A Story of Loss and Love in Ancient Times
By Samuel Dawson
(The place is the city of Alexandria in Roman Egypt, the late 4th century C.E.)
Meet me at the Temple of Serapis tonight.
That is what the note read. No name or explanation for the meeting, but Cleomenes knew who had sent it. He’d recognize the shaky handwriting anywhere. The young man tread the streets of Alexandria carefully, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, so as to avoid the mob should any of them be around. How could it have come to this? A once great city, the very seat of learning and culture and tolerance, was being reduced to ashes and rubble by intolerance. Cleomenes did not leave his house until evening, and only after pouring some wine and lighting some incense to his parents’ spirits at his household shrine. That alone was risky, but he could not just leave his family’s altar without any offerings. It was sacrilege. Sacrilege. That was something that was much more common these days in Alexandria.
The wide streets of Alexandria were eerily quiet. The moon shown nearly full in the sky, but what gave the city the most light were the fires that leapt from the buildings of the Jewish quarter. The streets were so quiet at night that he could faintly hear the screams and cries of the people who lived there. He cringed and thought of his friend Onias and his family, who came from a long line of Alexandrian rabbis. He prayed that they were all safe. The distant fires made Cleomenes think of the day that both the Temple of Serapis and its Library were razed to the ground. Cleomenes knew the way to these places even at night, as he had studied and worshipped at both for as long as he could remember. His father Heracleides before him was a scholar in the Library, who had dedicated his life to preserving the ideas and thoughts of humanity. Those thoughts were all gone forever now. His father lay where the Christians had cut him down, unburied somewhere in the agora. “Damn you, Theophilus!” Cleomenes cursed, “Damn you and your followers all to burn in the oil fires of your own fanaticism! As you denied my father a proper burial, may you never receive your Last Rites!” No one heard him, except maybe the gods, but it was good to let out his anger. He was almost to the temple, and almost to her.
The Temple of Serapis, or what was left of it, stood with its knocked down pillars and desecrated statues in the center of the square. Cleomenes saw no sign of Theophilus’ mad followers, and breathed a long sigh of relief. He had half expected this to be a trap. She would no doubt have gone along with Theophilus and the other Church Fathers had it been one; a way to get the last of the filthy “pagans” out of hiding and cleanse the city of their abominations and heresies.
Cleomenes saw her only once when the mob stormed the Temple’s Library, which he and his fellow scholars had barricaded themselves in to protect the precious books and scrolls, but he had barely made it out of there alive. He had stayed behind after the Emperor declared that the “pagans” must abandon the Temple of Serapis and its Library and allow the Christians to do what they wanted with it. His friends had told him to follow them, to abandon the books that they could not carry, but Cleomenes was determined to save them. The writings of Plato and Aristotle! The theories of Eratosthenes! The poetry of Sappho! The holy writings of the Egyptians, the Jews, and the Persians! The works of his own philosopher grandfather! How could he in right mind flee for his life and let them be destroyed? So he lagged behind, gathering as many scrolls as he could and stuffing them into his toga and his bag. Then he heard the sound of the barricaded doors being broken open, and the yells of the mob as they streamed through, their footsteps getting closer. He remembered how fast his heart had beaten, as he panicked and searched for a place to hide. He had dropped several scrolls as he scrambled to escape the oncoming mob. He fell to the floor to pick them up and was caught by the mob as they burst into the reading room. That’s when he saw her. Standing next to her father, Gaius Livius Maximus, who had been a neighbor of his family’s and a boyhood friend of Heracleides’.
Now they stood over him, fishermen admiring their catch, a “pagan” scholar who had failed to obey the Emperor’s order. Several of the black-robed desert monks wanted to kill him on the spot, but her father had told them that it was more worthwhile to kick him, punish him, teach him a lesson like the heretical dog he was. They all liked that idea, and began to kick him, stepping on his fingers as he tried to retrieve the scattered scrolls, laughing as he cried out in pain and anguish. As his eyes watered from the pain of the kicks, he saw the other members of the mob go for the shelves of books. Ripping them off their shelves where they had previously been placed so tenderly and lovingly, they tore up the scrolls and threw them all over the reading room. Some of them had started a fire and they began to feed it with scrolls. Cleomenes remembered crying when the odor of burning papyrus, parchment and ink filled his nose as the scrolls that he had loved reading so much, feeling their dry and delicate frames cracking in his hands and smelling their musty smell as he read, were destroyed. The last thing he saw before he blacked out in pain wasn’t the fire, or the scrolls, or his tormentors’ jeering faces. It was her face. Her face that he now despised with a passion that was almost carnal.
