[Rome, September 454]
Flavius Aetius, military savior of Rome,
had spent the early morning on a high platform, watching
the parallel columns of his barbarian troops through a
cloud of yellow dust. His footsoldiers and cavalry were
the mercenary defenders of the City: Huns, almond-skinned
death; Celts, hysterical redheads; Germans who buttered
their hair and perfumed their breath with garlic; Slavs,
who worshiped a four-headed god that ate children.
Playing cleverly on their differences,
Aetius had molded them into an army, Germans predominating
but kept in solution by the rest. In spite of his chronic
depression he was still moved by the sight of ranked men
glittering red and bronze in the sun, swaying a little to
the right or the left, an avalanche ready to roll over an
invader, leaving nothing in its track but a waste littered
with the intrudersí skulls.
Now, leaning on a pair of Hunnish
mercenaries, Aetius returned to his pavilion, an
exhausted-looking bull of an old man, with red eyes and a
spotted tunic-front. No one would have recognized him out
of uniform as the hero who had turned back Attila and his
demon horsemen in Gaul.
He was dying of an intestinal tumor, and
he knew it. Very little mattered to him any more, except
the earnest wish that he might be permitted to expire in
battle rather than in bed. But one god or another, as if
to spite him, had made him live on and on, in the
sterility and comparative safety of the city.
In the big tent Aetius sat on a hard
camp-stool next to a plain table. The tent was sparsely
furnished and hazy with aromatic smoke; the Master of
Soldiers allowed himself one luxury, incense to drown the
smell of his attendants. With the last of the dayís
energy he read dispatches on waxed tablets, piling the
communications on the table in front of him.
A courier saluted, stood at ease by
assumed permission, and announced that Gaius Maximianus
Faustinus, whom some called "Faustinus" and
others "Maximian," was just around the corner.
Aetius turned and smiled wearily at his
Hunnish retainers, Optila and Traustila. The brothers were
as much alike as two apricot-colored ponies.
"Faustinus is everywhere, like
boredom," Aetius said. "Show him in."
The emperorís messengers are
expensive, he thought. Valentinian has no talent
A familiar lean shape appeared in the
press of armored bodies beyond the tent-flap. Master of
Offices for the western emperor at age thirty, the tall,
sandy-haired aristocrat looked closer to twenty. Aetius
was not fond of him. He was polished and hollow, like a
gilded reed. He had convenient opinions and vacant eyes.
In what proportions was he a cunning manipulator and a
self-regarding fool? Did the fool predominate, or the
manipulator? In either case, the young man did not seem
quite human. The pale eyes were unsettling. One expected
to see straight through them into the landscape behind
"You are welcome," Aetius said
with a show of yellow teeth, waving Faustinus off when he
knelt to kiss the old soldierís hands.
"Iíve just come from the
Presence," Faustinus began. "Valentinian asked
me to bring you a message: that he wonít be free to
watch the exercises here with you, tomorrow or the day
after. The details of government are overwhelming the
Aetiusís face sharpened at the news.
Clearly it annoyed him. In the continual struggle for
power between the military and the emperor, daily trifles
were heavy with significance.
"Shall we step out into the
sunlight?" he suggested, rising from his stool with
difficulty, like an elephant getting off its knees.
Followed by the twin Huns, the two men
emerged into the white day. German sentries stood at
attention. Tribunes issued crisp commands. A troop of
German footsoldiers drilled close to the pavilion: two
hundred blue eyes, a hundred short blond beards, a hundred
northern skins sprouting tumors in the murderous Italian
Knowing full well that his words would
reach the emperor before the day was over, Aetius spoke
"Itís hardly surprising that the
emperor prefers not to think of them," Aetius
said with a gesture at the exercising Franks.
"Theyíre so tediously simple and direct. They
donít care about politics. They care about wine and a
belly full of porridge, and as many whores as they can
reconcile with their pay. Itís hardly astounding that their
well-being would have no interest for the man on the Hill,
who lives in a house of gold and eats taxes, and wears
twenty thousand solidi in jewelry all over his wretched
little block of a body, and is incapable of either
simplicity or directness."
Faustinus smiled mechanically at the old
manís outburst. "Sir, it isnít that the emperor
doesnít value your services. Iíve given you only half
his message. The other half is that youíre expected in
the Presence tomorrow, at the fifth hour by the palace
waterclocks, which are always a bit fast."
"Iím expected in the
Presence," Aetius repeated woodenly.
"Have you guessed the
"Need I guess? The treasuryís in
disorder. Thereíll be trouble paying my troops. Thatís
why Valentinian feels more comfortable on his ground than
mine. What else?"
"Thereís a family matter,"
Faustinus said neutrally. "I may not discuss
"Do let me guess," Aetius
said. "Iím going to be presented with more reasons
why my son Gaudentius should not marry his daughter
"Please, sir," Faustinus
resisted with an ivory smile, "I gave my word."
"I donít like conferences with
the emperor," Aetius said. "I always come out
solemnly committed to doing something unspecific. I feel
like an arrow thatís been shot into a haystack. The
haystack is victorious."
