Daphne, an Official Visit
One day S. Cornelius ordered me to come along on a trip to Daphne. It sits on a bit of a plateau higher than, and a few miles from Antioch. By all accounts it is one of the most attractive places in all of Syria, I say by far he most. On this occasion there was to be festival of some importance, as distinguished from ordinary festivals and games that in Rome, and now Syria, have become so common there is one taking place one of every two days. The wealthy and the unemployed attend. typically a rich citizen sponsors it, for which he receives civic notice and status, sometimes an inscription or, if extravagant and frequent enough with his generosity, he will get a portrait bust, typically displayed near the arena. That is an high honor.
In this instance the vestigial, but “decorative” council of Antioch was sponsoring the festival which would feature musicians, dancers, athletes, poets and, said not seen before anywhere in Empire, “bull dancing” That was Minoan sport known to us because painted vases, wine pots, had been found depicting it. There was Cretan and Greek lore still extant, sometimes including the Theseus story, again this was part of the promotion for the festival, saying it has religious significance and, back in Knossos the ancient Cretan capital now long destroyed, had been called “the leap for life. It was announced by heralds and posters that Cretan athletes were touring with two magnificently horned bulls, memorials to the Minotaurus I supposed. The Governor, Publius Marcellus, would ordinarily attend, but I suspect that mounting his new girl friend was more attractive to him than watching athletes leap, fore to aft, hand on the horns to catapult themselves over tame bulls.
As to the Governor’s many girls, however many took him by the horn, there was no embarrassment in talk of it. Around here there are few expectations of fidelity on either side of the marriage Old fashioned idea of Cato’s sort are rare. A woman of the elite does what she wants, Caesar’s wife an exception. Some elect discretion, but if are affairs found out, all the ordinary husband can say is that he feels is disappointment. What he is likely to do, for family honor’s sake, is publicly to denounce the deed. I have already noted that S. Cornelius was surely “disappointed”, but too proud to denounce because of his rather higher standards for both Livia Drusilla and himself. It is the deceit of it, which makes the husband embarrassed, especially if he is the only one not knowing and later being surprised, as may have been the case with S. Cornelius. The horns the cuckold wears at such a time are pointed and heavy.
In any event respecting today’s games, S. Cornelius was ordered to represent the Governor, which required he accept the temporary rank of praetor, as befitted the governor’s representative at the perhaps most important local frolic of the year.
No matter how often I visit, Daphne remains exciting in its beauty and for its entertainments. The sound of those springs, underground rivers really, those waters pour out of the earth in a bubbling happy torrent, a river of joy which flows into pools which are channeled into reservoirs which are, when moved over the aqueducts, the source of Antioch’s more than abundant, clear, fresh, safe and invigorating water supply. All is superbly landscaped, the best of Roman gardening. There are temples, most with Corinthian columns, some friezes. Inside in summer these are, welcomingly cool as a Nubian slave girl’s belly against your own.
There are taverns, brothels, food stalls for wood roasted meats, sea foods, vegetables, fruit stalls, wine shops, more brothels, nyphaeums with many fountain- splashing pools and mossy grottos, several with two -pronged stone Pans sculpted playful inside, one prong their flute, the other “priapetetic”, that is, their phallus. “Priapetic”, the word my own coinage, implying the organ constantly going about looking for action!. One particularly artful rendering, has two nymphs seated on an enormous phallus facing each other, each nymph’s legs spread in intercourse with a frog carved of green stone. You will never see happier frogs or, outside of a live equivalent, lustier nymphs. Running along the wall, well not ‘running” since each couple were quite busy in place, but there were a series of coupling satyrs and nereids that spiraled up around the grotto’s wet walls, rather like the ascending ramp of carvings on Trajan’s Column in Rome. Each pair, satyr and nymph were making love in a different position, some of which even I had not tried nor imagined. I didn’t count but would guess there were more than one hundred lusty pairs, all with grinning faces, but for a few where the sculptor had managed to exceed himself to capture the ecstatic. Quite a grotto, the Daphne equivalent of murals on the walls of better class whorehouses. All of this art was above and surrounding the pool into which visitors threw coins for good luck After all, they could see that Pan, the nymphs and frogs, the satyrs and Nereid’s, were already enjoying just that.
