This is the final part of LJ Trafford’s The Wedding, one of the short stories published in Rubicon, the best-selling HWA and Sharpe Books collection of stories by ten leading authors who write about Ancient Rome.
Epaphroditus, Nero’s unappreciated, acerbic secretary, has persuaded the widowed Emperor to marry again, despite Nero’s fondness for the beautiful eunuch, Sporus. Will the wedding somehow take place without any awkward scenes?
Felix, Head of Slave Placements and chief overseer, cracked his knuckles and furrowed his red eyebrows across his prominent nose like two furry caterpillars looking to scrap to the death. In front of him were his slave overseers, the men whose job it was to keep the Imperial workforce working. Order had to be maintained and these were the men that did it.
Their tactics were simple: they menaced. Standing directly in front of Felix was the most menacing of them all: Straton.
“Right,” growled Felix. “The Praetorians,”
Of impressive bulk, he was less of a man and more akin to a semi-shaven bear. He might not have possessed claws, but what he did have was a whip. This was hung on his thick leather belt for easy access and had been used to painful effect on generations of palace slaves.
The overseers jeered at that word, for there was a hefty rivalry between the guard and the overseers, both sides believing themselves to be the premier security force in the palace.
“The Praetorians,” began Felix again, injecting a sneer of his own, “were given a eunuch to guard. They were supposed to keep him out of mischief. They failed.”
Another round of jeers.
“So now we have the job. The eunuch known as Sporus is on the loose. We need to find him. Now it’s a big old palace and we need to be fucking smart about this.” Felix tapped a large digit against his temple. “We need to think like Sporus. We need to get into his head and then we’ll find him.
“Right. I’m a flighty, fancy, poncy, attention-seeking, ball-less wonder. I delight in mischief, trouble and mincing about. I’ve made my escape from my crap, good-for-nowt Praetorian fuckwits and I’m loose in the palace. Which I have no fucking right to be. Where the fuck would I go?”
He threw an enquiring look at this gathered team. A series of spectacularly ugly, but blank faces stared back.
Felix scratched at his beard mumbling, “Knew this would be a fucking waste of time, appealing to their fucking intelligence. When was the last time they held an actual thought in their actual heads? Hey hey! Let’s have some fucking ideas!”
A hand shot up. “Yes, Xagoras?”
“We don’t have bathroom breaks, Xagoras. You can piss in a corner. We got fucking work to do!”
“Sir, I meant the eunuch. If I were a lack-ball and I’d given the Guards the slip, I’d probably want to, you know, freshen up a bit.”
Felix considered. “Not a bad idea, Xagoras, you go check it out.”
“Err… which bathroom?”
“All of them!” bellowed Felix. Xagoras dashed out to search the many, many, many bathrooms that littered all ends of the palace from the Palatine to the Oppian Hill.
“Right! Let’s have some suggestions from the rest of you.”
“Wardrobe? He lost a shoe, he won’t want to be un-coordinated.”
“Not bad, Pius. You go and see to that.”
Straton cleared his throat, a sound not unlike an elephant taking a dislike to his trainer in the moment before a fatal tusking.
“Minerva’s Arse! You got an idea, Straton? That’s got to be a fucking first. You get struck by lightning on the way in? Fucking illuminate you, did it? Go on then, where would you go?”
Straton grinned, showing his sharp blackened teeth. “Weddin’. Emperor’s weddin’.”
Felix’s hand shot up and slapped his forehead with a wince-inducing thwack. Oh, Mars’s favourite whore! That is exactly where the little fucker would head. Hadn’t he been whining and crying all over the palace about being dumped by the Emperor? What better place to fully express his hurt and grief than in front of 500 wedding guests, all the dignitary Rome had to offer and the actual lady that had displaced him as Empress?
Felix scrunched his eyes shut as the full horror of a Sporus-injected wedding coursed through him. He took a deep breath, filling up his entire barrel of a chest. Then he fixed his eyes on Straton.
“Stop him. Now. By whatever means.”
Straton hitched up his belt and grinned.
As Xagoras dashed from bathroom to bathroom, Straton preferred not to exert himself. No point working up a sweat scouring the palace for the eunuch, when he could prop a shoulder against a pillar and wait for Sporus to come to him.
The pillar in question was one of twelve that held up the roof of the grand entrance hall to the banqueting suite. The pink marble was ten feet in diameter and thus able to disguise even a man of Straton’s impressive bulk from the arriving wedding guests.
One shoulder leant against the marble, Straton’s black eyes scanned the crowds of well-dressed dignitaries, their wives and their slaves. The latter on hand to provide assistance, comfort and an arm to hold onto when they all staggered out drunk later in the evening.
Straton figured that Sporus would wait until all the guests were settled before making his entrance, for maximum effect. The best way to do that was to sneak in with the guests, hence Straton’s vigilance. His eyes moved quickly across the scene, one hand gripping the handle of the whip which hung from his belt.
Epaphroditus, having soothed the Emperor’s concerns over the invented divorce from Poppaea, followed the Imperial entourage to the hall. Calvia’s exquisite wedding planning involved Nero and Statilia parading down opposite sides of the entrance hall, following two groups of lyre players; one group plucking a tune for the Emperor and one for the Empress. As the couple approached the door the tunes would meld into one harmonious melody as the happy couple met.
For Epaphroditus this was not a metaphor of Imperial marriage that he recognised. But he admired the organisation of it.
There were no cock-ups for Philo to record on his note tablet as the bride and groom met. This was Epaphroditus’ first glimpse of Statilia Messalina. Her eyes were blue, her nose small and her lips on the plumpish side. She was pretty. Calvia had chosen well. Epaphroditus approved.
