Authors: Steven Saylor
Now we have arrived in Ephesus, where with great pomp and ceremony the king has appointed Monime's father, Philopoemen, royal overseer of the city. While the king is busy plotting his next military campaign, the little queen and her father wield absolute power over Ephesus. As long as I remain here, I knowÂ â¦
[This fragment ends in mid-sentence. A portion of the diary appears to be missing, after which the text resumes, again in mid-sentence.]
Â â¦ is in an even worse dilemma than myself, it would be the Romans who remain in Ephesus. Thousands already lived here, and thousands more fled to this city ahead of the king's arrival, hoping to escape by ship to the island of Rhodes, which remains loyal to the Romans. But even with their decks crammed to overflowing, there were not enough ships to carry so many refugees. Many Romansâthousands of themâremain in Ephesus. Some are longtime residents who go about their business as best they can, but many are homeless. They fill the temples to overflowing, seeking sanctuary and crying out for the protection of the gods.
So it is, not just in Ephesus but in all the cities up and down the coast. Where Roman magistrates and merchants once held sway, they now find themselves stripped of their power and at the mercy of Mithridates. How low our former masters have fallen! What shall become of them now?
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Eutropius, my host here in Ephesus, has just given me shocking news.
He says he has been approached by one of the king's agents, who swore him to secrecy upon pain of death. According to this agent, the king is determined to exterminate every remaining Roman under his controlânot just in Ephesus, but in all the liberated cities, and not in stages, but in a single, vast slaughter, occurring everywhere on the same day. Eutropius, as one of the leading citizens of Ephesus, is to be enlisted in this secret enterprise.
The magnitude of such a massacre is almost unimaginable. There must be tens of thousands of Romans remaining in the lands King Mithridates has liberated from Roman control. Eutropius estimates the number to be as high as eighty or even a hundred thousand! Is it even possible those eighty thousand unsuspecting human beings, living hundreds of miles apart, could all be slaughtered in a single day, upon the order of a single man?
I thank the gods that my erstwhile traveling companion, young Gordianus, is not here with meâany time he spoke a word of Greek, his atrocious Latin accent always gave him away as a Roman! His friendship with myself and with Eutropius would afford him no protection if this butchery takes place, for no Roman is to be spared. Men and women, the old and the youngâif the king has his way, all will be killed, without exception and without mercy. And all in a single day!
Ah, Gordianus, as much as I miss you, how glad I am that you are far from this place, safe in Alexandria where I left you, or perhaps even back in Rome with your father. Tonight I shall go to the Temple of Artemis and sacrifice to the goddess, with a prayer that you may remain far, far away from the catastrophe about to occur here in Ephesus.â¦
[Here ends this fragment from the secret diary of Antipater of Sidon.]
I, Gordianus of Rome, was living a few miles to the west of Alexandria that summer, in a house on the beach next to a small fishing village.
My hosts were the owners of the house, two eunuchs who had retired from the Egyptian royal court, Kettel and Berynus. When King Ptolemy lost control of Alexandria and the city became too wild and lawless even for a footloose young Roman like me, the eunuchs invited me to stay with them for a while, and I gladly accepted. I shared a room with my slave, Bethesda. The room was quite small, but the bed was just large enough for two.
From the rooftop terrace of the house, looking east over the sand dunes and up the coastline, we had a clear view of the skyline of Alexandria in the distance. Most prominent was the towering Pharos Lighthouse in the harbor; its fiery beacon was visible for many miles, both day and night. The Temple of Serapis, situated atop the city's highest hill in the quarter nearest to us, was also easy to make out. The rest was all a jumble of obelisks and rooftops surrounded by the high city wall.
“No smoke today,” noted Kettel, whose massive bulk threatened to overflow even his commodious dining couch. It seemed to me that he had gained even more weight since his retirement. His appetite was certainly as voracious as ever. When Bethesda mounted the stairs from the kitchen and approached carrying a steaming platter of grilled fish, he eagerly took a helping.
