Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
I shouldn’t have taken up his offer, but it was quite beyond my control. Like a siren, his affectionate reminiscences and petty complaints lulled me from delight to anger to senselessness. While his servants prepared dinner, we shared his couch. He lay on his back, dramatizing his desire for me while I stood, holding his ankles in my hands.
With skin as pallid and supple as a girl’s, his sophisticated effeminacy attracted the elite of Rome to him, for he was considered a man of delicate constitution and piety. His appearance hid the truth, of course, which was his advantage at court. It was the first step to ruin for any of his enemies when they underestimated his ruthlessness, as they invariably did.
“If you won’t sell him to me,” Volusian said, his voice uneven as he coordinated thought with the rhythm of pleasure, “then let me borrow him.”
“What would you do with him?” I closed my eyes.
“Teach him what you’re afraid to.”
I opened my eyes.
“He’s a tool. A horse. A stallion.” He moaned, then laughed. “No, a mare, since the meat goes in, not on.” He groaned again when I pushed his legs back farther and set a knee on the couch. His face flushed, and he mumbled something that sounded obscene without being articulate. The flush swept across his chest, and his eyes grew vacant. He moaned my name with the sheer indulgence I found so appealing in him and oozed onto his belly.
I shoved his legs away, sending him into a roll over the couch. He came to rest on his knees. “Are you some incontinent child?” I hissed with disgust. “I’ve known old cunts tighter than your ass.”
“Have I upset you?” He sat up with a devilish smile as he gestured for his slave to clean him off.
He spread on his couch like a common whore, his slave wiping him with a rag as other slaves set up the dinner nearby. As I stared at him, I felt myself grasping at arousing images and vanishing sparks of desire, but whatever had compelled me to share his couch that evening was gone. The raw seduction that had been irresistible to me a few minutes earlier was suddenly so grotesque that I felt queasy. His pallid sheen and twitching lips made him appear like a diseased animal, and I backed away.
He failed to notice my revulsion, and commanded mildly, “Let your boy finish you. I’ll drink some wine and learn what it is that delights a god.”
Nausea turned my lip, and when I glanced at Gallus, he closed his horrified eyes. My cheeks warmed with blood. Shame was a feeling I had not experienced since the days of running like a clown before Honorius’s chariot through the streets of Rome. When I turned back to Volusian, his smile grew. I took the wine from his hand, finished it to calm my stomach, and then put my clothes back on.
Dinner with Volusian was a frivolous affair. He lay across from me wearing a gold-trimmed blue toga and a kaffiyeh. The strange headdress was worn by men from Africa. A thick rose-purple band wound around his head, holding a white cloth that draped over his neck and shoulders. He laughed about making it the uniform when he became governor. He occasionally flipped it around as if it were long tresses. It was rather appealing, exotic if effeminate, as foreign customs tend to be.
He prepared an intimate dinner, meant originally for one guest, and now two. We were joined by Namatian, whom I’d met at Bassus’s dinner. He wore his dark hair too short for the curls that were fashionable. Instead of curling neatly in loops, they stuck out from his head as if in a breeze. Occasional gray strands streaked the pile of black atop his head, though he was perhaps only thirty. He was a different man in some ways from the one I met at the Consul’s home. At Volusian’s table he was more cheerful.
“One senator stood up and quoted Livy, asking whether Romulus’s last raven has flown.” Namatian was describing the Senate vote in April. “Then we voted for war, but the Patrician wasn’t through. He stood up and explained why we need to keep our agreement with Alaric. It became clear then that he wasn’t there for our decision. He was there to force our agreement. We knew the day wouldn’t end until he got his way. When the senators looked as if they were being persuaded, Lampadius shouted that it wasn’t a pact for peace but for slavery, and the men fell to arguing again.”
“It was hardly so well orchestrated,” I replied coolly.
“Maybe,” replied Namatian, “but none of us thinks making Alaric our ally is in the best interest of Rome. I doubt even the Patrician does. Or you.”
“What I asked was your impression of the Augustus.”
“The Augustus,” began Namatian, taking a handful of nuts. He chewed as he thought, creating a lot of saliva. When he spoke again, it was with a wet precision. “He was uncomfortable. He’s been at Senate only a dozen times in his life, and he watched us closely. But not much of anyone paid attention to him, except his ministers. Certainly you know him better than any of us. What can I tell you?” He wiped his mouth.