Daphne is a religious bazaar, cults, faiths, altars, shrines, statues, priests, priestesses, vendors of amulets, symbol-chiseled gems, portable bas-reliefs of any one of dozens of take-home-for-your-shrine-or-garden carvings of deity figurines, scarabs enough to persuade you that licentiously prolific beetles were reproducing and fossilizing themselves then and there, hags and girlie-boys selling parchments with incantations, curses, cures, invocations all as you like written in colored ink and mysterious symbols, and, yes of course, wizards, magicians, astrologers, phrenologists, palm readers, blind seers and sighted, tattered rag holy men each with his huckstering come-on of shout, wheedle, whine, and failing to sell you, snarling curse to sufferfrom what he was selling would have saved you. So they said. Most magic merchants had their own stall, bench, or sometimes ochre, umber, charcoal, chalk inscribed magic circle inside which to install himself, herself with whatever sacred and promissory trinkets, healing copper bracelets, blessed necklaces laid out, “don’t touch unless you buy” the usual warning, soothsayers in imagined Etruscan costume with kids ready to slaughter on the spot- costly, be warned, for the initial use is for is their livers’ lines examined so the haruspex -of course he must be paid as well- to give you the prophetic forecast of it. If either you or he are from far enough out of town, he will add, “I guarantee it”. Other augurs about are Roman mendicants, not Greek, and however spavined, are better than our Syrian copies who are as phony as those counterfeit Syrian-made tetradrachs, (these Syrian coins minted lead and only silver-coated)
One Daphne augur had a cage full of prophetic crows, another had owls, both such aviaries, once the client paid, would be released so the eyeing augur could read the omen signified in the flight path the birds chose. I watched suspiciously. The birds circle a bit and return to a spot behind some trees were an accomplice regularly fed them, so, tame, they are trained to return, thus no bird lost to the wild. As for flight paths, hardly a surprise. These wily merchants in telling fortunes make sure their fleecing of the visitor is complete. Take, for example, those young goats slaughtered so their livers could be read. the herdsmen has sold them to the soothsayer who, once livers are out and fortunes told, sells them, used liver and all, to the butcher who sells them to the barbeque stand man who sells them again to us, this time as our dinner. Call it the “food chain of fortune” There are philosophers about by the dozen. That is a given, or you might say “a taking” These are the most ragged, long haired, bearded, grimy, rheumy eyed, smelly, scrofulous and noisy frauds parading themselves with the air of being disdainfully above-it-all, but for the money to be made as they sell you one another scheme for living. Apostate Cynics become a sorry bunch gone to woeful seed. Oh yes, one learns about life in Daphne, but not by buying and listening, but by watching carefully. Look out for your coin purse while you are at it, the pickpockets at least are not frauds. Their trick is to be invisible, and light-fingered.
This day this marketplace was crowded with customers, those not going for only girls or wine, would be entertained by being deluded by merchants of fortune. Every one of them offering what ordinary life does not, here then symbiotic, the guileful and the gullible, the bamboozlers and bamboozled. Here then inevitably, the sick, the sad, the frightened and forlorn, here then despair shuffling along the paving stones or the gamblers’ hedge-betting on lives as they cocked their dreams and stoked their cunning with make-believe,
I will say the organized faiths had no hucksters out there, at least today, no rabbis, Mithra or other cult priests, no Christians however Jewish, Gnostic or other shades out shouting, whereas the real priests, those of Apollo or Olympian Zeus who had respectable temples, kept within their properly sacred precincts.
Notice that I distinguish the oafish market place bunch from the priests and priestesses of the fine temples, Apollos’s foremost, where his respected oracle dwelt. She was named, as at Delphi, for the Delphic spring Pythia. Here were sacred waters too, these flowing to tended pools on both sides of the temple. Amazingly, for cleanliness is not a virtue hereabouts, civic guards defended against litter. Children were boxed about the ears for careless discarding. An adult would get a threat and, if disregarding it, a beating on the spot. Someone relieving himself on precinct grounds would be beaten and held hungry over night.
No temple was as beautiful as Apollo’s, but the others were handsome enough, ones to Nemesis, Hecate, Artemis, and Olympian Zeus-, he was not “Jupiter” here, , Daphne folk felt themselves prideful Greeks! There were smaller other temples I did not recognize, whereas paths through the surrounding woods and hills south and west suggested there might be more. However venerable, if even an Olympian, let alone a cult god, if not in fashion, then the paths to them rarely will be rarely trod. Let alone long enough, an old temple with a forgotten god will be a frightening place as it decays. The untended god of it is understandably assumed to down, for unfriendly.
World-renowned was the cypress grove named after Cyparissus, a young fellow who, legend had it, grieved so over his accidental killing of a favored stag, that the gods turned him into an ever-mourning tree. It was in this grove that the Judgment of Paris took place, where Paris chose as the most beautiful among the Olympian goddesses, Aphrodite, because she had promised him the most earth’s beautiful woman for his wife. The rejected goddesses, Hera and Athena were furious, Hera (wife of Zeus) swore destruction on Troy, which many other seers had foreseen and warned, for Paris was the unknown son of Priam, its king. Helen, who was the most beautiful woman on earth, was the wife of Sparta’s king Menelaus. Paris led a fleet to Sparta, you know the story Menelaus was away, Paris raped a not unwilling Helen, took her to Troy, the Achaeans, the Argives led by the great kings of the House of Atreus, laid long siege, that gloriously sung by Homer in the Iliad. Troy fell, Helen was restored to her husband, some stories say most unwillingly , and ever after, she was known as Helen of Troy.
