Gustave Flaubert.

Herodias online

. (page 1 of 4)
Online LibraryGustave FlaubertHerodias → online text (page 1 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by John Bickers and David Widger


By Gustave Flaubert


In the eastern side of the Dead Sea rose the citadel of Machaerus. It
was built upon a conical peak of basalt, and was surrounded by four deep
valleys, one on each side, another in front, and the fourth in the rear.
At the base of the citadel, crowding against one another, a group of
houses stood within the circle of a wall, whose outlines undulated with
the unevenness of the soil. A zigzag road, cutting through the rocks,
joined the city to the fortress, the walls of which were about one
hundred and twenty cubits high, having numerous angles and ornamental
towers that stood out like jewels in this crown of stone overhanging an

Within the high walls stood a palace, adorned with many richly carved
arches, and surrounded by a terrace that on one side of the building
spread out below a wide balcony made of sycamore wood, upon which tall
poles had been erected to support an awning.

One morning, just before sunrise, the tetrarch, Herod-Antipas, came out
alone upon the balcony. He leaned against one of the columns and looked
about him.

The crests of the hill-tops in the valley below the palace were just
discernible in the light of the false dawn, although their bases,
extending to the abyss, were still plunged in darkness. A light mist
floated in the air; presently it lifted, and the shores of the Dead Sea
became visible. The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush
over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert,
and illuming the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the
early dawn. En-gedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black
shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol
had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame;
and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.
The tetrarch turned his gaze from it to contemplate the palms of Jericho
on his right; and his thoughts dwelt upon other cities of his beloved
Galilee, - Capernaum, Endor, Nazareth, Tiberias - whither it might be he
would never return.

The Jordan wound its way through the arid plains that met his gaze;
white and glittering under the clear sky, it dazzled the eye like snow
in the rays of the sun.

The Dead Sea now looked like a sheet of lapis-lazuli; and at its
southern extremity, on the coast of Yemen, Antipas recognised clearly
what at first he had been able only dimly to perceive. Several tents
could now be plainly seen; men carrying spears were moving about among a
group of horses; and dying camp-fires shone faintly in the beams of the
rising sun.

This was a troop belonging to the sheikh of the Arabs, the daughter
of whom the tetrarch had repudiated in order to wed Herodias, already
married to one of his brothers, who lived in Italy but who had no
pretensions to power.

Antipas was waiting for assistance and reinforcements from the Romans,
but as Vitellius, the Governor of Syria, had not yet arrived, he was
consumed with impatience and anxiety. Perhaps Agrippa had ruined his
cause with the Emperor, he thought. Philip, his third brother, sovereign
of Batania, was arming himself clandestinely. The Jews were becoming
intolerant of the tetrarch's idolatries; he knew that many were weary of
his rule; and he hesitated now between adopting one of two projects: to
conciliate the Arabs and win back their allegiance, or to conclude
an alliance with the Parthians. Under the pretext of celebrating his
birthday, he had planned to bring together, at a grand banquet,
the chiefs of his troops, the stewards of his domains, and the most
important men from the region about Galilee.

Antipas threw a keen glance along all the roads leading to Machaerus.
They were deserted. Eagles were sweeping through the air high above his
head; the soldiers of the guard, placed at intervals along the ramparts,
slept or dozed, leaning against the walls; all was silent within the

Suddenly he heard the sound of a distant voice, seeming to come from
the very depths of the earth. His cheek paled. After an instant's
hesitation, he leaned far over the balcony railing, listening intently,
but the voice had died away. Presently it rose again upon the quiet air;
Antipas clapped his hands together loudly, crying: "Mannaeus! Mannaeus!"

Instantly a man appeared, naked to the waist, after the fashion of a
masseur at the bath. Although emaciated, and somewhat advanced in years,
he was a giant in stature, and on his hip he wore a cutlass in a bronze
scabbard. His bushy hair, gathered up and held in place by a kind of
comb, exaggerated the apparent size of his massive head. His eyes were
heavy with sleep, but his white teeth shone, his step was light on the
flagstones, and his body had the suppleness of an ape, although his
countenance was as impassive as that of a mummy.

"Where is he?" demanded the tetrarch of this strange being.

Mannaeus made a movement over his shoulder with his thumb, saying:

"Over there - still there!"

