Stilicho’s Son – Episode 11

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction


You didn’t run away. Did you think I’d reward you?” 

Gallus sat stiffly on a couch, staring at the floor at my father’s palace. I sat beside him the night following my meeting with Theodore. “The other slaves left,” I reminded him.

“And look at what you did to them.” 

Two were to be sold to the mines and a third I had whipped. Others were still missing.

I turned his face to look at me as I leaned back against a cushion. “That’s your answer? You didn’t run because you were afraid of what I’d do to you? You expect me to believe that? You’re already afraid of what I do to you. You’ve had better reasons to run away but no better opportunity.”

As we stared at each other, I stroked his cheek, the soft hair of his beard.

His eyes flinched with apprehension, but he didn’t look away. I kissed him, and pushed him backwards. I lay on him, feeling his softness under every part of me.

I said, “You need me. I’m all that reminds you that you’re a man.”

“Do I remind you you’re a man?”

“You remind me that I’m not just a man.”

After pulling off his clothes, I pushed his legs backward. Even spread under me, he maintained a dignity few men possessed. When I entered him, he began to cry. Like every other time, I didn’t know whether he cried at the pain or the pleasure.

“Why does your god let me do this to such a virtuous boy?”

After a moment he whispered, “Because he’s your god, too.”

***

At the dinner on the Kalends, the Consul had suggested I ride to Tibur east of Rome to visit his aunt, Proba. Although the Consul was the patriarch of the clan, Proba was the widow of Petronius Probus, the most respected man of the family, of his entire generation. It was Proba who arranged and paid for the family’s consulships. Even for old senatorial families, it was an expensive proposition paying fees and bribes, then providing handouts and games once a man was selected. Proba put three sons and her uncle into the office and still had enough time and money to frighten Pagans.

I had letters to deliver to the Anicii, given to me from one of the family’s most distinguished clients, Bishop Augustine of Hippo.

My retinue accompanied me east to where the river Anio spills from the Apennines, a country of ravines spotted with sprawling villas. As always, Gallus rode some distance behind and silent among the servants.

Before we reached Tibur, we turned off for the villa that had once been the palatial residence of Hadrian. I looked forward to visiting the villa, to looking on the refuge of a man whose life often seemed more real to me than my own. Though the estate was an imperial land, the Anicii had bid for the right to its use before Julian’s time. They pressed oil and wine nearby.

Proba was greeting guests in the building that provided entrance to the throne room. It was hers to use, but she never received visitors at Hadrian’s imperial seat. There remained a certain humility among the First Family of Christian Rome.

“Illustrious Lady Anicia Faltonia Proba,” I began courteously. Standing before her with Gallus and gifts, I glanced around at the many guests and attendants and then spoke more loudly to make sure everyone could hear. “Widow of Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus, Consul, three times Praetorian Prefect, patron of Capua, and a gifted poet; yourself a noted poet and mother of those magnificent sons of Rome, Olybrius and Probinus, who so honored your family as none other by sharing the consulship in the same year; mother also of Probus who named another year for the Anicio-Petronii when he shared the consulship with Arcadius Augustus, only two years ago. Your ancestor Acilius Glabrio granted nobility to your most distinguished family by holding the consulship two-hundred years before the first Caesar claimed the empire. Your more recent ancestor Anicius Faustus graced your family with military prestige when he rose to become Legate of our first African Augustus, Septimius Severus. How blessed are we to have you to watch over the Eternal City. Before all things, I pray that God keeps you in good health.”  I paused for a bow. “I bring greetings as well from your brother in the Lord and cousin, Consul Auchenius Bassus and a fellow servant of Christ, Bishop Augustine of Hippo.”

“Respectable Tribune and Notary,” Proba sighed happily, “distinguished senator, son of our glorious Patrician who was twice Consul, now imperial companion and Master General of the Infantry and Cavalry; son also of the most devoted daughter of the Church, Serena, niece of the great Theodosius Augustus; grandson of that first Catholic emperor who brought peace to Christ’s Church; nephew of our glorious and pious Father of Rome, Honorius, forever Augustus; you flatter us with your tribute. How great an impression you make. You’ve made the tributes of our clients this morning appear trivial. I’m sure they’re not nearly so pleased to greet you as we are. Welcome to Tibur.”

Her black eyes were sharp. Her brown hair curled in a halo of ringlets around her face. She sat tall despite her short stature, one hand hanging delicately off the arm of her chair. She spoke with an imperial manner, yet with a modesty befitting a girl, her eyes glanced to the ground. It was an odd combination for a woman known for her ruthlessness. She was also known for her piety. Both served her well.        

