This is the first part of LJ Trafford’s The Wedding, one of the short stories in Rubicon, the HWA and Sharpe Books collection of stories by ten leading authors who write about Ancient Rome. Parts two and three will be published in Historia over the next few days.
The setting is Rome, of course; the protagonist is a put-upon official whose patience and tact are only ruffled by one person in Emperor Nero’s palace. An extremely important person…
It was never easy to hold the Emperor’s attention. He was prone to distraction, whether it be the latest chariot racing results or a sudden inspiration for a poem. Either of which could grip hold of him for hours, whilst the unsigned scrolls lay forgotten on a desk.
Not this time, though. Epaphroditus, private secretary to his Imperial Majesty Nero Caesar, had planned his moment perfectly. The races had concluded the previous afternoon, giving Nero a clear twelve hours to lament the result. Dire punishments had been cursed upon both the captain of the Blues, for daring to win, and the captain of the Greens, for such a miserably awful performance.
Sated by imagining violent deaths for all concerned (including the spectators who had cheered the winning Blues over the finish line) Nero was then presented with a visiting Greek poet. Several hours of culture later, the poet had managed to extract from the Emperor an epic verse that had the Blue team obliterated by one of Jupiter’s thunderbolts. The final line, concerning the smell of singed horseflesh, had Epaphroditus’s innards wincing at its sheer awfulness. But it at least conveyed the obsessive passion for the races that afflicted the Emperor.
Artistic needs met, Nero’s more bodily wants were dealt with by a serving of light dishes. The secretary needed Nero full enough to not be distracted by hunger, but not so full as to nod off during Epaphroditus’s reading of the latest report from the Northern Provinces. Or, as Nero referred to them, the Savage Lands of Barbarians.
The secretary hoped to avoid yet another discussion on why Rome bothered with them when they didn’t even have theatres or art or poetry!
Usually a list of the gold, silver and pearls, which the Northern Empire possessed in abundance, was enough to forestall a sudden Imperial declaration that Rome should just forget about those hairy barbarians and concentrate on the civilised world.
Today Epaphroditus had high hopes he would get to the end of the report without interruption. Nero was reclining on a couch sipping at a glass of asparagus juice (good for his voice, so the Greek poet had claimed) and the gaze from those watery blue eyes was friendly. The Emperor appeared relaxed, happy even. This was the perfect moment.
“Imperial Majesty,” said Epaphroditus, stepping forward with his head bowed respectfully.
“Ahhh, Epaphroditus,” replied Nero. “What do you have for me today?”
“Imperial Majesty, I bring the provincial reports.”
Beside Epaphroditus stood his assistant, Philo (possessed of the fastest shorthand in the palace), whose role today was to hand the scroll to his boss. This he did with his customary efficiency at the exact moment the secretary concluded his speech.
Epaphroditus cleared his throat and read, “Germania Inferior deliver their best wishes for the—”
The best wishes of those inferior Germans were cut short by a yawn.
A yawn the likes of which had never been naturally produced. It was exaggerated to the extreme, loud and long, and geared solely to attract attention. It came not from the Emperor, but rather from the creature who reclined beside him. It was dressed in a blue gown sewn with pearls that might well have come from the Northern Provinces, and a matching pearl-studded tiara pinned to ringletted red hair. A hand with long, perfectly-manicured nails was pressed over its painted lips, failing to disguise the noise.
Epaphroditus ignored it. “Germania Inferior—”
Epaphroditus shot the creature a look. It smiled back at him, and then winked.
“Poppaea, my dear,” fussed Nero, brushing his hand over its bare arm. “Are you well, my love?”
A bottom lip trembled a little, causing Nero to enquire, “What is it, my love? What ails you?” He held onto its hands, his eyes now full of concern.
“Oh, my love,” it said, before executing a fake swoon backwards, complete with sweeping arm.
“Oh, Poppaea, Poppaea!” cried Nero. “My Poppaea is fatigued! Slaves! Quickly! We must take her to the Imperial bedchamber.”
Epaphroditus stood back as four burly slaves rushed forward. They lifted the creature, who wasn’t so fatigued that it couldn’t snap at them not to crease its gown, and transported it to the door. The Emperor rushed in front of them, crying, “I’ll clear the way! We must hurry! Hurry!”
Looking over the shoulder of a slave, the creature made sure it gave the secretary a farewell wave before it was carried away.
Epaphroditus held it together for a count of twenty after their departure before flinging the scroll across the room. It hit the wall with a disappointing pffft. Philo ran over to retrieve it.
“That is it!” stormed Epaphroditus, as Philo tried to manipulate out the bent he’d caused on the Northern provinces report. “It goes. That thing goes!”
“Sir?” enquired Philo, handing him back the battered scroll.
“That thing. That thing playing Poppaea. That damned eunuch!”
“Yes, Sporus!” fumed Epaphroditus. “How many other eunuchs do we have in the palace pretending to be the dead Empress?”
It was obviously rhetorical, but Philo was made from very literally minded material. “Only Sporus, sir. So far.” Then added, “He is very good at it, sir.”
“Oh, I know he is. He is far too good at it. That’s the problem.” Epaphroditus sat down on Neros deserted couch. “I accepted it at first. It seemed to be aiding the Emperor in his grief over the Empress’s unfortunate death.” Which was how Poppaea’s demise at the hands of her husband was spoken of in the palace; ‘unfortunate’. An ‘unfortunate’ accident that had Nero’s foot colliding with Poppaea’s pregnant stomach, killing both mother and potential heir.
“But now? It’s been months and the Emperor shows no sign of dropping his fantasy that Poppaea is still alive. Of course it doesn’t help that the damned eunuch can impersonate the Empress to her very gesture. Nor that it seems quite happy to pretend to be someone else. I have a bad feeling about which way this thing is headed. Before we know it, Sporus will be insisting upon accompanying the Emperor to the Senate House, overseeing the Bona Dea festival and having dinner with the Chief Vestal!”
He winced at the very plausibility of it. Nobody wanted to be the one to break down Nero’s delusion. Certainly not Epaphroditus. He valued his life far too much. Something Sporus was taking full advantage of.
“It’s also not helping the financial situation, sir,” interjected Philo.
Epaphroditus looked up. “How so?”
It took Philo’s prodigious memory quite some time to reel off the entire list of Sporus’s expenditure as Empress, particularly as he’d organised the spending into helpful subheadings such as: bronze headwear, silver-plated headwear, gold-plated headwear, headwear containing additional jewels and so forth.
By the end of this catalogue of waste (in Epaphroditus’s view – for Sporus was now in possession of enough dresses to change twice a day for the next year) the secretary had made a decision. “That eunuch goes.”
A statement Philo felt compelled to record in the note tablet he was never without. After scrawling this in the wax, he asked anxiously. “Sir?”
“The Emperor will remarry,” said Epaphroditus. “He simply cannot keep up this farce when there is a new empress on his arm. One that is an actual woman!”
LJ Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of novels set in the tumultuous years 68–69 when, after Nero‘s death, Rome was ruled by Galba, Otho and Vitellius before Vespasian finally took control.
See more about Rubicon.
Love scene mosaic: via Wikimedia
Head of Nero (AD 59-68, later reworked as Domitian and restored in the modern era as Nero), Capitoline Museums: via Wikimedia
Pinakes with Dionysian scenes, Herculaneum, AD 60-80: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Head of an empress, possibly Poppaea, National Roman Museum: via Wikimedia
The Remorse of the Emperor Nero after the Murder of his Mother by John William Waterhouse: via Wikimedia