An Informal Dinner
My boss and I get on better and better, we understand each other as old soldiers can. Were he one to pull rank, or were I a real schemer, we could not have come close. As it is, we have come to talk much more than shop. For instance, we were talking about food when I learned he liked Apicius’ recipes too. One thing led to another and, you could have knocked me over with a feather, he asked me to come over for dinner. Now that just doesn’t happen between ranks in the palace, but here it did. The next afternoon, after working out in the palace gymnasium, I went to the baths for a particular scrubbing, scraping, manicure, massage, oiling, barbering- the works, well, that excludes the ever-present pimps offering their range of sexes, sizes, ages, looks and for the cheaper ones uncared for- some pimps treated their sweetmeats like stray cats- smells, rashes, and inclinations toward stealing your purse. Once in a while I’d go for an expensive girl, but not today. With Juvenal, contemporary writer of good stuff, I say go for a healthy mind in a healthy body, and, if you buy a girl, buy the best.
I took some care in dressing, thought about my one toga, although these days people avoid wearing them, they are so heavy, beastly hot to wear in the summer, they are a fuss to keep clean, and a lot of trouble to drape properly. Like most I prefer a simple cloak or for dining, a colored shirt and a robe, like a Cretan’s kilt ,showing below. Tonight I would take no chance on appearing ill dressed, which might be taken as disrespectful or the ignorance of bumpkin, especially since I am a bumpkin.
Cornelius, wifeless and childless as far as we knew, could have chosen to live in the palace, it’s pleasant enough and his position would allow him a fine set of rooms, but he was the kind of fellow who would have his elegance private. His house was in the quarter, Epiphania, south of Caesar’s theater and Valen’s forum, low on the slope of Silpius but a good view overlooking the Nymphaeum, the palace itself out on the island, the old wall of Seleucis, in fact all of the city on the flats next to the Orontes beyond which the hills rise toward Alexandretta. Higher is better, there’s less dust, and less stench and no inundating flooding as long as you see to local ditching. As for where a house is, we find it by district, any near monuments, street name and, for anyone important, inquiring of locals as to where so-and-so lives. Antioch is easier than Rome, for it was laid out on square grids by Hippodamus of Miletus whose regular designs can be found in Aleppo, Damascus, Dura-Europus (an outpost on the Euphrates once well garrisoned) As for time, I rely on the palace sun dial although the Governor himself has a fancy water clock. The hours are undivided so time is bound to be a bit iffy, thus arrivals any place, but for sunrise, noonish and “before sunset” are a bit elastic.
I was advised to come to S. Cornelius place at the usual 9th hour, measured beginning at dawn, which these days was long before the sun goes down, which, happily is also before the Orontes mosquitoes attack in legion force. If you are planning a long dinner, which all social ones are-seven hours is not unusual-, bring a couple of bodyguards, which I did- to protect you from getting mugged and/or murdered on the way home. Wear your sword, your knife sharp in its sheath, remember how to kill, stay in shape, and you’ll survive, for there aren’t enough armed watch on patrol to save you. Unless times are tough, unrest and starvation, an influx of refugees from some frontier, it will be the dregs young and old working the night streets for cash. The real bandits are out in the countryside preying on caravans, or ill guarded farms and, if in force enough, country estates.
His was a big house! Not wooden or brick as in Rome but adobe and cement with big beams from the forest. I was surprised to see so few slaves seeing to greeting the guest. I took it he was not interested in being pampered; it was like him not to put on a show by having lots of slaves. Houses here are Syrian, not Roman style, with an high walled large garden, no real atrium but an entrance courtyard. His home was two stories with several sets of stairs, here stone, going up to the wrap-around balcony which overlooked two gardens, both well tended with ponds, fruit trees, bougainvillea, jasmine, lots of color and fragrance. You could smell the money too, S. Cornelius’ own family inheritance no doubt, his farm investments-these are major sources for upper class Roman wealth, although dowries contribute as well. His own salary would be, well by my standards, immense., but since he didn’t take bribes, - I told you that cramped my style a bit- this place represented real inherited wealth, not the kind for which you work. It was old-fashioned money then, the kind families proud of their honor would have, perhaps even a moral family representing the sort of values Cato stood for back in the days of the Republic. Don’t put too much store by that tradition though, generations change, new ones mostly getting worse, as we all know.