Most believe the story true, particularly Romans who owe their city’s founding to by Aenaes who fled Troy. That war goes back to the judgment by Paris in this cypress grove. Aenaes, angry at Paris for the fateful judgment which led Hera to see to Troy’s destruction, Athena assisting. Aenaes foresaw the destruction, sailed westward eventually to establish Rome, of all of which the poet Virgil, Rome’s Homer, sings. That a current story legend also has it that Helen returned here to Daphne as a quasi immortal is pleasing, but more than that, since unlike all stories I have heard of immortals, this Helen is said to be close by!. One hears this Helen is a visible person, living somewhere in or near Daphne. Those I have asked all say it is true, but no one can say where she is, nor that they themselves have ever seen her. By all accounts she is beautiful, blonde they say –unusual hereabouts – and cast about with the supernatural. Stories also have it that she is a consort to a chap of whom I have definitely heard, a magician, Gnostic evangelizing priest, some say a slick-tongued scoundrel and a rogue, all agree handsome, dashing, storied rich, some say quite a showman. That Simon is a traveling Gnostic is substantiated in our current palace reports. He moves about this eastern Mediterranean coast making magic, converts and then disturbances in his wake, so say the reports I have read. The Helen business is less clear, close hereabouts but not really known. with Simon Magus. What do I make of a lively blonde shadow come out of Troy a thousand years ago?
We had hours to wait before the games, I must say S. Cornelius, all decked out in that formal regalia was irritable. When he was annoyed, as now, his face contorted; jaw forward, lower left lip turning down, teeth clench, a frown, while he pulled on his left earlobe. He looked quite fierce, and a bit maniacal. Sometimes he tapped his feet nervously. I wanted to divert him, asked him what he knew of this Helen story, or her alleged paramour, Simon Magus, Simon the Magician, Simon as with the Persian “magi”, a class of special magicians?
I hear too much” he replied, “gossip that keeps half the town occupied building tales as pointless as most of those telling them. I don’t like Daphne; I come here only when I have to, as you see. People agree she lives here somewhere, comes into town t only occasionally, a couple of slaves supposedly hers, come in buying supplies, once in a while she’s seen flitting about the temples. Locals are sure this place is a warren of tunnels. Hard to believe because I’d think the soil so wet from the springs that they’d flood, but, no they say, there are well-bricked temple tunnels to and fro who knows where? Locals insist she mostly uses them. They are afraid to follow her down any path that might go to an entrance, all of which the locals say are cursed, haunted, guarded by Hecate or some such. One fellow came into the palace to see me, he had the shakes, said this Helen is some kind of incarnated Artemis/Diana, good with a bow, has pinned a few too inquisitive locals to trees, skewered them by their tunics, pantaloons, robes, scarves whatever and, off target maybe, typically an arrow through the arm, nothing ever fatal. He showed me his wound, one through the outer flesh of the upper arm. No legionnaire would have bothered with it, but for a bandaging herb poultice. I told him the real Dianna was tougher than that. She would have put an arrow through his balls. I have no time for their nonsense, the fellow’s wound was healing, and he had no witnesses, not even the arrow as evidence. Said he’d torn his flesh away, left it in a tree to which she’d pinned him, for fear this Helen/Artemis would come after him. I threw the crybaby out. These Syrians and Greeks are dreadful liars. There, that’s the sort of thing that turns lies, fantasies and stories into ridiculous work for us. I've better things to do than worry about shadows and off-target Amazons.
S. Cornelius gestured with annoyance toward the parade-dressed guard, the hovering officials, the general hubbub of crowds moving to the stadium, many of course food, wine, souvenir, and of course the hocus pocus stalls. The stadium, which I was going to see for the first time, had been visited by Hannibal after he fled Carthage seeking refuge after his city’s destruction by the Cornelii, vengeful Scipio Africanus. Kings Antiochus III and IV allowed him honor at games they held here, but, when the Romans announced they would kill anyone offering their enemy sanctuary, poor Hannibal was sent on his lonely, desperate way, eventually suiciding -as I may have mentioned to you- rather than be captured. Of less historical note, during Augustus time Olympian games were held here.
The acting Praetor was dressed for this special occasion in a pure white toga, a ruby cloak with gold fasteners and bracelets, an array of medals, all as impressive as intended. He was led in by an honorary bodyguard, the bannered standard of the Governor carried by the lead trooper. Fawning civic leaders of Antioch including the patrons, donors of these games, three Syrians dressed in rich and colorful cloth, chains of gold around their neck, their wrists heavy with precious bracelets, a retinue of carefully dressed slaves attending them from, paid their voluble respects to the Governor’s representative.. S. Cornelius acknowledged them with perfect but hardly enthusiastic courtesy. I had never seen him so haughty. It was exactly as the patrons expected, the highest among them would have been even more supercilious to any Antiochean, whereas before the acting Praetor- as marked by his insignia of rank- they were proper toadies, effusively grateful, honeyed tongues pouring out the respectful words. I saw that S Cornelius was working hard not to pull his earlobe, I suspected his one foot tapping under his regalia. It was his job to receive these chief citizens of Antioch; none yet made citizens of Rome itself. If they bowed low enough, long enough, built more monuments, gave more games, each would eventually bask in this highest honor after which their overbearing pride would be just that, overbearing.
The Daphne delegation presenting itself to the Praetor was not as colorful as the merchant Antiocheans, but were every bit as fat, and more at ease. Those whose business is entertainment learn to enjoy their own wares. Indeed several of them, and it was only early afternoon, already smelled strongly of wine. Since the noon meal is ordinarily brief with only a bit of wine, I presumed they were still enjoying last night’s continuing party. Their faces, debauched and cheerily so for the younger ones, haggard with the costs of pleasure for the older rakes and dog-eared wine sacks, told their lives, line by sagging line..
