CHAPTER XXXVI EROS
After-Thoughts and Nymphs
I, BALTHUS, RECORDED this about events the evening of the temple burning. It was written in my tent the morning, before my return to Antioch and the palace. First off, acknowledge it; I am a bad tempered damn fool, and no excuse for it but my male ego. I am not alone; such egos make most of the troubles of the world.
S. Cornelius would now have his message, no doubt be suffering the fretful, grieving a would-be lover’s impatience over what the not-now, not-yet, well maybe, a pursued woman is. As for myself, after the Pythia/Helen imbroglio, I need good drink, lots of it. When unwinding was needed, there was no better place in the world than Daphne for that. The Spanish centurion had declined, explaining, admirably, that he would stay here on duty, available, given the palpable unease in the air, its portent for further troubles. I commended him for good soldiering, and meant it. I trotted off to Daphne town. It was almost dusk, the torches in the pleasure zones were lit, the serving slaves, food vendors, wine maidens all dressed in one or another version of Hebe the bar girl for the Olympic gods, and of course the fancy boys and whores were all out like mosquitoes looking for clients.
Each couch by the pool near which I chose to relax had a torch and, over the couch, a net at hand to keep off the bugs. There were double and triple couches for those who wanted to play more challenging erotic games. I saw a serving slave push two double couches together, some drunken sailor was going to find out how much wind there was in his three-girls-at-once sails. He wore the customary dress of a Phoenician seaman, blue longitudinal stripes on heavy woven trousers, wider at the cuff the better to dry from the sloshing sea water on decks, a rust colored tunic belted by a rope at the waste, and in his case, a “I’m-out-on-the-town, dashingly askew Phrygian hat with a bell at the tip. He flew the conquering colors, but he looked the sort whose mast won’t support their claims. I bet myself, I even shook one hand with the other to mark it, that he would be becalmed before the girls earned their pay. And so it quickly was, his ship was wallowing, its mast collapsed, he sank upon his sea of drink. He passed out, two of three girls wasted on naval extravagance. I won my bet. The girls were quickly quarreling over the money in his purse which, of course they had taken, its being sewed inside his trousers was no protection. Indeed it was the coin in the purse that was the only thing inside his pants that remained hard.
I got my wine, not a cup but a very large jar’s worth, and at last breathed easy, I watched the statues of the nymphs, “Nereid’s” the Greeks call them, all naked and curving stone set out in the middle of the pond. Fountains all around them splashed and made mist. By the poolside musicians played, their slave boy came round from time to time among those of us resting, drinking, playing here near the pools, on the lawns, soliciting coins to pay for the entertainment. Why not? Peace at last, I threw some money in the boys’ clay cup and began to treat my serious thirst.
As I relaxed by the pools, began to down the wine in earnest, I reviewed the Daphne affair. Whatever I had said to Pythia in anger, and now was smarting from her uppity squelch, I admired her handiwork. When she drew Apollo’s bow to kill Apollodorus, the town’s most powerful citizen who would have the usual tribe of thugs at his command, she must have known the pot would boil. She did the right thing. But however much the town admired Apollo, benefited immensely in world wide reputation and tourist income, were rightly in awe of the oracle herself, it is the way the world works that crowds such as his, the greedy, gritty, vengeful and base, are offended by the idea of justice. Until they learned the hard way, Apollodorus a good first lesson, they would work to keep the town their fiefdom. way. It had not taken me much intelligencing to confirm that Apollodorus was top swine, wealthier than Eros, whoremaster. He owned the town but for the temples, and had them too, in part, as patron. While pilgrims and admirers to Apollo brought wealth, respect, prestige, Apollodorus, thence his family of oinkers, controlled its properties, rents, and town council. They had much to lose if Apollo’s arrows marked the beginning of any general clean-up.
(Inserted later note: I insert this some time after events, the earthquake leveled most of the town shortly after Pythia-Helen herself had come to Antioch.. Even an unbeliever is impressed that the town was leveled, but no temple fell. A few thousand people died, but that’s what earthquakes do. Piggie’s men in a few rumbling seconds became heirs to nothingness, although I trust that when Apollo and a new oracle return, the town will rebuild. I was happy to learn so many of Apollodorus family died in the earthquake. I would have enjoyed being there soon enough afterwards to tell the troops not to pull any ones still alive from the rubble of his buildings. )
As for this Pythia, or any of princess of Apollo or healing priestess in an Asclepion, grant them their due. They possess no throne, no crown, no court, but in Greece, and here, they are princesses nevertheless. The oracle, whether Delphi, Daphne. Claros, Didyma, Dodona, Lebadia, Olympia , when inspired, literally entranced, by the god, speaking from the other world to this, is perhaps the most respected of women, (although only a few were women) in earlier Greece and now in Empire. They have no power but, elliptically , through their prophecy which can read for the advice it implies.. In doing that these princesses might governing the realm of forecasts, and in that change lives and policy courses. Unlike kings, they issues no orders, and are never rebelled against, for they are benign as well as divine. l Emperors have power which forces footsteps down paths the emperor, not the traveler prefers. The oracle, while divining fates and their unfolding, in her typically ambiguous words, offers choices and a test of character. If a moral matter, the god is kind in giving an opportunity to one gone wrong, for if balance is restored, harmony returned, the oracular petitioner can return to the good.
