The next morning in the office, I gave poor Balthus a summary of the dinner party events. I could see he was still hurting from his faux pas of being too familiar, his and my own breach of etiquette. I had earlier told him that it was better that he not attend my coming dinner. He would misinterpret, thinking I was punishing him for the unfortunate moment when, indiscrete, I had stupidly dangled my happy sex life in front of him. Poor Balthus, I should have known better. He is not as contented as he pretends, not with a life of drink, prostitutes, heavy reading, religious thoughts which lead him nowhere, and cynicism. In becoming friends, and I am greateful to him for that, since he has played a big role in bringing me out of the old, stiff, guarded self. In private we could ignore our difference in status, but there is no safe bridging Roman public etiquette, not if I hoped for any part in guiding events. Balthus and I were, subject to sensible restraint, good friends, but others coming to my formal dinner would not be comfortable with the lower class dining, whatever their military prowess as auxiliaries, as equals with them, Just as in Rome itself, while an upper class patron might regularly feed his poorer clients, it would not be the same food the patron and his equal status guests enjoyed. Insofar clients did dine in the same room, the place for inferiors was clearly set.. Among Romans, and those subjects who ape them, the chasms of differences in status shout the fact of them. Balthus should accept the reality, but the look of him told me he didn’t like it. I realize he wants me to be his patron, and in our relationship at least, to transcend class, rank and origin.That simply cannot happen. This particular dinner, rare enough at my place and hardly designed for my own pleasure, must accord itself to proper form.
Writing now in this journal, before the dinner with P. Marcellus, about which I admit to being apprehensive, I fully expected shortly no longer to work in or be welcome at the palace, or at any other venue where Romans of even the lowest ranks of nobility, the Knightly (Equis), and surely the higher rfanks clustered. For Balthus’ sake, I did not want him to be shunned, sneered at and quite likely directly insulted were he present. Proper distinctions of status, actions conforming, are the very structure of Roman society. Roman society, some high offices, its army in particular, offer opportuniy for class mobiity, but one had to have arrived to enjoy the benefits. If it were Trimalcho’s wild party where most rules of propriety dissolved in drunken orgies, that would have been another matter. In our provincial/colonial civil service, in its governing palace whose very walls are jealous, floors tiled with vilification, ceilings echoing with invidious gossip, where no guard serves to protect reputation, I can find some safety in being proper, not being involved in the social scene, and because I am, by blood, wealth and position, top dog. The Governor, P. Marcellus would be my dinner guest. However easy going he generally was, he would not be easy about caste and class. All of us are sensitive to oue status, the respect for, niceties ane perks of it. Balthus, as we both noticed to our embarrassment just recently, has an easy potential to ignore these fault lines.
My family name, its prior glory, continying even if declining, as with all the aristocracy, power, my own wealth, own imperial ties plus battlefield- earned reputation known to all the legions and any Senator in Rome, our inner circle of rank; those tribunes, consuls, augurs assured my ccorded ‘top doggness.” I was sensitive to my own and their others’ expectation. In Rome, regarding class, there are two great forces at work in those close to power. One is great ambition. The other is the display of status once arrived. A top dog’s dinner party allows the exercise of both Among the Roman elite there is always tension, a dangerous readiness to snap, recoil, sting or destroy. My etiquette as to the proper sense of things once I had committed to a formal dinner, and a wish to protect Balthus’ post and prospects after I had left, compelled a conforming strategy..
“And so?” he inquired as we sat in my office, door closed, and fruit drinks summoned.
“The evening went surprisingly easy. Marcellus Publius took in wine as a fish gulps water. Livia Drusilla came with him of course, made some snide remarks about the house, my appearance, the lack of discipline among the slaves- thus true to her form- and herself abstained from either wine or charm, the better to keep her nastiness sharp. Immediately it turned out it was not sharp enough, for Helen, bless her, came in, the grandest chatelaine imaginable. Hers was a fine, fine dress, alternating decorated panels of silk, gossamer flax and cashmere. Her hair was high braided, that coiffure fashioned and perfumed out of Daphne’s best. To my immense satisfaction she was acted not asguest but hostess, taking charge .I was delighted. Livia Drusilla was not pleased. I suppose she had hoped for me to be alone, with Marcellus Publius sitting by further to assure my docility, and the easier for her to be cat to me as mouse I am amazed that even though she had long ago left me, summed her despise of me so many times, she is a bottomless reservoir of insult. Well, not “bottomless”, for she has been putting on some pounds, so a rather broad-beamed fanny.
