Fifteen Huns from my father’s bodyguard escorted me to Ravenna. Sigizan, Father’s most trusted man, led us. I’d known him since I was a boy, and he hated me almost as long. But I had to trust him as my father did, and I knew I could for the moment. We entered the eagle-topped gates on the one narrow road that passes into the city.
Ravenna began as a village of little importance except that one of Rome’s two fleets were stationed there. In the last two-hundred years, one rebellious general after another found it useful to withdraw from Rome to Ravenna’s marshes. Honorius moved his court there six years ago, and with the new status as imperial capital, the city had taken on a sheen as buildings were refaced and imperial slaves tended them.
In Rome, only the forced labor of criminals or the service of the guilds cleaned anything. Where trash cluttered the rubble-strewn streets of Rome and the monuments often smelled of urine, Ravenna’s paving was still sharp-edged and every building smelled of fresh lime.
The Huns and I made our way past Heraclian’s men with a dignity that threatened to break the discipline of the troops lining the roadways. The martial spirit in the soldiers was servant to a criminal and reflected the character of its new master. The rows of scarlet-draped, leather-bound men with iron helmets and bloodstained spears jostled with anticipation. More than a thousand of them lined the road or marched about the palace. Every twentieth man sat atop a black horse dressed in peacock plumes. But they allowed us to pass, since there was, I had discovered, no warrant for my arrest.
My father had taken refuge in a brick church, one of only two in the city. Not daring to breach the sanctuary, the imperial soldiers remained a good distance from the doors, waiting. It was an uneasy truce, a burden of great weight that threatened at any moment to crush those who bore it.
Heraclian’s men allowed the Huns no closer than the corner stones on the street. I walked to the doors alone and stood looking at them for a long time. A polished silver plate riveted to the wood told of the church’s origin. Graffiti marred the smooth blonde wood around it. Some of it was still legible—symbols of fish and praise for the church. Other marks had been sanded away and weren’t recognizable. I lifted the handle, and the door creaked open.
Thrust alone inward, I stepped slowly, wondering at what turn I’d see him, afraid of what I’d see, of what he’d see. White glass lined the mosaic at my feet. In the dim light, I followed the lines forward, watching the floor, thinking of him but not wanting to see him.
Candles and incense choked the room with smoke. Through the gray fog at the altar, where it seemed a hundred candles burned, I saw him. He was there, “greater even than poets feign of demi-gods.” He was kneeling with his back to me. As I walked toward him, I thought of other praises written by the great Claudian for his patron. Claudian had been a master of flattery, and his words made the man before me seem not my father, not a man at all.
He rose and turned toward me. Before I could speak, his gloved hand hit my cheek, and I stumbled sideways. I righted myself, feeling the pounding pulse on my jaw where he’d struck me. Forcing myself not to blink, I stared into his cold blue eyes, preparing myself for another slap.
Light yellow, almost white, hair, matted with sweat, darkened with dirt, fell across his forehead. His jaw-line beard had spread across his cheeks in the unkempt days of refuge. Even in exhaustion, his posture was nobler than any I could manage. “You’re late.”
Despite the heat, he wore a silk tunic and his scarlet military cloak pinned loosely. His belt sagged with the weight of an empty sheath, and the laces of his boots were loose. His tunic was blood-stained. Although his appearance was ragged, the fire of his blue countenance burned through ashen flesh, and his broad shoulders seemed to carry an easy weight. He was tired, but he didn’t yet know he was defeated, didn’t know that by imperial decree, he was already dead.
“They say the Augustus is dead,” I said, my voice stabbing at the silence.
He sighed, his anger relieved by either the blow he’d given me or the humiliation my blazing cheeks must have shown. He finally said, “A mistake. This wasn’t his idea. For a time he was threatened, too. The soldiers, purchased by Olympius.”
“Count Heraclian’s outside.”
“He has a warrant for my arrest.”
“From the Augustus?”
A careless eyebrow answered me. He sat on the altar.
