“I don’t care if she is a princess, and the gift of the gods. We are all Catullus if saying makes it so. You’ve been in Syria too long, Boss, all dignified, stern and lonely, and suddenly coupling with that beauty melts your discipline and good sense. Yes, you know she’s exceptional, I agree. But in how any different ways that might be? Time passing puts a rein on stallions gone wild. With this Princess Helen, you best go slowly, a trot maybe, not a gallop.
Balthus and I were friends as much as differing blood, lives and rank allow it. He is a self-made man, our familiarity is fine, his company has been good for me, but some constraint in speech is expected, if only for form’s sake.. I had hardly expected talk like this from him, he is, after all, a subordinate. I had just told him, upon coming into the office after that second day with Helen, what he already knew; that I was in love with, had slept with, was eager to marry her. (Roman marriages require no ceremony or documentation, marriage is an agreement in the minds of the parties. The couple lives together (not always), act as committed couples do, tell others they are. Divorce is the same, but can be much noisier. For all that simplicity, immense legal consequences ensue from the married state, as do social, financial and political ones.) Helen was not ready for it, she said, for when I asked she had said “no.” adding, she held my hand but I felt her words harsh, that neither sex nor affection nor the two combined excuse impulse, nor are sufficient basis for an immedate contract.. My state does not pretend to be sensible. I want to be wild. Plans should be made by the heart. As for Balhus, my emotions now at a gallup, let me aim some first time straight talk at him.
“You’re out of line, Balthus” I was furious.
“”Quaestor then and Dominus, Dominator in the eyes of many when the Governor is away. If that’s the way you want it between us, fine. But if you don’t want to live the rest of your life without a friend, but when a man is just trying to give some advice, with that kind of response you won’t deserve one.”
He had insulted me, was insubordinate, insolent. I was as astonished as angry. It was the only time I had seen his face turn red, his Adams apple bob, he was breathing hard. If his looks could have killed, I was a dead Quaestor. We stared at each other in a silence so tense the waves of it could have broken pottery, had there been any in the office. If the silence were to be broken, I would have to do it. The apology was his to make, but the German in him guaranteed a resentful grudge over a lifetime if I did not step in to cure it. I did not want it to be punishment, which first came to my mind, for his thinking of my welfare even though he was wrong, exercised one of the harder duties of friendship. It was I who might have been the more awkward, for the sludge of aristocracy was fouling my gears. Even so, it is not the custom of commanders to apologize, albeit I had, over my life, I felt I had much for which to apologize, not wrongs done, but the absence of good will. I spoke curtly,
“Alright, Balthus, I appreciate your concern. But hang it all, man, you slapped me across the face with a dead fish. You know how much I love her, she’s my life. She put you down a few times, but that’s her right, given her status. Yes, she speaks her mind quite frankly. She’s been direct with me too, and I grant you it’s not easy on the ears. She stands her ground, Balthus, good for her. So do you, so cheers for you both.
Balthus grunted, swallowed, relaxed, spoke,
“Boss, you’re new at love, we both know that. It’s one of those things that exaggerates itself. I know you, Boss, and admire you. Please be cautious. When I was an early lover, I soared through the sky.. I was sure Venus was guiding me, well, if she was, it was her hands on my private parts. I flew as high as disappointment could drop me. As to Helen, Boss, you know I don’t like her. She’s sharp tongued, arrogant, pretentious, domineering, and I suspect basks in those ridiculous legends about herself which she only half denies. Worst, I don’t trust anyone who would make any deal with Simon Magus”
“There’s an actress in her, Balthus,” I replied, “Pythia has to be that. As a princess she’s been educated to assert herself. She’s actually in a difficult, lonely spot. Think of it, Apollo fled, her temple burned, men like Eros ready to harass her, no protector about, there’s no one but herself to see to her honor.”
“By a German standards, not a Roman one, she already lost her honor to you, and that assumes the best case”.
“Balthus, you’re a prude. This is no Roman lascivious affair. We’re mature people. We love each other, I am reasonably sure she will marry me.
“With Simon Magus officiating in a Gnostic wedding?”
“He’s nothing to her. You saw that yourself in Daphne, told me about it. You have to appreciate she is a devout and idealistic woman. She has a right to see if the Gnostic Christians are her path. Besides, she confided in me she doesn’t think it will work out.”
“Well, Boss, just tell me where she is now”
I was taken aback. Balthus spymaster obviously knew something I did not, “I asked her to stay at my house, she said ‘no’ she wanted to go back to Daphne, oversee the temple repairs. Said she didn’t want to live with me until we had everything straight and sure, explained to me again she was her own woman, and no one’s house mistress.’ Domina’, yes, but not domestic. At her level of status, both parties are free, as you know very well.”
“So I do, so I do, and so, I ask you,. where do you think your precious Helen is now?”
“Daphne, of course”
“If I told you, as my spies tell me—for I have set them watching her, Boss, and that’s for your sake- she’s with Simon and his scummy little partner, Menander, who’s an out and out thief. What do you say now?”
“That I don’t want you spying on her”
“That you don’t want to know”
“There’s nothing to know. If she’s with Simon, its to plan introducing his sect of Gnosticism here in Antioch”
“I told you what I heard in Daphne, she’s going to play his consort priestess, Sophia’s earthly form, Well, guess what, Simon is now putting it about that she’s not only Helen of Troy, Apollo’s Priestess and the Whore of Tyre but, just as the publicity possibility was raised earlier, his word is out that she is Mary Magdalene as well. Not just ‘was’, or might have been, but here and now, is” The same story; Jesus godly female half, and of course, his mistress in flesh as well as spirit. Immortal of course. He’s giving her star billing, as if she were a star gladiator. Who can resist coming to see a legendary immortal, the holy wife, and, given what she was said to be in Tyre, and believe me, Simon is hardly scotching that rumor, a fabulous whore.
Do you know what the story is that Simon has his street boys circulating? Listen up: the magnificent Whore Helen is goddess of shipbuilders in Tyre. The Whore copulates the especially carved, fitted, fluted and, in her, fornicating bowsprit of each new ship before it is launched, and does every one of the crew as well. Oh, it’s a great time in the old town those nights, rollicking. Any man jack of the crew of the new vessel who tires before she is through with his” signing her articles,” so to speak, is dropped from the ship’s roster. If he can’t ride a tossing, rolling, whoop-tee-do whore, how can he survive a storm at sea? That’s what they say in Tyre.”
“It all disgusts me. The less I like .it the better the crowd will and Simon most of all, a scabrous scoundrel. But that’s what the Magus is about. The sooner Helen learns that the rogue is an obscenity, the better. He’s not going to pull any wool over her eyes”
“How about afterwards, if it is Simon the lover pulling the blanket up over their bodies on the partying couch?”
I glared at Balthus, wanted to hit him, the more so because the image he word-painted just sat there in my mind. Horrible..
“Now you are insulting, get out of here before I teach you some respect” His Tyre tale was beyond the pale, he knew it, and he knew how I would react.
“Cool down, Boss, I’m simply doing my job as your friend and official spymaster. I’ve got to tell you what I learn. It’s my turn to be understanding. Assume she feels a stranger, after all, she’s been out of the normal world for, our best estimate, fourteen years. Isolated in a temple, the world at her feet, but for all the great ones to whom she has prophesied, she is anonymous. No patrons I have learned about, no patrons, their connections. So yes, you come along, she falls for you, she’s not sure of herself yet, has to compare you with, well yes, the competition. She has been impulsive, already made, in our view, a bad decision. So now she’s Simon’s partner, puppet really, in the Gnostic show. Simon is handsome, charming, rich, dashing, deep enough to be convincing about the secret knowledge (gnosis) and resurrection drivel he’s been selling to the crowds in Phoenician south Syria. He’d be attractive to most women. I grant now, when we were all together in Daphne, she disliked him, made him squirm. Insofar as he has any feelings for women, he must dislike her. But his type work on bedding a woman for the mastery of it, the I’ll-show-you bull dominance of it. So, Boss, don’t you believe for one minute that he’s not going to try to take her, one way or another.
