John Maddox Roberts - [SPQR Roman Mysteries 8.5] - An Academic Question

An Academic Question
John Maddox Roberts

One of the best things about Athens is that it isn't Gaul. That year my family wanted me out of Rome. I, in turn, did not want to go back to Caesar's army in Gaul. For once the family concurred, not because Gaul was so dangerous and unpleasant but because nobody was winning any glory there except Caesar. If you believed the dispatches he sent back for publication he was conquering the place all by himself.

But to stand for higher office I needed more military time on my record. This is not to say that Gaul was the only area of Roman military operations that year. Cassius Longinus was fighting the Parthians in Syria, and Appius Claudius was, technically, still at war in Cilicia. But Syria was an ill-starred place since the defeat of Crassus at Carrhae and bad blood lay between my family and the Claudians.

Fortuitously, a minor outbreak of piracy occurred in the waters around Cyprus and I was offered an equally minor naval command to deal with it. Like any sensible Roman I detest sea duty, but, upon consideration of the alternatives, I took it.

The secret of handling such an assignment in those days was, simply: don't rush it. I had a whole year ahead of me to crush these nautical bandits so I determined to take my time getting to Cyprus, be leisurely in my naval operations, and get back to Rome just in time to stand for next year's praetorship.

So, when on the way to Cyprus my little flotilla put in at Piraeus, I was quick to take the opportunity to laze about for a few days and see the sights. I admired the fortifications of Piraeus, built more than four centuries before by Themistocles, and walked the impressive length of the Long Walls, which connected the port with Athens by a continuous stretch of fortification.

Accompanied by my slave, Hermes, I walked between the walls all the way to the city. I could have hired a horse or been carried in a litter but I needed to stretch my legs after the voyage and, in any case, such luxuries were still frowned upon by my class in those days. A public man of military age was expected to make a show of simplicity, especially among degenerate foreigners.

I presented myself at the house of the Roman prefect, one Publius Serrius, an agreeable drudge, and let him know that I was on no official business in Athens and would be truly happy not to be involved in any during my stay. Hermes stashed our meagre baggage in the room we were given, and I was off to see the sights.

It pains me to admit it, but Athens proved to be as beautiful as everyone said. It has been devastated and sacked a number of times but I saw no evidence of this. Admirers from the world over vie with one another to adorn Athens, and it is full of beautiful works of art and splendid architecture. The city is much smaller than you would expect so it is easy to see everything in a short time. Within two days I had seen the sights of the Acropolis, the Stoa and the Erechtheum and everything else. I had seen so many statues that my sleep was populated with them.

That evening at dinner I remarked to my host that I had run out of noteworthy things to see and asked if he had any suggestions, since I had to depart soon. He turned to the man reclining to his left. 'What do you suggest, Androcles?' This man was a philosopher, one of those tiresome people who spend their lives just thinking about things but never doing anything. He wore the requisite shabby robe and untrimmed beard and had clearly put in long hours practising at looking wise.

'Has the senator visited the Academy? It is just a short walk from the city by way of the Dipylum Gate.'

'The Academy?' I said. 'Isn't that where Socrates taught?'

He looked pained. 'Plato, sir. The Platonic school still meets there, as they have for more than three hundred years.'

Serrius must have caught my expression. 'It is one of the most beautiful groves in the world, Decius Caecilius. Besides exquisite plantings and landscaping it contains some wonderful sculptures.'

That was more like it. The last thing I wanted to do was listen to boring old philosophers jabbering at one another, but a fine garden is always a delight to any Roman's heart.

'I will be most happy to be your guide,' Androcles said. Philosophers always have their hands out for a tip.

'The Academy,' Androcles said, 'takes its name from Academus, a hero of the Trojan War. He first planted this grove, and willed it to his native city, Athens.'

We were strolling along outside the city, alongside the river Cephissus. It was more a creek than a river. Like Rome, Athens has spilled outside its old walls and we were not in open country, but rather in a sort of suburb called the Ceramicus, because many of the city's potters had their homes and workshops there. I had given Hermes the day off.

