Stilicho’s Son – Episode 30

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


On Wednesday, August thirteenth, a legion of Roman soldiers mutinied. Bribed and angered by rumors of treason, they rioted, burning their camp and slaughtering seven imperial officials at Pavia.

Among the dead were the most powerful civilian and military leaders of the western empire, all members of the Sacred Consistory and the most illustrious families in the world: the generals of the infantry, the cavalry, and the Master of Offices himself—the man who oversaw the Consistory and imperial staff and secret police and treasury. The Chief Notary, Petrus, was taken into custody to be tortured for information. The dignified Salvius, legal advisor to the Consistory, sought refuge at his Augustus’s feet, but Honorius wasn’t in control at Pavia, and Salvius was gutted while he clutched his emperor’s knees.

Like fire rushes through the tenements, hate spread through the legions, burning hotter when reports reached the mutineers that messengers had escaped to warn the German cavalry at Bononia. The mutinous troops, angry but growing afraid of what the German cavalry might do, appealed to their emperor for support, but with the Master of Offices dead, Honorius had no one to provide his resolve, and so he appointed a new man.

Minister Olympius arrived in Pavia after fear set in and graciously accepted Honorius’s offer to bear the burdens of the Master.

Olympius assessed the mood of the troops, who confessed their acts and then entrusted their lives to the man they knew as a true Christian and servant of Rome, nor did he disappoint them. He bullied the Augustus into praising the massacre and charging the commander of the German cavalry with treason.

It didn’t matter that the accused was absent, that he had no part in the violence, that his troops were still disciplined, nor that he was commander not only of the Germans but of the mutinous Romans, too. The Minister had only to frightened the feeble Augustus with what his Patrician could do, whether he would do it or not, before the Augustus issued an arrest warrant for my father.

At Bononia, Father received the news and sent messengers out to determine whether the Augustus was dead or alive, while he arrayed his soldiers to punish the legion at Pavia. When his messengers confirmed that the emperor was safe, my father altered his plans, deciding he would punish only the leaders.

But this announcement of leniency angered his German cavalry, especially those eager to revenge years of subtle and not so subtle slights. When they failed to convince my father to take up arms against the mutinous legion, one of his own officers slipped into his tent, determined to finish the mutineers’ mission for his own reasons. Only the cautious preparation of one of my father’s Huns saved his life, and the traitor escaped to add his sword to the last army who might welcome him: Alaric’s Confederacy.

Count Heraclian, who had commanded the legions and the massacre at Pavia, accompanied the imperial retinue back to Ravenna, where he was introduced by Olympius to the troops there as the man who saved the Augustus from a vicious Barbarian conspiracy. My uncle had hastily raised Olympius to Master of Offices to replace the murdered Naemorius, so by the time he reached Ravenna, Olympius commanded the Consistory by authority of his office and the throne by the weakness of my uncle.

In less than a year after he was plucked from obscurity, Olympius had managed to anchor a web on the highest structures of the imperium where he could sense the slightest tremor and act with haste to snatch any flies from his threads before they managed to break through.  

I often think back and imagine that moment when flowers floated onto the narrow shoulders of that false creature and shouts of praise and gratitude rose about him as my father raced alone through mud and rain and cold to his brief sanctuary.

My father fled the post he had held for fifteen years under three emperors while commanding hundreds of thousands of men and fighting dozens of wars for the glory and safety of the empire, until he arrived at a small brick building on the edge of the Ravenna swamp, where he dismounted and staggered through the wooden door that remained always unlocked. He fell to his knees on the marble tiles.

One day or one night sooner—had I ridden to Bononia, I might have warned him. But then, if he had ever listened to more distrustful and reasonable minds than his own, if he had ever believed a man could be as false as the Minister or as weak as the Augustus, he would not have made the mistakes that he did. He would have seen these men for who they were and not who he wanted them to be. And of course, had he not been a man of principle, he would not have expected other men to be, too.

Many things might have been different had my father not been the man he was, but on August  fourteenth, he took sanctuary in a rustic church near Ravenna—a place he would haunt like a ghost for only a short time, before finally joining his beloved Theodosius.

***

“Have you ever been beaten?” Theodore asked me when we were alone in his library. He addressed me with a relaxed geniality that was more disturbing than comforting. It was a messenger of his who had brought me the news of the massacre and had insisted I come to his house on the Aventine.

His slave mixed me some wine and water, but I simply held it.

