The Ride To Rome
Two more weeks have been spent in Tibur since my last letter unto
you. In that time, there has been much riding, much hunting, many
baths and many meals, regular performances and discourses between
visiting actors and philosophers (although the difference between
them was sometimes hard to distinguish), and the nightly slumber
of an exhausted body amid the cooling nights of Italia late in autumn.
And then this morning, it was suddenly announced that we were returning
to Rome. I was instructed to pack my personal items and assemble
at the stables, which I accomplished without delay. As I readied
Aethon for the journey, I had occasion to converse for a small time
with Macedo, of whom I am becoming very fond. He is a tall and distinguished
man who says little with his mouth, but much with his eyes. Thus,
it is only the most perceptive of those around him who are able
to discern when (and what) he is communicating – and I am
pleased to consider myself among those who can engage with him at
his somewhat rarified level. Hadrian, naturally, is another who
possesses this skill, and I suspect that is why Macedo and his brother
are so intimate in the Emperor’s counsel.
Statianus appeared soon after, and but moments later was followed
by Hadrian, Corinthus, Phlegon and Pulcher. Everyone was mounted
quickly, and with little fanfare our small troupe, accompanied by
an ample detachment of the Guard, departed for the Eternal City.
The sky was quite overcast, and indeed there was a light mist of
cold drizzle that steadily chilled us as we rode. In contrast to
the day of our arrival, the weather today was relatively dismal.
Nevertheless, Hadrian remained in high spirits, and seemed to be
bothered little by it. I attributed this to the acclimatizing time
he had spent in Britannia (a place that Decentius has assured me
is often subject to such a very heavy grayness), combined with his
well-known regard for asceticism. And so I endeavoured to place
my mind in concert with his, and teach myself to enjoy the weather
in all its forms, not simply when sunny and warm.
It is fascinating to me how quickly then the nature of the ride
became a happy one. I suddenly found myself invigorated, as though
I had discovered for the very first time the majesty of the gods
and their creation in all its splendour. Who was I to deem the misty
clouds less beauteous than a cloudless blue? Did not this chill,
this damp, this gray, offer up its own peculiar beauty to those
with the power to discern and appreciate it? I smiled broadly, and
breathed in the mist, willing myself to marvel at the sensation
of a cold, wet nose.
It was precisely at this moment that Hadrian turned back to look
at me – and burst out laughing. “Antinous!” he
called. I cocked my head at him, ready to listen. “Come forward.
Ride with me.”
I brought Aethon up to join Epeius at his steady, easy walk, and
thus suddenly found myself in the midst of a conversation with Hadrian.
“Why did you laugh?” I asked him bluntly, very intentionally
doing so before he had addressed me. And he smiled, answering: “Turn
around, and look at them. Their faces.”
I did as he instructed, and allowed my gaze to absorb the sullen,
miserable face of Corinthus, the stoic endurance of the Caesernii
brothers, the shaded void in the midst of Phlegon’s hooded
tunic projecting only his nose, the disgust of a shivering Pulcher,
and the quiet, morose solitudes of the soldiers who surrounded us.
“And now compare it with what was yours when I turned around
to see it.” I smiled then, for I understood. Hadrian smiled
too, and gazed at me warmly. “On the day I was destined to
find you upon the Caelian, I was in very low spirits. And so I convinced
myself that I wished to be distracted by the energy and vitality
of vigorous, ambitious, laughing youth. Yet as I stood there observing
the field, I found myself completely unmoved by the sight of them.
Their antics made me even more despondent, for I sensed that it
was all but a masquerade performed to appease me. And then, just
as I was preparing to leave, I happened upon the image of a distant
fellow whose aspect very much mirrored my own; who was so unmoved
by my presence that I was instantly by him uniquely moved. I invented
for myself a fantasy. A belief that perhaps this one boy was capable
of sharing and understanding a very private and lonesome region
of my spirit. I debated for a time whether it was worth it to me
to indulge the fantasy. To investigate it. After all, I told myself,
how could it even be possible? Was I not merely setting myself up
to be disappointed if that I had you brought to me? Would not the
fantasy be instantly destroyed; replaced by the reality of just
another boy who was trained in the arts of sycophancy? By the gods,
Antinous, you astounded me, for you revealed yourself to be no illusion.
Or were you? How could you be so perfectly attuned to what it was
I needed from you at that moment? I resolved to watch you. To verify
it. And little by little, moment by moment, you have demonstrated
to me that I was truly blessed on that day when I decided to indulge
my fantasy rather than dismiss it. Time and again, you have revealed
that your spirit courses in perfect concord with my own. And for
that, Antinous, I am overcome with a profound and bursting joy.
What say you to that?”
“With the utmost respect, Sir, I say to you that I am confused.”
Hadrian responded simply, “Why confused?” I responded
thusly: “I am confused because, having confessed to me such
an astonishing aspect of your self, you have not yet taken what
ought for you to be that very easy and unremarkable step of commanding
me into your bed.”
