ANTIOCH, ROMAN SYRIA, 117 AD
Chapter I Introduction To a Place and Time
The four women, Syrian and dark eyed, dirty hair covered with tattered shawls, their faces wrinkled, two scarred, one fulminating pustulous, each dressed in the all–covering, year- round thin black wool of those city poor or farm peasant, the four women were sitting on a stone bench close to the temple of Calliope, the Muse of music and patron goddess of the city of Antioch. Closer to the women, arising from a large pool into which an orchestra of sculpted fountains emptied, was the goddess Tyche, gracefully cast in bronze. She was the Muse of music, patron as well, but once much more. Presumably Calliope and Tyche were the same, the former Roman, and Tyche, Eastern, only cast differently. Any one who knows the immortals, or competing women, knows better. They were rivals of course.
Antioch was known for music, lovemaking, wine, but the experience of these was only for the wealthy. Antioch was known for rivalries as well, particularly these days when powerful gods, their realms and dominions, their followers were competing. The rivalries of the other world enacted in this world, sometimes bitterly. Antioch was known for much else, great, troublesome or terrifying. Of the latter some matters were as dark as the black wool of the seated women. As their dress, which never changed, the dark aspects likewise endured over spans of lives.
Antioch, known as the “golden city”, “the Third City of Rome” was the most beautiful city in the Empire. None of these four women, those myriads like them, could take much pleasure in that reputation. Yet today, just past sunrise, a fine dawn some would say, this dawn in Antioch and much of Empire when work begins, there was a moment to be enjoyed. Only this seated moment, for these four, and those myriads like them, were already tired. “Born tired” was what they said.
Fatigue is the condition of the poor, and those enslaved, thus multitudes in the Empire. Hopeless are these multitudes. What sleep could cure their despair, restore their rotting teeth, relieve deformed limbs, purify the running sores, still the cramps and running of infested bowels, allow infected or misted eyes to see clearly? How does one help the limb-missing or paralyzed who pull themselves by their clawing hands along the street, a stump of tired, shredding wood their sled? Help? There is neither help nor anyone who would care to deliver it.
In this age when there was troubling awareness of the mysterious, willful forces that altered lives but could not be seen, one would pray and petition, give offerings, seek out the knowing wizards, hire incantors, light candles, make and break the binding spells, attend and make sacrifices at the shrines and altars before the iconic statues of these multiple ever present powers and dominions. And yes, there were herbs and poultices, foods known to eat and not eat, juices and extractions good and not good, wise women, magicians, bone setters, and doctors beginning their science. Hippocrates was their early text. These all cost money. As always, the less the wealth the greater the disease, the less the treatment, the earlier the death. To be well in Antioch one had best be rich,
One especial man, subject to visions and thereby blessed, was disapproving of such respectful, cajoling, cowering, worshipful or manipulative approaches to but willful, animated and possessive energies, the demon spirits, the named gods and, those gods so frightful they must remain unnamed, or be named by euphemism, for if truly called they would come, and with them, doom. .Simplifying his eloquent disapproval, he would symbolically gather all demons, light and dark forces, lesser gods into one inconsequential but simultaneously menacing realm, seeing them as subjects of the “ Prince of this World”. This Prince, not quite nominated a new god since he was already known by other names, and a good deal of painful evidence, had other subjects under his rule as well. These were folk, mostly miserable, mostly unwise, but by one illuminating birth and mission in history, suddenly eligible, once their duty had been done and their gift embraced, for a new and better world than the “this” of “this World”. The Prince’s realm would be diminished and, if prophecy was believed- less widely then than now- the Prince and his remaining subjects, spiritually blind, stubborn, sinful fools and with them, presumably, any demons or angels remaining disrespectful-would be judged, damned and be swallowed by the waiting jaws of hell. Whether the same or a different Prince ruled there in Hell is not entirely clear. Most assume the Prince retained his scepter but was condemned to enjoy his constricted kingdom far less, for his earthly work was banished and he, known also as Satan, Shatan, Samael, Lucifer, or the Devil, would be eternally bored. That is the cost of constant evil.
None of the four women had heard of these or any prophecies, princes, dominions as such, new opportunities and their requirements, nor of hell, at least not conceptually elsewhere. Their lives were quite enough to assure their indifference to further threat, indeed their pessimism was such that one could not be sure they were able to respond to promise either. Right now they would settle for the best of what they knew: friendly magic yielding sureness, any incantation yielding help, any trick, supplication, promise, ritual, affordable sacrifice allowing, they had no words for it for they had not experienced it, but say here “relief “ and “dignity”. Even unnamed these were sought but were not. There was no cure in herbs or hands, no certain supplication, to restore such lives as these, four tired women in Antioch, and, over much of Empire many more. Of half a million lives in the city, most were incurables.
