Stilicho’s Son – Episode 12

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

I told Arsace to enjoy the baths as long as he wished and gave command of the staff to Segetius. The Minister gave Arsace authority, but Segetius was by right my Adjutant, so putting them at odds encouraged Segetius’s anger and, I hoped, kept Arsace unsure of his future.

I made my way through the villa’s gardens, relieved to be free of those who studied me so closely.

A building squatted darkly at the far end of a pool. It was wide and flat, like a sculpted shell. On the west side of the long canal, a stone canopy was supported on the heads of white-marble maidens. They were copies of those from the Acropolis in Athens. The canopy disappeared into a building against the hillside.

Legend claimed that the building was the sepulcher of Antinous, Hadrian’s beloved boy. Above his mummified remains had stood a giant statue of the boy as the Egyptian god, Antinous-Osiris. The truth of it will never be known, because although three centuries ago, Hadrian set Greek attendants to guard his newly-made Egyptian god, little remained of his monument. Most of the original statues were scattered across the empire or destroyed. The sculptures that stood around the pool were new, replaced by the Anicii after hundreds of years of careless and pillaging emperors left the villa in ruins.

Servants of the new imperium skittered across the stones, and I followed the progress of two black-clad deacons as they passed in discussion. When they left my sight, I leaned against a painted column and turned to Gallus. He was examining the statues with appreciation.

Two naked warriors stood on either side of two solemn female supplicants in a ring around the green water. Maybe these few had survived the centuries, or maybe they were newer, but in any case, they were stained and had moss-spotted feet.

I studied Gallus who studied them with one hand stroking an alabaster foot.

“The empire’s second population,” I commented moving closer to him. “A people of stone.”

His usual golden skin shone in the sun like polished copper. His sable hair fluttered easily in the breeze. His linen robe was as blue as the lapis lazuli that seduced Babylon’s thieves. I rubbed my fingers across doves embroidered at his sleeve’s edge. The silver figures were repeated at the hem above his sandals.

He offered no response as the dark reflections of his thought blinked and then turned from me.

“The sculptors do us good,” I said, peering up into a stone face. “They fill our sight with beauty, like poets fill our ears. He must have had the heart of a poet who built this place, a lover of men even more than gods.”

“He loved Greek things.” 

“He loved Antinous so dearly that he nearly threw himself into the Nile when the boy drowned there. A pederast.” I commented, drawing Gallus’s concern. “Who else could pleasure an emperor so innocently but a boy?”

“You always tell me innocence isn’t a virtue.” He held himself with stiff self-control, not so complete. Greeks are tempered by a cool flame, but he was more submissive in act than in thought, as I preferred him.

“The cult’s inferior to everything that made you.” I waited for a denial, but he offered none. “Honest, then. Who can pleasure so honestly but a boy? What do you know of honesty?” My gaze wandered from the pool to a ridge of trees to my right. “Look.”

There, surrounded by flowers and ashy trunks, stood Antinous. That face was unmistakable. Hadrian had commissioned hundreds of sculptures of the boy. It seemed there were more marbles of that perfect face than any other image in the world. Hadrian had a unique virtue.

I made my way up the ridge followed by Gallus. “That lip,” I said, reaching toward the stone mouth, but it was too high to touch. “Flawless.” 

I drew away, turning to Gallus for comparison, but there was none. Not even Hadrian’s melancholy boy, who had become a god in death, compared to the gentle complexities reflected so beautifully from Gallus’s sensuous lips and sincere eyes. “Have you read the poems the Consul gave me?” I managed to ask only after I looked away. “There was one composed by Proba’s cousin, Paulinus.”

“Paulinus was a senator.”

“The senator who went to tend a shrine.”

Gallus added, “He was also a student of that Ausonius whose trivial poetry you admire.”

I laughed at his insult. “Where did you hear about him?”

“Letters in your uncle’s library.”

