This is the second part of Historia’s serialisation of LJ Trafford’s tongue-in-cheek short story, The Wedding, from the HWA/Sharpe Books Rubicon collection.
Epaphroditus, Emperor Nero’s put-upon secretary, has a problem: his imperial master is too distracted to concentrate on state business. The distraction? A beautiful eunuch called Sporus, who Nero has had dressed as his former wife, Poppaea, and who has no respect at all for Epaphroditus. But the tart-tongued secretary has a plan…
Calvia Crispinilla, Nero’s Mistress of the Wardrobe, palace party planner extraordinaire and dresser of that damned eunuch, strode into Epaphroditus’ office. She was accompanied by a flurry of slave girls present to cater to her every whim, and Philo, whom her whim had been that the slave girls should push out of her way when he asked her politely her business with Epaphroditus.
“I’m sorry, sir,” began Philo, hurrying ahead of Calvia. “I know you don’t like to be interrupted unannounced, sir.”
“Quite,” said Calvia, sitting herself down. “Who knows what depraved act you might walk in on.”
“The Treasury report,” said Epaphroditus, using a stylus to point at the scroll unrolled in front of him.
“Filthy stuff, I’m sure. I have important news.” She leaned forward. “I have found the most astounding tunic for the emperor’s wedding. Truly. It is astonishing. It has to be seen to be believed. It’s magnificent.”
“And the bride?” asked Epaphroditus. “Have you found an astounding one of those yet?”
Calvia waved her hand. “That’s all sorted. Now, I want to talk about the arrangements. I’m thinking the grand banqueting hall for the day time events—”
“You’ve found an empress?” interrupted Epaphroditus. “For the Emperor?”
Calvia, adjusted the shawl draped across her shoulders, “I said I would, did I not? And I did. Lovely girl. Perfect.”
“And she is?” prompted the secretary. Beside him Philo whipped out a note tablet ready.
As a grand announcement it fell somewhat short.
“Never heard of her,” said Epaphroditus.
“Which is one of many reasons why she is perfect. Statilia Messalina is of a good, suitably noble family bursting to the brim with Senators and others of that ilk. She’s been married three times. Which is a good thing,” Calvia stressed, before Epaphroditus could interrupt her. “Because it means she’ll not be shocked by some of the emperor’s more… specialist requirements.”
“Early 30s. Young enough to beget an heir for his Imperial Majesty, but old enough to appeal to the emperor’s preference for the more mature lady.”
Epaphroditus sat back in his chair. “She sounds suitable.”
“You said find a suitable bride. I did. She’s also very pretty.”
“But,” added Calvia, rising to her feet. “if you think any of that will dislodge Sporus I fear you will be disappointed.”
“It will,” insisted Epaphroditus. “It most definitely will.”
The wedding of Nero Claudius Germanicus Drusus to Statilia Messalina was to take place five days later. Such was the speed of the arrangements that popular palace gossip claimed Statilia herself only found out about the wedding when she arrived for a dinner invitation and was handed the brides’ scarlet veil. To Epaphroditus’ mind it was just in time. That damned eunuch had started to complain of nausea and the secretary harboured a horrible suspicion that it was about to announce a pregnancy.
Epaphroditus straightened his wedding outfit. In celebration he’d upped his usual muted style to a green tunic hemmed with gold braiding. It should be one terrific party. Epaphroditus had seen the list of events Calvia had organised and even he, jaded palace party-goer that he was, was inwardly bouncing with anticipation. Utterly unlike his fellow wedding attendee, Philo, who stood in the doorway in his standard white palace issued tunic, looking thoroughly miserable.
Aware of his assistant’s great dislike of unstructured gatherings for the purposes of fun, Epaphroditus said: “You’ll enjoy it.” Philo looked unconvinced. “It’s the party of the year! Perhaps even the decade!”
Philo fiddled with the strap on his satchel, avoiding his boss’ gaze.
“Obviously I’ll expect a full report on it.”
Philo looked up, his expression quizzical.
“Somebody needs to record the full detail of the event,” he continued. “So that we may fully study what parts were successful and which parts were less successful. Your findings can be used to inform future weddings. Not that we’ll have any in the near future. This one is set to last.” Epaphroditus had decided.
“I think that could be useful, sir,” said Philo, after a moment’s consideration.
“I think so, too,” said the secretary, hoping that Philo would at least relax enough to enjoy a little of the day’s festivities. He clapped his palms together. “Right! We’d better go see this thing through.”
A declaration immediately thwarted by the simultaneous arrival of two Imperial messengers. “Sir, the Emperor demands your presence. He wishes to cancel the wedding.”
Of course he did.
“Sir, the eunuch’s on the loose.”
Of course it was.
Used to crisis management, Imperial service was nothing but one long crisis, Epaphroditus responded calmly. “Philo, you handle the Sporus situation. I’ll deal with the Emperor.”
Epaphroditus found Nero standing in the centre of his chamber in what was, as Calvia had promised, a truly astonishing wedding tunic. It was sunshine yellow in a shade that had the secretary squinting at its brightness.
