I will grant you credit of truth and forthrightness to begin. When you told me the Mareotic had its hidden, ancillary ordeals- and a long-term, emergent kind of dolor, apart from the ignominy and deep heartbreak of leaving Rome- I did not believe you. Perhaps I wished that downplaying the grievance in the abstract would not only negate the real sensation, but would go some to acclimatizing to one’s new state of being your hope-scourged friend. I write this 15 minutes after inspecting the sea shore. My first assessment would be “foul”, but I admit- objectively- I have no one example by which I can point to its being so, and the criterion I use feels off the cuff and facile and- perhaps- more than a little inspired by resentment.
I have read of lakes in the Indus- described by Eumenides of Ionia, self styled soldier- chronicler, lost in the cohorts of Alexander- where the sea and sky mirror one another perfectly; a god could catch their reflection in its waters and be shown their true person. It seems then one’s choice becomes between stark knowledge or a more accommodating ignorance. They say Narcissus was punished by Nemesis to waste away, awe-struck, enraptured by his own reflection. Water passed through him until he was transformed into a flower. I can rather say that he chose accommodating self-love, because that the cruel choice Nemesis offered him. It is as Catullus says:
“ Furthermore, Respect Nemesis, for
She is a [true] goddess, and
Not to be trifled with.”
But here I am waxing- quite literally- lyrical on subjects I do not have the erudition- or wit- to propound on. Nor will I be able to; soon whatever I know will be handful of sand- with the occasional eon old shell- in the hinterland. I will survive in the letters I have written- you and the few others I remain in contact with- and somewhere in the out of the way cobblestones and labyrinthine alleys of Rome. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I have not yet described my surroundings, least of all the lake itself, the environment and my villa. ‘Even here’- you must be thinking- and I picture your eyes rolling customarily, old friend.
It is small, as one could expect- the impluvium could hardly function as a birdbath, as risible as it sounds, but then how much rain does this climate permit? What’s there is brackish and coagulated. The triclinium could probably only seat no more than two dedicated gourmets. My needs are few- obviously- and as you could guess any frugality attached to my name I have brought with me, as if in a trunk. Perhaps I should have become a typical Roman decadent overseas; what was Antony doing if only respecting a stereotype?
My bedroom is spartan: low bed, thin coverlet, a window overlooking the shore. I compose my letters in a study little bigger than a closet, the air caked with the must of book, compounded by the lack of circulation. It impresses on me some continuity, like I am the latest in a tradition of scribes or pyramid-keepers, keeping the Pax alive on the boarders of the desert. I suppose I’ll subsist on voles and seafood (?), at least until I can- or have the means at least- to order stock from Alexandria. Strictly speaking, I can’t travel anywhere more than 10 miles from this precinct, but the letter of the law is- after all- “not to set foot on Roman soil, until any future reprieve is granted executively from the emperor or a ¾ majority in the senate”, which includes the emperor. On the one hand this- strictly speaking- isn’t Roman soil, or in the least nominal sense possible; on the other the term “Roman soil” is so vast that obeying it meaningfully would be impossible. I content myself with this tiny conclusion. This being said, I have no special reason to habitate in Alexandria. Its air is not to my liking; not even a facsimile Rome. I remember visiting it a twenty or so young man, surrounded by a retinue and an interpreter. The smoke of the houses royal purple as the sun finished its track. We were conveyed past the ruins of the great library and I remember feeling that all cities were ruins that we agree to cohabit for an indefinite time-span. By this time it was night. As Epicurus says:
“The sleeping body is as dead”
and what is a city at night but a sleeping body, the cloaked rustles and bawds and hooded people dreams as in a vast mind? Here- next to the sea- I am as Ra, whose night is battle with a giant snake and whose day is the renewed day of all.
