I, BALTHUS, WRITE. We were in the office. I had as always risen at dawn, done my ablutions The facilities remind me I have come a long way from the Baltic, glad that Antioch enjoys clean, flowing water .Cleansed, I had picked up bread, cheese, apple, a bit of vinegary lamb my slave had set out on the table. I don’t sit for breakfast, in good weather I walk about the garden munching. S. Cornelius had arrived before me, earlier than any clerk or functionary. I was at my desk in the outer office when he came out, sat down. Any other superior would have ordered me to come to him. I mark these occasional, yet extraordinary actions indifferent to the hierarchical order of things.
I nodded a greeting, pushed a cup of tea across to him, frowned. He read my question, for it was continued from the evening before. He said,
“ I understand your curiosity, I will tell you when I can. But first I have to see the Governor. And no, I’m not resigning, at least not yet, although I will quite likely get fired.”
“Whatever it is then, you’ll make that much of a stir?”
“Not my intent, but it might”
“Not my business, Boss, but some news is best delivered informally, somewhere where the rules of courtesy rather than high office operate. So perhaps better than visiting the Governor in his office here, if instead you invite Publius Marcellus over to your house, souse him a bit before you tell him whatever is so, he will at least not yell or call in the guard. You know how awkward he is about anything serious. That’s why he leaves so much work to you. And Jove knows he likes his wine and table.”
“I’ll think about that. He’s not a bad sort, I’ve been the one to keep aloof. I should be more sociable. If I were to invite him, it would be an whole lot easier if I had Helen there as hostess, wife of course would be better. I’m so stiff, a real bore. She is all beauty, wit and social grace”
I said to myself,, “Only when she wants to be” I was really curious, maybe one way or another he’d drop the news the nature of which I could already guess . Were I right, I forsaw nothing but a mess, certainly for my own life as it had been. Mule that he was, he would do as he wanted within the confines of decency, and in his case, modesty. I asked,
“Who else must know this news of yours that seems so portentous?”
“The Emperor must be informed, protocol says that’s up to the Governor. For the rest, it will be meaty gossip for anyone with a nasty turn of mind; that’s most of Rome. They will libel me as mad, a traiktor to my class, insulting my blood, mocking the order of thins Any number of mouths will tell Livia Drusilla , who will be ever so pleased at what she will see as my lunacy, proof of what she’s been ranting on about to my son for so long, that I am truly impossible. He’s already on her side, has been for a long time. He carries my name, but carries all of her ill will. We are not in contact.
“If you do decide to give your news informally, that invitation to your place, I can imagine that P. Marcellus might- he is not socially terribly sensitive- bring Domina Drusilla along. Would that embarrass you?”
“Balthus, there’s still much that is provincial about you. She would be the one to bring him, if one attends to whom is on the other’s leash. If she were in town she’d want to come, if only to irritate me, and to remind P. Marcellus that she is married into a far nobler family than is his. My kin are still as close as she can get to the imperial court circle, and when in Rome she uses my name for that, stresses her “Livia” name as well as a calling card to daub imperial bloodlines on her forehead. So, if she’s about, and the mood of it is upon her, she won’t let him come without her. I see her as a fisherwoman showing off her gubernatorial catch, having thrown this Quaestor back. Now the fisherwoman brags about the taxidermy while the P. Marcellus, poor fish himself, has no idea that he’s one of a collection, or for that matter, where else she’s fishing.
“Which would be?”
“Important lovers of course. Maybe if she’s crazily ambitious enough, , she’d push poor P. Marcellus to connive a coup if she could. It wouldn’t be the first time a Syrian Proconsul, Legate, got the legions here to agitate, instigate legions elsewhere to back a bid for a sitting emperor’s head. Hadrian has his vulnerabilities; homosexuality, no further booty winning wars of expansion, not quite s much glory being a soldier just keeping the peace these days It doesn’t take too much by way of gold to agitate already restless legions. That done, she fancies owning the imperium and placing her boy, my by now witless son, in the succession. She has always fancied an emperor’s laurels there between her legs. It’s insane of course. P Marcellus has all the leadership, military prowess in him of a banana slug No one wants to finance a fool’s errand when they’re betting their heads and fortunes. It’s just that I know her ambition, Balthus.”
