Prelude in Rome:
THE DEAD MAN WHO WASN’T
“Now that you’re dead, Antipater, what do you plan to do with yourself?”
My father laughed at his own joke. He knew perfectly well what Antipater was planning to do, but he couldn’t resist a paradoxical turn of phrase. Puzzles were my father’s passion—and solving them his profession. He called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.
Not surprisingly, old Antipater answered with a poem made up on the spot; for yes, the Antipater of whom I speak was the Antipater of Sidon—one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether. His poem was in Greek, of course:
“I died on my birthday, so I must leave Rome.
Now your son has his birthday—is it time to leave home?”
Antipater’s question, like my father’s, was merely rhetorical. For days the old poet and I had been making preparations to leave Rome together on this day. He gave me a smile. “It does seem unfair, my boy, that your birthday should be overshadowed by my funeral.”
I resisted the urge to correct him. Despite his lingering habit of addressing me as a boy, I was in fact a man, and had been so for exactly a year, since I put on my manly toga when I turned seventeen. “What better way to celebrate my birthday, Teacher, than to set out on a journey such as most people can only dream of?”
“Well put!” Antipater squeezed my shoulder. “It’s not every young man who can look forward to seeing with his own eyes the greatest monuments ever built by mankind, and in the company of mankind’s greatest poet.” Antipater had never been modest. Now that he was dead, I suppose he had no reason to be.
“And it’s not every man who has the privilege of gazing upon his own funeral stele,” my father said, indicating with a wave of his hand the object of which he spoke.
The three of us stood in the garden of my father’s house on the Esquiline Hill. The sky was cloudless and the air was warm for the month of Martius. In front of us—delivered only moments before from the sculptor’s workshop—stood a riddle in marble. It was a funeral stele for a man who was not dead. The rectangular tablet was elegantly carved and brightly painted, and only about a foot tall. Later it would be placed atop the sepulcher intended for the dead man’s ashes, but for now it was propped atop the crate in which it had been delivered.
Antipater nodded thoughtfully. “And not every man has the opportunity to design his own monument, as I have. You don’t think it’s too irreverent, do you, Finder? I mean, we don’t want anyone to look at this stele and realize it’s a hoax. If anyone should surmise that I’ve faked my own death—”
“Stop worrying, old friend. Everything is going as we planned. Five days ago I entered your death in the register at the Temple of Libitina. Thanks to the rich matrons who send a slave to check the lists several times a day, word of your demise spread across Rome in a matter of hours. People assumed that your old friend and patron Quintus Lutatius Catulus must be in possession of your remains and in charge of the funeral arrangements. There was disbelief when it was discovered that a citizen as humble as myself had been named executor in your will, and that your remains were to be displayed in the vestibule of my house. But so it was. I summoned the undertakers to wash and perfume the body, purchased flowers, cypress sprigs, incense, and a very elegant bier—your will provided for all necessary expenses—and then I put your corpse on display in the vestibule. And what a turnout you’ve received! All the poets and half the politicians in Rome have come to pay their respects.”
Antipater flashed a wry smile. “My demise has allowed you to make the acquaintance of the best people in Rome, Finder—just the sort who are always getting dragged into court for murdering each other. I daresay this could prove a windfall for you—meeting so many potential new clients!”
My father nodded. “Everyone has come to have a look, it seems—except Catulus. Do you imagine your patron is sulking, because the will didn’t name him as executor?”
“More likely he’s been holding off, waiting until today to pay his respects—the day of the funeral—so that his visit will be as conspicuous as possible. Catulus may have the soul of a poet, but he has the instincts of a politician—”
Antipater fell silent at the sound of a knock at the front door.
“Another caller. I shall disappear at once.” Antipater hurried to the concealed door that gave access to a narrow chamber next to the vestibule, where a tiny crack in the wall served as a peephole and allowed him to observe all that transpired.
A moment later, my father’s doorkeeper—the only slave he owned at that time—appeared in the garden.
