Stilicho’s Son – Episode 14

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


My first day in Africa that summer had been at the house of my uncle in Carthage, Bathanar, commander of the African Legions and married to my father’s sister.

The sun burned hotter in Africa, blazing overhead and making the still air heavy with water. The crops were doing much better than those in Gaul, where drought had gripped the land for two years, but what was good for wheat was not necessarily good for men. I lay inside all morning, hiding from the sun and mosquitoes, while two slaves fanned me.

My cousin, Alantia, was a pleasant girl of thirteen and eager that I should see the marketplace. When Arsace arrived to pester me with his boredom as well, I let her convince me to leave my haven. Since she was the proper daughter of a senatorial family, she couldn’t accompany us, but she made me promise to bring her a gift.

Carthage was like any Roman city, despite her ancient history as our enemy. Great buildings and bronze statues dedicated to Roman governors, senators, and a few local men lined the streets we walked. A modest-sized blue bathhouse was as active as the stadium where chariot races were running that day.

Arsace refused to enter the baths, as did Segetius and many of my men, although I suspect most of them did so from fear that sharing water with provincials would taint them, rather than the morality that kept Arsace stinking. The bathhouse didn’t stink any more than Arsace, nor were the conversations I overheard any less interesting for their strange accents.

Gallus tried to refuse the bath, and I nearly had to tear his tunic from his sweaty body. Challenges from those unused to sharing water with a slave was something he should have been familiar with, but his cheeks burned red as he quickly slipped into the water amid the stares.

“Lord Tribune?”

I turned to a middle-aged man with skin as dusty as the African city.

“Has the boy come from the desert?” he asked.

“Rome.”

“Then you’re from Rome? I thought from his piercing, he might be a monk. We’ve had them come through Carthage, arriving from Egypt or the caravan routes to meet the Bishop.”

“A slave.” 

Eyeing Gallus suspiciously, the man continued, “My name is Romanus, tutor of the Illustrious Caecina Decius Albinus.”

“You must mean his son.”

“If you mean the venerable former Prefect of Rome, then, actually, I mean his grandson. I would share with you that he’s fourteen, a prodigy in grammar and rhetoric. He memorized all of Virgil before he was ten and is learning to read Greek already. I’m truly blessed to tutor such a noble boy.”

“And what brings you to the public baths, when I’m sure the family Caecina have a splendid one of their own?”

“Perhaps the same thing that brings the Respectable son of the Patrician from his uncle’s house.”

After indicating that Gallus should rub oil on my shoulders, I leaned against the side of the cool bath and asked Romanus how he knew who I was.

“Who wouldn’t know about the learned son of so great a man as the Patrician?”

He was sly. I could see it in his continual squint, as if he saw into the very depths of men. I smiled my appreciation for his flattery but insisted on an answer.

“The Most Noble Antony Volusian,” he confessed, “mentioned in his last letter to his cousin that his beloved friend would be coming to Carthage. Of course you know the Illustrious Albinus is his uncle and my pupil, the younger Albinus, his cousin. They are very close, Alby and Volusian. Like brothers.”

A wicked thought slowly settled on me as Romanus talked, placed there by my dearest Volusian. It wasn’t that he knew me better than I knew myself, because we both knew quite well the kind of man I was. What he had a talent for was motivating me. He had found something he thought might distract me and set me on a course of his choosing. So I became a wolf pursuing a scent, only I wasn’t sure how tender the meat would be.

I laughed aloud. “Then I’ll be sure to pay my respects to the great house of the Caecina-Ceionii, to meet my dearest friend’s prodigious cousin. It’s unfortunate the Most Noble Volusian isn’t here himself. I haven’t seen him in nearly a year.”

“Who doesn’t miss his charm when he’s away?”

After Romanus left, I lost all interest in the bath. “So, I’ve been invited to the Caecina villa,” I told Gallus. “I wonder what I’ll find there.”

