Brother and Sister
Ravenna, 449 A. D.
“My sister is a wicked woman, bishop, and we are here to save her from herself,” the emperor of the Western Roman Empire said.
His name was Valentinian III, and his character was unfortunate evidence of dynastic decay. He was of only middling intelligence, without martial courage, and with little interest in governance. Valentinian preferred to spend his time in sport, pleasure, and the company of magicians, courtesans, and whichever senatorial wives he could seduce in order to gain the greater pleasure of humiliating their husbands. He knew his talents did not match those of his ancestors, and his private admission of inferiority produced feelings of resentment and fear. Jealous and spiteful men and women, he believed, were always conspiring against him. So he’d brought the prelate for tonight’s execution because he needed the church’s approval. Valentinian relied on the beliefs of others in order to believe in himself.
It was important for his sister Honoria to recognize that she had no champions in either the secular world or the religious, the emperor had persuaded the bishop. She was rutting with a steward like a base kitchen trollop, and this little surprise was really a gift. “I am saving my sister from a trial as traitor in this world, and from damnation in the next.”
“No child is beyond salvation, Caesar,” Bishop Milo assured. He shared complicity in this rude surprise because he and the girl’s wily mother, Galla Placidia, needed money to complete a new church in Ravenna that would help guarantee their own ascent into heaven. Placidia was as embarrassed by her daughter’s indiscretion as Valentinian was fearful of it, and support of the emperor’s decision would be repaid by a generous church donation from the imperial treasury. God, the bishop believed, worked in mysterious ways. Placidia simply assumed that God’s wishes and her own were the same.
The emperor was supposed to be in musty and decaying Rome, conferring with the Senate, receiving ambassadors, and participating in hunts and social gatherings. Instead he had galloped out four nights ago unannounced, accompanied by a dozen soldiers hand-picked by his chamberlain Heraclius. They would strike at Honoria before her plans ripened. It was the chamberlain’s spies who had brought word that the emperor’s sister was not just sleeping with her palace steward — a reckless fool named Eugenius — but was plotting with him to murder her brother and seize power herself. Was the story true? It was no secret that Honoria considered her brother indolent and stupid, and that she believed she could run imperial affairs more ably than he could, on the model of their vigorous mother. Now, the story went, she intended to put her lover on the throne with herself as Augusta, or queen. It was all rumor, of course, but rumor that smacked of the truth: the vain Honoria had never liked her sibling. If Valentinian could catch them in bed together it would certainly prove immorality and bad judgment, and perhaps treason as well. In any event, it would be excuse enough to marry her off and be rid of her.
The emperor excused his own romantic conquests as casually as he condemned those of his sister. He was a man and she was a woman and thus her lustfulness, in the eyes of man and God, was more offensive than his.
Valentinian’s entourage had crossed the Apennine spine of Italy and now approached the palaces of Ravenna in the dark, pounding down the long causeway to this marshy refuge. While easy to defend from barbarian attack, the new capital always struck Valentinian as a dreamlike place, divorced from the land and yet not quite of the sea. It floated separately from industry or agriculture, and the bureaucracy that had taken refuge there had only a tenuous grip on reality. The water was so shallow and the mud so deep that the wit Apollinaris had claimed the laws of nature were repealed in Ravenna, “where walls fall flat and waters stand, towers float and ships are seated.” The one advantage of the new city was that it was nominally safe, and that was no small thing in today’s world. Treacheries were everywhere.
The life of the great was a risky one, Valentinian knew. Julius Caesar himself had been assassinated, five hundred years before. The gruesome endings of emperors since was a list almost too long to memorize: Clodius poisoned, Nero and Otho both suicides, Caracalla a murderer of his brother who was assassinated in turn, Constantine’s half-brothers and nephews virtually wiped out, Gratian murdered, Valentinian II found mysteriously hanged. Emperors had died of battle, disease, debauchery, and even from the fumes of newly-applied plaster, but most of all from the plottings of those closest. It would have been a shock if his cunning sister had not conspired against him. The emperor was more than ready to hear his chamberlain’s whisperings of a plot, because he had expected no less since being elevated to the purple at the age of four. He had reached his present age of twenty-eight only by fearful caution, constant suspicion, and necessary ruthlessness. An emperor struck, or was struck down. His astrologers confirmed his fears, leaving him satisfied and they rewarded.
So now the arresting party dismounted in the shadow of the gate, not wanting the clatter of horses to give warning. They drew long swords but held them tight to their legs to minimize their glint in the night. Cloaked and hooded, they moved toward Honoria’s palace like wraiths, Ravenna’s streets dark, its canals gleaming dully, and a half moon teasing behind a moving veil of cloud. As a town of government instead of commerce, the capital always seemed desultory and half-deserted.
The emperor’s face startled sentries.
“Caesar! We didn’t expect…”
“Get out of the way.”
