Traveling to a far-off city, I had for company only my papers and the books that led me to this train-car. Opposite me sat a woman, smiling at the passing landscape, but between my plans and her secret joy, we paid each other no heed and never qualified as traveling companions.
More nervous now, I pulled out my books, worn by love and use, and began to review my notes. This caught the woman’s attention. I felt her gaze before she spoke.
“I thought as much,” she said, half smiling, half snarling. “Think you’re so brave, so right, don’t you, boy?”
From Baiae I write, Severus Tarentius,
to tell you things you must already know:
business is good; the weather is fine.
I have only just come from Rome,
bringing with me two new handmaids
for my dearest wife, Aurelia.
One is a Greek woman, a skilled hairdresser—
sold, I think, by our feckless Senate colleague
Syrianus, to pay his debts.
I recently beat the old goat at alea, by the way,
a victory decisive as Scipio’s at Carthage.
The other is a rather unfortunate figure,
a slave woman from deepest Germania,
driven, the trader told me, across the river
that divides our empire from their lands
by maurauding tribes out for loot and brides.
It disgusts me how
these Germanics fight among themselves.
Such suffering they cause for their own kind!
This new woman, like many others,
fled with her small child
into the arms of our legionaries
and the warm embrace of Rome.
The babe was wailing
while she was on the block.
She wailed too as we led her away.
It was really quite distasteful:
somehow, Rome’s din grew even worse.
And the smell, Severus,
I can smell it still here—like brimstone
against the salty stink of the bay
We have given her a bath.
She’ll be well taken care of now,
among civilized people.
I think I’ll call her Macaria,
for blessed is she.
What other news is there to tell…
I have met the new emperor
–long may he reign—
and I am not impressed.
Yet Caesar is always useful, though,
so long as we are useful to Him.
Gods, this table needs a new leg!
Perhaps Caesar can grant me one of those,
so I won’t be writing in the midst of a quake?
I am looking out across the bay
towards your home at Pompeii.
It is hot, but the mountain
looks so tranquil from here.
Such is the order of our lives, Severus:
empire without end,
baths and dinners,
immovable and unchanging
as Vesuvius’ peak.
-By Allison R. Shely, September 2018. All rights reserved.
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