The luxury of the court gilded everything. High and low, the descendants of great families, and the needy from the pavements of the city, great artists, and vile scrapings of talent, thronged to the palace to sate their dazzled eyes with a splendor almost surpassing human estimate and to draw near to the giver of every favor, wealth, and property--who might abase one with a single glance but who might also exalt one beyond measure.
That day Lygia had to participate in such a feast. Fear, uncertainty, and confusion after the sudden changes were struggling within her, along with a desire to resist these temptations. She feared Nero. She feared the palace and the people, whose uproar deprived her of peace of mind. She feared the feasts and the shameful activities that took place there, according to Plautius, Pomponia Graecina, and their friends. She was young, but she was not without knowledge--in those times knowledge of evil reached even children's ears early. She knew, therefore, that ruin threatened her there in that palace. Moreover, Pomponia had warned her of such at their parting. But having a youthful spirit and being unacquainted with corruption, and confessing a lofty faith that was implanted by her foster mother, she had promised to defend herself against ruin. She had made this promise to her mother, to herself, and also to that Divine Teacher in whom she believed and whom she had come to love with all of her pure, childlike heart for the sweetness of His doctrine, the bitterness of His death, and the glory of His resurrection.
She was confident too that now neither Plautius nor Pomponia would suffer for her actions. Because of this, she wondered if it would be better for her to resist, and stay away from the feast. She felt a mingling of fear and alarm, as well as a wish to show her courage in suffering and exposure to torture and death. The Divine Teacher had commanded to act thus, and had given the example Himself. Pomponia had told her that the most earnest among the adherents desire and pray for such a test with all their souls. Lygia, when still in the house of Plautius, had felt a similar desire herself, imagining herself a martyr with wounds on her snow-white hands and feet, having an unearthly beauty, and borne by equally beautiful white angels into the azure sky. Her imagination admired the vision with childish brooding and some self-delight, which had been rebuked by Pomponia. But now, when opposition to Caesar's will might draw after it some terrible punishment, the imagined scene of martyrdom had become a terrible reality. Added to the beautiful visions and delight was curiosity mingled with dread as Lygia wondered how she would be punished and what kinds of torments she would have to withstand. Her soul, half childish yet, was hesitating.
Acte, when she heard Lygia share her thoughts, looked at her with astonishment. "Do you have a fever? Do you really think to oppose Caesar's will and exposure yourself to his anger right away? To behave thus is to be a child who knows not what it says. From your own words it appears that you are, properly speaking, not really a hostage, but a maiden who has been forgotten by your own people. There is no law of nations to protect you. And even if there were, Caesar is powerful enough to trample on such a law in a moment of anger. It has pleased Caesar to take you, and he will dispose of you. You are henceforth at his will. There is not another higher will on this earth.
"So it is," continued Acte. "I, too, have read the letters of Paul of Tarsus, and I know that above the earth is God, and the Son of God, who rose from the dead. But on the earth there is only Caesar. Think of this, Lygia. I know that your doctrine does not permit you to be what I was, and that to you, as to the Stoics--of whom Epictetus has told me--when it comes to a choice between shame and death, you must choose death. But can you say that death alone waits you? Have you heard of the daughter of Sejanus? She was a young maiden, and Tiberius ordered that she had to pass through shame before her death, so as to respect a law that prohibits the punishment of virgins with death. Lygia, Lygia, do not irritate Caesar. If a moment comes when you must choose between disgrace and death, act as your faith commands. But do not seek destruction yourself, and do not irritate an earthly and cruel divinity for a trivial cause." Acte spoke with great compassion, and even with enthusiasm. Being a little short-sighted, she pushed her sweet face up to Lygia's as if wishing to see the effect of her words.
Lygia threw her arms around Acte's neck with childlike trust. "You are kind to me, Acte."
Acte, pleased by the praise and confidence, pressed her to her heart. Then, disengaging herself from Lygia's arms, answered, "My happiness has passed and my joy is gone, but I am not wicked."
She then walked away quickly and talked to herself despairingly. "No! And he was not wicked. He thought himself to be good then, and he wanted to be good. I know that better than anyone. All that changed him came later, when he forgot how to love. Other people made him what he is. Yes, and Poppaea." Her eyes filled with tears.
Lygia watched after her. "Are you sorry for him, Acte?"
"I am," said she, in a low voice as she continued to pace, clenching her hands in pain, a hopeless expression on her face.
"Acte, do you still love him?" Lygia asked timidly.
"I do." She paused for a moment. "No one loves him but me." Acte remained silent in an effort to recover her calmness that was disturbed by her memories.
When she had visibly regained her composure, she said, "Let's talk about you, Lygia. Do not even think to oppose Caesar. That would be madness. And have peace. I know this house well, and I know that--as far as Caesar is concerned--nothing threatens you. If he had you taken away for himself, he would not have brought you to the Palatine. Poppaea rules here, and since she bore a daughter to Nero, he is even more under her influence.
"While Nero commanded that you should attend the feast, he has neither seen you nor inquired after you, which means he does not care about you. Maybe he took you from Plautius and Pomponia because he was angry with them. Petronius wrote asking me to take care of you, and since Pomponia wrote to me also, as you know, perhaps they had an understanding. Maybe Petronius wrote at Pomponia's request. If Petronius is watching over you at Pomponia's request, nothing threatens you. Who knows--perhaps Nero may send you back to Plautius at Petronius's persuasion. I don't know that Nero loves him overmuch, but I do know that he rarely has the courage to set his opinion in opposition to Petronius."
"Oh, Acte!" answered Lygia; "Petronius was with us before they took me, and my mother was convinced that Nero demanded my surrender at his instigation."
"That would be bad," said Acte. She thought for a moment, and then said, "Perhaps Petronius only remarked, in Nero's presence at some supper, that he saw a hostage of the Lygians at Plautius's. Nero, jealous of his own power, might then have demanded you if only because hostages belong to him. No, I do not think that Petronius would use such a method to take you from Plautius. I don't know if he is better than others of Caesar's court, but he is different. And maybe, too, you will find someone else who would be willing to intercede for you. Have you seen anyone at Plautius's who is near Caesar?"
"I have seen Vespasian and Titus."
"Caesar does not like them."
"If Seneca advised something, that would be enough to make Nero act otherwise."
Lydia's bright face crimsoned. "And Marcus Vinicius--"
"I don't know him."
"He is a relative of Petronius who recently returned from Armenia."
"Do you think that Nero likes him?"
"Everyone likes Vinicius."
"And would he intercede for you?"
Acte smiled tenderly. "Then you will surely see him at the feast. You must be there, just because you must. Only a child such as you could think otherwise. And if you have any hope of returning to the house of Plautius, you must beseech Petronius and Vinicius to use their influence to persuade Caesar to give you the right to return. If they were here, they both would tell you the same thing: it would be madness and ruin to resist. Caesar might not notice your absence, it is true, but if he did notice that you dared to oppose his will, there would be no saving you. Go, Lygia! Don't you hear the noise in the palace? The sun is near setting, and the guests will arrive soon."
"You are right," answered Lygia. "I will follow your counsel." Lygia herself could not be sure how much of her decision was out of a desire to see Vinicius and Petronius; her woman's curiosity to see such a grand feast with Caesar, the court, the renowned Poppaea and other beauties; and the incomprehensible splendor that was related throughout Rome in tones of wonder. But Acte was right, and Lygia knew it. It was imperative that she go, and when necessity and simple reason supported the hidden temptations, she no longer hesitated.