An Icon – Part 1

The Christian was kneeling in the shadows, and at times would prostrate himself to the very earth, placing his hands flat before him and touching his brow upon the dust of the cell floor. In some other moment the Roman would have derived satisfaction from such a gesture, the beggary in it; but here, there was no supplication to that movement — or none, at least, toward the guard and the power of life or death that he presumably wielded. It was not to the Roman that this Christian was bowing, not to flesh and blood, and the gesture was thus more insulting than propitiating.

They were a strange race, and no doubt. He could understand what the Consul had against them; there was something unmanly in them, something effeminate. Or, if that was not quite right — for indeed, this man had shown a certain coolness in the face of the coming ordeal that was worthy of a Stoic — there was something unmilitary about them, something unvirile. Or if that still was wrong — for there was a stubborn hardness in that scrawny figure which it seemed not even hammers and swords could break — then say this: there was something strange in them, something unnatural and ineffable. At any rate, the coming hour would prove how much was show and how much was truth. No better trial.

He himself had heard, through Maximus Pedius, the Consul’s words on the Christians: A superstitious race that would not give due offerings to the city’s gods. A lawless race that held to their own ways as against the city’s laws, and pretended hypocritically to be law-abiding men even as they scorned the very root of civic order. A race of low blood, sprung out of the Jews and their debased and unroman manners. Fools enslaved to civis-denying superstitions. No true citizens, no manly soldiers, no pious men, just a mob constituted of women and slaves and like refuse. Maximus liked to recall in particular one of the Consul’s declamations — the Roman could imagine the fat man with his thick lips delectating over the words — and repeated it aloud before his subalterns each time the Games came, gloating each time, and finishing his quip with his high-pitched, whining laugh: “Their book is written for children and full of childish tales, incredible stories that no sensible man could believe. They have even written that the lion shall lie with the lamb. We shall see what the lion thinks of this!”

The circumstances surrounding the Christian’s arrest were not generally known. It was rumored that he had been seized together with several of his fellow believers, and that the lot of them had been presented to the Consul. The Consul in turn had extended them the Emperor Trajan’s old offer: sacrifice to the gods of the city, or become sacrifice thereto. All of them had bowed before sense, piety, and law. All but this man.

The Roman glanced again through the murk of the stadium’s underbelly at the damned man. To think, all of this, to avoid laying incense before a statue! And he a Roman citizen to boot! Not even one of the Jews… He had heard — though who could say if it was true or not — that the Christian’s companions, those that had folded before the threat of death, had been Jews. But this man had once been a Roman publican. What compelled him?

The Roman could hear the public roaring above — the procession was beginning — but the Christian was perfectly still now. He suddenly made some arcane gesture with his hands over his brow and his chest and his shoulders (surely some maleficent wizardry? The Roman automatically committed a sign of warding) and now knelt, perfectly immobile, his hands clasped at his breast. Praying to his God for deliverance, no doubt. Much good it would do an atheist like him!

“Your time is almost upon you, O godless one,” the Roman said, something stirring in him and dying at once. His words, meant to be hard and biting, rang out dull and coppery in the faded light of that place, as though they were swallowed up by the very walls. What had led him to speak? Perhaps the will to reclaim the old thrill of it. He remembered his first Spectacle in the small, lofty amphitheater above his home city of Taurmina, he but a boy at the verge of manhood. It had been a simple affair as the games went, just secutor and retiarius fighting there high above the world, the sea glimmering in the gray austere distances behind them. Two insects duking it out beneath the face of eternity, each striving to survive another pitiful day. It had lasted nothing, maybe five minutes. But he remembered those five minutes as one of the high points of his mortal career: the hot conquest of the bloodlust, how hungry he had been, the absolutely exhilarating feel of absolute power over another human being… He recalled the two burly men shifting about one another in their strange dance, swaying like twin serpents in some rhythm of courtship, stepping delicately over the netman’s cast web, which lay useless and ineffective on the stage. He remembered their fatal embrace, the grave wrestle that ensued between them, the single swift gushing spurt of blood as they collapsed in one another’s arms… Then the secutor, triumphant over the body of the slain, raising his ruby-gleaming arms high into the air and turning before the maddened applause of the crowd, mouth gaping open, as the Roman felt the rush of it so hot in him, rising like flame —

Alas, the glory of it had worn already at the second spectacle, and since then had done nothing but decline, spurting up here and there in the original sadistic wildness, particularly in some of the more intricate and exotic displays that had been arranged in Carthage as of late, but never taking him as it had once done. Must all of life be chasing after the shadows of the past in the future? He craved that abandon again, and wished to spark it off in his heart, some little cruelty to spice his view. That is why he had spoken now to this supine figure so harshly, so superfluously. It was futile, however; the heart in him was dead.

