Stilicho’s Son – Episode 13

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

Proba arrived escorting a retinue. Her green mantle billowed around her shoulders, and the saffron linen of her dress clung to her small frame. Gallus rose and brushed himself off as she approached. Arsace arrived from the baths. Like two armies our slaves and assistants gathered at our backs.

With no hint whether she had seen my impatience with Gallus, she said, “This is the Respectable Tribune and Notary, Eucher, son of our Patrician. This is our brother in the Lord, Pelagius. I believe you’ve met recently in Rome.”

Pelagius nodded courteously.

Proba gestured a slave to fan us, and another raised a leafy screen to offer shade from the intermittent sun. “Just yesterday,” she said to me, “we were discussing your father’s expedition. You’re going, too, I understand.”

“I haven’t been east for years. I look forward to seeing the city of Constantine again.”

Pelagius smiled with his large yellow teeth. The creases on his brow gave him the appearance of great concentration. “Of course. Since I have you here, Lord Tribune,” he said, “perhaps we could walk the gardens and talk?” He noticed the bandage under my tunic. “I understand you were attacked this week in Rome. We all have enemies.”

Proba let us leave, requesting that we join her for dinner.

I dismissed my men to the eunuch’s custody this time, and Pelagius and I passed the baths in silence, making our way to the lake.

Hadrian had built the lake and portico on the model of a Greek gymnasium, where ancient philosophers would pass the day in learned conversation. Pelagius chose to sit on a bench surrounded by flowers. He first commented on the beautiful variety of plants, and then, gesturing at my shoulder, he asked, “have you found the criminals?”

“Theodore pledged his effort, and the City Prefect, too. I expect to hear from someone soon, but I wonder whether it’s necessary.” I sat down beside him.

“Surely, the matter will be resolved soon. Have you thought it might not have been meant to warn you but the Patrician?”

“The Patrician is little affected by the fact that he has a son, and I’m too valuable just yet for ambitious men to want me dead. So no, I don’t think that’s the case.”

“The Patrician was born to a German, the tribe of Vandals.”

I took immediate offense. “Are you questioning my lineage?” I rose to my feet. “Do you think a provincial peasant has any right—”

“Tell me, was there a time when Christ was not?”

Although I had witnessed his moralizing at the Consul’s dinner, I was unprepared for his directness. Returning to my seat, I replied defensively, “If you think to question the Patrician’s origin, or God’s, you presume too much.”

His eyes widened. “I presume nothing,” he said hastily, one hand in the air to ward me back. He stood and paced, two fingers pointing casually toward me. “It’s just that Arians are still among us, saying the Son was created like a man. If that’s so, then how can he be God, too? Your discussion at the Consul’s dinner concerned me. Theodosius brought many Germans into the empire, Germans baptized by Arian bishops, and you’d be surprised, Lord Tribune, how many of them claim to be of the true faith.”

Arius was excommunicated eighty years ago and then poisoned by a Catholic bishop. Though he died, his heresy won’t. Bishops in cities from Rome to Palestine keep their flocks—and more importantly, their funds—from the Arians with hair-splitting theology. It was their own brothers, after all, not men of the traditional gods, who taught the Catholics how to be such effective persecutors.

“If I said a man became a god would you call me a heretic?” I asked.

“Would you have Jesus one god among a pantheon? No, I’d say you weren’t even Christian.”

“And if I said a man became God, what would you call me?”

“Then I’d call you a heretic,” he decided. “Christ isn’t a myth, a half-god hero like Hercules. He didn’t become anything. He’s always been. To suffer the curse of sin, He was a man and died. To overcome death, He was God and rose again. His nature was both.”

“So you’ve read the Greek bishops. I’m surprised you know Greek.”

“I’ve heard you have a passion for Greeks.” He glanced not so subtly at Gallus. “You can’t be a Christian and a philosopher. What’s true and good has been revealed by God. It won’t be found by speeches and learned men, as if we can all agree and decide what is true. We don’t need philosophers with clever arguments. We need men of faith.”