Boss, you know I loathe him. After what happened between us in Daphne he’s got it in for me as well, and no doubt about it. It’s serious vengeance he’s after, which is another reason I am having him watched. A coward he is I’m sure, but not stupid. He knows in any fair fight, I’ll gut him like a fish and leave his as decapitated dyed yellow head for the dogs to gnaw on. Since he won’t get me with a fair fight, he’ll connive an unfair one, Accept it Boss, one soldier to another, after how I humiliated him he’s got to want to get to me. One way is to kill me. Another is through you. Seduce Helen or rape her, get her whimpering beneath her. Or marry her himself, what does he care? He shows himself master stud, humiliates a princess and wrecks your life as well.
Helen, exquisite as she is, adventuresome, tough, but suddenly adrift in, her mid forties. Not young anymore. Whatever she does now might be her last commitment. Grant she’s taken with you, but a woman chaste for so long might have to test herself with another man, or just desperate to get laid, ‘comparison shopping’ call it. Consider: she went to bed with you fast enough. I won’t give that move any names or you’ll cut my head off, but just because you love her, and she responds, don’t assume too much. Boss, protect your own interests.”
I was not all pleased. My senior clerk had given me a lecture. He had made some disturbing points. I was gruding slow to answer,.
“An outsider who doesn’t really know her could see it your way.”
He ignored the slight, and the sheer error of it. “Alright. If she is in this uncertain spot, two immediate choices have been offered her. One you like: your domesticating her to no role at all of public importance, and her other; charming the world as Sophia on earth, consort to High Priest Simon, an immortal Magdalene for the Jesus cult, and still, maybe, keeping up her Troy legend. A choice: love and be lackluster, versus limelight and luster. Extremes they are, and remember, Pythia and Troy, has been a star on her own but with only minor, almost tribal title. Who cares about a tribe of Galation migrants not so long ago barbarians? So what would you do if you were her, allowing in your favor that Corneliius is a good name to which to be attached? Does she really know?
“You keep bringing that up. She struck me. I can say that literally, as a woman who definitely knows her own mind”
“Boss, I heard and saw more of her than I like. My brother Tuisto hooked up with a woman rather like your Helen, oh not as beautiful, no nobility, no legends but for Suebian North Germany quite remarkable pickings I knew her of course. The fact is, Arabelle was confused, absolutely lacking confidence for all the play of arrogance, indeed in her case the arrogance was all cosmetic. We learned all that much later, after she had lamenting confided in her priest after she became a celibate Druid priestess. In any event Tuisto, bless his memory, was all set to marry her, and yes of course they’d slept together, any peasant in North Europe will do that for if a baby comes from it a he’s sure of her fertility. So, the Druid priest in our region hears from his counterpart somewhere south that Arabelle (from the German “eagle”, Latin “bella” as beautiful) is sleeping with that other priest. She’s doing this, four days before the wedding, mind you.
Call it one last fling before the door closes, desperate last experiments, or you could say Arabelle was still practicing opening doors, the one between her legs foremost. That’s when Tuisito had his first depression, joined the Roman legion auxiliaries. Became quite the death-defying battlefield hero, but when no enemy had done him the service of killing him, as I told you, he killed himself. I loved Tuisto I did, never a better brother in the world. I lost him because of, call her will, but certainly unreliable, and I say whoring, ignore the unhappy ending part as priestess. The unholy and holy cohabitating, that’s what I say. That’s easy to do, Boss. My cat whiskers vibrating tell me your Helen is trouble”
I kept my answer short, ignoring the Arabelle story, said as long as it was to protect his own life he could spy on Simon, but I wanted to hear no reports on Helen.
“I mean it, Balthus, no matter what. It’s undignified, untrusting, unloving’
“Boss, that’s when a man’s heart stops pumping blood to the part of the brain where good sense is made,. I tell you information is precious , and you don’t want to hear it”
‘I already know what I need to know, Balthus. She loves me, that’s enough”
“Arabelle probably loved Tuisto. When he died because of her, she went into mourning, dedicated the rest of her life to being a celibate priestess to our forest gods. Save me from love like that. Arabelle is one reason I took the wife I did, no excitement at all, no self doubt, no need to find herself, as for instance, in other men’s beds. A solid woman, Boss, but for her temper, which mostly I bring on myself. I don’t know why a man goes for an exciting woman, not over the long term. Iff a fellow needs that much challenge, he can stay in the army, volunteering for every dangerous mission that comes along. Or he can plot to be emperor”
“I love her, Balthus, what can I say?”
We were silent for a time. “Boss, do me one favor. I know where she is now, not far from here. Come with me, its time you met Simon and his little friend, Menander. Your Helen is with him, no doubt planning their Gnostic show. We can drop in on them easily enough, because, my surveillance squad tell me she’s with him in the garden of your own house”
I was taken aback, offended, felt betrayed, but that was my stupidity. After all, I had asked her to stay with me. So, in her own way, that is what she was doing. I should be glad, for she was using my house as her house. She knew I had been worried about her working with Simon. Having to meet him somewhere, she had decided my place gave him a message, and me as well, for she was showing me there was nothing to worry about. She would soon send for me, in the meantime, I should be glad she chose the safe venue of my garden, her garden if she wanted it.. Even so, why hadn’t she sent for me earlier? I am too new to this loving a woman to make heads or tails even of the ordinary.
Balthus and I walked to my house quickly. As we knocked on the outer gate, my gate guards opened, my usher hurried out. They were nervous. The usher licked his lips as his stumbling tongue explained,
“Dominus, your lady, the Princess came here with them. You have not told us how much freedom of the house she is to have. She ordered us to admit them, bring tea, fruit juices to drink, fruit, and tidbits to eat. She explicitly said, ‘no wine.’ The princess Helen is not a woman one questions or refuses. So, Master, she and the two strange men are in the garden, or rather she is there with the tall one with the odd colored hair. There was an unpleasant little one with them when they came in. He came into the house, sneaking I would say, although you told us your house is the Domina’s, so we could not interfere with her guests. We are not easy with the sneaking one. We didn’t know what to do. We are all so glad you are home, Master. It is an awkward situation.
I shrugged, let a hand gesture show it was of no importance, assured them all was well, that now the Princess Helen was about and bringing acquaintances, I’d set out some rules.
Balthus was more direct, “Quaestor, Sir, (we were in front of the slaves, one uses formal speech), something is very much not right”
I nodded, as if agreeing, fact is I didn’t know what to make of the sneak. I turned back to the servants; told them, “Now, show us to my visitors.”
Helen and her guest were in a far reach of the garden, under a mimosa tree, next to one of the larger ponds, amidst some quite good Greek-inspired statuary. The slave went forward quickly to tell her I was here. Helen smiled and came toward me when she saw us, “I was about to send for you to come meet Simon. We’ve been talking about the tent meeting he plans, what I must do to prepared. The announcements are going up all around town tomorrow. I have a bit of stage fright, but Simon says I won’t have to do much, just be there in priestess dress and speak a few lines about the Gnostic revelation of the hidden High God.” She stopped, entirely at ease, gestured to the tall, thin, handsome fellow with her. I observed immediately, disapproving, he was not muscular, he was soft, and I thoroughly disliked his grin. I didn’t like the slouch to him either, nor indeed, anything else.