The courtyard/atrium was rich in flowers, a few fine Grecian statues, inlaid tiles although since it was outside, no delicate mosaics here. The layout here provided a large hallway, a reception room in itself, which led into the house. Usually an usher slave takes guests inside where the host awaits them, typically in the prepared dining room. Not today, contrary to ordinary custom Cornelius came out into the courtyard to greet me as soon as one of the gate guard slaves announced me. When a host comes forward to greet a guest it’s to honor the guest. Given our differences in rank, that gesture was definitely not due me, but there he was, almost a smile on his face and a hearty welcome in his voice. He clasped my arm in genuine friendship, and with an informality that came easy to me, this farm boy, but I’ll wager it was rare elsewhere in patrician Rome. The hallway/reception chamber was painted with murals copied from the better Greek pottery artists, thus scenes from history, legends and the stories of the gods. There was nothing of the off color sort you might see in some fancy bed rooms, nor the frankly pornographic that decorated brothels. No, these were all classical scenes and well enough painted they were
What I had not seen before were pet birds this big, brightly colored greens, reds, blues, yellows, parrots of some kind but the size of eagles, housed in three lively cages. The biggest fellow had a cage all to himself filling it with noise and shoulder-heaving, wing-fluttering “hurrumps”, as he looked at us with shiny black eyes that said, “ I’d-like-to-take-a-piece-out-of- you”. I was tempted to take a closer look, but my boss said the bird was as rapaciously evil-tempered as any harpy Homer or Virgil described, and that the closer you got to him the noisier he was. He had a beak on him that said “hatchet”. S. Cornelius saw me eyeing that weapon and nodded “Yes, he can split wood with that if he wants. When the slaves feed him they keep well enough away. He keeps hacking at the door hinges so I’ve seen to be reinforced iron. That’s one bird that hates everybody. I keep him because he is so exquisitely colored, and the very fury of him, so much angry life, is entertaining, as long as he’s caged.” My boss paused, “Wish we could say everyone with a bad temper was safely caged, so this bird here, I call him ‘Arminius’ as a reminder for Romans to be humble. Do you remember who Arminius was?, S. Cornelius asked me, I replied,
“Boss, do you ask a German what a potato is? He was the Cherusci king who slaughtered Varus and his three legions in Teutoberg forest near the Osna River. Gave Caesar Augustus something to ponder. There’s been some distrust of us German auxiliaries ever since, but as you know, it’s out of fear which I don’t mind a bit.” I didn’t mention that my brother fought under Arminius, hardly. Even so, I was grinning. Maybe there are still two Germans inside me. S. Cornelius simply nodded; he would be less amused over the loss of three legions than I. We walked on in to the house
We did not go from the hall to the dining room, as is the custom, but into the kitchen. , Now a high-class host does not do that, but S. Cornelius did. And with the pride in what was going on there, and the odors and liveliness of it, to mark a meal by Apicius himself. I’m a kitchen man myself, love to eat, and even though I have slaves to do it, and for my earlier days at home a good stout wife, I take a turn at the stove myself from time to time. I don’t do Apicius, he’s too good for me. I do meals of my childhood, marinated pork and pickled cabbage, for example, or spiced fried potatoes, that sort of thing. Local beer goes well with it.. Romans hereabouts, unlike in the capitol, seem not to care for wine.
The Cornelius kitchen was almost as noisy as the parrot. Cook slaves were running about, plenty of them, more than enough to shake your whip at., The smells were delicious. Again not customary, I was served wine as I entered the hallway. I was drinking while standing here in the kitchen. In Rome one drinks sitting down, although I myself would drink standing upside down if that was the only way to get it. The red wine in my cup was Asian from Cappadocia up north, good stuff. There was some Greek white also offered, that’s the stuff with the resin in it, tastes like pine trees. I was not one to drink pinesap, although I had been told its origin was sensible enough, caulking from the days of woven bottles or cracked pots. It was also supposed to keep the wine from turning. As far as my stomach for it was concerned, it had already turned. Well there I was, no other guest about to be seen, walking wine cup in hand into the kitchen as though I were family. About the living rooms, those bowls of fruits and nuts which S. Cornelius fancied. I nibbled as I went about. The mood of the place, austerely rich, severe luxus, even ostentatiously modest; the sort of house one expects from disciplined, very wealth, nobly “arrived” centuries ago Cornelii. I would say then, yes, all quite nice.
