Visit the Stilicho’s Son Page for historical background and further reading. Content Warning: graphic violence, animal and human cruelty, gore, slavery.
Another letter was waiting for me when I arrived at my family’s mansion in Rome.
I didn’t need to read it to know my father was angry. He was preparing for a military expedition to the East, where he planned to steal back the throne from a boy. The curious thing was not that he pursued a dream best left buried with Theodosius. What was odd was that he wanted me with him while he did it.
My father had been Master General of the Western Empire for most of my life, but mine was not a military post, nor even an important one.
I tossed the letter aside, and my attention wandered to Gallus.
I dismissed my other slaves, along with the morning’s sour melon, and drew Gallus down beside me. My gold ring ground into the knobby protrusion of his wrist. He pried at me—his hands inarticulate, weak, warm for the nails.
“Another summons,” I told him, my grip not loosened by his struggle. “Seems the Patrician has grown impatient with his tribune.”
I watched Gallus watching me. His caution was gratifying but not altogether acceptable.
“Another summons from your father?” he asked.
“There’s no talking him out of anything. An expedition to Constantinople will leave Consistory unwatched. Oh, but he doesn’t bother with politics! He thinks fear will keep the Senate in line and gold will keep Alaric across the Rhine.”
Gallus nodded but seemed concerned less with my father’s intentions than with mine. My hand moved to rest on his thigh. I obliged his fear by pushing him to his back and reminding him that what is soft makes men hard, what runs draws their chase.
“Animals are like that,” he said. “Wolves.”
“Rome is full of wolves.”
I touched the damp beard that streaked his cheek. His hair was dark as Egyptian granite, slick from days under the tortuous summer sun. We had yet to visit the baths since our return from Africa, so I called for a wine girl and a fan to make the morning more pleasant. He took the opportunity to put some distance between us.
The anxiety haunting me resolved itself in a moment of prurient clarity. “Throw the bones. We’ll see if the gods abide our obscenity this morning.”
He left the couch, opened the silver box on the table, and removed three ivory dice. As I nodded, he let them tumble to the floor. Twenty. I gathered the dice and shook them a long time in my hands before dropping them at his feet. Sixteen.
I shrugged. “Never defy the gods.”
“Rome stinks,” complained Arsace as he waddled a few steps and tried to fan the smell away with his hand.
I moved aside to avoid a fervent crowd and saw among the sea of Christian drab the pleats of a rose-purple tunic swaying neatly at the ankles of a pacing man. He was an imperial agent, one of the well-bred generations of servants strewn through my uncle’s palace with the same beautiful disregard as the rose petals littering his audience hall.
The agent’s assistants tagged along behind him like spaniels.
He had come to collect a fine of pork from the butchers, who stood around the street sharing jokes about what agents and mules have in common. Like all the Master’s Men, he maintained a smug silence. Occasionally, he tapped a bronze-tipped baton on the wagon’s belly, while the spaniels jostled each other behind him and slaves loaded the meat.
“Rome stinks,” repeated Arsace as he touched his hand to his nose. When he and the agent noticed each other, they shifted and glanced away like self-conscious conspirators. “Our first day back,” announced Arsace loud enough for the agent to hear, “and I can’t wait to get to Ravenna. Lovely, lovely Ravenna.”
After a few steps, he slouched again, letting his body sink into his broad hips as if he were filling a sack. Silk stretched around his pulpy chest, and his graying hair stuck in waxy ringlets around his head. He wore green like a woman and sweated. He was a eunuch who served in the imperial palace at Ravenna until he was caught taking bribes. Since he had important allies, he was saved from the torture he deserved and sent to assist me.
It was the first day in the month of August in the year named for the western Consul, Anicius Bassus.
Honorius Augustus, my uncle, had been the western emperor for thirteen years. My father, Stilicho, had been Master General longer than that. I held the rank of tribune, but I didn’t hold the office. I merely ran errands for my uncle because, unlike my father, he sought by station what he failed at by nature.
In June, I had delivered an order to the commander of the African legions, another of my uncles. Italy needed Africa’s legions. Rome was, as always, in need of soldiers. The Germans had been at our borders terrorizing the cities into treason. The chaos encouraged ambitious generals, and the Gauls supported any traitor as long as he promised to do what my father failed to do.
Not that anything in Gaul had changed in fifty years. The invasions weren’t new. They had no beginning and no end. They were a progression, like waves coming ashore—Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Alemanni, Burgundians, Huns, Vandals, Alans, Suevi. One year they were fighting each other. The next year they were fighting us.
