The (Roman) Empire Strikes Back:
An Interview With John the Eunuch

Conducted by Susan McBride
From The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd.

After reading Two for Joy, the second installment in the John the Eunuch Series by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, I had the strongest urge to pursue an interview, not with the authors who had so painstakingly detailed the investigations in Constantinople that had made John renowned for his detecting skills, but with John himself.

After all, hes no ordinary snoop. For starters, he wears a toga, not a trench coat, and he serves as chief attendant to Caesar - not a usual occupation for an amateur sleuth. It wasn't easy, but by pulling a few strings, I was able to arrange a meeting. Carefully transcribed below is our conversation.

SUSAN McBRIDE - John, thank you so much for granting me this interview. First, I'd like to know how you feel about your role as a - um, detective. Is solving crimes something you had imagined you would do?

JOHN - Since my duty as Lord Chamberlain is to serve Emperor Justinian, solving crimes at his behest is part of that role - but I must add not as large a part as it might appear to readers.

As a youth I never imagined being entrusted with solving crimes. My first ambition was to be a soldier. However, mysteries sought me out, even while I was a mercenary in Bretania, a fact about which fortunately my chroniclers seem unaware. Then too, I am not surprised to be ordered to solve occasional mysteries for the emperor because that was how I first came to his attention. Indeed, it had some bearing on my appointment as Lord Chamberlain - although it concerned a matter it would be unwise to speak about even today.

What qualities do you possess that make you so successful at these investigations? Does your - and pardon my bringing this up - being a eunuch make it easier to concentrate on the facts at hand without distraction?

This is a question that I have been asked before, and as before I ask the questioner to consider this: Is a soldier who loses a leg or an eye on the battlefield better able to concentrate?

But we should also remember that it's commonly thought that eunuchs, that is to say those poor individuals who are prevented from attaining their essential natures, are of greater value to their masters by virtue of being untroubled by normal appetites or family loyalties. Having been wounded as a young man, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. But there is no doubt that my accidental capture and its result brought me to Constantinople.

In turn, this eventually led to a situation where I am presented with an occasional mystery to solve. As to why I have been successful in solving the mysteries I have encountered so far - who can say? Why is it that most of us, given a chisel and a block of marble, would produce a pile of rubble while the sculptor gives the world a perfect image of, say, the Emperor Constantine?

My method is to seek out and consider every possible piece of information concerning the crime. In deciding where to look and in evaluating what I find, I attempt to use my power of reason as dispassionately as possible. I have a habit, it is true, of speaking to a mosaic girl on the wall of my study. I call her Zoe and I know that this habit alarms my servant Peter, but really, it is just a way I have of marshaling my thoughts. Why, when I have followed these methods, my mind has inevitably at some point made a sudden leap across the gap between what I know and what I want to know, is something that is truly a mystery, and I prefer not to dwell on it too much, for it may well be some gift of the gods of which I may be deprived when I most need it.

Do you ever think, "Why did I go across the damned border to try to buy silk in the first place?" I mean, that one trip changed your life forever.

There is not a morning when I do not think of it as soon as I awaken, yet I have made it my rule to shake off the black cloud of regret and anger and begin the new day as best I can.

Which brings me to another question. Had you never crossed the border and been captured, what would you be doing now instead of serving as Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor?

I've seen the world and lived in a number of places - Bretania and Alexandria, for example - and would have been happily content to have married my lover Cornelia and returned to Greece to farm and raise a family. If Fortuna had allowed that, I would hope that when the day's labors were done, there would have been time after the lamps were lit to read a little philosophy before retiring. To live in obscurity may sound a strange ambition for a Lord Chamberlain, but it is the life I would have chosen.

As you may realize, the holiday season is upon us. There are elements of the Christian celebration of Christmas that are pagan, such as the symbol of the tree. Just wondering how a follower of Mithra will spend this holiday season. Will Peter be whipping up any eggnog or cooked goose?

Bear in mind that Christmas is not that ancient a feast day for Christians and that there were and are many older solar festivals held around the same time of year. Perhaps the best known is the Roman festival of Saturnalia, several days of celebration of the winter solstice with widespread - and often extremely drunken - merriment and buffoonery as well as the temporary reversal of social order and the bestowal of extravagant gifts. Then too, for Mithrans December 25th has long been a holy day (although we do not speak over loudly about it in public!) because in 274 Emperor Aurelian declared it the day of the Birth of the Invincible Sun, honoring Lord Mithra.

