Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
“And you like the poetry of Bacchylides, as well? Ah, we have extraordinary taste! No doubt of that.” I was so overcome by Ecebolius’ flattery that had he asked me then and there to leap off the top of my uncle Julian’s house as a literary exercise, I would have done so gladly, with an appropriate quotation from Hesiod as I fell. I chattered like a monkey as he examined me closely in Hesiod, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Theognis.
For seven hours he listened as I recited from memory the many thousands of lines I had memorized at Macellum. He affected to be amazed. “I knew Bishop George was a splendid scholar—that enviable library! But I had no idea he was a teacher of such genius!” I beamed idiotically and kept on talking. I had at last found my tongue, and there are those who think I have not stopped talking since.
As a small child, I had studied at the Patricians’ School with Ecebolius. So we quickly picked up where we had left off, almost as if nothing had changed, except that I was now a gawky adolescent with a beard thick on the chin, spotty on the upper lip, invisible on the cheeks. I looked frightful but I refused to shave. I am to be a philosopher, I said proudly; and that was that.
In Constantinople I was left largely to myself. I had only one audience with the Grand Chamberlain Eusebius. I say “audience”, for not only did Eusebius exercise the actual power of the Emperor, he imitated his state. In fact, there used to be a joke that if one wanted anything done, Constantius was the man to see because he was reputed to have some influence with the Grand Chamberlain.
Eusebius received me in his suite at the Sacred Palace. He stood up to greet me (although he was the second most powerful man in the empire, he was only an illustris and I outranked him). He greeted me in that sweet child’s voice of his and motioned for me to sit beside him. I noticed that his fat fingers shone with diamonds and Indian rubies, and he was drenched in attar of roses. “Is the most noble Julian comfortable in his uncle’s house?”
“Oh, yes, very comfortable.”
“We thought he would prefer that to the… confinement of the Sacred Palace. But of course you are only a few yards away. You can visit us often. We hope you will.” He gave me a dimpled smile.
I asked him when the Emperor would return.
“We have no idea. He is now at Nisibis. There are rumours that he may soon engage Sapor in a final battle. But you know as much as I.” He made a flattering gesture of obeisance to me. “We have had excellent reports on your progress. Ecebolius tells us that you have a gift for rhetoric which is unusual for your age, though not—if I may say so—for one of your family.” Nervous as I was, I smiled at this hyperbole. Neither Constantius nor Gallus could develop an argument or even deliver a proper speech. “Ecebolius proposes that you also take a course in grammar with Nicocles. I agree. These things are necessary to know, especially for one who may be raised very high.”
He let this sink in. As I gabbled my admiration of Nicocles and my passion for grammar, Eusebius studied me as though I were an actor in the theatre giving a recitation. I could see that he was curious about me. Gallus had obviously charmed him, but then Gallus was neither intelligent nor subtle; he posed no threat to the Grand Chamberlain. He could be governed, just as Constantius was governed. But who was this third prince, this half-grown youth with a patchy beard who talked too fast and used ten quotations where one would do? Eusebius had not yet made up his mind about me. So I did my best to convince him that I was harmless.
“My interest is philosophy. My goal the University of Athens, the lighthouse of the world. I should like to devote myself to literature, to philosophy. ‘Men search out God and searching find him,’ as Aeschylus wrote. But of course we know God now in a way our ancestors could not. Jesus came by special grace to save us. He is like his father though not of the same substance. Yet it is good to study the old ways. To speak out on every matter, even error. For as Euripides wrote, ‘A slave is he who cannot speak his thought,’ and who would be a slave, except to reason? Yet too great a love of reason might prove a trap, for as Horace wrote, ‘Even the wise man is a fool if he seeks virtue itself beyond what is enough.'”
With some shame, I record the awful chatter I was capable of in those days. I was so uncertain of myself that I never made a personal observation about anything. Instead I spouted quotations. In this I resembled a great many contemporary Sophists who—having no ideas of their own—string together the unrelated sayings of the distinguished dead and think themselves as wise as those they quote. It is one thing to use text to illustrate a point one is making, but quite another to quote merely to demonstrate the excellence of one’s memory.
At seventeen I was the worst sort of Sophist. This probably saved my life. I bored Eusebius profoundly and we never fear those who bore us. By definition, a bore is predictable. If you think you know in advance what a man is apt to say or do, you are not apt to be disagreeably surprised by him. I am sure that in that one interview I inadvertently saved my life.
“We shall do everything we can to bring to the divine Augustus’s attention your desire—commendable desire—to be enrolled at the University of Athens. At the moment you must continue your studies here. Also, I suggest…” He paused tactfully, his eyes taking in my schoolboy clothes as well as my fingers from which the ink had not been entirely washed. “… that you be instructed in the ways of the court. I shall send you Eutherius. Though an Armenian, he is a master of ceremony. He will acquaint you with the niceties of our arrangements twice… no, perhaps three times a week.”
Eusebius rang a dainty silver bell. Then a familiar figure appeared in the doorway: my old tutor Mardonius. He looked no different than he had that day six years before when he said farewell to us in front of the bishop’s house. We embraced emotionally.
Eusebius purred. “Mardonius is my right arm. He is chief of my secretarial bureau. A distinguished classicist, a loyal subject, a good Christian of impeccable faith.” Eusebius sounded as if he were delivering a funeral oration. “He will show you out. Now if you will forgive me, most noble prince, I have a meeting with the Sacred Consistory.” He rose. We saluted one another; then he withdrew, urging me to call on him at any time.
When Mardonius and I were alone together, I said gaily, “I’m sure you never thought you’d see me alive again!”
This was exactly the wrong thing to say. Poor Mardonius turned corpse-yellow. “Not here,” he whispered. “The palace-secret agents—everywhere. Come.” Talking of neutral matters, he led me through marble corridors to the main door of the palace. As we passed through the outer gate, the Scholarian guards saluted me, and I felt a momentary excitement which was not at all in the character I had just revealed to Eusebius.
My attendants were waiting for me under the arcade across the square. I motioned to them to remain where they were. Mardonius was brief. “I won’t be able to see you again. I asked the Grand Chamberlain if I might instruct you in court ceremonial, but he said no. He made it very clear I am not to see you.”
“What about this fellow he told me about, the Armenian?”
“Eutherius is a good man. You will like him. I don’t think he has been sent to incriminate you, though of course he will make out regular reports. You must be careful what you say at all times. Never criticize the Emperor…”
“I know that much, Mardonius.” I could not help but smile. He was sounding exactly the way he used to. “I’ve managed to live this long.”
“But this is Constantinople, not Macellum. This is the Sacred Palace which is a… a… nothing can describe it.”
“Not even Homer?” I teased him. He smiled wanly. “Homer had no experience of this sort of viciousness and corruption.”
“What do they mean to do with me?”
“The Emperor has not decided.”
“Will Eusebius decide for him?”
“Perhaps. Keep on his good side. Appear to be harmless.”
“And wait.” Mardonius suddenly became his old self. “Incidentally, I read one of your themes. ‘Alexander the Great in Egypt.’ Too periphrastic. Also, a misquotation. From the Odyssey 16. 187: ‘No God am I. Why then do you liken me to the immortals?’ You used the verb meaning ‘to place among’ rather than ‘to liken’. I was humiliated when Eusebius showed me the mistake.”
I apologized humbly. I was also amazed to realize that every schoolboy exercise of mine was on file in the Grand Chamberlain’s office.
“That is how they will build their case for—or against—you.” Mardonius frowned and the thousand wrinkles of his face suddenly looked like the shadow of a spider’s web in the bright sun. “Be careful. Trust no one.” He hurried back into the palace.