CHAPTER LXI

A Bit Uneasy



I, BALTHUS, am clearer now. Falernian fogs have fallen away, the inside  of my head is no longer quarry marble being split, and I have read that thick bundle of parchments the Mule has sent me, the contents of which are his intended words to his Assembly, these his first “homilia” he calls them, generally meaning ‘discourse” or” conversation”. It is by no means the next day after their delivery, but three days. I was courteous. I had sent a message to Bishop Impatience telling him I was indisposed, and would make it over today, presumably to review with him the content of his intended sermons. I declined his earlier invitation to the evening meal, or rather, my stomach declines it.  I have filled it full of soothing  herbs instead. The Falernian is a cheery friend, but given advantage, is a savage conqueror, for drunk copiously, she lays waste.


This morning P. Marcellus sent for me. He is tremulous, a nervous symptom increasingly noticeable. He is not a bad fellow, but that does not save him from the maliciousness that those lowly reserve for their superiors. He cannot function without S. Cornelius  who did the governing work for him. His replacement cannot possibly arrive from Rome for weeks. “Marceo” , is the new gossiping nickname for P. Marcellus, which word he’d best never hear from a mouth which would keep its tongue intact. It means feeble, lazy, dissipated. Increasingly true, such traits all- a- tremble do not bode well for Syria. The Emperor, when he hears of the state of governance here- and soon enough he will- will replace him. What follows is another matter: will our Governor need replace his own severed head? That depends on the state of the accounts and Hadrian’s mood.. 


Marceo asked me if I would accept a promotion the better to assist Syrian govrnance. That meant of course doing S. Cornelius’ former work.  I told him I was greatly flattered, but was coming down with  swamp fever;  shakes, chills, and raving are its signs. Children especially die of it. The luck of liars was with me, for I had the Falernian hangover shakes as it was.My mistress of the grapes stood me in good stead this morning.I’d be lunatic to take such responsibility. S. Cornelius’ status protected him from any serious blow-back were he to have made some gross political misjudgement, whereas I, an unconnected, easily despised Swabian goat had no great name nor honors behind which to hide. The Quaestor made no mistakes, wheras that never could be the forecast for me. I know the difference between cleverness and competency.  Let some other low -ranked fool play governing Secretary, and likely get the lash for his troubles. 


It was understood that I would continue as a sub-Secretary. We have had all along some very competent Jewish, Egyptian and Greek slaves doing the lower level management work. I had been mid management, making ordinary decisions, but none with major political or financial impact. Nor was I engaged in planning, beyond seeing to supplies ordered, normal events arranged for,  mid-level visitors routed and hosted,  forecasting revisions made as to agricultural production, that sort of thing.  Policy work, the hard decisions that would inevitably anger important losers, major financial commitments including the budget and tax levy changes , these had all been the Quastor’s job.  Somethning I would never be allowed, was greeting high level visitors although I did see to their pleasures. The biggest headaches were taxes, for the special appointees who bought their collector’s post from the Governor, or in Rome itself, were inevitably rapacious. Let me say it again, rapacious. Appeals were almost daily, almost always tearful and desperate, and in our eyes, usually justified. Sometimes soldiers had to be sent out to pacify an overtaxed locale.  Only S.Cornelius had the will and status, also the compassion, and in ticklish cases, the political foresight,  to lower taxes,  or on those corruptly not paying enough, to raise them. No soldiering low civil rank Swabian dare touch that rough business, where final say might rise to the level of the Senate or the Emperor himself.


So I knew that behind the Governor’s offer, indeed plea, for my promotion, “Sub Secretary” or some such, was a barrel full of adders and cobras,  from which venture I would be the one bitten. I would be promoted to work above my rank, to make decisions which would go wrong, and to fill the waiting post of fall guy.  The competent slaves, whose lives were free enough, whose master as with us all was Rome, could not be assigned to Syrian civil service posts where they might make decisions adverse to well-connected citizens.  These technically only slaves might be demoted, transferred, denied a perk, but were otherwise safe.  As I said, S. Cornelius did not make mistakes, and were he to have done so, he was untouchable.  In my case, even if I might enjoy the trappings of  a Sub-Secretary, I was fair game for the worst. Thank you, no thank you. I would remain usefully out of the whip-man’ s range.


