Sweat poured along Livius’ forehead. His heart beat erratically. He drew a deep breath, trying to control the irregular pounding of his heart, the spreading tension in the pit of his stomach.
He shook his head, moving his gaze across the faces of the senators, and they were like faces seen in a nightmare.
He stared at them, his voice lifting harshly, as though trying to waken them from their dream-state of unreality that seemed so serene to them and such a nightmare to him. “Hear me, fathers of Rome. The army is at the gates of the city!”
The faces of the elders remained stolid, impassive. Livius licked his dry lips, ceased speaking. He realized something was desperately wrong, as if all reason and intelligence had been removed from this august body, leaving a motley gang of clowns to simper and giggle.
He glanced around, bewildered…
Livius stared at Commodus. The emperor lounged on the throne, a dreamy, half-contemptuous smile on his face…
Commodus turned suddenly, the wan, lost look gone and his face hard and chilled, unsmiling. He stared across the forum space at Livius.
Livius straightened, his gaze meeting Commodus’. He was ill because for the moment Commodus had won. Even the Roman senate had been perverted, debased, demoralized. They were so spiritless they failed to see they had signed their own death warrants and sealed the doom of their existence.
Commodus gestured toward Livius and from the foyer Cornelius and Praetorian Guards appeared. They marched toward Livius and silence settled across the curia.
Commodus and the senators watched in silent fascination as the Praetorians moved toward Livius. They flinched, startled, when a voice rang out across the chamber, cracking like some dry whip. Even the Praetorian Guards halted, staring at the aged Senator Caecina who had walked down to the place where Julianus and Niger had stood in the center of the forum.
In the chilled silence the old senator surveyed the faces of the other politicians wrathfully, letting his fiery gaze linger accusingly on each man.
His aged voice lashed at them, “What are you? Who are you? What have you let yourselves become? Heirs of a great empire. You have here today destroyed and despoiled your heritage. You are worse than the hordes of Vandals which stand poised to the north! You are worse than all the enemies of Rome who are armed on all our frontiers. You are traitors! Traitors!
“You are traitors, each of you. Traitors not only to your nation–but betrayers of the whole civilized world and of centuries to come. Generation after generation will weep in misery and curse your memory. Cowards! You are cowards! Cowards who did not come forward when Rome called you.”
He moved his bitter gazed across them. He shook his head, “I will not leave to see the horror you have sown, the tumult and convulsive agony that will come after you.”
The Praetorian Guards, prodded by Cornelius, moved in both side of Livius and led him slowly toward the foyer.
Caecina stared at the guards surrounding Livius, heeled around, gesturing at the senate. “I will not live to see it, but you will!” He rocked himself, in terrible mourning, “Some day when the Vandals enter Rome–they will not find a city–only its tomb–for you have today killed Rome. Rome is no more!”
The old man swung around, gesturing at the senators and finally throwing out his arm, pointing at Commodus before the throne.
Julianus was standing a few feet away. He cried out in rage when Caecina pointed accusingly toward Caesar. He drew a dagger from his girdle and sprang suddenly, the knife upraised before the stunned gaze of the senate, and plunged it into the old man’s back.
Caecina straightened, let his arm drop to his side. His gray head twisted, not to see who attacked him, but as if to look one last time upon the place where he had spent most of his long and honorable life. He staggered and fell.
Julianus wheeled around with the stained dagger and stood over the crumpled body. He lifted his voice, shouting, “Hail Caesar!”
There was a hesitation of less than a fraction of a second and the entire senate cried out in answer, acclaiming, “Hail Caesar!”
The Praetorians led Livius through the doorway and out of the curia. He glanced back only once, looking at Commodus. The cheers rang around the emperor, but Commodus, shuddering, was gazing at the dead body of Caecina.