The rest of the outfit consisted of a red cape and spiky diadem crusted with rubies. Epaphroditus recognised Calvia’s vision: Nero was to be Apollo, the sun God. His yellow beam to join with his bride’s fiery scarlet veil.
It was a shame that the Emperor was not radiating this vision; Epaphroditus doubted Apollo was given to such mopes.
“Oh, Epaphroditus!” whined the Emperor, kicking away the two slaves who fussed at his cape alignment. “What about Poppaea?”
“Imperial Majesty,” began Epaphroditus, in the soft tone he often used to placate his children. “Did we not discuss this yesterday?”
Nero brushed his hands through the air. “I know, I know! But Poppaea! I don’t see—”
“As we discussed, Caesar, Poppaea agrees to this marriage because she recognises the importance of an heir for Caesar. She has been most insistent on that point and, I have to say, very dignified. It becomes Her Majesty that she has chosen to step aside for the good of her husband and the Empire.”
“She might yet have a child…” pouted Nero.
Epaphroditus held his hands apart, showing his palms. “Alas, the doctors are all in agreement, Caesar. But, as we discussed, this does not mean that Caesar may not visit Poppaea occasionally if he desires.”
Nero’s head bobbed up and down, the diadem bouncing on his curls.
“It is necessary though for Caesar to marry and produce an heir. It is his duty.”
“Duty!” cried Nero, his eyes moistening. “Should the Gods punish me so! To make me divorce the woman I adore with all my heart!”
“It is as Poppaea wishes, Caesar.”
“Such a good woman, such a wonderful woman. To sacrifice herself for me! I do not deserve her. But I shall do her will, Epaphroditus, I shall!” The pout stiffened in resolve.
“Statilia Messalina is an exceptionally beautiful woman,” slipped in the secretary.
“Naturally,” said Nero. “I would not marry less. I am Emperor.”
Since the marriage announcement Sporus had fallen into a weeping, wailing grief.
At first there had been sympathy for the heartbroken eunuch. A whole army of slave girls had sat up late into the night listening to his woes, offering a soft bosom for him to lean on and kind understanding, which he absorbed as his right. But as the wedding drew nearer and Sporus’s hysterics became shriller, they grew a little tired of his antics.
Soft bosoms no longer welcoming his head, Sporus found new ways to attract the light he so craved. Dressed in a long black gown which puddled like ink behind him, one arm swept across his brow, wailing hysterically, Sporus roamed the corridors of the slave complex.
He took to grasping onto the arms of passing slaves, beseeching them to dispatch him now, for he could not bear to be so betrayed! To see his beloved Nero wed to another! Why, he would rather die than let his eyes view such poison! Let the Gods strike him down now with their almighty power!
And thus a new word entered the palace lingo: Sporused.
Sporus was hurt. He was wounded. He was suffering dreadfully. Why would nobody acknowledge it? To this end Sporus’s Sporusing widened beyond the unsympathetic slave complex and into the public areas of the palace. It was a particularly noteworthy collision with an ex-consul that led to a firm conclusion: Sporus must be contained.
Since then he’d been held in his suite of rooms with two Praetorian Guards placed outside to prevent any further escapades.
“I don’t understand,” worried Philo. “You say that he did not come past you?”
“No, definitely not,” said Guardsman Proculus.
Philo gazed about the room, leaning a palm on the wall: solid. “There’s no other way out, though. Not even a window for him to squeeze through.”
“Regular mystery it is,” offered Guardsman Lucullus. “I think there’s magic involved here, sir. I reckon she’s a witch and magicked her way out. They can do that, sir, witches. They are pretty cunning.”
As an explanation it did not satisfy Philo. He bent down, peering under the couch. An expectedly dark space. Hang on, what was that? He lay on the floor and fished an arm in, his hand closing round the object. Getting to his feet he showed it to the guards.
“It’s a shoe.”
It was a high heeled sandal with glittering diamonds in the toes and a golden buckle. It could only belong to Sporus.
“Tell me again how you found he was missing.”
“Well sir, we got a bit worried about her. We could hear her crying.”
“Yeah, banging. We thought we’d better check it out, see that the little lady was all right. Not hurting herself or nothing.”
“So we came in and she wasn’t here.”
“Not a sign.”
“You both came in?” Philo insisted.
Philo looked to the door, then to the couch, then to the guards, asking, “You both came in and you stood… about here?”
He stepped into the centre of the room, the door behind him, the couch to his right.
“Yeah, about there, sir. Scratching our heads we were.”
Scratching their heads, puzzling it out, as Sporus crawled out from under the couch – losing a shoe in the process – and nipped out of the door behind the idiots, Philo deduced.
(Continued from part 1 of The Wedding; part 3, the final extract, is also available to read.)
Woman at her toilette, Carthage National Museum: via Wikimedia
Pinakes with Dionysian scenes, Herculaneum, AD 60-80: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Statilia Messalina, wife of Nero by Ægidius Sadeler: via Wikimedia
Banquet scene from Pompeii: via Wikimedia
Apollo, mosaic: via Wikimedia
Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Reconstructed room in Roman villa, Aschaffenburg, Germany: Carole Raddato via Flickr