“You have a visitor, Master,” Damon wheezed. The constant flood of callers was running the poor old fellow ragged. He cleared his throat and I saw him concentrate, determined to get the name right. “Lintus Quitatius Catulus, former consul of the Republic, has come to pay his respects to the deceased.”
“Quintus Lutatius Catulus, I think you mean,” said my father indulgently. “Come, son, let us greet the consul.”
The man in the vestibule was perhaps sixty years old. Like my father and me, he was dressed in a black toga, but his was embroidered with a purple band that marked his status as a senator. Ten years ago Catulus had served as consul and commander of the legions; it was his army that annihilated the Cimbri at the battle of the Raudine Plain. But Catulus was also a man of culture and learning, and was said to have a sensitive nature. He stood stiffly upright before the funeral bier with his hands crossed before him.
My father introduced himself, and me as well, but Catulus hardly seemed to notice. “Your distinguished presence graces my home, Consul, though I regret the sadness of the occasion. Did you come alone?”
Catulus raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. I left my retinue outside, so that I could spend a moment alone with my old friend—face-to-face, so to speak. But alas, his face is covered.” Catulus gestured to the mask, made of wax, which concealed the face of the corpse. “Is it true that his features were damaged by the fall?”
“I’m afraid so,” said my father. “The undertakers did what they could to make him presentable, but the damage was such that I decided it was preferable to conceal the injuries. Normally, a death mask is made from the direct impression of the face in repose. But in this case, I hired a sculptor to create the likeness. The mask will be used in the funeral procession, as usual, but until then I’ve placed it over his face. I think the sculptor did a very good job, don’t you? It really does look like Antipater, lying there with his eyes shut, as if he slept. Still, if you wish to gaze upon his face.…”
Catulus nodded grimly. “I’m a military man, Finder. I’ve seen the most terrible things that can be done to human flesh. Show me.”
My father stepped to the bier and lifted the death mask.
The staid consul’s abrupt, girlish shriek, stifled by a fist to his mouth, was so incongruous that I almost laughed out loud. Behind the wall, I heard a noise like loose plaster falling, and imagined Antipater shaking with mirth.
Catulus glanced at the wall. My father shrugged and looked embarrassed, as if to apologize for the presence of rats.
“But how could a mere fall have resulted in such terrible disfigurement?” Catulus kept his fist pressed to his mouth. He looked a bit green.
“It was a long fall,” explained my father, “from the top floor of an apartment in the Subura, five stories up. He landed on his head. As I say, the undertakers did what they could—”
“Yes, I understand. Replace the mask, please.”
“Of course, Consul.”
Not for the first time, I wondered about the true identity of the corpse upon the bier. My father had declined to tell me, following his long-standing practice of keeping to himself any aspect of his work that he deemed unnecessary for me to know. When I turned seventeen, I had thought my father might see fit to share all his secrets with me, but if anything, he had become more guarded than ever during the last year. I knew that something very dangerous must be afoot in Rome, for Antipater to fake his own death, and for my father to assist him in such a wild scheme, but regarding the details, I had been kept in the dark.
The elderly body on the bier was apparently an excellent match for Antipater; not one of the many visitors had expressed the least doubt. Of course, the only parts of the corpse that were visible were the long white hair and beard and the wrinkled, age-spotted hands crossed over the chest, the rest being covered by one of Antipater’s favorite garments and by the mask. The man truly had died from a fall in the Subura, just as my father described, cracking his skull and shattering his face. Had he been a slave, discreetly acquired from his owner? Or some lowlife criminal whom no one cared to claim? Or simply some ancient citizen of the Subura without family or friends to mourn him? Whoever he was, he had died at the right time and in such a manner that he could be passed off as Antipater. In a way, my father had done the poor fellow a favor; the dead man had been mourned by the best people in Rome and was about to receive funeral rites far above his station.
“How sad,” said Catulus, “that Antipater should have died on his birthday—the one day of the year that he allowed himself to get completely, blindingly drunk. ‘My annual birthday fever,’ he called it—as if such a malady actually existed!—and would have none of his friends around him, pretending to be confined to his bed all day by illness. I presume his drunkenness led to his death?”
