Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
I was pleased to share the third couch at the Consul’s grouping. I lay on blue cushions directly across from him, with two men to my left. To my right was Pelagius’s couch, draped in violet. He lay on the far right of the central couch, the place reserved for the honored guest. To Pelagius’s right was the Consul and his two couch mates, resting on a deep shade of purple silk. Behind me was another set of three couches, and behind the Consul was the third set of three.
Next to Pelagius lay Flavian, a vigorous man of late years, holding for the third time the crowning office of the Senate, Prefect of Rome. His father had been Prefect of Italy seventeen years earlier, appointed by a usurping general who claimed the West for his own. He and his father began a revival of the ancient festivals, and in those treasonous times, Rome wasn’t too concerned about the exchange of emperors or gods. At Constantinople the reaction was different. While Rome returned to old habits, Theodosius gathered his army in the East.
Although the Flavian senators tried to resuscitate the past, their rebellion didn’t last long. In time, Theodosius defeated their emperor and reclaimed Rome, leaving Flavian’s father to believe that not only was his emperor defeated but his gods were, as well. He committed suicide, but his son was more practical. He married the daughter of another eminent senator, and Theodosius allowed the wayward Flavian to adore the purple again.
The senator lying next to Flavian at the dinner was Theodore, a dark, compact man from a peculiar family. His father was very poor but became one of the wealthiest in Rome, made so by the inheritance from his sister—a nun who had mysteriously acquired a fortune. Because of the inheritance, Theodore’s father reached the consulship, where he had the dubious honor of sharing his term with Eutropius, the only eunuch ever to hold the office. After Eutropius had all his limbs removed and his torso dragged outside the gates of Constantinople, Theodore’s father had the additional honor of finishing the year as sole Consul. Besides his distinguished father, Theodore had a notorious uncle, Lampadius, a man who once accused my father of cowardice on the Senate floor.
Theodore and Flavian got along well that evening. They seemed to be sharing a joke and glancing at me while they laughed. I remembered seeing them both at my father’s side when I was a boy. Theodore concerned me. Maybe he had the reasonable temperament of his father, who preferred philosophy to administration, or maybe he possessed his uncle’s ungrateful ambition, but regardless, my father did himself no favor that year when he denied Theodore the prefecture of Italy. It was one of the most powerful positions a senator might fill, one all of Rome knew he wanted, and one in my father’s power to decide.
The coveted office went instead to Longinian, who was also at the dinner, lying next to the Consul himself. Longinian wasn’t like most successful senators. His political sense was dulled by an interest in ideas. In his lifetime, he managed to claim friends as diverse as the late senator Symmachus and his adversary, Bishop Ambrose. Unlike most senators, the cautious Longinian had taken no side in his friends’ famous fight.
Constantine’s son had precipitated the conflict between Symmachus and Ambrose by removing the altar of Victory that had been placed in the Senate chamber by Caesar Augustus himself. Later, the emperor Gratian escalated the assault by stealing imperial funds meant for the cults and disbanding the priesthoods. Symmachus solicited several succeeding emperors to have the venerable objects returned. In his petition he reasoned, “The secret can hardly be found by one faith, for wise men know that whatever mystery we worship is in the end, one.”
He was Prefect of Rome, and he pleaded for the emperor to return the altar on which senators and courts had sworn their oaths for four-hundred years. His adversary, Bishop Ambrose, like all Christians, cared nothing for tradition. With elegant hypocrisy, he accused Symmachus of being more interested in the money than the stone. He threatened the emperor with excommunication if he brought the altar back, and so he prevailed, using the same episcopal abuse he would employ so successfully years later on emperor Theodosius.
Longinian never made it clear on whose side he stood, and I counted his abstention a small victory. He built baptisteries and shrines, performing his duty as he saw it, yet he also held a priesthood of Jupiter. Like most senators, what he did and what he felt weren’t necessarily the same. I doubted he was anymore devoted than his more interesting brother, Maximian, who was vicar of Africa—a fact that intrigued me when I saw the man who lay beside Longinian.
