Vettius and His Friends by David Drake
At age 34 he “worked abroad, was a friend of great men, was in mortal danger the soul and prepares it to meet whatever the future brings with steadfastness ( Tetr. Nechepso is the divine King, 4 A Survey of Vettius Valens who “made his Valens was no creative genius; he was neither a systematizer like Ptolemy nor a. In the most basic sense, I want to be able to talk to a woman about my friends. But for those conversations to have any meaning, she needs to. Menelaus and Dama's father had remained friends throughout the latter's life. . " I can see why the old man wants to be Rutilianus's tame philosopher," Vettius said. . Menelaus met his gaze sidelong and muttered, "Ah, Dama, I—thought that.
He bowed to the Prefect and said, "Noble Rutilianus, your graciousness will overlook my outburst; but I assure you I will never forgive my own conduct, which was so unworthy of a philosopher and a guest in your house. He wiped his face with a napkin, dabbing precisely instead of sweeping the cloth promiscuously over his skin.
And he isn't interested in boys. For a moment, Dama thought—hoped—prayed— The big soldier looked at Dama, not the Prefect, and said, "No, I can't recommend that. There're scores of philosophers in Rome who'd be glad of the position.
There's no reason at all for you to take a needless risk. A merchant like Dama could well appreciate the balance of risk against return. Pyrrhus the Prophet understood the principles also. But"—his eyes traced past the nomenclator as if hoping for another glimpse of the boy Ganymede—"some of those perverts are just too good at concealing it. Can't take the risk, can we? Vettius watched Dama with an expression of regret, but he had no reason to be ashamed of what he'd said.
Even Dama agreed with the assessment. The wheezing gasp from the garden was loud enough for everyone in the office to hear, but only Vettius and Dama understood what it meant.
Sosius was between Vettius and the garden door for an instant. The soldier stiff-armed him into a wall, because that was faster than words and there wasn't a lot of time when— Vettius and Dama crashed into the garden together. The merchant had picked up a half step by not having to clear his own path. It looked for a moment as though the old philosopher were trying to lean his forehead against the wall of the house.
He'd rested the pommel of Vettius's sword at an angle against the stucco and was thrusting his body against it.
The gasp had come when— Menelaus vomited blood and toppled sideways before Dama could catch him. Vettius grabbed Menelaus's limp wrist to prevent the man from flopping on his back. The swordpoint stuck a finger's breadth out from between Menelaus's shoulder blades. It would grate on the stone if he were allowed to lie naturally. Dama reached beneath the old man's neck and took the weight of his torso. Vettius glanced across at him, then eased back—putting his own big form between the scene and the excited civilians spilling from the office to gape at it.
Menelaus had known that. The old man did not speak. A trail of sluggish blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes blinked once in the sunlight, twice— Then they stayed open and began to glaze.
Dama gripped the spatha's hilt. One edge of the blade was embedded in Menelaus's vertebrae. He levered the weapon, hearing bone crack as the steel came free.
He drew the blade out, feeling his friend's body spasm beneath his supporting arm. He smelled the wastes that the corpse voided after mind and soul were gone. Menelaus wore a new toga. Dama'd provided it "as a loan for the interview with Rutilianus.
He caught a fold of his own garment in his left hand and scrubbed the steel with it, trusting the thickness of the wool to protect his flesh from the edge that had just killed the man he had known and respected as long as he had memory. Known and respected and loved. And when the blade was clean, he handed the sword pommel-first to Lucius Vettius. There were seats and tables in the side-room of the tavern, but Vettius found the merchant hunched over the masonry bar in the front.
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The bartender, ladling soup from one of the kettles cemented into the counter, watched hopefully when the soldier surveyed the room from the doorway, then strode over to Dama. The little fella had been there for a couple hours.
Not even drinking that heavy. But there was a look in his eyes that the bartender had seen in other quiet men at the start of a real bad night. While he waited for the bartender to fill the cup—and while he pointedly ignored Dama's curt demand to him—Vettius examined the statue on the street end of the counter. The two-foot high terracotta piece had given the place its name.
