Cassandra was a widow, but she would have laughed if you felt sorry for her. The husband who was drowned in a storm off the coast of Crete had been a terrible man. She still fingered the white scars when she happened to think of him. The one mercy had been that his work had kept him away so much. And the money had not hurt either. When he was away Cassandra used to feel like she had crept into a dream and was playing the role of a queen in her castle. Each morning her husband’s clients–the men who depended on his influence for favors or on his money for financing–would come around to pay their respects and do a bit of business. Cassandra was, it seems, more reliable in her husbands eyes than an administrative slave, so it was she that sat in her husband’s seat all those weeks. She carefully nurtured a look of condescending grace as she dispensed the gifts of one kind or another that meant (often literally) life or death for these clients. One of their house slaves was always on her right marking down the new debts, collecting deeds to the newly purchased properties, or drawing up contracts to be marked with the two parties’ seals in little blobs of hot wax. It was Cassandra who had paid a tutor to teach that one his letters, and though her husband had split her lip open for it they had both soon come to rely on the scribe’s constant presence. At her other hand stood Cassandra’s new body-slave, a strong little girl of eight or nine, holding the baskets of bread for each client. For some, Cassandra knew, this bread kept their children from starvation. As often as not she would hide a few olives or figs under the bread in those baskets, savoring the men’s painful gratitude when they returned the next morning. This endless routine at the start of each day never bored her like it did some of her husband’s friends. It was like a daily tonic, helping her chase away her memories of the squalid tenements that had been her childhood world. She was not a poor weaver’s daughter, a commodity to be traded for her father’s new connections. She was a woman of grace and influence, in whose presence the small and hungry men like her father hung their heads and averted their eyes.
Still, until her husband’s death she had merely been playing queen in her husband’s house, knowing that he would return in a few days or weeks to get drunk as they reclined around the table and knock her senseless after their dinner-guests left. When he drowned, though, it was like she had finally been released from her shackles. Now she was queen of her domain. The stream of clients with their hands outstretched depended now on her, and it was her own seal that marked the contracts, not her husband’s. Her youthful beauty might have been marred by the dead man’s heavy hand, but that was no matter. Cassandra had no interest in marriage, in giving up one iota of her position. She relished it. She hosted parties of her own for the most important people of the city. She had painters re-decorate her atrium and peristyle with the vivid, life-sized murals that were all the rage.
It was not long after this that Cassandra first met Apollos at the odeon. She had always loved to spend her long afternoons there. In part it was because she and her husband had been assigned carved marble seats in the front row–their names engraved right on the back–along with all the people of rank in the city. It was also, though, because she loved to listen to the orators. She heard all of the greats when they came through town. She had a quick mind that her husband had never noticed. She could tell which speakers were all flourish with no substance. The crowds would lap it up as these sophists played their emotions like the taut strings of a kithara. Cassandra, too, enjoyed the rhythms and cadences of their speech, and each one was a little different, like wine imported from different cities. What moved her, though, were the ones who engaged her mind as well. Some were philosophers who had learned to dress up their wisdom in pretty clothing. Cassandra would often chuckle to herself that if the crowds really understood what these men were saying they would not cheer so loudly. She did not agree with them all. The Stoics in particular seemed too ready to give up all the taste and joy in life. But she loved the way they stretched her mind.
Apollos was like that, but there was even more here. He was a Jew of some sort, she knew that from the start. He was so careful to avoid the usual tossed off prayers to Dionysus or Zeus or (ironically) the man’s own namesake, Apollo. This one, though, was an artist with words. He wove his sentences in ways that made Cassandra’s spine tingle and her heart dance. And within that ornate and subtle vessel of words this Apollos placed a philosophy that piqued her interest. Perhaps it was the way he talked about immortality. Cassandra had taken the initiations into the local mysteries, just like anyone else who had the silver to pay. She had been to Eleusis and even visited some of the Ionian shrines to buy their rites. Still, the bliss those priests promised after death seemed too easily won. If even great Achilles had gone down into Hades to eat dust in the dark, Cassandra wondered how the mumbling and magic of the mysteries could gain her greater favour from the gods. Yet as Cassandra listened to Apollos, she began to feel a new anxiety that her new-found freedom could be taken from her so quickly by death, just as the sea had snatched it from her husband.
So after the speeches were done Cassandra invited Apollos along to her usual dinner party. She insisted that he tell them more of this philosophy over the meal, and he was only too willing. The four other guests enjoyed it well enough as a novel diversion, but Cassandra felt herself drawn more and more to this Jewish God and his anointed king. She invited Apollos back the next day and within the month she had taken the initiation of this “way,” a surprisingly simple rite dipping the devotee in water. She had her slaves clear the house of all the old gods, even the shrine to the Lares, the spirit of her house. Then, with her usual noble generosity, Cassandra offered her house as a meeting place for their sacred gatherings every seventh day.
Cassandra was happier than ever in her life. Her love and devotion to this Jesus grew by the day. She was even caught up in mystical raptures during one meeting and shouted out a prophetic message from the Spirit of Jesus. The trouble did not begin until the festival of Dionysus. She went to the theatre with her usual social circle. Afterward they all walked to the god’s temple to enjoy the banquet inside. Cassandra thought nothing of it. After all, she knew now that the gods were nothing. The image of the old drunkard was just a block of gilded wood, nothing more. When some of the other brothers and sisters heard, though, they were all in a panic. They thought she had left the path and returned to worshiping false gods. When Cassandra reassured them that her faith was intact, that she had not actually offered any sacrifice in the sanctuary, they were still not satisfied. One of the elders of her assembly even had the gall to approach her at the next meeting, suggesting that the meal might bring her under the power of some demon. She simply laughed and explained to him that it was his own faith that needed strengthening. Did he not really believe that Christ had supremacy over all these powers? But the arguments continued. Before long Cassandra was surrounded at each of their “love feasts” by a coterie of like-minded brothers and sisters–anyone with a bit of wisdom. They stopped arguing the point with the more superstitious members of the group. If some simply lacked the knowledge, were still weak in their faith and understanding, they must be given time to move along at their own pace. At the next festival, though, Cassandra was joined at the temple of Athena by a few of her new friends, the more upwardly mobile members of the church. It was, after all, a perfect chance to make significant connections with powerful patrons. What is more, it gave them the opportunity to spread the great news about Christ to a circle that would never listen to the slaves and weavers preaching in the agora. With a satisfied smile Cassandra leaned back on her couch, watching one of her protégées deep in discussion with a city duovir. Yes, it was a sign of her new God’s wisdom that he had shared some of that knowledge with a his more select children.