2. DINNER WITH THE FIRST FILE
I went to the Baths for the rest of the afternoon. Once I was clean and massaged, shaved and perfumed, I sat in its garden and watched a dice game. I didn’t have enough money to think of joining in – besides, I’m careful about dicing with strangers. But I enjoyed watching the game, in its setting of an ornamental garden with roses, sweet lavender and fountain. After the months of wandering through the deserts and poisonous lakes of the Promised Land, it was a delight to be back in the purely human environment of a Roman city.
I reflected on the girls Longus and I had known in the old days, and wondered what they would be like now. I found myself thinking about Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’, and then couldn’t remember a certain passage in it, so I went into the Baths’ library annex to look it up. It’s only a little library – Caesarea is hardly Alexandria – but they had some Ovid. I needed to take advantage of civilization’s offerings while I could. Capernaum wouldn’t be like this.
As the sun was setting I made my way across town.
I was met at Longus’ front door by a pretty slave with that unlikely yellow hair of the northern barbarians. She wore a short white robe, attractively belted at the waist to show off her curves. Ah, Rome! So different from Israel and the shapeless black-robed women.
She showed me to the dining room. The three couches already had several men reclining on them; room was made for me next to a small Jewish-looking young man. I felt a momentary discomfort, more of an awareness, of being the only one in a tunic, not a toga.
Longus introduced me around: “Matthew Levi’s an old friend of mine from when the Legion was in Damascus. He was a warehouse and shipping manager there for us, some of you might remember him.”
“Hello, all,” I said, not recognizing any faces. There was a rumble of greeting.
“We went to see PP today, and His Excellency gave him the tax-collecting position in Capernaum. He’ll be almost one of us, again. Levi, this is Caninus, one of our Centurions.”
Longus must have said all three of the Centurion’s names, but I can never remember the first two, only the formal nickname which everybody uses. So: Caninus, ‘doglike’, which to my mind connotes both faithful and vicious – not bad for a Centurion.
“I recognize you from the incident this afternoon, Matthew Levi,” he said levelly.
“And I you, Centurion Caninus,” I answered, “but only because you just prompted me – your toga is a big change from your uniform.”
Longus continued: “Purpureo, our Standard-bearer.”
The use of purple being restricted to the highest nobility, Purpureo was a very regal-sounding name. His face was turned away, but I said “There is no position more honorable than being the bearer of the Legion’s Eagle standard.”
The Eagle-bearer turned his face towards me then, and I saw that the ‘Purpureo’ referred to the enormous birthmark disfiguring his face. “Thank you,” he said.
I wasn’t exaggerating about his status: the Legion would fight and die to the last man rather than lose the pole topped by its eagle with the letters ‘SPQR’. Not even the bearers of the Tenth’s individual standards – the ship, the bull, the boar – evoked such loyalty and respect.
“Buteo,” Longus continued, “and Bibaculus.” ‘Vulture’ and ‘Drunkard’, I thought. Younger men, without a named rank or titles. Ordinary legionaries, then? Why were they at dinner with the First File and other senior officers? They must have some special relationship with him. They raised their goblets and greeted me noisily, suggesting that they had gone through some wine already.
“Congratulations on being appointed tax-collector,” Buteo said.
“And being given the opportunity to pillage the wealth of the Jews,” added Bibaculus, who was even larger and appeared more drunk.
“Unfortunately, Capernaum is not a very wealthy location.” Buteo again.
“Dirt-poor and hostile. They’ll probably kill you,” Bibaculus said sadly.
“Drink!” said Buteo.
“Your health!” said Bibaculus.
They toasted each other, while everyone else laughed. Buteo had a strangely scrawny neck for a large man. Bibaculus had the middle part of his nose smashed in – from wine or warfare? I wondered.
“And lastly,” my host said, “Paulus, from Tarsus; a Hellenized Jew, not unlike yourself. Move down, Paulus, and we can fit Levi on your couch.”
“Greetings, Paulus,” I began, but he was rapidly amending Longus’ introduction:
“But don’t forget the most important aspect, First File! I am a Roman by birth, no different from you in that respect, and I naturally consider Roman, rather than Greek or Jew, as…”
“Yes,” Longus said. He turned to the wine steward who stood discreetly to one side: “Wine for our guest.”
“Yes sir. Any special arrangements?”
