The Greek Tour (fm the Diary of Nero, 66-67 A.D.) – by ROBERT BOUCHERON

The Greek Tour

from the Diary of Nero, 66-67 A. D.

 

I am letting my hair grow long for my Greek tour. As a charioteer, I had it brushed up in front and short around the back, the style favored by professional racers. As an actor-singer-dancer on tour, I play the role of a citharode, in a long, un-belted gown and streaming hair. Besides, it’s unfair that only women should have long, flowing, gorgeous hair. They get to use cosmetics. Men can be glamorous with the right accessories.

At dinner today, I showed off my new look. Some guests from Greece begged me to sing, so I picked up my lyre and gave them a preview. They raved and made me do another number.

“You Greeks are the only ones with an ear for music,” I said. “Only you deserve me.”

*

Preparations for my tour are coming along. The company will be large, and I expect to be away for a year. There is so much to do. Phaon, the advisor for finance, is unsure.

“Given the hostility shown by some senators, may I suggest that you cancel the tour?”

“Recall your wits and put away sad fear!” I say, quoting Vergil. “The Roman people love me. The upper classes may want to assassinate me, but they can’t touch me if I’m not here. I can govern from outside Rome. Besides, why should King Tiridates be the only one who travels in style? I want to see the sights, and receive the glory that waits for me abroad. After quashing a conspiracy, Claudius led an expedition through Gaul to Britain, and he won a great victory. As an artist, I will conquer the east.”

“What about the autumn games? Can you bear to miss them?”

“We’ll leave Rome right after. By the time we return, Golden House will be ready.”

*

Finally, we are under way. I left my freedman Helius in charge, with power to confiscate, banish, and execute men of all ranks. Polyclitus will assist him as chief advisor. Nymphidius remains in Rome with part of the Praetorian Guard, while Tigellinus travels with me with two hundred of his best men. My dear wife Statilia is in the party, as is Calvia, the wardrobe mistress, and a contingent of dancing girls. My freedmen Epaphroditus, Pythagoras, Phoebus and others, staff for correspondence, my hairdresser, my astrologer, my voice coach Terpnus, other musicians, my fan club the Augustiani, a few senators, and the general Vespasian round out the entourage. With servants, cooks, wagon drivers, and hangers-on, we make quite an army, lumbering south through Latium.

Lovely though it is, we cannot linger. I am impatient to reach the land of Greece, the home of civilization. My destiny lies there, performing onstage.

*

From Brundisium, we crossed the Adriatic and landed on Corcyra. The first stop on our tour is Actium, for the games to celebrate the naval victory of my ancestor Augustus. Then we travel down to Corinth, which will be our base of operations. Destroyed over a century ago and rebuilt on Roman lines, Corinth is large and modern, centrally located, and able to host my entourage.

We are sending letters to all the Greek cities, inviting their best athletes and artists to participate, and changing the schedule of games. Normally held at four-year intervals and staggered, the games will all coincide next year so that I can compete. Religious scruples can be overcome. The Greeks are an accommodating people.

Our sea crossing took three days, as the company is so large and the weather was bad for early autumn. One of the ships carrying props and ornaments sank in the choppy waves. Calvia and her assistants are upset by the shipwreck, because some of the items were valuable. I am too excited to mind the loss of a few knick-knacks. At dinner, Calvia worried aloud.

“How will we replace the furs and feathers, not to mention the gilded items?”

“The fish will bring them back to me,” I said.

*

The envoy from Olympia arrived with no attendants, no gifts, and no attempt to charm. A leading citizen, he is a former athlete and conscious of his own past glory. Laconic to a fault, he waited for me to speak.

“In addition to taking part in the athletic contests, I will appear onstage.”

“The Olympic Games do not include music and drama. The town does not even have a theater.”

“In that case, as your friend and benefactor, I will institute new contests in the arts and construct a new theater to hold them.”

“Caesar’s generosity is well known.”

“Like my Amphitheater in Rome, it will be a wooden structure, so as to be ready in six months. Fortunately, my entourage includes an engineer, carpenters, and other craftsmen for the stage. I will send them off at once to Olympia with detailed drawings.”

