A Father’s Regrets

by Tarleisio

The nightmares were always much worse in Rome. Whether it was something about the perpetual noise of carts and traffic rattling through the streets below from dusk till dawn, or something in the very air itself, some bad air hovering around the seven hills like a malevolent fog, his nightmares were always that much worse whenever he was in Rome.

They were always the same dream, or different variations of it. His son Gaius was in some mortal danger, about to be killed or else summarily executed for some transgression or other. Somehow, the unseen assassin’s hand was always stayed, and somehow he always seemed to wake up right before the sword descended, the knife plunged in, his heart pounding in his chest, and that sickening, dizzying sense of displacement, disorientation and loss that knotted hard in the pit of his stomach before he remembered where and who he was.

Now, while the city was being gilded in the east by the first rays of the rising sun and Rome was preparing for a festival day at the Roman Games and at the theatres, he was calm again, able to breathe again. Down below, the city was stirring, the last carts and wagons heading for the gates in time for the curfew.

But up here on the Caelian Hill, it was peaceful, the garden outside fragrant with the late summer roses, blushing in the early morning light. The lemon trees Nessa had loved so much were blooming, and the heady combination of roses and lemon blossoms would surely make any person happy simply to breathe and be alive.

He still had yet to get used to this house. For centuries, the Arrii had lived outside the pomerium, down by the banks of the Tiber overlooking the Field of Mars in a huge, shabby villa, until Quintus, his profligate older brother, had suddenly come into a fortune that had enabled him to buy this exquisite gem perched high on the Caelian Hill, with a garden of its own and a direct line from the Claudian Aqueduct.

His clients, always in evidence whenever he came to Rome, had already come and gone, dismissed with words, promises or small purses with a few coins to spend for the Games and the festival. Once they were gone, he had retreated to his favorite spot in the house, a two story vine-covered portico overlooking the garden and the teeming city down below, the Flavian Amphitheatre looming impossibly large to the northeast, flags streaming in the breeze. He had planned to attend the new show of the Oresteia at Pompey’s theatre, since the great Athenian actor Nicias was in town for the Games, and the great Nicias was not to be missed.

But even despite the sun, the view, the coming pleasures of Nicias’ theatrical troupe, or the fragrant lemon blossoms and ripening grapes on the vines embracing the columns, Marcus Arrius Nerva was in a melancholy frame of mind. He sat on the balustrade, his back against a graceful Ionic column, and looked down at the small object in his hand.

It was a wooden toy soldier of a Greek hoplite, carved with great care, spear at the ready, the tiny sword broken off long ago and never repaired. Faint traces of yellow and red paint remained on the tunic and the helmet plume, but it was obvious the little hoplite had seen many battles on the nursery floor, reenacting the siege of Troy, the battle of Thermopylae, or the final stand of the Gauls at Alesia. It had belonged to his son Gaius, stored with its fellows in a forgotten wicker basket in the nursery at Cumae, and for reasons Marcus Arrius had never knew, it had somehow found its way into his pocket and all the way to Rome, where he had rediscovered it this morning.

Gaius. Nightmares. The letter he had sent to Severus back in July from Cumae, when the ache in the marrow of his bones had become almost too much to bear and not even the august Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” could help. It was all the same thing. A man with only one child, one son, would always feel naked and exposed, vulnerable and bereft, once that son had gone away, and Jupiter!, Gaius had been gone these six years now, away at the edge of the world in Britannia, punished for a transgression he had never even committed.

Had he ever told Gaius just how much he loved him and marveled at him? Had he ever told him just how proud his Tata had been, that June day eleven years ago, when they had gone together in a festive procession of clients, family and friends to the temple of Jupiter, his son towering over him already, trying to get used to his new toga and his new status as a man, eager to leave his childhood behind? How thrilled he had been when Gaius had been appointed senior tribune of his father’s old legion, the XX Valeria Victrix?

Well, he had now, six years too late, when Lucius Sabius had come to inform him of his departure for Britannia, and had carried off the letter that said much of what he, Marcus Arrius Nerva, should have said six years ago.

Instead, father and son had parted at odds, both in their own way stunned by grief and loss. Nessa was gone, the little sister they had all anticipated was gone and all that remained was that black and endless abyss of emptiness Nessa had left behind. All they had had was each other, then, and it should have been enough.

But Marcus Arrius had been in a panic, a panic that his precarious future, too, might be ripped away before its time, and had his son’s planned wedding pushed forward, eager to see some assurance, some guarantee that the Arrii would continue through time. So the Gods had chosen to punish both of them in their sorrow, father and son alike, with Sulpicia, the young and deceptively sweet-faced fruit of a very, very old – and very blighted – family tree.

Six years on, he could still feel a wrench in his gut at the thought. He, who had managed to survive the insanities of Commodus, the civil wars that followed, even his own older brother’s fall from grace, who knew to the width of a cat’s whisker when the winds would shift and Nemesis would divert her attention to where he stood, had not managed to see through Sulpicia’s pretty face and charming wiles. Understandably enough neither had Gaius, who saw only a mass of black curls, arresting blue eyes and a form any young man would have found alluring, especially since she would soon be his alone. Her dowry was large, her lineage patrician and her family delighted, at least to their faces. The Arrii were wealthy, well-connected, nearly as old as the Sulpicii themselves, and Gaius was generally considered one of the best young men undergoing training on the Field of Mars. He was also, his father had been surprised to realize, a very handsome young man.

