Chapter 3: The Mission

(a.d. 18—Thirty two years before Paul came to Corinth)

The remains of the Babbius Monument

The remains of the Babbius Monument

Babbius began the day in the ordinary way, the fiction of normalcy controlling his excitement and making the intervening hours almost bearable. 

He rose well before daylight, as was his custom, wrapping a cloak about his shoulders and padding barefoot across the atrium to begin the routine of stretching and bending that warmed his old body and eased his aching hips.  He was in his seventy-fourth year, and though he hid it well behind an animated face and an active schedule, he hurt constantly in his joints and back and would have given half his fortune to piss without pain.  But he kept such weaknesses buried like treasure, hidden from the notice of others, a habit he’d developed early and practiced long.

Calling softly to one of his domestics, he threw off the cloak and stood naked, unembarrassed, in the center of the atrium under the summer stars.  The slave brought a basin of perfumed water, a towel draped over his arm, and stood before his master as the old man rinsed his face and body.

“A very good morning to you, Master,” the slave murmured. “I trust you slept well?”

Babbius smiled crookedly.  “Like a virgin, Leonides,” he lied. His insistent bladder ruined his sleep most nights, sending him to the chamber pot with urgent demands where he blinked back tears in an attempt to find relief. But that was not the steward’s business. Or anyone else’s.

“May I say, Sir, that this is a great day for the house of Gnaeus Babbius.” He knew better than to add the hated ‘Philinus.’

Babbius looked at his servant with amusement.  “Really?  Why so?  Oh, yes.  Now I remember.  Is it today?”  He dropped the towel and headed back to his bed chamber to dress.  “I must be getting old. I’d forgotten all about it,” he said over his shoulder.  “Bring me some bread and broth.  And my appointments, if you would.  Even today, the work must go on.”

He smiled hugely to himself in the dark, knowing that only the work would keep him from coming out of his skin over the next few hours.

_________

He’d been fourteen that fateful day when Quintus Cornelius Pulcher ordered him up Acrocorinth and unrolled the maps that foretold the future. 

It was the one significant thing in all his life Babbius came to early.

The merchant grumbled when Quintus dumped the boy on him. “Don’t need another mouth to feed.”

Quintus shook the boy by the shoulder and told the merchant, “He’ll be feeding you soon enough, I’ll wager.”

The boy and the merchant signed a contract for apprenticeship—ten years of the boy’s life in exchange for a chance to learn the business. Steep. But Babbius, hungry and tired of shoveling dirt, figured the cost was worth it.

He took to the work like a dog to a bone; he needed no encouragement to gnaw. Over time, his raw enthusiasm developed into competence. And competence matured into a sure instinct for profit. Even during his apprenticeship, Babbius made his patron a great deal of money. So much, that when the ten years were finished, the merchant found ways to bind the young man to himself for another ten.  He made an associate of Babbius, dangling promises of partnership before the young man on occasion—the formalities of which he always managed to defer to an elusive future. Babbius did most of the sweating but enjoyed few of the rewards. The merchant grew rich while Babbius grew more resentful by the year.

But Babbius never let his outrage show.  He simply did his work, kept his eyes open, and waited. He grew the business. He expanded markets. He made money for his suppliers and customers. He did favors. He flattered and bribed. He made himself useful to all manner of men. He made himself invaluable to a few.

And each week, for all those long years, he made himself walk across Corinth to knock on the merchant’s door and endure the onerous salutatio. He waited while other, lesser, men were ushered in to see the merchant ahead of him—a snub that reminded him weekly of his place. When his turn came at last, he sat with the merchant to report on contracts and markets, profits and loss. And each week, holding his nose, Babbius found yet another way to grovel before the man he loathed.

When, at last, his patron had the decency to die, he willed the business to two profligate and stupid sons. He generously provided that Babbius could keep his job, though he left him nothing else. Babbius was not surprised.