He nodded and became pensive. “You are not the only one to
be confused, Antinous. To be honest, I am myself terribly indecisive
on that very matter. For you must believe me when I say that I am
to your flesh immensely attracted. It is a compelling and utterly
intoxicating form. Beauteous and fresh, supple with the promise
of a brooding and invincible manhood. Make no mistake, Antinous:
hungrily do I desire you. And yet, it is a desire that is far more
complex; far more treacherous to me than simple lust. Corinthus
inspires my lust. He is meaty and willing, pliant and submissive.
Yet he is to me a mere possession, destined one day very soon to
be relinquished unto his career as is proper. But you, Antinous,
exist for me in an entirely different universe. I do not merely
lust for you; I fear for you. I become anxious and worried like
a mother when I think of mortality’s perils upon your body.
Not only that, I fear for myself. I fear what I fantasize when my
fantasies concern your flesh. For I will sometimes quite suddenly
and quite inexplicably search for a method to bypass these cumbersome
chains of words and language and, in a very real and gruesome and
physical way, fuse my very brain into yours! Is that not terrifying?
Who are you, Antinous, to effect such a state upon me? How can such
a state be described as mere lust? Lust is well understood to me.
It is a very plain and uncomplicated physical attraction –
the kind I quite commonly feel when in the presence of any well-constructed
young man. But you. You. You are not the object of my lust. You
are the subject of my most erotic nightmares. You are the name I
speak with reverence and fear, as though standing before the idol
of Jupiter himself. Does not every supplicant secretly wish to reach
out and touch the god? To stroke with an erotic finger the golden
radiance of that statue’s immortal form? And does he not simultaneously
recoil at the thought of such a sacrilege? That is why, Antinous,
I have not commanded you into my bed. I am petrified by the thought
of any trespass upon you.”
“There have been others, Sir, before you that have taken their
pleasures from me. My flesh was long ago trespassed, and soon after
was pleasured as much, by a small assortment of men and youths whom
I have known. Therefore, Sir, you should not think my flesh so remarkable,
nor compare it as you do to the flesh of one so untouchable as a
god. I am quite mortal. I must eat to live; as like any animal such
food must soon after pass from me with as much filth. I have worries
and fears, insecurities and questions. I shall grow old, and one
day shall die. Why should you delay, when I am happy – now,
in the flower of my youth – to be for you whatever you would
make of me?”
“But why so willing, Antinous? Because I am Emperor?”
I smiled at him, and replied, “No Sir. Because you are perceptive
enough to see me as more than merely your subject. Because you should
love me as would the obscure philosopher love his pupil long before
he reached his philosopher’s fame. Or as a Theban soldier
would his tyro, long before the battle in which he won his ultimate
glory. I believe you could love me modestly, free from the laurels
of your cumbersome office.”
He considered that for a small time, and then spoke: “Nothing
in what you have answered is persuasive. I am the Emperor. Such
is more than merely a title; it is a metamorphosis upon my mind.
It has changed me; changed the way I think and see the world. It
has taken a very deep root, Antinous; it can no longer be so easily
divorced from the daily action or random musings of this particular
human animal. It commands and controls my being in a way that even
I am sometimes at a loss to fully comprehend. To take and to have
you in my bed will never be so simple as a man and his youth. It
will first and foremost be Emperor and Favourite, for the titles
are integral to the act. And yet, how ardently I wish that it were
not so! For I know such titles shall pollute us in our lovemaking.
And until I can reconcile that, Antinous, I am reticent to make
you Favourite. I should much rather make you…”
There was a long pause, until at last he shook his head, “I
cannot say. For what should I make you? My true and biological son?
If only such a powerful being could ever emerge from the womb of
Sabina! But if that he ever did, how could I even think to breach
the natural laws against incest? Should I make you my younger self?
How remarkable is that – to dream of bedding an earlier version
of one’s own body; to exchange one’s proprietary fluids
across the decades. What else? Hey? What should I rather make you?
My wife? But then your womanhood should never inspire in me such
a violent desire. My slave? But then should you be owned, and O,
how quickly does possession slay desire! My friend? But that you
are already! Hardly does it diminish your allure. What title is
left to me but Favourite, one that falls far short of what I need
for you to become to me. I wish for you to inhabit me, Antinous.
I wish to inhabit you. I dream for us to be fused. Can you not understand
that? And to bed you, my friend, shall be far too mundane for such
a fantasy. It shall want. It shall never satisfy such an impossible
I hardly need tell you, Lysicles, how stunned I was by the direction
in which our conversation had turned. Here was Hadrian confessing
to me his most monstrous and incomprehensible passions concerning
my person. At once his history of behaviour toward me made sense
– and yet remained at the same time completely senseless.
I struggled to find words to respond, but could not. I merely sat
there, quietly bumping across the terrain, riding the easy rhythm
of Aethon’s steady gait.