Porphyrius was one of the new men of the Senate, rising not through any meaningful heritage but through money. He had governed Africa through the summer of that year.
Africa was an unusual diocese, since its provinces were shared between a governor and a vicar, who both reported to the Prefect of Italy. The office of the governor had always been reserved for senators. The less esteemed vicariate was once only a knight’s office, so that difference alone was enough to cause enmity between the families, but they had trouble before.
Their feud began when one of Longinian’s ancestors prosecuted Porphyrius’s great-grandfather for using temple stone to build an estate near Carthage. This was during the time of Julian—that inspired defender of the true gods, who made Christians replace stone they stole. Of course, when Julian died, his laws died with him, and temples were again freely pillaged.
The hatred between the families increased when Porphyrius in turn prosecuted Maximian for hindering the official removal of a temple. And then when the Augustus removed Porphyrius during the summer for his mediocre success at collecting taxes, Maximian had his revenge. Although Porphyrius tried to defend himself with accusations that Maximian paid the collectors more than they could skim, thereby making them less than diligent, neither Father nor Honorius listened.
Throughout the night, I watched Longinian and Porphyrius move as far from each other as the couch allowed. Consul Bassus had made a significant social mistake, which was uncharacteristic of his family.
Beside me lay Namatian, a junior senator, who seemed determined not to relax. He sat gazing at Pelagius with arms crossed and eyebrows swooped above skeptical brown eyes. Black hair curled in small rings around his ears, adding to his intense and harried appearance.
When dinner began, we stretched out on the couches and scooped handfuls of food. The angelic boys removed empty trays from the tables and replaced them with full ones, again and again. As the men grew heavy from food, slaves poured wine.
Pelagius struggled from his resting place. “We give thanks for the Holy Vine of David, your child,” he prayed, raising a bowl of wine, “whom you make known to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.”
The Consul had servants bring bundles of pages to each man—copies of homilies and poetry from some of the most famous bishops and monks in the empire. Entertainment followed, consisting of five girls who danced and then helped the boys refill our wine cups. A poet sang a verse from the Book of John to the accompaniment of a lyre, and then Pelagius dragged his body once again from its comfortable relaxation and stood before the semi-circle of couches.
He opened his speech with a severe criticism of Bishop Augustine, calling that other client of the Anicii a heretic. I watched the Consul for some reaction, but he gave none. He appeared content to allow Pelagius to share his wine while criticizing one of his most respected clients.
Pelagius carried on, turning his criticism next on Jerome, a monk who not many years ago led noble Roman women to their deaths by starving them. He continued to insist on even greater feats of deprivation and self-loathing—always a fashionable message in an age when sacrifice means more than generosity.
I studiously consumed more wine until the words were like echoes, sounds without meaning. Glancing to my left, I noticed Namatian growing ever more prickly. He didn’t recline but sat, feet planted in front of him, cup in one hand and the other fidgeting with his yellow tunic. His reputation was as a man devoted to the past, so his invitation to a dinner of the Anicii seemed peculiar to me at first, but then I realized a politician as worldly as the Consul knew to cultivate his own kind—the better men—regardless of their beliefs.
“If God wants everyone celibate,” asked Namatian in response to the description of Jerome, “who’ll be left to serve him?” He brushed a hand across his chin as if wiping away spilled wine. He hadn’t taken a drink and seemed to be responding to his own sudden outburst as if he had surprised himself. He clanged his silver cup onto the satyr table, and added, “The world should have ended before Nero ever had the chance to burn Rome. Isn’t that what Jesus said?”
Pelagius had been exuberantly gesturing before the couches as he spoke, and he stopped and slouched, resting his arms across his belly like a pregnant woman. “How can we know when it comes? We need to prepare. As our brother Bishop John of Constantinople once said, ‘the present draws to a close, and the things of the resurrection are at the door’.”
“Bishops have been telling us that for centuries.”
“It’s not for us to know when, but to believe.”