Even doom can sometimes be wrestled. She speaks for fate modified by implied choice. It is the wisdom of the petitioner whether he, as the oracle may with such kinds of her prophecies (not all are of the same order), can also divine the choice, and summon the wisdom, thus benefiting from Apollo’s own, to find his responsibility in it. Through her Apollo requires reflection, and beckons a petitioner’s foresight. She is a scale that weighs freedom’s presence, or nay. The sum of an oracles prophecies recorded, becomes a compendium of divine wisdom suggesting earthly practicality , or but resignation, in world challenged by both uncertainty and also inevitable doom. The oracle parses futures.
The oracle is the only unselfish consultant in the Empire. She can not only be an historian of the future, but as she gives the gift of responsibility to petitioners, she suggests their particular future as well. That moment with her they are enacting it. Pagan and skeptic that I am, I allow that at Daphne, Dephi, Didyma and Dodona, oracles were, may still be, inspired. By being that, however personally anonymous, each respected oracle was publicly well known, that as dedicated, pious, unbiased, and no impolitic. Now, as my wine entertained me and I bethought myself as to oracles, I could clarify forms nascent in my fog, for wine makes apparent that which is absent, while obfuscating the obvious. Not now; a Pythia’s spirit in her earthly body must be invested by the godly spirit from the other world bringing realized wisdom. The Christians had it right, the phenomenon was apparent. And exceptional, it was a rare case of an Olympian being kind, but for Apollo who selflessly granted the chosen exceptional knowledge the better to guide their lives. The exception: when doom was forecast, some Sophocles plot uncoiling, there was no escape from the foreordained in our blood and character. Christians claimed to know unyielding laws as well, but their “redemption” allowed reprieve. Perhaps gods and dead poets consulted on such cosmic legislation, weighing revisions in the law. Perhaps Jesus was advised by Apollo and the Greek tragedians. As I drank, that seemed to me more and more obvious.
Not all of an oracle’s inspiration is of the otherwise unknowable. As one spy I know another, know that before an important visitor arrived the agents of the temple’s priests compiled dossiers as good as mine in the palace. No one important was received without foreknowledge. It was not Apollo but the Pythia, and I suspect her high priest advising, who was required to be deeply wise in the use of that. We saw that in her understanding and advice to S Cornelius, acting Praetor. Wise too to take advantage of his official visit to ask tell him the filthy pig Apollodorus, as immune patron, was raping his young priestesses. That Apollo through the arm of Pythia killed the pig, was to return the proper balance of justice to the world. S Cornelius, forewarned by Pythia of why Apollodorus must die, knew what to do and did it. His response, effective, cunning, protective of the oracle and the temple, was as he told me, one of the best days of his life. One session with an unseen Pythia, now Helen of somewhere, his own unequivocal action tying them together in the killing, was the ground for his late serious first love. It arose out of his doing the right thing by the god, the girl and right balance returned.
I had said some of this to S Cornelius when we had returned that day to the palace. He had told me, ”Balance, Balthus, that is the thing. Too much evil and the world will break apart. Too much power and you get evil and the world breaking apart. Pythia drew her arrows for balance, some punishment for evil and defilement. The world is out of balance, Balthus; I take the rape of Apollo’s priestess as proof. It would never have happened in Greece, or in our Republic. The old gods are too weak. The Hebrew Yahweh has a bad reputation for tribalism out of place in a cosmopolitan Empire, and unduly sensitive personal vengeance. If the Christian God is real, then balance is returning to offset evil. If the Christians have sense they can be the biggest traders in Antioch, merchants of kindness, charity, and God-promises. Were I Christian, I’d shout the promise, put up a stand in the bazaar offering free goodies and amethyst speeches, so I had colored paradise, to celebrate the mob’s luck in it.
Well, at that moment by the pools of Daphne my luck, red-colored for the wine of it, was just fine. Fine those lovely stone nymphs sculptured nude, graceful, standing in the pond. I could swear one of them in the mists was moving as those clouds of warm mist hovered around the statues, indeed the mists themselves took diaphanous shapes, as clouds above can. I liked what I was seeing, drank some more to keep the action going. More than undulating and ephemeral as I watched them, they were taking forms quite remarkable, and yes, they were moving about. Water nymphs, these nereids with oh such bodies, only anticipated at first as mist figures suggest, but fetchingly becoming quite lively as they rippled and swayed. They were more than the mists dancing with my desire as partner. My illusions had lovely breasts, and now, metamorphosing further, they took on flirtatious smiles that teased and beckoned. They were looking directly at me, no one else, and me. I say that’s the way it should be with a woman. As Greeks sometimes paint their statues, these two flirting nymphs had colored their hair, one purple. Was she some empress of the pool to wear an imperial purple? The other’s hair was tinted gold. Here indeed was a valuable find.
