BALTHUS on CORNELIUS
A Late Explanation
I, BALTHUS, Secretary to Sempronius Scipio Cornelius, Quaestor, Secretary for the Governor of Syria, Publius Marcellus, successor to Governor Catilius Severus, write this. It is my duty to S. Cornelius.
I follow the Quaestor’s wish that a compilation be made available to you, you about whom he had this dream, or vision, or some sincere madness. It may be so, for this is Antioch where such things happen readily. In any event, he finds himself charged with a mission to you. He told me his wish to cross the rivers of time, the space of eras, so that this Book finds you He calls you kin. Don’t dismiss that as but a fancifully conception. As our blood as bequest distributes itself over time, our generations descending “down” its rivers and spreading widely, think of those descending as river’s delta. Here in Antioch, viewed from this already later moment in man’s history, we are one of your great river’s already joined and fruitful sources. The riparian inevitability of the current of our loins and custom is that you are descendent of every one of us here who has lively seed. If you allow that ideas, custom, inventions, those developments which enhance lives, are the richest seed, you will recognize that you are made wealthy out of us here, out of these times, out of civilized times before us as well. We are the practical history which you inherit. S. Cornelius would have you be particularly conscious of that, and since he has a special vision, so he claims, he, or perhaps his experience, may figure in that which you inherit. I cannot say “yes” or “no” as to his role, but I do read my history, and know what has gone before shapes us.
It is a good that you should know us, for we are your ancestors. Put us in your hallway as “penates privati” Let your guests see us. Brag about us. We are all egotists and want to be known beyond our moment. I shall impart myself to you, even though this Book is not about yet I will leave something of a biographers imprint on it. It is good that you understand Rome, Antioch, our times, their fruits Most of all you should appreciate S. Cornelius, for there is hero and harbinger and much more than that to him. There is an important tale to be told here. I am thel instrument of its collection, and have taken the liberty of selection and ordering, and as you saw a moment earlier, incorporating a letter of my own. As I said there is egotist in all of us.
I apologize if my style of telling is awkward. I am no Plutarch nor would I be. He was a moralist. You will learn that I was, at a low level, immersed in the bloody affairs of this world. That is good for a warrior’s honor but it is a life that denies most morality. I have recently educated myself to big words and some history, and how better to praise myself; I use these tools instead of wealth or brain to impress people. As for morality, a man who would succeed in Rome must avoid it. You will see that may be my superior’s problem.
I am employed, and here in writing am self employing, out of loyalty and affection, respect and duty. I relay and chronicle matters none of which are or otherwise could be of record. Should this Book never find you, so be it, and then there is no record. Obviously in writing that, I write to the void. . To complete this work which is of great importance for understanding lives and times, what I shall later tell you of Christianity and S. Cornelius, I have been observer, recorder, rapporteur, and playwright in that I record human exchanges as known and indicate their setting. To do that and other things I am the employer of spies. I am also monologist, that tedious for us both. There is, under our condition of danger and elected internal exile, no other choice
It is in these ways I am able to set forth in these ancillary Commentaries to accompany these letters, becoming part of this Book, information necessary for your adequate understanding of events and persons referenced or met. This may also afford some comprehension; however narrow our scope, of the particular context of, inference as to the powering forces for these times. At this moment I write in the torrid July of 860 as measured from the founding of Rome and the corrected Julian calendar. It is the year 125 Anno Domini.
Will it help you to know what I look like? A north German from farming stock who has lived the soldier’s life. You know the rest. A sword scarred face, a bit of chin and cheek missing, but everything useful intact. Where there are no scars there are wrinkles, for a once fair skin fares badly very quickly under the suns where I have fought, as it will here now in Syria. I have small white, dry growths on my nose, ears, and temples. When they get too big I slice them off with my knife. I am average in height, 5’ 8”, stocky, proud of my muscular arms and legs. Without those a solder does not survive. Half of one ear is missing, so is a little finger. My right eyebrow is cleft in the middle. My hair is sandy colored turning dirty grey. No one has ever called me handsome but women like my manliness and how long it lasts in bed.
I am patient, calculating, even tempered. An impulsive man dies too early. I am good-natured, but only among friends. These days now that I am in the civil service and so highly assigned I keep my fingernails clean and my hair short enough not to require some slave at the baths grease it. I am not one for luxuries but, up until working for the Quaestor, had you bought me one as a bribe I would have taken it and, as an honest man, given you what your bribe intended.
