King of Chaos: Part 2
The crowd pours into the forum, flooding the great open space. The place is set up with hundreds of tables, not enough for everyone but enough for most. People start sitting down, occupying the limited spaces and jostling for prime position. I am fortunate enough to be in the first third of the crowd and find a space easily enough. Hypocrite though I am, I cannot turn down free food and wine.
Saturn has been placed at the head of the festivities. The priests have lain him upon a sofa and he looks at home there, a host delighting in the festivity he has instigated. Slaves, freemen, lords and ladies, soldiers, all alike now take their seats around me, though they still seem to have reserved some sense of identity. Around me sit mostly other slaves, I can tell by the colour of their skin, some have tattoos on their faces to show what manner of slave they are, some as punishment for attempting to flee.
Everyone is scrabbling for the best seats, squeezing in wherever they can. One man slides himself into the narrow gap between myself and the man next to me, his eyes are fixed on the woman opposite the whole time. He grins at her, she does not grin back. No matter, the man’s attention shifts as he notices the food being brought in from the huge communal kitchen they have behind the forum.
All eyes fix onto the food as it is brought out by the smiling men who laugh and joke with the people as they pass out the steaming bowls. These men are no slaves. They are too clean, too well groomed, too plump. They are the masters, adhering to the time-old rules of Saturnalia, wherein order is lost and chaos reigns. But their joy as they serve the people is no thinly veiled spite or misery for fear of retribution; their enjoyment at serving everyone is genuine. I suppose servitude would be a joyous occasion if it were only for a few days. For these men, the concept of serving people is novel, they find it amusing to imagine themselves in this role usually so far beneath them. They smile and laugh because it is impossible, they will never find themselves in this place in reality, only during this ludicrous time of chaos. Their good will is genuine because they see an end in sight, they know that even after the feast they shall retire back to their estates and be served once again, back to luxury after their taste of slavery. They might even tell themselves that it wasn’t so bad, that there are worse things than being a slave; all they had to do was pass out some food and collect in the empty plates from happy patrons after all! Let that notion comfort them through the year as they reap the rewards of slave labour, as they are pampered and fed and washed by we who are beneath them.
The men around me are rough, one of them laughs at the master as he walks by with a large pot rested on his belly. He mocks the master under his breath as he inhales the broth. Once the master is out of earshot he commends Saturn for giving us this day where we can watch the masters squirm, where they have to walk a mile in our shoes. I am not sure it is so far. I consider reminding him who cooked the food, who will clean the empty bowls once the forum is empty and everyone files back to their houses, who will scrub this vast space down of the food slopping out of his mouth once the masters have finished their shift as slaves. But I don’t have the heart, he looks like he needs this temporary sense of superiority, illusionary though it may be. We all need hope, or what would be the point? The hope Saturnalia gives these men around me, the hope of being free, if only for a day, is all that keeps them hanging on. Maybe they will be free one day, they think, if the masters will it of course. They will shake off their shackles and make it, work hard, buy an estate of their own and maybe even a slave or two to do the hard work. They don’t realise it’s impossible. The masters would never allow it. To give us a chance of reaching their level would be to sink to ours. It cannot be because it would be the end of their way of life. But we must believe it is possible, or there would be nothing holding us back, nothing to stop us taking it from them, pouring in our masses into their homes and taking what they hold above us and promise to us on days like this. In truth, it is the only way any of us will ever be truly free. To fight and kill and die for it. The masters will never allow us our freedom, it would be to sacrifice their fortune to allow us the same standing as them. If there are no poor, there can be no rich. If everyone is of the same status, status is meaningless, then what of culture, of order? All would be lost for the masters.
The man who squeezed into the gap next to me is bragging about the time his master let him ride in the chariot beside him, he tells us how his master is just and kind and how he almost never resorts to capital punishment. Another chimes in and says his master gave him one of his old robes for Saturnalia last year, not to be worn in public, of course. The table erupts with chatter about how just the masters are, how one man has a golden pendant from his, how another is given two hot meals a day. As I listen to my fellows brag about what morsels they have, what little hope I hold of revolution drains. These men don’t yearn for freedom, they believe themselves free already. They don’t covet the wealth of the masters because each considers himself wealthy in his own minuscule way. They sit around me and boast about their tokens of wealth, the things that connect them to this notion of fortune, that, no matter how small, how worthless, make them feel a part of the system and that someday they may get more. The men around me have bought into the scheme from the bottom, and yet all they see is the level above them, not the writhing mass around them of others looking upwards, just like them.
They are pitiful in their foolishness, loathsome in their ignorance. Would that they look either side and take note of each other and see what they have in comparison to those they gaze starry-eyed towards, feel the injustice of it all, allow the fires to stoke and the blood to boil, then we would have our equality. We outnumber the masters. Even with the might of the auxiliary forces posted in Rome we would outnumber them fifty to one. We would crush them and have our freedom. But revolution will never come. The only way it does is when things are so desperate there is no other choice. It is their cruelest and most genius trick to keep us on the brink of that desperation, never letting it boil over into revolt, just allowing as little as possible to keep these men part of the system which oppresses them, the system which prospers off their blood and sweat.
My hunger abandons me. I look around at the beasts of burden I call my brothers, braying and arguing, laughing and shouting, wrestling food from one and other’s mouths. Perhaps equality is not what we deserve. I have never felt so alone as I do in this moment surrounded by those I should call my kin. Are they even aware of their servitude? I am not so sure anymore. They certainly feel it in the lash of the whip, or when toiling in the open fields during the hottest months. But do they feel it now as I do? When they replace the hoe and shovel, return to their hovels and eat their scraps and lay their heads down to repeat the next day, do they feel it then? I do. It consumes me. I am more than this existence offers and if my brothers do not feel the same then they are not truly my brothers, we are different species. I will have my freedom. I will have my vengeance upon those who subjugate me and I shall not bend to men. I must have my freedom or I must die. Two options formed in front of my eyes, materialising through the masses before me.
I throw my spoon into the broth and rise. No sooner have I left my seat than the slave beside me begins heedlessly inhaling my air-cooled broth. If they want chaos, they shall have it. I’ll show them true chaos, chaos such as the old gods would wring their hands in glee at. And from that chaos I shall rebirth myself in my own image.