A Roman Triptych – 1) Calpurnia’s Story
Cicero wrote: “History is the witness of the times….”
But how reliable is this witness? Had we lived at the time of a particular event, would we have perceived it in the way described in history books?
Let’s look at a well-known incident from the past through the eyes of three female protagonists and listen to each woman’s interpretation
1) CALPURNIA’S STORY
The grains of sand inside the hourglass were trickling far too slow for my liking. The suspense was unbearable and yet I had to show patience and not betray the fact that I knew that a cataclysm was going to happen soon.
I had been waiting, to be told that my husband had felt unwell, gone out gasping for air and collapsed in a convulsive fit. Another of his epileptic attacks.
But when the news came, it was not what I expected to hear. What the wailing neighbours were relating was that Julius Gaius, the mighty Caesar, had been slain on the steps of the Senate, by a band of conspirators.
◊ ◊ ◊
Ours had been a marriage of convenience. Not in the financial sense, but politically. Julius was a widower and a divorcee and needed some respectability and social status in the world of politics.
I, on the other hand, relished, initially at least, the lavish parties and the adulation which was bestowed on me as the spouse of the ruler of the eternal city.
Every whim of mine was catered for in my luxury villa on the Capitoline hill.
Gradually, though, the glamour of a pampered life waned; Julius was frequently away on
expeditions, to Gallia and Britannia or to faraway places like Syria.
Jupiter only knew what he got up to during these absences, but I knew that he would not
be averse to the Roman tradition that a guest ought to be entertained by the wife or
daughter of the host during his sojourn.
I had had my share of ‘entertaining’, during the frequent orgies that were our duty to organise. I was very particular in my choice of partners on these occasions:
I had the pick of young, patricians, ganymedes ready to be initiated to the art of sex. The poor inexperienced lambs, though, left me very often unsatisfied.
For my personal gratification, when I felt lonely during Caesar’s absence, I relied on a
Nubian slave, or the tender embraces of my maid Claudia whose snaky, sinuous tongue is
The rest of my time was spent reading and writing letters.
I yearned for some challenge to lift my spirits and fill the void around me.
Not being a religious person, visits to the temple of the Vestal Virgins did not appeal to me
as I found the company of priests tiresome.
The tomboy in me wanted to be reckless, roam the streets at night, but knew that the city in darkness was a bawdy and dangerous place and even though the vigiles kept an eye on the thugs and cut-throats it was injudicious to entertain such crazy notions.
The thought of embarking on a foolhardy adventure gnawed constantly.
I naively came to the conclusion that it would be safe to visit the markets and bazaars of Rome during the day, incognito, disguised as a servant out on a shopping spree.
The excitement of it all: being able to mingle with the crowd, eavesdrop on the gossip and listen to the comments of the populace, vox populi as it were!
I was familiar with the topography of the city, having been carried through it on a sedan chair many times and knew that if I avoided certain unsavoury quarters I would be safe.
I floated the idea with Claudia. She was horrified.‘You are mad’, she exclaimed, ‘to even consider such an ill-thought venture.‘
‘Of course’, I reassured her, ‘Your judgment is one that I value and I wouldn’t do
anything against your advice.’
I gave her a hug and a peck on the cheeks and all the time I kept my fingers crossed as I didn’t have any intention to keep my promise.
Having decided on that course of action, I started to think about a plan.
The first requirement was to assimilate and mimic the language. and behaviour of a common person. I observed and listened to the delivery men to get used to their vulgar idiom.
I got inured to swear words and gestures that would have once made me blush. It was all
part of the mad scheme I had devised.
What was needed next was rustic clothing so that I could portray a plebeian girl and blend with the populace.
Some garments and a cloak of the servant Petronella, I decided, fitted the bill -she being of similar size and height to myself.
A queer person, that Petronella. She was the illegitimate offspring of the senator Petronius,
who, having unwisely consorted with a prostitute, was lumbered with the child after the mother had done a moonlight flit.Being married to a matron of the old Roman aristocracy that had a lot of clout, with three daughters, and a reputation to protect, he could not possibly bring up the baby as his own. Who should the senator turn to for help but his friend Julius? So she had joined our household thanks to Caesar’s goodness.
I was faced with a fait accompli as it had happened prior to my wedding but I refused to consider the bastard girl other than a servant and made my views perfectly clear to Julius.