There, you know as much of me as I do. I am in this Book honest and do what I have never done before. I comment, speculate; let my brain go thinking a bit. I will, on behalf of all whose documents, conversations and observations are in her, arrange for this Book to be unseen in our times. One day you as intended by Cornelius and foreseen in his vision, confirmed by Apollo’s oracle at Daphne, will find it in your hands. Such delayed discoveries are notoriously difficult to arrange and since the responsibility is mine, no one will know I have failed since there will be no reader at all. Only if time is a magic vehicle, if dreams can speak to one another, if visions are of others who have visions mirroring ours, perhaps their energies joining, will any of us know. For myself, I have no such faith. If I am right, this Book ends with itself.
If I am wrong, and there is a “you” who read of Cornelius, of Ignatius preceding him, the others here with us, believe me when I tell you can understand nothing of what you have become, of who you are-whatever years have passed and whatever place is yours- if you do not truly understand Rome. No doubt you have much else to learn, that which is close at hand always occupies us. But if you see only when your foot is about to fall, and don’t look ahead to where the path turns, you may not reach your goal. But if the future path is in mists, look back, for others paths like yours ahead preceded, indeed Rome’s was one of those that fathered your path. It is the father of empires, the best until now and, I suspect, for centuries to come. Its template for success compels the future, the failures of which are also already visible in us. .
Argue that Athens was better, and, yes, it true in all arts, imagination, science, philosophy, historiography, literature, architecture, democracy, with self knowledge and civic duty as personal virtues, all Athen’s men committed to breadth and balance in living, thus the highest of civilizations. It was, however, insufficient, for it failed to avoid the wars, the reprehensible slaughters, exhausting the mines of Lavrion, or to comprehend its nerve was failing. It is not well to lose all one’s allies, but not one’s enemies. It lost its forests and good sense. And once courage was gone, it follows that it lost others’ respect. Thus entirely emptied it fell, first to its own philosopher’s child, Alexander, then to us, Rome. In a Roman’s eyes, to be defeated by us is almost inevitable and almost always contemptible. Opposing kings, and queens-think of Cleopatra- facing defeat, kill themselves rather than suffer the humiliations, and worse, that we will impose upon them. The Romans call today’s Greeks, “Greeklings” indicating that they are sorry midgets. We like them best as house-slaves closer by to spit on. We rule. Now, Rome contrasted with Greece, insofar as you use any worldly measure, which must you agree is the better? The lesson is in that.
Having learned too little myself, I claim the right to teach you, for I am here and at this moment, who knows how much longer, I am able to tell you of lives. Let me tell you by examples such as Tacitus. Let me provide accounts, tangents, exchanges and stories. You will learn most when you see my stupidity, for that reminds you of what you know. It is S. Cornelius, my boss, my friend, and my duty who moved me to want to tell you. .
Listen to me! Don’t be bored by names strange to you, times you may never have cared for, for if you are as I think you are, as our S. Cornelius divined you, you must fully comprehend the practicality of Rome as the price of its glory. It is achieved and held by a human law as exact as any material one in engineering. This law dictates the construction of the road to power and dominion. Keep in mind, once again I emphasize, Rome as republic and empire was, is the best of times for the greatest number in the history of the world. Yes, Athens was greater in all the arts, writings, politics, architecture, thinking, and virtues. But Athens was tiny, it failed to expand. It fell, one admits gracefully, to Alexander. It fell, no grace in that conquest, to Rome. Take a lesson from Athens. What matters is an army, the conquest of riches and peoples. What matters is the art of governing what you have conquered. It is the art of tolerant, sensible, trade building, rewarding, and punishing, calculating ruthlessness. ` It needs no refined intelligence, for which I am glad. You see, I look forward to learning, now that I am in the colonial service, to be good at helping govern. My nature for it is right.
As part of this book are conversations where neither Cornelius nor I were present. When not recollections by participants, these are the work of spies. Spies? Yes indeed. Should you be naïve, know now that these are the basis of Rome’s governing currency, reason for the survival of many who were evil, some also who were good, the reason as well, it is obvious, for many deaths, by no means all those dying guilty of sedition or indiscretion. The spy becomes a weapon in himself, or herself, who must in turn by nature be mistrusted. That is the skill of the spymaster of whom in the civil services there are many. I myself held such assignments. Here, for this task that has only been historical, no one died upon our receipt of the information of a spy, albeit upon the spy’s cause, other precautions might well have been put in place.