I had heard many stories of how men, believing these forms real women, were lured by these seductive “exotika” offering themselves entirely, even as before me now they were showing me, hips moving, seductively rubbing where thighs joined their nests. Oh so fine that wine, here it was, the mists taking substantial form, the spirit of nereids, after all they were immortals, becoming the beckoning, waiting bodies of two, was it three? young women. They were magnificent.
I was now aroused, no sailor without wind in this sail, I was transfixed by two naked girls standing in a pool tempting me, oh yes, there was no question as to the gestures and positions, offerings not to the gods but to me. Oh I was drunk, it was marvelous. I knew the Greek Nereid tales inevitably ended up with the seduced yokel being drowned by the female phantasmagoria, their loving limbs turned into tentacles and the crew of lovelies dragging him under to drown. It is woman’s revenge. Only women, not men, tell these stories. Women swear the stories are true, the “it happened in the village just up the road last year” sort of thing. I’ve heard the stories told. The satisfaction on the teller’s face is immense, and the look they give you at the burbling end, oh yes, some tellers add the sound effects of a drowning man, they look they give you as you sit there listening is the delighted snarl of “you’ve got it coming, brother!”
Wine it is indeed when a man’s lust can’t keep his mind from wandering. Nereid’s in power, well so was Sophia supposed to be, and her no doubt Helen’s idea of god. Helen, most men’s better, she said, I could see her telling a nymph story as a Gnostic sermon. “Drown the bastards”, men getting what some downtrodden woman thinks they deserve. Balance to the world and all that. I faced it, there is much women don’t like about men. It’s not fair. By any standard I can think of, I am a fine guy and a woman is lucky to know me. As for the naked ones gazing at me from the mist, arising curvaceous out of this gorgeous pool, it is too bad I’m drunk and they are marble. These glistening Daphne girls here have sparkle. Roman nymphs are boring. Like Jupiter and the rest they’re only statues, just a sculptor’s art with bronze plumbing to shower them. There’s no life attributed and no magic left. That is, I am sorry to say, Rome’s general state when it comes to the old immortals and the current mortal imagination. No wonder the world comes to Daphne for a really good time
Those girls, I’ve not seen any sexier and I’m a man who’s done a lot of looking, even if they have fountain-spray coiffeurs , they are real enough. They beckon, I smile. My finger moves to bring them here to me. If they come but when I touch them there is no substance, then I am terribly drunk, and these little goddesses have had their fun with me. But if they come and when I touch, there’s flesh, then I’ll have my fun with them, well, maybe only one, for I’m old enough to know my limits and the fact that it is concentration not distraction that keeps this sailor’s mast upright. Well, we would see soon enough, for they were walking out of the shallow shore of the pool to me. Ever dubious as to the reality of the gods, it seemed to me I was going to get some flesh. I gestured to a waiting slave to bring a triple couch. The girl I wasn’t using, could sit and watch, but without pay. A real woman gets excited by watching others do it.
They were real enough, I felt both a bit, testing the goods rather like squeezing tomatoes in the market, found both fine, on grounds of color took the golden haired one. I was a little rough with her, then I made her do a nasty thing, but that was what a whore was paid for. I’m not usually as rough, she was a pleasant enough piece, but I was getting my anger at Helen out of my system. As I did her, and I did her deeply, often, and hard, I felt really good. The little whore might not like it a lot, but this was one of the things a woman was intended for.
Let me revise that to say, what they are for until you marry one. That is when the pivot point, the fulcrum of a man’s world changes, for if they are like my wife, and I hear that most are, she sees to that philosophically required “natural balance in the world”. She does that by bouncing iron pots off my head, scratching me and screaming curses. She once even bit my, well you know what, and the memory of it is still tender. In any event, my wife will do what she can in the name of equal balance. She and Helen, in spite of vast class differences, would get along well. Not that there is camaraderie among women for long, but for nymphs and the like, for the weak will always maneuver for favor with the strong, while the strong don’t give a hang about the weak. Both kinds betray their own. It’s a universal treachery, power playing, but women angling for men are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. Its emotional costs are high, some of which they lay off on some man.
There by the side of the pond, night had fallen in Daphne but it was safe enough, I lifted myself off the whore with the metal painted hair, not real gold of course, and was about to fetch her pay from my purse- and no, I never get drunk enough to get rolled, when comes walking up to me the famous Eros, whoremaster of Syria, a red tunic, black Syrian pantaloons, both of silk, wearing embossed leather slippers, , a single bracelet of onyx, and an immense charm against the evil eye, that Egyptian eye of Ra, this one gold trimmed turquoise on a copper mounting, itself shaped as an eye. Eros’ black hair was oil-pomaded, thick as salad dressing, so that the torchlight shone off it with prisms. Rolly-polly this man, as some say, “prosperous-looking” He was smiling broadly, the oil of it had a sweat-beady sheen. Nobody likes me enough to smile like that. He was up to something.
“Hello there Balthus, Dominus, we are so honored that you join us here, you, second to S. Cornelius, himself second to Governor Marcellus Publius (he had got the name backwards, never mind, what the Pluto did he want?) and you a guest in my garden. Are you finished with the girls or shall I have them stay on bit in case your appetite returns?