“Olympius,” I answered myself. “Your Huns are outside the city. You should send them to Pavia to execute the soldiers there, and the ones here.”
“No,” he said with an imperial tone. He rose again and walked to me, his hobnailed boots clattering on the stone floor. “My Huns, to set them on Romans—”
“My men are eager for war. Everyone is. I didn’t think you would be, too.”
“Rome has few soldiers these days, but that doesn’t stop the killing.” It took only a moment of watching him to get the answer I feared most. “You’re going to surrender.”
“I’ll be able to talk to the Augustus.”
“A man can’t take half a step. Sooner-or-later, he must plant it. Honorius will make an example of you to the Barbarians, just as Olympius has made the example of your men to others who might think to defy him.”
“The empire’s yours!” I shouted.
He took hold of my tunic. His eyes burned.
“Why refuse what’s rightfully yours?” I pried myself from his grip. “Constantine took it. Theodosius took it. Why don’t you? Rome belongs to the strong. It’s always been that way.”
“Rome belongs to Theodosius’s son, as God intended.”
“You once made me run before his chariot like a clown, for a victory that was yours, not his. You won the wars and gave him the statues. You’ve pressed your face to the cold marble and kissed his hem. You gave him the world and both your daughters, and he’s given you nothing. He hasn’t earned your love.”
“He doesn’t have to earn it.”
“Of course he does. We all do.”
He took a step back, like a sculptor considering his work, and didn’t seem to like what he saw.
“This is Rome. The gods didn’t give us what we have. Men did. Men like you. What god gave the world to Theodosius’s son? What law?” I asked. “It was a man, a father. You.”
“You’ve waited for me to give you something you should have learned to take.”
“I have no problem taking what I want.” My head began to ache. “Neither of us wants the empire, but that’s all they think we want. What kind of Romans are we,” I asked, “that we have no imperial ambitions?”
“Your sarcasm has no audience with me, Boy.”
The brittle argument drew us together before the altar. I glanced over his shoulder at the glow of candles. “Olympius will do everything he can to silence you. If he lets you live, his lies will be discovered.”
“The Augustus will understand if I can just talk to him.”
“It’s the Minister you should worry about.”
“He’s not the emperor.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters. Honorius isn’t much older than you, but he’s worn the diadem for thirteen years. What have you been doing for thirteen years? Games, shows, whores?”
“What does an extra boy ever do? I’ve been waiting for the letter, the one he’s already sent for you. You’ll never get to the palace; Heraclian has orders to kill you. Success breeds enemies, and failure makes even more. The Anicii, the Ceionii, even the Augustus—despite their pleasant smiles, they hate you, me, everything that reminds them of what they rely on. They curse the German blood that’s kept them safe. We’re Barbarians, Father. Nothing you do can change that. No one trusts you. You brought the Barbarian nations to Italy. You took away the fear they once had for Rome, but maybe the worst of your crimes is that you have a son.”
He looked me over with his suspicious blue eyes. “What do you mean?”
“It was a safe thing you did not letting me marry.”
As he stepped toward me, I stepped away. He asked, “What have you done?”
I said nothing.
“Answer me, Boy.”
“Nothing I could do would save you. You saw what was happening and didn’t want to believe it. You allowed this to happen.”
“The empire’s like the ocean. What power conquers the ocean? But it yields to everything it meets.”
“Is that what you told your men at Pavia? You’ve been so concerned with the wolves that you didn’t see the foxes. It doesn’t matter how much silk we wear or blood we spill or laws we pass. They see nothing but Barbarian horse-fuckers.”
He swung an open hand at me, but I caught his arm. He was as startled as I was, since I’d spent my childhood ducking his hands, not stopping them.
Knocking my hand away, he said, “Do you think because you’re seeing these things for the first time, that this is the first time they’re happening? Every boy thinks he invented the world. Theodosius knew the truth, and his son will, too.”
“Your emperor’s nothing but dust. That pathetic thing in the palace bears no resemblance to Theodosius.”
“What do you know?”