“It appears that Antipater was indeed quite drunk,” said my father. “The body still exudes an odor of wine. If you put your nose to the flesh—”
“That will not be necessary,” snapped Catulus, who still looked a bit green. “Is it true that he was visiting a prostitute?”
“It seems likely. The room from which he fell is known to be used for such assignations.”
“At his age!” Catulus shook his head but smiled faintly. “But there was no indication of foul play?”
“None that I could find,” said my father.
“And finding foul things is your profession, I understand. Male or female?”
“I beg your pardon, Consul?”
“The prostitute Antipater was visiting—male or female?”
No one else had asked this particular question, and I could see that my father was having to make up an answer on the spot. Catulus, I recalled, was known to favor young men, and had even composed poems in Greek to flatter his lovers—something rather daring for a Roman aristocrat of the older generation.
My father pursed his lips. “Antipater’s companion apparently fled after the fatal accident, leaving nothing behind, but I believe a patron in the tavern downstairs saw a handsome young man in Antipater’s company earlier that evening.” My father could lie shamelessly, a skill he was never able to satisfactorily pass on to me. Inside the wall, I heard more plaster falling. Did Antipater shake with laughter, or had he kicked the wall in indignation?
“Ah!” Catulus nodded knowingly. “Antipater was discreet about his love life—so quiet about such matters, in fact, that I presumed the old fellow was past all that, freed from the chains of Eros like boy-crazy Sophocles in his dotage. But I always suspected he had it in him to appreciate a beautiful youth. How else could he have composed that lovely epitaph for Anacreon?”
The consul put a hand over his heart and declaimed:
“Here lies Anacreon—poet, singer, player of the lyre.
Hear now his song about love’s unquenchable fire—
The mad, unfettered love of Anacreon for Bathyllus the dancer,
To whom he posed this question, desperately seeking an answer.…”
Catulus sighed and wiped a tear from his eye. Up to this point, he had scarcely acknowledged my presence, but now his gaze fell on me. “So this boy is your namesake, eh, Finder? The young Gordianus.”
“Yes. But as you can see by his manly toga, my son is no longer a boy. Today is his eighteenth birthday, in fact.”
“Is it, indeed?” Catulus raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Well, I must counsel you not to follow Antipater’s example when it comes to celebrating your birthday, but in all other things you would do well to emulate him. You were his pupil, were you not?”
“I was proud to call him Teacher,” I said.
“So you should be. He was very selective about whom he would take on as a pupil. He must have seen something very special in you, young man,” said Catulus.
I shrugged, a bit unnerved by the consul’s steady gaze. In fact, it was a bit presumptuous of me to present myself as a pupil of the great Antipater of Sidon; my father could never have afforded to hire such a distinguished poet to be my tutor. Our relationship as teacher and student had always been informal; nonetheless, on his regular visits to my father’s house over the years, Antipater never left without drilling into my head a few lines of Greek poetry, or the names of Alexander’s generals, or some other bit of knowledge. From my father I had learned to pick any lock, ten ways to tell if a woman is lying, and how to follow someone without being seen; but whatever I knew of literature, history, mathematics, and especially the language of the Greeks, Antipater had taught me.
“Perhaps you’d like to see the funeral stele?” offered my father.
“It’s already been carved?” said Catulus.
“It was delivered not an hour ago. Since Antipater was so very proud of his Greek heritage, I thought it would be appropriate to follow Greek customs. According to the ancient rule set down by Solon of Athens, no monument should be so extravagant that it cannot be carved by a workshop of ten men in three days. The marble tablet was delivered this morning; the paint is barely dry. Follow me, Consul.”
My father led the way to the sunlit garden. I heard a faint rustle from the wall where Antipater was hiding; he would have to stay there, unable to observe whatever transpired in the garden.
“As you can see, Consul, the monument is in the style so fashionable nowadays among the learned Greeks. The tablet is of modest size, meant to be set atop the plain stone sepulcher that will receive his ashes. The design is what in Latin we call a rebus; the images tell a story, but only to those who can decipher their meaning.”
