This short story is derived from an incident in Apuleis’ 2nd-century novel, The Golden Ass.
I thought I knew donkeys. I thought I knew a thing or two about asses. By all means they’re known to be temperamental, as stubborn as they are dependable, and some even say the gods take their form to keep an eye on the natures of men. This ass, however, was a very odd beast indeed.
I didn’t have him for long. He was in my company just a few short weeks. Yet, in that time I watched him closely, and there were things I noticed and dreams I had that spoke of his curious nature.
It was some time ago now, when I was stationed in Thessaly, near the town of Hypata, just outside of Larissa. One day I received orders to transport my commander’s gear from the fort to his new station, in the nearby town of Lamia. I set off to look for a suitable beast. I was not in a good mood, it must be said. My mate Strabo, who takes his wine without water, had filled me full of his impious libations the night previous. My head clanged like an anvil, my stomach was sour as old milk, and I did not feel the master of my temper.
On the way back into town I came upon a man riding an unloaded ass. What followed, it pains me to recount, was nothing short of shameful.
“Where are you going with that ass?” I asked.
The man, a dirty poltroon in such wretched, dishevelled clothing he could barely be said to be clad, glanced at me quickly then turned back to the road, saying nothing. I watched him a moment, dumbfounded, then called to him again, approaching closer.
“Where are you going with that ass?”
Again he ignored me, staring ahead like a dumb mute. I found this every insulting; coming, as it was, from such a peasant.
“You, beggar,” I shouted, marching up behind him. “Where are you going with that unloaded ass?”
Still the man said nothing. I wasn’t about to stand for anything of the sort, and so, without a moment’s hesitation, I took my vine-staff and clobbered him one over the back of the head. The blow knocked him clean from the donkey’s back, and he hit the ground like a basket of bricks. At last I had his attention.
“Sir, sir,” he gasped, all humbleness now, scrabbling at my feet. “Please, sir,” he whined, “I speak no Latin. Only Greek.”
“Alright, alright,” I said in Greek, embarrassed by this new-found sycophancy. “Quit your whining. I asked you where you are going with this unloaded ass?”
“Why, sir,” he replied. “He’s not unloaded. He’s carrying me.”
“Not any more he isn’t. Where are you taking him?”
“I’m taking him into town.”
“Well,” said I, “we need his services. The commandant’s gear is being transported from the fort.”
The man looked at me like a dumb beast. I don’t have much patience for fools, so I took hold of the ass’s bridal.
“He’s wanted to join with the rest of the baggage animals.”
I began leading the ass away.
“But sir,” cried the man, his face a mask of sorrow. “I paid fifty sesterces for him! He’s all I have.”
“It’s no use telling me your stories.”
“Please,” he begged, “sir,” he whined, “friend,” he pleaded, as though I was his brother. “Be more civil. I wish only the best for you and your men, for the success of the legion and the commander, for a swift promotion for yourself. I call upon the gods to give you these blessings, but please don’t take my ass.”
He grabbed at my feet, bowing and scraping on his knees. The blood ran freely from his head. I could see that I’d hit him too hard.
“And anyway,” he said, “it’s a useless beast and terribly vicious. It’s on its last legs! It has a horrible disease! There’s only just enough life in it to carry a few vegetables from my garden without collapsing. It’s not fit to bear your master’s equipment.”
The blow must have made him forgetful. Had I not just seen him riding on the beast’s back? It looked a fine enough creature to me. I kicked the man away and stepped up the pace. I was sick of the sound of his voice. He was like all the rest; a liar, a dodger, a sycophant. I was in half a mind to give him another whack and put him out of his misery. He came after me again, abasing himself, grabbing at me. It was the height of insolence.
“Please, please, sir,” he said.
He clutched at my feet and nearly tripped me over. Completely fed up, I turned and raised my cudgel to silence him. Next thing I knew, he grabbed me like a wrestler. Crouching right down, the scoundrel took me round the calves and heaved me up and over with uncanny strength. In the blink of an eye I was down on my back with the wind knocked out of me. Straightaway he was onto me. He hit me and bit me, then took up a stone and beat me round the head and shoulders. It was all I could do to protect myself from a fatal strike. His strength was phenomenal; I was powerless against his onslaught.
“Get off me,” I cried, reaching for my sword, “I’ll finish you once and for all!”
Seeing me go for my sword, the knave went for it himself, took hold of it, and hurled it away into the bushes. Now he resumed his attack with even greater savagery, raining down heavier blows. There were no witnesses, no one to intervene – if it went on a moment longer I’d be done for. I was nearly expiring already, battered and bruised and bleeding all over. It was the least I could do to protect my head. Then, after a terrific punch to the brow, I went limp. I lay like a corpse, playing dead, fearful that he would find my sword, or take a larger stone and finish me off.
