Citadel of God: A Novel About Saint Benedict (Chapter One) | Louis de Wohl
"Rome is finished", said Senator Albinus. He sipped his wine, then held up the goblet carved from amethyst. "Very pretty", he approved. "I wonder where they find stones large enough to be cut like this. Very pretty."
Senator Boethius frowned. 'They come from India, I believe", he said, with a warning glance towards his wife.
But Rusticiana was beyond taking notice. Her face was drained of blood, and her hands twitched. "Rome is indeed finished", she said breathlessly, "if there are no Romans left. And I see there aren't."
The boy Peter gazed at her with rapt admiration. She was as beautiful as a goddess when she was angry. She was a white flame burning.
"Romans", Senator Albinus drawled. "I wouldn't say there aren't any, Domina Rusticiana, but they are few, you know. The city prefect tells me he had great difficulty in getting the men together for the escort of honor."
"The escort of honor for a barbarian tyrant", Rusticiana said icily. "Indeed, I hope it was difficult. It is bad enough that anyone at all would comply."
"Oh, it wasn't for that reason, I'm afraid", Albinus said dryly. "They didn't want to wear armor all day. So heavy, don! 't you see, and standing on the walls and in the streets in it for hours on end. The city prefect had to grant them three sesterces for special duty. They asked for five, at first." He smiled at Rustician's disgust. "The trouble with you, Domina, is that you were born five centuries too late. On second thought, make it a thousand years. You ought to have been a contemporary of Cloelia, Virginia, and Lucretia."
"I wish I could return the compliment", Rusticiana. snapped.
"Don't you see that he talks like that only because he, too, is suffering?" Boethius asked with gentle reproach.
"Talking seems to be all that is done', she said. "If there were one true Roman left, he would act."
"What would you have him do, Domina?" Albinus asked, mockery in his tone, but not in his eyes. "Have a nice, hot bath and open his veins? Old Scaurus did that, last week, when he heard that the King was coming to Rome."
"He was eighty", Rusticiana said, her eyes blazing. "And at that age the only veins a man can open are his own. But at least he did do that."
Albinus looked at Boethius. "Do you know, I begin to believe your wife wants me to go and kill the King." He laughed. "As her husband, I trust she has given you first chance."
"A thousand years ago," Rusticiana said, "at the time of Lucretia, we threw out our own King, and not even the maddest of the Caesars dared to assume that title again. Now we are to give it to an Ostrogoth."
'Just as I thought." Albinus gave a nod. "No denial. No contradiction. I wonder what you told her when she suggested it. But whatever it was, it doesn't seem to have been very convincing. Very well, I'll have a try." He turned to Rusticiana, the mask of amused banter gone. The clever little face with its small, almost womanish mouth was tense. "What do you think would happen in such a case?" he asked softly. "Not that I could succeed–there are clusters of his brawny giants around him all the time, and they'd cut me down as soon as they saw a sword or dagger in my hand. But let's assume I succeed before they cut me down. What would happen? First, they'd massacre everybody in sight. I am a senator, so is your husband and so, of course, is your noble father. They'd kill every member of the Senate, Domina, and they would not choose an easy death. Nothing would convince them that this wasn't a conspiracy, and they'd torture all of us to get the names of other conspirators. King Theodoric isn't coming here alone, you know. He'll have a small army with him, and his men don't mind wearing armor. They would have to elect a new king, naturally.
Theodoric has no son, only a daughter, and she is little more than a child. They'd choose a soldier-king. Young Tuluin, perhaps, or his cousin Ibba or someone of that kind. Theodoric is a barbarian, but at least he has some respect for our culture and civilization; and hes practically the only one who has. His successor's first great action would be to avenge Theodoric's death. There is no Roman army on whom he could avenge it, so he'd have to find a scapegoat. There is only one: Rome itself. He'd burn it down, destroy it. No one could stop him. Do you want this to happen, Domina? You would lose your husband, your father, your friends, your wealth, and your home, and Rome would be in ashes. And Italy would still be ruled by the Ostrogoths, under a king worse than Theodoric. You'd gain nothing."
"I?" Rusticiana asked. "You don't think I would survive my husband's death, do you? But we would all die as free Romans. And history would record it."
"History would do no such thing", Albinus returned to his easy, almost playful tone. "And that for the simple reason that there'd be no one left to write it down, except perhaps Cassiodor. The King has made him his private secretary, I'm told."
"Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus", Rusticiana said bitterly. "A man of his family and upbringing, the secretary of Theodoric. Freedom has no meaning any longer, it seems."
"Nothing has any meaning when you're dead", Albinus said, with a shrug. "Forgive me, Rusticiana–you and your husband are known to be good Christians and therefore you believe in a good many things. They baptized me too, but ... well, never mind. As for Cassiodor, he wouldn't survive the King's death either, I'm afraid. But no historian worthy of the name could possibly record that Rome was burned because the Romans rose against the tyrant and fought for their freedom. It wouldn't be true. It may be extremely regrettable, but on the whole they are not opposed to Theodoric's regime at all."
"I'm afraid he's right, Rusticiana", Boethius said sadly.
"You're living in a dream world, Domina", Albinus went on. "You seem to forget that the man has been the ruler of Italy for seven years. True, this is the first time he's come to Rome. But what of it? He's been ruling Rome from Ravenna, just as some of our own emperors did in the past. This is no more than a visit, a ceremonial visit, of course, with everyone present in his best clothes to greet the great royal illiterate."
"He can't write? He's as crude as that!"
"He does quite well,. nevertheless. He's not a stupid ox as so many of them are. He likes erudite people, I'm told. He's an organizer, too; and for a German he's remarkably mild."
"True", Boethius agreed quietly.
"His laws are not without a kind of down-to-earth wisdom", Albinus continued. "He's shrewd. Twice within the last five years he has lowered the taxes. And those of my colleagues in the Senate who visited him in Ravenna, say that he has great dignity and even that he is a great ruler in his own barbarous way."
"He bought them, no doubt", Rusticiana said contemptuously. "Not all senators are as wealthy as you are, Albinus. And if it weren't for that and for the fact that you are an old friend of my husband's, I would be tempted to ask what he has done for you that you defend him so eagerly."
"Rusticiana," Boethius said severely, "you forget yourself. Do not pay any attention to this, Albinus, I beg of you. My wife is very young and very much upset by this ... royal visit."
"I'm not offended." Albinus smiled. "In fact, I admire your wife's spirit. And there is no harm in saying what one feels ... here, in the great house of the Anicians. Elsewhere, of course, it might be a little dangerous. The Anician family knows how to choose its slaves, too. Besides, we're among ourselves, in this room, the three of us–the four of us, I mean", he corrected himself, still smiling. "I almost forgot our young friend here. But you won't give us away, Peter, I know that."
"I'm a Roman", the boy Peter said, staring at Rusticiana.
"Exactly", Albinus said.
"Peter had a Roman father and a Greek mother", Boethius explained. "She was a great and gracious lady. We are happy to have him with us."
"I well believe that." Albinus gave the boy a friendly nod. Intelligent little face, he thought. He wondered for a moment whether Boethius might be the boy's father and dismissed the thought. Boethius was a paragon of virtue. Besides, Domina Rusticiana was not the kind of woman who would consent to have her husband's natural son under her roof. The boy adored her, obviously. "How old is he?"
"Thirteen", Peter said quickly.
"He will be thirteen next month", Boethius corrected. "His birthday is almost the same as my wife's. We celebrate them together."
"You make me sound like a child, too", Rusticiana said reproachfully. "I shall be eighteen."
"As old as that, are you, Domina?" Albinus asked gravely. "Then there will be silver in your lovely hair in only forty years' time."
She could not help smiling. "I'm glad you are not offended, Albinus. My husband often tells me that I'm hasty and too impulsive. But I do feel strongly–"
She was interrupted by the chant of a beautiful voice, coming from somewhere high up. "The ninth ... hour."
"As late as that", Albinus said. "We must go, friend. The Senate is assembling."
"The ... ninth ... hour", sang the slave at the sundial on the roof.
"The King hasn't come yet", Boethius said. "I have posted slaves at the gates where he is most likely to arrive. None of them has come back so far."
"The ... ninth ... hour", came the third call.
"Even so I think we'd better go", Albinus said. "They'll be on horseback and they love galloping through the streets. Once they're within the city gates all the streets to the Forum will be blocked."
Rusticiana gritted her teeth. "Rome has been invaded by barbarians before", she said. "There was Brennus and Alaric and Genseric of the Vandals. But what I cannot bear is that instead of resisting we open our gates to this brute, this great, organizing, tax-reducing brute; that the greatest assembly on earth, the Roman Senate, consents to receive a barbarian as their lawful ruler. We no longer feel the shame of slavery. We're content to lick the boots of a Goth."
"They won't taste very different from those of Nero and Domitian", Albinus replied bitterly. "We have become accustomed to slavery. That's why I said Rome is finished, Domina. The spirit of a few of us won't help. Only if a couple of hundred thousand Romans would share it and act accordingly ... by all the gods and saints, you'll have me daydreaming too, if I listen to you long enough. Boethius, we must go."
"My litter is waiting beside yours in the courtyard." Boethius embraced his wife. 'Don't take it so hard", he said gently. "It's only a formality. I shall be back for the night meal. The official banquet is not until tomorrow." But she was stiff and unyielding in his arms, and her bow to Albinus was cool.
When the men had left, she sank down on the couch and buried her face in her hands. "Rome is finished", she said. "Finished. Finished."
"I'm a Roman!', the boy Peter said fiercely.
Perhaps Albinus was suffering, too, as Boethius seemed to think, but what if he were? As a Christian one could offer up one's own suffering to Christ–Deacon Varro always said that. But could one offer up the shame of one's country?
And to think of the finest mind and the greatest person in the world, of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, bowing and scraping to a barbarian chieftain and a heretic to boot ... it was too much.
She burst into tears. But almost at once she remembered that she was not alone in the room, the boy was there, it was not seemly that she should let herself go like this before his eyes. He had said something, a little while ago, what was it?
She wiped her eyes. "What was it you were saying, Peter?"
There was no answer. She looked up. The boy had gone.
Louis de Wohl (1903-1961) was a distinguished and internationally respected Catholic writer whose books on Catholic saints were bestsellers worldwide. He wrote over fifty books; sixteen of those books were made into films. Pope John XXIII conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
• Read de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.