One of the men to whom he’d offered invaluable service over the years was a city magistrate. Quietly, Babbius asked him to the invalidate the will, ensuring that the sons were left nothing with which to be profligate.  They howled, of course. But as it turned out, there were so many Corinthian merchants who owed their livelihood to Babbius’s brains and hard work, so many Corinthian politicians and officials who relied on his influence and contacts, there was no one left in the city to hear the protests of the sons. 

Thus it was that at the age of thirty four, twenty years after the founding of Corinth and in the ninth year of Augustus’ imperium, Gnaeus Babbius finally became his own man.

It took ten more years of grinding, ceaseless work to transform his “inheritance” into the largest fortune in Corinth—at forty five, he was a very wealthy man indeed.  Only then did he take a wife, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a respectable associate, and begin a family.  A son, Gnaeus Babbius Italicus, was born in his forty-seventh year.  A daughter, Babbia, entered the world a year after that.  His young wife, her duty to provide progeny done, died in childbirth.

And still he worked.  Long past the age when most men of his station and means gave themselves to public service and the challenge of adding to vast fortunes a reputation of equal size, Babbius labored on—the hungry child for whom enough was never enough.  Certainly he collected clients along the way and spent each morning visiting with the men who filled his atrium.  But their talk was limited to business and the market.  His favors were of the commercial kind.  He couldn’t be bothered with politics.  Where was the profit in that?

It was in his fifty-fifth year that, one morning, he found his father-in-law sitting in the atrium, waiting among his clients for an audience.

__________

“Marcus Plotius!  What a pleasure.  Please, come in.” He led the grandfather of his children into the study and sat, not behind the desk, but in an adjacent chair.  “To what do I owe this honor?”

“Gnaeus Babbius,” the man inclined his head politely. “Forgive me for intruding, but there is a matter I must discuss with you.  Shall we exchange pleasantries or get right to the point?”

Babbius chuckled and sat back in his chair.  It was a quality he had always admired in his associate, not least because he shared the quality himself—an impatience with anything that delayed getting down to business.  He gestured to his companion, inviting him to continue.

“As you know, I’ve always found our relationship profitable.  I am grateful to you for my grandchildren, even as I continue to mourn the loss of my Claudia.”

“As do I,” Babbius responded.  “As do I.”

“It’s about your children, my daughter’s children, that I must speak to you today.  It’s about their future.” He paused to take a breath, rehearsing the words he’d practiced with such care, gauging the impact those words would make on the proud and successful man before him.

Babbius frowned. “I assure you, they’re being well cared for, Plotius.  As to their future, I can show you the provisions I’ve made in my will. Is that what this is about?”

“No, no.” Plotius waved the question away.  “I know they have the best pedagogues, the finest tutors.  And they’ll be rich as Croesus after you’re gone. But that’s not what I came to talk about.”

Babbius raised both hands in alarm.  “I won’t marry again, Plotius.  I won’t give them a surrogate mother.  A wife would take too much time from work.”

“Aha!” Marcus Plotius pounced, sitting forward in his seat.  “That is what I want to talk about.  Not another marriage. Not a step-mother for my grandchildren. Your unrelenting, undistracted focus on business!”

Babbius gave a puzzled look, confused and vaguely offended.  “My friend, I work very hard. But I’m still a good father.  I don’t neglect my children.”

Marcus Plotius sat back, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Babbius, would you please shut up and let me talk?”  An awkward silence hung between them, until Plotius cleared his throat and began again.  “If all you leave these children is a fortune, you will do them and the memory of their mother a grave disservice.  There is more in life for a man like you than work and money, Babbius!  And there is more you can give your children than a bank account and a thriving business!”

“What?  What do you mean?”  Now it was Babbius who sat forward, spreading his hands in confusion.

Gravitas, you dolt! Dignitas! Respect!  A name that stands for more than wealth! A family reputation for public service and the betterment of Corinth!  A legacy, and not just an inheritance!”  The words were strong and strongly put.  But even in the heat of speaking them, Marcus Plotius was careful to keep his voice from rising and carrying his words to the servants and clients outside.

Babbius was stunned.  “You’ve never shown any interest in public service, Plotius.” He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “We’ve laughed at the kind of men who put politics before business; the kind of men who care more about their social standing than their assets.” He looked closer at his friend. “Why this sudden interest in my legacy?”

