Walking the City
I have learned in my years here, that even the busiest market place in Antioch is not safe, unlike the official places, the forum, temples, and promenades where solders as a watch are assigned. In the marketplace, aside from the usual thugs, pickpockets, money snatching urchins, beyond the fights and rioting when one or another race is offended and no soldier is nearby, there is, these days, great added tension, sudden flaring, some thudding of bodies as well as fists. It is, since I was first assigned to the palace here, that was 117, gotten worse. As when one walks rubbing roughness and touches something to see a spark, sense the shock arising out of differences in the, what? spirits? of the two objects. Antioch is now sparking. It is not that there is revolt in the air, with legions permanently in their barracks here that is not likely, but the races and religions of people are sparking, their very gods are brawling. Shades of the Trojan War!.
There are new designs for the world and lives floating on this roiling sea of ideas. After the visit of Ignatius, I have been ever more conscious of the Christian one. I have been listening the priests and rabbis of the many factions. Among most there is anger, for on all sides are wounded loyalties, ideas powering passions that can kill. Too many times now conspirators in faith have come to my office. Typically they reek of disguise. A sinister lot for the most part, they are sly, plaintive or outraged as they denounce their faith brothers of a slightly different disposition as disloyal and seditious. Too often the Jews are accused. Their intelligence and uprightness makes them targets of jealousy. Easy targets because they know we Romans must always be suspicious of another insurrection being plotted. Will I, they ask, present this case to the magistrates who, given my office, must listen? These plotters cost us time and money, for I must send investigators out to test each allegation. So far none are proven worthy of official action. Since false denunciations are punishable, I am glad of it, I will send any such schemers to the courts to punish. That is simple enough, since none who calumny are of rank or citizens, A fair return on their lies is loss of property, or whipping, torture, being sent to the mines.. Even so, there seems no diminishing in the number of ambitious plotters who try to use our Roman courts and executioners, or the wild beasts of Africa and the East, to murder on their behalf. I am sick of the bastards, disgusted with religious rivalries that spawn this filth. I am angry with their gods whose business it seems is to incite hatred. I have learned I must be wary of any passionate religion, for these fashion vile tongues and hatreds as well as such contrary virtues their texts recommend.
Feel the uneasiness as so many contradicting absolute certainties meet. Hear one voice and many, the sly whispering of temptations lascivious to the soul, the querulous whining of a coward whose god is sorely affronted, but look too how that man curls his hand over his knife’s belt-jutting handle. Some shout out angry over their confusion, shout out there in the marketplace, “whose book is true?” or “ Good news you tell me but is it to be believed? “ or “Truth is come, so you say, but which truth among the many? “ This Coming you forecast which did not occur, what kind of prophecy is that?”, “ Tell me again his name…her name, the most influential god, the highest, what is right sacred name?” Often enough hereabouts the name invoked is Sophia, wisdom, and the wife of the highest beyond ordinary reach. The preachers say what sounds too true, the god of creation is close and evil. “Look about you,” those priests challenge, ‘and say it is not so.”
From fat bellied, or goat headed vendors, another cow faced or pocked, from the snorts, spiting, sing song sells, barter, bargaining and beratings, the sounds of copper scales squeaking, there in front of the market stalls with their hanging sheep covered black with flies, stalls heavy with melons and oranges, tea and chickpeas and squash. Here you will hear murmur and claim intermix with angry, “a nonsense” or “I stand by the old gods, best for you, you stand firm too” or “A new god, hardly, last week you sold me rotten eggs, this week your story smells even worse.”
I walked the city yesterday, this Antioch I help govern, walked the grand avenues where she is, this marble, fountained, sculpted, lagooned, betempled, this golden queen. The Antioch I walked on the promenades was ebullient, not stately, exciting not reliable, irresistible, insatiable until you can no longer afford her or are otherwise depleted. This is no city for old men. Nor surprise she is understood as a woman, Tyche is her goddess, her once-guardian, still her spirit, this Tyche who they tell me is known to sing.
But it is not Tyche by the Forum and the fountains must tell a governor what he must know. Find me Tyche with a harsher voice, Tyche taking the measure of the rabble. I will know her if I see her tall and grim-faced, her silk shawl over her nose here in the market places, head cocked, listening for the rumble of the next soon earthquake to tumble her city a heap again, nose high waiting for the smoke of another devouring fires which will eat all her wood to ashes, Tyche weeping as plague again smites her city with the suppurating bubo dead turned black. She waits for the noise of the next riot that will heap another cover of corpses on the blood -slippery bricks and limestone of her promenades. My own soldiers-the barracks legions, are at my disposal - will quell the riot, all of the again-and-again riots, with no nonsense. I tell the commanders that soft blows encourage another riot tomorrow. The dead do not return to make more trouble.
