Mors Anthemii Sapientissimus Graecorum

The report of blaring horns marked the return of the Legio IV Italica. The army came through the Via Aurelia, punctuated by the clattering of boots and the steady thump of swords on shields, singing their marching song in a rumble of voices matched only perhaps by the din of battle. Steel flashes in the sun, as it has for a thousand years past, over the hills of Latium, over Mare Internum. Above them, the red vexillum flew proudly in the wind, its golden letters visible for miles, declaring proudly the designation of its bearer.

“Come out, you thirsty dogs! Come out, you rankled goats!” sang the men, their heads unbowed beneath the watchful gaze of basilicas and churches. “Whores greet your clients, debtors greet your slaves. Italica, Italica, Italica is home!” Each verse was marked by the sounding of the horns again, in mighty bursts that scattered men and beasts alike. “The sea gives us salt, Roma puts it in our hands; we go tonight to gamble it away, and tomorrow beg Augustus for more!” 

The very foundations of ancient temples shook with the legion’s approach. Dust crumbled from above their helmets, some raining down on them and nestling into the cracks of the streets below. The people of Rome ducked into alleys, away from the rapidly-approaching wooden wall that was the vanguard. Some were slow, and paid for their error dearly as they were kicked out of the way. Heavy boots fell on legs and feet, but the cries of those struck could barely be heard for the chorus of the soldiers. As they marched up the main path towards the Palatine hill, the singing grew louder, the hammering of their blades on the Chi-Rho swifter, the footfalls more pronounced, as if they were being driven into the frenzy of battle again, like the barbarian-warriors of Germania. Until, at last, at the foot of the hill, they stopped, dead still and dead silent, before their emperor who awaited them, upon the steps leading up to the great Domus Augustana.

Anthemius adjusted his toga, thinking back on the morning. This garb was restrictive, folding this way and that in its own chaotic nature, and in the wind it tightened about the body in the manner of Apollo’s beasts. He looked over the field of helms, once, twice, once more again. They were strangers all. This had not been the case when they left. Where had they gone? He glanced quickly to his right and left, where he was comfortably flanked by the senator Flavius Pusaeus and the consul Messius Phoebus, hoping to match eyes with his loyal councilors. They were taught by the Stoic masters too well; they stared ahead, faces showing nothing but a facade of strength. The sea of heads parted, and one stepped forward. By the jewels embedded in his helm, he was a legatus, but he too was unfamiliar. That stranger then raised a hand high above his head in salute.

“Fortune of Augustus, merit of Traianus!” he reported. 

Anthemius extended his own outward, mimicking the statues of the Pax Romana. Encased in stone as those forms of the late emperors were, they cut the model of wisdom and authority; triumphant Antoninus Pius, serene Marcus Aurelius, stern Claudius Iulianus. He felt apart from them as Dis from the sun. 

“Legio IV, Augustus welcomes you home!” he said, mustering his bravery. Latin never came naturally to him, and he struggled even to tame his tongue enough to speak. Greek flowed from the tongue, swift and merry as wine, whereas Latin stuck in the throat as honey. He could do nothing but grit his teeth and continue on. “What name and station do you keep?” The man removed his helmet and stared up at the emperor, and Anthemius could see in his shock that he was youthful, perhaps of an age with him when he began military service, perhaps even younger. He lowered his hand and spoke.

“If it pleases Augustus, I call myself Aurelius Antigonianus. I return to you as Legatus of the Legio IV.”

“Answer me, Antigonianus.” The questions came suddenly, as a broken dam. Anthemius could not stop himself. “You left under the command of my comites, Torisarius and Hermianus. Where have they gone?”

“Torisarius lies in Narbo, Hermianus in Massilia.”

“With you were the Legiones V Scythica and VII Flavia Felix. Why does only one of three legions remain to me?” Aquilo of the Northern Wind sucked the air from his lungs. He looked over the faces of the assembled army again. They were the same as before.

“The Goths struck Scythica to a man; Flavia Felix abandoned their brothers in the field.”

“My son marched with you. Where is Anthemiolus? He was the dux of this force; you answered to him. Where is Anthemiolos? You were responsible for protecting his life with your own. Where is Anthemiolos? He was of an age with you; where is my child? Where is he?” By the end, he had entirely reverted to his native tongue. His left hand, grasping the folds of the toga, clenched so tight he could feel his nails as they bit into his palm through the fabric. His heart beat loud and swiftly; his breath came at pace. He didn’t need to hear the response.

“He remains where fortune of Augustus and merit of Traianus left him.” Antigonianus’ eyes flared as he spoke. They were mirrors; in them, Anthemius could see his own anger. He took a step forward, but found the hem of his cloth prevented him from approaching, constricting him tighter. He would be strangled, perhaps, right on the steps of the Domus Augustana, by the dress of his ancestors. He choked on some more mangled Latin. It was a question; it was an accusation; it was a condemnation. Before it became anything at all, Antigonianus raised his hand again. “Hail, Magister Militum!”

Anthemius turned to look, and there he was. Fire lanced in his heart at that pompous, smug face. At the toga he certainly was not wearing in the morning, that fell upon his frame naturally as if he were born into it. Ricimer the barbarian, who bloodied his hands with the corpses of emperors, who conspired with Aspar the Alan to puppet the generals of Rome from the shadows. 

“My brothers!” announced Ricimer, taking to the speech of Italy without the slightest taint or corruption. “We the Senate and the People of Rome are most delighted to see your faces again. The wives of the Seven Hills long for their husbands, and mothers their sons.” Ricimer held that gleam in the blue of his eye sharp as the reflection of the sun itself. “Only the greatest of legions, and with them the ablest of generals, return time and time again, never truly defeated.” Anthemius knew without question that Ricimer knew already the fate of his companions. He, who straddled the line between civilized and barbaric, had ears across both sides of the Alps. The rage threatened to boil over within him, damned be to the teachings of Proclus. “Perhaps if great Procopius had joined the field with his son, we would feast his victory in Narb-”

“Kill you!” Anthemius reached out with his free hand towards the magister militum. Ricimer ducked away, his speech dissolving into laughs as Phoebus gripped him. “Kill! You! Death!”

“Augustus’ humors are imbalanced,” muttered Phoebus sheepishly, struggling somewhat against the incensed emperor.

“Augustus’ humors are imbalanced!” repeated the barbarian, between barks. The senators eventually overpowered their master, and the three of them retreated back into the walls of the imperial palace. Anthemius did not struggle so much against their handling of him as he would have liked; battle, in truth, had left his body.

“Where is my pallium?” Anthemius tore the toga from his body, still consumed by his anger. It landed in a heap upon the peristylium floor. 

“Where is your mind?” Phoebus could have cut the image of master Proclus, how inflamed he was. “Brother, this is most unlike us! Would that our master in Alexandria see you; you have given yourself to an animal’s nature!”

“Where is my son?” Even at his full height, Phoebus could not stand quite so tall as Anthemius. “He is gone! Where is my son?” Alone, surrounded by his fellow students from over four decades ago, his anger was swallowed whole by the void in his heart. He collapsed on the ground, nose planted firmly into the heap of cloth that was once at his feet. The darkness enclosed his eyes, soaking up the stains upon his face. Everything of his body felt heavy; he had transmuted to lead. For a long breath, nothing in the world moved at all; then, he felt a gentle hand on the back of his neck.

“Leave him be,” came the voice of Phoebus, and the touch was gone. “Bother him not with the matter of Leo Macellus. He can find his response on his own time.” 

“To your feet now,” Pusaeus said, seemingly ignoring the order of his elder. He grasped Anthemius under the arm and assisted him to stand. “Let us have you in bed.” Deftly, with the practiced hand of one who has served too long in politics, he slipped a vellum sheet into his emperor’s hands. Together, the two crossed the peristylium and to his personal bedchambers. There were too many steps between the two. The home grew cavernous.

“Where is my son?” he asked Pusaeus. The senator did not respond.

“Lie in bed and your humors will balance, Augustus.” Pusaeus left him only with the sound of dissipating conversation, as he resumed chatter with Phoebus in Latin far too quick for Anthemius to catch up with. His hands unfolded the sheet. The cut of the words were distinctive of Leon’s own hand. Its sloppiness was disconcerting. He imagined that face now, poring over his own words, brow furrowed in that usual mix of disappointment and annoyance.

“Anthemios Patrikios,” it began, in the bellow of the old general. “Every manner of report I hear regarding you is falsehood and slander. I am told by my informants that you have been defeated in Septem Provinciae. I am told that you have lost two and more than half legions, alongside the money that I granted you to pay for them. I am told, most importantly of all, that you have still not yet plucked that weed Ricimer from your ear. I will not shame you by asking the return of the gold. However, these failures are not becoming of you. Recall that I raised you to posts in Konstantinopolis that you have taken to admirably. Recall that I outmaneuvered the traitor Olybrius and his barbarian to place you in the city of the Caesars. Fix your mistakes immediately. In exchange, I will continue to do as I always have and ignore the obvious lies I have been fed.” At the bottom, written larger than perhaps the entire body of the letter, is the signature of the emperor in the east. “Leon Sebastos.”

Anthemius let the vellum fall from his hand to the ground. He felt nothing for that condemnation; no fear, no indignation, not even embarrassment. The only thing left within him was a heavy tiredness and the pull of the ceiling, which he continued to stare at, mind a void but for the designs above him. Not even his eyes moved, until hours later when he felt he could blink again. Had he fallen asleep? He could not say for certain, except that when he laid down the sun was low as the ripest peach and that now it was breaking over the Apennines. He moved to sit, finally looking down at the page, and reached out, perhaps to review it. If he read it a second time, it might have transmuted to be more charitable towards him.

“Anthemios Sebastos,” it now wrote, in a hand that was certainly not that of the emperor Leon. “You will die within the course of two years.”

He dropped the page as if it were fire, his heart the hooves of a quadriga. What happened to the message? Could he have been so fatigued as to have misread it the first time? How could that be possible? He remembered seeing, if nothing else, the signature at the foot. It was no longer there. He scrambled to his feet and wrapped an abolla about his shoulders. He was still a student of Proclus’, and thus capable of thinking. It could have been a spy, infiltrating the Domus Augustana as he slept to lay a warning. One of Leon’s? One of Ricimer’s, meant to threaten him? Either way, the response was clear. If it were Leon, it was to pressure him to move against Ricimer, and if it were Ricimer, then this empty intimidation cannot go unpunished. He strode with new purpose, summoning his scholarians with a flick of the hand.

“I have been informed,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “of treason that festers within the very heart of Rome.” The scholarian to his left, who he knew as Decius Marius, nodded.

“Augustus, you are wise to say so.” His hand went for his spatha. “Ricimer’s hand penetrates even the Senate.”

“Tell me of this.”

“The senator Romanus has dared to question the integrity of your rule, yesterday as you recovered from illness.” 

“Not illness; poison. Romanus has attempted to remove me. Go forth to accost him, whether he is at Senate or leisure. Bring me his head.” Anthemius could feel a spark of righteous satisfaction as Decius gripped his helmet in a sharp salute. The scholarians exited the imperial palace punctuated by the clack of steel scales. It may well have been that the Fates have not misallocated. At last, the serpent’s head will be crushed under the boot of an emperor, and Rome saved once more the horrors of barbaric tyranny.

Later in the day, under the zenith of the sun, a delegation of senators approached the steps leading up the Palatine hill. Anthemius came out to meet them, and saw with relief Pusaeus among their ranks. He meekly stepped forward, uttering some side talk with his fellows.

“Fortune of Augustus, merit of Traianus,” began Pusaeus, before Anthemius could address him.

“What business has the Senate with me?” Anthemius asked.

“We come with concerns,” said Pusaeus. He paused, constantly glancing back at his fellow senators. “The motions of the Senate have paused, due to unforeseen circumstances.” Another pause. “Some blood-maddened men of the Scholae Palatinae broke into the Curia Iulia and ambushed Senator Romanus as he was advocating a motion. They cleaved his head from his shoulders right in the hall.” This he whispered almost conspiratorially.

“If these men are scholarians, they are loyal,” said Anthemius. “I ordered the death of Romanus, on the charges of his obvious treason.”

“Treason, Augustus?”

“Was it not obvious?” Anthemius looked over at the gathered mass of senators. They were obviously afraid. Anthemius had no sympathy for them; if they feared him, it was because they were traitors. “Romanus was a mere puppet of Ricimer’s.”

“It is so, but-”

“And Ricimer was a traitor. He, Goth that he is, had informed the tribes in Gallia of Torisarius’ advance towards Narbo.”

“I am not certain-”

“The blood of my Anthemiolus rests in the grooves of his fingers! His treason led to my son’s death; he might well have slipped a dagger into his back!”

“Brother, let me speak!” Anthemius nearly stepped back, hearing Pusaeus’ outburst. “We come not as friends of Ricimer, but as loyal Romans in both blood and temperament. Were it the death of a single senator, on the orders of unconquerable Augustus, we would continue on.”

“Then, what-”

“Our brother. Phoebus the Consul.” Pusaeus turned away, towards the direction of the Curia Iulia. “Our fears have come true. Barbarians, later in the high morning, came to the Senate house and butchered the consuls in retaliation. We knew nothing of it, except that they lie as their barbaric nature. Yet, if it were true-” He did not finish his thought.

“Where is the Scholae? We go after them. Hunt these rats and burn them from their nests!” Anthemius wished he had thought to tie a sword upon his belt. The time to draw it would have been then. Pusaeus didn’t speak, stunned in horror as he was. Anthemius looked over his shoulder and saw, and he too feared.

A horde of barbarians, to the size of a legion, filled the streets below the Palatine. They faced the Scholae who stopped them, as if the two armies were ready to meet for open battle. Two lines of shields, only two body lengths apart in some places, spathae waving in the air in mimicry of strikes.

“Part. We have no intent to slay Augustus. For now.” Ricimer’s voice, alongside his wide frame, carried over the silent scholarians. He stepped forward, both hands up, and passed through the line of soldiers, behind him his nephew Gundobad, in the same motion. “Procopius!” He shouted that name, meeting the eye of Anthemius. “These men I bring with me are the foederati of your city. They are the shields who guard the land where Caesar’s ashes rest; not your legions. Not your Grecian-blooded androgynes. Not your pagan consul, who’s execution I ordered in the name of Christ. These men guard Rome from her enemies without, and her enemies within. Yet, if it is the will of Augustus that we are no longer needed, then it shall be so.” He turned to his nephew and barked some orders at him in Burgundian. Gundobad nodded, and relayed them to the army behind him. “Henceforth, we abandon Rome. If you seek our protection again, you may find us in Ticinum. If we yet remain there.” With that, he shouted a few more orders, and the rumble of footsteps escorted the barbarians as they marched through the streets, tracing the path of the Legio IV, jeering in their many tongues at the Romans as they passed. 

“The Scholae alone cannot hold the city, brother,” said Pusaeus, watching them leave. “Ticinum is no mistake on the part of the barbarians. There resides the Scirian Odoacer, with his army of twenty thousand. Can a single legion hope to stand against that? Can three?” Anthemius answered only with silence. How could the Fates be so cruel? Do they intend to strip him, one after another, of his family, friends, and allies? How long will it be before he loses his wife, his old master, his fellow students, one after another, taken by the gods who detest his joy? Only Auster of the Southern Wind answers, silently bristling the air with African dust. 

Anthemius, wordlessly, turned and descended back into the empty palace. It seems he could no longer delay the passing of the Roman age, when the sun shone eternally from the strait of Atlas to the mountains of Colchis, and along the coasts of Panticapaeum through to where verdant Numidia met arid Garamantia. His regret seeped into the cracked walls, an echo of when Domitianus raised these once-pristine stones to a form worthy of feasting kings and demigods. Now the mice scurry about the androns, having become the new masters of the house. One, a pale creature with large ears, rests in a beam of light, staring up at the sad emperor, before finally coming to its senses and running under a door that, in the myriads that line every courtyard, could easily have been missed.

Except, Anthemius had never seen that door before. Carved of wood in the deepest maroon, it set itself apart from the ancient faded portals with which it stood in lockstep. He reached out with a hand, stumbling towards it, compelled by the eternally weaving hands of the Fates. One touch against the door and it folded back, to a room so dark it emitted it against the sunlight outside. Anthemius wrapped his abolla tighter around himself and stepped inside.

There, at the far end of the room, sat the same mouse, haunches rested in a wide bowl of ceramic. There was no question that it was looking at him. Beside it lay a knife, of a sort far too brutish for the table but perfect for cutting the throat of a bull. All three of them stood before a lararium, its frescoed genii all staring downwards at their feet. Down at the mouse. Anthemius took one halting step towards the fantastical scene. He knelt down before the lararium, knees just touching the bowl. His right hand enclosed about the handle, his left around the body of the mouse.

“Is this what you ask of me?” he whispered. In the grey shadow, the mouse seemed almost to nod. Anthemius looked up at the panel, in the eyes of the three genii. “Very well. To me. To my house. To my family.” With that, he slid the blade across the mouse’s neck. It shrieked, a sound like the eagles that soared over the Alps, over the heads of victorious Romans and their slain enemies, over the sun. Then everything was quiet again, but for the blood dripping back into the bowl.

“Please.” The solemn genii remained silent and still. “Iuppiter Rex. Mars Ultor. Sol Indiges.” His voice reflected in the dark back to him. “Dis Pater. Minerva Invictus. Iuno Bona. Please.” He knew what he was asking for, but he had not the words to describe. It was a call, as the abandoned child would to the sky, as the wounded beast to the tallest tree. Hear him, please. “Apollo Pythius. Mercurius Lux. Venus Genetrix-”

“Prokopios Anthemios.” 

Anthemius turned suddenly, striking the bowl with his knees and sending it skittering to the corner. His eyes landed on the figure behind him. The voice came from a woman, short and bony, flinty and angular as the blade in his hand. Though her eyes were hard, her face was gentle, and she reached out with both of her hands. “Child. What has become of you?” Anthemius, in his heart, knew without her saying as to who she was. He pressed his face into the hem of her stola.

“Mother,” he whimpered, feeling her hands lace through his hair. Tears sprang from his eyes, like they had for Anthemiolos. 

“You received my letter, then,” said Venus Genetrix, mother of emperors.

“Why did you tell me of my fate?”

“It was a gift, given to one who we loved, and who loved us.” Venus patted Anthemius’ head, bending not an inch to face him. “We, distant upon Olympus we may be, knew as our temples were burned, as our images were torn down and replaced with the Chi-Rho. Though I tried to stay the anger of the gods, it was but one hand against the sea. Nona allotted your years, but in her fury Morta cut them short, and weaved the ends upon the threads of malefactors. In defiance of them, I thought to warn you, that you might command Rome once more to stand against even the judgment of gods, as once did Iulius Caesar before you.”

“Then it is possible?”

“No longer.” Venus looked up at the ceiling, seeing in the umbra what Anthemius could not. “With the death of Iulianus, we starved, and the empire starved with us. Our vengeance came to bear upon the shoulders of Christian and Roman alike. We struck the lands of Africa and Aegyptus with fire, withering the crop and turning the black earth to gold. We struck the lands of Germania and Sclavia with frost, rousing the far tribes to anger and jealousy until they turned their swords upon Gallia. By the time our anger dissipated and we realized our error, the tides had turned irreversibly. Dusk has already set upon the world of the Latins.”

“What will become of my kin? Of myself?”

“In Elysium, the emperors before you wait eternally in sleep, for a day when the Queen of Cities will shatter.” Venus wiped a single tear from her face, which shone with the brightness of a second sun. “There, you will see your wife and your son again. There you will see your brothers Iulianus, Maxentius, and Aurelianus. There, in Elysium, where all that remains to us is our hope.”

And Anthemius, at last, wept a city’s worth of sorrow in the arms of the goddess.

Leave a Comment