The old soldier faced Faustinus with a
restless eye and working jaw-muscles. Aetius had often
been compared to a wild boar easing its tusks against a
"Itís absurdly unnecessary, you
know," he said with a bitter smile, "the
condition of the treasury. Unnecessary, but not
surprising, with a bureaucracy twenty times as large as we
need for any human purpose, with the emperorís personal
finances in everlasting disorder, with the clergy plotting
against the Senate, the Senate against the army, the army
against the clergy, and the poor stealing to live, and no
loyalty or decency to be found anywhere. Itís a mystery
we survive at all. I suppose itís appropriate that the
mess should be presided over by the Sacred Dung-Beetle,
rolling the dung-ball of pointless intrigue up the hill of
state, only to have it roll down and knock him flat, time
"Yes. Willingly if not
Their eyes met; for a split second
Faustinus thought he read in the great warriorís eyes an
exact understanding of the emperorís real purpose. But
Aetius turned the conversation again to the troops,
exercising with a wooden precision that spoke of good
bodies and uncomplicated minds.
It bothered him, Aetius complained, that
the empire had to be defended largely by mercenary Germans
against invading Germans. How long could Rome continue to
manipulate the surplus millions that the northern forests
and plains were vomiting over southern Europe: people who
drank like horses, bred like rabbits, and fought like wild
pigs? Did the emperor understand the predicament of the
empire? Western Gaul had fallen; the Visigoths now
dictated the policies of the Gaulish Senate. Spain was
nearly gone. Britain was never spoken of at Rome; the
memory was an embarrassment. The North African provinces
with their grain supply had passed to Geiseric, whose
Vandals continued to storm the empire from the rear.
"Do you understand," Aetius
asked, turning suddenly to Faustinus, "that weíre
witnessing the death of everything?
"Let us pray that it may not be
so," Faustinus said piously.
"My daughter had a cat,"
Aetius went on, "who was like these savages: not very
sophisticated or articulate, but he knew what he
wantedómy daughterís canaries. The canaries made
endless shrill distinctions and plumed themselves on their
beauty and education and sensitivity. Do you know what the
cat did? He ate them."
"I trust weíll not be like the
birds, Your Perspicacity," Faustinus said soothingly.
"Forgive me, but I must be going."
He bowed, made a hand-sign to his
attendants, and strode away.
Shaking his head, Aetius watched
Faustinusís tall figure disappear into the dusty
"May the Great Mercy preserve us
from youthful ambition," the Patrician said quietly,
half to himself, half to Optila and Traustila.
He passed into the twilight of his
pavilion and slumped on his camp-stool. The Huns watched
him, sensing trouble. Their right hands strayed absently
to their sword-hilts.
"Iíll go to the emperor in peace
and alone," Aetius said, putting a hand on
Traustilaís sword-arm. "Iím tired of violence. If
Valentinianís purpose is honorable, allís well. If
not, allís well still. Do you understand me, little
They nodded, understanding nothing.
"Iíve certainly lived long
enough," Aetius said to the twins, whose dark,
slanted eyes were now wide with alarm, as rare among Huns
as compassion or humor. "Iíve lived to see the day
when itís no longer possible to defend Rome from both
her enemies and her children."
He was ready to go; the sickness would
take him if nothing else did. He smiled sardonically,
thinking of his own mortality, and pressed his fingers
against the boulder in his abdomen. The titles were all
hollow now: Aetius the Patrician, Father of the Emperor,
Savior of Rome, the god-man who had astounded the world by
routing Attila in Gaul; Aetius, Last of the Romans,
besides the pope.
He shrugged with melancholy
indifference, as if the last coin in a pile of
dream-treasure had slipped through his waking fingers, and
then he dozed.
Faustinus was happy to get away from
Aetiusís tent, saturated with the Mercenary
Smellógarlic, sour beverages, barbarian body odoróand
with the complex odor of approaching death, the old
manís contribution. Faustinus had no affirmative
feelings toward the Master of Soldiers. He acknowledged
some fondness for Aetiusís twin Huns. He had known Huns
all his life. Once, on a mission in Gaul, he had watched a
party of them rape a nun, squabbling and pushing with the
eagerness of ill-bred adolescents, after having seared the
local bishop over a fire of church furniture. He admired
the Hunnish directness and lack of sentimentality,
qualities that could perhaps rescue Rome from her decline.
The decline was manifest just outside
the curtains of Faustinusís litter. Like an ancient
whore with a wasting pox, the city had been dying as long
as anyone could remember. People no longer spoke of how
vibrantly she had lived, but of how tenaciously she clung
to life. Some of her institutions still worked: the dole
was distributed, though in pinched proportions; the wheat
ships from Sicily and Egypt docked more or less regularly;
the great families were reasonably safe in their
high-walled palaces, protected by little armies of slaves.
But the city at large was decaying,
sinking, fading. The population had dwindled for a
half-century; Rome and all the cities of the West had
produced a steady out-migration of ruined senators,
superfluous civil servants, bankrupt merchants, hoping
that a good life awaited them in Constantinople, or in the
gloomy forests and empty meadows north of the Danube. The
cityís beggars shared its abandoned mansions with rats
and the wandering wind. The public works were crumbling.
The river-wall was dissolving into the Tiber. Grass and
birdsí nests grew on the roofs of the deserted
basilicas. Weeds choked the untended porticoes. Nor was
the decline local to Rome. Her condition was manifest in
the western empire at large, surrounded by barbarians on
all sides but the east, and cut off from Constantinople by
the Balkan mountains and the Vandal-infested sea.
