Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast. – Auden
In the quaint Etruscan village of Lorium, between the great city and the sea, it had been the most perfect of March days; and March was surely the most precious of months for a Roman of Rome proper, a Latin, a man not inclined to stray further from the city than Tivoli, or the sea or the hills within a half-day’s ride. Spring did not delay in Latium as it did in northern regions.
Of course, March was also the month of Mars, traditionally a month for stirring to the wars, but now there were no wars. As far as one could go across that empire bequeathed by Trajan and consolidated by Hadrian – which was far indeed – there was no war. None! The world had finally creaked to an equilibrium.
Amidst this perfection, Lorium’s most distinguished resident, Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius was old, and he was dying. For months, he had nibbled constantly on tiny scraps of bread to keep awake through meetings and ceremonies, till meetings and ceremonies became impossible. Still, if he could no longer perform his official and even private duties, he might count himself blessed to have such a deputy as young Marcus Aurelius. In him, Rome and the entire world were blessed. Was Marcus meant to be the consolidator of this Great Peace? Surely so much goodness and sagacity were sent into the world at such a moment for a reason.
Two nights before, the emperor had been unable to resist some mushy alpine cheese dribbled with thyme honey, and he had paid the price with vomiting and pain. Well, a philosopher was schooled for ageing and death, or what was philosophy for? Not for cheese. Antoninus had fasted again, and taken refuge in his books. The reward had been palpable. He no longer felt pain, and death was drawing over him gently, like a plush coverlet.
And now he had been granted this enchanted day – possibly his last – a day when the chill lifted, and a breeze from the sea came puffing in, whispering of summers to come, for others, if not for him. The God of War and of this month was stirring to the peace the god himself had forged: not just peace in Latium, but over the world. And at the centre of this vast Pax Romana, a fulcrum, one dying man, Emperor Antoninus Pius.
He had read the Greeks today, and also that marvellous passage out of Cicero which describes the Dream of Scipio. Those works spoke to the philosopher in him, spoke of the puniness of the visible and tangible, of the transcendence of virtue and virtue alone…
Yet how could this universal and unique peace be regarded as puny, even if viewed from the heavens by some god or transitory soul? The millions who did not suffer civil war, famine, barbarian incursions – and who did not read books of philosophy! – could be ungrateful, negligent, what you will; but they surely knew enough of suffering in their daily lives to value the Great Peace. Should not their emperor value it more? Could an emperor not go even further, and dream that the world might finally have achieved a lasting balance?
Those who believed no such peace can last might also have once believed that no such peace could ever be attained, even for a day. Upon the bloody fall of Nero and the bloody falls of the three emperors succeeding him within a year, not a man alive would have dreamed that, a century later, all such catastrophes would be forgotten. And even in stabler times, with a smaller empire, there had still been constant wars beyond Italy.
Did this profound settling, this final heave into universal stasis, have no value? Was the Great Peace, the first ever known by humans, meant merely to evaporate so that new Scipios might find their immortality through exercising virtue in new tribulations?
No, the emperor’s prime duty was not to philosophy but to a Rome of flesh and blood, a Rome of commerce, in all senses of the word. This he had learned from Faustina. Roman men were never supposed to be schooled by their wives, with the result that their wives schooled them very craftily. Faustina, without solemnity, had taken public benevolence to the point of teaching shop girls on the Aventine to read and calculate! “Rome needs better shops and fewer brothels…but let even the brothels have good accounting,” she once said, with agricultural frankness which was more truly Roman than the heroic female decorum extolled to Roman boys – by Greek schoolmasters !
