The Bow of Heaven, Book I - The Other Alexander
In 2010, archaeological students from the University of Athens, working with Dr. Kostas Vranas at the Artemonas dig site on the Greek isle of Sifnos, were contacted by workers of the nearby stone quarry. They had made a remarkable discovery: buried in the soft clay just west of the excavation were three chests lined with layers of tin and beeswax, containing over two hundred scrolls of parchment in almost perfect condition. An additional chest of writing tablets was for the most part ruined, the wood frames rotten, the inscribed wax melted or eaten away.
The translation by the author is an unprecedented account of events preceding the demise of Republican Rome, authored by Alexandros of Elateia, a slave in one of Rome’s mightiest houses. As was the custom, Alexandros identified the passage of time not by the number of the year but by the names of the consuls elected to lead the senate for their annual term. To give the reader a more useful frame of reference, we have divided the narrative into both parts and chapters, added the BCE convention to denote the year, and provided the season and place. A glossary is included at the end of the text.
20 BCE - Summer, Siphnos, Greece
Year of the consulship of
Marcus Appuleius and Publius Silius Nerva
The boy comes bearing honeyed tea onto the blue tiled terrace with its too-white stuccoed walls. I shan’t call him ‘boy’ to his face, though, or risk forfeiting my foot massage. Say what he will, his scars are almost thirty years younger than mine. Though his were earned in battle and mine are of a different nature entirely, to me Melyaket will always be “boy.” Now he waits patiently for me to set down the stilus. I have long stopped trying to convince him that it is I who should serve him, for I know he will but smile thinly and ignore me as always. So be it. I am ancient and frail and the tea is hot and aromatic. Of course there is also the matter of my feet.
Enough of the Parthian bowman; how he and I came to this island sanctuary is a tale for another telling. This recounting does not belong to Melyaket, nor would I presume to lay claim to it for myself. This is my lord’s story, and I pray the gods grant me strength and time to tell it. My master is long dead; few mourned his passing; fewer still recall his name with kindness. More than thirty years have passed since his ignoble death in the dirt at the feet of his enemies. The memory of that heat-drenched day, encrusted with grime and blood and clouded by the dusty haze of battle yet returns to me with glittering clarity. His mocking Parthian captors, their barbarism and bloodlust palpable as they towered over him, pricked him with their taunts and jeers, swords poised to pierce his unarmored heart. Yet when the moment came, they were robbed of the release the mortal blow would have granted both murderers and murdered. For it was Melyaket who slew my lord.
There is much to tell. Nicias has sent men to scour the town for ink, reeds and parchment. I am anxious for their return, for these tablets are all but useless for my intention. It would take a forest of their frames to fill my need. I shall use them for my notes and musings. Now they sit before me, prepared with freshly melted wax, piled so high on my writing table that unless I rise from this cushioned chair, a feat for which I find I lack both the strength and the inclination, the splendor of the sea below, bronzed and burnished by the setting sun, can only wink at me between the cracks. I pull a simple string necklace from around my throat and find the single scallop shell that adorns it. With my thumb I absentmindedly rub its inside surface, grown glossy with age and use, admitting a rising tide of memory.
News has reached us from Rome: the standards of my master’s legions, pried from the twisted fingers of their fallen bearers and flaunted under the shamed chin of Rome for each day of their captivity have finally been ransomed, by no less a negotiator than Caesar Augustus himself. For thirty-five years they were held hostage behind the throne at Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, a mockery of the invincibility of Rome. Though my body wrinkles and shrivels like a Persian peach forgotten in the desert sun, the memory of the day they were lost remains as ripe and raw as a newly drawn knife cut.
To the cruel and superstitious Roman, whether soldier or senator, these are more than poles covered in hide and metal, wood and bone. They are the very essence of Rome, imbued by the gods themselves with the divine mystery of its dominance and superiority. But to me they have always been absent and ironic reminders both of liberty and of loss. I care not, after all these years, that these eagle-festooned sticks have been returned to the bosom of Rome, a poisonous breast where I shall be pleased never to rest my head again.
Tulio writes that the return of the standards has caused such riotous celebration in the streets it is as though Parthia itself had been vanquished. The rabble’s ignorance is as supple and resilient as its memory is arthritic. And what of the nobles who cling with a slippery and tenuous grasp to the tether that holds the mob in check? They must remain blameless, their pristine togas unblemished by any crimson reminders of our misadventure.
