Patroclus’ family has called Ephesus home for more generations than they can remember. His life had been lived almost entirely in the shadow between the two ancient hills, Panayir Dagh and B’lb’l Dagh. His days and weeks and years had been spent within the strong embrace of the great Lysimachian Walls, which had yet to be breached by any enemy. Three other landmarks staked out the territory of Patroclus’ life, just as they had for his father and his father’s father. Two were the city’s twin harbours: the old Panormus and the large new comercial docks. Patroclus almost never ventured outside the city walls to visit the ports themselves. He relied on the traders that came up and through the city gates on their swaying wagons. Yet the ships that unloaded at these harbours brought the two cargoes on which his life depended: bronze and pilgrims. The bronze was brought most weeks to the door of Patroclus’ workshop, where he would go through the same ritual each time of bargaining with the merchant over the price. It was not an empty ritual, though, since the price of the bronze bars seemed to float up and down like the Aegean waves that carried it here. A few denarii here or there could make the difference between stale bread and some nice cheese or fish for Patroclus and his family.
The third landmark of Patroclus’ life was the great temple of Artemis. Now, there was much else to the city’s life beside the streams of pilgrims that came up to the holy site. After all, Ephesus sat on the main highway running through Asia Minor, so that the markets could boast of holding more wares than any other city centre along the Asian coast. One could hardly travel southward toward the rich Lycus valley and the Eastern lands beyond without passing through Ephesus, stopping to spend the night in its inns, to drink cheap wine in its taverns. No wonder, then, that Augustus had named the city capital of the Roman province of Asia, a status that brought with it a whole new layer of aristocrats to be serviced. At the same time, Patroclus was just one among many who earned his bread from the pilgrims who came to see this wonder of the world, the greatest place of worship (Patroclus would have claimed) in the whole civilized world.
Patroclus had inherited from his father a prime spot for his little booth, right along the main street that led up to the great sanctuary. There he would, each morning, spread out his blanket and set out the rough cast little images of Artemis, with her many breasts exposed to feed her many children and give life and growth to the land around the city. Under the shade of the narrow awning Patroclus sat, day after day, accepting the copper coins in exchange for his little copper images. They could hardly be called works of art. Yet as the years wore on Patroclus would still begin his day, before dawn, by rising and offering a little wine and a bit of oat cake to Artemis at the tiny shrine in one corner of his apartment. The Great Mother had provided, in a very direct way, everything that Patroclus had. It was in answer to his patient prayers and small sacrifices that she had granted him success at his stall. Just that year he had been able to buy a second slave for his small workshop, sweating at the furnace and the moulds during the day while Patroclus himself sold the wares. She had also, he believed, answered his desperate pleas and healed his daughter from the fever that had killed the neighbour’s son. On his way to the stall each morning, and walking home late each evening, Patroclus always went a little out of his way to walk past the grand edifice of the temple itself. He always whispered another hymn of praise as he passed the high epiphany window, the little opening above the temple doorway that allowed a brief glimpse of Artermis’ radiant face within. Her image there, so they said, took one’s breath away with its sheer size, its golden garments, its ivory skin. That one glimpse was enough, though, to reassure Patroclus each morning that the little circle of his life was well protected within her care.
Patroclus’ days traced out this same pattern until fever returned to his apartment again. It was his wife this time. For six days he sat by her side, watching the sweat bead down her cheeks and shoulders. For most of that time she was out of her mind. Often she did not know him and shouted at daimones that must have been flitting unseen through the room. Her sight was slipping into the realm of Hades. He was losing her. On the sixth day of the fever he decided that the Great Mother must be testing him. His prayers were not enough. She demanded a greater act of devotion. He left his wife for a few precious hours and took his second slave down to the agora. He could have got a better price, but he had no time. With the coins from the sale clinking in his wallet, Patroclus rushed back to the temple district to buy a sheep for sacrifice on the great altar that stood in front of the sanctuary. The priests, indifferent to his private agony, were happy to the animal’s blood and roast it atop the stones. He had given the Great Mother back the most generous of her gifts. Surely she would reward his devotion now! When Patroclus came close to his apartment block, though, he heard the tearing shriek of mourning. Even as he had given half his livelihood in sacrifice, his beloved wife had been shaken by one last tremor and then been still. The burning sweat was replaced by the clammy cold of Hades’ grip.
As he set coins on her eyes to pay the toll across the river Styx, Patroclus’ tears fell and ran down her cheeks. He did not feel sadness. He was too hollow for sadness. His tears overflowed with rage at the goddess who stood unmoved on his crude apartment shrine and in the glory of her temple. All her gifts were meaningless now. Her care nothing more than a charade. Even in the funeral procession, surrounded by his cousins and children, Patroclus was truly alone in the cosmos for the first time.
Yet Patroclus had to go on. So he sat each day under his little awning, nursing the knot of bitterness toward the little bronze goddesses arrayed like a pompous army on the blanket. The long hours seemed almost intolerable now, and he began to fill the time by talking with old Hyrcanus who had always occupied the next booth down the row. Hyrcanus was a Jew, and he would go on and on about his people’s stories, about how great their their own temple was in Jerusalem, about how their god was so much better than even the Great Mother. Over time Patroclus grew curious. How could the old man remain so passionate in his devotion to this god. Had he not been left high and dry the way Artemis abandoned her children? He listened day after day to Hyrcanus talk about his people’s great escape from subjugation in Egypt. He watched as the old man pantomimed the whole Seder meal commemorating that moment when the Jewish God defended his people. It was all so enticing. Patroclus’ breath caught, though, when Hyrcanus let slip that this God promised his followers eternal life. Even Artemis’ reach did not extend that far into Hades. And this glorious immortality was not purchased with a pile of gold coins for the priest and whispered rites in some deep grotto. It was simply given to every faithful Jew. Nor did these people have to live with the fear that they might slip up and turn their God against them. Hyrcanus’ eyes grew moist as he described the high priest, in his shining robes, spilling the bright red blood that covered the whole people’s mistakes–just one animal for a whole nation!
Patroclus longed to feel that kind of devotion again. He longed to be caught up in the divine romance that seemed to give Hyrcanus such vibrant life. It seemed, though, that the religious part of his soul had shriveled and died. He could watch his old friend with fascination–even envy–but he could not feel a thing for himself. After all, had Hyrcanus himself not buried three children? And now the man’s eyes were clouding with the milky film that would soon steal his sight. How could this Jewish God be trusted any more than the Great Mother? But then Hyrcanus began talking about a divine son of this Jewish God, a man named Jesus. At first Patroclus just felt his stomach churn as Hyrcanus described the hero’s crucifixion. Both of them could picture all too well the wooden beams slippery with blood. It began to dawn on Patroclus, though, that this Jewish God had done something unimaginable–He had sent His divine son to suffer with us. True, Hyrcanus still grew silent when anyone mentioned his dead children, and he would soon need help just to empty his bladder. This Jewish God had not stayed safe in his temple, though, with a smug half-smile in gilded ivory. This God’s own son had felt all of that pain and humiliation. He had taken on the worst experience this stinking, grimy life could throw across a man’s path. Maybe here was a God that Patroclus could trust. So, when Hyrcanus asked Patroclus to visit the meeting where they worshiped this God’s murdered son, he went. Then he returned the next week as well, and the week after that. And slowly Patroclus’ soul began to feel again.