It showed Venus tying her sandal, while her free hand rested on the head of Priapus's cock to balance her. Priapus's body had been left the natural russet color of the coarse pottery, but Venus was painted white, with blue for her jewelry and the string bra and briefs she wore.
The color was worn off her right breast, the one nearer the street. Dama took a drink from the refilled cup. The man nodded and ladled wine into another cup, then mixed it with twice the volume of heated water before handing it to the soldier. After a moment, he added, "Any ideas about how Pyrrhus switched the notebook in your friend's purse? For centuries, togas had been relegated to formal wear: Dama must have sent his toga home with the slaves who'd accompanied him and Menelaus to the interview.
The garment would have to be washed before it could be worn again, of course. Or perhaps a servant. Vettius looked at the smaller man without expression.
The bartender, who'd seen that sort of look before also, signaled urgently toward a pair of husky waiters; but the soldier said only, "Yeah. We are alive, aren't we?
Know anything about that gentleman? He's a priest from somewhere in the East—I've heard Edessa, but I've heard other places. Came here to Rome, found an old temple that was falling down and made it his church.
He'd felt no twinge at mentioning Menelaus's name, even though his friend's body was still in the process of being laid out. Menelaus had always wanted to be cremated.
He said that the newer fashion of inhumation came from—he'd glance around, to make sure he wasn't being overheard by those who might take violent offense—mystical nonsense about resurrection of the body. Vettius looked past Dama toward the bartender. He claims it talks, gives prophecies.
And there's money in this one, believe me. It was juicy; good materials well-prepared, and the wine was better than decent as well. It was a nice tavern, a reasonable place to stop. Besides being the place nearest to the Prefect's doorway where Dama could get a drink. He poured a little wine onto the terrazzo floor. The drops felt cool when they splashed his sandaled feet. Vettius cocked an eyebrow at him. That was why he didn't mind talking about his friend after all.
For a moment, the two men eyed one another coldly. Then Vettius went on, "Happen to know where this temple Pyrrhus lives in might be? It didn't surprise him that the soldier already knew, nor that Lucius Vettius probably knew other things about the Prophet.
It's in the Ninth District, pretty near the Portico of Pompey. And—" He popped the remainder of his sausage roll into his mouth and chewed it slowly while Vettius waited for the conclusion of the sentence.
An open investigation of Pyrrhus would guarantee the soldier an immediate posting to whichever frontier looked most miserable on the day Rutilianus's wife learned what he was doing to her darling. You know, I don't much like being made a fool of with the Prefect. Vettius wasn't going to get support through his normal channels; but it might be that he could find someone useful who took a personal interest in the matter. Dama washed down the roll with the last of his wine. They heard the drum even before they turned the corner and saw the edges of a crowd which Vettius's trained eye estimated to contain over a thousand souls.
Dusk would linger for another half hour, but torches were already flaring in the hands of attendants on the raised base of a small temple flanked by three-story apartment buildings. Dama dipped his chin in negation. Vettius followed the merchant's eyes and muttered, "Pyrrhus himself owns the building across the street. He uses it to house his staff and put up wealthy pilgrims.
Two of the attendants at the back of the crowd, identifiable by their bleached tunics and batons of tough rootwood, moved purposefully toward Vettius and Dama. The merchant had two silver denarii folded in his palm. The exchange was expert, a maneuver both parties had practiced often in the past.
Could—" The other attendant, the silent one, was already handing Vettius an ordinary tablet of waxed boards. He carried a dozen similar ones in a large scrip. His baton, a dangerous weapon as well as a staff of office, thrust through the crowd like the bronze ram of a warship cleaving choppy waves.
There were loud complaints from earlier—and poorer—worshippers, but no one attempted physical opposition to the Prophet's servant. Vettius gripped Dama's shoulder from behind as they followed, lest the pressure of the crowd separate them beyond any cure short of open violence. Though the attendant before them had a cultured accent, he was as devoid of small-talk and emotion as the messenger who brought deadly lies about Menelaus to the Prefect.