Instead, however, my assailant stood back, surveying the scene with horror. Believing that he had done me in and fearful now of a capital charge, he panicked and bolted. Taking up my sword, he made off after the ass, who was already hotfooting it out of there. He caught him up, hopped aboard his sturdy back, and off they went towards the town. In a welter of shame, relief and exhaustion, I blacked out.
When I came around the day was well on its way towards evening. The air was thin and cool and full of the requisite dust. I could smell a trace of cooking fires from the fields and my stomach turned in hunger. I felt desperately thirsty.
I hauled myself up, a sorry sight indeed. If anyone had passed where I lay, then none had stopped to help. They’re all the same round these parts, a bunch of selfish good-for-nothings. Still, it was a relief not to have to explain myself, for I was ashamed and disgusted. To lose my sword was sacrilege. The thought of having to explain the beating I had received was bad enough, but to have lost my sword as well! Almighty Jove, I was in for it alright.
I stumbled towards town, head hanging low. The birds were settling into the trees and making a hell of a racket. I cursed them and all their twilight chirpiness; cursed all the insects that tickled my wounds. Soon, however, I began to curse myself. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had been too rough with him. He was just another simpleton like all the rest. That ass must have meant a lot to him and I should never have struck him like that. Still, were it not for his rudeness we might both have been spared all this misery. After all, the army had every right to that ass. We take what we need, and that’s the way it is. I cursed the hides of both man and beast who had shown such stubborn arrogance.
As I neared the entrance of the town a group of farmers emerged, returning, I suppose, from the markets. They saw the state I was in and took pity upon me, asking how I had come to be this way.
“Please,” I said, “this is a criminal matter; a serious offence.”
I was ashamed to think how the town would view me should the story get round. I wanted to be rid of their sympathy as soon as possible. Thank the gods I was moving on to Lamia.
“But, sir,” said one, “you can hardly stand. You need help.”
“There,” I said, pointing to the town gates, “the soldiers will help me. It is a matter for the army, now leave me.”
I stumbled on, feeling the chides of their kindness. The smoke of the hearth fires was rising from the roofs, the softened bustle of the day’s end drifted from the dusty streets.
It was a relief to see Caecus and Appius on duty. I knew Caecus well and waved to him as I approached. The moment they saw how I looked, they came running.
“What happened to you, Marcus?”
“I was attacked on the road.”
“Are you alright?”
“I can’t speak of it here. Help me to the barracks, I’ll explain everything.”
“Here, take my cloak.”
Appius remained on duty while Caecus led me away. With the aid of his cloak, I passed unnoticed through the darkening streets. We went by the back ways and soon arrived at the barrack block. The moment I entered, my friend Strabo, already resting from his duty, leapt to his feet.
“Gods,” he said, “what happened?”
“Let me drink first.”
I made straight for the fountain. Strabo brought me a cup and I drank until I thought I would burst.
Soon the off-duty men had gathered around, anxious to hear my tale. Despite my disgrace it was such a relief to be alive and amongst comrades, that I felt a great urge to get the story off my chest. I called for wine to ease the pain and food to give me strength. With Strabo’s aid, I removed my clothes and took up a sponge to clean myself. With a cup of wine in hand and the sweetness of fresh dates on my tongue, I shared my story by the flickering lamps.
“Don’t worry,” said Phaestus, a man of local birth. “We’ll find this beggar and his ass and get your sword back.”
It was treachery, they declared, what this beggar had done. What right, after all, did he have to question my authority?
“It will be best if you stay in your quarters for a couple of days,” said Strabo. “If the commandant gets word of this, he’ll have you skinned. We’ll put the word out that you’ve taken ill with the fever.”
“But I’m supposed to transfer his gear to Lamia tomorrow.”
“A day won’t hurt. Tell him you were delayed on the road. Show him your scars – how well you defended his possessions! Now, describe again the appearance of this man who took your sword, and we’ll make sure to find him.”
“First thing in the morning,” said Phaestus, nodding. “We won’t rest until we get your sword back.”
The following morning, good to their word, the men went in search of my assailant. I stayed put in my cot, anxious for news and thankful of the rest. My ribs were bruised black and blue; my arms and thighs had taken a battering, my head pulsed like an open vein, but nothing was broken. If Fortuna wasn’t exactly smiling on me, she was at least wearing a smirk.
