By George Hickman
I was no soldier by choice, only by obligation. Bearing the stature of a grizzly minotaur even by the age of fifteen, the sight of someone like myself juggling armfuls of scrolls through the walls of Rome would have explained to any passerby why Caesar was losing the war. I was not meant to be a scholar. I had spent my adolescence in the fields dancing with swords, and by night I danced across the city’s symposia, exchanging theories with men who decorated their frail bodies in expensive cloth and doused their thin wrists in soft perfumes. Cassius was one such man, who told me the night before we left for Alexandria that I must gaze upon the library before I returned. He said this to me with such determination, hands gripping mine, as if the Gods had contrived this entire civil war so that I might report back to him on the library’s precise number of columns.
From my ship, the distance of the ocean provided a view of the unmistakable Library of Alexandria, standing atop a slope that curved around the city like the handle of an amphora. From out here, I could see the architect’s intent better than the scholars who must have been bundling up scrolls in their cloaks as our fleet approached. The library, which peered down at the city like the owl perched on Minerva’s shoulder, was the Egyptian equivalent to our Roman forums. It was the heart of their city, the center of life. It was a symbol that, even though it stood behind enemy lines, would have humored our very own philosophers. Many a night had I spent listening to Cassius liken the central forum of Rome to an ever-changing well of knowledge, or after a steady intake of wine he might call it “a place to talk privately where no one could suspect you of anything malicious”. I had never seen Alexandria’s center of life until I was resting my hand on my hilt, ordering my men to fire arrows at its feet.
As I shouted at them to take their places, I was arrested by its beauty–cold, immovable columns of marble standing tall like the legs of my soldiers who held arrows angled at the dark sky. Even from this distance, its pillars stood stacked together, fearless protectorates of the thin rolls of parchment inside. I wondered how papyrus would look stacked together so high. I wondered if it would smell clean, like the leaves of the olive trees back home. I wondered how small even a great general like myself would feel in the presence of so many great thinkers rustling with speech at every ocean’s breeze.
The wooden floor beneath me shifted and my sandals tugged along with it. My men were looking to me for instruction. “Centurio?” one of them shouted to me, nodded back in the direction of Caesar’s ship.
Aboard our Emperor’s ship, the men had begun to shoot arrows that pierced the sky with fire. On the shorelines, the docks were already crawling with flame. Viciously the blaze crept up on vacant boats and abandoned market stalls. I could see more arrows whirring through the air, landing at the steps of that marble library as our ships encroached, swift and determined.
“Igni,” I said.
George Hickman lives in Muncie, Indiana, where he is an M.A. student at Ball State University. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.