Cleomenes gritted his teeth at the memory. After he lost consciousness, the mob must have lost interest in him or thought him dead, because he regained consciousness outside of the Library, lying amongst the dead bodies of Christians and “pagans” alike. Bruised and bleeding all over and with one or two broken ribs, he had only just managed to get back to his house, where he collapsed in front of his family’s house slave. Being a skilled healer, she had patched him up and got him to bed as best she could, and had quickly written one of the last physicians who had not been driven out of the city. Luckily, they had not broken his ribs very badly, several of his fingers were swollen but not broken, and he was only bruised, with no internal bleeding. He would recover, the physician said, but he had told him to stay in bed and do nothing for several weeks while he healed.
It was three nights later, as Theophilus and his fanatics were setting the city ablaze and cleansing it of all the “pagans,” that he got the message from her. First she had come by his house, but he had no desire to see or speak to her. He told the house slave to send her away. She left the message with the slave, which she then gave to Cleomenes:
Meet me at the Temple of Serapis tonight.
He burned the parchment.
The next day she had come by again and he sent her away again without seeing her. When his house slave questioned his cruelty towards her, he simply said he never wanted to see her again. But she continued to send him the same message day after day for the next two weeks:
Meet me at the Temple of Serapis tonight.
Meet me at the Temple of Serapis tonight.
Meet me at the Temple of Serapis tonight.
It was after three weeks of these messages in her clumsy handwriting, and after he had healed enough to walk about on his own, that Cleomenes finally relented. He told Rebecca, his loyal and kind house slave, that he would go meet her tonight at Lord Serapis’ temple, if only to shut her up. So here he was, standing in front of the ruins that were the Temple of Serapis, Lord of Abundance and the Underworld and former protector of Alexandria. The Christian mob had been thorough in desecrating this sacred place. The God’s great statue lay broken on the ground, like a man who had fallen on his face and could not get up. It was quiet. No one was here. Why would they be? It was a destroyed temple with no importance anymore, its Library and Inner Sanctuary nothing but a memory now. He was starting to think he should go back home, when he heard something from inside the temple’s ruins. Walking up the steps, gingerly stepping around the fallen statue, and peering inside the darkness, he saw that it was her standing there meekly and smiling when she saw that he had come.
“Cleomenes,” she said.
“Livia,” he answered back, hate swelling up in his breast where once love did.
“Cleomenes, you came!” She ran up and hugged him. “I’m so happy that you’ve healed! Rebecca told me you were so weak that I couldn’t see you! I had sent you so many messages, but you didn’t answer back to any of them! I came here and waited for you night after night, but you never came! I was afraid that you hated me.”
“I do hate you, Livia,” Cleomenes said, stepping out of her embrace. Her smile disappeared at his harsh words.
“What? Cleomenes, what are you saying?”
“Is there anyone else here with you, Livia? Are your father and his Christian brothers hiding in the shadows? Is this a trap set by Theophilus?”
“N-n-no, Cleomenes,” Livia answered, her voice shaking, “I came alone.”
“I doubt your father would allow that,” he said with a smirk, “A good little Christian girl like you wandering the streets of Alexandria alone at night, while dangerous “pagans” lurk in the shadows waiting to snatch you up?” She said nothing. “What’s the matter, Livia? Can’t speak unless your father or Theophilus is with you? Not so bold without your Christian brothers and sisters here to give you courage, are you?”
Livia stood in the darkness in front of him, her pale skin and light-brown hair illuminated by the light of the lantern she had lit and set on a broken pillar. She was a small, slim Roman girl of seventeen years, two years younger than Cleomenes. Her beauty had attracted many suitors, but the first of them was her childhood friend; a boy of mixed Greek and Egyptian ancestry from a family who had lived in Alexandria far longer than hers, who came from a long line of scholars and philosophers, who now stood before her with rage in his dark eyes.
“You little two-faced snake!” Cleomenes spat, finally losing his temper, “How dare you show your face to me again! How dare you ask me to meet with you in front of the holy place your brothers destroyed! You betrayed me, Livia! You helped Theophilus’ mob destroy the Temple and the Great Library! All of the knowledge of those scrolls is now lost forever because of you! My father is dead and unburied, rotting somewhere in a pile of corpses because of you! And you, whom I once played in the sea with, whom I instructed in reading and writing behind our fathers’ backs, whom I once loved more than anyone else, stood there and watched as your fellow Christians kicked me like a stray dog!” As an added measure, he slapped her across the face, and she fell.
