Stilicho’s Son – Episode 20

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


I arrived for dinner to find myself the only guest. When I asked about Pelagius, Proba explained that he and Celestius had been requested to an audience with Bishop Innocent at Rome. Paulinus had returned to Nola where some local men had begun to stir up trouble with the pilgrims attending the shrine of Felix. Themistius was spending the evening with the young Bassus. So important a family as the Anicii had a handful of distinguished visitors staying with them at any one time, and though I didn’t know everyone staying at the villa that day, I was certain all expected a dinner invitation.

Proba was perhaps the most powerful woman in the empire, certainly one of the most educated and well-traveled. Father had once told me that where men have pride, women have vanity. Though I tried at first to play to hers, in the end, it was pride that gave me access to the woman. Such was the case, I found, with all intelligent women.

Little-by-little, her extravagant manner gave way to a woman infinitely more interesting than the gracious hostess guiding me about the gardens. With encouragement from me, and a little more wine, her voice deepened with pleasure. She spoke of her travels as if they were escapades. She had been to Alexandria to claim the bones of some martyr, but she found less spiritual pursuits there as well.

“I know nothing of Egyptian boys,” I replied, leaning forward with interest. “I see you’ve heard some gossip you’ve taken as fact.” 

Her eyes sparkled. She enjoyed talking so plainly, but that didn’t make me easy. Her questions seemed well-placed, like a legion feinting retreat to draw the enemy into the open.

“What do you know of them?” I asked, forcing a good-natured laugh. Drinking more wine, I watched her over the rim.

“Soft like girls,” she said, eyebrows reaching upward, forcing wrinkles along her brow. “But so much more obedient. They make the best slaves, young boys do, eager for rules and the chance to prove themselves. Girls are rather disappointing—self-absorbed, vain. Choosing the right slave for the right situation is a duty I take seriously. It means less discipline, and that’s better than having to punish. God tests us in different ways, them by a life of obedience, us by how we manage them.”

“Of course you’re right.” I looked over at Gallus. “Sometimes the flesh obeys and the heart doesn’t, while for other men, it’s only the heart one can trust.”

She looked at Gallus, too. “Then he’s not Christian?”

“He is.”

“Hasn’t he been taught what God expects of a slave?”

“He knows.”

Examining his body, she made conclusions I hadn’t intended. “Grown women and young boys,” she added after a moment. “The only slaves I’ll have in my house.”

“But there are many girls here.”

She groaned. “For some reason, my clients think I prefer them. Last week the Marii gave me two ten-year old girls to repay a debt. What do I need with two more girls?”

“An investment.”

“Yes,” she said swatting the air with her hand, “for the future. How much future do you suppose I have? You wouldn’t know, Tribune, nor should you, the life I live. My boys I’ve given to Rome and my girls to great houses. My days and my wealth belong to the Church.” She lay back on the couch, hand to her heart, as if it hurt. “We each have our duties, don’t we?”

“If I offend you by saying so, I hope you’ll forgive me, but what did your husband do for Rome that you haven’t? The shrines, the basilicas, the fountain dedicated to the memory of your husband. You’ve given us wise senators and counseled many families. This year’s Easter celebration couldn’t have been so splendid without your donations added to the imperial funds. I say in earnest that many emperors haven’t given us so much. No, all of Rome is indebted to you. I’m indebted to you.”

“You’re kind. Too much so. I’m a woman, you know, just a woman. I wish only to do honor to my husband’s name.”

“The ages will speak of you both.”

“You’ve grown into such a handsome man. Do you believe like the ancients, that beauty of the flesh reflects that within the soul?”

“As subversive as it may be to admit it these days, I do indeed. How could I deny it when I gaze at you?”

She smiled and gestured toward Gallus, who stood behind me. “Your boy looks Egyptian.”

“Greek.”

“Is he your body servant, your secretary, your taster? A talented boy, I’ve no doubt. Extraordinary. What smooth skin, and those eyes. What is it about him?” She nodded at the answer to her own question. “Proud. You’ve trained him too well. I’ve heard he has all the privileges of senator.” Her expression scolded.

“He can read and write both Greek and Latin. When I have children, he’ll be their grammar teacher. He’s very obedient.”

“Obedient?”

“Yes.”

