Roman lovers

Christopher opened his eyes, looked about him, and sat up in panic. All around his boat, he could see nothing but open sea. He had nodded off, and drifted out of sight of the island.

He had no way to tell how far he had come, or in which direction. The sky was overcast, veiling the sun. If he could only find out which way was east, he would head that way, towards the Italian coast. He would not go ashore, of course. Everyone on the island of Igilium – even those who, like Christopher, had been sent there in infancy by families unable to care for them – was banished from the Roman Empire by decree of Emperor Constans, and to set foot on the mainland was to risk the arena and the lions. But at least, there should be fishermen out in their boats, one of whom might be able to point the way back.

It would still take all day to get home, and he wondered how he would explain himself to his fathers. Lucian, his Pater Junior, would probably be so glad to see him back safely that he would let it go at that. But Nearchus, his Pater Senior, was sure to give him a severe tongue-lashing for his carelessness.

As he sat, trying to think of what to do, he heard the cry of a seagull. Quickly, he seized the oars and started rowing in the direction of the sound.

Soon, the water turned a lighter blue, and he could make out a shape on the horizon. As he rowed closer, he saw that it was a small island – not Igilium and not the mainland, but at least inhabited; he could see dwellings on the shore. And as his boat approached the beach, he saw a figure, naked except for a loincloth, bent double and facing away from him, tending a net in the shallows.

Eho!” he called once he was within earshot. “Ahoy!”

The figure straightened and turned, and Christopher gasped.

This person was unlike any other he had ever seen: long hair, a narrow waist flaring out to wide hips, and two smooth domes on the chest.

It had to be a woman.

Christopher had heard of women. He knew that he had been born from one, although he had no memory of her. But the closest he had ever come to seeing one was the icon of the Blessed Virgin in the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

He turned his face away and shielded his eyes with his hand. “Um…pardon me,” he said. “Can you tell me where I am?”

He heard the approaching splashes as she waded closer to his boat. “This is Dianium.”

“Do you know how to get to Igilium?”

“Igilium? Where’s that?”

“Ah…well…if you don’t know, is there anyone here who does?”

She reached the prow of his boat. “Why are you hiding your eyes?”

“Because…” Christopher had no ready answer, other than a vague sense that it was sinful to look at a woman’s unclothed body. “I would bring shame on you.”

She reached out, took his hand in hers, and eased it away from his face. Her touch stirred up a heat under his skin that spread throughout his whole body.

“There’s no reason for shame,” she said. “That was the original sin of Adam and Eve, wasn’t it? Being ashamed of their bodies.”

Now he could allow his eyes to take in all of her: her dark hair cascading down her shoulders, the smile in her eyes and on her lips, her smooth skin. He spoke the first words that came to his mind, from the Song of Songs.

“Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses. Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.”

Her smile brightened, and she replied with a verse from the same book.

“If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I saw you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.”

At the thought of kissing her, Christopher’s heart began beating so hard that he was sure she could see it.

“My name is Christopher.”

“Mine is…”

“PRISCA!”

An older woman, dressed in a long tunic with a stola over her shoulders, hurried down to the beach and splashed into the shallows.

“Prisca!” she shouted again. “What are you doing? Get back into the house this instant!” She turned her piercing glare on Christopher as Prisca, with one last glance over her shoulder, ran towards the house on the shore. “Who are you and how did you get here? Do you not know the penalty for a man who sets foot on Dianium?”

“Forgive me…domina.” Christopher had to guess at the respectful form of address for a woman; it was not a word he had ever been taught. “I fell asleep in my boat and drifted here.”

“A likely story. Where did you come from?”

“The island of Igilium.”

“Igilium?” she repeated, her stern expression tempered with mild surprise. “Very well, I can tell you how to get back. Sail due north, keeping that rock in sight behind you. Once it fades from view, you should be able to see Igilium on the horizon. Then, once you’re home, forget you ever saw this island.”

*   *   *

The woman’s directions were easy to follow. Christopher made it home before dark, and when his fathers questioned him, he told them an abridged version of the truth. Their reaction was exactly as he had predicted.

But the second of her instructions proved impossible. There was no way he could forget the island, and much less Prisca. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw her, as if her likeness had been burned onto the inside of his eyelids. At night, he saw her in his dreams.

These thoughts are sinful, he rebuked himself. I should not allow them in my mind. Or if I do, they should be for another man, not a woman. Lord, forgive me.

The next day, while his fathers were out in the vineyard, he slipped behind the house, tied several knots in a loose piece of rope, and took off his tunic.

