“Imposture” by Marvin Rabinovitch


By Marvin Rabinovitch

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…


As a celebrated lover of wisdom and a transient, Milo of Thessaly occupied the couch of honor at the midnight symposium held in the private apartments belonging to the Antonine Emperor of Rome, seventeenth Augustus since the venerable first built the imperial palace after the fall of the Second Triumvirate and the subsequent Duumvirate two centuries back. The present successor to the purple, Marcus Aurelius Imperator, reclined facing the elderly itinerant philosopher. The drinking cup had just reached him and he took a cautious swig of the watered Falernian, the fingers of his free hand absently combing through his trimmed, auburn, gray-shot beard. His brow furrowed in thought, for the emperor was not one to speak idly without weighing his words.

“Let me try to summarize the discussion up to this point,” he said with a smile to the assembled company. He smiled to anticipate the indulgent quirking of the lips among his companions, who were eminently familiar with their master’s habit of temporizing before committing himself to an opinion. “My practical, hardheaded secretary, Aemilius Drago, dismisses all possibility of even the most selfless human being resigning himself philosophically to a disastrous failure when he has devoted all his energies to ensuring success.”

“Succinct and accurate, Caesar,” said the sharp-faced bureaucrat who had risen from trans-Tiberan obscurity to become one of the gray eminences of the imperial government. “It is not in the nature of man to accept defeat with an easy heart, no matter how much he may feign indifference.”

“On the other hand,” Marcus continued, turning to his Prefect of the Imperial Exchequer, “Nauta Pulver here believes in the human facility of accepting any proposition as long as it is made persuasively enough.”

“Correct, Caesar,” said the money man, lazily scratching the sole of one bare foot with the long-nailed big toe of the other.

He disliked being addressed by his nickname, “Sailor”, when strangers were present, tolerating it only when closeted privately with his intimates. For this reason, he delivered his remarks without the customary jest but addressed the issue dryly.

“Though pure logic will never armor a man against demoralization by misfortune, the art of rhetoric may do so, albeit only for a time. In other words, the human being can talk himself into any state of mind with cunning enough arguments, but it will not last. Self-pity will always triumph in the end.”

“Plausible, plausible,” the emperor agreed good-naturedly. “My colleague,Milo, on the other hand, holds that a lifetime of mental self-discipline and rigorous spiritual exercise will enable the naturally upright man to accommodate himself to any fate the gods may choose to send him, something like hardening the body’s muscles to endure the burden of the most grueling labors.”

The philosopher popped a grape into his toothless mouth, gummed it complacently and nodded. “This fruit is sour, Caesar, but the Stoicism I have cultivated in a hundred lands has taught me that the sweetness of life originates only in my own soul. Armed with this training, I enjoy your hospitality for its good intentions rather than reject it as others might for its disagreeable taste.”

“And in fact,” Pulver broke in with a laugh, “You will soon delude yourself that the fare is as sweet as honey, though heartburn will drive you from your bed in the small hours.”

They all laughed, Marcus not the least. “Here is how I differ with all of you. My tolerance for the unpleasant comes naturally to me. It is my contention that a blessed portion of humanity is congenitally capable of rising above the onslaught of good and evil and can subdue the passions so that what moves others to grief or exultation affects us no more than rain on a marble statue. Gentlemen, I am a natural Stoic.”

“Let me ask you, then,” interposed his secretary, “Whether you would maintain your imperturbability if… the gods forbid… leprosy struck you down?”

“I would,” declared the emperor self-confidently, “What, lose my serenity for a mere ailment of the skin? The Marcus Aurelius within would remain integral and whole.”

The imperial treasurer, distinguished for shrewdness and insight into character that almost approached clairvoyance, was closer to the mark. “Let us say a close friend or, even more, a beloved child, betrays you, Caesar. Could your stoic hide turn the point of that dagger?”

“I have often contemplated that possibility,” Marcus replied gravely, cracking a walnut in conjoined hands. He showed the others the crushed shell and its exposed meat where it lay in his palm. “I am as spiritually invulnerable to the hammer blows of the gods as this lightly armored kernel was to the fatal squeeze between my fingers.”