The implications of that statement- I imagine- one might consider unnerving, reduction ad absurdum. True I am not Ra and when sleeping, I don’t know where or who I am- a reasonable description of the dissolution of any world. The doctrine of the gates of horn and ivory is a false one: you don’t know what is true, dreaming; it seems absurd to claim an event follows from a certain dream rather than some chance or co-incidence. As the Jews say:
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” [The emphasis is mine]
When I visit Rome in my dreams, I am so happy and convinced of its utter truth- I find a mirror and am wearing a proconsulate robe, or as if I were presenting a case in an old court, seeing my face again for the first time in a long while- then, sand- yellow and fine- begins to seep from every doorway, every window sill; the amphora overflow with sand and slowly- strangely calm- I hear the sound of the wind behind my head, its fingers whispering next to my earlobe. I turn around- I feel there is something I must see behind me- and I wake up. For a good ratio of nights I am sweating, smelling like some diseased augury. I am scared- yes- when I wake up. But more than that I am angry. I feel like I’ve been transformed into a wolf, furious, jaws open like the gate of ivory. I know my anger is real; so- therefore- is the world.
There is a sizable fishing village along the north bank, of which my villa forms the outskirts. There are no suburbs. Obviously. I’ve only ventured into it onetime prior to writing this, enough to cowe the local inhabitants. In the centre of the village was a golden aquilla, propped up at the base with stones the colour of watery bronze, next to a miniscule rostra. I walked past it on my way to the sea; a local man tried to accost me in a strange language. He was slight and lean, like an undernourished sheep. His face had a Ptolemaic kind of impression, except where it was obscured with a hideous beard, and his left eye trailed slightly behind his right as he looked at me. I slit his throat with my dagger before he could finish articulating himself, and dashed his brains against the brownish-blue rock. A member of his family- a brother, quite possibly- tried to lay his clenched hand on me, as a small crowd moved around us like startled antelope. I cut his arm at the elbow and almost severed it, then held it against the rock and snapped it off with my foot, pulling him forward with the blade pointed at the crowd.
I threw him back to them and said- in what Latin they might understand- that he should be treated duly and immediately- saved, if possible- and that I would contribute remedies and the necessary care from my own reserve. I told them not to touch me. It was easier- friend- when these places were names on a map and their existence in cities were a matter of hearsay and customary gossip. I would wish all young, virtuous men of Rome to go out and see the empire- at least, while there is still one- but I cannot say one would be prepared for it.
There is apocrypha- recorded, I think, by Dio Cassius in the Anecdota ad regnum Marci Aurelii Populorum Romanorem- that when Varus’ legions were ambushed in Teutoburg forest there were men- common legionaries of any given age- who survived. They crawled and hid in the undergrowth, fleeing , shedding their amour like insects shed their old skin. They crammed what sustenance could be found- compounded with dirt and the mulched puddle water of the forest floor- and wandered, fording rivers until they were not sure which rivers they had crossed and which were new and unknown. If any- by whatever quirk- made their way back to Roman territory- just through this congress with the wild, the silent forests, than with any people or unlatinate barbarian, were they mistaken as Teutons, Celts, Picts, Parthians, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Chinese, or whatever people or uncomputable image appeared to those farmers that discovered them. There are even records of those men stumbling out of the forest in the present day, tattered fatigues hung around their shoulders and thigh, dazed and uncomprehending, frightened by the clothes of their finders or the different smell of the air. When I dream, I dream sometimes of going to the toilet and flowers and vines growing up through the lead pipes, the water absolutely quiet.
I don’t know when this letter will reach you, though I can only imagine the commercial interests of Alexandria necessitate a kind of faster service, whether it ultimately goes to Rome or Constantinople.
If possible, please write- I would like some reminder of Roman contact here, even more so from so noble and good a friend.
Gnaeus Marcus Coriolanus
Dear friend. If this letter reaches you, you have just read my master’s request for a letter. This will be of no use. If you notice any discrepancy in our scripts, be assured I have not rewritten or changed the content, or broken his seal. This task I feel is necessary, and I hope you will respond with understanding. I was brought by my master from Rome. Out of his staff- cooks, name-rememberers, porters- he insisted he be allowed to retain my service. The others were freed. As we left, he gripped my arm and- it felt- dragged me out of the house, as if he would drag me to Egypt himself. He would have crawled on the Via Apia. I was kept under the deck of the ship during the voyage. Sometimes I heard noises outside the cell and was afraid that he was watching me in the dark, like my shadow.
