"And you must remember, dear Lucontius," Manlius interrupted, "that there are many who consider that Plato had access to the wisdom of Moses, that he merely translated Our Lord's wisdom into Greek, not the other way around." He looked anxiously, and saw that Lucontius, dear sensitive soul, took the warning, flashing a brief apology with his eyes. The moment of difficulty was over; the dinner continued, harmlessly and without point.
Except that Manlius was discomfited. He took care in his invitations, actively sought to exclude from his circle crude and vulgar men like Caius Valerius. But they were all around; it was Manlius who lived in a dream world, and his bubble of civility was becoming smaller and smaller. Caius Valerius, powerful member of a powerful family, had never even heard of Plato. A hundred, even fifty years before, such an absurdity would have been inconceivable. Now it was surprising if such a man did know anything of philosophy, and even if it was explained, he would not wish to understand. Manlius thought greatly of such matters after most of the guests had gone to their beds, escorted by servants with torches. He stared out of the great doors at the landscape beyond, once a park of perfection, now disfigured by the rough cottages of farmers whose dwellings were coming ever closer, huddling nearer his huge villa for protection like piglets around a sow. He could have razed them, but feared their inhabitants might take themselves off, go and find a new lord to protect them--one who would not honor the law if he demanded them back. Then he looked the other way, to the bathhouse now abandoned and turned into a barracks for the soldiers permanently needed to protect the estate.
All they wanted was to live in security, and all the harm they did was to spoil his view. A man like Caius Valerius was very much more dangerous. "None of us truly chooses our family, I'm afraid." It was Felix who had walked up quietly behind him. "People like my dear cousin have always existed; even Vergil, I believe, had a brother-in-law who despised his poetry."
Manlius put his arm around him, and they walked slowly in the fading light. Of all the creatures in the world, Felix was the one he truly loved, whose company made him relax and forget his cares. For years now, decades even, he had relied on this short, powerful man, whose mind was as quick as his frame was bulky. A deceptive man, for he looked as he was--a soldier, used to the hardships of fighting and the simplicities of armies. Yet at the same time, he was supple in argument, quick in understanding, and the most honorable, loyal friend Manlius had ever encountered. Nor did he ever condemn; while Manlius frequently heard himself making waspish comments about others, Felix never judged, always sought to see the good even in those who had so little virtue in them.
"I know," Manlius replied. "And I tolerate him for your sake. But, truly it is a hard job."
"Rude, vulgar, and scarcely lettered. I know. But a great donor to the church and someone who has dispatched men from his own estates to help defend Clermont from the Goths. As have I."
"But I haven't, even though Sidonius is one of my oldest friends? Is that how you wish to end your sentence?" Manlius added. It had been preying on his mind greatly in the past few months. The city of Clermont, far to the west, was under siege from King Euric, blocking his desire to grab a stranglehold on the whole of Provence. If it fell, they would all soon follow, and it could not last long without reinforcements; indeed it might already have fallen had it not been for Sidonius, who had put himself at the head of the defenses and was refusing to accept the inevitable.
For inevitable it was, in Manlius's view. For years now, the barbarians had been moving into Gaul; sometimes they were encouraged, sometimes resisted. Sometimes they were treated as enemies, sometimes as allies against a still worse danger. But every time they took a little bit more, and every time the power of Rome to stop them proved a mirage. Not many years ago, an army of thirty thousand had been sent against Euric's father: none had come back. His own father had conceived the great strategy of the emperor Majorian to beat back the threat; but was undermined and killed by his enemies among the Roman aristocracy of Gaul even before any army could move. Now here was Sidonius, brave, foppish, foolish Sidonius, who had decided to take a stand where emperors had failed. He had always had a weakness for lost causes, for grand, heroic but empty gestures.
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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