CHAPTER XX CORNELIUS
In writing this I violate all convention, respectability, my own honor, for an honorable Roman does not speak of private matters, nor his failures or desires. To disclose is to expose and that among wolves is to yield your throat to its tearing. Not that at any time in my life have I much cared whether I live or die, it is simply a custom among Romans not to appear weak. As a Roman soldier one is trained to be the best, thus “aristos” for the Greek of that. The least ranked legionnaire knows he is an aristocrat of arms. Survive of course and be trained for it, but it is not paramount when honor, the standard of the legion with its eagle, or any comrade’s life is at stake. Call these the virtues of war. When well exercised, there is a kind of extravagance in continuing alive. In that way I have been extravagant, and praised by others for it. I have, over my life, yet to earn self-praise.
I appear a conventional Roman of my class. It is a narrow class even by Italian standards, for it binds me to particular obligations carried in this blood of one of the greatest Roman families. That is the high talk of it anyway, but there are as many loathsome, enfeebled and dishonorable of our descent as any family which honestly looks at itself. Aristocrats go to great ends to ignore that blood decays over time. I am too aware of it, that decay
These same duties, denials and constraints refuse me suicide, however much my sometimes despair moves me to its thought. A Roman noble kills himself only an imperial command. That too is to acknowledge his honor, even while his life is taken away. Should he be so greedy for life he will not slit his wrists in the warm water of a private bath, others more powerful are ordered to see to his death, and quickly. Thus, to avoid more contempt than I already feel, which is my own for myself primarily. I am open with you in my thoughts because I am beyond hiding them from myself. I am not beyond hiding them from my fellows, for as I have told you; the force of convention is great and comes to live inside us, as if we were its original makers.
I will conceal these honest words, humiliating and cathartic, this travelogue of my being, this new Xenophon marching through myself, well, some of myself and mostly dealing with these short years in Antioch. My friends are advised of my wish for secret storage for these pages until your time for reading them comes. The you and the when of it are assured, but images are as in a dream.. You are so ill outlined that I know you only as a literate and concerned heir to these times, one descended from us, where that kinship is because of our visions, efforts, and sacrifices. For some it also out of the loins.
As for the how or when of our lives and thoughts here becoming yours to know, perhaps to ponder, I am ignorant. Yet all of us harbor inklings of destinies, a wish to be remembered over the ages, that our mortal nature somehow reconstitute itself in its best possible ways in our descendents. Whether you are in that sense kin or whether we are kinsmen in the community of Christ, or that rippling out over time to become, as I pray it will, a larger human community of kindness, I cannot know. I might hope for all three lines of inheritance. The dream of it has moved me to write, and otherwise arrange for this story’s future with you, to anticipate our meeting as understandings and sympathies joined over time.
Disclosures then, confessions and embarrassments, some weaknesses detailed, but any telling of these foreign to the conventions of Rome as to how lives are told. to how in Rome we now tell of lives. People are always interested in knowing one another; the worst of others can be a delight. We seek it out. We make monuments of the ugly other to be spread through gossip, rumour, accusations in court, or as contained in the reports of spies. Practical Romans have few standards for truth, what is conventional, current, convenient, perhaps titillating and, above all useful, will do. I must disappoint my contemporaries, let your opinion of me revealed in your own times be forgiving.
Here I write of are many private matters here, secrets of a sort, but none of value but to the persons writing or written about. There is an history here, some much too personal. It not like Herodotus telling of places but not himself, of Thucydides when he tells, not of his own great sorrows, but of events, drawing conclusions enough from them that any reader learned, including, if you follow lives, what honest Thucydides learned as that profound lesson, that truth and its tellers are exiled. Mine, ours here, is not the Anabasis story of martial drama, long marches and courage required of Xenophon in his rescuing, through his generaling, the defeated ten thousand. I have helped command more men than that over many battles, happily not to many defeats and none terrible. For Romans, victory is expected and is generally found. It is ironic that there are no easy victories over my self. As for now, well, no man can say his life is happy until the retrospect at the moment of his death and so I may yet have hope. I am without perspective, for I cannot escape myself to allow a vision of me from a distant hilltop.