“The whole idea is bizarre, I can’t imagine why it even comes to your mind, Boss, political dwarfs conspiring high treason”
I will let you in on a little secret, Balthus; when we were married she floated the idea to me. She was completely out of touch with the world, dishonorable disloyal, totally wrong in her assessment of me. This dream of hers was her secret obsession. She’d venture anyone’s head for it. Its one of the many reasons I disgusted her, she said I was just lazy, didn’t love her. She was right on that count, I certainly didn’t love her, and mayby I am lazy. In any eventshe packed her bags, stole my son, and may still be looking for the key to the imperial estates.” He paused, “in confidence, Balthus, I have from time to time worried that she hates me enough to say I had such ambitions. It’s a rather good way to see to my being dead. I never was concerned about an honorable death on the battlefield, I would have welcomed it, for life is a trivial thing if you examine it, but to be executed dishonorably, out of woman’s lying spite, that would be a terrible end. By now, old age, she’s a bit older than I am, should have tired her imagination. All of this too ordinary knightly Roman nonsense told you, Balthus, because you set me thinking about her, something I try not to do.”
The spymaster in me had been fed a bone, indeed a wagon load of them. But one doesn’t trade in this kind of news. Spies turned gossips have short life spans when they get over their heads into matters this deep, where no evidence exists, and where by now, as the Boss said, Liva Drusilla has probably worn out her capacity for recruiting fools to offer their heads as proof of that. It was best for my own head’s sake to drop the entire subject. The boss had confided in me something of the greatest confidence. Whatever I had worried about before by way of his trust in me, this showed again how stupid I could be. But a little imp in my brain, approving that I forget it all, reminded me “not quite”and, ‘one day, you never know what can be of use.” I changed the subject about which he had, as was his way, already forgotten.
I asked, And so, what do you think, an invitation to dinner for P. Marcellus? I myself consider the least ambitious imperial officer in the Empire, promoted Legate now because you do his work so well, Syria remains the breadbasket, the Jews make no more uprisings, the Christians are quiet, and as a grateful bon vivant he is fully expected to supply best wines of Asia to the Senate in thanks.”
I replied, “A good idea. I admire P. Marcellus for being as he is, no pretense. Next to me he is the least ambitious officer in the Empire, bless him for the quiet he brings.. You’re right, I’ll get our Governor lubricated. He needs it. He’s more interesting drunk than here in his palace office, but then most any of us around here would be. The dust in these offices migrates to the brain. Given sufficient time in office, the dust petrifies with a plaster coating housing that brain.. Wine is its solvent. Now whatever you have to announce, present it so that it’s worth a toast. Flutes, not base drums are the best sound for it. Not that this Secretary wants to see her, but I can get your invitation delivered to Helen who, since my squad are surveilling, I can assure you is living chastely with the young priestesses in Delphi. After she dumped on Simon’s brand of Gnostic at the meeting, Simon won’t be calling on her again”
His face brightened. That is good news. I know I told you not to spy, and I’m far too much the gentleman to ask more about her, but, my yes, that is good news. I wish you had told me sooner. Of course I want to invite her, I’ve been looking wildly for an excuse”
“I am at your service”
“How about a bigger party rather than just P. Marcellus and the Domina to celebrate whatever it is?”
“I assure you, Balthus, once told, I doubt if they will celebrate it, no more than they would welcome moldy fish heads floating in their wine”
“Then why do whatever it is?“
“Because I’m honest, Balthus, and must give warning as to where I think I am heading.. Something, I’m not sure what it is exactly, I have had, let’s say, a remarkable notice of it, nor do I want to ignore it. I can’t tell you more than that. If I could, I wouldn’t.”
“Well, you’re the boss. You have a right to be enigmatic if you want to.”
“That’s right”. Once again, his superior’s abruptness hit me. He kept changing the rules.
Once again, I hadt to change the subject, I could play party planner. “Well then, if it is to be your last dinner while with a good reputation intact, how about inviting some others to liven it up. Livia Drusilla would be less bothersome lost in a crowd”
“Whom do you suggest?
