Friday, August 3, 2007

Zenobia on the A Train

This morning was perfect: a quick dip in the Atlantic, which was the ideal temperature—and from which I made a perfect exit, catching a not-too-wild wave onto shore, just me and the clams—then a shower to get the sand off, and enough time to eat a banana before rushing off to catch the A train. I got a window seat on the 7:59, the last express out of Rockaway Park. I saw lots of gulls and geese in the bay, and two egrets in flight, and got a glimpse of the swans in their preferred pond. I was right on schedule for a 9:30 appointment on the Upper West Side when the train came to a halt after leaving the Jay Street station in Brooklyn. The announcement, by a well-spoken woman, was polite: “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to a brake emergency on the train directly ahead of us at High Street, we are being held. As soon as the track is clear, we shall be moving. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Thank God I had Gibbon.

I set the bevel on my diver’s watch. I haven’t been diving in years, but I find it helps, when you’re afraid you’re in for a long haul, to set a stopwatch. Sometimes—as when a friend who stammers and has overcomplicated thoughts is going on about something (but what?), and impatience is rankling your vital organs but you’re determined to let her spit it out—what feels like an eternity is really only two or three torturously long minutes. It was 8:52, and I was on page 255, in 268 A.D., during the reign of Claudius. This was not the Claudius of Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius” (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, Emperor 41-54 A.D.) but the Gothic Claudius (Marcus Aurelius Claudius), who, somewhat to his own surprise, defeated the Goths at the battle of Naissus (wherever that is), in 269. “The virtues of Claudius, his valour, affability, justice, and temperance, his love of fame and of his country, place him in that short list of emperors who added lustre to the Roman purple.” Claudius was succeeded by his general Aurelian, who struck a mutually beneficial deal with the Goths (they wanted to stay) and then beat the shit out of the Alemanni (the Germans), who got so close to the gates of Rome that the senate panicked and fell back on religion, consulting “the Sibylline books.” Aurelian, far from being insulted at their lack of confidence in him, asked what had taken them so long and told them to spare no expense. Gibbon: “However puerile in themselves, these superstitious arts were subservient to the success of the war; and if, in the decisive battle of Fano, the Alemanni fancied they saw an army of spectres combating on the side of Aurelian, he received a real and effectual aid from this imaginary reinforcement.” And so the superiority of Rome was restored, but my train was still sitting between Jay and High Streets.

We finally moved again at 9:16, after twenty-two minutes. I was going to be at least twenty minutes late for my appointment. But instead of agonizing, I moved on: There were rebel emperors in the West and the East. Some really bad stuff was going down in Gaul. One Tetricus, puppet of his mother Victoria, was on the throne, but he was so afraid of his own army that he conspired with Aurelian to fake a civil war and then deserted; his soldiers “were cut in pieces almost to a man.”

I thought about hopping off the A train at Broadway/Nassau and switching to the Broadway line, but it is a long subterranean passage from the IND to the IRT, and it would be worth it only if the A train continued to be balky on its way uptown, something I had no way of predicting and no oracle to consult. So I stayed in my seat, hoping the obstruction had been cleared, and read about Zenobia, “the celebrated queen of Palmyra and the East.” Zenobia had been the wife (and hunting companion) of Odenathus, and took an interest in military campaigns. When Odenathus was assassinated by a nephew, his widow assumed the throne (and sacrificed the nephew). Gibbon goes on and on about her: “Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness.” In his enthusiasm, he resorts to italics IN HIS FOOTNOTES for the first time. (I have to represent italics with capitals.) “She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity [55] and valour.” (Footnote 55: “She never admitted her husband’s embraces but for the sake of posterity. If her hopes were baffled, in the ensuing MONTH she reiterated the experiment.”)

“Instead of the little passions which so frequently perplex a female reign, the steady administration of Zenobia was guided by the most judicious maxims of policy,” Gibbon writes. (I think this is a reference to PMS.) Still, it was unusual for a woman to be on any Roman throne, and though Claudius put up with it, Aurelian did not. The Roman army laid siege to Zenobia at Palmyra, or Tadmor—an oasis in the Arabian desert which, Oliphant Smeaton tells us, was built by Solomon—and she held out until all hope of reinforcements was gone. “It was then that Zenobia resolved to fly. She mounted the fleetest of her dromedaries,[72] and had already reached the banks of the Euphrates, about sixty miles from Palmyra, when she was overtaken by the pursuit of Aurelean’s light horse, seized and brought back a captive to the feet of the emperor.” (Footnote 72: “Though the camel is a heavy beast of burden, the dromedary, which is either of the same or of a kindred species, is used by the natives of Asia and Africa on all occasions which require celerity.”)

At this point, I finally got to Columbus Circle and switched from the A train to the No. 1. If trains were livestock, the A would be a camel; I should have switched to the dromedary.

Zenobia, meanwhile, sucked up to Aurelian, betrayed her Greek teacher—“the sublime Longinus”—and got a free trip to Rome, where she was paraded before the public in “fetters of gold.” (Gibbon credits Vopiscus, his source for the details of this pageantry, in a footnote, adding, “He relates the particulars with his usual minuteness; and on this occasion they HAPPEN to be interesting.”) Tetricus of Gaul was also part of the parade, and he was wearing pants. (Footnote 79: “The use of BRACCAE, breeches, or trousers, was still considered in Italy as a Gallic and barbarian fashion.”)

I got off the train on page 270, exactly twenty-two minutes late for my appointment. Zenobia set up housekeeping in Tivoli, lucky queen. The parade celebrating the triumph of Aurelian was still going on.


lucette said...

Z sounds like quite the woman, although I cannot quite like her attitude toward "advances."

erieblue said...

I love these footnotes. But perhaps I only love Gibbon and the footnotes through the lens of your discriminating eye, Alternate Side Parking Reader.