The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. This first excerpt is taken from the Prologue. Central to the novel’s theme are the two primary passions identified by the Stoics: appetite and fear. In the emperor Commodus we find both in abundance. His gluttony, and his terror, set the stage for what’s to come. Also, we get a first glimpse of his late father’s famous journal, The Meditations, perhaps the only copy extant at this time.
The Last Stoic: Extract One
Commodus did not notice the dusky figure lingering at the foot of the vast, marble bath, just beyond the candle glow. He was preoccupied with the parchment that Galen had presented to him earlier that evening; he spooled and unspooled it, glancing idly at the mass of script. Actually reading his late father’s journal, at this hour and in his condition, would take an effort he had no intention of summoning. He’d read as far as the second line…
Existimatione et recordatione genitoris mei ad verecundiam et animum viro dignum excitari debeo.
From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.
…and then was content to toy with it between his meaty fingers.
A scuffing of sandal leather against stone echoed through the caldarium. Commodus hoisted his body from one side of the pool to the other, scanning the shadows, choking back the familiar reflux. The cylinder of goatskin buckled under his tightened grip. Tepid water, viscous with a dozen oils and perfumes, slopped unctuously between his thighs and under his buttocks as he rolled over, exacerbating the churn of his stomach.
Earlier, he had forced down more bloody portions of that very rare roast beef than he was otherwise inclined, prodded by Marcia’s urging. And then there was the array of smelly cheeses from Belgica, olives from Apulia, the hen, quail, pigeon, peacock, and ostrich eggs, sea urchins from Misenum, mussels and clams from Ostia, potted hare and venison from the forests of Germania, pickled tuna and grilled mullet from the Hispanic coast, trout and pheasant from Britannia, broiled Egyptian flamingo stuffed with figs, roast side of Umbrian boar, sow’s udder, antelope tongue, sheep stomach, calf brains. The five cups of undiluted Falernian wine that sluiced down dinner were just enough to numb his gouty toes, but they constituted no more than an average evening’s drinking. Although he had vomited twice since dinner, once more than was typical, there was none of the customary reinvigoration.
“Who’s that? Identify yourself!”
The man padded forward. Candle-light flickered across his features, accentuating the lines of sinew and ridges of muscle. He gazed toward the emperor, handsome and haughty.
The emperor made a sound like air escaping slowly from a bladder.
“Not tonight Narcissus.”
The slave did not withdraw.
“Not tonight! I’m not well!”
Narcissus moved forward noiselessly and with purpose, like a leopard. Commodus watched; his burly jaw-hinge slackened. Narcissus moved behind the emperor and he began to massage his thickly knotted shoulders. Waves of pleasure rolled up his neck and down his back, tension melting under the forceful manipulations. For a moment, the warm sensation spreading out from the kneading fingers held at bay the discomfort threatening from his abdomen. But the nausea swelled again and Commodus was reminded of his slave’s appalling disobedience.
Quick fingers clenched around the emperor’s windpipe, treating him to the second great shock of the evening.
Commodus dropped the roll of parchment to the edge of the bath and clutched at the black, straining fingers pressing into his neck. He was larger and heavier than his assailant, but in his weakened state he was unable to resist. This was one wrestling match that the Nubian would not artfully lose.
The smile on the emperor’s face looked more like a grimace. At the time, it had seemed peculiar how no-one else had partaken of the roast beef. Now it was obvious. Poison. The extra regurgitation earlier had saved his life, temporarily. Frustrated, Marcia had sent Narcissus to finish the job. Commodus ground his teeth imagining her clandestine collaborations with the magnificent athlete, rutting with him like a bitch, by way of concluding the deal. Again, most inappropriately, he was aroused.
Narcissus, disgusted, poured every ounce of reserved strength into his constricting fingers. There was a loud pop of cracking vertebrae and tearing ligaments. As the oxygen dissipated from the emperor’s body, his resistance abated and he began to revert to a foetal position, crunching himself into a ball. From the emperor’s core a final chasm of fear yawned and caused an utter evacuation of his bowels. The cooling water of the bath, originally sweet with aromatics, now darkened and muddied into a foul broth. Through his diminishing consciousness, Commodus could see his father, standing on a distant hill, clad in gold armour, bathed in the warmth of a Mediterranean sun reflected and redoubled in its brilliance. The emperor began to cry the pure, unrestrained tears of a baby. In his fading reverie he called out to his father, but the distance was too great, and his words were carried away by the wind.
“Father,” Commodus mouthed, “forgive me.”
Narcissus stood, bent to retrieve the crumpled parchment from the stone floor, and turned to rejoin the shadows. The mass of the emperor’s body began to sink into the thick water until, with a soft burble, he submerged.
About the author:
Morgan Wade’s first novel, The Last Stoic, was edited by award-winning novelist Helen Humphreys (author of best-selling works such as The Reinvention of Love and Coventry). The Last Stoic made the 2012 ReLit Awards long list. Morgan’s short stories and poems have been published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies, including, The New Quarterly and The Nashwaak Review. He attended the Humber School of Writing where he worked and studied under novelist Michael Helm. Morgan lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
The Last Stoic is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter.
Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. His story offers an ancient commentary on the preoccupations of our own turbulent times. Shortly after his arrival, the empire is thrown into a panic by an unprecedented barbarian attack on the capital. Suspicion and paranoia abound. A young Roman/American runaway named Patrick, disillusioned with his own life and the state of his country, becomes convinced that Marcus is a dangerous traitor. Culminating in a public accusation made by Patrick, Marcus is wrongfully imprisoned, exiled and tortured as an enemy of the state. In prison, he confronts the many contradictions he has found in his adopted home, and in himself.
Throughout the story, in both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into Marcus’ life. In prison, he is saved by a chance meeting with Sextus Condianus, the “last Stoic” of the title, a cell-mate who is able to fully recite Aurelius’ words and impart their wisdom. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated and unbidden instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.