Berynus, who was as slender as Kettel was fat, looked toward the skyline and squinted. “There's been no smokeâand so presumably no riotersâsince the day King Ptolemy sailed off, even as his brother, our new king, marched into town with that huge army of his.” He turned up his nose at the fish and waved Bethesda on. “Are we to conclude that the chaos is ended and the civil war is really, truly over?”
“Hardly!” Kettel chomped and snorted. “The old king will still have some fight in him. Just because he's fled into exile doesn't mean he's given up the throne. If he can somehow raise an army, he'll be back. Unless, of course, he loses his head in the meantime.”
“Always a possibility,” said Berynus, nodding grimly.
“They say the city has calmed down considerably since the new king's arrival,” I said. “It may actually be safe to walk the streets again.” Bethesda stepped toward me and held forth the platter of fish, from which I took a modest portion. Her back was to my hosts, who could not see as she dared to lift a morsel to her own lips and nibble at it, giving me a sly smile as she did so. I sighed. What a poor excuse for a Roman I was, unable to control the only slave I possessed.
“I was thinking I might venture into the city tomorrow,” I said.
“Whatever for, Gordianus?” asked Kettel, smacking his lips. “Do you not have all that you need here? Good food, good company, long walks on the beach to pass the day, and the murmur of the surf to lull you to sleep at night.”
“If indeed our bearded young friend gets much sleep,” Berynus muttered under his breath, raising an eyebrow and casting a sidelong glance at Bethesda as she retreated down the steps to the kitchen to fetch more food and drink. Her black hair, glistening in the sunlight, was so long that it almost reached her hips, which swayed provocatively as she descended out of sight.
“The harbor seems to be rather busy again, since the old king fled,” I said. “With all those ships coming and going, I was thinking a letter might have arrived for me.”
“A letter?” With his fleshy forefinger Kettel poked at a bit of fish that threatened to escape from between his lips.
“Yes, perhaps there's a letterÂ â¦ from my father.”
“Ah, yes, your fatherâback in Rome.” Kettel licked his fingertips. “How long has it been since you last heard from him?”
“Months,” I said.
“Such a long time,” said Berynus.
“Yes.” I frowned. “Of course, it may be that he's written, but his letters were lost or went astray.” This was true. Travel by land and sea had been greatly disrupted in recent months, not just by the civil war in Egypt, but by events in Asia, where King Mithridates was said to be driving the Romans out of one province after another, and in Italy as well, where Rome's subject cities had rebelled against her. The whole world was at war. The days when one could exchange regular letters across great distancesâas I had done with my father after I first arrived in Alexandria three years agoânow seemed a distant memory.
So it was entirely possible that my father had written any number of letters to me in recent months, but for one reason or another none of them had reached me. But there was another possibility. It might be that no letters had come from my father because my father was no longer among the living.
The little news that had arrived from Italy was grim. For rebelling against Rome, entire cities have been massacred, and the Roman Senate itself had descended into a kind of civil war. Growing up in Rome, I had observed that my father was always careful to tread a middle path, allying himself with no particular family or faction. This independence allowed him to work for any man who sought out his services. But could even my father remain neutralâand safeâamid the chaos in Italy?
In reality, just how neutral was my father? And how loyal was he to Rome? He had seen trouble coming in Italyâthat was one of the reasons he sent me off with my old tutor Antipater on our journey to see the Seven Wonders, to get me far from Rome and away from the looming danger. I had been more naive than a young Roman of eighteen should be. I had thought our trip was merely for pleasure. Even Antipater's faked death and assumption of a false identityâZoticus of Zeugmaâhad not alerted my suspicion. I accepted at face value Antipater's explanation that he simply wanted a fresh start, a last chance for an old man to see the world through new eyes.
But there was much more to Antipater's deceit than that. As I learned only at the end of our journey, Antipater had been a spy for King Mithridates all alongâand thus an enemy of Rome. Our trip to the Wonders had been a grand reconnaissance mission for him, as he carried messages for the king's agents from Olympia to Babylon and to many cities between. No sooner did I discover Antipater's deception than he vanished from Alexandria, before I could get any sort of explanation from him.
