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 excerpt alternates back to ancient times. Marcus is wrongfully held in a Guantanamo-like prison camp far removed from civilization and prying eyes. He has been interrogated and tortured and feels like he can’t endure another day. In this chapter he first meets Sextus Condianus, a fellow prisoner who reminds him of his own grandfather. Sextus is able to recite The Meditations from memory and by his example he demonstrates to Marcus the real power of Stoicism.
The Last Stoic: Extract Three
The cage door was opened. Marcus ducked his head and folded himself in. He sat on the sparse pile of straw and sawdust and held his head in his hands. A cockroach scampered over his bare foot and up his calf until he swatted it away and into the debris, where it remained, teetering on the enameled hemisphere of its shell, upside down, the filaments of its half dozen legs cycling frantically.
It was a wheezy, anemic voice. Marcus raised an eye through splayed fingers. The ancient prisoner with the nimbus of white hair, the one who replaced Sebastianus, was still there. He looked back from the adjacent cage with a toothless smile.
“Having a hard time of it?”
Marcus buried his head further into his hands.
“Where are you from?”
“Britannia,” Marcus mumbled into his knees.
“A ha! Which town?”
“A delightful place!”
Marcus lifted his head slightly. “You know it?”
“I’ve been there several times. Do they still put on shows at that wonderful theatre?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I remember it well,” said the old man, the equatorial sun glinting off his weepy eyes. “It’s unique you know, the only theatre in Britannia, perhaps in all of Gaul, with a prominent stage for drama.”
“People come from miles around just for the theatre.”
“And who could blame them.”
“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been here.”
“I’m not sure. Two years, perhaps.”
“Before that, they had me at a camp in Pannonia. For five years or so.”
“Vae! Five years! How have you survived?”
“I haven’t sought out death.”
“Yes, but why haven’t they executed you. Like the others.”
“I suppose they think I still have something to offer, some information, some secret that makes them afraid.”
Marcus took a moment to study the man again, to reappraise. He sat motionless in the adjacent cage with a gummy, generous smile on his weathered face, thin enough to be translucent. He looked like he might expire at any moment. But here he was in one of the cramped cages, cross-legged and calm, stewing as they all were in the relentless heat, amid the filth, the roaches, and the dung. He appears, Marcus thought, to be happy.
The man neither drooled nor twitched. He didn’t jabber. He wasn’t pitching his own faeces around the cage. Sebastianus, with all of his rocking and chanting and shrieking could have been reasonably judged to be mad. But this old man? He gave the opposite impression. A light emanated from his clear blue eyes, watery and twinkling under the harsh, white rays of midday, that indicated a concentrated, distilled power. Marcus looked again. What if he’s lying? Maybe he’s working for the magistrate, infiltrating, tricking me into incriminating myself. Wouldn’t the furtive spy be more plausible than the jolly seven year prisoner?
“Who are you really?” Marcus asked, finally.
The old man chuckled amiably. “I already told you. Sextus Condianus.”
Marcus shook his head resolutely.
“I’ve heard the story of Sextus Condianus. He was older than my grandfather.”
“Look at me Marcus.”
“Yes, you’re old enough. But Sextus has been caught and executed, publicly.”
Marcus paused. “If you’re Sextus Condianus, why do they keep you here? Why aren’t you in Rome, on public display? Why haven’t they executed you properly?”
“I don’t know the mind of the emperor.”
“How have you survived? You’re…, with respect, you’re a very old man. I was ready,” Marcus gestured toward the smoker, “I was prepared to take my own life. I’ve been here only eleven days.”
“Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing happens to anybody which…”
“I heard you!” Marcus winced at the flash behind his eyes.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Is that supposed to be amusing? I’ve been beaten, dehydrated, drowned, roasted, starved, and sleep-deprived until I’m suicidal. A platitude? That’s not amusing at all. Clearly you haven’t been here for two years. Jupiter!” Marcus spat across his cage at the old man, as a way of punctuating his speech. “Is it a trifle what I’ve endured? It’s an insult. It’s absurd.”
“My apologies, young lad. I meant no offence.”
Marcus turned away.
“I assure you the statement is not empty; there is much power in it.”
Sextus Condianus tilted his head to the side, ready to snooze, drifting almost immediately. Marcus’ anger soon faded, replaced with ever-present fatigue. He lay his head against the bars and slept uncomfortably but deeply, dreaming of home. Sleep was brief. Soldiers returned to fetch Marcus to the magistrate. He cast a resentful eye at the dozy old prisoner lounging as though on a mattress of down and crisp linen.
Fool! It must be some comfort to be mad in a place like this.
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.