A Roman Triptych – 2) Petronella’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.
2) PETRONELLA’S STORY
My name is Petronella.
Although I occupy a lowly position in this household I am of noble blood, being the illegitimate daughter of the senator Petronius. It’s not uncommon among the Roman aristocracy to keep mistresses, in fact, it is de rigueur.
Promiscuity is the name of the game in this city and though the wives might appear all-forgiving of their husbands’ escapades, they take their revenge by coupling with their slaves. This is the kind of society in which I was brought up.
I don’t profess to be above judgement as I myself have lain with my master, comforted him during the years of his widowhood and mopped the sweat from his brow during bouts of his sickness.
Once he remarried, his ardour cooled somewhat but we still managed to snatch a few moments of intimacy, when he returned home late at night and his wife was in a deep slumber in the arms of Morpheus.
He was always considerate and tender and I thought that he felt a particular affection for me but I never fooled myself that I was the only one as his reputation as a womaniser was renowned.
Why, there was even speculation that he had fathered Brutus whom he treated as an adopted son.
Alas, those days are gone and I will never again experience the delicate touch of his hand over my craving body. Oh, how I wish that it was he who deflowered me; but the one who committed the deed was my cousin Lucius.
It happened when, at the onset of my puberty, he and I were having a bit of rough and tumble and, while wrestling, his clothes parted to reveal the full extent of his manhood.
His tunic coming undone was my undoing.
But I don’t wish to dwell on these memories. I want to recount the events that led to the downfall and eventual demise of Gaius Julius Caesar.
◊ ◊ ◊
I was surprised that having married twice before, my master should choose to enter into a third matrimony. It’s not as if he was lacking female companionship. Then I realized the true reason: it was unseemly for an ambitious politician to be living the debauched life of a bachelor. Besides, she came from a patrician family and that would go a long way in cementing alliances.
I won’t beat about the bush: I didn’t like her, Calpurnia. She was always aloof and acted in a supercilious manner at all times. She wouldn’t let you forget that she was the First Lady.
So I was astonished when one day she approached me and, in the sweetest of tones, told me to take the day off.
I was at once suspicious of her motives; it was unprecedented for her to be so magnanimous.
I demurred for what I considered to be a decent length of time by saying that I was supposed to go to the market and she replied that she would see to that.
I then gave way graciously and said in the unctuous manner that was expected from me:
‘That’s very good of you, My lady, you are very kind.’
But all the time I was inwardly laughing at the old cow.
I didn’t suppose she meant it literally, that she would go in person to acquire the victuals, and was mightily intrigued when I saw her going into my room, take one of my garments, a cloak, a pair of sandals and my shopping bag.
She then went back to her boudoir, from which she presently emerged clean-scrubbed and wearing my clothes.
Thinking that nobody was watching her, she exited from the small gate at the end of the garden. She then proceeded leisurely towards the City, but not knowing the shortcuts that I usually take, she took ages to reach the market.
I followed her all the way as I was curious to see what she was up to.
She behaved normally although a bit awkwardly. She bought some provisions and started talking to one of the stallholders.
They went to the Emporium and had some refreshment and all the time they were having an intense conversation. I positioned myself within earshot and was able to ascertain that they were only exchanging gossip. The only thing that puzzled me was why she should express astonishment at hearing of Caesar and Cleopatra’s liaison, because I was absolutely certain that she was au fait with the situation.
At that moment I realised that she was concocting some evil scheme; a suspicion that was reinforced when, on returning to the stall, she bought some weird-looking plants.
‘From now on I shall keep you under my watchful eye,’ I said to myself. And that was exactly what I did over the following months.
But apart from tending to those funny-looking plants, she didn’t seem to be doing anything untoward.
◊ ◊ ◊
It was at the beginning of spring that those wretched weeds started producing fat pods
and it was these that I saw Madam collecting very early on the morning of the Ides of March.
She had placed a bowl of fresh, juicy figs on the table and I realised to my horror that she was poisoning them with the seeds she had gathered earlier.
There wasn’t a moment to waste; as soon as she was out of sight I grabbed the bowl, chucked away all the poisonous fruit, rinsed the container, and put some fresh unsullied figs in their place.
Only then I was able to relax, but I kept watch just in case she was up to some other trick. I spied him later, as he left the house, biting into one of those delicacies and smiled a contented smile. I had saved my master’s life.
◊ ◊ ◊
There was wailing and gnashing of teeth when we heard the news: Caesar had been murdered outside the Senate, knifed to death by some conspirators. Some said that even Brutus was involved.
I looked at the darkened sky for some sort of explanation, but there was no portent, no sign from the Gods.
All my efforts to keep him alive had been in vain. Fate had decreed that he should die.
I know that she thinks that the main reason for his death was her poison and that the stabbings came later, but I am not going to enlighten her that I had got rid of the noxious fruit.
Let the evil bitch live with her guilt.
© Luigi Pagano (Tue, 07 May 2019)
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