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The Shining City
June, AD 70: Africa Procunsularis, South-East of Utica.– Dexter and I approach the Shining City
Entirely cloudless, the sky was wide open to the white sun that poured down on us, filling every inch of air with a heat that made me feel as if my entire body had been parceled up in coarse parchment paper. Only the oven rooms in the family bakery back home were comparable to this, but even there it was possible to step out into the storage yard for a while to get some respite; here there was no such cooler place to step out into and so no such relief.
We pressed on, the twin trail of our footprints extending in a long line into the depths of the desert far behind us. We had walked like this for hours, Dexter taking the lead. Neither of us spoke so that the only sound was of our sandals rasping against the sand, punctuated by the rhythmic crunch from the butt of Dexter's spear. Surrounded on every side by the stillness of the desert, even those soft sounds boomed loudly in my mind. At long last, the bright, white sun softened to a cooler orange and the heat finally sloughed off our burning skins. I stopped to take a quiet sip at my waterskin and admire the perfectly round red sun at rest in the corner of the mauve sky.
Dexter noisily broke that moment of peace. Standing a few paces in front, he hawked up a great ball of phlegm from the back of his throat and spat it onto the sand. Immediately, glossy green beetles sprang out from under the grains and scrambled over to the splat of phlegm. I watched them busily devouring the fatty mass, just as over the last few days of our journey I had seen them dismantle other human deposits Dexter and I had necessarily had to leave in the sands.
'Maggots,' he said all of a sudden. It was the first time he'd spoken since dawn that day. Still dazed by the heat and mesmerized by the beetles I was about to correct him when I realized he'd already walked on ahead. I soon saw what he was talking about – a row of birds, all dead, lay in a line that curved both east and west as far as the eye could see, suggesting the outline of a huge, circular border. The feathers on the fist-sized chest of the bird at Dexter's feet fluttered wildly, though there was no breeze.
'Maggots,' I croaked back in agreement.
'So at least one tale is true then.'
From our enquiries in Utica, we'd heard from locals that every migrating season, scores of birds are knocked out of the sky by pestilential drafts of air that are said to belch up out of the scarred earth where, long ago, the Shining City had once stood.
'Perhaps. Perhaps not.' I watched him nudge the nearest bird with the butt of his Hellenic war spear.
'Well, it wouldn't be impossible for someone to gather dead birds and have them arranged thusly, would it? That could easily give rise to the rumours we heard back in Utica. It'd be a good way to ward off the curious, don't you think?'
'Is that what you think?'
'Honestly?' I paused a moment before answering, 'No. No, it isn't. Nevertheless, it's a possibility.'
He gave me a sardonic grin, as he lifted up his 'dolphin's fin' – the rather grim nickname he'd taken to calling the stump of his amputated left arm ever since he'd spotted a school of those marvelous animals running alongside our trireme on the long passage across the Middle-Earth Sea from Ostia.
'Age before beauty.'
I attempted a laugh but found myself dry-swallowing instead. I made some trivial remark in a trembly voice before lifting up the hem of my toga and taking a long and somewhat theatrical stride to the other side of the ring of birds. Turning, I gave Dexter a genial smile that I knew he would understand to mean something like 'Well, as you can see, I'm not dead yet.' Dexter returned to me a mischievous grin, taking a few paces back as if to ready himself for a running jump.
'Jupiter's thunder!!' I shrieked, ducking for cover as I found myself pelted with maggots and various loose bits of rotten bird flesh.
So tremendous a kick had Dexter given the bird, that I could still see the damn thing arcing through the crepuscular sky as I straightened up to shake the detritus from my cloak.
'Ah, fuck the Gods and fuck whatever witches are over that dune too,' he declared cheerily. 'Every day I draw breath is a 'fuck you' to whichever son-of-a-bitch God took my left arm from me.' He looked up into the sky, his arm outstretched as if to invite a lightning bolt to strike him down. None came. He wagged his chin in grim satisfaction that he had defied the Gods once again and once again I wished to myself that he would not do that. If there's one thing I know for certain, it's that the Gods, being immortal, are very patient.
'C'mon then,' he said with a laugh.
