Before the shock of Theodora’s departure, or my dismissal from The Academy had fully worn off, sometime in early November of 522 I left for Athens. It was late in the year to sail, but I had nothing to fall back on in Alexandria except my apprenticeship to my father’s friend Petras, if he would have me, and I would rather have died than go back to that life. So I threw caution to the winds, cast myself upon the whims of Neptune, and prepared to sail.
I wish the reader could have seen me then and formed an opinion for themselves. In hindsight I believe I was a rather haphazard mixture of things - independent and adaptable, with a passion for living and an intelligence that even impressed a few of the prominent thinkers of my age. (I don’t say this out of egotism, being fully aware that these were not qualities of my own making, and therefore reflected nothing positive upon me at all. We are all often inclined to take too much credit for aspects of our being that are not of our own creation. Whether we are handsome or ugly, born rich or poor, brilliant or dimwitted - these things have little to do with us, but only with the hand of fortune, and all we can do is either make the most of them, or fail to do so.)
Another of the gifts I was handed was a seemingly indestructible constitution, enabling me to endure great hardships and deprivation with a minimal degree of suffering, but in the very areas where I might have actively forged a character to be proud of, I found myself beset by deplorable failings!
Not only was I was prone to sensuality, but to fits of melancholy. There were times when a great yawning chasm opened before me, simply at contemplating the fact of existence, and I would become petrified with fear for no other reason whatsoever. Also, I sensed that all my life I had been running from something! I didn’t know what, and I feared that if I ever stopped running that something, whatever it was, might be gaining on me.
So although I was gifted in those days, I also had my share of faults, and looking back now I realize that my youth ended the day I set sail from Alexandria, the reason being that I quickly became caught up in events that propelled me forward for years without rest, and when they were finally over I had more than a lifetime's experience behind me.
The morning I set out was cool and dry, with a stiff north wind blowing, and high waves cresting out to sea. As I remember it Alexandria had never looked so ... I must find the right word ... so jubilant as on that brilliant autumn day, and yet both the dark appearance of the sea and the strong headwind were disquieting.
Before embarking I paid my final respects to my father’s associate, Petras, and I gave him 50 gold pieces - far more than the trouble he took in teaching me the art of swindling passersby was worth, and the result was that he actually smiled, the first time I had ever seen him do so, discovering consequently that he had an almost as much gold in his teeth as I had given him; and if you have never seen a dissolute old rogue like Petras bearing a savage, gold-toothed grin of avarice, I can tell you that it's a vision to haunt your dreams! Leaving him to his exultation I then walked to the harbor. The trees along the way, the walkways, and the streets, were filled with an abundance of ripening lemons scattered everywhere, filling the blustery air with their sharp, fresh scent. Thousands of parrots had entered the city to feed on them, making a deafening cacophony, so that the morning was a panorama of green birds, green lemon leaves and yellow-fruit; the buildings glowing in the morning light and prismatic reflections dancing in the midst of salt spray in the air. I was heartsick then to leave this city that I loved.
The ship Ammonius hired to sail for Athens (not simply for my conveyance, of course, but for other business as well) lay at anchor in the harbor, and I was rowed out with my sack of things to climb aboard. Its polished bronze fittings gleamed in the sun as I came alongside, its planking was new and also polished below a fine, new, indigo sail that made a good impression. But I had never trusted the design of these flat-bottomed, Egyptian ships that one saw everywhere in Alexandria. They were good enough for plying the Nile or skirting the coastline, but when it comes to the open sea give me a Greek or Roman trireme! These damned Egyptian things hadn’t changed in 2000 years and in free water they handled like nothing more than glorified barges, and so I felt even more misgiving, and considered paying my own passage later.
The captain, however, struck me as a capable old sailor with a healthy, seasoned crew, and this along with the fine condition of the ship eased my apprehension somewhat.
I had another apprehension as well, and that concerned the gold I was carrying. Never having had much money I wasn’t accustomed to the craftiness of men like my father and Petras. Nor on the other hand did I relish the reputation of being a careless fool who loses his money to the nearest sneak-thief, so I contrived a strong leather waist belt to hold my remaining gold - by far the most money I had ever had, and going out to sea, it gave me the alarming sensation of donning a leaden anchor round my waist.
The crew was about thirty men and there was a heavy supply of barley in the hold. Climbing aboard, I found a place to sit for awhile under the mainmast, enjoying the wind and the fine spray erupting from the prow as we got under way, our oars cutting into the oncoming swells. A flock of gulls followed us out from the harbor, gradually replacing the cacophony of the parrots with their distinct piercing screeches, and my last sight of Alexandria was of the giant lighthouse on Pharos, receding slowly into the distance.
