Stilicho’s Son – Episode 15

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

Bishop Paulinus finished, looking to Proba for her response. When she smiled, his face lit up.

The famous bishop had been reading his poetry as we shared dinner with Proba and several other guests at her villa in Tibur. A man in his fifties, Paulinus was unkempt and yet somehow noble, childlike in his manner and sophisticated in speech. He was well-educated, a student once, as Gallus had told me, of the poet Ausonius who died some years ago.

One of Pelagius’s disciples joined us, as well, lying next to his master on the couch to my right. Celestius was a popular man in the City—arrogant, opportunistic, and in every other way a typical senator. He studied his teacher’s speech carefully but never seemed to learn from it. Celestius was like an actor with bad timing; he tried to compensate for his lack of eloquence with volume. He was also the kind of moralist who compensates for his lack of understanding with zealousness.

“We can thank Ambrose for bringing the true faith to northern Italy. I fear to imagine what places like Imola would do without God’s mercy now that the Barbarians are there,” commented Pelagius.

“They’ve even raided some villages,” added Celestius. “I heard they destroyed a church with twenty worshipers inside, women having their babies baptized. All burned alive. My friends, these are the filthy Barbarians we’ve agreed to pay four-thousand pounds. We’re melting the images of our emperors to pay a villain who murders our children.”

The Barbarians had done no such thing. Alaric was Christian, and the Senate certainly wasn’t melting statues to gather the sum required by him. But I couldn’t very well start defending him. Not that I cared to anyway, except that the more people hated him, the more they also seemed to hate my father.

Celestius glanced around and released a great sigh.

“Those poor babies,” muttered Proba.

“We should feel for anyone left to the mercy of Alaric,” said Themistius, who was a professor of rhetoric, a Sophist with his own school at Rome. Themistius came to Tibur to evaluate Auchenius Bassus, the son of Consul Bassus. The younger Bassus was only nine years old, but Proba felt he should begin his rhetorical training as soon as possible. Nothing was more valuable for the future of a noble son than his ability to appear learned.

“Yes,” replied Pelagius. “But they were innocent.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Why baptize innocent babies?”

“Indeed,” agreed Pelagius. “Again, it’s the notion of certain fatalistic men that it isn’t what we do that makes us foul, but what we are.” He turned from me to Proba to make his point. “They even question the innocence of babies.”

“Your theories won’t amount to much,” I remarked. “We can’t be perfect. Few of us even try.”

“I must disagree,” said Proba, pausing for a smile. “Respectfully, Lord Tribune. What drives men more than the desire for praise?”

“Nothing,” agreed Themistius. “Nothing.” He lay beside me, opposite Proba. Although he was a thin man and wore a linen tunic, three slaves fanned him and he still sweated.

We were eating in one of Hadrian’s pharaonic buildings, a structure impressively thick and unventilated. Proba had a dozen slaves fanning the room. It would have been pleasant to move out to the pool where the air could circulate, even though the summer night was still and insects had freedom to fly about, chased only by child slaves armed for the night with reed swatters. The children turned their chore into a game and were swatting each other around the pool. Though my observation wasn’t intended as a complaint, when Proba noticed that I had noticed, she sent a woman to round them up.

Themistius continued, “I’ve heard it argued for forty years that comfort is at the heart of every man’s philosophy. But that’s untrue. Men would as soon hear their name said with praise as they would wish to feast.” 

The children were led into the building and one stood beside each guest like a tiny bodyguard.  

“Maybe that’s a little more true of professors than the rest of us,” I said.

Themistius smiled good-naturedly. “My students would agree with you.” 

“I heard about the riot this summer.”

“Two of my students were beaten by the City Prefect,” he complained, “and sent back to their provinces. It even attracted the attention of the Master of Offices.”

“The Master…” I muttered, thinking of Olympus. “He’s a deliberate man, consumed with details. His office keeps track of the students in Rome, but what would a street fight mean to him?”

“Apparently, the Augustus was concerned that it was a symptom of something bigger. The temple riot happened only two weeks earlier, so the Master sent men to investigate my school.”

“An earthquake.” I felt myself sneer. “Some god rumbles and the superstitious rabble breaks into hysteria. I’m sure your students had good reason for their protest.” Fights between student factions are typical of great university towns, like Athens where the philosophers gather and Berytus where the barristers train. In Rome dead bodies usually pile up only after fans leave the chariot races.

“It was a matter of who won a debate,” he explained. “My best student challenged a student of Honoratus—whom you might know from his commentary on Virgil. His boys have taken to calling him ‘Master of the City’, and naturally my boys took exception to that. My boy clearly displayed more eloquence in the contest, but Honoratus’s boys didn’t accept the verdict, so hot-tempered youth spoke more eloquently than training that night.” His raised eyebrows encouraged everyone to laugh.

“Still,” I said after awhile, “you may be overstating the matter. Removing a competitor is often easier than rising to his standard.”

“Yes, that leads to mediocrity, often cleverly disguised as humility.”  Pelagius looked at Proba and added, “Like Augustine. He’s little more than a Sophist in a monk’s robe.” He shifted smugly, pleased to have the opportunity once again to criticize his rival.

“Sophists have always made the weaker argument the stronger,” I pointed out, fondly recollecting the years I spent with my own teachers. “Even Socrates was accused of corrupting the young.”

“Augustine is not nearly so skilled and very much more criminal.”