The Surprise Inspection
Mystery and Wonder. Such be the names of the nymphs who took up
residence in my brain shortly before I took up residence in the
palace. Yes, the palace of the Emperor, the seat of his throne upon
the Palatine Hill. In the week since last I wrote to tell you of
the sad news concerning Trenus, not only have I escaped from the
Paedagogium, but it was Hadrian himself who saved me. There is much
I sat with three others in the company of Maltinus, discussing The
Elements of Euclid. Suddenly there was a breathless messenger at
our threshold: “Inspection!” Maltinus was confused,
for there had been nothing communicated through the official channels.
But the boy’s response was astonishing: “It is the Emperor
himself! Hadrian upon the Caelian Hill! He has surprised us, and
Vestinus greets him as we speak! Quickly all – to the field!”
The ruckus was instant and in a flurry the lesson was abandoned.
Except for me. For I chose to sit quietly and contemplate the news.
I knew that the surprise had prevented Gryllus and Vestinus from
pre-arranging my absence. In this respect I was finally granted
an opportunity to appear before the Imperial Household and demonstrate
myself before it. Yet at the same time, I felt powerless to care.
For the reality was that I had absolutely no enthusiasm for the
court, the school that supplied it, or the systems of discipline
and justice in which it was governed. The death of Trenus was shocking
enough; that none in their office had expended the effort to discover
and punish its perpetrator was a cause for me of utter disgust and
despondency. Thus I thought nothing but ill for the school, its
elders, and the Emperor whom it served. I sat quietly, and made
Maltinus, however, forbade my willful delay. He commanded me to
go, and implored me to carry myself cheerfully before the onlookers.
As I walked past the fountain at which Trenus had met his end, I
wondered how (or even why) I should pretend to be happy. The prospect
felt to me as like a horrid betrayal of my friends – the one
dead and the one lost. And so I very willfully ignored the plea
of Maltinus, and stepped upon the field determined to keep my own
counsel as to how I should think and feel. With regard to the entourage
that had just emerged from the school to watch us, I ignored it
As I trudged silently amid the desperate flurry of all the others,
it occurred to me that even had I wished to engage with them in
a demonstration of enthusiastic play, I would not have been admitted
into their games: Carisius had long ago seen to my perpetual ostracism.
The only partner with whom I could have performed in pretense was
Trenus – and he was no longer upon the earth. Hence the grief
reasserted itself even further upon my heart, the loneliness hung
massive and menacing above my brow, and the Emperor, although so
near, seemed very distant indeed. I confess that I cared for him
little, and was bitter with the course of my life and the direction
in which the Fates had chosen to spin it.
Suddenly, Vestinus arrived hurriedly at my side. He appeared worried
and stricken, anxious and angry all at the same time. “The
Emperor desires to speak with you,” he said curtly. This news
was utterly alien to me, and so very unexpected. I required several
moments with which to process it. “Me?” I finally asked.
He sneered down at me, “Yes. And we are every one of us just
as surprised.” He clasped my shoulder, turned, and with a
painted smile upon his face guided me toward the Imperial entourage,
rushing to insert his final instructions before we reached Hadrian:
“Stand for him tall and speak only when you are addressed.
Be courteous and deferent. Be for your classmates an exemplar, for
your school an ambassador, for your tutors a source of pride, and
for Gryllus who found you a living expression of the utmost gratitude.”
You can imagine, Lysicles, how such words affected me. It occurred
to me that I was all of the sudden dangerously empowered to demonstrate
to Hadrian just how corrupted and diseased was the very Paedagogium
he trusted – for if its ambassador was disagreeable, how could
a nation be perceived otherwise? I resolved at that instant I would
not speak well of anything, and would instead speak to Hadrian of
the world as I knew it – replete with hypocrisy and pain and
injustice. I resolved to be unafraid for his crown: his Principate
was a fact – not of Nature – but of perception. Nothing
he wore nor commanded could absolve him of his mortal moorings –
the human being with an anchor of flesh between his legs, arriving
at this harbour of youth in search of an agreeable place to drop
it. This was how I decided to address him, for I knew that my voice
would no doubt echo loudly and painfully upon the ears of Vestinus.
In the final moments before our conversation was set to begin, it
occurred to me that I was standing upon a precipice, poised to jump
and end forever my career. Yet what did I care? I fantasized instead
about my ejection from Rome, and the freedom it would afford me
to find my way back to Bithynia and the warmth of your loving company.
My final thought, before he opened his mouth to greet me, was of
“Do you know me, boy?” These were the first words of
Hadrian unto Antinous. And my response to him was yes – for
he must be either a man, or the emperor. I could see Vestinus stiffen
considerably, and estimated my response to be worth fifty strokes
of his iron. Yet Hadrian was not offended. Rather, he appeared intrigued.
Delighted, even. There followed from this a conversation concerning
the portrait of an Emperor, and how it is distinguished not in the
physical appearance of the man, but rather by the manner in which
others address him. He desired a demonstration, and so I addressed
him cordially, as Vestinus should have expected me to do at the
outset. I made it clear to Hadrian that I thought this mode of speech
to be utterly absurd; a betrayal of my person and my soul. That
he stopped me instantly, and demanded then that I refrain from speaking
to him as an Emperor, confirmed for me that I had his permission
to speak to him as a man. I had, therefore, penetrated the veil
of his officialdom and was admitted into a much more human conversation.