Castigo corpus meum et in servitutem redigo. I scourge my body to make it my slave.”

King David had also seen a woman bathing and fallen in love with her. This displeased the Lord, and when the king realized the enormity of his sin, he composed Psalm 51, the Miserere. Christopher recited it between lashes: “Wash me through and through from my iniquity…and purge me of my sin…for I know my transgressions…and my sin is ever before me.”

“Christopher?”

Christopher turned, to see Lucian standing behind him.

“Christopher, what in the world are you doing?”

“Oh, Pater Junior, please don’t tell Pater Senior.”

Lucian gently took the rope from Christopher’s hands. “Let’s go inside.”

*   *   *

Once they were in the house, the whole story poured out of Christopher. “And since then,” he concluded, “I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind. I’ve committed a mortal sin, haven’t I?”

“Well…the Church might say so,” Lucian replied hesitantly. “But if it’s any consolation, it’s a sin that nearly all men are prone to. There are a special few, like us, who are blessed to have been born free from this temptation. But most men struggle with it their whole lives.”

“Pater Junior, how can I be free from these thoughts of her?”

“Her?” came Nearchus’ voice from the doorway. “Whom do you mean by ‘her’?”

Christopher started so violently that he knocked his knees on the underside of the table.

“Nearchus,” Lucian said, “maybe you’d better sit down.”

Warily, Nearchus joined them at the table. Lucian told him the story, and Nearchus’ expression grew progressively more horrified as he listened.

“You uncovered the nakedness of a woman?”

“Well, to hear him tell it, it was already uncovered,” Lucian said. “But the main thing is, he seems to have discovered that he has…feelings for her.”

“For a woman?” Nearchus raised his face to heaven with a despairing look. “Oh, God! What have I done? How have I sinned against you, that my son should turn out this way?”

“Now, Nearchus,” Lucian said. “Theatrics aren’t going to help matters. Let’s just have a calm, rational discussion…”

“There’s nothing to discuss! The Scriptures are very clear. To look at a woman with lustful intent is a sin. To lie with a woman is likewise a sin; that’s how the curse of Adam has been passed down through the generations, until the chain was broken with the Immaculate Conception. Even to have these feelings in your heart is sinful.”

“Nearchus, let’s not get carried away,” Lucian said. “Who can explain the mysterious power that draws us to this one and not that one, that drew me to you and not to some other man? Whatever it is, the same power drew Christopher to this woman. How can we expect him to fight it? It’s the way he was born. It’s his nature.”

“When he was born, it was his nature to cry for milk, and to empty his bowels whenever he felt the urge. To go from there to manhood, a boy must learn to master his nature instead of being mastered by it. Our Lord spoke very plainly: It is better to pluck out your eye and throw it away than to have your whole body cast down into hell.”

Christopher hung his head for a moment, then looked up again. “What if I were to marry her?”

“To marry her?” Nearchus echoed. “Are you joking? The law of Igilium defines marriage specifically as unio duorum hominum.

“Doesn’t that mean ‘the union of two people’?”

“Have you forgotten all the grammar I ever taught you? The gender of homo is masculine. It clearly means ‘the union of two men’.”

“But supposing I could, surely that would be no sin?”

“It would certainly be no virtue. Our Lord said that those deemed worthy to take part in the resurrection and the age to come will not marry. St. Paul wrote that a married man can never become perfect in the faith, because his interests will always be divided between the Lord’s affairs and the affairs of this world. All through the Scriptures, marriage is spoken of with disapproval.”

“And yet, you chose to marry Pater Junior.”

“It’s a rare soul that can go through life alone. Everyone feels the desire for union, but there are higher and lower ways of satisfying it. The lowest is fornication, union only at the level of the body. One slight step above that is marriage between a man and a woman, which is for those with poor self-control who would burn with lust otherwise. The higher union is the love of one man for another, as John the Beloved Disciple had for Our Lord. And the highest and rarest is the life of celibacy, for those who have mastered their bodies so completely that the mystical union between the soul and God is enough for them.”

“Can’t we just consider the possibility,” Lucian asked, “that Christopher might be called to a different kind of union than us? Setting aside the question of ‘higher’ or ‘lower’?”

Nearchus threw up his hands. “This discussion is pointless. Even if I approved of your unholy lust for this woman, under the law of Igilium, there is no way for you to marry her. Forget her.”

Christopher stood up and ran out. Lucian watched him go, then turned back to Nearchus.