The Christian had however looked up at his words, and it seemed to him that he saw the man’s eyes glittering in the gloom. “Our time is ever upon us,” he replied simply.

The Roman shifted. “You fed well last night, I hope. Your last meal.” An expression passed over the Christian’s face, illegible for its fleetness and for the dark of the room, but the prisoner did not respond. Above them the tubicines were sounding. The Roman smiled grimly and pointed up through the thick floorboards directly over their heads. “Do you hear the trumpets, O godless one?” he asked, mockingly. “They are playing for you.” He craved to see it — that look of helplessness, of terror, of abysmal doubt, of the impending end of all things — but he found nothing in that quieted face, and he felt in his own heart only the deadness. Almost he went and kicked at the kneeling man — but was constrained by his standing orders. Those involved in the Games should arrive unspoiled. So he only laughed scornfully and spat, contemptuously, “I see you have filled your belly well. Only full bellies await the Games in such a spirit. It is all the same, O godless. The beasts, for their part, are hungry.” And with that he turned his back on the man.

The tubicines were drawing off across the space above, and as the sound of their instruments grew feebler, the Roman caught snippets of a conversation between two of the reserve guards down the dark hallway, the long earthy tunnel lit uneasily by warbling flambeaux, “…not for their strength at all. Their strength is given to them by the gods.”

“Nonsense, Gnaeus Arrius,” came the tranquil reply, subdued but strong. “Nonsense and impiety. The godsign comes upon men for their virtue.”

“As I suppose it did with Emperor Commodus?”

A silence down the hall, the little stones clicking upon the board. They were playing latrunculi, as usual, with pebbles and the little crude board that Duclitius kept hidden away in a niche there in the vestibule. They never tired of that silly game. “Careful, friend,” said the other at length, calmly. “The Emperor has been deified. You do not speak of a man favored by gods, but of a god.”

“Then let us speak of one who is not a god — at least, not yet: what of Emperor Severus? I know he is a great favorite, if not of the gods, then of you yourself, Duclitius. A great military man, I have heard you say. Why then did he fail at Hatra?”

I was at Hatra, Gnaeus Arrius, and you know it well. Not Mars himself could have seized that rock.”

“To the gods all is possible.”


“Ah, now who is uttering impiety? Hmm… Let’s see. Mind your alligatus.” Silence again. Duclitius’ concentration had fallen back to the game. The Roman could perceive them hulking over the black shadows on the floor of the vestibule, their red military attire grown ruddier still in the firelight. If the commander should catch them there —

He saw Duclitius’ strong hand reach forth from the dark of the shadows, through the torchlight, to move one of the little pale pieces. He heard Gnaeus Arrius curse. “No,” said Duclitius, “not impiety.”

“You almost have me here, Duclitius, almost… but not yet.” The click of a dark stone. “Let’s try a different tack, shall we? It is a virtue to be wealthy, yes?”

“Of course.”

“And wealth is a gift of the gods?”


“So the gods endow riches on the rich, because they are rich?”

“You are a preposterous ass, Gnaeus Arrius.”

“I speak only your own sense!”

“You speak like a second-rate schoolman. But I weary of your word games. Let’s see what our friend Frequens has to say about this.” He turned to spy through the rusted gloom of the hallway. “It seems he’s even been eavesdropping… Well, what say ye, guardman?” he called down to the Roman. “Is a man favored by the gods because he is a virtuous man, or does he become virtuous because he is favored by the gods? Which way lies it?”

The Roman hesitated. He turned to the Christian, he knew not why. The man was kneeling still in the dust of the room; in the dust he was kneeling, his hands clasped at his breast over the torn shift he wore, his eyes looking fixedly up. Nay, not at the ceiling, not at the fate that awaited him over those old boards, but at something else, something beyond them both. The Roman turned the other way, up the long, rising tunnel to the point where it bent, where the image of light could be seen projecting down the sharp curve itself — that exitpoint where so soon they should proceed, he and that Christian, side by side in a final procession. Something so strange about that man —

He heard Duclitius chuckle. “You see, Gnaeus Arrius? Our friend there is waiting to see if the gods will answer our debate by saving that atheist wretch and carry him away.”

“The gods favor only those they love,” came the swift reply.

“And why do they love a man, eh, Gnaeus Arrius? Why do they love one man over another?”

“The same reason any of us mortals do: no reason at all. Consider it: I love you, you grizzled used-up old codger, yet I can’t for the life of me discern why I should. Ah, here’s a move for you!”

“Tut tut; you must be more careful, Gnaeus Arrius. I put ye under triple arrest.”

“By the Dog! That’s sure to end this disastrous match…”

“Don’t be so swift to surrender. ’Tis unroman of you. But I note our friend hasn’t yet answered. O Frequens! What say you?”

