P.O. Box 1333
Merchantville NJ 08109, USA
The Mese, a wide avenue with
porticoed shops on both sides, was the main thoroughfare and backbone
of New Rome. It passed through most of the major fora and stretched
almost the entire length of the city, from the Hippodrome to the Golden
Gate. That particular morning, the Mese was a bustle of activity,
packed with an unusual amount of traffic moving in the direction of the
Hippodrome. Belisarius, Florentius, and John struggled to make their
way against the human current and it took them considerably longer than
expected to reach the derelict church.
When they did, they were surprised to find the entrance occupied by a dozen or so stout-looking ruffians. Their clothing marked them immediately as die-hard partisans of the Green faction and though ostensibly Romans, they wore their filthy hair after the fashion of the Huns and in all things acted the part of the barbarian. Several of them stood loitering around in front of the church, while a few urinated against its side. A couple of them had taken the liberty of raiding and devouring the victuals that had been left for the holy man as alms.
Incensed, Belisarius and his companions approached the scene with clenched fists.
“You there!” Belisarius shouted. A dozen heads turned in their direction. “Are you pagans that you treat a Christian holy place so outrageously?”
“We are better Christians than you, it seems,” a tall, lanky man with a bowl haircut and several missing teeth called out, mocking Belisarius’s highly accented Greek. “You dare to judge our actions? Who are you to judge? Are you not a sinner yourself?”
“Hypocrite!” a hulking Green brute with a dirty beard shrieked. “You are no friend of Christ!” Several of the other Greens murmured their agreement.
Belisarius was momentarily flummoxed by the sheer audacity of the charge.
“Who do you think Christ would recognize as his friends,” Florentius picked up the thread. “Those who come to seek advice from one of His holy men, or a rabble who devours the provisions of His holy man and makes water on his doorstep?”
“Look to your own sins before condemning what we do,” another Green shouted, even as he jammed a handful of ill-gotten bread into his mouth.
“Be ye Greens or Blues?” the tall Green challenged, tiring of religious talk.
“Neither,” replied Florentius forcefully. “You men be gone from here.”
“Come, come,” another Green replied smugly. “Surely you biscuit-eaters must favor either the Blues or the Greens. Don’t tell me you’re a White? Or a Red?”
“They’re Blues! I seen ‘em in with the Blues at the races!” a drunken pimple-faced youth lied, looking for an easy pretext to resort to fisticuffs.
“Blue maggots!” another called out in support.
“And what would you do if we were Blues?” Belisarius said, stepping forward boldly with his arms folded across his chest.
“Let me show you,” said one of the Greens. He then tried to lay hands on Belisarius but immediately regretted his attempt. Grabbing the offender’s arm with his left hand, Belisarius landed a hard right on the bridge of the Green’s nose, sending him sprawling to the ground. The others rushed to his aid, but Florentius—a full head taller than any of the Green brawlers—gave a loud shout and began laying waste with his fists and elbows, sending spittle and teeth flying in every direction. John joined the fray as well, tackling a man who attempted to jump Belisarius from behind and driving him hard to the pavement.
Before the Greens could attempt to use their numbers to their advantage, a man in Hunnic garb leapt off his horse and joined the fray. He was short of stature but fought larger men with an audacity and skill that betrayed years of practice. The fighting prowess of the four was such that the Greens soon lost any desire for battle and fled away down nearby streets. Belisarius and the others didn’t bother to give chase, but instead regrouped to take inventory of their scratches and scrapes.
“Thanks, friend,” Belisarius said to the newcomer.
“Rotten dogs,” the man muttered in barely intelligible Greek. “They dare raise fist to soldiers of emperor?”
“They respect no law,” John stated plainly.
“I am Belisarius and these are my friends and comrades, John and Florentius. What is your name?” Belisarius asked, wondering at the novelty of a Hun in Byzantium.
“Aigan my name,” the fellow replied. “Of Massagetae people. Friends of Romans. King send me to trade gold for Massagetae horsemen.”
“If all the Massagetae fight as well as you do, it will be a poor trade for your king,” John quipped.