I had no sooner introduced Princess Helen to Drusilla- note the bite of etiquette here which require the more important person be named first. I emphasized her title and Helen looked it every gracious Celtic regal bit. Livia, jealous and mean spirited as always, let fly, not looking at Helen nor responding to Helen’s coldly correct greeting of welcome. Livia turned away toward me, her look venomous.
“Oh my dear Asinus, if not “stultissimus” (used only contemptuously, meaning the greatest ass, most fatuous fool), excuse me, “Mule” of course. I hear you’ve been buying your whores at wholesale prices at the market in Tyre. I hear the one called Helen, what a coincidence this woman here is also a Helen, eh?, they say she’s felated every bowsprit and sailor in the Tyrrhenian merchant fleet for the last one hundred years, not, they say, that she looks all her age, but oh my they say how tired her lips must be, and those terrible splinters, and dry too, all that salt water, so the gossip goes.”
Helen gave her a superior disapproving glance of the sort she might responding to a clumsy washer- woman who has just spilled her pail. Helen spoke to me, not Livia Drusilla, but it was for Drusilla’s to hear.
“This irritable old woman hears so badly that I must think her ears are dirty, and just as what one eats composes the body, so what one says, if filth, fills the spearker’s ears, then composes the mind. Some minds are stables accumulating the stuff. Too bad, but since she is our guest” – that emphasis so pleasing to this Mule in love, that “our,”she must be accorded the appropriate attention”
Helen then beckoned a serving slave, a short, fat fellow dressed for the evening in lavish red and, as with the other slaves serving tonight, wearing a red Phrygian hat with belled tassels hanging down. He was a snaggle-toothed, impish old chap from beyond Parthia, so of unknown provenance, who had been with me when Livia Drusilla was Domina. He was one of my favorites, but by no means hers,
“Arcanus” ordered Helen, Your former Domina must be hungry for more nourishment, her favorite it seems of the nasty gossip sort. Eventually one starves on that diet, but not when she is our guest. Get some of the servants together, have one who knows writing list the current town gossip any of them have heard about their once Domina. If unkind , include it with all apologies of course. No identifying sources please, gossip is without authorship, but for Mrs Spite and Madam Boredom.”
Livia Drusilla’s facial colors were a sunset with clouds scudding white to red to purple to gray. Helen went on, “Arcanus will attend you, if you have other wants, he will assits. You know the house of course, but since it is not yours, please don’t wander about. Besides, after his talk with S. Cornelius, your Governor might want companionship in drinking. It would be good for your color, my Dear. You are in need of something strong”.
Enough said including more than enough of what Livia Drusilla said. She had learned considerable swearing since she had left me. Helen had done what I never could do, infuriate Drusilla to the point of social incapacitation. I was so pleased with Helen’s “our”, and her unquestionable role as hostess’. We were not having a party in its best, or worse, Roman sense, drunken, lively, lascivious or, alternatively, poetry reading, philosophical discussion. It was a muted conviviality, the guestsa were local legion commanders, a poet I rather admired, the head of the Seleucid port whose entertaining tall stories took us all traveling, a few civic leaders and of course P. Marcellus. Livia was escorted to the dining room, to await service. After a time, a bowl serving the script of gossip was brought i. That one,was the larges tamong the array arriving from the kitchen. Arcanus looked quite pleased announcing, “Tidbits, morsels and larger portions, some quite spicy, some stale, Master, as you ordered”
Livia Drusilla was livid. She loudly demanded that all the kitchen slaves be whipped, that without any idea as to the script’s content. Helen carefully picked up the pieces of script where Livia Drusilla`had dumped them on the floor, scanned them, saying` only ‘oh my’ and then “oh yes” and remarks such as, “why there’s nothing to these, just gossip, we’ve all heard those same stories before and put no credence in them, none at all. I do apologize, Livia Drusilla, nothing to them at all. I should think you might want to take them with you, we all need to look in a public mirror from time to time. And this one about you and your pets at least shows you as an animal lover.”