“As you wish.”

*

We are still getting the kinks out of our concert program. The dance routines need work. While the musicians are playing their hearts out and producing the most wonderful sound effects, the dancing girls are tripping over their costumes and bumping into each other. They look like a flock of pigeons when you throw bread. I called them together and gave them a lecture.

“Practice, practice, practice! You must learn the steps and coordinate the arm movements and make it all look graceful. Or else! You cannot all be whipped, since the welts would look unattractive. But I promise you, if the next performance is no better, you will be decimated like army soldiers after a defeat. One tenth will be picked at random and punished.”

*

We presented our first concert in Greece as a kind of road show or preview. My troupe and I performed at Nicopolis in the Actian Games. The stadium was rebuilt and enlarged not long ago. It seats ten thousand, and so far as I could tell with my nearsighted eyes, it was filled. The singers traveling with me did well, and several Greek singers competed.

This was my first real competition. I’m adding to my repertoire, but for this debut I stuck to old standards like the “Hymn to Apollo” and “Niobe’s Lament.” A lyre string snapped, which threw me off so that I had to start over. Everyone agreed it wasn’t my fault, even the other contestants. Once I got the trembling under control, I sang superbly. My long hours of rehearsal paid off, or I was inspired by the occasion, or my personal appeal had some effect. The judges awarded me the first place in solo performance.

*

We are comfortably camped near Corinth, our winter quarters for the new conquest of Greece. There are no lodgings within the city walls large enough for us—not without displacing thousands of citizens—so we constructed our own city in the style of a Roman army camp. My pavilion is sumptuous, with acres of fabric and ingenious ways to raise and lower it.

In the spring, we sally forth for the Olympic Games, followed by the Isthmian Games here. Then in summer come the Nemean Games just to the south, and the Pythian Games at Delphi. It is a demanding schedule, but worthy of my talent. With months of rest and rehearsal, my troupe will deliver a performance worthy of Greece. It will be an artistic event without precedent. Meanwhile, we give concerts. I sing and perform dramatic recitations for invited guests.

“Your Greek is perfect,” they say, “but pronunciation here varies from what you learned as a boy in Italy. And the classic tragedies contain archaic words and obscure language, things that trip up the most accomplished speakers.”

A kind friend promises to coach me in the subtleties of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. His fee is reasonable. He calls my attention to the historic nature of this tour.

“Your appearance is a first in several ways. It is the first time a Roman has achieved artistic success in Greece. It is the first performance of your compositions abroad. And it is the first time the role of a king like Agamemnon or Oedipus has been played by a ruling monarch.”

*

People live well here, but no one entertains on the lavish scale of Nero. My dinner parties are the talk of the town. Opinions are mixed. With their proud memories of the Persian war centuries ago, some scoff at my “oriental luxury.” Others frankly admire my “splendor and magnificence.” We pump money into the local economy. The suppliers and merchants adore us. The landed aristocracy is not so sure. We combine Greek and Roman customs, and that confuses them.

A young man of exquisite taste, the son of a wealthy merchant, chides me for staying in camp. As beautiful as he is idle, he lies next to me at dinner and rattles on in Greek.

“Nero, I wonder at your inactivity. You ought to take your exceptional voice to Athens. Surely that capital of culture deserves a song.”

“Athenians who wish to can hear me in Corinth. My dinner table is open to all.”

“On the contrary,” he pouts, “you hoard the riches of your art.”

And so on. Privately, I am told that audiences in Athens are undiscriminating and rude.  Who knows what stunts they might pull if I appeared in public there?

*

Today I am twenty-nine years old. No longer a young man, I have put on weight. Some of my outfits are tight and must be altered. My physician Andromachus examines me. He pokes and prods, tickles and thumps, listens to the beating of my heart, and smells my breath. He pores over a urine sample.

“You are as sound as a drum,” he says. “May I suggest, though, that you moderate your eating and drinking. Every night is a party, and the wine flows freely. You can drink your companions under the table, Caesar, but should you? Drink less, and the morning headaches will improve. Apart from that, you are poised to enter the prime of life.”