“Why must you be so hard on him, Nearchus? Have you forgotten how you defied the law, and the wishes of your family, to marry me?”

“That is not at all the same thing. There is holy love like ours, and there is base lust condemned by the Scriptures.”

“The Scriptures, the Scriptures…Sometimes I wonder whether you don’t spend so much time searching for verses to serve your own ends that you forget the message at the heart of the Gospels: Love and do not judge.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

“How can you be so quick to call him a sinner? How can you blame him for his nature? Not everyone can be as we are, and that’s as it should be. Can you imagine what would happen if they were?”

“Rome would no longer be the vile, teeming anthill it is now.”

“The human race would become extinct.”

“Of course. I understand full well that our way of life is not for everyone. We are a chosen few, set apart for a special destiny. One that Christopher will share.”

“That’s a matter between him and God. We can’t choose his life’s path for him.”

“We can, at least, see to it that he and God settle the matter between them with no interference from her.”

*   *   *

Christopher sat on the beach, staring forlornly towards the horizon. Lucian came out of the house, sat down next to him, and draped a cloak around his shoulders against the chill wind from the sea.

“I’m sorry that Pater Senior is being so difficult,” he said. “You have to understand: He remembers what things were like before Constantine came along and imposed his own version of Christianity on the Empire. Everything changed then, and not in a good way for us. Just when we made our pledge to marry, marriage between two men was suddenly outlawed. And things got worse from there, to the point where two men in love could face death by the sword if they were discovered. Then, when Constans took over, he made it possible to choose exile to Igilium instead…”

Christopher sighed. “I know, I know. I’ve heard this lecture a thousand times.”

“Igilium may be small, and our life here may not be easy, but at least we have the freedom to marry. Pater Senior sees that as a victory, and it pains him to see you throw it away.”

“But I can’t help it. What I felt when I saw her, I’ve never felt for any man.” He blinked back tears, and turned to Lucian with a pleading look. “Why was I made this way, Pater Junior? Am I being punished? Was it I who sinned? Or the parents who gave me birth?”

Lucian draped an arm around Christopher’s shoulders. “It’s not a question of sin and punishment. You haven’t really done anything wrong. But still, the fact remains that there’s no way for you to be legally married to a woman. The law on Igilium doesn’t recognize it, and if you go anywhere else, you risk death for defying exile.”

Christopher rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why should the order of exile apply to me? You and Pater Senior chose to come here; I didn’t. What crime have I committed to deserve exile?”

“It’s unfair, I know. But the law is the law.”

Christopher picked up a rock and flung it vehemently into the sea.

“Don’t worry,” Lucian said. “Pater Senior will calm down eventually. In the meantime, I suggest you go and meditate on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verse 13.” He patted Christopher’s shoulder. “Sooner or later, you’ll forget her. And when the time is right, we’ll find you a good man.”

*   *   *

Prisca sat at the loom, the shuttle traveling automatically between her hands, as her eyes gazed out the window towards the imagined shore of Igilium.

“Prisca!” Ursula’s sharp voice brought Prisca’s attention back to her weaving. “This is the third time on this piece alone I’ve seen you skip! Where is your mind?” When Prisca made no reply, Ursula continued, “I know. With him.”

Prisca hung her head. “Forgive me, Mater. But ever since I saw him, I’ve felt something stirring inside me, something I’ve never felt before. I want…I’m not even sure what I want, but I want it so badly that…”

Ursula cut her off. “You want to be a slave?”

Prisca was silent. Ursula went on: “Do you know what the Scriptures say about marriage between a man and a woman? That a husband will rule over his wife, and she must submit to him in all things. Is that what you want? To be a slave to a man for as long as you live? In all the world, only here can you experience union with your beloved on equal terms. Only here can a married woman be free.”

“Isn’t it true that the only way to have a child is to take a man into me?”

“A child? Do you really want to suffer the curse of Eve, and put yourself through all the pain of childbirth? Remember what Our Lord said: ‘Blessed are the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed’.”

Prisca stared dejectedly at the loom.

“Let your guard down around a man,” Ursula continued, “and you will find yourself trapped in a life of servitude and pain. Be vigilant against temptation, my daughter. If you find a special Sister with whom you want to share your life’s journey, like our patron saints Perpetua and Felicity, your union will be blessed. But there must be room in your heart for only one man: Jesus Christ.”

*   *   *

Christopher got up before sunrise every morning to meditate on the verse Lucian had given him: “No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. And God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” At night, he stayed up as late as he could, for fear that he would see Prisca in his dreams again.