As I tell you of my life, I am already a failure in making a sensible history of it in the way Polybius showed us it is best done. His was the first good history of Rome and, in my view, almost ranks with Thucydides in clarity and lesson. First, he worked to get all the facts, whereas my memory gives me what it wants to of my own history and then, try as I might, can be suspected of discarding the worst truths as if they were slander. Polybius showed us Rome’ history as a sensible, unified, unfolding process. Anyone can say that about his or career, doing the expected, but when it comes to the unexpected, when this mule balked at the ordinary path, or made foolish decisions against all advice, how do I explain that as process when anyone else looks at me as if an idiot. I turned down the chance to stay in the army, early on be a tribune of the legion.
I can only tell you honors strike me as ridiculous, even though this mule plodded along battle after battle and accumulated much by way of medals, but refused the best offers of advancement that all said I deserved. Polybius showed us a central theme in Rome’s nature and expansion. What can I find by way of unity inside me when the parts of my mind are as disparate, at odds, and hateful of one another as if I were an arena full of gladiators each against the other and not even a champion emerging among them?
Polybius worked to show us that history should be more than just interesting for any man or woman reading it In showing the reasons for events, then how things transpired in what the reader could see was an orderly and, given the gift of hindsight, almost inevitable way, the reader became aware that the past was likely to mirror the reader’s present, for there is, like the seasons, much that repeats in lives, economies, nations. In that recognition the historian brings a gift to his reader that the historian only possesses at the end of his journey, which allows the reader before his own journey to have foresight as to likely outcomes. Careful history is a real unfolding compared to dreams
Polybius used the past to build a mirror for the present reader to examine and from which to learn. Events, their reasons, coherent process, outcomes were set before the traveler as intelligence allowing decisions as to which path to take. Polybius in doing this denied Hecate of the crossroads the power to mystify, to curse, travelers. Had he been an immortal, Polybius would set himself as Nemesis to thwart Hecate’s evil wishes for men, disbursing the cold fog she breathed to cloud the crossroad. Whether Hecate acting there, the choosing traveler would, not knowing what lay before him on each road, become the instrument for his own doom. Polybius idea was that good history well studied and respected, would be sunlight dissipating Hecate’s fog at the crossroad, illuminating our decisions.
That is fine enough in theory and possibly done when the historian, or biographer, has the longer view. From inside this man’s skull, I make no sense of where I was, what I am, or what path I should take. I am Hecate’s delight, her fog and my own engulf me. I am the goat sacrificed for her meal. I am Hecate’s buffoon. As I write this I can make no sense of me I am the very process of confusion. Only if some Polybius can find unity in disarray, other than me as an instance of it, then might I learn from my own history, as if there were a path and order to it, other than simply doing what I am expected to, doing it with honor as I must, and all the while feeling that I am my own Hecate guaranteeing in these conventions, I too often fall to error.
There is no Greek great tragedy to it, no greatness doomed by inevitable and unseen unfoldings unto doom. I am not great. In doing the expected well, judged by others foolish in achieving that, but lacking the ambition to construct a pinnacled career for having done it, agreeing with them I am a fool, tired of my internal gladiatorial clangings, believe me, my death tomorrow would signal nothing. My death would be no curse, no fallen house of noble Cornelii, no lamenting songs to be heard from the chorus. There is no playwright for this conforming , so far, Roman drama, not even a dream to advise me as to tomorrows. Insofar as inevitable doom, whatever the end it can’t be that because I am indifferent to it. For a play like mine, no audience would conclude either doom or entertainment, only that they had wasted their money on the tickets
As I write, ponder my faults, my gut twinges, I am sweating. My otherwise strong sword hand trembles with the intentions of the pen it holds. Even my bladder conspires to escape, punching me with a nervous pressure. I felt this way only at my first battle, after that, when I realized that dying was acceptable if not relief, more a comedy of Aristophanes than grieving from Euripides, asked myself, so what? I became a mechanic in the slaughterer’s work. A good soldier relies on his troops, plans, training. As autobiographer I have no such resources. My awkwardness deals poorly with framing my ineptitude, hopes, criticisms, and failures. That I still care about them is egotistical. .
In writing this I search for that orderly unfolding, some reasons for myself, some map of what may be my tomorrow, for these are the principles of Polybius. It is a vanity to think these matter, even to you undertaking to know me. I am near desperate to find some plan or meaning to it. Underlying my writing, my pen is elevated to an instrument of discovery and reassurance, for I want myself to uncover some sense and private purpose to me, to allow me a confident lie as to my own importance. I have not escaped the wish for that. It is any high ranked Roman’s urge and I am a child of Rome.