My retinue of assistants and guards followed me as I strolled through the City on my first morning back. Unlike Arsace, I loved Rome. I loved the variety, the history, the filth.
I wandered to where spitted links sizzled at a sausage-maker’s cart. A beggar sat against a wall, a sackcloth draped over his bony frame and his legs propped against his chest. His short garment spread tightly from knee-to-knee, inflicting his nakedness on anyone who happened by.
His eyes followed the feet as they passed and stopped on my scarlet boots. Reaching out a shaky hand, he seemed to be waiting for a coin as his vacant gaze grew accusing. He had only one good eye. The other had a purple scar where an eye had been.
“Lord Tribune,” said Arsace, his lip curling. “Shouldn’t we move on?”
“He’s a rude one,” I said. The man’s one bloodshot eye stared at me.
“Shall I have him whipped?” Arsace gestured to Segetius, but Segetius looked at me for his orders.
Although he was only an imperial slave, Arsace had the fortune of commanding better men. He had replaced Segetius as my Adjutant. Minister Olympius didn’t have the authority to promote him. The Minister didn’t have the right to do many of the things he did, nor many of the things he was soon to do.
I waved Segetius back. “Don’t the bishops urge us to greater charity?”
Arsace sneered, “His runny corpse will be adding to some pit before winter.”
I thought of my father. “It’s not poverty to have nothing.” I could see Arsace didn’t understand my meaning. “You haven’t read Martial.”
“And you have, Lord Tribune. You’re fond of anything that is old and vulgar.”
His continued carelessness made me laugh. Though he wasn’t my slave, he should have been more mindful of me. Maybe it was my own carelessness in allowing a slave to speak as a man. “What would you know of good poetry? What does anyone? Men don’t think anymore. They just memorize.”
As my retinue withdrew from the massing Christians, Gallus kept his usual place behind my assistants. As I watched him, he watched the ground. I often flattered myself that we understood each other, that in the end, it didn’t matter that he was merely the runt of a litter born to a nameless whore, and I was the only son of the noblest general Rome had ever known.
That sentiment was an indecency, as all sentiment is. I reminded myself that slaves are neither allies nor confidants.
Like all slaves, his desires were mine. Like all Christians, he was made brittle by the disease of the sublime. He had no idle pleasures, only passionate ones—incompetent and needy, like thieves in a bakery at dawn. Although the true boy alluded me, I took pleasure in attempting to draw breath from that stone. I knew it was in him, as it was in me: what I am, rather than what I want to be.
“You squander yourself,” I said to Arsace as I watched Gallus. “You deal in innuendo. What have you told the Minister about me this month?” I thought back on the summer in Africa. “What about that senator’s son? Jewel of a boy. He could hold his ankles for hours and still manage to bore me. Some tedious story about how he acted once in a theater. Only an obscenity like Nero ever enjoyed the applause of a mob.” The eunuch didn’t seem to be listening, so I added, “The senator would have a difficult time choosing which was worse: his son’s smooth anus or his Neronian compulsion for performance.”
Arsace ignored my comment. “Brother Pelagius will be speaking at the baths today. Are you planning to attend?”
I peered from the corners of my eyes. “So there are reasons you enter the baths, even if it’s just to sit in the courtyard and listen to another monk selling smoke. While you’re in there, you should visit the water.” I thought a moment and added, “I have business. Court. Another senator accusing me of assaulting his slave.” It was a lie. Not that the suit existed, because it did, but I didn’t care about the trial. The beast show had already begun.
“Rape,” Arsace commented, not bothering to hide his disdain.
I regarded him a moment and said, “Rape?” I laughed at his ignorance. “Property can only be damaged.”
Like pieces of a shattered monument, the City held things familiar and things unrecognizable. Once, we were the center of the world. By the time my uncle wore the purple, we weren’t even the western capital. It was easy for the simple-minded to forget the past when the divine “Caesars” were centuries dead, their temples and gods little different in spirit from anything the bishops claimed to see in our Barbarian neighbors.
For a hundred years, we had prostrated ourselves like slaves before one tepid “Augustus” after another—a title for men with talents for ceremony and compromise who inherited the world from their fathers as if it were a family farm. Poets said we needed sentimental eyes to see the beauty, and although few ever accused me of sentiment, I understood what they meant. To me, Rome is only what she was. My thoughts often stray to the past, as does anyone’s when he imagines Rome as anything but the old whore she had become.
Arsace left me before we reached the Pantheon. He was a Christian and feared temples as if the sacrificial smoke might pollute him. Since he avoided the shows and executions, too, I had a few places in the City I could enjoy without him.
