From marble to crumbling brick, from senator to slave, the crowd hissed, howled, and demanded more. It was victory they 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 Eucher were less involved with the show than with him and Gallus. Gallus was delicate, but his black eyebrows gathered hawklike above perceptive brown eyes. Docile and effeminate, he sometimes seemed like a eunuch, but his beard and leanness revealed his natural masculinity.
Having known most of the men seated around him all his life, Eucher recognized the way they stared at Gallus. It was the same way he stared at him. Gallus was a beautiful boy, one tantalizing step across the threshold of manhood.
The senators’ scrutiny meant little to Eucher. He was the son of the Master General, and such scrutiny had surrounded him all his life. Rather than a toga, Eucher wore a tan Greek cloak, like philosophers and professors wore, but the heat forced him to remove it. Two vertical purple stripes along the hems of his scarlet tunic were the only indication of rank. Not that he wasn’t a familiar sight in the arena, or anywhere in Rome. More people knew him on sight than would have known the emperor apart from his purple silk.
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 he was fifteen, Eucher stripped him naked to see the thing he boasted as “Hercules.” Eucher then kicked him into the streets, alone but for his shriveled hero. Five years later, Publicius still maintained a flattering vigilance whenever Eucher was near.
That day in the amphitheater, Publicius kept one chubby hand in a fist against his groin as if hiding something. He poked his thumb out and wagged it at Eucher. Knowing what little he had to hide, Eucher raised his hand and waved his smallest finger back at him.
Publicius reminded Eucher that the important thing to discover about any man is what he is, not what he believes he is. Eucher knew the importance of that because Gallus was his slave and Stilicho was his 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 Eucher defended him as one all the time, Stilicho was no more Roman than Gallus. Like any defeated enemy, Gallus hated Rome, and like any foolish foreigner, Stilicho worshiped her. He worshiped her as only a barbarian could.
To those like Eucher, 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?
Eucher clamped his hand around Gallus’s forearm and drew him roughly to his feet. The game of the arena was uninteresting when Eucher had too much to think on.
“Come, Gallus,” he ordered.
Gallus glared back. Eucher was a test for Gallus, a trial, a threat in a game of soldiers-and-robbers. In their escalating match, Eucher often used his own hand, having dispensed of his disciplinary slave, which was yet another of his 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, Eucher 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 Eucher’s wall. She came so close to the wall that he had to lean forward and peer over the edge. He glanced from the name of his family carved into the white stone at his feet to the woman skidding in the sand below. 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, so with each pluck his penis swung. An observation from the poet Juvenal came to Eucher: 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 Eucher 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 and rested her feet in the net that protected the podium from the animals of the arena.
The show, it appeared, was just for Eucher.