Memoirs of Vinca...Part Four
Two years went by. The Emperor
Marcus Aurelius had sadly passed away while in Germania, and Commodus, his
mercurial, ill-tempered, reckless progeny, who had, for nine successive
summers, succeeded in making all of our lives miserable, became Emperor.
This meant he would be returning to the Imperial Palace to live full-time, a
prospect I truly didn't savour. I 'd never forgotten his
threatening missive of two years before...and now, with absolute
power at his fingertips, not even Lucilla could protect me. I was sure
I'd be booted out of the Palace's employ , or worse, quite soon. A bolt
of fear struck me each time I contemplated his imminent return. I
thought of running away, knowing deep down it was impossible.
An eighteen-year old girl stood little chance against his Praetorian lackeys.
And in any case, where could I go? I had no money and scant prospect of
earning any. Never theless, I lay awake night after night in my alcove, feverishly
planning my escape as Hestia snored lightly beside me.
I have to admit my plans were somewhat sketchy and dependent on the mercies of
the Gods. I could sneak out of the palace in a laundry basket, hidden
beneath piles of musty sheets. Somehow, I would get away from
Rome...I could purchase passage along the Tiber to Ostia, where my life
as a slave had begun. From there, I would hop onto a boat bound for
Sardinia, Sicily or Caprae...perhaps I could make my way to Carthage in
North Africa, or Greece, if I had enough funds. Then I
would remember having no money to speak of, forcing me to
entertain the possibility of selling my body once out on the streets of Rome.
I hated the idea on principle, but the prospect of forfeiting my virginity in
such questionable circumstances seemed infinitely preferable to whatever
Commodus had in store for me; in any case, the only other option was
theft, and I couldn't bring myself to do that. Then the whole idea would
strike me as ludicrous, what with Praetorians sniffing around every corner,
even in the sodden depths of laundry baskets. I would sigh to myself,
and try to go back to sleep, usually without success.
The day Commodus returned to Rome
"victorious," resplendent in Imperial robes and followed by a
triumphal procession of Praetorian lackeys, saw me standing on the Palace
steps, outwardly immobile yet paralysed with fear inside. Various members of
staff were there, including Trincula, Hestia, Cleandrus and Portia, also
several Senators of note and young Lucius, who was now eleven years old.
We were instructed beforehand to bow graciously, smiles intact, as
Commodus made his grand entrance. " He's taking enough bloomin'
time...my bladder can't wait for no-one, plebian OR Emperor" grumbled
Portia as she shuffled from one foot to the other in discomfort. I saw
Trincula flash an amused smile. "You should have gone before,
sweetheart" she replied. Portia grumbled some more and tried to
regain her composure. Just then a pair of local children, bedecked in
garlands and silks, rushed forward, presenting Commodus and Lucilla with
lavish clusters of flowers. This gesture, I surmised, was supposed
to represent the Emperor's so-called "bond" with the common
people. His face wreathed in smiles, Commodus greeted the
Senators, sweeping past us, the domestics, with a cursory nod. We bowed, but
while Portia's insides were creased from a full bladder, mine
were creased with fear.
During the initial month of his reign,
Commodus was kept busy with official duties, holding court in the Senate,
paperwork of various description. Kitchen gossips kept us reliably informed of
the latest developments, but as far as I was concerned, things were too quiet
for comfort. One day, we were informed of his plans to reopen the
Flavian Ampitheatre, staging a series of games in honour of his father.
"Hmpf!" snorted Portia. "Games to honour himself,
more like! His father didn't want anything to do with them
gladiator games, and I for one wouldn't blame him! How much is this
folly going to cost? It's disgusting when some poor folks don't even
have owt to eat!"
I took my seat in the Imperial enclosure of
the hot, bristling environs of the Flavian Ampitheatre. It was the first
day of the Games, and those fortunate enough to get a ticket chattered
excitedly amongst themselves. The tension was palpable, like a
monstous beating heart: outside, the mob brawled like angry children over
the remaining few tickets. I had a feeling I wouldn't enjoy the
no-doubt dreadful spectacles soon to be revealed. Commodus,
descending from his seat, glanced over his subcjects, gesturing as
only a God would, revelling in the swelling chant of "CAESAR!
