Too Light a Shadow?
I, BALTHUS, WRITE. Immediately after S. Cornelius took me into his confidence with respect to his decision soon to become, quietly and solitary, a Christian. He remains a discrete and autonomous man. So he proposes, but that will stay about as quiet as a those winter landslides in the Alps, those avalanches big as mountains, which close the Via Mala, (The Julier Pass, into Raetia, land of the Helvetii,*) His decision and that spiraling road are both dangerous. Up that Via Mala road are, for good reason, good -luck Hermes are set as mile posts. S. Cornelius had no marching Hermes to guard him, and indeed, those Hermes posts on the Via Mala not only get buried, but toppled. How does one guarantee luck on a dangerous road? Can one ever?
I can’t comprehend him. His mind floats on imaginary seas, steers for insubstantial ports; his ship could capsize come a storm. He is not lunatic, I know that, but the doors of his minds are too open. Gods, or now his One and Christian God has come storming in, as his common sense goes wandering out. It’s wrong, it is, wrong for a Roman with obligations to his class, himself, and yes, to the people close around him. I’ll ride his listing ship as long as I can, but capsize with it? No, I will not.
He believes he has received, “God’s gift.” For myself I see no chance for gold in that gift, and a considerable opportunity for trouble. I have seen it coming, that religious direction, add a Gracchus dash of social reformer. Love Helen; be loved by her, and suddenly all the world becomes his bridal suite, he basking in love for all. Well, nothing for it, it’s settled, soon he will be Christian and then? That’s one question he can’t answer, where all of this leads? Indeed, where does it lead for me?
He had just come into the room, anticipated a bit of my concern, said,
“Balthus, you’re too smart to think I’m not some sort of realist, whatever your shock you saw something like that coming. Tolerate me as best you can. For the moment, the Governor and, should he ask, the Emperor willing, I shall stay where I am and as I am, your position is safe. If one day I leave, whomever follows will need you all the more.”
I grumbled a bit, for a fat lot he could tell about futures, ‘I hope so, Boss, I sure hope so. “
He smiled, “I suspect this isn’t for you, but I’m riding out to do some quiet reflection, prayer at that Peter and Paul cavern near where so many sanctuaries are, places sacred to the ancients who worshipped thereabouts, those Sumerians, Hittites and their ancestors without names. You know the place, east of here on Mt Silpius. I grant it’s a cavern much smaller than Eleusis, where I was once initiated into those mysteries.. You told me you’d visited Eleusis when you were in Athens“
I told him, “I visited but I didn’t feel high class enough to join the fancier paying folks inside whose priests play tricks in the dark, the mysteries of Pluto and Persephone, and all that. Boss, may be the spiritual spelunker, I’ m not. Even from the outside, no matter all the vendors, I felt the cave was scary. I was close enough to know; inside, whispers, moans, amazements, music you can’t hear which stays throbbing in your ears. Nothing I’d go for up too close. There are things I don’t want to know. And so, for the cavern out there on the mountain, thank you, no.”
“Oh come now, Balthus, the God is worshipped there but he’s everywhere and our friend. I’ve intuited his presence, and hope one day to better acquainted than that”.
I tried not to give him the fish eye, but he was getting in deep. What going on in him is a bit like the Greek girl I know who is “light-shadowed”. I’ll wager I’m the only North German, maybe even Italian Roman who knows about this kind of person. There’s a Greek merchant here from whom I buy olives, figs, stuffed grape leaves, that sort of thing. He has a daughter, Arête, virtue. She’s quite nice to look at, small boned and dainty, behaves quite properly enough, but I suspect flirtatious when her father’s not about. I’d have a go at her but I respect her old man, also I suspect she’d be a bit of trouble, for she’s a little strange, knows things, sees things, sees Nereid’s playing in the Nymphaeum when the rest of us just hear the fountains splash, put our feet in the cooling waters. That time at Daphne, I thought I saw nymphs, well, Eros caught me by the short hairs ,played me the fool, which I was. No thank you, let the Mule have his several worlds, I want the one I’m standing on.