Four women, here seated for their best of the day’s moments, seated in the midst of public splendor, here hearing the muse-fluted music fountains, their pressured waters carried from the great springs of Daphne. It was a city of many fountains, ample waters that were carried by the great viaduct, which provided for every house, for those who had houses, who could afford a fountain’s building, affords the plumbing inside, the joy of ever- flowing waters. Those poor and enslaved who heard others’ fountains behind the high walled gardens nevertheless could, for a few moments, enjoy themselves in public places, the many pools, baths, temple and theater fore spaces, even along the colonnaded covered avenues. The major avenue of Antioch, the Street of Herod and Trajan was grander than any other in the world, they could see the Street near them below, for the fore space of the theater where they sat was on the lower slope of Mt Silpius, a desirable site for the open- air, stone tiered seats of a Greco-Roman theater, a desirable site for wealthy builders too, and just above the level avenue, a site for some of the monumental gifts of emperors to the city.
Below where the women sat, was the avenue and, not far beyond, the River Orontes, called the “rebel” for it defied constraining channels, would never guarantee placid waters, for it was an impulsive river, given to flood and roiling fury. Today it was calm. On it the women saw, the low draft boats, which carried goods to the city from the nearby Mediterranean, from the city down to the “Our Sea”, as Rome called and ruled it. From Seleucia at the river’s mouth, a busy port, set sail fleets of trade to Rome and elsewhere in Empire, fleets carrying the goods of Syria, the East from her fullness beyond. A wealth of goods, treasures of diamonds, pearls and rubies, an astonishing inventory, from rhinoceros to silk or barley, slaves or the tribute of princes, sometimes, when they had resisted Rome and lost, kings themselves, their queens and daughters, oftentimes in chains to secure and humiliate them, for they will be exhibited in Rome.
There on the bench they sat for this moment, this bench next to the pool, there listening to the musical pipes of the Muse Calliope, sitting near fine temples. Other pools, large and glistening with its marble, colored tile and copper, just over the river, was the palace. Four women and more, in the midst of imperial gifts and Roman grandeur, but in their lives much nearer to pain and hopelessness and its, for them, only cure.
“My daughter is dying,” said one
The others nodded; they had long ago run out of condolences or protest.
“A binding curse is upon my husband. He cannot have congress, walks now with a limp; his eyes are getting the cloud upon them. I know who did it, the woman in the apartment next door. When she was young she wanted him. Her parents arranged for another instead. That one shortly died. She’s a jealous cripple. She lives by begging. A wretched woman who has spent her last penny to hire a witch to lay a curse on my husband whom she enjoyed but briefly, and thereby a curse on me”
The others nodded, shrugged. Curses, jealousy and despair were too ordinary for comment.
Another one spoke, “My son’s friend, the lucky one, an auxiliary in the legion, IV Scythia, but for its officers, all its soldiers Syrian, the legion went to Parthia with Trajan. The boy was killed in the Roman capture of Csestiphon. His was a good life. He ate well, never was cold, and trusted his comrades. A good death, dying well fed in the army capturing Csestiphon-on-the-Tigris. That Mesopotamia was the cradle of the world some say, where the gods were born, fine fertile land near the rivers, land, lots of food there, but on the other hand, there are terrible monsters whose skin is sand, congealed by heat into glass that shines and moves, the giant djinns who come storming out of nowhere by the hundreds, eat horses, camels and men they do, but not the emperor’s legions. The legions are tough. It takes real men marvelously trained to kill legionnaires, few armies have that. Except for wounds, my boy kept well in the army. The boy never saw a djinn. The boy did not die hungry. He had respect. A good death”
More emphatic nods now, think of it; enough food, wine in the camp as they wished, clothes enough as an auxiliary with the legions, pay to send home to the family, perhaps even a death bonus for the family, a very good death indeed from the understandable swords of other men. Four women faintly smiling, there by the muse, cocooned in their salt-sweat encrusted wool, for no woman of that class bathed but perhaps once a year, going to the sands by the sea in Seleucia Peiria, only a day’s walk away, or with a few pennies, a quicker barge ride down the Orontes. Each year on one very hot summer day, all summer days were that, fate and employers’ willing or deceived, women would go to sea sands to be buried up to the neck, baking an hour or two, cleansed of the past year, cleansed for the this beginning of the year to come. Seawater in a pail, few women ventured into the sea, would clean off the grit, then to submerge in a pool near Vespasian’s and Trajan’s great tunnel for the Orontes’ outlet, a tunnel usually echoing with its roaring waters, their force designed to prevent harbor silting, for Seleucia was a great port, exporting to Rome grain grown in this breadbasket, Syria, the riches from the Silk Road, Armenia, Petra, wondrous worlds away. Imports there were of course, from all of Roman Europe and Africa.
