Stilicho’s Son – Episode 28

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


Arsace met me when I arrived at the Palatine late in the day on the twelfth. The Palatine was the complex of imperial residences begun by Augustus Caesar and added to by many emperors since. Although Honorius moved to Milan and then permanently to Ravenna six years before, he and his ministers received audience at the Palatine when in Rome.

A young slave escorted Arsace and me through a queue of guards. We went upstairs to a dark, inner room where the Minister stood among a cabal of sparkling-robed administrators. They seemed to be standing in a powdery cloud, and as I drew near, their perfumes tickled my nose. I sneezed.

“Welcome,” said the chamberlain, a young eunuch who was standing beside the group of much older men. When he raised his hand, they brought a high-backed chair for me.

The group of old men parted, spreading out in a long line before me like a tribunal. There were at least fifty of them, glittering like a silk rainbow, their heads bobbing as they looked me over and turned to each other with comments, until the one at the center stepped toward me. As he spoke, he spread his arms. “The Respectable Tribune and Notary, son of our Patrician, welcome to the Palatine.”

Having been appointed only that January, the Minister was not familiar to me except by reputation, so I had not seen him up close, nor spoken with him, though we were both at the Senate in April. He smiled now with a mouth overfull with yellow teeth. He was missing one, which had been replaced with gold. His black eyebrows were plucked, but their shadow remained, linking one eye to the other. Fleshy cheeks bulged around sunken sockets. His eyes appeared black in the smoky, lamp-lit room. He reached out a thin-fingered hand, drawing a slave to pour wine. “Have you been enjoying Rome?” he asked.

“Master of the Imperial Correspondence and devoted servant of my uncle, the Respectable Minister Olympius.” I nodded formally. “I always enjoy Rome.” 

He sat down opposite me while his men hovered in the background like impatient vultures. I found it difficult to avoid watching them over his shoulder—one of the Minister’s calculated distractions.

“Don’t all men of culture appreciate her?” He smiled as if hearing the mockery of his men.

His long-sleeved silk tunic hung in rich, purple folds and on his chest glittered the medallions of his rank and office. A brooch set with emeralds was pinned to his shoulder where his toga normally hung, though he had set it aside on his chair. His purple boots laced to mid-calf. He wore the uniform all imperial ministers wore, but he wore it too casually. Despite his words, his whole manner was disrespectful of what he served.

As he handed a cup to me and took one himself, his sleeve slipped down his arm when he raised his drink, revealing a bracelet of silver—the one I had given to the copier at the dinner on the Kalends. It was another calculation that he was aware I had seen. An obtrusive silver and yellow topaz ring spun on his third finger. His nails were long and polished. His large knuckles made his thin fingers appear even thinner.

I set my cup on my thigh and watched him drink.

“The dinners, our many friends, ancient monuments, honored men of the City—so many reasons to come to Rome.” He paused with a deliberate smile that came and went. “But we’ve been here for three days, and have yet to sleep through the night. It’s such a noisy place: wagons, drunkards, fights, fires. Blessed Lord, the fires! Every night someone’s shouting for the guilds to pass the buckets. We’ve set more guards around the Palatine wall to sound a warning if any flame should have the ambition to strike out from the tenements. Ravenna’s a peaceful town. We look forward to returning soon.”

“Rome’s honored by your visit. I’m sure she’ll welcome your return to Ravenna just as happily; that is, to feel secure that you’re once again at the side of the Augustus. May I ask what brings you to Rome?”

“Efforts to protect the interests of His Clemency.”

“I didn’t think my sacred uncle had any interest beyond Ravenna.”

“You have the wit of our Patrician, Tribune. And that,” he said, rising from his chair, “is unfortunate. We wonder whether you know what honorable men say of you.”

“That I don’t know, but I do know what criminals say of you.”

He cocked his head. “You’re even more interesting than we expected. Well-educated, certainly. Well-traveled, somewhat. Well-mannered, not at all.” He stood, staring down at me for a time. “It’s important for a man to make allies when he has none.” He squinted as if thinking, although I was sure little of this conversation had been left to the moment. “You have nothing but your family name to recommend you. Yet…” He sat back down. “You have a certain strength of character, one you’re sacrificing to poor judgment. You spend your time at baths or the shows, and your slave…well, who doesn’t know about your boy?” He leaned back, his elbow on the chair arm and fingers pressed to his temple in thought.

It would have been prudent to respect him, but I could only hate him. “You remind me of Emperor Domitian,” I said, my unexpected response drawing his eyes to mine. I watched them narrow venomously as I explained, “He condemned the immorality of his day, too, and then killed his niece while trying to abort the baby that was his.”

“Of what do you suspect we’re guilty?”

“Ingratitude.”

“Vicious words!” he exclaimed with a smile of relief. I knew he plotted against my father. He thought I was merely a spoiled boy with bad manners. “Indeed, we’ve heard many things about you, Tribune. You’re a prodigy, learned and resourceful. You know Greek as well as Latin, the philosophers as well as Scripture. What a promising beginning for a bishop or a statesman. Only twenty, your life completely ahead of you. What will you choose to do with it, we wonder? Have you already chosen? But you’ve too much choler, wanting to argue, not reason. We didn’t bring you here to argue.”

“You didn’t bring me here at all,” I replied. “You’ve no authority for such a demand, but I wouldn’t deny the request of a man on a mission for the glorious Augustus.”

“You’ve been to visit the Illustrious Anicia Proba recently. A dear friend. How is she?”

“I’m sure you know.”

