An exile fleeing from assassins runs into the greatest question of his time.
VII Nonae Aprilis I Sulla (March 9, 81 BC)
My dear teacher Hesiod, I write to you from atop the cabin of my father’s ship, the Fiscina as he calls it. I sit within reach of the useless tiller, under the great swan’s head that overlooks every proper Roman ship from its stern. I feel it must have been another age when you and I embraced farewell on the embankment while the crew worked by lantern-light to depart. Yet it’s been only four weeks–no more time than an eques needs to become an enemy of the state.
Having one’s name on the death-squads’ list is no distinction. To be a known supporter of Marius and comfortably set up are all one needs to get it. I tried to heed your advice to be discrete in politics. I never sneered at Sulla’s humble birth. I didn’t criticize his taste for the company of actors and prostitutes. I said nothing about his purple face; nothing needed to be said. As for the jibe, let us at least know whom you have decided not to kill, that they may go ahead with their lives–-that was spoken by another senator, not by me.
Who can navigate at night? Yet we raised our sail for the sea breeze to come, and left you in darkness on the quay. How we struggled down the river to Ostia and the sea. You might have seen that the Tiberis was clogged with fleeing ships. Shouting and cursing, their crews thrust other craft out of the way with poles and fought with their people. And I’m ashamed now to tell you we did the same.
The trouble was not just ships. I hope you left without seeing how the corpses of prisoners taken at the Battle of the Colline Gate filled the spaces between our hulls. All the Samnite warriors who had survived the battle were in the river that night, an unfit end even for slaves. The ships could scarcely push through the bodies, and it was horrible to thrust them aside. The damp dawn breeze carried the cries of feasting ravens. It carried a miasma that drew every dog in Rome to disgrace itself. How I hope that breeze never touched your face.
Even on the sea beyond the river’s mouth, we smelled blood. Only by the grace of Neptune, whose eyes are painted on the Fiscina’s bow, did we escape. Then it so pleased the gods for our voyage to west Hispania to be wonderfully dull until, in the narrow passage between the Pillars of Hercules, Orani bounty-hunters gave chase. I had more than enough time to learn the Fiscina from end to end.
As Captain Tebu used to say, the Fiscina is a ship of business, not a yacht for the likes of me. She is a 700-amphora cargo ship–though, due to our hurried departure, not fully loaded–built of sturdy oak planks and iron nails. Her hull is sticky with pitch, and some poor slaves had coated her bottom with lead to stop the sea from consuming her. A great linen sail stands near her middle, and a smaller one hangs under her bow. Her deck is cluttered with lashed-down amphorae of Falernian wine. In her stern, a little gallery holds an altar dedicated to Venus. I have ordered some men to remove the arrows and try to repair it; we can’t afford to offend the goddess now. Steering oars are attached to each side, close to the stern; the tiller on top of the cabin controlled them, until the pirates’ catapult smashed it. Captain Tebu slept in the cabin, until he took an arrow in the eye and died. I sleep there now. The rest of the men sleep wherever they can. There’s room for several in the hold these days as we use our food and water.
Unlike an honest merchant ship, the pirates’ trireme had oars and slaves to pull them. Between volleys, they shouted at our crew to give me up. How wretched it is to know that one’s head is worth more than one’s whole, living body! But my shipmates loved me, or belike they thought the pirates would make slaves of them all. Neptune filled our sails from the east and, before the pirates could board, we entered Okeanos. Then the waves grew too fierce for the Oranis’ oars and they gave up the chase.
Now we were beyond sight of land, our tiller was broken and our captain was dead. Every sailor knew who was the cause; and there were some who said I had brought the enmity of the gods against the ship. But the crew needed a captain. I’m an eques and the son of the ship’s owner. And I’ve your training in rhetoric, and some experience in court. I’ve never argued the merits of a case more urgently than I now pressed my own.