Nero too seemed satisfied with Statilia Messalina. Glancing back over his shoulder at Epaphroditus, he mouthed: “Tasty”.
She stood upright as a pillar. Her face neutral, displaying neither fear nor joy, letting Nero take her arm without a flinch. Epaphroditus, though, noted the deep intake of breath that puffed out her breast as the first trumpet sounded.
“Nooooooooooooo!” came a high pitched squeal from the back of the room. From behind a pillar shot Sporus, running full pelt down the centre of the hall. The Emperor and Empress pivoted.
“What the—?” began Nero.
A thought shared by the trumpet players, who went spectacularly off key.
The guards proved their general uselessness once again by their motionless gawps as Sporus headed towards the Imperial party. Epaphroditus was much quicker off the mark.
“An assassin!” declared the secretary.
He dashed off towards the eunuch before the Emperor could recognise him.
Sporus, surprisingly for such a natural coward, was unfazed by the sight of the Emperor’s private secretary running towards him. He was even unfazed by the two Praetorians who finally joined the race. His thoughts were solely concentrated on stopping this pantomime of a wedding.
Nero wouldn’t hurt him so, not after he saw how upset his darling Sporus/Poppaea/Whatever was at this betrayal. His eyes were firmly on Epaphroditus, intending to scoot round him at the last moment. Which was why Sporus failed to see Straton slip out from his hiding spot.
Crack. The thong of Straton’s whip propelled forward and attached itself round Sporus’s ankle. The overseer gave it a hard tug. With a thump, Sporus hit the marble floor. The air was oomphed out of him. His chin banged on the ground. A red slash on his ankle bled from Straton’s targeted shot.
The overseer grabbed him by the other ankle, dangling him upside down. “Got me eunuch,” he grinned.
Epaphroditus, fully engaged on his interception mission, realised with dismay that he was moving too fast to stop in time.
“Minerva’s Arse!” he swore, as he careered into Straton, knocking him over.
To fell a man of Straton’s size was an astounding feat, but Epaphroditus had no time to dwell on this success since the two Praetorians who’d also been in pursuit smacked into the pile of overseer/eunuch/secretarial staff.
The confusion of limbs, whips and swords freed Sporus from Straton’s hold; he wriggled out from beneath a yelping Praetorian. Giving no thought to the state of his dress (a first for Sporus, and one born of his single-minded mission), he escaped by crawling along the floor, his long nails clicking on the marble as he did.
Epaphroditus, his eye smarting from an accidental encounter with Straton’s elbow, struggled to free himself. Seeing Sporus heading towards the Emperor’s end of the hall, he thrust his foot into a Praetorian groin and kicked hard. The guard screamed in presumed agony and it was this pain that no doubt clouded his judgement in such a terrible way. Mistaking Straton for the cause of his throbbing testicles, he yelled, “You ugly bastard! I’m going to get you for that!”
In the chronicles of palace history there had scarcely been a more misguided declaration. Or more wrong. As demonstrated when Straton, with the effortless strength that was his hallmark, picked up the guard and threw him at a pillar. There was a sort of crunching sound as Praetorian and marble met. A sound which Straton seemed intent on repeating, as he picked up the comatose guard again.
Epaphroditus had no time (or indeed inclination) to intervene in Straton’s thorough dust-up; he had a eunuch to catch. By now, Sporus was an alarming third of the way across the hall, almost within recognisable distance from the Imperial couple. This was no time for hesitation. Scrambling to his feet he ran and threw himself on top of the eunuch, flattening it. “Oh, no, you don’t,” he hissed in Sporus’s ear.
At the far end of the hall the wedding party stood in bemused silence. “What is going on?” asked Statilia.
Nero, keen to appear in charge in front of his soon-to-be wife, cupped his hands over his mouth and called. “Epaphroditus! What’s going on?”
“All under control, Caesar,” came the call back.
“Well that’s good,” Nero smiled at Statilia. “Shall we go in?” Taking her arm. There came a perfectly tuned blast from the trumpets and the great doors of the banqueting hall were flung open.
Epaphroditus lay prone on the couch. A wet cloth, which he claimed was for his Straton-induced black eye, but which was really more connected to his throbbing post-wedding-induced hangover, was pressed over his face.
It had been quite the wedding and quite the party. With Straton on Sporus-minding duty, Epaphroditus had been able to relax and enjoy the festivities. He had pulled it off, hadn’t he? Nero was safely married off. The eunuch would soon be forgotten and back to its normal duties dancing about and irritating the other eunuchs. All was well. Apart from his dry mouth, extremely delicate stomach and the pounding in his cranium.
“There was, sir, a distinct under performance in the catering team,” said Philo.
This was hour two of his detailed report into the events of the wedding. Peeking out from under the cloth, Epaphroditus noted a further four note tablets poking out of Philo’s satchel.
“The first dishes of roasted pigeon, sir, were not of sufficient crispness. I noted one of the guests, Senator Regulus, make a comment to his wife that he had tasted better when dining with the Consul…”
The secretary gave a pained groan that did not dent Philo’s commentary in the slightest.
A Roman Feast by Roberto Bompiani: via Wikimedia
Gladiator mosaic, Galleria Borghese, Rome, by Sebastià Giralt: via Wikimedia
The Wedding of Dionysus with Ariadne, Sepphoris, Israel: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Detail from Iphigenia in Tauris from the Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii: via Wikimedia
The ‘Mona Lisa of the Galilee’ (possibly Venus), Sepphoris, Israel: Carole Raddato via Flickr
‘Family feast’ from Pompeii, Museum of Naples: via Wikimedia
Gladiators mosaic, Nennig, Germany: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Illustration from the History of Rome and the Roman People by Victor Duruy: via Flickr