Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic
With few exceptions, the western world was at peace in the year 514 after Christ’s birth. Warlords were plotting in the Balkans either for the East or the West, but mainly for their own power. Rumblings in Persian borderlands perhaps threatened the Roman Empire as seated in Constantinople. The most recent disturbances—betrayals, if you will—of the Frankish kingdoms had been settled some five years. Bishops and clergy were squabbling over textual interpretations of the Gospel, patristic writings, or Patriarchal proclamations, as usual, some in a huff, others with conciliatory leanings. Vandals had controlled northern Africa for almost 100 years. The Visigoths ruled Spain and traded with avarice. In Italy affairs of concern were mainly internal—the parallel Roman law and Ostrogoth legal systems ran under the regal Edicts guided by a sense of civility, providing structure for dispute resolution—when news of the Pope’s death in Rome arrived at the palace in Ravenna where the Ostrogoth King Theodoric ruled all of Italy.Prologue
και ατενισαντες εις αυτον παντες οι καθεζομενοι εν τω συνεδριω ειδον το προσωπον αυτου ωσει προσωπον αγγελου.
All who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts 6:15
Ravenna was filled with individuals of strong and grasping character but Deacon Eraric was not one of them. Recently ordained, he was still learning all of his duties. He was young, tentative, and sometimes forgot if he had performed a certain task. In the pale light of the first quarter moon he rushed down the dark street the 400 yards from his small room at the episcopate, the first church built by King Theodoric on his self-proclaimed kingship. He arrived at the grand doors to the new palace chapel where earlier he had left a task undone.
At the entrance doors to Christ the Redeemer, the newest and largest church in Ravenna and the personal palace chapel of King Theodoric, he struck the flint and lit a candle. The moon had sunk below the level of the many windows of the church. No direct light shown in. The vast nave was a cavern of dark upon dark shadows behind the faintly perceivable columns. The half-finished glittering mosaic patterned walls, by day enriched by the many windows’ splendid sunlit colors, were obscured. Deacon Eraric moved across the floor toward the sanctuary and sacristy at the other end by habit. The candle flame barely lit the intricate floor patterns at his feet.
The candle revealed his youthful face, a living icon, as his fellow deacons teased, of the first deacon Stephen. Rosy cheeks, flawless pale skin, barely a beard, and dark brown curls around this angelic visage. His youthful feet sprang across the stones in his hurry to rectify his oversight. Such a long and complicated liturgy and so much to remember. He had forgotten if he had truly placed the chalice correctly with the great ruby facing outward after polishing. As he sat at small supper with his fellows in the refectory at the archbishop’s quarters he could not remember. Waiting anxiously until he could leave unseen, he had finally slipped out just before midnight. In haste, now, he made his way across the expansive dark space, thinking only of Archdeacon Theudisclus and his constant rebukes. Unlike the Bishop, the archdeacon never had a kind word. Eraric, polish the chalice again. Eraric, you forgot the incense. Eraric, the Gospel Book is not placed correctly. Move it. Eraric, will you never learn? The rest of the time he was sternly silent.
His uncle, Triwila, the King’s general and friend, had tried to shame him out of his calling. A deacon! You will be nothing but a slave to the Bishop and his priests. This is not the role of a noble Goth! You are my sister’s son, and, after the last war, my only heir. What are you thinking? You owe it to me to renounce this madness. What will I tell our King? But Eraric had held firm and answered simply, “I am God’s and I will serve the Church.” There was no explanation beyond this for the lifelong warrior.
The Bishop had instructed, warmth and kindness in his eyes: A layman may devote himself to God. The ordained devote their life to the Church. Are you truly ready for this responsibility? Eraric had not hesitated with his response: Yes.
The Archdeacon Theudisclus was his trial at the moment. So, wishing for no more chiding scorn and perhaps a moment alone with God after he checked the chalice, he came close to running. He did not actually run, for that would be irreverent inside the Church, a very Paradise on Earth.
The candle blew out. The sound of the door closing reached his ears. Silence. The entire nave was black, dark, the windows so high up the faint moonlight was obscured. His heart began to beat faster. Disoriented for a moment, he fumbled through his robe for the flint. But his palms were all of a sudden sweaty and he could not find the flint in the tangle of fabric. He heard a soft noise like slippers on the stone. He felt drops of perspiration form on his face and one rolled down his back under his robe. He felt at once vulnerable, inexperienced. Thoughts of his uncle’s admonishments echoed in his head. The soft shuffling noise came closer. He froze in panic. He thought of running but couldn’t move. He began saying softly to himself, as he did in uncertain situations, the true meaning of Christianity—Christ is Risen!
He crouched low. His body flexed. His heart slowed in preparation for a fight. He realized his early years of warrior training before he entered the Church had automatically resurfaced. He shifted his weight to his left foot. Raised his right heel so that his toes were ready to push him in any direction. His left arm crossed his chest as though holding a shield. His right arm came up to face level but forward. His left hand clenched into a fist. The right hand held the candle like a dagger. Now, like a dismounted and unarmed warrior on the battlefield, he slowly came up from the low crouch. His powerful, youthful thighs held him firm. Yet, like any cleric, he sent up a brief prayer of immediate aid—Help! Then chanting in his mind, taking both parts, Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! He slowly began a turn to his right, perfectly balanced on both feet. A push, a shift, a little more to the right. Candle readied.