I near bowed so low to the Governor that my forehead might hit the floor. When it comes to humility, my fawning is exquisite. Most of us are toadies, but I am not without amphibian ambition; I like it better being being higher Toad than low. In all fawning, that sycophantic proud soldierly sincerity, that sincerity must be as  absolute as situation itself demands. Initiative is also helpful with a a frightened P. Marcellus  I would assure the Governor of what he seemed to need. That I might tell him the truth was inconsequential. I propose no virtue in doing that. The fact of the moment was that, beyond Marcio’s obvious inadequacy,   S. Cornelius worried him, worried him absent because who would do his administration?  And worried him as a powerful noble leading those mystifying Christians to what and how?


I was unsure whether my effort should be to reassure Marcio P.M. that there was no danger there, or play the prophet giving warning. I did not know myself. What best to make of it?  Here my friend, this Roman aristocrat hero of the legions, leading a growing, Empire-wide cult in a time when the religious irrational was increasingly embraced, and, as we saw with the Jews, very dangerous. They had, after all, in the Jerusalem business destroyed two legions and that is a record no Roman can every forget or forgive. At the same time this defector from his noble class, hero of the Empire. this man who saved Hadrian’s life and to whom the Emperor remains grateful, (no able spy can ignore the signs), might be together  in some covert league. Worse, were they not together.  Nor does one dare overlook Helen- of- who- knows- what- special- -powers to whom the Emperor is also bound. 


In any event Marcio the had, and hinted as much to me, confused concern about S. Cornelius. An aureole, it radiated like the borealis I saw as a Suebian child looking at the northern sky.Whether it would wax, wane and move all about as did the A. Borealis, well, who could know?  I put on my face of studied wisdom, swam about in a wordy, cross currented sea of ambiguity, emerged on a perilous beach of uncertainty, and heartily congratulated P. Marcellus on his brilliant understanding. I left the interview still shaking with a close call fever. 


I had reassured him, for he was preoccupied with such risks, that I was not a Christian-nor would I become one ever- regardless of my new presbyterian title which worked to allow the bishop, now “my Bishop” to keep me as an odd jobsman, old reliable friend, around him in the new job.  The agreement reaffirmed this morning with Publius Marcellus was that I would report on what S. Cornelius was doing, preaching,  and if I dared it, thinking as Bishop.  More exactly that spying levy required that I report, beyond conduct, my inferences and intuitions.  I know myself well enough to know I do this much too often anyway, and usually to the disadvantage of the person observed, or slandered as the case might be. An adverse report is the safest for the confidant assessor in this Empire of suspicion.


I had my high spy toad wisdom about my  limits.  The Emperor himself seemed to trust, or for all I know adore, S. Cornelius.  For any governor that confidence assigned to a subordinate, or now even a possible rebel, was incomprehensible. There was nothing this Governor could do; he had not dared to intercept the exchange of letters that went by the imperial post between S.Cornelius, the Princess Helen and the Emperor, but the whole business made the Governor extremely uneasy, as if some second palace were sprouting across the Orontes.  A Christian approved palace?   Impossible, but…. Hadrian had executed Marcus Publius gubernatorial predecessor.  One could not rule out some remarkable agreement between the Emperor and this now Christian bishop, and where indeed did the notably unconsulted, not informed, P. Marcellus fit in?  Were there some secret plans for him, as for example would the Bishop be invited to walk back across the Orontes to assume the Governorship, become Legate, bringing all those potential Syrian cultists with him as…who could say what as,  any more than who could say what was in that exchange of letters?   S. Cornelius had changed his mind dramatically once-   that it was his soul driving it I found a droll notion- and so, who knows what would happen if S. Cornelius changed his mind again, or had company in changing it?   The Princess Helen was certainly capable of agreement that her man be Governor himself.  Why not? A Mule with late vocational ideas, so,  ambitious enough to be Bishop of not much, presumably loyal enough to be swearing something consequential to Hadrian, well?  And agreeable letters passing between that same Helen and Hadrianus Imperator? Here was a conspirators puzzle, too many pieces missing. You know I am not of an entirely  conspiratorial mind, not entirely, but the least one could say was, well the less said the better….  