I shrugged. I was teetering between a young man’s confidence and a middle aged one’s fatigue. In the middle sat bravado. As the adage had it, “longer is now harder, harder is now shorter“. Fine then” he said, a dimple in his cheek winking, “we’ll keep them about. Never know when a man wants a bit of dessert, eh?” He motioned the girls to a couch in the distance, “And now then, some more wine? Yes of course.” He clapped his hands, wine slaves came a scurrying, I had pots of the stuff on the table in front of me but enough had been too much. My eyes could still focus, and some part of my brain as well. So here he was again, his turf not the arena’s, this famous whoremaster a man who kept a dossier on every customer. He was a blackmailer extraordinary has been alleged known to order knifings, humbly owns to every weakness but so-far not a victim of any. He was described as rich, clever, ruthless behind a public show of the self-effacing.
He rubbed his palms together, a typically Syrian habit, a combination of ingratiation, plotting, almost in itself masturbatory gratification, for those were fingers that had known a thousand purses, women’s private parts, and the telling of coins. “Well, Sir, pleased we are, and of course everything here, the, wine, the girls, the music, all is our benefaction” My ears caught that word, good deeds indeed. Fine, well I was still a little drunk; maybe some more of everything before the evening was done, but right now, lots of caution. I didn’t even say “thank you” to the greasy bastard
“Balthus, Dominus, Sir, may I see to your pleasure in any other way” Food perhaps, a boy with tender cheeks perhaps, whatever it might be?”
I scowled at him, that’s the way high class Roman acknowledge favors from those lower. Thanks are not to be heard. I know, I have been favoring and listening for years.
He smiled even more broadly, faeces eater that he was, “I must say, Dominus, you were heroic today, saving the temple from the arsonists, saving as well, so I hear, the Pythia who is now godless and out of a job. Have you heard the gossip: They say she put the knife to the Apollo’s own patron and our town’s richest man, the eminent and beloved Apollodorus. Oh how we all mourn him. The temple was destroyed because of what she did. It’s even rumoured she killed the high priest Apollonius over some matter of which I as a gentleman would not speak, but there is a rumour he was not pleased with her seducing those young priestesses, for they say she has the appetites of an hungry Sapho. Lecherous and unscrupulous, truly shocking, eh? No, don’t reply, everyone who first hears the facts is shaken. I apologize, B you are here for pleasure and are my guest. We will not speak of the unseemly.” He paused, cleared his throat, and returned immediately to the topic,
“ The facts are clear enough, poor Apollodorus, the kindest and most generous of men, beloved by all, had his throat slit from behind. A trooper there who is in my pay saw it with his own eyes. It took several assassins to hold, his useless slaves fled in panic, but it was, there we have the eye-witness evidence, Pythia herself he etched his jugular and his carotid with her serrated knife. Amazing, what hatred arises from pollution.
As a palace officer e the whole business has to be disturbing, for it is politically fraught, of course. You are wise to be deeply worried about civil order. So there, you are handed some serious troubles in law and government, by this bloody Pythia whose life you saved today. What irony, eh? As for Apollo, those who know the gods tell me he must be horrified that his once-sacred oracle assassinated Apollo’s temple’s patron and routinely defiled the priestesses with her- oh it is a lurid story- her ferocious lust. One proof of course is that Apollo denounced her as unclean, has ordered vengeance or her penniless exile beyond the boundaries of Empire. Here in Daphne we are no bound to Still, one has a moral duty to the oracle who served us for well. I am a bit sentimental about gratitude, loyalty. I’ pondering my most ethical course. When you’re feeling a little better, I shall be glad for your advice.
This miserable bastard was inventing, lying, defaming, framing, obviously scheming something that required this calumny as groundwork. He was also testing me. I wore as indifferent look as an upset drunk can manage, and said nothing. One learns more by listening than talking, as spies and wise men know. For those of us inebriated, it is also less embarrassing not to talk. I now managed a scowl, no direction showing for its originating displeasure.
“Ah, “said Eros, “we are both gentlemen then and agree tonight is no night for such talk, you can deal with those matters of state tomorrow, of course, of course. But do take care, Dominus, Sir, that disgraced Pythia is not to be trusted at all, the palace must know that she herself ordered the arson to her god’s temple, your agents surely told you that, Dominus, Sir, Dominator?
I scowled on, it seemed to keep the wag on his tongue. ‘Dominus” indeed, the scurrilous bastard was pouring flattering oil on me while turning the truth inside out. I was blurry with drink but would have to clear my head, for this Eros meant more trouble, as if Daphne and Rome had not enough.
