Stilicho’s Son – Episode 4

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

When I arrived at the Flavian amphitheater, my assistants left for their seats at the top of the arena. My bodyguard set my chairs on the podium and then withdrew. Only Gallus remained, sitting beside me in a silver chair, his hands folded in his lap. Despite the heat, he kept his azure robe wound about him.

My gaze wandered from his hands to mine, where I studied the pads and furrows. They were strong hands. They had never seen war or labor or gentleness. They were thick and hairy, like a German. They were manicured, like a Roman. I recalled many mornings with Gallus’s black hair splayed from between my fingers, and I stretched them.

He noticed and looked away.

We sat in the great four-tiered amphitheater built by the Flavian emperors centuries ago. We were in time for the day’s executions, but Gallus wouldn’t watch. I had little patience for his timidity and little understanding of it, either.

I’d seen the commonest of slaves, who bled from the whips of their masters day-after-day, turn joyfully vicious upon reaching the safety of an arena’s stands, but Gallus found no satisfaction in justice. He wasn’t Roman, after all.

The cheering swelled around us as the show began. Gallus’s head rose, and he closed his eyes with slow insistence. I stared at him long after his black lashes met.

Two criminals entered the arena, a man and a woman condemned for robbing a martyr’s shrine. It was unusual to see women given to the violence of the arena. Few prisoners found guilty of capital crimes were women. Few people were even condemned for sacrilege anymore. The charge was often used to remove inconvenient men, not unimportant ones.

The woman’s death would be artful. She would die performing some myth, as was the custom. A matronly stola draped in an emerald shower from her shoulders to her feet, and the man with her wore a dusty tunic smeared with pitch, his back adorned with stubby wings of yellow wax.

Two beast-fighters, trained for the shows in north Africa, their faces burnt from years in the sun and their naked brown arms striped with white scars, pressed close behind the prisoners. Following distantly, harnessed and controlled by two other men, came a bull with gilded horns. Muscle corded its thighs and hardened its back like stone under its slick flow of black hide. It paused as it entered the light—strangely fearful, I thought, despite its freedom, despite its strength.

From the woman’s ankle to the bull’s thick neck the men attached a tether, and at a signal from the show’s editor, one of the beast-fighters whipped the bull. It charged the man with wings. The tether tore her from her feet, and the impact with the hard arena floor shattered her skull. It was a quick death, an unexciting one.

The allusion played out in the arena came to me then. It was the myth of Pasiphae, who was driven mad by Neptune until she finally mated with a bull. When I recognized the myth, I understood the part the condemned man would play. The inventor Daedalus had built a scaffold for her to unite with the bull. Later, he created wings for his son to escape from her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur. So the condemned man was Icarus, Daedalus’s son, who tried—who would try—to fly to freedom and fail.

“Icarus” dropped to his knees and raised his hands to Heaven, while the crowd roared.

Two arena slaves beat him with sticks until he stumbled to a wooden tower at the center of the arena, where he began to climb. His story would be finished later. The slave who managed the show took his cue from the editor and converged on another myth unfolding across the arena.

Two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the wall farthest from me, their skin pale from days without sun and food. Long hair hung past their shoulders. Honey held milky strands of horse tails to their shaved heads. Corroded iron chain linked their legs. Leather straps lashed trousers of lynx pelts to their groins and thighs, while hobnailed military boots ripened the mockery. An imperial edict prohibited the wearing of skins in Rome, so outfitting criminals in the arena like the rudest of Barbarians fed the audience’s appetite for justice.

Unlike Pasiphae, this was a modern myth.

These men were freed slaves who worshiped Mithra, once patron of emperors, of armies, of Rome. When imperial agents had assaulted the god’s sanctuary and set the carved god afire, these condemned freedmen attacked them. To some they were guilty of treason. To others they were guilty of sacrilege. We were of two minds: we honored the Nazarene, but we still worshiped those who first gave us the world.

“The Respectable Tribune Eucher is a man who appreciates justice.”

I turned at the mentioning of my name.

A young city official seemed to be speaking with a man next to him, but his words shouted above the crowd, loud enough for me to hear. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on the short wall that separated the senators’ podium from the main seating. His crafty eyes glanced sideways and down at me. “You wouldn’t find his father here, were he in Rome. No, the Vandal Stilicho wouldn’t wash his good Christian beliefs in the blood of Roman justice. He’d rather be destroying our past.”

The slur angered me. It was my uncle, the Augustus, who ordered the temples closed, yet ambitious men found it easier to accuse my father of making decisions in his name, especially if a decision were as unpopular as destroying a cult still dear to many.