He acquiesced but I knew that he had a soft spot for the waif and that he afforded her privileges behind my back.
It suited me to be civil to her seeing that she was my passport to the Eternal City. I met her in the atrium and stopped to exchange greetings.
‘Ave, Petronella, how is life treating you?’
‘Fairly well, My Lady, thank you.’
‘I believe that you deserve a break in view of the hard work that you loyally perform. How would you like to take the day off?’
I could see that she was sorely tempted but that her pride would not allow her to capitulate at once. She eventually assented by saying:
‘That’s very good of you, Domina, you are very kind.’
She scuttled towards the lodgings of her cousin Lucius. Her smile told me that she was looking forward to being serviced by that virile youth.
◊ ◊ ◊
Having given the girl the day off and excused her from shopping duty, for which the wench seemed very grateful, I stealthily went to the girl’s room where I borrowed a suitable outfit and a pair of comfortable leather sandals.
Back in my bedchamber, after removing all my bracelets and golden bangles, I scrubbed the face powder and washed off the lip paint.
Donning a fustian brown tunic and a large straw bag, my exit from the villa across the atrium and down a secluded garden through a service gate proved remarkably easy.
A dusty road led to the cobbled main street where activities were gathering momentum.
No one I encountered knew me but my modest attire would have deceived even the most intimate of friends.
I rehearsed mentally the imaginary background that would have to be revealed when engaged in conversation with other servants and stall holders.
If asked, I would say that Ascorbius, was my master. A ‘banker’ – a euphemism for a money lender or
usurer – who had just arrived in Rome and lived in a modest villa on the outskirts.
Pleased with myself and exhilarated by the double life embarked upon, I ambled along the streets leading to the market in a daze. I nearly missed the coarse banter of two pimply youth standing outside a tavern.
‘Cor, look at that Titus, would you give her one?’
‘Oi, missus. Fancy a shag?’
I was secretly flattered to be the centre of such lascivious attention and felt a slight tingle in my loins but I wasn’t in the mood for a bit of rough and besides I had more urgent matters to attend to.
I didn’t reply nor looked up; I gave them the finger. They took in good spirit and just
laughed I wondered through the stalls lined up under the colonnade, assimilating the atmosphere that the hurly-burly of the crowd generated.
I had kept downcast eyes to reflect my lowly status so not to reveal my true rank, but I nearly betrayed myself when, bending down to inspect some melons, I unexpectedly heard:
‘Anything I can do for you, love?’
That floored me; nobody ever had the gall to address me as ‘love’. It had always been Madam or Your Ladyship.
After a fleeting moment of panic, the status quo was restored and I regained my composure.
The woman’s black eyes were staring intensely at my pale face.
‘You are new round here, aren’t you?
So I gave her the spiel about Ascorbius and she took it hook, line and sinker. She then told me that her name was Artemisia.
‘Artemisia?’ – I said – ‘not a Roman name, surely? Are you Greek?’
‘No. I am from Sicily.’
I bought some fruit and vegetables, doing a good impression of Petronella. I was sure that there was not a trace of Calpurnia in me and that I was truly in character.
I edged towards the end of the stall and started to examine an array of pots of herbs and unusual plants. Learning that Artemisia was a keen horticulturist I confided that I too had a similar interest and would like to know more. From that moment a friendship was forged.
‘Would you like to join me in some refreshment?’ – the woman asked – ‘I can have my niece Camilla look after the stall for a while and we can repair to a nearby tavern’.
We slowly made our way towards the Emporium. To hear the coarse voices of the tradesmen was a new experience for me but the shocking opinions being vented by the common men were altogether a revelation.
The patricians of Rome were parasites living off the sweat and labour of honest citizens,
leeches after their blood. The whole lot of them should be thrown to the lions! And as for
that Caesar, the hypocrite, pretending to be ever so humble and shamming to refuse the
crown, twice, before grabbing it with undisguised pleasure’
The hurt of those words was real, but the pretence had to be maintained.
‘Well, well’ – I mused – ‘the Emperor wears no clothes, according to his subjects.’
◊ ◊ ◊
Some people at the bar were eating oysters washed down with white wine whereas others were pouring some maerum, a heavy red wine, from amphorae dispatched to Rome from
Artemisia settled for some ribs of pork with a jug of wine while I chose a sweet pancake with honey and a glass of fermented apple juice.
