The greatest orator of his age (by his own estimation), the new emperor was at a rare loss for words. Well, one word anyway — the six letters which capture decency of character, trustworthiness, fealty and honesty. Alas, grope as he might, those concepts were entirely beyond his ken
Narcissus Turncoatus, now First Man in Rome and leader of the Patrician Party, rose from his devotions before the shrine of the departed Emperor Gough (like Mousey Dung of Cathay, one of his few heroes other than himself). He strode with imperious step towards his slave-borne litter, born by detachments of his Praetorian Guard, the Ay Beecees, and the temple prostitutes, the Fair Faxes.
He did not glance at the neglected monument to another predecessor who, he had once claimed, would be remembered as the man who had broken Rome’s heart after the Plebians had betrayed Narcissus by endorsing the wrong platform, or that very old one bearing a time- and weather-erased bust of the Patrician Party’s founder, the Emperor Mingis.
His toga swirled about him, its purple hue almost hiding the blood-stains. He and his large entourage (he particularly kept a wary eye on the Bishop) proceeded to the port and took ship. His galley surged through the blue Mediterranean under the power of its gangs of rowers. The stench from the un-hosed bilges would have been overpowering to any but his own, well-hardened entourage.
He was to attend a conclave of astrologers and astronomers (the two groups at daggers drawn) in the the chief city of Gaul, where they would decide if the sky was falling. The astrologers said it was, the astronomers insisted it was not. He would have to count the numbers carefully before passing judgement for the majority. He did not, of course, either know or care which side might actually be right, only which one had the numbers. A formerly prominent member of the Plebian Party had called his memoirs “Whatever It Takes” and Narcissus Turncoatius subscribed to that whole-heartedly.
It had been concern for the numbers which caused him to place the Roman matron Cleavagepatra Henbrayne in command of the regular legions (what there were of them). She had displayed precious little knowledge of, or interest in, military matters, but still she might come good. Look at the Amazons! He called one of the Fair Faxes to come with quill and parchment, and began to dictate the draft of his speech (he thought highly of himself as a dictator).
“I have the …” what was the word? “Pleasure?” No, something else, “pleasure” was not appropriate when speaking on so serious a subject. There was another word, he was sure of it. Never mind, he would remember the word in due course.
“The eruption of Vesusius,” he commenced, “has been a warning to us all …”
What was that word he could not quite summon? It niggled at him.
“The world is facing great challenges,” he resumed. “Apart from the threat to the environment, we have heard that the Huns are over-running the Eastern provinces. However, we must above not give way to Hunophobia, or allow it to distract us from such pressing matters, on which the survival of us all may well depend, as preventing Vesuvius from erupting again.
“The admittedly ill-judged excesses of Attila and his horde should not, indeed must not, be used as excuse for an at least equally deplorable and obviously counter-productive Hunophobia or our own part.
“We must remember that most Huns are decent, peace-loving people, who have contributed much to our common civilization, and their religion is a religion of peace …”
His dictation was interrupted by a small boat drawing along side his galley. “Oh, Narcissus Turncoatius,” the captian hailed him, “Barbarians have attacked Gaul! Many citizens have perished.”
What was that word which eluded him? No matter, on with the silken words that were his greatest strength.
“We must not give way to Barbarianophobia,” he dictated, hardly missing a beast. “We must remember, while taking all reasonable action to safeguard ourselves, that the great majority of barbarians are peace-loving people who have contributed much to our common civilization. Barbarianism is a religion of Peace …”
Exasperated by that fault in his memory, he rose, shaking off the Fair Fax’s professionally practiced embraces, strode to the galley’s library and opened a bureau where some of his predecessors’ letters had been filed. He held up one scroll.
“I have the honour …” he read.
“Honour!” That was the word he was groping for. But what did it mean? He felt tempted to include it in his speech , but the caution imbued by his legal and rhetorical training restrained him.
It was always safer not to use words one did not understand.
To be continued …
Cato Seotonius is a spiritual forebear of Hal G.P. Colebatch, who translated this account to modern English