Memoirs Of Vinca,
I stirred from a deep and luxurious slumber, feeling
the unfamiliar softness of rich brocades and heavy silks beneath my body.
A hazy stream of sunlight spilled into the vast room, refracted by the
delicate drapes hanging from the large windows. As the fuzziness left my
head and the world came into focus once more, it dawnedon me that I was
not in my bed back at the servants quarters, shivering under the scantiest of
sheets. I recalled the wine, the easy conversation, the singing, the
tears. And Commodus. I turned, and there he was, his face peaceful
in repose, lips parted, snoring lightly. I had fallen asleep on his bed,
and I sat up suddenly, scolding myself for this lapse of decorum.
Peering over the edge of the bed, trying to spot my sandals, my thoughts raced
ahead. Would he be displeased, or would he prefer not to wake up alone?
I grabbed my sandals, slid my feet into them, lacing them tightly. I was
about to get up when I heard the rustle of sheets, a body stir. I
felt a warm hand touch my shoulder gently. I turned in time to see
Commodus' eyelids flicker and open slowly. He smiled. "I'm
glad you are still here, Vinca," he murmured.
"I am honoured Sire, but I really must return
to work before the other servants...suspect any impropriety. There is
much to be done, Sire, today is market day at the Forum...."
"You may go, Vinca" he smiled, nestling
back into the sheets and falling asleep again.
Back in the servants' quarters, I ignored the
inquisitive stares of the others and set about preparing myself for the day.
I washed, slipped into a different gown, combed and styled my hair.
Secretly I basked in the afterglow of my evening with the Emperor.
He had spoken to me almost as an equal, had shared his wine, encouraged me to
sing, indeed, complimented my voice. He had cried in my arms, was gentle
and respectful, never for a moment taking advantage of me. Set
against the generally- held precept of Commodus as a spoiled, effete,
temperamental, even ruthless leader, these simple facts seemed all the more
startling. He had exposed his fragilities, his sensitivities to me, in a
way he could never take back, at least not in my presence. He was
unpredictable, yes, and undeniably complex, but I can truly say that in
spite of (or was it because of?) these characteristics, I was drawn to
him in a way I had never been to anybody else.
As I mentioned earlier, his
constant self-pity was indeed trying at the best of times, and sometimes it
took every last ounce of decorum to keep from striking him, from telling him
to "wake up," metaphorically speaking, that he could have been born
into poverty, a beggar on the streets, a slave whose hands were racked and
scarred by years of toil; a man without dreams, hopes or a full belly.
Then again, pain has no favourites; perhaps the children of the privileged suffer
in manners alien to the beggar or the slave, whose baseline thoughts, feelings
and actions are often consumed by the everyday struggle to stay alive and
Forgive me, reader, but I would now like to take a
brief sojourn from the intrigues of Palace life. I am not, after all, a
woman of letters, at least not in the fullest sense of the term. I wish
to take the pleasure of describing to you the joys of Market Day in the Forum.
Once a week, I would venture, basket in hand, to this delightful
epicentre of sprawling humanity, to purchase food and luxury items for the
Imperial Family and Palace guards. Shadowed by a Praetorian, lest I
dared make my escape, I would wind my way between the multitude of colourful
stalls offering all manner of provisions. There was rich
silks from Parthia, heady incenses from Damascus, Palmyra and the Orient;
creamy Tuscan marbles; hand-painted eating and drinking vessels from Greece;
the spices of Africa and Asia Minor; the bejewelled trinkets of Egypt...and
the food! Rows upon rows of bottled preserves, including apple,
cherry, and fig; dense, brick-like slabs of honey-cake oozing syrup,
intoxicating wines and strange alcohols encompassing all colours from greenish-yellow
to copper to plum. I would follow the delicious smell of fresh-baked
bread and pastries stuffed with spiced meat; I would purchase some with
my lunch allowance, the Praetorian and I strolling as we ate, surveying the
scene. If I ever return to Rome, I would not hesitate to go there again.
Somehow the market place, with its lively chatter, the enjoyable challenges of
haggling, its celebratory diversity of culture, symbolised the best of Rome to
me; Rome, apex of the known world, revealed in all its zeal, its passion, its
hot, heady humanity.