*

I have mastered the art of delegation. Yet despite my top-notch staff, and strict instructions to reduce the gory details to a crisp executive summary, being on tour is much like business as usual. Messengers arrive and depart daily. Letters must be read and written, appointments made, supporters rewarded and miscreants punished. The empire grinds on, like a mill that never stops.

News comes from Judaea that the revolt is not winding down, but gathering strength. The rebels took control of Jerusalem in the summer. The twelfth legion marched from Syria to Judaea and besieged the city. Despite inferior numbers, the Jews met the Roman army in battle, forced them to retreat, and slaughtered the rear guard. They declared independence and minted their own coins.

This is a disaster and an insult to our prestige. My traveling council meets. We decide to send Vespasian to deal with the revolt. The general came with us for the pleasure of his company, but I also intended a reconnaissance mission to the Danube and beyond. The Black Sea region is of interest as a source of raw materials, food, and manpower. It could be new province.

Competent and trustworthy, Vespasian will sail to Caesarea, assess the situation on the ground, gather troops as needed, and move against the rebels. His son Titus will serve under him as a field commander.

*

Letters from Helius arrive from Rome. They include announcements for the new year, inauguration of magistrates, sacrifices on the Capitol, and budget figures—interminable lists of names and numbers. Helius ends his personal letter with a plea.

“The political situation is tenuous, Nero. I urge you to reconsider this tour of Greece, to return as soon as possible.”

We’ve only been away for three months. Helius is conscientious and lacks ambition, the ideal combination for a caretaker, which is why I chose him. He hears muttering, thinks it is political discontent and is afraid. I dictate a reply.

“You are right to keep me abreast of things in Rome, but wrong to suggest that I return. To cancel my tour would disappoint many people here. We have arranged the year’s schedule of games, given orders for lodging, food, transport and necessities, and invited thousands to attend. We have assembled an excellent program of entertainment. Rehearsals are going smoothly. I am in training. Even the dancing girls are getting whipped into shape. The show must go on!”

*

We move to Olympia for the games next month. I am nervous, but I feel that we are prepared. With rehearsals, athletic training, chariot practice, the design of sets and costumes, and poetic composition, I am busier than ever.

In all this bustle, I do not neglect Statilia. Producing an heir is vital, as everyone reminds me. I make regular visits to her pavilion, which she has arranged to resemble a garden house. For lack of fresh flowers, she strews dried petals, hangs garlands of ivy, sprays perfume, and so on.

“I’m a city girl at heart, Nero. You knew that when you married me. I adore gardens, and there’s nothing I like better than porticoes and peristyles on a hot summer day. But camping in a tent in winter makes me appreciate the comforts of home.”

“Spring is just around the corner, my dear. Shall we?”

Our conjugal embraces are businesslike. A compliment on her dress and hairstyle, a few minutes of passion, and I am on my way.

*

In Greece, I feel free. I enjoy my male companions without the hypocritical sneers of Roman society. We do what we like here. Petronius is no longer around to jot down names and sniff with disapproval.

Pythagoras is an old friend and an experienced pederast.  He has taught me an enormous amount. He uses me like a woman, and he makes me want it. He shows me how desirable I am.

On the other hand, Calvia has graciously surrendered a young servant named Sporus. A sweet, tender, slim, delicious boy, he bears an uncanny likeness to Poppaea. That is how he caught my attention. He lies on my couch at dinner. We snuggle and share tidbits. We drink from the same cup. If our lips touch or if our hands stray, no one bats an eye. We are all men here. In Greek style, the women dine separately, in their own quarters.

“It is a consolation to have you near me, Sporus,” I say. “You are a gift from Venus. If you were a woman, I would marry you.”

*

  The new theater in Olympia is wonderful. We rehearsed in it yesterday, and the first round in the singing competition took place today. Seeing the other singers backstage, I was anxious. To their faces, I showed respect and made ingratiating comments to win their favor. Behind their backs, I cut them to pieces.  Artists behave this way. I want them to think I know the business. Before my debut, I addressed the judges.