“Surely it is both?” the Roman called back down to them. “For the gods bring some worthy men up from little to greatness, and on others that are bad and low they bestow great gifts.”

He heard the soldier’s dry chuckle. “You see, Gnaeus Arrius? Our ambitious young friend here is destined for great things. He speaks in neither black nor white, but only in gray diplomacy.”

“Only in gray, eh? That would make for a great mess in the latrunculi! So, we are at an impasse it would seem. Ah, but I have a notion! Maybe the dog there in his cage can settle this little dispute for us. He believes that his God is the greatest of all gods — so I have heard — so surely he can end our debate. Why don’t you ask him, Frequens? Go on: ask the dog what he thinks.”

“Yes, I should be curious to hear a Christian’s notions as well,” called Duclitius, inclining his scarred and ill-shaven face toward the Roman, with something more of sobriety than his companion. “Ask him, guardsman!”

The Roman turned back to the Christian. “You there, dog!” he barked. The Christian’s large eyes, luminous somehow even in the dark, fell and settled on the Roman’s, as though they had been torn away from some great beauty and were coming back to alight in a lesser realm. A sudden hatred for this man sprang into his heart. “We’ve a wager to settle here, and it seems we want your help. How does your God treat his worshipers? Does he exalt the unworthy or reward the just?”

“Great is God: he does both these things,” answered the Christian simply.

“How was that?” called Gnaeus, straining a hand over his ear. “The dog there whines, and I could not make out his words…”

“The dog agrees with me!” laughed the Roman triumphantly. “It is both: the dog’s God makes the bad and the virtuous mighty alike. Friends, if he speaks truth, then we will be in for a spectacle in the arena today!”

“No,” said the Christian with a quiet confidence in his voice. “You are mistaken; I did not agree with you.”

“How not?” said the Roman, astonished. “Did you not just say as much?”

“God Almighty confounds the unrepentant mighty,” replied the Christian, “and has mercy on the repentant sinner. He is both just and merciful.”

“And where is the difference, dog?”

“I never did say that God magnifies the wicked. That is impiety.”

“I don’t know what you are saying. You bite your own tongue with each new speech. Look, consider a great man, dog — if you are capable of imagining such a man. Tell me: is he great because your God made him great, or does your God love him because he was great already? Speak clearly, now!”

“If he is great only in this world, then it is the prince of the world that has made him so; but if he is godly in his soul, then it is thanks to God that he is so.”

“Again you speak in riddles and contradictions, O godless one; your words and your ideas are a garble. Yet I take you at your most recent saying. Surely then your prince will save you, up there?” He gestured with a finger over their heads, to the world of light and air hanging above their cave, where the throngs were agitating restlessly in wait of blood.

“Ah, leave the dog alone, Frequens!” called Gnaeus Arrius. “He is a mad dog, the poor cur, and cannot help us after all. Let him bite his fleas.”

“I believe I have you now, Gnaeus Arrius —”

But Duclitius’ words were cut short, for overhead a great roaring and distant grating could suddenly be heard — the ravenous calls of the public, as the cages were dragged onto the scene. The Roman glanced again up the way: a dark shape interjected into the vague light of the curve above them, a voice boomed down the tunnel: “At the ready! Prepare the prisoner!” The Roman saw the two men in the vestibule thrust the latrunculi board into the shadows and scramble to attention. But the shape withdrew. The Roman turned to his comrades, who had fallen at once to ease. “By the Dog, saved from one game by another!” cried Gnaeus with glee as he knelt to gather up the little latrunculi pebbles.

“That was my match, Gnaeus Arrius.”

“Ah, say you? Alas, I’m afraid we’ll never know, now…”

“You are a sly old wretch.”

“A good thing, too! For with my fortune, were I merely a foolish wretch, I would certainly also be a dead one by now.”

The Roman turned away from their palaver. He strode forth to the Christian, releasing the chains that manacled his wrists. Then, grabbing the man roughly by his thin arm, he pulled him to his feet. The Christian stood unsteadily, lifting trembling hands to his raw and bleeding arms. The Roman reached over and drew down the red robe of Saturn that hung on the wall. “Take this, dog, and put it on,” he said, casting it at the Christian’s feet. The Christian looked down at it as if in lack of understanding. “These are the robes of the priest of Saturn,” said the Roman, scoffing. “Your funeral attire. You are unworthy of it, to be sure. But be thankful to the Consul for it, dog: what fitter way to enter the underworld this day?”

“I will not wear this,” said the Christian, looking up at the Roman with a sudden defiance.

“Oh, but you will,” said the Roman, smiling grimly. And kneeling he violently jerked the robe up from the ground at the Christian’s feet.


(This is Part One of a two-part short story. The second and final part can be read here.)

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