Now, First Names

I came in to the office later the morning after my wine and overly liqid report. I’d kept the scribe up all night copying my damaged writing into acceptable Latin.  I brought both of the Christian visit reports in with me,  but was quite frankly scared about his response to the one wine had written. Still, it represented what I really thought S. Cornelius  ought to know about the sect and Rome.  Worse, it represented what he should know about me, an hard nosed mind too often tangential, disorderly, and sometimes, well let me call it, in god-ridden confusion.  I was glad he was away from his desk as I brought the reports in, I put them on his desk.  On top of them I scrawled.“Sorry” 

My office was next to his, his much larger one had an exit on its other, palace-closer side as well.   I heard him come through.  I had, like a kid afraid of a scolding or worse,  closed the door from mine to his.  I could hear him move his chair up to his desk table.  I presumed he was reading my reports.  It took a long, long time, at least from my nervous perspective.  Finally he opened my door. 

“Come in,  “he said.  I could read nothing on his face. Just that hard senior centurion contradicted by the Drusus twist of perplexity.    One never knew what was going on his mind,  but by now I knew it was not ordinary Roman inner brain chatter..

I went in hesitantly.  He was in his chair,  gestured for me to take one of the chairs opposite his table.  

“I read your reports.  Are you hung over?

I was. I told him so

“Sorry.   I know we all have times like that. Believe me, I know.  As for your reports,  sober and otherwise,  they’re good work,  very good work.  I appreciate your frankness,  and particularly your policy speculations.  I’ll have to ponder them a while,  see if my second thoughts follow the same path as yours,  but good thinking.  As for the wine talking more informally,’ he paused , he was forming his comment with  some difficulty,  “Look, Balthus,  since the campaigns no one has ever spoken to me informally,  in friendship,  and in caring as you and your wine-dipped pen did last night.  “ Again he paused, “I am, well, grateful.  You know I’m not good with people,  feel like an ass much of the time.  So thank  you, Balthus, thank you very much” 

What a load off my chest!  “Thank you, Boss”  I said

 He hesitated,  

May I know your nickname? S.Cornelius asked.

“Sure,  but you already almost do. “

“ I never thought of ‘Balthus’ as having ameaning, just a North German name”.

“I don’t know how I got it, my folks maybe, but sounds to me like “Baltic” the sea near where I grew up, (also Suebian Sea) the people there.  But think about it , Boss,  the way my mates in the army did, ‘b a l t e u s’” give it the ‘h’ give it the “e” and there you’ve got me,  Balteus, as Latin not Suebian, Balteus the Knife. That’s the other side of me.” 

“Your buddies thought that was what it meant for good reason I’m sure”   said S.Cornelius, a man hardly naive about the world. 

I grinned of course, ,  “Very good reason, Boss. Keep it in mind if you ever need ‘the knife” for a piece of work”

“Thanks,  good to know that.  You never know”

He was right, in Rome you never knew.  I waited,  he was slow for the reciprocal trade in this “thou” ceremony.  

The pause continued. S. Cornelius, here one could see how shy he was, was embarrassed at closeness.

I, the “knife” was embarrassed,   “Was I out of place, Boss. Forget myself?.  I apologize, it’s just that, well, I feel we are truly friends.  Easy to forget rank and origins with a boss like you.  Sorry”

S. Cornelius was hesitant, in this not a man at ease with himself,  “No,  that’s not it, new friend, not at all.  I just don’t use the nickname.  You notice that whenever you see my name officially, no nickname.  But I am stuck with one of course’

More hesitation. For S. Cornelius it was the moment where he either lost a friend and went back to the solitary game or took off one bit of personal armor.  Many Roman nicknames were not flattering, like “big nose” or some such,  and to a big nose so named it wouldn’t matter, but S.Cornelius was a sensitive fellow.   That was not a good trait for any Roman who might wish a happy life. He said

“Mine’s  a far cry from something like “Felix” (happiness”) or Africanus” honoring Scipio for the conquest of  Carthage “

“Okay”.  I waited

He shrugged,  replied,   “Mulus”  simply ‘mule” When my father really was annoyed,  which in my case was most of the time, he called me “asinus” an “ass” and he didn’t mean four-legged any more than Aesop.  When he wrote out my name, it was “S. Cornelius Asinus” to show his contempt. He was right, I suppose, this Cornelius “mule” is much more often an ass than a  mule.  You understand now, Balthus, I’ve not gotten over being ashamed of myself.”

“I’ll be damned.”  I made no comment about his scornful father,  or likewise critical Druscilla. Roman’s are not required to be tender fathers, thoroughbred breeding, no sparing the whip,  was how they saw they job.   Cicero, because he wrote about it and everyone read him,  was the exception. He argued for goodness in fathers, doing his best himself to show it. This “Mule’s” father had not read Cicero.

“Mule,  now friend as well as boss, I’ll tell you something. I have never admired a man as much in my life as I admire you”

He was not a man who could handle compliments, I could see him redden under the leather-like skin  of his battle-worn face,  

“Thanks” he murmured” as for the name  “I’d be grateful if you stuck to “mulus”,  the “asinus” bit stings.  Please now, don’t tell anyone else.  Livia Drusilla knows, probably tells her friends,  but I keep away from that bunch. She also called me ‘ass’ more than “mule” , and worse, added the anal orifice slang for it t as well.  Caustic bitch she is. Livia Drusilla has a special way with her,  insults come without coaxing, naturally. I was good practice”   Again a pause, then, “I hope you don’t mind if I stick to “Balthus”. As for the “knife” part,  I’d just as soon keep that special skill of yours between us. . There are more than enough assassins in every palace.  For your sake, that kind of fearsomeness doesn’t make for real respect or promotions when the time comes.  You’ve got a brain better than most,  new friend,  better than mine as I have told you.  You think more abstractly, are steeped in the classics, yours is a fine future with the knife kept sheathed.  Now spymaster, that’s something else.  I consider it an information specialty, quite useful as long as the spy avoids becoming a conspirator.  Fortunately conspiracies concentrate in Rome or Alexandria. Syria inspires indolence.” 

My notes record that I thanked him for the honor of his friendship,  this close name exchange.  He’d gotten through the difficult moment.  Because of his awkwardness, my feeling bad about initiating that, it had been difficult for me as well, but now, Mule and Balt the Knife”, but “Balteus’ that would remain confidential, as it had ever since I came into the civil service. Some talents you don’t want to noise about.


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