PART I - Slave to Master
86 BCE - Summer, Rome
Year of the consulship of
Gaius Marius the Elder and Lucius Cornelius Cinna
If you are a citizen of Rome, you will not know the count of the year, because history, being a thing of the past, is of little interest to you. Rome concerns itself with today and tomorrow, but cares little for yesterday. So while we Greeks (the learned ones, that is) know that 690 years had passed since the first Olympiad, you Romans know only that which concerns you most: who is in power now. Which I suppose is a very modern, forward-looking attitude, for who can remember who was in charge seventy or eighty years ago? Should a Roman astound you with the ability to recall such a year, you may assume with some assuredness that some costly and bloody war was fought, a renegade noble took political matters into his own hands, or a rebellion of one sort or another was put down. Or perhaps a bit of each.
When I was little more than a boy, time had stopped altogether: the count of the year reset itself to 1, and would remain there the following year and the one after that, for so many turns of the calendar I cannot recall the count. Ah, invincible, immortal youth. You see, free men may make use of the passage of time as if each golden coin may forever be newly minted: lay plans, set goals, chart achievements. But never mind. However you set your clock, what I speak of now transpired sixty-six years ago. I was 19, about to be imprisoned for the next thirty-three years of my life, not in a cell, but to the will a single man.
My, Alexandros, you whine like a stuck boar. Reader, pay no attention to the sniveling of a melodramatic ancient who has outstayed his welcome above ground. I have had more than my fair portion of satisfaction and accomplishment. I have even known love. And as you see, I am quite accomplished in the art of digression. Move along, Alexandros, move along.
Who am I, you may protest, and with what credentials do I claim the right to chronicle the life of one of Rome’s once venerable patriarchs? I am no one. I am less than no one. But I was there through it all, and now I shall bear witness. You of breeding and substance, you senators and aristocrats may dismiss with a wave of your soft hands the thread of my narrative should it not unravel to your liking. Nonetheless, I shall tell what I know for truth’s sake and my master’s honor, and the glory of Rome be damned!
My name is Alexandros, son of Theodotos of Elateia. I may be bald, half-blind and more than a little wobbly on these eighty-five year-old willow branches that serve for legs, but my mind has yet to fail me; it is as keen today as the day I was made a slave of Rome.
Now there’s a dull word for you, commonplace and prosaic, like the chalky base coat of a mural, necessary to fortify the coming of the artist’s colorful strokes but ultimately invisible, its worth unseen. It is a word without bias or weight, like ‘water,’ or ‘tree.’ Unless you happen to be one. Then, the world becomes a simple but lopsided place. There are owners and there are the owned. And the latter, those afflicted with fits of common sense and introspection, must soon come to ask themselves in the black, sleepless hours, why? Why would the gods, in their unfathomable wisdom, give us life only to watch us fall to a state as low as this? What good could ever come of such a fate? There were those of us, I among them, who once blithely sought answers to the essence of being, who contemplated the meaning of existence with a pomposity only the truly ignorant may display. Without warning, the focus of our contemplation was wrenched from such esoteric heights and narrowed most effectively to the chafing sores of our ankle chains. The pursuit of knowledge is an inaudible whisper lost in the stentorian debate of an empty stomach, drowned out even by the quiet discourse of muffled sobs in the night.
What folly to once believe we were the masters of our fate, when at the point of a sword we may so swiftly and permanently become the mastered. In this world, philosophy must go begging. No, not so, for even a beggar may choose his street corner. To be a man, once, and then to be magicked so effortlessly to be transformed into a clay pot, a footstool, a nothing. I was not brave. I was not a soldier. I tried neither to escape, nor to end my servitude by my own hand. This is my shame, and I carry it upon my back like the sacks of rock my stooped and broken brothers and sisters bear in the quarry. Why do I speak of such things? Because if you are reading this you must surely be among the owners, not the owned, so of what possible interest could anything I have to say be to you? Do you wish to learn of greatness? Then abide, for one need not possess greatness to stand close by it.
How my bondage came about was a study in cause and effect. My parents raised horses on our small country estate; I was riding before I could hurl an insult. (My mother claimed the first word out of my mouth was “stupid.”) I was also quite bright: I was reading Aesop by the time I was five, bored with him at six, and laughing with Aristophanes a year later. Beyond anything to do with hippology or reading, I had no use for the continual stream of young, hapless playmates with which my mother was continually pestering me. As a result, any friends I might have made quickly became discouraged, if not by my disdain then by my smell. In truth, I was an alarmingly disagreeable child.
