Memoirs of Vinca, Part
The years passed.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent many years away from home with the army.
The Empire was presently encountering difficulties with the barbarian tribes
of Germania. Life in the Palace was relatively quiet, except during
Commodus' visits. Everybody was on edge from the minute he set foot in
the palace to the minute he left. Sadly, Lucilla's husband, Verus,
passed away two and a half years after I arrived at the Palace. Lucilla
had always struck me as a strong and resourceful lady, so after
her period of mourning she threw herself into bringing up Lucius, in addition
to taking up various official duties. She never ceased to
amaze me with her resilience. I also noted her kindness.
Recently, she discreetly made Hestia one of her personal dressers after
noticing the way Commodus bullied her, thus ensuring the Gaul
girl encountered him as little as possible. Poor
Hestia wasn't the best of workers, being small, frail and quick to burst into
tears at the slightest provocation; but she was diligent, a tryer, and
Lucilla recognised this, duly taking her under her wing.
Cleandrus, the young male servant, also seemed protective of Hestia.
Whenever she was distressed about something he would appear, warm tea in hand,
and would tell her funny stories to cheer her up. As Hestia and I
grew to womanhood, I noticed the burgeoning relationship between them.
Cleandrus clearly adored her, and Hestia seemed shyly flattered by his
interest. One evening Cleandrus informed me that he would like to marry
Hestia, "one day, when we are free," and take her back to his home,
the Greek island of Cyprus.
I hadn't really given the possibility of freedom much thought;
I had been far too busy over the years, letting life take care of itself.
After this inspiring converation, however, I began to think of freedom
and what I could do with my life upon attaining it . I
could clean, cook and sew ...I loved the feel of rich materials against
my fingers as I helped Commodus, Lucilla or the Emperor to dress,
or whenever I made the Imperial beds. I could read and write a
little. I had good organisational skills. I could open a clothing
store! I could import fine materials from Greece, from Syria, from Egypt
and Thrace, and make everything by hand. After all, I had experience
at the highest level, working in the Imperial Palace. Then reality sunk
in, and I realised that in order to embark on such a project, I would have to
have money. Perhaps after I married...then again, there were no
guarantees that I would find a husband at all, let alone one with the requisite
financial clout to enable me to open a shop. I would probably have to
work for somebody else first. But I could dream.
Sometimes, however, the overwhelming
drudgery of my existence made dreaming impossible. This was made
particulary apparent to me one midsummer afternoon. I was kneeling on
the floor of Commodus' chamber, darning one of his fine robes. He had
inadvertantly stepped on it, tearing the hem, and I had been duly summoned to
fix it. The Heir to the Empire was perched at his desk, idly
leafing through some scrolls, casting the occasional hostile look in my
direction. I looked up for a minute. He noticed.
"Stop staring at me, slave. Get
on with your work," he snapped. I lowered my head and resumed
stitching. "Yes, Sire" I replied, keeping my voice on a
neutral footing. This seemed to displease him. In those days, he was
always trying to provoke a reaction from me, but I would not yield. I'll
never let you see me cry, I thought. Never.
When I had
finished, I held the robe before me, inspecting it. I knew
Commodus couldn't abide even the slightest imperfection, so I was extra
careful reviewing my handwork. Satisfied, I stood, about to walk over to
present the robe to him, when he looked up again, still scowling.
"I didn't tell you to stand, slave!
Get back on your knees until I say otherwise." He rustled the
scroll and cleared his throat, a self-satisfied smile settling over
his feaures. You smug, arrogant buffoon, I thought. I
contented myself with thoughts of Commodus greeting his public in a robe
which, unknown to him, had a dreadful stain on the back. In my fantasy,
the sound of sniggering Senators and Praetorians followed him as he paraded
haughtily. The crowds were sniggering too. I smiled, and just
at that moment, he noticed. He slammed his fist down on the desk.
"How dare you laugh at me, slave!" He stood up and stalked over, his
face apopleptic with rage. "Stand up at once, you insolent wretch, or I
swear I'll...I'll have you thrashed! That's right, thrashed to within an inch
of your pathetic, miserable life!" He was trembling, but was
obviously in no mood for provocation. I stood and bowed. "Please
accept my humble apologies, Sire. I was not smiling at you,
Sire. Somebody in the kitchens told a joke today, I recalled it
just at that moment, and it was very funny...."