Livia fell to the ground, and did not move. She did not make a sound when he slapped her, and remained quiet for a while on the cold, broken tile floor. When she picked herself up, she sat crouched on the floor at Cleomenes’ feet and began to weep. It was soft at first, but it grew louder and echoed off the walls of the dark temple, making it seem loader. Cleomenes frowned. He had not hit her that hard.
“Cleomenes, I’m sorry! I’m sorry about your father and about the Library and this temple! Please don’t hate me!”
“Do you know how many innocent people your brothers have killed? Right now they’re attacking the Jewish district, aren’t they? What’s the matter? Did you run out of “pagans” to kill and so now you’re going after Jews? Onias and his family could be dead right now! What are you Christians? Jew-worshippers or Jew-haters?”
“P-please, l-let me explain, Cleomenes!”
“No! I don’t want to ever see you again! Go back home and cry at your father’s feet and marry a Christian! You are nothing to me, Livia Maxima!”
Livia continued to sob at his feet, and just as he was about to walk away, she said softly through her sobs, “The reason I went to the Library with the mob that day wasn’t to destroy the scrolls.” He looked down at her confusedly. “Then why did you go?” “I went there with my father so we could make sure you weren’t killed,” she responded, standing up slowly and facing him, her eyes red with tears.
“You stood there and watched as your father and the others kicked me! He’s the one who said they should kick me!”
“But my father only said that to stop them from killing you!”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Do you remember anything from that day?” she asked, wiping her tears on her sleeve, more determined to get him to listen to her, “Do you remember what I said?” Cleomenes suddenly remembered that day. When the fanatics were kicking him, and he looked over at Livia, her lips moved. What was she mouthing to him? Drop dead? Hateful Christian girl! No, wait. It wasn’t drop dead. Play dead. She had mouthed to him to play dead! “I told you to play dead,” she said, as if she had read his mind, “And you did.”
“I blacked out.” No, he played dead, didn’t he? His head was still throbbing.
“Me and my father dragged you outside and lay you with the dead, and we told everyone that you were dead. As the others destroyed the Library and this temple, I watched over you, making sure no one took your body. Only when the mob dispersed and went home, and when my father assured me you were still alive, did I reluctantly leave your side. Thank God you had the strength to get home!” Cleomenes’ anger cooled a little.
“You say that you were only there to save me?”
“Yes!” she said, her face brightening, “I remember when we played in the sea as children. I remember those nights when we lay out on your roof under the stars and whispered our childish secrets to each other. I remember the lessons you gave me in reading and writing, and the day I could write my name was the happiest of my life!”
“Yet you follow people like Theophilus? People who murder anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideas?”
“Theophilus is just the patriarch of the Church,” Livia said with a frown, “He isn’t Jesus Christ Himself.”
“I cannot even honor my ancestors and household gods without risking pain of death, thanks to the Emperor and your Church Fathers!”
“That is not my fault, and it was not long ago that we Christians had to worship in secret, in fear of your wrath.”
“Nearly one hundred years before either of us was even born! I had nothing to do with that!”
“Then why are you blaming me for all of this, Cleomenes? I only worship the same god as Theophilus and the Emperor. I do not share their political or personal opinions.”
“Your father seems to!”
“My father is a good man! He is a good Christian!”
“After the Library and Temple were destroyed, I don’t believe any good Christians exist!”
These last words stung her. It almost looked like she was going to start crying again. Cleomenes wasn’t sure which part of Livia would manifest itself next; her meek childlike one or the defiant one that spoke to him just moments ago. Without a sound, she turned away from him, picked up a large cloth bag from the shadows, and handed it to him. “I wanted to give you these,” she said, her eyes filling with new tears. Taking it, he looked at her, and then at the bag, and opening it, he gasped at its contents.
“Scrolls from the Library! Where did you get these?”
“I gathered as many as I could before any of the others could get them,” Livia answered.
“Some are your grandfather’s works. I wanted to give them to you for weeks now.”
“If your Church Fathers found you harboring these, you would likely be killed for heresy,” Cleomenes said slowly. He was beginning to realize the great risk she took in obtaining these and in meeting him here.
“I suppose I’m not a good Christian then, am I?”
“No, you’re my favorite Christian,” he said, and dropping the bag, he embraced her.