He gave me another knowing between-us look. He was practiced enough to know that a serious the lie, if grand enough in the shock of it has to be considered, and in that mind’s opening to revision, were the beginnings of the other’s advantage. Conspiracy can then be advanced hardly noticed, as leaches from fresh water reeds slip on to the unwary skin. I scowled again, said nothing. At last, unlike with Helen, I was being sensible
“Of the Pythia now disgraced, it is said” oh those hands went to rubbing again as if they would spark a fire with the friction of it, “ that before she seduced the high priest to become Pythia of Daphne, that she was known as Helen, more particularly as Helen, whore of the East, high priestess of the whores of Sidon and Tyre, perhaps even an immortal herself of a very low order, for one of her names is Helen of Troy
People hereabouts keep in mind the judgment of Paris took place right over there” he pointed to the cedar grove behind the nearest pond, “which gave Aphrodite the Golden Apple who in turn arranged for Paris to kidnap Helen, wife of Menelaus which began the Trojan War. About that event here, there is no doubt at all, for that is history. It is said that Helen had slept with Paris before the judgment, had slept with Aphrodite too, oh yes, about that there is little doubt, for that is history”
At last Eros stopped the talk, addressing me with the question, “So now honored Secretary to the Governors of Syria, centurion commander in battles, what else do you need to know so that you are sufficiently informed to do your palace duties?
When I am yet only half drunk, I work at summoning a sober-look, which I now did and tried to keep fixed. . Eros, having seen a drunk or two in his life before, ordered a slave to fill another wine cup, brought one half full to my lips, offered me drink. By Hecate, his man would seduce his own mother and the family dog! Which one first, ah, that I cannot say. I gave him my most intensive blue-eyed stare, didn’t say a word. The eyes got to him He reached for his evil eye, his Ra amulet, rubbed it, was reassured. I continued to stare at him, my blue eyes as full of malediction as any Hecate in my might summon. He rubbed the amulet again and, as if to polish it, brought it up in front of his face so that the blue eyed Medusa on it stared back at me. Anywhere around Our Sea that is a curse. His was the peasant’s war of magic shields. Good, it proves him the superstitious ass I had hoped for. There was a chink in his cuirass. I believed my mind to be clearing up a bit. I encouraged him, but I slurred as I said it,
“Go on, tell me more”
He took the bait, obviously he had a program in mind for me, the better were I as I was, rather “stoned’ He carried on, “It is known that this Helen, adulteress wife of Menelaus, who was whore for Rome’s own Aeneas as well, looted of the treasures of Troy which, through giving herself to him as well, she persuaded Agamemnon to carry home for her to Argos. She became a wealthy woman in her own right. I have heard Jews say she seduced the rabbi Jesus, we have a rabbi as a client who claims his own great grandfather watched them in the act. She persuaded him to all his religious mischief, his lunatic vanity about being god, his denouncing the money-changes, the elders and so forth. Jews who know that hate her, then and now
Helen is in deep trouble now though, for Apollo’s curse on her could destroy here any moment. One of Apollo’s young priestesses who is in my pay, it is my generosity for the poor girl has no more income from the temple, that girl having told me all of this, oh the poor girl, I will give her something more later tonight, well, she says, Helen will stay in the apartment of this priestesses and her room mates tonight. Helen, it seems, was heard muttering i talking nonsense about a new high god who is half a woman, or maybe is married to an high goddess his equal. Zeus and Hera all over again, but these somehow related to that Jesus fellow. Well, be that as it may, I find it blasphemous, I have a favor to ask of you, Centurion Commander, but not without paying you of course…” He let the words linger as he reached inside his pantaloons for a purse. He took out some gold coins minted by King Antiochus VIII, thick gold indeed.
My facial muscles were tiring of supporting my inscrutable look, , but insofar as my head was still swimming, my tongue would too, and slurred speech does not command a situation, I told my face to tough it out, “And what would you like for your money?”
“Ah, it is a delicate matter, good business for us both, Dominor, although knowing the reputation of your superior, S. Cornelius, we both understand it would not be wise to tell him, right?
“We will see” Ever so clever myself, indeed sagacious, . I deemed it wise to pour more drink down my gullet. The slaves attentively kept the jug full. Eros seemed to take no notice. I nodded the slaves toward him, indicating that they pour for him too. He shook his head, “no” . It crossed my mind he might, however he encouraged others’ vices, not be a drinker. There was a Daphne anomaly, to be sure. And to be careful.
“Yes, yes, exactly. Well, as you know even in Athens which was rather a strict place morally, one temple to Apollo had sacred prostitution, that is society women dedicated themselves to the god, gave their bodies to his worshippers, with the income used to support the temple. We have never had that here in Daphne, but now, with Apollo gone, and the gods in disarray, well, it is a good time to help the gods, Zeus/Jupiter for example ,whose temple needs more priests and could use a coat of paint. One of his priests thinks mine a fine idea, turn the priestesses more actively, so to speak, to serve the god and those men, women too if they are so inclined, who come with offerings. We provide an offering in return, don’t you see? Apollodorus and I had proposed this some time ago, we would take care of training the women, take a portion of the offerings for our administrative troubles, and everyone would prosper, Zeus foremost. That plan allows that we could allocate, it is a generous idea, some income for rebuilding Apollo’s temple as well. The palace would have to approve, or absent that, be kept ignorant. Roman taxes on income, some stuffy views on temple merchandizing, and no sane man wants to pay those exorbitant taxes when it is really Zeus and Apollo who benefit. So you do see, after all you no more blood Roman than I am, it has to be some quiet agreement with the palace quietly arranged, or keeping the business itself quietly protected. That’s where you can be so valuable, and of course share with Zeus some of the income. Not bad company, I would say.”