Consider: every political mind in the Empire marked well that Emperor Hadrian had ordered it announced across the Empire, that S. Cornelius even though Bishop and presumably estranged,  was appointed Tribune of the Legion Trajana. A giant step in itself, the protocol unprecedented, and as with steps, a watching man knows they can go higher.  Any emperors’ heir is in doubt until the day he assumes the throne (and afterwards, given assassins, warring legions, doubt is the currency)   Hadrian, childless, was rumoured furious at his nearest young male relative, Julius Fuscus who was, so the perked up rabitty ears in Antioch heard it,  rumoured plotting against Hadrian.  Again, rumoured but inevitable for any plotter not succeeding, and this child would not succeed, Fuscus would himself be put to death, just as Hadrian had dispatched a goodly number of others close to him.  And so, is it delirium to wonder if S. Cornelius might be in line for more than Christian Heaven?  Or that Publius Marcellus, the sot of him with no great brain but not so stupid as to know his Emperor’s capabilities, might also be calculating possibilities?  It is the mind which creates conspiracies, they are the Roman art form which later, after the notion of it is conceived and cherished, and as with all art, derives from and also is given shape in the real world. 


As for S. Cornelius, it was not impossible that Cornelii blood was churning toward dominance.  He had to be somewhat ambitious by his very nature, albeit becoming leader of a  band of some of superstitious cult pariahs, was hardly Pompeii mounting a challenge.  But even so, were he not conspiring with Hadrian, he might anticipate being a Bishop over Bishops, just for the exercise of it.d The Christians talked of spiritual dominions as their domain. Nonsense. A body is a material object, what it requires is substance. The material is grounded on earth, the reach of the spirit, be there any such,  starts with real hands that can hold real swords. And so? No faithful disguise for me, thank you. I would stay living in the palace. By doing that S. Cornelius- he could not be totally befuddled by this Christianity business- would know that I had made a side deal, or indeed, a primary one.  He liked me enough;  he wouldn’t care.  He would worry less about Publius Marcellus than the Governor would worry about him.


By way of my pretending a proper Presbyter,  the Bishop and I had talked about my wife, her coming here, my alternate quarters neas him as the theater of it.  Cornelius thought I should ask her to come join me. I did inquire by post. I was not displeased when she wrote- yes I had a literate wife- that she wanted to stay in Germany in spite of the Bishop’s offer to rent for us a whole second floor apartment down the street. It had plenty of room, slaves living in the back in quarters against the wall . It had one of those fine high walled Oriental gardens, fountains and all, just like S. Cornelius’ own grand house a few blocks away, Not irrelevant, the Assembly house was nearby in the Jewish quarter, that now sprinkled with renegade Hebrews become Christians. Antioch was becoming ever more cosmopolitan.  With each new group the risk of their warfare increased.


The building he had in mind for us was on a  crooked narrow alleyway that defied the original city plan of Hippodamus of Miletus  It would have taken me a month to learn how to find my way home, even when sober. Whenever you’re in the East,  you’ll find no street the locals can builds will be straight. Visit Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo.  In contrast Greeks and Roman design cities by plan, whereas Syrians and their slovenly  ilk are offended by any kind of order. In building their cities, they burrow away to make things narrow, crooked, impossible to find,  noisy, and smelling of garlic, onions and of course, refuse. They like it when things stink. No matter how long I stay here, I hate the stench of the place, nor do I like Syrians any better now than when I first came. Give me blue-eyed people any time.


