Stilicho’s Son – Episode 22

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

In the end, I avoided Proba’s bed. I wondered for a time whether it was the wisest choice or even the most interesting one. Nevertheless, I rode the surrounding hills for a day, searching for the home where Horace had composed his Odes four centuries ago. There in the “poverty” of his estate, he could extol the golden mean, telling us to avoid possessing an enviable palace as ardently as a filthy hovel. The hypocrisy of his age was no different from my own, ruled by an elite whose luxury had not been subdued.

Senators were servants of the emperor, and since Constantine’s revolution, they had simply come to serve the Nazarene in the same way. My friend Volusian, like Proba herself, gave alms to the poor, built basilicas, and sponsored games as his ancestors did. I was indulged by the old families, while always aware of watching from the outside. I felt like the spectator of a strange game; I knew the score but had to deduce the rules myself. And I wasn’t good with rules.

While exploring the hills, I decided I’d go to Rome again before joining my father. I needed to know what was in the letters Volusian sent, what could so interest the Minister that he would have them stolen. However, before leaving Hadrian’s villa, I received another message from Father. He had changed his plans, insisting I now meet him at Ravenna and travel to Bononia with him, where the army was already preparing for war not in the East, but in Gaul.

Despite the legions we had there, Gaul had been governed by local men for years. They found the means for their growing ambition by welcoming a usurping Roman general. The Gauls were in the middle of a war with invading Barbarians, and by accepting the rebel’s imperial claim, they added his legions to theirs. It was a condemnation of my father. It was also treason. But it had been going on for a year and my father had seemed little concerned before.

While Gaul held Barbarian invaders and the Roman usurper, Alaric was in Italy demanding payment for treaty obligations. Having pried the money from the Senate’s fingers, and suffering the indignity of Lampadius, Father thought the matter settled. That was in April. By August the matter still wasn’t settled because the senators delayed and debated, and among themselves they muttered about the Barbarians in the army as well as the Barbarian near the throne.

The evening before I left Tibur, I spent alone with Gallus. Concerned with the rumors, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on my couch watching the flickering lamp noticing that the oil that gave light also gave off a stream of black smoke, a contrast like a curious omen.

As usual, Gallus, you’ll take pleasure in my plight—
That I am love-bereft, at lonely leisure.
But I refuse to imitate your treacherous tongue:
Never may a girl wish, Gallus, to trick you.
While growing famous for female deception
And coolly looking for short-term love,
You’ve fallen for someone and turn pale with ill-timed passion—
The first slippery step to ruin…*

Gallus read the poem aloud. His face loosened as if he were ill. He wasn’t fond of Propertius.

“Pedantic,” he replied to my question.

“You should like it. It’s where you got your name.”

“My name is ‘Agrynnus’.”

“Your name is ‘Gallus’. Don’t you know why I named you that?”

“As always, you enjoy mocking me.”

“Not at all. Someone’s given you quite a hunger, Boy. How could I not admire that? Now read.”

“Read what?”

I waved my hand, letting him decide.

He drew another scroll from a stack and unrolled it. His shoulders relaxed. Horace.

As he read, my thoughts drifted from Horace to him. “You admire him because you’re a slave,” I announced.

He gazed up with defiance.

“Why did your father sell you?”

He looked back down. Though we often faced each other with smug assertions, in the end the triumph was always mine.

“Horace was the son of a slave,” I said.

“He was a master of your language,” he challenged.

“The language that makes you a slave.”

“The language you serve.”

I propped myself on my elbows and then summed up the sterile greatness. “He was passionless.”

“He was virtuous.” He’s a smart boy, and I had him tutored like a senator. It was a perverse gift I remind him of frequently and never regret.

“He worshiped the gods,” I said finally. My attention was drawn again to the smoke.

I lost interest in repeating the merits of Propertius or the failings of Horace. Propertius knew death, and death was always in my thoughts, even more so that August. As the campaign season drew to its close and farmers prepared for the fall planting, death became a consideration borne by conspiracy rather than battle. But it was a constant threat to a man raised as a rival to a throne.

My father’s refusal to believe the worst in Honorius came from his love for Theodosius. Father was raised in the empire, yet born with the Germanic adoration of Rome’s imperial glory. He was unconvinced of what was happening in Consistory. Honorius was a man of twenty-five, coaxed toward ingratitude by ambitious administrators.

It seemed, as Pelagius had said, that what Father was incapable of doing, he was incapable of seeing in others. On the other hand, I was born to Theodosius’s niece, recognized as his grandson, raised as a brother and nephew to the Augustus, and fully Roman. I had no ideals, and I could see the very worst in anyone.  

“Throw the bones,” I told Gallus.

He peered from under his long black lashes. The lamp light made his brown eyes glisten, and his thinly-bearded cheeks were shadowed in the dim yellowish glow. His jaw locked. He opened the small silver box that rested beside the scrolls and books, taking out three ivory dice, each with six sides. Although he didn’t approve of gambling, my father had them specially carved for me. These were my lucky tesserae, my oldest possession. I’d had them longer than Gallus.

He put them in a cup, shook them, and let them tumble on the floor in front of me: a ten. I picked up the cup, shook it, and let the dice rattle around a good long time. He leaned over his crossed legs, his shoulders drawn together and hands clasped. I let the dice fall: sixteen.  

“That’s it then.” He settled before me on his knees. I drew aside my tunic, and as he leaned forward, I said, “Never defy the gods.” 

* Propertius I.13 translated by Lee, Guy. Propertius: The Poems. Oxford University Press. 1996.