"Make way!" Faustinusís
footmen shouted, scattering slum-people, a muddle of
urine-stained loincloths, threadbare tunics, straw hats
without crowns, sandals without soles, and eyes glowing
like braziers in a dark house. Faustinus glided past them,
aware of their grim faces, certain that if they could know
his plans they would receive him with cheers rather than
curses. Sometimes, to be sure, it was unclear whether the
plain people of Rome should be improved or eliminated. But
Faustinus noticed in himself a statesmanlike concern for
them. He would find ways to ease their pain, to make them
productive, to deodorize them.
Could a strong hand raise the city to
life again? The Dream had been with Faustinus since
childhood, and it glowed again, like a particolored
mosaic, as his litter-bearers toiled through the slums
toward the Palatine Hill. He smiled fiercely. Soon he
would put away the litter forever and ride like an idol
laden with pearls, in a golden car with purple hangings,
drawn by four snow-white mules.
In the great portico of the imperial
palace-complex, Faustinus surrendered his litter to the
emperorís doormen and himself to a pair of attendants.
The imperial bureaucracy, which he despised, was well
represented in the palace corridors: nameless look-alikes
with self-important faces, hurrying about with sealed
documents under their arms. Unhappily, the best blood of
Rome belonged to these men, with their handsome wigs,
little pot-bellies, three children apiece, and desperately
Unless they can demonstrate their
usefulness, theyíll be gone, Faustinus
thought, hurrying past them.
The throne-room had an atmosphere of
terrified discretion, saturated with incense. There was a
constant exchange of grave looks and barely audible
conversation, a discreet rustling of cloaks, a patter of
soft-soled boots, a subdued clank of ceremonial
short-swords. On every brow was written the fear of the
god-man on the throne. Every object in the room bore
witness to his image; every sound carried the echo of his
The emperor seemed overwhelmed by his
god-likeness. Valentinianís reticence was unattractive:
not the bluff modesty of a soldier-emperor, but a soft,
pleading, indecisive quality that made him an object of
He saw Faustinus and smiled his watery
smile, which seemed to imply remorse or bad digestion. His
jowls quivered weakly; the whole face and form expressed
the self-indulgence of a half-man who would commit murders
and blame them on God, or his upbringing, or the murder
The emperor stood and declared the
morning at an end. While his courtiers and attendants had
bowed their way out of the room, Valentinian summoned
Faustinus into an antechamber. They sat unceremoniously
knee-to-knee on a pair of cushions.
"Good Lord, Faustinus,"
Valentinian said when they were alone, "how tiresome
My Divinity can be. You have news of the upstart? Tell
everything; youíre safe."
The emperorís lips quivered; he
prepared himself to hear the treasonable worst.
Faustinus passed a hand over his eyes,
summoning an expression of dignified sympathy.
"He called you the Sacred
Dung-Beetle. You know how Aetius is; Iím sure he
Valentinian shut his eyes and held his
breath, like a child refusing porridge.
"But what does it mean?" he
inquired plaintively at last.
"What does it mean? I asked myself
that. Naturally the remark stunned me, even if it was only
a tasteless joke. He said it has to do with your rolling
the dung-ball of imperial affairs up the hill of pointless
intrigue, only to have the ball roll back down the hill
and crush you. Itís a debased version of the Sisyphus
story, I think."
In a different mood the emperor would
have responded with threats, tears, curses. Circumstance,
however, seemed to call for dignified resolve. Valentinian
straightened up quietly on his cushion, and a look of
purpose hardened the weak outline of his jaw.
"Iím not greatly surprised,"
he said at last. "It hurts, of course. But a ruler
without enemies is a ruler without qualities. Iím glad
you told me. Youíve made things much easier for me
Faustinus lowered his eyes
"My God," the emperor said,
"itís been difficult coming to this. Iíve had
nightmares. But Aetius is a traitor. He gave away Roman
territory twenty years ago to establish his private army.
You knew that?"
Faustinus wagged his handsome head
"Another year of Aetius," the
emperor rattled on, "and My Divinity will be nothing
but an errand-boy for the Master of Soldiers. He forced me
to swear friendship to him, you know. He extorted from me
the promise of my daughter to his womanizing son, who
would surely contribute to our bloodline every disease
known to man and a few known only to the devil."
The emperorís voice trailed away. He
laughed nervously. Faustinus examined his own big, agile
hands and glanced at Valentinianís chubby red fingers,
knotted in his tunic.
"An extorted promise is hardly
binding," Faustinus volunteered.
"Youíre right, of course, as
always. Thank you. And weíve been over the practical
questions many times, you and I. I could never have
considered an . . . execution, Faustinus, without your
encouragement and support. For all I remember, you thought
of it first. It was certainly your idea that I should take
exercise in the Field of Mars with the Germans, to let
them know me as a friendly face. It was a stroke of
"My privilege, Your
Generosity," Faustinus smiled modestly.
"Youíve charmed him into coming,
"Not the slightest
"Without his smelly Huns?"
"A bodyguard in the Presence?
"Iím really not much of a hand
with my jeweled sword," the emperor said with a
foolish smile. "It isnít meant for use."
"Youíre superb. Iíve watched
you in the field. Besides, youíll have good support from
the Provost of the Sacred Bedchamber." Faustinus
glanced at the eunuch Heraclius, iron under blubber,
standing out of earshot by the door. He felt his cheeks
glow with the fierceness of his pleasure. Valentinianís
sword would clear the path to Valentinianís throne.
The emperor gulped like a student of
rhetoric at his first recital.