As we ate, the Sicilian woman talked about herself, how she was descended from Circe, the enchantress of ancient times, and of all the secret recipes and potions handed over to
her by previous generations.
She also explained the various properties of plants she was selling, some with healing
powers, others with lethal consequences. She then hinted that her three late husbands might have been helped on their way by such means. Whether it was the effect of the wine going to the woman’s head I could not tell.
The confidences did not end there; in whispers she related the latest gossip which had taken the city by storm: Caesar’s mistress and their bastard son had come to Rome and had been installed in a villa on the other side of the Tiber.
I sat there with my mouth open, in disbelief. This was the first I’d heard of it. A son! Let
alone a mistress. Apparently her name was Cleopatra and he had met her while fighting in
Egypt. But, as always, the wife is the last to know.
I tut-tutted as if to imply that all men were swine.
Back at the market I purchased a tray of plants whose qualities Artemisia had extolled.I bade her farewell and made my way back home. The experience had been traumatic and I felt worn out, not at all sure I would repeat the experiment.
◊ ◊ ◊
The truth about Cleopatra had to be verified, I could not rely on idle gossip and innuendo.
But how? The papers in Caesar’s study might provide some clue. Julius Gaius was away fighting in the provinces, but was this a lie and he was actually with his trollop? Nevertheless, his absence was the right opportunity for me to rifle through his documents.
It did not take long; a copy of the will was among a stack of papyri. It stated that Octavius was to be the his sole heir but it also acknowledged paternity of an illegitimate son, Caesarion, and that equate provisions should be made for his upbringing. The proof was a bitter pill to swallow.
As I was pondering the implications of my discovery, a visitor was announced.
‘Greetings, Marcus Tullius. What brings you here at this time?’
I had never liked the creep, Marcus Tullius Cicero, acclaimed by everyone as an astute
politician, a brilliant orator and an esteemed lawyer. He had in the past been very hostile towards Julius but was now very pally with my husband.
‘I called on the off-chance that Caesar was at home. I have the draft of a document which he requested. I’d like him to peruse it and if it is in order, he might contact me on my return from Ostia. I shall be away for a fortnight.’
‘I’ll make sure that he gets it as soon as he arrives.’
‘I am obliged, my lady, hail and farewell.’
As soon as he went I realised that a perusal of this document was imperative; not by Caesar, but myself. The content was explosive. It revoked any previous will and named Caesarion as absolute heir even to the extent of succeeding Julius Gaius Caesar on the emperor’s demise.
The evening was chilly and the flames flickering in the fireplace looked inviting. The document quickly joined the burning logs.
It was unlikely that this burning issue would be discussed in the near future!
◊ ◊ ◊
Autumn and winter had completed their cycle and the pale sun on the horizon heralded the
dawn of a new season.
The herbarium was coming along very nicely. The plants acquired from Artemisia had produced fat ripe pods full of seeds. I had been reading quite extensively of late and was fascinated by a treatise by Hippocrates on the subject of herbal remedies.
Tomorrow would be the Ides of March and Caesar was going to discuss important matters of state.
All the family had been put on full alert; everything needed to be perfect the following morning. There had been some bad omens according to the soothsayer due to the fact that there had been an eclipse of the moon, and he was advised to postpone the meeting but Caesar dismissed all this as an old wives’ tale.
He was not superstitious and everything was to go ahead as planned.
◊ ◊ ◊
It was a glorious morning; brilliant sunshine and the birds singing announced the arrival of spring.
The praetorian guards were already outside waiting to escort the Emperor to the Senate.
Caesar had a last look at the house which seemed unusually spick and span.
The table had a vase of cut flowers on it and in the middle a ceramic bowl full of luscious ripe figs
He smiled a contented smile: Calpurnia certainly knew how to tempt him.
He took a plump one, bit into it with great gusto and marched out of the door with a spring in his steps.
◊ ◊ ◊
I played the part of a grieving widow to perfection, I thought. The house now felt empty, all the neighbours having retreated to their abode and the servants to their sleeping quarters.
I looked at the flickering oil lamp and with a wry smile said to myself: ‘With half a dozen daggers as evidence, they won’t be looking for poison, will they?’
© Luigi Pagano (Mon, 06 May 2019)