CHAPTER XXII BALTHUS
I, BALTHUS, when just arrived in Syria wrote a letter to my sister, as well as to my wife. The Empire is governed by us expatriates who should, at least in family correspondence, show ourselves as good tourists. Everyone’s model is Herodotus, but those days when one saw amazing things, and heard even taller tales, are over, at least as far as the Empire itself is concerned. We have made it rather dull. Of course if one wants to hear about dragons, four-headed archilobes (I made up the word) there is always some African or East Indian to entertain. For myself, I rather like the comfort of “dull”. It is the lot of most people not to have the luxury of it. It’s a hard, unsure, scary and short life for most. Give me sinecure and privilege any day, thank you. I will live longer, drink more, belch contentedly, and offer toasts to pax Romana as I live off the fat of the land.
I wrote the family that it had been a good voyage over from Ostia. Peiria Seleucia is the big port of Syria, the River Orontes empties here. It is navigable up to Antioch but rather than be rowed those upstream miles I rode in a comfortable horse- drawn official car. Since I am in imperial service, such carts, running back and forth as jitneys, are free. A cart is bumpier than a horse, but there are thick cushions for us. I reported immediately to the palace where slaves assigned me to my quarters. I have spent my adult life in barracks. I have never been housed in such splendor, my own private room, windows, a well tended toilet on the same floor, a floor assigned to others like me who, it turns out, are considered superior government officers even if we are secretaries. Since my boss, I have yet to meet him, is a very important man, not so much by rank but by his being next to the Governor, my rank is determined by his. I have the best digs on this floor. Carpets, vases, flowers if I want them, this is the East, Kriemhild, and it is luxurious. I can already see that no one works very hard, even the slaves lounge about. What a far cry from the legions and life on the frontier! I suspect the Roman rich have rooms more austere, but fashion and custom rule, and here it is lavish. I am warned about scorpions however, quite dangerous snakes, whereas the gnats care terrible. We are all of us, unless covered or behind netting, mosquito food.
The palace has its own baths. I luxuriate in them I found a fine barber and masseur there, all at my service. Cushy. Then I walked into town, just over the Orontes bridge. The city is glorious, what a fleshpot---no don’t tell my wife what you suspect—and the foods are exotic. The streets, well at least the thoroughfares are more splendid that Rome’s. Not so many buildings or temples of course, and this palace is the only place for courts and the government. Nothing much political goes on in the several forums. We rule the place, there is no local Senate or city council. I hear my administrator boss is the one who does the most work.
They call Antioch “the queen of Asia”. I call it this glorious city a “cosmotropolis.” Her patroness god is Tyche. The palace lads here call Tyche the Queens of Whores. It’s a city that is a queen of commotion as well; she is lively as a porker with a bee up its nose. Lively is good, I’ve already learned that for Syrians that is mostly in bed. Rome prizes Syrian women slaves, or free whores, more than any other. The slave market here is gigantic. I looked at the luscious goods. If I move out of the palace, there’s an allowance if you want to live off base, I’ll buy a few for myself. As it is, well the palace slaves are as attentive as a man can want. One can call for more off the streets anytime.
I read a good deal coming over on the ship, including, Juvenal, Rome’s famous satirist who is indignant about Roman vice. We do share something, Juvenal was a commander of legion auxiliaries (Dalmatian) in Britain under its Governor Agricola, father-in-law to historian Tacitus who is distant kin to my new boss S. Cornelius, and so I call that being related. Besides like Juvenal you know I commanded auxiliaries. Well. Juvenal had no respect for Greeks, Syrians, not even our own Roman-Italian whores. In contrast and whereas, well you know your Balthus only here a week or so, I command, well at least as far as the musical whores around here are concerned, their music from whatever organ it emanates, all the rhythm they can muster, whether they play their strings or mine, whether they play their flute or mine. We are then, the Syrian girls and I, a chorus, hear our “ohs “, “ahs”, and “oo la laas”. Allow us an orchestra then, playing with one another. Poor Juvenal. It is not that he is wrong, hardly, its just that he seems not to appreciate. Listen to him:
“What can I do in Rome? I never learnt how to lie…
(As to) my special pet aversion, I cannot stomach a Greek-struck Rome.
For years now Syrian Orontes has poured its sewage into our native Tiber – Its lingo and manners, its flutes, its outlandish harps… its native tambourines …
And the whores who hang out round the racecourse
That’s where to go if you fancy a foreign piece….”
Poor Juvenal complaining the harps have “transverse” string, oh poor delicate Juvy, you must learn to enjoy different positions of vibrating things in different vibrating places. Juvy, Rome is wasted on you, whereas Antioch, you’d be up to your too-proper knickers in protest rather than in prostitutes. Here we forget Juvenal I tell you, Antioch is a welcoming, high priced, lascivious, beautiful city where, behind the tall walls of the, I am told are luscious gardens- the palace ones themselves are really impressive. All over the public places, and behind those rich men’s walls, are more splashing fountains and lots of statues, As for mosaics, the palace has them, the wealthy have them, Antiochean mosaics are famous over the Empire. Making them is a major trade. Having them is major bragging. Seeing them is impressive. The slaves hereabouts are good tempered and well advised to be that, the children of anyone at all rich are well taught, courteous to power and their betters about which a good stick advises them.
Roman wives, you know they are an independent lot and when out her in the provinces more so, no telling with whom they’re sleeping, and as for their husbands, well, Syria grows anything a man might want. It is our granary, green garden, and spice route. It is the trading center; camel trains, merchants, ships up the Orontes to here from the Selucia from every place to everywhere, crossroads for commerce from Cathay to Spain, Nubia to the Caucasus, Jerusalem to Athens, Egyptian Thebes sideways to Cyrenica, if it’s something a man wants and it’s not here today, ask for it tomorrow and in the meantime take what there is and relax, play, go to theater, drink, watch the girls dance-which they will readily do on a floor or on a bed, whatever your pleasure, and as many times as a man is up for it. I told the old girl not to be jealous, that I’m too old for any of that, that I’d just watch the dancing. Maybe I meant it at the time.
No one is going to take this fine and sporting Antioch away. We have three, sometimes four even five legions, plus Syrian, Asian, other eastern auxiliaries stationed here. That is massive manpower. (Besides, it’s a duty station that’s prized; generals wangle it with Rome when they can) Mother Rome is possessive of her Syrian queen and now, since Hadrian’s decision for the Empire to be content with its frontiers. we all enjoy a peaceful eastern frontier, well, almost. There is always some king or other, imperial rival, or brigands or the Jews up to mischief.
I love this place. There’s no hurry at all about inviting my wife, Kriemhhild, way out here to join me, no hurry at all. After a lifetime fighting, not that we went without girls or drink, I think I’ll go for as much middle aged debauchery as I can survive. Not that I want to play all the time, I read a lot, the very best and serious enough stuff to surprise people. That’s good because everyone tells me my new boss is a stickler, standoffish, hardnosed, every bit a warrior but well educated. I won’t mind that at all. I am a soldier’ soldier myself, and a writer’s critic to boot. I’m sure we’ll get along.
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