The Roman Empire reached its apogee on the evening of August 12th, 121 C.E. in the seaside city of Brundisium, in the province of Italia. At this time, the retired centurion Gaius Sextius Baculus and his wife Popillia were dining at the home of another retired centurion, Lucius Siccius Fortunatus, and his wife Minervina. Although the two veterans had served together for twenty-five years in the 13th Legion Gemina, they had not laid eyes on each other in over a decade. Shortly after their participation in the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of Dacia in 106 C. E., the two had both taken their retirement from the army and each set up a farm on a parcel of land allotted to them in two different regions of the newly acquired territory. After a few years, however, Fortunatus had sold his farm and returned to his native city of Brundisium, where he had married Minervina, his widowed childhood sweetheart. Baculus, who was also originally from Brundisium –the main reason why the two soldiers of the 13th had first bonded as young recruits– had returned to the city only a month ago, after receiving an inheritance. He had not known that Fortunatus was also back in the city until two days prior to this little dinner party, when, after having finished settling into his home in the newly developed Vicus Argentoratum, he had paid a visit to a childhood friend, who had filled him in on this and countless other items –full decades’ worth– of local news and gossip.
Baculus had promptly gone to call on his erstwhile comrade in arms, who lived in an elegant house in the neighbourhood of the thermae. An immensely surprised Fortunatus greeted him with great emotion. In physical appearance the two men had changed a good deal: The hair on their heads was thin and grey, and they had grown rather stout. Still, aside from a bad knee on Fortunatus’s part that gave him a slight limp, they were both in remarkably good health for their venerable age. Their gestures and facial expressions, furthermore, were just the same, and they were each glad to discover that the rapport with the other remained as effortless as it had always been. Fortunatus promptly invited Baculus and Popillia for a dinner to take place on the very next evening.
In the well-appointed triclinium they reclined on cushioned couches while the house slaves brought in a succession of elaborate appetizers. For the main course Minervina had (had) prepared a huge pot of Brundisian fish stew, which almost brought Baculus to tears owing to the deluge of memories that its taste carried back to him. Popillia, whom Baculus had met on a posting in Pannonia, and who had never visited Brundisium prior to their move there, for her part declared it to be one of the best dishes she had ever tasted.
The two wives discovered they had a shared passion for food, and conversation came easily between them, which was fortunate because in no time the two old centurions had dived headlong into a breathless confabulationwoven around a succession of names, each of which would lead to an outpouring of reminiscences, and still more names and more memories: “Do you remember that Marius… no, not Marius… Marcellus, Marcellus Icilius Dentatus? I saved that one’s hide more than once, I did! I remember at one point at Tapae, this great big hairy Dacian was running up to spear him from behind, and I rushed over with Gnaeus .. yes, you remember Gnaeus, Gnaeus Fabius Maxinius…” And so on. The times that the women did make an effort to break into their conversation, they invariably found themselves in the midst of one of countless shockingly violent anecdotes involving the slaying of barbarians in unexpected ways, which their husbands recounted to one another with great tears of laughter in their eyes. Fortunatus and Baculus both adored regaling friends and family with their old war stories, but how very wonderful it was to rekindle those memories in the presence of one who had been there also, who had known those same faces, those same dusty camps, and those far-off, terrifying battlefields. In the glow of that happy moment, even the many hardships and sorrows of those years seemed for the two soldiers to have been essential components of their experiences, for they could feel grateful that they had survived them all, and were as a result now capable of appreciating to the fullest the peace to be found in a comfortable and well-deserved retirement.
Later, after the slaves had cleared the last plates and the two women had retired to their sleeping quarters (Fortunatus’s home was on the other side of town from that of Baculus, so it had been agreed that the guests would stay the night), the two old soldiers stepped out into the peristyle garden, where they sat on adjacent marble benches with an amphora of wine, and continued talking long into the night. It was then that they allowed themselves to recall the names of certain women they had known in those wild frontier towns and far-flung fortresses in all different corners of the Empire. Were they still living? And if so, could it be possible -this after the whole amphora of strong Corcyrean wine had been drained to the lees- that they still thought of Fortunatus and Baculus sometimes? Had the thought ever occurred to the other man –Unbelievable to be saying this, thank Jupiter all this ridiculousness would be wholly forgotten in the morning– that one of those women might sometimes happen to be thinking of him at the very moment that he is thinking of her also?
The fragrance of flowers in the walled garden seemed heightened in the quiet and the darkness of the night. The two men’s faces were illuminated only by the light of the nearly full moon and from the flames of a pair of hanging olive-oil lamps, around which the circling moths’ wings flickered. A second amphora was unstopped, and gradually, everything that lay outside of the flowing and increasingly surprising conversation began to evaporate off into nothingness. It was as though the space enclosed between the four walls of the garden and the night sky above had become an isolated capsule, floating beyond the limits of space and time. The old centurions’ talk now veered into what was for them a wholly uncharacteristic speculative vein, of the kind that they had not struck upon since they were adolescents, if at all. What would their lives have been, they wondered, if they had never left Brundisium? What would their lives have been, for that matter, had they been born Dacians? Just how large would the moon appear if one could somehow get right up next to it? Is it not so strange, when one comes to think of it, that there is anything at all, even the gods? And was it not at least theoretically possible to imagine that, just as had happened to so many other great powers in the past, the Roman Empire, too, might one day cease to exist?