Nearchus took him to the public bath, pointing out all the handsome young men: “How about him? Look at those muscles!” But the only way Christopher could muster any reaction was by thinking of Prisca. Nearchus saw through the deception, marched him into the frigidarium, and ordered him as he shivered in the cold plunge, “Think of her now!”

None of their efforts could drive Prisca from his mind. Every minute apart from her was a drop of his blood spilled, and he felt with mounting urgency that he had to see her again before he bled out.

“Patres,” he finally said to his fathers, “this is no good. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t stop thinking of her. I have to be with her. I’ll die if I can’t.”

“I thought we agreed,” said Nearchus, “that it was pointless to discuss this. Neither the law nor the Scriptures condone it.”

“I’ll find a way. Even if I have to plead my cause to the Emperor himself.”

“Emperor Constans?” Nearchus scoffed. “Even if, by some miracle, you could get an audience with him, he would agree with me. He could never admit it to the Roman people – they’d all side with General Magnentius against him if he did – but he’s one of us.”

“Christopher,” Lucian said, “think for a minute. Where would you build a home together? Where would you even hold a wedding? The priest at the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus wouldn’t marry you. The clerk of records wouldn’t issue you a marriage license. And the baker – don’t ask me how he found out about this, but he’s already said that he would refuse to bake you a cake.”

“Cake or no cake, I will marry her!”

“You will not,” said Nearchus. “Even if the law were to allow it, I never will.”

“Then to hell with you!”

Silence fell around the table.

“What did you say?” Nearchus demanded at last.

“I said, to hell with you!”

Nearchus glowered at Christopher. “You are fortunate indeed, boy, that I am a merciful man. Do you know what it says in the book of Leviticus? Whoever curses his father is to be put to death, and his blood will be on his own…”

“Peace!” Lucian interrupted. “Can we all just calm down? Nearchus, there’s no use brandishing that verse around and ignoring others from the same book, like the ones about eating pork, lying with a man, or wearing a shirt made from two kinds of cloth. And Christopher, just for a moment, can you try thinking with your head instead of your heart? What will you gain by marrying her, if you both end up being thrown to the lions?”

“The lions are tearing my flesh from inside already.”

Nearchus stood up and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” Lucian called after him.

“To make sure that the boat is chained and locked.”

*   *   *

Nearchus made good his threat, forbidding Christopher to take the boat out, and keeping it securely locked when not in use. Christopher waited in agony for a few more days, until the arrival of the ferry that carried goods to and from the port of Cosa.

As it unloaded, and the merchants lined up to claim their shipments, Christopher hung back until the last of them had settled accounts, and he could approach the ferryman alone.

“Do you know how to get to the island of Dianium?”

“Dianium?” The ferryman scoffed. “You’re joking, right? You know what they’ll do to a man who lands there?”

“You won’t have to land. I’ll be the one to go ashore, and bring aboard one more passenger. For Cosa.”

“Oh, I see.” He gave Christopher a knowing leer. “All right, if I were to take you there, how much would you pay me?”

This caught Christopher off guard. The men of Igilium bartered far more often than they used money, and he had practically none of his own.

“I can give you a sextarius of excellent wine.”

The ferryman laughed. “A sextarius? I’d finish that in one sitting. If all you have to offer is wine, I won’t do it for less than a full congius.”

“Two sextarii.”

“Five.”

“Three. And a libra of salt mullet. Please. It’s all I can give you.”

The ferryman gave him a shrewd look, and nodded. “It will do. For now.”

*   *   *

In the darkest hour, Christopher rose silently, took his bag and cloak, and made his way to the beach where the small, single-masted boat was waiting.

They pushed off and set sail for Dianium. The sky that had been overcast that first day, making him lose his way and find Prisca, was clear tonight, full of stars to help them navigate. Christopher took it as a sign that the heavens had been guiding him all along.

When they arrived at Dianium, Christopher made his stealthy way ashore and up to the house where he had seen Prisca run. He peered through a window and saw her asleep.

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,” he recited in a soft voice, “and come with me.”

She stirred, opened her eyes, and sat up in surprise when she saw him. As quickly as she could, she took her cloak and ran out to meet him.

“Christopher! What are you doing here?”

“A boat is waiting to take us to Cosa. We can be married at the church there.”

“But then where will we go?”

“Wherever we go, we’ll go together. We’ll be married in the eyes of the Church and the Empire, and no one will be able to separate us.”

He reached out his hand, but hers remained at her side.

