Muchos años después, frente al peletón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.
Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad
You know, of course, my young friends, that the great Alexander of Macedon, conqueror of the Persian empire, died in Babylon when he was scarcely thirty-three years old. You, Timaeus, are what – only twenty-four?
Ah. And your wise friend here, whom you brought to speak with me, you, sir, Nicodemos, are only… what, forty-five?
Ah. Well, both of you are younger than I, much younger, young enough to have children and watch them grow into men and women. While I, who am eighty and some, well, I will tell you this advice in all honesty. Do it. Have children. They, and the memory of your friends, are all you can ever leave behind you, when you depart from this world of life.
Yes, holy father.
Well. You asked me to tell you of my life. The history of events that have passed before my eyes. But first I ask you, by way of digression, to imagine how things might have been different, here in the east, if Alexander had fathered children. That great young king, only thirty-three when he died in the palace of Nahbukadrusur, down there in Babylon, a palace which the Persians had kept beautiful and fine, maintained as their seat of power in the ancient land between the rivers, yes, imagine if Alexander the Macedonian Greek was to have had children – and if he had lived to become a wise, old king, well, then perhaps he might have seen his children grow into men and women, and married his daughters to important men throughout his empire, and chosen one of his sons to follow after him, yes, while appointing the other sons to be governors and great ministers of court. You see how the empire he dreamed of creating, the empire he was working to build, how it might have survived, and made our own history completely different here in the east; and more – who knows now whether his power might have reached out to the west, taking all the Greek cities under his influence, if not his rule, or perhaps even bringing Rome under his power, Rome, which then was still a young republic – remember this was before the wars between Carthage and Rome, is that not so, Nikodemos?
Yes, sir. Alexander died a hundred years before Hannibal crossed the Alps.
There you are. If Alexander and his empire had survived, then events might have transpired differently here in the east, and even in the west, the great king of kings might have found some way to cause both Carthage and Rome to become his allies, if not conquer them both outright. Even the wild tribes and towns of Gaul, later conquered by your Caesar, might have respected the great king of the east. Yes, things might have been different.
But holy father, that is not how events unfolded.
Exactly not. That is my point, Timaeus, a point which I feel must be made before I tell you and your friend the story of my own life. For as we all know, the great Alexander, that wild, desperate young man, died childless except for an infant baby or two. His generals and armies, men who had literally marched to the ends of the Earth for him and with him, well, now that he was gone, they all fell apart from each other, and the great empire of Alexander, which might have lasted for a thousand years, well, it shivered and shattered and fell apart into several different pieces and his children were forgotten. His generals divided up his empire between them. You know the story. One general took Egypt, another took Greece and Macedonia, another Anatolia and the Pontus, and then there was Seleucus, who had been governor of Babylon, who took Syria and Persia and Mesopotamia, the same lands where I was born scarcely three hundred years later.
And yet, holy father, that kingdom too came to an end. His descendants eventually lost it all.
Correct, Nikodemos. The children and grandchildren of Seleucus Nikator, and their descendants, well, they thrived for a while, and then they, too, fell before the rise of two new powers in the east and the west. A new Persian kingdom, whom we now call the Parthian and, of course, in the west, we have Rome. But worse than those rising external powers, was the royal family itself, the descendants of Seleucus, who began to fight each other for control. Brothers, and then cousins, declared war on each other. The kingdom became weaker, and divided against itself, generation after generation, while the Parthians took back Persia and Media, then moved into Mesopotamia itself, were briefly beaten back into Persia, but came back again a generation later. Now they rule there.
Yes, father Anaxagoras. You point out the most dangerous problem for any kingdom: to stay united as one power, and not fall apart into separate, fighting, pieces. When that happens, invaders can come in and take down the kingdom, piece by piece by piece.
So you see what I am saying. Good. By the time I was born, in the city of Seleucia, the capital on the Tigris river, by then the kingdom of Seleucus was gone. We were all subects of the new Persians, the Parthians. Fortunately for us, however, or rather fortunately for my grandfathers’ generation, the new rulers understood how important it was to maintain peace and keep the trade routes open, to protect the wealth flowing between all the cities of Mesopotamia and more, reaching east toward India and west to the Mediterranean. The caravans must move. The silk, inscense, ivory, and spice, must flow.
That is why, even though we were conquered by the Pathians, Greek remained our native language, and Aramaic became our second tongue. The city of Seleucia, you see, is half Greek and half Babylonian, if I may simplify things a bit. Yes, simplistically you could say that in the city of Seleucia we are almost all either Greek or Babylonian, or both, although there are dozens of other, different, languages and religious groups, including the Parthians of course, to whom we pay taxes, of course.
And… well, a little over a hundred years ago, when the Parthians finally conquered Mesopotamia, there were already so many Greeks there, especially in Seleucia, the Hellenistic capital, that the new rulers simply told us to swear allegiance and continue to go about our business, which in my family’s case was, and is, the management of caravans and cargo.
But, my friends, it was not so simple as that. It did not happen overnight, as the saying goes. Because the Seleucid empire, Basileia ton Seleukidon, was huge, comprising nearly half of Alexander’s conquests, from India to the Mediterranean. Thousands of wealthy cities and farms and orchards poured taxes into the royal treasury. Even with all of its weaknesses and civil wars it took almost three hundred years for this great kingdom to fall apart and die. The last years were terrible. But my ancestors survived. By the time I was born the worst times were over. We had come back into peace again.
Yes. Well. So it was.
The city where I was born was new, compared with the other ancient towns of Mesopotamia. For you see, Seleucia on the Tigris was founded less than four hundred years ago, as the capital for the kingdom, the metropolis for the empire of the east. It was not even twenty years after Alexander died, when the first king, or basileas, Seleucus Nikator, decided to leave Babylon and build a new city, midway between Persia and the Mediterranean, in the heart of Mesopotamia, on the Tigris River. Not only did he encourage, and often command, that Greeks should settle there, but he ordered most of the population of Babylon, the great city, to move to his new city of Seleucis. With one royal stroke, he set in motion the creation of a new hellenistic hybrid, a capital city that was half Greek and half Babylonian.
That was where I was born, in a house near the walls, with high windows looking out from our private rooms above the business halls on the main floors below, where clerks and scribes kept their records and receipts. Those business rooms were in turn built above the storerooms and warehouses and our small family stables. No, we did not live upstairs from camels and other beasts of burden, although we kept a few animals for our private use in stalls on the ground floor, but all the important caravan animals, the horses, mules, and camels, were stabled outside the city at larger corrals and work areas attached to a caravansary my family has owned and maintained. That was, and is, in open land beyond the walls of the crowded city. It, too, eventually became part of my childhood world.
I remember some of my earliest memories, at home, staring out the high windows, gazing through the wooden lattice and grill, across the rooftops, toward the walls of other tall houses, and wondering what was out there, what were those animals and birds crying in the night, who were those people whose voices I heard echoing far below me in the crowded streets during the daytime, or the scattered sounds of men running and shouting in the night, young voices laughing, old voices grumbling and cursing the dark, and occasionally the cry of a woman calling out for a lost child.
I heard the singing voices of the street vendors in the morning, calling out their wares, cakes of bread freshly baked in the darkness before dawn – as I learned later – or the stuffed-date man selling his sweet delight to eat with your breakfast gruel – the broom-man or woman with their stiff palm fronds for sweeping away the dirt and dust – the juice seller with jugs of sweet drink suspended from either side of a small donkey – all these voices I heard coming through our windows before I was even two years old, before I even knew who or what they were I had already learned their song having heard the voice rise up in air from the street, up past the solid warehouse walls wherein my father and uncle and cousins kept precious cargoes safe behind locked doors on solid rooms with no windows, yes, those rooms, too, I did not learn about for a few more years but already the song of the street was rising up beyond the storeroom walls, up past a main floor of solid office and business halls where clerks sat with clay tablets and precious paper crushed from river reeds, and they worked their counting boards, the abex or abakos, with pebbles constantly clicking in the notched grooves, counting and recounting, checking one tablet against another, calculating and figuring and reconciling and recording how much, what quality, where from, who brought it, who bought it, who sold it, where is it going next and when. Those rooms had windows for light and air shafts to let the air circulate and cool the heat of day. The song of the street rose up beyond them, mixing with the hum and click of calculation, rising farther up toward the windows of my family’s private rooms where the baby, now walking, now talking, sat in the window beside the wooden screen, listening to the song from the street far below.