Of what I, of whom I write and a few to be invited write with me, our space is Antioch beginning when I transferred from the Army where I was Senior Centurion, to appointment to the civil service as Quaestor, UC 852,( Ed: AD 117.) When does this Book end? Whenever my pen, luck, energy, life run out. I will obviously not be able to write a retrospect if the latter. I will dip into the well of time only for glimpses I have of childhood. Romans write little of childhoods. It is as though its existence is of no consequence, empty or worse. We seem interested in lives only when duties are assumed and one’s own lies begin to be enacted. Childhood is of no interest; a child is expected to have no interest in it either, because it is absent the work of manhood or womanhood. Even so, the lies and demands of family and Empire already begin to be imposed upon it. Both of these forces look at a child’s development warily, for the view of it can generate forebodings and may early signal disgrace to come. That is true for boys and girls, for among the elite both sexes carry heavy duties and family hopes for profitable arrangements.
Rome is heavy with future concerns. Oracles, augurs, astrologers, soothsayers, others magical and religious foretell these futures. The father of a child reads his character as priests do the reticulating lines on livers, the transit of planets, or the flights of birds. If the ugliness of malformation or future honor is entirely evident, the child can set aside, or in earlier years, exposed to die (recent law forbids it) If there is only a nervous parental question of character, then stricter nursemaids, harsher Greeks as teachers, louder exhortations, stronger discipline including more frequent beatings are prescribed. This was my lot. Father overlooked one special servant, my personal attendant/valet. He was kind. I was grateful and still am. Father later had him killed for something or other, thank the gods it was nothing to do with me. That Greek slave was the only person in my childhood I would miss.
I have no idea what my character was, but assuming Polybius is right about continuity, then the imperfections, uncertainties, self dissatisfactions and protests that are inside me now were there then, although as with most children, diffuse, changeable, nosier and less tamed. My father held my spontaneously emerging sentiments to be appalling. We both stuffed them into the iron box that became me.
No Roman father has a duty of liking his child, his duty is to form it Roman. That my father disliked me I never had a doubt, but I owe it to his and his agents violent, hectoring perseverance that he did form me entirely Roman. That being molded by the iron of character. Better said, it was the shell that formed, the final mold a sculptor uses in which to pour the molten bronze. Were I poured not bronze but grosser iron, I would even then be composed of contraband ingredients. It is not that these make me weak, cunning or immoral, not stupid either, my mixed not iron-pure ingredients dispose me to dissatisfactions, vague longings, and undue criticism of my world. Perhaps I was poured with bubbles and hollows, for there is emptiness within me. I have composed my exterior as stern, silent and entirely conforming to the highest of Roman standards. On the outside I am the stiff sculpture of proper form, inside and unseen, I am contorted.
Do you see the irony, the contradiction? Internally I am not what my father and Rome (these are indistinguishable) admire at all. In conduct I strive, and more often than not, I am what they want of me. I am not what I might want, if I knew what it was, of myself. As for my father, he was long ago. I killed him in my mind by the time I was twelve. He was a Senator given, as many of them are, to confusing Rome with himself, to ambition and conspiracy. One or another emperor, Domitian perhaps--- my father is too important clearly to remember the how of it- condemned him to suicide. Domitian was a nasty bastard in every sense. Executing my father was perhaps his only good deed. There, the bitter child speaks.
One never get over one’s father, no matter how one wishes it. Mine was iron jawed, tough, and hardly over-pleased with me. He enjoyed whipping any out- of -order slave. Made them all come watch, made me watch it too. He had a withered left arm from a German spear thrust to his shoulder from when he was a commander in Gaul; the good right arm was bull strong. I remember the first time he took me to the coliseum. The first time I saw the animals eat a man, and then a girl, I cried, but my father put his battle-gnarled hand over my mouth so I couldn’t breathe, I passed out. Not having air, it’s an horrible feeling, as is knowing your own father would just as soon, might then and there kill you. His were strong lessons, I was suspect from the moment I knew I was, that whatever I was, he didn’t like it. Father ridiculed me as no blood of real Cornelius, no Gracchii, no Scipio, none of the great ones of the family. He kicked me until one day he spat at me, said he wouldn’t dirty his sandals kicking. He said I took too much pleasure in reading the Greek philosophers, that I would become one of those useless Greeklings, no better than a pomaded teaching slave. I suspect he really feared, that I might become a poet or some such useless being. Oh a Virgil or an Horace, fine, but he knew, rightly, whatever I did I would not arrive at the top. By now, dutiful to his forecast, when I might reach those the highest positions, Praetor, Praefect, Tribune, Legate, even Consul, that sort of thing. I turn my eyes and walk away.