My nightime "summons" to Commodus'
quarters became more frequent as time went on. Mostly our meetings
followed a similar pattern to our first evenings together. There would
be the wine, the conversation, I listening patiently, Commodus sitting rapt
and attentive as I told him about my life. Sometimes he was
exuberant, charming; he would chatter excitedly as he told me of his
"great plans" for Rome, his desire to make the public love him,
how he was "their father" and they were "his children,"
and his ambition to be revered as the greatest Caesar since Augustus. His
eyes would gleam with boyish enthusiasm, his face would be wreathed in smiles, he
would gesture energetically as he spoke. There was something sweet and
touching about these "declarations of intent", although
naturally I refrained from suggesting, as the kitchen gossips so frequently
ventured, that lavishing public funds on the Aurelian Games while the city's
grain reserves dwindled to a trickle seemed a somewhat inappropriate way
of achieving his goals. Still, I listened.
Other times, he was like a
languid, spoiled child, demanding and fickle, pacing the floor like a caged
animal while he complained vehemently about a spat in the Senate with that
"dogs-buffoon Gracchus," or feigning "illness" to
avoid some official duty or other; Lucilla, invariably, had to deputise
for him. In such moods he was impossible...once, after I jokingly
suggested he would make a marvellous actor after yet another feigned
"illness", he turned on me with the unforgiving, predatory eyes of a
serpent interrupted. I apologised, he relented, and things returned to
normal in due course.
On one such evening, Commodus and I were perched on
the edge of the bed in his quarters, his face drawn and troubled. That
afternoon, we had watched the defiant, mysterious gladiator, whose
name, it transpired, was Maximus (and was rumoured to be the very same General
who went "missing in action" after the Germanian
campaigns,) defeat the once-invincible Tigris of Gaul in the Flavian
Ampitheatre. The situation was compounded when Maximus
honourably refused to kill Tigris after Commodus gave the thumbs-down signal.
He flung his weapon to the ground and glared at the Emperor. Commodus
swept into the arena as he had done the first time, and words were exchanged,
although I could not hear what they were, Maximus remained stoic,
self-contained and dignified. He saluted and left to the swelling
chant of "Maximus! Maximus!" Commodus' discomfort was
He returned to the palace
consumed with rage. He screamed at his staff and locked himself in his
quarters, claiming a "headache." Trincula couldn't wait to
inform us that she'd heard the unmistakable sound of "things being
smashed" as she carried a tray to Lucilla's quarters. He later
emerged smelling of drink, his face red and apopleptic, demanding that the
Circus Maximus, the great chariot-racing stadium that dwarfed even the mighty
Flavian Ampitheatre in size, be renamed the "Circus Commodus,"
because the name Maximus "vexed him so."
He'd calmed down somewhat by the
time I arrived at his quarters, but the uneasy atmosphere lingered. I
poured him wine, and he shocked me by knocking it back in a single greedy
gulp, immediately demanding more. "If I may be so bold, Sire,"
I offered, "I notice that you are troubled, and surely it will help more
to talk about whatever it is, rather than stifling it with drink."
He sighed. "Vinca, all
I have ever wanted is the respect and love of my people. is that
too much to ask?"
"I'm quite sure they do
respect you, Sire"
"No, they do not" he
said quietly, his eyes downcast. "I am their Emperor. I
provide for them, feed them, clothe them, entertain them. Surely that
should be enough? So when someone such as he....a gladiator, a slave no
less, succeeds in making me look foolish before them, winning their respect in
the process, it is as though he has torn out my heart. Therefore,
what does that say about me?" He looked up, eyeing me
"Permission to speak
"Go ahead" He
twitched uncomfortably, and folded his arms.
"Sire, you speak of respect
as if it is a birthright, that it comes as part of the territory of privilege.
But in my opinion, respect is not about titles, it is about entitlement..."
My voice trailed off cautiously. He looked horrified. "Vinca!
Do you mean to say that I am undeserving?" He glared at me,
I had to control my
response. In all truth, I did not think he deserved the kind of respect
he craved, but of course, I could not tell him this. So, taking a deep
breath, I surged forward.
"No, Sire. You have
done some...wonderful work since you became Emperor. Problem is, you
yourself cannot see it . You view respect as something intrinsic,
unconditional, when it is in fact wholly conditional. Stuck
as you are in this mindset, you are unable to acknowledge that you
yourself have met those conditions, have earned the respect others give to
you. That is the root of your insecurity." I sat back,
feeling a little pleased with myself, I must say.
