An Insinuating Message
Upon leaving the palace, I was walking across the bridge from the palace via the Forum on my summoned way to S. Cornelius house for that conference on his homilies, when I heard running footsteps behind me coming close abreast. I turned, saw a commander of the palace guard. One couldn’t miss him, he stood out like a rainbow fish in a turtle pond. The Governor had just recently re-outfitted his palace guard for show. I had seen them around the palace and strutting about town. Nothing seriously military about them any longer, they were dolled up in new designer uniforms, all these dolls stuffed with pride in being first in the fashion parade. The guard were levied from taller men in the regular legion barracks, then, the palace gossip had it, each was personally fitted by a tailor, the results just what one might expect a pampered Egyptian courtier in Cleopatra’s pavilions to wear.
Instead of a practical, armoring cuirass, theirs was a worked leather jacket dyed dark blue, not thick enough to repel a bee sting let alone have any protective value in a fight. Naturally they had dress cloaks pinned to their left shoulders, these deep red with an eagle design, each an arty representation of their legion’s standard. They had bright embossed metal buckles, shiny bronze sheaths for their swords, there was the same deep red cloth, tiny designs again on their knife sheaths. Perhaps intended to be eagles, they looked like humming birds to me. Gold silk threads were woven into their black scarves even though no one in anybody’s real army wore scarves, They wore grey wool leggings above their, get this, shiny black leather boots with squarish elevated heels to make them stand even taller. I couldn’t imagine how a fellow could walk in them let alone fight. And yes, some kind of tasseled, yes dark blue leather again, cap. All quite “chi chi”, and absurd.
The talk in the palace had been that the Governor had taken up with a new new Egyptian mistress who had been working for an Egyptian tailor in one of the fancier downtown shops. This one was realizing her potential – and his- in the Governor’s bed, and in making his palace guard and him rlook ridiculous. As for bed partners, it was said Livia Drusilla was spending less time reclining on his wide couch,, whereas the Governor was importing more sporting types to counter the declining of aging. Livia Drusilla ’s proximity to imperial bloodlines, thanks to the Cornelius name she kept, hardly signified bed-bouncing thrills but for the bounce she gave Publius Marcellus’ social standing with the blue-bloods in Rome and the Antiochean high society sycophants. For these Antiocheans an invitation to dine at the palace was the highpoint of their year.
It was unheard of for a woman, but this fancy Egyptian slut had been prancing about in the palace in much the same uniform, but hers all of silk. No ordinary sandals for her, she sported high heeled dog leather boots! Civilians may admire gaudy stuff, but believe me, none of these fashion clowns in the guard dared visit their old buddies in the barracks wearing that stuff, no, when it was buddy-visiting time they changed back to their old dull legionnaire uniforms, like any sensible fellow would. They took a lot of ribbing, but what the devil, they slept in the palace O&G (junior officers and guards quarters) ate well, and the girls loved them. I felt half sorry for the poor devils, they very well knew they looked like Oriental pansies, but the fact is, when you have the cushiest assignment in Syria, you can overlook the initial humiliation that comes from looking in the mirror.
“Hi there, Balthus,” hailed this ranking rainbow now that he was next to me. He was breathing hard, but had breath enough to exhale a taunt, How do you like this junior cult priest job you’ve got, now that you’ve left the Secretariat?” he asked.