Tacitus, that great historian, son of Agricola, our general who subdued Britain, survived the monster Domitian because he, Tacitus, knew of the ubiquitous presence of the emperor’s “intelligencers”. Tacitus avoided all normal commerce of hearing and speaking together not simply with strangers or acquaintances, but also all but a few proven friends. In such surveilling environments, there was safety only in silence and secrecy. Most greatly prized then, and the highest risk, is trust. Under emperors mad with power or self cannibalizing other lusts, do read Suetonius who is best on their descriptions, one committed one’s life to that other-assessing adventure. The wider your trusting net be thrown, the more likely you yourself, as can be other gladiators entangled by the well –thrown insidious snare, be deadly netted.
What you read here then of conversations where you believe no one trusted by and reporting to you was present, you are wrong. We were present, ears in the walls, scribes recording, even observers trained to read lips and body movements. As part of the mandate given to me on your behalf, you will be first to be privy to these. Consider these as all intelligence is, as means to better understandings. It is paradox that once the spymaster is committed he must trust spies above all others. The wisest general seats his spymaster next to him in council, and pays him best. Emperors, and contenders, not learning this upon accession or the dangerous route thereto, learn instead upon the thrust the uses of the sharp end of daggers.
As with all such history and intelligence, there is here inference, selection, sharpening leveling, reconstruction, paraphrase, and interpretation. There will be, then, error. Some arises from my own bias undetectable by me. So warned, you will be alert, using the same processes as here, as you would be to all histories. I deem it inevitable that your bias as well as acumen will mix further distortion with welcome clarity.
S. Cornelius’ job is one for a higher rank, praetor, for Cornelius is the governor’s right hand, many days his brain.. Keep in mind the right hand holds the sword too. S. Cornelius’ reputation as an officer was of a man right handy with a sword. A hero in fact. As for filling a praetor’s job, Cornelius seems of two minds about rank, his own mind I hear talking to him right now rejects it.
I am myself from lower Germany, there by the Danube’s mouth before reaching sea-drenched Batavia. Educated Romans are required to take the trouble to learn Greek, but they are indifferent to other the provincial languages including mine. Some Romans mistake my name as dialect for their Latin’s “Balteus,” that’s a soldier’s special girdle, or sheath, for a knife. As a nickname it’s an implied compliment to me when used the right way – Roman’s own nicknames are often about one of their traits, or physical features like a big nose. Mine implies “Balt”, someone from near the Baltic Sea. That is where the Rhine empties north of my German home. So I have a two-in-one nickname, Balthus/Balteus, or variations on that.
As for what us Germans are like, read Tacitus or Caesar In particular ask them or anyone else what happened to three legions in the Teutoburg forest back in Roman year 636, (Christian year 09) under Varus, governor, and general, fool and suicide. A masterful ambush, one of the greatest of all Roman military defeats. (Argusio was worse, 80,000 Romans died under the sharp metal of invading Cimbri and Teutoni.) The Roman defeat in Teutoberg forest was for many Germans, obviously not ones the Roman legions, a victory and delight. The Romans have since not ventured, but for trade and/or acquiring less resistant Agri Decumates (88) back across the Rhine. Even if, as in my case, where one hails from the pacified side, a German soldier, Teutoni, Teuton, when with the legions gets special respect. And yes, special note, when you win an Empire by losing, my guess, no less than a quarter million men (under the Republic and emperors our armies varied from the middling to no more than 400,000 men) you value that blood-built edifice. . Rome was made quickly but dearly, and understandably holds herself as god-guided, made of gold and ferocity, but built on blood.
As for the knives to go in those sheaths, there are knives enough in the empire, although many fewer active now than times before. They do the quiet work, on throats, bellies, backs, from alleys to palaces. Keep your own knife sharp; your sheath ready, for the sheath is where victims’ blood goes to dry. You can say for sheath, “scabbard” as well, but the Latin for that means “vagina” which the Gaul’s think amusing. Their rough play with their piggish Latin uses that word quite another way, here I will not say what. There need be vulgarity, unless so over high-minded, one takes it as vulgar to gut somebody with a knife.
I have come a long way from starting a soldier’s life as an archer in the German auxiliaries attached to the legion viii Augusta. I liked the life, have a bit of a mind for strategy and minor leadership, have what most admit is a special German taste for battle. Wounds did not deter me, my men liked me, and my unit did well and still does. These are good recommendations.
They were good enough for me to be made citizen, my diploma documenting that was, as it must be, executed with seven Romans witnessing. My military history was such that it enabled me to enter the civil service. I manage a good tongue for Latin and enjoy the Greek that is much more widely used hereabouts. I had not had education but I aspired a bit. In Rome I hired a freedman Greek as teacher, read Herodotus, Hesiod, Euripides, Horace, Virgil, not Aristotle, for he is over my head, but having read most that a Greek tutor would require, I am enough able to fake being educated. I learned the big words necessary to pass oneself off as educated as well. I am, in fact, more words than brains when I am allowed them. . I am a good amanuensis with a clear script and know enough to be discrete, indeed other than here, silent. Secrets are not sacred but they can destroy the teller as well as otherwise intended targets.