"Silence!" he yelled. He snatched the robe from my hand, a
little carelessly, I thought. He held it up, cocked his head, inspecting
it. Then he did the strangest thing. He returned to his desk
and picked up a blade. He returned and stood before me, a slippery smile
on his face. With a deft movement he cut the stitches I had made.
"Oh dear!" he sneered, his eyes gleaming. "Your stitches have
come undone. Do you really expect me to greet my public wearing this
piece of rag? DO YOU?" His voice rose to a scream.
"No Sire" I whispered. I didn't
"Your work is untidy, slave. Do it
again" He thrust the robe at me. We stared at each
other. I did not recoil from his gaze, and I noticed his lips twitching,
as if searching for words. For some reason, I unnerved him!
"What's going on, Commodus?" said a female voice behind me. I
turned, and there was Lucilla, emerging from behind a pillar. How long
had she been there? I was eager to find out. I noticed Commodus' expression
fracture as she entered the room. He lifted a hand in an
incomplete gesture. He attempted a warm, appeasing smile.
"Th-This ignorant girl! I dared to criticise her stitching, so she
tore this robe! Right in front of my very eyes! I honestly don't know
where Father finds them.." Lucilla did not smile back. She
stared, her face immobile, at her brother. r
Then she spoke.
"Brother, I saw everything." She sighed. " Vinca did not
tear the robe. You did, with your blade. I saw it all, so please
do not attempt to insult my intelligence." Her expression
hardened. I could scarcely believe it. The Emperor's daughter,
speaking in my defence! I stood, opened mouthed, as Lucilla continued,
"And another thing. Many times, I have trusted Vinca with
the repair of my robes, and I have always found her work to be immaculate.
I would consider her to be one of the best handmaidens this Palace has to
offer, if not the best. So pardon me Brother, if your accusations
do not convince me." She folded her arms, as if defying him to
"But-but sister, she laughed at me! it's obvious she hates me!
Such insolence! Just wait till I tell Father...after all, he's more likely to
believe the word of his heir than that of a barbarian
ignoramus from some Gods-forsaken outpost!" His imposing smile
returned. "I'll..." Lucilla cut him off. "Yes, brother, I
am aware you are the heir to the throne, but you are forgetting that I am the
elder sibling, and I am therefore fairly certain that my word, not yours, will
win the day. So go ahead Commodus, do your worst. We'll see who
Father believes." Commodus visibly flinched. It was
obvious his sister had touched raw nerves with her harsh words.
"Give me the robe, Vinca. I will present it to Hestia to stitch instead.
She has relatively little to doo this afternoon, and..."
Commodus groaned audibly. "Oh
surely sister, not that ham-fisted fool from Gaul!" He was whining
now, his expression defeated.
"It's your own fault, Commodus.
Come Vinca. Let me find you something else to do. I will send you
on an errand, to the Forum, to purchase cosmetics for me." I bowed
and followed her. As I walked away, I couldn't resist sneaking a look
bback at the heir to the throne. He was glaring after me with something resembling
hatred, but there was more to it than I first thought. He appeared
puzzled, as if trying to digest the knowledge that he would never,
try as he might, break me. It was the same look he wore whenever
he spoke of the Spanish gladiator and former general he despised with a
passion, a couple of years later.
A week later, I was carrying a breakfast
tray to Lucilla's quarters when a hand shot out of nowhere, grabbing me
roughly. It was Commodus. He leaned close and snarled in my ear.
"You may have succeeded in making me look a fool in front of my sister
this time," he hissed, "but next time you won't be so
fortunate! So remember this Vinca, I'll be watching
you..." I looked at him, and suddenly he lost interest. He dropped
my arm. "Now be off with you!" he sneered. I
continued to walk down the hall. Mercifully, I hadn't dropped the tray.
Commodus didn't get the chance to exact his
"revenge," as he no doubt thought of it, on me. A
little while later, he was called away to a school of swordsmanship on the
Caelian. I didn't see him again for almost two years.
part 1 part