At least father never seemed to fear I would be girl-boy, one of those who bends his rear or opens his mouth to take in other men. I would have killed myself if I went that way. I am no Hadrian in that. No chance, I had my first intercourse with one of our slave girls when I was eleven. Someone told father. He came in grinning, slapped me on the back, said if I didn’t like the ones on hand, he’d buy me a new slave girl anytime I wanted, or take one of his own younger slave bedmates if I liked. Romans are generous with the bodies of women who have no choice. He was so pleased at this mattress bouncing sign of the ordinary in my formation, he bragged to his friends about it. A boy responds to praise. I took another girl the next day. Asked her please to shout loudly as I took her so that others would hear. Good girl, she did, might have even without my asking. But truth told, at eleven years old I was a bit early for too much of it, although the girls didn’t mind at all. Later it got to be much better, but by the time I was trying it with girls of my own standing, they were turned out not as likely to be pleasant as were the slaves, Fact is I was too quiet for them, probably not handsome enough, and a well born girl early taught what matters, would hardly eye me as a future winner. As for sex, among wellborn Roman girls the headstrong ones do what they want and with whom. Virtue is admired, Caesar’s wife had to be pure, we do have standards aplenty, but as with much in Rome, virtue gives way to pleasure or expediency.
After that first weakness of mine at the coliseum, my father was ashamed of me. Beat me, tied me up, told me I could not eat for a couple of days. My personal attendant, that wonderful old Greek slave took a terrible chance and fed me. If father had found him out, he might have killed him earlier than he did. A slave dying on a crucifix is a lesson to the rest. Father said he’d kill me if I brought more shame to the family. I learned to wear a stiff face and hard eyes, but it was, still is, a mask, nothing like I feel inside. Which of course is how a Roman patrician is supposed to wear. Even now, here in Antioch, when I hear the crowds roaring at our local amphitheater, I know more victims are dying. At the coliseum to which I had to go as a boy, where a family sits is set by rank so you always sit near people from the same class, neighborhood. Anyway my first time in the arena at Rome there was an old senator who sat next to me. When a tiger tore a girl’s arm off, what a bloody awful mess, I saw him harden, even under the folds of his toga, and he wet himself. Anything goes in Rome about sex, but for opinions of Greekling girl-boys.
At that time I should have been indifferent to anything but the entertainment. As it was, I was disgusted with that senator. I felt so sorry for the girl, that I could not save her, sorry for the whole damn mob watching, they were beasts far worse than the tiger. His appetites were after all, normal. From that first moment I hated their thumbs turne down to kill a fallen gladiator, Their roar of satisfaction as the victor’s blade went in. I came to hate our own Roman crowds, a slavering bloodthirsty, brainless, wild animal bunch. Maybe that comes from our ruling the world. We do it with our teeth
By now in my life I need more than battles, medals, wealth and entertainments. What? Tell me. I touch it, I cannot seize it, I taste it but I cannot devour it, it’s fragrance is a feather brushing me, but I cannot breathe the fragrance in. Were I not the Roman, the Stoic, the skeptic, the Aristotelian that I am, antagonized by myself as also the critical Platonist, I might be a Bacchus in ecstatic paroxysm, or drown in the pool of the idea of the One become, or “betauroctonous” bull slayer bloody in the Mithraic mystery.
