Antinous and the Slaves
An Athenian Slave
An Arcadian Slave
A Macedonian Slave
A Bithynian Slave
A Phrygian Slave
A Thracian Slave
An Egyptian Slave
An Alexandrian Slave
A Gaulish Slave
A British Slave
A Jewish Slave
A Syrian Slave
A German Slave
A Nubian Slave
SETTING: Egypt, near Hermopolis; late October, 130 CE. The Imperial Party has made camp along the Nile, where the slaves are in a tent taking a break in the mid-afternoon.
ALEXANDRIAN: Bring water, Phrygian! I thirst in this
cursed Egyptian sun!
EGYPTIAN: Be not so bold,
Alexandrian, for the great god Re
shines on your birthplace as much as on mine,
and even now is the same sun above.
PHRYGIAN: And, though I am the water-bearer, true,
for great Hadrian himself, as he wills,
you are not the Emperor, nor your arms
bent and crippled with age—get your own drink!
ALEXANDRIAN: Such insolence!
BITHYNIAN: Such truth, rather, fellow:
for among slaves, none of us is greater
than any other.
MACEDONIAN: I dispute your claim,
Bithynian, for base are the rude tasks
yon Egyptian and German perform, yet,
the work of the mind is for Macedon,
for Alexandria, and Nubia.
The Jew’s world is pots of fragrant sauces,
the Thracian’s the craft of spear shafts and points,
Athens the voice, Arcadia’s cithara,
and Syria the body’s foul humors.
I am in the business of knowing names.
ALEXANDRIAN: And I in the ways of language, custom…
NUBIAN: While the library is my own fine realm.
GERMAN: The work of a horseman is noble, fool!
GAULISH: And what hunt would be complete without hounds?
THRACIAN: And what warrior’s worth without my spears?
EGYPTIAN: And what would your lives be without my craft?
Stones on the soles of your feet, painful steps!
JEWISH: And what about me? Starving and tasteless
would your lives be without my sweet sauces!
SYRIAN: Indeed, you would not have lives at all, friends,
were it not for my knowledge of physic!
ALEXANDRIAN: Make that into a song, if you can, fool!
ATHENIAN: Give me a moment, and Arcadia
and I will outdo Sappho, and will make
every eye that hears weep with the beauty
of the melody we create!
ARCADIAN: ‘Tis true!
BRITISH: And yet, who among you would be near fit
to be seen by the eyes of Emperor
or basest sewer cleaner without me,
who can make a balding man’s head sublime
and those with fine manes the like of a god?
BITHYNIAN: And yet, to all of you I say this now:
none are as fortunate, in your workings
of mind or hands or tongues, of tools or beasts,
than I, who has the pleasure each new day
to see Antinous rise from his sleep
like the god Men at his fullness at night,
who dries his skin after his bath, and oils
his sweet flesh for wrestling or for soothing…
You all envy me as if I were king!
EGYPTIAN: And his chamber pot, too, don’t forget it!
I may have the smell of stale soles and nails
as I ply my trade, and the tough leather
does not give easily beneath my awl,
but surely this is better than playing
the human stand for the boy’s pissing pot!
SYRIAN: ‘Twould be no bad thing, for the lad’s urine
shows him to be healthy and of good strength,
with no odors that speak ill of his form.
ARCADIAN: Look sharp, fellows! Whether he comes to speak
or to piss in a pot, Antinous
approaches! To your feet, every last one!
[All the SLAVES rise and bow their heads as ANTINOUS enters.]
ANTINOUS: Bithynian, warm some oil for my feet,
and good Briton, apply your hands above—
my head aches as if Athena the wise
were about to erupt from it without
the hammer of Hephaistos assisting!
BITHYNIAN: As you wish, young master.
BRITISH: Yes, my master.
[ANTINOUS sits as the BITHYNIAN SLAVE goes to heat the oil, and the BRITISH SLAVE begins to massage his head.]
PHRYGIAN: Water, sir?
ANTINOUS: Water is a fine thing, true;
but it is not the blue blood of the earth
that I need now, but the blood of the vine.
Praise to Dionysos for his good gift!
[The PHRYGIAN SLAVE fetches wine and pours it for ANTINOUS.]
ALEXANDRIAN: In this land, we call him Osiris, lord.
EGYPTIAN: In this land, YOU call him Osiris, fool—
for Osiris, we have another name…
ALEXANDRIAN: Insolent fool! Your opinion is naught
nor is it wanted, now nor any time!
ANTINOUS: No, wait—this is intriguing to me. Speak,
Egyptian, and tell me now what you know
of the great gods of Egypt and of Greece.
ALEXANDRIAN: [Aside to NUBIAN SLAVE] Theology from a shoemaker—ha!
