Stilicho’s Son – Episode 17

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


After spending several days with the Caecinae that summer, I rode to Hippo, a smaller African city near Carthage, where Bishop Augustine agreed to meet with me at his church. It was a Sunday afternoon following one of his homilies. All my urgency seemed mistaken when I walked in and felt his power more heavily than the weight of imperial suspicion or even paternal disappointment.

Gallus walked lightly behind me, the oppressive basilica somehow easing his spirit. Beside me, Arsace glanced anxiously about like a chicken searching for food. When he spotted the bishop among a group of his monks, he nearly pushed me over to reach him, but Segetius took control of the meeting, out-stepping Arsace to introduce me.

Like a nervous boy, I jabbered something I don’t recall and mentioned my father. Augustin knew my father from his days in Milan, when the court of Theodosius resided there, too.

With a manner not nearly so serene as it first appeared, the bishop nodded politely and said nothing.

“His Grace, Bishop Aurelian Augustin,” said one of the bald young men who stood to his right. The young man introduced himself and the other four men who stood about, but I didn’t listen. I was unable to look away from Augustin who was himself unable, or unwilling, to look away from me.

He was a man like any other, I told myself. But as my heart raced, I recalled how he had been all that was important when I was a child, his words recited by my mother, my tutors, and my sisters until I could recite them myself, as if each word revealed an eternal truth that was given to this man by God himself. He had an answer for every question and a proof against every doubt, and I realized I knew more about this man and his heart than I knew about my own father. I assumed Augustin would be well-disposed toward me because his friend Marcellinus had been my tutor. On the other hand, I told myself I held no love for Augustin because Marcellinus had been my tutor.

  He watched me for a time with eyes hardened by effort, but despite their attempt at severity, I felt I could see the willful and exuberant boy that still perplexed the man. Though I tried to dismiss him as another zealot who harbored that rationale peculiar to even the wisest Christians, his humility made him seem not so remote and uncompromising.  

Just then a delicate voice rose behind us like a songbird in the morning, and I turned to a group of boys who were gathered around their instructor. A smile interrupted Augustin’s stern examination of me, and he went to the group. He leaned forward and gestured with his hands as he spoke to them, but I couldn’t hear what he said, and when he returned, delight had replaced his severity.

“Your father has had a time with Alaric,” commented Augustine, as we sat in the bishop’s private garden later that afternoon. “I have many visitors from all over the world, and sometimes I’m sure I know more about faraway places than my own city. What news do you have of Rome?”

“My uncle is considering Consul Bassus again for next year. What an honor that would be for that worthy family. His son’s nine, and I hear the Consul’s looking for a new tutor for him. I have yet to visit the Lady Proba at Tibur, where I understand she spends most of the year now, but I look forward to seeing the villa built by Hadrian.”

“Why is that?”

The simple question was one never asked of me, because the answer was obvious. “I’ve heard the villa is splendid.”

“You admire the city of Rome, the buildings, the marble?”

“Don’t you?”

When he raised his hand to emphasize his response, I noticed his forefinger trembled slightly and constantly, while the rest of his hand remained firmly pointed toward me. “What I love about Rome are my friends. I’m grateful to have visitors and the letters they bring me, but I would rather have them near. My oldest friends are scattered far away—in Holy Jerusalem, Syria, Egypt, and Paulinus in Campania. To him I still owe a letter. If you would help me, I’ll send it with you.”

“Of course, Your Grace, but you have the means to travel wherever you wish, to deliver letters with your own hands. If you’re having difficulty, you could call on any number of men—the Consul, my father.”

“How fortunate you are to be young and to have the courage to travel to where your dearest ones live.” He smiled when one of his monks brought us cups of wine to cool the African heat. Augustine had been born in this province, and his Latin still carried the vulgar accent, but his manner was refined.

When he turned back to me, his eyes were sad. “News of Rome and the court is precious in any land that relies on an earthly prince to carry out the will of God. How is your uncle, our pious Augustus? You may be right about the Consulship, but has he made his choice for Italy yet?”

I was able to relax and release my stiff shoulders. As long as he spoke of the gossip of Rome and the court, I felt at ease. The habits of a senatorial life were burdensome because they were so studied, and yet they were also easy for that very reason, and welcome, when I worried what questions may have taken their place.

Before I could answer, he said, “Manlius Theodore was an ally of your father, and now his son may be prefect of Italy.”

“Perhaps. I’ve heard of several petitions.” “Theodore was a man of great influence with me…”  His thoughts seemed to drift away and then return. “…once, when I called myself a philosopher and lived in Milan. But those were the days before I met Bishop Ambrose, before his love came to be mine also, when I realized philosophy was a game of the mind…”  His thoughts drifted away again. “But Rome I’ve never wished to see again since my days teaching there. Is it just as crowded up with astrologers selling amulets and drunken circus-revelers?”

“Just.” 

“Idols, indeed.” I could tell he resisted shaking his head. “Who doubts their being lifeless, and yet, when they’re placed in temples and waited upon by servants, then somehow by the mere physical similarity, I suppose, they affect superstitious men who begin to see them breathe and smile.”

Leaning forward, I replied, “Maybe it isn’t the statues themselves but only what they represent that so affects them. Like the image of a cross brings to Christian minds Jesus, the marble image of Numa, the first king, brings to Roman minds the spirit of the City, the birth of an empire. He built temples to worship his gods, and he died, Your Grace, as did many men, without ever hearing the name ‘Jesus,’ and yet how noble and good was he?”

He leaned back, eyes narrowing, but in thought more than irritation. I expected that he would chastise me, but he seemed intrigued. “Like Porphyry said against the Christians two-hundred years ago,” he began, fingers touching, as if to steady them, and eyes cast downward, “what’s become of men who lived in the centuries before Christ came? Is that your question?”

“That was one of Porphyry’s questions,” I answered carefully. Augustin had spent half his life—more years than I had been alive—reading great men like Porphyry. I had many questions and feared he could answer all of them.

“Well, then, if Porphyry asked this of me now, I would tell him that Christ is the Word of God, by whom all things were made, and He’s the Son, because He is the Word, not a word uttered and belonging to the past but unchanged and unchangeable with the unchangeable Father.” His hand rose and tried to point steadily at me, his forefinger again trembling as if paging through a book in search of some fact. “In all ages, He’s the same Son of God, co‑eternal with the Father, and He called nature into existence, and by calling upon Him, every rational soul is made blessed. Therefore, from the beginning of the human race, whoever lived according to His teaching was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived.

“So I wouldn’t raise objection to Porphyry’s criticisms on the grounds that King Numa made new religions. Nor would I raise objection that later, in the days of Pythagoras, a philosophy became accepted that until that time had no existence. No, the objection I would make is not whether the thought is new but whether the thought is true, and whether the new belief promotes the salvation of the souls of men. That Christ came when He did was not chance, and that He did not come before is equally not chance, and that it was merely His advent that appears during history and not before it, is no more a criticism of His Truth than it is of any new revelation of any time.”