Balthus’ Ink is Wine

 I, BALTHUS, am comfortably at home in my rooms in the palace. I am drinking. My Muse is no Tyche but Falernian wine, powers me. I have called in no woman. Tonight my diary is my wife. I delight in her, who is myself. Or perhaps I am becoming an ascetic. Nevertheless I indulge myself in scribbling my wine-colored thoughts. Should they bore you, which speaks badly of one of us, I might whisper them-that smaller script my scribe does so well- so that you may more readily ignore their excellence. 

I begin with that ridiculous, admirable, S. Cornelius, the changeling child himself, Quaestor, sometime Praetor, sub governing, beloved of the legions, hero of the Empire, and an honest, too modest man. By Janus of the two sides, this man has the favor of the Emperor Hadrian himself. And what does this Mule, oh rightly called, do? He thumbs his nose at Rome to wear a Bishop’s imitation court robe in an Assembly of the ordinary, the vulgar. Decent folks, I granted that before, but of no consequence at all. 

I write of those who claim but do not know: There are more stories of miracles, running through Antioch than the story tellers have tongues, or indeed audiences have ears. Weaving, selling the fabric of them can be well paid employment, for the wiser weavers know they craft, or more often but pass along well worn fabrics,  which in truth are the colorful clothes that hope wear. And yes, there must be bright colors to such stories, the dyer’s madder bright, or, since  at one time moralizing was left to the gods, the stories invoke their insulted pride, unforgivable  indifference to their authority. The morals derived from the petty rules of godlings are necessarily warning ones,  tales told dark, the ingredients char, or adhering, smoking  pitch, as the flesh-burning warring ships bitumen of catapulted Greek fire. 

Some hawkers, indifferent to the quality of the fabric sold, those like Simon Magus, seek to make a fortune out of sales of God and Heaven. The buyer finds no fabrics in the seller’s stall; they pay first and are told to find their goods waiting at the end of a long, long street. Sellers license themselves for such promising sales at no apparent cost, since the loud voices of promise across all of Syria are untaxed. Yet they will learn, all do, that license carries heavy unexpected costs, both the listeners turned buyers and the sellers themselves. There is a moral in that, not one decreed by an irascible god, but eventually learned by most working in the marketplace of life, or even ideas.  For scribes memorializing such stories, and witting as to outcomes,  well, writing is a risky enterprise, one with  only sometimes good employment. I, being my uneasy Balthus self,  have observed the surer writers had best not simply copy tales heard in the bazaar, but elaborate them pleasingly, typically with exaggeration of high points, sharing off any but buttressing details, making the reading, which in this age of illiteracy will again be stories told out loud,  faithful to the heroic, or casting those hearing as winners in the lottery of life.  If a better story, by which I mean touching one the heart, wisdom, one real enough to tell the doom implicit in too many gifts, it is best modeled on the Greek dramatists, Given that understanding of tragedy, for the audience sake plays safely set some in some far away time and place, with characters themselves fatally blind to themselves and their passions, characters typically so legendarily great will be envy as well as awe already strong in the historically pre-schooled audience.  

The dramatist knows we are more readily entertained by the tragic which is also deserved, so our envious, malevolent eye, that evil eye,  views it .   Come nearer home, no masked, staged, engineer’s  Greek drama, but as it is in our lives, that story will be of sorrow come its endings. That story that fascinates S. Cornelius,  and yes ‘fascinated” as the word means it, as in the witchcraft of a spell, I am not comforted by that Jesus story, for the ending tells it all.  Oh yes,  the laer telling of it is excellent, embellishments and a rather large something added to make it pleasing, that new bit of it, that reach of god-graced,  I add conditional,  promise magnified beyond any other story earlier told.  Now there is tragedy, for, ,but for the magicians and exceedingly astute –or remarkably credulous writers of tales, all  the characters are but our ordinary ourselves.  

Here, I’ll take some more wine. Good stuff, rich, and the palace cellars full of it cost me nothing. The Governor treats me well, this old Swabian auxiliary centurion, secretary, intelligencer, sometimes Knife and now, I am about to giggle,my  oh very Christian Presbyter himself.  I drink my wine unwatered and as it flows, so do I with less restraint. My mind’s quill takes its ink from Campania’s best Falernian. The quill and I are powered by it.  I delight myself with this journal. It is truly good.  Someday, I myself and the  Falernian assure me, we will be widely read. As the Bishoping Mule divines it, we will all be read by, yes, You. 

I speak of fermentation.There are more than grapes fermenting hereabouts. Like wine imbibed, beliefs, faiths, can be euphoric, generate generosity, smiles or babies.  Much of the ferment hereabouts is zealotry, which arouses the furies who feast on blood.    I suppose rape in the name of religion is not unknown, as must be all crimes that require justifying, those of the “He wants me to do it” sort.   Such ferment is unchallenged, its wine more dangerous than grapes yield,  for whereas the latter overindulged yields mere hiccoughing or, in its least pleasant form ends up puke on the streets, zealotry,( I use the word now for meaning beyond its origins in that particular band of raging Jews), that zealotry as a disposition is the curse of vanity and fervor, experiences a joy in hate itself intent upon power, and will rupture society.  Rome at least, for all her faults, knows how to rule tolerantly, as with Paul, that “easy yoke”.  While one day Christians must come to rule, the fervor in it is a danger. Christianity is best lived in smiles, the clashing of swords is not the music of the  spheres.