“And what of his wife,” the official continued, “who takes Rome’s treasures for her own? A piety, we’re told, to rid the City of idols.” 

Again, he was mocking, accusing my mother of coveting the jeweled necklace that once adorned the statue of the goddess Vesta but now adorned her neck.

“As a Roman,” I shouted above the noise of the crowd, “I appreciate what’s Roman.”

“Unlike the Vandal Stilicho,” said the official. When he gazed from me to Gallus, I followed his look.

Gallus’s eyes were still closed. It was his usual habit when I forced him to attend the shows. An old saying claims a man has as many enemies as he has slaves. Another says beauty has its own reasons.

“Quite a charming boy,” the official said. “I wonder what price he’d fetch. What talents do you suppose he possesses?” He nudged his friend. “The tribune brought his boy and sits him in the podium like a senator. I’d say he’s making a tool into a man, but that kind of power belongs to a god, or maybe an emperor, certainly not an idle nephew.” 

The dull friend leaned forward and laughed along.

Gallus’s eyes were suddenly open, and though he stared ahead, he was listening, not watching.

“My father is all that stands between Rome and the Barbarians!” I shouted.

“And who stands between him and Rome?”

“Rome needs no protection from him,” I replied, but the accusation was well-aimed. “He protects Rome from Barbarians. He’ll protect her, even from pigeon-keepers!” 

Gallus glanced at me and then away.

Leaning toward him, I spoke in Greek, something I often did when I wanted only him to understand. “You don’t agree?” I asked. “Honorius can’t keep the Barbarians away. He calls men who worship the gods ‘atheists.’ He refuses to honor the true gods and keeps those who do out of the army. He spends his days training his pigeons. Whatever attention he gives to the empire only weakens it more. Then Father has to find a way to strengthen it again. Honorius puts his faith in the Nazarene, who doesn’t help him any more than he helps that criminal.” I pointed at the man cowering on the tower. “That’s why I bring you here. Put your faith in me, little Gallus. I protect you, like Father protects Rome. Without me, you’d die. Just as Rome would die without him.”

Gallus’s eyes met mine. “The Augustus does nothing the Patrician doesn’t approve,” he said in Latin. Greek was his first language, one few Romans learned. He never spoke to me in Greek because he knew how much I wanted him to. He possessed a passionate disposition that made every action one of principle.

Exclamations from the crowd drew my attention back to the arena.

The two chained men couldn’t see what the audience above could see. They were surrounded by potted trees and wooden scenery built to resemble an African savannah. They leaned this way and that, knowing something stalked them but not what, until, after a time, a predatory vision rewarded their search.

With black spots spilled across its hide, a tawny leopard sniffed and picked at victims of the morning’s show, then settled down to gnaw on the tattered remains of an ostrich.

The men ran, but the iron links joining their legs one to another jerked their bodies to a stop with force enough to spin them. When they tumbled to the ground like toys, they drew a roar of laughter from the crowd. Scrambling to their feet, they staggered in an uneven pace toward the tower where the man with wings still cowered.

The ostrich remains continued to occupy the leopard, so a beast-fighter released a tiger. Gloriously white, enamel dripping hunger, it spotted the chained men. They tried to climb the tower, fighting each other as they glanced back, but the tiger reached them before they had made much progress. Feeble hands flailed, desperate fingers slipped, and knees unstrung.

The spotted leopard arrived with belated curiosity, tail twitching.

The distance from the cats to my seat eroded the screams. Only the murmur of the surrounding audience filled in the gaps. Exciting as it had been, the quick executions made for bad sport. The crowd’s murmur grew into disappointed grumbling, punctuated by shouted demands for the “flight of Icarus.”

Slaves had been fanning fires around the arena, and now they lit another under the tower at the center. As flames rose, so did the crowd’s enthusiasm. In their elation, they encouraged the man to trust his useless wings, to take flight and try to escape.

Finally, like Icarus, who trusted his own wings to escape the Minotaur, the man launched himself toward the sky. As wax slid down his back from the heat of the fire, he spread his arms in a great gesture of faith and plummeted toward the floor like a flaming ballistic. When he hit, blood shot out in two streaks from his head to stain the sand. Burning pitch puffed from his tunic, raining tiny fires all around.

The arena thundered with the crowd’s delight.

The editor, a senator of the family Ceionii, sponsored the beast show once every five years, though I was told it wasn’t nearly as extravagant as it once was.

I watched the editor of the show, seated some distance to my right. His physician sat next to him, waving a shallow bowl under his nose, trying to calm him. The aged man was prone to fits. The folds of his rose toga extended and collapsed like a ligament as he gestured wildly. A span of bare marble surrounded him, the area belonging to the most illustrious of all families, more distinguished than even my uncle’s own—the family Anicii.