My mother and father, being quite patient and forbearing parents, did their best, but even their gentle tenacity finally frayed and their restraint turned to resignation. By then, unfortunately, my acrimonious and antisocial behavior had all but calcified. And so, when I turned seventeen, they threw their hands toward Olympus and packed me off to the urbane, marbled wonder that was Athens. Perhaps my compassion would expand with my mind, they prayed. I do miss them, and shall forever wonder what fate they suffered.
In the city I found a new love, but became just as single-minded as I had been with my previous equine obsession. Its name, or rather his name, was Aristotle. I ate his words as if no other food could sustain me. Obsession being my only way of shutting out all that I saw that was wrong with the world, I soon had no interest in anything other than the continuation of my studies at the Lyceum. In my arrogance, I presumed to think that some day I might even teach there. Finding spare but adequate lodgings near the school, for two years my eyes would not be torn from the parchment of my texts, my ears would heed only the words of my teachers.
Oh, how the fierce devotions of youth are easily diverted!
When not in class, it was my occasional habit to go for long walks, not for exercise or with any destination in mind, but to digest what I had learned that week in school. On one of these peripatetic strolls, I found I had taken myself to the very steps of the library at Plato’s Academy. I ventured within and before my eyes had adjusted to the indoor light, I beheld a raven haired, blue-eyed girl pushing a trolley of unfiled scrolls. She turned and spoke to me, asking if I required assistance, and I was immediately undone. From that moment on, my walks become neither random nor infrequent.
But the Academy was Plato’s school. No matter. It became clear to me in a heartbeat that the focus of my studies was far too narrow. After all, to become a truly enlightened philosopher, one must have a generous and open mind, mustn’t one? Without so much as a letter home I rushed to matriculate where I might be nearest to her, trading philosophical heroes faster than the time it would take to barter for a handful of figs in the market. In the end, it made no difference – the same fate awaited both schools.
Like the Academy, my infatuation was doomed. To her credit, Phaedra only laughed at me behind my back. In retrospect, a little more overt derision on her part might have dampened my obdurate campaign to humiliate myself. I could not comprehend a universe which could allow a love as pure as mine to languish unanswered. How could I feel this deeply unless her heart stirred as well? I was achingly naïve. Phaedra was my first encounter with the brittle, wintry truth that alas, love is often a skewed affair. I returned to my studies, vowing never to love again, unaware that I hadn’t yet loved at all. Eventually even I tired of my pitiful pining and determined to redirect that wasted energy back toward my studies. I was at the center of the philosophical universe, and there was much to learn and little time to waste. But by then it was too late.
Plato’s school lay northwest of the city walls in a park along the southern bank of the Kephisos. The Academy was an idyllic spot close by the gymnasium and formal gardens, and we students debated and discussed as much and as often wandering through leafy glades as we did in the halls of learning. But it had not always been so. Centuries before, to celebrate Cimon’s victory over the Persians, the vast spoils of that war were used to both fortify and beautify the city. Had not my forebears chosen to turn the dusty, neglected hills north of the city into a verdant paradise, Plato might have founded his school elsewhere. But no, to honor Athena, Cimon had planted there a grove of sacred olive trees, irrigated them with care and transformed the forlorn northern suburb into a bucolic haven. The goddess of wisdom blessed the grove and the trees grew thick and tall. A hundred years later, Plato arrived to find the place a perfect setting for contemplation and learning.
Alas, my thirst for knowledge withered when it came near the heat of the aspirations of a Roman by the name of Lucius Cornelius Sulla who, in ruthless and systematic fashion, laid siege to fair Athens. His engineers chanced upon the Academy’s ancient grove north of the city walls. What was once a sacrament to a goddess now became timber for machines of war intent on the destruction of the city that bore her name. If not for Sulla, I might even now be strolling, perhaps with the aid of a walking stick, or better still with a young, attentive maiden supporting each arm, through the gardens of the Lyceum, my students crowding behind, hanging on every word of my discourse. Afterwards, they would bring me honey, bread and wine, and we would devote each day to the simple yet sublime pleasure of seeking knowledge in all its forms. A pretty picture, that.