One fellow was immensely overweight, he walked not with a cane but with his two elbows digging into the backs of two stooping slave. One does not feel sorry for slaves, it is their lot to serve and whenever needs be suffering and die. But I grant, those elbows implanted must be sharp, and it was likely by now these slaves turned cargo porters, must be permanently stooped and in pain. Two other slaves followed the fat fellow closely, one held a heavily constructed stool of polished mahogany which had six, not four, strong legs. For a mass of what was probably 400 quivering, fat-dripping pounds, one could see the stool carpenter’s reasons. This man, we were informed, was Appollodorus, a local leader of wealth and consequence.
Two palace slaves, both older, intelligent, educated Greek, and in supervisory posts, we kept by our ears, whispering to us the “who” of those approaching, even though a local official also took that introductory role as delegates approached. These talking files were my “dossier advisors”. Protocol required that upon the salutation to him by the delegates, that S. Cornelius address those important by name. He used no honorifics beyond the courteous, a more politic and less aristocratic Governor’s representative might have done so, but S. Cornelius was no man to pretend either admiration or friendliness where there was none, nor was it obligatory. Once again, the accident of his being himself was the perfect posture, they fawned the more for it. If anything, S. Cornelius acted more a governing proconsul than Publius Marcellus, whose blood was not nearly as blue, had little self-building experience in battle, and in character was a more easygoing fellow. Allow the implication: quite lazy.
As for the obscenity of fat before us, his green, blue, brown, yellow robes, billowing over his cow’s bulk, when given a nod of understanding permission to sit near by the Praetor, collapsed wheezing on the stool, supported on either side by now two slaves each side, lest he overflow and topple. He had no eyebrows, an embroidered white cap sat tight over his head with flaps down to his ears, these tied by lace under his chin. -I presumed he was covering some scabrous bordello-contracted skin disease. These are not at all uncommon, but the white cap was ludicrously so. A Roman is offended by disease only when he has it, as for others, so be it. This wallowing obscenity could not have been any more disgusting had all of his other diseases been showing, as indeed, not the least of them those of his heart and gluttony were. Another pair of slaves fanned him with fans of ivory, and painted, delicately carved wood. The fat fellow and his kith were about to order wine amphora- they had already been brought near -to be presented by to the Governor’s representative. S. Cornelius, pressing protocol to its edge, waved them away. On the Praetor’s part it was no faux pas, this rebuff, no, it was insult intended. “Not a good idea” my slave keeper of dossiers said to me softly, for the fat man was the primary patron of Apollo here, thus charged with maintaining the temple, its priests and Pythia, here, as in Delphi, Apollo’s sacred oracle. He would surely pray for Apollo’s wrath.
It was likely in honor of himself and that patron’s role, that he was called “Apollodorus of Daphne”, thus that god’s gift. It was a name reflecting singularly badly on Apollo who, for all his possible faults, was never deemed that ill-humoured in his giving. Apollo was, after all, the Sun god with a cult honoring him in Rome. This uppity, slobbering, -ingratiating small temple town’s existence, whatever his patronage, demeaned the god. All who respected classical Greece respected Apollo, as did we, and comported ourselves also respectfully, for a man’s honor and the god’s deserve that.
The deputy leader of the Daphne delegation, introduced as Eros, was only tubby, and much more menacing-looking in spite of a crafted smile summoned into place. He was identified by our dossier slaves as the most famous whoremaster in Syria. As deputy he required no formal acknowledgment. Eros was confidently indifferent, sitting down next to Apollodorus, who, taking no notice of Eros but a nod, ordered slaves to hoist him from his stool. Eight sturdy slaves waited to make up his many-footed liter That liter, three time the size of a normal one, awaited this obscene rainbow-dressed load, who was now sighing, coughing, now cursing his slaves. After he had been dumped in the litter, he took to beating them with a small whip, obviously one he kept in the liter for regular use. Apollodoros breathed with difficulty, the swelling around his ankles reminded me of oozing lard, its brown-spotted wattles dripping out over his ankles, here and there touching the ground. I expected to find grease spots where he had stood.
One dossier man, giving me a bit of a sly look, for he knew I was a much cruder, easier fellow than our superior S. Cornelius, whispered that Apollodorus was best serviced by prostitutes by mouth, since the girls were otherwise reluctant. The reason? He had crushed a slim one, to death when in the prone position. Apollodorus refused an alternative intercourse position used by Apollo’s priestesses in earlier Greece, that where the woman was superior, riding the patron. It signified Apollo’s own dominance. This Apollodorus, I was told, said that by paying for his temple, he was free of Apollo’s will respecting the superior position of any woman. Regarding the crushed woman, the dossier slave told me it had taken some minutes to move him off her. Apollodorus’ special bed at home, the slave clerk told me, had. beneath pillows on which he lay, a canvas sling attached to gears and elaborate pulleys so that he could be hauled up out of bed and then righted to stand, with slaves always there to toddle him along. I am not one to believe all I hear, but I could believe this. All of it was disgusting. Romans, and I keep their ordinary habits, sleep hard. Trust a rich Syrian to be pillowed, fore, aft, and under.