With citizenship and skills, I moved up in the civil corps, dressed my goodly upper Belgicana wife in more and better cloth, am able to provide for my first acknowledged children which were by her, and, when the opportunity for this promotion came, and a bit of travel, I asked for the post and got it. By the time I had been here but a week or two, writing to my sister I had learned what everyone knows, that Syria is exotic, turbulent, luxurious, that is if one is a lucky retired junior commander, a citizen, an official assigned to the palace. Germany is a bore and Rome is too expensive, at least for one of my new tastes better met here.
There, you have my life so far, which is a satisfying one with no need for imagination, gossip, or mystery religions of the sort that are the rage in Rome these day. I do like my wine, a woman in my bed, and stringent oil for my skin against the damn gnats around here, a reliable slave to apply it. My favorite dishes are out of Apicius, chef to the emperor Trajan whose cookbook I’ve told my slave woman to memorize. I am amused by a fellow so fat, rich and famous as Apicius who had such a crazy fear of someday going hungry that he poisoned himself to prevent that. If you ever ask me what’s wrong with this empire, that fool Apicius is my answer.
Martial wrote an epigram about Apicius, he was that famous, although my favorite of Martial is the one that goes,
Rufus, I’ve searched all Rome for a long time
To find a girl who says no. There are none
It seems as if it’s simply just not done,
As if its impermissible, a crime,
To say no. Does that mean that they’re all whores,
That virgins don’t exist? No, there are scores.
Then what does a good girl do? She doesn’t give
Either herself or a plain negative. *
That says it all about Rome, about Martial, and about what amuses me an ex soldier. It also tells you I like poetry, humor and have a good memory. For myself I like girls who know how, and know how to say yes, but my wife had better damn say, “yes” only to me. An high class Roman can’t demand that, for the brazen wives among them do as they like, a lot of it in other beds, or with a good looking slave who strikes their fancy too. Some of those granddames take to slaves like I go for strawberries and cream at dinner. Like female spiders they are, I’ve heard stories of spoiled women killing their bedtime’s slaves afterwards, for an evening just full of fun. Those show a special taste for fun if you’re Roman, rich and have learned anything of sport from Caligula.
Now you know more of me than you care about, but since you rely on me in this service, you must needs know me well. Be that so, and by my hand here, you need consult no historically second-sighted spy to report to you on my character.
You already know I arrived here in Antioch earlier this year. The moment I met S. Cornelius I liked him. That was odd enough for there was nothing of him showing but taciturn sternness, he didn’t brute his rank about. I knew there was more to him than showed. Liking is intuitively reassuring when he’s going to be your boss for who knows how long? What I saw was an aristocratic no nonsense warrior, an unhappy, complicated, sine wave fellow who kept his thoughts hidden, the stopper tight in his bottle. My vision could be penetrating, where others lacked it because I had an older brother, Tuisto, quite the same. A wonderful brother, Tuisto, really honest with himself. Most people are too busy with themselves to take a deep look especially if there’s the risk- there always is- that the other will be a better man than you. Looking inside, someone else or for that matter yourself, is not a common sport
At that first meeting S. Cornelius was stiff, patrician, more wary than suspicious. I saw my brother in him, not appearances, but the person. As for appearances, Cornelius had an Hadrian beard- since the emperor grew one every Roman Equites, and ruling levels higher, follow the style. (An Equites, Equestrian, or Knight, is an “honestiores” with enough money to care for and equip his own warhorse, indeed have a specified fortune in the bank. Obviously he must wealthy, all of which allows him to be come a knight., that a formal title making him a member of the elite, although if only a knight, he is at the bottom level. S. Cornelius was much above a common knight on the ladder, for he was noble at birth, and his father a Senator. The latter and requires takes status and considerable wealth.)
S. Cornelius hair was grey, here and there turning white, cut almost as a bisected rectangle, forehead straight and straight down temples too, this the fashionable style. His cut was medium short, his hair curly just as busts of Caesar shows his. He would have his curls done by his barber, again quite the imperial fashion among the upper class. Many signs mark that class, and of course they know one another by name and history. They have that aristocratic sense in common, not that it protects from hatred, scheming. By no means is blood enough, emperors have seen to its lesser importance, lots of newcomers to power are around to be sure being noble isn’t enough to assure the goodies, but a good family name helps. It also carries with it suspicion, envy. A mixed blessing then, pretensions and a more easily fatal hauteur.
