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Julian (novel)

Julian, 60

The palace at Milan is a large rambling building. Originally it was a military governor’s rather modest headquarters. In the last century when Rome ceased to be a practical centre for the West, the palace was enlarged to become an imperial residence. Because of the German tribes, the emperors had to be close to the Alps. Also, the farther an emperor is from the city of Rome the longer his reign is apt to be, for the populace of that city is notoriously fickle and arrogant, with a long memory of the emperors it has overthrown. None of us stays for long at Rome if he can help it.

Constantine enlarged the palace in Milan, building the state rooms, while Constantius added the second-floor living quarters through which we now walked. These rooms look out on a large inner court. I personally prefer the old-fashioned form of architecture with small private rooms arranged about an atrium, but Constantius was a modernist in architecture as well as in religion. I find such rooms too large, and of course ruinously expensive to heat.

Guards and eunuchs stood at every door, arrogant yet servile. A court is the most depressing place on earth. Wherever there is a throne, one may observe in rich detail every folly and wickedness of which man is capable, enamelled with manners and gilded with hypocrisy. I keep no court in the field. In residence, I keep as little as possible.

At the final door, Eusebius left me with a deep bow. Guards opened the door, and I stepped into the private dining room. Constantius reclined on one of the two couches within whose right angle was the table. Opposite him Eusebia sat in an ivory chair. I bowed low to both of them, intoning the proper formula.

Constantius mumbled his response. Then he waved me to the couch beside him.

“You look better without that damned beard.”

I blushed as I took my place on the couch. Eusebia smiled encouragingly. “I rather liked the beard,” she said.

“That’s because you’re an atheist, too.” My heart missed a beat. But it was only the Emperor’s heavy wit.

“She likes these high-sounding, low-living Cynics.” He indicated his wife with a knotty ringed hand. “She’s always reading them. Not good for women to read.” I said something agreeable, grateful to find him in a good mood. Constantius had removed his diadem and outer robes, and he looked almost human, quite unlike the statue he had appeared earlier.

Wine was brought me and though I seldom drink it full strength, this day I drank deep, to overcome nervousness.

“Who does he look like?” Constantius had been examining me curiously, like a new slave or horse. “Without that beard?”

Eusebia frowned, pretending to be thoughtful. One gives away nothing in dealing with a tyrant, even if the tyrant is one’s husband.

The Emperor answered his own question, “Constans. You look just like him. Just like my brother.” My heart sank. Constantius had always been thought to have had a hand in his brother’s death. But there was no significance to this remark, either. Constantius, at his ease, tended to be literal and rather simple.

I said that I had been too young to recall what my late cousin had looked like.

“Much the best of the three of us. Tall. Like our father.” Constantius was much concerned with his own shortness.

An elaborate dinner was served us, and I tasted everything, for to refuse any dish would show that one suspected the Emperor of treachery. It was an ordeal, and my stomach nearly rebelled.

Constantius led the conversation, as emperors are supposed to do—unless they are given to philosophic debate like me, in which case I must speak very fast at my own table to be heard.

I was asked about my studies at Athens. I described them, ending “I could spend the rest of my life there.” As I said this, I noticed that Eusebia frowned imperceptibly: a signal that I was not to speak of student life.

But Constantius had not been listening. He lay now flat on his back, belching softly and kneading his barrel-like stomach with one hand. When he spoke, he did so with eyes shut.

“I am the first Augustus to reign alone since my father, who was himself the first to reign alone in this century. But he never intended for just one of us to rule. Any more than Diocletian intended for any one of his successors to govern alone.” Constantius raised himself on one elbow and looked at me with those curiously mournful eyes which were his most attractive yet most puzzling feature. They were the eyes of a poet who had seen all the tragedy in this world and knows what is to come in the next. Yet the good effect of those eyes was entirely undone by a peevish mouth.

Who could ever know Constantius? I certainly did not. I hated him, but Eusebia loved him—I think —and she was a woman who would not have cared for what was evil. Like the rest of us, Constantius was many men in the body of one.