“Nothing,” I agreed. “Nothing. I’ve never been as noble as you, Father. I’ve never been as strong or brave. But I know men. I know they don’t do the good thing or right thing; they do the thing they want to, and sometimes what they do are all those things, but most of the time they’re not. Innocence isn’t a virtue, Father, and being innocent won’t absolve you of the crime.”
He ran his hands through his hair, while he thought of what to say. “Peace. We need peace. We need Alaric’s men if we’re to hold Gaul. We’ve already lost Britain and the East. I can’t seem stop them, no matter what I do. We kill them and they find more soldiers. We make peace and they burn our towns. They fight like men without anything to lose, when our soldiers squabble about pay and retirement and want to return home to their families. And the legions know they hold the border between a thousand years of civilization and illiterate brigands. By Christ, some of our soldiers have killed their own brothers. If I push them any more, we’ll have rebellion.”
“You already do.”
He shook his head. “I took too many troops to guard Italy. The British legions revolted, and that tyrant called himself emperor. I should have expected it, just as I should have expected the Vandals to cross the Rhine the minute they had an opening.”
“You wouldn’t have had to worry about defending Italy if you’d killed Alaric the first time, and now the Gauls have torn down our statues, chiseled away our laws.”
“You’re listening to men who’d like nothing more than to get the lands of those they’ll accuse of treason. Volusian is probably feeding you those lies. He’s a foul boy who’ll do you no good. There’s no treason from the Gauls; they’re taking care of themselves. Honorius has sent letters of encouragement to all the cities. Necessity has challenged their loyalty, not destroyed it. We need Alaric’s men. I told the Senate that, but what do they know? Their only experience with battle comes in the form of poisoned wine. Besides, war is a costly business, one we can’t afford any longer. We have to find another way. We have to find strength in peace.”
“You mean in negotiation, in tribute—paying for our freedom rather than taking it.”
He ignored my charge. “Olympius promised Heraclian command of Africa. It was an easy bribe.”
“That means Uncle Bathanar is dead. Next it will be us.”
“Rumors mean nothing as long as there’s a war to be fought. It seems there will always be war. You, Son, the things I hear about you…are they true?”
“Men who have reason to hate me don’t, and those that don’t still do. What rumors do you believe? Which should I deny?”
“Tell me, do you think the last of Romulus’s ravens have taken flight?”
He was a man of war not culture, so the allusion from Livy surprised me.
“Something I heard somewhere…” he drifted off as if searching for the memory. “You’ve had the best teachers in the empire. Tell me what you think of Rome.”
“Rome is the light of the world, its only salvation. Claudian wrote, ‘the past guarantees the future.’ How can our greatest poet be wrong?” I tried to smile and failed. “Rome once believed more in iron than auguries, masters not saviors. It can again.”
“You’ve always admired the worst men. My messenger said you were with Theodore and Volusian. What were you doing with them?”
“They had news about Pavia.”
He studied me suspiciously. “You’ve made plans?”
“I have no plans. Men come to me. I don’t listen.”
“Olympius has given Theodore Italy.”
The revelation startled me. “How do you know?”
He only nodded.
“They promised to get me to Africa. They protected me.”
“It was Theodore’s slaves who tried to kill you.”
“It was your Huns. I recognized them, even in that dark alley.” From his look of surprise, it appeared I was better informed. “You didn’t know? If it wasn’t your order—”
“It isn’t true.” He shrugged off my reply as if he didn’t want to hear it. I saw in that shrug the defiance of a lifetime, a lifetime spent immersed in beliefs that had proven false.
“Your enemies saved me, Father. Your allies wanted me dead. It was your men, your Huns. You think I wouldn’t know?”
He headed for the door, his boots clattering. I raced ahead and got in front of him. He stopped when I put my hands to his shoulders, and he said, “My men wouldn’t try to kill my son.”