“Reverend sirs, I beg your indulgence. I have worked hard and done all that can be done to prepare. The outcome is in the hands of the gods. Being men of wisdom and experience, you will overlook any mishaps.”

One judge told me to take heart, but the others remained silent, which made me suspicious. I performed, followed all the rules, and made no serious mistakes. I ended on a sustained high note that is not strictly traditional. They were on the edge of their seats with surprise and pleasure. They voted, and I made it through the first round. Tomorrow the stakes are raised as we perform in public.

*

Today I listened carefully to the other singers from backstage. I heard wrong notes and poor phrasing, as if they made mistakes on purpose. I followed the advice of my voice coach Terpnus.

“You can always learn something, if only what not to do.”

My turn came last. When I walked onstage, I was so nervous that I dropped my lyre. One of my guards knelt to pick it up. As he handed it to me, I placed a hand firmly on his shoulder so he would remain kneeling. That way, the judges would think it was all for dramatic effect. I started to sing faster than I intended, realized I was running out of breath, and slowed down. I made this seem deliberate, as if the words were especially poignant. When I reached the last note, I held it as long as possible. This is my trademark. It’s a bit showy, but it demonstrates breath control. The judges conferred, then announced that I won first place, the crown of wild olive leaves. What a glorious victory!

*

The athletic contests concluded today with the chariot races, the most prestigious event and the one that draws the biggest crowd. Wealthy team owners from all over Greece compete, and they hire professional drivers. Whoever wins shares the glory between sponsor and driver. My case is unique in that I fill both roles.

I performed well in the racing trials for both two-horse and four-horse chariots. The judges advanced me to the finals. Before that, just to give it a try, I raced a ten-horse chariot. This is the supreme test of skill, and I pulled it off. The course was a straightaway, as turning would be impractical. The power of ten horses was exhilarating, something few mortals can ever know.

In the final race, I was in the second lap when my chariot hit a bump, or a wheel came loose, or one of the horses pulled. At any rate, I lost my balance and was thrown from the chariot. The judges stopped the race. The attendants dusted me off and put me back in the chariot. We all started again where we left off, but after one lap I felt dizzy and we had to stop again. The judges gathered to deliberate. While they were deliberating, I sent them a message.

“In addition to the new theater, I wish to donate 250,000 drachmas as a thank offering to Olympian Zeus.”

The judges conferred and issued a ruling.

“Since none of the teams finished the race, and since he was clearly ahead when unforeseen circumstances forced an end, we declare the winner to be Nero.”

I accepted the olive crown in a daze. The cheers of the crowd sounded oddly distant. Still, I won, and that is the important thing.

*

My love for Sporus is no secret among my entourage. We are like one big family here in Corinth. Tigellinus and others overheard my remark to the boy, that if he were a woman I would marry him. They put their heads together and dreamed up a delightful surprise.

Sporus is a little vain. They convinced him that the only way for him to stay fresh and lovely was to skip manhood. In other words, he should become a eunuch. Eunuchs are common in Asia and not unknown in Greece. Castration is a simple operation. He agreed, my physician did the honors, and the result is charming. With his blond hair and milk-white complexion, and without his male organs, Sporus is more like Poppaea than ever. I now call him Sabina, which was Poppaea’s second name.

Tigellinus went farther and staged a wedding ceremony for us. Today in the presence of witnesses, with my group of musicians playing and chanting “Hymen, o hymen!” we were married. Sabina wore a dress and veil provided by Calvia from the wardrobe. I wore a short saffron tunic, lots of bangles and my Olympic crown. The Augustiani performed the role of guests, murmuring “How adorable!” and “What a smart couple!” and bursting into applause at the right moment. Tigellinus played the father of the bride, provided the dowry, and sent us off on our honeymoon.

We are staying at a suburban villa lent by a rich Corinthian, a modest place with an elegant peristyle garden. Sabina and I are like two doves, continually billing and cooing. I giggle as I write this, deliriously happy, with Sabina fluttering behind me.