Roman dinners to which any one outside the family is invited are usually large, sociable, drunken, competitive, with everyone on the make, on the make for whatever opportunity, advantage is to be found, for poor clients the free meal of it, and, for anyone interested, something lusty afterwards. The typical lay out is three couches for nine people around a typical invited dinner table, slaves serving. For a big party e more of everything is laid on. One lounges on the couches, drinks, eats, talks repeating that, with entertainments depending on the host, for hours. If you are a Trimalcho or otherwise free-and-easy, , sex and food on the couch-and the partners and orifices- are interchangeable. This Cornelius was neither glutton, drunk or lusting sybarite. He kept his napkin carefully in place. I recognized it as Cathay silk of the elegant sort woven in Damascus, this soft greens, rose, grays in a floral pattern. I wagered to myself that fine cloth was all he would ever lay on that couch, no Satyricon’s Petronius rake was he. Or? One should not presume anything. The appetites of the Roman aristocracy can be intense and diverse, conceivably although a phenomena historically unknown, discrete. So far, S, Cornelius had been at least circumspect.
We went into the garden, not as customary, especially with a first time guest, to the dining room. Usually a dinner brings all kinds of important people together, over culinary politics they keep the wheels greased, everyone is on the make, but that requires you begin contact from moment the usher brings you into the dining room which is beginning and end for activities. Not so tonight for it seemed there were no others, indeed at that moment not even my host, for S. Cornelius excused himself, leaving me there on a marble bench by myself. He had wandered off, wine in hand.. It was a comforting lovely garden. I understood how it could be his sanctuary.
I was content. In leaving me alone he also wanted me to enjoy that sanctuary where the noise of the city was muted by his high thick wall, the sound baffles of trees, hedges, bushes, vines and flowers. It is rare in Rome to be allowed to be happily alone. It was a gift he’d given me. I watched lazy large gold, red and silver coy idling about in the pond. I listened to the water tumbling from the several fountains, inspected the statuary nearest me: a sea shell standing Venus, a priapetic Pan with pipes about as long, the usual nymphs, a bearded imp talking to a blue painted stone crane, in the distance what seemed a good copy of a Praxelites, and over there, some flowers away, my host slowly walked about sipping his wine. I was utterly and unusually relaxed, sniffing roses, scenting the jasmine, suspecting mock orange in the mix. It was too late in the year for the Daphne bush itself, although they were here, ready in late winter to remind one of sweet Daphne herself, pursued by a lusty Apollo, changed on her appeal to Diana for the sake of her virtue, into a bay laurel tree. Daphne’s name these days graces quite a different, exuberantly fragrant pin-flowering bush. When the slave came by with the large silver ewer, of course I said “yes” to refills. A splendid wine, nor did the slave stint it. The glow of luxuries was upon me.
It was perhaps half an hour before S. Cornelius wondered back from his musings, sat next to me, glanced about the garden, gestured to the distant waiting serving slave for more wine for us both.
“Sorry, I’m a quiet host tonight, but this garden shrill the noises of the day some of which reverberate in me too long.
I said nothing
“Once in a while, this afternoon seems to be one of those times, I think too much, which is to say to think at all, about my wife, Livia Drusilla and my son.”
“I had no idea you had a wife and son. You son’s name?” I asked
“Augustus”. He’s grown now. Drusilla took him off to Rome some years ago against my wishes, but and her family are in several lines imperial kin who outweigh me on decisions like that. The argument was better education, live and be seen, enter politics, be in the center of things where the important people are, enjoy imperial preferment if Drusilla, her lovers, the boy himself play the game cleverly enough
“’Lovers’, ‘the game’, ‘cleverly’, my oh my but, forgive me Sir but knowing you at all, the words don’t seem, well, exactly compatible”
“It’s not. I had no choice. Drusilla outranks me by any measure. She loathes me, my stubbornness, my uncertainty, the few strong opinions I do have, my total impracticality, in sum my failures which, sad to say, sum to most of me”.
