Domitian might hate Christianity, but at the same time, he feared the wrath of the Christian God now. He also brooded constantly over what John had revealed about his future fate. Would he truly perish in the fifteenth year of his rule? He had been Emperor now slightly over three years, and he was only thirty-two. Surely his life could not be cut so drastically short! Finally, unable to sleep due to worry, the Emperor summoned the famous Greek astrologer Thallus to inquire as to the veracity of John’s prophecy.
The Greek was an ancient, withered figure who was ushered into Domitian’s presence with fear and trembling. Domitian assured Thallus that he would not be harmed, no matter what he predicted – the Emperor only wanted the raw and unvarnished truth about how and when his life would end. After multiple assurances and being paid in a hefty bag of gold sesterces, the old stargazer finally agreed to tell the Emperor’s fortune.
Once committed to act, the old man’s fears seemed to vanish. He called for a brazier and pulled some ancient, dried leaves out of his pouch and burned them, deeply inhaling the bitter, aromatic smoke that curled up from them. Then he studied the Emperor’s palm closely, tracing its lines with his withered fingers. He reached into another compartment of his pouch and drew out a handful of animal bones, each one carved and inscribed with runes in a language that Domitian could not recognize. Thallus cast the bones three times, jotting down which characters came up each time. Then he unrolled a tattered scroll that was covered front and back with sketches of the constellations. He studied it long and hard, comparing it to the runes he had written down from casting the bones. Finally, he had the servants bring in a freshly captured owl, hooting and screeching in protest. He deftly wrung its neck and then produced a sharp knife made of flint with which he sliced open its abdomen from neck to tail, pulling the rib cage apart to study the heart and lungs as well as the entrails. Only then did he turn and speak to Domitian, who had been watching with a combination of anxiousness and revulsion.
“I must observe the stars tonight, Caesar, in order to ratify my predictions. I shall return to you on the morrow and tell you all that I have learned,” he said, his voice wheezy and asthmatic.Domitian badgered the old man for a hint, but Thallus was firm: he must watch the stars overnight before he could predict the Emperor’s future. Domitian watched the stooped, wrinkled form leave his audience chamber, and then sat for a long time, lost in thought. . . .
The next morning Domitian sent a message that he would be calling the Senate into session that afternoon; he wanted to lay his trap for Sabinus while the idea was still fresh in his mind. He had almost forgotten about Thallus when Leonidas came into the chamber to announce the seer’s return. Domitian felt the pall return as soon as he heard the man’s name. Did he really have only a dozen years left? His apprehension heightened as he heard the tap of the old seer’s cane on the marble floor.
Thallus looked terrible; the lines in his face seemed deeper and the circles under his eyes darker than the day before. Was it simply lack of sleep, Domitian wondered, or something more dire?
“Ave, Thallus,” he greeted the old man. “What tidings do you bring your Emperor this day?”
“Dark are my tidings, Caesar, and grim are the portents that I would reveal to you. The stars spoke volumes last night, and when I finally slept, my dreams were stranger still. Indeed, I hesitate to reveal to you all that I have seen, for fear that you shall punish the one who bears the message of the gods to you,” Thallus said, his voice trembling.
“I told you from the beginning, wise one, that what I required of you was simply the truth, with no sweetening applied. Give me what I requested, and you will have naught to fear,” Domitian told him.
“I was afraid you would say that,” said the withered seer. “Then hear, Oh Caesar! Hear the message that I read in the bones, that the stars whispered to me, that the gods screamed in my ear as I slept. I do not know what all of it means, only that it is a prophecy of doom.”
Thallus swallowed hard, and spoke: “Twelve are the months of the year, and twelve are the Caesars who have ruled this city. Twelve is the number of the greater gods, and twelve are the apostles of the God to come. Twelve are the years remaining in your life’s thread, for twelve days before the Kalends of October, blood shall shine on the moon as she enters the house of Aquarius. Then, ere the fifth hour of the day is done, your thread shall be cut short, as the hand of those who share your household shall be raised against you, and vainly shall you cry for succor. For you have offended the god who is to come, who even now spreads his wings over the heavens, and his message across the earth. The gods of Rome wither and die, and piteous are their wails as they fade from the pages of history! I see the temples of Jupiter and Vulcan and Minerva crumble to dust and ruin, and the line of Emperors fail. I see our city sacked and burned again and again. I see centuries of darkness, followed by light too bright to behold, and shining in the heavens above the city of Romulus I see a cross of gold, as bright as the noonday sun, and the face of the one crucified thereon is too terrifying to behold. Beware, O Caesar! Beware the fifth hour of the twelfth day before the Kalends of October, twelve years hence! Beware the dagger that flashes in the noonday sun! BEWARE THE CRUCIFIED GOD!”
As the old man spoke, his voice grew in volume, the rheumy tone giving way to something deeper, louder, and more profound, until that last terrible sentence seemed to shake the very foundations of the Emperor’s palace. The noonday sun seemed to darken, but an aura of light surrounded Thallus, growing brighter as his prophecy grew louder. Domitian stopped up his ears, for it seemed the booming voice issuing from the frail old man’s throat would shatter his skull. When the last words were spoken, Thallus stiffened, his eyes widening as the power of his vision consumed him. Then his body went limp, and Rome’s most famous fortune teller crumpled before the Emperor’s throne, dead before he hit the ground.