“He’s written a well-received commentary on Saint Paul,” continued the Consul, “for those of you unfamiliar with such spiritual matters…” The guests laughed at the gibe. “…you may read it now.” He backed away, and from behind him came twenty-five boys, none older than ten. They wore white tunics and silver sandals. Each carried a book, and each came to stand beside one of the guests. “The boys will serve you tonight. Your first gift is the book each has with him, a complete copy of our honored guest’s commentary.”
The Consul then introduced each man in turn to Pelagius, though most already knew him. When Pelagius turned to Eucher, his eyes narrowed and his lips parted in a grimace that made an effort at good humor.
“I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your commentary,” Eucher said, greeting him with a nod.
“But I know of the Respectable Tribune and Notary, and of his father, our pious Patrician,” said Pelagius, his voice surprisingly high for a man with such a broad chest.
Glancing down, Eucher wondered whether the monk had made the sacrifice some other fashionably-pious men had.
Pelagius continued, “It seems the barbarians have conquered us.” He tried to smile again. “At least our dinner conversations.”
“I should think,” Eucher replied, “the Consul’s dinners would be more interesting.”
After Pelagius had been introduced to each man, he gathered the men into a circle and raised a piece of bread from the table laden with platters. “Blessed Lord, who nourished us from our youth, who gives food to all flesh, we give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you make known to us through Christ Jesus. Fill our hearts with joy that having always what is sufficient for us, we may abound to every good work, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom glory, honor, and power be yours forever. Amen.”
A beautiful young slave took charge of the seating, escorting each man to his appointed place. Other slaves carried platters of food still smoking from the kitchen. Around the couches, flowers spilled from pots and stone-lined plots with reckless variety. Ivory and gold lined the columns of the portico, and above the columns, a pink stucco frieze, dramatic with flickering shadows, depicted the twelve Apostles.
Eucher was pleased to share the third couch at the Consul’s grouping. He lay on blue cushions directly across from the Consul with two men to his left. To his right was Pelagius’s couch, draped in violet. He lay on the far right of the central couch, the place reserved for the honored guest. To Pelagius’s right was the Consul and his two couch mates, resting on a deep shade of purple silk. Behind Eucher was another set of three couches, and behind the Consul was the third set of three.
Next to Pelagius lay Flavian, a vigorous man of late years, holding for the third time the crowning office of the Senate, Prefect of Rome. His father had been Prefect of Italy seventeen years earlier, appointed by a usurping general who claimed the West for his own. He and his father began a revival of the ancient festivals, and in those treasonous times, Rome wasn’t too concerned about the exchange of emperors or gods. At Constantinople the reaction was different. While Rome returned to old habits, Theodosius gathered his army in the East.
Although the Flavian senators tried to resuscitate the past, their rebellion didn’t last long. In time, Theodosius defeated their emperor and reclaimed Rome, leaving Flavian’s father to believe that not only was his emperor defeated but his gods were, as well. He committed suicide, but his son was more practical. He married the daughter of another eminent senator, and by his new father-in-law’s tireless efforts, Theodosius allowed the wayward Flavian to adore the purple again.4
The senator lying next to Flavian at the dinner was Theodore, a dark, compact man from a peculiar family. His father was very poor but became one of the wealthiest in Rome, made so by the inheritance from his sister—a nun who had mysteriously acquired a fortune. Because of the inheritance, Theodore’s father reached the consulship, where he had the dubious honor of sharing his term with Eutropius, the only eunuch ever to hold the office. After Eutropius had all his limbs removed and his torso dragged outside the gates of Constantinople, Theodore’s father had the additional honor of finishing the year as sole Consul. Besides his distinguished father, Theodore had a notorious uncle, Lampadius, a man who once accused Eucher’s father of cowardice on the Senate floor.
Theodore and Flavian got along well that evening. They seemed to be sharing a joke and glancing at Eucher while they laughed. Eucher remembered seeing them both at his father’s side when he was a boy. He was concerned about Theodore; maybe he had the reasonable temperament of his father, who preferred philosophy to administration, or maybe he possessed his uncle’s ungrateful ambition. Regardless, Eucher’s father did himself no favor that year when he denied Theodore the prefecture of Italy. It was one of the most powerful positions a senator might fill, one all of Rome knew he wanted, and one in Stilicho’s power to decide.
The coveted office went instead to Longinian, who was also at the dinner lying next to the Consul himself. Longinian wasn’t like most successful senators. His political sense was dulled by an interest in ideas. In his lifetime, he managed to claim friends as diverse as the late senator Symmachus and his adversary, Bishop Ambrose. Unlike most senators, the cautious Longinian had taken no side in his friends’ famous fight.