Authors: Steven Saylor
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For the wrath of the Furies who keep watch upon mortals will not follow deeds, but I will let loose death in every form.
The war with the Romans has begun.â¦
How will our glorious king
Mithradates Dionysus Eupator
find time to listen to Greek poetry now?
âC. P. Cavafy, “Darius”
[The fragmentary text begins in mid-sentence.]
Â â¦ not even allowed me to keep my own name! Instead the king insists that I continue to use that absurd pseudonym (which he himself suggested) that I took when I agreed to fake my own death and travel the world as a spy for him. So everyone here in Ephesus knows me not as the venerable Antipater of Sidon, greatest of all living poets in the Greek language, but instead as gray-bearded Zoticus of Zeugma, itinerant tutor of wayward Roman boys and all-around nonentity. The humiliation!
But oh, how I wish that were the only humiliation I have been made to suffer, or even the worst.
I would challenge him in this matter, but I have seen what happens to those who dare to cross the
âKing of Kings!âas he now styles himself in the barbaric tongue of the Persians. Part Greek the king may be, but part Persian as wellâand since I joined his traveling court I have seen far too much of the barbarian and far too little of the Greek!
His execution of the captured Roman general Aquillius, which I was made to witness at Pergamon, is a case in point. I have no doubt that Aquillius was a scoundrel, one of the very worst of the Roman overlords who have subjugated the Greek-speaking world. He deserved to be tried for his crimes, and punished for them. But did even Aquillius deserve the horrible death the king devised? What sort of fiend could invent such a cruel punishment, and make a public spectacle of it? I was close enough to smell the sizzling flesh. The sounds Aquillius madeâhis convulsions of agonyâI grow faint when I think of it.â¦ Perhaps at some later date I will describe what happened, but I cannot bear to do so now.
I wonder sometimes if such a horrible fate lies in store for meâor some death even worse, devised by the king's boundless imagination.
When I remember the life I had in Rome, only a few years agoârecognized and respected by all the best people, well paid and well fed for my recitations, the envy of every poet in the cityÂ â¦ Then the agents of the king approached me, and whispered in my ear: “What are you doing among these people? A Greek you are, not a Roman! The Roman conquerors have overrun your homeland. They empty our treasuries. They loot our temples. The rich they make poor with taxes. The poor they make into slaves. Any who dare to protest, they strike down with a sword. Yet here you live in luxury, reciting pretty verses to tickle their ears!”
“But what can
do to stop the Romans?” I asked them. “What can anyone do?”
“Have you not heard?” they answered. “King Mithridates of Pontus is on the march! He has taken up the mantle of Alexander, and that of Cyrus the Great as wellâheir to the greatness of both Greece and Persia. Mithridates is the world's only hope to stop these infernal Romans!”
So I was seduced into the service of the kingâand once I dispatched my first secret report to his agents, there could be no turning back. Even the most cultured and Greek-loving of my patrons in Rome would have had me crucified if they knew of my activities on behalf of the king.
But I was careless. The veil of secrecy grew thin. To escape discovery, I was obliged to fake my own death and to leave Rome. As the clouds of war gathered, I traveled all over the Greek-speaking worldânot as Antipater the poet, but incognito, as Zoticus the nobodyâcarrying messages and secretly rallying support for the king. To Olympia I journeyed, and to the ruins of Corinth, and even as far as Babylon to the east and Alexandria to the south.
Sometimes I adopted a disguise, but this was rarely necessary. Antipater might be the world's most famous poet, but it was my words that people knew, not my face. I had been living in Rome a long time, and there I was known by sight, but in Greece and Asia and even in my hometowns of Sidon and Tyre, no one knew what Antipater looked like. When an old man introduced himself as Zoticus of Zeugma, no one gave him a second glance.
Then, at last, the war began in earnest. Some say Manius Aquillius initiated the hostilities, on his own initiative and without the approval of the Roman Senate. Whoever started the war, Mithridates quickly enjoyed a string of victories in and around the province the Romans called Asia, liberating city after cityâliberating them from Roman control, that is, and placing them under his own control, or that of his appointed overseers.
To celebrate his victories, Mithridates staged a triumphal tour of the liberated cities of Asiaâand I received a message, written in our secret code, inviting me to join him. As I made my way from Alexandria to Pergamon, I thought:
He will reward me now. The King of Kings will make me his court poet. In return for my faithful service, a grateful Mithridates will crown me with glory!
Instead, at our first meeting, before I could even begin to recite the poem I had composed for the occasionâthe meeting of the world's greatest poet and the world's greatest kingâMithridates told me that I must continue to play the role of Zoticus. “Antipater is useless to me,” he said, “but Zoticusâoh, as wily Zoticus you have served me well! I may yet have need of your secret services, so Zoticus you shall remain.”
For a long moment, I was dumbfounded. “But surely,” I said, “I am more valuable to you as Antipater than as Zoticus. When it becomes known that the greatest of all living poets has joined your retinue, and is eager to dedicate his art to your service, all the world will see that you are the champion of Greek culture.”
I thought this would make him smile. Instead he scowled. “I am already the champion of Greek culture, as everyone already knowsâeveryone except you, perhaps!”
I stammered, unused to being at a loss for words. “Ah, yes, widely known your achievements may be, but my words will make those achievements immortal.”
His scowl deepened. “My achievements will be immortal with or without your wordsâZoticus!”
It is hard for an old man with a stiff back to bow, but I bowed even lower before him. “Please, King Mithridates. For whatever time I have left in this world, I would live not behind a mask, but openly and proudly as myself.”
The king grew furious. “You will address me as
King of Kings! And all men shall address you as Zoticus!”
“ButÂ â¦ for how long, O King of Kings?” I managed to utter, ashamed at the mouse-squeak that came out of my mouth.
“For as long as I say. Or for as long as you continue to liveâand that, too, is for the King of Kings to decide!”
I dared to look into his eyes. I could bear his gaze for only an instantâbut in that brief moment I caught a glimpse of madness behind those fiery eyes. This was the man for whom I had given up everything, in whose service I had become a wandering nobody, a vagrant, a liar, a spy!
Zoticus I had become, and Zoticus I would remain.
And so, in his victory march across the liberated lands, I followed in the king's retinue, but not among the luminaries of his court. Instead of taking my rightful place alongside the famous scholars, philosophers, astrologers, and Magi, I, Antipater of Sidon, was relegated to the outermost circle of the court. I found myself surrounded by jugglers and acrobats, sniveling sycophants and hangers-on of the lowest sort!
Then there is the matter of my relations with the king's wife, a sly young minx called Monime. Hardly more that a child she looks, but what a schemer! The little queen bends the will of the king this way and that, as if he were her plaything, and he doesn't even realize it. Worst of all, she took an instant disliking to me. No doubt she saw the look of reciprocal loathing on my face, and marked me at once as her enemy. And those whom Monime dislikes have a way of leaving this world sooner rather than later.