THE LETTERS OF MARCUS AUSONIUS
ÂŠ2005 Jon L. Adams (J. Leslie Adams) All rights reserved
I have never composed a Preface to a short story until now. The Letters of Marcus Ausonius requires one. With this fiction I may have invented a new genre: Experimental Historical Fiction. It is first of all a short story within a short story. The narrator at the beginning is himself a fiction. He writes his own Preface as if he is presenting his work to a intellectual body or authority, and then he goes on to present the letters as he has translated them. At the end is a Postscript that explains much about the story. You will find that some of the characters were real. They were actual living, breathing people during the period described in the letters. Rather than tell it here, enjoy the story and find out about them for yourself.
First published February 2008 on www.issuu.com Colophon: Cover and Headlines: Herculaneum Text: Calisto MT
I apologize for my liberal interpretation of both the semantic and literal content of this work. Latin scholars will accuse me of having lain waste the ‘perfect’ language in order to make it comply with modern English sentence structure. Historians will claim I took far too many liberties with names and titles, places and regions, and the tone and voice of the letters. Regardless of the criticism these pages will provoke, in my defense I plead: My command of Latin is extensive. I have visited the locations mentioned in the letters. I, too, have experienced the hardships of military postings abroad and have both enjoyed and suffered the consequences of love. To construct the set and light the stage for this entrancing play that covers a number of years in a man’s life, I will begin with an historical posit of the material. The first correspondence was written amid the tumult of the late Roman Empire. The year was 368 C.E. The Emperor was Valentinian I, who would prove to be the last effective Imperator of the Western Empire. Valentinian was a Christian and the burgeoning young religion had spread throughout the Mediterranean and to Rome’s far-flung provinces. It had invested Britannia (Britain) and the legions there that had become British natives. They ruled and policed that
land as their own, from Hadrian’s Wall in the wild north to the prosperous cities they had built during three centuries of occupation. Translating literature is difficult enough, but these missives, written over sixteen hundred years ago, defied my efforts for years. Some were quite intact but others were partial, damaged or poorly copied in antiquity. Assembling the final order and the ‘finished’ letters required much scholarly effort. Then came the most challenging labor of all – to write them in our modern language, without destroying the poignancy and pathos in the human content of the originals. I admit that I took liberties here. It was because the brevity inherent in some of the Latin texts curtailed the color and passion of the correspondence. What you will read are the letters as I interpreted them in meaning and in feeling. Rather than provide a longer glossary of names, titles and locations at the end, I have written those that are necessary in brackets as they occur.
– M. Albert Durain, C.B.E., O.B.E. PhD. Paris, 1924 IV
Marcus Demitrius Ausonius to Decimus Magnus Ausonius: Greetings Uncle! May this reach you in good health. Many perished with us this winter. Fevers, [unreadable] illness and accidents in the severe ice and snows have brought sadness to us here in Luguvalium (Carlisle). In Pons Aelius (Newcastle) the contingent was nearly wiped out by the sicknesses. I was assigned to take replacements there, and when I arrived found that many of the survivors were too weak to forage the countryside for meat. It was necessary to send hunting parties from my own Century to assure there would be no deaths from starvation after we departed. On the return journey I found the fort at Vindolanda abandoned. I left forty men and their followers there to occupy the place. Now the seasons change. It is in the signs â€“ the ice flows as fast water down the mountains and early buds open in the orchards. The winds from where you abide are warmer. Today I hear no... [one?] cough or rattle their lungs. I must inquire about your [unintelligible word] business. Have you finished the education of Gratian? He must be a strapping youth by now. I wager the Emperor pays you well to tutor his son. After all, he brought you from our blessed home in Budigala (Bordeaux) for that purpose. Has Gratian come to the Lord our God? For that matter, has my pagan uncle yet [secured] his own baptism? I must cease writing as there is little space left for my marks. Please give my blessing to Longinus, my freed slave. How is my sister Livia? Has she married her lover? Bend her hand to write! â€“Your nephew, Marcus Demitrius Ausonius, Centurion Primi Ordines
Decimus Magnus Ausonius to Marcus Demitrius Ausonius: Hail Marcus, Finest of my nephews: Spare me the proselytizing. Ambrosius (later, St. Ambrose) hates me. He is [getting?] more of the court’s ears to hear his hatred. The fact that a pagan [such as] myself instructs the Emperor’s son fills him with wrath and curses. And he, a religious totem! Gratian progresses well. He is a man now and well formed for his future. I have collected his favor during the years he sat at my teaching table. He is well versed in poetry and art. Your [unreadable word here] sister is in Aquileia (a city on the Adriatic Sea, north of modern day Trieste), no doubt holding court with her lady [unreadable] friends and men. The suitor she last enjoyed was a married man, and his family caught her in his bed! A few words spread around the Senate and the court and she was on the move. The court sent her there with admonitions not to return to Rome. I feared for her life, but managed to see her on her way. Poor Livia. Longinus has a family. One wife and two sons. He bids you well. Your tale of the afflictions last winter weighed heavy on my heart. Please eat well and bathe weekly. You must remain in good health. My other nephews drink and whore to the point their teeth are rotted and their businesses leak with love’s diseases. I want to die knowing you have kept the family honor! Fare well in your endeavors. If you must, kiss the Legate’s rump, and stay out of trouble. – I am, your dear uncle, Ausonius, D. M.
