VI Kal. Nov.
It is necessary, the Empress tells me,
to maintain the fabric of our entourage today.
The morning was spent with the rugs, blankets, and tent fabrics
hung on lines, strung up like the clothes-lines of giants,
and with a flat wooden paddle, like a domestic Hercules,
I have beaten the dust from them to equal the storms of the desert.
It is relentless work, and the sun on my back and shoulders
has reddened me to the likeness of a boiled pig.
I’ve groomed the Empress’ horse, I’ve made sure
all the liveries are laundered and lay drying upon rocks,
I’ve polished her plates, cups, and sharpened the knives,
and I’ve mended the straps on her good pair of sandals.
The boy must be bored, because he’s been watching me,
following me around as I beat the fabrics on the line.
He sees I’ve been sweating, and my skin has burned,
and taking up another wooden paddle, he throws off
his chlamys and stands now as naked as I am,
and he begins to beat the rug from the Empress’ tent.
“Are you mad, sir?” I ask him, half-grinning.
“No—but it’s necessary.”
Necessary?!? Work for him, and slaves’ work at that?
He’s no Patrician, no Senator, I’ll grant you,
but he’s far above the foreign rabble, the hard-fallen,
the groundlings like me and my fellows.
The Emperor does not know most of our names,
and prefers not to look at us, our works all done out of sight.
“Even the gods are not above doing work, Virgilius.”
It’s odd for me to hear my name—no, not my name,
the name the Gauls who speak Latin gave to me
when I landed destitute and afraid on those shores.
Even the Empress doesn’t say it often, though she has said it
more than the Emperor, who bought me in bulk and may not even know it.
In my own country, even the slaves have names which kings speak.
My mother was not well-regarded, even amongst slaves,
but the king of Tara himself, Cathair Mór, said her name
when he called for his piss-bucket to be emptied.
The boy finishes with the Empress’ rug—
a beautifully woven one from the province of Bithynia.
He passes by me and smiles, eager to beat another rug.
The smell from his skin is like something from the forest—
pine needles, fallen after a spring’s rainstorm, on the soft earth.
I stand amazed for a moment with the overwhelming scent…
“Antinous, what are you doing?” It’s the Emperor.
He must have been desperate to see him—he’s among the slaves.
“Only what it befits a man to do in virtue,
to lend aid to others, and to give the body pleasure
in its own work and exercise, my love.”
He says this between beats, not to impress, simply to state.
“Then do so in racing, or wrestling, or throwing the discus;
this work is beneath you, and is best left to slaves.”
“And yet, even you, great Emperor, did this work
when you were a soldier under the Divine Trajan, did you not?”
The boy is good; and the Emperor doesn’t know how to answer him.
“If you have no objections, then I’ll be back to it…”
“No—not an objection, a request:
It would help me to see you in the palaestra.”
Cheap—an order phrased as a plea, from the Emperor.
There is no arguing with him, and I can’t even look at him.
The boy looks at me and shrugs his shoulders, shaking his head.
He bends down to pick up his chlamys once again.
“Leave it—you will not need it in the palaestra,
and this slave can have it washed for you meanwhile.”
I’ve been privileged to be branded with a demonstrative
from the lips of the Emperor, Publius Aelius Hadrianus,
Father of His Country, Thrice Consul…sad,
this is probably the best that will ever be spoken of me.
They leave to their sport, feeling no need to take their leave
or give me a blessing as they do so. I am like the rugs I beat.
We are not leaving this spot today; the Egyptian priest
says that some wonder will occur here, near the shrines
of the Golden Goddess and the dancing dwarf, and the Emperor
takes every word he says for poetry and prophecy.
Between the beats on the rugs, I can hear the voice
of the Empress’ Poetess, the well-born Greek.
She sings in a shrill dialect of Greek, of which
I only have a few words anyway, and yet even fewer
of them can I make out as the lyre is plucked in accompaniment…
I miss the harps and praise-hymns of home.
I pick up the boy’s chlamys, white but slightly browned with dirt—
cleansing and bleaching it in Egypt’s scorching sunlight will be necessary.