I nodded; kept downing the wine. . “I understand your problem”
“Good, good.” There was much rubbing of hands and smiling as he put a stack of gold coins on the table in front of me, “Now here’s the rub. We have had a problem with his perfectly fine proposal from the first moment Apollodorus and I conceived it. The old priest, Apollonius opposed it and so did Pythia, well I am quite sure of that since the priestess I pay put the proposition to her again tonight, to this now, ‘Helen’. Vehement she was, threatening, said she would tell Governor himself, and the Quaestor Cornelius if we tried any such thing. I suppose we could buy her off, but oh my, we have to leave something of what the girls earn to the beneficiary gods.”
“I see the problem. I see your point ” I replied, slurring a bit more but aggravating the serious look on my face to counteract the obvious.
“Exactly, exactly, ah you do appreciate how it stands. Well, all we have to do is to manage some accident to this Helen, a drowning in the pond perhaps, a piece of building falling on her while she walks by, or best perhaps, lure her to walk alone tonight to meet someone and she’s set upon my thieves who kill her, perfectly normal, any of these, but the last one is least likely to lead to questions from the palace. I know this S .Cornelius is a stickler, all virtue and that sort of nonsense, nothing realistically Roman about him, certainly the wrong man for the palace job here in Antioch. Couldn’t be more wrong. You’d be far better fitted, Dominus, oh yes, far better” .
“Well, yes, “he pushed the coins toward me, “Count them, you’ll see quite a little fortune there for you, and more coming once we get the girls set up behind the temple, but, other than managing the palace for us, I suspect you’re the only name that might bring Helen out of her apartment tonight, Some kind of urgent summons, you know, told a chariot is waiting, how about a story that Apollonius is miraculously returning to life out there in the trooper’s camp where his body is, some doctor has brought him around, or a visiting spirit of Asclepius miraculously appearing in the form of an healing Asclepion priest? It will have to be a note, you know, in your handwriting; the woman is too smart to trust a ruse that’s delivered only by mouth. She’s too wise about what’s going on around here, you know, much too wise. Good riddance I’d say, for all of us, all that virtue talk from the whore of Sidon and Tyre, and that nonsense about a Christian high god with a wife, Sophia, good riddance. And so, “ his smiled was so wide it creased his ear lobes “I have the paper and quill with me right here. As for the killing, I’ll see to that. You just write the note”
This last business cleared my head as nothing else could, but there was still a bit of a slur working my tongue. ‘I’ll be bringing charges against you myself, Eros, conspiring murder of the Pythia, conspiring to defile the temples of Daphne by recruiting the priestesses to prostitution, conspiring to violate the policies of the Governor regarding temple sanctity, whatever else I can think of, be sure of that. As I stood up, for all the while I had been seated on the couch, I wobbled, almost fell, so much for stern authority embarrassing itself by having doused itself with too much wine. I had to keep holding on to the chair.
Eros grabbed the gold, offered me a bland smile, “You drunken fool. You have no independent evidence; even as a palace official the magistrates would require it. Against you I have girls, slaves, supervisors, others hereabouts watching, who’ll testify that you were raving drunk, that we had no conversation, that at one point we had to hold you down, that you became furious, and invented this nonsense out of vengeful, embarrassed pique. And yes, I know, you have some authority that might embarrass me, cause some trouble, but if we here in Daphne pit our friends in Antioch against you, keep in mind that the Governor is not above a gift, and the magistrates are there for the money in it, so you and your stupid virtue won’t prevail. Your superior S. Cornelius is too just a man to proceed only on your word, not when we parade ten of ours against you. He knows you drink too much. Whatever his suspicion and sympathies, his duty by law is clear. At worst there will be doubt, it will come out a draw. I have a good deal of experience in this kind of thing, good; you have no idea about how things really work in Syria. Too bad, there was money in this for all of us. I’ll have someone bring you your horse, help you get on it, head you back to the trooper’s camp.”
He shook his head, the grease prisms on his hair danced under the torches, “What a waste, what a waste.” And as a parting threat, “Don’t fall on your knife, Balteus old sot, a man can hurt himself that way…”
I wanted to use my knife on him, but I was too drunk to do a job of it. How low I’d sunk. I growled, grunted, cursed and threatened it was just that I couldn’t stand up without lurching, holding on to the chair not to fall. I was a slob, a mess. There was more to loathing, him and myself to it, I was outraged. The enormity of his corruption challenged me and I thought I had seen everything. I smarted from his insult, but it was I who had done my dignity in. When I’d first come to Syria I’d have taken a bribe any time, now I would not. I had degenerated into a prig. Moral outrage, eh? So that’s how it feels. Little comfort in it.