“When you have children, you said? Has a date been set?” 

I didn’t like where the conversation was going. “Placidia’s stays at Ravenna, and I seldom see her. The wedding may never take place.”

“Yes, I heard the wedding was postponed again. A child of yours before there’s an heir might be dangerous. At least waiting for your uncle’s first child will keep unkind mouths shut. Once there’s an heir, you’ll have your own sons and the House of Theodosius will be at peace with itself.” 

“We all want peace. But I think it would be good to have a wife, too.” I was resting across the width of my couch, rather than the length. Raising my head from the cushion, I rested it on my right arm. Despite the bandage on my left shoulder, I was able to raise a cup of wine to my lips.

Her eyes brightened, and she asked, “Is your sister with child? Is that what you’re being so subtle about?”

“Not yet, although I have hopes. We all do, certainly. Don’t we pray daily for his success?” After a moment, I added, “Despite the rumors.”

“Rumors?” She smiled slyly before tipping back her cup as if she weren’t really interested in hearing my answer.

“I detest spreading gossip, even when it’s true.”

“It won’t leave this room.”

“Of course not. As I’ve heard, my sweet sister remains a virgin, even after a year of marriage. For my sister Maria it was the same, bless her memory. Virginity is a good thing for daughters, even sisters, but not for the wife of an emperor.”

“A virgin,” she said with distraction.

“And not by her choice, I’m afraid. Some say, not truly by his choice, either.” I emphasized the word “choice.” Indeed I did enjoy spreading gossip, spreading an essential truth if not a literal one.   

“What blessed unions,” she said, having understood quite well what I meant and being careful not to register it just the same. “The Augustus and your sister, and you and his sister, blessed unions. Although, I, too, have heard a story, a terrible one. I wouldn’t repeat it, except it concerns you.”

I leaned forward apprehensively. “Then I should know.”

“The information comes from the imperial chamberlain’s own staff. I can’t divulge who told me.”

“No.”

“It’s been said that your brother’s unable, not so much from a…malaise, as from…preoccupation.”

“He’s never kept a concubine.”

“No, indeed. Why should he when he has the object of his desire in a more convenient arrangement?”

Her cryptic tale repeated over in my mind until her meaning became clear. “Placidia?” I whispered as I swung my legs around and sat upright. Of all the scandals to have left Ravenna, this particular one had never reached me. “How can I doubt your word, dear Lady? And still, how can I possibly believe it?” I called for more wine even as nausea threatened to return what I’d already finished.

“Placidia is even more a child of Theodosius than the Augustus himself—ambitious. Certainly, you should carefully ponder such a wife, Lord, imperial blood or not. But I’m curious about your boy.” 

She changed the subject so unexpectedly, I had to ask her to repeat herself. She looked Gallus over and asked, “Your boy. You said he’s Christian?”

“Aren’t all slaves?”

“I wonder.” She paused, leaving me waiting, cup at my lips. “Since they can’t read, slaves often have trouble understanding the nature of their belief, knowing right from wrong. I’ve taken the trouble to read to many of mine. I wonder whether you might leave your boy—what’s his name?”

My mind was still dodging the image of Honorius and Placidia that twisted grotesquely before me. “His name?”

“I’ve promised several of my girls that I would read, and he’d be welcome.”

His shoulders were stiff, and he locked his hands behind him.

“He doesn’t deserve such an honor.” An amusing image replaced Placidia, and I saw how this considerable woman might terrify Gallus. “Besides, I’m sure you’d be disappointed in his participation.”

“He wouldn’t be up to it, then?”

“My father ensured it,” I explained.

“Yes, that’s probably best.”

It seemed she had asked her price, but I couldn’t satisfy it, so it was time to give her the letter. When Gallus brought it to her, she took the time to thank him with a sad sort of smile.

“His Grace asked me to tell you of both his gratitude and admiration,” I told her. “He also hoped his answers to your questions are pleasing. I understand you might have your granddaughter consecrated to the Church?”

“Yes,” she said as she stared at Gallus and rolled the scrolled letter back and forth in her hands. “Demetrias has almost reached the age for that decision.”

“But can an Illustrious house afford to give away its women?”

She regarded me curiously. “Can an Illustrious house afford to turn its back on the Church?”