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One of the challenge points on the Better World Books 2017 Reading […]
Stephen R. Lawhead
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Concessa Lavinia lived in fear of thieves carrying off her spoons. They were fine spoons. Each teardrop-shaped bowl was a masterpiece of smithery balanced on a long, elegant handle capped by a tiny Corinthian finial: eight in all, and older than Elijah. Our silver -- the spoons and matching plate, an enormous bowl, and two large ewers -- was old and costly; it had come from Rome sometime in the dusty past, handed mother to daughter longer than anyone could remember.
My mother's treasured silver held pride of place on the black walnut table in the banqueting hall: a large, handsome room with a vaulted ceiling and a floor that featured a mosaic depicting Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus and killing the Chimera with a flaming spear. This scene occupied the center of the room and was surrounded by a circular braidwork border picked out in red, black, white, and brown tesserae and, in each corner of the room, a likeness of one of the Four Seasons.
On frigid winter evenings I would lie on my stomach on that wonderful mosaic and feel the delicious warmth seeping up from the hypocaust beneath. The floor above the hall was given to sleeping rooms for ourselves and those few servants my mother would suffer to abide in the house.
Our villa was called Favere Mundi, an apt name for one of the most pleasant places in the whole of our island realm. It was built in the traditional manner: a low, hollow square with a red-tiled roof surrounding a central courtyard that contained a pear tree, a fountain, and a statue of Jupiter in repose. As a child I thought the statue bore the likeness of my grandfather. Scarcely a day went by that I did not run to greet the image."Hail, Potitus " I would cry and smack the carved marble limbs with my hands to make him take note of me. But the frozen, sightless gaze remained fixed on higher things, perpetually beyond heed of the merely mortal and mundane.
Two long wings on either side of the enclosed square contained the workrooms: one each for wood, leather, and cloth and one where our candles, lamps, and rushlights were made. Between the wings rose the main section of the house, comprising two floors; the lower floor was given almost entirely to the great hall, and the upper opened onto a roofed gallery which overlooked the court.
Like my father before me, I was born in my grandfather's house. We were wealthy people, noble Britons, and our villa near Bannavem Taburniae lacked for nothing. Sixty families lived on our estate and worked our lands. We grew grain to sell in the markets of Maridunum, Corinium, and Londinium; we raised cattle and sold to the northern garrisons -- Eboracum and beyond; we bred horses for the "ala, the mounted auxiliary of the legions. Harvests were bountiful; the land prospered; our labor was rewarded a hundredfold.
Wine from Aquitania, woven cloth from Thracia, Neapolitan glass, Macedonian olives, pepper, oil -- all these things and very much more were ours. We lived well. No senator born in sight of the Palatine Hill lived better. It is but one of the many follies of luxury which lead men to believe that plenty now is abundance always and fortune is everlasting. Pure folly.
My grandfather was still alive when I was born. I remember white-haired Potitus, tall and straight, towering in his dark robes, striding with a face like thunder down the oak-lined avenue leading fromour gate. He was a presbyter, a priest of the church -- not well liked, it must be said, for his stern demeanor frightened far more than it comforted, and he was not above smiting obstinate members of his flock with his silver-topped staff.
That aside, he was not overstrict in his observances, and no one ever complained about the length of his services. Unlike the tedious priests of Mithras and Minerva -- so careful, so exact, so smug in the enactment of their obscure rituals -- old Potitus saw no need to weary heaven with ceaseless ceremony or meaningless repetition. "God knows the cry of our hearts," he would say, "before it ever reaches our lips. So speak it out and have done with it. Then get about your business."
My father, Calpurnius, did just that. He got on with business. In this he displayed the remarkable good sense of his British mother and refused to follow his father into the priesthood. Industrious, ambitious, aggressive, and determined -- a man of little tolerance and less patience -- hard-charging Calpurnius would have made a miserable cleric. Instead he married a high-born woman named Concessa Lavinia and enlarged our holdings exceedingly. Owing to his diligence and tireless labor, the increase in our family fortunes year by year was little short of miraculous. With wealth came responsibility, as he never ceased reminding me. He became a decurion, one of the chief councilmen for our little town -- a position which only served to increase his fortunes all the more, and this despite the taxes which rose higher and ever higher.
Invariably, after depositing his taxes in the town treasury, he would come home complaining. "Do we need so many servants?" he would say."They eat more than cattle. What do they do all day?"
"Certainly we need them, you silly man," my mother would chide.
"Since you insist on spending dawn to dusk with your blessed council, who else does any work around here?"
There were perhaps only a dozen servants in all, but it was my mother's entire occupation to protect them from the sin of idleness. In this she excelled. Lavinia had all the natural gifts of a military commander, save gender alone. Had she been born a man, she might have conquered Africa.
Her sole weakness was myself. No doubt because I was the third of three infants and the only one to survive beyond the first year, she found it impossible to deny me anything.
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