Still grumbling about a shard of beak I had to flick off my forearm, I followed him up the gently sloping rise which led to the ridge of a wide dune spread out some distance ahead of us. Within an hour, we had reached the summit. Dexter let go of his smile. He narrowed his eyes, then gripped and regripped the haft of his spear.
‘That’s not just me, is it?'
I didn't answer him at first.
Louder this time, he said 'You see that too, right?'
I heard him squeezing the shaft of the spear more tightly in his hand.
‘No. No, it’s not just you. I see it too.’
Through the indigo light, we saw ‘Queen Elissa’s Eternal Tears’ – giddily spinning elf-lights, bright glowing sparks of blue, yellow, orange, red that twisted and whorled through the sky as a flock of birds or motes of dust in a grain store will.
As they danced and swirled, they pushed higher and higher into the sky and in their wake, the scarred desert ground below began to tremble until, up through the broken earth came the skeletal outline of a long dead city. The Greeks had called it Karkhedon, 'The Shining City'. To us, the Romans, it had been Carthage. I thought back to my conversation with the 'Golden Youth'.
‘The Shining City?’ in spite of myself, I had laughed openly at the lad. The very idea was just so absurd.
‘The Shining City is nothing but a scar, a black hole frosted white with the rock salt Scipio Aemilianus had ordered it ploughed with! And it's been that way for nearly 200 years. Aemilianus made sure of that. He even troubled to have the damn hinges off the doors for their brass if the tales are to be believed. And he had the whole place gutted with fire!’
I wetted my mouth with a quick swallow of Big-Nose’s wine. ‘Not even the mice survived. Surely, everyone knows that!'.
‘Yes, well,’ the 'Golden Youth' began with a look of sly amusement on his face that put me in mind of the wings and legs of a bluebottle drifting apart after it's been drowned in a pot of honey, ‘a thing that "everyone knows" is rarely, if indeed ever, a thing worth knowing.'
April, AD 70: Rome, the Aventine district – I arrive at Big-Nose’s Taverna, shortly before Dexter and the 'Golden Youth'
I have to say I am really rather fond of Big-Nose’s Taverna. Ask any citizen where the best grapes grow and they’ll generally tell you southern Gaul when they’re being honest (a rare event among the Romans of Rome), Italia when they’re feigning sophistication, and Sicilia when they’re trying to suggest they're Greek by heritage (and therefore wiser and more quick-witted than you are). But ask Big-Nose on the other hand and he’ll tell you straight up that it’s Dalmatian grape or nothing. And after having made his taverna my regular haunt for the last six years, he’s not wrong. Sweeter, and it has to be said more potent, than the wines from Narbonensis and a great deal easier on the purse than either Italian or Sicilian vintages, it slips nicely down the throats of any who care to touch it whether they be grizzled roughnecks or peach-faced scholars, sweat-stained stevedores or bakers or poets. Well, I say bakers or poets …
… I like to think of myself as a poet and rather immodestly, feel I have a right to do so, though according to the census and almost anyone else you care to talk to on the Aventine, I'm better known as the owner of a thriving bakery business. I am, after all, the eldest child and only surviving son of a one-time slave-turned-freedman-turned-master-baker and it was my dear Pater's ability to combine a knowledge of tasty recipes with canny business acumen that led to a good half of all the Aventine breaking their daily bread from our ovens and snacking on our pastries (meat, fish, vegetable, cheese, fruit – you name it, we do it) when they have the odd copper quadrante going spare.
Anyway, it was through this very fondness for spending time at Big-Nose’s Taverna, the more so in the year after Pa had made his way back to his ancestors, that led me to meet first, Dexter, and then that loathsome aristocratic boy, the 'Golden Youth', one warm, sunny afternoon in April. But before I tell you about that, I feel that I must take this opportunity to tell you something about my Pa, as it is to him that I owe my life in more ways than the most obvious one, as you shall see if you follow my tale to the end.
June, AD 68: Rome, the Aventine district – The story of my father, Panificius Germanicus ( ? – June, AD 68)
Dear old Pa; it was at the beginning of summer when he retired early to bed, not knowing he had seen the sun for the last time. I wept freely at the funeral and my fingers trembled as I gently lay a silver denarius over each eye, and pushed a third through his cold lips and onto his tongue. In secret, or so I thought at the time, I had also slipped three golden aurei, full ones mind you, none of those half-measure quinariei, into the palm of each hand. I needed to know that the man who had done so much for me and for our family would be welcomed when he made it back to his people on that other shore.