It gratified me immensely, and raised my esteem of him, and intrigued
my curiosity to see how profoundly our conversation could delve.
Thus I spoke to him of my memories of seeing him; first upon my
father’s shoulders just after he had claimed the throne and
was returning from Syria, and second when he arrived at Claudiopolis
to survey the devastation of the earthquake. You were there with
me on that second occasion, Lysicles, and must surely remember how
he was affected. I told him of my parents and of their deaths, and
it appeared to me that he was genuinely moved by my orphanhood.
I confess to have allowed my words to be tinged by the bitterness
of Trenus, although never once did I mention the episode. I spoke
of the recklessness of the gods; of their refusal to care for us;
of their seeming mindlessness toward any sacrifices men might make
to appease them or pray to them or buy their favour. And yet still
I took care to speak with reverence, for they are after all the
From there I alluded to the meeting of town elders and to the story
that Gryllus had told me concerning Hadrian’s quarrel with
Trajan. The Emperor laughed, and seemed then ready to seek out Gryllus
and thank him. I was grateful that he did not inquire after the
name of my abductor, and instead expressed a desire to learn more
of me. And that was when he moved me, for he seemed to perceive
in an instant all that I had endured here at the school. He called
it my “suffering internship.” And he told me that it
brightened him to brighten the soul of a boy in isolation. This,
Lysicles, is what turned me. Here at last was a man of considerable
– if not ultimate – power, who nonetheless understood,
and, more importantly, appeared to care for me beyond what pleasures
my flesh could provide him. My fondness for him grew, and with it,
my resolve to leave the school not shamed but triumphant.
My aspect changed, and I became calculating. I resolved to test
for his passions; to verify for myself the knowledge that he was
indeed a man of culture and refinement, devoted to all that was
ancient and Greek and proud. I bade him speak of Athens, and lo,
he did not disappoint. In fact, so enamoured did I become of him
that I relapsed into the language of deference, for he was suddenly
quite kingly in mine eyes. Yet it was he – Hadrian! –
who then warned me away from looking on him as anything but a mortal,
as though the experience of being held in my sight as the vision
of a common man was itself a cold and refreshing rain upon his overheated
ceremony. He even endeavoured to test me again, and sought to inspire
my fear by a long and impressive list of titles. In response, I
made clear to him that I was unmoved by them, and demonstrated once
more my knowingness with regard to the world’s hypocrisies.
He was convinced. He was won.
He asked me my name, and I spoke it to him. He held it upon his
tongue and took pains to commit it unto his memory. And then he
was decided, and offered me my place upon the Palatine Hill. I accepted,
and at once could feel the world shift its mighty weight around
me. Suddenly I belonged to the entourage; the pitiful school was
something distant and utterly foreign.
I had expected Hadrian to continue his interviews, but was astonished
when he signaled his intention to depart. It took me a moment to
realize the significance of what was occurring; the understanding
that all the other boys would need now to wait for the next General
Inspection in order to be culled by it as a group of graduates.
Antinous, in contrast, had been hand-selected, and now accompanied
Hadrian down the hill as the sole and uncontested champion of his
Imperial visit. I was amazed. Was this the justice I had dreamed
of; the recompense for two years of hardship and the bitter end
of Trenus? Was this the presence of a few, dignified gods standing
invisibly beside me and sneering contemptuously at Vestinus as he
gaped after my departing back, at Carisius who envied, at Falconius
who suddenly doubted himself, and at the name of Gryllus –
that newly defeated tactician not even present in person to behold
his loss, destined to hear second-hand that Antinous was flown?
It was – and remains even now – a reckless and dangerous
thought; evidence of the spectacular hubris which I could happily
embrace were I so inclined. But I have consciously willed myself
not to think it. My deliverance at the hand of Hadrian was not the
work of the gods: it was a hiccup of mere coincidence. On a day
in which the man was feeling a modicum of despondency, he climbed
the Caelian Hill in search of distraction and found agreement with
a despondent boy. And yet, can it not be argued that this in itself
is the work of a higher order? I am unable to explain it, and Mystery
and Wonder, heedless of my hunger for reason, frolic on.
That is the news, my friend. It is happy and it is just, and it
has compelled me to think on you and write in celebration. Yet suddenly
I have a letter in hand, but no Maltinus to whom it may be entrusted.
That I know these words shall never reach you does not in the least
deter me: there is a comfort and a tradition in this liturgical
rite and I desire that it continue forever. Thus I no longer write
to Lysicles my distant friend; I write to Lysicles, the God of Cherished
Memory, and as the Fates spool out the thread of my destiny, so
shall I re-spool it for him upon an endless stream of parchment.
He shall know me in his dreams! And yet, it hath occurred that I
am placed now in such a position to actually find the very functionary
of whom Maltinus spoke and deliver this to him directly. Perhaps
these letters may still one day reach you?
Tell me, Lysicles: What is a greater shame upon my head –
the absurd and undying hope my words shall find you, or the absurd
refusal to finally let you go? I am at a loss, and the pair of buxom
pixies idle uselessly in my head, proving themselves with every
unanticipated hour to be of no assistance at all. A.