Well, let me just begin by saying that I never imagined that this day would go as anyone would’ve thought it would. Why in the world do we make expectations and then become angry because they didn’t result as expected? I’m no Athenian philosopher, but I think it’s one of the reasons that today I did something I know I will live to regret…that is, if I live.
For anyone who ends up reading this in one hundred years from now—which I will not be surprised if no one ever does—my name is Cyprian Justus Aurelius, an aspiring officer in the Roman army. Not that anyone would care. ‘An aspiring officer in the Roman army’—what a title that can be used for so many people! Take Cato Cassius for example, the most ridiculous man, you can be sure. Once, when I asked him how he would handle a mutiny if he ever was promoted to commander, he turned and told me straight-on that he would rather be killed. Be killed! ‘Hah, man, you will be killed!’ I retorted with a laugh without thinking. ‘Do you think mutinies end in treaties, Cato?’ I asked him.
Well, at least now I know that mocking your superiors can result in flogging. As if I hadn’t ever witnessed it before!
For whatever reason, I was invited to the palace just last week, and my heart stood immediately still within me when I received the letter, if truth be told. My mind instantly went over the previous week’s events…no, I had not done anything that merited punishment. That is, other than my regular barrage of jokes and questions put to the men in the army.
I clear my throat here; my ‘jokes’ are enough to turn my predecessors over in their graves.
After much consideration and contemplation, I decided to accept the invitation. After all, it isn’t every day that the Roman emperor requests your presence at his palace, and I thought that at least maybe I’d get a decent meal out of it. Maybe there would even be a few presents, I surmised. If only there weren’t too many guests invited, it might actually be a pleasant occasion.
This morning, I dressed with much consideration, hoping maybe to impress the emperor with my military uniform. After all, if his first impression of me was a military one, he would most likely assume I was a loyal Roman citizen, and there would be absolutely no reason for him to punish me. I hate to find myself ever in a people-pleasing way of mind, but when it comes to your emperor—maybe one’s life is worth more than one’s pride.
When I had arrived at the palace, I was escorted into the dining chamber where I found myself in the company of many—no! While I had been expecting to see maybe ten other guests gathered, and stood there staring around the room for any others, all I could see was this thin boy standing over among the pillars staring up at the ceiling. What a simpleton! I told myself. Moreover, he was wearing pure silk and a golden wreath about his head as if he were the emperor himself. The fool, I thought as I rolled my eyes and rubbed my neck in discomfort. What an awkward way to be found when the emperor finally did arrive for supper.
Suddenly, I found myself being grasped by the hand by the young simpleton, a broad smile transforming his face as he pulled me over toward the semicircular table.
‘Hello, hello!’ said he, continuing to clasp my hand in both of his. ‘Welcome to supper! We have twenty-two courses coming on, and I—’
‘I think we had best wait—’ I began.
‘Wait for what?’ he demanded, brows drawing together in confusion. ‘Why wait when there are so many things to be done? What especially with twenty-two courses to be served and then amusements afterward?’
And with that, he threw himself down onto what appeared to be a solid silver couch and rested a hand behind his head as if he was wearied already. Thoroughly confused, I stood there staring until he finally looked up and nodded resolutely.
‘Ah, I must apologize. I don’t think we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting before.’ A smile spread across his face as he sat up straight on the couch and extended a white, bejeweled hand. ‘I am Emperor Heliogabalus, but of course, you know that already.’
It took nearly all my power to control my face, but I could feel a strange look coming over it nevertheless. True, I had never seen the emperor with my very eyes, but never, ever would I have guessed that this boy, who could be no older than I was, was my leader.
Finally, a group of men wandered into the room, and I started, staring hard at them and unbelieving as to how all of them had chanced to come to the same supper.
‘Oh, my servants in togas!’ exclaimed the emperor as he held out his arms as if to welcome them all and then gestured to the table that I was standing beside. He turned to me, face impish and eyes narrowed and sparkling as he slid to the edge of his couch. ‘The senators do not care for the nickname, but I find it so droll! Yes, my servants, come around and be seated.’
In discomfort—or perhaps it was embarrassment—all eight of the men crowded round to the seats opposite the emperor’s couch. Having all but one eye, many times they ran into one another or jostled the other out of the way as they tried to be seated. At length, when all were comfortable, I sat down also, closest to the emperor, and tried to do anything but stare at the gaping holes in their faces.
‘First course is flamingo brain accompanied by partridge eggs and watercress,’ Emperor Heliogabalus explained from the other side of the table as the servants brought in the trays and laid them out across the table among the bowls of grapes and apples.