“No, no, Matthew Levi can hold his own.”
“He’s saying that I may look like a thin wretch, but you’re not to mix any more water with my wine concentrate than you do for the others,” I added.
“Yes, sir.” The steward ladled out a glass of wine from the jar he was tending, and brought it to me. I always talk to servants when I get the chance. It’s the only time I get called “Sir”.
“As I was saying, our heritage as city-dwellers of the Colonies may not mean that we have quite as many rights,” Paulus began again.
“Yes,” Longus cut him off again, turning away and clapping his hands; and I began to guess that no one else had happened to be on this particular couch because everyone found him tedious.
The blonde slave appeared. “We’re ready,” Longus told her, and she went out, returning immediately with a bowl of oranges which she offered to each of us, smiling but silent. She left.
“I can’t believe her hair! She’s gorgeous,” I said, breaking the peel up for the smell, tearing into the segments. “Mmm! And so is this orange! Did she cost a lot?”
“The money was one thing; the cost to my relationship with my wife, for a while, was even greater.” He smiled wryly. “As for the hair – I hear that her people have set off a trashy fashion for young women in Rome to dye their hair yellow. Why women want to look like slaves and prostitutes is beyond me, but there it is. I expect we’ll be seeing it here too, soon enough.”
I hadn’t realized Longus had married; I hadn’t heard him mention children. I wondered if his wife was the type always off visiting other wives, or was in the kitchen right now, running the household. The latter, surely, for Longus.
And back the blonde slave came, to spray a sweet perfume in the air, while two men carried a large low table into the area between the horseshoe arrangement of the three couches. This held the first course: oysters, mussels, snails fattened on milk, and a very elegant endive and radish salad. Not a course you’d serve to a religious Jew, but that was no worry for me. I pulled out my knife and spoon from the pouch on my belt and placed them before me, but there wasn’t anything here that needed more than fingers. I started on the snails.
“So who are your gods?” little Paulus asked, choosing the least tactful topic possible.
Suddenly aware that no one else was talking, I answered, “All men of sense follow the same gods.”
“And which ones are those?”
“Paulus,” I paused for effect, “men of sense never say.”
The rest laughed, but Paulus was off and away: “Mithras, that’s who interests me. Buteo and Bibaculus are both worshippers, aren’t you, but won’t tell me anything about it, I don’t know why.”
“Because,” Bibaculus said heavily, “it’s a mystery religion.”
“Right,” Buteo added. “We don’t know anything about it either.” He spoke seriously to Paulus, who listened seriously, while we others laughed again.
“Well, I know about it,” Bibaculus contradicted his friend.
“Well, you think you do.”
These two were obviously used to working together. I liked them.
“I do. It’s for men only.”
“People who can keep a secret.”
“Yeah, but don’t go telling everybody.”
“Only people who believe in it.”
“Careful, you might lose some of us believers with that.”
“Because not all believers believe the same belief.”
“Well you won’t lose me, because I don’t tell anyone what my beliefs are.”
“Or whether or not you believe in them.”
“Your health!” This seemed a ritual conclusion to their free flow of nonsense, and brought applause and a return to the food and drink.
With the plates emptied, Longus clapped his hands again. The blonde came back, this time spraying a spicier, herbal scent – rosemary, perhaps sage? Longus reprimanded her: “Not near the food, not on the guests, and above all, not on the pictures!” To us he explained apologetically, “I’m still training her. I don’t mind scent on the mosaics, or the murals of the gods – that was all here when I bought the place, and it’ll stay when I go. But the paintings are so much more delicate.” He was referring to framed life-sized portraits of a young man and young woman.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“My parents. They died some years ago on the family farm in Italy, and I hadn’t seen them for several years before that. These paintings are more precious to me than even the family shrine; I’ll take them with me whenever I move again. Unless the damn slave rots them with scent.”
The first table had been carried out, replaced with one laden with a boiled ham with honey, baked in a pastry case; and a whole roast peacock with the plumage restored to it, accompanied by a spice sauce; and a pretty little roast suckling pig surrounded by stuffed dormice, all colored a beautiful saffron yellow – as were the peas, broad beans, celery, onions and so on. Again, an impossible meal for a devout Jew to enjoy – so much so, that I began to wonder if my religious affinity was being assessed as part of a security background check.
