Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Other slaves in plain wool suddenly emerged into the arena as if they had peeled from the walls.
They proceeded to gather the corpses of men and beasts into the central mound near the smoldering tower. It was often observed that moonlight spoiled flesh faster than sunlight, but it seemed to me that Diana could have done little better than Apollo that day.
As bodies mingled bone-on-bone in the sand, our ecstasy mounted until forty-thousand voices were roaring their pleasure.
We were a brutal people. We had seen the fruit of our fathers’ victories ferment to blood, spoils of a war that no longer made deserts of foreign lands but of our faith. Where violence had once served Rome, brutality came to preserve her, but it fed the taste without satisfying the appetite.
These were Gallus’s words—elegant words, disdainful words. He shared his opinion with me freely, which was another of my indecencies, for I valued his judgment, though it was a slave’s judgment, often deliberated under a narrow lash.
His eyes were shut, skin drawn tight over the contour of his cheek, a lattice of sun and shadow that twitched with strain. I demanded he attend the show and watch, but Stoic acceptance is for philosophers. Christians feel pain.
He glimpsed the struggles of angels and demons where I saw men. He knew a god as I knew an emperor. A violence too intimate turned him away. I admired his fidelity; what he shared with me, he shared with no one else.
A moral corruption had taken hold of us. The Apostle Paul gloried in his infirmities. Only invalids were loved by God. Only the poor knew virtue. Only victims found redemption. Finally, Christians stole the gladiatorial games from us because men weren’t allowed to redeem themselves. Only their god had that power.
Until my zealous uncle closed the gladiatorial schools, each blow delivered with courage and strength had been a pulse returning life to Rome. Those blows could even return freedom and respectability to the man. Honorius left us with nothing but artistic slaughter, a rigged game. Yet, despite a capricious law forbidding the execution of criminals by beasts, we did it anyway. I hoped that in the same way, gladiators would one day return to the arena floor.
It wasn’t law that ruled Rome, after all, but men.
As the crowd seethed, Gallus remained opaque to the lurid spectacle below. Like a hand numbed by cold, he felt nothing. I studied his self-absorption as he sat mutely beside me. He claimed his pleasure had no surface, but I knew his fictions.
I leaned toward him and said, “This is how red begins.”
His eyes fluttered open. He squinted from the brightness of the sun, as if he had just awakened from a long night. Although slaves were allowed only on the wood benches near the vulgar women, I granted him a considerable advancement. When a senator once protested, I threatened the man with my father’s name, since he didn’t at first respond to mine. Prudence convinced him to remove himself and allow a common slave on senatorial marble. No one had objected since.
“When I was a boy,” I continued, “Mother told me where colors come from.” My words were lost among the shouts that echoed from all around us. A beast-fighter severed the horns from live ibexes and tossed them into the stands above us. Pale addaxes were herded in next, their loosely-spiraled horns an even greater prize.
“She has the vision of a goddess, you know. If she were Greek, she would have been a poet. If she were Egyptian, a priestess. But as a Roman, she was a mother.” I leaned closer. “Blue, she said, is justice, and it covers all the world. She said it would always protect me. Green is love, and it supports the world. She said God would always love me. But this, little Gallus, is where red begins.”
“Red is a color.”
“Red is what happens when men draw swords. Red is the sun and fire.” Pausing to look him over, I thought of that morning and added, “It reminds you what you are. You need to be reminded often.”
The crowd was restless. We were still Roman. From marble to crumbling brick, from senator to slave, we hissed, howled, and demanded more. It was victory we wanted, victory defined, as it had always been, by a pile of victims.
More respectable than the impatient plebes above and seeking their approval nonetheless, the senators only hissed at the pause in the show. Those seated around me were less involved with the show than with Gallus. They censured me with glares, but their scrutiny meant little. I was the son of the Master General, and such scrutiny had surrounded me all my life.
Rather than a toga, I wore a tan Greek cloak, like philosophers and professors wore, but the heat forced me to remove it. Two vertical purple stripes along the hems of my scarlet tunic were the only indication of my rank. Not that I wasn’t a familiar sight in the arena, or anywhere in Rome. More people knew me on sight than would have known my uncle apart from his purple silk.
My fellow senators began to leer at Gallus.
His bones were delicate, and his black eyebrows gathered hawklike above perceptive brown eyes. Docile and effeminate, he sometimes seemed like a eunuch, but his new beard and leanness revealed his natural masculinity. Having known most of the men seated around me all my life, I recognized the way they stared at him. It was the same way I stared at him. He was a beautiful boy, one tantalizing step across the threshold of manhood.
Nearby sat Publicius, a pig from the drove of Epicurus. Through the waves of his fat cheeks, his eyes peeked like two drowning men, while a cleverly-regarded thought struggled for liberation from his dull countenance. He was part of a powerful family, but when we were both fifteen, I stripped him naked to see the thing he boasted as “Hercules.” I then kicked him into the streets, alone but for his shriveled hero. Five years later, he still maintained a flattering vigilance whenever I was near.
That day in the amphitheater, he kept one chubby hand in a fist against his groin as if hiding something. He poked his thumb out and wagged it at me when he saw I was looking. Knowing what little he had to hide, I raised my hand and waved my smallest finger back at him.
Publicius reminded me that the important thing to discover about any man is what he is, not what he believes he is. I knew the importance of that because Gallus was my slave and Stilicho was my father.
They were both men of Christian principle, believing themselves to be what they admired, and unable, in the end, to accept what they were. Despite his Roman mother, despite his adoption and marriage into the Theodosian dynasty, despite that I defended him as one all the time, my father was no more Roman than Gallus. Like any defeated enemy, Gallus hated Rome, and like any foolish foreigner, my father worshiped her. He worshiped her as only a Barbarian could.