It is said that when with the troops Hadrian himself became a Mithra-cult initiate. Certainly it is popular with the army, however much an extravagance of ideas and practices to which, I confess, I was in my needy irrationality, attracted. Its Persian basis is a realistic thesis about the nature of this world, eternal combat between Good and Evil. I was offered purification in the bull’s blood of baptism, promised power in battles against evil demons, offered a saving supper of bread and wine as body and soul of the god, Not unlike Stoics and ascetics, the priests, descended from the magi, counseled, but happily did not require or inquire after abstinence and self control. I was offered a glimpse of Heaven higher and demonic Hell below, all of which was said originally to have been revealed to and won by one mythical figure guided by Ormazd, or Mazda/Jupiter, whose mythical life saved was a guide to all of ours. His spirit, Mithra himself, they told me, guides us still as ever-present Magister, with a function rather like Logos, the Word or Spirit. I was offered conscious resurrection and immortality if I lived ethically so as not to be hauled off to Hell by the devil Ahriman. If so saved I would watch rather than be consumed by the terrible fire which consumed, ended all earth
I understood Hadrian’s interest, as his being initiated into another mystery at Elseusis. Mithra did not demand, after all, a totality of loyalties. One could be an initiate and enjoy other initiations as well, as with Hadrian. No, I was disinterested because of the blood of it, its evident and admitted oriental origins in myth and Medes, the many parts and pieces of it ever so magical and none close to my heart or my mind. Most of all it was its realism I wanted to deny, that life is, until the great judgment and fire, an eternal battle between one god and another, within us between appetites in which the venal is denounced, continence enjoined, and where with it all, there is no binding claim of truth nor, even as an ethics of courtesy, again not inquired after or strongly emphasized by the magi, there was nothing either of loving as doing which this world so much need, as do I, nor for my own insanity of wanting not some myth of greatness but, even if it comes from an intensity of imagination, the hope I might experience ecstasy. Yes, I want that mystery the Bacchantes knew, but no hangover, no rending of flesh, as savage correlate. I want to be out of myself, be submerged totally and sublimely in what I can only call- I have no word or knowledge of it- the Other. It is the antitheses of savage, it intends transport to the sublime I am not simply a mechanism doing what others require, I am empty and, I fear, most people are empty as well, but of disproportionate evil. I am a child. I want a promise not of warfare in me and out, but of the infant’s world as I suppose it in the womb; immersed, nourished, loved, protected. If I am ever to have a religion, it must complete me, and the “it” of it, Mithraic logos or nay, must by me be felt, heard, smelled, loved. It must be music to the all of me.
I want no further frenzies of the sort I have seen when the bearskin-clad Teutons drink a potion and go berserk in battle. It is said some eat a red spotted mushroom. The lesson of these battles, after our Roman horror at Teutoberg only, after which we learned to avoid our own disastrously commanded deep-forest ambush, is that when legions are well led, any madmen they meet, however fiercely inebriated, are easily killed.
I once did become madly drunk to see if Bacchus, everyman’s host in the cupts, were there in realized spirit to meet me. He was not, but I met his cousin Vomit and his three sons, Headache, Bleary Eyes and Never Again. Grandsons Upset, Edgy and Muddlehead stayed on for more days. The casts of Euripides’ Bacchae were other than mine own, and better players in a better play. For myself, I want no mysteries out of a wine cup, nor, as they say the Kushans have learned to do, its more potent distillations. Nor do I wish, as some do, to become a god and be ridiculous to the world. Nero, orientalizing himself, believed himself god, as have Domitian and others who become, in their believing it and reason all loosened, the summary of horrors. Augustus, Trajan would have been appalled. Dignity is the thing.
I have seen dancing of a magnificent but barbaric sort, Bacchus mixing his drink with more than wine, but khat, opium, cannabis, exciting plants They do that in the remote Syrian, Anatolian, Epirean countryside and, one hears, across uncharted Samartia. I have come upon blood sacrifices even though unlawful and indeed punished on my orders when I was hereabouts earlier and a young, easily shocked officer. It is said maverick Christians are known to have sacrificed their own infants, following an outlawed Hebrew precedent. Such practices have given me a perspective on the savage. Barbarians must be tamed. Any religion has the potential, read the Hebrew’s history and about their once and savage god, Yahweh of the punitive slaughter. I was told of Job’s Yahweh who offered no excuse for pain but insisted on obedience and the right to all inflictions that god wills. By such unreasoning pain is not accident but divine intention. I prefer accident, which is less avoidable but not so ugly.