The rest of my retinue accompanied me to the building restored by that philhellene whose life often filled my thoughts. I visited it often, as I visited all of Hadrian’s monuments.
The divine Hadrian was the last true emperor of Rome. He loved the gods of every land. In his time, the ancient marble shone, and men moved through the cool shadows of glistening pediments. On show days, they left their palaces and tenements, traveling from all over the world to our celebrations. We welcomed them as joyously as we welcomed their gods.
Hadrian rebuilt the ancient Field of Mars, refacing those temples raised in the time of the Republic and connecting them to the baths built by Nero. We knew it was that hated emperor who built the magnificent red-granite complex, despite that the Senate had his name sanded off everything.
Beside the baths, Antoninus Pius built the Temple to the Deified Hadrian. Antoninus didn’t care for his boy-loving predecessor, but he honored tradition like great men do, acquiring the “pious” for it. It seemed a suitable place for Hadrian’s final rest, there near the great dome of the Pantheon that vaulted above the other temples like Olympus itself. Beyond the forest of gray marble pillars stood bronze doors that sealed the sanctuary of seven gods, patrons of the Caesars and builders of Rome.
Farther east was a small temple dedicated to Isis. Not many years before Hadrian wore the purple, the emperor Vespasian spent a night there with the goddess, celebrating his sack of Jerusalem. After stopping the Jewish rebellion, he took their treasure and built a temple to hold it. That temple took damage when tremors shook the City just that summer. The ominous event aroused the superstitious Christians, who associated it with the ancient emperor and then his oriental gods, so they began beating anyone they found near a statue.
Like all the gods, Isis has many faces. She’s Venus and the Great Mother, too. Some men shave their heads for Isis, while others castrate themselves in devotion to the Great Mother. I wear the mark of Mithra and was baptized for the Nazarene.
If, as some men said, the divinities are faces of a single god, then a sacrifice to one is a sacrifice to all. On the other hand, if the gods filled the world like the stars fill the sky, then it is unwise to choose among them.
Despite my uncle’s laws, I visit their temples, oil their statues, even sacrifice to them because I believe in all of them. Sometimes I believe in none of them. I never believe in only one. That I leave for slaves, since only a man with the heart of a slave would rely on hope more than truth, paring away what failed to comfort. Only a slave would say that in the entire world and among all possibilities there exists but one destiny for man, a destiny we have no control over.
Gallus is like that. Like all slaves, he would rather be obedient than accountable.
When I arrived at the Flavian amphitheater, my assistants left for their seats at the top of the arena. My bodyguard set my chairs on the podium and then withdrew. Only Gallus remained, sitting beside me in a silver chair, his hands folded in his lap. Despite the heat, he kept his azure robe wound about him.
My gaze wandered from his hands to mine, where I studied the pads and furrows. They were strong hands. They had never seen war or labor or gentleness. They were thick and hairy, like a German. They were manicured, like a Roman. I recalled many mornings with Gallus’s black hair splayed from between my fingers, and I stretched them.
He noticed and looked away.
We sat in the great four-tiered amphitheater built by the Flavian emperors centuries ago. We were in time for the day’s executions, but Gallus wouldn’t watch. I had little patience for his timidity and little understanding of it, either.
I’d seen the commonest of slaves, who bled from the whips of their masters day-after-day, turn joyfully vicious upon reaching the safety of an arena’s stands, but Gallus found no satisfaction in justice. He wasn’t Roman, after all.
The cheering swelled around us as the show began. Gallus’s head rose, and he closed his eyes with slow insistence. I stared at him long after his black lashes met.
Two criminals entered the arena, a man and a woman condemned for robbing a martyr’s shrine. It was unusual to see women given to the violence of the arena. Few prisoners found guilty of capital crimes were women. Few people were even condemned for sacrilege anymore. The charge was often used to remove inconvenient men, not unimportant ones.
The woman’s death would be artful. She would die performing some myth, as was the custom. A matronly stola draped in an emerald shower from her shoulders to her feet, and the man with her wore a dusty tunic smeared with pitch, his back adorned with stubby wings of yellow wax.
Two beast-fighters, trained for the shows in north Africa, their faces burnt from years in the sun and their naked brown arms striped with white scars, pressed close behind the prisoners. Following distantly, harnessed and controlled by two other men, came a bull with gilded horns. Muscle corded its thighs and hardened its back like stone under its slick flow of black hide. It paused as it entered the light—strangely fearful, I thought, despite its freedom, despite its strength.
From the woman’s ankle to the bull’s thick neck the men attached a tether, and at a signal from the show’s editor, one of the beast-fighters whipped the bull. It charged the man with wings. The tether tore her from her feet, and the impact with the hard arena floor shattered her skull. It was a quick death, an unexciting one.