I had wanted that act kept a secret because there are those on the Aventine who would have you believe that rather than a mark of grief and loss for a beloved parent, such a gesture as I had performed was typical of a vulgar arriviste breadmaker's son. That, I learned eventually, had been an opinion expressed by Titus Doridius, a local silk merchant. I was much hurt by this and so had a boy send Doridius an invitation to share a jar of wine with me at Big-Nose's Taverna. Perhaps, my message asked, he might care to elaborate on his theme over an amicable cup of Dalmation wine or three? He was unable to make it, however, as the day before I sent the invitation he had – through some strange accident of fate – managed to slip off a low bridge late one night and dropping onto a large boulder below, had shattered his shin bones into splinters. In any event, let me assure you there was neither pride nor vanity in those coins, only filial love.
Pa had been born deep in the wild, black forests of Germania Magna, where a dispute between rival barbarian chieftains had ended with his people's village being sacked and him sold off to slave traders at a Roman border fort. A slave, he toiled in the kitchens of smart Roman villas for just over twenty years before finally he was able to buy his freedom. Now so far, this is a very Roman story. Our city is full of freed-men like my father, Big-Nose being another for instance. But if you are not yourself so well acquainted with them as I am, what you may not know is that such men tend to make for the most fearsome Paterfamiliae. Men tutored from an early age under the weight of a brutal fist and corrected with sharp blows from the rod tend, in their own turn, to manage their households with a sharpness and brutality of a force at least equal to that they had experienced themselves. It is a curious thing, but on those occasions when a slave is beaten so savagely that they die from their wounds, it is more often the case than not that his or her master was himself a former slave. You'd think it would be otherwise, wouldn't you? But it isn't. Thankfully for me, though, my dear old Pater was one of those rare exceptions that proves the rule.
He was a short man, but strong and showed himself capable of breaking heads with a rolling pin or threshing flail on the three occasions that burglars came to our bakery. But for all his firmness and taciturnity, he was a patient teacher and even before I'd reached manhood I had become highly skilled as a baker, a salesman and a book-keeper. At home, too, I watched with amazement the tenderness and simple, honest love he showed my little sisters and our mother.
He had freed not only his body from the degradation of slavery, but also his soul and in that, he was truly exceptional. If you’re there, Pa, and you can hear my words I want you to know how grateful I am to you, how disappointed I am in myself for not telling you these things when you were beside me on this side of the shore. Most of all, I'm sorry that you never got to meet my wife or see your grandson, little Panificius Germanicus junior.
AD 68–70: Rome, the Aventine district – Pater departs; The Wheel of Fortune goes through many revolutions; I become a poet unexpectedly
Pa's death brought many changes to my life. Firstly of course, I now found myself the sole legal proprietor of a thriving Aventine bakery and, secondly, I became responsible for the lives of my mother, sisters, and the household and bakery's slaves. This was only to be expected and, thanks to Pa's assiduous instruction, I found ways to grow the business even in the chaos of those times. Secondly, and rather more unexpectedly, I became a poet.
By fateful coincidence, my Pa had died on the 9th of June, AD 68; this turned out to be the very same day on which the Emperor Nero had chosen to take his own life in the privacy of his country estate rather than face a public trial before the Senate. And so it was that while I was making the funeral arrangements for my father, I heard everywhere on the streets of Rome whispered what were supposed to have been Nero's last words:
Qualis artifex pereo!
‘What an artist the world is losing!’. In my grief-stricken state, it felt as if the world were talking about my own dear Pa rather than that painted buffoon who had only recently been the most powerful being in the known world. Nonetheless, even though I knew as well as I know my right-hand that the artifex was meant for Nero, in my heart I felt it was Pa they were talking about. It was about this time, that the same vivid dream began to come to me night after night.
