In the bedroom that I share with fifteen others, there is inscribed
upon the wall a message to posterity from a nameless one who was
formerly in my place: “Work, work, little donkey, as I have
worked myself, and thou shalt be rewarded for it.” Along with
it is drawn the picture of an ass, a sorry creature that turns endlessly
a mill, and from what I can deduce of this place (I have been here
not more than a week), it shall be an accurate portrayal of my life
Illustration by Shawn Postoff
And where is “here,” you ask? My promotion has landed
me at the Domus Gelotiana, which sits upon the western slope of
the Palatine, directly across the street from the Circus Maximus.
Above us looms the Augustan halls and the immense complex of buildings
beyond it. You will hardly believe the adventure I had – which
lasted me the better part of a morning – trying to locate
the office of the record-keeper of the Castellan, wherein I might
introduce myself to the man named Bellator. He is an earnest-looking
fellow with thinning hair atop his scalp. His eyes, luckily, are
large enough to fill a wide face and appear eager to assist whomever
it is that stands before him. The whole effect is to render him
peace-loving and unthreatening – the perfect countenance,
in my opinion, for one whose duty it is to collect information.
When at last I found him, and confirmed that he was indeed that
friend of whom Maltinus had spoken, I introduced myself as the writer
of those very letters he had been receiving from Maltinus, and he
was very glad to make my acquaintance. I told him that I was no
longer resident upon the Caelian; that I was now installed upon
the Palatine, and he congratulated me on my promotion. “Were
you the fawn who walked from your school alone in the company of
Hadrian?” he asked. I smiled at him and confirmed this as
well. “It has been noted,” he said, “by more than
a few, that there now walks among us a certain boy who not only
snared the Emperor’s eye, but had the immensity of spirit
to engage his intellect beyond what was once for a boy thought possible.”
Suddenly I was afraid, for such invidious fame can be dangerous.
I wanted only to return to my duties, and thus asked him quickly
if he was still disposed to forward my letters onward to Bithynia.
Happily, he was most amenable to it, and so I delivered him my latest
– the one that spoke of that very famous day whereat I “snared
the Emperor’s eye.”
As I am speaking of my duties, I should be derelict in my one
to you should I fail to give some greater detail concerning the
one I carry for the palace. I have been assigned to the Office of
the Household Stables, and my role is defined as Assistant to the
Keeper of the Tack. It is a very agreeable position to me. My senior
is a jolly and cherubic fellow named Anaxamenos, who has been here
for just over a year. He possesses an astonishing and unruly amount
of tightly curled red hair, and from its bramble has apparently
tumbled a great many freckles that have settled across the bridge
of his nose and upon the bulbous cheeks that flank it. I like him
very much, and respect him greatly, for he has no doubt earned his
place as Keeper of the Tack. It is a station that requires much
attention to the details, and in my role as his assistant, he is
indoctrinating me into a particluar mode of thinking that is trained
to look critically at even the minutest variances in position, alignment,
and colour. His storage hooks and shelves are ordered and arranged
with the utmost of precision, and together we take great pride in
ensuring that they both impress the eye and satisfy the mind's thirst
for sensible categorization.
The stables are exceedingly busy, for there is a steady stream
of messengers coming and going. I have seen many a determined face
mounting and dismounting in what seems to be a continuous stream
of critical missions – it is difficult to estimate just how
many messengers the palace receives and dispatches by the hour.
But I am nonetheless excited to find myself in such a hub of activity
In addition to myself and Anaxamenos, our department is comprised
of a few others: Dominicus is Keeper of the Imperial Horse, and
his assistant is one Qunitillius. It is under their purview to ensure
that the horses are always in good health and spirit, and that the
workers beneath them are conscientious with regard to the beasts
they administer. Dominicus is a sturdy fellow and quite the opposite
of Anaxemenos with regard to his jocularity. Yet there is a nobility
about him that renders him extremely trustworthy and I am of the
opinion that he shall become a good friend. Quintillius, like myself,
is quiet and studied, not given to speak when speech is not required.