My wife didn’t like Syria at all- she had visited me once- and insisted the East would be a terrible influence on the children whom we both wanted to grow up  German,  surely more European than decadent Antiochean.  It’s the solid roots that matter, family ties, near the farm, the no-nonsense strength of the land, no slaves to make you soft, and hard winters.  She and my brother Tuisto’s  sister were the closest of friends, her kids close to the same age as mine, all my family liked her. It was a large, close family to be with, so yes a solid home is a good place, and my salary money allowed me to keep it a better one for them all. It was this life that would keep a German from Roman corruption and Syrian degeneracy.  I agreed with my wife, she should stay solid.  No problem in doing that, since I keep my bed here as companionably warm as I like.  I have told you earlier, Antioch is better than Rome for reasonable prices for a woman, and an astonishly inventive, supple variety are at hand. 


Planning my visit there today, I knew S. Cornelius was at home with Helen. I have never known a man so in love with a wife. Helen seemed as loving as well.   They were an elegant couple, famous by now well beyond Antioch, and of course, subject to as many rumours, good and bad, as an Eastern mind coupled with Roman conspiratorial habits, plus natural admiration for the handsome, favored, rich and honorably  famous, could conjure.  Certainly when they went a-walking or by carriage, everyone looked on.  In contrast, the Governor, sometimes with Drusilla, hardly earned a glance. The slaves told me she hated that, and of course, S. Cornelius and his Helen. No woman enjoys a comfortable birth in the aristocracy, her further successful push up the social stairs only to find some other woman at the top. And oneself to blame for the decision from which it had unfolded, Polybus’ determing coil of causal circumstance to sequence displayed. 


Display indeed, at the center of this picture,  Helen, perhaps the immortal Helen of Troy after all,  the beautiful one whose face had launched a thousand ships, at the very center.  Oh how Drusilla hated her. As the mind of woman works, it was all the Mule’s fault, but he was out of reach.  On other days as she brooded, she blamed P. Marcellus. In vengeful display she cuckolded him in their own palace apartments, shrieked him into trembles in his own court yards, and recently threw a knife at him, not missing by much at all. Well thrown, the miss might have been intentional. Her knife- knives are of interest to me by way of vocation- surprised me  It was not part of the aristocratic Roman lady’s wardrobe. If she could really use it, she was dangerous by way of more than being a shrew assaulting dignity and eardrums. 


So yes, complexity hereabouts, much of it unpleasant, and that no design for my life. I did not slept well last night. That was unusual, for Morpheus treats me well, whereas I am his reciprocal devotee. The truth of it?  I have told you I care little about truth-telling to others, but from time to time I give myself a dose, usually bitter. No dream came to bringing fright, nor did one come revealing solutions. I have farmer’s dreams, not Roman ones, I am exiled from their visiting insight. And so? I have just told you of my not wanting my wife down here. Were she and the youngsters here, and I any kind of Presbyter, however hypocritical, but near the Bishop, they would undoubtedly want to be Christian. 


I am one for the old ways, my gods of the trees and forests, gods I can touch and smell, gods whose rustling leaf lips talk to me, whose winds advise me of directions. They do not require of me loyalty or belief, we neighther make promies to the other beyond being two kinds of companions. If there be no such gods but in the history of my childhood, it doesn’t matter. I have known them as a child, and they are formed in me.


But the Other? Demand, promise, power, doubt. This Bishop of him is further changing, further roots in an elsewhere place.  His god, “God” if you accord that respectful form, is too close and too far. Far in the sky somewhere, in the afterlife so they unproveably say, in the stories, mythus, of his Jesus son by now so much edited the human of him, the teacher in him, is lost.  But that He or, equally the what of him? Too close. He may be in that Assembly filling them in that Eucharist feast.  He may be their listener in prayer.  That he, whatever the He of him is, completes S. Cornelius seems so.  Daily the Bishop becomes more poet, gently lyrical and seeming blessed, a  poet of the elsewhere yet the now. There are emanations. No, I don’t sense them but I watch others respond; the folk come close to him as if in the cold of their lives, he is their fire, as if in the silence where love is not, he is their music,  in their world’s despair which surely is, his presence is surety itself. He is becoming great is this their Bishop, not mine.  My reason hates that it is all illusion. That God of theirs may only be in the sweet fever of their minds, a contagious fever, a raging, loving they say,  fever. It can set Empire afire.