A starless dark would be interrupted with the soft whispering sound of reeds swaying in the black-glass currents of the Styx. After some time, bone-white mists would rise up from the surface of the river and through the fog I would hear the soft clicking of the Ferryman's bones pushing on the pole of his bark, as it licked its way through the still waters. And then I saw them both, one at either end: here in the prow, was Nero his eyes blackened with kohl, his lips painted cherry red, covered in womanish silks and fine white leather; there, opposite him, was the elderly former slave; a German who'd never quite lost his accent, wearing a good quality but simple woolen toga. The Emperor, full of fear, was wild-eyed and fidgeting, while my father, smiling beatifically, was the very image of dignity. They began to talk but in the way of dreams I could never recall anything of what they had said. And so it was in straining to reconstruct that elusive dialogue that I became a poet.
I had time to write, too, thanks to the periodic bloodletting taking place on the streets outside that took place between the assassination of Galba and the accession of Vespasian. On those days when it was necessary to leave the bakery boarded up, I would lean back against the fat trunk of one of the empty yet still warm ovens, lay out a scroll on the floury table and write. Within a month, the dream of my Pa and Nero making their final crossing together had been transformed into a set of satirical verses to which I gave the title 'The Owl and the Pussycat went to Sea in a Beautiful Pea-green Boat'.
The poem proved to be nothing short of a sensation and that it did so owed more than a little to the Goddess Fortuna, for after all this was 'The Year of the Four Emperors' and she was therefore not surprisingly a very busy lady that year. When I began writing my poem, Galba was Emperor; by the time I had finished it, he had long since been hacked into bits and pieces in the Forum. As I began making copies for wider circulation, Otho was preparing his legions for war against Vitellius. Otho, in his turn, was already cold in the ground by the time Vitellius entered Rome, and by that time in turn, my poem had already passed from hand to hand, from eye to mouth, and and finally from mouth to ear across every water fountain, taverna, mansion and palace across the city. That Vitelliius quickly established himself as a murderous gangster probably did much to increase the popularity of the poem, with many seeing him and not Nero in the figure of the odious Pussy Cat. By the time Vespasian's troops had cornered and killed Vitellius, my poem had become so wildly popular that it had spawned a whole brood of popular song versions, limericks, and sea shanties – versions of it are even not unknown on the freezing shores of that far off pile of mud we call Britannia. Much appears to have been lost in translation however. Nowadays it seems to be nothing more than a rhyme nurses use to keep small children amused. But back then, most versions still had a satirical bite and so I had a good reason to be afraid.
As a satire on an Emperor, even one as dead and despised as Nero was, I had naturally published the poem under a pseudonym; but not expecting the poem to become so well-known I had not been especially subtle and chosen 'The Bun Maker' for my nom de plume. Worse was to come. Vespasian was now Emperor and he was neither a fan of Nero nor, famously so, of poetry. He ordered Nero's almost finished 'House of Gold' dismantled, brick-by-brick, and smelted down for the treasury. Nero's 120-foot high statue he had laced with ropes and hauled down onto the cobbled square where the great stone limbs were broken to pieces. Finally, he had the Senate issue a damnatio memoriae – an official ruling that made it illegal not only to whisper the name of Nero, but even to remember that such an Emperor had ever walked the streets of Rome.
None of this bode well for me. Everywhere I went, especially in the Aventine, I seemed to catch snatches of my verses on the wind. I would see lines and even whole verses graffitied onto columns, walls, houses, bridges, gates. It seemed to be everywhere I looked. And Vespasian was said to have an extensive network of spies and informers who, ant-like, relayed a near constant stream of rumours, gossip, messages and information to and from the palace.
Despite these legitimate fears for my safety under the new regime, I found that my love of poetry, both reading as well as writing it, had become the only real thing in my life: more important than my sisters, my ma, my nieces; more important even than the bakery, the more so since at that time it began to seem as if the less I interfered with its day-to-day running, the more successful it became.
I reasoned that trying to read and write in secret would be not only impossible in a city like Rome, but would be highly likely to arouse suspicion. I therefore concluded that the best thing to do would be to do my scratchings out in the open, using the margins of scrolls of other poets’ works. Any casual passer-by seeing me bent over a scroll in concentration would naturally assume (or so I supposed) that this was the baker doing his accounts or filling out an order form or such like. Better still, if they did suspect me of any literary pretensions, they would no doubt snort in derision at the very idea of a mere tradesman attempting to adopt such upper class airs and graces. Never would I be thought of as an actual poet. And so it was that I came to find myself in Big-Nose’s Taverna one quiet and sunny afternoon in April.