Plotius grimaced. He found the topic difficult, too personal. “You’re right. I’ve not paid attention to any of that. I’ve made a little money. I’ve made a few friends. I’m content. But I’m not you.  I don’t have your resources or your abilities or your client base.  Even if I wanted to, I don’t have what it takes to make a mark on this city.  You do.  And that’s what I want for my grandchildren.  A father whom this city respects.  A name that Corinthians will honor and remember.”

Babbius shrugged. “My money buys me all the respect I need.”

“You’re wrong, my friend.  It won’t buy you distinction. It won’t convey gravitas to my grandchildren.”  Babbius started to object, but Plotius cut him off.  “No! Listen!  A hundred years from now, no one will remember that Gnaeus Babbius ever lived.  It doesn’t matter how much money you accumulate or how successful you’ve been in business.  History doesn’t remember men for such things.  History only takes note of men who devote their energies to building something bigger than themselves.  Men are measured by the size of their causes, Babbius.  Making yourself rich is not a cause big enough to matter.”

The two men sat quietly after that, listening to those words echo around the room. 

Babbius opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again.  He wanted to say something and tried once more to speak, but still the words would not come.  He stared at the far wall, looking past his friend for some place to hang his thoughts. His jaw clenched. His eyes blinked. He remembered Quintus Cornelius Pulcher. The greatest man he’d ever know. A man with a cause. A man he respected—and Babbius was stingier with his respect than with his money.

Plotius watched those thoughts wash across his friend’s face—epiphany, comprehension, conviction. He judged that his words must have found their mark. It dawned on him that this was the first time he’d ever taken Babbius by surprise, that his face was doing something it rarely did—reflecting the real man rather than hiding him. He tried not to show his satisfaction.

Finally, Babbius managed to croak, “I will consider what you’ve said, Marcus Plotius.”

His father-in-law got up and went to the door.  “That’s all I can ask.”

When Leonides knocked an hour later, concerned his master was keeping clients waiting so long, Babbius told him to send them home.  “I’m not well,” he grumbled.  “I don’t plan to be well for several days.”

He did not go to the warehouse that afternoon or the next day or the day after.  He refused all visitors and most food.  Three days after speaking to his father-in-law, Babbius sold his business to one of his most promising clients—maintaining, of course, majority interest as a silent partner.  And when, once again, he began to receive clients, they all noted a different tenor to their conversations. 

Oh, they still talked money and markets.  But now Babbius asked about the workings of the Senate.  He wanted to hear about the men who were shaping Corinthian law and culture. He seemed interested to know who might be seeking elected office and whether they needed his help and backing.

It took another five years of hard work, but in the thirty-fifth year of Augustus’s imperium, at the unlikely age of sixty, Gnaeus Babbius Philinus was elected aedile—city manager for Corinth.  As in everything else, he was late coming to the position.  Most of those who preceded him in the post had been half his age.  Indeed, his years might have disqualified him entirely had other, younger candidates not withdrawn suddenly from the race.  His immense wealth discouraged them apparently. Or encouraged them, the wags said.

At the close of his term, he was enrolled as a member of the Corinthian senate, where he served with distinction for the next three years.

At the age of sixty-four, he was elected pontifex and spent his entire term in cynical amusement, overseeing the civic sacrifices and reading the entrails of geese for propitious signs to support the Senate’s decisions.

Three years later, Babbius became duovir of Corinth, the highest elected office in the city. He was the only sixty-seven-year-old duovir in Corinthian history, and the last ex-slave to hold the position.  A year later, Augustus decreed that only free-born men were eligible to hold such powerful posts in colonies of the Empire. 

It was sometime between his terms as pontifex and duovir that Babbius settled on an appropriate means of crowning his public service.  He would bestow upon Corinth an act of benefaction.  He would erect a civic monument.  And, with all humility, he would engrave upon it a dedication to ensure his name would be remembered by history and honored by later generations of Corinthians.