If the Greeks were right about things, then how to explain Greece? Even Darius had known more of peace and the centripetal than Alexander and all who preceded him. The Etruscans knew more about all that than any Greeks. Etruscans…
The emperor looked from his bed to a slender-based vase which stood on a carved pedestal which was also very slender. Both pieces were Etruscan and had come from an ancient home in the area. It was the vase which was most interesting. With his secretaries and Marcus, the emperor had debated the origins of the curious piece. Some said it was an Egyptian production made to imitate the red Etruscan style which was in some ways an imitation of a Greek style; but the piece was so odd that they finally all agreed to call it Lorium Jest. Many Etruscan potters in the old days knew just enough of foreign fashions to ape them, but never so much as to abandon an eccentric local flavour. Whatever was the case, the vase charmed him. It said “Rome” not in the sense of the navel of the world, but in the sense of a few hills and fields of Latium. It was the Rome of country gentlemen who might take to soldiering or even governing – but then return eagerly to the plough and olive grove. It was the Rome you could never explain to a Greek.
Though the day grew late, outside the gardeners were still busy. The emperor thought of making his way to the open window to observe the copper light against the old Etruscan buildings: a favourite sight.
He found he was able to rise and stagger along to the window ledge. He went quietly, to avoid fuss from the Pretorians and physicians who were waiting within. Leaning forward, he breathed in the afternoon air, which still bore no perfumes of spring, but which carried the freshness of ocean and wood from the west.
The gardeners below saw him, uncovered their heads and bowed, but not with any urgency. Antoninus had easy relations with servants and staff, and he was happy that Marcus Aurelius and his brother had similar familiar ways with the common people. Roman leaders may be emperors and gods – that had proven to be unavoidable! – but they must never be kings. The emperor called down to the head gardener:
“Hi there, Nebo.”
“Ah, Nebo, I am no Caesar without a war. Will you find me one for a bit of silver?”
The other men laughed without quite understanding, but Nebo understood. Both he and his employer were thoroughly “country” and understood each other’s mind and humour.
“No, Caesar, only gold is current here. Besides, I can find no wars these days. The taverns of the Aurelian Way are as full of gossips and liars as ever – but none dare mention war for fear of being laughed at. Those who are yet to shave think war is a kind of fish.”
“And is it a good thing, this universal peace?”
“Caesar, most would say you have tended your garden well.”
“Not I, Nebo, not I. The gods!…Well, I must to my bed again…”
“Good health to you, Caesar.”
As he made his way back to bed – for a final time? – he almost stumbled against the old vase on its tippy stand. The thought of breaking it now, after all these years, made him emit a weak laugh.
Back in bed, with sleep coming on, he decided to put his philosophers to one side of the bed and browse his poets. Roman poets.
First, in the Secular Hymn of Horace, those lines entreating Apollo:
May he, favouring our Palatine altars,
Extend Rome’s power and Latium’s fortunes
Into new ages…
Destiny. The emperor was not vainglorious nor without philosophy. Yet was there not something higher than philosophy, best called Destiny? Why should the gods promise so much, bring so much to fulfilment through Rome’s unique power, and then dissolve their work?
He now sought out those strange and ecstatic verses of Virgil which had bewildered scholars for over two centuries, but which now seemed charged with meaning to an emperor dying in the very centre of a global calm:
Now the last age of the Cumaean prophecy begins:
the great roll-call of the centuries is born anew:
now Virgin Justice returns, and Saturn’s reign:
now a new race descends from the heavens above.
Only favour the child who’s born, pure Lucina, under whom
the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race
rise up throughout the world: now your Apollo reigns….
The Emperor Antoninus slept.
He was passing through dark places, now caverns, now woods. All about were glimmers which moved, and behind or around the glimmers were figures. As his eyes grew accustomed, the figures showed as those of men: venerable, robed senators, young soldiers with gaping wounds, still with their shields, generals crowned with laurels or wrapped in purple. All were nodding, assenting, as Antoninus passed…
And an arch, rising from a field of dark flowers, which must be asphodels, which thrive in dusky light; and more figures, these ones reclining on the mist-wrapped fields, figures of heroes and orators, nodding, assenting; then, as Antoninus drew closer, he read the stupendous words glowing across the curve of the arch: ROMANE MEMENTO. Like every Roman schoolboy, he knew the preceding text, about letting other nations and cultures excel in what they will. And he knew the words which came after: Remember, Roman, you rule the nations with your sway – these will be your talents.
