The Bedroom of Antinous, at the Imperial House in Athens.
Enter Antinous and Alexander.
Come then: let us laugh and pour libations.
To what god?
It falls to you to name one.
Surely he is worthy of it.
There is a temple rising as we speak;
A pompous thrust of pillars to the sky,
Its floors to a marvelous mosaic
By thine own meticulous hand mortared –
And still, from some perverted devotion,
You seek – here, in this limited respite! –
To puff still more upon his inflated pride.
For thy mental health, Sir, I forbid it –
With respect. Prithee, one less thundering.
Exhausted, and too oft
Summoned by idle, uncreative souls.
Thou art fishing for a name.
That I am. A name most amply inspired
By the miniscule, multi-silver’d gleam
Of unfathom’d mirrors to bare bodies fix’d!
Go on, then: he is not so hard to catch,
And, more, once caught, is hard to catch not soft.
An excellent suggestion, Sir!
I commend thee for thy bold conjuring.
Come, Eros! Imbibe with us and rejoice!
This cup and consideration’s for thee;
Our own, we benefit in thy blessing.
How is it such tender, untainted cheeks
Doth harbour so broad and majestic a tongue?
‘Tis a tongue by eyes and ears long years trained.
Ten and seven’s not too fresh to see and hear
The rites and rampant lexicon of Rome.
I am a sponge in ceremony soaked;
An ox by the grand Imperium yoked,
To be forgiven, I trust, if too turgid.
Sweet Alex, there’s no cause for discomfort.
How was supper? Did it satisfy?
And thy wife? Thy Tessera? Happy?
Why, then, such belaboured hesitation?
Do you not like me, Sir? Have you complaint?
Not by the dinner, nor its company:
Both by all standards proved beyond reproach.
What plaint I possess is but for lacking
In sinew’d and pliant comprehension.
Wherefore did Hadrian discover me?
A mighty question – unanswerable.
Hadrian’s is a mind heedless of staid
And unsatisfying logic. It bends.
It leans as like a pine in the tempest,
Dancing where others be splinter’d and fell’d.
Yet what occasioned it? What called for it?
A game. A whispered wager between us.
Last night, amid the lamp oil’s consumption,
He spake of this evening’s obligations;
Of embassies and their tiresome demands,
And bade me, like a babe at mother’s breast,
To find myself succored for distraction.
I said to him it would not gratify;
I should be happier to sleep alone.
Yet he for me could brook no solitude
And conjured, thus, this immediate night:
That he should choose for me my companion,
And if, by this, our natural exchange,
I should find myself joyous and livened,
He triumphs – owed by me a debt of promise.
If, but, I deem the night too tedious –
What company he choiced for me a snore –
Then I am won, and owed as much by he.
Thus am I a pawn of imperial games:
Expendable of spirit. Defenseless.
Not so, Alex. For pawns possess no eyes;
Step eagerly ignorant to their fate.
Now, but, thou art no longer unaware:
Well dost know the cause of thy coming here.
Therefore pawned still, yet philosophic’ly!
What comfort must good fellows glean from that?
A testimony, Sir, by me, as to
The magnificence of Hadrian’s mind:
Would he have choiced me a playmate too dull
To gladly, by due course of night, learn the game?
Hadrian knows well my disposition;
My lust as much for mind’s inspiration
As is by more insistent flesh demanded.
In thee, Alex, he best intuited,
Beyond thy solid and well-built beauty,
Arms of perfect length to embrace the game;
Legs of perfect strength to march them away
Should indeed they discern themselves injured.
Thou art not a pawn, Alex; not a fool.
Thou art the night’s most peerless company:
To a prized and pleading Antinous
From a very strategic Hadrian.
Yet perhaps he hath choiced incorrectly.
Perchance thou art by the game unamused,
And he, being human, proves fallible.
Lo, I’ll not be found in a man’s party
Who won’t so willingly be found in mine.
If you would go, my hand shall not stop you.
I’ll have promptly arranged for you and yours
Secure Praetorian escort to thy home.
I am sorry, Sir, for any offense.
Antinous. Forgive me. I am scared:
Unaccustomed to this live opulence
That springs on nimble feet to serve me.
Believe me, Alex: though presenting soft,
I’m not so accustomed to it either.
Modestly in Bithynia was I born.
Both my parents to an earthquake perished
And merely ‘twas the lust of lecherous men
That wrangled my hapless boyhood to Rome.
Thereupon me Fortuna kindly smiled:
Through nothing of my efforts or design,
Hadrian spied, swooned and selected me.
An inspired choice you are, Antinous.
Methinks Hadrian knows well how to choose.
See that for the great compliment it is,
And be not so suspicious of it.
Tessera thy wife is attended, Sir.
She is folded in luxury among
The women of court and shan’t want for you.
Be not afeard, Alex – I do entreat.
How is it an Emperor should be so
Unjealous of his most prized possession?
For I am not possessed by him, Alex,
And, since the flower of our first meeting,
Have e’er been free to face my back to him.
‘Tis not a rare event, this, to be left
By him, trusted, true, and unattended.
He is oft by duty called to statecraft.
Else, by the luscious, benevolent Siren
Of other boyish pleasures is courted,
Upon a boat whose crew neither requires
Nor desires my more accomplished sea-legs.
Else again – and most nobly – he grandly
Fluffs the pillow of mine occasional,
Appreciable, and well-earnèd respite.
Truly. What cause have I to lie –
If not to lie upon that bed in bliss?
Indeed, Alex, I do have his blessing
To see others when he cannot be seen,
And Hadrian is not so reticent
As to honestly tell me when he wants
A novel face for a night’s distraction.
Hardly am I jealous or jowl’d by it,
For I hold a hearty faith in his love,
And know my place by him is well assured
Until I stumble upon my manhood,
Whereat we shall remain most proper friends.
Before that, I shall play as is my right.
Why not a girl, then?
I do not wish one.
I am several years yet from a wife, Alex.
Never I’ve encountered such youth as you,
For never to school was I afforded.
I fear I am too a simple fellow.
Do not fret for it. We are not come here
To be for Eros but idle theorists,
Forever mired in meek speculation.
We are philosophers! Practitioners!
Noble players by ancient schools inspired,
Ripe already to our intelligence.
My body is an ocean; a salt sea.
And you, Sir, a gull, circling from the shore.
Come then. Swoop down upon the briny wind
And caress thy wingtip to the surface.
Lo, the rippling sensation undulates
Upon my skin: makes tiny, tickling waves.
Now, Sir, land thy hand upon the water.
Float it there a bit; bob upon my chest
In easy, unhurried contemplation.
Tell me, thou friendly, finger-feathered fowl:
Does a hand, a dumb seabird, know the sea?
Can it see profoundly, and deeply be?
Or merely must it alight the surface;
Guest from a sky so cheaply visible?
What knows this senseless being of the depths?
Of lichen and choral, squid and starfish,
Dolphin, ray, shark, and sleek leviathan?
Of silent and astounding pregnancies?
Of schools – swarming, voiceless, oblivious –
Pulsing in merry circulation ‘round
A murky pool of gargantuan pleasures?
Can a seabird, Sir, see any such things?
Well then, we require something more.
An eel, methinks, or amphibian.
A creature more suited to persistent
Divining of all the ocean offers.
Have you such a creature about you, Sir?
Release it, thus, to the waterworld,
And sink it beyond the deepest sounding…
They fall to lovemaking, with Alexander the active
He enters Antinous and soon climaxes; the energy cools and becomes
languid over a small time.