“Ah, my uncle’s ‘library’.” I recollected the steamy African morning when Gallus and I came upon Bathanar’s untidy stack of books. “He has no Sallust, not even Cicero. I noticed Virgil and a few Greek heretics. Isn’t that subversive! No one in my family reads a word of Greek but me, so he can’t be accused of knowing anything improper. I doubt he knows what he has, or he’d get rid of it.” I thumbed mentally through the stack and then mentioned, “I don’t recall seeing anything by Ausonius or Paulinus.”

He turned away, blushing and growing uncomfortable in the silence that followed. Finally, I reached a hand to his chin and turned his face to look me. I was as impressed as I was surprised. “You stole them?” I didn’t need his answer. I knew the only crime he was capable of was one of passion.

Dropping my hand, I let him turn away again. “Poets should remind us of beauty,” I went on, “not fear it like Paulinus. Philosophers do enough of that. Old Atticus the Stoic still shouts at the vegetable market every week, telling us to feel nothing. He’s so mad, no one even bothers to throw onions at him anymore, but what does he say that the bishops don’t?”

“You may call something beautiful that another wouldn’t.”

“Don’t be a coward,” I scolded. “You’re supposed to say beauty’s an illusion, like Paulinus does.”

“If you know how the argument should go, do we need to have it?”

“I know your mind, Boy. I know what you know. I learned to recite the Apostles like I recite Virgil. It’s a failure of nerve, that’s all. We’re all feeling that these days. The Barbarians walk through our armies. Men can’t afford food. Eunuchs, and men who might as well be eunuchs, run the empire. Despite it all, we care more about what we don’t see than what we do.” 

Antinous’s leg was cool to my touch. I ran my hand over him. This one was sculpted in yellow marble, with a pharaoh’s headdress and snake. His eyes were onyx, layered with silver except for the circular pupils. I preferred the gentle curls and twined leaves falling about the Antinous-Dionysus statue I’d seen in Greece. This Antinous was cold, like every Egyptian god.

“The Anicii see beauty with the eyes of Romans,” commented Gallus as if he were thinking aloud, his hand joining mine on Antinous’s leg. “Romans are collectors. You were fortunate to conquer Greece. Strength is beauty. We taught you that.”   

“What do you know of strength? You don’t watch the beast shows or the executions, even when I threaten the lash.”

“Brutality isn’t strength.”

“It’s the only strength,” I insisted. “That’s what we taught you. That’s why you hate the arena. Your god was shown for his true worth when that criminal fell to his knees and burned anyway. He should have prayed to the emperor. Who is god in Rome but the Augustus? Your obsession bores me. I expect more from you. Argue with me about love. Why didn’t Hadrian open his veins beside Antinous’s bloated body?” 

“Love’s a madness that’s a gift from the gods.” 

I searched my memory for the quote and found it among the dusty axioms of a philosopher. “Why quote Plato when you speak about love?”

“Tempering passion allows reason to lead us to truth.”

“A crime of passion gave you those letters from Paulinus. Your love gave value where there was none. That’s what love does. It gives value where there is none.”

“We don’t agree on what love is,” he added, staring up at Antinous.

“It seems we do. Philosophers say love leads us to god. Priests say it leads to sin. I’m glad you have a philosopher’s madness.”

His eyes dropped from Antinous to me. “The madness is yours.” He spoke in a reproving tone. From beneath black eyebrows, his dark eyes glistened. His lips parted slightly, taunting, like a well-used bath boy.

I lunged at him, spun him around, and locked my right arm around his throat. “Love can drive any man mad,” I breathed into his ear. “Do you want to know what truly makes a god? The power of life and death.” I squeezed harder and harder as he choked.

He tugged at my arm and his eyes watered, but he said nothing.

“Only a fool chooses the sharp end over the hilt.” I shoved him away. “What do you know about love? You think I love you because you let me fuck you. What do you know about anything? What does any Greek? Constantinople made a eunuch Consul. Consul! My father will bring back natural law to the Greeks. Things will be as they used to be. I should be with him now. I shouldn’t have waited so long.”