"May God forgive me," he said
bleakly. "Iíve never done anything like this with
my own right arm."
The corpse of Aetius was displayed
sitting upright in the Old Forum. It seemed to exert a
hypnotic effect on the crowds; a circle of silence formed
within the daily uproar. There were gasps and snickers,
and a grateful buzzing of flies. Aetiusís head had been
taken off and tucked under the right armpit, an Oriental
flourish inspired by the eunuch Heraclius. At the
Patricianís right hand sat his old friend BoŽthius,
Praetorian Prefect of Italy, the emperorís
second-in-command, similarly headless. Someone made a joke
about the Heavenly Twins. No one laughed.
In his palace on the Caelian Hill, the
eminent senator Petronius Maximus relaxed with his young
friend Faustinus. The subject to be discussed was the
future of the State. Maximus was in an excellent position
to speak of it. He had been Count of the Sacred Bounty at
age nineteen, Prefect of Rome twice, and twice Praetorian
Prefect of Italy, the highest position in the empire next
to the throne itself.
The senator was a great lump of flesh
with a pulpy face that had once been handsome. Now the
body was unhealthy, the complexion winey, but Maximus
still had a fine set of white teeth and he laughed often
to display them. His fortune had shrunk, but it was still
vast. His palace was a labyrinth of burnished floors and
priceless furniture, a perfectly regulated household
animated by a spirit of quiet terror. One could see that
spirit in the cold, well-governed eyes of the
house-slaves. Maximus allowed himself certain illegal
consolations. One of them was to put a difficult slave,
however expensive, to death with his own hands.
The two men reclined on silk-cushioned
couches in the subdued light of a room designed for
Faustinus smiled agreeably.
"Perhaps we should speak of
imperial affairs, my friend, while the Presence is still
fresh in your mind," Maximus suggested, shifting on
his couch and folding his pink hands over his belly.
"Where to begin? We can be sure that Valentinianís
current aggressiveness is merely a clear spot in the
pervasive fog. Heís incapable of purposeful activity; he
gazes at the stars and pisses on his sandals. Today, at
the Palace, I discreetly offered myself as Aetiusís
replacement. Iíd be the first Master of Soldiers in
years to serve the State rather than himself. Valentinian
made no response. Rome perishes for lack of a
The significance of Maximusís last
sentence was unmistakable. Faustinusís heart beat
faster, partly on account of his hostís splendid wine,
which always brought him close to the sentiment of
charity. He looked at Maximus with a generous eye. The big
man could almost be regarded as an elder brother, lying
there on his couch beyond the ivory-inlaid table, a
friendly collection of lumps, like two or more persons
gathered in the same cloak, popping almonds into a common
Faustinus inhaled deeply. The point was
to say the right thing.
"Allow me to imagine myself in the
Sacred Boots a moment," he began. "If the office
had been mine to conferójust speculating, my lordóI
wouldnít have hesitated a moment to make you Aetiusís
successor. The worthiest possible choice, Iíd say; a
natural connection between the military and the
There was a pregnant pause, a murmur of
many fountains. Maximus beamed suddenly, his bright green
eyes receding behind his cheeks.
"It seems weíve perfectly
understood each other all along," the senator said.
"Letís take the air."
They walked together in Maximusís
garden, down white colonnades, around marble ponds fringed
with mosaic, through a complex of rose-beds, past
ornamental balconies and sculptured ilexes.
Faustinus cleared his throat. "The
lack of leadership in the imperial palace is a source of
pain to me, as it is to you. The moral flabbiness of His
Eternity was apparent when I attended him two days ago. He
said, ĎI can talk to you, Faustinus.í The voice was
pitiful. It appears that a shoulder to weep on is a
necessity of life in the purple."
"Thank God all lesser
Ďdivinityí is finite," Maximus said. "As an
intellectual exercise, letís imagine ourselves at the
end of Valentinianís reign. Will there be a struggle for
the succession? The line of Theodosius will be extinct;
Valentinian surely has no more children in him. Aetius is
dead; the emperor insists on being his own Master of
Soldiers, and thatíll mean a temporary paralysis of the
military. Will the Senate come into its own again? Not
likely. Most of them are as characterless as boiled
"Is it unheard-of for the Master of
Offices to rise to the ultimate office?" Faustinus
asked, coming directly to the vital question of the day.
Maximus put up a plump hand. "Let
me finish; the lack of competition excites me. Weíve
eliminated the Senate and the military. How about the
Sacred Household? Well, the old Prefect of Italy is dead,
and his replacement Storacius is a cipher. Who else? The
Count of the Domestics is innocent of ambition. That
should make him harmless. The Quaestor is an empty-headed
sophist. The Count of the Sacred Bounty is content with
fleecing merchants. In Gaul and Illyria, the leadership is
barbarian or senile. Have I missed anyone?"
"The Prefect of Rome,"
Faustinus said, feeling that he was being tested.
They had paused in an intensely green
corner of the garden with a disturbing ambience, implying
hostile intelligence. More than once it had occurred to
Faustinus that the vegetation in Maximusís garden must
be carnivorous. The greens were unnaturally glossy, the
colors artificially bright. There were no pouting leaves
or slouching branches. Like Maximus himself, the plants
smiled brilliantly, and the smile seemed to say,
"Come and be eaten!"
Nevertheless, to live is to trust.
Faustinus calmed himself with the hopeful reflection, and
spoke clearly and quietly.