April, AD 70: Rome, the Aventine district – I meet Dexter for the first time in Big Nose's Taverna
I ordered a jar of Dalmatian, a jug of water to thin it with, and a plate of flat bread, olives and goat’s cheese before taking a seat at a bench in the outer yard of the taverna. The yard was covered in wooden trellises laced with grape vines so I had the best of everything: it was light enough to read without being blinded by the high morning sun; there was a cool breeze too, but the fragrance of the vines masked over the faint smell of shit that would waft up from the tight-packed slums of the lower parts of the Aventine.
I drew in a deep breath of satisfaction as I rolled out my scroll of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I thanked Melora as she laid down my wine, water and snacks and began to read and as I read I became lost to the world.
I was busy scratching some note or other in the margin when my concentration was suddenly broken. Looking up, I saw a shaven-headed young man in a simple brown woolen toga stumble back into a bench. Melora was trying to placate him, holding out her palms towards him:
‘Please, sir, I think you’ve had enough for one day. Big-Nose won’t be happy if you keep on like this.’
The young man was swaying, apparently with the effort of trying to focus on Melora.
‘Wh-what?’ he said uncertainly. While he was clearly Italian he was certainly not Roman. He had spoken in a thick Northern accent. I guessed he was from Cremona or thereabouts. He was big and from his carriage it seemed highly likely that he’d done military service at some point.
Melora was Big-Nose’s slave but she was also young and attractive. I decided to be heroic and intervene.
‘Ho! Citizen! How’s your day going? I’m thinking of having my lunch here – will you join me?’
Melora turned sharply, I gave her a conspiratorial wink, one I hoped she might find daring and devil-may-care in a way that would make her see me as a potential lover. Rather more slowly, the young man turned his bobbing head in my direction.
‘What, what the fu …’. He gulped back the last syllable. A bit of drool fell from his lips.
It was only when he turned that I realised that he had only one arm. His left arm had been severed above the elbow. I realized immediately that he must be a veteran of the Judaean Wars that had been raging in the Orient since 66 (yet another of that painted clown Nero's gifts to the world). 'Poor bastard', I thought.
As a Roman citizen by birth, I was of course expected by law to commit myself to anything from 12 to 25 years of service to the state. That I had not done so was down to my Pa. He had bought my way out of conscription through a substitute son. In other words, to satisfy his commitment to the state, he had bought a healthy slave boy of my age, adopted him, given him my name, then pushed him into a Legion. Thus, 'officially' there was a boy with my name serving somewhere in the wide world of the Pax Romana. Perhaps surprisingly – or then again perhaps not – this was something that I had always felt a little ashamed of and, as now, it was not unusual for me to blush with embarrassment whenever I came across a legionnaire who had made so many sacrifices on my behalf.
I waved him over enthusiastically and with as much bonhomie as I could muster and, as I expected, he followed my lead but somewhat in the manner of a fat grain barge from Ostia drifting into dock, as he swayed from side to side. From Melora I ordered a little more wine but a veritable banquet of food, going for Big-Noses’s famous Greek platter. There is nothing to beat hunks of greasy roasted Goat meat to soak up the booze – but there also came piles of flat bread, hummus, big green olives, olive oil, cheeses, nuts, apples and pastries (the latter from my own bakery I feel it my duty to point out). I saw Big-Nose appear at the entrance to the yard and nod in grave approval as Melora ferried the various plates and jugs to my table.
Just as I had suspected would happen, I literally saw the young man come back to life with every swallow of hot meat and warm bread that he crammed into his mouth. Eye-lids and shoulders that had been slouching under the burden of wine soon brightened up and the slur in his speech almost disappeared. In short, within half an hour he was whole again.
Except for the arm of course.
‘All the Gods remembered and forgotten! Thank you, citizen, thank you – seriously, I can’t thank you enough.’ He was blinking rapidly as he said this, as if he was only just becoming aware that it was daylight, and sucking the grease from his fingers with a wet smack of his lips.