He spoke as a learned man. I suspected he was merely a mimic who kept better men’s company. “You condemn the ancient mysteries just to replace them with your own,” I charged. “It’s not the mystery I object to, since death and resurrection are things gods have done forever. The Nazarene’s mystery is little different from Osiris or Dionysus or Mithra. Men become gods all the time. Who are you to choose among them?” I rose again, standing too near him for comfort. “You’re from Britain.”

“I minister the nobles of Rome.”

“Their daughters, I hear.”

With a smile that finally reached his eyes, he glanced away as if with modesty. “You haven’t read my commentary, but you hear the gossip.”

“It amuses you,” I observed.

“It’s valuable. What one may believe of another, he’s capable of himself. It tells me a lot about a man that he believes I, naked before the Lord, would fornicate with noble virgins.”

I forced my mouth shut.

Anger made his eyes appear even smaller. His amusement had sharpened to a bitter edge. “But, Tribune, I agree with you. Calling oneself Christian doesn’t make one Christian.”

“It’s amazing that a man who speaks so offensively should have lived so long.”

“Rome’s full of envy and lust.”

“Envy’s unnecessary, and lust is only a pastime.”

“For so young a man, I see you’re nonetheless a man of the world.”

“I’ve already heard everything you have to say. First, you’d banish the shows. But the shows make us strong. Death’s part of war, and war’s part of Rome.”

“The shows make savages of men.”

“They give us courage and faith when strength and honor have failed. They redeem us, and they accustom us to the blood of justice.”

“They accustom us to seeking strength in iron.”

“You tell us we don’t need strength,” I said sharply. “We don’t need strength as long as we have the Nazarene to save us.”

He seemed at a loss for words.

“That’s what you’d have me believe,” I added, curious at his difficulty.

His head started moving slowly back and forth. “No. That’s most certainly what I’m not saying, but I see you’ve learned Augustine too well. He wrote about a petty boyhood crime, saying his theft of pears, ‘sweetened by sin’ and unrepented, outweighed the plans of a murderer just because the murderer regretted his crime, as if doesn’t matter what a man does. But it does matter what a man does, as much as what he believes or what he feels.”

“Of course it does.”

“Then we agree, and the choice remains. It’s our choice to be saved. It isn’t the blood of justice, but the blood of Christ that matters.”

“Choice is an illusion. There are no choices to be made under Heaven, and certainly not in Rome.”

“You need to unlearn Augustine. You think like him. I once admired him, too, but he’s become slack and fatalistic. He thinks his own weakness is every man’s, thinks a moral life is impossible because he can’t resist desires.”

“What do you know of his life?”
            “What every literate man knows. I’ve read his Confessions, as have you.”

I’d met the renown Augustine that summer, and the beliefs I might have shared with Pelagius before I met him, I found it difficult to reconcile after that single afternoon spent in Augustine’s garden under the hot African sun.

“I’m not an unreasonable man, Lord Tribune.” He turned his face into the breeze and took a great breath. “He says the world is evil, that we’re evil. You’re a man who knows his history. Who said the world was created by an evil god?”

I turned into the same breeze. “I’m not your student. If there’s some point you’re making, make it.”

“Persia,” he answered himself. “The land of the Great King who calls himself a god and has his servants prostrate themselves at his feet.”

“So does Honorius.”

“Forever Augustus,” he muttered, as if the words weren’t his own. “Traditions we’ve inherited.” He drummed his fingers on his chest where he rested both hands. He shifted his weight to his other foot. “But not Roman, wouldn’t you agree? We’re not so different. We’re men of Rome, and we both despise oriental corruption. The Roman Church must be free of such tyranny and pessimism. Men of Rome listen to me, but others don’t want responsibility for their lives. They’d rather blame demons or, like Augustine, Adam, for their lack of will.”

“What does all your hair-splitting amount to? You want the emperor’s money, and if money’s the argument, then we should give it to the army. Only a spear, not your sermons, will stop a filthy German from raping your daughter and burning your farm.”