Antoninus understood. Phoebus Apollo, he understood!
“Caesar, Caesar…He’s breathing all right…Caesar?”
“Let him sleep longer.”
“He seems serene. Perhaps we might wait…”
The emperor opened his eyes.
Above him were the faces of Marcus Aurelius, his adopted son, and of the daughter of his body, Faustina, named after her mother. At Faustina’s shoulder, the twisted face of an infant, perhaps about to bawl.
“Father, we didn’t wish to wake you.”
“Oh, no. I wanted to see you so much…I see you have brought one of my grandsons.”
“We left Titus with the nurse, since you’ve already seen him. We thought both twins might be too much, and this little one is a handful on his own…”
“Ah, so good to see you both. I wanted to tell you of a marvellous thing, a dream, and yet not just a dream…”
At that moment the baby let out the most piercing scream. His mother moved away quickly, trying to hug the child to silence.
“Father, I’m so sorry…”
“No, Faustina, no…You are a true Roman woman, a daughter of the earth. All these stuck up matrons these days…won’t go near their own children…fiddling all day with needlework and trying to look decorous for the servants…don’t know the smell of earth or of a new babe…”
“I’ll take him over by the window. You men can talk your business.”
As Faustina entertained her child by the window, Marcus Aurelius bent over the emperor and the two clasped hands.
“Father, I need to tell you…”
“Oh, don’t bother with business. It will all be yours and your brother’s, maybe as soon as tomorrow. Why can’t you be like a true successor and smother me with a pillow? You are altogether too good, young Marcus Aurelius.”
“No, you will live and we will prosper through your continued life, but…if you are not too weary…I should tell you…”
“Oh, go on, Marcus. Is it money or grain? It always comes down to money or grain.”
“No, father, it’s Parthia. The Parthians have put themselves on a true war footing.”
“Well, go in and punish them a little. But be sparing.”
“Father, it is a very great army they have marshalled. And now, as if knowing we are likely to be distracted in the east, the Marcomanni and other German tribes are confederating for war.”
“And we have news from Britain that serious rebellions and incursions are afoot there. The one uprising feeds another. Now even climate seems against us. I need to tell you of the great floods which…”
At that moment, the infant let out the most terrible wail. It was hard to know if it was his mother’s garments or the sheer vibration which sent the old Etruscan vase sliding off its stand and on to the floor, where it shattered.
“Oh, father, I’m so sorry. He’s such a handful. Your favourite vase!”
“More a family joke, my dear. Your husband and I don’t like beastly gladiatorial games, but these odd Etruscan pieces have given us years of amusement – haven’t they, Marcus? Never mind. I’m pleased to have outlived the funny old thing. Just leave it be, Faustina, and bring my grandson over to me.”
Faustina walked to the bed and bent down so the baby, now calm from the shock, could receive his grandfather’s kiss.
“And this one is called…I should know…but age has made me forgetful.”
“He’s Commodus, after his uncle.”
“Commodus, eh? Let’s hope he is like his name: easy, accommodating.”
“Not so far, I’m afraid. More a type for the Games than for Etruscan pots.”
Just then, the boy’s face contorted and he let out a bawl even more alarming than the one which had caused the pot to break.
As Faustina hurried the baby to another part of the villa so the nurses could attend to it, Marcus asked:
“Father, you were going to tell of a dream…”
“Was I? Well, whatever it was, I have forgotten. And dreams are just dreams. Nature means us to forget them. I might sleep a little now, Marcus. Tell those within not to bother with cleaning up the vase. I need to be alone, to sleep…”
Some minutes later, Antoninus Pius was looking at the empty stand where the fragile vase had stood so long, defying every vibration and touch.
Then he slumped back into his pillow. As he did, the books to either side – the books of philosophy, the books of verse – slid to the floor.
The emperor, as he again lapsed into the realm of dream, muttered just two words:
And he said no more, ever.