Just after midday I heard the sound of footsteps running into the barrack block. A moment later, a young soldier, Manius, burst into the room and shouted.
“Marcus, sir, we’ve found him! Come with me.”
Despite my stiff, sore body, I was on my feet in a flash.
“He’s holed up in some friend’s house and won’t come out. The friend denies he’s in there, but we know he’s lying. The neighbours ratted him out.”
“What about the ass? Finding the beast would make it plain.”
“There’s no sign of him – but listen; Strabo cooked up a story. He’s told the magistrates that the man we’re after has the commander’s silver cup. He said it was lost on the road and this man found it and won’t give it up. They’re on their way now, to try to coax him out.”
I dressed as quickly as I could; Manius assisted me with the buckles. The weight and pinch of the breastplate came as a stern caveat. I grabbed my cloak and we were off into the streets, marching as best as I could manage. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the house. It was a two-storey number with a shop downstairs selling grain and legumes. There was a big crowd already gathered round the front; all the nosy locals had come for a peep. Right in the middle of it all stood a man I assumed to be the owner of the shop, facing up to the authorities.
“It’ll only be trouble for you, Philo, if you don’t deliver him up.”
It was Spurius Posthumus speaking; a magistrate I knew and liked. He was short, but handsome; a straight talker who lived for the law courts.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” said the shop-owner. “Shall I swear on the Emperor’s genius? You’ve got the wrong house.”
“Come on, Philo,” said Posthumus, “enough of that. We know you’re an honest man and that you have a duty of hospitality. This theft could result in a capital charge. Your duty to the law brings no dishonour in breaking a bond of friendship.”
“Shall I say it a thousand times?” said Philo. “I don’t have anything to do with it.”
I moved up next to Strabo and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and saw me and clasped my hand.
“Shsshh,” he said, “say nothing. It’s all in hand. The law’s on our side and it’s just a matter of time.”
“How did you find him?”
“It’s a small enough town. Apparently he’s a gardener for a private estate. He often sells legumes at the market. This man is one of his purchasers.”
Another of the magistrates now stepped forward. A local man whose name I never recall.
“If we have to stand here much longer,” he said, “things will only get worse for you, Philo. If you want to save your skin from a charge of aiding and abetting, then you’d better give this man up quickly.”
The shop owner seemed not at all frightened. Indeed, he maintained an air of calm shock that such accusations should be levelled at him. I’ve seen plenty of bad liars in my time, but this wasn’t one of them. He stood with his arms folded, his legs apart and his chin thrust out. His curly beard was tapered in the eastern fashion, and his eyes shone above this like those painted on temple statues.
“Come on, Philo,” said Strabo. “We know he’s in there. Your neighbour, good friend that he is, told us as much. He saw you let him in last night and we have it from others that this gardener is an old friend of yours.”
The crowd was having a great time watching the scene. Relishing the sunshine, unseasonably warm for this late in the year, they pointed and chattered and some called out, “give him up!”
“You leave us no choice but to search the premises,” said Posthumus.
“Search all you like,” said Philo. “You’ll only see what an honest man I am.”
The constables, who had accompanied the magistrates, went inside while the rest of us waited. Deciding it was best to remain inconspicuous, I kept my head down and watched the faces of the crowd.
Soon the constables emerged shaking their heads.
“We found nothing and no one. There’s not a soul in there, and certainly no ass.”
“What did I tell you?” said Philo.
“This is ridiculous!” shouted Strabo. “All you shop-keepers have your little hidey-holes from the taxman. If it’s not in the floor, then it’s up in the roof!”
The crowd had grown and were jostling to get a better view. I was shoved slowly forward, inside the ring around the shop. The other soldiers began to shake their fists and back up Strabo’s accusations; repeatedly invoking the name of Caesar. The magistrates, however, were preparing to leave.
Strabo turned back to Philo. “In the name of Caesar, bring him out!”
Philo stood firm, shaking his head. We might have stood there all day, bickering like a bunch of jealous wives, were it not for what happened next.
“Look, up there!” shouted one of the soldiers.
We all followed the line of his finger up to the roof. Just below the tiles was a small opening at the side of the building; placed to shed light into a loft. There, poking from the window, mostly in shadow but plain enough for all to see, was the snout of an ass.
“The ass! The ass!”
The crowd rushed forward, the magistrates gasped, the soldiers bellowed, and Philo slumped like an empty sack. The game was up. The constables rushed back into the shop and this time Strabo went with them, pointing with his sword to all the likely hiding places. They soon found the entrance to the loft round the back of the building. Gods only know how they’d had missed it in the first place, being big enough to winch up an ass. A ladder was soon brought and up went the men.