“This ‘hair-splitting’ matters because what a man believes decides how he lives and how he dies.”

“Passions rule men, not principles.”


“You don’t understand,” I told him. “The Church has nearly cleared the streets of beggars who come to you because you feed them. When new men like you care for the sick and orphaned, how can the helpless not blame tradition for their miserable lives? When they see the old families giving cakes and meat to the gods while their children starve, how can they not think the gods evil? But it’s not the gods. The sin is in men, and now men are Christians. Nothing’s changed.” To myself I added, “And yet somehow everything has.”

 I hoped the disagreeable man would settle for an end to the argument, but he began nodding. “Would you be surprised if I agree with you? Do you recall our conversation at dinner? We agreed that Theodosius acted rashly. Seven-thousand people died because he acted rashly. If he’d been under the influence of the holy Bishop Ambrose even then, it would never have happened. Seven-thousand citizens of the empire knew how much hair-splitting matters, even if you don’t. Understand, Lord Tribune, Grace comes to us through our good acts. What we choose does matter. That’s what Augustine doesn’t understand, and what you seem to be confusing. Maybe you, too, wish to be free of responsibility?” He took a step toward me, and leaned forward, his eyes squinting as they held mine. “And, truly, Lord Tribune, even a man of your considerable talents can’t revive deities more fit for tales to frighten children than to influence the morality of men.”

“Even the ancients didn’t believe those outrageous stories.” Like every Christian, he attacked the past for its literal absurdities but demanded his own be accepted as allegorical truths. “You speak to me of responsibility? You? Look at you. Your father was an official. You live in Rome and eat from the tables of the wealthiest men in the world. While senators like Paulinus have chosen their ridiculous communion with the dead. He lights incense and worships the corpse of his saint as if moldering flesh has divine power. The lands he left are burning, while across the empire cities crumble from lack of caretakers, and it’s men like him and you who abandon family responsibilities and then blame my father for their losses.”

“Your father? Is that what we’re talking about?”

“Of course it is. That’s what all men talk to me about. You don’t even care to ask me whether the rumors of treason are true.”

“His lack of success against King Alaric is uncharacteristic.”

“You’re a fool.”

“You’re cynical.”

“You’d grade faith like chariots in a race.” 

“You’re not much of a Christian, and you defend Bishop Augustine admirably,” he said. “You defend the Patrician and I’ve heard you speak of the Apostate with love, but you’re nothing like either of them. Your father serves the Church. The emperor Julian was a celibate and compassionate man, despite his great sin of destroying churches. Both were men of duty and faith and principle. What do you see in them, in the history that you seem so preoccupied with? What does tradition mean when it’s been shown to be lies?”

“If you forget your tradition, then you put yourself at the mercy of clever men.” Straightening myself, I attempted to move him away, but he seemed unaware of this dimension of our conversation. Glancing sideways at Gallus, I saw his rapt attention, despite his bowed head. I was surrounded. In the expanse of cool water and lush gardens, a cage enclosed me, guarded by relentless moralists. “Why do you think I care to argue with you?”

“Indeed you do care. Your discussion is most illuminating,” he replied thoughtfully. He finally backed away but insisted, “It’s important that we act morally.”

“You think we can save ourselves, so what do we need the Church for? Is it God’s choice or ours? That’s the question you’ll be asked one day. You’re a philosopher in disguise, telling us if we just control our appetites, a happy life will be ours. One day they’ll call you a heretic.” 

What I said seemed to disturb him. He expected, perhaps, that I’d accept his warning with reverence, but the appositions of his bearing overcame me. This fat monk, obviously a glutton, possibly a lecher, both client and censor of the wealthy, spoke with the passion of a lover about self-denial.

He nodded and began to walk away.

“I haven’t dismissed you,” I said.

“I wasn’t aware that I was under command of the tribunate.”

“I’m also the nephew of your emperor.”