“I salute the emblem of the Tenth Legion Fretensis,” I said, cutting a large slice out of the ham with my knife. There was a loud shout of “The Tenth!” and all the glasses were drained. Longus gestured to have them refilled.
“So you like my blonde slave?” he asked me.
“A treat to look at, First File.” This was the first time I had ever called him that, but it felt appropriate in this company. “And no doubt a treat to touch; but I never know whether or not I like a woman, whereas I always know whether I like a man. I feel I don’t really understand women.”
“But why is that? They’re all around you!”
“All around, but more separate in their daily lives than Jews from Romans, soldiers from farmers, peasants from Governors. We men can each see what other men do, and we can understand them if we try. But women! They think differently, they express themselves differently, their bodies have different cycles, they mature and age differently. They bear children, they nurse, they’re obsessed with babies – natural enough, but foreign to a man. They have different work, different gods, different values, different friendships. Aren’t we men different when we’re together with just other men, compared to when we’re with women as well? So too women must be different when they’re alone without men, but, necessarily, we can’t observe or understand that.”
“Whatever women do when I’m not around, I don’t know and I don’t care,” Bibaculus said. “Let them have their interests. So long as they take care of me when I am around.”
I spread my hands as best I could, leaning on one elbow. “And so it is: society is built over an unbridgeable gap between men and women – which is to say, it may look like one edifice, but it is actually two, rising side by side from separate foundations.”
Young Paulus said, “That’s an unnecessarily complicated way of thinking about things. The reason women don’t mix freely with men is because they’re weaker and lesser. We can’t always understand them because they’re more childlike, less developed.”
“They don’t have our size and strength,” said Buteo.
“And where we have our strength, they just have a hole,” added Bibaculus.
“But think of rulers like Cleopatra,” I said, before the conversation degenerated too far. “Poets like Sappho.”
Longus said, “There may be some female lyric poets, but none to produce the epics of Homer or Virgil. There may be a sly ruler like Cleopatra, but none to create an Empire, like Alexander, or Julius Caesar, or Augustus.”
Bibaculus cheered: “Spoken like a true worshiper of Mithras, sir! Levi, you should come to us, where there are no women, and we will walk you down the nave to the altar in the sanctuary, and you shall be bathed in the blood of the bull!”
“And me,” Paulus added hastily.
Buteo qualified the comments of Bibaculus: “That is, after you have passed our painful and terrifying initiation ceremonies!”
“And worked your way up the ranks, degree by degree!”
“And learned the secret words.”
“The secret symbols.”
“The secret greetings.”
“And served us for years.”
“And given us all kinds of money.”
“And learned our skills in keeping all of this secret!”
We laughed; but Paulus was not to be shut down: “Isn’t it true that the god you worship grants you immortality? I mean, if you go through the rituals, and you’re washed in the blood of the bull, and you’re reborn in Mithras, that then when you die –”
Longus interrupted him by clapping again, asking the slave when the musicians would be ready, and turning the conversation back: “But you were saying, Levi, that the gap between men and women is unbridgeable. I seem to remember you didn’t have any sisters, in Damascus, am I right?”
Bibaculus interjected, “He was probably hiding them from you, sir – and a good thing, too!”
Longus smiled, but continued, “Well, I never before considered it any kind of good fortune to have four sisters older and four younger than me – but perhaps I should value the insights it gave me! Anyway, if you feel you can’t understand women, how have you managed to have any kind of relationship with them?” Now he was laughing at me.
“Well, then I turn to the acknowledged experts, those who have written the most widely copied books, to see if there are any answers there that I can relate to:
If once she kiss, her meaning is expressed;
There wants but little pushing for the rest.
Perhaps she calls it force; but, if she escape,
She will not thank you for the omitted rape.
The sex is cunning, to conceal their fires;
They would be forced, even to their own desires.”
“Fine; but I don’t know how much weight you should put on Ovid,” Longus said. “Wasn’t it the ‘Art of Love’ that caused Augustus to exile him to the Black Sea?”
“But it fits,” I replied. “It shows their minds and their expression to work differently from us; and, even if it offended Augustus, it seems a particularly Roman poem.”
“In what way ‘Roman’?” he asked. “Forceful, masculine?” I nodded. “Ruthless?” he probed, and I began to equivocate. “Violent?”
“Are you calling Romans violent?” Bibaculus bellowed at me, stumbling to his feet, reaching for the sword that would have been at his waist, if he’d been in uniform. A chill sliced through me.