But this was a life imagined, never lived. For like one of our sacred trees usurped to make their siege engines, I was harvested and swept up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite for the tens upon tens of thousands of men, women and children upon which that lumbering beast’s survival depended.
In those first days, I was bitter, despondent, terrified. I never knew what became of Phaedra. Did I hate Rome? Most certainly. Why had she come pounding at Greece’s door? What had we done to deserve invasion and annexation? It was only later that I discovered why it was that Sulla had crossed our borders, a tragic example of cause and effect. Was it not to avenge the death of tens of thousands of his own countrymen at the hands of the King of Pontus, with whom Athens was allied? Shall I then lay the blame for my bondage at the feet of Asia Minor’s treachery? Or were they, in turn, simply trying to expel an invader? If you ask Melyaket, he will tell you it was my own foolish lust for a library girl that put chains around my ankles. But he is a lover of pain, and likes the rap of my knuckles upon his Parthian pate as payment for his insolence. In the end, what does it matter? The gods set me down in the right place at the wrong time. Now, time has brought me here to this moment where right and wrong have become little more than words, drained of meaning. Over the years I have grown ... philosophical.
Not long after I was captured I was given by Sulla as a gift of thanks to one of his generals, and it was he I served first in fear, then faithfully for thirty years. It was not the life I would have chosen, but who among us is fortunate enough to choose his own destiny and see it fulfilled as planned? Who, indeed, is fool enough to make such a plan?
Lest you think I skipped merrily from student of philosophy to master of one the great houses of Rome, let me assure you, the road was long and bitter. Those first days of my shame and humiliation still prickle with crisp memory; I yearn for a cup of forgetfulness from the river Lethe, but it is yet beyond my reach. I cannot forget, but neither can I bear the thought that you will condemn me or call me coward for allowing myself to become the man you shall discover. I shall tell you of those early days, with the hope that in the end understanding may be accompanied by forgiveness and forbearance. As for you Romans who have not already tossed this narrative aside, I hope for and ask for nothing.
From my hiding place in the library I was discovered and at first praised Athena I had not been skewered then and there. I lived to regret that answered prayer. I was thrown shackled into a cart identical to those used to transport wild beasts to the arena. Our oxcart joined a dismal procession of countless others, the yellow dust cloud of our passing clogging our lungs and eyes and turning day to dusk. As we passed the Lyceum I beheld a sight that caused me to shove my way to the wooden bars and groan aloud. I was purple with rage, yet reluctantly grateful as well. Dozens of Roman soldiers were systematically emptying the library of its contents, packing thousands of scrolls carefully into a line of waiting covered wagons. Much of the rest of the city was aflame, yet Sulla was saving the works of Aristotle. This Roman was a strange and perplexing man.
Although my traveling companions and I were total strangers, we soon became intimate. For days, then weeks we rode at the back of Sulla’s army as it cut a swath first through Greece, then into Italy. The rough roads and bare wooden wheels conspired to make close acquaintances of us all. We stumbled and tripped into each other, there not being enough room for all of us to sit on the hay-strewn floor. There were countless carts like ours, and we passed many more thousands chained and on foot. We were the pretty ones, I suppose, destined for labor outside the quarries. Most of my cart-mates were women, plus a few children and six other young men. It took three, maybe four days before we no longer bothered to turn away at the sight of one of us squatting to piss or shit. The bronze butt of a gladius in the gut quickly taught the men not to aim their arcs outside the cage. Soon we no longer tried to avoid our own reeking waste. The soldiers laughed, raised up by the depth of our abasement. The few days it rained, in spite of the chill we pressed close to the bars, washing ourselves as best we could. To our captors I am sure we resembled nothing so much as a troupe of ardent beggars, arms outstretched, hands cupped to catch the drops, a paltry blessing from the gods who had otherwise abandoned us.
Our return to Rome was hastened by consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Fearing that Sulla’s victories in the East would obstruct his own ambition, Cinna raised an army and drove them hard to meet his enemy before Sulla could once again set foot on Italian soil. But the Italians thus conscripted had no stomach for the hardships of a forced march across the mountains of Illyria. Facing Sulla’s seasoned legions with no prospect of booty held less allure than the thought of returning to their farms. Which they did, but not before stoning the despotic Cinna to death. When news of the consul’s fate reached Sulla, it inflamed that which Cinna had feared the most: Sulla’s lust to don the mantle of dictatorship. He took five of his seven legions, marched through fallen Athens, past Corinth and northwest to Patrae, dragging his spoils behind him.