Minds hereabouts are exercised trying to design some new god theology to harmonize love ruling a world of pain and crucifixions, and the Evil. My reporters tell me the best they can come up with is a Satan who harms with their high god’s permission. Power does inflict pain, although it also prevents and salves it. One needs to harness the salving part Hereabouts close to Judea, our Rome is at the top of the list of those disaffected and vengeful, indicted, I am officially told, by angry seers as ourselves Satan. Nonsense of course, Rome didn’t invent plague, blindness, lepers, greed, ambition, cruelty, although some among us choose the latter as a delectable. As for as governing is concerned; we have done the best for the most with least pain and least demands. Agreed under a mad emperor Rome is the beast, but any mad king anywhere does the same. Find two cures: one for madness and the other, elimination of total power in the hands of any one mortal. The world would improve, although I venture not by much. In any event, Rome is the hub of an attracting wheel whose circumference is the known world. Migration moves in toward the hub, not outward. Ask any Parthian or Samartian you encounter on Antioch’s streets. They have come to us!. I am of two torn minds about my cruel, magnificent, loveless, splendid, glorious, intolerable, insatiable, sorrowing, prideful, persevering ,splendidly armed Rome.
I have done my bloody part as a Roman, been an officer, commander, savaged the enemy with the best of them. Accordingly my legions were good at war, that Roman ideal. One old trooper, a bit drunk after a particularly bloody day, said I was a legend among the legions. It was the last thing I wanted. I couldn’t comprehend it , for I went about my killing and commanding businesses quietly, no interest in what the others thought. The trooper said, burping a bit and swigging more, slurring his words, that it was my head for strategy which carried with it the luck of winning and fewest of our own killed, coupled with what he called “a good way with the men, sharing hardships” and finally, he searched for the summing words, ‘ Commander, you are so damn indifferent, cold and gloriously murderous, you are what civilization at its best produces” . He slapped me on my back. I had another drink myself, thanked the men around the fire for their victorious day and good opinion. I walked away chilled at the thought of me as I was and was understood.
Yet I think the particular grimness I carry on my ugly face, no wild battle cheers from me, might have allowed a clever few to suspect, however much the satisfaction I felt when my own blade plunged deep, my appetite for general carnage was dull to the point of disgust. I would have preferred learning other ways to manhood, approval and definitions of victory in one’s life. The Christians are said to have such alternatives, but Mithra does not. I trust there is no treason within me that moves to exploration. I am much in need of better ways.
That weakness of mine is one reason I allowed that visit of the high priest, Ignatius, for I had never met a Christian. To meet their leader, of whom reports to me said he was civilized, was an opportunity. I have heard the usual slander, know it is mostly wrong, and have heard that for the most part they practicing kindness, trying to do no harm. Calumny those stories of eating feces, intercourse with their wives and daughters, devouring their babes, all the worst slander as Tacitus, Pliny, and Hadrian realized. With human tribes, we are all that, any differences, outsiders or insiders, are suspect. If the new sect acts as the Christians do, astonishing everyone with soft words, self-sacrificing heroism, charity, trying really not to respond to anger with defense or anger, it is a frightening, revolutionary things in itself. What a lesson they pose for us Romans.
They may be a lesson but I am not one to learn it. Yet I must in fairness keep in mind my astonishment growing as I learn more of them, for since the visit of Ignatius I have sought to learn more. They are not my kind, but then, when I look at myself, whose kind I am? Not my own surely, for I am bad company for myself, and as for Rome in its essences, well, these are not attractive, nor do I have among them, but for old comrades from wars, many I would call friends.
I disliked that high priest, small frog he is in his pond, for he was both overblown and, contradictorily, a bit craven. I changed my mind only when he was bold almost to the point of inviting me to sedition. Then n he spoke with a different voice.. Brazen, improper, insulting, impertinent, even dangerous to himself, yes, all of these but also penetrating some depth of mine the weakness of which I myself cannot comprehend. By right and duty, I should have been angry. His preposterous and presumptuous invitation, such barbarians can have no comprehension of the world outside of their sect, was at least insulting. He did not intend that.,. Still, to have the gall and stupidity to imagine I would desert my class, blood and standards, give up the decent responsibilities and powers of governance, and lower myself to a position beyond the humiliating and ridiculous. What marks me, I wonder, as such a one that a Syrian cultist would so inappropriately miscomprehend?
I admit it to myself here, the shape of me, whatever it is since I have yet to define it, does not conform to this civilian niche. I miss the simplicity of war. Death, my own or the enemy’s did not trouble me, although when my comrades fell I was troubled as no Roman commander dare
ever admit. Yet in that crushing vehicle, war there is clarity, purpose, fellowship. Enemies agree to violence, comrades are agreed on being manly bound. There is a personal tenderness to our wounded after a battle which you will see nowhere else in Rome. There at war manliness, honor, allow and compel that sort of love, agape. The rules are simple. I have almost never seen a traitor to them. It is a paradox that in war a Roman finds human excellence, in civil life it is denied.
