Stilicho’s Son – Episode 27

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


I addressed Namatian. “Julian had many good arguments. He thought the fable about a tower was absurd. God was afraid of men reaching Heaven, so he changed their languages to prevent their building the tower any higher.”

“Absurd indeed,” he agreed. “The god of Israel is not the god of Rome.”

“Yes,” I said, “How can a god rule Persia, where a brother marries his sister, and also Rome, where such a thing is unimaginable?”

“Not so unimaginable, is it, Eucher?” Volusian waited for my reaction as the rumors of Honorius and Placidia returned to my mind, then turned to Namatian. “Julian had an explanation for everything: why Romans are humane, why the Egyptians are skilled, why Syrians are vain. Most interesting is what he said about Germans, as if he knew anything about them when their most obvious pleasures passed him by completely. For example, he never once mentioned their fondness for their horses, though he said some god made them love freedom so fiercely they’d gladly die for it. Why, our dear friend here has disproved that theory already. I don’t think there’s anything our dear Eucher would die for.”

Heat prickled the hair on my neck, but before I could say anything, he changed the subject. “I know about Lampadius,” he said. “What else happened at Senate?”

“Why weren’t you there?” asked Namatian.

“Letters that I’d put off far too long.” 

“Senators complained and the Patrician demanded.” Namatian allowed a girl to refill his cup while he stared at her thinly-covered breasts. “The Augustus rose at one point and spoke for his Patrician’s plan, but he didn’t seem enthusiastic. I discussed it with your uncle, Volusian. He spoke for more than just himself when he said he thought the emperor was like a toad in a well. The Augustus sees what he thinks is the world, only to leave the palace and discover it isn’t.”

“You think my father—”

“I think the Augustus has very little curiosity,” corrected Namatian. “Every time he leaves Ravenna he must be amazed at how things aren’t like the Consistory tells him. Men at court have their own ideas of what and who the emperor’s world should hold.”

“Men?”

“New men, ambitious men.”

“Minister Olympius?”

Nodding, Namatian explained, “As soon as the court heard about Arcadius’s death in May, they began discussing plans for the eastern expedition. Then the Augustus suddenly decided to return to Ravenna. The Patrician was surprised, since his plans were to stay in Rome through the summer. I was at the Palatine when the Minister brought him the news, and it was interesting to me that the Augustus had the Minister delivering his orders to his own Patrician.”

“Then in June, Honorius banned all decent worship,” said Volusian. “The Vandals crossed into Gaul, and Honorius purged the army of any who didn’t follow the Christian faith. He only seems to make things worse. But your father’s always had the greatest influence on him, so who is truly making all these bad decisions?” He turned back to Namatian, asking, “How’s your revision been going?”

“Oh, it’s just grammar.”

“Grammar? By the gods, our distinguished colleague has been revising none other than Livy,” announced Volusian, “reminding us of how we truly got here, now that every bishop is trying to build his own Rome. How can they possibly explain Rome without the immortal gods?”

“The gods, indeed,” Namatian repeated, almost a scolding. “Since when have you believed in any god?”

Laughing, Volusian turned to me. “Have you heard that my friend Namatian believes me an atheist? Would you think such a thing of me, Eucher? You know me best of all. Tell him of my piety.”

“Atheist? Never. You’re mistaken to think him faithless, Namatian, since our Volusian worships a god, a great one, greater than any.”

“Helios-Mithra?”

I shook my head. “Greater.”

“What’s his name?”

I thought a moment. “Men call him ‘Eloquence’.”

“Eloquence?” asked Namatian, smiling. He was good-natured enough to play along. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“You jest!” I exclaimed. “I would swear of all of us, you know him best.”

“Truly…does he have a temple? Priests?”