"As you read it, does Quintus
Jovinus have enough support in the Senate to make a
problem for us?"
"Youíre as close to the answer as
I am," Maximus said, with an enigmatic gesture.
"If he has such support, Iím sure
heís not aware of it. Iíve never met anyone with less
political imagination than Quintus. Heís interesting to
women. He has the bearing of a thoroughbred and the
mediocrity of a cart-horse. As an administrator, heís
not bad. What more is there to say?"
"Is there anything to be said of
his wife?" Faustinus asked.
"Your wifeís sister."
"Adrianaís a handsome
woman," Maximus said. "Sheís certainly bright.
. . ."
"Yes," Faustinus said,
grinding his teeth.
". . . but so far as I know,
"Thatís been my impression,"
Faustinus sighed. "But I must say Iím uncomfortable
with Quintus so close to the throne."
Maximus took a branch of a lotus-bush in
his fingers and twisted it slowly. He measured his words.
"There are always people Ďclose
to the throne,í Faustinus. One doesnít waste time
worrying about them. One makes allies of some, and sooner
or later one does away with the rest."
Faustinus laughed aloud, a dry expulsion
of wind. "Itís comforting that we think so much
alikeófor Romeís sake," he said.
"Yesófor Romeís sake and our
own," Maximus smiled. "Thereís little more to
be discussed. Weíll be in touch daily. Leave the Urban
Prefect to me. Women are Quintus Jovinusís weak spot. We
can use that if necessary. Concentrate on the bodyguard;
use your old friendship with Aetius. We hardly need a
mercenariesí revolt on our hands. And take your time, my
ambitious young friend, take as much time as the thing
"Your word is gold among the great
families," Faustinus said, counting up his assets.
"And yours among the Consistory and
the military: an unusual advantage for an emperor-to-be.
Iíd say youíre invincible."
"How shall I thank you?"
Faustinus asked, anticipating a heavy price.
"How? By keeping after the goal.
Normally Iíd view these matters with detachment, but to
find a race-horse among jackasses is an exciting thing,
and a great occasion for the empire. One more matter.
Youíll forgive me for being grandfatherly. Iíve always
thought that you and Flavia were a handsome couple. From
now on itíll be necessary for the two of you to maintain
a faultless public exterior."
"Certainly, Your Discretion."
"A well-born wife," Maximus
pursued, "is gold in oneís purse. Anything extra is
. . . extra, yes? So we keep our wives happy by leading
chaste lives, for the good of the State. Do you
"By all means," Faustinus
said, with heartfelt insincerity.
They had stopped to look at an anthill,
for which one of Maximusís gardeners would surely die.
"That is a symbol of the
empire," the senator said quietly, gesturing at the
mound. "Constant activity, most of it pointless, but
carried out with energy and show of purpose. Itís a
strange beast you hope to serve, isnít it, Faustinusóthe
million-headed monster we call the Roman People? Always
there are more of them than anyone knows what to do with.
Even in her decline, Rome is the inexhaustible wet-nurse.
The milk may be scanty, but no starveling need be without
a nipple. Rome has nipples for everyone. Think of that
when youíre in traffic today. Every race under the sun
has crowded into this place: Armenians to shave you,
Germans to beat your slaves, Syrians to fix your sandals,
Britons to carry your litter, Persians to towel you after
the bathóand one and all to cheat you."
[Rome, March 455]
In the first light of dawn, Flavia
showed her teeth. Faustinus allowed himself to think that
his wifeís smile might be an expression of pleasure in
his company. It was never easy to interpret Flaviaís
mood. Typically she was bored, disenchanted, hungry,
treacherous as quicksand, hard as iron, snatching her
pleasures from the hand of life and gripping them so
tightly that she crushed them. Nevertheless, he was
certain that her eagerness to succeed Eudoxia as empress
made her a safe ally, if not a congenial one.
Naked, he stretched himself alongside
her and laid his head between her shoulder and her breast,
his hand on her belly, still admirably trim. Alone among
the women of the court, Flavia had been able to reconcile
her appetite for other womenís husbands with her passion
for stuffed eels and honeycake.
"Todayís the day, Your
Resplendency," he whispered.
Mechanically she ran a fingernail down
the back of his neck. "At least youíll be more
virile than Valentinian," she said.
"Everything has come together
well," Faustinus said, stroking his chin. "By
now, Valentinian expects me on the Field of Mars daily,
whether or not I have a reason to be there. He seemed
pleased by my suggestion that Maximus join us today. The
emperor will exercise his new horse for us; the poor fool
likes to show off. Itís a perfect opportunity. I keep
wondering whether in six months Iíve thought of every
possibility. Only this week I satisfied myself that
Constantinople wonít send an avenging army. I can hardly
imagine that the emperor of the East would throw blood and
treasure after the memory of anyone but a kinsman."
"Are you as sure of the barbarian
guard as you were a month ago?" Flavia asked, half
"They may be paid by Valentinian,"
Faustinus said, "but theyíre still Aetiusís men,
and my cause is perfectly suited to their prejudices.
Vengeance is a sacred duty with them. Yesterday they were
making fun of the emperorís belly, and of the way he
rides, poised anxiously on his crotch."
He left the room quickly, before Flavia
could utter a sour note. In his own attiring room, he had
his boy dress him with the fast-moving precision that he
required of all his body-servants. He chose a shimmering
mantle of silk, shot with gold, to wear with his military
gear. He put a single drop of priceless scent behind each
ear, and wore fewer rings than usual, to keep his hands
free for activity.