“Here Simon, come meet, Quaestor Sempronius Scipio Gracchus Cornelius, Secretary to the Governor, former Senior Centurion awarded the Dacian and many other medals”. Her guest, his hair tinted a monstrous yellow, strolled forward, that ugly grin broadening. If it kept on widening like that, it would leave his face and hit a tree. Simon was dressed in a gaudy lemonish yellow and blue short tunic, his hairy thin legs were spindling out from below. He wore, not conventional sandals on his feet, but silver-painted leather boots, all worked and inlaid with glossy stuff. He wore several necklaces, each adorned with pendants or amulets, the biggest one hanging down, one as big as a hand, read “Deus Sol Invictus”
I was familiar with the nomenclature; it was a Syrian god from near hereabouts, according to trade and political reports coming to my desk. A King Sampsigeramus had ruled earlier Arab tribes on this very Orontes. Under him the sun god became popular. His cult is now in Rome. The god himself was called Elagabalus. My governing desk knew more about this than interested me because we were constantly beseeched to fund a new and grander temple for him. My answer was always, “no”. As far as I’m concerned officially, the old Olympians should be good enough. This Syrian nonsense which is setting all of Rome a flutter can only undermine morals, for, as you know, Antioch, with all of this East country is soft, lazy, lewdly self indulgent and, for anyone who can afford it, too often drunk, and none of the natives often enough bathed. There’s a movement afoot to make Elagabalus birthday, December 25, an official holiday. I have denied that here. These Antiocheans have so many holidays they don’t know what work is.
So here was one of them. Helen’s new co star. The look of him made me sick. There was this sunny slick confident smile and that awful yellow-dyed hair. “Yellow Boy” I would call him, this, Simon the Magician, Yellow Boy Elagabalus, add Helios-Apollo, and if he could get away with it, I had the most recent announcements, himself great grandson of Mary Magdalene out of Gnostic Jesus (I’ve had more reports on these people put on my desk) Quite a trick then, Helen is umpteenth grandmother and his partnering priestess. There’s an attraction to incest, quite a bit of it about here in the East, but here was nonsense extraordinary.
This was Simon then, comfortable in my garden, at ease with my Helen, the huckster who wants to be high priestly king of the Gnostics in competition with the decent, serious folk who made up the Christ sect hereabouts. The reports were that Gnostics encouraged visions of Jesus. The idea was that every man could talk to him, no priesthood required, although the priests, not Jesus, had the secret knowledge—if you can believe that! A merchant’s trick, get something for free, but pay for box the candy comes in. The Ignatian Christians hated them, since if just anyone can see, talk directly to Jesus, there’s nothing much special about the Apostles, Paul, or their apostolic heirs, as for example, Ignatius. The implications are of the serious politics of ownership and succession. The serious Gnostics were ascetics; they honored women as equals, but were not much in favor of lovemaking. I didn’t see Simon as one to flog any ascetic doctrine, hardly, nor did I like the way he looked at Helen. Not one bit!
I had Yellow Boy classified in a minute. All of him was in very bad taste but that was no matter to him, for he was a fellow immensely pleased with himself. He reached to clasp my extended arm. It was a courtesy I would rather not have extended. There were several rings on each of his fingers, all glittering, some embossed, all but one too big, for he had a woman’s hand, delicate, always moving fingers, as if his nervous plans were dancing in them. Too thin, like his skinny legs. I could not place his origins, nothing Syrian about him, brown eyes, yes, but light skin and brown hair, rather typically middle European. I liked that even less. There might be some tribal appeal to Helen in this fellow. Demons, jealously, distrust, anxiety, were dancing about within me. I didn’t like it a bit!
Simon chatted idly about his and Helen’s future with Gnosticism, Helen listened; I hope it was with bored suspicion. . I did ask him how it was he was here with her now. He replied he’d just been passing by on the Street of Trajan, planning to place posters when they met. He showed us a poster. It was large, yellow letters painted on black background.
FREE GAMES, GUARANTEED PATH TO IMMORTALITY.
WIN TWO PRIZES, IMMORTAL LIFE AND A LOTTERY CHANCE
FOR BIG MONEY. A NO LIMITATIONS FUNERAL SOCIETY
LEARN HOW GOD CAN PRESIDE AT YOUR FAMILY FUNERAL
Learn the Knowledge That Will Make You Immortal. Learn About the Gnostic Secret Path to Heaven. Come to The Best-Ever Funeral Society Meeting, Come to the Free Games. Win Money as Well as Eternal Life. Hear the High Priest Simon Magus Elagabalus; Meet Goddess-on- Earth Sophia, Jesus’ Woman, World Famous Beauty, and the Immortal Helen of Troy, Tyre, Daphne and Jerusalem. Watch Gladiators and Athletes.
FREE ADMISSION. Donations Encouraged!
Learn how to join this new Low Fee funeral society which pays for all member’s burials with no tribal limitations on membership, Open to Everyone. Extra Value: Learn How to Summon Your Own God to Be at Your Family Member’s Funeral. Invite Mithra, Sol or Jesus at no extra cost. Have a Tyche stand-in sing at your family funeral (Fee to be discussed)
Meeting tent Erected on the Street of Herod and Tiberius, Just Beyond the Wall of Tiberius, south on the Road to Daphne beyond the Cherubim Gate. ‘
Free Horse Cart Transport Available for the Sick and Elderly (donations appreciated )
Simon explained, “I have had twenty five posters each made in Greek and Latin, five in Aramaic, no Hebrew, those people are glued to their Yahweh, as he to them. We’re putting them up at the main baths, forums, bridges, gates, theaters, on tavern row, and at the biggest whorehouses. We’re hiring uniformed armed men- they will all wear yellow and red- to guard the posters, give a pitch, give directions, and give a free lottery ticket to anyone who asks. It tells hem, ‘Only holders present can win. I’ve had scribes working for weeks on all this stuff. When they finished, I told them they had to convert to be Gnostics if they wanted full pay. I learned long ago, recruitment takes some pushing as well as promising..
Balthus and I had had the same earlier thought. Club meetings anywhere in Empire are forbidden without special permission. Funeral societies are excepted. Any rich benefactor can hold public games Clever Yellow Boy was playing on that. (Most governors overlook meetings in homes such as the Christians have). Jews have the special privilege of their synagogues. The rules are loosening, but I could prevent this meeting on the honest, or arguable grounds it was no game, no honest funeral society, but a prohibited club. On such matters, what I decide makes it so. Helen read my mind, and frowned, giving me a stern look, with an irritable glance at Balthus. I could see another confrontation with her coming up. An unhappy Mule gave way to Helen’s look, for Simon’s show was her opportunity, as I knew she saw it, and, whatever the laws on gathering, she was having her own, not the Roman way. So, Simon and Helen presiding, here opens the new, entertaining Christian era, not bread “and”, but religion now as circus. Balthus took my being Helen-whipped badly. His face wore dark clouds. I had never seen him so angry-looking. But what had I really done? Well, given way to a woman when Roman law should have ruled, let a scoundrel have his way using her against me, opened the city up to a possibly troublesome political opposition should Simon have that kind of ambition, and shamed my self in front of my subordinate.
These were not happy reflections, but I was so busy with them that I initially forget to wonder how Helen would explain her not being in Daphne, where she had said she was going. But then, she had made it clear I had no right to ask her about anything. Summing up my discontents, I began to burn. Love as reality out of bed, and beyond caresses, might not be something, as Helen was presenting it now, that I could long stomach. Balthus might be right about advance warning, in love’s as well as ordinary wars.
The servants were agitated, hardly about us here, but at the back of the rear, not this front or side garden. As I had seen at the entrance gate, they had already been uneasy with the freedom the sneaking one, Yellow Boy, and maybe even Helen, took of my ordinarily quite private house. There were very few servants about, the few visible had shrunk into the kitchen door fronting on the garden. I have never demanded much of my servants, free or slave. I free any slave at age 40, have never whipped them, but on the other hand am not close to any of them either, but perhaps for my personal Persian servant, Hvareno. His name translates as “Fortune of the King”, an ironic name for a man captured young in the Parthian wars and sold to my family years ago. He was older than I was now, but long ago protested he liked the life here with me, was afraid to be free. I freed him nevertheless but was glad to have him stay on as my personal valet. He is a quiet man, timid, but helpful and loyal. A valet is not the same as the man who supervises all the help, a dominus of sorts, most households had one of their most organized slaves in that position, as I did. I trusted Hvareno whereas I only relied on the other fellow. Se, when we arrived this afternoon Hvareno had not come to ask my needs, which was unusual. Had he gone to the town? Was he ill? I gestured one of those in the doorway over, asked about Hvareno. No one had seen him recently, although he was earlier supervising the others tending to my bedroom, tidying up my private part of the house.