*

Walking near the port with some leading citizens, I notice surveyor flags in the ground. We are at the isthmus, the neck of land that separates the Corinthian Gulf from the Aegean Sea. It is three or four miles wide at the narrowest point. Julius Caesar thought of digging a canal here, and Caligula revived the idea, but nothing came of it. Knowing of my canal in Campania, the Corinthians want to show me the place. A spokesman explains the possibilities.

“A canal will benefit shipping from the Aegean to Italy. Ships must now sail around the Peloponnesus, exposed to the hazards of the southern capes. The canal will be safer and reduce travel time. It will benefit Corinth, already a prime commercial center, by funneling more trade through its territory. And it will add to your prestige as the sponsor.”

“Why don’t you dig this canal yourselves?”

“It is too large an undertaking for one city. No other city will cooperate with Corinth out of jealousy, certainly not Athens or Sparta. And superstition opposes a violation of nature, the joining of two seas by human effort. Some say the gods will punish anyone who alters their creation.”

The Corinthians do not labor under this misconception, and neither do I. I order my engineers to study the lay of the land and draw a plan for the new canal.

*

This morning, I inaugurate the Isthmian Canal. Emerging from a tent pitched on the site, I sing a hymn to Neptune and Amphitrite, then speak to the crowd.

“The success of this project will be due to myself and the Roman people. The senate took no vote. They really do not matter anymore. Greece is my second home, and the Greek people are as dear to me as my own.”

The procurator of Achaea hands me a golden spade, and I thrust it in the earth. An odd sound comes out of the ground, like a groan or rumble.

“A minor tremor,” the Greeks say, “frequent in this part of the world. Earthquakes sometimes make a noise but no movement.”

Unperturbed, I dig three more spadesful. By this time, the sun is hot, and I begin to sweat. I throw the spade aside. Hundreds of workers are lined up, waiting to begin. I give the signal.

*

The Isthmian Games took place on schedule, within sight of the canal excavation. Like the Olympic Games but on a smaller scale, they include athletic events and races, poetry recitations, a tragedy, and an art show, which allows the potters and painters to display their wares. I took part in the artistic events as a competitor, and in the athletic events as a judge. Wrestling and boxing are my favorites. I squat close enough to touch the nude athletes. I also like to watch them run and jump, but I can’t see as well. I raced my chariot, after making sure that it was repaired, in the premier event of the games.

I won first place in all the contests I entered. This shows how well my training has paid off, and how much the Greeks appreciate excellence. The crown for these games is a branch of pine, which is appropriate. Scrub pine is all that grows in the light, dry soil here.

During my dramatic presentation of “The Frenzy of Hercules,” an incident occurred. The part called for me to appear bound, due to a fit of madness. Iron shackles would be in bad taste, so I wore golden chains. My German guard, unfamiliar with the conventions of Greek tragedy, assumed that I was in trouble and rushed to my aid. I improvised an aside in Latin, so the guard would not kill the other actors. The audience liked my quick wit. They applauded so vigorously that I had to step forward, out of character, and ask them to let the play continue.

This is the same guard who was onstage when I played the role of the pregnant Canace. I wore a mask with the features of Poppaea, but he knew it was really me. With a pillow stuffed under my tunic and my long hair streaming loose, I was pretending to be in labor. Groaning and screaming in pain, I spread my legs and pressed my swollen stomach with my hands. This fellow, impressed by my acting but ignorant of Greek, asked what was happening. Another guard said: “Hush! The emperor is having a baby.”

*

Another letter from Helius in Rome urges me to abbreviate my Greek tour, and hurry home to deal with a political crisis. Again, he does not say what the crisis is, exactly. Does he have a misplaced sense of delicacy, a lack of evidence? I reply with a list of my prizes, my concert program, and a decree of thanks from the people of Corinth. My letter ends this way.

“However much you desire my speedy return, you ought to hope that I return victorious.”

*

We traveled up to Delphi for the Pythian Games last month. This was my chance to shine, as they are devoted to poetry and music, the arts dear to Apollo. I apply myself to the task, and I come away with several crowns of laurel. These sacred leaves are more precious to me than gold. I will treasure them always.

