Julian, 14

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 

IV

Five years passed. Little news of the outside world came to us. Sapor, the Great King of Persia, threatened our Eastern border, while the Germans infiltrated Gaul. That was all we knew. Politics was a forbidden subject. I studied Homer and Hesiod; read Plotinus and Porphyry; made love to the Antiochene; fought with Gallus, until one day I out-wrestled him and he never challenged me again. He was a coward except when he was in a rage; then he would do anything.
As long as I could read, I was never entirely wretched. But I did long to see more of the world than Macellum. It is most unnatural for a youth to be brought up entirely by soldiers and slaves, none of whom dares to be fond of him. Gallus and I had each other for company but we were not true brothers in any but the family sense—and only half-brothers at that, for we had different mothers. We were like two potentially hostile animals in the same cage.
Yet I was ravished by his beauty, and impressed by his energy. Gallus was always doing something which I wanted to imitate. Sometimes he let me, but more often not, for he enjoyed tormenting me. It gave him particular pleasure to quarrel with me just before we were to go hunting. Then he could exclaim, “All right! You stay home. This is a day for men.” And the soldiers would laugh at me and I would flee while the exuberant Gallus would ride forth to hunt, as dogs barked and horns sounded through the dark green woods. But when I was allowed to go with him, I was close to ecstasy.
One September afternoon Bishop George arrived unexpectedly at Macellum. We had not seen him for some months, because, according to the deacon, “It looks as though—now don’t repeat a word of this!” (as if we two prisoners had anyone to confide in)— “Bishop George will be raised to the see of Alexandria. Bishop Athanasius holds Alexandria only because the Emperor Constans of the West insisted upon it. But now the Emperor Constantius is arranging for Athanasius to be exiled again and if he is, we go to Alexandria!” The deacon was exalted at the thought.
But Bishop George said nothing to us about church politics when we joined him in the main hall of the hunting lodge. He had other, greater news. His sallow face was dark with excitement while his fingers snapped a sharp continuous accompaniment to his words. “The divine Augustus will visit you in ten days’ time. He is on his way home from Antioch. He is making this side trip for the express purpose of seeing the two of you.” I was too frightened to speak. It was Gallus who asked, “What does he want?”
The Bishop was impatient. “He is your cousin. Your guardian. Your emperor. He wants to see you. What else? To see what sort of men you’ve grown into. To see the result of our education. Now he will be particularly interested in your religious training. Therefore, I shall stay here until he arrives. We will review everything I have tried to teach you. This will mean, Gallus, a great deal of work for you. I suggest you put your mind to it, since your entire future may depend on the impression you make.” And so does yours, Bishop, I remember thinking to myself, eager to include anyone I could in what I was certain would prove to be a harsh fate.
We studied hard. For hours on end the Bishop drilled us mercilessly. Fortunately I have an excellent memory and can learn though not always understand!—a page at a glance. Between lessons, we tried to find out all that we could about Constantius’ mood. Was he favourably disposed towards us? Were we to remain at Macellum? But the Bishop gave us no comfort. “The divine Augustus will do what is best, as he always does. You have nothing to fear, if you are loyal and obedient.” But of course we had everything to fear. I did not sleep one night through during that time of waiting.
The day before Constantius was due to arrive, the imperial court came to Macellum. Some of the court had been with Constantius at Antioch; but most came directly from the Sacred Palace at Constantinople. All the chief officers of the state were to be lodged in the villa, while in the surrounding fields a hundred tents were pitched to accommodate the thousand clerks and notaries who conduct the business of the government.
At dawn the pageant began. Gallus and I stationed ourselves in the courtyard of the palace and gaped like two bumpkins. Neither of us had ever seen an imperial progress before, and in the general excitement and dazzle of that frosty autumn day we momentarily forgot our terror.
Bishop George stood in the doorway of the villa. He wore a jewelled chasuble, and held a silver crosier in one hand. To his left and right the military garrison of Macellum stood at attention to honour the great magnates of the Roman Empire. Some arrived on horseback, others in litters. Each was accompanied by a retinue of soldiers, clerks, eunuchs, slaves. All wore some variation of military dress, for ever since Diocletian the court has been military in its appearance, symbolic of Rome’s beleaguered state.
The courtyard was soon crowded with clerks and slaves, horses and mules; only the area just in front of the door was kept clear. After each official dismounted, he would cross to the doorway, where Bishop George would then greet him with all his titles.
The Bishop was a master of protocol. He knew exactly who everyone was and how he should be addressed, an enviable gift, since nowadays there are hundreds of subtle titles and distinctions. Highest in rank are the clarissimi. They include the two consuls for the year, all former consuls, the praetorian prefects, much of the senate. Next are the officials who are called spectabiles. Then the heads of government departments who are called illustres. But it is not easy to keep straight who is what, since an important minister of state like the quaestor (the emperor’s legal adviser) is only an illustris, while the governor of an insignificant province may be a clarissimus.
Also, the matter of the counts is confusing. In the old days, “count” was simply a courtesy title for any official or high-ranking officer who travelled in the emperor’s entourage. But Constantine, with his Persian sense of hierarchy, made the title “count” a reward for important service. So some counts are clarissimi while others are merely spectabiles. It is amazing how obsessed otherwise sensible people are by these foolish titles. I have sat for hours in the company of grown men who could discuss nothing but who held what title and why he was unworthy of it. Yet a wise emperor can exert considerable pressure on ambitious men by the giving or withholding of these empty titles.
Constantius was a master at this sort of thing. Unfortunately, since I find it hard to remember who is what, I call nearly everyone “my dear fellow”, in imitation of Plato. This scandalises the dignified.
First to arrive was the Count of the Sacred Largesse. It is his task to see that each province pays its taxes promptly on the first of every March. He also administers the government’s salt monopoly and the provincial banks, as well as all state-owned factories, mines, and of course the mint. He is never a popular official, but he dies rich. He was followed by the Count of the Privy Purse, who administers the personal property of the imperial family. This official was accompanied by twenty slaves carrying chests of dark wood studded with metal; they contained the large sums of gold and silver the emperor must always travel with. Since Privy Purse is responsible for every coin, he tends to be a nervous, distracted figure, for ever counting boxes.
Next, the Count of the East, who governs Syria and Mesopotamia. Then the Master of the Offices, a very great man indeed. He administers the state transportation system and post; he is the head of the bureau of secret agents; he commands the palace guard; he arranges for audiences with the Emperor. Bishop George bowed particularly low to him.
For six years Gallus and I had seen no one except Bishop George and our guards. Now all at once there passed before us the whole power of the state. Our eyes were dazzled by glittering armour and elaborate cloaks, by the din of a thousand clerks and notaries who scurried about the courtyard, demanding their baggage, quarrelling with one another, insisting on various prerogatives. These noisy clerks with their inky fingers and proud intelligent faces were the actual government of Rome, and they knew it.

4 Replies on “Julian, 14

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