It went on for a while, Yellow Boy jabbering away. He had a nervous tick, constantly brushing back his longish, Eastern style hair from his forehead where it fell when he tossed his head about, as if ejecting birds from his hair. His hair was wispy stuff, like a woman’s, but it lay laid down with the help of translucent grease. When the sun shone on it, the yellow took on a faintly greenish cast. Helen looked on almost studiously, Balthus sat back on his chair with his arms folded in disapproval. My eyes were on Helen. She hardly looked at me. These others at least knew what they felt , for myself I was a motley mix.
There was a bit of a commotion by the small rear gate which led to the alley behind, an alley were slaves, servants and some nondescript others, those others in far more impoverished condition than my people, lived. My servants seemed to have opened it, quite a job since it had many bolts, and was rarely used. Its use, in fact, was not authorized for security reasons, My people living in the alley came around to the front gate for a proper entry. But now, through this little gate came a short, thin man sporting a breezy swagger on what there was of him, Yellow Boy called out, “Menander, we have all been wondering where you’d gone”
“All of us”, hardly, just the Yellow one of us, unless Helen had involved herself with this Menander as well. If she had, well, one more nail in the a-building coffin of love. Menander was as uninviting a piece of work one could imagine seeing, short of the gallows, the axe man’s head block, or cross. The urge to throw the Yellow Boy out of my place grew stronger, but again my dilemma, since Helen was his hostess and absorbed, I could not. I do not like having to be being angry at misbehavior in my own garden. The fellow walked toward us, a side-to-side movement like a boat overloaded on one side, wallowing. His arms were of a curiously uneven length, the longer one hung just above the ground. I could see he was pimply fellow, rat eyed and weasel-snouted, a street urchin incongruously wearing a vest of fine leather of the sort leather merchants in the bazaar expensively sell, the sort local tailors will make for rich Syrian Antiocheans who thereby prove their fashion runs to execrable taste. How so? The leather is painted all colors, and is tassled with drilled oyster shells that rattle when the wearer but moves.
Balthus had mentioned this Menander, (an excellent Greek playwright’s name put here to terrible use.) In the same bit of local talk, he had told me of the newest gossip of that Helen who was of Tyre, that she was commercial goods, to speak, with Simon her procurer. All that story and Helen had been in Antioch less than two days, but Simon had been with her in Daphne earlier, that Eros meeting. Neither Balthus nor I put it past him to have circulated this slander as well. Anything to attract attention to Helen soon to be on stage, and while he was at it, debasing her as fancy sexual goods Simon was chosen to sell. As for Menelaus, the intelligence was that he was a hanger on who did Simon’s chores including pandering and active thieving, including his own game as a pick-pocket. Lovely, just lovely, here gracing my garden, ,courtesy of Helen, being offered treats by my uneasy serving slaves, were these two paragons. I looked to Helen. She ignored me, talked on with Yellow Boy and Sneak, the Weasel. Balthus’ face was seamed with disgust; I suspect his disgust was with me as well. I should be.
I did not intend to be pleasant when I broke in on a Yellow Boy monologue on the relation of god Sol (Latin sun) to Helios (Greek, sun )as twins, whom he said he would soon unite as one,
“My desk does not have good reports on either of you, your poster is in the poorest taste. You know it is not true that Princess Helen is any tie to the Christian Jesus, that all the legends you attribute are insulting, and that your claims may very well incite the Ignatian Christians to sectarian violence. In my governing capacity, if I see any sign of that, you will be arrested. I trust you are aware of that?”
Yellow Boy took a lofty tone, quite inappropriate to the reality I had presented, and to my power to do worse if I decided- unless he calculated Helen was under his sway and could totally neutralize me, sermonizing,
“I, Quaestor, am High Priest. We are a peaceful sect. Menander here my acolyte. I have discussed the titleswe associate with Helen here, she has enjoyed my full disclosure, understands that any appellations we attribue to this magnificent princess, are to the good, in that they draw the greater crowd. Furthermore her Word is for the mob’s eternal good, for through her they will learn the path to eternal life, to resurrection in purist spirit. We use a variety of appeals, all for the sake of the convert’s soul. But a person must attend before we can touch the soul, so we reach out in all the ways we cam. It is for their sake!”
He went on, “The mob will be exposed in person to the Princess Helen as she is in reality, that Princess of the good, that Sophia on earth who advocates for respect for women, this wise and exquisite creature who, for all any of us know, might well be Helen of Troy become immortal. She bestows herself on us all, Quaestor, her presence is a gift to the world, and, I might add” he gave me a sly and winking look, “particularly you, S. Cornelius, who deservedly know her favor best.” That did it, I was about to pull my sword on this impudent bastard, but quickly He turned to Helen, engaging her attention as his shield. “You have heard the Quaestor, know that his Secretary accuses us, know that what I have said of our discussion is true. What is your wish? Is S. Cornelius also your master whose wish would deny all Syrians a chance to experience the very god himself Jesus,”
I noticed the change of voice in this high priest, lower, slower, more rhythmical, As he talked his eyes were fixed to Helen’s. He kept swinging ever so rhythmically the “Deus Sol Invictus” gold pendant that hung across his chest. Helen ever so slowly responds, begins to sway her head in rhythm with the Magus, for here surely he was a Magus. Intent on taking advantageof the spell just cast on Helen, he asked,
“Princess, do you want to deny the populace hearing you? Should power bar truth, bar a needy people from Heaven, act denying even the worthy in the mob, the possession of the secret Knowledge that allows them to know the real God?” His voice was sing-sing now, lyrical in its soothing, velvet way. He swung the medal, her eyes and head followed its rhythm He asked, “Are you, the very queen of Princesses, to hold with any mortal preventing the world from knowing the truth, the truth that it is the evil god, some now call him Shatan, who created our evil flesh which, unless it is purified remains putrid, evil, vile, accursed, diseased, purulent, that filthy in flesh condemned to what the Hebrews and Paul rightly termed sin, eternal sin, oh yes, condemned to the curse of Hades on all who are impure? These terrible things, Princess, you can cure. Sweet Princess, close to the immortals, closer, I believe, to the Christ himself than anyone who walks among us, all of Syria awaits you.”
Helen said nothing but moved her head “nay”. Simon the Magus droned on, soothing as a father to a crying child, ‘You know that Baptism at my hands awaits all who seek purity and Heaven, all who understand the spirit triumphs over the flesh. As my acolyte and I are ourselves pure, as you must wish, dear Princess soon to be the purest of princesses, even more pure than Apollo’s, is that not what you seek for yourself as all others, in the love for your sisters as for yourself? Simon, paused” entirely sure of his control, commanding, “Nod that it is what you want, this baptism at our hands, to move to the Knowledge and proceed to baptism at our hands, yes our hands, anointing you with the mysterious waters, dear Helen Princess, the very waters of Lethe as well, so as to wash away every memory of sin. You will accept our offer will you not, this offer made boldly, honestly, piously in front of Roman power itself? She was silent but nodded affirmatively.” Simon swept out his arms grandly, made his voice louder, announcing dramatically, “ On your promise then I confirm you as Princess Sophia, the transubstantiated High Goddess herself to do her work on earth. Here, I confirm you in front of these highest imperial authorities as high priestess Magdalene, carrier of the woman memory of Jesus, carrier of woman’s Christian wisdom. I do then confirm and ordain you, priestess of duality, Sophia’s, and Magdalene ”
Simon bowed low to Helen, Menander did a nervous hop, Balthus was ready to kill, and I myself had the same temptation, but for a strange calm confidence about Helen, and the sanity of my choice of woman who hosted such soiled drama in my heretofore, barring Drusilla’s tempestuous time, peaceful garden.
