Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
After the show, I took Gallus to Father’s palace, a sprawling mansion south of the Flaminian Circus. What was a crime for a citizen and the duty of a freedman was the purpose of a slave as beautiful as Gallus.
I stripped off his tunic and bent him over my sleeping couch, where he buried his face in the cushions. His breathing was shallow and panicky. His body clenched. There was no way to make it easy for him, so I never tried.
I drew aside my tunic and watched his spine roll back and forth under me as I entered him. I told him how beautiful he was. After awhile, his breathing deepened, and he took over the rhythm even as he groaned in pain.
Slaves like Arsace were eunuchs, and custom granted Illustrious families their eunuch attendants, as well, but my father refused to be served by a eunuch in his own house. My father expected a man, even a slave, to pay for his virtues, not have them given him, so he didn’t castrate Gallus. He infibulated him.
A bronze ring pierced his shaft just behind the crown and then again at the base, folding his cock backward. It refused him the full experience of manhood but never let him forget his desire.
“Good boy,” I whispered as I stroked his smooth back.
When the distance between despair and ecstasy became an exhale, and victory was lost or won in the life of a single breath, he came, oozing down his leg. And he cried.
The heat of the morning had been stoking my lust. Or perhaps it was simply the perfection of Gallus that drew pleasure from me so violently that I drooled.
Gallus remained curled over the couch for awhile before he left for the basin and splashed water on his face. The water dripped onto his chest, stopped in its path by rings of hair around his nipples. The skin across his cheeks and chest was flushed. He stood before me naked and unashamed, more Greek than Christian, as I preferred him.
“You’re a magnificent boy,” I told him.
“Your father wanted you to have a brother.”
I smiled at his diligent belief. “He’s only a man, and there’s not a man alive who can’t see what you’re good for. He knows what I do with you. All of Rome knows.”
I turned to the wall where a golden field of wheat flowed across the yellow stucco. A black cave rose at one end of the field. At the other end stood a small house, and on that house the footprints of Jupiter led to a window where the beautiful woman Danae sat, combing her hair. It was the moment before the lustful god transformed himself into a shower of gold and raped the unsuspecting wife. The painting was from a comedy of Terence. In his story, a young man waiting in a brothel stares at such a painting, and after considering the mythic rape, he grows hungry to taste of the immortal privilege himself.
Gallus squinted at the painting. “Such are the things that we learn from your gods. Superstition.” He was flushed and his nostrils flared with anger.
“I see the boy’s a hypocrite, too. Is it not yet the tenth hour and time for another prayer? Yesterday you fasted because it was the day of his execution. Today is the remembrance of the Creation, so you feast again. Tomorrow you’ll eat his body and drink his blood. Rituals rule every one of your hours.”
I returned my attention to the painting. I tried to see it as he did. Accident had made him a slave, not nature. Like all Greeks, he possessed an aesthetic superior to any Roman. It was the single way they surpassed us. Of course, the only value in recognizing beauty is in possessing it, which is the way we surpassed them.
The painting seemed adequate to me. “Do you suppose Terence had his boy learning his crime from a painting like this?”
Gallus’s eyes flamed defiantly. Adonis couldn’t have been more lovely, nor Mars more disagreeable.
A girl entered the room with two pitchers, a bowl, and a silver cup. She mixed the contents of the pitchers.
I sent her away and poured my own wine. “I haven’t found but two sculptures you’ve admired, though you covet every scroll. You read too much. I don’t care about what should be. I care about what is, and that’s not so simple a thing as you think. Do you really think men do things for reasons? They do things because they can.”
He pulled on his tunic and his body disappeared beneath the blue fabric. After he fastened his belt, a thought came to him that he hesitated to speak. Despite his efforts to the contrary, his eyes expressed every nuance of his thought, so I waited.
He glanced at me warily. “You work at dispassion like a whore at lust.”
I slapped him so hard he spun and fell to the ground. “And you fuck like an ugly widow, but you swear you’ve no appetite for it.” I stepped back, tipped my cup, and let the remaining wine spill onto him. It splashed on his face and tunic. As he coughed, I commanded, “Drink, little Gallus.”
The purple stained like blood. Drips rolled down his cheeks and puddled in his ears.
I knelt above him. “You tell me your pleasure has no surface, but you’re a liar. What pleasure do you find in the mind of a god that feels as good as the skin I touch? You can’t stop the pleasure. You believe in him, but he doesn’t believe in you.”
He wiped wine from his forehead. My father had not branded him as so many slaves were, so his face was flawless. He wore only the iron collar stamped with our name.
“What’s the value in being free when you think like everyone else?” Pointing at his head, I added, “When this isn’t free, what else matters?”
He ignored my provocation, saying, “I have my price.”
Disappointed, I rose and walked away. “Keep your coins.”
He had asked to buy his freedom. Asked every month. Like most slaves, he accumulated fees and gifts I allowed him to keep. Though he could meet the market price, he couldn’t meet mine.
