I write to you this day bereft of yet another of my life’s
warmest friendships. Vitalis was two days ago vanquished by his
long illness, and those terrible Fates – oblivious to my ardent
prayers – did cut his spinning thread after but ten and seven
years upon the earth.
What more, in the wake of such unhappy news, shall I now uselessly
report? The details of Megara – of Hadrian’s glorious
contributions to its civic life – seem absolutely inconsequential
to me, though I certainly recognize that Vitalis to History will
be seen even more inconsequentially still. Would that my friend
were a temple, ordered by Hadrian rebuilt! His pillars of laughter
and love, restored to eternal health, would rise up again and be
by their grateful city celebrated for centuries to come. But no,
it is Apollo who receives the Emperor’s benefactions for Megara,
and Vitals must be content, at most, with a meagre inscription upon
his modest tomb.
We arrive in Athens tomorrow. It would be a time of abundant joys
and happiness for me were it not for the sudden absence of my friend.
Hadrian, my beautiful lover, is well aware of my grief, and has
given me what space I require to mourn. He too, naturally, is saddened,
for he has in the recent past spent some nights with Vitalis and
has always enjoyed beholding the youth’s wondrous creations.
But Hadrian is a man with many pressing duties, and these afford
him the luxury of meaningful distraction from his sorrow. I, alas,
am not so lucky.
Last night, alone with Hadrian, I wept. It was certainly not intended,
and I was embarrassed to be seen by him in such an unexpected and
emotionally ambushed state. But he would brook from me no apologies:
“Let no reigning fashion of manhood dictate to us how we shall
grieve for those loves we have lost,” he said. “If tears
are the noblest expression of your pain, Antinous, then let them
tumble in great and aching abundance.”
And so they fell. We sank to the bed together and Hadrian’s
arms wrapped tightly around me from behind. I could feel his beard
upon my neck and the air from his nostrils blasting through my hair.
“When you tremble in my arms, it is both a blessing and a
triumph. I am blessed by your trust and affection, by the unabashed
beauty that gives itself so generously to my desires. And I am made
triumphant by your acceptance of me as a man worthy of your love
“How could you possibly doubt your worthiness for it?”
I whispered. “My love for you is the easiest love imaginable.
It gushes like a springtime river.”
Hadrian was silent for a moment before replying: “I imagine
you, Antinous, years away, weeping for me with as much ardour as
you do now for dear Vitalis.”
“Say not such a thing!” I snapped. I pulled away, sat
up, and turned – both terrified and angry – to look
at him. There was snot upon my most undignified face and I was ashamed
as I wiped it away.
Hadrian smiled. “It is not an evil thing to say, Antinous.
I am mortal. I shall die, as is good and natural. And yet, of all
the official and public grief that inevitable day shall engender,
I am most comforted by the assurance of a very particular, private
grief from my Favourite love. How, in the glow of such a warm and
embracing image, can I not but sigh in perfect contentment for my
mortality? That you, Antinous, will live to so ardently grieve for
Hadrian is the single fact that shall make the day of his death
a most glorious occasion.”
I had no reply for him, for it was a terrible thought – regardless
of its lofty wording.*
I am writing this evening from Eleusis, where our train has stopped
for the night, even though the Mysteries are still five days away.
The plan – as Phlegon had it briefly explained to me –
is to continue on to Athens, settle ourselves into residence, and
then return when the rites begin. Nevertheless, Hadrian went today
(without me) to consult the priests, and, when I asked after his
intended conversation, refused to disclose its details. Perhaps
it is owing to my dismal state of mind, but I found myself hurt
by his secrecy, despite the obvious fact that he is entirely within
his rights to keep from me whatever he wishes. And so to occupy
myself (which is to say: to set my ass in a place where it would
not be in anyone’s way while I allowed this colossal numbness
to inhabit me), I staked for myself an isolated place along on the
shores of the town, and spent the afternoon watching a great swarm
of boats jostle for what limited space remained in the harbour.
The population here, as I’m sure you can imagine, is swelling.
This in turn has no doubt excited the sea birds, who, to these forlorn
ears recently primed to hear only the miseries of the world, squawked
an endless onslaught of argumentatives.
Forgive me, Lysicles. I am right now feeling far too sorry for myself
and, quite predictably, this letter is becoming tedious. My grief
is immense and my capacity to deal with it limited. This reed in
my hand has suddenly become my most immediate and necessary comfort,
for it obliviously dances with the industrious joy of thoughts directed
exclusively in your direction. It is impervious to my sorrows.
Or is it? This instrument and its playmates; this parchment and
its fellows, had as much of an intimate acquaintance with Vitalis
as they do with me. What shall be done with his drawings? Where
shall they be kept? With whom shall they be entrusted? The answer,
I think, is obvious. Poor Decentius! I have not seen him of late
– his agony must no doubt be as acute as mine. I am suddenly
resolved to seek him out, that we can provide for each other some
comfort on this unexpectedly dark leg of the journey.
Here, then, is my parting thought. But unlike so many past others,
I must warn you, Lysicles, that it shall not be for you. I trust,
of course, you shall not so jealously begrudge me for it. I know
you shall embrace it, as you would have embraced the departed soul
in whose honour it is so inscribed:
Whenever should the Gods demand of mortal artists to exalt them,
let them ponder, briefly yet invariably, on the theme of Promise
Destroyed. And when they behold what those still living have produced,
let them sigh and repent; let their private, Olympian consensus
admit that a grand and myopic mistake was made in stealing so recklessly
from the earth such a burgeoning talent as Lucius Marius Vitalis.
My grief, now upon this paper, may at last permit me to slowly take
my leave of it. To Athens, thus, I turn, hopeful its dazzle might
sear from my eyes the tears of recent days. A.
* The themes of this conversation are echoed
in Psalm 006 – Such