"I thought I heard him cry out."

And Antipas, after drawing a deep breath, asked for news of Iaokanann,
afterwards known as St. John the Baptist. Had he been allowed to see the
two men who had asked permission to visit his dungeon a few days before,
and since that time, had any one discovered for what purpose the men
desired to see him?

"They exchanged some strange words with him," Mannaeus replied, "with
the mysterious air of robbers conspiring at the cross-roads. Then they
departed towards Upper Galilee, saying that they were the bearers of
great tidings."

Antipas bent his head for a moment; then raising it quickly, said in a
tone full of alarm:

"Guard him! watch him well! Do not allow any one else to see him. Keep
the gates shut and the entrance to the dungeon closed fast. It must not
even be suspected that he still lives!"

Mannaeus had already attended to all these details, because Iaokanann
was a Jew, and, like all the Samaritans, Mannaeus hated the Jews.

Their temple on the Mount of Gerizim, which Moses had designed to be the
centre of Israel, had been destroyed since the reign of King Hyrcanus;
and the temple at Jerusalem made the Samaritans furious; they regarded
its presence as an outrage against themselves, and a permanent
injustice. Mannaeus, indeed, had forcibly entered it, for the purpose of
defiling its altar with the bones of corpses. Several of his companions,
less agile than he, had been caught and beheaded.

From the tetrarch's balcony, the temple was visible through an opening
between two hills. The sun, now fully risen, shed a dazzling splendour
on its walls of snowy marble and the plates of purest gold that formed
its roof. The structure shone like a luminous mountain, and its radiant
purity indicated something almost superhuman, eclipsing even its
suggestion of opulence and pride.

Mannaeus stretched out his powerful arm towards Zion, and, with clenched
fist and his great body drawn to its full height, he launched a bitter
anathema at the city, with perfect faith that eventually his curse must
be effective.

Antipas listened, without appearing to be shocked at the strength of the

When the Samaritan had become somewhat calmer, he returned to the
subject of the prisoner.

"Sometimes he grows excited," said he, "then he longs to escape or talks
about a speedy deliverance. At other times he is as quiet as a sick
animal, although I often find him pacing to and fro in his gloomy
dungeon, murmuring, 'In order that His glory may increase, mine must

Antipas and Mannaeus looked at each other a moment in silence. But the
tetrarch was weary of pondering on this troublesome matter.

The mountain peaks surrounding the palace, looking like great petrified
waves, the black depths among the cliffs, the immensity of the blue sky,
the rising sun, and the gloomy valley of the abyss, filled the soul of
Antipas with a vague unrest; he felt an overwhelming sense of oppression
at the sight of the desert, whose uneven piles of sand suggested
crumbling amphitheaters or ruined palaces. The hot wind brought an odour
of sulphur, as if it had rolled up from cities accursed and buried
deeper than the river-bed of the slow-running Jordan.

These aspects of nature, which seemed to his troubled fancy signs of
the wrath of the gods, terrified him, and he leaned heavily against the
balcony railing, his eyes fixed, his head resting upon his hands.

Presently he felt a light touch upon his shoulder. He turned, and saw
Herodias standing beside him. A purple robe enveloped her, falling to
her sandaled feet. Having left her chamber hurriedly, she wore no jewels
nor other ornaments. A thick tress of rippling black hair hung over her
shoulder and hid itself in her bosom; her nostrils, a little too large
for beauty, quivered with triumph, and her face was alight with joy. She
gently shook the tetrarch's shoulder, and exclaimed exultantly:

"Caesar is our friend! Agrippa has been imprisoned!"

"Who told thee that?"

"I know it!" she replied, adding: "It was because he coveted the crown
of Caligula."

While living upon the charity of Antipas and Herodias, Agrippa had
intrigued to become king, a title for which the tetrarch was as eager as
he. But if this news were true, no more was to be feared from Agrippa's

"The dungeons of Tiberias are hard to open, and sometimes life itself is
uncertain within their depths," said Herodias, with grim significance.

Antipas understood her; and, although she was Agrippa's sister, her
atrocious insinuation seemed entirely justifiable to the tetrarch.
Murder and outrage were to be expected in the management of political
intrigues; they were a part of the fatal inheritance of royal houses;
and in the family of Herodias nothing was more common.