I waited outside; worried should my sword come to light and with it the truth of the matter. The crowd were laughing and calling for Philo to give up his gardener friend. Philo said nothing. He sat on the pavement with his head sunk against his chest. I felt sorry for him, liar that he was. After all, weren’t my own friends lying even now on my behalf? I had not forgotten that my own foolishness had brought this sorry business into being.
Strabo soon emerged from the shop.
“Where is he, Philo? Save us the trouble, would you?”
Philo shook his head. In his shame he had clammed right up.
A shout came from inside.
The crowd surged towards the doorway. Inside the shop, a rug had been lifted, revealing a trapdoor. One of the constables opened the trapdoor to reveal a space filled by a large, wooden chest. He whipped off the lid and there inside, cramped and gasping for breath, lay a terrified man – the very one who had caused me so much pain!
“I’m innocent,” he shouted. “This has all been a mistake!”
“Innocent, huh?” said one of the constables. “So innocent you had to hide yourself under the floor!”
This set the crowd howling with laughter. The constables dragged the man out onto the streets, where everyone craned for a look. This business had caused such a stir in the district that peddlers had gathered at the fringes. It was a veritable market day, though I can’t confess I was feeling very jovial at this point. If that gardener was to start making accusations, things might turn awkward. The magistrates, however, weren’t interested in any public hearings. Without hesitation they ordered my assailant to be taken off to the prison. As they dragged him past, I turned my face from his sight, afraid should he meet my eyes.
Posthumus approached and stood over Philo.
“Don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this,” he said. “It’s lucky for you that this crime has such an air of public entertainment, else I might feel a lot less inclined to be lenient. You can thank the spectacle of that silly ass for your reprieve.”
With this he turned his back and set off. The other magistrates and constables followed. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the supposed silver cup.
“Bring out the ass,” called a man in the crowd.
“Bring out the accomplice!” shouted another.
All manner of jokes were being bandied about now, playing on the theme of the peeping ass.
As though he knew he was being talked about, which in hindsight, I don’t any longer doubt, the ass let out a loud bray from up in the loft. The crowd cheered and applauded.
In the meantime, Manius and two other soldiers were working to bring him down. With a rope and pulley fixed to the roof of the loft, they strapped him in and slid him down the ladder, bringing him in through the shop.
Now that the gardener and the magistrates were gone, I went inside. Strabo was there still, searching in the hide-away. He had helped himself to some wine.
“You can relax,” he said quietly. “I have your sword.”
He lifted his cloak and showed me where he had placed it, wrapped in a cloth and stuck into his belt.
“Try this, it’s good,” he said, offering me a cup.
I took a sip and it was indeed good. Nutty and syrupy, yet it only served to make me realise how thirsty I was. Philo now walked back inside. He looked both dejected and concerned, and I guessed he was worrying about the fate of his friend.
“I suppose you think you can just help yourselves, do you?” he said.
“You should be lucky we don’t take the lot,” I replied.
Philo looked at me, penetratingly, and I lowered my eyes. He must have known the truth of it and had likely guessed my role in things; scratched and bruised as I was. Seeing this in his face, my feelings turned once more to shame.
Outside in the street, the crowd was beginning to thin. They had all seen the donkey and the spectacle was over. The hawkers began to drift off.
Strabo joined me, smiling with his squinty eyes.
“Not bad for a day’s work,” he said, taking out my sword and handing it to me. “I don’t know why these criminals bother. The world is full of snitches.”
Now Manius approached me, leading the ass.
“There you go, sir,” he said, handing me the rope. “A prize for all your trouble.”
The ass looked up at me. His eyes were wide and sullen. If anything, he looked resigned, almost bored.
“Thank you,” I said, to Manius. “He’ll make a fine recruit.”
And that, you see, was how I came into possession of the ass.
I wish I was a better man, but I’ve always been a bully. It’s why I wound up in the army, after my father spent his whole life working to get out of it. Were it not for my disreputable lethargy and uncontrollable temper, I should have risen up the ranks already and found my own way out. They say the army teaches you discipline, but we all know that garrison life is a licence for bad behaviour. And here, in the land of Dionysis, bad behaviour is practically a virtue.
So, by such means, the ass became mine. As to his previous owner, I cannot claim to know his fate, though I can claim to have had a further hand in it. Is it boastful of me to account for the wrongs I tried to right? Looking over this, I see that already I’ve tried to excuse myself. It’s also true that my account has drifted from its purpose, so I’ll keep it brief.
