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Lucius was walking idly down the main avenue of Smyrna later that day. The sun shone down hot on the back of his neck, and the dust and stink of the street filled his breath. Smyrna looked rather like any of the half-dozen cities of middling size that he had known in Italy: the crowded, narrow alleys, the pillared porticoes of temples lining the forum, and the bustling harbor, where the ships of the empire plied their trade. The only major difference was the language. He knew Greek, and could use it well enough, but had never before been slung into the full immersion of a Greek-speaking city. His mind was working furiously just to keep up with what his ears were taking in, trying to make sense of the particular lilt of the Ionian accent. And it wasn’t just Greek here—he picked up the occasional snatch of Latin, but also a few other languages that he had never heard before. He didn’t know what they were, but it came as no surprise: the eastern lands of the empire, and even the Greek territories of Asia Minor, were commonly known to be overrun by ancient and half-barbarian tongues, spoken by little pockets of villagers in every valley of the interior.
The disembarkation had gone without event, despite the captain’s best efforts at finding his missing coins. The sailor’s had searched every passenger upon their exit, patting everyone down and rifling through their pockets, but with no success. Lucius lingered around the wharves to see how Ariston made out with this invasive search. But, even in the face of the captain’s special attention toward him, Ariston was found with nothing incriminating, and was allowed to pass. Lucius was curious about the young Greek’s plan, and whether or not he had actually managed to secret away the captain’s treasure, but decided in the end not to seek answers to those questions. He was here in Smyrna to start a new life, and he already knew Ariston well enough to realize that he did not want to make a habit of the young man’s acquaintance in his new hometown.
So, not really knowing where to go or what to do, he began wandering the streets. His immediate plan, after a stop at the civic baths, was to find a local inn or public house where he could buy a spot to spend the night. After that, there was no plan. He didn’t have enough coins in his purse to make an inn his permanent residence. He would have to find a trade, some means of making a living. He could pass as a learned freedman, and so had a decent chance of serving as a tutor of Latin letters to a noble Greek family. Many Greeks, he knew, were not terribly interested in learning Latin, but the few who had their noses in the imperial markets would at least need to know the basics.
As he mused over these possibilities, he scanned the forum until he saw the object of his first search: the public bathhouse. Naturally, there had been no place for bathing on board the ship, and he was keenly aware of the stench of sweat that lingered around him like a fog.
As he stepped toward the entrance to the baths, though, he noticed some commotion around a nearby building—a cluster of guards strong-arming a tall prisoner through the forum and into the entrance of a blockish Roman garrison. Lucius recognized him at once—it was Polycarp the atheist, who had been turned over to the local authorities upon landing. Lucius stood there silently for a long moment, just watching. There was something about that man, an ineffable stillness in the midst of his misfortune, that gave Lucius pause. At first, he had wanted to steer as far away as possible from any association with the atheistic cult that had entangled Flavia, the object of his affections, but seeing Polycarp’s patient submission to the false charges had triggered something new in Lucius’ heart. Here he was, the son of the noble Caelius house, schooled in the ancient and venerable virtues of Roman strength, and he was doing everything he could to run away from the justice that would befit his crime. And there was Polycarp, the contrast, the light to his dark—accused of a crime he did not commit, and instead of decrying the charges or fighting or running away, he bore up under those unjust consequences with courage and peace.
He knew it was foolish, but he felt compelled to follow them. Grudgingly, he left the entrance of the bathhouse and turned instead to the garrison. His entry was blocked by a guard, who leaned the point of his javelin in Lucius’ direction as an open hint of his authority.
“What’s your business here, young man?”
“I’d like to see the prisoner that was just brought in.”
Lucius saw the guard’s other hand begin to open, and understood that it wasn’t explanations that the guard was seeking. With a sigh, he dug into his purse, produced a coin, and handed it over. Immediately, the javelin was lowered, and the passage into the building made clear.
Lucius paced down the shadowy corridor until he came to a barred window on his right. And there, kneeling inside a dusty cell, he saw the lean frame of the atheist.
“Polycarp,” he said.
The atheist turned and looked at him, but didn’t yet rise from his knees.
“Hello. You’re from the ship, yes? The freedman?”
“That’s right. Lucius Horatius Tiro.”
“And what can I do for you, Lucius Tiro?”
There was a long moment of silence. Lucius hadn’t planned out what he wanted to say to this man, hadn’t even gotten past wondering why Polycarp was suddenly possessed with such a strange gravity, drawing him near.
“I know you didn’t steal the captain’s treasury.”
Polycarp gave a patient smile. “Ah, yes. I know that, too.”
There was another lull, which Polycarp broke after a few long moments.
“You’re not here to tell me who really did it, are you? No? That’s as I thought, and I don’t really care to know. What you really want to know…” he smiled again and tapped a finger to his temple, “is whether I truly am an atheist. Yes?”
Lucius shrugged. He actually wanted to know what motivated this man’s bizarre reaction to his difficult circumstances, but he had a vague inkling that the subject of atheism might bring them there in the end.
“Despite what they call me, Lucius Tiro, you may be surprised to know that I am not really an atheist.”
Lucius narrowed his eyes. “Well, I know you’re not an Epircurean atheist, if that’s what you mean. But you do deny the divinity of the old gods, don’t you?”