Christopher’s heart stopped. “You’re not coming?”

“I don’t know much about these things,” she said, “but I’ve heard it’s customary for the man to ask.”

“Oh.” Christopher lowered himself to one knee, and stretched out his hand. “Prisca, will you marry me?”

She smiled, and took his hand.

*   *   *

They set sail for Cosa. At daybreak, the rising sun illuminated the hills and pine trees of the Italian shore. As Christopher and Prisca gazed at it in anticipation mixed with apprehension, the ferryman lowered the sail and dropped the anchor.

Christopher looked at him in puzzlement. “Why are we stopping here?”

The ferryman gave him a sly grin. “Ever heard of jus primae noctis?”

“What’s that?”

“You’re going to marry this beautiful girl, right? Every night, for the rest of your life, you’ll spend with her. Thousands of them, eh? So of course, to the man who made it all possible, you won’t begrudge just one.”

Christopher and Prisca exchanged a horrified glance as they grasped his meaning. “No!” they said in unison.

“Say ‘no’ all you like, but you’re going nowhere until your full fare is paid.” He took a step toward Prisca and reached for the hem of her tunic.

She dealt him a kick that sent him flying astern, and Christopher pushed him overboard. As Christopher hurried to weigh the anchor and hoist the sail, the ferryman tried to climb back aboard, but Prisca seized an oar and struck blow after blow until he fell back into the sea.

As the ferryman splashed and sputtered, spewing seawater and threats, Christopher adjusted the sails and they caught the wind towards shore.

*   *   *

They put in at Cosa, made their way up to the domed church on a bluff overlooking the sea, and found the priest in his study.

“Good day, Father,” Christopher greeted him. “We’ve come to be married.”

The priest looked up at them. “This is the closed season,” he said. “No nuptial Mass may be celebrated between Ash Wednesday and Low Sunday. You’ll have to choose a date after that, and then we’ll inform the bishop so he can ascertain that there are no impediments to this marriage. Where are your parents? Do you have their consent?”

Christopher and Prisca exchanged a troubled glance.

“Father,” Prisca finally said, turning back to the priest, “is it true that anything said to you under the seal of Confession, you are forbidden to tell another living soul?”

“Yes.”

“Then may I make a confession to you?”

“Of course, my child.”

“I’m from Dianium. And he’s from Igilium.”

There was a moment of silence, as the implications of this revelation became clear to the priest.

“Come with me,” he said at last.

*   *   *

The priest led them into the sanctuary. The salt breeze blew in through the windows around the dome, playing with Prisca’s hair as she faced Christopher in front of the altar.

“Do you, Christopher,” the priest asked, “wish to receive Prisca here present as your lawful wife, according to the rite of Holy Mother Church?”

Volo. I so wish.”

“Do you, Prisca, wish to receive Christopher here present as your lawful husband, according to the rite of Holy Mother Church?”

Volo.

The priest joined their right hands, and made the sign of the cross over them.
Ego conjugo vos in matrimonium, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus…

The door of the church flew open, and two officers of the watch burst in, with the ferryman following close behind.

“That’s them!” he shouted, pointing. “Those are the exiles who stole my boat!”

“Officers!” the priest protested. “This is a place of sanctuary!” But the guards ignored his words, stormed down the aisle, and seized the bride and groom.

*   *   *

Their trial was swift. The praetor pronounced them guilty, and condemned them to the lions.

As they were carted to Rome in chains, Christopher recalled ruefully how he had cherished the dream of someday seeing this great city. Now, the dream that he had always thought impossible was coming true – and it would be the last place he ever saw.

They were taken to the Colosseum and herded into the hypogeum, the labyrinth of tunnels and passageways under the arena floor. All around, they could hear the growls and roars, and smell the mingled odors, of exotic beasts from all the remotest corners of the Empire.

The guard shut them into their cell. Christopher turned to Prisca and fell weeping at her feet. “Forgive me, Prisca. Forgive me.”

Prisca knelt down and took his hands in hers. “For what?”

“This is all my fault. If I hadn’t come to take you from Dianium…if you had never met me…”

“Then I could have grown old and died in front of my loom, without ever knowing what love is,” she finished for him. “If I had to trade all those years for the days I’ve known you, I’m still the richer for it. So I have to die sooner than I thought. At least I’ll go to the grave with a treasure in my heart that no one can ever take from me, not even the Emperor.”

“The Emperor…” Christopher suddenly leapt to his feet and rushed to the cell door. “Guard! Guard!”