The allusion played out in the arena came to me then. It was the myth of Pasiphae, who was driven mad by Neptune until she finally mated with a bull. When I recognized the myth, I understood the part the condemned man would play. The inventor Daedalus had built a scaffold for her to unite with the bull. Later, he created wings for his son to escape from her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur. So the condemned man was Icarus, Daedalus’s son, who tried—who would try—to fly to freedom and fail.
“Icarus” dropped to his knees and raised his hands to Heaven, while the crowd roared.
Two arena slaves beat him with sticks until he stumbled to a wooden tower at the center of the arena, where he began to climb. His story would be finished later. The slave who managed the show took his cue from the editor and converged on another myth unfolding across the arena.
Two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the wall farthest from me, their skin pale from days without sun and food. Long hair hung past their shoulders. Honey held milky strands of horse tails to their shaved heads. Corroded iron chain linked their legs. Leather straps lashed trousers of lynx pelts to their groins and thighs, while hobnailed military boots ripened the mockery. An imperial edict prohibited the wearing of skins in Rome, so outfitting criminals in the arena like the rudest of Barbarians fed the audience’s appetite for justice.
Unlike Pasiphae, this was a modern myth.
These men were freed slaves who worshiped Mithra, once patron of emperors, of armies, of Rome. When imperial agents had assaulted the god’s sanctuary and set the carved god afire, these condemned freedmen attacked them. To some they were guilty of treason. To others they were guilty of sacrilege. We were of two minds: we honored the Nazarene, but we still worshiped those who first gave us the world.
“The Respectable Tribune Eucher is a man who appreciates justice.”
I turned at the mentioning of my name.
A young city official seemed to be speaking with a man next to him, but his words shouted above the crowd, loud enough for me to hear. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on the short wall that separated the senators’ podium from the main seating. His crafty eyes glanced sideways and down at me. “You wouldn’t find his father here, were he in Rome. No, the Vandal Stilicho wouldn’t wash his good Christian beliefs in the blood of Roman justice. He’d rather be destroying our past.”
The slur angered me. It was my uncle, the Augustus, who ordered the temples closed, yet ambitious men found it easier to accuse my father of making decisions in his name, especially if a decision were as unpopular as destroying a cult still dear to many.
“And what of his wife,” the official continued, “who takes Rome’s treasures for her own? A piety, we’re told, to rid the City of idols.”
Again, he was mocking, accusing my mother of coveting the jeweled necklace that once adorned the statue of the goddess Vesta but now adorned her neck.
“As a Roman,” I shouted above the noise of the crowd, “I appreciate what’s Roman.”
“Unlike the Vandal Stilicho,” said the official. When he gazed from me to Gallus, I followed his look.
Gallus’s eyes were still closed. It was his usual habit when I forced him to attend the shows. An old saying claims a man has as many enemies as he has slaves. Another says beauty has its own reasons.
“Quite a charming boy,” the official said. “I wonder what price he’d fetch. What talents do you suppose he possesses?” He nudged his friend. “The tribune brought his boy and sits him in the podium like a senator. I’d say he’s making a tool into a man, but that kind of power belongs to a god, or maybe an emperor, certainly not an idle nephew.”
The dull friend leaned forward and laughed along.
Gallus’s eyes were suddenly open, and though he stared ahead, he was listening, not watching.
“My father is all that stands between Rome and the Barbarians!” I shouted.
“And who stands between him and Rome?”
“Rome needs no protection from him,” I replied, but the accusation was well-aimed. “He protects Rome from Barbarians. He’ll protect her, even from pigeon-keepers!”
Gallus glanced at me and then away.
Leaning toward him, I spoke in Greek, something I often did when I wanted only him to understand. “You don’t agree?” I asked. “Honorius can’t keep the Barbarians away. He calls men who worship the gods ‘atheists.’ He refuses to honor the true gods and keeps those who do out of the army. He spends his days training his pigeons. Whatever attention he gives to the empire only weakens it more. Then Father has to find a way to strengthen it again. Honorius puts his faith in the Nazarene, who doesn’t help him any more than he helps that criminal.” I pointed at the man cowering on the tower. “That’s why I bring you here. Put your faith in me, little Gallus. I protect you, like Father protects Rome. Without me, you’d die. Just as Rome would die without him.”
Gallus’s eyes met mine. “The Augustus does nothing the Patrician doesn’t approve,” he said in Latin. Greek was his first language, one few Romans learned. He never spoke to me in Greek because he knew how much I wanted him to. He possessed a passionate disposition that made every action one of principle.