Her palace was mostly asleep, the tapestries and curtains bleached of color by the night and the oil lamps guttering. Domes and vaults bore tile mosaics of saints who looked serenely down at the sins below, the air languid with incense and perfume. The emperor’s entourage strode down dark marble hallways too swiftly for any challenge, and Honoria’s chamber guardian, a huge Nubian named Goar, went down with a grunt from a crossbow bolt fired from twenty paces before he even understood who was approaching. He struck the marble with a meaty thud. A wine boy who startled awake, and who might have cried warning, had his neck snapped like a chicken’s. Then the soldiers burst into the princess’s quarters, knocking aside tables of honeyed sweets, kicking a cushion into the shallow pool of the bath, and butting open the door of her sleeping chamber.
The couple jerked awake, clutching and crying out behind the gauze of the curtains as a dozen dark shapes surrounded their vast bed. Was this assassination? Why had there not been more warning?
“Light them,” Valentinian ordered.
His men had brought torches and they ignited into flame, turning the scene bright and lurid. The steward Eugenius slid away on his backside until he bumped against the headboard wall, his hands seeking to cover himself. He had that look of a man who has stumbled off a cliff and, in one last moment of crystalline dread, knows there is nothing he can do to save himself. Honoria was crawling on her stomach toward the other side of the bed, naked except for the silken sheet draped over her form, her hip bewitching even in her terror, clawing as if distance from her commoner lover would provide some kind of deniability.
“So it is true,” the emperor breathed.
“How dare you break into my bedchamber!”
“We have come to save you, child,” the bishop said.
The exposure of his sister strangely excited Valentinian. He’d been insulted by her mockery, but now who looked the fool? She was on humiliating display for a dozen men, her sins apparent to all, her shoulder bare, her hair undone, her breasts dragging on the sheet. The situation gave him heady satisfaction. He glanced back. Goar’s prostate form was just visible in the entry, blood pooling on the marble like a little lake. It was his sister’s vanity and ambition which had doomed those around her. As she had doomed herself! The emperor spied a golden cord holding the drapery of linens around the bed and yanked, pulling it free. The diaphanous shelter dropped to the floor, exposing the couple even more, and then he stepped forward and began flailing at Honoria’s hips and buttocks as they flinched under the sheet, his breath quick and anxious.
“You’re rutting with a servant and plotting to elevate him above me!”
She writhed and howled with outrage, pulling the covering away from poor Eugenius in order to wrap herself. “Damn you! I’ll tell mother!”
“Mother told me, when and where I’d find you!” He took satisfaction in the way that betrayal stung. They had always competed for Placidia’s affection. He whipped and whipped, humiliating more than injuring her, until finally he was out of breath and had to stop, panting. Both he and his sister were flushed.
The soldiers dragged the steward out of bed and wrenched his arms behind his back, forcing him to his knees. His manhood was shrunken and he’d not had time to muster a defense. He looked in beseeching horror toward the princess as if she could save him, but all she had were dreams, not power. She was a woman! And now, in gambling for her affections, Eugenius had doomed himself.
Valentinian turned to study the would-be emperor of Ravenna and Rome. Honoria’s lover was handsome, yes, and no doubt intelligent to have risen to palace steward, but a fool to try to climb above his station. Lust had bred opportunity and ambition had encouraged pride, but in the end it was a pathetic infatuation. “Look at him,” Valentinian mocked, “the next Caesar.” His gaze shifted downward. “We should cut it off.”
Eugenius’ voice broke. “Don’t harm Honoria. It was I who…”
“Harm Honoria?” Valentinian’s laugh was contemptuous. “She’s royalty, steward, her bloodline purple, and has no need of a plea from you. She deserves a spanking, but will come to no real harm because she’s incapable of giving it. See how helpless she is?”
“She never thought of betraying you…”
“Silence!” He slashed with the cord again, this time across the steward’s mouth. “Stop worrying about my slut of a sister and start pleading for yourself! Do you think I don’t know what you two were planning?”
“Valentinian, stop!” Honoria begged. “It’s not what you think. It’s not what you’ve been told. Your advisers and magicians have made you insane.”
“Have they? Yet what I expected to find I found, is that not right, bishop?”
“Yours is a brother’s duty,” Milo said.
“As is this,” the emperor said. “Do it.”
A big tribune knotted a scarf around the victim’s neck.
“Please,” the woman groaned. “I love him.”
“That’s why it is necessary.”
The tribune pulled, his forearms bulging. Eugenius began to kick, struggling uselessly against the men who held him. Honoria began screaming. The man’s face purpled, his tongue erupting in a vain search for breath, his eyes bulging, his muscles shuddering. Then his look glazed, he slumped, and after several long minutes that made sure he was dead, his body was allowed to fall to the floor.
Honoria was sobbing.
“You have been brought back to God,” the bishop soothed.
