The Word and The Flesh (5)

Vologases IV

How much I have to explain to you, dear Markia! How very much! And with what precision, how detailed precision! -- detailed in a manner better suited perhaps to the introductory year of one's schooling! Which is not, of course, your fault, but the fault of your world, that Wild West, that West which produced your mother and which consumed your father with its insatiable need to repeat constantly: "We are strong! Invincible! Alone!" When I read your historians and your geographers -- and by "your" I mean not just Romans, but also Greeks, who sold themselves to the Romans -- I can never stop being amazed by the intellectual laziness blowing from all those books. For how can one not term "laziness" that constant overuse of the epithet "barbarian" regarding all those whose life-style, customs, pleasures and ideas require a little effort in order to be understood?

I know, dear Markia, the words you uttered when you first learned about my existence: "Oh, what a pleasant diversion this barbarian princeling's imagination makes!" But what do you know -- and what would you say -- about... the Kushans? You know only that they wear pants which they tuck into tall boots and that the names of their rules usually end in -ishka; and you say "Oh, some barbarian of the sort common east of Euphrates". But these barbarians, my love, have managed to give flesh to the dreams of Eutidemides and Helioklides, and of all the Greek merchants from Seleukia on the Tigris to Marsilia: they managed to establish a customs border with China!

What is more: when Alexandra and I were in India, we spent two years in Taxila, with which surely you must be familiar from the history of Alexander, and out of which, two centuries after Alexander, Demetrios Eutidemides hoped to make the paragon of Greek-Indian spiritual and political unity. You will guess perhaps the exaltation with which I walked about that city of Demetrios: a double exaltation in fact, because after Greeks, we, Parthians ruled India from this city.

But -- it was not a harmonious doubling of exaltation: in Taxila, at the acropolis, I felt myself a thousandfold more Greek than Parthian. And I reasoned like a Greek: with truly Greek contempt for barbarians I looked down at the third Taxila, the Taxila of the Kushans. I laughed in the same way in which you, your mother, and Markos Imperator would have laughed at the atavistic power of nomadic inheritance: the fact that the Kushan rulers preferred to give up all the advantages -- of beauty and defensibility -- which the Eutidemide Taxila owed to its mountainous position; and preferred to build, at enormous cost, a wholly new city down below, so as not to have to part their feet -- and their gaze -- from the low, wide, flat plain.

I shared this observation with Alexandra's father. (He was then -- in vain -- trying to secure Kushan support for my father's dying -- as it then seemed -- rebellion against Vologases III; while it was through the latter king's mercy that I, instead of having died impaled on a stake, and having subsequently been eaten by vultures, crossed and recrossed India in the Eutydemid footsteps without a care in the world). The old fox, who had fooled for half a century Romans, Jews, Parthians, Siakas, Kushans and Chinese, listened to me with one eye slyly half-closed, and when I finished, asked: "And hat do you know about the art of fortification, son?" I admitted that I knew nothing about it. "Pity. Or maybe rather lucky: lucky -- for you. For your peace of mind, for your self-satisfaction. For if you knew anything about it, and took a careful look at the walls, towers and moats down below there, you would soon lose any desire to laugh at the atavist habits of nomadic blood. You say that Kushans do not understand how to employ the advantages of mountainous terrain? You are wrong, my dear. Rather say this: they can afford not to employ these advantages -- afford to see them as mere inconveniences, rather -- which neither Parthians nor Greeks could ever have afforded. Is that clear? I think not! Your mind is too occupied with the question whether Shakyamuni Gautama was or was not a god, too occupied, I say, to understand such simple things as these."

He exaggerated a bit -- as he always did when trying to characterize my mental type; and he did so (by right of being my step-father) at every opportunity. Luckily, he didn't have the opportunity often: after I married Rachela Eratona -- and you know from Alexandra that this happened very early -- I saw my step-father perhaps six, at most seven times over the space of eight years. Afterwards, I was no longer to see him, even if I wanted to, and I did often want to see him: though he was the most cunning devil I have ever known, yet he managed to miscalculate once: he decided to betray my father on the day which he judged to be the day of the rebellion's defeat, while, in fact, it was the day of breakthrough.

For me it was a day of change only to the extent that while up to that day I had been victim of the anger of Vologases III, after that day I became equally victim of an equal anger of Vologases... IV. And never ever after this day, or indeed never ever before this day, have I shed one tear of the sort one might expect an exile to shed: why, exile has its charms, very great charms! One is a martyr -- praise be to Christians, what a useful neologism this is! -- which means that whenever one says or does something displeasing to his hosts, they wink at each other with understanding, sigh and say: "Poor thing! Longing for lost fatherland has unhinged his mind!"

In fact, I did long for something. Not the fatherland, for where is my fatherland? Seleukia? Achaia? Kharakis? Hekatompylos? No. I longed for you.


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