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Julian (novel) Literature

Julian, 58

– IX –

Julian Augustus

It was mid-October when I arrived in Milan. The weather was dry and the air so clear that one could see with perfect clarity those blue alps which separate civilization from barbarism, our world of sun from that melancholy green forest where dwells Rome’s nemesis.

Just before the city’s gate we were met by one of Constantius’s eunuchs, a gorgeous fellow with many chins and an effortless sneer. He did not salute me as is proper, a bad omen. He gave the commander of my guard a letter from the Emperor. When I saw this, I began to recite the first of the passwords I should need when I arrived in the kingdom of the dead. But I was not to be dispatched just yet. Instead I was taken to a house in one of the suburbs. Here I was imprisoned.

Imprisonment exactly describes my state. I was under heavy guard. During the day, I was allowed to stroll in the atrium. But at night I was locked in my bedroom. No one could visit me, not that there was anyone in Milan I wanted to see or who wanted to see me, excepting the Empress Eusebia. Of my household, I was allowed to keep only two boys and two men. The rest were transferred to the imperial palace. There was no one I could talk to. That was the greatest hardship of all. I should have been pleased to have had even a eunuch for company!

Why was I treated this way? I have since pieced the story together. While I was in Athens, a general named Silvanus was proclaimed Augustus in Gaul. I am convinced that at heart he was innocent of any serious desire to take the purple, but the enmity of the court eunuchs drove him to rebellion.

As soon as this happened, Constantius arrested me because he was afraid that I might take advantage of the defection of Gaul to rise against him in Attica. As it turned out, before I reached Milan, Silvanus was dead at Cologne. Constantius’ luck in civil war had proved itself again.

But the death of Silvanus did not solve the problem of Julian. While I was locked up in that suburban villa, the old debate was reopened. Eusebius wanted me put to death. Eusebia did not. Constantius kept his own counsel.

I prepared several letters to Eusebia, begging her to intercede with the Emperor that I might be allowed to return to Athens. But I finally decided not to send her any message, for Constantius’s suspicions were easily aroused, to say the least, and any exchange between his wife and his heir presumptive would not only be known to him but would doubtless turn him against both of us. I did the wise thing.

At dawn, on the thirteenth day of my captivity, my life altered forever. I was awakened by a slave banging on the bedroom door. “Get up, Lord! Get up! A message from the Augustus!” Fully clothed, I leapt out of bed. I then reminded the slave that until someone unlocked the door I could hardly receive the imperial messenger.

The door flew open. The commander of my guard was beaming. I knew then that the divine will had begun its work. I was to be spared.

“A messenger, sir. The Emperor will receive you tonight.” I stepped into the atrium and got my first taste of what it is like to be in favour. The house was now full of strangers. Fat eunuchs in gaudy silk; clerks from various government offices; tailors; sandalmakers; barbers; youthful officers drawn to what might be a new sun and source of honour. It was dizzying.

The messenger from Constantius was no other than Arintheus, who serves with me now in Persia. He is remarkably beautiful, and the army loves him in that fervent way armies have of loving handsome officers. He is auburn-haired and blue-eyed, with a strong, supple body. He is completely uneducated, but brave and shrewd in warfare. His only vice is an excessive fondness for boys, a practice I usually find unseemly in generals. But the men are amused by his sensuality. Also, he is a cavalry man and among cavalry men pederasty is a tradition. I must say that day when Arintheus approached me, blue eyes flashing and ruddy face grinning, I nearly mistook him for Hermes himself, streaming glory from Olympus as he came to save his unworthy son. Arintheus saluted me briskly; then he read aloud the letter summoning me for audience. When he had finished reading (with some difficulty, for he has never found reading easy), he put the message away, gave me his most winning smile and said, “When you are Caesar, don’t forget me. Take me with you. I prefer action.” He patted his sword hilt. I dithered like a fool. He departed.

Then began a new struggle. My beard would have to go, also my student’s clothes. I was now a prince, not a philosopher. So for the first time in my life my beard was shaved. It was like losing an arm. Two barbers worked on me while I sat in a chair in the centre of the atrium as the morning sun shone on a spectacle which, looking back, was perfectly ludicrous. There was I, an awkward twenty-three-year-old philosophy student, late of the University of Athens, being turned into a courtier.

A slave girl trimmed my toenails and scrubbed my feet, to my embarrassment. Another worked on my hands, exclaiming at the inkiness of my fingers. The barber who shaved my beard also tried to shave my chest but I stopped him with an oath. We compromised by letting him trim the hair in my nostrils. When he was finished, he brought me a mirror. I was quite unable to recognize the youth who stared wide-eyed from the polished metal—and it was a youth, not a man as I had thought, for the beard had been deceptive, giving me an undeserved look of wisdom and age. Without it, I resembled any other youngster at court.

I was then bathed, oiled, perfumed and elaborately dressed. My flesh shrank from the lascivious touch of silk, which makes the body uncomfortably aware of itself. Today I never wear silk, preferring coarse linen or wool.

I have only a vague memory of the rest of that day. I was carried to the palace through crowded streets. The people stared at me curiously, uncertain whether or not it was right to applaud. I looked straight ahead as I had been instructed to do when on view. I tried not to hear conversations in the street. Desperately I tried to recall the eunuch’s instructions.

At the edge of the city’s main square the palace, grey and forbidding behind its Corinthian colonnade, rose before me like fate itself. Troops were drawn up in full dress on either side of the main door. When I stepped out of the litter, they saluted.

Several hundreds of the people of Milan drew close to examine me. In every city there is a special class whose only apparent function is to gather in public places and look at famous men. They are neither friendly nor unfriendly, merely interested. An elephant would have pleased them most, but since there was no elephant, the mysterious Prince Julian would have to do. Few of them could identify me. None was certain just what relation I was to the Emperor. It is amazing how little we are known to our subjects. I know of places on the boundaries of the empire where they believe Augustus himself still reigns, that he is a great magician who may not die. Of course, the fact each of us calls himself Augustus is a deliberate attempt to suggest that the continuity of power emanating from Rome is the one constant in a world of flux. Yet even in the cities where there is widespread literacy, the average citizen is often uncertain about who the ruler is. Several times already I have been addressed as Constantius by nervous delegations, while one old man actually thought I was Constantine and complimented me on how little I had changed since the battle at the Mulvian bridge!

Inside the palace, curiosity was mingled with excitement and anticipation. I was in favour. I read my good fortune in every face. In the vestibule they paid me homage. Heads bobbed; smiles flashed; my hand was wrung with warmth, kissed with hope. It was disgusting… in retrospect. At the time, it was marvellous proof that I was to live for a while longer.

I was delivered to the Master of the Offices, who gave me a final whispered briefing. Then, to the noise of horns, I entered the throne room.