Shocked at his sudden change and affection at first, Livia began to melt in his warm embrace, the thing she had so missed.
“I am so sorry I hit you and blamed you for the actions of others,” he said, breathing in the fragrant aroma of her hair as he held her close to him, tears forming in his eyes.
“If I had known what I know now, I would never have laid a hand on you! You took such a risk bringing these to me, Livia! I am grateful for these scrolls you’ve saved, but you are more precious to me than any scroll!”
Those last words were filled with so much sincerity and love that Livia forgot that he had hit her. All she wanted was Cleomenes’ forgiveness and warmth, and now she was receiving both.
“Am I forgiven?” he asked after hugging her for what seemed like an eternity. He worried that she would refuse his apology.
“Yes,” she said, laying her head on his chest and wrapping her arms around his waist. “I am sorry that your father was killed. I am sorry for all the hate and suffering that is plaguing our city.” They stood there, holding each other tight in the shadowy ruins of the Serapeum.
“We can’t see each other again.” Cleomenes said suddenly. Livia looked into his eyes with shock and hurt, “Why not? We forgave each other!”
“But Theophilus will not rest until every pagan in Alexandria is either dead or converted,” he replied sadly. “I will find my father’s remains, give him a decent burial, and then I will leave the city. Besides, I doubt your father would let you marry anyone but a Christian.”
“You could convert, Cleomenes!” Livia said hopefully, “Then we could marry!”
“You’d ask me to abandon the gods of my family? Turn my back on Isis and Serapis, who have protected and guided me my whole life, and worship only this Christ? A god whose followers killed my father? I could never do that.”
“Would you not give up your gods for me, Cleomenes? Are they more precious to you than I am?”
“Then what is the point of saving these scrolls? With the Temple gone, these are all I have left of what I believe in. I could just as well ask you to give up your god and worship Isis and Serapis, or worship both your God and my Gods.”
“I was taught that I must only worship and love Jesus Christ,” she explained timidly.
“Is your god so jealous and insecure that he cannot share you with me?” Cleomenes asked angrily, “Believing in multiple gods means that your heart always has room to include one more.”
“But that love is divided,” Livia said, “With one God, you don’t hold back any of your love.”
“Love is limitless, not limited!”
“Just a while ago you were saying how much you hated me,” Livia said confusedly. “Now you’re a philosopher on love?” “I am a scholar, Livia! We focus on one subject one moment and then another the next! It is what we do!” She smiled at his wit.
“Neither of us will convert to the other’s religion,” Livia said sadly, “That’s for the best, I suppose, but it means that we can’t be together.”
“Why can’t we?” Cleomenes asked enthusiastically, “As I said, love is limitless! We could go somewhere far away! Away from all of this hate and killing! We could marry and raise our children in both our religions!”
“How?” she asked him, “How can we live by both?”
He stroked Livia’s soft white cheek and responded, “I would not give up my gods, but I would always accept you, Livia! The Gods and philosophers tell us to love life, and you make my life worth living! I love you more than anything!”
Livia looked at him silently for a long time, and then said, “The greatest teaching Jesus gave us was to love others as ourselves. I cannot do that with you, Cleomenes.”
His heart hurt at her words, but before he could turn around and leave, she kissed him on the cheek, and added, “Because I love you far more than I love myself!” He smiled and she giggled.
They kissed each other repeatedly for a long time. Each kiss was more passionate than the other. “Will we leave Alexandria and marry somewhere else?” Cleomenes asked in-between intervals with Livia’s lips.
“Let us forget all of that for now,” she said, gasping, “Let us enjoy this beautiful moment, away from all of the hate!“
“If we continue any further, we’d be committing a great sin in the eyes of both our religions,” Cleomenes warned her, ceasing their kissing and holding her at arm’s length.
“Let us ask forgiveness later,” she said, her eyes filled with passion and longing. “Let this be our wedding night, and your Gods and my God be the only witnesses.” Smiling, he resumed kissing her, and they fell into each other’s arms. The scrolls lay forgotten on the ground as the “pagan” and the Christian rededicated the temple to their holy love. Their passion lit up the ruined temple with more light and warmth than any fire or candles, and filled the air with a fragrance sweeter than any incense.
Cleomenes and Livia awoke the next morning just as the sun’s rays began to penetrate the temple. Livia peered out to make sure that no one was outside, and taking Cleomenes’ hand in hers, they stepped out into the light.
Jumped from the print edition