“Apologies. Massagetae fight better by horse than by foot,” Aigan replied humbly, missing the humor. He moved toward his sturdy pony and with a single bound was seated comfortably in the saddle. Belisarius noted how he used a strange scala or step that hung from his saddle to accomplish this move with such ease.
“We are going to speak to a holy man of God,” Florentius mentioned. “Would you care to seek his counsel as well, considering how valiantly you fought to preserve his house?”
“I delay with fighting long enough,” the Hun replied. “Perhaps if fortune smiles on Massagetae trade, we fight together again?”
“We can only hope. Go with God.” Belisarius said, extending his arm. The Hun took it and gave him a fierce smile.
“Farewell, then, Roman friends,” Aigan cried. Strong grip, he thought as he rode away. There are some powerful men yet left among them.
From Chapter 14
AD 529, Spring
Second year of the reign of Justinian, Emperor of the Romans
At Edessa in Roman Orsoene
ordered, Belisarius left Daras in early March for another recruiting
tour of the East. His first stop was the bustling city of Edessa, which
was a hive of building activity. Largely destroyed four years before by
a terrible flood of the river Scyrtus which flows through it, Edessa
was being hastily rebuilt and refortified with funds which had been
earmarked by the Emperor Justin before his death. The great buildings
of the city were being reconstructed from the ground up and in the best
tradition of Roman engineering, an intricate system of channels and
levees was under construction to protect the city from future
catastrophic floods. The city had been officially renamed
“Justinopolis”, but despite the deceased emperor’s largesse,
almost no one among the local people had adopted the new appellation.
Thanks to Solomon’s subtle propaganda, recruiting went well in Edessa—so well that Belisarius reached his quota in a single day and added two dozen more besides. But what gladdened him more was the arrival of Florentius who had taken the opportunity of his friend’s visit to request a furlough from his unit in nearby Roman Armenia. The two dined together that evening as the guests of Andreas, the bishop of the town. Procopius also tagged along, as Belisarius had grown increasingly fond of his secretary’s keen mind, obstreperous opinions, and occasionally acerbic wit.
“I’m glad you’ve had such success in our city, Strategos,” Andreas said after welcoming them to his well-appointed banquet hall. “I think you will find that we Edessenes make excellent soldiers.”
“I’m confident you’re right,” Belisarius said. “Fine strong lads all of them.”
“Just promise me that they will be kept nearby to guard the frontier with Persia,” Andreas begged, worry creeping into his voice.
“You know, Excellency, that we can promise no such thing,” Belisarius replied tersely. “Roman soldiers go wherever the Emperor orders us without question.”
“Ah, I know all too well,” Andreas sighed. “How many times in my life have I seen our finest young men sent off to fight against Isaurians, Huns or Goths while the Persians pierce the frontier with impunity and run roughshod over our own fields, up to the very walls!”
“With due respect, Excellency, recall that you are speaking to a pair of Thracians who have been sent to defend the eastern frontier, far from our own homes,” Florentius chided gently.
Andreas smiled. “Well played, young soldier. May God bless your service. I only ask that both of you will remember the East to the Emperor, and especially our own city of Edessa.”
“I will certainly report favorably upon Justinopolis,” Belisarius said.
Andreas smiled again. “Right.”
The meal progressed and the banter became more relaxed as the wine flowed. Andreas and Florentius eventually began discussing abstract points of theology that were utterly beyond Belisarius, who sat back and absorbed as much as he could. Procopius appeared bored as the topic began to predominate and was about to excuse himself when the conversation suddenly turned.
“Ah, but what use is all this talk!” Andreas sighed. “It is clear to me that we are in the final days that Our Lord spoke of. False prophets abound. Wars and rumors of war are everywhere. The Empire is collapsing around our ears.”
“That is very true, Excellency,” Procopius added. He hadn’t spoken for some time, so all three heads turned in his direction. “It appears to me as well that the Empire is doomed and we are living in an era of great decline and destruction. We may see the last Roman Emperor in our lifetimes and witness the whole empire go completely to ruin.”