That Helen was under Simon’s spell cast brazenly before me, this S. Cornelius, aristocrat now host to this dirt of a showman.. That I had not interfered was hardly as Simon likely presumed, hardly that either Balthus or I sat in awe of this cheap theater of religious magician. I allowed it because I was curious to see how far this charlatan would go, and how far my obviously less than audaciously independent Helen would allow it. I was, as Balthus had proposed, learning about her, and those she had chosen to be about her. I had several times during this spell-binding, put my hand on Balthus muscle- tingling hand, signaling to him quiet and patience, Throughout Balthus had his hand clasped on his short sword’s hilt. Menander had not missed that. His rat’s eyes were darting to and fro, from Simon to Balthus to me, while his own hand, seeming casual, was on an open seam of trousers where outline of knife lay under. The Weasel was well aware of the risk Simon was taking. Insofar as a rodent’s snout can wrinkle with worry and fear, his snout was that. Weasel was a bright and wary animal, instantaneously ready to slash and scurry. I realized that however unattractive he was, he was the brighter of the two, for this Magus had cast an early spell of chronic egregious vanity upon himself. It is a stupid merchant magician, and Simon was above all a merchant, who believes there is magic beyond the market for it.
The chairs were set wide apart, Balthus now closer to mine so low voicescould not be heard by the others. An agitated Balthus said, “He’s casting a spell over her, Boss, don’t’ you see. He tried the same with me and I damn near slit him for it. Let me kill him now”.
“In time, Balthus, if needs be, in due time. Be patient here, Balthus, we have a game to watch and play.” I was quite at ease, I know what a commander does.
Balthus nevertheless pulled his sword an inch or so out of its scabbard. Poor devil, he was so tense, ready to strike, he had to do something. I did not disallow it, nor did Weasel fail to note it. Were Weasel to draw, Balthus and I- we were familiar with the wordless signal, would kill him immediately. Weasel, smart again, did not draw. I sat patiently back. That could hardly be said of Balthus whose nostrils were flared.
I would explain my decision to Balthus later. I was putting to use the freedom I had learned that first night with Helen. I was no longer compelled to immediate, customary acts. I could allow a little good sense, perhaps wisdom to intrude. Define being free here, as wider assessments, longer perspectives, multiplying choices, introducing patience, knowing ends, and if there be a creative muse to suggest it, allow novelty as well. I leaned toward Balthus to speak. The Magus was so taken with his magic and a compliant Helen, what seemed the acquiescence of us, no doubt he believed it reverence, he had no eye for any but Helen, his seductive voice to her, his murmurings of following him to God. I spoke to Balthus almost in a whisper,
“Balthus, relax, I know what we are doing. Of course he’s cast a spell, but quite the junior variety with a willing Helen, and as you see, ourselves in the theater as well. I will learn, your advice taken, what Helen will allow herself. I am curious as to when she decides to exit this particular drama. As you told me, Balthus, learn now rather than be sorry later. A Roman marriage is easily entered but once done, it has fierce requirements in law, and among old families, conduct which is compelled, not chosen. I once was as an invited guest to watch a Sicilian witch cast the same rhythmic riveting, eye-catching object-swinging spell on an entire group of trusting lads. It was all, if you will and as here, sanctioned, thus all parties willing and a magic theater in it. It’s not a curse of the sort that keeps a country bound in winter, or bleeding under a tyrant, nor a man impotent. You see it, Balthus, he likes the command of her and, by Jove, she’s not the woman she said she was, my friend, for she succumbs in quite a compliant way. The play is not yet over, so I say “perhaps” my Helen is not the flaming independent she claimed. I see in this a gentleness a man might welcome, or misread. I also see that in these doings she has surrendered herself more to me than the Magus, for the reality is, we sit here as her protectors, which she well knows, and which only Yellow Boy seems to ignore. She is safe to assess him in her way, as we do him, and her, in ours.
Trust is a good thing, as long as centurions are about to guarantee outcome. . Balthus, now and as long as this Simon game lasts, use guards to see no harm comes to her. Consider Helen’s predisposing history, a priestess for unknown years, used to the other world of Apollo’s quite respectable trances. There were inspiriting tidbits, mushrooms I believe she said, that a Pythia nibbles beforehand, and if Daphne is like Delphi, there are burning seeds, the odors of which bring on strange moods facilitating Pythian eloquence. Old Apollonius provided means to visions and Helen the capacity, but also the readiness. For an Helen, then, why not be ready for a new adventure, here, safe with us, whatever she thinks of Yellow Boy, she is finding one more road of Empire to travel. I think Helen here is no fool, but instead guided by confident habit.
Balthus uttered an oath, said, “I pray-that’s rare enough for me to do- I pray you are right, Mule, for if you’re wrong and she sticks with them, in spite of what we might do to protect her, I’d count her a goner. Letting Simon here and his Rat contemplate their bare feet from the top of a cross after the fact of kidnap, rape or murder, is hardly a satisfaction.”
I had gained a new confidence these last few days, in spite of my surviving ups and downs. A gift I’d say, this new self growing, where my more relaxed self was making some major assumptions about Helen’s affections and good sense. I was routinely confident when commanding in battle, but rarely when challenged by family or close colleagues in ordinary life where the outcomes are never so straightforward. I know what a comrade in arms will do, relatives, and a woman are another matter. I would see how far Helen would let this witching show go on. This proud Helen that she wanted to be, so fiercely claimed in contest with me, she was, obviously, a concerning that autonomy, an Helen “in progress. So it was, we were both “ works in progress” .
“Balthus, she’s putting up the trickery and tom foolery of it. She intended that and told us all so, No matter, we will, she will, see what fits her. As for Yellow Boy, this toy Elagabalus, I’m not sure he’ll end this adventure with his head still attached, I rather doubt it, but as long as we keep a watch on her, I think Helen is even yet a match for him. Yellow Boy is such a conceited fool. He should keep in mind the implications of ‘magus’, which in the Greek is a word closely related to “cooking”. This Magus is brewing quite a stew. He’ll do well if he is not himself the chicken to boil in it. If this Simon is as shallow as I think, it’s no deep pot needed in which to boil that chicken.
Maybe he wouldn’t feel the boiling, for some serious Gnostics argue that the flesh is illusion. There was a minor clerk in the palace, who one day cut himself on a dirty pot. He insisted he need not get a healer for it, saying it was only flesh and of no importance. An odd view, important enough to him that he died enjoying it, for an infection set in. Do serious Gnostic procreate? I wonder. The Jesus fellow took no such stupid position, for as I hear it, he agreed our flesh was just that, and to be enjoyed. If a god-man, nevertheless he sweated during coitus If truly a man-god, he, whispered love secrets to his woman, held her, spurted into his bride, moaned, upon flagging, rolled over glad, as was she.
Gnostics, of whom Simon is the worse part, elevate woman, and it is about time. Greek myth is full of maidens raped, seduced, reduced to lower life by the Olympians. They are mortal women victimized, and whether a few become trees or stars or flowers, they are not made immortal, only pregnant, their lives taken by the god, or even escaping them as with Daphne, are lost for them after all, for I would not wish to be a tree. And thus, but for oracular priestesses and hetaera, not a woman in Greece, even in the best of its time. The Gnostic argument, good for women, nevertheless devours itself in presuming their destiny is spirit. What a waste of woman!. Or of a Jesus savior himself argued no real man to him? A spirit risen indeed? Smoke does that, wind does that, few worship emptiness. It is the man-sweat of Jesus, particularly were he in coitus with Magdalene which puts a to lie a risen savior only ectoplasmic . After crucifixion as the Gnostic Christians claim, then a Jesus as shape insubstantial? Why? If flesh raised then flesh that can be touched. His admonition makes that suspect, thus Gnostic fodder. But dying so young whether transformed to the ethereal or yet substantial? I say “no’. No man, not even a god one, would willingly leave the possibility of further lovingly lascivious union, or the taste of good wine. I am told the leaving and return were Jesus’ illustration for mankind of what he, or, their usage, ”He”, was about. I reject his willing departure, any more than Ignatius or other murdered victim of jealousy volunteered theirs. The first martyr? Absolutely, but a teacher who must kill himself to get the class attention? The students an unworthy bunch, I say, and indeed the sect implies that, if such brutal demonstrations were required to convert a peasant to believe. Too strong I say, and when I act sub governing, I will never allow Rome to be used in vendetta against a teacher who, if he is wise and he is flesh will appreciate flesh, and then must a lover be! I do not hold with ascetics, nor think the conversion of the peasantry by proving some exceptional dedication, is worth, well at least my abstinence.