Gallus had gone to get my best toga, but he hadn’t returned yet. I felt chilled, and so I drank more wine. “I remember the Minister kept interrupting him,” I said.
“The Minister paid less attention to the proceeding than anyone.”
“Tradition means nothing to him.”
“Yes, tradition means little to anyone these days. We took Judaea more than three centuries ago, and she seems more powerful than ever, but I don’t mind the Jews. Except for the few times Theodosius listened to that bloodthirsty Ambrose, we’ve lived peacefully with them. They’re content to worship their god and leave us to ours. But the Christians! They insist we must all live as if we were already dead. They call themselves ‘monks’ and live alone, they say, to avoid the pleasures of life so that they may also avoid the pains. What madness is it to live in misery in order to avoid misery?”
“They may have their way with all of us,” Volusian commented.
“Yes, if we lose the prefectures to them, too, and how long can the Senate hold out? This is what concerns me.” Namatian took another handful of nuts and leaned away.
“Your uncle’s submitted a petition for the prefecture,” I said to Volusian, who appeared disinterested.
He stroked his headdress and swirled his wine. “Your father won’t select him. You know that. He loathes me and all the Ceionii as a matter of principle. We’re worshipers of Mithra, but the worst thing is, I’m your friend, and like many fathers, what he hates about his son he blames on his son’s friends.” He raised his head to look at me. “And there are many things he hates about his son.”
“What about you?” Namatian asked Volusian. “After Flavian, who could be better for the City?”
“As if I want to spend my time worrying whether I’ll get enough grain into the City so the rabble doesn’t lynch me. How many times did Flavian or his father barely escape with their lives?”
“But look what they almost accomplished against Theodosius,” I remarked. It was a thought I should not have expressed aloud, and both men looked at me startled. Of course it was treason to speak highly of men who rebelled against the emperor, but I was among friends, and that seemed justification enough. “What do you suppose it would be like now if Flavian’s father had succeeded against Theodosius?” Flavian had joined the rebellion of a false emperor sixteen years before, hoping to reassert the traditions of the Senate and the gods, where Theodosius had formerly given the City to his generals and the Church. The rebellion proved a miserable failure.
“You often make the mistake of coloring the crimes of your kinsmen with noble tones,” replied Volusian. “The rebellion was merely a suitable cover to cloak Barbarian avarice. Why do you speak to me—to our wise Namatian here—as if we’re ignorant schoolboys? We’re quite aware of Barbarian treachery, and we know it was just another Barbarian general who seized Rome by the throat and dressed in purple. You think we would have learned our lesson, but it seems we keep trusting Barbarian thugs with what they can’t understand.”
“It’s the noblest of traditions,” said Namatian, uncomfortably. “The prefecture of the City, I mean.”
“I expect my heroic Eucher to say that,” answered Volusian turning now on his other friend, “but I expect more from you. The tradition of bankrupting yourself to feed and entertain a stinking mass of toothless nobodies—or for that matter, building monuments for beggars to piss on—are traditions we can dispose of. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but the Pantheon’s statue of Mars is a shit stool for a group of Cynics, and the prostitutes who were run-out of the Temple of Isis suck off their customers in the grove behind the library. I slipped and nearly broke my leg back there last month.”
The three of us glanced about at each other until Volusian began laughing and tossing back more wine.
“So you’ll spend the days in your villas, dallying with your boys,” I said.
“That’s one tradition I think I’ll observe.”
I turned to Namatian. “I’ve heard you’re looking for a copy of Julian.”
Namatian’s head rose with interest. “Volusian said you had a copy. You have the only one in Rome that I know of.”
“Not a popular work these days.”
“It’s never been popular,” replied Namatian. “Against the Christians hasn’t been copied since Julian died. When will you let me borrow it? I could send a copier to the Patrician’s house, if you’re concerned about lending.”
“I’ll send it to you at Senate,” I replied, drawing a smile of gratitude from him.
“Dull, really,” commented Volusian, still swirling his wine.
“You used to enjoy philosophy.”
“I liked all sorts of games when I was a boy.”