Authors: Steven Saylor
Apparently he was, for when the slave led us across the gardenâas crowded with togas as the vestibuleâand up a flight of stairs, Posidonius greeted me on the landing with open arms and an affectionate hug.
“Gordianus! Truly, you are the last person I expected to see today. Yet here you are, looking quite fit and well, I must say. Did you and Antipater manage to see all seven of the Wonders, as you intended?”
“Marvelous! Is he with you?”
“Not any longer.”
Posidonius frowned. “Oh, dear, the old fellow isn'tâ¦?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Then where is he? Ah, but you shall tell me everything over a cup of wine.” He raised an eyebrow. “And who is this?”
“This is my slave, Bethesda. If you wish, she can stay in the vestibuleâ”
“And have all those old lechers in togas gawking at her? Much better to have such a beautiful creature ornament my private study while you and I catch up.”
Posidonius ran his fingers through his thick locks, which showed a bit more gray than when I had last been a guest in his house, then led us down a short hallway to a room of which I had fond memories. The study of Posidonius was filled with scrolls and scientific instruments and curious souvenirs from his many travels.
While Bethesda withdrew to a corner, Posidonius and I sat facing each other in elegant chairs carved from ebony with inlays of ivory. A slave appeared and poured us each a cup of wine, then quickly vanished.
“How long have you been in Rhodes?” said Posidonius.
“I've only just arrived, by ship from Alexandria.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I was hopingâ¦”
“I see. Oh, yes, you must stay here, of course. At least, I
there's a spare room left. How long do you intend to stay?” He made a face and clucked his tongue. “That's a very rude question for a host to ask, I know, but with things as they areâ”
“No need to apologize,” I said. “I'm very grateful for your hospitality, Posidonius. I'll only stay the night. Tomorrow we sail on to Ephesus.”
He looked at me, aghast. “Ephesus? Are you out of your mind?”
“I think I still had my wits about me, the last time I checked for them.”
“Gordianus, this is no joke. Sail for Ephesus, tomorrow? Oh, no, you must think again. Reconsider, I beg you!”
“On your way here from the waterfront, Gordianus, did you not see all the Romans who've fled from Ephesus, as well as from Pergamon and Mytilene and so many other cities? Not just Romans, but friends of RomeâRome-lovers, Mithridates calls them, all fleeing as far and as fast as they can.”
“See them?” I said. “I could barely squeeze past them! They're all along the waterfront, and fill the main square and all the streets around it for blocks. A great many seem to be camped out in that big sporting complex just down the hill from hereâ”
“It's called a gymnasium,” said Posidonius, in that weary tone that even friendly Greeks often adopt when speaking to us uncouth Romans.
“Yes, well, it's full of refugees. The track of the foot-racing stadium is crowded with tents. The viewing stands have been covered with canvas and turned into shelters. The people all look miserable.”
Posidonius cocked an eyebrow. “Miserable, no doubt, but also sensible. You do understand that all those people are
from the stormânot rushing straight into it?”
“From what some passengers on the ship are saying, the storm you speak of is likely to follow those refugees and come crashing into Rhodes.”
“And if it does, we shall be ready for it!” Posidonius was not just a scientist and scholar and world traveler, but also one of the city fathers of Rhodes. From the proud confidence in his voice, I assumed he played some role in organizing the defense of the city.
I had managed so far to avoid telling him my purpose for traveling to Ephesus, wanting first to get some sense of where his loyalty lay. To all appearances Posidonius was firmly allied with Rome, along with his fellow Rhodians, yet I knew him to be a close friend of Antipater, and Antipater had turned out to be a spy for Mithridates. During our long stay on Rhodes, had Antipater sought to recruit Posidonius in the anti-Roman foldâand might he have succeeded?
Across the room, Bethesda was sitting in a chair beside a table upon which a number of scrolls had been unrolled. She seemed more interested in the decorative bronze weights that were used to hold the scrolls open. One was fashioned as a Gorgon's head, another as a sphinx. Bethesda fiddled with them as a curious child might fiddle with dolls.