For the time we have spent here, I have done I always have. I have always had a talent for numeracy and accountancy. Several times- here and back then- we have discussed and drafted his will. That said, it ultimately amounts to making suggestions and structural hints, which my master will choose either to regard or not. None of its content is available to me, and I have often had to guess as to what he wants, when there is confusion. My jobs have been harder; the staff is much smaller. He has not touched me, yet. At night, when he cannot sleep, it is my task to recite stories to him, like an infant, and try to conceal any fear.
Sometimes he continues to ask for another and I say no, waiting until he falls asleep. He used to bawl; now he stares at me, eyes on mine, silent, thinking. Then I return to my quarters. In the morning I am expected to do some kind of service; cooking, or waiting on him in addition to my usual management. Since there is not a great deal to manage here, the excuse is made that since I am still his, no other task could possibly exist for me. There are two local cooks- one given by the town in good will, who now fears the master, and another bought in Alexandria. They are not familiar with Roman dishes; I teach them whatever scraps of information I know. Near infinitesimal. There was another servant who carried the dishes, but they tripped- spilling the food onto the master’s toga and the embroided purple couch.
Such as it was this morning, when my master left to walk around the desert hinterland of the sea. He did this after finishing your letter. He returned two hours later with blood softly leaking onto his cheek, like a statue’s canals, hoed by the rain. I asked him what had happened. He didn’t say anything; it seemed he would refuse to speak. Then he told me: he had been making his way through the scree and broken rocks of a cliff when he met me, looking down at him. He said: “what the fuck are you doing here?” Apparently I just smiled. I was standing on a rock face, almost vertical. “Get the fuck back to the house!” he shouted. I looked at him and told him that they would soon be at the house to carry him off. Who? The people of the village. There were more people killed there last night, ripped apart down their chest, attacked almost by an animal. They describe the murderer as foreign, wearing a purple rimmed cloak, slightly sunburnt, with red tears making two little canals down his face. This is when my master began to weep. He had tried- he said- to wipe the tears away as he moved back to the house, but they would not go. “What are you?” he said. “Quod eris sum” I am have supposed to have said, though my spoken Latin is not great. My master and I usually address one another in Greek. At this point I too now had began to weep, my mouth stretching wide, into a smile my master has described in the past as “hideous”. He began to run. He heard nothing pursuing him, but did not relent, until he was at least a mile from that cliff. He finished his story as soon as the first rock shattered the window.
I hid. He was clutching his head, snarling, his voice rising in pitch before it might become a bird’s cry. I ran into the study and heard the door brake from its hinges. I heard gasps. There was movement and noise I didn’t recognise. Then it was silent. For some reason they didn’t destroy the house, possibly out of respect for its history, of which my master must have been a brief, peculiar footnote, or some sense of awe, or terror. It was night when I came out. Forgive me for saying so, but I needed to know my fate. I was alone in a foreign place. I sought out my masters will in its locked chest and broke it open to read. I assure you, this is what it read:
Being without descendants or familia to whom I could bestow honour, I- Gnaeus Marcus, also called Coriolanus, bequeath my worldly property to friend- x-
To be taken into effect at their wish, after my death
It is in your hands the, that my fate rests. I beg you. If you accept this, I will belong to you, in which case, I ask for manumission. It feels like I have been a stage actor in someone’s bizarre comedy, as in the dramas and tragedies I watched through stealth when I was young, and nobody knew me. I beg you- if you are merciful- to grant me freedom. If you do not accept, I will be free regardless, I suppose; I don’t know what will happen. I’ll be searched for, an anomaly in the records of the census taker and the offices of Rome in need of correction. I will be a fugitive in another country, or a slave again. If you are merciful, please, consider me.
There is blood on the corner of the paper.