Buteo grabbed his arm and pulled him back down: “You won’t be upholding Rome’s honor, if you kill the First File’s dinner guest.”
“Fucking Jews with their fucking rudeness…”
“Relax, man, he’s too skinny to give you a good fight.”
Longus was watching my reaction.
“Isn’t that what I told the Governor?” I said to him. “Plenty of Jews treat me the same way too, for being friends with Romans. But I’ve learned to survive.”
“Always a useful skill.”
“And frequently tested, unfortunately.”
At that point three musicians entered with flute, lyre and drum, took up their positions on the dais at the far end of the dining room. They began some very lively music and distracted us, and we turned back to the food.
A little later, the blonde slave came in and put her hand on Longus’ arm, and gestured whether the food should be cleared; but he spoke up over the music, saying we must eat more, we had barely touched half of it.
“Come now, First File,” I protested, “a superb dinner, but there’s a physical limit to how much any of us can eat.”
“Your provincial thinking is showing,” he answered. “You need a trip to the School of Gluttony in Rome. Learn how to produce a second hunger – through purges, vomiting, and so on.” There wasn’t any malice in his teasing – and he himself hadn’t eaten much more than me. But ostentatious overconsumption shows wealth, and wealth is power, and power is everything to Romans. So of course they waste money on feasts.
Eventually the main course was cleared, the room was sweetened with a fruity scent, and then in came the dessert table: a mountain of plums, cherries, quinces, pomegranates, grapes, and figs; a huge silver tray of pastry cases filled with honey, raisins, dates and nuts; and the steward mixed yet another wine. We drank more, and talked ever louder over each other and over the music. The blonde slave was now sitting on Longus’ couch in front of his chest, and he stroked her arm absentmindedly as though she were a cat.
“You two have been very quiet,” he said to Caninus and Purpureo. “What do you think of our friend Matthew Levi? Do you think he’ll work out?”
Purpureo whispered something to Caninus. The Centurion looked evenly at me, and then turned to Longus: “He seems educated and competent, and you’ve worked with him before. Those are all positive.”
“No… But unknowns, perhaps. Are you sure that he understands the needs of the Empire, both commercially and politically?”
Longus looked at me.
It might have taken all that wine for me to dare an edgy joke in that situation, but I couldn’t stop myself from providing my clearest understanding: “Well, then, here’s how a commercial project works in the Empire: you get a Greek to design something – and a Syrian to manufacture it – and a Phoenician to sell it… to a Roman.”
Longus laughed together with the others, so I decided I could keep going: “Then the Phoenician pays the Syrian, and the Syrian pays the Greek. Then the Roman comes and confiscates all their money, and the process starts over!”
The laughter was more muted. Bibaculus was looking dangerously confused and suspicious, but Longus smiled and asked “But what about Egypt? You’re ignoring the richest province.”
“Romans keep Egyptians the same way they keep bees – all they produce is food, so the Romans simply take it, leaving just enough that the producers don’t starve. No money is needed!” Only Paulus, who had clearly had too much to drink, laughed at this.
“And Jews?” Longus was still smiling.
“Ah, that’s the tricky one, isn’t it?”
“No answer, then?”
“Oh, lots of answers, Longus, my friend: occupy them, withdraw from them. Regulate them, leave them alone. Tax them, exempt them. Convert them, ignore them. Enslave and deport them, let them return… It’s just that none of the answers have worked yet.”
Whatever hackles I might have been raising on Longus, the blonde slave was smoothing them down again, bless her. At some point I had been moved down the couch to give Longus and the slave more room. Paulus had been evicted in the process and was now on another couch, where Buteo was looking at him with interest.
Longus chuckled, at either the slave or my answers, and said: “Then let’s come back to the commercial aspect. My answer is: provide peace, order and good government – give people the security to simply get on with their lives – make sure the weights and measures are accurate, and the markets are clean and honest.”
“I agree. And further,” I said, abstractly wondering if my words were too rash, dangerous, “good markets build the economy – leading to more taxation. Also, markets encourage transactions of cash, not barter, throughout the province – leading to easier taxation.” Yet again I wondered if I had gone too far.
Longus looked at Caninus and Purpureo: “I’d say he understands.”
And Purpureo made a rare comment: “Got more slaves for us, Longus?”