“You visited the Ceionii, too. You idle away your days while your father waits impatiently for you to meet him at Ravenna. Why haven’t you met him?”

“Surely the Augustus trusts you with more important business than following the wanderings of one of his tribunes?”

His eyes narrowed again, but I didn’t enjoy the small victory. Every word that came out of my mouth made me as nervous as what came out of his.

“Letters have been stolen from you. Did you know? They reached the Augustus before we could intercede, we’re sorry to say. Fortunately, His Clemency has a patience unbounded, though he can’t very well allow his nephew to be at the center of scandal. You’ve offended even his charity, but his devotion to you is strong. You’re fortunate to have so loyal an uncle in such a pious prince.”

He rose and dismissed his guard. The twenty armed men shuffled out the door. One of his assistants handed him a sheet of parchment. He dismissed his assistants, leaving only a single servant to attend us.

When the room was quiet again, the Minister held up the parchment. “To My Beloved Eucher, Respectable Man of the Distinguished Order of Senators, Tribune and Notary,” he read. “Your Dearest Antony Volusian, Most Noble Man of the Distinguished Order of Senators and Imperial Companion of Our Blessed Prince, Honorius, forever Augustus, sends Greetings in the Lord.” Volusian could be as mannered as custom required. The Minister walked to his chair, sat down, and read,

“I pray this letter has found you in the best health and in the company of our holy sister, Anicia Proba, to whose comfort I was told you were recommended after your recent attack in Rome. If this letter finds you in good health, then I am content to begin my discussion here. If you have not faired so well, I pray you to forgive my manner, but know it is only for your continued health that I write.

“It is fitting that old men be patient and that young men revel in the gifts of their youth. We have enjoyed our youth, both together and apart. But despite my generous heart—and always for you it is most tender—I hear of your recent journey to Africa with distress. I know of the bitterness with which your uncle sent you from his estate. I do not believe the stories of your boyish devotion to that son of the Caecinae.”

The Minister paused to look me over. Volusian’s euphemistic “boyish devotion” was an accusation he knew from experience to be a lie. That he repeated it was unbelievable. The Minister continued,

“Nor can I believe you sacrificed to Attis. Rumors are only rumors, but men listen and men believe. You must know what is said of you at Ravenna, what is believed of you. For such things alone do I attribute the terrible and most unjust attack on you at Rome. It is with desire for your good fortune that I now write.

“To be a Christian is the great thing, not merely to seem one, as that monk of the Anicii reminds us. As you know, I cannot claim superior years, as ours are numbered equally. Nor do I claim superior love for having found a blessed marriage. All I claim, unworthily, is the Faith and Grace the Lord has given me. My devotion to the Lord and to our Glorious Augustus has silenced vicious tongues that might turn events against me. But you, My Brother, in your current circumstance have no such protection and are the less fortunate for it. I would ask that you come to Ravenna, stay here with us, and plead with His Excellency to grant you what he has granted me: a position worthy of your birth and a task to match your profound talents.

“The soul is a god, as the wise Plotinus says, and where the soul dwells ‘all the place is holy’. Does that place the divine spark within us, as the Stoics say, or are we merely a superficial reflection of the divine, as the Platonists say? Faith is not foreign to our philosophies, but neither does philosophy make us righteous. God has many faces, so claimed that eminent senator you admire from a generation ago, and there is truth to his words. We have often discussed whether it is important what a man worships or just that he worship; is it the god or the faith that matters most? These are questions I long to discuss with you now! Come to Ravenna! 

“Don’t think I would falsely accuse, but there are many, even in Holy Places, who have no kindness, no words of praise, no prayer for you. Now you must consider at length your life and the lives of your family, and more importantly, the salvation of your soul and that of your father, your mother, and your sister. I will write more of my concerns again, if I do not first have the joyous opportunity to receive you into my own arms. May you always enjoy the Lord’s favor. I send sweet kisses…”

The Minister set the letter onto his lap and stared at me. I found myself unable to speak. Volusian was too astute to be unaware of the damage. To accuse me, a senator, of being someone’s boy was to threaten me with execution by fire. To accuse me of sacrificing at a temple was to accuse me of a crime punishable by beheading. The letter was too-well crafted to be a forgery, but I asked to see it anyway. The script was in a patient hand, not Volusian’s, but he would have dictated to a secretary, and the almond-wax seal was genuine.

I handed the letter back and asked, “Why do you have this?”

“It’s well-known that the noble Volusian is no Christian. We know of his debauches on Vatican Hill, along with all the men of his family. His activities at Ravenna might shock even you, Tribune. And yet we wonder about what he says. Is it his niece that moves him? He corresponds with Bishop Paulinus and Bishop Augustine, too.”

The Minister folded his hands and sat back. The tray holding the wine sat between us. I raised my cup and took a long drink.

Tapping his fingers together, he said, “It’s good to finally meet the son we hear so much about.”

“I can’t imagine the Patrician would have much to say.”

“You’d be wrong, Tribune. He thinks you’ll be a great asset to him, but it seems he’s having a difficult time getting you to leave Rome. Did you enjoy the villa at Tibur?”

“Many statues are gone, the landscape bare.”

His eyes drifted as if he were unsettled by what I said. “We’ve never been there,” he replied. “We’ve seen the obelisk in the circus that comes from there.”

“The grave-marker of Antinous.”

He cleared his throat with a tight, dry sound. “That abomination.”

“You’re concerned about stories.”

“Confirmed.” He tapped the letter.

After a moment, I offered, “I’m not an ambitious man.”