'That was one influential group of veterans,' I said. 'Every city I've ever visited was founded by a Trojan fleeing the sack of Troy or else by someone who fought there on the Greek side.'

'So it seems. The Trojan prince Aeneas founded Rome, according to legend.'

'That's how the story goes,' I said. 'There is ample room for scepticism, but it may soon be inadvisable to voice doubts.'

'Why should that be?'

'Because Julius Caesar himself claims descent from the goddess Venus by way of Aeneas. Casting doubts upon the ancestry of Caesar is a poor idea these days.'

'I shall keep that in mind. Ah, here we are.' We stood before a life-sized statue whose inscription identified it as Plato. This was not one of the wonderfully polished and refined sculptures of the city but a rather plain chunk of marble with a coarse finish. In keeping with philosophical simplicity, no doubt.

The statue stood by an equally simple gate in a stone wall perhaps eight feet high. We passed within and I gazed with some awe, which I took pains to conceal, on the most perfect outdoor setting of my long and varied experience.

The Academy was not at all what I had expected. In my mind I had pictured a garden about the size of a typical country villa's, with a circle of stone seats in the centre where students could listen to the harangues of a teacher and pretend that they weren't bored to death. Instead I discovered a varied grove as big as a good-sized farm, landscaped in low hills so that you could not see the whole thing, but every turn in the many paths revealed a view that made the breath catch in your throat. Light and shade were perfectly balanced, with trained vines arching upon arbors over many of the paths, trimmed so that you could always see through them and plenty of sunlight was available.

Classes took place mostly in little clearings where the students simply sat on the soft grass, though some energetic teachers walked about as they spoke, their students following. Many of these students gave every evidence of paying attention.

The sculptures were small, exquisite, and widely spaced 'so that they become objects of contemplation, rather than distraction,' Androcles explained.

We rounded a curve and came upon a gymnasium where fifty or sixty naked young men ran, wrestled, jumped, played ball or swam in a pool that looked like the jewel of a god dropped there and forgotten. I had not imagined that the Academy included physical pursuits but Androcles explained that Plato had insisted that it was useless to cultivate the mind if the body was not given equally rigorous training.

There is this to be said about the noble youth of Athens: they are
beautiful
. I had heard this phenomenon described by Cicero, but had never quite believed it. I looked them all over and could not perceive a flaw anywhere. Compared to them, a similar muster of young Romans of my own class on the Campus Martius was a festival of ugliness. I have never shared the Greek erotic fascination with boys, but in this place I could understand its appeal.

'What do you do in these parts?' I asked my guide. 'Drown the ugly ones at birth?'

'In Athens,' he said, 'we have devoted many centuries to cultivating excellence in all things.'

'Well, you've been successful in most areas,' I admitted. 'Too bad you couldn't add politics and military affairs to the lot.'

'Rome's excellence in these areas,' he said drily, 'makes up for many shortcomings.'

I deserved that. I should not have been so belittling. It just seemed unfair that any people should possess so much beauty in one small place.

My attention was drawn toward a patch of shade in a corner of the exercise yard. In an alcove formed by a half-circle of olive trees a truly spectacular youth sat playing the lyre, surrounded by admirers, most of them older men but a few about his own age.

He was fairer of hair than most Greeks, his features so perfectly cut that he could have made a living posing for sculptors as one of the better-looking gods. His physique was superb, but I could detect no scars, so the wonderfully proportioned muscles were all for show. He had never stood in the battle line and, Greek military activity being what it was by that time, was unlikely to.

Androcles caught the direction of my gaze. 'Ah, the incomparable Isaeus is here. You are lucky, Senator. He does not come here often.'

'Well, I wouldn't have made a special trip just to get a look at him but he is striking. Who are those men admiring him? Other than the usual gaggle of pederasts, I mean?'

'These are connoisseurs of art as well as of beauty. The tall man with the near-white beard is Rhoecus. He is a very rich man who sponsors plays at the great festivals. The burly man with the short brown beard is Agesander the sculptor. Some judge him to be the finest of this generation. His
Diomedes and Odysseus
, dedicated at Delphi by the Thebans, is wonderful to behold. The bald one is Neacles, famed teacher of the lyre. Isaeus is his student.'

