PART III

"Failures"

The Villa is surrounded on three sides by high stone walls of white fine-cut limestone, criss-crossed with a latticework of brick-red terra-cotta shards.

The overall aesthetic, or at least my impression of it, is that of a giant dice-board made for a Homeric Cyclops, a metaphor that probably wouldn’t please the Villa’s master.

Beyond the stone walls, the grounds are surrounded by a semi-circular caldera, a geological feature formed by a major eruption during antiquity. The walls of the dying volcano toppled in upon themselves, creating what is most aptly described as a giant bowl, or cauldron. In fact, the local name for the villa is ‘The Caldera’.

I have never been able to pin down with my Colophon neighbors, rural and reticent by nature, whether this local name is a geological reference to its volcanic origins. Could it be a veiled sleight directed at one of Colophon’s most prominent outsiders, a vociferous personality and a Roman foreigner to boot? I surmise that it’s the latter, as the Villa’s Latinate name is conspicuous to any visitor, Domus Solis Domina, or ‘home of the sun lady’. The opulent country estate was originally built to please Valerius’ wife, Hypetia, she of the ‘sunny’ disposition, now deceased.

I ask myself whether the caldera site was chosen for its association with Hephaestus, infernal god of fire and brimstone? The god of smithery also, beating raw materials into the desired shape. I wonder if this fiery association is a portent of things to come, but then I catch myself, overthinking again. This long-awaited meeting with Valerius has once again stoked up my natural inclination for anticipatory anxiety.

It’s a balmy day, warm but pleasant as I tread the long path towards the main gates. To distract myself, I fall back on one of my favorite devices, and escape into the quicksand of riddles. I chose a conundrum that according to legend, originated with my imaginary mentors, Xenophanes of Colophon, and later, Socrates himself.

Socrates made great use of the aporia, a line of questioning, designed to raise doubt (mostly perplexed scowls!) on matters that are generally taken for granted. No wonder he wasn’t popular: How can I know what I don’t know, when I don’t know what it is that I should know, but don’t? I believe that I know, and know that I know, since the unknown is unknown to me. So long as the unknown remains unknown, then I will continue to know all that there is to know.

Sounds perfectly logical, except for those inconvenient few people who know that they don’t know that they don’t know, and so on, endlessly into the inexorable unknown. So the aporia raises an epistemological problem, in which I have now gone beyond the limits of language, and entered the tricky, sticky world of sophistry, the world of the rhetoricians.

I think to myself that this is the blind spot in Aristotle’s syllogisms, where so-called black-and-white reasoning fails. In real world terms, what counts most is the ‘unknown known’, which is to say, those things that you resolutely believe you know, yet it turns out that you were wrong, blinkered by your own experience. These are the things that will trip you up in life, your own personal blind-spots! All very amusing (or amazing, depending on your philosophical politics). It works: now I’m just plain bored, which under the circumstances, is a welcome state of mind.

Quadriga of Valerius

I trudge onwards, along the familiar white gravel ramp, made wide for oxen-driven carriages or the master’s quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, hitched side-by-side. I hear guard-dogs barking ferociously in the distance, tethered I hope, announcing my presence, or sealing my fate, as the case may be. Too late now to turn back.

Passing by the ornately-carved lions-gate, into the walled garden, I wonder yet again, at the grand panorama opening up before me: a landscape designed to awe visitors with its overripe trappings of status and beauty. The collapsed walls of the caldera form a natural bulwark, enclosing a sheltered space, filled with black, mineral-rich soil. An access promenade of flagstones follows the arc of the caldera, planted with hedges of thyme, myrtle, and rosemary, so that a waft of scents immediately engulfs the visitor.

The eroded volcano walls are lined with sharp-pointed cypresses, ancient oak spotted with lichen, ubiquitous pine, and manna ash, amid the silver-grey leaves of ageless olive-groves. On the other side of the promenade, there are scalloped terraces of scrubs, including juniper and pink oleander, mixed with thorny acacia with its fragrant white blossoms.

Here and there, oaken benches are placed, sited for contemplation, to capture a particular alignment of variegated color and symmetry, or else, a full-figure statue of Aeneas or other Trojan hero. One feature however, is given pride of place, situated atop a small embankment, visible throughout the estate: a ceremonial, octagonal temple, gleaming-white in the afternoon sun.

At its center rests the monumental pink marble sarcophagus of Hypetia, princess of the royal family of Smyrna, mother of Servilia, beloved wife of Valerius.