You may think me heartless, but I must govern. Chaos, arson, thuggery, prove I have failed in doing that. I can do nothing about earthquakes, but I can do something about these people. Tyche has not sung to me. If she had I am too skeptical to hear here, this queen of the East. I am sure she, like any Antiochean who wants to sleep secure in that which can be secured, welcomes governance. If she were something more than a song, she would help me.
Yesterday as I walked the city, it was to help Antiocheans and myself. I felt the tension; something is in the air. In the tiny Christian quarter one said it is the Parousia after all, Christ returned and with us. Another answered him, “Be afraid then, tremble for your sins, for it brings judgment day. Who knows if we ourselves will be condemned?” I hear a Jew whisper, “if only we were strong, we could march from Antioch to retake and rebuild Jerusalem” The other replied, “one day, Levi, one day we will occupy Israel and Judea and then Romans over this East will, by the tens of thousands, hang moaning on crucifixes. I myself will circumcise them simply, one unholy slice, total emasculation.” Tomorrow here is not an orderly unfolding, nothing of Polybius history to assist. Dreams do not assist, this history is only now being written.
I confess, some of the disorder is likely my own. When I walk the city, my bodyguards holding well back, I dress dingily as a local, look down so as not to show my blue eyes and Roman face. My sword is under the folds of my rough grey robes, but arranged so I can have it quickly. I have smudged my cheeks a bit with soot. Even so I am less dirty than the most of them around me. My disguise does not hide me from myself, whoever that will be. I must decide upon that. someday.
Overlooking Antioch, well behind me as I walked, carved in the rock of Mt Stauris, is a giant bas-relief face of Charon. An early Antiochean king had him sculpted there. Charon ferries the just dead across the River Styx to Hades. He is well placed there. Nature sees to it that Antioch gives him a great deal of business. “Tyche” is “fate” or as when the Furies are called “the kindly Ones” or “the holy” in propitiation, warding off, apotropaic Some have been known to say she is “happiness” I think it unlikely that Charon, who holds the highest ground here, oversees “happiness”, but as for “fate” yes indeed. “Fate” is our problem, for it rules more powerfully than ordinary human will. I have done some reading and interviewed more since Ignatius’ visit. The God of the Christians if he is as represented, is the only friendly energy willing itself to release mankind from the oar-rhythm curse of Charon and those dire fates, “the Furies”.. At one fell Jesus moment, the Christians claim, a new understanding of a latent design of the everything was announced, man deemed ready to act on it, man ready to be redeemed. There is other than Hades with Heaven now, and the choice is man’s own in this life. Accept the good, , accept the messenger and the message, and behave well on the trust and sense of it.
Sad a god, and fouled with disgust as he sees what needs redeeming. I have to presume that is, Rome We have sunk so low and pointless. If there is to be the god’s forgiveness, ours is surely the moment requiring forgiveness. That can only come from an amazing love. I think of the irony of it, Rome blamed for crucifying God himself who came, they say, as his own messenger in human form. It is a remarkable story. If its essences are so, including its prophecies, Rome through one more cruel and conspiratorial death opened the door to her own redemption. So the logic would have it, if any of it were true. If but man’s needy imagination, well, beautiful in itself. Will it empower us enough to do the work of reform ourselves? If it does, and by reason of the idea of it, that would be man’s own miracle giving him a new imagining of what he should and might be.
The gift it might be is beautiful. I pondered it as I walked in Antioch under the eyes of Charon and of Tyche. I wake up some nights in a sweat. I have been wrestling with myself and, in my dreams, this god. They say he is not new but always there from before. I have had no inkling o him before, and am not persuaded now.
Yesterday I walked by the statue, embodiment of Niobe, mythical but real, for she understands us and cannot forget her likewise fate, all her children murdered because she boasted herself better than Leto, beloved by Jupiter-Zeus. But an angry Zeus, the Olympians are often that, had turned all people thereabouts to stone so that her children lay unburied. The gods, moved themselves by the awfulness of it, buried them, but Niobe, as any mother knows, remains inconsolable.. She is there to see, up there on Mt. Sylpius, beneath a spring which over her face so that her tears are truly unending. There she is, child of sorrows, her tears flow into the Orontes. There is also, in one of the monumental baths, a statue of Medea, Jason’s wife, the goddess of device and poisons. When Jason abandoned her, any husband can understand why, she killed the children she had had by him, along with his new bride.
The Greek stories called to mind by statues that I pass are of human fate and sorrows. Roman sculpture has no such emotion in it. Cold stone or hollow bronze, there is nothing to them but their demand for offerings and salutes. Up there is Niobe, in constant sorrow and closer by is Medea, a source of revenging sorrow. The city keeps sad and vengeful company. I wonder how many widows live here? I have made a number over the world, killed as many men as any other Roman has. Unlike the thirsts of shades condemned to Hades, I have not found quenching in blood’s shedding. I remain a thirsty man.