The tunnel-corseted waters, emerging, rushed wildly for the freedom of the sea. Some waters sideways made pools. Sea birds liked them, sand crabs’ holes were near, all were cleansing for the sandy woman submerged to her neck, a woman fully clad of course on this, yes, a happy talkative day, there with her family, friends There might be hundreds of such groups for the Seleucia strand was wide and long. The beach was also a dump, garbage from the arriving Orontes, garbage from the visitors, all those men bathing, those children splashing in the sea. Excrement to be sure, generations of it, but not a woman’s, for she does not expose herself in public. She uses the bushes higher on the land.
Syrian women were modest, “to a fault” as is said, and a dangerous fault it would be to stray from that, for if a bare arm, or neck, or ankle of a young woman showed—even if she was ugly, after all, lure and desire need not be aesthetic--fathers and brothers would punish her by a beating. Let a man see the wanton, her beckoning, luring nape of her neck and of course he would be aroused, rape her if no family or friendly folk was about to stop him. Rape was her fault, anyone knowing her so tempted, would agree. A girl must be sure, lest some angry relative kill her, that no one would know. A careful Syrian woman covered herself well. Roman women were different, bold, born wanton, the Syrians said, sat astride a man in their congress, they said. There would be no Italian, true Roman woman on this beach, hardly. They were usually rich in Syria, had a pool at home, none would be so low as to be on holiday among those ruled, of lesser blood.
One of the women on the bench spoke, “ I hear that Governor Hadrian, if he is acclaimed, will build more temples, guarantee a food dole in bad years, and, like Trajan, give money to care for orphans”
“Only some orphans” another women corrected irritably, “just those who come to a palace clerk’s attention. Most don’t. In my alley this last year a couple of orphans died. Dead children all over the city, no place to sleep in winter, no priest will let them near a temple, and who would feed an orphan, or for that matter, anyone helpless and without family? Older children become gangs to steal, but if they aren’t good at it, the soldiers on patrol will kill them. If they are good at it, later the soldiers on patrol will kill them. Or arrest them to be executed. There will never be enough money, but thanks be to Trajan for trying to save orphans. And the gangs? Good for murdering honest people walking in the alleys, but soon dead themselves.”
They nodded. All had seen orphans, chased them off with shouts, and stoned them if they came close again. A small one could be eaten by dogs while he slept on a rubbish heap. As for gangs, as with robbers, no one in Antioch was fool enough to walk about at night unless rich enough to have bodyguards, famous enough to have an escort of soldiers.
“Dogs will eat anything” one said, making the conclusion common to their minds
“Yes, dogs will eat anything” another agreed.
“There’s a new running track for athletic contests being built up there above us” She pointed to dust clouds above the Jewish quarter, neighborhood, really. “It had been a long time since there were only four races living in their sectors of the city; now it was said there were eighteen. Everyday as more immigrants arrived from farther away, a new neighborhood for each race or tribe of newcomers, there would grow a cluster of hovels, just four rock walls barely held together with packed mud or, for lucky ones, begged or stolen cement, its roof of some old hides, cloth, pieces of wood from a fallen house or rubbish heap, low walls sometimes not high enough for anyone to stand straight up inside. Only one other woman bothered to turn. What was it to her if they built a hundred racetracks? Athletes were well fed, spoiled as long as they won, had rich patrons or sponsors; a pox on them all.
They could hear shovels, picks, hear the heavy sound of oxen pulling the iron leveling blade, the grading sharpened log heavy with chains that oxen pulled. They heard the faint voices of laboring slaves or the occasional snapping whip of a foreman. For a project like this there would be craftsmen on scene, surveyors, engineers, drain layers, plumbers, and the like
“Engineers make good money, so do tile men. I wish my husband had a job like that”
Nods again, they all would wish for jobs like that
One said, “But any job at all, that’s a good thing”
Nodding heads agreed, yes, a good thing
Responsive to the building above them, one repeated, “Useless gifts
“Yes” in chorus, “useless gifts “ one adding, “All to make some rich man look great, an emperor flattering himself with money from taxes breaking the backs of the people.
