The Villa at Tibur
O my Lysicles!
How shall I begin to describe to you the beautiful setting into
which I have suddenly gained admittance? The scale of this place
is astonishing; the details are immaculate. It is already a week
I have been here at the villa of Hadrian. The days have galloped
past in such a flurry that I am at a loss to tell you the exact
date. Yet many of the memories I have collected here still gleam
as though newly minted. Let me record them here as best I can, that
I shall have permission to release them and make room for the many
more that no doubt await me. I regret that they shall not be in
the order of their occurrence, for that would be far too much detail.
Instead, I have grouped them together by theme.
I've been saddled upon Aethon every morning, accompanying Hadrian,
Corinthus, the Caesarnii Brothers and several others into the countryside
in order to hunt. Twice have I launched a spear at our prey –
both times at the invitation of Hadrian himself. Only once did I
connect for the kill. The other time, alas, the buck escaped, yet
was sufficiently harried that within a few more moments it was dead
by the thrust of another. Despite the miss, Hadrian was very complimentary
of my developing skills, and marveled publicly that I was still
a novice – yet already with one kill under my belt (from two
As to my actual response to the hunt, I confess, my friend, to be
thoroughly enchanted by it. It is a wild and thrilling affair; a
dance with Diana at once delicate and vicious. Not a few times did
my heart leap into my throat as I wondered if we should stumble
upon her bathing; if she would render me into the very beast I hunted;
if I would be devoured by our own dogs. But then, suddenly, my fear
flew away, and I was yelping like the hounds in the excitement of
the chase. There was good cheer among all the men; even Corinthus
seemed happy and relaxed in the camaraderie that blossomed among
everyone. Although we kept a healthy distance from each other, it
was clear to me that, after my first kill, he did not think so lowly
of me as he had on my initial ride to the villa. And although I
certainly don’t foresee us becoming friends, perhaps there
is less hostility in him now.
Each day, we’ve returned from the chase with enough time to
bathe before lunch. We are all invited into the Small Baths, which
are Hadrian’s own and, obviously, are not used by the staff.
In fact, there is even a third baths complex with a room that is
heated by the sun! It is a public bath that anyone present at the
villa can use. But Hadrian’s baths are a very genial place,
filled with the boisterous laughter and good talk of those who have
shared in the experience of a morning’s vigorous hunt. Hadrian
carries himself with as much dignity here as he does upon his throne.
(Then again, it is rare to see Hadrian actually sitting upon his
throne, for he is always up and about, engaged in some kind of productive
activity!) Regardless, I very much enjoy my time with the other
men, and for the most part they treat me kindly and with the utmost
respect for my person. Although there is no sex taking place during
these times, I have indeed noted various eyes fixed upon me, including,
on occasion, the emperor’s.
Meals, as I’m sure you can imagine, are always lavish and
amply stocked. The game is consistently fresh and flavourful, owing,
naturally, to its origin. On the day I achieved my first kill, Hadrian
made sure that I partook, with him at my side, of the very best
cut from the meat. It was a remarkable moment for me, and I remember
quite distinctly thinking it to be so, doing everything within my
power to commit it to a permanent memory. The triumph I felt on
that day was surely the most intensely savoured as any I have ever
experienced. To dine with the emperor from the flesh we both had
hunted and killed that same morning! Can you believe it? Even as
I write this, it seems considerably less than believable, and I
am constantly forced to remind myself that my life is not but merely
some shimmering fantasy that a million other youths must surely
dream. It is a life – lived! By me! Yet still I stagger. Still
I must affirm its every bursting moment with this very deliberate
and considered epistle unto you.
In the afternoons, Hadrian and his courtiers conduct behind closed
doors the business of running an empire. I know nothing of such
conferences and, to be honest, am quite happy with such an arrangement.
Can you guess how I occupy my time? In the Library of the Latins.
Or, if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, in the Library
of the Greeks, which is a whole other building! Yes, my friend,
I am not exaggerating. There are two libraries here: each with its
own collection, divided according to its language of origin! Unlike
the rules of the Palatine, however, the librarians here have both
been made to know me, and I am authorized to take books from the
buildings and venture out onto the grounds. Shall I sit along the
“shores” of the Canopus – a giant pool shaped
like a penis, guarded by a colonnade of caryatids? Or shall I venture
down the hill behind the Hospitalia to the Terrace of Tempe, where
I can sit among the buzzing bees and gaze across the lower valley?