Then she rapidly unfolded to the tetrarch the secrets of her recent
undertakings, telling him how many men had been bribed, what letters had
been intercepted, and the number of spies stationed at the city gates.
She did not hesitate even to tell him of her success in an attempt to
befool and seduce Eutyches the denunciator.

"And why should I not?" she said; "it cost me nothing. For thee, my
lord, have I not done more than that? Did I not even abandon my child?"

After her divorce from Philip, she had indeed left her daughter in Rome,
hoping that, as the wife of the tetrarch, she might bear other children.
Until that moment she had never spoken to Antipas of her daughter. He
asked himself the reason for this sudden display of tenderness.

During their brief conversation several attendants had come out upon
the balcony; one slave brought a quantity of large, soft cushions, and
arranged them in a kind of temporary couch upon the floor behind his
mistress. Herodias sank upon them, and turning her face away from
Antipas, seemed to be weeping silently. After a few moments she dried
her eyes, declared that she would dream no more, and that she was, in
reality, perfectly happy. She reminded Antipas of their former long
delightful interviews in the atrium; their meetings at the baths; their
walks along the Sacred Way, and the sweet evening rendezvous at the
villa, among the flowery groves, listening to the murmur of splashing
fountains, within sight of the Roman Campagna. Her glances were as
tender as in former days; she drew near to him, leaned against his
breast and caressed him fondly.

But he repelled her soft advances. The love she sought to rekindle had
died long ago. He thought instead of all his misfortunes, and of the
twelve long years during which the war had continued. Protracted anxiety
had visibly aged the tetrarch. His shoulders were bent beneath his
violet-bordered toga; his whitening locks were long and mingled with his
beard, and the sunlight revealed many lines upon his brow, as well as
upon that of Herodias. After the tetrarch's repulse of his wife's tender
overtures, the pair gazed morosely at each other.

The mountain paths began to show signs of life. Shepherds were driving
their flocks to pasture; children urged heavy-laden donkeys along the
roads; while grooms belonging to the palace led the horses to the river
to drink. The wayfarers descending from the heights on the farther side
of Machaerus disappeared behind the castle; others ascended from the
valleys, and after arriving at the palace deposited their burdens in the
courtyard. Many of these were purveyors to the tetrarch; others were the
servants of his expected guests, arriving in advance of their masters.

Suddenly, at the foot of the terrace on the left, an Essene appeared; he
wore a white robe, his feet were bare, and his demeanour indicated that
he was a follower of the Stoics. Mannaeus instantly rushed towards the
stranger, drawing the cutlass that he wore upon his hip.

"Kill him!" cried Herodias.

"Do not touch him!" the tetrarch commanded.

The two men stood motionless for an instant, then they descended the
terrace, both taking a different direction, although they kept their
eyes fixed upon each other.

"I know that man," said Herodias, after they had disappeared. "His name
is Phanuel, and he will try to seek out Iaokanann, since thou wert so
foolish as to allow him to live."

Antipas said that the man might some day be useful to them. His attacks
upon Jerusalem would gain them the allegiance of the rest of the Jews.

"No," said Herodias, "the Jews will accept any master, and are incapable
of feeling any true patriotism." She added that, as for the man who was
trying to influence the people with hopes cherished since the days of
Nehemiah, the best policy was to suppress him.

The tetrarch replied that there was no haste about the matter, and
expressed his doubt that any real danger was to be feared from Iaokanann
even affecting to laugh at the idea.

"Do not deceive thyself!" exclaimed Herodias. And she retold the story
of her humiliation one day when she was travelling towards Gilead, in
order to purchase some of the balm for which that region was famous.

"A multitude was standing on the banks of the stream, my lord; many
of the people were putting on their raiment. Standing on a hillock, a
strange man was speaking to the gathering. A camel's-skin was wrapped
about his loins, and his head was like that of a lion. As soon as he saw
me, he launched in my direction all the maledictions of the prophets.
His eyes flamed, his voice shook, he raised his arms as if he would draw
down lightning upon my head. I could not fly from him; the wheels of my
chariot sank in the sand up to the middle; and I could only crawl along,
hiding my head with my mantle, and frozen with terror at the curses that
poured upon me like a storm from heaven!"