“Failures?” I had not defined his career that way
“In her eyes what I fail to accept by way of ambition is designed by me solely to insult her. When our parents arranged our marriage she, and they presumed I‘d be the usual political athlete, at least cultivate the elite Roman’s assassinating tongue, those knowing party looks of disdain, sucking up to a patron with the ear of the emperor, that sort of thing, thus become respectable, powerful, no holds barred.
“Respectable? But Sir, in my view you are very much that”
One defines ‘respectable’ in terms of what others of my class think I should have done or be. I have denied advancements. I have accepted a provincial assignment not for the ordinary few years of seasoning after which one return to Rome having earned the right to titles and power, but I elected to stay on with the legions here, again rejecting advancement. Then I stayed on in the civil service, at the lowest possible rank by my own request. I am not ambitious, Balthus, or if I would be, I ‘d resist it. To them I’m suspect if not disreputable. I rather agree, it’s simply that I can’t bring myself to do what I should or politely go off to kill myself. Since I don’t have the talent for poetry or philosophy, and since self exile to Athens, which I did consider, is ridiculous since Athens itself is a bad joke preoccupied with silly asses preening on old memories of what was half a millennia ago, pretending to dead glories. No, Balthus, I cannot find myself in any imagined space. In war at least one is forced to be occupied by the noise and emotion of it. That put behind me, I have spent my recent life looking at nothing, mimicking it ”
“Your life is empty?”
“No longer entirely. Ideas flit about, shadows become forms become names become opinions become attitudes become aversions, which objects of disgust also become named. I have generated a host of things I despise. Hopes are more difficult to untangle, since I don’t know how to define them but for what a few poets and tragedians have set forth which are foggily universal among dreamers. It’s in the nature of artists to reshape essence as external structure, but these still aren’t the same as inner nature, the sentiments of which begin inchoate with their names hanging in the talking air outside them. What is forming within me, whatever one names it, and since it is human concern, will have no reality to me until I act and see there is tangible result. In the meantime it is but noise of the sort silly philosophers give off. It may whistle through their old lips but affects nothing in the forum, little in lives is changed. They might as well be farting.
Even if a life is changed, I credit a few Stoics, Cynics with that capability for teaching; it is persons that change, not the world they live in, not impermeable Rome. No, I have given up on either names or philosophy, since how the real world lives, its pain, sorrow, utter pointlessness for so many, is not affected”
“You want to change that?”
“I have no idea what I’d change, or if. I am incomplete, but do not know what is missing. Something is waiting, a rope to tie an invisible ship to a stanchion on an unnamed shore. Who knows, no analogy works, maybe it will be severing the rope that ties a ship to unsatisfactory moorings, a launching then to destinations to be explored along the way in hopes that somewhere is a mooring that is right. Please understand, Balthus, mine is not the stuff of soldiers’ campfire talk, fact is I have never talked to anyone about it before, but to myself, sometimes in the quiet times, endlessly. Allow me the madness of it, Balthus, I can almost sense it, this unnamed incompletion awaiting it completing destiny, and then the expectation that with that comes, what, knowledge? Purpose? Tranquility? How can I say when what’s missing and awaited is unknown? Let it go, Balthus, I apologize for drivel, let’s just say I’d like “peace” but the “what” of it is beyond my understanding. Alternatively I want action but the how if it escapes me. At best, something beckons me that is beyond my understanding. I can put words in play, but I can’t trust them, say something that is excellent and free. My vague awareness nags at me, worse when I have this sense, sometime, that the energy nearby is quite personal, that something beckons. Beyond that, all is in the mists” He paused, drank wine, gazed into the garden.
“How foolish of me, Balthus, all that can be said is that it and I are a summary of awaited unknowns.