So that was I. That baby child, listening. Already learning. By two I was repeating the song of the street, the bread vendor, the broom seller, the juice carrier, and I learned to amuse my nursemaid and my mother, singing the songs back to them, in Aramaic. They told my father, and I sang for him. He looked at me and listened, stroking his beard, and thinking. This child has a gift for language. I soon learned that I had now been chosen to be groomed for the next speaker of the family and the business. The translator. The negotiator with foreign princes and merchants of power and wealth.
In the beginning, my mother and the nursemaid were encouraged to tell me stories and talk with me. My mother, I found out later, regularly told my father of my progress. Later, a tutor was brought in to sharpen my skills with both Greek and the Babylonian tongues. He was the first scholar I met – and I have met many through the years, my young friends, and I can tell you it is not an easy life to be learned. Either you must dedicate your life to some business or another, just to be free to choose what you read and write, yet never have enough time to study, or you must become a client, as your Romans call it in Latin, and be forever at the beck and call of some great man or another who will be your patron, and if you please him, then you may have time to study and write, but you will forever be at your patron’s beck and call, to write what he asks, or sometimes commands. You remember, perhaps, that the great Augustus had his Maecenas, a wealthy man, who cultivated his own circle – or stable, if you will allow me to make like Diogenes the cynic – a stable of writers and artists. Yes. That is the way of the world. You either inherit wealth, or you make it yourself, or you work for other great men who pay you.
In my case, I was perhaps more fortunate. I had my family who became my patrons, encouraged my learning, and yes, bade me work with them in service to our business. But we were privileged, my friends, because we had both money and property, as well as our reputation and honor. My grandparents and their parents before them had come through the times of turmoil, and then prospered. Yes, we lost some animals and cargo to brigands and thieves, but in the main, we prospered. That was the world I was born into, and for which I was groomed and educated and trained.
You, Timaeus, told me how you learned to ride from the stables near the market in Antioch, and then helped your mother and her sister to prosper in their sales by delivering purchases to your customers.
Yes, holy father.
And you, Nikodemos, you are also learned… I do not know the details yet, but Timaeus has told me you were on the general staff with Corbulo, before he sent you here.
Yes, sir. That is so. But my childhood, and youth, was, well, complicated.
Nevertheless, you learned, and worked, and studied. Is that not so?
Yes, divine priest. It is.
So did I. In the first ten years of my childhood in our city of Seleucia I learned languages and writing and mathematics and the rudiments of history. For example, my tutor told me, and my father and uncle later confirmed, that the year I was born a great peace treaty was signed between Augustus Caesar of Rome and king of kings Phraates of Parthia. That our family business thrived in the years after that, with caravans coming and going from Persia in the east, Arabia in the south, and the Roman province of Syria in the west.
Then, when I was almost to turn twelve, I was told by my father that it was time for me to learn first-hand about the core of our business, and to accompany my uncle across the river from Seleucia to the Parthian winter capital at Ctesiphon. Although short – only a few miles – this was the first trip I made in business, though there were many, most far longer, to follow in the years to come. But it was on that first, short sales trip that I learned we owners and masters of trade had another cargo we carried, much more quietly, privately, and carefully. That cargo was intelligence. Knowledge of how things were proceeding politically, perhaps even changing, in the different cities and lands we visited with our caravans and cargo. This was one reason why I had been taught to speak several different languages. From my earliest childhood, when I showed how easy it was for me to listen and mimic the street vendors’ songs I had heard rising up into our windows, from those early days my father and uncle
grandfather decided I would be one to listen and learn, firsthand, about what was happening in the different lands where we did business. I was to travel with the caravans, keep my ears open, to openly speak Greek and Aramaic when the time came to do business, but not to advertise how many other languages I spoke or understood. I would discretely listen, remember whatever I happened to overhear, keep this knowledge private, not discussing it with anyone along the road, and only report back to my father and grandfather and uncle when we returned to Seleucia. Then they would discuss my news, along with other sources, and decide whether our plans should be adjusted, perhaps next year, to either become more cautious if danger threatened, or to make adjust ments in what cargoes we actually sent in one direction or another. XXXXXXXa caravan from Seleucis into Persia. That was the first trip I made, and there were many to follow. But that first trip was also when I learned that we owners and masters of caravans had another cargo we carried, much more quietly, privately, and carefully. Intelligence. Knowledge of how things were proceeding, or perhaps even changing, in the lands we visited. That was one reason why I had been so carefully taught to speak several different languages. To become one who would listen and learn, firsthand, about what was happening in the different lands where we visited and did business. I was to keep my ears open, to not openly advertise how many languages I spoke (other than Aramaic and Greek), to discretely remember whatever I happened to overhear, and to keep this knowledge private, not to discuss it with anyone, and only to report back to my father and grandfather and my uncles when we returned to Seleucia. Then they would discuss my news, along with other sources, and decide whether or not any dangers or opportunities might be arising in the next year or two, and whether our plans should be adjusted for the next year, either be more cautious or perhaps make adjustments in what cargoes we actually sent in one direction or another.
I mention this work of intelligence gathering because it was on that first short trip when I overheard a very powerful man in the royal court of the king of kings briefly speak of a certain political reality. We had been honored, or commanded, to bring several trunks of Arabian and Mediterranean goods across the river to the winter palace. The royal court of the king of kings, Phraates of Parthia, normally spent their summer in the cooler highlands of Persia, then descended into Mesopotamia for the
cooler months of winter.
They had recently arrived from the distant highlands, and we were asked – such a request must always be obeyed – to bring Greek vases, Roman glassware, Arabian incense, Egyptian and Italian wine, along with some delicate dried fruits and certain herbs. At the palace, three courtiers – all men, of course – would inspect the goods, one trunk by trunk, then small box by box, and each would turn to whisper through tall, carved wooden screens, behind which the more important women of the court who were hidden from our view, but who were allowed to choose from our goods, always working through the men, who would then speak directly with us.
Now, as I said, I was told to speak Greek and Aramaic openly, but carefully, and give no indication that I understood any other languages. The royal courtiers were intrigued that a young Greek boy of twelve could speak Aramaic, although of the western dialect, and then I heard the women quietly whispering and laughing behind the carved screens, and I assumed that they, too, were intrigued by my obvious youth. I saw, in the corner of my eye, a shadow draw near to the screen and heard a whisper. I had been warned not to stare directly at the screens but to keep my eyes fixed on the feet of the men who were studying our cargo. But I heard the shadow say, in Aramaic, with a woman’s voice, “Ask the boy how old he is.”
The courtier who was closest to me, asked me, in passable Greek, how old are you, child?
Eleven, sire, I said, in Greek.
There was another whisper from behind him. He tilted his head and listened. Then turned back to me, and asked, “Do you also understand Aramaic?”
A little, sir (“adon”), I answered in the tongue. The man turned to my uncle, and asked, in Greek, who was this young man.
My uncle answered, he is my nephew, sir. We hope he will one day learn to speak the Babylonian tongue with better grace.
The courtier said, oh yes, that would be good for your business and family. I hope he continues to learn.
Yes, sir. Thank you sir, my uncle answered in fairly good Aramaic.
Then there was another whisper behind the screen, and the courtier turned his head slightly, and said, in what I would later learn is very formal Aramaic, “If his majesty the king of kings will agree with her majesty the queen, then I would ask the boy to listen and to speak with her grace.”
As if from a slight distance, I now heard a man’s voice mutter, “The king is pleased to have his queen speak with the boy.”
At that moment a dead silence fell across the large room, and I felt a twist of fear in the bottom of my stomach, for I had heard the man’s voice come from behind the screen, and not only was he in the hidden place, he was also not speaking in Aramaic, but in a language I had studied but rarely ever spoken for myself. It was Parthian. My father and grandfather had warned me not to let anyone know I understood this tongue. Not yet. Not until I was older, if ever. I kept my head bowed and waited. My uncle shifted on his feet and asked, in Greek, “Is a member of the court curious about some item in particular?”
I noticed my
father’s mother’s brother had spoken of the court, not of any person in particular. From the careful phrasing of his words, I felt we were walking on delicate ground, here. The courtier now laid a hand on my shoulder, and turned his fingers under my chin, lifting my eyes to meet his. I turned my face toward his and tried to smile.
“The queen would speak with the boy, and the king has agreed, because the boy is not yet a man.”