“Nonsense!” Belisarius retorted. “The Roman Empire is favored by Almighty God. The Emperor is His steward on Earth, particularly now that great orthodox men like Justin and Justinian are on the throne.”
“Exactly,” Florentius added, supporting his friend. “The declines suffered by the Empire have always mirrored the rise of persecutions against the orthodox Christians either by pagan Hellenes or by heretics. Now that an orthodox Emperor reigns, we can expect to see a revival of Roman power throughout the world.”
“That’s an optimistic but ultimately unrealistic view,” Procopius rejoined, his eyes bulging from his thin face. “Our enemies are more numerous and powerful now than they have ever been while the Roman fighting spirit is almost nonexistent—present company excluded, of course. It is as if the very soul has been drained out of the civilized people of the world.”
Andreas the bishop squinted as he sized up Procopius. “You probably think that all would be well again if we could only restore the Altar of Victory to the Senate House in Rome. Is that not so?”
Procopius assumed an expression like that of a rat who had been smoked out of his den. He swallowed hard and looked almost pleadingly at the Bishop, his mouth open but silent.
“Fear not, young man,” Andreas said before Procopius could utter a word. “I am not of that school which thinks that people may be coerced into the Faith. If you are a Hellene, be certain that I will not refrain from trying to convince you of your error using every logical and rhetorical device I can muster. But I will not denounce you in public and I will not hand you over to the city prefect for punishment.”
Knowing that the Emperor Justinian himself had recently instituted a very public campaign of pagan suppression, Belisarius and Florentius surreptitiously glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.
“Do not be surprised at my words, O General,” Andreas said, sensing their unease. “The Emperor has political motives for many of his laws that do not always match the will of Almighty God. I speak boldly on these matters, and would gladly do so before the Emperor himself if called.”
“Speak freely, Excellency. For my part, I agree with you,” Florentius declared.
“I am poorly schooled on such matters,” Belisarius intoned solemnly. “Thus, I defer to ecclesiastical authority. Besides, this fellow was sent to me by the Emperor himself. If the Emperor disapproved of him, I reckon he would not have sent him.”
Procopius seemed reassured by the candor of those around him. “In that case, I admit only that I have doubts about the Christian religion. I am no Hellene. I am an admirer of Roman and Greek antiquity and believe that we would do well to follow the wisdom of Zosimus and Symmachus. Few believe that the pagan divinities truly exist. Yet the rites developed around them were the sources of Roman valor and strength. When these ceremonies were crushed by Christian emperors, it was almost as if the fire that kept the cauldron of Roman manhood boiling was suddenly doused. And now the cauldron produces but a lukewarm stew suitable for no good thing—again, present company excluded. What possible harm could it do to relight this fire and reinstitute the rites, given that the gods they venerate do not exist anyway?”
“But that’s where you’re wrong, Procopius,” Belisarius interjected. “The gods of the ancients do exist.”
“And they are malignant demons,” Andreas the Bishop added vigorously. “They drove the ancients to the very depths of depravity—can anyone deny it? Jupiter himself was an incestuous serial adulterer, a rapist, and a pederast. All of these are crimes deserving censure or death, not reverence and worship.”
“I too have read the arguments of Augustine, Tertullian and Justin Martyr,” Procopius responded dismissively, waving his hands. “Not convincing. It is my opinion that the exploits of the ancient gods were mere children’s stories. Complete fabrications not real by any means. And as long as we’re speaking freely, I believe much the same about the Gospels.”
The room fell silent for a moment.
Andreas smiled paternally. “You are a very learned young man, Procopius. You’ve probably read more books than exist in the whole of Edessa. But have you, pray tell, read the works of Eusebius of Pamphylia?”
“Indeed I have,” Procopius replied, eager to demonstrate his erudition.
“Then perhaps you’ll remember a passage in his History of the Church dealing with my own city of Edessa,” Andreas hinted provocatively.
Procopius wrinkled his brow in thought, then his eyes bulged a bit. “The letter!”
“Would you like to see it?” Andreas smiled.