I was embarrassed by his confusion and by his confidence in letting me know it. Nowhere elsewhere in Empire would come such intimate disclosure between men of such different classes; the nobility made no confessions, it was noble because it was aloof, and without morals, the nobility had nothing to which to confess. And here I was, a crude lowly born ex soldier, a citizen only because of that soldiering, with not even a conventional right to hear what he was saying. Further, it was disturbing, I might not like what he might wander into, such mystic groping ,like some early pubescent lad all aroused, thinking grand but cloudy thoughts, not realizing what he needed was simply to get laid. More in keeping with my own worries about Antioch, what if S. Cornelius veered off into the never- -never land of nonsense that filled the ambitious religious seekers of this town, the sort of quest that under Domitian got many a man and maid fed to lions?
It is true no aristocrat would suffer that fate, but I am not such a stupid German that I for a minute believed that someone like myself who heard such talk, getting into disclosures I could not handle, could benefit either of us by encouraging it. . For his sake and, I confess, more my own, I preferred him not to toy with any cult play, for the terms sentiments toward which he was drifting, were the sort Christians expressed, fed, for example, affirming souls, deep feelings, purposes, lost meanings found. Souls were willy-nilly on the move hereabouts. For example s many an underclass Roman had converted to Judaism, some Roman women even of the higher class had become Christian. I have idea what they saw inside that passed for their souls and salvation, but from what little I had heard, they were pleased enough with the discovery. There were no sensible sign posts to guide a man down these strange roads, certainly S. Cornelius, once he started wandering, would be prey to any spiritual jackal, and his own hungry imagination. He could be disgraced, Rome would lose an able governor, and I would lose a cushy job, and a man whose serious and useful friendship I could now anticipate.
I changed topics to Livia Drusilla. “Sir, you spoke of your wife, do you see her at all?
He sighed, his face hardened, “No, but she is about here in Antioch often enough. I understand she keeps other company nowadays, commuting from bed to bed here, Rome, who knows where else? These spoiled women lead their own lives, devil take the husbands and other hindmost. I don’t want to know what she’s doing, and, forgive me Balthus, should you ever know, don’t tell me.”
I am not stupid enough to tell any man let alone my boss just who’s cuckolding him. The fact is that everyone in the palace knew that she was the Governor’s lover. I had kept my ears open to learn that she was bedding an occasionally visiting Roman Asia proconsul too. Everyone said there were others high and mighty as well, but no names had been mentioned. Livia Drusilla ’s indulgences were common knowledge, which means the nasty gossip that pleases everybody but the persons spoken about. It was obvious that the gossip had it right, that she couldn’t care less about cuckolding S. Cornelius. She was a rich bitch like so many rich Roman women are these days. They’re a class in themselves. A pleasure not to know one, not that I ever could, for ito a woman like her I was dirt, beneath any contact unless she told me to sweep the floor. She had had avoided the administrative quarters of the palace where S. Cornelius was working. I doubt if it was tact, simply that the Governor’s quarters, his dining, his private baths, his bed, were a separate section, connected to the administrative wings where his grand office was, only by a colonnaded marble path. Livia Drusilla ’s bread was being buttered over there.
“I’ve heard but little, Sir, none of it of interest to either of us”
He was sad. “Thank you” he said
I replied, “I have heard a bit, but as you say, nothing worth saying. I will say, Sir, I regret your sorrow. She is not, I am sure of it, worth it”
“You see that have trouble weighing sorrows, Balthus, they are each heavy and my scales so frail, I am unable to trust my measures. “
I had no intention of carrying this further. I stood up. He read my signal. He walked me into the dining room, set only for the two of us. There was a mosaic mural almost covering one wall, one of the best, and most unconventional I had ever seen. Prometheus, the only one of the immortals to love mankind, who gave them fire and subsequent civilization, was shown chained to the cliff where by the angry will of man-hating Zeus an eagle tore out his liver every day. Prometheus was the only immortal to sacrifice himself for, as well as to save mankind. It was Zeus’ anger roused by Prometheus that led Zeus to trick mankind into accepting Pandora and her box of every possible woe. All of this was imaged in the mural, as was the novel scene of Greek maidens in the valley below were Prometheus hung tortured, dancing around the fire which had been the Promethean gift. One could almost hear the maidens sing. Their faces told the viewer the maidens were sweet fools who knew nothing of the gift and pain of Prometheus hanging bleeding higher above them on that cliff. I agree, the world is like that.