Once after I was spying on this Assembly, I wrote him in his governing capacity, that these Christians might well be a force in Empire, an overcoming force even if they call it love and faith. Sugar has consealed poison many times before.   I fear it even more so now. This Bishop is become a force. This Bishop is set to rule an empire beyond this Ignatian Assembly. Although I cannot anticipate its dimensions, this Bishop’s sensitivity, his reach, his glimmerings of glory will define it. These will be tumultuous times. Emperors will unleash their legions, roast and tear those sacrificing Jesus centurions as long as wood for flames and crucifixes allows.  I want no part of this war of souls against swords. I want my family safe with our own gods near our forests, safe near the salty cold waters of our Baltic Sea. 


 It is only at this moment I conceived how stupid I might have been, even for me.  All of this religious mind of his fretting about God, the condition of Rome, might have been because he was bored and frustrated. Assume his primary ambition is political but realistically blocked by the ruling apparatus of Hadrian, and so almost whimsically he has decided to race in a safe, available, and I do agree politically promising, hippodrome. With his aura of credentials, wealth, battle-honed skills, he will be the only one among that poverty of country bumpkin salvation- posessed eccesiasticals to arrive with a full stable of horses, grooms, and the best of chariots. The ancient basis of the class of Equis, Knights was that a man wealthy enough to maintain a horse qualified as elite, and so our nobility was born. Born in a barn, so to speak, a very different outcome than Mary giving birth in a manger.


 I must entertain that for S. Corneluus, costumed and credentialed as Bishop, all of this may be but practice. He may fancy the course of an hippodrome is not oval but crooked, zig zagging this way and that, to imperial laurels and Rome. One day I may be so suspicious, attribute so much danger to power in others, be so entirely distrustful, and as with Helen when she was oracle shaping her prophecies to the inherent interests of petitioners, and the power of that prestige of office to fulfill itself,  that I may qualify for the Emperoro Hadrians’ own elite corps of intelligencers. Now his is a palace to live in!


You see, I prove myself  only somewhat ambitious and, in this particular view of S. Cornelius, quite willing to overlook the fact that no evidence whatsoever supports it, that he seems, a lifetime of conduct and all I know of him to prove it, a completely loyal and decent man.  Ah, but is that not exactly the basis for suspicion?  Evil sees behind the mask of the Good, a mirror of itself.   


Once, after I was spying in this Assembly, I asked the man to be practical. I had given him the intelligence, that analysts summary and warning thatthe Christians might well triumph. I put it to him sensibly enough, given what I knew and S. Cornelius was, “What can be in this for us?” Look at the disaster unreason brings. No wonder I didn’t sleep, I am left balancing uneasy alliances where I am of no importance to the Romans or the Christians. I am a teller of tales, r many of those tales are vicious. As an intelligencer I best, no Apollo assisting me, allow one anticipates the future by conceiving its many possible natures, for these contain our own. 


My  dreams these uneasy nights, so real and foreign they must be visitors, show me frightened emperors, some, as before, quite mad. They smell  burning flesh, hear fat lions crunch bones, picture deserting, dividing, no longer Roman citizens’  legions wavering on permeable frontiers, show Sol the sun god brighthly shielding himself, see bridges burning, logically allow an Empire divisible, anticipate emperor gods and sky gods fighting for allegiances, foresee worlds spiritual and world temporal merging and reemerging,  and knives, yes my dream visitors revelatory carry bloody, dripping  knives.  I stared at the floor this morning as I awakened. Yes, spots on it red and dried, Falernian or bloody I could not say. That ignorance has made this an uneasy day. The tremor, now more of me shaking as if I were some north European aspen tree, says there is nothing good in any of this for me.  


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