“Ah, yes,” said Catulus, “Antipater himself wrote a number of poems about such tombstones. How appropriate that his own should be rendered in this cryptic style. Let me see if I can puzzle it out.”
An elaborately decorated pediment with columns on either side—this part of the tablet was readymade—served as a frame for the images that had been carved in shallow relief to memorialize Antipater. Catulus furrowed his brow as he studied the picture-puzzle.
“A rooster!” he exclaimed. “Why a rooster? To be sure, the cock is finely rendered. The eyes are quite fierce, the beak is opened wide to crow, and the outspread wings are painted a vivid shade of red. Now, what are these items he clutches in his talons? A scepter in one claw—a symbol of royalty—and in the other, a palm branch, a token of victory such as might be awarded to an athlete.” Catulus hummed thoughtfully. “And what’s this, balanced on the very edge of the base, as if it might fall off? A knucklebone of the sort our ancestors used for dice. When such a die is thrown, one of four sides comes up. I’m not a gaming man, but even I know that this particular throw is a loser. What do the Greeks call it? Ah yes, the Chian throw, named for the island of Chios.”
Catulus stepped back and assumed a pensive posture, with his right hand to his mouth and his left hand clasping his right elbow.
“A scepter—yet Antipater was not of royal blood. A palm branch—yet Antipater was never famed for athletic prowess, even as a youth. Why a cock? And why a losing throw of the die?”
He pondered a while longer, then smiled. “The palm is a victory token, yes, but it’s also a symbol of the city of Tyre—and despite the fact that Antipater claimed Sidon as his native city, he was actually born in Tyre, a few miles down the Syrian coast. Antipater revealed that fact to very few people; I see that you were among them, Finder. How clever of you to include this detail, since only those closest to Antipater will be able to figure it out.”
My father gave an unassuming shrug—or did the opposite, I suppose, since by this gesture he accepted credit for the design that had been created by Antipater.
“The crowing cock—that suggests a man who made himself heard far and wide, as did Antipater with his verses. And as the king of poets, the scepter is rightfully his. But the knucklebone, and the Chian throw…”
Catulus puzzled a while longer, then clapped his hands. “By Hercules, that’s the cleverest stroke of all! You’ve managed to symbolize not just the beginning of Antipater’s life—his birth in Tyre—but also his end, and the exact manner of his death. ‘Chian’ is a bad way for the die to fall, but the island of Chios is also famous for fine wine. By drinking too much wine, Antipater took a terrible tumble—befallen by a veritable Chian throw. You’ve created a pun in stone, Finder. It’s not merely clever; it’s downright brilliant!”
My father actually blushed, and lowered his eyes, as if he were too modest to accept such a compliment.
Catulus drew himself stiffly upright and gathered the folds of his toga. “Finder, I owe you an apology. When I heard that the affairs of my dear friend Antipater had been entrusted to—well, to a person not of our circle—I thought that Antipater must have lost his wits prior to making his will. But I now see how very close the two of you must have been, and the special attention he gave to your son, and most of all, your extreme cleverness, which only a man of Antipater’s intellect could fully appreciate. You’ve done the old fellow proud with this tombstone. I couldn’t have created a better one myself.”
And with that, the consul burst into tears and cried like a woman.
* * *
“Antipater, this is madness!” My father shook his head. “You can’t change our plans at the last moment. You cannot take part in your own funeral!”
After composing himself, the consul Catulus had rejoined his retinue in the street outside our house, where the funeral procession had begun to gather. I could hear the musicians warming up, playing shrill notes on their pipes and rattling their tambourines. The professional mourners were loosening their throats, making loud, ululating sobs. In a matter of moments, bearers would arrive to carry the bier out of our vestibule and into the street, and the procession would begin.
Antipater studied his reflection in a polished silver mirror, stroking his newly shaven chin. For as long as I had known him, he had worn a long white beard. But for his exit from Rome, he had allowed Damon to cut his beard and shave his cheeks. It was not exactly a disguise, but he did look quite different, and considerably younger.