Beside me under the mainsail sat a giant sailor of some Teutonic origin who wore surprisingly fine and colorful silk that appeared far too expensive for his position in the world. Over his mane of tawny hair frizzled by the sun, the wind, and salt air he wore a red cotton turban.
“This is a heavy headwind.” I said to him. “Do you think it will be a rough trip?”
He glanced at me skeptically, then at the onrushing swells and merely grunted so I went back to watching the gulls.
“Damn them all,” he said after a few minutes, seemingly apropos of nothing at all.
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“The trips . . .”
“Fuck all!” he said, and he produced a great hunk of smoked fish from his knapsack, which he began to chew, and somehow at the same time he was eating it he began to whistle a startlingly clear and complex melody. I tell you, as a whistler that man had no equal!
“Been sailing long?” I asked him when he had finished eating that tremendous portion of fish.
“What ...this ...?”
That was all he said and then he resumed his whistling, and damn it, I didn’t know what to make of him at all!
“Cram the fuck-all anchor!” he said abruptly. Then, shuffling away in that strange gait of the eternal seaman while stuffing some more fish in his mouth, he picked the anchor up off the deck with one hand and tossed it into a well near the center of the hull. The damned thing must have weighed two hundred pounds with its chain! Then he began whistling again, gradually working his way up by fits and starts, into an actual song: “I’m a rover, a lily-livered rover, and my bones are all but flotsam on the bottom of the sea. My bones are all but flotsam on the bottom of the sea!”
These were his very words, as near as I could understand them in his thick Teutonic accented Latin, and the song went on and on in that ridiculous vein for a long while with little variation. His tone was cheerful at this lighthearted prospect of becoming flotsam. If I recall right, there were verses about sharks, and gulls, and fishes picking at his bones . . I don't remember, but it was unnerving and exasperating, and yet his voice was resonant, clear, and powerful, rendering an effect that was somehow heartbreaking. I found him utterly outlandish!
“Don’t mind him, he’s crazy,” someone said behind me.
I turned around and saw a former scholar from The Academy ... Olympiodoros. For one reason or another although we had both been at The Academy for many years together we had never gotten to know each other. He always seemed to be away, traveling here and there on some sort of business or another.
“Olympiodoros!” I said. “I didn’t know you were onboard.”
“I am ... and I might as well tell you right off that among other things I’m going to Athens to inform them that Ammonius has chosen me to be his successor in Alexandria.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m sorry Simplicious.”
“I don’t hold it against you.”
“That’s generous of you. Were you really Theodora’s lover . . .?”
Added to the import of his first revelation, the second question struck me as insufferable.
"We haven't been together for one minute," I said, "and you have already said three things to seriously irritate me."
"First you said, 'Don’t mind him, he’s crazy.' Was I supposed to find that reassuring? A man who can toss two-hundred pound anchors around like horse shoes? ... 'Don’t mind him he’s crazy. . .!' Well that was reassuring! Then you said you'd been chosen as Ammonius' successor. Well, that’s straight forward enough, but also irritating. Finally you asked me if I was Theodora’s lover. How the hell did you know that... and how the hell, if you don’t mind my asking, do you even know who the hell Theodora is? And finally, what business is it of yours? It seems that everybody in the whole goddamned world knows more about my own business than I do!”
“I’m sorry Simplicious.”
“Well, as our eloquent Teutonic friend here said, fuck all!”
“All right then let me be straight with you as well ...You have the reputation for being brilliant but also for being an absolute idiot.”
“Look, I might take that kind of rebuke from Ammonius, but I’m sure as hell not going to take it from you. I’ve practically never even seen you before. All I’ve seen is your coming and going like you have a goddamned bee in your shorts. If you’re a scholar, or a philosopher, or even a lecturer I’ll be damned if I’ve seen any evidence of it. How did you manage to become my replacement anyway?”
“Calm down, calm down I was giving you a sort of compliment. You are unaware of certain things because you simply aren’t interested in ... let's say certain aspects of the world. That is what a philosopher is supposed to be, sort of ... but some of us can’t afford to live in such a fine state of detachment.”
"I'm sick of such backhanded compliments. And now I’m just a rover, my bones flotsam for plover and my toes are growing over with the fungus of the sea!” I sang to him.
Olympiodoros glared at me as if I’d gone mad, and then he broke down laughing so hard that he had to brace himself against the mast, and all my anger vanished in an instant, in the shared absurdity of our situation.
When he finally finished laughing he said, “I hope to God that Teutonic behemoth with the turban didn’t hear you! Look, I have the only private room in the ship besides the captain's... the crew sleeps on deck ...and I’ve got a bottle of half decent retsina, so why don’t we go polish it off?”
“Why not?” I said. “The sea-sickness will undoubtedly set in before long, and the wine will either prevent it or get it over with!”