We both remained silent for a very long time. And then he finally
spoke, although without turning from his straight-ahead gaze: “I
wish for you to join me on every trip I take. Be it to Tibur, or
to any random destination that my office demands.” I nodded
in acquiescence, and said, rather limply, “I would very much
Again there was silence. And again my mind was churning, as I’m
sure was his. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I could not help
but think of the consequences of this new development. Namely, that
my time in the Palatine library was over. For if I was to accompany
Hadrian on his travels to Tibur, I would no longer be able to read
in the library while he was away.
But then, as if in affirmation of everything he had just expressed,
Hadrian spoke: “We shall find you an assistant Keeper of the
Personal Horse. Someone who can assume the bulk of your duties and
free you to continue your studies in my library when you are in
Rome.” I looked at him in amazement, and he finally turned
to face me. He smiled softly. “Is there someone you would
like to recommend?”
I thought instantly of the person I wanted most to join me in the
stables, and said, “Marius Vitalis. He is now in the Department
of the Wardrobe, where his talents and intelligence are remarkably
under-utilized.” Hadrian nodded, and said nothing else. We
rode in silence for a little bit more before I spoke to him again:
“You are very good to me, Sir.”
He smiled to himself. “No, Antinous. I am very good to me.
You, I’m afraid, are simply the hapless benefactor of all
that I do to pleasure and appease myself.” It was a very frightening
utterance, mostly because I understood it to be impeccably honest
and true. And as a result, it made my fondness for him grow even
more intense. I wanted desperately to say something to him; something
profound and meaningful and personal; something that could demonstrate
my vision of him as a beautiful man. It took me a few moments to
find the words, and when I found them, I instantly realized how
dangerously audatious they could be. It would be a risk to speak
them. But had he not taken as much of a risk with me? Had he not
opened the door for me to say to him whatever I would? I took a
deep breath. “I admire you greatly, Hadrian.”
How rarely must the man have heard his own name spoken from the
lips of those in his retinue? How long had it been since he had
assumed a title so lofty that men would suddenly find it impossible
to speak to his face anything other than an honourific? By speaking
his familiar name, I was quite deliberately addressing him as an
equal. He turned and assessed me for a long time, instantly absorbing
and understanding everything I have just set here to paper. We held
a very long and (for me) breathless gaze. Until at last he smiled
at me, and said, “Thank you, Antinous.”
The rest was a very comfortable silence, as together we rode unhurriedly
into Rome. I wanted desperately to turn around again; to see the
faces that were no doubt watching both of our backs. Most, I knew,
were watching only Hadrian’s – determined to be for
him his faithful protector unto their deaths, if necessary. But
one of them, I had no doubt, was watching only me. And I shuddered
to think on the envy and the jealousy that certainly coursed through
him. Thus I didn’t turn around. I merely stared ahead, embracing
with my eyes the city as it unfolded before me upon our return.
The drizzle never stopped, but hardly did I notice it. We arrived
at the stables to be instantly greeted by Florentius, Anaxamenos,
and a gaggle of anxious courtiers eager to whisk Hadrian away into
the palace for warmth and food.
As he prepared to leave the stables, he glanced at me. I awaited
his word. “Florentius,” he softly said. Florentius jumped
to attention: “My liege!” Hadrian turned to look at
him. “Marius Vitalis is a page in the Department of the Wardrobe.
He is transferring here, to the stables, to assist Antinous in his
duties as Keeper of the Personal Horse.” Florentius nodded
quickly, “Of course, my liege. We shall welcome him.”
And with that Hadrian turned and strutted away, leaving the stablehands
to do their work in the grooming and refreshment of our weary mounts.
Both Florentius and Anaxamenos turned eagerly to face me. “Well?!”
demanded the bursting Anaxamenos. “Tell us!”
I thought for a moment before replying thusly: “It was a very
busy time. I am overwhelmed by it. Allow me, please, to rest and
refresh. We shall dine tonight. I shall tell you everything.”
They both thought this request quite understandable and hastened
me back here, to the Gelotiana. Thus have I hastily scribbled this
out, desperately trying to recall the ride’s every detail,
its every word and nuance, for I am not so stupid as to fail to
understand it to be quite momentous. In addition, I have two other
epistles saved from my trip. Tomorrow I shall to Mordanticus deliver
all three, and send my tales of Tibur unto Lysicles.
But tonight, as I sup with my friends, I suspect I’ll omit
the details of my ride today from the villa. There will be plenty
to occupy the conversation in the discussion of all that is, by
comparison, quite mundane. I have much to digest; much to process.
It is enough that I do so with you, Lysicles. It is far too taxing
to do it all over again with others. I am exhausted, and I am strangely
feeling very defeated, despite what every person in the world would
no doubt proclaim as my unequivocal triumph. I do not understand
what is happening to me, nor why. I wish to cry, but cannot. I miss
you so very much. A.