The two civil servants shook their head in wonder, but Milo of Thessaly just laughed. “Only one who shares the emperor’s soul has the power to hurt it. And since no such spiritual partner exists, the only person in the world who can bring him disappointment and grief by conscious wrongdoing is himself. The same holds true for the adulation of the masses. The masks of tragedy and comedy are perceived by the true Stoic as the vanities they are.”

A martial footfall interrupted him. Marcus looked up and caught sight of the Praetorian Guard duty officer quick-marching beneath the colonnade that abutted the far entrance of the room. As required, the man was in full armor and carried his horsehair-crested helmet under one arm.  The clink of metal sounded rhythmically as he drew to a halt and saluted, fist banging against leather breastplate.

“Ho, Publius Cornelius,” the emperor greeted him with a barely concealed yawn, “How goes the night?”

“Not well, sire,” came the answer in tones of grievance, “Another leaper from the top of your triumphal column.”

“Why do suicides find that misbegotten tower so infernally attractive?” Marcus complained to no one in particular. “Why is my magnificent memorial incessantly plagued by the attentions of self-assassins. This is the seventh this year, if I make no mistake.”

“Your Augustan Majesty is never in error,” the young officer said automatically. “However, I make it the eighth.”

“And of course, you had to run and tell me, spoil a perfectly good party.”

“This is news you had to hear immediately, Caesar” the other explained. “The leaper was a Vestal Virgin.”

This would have political ramifications. The keepers of Vesta’s flame came from the most eminent families of the patrician class and served for fifteen years as inviolate priestesses, preserving Roman honor against the pollution of the inchoate world under Roman rule.

“Virgin no more, I fear,” snickered Drago, though in an undertone. There could only be one reason why a Vestal would commit suicide – defloration and the certainty of discovery. Such renegades, and there had been several in the history of the city, were condemned to burial alive.

“Poor girl,” said Milo with a sigh, “A light inculcation of Stoic principles might have saved her from this despair and pointed out other paths of salvation. Although women, of course, have not the resources for the requisite training.” He turned to the Praetorian. “Are you sure it was suicide?”

“People do not mount to the top of the emperor’s column at night and then slip accidently,” the other replied scornfully. “Nor is there room there for a murderer and his victim.”

“How does one get to the top?” Milo mused. “There is no scaffolding, I think.”

“The column is a hollow cylinder with a winding staircase cut into the internal surface,” Marcus explained. “Come with me now, if you wish, and you can see for yourself.”

“Surely the princeps himself will not venture out at this hour of the night,” his secretary protested.

Marcus laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and levered himself erect from the couch of conviviality. “You forget, my friend, that the woman is probably of senatorial and possibly even of consular family. The supreme magistrate must make a speedy decision on how to dispose of the remains so that reputations remain intact.”

“You will need manpower for that,” said the treasurer, practical and canny as always. ”Let us muster a squad of your lictors to bear the burden. Their bundles of rods minus the axe heads will make good stretchers.”

“And a detachment of Praetorians for crowd control,” said Publius Cornelius, not to be outdone. He rubbed his hands gleefully, anticipating a night of fun.

Outside the palace, ten imperial lictors were already waiting, their fasces at the requisite sixty degree angle between fist and shoulder. Pulver selected five for his purpose and directed the remainder to carry away the bronze axe heads that gleamed fitfully in the flickering light of the torches borne by the Praetorian corporal’s guard.

The Campus Martius, where the  triumphal column of Marcus Aurelius stood, lay between the Palatine Hill where the optimates, the patrician class, made their homes and the Aventine, district of the much more numerous and crowded plebeans. As they made their way down the slope of the Palatine, the hollow rumble of thunder drummed in the distance and Pompey’s theatre was momentarily silhouetted against a flash of sheet lightning.

“Ay, the gods are angry,” one elite guard muttered to his mate in their native German. “I had a feeling it was so.”

