Memoirs Of Vinca,
Part VI
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 healthy.
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 palpable.  
    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 carefully.
    "Permission to speak frankly, Sire?"
    "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, stricken.
    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, that isn't strictly true, for I knew I had the skill and determination to become a, 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 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, Sire."
   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, still smiling.
  "Sire," I replied.  I bowed and left the room.