Slaves scuttle about, carefully avoiding my gaze, watering, pruning, potting, irrigating, and all the other myriad tasks necessary to maintain such a lavish garden. Gravel paths wind between raised beds of narcissus, anemones, asphodelus, lavender, saffron crocus, as well as numerous tropical exotics.

To complete the horticultural spectacle, an orchard of figs, golden apples, and pomegranates sweeps around the villa itself, offering superb fruit within easy reach. A lush strip lawn provides ready access to the orchard and abuts the tiled loggia incorporated into the villa.

Finally, the mandatory vegetable garden is sited at the back, between promenade and villa, artfully concealed behind extensive vineyards, producing several varietals of house-wine. I am daunted by the sight of the garden ‘potting shed’, considerably larger than my father’s humble house.

I promise myself that one day I would own such a garden of delight, but simple and less ostentatious of course, to fill with friends and pleasant talk. In place of Valerius’ palatial Villa entrance, I would have a plain hardwood door, with a pediment above it and a grapevine trailing over the garden wall. On the doorway of my fantasized home, facing the pavement, I would post a conspicuous sign, “All are welcome here.”

I inherited my spirit of greater humanity, inclusive of all nations, races, religions, and class, from my mother: my imaginary home with its welcoming open door, reflects her positive influence in my life. My selfless mother has no monumental pink marble sarcophagus to mark her passing, in fact no monument whatsoever other than the boundless immensity of the ocean. Her legacy requires no hard marble, yet her kind-hearted goodwill and influence linger on, alive still, in my heart as well as the many who loved her.

Floor Plan: “Domus Solis Domina” (Valerius’ Villa)

I turn now into the propylaeum, the forecourt and reception for the villa, and find a slave patiently waiting for my arrival in the atrium. I am led along a central colonnaded arcade having a low entablature with niches inlaid with porphyry, for statuettes or ornamental red pottery. The floors are paved with mosaics of multicolored pebbles, of various fishes, whales, dolphins, and other aquatic life. Everything about the villa is oversized and overstated, designed not merely to impress, but rather, to overwhelm.

Passageways intersect the arcade at regular intervals, providing access to the many rooms of the main house, or domus.

I am escorted into the tablinum, the male inner sanctum.

The master of this sumptuous estate is waiting for me.

Sighting my approach, Valerius delivers a desultory version of a Roman military salute.

His right arm is closed to a fist on the heart, then swung fully outstretched and upwards at an angle in my direction, with a flat palm, held rigid for a few seconds, then released to his side. The chivalrous ritual of the Roman salute is intended I believe, to convey a message of loyalty or friendship such as ‘my heart belongs to you’. Time will tell, in this case.

Impressive I suppose, half salutary, half comedic, but he has caught me unprepared, so I just manage a weak wave of the hand, nothing outstretched, and certainly nothing military. Besides, I’m an impoverished Athenian Greek, trapped in Colophon for eternity, not an affluent Roman who can choose when he comes or goes. Let’s be clear, from the start!

Mine host, a staunch gentleman of the Roman republic, lies half-reclining on a couch, under the shade of a commodious silken canopy. My Greek cameo of sybarite Romans is completed by a statuesque female slave standing nearby, bare-breasted with gilt edged loin-cloth, providing a gentle fanning for her supine master.

A trellis of grape vines, bearing purple, ripe fruit, lies within reach, as well as an ornamental fountain, capped I think with Poseidon and trident. Tortoises, alive and jostling, fill the fountain reservoir. The cascading levels of fountain-water, eurhythmic and relaxing, provide an unexpected counterpoint to the tense atmospherics of the meeting.

As a self-proclaimed patrician of Colophon, Valerius is kitted out in full-length woollen toga and scarlet-trimmed linen cloak, draped over the shoulder, wine goblet in hand. The goblet immediately catches my eye with its brightness. I recognize the unique sheen of ‘green gold’: a precious gold-silver alloy, also known as ‘electrum’.

With a gracious tilt of the head, I am invited to join his libation, and am soon reclining uncomfortably on an adjacent couch. I muster as must aplomb as I can manage, or endure. The ability to relax on Roman couches must surely be an inherited skill not shared by the physiognomy of us poor Greeks. A slave is summoned, and returns promptly, placing a matching electrum goblet before me.