Helen ducked before the thrown wine cup could hit her. It made quite a splash as it hit the table, splashing on the old Praetor who was not only head of the Seleucid port, but himself of a noble family, the Ahenabarbii who’d been friends, or enemies, of the Cornelii for some generations. He’d been splashed before and, being a dignified old salt, old family, merely suggested to Livia, who had no such once imperial blood as his, that were she better bred, and had educated her palate, she would know that good wine was to be drunk, not wasted. The guests thought this was all good sport, and began some serious drinking for, after all, it was good wine and latent tensions, as well as the wine cup, had been broken
I had caught up with Publius Marcellus, proposed we move to a side room well stocked with wine bowls and elegant appetizers, saw to his refills personally, and told him simply that I had been taken by the Christian high god whose embrace I found remarkable. I told him that, as a man however religiously renegade but conscious of his station and duties, I intended no public declarations that could embarrass either palace or family, and, further, would always be respectful and proper in my public duties to the Roman gods, and entirely loyal to Rome. I warned him that I would soon become a Christian, the baptism of it, although for political discretion’s sake, not hereabouts.
The Legate was already tipsy. He wagged his head,
“You always were an odd one Now you tale your career and standing downhill and backwards. Nothing public, so nothing known I say, well then fine, bizarre and degrading as it is. I knew your father you know, beastly sort of chap, lucky you came out alive. I know about those crocodiles of his. As for your mother, not much, but to say my father was sleeping with her along as were the rest of the boys. No, I have always been amazed you came out as well as you did, proud of you in fact, and you do a damn fine job for me at the palace. If it weren’t for you I’d have to go to work! Even so, this sort of thing can end in no good, we both know that, but I’m not the one to sink your boat. I’ll have to write to the Emperor of course, but confidentially, tell him that unless he orders otherwise I’ll keep you on. Imagine a Christian in the palace, what is Rome coming to anyway? Downhill I suppose, it’s the fate of empires.. Oh I hear about imperial cousins and the like having slipped their religious moorings, but these were all women. I know legionnaires, even some of the Syrian centurions have gone that way, but by Jove, man, what can you expect from uneducated Orientals who are all a bit sloshy upstairs, eh? No, Mule, I’d expect better, but then, you have always been a bit batty, so just don’t let this new aberration interfere with your work, right?”
He slapped me on the back, but then looked at his fingers oddly, as if they might, with that contact with me, have grown to six per hand or all turned green. He grunted, turned his back on me, and soon was guzzling more wine than even he was known for. I supported him into the dining room, where he was soon snuggling up to Livia Drusilla , using his not–green after all hands with intimate familiarity.. The few others of us there ignored them both, a good thing for they were a bit noisy about their coitus, almost as if some such show, beyond diversion for the real shock both had had, was de rigueur for their come-lately class.In fact, at a drunken party, as this one now was, it was not unusual. Old fashioned snobs such as myself disapproved, but I was not embarrassed. Helen came in, saw what was going on, and left. I heard her order the servants to serve her food in another room. I was pleased to be marrying, fashionable Romans would call her, something of a prude. A prude perhaps, but quite good at the rough and tumble of putting Livia in her place. And so this was her place; making noisy drunken love on a couch. Roman society’s animal element was always close to the surface.