The morningís ceremonies in the Palace
of the Caesars went smoothly. Faustinusís escort to the
Field of Mars was impressive, two dozen bullies and
way-clearers, uniformed with bare chests as a kind of
advertisement for himself.
Watching his attendants shiver in the
damp weather, he thought again of the emperorís jeweled
conveyances, now within reach, soon to be in hand. Money,
influence, and naked power were about to come together,
like water, spice, and wine. In a rush of euphoria he
allowed himself to imagine the pope kissing him on the
forehead, and saying, rather like Philip of Macedon to
Alexander, "O son, the world must be your realm, for
Rome will not hold you!"
His appetite for the throne had become a
craving. It expressed itself in a perpetual hot
restlessness around the stomach, as when a man needed wine
or gold or the ministry of a girl. He thought warmly of
Petronius Maximus, now on his own way to the imperial
exercise-ground. For months, Maximus had been handing out
gold solidi as if they were turnips, and breathing the
right words into the right ears at the right time.
Faustinus was pleased, but not surprised, that he had
managed to lure the old statesman into the service of his
ambition. One could hardly have a better connection.
Petronius Maximus arrived at the Field
of Mars just ahead of him, trailing slaves and clients in
order of diminishing importance, like a rose garden
dwindling into weeds. The conspirators stood together at a
respectful distance from Valentinianís pavilion. Guarded
by two Germans with gold-headed clubs, they composed their
faces in a show of reverence and waited to be conducted
into the Presence. Germans by the hundred were exercising
in the open field, tearing the moist turf to bits.
"I believe Iíve convinced the New
Aetius," Faustinus said in a sarcastic undertone,
"that his exercise with these German cabbages will
turn them into Roman lilies. A calculated risk to secure
his grip on the military, he told me yesterdayóas if the
words had not been my own when he started courting
Aetiusís bodyguard six months ago. The emperor has a
fine capacity for self-deception. Iíve had many
occasions to be grateful for it. No one else in Rome could
fail to see," he gestured at the exercise ground,
"that these savages still belong to Aetius. Behind
their blank, pink faces they think of nothing but
Maximus smiled affirmatively and bowed
to the eunuch Heraclius, who had floated out of the
pavilion and motioned the conspirators into the Presence.
Externally the emperorís pavilion was
that of an ordinary regimental commander. Internally it
resembled the Sacred Bedchamber. The floor was carpeted in
an ornate Persian design. In the densely perfumed air,
Valentinian lay on a couch covered by a lion-skin with
gold claws, among citron-wood tables piled with figs,
walnuts, tiny cakes, and pickled eggs. All the barbarian
retainers, Optila and Traustila among them, were
transfigured; the emperor had prescribed short hair in the
fashion of the court, stripped the mustaches and the crude
armor, and replaced the smelly leg-wraps with green-silk
Heraclius loomed dangerously behind the
emperor, like a carefully fattened animal. Keeping an eye
on him, Maximus and Faustinus waited to prostrate
themselves on the carpet. With his usual indifference to
ceremony, Valentinian waved them forward, flashing many
"You have Our leave," he said
brightly, sitting up on the edge of his couch. He had
squeezed himself into the uniform of a legionary prefect.
Above the light body-armor, the Sacred Diadem rested
awkwardly on the emperorís saffron wig.
"You may speak," Valentinian
said, abolishing the imperial Silence with another wave of
"We have it on good
authority," Faustinus smiled, "that Your Supreme
Blessedness owns a new Parthian horse."
"Oh! Let me show you! Bring my
bowóand the arrows!" Valentinian clapped his pink
hands. German retainers scattered. The stallion was
brought to the tent, a handsome bay with a white blaze and
"Come to the field with me!"
Valentinian commanded, waving both hands with his cheery
unpretentiousness that verged on imbecility. "I like
to be mounted when I put my men through their paces. Iím
trying to set an example of Roman riding for themóerect,
rather than slouched in the saddle like a barbarian."
Maximus and Faustinus bowed their way
out of the tent, making way for the Presence.
Faustinusís glance met the glance of Optila and
Traustila. The Hun-faces were expressionless, but there
was dark lightning in the eyes.
"My soldiers are good on the
ground, but their riding needs improvement," the
emperor said breathlessly, as Heraclius struggled to mount
him under his tangled weaponry. Valentinian sat up
straight on the horse and saluted no one in particular. On
all sides, ignoring him, barbarian mercenaries brandished
their javelins, bows, pikes, two-edged swords.
With a significant flourish, Maximus
removed a sapphire ring from his left hand and placed it
on his right. Optila unsheathed his long dagger and drove
it upwards through a vulnerable spot in the emperorís
mail-shirt. Valentinian opened his mouth in a silent
shriek and dropped into the grass with a plump thud. The
eunuch Heraclius died at Traustilaís feet, the
barbarianís long dagger in his brain by way of his puffy
On the exercise ground, grinning
fiercely, the mercenaries lunged and parried without
missing a stroke; their loyalty to Aetius had been
satisfied at last. The Parthian horse shied away, alarmed
at the smell of blood. Traustila seized the reins; Optila
gathered up Valentinianís diadem, which had rolled into
a mud puddle.
With nervous sweat glistening on their
flat faces, the two Huns advanced, holding the reins of
the emperorís horse and the diadem, and presented
bothóto Petronius Maximus.
