Eucher 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 Eucher’s scarlet boots. Reaching out a shaking hand, he seemed to be waiting for a coin as his vacant gaze hardened with accusation. He had only one 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,” Eucher said. The man’s one bloodshot eye stared at him.
“Shall I have him whipped?” Arsace gestured to Segetius but Segetius looked at Eucher for his orders.
Although he was only an imperial slave, Arsace had the fortune of commanding better men. He had replaced Segetius as Eucher’s Adjutant by order of Minister Olympius, who didn’t have the authority to promote him. The Minister didn’t have the right to do many of the things he did. Eucher shook off bitter thoughts about imperial Ravenna and 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.”
Eucher thought of his father and said, “It’s not poverty to have nothing.” Eucher could see Arsace didn’t understand. “You haven’t read Martial.”
“And you have, Lord Tribune. You’re fond of anything that is old and vulgar.”
Arsace’s continued carelessness made Eucher laugh. Though he wasn’t Eucher’s slave, Arsace was an imperial slave and should be cautious. “What would you know of good poetry?” said Eucher. “What does anyone? Men don’t think anymore. They just memorize.”
Eucher’s retinue withdrew from the massing Christians, and Gallus kept his usual place behind the assistants.
As Eucher watched Gallus, Gallus watched the ground. Eucher wanted to believe that they understood each other, that in the end, it didn’t matter that Gallus was the runt of a litter born to a nameless Greek whore, while he was the only son of the noblest general Rome had ever known. Eucher reminded himself that sentiment is an indecency and that slaves are neither allies nor confidants.
A slave’s desires belong to his master. And Gallus was Christian. Like all Christians, Gallus 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. Christians weren’t men. They merely resembled men. Gallus was less man than statue, but Eucher took pleasure in attempting to draw breath from that stone.
“You squander yourself,” Eucher said to Arsace as he watched Gallus. “You deal in innuendo. What have you told the Minister about me this month?” He 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.” Arsace didn’t seem to be listening, so Eucher added, “The senator would have a difficult time choosing which was worse: his son’s anus made smooth or his Neronian compulsion for performance.”
Arsace ignored the comment. “Brother Pelagius will be speaking at the baths today. Are you planning to attend?”
Eucher peered from the corners of his 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.” He 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 Eucher didn’t care about the trial. The beast show had already begun.
“Rape,” Arsace commented, not bothering to hide his disdain.
“Not rape.” Eucher laughed. “Property can only be damaged. Assault is for people.”
Like pieces of a shattered monument, the City held things familiar and things unrecognizable. Once, Rome was the center of the world. By the time Honorius wore the purple, Rome wasn’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 their barbarian neighbors.
For a hundred years, Romans had prostrated 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 men needed sentimental eyes to see the beauty, and although few ever accused Eucher of sentiment, he understood what they meant. His thoughts often strayed to the past, as did anyone’s when he imagined Rome as anything but the old whore she had become.