Marcus understood the dialect from his years of campaigning along the Danube. He turned to the Praetorian commander and said in a loud, hearty voice, “Tell your men that this approaching shower is a good omen, tribune. It means that the city’s troublemakers and riffraff will seek shelter and not interfere with our duty.”

“Too true, sire,” the young officer said, making no attempt to mask his disappointment.

They rounded a corner and the column loomed before them, a shadowy tubular mass receding upward and dimly outlined in the blazing flambeaux set in sconces at its base. On the granite blocks of the shallow steps that encircled the towering monolith, between marble statues representing Dianna nocking an arrow to her bow and Pan examining his syrinx, a crumpled shape lay beneath the black and gray cape of a legionary centurion. A pair of lounging sentries scrambled to their feet and saluted the emperor.

“Report!” barked their commander, incensed at this display of relaxed discipline.

“All well, excellency,” quavered the more veteran of the two in broken Greek. “Some street urchins were nosing around a couple of minutes ago, but we sent ‘em packing.”

“Uncover her.”

The junior sentry stooped and pulled away the coarse, concealing mantle. The pool of blood in which the girl lay had dyed her linen shift a rusty brown. Blood had burst from her body in great gouts, spattering the flagstones a meter or two from its extremities.

“Another benefaction from the approaching rain,” the emperor murmured. “It will wash away the stain left on Rome by the fall of poor Aelia Pertinax.”

It was indeed the granddaughter of the great proconsul. Though her mouth and jaw were crushed by the impact, there was no mistaking the family nose. And protruding from the lower half of her smashed body was the partially expelled grub that would have been the next generation of the proconsul’s ancient line. Marcus felt his gorge rise and, with a supreme effort, choked back the nausea that was threatening to unman him.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and thought, “Oh gods, what will become of Rome when even Vestals hold their purity so cheap?” Not for the first time did he give thanks for the chastity of Faustina, his late empress.

With a suppressed groan, he forced himself to attend to practical matters.

“In the name of decency, veil that thing once more. Bundle her up well and carry her to the temple of Vesta.”

He took the senior lictor aside. “Tell the Vestal Reverend Mother that the corpse must be cremated without delay. Send for Proconsul Pertinax and order him to attend on me at my noon session tomorrow. Your present troop will be retired with honor from the corps of lictors and given farms in the outlying provinces. Warn them that a word out of turn will prove fatal to them and their families. You yourself I value for your discretion. Do not disappoint me.”

The man knelt without a word and made a show of intently supervising the disposal of the corpse. Marcus pulled at his beard. What more was there to be done? The soldiers were foreigners in every sense of the word. They were forbidden to hold converse with any Romans other than their superiors. In any case, they spoke little or no Latin, and it was doubtful whether they understood the true import of what had happened here. Publius Cornelius was a career officer. He could be depended on to hold his tongue and obey the orders of his emperor. The bureaucrats were loyal underlings. It only remained to distract Milo of Thessaly, though, in any event, the philosopher would be gone from Rome very soon in his fitful wanderings from place to place.

“Would you like a closer look at my column of triumph?” he asked the old man.

“Alas, column of disaster as well,” the philosopher said with a rueful chuckle. “But, of course, we Stoics know that there is no distinction between triumph and disaster. They are the same phantasm with a smiling or frowning mask, sent by the Furies to delude man for their sport.”

He approached the monument to within arm’s length and peered myopically at its surface, tracing with blunt fingertips the figures incised into the Carrara marble.  At close quarters, the smoky flames from the bracketed torches illuminated the spiral fluting of the thick Doric pillar modeled on the original erected by the Antonine’s predecessor, Trajan. The shadows of the high relief images seemed to move eerily on their helical paths coiling round the cylindrical face of the memorial.

“The lower scenes are amazingly lifelike, Caesar,” the old Stoic purred unctuously. “One might almost believe that the sculptor of this latter-day Alexander flinging the javelin from the vanguard of his legions in the third panel was actually present when you sowed terror amongst the Sarmatians ten years ago.”