Listen in the marketplace, especially those streets along walls defining streets dividing Antioch’s many quarters where the separate races dwell, especially races not given over entirely to farming, crafting and trading but races also nourishing among themselves more than a counting mind or but only amusing imaginations. In the dividing streets the several peoples mingle, bringing out of exchange useful trade, inevitable bloodshed, and creativity. Those imaginative, learned, gifted, lean to explorations, weighing matters of a speculative and discovering kind, or be concerned with ethics for which Aristotle was the beginning, or in a different kind of person, it is heady grain bubbling to favor the miraculous and godly emerging.  Such minds belong mostly so Greeks and Jews, also artists who fashion beauty in words, tile, stone or in daring colors.  Add, as specially gifted earlier Eleans and Athenians, Pythagoreans, Chaldeans with their reason calculated the course and influence of the plants, dismissing entirely the role of gods in lives. All these as observing minds discovered or  hypothesized essences, energies, atoms, constant and inconstant states, matter as illusion, relationships as laws and theories of these. No wonder a “Eureka”  shout was loud when mind was sure of nature’s clarity. Why should we settle for less? Why honor Christian speculation about the “not there” when we have so much to learn about what is here?  Foolishness, laziness I say. Unused minds are like stagnant water, a stink sustaining nothing. Fish cannot survive there. Even warty toads avoid its corruption. Life is here, we know it. Contemplate life in an immaterial hereafter? Why bother with the nonsense of it when so much is to be done with the real? 


A knock at my door here surprises me. The guards are picky about who gets in any time, let along during the thieving and murdering hours of night. More than one suspicious visitor turned away from the gates wobbling with a guard’s sword waving a bloody good night from his guts.

It was one of the Mule’s house slaves. I knew them all.  They were known well enough around the palace, and a night messenger from that always-energetic, once their boss, even if Bishop now, would pass. A  guard’s view of the powerful does not change, amendments, yes, constantly as to who is boss, but given the favor of Hadrian apparently still smiling on the hero who saved his life back there near the Rhine, S. Cornelius is among the mighty, outranking, no question about it, the rather silly Governor Publius Marcellus. Why should P. Marcellus care?  He does not, wisely never did.

The messenger had documents,  obviously informal, no ribbons, fancy scribing hand, I recognized the bold, inelegant, I would say “commanding” script of S. Cornelius.   Said the messenger,


“S .Cornelius begs you to read these and comment. I am to tell you he has been wrestling with these, his first speeches to his Assembly. I quote his request”,

 “’I will be grateful for your opinion, particularly about the major themes’  He does not know the temper of that Assembly. He says you have been among them and may be a better judge of their...”  The slave let a slight wrinkle of distaste crawl up his thick lips to his eminently Parthian nose that overhung his face as a massive crag looms out from the the middle of a vertical plane, his a pock marked one.  The slave and I had known each other long enough for this otherwise daring look to be safe, indeed signifying a community of our opinion.  S. Cornelius’ slaves were a bright and well-treated lot.  Us Swabians, no slaves in our dirt farmer’s upbringing, did not put on airs with men once soldiers like ourselves who had the bad luck of capture when they fought under any leader foolish enough to fight Rome.

The slave had something else to say, “ I am to tell you there is also anther document there, he calls it an introduction to his journal. I am to tell you it is a private thing for his people far away in time. He appreciates your delicacy regarding it. He orders you keep your knowledge of it confidential as long as he lives”.

I took the parchments. There was a big hamper full of them..“When does he want my response?”

“Tomorrow, by dinner time to which meal you are invited  May I tell him you will do as he asks?” It was hardly a question. We soldiers know our duty. Usually.

I hefted the hamper of writings. It must have taken S, Cornelius hours upon days to do this, and now his impatience wanted me to get through them all in a hurry. This all night and tomorrow for that? My eyes were misty from the wine, my brain was bathing in an aromatic Falernian  swamp. I half expected Eros’ Nereids to come walking out of the fog of it.  (There was a memory I didn’t need.) I had never before said “no” to S. Cornelius, nor could I have when he was my boss here in the palace. But now he was not my boss, whatever convenient title he had given me in order to keep me around as help for his ridiculous new job. What little of me was sensible knew the wine, including its hangover tomorrow,  would drown any sensible comments I might have about what he had written, that mountain of words there. I was surprised to hear what I said, although not that it was slurred.

“Tell the Quaestor Bishop I am unwell. I will hurry to the task as soon as I am able” 

The slave was in disbelief. A subordinate, for the old hierarchies remained as also realities, refusing his commander’s request, that an order of course? 

“You will not be there tomorrow night?” 

I stared the poor fellow in the eye, insofar as my unstable eyeballs could keep a stare in good order,’

“I will not” 

The slave, now one sensible solder to a poor fool of one, could only say,

“I pity you, Auxiliary Centurion Sub Secretary Balthus. Do write out that reply so that I may give it to S. Cornelius. It is not a message I am crazy enough to deliver by my own mouth

I scribbled something, handed it to the worried fellow. He shook his head as he looked at me again. He turned smartly, walking briskly as a soldier does, left my rooms. No, more than briskly, quick march it was. He was afraid to be with this drunken madman.  I took some more wine.  I look at the hamper, rolled waves of parchment there.  Rolling waves of dizziness were with me too. Before I collapsed in bed, I did wonder, what might we have here?  In the swamp of me, there was one clear feeling rising above the fog. I had said “no’ to the boss. I had refused the imperious Mule. I was elated. I had rebelled, no antagonism in it, but I was free. A man, or god, is never so free as when he is just that.


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