Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
Libanius: Yes, I do know. At the beginning, we all had great hopes for Gallus. I recall vividly Gallus’s first appearance before the senate of Antioch. How hopeful we were! He was indeed as handsome as men say, though that day he was suffering from a heat rash, as fair people sometimes do in our sultry climate. But despite a mottled face, he carried himself well. He looked as one born to rule. He made us a most graceful speech. Afterwards, I was presented to him by my old friend Bishop Meletius.
“Oh, yes,” Gallus frowned. “You are that teacher-fellow who denies God.”
“I deny God nothing, Caesar. My heart is open to him at all times.”
“Libanius is really most admirable, Caesar.” Meletius always enjoyed making me suffer.
“I am sure he is.” Then Gallus gave me a smile so dazzling that I was quite overwhelmed. “Come see me,” he said, “and I shall personally convert you.”
A few weeks later, to my surprise, I received an invitation to the palace. When I arrived at the appointed hour, I was shown into a large room where, side by side on a couch, lay Gallus and Constantia.
In the center of the room two nude boxers were pummeling one another to death. When I had recovered from my first shock at this indecent display, I tried to make my presence known. I coughed: I mumbled a greeting. But I was ignored. Gallus and Constantia were completely absorbed by the bloody spectacle. As the world knows, I hate gladiatorial demonstrations because they reduce men to the level of beasts—and I do not mean those unfortunates who are forced to perform. I mean those who watch.
I was particularly shocked by Constantia. It was hard to realize that this bright-eyed unwomanly spectator was the daughter of Constantine the Great, sister of the Augustus, wife of the Caesar. She seemed more like an unusually cruel courtesan. Yet she was distinguished-looking in the Flavian way-big jaw, large nose, gray eyes. As we watched the sweating, bloody men, she would occasionally shout to one or the other, “Kill him!” Whenever a particularly effective blow was dealt, she would gasp in a curiously intimate way, like a woman in the sexual act. Constantia was most
We watched those boxers until one man finally killed the other. As the loser fell, Gallus leapt from his couch and threw his arms around the bloody victor, as though he had done him some extraordinary service. Then Gallus began to kick the dead man, laughing and shouting gleefully. He looked perfectly deranged. I have never seen a man’s face quite so revealing of the beast within.
“Stop it, Gallus!” Constantia had noticed me at last. She was on her feet.
“What?” He looked at her blankly. Then be saw me. “Oh, yes,” he said. He straightened his tunic. Slaves came forward and removed the dead boxer. Constantia approached me with a radiant smile. “How happy we are to see the famous Libanius here, in our palace.” I saluted her formally, noticing with some surprise that her normal voice was low and musical, and that her Greek was excellent. In an instant she had transformed herself from Fury to queen.
Gallus came forward and gave me his hand to kiss. I got blood on my lips.
“Good, very good,” he said, eyes unfocused like a man drunk. Then without another word, the Caesar of the East and his queen swept past me and that was the end of the only private audience I was ever to have with either of them. I was most unnerved.
During the next few years the misdeeds of the couple were beyond anything since Caligula.
(Editor’s interpolated note: Although Vidal was anti-Christian, he did not know that the Christians falsified the biography of Caligula.) To begin with, they were both eager for money. To further her political objectives Constantia needed all the gold she could amass. She tried everything: blackmail, the sale of public offices, confiscation.
One of her fund-raising attempts involved a family I knew. It was a peculiar situation. When the daughter married an extremely handsome youth from Alexandria, her mother, an ordinarily demure matron—or we all thought—promptly fell in love with him. For a year she tried unsuccessfully to seduce her son-in-law. Finally, he told her that if she did not stop importuning him, he would return to Alexandria. Quite out of her mind with rage, the woman went to Constantia and offered that noble queen a small fortune for the arrest and execution of her son-in-law. Constantia took the money; and the unfortunate youth was executed on a trumped-up charge. Then Constantia, who was not without a certain bitter humor, sent the matron her son-in-law’s genitals with a brief note: “At last!” The woman lost her mind. Antioch was scandalized. And the days of terror began.
At times it seemed almost as if Gallus and Constantia had deliberately studied the lives of previous monsters with an eye to recreating old deeds of horror. Nero used to roam the streets at night with a band of rowdies, pretending he was an ordinary young buck on the town. So did Gallus. Caligula used to ask people what they thought of the emperor and if their answer was unflattering, he would butcher them on the spot. So did Gallus. Or tried to.
Unfortunately for him, Antioch—unlike early imperial Rome—has the most elaborate street lighting in the world. Our night is like the noon in most cities, so Gallus was almost always recognized. As a result, the praetorian prefect of the East, Thalassios, was able to persuade him that not only was it unbecoming for a Caesar to rove the streets at night, it was also dangerous. Gallus abandoned his prowling.
During Gallus’s third year as Caesar, there was a famine in Syria. When the food shortages at Antioch began, Gallus tried to fix prices at a level which would make it possible for everyone to buy grain. Even wise rulers from time to time make this mistake. It never works since the result is usually the precise opposite of the one intended. Grain is either held back from the market or bought up by speculators who resell it at a huge profit, increasing the famine. Men are like this and there is nothing to be done about them.
The senate of Antioch has many faults, but its members are sound businessmen with an understanding of the market which is their life. They warned Gallus of the dangers of his policy. He ordered them to obey him. When they continued to resist him, he sent his own guards into the senate chamber, arrested the leading senators and condemned them to death.
Antioch had reason to be grateful to both Thalassios and Nebridius, the Count of the East. These two brave men told Gallus that if he went through with the executions, they would appeal to Augustus and demand the Caesar’s removal. It was a brave thing to do, and to everyone’s surprise they carried the day. Gallus released the senators, and that was the end of the matter.
For some months Antioch was relieved to know that in Thalassios the city had a defender. But then Thalassios died of fever. Of course it was rumored that he had been poisoned, but I happen to know that it was indeed the fever that he died of, as we shared the doctor. But I do not mean to write the history of Gallus, which is so well known.