Signs And Wonders (81-86)
From The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

81. In the course of the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria, waiting for the regular season of summer winds when the sea could be relied upon, (1) many miracles occurred. These seemed to be indications that Vespasian enjoyed heaven's blessing and that the gods showed a certain leaning towards him. Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs. He asked that it might please the emperor to anoint his cheeks and eyeballs with the water of his mouth. A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. At one moment he was alarmed by the thought that he would be accused of vanity if he failed. At the next, the urgent appeals of the two victims and the flatteries of his entourage made him sanguine of success. Finally he asked the doctors for an opinion whether blindness and atrophy of this sort were curable by human means. The doctors were eloquent on the various possibilities. The blind man's vision was not completely destroyed, and if certain impediments were removed his sight would return. The other victim's limb had been dislocated, but could be put right by correct treatment. Perhaps this was the will of the gods, they added; perhaps the emperor had been chosen to perform a miracle. Anyhow, if a cure were effected, the credit would go to the ruler; if it failed, the poor wretches would have to bear the ridicule. So Vespasian felt that his destiny gave him the key to every door and that nothing now defied belief. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying. (2)

82. This deepened Vespasian's desire to visit the holy house of Serapis, for he wished to consult the god on matters of state. He had everyone else excluded from the temple, and went in alone, fixing his mind on the deity. Happening to glance round, he caught sight of a leading Egyptian named Basilides standing behind him. Now he knew that this man was detained by illness far from Alexandria at a place several days' journey distant. He inquired of the priests whether Basilides had entered the temple that day. He also inquired of those he met whether he had been seen in the city. Finally he sent off a party on horse, and ascertained that at the relevant time he had been eighty miles away. Thereupon he guessed that the vision was a divine one and that the reply to his query lay in the meaning of the name Basilides. (3)

83. Where the god Serapis came from is a problem which has not yet been brought before the attention of the public by Roman writers. The Egyptian priests give the following account. It concerns Ptolemy, the first Macedonian king of Egypt, who did much to develop the country. (4) While he was engaged in providing the newly-founded city of Alexandria with walls, temples and religious cults, he dreamed that he met a young man of remarkable beauty and more than human stature, who instructed him to send his most trusty courtiers to Pontus to fetch a statue of himself. This, he said, would cause the kingdom to prosper, and whatever place gave the image shelter would become great and famous. Thereupon, continues the account, this same youth appeared to ascend into heaven in a blaze of fire.

These signs and wonders impelled Ptolemy to reveal the nocturnal vision to the Egyptian priests whose practice it is to interpret such things. As they knew little of Pontus and foreign parts, he consulted an Athenian of the clan of the Eumolpidae, one Timotheus, whom he had brought over to supervise ritual, and asked him about the nature of this worship and the identity of the god. Timotheus got into touch with regular travellers to Pontus and from them found out that the country contained a city called Sinope, near which was a temple long famous in the neighbourhood and dedicated to Jupiter Dis. (5) The identification was borne out, they added, by the presence nearby of the statue of a goddess commonly described as Proserpina. But Ptolemy was just like a king: though easily upset, on recovering his nerve he showed himself keener on pleasure than religion. Thus he gradually put the matter out of his mind and devoted himself to other business. But in the end the same vision appeared before him, now in a more terrifying and urgent aspect and threatening both king and kingdom with ruin unless its orders were obeyed. Then Ptolemy had ambassadors and gifts assembled for an approach to King Scydrothemis, the then ruler of Sinope, instructing his envoys as they embarked to visit the shrine of Pythian Apollo. (6) The travellers were granted a favourable passage and an unambiguous answer from the oracle. They were to go on their way and bring back the image of Apollo's uncle, leaving that of his sister where it was.

84. On reaching Sinope, they addressed the offerings, requests and instructions of their king to Scydrothemis. The latter found it hard to make up his mind. At one moment, he was frightened of the divine will, at another terrified by the threats of his people, who opposed the transaction; and often he found the gifts and promises of the deputation tempting. In this way three years passed by without any diminution in Ptolemy's enthusiasm and appeals. The status of his ambassadors, the size of his fleet and the weight of his gold were ceaselessly augmented. Then a dreadful apparition confronted Scydrothemis in a dream, forbidding him to delay further the purposes of the god. When he still hesitated, he was vexed by all manner of disasters, by plague and by the manifestation of a divine wrath which became daily more grievous. Then he called his people together and explained to them the orders of the deity, his own vision and that of Ptolemy, and their ever growing afflictions. The common folk, turning a deaf ear to their king and jealous of Egypt, staged a sit-down strike around the temple in self-defence. At this point, the story became even more impressive, telling how the god embarked of his own accord upon the fleet, which was moored by the coast. Then comes the remarkable account of their sailing into Alexandria after completing the long voyage in only three days. A temple worthy of a great metropolis was built in the quarter called Rhacotis, where there had long been a chapel dedicated to Serapis and Isis.

Such is the favourite version of where Serapis came from and how he reached Egypt. I am aware that some authorities hold that he was brought from the Synan city of Seleucia during the reign of the third Ptolemy. (7) Yet another story speaks of the initiative as coming from the same Ptolemy, but makes the original home of the god Memphis, a city once famous as the capital of the Old Kingdom. As for the identity of the god, he is equated by many with Aesculapius because he heals the sick, by some with Osiris, who is the oldest deity known to the Near East, by not a few with Jupiter owing to his all-embracing powers. But the prevailing identification of Serapis as Prince Dis is based on the attributes clearly portrayed in his statues, (8) or esoteric lore.

85. I return now to Domitian and Mucianus. Before their march brought them to the area of the Alps, they received the good news of the victory at Trier. This was strikingly confirmed by the presence of the enemy commander Valentinus. He was far from demoralised and his looks were proof of the sort of spirit he had shown. His defence was heard— if only as a study in psychology—and he was condemned. At the moment of execution, someone taunted him with his country's defeat. Valentinus' reply was that he found comfort in death.

Mucianus now broached a suggestion which he had long meditated in secret, pretending that it had just occurred to him. Since, by divine mercy, the main forces of the enemy had been crushed, he said it was unseemly for Domitian to come between other generals and their laurels now that the war was practically over. If the stability of the empire or the safety of the Gallic provinces were in jeopardy, Caesar's place would have been in the front line. The Cannenefates and Batavians should be consigned to minor commanders, while Domitian displayed the power and success of the dynasty from the proximity of Lyons, not involving himself in petty perils, though ready to face major ones.

86. Domitian saw through this sophistry; but there was an element of deference in Mucianus' careful choice of diplomatic language. In such an atmosphere they reached Lyons. From this town it is believed that Domitian sent secret messengers to seduce Cerialis from his allegiance and see if he would hand over the army and supreme command to himself when they met. He may have been toying with the idea of fighting his father, or it may have been a manoeuvre to gain support and vantage against his brother. No one could tell, for Cerialis steered a safe course and returned an evasive answer to what he took to be the idle fancy of a child. Domitian realized that his elders despised his youthfulness, and ceased to discharge even the slight official duties he had previously under-taken. Assuming an ingenuous air of abstraction and looking as if butter would not melt in his mouth, he posed as a connoisseur of literature and poetry. What he was after was to hide his real character and avoid competing with his brother, whose gentler nature, quite unlike his own, he totally misconstrued.