That light-shadowed girl, her father tells me she’s always journeying ever closer to the gods. They know that, she’s almost one of them, he says. They speak to her, sometimes bring her a present. He found one just last week on the morning on the dining table, a gold ring with a reddish cast that seemed to radiate power. When his daughter moved to pick it up, he swears the ring moved, put itself on her finger. Obviously it has some special meaning between her and them, or at least one of them. All the Greeks in the expanded quarter, you know next to the old Macedonian one, respect her. One, he’s a potter, truly an artist good with glazes, and at copying some of the scenes on old Greek, red and black pieces he owns. Copies Trojan War moments mostly, but changes them to go with his own artist’s bent. He came by one day, his studio with its wheel and kiln is only a few alleys away from the merchant’s place. He told me that in his mother’s village in Boetia there’s a light-shadowed girl who is really special. When someone on the village is about to die, it’s the girl who prepares them, tells them it’s not Hades they must go to, but that she has arranged with Persephone herself that people from her village can go to the Elysian fields as long as they carry a special message which she whispers to them, a kind of safe passage they’re to tell the gods. She also arranges for villagers to send messages to their dead loved ones through those who are about to die. She absolutely won’t take money for this, although if they want to give something to her family that’s okay.
As for this girl here in Antioch in the market place, the girl I know, Greeks here come to her to be healed, although she makes no claim to knowing the herbs, just the healing magic. She puts her hand on the top of their heads; make a spell that passes the Bad from the ill person to her. You have to be strong to pass the Bad without harm, for doing that is as if lightening strikes you, but passes safely beyond, dissipates somewhere. Perhaps a demon carries it off. In any event, the father truly respects her visions. I believe him since he is a non-nonsense man. Compare her to that phony Simon. He’s never cured a thing in his life, but the weight of someone else’s too heavy a purse.
Light shadowed people are always closer to death, for their boundary between this world and the next is not solid. You can tell that from their shadows, as you’d guess, they’re not as dark as the rest of us, just half dark The shadow’s owner is not substantial in an earthly way. When they see the strange gods, “exotika”, they are partly in the other world. The merchant doesn’t worry about it, tells me the gods are already taking care of her, he tells me how she smiles and laughs when they’re about. I’ve seen her that way, she lights up, dances almost weightless. Watching her I’m inclined feel a bit giddy myself, perhaps just because she’s so light, graceful, pretty. On the whole it’s special thing, partly, I suppose because she has no fear of death at all, already having the gods as her friends there. Her father wants to marry her off, but she is quite firm in saying ‘no”, that red-gold ring with its aura promises her as a bride to some young god.
I wonder how much difference there is really between Arête and Cornelius, but for the Christian community of it, all the prayers, singing, readers, initiation, the meals and formality, The bishop tells them what to do, whereas with Arête it’s all quite simple, there she is a bride for a young god, there she is, no mumbo jumbo, no books to read, not that she could, just her own sensitive world, herself smiling and dancing ever so lightly.
As for S. Cornelius, well, you can’t expect a dignified Roman commander to be dancing about like a girl, but there are parallels Even before his announcement, there were times when he didn’t hear me when I asked him something. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is looking at things I don’t see. This Christianity is too serious for me, but for him, he’s happy. Helen may be the fact of difference. As for me I’ll do without Jesus or Helen, thank you.
Just now he’s told me it’s as if there were music and fragrances in the air. That elates him, but it worries me. He said when he heard the music he saw colors, when he smelled fragrances he could see Helen. Said he felt as though there were cheer bubbles playing in his stomach. Maybe I’m envious. The closest I can say to my being like that is after a good afternoon at the baths, wine, and a fine, well yes you know, tumbling a girl. When I want to make myself genial, that’s how. I don’t know, the high god business is beyond me. I know it doesn’t take a light shadow to be religious, that is a gift, but dangerous if you want to be anchored to this earth. Cornelius, a light shadowed Roman? Something in common maybe, but on the whole, no. I’ve never looked at his shadow. I’ll take a look this afternoon. My bet is his shadow is heavy as a boulder, the weight of a mule, a real one.
Those light -shadowed are the best Greeks at being seers. The merchant says Arête can tell you all about the dangerous hour when Hecate will be at the crossroads, waiting for victims, just like the day and in that crossroads place where Ulysses killed his father. In that way she’s like a Roman augur or Etruscan haruspex. Maybe Cornelius can foretell, maybe this idea for the Empire is more than political or spreading the good word. Maybe he sees something, knows something. Now there’s a scary thought, having a seer next to you and never knowing it. Maybe if he does have a vision, it will come from his high god, like Apollo speaking through Helen, which is one thing I do believe. No nonsense to the prophecies that woman made, had to be Apollo doing it.
