Namatian didn’t recline but sat, feet planted in front of him, cup in one hand and the other fidgeting with his yellow tunic. His reputation was as a man devoted to the past, so his invitation to a dinner of the Anicii seemed peculiar to Eucher at first, until he realized a politician as worldly as the Consul knew to cultivate his own kind—the better men—regardless of their beliefs.
“If God wants everyone celibate,” asked Namatian in response to the description of Jerome, “who’ll be left to serve him?” He brushed a hand across his chin as if wiping away spilled wine. He hadn’t taken a drink and seemed to be responding to his own sudden outburst as if he had surprised himself. He clanged his silver cup onto the satyr table and added, “The world should have ended before Nero ever had the chance to burn Rome. Isn’t that what Jesus said?”
Pelagius had been exuberantly gesturing before the couches as he spoke. Now, he slouched, resting his arms across his belly like a pregnant woman. “How can we know when it comes? We need to prepare. As our brother Bishop John of Constantinople once said, ‘the present draws to a close, and the things of the resurrection are at the door’.”
“Bishops have been telling us that for centuries.”
“It’s not for us to know when but to believe.”
“Is that how they teach you to think in Britain?” accused Namatian. “Romans are practical men. Religion, like politics, is the art of the possible. Shall I adore a criminal who gives me to my enemies or build a temple for a god who offers them to me?”
“Yes, yes, noble Senator,” exclaimed Pelagius, happily roused by the turn of argument. “Offer sacrifices to demons. Superstition may have power here, but you’ll find its devotions are powerless in the face of eternity. Only personal sacrifice, not blood sacrifice, can move the heart of Christ, the final judge.” Pelagius’s excitement grew sober again. “I was speaking of Jerome, and he’s wrong about marriage. He sounds like Bishop Augustine, as if the world and everything in it is evil, as if it were created by demons rather than God.”
The Consul finally came to his absent client’s defense. “Bishop Augustine condemned those ideas many years ago. He’s not a heretic.”
Pelagius changed his approach, saying, “God wouldn’t create something evil.”
“He left that for priests!” shouted someone. A few men laughed.
Pelagius eyed the men sternly. He had no sense of humor. Christians never had.
“I’ve heard you also condemn marriage, and every other pleasure,” added Namatian.
“Noble Namatian,” began Longinian, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth, “You’re a reputed poet but still young. You’ll soon learn that senators share their pleasure with women not wives.”
The laughter in the room was cut short again by Pelagius. “Doesn’t Matthew tell us that ‘You must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect’?” He gestured at us with a pointed finger. “Renounce those things that are by their nature and influence, corrupt. Corruption is all around us: in imperial service, in wealth, in Rome.” His roaming finger ended its journey pointing at Eucher.
“Imperial service?” Namatian scoffed. “Every man in this room serves Rome and our glorious emperor, Honorius, forever Augustus.”
Pelagius’s father had been a Roman official in Britain. For over a century, the law required men to pass their professions to their sons, and it was important to enforce the law on the better men of the cities because more than anyone, they avoided the burdens of their rank. Many men like Pelagius took Holy Orders to avoid managing the post, auditing accounts, or paying for aqueducts and shows.
Pelagius continued as if he didn’t understand the accusation. “A governor who has a man executed is a murderer and unclean in the eyes of God. A senator who corrupts the morals of his city with savage shows and games is unclean in the eyes of God. A landlord who eats pheasant while his tenants don’t even have bread is unclean in the eyes of God. Do you need more examples? We’re all monks, made so when the blessed water baptizes us. If you wish to discuss duty, then this is your only duty: be like your Father in Heaven. Because we can be perfect, we must be.”
“Who will be master of Rome?” Eucher asked. “Will Jesus kill the barbarians? Will he make our walls unbreachable?”
Namatian worked himself up again. “I’m a man of Rome. I serve all the gods. Didn’t Venus and Mars, mother of Aeneas and father of Romulus, create us? Who was it who made Romans to surpass all men in war and mercy? Don’t we owe Minerva for the olive and Bacchus for the vine? Hasn’t Mithra aided our legions in every land? We’ve shared our laws and our prosperity with the world. We’ve made of it a single city. The world belongs to us, and we belong to the gods.”
“I’ve been honored with this office three times in my life,” added Flavian earnestly, “and I’ve many times had to execute a man.”
Pelagius turned to consider the Prefect, but Namatian pursued, saying, “You can’t agree about your own god. You say Christians shouldn’t kill, but you kill even each other. You say Christians should give up worldly things, but they fill their churches will silver plate…” Namatian paused before adding with a smile, “And share dinners with Consuls.”
Only deliberate ignorance, it seemed to Eucher, could allow Pelagius to remain impervious to the well-aimed accusations. But Pelagius ignored Namatian and addressed Flavian, “A man shouldn’t spend his life in worldly pursuits thinking to pass freely into Heaven by last-minute contrition. But penance—and few men seem capable of its rigors—is a testament to faith.”
“Kneeling, praying, and abstaining will drive a man mad before it ever saves him,” whispered Namatian to Eucher as he kept his eyes on Pelagius. “Look at what it did to Theodosius.” He glanced sideways, and his eyes widened, as if he just realized who Eucher was.
Eucher smiled at the insult paid his grandfather, not to ease Namatian, but because he agreed.
Namatian smiled faintly before turning back to the discussion. “You’re so busy dividing the wheat from the chaff, what’s left for God to do?”
The bored men perked up. Several cups paused under parted lips.