Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
“Rome stinks,” complained Arsace as he waddled a few steps and tried to fan the smell away with his hand.
I moved aside to avoid a fervent crowd and saw among the sea of Christian drab the pleats of a rose-purple tunic swaying neatly at the ankles of a pacing man. He was an imperial agent, one of the well-bred generations of servants strewn through my uncle’s palace with the same beautiful disregard as the rose petals littering his audience hall.
The agent’s assistants tagged along behind him like spaniels.
He had come to collect a fine of pork from the butchers, who stood around the street sharing jokes about what agents and mules have in common. Like all the Master’s Men, he maintained a smug silence. Occasionally, he tapped a bronze-tipped baton on the wagon’s belly, while the spaniels jostled each other behind him and slaves loaded the meat.
“Rome stinks,” repeated Arsace as he touched his hand to his nose. When he and the agent noticed each other, they shifted and glanced away like self-conscious conspirators. “Our first day back,” announced Arsace loud enough for the agent to hear, “and I can’t wait to get to Ravenna. Lovely, lovely Ravenna.”
After a few steps, he slouched again, letting his body sink into his broad hips as if he were filling a sack. Silk stretched around his pulpy chest, and his graying hair stuck in waxy ringlets around his head. He wore green like a woman and sweated. He was a eunuch who served in the imperial palace at Ravenna until he was caught taking bribes. Since he had important allies, he was saved from the torture he deserved and sent to assist me.
It was the first day in the month of August in the year named for the western Consul, Anicius Bassus.
Honorius Augustus, my uncle, had been the western emperor for thirteen years. My father, Stilicho, had been Master General longer than that. I held the rank of tribune, but I didn’t hold the office. I merely ran errands for my uncle because, unlike my father, he sought by station what he failed at by nature.
In June, I had delivered an order to the commander of the African legions, another of my uncles. Italy needed Africa’s legions. Rome was, as always, in need of soldiers. The Germans had been at our borders terrorizing the cities into treason. The chaos encouraged ambitious generals, and the Gauls supported any traitor as long as he promised to do what my father failed to do.
Not that anything in Gaul had changed in fifty years. The invasions weren’t new. They had no beginning and no end. They were a progression, like waves coming ashore—Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Alemanni, Burgundians, Huns, Vandals, Alans, Suevi. One year they were fighting each other. The next year they were fighting us.
My retinue of assistants and guards followed me as I strolled through the City on my first morning back. Unlike Arsace, I loved Rome. I loved the variety, the history, the filth.
I wandered to where spitted links sizzled at a sausage-maker’s cart. A beggar sat against a wall, a sackcloth draped over his bony frame and his legs propped against his chest. His short garment spread tightly from knee-to-knee, inflicting his nakedness on anyone who happened by.
His eyes followed the feet as they passed and stopped on my scarlet boots. Reaching out a shaky hand, he seemed to be waiting for a coin as his vacant gaze grew accusing. He had only one good eye. The other had a purple scar where an eye had been.
“Lord Tribune,” said Arsace, his lip curling. “Shouldn’t we move on?”
“He’s a rude one,” I said. The man’s one bloodshot eye stared at me.
“Shall I have him whipped?” Arsace gestured to Segetius, but Segetius looked at me for his orders.
Although he was only an imperial slave, Arsace had the fortune of commanding better men. He had replaced Segetius as my Adjutant. Minister Olympius didn’t have the authority to promote him. The Minister didn’t have the right to do many of the things he did, nor many of the things he was soon to do.
I waved Segetius back. “Don’t the bishops urge us to greater charity?”
Arsace sneered, “His runny corpse will be adding to some pit before winter.”
I thought of my father. “It’s not poverty to have nothing.” I could see Arsace didn’t understand my meaning. “You haven’t read Martial.”
“And you have, Lord Tribune. You’re fond of anything that is old and vulgar.”
His continued carelessness made me laugh. Though he wasn’t my slave, he should have been more mindful of me. Maybe it was my own carelessness in allowing a slave to speak as a man. “What would you know of good poetry? What does anyone? Men don’t think anymore. They just memorize.”
As my retinue withdrew from the massing Christians, Gallus kept his usual place behind my assistants. As I watched him, he watched the ground. I often flattered myself that we understood each other, that in the end, it didn’t matter that he was merely the runt of a litter born to a nameless whore, and I was the only son of the noblest general Rome had ever known.
That sentiment was an indecency, as all sentiment is. I reminded myself that slaves are neither allies nor confidants.
Like all slaves, his desires were mine. Like all Christians, he was made brittle by the disease of the sublime. He had no idle pleasures, only passionate ones—incompetent and needy, like thieves in a bakery at dawn. Although the true boy alluded me, I took pleasure in attempting to draw breath from that stone. I knew it was in him, as it was in me: what I am, rather than what I want to be.
“You squander yourself,” I said to Arsace as I watched Gallus. “You deal in innuendo. What have you told the Minister about me this month?” I thought back on the summer in Africa. “What about that senator’s son? Jewel of a boy. He could hold his ankles for hours and still manage to bore me. Some tedious story about how he acted once in a theater. Only an obscenity like Nero ever enjoyed the applause of a mob.” The eunuch didn’t seem to be listening, so I added, “The senator would have a difficult time choosing which was worse: his son’s smooth anus or his Neronian compulsion for performance.”
Arsace ignored my comment. “Brother Pelagius will be speaking at the baths today. Are you planning to attend?”
I peered from the corners of my eyes. “So there are reasons you enter the baths, even if it’s just to sit in the courtyard and listen to another monk selling smoke. While you’re in there, you should visit the water.” I thought a moment and added, “I have business. Court. Another senator accusing me of assaulting his slave.” It was a lie. Not that the suit existed, because it did, but I didn’t care about the trial. The beast show had already begun.
“Rape,” Arsace commented, not bothering to hide his disdain.
I regarded him a moment and said, “Rape?” I laughed at his ignorance. “Property can only be damaged.”
Like pieces of a shattered monument, the City held things familiar and things unrecognizable. Once, we were the center of the world. By the time my uncle wore the purple, we weren’t even the western capital. It was easy for the simple-minded to forget the past when the divine “Caesars” were centuries dead, their temples and gods little different in spirit from anything the bishops claimed to see in our Barbarian neighbors.
For a hundred years, we had prostrated ourselves like slaves before one tepid “Augustus” after another—a title for men with talents for ceremony and compromise who inherited the world from their fathers as if it were a family farm. Poets said we needed sentimental eyes to see the beauty, and although few ever accused me of sentiment, I understood what they meant. To me, Rome is only what she was. My thoughts often stray to the past, as does anyone’s when he imagines Rome as anything but the old whore she had become.