‘Save yourself from that, if you think you can’

January 27, 2010

What you want it will be you the last one Novian it will come Emperor of Rome you. […] The new, the nwer newest. The newly came, no Novian but one. The newest branch of the Novian stem. No Novian but another comes to ruin you. Save yourself from that, if you think you can.

Thus runs the bulk of the prophecy given by the Delphian oracle to Drusus Novius, when he demands to know why her previous prophecy (that he would become Emperor) had not come true. Drusus interprets this, and some other things the oracle says, to mean that he will become Emperor. I, however, think the wording is much more ambiguous, and that Drusus took from the prophecy what he wanted to hear.

As I’m dealing with events that take place in Rome Burning, you can be sure that there will be spoilers for both books in the series.

Let’s pick the prophecy apart, shall we?

The oracle’s first word to Drusus (apart from her greeting, which I’ll come back to) is ‘wait’. Right from this point, we can see Drusus overanalysing her speech, such is his desperation to hear what he wants to hear.

‘You mean – wait and it will happen?’ he asks. He’s not quite deluded enough to fail to realise she could simply be saying ‘wait, I haven’t started my prophecy yet’, but we can see that already there’s that hint of desperation, of clutching at straws, of trying to direct the prophecy (seriously, only Drusus would dare to force even Fate to conform to his wishes).

The oracle says nothing for a while, before remarking, conversationally, that ‘there’s glass on the ground’. Yet again, Drusus tries to force her words to fit in with his own reality, remembering a glass he’d smashed earlier in the day. (Of course, we later know that this smashed glass refers to the smashed dome of the Colosseum after it was blown up by Dama, a detail to keep in mind when considering the rest of the oracle’s words.)

‘Then he thought she was beginning to say his name again: “Novius”. And she did say it, many times, but she no longer seemed to mean it as a name, novii, novissimi – newer, newest.’

Again, Drusus misinterprets her words. His self-centredness leads him to believe, again, that she is saying his name. But there are many other people in his family who are called ‘Novius’ – Drusus’ cousin and rival, Marcus, for a start. But the Sibyl’s play on the word ‘Novius’ and notions of newness is not idle: the canny reader, who discovered Una and Sulien had been given new names upon manumission, would recognise the connection. Una and Sulien are given versions of Marcus’ name, to reflect the fact that he was the one who freed them: Noviana, Novianus. They have thus been grafted onto the Novian line in some way, and they certainly are the newer, the newest of the new.

Next we come to the crux of the prophecy.

‘The new. The newer newest’ refers to Una and Sulien, while The newly come, no Novian but one is a direct reference to Una, playing on both her new family name and her personal name, Una, which means ‘one’ in Latin. Sulien and Una are, of course, the newest branch of the Novian stem, while no Novian but another comes to ruin you seems to refer to Sulien.

Drusus, of course, pays no attention to any of this. He latches onto what seems obvious to him: Marcus is the youngest Novian, thus he is the danger to which the prophecy refers. In the next bit of the prophecy we have the most ambiguous wording, and another (crucial) example of Drusus’ inability to see beneath the surface of things, or to think beyond his own ambitions and problems:

‘Do you mean I can still do something – I can still stop him? My cousin?’
‘Your cousin, yes. Against you, afterwards-‘

Drusus should be listening more carefully to what she is saying. Marcus will be against Drusus. He is not against him now. He is not the threat – yet. The Sibyl is warning Drusus against antagonising Marcus, but again Drusus mishears her in his paranoia.

‘You told me there’d be no one else!’ protested Drusus.
‘No one else left to take what you want,’ she agreed.

And here we finally reach the heart of the matter. Drusus interprets this as meaning that Marcus is antagonistic towards him and a rival for Emperor. The Sibyl is obliquely warning Drusus about Una and Sulien, not Marcus. And ‘no one else left to take what you want’ is not the same thing as ‘you will be Emperor if Marcus can be got out of the way’. All it means is ‘Marcus is also a candidate for Emperor’. Drusus, of course, takes it to mean that his becoming Emperor is destined.

And yet he’s still not convinced. The Sibyl comes out of her trance, and Drusus demands, again, that she tell him what he wants to hear:

‘Will I be Emperor? Still?’ […]
‘And what have I said?’ she demanded.
[…] ‘Yes,’ whispered Drusus.
She shrugged as if to say, there you are then.

Note that she has not admitted to saying he’ll be Emperor. She asked him what she said, he replied with his perception of her prophecy. She’s only got his word to go on, and his word, as we’ve seen above, is distorted.

Interpreting the Sibyl’s prophecy as meaning that Drusus will become Emperor hinges on the meaning of two things: the line ‘No one else left to take what you want’, and the fact that the Sibyl greets Drusus as ‘Emperor of Rome’. This first line, as we have seen, does not mean that Drusus will become Emperor, and the notion of ‘what you want’ bears closer scrutiny. What, after all, does Drusus want? He wants to become Emperor, yes, but to become a certain kind of Emperor: conservative, despotic, hawkish. He wants to rule a world with Rome at its undisputed centre. In short, he wants power. Marcus wants to be Emperor too, but he doesn’t want the things that Drusus wants. He wants a diplomatic solution with Nionia, he wants to abolish slavery, he wants to be Emperor in order to change the world for the better (whether he’s right to think that such changes should be instituted in a top-down manner is a question for another post). Only one of them can become Emperor, and the ‘wants’ of one negate the wants of the other. Marcus ‘takes what you [Drusus] want[s]’ simply by pushing the world in another direction to that in which Drusus would take it.

Finally, there’s the greeting. That’s a bit harder to get around. One could argue that the Sibyl has not yet reached her trance-like prophesying state, and she’s merely telling Drusus what he wants to hear, flattering him and so on. That strikes me as the easy option, though. I prefer to look more broadly at what might happen in Book Three.

Rome Burning ended with a bang, and the potential deaths of just about every member of the Imperial family. The explosion is clearly intended to break the stalemate between Rome and Nionia and force a confrontation, probably in Terranova. This conflict will, of course, be incredibly destructive, and possibly mark the end of the Roman order. The explosion may also have killed Marcus, his uncle, the current Emperor, and all other members of the dynasty save Drusus. (I fiercely hope it doesn’t, as I desperately want a happy ending for Una and Marcus!) Thus, there may be no one else left to be Emperor.

I’ve always suspected that the Sibyl’s prophecy should be taken as a kind of ‘be careful what you wish for’ warning. Drusus wants to be Emperor: fine, but he’ll be Emperor of a pile of bones and ashes. The repeated references to ‘no one left’ certainly support such a reading. Drusus may become Emperor, but he will be Emperor of a vastly different Rome to the one in which he currently lives.

The scene with the Sibyl is one of the most powerful in the series, and it says so much about Drusus’ character. I still can’t help but feel sorry for him. He’s such a pathetic figure, really, as his final exchange with the oracle demonstrates:

‘How am I going to die?’ he asked her, abruptly.
She blinked again and the emptiness cleared in her pale, dirty-coloured eyes; she raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, a faintly disapproving look, as if he should know it was wrong to ask her that. But she answered him anyway, quite normally and conversationally now: ‘In your sleep. Of old age.’

There’s something in her pitiless, impassive response that brings home Drusus’ aching aloneness (I can’t call it ‘lonliness’ because that would imply he was aware of it himself). He’s a tragic figure, too ambitious and self-absorbed to see beyond the surface of the Sibyl’s words to realise their subtleties and ambiguities. He takes them to mean what he wants them to mean, with disastrous consequences for all.

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