The emperor Constantius had precipitated the conflict between Symmachus and Ambrose by removing the altar of Victory that had been placed in the Senate chamber by Caesar Augustus himself. Later, the emperor Gratian escalated the assault by stealing imperial funds meant for the cults and disbanding the priesthoods. Symmachus solicited several succeeding emperors to have the venerable objects returned. In his petition he reasoned, “The secret can hardly be found by one faith, for wise men know that whatever mystery we worship is in the end, one.”
He was Prefect of Rome, and he pleaded for the emperor to return the altar on which senators and courts had sworn their oaths for four-hundred years. His adversary, Bishop Ambrose, cared nothing for tradition. He was a new man, after all.
Eucher sneered at the thought.
With elegant hypocrisy, Ambrose accused Symmachus of being more interested in the money than the stone. He threatened the emperor with excommunication if he brought the altar back, and so he prevailed, using the same episcopal abuse he would employ so successfully years later on emperor Theodosius.
Longinian never made it clear on whose side he stood, and Eucher counted the abstention a small victory. Longinian built baptisteries and shrines, performing his duty as he saw it, yet he also held a priesthood of Jupiter. Like most senators, what he did and what he felt weren’t necessarily the same. Eucher doubted he was anymore devoted than his more interesting brother, Maximian, who was vicar of Africa—a fact that intrigued Eucher when he saw the man who lay beside Longinian.
Porphyrius was one new to the Senate, rising not through any meaningful heritage but through money. He had governed Africa through the summer of that year.
Africa was an unusual diocese, since its provinces were shared between a governor and a vicar, who both reported to the Prefect of Italy. The office of the governor had always been reserved for senators. The less esteemed vicariate was once only a knight’s office, so that difference alone was enough to cause enmity between the families, but they had trouble before.
Their feud began when one of Longinian’s ancestors prosecuted Porphyrius’s great-grandfather for using temple stone to build an estate near Carthage. This was during the time of Julian. Eucher admired that inspired defender of the gods, who made Christians replace stone. When Julian died, his laws died with him, and temples were again freely pillaged.
The hatred between the families increased when Porphyrius in turn prosecuted Maximian for hindering the official removal of a temple. And then when the Augustus removed Porphyrius during the summer for his mediocre success at collecting taxes, Maximian had his revenge. Although Porphyrius tried to defend himself with accusations that Maximian paid the collectors more than they could skim, thereby making them less than diligent, neither Stilicho nor the emperor listened.
Throughout the night, Eucher watched Longinian and Porphyrius move as far from each other as the couch allowed. Eucher smiled to himself, assuming Consul Bassus had made a significant social mistake, which was uncharacteristic.
Beside Eucher lay Namatian, a junior senator, who seemed determined not to relax. Eucher had heard he was writing a history on his native Gaul, and his poetry circulated at the better dinners. Namatian sat gazing at Pelagius with arms crossed and eyebrows swooped above skeptical brown eyes. Black hair curled in small rings around his ears, adding to his intense and harried appearance.
When dinner began, the men stretched out on the couches and scooped handfuls of food. The angelic boys removed empty trays from the tables and replaced them with full ones, again and again. As the men grew heavy from food, slaves poured wine.
Pelagius struggled from his resting place. “We give thanks for the Holy Vine of David, your child,” he prayed, raising a bowl of wine, “whom you make known to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.”
The Consul had servants bring bundles of pages to each man—copies of homilies and poetry from some of the most famous bishops and monks in the empire. Entertainment followed, consisting of five girls who danced and then helped the boys refill wine cups. A poet sang a verse from the Book of John to the accompaniment of a lyre, and then Pelagius dragged his body once again from its comfortable relaxation and stood before the semi-circle of couches.
He opened his speech with a severe criticism of Bishop Augustine, calling that other client of the Anicii a heretic. Eucher watched the Consul for some reaction, but he gave none. He appeared content to allow Pelagius to share his wine while criticizing one of his most respected clients.
Pelagius carried on, turning his criticism next on Jerome, a monk who not many years ago led noble Roman women to their deaths by starving them. He continued to insist on even greater feats of deprivation and self-loathing—always a fashionable message in an age when sacrifice meant more than generosity.
Eucher studiously consumed more wine until the words were like echoes, sounds without meaning. Glancing to his left, he noticed Namatian growing ever more prickly.