Marcus Quintilius Aethelwulf is a young Romano-Saxon man living in a world where the Roman Empire neither fell nor became Christian. He studies at Bovipontia (literally, “Oxbridge”) and is a seeker after mystical knowledge, under the tutelage of Professor Quinctius, a famous astrologer and (pagan) philosophical theologian, but now doubts the empirical and theological basis of Quinctius’ teaching; Marcus’ freedman-servant, Tiro, is an amateur philosopher interested in Stoicism and Christianity. In the present scene, Marcus is going with Tiro and his friend Rufus (a fellow-student from Carthage and an Epicurean) to hear Quinctius’ old opponent, a prickly and irascible astronomer named Curtius, present a lecture on his new arguments for heliocentrism and the elliptical orbit of planets. Marcus has heard that some other students from their college, led by the Roman noble Julianus and his odious friend, Aegidius, who are also students of Quinctius, are planning a “surprise” for Curtius’ lecture.
The din inside the Theater was tremendous. After some minutes of searching, they managed to find an empty space on the wooden bleachers of the upper floor. All around them, students yelled and shouted. Some even folded birds of cheap paper and threw them back and forth. One floated past Marcus’ ear and glided down to the stage, landing just below the empty speaker’s chair. A roar of laughter and hurrahs followed that feat, and the thrower stood up and bowed to acknowledge the accolades of his peers.
“By Liber Pater!” Rufus shouted over the noise. “There must be a thousand people in here. Who would’ve thought that astronomy could turn out such a crowd? There’s hope for Bovipontia yet!”
“I’m not sure everyone’s here to learn about the stars,” Marcus yelled back.
A young man clad in the long robe of a Master of Arts and carrying a wooden staff walked onto the stage and raised his hands for silence. The noise subsided a fraction. The man rapped, then pounded on the stage with the staff, and the students quieted enough that his voice could be heard. “Silence!” he shouted. “The lecture begins.”
A moment passed, and someone yelled, “I don’t hear it beginning yet!” Laughter swirled about him, then died out, as Professor Curtius walked onto the dais, his hands clasped behind his back, his high forehead bent so that his gaze swept the ground a few yards ahead of him. Not one but two boys followed him, carrying papers and charts. When the first chart had been laid upon a waiting easel, he looked up and addressed the crowd.
“For many centuries, the science of astronomy has been governed by a single hypothesis.” His voice swelled to drown out the few students who had not stopped their whispering. “That hypothesis, that the Sun and all heavenly bodies rotate in inalterable circular courses about the Earth, has led to many of the most important experimental conclusions of natural philosophy. It has enabled astronomers to predict eclipses of the Sun and Moon, to explain the motion of the planets, and even to account for the swelling and ebbing of the tides. It has thus, justly, gained the status of an astronomical truth, rather than a mere theorem. It is also profoundly and fundamentally mistaken.”
“Mistaken, yes, quite mistaken!” someone shouted. Giggles followed.
Curtius glared, and went on. “As I will demonstrate to you today, there is irrefutable mathematical proof that the Earth and other heavenly bodies move about the Sun in orbits at once more complex and more elegant than our ancestors had imagined.”
“More complex!” another voice shouted.
“More elegant!” yet another yelled.
Curtius paused and frowned, his bushy brows almost covering his eyes, then continued. For some minutes, his exposition proceeded almost unmolested. As his lecture went on, however, the cries and jeers of his hecklers became louder, more insistent, and more disruptive. Finally, their riotous shouting drowned out his voice. Yet Curtius continued to speak, like a man declaiming in a hurricane. His manner was unaltered by his loss of control over the audience: still he eyed the crowd with the same piercing gaze and gestured with great emphasis toward the charts that the servants continued to erect. Slowly, the shouts of the hecklers began to coalesce into a pair of chants.
“Better, more accurate, more elegant!” one group shouted.
“Irrefutable proof!” another intoned, evidently unable to manage “mathematical.”
The hecklers’ new-found order required them to pause for a moment between chants. This gave Curtius an opening, which he took. “Your pardon, please,” he said, in a more dignified tone than Marcus had anticipated. Another shout rose and subsided, and Curtius finished his sentence. “I had thought I was addressing scholars, not a troop of monkeys.”
This was an unfortunate choice of words. Almost immediately, a new chant rose.
“Shout, monkeys, shout!”
This new motto swiftly vanquished the others. Marcus glanced down to the bottom of the Theater, where he saw Julianus and his henchmen sitting. He felt a sudden surge of fury at Julianus’ placid, self-contented look. What right did he have to disrupt the lecture? Curtius might be wrong, but Minervinus was right: he deserved to be heard. He watched as Curtius finally fell silent and stood gazing at his audience, his hands clasped behind his back, a strange smile on his face. As he saw Curtius standing, unmoved and unbent before the storm of vulgar humanity, Marcus felt his estimation of the astronomer rise higher than it had ever stood before.
Almost imperceptibly, Julianus raised his hand, and Aegidius stood up. “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” he shouted, flapping his arms wildly. Marcus elbowed Rufus, half in surprise, half in amusement.
“That’s the sound a monkey makes, more or less,” Rufus shouted. “We’ve got them in the public menagerie in Carthage.”
The crowd took up this addition to their chant with alacrity. Soon the entire Theater was full of young men laughing, flapping their arms, and uttering simian cries.
“By Hercules!” Rufus yelled. “Now he’s done it!”
Marcus watched in mingled horror and fascination as Aegidius jumped onto the stage and approached Curtius, waggling his arms and grunting. Curtius looked at him with disdain. His mouth moved, but Marcus had no hope of hearing his words. Suddenly Aegidius darted forward and, to Marcus’ surprise, equally quickly fell backwards off the stage. A hush descended on the Theater. Aegidius lay moaning on the ground, and Curtius was wringing his right hand. As he rubbed his wrist, he said, in a voice that rang through the now-silent hall, “Scholars do not comport themselves so. Now, let us return to philosophy.”
The glint of battle shone in Curtius’ eyes, and no one dared interrupt him again. As Marcus listened, his anxiety grew. Curtius’ mathematics he might have dismissed as so much pedantry, but the sheer conviction in his voice was impossible to gainsay. Curtius might be wrong, but he certainly was not feigning his belief in his hypothesis. When the lecture ended, Marcus walked back to the Flavianum in silence. Try as he might, he could not solve the problem. If Curtius was right, then everything Quinctius had taught him, every conviction that he had ever had regarding the order of the universe, was simply wrong. Surely, he thought to himself, Quinctius would be able to answer Curtius’ arguments at his next seminar. All of this would be resolved quickly enough, and he could return to living, and thinking, and gazing upon the stars, as he had before.