I was a bit sensitive about that; I was no more martial being seem linked to the Assembly than were these poofters dressed like Egyptian eunuchs. It had been S. Cornelius who wanted me to make myself over into a more Christian disguise. No conversion; just keep my sarcastic tongue under control, no swearing and keep my tarts on the palace side of the river or in their own taverns, not parading or pinching them in the Jewish and Christian quarter. I think he expected the proximity to all that faith, decency, the spirit of God, as he insisted it was, all that goodness would hook me. No cunning in it, he was so sure of himself and hisnew acquistions, that his assumption was a natural one. I did not begrudge him that. It was all nonsense, but it made people happy, something the irrational mind could put a handle on. A part of me, allowed to stray, could forgive them
As for me, with S. Cornelius no longer governing there was no chance of promotion. Now I’d turned down the heavy responsility of doing the Quaster’s work, no credit was going to be given me for any routine work what I might do. All that was left was a spy in a transparent bowl. I expected P. Marcellus to ask me again, for I was by now almost indispensable in the Secretariat. Desperate for someone to do the Quaster’s job, he would no doubt sweeten the offer. I might well reconsider.No new boss could be as good as the Mule had been, and the chances were any new one would be a typical Roman Equestrian Order stuffed shirt pain in the everywhere. Another fact: in the job S. Cornelius could protect me and did. His rank in the palace was second to the Governor, and the Governor wasn’t around much. S.Cornelius outranked the Governor in the reality of Empire. No one could touch me. I had it made. In any event, when the commander moves, his closest second officer can move with him. That was the army practice; it was this new bishop’s
He told me my new title was “presbyter”. I was to keep an eye on the books, smile a lot, be sure the slaves kept the place in shape, oversee the purchases, and learn with him the ritual, to me rigmarole, of the sacred meal which we had to perform, he emphasized ,”we must learn to do it perfectly”. I prepared the wine and bits of bread, stood by as he took them, saw to the excellence of the real meal that followed the Eucharist. He gave me a scroll he’d found in a cabinet, it was in Greek and Hebrew, entitled the Didache for me to read to see if it’s ritual seemed better than ours. I didn’t think so. He consulted constantly with the Elders, asked them about it; they said Ignatius had said the Didache was too Jewish, that the assembly had its own ways that they were used to, and were still inventing. They showed their new Bishop what to do when it came to the services. S. Cornelius was extremely respectful of the Elders, even though all but two were illiterate. All seemed modest, they all had aserene other- worldlylook on their faces. I had seen something like it from time to time on S. Cornelius, that transport to a far place, a vision of things not in front of his.
As for the rest of my role here; wear the fine white linen robe with red edging, and keep sniffing the downwind. As for the robe, as far as I’m concerned, a uniform is a uniform. Be sure, once back across the river, or on any avenue in town, I reverted to proper Roman proper civil, or -military auxiliary- commanding, manly dress. I might do a bit of work for the Assembly, but no one outside was to take me for one of them.
The first Sunday he presided, he had the Elders preach, apparently the rule was none could do the Eucharist, and the Bishop didn’t yet know how. He had no sermon for them, simply thanked them for the honor of his election, he would learn to serve them well. He was gracious, not humble, no airs, no show, but a noble no one could doubt. No one would forget he was a prince of Empire, now I suppose, a prince of the Christians as well.
The fact was, I liked the Christians I’d seen on that covert visit, and now among them with my white robe, they were most of them quite nice. Nor were they fussy. That first Sunday the Bishop presided there were lots of gaffs on our part, but the people themselves saw to it that all-in-all it went well. Elder Joseph who talked to them spoke of their God, their gift, their duties, and then led them in a long prayer. They sang a lot- someone with a good voice leading- danced with animation to a flue and drum played rhythm. they knew their program, so we couldn’t blow it too badly. Without a sermon prepared, S .Cornelius could not pontificate, as was was expected, for Christian or Roman the high priest as “pontiff” makes speeches according to set form. His were not ready, nor would they, as I now knew, in any way “set”. What won the day was the man himself, the same man who commanded centuries in the legion. Standing there, robe bedecked, saying his few wordsin in a voice most melefluous, he was, as when presideding at the Cretan games in Daphne, charismatic. That is a Greek word meaning a gift, a grace, vouchsafed by a god. Maybe the gods, his own high God, did intend him for something.
There was no question the Christians are a better lot to be with than the conniving, slippery, gossiping, cut--throat rank and opportunity-seizing bunch in the palace. But put trouble in any pot and the stew that cooks is trouble. Not, obvious, but some of the members of the Assembly were not pleased with the new. There’s a proverb around Syria, “better old flies than new,” or “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” My spy’s sense of it was that however proud mosst were to have a Cornelii lead them, others preferred hum-drum Heron, or “good times ” Eros.
Ignatius had been right about Cornelius, and clearly at least the Elders of the Assembly were still guided by Ignatius example, their most respected bishop since, they claimed, founding Peter. After the disaster of Eros, the Elders and other bishops consulting would have accepted any decent way out. So, Luke sent the letter Ignatius had given him to hold for such a critical moment that indeed had, with Eros, come. Cornelius didn’t mention it, but after Luke delivered it to me, the Elders trooped to the palace to beg him to be bishop. The guards were shocked, ordinary folks like that don’t gain admission, but Cornelius said ‘yes” . Oh my those old fellows looked terribly out of place even with their best clothes on. Nervous as a whores with no money down when the gig was finished they were, but no need, It was as if he’d already thought about such a thing happening. So S. Cornelius gave them a simple, I’d say world-shaking, “yes”. They made some arrangement for his hurried consecration to be after, he insisted, he had advised the Governor and received permission. To receive the gracing hands of other bishop in consecration, he was supposed to go visit Polycarp up north, but he didn’t make the trip. How could he? Eros left the assembly a shambles, whores all over the place, their tricks coming in from everywhere, even I thought that was too much. Anyway, that all took a few months crossing over into the new year when he was consecrated, this year we write, 863 UC. It’s 128 AD if you want to go with the Christian usage Cornelius took up. I go along with it, I do my job, or now, “jobs”. As I say, I am a reliable fellow.