“Bethesda!” I said. “You mustn't touch anything in this room.”
She drew back her hands and sat on them, then cast her eyes to the floor and pouted her lips.
Posidonius glanced at her, briefly amused. “But back to the matter at hand,” he said briskly. “This nonsense about sailing to Ephesus tomorrow. What possible reason could you have for going to such a dangerous place?”
“I received a certain document.”
“This was in Alexandria?”
“Not exactly. An excerpt from a private journal, I think.”
“Not so private if it was shared with you. Who was the author?”
“It was written in the hand of Antipater.”
“Ah! When did the two of you part ways?”
“Three years ago, after we saw the last of the Seven Wondersâthe Great Pyramid in Egypt. I stayed in Alexandria. AntipaterÂ â¦ moved on. He didn't come here, did he?”
“No. I've neither seen him nor received a letter from him in all the months since the two of you stayed here.”
I studied his face for any sign of guile, and saw none. “The document I received caused me to believe that Antipater is in grave dangerÂ â¦ and in Ephesus.”
Posidonius frowned. “I see. And that's why you're going there?”
“In grave danger, you say?”
“âEvery hour of every day,'” I quoted.
“Is he still traveling under that ridiculous assumed nameâZoticus of Zeugma?”
“Apparently he is.”
“But why? I never really believed that feeble excuse he gave me for remaining incognito the whole time he was here on Rhodesâsomething about fleeing from his fame and being freed from all the expectations people had of him.”
“Antipater assumed that false nameÂ â¦ because he was a spy,” I said.
Posidonius frowned. “For Rome? But if that were the case, then whyâ”
I shook my head. “For Mithridates.”
I had thought Posidonius looked aghast when I told him of my intention to go to Ephesus, but that expression was mild compared to the one that now spread across his face. Patches of bright red appeared on his forehead and cheeks, and his ears turned a shade that was almost purple.
He stood up from his chair, then staggered to one side. He dropped the empty wine cup and grabbed the back of the chair to steady himself, then fell to the floor, pulling the chair with him.
The chair and the cup made such a clatter that a slave or a bodyguard would surely come running at any moment. What would they think when they saw the master of the house lying lifeless at my feet?
As it turned out, Posidonius was not dead.
He had simply stood up too fast while blood was rushing to his head, suffered a dizzy spell, and lost his balance. He must have been unconscious for a moment, for he lay there as motionless as a stone while I stared blankly at Bethesda, who stared back blankly at me. By the time a pair of slaves came running into the room, their master was groaning and shuddering and on his way to all-fours. As they helped him up and pushed the chair beneath him, I realized that I was feeling rather light-headed myself, from the scare he had given me.
Posidonius called for more wine, and insisted that I match him cup for cup while he interrogated me with a long series of questions. Where exactly had Antipater and I traveled before and after our stay on Rhodes? With whom had we stayed, and for how long? What side trips had we taken? How and why had Antipater confessed the truth to me before we parted ways in Alexandria? How, once in Ephesus, did I intend to hide the fact that I was Roman?
Posidonius insisted that I produce the scrap of parchment that had set me on my journey to Ephesus, and he sat poring over it for a long time, not merely reading the words but examining the papyrus from various angles, holding it up to the light and sniffing at the ink, as if it might contain some secret message.
Eventually he handed the document back to me and sat for a long moment with his hands folded on his lap, staring at nothing.
At last he slapped his knees and stood. “But what sort of host must you think me, Gordianus, that I've not yet shown you to your room, or offered you a chance to wash your face and hands? Here, follow me. I think the little room at the southwest corner is still unoccupied. The door's too narrow and the bed's too hard for most of those big-bellied Roman merchants downstairsâit's just a storage pantry really, that's had the shelves taken out and a bed put in. Yes, here it is. Room enough for both you
your slave, I suspect.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled at Bethesda; he clearly took it for granted that we would both sleep in the bed, for there was no room on the floor for a person to lie down. “That little window up there doesn't give you a view, but it should let in a bit of fresh air. There's a basin of water and a cloth in that little niche there. Freshen up a bit, and I'll see you at dinner.”