Marcus to his uncle, Decimus Ausonius: Dear Uncle, If you send dispatches to Livia, ask her to write. I want to write her but do not know where to send my letter! Your news about Ambrosius does not surprise me, but I object to your depiction of the [unreadable words] holy man. He is a Bishop of the church! You should consider befriending him, even if you cling to Jupiter and his legion of false and petty gods. Please accept those words in jest, uncle! But do speak to Ambrosius, for it will settle your differences, I am certain. The season is warm and dry now. We have received new recruits and are training them in archery and horsemanship. The illnesses have all but been forgotten. The country is peaceful. The grain grows. I must leave tomorrow for Londinium (modern London) to escort a [party?] of ladies who return from there to Gaul. They are the family and retinue of a Praetor (Magistrate) who will soon move to his new duties. The journey should take about three weeks until I return. I will carry this letter [south] and have it dispatched to you. I am in very good health and spirit. May the Lord our God find you are the same. – Marcus, Centurion Primi Ordines, Legio XX
Marcus to his Uncle: Dear Uncle: I sent my previous letter upon arrival in Londinium. It was a week ago and I am still in this city awaiting my [release?] to return. The Praetor’s man here desires that I accompany a cargo of goods by ship to Castor instead of returning by road to Luguvalium. My men will serve as guardians of the shipment, which I believe are fine steel armaments for the fort at that place. I have not been at sea since coming to Brittania, and I look forward to the voyage. On our journey here, one of the ladies in the [party?] took a very fine liking to me. At one of our night stops, she invited me to share her bed. As a gentleman I accepted her offer, but as an officer I told her I had to refuse. I would not countermand my orders from the Praetor, which were to escort the ladies to the destination [untouched?] and unharmed. I was swollen with desire for the young beauty, but she understood. Upon our arrival here we began a regular courtship. I frequently ask my Lord our God for his forgiveness about my lust, but I will probably suffer his wrath for my [weakness?] of the flesh. Our oarsmen have assembled and the sea voyage begins in the morning. I will dispatch this letter now. My blessings on you, Gratian and our benevolent Christian Emperor. – Your dutiful nephew, Marcus, Primi Ordines, Legio XX
Decimus Ausonius to Marcus: Nephew and Centurion, Marcus Demitrius Ausonius: Your two letters arrived on the same day and I read with glee your description of the young lady. What is her family? Will you deny that it is past time for you to repopulate our diminishing clan? Please write about her! One of the other nephews met an untimely death. Andronicus fell in the street in drunken stupor and was crushed beneath an ale wagon. He was killed by the conveyance of his own excesses! As my most pious nephew, will you please try to [bless his soul?], if one managed to survive? I presume your seafaring adventure was good. Write to me about it. I sent letters to Livia and forwarded your requests. Catch the young girl [the puella form]! Write again soon. – Your Uncle D.M Ausonius, who awaits a great-nephew yet unborn!
Decimus Ausonius to Marcus: Nephew, wondrous soldier of the frontier, Marcus: Greetings! Your letters are always read and loved. Please keep our banter frequent. I miss your writing talent here. Livia wrote that she sent you a letter. â€“ Your Uncle, hoping you are well!
Livia to Marcus: Greetings dear brother! Our Uncle prompts me to write. I am doing that. How is your life? I am in Aquileia where the weather is dreadful. I miss Rome. Please write me. Have you [taken?] a wife? Uncle says you have a new love! They have no entertainment here. I am bored. â€“ Livia, your [baby?] sister.
Decimus Ausonius to Marcus: Greetings, Nephew! So missed in my letters! Please desist in not writing! I am waiting for your fine descriptions of Brittania and young ladies! Your absent correspondences make me age before my time. Please respond. â€“ Your Uncle, awaiting the poetry of your quill.