I say no whole man, even if some of god in him would renounce the flesh for eternity. What kind of Heaven would that be? Boring. Complacent healthy rocks smiling at one another. The “if” of this about Jesus is it presumes he made love to Magdalene, as is implicit in Simon’s thesis, but otherwise not contended but in ordinary sense. In any event, insofar as they walk away from the flesh, the Gnostics deny themselves joy on earth as well as Heaven. It is a stupid Syriac tradition, abstinence. Pain and longing may be inevitable but to make them into a virtue is perverse! A perverse sect to condemn its god-man to incompleteness. Unlucky, perverse, we are lied to or all are dead, otherwise no man would forever after abandon an experience such as mine with Helen! I hold no grudge against the idea of Helen as Magdalene. Helen has never claimed to be a virgin, I am sure she was long ago not. From what I hear, Jesus was a good fellow, and no bad choice for a girl. I am not such an egotist as to demand control over a woman’s past, nor indeed her present, but for what I deserve and she allows. I trust Helen has the sense to disallow this walking revulsion, Yellow Boy.
As for the Magus, having pronounced Helen ordained, shown, he presumed, his mastery over her, and if so, eliminated me from any competition, ah, Simon is a simple mind and self-endangering, his vaulting ego required he turn to us, his audience, for applause, or even, his expectant grin showed it, adulation. In his game before this audience, he much overplayed. He turned away from Helen sitting in her chair, as if asleep, but, if my confidence did not betray me, I believe she was not asleep at all. He faced us. I would play this fish with a loose and inviting line. I have him an abstract bit of summary of what I thought of Gnosticism’s elevation of the invisible.
“And so, Simon, what do you think?.
He smiled a self-congratulating show of teeth which teeth, I admit, where all in place and, for Syria, unusually white. He shook his head,
“You lack faith, Quaestor, as it has been given to me and is my duty to bestow on others. The serious business is not cogitations such as yours, nor doubts which are the creation of the evil one who creates humans and the doubt in them. You are beyond my persuasion, Quaestor, you and your subordinate here Come to me if you are ever ready for eternal life, ready for the holy secrets which soon Sophia Magdalene, once Helen, here soon will know. It is quite simple, this God business, you accept or you do not. You are saved or you are not. You respect and believe me, His high priest, or you do not”. Simon tossed his head, thus his wispy hair about, looked up to the sky as if in immediate communication, fluttered his eyelids while doing it, the whites showing as if his pupils were looking into the High God’s own eyes. “Honorable officials, as a priest, I regret your foregone fate. As a man I am indifferent. You will stay as evil has made you. It will swallow you when you die. Helen and I will look down from Heaven and pity the hot fires which burn you to a nothingness”
I could see Balthus lick his tongue at the sweet thought of running the fellow through. I had the same waiting taste.. Had not Helen been there, seeming indifferent to what Simon had just said, I might have given the nod to Balthus to make that ever- so- enjoyable killing thrust. As it was we both turned away, moved our chairs even farther from him, sure to keep an eye on Helen, and of course the Weasel himself. My voice was low, Balthus ear cocked to hear me.
“It’s past time, Balthus, we’ve both had too much of this charlatan fop. You send a runner to the palace; get a squad here on the double, including a small troop of horse. Wherever she goes, follow her. Have a smaller detail trail Yellow Boy. Menander is small potatoes, keep him in sight if you can, but Helen comes first. Do not for one second let Helen out of your sight, mind you, even in toilette, discrete of course, but never without your watch. Keep me posted with messengers. My guess is she’s going back to Daphne, as she intended, no interference from the Magus. The show is set in two days. Fine, let her appear. But you watch that show, Balthus, with a strong troop of our best palace guard along with you, again discrete. I want this Yellow bird to fly thinking he’s free. I want Helen to have her day, as she wishes it. We’ll see then what her mind is set for, and whether we are yet a match. “
“And right now?”
”Oh let’s let this nonsense evaporate on its own, let shiny Yellow Sol, the confidence man doll, continue his play until the Furies, those “sweet sisters” provide their finale. In that, you and I, Balthus, officially, will see that Roman law plays its part. As for Helen, she is fine, not as asleep as she looks. Remember? I’ve seen her really asleep, and this is nothing like it. See those facial muscles? Balthus, tight a bit and her head not slumping, no, she’s by no means bound by a spell. I tell you what does worry me, that’s Hvareno, who hasn’t put in an appearance as he should have. This Menander Weasel here came in with Helen and Simon, then went into the house, then to return here via the back alley which makes no sense, and doing itwith as much attention to himself as possible. Hvareno was in the house at the time, Balthus, so what happened?”
Within a few minutes Helen, with a show of shaking off sleepiness, was attentive to us all, but quiet. We exchanged direct glances, hers to me was annoyingly bland. As for Sol- my new name for him- he was all smiles The Weasel fidgeted only a bit, was more relaxed He should be, he was still alive. Balthus had the two of them in his swords’ ken so ready that a flea would have his head cut off halfway through a jump. Helen arose, said she would now be going to Daphne. Simon told her, rather bossily, when and where they should meet two days hence before the show. He would bring all dress and properties. She nodded, but did not protest his brusqueness as I expected.
I asked her if she would like to come back to stay before the tent meeting. She refused. There was no kiss wafted in her brief smile. There was distance in her. As now in me, for I was trying to move my own self to safer harbor. As she had told me, love does not coerce or possess, a free man honors a free woman. I have limits however, more now than before. Freedom allows endings as well as beginnings; love has its first duty to be respectful, a duty upon both parties. This was a new Mule. I was not acting out of fear, or rancor, not even anticipating the worst. I was surprised at the calmness of me. Probably, Helen and I would weather this, although it was more than intuition that told me Sol might not. His vanity, if ambitious and recruiting his Gnostics to any aggrandizing political purpose, would be Rome’s signal, to cut off that flea’s head. Publius Marcellus was out of town. Now, I was Rome, and as always, loyal to her good. At this moment, being sub-governing Quaestor pleased me, and for the first time I contemplated other titles as well, no doubt for Helen’s sake, but also because new freedom allows new possibilities, including those ambitious. At the moment, I felt no such urge, but I am a work in progress. Such work forms its goals along the way. Praetor? For my asking, Tribune of legions? Easily. Consul? Not impossible but wrong. My loyalty to Rome’s good cannot be played out powerful roles committed to what she is, by no means the good, but to what she must become. And so, a work in progress, but whereto?
A messenger came to me, quietly and out of Sol’s earshot reported that the guard squad had arrived at the gate. I gestured Balthus there. I held Sol and the Weasel in idle talk for a few moments so that Balthus could direct the guards’ mission: surveillance and protection. The street was noisy; there are many alleys and corners. Neither their presence nor dispatch would be a problem.
Sol, this Elagabalus as conniving dandy, would take thought as well as watching. Simon’s radiant health surprised me these Antiochean days of pox, pustules, rot, rash, boils, carbuncles, cataracts and deformities, limbs misshapen, limbs missing, leprosy, all of these and more peopling the streets with beggars more hideous than gargoyles. His health more than his jewelry, dress, attendants and chariot, attested to wealth, and to some self-discipline as well. A good general uses intelligence most of all; assessing who might be an enemy and his strengths and intentions.
Menander had fared less well, scars, festers, sores populated his skin. His face was a feast for flies. On his neck a loathsome scrofula, all of him a general stench, a wilting breath no doubt, but happily kept at distance, even so no distance immunized the nose from old sweat, fulminating pus out of somewhere, hints of excrement and urine as well. I have friends who characterize wines by their odors, fruits, colors, and spices. Menander was a cloaca’s mouth that would cause Satan to puke.