Naturally, I visit the famous shrine of Apollo and consult the oracle. By custom, great men make an offering. To show my magnificence, I vow 400,000 sesterces. The priests express their gratitude.

The young noble priestess called Pythia breathes the fumes that rise from the cleft in the earth. She enters a trance, sways and moans, then babbles in a low voice. She becomes louder and more distinct, but I can’t make out what she says. The priests explain that the words are verses, often obscure. They write as she utters, and they interpret as needed. In the end, they hand me this:

      “Hail, Caesar! Wings of eagles hover near,

      And yet beware the seventy-third year.”

The first line means that the Roman armies support me, with their eagle standards, or that victory will continue to follow me in Greece. The second line means that I will live to a ripe old age. No important person is seventy-three except Galba, whom I appointed governor of Spain.

*

“I hate you, Nero, because you are a senator,” my dear Vatinius says. He likes to tease.

My views on the senate are known to some. Today at dinner, I air them fully.

“Stuffed with conservative old men, corroded by special interests, and weighed down by archaic customs and procedural rules, it serves no useful purpose. It does not represent the people, and I cannot trust it to support the government. If all six hundred senators disappeared tomorrow, a tiresome burden would be lifted from the state.”

*

Tigellinus through his agents investigated the general Corbulo, under suspicion for disloyalty. Despite his success in Armenia and his long record of service, family connections linked him to plots against me. His sympathies lay with the old guard of the senate. Based on Tigellinus’s report, I summoned Corbulo to Greece for a conference. I did not give an agenda or give any hint of displeasure. He complied readily.

When his ship reached Corinth, my servant met him at the dock with a detachment of the guard and handed him a message. The message was an order to commit suicide. Then and there, Corbulo drew his sword and fell on it. All he said was one word in Greek: “Worthy!”

No one can say what he meant. Realizing that the game was over, did he see self-sacrifice as a worthy deed? Or since I outmaneuvered him, that I was a worthy opponent?

At any rate, Corbulo was sixty years old, born of noble ancestors, and a consul under Caligula. He was even related to me, since Caligula married his half-sister. Under Claudius, he commanded legions in lower Germany. He then became governor of Asia. He served me as governor of Syria, and he dealt with the Parthian invaders in Armenia. Pride was his downfall. Like a figure in tragedy, he formed a high opinion of himself, and the gods cut him down.

*

Helius writes from Rome urging me to come back, the third such letter. If a conspiracy is under way, he ought to give names, something to act on. Instead, he says this.

“You have made a clean sweep of the Greek festivals. You have won everlasting glory. Nothing remains to hold you there.”

“The delights of Corinth mean nothing to Helius,” my friends say. “He has never tasted the sweet savor of victory. If he is unpopular in Rome, he has only himself to blame. He put to death Sulpicius Camerinus and his son because of their ancestral name Pythicus. They refused to renounce it after your victory at the Pythian Games. Helius interpreted this as an insult, though you made no protest.”

*

Progress on the Isthmian Canal was disappointing, as few of the local population were inclined to work on it. I could not very well force them to volunteer or draft their servants, since they are my friends. So I wrote to Vespasian to send his Jewish prisoners to Corinth. Six thousand of them arrived a few days ago. We gave them shovels, picks and mattocks, and they are digging. They have barely made a dent.

Over dinner and wine, I encourage the free flow of ideas. We could move the capital from Rome to Greece. My Greek friends are enthusiastic over this. We could move our base of operations to Asia or Alexandria. Arguably, the empire’s center of gravity lies in the east, which is richer and more civilized. We could advance into Pontus, as I originally wanted, except that the generals are busy in Judaea. We could even visit Parthia as King Tiridates suggested. We are allies now after decades of war.

I am toying with a scheme to build a new city, perhaps on the site of Troy, or at the other end of the Hellespont, near Byzantium.

“The natural harbor there is superb,” the Greeks say.

*

Helius left Polyclitus in charge and made a flying trip to deliver his fourth message in person. Eyes bulging and out of breath, as if he had run the whole way from Rome to Corinth, he bursts into my pavilion.

“Nero, I got here in seven days. I will leave at once if you promise to return.”

