Pelagius’s wide face tightened, and his arms fell to his sides. He took a great, exasperated breath. “I didn’t realize that the Most Noble Namatian was so well-acquainted with the writings of the Apostles. I’d heard quite differently, that he wasn’t Christian at all—not so much as a heretic.”
The Consul’s eyebrows rose with humorous approval. He tipped the wreath on his head backward as if to get a better look at the participants while he drank more wine.
“Maybe the distinguished tribune could speak to us on service,” interrupted Nicius, lisping, from the grouping of couches behind Eucher.
Eucher had to raise himself and turn around to see him. A narrow band of hair circled Nicius’s bald head, and the skin around his watery eyes hung like a hound’s. He wasn’t old, but his sickness made him seem so. A swelling tightened the left side of his face.
“The question,” Nicius continued, his words precise as he struggled against himself, “is whether serving all the gods is the same as serving one. What does the son of our Patrician say to that?” He was one of Stilicho’s men, but Eucher had the impression he was being mocked.
Searching for a way to say nothing, Eucher finally decided, “A whip can force a man to serve any master, but he can wear the brand of only one.”
Pelagius’s asked, “Whose brand do you wear?”
“Your master’s clear,” Eucher replied, pointing at the monk’s belly. The remark drew muffled laughs.
“There are many masters in Rome.” Pelagius took a step, sweeping his hand through the air. “Even father and son don’t often serve the same one.”
“I should hope we serve the same one,” Eucher replied quickly. “The Emperor, crowned by God, our Imperial Father, my uncle, Honorius, forever Augustus.”
“Forever Augustus,” Pelagius repeated respectfully, nodding and glancing about the room of men. “I’ve heard Marcellinus was your teacher. Marcellinus is a disciple of Bishop Augustine.”
“I spent this summer in Africa and had the honor of meeting with His Grace and my former tutor. Have you ever met Bishop Augustine?” Eucherius realized Pelagius had some dispute with Augustine, a matter of principle, it seemed.
Pelagius’s expression soured, then brightened again. “Your mother’s a devoted woman. I first met her at Milan, for the funeral of the glorious Theodosius. She discussed her concerns for his soul. He once knelt before Bishop Ambrose, it’s true, but he also rewarded poets for the flattery that called him a living god. He was of two hearts.”
“Aren’t we all,” Eucher agreed. “The divine Theodosius was a passionate man but also a servant of the Church.”
“The divine Theodosius,” said Porphyrius from the far end of the Consul’s couch, “was the most Christian of emperors.”
Namatian was nodding with exaggeration. “Indeed! Can any man achieve what Theodosius did? Constantine merely bickered with bishops about whether the son of a virgin was a man or a god, but Theodosius was truly pious: his laws obliterated thousands of ancient temples and the women and children who worshiped there.”
Eucher hid his smile in a drink of wine, but Pelagius didn’t seem to recognize the sarcasm. Instead, his eyes darted to Namatian, and he replied, “Temples, yes, but massacring seven-thousand innocent citizens wasn’t the act of a Christian.”
“But were they innocent?” observed Nicius.
“Indeed not,” agreed Namatian, rising to his feet beside Pelagius to address the men. His eyes were sharp and a smile broke free. “Wasn’t it justice to execute those who incited the lynching of a commander?” Leaning forward, arms spread, he addressed the Consul, saying, “The commander simply postponed a chariot race, and the city rioted. Kill them all!”
“Justice uses law,” observed Theodore from the couch to Eucher’s right. Sweat darkened his already dark hair. “The guilty should have been executed, but not because they made the Augustus angry. There were no charges, no trial.”
The men were arguing about a decision made by Theodosius—the rashest of decisions made by a man as infamous for his temper as for his piety. Theodosius’s recklessness, thought Eucher, had finally destroyed what even Hannibal couldn’t.
Seventeen years earlier, the people of Thessalonica rioted when a Roman commander refused to release a charioteer from prison. The people resolved their conflict by hanging the commander and releasing their favorite driver for race day. When the news reached Theodosius, he reacted, as he always did, with precipitous fury.