Exclamations from the crowd drew my attention back to the arena.
The two chained men couldn’t see what the audience above could see. They were surrounded by potted trees and wooden scenery built to resemble an African savannah. They leaned this way and that, knowing something stalked them but not what, until, after a time, a predatory vision rewarded their search.
With black spots spilled across its hide, a tawny leopard sniffed and picked at victims of the morning’s show, then settled down to gnaw on the tattered remains of an ostrich.
The men ran, but the iron links joining their legs one to another jerked their bodies to a stop with force enough to spin them. When they tumbled to the ground like toys, they drew a roar of laughter from the crowd. Scrambling to their feet, they staggered in an uneven pace toward the tower where the man with wings still cowered.
The ostrich remains continued to occupy the leopard, so a beast-fighter released a tiger. Gloriously white, enamel dripping hunger, it spotted the chained men. They tried to climb the tower, fighting each other as they glanced back, but the tiger reached them before they had made much progress. Feeble hands flailed, desperate fingers slipped, and knees unstrung.
The spotted leopard arrived with belated curiosity, tail twitching.
The distance from the cats to my seat eroded the screams. Only the murmur of the surrounding audience filled in the gaps. Exciting as it had been, the quick executions made for bad sport. The crowd’s murmur grew into disappointed grumbling, punctuated by shouted demands for the “flight of Icarus.”
Slaves had been fanning fires around the arena, and now they lit another under the tower at the center. As flames rose, so did the crowd’s enthusiasm. In their elation, they encouraged the man to trust his useless wings, to take flight and try to escape.
Finally, like Icarus, who trusted his own wings to escape the Minotaur, the man launched himself toward the sky. As wax slid down his back from the heat of the fire, he spread his arms in a great gesture of faith and plummeted toward the floor like a flaming ballistic. When he hit, blood shot out in two streaks from his head to stain the sand. Burning pitch puffed from his tunic, raining tiny fires all around.
The arena thundered with the crowd’s delight.
The editor, a senator of the family Ceionii, sponsored the beast show once every five years, though I was told it wasn’t nearly as extravagant as it once was.
I watched the editor of the show, seated some distance to my right. His physician sat next to him, waving a shallow bowl under his nose, trying to calm him. The aged man was prone to fits. The folds of his rose toga extended and collapsed like a ligament as he gestured wildly. A span of bare marble surrounded him, the area belonging to the most illustrious of all families, more distinguished than even my uncle’s own—the family Anicii.
Those who didn’t attend usually offered their places as gifts, but the Anicii registered their moral objection to the shows by keeping their area conspicuously empty. The objection of such a family didn’t go unnoticed. Like a plague, it spread, so every time I came to the amphitheater, more empty seats greeted me.
Another vacant spot near the editor belonged to his nephew, my friend Volusian. His absence had nothing to do with morality.
Unlike his uncle, Volusian was far too cautious to be demonstrative, far too ambitious to remain merely a senator, and far too astute to be publicly linked with the worshipers of Mithra. Of course he was a believer, but at nineteen he already aspired to govern Africa, where an unscrupulous man could amass a fortune from the collection of taxes.
The editor dictated something to his heralds, who in turn wrote on egg-shaped placards that informed the audience about each event. When one left with his messages and came near my section holding the slate aloft, I read about the crimes of the condemned, about the African cats, the gilded bull, and the beast-fighters imported from Carthage. Written beneath all of this was the cost that was borne by the editor, permitted by the generosity of His Clemency, Flavius Honorius, Augustus of the West.
Honorius was my cousin by blood and my uncle by decree. His father, Theodosius, adopted my father. Honorius was soft and dull, petulant and easily amused, without even the imagination of a Nero or the bloody resolve of a Domitian. Years ago, he abandoned Rome for the safe, impregnable marshes of Ravenna. He appeared at few shows, seldom appeared outside his imperial palace at all.
The audience hushed again, and I saw two men rising through trapdoors into the arena. Cheers assailed each beast-fighter as he emerged from the tunnels beneath the wooden floor.
One was oiled and naked but for brown woolen trousers and a dented bronze helmet. Yellow tresses flowed out from under his crude helmet. Clumps of goat hair stuck to his chest, though his broad, oiled back glistened with the pinkish sheen of a roasted boar. He carried only a spear. His role in the farcical campaign to ensue was obvious; he represented a foolish infantryman, the Barbarian.
The other man wore a sleeveless red tunic trimmed in gold, military trousers, and a shining iron helmet. A smooth cuirass of iron clamped around his sinewy torso and three strips of leather hung over his groin. He carried a sheathed sword and a net. His role was also obvious; he was a dignified officer, the Roman, who stood like a vital spring amid the insouciant flow of the dead.