“The world is too big for one person to govern it.” My heart beat faster for I knew now what was to come. “I cannot be everywhere. Yet the imperial power must be everywhere. Things have a habit of going wrong all at once. As soon as the German tribes get loose in the north, the Persians attack in the south. At times I think they must plan it. If I march to the East, I’m immediately threatened in the West. If one general rises up against me, then I must deal with at least two more traitors at the same time. The empire is big. Distances are great. Our enemies many.” He tore off a roast duck’s leg and chewed it, all the time looking at me with those melting eyes.

“I mean to hold the state together. I shall not sacrifice one city to the barbarians, one town, one field!” The high-pitched voice almost cracked. “I mean to hold the state for our family. We won it. We must maintain it. And that is why we must be loyal to one another.” How that phrase from those cruel lips struck me! I dared not look at him.

“Julian,” the voice was lower now. “I intend to make you Caesar, and my heir until such time as I have a son.”

“Lord…” was all I could say. Tears unexpectedly filled my eyes. I shall never know if I wanted my fate. Yet when it came to me, a secret line snapped within and the perilous voyage began.

Eusebia congratulated me. I don’t recall what was said. More wine was brought and Constantius, in a jovial mood, told me how the astrologists preferred 6 November to any other day in the month. He also insisted that I study military strategy, while assembling a household suitable to my new rank. I was to have a salary. It would not be large, he said, understating the matter considerably: if I had not had a small income from my mother’s estate, I would have starved to death that first year. My cousin could never be accused of generosity.

Constantius almost smiled at me. “Now,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.” The surprise was his sister Helena. She entered the room with great dignity. I had never met her, though I had seen her at a distance during my first visit to Milan.

Helena was not an attractive woman. She was short, inclined to stoutness, with the short legs and long torso of Constantius. By one of those unlucky chances, her face was the face of her father Constantine the Great. It was most alarming: the same broad cheeks, the thin proud mouth, the large nose, the huge full jaw, an imperial portrait re-created in a middle-aged woman. Yet despite this unfortunate resemblance, she was otherwise most feminine with an agreeable soft voice. (I have always hated women with shrill voices.) She moved modestly, even shyly. At the time I knew nothing about her except that she was ten years older than I, and that she was Constantius’s favourite sister.

After formally acknowledging our greetings, Helena took her place in the vacant chair. She was obviously under considerable strain. So was I, for I knew exactly what was going to happen next. I had always known that something like this was apt to be my fate, but I had put it as much as possible out of my mind. Now the moment was at hand.

“We do you the honour,” said Constantius, “of bestowing our own beloved sister upon you as your wife and consort, a human and tangible link between our crowns.” He had obviously prepared this sentence in advance. I wondered if he had spoken thus to Gallus when he gave him Constantia in marriage.

Helena looked at the floor. I am afraid I turned scarlet. Eusebia watched me, amused but guarded. She who had been my friend and ally could now quite easily become my enemy. I was aware of this, even then. Or do I write now with hindsight? In any case, it was perfectly plain that should Helena have a child and Eusebia remain barren, my child would be Constantius’s heir. The four of us were now caught like flies in a spider’s web.

I have no clear idea what I said to Constantius. I am sure that I stammered. Helena later said that I was most eloquent, though unable to look at her during my speech of acceptance. Doubtless I was thinking of my conjugal duties. Never did a woman attract me less. Yet we would have to have a child. This sort of burden is the usual fate of princes and I daresay it is a small price to pay for greatness, though at the time it seems larger than it ought.

Helena was a good woman but our moments of intimacy were rare, unsatisfactory, and somewhat pathetic, for I did want to please her. But it was never pleasant, making love to a bust of Constantine. Though I could not make her happy, I did not make her suffer, and I think we became friends.

The dinner ended when Constantius swung his short bowed legs to the floor, and stretched till his bones cracked. Then without a word to any of us, he left the room. Eusebia gave me a half-smile. She put her hand out to Helena and together the two women withdrew, leaving me staring at the pheasant’s eggs which an artistcook had arranged in a beautifully leathered nest as final course. It was an extraordinary moment. I had entered the room a proscribed student. I left it as Caesar and husband. The change was dizzying.