For this I admire him, yet confess that it renders him somewhat
opaque (as I’m sure I must appear to him!). I am patient,
though, and shall not force a friendship upon him. In my experience,
it is the quiet ones who take a good length of time to open up,
but when they do, the conduit of communication they utilize is far
wider than would be necessary for even a raging river of words.
In support of this statement, I present for your consideration the
memory of Trenus, and, naturally, the memory of you and I.
Above us all is Florentius, who is the Officer of the Stables
and our departmental report. He is sharp and intentioned, and while
I cannot yet say that I like him, he has done nothing to earn my
disrespect. It is too early, I think, to know for sure. Florenius
is governed by the will of Petasius, who is Master of the Household
Page and the Paedagogiarch of Domus Gelotiana. I know very little
of this man for I have yet to find myself too long in his company.
Above Petasius is Lepontus, who is the Castellan of the Sacred Palace.
And it was to the office of Lepontus that I set my sights when I
went in search of the man’s record-keeper, whom I have already
told you is named Bellator.
What else can I tell you? Shall I bore you with the endless speculations?
It is mostly just silliness and gossip, yet it carries much currency
within the nighttime whispers of the dormitory and so I feel no
shame in sharing it with you. After all, I wish to acquaint you
with my life here, even if it is, at times, less than edifying.
The Emperor’s current favourite is Marianus, who is 20 years
old this month. As there is hair sprouting upon his chest (a fact
which he proudly displays to all), it is clear that his time in
the Emperor’s bed is at an end. But he is greatly esteemed
by all, of a very amicable disposition, and thus well situated to
enjoy a fine career. He is keen for a consulship, and I have no
doubt that a few decades in the civil service will eventually reward
him with one. Yet his departure – as I’m sure you can
imagine – is cause for much excitement. Not that people are
happy to see him go, but he is nevertheless leaving in his wake
a vacancy for the title of “Favourite” in the familiar
company of Hadrian. There are several contenders, but most of the
bets are on Corinthus, a handsome 16 year-old with straight black
hair, laughing orbs and a smooth, broad chest. He is a very erotic
being, pleasing to all manner of eyes that chance to gaze upon him.
Anaxamenos reported to me that just before my arrival, Cornithus
was assigned to the Office of the Sacred Bedchamber as Keeper of
the Lamplight. As a result, he is increasingly absent from his bed
here in the dormitory and you can certainly understand why more
and more people are placing the odds in his favour.
There is other talk, of course, for the Emperor is not alone to
choose a favourite. Always is there yet another upcoming banquet
or function, meeting or marvel at which a rotation of the pages
are expected to be in attendance. Dignitaries and courtiers of every
rank and age are forever present, and often will express to Petasius
a particular desire for one of the boys. I have no doubts that sooner
or later it shall be me who catches some stranger’s fancy
and ends up in his bed. So be it. In the meantime, I listen to the
others as they natter away about who it was that had them, how they
were treated, how much pain they endured or what pleasure they received,
and whether there is some foreseeable future benefit to the liaison.
In all, the nature of every conversation hardly varies and is easily
dismissible – even now, as I sit here at the table and compose
these lines to you, the intrigue swirls back and forth across the
beds behind me. Yet what is far more worrying to me is the disturbing
prospect that, through some insidious and incremental corruption,
it shall one day be me who fritters away the hours in the pondering
of such trifles. I should certainly hope I discover the fortitude
to resist it, and that my taste for all that is substantial shall
never diminish. Let me forever prefer to read something noble, or
write to you an endless stream of embarrassing love letters, or
plan some great and mighty journey into the heart of the Orient,
rather than squander myself in the morass of political transience.
Is it that I have no ambition, or that I aspire too high? Such
questions as this, at once heavy and ridiculously trivial, do swarm
forever in my brain. Zeus. The hour is late and I ought to sleep.
I love you, Lysicles. A.