"Wise words, Vinca, but
believe me, I know all there is to know about earning respect. Furthermore,
I am on first-name terms with rejection. You are aware that two years
prior to my ascension, I spent time at a school of swordsmanship on the
Caelian Hill. Father disapproved, as he disapproved of most of my
pursuits. I suppose I enrolled out of rebellion...no, that isn't
strictly true, for I knew I had the skill and determination to become a
good...no, great...fighter and military strategist. I knew I wasn't a
man of thoughts and letters like my father, but in spite of this, I was aware
that I had great gifts, and is it not justifiable to utilise them, to
expand upon them? Anyway, it became acutely obvious to me that the other
students...even my teachers...resented my prescence there. There
was one fellow there, one of the teachers, a pugnacious little oaf called
Polonius. He was deliberately off-hand and curt towards me,
holding other, lesser fighters in high esteem." He paused, sighing.
"Is it not possible," I
ventured, "that perhaps the teachers did think of you as
the best fighter in the school, but were afraid to uphold you for fear of
accusations of favouritism, based on your standing?"
"It was not so, Vinca. Oh, I tried. I
tried to make overtures of friendship, to win their respect, but I could tell
they despised me."
It was typical of Commodus to
blame others for his perceived misfortune, but I couldn't help but feel for
this neurotic man-child who had been let down too many times, in spite of his
immense wealth and mercurial nature. He went on. "You might not be
aware of this Vinca, but...I had a twin brother."
I had heard of his brother intermittently over the
years, but I always had the impression that it was a subject off-limits,
especially within earshot of the Imperial Family. Tonight howver,
Commodus needed to talk, and so I listened patiently.
"What a splendid family we
were! The wise and noble Emperor, his exquisitely beautiful wife
and daughter, with twin boys! Such a pair we were, Titus and I,
dazzling, like Castor and Pollux themselves. The people heralded us as
Romulus and Remus reborn, united once more and destined to steer Rome to even
greater heights. Physically we were identical; in personality and
temperament we couldn't have been more different. Titus was like my
father. He would listen enraptured as my father read to him from
Livy, Cicero and Sophocles. The games, the mere thought of battle made
him squeamish. He preferred the theatre to the Circus Maximus...the
Flavian Ampitheatre was closed back then, my father was strongly opposed to
gladiatorial contests. I remember when we were four years old, I cajoled
my father into taking us to the Circus one afternoon to watch a chariot
race. It wasn't something he usually did. After much persuasion
from me, Titus reluctantly agreed to come too. Anyway, we got there, and
the sight and sound of the horses thundering around the track, the heat
and dust, the dreadful exhilaration of it all, made Titus feel quite ill.
He sobbed all the way home in our chariot. I hoped my father would
praise me for being brave, but did nothing of the sort. He scolded
me, singling out my "selfishness" and "irresponsibility"
in persuading Titus to watch such an "inhuman spectacle."
But I loved my brother, Vinca. He was the eldest twin, born two
minutes before me, and therefore was heir to the throne.
"I never expected to be
Emperor, Vinca. The thought never once disturbed my young mind. I
would have been content to become a great military leader. But then,
when he was five, Titus fell ill and passed away. my father was crushed,
my mother and sister were crushed, and so was I. All my father's hopes
and dreams for Titus...gone. I suddenly found myself bearing the brunt
of my father's expectations, even though he and I knew I could never be
another Titus. I could never be another Marcus Aurelius; I acutely
felt his frustrations whenever I refused to study his writings, to read
any book, for that matter. I would barely get beyond the first
passage before boredom set in and I rushed off to find my little wooden sword,
immersing myself in childish fancy, pretending I was Alexander the Great.
I was like my mother...intrepid, impulsive, daring, some would say reckless.
Subsequently, my father's hopes converged on Lucilla, and I sensed his
disappointment, namely, that she could never succeed him on account of
her gender, her considerable intellectual prowess notwithstanding. Then
later, there was the Spaniard, who destroyed whatever shreds of respect my
father had left for me..."