I just don’t see how S. Cornelius can tale the final step to being Christian. No one of his class will accept him, all that family blue blood gone to waste mixing with these foreigners, most illiterate, some stink. Fact is, I won’t think very well of him either, when I’ve made it another rung or two rungs higher up the ladder myself. I’m as big a snob as any, maybe more, because I’ve made it the hard way, had the guts and smarts to get this far. Good digs in the palace, a house outside, good money and plenty of respect for having been an auxiliary commander, and in this job being able to do things for people if they talk to me right. The system has paid off for this Suebian farm boy, and there’s more and better to come. I can’t let the Mule, however much I like him and I do, blow it for me. I like being a winner. Compare that to S Cornelius who never had to struggle. He can afford all those doubts about Rome, so what if it’s a nasty place? He can afford a crazy Christian adventure, he’s rich, and as long as he keeps his nose clean, no one will touch him. A religious playboy I call him. He looks down from the top where he started. He has no idea how what he’s doing shocks me.
I think I could hate him, like and admire him as I do, indebted to him as I am. It’s easy to hate a creditor, who doesn’t? I’m not going to smile if he pulls me with him somewhere else. Here where I am, I have got it as good as it could get for a farm boy, but allow it might even get better. So he’s one of the comfortable rich gone foolish.
Lucan wrote a line about Caesar, how he made the most of improving the odds. I rewrite Lucan, as he might say of Cornelius
“Disdaining advantage, he mistook the odds
Losing his fortune to dreams trusting the gods “
Where this one world is a handful, I ask, why take on two?
Maybe I’m obsessing over this.. Don’t want to bore you with it, so I’ll tell the scribe who puts this in more legible Latin to write in smaller script, “whispering” I call it.
So I ask, who knows if a high god and his Heaven need S. Cornelius not matter how much he needs them. The needier one is always loser in negotiations. Rome certainly has uses for him, but “need”, hardly. He doesn’t appreciate it, but he needs Rome, for it has given him his money, rank, respect, the confidence all that brings, the confidence to even think of being Christian because he stand so high and cannot conceive of himself otherwise, the confidence, since he has everything else, to let his light shadow play with his God. Arête dances with the small gods, friendly demons, this, now to make the point I will say “God” of his is to believe him, the mightiest ever and always. Look what happened to the Jews; their own Yahweh struck them down. Take up with the mighty and look out, that’s what I say. Love and all, the Christians say, but they also talk about a Judgment Day with a slaughter coming so great it could take most of the world. All the gods are bloody. I doubt if propitiating them cures it, and it may mark the petitioner as self-deluding.
Rome keeps Antioch, but can throw any Cornelii away any time. Rome keeps Antioch because she must. It stands guard for her against the entire East, fights against a Jewish south when needed, reserves troops for Egypt, Cyprus, the southeastern reaches of Empire when required. Seleucia Pieria is ready fist and strong arm for our navy, should pirates. forgetting Pompey’s decimation of their forefathers, crawl out of their wet holes again. And yes of course, our legions, auxiliaries, navies fight one another from time to time, when one or another senses advantage, championing men who would sail rivers of blood to the imperial crown. We of Antioch, the legions and settled ex legionnaires, the civil service, merchant traders, farmers toiling under the baking sun to provide this bread basket of Empire. Its diversions, fresh waters, stationed legions, and fine strong walls promise an Antioch bound safely to Rome. She bribes us well to her service.
S.Cornelius rejects the most crass of bribes, which are those of petitioners. In doing so,he the congratulates himself as abstemious and, indeed incorruptible, is completely loyal to, and will give Rome the more. In serving her, and thereby himself, he is bribed by her in his very birth and career as a Cornelii. Rome pays it ruling officers well, and can ignore their minor faults, such as incorruptibility. His service, protesting it only to himself or, when public, by refusing advance, has paid off. He has pampered tastes, all of which are met. He lives very well indeed and does what he wants; which is what he has been trained to do, to serve Rome. Now, he’s had enough of campaigns and bitter winter campfires, the summer ones odiferous if not all the reeking battle dead are buried. Understandable, his retirement, but at the same age most military so. Again he is Rome’s habit, the army and then civil service and/or politics. They are by title mostly indistinguishable. He did not elect to be what he could have been, making an even more powerful life of it, easily tribune of a legion, a Senator like his father, perhaps a Consul, or not a good omen for the Gracchii in him, become Tribune for Rome itself. He should pray that being a Christian is safer.
There’s a heap of self-indulgence as well as maybe sublime Mule. Mix- minded as I am about him, he’ been good to me, is my best friend and now quite my worry, for both our sakes. He leads the good life, and now with Helen, the best of lives. Maybe Christianity is good for holy men, of which Cornelius is hardly one. As for Helen, who, he insists, introduced him to love, well, what she really is, has been, is a mystery to me, and no junior spy I‘ve sent out to learn the truth, has come back helpful. How would they turn back the pages of history, infiltrate the Celtic ruling circle, find a long-ago Helen scent on the Priapus prows of the ships of Tyre?