__________

Babbius opened a drawer at his desk and took out the speech. He was no sophist and no one had ever accused him of being eloquent.  But he’d developed enough rhetorical competence over the years to avoid embarrassing himself.

He went over each word carefully, committing to heart (for the hundredth time) the message and phrasings and gestures.  It was an important speech, perhaps the most important of his life.  But Babbius didn’t feel particularly nervous about it.  His real speech would be the monument itself.  The message it carried would last long after these ephemeral words were forgotten.

“My fellow Corinthians!  Sons of Sisyphus! Daughters of Aphrodite!” he whispered, closing his eyes and letting the words carry him through to the end.  The trick with speaking, he knew, was to make it all seem effortless, to show none of the work that lay behind the words, to speak as if it were an easy thing, words tossed off casually and at little cost.  This is just how my mind works, the speech must say.  I always think this precisely and communicate this clearly.  Don’t you? A good speech should leave the hearer impressed with the speaker and ashamed of his own muddled thinking and slow tongue.  That kind of speech builds a reputation and conveys status.  It sets a man apart.

When he was sure of the words, he tore the manuscript into small pieces, destroying any evidence of forethought.  It was time and he was ready.

________

“My fellow Corinthians!  Sons of Sisyphus! Daughters of Aphrodite!” He spoke loudly, conscious of projecting from his diaphragm while keeping his voice as deep as possible.  On this occasion, he was required to speak at the limits of his lungs, for the agora was a large venue and it was filled to bursting with eager listeners. 

True, Babbius had sent messengers into the poorer sections of the city promising a distribution of food and coin to all who attended the unveiling—hunger accounted for much of the crowd.  But he was gratified to see the cream of Corinthian society in attendance as well: his fellow senators, business associates, his clients clustered in a vocal and supportive knot.  Even his detractors were present, hoping no doubt that Babbius would stumble in his speech or unveil an architectural monstrosity of such stunning offense that the crowd would spontaneously tear it to pieces.

“For long years this great city has given to me.  As most of you know, I arrived with the first boats over sixty years ago.  When I came to Corinth, I had nothing. I was destitute, without prospects, an ex-slave with a dim future.”

“And a stupid name,” a competitor whispered maliciously.

“This great city,” Babbius opened his arms wide as if to embrace her and all who called her home, “has fed and sheltered me, protected and prospered me, befriended and honored me.  Corinth gave me work and work led to wealth.  Corinth gave me a wife and then welcomed my children.  Corinth honored me with positions of public service and trust.  What a great city!  Jewel of the Peloponnesus. Crown of Achaia.  Favored city of the gods!” 

The crowd, prompted by the servants Babbius had spread through the agora, cheered and clapped and celebrated.

He stood at the west end—admittedly not the best place from which to address a large crowd, since it required him to project over the entire length of the agora.  But the west end was where his monument was sited and Babbius wanted the draped mass to serve as the backdrop for his speech. 

“Over the years, I’ve watched others give to this city. We all enjoy the gifts of Claudius Julius Caesar Octavius, the Divine and August One. We worship at the restored and rededicated Temple of Apollo,” he pointed north toward the Old Temple. “We vote in a beautiful basilica,” he gestured toward the huge hall with its front columns carved in the likeness of long-haired barbarians. “We drink and draw water from the Peirene Fountain, and gather for entertainment at the theater.  All because of the generosity of our Emperor to this great city!”  Again the crowd erupted in cheering.

Babbius waited, smiling, for the noise to subside.  “But many others have given to Corinth.  Some blessed us with public baths.  Others erected statues to recall our past or honor the gods.  At their own expense, noble Corinthians have paid for games in times of joy and bread in times of famine. They’ve constructed schools and temples, roads and gardens, fountains and libraries.

“And why have they done these things? For personal glory?  For praise and honor?  No!  Such rewards are the result of generosity, not the reason for it.  These benefactors gave their gifts for the simple pleasure of benefiting their fellow citizens and beautifying our fair city!”

Another member of the crowd, not a friend, was reaching his limit. “I may well be sick,” he whispered at a volume that would make a thespian proud.