I was astounded. The
gladiator, Maximus, was a Spaniard...surely it wasn't remotely possible
that...I was aware that Marcus Aurelius had greatly admired the noted General
Maximus, who had "disappeared" in Germania. Despite being
of humble origin-he was the son of Spanish farmers-he had been drafted into
the legions at sixteen years old, proving himself a skilled and adept
warrior, rising swiftly through the ranks and catching the attention of the
aging Emperor. His alleged "liason" with Lucilla,
before he married a village girl from his home province and she married
Verus, made for provocative gossip in the Palace kitchens, according to
the ever-reliable Trincula and Portia. Having made this revealing mental
connection, I wondered whether Commodus would elaborate, but he didn't.
"I told you I was more like
my mother, Vinca. You should have seen her...so beautiful...her eyes
glinting with green fire, her skin like marble, hair dark as the night. Vicious
gossips in the Senate say she was mad, but they never knew her compassion, her
gentleness, her spirit. She was several years younger than my father,
and I believe they were coerced into marriage. My father needed heirs,
needed them quickly, and my mother, being somewhat younger than he, would be
more apt to bear them than some middle-aged Roman matron. My mother gave
birth first to a daughter, Lucilla Annia. She didn't conceive
again for another ten years, possibly because of my father's long
absences from the family home. Then there was Titus and I. When he
passed away she went to pieces, and this, coupled with her extreme loneliness,
drove her to seek solace in drink, and in the arms and beds of other
men...senators, consuls, even Praetorians.
"My mother felt things too deeply,
Vinca, too much for this world; her passions ran deep as the ocean. That
is why I always felt more attuned, connected, to her, than I ever
did to my father. I was not heir, but I was always my mother's favourite.
Lucilla was the eldest child and cherished thus, Titus was heir to the throne,
whereas I, on the other hand, seemed to fit nowhere in my father's plans for a
great Aurelian dynasty. I was the stranded one, the spare part, the
surplus goods. My mother recognised this and showered me with affection,
ensuring I wasn't neglected. When she fell ill and died I was alone
for the first time. Yes, both Lucilla and Father were kind to me, Lucilla
especially so, but truthfully, I have been alone ever since." His
eyes stared at nothing, blank and hard.
My heart twisted. I
was profoundly saddened by the thought of little Commodus stranded in the
emotionally-barren landscape of the Imperial Palace, a confused child,
weary beyond his years, creaking under the burden of his father's unwieldy
expectations. Don't get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect
and admiration for Marcus Aurelius; he was a fine Emperor, and very kind to me
during my initial, unnerving years in the Palace's employ. It was,
however, a tragedy that all his philosophies and insights did not stretch
to accomodate the needs of his family, including that of his youngest son.
"Do you have any
friends now, Sire?" I asked, chastising myself for knowing the
answer before the question even left my lips.
"Only those who seek to elevate themselves by
association. I don't have real friends, Vinca. I find it difficult
to be close to people." He put down his goblet and fixed me
with his gaze. Its emotional nakedness was devastating.
"Do you fear me, Vinca?" he asked.
"Is that why you are here now, listening to me, because you feel you have
no other choice?"
I pondered his words. True,
I was apprehensive of him; then again, anyone familiar with his sudden and
erratic shifts of mood would have been. But fear? No. How could I
fear a man who had opened his heart to me, revealed his fears, indeed,
forfeited his pride as Emperor? I was a humble slave, yes; I posed
no threat to him whatsoever, yet I felt in his words a desire to understand
me, to take an interest in me, to like me as a person. So I spoke.
"No, Sire," I said. "I
don't fear you. You have shown unwavering honesty during our
converstions, you have been far too open for me to ever be afraid of you.
After all, one only fears the unknown."
The possibility that he wanted
me to fear him briefly flickered, but was quickly dismissed by his reply.
"That is good to hear,
Vinca. Does that mean I can consider you a friend...a real friend?"
His face was hopeful, receptive.
"I am but a mere slave, Sire,
but yes, if it makes my Emperor happy..." His smile lapsed a
little...he was momentarily saddened.
"Only if it makes me
happy?" he enquired, a pleading little push at the center of his voice.
The brute honesty of my answer stunned even me.
"It would make me happy too,
His face brightened. He beamed.
He reached out and ruffled my hair.
"Vinca, you have made me a very happy
Emperor!" he exclaimed. "You may go now," he said quietly,
"Sire," I replied. I bowed
and left the room.