“Dinner?” I had hardly expected to merit the honor of dining with my host, with so many other and surely more distinguished guests in the house.
“Yes. There are some people staying here that I think you should meet. And I'm sure they'll want to meet you, Gordianus.”
With that, he left the narrow room and closed the door behind him. I heard a curious clicking noise and reflexively reached for the doorknob.
Posidonius had locked us inside.
I looked up at the little window he had mentioned. I could reach it if I stood on the bed, but it was too small for a grown man to climb through. With the door locked, I was now the guest of Posidonius whether I wished to be or not. Had it been a mistake to tell him of Antipater's duplicity? At least I had determined that Posidonius was not in league with Antipater. His shock at the news had been genuine. A good actor can fake a fainting spell, but no man can will his ears to turn purple.
I sighed at my predicament, then decided to do as my host suggested, and splash a bit of water on my face. With two people in such a small, narrow room, maneuvering proved to be a challengeâa comical challenge, for soon Bethesda and I were both laughing at the contortions we were forced into when stepping past each other. As I brushed against her, various parts of our bodies made contact, and I became aroused. On the crowded ship, sleeping alongside other passengers, we had never had a private moment. This was the first time in days that I had been truly alone with her, and not only alone, but with a bed that proved to be not nearly as uncomfortable as my host had suggested.
Bethesda appeared to be as eager as I was, for she made quick work of pulling my tunic over my head, then undoing the loincloth from my hips. The happy task of removing her clothes she left to me.
The room was warm. Soon we were both covered with a sheen of sweat; our bodies slid against each other as if we had been oiled like athletes. But every now and then the high window admitted a breeze from the sea, and the occasional drafts of cool air raised delicious goose bumps on my back and buttocks, causing me to grin and shout with laughter even as I was gripped by the most sublime ecstasy.
As we lay curled together on the bed, dozing, our limbs entangled, the light from the high window slowly faded. I found myself staring up at the simple clay lamp suspended from a chain in the ceiling; as yet, no slave had come to light it. Had Posidonius forgotten about me? Even as this thought crossed my mind, I heard a noise at the doorâa metallic clanking as the door was unlocked, then a voice calling through the wood.
“The master invites you to dinner, at your earliest convenience.”
Bethesda was soundly asleep, and remained so, her lips slightly parted and her breasts gently rising and falling, as I extricated myself from her and pulled on my clothes. I covered her with the thin sheet, then opened the door as little as I could, stepped into the hallway, and closed the door behind me, thinking to shield her from the gaze of the slave who had made the summons and was waiting to escort me to his master's dining room. But in a house as well regulated as that of Posidonius, the servants were trained to be circumspect. The slave, a man perhaps twice my age, stood some distance from the door and made no attempt to peek inside.
Over one arm he held a folded garment of white wool.
“A toga?” I said. “Is that for me?”
The slave nodded.
I laughed. “I haven't worn a toga in ages. I'm not sure I can remember how to put it on. And if you expect me to do it myself, in that tiny roomâ”
“Oh, no, the master sent me especially to help you. We may do so in the master's study. If you'll follow me.â¦”
The slave proved to be an expert in the art of donning the toga. He put to shame old Damon, my father's slave, who had assisted me in putting on my first toga when I turned seventeen. In no time, with a bit of tugging here and a bit of gathering there, the toga lay just as it should, falling in proper folds from my shoulders and forearms.
Smiling with prim satisfaction at his handiwork, the slave led me down the hall to a different stairway from the one I had ascended earlier. For a moment I felt lost in that rambling house, despite the months I had spent there with Antipater, then I found my bearings again as the slave led me to Posidonius's elegant dining room, which was brightly lit. There were lamps set in sconces in the wall, lamps on bronze stands with griffin heads, and more lamps hanging from the ceiling. One side of the room was open to a garden from which radiated the last faint light of day. The three walls of the room were painted with flowers and trees and butterflies, so that the room seemed a natural continuation of the garden, but while the real garden grew dim, here the soft glow of twilight lingered.