“You have a cousin removed, L.Gallus, newly commanding Legion IV Scythica in the garrison here. It puzzled me you never wanted to see him, family and all that. I also know that a famous distant cousin of yours, M. Fronto, the writer, is visiting Rhodos (Rhodes) giving speeches. A fast ship could there and him back here in time enough;”
“Balthus, understand there is no one in my family who likes me enough to visit me. Oh, some might sniff around for inheritance possibilities, or the crooked ones might want to arrange to be seen with me in public because I’m important and so could propose being paid money to get me to do favors, but that’s a chancy one. Where does such a Cousin Influence escape to when he fails? M. Fronto Cornelius is hailed as great young writer. I have read his stuff. He’s a twaddler and a sycophant, so he’ll go far indeed, but not on my paise he won’t. L. Gallus out there in the barracks has the mind of a peacock, full of his own fanning feathers. He can’t walk, he can only strut. Ask the troops. Come the next campaign and they’ll mount him on their shields as a target. Not done, I know, but even so his tombstone could read, ‘M.Fronto Fragged’ I wouldn’t have him as an ornament in the back of my garden. Invite him if you want, but make sure a slave with a broom trails behind him to swee[ up his bird droppings.
You see, there’s no depth to any of them left in the family, this has-been aristocracy no emperor wants to leave in any power at all. Understandably, and I say rightly. The result is genetic hang-over, no mature spirit, no vision, not at least in the ones I know. These days those cousins, my family, lead left- over Roman lives. Days are gone when my close kin had a vision not poured from a flask. I’m resolved not to be like that, my father the worst case. You have seen it, Balthus, I distance myself from that kind, actually, as you have also seen, from any kind. Honorably of course. It’s time for my reconstruction, a new job, not to turn away, but toward. I believe I’m on the way with much more than myself doing it. I just help to point my feet. Helen when Pythhia helped. After that parrot, Armineus, knocked me concused and silly,, she presided over two transitions of me, one liberating, the other allowing me to love. She has a mind, Balthus, and in it is a developed spirit, I’d say “soul”. She is in touch with the gods, truly so. Not grimly to be sure, save me from those grim fanatics of the sectarian sort you hear peddling guarantees to ideal lives in the Forum. No, Helen is anything but grim. She can be quite funny, in which capacity for humour I desperately need inspiration and practice. And for this old man, an inspiration in bed too. She’s like nothing I could have imagined. Flesh, Balthus, lust almost savage, and tender, the flesh, Balthus she revels in it; love with laughter, can you imagine?”
I put on the old-and-wise look for what was, in essence, simultaneously bragging and trvializing. Fact is, I was envious. “Nothing new about Bacchanalia, Boss. In North Germany we do it at the summer solstice. Go at it like rabbits, we do. I’ll brag and say ‘for weeks;. It’s the summer sun ruling the defeated night, and of course drink. It’s a festival where everyone is expected to be ready and willing, and oh my how they are!. Now you’ve had your first good sex, Boss, and you’re drunk on it.”
S. Cornelius face is, as I have written before, usually granite. Not so now. I had been impertinent, overly familiar, but worse, belittling. An inferior almost ridiculing a superior in a moment of his happiness, carried by love, being disarmingly open again, an exuberant moment of trust. But is there ever “trust” when class rules from birth? We had worked hard to become each the other’s probably closest friend in an Empire pwhich for all its melting pot opportunities in the army and in trade, ruled by caste. Now I had gotten through to him where it hurt. Did I mean to do so? Probably. Why? Because his superiority, power, money, s even, or maybe much more than “even,” his having that beautiful Helen bitch in bed. All comes to him so easily. It was, after all, his talking about how good she was in bed that set me off. And yes, as he talked I had the picture of them in heat on silk sheets, and thought of the cheap whore I had had last I had any, and how even though I made her bathe before we did it, she had a cheap smell, and her easy privates were a legion’se parade ground, large and leathery from so many men having marched there. No, not fair, not really that, but I didn’t like the fact that my women were anybody’s with the price to pay. That Helen, in contrast, for I had checked out the Whore of Tyre business and it was all vituperative nonsense, was truly pristine goods. (And of course I had had her watched every minute with that flashy yellow con man Simon and no, he could not get near her. Why didn’t I share this intelligence with S. Cornelius, lover? I think I wanted him to stay a bit uncomfortable over his choice of the Princess, allow doubt. Is doubt enough to sabotage this fine love? I don’t think that way my intention, but I could not bring myself to being supportive.