“Filth!” I’m usually good with words, but I was not used to selecting ones that fit my new moral high ground. Here I was, ridiculous in Daphne, another J Paul ranting at the way things are and always will be. I remembered my poet, Juvenal. It was an adolescent rant when I said, “Juvenal was right about the Syrian Orontes pouring out its sewage into the Tiber, Rome is debased by all of you.” I sat down again, not much vituperation left. I nearly tipped over the chair doing it. When a North German soldier retreats to Juvenal for invective, you know he’s out of the game
Eros could afford his superior nonchalance. “Ah, yes Juvenal fussing as usual. Too debase Rome is a task that would overwhelm the gods, as for our whores in Rome, and I have, by the way, sold some of my best there, Juvenal along with the rest, all the town screw what we send there and are glad for it. Rome holds Syria for the goods we provide her, our wheat makes her best bread, my girls make her best lays, and cheaper than the Egyptian ones too. Rome rules here because it likes what it finds, food, taxes, cheap wine not worth drinking but people down it anyway and girls well worth their screwing. So listen, my sound tough and lofty friend, comfortable in your palace bed, keeper of memories of all your battles, get off your high horse. We are, like all whom Rome touches, soiled goods and we love it. As the Christians might say, “Face it, sinner, we are all brothers in vice””
You know as well as I do there’ll be no cleansing done in Daphne while Rome rules, while the gods live, while the profits flow, while the good times roll. I’ve heard tales of when that Christian Paul was here making an utter fool of himself, standing in front of taverns shouting “sin” and “fornicators” while people were doing what people do here, doing it nosily on the lawns right in front of him, laughing at him between pumps. The idiot skulked out of town in a froth, damning all Rome and pleasure. As you can see we’re still laughing at him, although it he died maybe over 50 years ago. Why remember it? He was the epitome of the ridiculous, as is anyone who wants to turn Rome into an empire of the goody-goody just.”
So now Eros was lecturing me. I didn’t need to teach myself that tonight I’d let go of my guard, and was eating manure as the cost. Eros was a beaming preacher, he liked those sarcastic Christian references. When I was sober enough to get it right, he would pay for it. Right now I stunk of wine, was about to vomit, but my impotent temper conjured the future smell of blood, his. I remembered the other pig who died of sticking nearby, Apollodorus. This town sure grew them, it did, the fat, the pleased, and the filthy. Rich for a while, but once they were stuck, no silver coins flowed out of their veins. Their arteries were probably toxic.
I kept my plan to myself, which self was now hiccoughing repetitively. I tried to cure these with more wine, like throwing oil on fire to douse it. Eros was lecturing again,
“ I never thought I’d hear you pompous, Balthus, you dog eared wine sack. I’ll give you another chance at reason. nor do I want you as an enemy, far from it. You and I are ideal partners once you wake up to the advantage of that. With that in mind, my answer to your irritation is that it’s not ‘filth’, but ordinary marketing we’re talking about, not morals but reality. Say ‘corruption’ and I answer you that we trade in making everyone happy. We are what Rome is, what Daphne gets paid for, where her bread comes from,. We provide, with skills that few others have, what makes otherwise miserable lives pleasurable.
Pleasure is a good, dear drunken auxiliary centurion secretary Balthus. It is the highest good and rules us all. All else is abstraction, delusion, and impoverishment. I call you by your names, ‘knife’ included, although we never met before, but believe me we all know your name, your history, and soon the name of all my whores you must have had in Antioch. You’ve risen fairly high in the civil order, as I in the mercantile one. Many consider that the provincial auxiliaries are lapdogs of the legions. I am not so foolish. You fight well for Rome and are rewarded by dining rather well at the imperial trough. I tell you simply that there can be even better food in our troughs if we plan mutual advantage. Rome is queen of profits, Daphne is her princess. I dress, and undress, the princess. You can take a bigger piece of her. I am generous, I harbor no grudge. Everyone gets drunk and says stupid things best forgotten. So, gifts, understanding, forgiveness and reason are my approach. To start with, gifts; anytime you are in Daphne, the girls and the wine are free. If we work together, you will share profits from the temple priestesses, who will be yours for free. You’ve seen the lyre-players, not bad, not bad at all. But for you now and future, don’t expect,the rich man’s life unless you face reality. Wipe the mist from your eyes, those clouds that S. Cornelius put there. that “Incorruptible Quaestor” people in Daphne now call him. That is true vilification. Anyway, Helen will go off somewhere, I will turn other profits; there is no place for the virtuous at the counting table. Only realists get rich “.
What he’d said was true ,and yes, maybe I was being stupid beyond being drunk. I swore at him, he looked upward loftily, smiled a bit, I had made myself dirt and he was stepping on it, and I had turned down a lucrative chance. For what? I wasn’t even sure, but Eros was right, S. Cornelius had, without any lectures, doing nothing persuasive that I could think of, had, I must say ‘somewhat.’ changed me. Not having been on moral high ground before, feeling dizzy on it now, recognizing too well Eros’ “reality”, the only thing that came to mind was that I had not been to his whore houses, having, as you know, always procured my own.