The following morning, stiff and sore, but a good deal better rested, I went into town to make an appeal to the magistrates on behalf of the gardener, my assailant. Without telling the whole truth, I told sufficient of it to make plain that this man’s crime was merely to have overreacted to extreme provocation; that his guilt was of a much lesser nature than first supposed. I requested that he be treated with leniency, indeed, that he should be released immediately, without any fear of his offending again in future. He is not of criminal mind or intent, I pointed out. He is a poor man who was treated with injustice. Sadly, it must be said, the magistrates were only too familiar with the corruption and brutality amongst soldiers; they accepted my story without fuss, having already had their suspicions about the events of the day before.
“Too often the law comes down on those who kick against the pricks,” said Spurius Posthumus. “You bully a man until he fights back, then put him away for assault. That’s justice for you.”
It was Thucydides, a Greek sure enough, who said that justice is the plea of the weak when they can’t enforce their own interests. It is indeed true, yet only the hard of heart would hold it as doctrine. I did not, however, offer financial compensation. I am not so soft as to throw money away, and besides, it would be tantamount to admitting my complicity.
I returned to the barracks and inspected my ass. It seemed a fair prize for the morning’s philanthropy. He was firm of leg and sound of body – his back young and strong, not yet bowed by seasons of bearing. He was a handsome beast with cunning eyes, broad flanks and a fair round gut. He protested as all asses will when subjected to a bath, though when I brushed him down and cleaned behind his ears, I do swear he showed a certain embarrassed pleasure. Owing to a small patch of red above his nose, I decided to name him Rufus.
Keen to avoid further trouble, I made preparations to leave as soon as possible. I took Rufus to the fort and there spoke with the quartermaster. It was fortunate that the commandant had already left, or else I might have had to meet with him in person. Along with the commandant’s equipment, I was given a letter of introduction and told to report to one of the town councillors in Lamia.
I loaded up the ass, and, just after midday, led him out on the road, arrayed in full military panoply. For amusement, I placed the helmet atop his head and strode with as much of a swagger as my bruised body could manage. For a travelling Roman soldier, it’s important to keep up appearances. I had made use of some ladies’ ointments to disguise my cuts and bruises, and hoped the polish on my shield and sword should be sufficient to deter any would-be assailants. The main roads are fairly safe round these parts. I suppose people such as myself have seen to that.
The journey was pleasant, despite the dust and heat. The road was regular and I strolled at an easy pace. As we walked into the flat country, I passed the time, musing to my ass. There seemed to be something conversational in his occasional grunts, and after a time I fancied he was listening.
“I would like to get married,” I told him. “But not to the local girls. It’s all very well to fall in love, but marriages must be politic. If I play my cards right I can hurry along up the ranks.”
“Eee-or,” said Rufus.
“And what of you, Rufus? Have you had much luck with the ladies? You certainly seem well enough endowed.”
He let out a strange, and very sanguine moan, and I pitied him; for the hairy flanks he must have to mount.
“Still, I suppose you fancy them in your asinine way.”
We entered the town towards evening. I had never been to Lamia, and as I drew closer it struck me as an attractive place. It was built on a slight rise above the plains, with numerous trees standing tall over the rooftops. The town had no walls, but soldiers were posted on the main road. I greeted them and explained my business. They gave me directions and I set off into the quiet streets. I had little trouble finding the councillor’s house, and soon enough Rufus and I stood before a fine building with a half-columned entrance and painted frontons decorating the roof.
I was greeted by a soldier on the doorstep.
“Here at last, I see.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I was attacked on the road yesterday and my injuries caused the delay.”
The soldier grunted and reached out for the bridle.
“I’m to take these things to the barracks. You, for some reason, are to remain here this night.”
“I’d rather come with you, if that’s alright.”
“I’m afraid not. You are to remain here. You should consider yourself lucky.”
“But I wish to keep this beast. I paid fifty sesterces for him.”
“You can keep the beast, but I need him for now.”
“Will you return him to me?”
“If I can, I shall do so tomorrow.”
Rufus grunted and hung his head. I wondered if perhaps he was growing fond of me.
The soldier placed me in the hands of a household servant then set off, in accordance with his orders, to report to the commandant. The servant led me round the back of the house and in through a small stable. I was shown to a vacant slave’s cubicle by the kitchens, where I was supposed to sleep. Despite the lowly conditions and the councillor’s apparent lack of interest in his guest, I was relieved not to have to report to the barracks, if somewhat baffled as to why this was so. I was given meat and wine and a basket of fruit, and after a wash-down in the yard, I turned in for an early night.
The following morning, the soldier who had greeted me on arrival returned with Rufus. He informed me that I was to reside here until the commandant was ready to see me.