Obviously he was not without vanity, a bit of arrogance, again not surprising in an aristocrat, but his was not consistent, sometimes he’d hesitate, ponder, seem as unsure as a lost child. He was over middle age, 58 or so, in good shape, no fat to him. Almost slim but more than thin-man wiry, he bristled strength, still kept the body of a commander of troops. I suspect he took pride in that. It would be some time before I would come to know what he considered blemishes and worse, whereas I, as you will learn, came to realize that in his conflicted complexities of which I did slowly learn, there was some genius, as guiding spirit fighting to emerge from his strange distress. As was Venus born from the forehead of Zeus, so might S. Cornelius emerge in a new form, perhaps Jupiter/Zeus guided if you will, out of which might come further ambitious efforts, as astonishments for unsuspecting others.
Blue eyed that S. Cornelius. Not so common in Italy, or at all in Syria but for odds and ends of northerners drifting south, but like my people, his were blue. His eyes were penetrating, it seemed surgically right into your insides. That impression I learned was in error, my illusion, not his intent. One credits a quiet, gazing man with more than his due, but relative unease is an expected condition of the lower ranked, it is preferable to its alternative envy, stammer or a snarl. His was a lined face, not quite a dried fig but more apple pomade or olive even after shaving, to smooth it would have been in order. This suggested poor barbering, a careless attending at the baths, and worse, that at home he was uncared for. He Frowned no matter what was being talked about, as though he were adding complications, it would seem doubts, to whatever was being said. Not like some from mid Italy, he had a thinner nose. My people have those too, a bit sharper. Since that’s like my own family, they look better to me. Thin longer face too; see that a lot among the Celts, Britons.
One aspect of S. Cornelius’ face reminded me of the portrait bust of Druses, tribune, also consul, Roman calendar 620 and 626, Christ year’s 115 and 121. He was son of the emperor Tiberius; I saw the marble head in Rome where it was placed near the temple of Castor and Pollux, those healing twins. Strange that his stone face stayed with me. Perhaps there is more than coincidence in that, perhaps some foretelling connection told silently to me by some god. I worry that his might be so because I had no interest in Drusus or many other “greats”, then or now, thus I have no idea why I remembered that portrait bust, or for that matter even bothered to notice it at the time, but, I as I think on it, for that puzzled look he wore chiseled permanently into stone.
A side story here but illustrative, I pray it is not prophetic. Maybe Drusus (he was the Younger Drusus) was puzzled when his wife Livia , a spoiled child out of imperial loins, along with that scheming jackal and praetorian prefect named Sejanus, who was perhaps her lover too, successfully joined Sejanus in persuading Drusus’ own father, Tiberius, that it was Drusus, his own son who was evil, when it was Sejanus himself. As if that betrayal and calumny were not enough, the two of them, Livia and Sejanus, killed her husband, the poor Drusus.
I apologize, this recall may seem a tangent, but I am troubled by those puzzled looks of Drusus now puzzling me because my memory has made a match with the present, with Cornelius whose face is not Drusus. What I see is woe to us all if some god is whispering to me through this synchrony of two faces in one memory, whispering that their fates may have anything in common. When the gods are walking so close to us and invisible, not as they sometimes do taking a stranger’s form and appearing human enough, but here doing it by influence on our thoughts, in this instance perhaps to compel such connections,, you don’t know whether to be happy or miserable. It is the sort of thing the gods are known to do, they are telling us something. But what? As with an oracle when ambiguous, one doesn’t know whether there is some luck foretold, or a warning.
When the god speaks through an oracle, for example, take Apollo’s at Daphne so close by here, or Apollo’s Pythia, god-possessed priestess prophesying in earth-centering Delphi. They are clever, they also mislead. You think they are telling you come eat when their ambiguous cast of words has really meant, don’t eat. Here, consider an example. The oracle says, “Your friends will remember the meal”. Yes indeed, if half of them are dead from poison, , those left will remember!
For my part, this kind of gift from a god is not the extra-sight an ordinary man wants to have. The gods make more trouble than joy, and however much their characters are like us humans, they are much worse, since their powers are greater, and immortal, not even Zeus can execute one whatever the egregious act. Themis among them, Athena sometimes, represent justice, a kind of law, but judge in no court. The gods’ Twhims, anger, lust, jealously, can ruin anyone unless they are bribed, soothed, propitiated. I, who am ordinarily disinterested, since so much is but superstition, was troubled by that unwilled moment of my recognition of Drusus’ matching puzzlement.
A connection fore-ordained? I prayed there was no dark portent to it.
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