The sweet sour of the evening was apparent . I lied claiming mild indisposition, a code, so that they would all have the better excuse to leave before dinner etiquette dictated. Publius Marcellus gave me no smile, but then as his guards loaded him in his litter, few of his muscles anywhere were working Livia Drusilla who had rarely drunk much wine when with me, had laid one on, was so to speak, fried to the eyeballs, as they say, spiflicated, sniggered. But not so drunk she couldn’t curse. Forgiveness is not a Roman virtue. I feared for Helen, for Syrian assassins come cheap, albeit not for high profile targets. Hated now by Livia, surely not popular with Simon, she could begin to feel as emperors did, neither beloved or safe, for all the public adulation they receive. As long as I commanded I would keep the surveilling troop, and now some personal bodyguards by her side as well. I was sure she would instruct them, warrior that she had been and was again, for when she went out she wore a new short sword e-no mistaking its outline on her thigh, it was very thin, I suspected she had special-ordered it from the palace armourer-blacksmiths. A woman of diverse talents, this Helen. Her bodyguards confided in me that that in the event of attack, she had instructed them to give her room to kebob-skewer a few livers, or a head or three. Apollo’s Amazon and soon, by her domestic actions tonite, clearly having decided to be my wife. As an old warrior myself, I rather like the idea of an Artemis. No Roman woman would have been so trained, but obviously the Celts/Galations honored the prowess of their daughters.
Other news as I recount it here on this newsworthy moment? As for the sneaking scoundrel Menander, no, I hadn’t told you, he’d been found by Balthus’ men down drinking in the bars of Seleucia Pieria. I grant him courage under torture in the palace basements, for given every opportunity, as his various parts were crushed, burned, pulled or otherwise excruciated, he did not give away, “roll over” on Simon whom Balthus and I were both sure was his thief master. Ah well, some day Simon would be ripe for justice, with evidence enough in court to crucify him. In the meantime Menander had fully qualified for execution. I ordered it without bothering with a trial; my position here and his crime allowed that. It was most regrettable none of my family treasure was recovered. Perhaps after I became Christian I would learn forgiveness. It was not in me at the moment, nor do I, now Christian, regret it. The law is the law and an orderly, safe society requires it be obeyed and enforced..
As it was, I had Menander crucified, along with the many others hanging on the dirt avenue given over to such instructive endings, that the dirt and dirty avenue near but not intrusively so, the Street of Herod and Tiberius. There Menander would become well acquainted with exquisite pain, contemplate his bloody toenails, and slow suffocation as cross-cursed lungs collapsed. I had told the executioners not to crush his shins, which was sometimes done, not simply to inflict immediate terrible and further pain, but as a kind of mercy, for a man with broken legs cannot support himself on the cross’ pedestals, and dies the much sooner, suffocating not nearly as long. His longer pain pleased me, Balthus as well. On becoming Christian, these were sentiments I should not admit. On becoming Christian, I will admit them. It is not my intent to lie about myself. I am a just, but not always a kindly or unselfish man.
Whatever else, I was then and now, strict in my respect for Roman law, albeit I am appalled by the corruption in its practice. Chistianity exhorts to more forgness than human instinct allows. There are in probably all religious credos, contradictions which texts may gloss but do not resolve. Tensions are inherent. I will not even attempt Christ’s capacity for forgiveness, nor do I see this world long surviving if only that is practiced. Offenders, when judged by God’s beneficent eye, do not need the likes of me forgiving them. If Paul is right, if they believe enough, they will realize redemption and resurrection.
It is such an extreme and incredible promise and threat, Paul fierce in it, that, for one like myself who has witnessed thousands of deaths, a surfeit of pain, a wall of experience blocks my capacity to envision only goodness, and even in its absence here, imagine the power Paul claims is Jesus’ to assure a later paradise. An effort toward that will by itself remake lives and the world. Transformation through effort then, is our hope. We have here then a doctrine of work, where we are both carpenter and chair-in-the-making. I have doubts about the malleability of man reforming fully in the service of the good. Over time perhaps, but it will take a strong institution to preach, model and enforce it. The belief itself, working toward realization, an institution dedicated to that, the very optimism and commitment to the remaking of man, will constitute a miracle for me. You see I am something of a pessimist who will work toward the remarkably better, but not expect perfectibility in my lifetime or millennium.