“Both. He’s a god of reason, but passion most of all. I’ve seen him, a magnificent creature—more restless than Hermes, more shapely than beautiful Venus, with the desire of Mars and the wisdom of Athena herself. He rules from a wide throne of white marble beneath the bluest of skies. His temples hold teeming collections of books. His holy places are schools, baths, tables, even stadiums—anywhere his believers gather. They don’t sacrifice meats or incense. Instead, they offer words. And with those words they mingle the libation that pours from the veins of all the faithful, that libation Plato himself named and failed to appreciate, for he called it the ‘sacred rage’, a desire that brews the unanswerable questions to nourish the god.”

Volusian was watching me with one eyebrow raised, yet despite that characteristic affectation, his eyes were vacant. He was either drunk or offended. He said, “What an interesting god, but you seem to know more about him than I do.”

“Yes,” I answered thoughtfully. “You’re right, Volusian. Maybe I’ve misspoken, and he’s not the one you worship.” I took a drink. “As I think of our years together, I realize you honor, rather, ‘Elocution’. He’s a taskmaster. At his feet lie dusty books, while a circling wind stirs the dust into sooty clouds, until, so violent and constant is the wind, that it blinds his followers, making their eyes useless. Their ears are confused by the droning of the wind, so they go about like Echo, repeating whatever nonsense they hear, and the words they repeat, once filled with thought and purpose, become sounds without meaning. Nor do they care about questions, but answers only. Yes, they contrive an answer for everything, and don’t they embrace his pragmatic creed, after all, that it’s not what one says, but how one says it that shows the breeding?”

“How much your own eloquence becomes elocution when you’ve had too much wine,” responded a surly Volusian. “I think we’ve made our guest uncomfortable.”

“You only intrigue me,” replied Namatian excitedly. I suspected he was still flattered by my compliment. “I’d be interested to know what the son of the pious Patrician, and yet would-be deifier of Julian the Apostate, believes himself. This god you speak of, ‘Eloquence’—you’re a cynical man! Tell me what you believe.”

Volusian was right: I’d had too much wine. Because I’d had too much, I drank more and continued to speak nonsense. “I believe nothing. I only wonder. I wonder why the invisible sun interests my thoughts when the visible one warms my back. I wonder why my thought is consumed with the one I don’t see, when my body desires only the one it can feel. But don’t think my cynicism means I have no faith.” I waved my finger at Namatian. “Don’t think my indulgence means I have no virtue.”

“You’re avoiding the issue,” admonished Volusian.

“You’re educated men, so what do I need to say? The Sophist Prodicus thought the gods were just our way of seeing nature, that we made Dionysus god of wine and Demeter goddess of grain. Democritus, that dour philosopher, had two ways of thinking. On the one hand, he thought we have such guilty consciences, that we feel the need for punishments. On the other hand, he thought we use gods to explain the inexplicable. Then there was the clever Critias, one of those ambitious tyrants of Athens in the days of war with Sparta. He was once a student of Socrates and perverted his noble philosophy of justice into political justification. Critias was the very reason Socrates was condemned, but he was insightful just the same. He said all religion is politics, used to control discontent, and indeed, what ruler hasn’t claimed that some god ordained him? And finally, let us not forget Euripides, that most sublime of poets. He gave us gods who are desires, for he gave our desires lives of their own.”

“Yes, yes, we’re impressed by your knowledge,” said Volusian. “You have the ability to say nothing when you say so much—your teachers have given you that. But I think I’ve spied a fault. None of those men thought the gods are really gods at all.”

“You’re as sharp as ever,” I commented.

When I raised my cup of wine to congratulate him, Namatian said, “Is it your point that what we imagine to be true and what is true, are the same thing by coincidence or because we decide it is? Is this merely a discussion of what words mean?”

I could see his mind traveling in wide circles. “I’ll tell you simply, noble Senator, that virtue exists whether men want to see it or not, indeed whether anyone sees it, or whether anyone agrees on it. Truth? If it exists, then it’s just what the Christians say it is but what few of them want. Imagine it this way: you’re traveling to an inn for dinner. Along the way, you come across a separate road, an attractive one, wild and lush. Would you delay your meal long enough to fight through the overgrowth to walk along that different path? Maybe you’ll find flowers and sweet berries, and when you arrive at the inn, you tell everyone about it. Yet, do you remember how to get back to it? You only found it by accident, after all, and didn’t go looking for it, and what’s more, do you even want to find it again, or would you rather just talk about it and have it grow in its attraction and mystery with each telling?”