NUBIAN: Be mindful of your tongue, for Egypt’s men
have known the gods since before Greece was born.
ALEXANDRIAN: And am I not of Egypt just the same?
NUBIAN: And yet, the Nile flows in his veins and mine,
whereas Alpheios is your heart’s river.
ALEXANDRIAN: How dare you! The Ptolemies were my sires!
NUBIAN: And like the sun-parched banks of the river,
the Nile withdrew its gifts even from them.
EGYPTIAN: It is a complicated matter, sir;
I dare not speak of it lest I mistake
some passing notion of my own for truth.
ANTINOUS: And yet, if the truth is your own, sandler,
then there is some worth to it.
EGYPTIAN: But, for me;
for you, what worth is there in hearing it?
ANTINOUS: The gods speak to each of us in diverse
manners, and to know their speech to others
increases my knowledge of all the gods.
ALEXANDRIAN: An interesting notion, young master;
but if I may, what do the gods’ speeches
to your own ears encompass? Tell us true.
ANTINOUS: I would tell you truly, my good wordsmith,
but the spirit of melancholy sways
each faculty of my soul presently.
SYRIAN: Melancholia! That black distemper!
I may have some leeches to drain the bile…
ANTINOUS: Leave your leeches, physician; this will pass.
The spirit will depart when the wine god
has made his abode in my soul this hour.
BRITISH: What has given you this distemper, lord?
ANTINOUS: It is nothing, barber; Arcadian—
ply your fingers upon the strings at once,
I would have music to soothe my senses.
[The ARCADIAN SLAVE begins to play the cithara.]
ATHENIAN: What song would you have me sing, my master?
ANTINOUS: Though your throat is the match for any Muse,
I pray you not sing for me on this day;
words have troubled me, and words cannot heal
what has been done.
NUBIAN: The arts of Thoth are mine,
good master, and perhaps I can help you
if only you tell us what words have struck
your soul with this weight of the bad spirit.
ANTINOUS: Cook, surely you have some soup now boiling
that might restore good thoughts to my vexed mind?
JEWISH: Only a humble broth of chicken’s flesh,
the feast for slaves, but the filth of a lord…
ANTINOUS: I was fed on humbler soups to my health—
every man here, join me in this soup feast.
[All the SLAVES look astonished.]
ALEXANDRIAN: Truly, sir?
ANTINOUS: Most certainly—are we not
all men who share this earth beneath the gods?
NUBIAN: If I may, my lord, you are just barely
on the verge of manhood yourself, and we
are but servile beings; to call our like “men”
is to give us dignities we cannot,
by law nor custom, lay any claims on.
ANTINOUS: This is the very sort of talk which brought
the cursed kakodaimon to my mind!
NUBIAN: Forgive me, my lord—even punish me!
ANTINOUS: I do not wish to inflict punishment
on you, nor anyone, on this fine day.
Instead, take up your bowls and eat with me!
JEWISH: Is it your command that we eat with you?
ANTINOUS: No! Don’t you see? This matter of “servant”
and “master” has become full tiresome!
It is not my own will by which I want
each of you to take up your spoons and bowls:
join me in my feast of slaves if YOU want,
but not because I have forced you to eat.
[The SLAVES begin to look around at each other, but then the THRACIAN takes up a bowl and spoon, followed by the GAUL, the GERMAN, the BRITON, and the MACEDONIAN, until all of the slaves, with the ALEXANDRIAN last, take up their bowls and spoons, being served by the JEWISH SLAVE.]
ANTINOUS: There! Now was that so difficult, my friends?
ALEXANDRIAN: Friends?!? Are we now your friends in truth, my lord?
ANTINOUS: I have said it; if you weren’t, I would not!
Now, we must give thanks to the gods for this
food, for our lives and our fortunes, both good
and ill, and for this day when we are friends.
ALEXANDRIAN: Except the Jew.
ANTINOUS: And to the Jewish god
I also give thanks for this good cook’s skills!
JEWISH: I will pray to The Name on your behalf.
ANTINOUS: And I to my gods for you, good soup-smith!
ALEXANDRIAN: [Aside to NUBIAN] Now there’s a word for the lexical scribes!
NUBIAN: Or for the poets, Alexandrian.
BRITISH: But, my lord, you have still not informed us
of what brought you to this state and to us.
ANTINOUS: It was this very sort of talk and trash,
of slavery and servitude and will.
A Roman Senator came to the court
on some business of state, and at the side
of Hadrian I rested, dozing off,
sun above drenching me with drowsiness,
when the Senator made a snide remark
and called me a “slave” to the Emperor.
It’s true, I’m not of high nobility,
but my people of Arcadian stock,
descendants of Antinoë herself,
first settled in Bithynian landscapes
and made their lives there for generations…
BITHYNIAN: Yes; but Romans have resented our land
ever since the rumor was spread: Caesar
was cinaedus to King Nicomedes.
