THE ARGUMENT: Virgilius, a slave from Hibernia who was sold in Gaul and acquired by the Emperor Hadrian for his wife Vibia Sabina Augusta, recounts nine days on the Nile in Egypt with the Emperor and his court in the fourteenth year of Hadrian’s principate, from the IX Kal. Nov. (October 24th) to the Kalends of November (November 1st).
IX Kal. Nov.
As the sun set at the beginning of this day—
for that is how days are reckoned with me—
the mists were heavy on the banks of the Nile.
As I rose after my sleep, the mists lingered still,
and the boats from upriver emerged through it
like so many gulls sculling on the skin of the sea.
The Nile, ever-holy and sacred to the people of Egypt,
holds some trepidation for them today,
and for many amongst our retinue, including the Emperor.
Today was the day on which the Egyptians reckon
Osiris, their divine king become a god, was drowned
in the waters of the Nile itself, a holy death and deserved deification.
I remember young master Vitalis, and wish he could see this,
for he always thought the practices of foreign religions
a fascinating subject, even more than the Emperor himself at times.
He was a good youth, and a kind one in his treatment
of slaves like me and the others, never holding himself
above us, nor trampling upon our humanity—a rare thing.
But even the Emperor prostrates himself before Osiris,
the great king, the god, and the judge of the dead.
Greeks and Romans both scoff at his scraping, but he is wise.
The boy at his side likewise bends his knee,
bows his head, but looks up into the eyes of the statue,
not like the Emperor, who stares only into the dust upon his knees.
But it is the Emperor himself who speaks first:
“How long must we adopt this position?”
He turns, laughing, to look at the boy beside him.
Though he chuckles slightly, the boy raises a finger to his lips—
he has become the image of the Egyptian’s silent god,
Harpocrates, the naked child within the lotus flower’s blossom.
I don’t think the Egyptian priest saw this, or heard it,
for he is chanting what sounds to me like every vowel the Greeks have
and at least sixteen more, though I know nothing of letters.
They take the statue of Osiris down to the river’s banks
and bathe it, but lament in doing so, as if he goes to his death;
returning with the cleansed image, the sistra shake rejoicing.
The Emperor and the boy helped to carry linens to dry the image,
but in his eagerness to present them, the boy tripped, fell,
and was face-first in the water, his linen and clothes all soaked.
As he rose, a lotus petal loose in the water had caught in his hair,
hanging wet and limp, but giving his face a red luster
as if he was a child god coming forth from the river as well.
The Egyptian priest, his brow wrinkled, told the boy to remove his clothes,
for they too were now holy, though the boy wearing them was not,
and they would be his offering in the temple for the statue of Osiris.
The Emperor tried to be calm, collected, stately and serene,
but the sight of the youth pleased him to the extent that he could not stop smiling.
The Egyptian priest told him “Your decorum suffers, Divine Majesty.”
The Emperor grumbled, spat an apology, and resumed a grave face,
presenting his linens for the drying of the statue
before they returned to the temple and the festivities to follow.
We rowed upstream in the hours that came in turn
as if we were crossing the Styx and we a hundred Charons,
as the galley slaves rowed when I was brought in a hold to Gaul.
The statue, when it was returned to its niche in the temple,
passed by me for only a moment, and I remember smelling
a metallic odor, as if the statue was made of a fallen star.
The land of Egypt and its customs are strange to me,
but a drowned king is nothing new to my memory.
Still, I prefer a slave’s life if I can continue to breathe air.