“Is that how they teach you to think in Britain?” accused Namatian. “Romans are practical men. Religion, like politics, is the art of the possible. Shall I adore a criminal who gives me to my enemies or build a temple for a god who offers them to me?”
“Yes, yes, noble Senator,” exclaimed Pelagius, happily roused by the turn of argument. “Offer sacrifices to demons. Superstition may have power here, but you’ll find its devotions are powerless in the face of eternity. Only personal sacrifice, not blood sacrifice, can move the heart of Christ, the final judge.”
“Christians stopped caring about justice when they stopped calling themselves Jews.”
Pelagius’s excitement grew sober again. “I was speaking of Jerome, and he’s wrong about marriage. He sounds like Bishop Augustine, as if the world and everything in it is evil, as if it were created by demons rather than God.”
The Consul finally came to his absent client’s defense. “Bishop Augustine condemned those ideas many years ago. He’s not a heretic.”
Pelagius changed his approach, saying, “God wouldn’t create something evil.”
“He left that for priests!” shouted someone. A few men laughed.
Pelagius eyed the men sternly. He had no sense of humor. Christians never do.
“I’ve heard you also condemn marriage, and every other pleasure,” added Namatian.
“Noble Namatian,” began Longinian, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth, “You’re a reputed poet, but I see you’re still young. You’ll learn that senators share their pleasure with women, not wives.”
The laughter in the room was cut short again by Pelagius. “Doesn’t Matthew tell us that ‘You must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect’?” He gestured at us with a pointed finger. “Renounce those things that are by their nature and influence, corrupt. Corruption is all around us: in imperial service, in wealth, in Rome.” His roaming finger ended its journey pointing at me.
“Imperial service?” Namatian scoffed. “Every man in this room serves Rome and our glorious emperor, Honorius, forever Augustus.”
Pelagius’s father had been a Roman official in Britain. For over a century, the law required men to pass their professions to their sons, and it was important to enforce the law on the better men of the cities because more than anyone, they avoided the burdens of their rank. Many men like Pelagius took Holy Orders to avoid managing the post, auditing accounts, or paying for aqueducts and shows.
Like the rest of us, Pelagius understood Namatian’s accusation, but he was unwilling to acknowledge its truth. “A governor who has a man executed is a murderer and unclean in the eyes of God. A senator who corrupts the morals of his city with savage shows and games is unclean in the eyes of God. A landlord who eats pheasant while his tenants don’t even have bread is unclean in the eyes of God. Do you need more examples? We’re all monks, made so when the blessed water baptizes us. If you wish to discuss duty, then this is your only duty: be like your Father in Heaven. Because we can be perfect, we must be.”
“Who will be master of Rome?” I asked. “Will Jesus kill the Barbarians? Will he make our walls unbreachable?”
Namatian worked himself up again. “I’m a man of Rome. I serve all the gods. Didn’t Venus and Mars, mother of Aeneas and father of Romulus, create us? Who was it who made Romans to surpass all men in war and mercy? Don’t we owe Minerva for the olive and Bacchus for the vine, and hasn’t Mithra aided our legions in every land? We’ve shared our laws and our prosperity with the world. We’ve made of it a single city. The world belongs to us, and we belong to the gods.”
“I’ve been honored with this office three times in my life,” added Flavian earnestly, “and I’ve many times had to execute a man.”
Pelagius turned to consider the Prefect, but Namatian pursued, saying, “You can’t even agree among yourselves about your own god. You say Christians shouldn’t kill, but you kill even each other. You say Christians should give up worldly things, but they fill their churches will silver plate…and share dinners with Consuls.”
Only deliberate ignorance, it seemed to me, could allow Pelagius to remain impervious to the well-aimed accusations. He ignored Namatian and addressed Flavian, “A man shouldn’t spend his life in worldly pursuits thinking to pass freely into Heaven by last-minute contrition. But penance—and few men seem capable of its rigors—is a testament to faith.”