Walking behind the Barbarian, the Roman flashed scarlet and spread a net between both hands, while the Barbarian leapt and swung his spear to excite the crowd as he approached the tiger.
I felt the heat rise in my cheeks. I had no love for Barbarians, but I couldn’t ignore the stares. The men around me looked from the arena to me, and in seeing my blond hair, they thought of the Barbarians descending on Rome like a cloud of flies on a fat carcass.
The tiger crouched near the wall, waiting. When the hunters came near, the tiger tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go. It waited. They came closer. It launched itself at them, a momentary resistance to the inevitable.
After the Roman flung his net, the screeching tangle of white fur dropped and rolled between the men. Sliding his blade into its belly, the Roman spilled the contents into the sand. After digging through the entrails, he lifted his sword, dangling a necklace from its tip. He tossed the prize into the plebeian seats, where a handful of men fought so ardently for it that it was torn to pieces.
When the Roman approached the leopard, it rose and stepped backward, scattering squawking birds behind it. Ravens complained from a distance, stepping ever closer to the corpses, while gray pigeons followed, leaving their perches atop the poles that held the protective netting around the arena wall.
The Roman and the Barbarian stabbed the leopard’s back legs. After a dozen wounds it collapsed, then tried to drag its limp hind end away from the swords. Listening to the demanding voices above them, the beast-fighters slowed their strikes to a torturous rhythm until the cat was dead.
As slaves tended a score of fires lit around the arena wall, smoke from the smoldering tower and the fires mixed with the sweet aroma of three staked and burning calves, teasing my hunger when the wind shifted. The clever effect prepared the crowd for the feast to follow.
High above me, the great velum, torn and cracked in places, was drawn incompletely to its height above the amphitheater. Like the rest of Rome, it deteriorated under the absence of attentive caretakers.
The network of awnings had once successfully blocked out the summer heat, but now the pale skins mirrored in form the scattered corpses in the arena. Unimpeded, the sun reflected off the polished marble and sand, thickening the air with the stench of bodies, both living and dead.
Like a vision of hell, the fires, smoke, screams, flies, and sweat mingled into a terrible confusion. A man dressed in a hooded black robe like the mythic ferryman entered the arena. He hefted a large mallet and led a train of black-robed slaves. He checked the men and beasts to be sure they were dead, smashing several on the head to the crowd’s delight.
Other slaves in plain wool suddenly emerged into the arena as if they had peeled from the walls.
They proceeded to gather the corpses of men and beasts into the central mound near the smoldering tower. It was often observed that moonlight spoiled flesh faster than sunlight, but it seemed to me that Diana could have done little better than Apollo that day.
As bodies mingled bone-on-bone in the sand, our ecstasy mounted until forty-thousand voices were roaring their pleasure.
We were a brutal people. We had seen the fruit of our fathers’ victories ferment to blood, spoils of a war that no longer made deserts of foreign lands but of our faith. Where violence had once served Rome, brutality came to preserve her, but it fed the taste without satisfying the appetite.
These were Gallus’s words—elegant words, disdainful words. He shared his opinion with me freely, which was another of my indecencies, for I valued his judgment, though it was a slave’s judgment, often deliberated under a narrow lash.
His eyes were shut, skin drawn tight over the contour of his cheek, a lattice of sun and shadow that twitched with strain. I demanded he attend the show and watch, but Stoic acceptance is for philosophers. Christians feel pain.
He glimpsed the struggles of angels and demons where I saw men. He knew a god as I knew an emperor. A violence too intimate turned him away. I admired his fidelity; what he shared with me, he shared with no one else.
A moral corruption had taken hold of us. The Apostle Paul gloried in his infirmities. Only invalids were loved by God. Only the poor knew virtue. Only victims found redemption. Finally, Christians stole the gladiatorial games from us because men weren’t allowed to redeem themselves. Only their god had that power.
Until my zealous uncle closed the gladiatorial schools, each blow delivered with courage and strength had been a pulse returning life to Rome. Those blows could even return freedom and respectability to the man. Honorius left us with nothing but artistic slaughter, a rigged game. Yet, despite a capricious law forbidding the execution of criminals by beasts, we did it anyway. I hoped that in the same way, gladiators would one day return to the arena floor.
It wasn’t law that ruled Rome, after all, but men.
As the crowd seethed, Gallus remained opaque to the lurid spectacle below. Like a hand numbed by cold, he felt nothing. I studied his self-absorption as he sat mutely beside me. He claimed his pleasure had no surface, but I knew his fictions.
