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Julian (novel)

Julian, 52

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

Priscus: Macrina was a bitch. We all detested her, but because she was the niece of Prohaeresius we endured her. Julian’s description of our first meeting is not accurate. That is to say, what he remembers is not what I remember. For instance, he says that his bodyguard arrived before I answered Macrina. This is not true. I told her then and there that my silence masked compassion for the intellectual shortcomings of others since I did not wish to wound anyone, even her. This caused some laughter. Then the guards arrived.

For the historic record I should give my first impression of Julian. He was a handsome youth, thick in the chest like all his family, and muscular, a gift of nature since in those days he seldom exercised. He was far too busy talking. Gregory was not entirely inaccurate when he described Julian’s breathless and continual conversation. In fact, I used to say to him, “How can you expect to learn anything when you do all the talking?” He would laugh excitedly and say, “But I talk and listen at the same time. That is my art!” Which perhaps was true. I was always surprised at how much he did absorb.

Not until I read the memoir did I know about the conversation with Prohaeresius. I never suspected the old man of such cunning, or boldness. It was a dangerous thing to admit to a strange prince that he had consulted an oracle. But he always had a weakness for oracles.

I never liked the old man much. I always felt he had too much of the demagogue in him and too little of the philosopher. He also took his role as a great old man seriously. He made speeches on any subject, anywhere. He cultivated princes the way bishops cultivate relics. He was a formidable orator, but his writings were banal.

Let me tell you something about Macrina since Julian is not candid and if I don’t tell you, you will never know. They had a love affair which was the talk of the city. Macrina behaved with her usual clownishness, discussing the affair with everyone in intimate detail. She declared that Julian was a formidable lover, indicating that her own experience had been considerable. Actually, she was probably a virgin when they met. There were not many men of her set who would have made the effort to make her a nonvirgin. After all, Athens is famous for the complaisance of its girls, and not many men like to bed a talking-woman, especially when there are so many quiet ones to choose from. I am positive that Julian was Macrina’s first lover.

There was a funny story going around at about this time, no doubt apocryphal. Julian and Macrina were overheard while making love. Apparently all during the act each one continued to talk. Macrina is supposed to have confuted the Pythagoreans while Julian restated the Platonic powers, all this before and during orgasm. They were well matched.

Julian seldom mentioned Macrina to me. He was embarrassed, knowing that I knew of the affair. The last time we spoke of her was in Persia when he was writing the memoir. He wanted to know what had become of her, whom she had married, how she looked. I told him that she was somewhat heavy, that she had married an Alexandrian merchant who lived at Piraeus, that she has three children. I did not tell him that the oldest child was his son.

Yes. That is the famous scandal. Some seven months after Julian left Athens, Macrina gave birth. During the pregnancy she stayed with her father. Despite her daring ways she was surprisingly conventional in this matter. She was desperate for a husband even though it was widely known that the bastard was Julian’s and therefore a mark of honour for the mother. Luckily, the Alexandrian married her and declared the child was his.

I saw the boy occasionally while he was growing up. He is now in his twenties and looks somewhat like his father, which makes it hard for me to be with him. Stoic though I am, in certain memories there is pain. Fortunately, the boy lives now in Alexandria, where he runs his stepfather’s trading office. He has, Macrina once told me, no interest in philosophy. He is a devout Christian. So that is the end of the house of Constantine. Did Julian know that he had a son? I think not. Macrina swears she never told him, and I almost believe her.

A few years ago I met Macrina in what we Athenians call the Roman agora. We greeted one another amiably, and sat together on the steps of the water-clock tower. I asked about her son.

“He is beautiful! He looks exactly like his father, an emperor, a god!” Macrina has lost none of her old fierce flow of language, though the edge to her wit is somewhat blunted. “But I don’t regret it.”

“The resemblance? Or being the mother of Julian’s son?”

She did not answer. She looked absently across the agora, crowded as always with lawyers and tax collectors. Her dark eyes were as glittering as ever, though her face has grown jowly and the heavy bosom fallen with maternity and age. She turned to me abruptly.

