Authors: Steven Saylor
“Agathon,” I said. “I shall call myself Agathon, like the playwright of old Athens who wrote âThe Flower.'”
Berynus glimpsed the scroll at my bedside and clapped his long, narrow hands. “An excellent choice! The name is neither too common nor too uncommon nowadays in Alexandriaâwe've all met an Agathon or two. And the name in Greek means âgood fellow,' which you certainly are.”
“And as I recall,” said Kettel, nibbling at a date, “âThe Flower' was especially praised by Aristotle for giving pleasure, despite the fact that everything and everybody in the drama is completely made upâinvented wholly from the author's imagination. As shall be this identity under which you'll be traveling, Gordianusâor rather, Agathon.”
drama, our Agathon is going in search of Antipater,” said Berynus. “A playwright seeks a poetâthere you have a mnemonic device that makes it easy to remember.”
I nodded, and did not explain that I should hardly forget the connection, since Antipater himself had drilled me in reciting Agathon.
“You'll be needing travel documents, too,” noted Berynus.
“Yes, I was just thinking about that.” I had traveled widely with Antipater, but always as myself, Gordianus, citizen of Rome, and never using a false name. “Everyone entering Ephesus by ship is questioned, perhaps more closely now than ever. My old documentsâthe ones I've carried ever since I left Romeâwon't do. But I've crossed paths with a forger or two since I came to Egypt. I suppose, for a reasonable sumâ¦”
“Nonsense!” said Kettel. “You needn't hire a forger to produce suitable documents for this so-called Agathon of Alexandria. We can take care of that for you. Can't we, Berynus?”
The thin eunuch squeezed his lips together to make a sour expression of displeasure, or so I thought at first; then I realized that his wizened features had compressed into a sly smile. The face of Berynus was not as easy to read as that of Kettel. Behind his tightly shut lips he was silently laughing.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “One does not spend a lifetime in the service of the royal palace without learning how to cut a corner here and there, or grant a special favor to a friendâor forge an official document, so expertly that not even the king himself could detect the counterfeit. Kettel and I can whip up documents for you that will fool the port authorities at Ephesus, never fear.”
“For such a favor, I would be very grateful,” I said. “How long does the journey take, if a ship sails directly from Alexandria to Ephesus?”
“Five days, more or less, depending on the weather and the winds,” said Berynus.
“How easy will it be for me to book passage on such a ship?”
“I don't think you should have any trouble. With the new king on the throne, and the new king's soldiers manning the docks and operating the Pharos Lighthouse, the shipping traffic in Alexandria appears to be back to its normal summer pace.”
“Yes, but for how long?” said Kettel. “The civil war here in Egypt may not be over. Shipping could be disrupted at any moment by some unforeseen event. If you must go, Gordianus, it will be best to book passage right away.”
I nodded, then frowned. “But when I arrive, along with examining my documents, the gatekeepers are sure to ask about the purpose of my visit. What pretext could a mute from Alexandria have for visiting Ephesus?”
“Why, to be cured of his muteness, of course!” said Kettel. “Perhaps you weren't born mute. The affliction came upon you suddenly, as the result of some illness or because you offended some god. You've consulted every physician in Egypt, to no avail, and visited all the temples, seeking the help of any god or goddess willing to listenâ”
“But again, to no avail.” I nodded, seeing where this tale was leading. “And some omen or oracle here in Egypt has directed me to go to Ephesus in search of a cure. Only the Artemis worshipped in Ephesus can grant me the favor I seek.”
Berynus clapped his thin hands. “A splendid excuse, and completely credible! Why do so many pilgrims visit Ephesus, except to seek the blessing of the goddess Artemis in the great temple revered as one of the Seven Wonders? That shall be your reason, Gordianus. Oh, what a clever pair of liars are living in my house!” He clucked his tongue and cast sidelong glances at Kettel and at me. His pursed lips expressed mock-disapproval, but his eyes glimmered with affection.
“And what if some sympathetic Ephesian snatches me up and takes me straight to the temple, and the priests make a great fuss, and a crowd gathers, and there in front of everyone the goddess âcures' me? As soon as I open my mouthâ¦”
“Artemis will have lifted your afflictionâbut given you a Roman accent!” Kettel laughed heartily, causing various parts of his body to jiggle. “The jests of the gods can be strange indeed!”