He sent orders that the garrison was to surround the stadium at the next show, lock the gates, and slaughter everyone in the stands, which turned out to be seven-thousand men and women.
After news of the event spread, Bishop Ambrose pursued his emperor like Orestes’ Furies. Despite the courage that allowed Theodosius to unite a world and obliterate every enemy, he was no match for the rabid little bishop.
The battle of wills ended when Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius, forcing him to set aside his diadem, strip off his purple silk, and fall to his knees like any sinner. After the Master of the World fell groveling for forgiveness, after a bishop became his teacher, after the Church became his master, the thousand years of Rome’s eternal present became merely a past.
Rome had become another stop on a Christian’s dusty path to salvation.
“What would our Prefect do, I wonder,” said Longinian, gesturing at Flavian, “if such an event occurred at Rome?”
All eyes shifted to Flavian.
“The Senate can be assured,” Flavian began. He glanced around for a long moment before finishing, “I would do what our glorious Augustus ordered.”
“Even should that be unjust?” challenged Longinian.
Flavian was too careful to be caught. He thought a moment. “Theodosius ignored the wisdom of calmer voices, but our imperial prince is a less…impulsive man. Surely, he wouldn’t make the mistake of his father.”
“A mistake?” repeated the Consul.
“Great men are allowed great mistakes,” replied Flavian hopefully.
Pelagius turned to Eucher and commented, “I see the senators of Rome have considered this.”
“How could we fail to?” Eucher pointed out. “I wonder what it’s done to us that a bishop should be allowed to instruct the Master of the World—”
“Or excommunicate God’s regent!” added Namatian.
“Yes, a bishop is only God’s instrument,” agreed the Consul.
“The emperor is within the Church, not above it.” Pelagius was quoting Ambrose now.
For some reason, the Consul easily conceded Pelagius’s point, saying, “Seven-thousand people shouldn’t have died, but we live under Grace, not the Law. Because of Grace, an atrocity was forgiven.”
No man seemed willing to disagree with the Consul, who had changed his mind as easily as only a senator could.
Eucher finished his cup and said, “What of the law of the Augustus?”
“Theodosius received absolution,” the Consul replied steadily.
“From a man,” Namatian pointed out as he took his seat again.
“From a bishop, God’s representative,” corrected Pelagius.
“The Augustus is God’s representative,” argued Longinian. Unlike the Consul who made his disagreement seem a placid objection of order, Longinian was angry. “You shall fear the king, knowing that his appointment is of the Lord.” The quote was unfamiliar to Eucher. More confusing was that Longinian said it. “A bishop,” he finished, “is only a servant.”
Pelagius’s slouch gave him an unimposing distance. He reminded Eucher of the camels shown in the arenas, stodgy beasts with sagging jowls and hulking backs. “Yes,” he agreed, “but the emperor knew his place.”
“Men, brothers,” said the Consul, rising from his couch with his arms spread. He paused to have his cup refilled, then raised it. “This is a celebration. Let’s hear a song of Rome.” He nodded to a slave who ushered more performers out before the fountain.
Even through the dullness of too much wine, it was becoming clear that the alliances Eucher had taken for granted weren’t at all clear.
Longinian was speaking like a Christian. The Consul laughed like a vulgar spectator at his own clients. Stilicho’s men went out of their way to embarrass his son, while those who should find no alliance with the House of Theodosius spoke of the dead emperor as “divine.” The only one who made sense, who Eucher admired, was Namatian. He appeared to be exactly what men said he was.
When the music ended, Pelagius drifted back to selling smoke. Eucher looked at his wine, found it bitter, and let the cup roll from his hand. What Namatian had said about Rome was true enough.
As a boy, Eucher had listened to the great poet Claudian sing in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. He wrote verses about the glorious victories of Eucher’s father and the eternity of Rome.
The past, he once sang, guarantees the future.