“Kneeling, praying, and abstaining will drive a man mad before it ever saves him,” whispered Namatian to me as he kept his eyes on Pelagius. “Look at what it did to Theodosius.” He glanced sideways at me, and his eyes widened, as if he just realized who I was.
I smiled at the insult he paid my grandfather, not to ease him, but because I agreed.
He smiled faintly before turning back to the discussion. When Pelagius looked at him, Namatian charged, “You’re so busy dividing the wheat from the chaff, what’s left for God to do?”
The bored men perked up. I noticed several cups paused under parted lips.
Pelagius’s wide face tightened, and his arms fell to his sides. He took a great, exasperated breath. “I didn’t realize that the Most Noble Namatian was so well-acquainted with the writings of the Apostles. I’d heard quite differently, that he wasn’t Christian at all—not so much as a heretic.”
The Consul’s eyebrows rose with humorous approval. He only tipped the wreath on his head backward as if to get a better look at the participants while he drank more wine.
“Maybe the distinguished tribune could speak to us on service,” interrupted Nicius, lisping, from the grouping of couches behind me. I had to raise myself and turn around to see him. A narrow band of hair circled his bald head, and the skin around his watery eyes hung like a hound’s. He wasn’t old, but his sickness made him seem so. A swelling tightened the left side of his face. “The question,” he continued, his words precise as he struggled against himself, “is whether serving all the gods is the same as serving one. What does the son of our Patrician say to that?” He was one of my father’s men, but I had the impression of being mocked.
Searching for a way to say nothing, I finally decided, “A whip can force a man to serve any master, but he can wear the brand of only one.”
Pelagius’s asked, “Whose brand do you wear?”
“Your master’s clear,” I replied, pointing at his belly. My remark drew muffled laughs.
“There are many masters in Rome.” He took a step toward me, sweeping his hand through the air. “Even father and son don’t often serve the same one.”
“I should hope we serve the same one,” I replied quickly. “The Emperor, crowned by God, our Imperial Father, my uncle, Honorius, forever Augustus.”
“Forever Augustus,” he repeated respectfully, nodding and glancing about the room of men. “I’ve heard Marcellinus was your teacher. Marcellinus is a disciple of Bishop Augustine.”
“I spent this summer in Africa and had the honor of meeting with His Grace and my former tutor. Have you ever met Bishop Augustine?”
His expression soured, then brightened again. “Your mother’s a devoted woman. I first met her at Milan, for the funeral of the glorious Theodosius. She discussed her concerns for his soul. He once knelt before Bishop Ambrose, it’s true, but he also rewarded poets for the flattery that called him a living god. He was of two hearts.”
“Aren’t we all,” I agreed. “The divine Theodosius was a passionate man but also a servant of the Church.”
“The divine Theodosius,” said Porphyrius from the far end of the Consul’s couch, “was the most Christian of emperors.”
“Indeed.” Namatian was nodding. “Can any man achieve what Theodosius did? Constantine merely bickered with bishops about whether the son of a virgin was a man or a god, but Theodosius was truly pious: his laws obliterated thousands of ancient temples and the women and children who worshiped there.”
I hid my smile in a drink of wine, but Pelagius didn’t seem to recognize the sarcasm. Instead, his eyes darted to Namatian, and he replied, “Temples, yes, but massacring seven-thousand innocent citizens wasn’t the act of a Christian.”
“Were they innocent?” accused Nicius from behind me.
“Indeed not,” agreed Namatian, rising to his feet beside Pelagius to address the men. “Wasn’t it justice to execute those responsible for lynching a commander?” Leaning forward, arms spread, he addressed the Consul, saying, “The commander simply postponed a chariot race, and the city rioted.”
“Justice uses law,” observed Theodore from the couch to my right. Sweat darkened his already dark hair. “The guilty should have been executed, but not because they made the Augustus angry. There were no charges, no trial.”
The men were arguing about a decision made by Theodosius—the rashest of decisions made by a man as infamous for his temper as for his piety, a man whose recklessness would finally destroy what even Hannibal couldn’t.