His confusion was borne of a vague apprehension, since the subtleties of aristocratic communications were beyond any slave, even one as perceptive as Gallus. “Volusian sent this man with an offer,” I explained.

“Volusian’s in Ravenna.”

“Volusian is wherever his gold is. He has a gift for me, and it’s waiting at his uncle’s villa.”

We left the baths, meeting up with Arsace. Some of the markets were closing, but I managed to find and purchase a silver pendant for my niece. It was a Christian symbol: the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” adopted by Constantine for his imperial standards and now worn by men who had no idea what they were beyond a pretty symbol.

On the way from the market, we paused near a gathering on the other side of the stadium. A man was preaching from a raised platform, and some men wandered from the doors of the stadium to listen. Such speakers stand on every street corner in Rome, and they shout the same condemnations as this man, but his speech, or the manner of it, was odd. After moving through the crowd, I finally got a good look at him.

He was a fine-looking man of later years with graying temples and a neat beard. He wore the inelegant, black vestments of a monk, but he spoke with the confidence of a trained rhetorician. A man shouted a challenge to something he said, but the monk continued his studied cadence. Still, the audience was remarkably restrained, nothing like those in Rome.

“His Grace, Bishop Augustine,” said Arsace as he caught up to me, wheezing from lack of breath.

Sweat dripped from his temple to his shoulder, and I stepped away.

 “I’ve met him,” he ranted happily. “I met him when he was in Rome. He’ll remember me. Yes, he will. I impressed him with my knowledge of Paul’s letters. We should visit him at his church in Hippo.”

Arsace continued to blabber on, but I watched the man who had dominated my childhood with his stories and self-loathing. He was a man only one step removed from Ambrose, whose small vision had changed the world and extinguished any future I might have had beyond living as an expendable son. Images and questions sprang to mind that I had not thought of before, and I agreed with Arsace for the first time I could recall. I wanted to meet Augustine very much.

***

The following evening, I met Volusian’s renowned uncle, a man with an honored career in the Senate, having held the Prefecture of Rome. He also hosted the annual year-ending Saturnalia and was, therefore, like his nephew, a man of the gods. Despite his age, he was still called “Junior” because his father had been an equally renown senator. His wife greeted me, as well as three of their daughters, and their grandchildren, Albina and Albinus. I brought several jars of wine from my uncle’s estate, which they shared with me before I shared their dinner.

“My son is at Ravenna, and his wife insists on being with him,” the elder Albinus said. He was an aged man with a full head of gray hair and a perpetually tired face. He wore a fine red linen toga and red sandals. “I’m glad you could meet my grandson.” He nodded at the fourteen-year-old boy, who sat beside him and slumped forward kicking his feet, which didn’t reach the floor. His grandfather was distantly proud, but I had a feeling the boy was not much to be proud of.

“Had I known I would have the honor of meeting you, Prefect, I would certainly have come sooner and brought more suitable gifts. The Most Noble Antony Volusian had not informed me that his Illustrious uncle would be in Carthage when I was.”

 “That’s quite all right. My notable—or perhaps I should say, my notorious—nephew, occupies himself with prospects in Ravenna.”

“Notorious?”

Albinus smiled with affection. “He’s a young man, and what young man would take the time to visit his old uncle when he could be spending his time with a beautiful young wife, not to mention all the lovely women that brighten dreary court life like flowers in a garden? It was so in my day, too.” He nodded with the memory.

Volusian was a different man to each person who knew him. He was crafty that way. I had never known him to be interested in girls, especially not his wife, so I smiled, wondering at Volusian’s game.

The elder man’s daughters stood about him, each younger than twenty and attractive in a bland way. With all the curls, glittering jewels, and perfumes, it was difficult to distinguish the women from the statues that ringed the audience hall of the villa.

“Grandfather,” said the young Albinus into the lull. “You promised our guest would have time to tell me about Rome.”