Precisely why the eminent Sulpicii had been so delighted became apparent at the wedding celebration dinner. It had been an elaborate affair, attended by most of Roman society, not because Marcus Arrius had any delusions that he or his son was that important, but simply because there had been nothing more worthwhile to do that night.

There she had reclined, the lovely little Sulpicia, surrounded by friends, family, clients of the Sulpicii and Arrii, and every delicacy the Sulpician chef could pull out of his tunic sleeve, a garland of violets on her hair, a definite green tinge to her face. Gaius had been concerned, making sure she was diligently attended by her slaves, trying to tempt her with the licker fish, the honey-roasted dormice, the jellied eels in wine sauce. He had been proud of his son that night. Noone thought anything at all amiss, suspected nothing wrong. It had all been tossed aside as a young woman’s understandable nervousness at the occasion and seeing her new husband in a formal setting for the first time, up until that fatal moment when Sulpicia, at the taking of the omens, had become violently ill all over an elaborate pastry sculpture of Venus.

Oh, he could laugh at it now, as indeed he had after, one late night when he and his best friend Dio decided to live it up a little and do their worst on one of his father’s finest amphorae. But when it happened, it was yet another blow to his dignitas and his status as Gaius’ father, and yet another crack in an increasingly fractious relationship with his son since Nessa’s death.

Needless to say, the evening had ended in an uproar, Sulpicia packed off to bed with a Greek doctor in attendance; the augur in a state of hysteria at the bad omens – the sheep’s liver had been mottled with spots – and the many guests clucking in anticipation of a good gossip later. Nor had it ended there.

Sulpicia was pregnant, the doctor had discovered, and she wasted no time pointing an accusing hand right at her betrothed, Gaius, claiming he had taken liberties with her at several occasions before the wedding party, had, in fact, been having her in several highly improper ways ever since their families had made it public.

Impossible, of course. Gaius was undergoing his military training on the Field of Mars, which left him no time for dallying, and in any case, they were always heavily chaperoned when they were together. He had been so blind, so blind…

The truth, as always, was even more banal than that elaborate concoction Sulpicia had created with some help from her mother. The simple truth was that Sulpicia’s Greek was far too good for a Roman girl of such noble lineage, so good that her Greek tutor had given her a bellyful of his finest Attic.

Naturally, they were delighted when Marcus Arrius wanted to push the wedding plans forward, pleased that Gaius and Sulpicia had seemed so taken with one another, positively thrilled that it was such a suitable match. Of course. The tutor crucified, the wedding hastened, and nine months later, a baby as a laurel wreath upon the whole happy ending and noone, least of all the notorious gossips of Rome, the wiser. That, at least, had been the plan.

So much for a noble and ancient lineage preserving the true virtues of Roman women.

Sulpicia had been packed off to a family estate in deepest Etruria, and returned to find herself with an infinitely more boring man for a second husband, her second cousin Marcus Terentius Gentianus, the only one who would have her. Gentianus was a tedious, unimaginative senator, with dull and lackluster speeches, but at least he was ambitious. He had his eye on the consulship, and over the next few years with the help of Sulpicia’s family connections at the Palace, had begun to walk the Course of Honor. By now, he was well on his way with a completed pro-praetorship behind him in Hispania Baetica, and had been mentioned several times as candidate for senior consul next year.

He wished them both the best of luck. Really, he did.

Marcus Arrius looked up from the little toy soldier in his lap and out across the garden toward the Flavian Amphitheatre. The Games were a modest affair this year, since the Emperor and his family were still in Britannia, but nevertheless, he had spotted camel leopards and tigers being hauled in yesterday, and Scorax the Thracian would be fighting today, which always brought in the crowds. He had lost his taste for the Games a long time ago. The hot-blooded words of Aeschylus were so much more interesting than the bloody sand of Circus spectacles.

But Gaius…he turned the little soldier over and over in his hands. Gaius had taken the scandal very hard. It had been yet another blow after his mother’s death. Not even Quintus’ intervention had defused Marcus Arrius’ own rage at the whole sordid business, and Quintus Arrius could usually talk a feral dog off a butcher’s cart.

It had finally been agreed that the time had come for Gaius’ military training in earnest, and so he had been packed off to Britannia and Marcus Arrius’ old legion, the XX Valeria Victrix, leaving a void in his father’s life that had become more palpable and painful every day.

It hadn’t ended there. The following year, brother Quintus too was gone, implicated in the messy affairs of Plautianus and his endless fall from the Emperor’s grace, and rather than face the degradation of his entire family, Quintus, his loud, brash, often overbearing but always loved older brother had simply chosen to take his own life, leaving yet another empty space in Marcus Arrius’ life, yet another wax mask for the lararium.

What remained was this house, with its picture galleries, its sculptures, including a small Phidias Apollo, a Praxiteles Venus, and even an authenticated Apelles painting Quintus had found in Syracuse. The marble-veneered walls and floors, the verdant garden, the chairs and beds inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, the huge citruswood tables, the Lydian portieres, rugs and tapestries, the Alexandrian braziers and censers – all belonged to him now, all so unlike Quintus himself in their restraint and controlled beauty.

At least he had that much. But the Gods knew it wasn’t enough to make up for his son, or his brother.

He was startled when Philo, his steward here in Rome, coughed discreetly at the door.

“Domine, Lucius Cassius has arrived.”

And he had Dio, oldest friend, to take him to the theatre and argue endlessly over the appropriate interpretation of Aeschylus, and whether Nicias’ version was better than the Alexandrian Callimenes’.

Well Dio, thought Marcus Arrius. You fancy yourself a historian. Here’s a story for you, one that you will never tell.

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