The vague anxiety that had been with me since I left Africa blossomed. “But Hermes is here, and Helios-Mithra, and Isis. Even Athena prefers Rome to Athens these days. They’re all here. They’re not in Africa, not in Ravenna, not in Constantinople. Only here.”

We stood for a time in silence. Anger broke a sweat across my neck, but I didn’t know why. I never knew why. As easily as he could provoke me, I seldom felt anything but love for Gallus. And sometimes I wanted to kill him.

After awhile, I said, “The nephew of an emperor should make a choice between obedience and revolt. It’s the only decent thing to do. I’ve pressed my lips to his hem and performed every other obscene devotion for twenty years.”

I cleared my throat and said, “We taught the world, and now the world wants to teach us. Constantinople belongs to us. Greeks bend over in terror for any hairy German as easily as you do for me. Plato’s dead, my little catamite, eight centuries ago.”

After walking down the slope to the pool, I knelt where the stone had begun to crumble. A floating island of flowers twirled along the edge toward me. My presence brought several geese paddling in my direction. Ripples reflected the sun in quick flashes. I saw Gallus’s reflection as he stood looking down at me from behind.

“Do you remember the priestess of Demeter?” I asked his reflection. It nodded. “She told me the present belongs to men, and the future belongs to the gods. It’s the kind of paradox seers are fond of. Do you believe what she said? ‘The blade above, flesh severed from flesh, the blade below.’ The vision slows when I imagine it, like that moment when Helios falls beneath the horizon, leaving the sky red. I wonder whether it’ll be like that, my blood spilling to the ground, the currency of a life precious to its owner and no other.”

“You’re frightened.”

I rose and turned, ready to slap him.

He backed away a step and my anger dwindled.

“It isn’t death that matters to us, is it?” I said. “No, it’s life. That’s what scares us.” As my mind wandered along the path of thought worn deep by many journeys, I said, “Theodosius groveled at Ambrose’s feet.”

Gallus didn’t need to ask my meaning. “He approached God as any man,” he replied.

“He wasn’t any man. He was the Sacred Eternal Augustus, Master of the World. He was God’s regent, and he fell to his knees before a bishop.”

“Before God.”

“Before a man.”

“He knew his place,” he insisted, “like your father.”

“My father?” I stepped toward him. “My father? You mean like you? You think you’re like him.”

“You’ve always allowed—”

“Shut up. What do you know? You’re nothing like him. Nothing.” With one hand I grasped his throat. “Your own father sold you,” I said steadily. “Your mother was a whore who let your father trade you for another whore. Now you belong to me, along with my farms, my horses, and my pots. Do you understand? All men need a master. That’s the order of things.” I released his neck.

His eyes were nervous. As they watched me and seemed more concerned with how I watched them, I began to believe that the motivation to endure for a boy without hope had nothing to do with love and everything to do with self-loathing.

“You listen to men whose spiritual ambition grows in proportion to the passions they deny.” I felt myself pleading. “Their appetites are the same, only their taste has changed. How is a priest different from a whore? One you honor and one you despise, but they’re liars and gluttons both, living off other men’s passions. You wouldn’t be a better man if you felt nothing. Only your desire makes you a man. Only obedience to another man’s desire could make you a slave, but I know whose desire we satisfy every night on my father’s couch, Little Gallus.”

His naturally dark features seemed to darken more, and he said, “It wasn’t the East, the Augustus, or even the Senate who agreed to Alaric’s price. It was your father who bent over this time.”

My jaw locked. His provocation sped my blood, flooding my cheeks with angry heat until my slap sent him tumbling across the stone walkway and freed me of the rage.

He lay on the paving stones in an awkward jumble of blue and silver, and from above, I pleaded again, “What victory is there in hating yourself?”

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