CAESAR!" Lucilla peered down at her hands, nervously twisting
them in her lap. She had been strangely quiet of late, and I had no
doubt it had everything to do with her brother's ascent to power. Caution
had sapped her spirit, and I hardly blamed her, since she had Lucius' welfare at
heart. Lucius was there too, peering over the balcony, his eyes curious.
A plump man with rouged cheeks and a
ridiculous wig-the Master Of Ceremonies, presumably- entered the arena to the
thunderous sound of African drums. He signalled for
silence, and begin to speak, his
voice both melodious and pompous. The crowd roared with
laughter when he referred to a rag-tag group of gladiators who'd just
appeared in the centre of the arena as "the Barbarian Hoard," an
allusion to the Carthaginian general Hannibal's defeated armies of antiquity.
"And now," he
continued, "Caesar is proud to give you...THE LEGIONNAIRES OF SCIPIO
wAt the man's prompting, fifty thousand
pairs of eyes swung towards the enormous gates at one end of the arena.
The gates swung open to the tumultuous sound of chariots and horses, their
passengers- mostly men, with a few women added to the mix for
provocation-bedecked in gold breastplates and wielding fearsome weaponry.
I watched, open mouthed, at the terrible carnage being reenacted before
my eyes. Swords flashed, blood spurted, yet the crowd were
delerious with excitement, cheering, roaring, stamping their feet. Poor
Hestia, who was sitting pale- faced beside me, turned to me and said,
"Vinca, I feel sick..." Cleandrus surreptitiously passed
her a small bag in which to vomit. Luckily no-one saw her.
I stole a glance at Commodus, who had
turned to the side to whisper something in Lucilla's ear. He turned away
with a cold, unfeeling smile. I couldn't bear to watch any more of these
so-called "games", so I kept my head down. Drusus, Commodus'
barber who was sitting on my other side, chuckled. "I take it this
isn't your idea of entertainment, Vinca" he said.
"You're right" I agreed, glancing
at him through narrowed eyes. "It's barbaric and pointless, in my
"But just look at the skill.
There's some heavy-duty swordsmanship going on down there. Look at
that fellow" he said, indicating one of the "Barbarians" in the
arena below. He was sitting astride a horse, wearing some kind of helmet
that partially obscured his face. "If I didn't know better, I'd
swear he's had training in the military. Look how he commands the
situation!" Indeed, this fighter gave off the impression of being a
ringleader of sorts, as the Barbarians went on the attack with almost military
precision. Soon, the battle drew to a close, the crowd roaring its
approval. By some strange historical twist, the Barbarians had
triumphed! The rouged and bewigged Master of Ceremonies was saying
something to Commodus, who vacated his seat and swept int to the arena,
accompanied by a dark-crested wave of Praetorians. He waved at the
crowd, smiling broadly. He certainly knows how to work an audience, I
thought. He stopped before the man whom Drusus had indicated. A
tense hush fell over the ampitheatre, and I craned my neck to get a better
view. Was the Emperor displeased for some reason?
I couldn't hear anything, so I can describe only what I saw. The man
rose to his feet, and Lucius ran up to his uncle. Commodus said
something to the man who, in an unprecedented gesture of defiance, turned his
back on the Emperor! The crowd gasped audibly. Hestia sat poised
on the edge of her seat, sweating, her mouth wide with disbelief.
"Oh my, he'll really be in trouble now!" she said
"Hush a moment" I replied.
"I want to know what's going on"
The man, head bowed, removed his helmet and
faced the Emperor, who seemed to visibly reel, taking a step back for every
step forward this mysterious gladiator took. This was unbelievable!