As you read of us, of me who would chronicle this latter part of my life for you, do understand this journal of it, what others contribute, is not intended ro amuse. As I write, as do others, I discover we are describing a process within us, and the rub, slide, boosts and blocks of our contexts. Remaarkable events, as for example the Reading described earlier, are rare enough, signaling and being more marked change, rather like those mile- post- marking stone Herms along our major roads. These entinels announce movement along our life’s road. In a life’s case thoughts serve as the road’s direction and misdirection, as the road’s bedrock or endangering bog. I already find myself, upon reading me, quite dull and cogitating. I am sure Balthus is that, over-given to thought, below it the German bedrock of him and all along the way hzarded by such bog as to warn of quicksand. As to the over-display of him, be kind, for he ventures disclosures few men would, and if in it there is bragging, again be kind. There is insufficient praise about, if a man showers himself with it from time to time, it is because he is thirsty for it.
Consider, you so removed who read this, if by your time, be it centuries or millennia removed,, mankind are advanced in greater kindness to one another over what you learn of Rome by reading us here. I am committing myself to the work of that. If you find your fellows even somewhat kinder, civilized, fulfilled, then good, I you beg consider raising your glass to those of us in my time, whose labors contributed to that. And do. for both our sakes, be sure it is a good wine.
Helen and I walked upstairs to bed in that glorious, burning, beaming deliberateness of committed love agreed now to in and as marriage. Her Daphne self-exile, given over, she told me, to review, introspection, had led to a surprisingly speedy decision. Now, married by the fact of our commiment, I could relax, replacing hope with the substance of satisfaction.
The servants, trained to be taciturn, allowed themselves smiles and nods as we walked through the halls, for they were genuinely pleased, Those who wore the widest grins were, I suspected, still enjoying the amusement, bloodless vengeance of contributing so well to the discomfiture of Livia Drusilla who had, when their mistress, been beastly to them. I was myself not going to read the scripts on the dining room floor where she had dumped the gossip bowl of them, for I knew I would be shocked either by what the household staff had heard as gossip, what they had seen which made it, or which, given freedom for the first such exercise in wanton libel in their lives, they had surmised or invented. The one that Helen had cited, with malicious amusement, although itself obviously ridiculous, however “classical,” of animal congress, was the invention of my slaves who were only too eager to repay as best they could, the whippings that she had inflicted. I had been too weak or indifferent then to counter it. I had much to make up for in this, and other failings.
I, Balthus, editing, incorporate at this point, a conversation we had shortly after S. Cornelius had put to quil and parchment his accounts, and deeper thoughts so far recorded.. I had read the material, was bored with much of it, but was now better educated about the man himself.. Here is what he said ,
“So far then, a long story, eh, Balthus? I am already embarrassed. Even so, by reading myself, I see my course is set, but at the moment, I am a junior Agamemnon awaiting the proper winds. There shall be no propitiating sacrifice of daughters. Am I a word-poor Homer envisioning a war like Troy’s , but a battle absent the fickle gods? My vision on behalf of the Christian community warns me that my own part is prodromal. I am no great thing in the unfoldings. But that is the nature of history, each step in time leads to the next. Most of us comprising an epic disappear from memories. My journal here, as I have said before, is my vanity at work, wanting to be remembered, using these stories of our times as proofs that we here should be.
Know this, Balthus, I will not die abed. There is already in my time with Helen, and my new understandings, sufficient heaven that I shall not be greedy for afterlife. I know where I stand; here and now. I know I must wait, where I must act, but not quite where I shall fall. That is in other hands. The grandeur of Heaven is not so important to me, Balthus. I am here, I am now, this God I know is present, not some phantasmagoria in the sky. I am Roman. I have duties. I shall go as these and God might direct although I am neither vain or irresponsible enough to explain my own will and deeds as God-directed. It is a sense of him that guides. I am already blessed by his gift in Helen, my freedom, in what I now know and am, in my new purposes. I do have a vision of what a good world might one day be, and what one best can do, one soldier among many, to bring that about.
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