I add to this Swabian’s jealousy, his decency, honesty which shamed me. He knew I would be wading Orontes deep in corruption if it weren’t for him. He disapproved of what I would otherwise be, no word ever to show it. So I wore this stain. A stain too being being spymaster and earlier, sometime assassin, all Roman proper enough as assignments (with bonus payments because they were, in fact, even for Romans, a bit dirty, like torturers were and executioners ) but this patrician Mule didn’t have to stoop to that, even though the spy worked for tf him! And so? And so I didn’t like him very much. Or maybe, I didn’t like the me I was beneath him! I had a right to be jealous. He knew nothing of how truly hard my own life had been, all that struggle so I could sit in the outer office as his inferior, his forever inferior. So now he was hurt and he was angry. And yes, humiliated, all by my simple put-down. I was turning red in the face. I was angry, angry at him because he had made me feel ashamed. Mutual humiliation then. I had felt it often enough in my lifetime, and as today proved, no doubt would again. For Sempronius Scipio Grachus Cornelius, better defended by aristocratic heights and the slowly built granite wall of him, it has probably been years.
The long cold pause as we stared at each other, this unexpected catastrophe, this knife of a moment. I’d say, left us both in a state of bizarre surprise. Both of us now self, not other hating. I for my thoughless churlishness, and the knowing what was ugly in me behind it. Maybe S.Cornelius would be so noble as to be blaming himself for being indiscrete, disclosing, trusting too much in any other. Both of us would be ashamed, S. Cornelius the better, might even be concerned over his misjudgment in having confided to this peasant intimacies of life with his wife. It would be obvious in my face, there was distress over what the boor of me, had unthinkingly, in man-to-man friendship, casually said. S. Cornelius, the much better man of him, might actually be capable of sympathizing, no, even feeling sorry for me about how I felt. I conjured him this grating goodness, and hated us both for it.
I was not the better man, and the far worse one I had looked for some cure, some contagious excellence by way of S. Cornelius’ amazing reach of friendship to me. He could have no idea of his role in my life, real and as fantasied savior. Now what I had said in good humour, put an end to that! My condition was inescapable, Nowhere might I find hope for the inner churl of me. I would fall deeper into the abyss.
When the moment had passed, I knew neither of us would refer to it ever again.. We’d be back to affable normal in minutes, each of us working at its burial. But the lemures of it, the revenants, the blood-hungry shades of it, defy burial. Those ever-roaming, avaricious, hopeless spirits are composed only of memories and are without forgiveness.
S. Cornelius was born to the tact of it, the gracious composure, when he resumed conversation, even smiling slightly as if at his own theater, “Anyway, as to the dinner, I do no one a favor inviting them should P. Marcellus announce to them what I will have told him Here indeed was studied poise, for he was continuing to discuss the private matter of his dinner, his personal sentiments. S. Cornelius went on, “ I sincerely hope he does not, for the nature of the matter is not entirely clear, nor am I entirely composed in it, so that I would rather let it mature a bit, and whatever events will be part of that. So I hope the Governor allows me to keep to myself a while longer. Those at the dinner will be shocked,I can hear Livia Drucilla say, it would be loud of course, ‘That good-riddance husband moving further beyond the pale, never had any sense at all’ Or that peacock, M.Fronto would say, “More lunacy in the family, a blood curse on a few like him.. I hope he dies quietly before the news gets around that he’s gone ‘round the bend. That so aptly called Mule of him, completely undignified, imagine, gone slumming with the god”
“’Slumming with god?’” I said, “Now there’s a turn of phrase which is a jewel of contradiction.”
“M Fronto is a writer, I have invent something he might say which is a credit to him”
“So that’s the kind of thing you expect to hear?”
“I suspect so. Not my view of it, but just possibly others’ People will see me that way”
I was recovering my talking self, pressing him, “See you for doing what?” I asked, still puzzled but not without some hunches.
“My own process, Balthus, now open to what is and what matters, and so, yes, not slumming to be sure, but waiting, or better, being ready for, but already in the process. You see, Balthus, and be assured no one persuaded me to anything, I went there not long ago, as you did earlier, incognito. Tradesmen’s clothes, stain on my face, not that I, any more than you, can change our blue eyes. As with you, I was struck by their kindness.
“You were in the Ignatian Assembly?”
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