Theodore drank his with a thirst borne more from his thoughts than his stomach. He was a man who thrived on being calm amid chaos. He said, “You can crush the feet and hands and still have a man live a long time. Guilty men can’t withstand it, and few innocent men won’t soon agree to any lie that will stop it. This is the fate of Petrus.” He described the terror to come as if it were merely a scene from a market. “Your father’s chamberlain was arrested—Deuterius, since who would know your father’s secrets better than his eunuch servant? He’ll confess, and then there’ll be a list of the proscribed. You’ll be at the top of that list. They won’t even bother to torture you. They’ll just take your head.”

“My father wasn’t there.”

“He’s at Ravenna.”

“I have to see him.”

“If he’s still alive, he won’t be for long. We’ll know by tomorrow what’s happened.”

A nervous slave came and stood beside Theodore, who leaned toward him and listened to whispers. When the slave left, Theodore returned his attention to me. “It seems there were soldiers looking for you at your father’s house.”

“I have to leave Rome.”

“Is that what you want to do? You must think carefully.”

“If I stay here, they’ll find me.” I was no longer thinking for myself.

“If they even know to come here, I think I can manage to hide you. Of course, that’s only for the present. What we have to plan for is the future.”

“There is no future. There’s never been one.”

He smiled kindly. “You’re scared. That’s understandable. But it’s your courage we want, what we’ve needed in the palace for a long time, courage to manage traitors in Gaul, Barbarians in Italy—”

When loud voices intruded, he turned to the noise, his calm replaced with alarm. I rose, preparing to greet the soldiers, but he drew me back and his slaves surrounded me. They guided me through the house and down into a basement. For most of the rest of the morning, I sat in the damp basement behind an altar.

I heard voices and armor moving above me. If they were searching for me, they didn’t find the entrance to the basement. It was Theodore’s chamberlain who came to me after the men left. He led me to a receiving room.

As I entered, I saw Theodore speaking with Volusian. Without a moment’s thought, I rushed to my old friend. He turned, surprised at my rush, but I seized his tunic and hit him in the face.

Theodore took hold of my arm, shoving me away as he stepped between the fallen Volusian and me.

Rubbing his jaw, Volusian remained on the floor. “Is this how you thank your friend for saving your life?” he demanded. “You were ready to rush off to Ravenna before my servants found you, and there are already soldiers looking for you in the City.”

“Theodore’s servants found me.”

“But who sent them?”

“I know about the letters.” 

Theodore held me tighter and said, “We’re both trying to help you, Tribune.”

Volusian’s pink toga was torn where he had hit the stone floor. After rising, he brushed his hand across the tear, as if to smooth it. “Letters? You mean the ones that were stolen?”

“Stolen,” I repeated. “You’re no fool. How could you put such things in writing?”

“What things?” he asked, glancing from Theodore to me.

“Lies,” was all I answered. “You’re very clever with your lies, Volusian. What have you done with Gallus? I assume you’re responsible for him, too. Is he dead?”

“He was a spell some magician cast on you, no doubt. You have too many enemies. You shouldn’t be fighting your friends.”

“Is he dead?” Volusian only stared at me, as if trying to decide which answer would manage me best. “I just—”

“We’ll get you out of Italy,” announced Theodore. “Volusian will take you to Africa.”

“The army killed seven of your father’s men,” explained Volusian. “They did it only because the Minister convinced them they should. He’s dangerous, more now than ever. He already owns the Augustus, men in the Consistory and the army, and now he has command of the court and has control of the Master’s Men.” He walked away casually. He stopped in front of an open doorway and looked outside while he spoke. “No one knows how far he’ll pursue this bad business.”

“How long will I be in Africa?”

“As long as it takes,” replied Volusian tersely, turning back to me. “Or, if you want, you can go to Ravenna and see what the Minister has planned for you.”

I looked past Volusian, out the door, and saw a guard pacing. He wasn’t looking toward the house, but I stepped quickly out of the light anyway.

Theodore pressed me back, a hand to my chest. He gazed anxiously at Volusian and said, “They probably have soldiers stationed everywhere.”

A little time allowed me to think, to remember. Brushing Theodore’s hand away, I went to the door. The man appeared again from behind the wall, pacing and looking off toward the gates. “A Hun,” I said. “My father sent him, not the Minister. Are these the men who were here awhile ago? You didn’t let me see them—”

“They tried to kill you once already,” replied Theodore.

Volusian tried to stop me, but I pushed him aside as I headed out the door.

“What are you doing?” he said angrily. “You can’t go with him.” As I left, I heard him say, “Stilicho’s son is a dead man.”