A gladiator, a humble slave no less, challenging the Emperor in such an
imprudent, yet breathtaking, manner! This endeared him to the crowd even
more, so in anticipation of the thumbs-up-thumbs down expression
signalling life or death, their voices rose as one, hollering "LIVE!
LIVE!" Commodus looked around frantically, eventually giving the
thumbs-up signal, like it was the most painful thing in the world for him to
For several days
afterwards there was no looking at Commodus. He barricaded himself in
his quarters, and no-one knew why. His meals were returned untouched.
He snapped, unprovoked, at his dressers and personal man-and-maidservants.
On the rare occasions he appeared, his expression spoke volumes: disbelief,
anger, and, dare I say it, collapse. He wore a look of someone
who had been struck hard and was only now registering the blow. Then
something unexpected happened.
It was usually Cleandrus' job to take
a goblet of hot wine to Commodus' quarters late at night, which the Emperor
would drink before settling down to bed, but Cleandrus had injured his foot
two days ago and was therefore unable to climb stair,s, while he
waited for it to heal. With Cleandrus out of action, I was summoned to
perform the task instead. This would be my first real interaction
with Commodus since he returned to the Palace as Emperor, and, I have to say,
I did not relish the prospect. The walk to the Imperial chambers felt
like the longest of my life. I reached the vast doors, where Quintus,
the stony-faced head of the Praetorians, stood guard.
"I have brought the Emperor's wine,
sir" I bowed.
Unsmiling, Quintus unlocked the door and
bid me enter. "You may go in, slave" Tentatively, I
stepped through it. Quintus politely closed the door behind me.
I tiptoed through the vast suite of rooms,
and was met with an unfamiliar sight. Commodus was sitting on the window
ledge, his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving. He was crying.
He looked up, ashamed for a second, before
his expression became one of anger. "Oh, its you," he
spat contemptuously, wiping his eyes with his sleeve and trying to regain his
composure. "Where's that fool Cleandrus?"
"He has injured his foot Sire, but it
will heal....I've been asked to..."
"Sire, is there anything
"I said, GO AWAY!!!"
"Yes, Sire." I bowed and
turned to go.
"Bring me the wine"
I brought it over to him, my hand over the
rim of the goblet to prevent spillage. He took it from me, looking at me
briefly but intently. "Taste it first" he commanded.
Reluctantly, I lifted the goblet
to my lips. What if he had set up this scenario to have me
poisoned, making the foul deed look like a foiled assassination attempt? Was this
Commodus' idea of revenge? I wouldn't have put it past him.
He giggled stupidly. "What's
keeping you, slave ? You don't think it's poisoned, do
I looked up at him over the rim of the cup,
closed my eyes, and defiantly took a sip. I lifted the goblet to my lips
a second time, drinking more deeply. I waited for the excruciating pain
to seep through my body, paralysing me. It never came. Commodus
"You see, you stupid girl," he
said, taking the goblet from my hand and drinking some himself, "as you
will come to appreciate one day, your Emperor is always right. You
must never, ever question his word. Seeing as we
are stuck together, you and I, we will have to learn to trust each other.
That was Lesson One. Lesson Two will be tomorrow" He smiled and
turned away. He walked towards his bedchamber, then stopped. He
stood in the centre of the room, his arms wrapped tightly around himself, his
body trembling. He bent over slightly, then collapsed in racking sobs.
I rushed over to him. "Sire, is everything alright?" For
the first time, I felt genuinely concerned, if a little puzzled. What on
earth pre-empted this swift and sudden change of mood?
The incredible thing was, he didn't
tell me to go away this time. Instead, he clutched at me
tightly, gasping incoherently. "Slave, don't leave yet...everyone
leaves. Why would anyone want to hurt me? Does someone want to poison
me?" He looked up at me , his beautiful eyes feverish and glinting.
I helped him up.
"Sire...what do you want me to do? Can
I get you something?"
"No. Just stay here with me.
I feel...quite ill...
I held him for a while, until he fell
asleep. It could be said that this event heralded the sea-change in our
relationship with each other.