Those very few in the palace “know”, suspected that the Emperor Hadrian had not disapproved this Roman becoming this Christian bishop. Poseidon/Neptune had sent no earthquake, Jupiter had not scorched sacred Capitoline Hill with lightening, the Tiber had not dried up, nor the Orontes, Minerva/Athena’s epiphaneous owls had not turned to vultures, what else were they to think? That Rome was annexing the new crowd in Syria, S. Cornelius as principal agent, that’s what came to minds. I can tell you one thing that didn’t occur to them, how the rumour of Hadrian’s approval had gotten started. I did it. I left a parchment scrap with what looked like P. Marcellus script on it make a vague reference to Hadrian’s approving correspondence, which, of course, no one but S. Cornelius , the Princess and its originating Imperator would ever see But a good spy guesses what he doesn’t know, and he reports what’s good for everybody who’s good is good for the spy. Why did I bother? I wanted no sullied reputation about my becoming some barbarian cultist, whereas I looked very good if I was part of this, perhaps even imperial, plan, an important part. And it did no harm to the Mule either, his being Hadrian’s general over Christians, indeed, how else could anyone account for S. Cornelius being elevated Tribune? Maybe I had guessed it right.
It was not a good thing to have only one rumour floating about, so one way and others I remained the intelligencer, set street talk louder, made sure competing notions were also afloat. With flotsam, with jetsam, a clever boatman can maneuver where others cannot, for the clever boatman put the stuff there.
There was immense surprise, envy and talk, all of it with one theme or another of skullduggery, each version wilder than the last, for the more tongues wag as links in a chain of a rumour, the more the distortion, and each the more satisfying to the teller as important course. Street talk had it, an everyone in Antioch was a gossip about the religions floating about, that Cornelius was in some kind of deal with the Christians to become their Proconsul with Jesus getting a statue and priests-palace appointed- in the Antiochean forum, Rome funding a small temple to, “ Zeus Christus” in Rome itself, all kinds of wildest talk. Cornelius, whose so far successful defection to a cult was admired, because it was taken as treachery to the Romans and envied, was also mocked in careful whisper. Whispers I say, for with the parallel incompatible rumour of Hadrian’s approval of him, no one could be sure who Cornelius really served. Beyond himself of course. All other service in Rome was a convenience. The wildest questions were, had he secretly converted Hadrian? Or was the Emperor setting up S. Cornelius to make some slip big enough to bring on the slaughter of Christians in Antioch as if they were Jerusalem’s Jews. Wild talk all of it, but since I kept my eye on the legions in the garrison out beyond the Field of Mars and I saw no activity there, I took it all for what it was worth; nothing. Why had I even looked? A man who starts a rumour doesn’t recognize its children when they return to his ears, and so, as with everyone else, the initiator thinks there must be some truth somewhere. So he watches the legions, talks to the officers in the taverns, is more often flitting in and about the palace, essentially on guard against what he does not recognize he has himself conceived.What I might imagine, can nevertheless be true.
So, under my white gown, always my short sword underneath , a dagger up my sleeve, and, for this Egyptian dancing boy of a palace guard who had fallen in walking beside me, a peevish temper ready to put a fist in his face if he dared annoy me, for by now enough rumours were about that were worrisome.
So here was this bastard next to me, not bright enough to know he was on dangerous ground even mentioning my new job, for I heard the gibe in his voice. The Governor’s silly guards were obviously unaware of my new palace importance. He’d asked me how I liked my Christian job, and yes, I knew it was outlandish, suspect, low class, and unmanly, so I told him,
“Go jump” I said, giving him the growling eye.
“No, no, take no offense, we know you’re both in on the inside of something more than a Christian cult assembly, maybe recruiting to the Christians to fight against the Jews in some local next Jewish war, eh? Let them both shed blood while we get to watch, is that it, eh? He was smiling broadly, but as nervous as a rival caught with a letter proposing seduction of an emperor’s wife.