A few moments later, a guard came down the corridor. “What do you want?”

“The condemned man has a last request.”

“What is it?”

“I would like to write a message to the Emperor.”

The guard scoffed. “What could you possibly have to say to him?”

“It’s a private message, meant for His Majesty’s eyes only.”

The guard shrugged and left. A few minutes later, he was back with a wax tablet and stylus. Christopher set the tablet on the ground, and wrote as quickly as the hard wax would allow.

Christopher of Igilium, and Prisca of Dianium, to Caesar Flavius Julius Constans Augustus, greetings in the Lord.

We two, residents of these islands from infancy, are most grateful for your mercy in establishing upon them a refuge for men who love men, and women who love women, from the death they would otherwise face. We left our homes, defying exile, only because there was no other way for us to be lawfully united.

If you spare our lives, all of Rome will see and celebrate your magnanimity towards two young lovers, and we will sing your praises for as long as we live. You will be the hero of a love story for the ages.

But if the lions are set upon us, then with our last breath, we will proclaim to all the people that you kill us only to punish us for not being as you are.

By your judgment this day, you could either win the hearts of the Roman people or lose them to General Magnentius. We entrust our lives to your mercy, and we implore you…

Two guards, different from the one who had answered Christopher’s request, came to open the door. “Lunchtime for the lions!” one of them announced gleefully.

“Please,” Christopher implored, “just give me a moment to finish this.”

“Can’t keep the audience waiting. Come on.” The guard strode into the cell and jerked Christopher to his feet, leaving the tablet lying on the floor.

“At least see that message delivered to the Emperor!” he shouted as the guard dragged him away. “It was my last request! The other guard agreed to grant it!”

“What’s that to do with me?”

The guards marched them up to ground level, shoved them through a gate, and shut it behind them.

They stood on the sandy floor of the arena, blinking in the bright sun. Around them, tens of thousands of spectators chatted in their seats, while vendors roamed the aisles hawking pastries and honey-roasted dormice. The executions were a lunchtime diversion, an interlude between the animal hunts in the morning and the gladiatorial games in the afternoon. Christopher wondered how anyone could still have an appetite while watching such a grisly spectacle.

Pulleys squealed as capstans and winches lifted the cages into place behind trap doors. From one of them issued a roar that momentarily drowned out the voices of the spectators.

Prisca turned to Christopher. “Just remember,” she said, “as soon as it’s over, we’re going straight to heaven. We’ll be martyrs.”

“Martyrs?” Christopher had only heard that word used for saints killed in the age of persecutions.

“Martyrs are killed for what they believe. You and I believe we belong together.”

There was a slight commotion in the imperial box, as a breathless guard rushed in and handed a tablet to an attendant, who passed it to Emperor Constans. He read it, and looked down at the captives in the arena, but the distance between them was too great for them to see his expression.

The Emperor stood up, and the crowd quieted.

“Christopher of Igilium, and Prisca of Dianium,” he proclaimed, “have been condemned to the beasts for defying an order of exile.”

Anticipatory murmurs and scattered applause rose from the audience. The Emperor let them continue for a moment, before raising a hand for silence.

“An exile into which they were sent in their earliest years, for no crime of their own. And one which they were driven to defy by the power of young love – a love that dared even death. It is a fortunate person indeed who knows, even once in a lifetime, a love so strong.”

He thrust out a fist, thumb upraised.

Dimittantur! Let them go!”

The crowd burst into cheers. Christopher and Prisca threw their arms around each other.

“And another matter,” came the Emperor’s voice once the cheering had subsided. “Henceforth, by Imperial decree, any marriage solemnized in one part of the Empire shall be honored in all. And the banishment of those on the islands of Igilium and Dianium is repealed.”

Christopher’s heart leapt. Now he and Prisca could live anywhere they liked, without fear, and visit their island homes whenever they wanted. He felt a momentary surge of anxiety about introducing her to Nearchus, but perhaps his Pater Senior’s heart would soften a little once he became a grandfather.

Prisca turned to him, a smile of pure joy on her face.

“I am my love’s,” she said. “My beloved is mine.”

And in the middle of the arena, in front of the Emperor and the people of Rome, they kissed, and no one despised them.


©2015 by Charles Kowalski. Photo by Zeljka, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Historical note: The islands of Igilium and Dianium exist (present-day Giglio and Giannitri), but their use as penal colonies is an invention of the author’s. Emperor Constans, son and successor of Constantine, was deposed by General Magnentius in 350 CE, partly because of his reputed homosexuality.