“You claim that right?” His small eyes blazed with triumph as he turned back to me.

This man possessed no fear, but he was clearly aware of the color of mine. The imagined conspiracies of the Augustus and his court kept me under suspicion and under surveillance. Like all men of the Senatorial Order, I wore the broad stripe, but rumor accused me of a thirst for purple. Still, I had little chance of ever having it. The reality was that Honorius would bear a son to rule the West, as Arcadius’s son did in the East.

“You should be in Consistory, but the Patrician shields you,” he said. “You haven’t even sponsored your games, yet you were admitted to the Senate years ago. Doesn’t he trust you?” 

He walked back to me as he spoke, and when he was close enough, I slapped him. Shock dropped his jaw as I said, “Again I’ll remind you, Monk, that though you eat with the best men, you aren’t one. Speak to me carefully, or next time I’ll have you whipped. My ambition has only been to live a pious life.” Gallus jerked with surprise then, and I swore silently to beat him for his impulse.

“That’s good to know,” replied Pelagius cautiously as he stepped back. “You dwell too much on how men fail.”

“Then we’re more alike than either of us cares to admit.”

“There’s talk of what the aims of the Patrician, or his army, may actually be in his eastern journey.”

Theodosius was my great-uncle by blood. He adopted his favorite niece, Serena, my mother. Then he adopted my father as his son. I was raised as Honorius’s younger brother, though we had no brotherly love for each other, and his spirited sister, Placidia, was promised me. Despite all that I might have claimed, I knew an imperial future would never be mine. My father forbade my marriage until Honorius produced his own heir, but that chinless pigeon-keeper was married to both my sisters and had not fathered a single brat.

My oldest sister, Maria, I suspect, died a virgin. The gods took her suddenly, mercifully. My other sister, also older than me, remained a virgin. Thermantia was a more fitting bride for Honorius than Maria, truly dedicated to the Church, and yet I recall her girlhood fantasies of living as both a mother and a wife, so for all Honorius’s virtuous pretensions, his bed held greater shame than any I shared. As for me, at twenty, I was beginning to accept that my place was as neither a son nor a man, but as a sacrifice to the memory of Father’s beloved Theodosius.

It’s obvious what could be said about the Patrician taking his son and troops east to assert dominance on a child, with the western Augustus along in name only. I wanted to believe the rumors, but as one who might have benefited from his crimes and instead suffered from his virtue, I knew his heart better than anyone. Despite his success, he was suspect. Despite his sacrifice, he was an outsider. Despite his authority, he was a servant.

“Don’t put your faith in lies,” I warned.

“And if the lies become truths, I pray the East finds a worthy Augustus to rule her.”

His flattery was repulsive. “Yes,” I said, locking my hands behind my back and forcing an easy pose. “Every good ruler needs a confessor—”

“A censor.”

“Were you denied the imperial episcopate?”

“Bishop Ambrose was Theodosius’s conscience and Gratian’s before him. Under Ambrose’s influence, Gratian stopped payments to the cults. Theodosius closed the temples and stopped sacrifices. He gave us the beginnings of a truly catholic religion. His greatest act was that he realized himself to be a subject of the same Church as his own subjects.”

“You mean his greatest infamy! The emperor stripped before a bishop. Are you trying to save my soul or petitioning for an office? You have ambitious thoughts for a man in cork sandals.” My gaze rose from his feet to his face. “I’m not like my grandfather. I strip for no man.”

“I serve Illustrious houses, but I follow where Christ leads.” He left me at the water’s edge, and I watched his progress until he was out-of-sight.

Later, I brought Gallus to the quarters granted me by Proba. A slave is one saved from the death he deserves—an enemy, a criminal, a sinner. His father sold him into this existence that gives us substance, that defines us both. I thought of beating him, but I didn’t.

I asked him what he thought of Pelagius.

“I agree with you, Master.”

“You never agree with me.”

“He would replace Jupiter with Christ as only a better example of virtue. If a mere choice can save us, why do we need faith at all?”