I leaned toward him and said, “This is how red begins.”
His eyes fluttered open. He squinted from the brightness of the sun, as if he had just awakened from a long night. Although slaves were allowed only on the wood benches near the vulgar women, I granted him a considerable advancement. When a senator once protested, I threatened the man with my father’s name, since he didn’t at first respond to mine. Prudence convinced him to remove himself and allow a common slave on senatorial marble. No one had objected since.
“When I was a boy,” I continued, “Mother told me where colors come from.” My words were lost among the shouts that echoed from all around us. A beast-fighter severed the horns from live ibexes and tossed them into the stands above us. Pale addaxes were herded in next, their loosely-spiraled horns an even greater prize.
“She has the vision of a goddess, you know. If she were Greek, she would have been a poet. If she were Egyptian, a priestess. But as a Roman, she was a mother.” I leaned closer. “Blue, she said, is justice, and it covers all the world. She said it would always protect me. Green is love, and it supports the world. She said God would always love me. But this, little Gallus, is where red begins.”
“Red is a color.”
“Red is what happens when men draw swords. Red is the sun and fire.” Pausing to look him over, I thought of that morning and added, “It reminds you what you are. You need to be reminded often.”
The crowd was restless. We were still Roman. From marble to crumbling brick, from senator to slave, we hissed, howled, and demanded more. It was victory we wanted, victory defined, as it had always been, by a pile of victims.
More respectable than the impatient plebes above and seeking their approval nonetheless, the senators only hissed at the pause in the show. Those seated around me were less involved with the show than with Gallus. They censured me with glares, but their scrutiny meant little. I was the son of the Master General, and such scrutiny had surrounded me all my life.
Rather than a toga, I wore a tan Greek cloak, like philosophers and professors wore, but the heat forced me to remove it. Two vertical purple stripes along the hems of my scarlet tunic were the only indication of my rank. Not that I wasn’t a familiar sight in the arena, or anywhere in Rome. More people knew me on sight than would have known my uncle apart from his purple silk.
My fellow senators began to leer at Gallus.
His bones were delicate, and his black eyebrows gathered hawklike above perceptive brown eyes. Docile and effeminate, he sometimes seemed like a eunuch, but his new beard and leanness revealed his natural masculinity. Having known most of the men seated around me all my life, I recognized the way they stared at him. It was the same way I stared at him. He was a beautiful boy, one tantalizing step across the threshold of manhood.
Nearby sat Publicius, a pig from the drove of Epicurus. Through the waves of his fat cheeks, his eyes peeked like two drowning men, while a cleverly-regarded thought struggled for liberation from his dull countenance. He was part of a powerful family, but when we were both fifteen, I stripped him naked to see the thing he boasted as “Hercules.” I then kicked him into the streets, alone but for his shriveled hero. Five years later, he still maintained a flattering vigilance whenever I was near.
That day in the amphitheater, he kept one chubby hand in a fist against his groin as if hiding something. He poked his thumb out and wagged it at me when he saw I was looking. Knowing what little he had to hide, I raised my hand and waved my smallest finger back at him.
Publicius reminded me that the important thing to discover about any man is what he is, not what he believes he is. I knew the importance of that because Gallus was my slave and Stilicho was my father.
They were both men of Christian principle, believing themselves to be what they admired, and unable, in the end, to accept what they were. Despite his Roman mother, despite his adoption and marriage into the Theodosian dynasty, despite that I defended him as one all the time, my father was no more Roman than Gallus. Like any defeated enemy, Gallus hated Rome, and like any foolish foreigner, my father worshiped her. He worshiped her as only a Barbarian could.
To those of us who, as boys, chased each other through her marble palaces and climbed shit-stained statues of Caesar to catch pigeons, what was Rome but a tool, to be used or thrown away?
I clamped my hand around Gallus’s forearm and drew him roughly to his feet. I was leaving the show. Justice was uninteresting when I had too much to think on.
“Come, Gallus,” I ordered, but he stared at me as if I were a mirror of dark reflections. I was a test, a trial, a threat in a game of soldiers-and-robbers. In our escalating match, I often used my own hand, having dispensed of my disciplinary slave, which was yet another of my indecencies.
The crowd hushed again as heralds announced an unexpected addition to the show, the performance of one of Rome’s best known strippers. Without a thought for what would be said in their churches, the fickle audience praised the editor’s generosity, and the show continued.
Dropping Gallus’s arm, I sat back down.