Continuing her harangue, she declared that the knowledge that this man
still existed poisoned her very life. When he had been seized and bound
with cords, the soldiers were prepared to stab him if he resisted, but
he had been quite gentle and obedient. After he had been thrown into
prison some one had put venomous serpents into his dungeon, but strange
to say, after a time they had died, leaving him uninjured. The inanity
of such tricks exasperated Herodias. Besides, she inquired, why did
this man make war upon her? What interest moved him to such actions? His
injurious words to her, uttered before a throng of listeners, had been
repeated and widely circulated; she heard them whispered everywhere.
Against a legion of soldiers she would have been brave; but this
mysterious influence, more pernicious and powerful than the sword, but
impossible to grasp, was maddening! Herodias strode to and fro upon the
terrace, white with rage, unable to find words to express the emotions
that choked her.

She had a haunting fear that the tetrarch might listen to public opinion
after a time, and persuade himself it was his duty to repudiate her.
Then, indeed, all would be lost! Since early youth she had cherished a
dream that some day she would rule over a great empire. As an important
step towards attaining this ambition, she had deserted Philip, her first
husband, and married the tetrarch, who now she thought had duped her.

"Ah! I found a powerful support, indeed, when I entered thy family!" she

"It is at least the equal of thine," Antipas replied.

Herodias felt the blood of the kings and priests, her ancestors, boiling
in her veins.

"Thy grandfather was a servile attendant upon the temple of Ascalon!"
she went on, with fury. "Thy other ancestors were shepherds, bandits,
conductors of caravans, a horde of slaves offered as tribute to King
David! My forefathers were the conquerors of thine! The first of the
Maccabees drove thy people out of Hebron; Hyrcanus forced them to be
circumcised!" Then, with all the contempt of the patrician for the
plebeian, the hatred of Jacob for Esau, she reproached him for his
indifference towards palpable outrages to his dignity, his weakness
regarding the Phoenicians, who had been false to him, and his cowardly
attitude towards the people who detested and insulted herself.

"But thou art like them!" she cried; "Dost regret the loss of the Arab
girl who danced upon these very pavements? Take her back! Go and live
with her - in her tent! Eat her bread, baked in the ashes! Drink curdled
sheep's-milk! Kiss her dark cheeks - and forget me!"

The tetrarch had already forgotten her presence, it appeared. He paid no
further heed to her anger, but looked intently at a young girl who had
just stepped out upon the balcony of a house not far away. At her side
stood an elderly female slave, who held over the girl's head a kind of
parasol with a handle made of long, slender reeds. In the middle of
the rug spread upon the floor of the balcony stood a large open
travelling-hamper or basket, and girdles, veils, head-dresses, and gold
and silver ornaments were scattered about in confusion. At intervals
the young girl took one object or another in her hands, and held it up
admiringly. She was dressed in the costume of the Roman ladies, with a
flowing tunic and a peplum ornamented with tassels of emeralds; and blue
silken bands confined her hair, which seemed almost too luxuriant, since
from time to time she raised a small hand to push back the heavy masses.
The parasol half hid the maiden from the gaze of Antipas, but now and
then he caught a glimpse of her delicate neck, her large eyes, or a
fleeting smile upon her small mouth. He noted that her figure swayed
about with a singularly elastic grace and elegance. He leaned forward,
his eyes kindled, his breath quickened. All this was not lost upon
Herodias, who watched him narrowly.

"Who is that maiden?" the tetrarch asked at last.

Herodias replied that she did not know, and her fierce demeanour
suddenly changed to one of gentleness and amiability.

At the entrance to the castle the tetrarch was awaited by several
Galileans, the master of the scribes, the chief of the land stewards,
the manager of the salt mines, and a Jew from Babylon, commanding his
troops of horse. As the tetrarch approached the group, he was greeted
with respectful enthusiasm. Acknowledging the acclamations with a grave
salute, he entered the castle.

As he proceeded along one of the corridors, Phanuel suddenly sprang from
a corner and intercepted him.

"What! Art thou still here?" said the tetrarch in displeasure. "Thou
seekest Iaokanann, no doubt."

"And thyself, my lord. I have something of great importance to tell

At a sign from Antipas, the Essene followed him into a somewhat dark and
gloomy room.