“Go jump” I repeated, sharpening the edge in my voice
“Seriously, Balthus, a lot of the guys I know are religious, I know some retired legionnaires, Syrians of course, who are close to becoming Christian. With you two running their show, I’ll bet you see some old faces you know showing up of a Sunday. But do let us in on what’s going on”
“Nothing’s going on, dancing boy, The Quaestor – oh yes, did you not know he is also now a legion Tribune, eh?, is a genuine convert, I’m not, but he needs his old secretary to help. There’s no plot, no treachery to Rome or the Christians, or for that matter, the Jews. As for your legionnaire friends, it’s my job to welcome them if they come. Good wine and lots of it, tell them. Whether they show up or not I don’t give a Minerva owl’s hoot. Either way. It’s no skin off my back. The new job is good, the pay is better, I keep my digs and some duties in the palace, and I don’t have to put up with idiot gossips. Got that, curly toes?” (I am a surly bastard anyway, why try to hide it?)
“I hear the Quaestor, old S. Cornelius, is taking to the job like leeches to waders, they say he’s maybe tripled the number of converts in just a few weeks. At that rate he’ll be taking over the arena for your meetings. Get enough old legionnaires out there with you and you’ll have your own army. Ever think of that?”
“Nope, Christians don’t fight ever”
“That includes you, old buddy?”
“Nope, I only work there.” I could have hit him then and there; I meant my menace, “Want to try me?”
“No, no, no offense, Balthus, no offense” The phony Praetorian obviously did not want to tangle. He gave up any hint of goading, testing, provocation. “Look, I’m serious, some of us are worried you could get your fanny in a sling if S. Cornelius ever gets ambitious, not about the Christian stuff which he’s already gone off on, but what if he sees himself with a political potential there? He is, after all, you think about this as the guys in the barracks would, here is is a noble, a commander with one big reputation with the legions across the Empire, he descends come from Scipio Africanus himself, bears his name, and Scipio was maybe the best general Rome ever had. What if a man with those qualifications decides being a high priest of the nobodies is not enough? What if he begins to think about moving up?”
“Get off my back, rosy lips, or I’ll have you splashing in the Orontes looking for a boat to haul you in. Understand that?”
“Really, no offense, Balthus, a couple of us are really worried that S. Cornelius will get the big head, start converting the auxiliaries, then the legions, take on the Emperor, and if you’re there with him, you’ll both be chasing your heads as they roll off the executioner’s block, or, since he’s aristocracy they’ll have you drinking his bloody suicide bath water. So, really, do you see anything brewing there in that unpredictable head of his?”
Obviously this guy wasn’t smart enough to think of these questions himself, “Who sent you, silk crotch?”
“No one” he protested
“Like Ulysses “nobody” answering the Cyclops, is that it?” I stared at him hard, flexed as if to hit him He was, I could tell, nobody’s warrior, just a big muscled clothes model for the new palace Guard. The man had become the clothes. “Tell me, twinkle toes or I’ll deck you!”
Curley toes looked scared,
“Well, okay, some slave supervisor working for the Governor, or someone higher up, or maybe just scheming for himself how do I know who orders whom from way up high? The Whoever said I should drop the hint that if ever you saw S. Cornelius with the look of imperial purple in his blue eyes, you’d be well looked after for the information. You know, one spy to another sort of thing. At that I know you are expert. Or, if you were sure he was ambitious, coveting while converting, Rome not Heaven in his dreams, well, if something happened to him, as with that other now dead Cornelius hereabouts, the decidedly ex Governor Palma Frontonianus Aulus. I was told you would be exceedingly well rewarded. After all, there’s still an open Quaestor’s job in the palace.” The man’s tone was wheedling, his tongue slithered like a snake over the mound of gold which I could see glinting as reward for a simple, normal, every day Roman betrayal. Truth is it, I could never believe S. Cornelius might covet anything but whatever the Christians really might be able to bring to the world, and, yes, serenity. I couldn’t understand it but I had seen it now there on the Mule’s battle scarred face, composure that comes from knowing what you’re about. A senior commander of armies coveting serenity, imagine! Well, I suppose we all get old. Maybe that was what had happened to him, an old Mule, no longer wanting to struggle for a larger share of pasture.