I recognize the offering at first tasting, as he knows of my palette for fine, dry wine. In this case, a special combination of two rare red varietals, home-grown on the estate: the Phochian and the Retinian grapes. He is signaling the significance of his agenda, while I sample his ‘house wine’, and struggle to conceal my nervous tremor.

Greetings, libations, and small talk soon follow, on the costly repairs to the foundations of the Heraion Temple, always a problem —- set on low marshy ground, on a river delta. Valerius is contributing generously to its restoration.

“What were the ancients thinking when they built it there?” he queries, rhetorically.

Attentive listening is surely a polite compliment, a hallmark of culture. In Valerius’ case however, it becomes something else, the blunt instrument of a penetrating intellect such that the subject of such focused attention, myself in this case, feels physically intimidated. He knows that I sleep with his daughter, his sole offspring.

It is my impression, specious or otherwise, that no sooner have my fleeting words found their form and function, issuing from my lips, than his inquisitional mind bears down upon them. Culling through my unguarded remarks, he is cross-referencing and tabulating for contradictions, slips of self-disclosure, or other revealing foibles.

Such ‘interrogation’, if that is the apt description, fosters its own defenses. The impulse to mentally censor one’s self, for example, as a prelude to speech, becomes paralyzing. What should be a flowing exchange in other circumstances regresses to a string of stilted, unacceptable mutterings. I find myself instead, shooting out words under pressure involuntarily, to beat my own mental ‘censor’ and so maintain a façade of normality.

By way of nervous distraction, I express my admiration for his floor of tessellated tiles, classical black-and-white, a favorite of the Romans. An otherwise innocent remark, just a polite throwaway, it becomes awkward and contrived even as I utter it, as if my words remain hanging in the air between us.

Valerius observes my anxious struggle and offers his ‘benign’ reassurance.

“There’s no hurry,” he says, smiling and somewhat bemused, “Take your time before speaking. I find that a sip of wine always helps to free up the right words.” Disingenuous words: I still feel as if he is the cat playing with me, as the mouse.

I appreciate his belated advice, intended to put me at ease, while at the same time, it asserts his total control of the situation. This is a personage for whom wielding great power comes as naturally as breathing. Having established his power base, he adds several humorous anecdotes related to the estate, normalizing my discomfort. I am glad to follow his lead, inserting the requisite responses on a timely basis. An understanding of sorts, is forming; perhaps, even a relationship. I follow along.

The wine is excellent indeed, and seemingly endless. With such a generous opportunity for indulgence, I am never able to discover a bottom to my goblet, try as I may. “In Vino Veritas”; or at least, progressive babbling and whimsy on my part. We parley back and forth, as I begin to relax into the couch, which interestingly, seems more accommodating than it was previously.

We then get down to business.

Without further preamble, Valerius abruptly leads off by raising the prospect of my future plans, partly I suspect, to catch me by surprise.

He does so by means of a paradoxical enquiry, putting forward the default assumption that I am probably intending to remain in Colophon. Tricky.

“What is an ambitious young man like yourself doing here, in a lascivious backwater like Colophon, so far from the seats of power and influence? You should be in Athens, where you are already a citizen. Why would you come back here of all places?”

His surprise ambush works. I’m dumbfounded. He hasn’t finished yet, however.

“While Colophon is a paradise of sorts, with its mild climate, charming seaport, and rich patrons, it’s also a place where young people end up marooned, seduced by its hedonism, then stuck here for the rest of their arbitrary, short lives, dying fat, stupid, and drunk, with a surprised, incomprehensible stare on their blotchy faces. What a waste!”

He pauses from his fiery tirade, just sufficient to catch his breath. I’m still reeling mentally, trying to catch up, and make sense of his outburst. I feel like I’ve run into a crazy man, yet I know from his esteemed reputation, that he is anything but that. He’s altering the tempo of our exchange.

“I’ve witnessed it myself many times in other young people,” Valerius adds, “and I don’t want that fate to be yours!”

I’m guessing that his strident manner is a indication that, despite my pleas not to do so, Servilia may have told him of my pressing desire to rid myself of Colophon. He is obviously reinforcing any departure plans in a decidedly unequivocal manner, or else, he is baiting me? He clearly intended to have an effect, arguably an attempt to throw me off balance, and he certainly has achieved that end! But to what purpose? While I had ruminated many times about the nature of this meeting, needlessly it seems, I had never thought of it as tactical in nature, having such abrupt changes in flux and tempo. There’s surely an abject lesson there: I had thought of our meeting in terms of words, while he thinks of it as a dynamic process.