Regarding Christmas celebrations at the present time, however, it's not much over a century since Emperor Theodosius forbade the holding of circus games on the day, and only eight or so years since Emperor Justinian declared it to be an official holiday from labor. Celebrations of the birthday of the Christian's gentle god tend to be of a more religious nature although in most private households doubtless there is also gift gifting and specially prepared meals, just as there are for all joyous occasions.

Do you exchange gifts with the Emperor? What does one buy Caesar, a man who has everything?

Even a man who has everything appreciates gifts, and the more costly and elaborate the better - as many ambassadors sent to court from far off lands will attest!

However, it is not my custom to present Christmas gifts to the emperor and empress although many others in fact do so. I do always give Peter the day off in honor of the celebration of his god's birth plus a few folles as a token of good wishes. It took me some time to persuade him to accept, for he fretted about my not having proper meals on the day. However, having convinced him that I am content with bread and cheese, he now accepts both with a merry heart. And to anticipate your next question, yes, certain of us at court do observe Mithra's birthday but I am not permitted to divulge details to one who is not an adept. I am certain you understand.

As you attended the Academy and have a bit of a background in philosophy, what do you imagine society will be like, say, in the year 2000? Do you think there will be less crime? Will the Hippodrome hold up - human nature being what it is?

An interesting invitation, to speculate about a world I will not see. With respect, it is the Christians, I think, who have set people's spiritual gaze on a distant future the human eye is not designed to see, and thus I do not overly concern myself with it. However, my belief is that even as far away as 2000, any changes for the better in human nature will remain a hope for a still more remote time beyond even then.

So I do not think there will be less crime in the future, nor will the motivations for it be any different. When I was in Egypt I saw pyramids that by all accounts are more ancient than the Hippodrome will be in this year you mention. Certainly modern Roman builders are as skilled as the Egyptians of times past and the Hippodrome is solidly built. I believe that it will still be there, although who knows who will be ruling the empire by then?

Roman civilization will also survive, provided Fortuna blesses us with emperors of vision and ability such as Justinian. Reports received here at court show us that, even in Italy, how eagerly the German invaders embrace everything that is Roman.

On the other hand, Zeno, the uncle of my young friend Anatolius, has a much more exotic vision of the future. He has recently become enamored of certain mechanical devices of the sort written about by the inventor Hero of Alexandria - self-trimming lamps, doors that open seemingly of their own accord, that sort of thing. He believes the world will some day be teeming with these things. But then he also agrees with Cosmas, who declares that the world is shaped like the Ark of the Covenant. However, if the Christians are correct, as I understand their beliefs, the world as we know it will have passed away before the year 2000.

Are you acquainted with Mary Reed and Eric Mayer? What comments do you have on these, these scribes?

The scriveners who are recording some of the more colorful episodes of my life? Accurate biographers indeed - which means they would be in some danger if they lived at the imperial court, for they know far too much about everyone by a long Chalke! Anatolius, who's the emperor's secretary as well as a poet, finds their writing style annoyingly "undignified." He complains about the informality of their style and laments the absence of allusions to the classics. Being a man of simple tastes, however, I am not so troubled by these shortcomings, especially considering the authors' lack of Greek or Latin!

Do you enjoy being the center of attention? Because, you do realize that you're a celebrity now John, do you not?

I trust that your kind comment will not come to the attention of the empress, for at court it's dangerous to draw attention to oneself! However, fortunately for me, should it become necessary for my investigations, not many people would recognize me in ordinary clothing rather than formal court robes, perhaps underlining the wisdom of the old saying about mistaking the plumage for the bird.

How can your fans reach you?

A message sent to my biographers at will receive my attention fairly quickly.

And again, thank you for your time, Lord Chamberlain.

Thank you. And now would you care for a cup of wine, even if it is of the raw Egyptian vintage about which Anatolius' constantly complains?

Susan McBride is author of the mystery novels AND THEN SHE WAS GONE (Mayhaven, 2000) and OVERKILL (Mayhaven, 200l)

2000 The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd., for Web site content and design, and/or writers, reviewers and artists where/as indicated.

2000 The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd., for Web site content and design, and/or writers, reviewers and artists where/as indicated.

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