Suddenly I felt the blood run to my cheeks and I knew I was blushing from embarrasment. The courtier laughed, and I heard his mirth echoed from behind the screen, in ladies’ tittering giggles, and including that one man’s deep, powerful chuckle, all of it somewhere back in the screened hareem, and I struggled to speak straight into the courtier’s eyes, without looking away to the left or to the right, and forcing out the words in broken Aramaic, “I am not… worthy, my lord adon.”
“Nevertheless, the honor is yours, and your family’s, for the king knows you are all loyal servants of the empire of Parthia.” His hand settled more firmly on my shoulder, and he turned me, slowly, inexorably, toward that wall of carved screens behind him. I bowed my head, and heard my uncle’s sigh of relief as my eyes looked down again. The courtier stood behind me now, one hand on each of my shoulders. He did not raise my chin, and I knew I must not look up, ever. Yet even though I kept my face bent down toward the floor, in the top-hand corners of my eyes I could see two shadows drawing close behind the dark, carved screen, and I knew, by what power I knew not, that one shadow was a man, and one was a woman. The man’s voice muttered, again in Parthian, “Go ahead, my sweet Musa, speak to the child.”
There was deathly, sudden silence. I later would learn that that silence was because it was the king of kings who had spoken, granting his beloved wife’s wish. And so she spoke to me.
And it was in Greek!
“Child, is it true, are you only eleven years old?” Her Greek was good, with a slight accent, but still passable.
The courtier’s fingers delicately pressed on my shoulders and I knew I must answer. “Yes, if your majesty please, it is true.”
The woman’s voice translated this into Parthian. The king answered her, “I heard, my dearest.”
Again, silence. Again, the king of kings spoke to his queen, “Is there nothing else you would ask, my queen?”
I silently uttered a prayer of thanks for the language masters my father had hired to teach me Parthian. But I followed his strict instructions to give no sign that I understood what was said. In order to keep my lessons secret, my father had hired only Greek teachers in Seleucia who were already beholden to our family and would not talk about who or what they were teaching. I knew now, listening to the few words the king and queen exchanged, I knew I could not speak that language like he did, or like she did, either, although when she spoke to me again in Greek I understood that her Parthian had been less elegant than her husband, the king. Close, but not as smooth, and certainly not as powerful.
“Child,” she said in Greek, “is it true you also speak Aramaic?”
“Yes, my royal mistress,” I answered, again in Greek, “but I have much to learn before I will be able to speak well enough to help my family in our business with the Babylonian people.”
It was only half a lie. But… then the king spoke and all were silent.
“If my queen would like to child to show her some of the small yet no doubt precious items his family has brought to sell to us…” he said, clearly now in Aramaic, “perhaps one of the painted vases from Greece, the delicate glassware from Rome, the spices and incense of Arabia, and even the wine from Egypt and Italy, then my queen, would you not look upon these things and choose what you desire?” With a slight shock, I realized that the king of kings had spoken in excellent Aramaic. True, it was accented different, but the words were clean and clear.
The queen answered, “If it please the lord my king there are so many wondrous items these good men, and their boy, have brought to show us, and well, I hardly know which to ask to see first.”
The king’s voice began to laugh softly, and I could hear the sound of his arms enfolding the woman behind the dense screen of carved wood.
After a moment, my uncle cleared his throat behind me, very quietly, and I knew it was time for me to speak what they had told me I might have to say, and so began to utter the words my
grandfather and father and uncle had taught me, and then had rehearsed and rehearesed me to say, in case I was called upon to speak. First, protocol demanded I make a request to be heard. I spoke, in Aramaic, “If the great king of kings is pleased to let me speak unto him and his royal queen, now that I have understood his words that have been so excellently spoken in the Babylonian tongue…”
The king laughed, and said, again, in Aramaic, “Go ahead, boy, say what you must…” and now I felt the courtier’s fingers very faintly brush my neck, before he
lifted his hands from my shoulders and stepped back. I was on my own, now. rested his hands lightly on my shoulders. I was on my own, now.
knelt down on the floor, and said carefully spoke the words I had been taught (with only a slight variation) “if the great king and his queen so please, my father and my uncle have instructed me to say, if I were asked, that all these items were brought as gifts for your majesty and your royal court, and you need not go through them and choose now, but if you may please to be so kind as to receive them all, and the boxes and trunks bearing them, receive them from our hands as gifts and tokens and pledges of our loyalty and love for you and your long life. Oh great king live forever!”
And my uncle echoed me in Aramaic, “Oh great king live forever!”
The old king burst out laughing and said, “Child, your family is teaching you well. We are glad to receive your gifts, and my queen and I will look upon them presently, after you have gone. But before you go, please, boy, you and your uncles must receive from our hands a small gift, also.”
And the king’s royal servants brought in several small strongboxes, which were filled, as it turned out, with golden coins. At that same moment, over the noise and bustle of movement, I heard the courtier behind me whisper four hissing little word. I only understood one of them. But then, in the excitement of being paid and packing the chests onto our donkeys, I forgot about that whistper.
My father, when he heard from my uncle what had happened, was very pleased with me.
For a few days. Almost two weeks.
Then, not half a moon later I asked my tutor what those words meant. Words I had heard the courtier mutter under his breath behind me, just after the woman beyond the screen laughed with delight when the king had commanded the strongboxes of gold be given to my uncles and to me.
I carefully uttered the three words, one after another. I did not say them together like I had heard them. I knew from the pressure of the courtier’s fingers on my shoulder that something was wrong. I remembered how every time the queen had spoken, his hand near my neck had grown hard and cold, before he forced himself to relax again. And then, for that one moment, while everyone was laughing, I heard him whisper right above my head, I heard him almost hissing, very quietly, but furiously, four simple words, three I did not recognize, and one I thought that I knew.
Those words came back in my dreams, several times for the next few days, and every time I remembered them, they became angrier and more vicious. Finally, one morning after they had broken my sleep again, and left me shivering in fear, that morning, two days after the full moon, that day when my tutor came to work with me, I asked him.
But I did not tell him the fourth word, which I was sure now that I knew. Italian. That was the one word I thought I knew. I had heard the courtier quietly hiss the word “Italian” and three other words I did not know. Neither did I tell my teacher that I had heard the words at the court of the king of kings. I knew somehow that I must not tell him that. For days I had wondered how to ask him, and every time I questioned myself, some small voice in my heart, like Sokrates used to say, some power of the mind, or oracle, warned me not to tell him where I had heard those words. So I said that I had heard them in the street and I was wondering what they meant.
He frowned, but asked me what they were.
I said the three words.
He froze. The bitter frown on his face turned deeper, and he said oh, my boy, you must never, ever say those words. Never.
But master teacher, how can I learn a language if I do not know the worst curses as well as the best blessings?
His frown broke a little, but he shook his head. I cannot tell you that, little one. Your father has forbidden me. You know he is very strict, and expects you to learn only the best, the finest, the words necessary for business.
No, Anaxagoras. If your father wishes you to learn such words, then he must tell me himself. Not you.
But… you will not tell him I asked you?
I must tell him, my child. And so must you. But I tell you this: Convince him to let me teach you such things, and I will. But not without his approval.
That night, after supper, just as I had feared, my father sent word for me to come to his office downstairs. All the clerks and accountants were gone. The scrolls and tablets and counting boards sat silent on the work tables in the halls of business. My father was reading by lamplight in his private study. Alone.
You know why I must speak with you.
The words I asked my teacher to tell me about today.
What do you have to say for yourself? He growled, and I saw him glance at the rod he sometimes had hit me with, across my backside, in punishment. It had been a long time since he had threatened me with that.
Father, I lied to the master teacher.
What? His hand began to reach for the rod.
I thought it better not to tell him something else.
Father, I told him I heard the words in the street, when a Parthian was shouting, angry, at a slave, here in Seleucia.
That was not true?
No. I heard the words when you sent me with my uncle, across the river, to Ctesiphon.
What? You heard the words in the street over there? And then you lied to your teacher about where your heard them?
His hand took hold of the rod.
No, father. Not in the street. I heard them in the palace.
What? He stopped. Laid the rod on top his table.
Yes, father. In the palace.
My father sat back, and his eyes glanced up toward heaven, or rather the ceiling, then fell back toward my face. In the flickering glare of his lamplight, I watched the emotions struggling inside him then, and suddenly I wondered if he, too, had a voice of conscience, warning him not to hit me, not yet. The last time he had struck me had been years before, and strangely enough, because I had lied to him. Now I was confessing I had lied to my teacher, as well as asking him to teach me what I knew could only be cursing words.
Finally my father spoke. At the palace?
He closed his eyes. Slowly nodded. Spoke softly, almost whispering. Very well. Perhaps it was best you not tell him where you heard them.
Thank you father. But there was something else.
A fourth word.
Why did you not ask him this word?
Because I already knew what the word meant.
Oh. What was it?
Italian, or from Italy.
My father froze, then, and stared at me. Shook his head, and stood up. Lifted the lamp, came around the table, and held it high, looking out across the large room where accountants and clerks worked during the daylight hours. At last, satisfied no one was there, he turned back to me. Whispered. Anaxagoras, tell me the words, very quietly.
I said them. All four.
My father cursed, softly, in Greek, telling me what the words meant. I knew those words. Damned fucking Italian bitch. I had heard the Greek words before, many times before. Not always together. Usually separately. Always in anger, or cursing. After he whispered them above my head, he sighed, turned, then went back around the table to his chair, and sat down. Looked at me.
Finally, he spoke. Did you hear me? Just now.
When you… cursed?
What did I say?
May I say those words, now, here, with you?
Yes. If you must.
I… I don’t think I need to. But I will. Damned fucking Italian bitch. Did the teacher tell you that was the meaning of what I asked him?
Yes. But… something else.
Tell me who said those words to you.
Father, it was the man behind me. The courtier. The one who put his hands on my shoulders and told me to speak to the queen.
He? He said those words to you?
No. Not to me. But yes, he whispered them, almost under his breath, when his head was right above mine. I barely heard them, but I heard him say them. He seemed to growl them at the floor, and then they came down to me.
When, exactly, did he say those words?
At the end, when the king had commanded to give us the strongboxes of gold.
Oh. After your… speech.
And then… the courtier said… Italian bitch?
Yes sir. But now I recognize one of the words in Pharsi. I did not recognize it before because it is conjugated differently.
The words that means… damned. Sir.
You are forgiven.
Yes, my son?
The other words, do they truly mean… fucking bitch?
Please, son. Not again. Not here. We must not offend… the gods.
However, yes, that is what they mean. According to your teacher, in that exact order, too.
But sir, why Italian?
You don’t know why he said she was Italian?
No, father, unless…?
Unless she actually is from there?
Yes. She is. The queen, Musa, is from Italy.
From Rome? But….
Yes. She was a slave. A gift from Augustus, the year you were born, I believe, yes, the year of the great peace treaty. No one taught you that?
No sir. Well, about the peace treaty, yes, but not about… the slave. A slave? You say she, the queen, was a slave?
Yes. Augustus sent her as a gift. Then, the king of kings, it seems, fell in love with her. Hmmm. It is time for you to learn more than language, my son. You must study history. Politics.
Anything else, my son?
Father, do you understand the Persian tongue?
A little, Anaxagoras. But I cannot speak it.
My teacher explained the meaning of the three words to you?
Yes, son. But he said nothing about Italy. You are certain you heard that word?
Yes, father. That was the only one I understood.
How did you know it?
The master thought I should know how the Parthians said the names for the different places in the various lands in the world around us. What they call Greece and Egypt and the Mediterranean, for example.
Ah, yes, of course. Is that why you did not ask him about it?
Yes, partly, but I also felt… the same feeling that led me to lie to him about where I heard the words. To tell him I heard them here, in Seleucia, not across the river in the palace of Ctesiphon.
Yes. That was… astute of you, my son.
May I say those words now? Can we talk about them?
Well… yes, I suppose we can. Now that we are alone.
Uh… the word for… well, the dog.
Yes. And the word for… it is the sexual act, is it not?
Well, yes, son, but the word is only used as a curse. You would never use that word with your wife, for example, when you get married, but you will… you will have… how can I put this… you will have sexual relations with her. You know, my son, that is how children are… conceived.
Who told you?
Uh… father, please. They made me swear never to tell.
Oh, so. I imagine some older boys, sharing the secret of sex.
Your brothers, perhaps. Well, never mind. Whoever they were, they taught you the curse word, also?
Yes, father. But….
Was the master certain it was the curse?
Yes. And I, too, have heard it. When a camel master curses one of the animals in a caravan.
Oh. That would make sense, I suppose.
Yes. In fact the curse is also used in Aramaic, often directed at an animal when it does not do what the animal driver demands of it. Not just the camels, mind you, but the mules, also.
All three words?
Not always. Sometimes only two. But… I have never heard the word “Italian” cursed at any animal.
Nor, I imagine, Father, at any queen.
No. Which is why you must never tell anyone what you have heard. Or at least, not for many years, and only tell me or perhaps one of your uncles, if I die.
Hush, son. You know we all must die, one day. Sooner or later.
Later, I hope.
As do I. But… well, do you know who the man was who laid his hands on your shoulders when the Queen asked to speak with you.
No, father. Only that he was an official of the court.
That is true. He is. I have known him for many years. He is a man entrusted to oversee much of the personal property of the king. He is also a noble, head of a great and powerful family.
But, Father, why should he curse the Queen?
This is what you need to learn, my son. It is what I must think about, and perhaps discuss with one or two of your uncles. But I think we already know why. Why he cursed her as a damned fucking Italian bitch.
Because she is a… foreigner? Not a Parthian, but a Roman?
Exactly, Anaxagoras. That is exactly why, but there is so much more, you see. The courtier hates her because his King has fallen in love with her, and… again, I am going to tell you something you must never repeat or discuss in public. It would be most indiscrete to speak of this, although everyone knows it is true.
No, Father, of course not.
The king has had other queens before this Musa.
Oh. But that is nothing secret.
Wait, let me finish. You also know he has sons, and daughters, by those other women.
Then, after queen Musa came to him, he fell in love with her, then married her, made her his leading wife, and she had a son by him. Now, here is the part you should not talk about. In the past two years, she has convinced the great king to send the other, older sons away, and to make her son the prince who will succeed him, when he dies.
When he dies, even though we pray for him to live forever.
Don’t be smart with me. But, yes, even though we say he will live forever.
I waited. I wanted my father to think me smart, even wise, but I seem to have offended him somehow. It must be those words, I thought to myself.
Well, my son?
Father, the word damned… is that like the punishment Prometheus suffered? Or should I say suffers?
Oh, Anaxagoras, you are asking a question that none of us is really able to answer, except that the word is used as a curse, yes. However, in this case I do know something about the courtier you heard whisper that curse week before last, so I can say that yes, it is something like that. But their religion is Zoroastrian – and it is different than ours – except that… what do any of us really know about these matters? We have our stories, yes, but do you believe in… well, you mentioned Prometheus?
Do you believe there ever was such a… a god, or titan, as he?
I… I don’t know. I am beginning to think that… we humans are hungry for explanations, and that all these stories of gods and heroes are attempts, made long ago, to explain life and the world.
Yes. That is what our natural historians teach us, is it not?
That is what my teachers have said, father. You chose them, did you not?
Yes. Your uncle, and your mother and aunt, and I, well, we have tried to be careful about choosing teachers for you and your brothers, and sisters, and your cousins, here in our house. There are seven of you in your classes now, yes?
Yes, Father. The older children are being tutored in natural history and rhetoric. But…
I hope soon to be able to learn more from you, in business, and perhaps even go on trips with you or with my uncles, as I did, last week.
I believe you will, Anaxagoras. My brothers and I, and your mother, are pleased with the way you behaved in your trip across the river two weeks ago. But…
I am also worried. It is not safe, we fear, for you to return to the winter court of the King of Kings.
It might be dangerous for the Queen to take an interest in you.
Yes, my son?
Do you believe she is… a… well, you know, what that man whispered to himself when he cursed her.
No. But we know there are people who hate her. Or at least, we know there is one person who hates her. Fortunately for us, I don’t think he knows you heard him whisper that curse.
I… I hope not.
That is wise. One day, perhaps in only a few years, the great king will… will die. Then there will be problems. I do not want you to be involved. Not yet. Perhaps when you are older. But not now.
Father… I was afraid, when he put is hands on me.
But you remembered the words we had taught you, and you made your speech. That was good.
Yes, father. Thank you.
My son, you mother and I have… been talking. She does not like the idea, but… well… your uncle, who was with you last week, he also feels there is great danger for you if the Queen asks the King to summon you back to court while they are here for the winter.
You mother and I have been, talking, as I said, about what can we do to help you get away from this danger.
Now that I know what you heard, I am almost ready to make a decision, if only I can convince your mother, to let you go.
Not across the river?
Oh no, not that, no. We will send you to the west with a caravan for Antioch.
Yes, son. This comes sooner than we had thought, but your uncle Patrokles is leaving this week and he suggested that would be a good time.
To Antioch, father?
Yes. Through Osroene.
So, my friends, that was how it came to pass that I was sent away from home. Nearly seventy years ago, now.
Is that when you first came here? To Melitene?
What? No. we did not come here. I was sent to Antioch. This city – Meletine – (or is it Melitene) has moved before and it will move again, I believe. The ancient town was much larger, but that was hundreds of years ago. Now it is what you see – scarcely a frontier outpost with one small temple.
Yes. But with the legion camped north of the ancient town, that is where the new town will grow, if my guess is right. I believe your general will decide to maintain a permanent camp here.
It seems a perfect place. The wide valley full of fields and orchards, with a link east to Armenia, and the old road running south through Commagene to Edessa in Osroene, and from there, Mesopotamia.
Yes, this is a crossroads between the west, the east, and the south.
The south. Osroene. Corbolo warned us not to go through that kingdom.
I would imagine so. Things are very unsettled there, recently.
I thought they were a Roman ally.
Well, perhaps they were, ever since the victories of Pompey and Antony, seventy years ago, which re-established the reputation of Rome. But remember that Crassus was destroyed ten years earlier there, in his failed invasion of Mesopotamia.
Back and forth, the pendulum of the east swings.
Yes. Recently, Osroene had a strong king. For more than thirty years. Abgar, who chose to be very friendly with Rome. But he died only seven, no, eight years ago now, and his sons are, well, holding together, but you know how it goes when two brothers have to share one small kingdom in-between two larger empires.
You mean one son favors Parthia, and the other is for Rome?
Something like that, but nothing so blunt. My understanding is they are keeping the doors and windows open to any wind from either direction. At the moment, with your general’s success in Armenia, Rome seems stronger. But Parthia will never go away, and I am certain Osroene is very tempted to be at least neutral.
Yes. That is why the general sent us across country to Melitene, before we turn south toward Syria.
Ah. You are to see the governor in Syria, with dispatches from Armenia.
Yes. It must be obvious.
And it will, young man, also be obvious to any Parthian agents in Osroene.
You might be interested to know they also have men here in Melitene, sometimes.
Yes. Usually they come and go with the caravans.
That would explain the riders we saw when we crossed the river.
The route from Seleucia to Antioch follows the great canal from the Tigris across to the Euphrates, then takes other roads north along the river toward Osroene. Mile after mile we walked past irrigated fields of barley and groves of date palms, the precious fruit and grain on whose cultivated pillars the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia was built and rebuilt. Many other crops are grown, vegetables, fruits, you name it. But the date palms and the grain are the most important of all.
The roads were good – not strong stone paved roads like the Romans make, but good solid dirt roads. Every day we covered about fifteen or twenty miles. Each string of camels was led by a “camel-puller” – the one man on whose shoulders rests the duty of leading the chain of cargo business animals forward from one great city unto the next distant market. Each morning, a train of camels, donkeys, sometimes horses or mules, are loaded, then tied together, nose to tail, and the puller, or leader man, with a first cord from the leading camel, draws the whole string down the beaten earth road. At the end of each chain of animals, the follower brings up the rear, holding the line from the last animal.
As we traveled past the fields, we could see the water wheels turning their circles of earthen jars, lifting liquid life from the large or small canals, endlessly revolving, dipping down, filling, rising up, up, up, then turning and pouring out their contents, one after another, into a much higher channel raised on brick walls, to flow off toward the fields and orchards and feed them the precious gift of wet life.
There is also a much simpler system, a counter-balanced pole that lifts one container up while letting the other one down to the water, filling, then bending up and emptying into a small channel higher up above the canal. Both these systems endlessly raise up the water into the fields and orchards, irrigate the trees and plants.
While we pass by the larger sytems of the wheel, a boy will drive a donkey continually around and around the small turnstyle that clatters through a cogwheel to push the water wheel round and round, turning, lifting, watering, an endless but simple mechanical system whose original design is perhaps older than most ancient cities themselves. Same for the smaller machine, the simple beam with a big container at each end going up and down, up and down. Upon such simple machines, watering the fruits of the earth, are all great empires built. Oh, yes, and on our caravans, who carry one product or another to far off land, then exchange it for yet another precious cargo, and either carry that further on, or return it back home in exchange for the first. All along the way, from city to city, like water lifted up to feed the fields, the price of our cargo rises, from the land where it is widespread and easy to gather, into another where it is rare and much more precious. But you know all this, my friends. I only say it to remind you of what I was learning, as a boy, to prepare my way forward into adulthood, when I would stand beside my father and uncle, brothers and cousins, bringing wealth and prosperity back to our family and kingdom.
But the gods, if you believe such things, or the one God, if there be such a one, or the fates, or my own fate, my small piece of life, my fortune, moira, had other plans for me – if there be such a thing as order formed out of chaos, yes – and whatever the reason, I was not destined, neither by chance nor fate, to become a prince of commerce like my father and uncles before me. I would come close, yes, but be different. The change began while I was still young, and only beginning to learn the ways of our family business. That first trip, to send me away from Seleucia and the queen who had expressed an interest in me, on that trip to Antioch I met the man who was to begin to change my path from business to religion.
He told stories in the evening, after we had settled and made camp for the night. Or in the caravansaries of towns along the route, when we gathered after supper, before sleep, he would recite the old tales from days long gone. Of the great kings and warriors who had ruled the ancient land between the rivers. Because I had already learned the Babylonian tongue, Aramaic, my uncle approved my sitting with the men and listening to the stories. That, my young friends, was how my interest was first awakened in the ancient kingdoms from long, long before the time of the Greeks and Persians, before the great new kingdom of Nebuchadnezar that we think was so very old, and before the Assyrians who ruled Mesopotamia before Nebuchadnezar of Babylon, yes, before all of those people who seem so ancient to us now, before them, yes, there were other great kings and kingdoms, hundreds and hundreds of years, even two, three, perhaps four thousand years the great cities of the plain have risen and fallen and risen again, all the way back to before the days of the great flood, or at least, so the stories say. I cannot tell you what is true, I can only say that when I heard these stories told round the evening fire, they awakened something in me that was more than simple learning and understanding, no, on that first trip from Seleucia to Antioch, I was given the gift of passion, a burning desire to hear more, even one day to read more, for always the story teller would say that these stories, these words themselves are those which were written by the ancients and preserved in the temples and the libraries of the great kings, and passed down from story teller to story teller, until I tell them to you tonight, here, at our fire, on the road between those ancient cities, some of them ruined, some of them still thriving and rebuilt.
“Enkida,” I asked him one day while we were walking, for that was my job, as a boy, to walk with the camel puller and learn how he called them, those great beasts, those animal ships of the land, “Enkida, last night you said those stories were written down and preserved in the temples and libraries?”
“Yes, little Greek. They are. I have seen them. My cousin is a steward for the temple priests in Babylon, at the temple of Mardok. He has shown them to me, ancient tablets of clay covered with the old writing. Not Aramaic, mind you, Anaxagoras, but the older tongue, Akkadian. Or at least that is what he told me.”
(MUST CORRECT AND REWRITE TO REVISE ENKIDA INTO ENKIDU)
“Did he also tell you the stories, Enkida?”
“No, little one, that was my grandfather, my cousin’s mother’s father, who was a priest in the temple when I was a child.”
“It is good you speak Aramaic so well, Anaxagoras. You like the stories we tell?”
“Your uncle told me you have a skill for languages. That is good. If the gods are willing, you may grow up to be a fine master of caravans, able to speak with leaders and business dealers in many different lands.”
But already a new hunger was rising in my heart. I kept it to myself, however, because of that small voice we all have within us, and to whom we should always listen, told me not to share my desire to give up business for storytelling. I knew, if I were to tell them I cared more for ancient writing than I did for the family business, this desire would displease my father and uncles, and my mother, too. Besides, I already had half of what I wanted, I knew that they wanted me to learn languages, for the family to succeed better in trade, and that this would also get me what I wanted, what I began to dream of: to read the ancient tablets that Enkida the camel master had told me were still guarded in the temples of Babylon.
So I listened, and learned.
I spent almost ten years in Antioch, much to my mother’s grief, as she would tell me in her letters from home. From time to time one of my uncles would come with a caravan to the capital of Syria, bringing me news from home. That was how I learned that the queen had, in fact, asked for me, and expressed her disappointment that I had been sent away, and even sent me a gift, in way of hoping to pursuade me to return when I was older. When I was fifteen, my father and mother came in person with a caravan of silk, spices, and incense. I did not know it until they arrived, but they meant to stay. It was something of a secret, as my mother told me the day after she arrived.
My father had gone to the emporia, the street of stores and business houses that sits on a piece of the main street through Antioch. I expected to go there with him, but in the morning he stopped me.
“Son, I want you to stay with your mother.”
But father, I said, I must help you inspect the warehouse and offices. No, he said, you uncle can do that. Your mother has something very important to discuss with you, and I want you to keep her words as private as you possibly can. Not even the servants must know what we are planning. Not yet.
I was stunned. It was a lovely spring afternoon, and so my mother had the servants serve us luncheon on the roof of the house, which was located partway up the hillside above the center of the city. She bade the servants leave us alone after they had brought the food.
Then she took me in her arms and began to weep.
Oh, Mother, I said, it’s all right. I am doing well.
Aren’t you glad to see me then? She laughed, touching at her tears with a soft, fine cloth.
Of course I am, but… what’s all this about secret plans?
My son, a week before we left Seleucia, the Queen of Parthia summoned me to her chambers in the palace across the river. Your father went with me, of course, but he could not go in to see her. Only women, and the king, and her son, and a few courtiers, are allowed to visit in her royal chambers.
She asked about you.
You remember when you left, four years ago?
Yes. Only a few weeks after uncle took me with him across the river with the gifts for the king of kings.
You remember how the Queen spoke with you?
Your father has also told me what you overheard a courtier whisper under his breath.
Yes. You remember all that?
Well, my son, here, sit down. Pour us some juice.
Very well, Maman.
Oh my dear, you remember the little name you used to call me.
Mama don’t cry.
All right. I will try. But I have missed you so very much.
Have you come to take me back with you?
No. Not that, my dearest.
You are disappointed.
Yes, I am. I have tried to be brave, ever since you sent me here, but…
Is it possible you have missed you old mother as much as she has missed you, my dear Anaxago?
Yes. You are sure I cannot go back with you?
No, dearest, but listen. This is what no one knows yet. We are going to stay here with you.
You and father, both?
For a while, both of us. Then he will go back, for a few months, and perhaps come back here. Oh, Anaxagoras, it is very strange, but your father and your uncles, and I, too, believe the Queen wants you to join her and live with her son. Study with him, train with him, hunt with him.
Oh… that is… complicated.
Yes. It is. I did not believe it at first, when your father told me, but… when the queen asked me to come see me… commanded me, then I began to suspect it was true.
You went to see her?
Of course. One does not refuse a summons from the king of kings or his chosen queen.
We talked for a long time, that warm winter day. She showed me her garden. A beautiful spread of fountains and flowering trees. Even an artificial hillside with waterfalls and hanging vines. She told me she wants her son to be educated in Greek ways, so that he can take his place in the world one day soon. You know his father is… well, getting on in years, let us say.
Yes. She is his favorite, still?
Oh yes. You also know she had the great king send his other sons away, not long before you first met her. Oh my son, I hope you never have to meet her again, but if you do, you must be prepared. You are not ready yet. But she kept speaking of you, and finally asked me if I would exercise every power of pursuasion I possess in order to bring you back Seleucia, and ask my husband to let you live with her son and share his education with him.
Oh Mother. That is serious.
Yes. And you, well, we, that is your father and uncle and I and you, too, we know that that is not the best thing for you.
What? You want to go back?
Well, yes, only if you are going back. But if you stay here, then no, I do not want to go back.
Oh dear I was afraid….
Mother it would be a great honor to live with the prince, but… well, to be blunt, there are many in the palace there who hate the queen. When the great king dies, there will be trouble.
Yes. She will have her son be made king, then, and others there will resist. Maybe not at first, but soon.
That was the meaning of the man who cursed her under his breath when I met her.
Yes. That was why we sent you here, four years ago, to put you beyond their reach. That is why you must not go back. Not yet, at least. If you were there, my son, the ones who hate her might have you killed.
Yes. That is how they do things in the world of power, my son.
I… I suppose it is so.
I promised your father I would tell you these things. But you must tell no one.
No. Of course not. Never.
Not even the servants must know that we are staying here, or at least not until we are ready to announce that we are not going back. Not this year, at least.
Oh. What is wrong, mother?
We are worried about that woman, the queen.
Yes. You know she was a Roman slave? Given to the king of the Parthians as part of the peace settlement between the king of kings and the Roman emperor, Augustus.
I have learned that.
She is meddling very deeply in the affairs of the Parthian state, and we fear she may want you to become her agent.
Oh. She seemed very kind, when I met her.
She does, doesn’t she? When she invited me to talk with her, I was deeply impressed by her intelligence. She speaks rather good Greek, but you know that, don’t you?
Yes, mother. Her Aramaic is also good.
She has completely charmed the great king of kings. Do you know she convinced him to send his other sons to Rome, and to promise her that their son, the one she had with him, will be named prince and heir to the throne.
Yes. Father told me that, and my teachers here in Antioch confirmed that the other sons passed through here five years ago, on the way to Rome.
My son, I tell you she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and what she wants now is you to serve her son. As long as she thinks there is a chance of that happening, you are probably safe.
What about the courtiers in the king’s service who dislike her?
There is the other side of this problem, Anaxagoras, my son, and your father and I believe that as long as they think we are trying to keep you away from her, you are safe from them.
That is why I must not go back to Seleucia.
No. Not yet. Not until you are older, more of a man, who can fight and defend yourself against… well, a killer.
Mother, look at me.
You are frightened, aren’t you?
My gymnasia teachers are teaching me swordplay as well as hand to hand fighting.
What is it, Anaxagos?
I had hoped to study the ancient Babylonian tongue. Akkadian. I believe it would help us to get more business with the temples and priests in the older cities.
Oh. But there are not teachers here in Antioch?
Well, the best are in Babylon, itself, in the temple of Bel, or Marduk, or Innana. But you have said I should not go back to Seleucia. I assume that means not to Babylon either.
No. It is too much under the power of the Parthian king of kings.
Yes. That much is clear. But there is a teacher here in Antioch, an old priest who, unfortunately, requires higher payment than most Greeks or Aramaics. Uncle has been unwilling to spend extra money.
Oh. He usually is right.
Yes. He is. So I thought I would wait until I go back. But….
You won’t be going back.
No. Not yet, you tell me.
This teacher, is he that good?
He was much consulted last year when the great conjunction of planets took place. He even traveled with one of our caravans that year, to negotiate with the Nabataeans.
He is a very famous astrologer here. A native chaldean and he has studied in Alexandria, so he is familiar with Greek astrology also.
Oh dear. He sounds expensive.
That is why your brother said we must ask my father.
Ah. I see where you are going, little one.
Please mother, I am not so little any more.
Sorry, Anaxos, but you know you will always by my child.
Yes mother. But if you could speak with father. And your brother.
He is that much more costly? You already have very good teachers.
Yes, I know. But none of them understand Akkadian.
How much more?
Twice what the Greek and Aramaic teachers ask for private lessons.
Oh my. That is a bit… steep. But you say this will help us with the temple business, in Babylon?
And the other old ones.
Hmmm. Well. You father showed me reports from your teachers. You have done very well. Perhaps if you think you can handle even more.
My son, there is something else your father has asked me to discuss with you, in private, to get your thoughts and feelings on the subject.
I don’t know how put this in any delicate way, so I will simply say that we have started to think about your marriage.
Surprised, my little… no, you are obvious not little any more or I would not be asking you what you think about marriage.
Well, Mother, I suppose it is the natural and obvious course for any man to follow.
Mmm, yes, it is. Well, you are just now fifteen, or will be next month – that is part of why we came here this time of year, you know, not just because the weather is better for travel, but to finally be with you again at the time of your birthday.
And yours too, Mother.
Oh, aren’t you sweet.