“Why am I not to see him?”
“You must have done something right,” he said. “We’re all busy up there, putting the new place in order. There’s a thousand men digging ditches and putting up walls. No one ever tells me a thing, but it looks like they’re moving the garrison for good.”
I already knew this to be the case, but merely shrugged and nodded. The soldier’s words had troubled me. In the army, you get used to uncertainty, but no one likes it. Being singled out for special treatment could be as much a curse as a blessing, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted either.
It was another two days before I was ordered to report to the commandant. I amused myself by walking around the town and the local countryside, resting my sore body and talking to Rufus. I took him with me through the streets and amongst the farms, riding him whenever I grew weary.
I passed much time inspecting the whores around the theatre. They were for the most part a pretty desolate bunch, with hollow eyes and sunken dugs; but some of the younger ones caught my eye. What surprised me was how they seemed to catch the eye of Rufus as well. He often brayed and grunted in the presence of finery, and I soon learned to follow his gaze to the more delicious of these creatures.
“You certainly have good taste, my friend. She’s a real delight indeed.”
“Ee-orr,” said Rufus.
In particular I noticed that he had a penchant for fine patrician ladies, few though they were round these parts. He would raise his nose to a waft of perfume and take from it such pleasure as I’d never before seen in an ass. On several occasions I caught him wandering off down the street on the trail of a beautiful woman. I’ve heard that desire can come in equal measure for different beasts, but that it should be so consistent with my own was unheard of in my experience.
Rufus displayed many other curious habits. He showed little interest in the oats and hay I offered him, yet would stop by all the stalls and nod his head towards the meats and stews. I’ve never known an ass to eat flesh, yet he seemed very fond of it and would stand salivating by the open kitchens.
I also had trouble keeping him from wandering into gardens. He seemed strangely fond of flowers and would rush to devour them first chance he got. Odder still was how quickly he lost interest after his first few mouthfuls, walking away seemingly disconsolate.
One night I was sent a strange dream. Rufus and I were in the markets sampling the quality of various goods. We stopped by a weaver’s stall to inspect the tunics and cloaks, and I showed various of them to Rufus who gave his opinion on this or that, showing, once again, quite discerning taste. It was only after a while that I realised not only was Rufus speaking to me, but he was standing on his hind legs in the manner of a man!
When finally I received orders to report to the commandant, the fears I had been suppressing returned to me. Though I had tried to avoid him through indolence and fear of extra duty, he was not a bad man and had been friendly to me in the past. Still, I was afraid that he knew something of my encounter with the gardener. Perhaps I was to be given slave’s detail or flogged in front of the men.
I was marched through a busy construction site where many familiar soldiers toiled in the cool, dry conditions. The commandant’s quarters were in a new building, three-storeys tall, with a view right across the town and out to the plains. The bricks were still bare and unfaced, while the entrance lacked steps and had in their place a wooden ramp.
I steadied myself for what was to come and strode in past the guards.
“Marcus,” said the commandant. “You’re looking well.”
There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but I was determined to play it straight.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I have a job for you, Marcus.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Yes, you should thank me. You’re a lucky man, indeed, if at times a complete buffoon.”
He glared at me sharply and I felt his eyes like pinpricks. He was very tall, almost half a foot higher than me, and his lean frame gave him the aspect of a skeleton.
“First things first. Don’t think I don’t know about this business with your sword. Don’t even begin to wonder how I know, just rest assured that nothing escapes my notice. That’s why I’m at the top of this steaming pile. You’re a smart man, but you’re also a damn fool. I should have you flogged for being such a clumsy ass, but I know you’re worth more than most of these other imbeciles.”
He moved to the window, wide and uncovered, gazing over the plains. It all seemed a little theatrical to me.
“Maybe it’s this place, with all its witchcraft and trickery,” he mused. “A man has to be careful to keep himself from going bad.”
He turned and faced me directly.
“I’m sending you to Rome. I want you to take a dispatch to the Emperor, but most of all I want you to disappear for a while. We can’t have word getting around and you being a laughing stock.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Wipe that goddamned smile off your face!”
What a shock his words gave me. I hadn’t even noticed, but I must have started smirking. For a moment I believed he would retract his decision and have me flayed alive. Was I really being sent to Rome? This was a great privilege, not a punishment.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t think you’re off the hook, soldier,” he said. “This is more than you deserve and I expect you to take note of that fact and pull yourself together. Take this chance to straighten yourself out and come back a man. Unfortunately, you’re the best-educated man in my pay and it’s probably time you were promoted. You know you’re a cut above the others, so prove it.”