Now Polycarp got up from his knees, brushed off his toga, and stepped a bit closer. He looked through the bars at Lucius, his dark eyes lucid and intelligent.
“Yes, I deny their divinity. But that’s not so strange a thing, really, is it? Many great philosophers have done the same.”
“Right,” said Lucius cautiously. The old debating instinct, honed in many childhood lessons with his tutor, leapt into action. “I know a few Stoics who might go that far. But even in that case, there remains distinction between belief and practice. Good Stoics may chuckle at the old religions, but they still go out and join the civic festivals and offer the necessary sacrifices. You atheists don’t do that.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“That seems like a significant gamble to make, and not only for yourselves. If you’re wrong, and the gods are offended, then you could bring a plague or an earthquake down on your entire city.”
Polycarp nodded. “Yes, I see your concern. But does it seem reasonable to you, Tiro, that a god so unjust as to punish an entire city of faithful worshipers for the transgression of just a few is perhaps not worthy of your worship?”
This answer took Lucius by surprise, but he had a keen mind, and so he jumped quickly back in. “It’s not a question of worthiness so much as a question of power. If a god has the power to destroy my city, I’m not going to waste time wondering whether he’s worthy of my worship; I’m simply going to do what is required to stay in his favor.”
“Ah! Very pragmatic of you. And do you have any evidence that the gods actually operate this way?”
“Well, surely the evidence of plagues and earthquakes speaks for itself. Such things happen.”
“Yes, they do. But, if you’ll permit me an irreverent observation, they appear to happen in such a way that they are more often regarded as an example of the gods’ caprice than of their justice. That is to say, the picture that emerges of the old gods is one of arbitrary whim, usually based simply on their own likes and dislikes, than of a consistent response to any human behavior. That being the case, does it really make any difference whether or not we offer sacrifices?”
Lucius thought about his own recent experiences—about the devotion he had poured out towards the great Venus, goddess of love, in hopes of earning Flavia’s love, of finding the joy of romance and affection and family. He thought about how, in the face of all his faithful prayers and sacrifices, his world had fallen apart on the very night of the goddess’s festival, about how he ended up unwittingly destroying the very family he had hoped to join.
“I’ll grant that the gods may seem capricious,” he replied, “but doesn’t it still seem like an unwise wager? Why bet against the gods, when to honor them in sacrifices and festivals is such a small thing?”
“Oh, but it’s not a small thing,” said Polycarp. “The truth is, I’m not really an atheist, because I do believe in one God. I believe in the God who created all that is, the God of infinite power, goodness, beauty, and love. He is the only true God, and there is no other. To pretend that there are other gods would be to offend the grandeur of his glory, to return the love he’s given to us with faithless and wayward affections. And, since both God and I want my fellow citizens to come to the knowledge of his love, then to play-act my way through false festivals, as if the old gods existed, would be a crime against my fellow-men. I must live out the truth I know, for my sake and theirs. And, if it eases your fears a bit, I and my people faithfully pray to God for the safety of our cities. He has far more power than Zeus or Athena to ward off disaster, if that’s your main concern.”
Lucius was silent. This debate about the gods wasn’t quite getting at the root of the question that had been gnawing at the corners of his mind. Finally, he decided just to ask what he wanted to ask.
“Polycarp, how is it that you can be so calm? You’re in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. And as an atheist, it’s not much going to matter whether you committed the crime or not, once you’re in front of your judge.”
“I have no fear of death or punishment. That’s why I can be so calm.”
“What, you mean you’re sure you won’t even be punished for this?”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Polycarp chuckled. “I might very well be killed. What I meant was that I don’t fear death itself, nor any punishment they could give me. My Lord has broken the power of death and of suffering, and he walks faithfully with me through the midst of the fire.”
There was something in this answer that irked Lucius a little, but he couldn’t quite place it. But it left enough of a sour taste that he decided to end the conversation there. With a slight nod of his head, he backed away from the barred door, turned on his heel, and walked back down the hallway.
When he came to the guard near the entrance, he paused. “That man didn’t steal the ship’s treasury,” he said.
The guard raised his brows. “No? You know something?”
Lucius chewed over his next few words. It was a risk to speak out, to be sure—Ariston could still betray him to the authorities. But suppose he framed his story around another false identity, another lie? Then maybe Ariston himself would not be able to see past it.
“Yes, I know something. My name is Gaius, a traveler from Ostia, and I had my berth on the ship nearby the door to the captain’s cabin. On the night the treasury was stolen, I saw the young man with the crooked nose sneak through that doorway and return with the treasury chest.”
“And why didn’t you tell the captain at the time?”
“The young man’s name was Ariston, and I was told he was the son of a prominent patron here in the city. I thought it best not to fall into their disfavor.”
The guard’s eyes immediately lit up. “Well, you’ve got me believing you now, sir. I know Ariston well—too well, in fact. Though I doubt now that we could do anything against him.”
“But will you at least release the prisoner? He’s innocent.”
The guard nodded. “I’ll speak to the magistrate. It might be easier on us just to let him go anyway, because having his kind at public trials often leads to trouble in the crowds.”
Lucius bowed his head in thanks, and stepped back out into the streets of Smyrna.