“Then why did you attack Pelagius at the Consul’s dinner?” asked Namatian. “He’s a man pursuing truth, wouldn’t you say?”

“Virtue’s not the same thing as truth, and he acts the one and confuses the other, but what man was ever content with one crime, as a poet once said? Certainly not that gluttonous monk. He assumes what he knows without examination, and then goes about accosting subtler minds like a fever. His interest is best served by his faith, were it true or virtuous or neither, since he’s honored as a humble man, while he’s served by slaves and eats the best food. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether anything he says is true or not, whether anything he does is virtuous or not, because if it is, it’s merely accidental.”

“Then it’s the motive that interests you?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “Bishop Augustin seems the opposite—confusing virtue and acting as if he knows truth. I’m not sure which is better, except that Augustin, at least, has spent his life examining what he thinks.”

“Tell us what you think,” insisted Volusian. “Wine knows no patience, as they say, and we’ve suffered too much already.” 

“Yes,” added Namatian, “you’ve been put on the spot. It’s time to pay for your meal.” He winked at Volusian. “I’ve not seen your name carved on any altar, nor do you take bread from a priest. Maybe you’re like Volusian here, an atheist.”

“Weigh the self-interest of a man against anything he tells you. You’ll find self-interest holds an inverse relationship to truth. If I told you what I was, you shouldn’t believe me anyway.”

“Enough!” shouted Volusian. “You play like a girl with two suitors. You tell us what everyone else thinks and why we shouldn’t believe them. What sort of philosophy is that? You have no principles, as you’re forever reminding me, and you’ve said nothing tonight to show otherwise. Namatian is now going to tell us about his revisions because that, at least, is something we can hold on to.”

“Our Anthony has the concentration of a boy, wouldn’t you say?” I said to Namatian. “Nevertheless, honorable Senator, I’m pleased to tell you I’ve read your poems. As magical as Propertius, and Volusian’s as proud as if he composed them himself.”

“He may have,” said Namatian. He searched for the wine-girl. “I can tell you many started right here in this room with the inspiration of his girls.”

“Girls?” I wondered, turning to Volusian.

Volusian shrugged as he thrust out his cup for a slave to refill.

“What girls has he been sharing with you?”

“Have you not been generous?” Namatian rolled onto his side and looked at Volusian. “I wouldn’t have thought you stingy. Bring out your girls for our tribune.”

After a few more persuasive words, Volusian rose from his couch and spoke to a boy, who left with instructions. Then he returned and stretched out again.

“Our Volusian has his secrets,” remarked Namatian. He seemed unaware of Volusian’s mood.

Gallus still hadn’t returned with my toga, and the wine hadn’t helped. I wrapped my arms around myself and watched a group of girls trail in. Their green dresses floated around them like nymphs. I looked back at Volusian, who was staring at me. As I looked at him, he looked at the girls. I turned back to the girls and felt his eyes back on me. When I looked at him again, all the wine reached my head at once, and I felt myself spin.

“I’ll find out what’s keeping my boy,” I said as I stumbled from my couch.

I found myself at my room without remembering the walk. Volusian was in front of me telling me to lie down.

“Where’s that boy!” I shouted, pushing him away. After glancing around the room, I noticed the lavender bedding, the antelope pelts, and the green-glass mosaic on the west wall, but Gallus wasn’t there.

Volusian was wrapping my good toga around my shoulders when I passed out.

I was awakened early in the morning by two imperial guards.

“Your presence has been requested by the Respectable Minister Olympius, Master of the Imperial Correspondence. He awaits you at the Palatine in Rome.”

The moment seemed to pause as the men ushered me from Volusian’s palace. A green halo of pity shone in Volusian’s eyes.

The Minister had no authority to summon me, but I went just the same.