“I have never seen the likes of such a painting,” I told S. Cornelius, “nothing ever as touching, happy and sad. And since we live in the very center of mosaic artistry, I have seen many mosaics in the public building, not that I have ever seen what there are in the mansions of the rich.” I turned red, I had not intended anything invidious.
S. Cornelius paid no notice, saying “You’ll not be surprised, will you, that I designed it for the artist to execute?”
I looked at him, framing a new image of the mosaic of S. Cornelius in my mind, “You have a an artist in you, Sir, if I may say so. For myself, I am a rude and nasty fellow who would worry, if I had an artistic gift, that it might not be welcome in the circles I travel in. Is it in yours?” I wondered, was I being too direct? I intended no provocation, only warning. Somehow I was beginning to feel obliged to a kind of guardianship here.
He gave me the appraising eye; his was not the eye of a naïve child. I felt stupid, embarrassed, for being out of place in having hinted advice so clearly, but there was this naiveté in him, seasoned warrior he was notwithstanding. He held out his hand, gripped my shoulder with his other hand, “Balthus, you are a first rate fellow. I look forward to our friendship. Let your, as you say’ rude and nasty’ side keep me mindful. Here away from battle a man can go to sleep in these governing desk chairs, and be sorry for it. Sleep and wake up stabbed to death, so to speak. No, Balthus, you are quite right. I have no intention of being sentimental, nor too others revealing.. What I will do, as I told you, escapes me, but no Promethean martyrdom to Rome’s predatory eagles is in my plans.”
I was glad to hear him say it. Even then I was not so sure he could be sure. Prometheus, after all, was the god of foresight; he foresaw the consequence of his goodness. An S. Cornelius, might not have that gift.
Anyway, that first dinner was great, fish pickle from the best of mackerel, suckling pig stuffed with pastry and honey, chicken liver and beets on the side, beers and Greek wines, red and white, a cold elderberry tart with honey and more wine, and right out of the woods of parthia somewhere, cuts of bear with purple wildflowers. He shared to dishes equally with me, as though were equals. Any other Roman host who has guests of less rank, clients, that sort of thing, eats the delicacies whereas the lowly among the guests are served, what? cheap wine and not a lot of that, and unspiced pottage. Believe me, I’ve had that happen and no cure for it but to fight your way up the ladder to become more important so you can step on others lower than yourself. That’s the Roman way.
I was invited to dine again, and then frequently. I realized I might be becoming his only friend, Initially I couldn’t afford to put too much store in it, the nobility are mercurial, you never know when they’ll turn on you. But as time passed, I trusted him and so, in spite of the status gap, I counted him as my friend too. This was a new step in my life, not to use the elite as best one could, knowing they would exploit, dismiss or betray one as their whimsy dictated, but instead to trust without that fear. Trust is rarer than gold. I’m a wary old bastard, but I believed we were really friends. Knowing S. Cornelius might change my life.
During dinner he asked me what I thought about the gods. I am a simple man, practical, and a ruffian, albeit one disguised by a good vocabulary on self-taught some fancy borrowed ideas. Fact is, once I set out to do well in the civil service, pass myself off as civilized, I surprised myself by enjoying literature, philosophy and so I did think about things I had never thought about before. I never approached the brainy part of the world-which is the Greek- as the Romans do, a kind of patronizing indifference. I grew up a kind of savage, and am now a savage that can quote Plato far better than most Romans. I used to respect their knowledge. Now I know most of the upper classes are complete ignoramuses.
Jupiter and his crowd are not my bunch either. In battle I have never seen a god at work. Not like the Trojan War where Homer sings of their furious presence, the gods taking sides with one or another of the heroes. We’ve descended low from the likes of Troy, Trojan Aeneas no more founded Rome than I did. Like anyplace, it started with farming, attracted some merchants, somehow got the knack of war, probably because a bunch of bullies liked killing and enslaving better than work in the fields, and presto, and there was Rome. As for the Jupiter crowd, they are only for show. I’ll admit, once in a while I get a spooky feeling, like that time thinking about S. Cornelius and Drusus, spooky, like there is someone else next to me putting ideas in my brain. I should drink more and give up imagining things.
So that’s what I told S. Cornelius when he asked me
“Don’t you feel you’re missing out on something?” he asked, going on to say, “Most people want gods or a god.”