“Impossible” I retorted
“Sure, Balthus, forget I said anything”
“Right. Consider it forgotten. You’ve done your errand. Message received and ignored. Now get lost, rosebud”
He hurried back over the bridge toward the palace. So much for spontaneous meetings. It bothered me more than I had shown. All palaces are homes to treachery. Rome is where the suspicions and jealousies of emperors, Hadrian not least of these, mint rewards. A rumour set adrift in a rowboat in the Orontes can soon be a mighty ship under sail to Rome
S. Cornelius was my friend, in fact my only friend. I must regard his safety. On the other hand, the idea twinkle toes had planted has aj evil growth within me. Could it possibly be that the Mule, given his blood, talent, legendary reputation among the legions, might once again change himself, as he had from Quaestor to Christian? What if he had dreams building on the old, joining pontifex to Maximus, joining this to imperium, thus the mighty dream named “regnum”, “dominator”,” principus “, yes, Imperator? After all Helen was a real princess, and Gaul of the Celts that is her blood is of no small matter to Rome, however minor Galatia is, their northern kingdom across from Britain and, eastward the Rhine, its ports, produce, people are an important part of the Empire. Helen is already regal and, I think of her up there on the stage that day with Simon playing high priestess, sun queen and moral Sophia, hardly without ambition herself. The two would make quite a pair conspiring, lots of brains there, and if one thinks of networks of blood, legions, provincials, civil service, and enough normals around who detest Hadrian’s homosexuality and Hellenophilia, Hadrian’s increasing unpopularity, one might could in fact find a cauldron full of allies, the Christians on the liability not the asset side. But what about Hadrian’s approval, my own surmise the Governor’s conduct supported? If so, S. Conelius and Helen were covering their real plans with this phony deal with Hadrian the dupe, “duplex”, indeed doubling, duplicitous. Yes it was so, however ridiculous. I have had many bad thoughts in my head before, but this one, if truly entertained, was among the ugliest. And I had been one, strewing about flotsam, jetsam, floating it. Again, when a rumour returns it has assumed a more portentous self. I am made my own fool. Again.
Since being with the Mule, even when he’s not speaking them, his ideas are contagious. So, yes, there are things I have come to disapprove in Rome Right now she was not even leaving my mind at peace. There is no quiet inside a mind when it is a churn for suspicion. I could understand the Mule turning Christian. The problem was that I could not understand him in a way that made me ignore what high heels had said. Just as with me and my German roots being ineradicable, might he be, however a Christian also thinking conquest? High Heels was right, “Scipio” in name, the greatest of Roman conquering generals, that Scipio Africanus who was a Corneliius and the Mule’s namesake. Blood runs deep, but the luck of the Cornelii blood was as much ill as well fated. No, none of it, if S Cornelius could conceive it, would possibly work. Shiny Boots was right; I’d be executed out of mistake. I hate losers, losing my head especially. My head and I have lifelong formed a strong attachment.
I am constantly remined that no matter how good S. Cornelius has been to me. I’m not only his subordinate, I am his inferior. Sometimes, only sometimes, I hate that, hate myself for being that. I envy him his being born to the blue blood. It has all and always been so easy for him. I’ve eaten dirt all the way up, and done some things of which even I am ashamed. That’s the farmer in me who wants to eat off silver. I hate it that he is noble, dignified, honest and now he rubs it in as charismatic Bishop. The goodness of it all makes me sick. No wonder we crucified Jesus.
I told you I read a lot, think more. There are more classics I’ve read than women I’ve bedded. That’s saying a lot. Both have taught me much, but not enough to be smart enough. This is maybe the first time I can remember that I’m really confused. No, not the rumours, what I see are real possibilities, I can imagine but won’t know until it is too late. My hands are sweating! I’m walking slowly, but my heartbeat is fast. Whatever it is, I don’t like what’s happening. My gut tells me it’s a bad time coming up. By my own German high “Gup”,” Got”, so then evolved “God” in my tongue, please I beg you, by all the powers around you, by Wodan, Donar, Ziu, by your beloved wife, Fria, this is the first time since my childhood I have prayed to you, the ones of my people. I pray you help me, get my thinking straight! You, my feared ones ,dear ones immortal, you Wodan, master of the dead and the wind, you Donar Thor, master of thunder and the sky, you Ziu Tyr, master of war, you Fria, whom my neighbors worship as Frigg, the fertile and loving one, I beg you all, make me strong! I am of your people. However far away, you are my faith and my protection. Save me from the terrible things that can happen, those things I am compelled to consider” .
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