Stilicho’s Son – Episode 19

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


The day following my dinner with Proba and Paulinus, I prepared to return to Rome. I realized I wouldn’t have much more time before my father would recognize my procrastination for what it was.

I realized too late.

A messenger arrived with a third letter from Ravenna. It was stern and official.

I was in the gardens with Arsace following along when Proba approached. She walked idly, two slave girls nearby. Several times she stopped to attend to sprawling blooms, picking at them to drive their growth back into their squared plots.

I had yet to ask her my questions, and with Arsace so near, I still hesitated. When she came close, she greeted us warmly. She led us on a walk, taking time to describe the varieties of flowers and bushes and the lands from which they had come.

“The purple orchids are beautiful,” I said.

She thought a moment. “Purple’s the most pleasing color, isn’t it?”

“Not my favorite, but have you heard differently, dear Lady?”

“You’d be surprised what I’ve heard, Tribune.” She smiled coyly.

“Your garden reminds me of my last visit to Ostia, to the palace of the Ceionii.”

“Yes.” Her words almost hummed. She was in a pleasant mood. “I’ve been there several times. Magnificent.” Although she paused, the conversation was still hers. After a moment, she continued, “I assume your friend, the Most Noble Volusian, has shown you his mother’s ivories?”

“I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen any ivories.”

“Then you really must beg him to show you. An equipage of delicate combs and pins. Too exquisite to use, even on hair as silken as that sweet matron’s.” She patted her own hair. “She’s put them up under glass, along with treasures from Alexandria and Armenia. I confess my envy, but in these times, I find my conscience refuses me such luxuries.”

“Who would dare question Anician piety? Certainly the Ceionii have rather different priorities than we.”

She stopped and turned to me, her head slightly tilted and a finger touching her lips. “I understood that you counted Volusian among your closest friends.”

“No. No, I’m afraid that hasn’t been so in awhile. You know I’m long since baptized, while he makes every effort to avoid that blessedness. He writes me, complaining, provoking. I assumed you heard: he was washed in the blood of a bull like his fathers before him. It’s said he made a week’s worth of sacrifices on Vatican Hill near Saint Peter’s last spring. Mithra’s altar is there, but who’d believe it’s still used? Don’t think that I, grandson of the holy Theodosius and son of that emperor’s faithful general, could find happy companionship among such men.” 

“Never would I believe it,” she replied rather vehemently. “And yet, I wonder at some of the things Brother Pelagius has told me.”

“Less charitable men say I’m an atheist. I hope you know the lie of that. I won’t defend myself, but I’ll leave you to your opinion because I know it will be a wise one. It’s only that Pelagius disturbs me.”

“Why?”

“You believe you’re asking a simple question. I’ll answer with my own question. Do you find what he says compatible with those ideas of that other client of yours, Bishop Augustine?”

She pursed her lips and nodded, as if everything made sense to her now. “You despise ambiguity because like all young men, you want to make life your tool. You do that by wrapping your reason around it like you wrap your hand around a whip. No, of course they’re not compatible,” she continued. “Why should our brothers agree? They’re different men and have come to God along different paths. My husband once told me not to watch the muleteer but the mules. As unflattering as it may sound, I do the same with my guests. I listen to the conversation and ignore the speeches, whether they be yours, Lord Tribune…” her eyes sparkled, and she nodded as if apologizing, “…or Brother Pelagius’s.”

Her high cheekbones were prominent because her cheeks were shallow, and when she smiled, small lines at the corner of each eye grew deeper. Her most mesmerizing feature was the delicate space from the nostrils to the tip of the upper lip, the sensuous sloping lines so important to the Greek aesthetic. Or maybe she was beautiful because she was Anicia Proba. I wondered whether at fourteen she hadn’t been a cabbage-headed girl, giggling and impressionable as proper girls ought to be. I wondered whether she was quite as beautiful then.

“I suspect you’re being evasive,” I scolded. “Pelagius thinks like a Roman, and I fear that’s a deficiency in this age of ours—to believe we can still control the world, and what’s much harder, control ourselves.”

“You don’t feel in control of yourself?”

She was deliberate, forcing me to retreat. I conceded, “What man does?”