Drugs were a possible cause; but the merchant already knew a number of men—and a greater number of women—for whom religious ecstasy of one sort or another had utterly displaced all other passions. Pyrrhus's converted temple was unimposing. A building, twenty feet wide and possibly thirty feet high to the roof-peak, stood on a stepped base of coarse volcanic rock.
Two pillars, and pilasters formed by extensions of the sidewalls, supported the pediment.
That triangular area was ornamented with a painting on boards showing a human-faced serpent twined around a tau cross. The temple had originally been dedicated to Asklepios, the healing god who'd lived part of his life as a snake.
The current decoration was quite in keeping with the building's pagan use. There were six attendants on the temple porch now. The newcomers—one of them was Gnaeus Acer—clashed bronze rattles at a consistent rhythm; not the same rhythm for both men, nor in either case quite the rhythm that the staring-eyed drummer stroked from his own instrument.
The guide slid Vettius and Dama to within a row of the front of the crowd. Most of the worshipers still ahead of them were wealthy matrons, but a few were country folk. Vettius thought he also saw the flash of a toga carrying a senator's broad russet stripe. More attendants, some of them carrying horn-lensed lanterns rather than batons, formed a line at the base of the steps.
Dama had paid silver for a second-rank location. The first rank almost certainly went for gold. The merchant had opened a blank notebook and was hunching to write within the strait confines of the crowd. The tablet Vettius had been given looked normal enough at a glance: One of the boards was waxed within a raised margin of wood that, when the tablet was closed, protected words written on the soft surface.
A cord attached to the back could be tied or sealed to the front board to hold the tablet shut. Dama finished what he was doing, grinned, and took the tablet from Vettius. Vettius obediently shifted his body, though the two of them were probably the only members of the crowd who weren't focused entirely on their own affairs.
Dama had been scribbling with a bone stylus. Now, using the stylus tip, he pressed on what seemed to be a tiny knot through the wooden edge of the tablet supplied to Vettius. The knot slipped out into his waiting palm. A quick tug started the waxed wooden back sliding away from the margin of what had seemed a solid piece. He slapped that tablet closed. She wore a heavy cross on a gold chain, and the silk band which bound her hair was embroidered with the Chi-Rho symbol. Menelaus may not have thought Pyrrhus was a Christian; but, as the Prefect had retorted, there were Christians who felt otherwise.
That boy gets around. An attendant leaned toward Dama past the veiled matron and her daughter in the front rank who were reciting prayers aloud in Massiliot Greek.
Prayers chirped to a halt as the women edged back from the lantern's hissing metal frame. Dama held out his closed notebook with the cord looped over the front board. The attendant covered the loop with wax, into which Dama then firmly pressed his carnelian seal ring.
The process of sealing Vettius's tablet was identical, except that the soldier wore a signet of gilt bronze. He raised them but didn't move until the door shut behind him.
The crowd's murmuring stilled to a collective intake of breath. The cymbals crashed together. A tall, lean man stood on the porch in front of the attendants. Dama understood about talking snakes and ways to read sealed tablets; but he didn't have the faintest notion of how Pyrrhus had appeared out of thin air that way.
Dama, though he was uncertain whether the soldier's ignorance was real or just pretense, leaned even closer than the press demanded and whispered, "That's the name of his snake.
The bronze one," "Welcome Pyrrhus! The torch-bearing attendants had uncoiled short whips with poppers. They lashed the air to put an emphatic period to the sequence of statement and response. Pyrrhus spread his arms as though thrusting open a double door. Pyrrhus ordered, it seemed to Vettius; though the object of the order was a deity. Those around them were too lost in the quivering ambiance of the event to notice the carping.
The crowd recoiled as though the cry were a stone flung in their midst. The accuser was short and already balding, despite being within a few years of Vettius's twenty-five; but his features were probably handsome enough at times when rage didn't distort them.
