Wrapped in a shroud and covered with a wagonload of pig bones, I left the church the following morning. The Master’s Men were told the wagon carried the trash and a corpse of a man who died two days before. The smell and maggots were enough to keep the men from examining anything too closely. The wagon was to take me into Rome, the only place I could think to go. I spent the morning trying not to vomit and failed, and after midday, I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I slipped from the wagon as it neared Jupiter’s shrine on the Janiculan Hill.
I walked among pilgrims the rest of the day. I wanted to reach the north of Rome before nightfall and sleep at Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Although I had spent many mornings admiring the sparkling chariot and forest planted atop it, I had never been inside. There was talk of turning it into a church for fear that the Barbarians pressing on the City might use it as a stronghold.
But I never reached the tomb. As evening approached, Arsace caught up with me. Exhaustion overwhelmed me, and I surrendered without a struggle. While his men prepared the chains that would secure me for the final ride into Rome, he smacked his lips and slouched contentedly, as if he had finished a delicious meal.
“Did you think we wouldn’t find you?” he announced triumphantly. “I have a warrant from the Augustus for your execution.” He drew the purple letter from his belt. Although he had taken the opportunity to read the charges to me in the church on several occasions, he did so again. As he finished, the guards began shouting and pulled their horses about.
The Master’s Men, too, usually unreasonably calm, were startled into expressive obscenities. The horses snorted and whinnied, and everyone turned to the west. Far way, at the horizon that no longer seemed far at all, stood hundreds of men and their mounts. They were spread darkly against the remaining light, their numbers still growing as more joined them from behind the hill. They were only silhouettes, but from the fluttering skins some wore and the long pikes some carried, it was clear they weren’t Romans. They were soldiers of the Visigothic Confederacy, and they had my captors terrified.
As I looked at the Barbarians standing against the scarlet sky, I remember thinking the sun by any name is still a god. He shone just as red behind the enemies of Caesar and Hadrian and Constantine and Julian and Theodosius. I assured myself that the next age would be no different. Questioning the eternity of Rome was still a sacrilege, after all, and yet, only opportunists like Olympius were left to protect her. Only vulgar men like Volusian were left to honor her, while those exceptional men like Gallus abandoned her.
Arsace had his men heave me onto a horse before fleeing east toward Rome. A party of Alaric’s men broke off to pursue us. Chained and lying across the back of the racing beast, I found it hard to breathe, and I knew our pursuers were close only because Arsace shouted at his men with increasing panic. A few moments later, we took a turn down through a dried stream bed, and I was tossed from the horse. When I came to, I was staring up from the ground into the face of a yellow-haired man who could have been my brother.
Above and behind him, the silhouette of a man on a horse seemed to be staring down at me. All I could make out was his waving cape. His mount stepped back and forth, but he sat as still as stone. He waited with an imperial calm—in no hurry, it seemed, to make a decision about what to do with me. A few men had dismounted. They poked me with swords until laughter rose from all around, and raising my head, I saw I was surrounded by a sea of Barbarians.
The silhouette dropped to the ground as men pulled me to my feet. When he emerged into lighted view, he appeared more Roman than German. Over a scarlet tunic, a general’s purple cape waved with the occasional gusts of wind. His bronze corselet held ornamented rows of golden soldiers, and an iron-link belt held a gem-encrusted scabbard. From his corselet hung a single fox fur, as if it were only a reminder of something less Roman. His brown hair and beard were long but not wild, and scars covered his arms. I hadn’t seen the Visigothic king since I was a boy.
With curious eyes growing suspicious, Alaric stared at me a good long time before asking in poor Latin, “Is the son like the father?”
Uncertain of his meaning or his intent, I hesitated to answer. He repeated himself. I simply shook my head, and he gazed away with regret.
When he looked back at me, he asked, “Is Rome as magnificent as when I was there the last?”
I was in the company of a man like my father: ambitious, idealistic, and driven to possess the one he loved whatever the cost. Like my father, he drew thousands of illiterate bullies from their straw tents to a glittering temple at the center of the world. They came to steal the golden statues, the jeweled vestments, and the virtue of the beautiful, while their king risked everything simply for an acknowledgement from one he loved.
Many years ago, Alaric entered Rome as her servant. He would enter this time as her master. Unlike my father, who had been his friend and his enemy, Alaric learned the lesson of Rome, that she exists somewhere beyond the gods, that her master will always be the strong, not the righteous.
Rome abounded with lovely faults. She remained spectacular in the details, but what seemed a spirit in the lake had turned out to be a reflection. Rome was not a creature but a tool, and in the hands of inspired craftsmen, she was a chisel that built a world filled with great beauty and great ugliness. In the hands of opportunists, she was a scythe, indiscriminately cutting down anything that failed to serve, and in those last days of Rome, an entirely new species of opportunist had taken hold of her, one without the restraint of tradition, the veneration of custom, or any love for men.
All we truly possessed was history, but it was enough, because in our history we found our identity. We weren’t a single race, no longer even a single language. We were Romans, with a thousand years of art and war and victory and tragedy. We had emperors we envied and those we loathed, those who showed us what could be achieved and what could be lost. We had poets who offered beauty and those who revealed the ugliness. We had the arenas, like schools of death and testaments to resurrection, and theatres of the outrageous.
Mostly we had the truth, because lies could remain lies only as long as the liar lived. Truth was the power of history and why a thousand years of it was more valuable than even the gods who had given it to us. The new history, soon to be written by these new men in this new world, would remain in darkness, too, until a thousand years would again bring to light the truth of things.
A priestess of Demeter had told me the present belongs to men and the future to the gods, but it was that twilight in-between that settled around me as I stood among those who would recreate the world, and then I, too, abandoned her, leaving the Eternal City alone among enemies to await the arrival of her darkest dawn.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |