Ashes Under Uricon
Chapter 24. Resurrection (394)
Imppp Valentinianus Theodosius et Arcadius Auggg Orientio vicario Urbis Romae. Omnes, quibus flagitii usus est virile corpus muliebriter constitutum alieni sexus damnere patientia, nihil enim discretum videntur habere cum feminis, huiusmodi scelus spectante populo flammae vindicibus expiabunt. Pp.in Foro Traiani VIII Id. Aug. Valentiniano A. IIII et Neoterio Conss.
The august Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius to Orientius, Deputy Prefect of the City of Rome. All those whose outrageous practice it is to dispose their male body in female fashion and to debase it with the passivity of the opposite sex -- for they appear to be no different from women -- shall publicly expiate such crimes in the punishment of fire. Posted in the Forum of Trajan, 6 August 390.
Victorinus was right, on every count. Eugenius took control of Italy and restored the altar of Victory in the Senate House. Theodosius was furious again, and two years later took his revenge by soundly defeating him in battle. Meanwhile Arbogast had withdrawn yet more troops from Britain.
"Oh, gods!" said Maglocunus when we heard. "Not again!
Pone merum et talos. Pereat qui crastina curat.
Mors aurem vellens 'vivite,' ait, 'venio.'
Set out the wine and dice, and be damned who thinks of tomorrow. Death twitches my ear. 'Live,' he says, 'for I'm coming.'"
He spoke truer than he thought. With Eugenius out of the way, Victorinus was promptly replaced as Deputy Prefect by a Greek named Chrysanthus, who was not merely a Christian but a member of the particularly strict Novatianist sect.
And two months after Chrysanthus took post, Maglocunus was arrested.
He was arrested not by the bumbling town policeman or by the military, but by two officials who said they had come from London. He was clapped into the town gaol, a little cell which in my young days had housed only the occasional drunk but was now in distressingly frequent use. Its occupants might languish there for months or years, fed only by their relatives or friends, waiting to come to trial. With Maglocunus, however, it was a case of greased lightning. We were told that he would be tried in two weeks' time and by Chrysanthus himself. It was blatantly obvious to everyone not only that the bishop was getting his own back on our house, but that the highest official in Britain, a fervent Christian at last, was colluding with him to strike hard and strike fast. Luckily all of us were at home at the time, and luckily we had free access to Maglocunus.
Trials in Viroconium took place in the Town Hall. A legal process might be started by the injured party or their representative, usually a kinsman; or, if nobody claimed to be injured, by an informer who, should the prosecution succeed, was rewarded by the state. There was an ascending scale of courts. Lesser civil cases were dealt with locally according to British law by the two magistrates for the year. Weightier civil cases and criminal ones were tried according to Roman law by the governor in his provincial court, either in Corinium or, if he was visiting, in a civitas. Really serious cases might be heard in the Deputy Prefect's court, which usually sat in London but, very occasionally, locally. Judges were never lawyers, and had a professional assessor to guide them on points of law.
We were told that that the charge was passive sodomy. It had to be explained to me what that meant -- the sin of Sodom as mentioned in the Christians' bible. We were also told that an eye-witness would testify.
"Well, it's a crime, and I'm guilty," Magolocunus said helplessly, "and I'll have to plead guilty."
"I'm guilty too," said Dumnorix, beside himself with anxiety.
"And so are Bran and I. But we haven't been charged. And what about the eye-witness?"
"Perfectly possible. Until Victorinus warned us, we didn't always close the shutters at night. It didn't cross our minds. But anyone could get into the garden and look into our room."
We engaged a lawyer, a good one, Florentius by name, who had been a pupil of Papias and, like his former teacher, was interested by Christianity but had never adopted it. He was equally happy to represent pagans and Christians.
"Unfortunately," he said, "provincial senators lost their judicial privilege some years ago. You'll have to stand trial."
"Yes, I know. And I'm going to plead guilty."
Florentius pursed his lips.
"You realise that the charge is a very serious one? For the lower classes the maximum penalty is death. For upper class people like you it's deportation and loss of property, which is bad enough."
"In either case I'd lose Dumnorix for ever."
"But I'd come with you into exile," replied Dumnorix. They had their arms round each other.
"Thank you, Dum. But would they let you?"
"No," said Florentius. "They wouldn't. Deportation means to a penal colony on some little island, like Silina. No friends. No servants. Only guards."
"Anyway, why should there be one law for the rich and one for the poor? I'm going to demand trial as a common man." Maglocunus, when in righteous mode, could be very pig-headed. "Better die than fester on Silina, pining for Dumnorix and the family and our friends."
"Then all I can do for you is plead mitigation. That this is a custom time-honoured in British society and that you were unaware of the law."
"But I was aware of it."
Florentius sighed. Maglocunus' stance seemed to offer no hope whatever, and Dumnorix came round to supporting it. He promised that if, as was likely, Maglocunus was put to death, he would follow by his own hand because he could not live without him. Our only comfort was that pagan public opinion was massively behind us.
Time crept mournfully by. The day before the trial, Florentius appeared at our door, looking over his shoulder. We took him into the kitchen.
"The bishop," he said, "has let it be known that any lawyer who acts for Maglocunus will never get a brief from a Christian again. I'm truly sorry" -- and he seemed to mean it -- "but you'll have to defend Maglocunus yourselves. No lawyer's practice can survive without Christian clients. I've been followed here and I daren't stay. I daren't even spell out the line of defence I was going to pursue. But here's a copy of the law under which he is charged. Here's one of the earlier law to a similar effect. Read them very carefully."
He slipped away. Stunned, we read them very carefully. The only significant difference seemed to be that the new law prescribed death by burning alive, the old one by the sword.
"Burning alive is hideous," I said hopelessly. "I suppose the sword's the lesser of two evils, if only we could get him convicted under the old one."
"Hang on!" said Dumnorix suddenly. "I think we can. Look, there is another difference." He pointed it out. "That's what we must go for. And yes . . . yes . . ."
He was gazing broodingly out of the kitchen at the gods in the household shrine in the hall, whose cupboard doors were standing open. He swung round to us.
"Yes! We must fake his death. That'll be much easier by beheading than by burning."
"What do you mean?"
He explained. It seemed crazy. But we had no other hope.
"Where on earth do we get a dead body from?"
"I know!" cried Brica. "I've just been to Vindocunus to collect the meat." Vindocunus was our butcher. "He's down in the dumps. His son Cunovindus -- you know, the one who's weak in the head -- he's been getting more and more odd recently. And last night he killed himself. Cut his throat. Vindocunus isn't surprised. But he's worried that Cunovindus mightn't reach the otherworld. He's wondering how best to release his soul to make sure it gets there."
We stared at her. Releasing the soul . . . yes . . . Vindocunus was an old-fashioned pagan, salt of the earth, dyed in the wool. Yes! We dashed out to talk to him. We dashed on to confer with Amminus, who was in town and would be on duty at the trial. We dashed to the gaol to coach Maglocunus. The scheme was still crazy, creaking at every joint, but what else was there?
The Town Hall was packed. Hardly a standing space was left. Chrysanthus, a small grey weasel of a man, arrived with his assessor, escorted by a guard from the Cohort. He took his place on the tribunal at the end, in front of the presiding image of the emperor, and declared the court in session. Maglocunus was brought in. The proceedings were very short, very sharp, and entirely in Latin; Crysanthus doubtless had no British.
The sin of Sodom, said the prosecuting lawyer, had been condemned by the church in the time of the blessed Constantine, and by the state in a decree of their sacred majesties Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius issued in the consulship of Valentinian for the fourth time and of Neoterius. He called on Cunitus, the bishop's deacon with whom I had crossed swords over the saltworks, to testify.
Three years ago, this pipsqueak said, he had been in our garden looking for his dog which had strayed -- a likely story -- and through the window he had seen Maglocunus in bed with . . .
"It is not relevant," Chrysanthus interrupted waspishly, "who the companion was. His behaviour, while equally detestable, is not a crime, although in my view it should be. Proceed."
Cunitus proceeded. He had watched in horror -- of course -- as Maglocunus was treated like a woman. To be more precise, er . . .
"We want no details. You have told us enough. No more witnesses? Prisoner, how do you plead?"
"Guilty. And I wish to forgo the privilege due to a councillor and be treated as a common man."
All round the hall there was an intake of breath, and Chrysanthus stared.
"Are you aware that the crime, in that case, carries the death penalty?"
"Very well. The choice is yours. Now, I may pass sentence of death only if the witnesses are unanimous or the accused confesses. Both conditions are satisfied. Is anyone defending this man?"
I stood up. The family had asked me to do the job, and my knees were literally shaking.
"Your Perfection. I submit that the law under which the accused is charged has no force in Britain. It is addressed to the Deputy Prefect of Rome. Outside the City of Rome, therefore, it is not applicable."
There was another general intake of breath. Chrysanthus held a long whispered consultation with his assessor, who thumbed through a book.
At length Chrysanthus shrugged. "Very well," he said. "But it makes little difference. An earlier law applies, dated the third consulship of Constantius and the second of Constans. Being addressed to the people, it is universal. The penalty it prescribes, instead of burning, is beheading. Is there no other submission from the defence? Then I condemn the accused to death by beheading. And let this be a warning" -- he glared balefully around -- "to obey the laws of God as formulated by our celestial emperors. Tribune! Take him away and carry out the sentence."
I might have gained my first point, but this was an equally dangerous moment. We needed time, and we were granted it. With half of his troopers, Amminus hustled Maglocunus out of the hall amid a hubbub of applause from Christians and of resentment from pagans. Most of the male Britons present had broken this law in the past, and not a few were breaking it now. People were leaping to their feet and shouting.
"Silence in court!" Chrysippus bellowed, thumping his desk. "Soldiers, guard the doors. Let no one leave. The court has not yet risen. I will not adjourn it until this unseemly behaviour ceases."
The unseemly behaviour was being positively stirred up by our family, which knew the score, and it was slow to die down. But I still wanted a little more time. I looked round for inspiration. Various rooms led off the hall: the treasury, the record office, the Town Clerk's office, and at the far end the alcove for the sacred statues. The Roman gods who had once inhabited it had long since gone, but Cernunnos, cross-legged and horned, our equivalent of the altar of Victory in the Senate House at Rome, was still with us. It was a feeble ploy, but . . .
"Your Perfection," I cried as the pandemonium at last showed signs of abating. "We are simple pagans. One of our principal gods here" -- I gestured at the statue -- "is Cernunnos. We no longer worship him. We are not allowed to. But we believe he is the guardian of the heads of men. Might it be permissible to dispose of the head of this, um, criminal, in his temple?"
"Most certainly not! That would be tantamount to worship, and another crime!"
He peered short-sightedly down the hall to the alcove.
"Is that really a pagan idol?" he asked incredulously. "How does the council permit it to remain?"
One of the council chairmen stood up and stammered that they had several times considered removing it, but had not dared to for fear of pagan riots. Its presence as a work of art, they had been advised, was not illegal: only its worship as an idol.
"Then I advise you to consider again, before you are prosecuted for breaking the law."
Another loud and prolonged outburst of protest arose from the pagans.
"Silence!" roared Chrysanthus, thumping again. But after a while he gave up the unequal struggle and shouted that the court was adjourned.
The troopers at last opened the doors, and we led the stampede to the cattle market, where punishments were meted out. Its gates were closed, and there was another delay before a soldier opened them and we could reach the scene. There by the slaughterhouse, beside a butcher's block, lay the corpse and its severed head, face down in a pool of blood. Amminus himself was standing over it, the sword in his hand still dripping red. His troopers kept the crowd at a distance, but allowed the family to kneel by the body, where we wept.
Our tears were genuine. Who was to know they were tears of relief? The satisfaction in the bishop's eyes was also genuine. The corpse had the same build as Maglocunus, it wore the same tunic, its gore-splashed hair was the same colour, and who was to tell the difference between a cow's blood and a man's?
At two hastily-arranged funerals that afternoon, who could know that one coffin, oozing blood from its joints, contained not Maglocunus but cow bones and entrails? The other coffin indeed contained most of Cunovindus, but who could know that it did not contain his head? And if next day any pagan ventured into Cernunnos' temple, how could he know to whom that new white skull had belonged?