The attendants were as motionless as statues. What am I supposed to do, you lying bastard! Dama expected a clap of sound, but there was none, only the Prophet's piercing voice crying, "Evil are they who evil speak of God!
Cast them from your midst with stone and rod! The victim screamed and stumbled back, into the clumsy punch of a frail-looking man twice his age. The crowd gave a collective snarl like that of dogs ringing a boar, then surged forward together. The paving stones were solidly set in concrete, but several of the infuriated worshipers found chunks of building material of a size to swing and hurl.
Those crude weapons were more danger to the rest of the crowd than to the intended victim—knocked onto all fours and crawling past embroidered sandals, cleated boots, and bare soles, all kicking at him with murderous intent. Vettius started to move toward the core of violence with a purposeful look in his eye.
The merchant, to whom public order was a benefit rather than a duty, gripped the bigger man's arm. Vettius jerked his arm loose. Tried to jerk his arm loose. Dama's small frame belied his strength; but much more surprising was his willingness to oppose the soldier whom he knew was still much stronger—as well as being on the edge of a killing rage.
The shock brought Vettius back to present awareness. The accuser would probably survive the inept battering; and one man—even a man as strong and determined as Lucius Vettius—could do little to change the present odds. The mob jostled them as if they were rocks in a surf of anger. That's not why we're here. A few eager fanatics followed some way into the darkness; but Pyrrhus spread his arms on the porch of the church, calming the crowd the way a teacher can appear and quiet a schoolroom.
Whips cracked the worshipers to attention. May they seek proper guidance in the time of testing that is on them! On occasion—random occasions, it seemed to Vettius—the Prophet lowered his arms and the crowd shouted, "Amen!
Despite his intention to listen carefully—and his absolute need to stay awake if he were to survive the night—Vettius was startled out of a fog when Pyrrhus cried, "Depart now, in the love of God and his servants Pyrrhus and Glaukon! The musicians behind Pyrrhus clashed out a concentus like that with which they had heralded the Prophet's appearance— Pyrrhus was gone, as suddenly and inexplicably as he'd appeared. The crowd shook itself around the blinking amazement of Vettius and Dama.
The torches trailed sparks and pitchy smoke up past the pediment, but there was no fog or haze sufficient to hide a man vanishing from a few feet away.
The attendants—who hadn't moved during the near riot—formed a double line up the stepped base of the building to where the drummer opened the door. Worshipers from the front of the crowd, those who'd paid for their places and could afford to pay more for a personal prophecy, advanced between the guiding lines.
Vettius's face twisted in a moue as he and Dama joined the line. He shouldn't have to be counseled in patience by a silk merchant. The private worshipers passed one by one through the door, watched by the attendants.
A man a couple places in front of Vettius wore an expensive brocade cloak, but his cheeks were scarred and one ear had been chewed down to a nub. As he stepped forward, one of the attendants put out a hand in bar and said, "No weapons. You have a—" "Hey! The pair of women nearest the incident squealed in horror, while Vettius poised to react if necessary. The man grabbed the hand of the attendant holding his dagger and said, "Hey!
That's for personal reasons, see? The fellow slumped like an empty wineskin. Two of the musicians laid down their instruments and dragged him toward the side of the building. Twittering, the women stepped past where he'd fallen. He knew, as Vettius did, that the man being dragged away was as likely dead as merely unconscious. That, along with what happened to the fellow who'd married his brother's wife, provided the night's second demonstration of how Pyrrhus kept himself safe.
The Prophet might sound like a dim-witted charlatan, and his attendants might look as though they were sleep-walking most of the time; but he and they were ruthlessly competent where it counted.
As he passed inside the church, Dama glanced at the door leaves. He hoped to see some sign—a false panel; a sheet of mirror-polished metal; something—to suggest the illusion by which Pyrrhus came and left the porch.