I watched Apollodorus carefully and saw he was more in charge of his bulk than this show of slaves, these stories, suggested. Indeed I saw him almost nimble at one moment. What his game of disability might be, I could not guess. Perhaps it was simply that he enjoyed, as many, a thin, rich Roman did, the constant attention of slaves. It was also possible that he intended the show, seeming disarming, hiding perhaps a bit of cobra inside his elephant bulk. I looked carefully at this fellow, whom I immediately disliked. I was not surprised to see the tip of dagger peeping out from under the several folds of his sleeve. Come too close and this snake could bite!
The whoremaster, Eros, still sitting at the end of our box, which seating was permitted all delegation members. was master of himself and occasions. While appropriately respectful, all the right honorifics and bows to the praetor, he was quite at ease. I wondered at that relaxed yet just sufficiently respectful style until I realized that, as whoremaster he would have met a few dozen governors, consuls, proconsuls, tribunes, praefects, augurs, not counting ambassadors, rich merchants, exiled cousins of emperors, all as his paying guests. He looked carefully at S. Cornelius and me, was surprised, I think, not to recognize either of us. (In my case he might well have met me, if I had not been so well cared for by women of my regular purchase who came to my quarters. That was one of my official luxuries.) As for the high fellows Eros had met on his own ground, they would typically include Romans partying, out on the town, some to strain at debauchery which achieved and exhausting, would be something to brag about in the public baths. Numbers, ages, colors, specialties of the girls would all be recounted and, of course elaborated. For myself I had no such social goals, I simply liked a comfortable night of good sex, and for that I had become selective. In a brothel, no matter what the advertising, it is a game of chance how good the girls will be. And one must always watch one’s coin purse, for they are all thieves.
The spymaster in me looked this Eros over carefully. I would see to it we would meet again, but not in his bordellos. I had earlier heard of the fellow, appraised him now more carefully. His type were useful for Rome in Syria. His girls, his beds, his wine cups, his colleagues were all potentially mine, thus Rome’s eyes and ears. I had immediate confidence in this fellow; he was the sort who would betray anyone, including of course his spymasters. For the work I had in mind for him, for it had become my assignment in the palace, my predecessors had been neglectful, the recruitment of Eros was a first class idea. I would see to free passes for anyone of first importance passing through Antioch Their personal servants or clerks would get also get a discount, but only after informing. The cheaper wine would be free. And for the girls, tips of course varying with the importance of their information.
S. Cornelius as high official presiding, was required to open the games. In the Greek spirit, as you know, there were no blood sports, which much pleased the acting Praetor. As for me, as long as I’m not the one who might die, I don’t give a damn who else might. Dead is just that. We smart enough to live regard them as our convenience pleases.
The best of the games today would be the Cretan leapers who, taking a fast run at the bull indeed took their bull by the horns and somersaulted over them. The prize would go to the bull-leaper who made the most somersaults before landing on his feet behind the animal. The bulls snorted and pawed a bit, but none turned to gore the athletes. I could see why it was their bulls, all magnificently maintained, with striking markings represented centuries of selective breeding (yes, I am the farm boy observing here)They were bred to be long; so a longer time in the air for somersaults. Bred relatively tranquil as well, although almost any bull had best be treated as potentially dangerous The athletes were young and extraordinarily agile. I joined the crowd and my boss in cheering every leap, none of which went wrong. The winner, selected for somersaults and elegance by local judges, came to our booth to receive his laurels and a bag of gold from the Praetor who was clearly more interested in the athlete’s excellence than in receiving delegations and toadies. Before, as welcome and opening, and after as thanks and praise, S. Cornelius gave fine deep throated speeches..He had a splendid voice, was obviously well trained as a rhetor. Nothing flowery in the speech, man to man and honest welcome, then honest praise.
Praise to Crete too for resuming its games once sacred-again it was my dossier slave who told me but he had seen to being briefed by the Cretan’s trainer- almost two millennia ago. The “leap for life” honored and appease their ancient bull god, that Minos, who, the myth had it, gave their rich sea-faring civilization to this peaceful people of so long ago. Peaceful you ask? Indeed for no city in Crete was walled. In his speech my boss noted that Crete was near to the ancient Atlantis of which Plato wrote in his book, Timaeus. He told the crowd that Plato may have been referring to the explosion of the volcano on Thera, a Minoan outpost, an eruption which destroyed most of the island and all of its civilized culture. Those who know Pompeii know that gas and ash destroy what lava does not. (Pompeii was destroyed a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Wars; I have heard that Jews like to believe that Yahweh, reconsidering his one-sided punishment of Jerusalem, decided to teach the Romans a deadly lesson in vengeance as well.)