Oh, Hesiod, how sadly you and your fellow Greeks confuse me! You showed me how, in Syene, Eratosthenes measured the size of the spherical earth with sticks and shadows. And you bade me to copy Anaximander’s Babylonian map of the flat earth surrounded by the river-sea Okeanos, begetter of life and the gods. I asked, what lies beyond Okeanos? And you said, that’s the advantage of the spherical model. Suddenly, life and the gods have conspired to make me the object of this debate between the new wisdom and the old. For the clouds parted and the swan’s-head’s shadow covered me exactly. This sign of Jupiter’s favor didn’t dissuade every man who wanted to push me overboard; but it convinced the rest to wait and see how things turned out.
So I took the shattered helm of the Fiscina, to keep alive. I told them I knew the shape of the world; and that there was no need to turn back and face the pirates, for I knew another way home. I ordered them to throw the debris of the attack overboard and commit their comrades’ bodies to the deep, while I would consult the captain’s rolls and instruments. They cheered me then, because I’d given them the wine. But through it all, the wounded moaned inconsolably. By tomorrow there will be trouble, unless I can turn my bluff real and improve our lot.
I explored the cabin and lingered there while the crew waited outside and drank. I did find a Greek roll of instructions for sailing along the coast of Gaul. But we would have to return to that coast to make use of them; and how is one to do that? Tebu’s chest and cabinets yielded no instruments that I could recognize. Other than the gnomon you once showed me, I’ve never seen such instruments; so belike I overlooked something. Nor, of course, would I know what to do with such a device.
What else? There are Tebu’s odd garments hanging on pegs. And his pallet is now mine, a shipboard luxury that in Rome you would instantly cast into the street.
I remember how Tebu would stand atop the cabin, his robe filling with wind and his shaved head gleaming like that of a slave. (How the Egyptians despise their own hair!) He would stretch out his hands toward the sun, peering at his fingers; and now I think he was doing more than just saluting it. I wish we had become friends and he had taught me his way-finding art. I wish I had taken an interest in my father’s business. For that matter, I wish I were in your garden and watching your kind face as I tell you this story, instead of scribbling on this godforsaken ship.
My bluff requires another installment. I emerge from the cabin, speaking to nobody, and climb to its roof. Those among the crew who aren’t oblivious choose not to see me. I stretch out my arms toward the sun. I peep through the gaps between my fingers at Apollo’s fire, wondering, what is Tebu’s secret? Some of the men are looking at me now. I order that the sails be taken down and the anchor put out. This will at least stop our westward progress while I think about what to do. A few men obey, stepping over their sodden fellows. Belike they are thinking, thus do we show that our troubles stem from Quintus and are none of our doing. Now the sail is furled; but the anchor does not reach the bottom. The Fiscina drifts onward. It is not a good beginning for my command.
So, now, what course? There is the tenacious west. If anybody ever sailed west from Hispania to Rome, I haven’t heard of it; and Tebu left no roll about the deed. Yet, until Neptune chooses to alter the wind’s direction, the west draws us onward.
And there is the unattainable east. Belike we can rotate the steering oars directly, once the crew has slept and sobered up. If this isn’t possible, we can modify them, or modify the ship, to make it so. Still, without a change of wind we can’t sail east. And if we did somehow retrace our course, the bounty-hunters would seize us; Sulla’s offer of my own wealth for my head still stands.
There is one other course. I don’t have Anaximander’s map with me, but it is simple enough to remember. If we sailed southeast to the coast of Libya, we might go south around it (and belike another country or two that Anaximander didn’t know about), and ride the Nile back to the Mediterranean. This course should work whichever of the Greeks is right, and avoid the need to choose between logic and fear.
Southeast it is, then. As soon as we can make the turn.
Good-bye, Hesiod. If ever you receive this letter, pray for us.
VI Nonae Aprilis
This morning’s sun peers through a chill mist. The wind has dropped, though the cries of the wounded continue. Whither do they propel us? The sea froths at our stern in its urgency to pass us and join a great roaring somewhere ahead.
Hesiod, I will seal this letter in a jar and throw it as far astern as I can. Should it ever reach you, I bid you kindly remember your one-time student. I think now that ancient knowledge is better left unfathomed; I fear that my views about Hades will be tested next.