Those who didn’t attend usually offered their places as gifts, but the Anicii registered their moral objection to the shows by keeping their area conspicuously empty. The objection of such a family didn’t go unnoticed. Like a plague, it spread, so every time I came to the amphitheater, more empty seats greeted me.

Another vacant spot near the editor belonged to his nephew, my friend Volusian. His absence had nothing to do with morality.

Unlike his uncle, Volusian was far too cautious to be demonstrative, far too ambitious to remain merely a senator, and far too astute to be publicly linked with the worshipers of Mithra. Of course he was a believer, but at nineteen he already aspired to govern Africa, where an unscrupulous man could amass a fortune from the collection of taxes.

The editor dictated something to his heralds, who in turn wrote on egg-shaped placards that informed the audience about each event. When one left with his messages and came near my section holding the slate aloft, I read about the crimes of the condemned, about the African cats, the gilded bull, and the beast-fighters imported from Carthage. Written beneath all of this was the cost that was borne by the editor, permitted by the generosity of His Clemency, Flavius Honorius, Augustus of the West.

Honorius was my cousin by blood and my uncle by decree. His father, Theodosius, adopted my father. Honorius was soft and dull, petulant and easily amused, without even the imagination of a Nero or the bloody resolve of a Domitian. Years ago, he abandoned Rome for the safe, impregnable marshes of Ravenna. He appeared at few shows, seldom appeared outside his imperial palace at all.

The audience hushed again, and I saw two men rising through trapdoors into the arena. Cheers assailed each beast-fighter as he emerged from the tunnels beneath the wooden floor.

One was oiled and naked but for brown woolen trousers and a dented bronze helmet. Yellow tresses flowed out from under his crude helmet. Clumps of goat hair stuck to his chest, though his broad, oiled back glistened with the pinkish sheen of a roasted boar. He carried only a spear. His role in the farcical campaign to ensue was obvious; he represented a foolish infantryman, the Barbarian.

The other man wore a sleeveless red tunic trimmed in gold, military trousers, and a shining iron helmet. A smooth cuirass of iron clamped around his sinewy torso and three strips of leather hung over his groin. He carried a sheathed sword and a net. His role was also obvious; he was a dignified officer, the Roman, who stood like a vital spring amid the insouciant flow of the dead.

Walking behind the Barbarian, the Roman flashed scarlet and spread a net between both hands, while the Barbarian leapt and swung his spear to excite the crowd as he approached the tiger.

I felt the heat rise in my cheeks. I had no love for Barbarians, but I couldn’t ignore the stares. The men around me looked from the arena to me, and in seeing my blond hair, they thought of the Barbarians descending on Rome like a cloud of flies on a fat carcass.

The tiger crouched near the wall, waiting. When the hunters came near, the tiger tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go. It waited. They came closer. It launched itself at them, a momentary resistance to the inevitable.

After the Roman flung his net, the screeching tangle of white fur dropped and rolled between the men. Sliding his blade into its belly, the Roman spilled the contents into the sand. After digging through the entrails, he lifted his sword, dangling a necklace from its tip. He tossed the prize into the plebeian seats, where a handful of men fought so ardently for it that it was torn to pieces.

When the Roman approached the leopard, it rose and stepped backward, scattering squawking birds behind it. Ravens complained from a distance, stepping ever closer to the corpses, while gray pigeons followed, leaving their perches atop the poles that held the protective netting around the arena wall.

The Roman and the Barbarian stabbed the leopard’s back legs. After a dozen wounds it collapsed, then tried to drag its limp hind end away from the swords. Listening to the demanding voices above them, the beast-fighters slowed their strikes to a torturous rhythm until the cat was dead.

As slaves tended a score of fires lit around the arena wall, smoke from the smoldering tower and the fires mixed with the sweet aroma of three staked and burning calves, teasing my hunger when the wind shifted. The clever effect prepared the crowd for the feast to follow.

High above me, the great velum, torn and cracked in places, was drawn incompletely to its height above the amphitheater. Like the rest of Rome, it deteriorated under the absence of attentive caretakers.

The network of awnings had once successfully blocked out the summer heat, but now the pale skins mirrored in form the scattered corpses in the arena. Unimpeded, the sun reflected off the polished marble and sand, thickening the air with the stench of bodies, both living and dead.

Like a vision of hell, the fires, smoke, screams, flies, and sweat mingled into a terrible confusion. A man dressed in a hooded black robe like the mythic ferryman entered the arena. He hefted a large mallet and led a train of black-robed slaves. He checked the men and beasts to be sure they were dead, smashing several on the head to the crowd’s delight.

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