When the detachment of the Cohort marched out of the cattle market, who bothered to check that the same number left as had arrived? Who noticed one trooper slip aside at the ford and into the lead warehouse? And who next morning, seeing Dumnorix plod with bowed head down to the wharf, did not sympathise? The poor chap might be sadly bereaved, but he was Deputy Assistant Procurator. Business couldn't stand still, could it?
Dumnorix, when he came back home to us, had difficulty in keeping his face straight. The despair of the past two weeks had given way to bravado. They had another plan, he told us. It was another madcap plan, but it would postpone the day when Maglocunus' long-term future must be decided. And it was very tempting.
"Uh-huh," said Bran. "Hos successus alit: possunt quia posse videntur. They are encouraged by success: they can because they think they can."
Reluctant yet grinning, we agreed, and Dumnorix set to work. He and Cunorix went to Vindocunus and Amminus for further help, and were away the whole night. The upshot was, early on the following day, that Vindocunus' wife, who had been out to the cemetery to lay flowers on her son's grave, came fluttering and squawking into the town with astounding news.
"Maglocunus has risen from the dead!"
Word spread like wildfire. People went to see for themselves, in ones and twos at first, and soon in droves. Bran and I went with them. It had been very artistically done. Maglocunus' grave was open, soil scattered all around as if he had burst up bodily from the ground. At the bottom of the hole the coffin could be seen, lid thrown back, floor dark with congealed blood. Of the man himself there was no sign. The crowd milled about, peering into the grave, quiet in wonderment and fear. Pagans made the sign against the evil eye, Christians crossed themselves. Amminus and a handful of his men, passing towards the town, stopped to see what was up and gawped with the rest. Viventius -- an old man by now but, to give him his due, a game one -- arrived with Cunitus and half the clergy. Christians demanded of them if it was really what it seemed to be, and they had no ready answer. Suddenly there was a shout.
"He's over there!"
Heads swung. On the far side of the cemetery, two hundred paces away, a figure was standing, leaning on a grave marker, head bent. There was a cautious move towards him. He certainly looked like Maglocunus. Yes, he was Maglocunus. His head was in place, but his neck and shoulders were crusted with dried blood, and he was smiling down at Dumnorix who knelt at his feet. The crowd stopped a little way off, uncertain, eyes wide, mouths agape, in total silence. He raised his eyes towards them.
"Nolite expavescere," he said gently in Latin. "Don't be afraid."
Cunitus whimpered. Bran and I pushed forward. I reached out as if to test whether Maglocunus' body had substance, but he lifted a hand.
"Noli me tangere. Do not touch me."
"No-o-o-o!" wailed Cunitus, trying to hide behind the bishop. Maglocunus looked across at him.
"Yes!" he said sternly. "Vivent mortui, morientur vivi. The dead shall live, the living die."
He instantly lost his audience, for Viventius turned purple, gasped as if suffocating, and collapsed to the ground where he lay panting feebly. His face was lop-sided. His lips moved but no words came out. People flapped around, trying to revive him.
"Pointless," said someone. "It's an apoplexy. His only hope is rest in bed."
The clergy, aghast, picked him up and carried him away. By the time attention swung back to Maglocunus, only Dumnorix was there, gazing up into the sky.
"He's gone," he said. "But he'll be back."
Everybody gazed up too, and saw nothing. Meanwhile Amminus' troop re-formed and marched on to the town, with Dumnorix loping after them. People milled around for a while, but the excitements were clearly over. Bewildered and shaken, they drifted home, trying to make sense of it.
It was a nine days' wonder. Maglocunus had disappeared, and so had Dumnorix. When we were asked where they were, we shook our heads and replied that we did not know. That was at least half true -- if we knew roughly, we did not know exactly. Over what had happened, nobody showed a hint of scepticism. But we came to sense, before long, a division of opinion. Christians, it seemed, readily believed the unbelievable. Within a day the bishop was dead, and on that score too they were shaken to the core. But pagans began to look at us with faces which suggested that they had heard, or deduced, the truth. Not a soul put anything into words. There was a conspiracy of silence. But we were sure that they knew, and heartily approved, and were laughing with us. And barely had the first wonder shown signs of fading that a new one began.