ANTINOUS: And if Arcadia is backwater
compared to great Greece, itself disparaged
by old families of resentful Rome,
then Bithynia is more barbaric.
THRACIAN: By Gebeleizis, I would break that fool
for offending you, and for offending
the lands and peoples of Thrace, too, besides!
ANTINOUS: I appreciate your sentiment, friend,
but it is not necessary. Instead,
the Emperor bade him revise his words,
to think again about what he had said;
the Senator sneered, and chuckled aloud,
looking directly at me as he said
“Even if his will were his own, would he
have said no to the Emperor of Rome?”
The Senator knows nothing of me, nor
does he know the heart of great Hadrian.
If I had said “no” to the Emperor,
I would still be in Bithynia’s land.
GERMAN: One cannot break a horse unless it gives
its consent to the rider who rides it.
GAULISH: Nor does a hound trust every hound-master.
ANTINOUS: But I am no horse nor hound…or am I?
GAULISH: Forgive me, my lord, I did not mean to…
GERMAN: We would never suggest you are a beast…
ANTINOUS: And yet, no matter what speech or reason
we have, are we anything but creatures
of plant and animal natures at base?
What reason and will we have from the gods,
but the body’s growth and appetites still
are ruled by gods whose names we do not know.
JEWISH: How is your soup, master? Do you like it?
ANTINOUS: I do, my friend, it suits me well today!
JEWISH: More, sir?
ANTINOUS: Only if you will eat your own—
I will not have starving servants with me!
[The JEWISH SLAVE, somewhat reluctantly, takes up a bowl of soup for himself and begins to eat.]
THRACIAN: If I may, my lord, how can servants be
regarded as servants as well as friends?
ANTINOUS: It is true—freedom’s a necessity
where friendship is concerned, it can’t be forced.
THRACIAN: And how, then, would we all become free friends?
PHRYGIAN: There was another Thracian who asked that…
ATHENIAN: Yes, Spartacus of old; I am writing
a song about him, but I dare not sing
it in the presence of Romans—they’d fear
I was inciting a new rebellion,
and would have me food for lions swiftly!
ANTINOUS: I have fought lions, and slain them.
EGYPTIAN: True, sir.
ANTINOUS: And that reminds me, Egyptian: new shoes
for everyone here. The ones you made me
most recently were so fine that my feet
felt as if they trod upon rose petals
though I was tracking through the desert sands.
With such shoes, any slave would be as strong
as Spartacus in his great victories.
SYRIAN: So generous, sir! But are you certain?
Your shoes are made of Parthian leather,
a costly material, with golden
threads, and lapis lazuli studs as well!
Surely, we do not deserve such fine shoes!
ANTINOUS: Your feet are your foundations just as well
as my own or the Emperor’s; therefore,
you deserve to walk in such enjoyment.
EGYPTIAN: You are far too generous, good master!
ANTINOUS: Think nothing of it. I would do as much
for any friend if it were in my means,
and it is, thus it is my own pleasure.
[A trumpet sounds in the distance.]
ANTINOUS: Another state dinner…gods deliver
me from the tedium of more speeches!
BITHYNIAN: There is enough time, perhaps, for a bath
before you must brave that trial, my master.
ANTINOUS: Yes, a nice bath—perhaps that will relieve
the last of my strain over those poor words
the Senator spoke to me earlier.
But first, a question to all of you here:
who is the oldest, and who the youngest?
JEWISH: I have forty-four summers on my back.
SYRIAN: And I fifty.
ALEXANDRIAN: And myself fifty-five.
MACEDONIAN: For every year of my life, I have learned
four hundred names and faces, though I am
not needed by the Emperor himself—
but the Empress and her attendants think
my skills are worth keeping me around yet:
full twenty-three thousands and six hundreds
of names I know clearly without straining…
guess my age, more senior than my colleague.
NUBIAN: Both math and letters are my sciences,
for Thoth is their one originator:
you are fifty-nine, but I am sixty-
seven, a veteran of libraries.
PHRYGIAN: Then there is none older than you, good friend.
I, on the other hand, am young—no more
than thirty years have passed since I was born.
ARCADIAN: And I am only twenty-nine, younger.
THRACIAN: Twenty-eight—four sevens, a favored age.
ATHENIAN: Twenty-six—two thirteens, nothing special.
GAULISH: Twenty years and five is my own age now.
GERMAN: Twenty-four is the sum of years I have.
EGYPTIAN: And twenty-three is my age, younger still.
BITHYNIAN: Twenty-two is my age, which I believe
makes me the youngest of this present lot.
BRITISH: Not true, Bithynian, for just eighteen
is my age.