A troop of Franks paused in their
exercise, grinned at each other, and cheered.
"The Senate and Peopleís
choice," the fat senator purred.
"But I thought . . .,"
Faustinus half-whispered, the blood draining from his
"But you were mistaken,"
Maximus said, with a terrible white smile.
In a blaze of jewels and a forest of
ceremonial spears, among dazzling ranks of gilded
headpieces, in a cloud of silk banners, Petronius Maximus
was crowned Emperor of Emperors, the shadow of God upon
the earth. Faustinusís carefully suppressed misgivings
had turned to solid reality. The senatorís gold had
spoken in secret, and now spoke openly. It was Maximusís
bloated form, not Faustinusís trim one, that filled the
gemmed robes of state under the imperial diadem.
Petronius Maximus, emperor of the West!
To have been outmaneuvered by an effete old man tortured
Faustinus nearly as much as aiming for the throne and
missing it. At the coronation, no shadow of his thought
was allowed to reach his frozen face. In the afternoon he
wandered alone to the Tiber, an arrow-shot west of the
Field of Mars, and in a deep depression he watched the
yellow-brown water eddying and swirling under the Aelian
Bridge, with its familiar cargo of dead fish, pieces of
wood, drifts of straw.
Like a schoolboy disappointed in love,
he gave himself over to mental violence. He imagined how
pleasant it would be to have the usurper buggered by six
Egyptians and flayed alive, his skin stuffed with straw
and presented to the empress Eudoxia as a footstool. He
rehearsed the possible tortures to which Maximusís fat
body could be submitted: smearing with honey, followed by
an anthill; cranial surgery, followed by worms on the
brain; anal surgery, followed by acid and strong peppers.
At home he spent hours sitting alone in
his garden, trying to calm his shrieking thoughts. His
body spoke to him in the unfamiliar accents of fear. He
slept badly, and tore the bed to pieces. In the morning
his mind wandered as his clients presented their endless
poems and petitions. His reception room seemed as cold as
a winter on the Danube. When the parasites had gone he
drank a large goblet of unmixed wine to stop the trembling
of his lips.
"Iím alive," he said to
Flavia, "as long as I hear nothing from the
Maximusís position seemed secure. The
acclamation had been nearly unanimous: shouts of the
imperial troops at Rome, seconded wholeheartedly by the
Senate, the rabble, the clergy. Not an avenging voice had
been raised on Valentinianís behalf. The empress Eudoxia
had agreed to marry the usurper without a decent interval
of mourning. The cityís numberless busts of the emperor
had been altered overnight, the head of Valentinian sawed
off, the head of Petronius Maximus cemented in its place.
Money and the promise of more had silenced every
detractor; money had fueled the soldiersí enthusiasm as
they raised Maximusís bloated body to the ceremonial
tribunal and struck a deafening din on their shields with
their swords. On a carpet of gold the senator had walked
effortlessly into his secret dream, and the court, a wall
of protective flesh, had closed around him.
The summons came. Faustinus concluded
that he was a dead man. The deep, perilous intrigue was
over, and he had lost. Moving through the cold streets
toward the Palace of the Caesars, he felt like a puppeteer
whose creatures had turned against him: the ludicrous
plaster senators with their windy distinction-making, the
faceless idiots of the imperial bureaucracy, the
incompetent palace guard, the miserable small-souled
artificers near the throne, all seemed to have broken
their strings and turned to kick him.
He dismissed his attendants and walked
alone down the echoing colonnades of the palace complex.
Two eunuchs received him at the imperial audience-hall; he
followed them to a chamber that the emperor used for
private receptions. Mentally he readied himself to be
flatulent in his assurances of loyalty. A woebegone eunuch
bowed him into the room.
Like a jewelled toad in a velvet box,
Maximus sat among rich hangings and statuary arranged to
focus attention on himself. The imperial Presence glowed
in the soft radiance of innumerable lamps. A delicate
perfume seemed to float upward from the emperor and lose
itself among the gloomy vaults overhead.
Faustinus approached the Presence and
went to his knees. Maximus grinned, like a dog about to
snap at a wasp, and motioned to him to be seated. Wine
appeared, in goblets of a fragile Oriental design.
Faustinus swallowed too hard. Tears came to his eyes. The
emperor was good enough to offer him a napkin with his own
hands. For a moment Faustinus imagined that he had been
seduced into taking poison.
He wiped his eyes and smiled.
"Your Serenity looks well," he
said. "Itís pleasant to know that the palace houses
a happy family."
"The empress weeps a little,"
"Iím sure itís a sign of good
health," Faustinus said. "One distrusts dry eyes
in times of upheavalóeven when the upheaval is all for
There was a silence. A chill crept up
Faustinusís neck. The emperorís personality had never
been more transparently evil. Every poise of the ringed
fingers seemed to conceal a trick. Cold malice rang in the
pleasant laugh, and lingered in each cordial nod of the
"Come, Maximian," the emperor
said gently, "letís take our subject by the
The voice was consoling; the emperor had
called him by his fatherís name. But the gaze was
unsympathetic, and the lips carried the shadow of a smirk.
Faustinus prepared himself for a slight improvement on
"We summoned Your Loyalty here
today as a courtesy," Maximus said, "to advise
you of the makeup of Our Household during the reign of Our
Charity, and to offer you a place in it. Itís the least
an old friend and ally can do."
