***

The office of Consul was one of the most ancient, but had become an expensive honor. Even so, every senator wanted it. The Consul sponsored games. He gave his name to the year. During imperial ceremonies, had the privilege of standing quite close to the eunuchs who surrounded Emperor Honorius.

The Consul for the year was the patriarch of the family Anicii. His dinner was to celebrate the Kalends. It was acceptable to celebrate every ancient holiday provided no meaning was attached to anything. It was a compromise, a bad compromise, Eucher thought, where Rome honored gods they were told didn’t exist. Celebrating a holiday in Rome was like serving a meal to a dead man.

Eucher brought the eunuch, or rather, Arscace insisted on coming. Eucher couldn’t well refuse without sending him off to report to Olympius, but despite how influential he may be at Ravenna, Arsace was a slave and had no invitation from the Consul.

Eucher had long since relinquished hope that Arsace would share information. Though Arsace aspired at intrigue himself, he wasn’t one to unravel the intricacies of imperial service. He wasn’t honest enough to hate or intelligent enough to conspire. He was made gullible by the same pride he condemned in other men. Bishop Ambrose, dead ten years, wrote that celibates were the elect soldiers of the Church. When the idea had been favored in the imperial palace, Arsace enlisted immediately.

Eucher and his entourage left Rome by horse and arrived at Ostia as the sun was falling into the sea. Ostia had once been Rome’s primary harbor. Oxen wore deep paths along the Tiber’s shoreline as they drew ships against the current to Rome. Larger ships anchored and off-loaded shipments of wine, oil, grain, wood, and stone for the great warehouses. The harbor district of Portus had grown, and as Portus became its own town, Ostia became a residential suburb, its new tenements replacing most of the ancient palaces. A few remained, and one was rebuilt by the Anicii.

Guards escorted Eucher across the estate where a pack of hunting dogs joined his trip. At the bottom of a hill he dismounted, and slaves took the horses to the stables. Other slaves greeted him with wine and water. After a short rest, the slaves offered rides up the hill in litters.

Eucher chose to walk. After a longing gaze at the grand litters moving men up the hill, Arsace reluctantly followed.

“You missed a good show,” Eucher said as he squinted at the sun, large and red as it descended into the sea. “The Ceionii gave us a talented stripper.”

“Worshipers of Mithra, I’ve heard.” Arsace’s long-sleeved tunic was of silk sewn in Palestine, dyed rose, and embroidered with gold leaves along the vertical hems. Over his tunic, he wore a blue toga clasped at his shoulder with a gold pin. The garments cost perhaps twenty solidi, a price Eucher could get for Gallus, who was a well-educated and beautiful young man.

On the other hand, Eucher wore a tan tunic with purple stitching, a scarlet toga, and scarlet sandals. He never wore silk; it was an oriental custom that consumed imperial taste and good sense. He had his beard shaved off. The dinner was his chance to observe rather than to be observed, so he wore what was suitable only, hoping to go generally unnoticed as he listened to the men who managed the empire.

A thousand lamps lined the entrance to the Anician palace, turning dusk into midday. It was a residence of three large buildings around a portico and three pools. The facade was decorated with copied and imported marbles, gilding, creamy stucco, and ivory. Silver plate framed the door.

Eucher’s men left him at the entrance.

After the Consul’s slaves escorted Eucher through to the central courtyard, he emerged onto the well-lit portico, a fountain ringed with small-flamed bronze lamps and steaming water. Dining couches were to the left—nine couches arranged in threes, each set with its own small table, each set arranged around the large serving table. Between the serving table and the fountain was an open area for the evening’s entertainment.