Rather more than two weeks after their disappearance, the boys came back. It was dusk, and not many people were around. But a few saw them walking openly up the street, sporting half-grown beards. Maglocunus was not a spirit, they insisted, but in bodily form, for he was holding Dumnorix's hand, and round his neck was a great red scar where the head had healed back on to the body. The boys, in fact, were on their way from the wharf to our house and a great welcome. Oblivious of curious callers, we locked the doors and closed the shutters, gave them food, and listened. They had not heard of Viventius' death, and Maglocunus was shocked.
"I killed him, then. I'm not sure I like that. I certainly didn't mean to."
"Well, he tried to kill you, deliberately."
They told us of their travels. They had spent most of the time on Lurio's barge -- Bitucus was long since dead -- which was an ideal place to be anonymous and out of the public eye. And they had come to a decision about their future. It did not lie in Viroconium where, as far ahead as we could see, Maglocunus could never lead a normal life again.
He was officially dead, and therefore no longer either councillor or Assistant Procurator. His future lay in the mountains and among the Irish on the coast where he could still -- more easily, indeed -- keep an eye on the further mines; and Dumnorix's future naturally lay with his. Nor, being dead, could Maglocunus own property. When in gaol he had made his will, leaving the whole of his wealth to Dumnorix. Now they were simply swapping roles. Dumnorix was inheriting not only Maglocunus' fortune but his council seat and the Assistant Procuratorship. As far as the family was concerned, though not the civitas, Maglocunus would assume Dumnorix's old role as unofficial Deputy Assistant, and I need not look for new helpers. Bran and Cunorix and I would see them whenever we travelled to the coast, and Dumnorix would return to Viroconium from time to time to keep up with his mother. All this mirrored the way that Bran and I were thinking.
The boys had not gone to Corinium, where they were too well known. But from Abonae they had visited Fanum Maponi, and the tale they brought back from there was one of woe.
"It's finished," Maglocunus reported mournfully. "The flooding's worse and the hostel's a quagmire. The baths and the priest's house are the only buildings with roofs on. The rest are abandoned. And the temple's in ruins."
"It was the Christians from Corinium, curse them. A few months ago a group of them came and stole all the treasure, and set the temple on fire, and ransacked the shop and the restaurant and the mill. The priest's all right, though of course he's heart-broken. But he's had to lay the staff off. The place is finished."
"The god -- is he still there?"
"Yes and no. They overturned his statue, which broke. They carted off the pieces for burning into lime. And most of the altars too. Inside, the temple's just a jumble of debris -- charred roof timbers and slates, and wall plaster and window glass, and even stones from the upper walls. We went in to see . . . to remember . . . yes, to weep. But there was still that old aura . . . that feeling of peace and love. And we looked at each other and said 'But he hasn't gone!' So we searched around under the rubble, and there was his head! None of his body. Just his head, broken off at the neck. And it's the head that matters, isn't it?
"We brought the priest over to see it, and he wept too. We asked if he'd like us to take it to his house.
"'No,' he said. 'This is where Maponus belongs, in his own place.'
"Should we set it up on view, then?
"'No,' he said. 'If the Christians come back they'll take it away or smash it. Bury him again, as deep under the debris as you can. One day somebody may find him who appreciates him, even if it's a thousand years from now.'
"So we hid the god. And his eyes told us that he didn't mind. His patience is infinite. The patience of love."
I reached for Bran's hand, and we too shed tears for something good which had gone out of the world, which would be absent for the foreseeable future, which had been banished by bigots.
"I'm surprised they could overturn him," said Bran. "You'd have thought those eyes would have stopped them. Do you remember, Docco? One glance and even a hard nut like Pulcher was converted."
"We wondered that too," Maglocunus replied. "Our guess is that they didn't even look at his statue . . . that they came in with eyes averted from this hideous idol . . . Anyway, it's happened, and the priest no longer has any means of support. So we gave him all the gold we had. But he did for me what we asked him to, and his hand hasn't lost its skill."
He fingered his scar. The thick ragged line of reddish purple lacked the telltale ridge which a genuine scar would have, and it would not bear close inspection. But from more than a few feet away it was thoroughly convincing; to anyone willing to be convinced.
"It's not permanent. Not like our chains. He says the dye will fade. In five or ten years nobody will be able to tell that my head was chopped off. Wonderfully resilient, the human body, isn't it?"
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