“They would do anything to save you. You have great enemies and great allies. You’re an easy man to love, Father.” I wouldn’t let him by me, though he shoved my hands away several times. “Sigizan already tried to kill me once. Do you remember? I remember every scream his daughter—”
He slapped me so suddenly, I couldn’t even get my hands up to block him.
“I remember,” he hissed, stepping away as if disgusted at my mere touch. Giving up the idea of leaving, he ran his hands through his hair again, and turned around. “That wasn’t your fault. You were a boy. It wasn’t your fault.”
His defense of me was not comforting, nor was it for my benefit; it was, again, only his effort to make of something what he wanted and not accept what it was. He was not proud of me, but then, I was not often proud of him.
I had no appreciation for his ideals and no nostalgia for the successes of his generation because I didn’t admire men like my father. I admired men who were generous, not those who sacrificed, especially when they sacrificed those who didn’t want to be sacrificed. I saw in the generosity of men a duty to other men, but in sacrifice, I saw men place themselves above other men, their obligation not to a brother, but to an ideal. This was my father’s purpose, as it is the purpose of every Christian—to show how faithful and steadfast he is, to secure his own salvation, even at the cost of others, even at the cost of the world.
With sarcasm I knew would provoke him, I responded, “Of course, Father. I had every right to her.”
He turned, his hand raised to slap me, but before his arm swung, I rushed him. We fell to the ground and skidded across the cold stone. When we stopped, he tossed me aside. I landed on my injured shoulder and felt the burn. He rolled easily to his feet and waited for me to make it to my own but offered no help and only shouted at me, “We’re servants of Rome. Servants! You always thought you deserved more than you had, but you have more than you ever deserved.”
I kept trying to catch my breath until, after a few moments, I made it to my knees. It took awhile to fight through the pain that was like fire. Tenderly, I rose to stand in front of him, feeling unsteady, as if the church were a ship swaying with the waves.
“No one serves Rome.” My words were a whisper until I cleared my throat. “She’s only mastered.” I searched for the anger that would steady me. “Thirty-thousand men are waiting for your command. Your men in the Consistory are already dead. Soon there’ll be a list of the proscribed—me, Mother, Thermantia, your men in the provinces and the army, the families of all those men. Your name will be erased from every monument, your statues pulled down, your property confiscated, your Hunnish guard slaughtered like beasts in the arena.”
“You’d make the worst kind of tyrant.”
“You saw what was happening.”
“It’s only an arrest.”
“You saw it! You saw it, and you let it happen. You don’t care about Rome. You don’t care about your family. All you care about is not losing what Theodosius left, but you’ve already lost it. Your sacrifices aren’t worth it. The empire’s dead, but you can save Rome, yourself, all of us. You have to see that. You have to see the truth.”
He came at me again, and I swung, hitting him full in the jaw. He dropped to the ground in midstep. Through the years, through the rage, I had never considered striking my father. He lay still a long time, staring up at me as I stared at him, neither of us knowing what to say, until finally he said, “You’re not charged.”
“He’ll come after me. He’ll have no choice. If I didn’t have enough reason before, I’ll have revenge. He can’t risk that.” I reached out a hand to help him to his feet, but he ignored it and stood alone. “We’re all going to die, because you can’t face the truth.”
“Sometimes you have to yield the field to fight another day,” he told me. “Leave now, before I surrender. Sigizan will take you back to Rome. You can trust him, and Alaric, too, if you can’t trust anyone else.”
“Why would Alaric protect me? He’s your enemy.”
“And a friend.”
“How can he be both?”
“Because he’s German, and he loves Rome.”
“Is it true, then? You’ve sold us to the Barbarians.”
He wouldn’t answer, and determined as he was to ruin himself, I knew there was nothing I could say that would make a difference, but I said it anyway. “Do you think Christ will save you?” I waited, hoping he would say something, but he was finished. “Not a week ago, I saw a man torn to pieces begging for Christ’s help, and who knows if he were even guilty. What makes you think he’ll help you, when you can save yourself, and your guilt is so much greater?”
I waited another minute, and then without a backward glance, I left the church.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |