PART III

"Failures"

Colophon, Ionia

311 BC

The enormity of the dread, coming so abruptly, so excruciatingly, plunges me into a misery beyond any past experience. I still grieve for my mother, lost for several years now, but this is something different: as if my heart has been squeezed, and wrenched from my beating chest, leaving nothing but a black, gaping hole! I manage a few words, barely coherent, with each intake of breath.

It was a foregone conclusion that Servilia would give her love to no single man, though with the naivety of youth, and for no particular reason other than unbridled conceit, I considered myself to be that singular exception. Older heads had warned me of my blindness, so that I might stave off the pain of certain rejection; all too plainly, they saw through the smug facade that barely concealed my wistful fantasy.

Now that impossible moment is upon me. All I hear is harshly-pitched consonants, like the cacophonous shattering of crockery, dashed into myriad shards on a cold, hard, unyielding floor: yet how fervently does she speak of Critolaus! There is little else, but the approbation of Critolaus, as if I am absent, left with nothing but the cold, hard shards of her rejection.

Servilia Mela

Servilia shrugs, using her lithe body in a particular feline movement that is wholly her own, blending affectation with nonchalance, accenting the curves under her diaphanous, murex-purple toga. I follow the outline of her breasts as they move: proportional, tight, and full.

She says nothing, walking but more like gliding, performed adagio, over the marble mosaic floor, in her delicate, bare feet. Her thick mane of hair tosses gracefully from one shoulder to the other in step with her promenade, a sensual exhibition that instantly and unforgettably, captures all eyes. Servilia’s willowy enactment exudes no less, an aura of the vengeful Furies, a certain ill-defined danger, contained and concentrated such as one sees in a wild predator, coiled and ready to spring at its cowering prey, eliciting at once, an oddly mixed response of rapt temptation baited with wrathful punishment.

Past the fluted columns, she moves soundlessly out into the vestibulum, the sunny, leafy quadrangle of her father’s elegant country villa.

I watch her performance-art, holding my breath, heart beating hard, as if in a stupor. She is truly exquisite, supple, curvaceous, and thin-waisted. She speaks and the allure deepens further: a startling cadence, raspy and resonant, her gravelly voice serving as a counter-point to her otherwise nubile presentation, heightening the overall sublime effect on all around her. Despite my pain, or perhaps, more so because of it, I lose myself in her, my own personal ‘Great Goddess’, transfigured into Artemis, Cybele, Athena, Venus, and not least of all, a feisty Aphrodite.

It’s embarrassing now, shameful, if not ridiculous, even to think about it.

I cringe with the sickening memory, then ruefully shrug it off. I have become reconciled to it, along with the rest of my clumsy gaffes and oafish behavior, as my latent entry into adulthood. Painful but necessary, as so often is the case. It seems that we grow more by our missteps than we do by our gains, though interestingly, they ultimately merge inseparably, into one and the same life narrative. We only appreciate their positive contribution in distant retrospect, when the perspective of distant time has made changelings of us. Any emotional hurt has passed long ago, though the imprint of the memory remains.

The enigmatic circumstances of my mother’s death, I think, retarded my development, followed not long after, by my mandatory military service in Athens. Due to the Macedonian invasion of my homeland island of Samos, in the wake of Alexander, I was compelled to return to Colophon upon completion of my two years training as a hoplite warrior.

The city-state of Colophon, urban and sophisticated, lies on the mainland of Ionia. Separated by only a few days journey, using ship and wagon, Colophon is a world apart from impoverished, provincial Samos, the island of my birth and my poor mother’s last years. A key trading center, handling all manner of goods from Persia, central Africa, south-east Asia, as far away as the Indus Valley, Colophon is a true cosmopolitan city dotted with princely homes.

I had never before witnessed such a colorful spectacle of peaceful coexistence. Greek, Armenian, Semitic, Celtic, Persian, even Lombards and Berbers, and a dozen other cultures have became interwoven under the ubiquitous banner of ‘trade’, resulting in a unique, tolerant society that spans the known world, from the exotic East to the burgeoning West. With such trade of course, comes great wealth, with all its hedonistic excesses and vices, not the least of which are the overwhelming plenitude of fleshpots with their waiting throngs of eager customers.

No small surprise then, that I was unprepared for the culture and verve of Colophon, any more than I was prepared for Servilia and the ‘vicissitudes’ with which she dispensed her favors. In hindsight, I was still clinging desperately to my lost innocence, a residual of my sheltered upbringing on Samos. The odious incident of Servilia’s rejection of myself in favor of Critolaus, was a marker, arguably one of the seminal events of my life. The aftermath of that rejection heralded my entry into the real world. It was impressed upon me, however painfully, that people are themselves, complete with their own agendas. Others will follow their own authentic star, rather than how I wanted them to be for me —- as perceived through the prism of my self-absorbed youth.

There lies the crux of the adjustment for which I was wanting. In my unformed, callow state, it simply didn’t occur to me that other peoples’ self-interest may not be aligned with my own. Call it selfish, perhaps narcissistic, but certainly a large part of my problem was a dearth of life experience. Really, I was a simpleton, vulnerable and easily hurt, suffering from an excess of trust. I had not yet assimilated the social virtues of tactfulness and calculated reserve, necessary for survival in a worldly city like Colophon.

She turns, her blue-green eyes smiling seductively into mine, puckers her lips, and blows me an air-kiss.

“Come along”, she whispers, coyly.

I feel that Servilia is taunting me in some ineffable way I can’t describe, but I am too confused to answer, even to think. All I can do is follow; embarrassed, as if I am outside myself, watching my own meek compliance.

Five months have passed since our last torrid meeting, and once again, wide-eyed, I am back at the villa. I miss our intellectual exchanges, and convince myself that our reunion is not solely out of love.

She sits down, ever gracefully, on a granite bench behind several olive trees in large terra-cotta pots, clustered together to form a shady, private bower. She pats the space beside her, inviting me to join her. Time itself seems to have slowed, in pace with her own fluid, sensuous movements. I am enthralled by the wonder of such a beauteous being who lives and breathes amongst us. As if I am savoring a great expectation, I become aware that I am holding my breath, waiting for a revelation, I know not what.

It may be a trance of my own making, since I so want it to be true; so want her to want me, and me alone. That old contemptible wretchedness and self-hatred I know so well, is opening up again, deep within me.

The faintest zephyr of breeze rustles the olive branches gently above her head, hardly noticeable, adding their small contribution to the soft carpet of dappled leaves at her feet. Maybe the breeze isn’t chance at all, but a timely intervention of the gods, and I still think about that divine possibility to this very day.

Whatever happened, divine or witchery, it feels as if I am now waking from a dream.The alluring spell is broken, abruptly and totally. People say that they snap out of it, and I now know what they mean: I snapped back, out of my old piteous, fawning state, for better or worse. My breathing, barely perceptible before, now becomes rapid, though my speech remains measured and clear. We both need to come to some understanding.

“You were away with Critolaus, a sponge-diver no less, that your father took in from Leptis Magna. You lied to me.”

“I thought he was your friend. He likes you”

“Yes, and so he will continue to be my friend, despite your mischief. He sails to North Africa for your father, diving and harvesting sponges for rich people, outrunning Phoenician triremes, storms, and pirates, an exciting life full of risk and adventure. How can I compete with that? Me, the drab son of a poor school-teacher, a grammarian with no prospects, marooned here forever in Colophon.”

“O Epicurus! You are much, much more than that. Some day you really will be famous,” she croons, softly, imploringly.

I smile, quietly basking in the warmth of her accolades, no to mention the nearness of our bodies.

We sit, huddled together silently on the hard bench, cheek by jowl, our arms overarching, for what seems like an infinite time.

I wish such warmth would last for an eternity.

My defenses have fallen away, leaving my sensibility wide open, unprepared for what is to follow. She turns away. The shock when it comes, pierces to the core of my being, striking me dumb.

“Yes, I enjoyed my time with Critolaus. It’s true! I never want to lie to you.”

I rise off the bench very slowly and stand there before her, not threatening, just staring blankly, dreamlike. I have no thoughts, and know not what to say or do, servants coming and going around us. I’m aware of nothing, just muffled sounds. Everything is unreal, as if I am not there.

Alert and anticipating what would come next, she then answers the inchoate question that I couldn’t bring myself to ask.

“You will always come first, Epicurus.”

I make no reply, other than a reflexive nod.

“You think I can’t love, that I just use sex as a substitute for love” she says, softly and gently, even factually, as if she is explaining something which is an everyday matter, common sense that should be obvious to a child.

“You want to freeze my love, take hold of it, and put it away securely in a box on the shelf, to take down when you feel like it. But this kills my love, and turns it into the very lie, of which you accuse me. I am not made that way”

I feel overwhelmed as if I’m drowning.

“I don’t understand!” It’s the only thing I can think of saying, or rather mumbling.

I’m having trouble catching my breath, probably hyperventilating, though it doesn’t occur to me at the time. Strangely, I no longer feel angry, just empty and absent, as if I don’t exist, not here, and all this really isn’t happening.

She pauses, takes a deep sigh, and continues.

“Like the great Sappho, I’ve even written a poem about me….about us; I call it, ‘Where Love Lies’. I so much want you to read it, please…..”

“You’re just attempting to change the subject,” I interject, “Free love doesn’t work for me, not if you want to be with me.”

I’m finding the right words to stand my ground with her, firmly, rather than melting away as she purrs into my ear. I see only too clearly how she uses her womanly wiles to get her own way, but I’m no longer made of the same malleable clay.

“When I’m with you, dear Epicurus, I am totally there, absorbed in that moment of time. Nothing else matters, nor anyone else. That’s the true experience of love; everything else is possession, treating each other as commodities to be traded in a marketplace, called marriage.”

She is kissing me lightly on the lips now, barely touching, yet the delicacy of the act carries the demure promise of sensuousness. She whispers in muted tones, stroking my forehead and hair leisurely, with soft tender motions.

“So we get married and surrender our individuality, our birthright to choose the pleasure of real spontaneous love. We trap each other, ensnared by all the empty promises of procreation, that takes more than it gives.”

It all sounds so rehearsed, building momentum as she rattles it off like a private dogma, that I lose patience, throwing my head back in frustration.

She doesn’t like my interruption to her well-practiced rhetoric, and pulls her hand away, recoiling from me, with a visible wince. She is in fine form now, raising her voice, unstoppable.

“Nature tries to use our own fertile bodies against us, at the cost of who we are as free individuals who can make our own independent choices. I’m sick of family lies, and their hypocrisies and false values. Life is too short to have our young love made into a guilty, shameful thing by others. We are driven to get married so that our love can be made legitimate for society, but it doesn’t serve us.”

She pauses for emphasis.

“It’s about freedom! Can’t you see what I mean?”

All very melodramatic: it’s freedom on her terms! Clearing my throat, I find my voice, tremulous at first, then rising in pitch and volume. My confidence is returning, as I warm to my response, finding myself on surer ground, speaking calmly, with conviction. Surprisingly, I’m no longer afraid of being strong!

“My dear Servilia, I will gladly read your heartfelt poem, which I’m sure will be as lyrical as all your other past works, on a level with the great Sappho of Lesbos. If the poem is about us, as you say, then I’m asking you to look at your great fear of being with me, just me! You are afraid of losing your liberty, to be treated as chattel like a piece of furniture, until I grow tired of you. But none of that will ever happen, dear Servilia. You have known me now since we were young children on Samos, so you must have some sense of who I truly am, if you love me as you say you do.”

I end my avowal of love with a quizzical inflection —- but she sits, hunched and inert.
I know that her raw wound is guilt, driven by her father, mixed with liberal lashings of anger directed at him. Then comes the crushing burden of guilt she carries for killing her mother. I have known her since she was a little girl, a childhood playmate: she can’t trust love! She always needs someone in reserve: either Critolaus or myself.

Servilia avoids any attachments, any depth, playing men against each other, not out of caprice or malice, which isn’t her true loving nature. Rather, she is riven by fear, that depth will make her vulnerable, with yet another blow to her acute sensitivity. Despite her lively banter, she feels doomed; better a lonely spinster, intact, than an embittered soul, broken on the wheel of ‘love’.

Servilia’s Bath

Risking all, I state matters as bluntly as I possibly can, in an effort to cut through to the frightened, loving person cowering within her.

“There comes a time to let go of the past, to start afresh; the dead should not dictate to the living! To live is to love, and the avoidance of love, is not to live fully: stuck in a vicious cycle of guilt, fear, and anger. We need to break out, both of us, and be together, trusting each other, which is our shared destiny since we were children.”

I pause, to make a final heartfelt plea, couching it in her own terms.

“That’s where Love lies”

A heavy, ominous lull seems to descend upon us.

Servilia suddenly leaps up off the bench, arms flinging about wildly, clawing at me, shrieking I know not what. I step backwards in astonishment, reflexively, but not quickly enough, as she begins pushing me violently with both of her arms outstretched. Her surge of strength surprises me, and I lurch backwards in retreat, struggling to regain my footing.

She is pummeling me half-heartedly with her closed fists, her shrill cries accompanying each lashing. I am beaten back into the atrium of the villa. The servants watch us, still as alabaster statues, not sure what to do. Gaining some composure, and bracing myself, I grab each of her arms tightly and hold her still. I ready myself for her kicks. Nothing.

Instead, her whole body goes limp and seemingly lifeless, so abruptly that I almost drop her. I lower her gingerly to the floor, without resistance, an untidy tangle of limbs, torn fabric, tresses of hair and spittle, with her toga bunched up around her groin. Her eyelids are twitching, mixed with spasms of rapid blinking.

I’m relieved that her eyes are not rolled up into her head. I know that the latter, if present, would be a grievous sign. She is sobbing and gasping deeply now, struggling to catch her breath, her bosom heaving and convulsing, as I stand over her.

I’m uncertain about what to do. Everything has moved so quickly. I hear the steady leaden beat and grunts of someone running hard.

It’s her father, Valerius Mela, as he races towards us, heavy-footed, calling out frantically for help and support!

 

WHERE LOVE LIES

Life as ephemeral
shallow
when I crave depth
Where Love Lies

What IS
IS
while it IS
then
IS NOT
Where Love Lies

Not doing
not thinking
not feeling
NOW only, still and quiet
Where Love Lies

Any more, beyond NOW
Begets IS NOT
emptiness only
The Lies of Love

Servilia Mela, 312 BC

I kneel beside Servilia’s sobbing, contorted body.

Valerius enters the Atrium, breathing heavily, yelling out incoherent orders, servants scattering in different directions. All manner of thoughts and feelings are surging through my febrile mind.

How did it get to this, I wonder?

Servilia is no longer crying, but staring up at me, dazed, with a puzzled expression. I lean down close, embracing her gently, tenderly, intoxicated by her rose-petal perfume.

“We are both of us without any mothers,” she whispers to me, “both trying to break away from our fathers.”

She pauses, then continues softly, intimately,

“These fathers are in our heads…controlling us with guilt and the promise of love, so long as we follow their bidding. They want to own us, and live our lives from the inside.”

I silently mouth everything she said. I’m bewildered……surprised at the acuity of her ideas, the way she thinks about matters, and her compelling choice of words. She’s right, though. I understand what she means. Totally. I had never thought of my life, or hers, before in this way.

Valerius has stopped now, standing under the entrance pediment of his private office, the tablinum. He is watching intently, though I’m not sure that he can hear us.

I wonder silently, what he plans to do?

Valerius Mela is neither Greek nor aristocracy.

Furthermore, he is proud to call himself an entrepreneurial merchant, originally from Ostia, the harbor city of Rome, on the estuary of the Tiber. A crafty businessman, descended from a family of shipowners, he has built up a lucrative trade in North African sponges, considered to be the best of their kind. He had wisely invested in a fleet of dhows, constructed near the Red Sea, in the region of Arabia. Especially designed for sponge-diving, with an outsize duckboard mounted to the transom at sea level, the dhows are fitted with an innovative (and ‘secret’) viewing portal to detect sponge clusters from the surface.

Twin-masts, with lateen-rigging, his dhows can navigate the shallow coastal waters of Mediterranean Africa which are otherwise inaccessible to deep-draft vessels. Using the viewing portal, his crews can then easily harvest the vast accumulations of premium sponges, as well as the occasional, much-prized red coral.

On the other hand, the dhows are particularly vulnerable to sudden squalls, when crossing the Mediterranean from Notium, the port for Colophon. While he may lose a few dhows, his handsome profits more than make up for this, with a generous endowment to the families of lost sailors. Valerius’ base in Ionia suits him well, as a major trading crossroads close to the bounteous sponge harvests. It has the further advantage, never to be underestimated, of keeping him a safe distance from the poisonous (literally) politics of Rome.

While accumulating great wealth, Valerius knew that money and ability could never atone for his lowly birth while he remained in Rome. His opportunities would always be limited, if not openly resented. Even his devoted marriage to an aristocratic woman drew sneers of contempt from the privileged orders, as a crass attempt to convert his money into status. He said it best that ‘the only way of moving upwards was to move outwards’, first to Samos, thence Colophon. Having established himself with a large trading fleet and opulent villa, his well-heeled credentials are now beyond dispute.

He has also taken an active interest in civic affairs, contributing to the construction of public baths and aqueducts as well as gaining favor by employing local artisans whenever possible. As an exotic Roman import, ludicrously wealthy, Valerius makes for a curious exception within the rigid social strata of Colophon. Since he is not hide bound by local prejudices, he has that advantage shared by all Outsiders which ironically, gives him ready access to all levels in the community.

Valerius Mela

Valerius’ wealth, munificence, and Roman credentials soon pushed him into the closed circle of the provincial gentry, as ranked by the outrageous grandeur of the family villa, befitting an emperor. He enjoys being a big Roman fish in a small Ionian barrel, a prominence shared by his only daughter. Unfortunately, Servilia is not endowed with her father’s added gift of discretion, especially where ‘affairs of the heart’ are involved.

Servilia’s perfidy in matters of trust, coupled with a lascivious sexual appetite, are an open secret. The wealth and indulgence of her father continue to enable her numerous liaisons, against his strenuous but futile objections, without unduly impinging on her social status.

For someone so young, Servilia has a remarkable ability to turn disagreements into a pastiche of self-absorption. This is especially true when it comes to her many suitors, and nominal betrothal to one such suitor: Epicurus, me. Her deceased mother, Hypetia of Smyrna, was descended from ancient Ionian royalty. Servilia continues this aristocratic inheritance with her striking olive-bronze complexion and aquiline nose.

Whether Valerius overheard Servilia’s impeccable rant on “fathers in our heads”, or simply because he saw that she was safe, and moreover for better or worse, that she is in my embrace, he retires quietly back to his tablinum.

I help Servilia back to the bench, where we sit close by each other, lightly touching. As she speaks, her breath gently caresses my face. I feel her bodily warmth under my tunic as she places her hand in mine, and looks into my eyes, wistfully, but no less earnestly.

“While I am not a soothsayer, I have a premonition that we will both become healers, you and I,” she says, stroking my hand softly, accenting the rhythm of her speech, “helping people in our two different ways, you with your philosophical reasoning, and myself, as a kind of spiritual channel to the gods.”

“You will become a legendary priestess,” I announce, in mock seriousness, “like Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, high on Mount Parnassus, the place where heaven and earth meet, prophesying the fates of gullible mortals, who run around like frantic ants, down below.”

My attempt to lighten her earnest conversation with a touch of humor falls resoundingly flat. Looking into her bland stare, I instantly regret my ill-chosen words. She promptly withdraws her hand. I like to believe I have a sardonic wit, but timing is everything, and this is not it! I apologize, and plead with Servilia to continue.

“Actually Epicurus, you’re right in a way,” she continues, “I do see myself as a kind of oracle, but without all the sacerdotal trappings and trickery.”

She raises her voice passionately, partly in annoyance at me, or Delphi, or both of us? I’m not sure.

“I don’t need to breathe hallucinating gas venting from the ground. Or wander around in an altered state, mumbling incantations, while a band of accomplices makes sense out of nonsense, depending upon the size of the client’s donation! Putting all the mythos aside, that’s the real business of the ‘theater’ at Delphi. I went there once with my aunt. It’s all about soothsaying….and making money! That’s not the kind of oracle I want to be.”

“You want to help people live happier, fuller lives in the present,” I add, prudently, “not some fairytale future.”

“The oracle of Delphi delivers cryptic predictions to mighty princes and great city-states under the name of Apollo, a male god of mastery, separate over Nature,” Servilia explains, flushed with enthusiasm, shaking me by the arm, “I want to provide guidance and support to ordinary people through the auspices of those goddesses who follow the feminine principle of Nature. Demeter invites us to embrace the organic connection shared by all living entities on Mother Earth, such as trees, fish, worms, and of course, people.”

“The connectedness of Nature,” I ask, “rather than the separateness of Apollonian mastery?”

“There’s a place for both, inclusive of each,” she answers, “Both are needed in this world, depending upon the situation. It’s about the balance between them.”

Our conversation pauses, as if by mutual agreement. I reflect upon its substance, particularly the core values that we both share. I savor this moment of tranquility and connection between us. I feel as if we have made an implicit pact with each order that may yet lend an order and direction to our future lives.

Little did I realize then, knowing that I was incurably besotted, that Servilia was no mere youthful infatuation. The love that we shared would take on various forms across the passage of our eventful lives, from the giddy hypersexuality of young adulthood to the nurturing companionship of elderhood. Through to the end of my days, I have desired no other all this time. She remains for me still, an embodiment of the eternal feminine, tempestuous and incomparable.

In the mean time, Servilia perks up, ending our intimate reverie.

“I was very young at the time, but I vaguely remember a woman healer who came to our villa regularly and administered to my father’s grief in the years after my mother’s death.” Servilia recalls, with a melodious laugh, “She always made me smile, and had humorous names for different people: I remember my father was “ol’ Rush n’ Rouse”. I looked forward to our meetings, though I was soon ushered out of the way.”

“She was very beautiful, soft and caring,” Servilia continues, “My father gradually improved with her visits and herbal potions. He came alive, and was present for me again when I needed him. Those early impressions of real care-giving remained with me as an inspiration. Then she stopped coming, no goodbye, and I never found out the reason. When I asked my father, he just shrugged as if it was nothing.”

She pauses, bewildered.

“Funny that I remember that now, talking with you, after all this time,” she adds, “Those memories have laid dormant, half-forgotten, all these long years. The mention of healing must have brought them back to the surface.”

As I listen to her recollections, an unaccountable wave of nausea passes over me, so much that I shiver involuntarily. I think of my mother and her herbal ministrations on Samos. We were very close however, such that she would have surely mentioned the villa to me if she had ever gone there. Servilia notices my reaction, and asks if I am well, though in truth, I feel inexplicably sad. I nod that I am fine, embrace her warmly, and depart amidst a shower of kisses. As children, she and I had always played at the villa of one of Valerius’ friends, and I had never been to her residence or met the master himself, until recently. She was always escorted by trusted servants.

I can’t tell her of my suspicions, because that’s all they remain. There were several herbal practitioners on Samos at that time. If it was indeed my mother, then I should be proud of her legacy in motivating Servilia, yet another connection that binds she and I together. I find it deeply unsettling nonetheless. Probably grief, I conclude. It never truly goes away: that unforgettably horrible night!

That was not where matters ended, however. As I leave the villa soon after, a slave bows with a message that Valerius would be pleased to have a private audience with me (meaning: no Servilia) in the morrow at the ninth hour.

While presented as a gracious invitation, its true nature is unabashedly that of a categorical imperative. It seems as if today’s events are not without a sequel in the offing: perhaps only social, but more likely to be problematic —- if not a thinly veiled threat!

 

 

(To be continued next week)