Livia to Marcus: Greetings my brother! Did you receive my letter? I am certain it was dispatched to the proper place. Uncle gave me the posting. I hope you are well. Please write or I shall perish with the waiting! â€“ Livia
Decimus Ausonius to Marcus: Nephew! Nephew! It has been over a year! What has become of your skillful writing? I insist you must [respond] to my query. Petronicus, the musician and your cousin, perished in a fire while sleeping at his favorite whorehouse. Another to the gods for keeping! Please ask your god for his soul’s continuation. – Your Uncle, worried and fraught with concern. Livia to Decimus Ausonius: Greetings Uncle! My brother does not answer my letters. I am never writing one to him again! Can you send me silver? I require better servants. – Livia
Gaius Seutonius Acquilla to Decimus Ausonius: Greetings Decimus Magnus A. I write you as the Legion Commander of your nephew, Marcus Demitrius A. He has been missing for over a year. One of my best Centurions, Marcus commanded an escort by sea from Londinium to Castor and the ship never arrived. Several galleys were sent to search. There were no signs of wreckage or survivors. It puzzles me. The weather was fair during the ship’s transit. In honor of Marcus Demitrius, I have ordered a marker erected in our camp to commemorate his life and service to Rome and the Twentieth Legion, Valeria Victrix. I fought with him in Dacia and Syria. I treasure his memory. His men would die for his honor. – I am Gaius S. Acquilla, Legate Legio XX
Decimus Ausonius to Livia: Livia. I bear bad news. I send along a copy of the dispatch from the Legate under whom your brother served. If you are still a Christian, perhaps you will pray for his immortal soul. My grief is unbounded. â€“ Your Uncle
Gratian, Imperator Romanum, to the Roman Senate: Senate of Rome! Seven years ago a true hero of Rome was lost at sea near Brittania. My father, your beloved and departed Valentinian, spoke well of the man. He was Marcus Demitrius Ausonius, a nephew of my teacher, and a Centurion of the Twentieth Legion. This brave and honorable man requires a stone be carved and placed in his memory in the new Forum. See to it immediately. â€“ G., Imp. Romanii
Emperor Gratian to Decimus Ausonius, Praetor of Gaul: Greetings dear teacher and friend! I have been to the new Forum where I stood before it. The marker is wonderful! The name of Marcus Demitrius Ausonius will be spoken forever. All Rome has seen it! Be well in that god-forsaken country. I would rather have your company here, but I must not offend Ambrosius. We miss your poetry. â€“ G., Imp. Rex Romanii
After a period of several years, the following letter arrived in the hands of the Uncle at his new posting in Gaul. It is the last known correspondence regarding Marcus Ausonius.
Marcus Demitrius Ausonius to Decimus Magnus Ausonius: Greetings dear Uncle! May this reach you, alive and well as I am! I send this letter with a trader. I have asked him to carry it to Brittania where he will soon drop anchor and pray that it be sent to you. My fate has been in God’s hands for many years. I now have the way to tell you about it. Before this I could only wish for the day when such letters would be possible. Our ship floundered against rocks on the way to Castor. We fought to keep it afloat but the rising sea beat it to death. All on board escaped that tragedy only to receive another fate. The Celts arrived from a large land west of Brittania and took us captive. We rode in the bottom of their small boats to that place they call the Eire and were driven to pens near a coastal settlement where they locked us in chains. They fed us foul root crops and grain, like pigs. In a few days we were sold as slaves and I rode in a primitive cart all the way across that land to a rocky coast called Moher. A rough place greeted my captivity among these people. At first I worked their sparse fields, collecting seaweed and carrying it up cliffs to the plots that are separated by loose rock walls. I planted and harvested for my master, and I tended their wooly
animals. This master died and his son sold me to another. The second owner treated me with care and fed me cooked meals. His daughter became my friend. When the master saw this he gave me my freedom. I labored to learn their rough language, which is not unlike that of the Gauls. The land is green and windy but good. Many small kingdoms inhabit the island. My life turned favorable from that point. Mebh [pronounced “mave”] and I were wedded by their holy man and we named our firstborn after his father. Your first great-nephew is named Marcus and his hair is red like his mother. Our second son is bright and strong, like the first, but his name is Magnus. It is in your honor that he bears that name. Another child will soon arrive. I want to name it Valentinian, in honor of the Emperor should it be a son. If it is a girl we shall name her for her mother. I am healthy. The life I live is filled with more joy than I imagined possible. I will not return to the Empire. I only hope that you will understand why I choose to remain here in a Christian land. I fear there is no way to answer my letter. May God grant you a long life and fulfillment such as I pray he may grant us. My love to Livia. – Your Nephew, Marcus
Postscript Decimus Magnus Ausonius retired to his ancestral farm in Bordeaux, where he lived his last years writing poetry and the Ordo Nobilium Urbium, a collection of articles on great cities of the Roman Empire. Gratian (Flavius Gratianus) succeeded his father Valentinian I as emperor on November 17, 375. Ausonius, a practiced politician, helped him to overcome challenges for power from his younger brother, Valentinian II and others. While fighting invasions from barbarians and rivals for the throne, he was assassinated on August 25, 383 at Lugdunum (Lyon). Nothing is known about the fate of Marcus Demitrius Ausonius beyond these correspondences and two stone monuments. One was formerly located in Trajanâ€™s Forum in Rome but was stolen in the early nineteenth century. The other was excavated in northwest England in 1750 and is in a private collection somewhere in the Republic of Ireland. â€“ M. Albert Durain, C.B.E., O.B.E. PhD. Paris, 1924
(AUTHOR’S NOTE) The story is carefully researched fiction. Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Valentinian I, Gratian and Gaius Seutonius Acquilla, Marcus’ Legion Commander, were living historical characters in the Fourth Century A.D. D.M. Ausonius did write the Ordo Nobilium Urbium and he was Gratian’s tutor. There is no evidence of him ever becoming a Christian. – j.l.a.
Published on ISSUU February 12, 2008 www.issuu.com ©2005 & 2008 Jon L. Adams