The Praetor went on to say, “The great civilization of Crete lives with us still. Today’s games are proof. Today’s games are tribute to heroes, sacred histories and the great athletes who honor these. I commend the athletes whose prowess needs no elaborating to be admired. Take their truth, seen before our admiring eyes, unlike what we may hear of Atlantis from Plato, as a grand instance of the glory that Rome can be through its people, like the Cretans performing here today. Today’s games are no mythical memory, they are before us, as will their excellence be before us tomorrow as well. Of this excellence we can be sure. It is this excellence which you have seen with your own eyes. It is these athletes, their proud families, their trainers, their province of Crete, that I ask you to salute, as I in turn salute them, and you my fellow Romans, Syrians, other guests. He made a raised arm salute to the athletes standing before us. He then turned to the seated crowd, arm upraised, fist high, and a gesture no high official is likely to make, hands clasped together and his head slightly bowed, as Roman priests, pontiffs in ceremony do ,indeed as the highest priest, the pontifex maximus does, maximally respectful. Preator and pontifex here as one. This Praetor commanding, pleasing, praising, pious, politically asture, this Praetor respectful, a rhetor supreme. I had never imagined that talent.. The crowd went wild.
He calmed and directed the thousands of them who, responding to his commands as legions once did,
gave three special cheers, one to the greatness of Crete now and before, one to the athletes, and one, the Praetor prompting, to this day itself, carpe diem indeed. Well, if the day deserves it, why not give a cheer for the bulls who, likewise as peaceful as the ancient Minoans, seemed indifferent to those athletes, men and women and do take note of that, to them human fleas who catapulted the length of them.
The bulls truly were beautiful animals. They were being led by the rings in their noses to be rubbed down and fed. I liked it that the bull dancers, for they were that, respected the animals representing their ancient god. It was an high civilization that made no blood sacrifice. Compare our Roman crucifixions, and the Christians come to worship the Jesus-killing deed. What was there in the fact, not the story made up for it, but ugliness, pain, sorrow and death, a vulgar death accorded mostly to the lowly, this tawdry tdeath of their Jesus as Christus, all the rest of resurrection a gloss, a wishful, reconstituting fantasy. He had been made into a very god of sacrifice itself. How could they glory in it when even a Roman knew its shame> How much more civilized these Cretans, honoring their athlete’s prowess, honoring quiet bulls who glistened and rippled showing their care
As for the crowd here, oh what a good mood. It had been a treat today, these remarkable games, the luck of their being held here. S. Cornelius had presided well, I would say, no treason intended, with imperial presence. Even so, I was surprised, for no protocol required it, when, whore master Eros, a Daphne leading citizen, who, once he had made a show of himself in our imperial box, he had moved away to his own private box near ours. Now he was standing up, there were shills and ushers, obviously earlier instructed by him, out quieting the crowd. Eros waved the Daphne banner and proposed a special ovation for S. Cornelius, Quaestor, Acting Praetor, the Governor’s Representative. The crowed gave the Praetor a tremendous, reverberating, stadium-rocking cheer. When forty thousand people shout and thump their feet in approval, thumbs up, when sweating, grinning athletes standing up to face their Praetor host giving him their own enthusiastic applause, it was clear this Praetor of the day was a crowd-pleasing leader. Out here there was an aura to a man, this hero, incorruptible hard working sub-governor, here the rhetor with his powerful voice, obvious command, and a knack for saying the right thing. This man could lead the mob as he had legions. I hoped no report of this would go to the Emperor, for Hadrian was well-known to be jealous and suspiciously alert. It would not be good for him to get an idea that S.Cornelius was budding emperor material.
The acclaim of crowd and athletes had been magnificent. I looked at my boss. I expected him to be pleased. Not so, he was embarrassed. I could see his foot tapping under his robes, his left hand reaching nervously to pull at his ear lobe. He hurried out of the imperial, routinely the Governor’s booth, eager for modest quiet.
We were being escorted back to Daphne village, surrounded by the crowd, all the officials close by pleased with themselves and the day. I reminded S. Cornelius that our schedule now required we pay an honoring visit to the Temple of Apollo Daphne. His priests, the most symbolically important people in town, did not come to the Governor, but he, or as now his delegate, must go to them. Don’t underestimate the formal importance of the gods in Roman governmental ritual. There we would burn incense, give offerings of gold and a lamb for sacrifice -slaves saw to that purchase and preparation, worship at the altar of the God, slip a side tip to the high priest, thereby paying all respects and securing custom. I never minded that sort of thing, if a temple is beautiful, quiet, why not visit and pray? It is not hypocritical if one puts no store by the gods, a proper temple properly run, in itself inspires. That be so, the priests will tell me my doubting intellect has in the same brain a god-space ready to receive the divine. I tell them a man may appreciate beauty, and its idea, without being a superstitious fool.