Marcus uttered his characteristic mirthless chuckle. “Your eyes deceive you, my friend, or else modern history is not your forte. What you are looking at is actually my army crossing the River Danube at Carnuntum in our expeditions against the Marcomanni and the Quadi four winters before that.  I still remember how the swirling waters chilled my bones and the yard-long arrows flew thick as swarming hornets about out heads. It was touch and go that day, I assure you, and the legions did not regard my ultimate victory as a smiling phantasm but a solid compact with the gods.”

Milo pointed to a frieze roughly oval in shape and approximately the size of a small breast plate.

“Are these laurel leaves falling on your brow from heaven?” he asked with a mischievous twinkle.

The others squinted closely at the exquisitely sculpted figures wavering dimly in the torchlight. It was just possible to make out a group of soldiers with the emperor in their midst, the wreath of victory crowning him large enough for two men, putting to flight a force of trousered, long-haired barbarians amid the descent of what appeared at first glance to be flower petals.

“That is the ‘Miracle of the Rain’,” said Publius Cornelius, looking disgusted at the old man’s ignorance and frivolous tone.

“Let me see,” muttered the imperial bursar, frowning with the effort of precise recollection for which he was justly renowned, “This happened during the third battle against the Quadi after they had broken the treaty, if I mistake not.”

The Praetorian tribune took up the tale. “I was there with you, Caesar, and I remember the blessed occasion as if it were yesterday. The Twelfth Legion Fulminata was cut off and surrounded by three times their number of howling tribesmen. The legionaries fought bravely but their case seemed hopeless after having gone almost forty-eight hours without water in that dry season.”

“Remember too,” Marcus added, “That despair alone would have caused our annihilation if the gods had not sent rain.”

“Yes, and Jupiter’s lightning bolts which affrighted the enemy and wrought havoc among them. After that, the day was ours.”

“We have the superstition of soldiers to thank for that deliverance,” Marcus said with a soft sigh. He spoke almost as if voicing a thought he was not conscious of sharing.  Surreptitiously, the secretary retrieved a stylus from his sleeve and inscribed his words onto the blank surface of a wood-framed wax tablet.

“The belief that the gods fought shoulder to shoulder with us in our ranks heartened them mightily. A soldier inspired by belief in supernatural assistance fights with the ferocity and strength of a lion. But the best soldiers are those who depend only on their inner virtue, whose spirits are soldierly and who are therefore indifferent to the shifting fortunes of war.”

The Praetorian commander cocked his helmeted head. “Pardon a poor veteran, Caesar, but that is a little too philosophical for the likes of me. I still prefer a triumph to disaster and find it hard to be indifferent as to whether Roman legionary eagles will decorate the mud hut of a beer-swilling barbarian or my general’s celebratory cavalcade.”

Lightning zigzagged across the sky and thunder boomed as if irate Jove himself meant to reprove this insolence. Suddenly the small band of wayfarers was inundated by a cloudburst. The emperor’s glee was unrestrained. He slapped the Praetorian officer lightly on the shoulder and laughed.

“What say you to this, my boy? Are there more enemies we have to rout?”

“The triumphator is pleased to scoff,” the military aide replied, “But you are lightly dressed and perhaps should seek shelter from the weather.”

“Nonsense! This is as good as a bath. At least for the soiled pavement behind us.”

A brisk peppering by hailstones the size of plums put a speedy end to his enthusiasm. The Praetorians raised their rectangular, convex shields above their helmets and the tribune hustled his unprotected imperial master beneath them. The rattle of falling ice resounded loudly against the leather and metal of the makeshift military roof as it lurched off in the classic battlefield tortoise formation, the formidable testudo, a marching tank, toward the closest refuge from the elements, the temple of Hadrian on the Via Flaminia. Upper garments raised to cover their heads, the three subordinate civilians scurried ahead.