As I recover from his outburst, I find that everything Valerius said is patently true, albeit plainly spoken as a somber businessman. It’s true that the entitled sons of the political elite provide me with a steady income derived from my private tutorials. Their shallow opulence however, makes for a less than enjoyable experience.

The ‘ruling class’, mostly Ionian and Macedonian, assume an unstated superiority, so subtle that they are hardly aware of it themselves. On the other hand, I feel it keenly, despite their feinting attempts at friendship. While I must bridle my true feelings, I find such elitism to be deeply offensive. My hoplite conscripted service in Athens further honed a natural sense of ‘demos’ and equality, which I found so appealing, reminiscent of my childhood instruction at my mother’s hands.

I’m impatient to move onwards. The life of the Mind, the Way of ‘Sophia’, exerts an irresistible clarion call, though right now, I have a more immediate problem. This betrayal of my future plans by Servilia, if indeed true, is a disappointing breach of confidence. Moreover, it now places me in a dilemma about what reply I should make to Valerius. I hesitate.

If I don’t tell him, and he knows the truth, then it marks me as evasive, even secretive; but if he is probing, and really doesn’t know, then he possesses a truth that may have dire consequences for me. While they are only acquaintances at best, it is inevitable that Valerius will speak with my father from time to time.

My departure, if and when, remains a volatile subject with my father. I’m sure he can read the signs, but has been reluctant to ask me directly, somewhat out of fear of being left alone. His depressed mood always simmers just beneath the surface. He knows me well enough that the act of raising the question may end with a vehement confrontation. This in turn could hasten my resolve, and precipitate the very event which he most fears. So we live together in a rueful state of truce and mutual avoidance.

On the other hand, if he were to find out about my plans ‘second-hand’ from Valerius, my father would feel compromised, even humiliated. He would then likely reproach me in a rancorous argument we would both later regret. It is truly a marvel of the mind that all these mental perambulations occur within a few seconds. I know that I’ll have to deal with it sooner or later, so I reason that I may as well be done with it now.

“Just as you say, Colophon has no attraction for me. I’m thinking of leaving and joining one of the philosophy schools in Athens,” I declare bluntly, as wholeheartedly as I can manage, in keeping with Valerius’ own pragmatic style.

“During my two years of hoplite training in that great city, I took advantage of my spare time to visit the different philosophy schools. I was very fortunate to hear Aristotle, only a year before he died, as well as Xenocrates who succeeded Plato as head of the Academy. Then there were the Stoics of Zeno, who teaches near the Agora.”

I continue in this vein for at least another goblet of wine!

Valerius remains patient throughout my self-absorbed rambling, listening attentively as ever. I had not expected this response from such a taciturn businessman. I must also acknowledge that I have benefited from his largesse in other ways: his endorsements have granted me tutorial access to the upper echelons of Colophon society. I had always thought of this assistance as an veiled favor to my father, rather than myself: more as a recognition of my father’s many years of community teaching, repaid to the son. Yet there is something indefinable in the conversation today, even the way he looks at me, that makes me wonder if his motive is more personal?

He then asks inquisitively, which school of philosophy most attracted me in Athens.

“I was very impressed by my personal talks with the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope” I reply, emboldened, since Valerius seems to be genuinely interested, “He eschews wealth for a simple life of asceticism, living on the streets, with a large upturned jar as his only home against the weather ! They call him The Dog, but I listened.”

As a perceptive person, Valerius would hardly have failed to notice that my rant on the simple life could also be taken as a supercilious judgement of himself. Well-known for his excessive displays of wealth, his prized possession (other than Servilia!) is this luxurious villa. Rather than reactive, he seems quietly bemused by my rantings, pauses, and throws another question at me, an outlier, as unexpected as the rest.

“Did you know that the Great Socrates once visited your birthplace on the island of Samos?”

He is testing my knowledge of the influential philosophers, inviting comment. He is also letting me know that he has my background, putting me in my place. I was aware of Socrates’ trip to the remote island of course, when he was still quite young, accompanied by his older male partner, Archelaus. I decide to feign ignorance nevertheless, as I feel like I should be discreet. I’ll give him the upper hand until such time as he reveals his true agenda for this intriguing, though somewhat awkward meeting.

We have been ‘wrestling with the air’, to quote a popular Athenian saying, which makes its own statement about Athens and ‘hot air’.

 

 

(To be continued next week)