As for S. Cornelius, I had not yet learned enough about him to know what he liked, or just tolerated. Since it was to my own taste, I was pleased when he didn’t make a one of his “let’s get his over” unhappily resolute faces. To the contrary, he was delighted to make the temple visit. In his being he was far closer to the gods, and Roman custom, that this north German farm boy would ever be, or want to be. As we were ushered into the temple, a ceremony in itself, the honor guard conducting us to the steps leading to the propelaea, a group of priests then led us past the Doric columns---the architect had the Acropolis of Athens in mind, although here a much smaller scale. The crowds were kept outside
The chief priest was a white robed, elderly, grey bearded chap who was, to my eye, genuinely, gracefully devout, not at all full of himself as too many priests are. S. Cornelius made his oblations on behalf of the Governor, this ritual one of rigorous custom, and following custom, was escorted to the altar of Apollo to offer prayer, as all of us in the official party did; the Daphne and Antioch leaders with us, our escort troop as well, and some minor tag-along palace officials along with my two sophisticated dossier slaves. It was a moving occasion, the silence of the temple, dark but for torches on the wall, and a brilliantly illuminated fine statue of Apollo, a beautiful young man, perfect ephebe, holding his bow, a growing laurel, his tree, next to him. I saw the architect had put a skylight in the roof directly above the tree. Quite clever it was, for the sun’s rays fell upon the god even when the sun was not directly above, for the architect and builders had fashioned complex mirrors mirroring mirrors serving as light baffles directing sunrays downward focusing, illuminating Apollo It was a stunning effect.
There were, ready for this official visit, three young priestesses in white robes, crowning wreathes of white flowers on their heads, playing lyres near the statue of the god, for Apollo was the god of music. As they played, and it was done very well, the chief priest asked the acting Praetor if he was now prepared to visit the oracle ( She was still sometimes referred to, as in Delphi, as "Pythia" whose sacred pool bore that name. Usage had changed, the priest reminded us she was the “Daphne oracle” The fact was that Hadrian, after Daphne’s oracle had forecast his succession to the imperial throne, ordered her pool here filled with rock. One thing clear, Apollo’s oracle at Daphne loomed large in Hadrian’s mind as a source of prophetic truth. It was suspected Hadrian wanted no other imperial aspirants to receive good news of the sort he had, news which might signal, if given in Hadrian's lifetime, his fall. There were then, in Daphne, no more prophecies based on godly voices heard speaking through the ripple of sacred waters into their pond. The springs, multiple, of course still existed, but their flow was channeled elsewhere. Since Hadrian’s order, all prophecy was delivered in a special alcove of the temple, one itself constructed to be beautiful and mysterious. The priest pointed us into the temple depths, close by the god’s statue, There were steps leading down to a small dark door. This was the way to prophetic echoing truth, to the voice that spoke Apollo’s wisdom.
“She will receive you, Praetor, both in your person as S. Cornelius and as the representative of the Governor, Publius Marcellus. These, the priestess advised me tell you, and in that division there is Apollo’s wisdom, will be different prophecies, the one for you personally, or the one for the government of Syria. As you know she prophesied Emperor Hadrian’s ascent and acclamation, doing that to the year, the month and the circumstance. To honor her, see to her residential comfort, the Emperor has had built a small and private temple as tribute and her abode. It stands on ancient hallowed ground, earlier foundations of holiness installed well before the Antiochus kings. It is a secret place, no one may visit it, for the oracle in being sacred to the god and high priestess, must otherwise never be known, but to two women servants, neither slaves but both well-born as Apollo requires. The oracle is, as you know, a sacred princess, highest ranking of all woman in Greece. That is not so in Rome, but even there she would stand high and likely be seen as Olympian-anointed royalty. Only her well born maids, young priestesses know the face of the oracle. I have never seen her face. She prophecies within her precinct’s walls, where she sits apart behind her marble screen, which place she reaches by a secret route, not through this temple and door.
As you know, she speaks with the voice of Apollo himself, as did the Sibyls in the past of whom our Virgil sang. She is ventriloquist, for it is his voice speaking when he possesses her for prophecy. She is the god speaking, and in her words is great foreseeing wisdom. After you today, if you select one other from among those others here today, whether athlete or official, Apollo will prophecy for that person as well. No more than that, for it is a great honor that Apollo offers today. Apollo honors the Governor, but Pythia in marking your person, does that person special honor. Your rank by itself does not merit it, perhaps your notable career does. In any event what Apollo knows and purposes is well beyond me. “ The old priest nodded, as if speaking to himself, the “yes” of secret sacred knowledge rightly denied. the “yes” in his wonder before the god. “Bamboozling” I would say of it, for all of the wonder, to sell dreams beyond the beauty of the stories, the places, the awe. In that, in wanting more and paying those that give it, we and they are all bamboozlers.
But not so much this gentle, likeable old man no pomp or pretense in him, a rare priest this old fellow, welcome to his kind. I had met priests in Rome, none here. In Rome they tended to be sanctimonious, rudely pretentious, all from high-ranking families, snobs-for-gods. I have seen identical high-faluting offensiveness in the managing slave in a rich man’s house.
My boss was taken by surprise by the offer to hear prophecy. The invitation could hardly be spontaneous. It had been well planned.. No god in Rome is absent political meanings, I suspected an oracle could have the same functions, but what here?. I had no idea. Courtesy, respect, politics demanded S. Cornelius, recognizing the honor, accept, whatever manipulation it intended. This was, after all, the oracle, “Pythia” then, whom Hadrian honored. When visiting a great oracle it was customary to prepare the question carefully in advance, usually in writing. The oracle must always know and approve the visitor and the time. Questions might be answered in writing , some after a bit of time, or not. For ourselves, we were not prepared. On both sides then, this meeting moment was an exception. What was Apollo’s special agenda? And whose? To my knowledge no one controlled this once-Pythia or her priest. I conceived it possible, contrary to my nature, this Daphne oracle and the god actually had something themselves to say to S.Cornelius.