The plan was this: once the funeral procession disappeared down the street, Antipater and I would slip out the front door; there could be no better time to leave unobserved, since anyone likely to recognize Antipater would be attending his funeral. We would steal across the city to the docks along the Tiber and board a boat headed downriver to Ostia. Such boats departed throughout the day and even during the night, so we would have no problem finding one.
But now, at the very last moment, just as we should have been making ready to set out, Antipater had proposed a change of plan. Yes, he and I would leave for Ostia, and then for Ephesus—but not until after the funeral. He wanted to see the cremation and hear the speeches, and he had thought of a way to do it.
“When the archmime arrives, Finder, you’ll tell him you don’t need his services after all and send him home. And I shall take his place!”
It was the duty of the archmime—a trained professional—to walk in front of the bier, wearing the death mask of the deceased. Some archmimes made quite an art of their impersonation, duplicating the exact gait and gestures of the dead man, performing mute, impromptu skits to remind anyone who knew the deceased of some familiar behavior.
“But I hired the best archmime in Rome,” my father complained, “just as your will instructed. He’s the most expensive player in the whole procession.”
“Never mind,” said Antipater. “Who better to play me, than me? I’m already suitably dressed; you wanted me to wear black today, so that if anyone should glimpse me I’d not look out of place. And young Gordianus is still wearing his black toga. He, too, will be able to take part in the funeral.” Antipater raised the wax mask, which was affixed to a pole, and held it before his face.
“Madness!” My father declared again, and then fell silent, for the consul Catulus, coming from the direction of the vestibule, suddenly joined us in the garden.
“Finder, it’s time to begin,” said Catulus, with the tone of a man used to taking charge. “The bearers have arrived—I took the liberty of escorting them into the vestibule. And look, here’s the archmime!” He stared at Antipater. “How did you enter the house, and I failed to see you?”
Hiding his face behind the mask, Antipater performed an elaborate shrug and gracefully extended one arm, making a flourish with his fingers.
Catulus frowned. “That’s nothing at all like Antipater! But the mask is a good likeness, so I suppose he’ll do. Finder, shall we begin?”
My father sighed and followed Catulus to the vestibule, where the bearers had gathered around the bier. In lieu of the death mask, a sprig of cypress had been laid over the ruined face of the deceased. I gave a start when I saw the archmime, a redhead with a weak jaw, standing in the front doorway; apparently he had just arrived. I tugged at my father’s toga and pointed. He quickly moved to whisk the actor back into the street. Catulus was never aware of his presence.
The bearers lifted the bier. Antipater, keeping his mask raised, strode before them as they carried the body over the threshold and into the street. At the sight of the deceased, the hired mourners broke into a lament.
I looked up the street, and was startled by the size of the crowd that had gathered for Antipater’s funeral. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; he was one of the most famous poets in the world, after all.
The musicians commenced a plaintive dirge. The procession slowly wended its way up the narrow streets of the Esquiline Hill until we passed through a gate in the city wall and arrived in the necropolis, the city of the dead. The bier was placed upon a pile of wood. Many speeches were made, extolling the virtues of the dead man, including a memorable one by Catulus. Antipater’s poems were recited at great length. Then, at last, the bonfire was lit.
The remains were reduced to ashes, and the ashes were gathered in an urn. The urn was placed in a simple stone tomb, and atop the tomb was placed the marble tablet with its image of a cock clutching a palm branch and a scepter, with a knucklebone precariously balanced at the edge of the base.
Throughout the proceedings, watching all, and watched by all, the archmime wore the death mask and performed an uncanny imitation of the way that Antipater had been known to walk or stand or tilt his head just so.
As the old Etruscan adage goes, every man attends his own funeral—but Antipater was the first man I knew to walk away from his.
* * *
“Did you hear what Catulus called me? ‘The greatest poet of his generation’!” Antipater grinned. “But he misquoted my epitaph for Homer. ‘Herald of heroes, spokesman of gods, glory of the Muses,’ he said, but what I actually wrote was ‘light of the Muses.’ Still, it was flattering to hear my own humble efforts compared to those of Homer—”
“I hardly heard a word,” said my father. “The whole time I was waiting for someone to realize your deception and expose the hoax. I’d have been ruined. No longer the Finder they’d call me, but the Fraudster!”
