Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
We left Rome by horse and arrived at Ostia as the sun was falling into the sea. Ostia had once been Rome’s primary harbor. Oxen wore deep paths along the Tiber’s shoreline as they drew ships against the current to Rome. Larger ships anchored and off-loaded shipments of wine, oil, grain, wood, and stone for the great warehouses. The harbor district of Portus had grown, and as Portus became its own town, Ostia became a residential suburb, its new tenements replacing most of the ancient palaces. A few remained, and one was rebuilt by the Anicii.
Guards escorted us across the estate where a pack of hunting dogs joined our trip. At the bottom of a hill we dismounted, and slaves took our horses to the stables. Other slaves greeted us with wine and water. After a short rest, the slaves offered rides up the hill in litters.
I chose to walk. After a longing gaze at the grand litters moving men up the hill, Arsace reluctantly followed.
“You missed a good show,” I commented as I squinted at the sun, large and red as it descended into the sea. “The Ceionii gave us a talented stripper.”
“Worshipers of Mithra, I’ve heard.” His long-sleeved tunic was of silk sewn in Palestine, dyed rose, and embroidered with gold leaves along the vertical hems. Over his tunic, he wore a blue toga clasped at his shoulder with a gold pin. The garments cost perhaps twenty solidi, a price I could get for Gallus, who was a well-educated and beautiful young slave.
On the other hand, I wore a tan tunic with purple stitching, a scarlet toga, and scarlet sandals. I never wore silk; it was an oriental custom that consumed imperial taste and good sense. I had my beard shaved off. The dinner was my chance to observe rather than to be observed, so I wore what was suitable only, hoping to go generally unnoticed as I listened to the men who managed the empire.
A thousand lamps lined the entrance to the Anician palace, turning dusk into midday. It was a residence of three large buildings around a portico and three pools. The facade was decorated with copied and imported marbles, gilding, creamy stucco, and ivory. Silver plate framed the door. My men left me at the entrance.
After the Consul’s slaves escorted me through to the central courtyard, we emerged onto the well-lit portico, a fountain ringed with small-flamed bronze lamps and streaming water. Dining couches were to the left—nine couches arranged in threes, each set with its own small table and the sets together arranged around a large serving table. Between the serving table and the fountain was an open area for the evening’s entertainment.
Female domestics in green dresses offered bowls of walnuts, honey-coated almonds, cakes baked with pistachios, fish-stuffed African olives, and fried goat cheese. Male domestics in short violet tunics tenderized the spitted roasts with prongs and dribbled savory pepper-oil that crisped the flesh black in the flames. Bottles of other expensive spices lay conspicuously strewn about.
The single large serving table was four-legged and bronze with inlaid ivory tiles across the top. At one end of the table, bowls of blown blue Alexandrian glass glimmered in the lamplight, reflecting fire and fountain like hundreds of blue waterfalls. At the other end, slaves were molding mixtures of minced fowl and lamb into a rambling “Seven Hills of Rome.” Through the center ran the “Tiber River,” a thin gravy of blood and dark wine for dipping pieces of white bread, and fish paste banked the river on each side, topped with the vacant stares of several-hundred glistening fish eyes.
The small tables among the groupings of couches each had three legs in the form of gold-plated satyrs rising tenuously from their toes. Arching elegantly backward and outward, their chests bore the weight of the table top, while their arms encircled the rim, touching fingertip to fingertip. Leering, polished faces peered across the transparent green glass. Their three erect phalli touched at the center beneath the glass and were draped with fragrant, fresh-cut bay leaves.
Twenty men stood about the portico, all holding or having held posts in the provinces, the City, or the imperial court. All were men of the civil service rather than the military.
As Consul for the West, Bassus was the most important among us, but I met also the Prefect of Italy and the Prefect of Rome—ministers who oversaw administration and courts and reported directly to my uncle. As I glanced around, I thought my invitation must have been a replacement for someone who couldn’t attend. It wasn’t unusual to have the reputation of one’s family as the only recommendation. Despite that or maybe because of it, I wasn’t often invited to the better dinners.
The Consul entered the circle of men. A luminescent white toga draped from his broad shoulders. Heavy gold thread spiraled down along each hem, and a gold leaf pinned the toga at his left shoulder. Beneath the toga hung a scarlet tunic of silk in sleek lines, embroidered with peacocks in gold, blue, and green thread. Like a well-drilled regiment, perfect gray curls lay across his forehead beneath a wreath of waxy ivy leaves. His nails were tipped by shiny half-moons of white, and gold rings circled three fingers. His tan feet had nails buffed to a metallic shine, and he had depilated his arms and legs. He had the thickness of an old man who had been an athletic youth.
He spoke loudly, while his hands gestured broadly. “Welcome friends. The feast is nearly prepared; the couches and wine await us. Those of you who’ve not met our honored guest, please greet our revered brother in the Lord, Britannicus Pelagius.”
Pelagius was the son of a Roman official. He had been in Rome for many years, a confessor for the Anicii, and I recalled gossip of his less spiritual interest in one particular daughter. He was unusually tall, as well as fat. He wore an undyed wool tunic and thin sandals. His face was fleshy. Despite his coarse appearance, his eyes radiated the energy of a man possessed by a daemon. They remained alert, as if searching for an opening through a skirmish line.
“He’s written a well-received commentary on Saint Paul,” continued the Consul, “for those of you unfamiliar with such spiritual matters…” The guests laughed at the gibe. “…you may read it now.” He backed away, and from behind him came twenty-five boys, none older than ten. They wore white tunics and silver sandals. Each carried a book, and each came to stand beside one of the guests. “The boys will serve you tonight. Your first gift is the book each has with him, a complete copy of our honored guest’s commentary.”
The Consul then introduced each man in turn to Pelagius, though most already knew him. When Pelagius turned to me, his eyes narrowed and his lips parted in a grimace that made an effort at good humor.
“I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your commentary,” I said, greeting him with a nod.
“But I know of the Respectable Tribune and Notary, and of his father, our pious Patrician,” said Pelagius, his voice surprisingly high for a man with such a broad chest.
Glancing down, I wondered whether he had made the sacrifice some other fashionably-pious men had.
He continued, “It seems the Barbarians have conquered us, at least our dinner conversations.”
His meaning wasn’t clear to me. “I should think,” I replied, “the Consul’s dinners would be more interesting.”
After Pelagius had been introduced, he gathered us into a circle and raised a piece of bread from the table laden with platters. “Blessed Lord, who nourished us from our youth, who gives food to all flesh, we give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you make known to us through Christ Jesus. Fill our hearts with joy that having always what is sufficient for us, we may abound to every good work, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom glory, honor, and power be yours forever. Amen.” A beautiful young slave took charge of the seating, escorting each man to his appointed place. Other slaves carried platters of food still smoking from the kitchen. Around the couches, flowers spilled from pots and stone-lined plots with reckless variety. Ivory and gold lined the columns of the portico, and above the columns, a pink stucco frieze, dramatic with flickering shadows, depicted the twelve Apostles.