That I am not consistent in these matters, gods or no, is becoming obvious to me, as, since I write of it, it must be to you. Shall I take it as consolation that I suspect most of my fellows to have similar inconstancy of thought? No, I propose that on all matters of the gods and other worldly, our minds do badly with whatever may be reality, for it remains beyond mind’s reach. Bamboozled, I say, over whatever deep truth we would like to learn. Bamboozled I say, we will never arrive at such truths.
Hannibal was another who received prophecy here. He was told there was no sanctuary for one so cursed by the Roman gods, that he soon would die. Pompeii had likewise come here to hear his ill fortune, as did Marc Antony on his way back from Parthian defeat. To both Apollo’s Sibyl told of doom, and Cleopatra’s as well. A lot of good it did that she, praised him for his mind, loyalty and valor, mentioning specifically his support for his friend, Herod of Judea whom Cleopatra wished, for Egypt’s territorial sake, to overthrow. ‘A queen’s cunning love, an ancient land’s lore, personal brilliance, charm and only some loyalty,” Apollo is reported to have said, “are not enough when the gods have formed your weaknesses at birth. You have yourself built a temple on sand. When Octavian’s winds blow, sands shift, the grains build to doom.’ It was true, Octavian Emperor’s fair winds blew him conquering to enter Alexandria. Antony and Cleopatra both died at their own defeated hands.
S. Cornelius spoke solemnly. “ I am generally familiar with your history. Frowning, he looked at the old priest, I must say, of the five famous persons who recently came here, four were foretold their doom. Those are not good odds, are they?”
The chief priest shrugged. “What the gods have in mind for mortals, insofar as they care at all, is rarely known. It is Apollo’s gift that a few are singled out to learn his foresight. The oracle has made a special point of your welcome by Apollo.”
S. Cornelius looked at me, obviously ill at ease. Until now I would have guessed he put little store by oracles. Still, Pythia had marked his coming and, as the Governor’s man today he could not dare refuse Apollo. I was, as he was, absolutely certain about his duty, and above all, S. Cornelius was a man of duty.
“It’s your duty, Dominator, “ I told him what he knew, “but it is a personal honor to be marked by Apollo himself, and on such a glorious sunny day as this, its fine games, the crowd’s pleasure, I take it we have good omens”
“Duty, yes. Omens, well I suspect not, no owls flying left or right to tell. As for the games, one good event is not predictor of another. The bricks of all Roman roads are bumpy. Anaxagoras reminds us reminds us that the roads the gods build for men all lead to the same end, ‘the descent to Hades is about the same from whatever place we are’. Know it we might, but it is not pleasing to face hearing t one’s doom told so early” He paused, no smile of course, but squared himself, head high, eyes toward the little door. To the chief priest he said, “Let’s get on with it”
As he turned to follow the old man, I tried to give my boss a boost, “Maybe the priestess will tell you only happy outcomes, after all Hadrian’s was the best of all.” Since I put no store by the gods, it was easy for me to smile.
S.Cornelius was a more serious sort than I. Even when a god whose power he might doubt summoned him, there was more than human mystery in it, as foreboding as it was special. I remember once I felt singled out by a god. Didn’t like it at all. My boss was sensitive to that sort of thing. How must he feel now, when even I was a little worried?
He was saying to the old priest”, I am honored of course by Apollo’s favor. I will make the selfish choice. Tell Pythia it is my own fortune, not Roman Syria’s I would hear. Admit as well my surprise the implication that perhaps these are not always to be intertwined.” Ah, so S. Cornelius had picked that up had he? And I had missed it. What did she know?
The old fellow was moving quickly now, beckoning for the acting Praetor to follow him. I watched the tiny door open, saw torches along what seemed a downward sloping corridor.. When the door closed I folded my arms to wait. I told everyone else, the formal guard included, to wait outside. I told them to amuse themselves, no difficult assignment in Daphne. For myself it was difficult in this, yes awesome, temple, not to be uneasy. But for the three harpists, the gentle music lulling as if Apollo wanted me at ease, I was alone with the god. Up there in the channeled sun, he had nothing to say to me beyond his music. Well, I like music and if scarves had not hidden the faces of the harpists, believe me I looked, I might have liked his musicians as well. Yes, I know, I am a hopelessly lusty fellow, but I had never had a lyre-playing priestess in bed. Apollo had raped or seduced mortals aplenty, after all Daphne herself was turned into a tree by her to escape Apollo’s ravishing. No rape in my mind, not now, not like my warring days when, after a fierce battle, the women of the conquered are ours for the taking. There is exquisite pleasure in it. The male, ask Zeus a prime practitioner, is designed to rape. Here now, no such thing. but I did keep looking at the girls as they played, hoping one would show me her face and, just maybe, a come-on.
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