I would not have let Menander’s skin, clothes touch any hand, wall or fabric in this house. I am appalled that, as I was told, he was allowed to wander inside, my poor servants unsure as to their duties, although their nose should have better instructed them. I will not forgive Helen bringing him in with her. A democratic inclination must set its boundaries at the repulsive. As it was, since he was hailed by Simon, my guest of sorts, and upon us, Menander had sat, at my direction, farther from us, on a cheap wooden bench. The servants will throw out any dish he has touched. The ground near where he sat will be cleansed with spice and burning oil. I will have them burn the bench.
As I walked toward the house, servants reappearing as the guests left, I pondered what Simon High Priest would make of the religion he proposed to capture. My notion of religion is that its essence be simple, that it always be a mystery but one not confounded with explanations either pedestrian or ludicrous. . Simon as a casual architect of this Gnosticism was complicating faith, dividing the architecture of the High God into sexual parts, differing and the same over time, a duality in spirit and in flesh, cast over in secrets to be purchased, read and also incanted, all, if the high priest paid well enough, promising Heaven vaguely imagined, as insubstantial as the unembodied spirits of men and women supposed to be gaining entrance to it. It was a design that denied common sense examination, or testable explanation, at any level but one. That one allowed paid up initiates might have a visit from the Christ. This Antiochean version granted any man or woman access to the personally experienced holy. Visions, unless controlled in their telling by authority, would inevitably differ. Only on this point, were the faithful free to have a religiously material experience on this earth, insofar as the brain, as Aristotle would insist, is the sole vehicle reporting experience. Mystical yes, but the chalice, the willing vessel of revelation, is the brain.
Imagine if the real Christ, not coming down as a Yahweh Judgment executioner, but gently, modestly, as the stories say, wha if he waylaid a Gnostic fake of him, no more spirit than a costumed Helen? What if he simply spoke to these Gnostic of his more practical more spiritual, no secret way? There is a test of the good sense of humans. Would Simon’s converts respond, desert, revolt? Jews revolted against Rome because we are a material power. Jesus, as I hear him told, is none of that. But to make a real world move and function, there must be power. That Rome fully understands. Any new faith, beyond the
mockery of Simon, must yet be clear as to where power lies. Power can be gentled and made more lawful, it will not, dare not, be wished away. The structure of Rome, let it be softened by the Greek, may be modified, but not for citizens; sake, be destroyed. I listen to myself, I am admit to venturing political philosophy.
Hadrian, in rebuilding Jerusalem, had decreed there be shaped and named these images of Rome’s own Capitoline Hills with temples to our Roman gods erected. I admire Hadrian, his wish to extend the idea of a sacred imperium, but a hill does not do it, there is no faith or vigor in a mound of earth. I do not believe one should build temples to stranger gods in a the Jewish high God’s murdered city. Shed blood is not holy water. A genuine God is not built of bricks, will not be called to temples whose columns do not rise in the builder’s spirit eye all the way to Heaven. Hadrian’s view is horizontal, it does not seek the vertical, nor does it, but for his love of beauty, reach to all dimensions. There is then an additional dimension to man, woman and a design for Empire. It was a dimension above them, holy and good.
In thinking about such matters as I walked across my garden, I was myself subscribing to a design for government, one more Roman than Greek, for Rome has survived and Greece has not. Competence in ower then must be at the heart of, but modulated by virtues and dimensikns power does not own. Greece of Pericles, Plato, playwrites, citizen responsibility comes to mind. These can inform Rome, not as Rome has attempted by enslaving the best of Greeks and humbling them as household slaves, but in the form, Form, of thought. We must learn the creative idea of them, thus n Idea, itself examined, harmonious, beautiful. I am sure others before me have had this same vision Nevertheless I was pleased with this idea that had chosen to visit me. No Oneiros or other god carried it, I was wide-awake. Yet for such a vision of Empire or Republic, I understood, as I walked under a laurel tree, by a daphne plant, near a pond of gold and silver carp, that even if brain, not a god himself, delivered his idea to me, success for, of, vision would recognized an high god within and imparting it. New times, new thoughts, new dreams, Helen, patience, being ambitious for the good of Rome, all welcome
BZut now where was my good Hvareno hiding?
As I entered the house I was looking for servants from whom to inquire, when one, a gate guard came to me with a message on a scrap of parchment. Poorly lettered, short. When asked, the guard said an old beggar woman had given it to him. She told him someone else had paid her to deliver it.
Be wary, be wise. Helen has known Tyre and Tyre has known her. Daphne was exile, not a calling. Simon was her procurer and could be again. Buy him and you buy her. Go soft with Menander. He has much that you want. Your Princess comes as a package.
The problem with servants, crowds in the street observing anything remarkable, any visitor to this house was that, sets tongues to wag, rumours flying. If there is a sly one in the crowed, who likes to make money or trouble, he will try. Scruples are not an Antiochean currency. When the visitors are an Helen princess in glorious dress, carried by imperial coach, a Simon no doubt being driven in his chariot, a Menander relegated to running along behind on this elegant but dull residential street, we are an event.
No one can control the tongues of the mob, or neighbors and friends for that matter. Antioch will be a Babel tonight, I am glad I will not hear it.
A governing Quaestor receives notes by the hundreds; warnings, beseeching, prayers, threats, promises to deliver value for cash demanded. There are as many lies as interests can feed, for make no mistake, the palace is power and wealth, and much by way of craft, cunning, and fantasies are drawn to that lodestone. I was purveyor of power’s benefits, and since I lived in town, this kind of access to me, the anonymous message, was easy. A public servant with a public reputation may assure privacy within his walls, but the streets, or the barracks, speak and scheme, as they like. This message was cleverer than most, knew pertinent names (as by now half of Antioch might) knew reputations, rumour and imputed relationships. It knew its own basic Antiochean business; whoring, thieving, calumny and conspiracies. Above all it was timely, knowledgeable, alert to events just happening, and to the character of an insecure lover. Who might have these assets? Again, the two had been my guests. The plot of this short novel just handed me, was so apparent in its conception, that it might as well have been signed. That the note itself was written in a poor, demotic Greek by an unschooled hand on dirty parchment, might hide immediate responsibility, but not likely authorship. Who benefited if the this reading rabbit startled into the mouth of the fox? Again, those two unwanted guests. Simon would not have acted so obviously, precipitously; that left the Weasel. But what had Menander done that moved him so rashly to bargain for clemency before being accused? My tensing gut told me I would soon find that out.
No doubt another old lady would come to my gate with further parchments asking for money to give to Simon, to give to Menander, perhaps to give to Helen to buy her love. I swore a bit, sent a message to the gate guards to arrest any more old ladies bearing parchments so one might query them as to the scoundrels to arrest. I crumpled the message, threw it in a refuse urn, retrieved it, for it might be called for as evidence.
No one had seen Hvareno. He had not gone out, but he was not about. I ordered a search of the place, storerooms, wine cellar, larder, and pantries, any closet large enough to hold a man. Under the beds, on the roof, again the balconies, thick shrubbery in the garden. Something was really wrong.
Soon the proof of it. Dumped behind large amphora in the wine cellar, was found the still breathing but badly concussed Hvareno. What was not found, silver and gold plate stored locked (I had given the keys over for the search) in a great chest in the dining room. There were several of these, but only one had been opened- someone skilled at locks- and only the lightest of contents taken, of these only the items on top. I presumed the thief was in a hurry and must carry the loot himself.
I am not a man of ostentation; I had never bought such things. When my parents had died there was the usual feuding, the expected Roman court battle over inheritance. I had been disinherited by their natures, mine reciprocating but no legal papers showed that. I could not allow a fortune due me to be stolen by more distant, greedy kin. I was well represented, monies were paid, the court decreed me the heir (I have no siblings). It was a great deal of wealth that came to me, land is always the major asset of the Roman elite. In my case there were ships, horses, full warehouses as well. What was not land I sold. I am no merchant, nor would go to the trouble to supervise goods management for me. I put the proceeds in properties, farms particularly, Italy and Spain primarily, but several here in Syria. Rents come in, I reinvest them. The gold and silver that I stored in the chests were substitutes for rich family memories I didn’t have. They were also of considerable value for themselves.
