Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
It was Sunday, the Sun-King’s day, named by Constantine, that emperor whose allegiance was as fickle as his ambition was voracious. Under the protection of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, he won the battle of the Milvian Bridge nearly a hundred years earlier, where he secured the entire empire for himself. When the empire proved too large and expensive for his imperial administrators, he fictioned a dream and announced the victory belonged to the Nazarene, then cleverly used the bishops and the Church to control his empire.
The ninth day of August was also Mithra’s day. Apollo, Helios, Mithra, Sol Invictus—the Sun shows different faces to different men. They were all one, after all, but I long ago stopped honoring any who claimed himself invincible and then made way for a Jew.
Though Gallus would rather have received the Eucharist, I dragged him to a glen with one of my secretaries where we ate meat sacrificed to Asclepius. Since my shoulder was still healing, I offered more prayers to the immortal physician. On the other hand, the potions the mortal physicians gave me were becoming more a torture than a cure. Only the gods, it seemed, could help me, but my sacrifices had never much mattered to any but Hermes. Still, I took heart in this one for no other reason except that I needed to.
I arrived in Ostia at one of the Ceionian residences on Tuesday.
Getting rid of Arsace and the rest took more creativity this time. Because of the last letter I received from Ravenna, I sent them on to Rome. Arsace was in charge of acquiring the imperial passes and packing my staff for the trip to Ravenna. Segetius was to go to my mother, to take the pin I’d purchased to Thermantia, and to apologize for my long absence. Only Gallus and a few guards accompanied me to Volusian’s.
Volusian held the tertiary title of “Most Noble” senator. He held no office but was already a member of the Order of Imperial Companions. He continued to ingratiate himself at court with the hopes of achieving an Illustrious rank and office soon. Though he held his title at Ravenna, he escaped to his villas when he could to avoid observant eyes.
“Eucher!” he exclaimed as he entered the room. I took a moment to look over my boyhood friend who had somehow become a man in the past year. He was still rather boyish, but his eyes were deeper and his cheeks thinner. I rose and grasped his shoulders, and he kissed me and took a moment to look me over.
Smiling, he dropped onto an elegant bronze couch. “Cow horns have been hung on the Aventine, and the Christians are near to rioting.” He laughed. “Did you make an offering to Jupiter? Of course not. What would your father say?” A slave brought us figs and licorice root, and Volusian picked at them distastefully. “Next month we’ll have the sweetest honeyed apples in the empire. You shouldn’t wait so long to visit, or I may have to take offense. You missed the games on Saturday. They were sponsored by the Caesarii. One of their sons was just admitted to the senate—Petrus, Paulus, Pontus…something. Green won, and the Blues rioted. They say a hundred men were killed in the fight afterward. Do you remember that cloakroom attendant from the baths?”
Unable to recall the boy, I shook my head.
“He was about to lose his freedom—bad debts, the chariot races, you know. I placed him as a charioteer’s boy, attending one of the Blues. Now he refuses to honor his contract with me. Such generosity, and this is the gratitude. But the gods adore me, because he lost an eye in the riot. Great Mithra! The load of a freedman bloats his cheeks, and he thinks to refuse me?”
He stretched back on his couch, brushing his scarlet silk tunic off his knees as he sucked on a piece of licorice. The material shone like draped metal and was hemmed with gold thread like rivets. Every finger on his right hand held a gold band with different stones. His cheeks were white with no hint of a beard. Wide green eyes and dark brows created a stark expression of discernment, though his manner was one of amusement.
His palace was magnificent, sealed with ivory-inlaid doors and capped by gilded ceilings. An orange mosaic covered the floor, its theme a stag hunt. I glanced from the wilderness to his urban sophistication.
“I heard about the attack,” he said after a time. “Who would do such a thing? How vulgar. Did you get my letter? I sent my man to Tibur.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Have they found who was responsible?”
“Theodore offered up two of his slaves. One died without giving any names. I sent a man to Father suggesting he issue a warrant for Lampadius.”
“Who has a better motive?”
“Just about everyone,” he said casually as he picked through the tray of figs. He found a suitable fruit. “Tell me of Anicia Proba. How is she?”
“Hospitable as always. Her daughter wasn’t there, but her granddaughter, Demetrias, is a girl to watch.”
My observation raised his eyebrows. “A virgin, I hear.” He studied me a long moment. “Still?”
I took a drink of the wine his slave offered. Its flavor was full and dry. Volusian was a man with fine taste and the wealth to sustain it.
He sighed disappointedly when I failed to answer. “Don’t Bacchus and Priapus offer everything we need, but somehow that damn Jesus gets all the virgins. You haven’t mentioned anyone in a long while. We used to share the appetite, my friend, if not the taste. Did you know the emperor has been talking about running the prostitutes out of the City?” He paused to gather my reaction, but I had none. “Ah, what would you care of my concern? My dearest friend, my boyhood sweetheart. You’re not even married. What would you know of that worrisome charge of adultery and a wife observant of every wink? I tell you, your uncle’s mad to imagine he can take away half our pleasure and think it won’t make criminals of us all.”
“I didn’t know about the prostitutes, but I heard about the African petition.”
“Ridiculous! Prostitutes and now second marriages. Why are the bishops so obsessed with what women spread their legs for?”
“Quite a show your uncle put on.”
“I heard you were there,” he said sadly, “and when you didn’t visit, I assumed the worst. You never return my letters. It’s my worst fear that you’ll lose any love you had for me. It took two weeks of pleading, but that old shit finally allowed Altibia in the show. Was she good?”
“That depends on what you mean by ‘good’.”
“Yes,” he began, his humor rising again. “We can argue about ‘the good’ all day, as they did in the Athens of past—”
It took a moment for me to recall our drinking song. “Where Plato told men of the shadows they cast—”
“Beside Socrates, the lovely boy lay—”
“He welcomed ‘the good’, eager to learn its way—”
“But the Philosopher’s tool was an innocent creature—”
“For pretty boys a virgin makes a poor kind of teacher.”
We raised our cups and drank. He fell back against the cushions with a howl of laughter.
“And how is Italica?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes. His marriage was the single virtue that tormented his otherwise joyously indecent life. He was young at nineteen to be married, but it seemed an advantageous thing. His wife was fifteen and well-known for her piety, which would help his ambitions even if it ruined his pastimes.
He stared down the fig in his hand, appeared to win, and then said, “Corruption finds a fertile field in a woman. I often wonder why she wants a husband when she has a brother. He’s been visiting from Capua. Caught them once. What his jabbering lips denied, her breath confirmed.”
A revolting image of Placidia and Honorius came into my mind. Volusian noticed my expression. “How long has it been since I’ve seen your handsome face?” he asked. “Too long. Those shoulders, so broad. That yellow hair so shiny. But your eyes aren’t so blue. Your slave leaves your beard uneven, though I can tell how very soft it is. You don’t seem yourself, dear Eucher. Have my stories upset you?”