Female domestics in green dresses offered bowls of walnuts, honey-coated almonds, cakes baked with pistachios, fish-stuffed African olives, and fried goat cheese. Male domestics in short violet tunics tenderized the spitted roasts with prongs and dribbled savory pepper-oil that crisped the flesh black in the flames. Bottles of other expensive spices lay conspicuously strewn about.
The single large serving table was four-legged and bronze with inlaid ivory tiles across the top. At one end of the table, bowls of blown blue Alexandrian glass glimmered in the lamplight, reflecting fire and fountain like hundreds of blue waterfalls. At the other end, slaves were molding mixtures of minced fowl and lamb into a rambling “Seven Hills of Rome.” Through the center ran the “Tiber River,” a thin gravy of blood and dark wine for dipping pieces of white bread, and fish paste banked the river on each side, topped with the vacant stares of several-hundred glistening fish eyes.
The small tables among the groupings of couches each had three legs in the form of gold-plated satyrs rising tenuously from their toes. Arching elegantly backward and outward, their chests bore the weight of the table top, while their arms encircled the rim, touching fingertip to fingertip. Leering, polished faces peered across the transparent green glass. Their three erect phalli touched at the center beneath the glass and were draped with fragrant, fresh-cut bay leaves.
Twenty men stood about the portico, all holding or having held posts in the provinces, the City, or the imperial court. All were men of the civil service rather than the military.
As Consul for the West, Bassus was the most important, but Eucher met also the Prefect of Italy and the Prefect of Rome—ministers who oversaw administration and courts and reported directly to the emperor. As he glanced around, he thought his invitation must have been a replacement for someone who couldn’t attend. It wasn’t unusual to have the reputation of one’s family as the only recommendation. Despite that or maybe because of it, he wasn’t often invited to the better dinners.
The Consul entered the circle of men. A luminescent white toga draped from his broad shoulders. Heavy gold thread spiraled down along each hem, and a gold leaf pinned the toga at his left shoulder. Beneath the toga hung a scarlet tunic of silk in sleek lines, embroidered with peacocks in gold, blue, and green thread. Like a well-drilled regiment, perfect gray curls lay across his forehead beneath a wreath of waxy ivy leaves. His nails were tipped by shiny half-moons of white, and gold rings circled three fingers. His tan feet had nails buffed to a metallic shine, and he had depilated his arms and legs. He had the thickness of an old man who had been an athletic youth.
He spoke loudly, while his hands gestured broadly. “Welcome friends. The feast is nearly prepared; the couches and wine await us. Those of you who’ve not met our honored guest, please greet our revered brother in the Lord, Britannicus Pelagius.”
Pelagius was the son of a Roman official. He had been in Rome for many years, a confessor for the Anicii, and Eucher recalled gossip of a less spiritual interest in one particular daughter. Pelagius was unusually tall, as well as fat. He wore an undyed wool tunic and thin sandals. His face was fleshy. Despite his coarse appearance, his eyes radiated the energy of a man possessed by a daemon. They remained alert, as if searching for an opening through a skirmish line.