The Word and The Flesh (3)


Ruins of the Parthian capital in Nisa, Turkmenistan (Central Asia).

You will perhaps say “Exaggeration!” – Alexandra said so yesterday. But you cannot say so, because saying so would amount to denying yourself: you would be going back on your own words: your reply (transmitted to me by Klaudios Iulianos ten years ago) to my proposal that you and I should correspond. Do you remember that reply? I will remind you: “I might in principle agree to this: half-breeds like us may correspond with each other in Greek without incurring ridicule. But – oh my distant, unknown friend, why, nearly my brother – Markia’s letters and letters to Markia will surely be intercepted. Let us not expose ourselves to derision then, let them not say that, again, half-barbarians dare abuse the divine tongue of Homer, Pindar and Plato. Let’s spare ourselves this humiliation.”

I wanted then to throw in the face of Klaudios Iulianos the words: and what about Lukianos of Samosata? And Markos Imperator? Neither was even partly Greek: neither had as much as a drop of Greek blood in him! But I was ashamed then to as much as look in the eyes of the commander of Dura and without saying a word I passed from under one sail (with the letters SPQR) under another: one decorated with a half-moon, a star and an anchor. As I leapt from boat to boat, I was pursued by the insistent, though friendly in its nature, and well-meaning advice: “Demand to be sent to Rome for talks regarding the return of the deserters from Roman auxiliary units!” Perhaps it was a sensible and friendly advice, but I did not follow it because I have always been against any talks on the fate of those Syrians who had fled from under the wings of the hated eagles into my father’s kingdom.

But perhaps that is why you are punishing me? For that omission? For that failure to seize the opportunity to meet you in Rome ten years ago already? Perhaps you believe that we are both too old now to create a worthy flesh for your mother’s and my father’s love-wish? That this child should have been conceived then, ten years ago, not now?

But that’s impossible! You could not punish me for that! I am as Parthian as you are Roman. I had my duties, duties of an Arsakid, and you – you had the duties of the favorite concubine Imperatoris Augustii. I had? You had? No! We have them still! Alexandra may not understand this, but you, Markia? It was your view that it was unworthy of the Roman Kaisar to perform in the amphitheater; it was my view that it was unworthy of the King of Kings to give up the deserters, for this reason, at the very least, that since the King of Kings holds himself to be the brother of Sun and Moon, his word, once given, cannot be changed just as the orbits of his heavenly brothers cannot be changed. And if I believe this – and I do, and Alexandra has known this for seventeen years – then it is simply reprehensible of her to try to convince me to flee; and worse than reprehensible to try to enlist you in the effort. My father has concluded peace with Septymios Kaisar, accepted such and such terms, and made me a living security for the fulfillment of those terms. How could I flee then?

Alexandra says: my father has intentionally sent me to my death. Nonsense! Not that he either loves me, or is in any way proud of me; quite the contrary: he has been ashamed by my existence ever since my birth; and indeed has at times wished me dead. But that is over now. Now he wants me to live as long as I possibly can. Mongrel children are an embarrassment to rulers and nations only in times of their presumed greatness; in defeat, rulers and nations draw such children close to their hearts, the more tenderly the more they believe the old tale concerning the half-breed’s natural tendency to betray. The wiser among rulers, though they may share in the belief, do not rest at merely exposing their breasts to the potential viper’s bite; they can look into the minds of half-breeds deeper than I can now look at the coin which I am to hand to Didia Klara tomorrow in payment for Theodotos. And in this matter, at least, my father belongs to the wiser kind; the more insightful kind; the kind who can see at once both sides of the coin. When he called me in for our farewell conversation under the turquoise-encrusted dome of his palace in Nisa, he did not need to remove from his memory the acrimonious cries – and warnings -- of my uncles at his decision to nominate me viceroy of Babylon during the civil war ten years previously. On the contrary: he eagerly inquired whether I still recalled them. And, to make doubly sure, he asked about the health of that elephant upon whose back the daughter of the Kaisar of Kushan had intended to give her body to me -- but she gave that body only much later to ants, to whom the subtle poets and insightful thinkers of the East married her when she’d gone there to bear them (as she thought) enlightenment and its fruit – liberation. That martyrdom – if I may use such a daring neologism – was also known to my father in that moment when his eyes, illumined by the moon and the torches, sparkled with tears – tears brighter than all the turquoises of Nisa! – tears of joy (especially prepared by skillful court doctors) to welcome me, a son who could finally be of some use!

I pretended, of course, that I did not grasp the connection between the question about the health of the elephant and the king my father’s whining complaint that ever since his beloved brother’s rebellion, no Arsakid worthy of the name could inspire in the breast of the King of Kings as much trust as he has for a monkey which he may allow to play in the coconut palm overhead. Or for a kitchen maid whom he might take into his bed only to get tired of her after forty three nights.


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