“What other people want is not my business unless I’m a trader in the bazaar selling something, for instance hawking a Mithra or a Jesus, Sophia, Astarte, whatever. I’ll tell you this; I’ll be a seller not a buyer, that’s what I think of people’s brains. If there are gods, and I confess sometimes I feel and fear them, they are not going to be what we want them to be. A nasty surprise maybe, even knowing it, something like what the Gnostics believe, it is an evil creator. Or the Zeus who despised mankind and, were it not for Prometheus, would have destroyed us all. The Greeks especially personify all their images. That done, they confuse themselves by thinking their inventions real, although these do make for some great stories. Underneath I suppose it means we can’t stand not knowing causes, or thinking what happens is accident.. We are all children playing in the dark, imagining candles.
“And so then, Balthus, who created the world? Are we the sole masters of our destiny? If there are no gods, nor master Will, no One as planning source, how do we account for what seem so real ‘out there’, when prayer works, when intentions intervene?”
‘Boss,” “I allow myself to be as stupid as I am. I don’t know about gods it’s that simple, and my brain will never be good enough to figure it out. I myself know nothing but to criticize. We have all these other guys, from Plato to Pythagoras to Plotinus to the priests selling their Sophia or Moses or Jesus or whomever, let them worry about it, not that they do since once somebody has a handle on the idea of a god, they’re sure about it. Now, do you want me to go on or shall I mercifully shut up?”
S. Cornelius liked to listen more than talk, at least when we were together. It is not that he believed what I said, but he thought about it, which is about as good a compliment as a rough farm boy self-taught in the higher stuff could ever expect. When he told me to go on, I did. I must have talked for twenty minutes. It was the first time anyone had encouraged me. If nothing else I concluded that I was a windy bastard who rather liked philosophizing about religion. I was quite uneasy when I finished. S.Cornelius gave me no hint of his thoughts, but thanked me for mine. After that we both drank a lot of wine. I don’t know how he felt, but the world felt pretty good to me.
After a quiet while he turned to me asking, “A while ago you said people will pay to be fooled by the exotic, that that is the business of priests. Do you believe that, no exceptions?”
I was hiccoughing a bit, wine does that, but I had no problem agreeing with my own idea.
“So you won’t even give the god’s credit for gifts such as music, dance, artistic intuition?”
S. Cornelius was feeding my windy ego. I loved it, and launched more wine-shined brilliance,
“Boss, I will give you a farmer’s example. Maize. Once in a while you find in your field a better ear of maize. You appreciate it. It’s larger, less vulnerable to disease, stores well. You save that one for seed. You want it to reproduce its better self. The maize is already the better one, no farmer knows how or why, but the farmer has to have the sense to observe and replant plant. His maize crop improves, his life is better, he knows more than he did and next time will look more closely to select his corn. Maybe there is a gift in each field beyond the already gift of food. If there were a god of maize it would be that she gives the farmer the opportunity, which he must be smart enough to see and act on. Working on the gift requires the farmer be ready for it. If he is a religious man he will intuit invent the goddess of crops. All farmers have done one or the other. Something is there making gifts and appreciative farmers. I don’t know what, atoms maybe as the Greeks said, ‘energies’ which is to say what is but sure not ’how.
Maybe we do progress, a flattering word, to a condition of god-awareness. Do the gods await our becoming ready? Or maybe the gods also grow in kindness and powers, so we with them are rather like twins, one in this world, and one in the other, with some parallel development. Were that the case, we would be joined in our growing . Would that have a goal, or but spontaneously just keep happening, or at some stage the lock-stepping man-god twins would discover a goal and only after that aim for it” I was pleased with my of my babble.
He was graciously quiet.. I suspect he found me boring; had I rambled my way out of a welcome? I was embarrassed, I said, ‘
’”Well, Boss, shall I pack my tongue in my knapsack and head home?
“Balthus, new friend, “I’m not good at talking, whereas you flow like a rainstorm Orontes torrent. You are smarter than I am, no question about it. I may be too dense to learn from you, but I’m not so dense as not to ponder what you say. Il let it circle around in my brain like a vortex in the bath, smaller and smaller and suddenly, whoops, everything will drain out but I’ll have basin below to catch it, good store to store up, a reservoir of wisdom I’d say.