“Thank you, sir. I will carry out my duty with all care.”
“Yes, you had better do so.”
He picked up three scrolls on his desk and offered them towards me.
“Don’t forget, I could just as easily put a shovel in your hands. Make whatever preparations you need to make, draw your allowance from the quartermaster, then leave as soon as possible. I want you gone by this evening.”
I concluded my business with the army and walked back into town. The coins were reassuringly heavy in my purse. For the sake of speed I would be using post-horses for the journey, and had little choice but to sell Rufus. I took him with me to the marketplace, and there, standing in the centre of the square, announced my desire for a quick sale. I was not concerned about the price, yet when a couple of ruffians approached me, I refused the sale out of feelings for the ass. I had grown very attached to him, more so than with any other beast before, and I wanted to be sure he went to good owners.
I was soon approached by a pair of finely-clad brothers. They were the well-to-do slaves of a rich master, Thiasus of Corinth, who had recently risen to the quinquennial magistracy: a pastry cook and a chef, who seemed rather fond of themselves.
“We only want him to carry food from the markets to the kitchen. If you really are worried about his welfare, then you needn’t be,” said the more portly of the two.
This seemed a happy enough situation for Rufus, and I certainly didn’t quibble when they offered me eleven denarii – a handy sum for an ass that cost me nought but cuts and bruises.
“Feed him well,” I told them. “But be careful. He’s very fond of the ladies.”
I took their money, gave Rufus one last scratch behind the ear, then turned my back on him and walked away. Before I had reached the other side of the square, I was struck by a terrible sense of loss. I stopped and turned for one last look, feeling as sorry as a child. The sight of him being led from the market brought a lump to my throat. What in the heavens was wrong with me? How little tenderness there had been in my life of late! Still, I had much to be thankful for. I was off to Rome.
There is little point in me recounting my journey from Greece to Italy and back. Suffice to say that it was made all the more remarkable by unseasonal storms and various diversions. I was a happy traveller and a very lucky one at that, and the many towns and cities through which I passed filled me with wonder at the greatness of Roman enterprise. I had hoped to meet the Emperor in person, but as I grew closer to Rome my nerves wore ever thinner at the prospect. In the end, I was spared an audience, and passed my commander’s dispatches to his trusted staff.
Three months later, I returned to Lamia to report the success of my mission. The commander was very pleased with me and told me I might expect my advancement to begin sooner rather than later. He was right to place his trust in me, for the journey had given me much time to reflect on my conduct and maturity.
After just two days back, whilst in the marketplace purchasing a new tunic, I recognised one of the two slaves to whom I had sold Rufus the ass. The fatter of the two.
“Hail,” I cried, approaching him. “You work for Thiasis of Corinth, yes?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all. You have likely forgotten, but I sold you an ass some three months ago. Here, in this very market.”
“Indeed! Of course!” He seemed to become unduly excited about this and took me by the upper arm.
“That ass you sold us turned out to be quite a surprise,” he said. “Quite a surprise I can assure you!”
“How so? Is he still alive?”
“Oh yes, he’s still alive. And more alive than ever, it would seem!”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen up. A month ago we caught him eating all the best left-overs in the kitchens. At first I thought it was Agapios, my brother – the finest cuts had been disappearing for some time and no ass should have a taste for cured meats, sweets and other savouries. But, when I pointed the finger at him, he pointed it straight back at me. So the two of us sat up one night, spying on the kitchen, and sure enough, it was that ass of yours!”
“Ha!” I laughed. “He always seemed to have finer tastes.”
“Did he ever! But who could have guessed what would happen next? When my master heard of this he was so amused and intrigued that he invited the ass to dine at his table! When presented at the dinner table, he sat down on the couch as any man might, as though he were born to it, and showed himself to have perfect table manners. Not only could that ass nod and blink and bray in answer to questions, but he would, in his way, with his looks and his gestures, call for more wine! In the time you were gone, he became the talk of the town – so much so that all the local dignitaries came to witness this great spectacle. My brother and I have worked overtime ever since, for every night the noblest guests, happy to pay for the privilege, came to dine with my master and his ass.”
“Extraordinary! How can it be? Is he some sort of god?”
“Who knows? Many think that he is, my master included. Did not Zeus take the form of a bull? Did not Apollo once change the ears of Midas into those of an ass? Perhaps he has been punished by the gods, for some awful crime.”
“Or cursed by some black magic!”
“All the local philosophers and priests have their take on it. Some say he is just a clever beast, for you know as well as I that some are much smarter than others. Others say, as you have, that he was a man, transformed by witchcraft. Those who believe him to be a god can’t decide if he is a new god or an old one, come amongst us. No one risks offending him.”