The outer surface of the wooden leaves had been covered with vermillion leather, but the inside showed the cracks and warping of age. These were the same doors that had been in place when the building was an abandoned temple. There were no tricks in them. A crosswall divided the interior of the church into two square rooms. The broad doorway between them was open, but the select group of worshipers halted in the first, the anteroom.
Crosswise in the center of the inner room, Pyrrhus the Prophet lay on a stone dais as though he were a corpse prepared for burial. His head rested on a raised portion of the stone, crudely carved to the shape of an open-jawed snake.
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Behind the Prophet, against the back wall where the cult statue of Asklepios once stood, was a tau cross around which twined a metal-scaled serpent. The creature's humanoid head draped artistically over the crossbar.
Pairs of triple-wick lamps rested on stands in both rooms, but their light was muted to shadow by the high, black beams supporting the roof. A row of louvered clerestory windows had been added just beneath the eaves when the building was refurbished, but even during daylight they would have affected ventilation more than lighting.
Vettius estimated that forty or fifty people were allowed to enter before attendants closed the doors again and barred them.
The anteroom was comfortably large enough to hold that number, but the worshipers—he and Dama as surely as the rest—all crowded toward the center where they could look through the doorway into the sanctum. Bronze scales jingled a soft susurrus as the serpent lifted its head from the bar. Vettius grabbed for the sword he wasn't carrying tonight. He noticed with surprise that Dama's arm had curved in a similar motion.
Not the sort of reflex he'd have expected in a merchant. He knew the serpent was moved by threads invisible in the gloom. He knew one of Pyrrhus's confederates spoke the greeting through a hole in the back wall which the bronze simulacrum covered.
But the serpent's creaking, rasping voice frightened him like nothing had since— Like nothing ever had before. Goods of various types were disposed around the walls of the anteroom.
Sealed amphoras—sharp-ended jars that might contain anything from wine to pickled fish—leaned in clusters against three of the four corners. From wooden racks along the sidewalk hung bunches of leeks, turnips, radishes—and a pair of dead chickens.
In the fourth corner was a stack of figured drinking-bowls high-quality ware still packed in scrap papyrus to protect the designs from chipping during transit and a wicker basket of new linen tunics. For a moment, Vettius couldn't imagine why the church was used for storage of this sort. Then he noticed that each item was tagged: Cornelius Sulla was encamped on the other side of these enclosures and when he knew what had happened he came out to meet the Marsians, as they tried to escape, and killed a great number.
More than Marsians were slain that day, and the arms of a still greater number were captured by the Romans. The Marsians were rendered as furious as wild beasts by this disaster. They armed their forces again and prepared to march against the enemy, but did not dare to take the offensive or to begin a battle.
They are a very warlike race, and it is said that no triumph was ever awarded for a victory over them except for this single disaster. There had been up to this time a saying, "No triumph over Marsians or without Marsians. Then they went different ways. Lafrenius besieged Pompeius, who had shut himself up in Firmum. The latter armed his remaining forces, but did not come to an engagement.
Having learned that another army was approaching, he sent Sulpicius around to take Lafrenius in the rear while he made a sally in front. Battle was joined and both sides were having a doubtful fight when Sulpicius set fire to the enemy's camp. When the latter saw this they fled to Asculum in disorder and without a general, for Lafrenius had fallen in the battle. Pompeius then advanced and laid siege to Asculum.
He sent word beforehand to the inhabitants that when they should see him advancing at a distance they should make a sally against the besiegers, so that the enemy should be attacked on both sides at once. The inhabitants were afraid to do so; nevertheless Judacilius forced his way into the city through the midst of the enemy with what followers he could get, and upbraided the citizens for their cowardice and disobedience. As he despaired of saving the city he first put to death all of his enemies, who had been at variance with him before and who, out of jealousy, had prevented the people from obeying his recent orders.
Then he erected a funeral pile in the temple and placed a couch upon it, and had a feast with his friends, and while the drinking-bout was at its height he swallowed poison, threw himself on the pile, and ordered his friends to set fire to it.