What role had I played in his scheme? Had I simply been a traveling companion, sent along by my father to get me out of harm's way? And what role had my father played? He helped Antipater fake his death; had he done so knowing the old poet's true purpose? Could it be that my father was himself an agent of Mithridates?
Such a possibility was unthinkable. Or so I would have said once upon a time, when I was naive and untraveled and knew little about the ways of men. But now, in a world turned upside down by treachery and war, anything seemed possibleâeven that my father could be a traitor to Rome.
What if he was? Where, then, should my own loyalties lie? With Rome? With my father? With neither?
Before I could answer that question, I needed to discover the truth about my father, but that was not possible. “Are you a traitor to Rome, Father?” Such a dangerous question could never be posed in a letter, which might be read by anyone who opened it. Perhaps Antipater could have told me the truth, but I had no idea where the old poet went after he left Alexandria. I might have solved the problem by going back to Rome, to confront my father face-to-faceâprovided that he was still aliveâbut that journey I had put off time and again, either because of the danger, or the expense, or the impossibility of doing so as the seas were emptied of passenger ships by the threat of war from all sides.
But there was another reason that kept me from returning home, eclipsing all others: I simply had no taste for the journey. Was it any wonder that I preferred to dawdle in Egypt, basking in the warm sunshine of the rooftop terrace, feasting on fish and pomegranates and dates at the eunuchs' expense, taking long walks on the beach with Bethesda to find secluded places where we might lie together on a blanket between heat-shimmering dunes?
I had all a young man needed to be content. Yet, in my heart of hearts, what I wanted more than anything was to pay a visit to the banker in Alexandria who received correspondence for me and to find that a letter had arrived from Rome, a letter from my father telling me that he was alive and well.
“Well then, by all means, you must take a trip into the city to see if there are any letters for you,” said Berynus, as if he had read my thoughts. This apparent ability to read minds was a trait I had noticed in both of the eunuchs. No doubt it was one of the attributes that had kept them alive through treacherous times, and had made them such well-rewarded servants in the royal bureaucracy.
“And take the girl with you,” said Kettel, chewing with his mouth open, then swallowing the last of his fish with an audible gulp. “You'll want to do a bit of shopping, I imagineâif the shops are open againâand the slave can carry your purchases.”
I nodded, thinking that any money I spent would more likely be on Bethesda than on myself, and that she would probably wear any such purchase rather than carry it. As she re-emerged on the rooftop bearing a tray of fresh delicacies, I noticed, not for the first time, how even the smallest adornments to her beauty gave pleasure to my eyesâthe ivory pin in her lustrous black hair, the simple wooden bracelet on her wrist, and the copper brooch that decorated her green dress, a garment I had recently bought for her to celebrate my twenty-second birthday.
“Very well, then,” I said. “Tomorrow, first thing, I'll head into Alexandria, and take Bethesda with me.”
She raised her eyebrows at this information, then looked over her shoulder, toward the city, turning her body in such a way that the sinuous line running over one hip and up to her breast took my breath away. The eunuchs paid her no attention at all.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the end it was decided that I should drive a donkey cart into the city, since the eunuchs kept thinking of various provisions they wanted me to buy, provided that such were available, “and not too outrageously expensive!” as Berynus cautioned. The eunuchs had retired with considerable wealth, but wartime prices threatened to make beggars even of rich men. How wise it seemed in retrospect that they had retired to the fishing village. For food, one could practically pluck fish from the sea. For entertainment, the setting sun and the sound of waves lapping the shore provided a spectacle that cost nothing, and that never grew stale.
There was no way of knowing what we might encounter in the city, so it seemed a good idea to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible. I wore a faded tunic with a few tears that needed mending. Bethesda wore a modest, loose-fitting garment that did more to hide her beauty than to show it off.