Nods, Roman taxes were a burden, even the income from the small stalls where two of them worked was taxed. It took a rich man to bribe the tax collector and escape the worst. Tax collectors paid to be appointed. They became rich.
Athletic grounds, avenues, aqueducts, much that was quite useful, might well be from generosity of kings, emperors, rich men of the city for whom display marked their excellence, and where civic honors for generosity followed. This happy custom came from the Greeks who honored their cities as their own virtue, although by now those generous were honoring themselves, albeit at great expense. A canal built, a new street opened, a public building dedicated, all these generated pleasing ceremonies, much bragging and applause. It was how a local man not Roman built his stature, or yes, even got a statue. There were, of course, many public works paid for by tax monies, the city walls, sewers, water systems, dredging. The Romans care for the works of Empire, and saw to their upkeep. The poor could look after themselves.
For those who made the monumental civic donations, what were the origins of their fortunes? Trade and the labor of slaves, and , indirectly, the spoils and attractions of Roman conquests. From Antioch itself, its hundreds of shops, its slave markets, its industries of glass, soap famous because made fragrant from Daphne’s laurels, also garments from the silk of Cathay, the far land of the Seres. There was wealth from Alexandria, Spain, Arabia, Italy and from the freighting business itself, ships, camels, and mules. Trade goods were from all of Empire, from worlds known or imagined, the latter further ornamented with fantasy –for facts about anything but victories in war were of no great interest to Romans. Trade goods came from and went to Africa, India, Parthia, Egypt, Arabia, Cathay, or through Crimea Pontus from the wild mass of central and western Asia’s north. It was the Silk Road that carried trade from China, India, and returning there from all the Mediterranean. By sea and overland across Roman Asia came goods through Europe from the Baltic, rich in precious amber, even from wild tribes of Germania and Sarmatia. Came then to Antioch vast arrays of goods and treasures, their traders, new residents, slaves always in demand. Came with these; teachers, philosophers, stories, gods, faiths, new demons to know, new devils to fear. Some of the new gods generated new dreams for better meanings, journeys, acquaintance, and hope for life itself, or even for a hereafter.
Over centuries leading, or as or following migrations, came trade, aggrandizing wars, the arrivals in peace or violence of new tribes or solitary adventurers, criminals rife among them of course. Survival first, and then the lure of land and water, then wealth in the great cities of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome itself. To fruitful Syrian Antioch or near the Roman frontiers to the east now made safe by conquest and military outposts, people came for land, slaves, the ravishing or marrying of women, So it had been over the centuries, millennia, that to this region, not Antioch itself of but recent expansion, but hereabouts came hosts of armies, peoples coming to pasture, farm, buy and sell, or if like Romans to tax, loot, to prove, to rule and enjoy. Peoples had come in peace or tatters, in glory or beseeching, discovering, destroying, and building They had come as soldiers, veterans being settled, farmers, merchants and sailing traders. They came bristling in the warships of earlier elsewhere empires Babylonian, Egyptian, Hittite, Hurri, Achaean, Mycenaean, Mitanni, other cousins of the Hebrew, also as armies Assyrian, Persian and, even Celts, far wanderers these. Macedon came with Alexander, after Alexander were his inheriting Seleucid princelings. This latter crowd came only out of their desire to rule the city their grandfathers had founded. They excelled then not so much as rulers, but in ambition, for which they killed their mothers, wives and brothers, and, of course, others.
Illustrative, when the wife of one Antiochus, Gryphus (a gryphon gargoyle’s, this A’s nose) Tryphaena sent soldiers to kill her sister, a descended of Cleopatra and so named. This Cleopatra had sought refuge in the sanctuary temple. Desperately she clung to the statue of the protector god. Annoyed at the hard work of pulling and at her sobs, the soldiers cut off her hands, and then did her in. Such were Antiochean years not long ago.
Many predecessors had come as conquistadores, but, oddly enough, not the Romans who first came here as traders. The region- think of those incompetent Antiochian princelings- was badly ruled, which condition invites disorder, which threatens trade. Pirates had prospered before Pompey sent them sailing to the bottom, even so, near sea lanes were insecure. Rome, always sensible about security, was also much admired. The Romans easily negotiated annexation. It was the best of acquisitions, done for stability, arising from respect, the good sense to know Rome could secure Syria by whatever means she might wish, but only as the wisest of politicians and generals do, in Rome came, in this instance, peacefully, arranged by conference sealed with a pen. Welcome, Empire.
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