ANTINOUS: Amazing! Elders to youths,
not a generation is absent here
from the time of Nero to Hadrian!
NUBIAN: Indeed, I remember Nero’s strange reign,
and the destruction of the Jews’ Temple.
JEWISH: Alas, I never saw it, neither did
my own mother and father.
is made by words on scrolls and stones, my friend.
You have lived lives of good service, each one,
some lengthy, others short, and yet more life
can remain to each of you. I pray now
that we shall be friends for as long as Fate
will allow us to be in each others’
presence upon the body of Gaia!
[ANTINOUS exits, with the BITHYNIAN SLAVE following him closely.]
JEWISH: Such a nice boy!
EGYPTIAN: And so generous!
what an odd afternoon this has just been!
ATHENIAN: If this were a fable of Aesop, or
even a scene from some minor epic
of Homer or Antimachus, no one
would believe what had happened within it!
NUBIAN: But imagine the debates that would span
hour upon hour in libraries from here
to Ephesus to Rome to further off
in Londinium, if indeed it has
a library at all!
BRITISH: Now, now, Nubie—
the governor of Britannia has
three full shelves of books! I’ve seen them myself!
ARCADIAN: My song is now done, perhaps I can eat
the soup that was a gift from gods and men—
our master Antinous, and a Jew
who knows his way around a chicken!
SYRIAN: Eat well, citharode: there is none better
than such a soup to restore one’s spirits.
GAULISH: I would prefer a stew of boar’s meat, though…
GERMAN: As would I, and one I had well run down
upon my own steed, in Germania.
PHRYGIAN: Still, our young master’s words were like water
in soothing a parched throat after a trek
from the Nile to Zeus-Ammon’s oracle.
ALEXANDRIAN: I have made that trek, and many more, too…
MACEDONIAN: And I have remembered the names of men
amounting to legions, and can spout them
as fluid as the Nile’s inundation.
[A short pause. The BITHYNIAN SLAVE comes back, rushing in, panting.]
MACEDONIAN: What is it?
BITHYNIAN: It is…
ALEXANDRIAN: Say it, fellow! Speak!
BITHYNIAN: I cannot believe it…
NUBIAN: There is little
that we elders have not heard nor read. Speak.
BITHYNIAN: This, you have neither heard nor read before!
MACEDONIAN: Then, by the gods, say what it is you know!
SYRIAN: Do not rush him! Some strange spirit within
has taken hold and will not let his breath
be calmed. What spirit is it?
NUBIAN: Osiris? Are you sure?
EGYPTIAN: Not Osiris;
his festival has just passed, and this breath
is not the breath of Osiris’ presence.
ALEXANDRIAN: Then, it may yet be Serapis instead…
PHRYGIAN: I do not think so. Here, take some water.
[The BITHYNIAN SLAVE drinks.]
BITHYNIAN: No, not Serapis either.
THRACIAN: Then I know:
ATHENIAN: You mean Dionysos?
THRACIAN: A god whose role is known, and yet whose name
is not as important—Sabazios
to some, Dionysos to some others…
BITHYNIAN: It is only Eleutheros, that god,
be he Dionysos, Sabazios,
Serapis, or Osiris…WE ARE FREE!
ALL SLAVES: What?!?
BITHYNIAN: As Antinous came to the bath, lo,
he loosened his garments, and I took them,
folded them, and found within a large purse
filled with a talent or more of gold coin.
He said to take that purse, and then purchase
the freedom of every man here, each one!
He then bade me not to stay and help him,
for it would not befit a free man’s state
to wait in servile fashion with a towel.
I could not keep back the tears in my eyes
as I saw him descend into the bath.
He smiled at me as I stood there weeping,
and he said one more thing to me: “Next time
you see the curve of my buttocks, you’ll be
in the public bath a free man, my friend.”
He turned his back to me as his fair form
descended into the pure Nile waters
in the bath, and with a flick of his hand
he dismissed me for the last time a slave.
PHRYGIAN: Produce the purse, or this is all a jest.
[The BITHYNIAN SLAVE produces the purse, just as he had described it.]
THRACIAN: Then it is true?
JEWISH: We are free men?
BITHYNIAN: WE ARE!!!
EGYPTIAN: By the gods, Ma’at is pleased with the boy!
MACEDONIAN: And Dionysos is praised!
NUBIAN: As is Thoth,
for this is his city upon the Nile.
ALEXANDRIAN: Then there is no time to waste! Let us go
and tell the Emperor’s major domo
of the good fortune which has come to us!
ARCADIAN: But wait! Who will do the tasks of the court
in our places?
THRACIAN: There will be others still:
a great empire is never short of slaves.
PHRYGIAN: May we always remember this good night!
BITHYNIAN: And may we always praise Antinous!
FINIT. DEO ANTINOO GRATIAS.