The daylight came faintly through a grated window. The walls were of a
deep shade of crimson, so dark as to look almost black. At one end of
the room stood an ebony bed, ornamented with bands of leather. A
shield of gold, hanging at the head of the bed, shone like a sun in the
obscurity of the apartment. Antipas crossed over to the couch and threw
himself upon it in a half-reclining attitude, while Phanuel remained
standing before him. Suddenly he raised one hand, and striking a
commanding attitude said:

"At times, my lord, the Most High sends a message to the people through
one of His sons. Iaokanann is one of these. If thou oppress him, thou
shalt be punished!"

"But it is he that persecutes me!" exclaimed Antipas. "He asked me to do
a thing that was impossible. Since then he has done nothing but revile
me. And I was not severe with him when he began his abuse of me. But
he had the hardihood to send various men from Machaerus to spread
dissension and discontent throughout my domain. A curse upon him! Since
he attacks me, I shall defend myself."

"Without doubt, he has expressed his anger with too much violence,"
Phanuel replied calmly. "But do not heed that further. He must be set

"One does not let loose a furious animal," said the tetrarch.

"Have no fear of him now," was the quick reply. "He will go straight to
the Arabs, the Gauls, and the Scythians. His work must be extended to
the uttermost ends of the earth."

For a moment Antipas appeared lost in thought, as one who sees a vision.
Then he said:

"His power over men is indeed great. In spite of myself, I admire him!"

"Then set him free!"

But the tetrarch shook his head. He feared Herodias, Mannaeus, and
unknown dangers.

Phanuel tried to persuade him, promising, as a guaranty of the honesty
of his projects, the submission of the Essenians to the King. These poor
people, clad only in linen, untameable in spite of severe treatment,
endowed with the power to divine the future by reading the stars, had
succeeded in commanding a certain degree of respect.

"What is the important matter thou wouldst communicate to me?" Antipas
inquired, with sudden recollection.

Before Phanuel could reply, a Negro entered the room in great haste. He
was covered with dust, and panted so violently that he could scarcely
utter the single word:


"Has he arrived?" asked the tetrarch.

"I have seen him, my lord. Within three hours he will be here."

Throughout the palace, doors were opening and closing and portieres were
swaying as if in a high wind, with the coming and going of many persons;
there was a murmur of voices; sounds of the moving of heavy furniture
could be heard, and the rattle of silver plates and dishes. From the
highest tower a loud blast upon a conch summoned from far and near all
the slaves belonging to the castle.


The ramparts were thronged with people when at last Vitellius entered
the castle gates, leaning on the arm of his interpreter. Behind them
came an imposing red litter, decorated with plumes and mirrors. The
proconsul wore a toga ornamented with the laticlave, a broad purple band
extending down the front of the garment, indicating his rank; and his
feet were encased in the kind of buskins worn by consuls. A guard
of lictors surrounded him. Against the wall they placed their twelve
fasces - a bundle of sticks with an axe in the centre. And the populace
trembled before the insignia of Roman majesty.

The gorgeous litter, borne by eight men, came to a halt. From it
descended a youth. He wore many pearls upon his fingers, but he had
a protruding abdomen and his face was covered with pimples. A cup of
aromatic wine was offered to him. He drank it, and asked for a second

The tetrarch had fallen upon his knees before the proconsul, saying that
he was grieved beyond words not to have known sooner of the favour of
his presence within those domains; had he been aware of the approach
of his distinguished guest, he would have issued a command that every
person along the route should place himself at the proconsul's orders.
Of a surety, the proconsul's family was descended direct from the
goddess Vitellia. A highway, leading from the Janiculum to the sea,
still bore their name. Questors and consuls were innumerable in that
great family; and as for the noble Lucius, now his honoured guest, it
was the duty of the whole people to thank him, as the conqueror of
the Cliti and the father of the young Aulus, now returning to his own
domain, since the East was the country of the gods. These hyperboles
were expressed in Latin, and Vitellius accepted them impassively.

He replied that the great Herod was the honour and glory of the nation;
that the Athenians had chosen him to direct the Olympian games; that
he had built temples in the honour of Augustus; had been patient,
ingenious, terrible; and was faithful to all the Caesars.

Between the two marble columns, with bronze capitals, Herodias could now

1 3 4

Online LibraryGustave FlaubertHerodias → online text (page 1 of 4)