With a ravenous appetite, he began to devour the food laid out in front of him, steadily looking on at his subjects and pointing to their own silver plates. ‘Eat it.’
I considered the plate in front of me and shook my head.
‘If I want to be sick,’ I muttered under my breath.
‘We—we can’t eat it,’ voiced one of the men aloud from to my right as he looked down at his own plate where a painting of a sumptuous feast rested.
‘Eat it,’ insisted the emperor, his brown eyes growing wider as he pointed a thin forefinger at the plate.
Hesitantly, the men lifted the paintings to their mouths and lightly bit at different corners.
He is mad, I told myself, shaking my head as a burst of laughter erupted from the other side of the table.
‘Oh-oh, so droll,” he laughed, ending with a deep sigh. ‘Alright, enough with that. Take a grape or two and try some of the partridge eggs.’
I reached for a grape and popped in into my mouth, a terrible shiver racing through my body as my teeth came down with a hard crunch and the bitter taste of lead paint filled my mouth.
‘Eat it,’ smiled Heliogabalus encouragingly. ‘The very best from Apamea.’
My heart thumped in my chest as I blankly stared back at him. What a man.
‘It’s a rock,’ I stated flatly. ‘I’m not mad.’
Another eruption of laughter echoed through the banquet hall, and Emperor Heliogabalus shook his head, taking one of the grapes on his own plate and tossing it into his mouth.
‘These are delicious,’ he remarked with a smile as he gestured to his full plate. ‘Real grapes from Apamea, I’m telling you. Try a partridge egg if you don’t prefer the grapes.’
‘Probably another rock,’ I retorted angrily, releasing the breath I had been holding.
Amongst the general chatter that had eventually arisen after the other guests had reluctantly pushed back their plates, the emperor began a lively discourse with one of the servants standing nearby. Although I hadn’t been paying the most attention, it had sounded as if Heliogabalus had asked something of the servant.
‘I said a thousand pounds of spider silk,’ repeated Heliogabalus with a raise of one brown eyebrow.
‘W-where are we supposed to get one thousand pounds of it?’ faltered the servant as bewilderment lined every line in his face.
‘I don’t know, but I do know that it’s your job to get it for me,’ answered the emperor coolly, tacking on another of his smooth smiles. The he added in a slightly singsong voice, ‘Maybe I’ll even throw in a present…that reminds me. Guests.’ He turned to us all and sat up straighter in his chair. ‘I have something for you before you leave, so don’t forget to remind me.’
Murmurs of ‘alright’ rejoined the emperor’s request, but I didn’t say anything. I only placed the smooth, hard, white orb of a partridge egg back onto the second plate beside me.
I would preserve my teeth…and my tongue.
‘What on earth!’ I suddenly exclaimed, finding my chair slowly sinking out from under me.
Mirth almost overfilled the emperor’s sparkling eyes as he scrunched up his face and laughed so heartily that he looked as if about to pass out. Gripping his sides, Heliogabalus shook his head back and forth and then placed a hand to his chest as if to still his heart.
‘By Caligula’s consul, I haven’t thought anything so hilarious in years! Your face! Oh, Cyprian, you take everything so seriously!’
‘And you are mad!’ I exclaimed hotly as I stood up and stared down at him. ‘I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you are certainly not impressing me or anyone else here!’
There was silence for a moment, and I was on the verge of grabbing my satchel to leave when he also stood up and grasped my arm. Looking earnestly into my face, Heliogabalus seemed on the verge of breaking down into laughter when he suddenly stepped back and caught his breath in surprise when he recognized the anger in my eyes.
‘It was just air in your seat,’ he faltered in surprise. ‘Only a joke…’
‘Please accept my apology, Emperor,’ I said as a wave of guilt washed over me. What was happening to my manners? How could I act as if this were just another one of the men from the army?
Surely, he would have my head decorating his next supper table for this.
‘I wish for all of you to accompany me to the balcony,’ Heliogabalus said serenely, as if nothing had happened.
The light patter of footsteps against the marble floor echoed throughout the airy palace, and I couldn’t help but to let my attention wander to the milk-white statues populating the halls and the beautiful frescoes and mosaics dancing across the walls. Extravagance bespoke everywhere my eyes landed.
Finally, we reached the balcony hidden just beyond a small alcove and found it to be a surprisingly sunny platform and rather spacious.
‘Why are all these people gathered?’ I asked hesitantly as I gave a start, seeing the thousands of eyes directed up at us.
