9th June 2022
7 minutes read
translated by Thomas Cooper
9th June 2022
7 minutes read
We revisit a scene from Josephus Flavius’ account of what he called, in his famous history, the war of the Jews. We find ourselves with Marcus Atius, who has welcomed a party traveling with the body of Aristobulus in search of honey to preserve the corpse until it can be sent to the Jews for burial.
“[Aristobulus] was taken off by poison given him by those of Pompey’s party, and for a long while he had not so much as a burial vouchsafed him in his own country; but his dead body lay, preserved in honey, until it was sent to the Jews by Antony, in order to be buried in the royal sepulchers.
(Josephus Flavius: The Jewish War)
“You are not a slave.”
“I am a Roman citizen. I serve the young lord.”
“And where is the young lord now?”
“He fled Rome. He entrusted the house to my care.”
A carriage was let into the courtyard, a servant standing behind him whispered something to the old warden of the house. The centurion’s soldiers were waiting in the courtyard.
“How can I be of service to you?”
“What is your name?”
“I am Marcus Atius, sir.”
“Are you the namesake of Sulla’s famous soldier?”
“I was Sulla’s soldier.”
“But he is dead, and you are alive.”
“I can say nothing to that.”
“Marcus Atius, who conquered Athens.”
“I was hardly the one who captured it.”
“You were in front.”
“What brings you here?”
The centurion looked around. Behind Atius, the servant was waiting with his head bowed.
“As we plodded across muddy, shitty Gaul, we dreamed of how fine it would be someday to breakfast with Lucullus.”
“I fear your rank is not as high as your dreams.
My lord is long dead.”
“The boy is Lucullus. Who fled from Caesar. It was not your lord who prepared his feasts but his servants. Did they all flee, too? You must know this, Marcus Atius.”
“There are enough of them to prepare a breakfast. If that is Caesar’s will.”
“As I would prepare for Lucullus.”
“You were a child when he ate breakfast, you could not taste his food, so perhaps you shall not be disappointed.”
“The captain sat down. The old man nodded. Two other servants soon appeared with platters.”
“Take some to his men, too.”
If we put aside what is fit for the pig’s swill, he thought to himself, they would eat that, and they would think they were feasting.
While he ate, the centurion explained the purpose of his visit, the orders given by Mark Antony. He was comfortable talking to a soldier. Atius listened patiently until he had finished.
“You won’t be able to buy that much honey, not even at the baking markets and the usual places in town.”
“Yes, we started there.”
“The sweets made for the dead at such a time soak it all up.”
“This is for the dead, too. Then it occurred to us, where could we find as much as we need if not at Lucullus’ home?”
“My master is long dead.”
“Long dead. Then look at little Lucullus’ fingernail, so said the tribune. You were Sulla’s man, you know what that means.
“I heard Caesar had declared peace.”
“That is why your young lord also fled.”
The body of the eastern prince lay on the cart. Atius instructed the servants to take it to the ice pit. The corpse would last four or five days, given that it was February.
“I know someone who might have that much honey. On an estate near Capua.”
“We leave tomorrow at dawn. I’ll accompany you with some of my men.
The cost of the honey, the cart, the horses, and the journey are on your house.
We shall need a lot, and first-rate, not slag mixed with beer. They would speak slanderous ill of Caesar in the east.”
The old man, who was wrapped in a blanket, crouched next to his Greek servant on the back of the cart. The Greek was skillful, if not terribly clever, but that was why Atius had put up with him as his personal servant for more than twenty years. A stupid, loyal Greek. Who else has such an art treasure? Lucullus had tried to buy the man from him, even though, along with Atius, the Greek was really a member of his household. Besides, he hadn’t been the one who had come up with the joke, so he couldn’t buy another for himself. Atius didn’t care. The Greek had been a good buy. He hardly spoke, he cooked well, he washed him in silence, saw to his every need, even washed his rags. He didn’t stray from his station, though he now had his own family in the house, his son even had had a son. He was a good driver too, able to avoid the potholes in the roads as much as possible. There were many potholes on the Appian. The nobles had again begun killing one another, and they spat on any talk of maintaining the roads. As Sulla said, they salivated over everything, but they never tended to their jobs.
Since they had left Rome, the captain had been riding his horse with obvious displeasure alongside the cart, as had two of his men. A freezing drizzle was coming down, the cold was churlish, and they were plodding down the empty road with their cloaks pulled tight together. They could still see the traces left by the fugitives, an array of objects discarded along the way. Piles of rubbish at the foot of graves and memorial pillars, among the stones of the road furniture, even children’s toys, covered with frost, soaking wet. Sometimes a great wagon with a broken axle pulled to the side of the road. The owners must have thought they wouldn’t have time to change a wheel. One of the riders would always dismount, walk over to the abandoned wreck, shake his head, and return to his horse. They’d been completely gutted. The wain had made it that far, they arrived quickly, at least they could gallop, their horses warmed up a bit.
The graves along the road were covered with flowers and cakes, despite the war. They encountered others along the way who had come to honor Februus and who cared for nothing else, including them. The dead were more important to them than the living.
They arrived at the market before sunset. They pitched camp at the foot of the great limestone wall and tied the horses. The Greek made a fire and erected a small tent for his master. The soldiers settled around the fire too. They got as drunk as they could, but they had not brought enough to drink. For lack of anything better, they ridiculed the old man. You don’t miss the city. You enjoy this little excursion, the harlots of Rome weep in our absence. Let them weep, Atius said with a nod. What’s it like, old man, to have not a single longing left in you except the longing for death? You are as I was when I was your age. But you will not live to be as I am at my age now. Then why should I bother to speak of it?
They arrived at the estate house the next day at noon. The journey from the first signpost marked Mel had taken a good two hours. They’d turned off at several crossroads, heading towards the slopes of the mountain, through belts of woods and meadows.