‘Ah, well don’t thank me too soon,’ I said jovially. ‘I … ‘ I paused, looking away for dramatic effect, ‘You see, I’m something of an amateur poet. A poet for our times. I like to report on the world and what happens in it.’
His face betrayed no particular emotion. I decided to continue.
‘Well, to cut a long story short, it seems to me that you have seen active service … , ‘ he nodded (how could he not?), ‘… in the Orient, in Judaea I assume … ,’ again, he nodded (and again, how could he not?), ‘… you would do me a great service if you could simply tell me your story.’ There was a pause at that point. ‘I can … I can help. Financially, I mean, but possibly in other ways. I’m not rich but I am certainly not …’
‘No,’ He held up his one hand to stop me, ‘You’re the first person t'even notice me, the first person not to look t'other way. Whatever you want, just ask it.’
His words were assuring, his flushed cheeks told another story. He was a man with one arm. Moreover, he was a poor man from a poor family and he was far from home. And he only had the one arm. This was a fact that meant his days on this side of the shore were all too likely numbered. I told him a little of the story of my family. I don't know why, but I even confided in him that I had been the author of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. He hadn’t heard of it so I recited it to him. This was the first time I had ever done so to an audience of any kind and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw the light of comprehension dawn in his eyes. He sniggered at the humorous parts and his eyes glistened with tears during the more mordant passages. He understood immediately the true identity of the ‘Pussy cat’ in the pea-green boat.
‘That fuckin’ gaylord fuckwit!’ he said when I’d finished my recital. ‘Y’know, if that fuckin’ twat ‘adn’t taxed the fuckin’ Judaens until they fuckin’ bled like they 'ad that fuckin’ shite out there’d never’ve fuckin’ kicked off in’t fuckin’ firs’ place!’
‘Hm,’ I responded sagely to this barrage of obscenity, blinking away a tiny fleck of spittle from my eyelashes. I called for another jar of good Dalmatian red and invited him to share his own story with me.
He was from the North, as was already clear from his accent, though from the broad and fertile plains of Noricum rather than near Cremona as I’d first thought. His people had been poor dirt farmers, scratching a living on the estates of some important personage, slaves in all but name. A bright lad, he had looked at the dismal prospects for his future, the tedium of backbreaking toil alongside beetles in the black soil broken only by the occasional threat of starvation, and he had resolved to seek his fortune out in the wide world. Lady Fortuna, obliging as she is to all young men who lay their dreams at her feet, had guided him into the service of the Imperial Army, where he was enlisted as a militus, a grunt, in Syria with the Fifteenth Legion, ‘the Apollonians’.
Even a baker such as myself knew what came next: with Vespasian descending from the North and his son, Titus, blowing up from Aegyptus in the South with the Fifteenth at his back. the Imperial Legions rolled over Judaea like a hail storm blowing great gusts of arrows and javelins down onto the rebelling Greeks and Jews, cutting through their lands leaving only scorched and blackened earth in their wake. My companion had been one of these bolts of lightning blasting everything in his path.
‘I did ‘em all,’ he was telling me this with his eyes as blank as polished marble, ‘old boys, young boys, babies, girls, grannies, cats, dogs, rats, cows, goats … if it walk’d or breath’d or fuck'd or crawl’d we did ‘em all.’
He sipped on his wine thoughtfully. He had been negotiating the walls of a small town whose name he had never learned, climbing a ladder during an assault that had left his left arm exposed. A defender's arrow had punched its way clean through his arm, just above the elbow. Painful though it was, he had still mounted the wall and by the end of the day, the town’s people had been killed or clapped in irons and then the whole place had been fired. The arrow head which struck him had, of course, been dipped in faeces and so although the wound itself had only been relatively slight, it soon became infected. He had been sweating and delirious with fever when the surgeons finally took away the arm. He looked down at the fin-like stump.
‘So,’ he drawled, ‘I call mi’sen ‘Dexter’ now.’ Dexter, ‘The Right-Armed One’ is what he meant.
It was at that point that the Golden Youth caught our attention by flicking a gold aureus high into the air.
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