“He wanted to marry me. Did you know that, Priscus? I could have been Empress of Rome. What a thought! Would you have liked that? Do you think I would have been… decorative? Certainly unusual. How many empresses have been philosophers in their own tight? It would have been amusing. I should have worn a lot of jewellery, even though I detest ornaments. Look at me!” She tugged at the simple garment she wore. Despite her husband’s wealth, Macrina wore no tings, no brooches, no combs in her hair, no jewels in her ears. “But empresses must look the part. They have no choice. Of course I should have had a bad character. I would have modelled myself on Messalina.”

“You? Insatiable?” I could not help laughing.

“Absolutely!” The old edge returned briefly; the black eyes were humorous. “I’m a faithful wife now because I am fat and no one wants me. At least no one I would want wants me. But I’m drawn to beauty. I should love to be a whore! Except I’d want to choose the clientele, which is why I should have loved being empress! History would have loved me, too! Macrina the Insatiable!”

Anyone who saw us on those steps would have thought: what an eminently respectable couple! An old philosopher and a dignified matron, solemnly discussing the price of corn or the bishop’s latest sermon. Instead Macrina was intoning a hymn to lust.

“What would Julian have thought?” I managed to interject before she gave too many specific details of her appetite. It is curious how little interested we are in the sexual desires of those who do not attract us. “I wonder.” She paused. “I’m not sure he would have minded, No. No. No, he would have minded. Oh, not out of jealousy. I don’t think he was capable of that. He simply disliked excess. So do I, for that matter, but then I have never had the chance to be excessive, except in food, of course.” She patted herself. “You see the result? Of course I could still be a beauty in Persia. They revel in fat women.” Then: “Did he ever mention me to you? Later? When you were with him in Persia?”

I shook my head. I’m not certain why I lied to her, unless dislike is sufficient motive.

“No. I suppose he wouldn’t.” She did not seem distressed. One must admire the strength of her egotism. “Before he went back to Milan, he told me that if he lived he would marry me. Contrary to gossip, he did not know that I was pregnant then. I never told him. But I did tell him that I wanted to be his wife, although if Constantius had other plans for him (which of course he did) I would not grieve. Oh, I was a formidable girl!”

“Did you ever hear from him again?”

She shook her head. “Not even a letter. But shortly after he became Emperor he told the new proconsul of Greece to come see me and ask if there was anything I wanted. I shall never forget the look of surprise on the proconsul’s face when he saw me. One look assured him that Julian could not have had any amatory interest in this fat lady. He was puzzled, poor man… Do you think Julian knew about our son? It was not the best-kept secret.”

I said I did not think so. And I do not think so. I certainly never told him, and who else would have dared?

“Did you know Julian’s wife?”

I nodded. “In Gaul. She was much older than he. And very plain.”

“So I’ve heard. I was never jealous. After all, he was forced to marry her. Was he really celibate after she died?”

“As far as I know.”

“He was strange! I’m sure the Christians would have made a saint out of him if he had been one of theirs, and his poor bones would be curing liver complaints at this very moment. Well, that is all over, isn’t it?” She glanced at the water clock behind us. “I’m late. How much do you bribe the tax assessor?”

“Hippia looks after those matters.”

“Women are better at such things. It has to do with details. We delight in them. We are children of the magpie.” She rose heavily, with some difficulty. She steadied herself against the white marble wall of the tower. “Yes, I should have liked to have been Empress of Rome.”

“I doubt it. If you had been empress, you would be dead by now. The Christians would have killed you.”

“Do you think I would have minded that?” She turned full on me and the large black eyes blazed like obsidian in the sun. “Don’t you realize—can’t you tell just by looking at me, my dear wise old Priscus— that not a day has passed in twenty years I haven’t wished I were dead!”

Macrina left me on the steps. As I watched the blunt figure waddle through the crowd towards the magistrate’s office, I recalled her as she had been years before and I must say for a moment I was touched by the urgency of that cry from the heart. But it does not alter the fact that she was and is a sublimely disagreeable woman. I’ve not talked to her since that day, though we always nod when we see one another in the street.