Faustinus closed his eyes and nodded
respectfully. Maximus leaned back in his chair.
"Perhaps I should begin with the
obvious. Quintus Jovinus has agreed to stay on as Urban
Prefect for the time being. Flavius Charitto will be
Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, on account of his German
connections. Fulgentius, whom you know, will be Quaestor.
Benedictus will be Master of Offices. Terentianus will be
Count of the Sacred Bounty. Brutianus will be Count of the
Privy Purse. Demetrius Cyrus will be Provost of the Sacred
Bedchamber. I detest Greeks and eunuchs, and Cyrus is
bothóbut what can one do? None of this is surprising to
you, I trust."
Faustinus shook his head. One by one the
important offices of the Household were slipping out of
the grasp of his tortured ambition.
The emperor spoke quickly now, in a
lowered voice, as if glossing over a subject of small
importance, but his cold eyes were fixed on Faustinusís
face, making sure that every word had its intended,
"Next, the militaryóan abiding
concern of yours, Faustinus. Iíll be my own Patrician;
weíve had enough superlative Military Masters for
awhile. My Master of Soldiers for Gaul will be Eparchius
Avitus, a harmless relic, as you know, but with
indispensable friendships among the Goths. Majorian has
agreed to continue as Count of the Domestics; the empress,
with her inexplicable fondness for the man, insists he can
be trusted with the household troops, and Iím not in a
mood to resist her. Caius Hypatius will be Master of
Soldiers in the Presence."
Hypatius! That utter cipher, whose only
motive was greed, whose understanding of soldiering went
no further than the techniques of starving his men without
getting caught. Nevertheless, the manís availability to
bribery and blackmail could be useful. Why had Maximus
made no mention of the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy?
"The Praetorian Prefect of
Italy," Petronius Maximus said, clearly enjoying the
flavor of the words on his tongue, "will be Decimus
repeated, feeling some sort of internal collapse. The man
was senile, and had never been more than a puppet of
Maximusís in the Senate.
"Nectarius," Maximus nodded,
with finality. His face seemed to expand and grow darker,
like bread in an oven. He smiled his brilliant, poisonous
"Nectarius has certain . . .
uncommon virtues," the emperor said. "I feel
certain that youíll enjoy working under him."
Under him? Faustinus froze his
features in a smile.
"I trust youíll accept the
honor," Maximus went on, "of the Vicariate of
the City of Rome, answerable to Nectarius. Itís not a
bad office, really: ten provinces, nothing to sneeze at,
and the rank of spectabilis. Naturally, thereíll
be difficulties. Your successes will be attributed to
Nectarius. Nectariusís failures will be attributed to
you, along with your own. The failings of the provincial
governors will also be blamed on you. Itíll be good
training, Faustinus, the opportunity to make a
contribution to the well-being of the empire from below,
so to speak. I trust youíre not displeased?"
Faustinusís mind raced. The price of
refusal would be death, by some sort of judicial murder.
"I am happy and grateful," he
said, with a rush of blood to his head that threatened to
loosen his teeth, "for Your Generosityís offer of
the Urban Vicariate. I accept the office with reverence
and great pleasure."
Rage rose in him at the enormity of the
emperorís insult. He had been demoted from illustris
to spectabilis in rank, and from the most
influential position in the Consistory to an office with a
profusion of annoyances and no real power, a place of
great visibility and little honor, in which Maximus would
deny him even the cold comfort of obscurity. His eyeballs
felt as if they would burst.
"That is all, Faustinus," the
emperor said, rising.
Faustinus went to his knees and kissed
the ring on Maximusís right forefinger, a monstrous
sapphire. He felt the warmth of the fat manís hand, the
bristle on the knuckles, against his lips.
He bowed his way out of the
gold-and-purple chamber, glad to escape the incensed air,
the eunuchs, and the bloated figure that sat like a
leering Antichrist in the place of Valentinian. Turning a
corner, he glanced back and saw Maximus thoughtfully
examining his fingernails. The glimpse told him something
of the urgency of the moment. The emperorís mind never
rested. Faustinusís time would be short, limited to the
number of weeks Maximus needed to persuade the empress,
Valentinianís widow, that an execution would be in the
For the moment, he had braved death and
won. As Faustinus passed out of the palaceís great
portico into the sunlit air, his mind worked rapidly,
numbering his connections in the guilds, the commercial
underground, the imperial guard, the church. Two female
agents, posing as nuns, would be particularly useful,
given their access to the popeís household. In his mind
he put them to work: Sister Blanda, with her spurious
penitential droning, and Sister Probina, the daughter of a
professional assassin, whose gigantic facial mole spoke
somehow of her inexhaustible sexual appetite.
Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead
from the intensity of his thought. He would pour anarchy
into the heads of corrupt monks, greedy civil servants,
wine-addicted tribunes, magistrates ripe for blackmail.The
governing idea would be to create chaos at the cityís
pressure-points: aqueducts, public entertainments, the
wheat supply. Small harassments could be added to the main
ones: the mind of the empress Eudoxia could be poisoned by
way of certain high-placed priests; small mutinies could
be fomented in the German guard; bread-and-oil riots could
be worked up in the slums. . . .
Above the palace complex, swallows
climbed the sky. Faustinusís spirits rose with them. He
gave conspiratorial thanks to no god in particular as he
strolled out into the bright day, his imagination soaring
and circling with the swallows, raining down destruction