There is an appreciative understanding among men who are at war which does not exist in civil life. War was more than my career, any healthy wellborn man’s destiny, it was my salvation. In it one’s comrades were entirely good, the enemy self evident and there because he too wished it, the displays, and all men enact some such theater of themselves, were of courage. Brutality yes, as with Scipio at Carthage, total, but only sometimes cruelty for the pleasure of it. Ambition, yes, but for honor, and achieved or failed openly. There are no invidious whispers on the battlefield. With the legions with whom I have served, I have never known of a commander to be stabbed by his own. (Although I have heard of it, but when the commander is unworthy).
I have been lucky in war; good legions to be with, good fellow commanders upon whom trustingly to rely, better generals than some Romans have had, and a fine and working emperor in Trajan and now, if forecasts are correct, Hadrian. All to the good, as are those enemies who so far have always obliged to be defeated. I cannot say that of my father, nor of my doubts.
There is treachery of some kind felt when one is not whole; it lies in one’s own design, in being made of incongruous pieces. I do not know where my better honor lays. As a philosopher I am an honest Stoic, expecting no more than is there but of my disciplined self. I am then a dishonest Stoic, for while my discipline in the eyes of men has never faltered, I am in some way unsure. My companions and superiors respect me so whatever critical words they might speak are held back. Would that I knew for what such a malformed man as this is fit.
Cicero’s brother Quintus, like other Stoics and many plain folk, considers dreams fore-tellings, but not divinely come rather as exposing what the soul knows is already there within it, or inevitably ,given the lay of life, ahead. A dream then should tell one of an orderly process in which the dream, or the god who talks to us in it, reveals order as a kind of destiny. It is of course, as the Greeks knew, an order somewhat of our own making, for our character ordains our destiny. Our dream can tell us of ourselves.
I have prayed for such knowledge. Others enjoy this oneiric aspect, ordinary or extraordinary depending on one’s views, but it is denied me, for no god, no inner soul, no oneiric demon favors me at all. I have invited any one of them or all in concert to cook a nightly feast for me, but that revelatory dining room is empty. My dreams have simply been a jumbled, excited, colorful-for I dream in the full palette of the rainbow- recitation of what has occurred, what with a bit of interpretative effort, I should already know, or again, it requires no diviner, what I might like. When on the march and food is served cold and quick, the wine then and souring, I dream of a good meal. the march’s reality But I do that dreaming, it is not gods in my kitchen.
I am cursed then with Aristotelian dreams, for with Cicero following and clear to the Elder Pliny, Aristotle saw nothing in them but digestion, whether of food, the day’s events, or the soul’s self contemplation. There are, to my recall, two perhaps exceptions. One is that dream in which I am writing to a kinsman, to some kinsmen far removed from me. It is such a powerful dream that it gives me a sensation which is extraordinary, for, if the rope of time uncoils toward you now reading and can, in this manner of my writing, carry to you my being and our times now, then there is a future unfolding out of what I do here. There is a tie between us, although until my own life is clarified as to its purpose and meanings, until I dispel my distemper and fill an emptiness so profound that if I were to be thumped like a melon, you would hear me echo across the parade ground, thinking me resoundingly ripe. Ripe and unripe. I do not know what my message to you will be.
Upon the night after his peculiar visit, I dreamt of the high priest, Ignatius. It was redux. In refrying yesterday’s dish, he appeared to me as an olive oiled eggplant accompanying the lamb of my dinner, as in life in the dream, oily then. “Suave” is a kinder term, confident he was, exuding rank his fellow religionists, not Rome, had accorded. (Although not rank exudations I am happy to say, pity the dream with odors! All of our daily flatulence is enough) and yes I was annoyed at night as during the day with the implicit impudence to which I had lent my new and respectable Roman office. It was impudent, however well practically intended on his part, that he would invite me to succeed him, or his descendent petty princelings, to become, of all things bizarre, a Christian Bishop.