He was my boy, as all slaves are boys, though he was only a year younger than me. His face already revealed the man. His cheeks had sprouted a beard, that brush of hair that demanded a change of life for both of us. But as with many things, what was decent to do was not what I did.
“You know what happens to freedmen,” I told him. “They work, selling and buying like whores, all to rival their betters. Gold doesn’t buy good sense. Not even family give you that. The gods play dice with us. Besides, what would you do? I know! Ha! You’d become a monk. You! Wearing rags and preaching chastity. You wouldn’t be in the desert a week before some monk would have you warming his bed. Even Christians know what you’re good for.”
My father had ordered my return to Italy, having already sent orders to me in Africa to prepare for an expedition east. I had ignored his earlier summons, but his latest one carried threats.
The East was open for the taking, and my father wanted it back. We were still one empire by custom, but custom meant very little to a city of new men eager to destroy centuries of traditions.
After Theodosius died, his sons divided the world. The West, from Pannonia to Spain, belonged to my uncle, Honorius, who ruled from Ravenna. The Greek-speaking East from Dacia to the Orient belonged to Arcadius until his recent death, when his seven-year-old son sat on the throne in Constantinople.
Despite that Barbarians were in Gaul and that a usurper had taken Britain, my father was preparing to go to Constantinople where a boy sat on the throne. It was a task I wanted no part of. I had no enthusiasm for returning half the world to Honorius.
When the Barbarian king Radagaesus butchered his way into Italy three years before, we had to bribe slaves to enlist in our army because we had too few men. And still, we won only by allying other tribes of Germans. Four years before that, my father chased the Visigothic King Alaric into the province of Illyricum.
At the moment of our victory, the eastern emperor made Alaric general of the eastern army, gave him command of the province he was already ravaging, and declared my father a “public enemy.” Although eastern men were easy prey to superstitions and tyrants, they knew one thing well, and that was us. In the end, the Greeks of Constantinople decided they would rather be at the mercy of savage Germans than their fellow Romans.
Still, my father was eager to reunite the empire. He was a man of principle. Among his most important principles was that the world should be as his beloved Theodosius left it.
Like Theodosius, he would claim the East and not care about a civil war. He didn’t care that we could never hold the eastern provinces against the Germans, the Persians, or probably even against the machinations of Constantinople’s eunuchs. Nor did it matter that Honorius, Theodosius’s own son, didn’t want it. Nor did it matter that the Senate didn’t want it. Nor did the cost in soldiers or gold or security concern him. My father’s choices were like those of a dying man: he repeated the familiar things, the comfortable things. In an age of new wars and new men, he knew only the old.
Before an expedition would take us east and leave Consistory unwatched, I hoped to find proof of our enemies, a reason to stay where we were. My father dismissed gossip as the preoccupation of eunuchs and women. He didn’t see the envy that floated around our family like Eris at the wedding banquet. I knew some judgment would spring from our enemies so compelling or so convenient that Honorius would act against us.
The evening following the show, I received a second letter from my father. This letter worried me more. I was to meet him at Bononia, an army camp north of Rome. The letter said Honorius would be in Pavia with the Roman infantry, while my father was at Bononia commanding the mounted German auxiliaries.
I knew even then that his division of troops was reckless, the choice of commanders more so. The infantry envied the cavalry by design, and with most of the cavalry German, the separation would only inflame them. Honorius had never commanded the movements of anything more dangerous than his pet pigeons, so his hold on the men would be precarious. What seemed a dangerous decision was also a familiar tactic. Father had always played favorites with those he commanded, as he did with those he loved.
Nevertheless, I decide to wait on my reply. I attended a dinner given by the Consul Bassus, patriarch of the family Anicii.
The office of Consul was one of the most ancient and once powerful, but had become merely an expensive honor. Even so, every senator wanted it. The Consul sponsored games. He gave his name to the year. During imperial ceremonies, had the privilege of standing quite close to the eunuchs who surrounded Honorius.
The Consul’s dinner was to celebrate the Kalends. It was acceptable to celebrate every ancient holiday provided no meaning was attached to anything. It was a compromise, a bad compromise where we honored gods we were told didn’t exist. Celebrating a holiday in Rome was like serving a meal to a dead man.
I brought the eunuch with me, or rather, he insisted on coming. I couldn’t well refuse without sending him off to report to Olympius. Despite how influential he may be at Ravenna, Arsace was a slave and had no invitation from the Consul.
I’d long since relinquished hope that he could either share information or carry it for me. Though he aspired at intrigue, he wasn’t one to unravel the intricacies of imperial service. He wasn’t honest enough to hate or intelligent enough to conspire. He was made gullible by the same pride he condemned in other men. Bishop Ambrose, dead ten years, wrote that celibates were the elect soldiers of the Church. When that idea became favored in the imperial palace, Arsace enlisted immediately.