“Relax, my good fellow. Why are you so worked up?”

He looks around at my entourage, seeing them for the first time, and is taken aback. We are all in makeup and costume, though no performance is scheduled. We pose languidly on couches, strum lyres, and nibble on fruit. Sabina presides as the queen of my court. As Helius realizes that she is really Sporus, he represses a shudder.

“How about a stroll?” I say.

Helius and I leave the company arm in arm, with the guard a few paces behind us. Helius explains the situation in Rome.

“A prolonged absence leads to discontent, which allows some opportunist to seize power. It can be anyone. We do not need a name. People worry about the grain supply, and there have been no entertainments for over a year. These two things only you can guarantee—bread and circuses. Without them, the people cease to love you.”

“Suppose you are right?” The air clears my head, and Helius makes me uneasy.

“Romans are fickle. They love promises. And out of sight is out of mind.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you remember the Piso conspiracy two years ago?”

“I do.” A wave of revulsion passes through me.

“On the other hand, Golden House has made great progress during the past year.”

“Ah, yes. My palace.”

“You must see it, occupy it, and live as you are meant to—as Nero!”

*

“My love for the Roman people is too strong to resist. My heart is with them—it pulls in my breast. I have dallied too long in a foreign country, and now I hasten home. I invite the Greeks to Corinth for a tearful farewell, a final performance, as we reenact the Isthmian Games held six months ago. On the last day of the festival, I will make a special announcement on the future of Greece. How lucky those who live here!”

That is the statement I made today. It was read aloud to the Corinthians and sent in letters to all the Greek cities. My entourage is taken by surprise, especially Tigellinus.

“I ought to be consulted on all matters.”

“You are my dearest friend and my favorite police chief. The head of my council is Doryphorus.”

Tigellinus swallows his disappointment, while others openly sulk. Sabina weeps becomingly, like a damsel in distress. I dab her cheeks with a napkin and whisper endearments. Helius looks away, embarrassed. After a late breakfast, he departs for a whirlwind gallop back to Rome.

*

The Isthmian Games are drawing to an end—again. Once again I have won all the crowns for first place in drama, poetry, singing, and chariot racing. Menecrates, Paris, Diodorus, and the other artists traveling with me did their best.

“We know when we are fairly beaten,” Terpnus says.

Attendance is good, though my longer programs fatigue some who are not used to the demands of art.  Fainting and spasm are reported. One elderly man was carried out of the theater lying flat, looking as dead as a corpse. I had to pause in the middle of a soliloquy until they were outside, then start all over from the beginning. My orchestra and corps de ballet performed as never before, the same program they have been doing all year. This goes to show that practice makes perfect.

*

Today, on the last day of the festival, I made a formal declaration to the province of Achaea. Representatives from all Greek cities were present, as well as visitors from Asia, Sicily, Italy and Egypt. I stood in the middle of the stadium, dressed in my purple cape spangled with gold stars.

“I hereby declare the province to be free, which is to say, exempt from tribute tax to Rome.”

This news elicited a roar of approval, a thunderstorm that lasted several minutes, as men of all ranks and ages leaped to their feet, clapped their hands and shouted. When I could be heard, I continued.

“Moreover, I hereby confer Roman citizenship on all the judges who served at Actium, Olympia, Nemea, Delphi, and especially Corinth. Their impartial decisions and admirable conduct earned them this mark of favor. Finally, I make grants of money to the host cities, to defray the expenses of the games and their kind hospitality to my imperial suite.”

This announcement brought another tempest of applause. I heard myself hailed as Apollo, Heracles, Orpheus, Dionysus, and Zeus the Liberator. The Greeks are an effusive people.

The wagons were already loaded, the musical instruments stowed, and the costumes packed. Our tents had been struck. Whatever scenery and paraphernalia we could not take home was thrown in an enormous heap and torched, like a funeral pyre. The plume of smoke mixed with the cloud of dust raised by our departing train.

***

Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, Hot Metal Bridge, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Short Fiction.

*Featured artwork courtesy of the brilliant artist, Toby Penney*

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