The temple was an imposing structure in the classic Greek style. Marcus had visited the place often enough, for it had been a project conceived, planned and executed by his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, and for this reason he felt a sneaking affection for the building. Its forty-eight Corinthian pillars lent the massive pile dignity and grace, from a certain angle even delicacy. In the emperor’s opinion, it was indeed worthy to honor the name and memory of his great predecessor, the mighty Hadrian, himself the adoptive father of the first Antonine emperor whose domains the present ruler had inherited.

The hush one might have expected in such semi-sacred precincts was disturbed by a distant murmur, like the voice of a sea conch held close to one’s ear. At their officer’s word of command, the Praetorians moved apart and stood easy, leaving the emperor unencumbered in their midst.

“Are we not alone in this house of worship?” Marcus asked, giving ear to the susurrus that rose and fell faintly amid the war trophies littering the spacious confines of the memorial. “There seem to be intruders in the cella.”

“No doubt the Green charioteers,” young Cornelius informed him. “If you recall, sire, the Senate granted them the freedom of the city at your recommendation several months ago.”

“Ah yes, a reward for their shutout victory over the Blues at the circus maximus during the last Saturnalia games. The people clamored for such recognition.”

For time out of mind, the city had been plagued by feuding factions arising from fanatic loyalties to the athletic clubs known by the colors they assumed. Throughout the last decade, only the Greens and Blues had survived the savage clashes on the race track and in the arenas. Now the Greens were in the ascendant. Faustina herself had been an ardent supporter of the faction. For this reason, Marcus had a soft spot in his heart for them and had backed the legislation giving these daredevils free access to every quarter of the city, no matter how sacrosanct, at any time of day or night.

Following his lead, the little band of night travelers approached the staircase leading to the cella, a barrel vaulted chamber decorated with pilasters. Their short climb and cat-footed entry into the enclosure went unnoticed for several seconds by its occupants, a hard-faced crew of roughly dressed men in their prime, somewhat the worse for drink and squatting in a circle into the midst of which one of their number had just tossed a pair of dice.

The fellow with the bones, a stocky, well-muscled Thracian by the look of him, with close-cropped hair and a three-day stubble on his cheeks, uttered a hoarse cry of elation at the “Venus” he had just thrown. He swept his winnings between his knees and then raised his eyes. His upper lip curled in a feral snarl when he caught sight of the uninvited visitors, much like a wolf warning off competitors from a fresh kill, and his right hand dropped to the dagger secured by the rawhide thongs that laced in spirals from his sandals up his hairy calf.

“Trespasser’s on Poseidon’s turf, lads,” he announced in gravelly, strongly accented Greek to the assembled company.

Poseidon was not only god of the sea but of horsemanship as well, and thus the natural patron of charioteers. Growls of anger from every throat made it clear that no interference with their pleasure would be tolerated. Suddenly, worship of the goddess Fortuna was diverted to the altar of Bellona, embodiment of conflict.

The Thracian gamester bounded to his feet and advanced menacingly on Marcus, blind or indifferent to the purple trimming of his toga which proclaimed membership in the imperial house. For his own part, Marcus showed no fear but smiled winningly at the man’s indignant demeanor. Whether a soft answer would have turned away wrath was never put to the test, for the Praetorian tribune, sword drawn, stepped between the two.

“Cool down, citizen, before you decorate a cross. This is Augustus you’re threatening.”

The charioteer halted in his tracks and grew visibly pale under his deep tan. His sinewy hands, bunched into fists, relaxed and opened to display their palms in the universally recognized gesture of appeasement. He slid to one knee and brought the hem of Marcus’s robe to his lips.

“Forgive, Majesty. The brightness of your glory blinded this worthless scum.”

“No doubt it was the brightness of your winnings that blinded you with impatience for a presumptuous guest,” Marcus replied jovially if with a hint of dry irony. “As for ‘worthless scum’, no charioteer for the Greens, as I assume you are by the emerald in your earlobe, can be that. The people of Rome would rise up against me if I used such words to describe a champion of the hippodrome. And the divine Augusta, the late empress Faustina, would send Cerberus himself from the Land of Shades to tear me to pieces for such blasphemy. She was your most fervent admirer.”