“But no one suspected a thing. It went off brilliantly! Though I must say it’s a bit unnerving to see yourself consumed by flames, then scooped up like so much dust and gravel and poured into an urn.” Antipater took a long sip of wine. Night had fallen, and we had returned to the house on the Esquiline to share a hastily gathered dinner of scraps from the pantry. There was not much food in the house; my father had expected us to be gone by now.
“To be candid, Antipater, this makes me doubt your judgment,” he said. “I’m having second thoughts about entrusting my son to your care on such a long journey. Who knows what mad risks you’re likely to take, if today is any example?”
“If it’s danger you fear, will the boy be any safer if he stays here with you? One of the reasons for him to accompany me was to get him out of Rome while—”
“I’m not a boy,” I felt obliged to point out. I would have done better to keep my mouth shut and listen to the rest of what Antipater had to say. How young I was, and how blissfully unaware of all that was going on in the world around me! I looked to my father to deal with all that; he was my shield against the winds of war and upheaval. The law might call me a man, but truly I was still what Antipater had just called me, a boy.
Why was Antipater leaving Rome, and in such a secretive way? I was vaguely aware that toleration for Greek intellectuals like Antipater was at a low ebb in the city. Some among the Roman elite, like Catulus, admired all things Greek—Greek art, Greek literature and learning, even Greek philosophies of how to live and love. But others remained suspicious of the Greeks, considering them nothing more than a conquered people whose inferior, foreign ways were likely to corrupt Roman youth. That Rome was the master of Greece, no one disputed; all Greek resistance had ended a generation before I was born when the Roman general Lucius Mummius annihilated the city of Corinth, a terrifying example that cowed all the other Greek cities into submission. But as the wily Greeks had stolen into Troy by the ruse of a giant horse, so there were those in Rome who thought that Greek poets and teachers were a sort of Trojan horse, insidiously undermining the Roman way of life. Antipater had fervent supporters in the city, like Catulus, but he had enemies as well, and at the moment they were ascendant.
Other changes were afoot. The long-simmering discontent of Rome’s subjects in Italy—conquered territories whose people had been granted only a portion of our own rights and privileges—was rapidly coming to a boil. If open revolt broke out, there could be violence on a scale that had not been seen in the Italian peninsula in a very long time. More trouble was brewing abroad, where Rome’s imperial ambitions were about to collide with those of King Mithridates of Pontus, who fancied that he, not the Romans, should dominate the wealthy city-states, provinces, and petty kingdoms of the East.
All these concerns seemed very distant to me. I had only a nebulous sense that something dangerous loomed over Antipater and my father, and by extension myself. Any worries about this were relegated to the background of my mind. In the foreground was the immediate distress I felt at my father’s threat to keep me from going with Antipater.
“I’m not a boy,” I repeated. “I’m a man now. It should be my decision whether I go with Antipater or not.”
My father sighed. “I won’t stop you. I only feel a need to express my displeasure with the irresponsible way he behaved today. I hope it won’t happen again, in some circumstance that may cause you both to lose your heads!”
“Finder, you worry too much,” said Antipater. “Young Gordianus and I will be among friends in many of the cities we visit, and when we venture to new places, we shall make new friends.”
My father shook his head, then gave a shrug of resignation. “Have you finally settled on a name to use while traveling incognito?”
“I have,” said Antipater. “It came to me in a flash of inspiration while I was watching myself burn on the funeral pyre. Allow me to introduce myself.” He cleared his throat, gave a flourish, and bowed deeply, which cause his joints to creak. “I am Zoticus of Zeugma, the humble tutor and traveling companion of young Gordianus, citizen of Rome.”
My father laughed. I summoned up my spotty Greek, and caught the joke.
“Zoticus,” I said, “Greek for ‘full of life.’”
“What better name for a man supposedly dead?” said Antipater with a smile.
“Actually, I was laughing at the choice of Zeugma,” said my father. “A rich man might come from Alexandria, a wise man from Athens, but no one comes from Zeugma—which makes it an ideal choice, I suppose.”