Eight naked slaves set a litter onto the sand and a woman emerged. She wasn’t young, and cosmetics attempted unsuccessfully to create a delighted nymph out of the tired harlot. Her bare feet negotiated the stained arena floor. She moved toward my wall and seemed to be watching me.
She came so close to the wall that I had to lean forward and peer over the ledge. I glanced from the name of my family carved into the white stone at my feet to the woman skidding in the sand. Despite the announcement, she wasn’t coordinated enough to be professional, or she may have been drunk.
One of the naked slaves wore the brand of an armory worker—deserted his work, perhaps, and was sold into slavery. Now he was just a bad lyre-player, and he stood near the litter plucking a grating melody that sounded Persian or out-of-tune. A strap, riveted to a black belt, locked under his genitals and lifted them in a prominent display. An observation from the poet Juvenal came to mind, that when a man’s run out of luck, it doesn’t matter how big his cock is.
A tiara of quartz held the harlot’s dark hair high in its sparkling ring, and a few curls were flung free as she danced. As common as any prostitute who had entertained me at the temple of Isis, she nonetheless had the fair skin of a sheltered aristocrat. She was the type often employed for the dinner parties of rich freedmen—men who envied senatorial respectability but not their wealth. Her hyacinth robe parted to reveal pendulous breasts tipped by almond-brown nipples. Her round belly pinched into a hairless, puffy triangle between her legs.
She rolled to her back, and her robe surrounded her like a violet puddle. She spread her legs wide below me and rested her feet in the net that protected the podium from the animals of the arena.
Her show, it appeared, was just for me.
A white swan, its feathers smooth as cream, its face a black mask, stepped from a bag held by a beast-fighter. It fluttered toward her as she sprinkled seeds onto the depilated pink slit between her legs. Her inner thighs and labia were golden with honey and the seed stuck where it touched her skin. As the swan descended and fed, she gyrated and bucked as if being pleasured, her rhythm matching the plucking of the lyre.
In the body of a swan the lustful Jupiter had ravished the mortal Leda. Helen was one of the immortal children born from the union, the woman for whom the Greeks fought ten years before the walls of Troy. Love for the boy Patroclus lured Achilles to his death there. The Trojan prince, Aeneas, fled the burning towers and found Rome. Jupiter’s intemperance had led to war, then to Rome, and finally, to an inelegant erotic show that played long after his temples were shattered.
Only a man of great wit could have created this vignette. I smiled, quite aware of who that magnificent man was.
The slave that carried the placard announcing the event walked some distance away. I squinted and read:
“The one I loved was stolen, he’s left,
and you bid me not to sew seeds of distress.
There are no enemies harsher than those we love.
Kill me and make my anger less.”
Volusian knew well my fondness for the poetry of Propertius. I laughed aloud, marveling at his creation, knowing the altered verse and event were his—wheedled, no doubt, from his resistant uncle, the editor who sponsored the show. Volusian’s vanity was fiercer than any woman’s and his humor was unworthy of a senator. He was immensely charming. He often dwelt fondly on what he claimed to hate and was joyously animated by an unclean spirit.
I had met him the year we became men. He spent days in the public baths observing each man who entered and quietly insulting him with literary quotes. After weeks of watching the effeminate commentator surrounded by more and more giggling boys, I dropped my towel and confronted him. Drawing on Aristophanes, I demanded, “Wondrous medley of lyre and silk, what are you to dangle both sword and mirror? Man or woman, show me.”
Holding tightly to his towel, he replied like the nimble Agathon, “Where nature fails, I confess to imitate, matching my manner to my poetry.”
Most friendships were made by a mutual disinterest, so I had many friends, and even so, it was only Volusian who held any affection for me. I hadn’t seen him in a year and no longer received letters from him. As a son of the Ceionii, his position relied more on family alliances than his wit, forcing us to a politically-prudent distance. I often imagined him at the imperial palace in Ravenna, listening in on the Sacred Consistory and commenting on the members in his witty way. I missed him and had no doubt the purpose of the show was to remind me how much so.
After stirring up the sand for a time as the god fed, the harlot raised a wooden dagger and “stabbed” herself in the heart. Slaves hauled her still body from the arena.
The heat brought the show to an early end. The editor’s litter led the procession from the stands, every man following by rank. Slaves were clearing the expanse, using hooks to drag away corpses and shovels to gather their erupted entrails.
“Quo Fata vocant,” I muttered, repeating more of Gallus’s damning appraisal of me, of all Romans. “Where the Fates call us, don’t we go, Gallus? Why isn’t Jesus a hungry god?” I spread my arms toward the arena floor. “Mithra wouldn’t leave warm meat untouched. Jupiter didn’t.”