“Damn all of you to Hell.”
The soldiers laughed.
“Sister, I bring you good news,” Valentinian said. “Your days of spinsterhood are over. Since you’ve been unable to find a proper suitor yourself, I’ve arranged for your marriage to Flavius Bassus Herculanus in Rome.”
“Herculanus! He’s fat and old! I’ll never marry him!” It was as hideous a fate as she could imagine.
“You’ll rot in Ravenna until you do.”
Honoria refused to marry and Valentinian held to his word to confine her, despite her begging. Her pleas to her mother were ignored. What torture to be locked in her palace! What humiliation to gain release only through marrying a decrepit aristocrat! Her lover’s death had killed a part of her, she believed; her brother had strangled not just Eugenius but her own pride, her belief in family, and any loyalty to Valentinian’s regency. He had strangled her heart! So, early in the following year, when the nights were long and Honoria had entirely despaired of her future, she sent for her eunuch.
Hyacinth had been castrated as a slave child, placed in a hot bath where his testicles were crushed. It had been cruel, of course, and yet the mutilation that had denied him marriage and fatherhood had allowed him to win a position of trust in the imperial household. The eunuch had often mused on his fate, sometimes relieved that he had been exempted from the physical passions of those around him. If he felt less like a man because he’d been gelded, he suffered less too, he believed. The pain of emasculation was a distant memory, and his privileged position a daily satisfaction. He could not be perceived as a threat like Eugenius. As a result, eunuchs often lived far longer than those they served.
Hyacinth had become not just Honoria’s servant but also her friend and confidant. In the days after the strangulation, his arms had comforted her as she had sobbed uncontrollably, his beardless cheek against hers, murmuring agreement as she stoked the flames of hatred for her brother. The emperor was a beast, his heart a stone, and the prospect of the princess’s marriage to an aging senator in tired Rome was as appalling to the eunuch as it was to his mistress.
Now she had summoned him in the night. “Hyacinth, I am sending you away.”
He blanched. He could no more survive in the outside world than a domestic pet. “Please, my lady. Yours is the only kindness I have known.”
“And sometimes your kindness seems the only that I have. Even my mother, who aspires to sainthood, ignores me until I submit. So we are both prisoners here, dear eunuch, are we not?”
“Until you marry Herculanus.”
“And is that not a prison of another sort?”
He sighed. “Perhaps the marriage is a fate we must accept.”
Honoria shook her head. She was very beautiful, and enjoyed the pleasures of the bed too much to throw her life away on an old patriarch. The reputation of Herculanus was of a man stern, humorless, and cold. Valentinian’s plan to marry her off would snuff out her own life as effectively as he had snuffed out Eugenius. “Hyacinth, do you recall how my mother Galla Placidia was taken by the Goths after the sack of Rome, and married to their chieftain Athaulf?”
“Before I was born, princess.”
“When Athaulf died mother returned to Rome, but in the meantime she had helped civilize the Visigoths. She said once that her few years with them were not too terrible, and I think she has some spicy memories of her first husband. The barbarian men are strong, you know: stronger than the breed we now have in Italy.”
“Your mother had many strange travels and adventures before assuring the elevation of your brother.”
“She is a woman of the world who sailed with armies, married two men, and looked beyond the palace walls as she now looks to Heaven. She always urged me to do the same.”
“All revere the Augusta.”
Honoria gripped her eunuch’s shoulders, her gaze intense. “This is why we must follow her brave example, Hyacinth. There is a barbarian even stronger than the Goths. He is a barbarian stronger than my brother — a barbarian who is the strongest man in the world. You know of whom I speak?”
Now the eunuch felt the slow dawning of dread. “You mean the king of the Huns.” Hyacinth’s voice was a whisper, as if they were speaking of Satan. The entire world feared Attila, and prayed that his plundering eye would fall on some other part of the Empire. Reports said that he looked like a monkey, bathed in blood, and killed anyone who dared stand up to him — except for his wives. He enjoyed, they said, hundreds of wives, each as lovely as he was grotesque.
“I want you to go to Attila, Hyacinth.” Honoria’s eyes gleamed. Strong women relied not just on their wits, but their alliances with strong men. The Huns had the most terrifying army in the world, and mere word from their leader would make her brother quail. If Attila asked for her, Valentinian would have to let her go. If Attila forbade the marriage to Herculanus, Valentinian would have to accede. Wouldn’t he?
“Go to Attila!” Hyacinth gasped. “My lady, I scarcely go from one end of Ravenna to the other. I’m not a traveler. Nor an ambassador. I’m not even a man.”
“I’ll give you men as escort. No one will miss you. I want you to find your courage and find him, because both of our futures depend on it. I want you to explain what has happened to me. Carry my signet ring to him as proof of what you say. Hyacinth, my dearest slave: I want you to ask Attila the Hun to rescue me.”