“Actually, we may travel through Zeugma on our way to Babylon, depending on which route we take,” said Antipater. “We may have a chance to visit Issus as well, which isn’t that far from Zeugma.
“On the promontory of Issus by the wild Cilician shore,
Lie the bones of many Persians, slain in days of yore.
The deed was Alexander’s. So states the poet’s lore.”
My father continued to fret. “But are you not too famous, Antipater, to travel incognito? You saw how many people attended your funeral today. The name of Antipater of Sidon is familiar to anyone who knows even a smattering of Greek—”
“The name is known—exactly so,” said Antipater. “And a few of my more famous verses are known as well, I should like to think. But my face is not known, nor the sound of my voice. People read Antipater; people have heard of Antipater; but they have no idea what he looks like. Once the news of my death spreads, no one will be expecting to see me in some city far from Rome. With my face clean-shaven, even the rare acquaintance who might recognize me won’t give me a second look. No one will connect the late, lamented Antipater of Sidon with the humble tutor, Zzzzoticus of Zzzzeugma.”
Antipater seemed to take great pleasure in drawing out the buzzing sound of the initial letters. Later I would realize another reason that “Zoticus of Zeugma” pleased him so much: no name could be more Greek, or less Roman, since neither word could even be properly rendered in Latin, the letter Z having been eradicated from our alphabet two centuries ago by Appius Claudius Caecus, who complained that it produced an abhorrent sound, and the physical act of pronouncing it made a man look like a grinning skull. This tidbit of knowledge I had learned from Antipater, of course.
* * *
That night, at an hour when all the reputable citizens who might recognize Antipater were presumably indoors, we stole across the city—a young Roman suitably dressed for a journey, his father, his white-haired traveling companion, and the old slave who tended to our baggage cart. Poor Damon! Once Antipater and I were finally gone, he could look forward to getting some rest.
At the dock, my father assumed the role of Roman paterfamilias—which is to say, he did his best to show no emotion, even though an old friend was setting out on a journey from which, at Antipater’s age, it was unlikely he might ever return, and even though the son who had been at his side from birth was about to be parted from him, for the first time and for a duration neither of us could foresee.
What did I feel, as I embraced my father and gazed into his eyes? I think I was too excited at the prospect of finally setting out to realize the gravity of the moment. I was only eighteen, after all, and knew very little of the world.
“You have her eyes,” he whispered, and I knew he meant my mother, who had died so long ago I barely remembered her. He almost never spoke of her. That he should do so now caused me to blush and lower my eyes.
Damon embraced me as well, and I was taken aback when he burst into tears. I thought he must be exhausted from working so hard. I did not understand that a slave who moved in the background of my world could form attachments and experience the pangs of parting as acutely as anyone else.
* * *
As it turned out, Antipater and I were the only passengers on the little boat. As we glided down the Tiber under starlight, nestled amid our baggage, I was too excited to sleep. Antipater, too, seemed wakeful. I decided to ask him about something that had been puzzling me.
“Teacher, the Tiber will take us overnight to Ostia, correct?”
“And at Ostia, we’ll book passage on a ship to take us to our first destination: the city of Ephesus, on the coast of Asia.”
“That is the plan.”
“Ephesus, because there you have a trusted friend with whom we can stay—but also because Ephesus is home to the great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
“That is correct.”
“Because it is your intention that on our journey we shall visit all seven of the Wonders.”
“Yes!” Even by starlight, I could see that he smiled and that his eyes sparkled.
“Teacher, I’ve been thinking about something I overheard you say to my father, earlier today. You said to him: ‘People are always saying, “Before I die, I want to see the Seven Wonders.” Well, now that I’m dead, I shall finally have time to see them all!’”
“And what of it?”
I cleared my throat. “Teacher, did you not compose these verses?
“I have seen the walls of Babylon, so lofty and so wide,
And the Gardens of that city, which flower in the skies.
I have seen the ivory Zeus, great Olympia’s pride,
And the towering Mausoleum where Artemisia’s husband lies.