Do I make it sound too idyllic? Do you hate me yet?
In truth, such afternoon leisure time is but a fantasy. I have only
managed to escape twice in such a fashion as what I described above
– once to the Canopus and once to the Terrace. And even then,
the time I enjoyed was much too brief. For there are other distractions;
other expectations. At the Hall of Philosophers I have gathered
with leagues of distinguished men to hear various speeches and debates
– some of which were attended by Hadrian and his advisors.
Upon various fields I have sported with other young men: we have
raced, we have wrestled, we have trained. I have visited with Aethon
and groomed him. I have sat in an empty theatre and watched the
actors rehearse, struggling to explain to them, when interrogated,
why I was not laughing. Naturally, they dismissed my comments outright,
and proceeded to present their performance that evening to the laughter
of many – including my own. I wondered at that. Why should
I not laugh when alone, but when among others suddenly find myself
compelled to join them? Perhaps that is the nature of laughter;
that it increases in proportion to the numbers that partake in it.
Perhaps that is why I so rarely laugh.
At dinnertime I have always been deliberately seated at the dining
hall in the company of a fresh and ever-changing group of courtiers.
It is as though my personality is being passed around, like a plate
of delectable foods, to be sampled by those with whom I dine. I
have absolutely no way of knowing who it is that orchestrates or
arranges my seating locations. I know not if my fellow diners are
genuine conversationalists or if they have been instructed to engage
me so as to assess my worth when evaluated relative to the very
best of Roman company. Regardless, my exchanges with them have been,
for the most part, fairly enjoyable. I have learned, for instance,
that Hadrian’s plan for the villa is far from complete: still
more buildings, more courtyards, and more pools are on the way.
It is a staggering project, made moreso because the emperor himself
is counted among its chief architects.
I must also tell you of Pedanius Fuscus. He is a lad a year younger
than I and filled with the self-assurance of one who could very
well become Rome’s next emperor, for he is the great-nephew
of Hadrian. I met him yesterday in the Latin library, where he had
come with his private tutor for a lesson (accompanied, I should
add, by his own lictor!). So it is clear to me that he is one to
watch, and, although I hardly consider myself a sycophant, it seemed
appropriate at the time to make a good introduction of myself. He
greeted me curtly and without flourish, and whether this is owning
to his place in life or merely to his having been preoccupied with
the lesson that had just ended is beyond my knowledge. Regardless,
if I am to become Hadrian’s favourite, Fuscus will no doubt
become a fellow with whom I maintain some regular company. So at
the very least I made an effort, even though its results were less
than spectacular. We shall see what becomes of him.
Throughout my entire week here, and across every activity I have
mentioned above, I have always felt that I am being watched. Sometimes
it is very explicit, at others it is more subdued. Perhaps it is
merely my own hypersensitivity to the fact that I am very probably
the next in line to inherit the title of Favourite. Perhaps it is
all in my imagination. Nevertheless, I am continually under the
impression that my every word and action is being recorded and reported
back directly to the ears of Hadrian. When I am in his company,
he will look at me with eyes that both smile and assess at the same
time. They enjoy and evaluate me, while testing and tempting him
who gazes. It is all very taxing – this constant state of
uncertainty, wonder, and readiness for a role that may never, when
the gods finally speak, be mine.
There is still no indication when we shall return to Rome. And although
I do love it here, and find myself at once inspired and cowed by
its majesty, I very much miss my friends and my familiars. I miss
my routine, my duties, my sense of place and purpose. It has occurred
to me that to be the Emperor’s Favourite may not actually
require of me anything specific, other than to please his person
while he is in a mood for pleasure. How then shall I occupy such
unstructured days? Will I even care? Such thoughts unsettle me,
Lysicles, for they are the thoughts of an unknown future. Let me
thus console myself with thoughts of a much loved past. I shall
sleep tonight with the face of a distant friend etched faithfully
upon the inside of my eyelids. A.