Today’s post is a birthday present for Mr. Marcus, so a very many happy returns to him. Felicem diem natalem, my love. Ubi te gaius, ego gaius.
And, today’s post is a story, starring the aforementioned–his favourite kind of story. In particular, this is the story of Marc’s appearance at the 2017 Ludi Romani.
For context: The Ludi Romani or “Roman Games” were/are about a week long set of festivals intended to praise Jupiter. They are Marc’s favourite set of games, for the pure and dear reason that he loves Rome and its celebrations and its people to the point of tears. He loves the dramas, and the memory of attending them with Porcia and then discussing them long into the night over vino. He loves the sheer number of athletic contests and the feeling of surrounding himself with people who honour their bodies and so honour their city. He loves the opening and closing ceremonies, over which he presides as a priest of the state. And most of all, he loves the chariot races.
In his day, Marcus didn’t race in official games. In fact, he was known as ‘that bloke what adores his horse too much to enter into contest,’ on account of the winning horses often being sacrificed to the gods.
But he’d race Nox in unofficial games. And he’d win. Of course he would.
So now, without the looming threat of sacrifice, Marc and Nox race at the Ludi Romani, filling out their triga–chariot of three–with Stella and Luna, two mares.
It’s quite the striking chariot team, must say. Nox is inky black, hence the name, and he’s impressively large for a race horse. In fact he’s technically not meant for the chariot–he’s for war. But he loves running, and Marc loves running him. Stella and Luna are starlight white, and they are races horses, sleek and lightning fast and team-oriented to offset Nox’s arrogance.
You might say to me that horses can’t be arrogant, and yet you haven’t met Nox.
And then, of course, there’s Marc.
It’s a birthday post…allow me to dote…
There are handsome men in the world. And then there is Marcus, who just scoffs at handsome on his way into utterly riveting. There’s not a person out there who doesn’t stop what they’re doing to regard him. Might be on account of his stature–not especially tall, but bold as can be, with shoulders for days. (Takes forty-odd kisses to cross them entirely.) Or it might be his features–hooded eyes, overtly broken nose, challenging lips, top thin and bottom full, and pox scars in a traceable topography.
But I happen to think it’s his personhood what does it. The way he exudes pride, confidence, humor, genius, and joy. I’ve seen people literally reverse direction to follow him in a daze, like he might drop a scrap of personality for the pouncing, or they might gain something from seconds more proximity.
I’m not sure they don’t…
Oh, and he’s got a smile like a sideways tornado, crimped at one corner and all teeth after that, a little bit controulled and a little bit recklessly abandoned.
Being around him is being on the constant verge of a shiver.
So, we’ve got this team of three, we’ve got this charioteer, and they, of course have a nemesis: Bill.
That’s right, Marc’s nemesis is a ghost named Bill, who lives in South Carolina on a picturesque farm with his adorable wife, raggedy garden, shimmery little fish pond, and an unassuming, dappled race horse named Apples. When we went to stay with them–it’s a hilariously love/hate relationship on Marc’s side, and nothing but love from Bill–I ate no fewer than five different kinds of pie, petted something like twenty rabbits, and fed Apples his namesake without him looking at me like I was swine.
But Bill’s sharp. He’s one of the best I’ve seen when it comes to controulling his energy in tandem with that of his horses, and he’s inventive as hell with his ‘walling’–sort of engineering energy to stay in place and behave inanimately, which is excessively important if you’re going to do things like build chariots out of it. Plus he’s redesigned things to be aerodynamic, rather than traditionally Roman, and he’s the right size for racing–about the size of Bilbo Baggins, with slightly less paunch (but not by much, recall the pies.)
So, Marc, my strapping, traditional, exuberant Roman, did truly and very well meet his match in this man.
In fact, Bill beat him in 2016.
We speak of this often in the Junius-Smith household, but only in very specific ways, usually laced with Latin that I chose not to translate.
Therefore, Marc was out for blood in 2017. He arrived at the Ludi Romani in full Roman splendour, all toga and swagger and opening ceremonies pomp. He spent the first days of the game allowing a posse to collect around him–you know the type–doing very little talking himself, but watching his reputation make its way through the grounds.
I, for my part, let him have this. Rather, I want him to have this. There’s no harm in it, not really. Marc’s arrogance is always tempered by his quick memory for the accomplishments of others, and he spends as much time lecturing his groupies on what it means to be a Roman as he does letting them jockey for space at his side. He shouts out praise to challengers as he goes, compliments artisans on their contributions to the state, and never, never loses track of me or the children.
Additionally, I think he’s glorious in his Roman element, and I enjoy having a few occasions in the year where I allow myself to be mesmerised.
He won the time trials. Not by much, if you ask the referees, but you know, by leagues, all the same.
And then came the final race.
Marc competes in his other events–sword, mace, javelin–in soldier’s leathers. You’re welcome for that image. But for the chariot, he races in state, toga whipping behind him, crimson and white in alternation.
Bill races in something akin to an aviator’s jumpsuit, with goggles and light boots, and they nod to each other.
I see Marc survey the field of competitors–‘competitors’–and spare a bit of pause for this arsehole who insists on calling himself The Black Night and dressing like something out of Medieval Times, TM, but manages a good race, nonetheless.
And then he moves into his chariot stance, which somehow combines grace and fluidity with every scrap of power he holds, all the way down to his bones. Nox does the same–it’s like they’re the same entity sometimes. They take off with the trumpet.