“Where is he now? Can I see him?”
“He is on his way to Corinth. My master has returned to host his great games. He himself is riding the ass, and I believe he intends to make a great show of him in his home town. My brother has gone while I must stay here to keep house.”
Despite the sincerity with which his tale was told, I found this all very hard to believe. Yet, in the days that followed, I heard more and more gossip about the wondrous nature of this ass. The bawdier women spoke brazenly of their longing for his seed; the men of the town wished to be blessed with a member as thick as his. Increasingly, I felt a great sense of privilege; that if he were a god, then perhaps I had earned his favour by treating him with kindness. Yet, also I felt a grave sense of loss once again, as I had at our parting. To have traded away such a wonder for a few denarii seemed an inconsolable error of judgement!
I had little choice but to get on with my job and received, in due course, my promotion. As a Duplicarius I was now exempt from common duties and found my income doubled. I was thankful for this and made as good an account of myself as possible. Having witnessed the splendour and dignity of Rome’s cleaner districts, I was filled with ambition to rise higher still. Yet, all the while I could think of little other than my old friend Rufus.
In the weeks following my return, talk of the ass died down, as such things will without fresh incident. Then, after a month some news finally arrived. A travelling merchant, recently arrived from Corinth, stood himself on a stool in the market and called for the crowd’s attention.
“Wondrous news I have! People listen up!”
The crowd closed in and craned their necks. There was never anything so exciting as fresh news from afar.
“Citizens, hear me! You recall of course the recent tales of the divine ass in the household of Master Thiasis? Well, you’ll never believe what I’m about to say, but it’s all perfectly true!”
Like any good teller of tales, the man was drawing out his introduction until he had the full attention of the crowd.
“Citizens! Hear that upon his arrival in Corinth, preceded by his reputation, the divine ass was greeted with much enthusiasm. Not only did the local nobles all come to inspect and dine with him, but it is said that even women of patrician rank were paying a fortune to spend the night with him!”
This set the crowd roaring with laughter. He certainly had their attention, and indeed, mine.
“Believing him to be divine, and hoping they might become the vessel of a divine child, they risked not only their reputations, but their bodies as well! Soon master Thiasis, benevolent magistrate that he is, put on his glorious games; a great spectacle with largess for all and sundry. As a culmination of his week-long celebration, the master placed the divine ass on centre stage. There he was – ladies, cover your ears! – to make merry with a local prostitute. A real beauty, mind you, so that the people might see how gods are made! Yet, the divine ass, seeing this as beneath his holy dignity, baulked at the prospect and turned to flee the arena! He ran with such fury that no one could capture him, and soon he had lost himself in the streets.”
“What next friend? Did they find him?”
“They did not find him, but it seems that he found himself!” cried the merchant. “Several days later, reports came from the nearby town of Cenchrae that, during a procession of the goddess Isis, an ass had joined the worshippers. Amongst the priests he strode, walking in supplication before the idol. What happened next is beyond the old tales of legend. For, there, amidst the faithful, it is said, the divine ass consumed a bouquet of roses, and was transformed into a man!”
I felt tight beads of sweat break out upon my brow. I noticed that my knees had gone weak and my palms moist. The crowd hurled questions at the merchant, who assured and reassured that all he said was true. I had several questions of my own, but found myself unable to speak and in great need of sitting down.
Was it indeed possible, that Rufus had been a man?
“What was this man’s name?” called one of the crowd. “Tell us his name!”
“His name was Lucius, though I know not of which family. He was not a native of these parts, but travelled here on business.”
I listened further to the queries and answers. The merchant was adamant that events had transpired just as he said, and though such happenings were not common in this everyday world, I knew in my heart that he spoke the truth.
I found myself drifting away, my thoughts turning on recollections of Rufus. Had I indeed been kind enough to him? Had I treated him well? Was it possible that he was a divine agent, or indeed a god himself? Not a superstitious man, and hardly one for spending my coppers at the temple, I felt a great need to make a sacrifice. If I had, in anyway, offended this creature, then custom and common sense demanded all precaution.
If the goddess Isis was the patron of this wondrous ass, perhaps even his mother, then it was from her that I must beg protection and forgiveness. She was not a goddess to whom I’d ever given much thought, but like a great extended family, they all tugged at the folds of each other’s robes. I turned my soldier’s feet towards the sacral district where a small, new temple to Isis had been erected just five years ago. There, through the rising, aromatic smoke, in an expensive show of piety, I hoped to insure my soul against calamitous fate.