The Thracian could not suppress a self-congratulatory grin. “I believe I did have that honor, sire. The Lady Faustina was very gracious to me, especially after my victory in the races celebrating the birth of your heir, the young Caesar Commodus.”

“No doubt she won a tidy sum in wagers on that occasion,” Marcus said with a smile. “She too was enamored of the Goddess Fortuna. Yes, I recognize you now. One-wheel Dorbinter, isn’t it, who won the palm with half an axle torn away in the last lap. What say we throw a round of dice in her memory?”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” his interlocutor said, showing yellowish fangs in a grin of pride. “A stool for His Divinity,” he ordered one of his comrades.

“Not necessary,” said Marcus, “I am an old soldier who can squat on his hams for hours beside the fire for councils of war in the field before the morning’s battle. Now what shall we play for, sir? I carry no gold on my person and the imperial mint is closed down for the night. What say you to this thumb ring of silver and onyx? It was a gift from a Parthian noble, though he may have regretted his generosity when it did not easily slip from his finger.”

“I am too lowly for such marks of distinction,” the Thracian demurred, though a greedy light shone in his eyes.

“Nonsense, man. That emerald in your ear is at least its equal in value. Put that up for your stake and let us hear no further false modesties.”

Both men squatted around a clear space on the tiled floor while all the others gathered around them. Marcus made a show of examining the dice before passing them back to their owner.

“Your Divinity is satisfied?” Dorbinter asked, sycophancy lubricating his voice.

“Eminently,” said Marcus. “And all the more that you will wear my ring at your next appearance on the track should I lose this throw.”

But he did not lose the throw.

“As always,” said Dorbinter with a hollow laugh, “Your Divinity is a favorite of the gods. What am I saying? Your Immortality is one of their company himself.”

With a show of indifference that belied his sour expression, he unpinned the emerald from his ear and handed it over to the winner.

“It is a greater pleasure to lose to Caesar than win from any lesser mortal.”

“Very prettily said,” Marcus complimented him with a nod of approval. “You are obviously a man of delicate instincts.” He inspected the emerald with a discerning eye. “But this is a stone of immense value, not the mere marketplace bauble I took it for at a casual glance from some distance.”

The charioteer inclined his head respectfully. “As always, His Divinity penetrates to the heart of the matter. It was a reward given to me by a very special admirer.”

“A very wealthy admirer, no doubt,” the emperor added with a smile. One eyelid drooped in the merest suggestion of a wink. “Perhaps one who sings soprano? And I do not mean a eunuch.”

The athlete smiled in his own turn, a vainglorious smile though sheepish as well. “Far be it from me to call Your Olympian Immortality mistaken. As all others in the pantheon, Augustus is superhumanly farsighted.”

Marcus pondered the jewel a moment with an abstracted look, held it close to the blazing head of a Praetorian-held torch and scrutinized it from various angles.

“No,” he said at last, “I cannot allow you to part with this on a single toss of the bones. It is far too precious. I once gave my beloved late empress a brooch set with a stone very similar to this, remarkably similar. It is a wonder that two so alike in size, quality and brilliance, even in cut, could exist in the same city.”

“But Rome is the center of the world, Divinity,” the other said, eyeing him with a strange expression, cringing and assertive at the same time. “All the treasures of the earth flow to this spot.”

“True,” the emperor conceded, refocusing on his interlocutor, “But you must allow me to reimburse you for your loss. I would not feel comfortable keeping an ornament like this without paying for it.”

“As Augustus wishes,” the other said. His eyes gleamed in the torch light.

“Call at the palace the day after tomorrow. One and a half talents in gold will be awaiting you.”

“Divine Augustus is most generous.”

The emperor turned to his secretary. “Take a memo, Aemilius, this emerald is to be interred in the tomb of the empress. I gave her something identical on our wedding day and years later she misplaced it and was inconsolable. Her shade will be grateful for its return.” He gave the Thracian an enigmatic half smile. “I mean for its replacement by this twin.”