This Helen, if perhaps and after all, that woman who knew the palaces of the Argolid and Trojans, this Helen unquestionably oracular priestess and highly held and ranked, for whom Hadrian for a fact built her own temple in which to dwell, this Helen certainly beautiful and haughty, does she raise or lower herself in this marriage to Cornelius? Of what value to her to bother with a legal joining, their lives and fortunes as well as thighs intertwined? Were it all and only for her benefit, the Mule would never protest. I say that Cornelius is sick with altruism, the Christian disease of good will, and the suicide of abnegating the sword. Cornelius, higher earthly power near to his hand were he only to grasp it, this once puzzled Drusus-look fellow now at last himself less puzzled, still puzzles me.
Where the Mule is right now in life, disciplined luxury, is not too bad for any Helen after all, for whatever she is, she is more story past than present promise, even granting her assets. Her legend and substance will both be in jeopardy when Simon’s show is exposed as the fraud it is. That gig with him was a mistake, and I don’t put much store by any reputation as Sophia’s stand-in she may have with the gullible mob. It is my hard- nosed opinion that with Apollo’s temple burned, jobless, her legends no longer lucky, no Galatian royal succession worth spit- even if they allow female accession,- our Helen was down on her luck until the Mule came along, Making a living playing Sophia at revivals is hardly princess’ work. I say that’s too close to whore’s labor. She should by now have enough sense to see that Simon is taking a chance with hanging on his own cross. He won’t be making money at his own Golgotha. Helen, smart enough to leave that scene, has struck it rich with the Mule. Opportunity besieged her and she let him in. As for having been the Whore of Tyre, I don’t think so. I’m checking it out. For her to do business on a bed would be too democratic.
After pleasing Hadrian so greatly when she was Pythia--remember, predicting he would succeed Trajan, where and when—she was top of the oracular ladder, a momentary scoop on Delphi. That all went up in temple smoke. She is of marrying age and may have tied that knot this week. (As to her age, I can pin it down to somewhere between 35 and, if she was of Troy, 1200 years, if that helps) Any other job after Pythia would be an act hard to follow, although princess become Queen of somewhere Galatia has a fine ring to it, and Galatia is fairly good Roman Asia real estate, but it’s just farmer country. The queen job, if it opened up, is just watching the grain and vegetable wagons roll by. So what else is a dazzling has-been girl to do? As I said, what she is doing, marrying opportunity.I don’t trust her a bit.
I know what you are thinking, you despise my inconsistencies. You expect too much. That is the way humans are! “Consistency” is a sound we make, not what people are. Truth is, when I was sitting in the back of the hall at Herons’ house, it was a happy surprise. Not much stench, ordinary merchants, some slaves, some dirt poor, but decently sociable. A fellowship of the high god? Why not, does no harm. Superstition? Absolutely and so what? No different from the rest of the world.. They welcomed me. That was pretty nice. Nevertheless, if they act up politically I’ll be the first to haul them off to the magistrates.
That bunch are no good for Cornelius. If he ever does show up as himself, his wealth and rank will invite the mob. They’ll be shining up to him, putting on the bite. I can hear their sob-and-glory story. For him it will be incessant, “Oh sweet Brother Cornelius can you spare a nummus “ (penny), or better, a gold dollar (thalarus). Unsaid, “We really want it all.” If he names that bunch in his will, he’ll be dead before the ink is dry. He’d best keep Helen as guardian ready with her bow, for if Christian he might go all meek and poor on us. Disgusting.
Those of us who have fought our way up the ladder are realists which means pessimists. Those who have been born to its upper rungs and live loftily are optimists until reality catches up with them. People look to their own luck as proof of their philosophy. I cannot rise to emperor, but I watch the way it is done. First be born in the right place, be practical, be lucky, and at any cost watch your back. Nothing imperial about Jesus, a good fellow by all accounts, he had no interest in Caesar’s ladders. By believing in a loving high god, he was an optimist by illusion If he were born a god, “God” himself, then as with other aristocracy, his optimism was fated. S. Cornelius may optimistically give of kindness, but he is exposing himself to ill.
Tell me no more. I know the world
I apologize. A stupid Suebian farm boy can only guess about the future. Would I could be Socrates to S. Cornelius, asking irritating questions: What do we really know? How can anyone be sure? If we insist there are gods, is it because we fear death more than lies about it? Or we do have another dimension, one that bridges this world and another. Are we on two journeys, one while here preparing, thence to the Other? Who can answer these questions? I say to you, ask philosophers, priests, and rabbis, Ask Cornelius. For that matter ask his “God”, but in doing so, know you circle back to first question. The smart money waits for the answers.
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