I was flabbergasted. “I don’t believe you, Boss,”
“Believe some of it, Balthus, especially about your being smarter. So, philosopher that you are have some more wine. Now, I’ll tell you an idea of mine”, “The gods withhold that which we have are not ready to understood. There is no celestial justice guaranteed mankind, the more kindly gods only show the way, they do not walk the necessary road toward their gift on our behalf. They do prod us a bit, for our own sake. When we feel dissatisfied, emptied, or drawn by some invisible lodestone, that is not always just being ourselves, no, it can be the urge to find our complement, completion, in finding the road to the gods, or as I more and more suspect, one god. It is work before us, well me, the work of the mind which is earth guardian of the soul. I say a man must be brave enough to venture forth to find that illuminating company. You, Balthus, will say it is all a fable. I say no man need travel alone, sit by any one of the ancient sacred sites near here, that grotto of the Christians for example, and you will be inundated with awareness of the god, as others have been. It is a large company, Balthus, not all find the right road, but our intuitions are a map, some priests are good guides, and, well I will be profane here, as your nose smells the kitchen when you are hungry, and knows where the kitchen is not, so with the road. We do not travel alone, we are not left solely to our own devices. There, Balthus, as of this moment, this wine, this garden, that is what I suspect”
Here I am a German farm boy sitting in a glorious garden in a beautiful city with a great man who is offering me his wine, his truths and his friendship This farm boy watched the bull cover the cow and, considering that the greatest experience, grew up to do much of the same.He expanded domain where enemies lived whom Rome, paying and offering merits, enlisted him to kill. Next he learned to be clever, groomed his ambition, an was well enough thought of by commanders to have his way appointed, military thence civil posts, to this sitting pretty place. Finding what seemed his place, thinking he would be promoted above it, he read the philosophers and become quite pleased with his higher knowledge. He is arrived. The watching I of him has bestowed upon himself learned confidence. It smells still of German farm manure. But my I upon him proudly, he is arrived. He bathes in cujps of the finest Roman wine generously poured in a very important noble Roman household. There, hiccoughing and happy, a gleaming of Swabian barnyard cockroach, to ridicule the gods and mock the world while praising its service to him.
He allows himself sympathy for the poor Quaestor condemned to search for the Good like water in a desert without prior lakes, or oases or mountain streams flowing into it. A pity, this man who wants, beyond what I suspect is a woman’s love, justice, hope, a god for our times, be that a him or a or a them of it or congeries. I condescend. If there be such, that god recognize in S. Cornelius a potential warrior for a faith deserving of a clarifying vision, for the Quaestor is now confused. If the vision be genuine, this Quaestor will be a gift better than Rome deserves. He will not be rewarded. Even so, the wine speaks to this now gracious me, blessing all I survey with the wish that there l be moments, dreams, revelations, a full appreciation of all the multi colored sunset glinting over the Orontes. The very beauty of my wish puts me in awe. That is as close as I have come to gods, wonders or generous feelings. Yes, I am drunk, I have grasped transcending beauty. More wine, thank you, for my awe radiates from wine cups. I have felt it before. It is gone when I am sobering up and the woman beside me begins nagging me to pay her.
At Antioch’s eastern reach, boundaries, up the slopes of Mt. Stauron east of where the great torrents come raging down, those donkey-drowning Onopnices (also called, “Parmenius”) before s flood-taming dam was -unsuccessfully- built, below there is the mountainside kingdom of the holy. Its shrines, altars, caves, carvings, statutes, earlier temples once standing destroyed by time or other envious gods, but yet this holy precinct has its proper shrines where sacrifices yet will be offered by a dwindling cadre of ever-poorer priests. Candles are burning, a chicken slaughtered, a more expensive ram will bleat as the knive slashes. The animals gush worshipful, fearful, providential blood. In time’s memory the ram was once human and the bleat a terrifying cry. Here then the eternally sacred to which S. Cornelius alluded. Here then, he has sat touched by the holy. Here then, he claims, one source of awakening to the Other. Hogwash, or? Perhaps it is S.Cornelius who will awaken while I, just dreaming that I am clever, am asleep.
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