‘My people of Rome!’ shouted Heliogabalus with an overjoyed smile enlightening his face. ‘You’ve guessed it…’tis time for the Lottery!’
A huge applause greeted the emperor’s words, and he stood soaking it all in for a moment, just as a lizard on a garden wall would soak in the sunshine. When the crowd had somewhat quieted, Heliogabalus folded his thin, white arms and slightly angled his tousled head.
‘In exactly three seconds, you could be the proud owner of a new home or a slave or even—’ here he paused dramatically, reveling in the suspense of his own silence, ‘—a prize of three-thousand sesterces! And I mean you, yes you, my dear Roman subject.’
With that, the air below suddenly clouded with thousands of pieces of paper fluttering to the ground like snowflakes. Among the whiteness, I thought my eyes caught a few rope-like items streaking through the sky.
A shriek pierced through the air and sent chills skittering down my spine. Grasping the balcony edge, I peered down into the cloud of descending lottery tickets.
‘Snakes!’ came more terrified screams from the mob.
I jerked back from leaning over the balcony and stared again at Heliogabalus who was looking out over the crowd with such an amused expression on his face he seemed to be about to go into another laughing fit.
‘Did you put snakes in the catapults?’ I demanded in incredulity.
‘Not just any ordinary snakes,’ Heliogabalus replied with a grin. ‘Poisonous ones. Now, if you will all come back inside, I would love to have you open your gifts from me. No mere lottery tickets for my friends.’
When we were all once again in the banquet hall, he motioned to his servants to bring in the gifts. My stomach growling in dissatisfaction and my ears still ringing with the horrified screaming of the commoners, I flung myself down onto a sofa beyond the table. The eight one-eyed men stood standing in a cluster, their eyes continually darting to the growing pile of boxes in the middle of the floor.
‘There, I think that’s all of them,’ announced one of the servants to Heliogabalus.
‘Very good. Cyprian—’
‘Here,’ I said shortly, my mouth pressed into a thin line.
‘This one is for you!’
Reluctantly, I stood up and walked over to where the emperor stood beside the mound of boxes, one of his white, ringed hands resting on top of a good-sized package.
‘You’re too kind,’ I said dryly as I knelt down beside the box.
‘You’re welcome!’ smiled Heliogabalus pleasantly. Then, growing more serious, he let his gaze rove the expansive room and then come back to rest on me. ‘I hate this…hate keeping all this wealth for just me. I won’t use it all, that’s for certain, and I just thought that you would at least appreciate a little something to help further you with your valiant ambitions in the army.’
Taken aback, I knelt there looking up at him for a moment before reaching for the latch on the box. In a moment, I had lifted it and bent to look inside.
Within the smallest second, I was up on my feet and rushing toward the door, an intense burning feeling repeated in thousands of places on my body. Where was the door? I frantically demanded of myself while furtively glancing behind me at the angry, black cloud of charging bees. The roar of buzzing resounded in my ear, and I caught Heliogabalus standing by the boxes, laughing his royal head off. Without a second thought, I rushed for him and tackled him to the floor, knocking the air well out of his body. Struggling to regain his breath, he sat up, and I jerked him to his feet and shoved him into the hundreds of bees.
‘Get me out of here!’ shrieked the emperor as he fell to his knees and covered his face with his arms. I could see the lumpy welts rising up on the fair skin of his arms already as the bees crowded round their victim. Too terrified to jump in and put a halt to the fracas, the servants hung back, and the one-eyed men were making for the door.
After a few solid minutes, I leapt into the mass of bees and dragged the emperor’s limp body out of the cloud, across the floor, and into a different room where I laid him on the floor. I had but instants to escape and make for the haven of my own home deep in the city.
Now, I find that it is only a temporary haven. A letter was just delivered to me from my brother who lives closer to the palace than I do, letting me know that he had already heard what occurred this afternoon. Now, I sit here at my table with this old book before me, knowing quite well that this could very well be my last entry.
Now that it is all over, I see that my outspokenness in both word and deed might very well be my fall. A sigh escapes my lips, and I stare out my window into the darkening dusk of the street, wondering why on earth I would feel it my liberty to say and do such things in the emperor’s palace.
They are at my door; I hear the tramping of their nailed sandals on the stones of the street. The scarlet torches send glowing sparks up into the night air, and the soldiers are halting at the door.
My fellow soldiers. My friends. My brothers.
They are entering. My heart is wrenched with true guilt over my rashness, not merely because of the consequences. I did the wrong thing, and I deserve what is coming to me. Here, I am laying down my quill and standing.
Through my fault.