Seventeen years ago, the people of Thessalonica rioted when a Roman commander refused to release a charioteer from prison. The people resolved their conflict by hanging the commander and releasing their favorite driver for race day. When the news reached Theodosius, he reacted, as he always did, with precipitous fury.
He sent orders that the garrison was to surround the stadium at the next show, lock the gates, and slaughter everyone in the stands, which turned out to be seven-thousand men and women.
After news of the event spread, Bishop Ambrose pursued his emperor like Orestes’ Furies. Despite the courage that allowed Theodosius to unite a world and obliterate every enemy, he was no match for the rabid bishop.
The battle of wills ended when Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, and the emperor chose to set aside his diadem, strip off his purple silk, and fall to his knees like any sinner. After the Master of the World fell groveling for forgiveness, after a bishop became the emperor’s teacher and the Church became his master, the thousand years of Rome’s eternal present became merely a past. Rome had become another stop on a Christian’s dusty path to salvation.
“What would our Prefect do, I wonder,” said Longinian, gesturing at Flavian, “if such an event occurred at Rome?”
All eyes shifted to Flavian.
“The Senate can be assured,” Flavian began. He glanced around for a long moment before finishing, “I would do what our glorious Augustus ordered.”
“Even should that be unjust?” challenged Longinian.
Flavian was too careful to be caught. He thought a moment. “Theodosius ignored the wisdom of calmer voices, but our imperial prince is a less…impulsive man. Surely, he wouldn’t make the mistake of his father.”
“A mistake?” repeated the Consul.
“Great men are allowed great mistakes,” replied Flavian hopefully.
Pelagius turned to me and commented, “I see the senators of Rome have considered this.”
“How could we fail to?” I pointed out. “I wonder what it’s done to us that a bishop should be allowed to instruct the Master of the World—”
“Or excommunicate God’s regent,” added Namatian.
“Yes, a bishop is only God’s instrument,” agreed the Consul.
“The emperor is within the Church, not above it.” Pelagius was quoting Ambrose now.
For some reason, the Consul easily conceded Pelagius’s point, saying, “Seven-thousand people shouldn’t have died, but we live under Grace, not the Law. Because of Grace, an atrocity was forgiven.”
No man seemed willing to disagree with the Consul, who had changed his mind as easily as only a senator could. It may have been the wise thing to say nothing, but I finished my cup and said, “What of the law of the Augustus?”
“Theodosius received absolution,” the Consul replied steadily.
“From a man,” Namatian pointed out as he took his seat again.
“From a bishop, God’s representative,” corrected Pelagius.
“The Augustus is God’s representative,” argued Longinian. Unlike the Consul who made his disagreement seem a placid objection of order, Longinian was angry. “You shall fear the king, knowing that his appointment is of the Lord.” The quote was unfamiliar to me. More confusing was that Longinian said it. “A bishop,” he finished, “is only a servant.”
Pelagius’s slouch gave him an unimposing distance. He reminded me of the camels shown in the arenas, stodgy beasts with sagging jowls and hulking backs. “Yes,” he agreed, “but the emperor knew his place.”
“Men! Brothers!” exclaimed the Consul, rising from his couch with his arms spread. He paused to have his cup refilled, then raised it. “This is a celebration. Let’s hear a song of Rome.” He nodded to a slave who ushered more performers out before the fountain.
Even through the dullness of too much wine, it was becoming clear that the alliances I’d taken for granted weren’t at all clear.
Longinian was speaking like a Christian. The Consul laughed like a vulgar spectator at his own clients. Father’s men went out of their way to embarrass me, while those who should find no alliance with the House of Theodosius spoke of him as “divine.” The only one who made sense, who I admired, was Namatian. He appeared to be exactly what men said he was.
When the music ended, Pelagius drifted back to selling smoke. I looked at my wine, found it bitter, and let the cup roll from my hand. What Namatian had said about Rome was true enough.
As a boy, I listened to the great poet Claudian sing for us in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. He wrote verses about the glorious victories of my father and the eternity of Rome.
The past, he once sang, guarantees the future.