The older Albinus clasped his gnarled hand on the boy’s shoulder. When he seemed to be making an effort at rising, his daughters tried to help him to his feet, but he pushed them away. He finally made it to his feet, saying, “All these women! When my daughters were children, I was a proud man, as you can imagine. But it was the arrogance of my youth to think it would always be that way. Remember that, my young Senator. They bow and submit and then manage us as easily as we manage our horses—without us even knowing it.”

At the door he paused to say to his grandson, “Show our guest the gardens, Alby.” To me he said, “I have a letter to write, but join me for dinner, will you?”

As soon as the old man was out the door, “Alby” straightened, and his feet slapped the floor. He glanced up at me from under long lashes and said, “Our gardens are as beautiful as anything you have at Rome.”

***

Alby knew every variety of flower and bush, knew where they came from and a great deal of lore. He talked and talked, trying to impress me.

“My cousin told me about you.” He stopped and turned to stare up at me. He was nearly a head shorter than me, thin, and more boyish than I had been at his age.

I clasped my hands behind my back. “I’m sorry to say I haven’t had the same advantage. I’ve heard very little from Volusian about his family in Africa.”

“Maybe it’s like Grandfather says, that he’s too busy with his wife.”  Alby’s lazy eyes rolled skyward.

“What do you suppose occupies Volusian?”

“I’m sure there are many boys in Rome, aren’t there? Beautiful boys from all over the empire. He told me so.”

“There are.”

“Like your boy there. Is he Egyptian?”

“Greek.” I looked Alby over again. With cruel lips and a small, blunt nose, he wasn’t particular attractive, but he was a senator’s son, and that gave him a certain appeal. “Romanus told me you’re a prodigy.”

“Tell me what Rome looked like when you were there.”

He was certainly focused. “I’ve often thought Rome must look like the home of the gods, only better. The same gods live there, set in temples in gold and silver and glistening marble, and everywhere you see the hands of great men who came before you—the Capitol, where the first Caesars honored their city; the Field of Mars, where Hadrian, above all, honored the gods with granite temples and statues; and the Palatine, where the Kings built the first city. The sprawling palaces near the amphitheater dwarf even this one of your grandfather’s.”

“And the games?”

“I’ve seen beasts from as far away as Scotland and Syria. Bears—black beasts twice as tall as a man, with the claws and teeth of a lion. I saw one tear two men in half with one swing, and then it ate their heads as if it were popping ripe olives into its mouth.”

Alby’s eyes were wide. “What about the theaters?”

“Terence, Plautus, Juvenal. Mime shows, gymnastics, boxing. Rome is full of spectacles.”

“Grandfather lets me go to the theater if Mother isn’t around. When Volusian visits, he takes me. I even acted once. Did he ever tell you that?”

When he noticed where my eyes wandered, he turned so I could get a better look. His boldness startled me, but no one was around to see. The boy had led me through his maze-like garden, and we were now surrounded by orange-flowering bushes.

He knew the tricks of a slave but didn’t realize what they were, as if he was pleasing, when he was only convenient. It was a cruel joke on the boy and his family, and I saw the instruction of Volusian in every mannerism. “Did Volusian teach you to be so bold?”

His back still to me, he said, “He taught me many things.” He stopped his awkward seduction, came to me and kissed me. He stepped back when I didn’t react. Then he fell to his knees. Before he could draw aside my tunic, I pulled him to his feet.

“Is that all he taught you?”

He stared back without answering, his dull eyes confused.

“Hmm,” I voiced, sounding disappointed. “Volusian’s usually more creative.” I pushed him away and walked back to the villa for dinner.

Before leaving that evening, I asked if Alby might join me at my uncle’s villa the next day, where I would tell him my stories of Rome and he could tell me about Carthage. Albinus the Junior was excited that his grandson should share the company of one who knew so much about Rome. When Alby returned to his grandfather’s villa the following evening, he had a difficult time walking, but his head was filled with many glorious visions of Rome.


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