Manlius was a host that evening; as he worked, the sun set so gently, leaving a rosy hue in the sky, and the first hints of cooling air began to blow through the open courtyard that was used as a dining room in summer. A few of the party outside began composing verses to amuse themselves and show off their learning. It used to be a regular occurrence amongst them; for Manlius had always surrounded himself with the cultivated, the men of learning whom he understood and who understood him. He had done so all his life; it was his duty and often his pleasure, especially when he could patronize the worthy, or give entertainment to friends of equal rank.
Courtesy required that he play the part of the charming host at dinner as he had done countless times in his past, and he did his duty, even though he had little taste for it that evening. He conformed, as always, to the wisdom of Varro, that the number of guests should be more than the Graces and less than the Muses; he took trouble to ensure they were neither too eloquent, nor yet too silent; discreetly directed the conversation so that, although not trivial, it was not too ponderous, with readings to match. And he accomplished with ease that most delicate task of being free from meanness in his provision of food, without trying to impress his guests with its expense.
Despite his efforts, though, it was not a happy occasion, as it was becoming increasingly hard to assemble even a small group of likeminded spirits. Half the guests were clients, dependent on his favor and keen to eat the dishes of larks and partridges, carp and trout he had ordered, but too ill at ease in such illustrious surroundings to make easy conversation. His adopted son, Syagrius, watching carefully, fearful of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing, ate clumsily, blushing with embarrassment, and said nothing. There were two true friends, Lucontius and Felix, who tried to make things easier, but instead ended up dominating the conversation, interrupting when others tried to speak, being unnecessarily contemptuous of the clients and overly familiar with Manlius himself. And then there was Caius Valerius, a cousin of Felix's whom Manlius tolerated only because of his friend; he was a coarse man who wrapped himself in piety like a suffocating blanket, which only partly concealed his ill humor and vulgarity. The three friends set the tone, swapping verse and epigram in the manner of the golden age, bathing themselves in the meters and resonances of the great authors they had revered since they had been schoolboys. It was Lucontius who introduced the lapse in taste--rare for him--that made the evening so much less than agreeable.
Yet now the breath of the Academy blow the winds of the church of Christ. Elegant, witty, refined. Felix smiled briefly and even Manlius barely managed to suppress a nod of approval.
But Caius Valerius turned dark with anger. "I consider there are some things at least which should be above jest."
"Was I jesting?" responded Lucontius in mock surprise, for he realized that Caius was slowwitted enough to be unable to distinguish between respect and mockery. "Surely I speak only the truth? Surely we see the Revelations of Our Lord solely through Greek eyes? Even Saint Paul was a Platonist."
"I do not know what you mean," Caius replied. "The truth is told to me in the Bible. I need no Greek words to tell me what I see there." Should Manlius intervene, explain how there are many ways of understanding even a simple passage? Teach him how such mysteries as the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit were given shape in our minds through the teaching of the Academies? Caius was one of those who gloried in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man for his time, indeed. Once, and not so long ago, he would have fallen silent in embarrassment at his lack of knowledge; now it was the knowledgeable who had to mind their tongues.
Reprinted from Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © June 2002, Iain Pears. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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