Eros, rhetor, went on, “Credit me, with some depths, a better education than anyone would guess, and thus some arguments against myself. I respect men of the old school, the old Republic, S Cornelius as Cato, the Elder or the other Cato Uticensis, Ciceronians, the Gracchii. All of them were noisy, difficult, morally righteous, mostly obnoxious guardians of what was not but, “should be.” As if water runs up hill and men don’t have thirsts and cocks. Women’s appetites are ever worse, but more subtle. Some idealists get assassinated for their illusions, others exiled, you Balthus, will simply not get rich. You want to prosper in a world that never was, is not, will not be. Everyone but S. Cornelius and his like know that, you know that yourself. Nevertheless, there’s always some modern Hesiod glorifying a golden age, the time ago when the gods and men were harmonies, the world was good, honey not shit ran in the sewers. Now we have the Christians doing the same, glorifying not the mythical past but their futures ever so moral, with their golden age the more ludicrous, not here at all, no forecast Parousia ever came, which should have taught them something, but Heaven. Golden it is, too, for I have seen one quite poor mosaic depicting it in color. Our virtuous nutty neighbors in Christ are not immune from greed after all. They are simply delaying gratification but for the mythology they tell themselves daily. I say, bully for them.
Do I surprise you, Junior Secretary, that I know these things, have feelings about them? I tell you. Before I came to my senses I studied these matter, yes Balthus, much more education in the deteriorating Stoa of the Greek philosophers than you ever conceived. Athens, yes, I went to Athens where I heard them bragging about what was, their own golden age, while what it had come too was decay, cowardice and whore’s too lazy to move their ass. There was nothing in Athens worth buying, including their dreams. I too once had that dream of an honest, world, or the pure one of Cynic philosophers’ world where wealth, property, status are renounced for disciplined purity, even asceticism. Imagine that, glorifying a man who has never squeezed a tit or ploughed a woman! Oh those fore-swearings, and how they all, well but for the crazy ones, lied. I meet idealists in my brothels every night.
The gods are no good, we all know that, lusty, raucous, randy, treacherous, and useless. Maybe philosophers are better, eh? How about the Jews? Their Yahweh is a virtuous fellow who doesn’t chase girls, but his bad temper gets them killed by the thousands, those wars, pestilences, curses turning people to salt, oh what a sweet god that is who enjoys punishing. I customers like that in my houses, they get their rocks off hurting the girls. I’m not one for punishing for the fun of it, only as necessity; a customer out of line and my boys teach them how much their whips sting. We whip the girls only as discipline. A customer has to pay a lot to hurt one of my girls, I tell you. As for those few peculiar fellows for whom sex is best when they kill the girl, I despise their sort. When I arrange a snuffing, believe me it really costs them, and I do it only for groups, and not in my ordinary houses, rather, in some out of the way place where no one is bothered by the screams. If it’s too messy afterwards and no great real estate investment, I burn the place down. Cheaper than burying the girl and, as a mercantile aesthetic matter, avoids anyone seeing the mess a body can be.
Don’t think I’m casual about it, I arrange it humanely, only with girls I know are sick anyway, not that the customers know, but the girls at least leave this life before they’ve turned into dying hags. Before they’re snuffed they can still look into the mirror, and be pleased with what they see. Vanity, vanity, oh these trumpets. As for the gods, a vain bunch as well, think Narcissus. It’s not hard to be better than any of them, you or I, Balthus. As for moralists, philosophers and the gods. I hate the lot of them.
You wonder how I dare want to turn Apollo’s priestesses into whores? A case in point. Just think of Daphne, how Apollo was chasing her to rape her, it took another supernatural to protect her, and Daphne turned into a tree for that. Wood instead of flesh, how’s that for a rescue”? Apollo the randy, Zeus the ravisher, there are the gods for you. At least no man rapes my girls, I protect them and my customers all pay!
You, Balthus, who were known as a practical man on his way up, now you are set to ruin yourself with playing at the virtuous. Oh, not that virtue can’t be turned to its practical uses, just like Apollo’s temple, religion can pay if you have the brains to put it to work. I say let people’s purses pay for their dreams, who cares if it’s hoopla, be Christian for that matter, tell them Heaven is on the way, but always be sure at the end of the day they’ve eaten well, have a woman in their bed and some coins in their purses. Provide for your brothers, and always at profit. That is how to make it this world , my dear drunken Suebian ‘B’.
My retching interrupted his long homily. He stepped back a bit, saying, “Oh, my goodness you just puked on your official tunic. Your medals, badges are all stinky, orange and red gooey, lumpy, really wet and still dribbling, oh dear, oh that is a mess, oh my, you are a mess aren’t you.”. He beckoned a slave to get some towels to clean me up. All of me was soggy and stunk. No fight in me. I was a limp rag while the slave’s clean ones went over me as a mother’s might. The life of a slave is not a good one. His face was contorted as he nursed my vomit. Eros, having summoned the good deed and shown me with his digusted expression just how loathsome I was, resumed.
“Anyway, there you have some of my philosophy. I will save both of us from my quoting Plato’s Parmenides. When you’re through vomiting, oh my, you are having a night of it aren’t you, well, if ever you get through retching, I will tell you other possibilities. I do that out of respect, Secretary, for having gotten as far in life as you have. I know you must be a man interested in prospects, not really too finicky in how you move up the ladder. You know full well that is an impediment. As for being drunk, normal enough. I have been there myself. But probity? Let that fit pass.”
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