It is only a few days after mine.
Yes. That is true. But what I want to say is you will be fifteen, and although neither your father or I want you to marry for at least another two or three years, nevertheless, it is time to begin to search for an appropriate… ah, candidate, I suppose we could say, and of course we want you to be happy and so your father and I want to ask you how you would feel about different kinds of women.
Well, mother, I suppose we should find someone who will be a good match, not just for me, but for the family, and our business.
Yes. I am glad to hear you say that.
I suppose the usual course would be for me to marry another Greek, or Hellene, perhaps even in Seleucia. But….
I would not be averse to someone of another origin.
You already speak several of the languages, so you would not have that problem, if I can call it a problem.
No. I would not. Yes, I would look kindly on a good woman from a good family, who could help our business, perhaps, but….
Had you thought of any group in particular?
Well, we talked about a Parthian, perhaps someone from court who could help us with our… situation with the queen, but your father and uncles are not happy with that idea. Nor, for that matter, am I. I think it better we stay away from that area altogether.
Oh. Yes. I would most likely agree. But…
Had you thought of perhaps the daughter of a… Babylonian family?
Oh… well, only in passing, but, now that you mention it, and with what you said earlier about studing to ancient language, how it might help our business with the temples, well, a marriage with the right priestly family might also help us improve our business and cargo and caravan arrangements with them. Yes. But Anaxagoras… don’t mention this to your father. Not yet. Both he and my brother are… well, very much in favor of a Hellenic or Greek girl, even a Macedonian, if possible. But with your talent for languages, the right marriage with a Babylonian family might open up an entirely new field of trade and merchandise for us. Just… just let me talk with them about it.
Yes. My brother and your father seem to have it in their mind that they know better about what a man wants than I do. Imagine that, you own mother.
Maman, didn’t your brother always try to tell you what to do?
Yes. You have heard those stories, I guess. How he convinced my father to let me be married to your father. Even give a larger dowry than he thought he would have to give.
Exactly. So I will let you talk with them.
Would you marry a Babylonian girl?
Yes. I would.
Anaxagoras – is this about the language? Are you trying to get me to tell them to pay more for your teacher?
Yes, Mother, it is.
Well. What do you know. Fifteen and alteady negotiating, even with your mother. At least you admit it. That is a lot like what your father did.
Negotiated for a larger dowry?
Exactly. But he had my brother on his side. This time… well, we shall see, my little man. We shall see.
Thank you, Mother.
It is nothing, my love.
And that is exactly what happened. Years later, when I had become a mature man, I eventually got my wish to study in the old temple libraries of Babylon. But first, while I was still in Antioch, I was four years learning the dead language of Akkadian, after my parents approved my study with the old Babylonian priest who had been exiled to the city of Antioch. Then I went to Babylon, and married – for the good of the family caravan business – the daughter of a temple steward, grand-daughter of a priest, in Babylon. But it was still several years of travel after that before I actually lived and studied there.
My young friends, let me give you a bit of advice – be careful what you wish for, you might get it. For better and for worse, let me not tempt fate, or whoever, or whatever decides these things, even if our fate, our portion in life, even if it be only chance, chaos, luck, and a bit of our own personal will… well, while it is true that living and studying in Babylon made me what I am, an old priest telling you his story, but… to be honest it was not the great pure dream I thought it might be. No. It was only as I turned out to be: nothing but another human life, with all its tragedy, love, joy, and grief.
Well. How to tell my disappointment? Hmmm. To start with, most of the oldest books were gone. Destroyed, stolen, given away, lost. Oh, there were many tablets there, thousands and thousands, but most of them – not all, but most – were copies of copies of copies. Furthermore, even the best copies had been carried away by the same empire that had destroyed the city. The Assyrians.
Yes, it had been destroyed. Babylon the great. Hundreds of years before I got there. The Assyrians. You have heard of them, I know. They destroyed it, and took most of the books, too.
But what’s this, you say? Wasn’t Babylon the great city where Alexander died, the great city of the world that he, great Alexander, chose to make the capital of his universal empire? Yes, it was. And it was mighty, and great. But that city, and the little that remains, was only the rebuilt city. The earlier Babylon had already been destroyed and rebuilt, then destroyed again. Several times, in fact, through the ages. Even before the Assyrians, Babylon rose and fell and rose again, and fell again. But most recently, only six hundred years ago, the new Babylon was built. That is the one whose remnants are still there today. You see, my dear Nikodemos and Timaeus, the Babylon that the Persians cherished, the great city that Alexander made his center of the world, that city was only three hundred years old when Alexander the great conquered the Persian empire and took it. His Babylon, the Babylon whose mighty remains still stand today, was New Babylon, raised up by Nebuchadnezar, mighty king of the new Babylonian empire, which rose upon the ruins of the Assyrian empire which had swallowed old Babylon. Yes, Nebuchadnezar and his father built the new city for their capital, six hundred years ago, to replace the older, ancient city which the Assyrians had completely destroyed.
Why? Oh, my young friends, it is a long story. You know how young the city of Rome is? Rome, who has taken the entire Mediterranean sea and made it her lake, joining the east to the west, uniting Europe and Africa and Egypt, and even reaching out from Antioch and Jerusalem into the east, only to stop in the face of Parthia, this boundary between empires where we live and die, yes, Rome is only what… what does the Roman calendar say… eight hundred years since Romulus and Remus built their city on the hill where the wolf mother suckled them as babies… you see, I know those stories, too, yes, I am an old man and a priest of many gods and… well not quite a believer in all of them, no, but I do know many of their stories, including the new ones from the west.
And the Greek stories, they too are new, compared with Babylon and the kingdoms which were before Babylon. Yes, now you take Homer, whoever he was, with his magnificent poem we call the Illiad, about the struggle between two warrior peoples and their heroes who fought to death outside the walls of Troy, yes, that old story, or we say it is old, the oldest of Greek poems and noblest of stories, but even that great poem is only eight or nine hundred years old now, since the bards sang it around the great fires in the halls of the first kings of the Hellenes, but even then, in those first days of Greece and Rome, even then Babylon, and Egypt too, were already old.
Nikodemos, you have been to Egypt, you say, and you know that the pyramids are two thousand, perhaps even three thousand years, built long before these Roman days. But they did not spring into being overnight, no. As old as the pyramids are, they were not built until Egypt herself was already hundreds and hundreds of years old. No, we Greeks and Romans are young, very young. We simply do not know how old the world really is.
Our calendar, our mathematics, our star-gazing, perhaps it all came from the Babylonians and Egyptians who wrote it all down and measured it for thousands of years. While we were still chasing wild sheep up and down the mountains and carving the nights of the moon on a bone, well, the Chaldeans and the Pharoahs were measuring the year and dividing the circle into 360 degrees and making the week be seven days long and naming it after the lights in the heavens, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn – except that those are our names in Greek and in Latin. The older stargazers had other, more ancient names. When we lived in grass huts, they were already standing on pyramids and measuring the heavens day by day, degree by degree, and even calculating when the next eclipses would be.
Julius Caesar may have forced the Romans to reform the calendar a hundred years ago, but he did it by standing on the shoulders of ancient wise men. Sixty-five years ago, when I began to study the Akkadian language at the feet of a Babylonian exile in the modern Greek city of Antioch, I thought I would immediately enter into the ancient myteries, that I would instantly touch that secret place I dreamed about when I first heard the camel master telling stories around the fire at night, in the trip with my uncle from Seleucia to Antioch. Little did I realize that the story-teller was standing on the shoulders of another story-teller who was standing on top another on top another, layer after layer, copy after copy, reaching back back back into a time we have all forgotten.
I was so young then. I felt the fire burning me and I thought I could learn how to cast sparks. Soon I began to grow up, and learned that I had to know thousands and thousands of words, their grammar and tense and case and conjugation and all their unwritten sounds and a myraid of other little language details that most of us ignore and simply plow ahead through our lives without paying much attention to anything but our work and our family. But my teacher saw I had the gift and could learn and so he drove me mercilessly until I could read five different types of writing and set down the words from seven different languages and understand several more. My father and my uncle went back and forth with the men of our caravans, traveling between two empires, crossing over the border from Syria into Mesopotamia, attending to business in Seleucia, then returning to Antioch again. My mother stayed with me, made sure I ate well, wore clean yet simple clothes, and often shook her head with disbelief when, every morning she woke me for the day and heard me muttering strange words in my sleep.
After four years, in the springtime of my nineteenth birthday, my father came with the news that would change my life once again. I was, he hoped, betrothed to a girl from an old Babylonian family. Grand-daughter of a priest – it makes me smile to think of this, my friends, for now I am the old priest, telling you my story – and well, she was to be the pledge between the temple with their orchards and date palms and sacred harvest, and I would stand for my family with our caravans and warehouses and market dealerships in the cities of the west, and our contracts with ships on the sea that would carry the fruit of Babylon as far as Rome itself. There was just one small problem, my father said at dinner, the day after he returned from the east. “The girl is only fifteen, lives in Babylon, and does not wish to leave her home without meeting you first.”
My mother clicked her tongue. “I was fourteen when I was betrothed to you, dearest.”
“Yes, my dove, but we did not marry for another year.”
“True, husband, but… what is it, Anaxagoras?”
“Mother, Father, forgive me, but could we not go to see her, and her family?”
“Ah, yes, but…” he glanced at my mother. She shook her head. My father frowned, looked at me, and said, “Anaxagoras, I believe you know why you were sent from Seleucia, to live here in Antioch, and why your mother came to live with you, and why we do not want you to go back there.”
“The queen, favorite wife of the king of kings, wanted me to become a companion of her son.”
“Yes.” He looked at my mother again. And again, she shook her head. ”No, I have not told him.”
“Mother, what is it?”
“Something your father told me last night, after he arrived.” She looked around. Servants were clearing the dishes from the main course, preparing to serve a sweet desert. “Not now. Later.”
I was seething, inside. Hungry to know what they knew and had not told me. But I held my tongue.
After sweets and salad, we retired to the roof. My mother, mistress of our household, dismissed the servants. When they were gone, and we were alone, my father sat close to me, and spoke in a low voice, but even now glanced around every few moments to see that no one was there to hear. My mother sat close, listening, and with the lamplight flickering in faint breeze, I could see the worry on her face as my father told me what I guessed he had told her last night.
I imagined them whispering in each others arms, quietly sharing the rather disturbing information he now shared with me.
“My son. When I reached Seleucia this time, I had not even been in our home – you know it is home to our business, with many employees and servants coming and going, as well as family – and I had not even been home for a day when a messenger came with guards from the palace inviting – commanding, you understand – that I go to see the king of kings that same day. With the messenger. With the guards.”
“Oh father – someone told them you had returned.”
“Yes. It does seem that that was what happened. The house was being watched, and when I arrived, I was summoned.”
“Oh. I trust the king was pleased to see you come so quickly.”
“No. Not him. The queen. She had commanded, in his name, with her son, that I be brought.”
“Of course, she is forbidden for one like me to see her, but her son – who is your age, and rather headstrong and demanding – spoke to me before a carved wooden wall, a large screen in fact, while she stayed behind the carved wall, occasionally speaking a word or two through the ornamentally carved openings. A very lovely piece of work, but… well, her son spoke openly to me. How is your son, he asked me. Very well, I said, he is learning the business in Antioch and will soon be working with our ships, watching over the cargoes as they are loaded onboard for shipment to Italy.
“Oh? He said, then frowned, and asked when would you be coming back to Seleucia, for he would like very much to meet with you and perhaps hunt with you and ride. Perhaps you could go to Ecbatana in the mountains, and even, he said, hinting, see how the caravans of silk come in from the east.”
“Oh father, they were playing with you. They would never let any Greeks touch the silk before it gets to Seleucia.”
“No. Of course not. But this was not a question of giving our family business, no, more like them asking something from us. The Queen whispered something, and her son turned to me and said, ‘My mother wishes very much for your son to return from the west and spend time with me here, and as I said, perhaps with me in Susa or Ecbatana during the summer. Please, if you can, we would be grateful for you to arrange his return from Antioch.’ Then he gave me a golden coin and asked me to bring it to you as a token of his wish to become your friend.”
Now, sitting beside me on the rooftop of our house in Antioch, my father pulled a small silk handkerchief from a purse hung inside his shirt, and handed it to me.
I savored the precious, soft cloth in my hand, and weighed the heavy metal disk hidden within its delicate folds. “I don’t want to look at it,” I said.
“Son, never turn your back on your enemy. Look at it.”
I did so. Unfolded the silk, studied the metal coin. On one side was a young man’s face. On the other, a woman.
“Father? Is this… them?”
“Yes. The son and the mother. They have already begun to strike their own coins.”
“Wait. There is more. As I was leaving, I saw the man who introduced you to the queen, eight years ago. You remember him?”
“The one I heard whispering a curse?”
“Yes. The very same. He has always been a great patron of our business, and one of the most important lords of court. He greeted me openly and asked for you, and said, in a normal, polite voice, that he understood the queen was hoping my son would soon return to serve with her son.”
“Then, Anaxagoras, he leaned closer and whispered that the ‘Italian woman’ was using liquid fire on the king. Then he straightened up, and gave me a coin, and said the king would be pleased to see you, also.”
“And here is the coin he gave me.”
I looked at it. The same. The prince on one side, his mother on the other.
“Son, do you know what this means?”
“They… they are preparing their own money to pay people to support them, after….”
“After they kill the king.”
“And that man… the courtier… he knows what they are planning.”
“Yes. He has his own sources and contacts, and has learned of this new money.”
“Or perhaps they paid him some already.”
“Yes. That, too, is very possible.”
“Both sides of the coin of power.”
“Exactly. You have learned something of politics in your studies, I see.”
“Thank you. Do you think he speaking the truth? About… the poison?”
“I think he believes it was true.”
“Then he was warning you to be ready for a change.”
“Yes. But as we parted, he said, again in a louder voice, ‘Perhaps we will see you again, when the time is right,’ and then he left me.”
“So to bring me back, or not to bring me back. But to be ready for change, in either case?”
“Something like that.”
We sat quietly, my mother and father and I, reflecting on this news from home.
At last my mother spoke. “Anaxagoras, I would suggest you bring your teacher here tomorrow. Invite him for luncheon with us. Yes. Let him speak with your father and me. Here, on the roof top.”
“My love, what are you planning?”
“I will tell you later,” she whispered, and picked up a bell. Rang it. Soon the servants had returned. “Do not forget, my son. We will speak with your teacher tomorrow. So your father can hear from his own lips how well you are studying with him.”
“Yes, Maman, and goodnight, Papa.”
“Goodnight, Anaxagoras,” he said, but his eyes were on my mother. She was smiling. We all rose, and they left.
I sat back down again. Waited on the rooftop for a while longer, gazing at the stars. Pondered what my mother had said about my teacher. What does she know about him, I asked myself. She knows he was exiled from Babylonia by the Parthian king for… oh, yes. He escaped by way of… the Arabs. Not the regular silk road caravan route from northern Mesopotamia to Damascus and Antioch. No. He had come west between the Nefud and Syrian deserts, west from Babylon to Petra, along the Nabataean route, cutting through the desert across endless miles of barren rock and sand, from oasis to oasis, with only camels, rarely horses or mules, no, and… but they would never let us take a caravan through there – those were their lands and theirs alone. No Greeks could ever… except as paying passengers, and well armed, of course, ready to defend ourselves if need be, but paying, for the priviledge of traveling with them, oh yes, definitely paying. But… something else… what could we offer them to make it worth their while that we reached our destination safely… of course. The temples in Babylon would buy incense, and sell dates, and if we could offer a better price for both… then….
That was it. That was what mother had seen. Tomorrow she would let father see it… no. Tonight she would tell him, in his arms, while he burned with love for the woman he had always adored more than any other… or at least that is what my uncle believed, and he knew them longer than I did. From before I was anything but a dream between them, he had seen the spark that flew between them, and led to my birth, and my sister’s… (WHAT ABOUT HIS OTHER BROTHERS?) and I said a quick prayer for her soul in hades. Let her rest easy, oh god of death, let her sleep in peace.
I turned my thoughts back to my teacher. Yes. Tomorrow she would let him see it. She and father would charm him into going back with us. He was, after all, the one who had told me about the southern route.
And more. His wife, and his children, were themselves Nabataean. Oh mother, you are cunning. Thank the gods you love us. The great queen has no idea just who she is dealing with. One quaint little Greek woman, the wife of a simple caravan owner. Oh my. Yes.
This will almost be fun.
I only hope my future wife will be worth all this… trouble.