Christmas in the Rome of Commodus.
By Simon Turney
For the Romans it is the year of the consuls Aurelius and Sura. For those raised in the burgeoning Christian faith, it is one hundred and ninety anno domini. We are in Rome, the centre of the world, and it is late at night on the 24th of December.
Claudia is a Christian. Her father died 2 years ago, but he had been a centurion in the army and his pension allowed Claudia’s mum to start a weaving business, including a small workshop on the Little Aventine and two slaves to help her work. Claudia sometimes gets confused about that because she’s sure that her heroes in the stories the Christian priest tells were slaves and that her faith is against it, yet slaves are everywhere and her mum is still comfortable ordering slaves to help her. Mind you, the slaves still have a better life than people who are just free and broke. At least they are clothed and fed. And for several days over this season her mother has let them out into the city with a few coins to enjoy themselves. Mind you, they’re not Christians. She’s probably best off not knowing how they’re spending it.
The two ladies pass through the atrium and pause in the vestibule of their house, where the majority of Romans have their shrine to the household gods.
Here, Claudia’s mother has a small altar to God the Father and the risen Christ, carved with the fish symbol and sporting an expensive tallow candle. Claudia doesn’t remember the times of persecutions – the times of Nero burning Christians, or Trajan and Marcus Aurelius disenfranchising them. The glorious golden emperor Commodus is on the throne, and for the first time in nearly two centuries, Christians are accepted enough that they feel free to openly announce their faith without fear of spite and suspicion. After all, it is said that the emperor’s mistress herself is a Christian. Claudia and her Mother are setting out to go to a service held by a deacon on the Esquiline hill. Father Josephus will celebrate the birth of the Saviour not in their temple but in the public park behind it, large enough to accommodate the entire congregation.
|Nero burning Christians.|
Claudia and her mother leave their house and start to move through the city. There has been a resurgence of the Antonine plague in recent months and the streets are not a good place. Given the failure of grain shipments and the increasing hunger of the city, walking through Rome is not a comfortable experience. Her mother has armed both slaves with short ash sticks and they escort the pair of them through the city, keeping them safe from harm. Claudia’s mother prays regularly for the city’s deliverance from the plague. Claudia is disappointed that it doesn’t seem to be working.
Despite the sickness, political unrest and general danger of the streets, Rome is still truly alive at this time of year. Mere days ago was the pagan festival of Saturnalia with its parades and games, drinking and feasting, and with the red-painted Lord of Misrule released into the streets to cause chaos. Saturnalia lasted almost a week, and had to run concurrently with the Larentalia when the pagan Roman households worshipped the spirits that look after the houses.
Now, however, on the twenty fourth and twenty-fifth of the month, there are only two celebrations held. One is the grand birthday of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. Sol is identified with the emperors. He is a god you have to bow to no matter what you believe. The unconquered sun is powerful in Rome. Soooo much more powerful than Christianity. The other celebration is one of the argued birthdays of Jesus, remembered by certain of his small congregations throughout the empire. And this is quite important. At the moment every other priest is advocating a different date for Jesus’ birth. The 25th of December as a standard is more than a century away yet. Many Christians still celebrate Jesus’ birth on the Jewish Passover, but Father Josephus on the Esquiline advocates the twenty fifth of December even if Claudia’s mother thinks that’s largely to pull his flock away from celebrating Sol Invictus.
Claudia feels nervous as the door clicks shut behind them. They start to move through the streets. She cannot help but think how alone they are. Christians count for less than one person in a hundred in Rome. In fact, probably less than one in a thousand. And the rest of these people are celebrating Sol. Even at this time of night, Claudia can hear the races in the Circus Maximus. Men in four-horse chariots race others in two-horse ones, the former representing Sol, the latter the moon goddess Luna. Claudia is a little disappointed, really. She believes in the Christ and his birth on this day, but her celebrations this night will be sombre and small-scale, while those who worship Sol get to watch chariot races into the night and laugh and party until the dawn.
All the way across the city, Claudia feels pity for those she sees in pain and hopelessness, and tries not to feel envy for those celebrating wildly. The streets are filled with festive gaiety and tragic death in equal amounts. Here a man is spilling out of a tavern door, drunk and laughing at some joke in which the punchline is ‘the sun gets everywhere, especially when you’re naked.’ He is buying drinks for all courtesy of a bet in which the sun’s chariot beat the moon’s in the circus just after midday. That was ten hours ago and he’s still celebrating. But in an alleyway across the street, a man coughs his last, wracked with pain. A year ago that man was serving as an excused-duty senior legionary in a fort on the Parthian frontier. Now here he is, hours from death. He coughs up blood and stares into the filthy cloth. The dead-carriers with their wagons of corpses both rich and poor will be here for him at sunup. A rare sight greets the two women three streets further on: a physician with a bundle of herbs and flowers slung beneath his nose to ward off poisonous fumes. His table of medications groans under the weight of the coins he has made as the plague-ridden queue for his help even of a cold and dark evening.
After a tense walk and only two reluctant clubbings by the twin slaves – one of a would-be thief and the other a simply desperate sufferer of the plague – they arrive at the congregation’s temple on the Esquiline. Rome’s old gods, Sol Invictus included, have grand edifices funded by the purses of great public figures. They have temples with colonnades and platforms, some even with their own staff to wipe off graffiti and keep water handy in case of fire. These temples are stained with the blood of many thousands of animals sacrificed in the deity’s name. These temples are heretical, but glorious.
The temple of Christ that Claudia and her mother attend is a converted fish shop. Despite nearly a decade now of reuse, it still smells faintly of fish guts. The accoutrements inside are not rich like some other gods’ temples. The worshippers of Christ do not receive any state funds. The place is bare and poorly-lit with oil lamps, but the worshippers have spent years painting on the walls. Images of the risen Christ and scenes from his life live on in glorious colour. And the altar is maintained with a cloth and a cross by the priest. Poor fare compared with the gilded bronze and marble statues of the old pagan gods.
But no one complains. They’ve not complained for a hundred years. Emperors have come and gone who would either actively target Christians or would ignore their plight and let them suffer at the hands of the common man. But they are gone, and Commodus reigns. For the first time Christians meet in the open without the fear of derision. And that is where they are tonight: not in that small, constricted chapel that smells of mackerel, but in the park behind it.
Thirty four people are there when Claudia and her mother arrive. It’s paltry. But that’s the problem. There are maybe twenty thousand Christians in this city. But many of them celebrate this festival either at Passover or on dates like the sixth of Januarius. Those that do advocate the twenty fifth are still largely absent. They either worry about Roman authorities and statutes against public gatherings or, more likely, they were willing to be less pious in order to watch the pagan chariot races.
‘One day,’ Claudia’s mother mutters, ‘and soon, this will be a date to change the world.’
As the priest begins his lessons and benedictions in a droning monotone, Claudia nods. She believes in the Risen Christ, but there are so few who do, and the pagans seem to have so much more fun with their gods. She lowers her face to hide her smile. She will never renounce her faith, but when she comes of age she’s marrying a pagan with a military record and watching the damned chariot races anyway.
Welcome to Christmas in the Rome of Commodus.
Season’s greetings to you all.
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A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling around ancient sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.
Following an arcane and eclectic career path that wound through everything from sheep to Microsoft networks and from paint to car sales, Simon wrote Marius' Mules. Now, with in excess of twenty novels under his belt, Simon writes full time. He lives with his wife and children and a menagerie of animals in rural North Yorkshire.