Mithridates raised his head. It was as heavy as lead owing to the mishaps of the preceding few days. But the noise outside the palace penetrated his consciousness and urged him back to wakefulness.
The palace of the kings of the Bosporus was as old as the city of Pantica- paeum, and, like the city, had a faintly musty smell. Perhaps it smelled of the corn piled high in the harbour, moist from the rain, with birds picking at it for all they were worth. Ships that were to take it away, had been delayed. The Bosporus Thracius was in Roman hands, and the overripe corn was poisoning the city, the palace, the king's soul.
As a child, Mithridates used to call the city Ponticapaeum, thinking naively that its name derived from the Pontus Euxinus. Not until much later, when he came there to accept the crown from Paerisades,3 did he learn that there was nothing in common between Pontus and Panticipaeum. The city was named after a creek called Panticap, meaning "the way of the fish". At one time Mithridates hoped to inject new life into the city and make it a second Sinope. But wars had left him no time to embellish Panticapaeum. Everything remained as before. Even the king's bed stood where Paerisades had had it.
The sons of Mithridates dozed without a care in the world. The war raged on the other side of the Black Sea. It consumed more blood and more bread. Ships with food and mercenaries sailed endlessly from Panticipaeum to Sinope. But the Roman legions inspired terror. And the sons of Mithridates simply refused to understand why their father would not follow the example of the kings of Bithynia and make peace with Rome, accepting its supremacy. They did not want to leave Pantica- paeum. That repulsive city had infected them with its life style and its jaded calm.
Mithridates, however, had no intention of locking himself up in this walled city on a hill. He had only come there in the break before the next battle. Pursued by Pompey, he had withdrawn to recruit more soldiers. His criers pranced up and down the streets on their horses, rousing the sleepy populace, promising glory and gold to the free and freedom to the slaves. But the denizens of Panticapaeum were accustomed to their shuttered houses, the city square with its dusty and sparse plane trees, and the smell of rotting corn. Mithridates understood and left them alone. Let the wretched traders rot in their musty town. He would take the Scythians to fight Rome. He had sent his daughters to the Scythian kings. He, king of kings, would let their sons marry his daughters so long as they provided him with their fine mounted archers, whom he would lead across the Scythian steppes and over the mountains of Thrace to the Alps. He would cross the Alps as Hannibal had done a century and a half before, and would deal with Rome as the Romans had dealt with Carthage — wiping the city off the face of the earth, putting its territory to the plough and filling the furrows with salt.
The noise outside became ever more insistent. Mithridates cocked his ears. No, those were not the Scythians he was waiting for and whom he trusted. Those were his own men! Mutiny? He could hear the name of Pharnaces repeated over and over.
What had made Pharnaces take the road of treason? Did Pompey mean more to him than his own father? The purple mantle! Haifa century before, it had prompted him, too, to break into the palace at Sinope and depose his mother, whom he imprisoned. So, could he now count on the loyalty of his sons?
Mithridates put his feet on the floor. The cold of the stone made them tingle. Squaring his shoulders, he felt just as strong as the day he carried wounded Pharna- ces from the field of battle. Him he had preferred to all his other sons. And never concealed his feelings. He had promised him all his riches, and also his throne.
He called his servant, a Galat, who appeared immediately, ready to do his master's bidding. The reddish scars marking his face could tell a lot about his life, which had abounded in battles. Time and again, the Galat had saved Mithridates from dagger and poison. What could he do now?
"My mantle!" Mithridates said.
The servant did not move. It was as though he had not heard or understood the order. Why did his master, who had worn a chiton for weeks, suddenly desire to put on the mantle? Or, perhaps, the king did not know what he knew of the night's happenings?
"I told you to bring me the mantle. Do as I say," Mithridates said vexedly, wondering why his bodyguard was not his usual obedient self.
As though coming to his senses, the Galat went out the door, and returned a few minutes later with the soft and cool mantle, which he draped round his mas- ter's shoulders.
The king approached the bronze mirror on the wall. Pharnaces was not as tall. Perhaps that was the reason for his hostility and envy.
Turning abruptly, Mithridates headed for the exit. The edge of the mantle slid across the mosaic design of the floor. An artist had been employed by Paerisades depict how Iphigenia, the king's daughter, had been saved from the sacrificial knife and taken to Tauris, where she was made priestess at the Temple of Artemis. It was a popular legend among the local Greeks. And there was something in it from Mith- ridates's own life. Like Agamemnon's son called Orestes, he had avenged his father's death by deposing his mother. He was also pursued by enemies. But he had no Pylades. And no Iphigenia.
A wind from the hills of the Caucasus breathed coolness. The mantle billowed, showing the king's broad shoulders and straight back. At sixty, Mithridates was still a powerful man. No less strong than in the days when he did not hesitate to challenge renowned masters of the art of fisticuffs. He had a head of thick ginger hair like a lion's mane. Could he, Lion of the East, surrender to the Roman she-wolf?
Those down below did not see Mithridates's face. Their eyes were riveted on the purple mantle. He had challenged them by putting it on.
No, this was no tribunal like the one of Orestes, his mother's killer. These were not judges, only accusers. Their ears were deaf to his excuses. They wanted his abdi- cation and death.
Mithridates approached. Now he could see the city square. Left of the Temple of Apollo were the black chitons of the people of Pontus. These he had led against the Romans in Bithynia. They followed him in retreat across the torrid hills of Armenia. They were with him as he crossed the rapid streams of Iberia near Cachis.They were Greeks from Sinope and Amisus — shepherds, mountaineers. For them he was more than king; he was an idol. They would not hesitate to follow him to the edge of the world. What had made them gather in the square?
The chitons of the Roman turncoats were like pink blotches in the oblique rays of the sun. Veterans of the armies of Marius and Sertorius, they had fled from Sulla's proscriptions. Mithridates had given them asylum, and paid them generously out of his treasury. They restructured his army on the Roman model, and taught his men to handle Roman arms. Time and again, the Romans had offered him peace if he only surrendered the turncoats. Pompey's envoys heard his invariable reply: "I do not trade in friends." Those words were recorded by chroniclers and would go down in history.
He saw the blue on the edge of the square. It was as though the sea had joined the crowd in the square. His seamen! In days of defeat and disaster Mithridates could always count on the fleet, which had earned him martial glory. He knew that as long as the shores of Sinope, Trebizond, Dioscurias, Theodosia, and Chersonesus were guarded by his navy, the Roman legions would not pass!
Mithridates looked over the heads of the people. These few instants gave him that clarity of vision which comes once in a lifetime, like love. He surveyed his past life. It was like a river meandering across the steppes. At its source it had absorbed countless little streams. His memory recalled the men who had given him wisdom, who sacrificed their lives for him and had asked nothing in return. Had they had his gratitude? No, he accepted their sacrifices as a natural tribute. Other streams flowed the other way. The sands of his life were running out. He could not bear the solitude that came with power.
"Pharnaces! Pharnaces!" the crowd yelled.
Mithridates's face was distorted by the agonising pain. He raised his hands to his shoulders and tore at the mantle. It resisted. Finally, he tore it from his body as though it was his skin.
The purple mantle soared over Panticapaeum. The soldiers watched it fly over the square like a giant blood-stained bird searching for a new victim.
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