“I suppose I'll deal with the problem of being âcured' when and if it should happen,” I said. “Very well, I now have a name, Agathon, and a city of origin, Alexandria. I have an excuse not to speakâthe affliction of muteness. And I have a reason for visiting Ephesusâto worship at the Temple of Artemis, seeking to regain the power of speech. And I have someone to speak for meâmy faithful slave and traveling companion, Bethesda.”
She and I looked at each other and smiled. The eunuchs nodded.
Just how wildly impracticalâand dangerousâsuch a scheme would turn out to be I could not then have imagined. It was the sort of harebrained idea that could only have been concocted by a young wanderer with delusions of invincibility and two sexless courtiers who knew a great deal about palace intrigue but very little about the challenges of traveling from one city to another in a time of chaos and confusion. But, having come up with a plan, I was determined to return to Ephesus.
[From the secret diary of Antipater of Sidon:]
This morning, in a cold sweat, I woke from a nightmareâ
nightmare, I should say, for I have been afflicted by this nocturnal terror almost every night since I witnessed the horrible end of Manius Aquillius.
I suppose I should finally write down what I saw that day. Perhaps, by recounting the incident, I can rid myself of this curse of revisiting it over and over in my dreams.
Some say it was Manius Aquillius who started the war. Others say it was Mithridates. Historians will no doubt argue the question for centuries to come. I am no historian, but rather a poet, so I will say that it must have been the meddlesome gods who started this war, looking down on us foolish mortals just as they looked down so long ago on the doomed heroes of Greece and Troy. But the men of this age are lesser men than their ancestors, even as the wars they make are bloodier and more far-flung than Achilles or Hector could ever have imagined.
It hardly matters who started the war. The conflict was inevitable. For years the Romans pushed their empire eastward, subduing one region after another, suborning this or that petty king with gold, taking other cities by armed force. Meanwhile, Mithridates ascended to the throne of Pontus, and he, too, began to increase his kingdom by seizing smaller, weaker kingdoms around him.
Rome and their puppet kings came to rule much of Asia, while Mithridates and his puppets ruled the rest. On the seas, Roman galleys patrolled the Aegean and its countless islands, while the ships of Mithridates dominated the vast Euxine Sea. Like crowded men knocking shoulders, one side had to give way, or else the two must come to blows.
The hostilities began with a puppet war. The Roman general Manius Aquillius pressured a Roman ally, King Nicomedes of Bithynia, to make war on some neighboring port cities ruled by Mithridates. Nicomedes was so deeply in debt to Rome that he could hardly refuse; when he expressed his fear that Mithridates might retaliate, Manius Aquillius assured him that Roman arms would protect Bithynia.
What was Manius Aquillius thinking? Did he imagine that Mithridates would be so intimidated by the prospect of war with Rome that the king would allow his cities to be raped without responding, and become yet another Roman puppet? Or was Aquillius so shortsighted and so greedy for the spoils from those raids that he prodded Nicomedes on with no thought for the consequences? Orâand this is what I thinkâdid Aquillius deliberately hope to provoke a war with Mithridates, in the expectation that Roman arms could subdue Pontus in short order so that he, Manius Aquillius, could return to Rome to celebrate a triumph as conqueror of a new province, riding in a golden chariot to the accolades of the Roman mob while the vanquished Mithridates trudged behind him in chains?
If such was the plan of Aquillius, he was in for a rude surprise.
After Nicomedes attacked the coastal cities, Mithridates struck back, decisively and with far greater force than Aquillius expected. The theater of the war rapidly expanded. In battle after battle, the Romans and their allies were routed. While the panicked Roman generals fled, Mithridates advanced from city to city, at each stop gaining more wealth and prestige, and adding fighting men as well, as thousands of Greek-speaking soldiers deserted the Roman armies.
In the liberated cities, Roman bankers and merchants who once had ruled the roost were stripped of their property and thrown out of their elegant houses. Some of the most hated Romans were hunted down and killed by angry mobs. Other Romans went into hiding, or cowered inside their barricaded homes. Those natives who had been Roman sympathizers were also exposed to the wrath of the Rome-haters. Some followed the retreating Roman armies into exile. Some committed suicide in the hope that their families would be spared from retribution.