The fellow seemed to shrink in size. His coarse features worked spasmodically. Before anyone could stop him, he flung himself to the ground and groveled before the emperor.

“Mercy, my lord! Have mercy on a poor, innocent outlander. I never touched her, I swear I never touched her. Do not toy with me so cruelly.”

Marcus looked around the assembled company, an expression of mystification and disgust on his face.

“What is this addled creature gibbering about?” he asked. One pair of eyes, then another, finally all, refused to meet his as he surveyed the room. Finally, a bandy-legged Briton with long red hair and a patch over one eye stepped forward, trembling visibly.

“If Your Divinity will permit,” he quavered, “My stable-mate sometimes has these spells in the presence of the high-born. As a young lad, he was once brought to trial for taking liberties with the daughter of a shaman. Though he managed to escape from confinement and fled the country, the fear of punishment has never left him, and the gods cause him to relive the moment at odd intervals.”

“Strange,” Marcus mused, “Passing strange indeed! When he appears at the palace to collect his payment for the emerald, let him seek out the court physician with whom I will leave word. Perhaps there is a treatment for his malady. And now, my friends, good night. Dorminder, I wish you a swift recovery from this fit.”

With the regal dignity that was second nature, Hadrian’s grandson led the way from the heart of the temple, then slowed his pace to let the rest of the entourage catch up and pass him. As Milo of Thessaly drew abreast, he reached out and caught a fold of the old man’s himation.

“A moment, colleague,” he whispered to ensure that no eavesdropper could overhear.

“Caesar wishes a word in private?”

“I have no choice. Your eyes revealed the realization of my secret.”

“Caesar speaks in riddles.”

“I think not. The emerald spoke to you as plainly as it did to me.”

“A follower of Zeno and Epictetus will pay no heed to its voice, my lord. They who belong to the stoa may never allow themselves to be overawed by the trash of the world.”

“It is not the stone itself that bothers me, Milo, but its provenance.”

“That too is trash, Caesar!”

A terrible groan escaped the emperor. “You know as well as I do where that gem came from. That lout who wore it in his ear like a trophy as good as confirmed his illicit connection with my Faustina. I ignored his virtual confession to avoid the shame of public disclosure, just as for years I turned a deaf ear to the stories that reached me about her self-indulgences while I was on the other side of the world fighting rebellious wild men. I had my philosophy to comfort me, that nothing external to my own soul could injure me or raise me up.”

“That is what we Stoics believe, my dear Marcus. As long as your heart is pure, the misdeeds of others cannot harm you.”

His imperial friend burst into tears and covered his face with his hands until the fit of weeping had passed.

“I mourn for myself as much as for the infidelities of the late empress, Milo,” he confessed. “She only debauched herself with charioteers and other sweepings of the gutters, whilst I masquerade as the noblest of mortals, a philosopher. I am no Stoic, Milo. I am an impostor. If I had the courage, I would mount to the highest point of my own column and test my wings like that wretched Vestal.”

“Yes, Caesar,” the other consoled him, “It is hard, very hard, to cast out the corruption of those closest to us. Your wife let down roots into your heart. The work of eradication will take the rest of your life.”

“Well, we shall see,” said the philosopher-emperor. “I have no trouble scorning the glories of the earth, but disasters like the discovery of a soul-mate’s betrayal may be endurable only by the gods whose hearts are of marble. The common folk from the marches of the empire call me divinity, but that is imposture as well. I have feelings like any other man and suffering is our lot. Anyone who denies the sharpness of destiny’s lance is either a fool or a liar.”

He put an arm around the old philosopher’s shoulder to support his own drooping frame, dried his eyes with a fold of his toga, and together they shuffled off in the wake of the soldiers and bureaucrats.

“Try not to forget, Caesar,”Milo reminded him, “That the Spartan boy never murmured when the fox gnawed at his vitals. If you cannot numb yourself to the pain, at least bear it with honor.”


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