The Silence of Tiberius: a novella by Alberto Moravia (Racconti Surrealistici e Satirici)
Il Silenzio di Tiberio: una novella di Alberto Moravia
Tiberius's silence lived on prophecies rather than memories. By then, there was no time for memories, death was not far; and after all, what could he remember, a man like him who lived without sadness or joy, but not without a scornful annoyance, and in the continuous sullen fulfillment of his own duties? The time of Silla, Lucullo and Caesar was over: a time when wars were gloriously personal and commanders, after laying down their swords, were concerned with creating an eternally victorious image for themselves with commentaries as well as with battles. Now wars were fought in the name of the empire and not for oneself, to keep a peace that everyone wished would be eternal, rather than to conquer; and they were harsh, unpoetic, almost bureaucratic. And Tiberius, who had won nearly as many battles as Caesar, knew it well. It was therefore better to turn away from the past and look at his future as an old man; a short future if he thought of his imminent death, yet vast and eternal if he listened to some of his own intimate suggestions. In the hottest summer days when under the immobile scorching sun the soil crumbled like clay uncovering the rocky coast, and the lizards wriggled furtively along the ardent cracks, and the sullen plants no longer gave shade, and the cicadas themselves stopped singing, and the borders of the sea and sky were wrapped in a white vapour similar to that rising from a boiler full of boiling water, Tiberius with his dark and dry limbs wrapped in a snow-white toga, was sitting in the terrace of his villa in the shade of a pergola looking at the sea. Not the finished and familiar sea of the Gulf of Naples with its two vague blue promontories, the small chalky agglomeration of houses gathered at the foot of the mountain and the white mirror of the water ruffled here and there by some fishing boats passing by. One could not expect anything good from that sea: flattering and blabbing courtiers, ambitious and obtuse generals, busy ministers: such were in fact for the most part the people without mysteries who, anxiously and with their head full of Roman rumours, too often crossed the gulf, climbing, among spots of lentisks and cypresses, the uncomfortable little steps up to the villa and prostrated themselves before him, panting with their whole tongues hanging out of their mouths. It was not that sea that Tiberius, scornful of worldly issues, spied in his moments of solitude, but rather the open sea facing Sardinia, Spain and the Pillars of Hercules. On this side, the high indented bastions of the island seemed like artistically cut quartz; the calm and shining sea on which they rested seemed like solid coloured crystal and the sky a burning, echoing sphere. A perfect world absorbed in its own harmony giving the idea of an anxious portent about to happen: young Icarus falling swiftly from the sky and into the sea, or Venus calmly emerging from the waves, standing naked on her shell and twisting her soaked blonde hair with her rosy fingers. Now Tiberius, perhaps because he knew about human matters too well, or perhaps because of the suggestion of a mature time, was avid of portents, true portents, men turned into beasts, beasts into men, talking trees and rocks, supernatural beings able to rise up in the air and cleave spaces, walk on water, die and resuscitate themselves. Tiberius himself did not know where his thirst for portents came from: maybe from his experience of men, depressing and truly imperial, maybe from the obscure feeling that there was no use in generously giving laws, provisions and help to people lost in their passions and as far from the primitive religion of Rome as from the stoic virtue of the old republican aristocracy, to the point where, in front of so much unhappiness and evil, even the Emperor was almost, if not completely, powerless; or from the fact that human nature being corrupt and rotten to the bone, re-enacting not only the civil rules but men themselves was urgently required. Such were Tiberius's thoughts along with the idea of a portent that, through the more penetrating paths, imperceptibly insinuated itself into his mind without ever leaving him, especially since his retreat to Capri. And indeed, what better place than Capri could suggest the presentiment of a portent? After all, Tiberius thought logically, gods as much as men like wonderful and extraordinary places, where nature seemingly wants to compete with men in creating unprecedented inventions and marvels. A god, Tiberius went on thinking, does not deign to appear in an abandoned and dismal desert, or in the meagre land tilled by poor people, humility and bareness are not fitting for a god, rather majesty and mystery. Now, deep and dark caves where the glowing waves, crushing again and again against the corroded walls and inside the open cavities on the surface of the water, can render, in the silence, the noise of a kiss and gurgling throat combined; castles of red cliffs suspended lonely above the low undergrowth entangled all the way to the sea; lofty peaks enveloped in clouds, surrounded by ravines, higher than the seabirds' slow concentric flight; such and other similar arcane places, propitious to supernatural apparitions, were plentiful in Capri, so much so that one would think of it as the abandoned dwelling of some oceanic divinity rather than an island. But was it abandoned or still inhabited? This was the question. Judging from the triple and quadruple echoes answering in falsetto from afar in the rocks of the amphitheatres, one could think that this divinity was still there and that it was still possible, through propitiatory rites, to force it to manifest itself and appear before him, much like any general or high officer of the imperial administration. Ultimately Tiberius, despite his prophecy, still thought that men were at least as strong as gods, if not stronger, and that there would surely be a way to make use of the latter and bend them to quite worldly, not to say administrative, services. After all, whom better the Roman Emperor, supreme authority on earth, would the divinity reveal itself to? But however much the Chaldean astrologers worked, sent for by Tiberius from the Orient for a considerable sum, the divinity did not reveal itself, the caves were still silent and empty and no god rose from the undergrowth, nor from the ocean. Not that there was a shortage of new religions; on the contrary, they multiplied, especially in Rome amongst the cosmopolitan dregs of society – some adored Bacchus, others Isis or Astarte, and others, like the Judaeans, unbelievable but true, adored a one and only, faceless, bodiless, invisible divinity. But all these divinities seemed too servile to Tiberius; besides, nature, that mysterious nature sung by desperate and furious Lucretius was either completely absent in or openly opposed by those religions. Where to look for the supernatural if not in nature? Tiberius was sufficiently acquainted with human vices and virtues to be convinced that nothing could be expected from men; nothing in terms of divine matters. But the roar of the northern forests devastated by the wind, the glacial and foggy nights above the stormy hyperborean seas, the explosion of spring through the melted snowfields in the wild lands of Germany, such and other natural phenomena were still before Tiberius's eyes since the distant time of his battles against the barbarians on the border; and now, because of the demonic nature of the island, these memories would frequently come back to his mind as different aspects of a one and only incomprehensible reality. The ocean crushing ceaselessly against the rocks spoke the same language as the wind he had heard many years before, inside his military tent, blowing through the Batavian forests from the endless spaces on the foaming ocean. A language once understood by the people of small Lazio, yet forever lost today in such a powerful Empire. But the time was ready for the coming of a god, Tiberius was certain. And for this, every clear night, together with his Chaldean mathematicians, he spied from the terrace of his villa the movement, the configuration and the splendour of the stars.
- The end -