“A man who’s master of himself.”

“I would not expect you to defend the philosophers.”

She laughed, as if she were happy to be caught. “And you’d be right. A man’s only a master of himself who’s given himself to Christ.”

“Then Christ is his master.”

“Is there a better one?”

“If that’s so, then I’ll remind you that slaves deserve nothing. All a slave has he owes to the goodwill of his master. What’s a master whose slaves can demand something from him? Is he a master at all?”

“Now who’s defending the philosophers?”

It occurred to me I was defending Augustine. “Pelagius seems to think we can demand what’s due us from God. And why shouldn’t we? We’ve always bargained with the gods, giving them our food, our silver, and expecting in return that our bodies will heal and our wars end. Yet somehow, the gods have changed, and men like Augustine tell us we can’t make demands. God, he says, is a great mystery, like some oriental king and not a Roman. After all, what Roman believes a justice is ‘sufficient,’ as the Bishop says it is, if it’s also lawless and unreasonable?”

“Now you’ve intrigued me. You’re quite clever, Tribune. I’ve been expecting to read the letter he sent with you,” she said crisply but with a smile. “I would never be so rude as to make a demand on a man of your rank, so I’ll simply plead your indulgence to let me read the inspired words he’s written for my benefit.”

I couldn’t help stalling a bit longer, since the letter might be my only means to a continued audience with her. “You’ve confessed yourself to me, so I must confess to you. His Grace was intimidating. I didn’t expect so. His books are filled with false humility, such tedious analysis, that I expected a pinched sort of man.”

“Oh no,” she said as she gestured to a slave to bring a shade a little closer. “He’s quite regal in his simplicity.”

“Deceptive simplicity! That monk’s robe and humility vanish from sight like the illusions they are as soon as he speaks.” Despite the warmth of the sun on my face, I felt a chill. “What a fine poet he would have made. He surrenders himself like any man bewitched by a beautiful woman, and he speaks with a love like passion. This is my envy, dear Lady, this man’s devotion, his certainty, and I find it hard to believe he ever studied the philosophers, that he ever doubted a thing. He speaks differently from our priests here in Rome. He speaks differently from any man. He said in his letter to Paulinus that he would rather think about what we should be than what we are, and yet he doesn’t. He spends all his thoughts trying to change what we are—”

“Then you misunderstand,” she interrupted. “That blessed man, of all men, says we are as we should be. He’s all too aware of what we are, and sometimes, as Pelagius says, he seems all too satisfied with it. It’s men like our brother Pelagius who would change us if he could, for the better.”

Her rude interruption had paused me, and my pride reasserted itself, spitting back, “Augustine’s religion belongs to slaves not Romans, to men who can’t be anything but the tools of other men.”

She seemed aware of her mistake but didn’t hesitate to continue, “Yes, and Pelagius would have us be gods. But truly, Bishop Augustine doesn’t concern himself with much beyond his churches. I don’t worry about their differences.”

“Donatists kill the Catholics there like Catholics kill Arians here, like Arians killed Catholics fifty years ago. What will happen, I wonder, when the African affair is settled? Will men who think like Augustine kill men who think like Pelagius? Pelagius appeals to me. He appeals to us all, doesn’t he?”

“He’s a moral man.”

“Moral, yes. A seeker after perfection, and what’s wrong with that? There should be nothing wrong with that, but Augustine says there is, and I can’t say I agree with Pelagius. I want to believe him, but I don’t seem able to. Augustine speaks to my heart. Such a pessimistic man, and yet how is it he appeals to my very soul?” 

She was looking at me with soft eyes. “Maybe you have the soul of a slave.”

The chill turned frigid, and I couldn’t breathe. I stepped back as if I’d been struck. If she were any other woman, I would have slapped her. If she were any other woman, I would have dismissed her ignorant words. But she was Anicia Proba, and her words weren’t ignorant. Having shared too much, there seemed nowhere to fall back. I stammered, and it seemed as if Arsace would say something, but then Proba offered a rescue.

“Women seldom sacrifice for anything but love,” she said, as she turned and continued to walk. “Children, husband—these are the things I’ve sacrificed for. I think you would die for a principle, but would you die for love?”