The field is long, but the race itself is rather short. Chariot horses aren’t built to run themselves into the ground at length, which is part of the edge Marc has with Nox. He can let all the other triga run themselves down, and then bolt through the pack and hold steady at the front.
Bill’s advantage is that his chariot is sleek enough to cut through the wind, so he rests in second until Marc comes galloping past, and then takes second to him until he sees his opening to attempt a coup.
This year, The Black Night–yes, The–is up there at the front, too, but he’s racing on his own, off to the side of Marc and Bill.
Marc is just scarcely to win.
And then, on the other side of the track, so far to the back of the competitors that he’s nearly parallel to Marc across the way, a charioteer loses controul of his triga as his lead throws a shoe. The whole thing was awful. The horse sort of screamed as it went down on its own leg, and then the other horses tried to halt, only to have the chariot slam into them. It went up on its nose, throwing the charioteer across the whole mess, rolling him down the track under the splinters of his chariot.
I’m completely transfixed on the sight, in all its flailing, scrambled energy. Bloody memories unfold onto the track like a grotesque film.
He’s let go his hold on his reins and taken off like a bolt across the green, shedding his toga along the way so he’s all tunica and muscle. Nox, Stella, and Luna have slowed down and veered off to the side, kicking the chariot back off their heels as they come to a halt. Bill’s right there with him. He’s not nearly as fast as Marc, but he’s pumping across the green just as quick as he can, heading for the mess of horses while Marc goes for the man. The Black Knight, behind them, hollers in dismay and crosses the finish line without quarry. No one even begins to care. The entire stadium is on their feet for Marc and Bill.
I know from video playback that the following things happened:
First of all, I went full on aggressively proud. I’m right at the edge of the box seats shouting to anyone who will listen, ‘That’s my husband! That’s my love! That’s Rome, right there, that’s Rome’!!
And he says I’m a terrible hype-man…
Then, I’m over the edge of the box, rushing down the stairs and vaulting over the edge of the field. Marc sees me coming, and calmly puts his hand to the fallen charioteer’s chest to finish the energy redistribution, takes a second to stop and put his forehead to Bill’s–the crowd goes wild for that, knowing Bill just won Roman equality–and then Marc’s striding toward me, just letting me fly at him from down the track.
I slam into him without even slowing down–he can certainly handle that, he’s built like a tree–and then I’ve got my hands on his face, just kissing the hell out of him, right there in front of all the whole stadium and all its horses. I had no idea anyone was even there, at that point. I was so blindingly proud of him.
I mean, you would expect, if a student of history, that Marcus Junius Brutus might very well espouse integrity, justice, and actions that benefit the greater good instead of self-elevation. You would expect him to be grand on occasion–full of explosive chivalry on behalf of his beloved city and its citizens. You would expect that.
But then you see it–you watch Marc discard all his trappings and bravado for intense concentration and sincere fellowship, and it just cuts you down. You wonder if you would do the same, if you really do understand honour, and if you’re really quite sure you’ve a firm grasp on your beliefs. That’s the humbling bit.
I’m just completely undone, in awe, and if the children hadn’t slammed into Marc next I might have done any number of other things I’d later see on camera.
He hugs them up, and buries his face in Mira’s wild hair, and I’m hit with yet another wave of emotion, watching them restore him after his gesture and telling him they love him for it. I’m amazed, in that moment, that I’m his husband, and that he’s the father to our children.
I know this is going to sound terribly self-satisfied, but I imagine any blissfully married couple has felt similarly, so we’re all in good company here…
Sometimes I look at Marc, and I try to imagine what it would be like to not be married to him, or to even be friends with him. To not have Marc in your life in any way. And it’s bleak. God, it’s the worst thing. The idea of being exterior to his light, instead of filled with it? It’s the loneliest thing I’ve ever thought of.
You can see, on camera, the exact moment where I pull myself together and realize that I’ve vaulted the edge of a box seat, run out into the middle of a stadium, and landed in a Hollywood-level snog-fest before a sea of strangers. My British takes over, and I’m all, giving the crowd a little wave, straightening my hair, tugging my toga back into place, blushing like mad. I’m also glaring sternly at Marc over the tops of our children’s head, because he’s looking at me like he’s onto me–he’s so onto me–and he’s going to give me a very particular sort of hell for ever pretending I was above Roman spectacle and ancient acts of valour.
I am going to like this hell he gives me, but I don’t need the entire stadium to know it…
And everything after that is just pure, and dear, and Roman–like I said, exactly why Marc loves the Ludi Romani. He refused to redo the race so The Black Knight could have a ‘fair’ win, on account of it would be cruel to the horses. He seated Bill across from him at the closing ceremonies and created him as a honourary citizen of Rome, whilst Bill clutched his wife’s hand and tried not to cry. He fulfilled all the donation requests that attendees scratched into lead sheets and tossed in the fountain. He handed out medals for the events, checked in on the fallen charioteer and offered lessons, and accepted gifts from the artisans and food from the farmers.
Since the event…well, he’s back to his more modern self. T-shirts with absurd proclamations, hoodies with dino-stego-croco-shark spikes on them, behaviour casual, suppers cooked, children snuggled.
But I find I am more aware than I was prior of the actual, tangible strength of his convictions. More aware that his niceties and joys and absurdities are gifts he gives to me, to foil the intense sincerity with which he rules his inner life.
More in love with him than ever.