Since Constantine and before, her family had been a leader of men. Four generations ago in the reign of Constantine, Sextus Anicius Paulinus had been the first man to stand on the Senate floor and swear an oath to the Nazarene. The Anicii were one of the few senatorial families wholly devoted to the Church. Their money supported careers, built basilicas, funded many episcopal sees, the gathering of martyrs’ relics, and dispensed relief to widows, orphans, and the poor.

“I see God keeps you in good health and that his Holy Apostles protect you,” she said. “We’re blessed to have you with us, despite this terrible crime.” She gestured at my shoulder.

“Yes, of course you’ve heard of my misfortune, dear Lady. Former Prefect Theodore tended me. He even surrendered a number of his slaves for torture. We’ll find out who was behind it.”

She had a slave to receive my gifts, and he took the cart from Gallus. It held one-hundred pints of the year’s first-pressed oil from my uncle’s estate in Africa.

To Proba herself I handed a small, silver box. Her eyebrows rose in surprise. When she opened it, she removed the jewelry for the room to see. A relief of a woman in profile adorned a translucent sardonyx that was bordered with gold. I had purchased a similar one for my sister, Thermantia, who never saw such luxurious gifts, though she was Honorius’s own wife.

Buying the pins had caused a great rift between my uncle and me, had been the reason I left Africa early that summer. The jewelry cost more than my uncle made as commander of the African army in a year, so he accused me of extravagance. I accused him of lying. I knew quite well his meager salary was the least of his pay, not half of the food, horses, and “gifts” he took from his men and the provincials who billeted them.

Proba was delighted with the pin and attached it to the green mantle she wore across her shoulders. A gauzy scarlet girdle cinched the dress of yellow Arabian silk at her waist. As her dress flowed downward, it narrowed elegantly at her feet. Beneath the straps of her rose sandals, blue veins swelled from her feet, the most telling sign of her age. Although she was at least sixty years old, her hair still held its color, and her body still held its shape. She undoubtedly had all the secrets well-funded vanity could purchase.

From a nearby window, sun rays streamed in and shimmered across a necklace of gold ivy-leaf links that neatly circled her neck. She touched her fingers to it, idly checking how it lay. “We’re honored by your kindness, Tribune, and pleased you’ve come to visit. It’s been years since we’ve spoken with you, though we hear of you from your mother. Our Patrician has ministered the Augustus well. Rome has agreed on the weight to make peace with King Alaric, and your father lives not for his profit but for Rome.”

“For peace,” I emphasized. “First the Senate voted for war. But the Patrician convinced them of the need for peace. They gave their considered support and four-thousand pounds gold to keep the Goths our allies. But they haven’t been timely in their efforts. Alaric has already sent a second envoy to claim what’s been promised. But once we’re done with that debt, we’ll have enemies to deal with in Gaul.” 

Despite the men of her family, Proba had controlled the clan since her husband’s death twenty years ago. She was only fourteen when she married Probus, her father’s cousin, so it was fortunate for her that her husband tutored her at making and spending and that he left her his reputation for piety. Perhaps, it was most fortunate that he died. A wealthy widow may become a wild thing, which was undoubtedly why the Church was trying to outlaw second marriages, hoping to harness that horse for their own ride. I had known her since I was a boy, known her to be an eccentric blending of genuine devotion and greed peculiar to the Anicii.

“There are those who don’t share your appreciation for the Patrician’s efforts,” I told her.

“The Senate…” she began slowly, looking about, chin high, eyes searching her thoughts more than the room. “Or Consistory?” She understood my situation and shared my dislike for imperial Ravenna.

“As always,” I replied, “you anticipate me.” Though I wondered what she knew, I couldn’t yet ask. Fifty bodyguards stood at the walls behind her, and behind me stood over a hundred tenants, freedmen, and knights—her clients come to ask aid or offer thanks. Since rumor makes a spy of every man, I refrained from sharing my concerns. “I have a letter for you, dear Lady, as you may have already heard. My delivery will no doubt delight you to read as much as it did me to carry these weeks from Africa. I have another for your cousin Paulinus. I’ve heard he was to be here sometime this summer.”

“Indeed he is,” she said happily. “He’s with us now.” She resolved her excitement into a patient curiosity. “Then you’ll stay with us for awhile?” She twisted a corner of the mantle that fell between her breasts, and when I offered a smile, she added, “Yes, we’re blessed to have our dear cousin staying with us. He’s been made bishop of Nola. We also have Britannicus Pelagius visiting. You’ll have the chance to meet both men, but you’re probably hot. A girl will show you to the baths, and then maybe you’ll share dinner tonight.” 


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