“Is it too much that we honor these men, the first citizens of our city, and remember their names and speak of them with gratitude?  I stand today to give homage to such men.  We are blessed to share this city with them!” The grateful roar rising up from the crowd felt like a caress.  Oh, he could see a few rolling their eyes and pulling faces, contemptuous of this transparent ploy to buy the affections of the city. Babbius didn’t care.  It was the name of Gnaeus Babbius the citizens of Corinth would be reading on the monument centuries hence.   

He was almost finished. “And now, after all these years of receiving Corinth’s gifts and watching others give to our great city, I am honored to give something myself.  A monument.  But not to the gods.  Nor to an emperor or philosopher.  Not to a past victory or some other event from our history.”  He turned to grasp the rope that would release the draping and display his offering.

“This is a monument to Corinth itself, to its spirit and culture, to the opportunities it affords to those who grasp them, to the possibility that any Corinthian can do anything and rise to any height.  This is a monument to you,” he gestured to the crowd, “the living heart of Corinth; a reminder that dedication and skill and a little luck are all anyone needs to excel in Corinth.  This is a monument to every hungry boy who dares ask, ‘How can I get ahead in Corinth? How can I make something of myself?’ and has the will to spend his life pursuing the answers.”

Artist's rendition of the Babbius Monument

Artist's rendition of the Babbius Monument

With that, Babbius pulled the rope and allowed the drape to slide from the roof, down the pillars, to rest like a discarded toga at the feet of some beautiful woman.  The crowd took a collective breath and then stood silently, studying the structure. 

It was not large, but deliberately proportioned to the fountain and temples behind it.  The eight columns, delicate and finely fluted, were arranged in a circle and capped by ornately carved capitals.  On these rested the architrave, circular and graceful and crisply fashioned.  And above it all, like a pine cone formed in red marble tiles, sat a roof of surprising delicacy. 

It was beautiful and elegant and pleasing to the eye. 

And the crowd recognized at once that it had not the slightest utility.  There was no altar for sacrifices, no benches for seating.  The roof was too small and high to provide shelter against rain or sun.  It boasted no statues.  It’s only art work was itself. It did not attempt to justify its existence by being practical. It stood in Corinth’s agora for no other reason than that it was exquisite. 

At last, the spell broke and the crowd began to clap and shout and surge toward the monument.  Babbius was forced to move aside to avoid their press. Most of them did not understand how such a monument might symbolize the entrepreneurial spirit of their city.  They would soon forget the speech and there were no words carved in the stone which spoke of ‘dedication,’ ‘skill,’ or ‘success.’ It didn’t matter.  If they did not understand the message, they could appreciate the structure.

But Babbius understood.  In bold Latinate letters carved around the architrave and, again, into the marble floor, was the simple inscription: GN BABBIUS PHILINUS, AEDILIS PONTIFEX DE SUA PECUNIA FACIENDUM CURAVIT IDEMQUE IIVIR PROBAVIT.  (“Gnaeus Babbius Philinus, aedile and pontifex, had this monument erected at his own expense, and he approved it in his official capacity as duovir.”)

Babbius stood to the side, staring at his gift to the city.  The structure, of course, was a monument to himself.  It was he who was the true monument to the city. The slave become millionaire. The nobody who rose to the top. The hungry kid with nothing more than brains and boldness and a vast capacity for work.

That few would be able to follow in his steps didn’t matter.  That a few could was what counted. The tears came to his eyes so quickly, he barely covered the emotion before his peers gathered around to offer congratulations.  He realized he had a right to be proud at this moment.  But what he felt most were the pangs of a distant hunger and a vast gratitude for the city that gave him daily bread.   

Gnaeus Babbius Philinus died within the year.  But his monument stood for centuries.  More to the point, thirty two years after the dedication ceremony, a new-comer to Quintus Cornelius Pulcher’s city stood before Gnaeus Babbius Philinus’s monument and read the inscription that bore his name. 

The stranger was a Jew who had journeyed many miles, driven by a hunger of his own.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.