He felt, more than saw, a dark shape behind him. But, it was positioned just to his left. He had shifted the wrong way. He steadied his entire body to spring round quickly 180 degrees in one low leap to face his adversary. A beat of his trained heart. A leaping turn. He was facing the intruder.
As he faced the dark shape full on, he saw the faint glint of metal on a wrist. A garment rustled. Then something hard and heavy hit the right side of his head. He fell to the floor chanting aloud, Christ is Risen! He felt a brief moment of calm and peace. Then in total darkness he heard no more.
Make haste slowly. Augustus Caesar
The evening Argolicus arrived in Ravenna the bishop’s youngest deacon was murdered in Theoderic’s chapel. Argolicus was supervising unpacking and arranging his study. It wasn’t until the next morning that his life-long friend Cassiodorus asked him to look into the matter.
Argolicus regarded the stacks of boxes surrounding him and for the third time that morning regretted his decision to come to Ravenna. What was it that Senator wanted him to do? It was all so vague. The first bird began to sing in the garden and Argolicus paused to listen refreshed by the cheer.
Maybe he should make some notes to clear his head. Where was his stylus? Did they bring the scrap vellum? Was it unpacked? It wasn’t as though he could say no. After all, the Theoderic had said, “Let it be so.”
He sat at the table set with a cup, a pitcher of warm milk sweetened with honey, a bowl of figs, and some bread. He glanced at the packed boxes stacked against the wall, filled mostly with his most cherished manuscripts and books. He needed a few moments for breakfast and contemplation before he continued organizing the household. Boxes and crates were stacked in almost every room in the house.
Cassiodorus burst into the room, the neat folds of his toga fluttering around his thin arms, as Argolicus bit into his first ripe, green-striped, yellow breakfast fig. So much for gathering his thoughts in peace and reflection.
“Now it comes,” Cassiodorus said in perfect Latin. “You must muster your skills. There has been a most unpleasant occurrence in the King’s chapel, Christ the Redeemer. By the way, your doorman was asleep. Maybe I should get you a new one.”
Argolicus smiled. Here he was at dawn, watching his friend pace in consternation in his soon-to-be study in a strange city without even his stylus near his hand.
“Sit down, Senator,” he urged, using his friend’s given name as he had since childhood. Even then, Cassiodorus had been courtly, magisterial and somewhat officious. “The doorman is fine. It’s barely dawn. Let him rest. I appreciate your setting up a household for me. Have a fig.” Argolicus offered the bowl of figs with a hand still bronzed by southern Italy’s sunshine.
Senator sat, picked up a fig and gazed at it without eating. “I do not know which is worse. The Great Book, as they call the church Bible, is missing and Triwila’s nephew, Eraric, a newly ordained deacon, lies dead in the middle of the nave, a bloody hole smashed into the side of his head.”
A death. He was used to settling property disputes usually among squabbling family members. He was certain that he had not been called here to investigate murders. But Senator was carrying on about the Great Book.
“…rubies, emeralds, pearls, sapphires, garnets, uncountable topazes, amethysts, agates, carnelians and jaspers. All these set in gold on the gold leafed binding. It was priceless. Theoderic had it commissioned in Constantinople for the new church. It finally arrived here just a week ago, brought by Akakios, a friend from his court days there.”
“May I pour you some warm milk sweetened with honey?” said Argolicus. “I like it as a morning drink. It is also good for calming the nerves. I, at least, will need some clear thinking. Gold and jewels aside, the book is missing. Now, tell me about the deacon and why this is my concern. I thought I was here to keep a watch on the Romans who flutter around the court.”
“Well, yes, yes. Those are the circumstances and the area of responsible domain I explained in my letters. No milk, thank you.”
“Triwila is the king’s best friend. And I just happened to mention as I was explaining to the king earlier why you should be here that you spoke their language.”
“Yes, well, I am getting to that. You see, Triwila, the general, being the king’s best friend and your speaking their language in such an excellent and fluent manner.”
Argolicus didn’t know whether to sigh or bang the table in frustration.
“And the boy was so young, and just ordained. All the other’s loved him. And the king considers, considered, him as though he were his own nephew.”
Argolicus decided that the bang on the table was the correct action. Lightly. “Senator, I am not following you.”
“Well, Mus, essentially I told him you were the best man for the job. I enumerated your various successes in Rome…”
“My time in Rome was not exactly a success.
“Well…” Cassiodorus pursed his lips together.
“Remember the letter that you wrote—for the king, I might add—admonishing me?”
“Mus, I…” Lips now in primly firm denial.
“And why I quietly retreated to Squillace? Senator, it’s a wonder any of your letters make any sense at all.” He arched an eyebrow and waited.
Cassiodorus put down the uneaten fig, fumbled under his folds, and extracted a small parchment. “Before, I forget, the king in his most gracious gratitude invited you to dinner tomorrow evening?”
“What! This is not an appeasement. Far from it.” He slapped down his cup of milk and jerked up out of his chair.
Cassiodorus from years of experience with his friend remained silent. Two doves cooed back and forth. Several birds were now twittering in the dawn light.
Argolicus stomped over to the window and looked out at the gloomy morning. “You have just boxed me in. But, in that case, I need to do a good job.” He turned around from the window, glared at his friend then spoke in determined slow, clear words. “And when I’m done I will go home. You won’t be able to keep me here. I’m going back to the vineyards and olives, the hills and the sea. Our turquoise bay, not this grey-green frothing flatness. I’ll take care of my mother. I’ll marry some nice young woman of good name. Now, please, Senator, tell me about the deacon.”