It hardly needed an inspector to know what had happened. Menander the criminal of course, and perhaps in cahoots with Simon—Balthus told me of his reputation as a compulsive thief, quoting Eros, the venal. I was told Menander had not come in with Helen and Simon, but arriving a few minutes later had beaten on the gate for entry, Simon, and indirectly Helen because of Simon, vouched for his coming in. The servants said Menander asked entrance to the house to use the toilet, but added that Princess Helen had asked him to get a robe she had forgotten the other night when the was my guest. Menander was indeed informed, and Helen naïve. Had she not noticed when Menander came back, he brought her no robe, nor did he mention it?
Two mysteries only, how had Menander exited with sacks of loot, certainly not through the guarded main gate, and, how dare I even ask, was there something I didn’t know, beyond the rumour of scandal, about Simon, Menander and Helen? If nothing else a Roman aristocrat, commander and civil servant must be suspicious. I hated that. To allow such a doubt, ask such a question of the Helen I loved- ever more worriedly- was insulting. Nor could I really entertain the possibility of that conspiracy. No, discretion, decency, cowardice all dictated I would set Balthus and his spies on the investigative task as soon as I could find him. I saw to Hvareno’s care, - he would survive but with concavities in his skull- ordered my horse (I kept a small stable at home) and went to look for Balthus. The Seleucis and Daphne Daphne roads both arrived at the precious metals markets. So to order Balthus there just in case Menander had been so stupid as go there directly to sell my treasure. If either of us happened upon Menander, then proof the gods were with me and against him. Whatever the outcome, this theft was a great unpleasantness.
That new confidence of mine is still working on itself. It is found capable of defeat.
As I was in my garden, one of my gate guards brought a novitiate of the Temple of Zeus at Daphne to me. He was perhaps 15, rosy cheeked and rolly-polly, a good innocent look to him, acne to be sure, gangling, sweating, an hesitant smile ready quickly to scurry and hide behind what he might be able to form into a more formal look, but I knew it would hang there quivering on his face. He spoke nervously, but that is typical among people appearing before me; my rank, reputation, decorations and my forbidding, scarred face achieve it unintentionally. Well, perhaps not unintentionally by now, for over the years the look and that reputation have worked nicely as a formidable wall behind which, as you now know, there is may be a much less formidable man. The boy thrust out his hand. In it was a small parchment roll, one tied quite nicely in a red silk ribbon, a lady’s work obviously.
The boy spoke nervously, “In Daphne Dominus Quaestor, Sir, the priestess Pythia gave this to me to bring to you. I took the pay coach (horse drawn bus) to get to the city as quickly as I could, Quaestor, Sir. I was given good directions from the Forum. I ran, Sir, I ran.” He looked at me expecting to be scolded. I gave him an healthy tip instead.
I took the parchment, unrolled it and read. I had not seen Helen’s script before. Well, presumably hers unless the boy lied. The hand was strong yet elegant. It was not something Weasel’s slum landlady could fake.
“I have given my love to you, Mule, committed it with as much dedication as my contradictions allow, that too intense a passion can trust, that flesh flecked with faint memories-some of them more hint than recollection –compels. No woman can be entirely consonant with Apollo but for his ideals, the music, wisdom and healing of him. He is a man after all. The earth and ancient in a woman makes her Selene’s ward, for the moon goddess shapes our moods, darkness to light, assures our fertility and monthly flow, makes us fickle and, as when Selene loved Endymion, makes woman jealous, even murderous. I am more than modern, Quaestor, not a weak woman. I am not governed, or perhaps ever governable, yet I yield to influences and uncertainties, including the choice of roads ahead. No woman entirely escapes the moon.
The road you offer me beckons powerfully, but I must be sure no other path is the more commanding. We have, after all, but recently met. However intertwined we were, one’s needs, dreams, sweat, not even intuited compatibilities are sufficient paving stones for the path a joining couple takes. There is surveying to be done, bridges must be capable of being built over the chasms ahead. Your steps taken freely at last will set you in a direction you have barely imagined, although retrospect will show you its unfolding that I have already sensed. A woman who marries you, Quaestor, will marry the man you are going to be, not what you so uneasily were and are yet, nor can anyone comprehend what will occur as you receive your further gifts of becoming. In saying this I repeat what Pythia said. I glow and I shudder at what she knew.
As for the future, an oracle within her sanctuary may know, but outside the temple her prophecy is but what she remembers, has learned and intuits. You are now bound by my woman’s magic. You have readied yourself all your life for what you became with me, what the more of you will be. What was us will not be lost. What you, or perhaps you and I will be is yet to be found. New worlds await. You have the gift of intuition, which I lack. Your intuition may know what a woman now no longer Pythia does not. . We have already been magic together, Quaestor, not Simon’s tawdry kind. Simon is not even a ventriloquist for a god. Even so, he may have useful understandings of things much greater than himself. I intend to find out.
Now, a word on our differences. You, Quaestor, have a different nature than mine. After all Gaul borders Germany so there is more simple soil for my roots than you might expect. You move to magnify your own experience so that, as Rome itself has done, its frontiers expand well beyond the starting place. You magnify us too soon. On that I warn you, for a passion, Quaestor, is a moment and a sweat, not heaven but that you use the word for it (as you did several times on our pillow) The ‘it’ of it remains in the mind, it is not elsewhere created by virtue of exalted words. A cockroach coming home with a piece of bread, however grand he claims his find, has not earned a triumph in Rome, no arch built to him or Trajan obelisk erected. Claim no more for human love than what is does already. It is enough that it exists between two people, although its ordinariness as commonality allows us all to understand the good of it. Gild it and it is covered, I fear lost. Appreciate the gift as you would earth and soil and the life in it. A woman is not all that mysterious. Exaltations are fantasies. Only a young woman is romantic, us older ones can be happy in love, with our lover, but we don’t need to invent the reality that brings it.
You magnify and soar, Quaestor, you have a vision I do not have. I do touch the immortals, know them better than most do, but they are great in part because of what we invest in them. This new Gnostic God? I will test him on ordinary ground. If I do not hear his voice sensibly addressing ordinary things, whether or not he exists does not then matter. Such figments are crutches for hopes. The Gnostic evil god of creation? I think not. What we are given is mostly good., at least at levels of comfort such as yours and mine. But for draught, earthquake and the like, the fault of evil is ours. The Devil is a charlatan’s excuse, or an unpublished poet’s.
I have met the immortals and while glad, am only a bit impressed. I attend to Apollo’s creed at Delphi, “all things in moderation” (“aurea mediocritas”). Yet the Greeks were incapable of that. Dionysius was their soul. Of the many aspects of Apollo, only a few were moderate. You are, Quaestor, I know this, and you do not yet realize it, a spiritual Dionysian. I will be, when all is said and done, Apollonian. I will till the middle ground.
I end this unsatisfactory love letter, be sure not at all an ‘hail and farewell”. I love you, Quaestor, but you are too soon for me, and thus, I for you. I shall try to hurry the art of our living, for we are too soon pressed to display our art in dying, I remain then, as you are not and will not be about us, uncertain. Certain we will meet again, that I do love you. In the meantime, as the god Nemesis’ has taught the Delphi priests to asl of every visitor,(be assured you have been the first to visit the woman of me in many years), “Pray for me”.
I rolled up the parchment then dropped it on the ground. Has my love killed me? Does beauty mean death? Perhaps that is the Christian riddle of Heaven, what is beauty’s superlative so grand that one must be dead to behold it? That would be no sweet god who exacts such a price. Is Helen for my pagan self, to be my fatal Heaven? The last demon to fly from Pandora’s box, hope, is the demon who gnaws unceasingly. Will that demon sculpt my portrait bust yet while I live, add to my typical taciturn face a look of lover’s anguish? I am contorted into to hope and am therefore condemned to be the face of despair. Oh be there a sweet God, pray him for all of us the gift of love not contorted. The relentless logic of that prayer, is for Helen’s will, for my own is captive. A pretty thing then, for all the greatness one conceives in a high god, he must attend to our will as well as his own.
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