Then, in my dream and now again I ask, did he really expect that I martyr my self-respect, be devoured not by lions but by the laughter of all of ruling Rome, to wear some gown displaying, not hiding, pitiable superstitions? To invite a warrior, slayer of hundreds, commanding strategies, slaying thousands and thereby adding tribes, kingdoms and glories to Empire, this Ignatius would preposterously have me humiliated by my own decisions, and invite all Rome to a feast of sneers ?, I am conscious of the high regard which led the Emperor Hadrian himself to appoint me to this post, functioning second to the Governor of Syria. I can do nothing to stain that trust. Should any Christian approach me, I will run him through out of embarrassment.
Oh yes, I mulishly kick the air, all hooves flying out in all their annoyance, privately cursing, once even when attended by wine, crying, yes, crying, for it has come that far since my childhood, all the while but doing what my uncoiling rope of destiny pulled me to do.. And so, the peasant priest s would have me preside over his unwashed and unlettered creeds-folk to become their new prince of outcasts. Consider it, S. Cornelius, Prince of Outcasts, made their replacing Bishop out of the Christian cause of love, charity, food for the spirit, and a promise of immortality. Ludicrous. Why then does it occupy me?
Nothing divinatory about it. It was the voice that took me. How Ignatius’ own voice changed as he moved from flattery to the bizarre invitation. I confess there was power in it this later voice that had not been his earlier. Nor was it in its speaking demeaning. It was no longer the smooth barbarian speaking, and, now I think back on it, one switches languages here from Latin to Greek so quickly no thought is given, but yes, in the last he spoke in excellent Latin, yes I do believe it was so. I can recall it almost clearly, for as I said, I dreamt the meeting all over again. The voice, yes an elegant Latin, remains with me.
I’m not quite trembling, it is not the shiver of an angry mule, but I feel odd enough about the dreaming of it, and that voice as if not Ignatius at all. Whose then? Here now in Antioch, as I begin my office, full of power, boredom and such learning of the tools for constancy and judgment in governance as Rome has perfected, is it conceivable that some god has spoken to me twice? Once from the body of another that day in my office and then, since a mule is slow to comprehend, again at night in my dream?
I doubt it, but then my life is full of doubts yet there is no doubt about my duties. Publius Marcellus is a reasonably good Governor, Rome intends us to govern well. I shall do my duty, but if there is any who knows me, perhaps the Unknown One to whom the Greeks on Delos long ago built their temple, that god knows I am no more merry than Rome herself, yet much more dissatisfied and ashamed. If a god coming to me, he knows I live without love but am kind enough without it. He knows I am almost without laughter, indeed my face has built itself unsmiling. If there is that god unknown I beg, I beg that god to exist. I beg that god to bless Rome. In such an impossible blessing may there be better years for us all, for truly mine are wasted, whereas most Romans themselves live sorrowful, sorrowful lives. It is a Roman curse, to pray to gods who do not exist for better lives which will never come.
If my other unfolding dream was of more than fancy, we shall be glad. Out of that dream, or prospect, I have become warmly purposed in this expense of pen and parchment upon you as my kinsman, kinswoman or other humanly close reader. I write to you, and will ask others close to me as well, to write about these times, ourselves, about outcomes of which whether occurring soon or late, I have only fanciful ideas forming.
Know truly it is to you I write over time, overseas, mountains and deserts, beyond and after these my times which are history for you, yet which are beyond being futures for me. Yet I sense that my history become your present knowledge may in turn shape you, your future because, perhaps, knowings are bestowed out of which civilizing futures are built. Indeed, only out of knowledge can civilized futures grow. Be then, both of us, part of future destinies uncoiling well. Know these words, of what they tell, of what becomes of what we tell, as our u bequest. If you are, as I am strangely instructed you may be, my, our kinsman, kinsmen and women in fact as heritage and blood, do not be offended by our accountings or your own surprise. Even in the midst of it, this world in this time is mostly unknown and often wrongly interpreted. Like dreams, our minds impose meanings. Like the work of gods, one hopes they will move beyond being meaningful to being true. It is a rare human who knows in his or her own time, truth. Truths change over time, as we learn, as we need, as we change. I here, like you, seek truth’s best approximations and the fullness of joy and being in its knowing. Tragedy is implicit, inescapable. We all have searched for meanings for it beyond inexorable fate. Pray that we find those better meanings, and that we develop faith that they are true. There is goodness, there are truths, this I do believe. I, perhaps we, must be guided to them.
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