“I wish you hadn’t mentioned sea sickness," Olympiodoros said, looking a little pale. "Damn it, let’s grab that bottle before it's too late!”
The cabin was more the size of a bread box, and hunching before a tiny table jutting from the bulkhead, he opened the flask and set it on the table, and the swells were so high that we had to take turns holding the bottle to prevent it from slipping off. Over that bottle, in spite of a rocky start, we inaugurated a lifelong friendship. It would be one conducted over many years, occasionally in person, but mostly by letter, between Alexandria, Athens, and far-flung points north, south, east, and west of there.
First, talking onboard that ship I soon discovered that he was a complex man, a philosopher and a diplomat, (when he wanted to be), of the highest order, and yet in direct communication he didn't beat around the bush at all. Along with an incisive mind, he had an intolerance of personal formalities that at times bordered on outright rudeness, an aspect of his character that I would eventually come to appreciate.
“So ... ” he said to me after opening the wine, "I hate to ask you again but I’m insatiably curious ... (it's a flaw I know, but it has its uses) ... you were Theodora’s lover?”
“Yes. One of many.”
“But they say that you were real lovers.”
“Who are they . . .? Anyway, you’d have to ask her.”
"For the love of God, would you tell me once and for all what this is about? What exactly is everyone's fixation with Theodora, anyway? Why did I lose my position in Alexandria because I was living with her? Ammonius always let my personal life remain my own, until now.”
“You are a most unique person, Simplicious.”
“Unique meaning idiot? Thanks.”
“It seems that although you have been her lover, you are also the only person in Alexandria unaware that she’s been involved in I don’t know what kinds of intrigue. She's been in company of Theodosius, the Patriarch, and also with the monastic leaders.
"The Theodosius? The Patriarch of Alexandria?"
"Yes, but that is nothing. You had better know this at once if you don’t already. She’s become the consort of Sabbatius.”
“Sabbatius...? You mean of The Sabbatius?”
“Yes, the Emperor's nephew or the real Emperor, Sabbatius.”
“But that’s impossible! I mean that’s truly impossible! She left Alexandria just a few months ago!”
“She was acting as his spy the whole time she was here, among other things. they've had a secret, long-standing relationship.”
“I don’t believe it! She never said one word to me about Sabbatius!”
“Simplicious, she's his consort. They are living together openly now in the imperial palace. I’ve had word from not one, but three different correspondents that that is the case."
“How could you have possibly gotten word from Constantinople so fast?”
“I have contacts, quite a few, and some of them travel fast. To be truthful, that was why Ammonius chose me as his successor. I'm not the philosopher you are, Simplicious. I read your commentary on The Phado and it was brilliant - the best since Plutarch or Hypotia. But these are troubled times and we can't afford to be as detached from brutal realities as we once were.”
(I was completely taken aback by all of this ...I simply had no idea Theodora was involved in such things, and couldn't then begin to fathom the implications!)
“I don’t know what to say ... this is all unbelievable to me. Of course I knew Theodora was an amazing woman – her knowledge is amazing for her age. But if I had known any of this I wouldn’t have associated with her.”
“If you had known that, or more importantly, if others knew you knew those things, you would probably be dead.”
"But, God! Sabbatius must have heard by now that we were lovers."
"Apparently, at least so far, he hasn't obligated her to chastity," Olympiodoros said dryly. He's well aware of her history. I don't know what goes on between the two of them on that score."
The full weight of what I’d been dallying in so lightly then came to me suddenly.
“My God, I’ve been a complete fool!” I said.
“Yes, but everyone loves you for it.”
“If they learn this in Athens I’m done for! There’s no future for me.”
“Don’t worry about that; Ammonius has sent me to give them the highest recommendation of you, and also to tell them what a fool you are! Ha, ha, ha! You’ll be fine Simplicious, and yet let me give you one bit of advice. This philandering of yours will be your downfall.”
“I know. I'm through with it."
“Good, we'll say no more about it then. But since you don't know I must tell you the rest of Theodora's story. I don’t know exactly what game she’s playing, but she’s our adversary, and a worthy one. As I said, when she was in Alexandria she became associated with Theodosius and the Monophysites - who are on the verge of being declared heretics by the Holy Roman Church (the chief figure of which is of course Sabbatius himself). From what I have been able to gather, her sympathy with them is genuine, which means she is playing a double game. She’s living on a razor’s edge - to what end at the moment, I cannot fathom. Furthermore she's an outspoken enemy of the Academy's, and now she is the Imperial Consort.”
“My head's swimming.”
“She's very clever, Simplicious. Given her sympathies I don't know why she was with you, but she must have - have really cared for you, or you wouldn't be alive. Anyway, from what I've heard as bad as things are for us, they may well become a lot worse before too long.”
Copyright 2013 Brent Hightower
Image Public Domain