'Teaches him for free, I'll bet. Who are the younger ones?' I cannot say why I was so curious, except that this scene, civilised as it was, was so far from anything you could expect to encounter in Rome.

'That superb one, only slightly less beautiful than Isaeus himself, is Melanthus, his rival in almost everything. They are close companions, despite the fact that Melanthus comes in second in everything.' This youth, perhaps a year or two older than Isaeus, had features as fine and a body as perfect, but his hair was dark and his complexion a commonplace olive. In truth he was no less handsome than his friend, just less striking.

'The younger boy is Amyntas, the son of Rhoecus, a very promising athlete who displays poetic talent as well.' This lad had curly brown hair and an agreeable, snub-nosed face. He displayed some dark down on his chin and upper lip, but was a year or so from his first shave.

'The rest, young and old, are simply admirers, people of taste but no reputation.' And every damned one of them, of whatever age or station, was mooning over that boy like Paris panting over Helen. Well, they were Greeks.

'Would you like to meet him?' Androcles asked.

'Decidedly,' I said, 'just so I can brag about it when I get back home.'

Isaeus paused in his song at our approach. His eyes widened to take in my plain woollen tunic with its senator's stripe, the military boots and belt that proclaimed my warlike status, and last of all my typically Roman face with its numerous scars and long, Metellan nose. To his credit, he did not recoil in horror.

'Isaeus, gentlemen,' Androcles proclaimed, 'allow me to introduce a distinguished visitor. This is the noble Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, lately Urban Aedile of Rome, now on his way to Cyprus to crush the pirates in the eastern sea.' One by one they were introduced, took my hand and murmured polite inanities.

We Romans are quite aware that nobody loves us. Greeks, in particular, have had to swallow a lot of pride in bending their necks to the Roman yoke. But the better educated among them, like those men present upon this occasion, knew perfectly well that they were hopelessly inept at managing their own affairs, and that the Roman hand rested very lightly on Greece. We put down their seditions gently, taxed them lightly, and spent great sums repairing and adorning their cities and shrines after we'd looted them in the first place. Only Corinth suffered greatly. We had to make an example of somebody. Nobody ever did as much damage to the Greeks as their fellow Greeks anyway.

So these men were probably not faking extravagantly in proclaiming their pleasure in meeting me.

'Senator,' Rhoecus said, 'you do us honour. Will you honour me further by taking dinner at my house tonight?'

'The honour will be mine,' I told him, having no graceful way out. I knew all too well the austerity of Greek dining habits. However, I might one day find myself governing Athens and it is always good to have the rich men on your side. It makes the job so much easier. Rhoecus extended his invitation to all those present and all accepted, although Isaeus seemed as reluctant as I.

I turned to the sculptor. 'Agesander, you are famed everywhere I go. On Rhodes I saw your superb
Aphrodite and Eros
, and in Syracuse I was taken to see your
Dionysus Dancing
before I was allowed to see anything else. It is the pride of the city.'

He inclined his head graciously. 'The Muses have guided my hands. But those were early works. I hope that the group I am now completing will surpass all my earlier efforts.'

'What might this project be?' I asked him.

'He's sculpting
Achilles and Patroclus
!' Amyntas cried. 'With Isaeus and Melanthus as his models!' This earned the boy some stern looks. Well-bred Greek boys are not supposed to intrude upon the conversations of their elders unless invited. Amyntas gazed upon Isaeus with adoration.

'A wonderful subject,' I commended. 'And I cannot imagine two finer models for the roles.' No harm in laying on a little flattery, I thought. 'Will this group be in marble as at Rhodes, or in bronze as at Syracuse?'

'I am portraying the heroes in marble,' he said, 'nude, of course, as is the convention in heroic sculpture, and only lightly tinted. The helmets and shields are being executed in bronze to my design and cast by Melanippus, who performs all my bronze casting. The armour of Achilles, of course, was the work of a god, and I hope I will be forgiven if the quality of my shield falls a trifle short of that divine standard.'

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