“I’ve sacrificed everything for it and have never possessed it. The love I want and don’t have and the love I have and don’t want aren’t in my power to decide either way.”

Gallus stood, hands locked behind his back and eyes closed as he listened carefully to what was said. I tried not to look as though I looked at him.

I added, “You might say a dull man loves only what he can touch, but how is it that some men love only what they can’t touch?”

“You’ve convinced many senators of your impiety.” She stopped and engaged me surreptitiously, as if she were colluding in some plot that no one around must hear. Although she lowered her voice, Arsace, who had been following along quietly, leaned in to hear. “What’s worse than to find you have no control over your own heart?” Glancing at Gallus, she explained, “Yes, your boy’s a slave, but some would say we all are. I wonder whether that matters—of course it does.” She turned away and then back again. “But are we not invalids, as Bishop Augustine says, waiting for Mother Church to heal us and Christ to give us life again? We can often do things for others even against our best interest. But what we feel? Were you able to love what you should love, just by willing it so, or to stop loving what you shouldn’t? That’s quite beyond your choice, isn’t it?  That’s the difference between our dear brothers, Pelagius and Augustine.”

“Pelagius doesn’t seem concerned with love at all.”

She nodded as if she had made her point. “He wants us to do the right thing. Augustine wants us to feel the right thing, but that’s impossible for us to choose. That’s made possible by God alone. Of course he’s pessimistic. He’s also compassionate. Let me say, Tribune, that it’s the belief of the Anicii that you’re not impious. Propriety is something you may wish to consider, however.” 

She backed away a step. “I’m honored you would confess to me. For a woman there’s no choice who she serves—her father, her husband, and then her sons. It must be difficult for a man. Yes, I’ve often thought so. You’re a mystery, aren’t you? The son of our Patrician, grandson of Theodosius. I’ve heard such stories about Volusian, but I didn’t wish to offend you. It’s a delicate matter these days.” 

She began walking again. “Rumors have their own lives, you know. One never knows their lineage, and they spring up as recklessly as these blooms.” She stopped and nudged a few purple flowers with her toes. A petal broke from its flower, held in the strap of her sandal.

I reached down and drew it slowly from her almost translucent skin. I handed the petal to her, saying, “Purple suits the Anicii much better than the son of Stilicho. I’d never believe that among this rare purity a single weed might grow.”

When she took the petal, she held it along with my hand. My attentions had flattered her. “Weeds try constantly, and I send my men to handle them. Sometimes, I must take care of them myself.”

“Tasks that require more than a man’s strength,” I said, still holding her hand, “often succumb to a woman.”

“Yes, I have a certain reputation, one some in Rome may find unflattering, and one, I’m ashamed to admit, I take a certain pride in.” She trailed off and dropped my hand.

Her slaves drew close to her, one fanning and one holding a shade. Arsace stood with his hands locked behind him and a thoughtful smile on his greasy face. I glanced behind me to see Segetius yawning, his eyes shiny from staring. Gallus and the rest stood farther back. “Adjutant,” I said, startling both Arsace and Segetius. “Have the horses—”

“No, please,” interrupted Proba. “Please stay with us, Tribune. We rarely receive such agreeable company, and I would like time to share the Bishop’s letter with you. Oh, I know it must seem terribly boring to you, when you’ve been called off to war, when your father and all the East awaits, but you’d be doing the House of Anicius a great favor. It’s refreshing to meet a mind of similar passions. You don’t know how much so! I can’t very well let you go. Have dinner again with me tonight. And bring the letter,” she reconsidered her request and added sheepishly, “if it pleases you to do so.”

“You know I received a letter from my father this morning. He’s demanding I make haste to meet him.”

“Who am I to interfere in such matters? But let me dispatch a letter to Ravenna. I’ll tell him I’ve detained you. I’ll tell our Patrician that the House of Anicius considers your visit a great favor.”

As she left, Arsace questioned my sudden interest in gardening.

“Then I assume you’d prefer to make your dinner elsewhere?”

“No Lord, I’d never insult such—”

“Yes, yes. I’ll make your excuses. You won’t be missed.”