To those of us who, as boys, chased each other through her marble palaces and climbed shit-stained statues of Caesar to catch pigeons, what was Rome but a tool, to be used or thrown away?
I clamped my hand around Gallus’s forearm and drew him roughly to his feet. I was leaving the show. Justice was uninteresting when I had too much to think on.
“Come, Gallus,” I ordered, but he stared at me as if I were a mirror of dark reflections. I was a test, a trial, a threat in a game of soldiers-and-robbers. In our escalating match, I often used my own hand, having dispensed of my disciplinary slave, which was yet another of my indecencies.
The crowd hushed again as heralds announced an unexpected addition to the show, the performance of one of Rome’s best known strippers. Without a thought for what would be said in their churches, the fickle audience praised the editor’s generosity, and the show continued.
Dropping Gallus’s arm, I sat back down.
Eight naked slaves set a litter onto the sand and a woman emerged. She wasn’t young, and cosmetics attempted unsuccessfully to create a delighted nymph out of the tired harlot. Her bare feet negotiated the stained arena floor. She moved toward my wall and seemed to be watching me.
She came so close to the wall that I had to lean forward and peer over the ledge. I glanced from the name of my family carved into the white stone at my feet to the woman skidding in the sand. Despite the announcement, she wasn’t coordinated enough to be professional, or she may have been drunk.
One of the naked slaves wore the brand of an armory worker—deserted his work, perhaps, and was sold into slavery. Now he was just a bad lyre-player, and he stood near the litter plucking a grating melody that sounded Persian or out-of-tune. A strap, riveted to a black belt, locked under his genitals and lifted them in a prominent display. An observation from the poet Juvenal came to mind, that when a man’s run out of luck, it doesn’t matter how big his cock is.
A tiara of quartz held the harlot’s dark hair high in its sparkling ring, and a few curls were flung free as she danced. As common as any prostitute who had entertained me at the temple of Isis, she nonetheless had the fair skin of a sheltered aristocrat. She was the type often employed for the dinner parties of rich freedmen—men who envied senatorial respectability but not their wealth. Her hyacinth robe parted to reveal pendulous breasts tipped by almond-brown nipples. Her round belly pinched into a hairless, puffy triangle between her legs.
She rolled to her back, and her robe surrounded her like a violet puddle. She spread her legs wide below me and rested her feet in the net that protected the podium from the animals of the arena.
Her show, it appeared, was just for me.
A white swan, its feathers smooth as cream, its face a black mask, stepped from a bag held by a beast-fighter. It fluttered toward her as she sprinkled seeds onto the depilated pink slit between her legs. Her inner thighs and labia were golden with honey and the seed stuck where it touched her skin. As the swan descended and fed, she gyrated and bucked as if being pleasured, her rhythm matching the plucking of the lyre.
In the body of a swan the lustful Jupiter had ravished the mortal Leda. Helen was one of the immortal children born from the union, the woman for whom the Greeks fought ten years before the walls of Troy. Love for the boy Patroclus lured Achilles to his death there. The Trojan prince, Aeneas, fled the burning towers and found Rome. Jupiter’s intemperance had led to war, then to Rome, and finally, to an inelegant erotic show that played long after his temples were shattered.
Only a man of great wit could have created this vignette. I smiled, quite aware of who that magnificent man was.
The slave that carried the placard announcing the event walked some distance away. I squinted and read:
“The one I loved was stolen, he’s left,
and you bid me not to sew seeds of distress.
There are no enemies harsher than those we love.
Kill me and make my anger less.”
Volusian knew well my fondness for the poetry of Propertius. I laughed aloud, marveling at his creation, knowing the altered verse and event were his—wheedled, no doubt, from his resistant uncle, the editor who sponsored the show. Volusian’s vanity was fiercer than any woman’s and his humor was unworthy of a senator. He was immensely charming. He often dwelt fondly on what he claimed to hate and was joyously animated by an unclean spirit.
I had met him the year we became men. He spent days in the public baths observing each man who entered and quietly insulting him with literary quotes. After weeks of watching the effeminate commentator surrounded by more and more giggling boys, I dropped my towel and confronted him. Drawing on Aristophanes, I demanded, “Wondrous medley of lyre and silk, what are you to dangle both sword and mirror? Man or woman, show me.”
Holding tightly to his towel, he replied like the nimble Agathon, “Where nature fails, I confess to imitate, matching my manner to my poetry.”
Most friendships were made by a mutual disinterest, so I had many friends, and even so, it was only Volusian who held any affection for me. I hadn’t seen him in a year and no longer received letters from him. As a son of the Ceionii, his position relied more on family alliances than his wit, forcing us to a politically-prudent distance. I often imagined him at the imperial palace in Ravenna, listening in on the Sacred Consistory and commenting on the members in his witty way. I missed him and had no doubt the purpose of the show was to remind me how much so.
After stirring up the sand for a time as the god fed, the harlot raised a wooden dagger and “stabbed” herself in the heart. Slaves hauled her still body from the arena.
The heat brought the show to an early end. The editor’s litter led the procession from the stands, every man following by rank. Slaves were clearing the expanse, using hooks to drag away corpses and shovels to gather their erupted entrails.
“Quo Fata vocant,” I muttered, repeating more of Gallus’s damning appraisal of me, of all Romans. “Where the Fates call us, don’t we go, Gallus? Why isn’t Jesus a hungry god?” I spread my arms toward the arena floor. “Mithra wouldn’t leave warm meat untouched. Jupiter didn’t.”