In those three weeks, except for the occasional snarl over a maggoty hunk of bread, or an ineffectual attempt at comforting a terrified child, none of us ever spoke a word to each other. Ever. We could barely look each other in the eye. From Patrae, we sailed to Brundisium, and as I stepped blinking from the dark hold, I set foot for the first time in Roman Italy. It looked liked any other country on the Adriatic.
But it was not.
The moment Rome learned that Sulla had landed in Italy without disbanding his troops was the signal for civil war. There were many battles waged on our march toward the center of the Western world, and Sulla’s senatorial antagonists, especially Marius the younger and consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo knew that after what they had done to any friend of Sulla they could catch, they were fighting for their lives. There would be no quarter. And there was not. Carbo was eventually cornered, but managed to escape to Africa. Then, three day’s march southeast of the city, Sulla gave Marius a furious thrashing and sent him and what was left of his army running back to Praeneste.
Sulla pursued him and laid siege to the town. Since we were to rest there for some weeks, we were brought to the baths and given fresh tunics. A medic came and applied some greasy salve to the sores on my ankles, but my chains were left in place. I was given the first piece of goat’s cheese I had had in a month. Then, as a special gift to the company of legionaries behind whom we were dragged, my cart-mates and I were each assigned to an eight-man contubernium, or squad, one of us per tent.
I don’t know what happened to the others, but my new life depended upon a single and all-consuming duty: to service the needs and whims of these sweaty, filthy and exhausted men. When stripped to their tunics, you could hardly tell us apart. Yet if I was not quick enough with water, if I did not scrape the mud from the soles of their caligae to their liking, if I was not pliant or willing enough in the dark, I was beaten senseless. It was then I wished that death would come, but I had neither the will nor the courage to take my own life. On those few nights when my rest was brief but uninterrupted, I dreamed of Athens and the Academy. Each dawn I returned to Hades. The days passed like this, one after another, for over a year.
My life was taken from me, and often were the times when I pondered the irony of taking it back by ending it. Suicides among new captives could reach as high as twenty of every hundred. Were these men and women the brave ones, and we the cowards? I would not presume to judge them, but I chose a different path. To live - not to thrive or protect family or leave something of value for the next generation - but simply to take the next breath and the one after that, I submitted to abuse of any kind, allowed my spirit to crumble to dust, knowing all the while I was crippling my soul for eternity. Yet I was unable to bring an end to it. I clung to a life which was no life. I rose each morning in a stupor, with barely the strength to wish that this day would be my last. Is it cowardice to choose life? Any life at all?
I slept outside my legionaries’ tent, a thin, tattered blanket my only shield against the chill. One morning, well before the cornicines had sounded the call to awaken the camp, I was disturbed by a noise and rose shivering to one elbow, hoary rime clinging to my hair and blanket. Two soldiers were dragging a body by its heels. It was just light enough for me to see the slashed wrists from the man’s upturned hands, his arms trailing above his head in a jostled pose of surrender. Blood still leaked from the wounds, leaving slug-like trails, black in the pre-dawn light. As they passed close by, I recognized the suicide: he was one of the six other men in the first cart that had taken us from Greece. The two Romans, whispering happily about the end of their watch, would take him outside the gate and dump him into one of the defensive ditches surrounding the camp. I strained to see the dead man’s expression, hoping foolishly to find the trace of a smile, or at least the hint of a look of peace. There was nothing. There was no expression at all. It was just a corpse.
It was in that moment that I decided to choose life. I set my heart and mind on living with an act of determined will. And to justify that choice, to suffer all the degradations that lay ahead and the sorrow of remembering the life left behind, I chose to believe that those of us who survived did so not out of cowardice, but for the slimmest and most fragile of unuttered hopes that one day our lot would improve.
I was to discover that even when such miracles are granted, and life’s burdens lighten, hope comes not as a solitary friend, but is joined by confederates of guilt and shame that sit like harpies in judgment over every goodness that fortune bestows. I survived, and some would say I flourished. But never think for an instant as this tale unfolds that mine has been an easy life. Even in the best of times in the house of Crassus, even after I had opened the smallest of places in my heart where I secretly, silently call him ‘friend,’ he was still and forever my master.