By Eric Axner-Norrman
In the year 123 CE, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, three strangers met at the Roman city of Ostia. Seated, overlooking the sea, they began to discuss their similarities and differences, as they were part of the same Roman world.
Titus Africanus, a middle-aged skipper with a face battered by the elements and a gaze that could pierce through marble, looked on quietly as Gaius Britannicus, a young strapping soldier with pale skin and a toned body, and Calpurnius Syriacus, a merchant with many years behind him and a big bushy beard with silver streaks running through it to befit the image, spoke quite fervently with each other. After a while, they turned to their rather mysterious companion and asked him what business he, as a seaman from Africa, had in the capital of the Empire. The skipper began by lightly chuckling and cleared his throat from, what sounded like, years worth of sea foam.
“This will probably be my hundredth or so visit to this harbour. I first came here from Carthago with my father, when I must have been ten, perhaps eleven. I sometimes ponder that while I have spent most of my days out on the waves, I have never been beyond the reach of the Empire. I have been from Hispania in the west to Judaea in the east, all across the Mediterranean, but always within the confines of the Emperor’s realm. As I imagine the rest of you, I have probably spoken more Latin than my mother tongue. At home in Africa, I have worshipped in front of the altar of Augustus more frequently than I have knelt before the gods of my homeland. Have any of you ever left the Empire?”
“Well, come to think of it, I haven’t,” said Gaius, “though I remember hearing stories told by elders when I was younger of what the island of my birth was like before the Romans came. I myself have heard Latin being spoken since I was born, and I have as far back as I can recall always wanted to be a soldier in the Roman army. My proudest moment was when I joined the ranks and went on my first march, up to the border where the barbaric Picts live. Now I am to be deployed in Dacia, protecting the border of the Empire there. Before then I have a few days to visit the capital – if only my parents could see me now! Rome… whenever my mother spoke of Rome something almost serene came over her whole being. I will make sure to make the most of my stay, now that I have gotten the chance to come to the great city.”
Veritable youths in comparison, Titus and Gaius now turned to Calpurnius, the venerable merchant, to listen to, as they imagined, the story of his rich life.
“If I remember correctly, I did once leave the Empire. I travelled eastwards, into the land of the Parthians, trading in clothes. Though it was so long ago and for such a short while it really isn’t worth mentioning. So I too have spent my days within the Empire, and like you, Titus, I too have been far and wide around this sea, come to this harbour many times. And I have spoken mostly Latin as well; so much so that I forgot just the other day, be it only for a few seconds, my birth name. Calpurnius has been my name for so long my children do not know me by any other, and I am sure my wife hardly remembers the name I bore when we first met.”
He stuck his hand down into a bag he had tucked between his feet, revealing the contents to his confidants:
“This time, I have come to Rome to sell spices from far away in the east. I hope to turn quite a profit. Goods such as these are highly fashionable with the patricians of the city.”
“I wonder how long it will take until it becomes fashionable with the wealthy in Africa?” asked Titus rhetorically.
“Not too long, I assume!” countered Calpurnius. “I hope I can sell more of this in the near future. If ever I anchor in the province on one of my journeys, I will make sure to ask for you, Titus!”
“And they will probably tell you that I am somewhere else completely, albeit in the Empire! If I may ask, how do both of you feel about being part of the world of the Romans? No matter how we try, none of us will ever truly be Romans…”
“As a child, I would always dream of being a real Roman…” said Gaius reflectively. “But I cannot see any other way for the world to be but Roman. Not my world at least.”
Calpurnius slowly stroked his beard, tasting the words in his mind before spelling them out. Eventually, he proclaimed:
“I believe, regardless of where we may be or one day find ourselves, we are all in the same world. As far as I know, there is only one world under the sun. A large part of it being Roman or something else I think is secondary. Besides, even if we, by chance, would have met, had it not been for the ambitious inhabitants of that city, we would most certainly never understand each other and never have been able to have this conversation. So I would like to say that the Romans have done at least something good for this world of theirs.”
By: Eric Axner-Norrman