Those were joyous days for the Greek-speakers of the world. At last, someone was standing up to the Romansâand not just standing up to them, but pushing them back and putting them in their place. The name of Mithridates, long spoken in whispers, was now shouted in acclamation. Our savior had come at last, and he was unstoppable. Roman rule in Asia had abruptly come to an end.
Having lost his kingdom, the Roman puppet Nicomedes fled by ship to Rome. Gaius Cassius, governor of the Roman province of Asia, abandoned his capitol at Pergamon and made a headlong rush for the island of Rhodes, which remains allied with Rome. One of the Roman generals, Quintus Oppius, took refuge in the city of Laodicea, but the Laodiceans promptly expelled his ragged, half-starved army and handed Oppius over to Mithridates.
But what of Manius Aquillius, who started all this trouble by prodding Nicomedes into a puppet war?
Even before this man appeared on the scene, the name Aquillius was hated by the Greeks. In the previous generation the father of Aquillius was a provincial governor notorious for the harshness of his rule, and in particular for his suppression of the so-called “Citizens of the Sun,” a group of Greek rebels who went so far as to preach the abolition of slavery. Tired of besieging their strongholds, the elder Aquillius poisoned their water supplies, causing the deaths of an untold number of women and children along with the men on the barricades. After stamping out all resistance, the elder Aquillius ruthlessly taxed his subjects. Roman bankers defrauded the natives and confiscated family estates. Roman soldiers raped virgin daughters. When the natives sued for redress, the elder Aquillius ordered them to be fined and beaten and thrown into the street. Romans such as this sowed the seeds of further resistance, and drove a man like myself to become a spy.
To be sure, on his return to Rome, the elder Aquillius was accused of maladministration by a fellow Roman senator. Aquillius was even made to stand trial, but he avoided conviction by bribing the judges. So much for Roman justice.
When Manius Aquillius, the son of Aquillius, was posted to command a Roman army, his very appearance on the scene seemed a provocation, a deliberate snub by the Roman Senate against those who had suffered for so many years under Roman rule. Even before Aquillius began his manipulation of Nicomedes and set in train the machinations that would lead to his own destruction, the Greek-speakers of Asia were ready to hate him.
Defeated by Mithridates, Manius Aquillius fled for his life. With a small company of soldiers he reached the coast and commandeered a boat to take him to the island of Lesbos, which was still loyal to Romeâor so Aquillius thought. No sooner had Aquillius taken refuge in the home of a local physician than an angry mob appeared. They broke down the doors of the house, seized Aquillius, and put him in chains. He was thrown in a boat, rowed back to the mainland, and handed over to Mithridates's men.
The soldiers treated him roughly, but not so roughly that he might die, for they knew their master wanted Aquillius alive. This I did not witness, but according to hearsay the various parts of his military garb, including his cape and his greaves and breastplate and other armor, were stripped from his body and claimed by the more aggressive soldiers as souvenirs. Then the soldiers slapped Aquillius about. With his hands chained behind him, Aquillius was helpless to resist. Repeatedly his captors knocked him down, then kicked him, then forced him to stand and be slapped about again. Ripped to shreds, his undergarments hung in tatters from his chained hands and feet. While Aquillius crawled in the dirt, the soldiers stood in a circle and altogether they urinated on him, making a game of it. Some even defecated on him.
Naked and covered with filth, Aquillius was put on a donkey. His fetters were refastened around the neck and belly of the beast so that he could not dismount. Switches were used to drive the donkey forward. As often as not, the whips struck Aquillius instead of the donkey.
The donkey and its rider were driven from town to town. At each stop, crowds gathered, curious to know what sort of criminal had earned such a humiliating punishment. “Say your name!” his captors would shout at Aquillius. “Tell the people who you are, and what you did to deserve this!” I imagine, for a while, Aquillius managed to maintain a stoic silence, as one might expect of a Roman general, but soon enough, with prompting from the switches, he shrieked his name whenever he was ordered to, and admitted his crimes.