I have seen the huge Colossus, which lifts its head to heaven,
And taller still, the Pyramids, whose secrets none can tell.
But the house of Artemis at Ephesus, of all the Wonders Seven,
Must surely be the grandest, where a god may rightly dwell.”
I paused for a moment. The Tiber, reflecting starlight, glided past us. Frogs croaked along the riverbank. “So, in the poem, you declare the Temple of Artemis to be the greatest. But if you haven’t actually seen all the Wonders, with your own eyes, then how could you—”
“First of all, my name is Zoticus, and I never wrote that poem; a famous fellow named Antipater did.” Antipater spoke in a low voice, and even by starlight I could see that he scowled. “Second, your accent is atrocious. I pity that Antipater fellow, that anyone should declaim his verses in such a manner. You murder its music! We must drill you on the finer points of Greek pronunciation daily between now and our arrival in Ephesus, or else you shall cause laughter every time you open your mouth.”
“Teacher—Zoticus—please forgive me. I only wondered—”
“Third, a young Roman does not ask his Greek tutor for forgiveness, at least not where anyone might overhear. And finally, have you never heard of poetic license?” Antipater sighed. “As a well-traveled Greek, I’ve seen most of the Wonders, of course—at least the ones in the Greek part of the world.”
“But if you’ve never been to Babylon and Egypt—”
“Well, now I shall rectify that omission, and you shall come with me, and together we will see all seven of the Wonders, and you may judge for yourself which is the greatest.”
I nodded. “And what if I find the Great Pyramid to be more impressive than the Temple of Artemis?”
“Then you can write your own poem, young man—if you think you have the Greek for it!”
And that was the end of that discussion. For an hour longer, perhaps, I listened to the croaking of frogs passing by, but eventually I must have slept, for when I opened my eyes, the world was light again. I smelled the salt of the sea. We were in Ostia.
* * *
Among the ships preparing to set out, we looked for one that would take us to Ephesus. Antipater—now Zoticus—haggled over the price, pretending to do so on my behalf, and before noon we had settled on a ship that was taking a load of premium-quality garum from Rome to Ephesus.
As the ship cast off, Antipater and I stood at the stern and gazed back at the docks of Ostia, where a number of women—some possibly wives, some certainly whores—stood and waved farewell to the departing sailors.
Antipater breathed deeply of the sea air, spread his arms wide, and loudly recited one of his verses.
“’Tis the season, men, to travel forth, thrusting through the spume.
No longer does Poseidon froth and Boreas blow his gale.
Swallows build their cozy nests; dancing maidens leave the loom.
Sailors—weigh anchor, coil hawsers, hoist sail!
So bids Priapus, god of the harbor.”
As Antipater lowered his arms, the captain, who was Greek, sidled up alongside him. “Antipater of Sidon, is it not?” he said.
Antipater gave a start, and then realized the captain had identified the poem, not the poet. “So it is,” he said.
“A pity the old fellow’s dead. I heard the news only yesterday.”
Antipater nodded. “A pity indeed. Yet the best parts of him live on, I like to think.”
“Ah yes, his verses.” The captain smiled “That one in particular I’ve always liked, being a sailing man. It’s a bit suggestive, don’t you think? All that talk of thrusting, and cozy nests, and dancing maidens. And Priapus is the god of rut, not harbors. The occasion may be the return of the sailing season in the spring, but I think perhaps the poet was also speaking of the randiness of sailors in springtime, when they leave their winter lovers to go plowing through the waves, looking to drop anchor in unfamiliar harbors.”
Antipater looked dumbfounded for a moment, so pleased was he by the captain’s insight, then he caught himself and managed to look merely impressed. “Captain, you are a man of considerable discernment.”
“Merely a Greek, and what Greek is not stirred by the beauty of his mother tongue?” He gave Antipater a friendly slap on the back. “You’ll have to recite more poems, old fellow, to keep us entertained during the voyage. Do you know any others by Antipater?”
“I daresay I can recite the whole body of his work,” said my traveling companion Zoticus, with a smile.
Copyright © 2012 by Steven Saylor