I delight in the liquid heart of Antioch, its fountains. I am a westerner, in the city I see the East born again each day. Rome has built the fountains; I see the pools along the promenade, Trajan’s, Hadrian’s, Augustine’s, and Titus’. Into these fountains flows the burbling chorus out of marble-sculpted mouths of nereids. I see and hear sea nymphs’ spouting splash their Apollo-blessed pure waters, their welling Gea-gifts out of originating Daphne’s emerging rivers. If I look with any poetry in my eyes, the flow becomes blood rich as streams of scarlet boil in as well. Where Rome and Asia meet the mix is blood. This is the place of man-beast. Out of purity and violence, in the cooling night mists rise, take visible forms. Some see mist-words pulsing there. I have seen the condensing liquors distill to forms not clear to me. On occasions I hear some watcher cry out, “See, the shape of the Word is forming. Hear, they say, Truth proving itself from the sweet dust of dewdrops.” “By my own eyes I have seen it” insist the peasant Greeks. “It conforms to the sacred texts,” I have heard the word -weaving rabbi affirm “ There is no flesh to it, only spirit, it is essence marrying the good and through its mysteries there is salvation, or so the Syrian mystic contends. Come day and I know it is all nonsense.
For myself although I look and listen I have not seen any mist-formed word, even though I have visited the torchlight pools -armed and in armed company, as needs be in Antioch after dark. By now I have read many of their special words, all too readily dispensed in books, parchments, letters all their vendors guarantee to be true Every writing is always authoritatively authored whoever may be the scribe. Authentication is by faith and advertisement. The crowds rely on the assurances of old men more than the intensity of young ones. Words, especially those sold with grim reverence, are warranted as encrypted. Some are sold as letters of recommendation to Charon, asking he gently carry us over the Styx.
Other people’s convictions do little to assist me, even if purveyed by “the people of God. ” There is enough disdainful and suspicious, common sense Roman in me to distrust the Christians’ passion, in spite of my reserved interest. I respect the view of the younger Pliny. He has written recently, but already widely disseminated among my class who have ruling responsibility, his view that the Christians are ‘depraved”, “foreign” and “extreme.” I admire both Pliny’s immensely. They are brighter, observant, sophisticated, and rightly honored. The Plinys are of my class and represent its best.
Theirs is a seriously detrimental judgment of these Eastern cults. Rightly so, for we Romans are born to Roman superiority. That is the more obvious here in the East where, its weakness, decadence, sweaty servility, irrationality, are despicable. Civilization melts every hot day of the Syrian year. Winter, spent here indoors on couches stained with wine and fornication, hardly revives it.
Yet I despise Rome for its cruelty, emptiness, treachery, ambition, and almost universal incurable misery. Within myself I strive for fulfillments Rome cannot provide. I have a needy irrationality the recognition of which is rational enough. The day is now long past when the priest Ignatius called on me, that day his astonishing, presumptuous invitation was spoken in a voice which transfixed me. I am mad to think it, but someone else; yes I sensed a power, was it his God?, was calling me. I was stunned by the enormity of it. I am ashamed of myself ever succumbing to irrationality. Yet since that meeting I am occasionally happy. That is a grievous indulgence. My gravity, and common sense have been chastising me it ever since. What a collapse into the Eastern sinkhole of the indulgent irrational implies is extreme. What I have been will be disordered. Can, then, a new order form itself from this mix of promises, miracles, superstition, and the truly beautiful? I do not say “faith”, for simply to believe in what one is told is an indulgence beyond me. What manner of Roman is left of me if I sacrifice what I am.?
Yet I consider crossing the dividing river, Jesus on the one side, conventional Rome on the side where I now stand. What a Rubicon, eh? I would cast no Caesarian dice but, if there were one, my breath as my soul must birth the decision. I have been reading the few available Christian texts. I cannot trust any evangelizing pseudo apostle even when his Greek has Homeric line and meter, for that suggests Jesus as a familiar saga following the Ulysses model. Homer is the best there is to copy, and a literate reader of those same stories will be persuaded at least of literacy in the writer. It is the case that a tradition is best handed down in a structured meter that a bard can remember. Among some supposedly faithful hereabouts there is such fierce dispute that a listening bard could only sing discordantly. A Mathew and a Paul are consistent, but oh, the competing editors and apostles!
I have but heard stories recounting a John writing his seer and shaman’s visions. His wild, daring, rebellious content is shocking. I myself as Quaestor would have his head. An executioner will soon relieve him of it, for we cannot tolerate insult and coded calls for rebellion. John e calls upon his god to render retribution. To speak a fearful word can be to summon it. John summons things most terrible. Few Romans are so far above superstition that they will not be appalled by this magician. What if he were able to conjure, incite his god into the fury that seer would like to invoke? A dangerous man, this John, vengeful, powerless but in his images. I say he sums to being a dangerous fool. Brought before me to be sent on to the courts, he sums to being a corpse crucified.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter