A PROVINCE, YOU WON’T MISS
Chapter XII, where we see what is the use of being the emperor’s wife
What’s the use of being a wife of the emperor, if your husband uses any opportunity to look at other women, Poppaea thought while relaxing in a bath tub filled with jennet milk. The mosaic decorated tepidarium, the warm room of the palace thermae, was equipped with this bath tub specially for this morning routine of the queen. Not exactly the queen, she thought, annoyed. Rome does not have a queen. I am just the wife of the emperor. Just another wife instead of a murdered Octavia.
Poppaea was a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties. She already had a son from a previous marriage, and last year she had a girl, who survived barely long enough for the celebrations in her honor. After having two children, a woman has to worry about how she looks, especially if her husband can choose any woman he wants. And Poppaea did worry. The best stylists cared for her long dark hair, masseurs treated her well-proportioned body and muscles, and this milk bath was supposed to keep her skin white and tight. That’s not to mention jewelry, cosmetics, and the best dress and footwear the empire could provide for the first lady.
The morning was irrecoverably spoiled. Usually, it was the time when Poppaea gained self-confidence and a strength for the day to come. She started to take these baths following the recipe of the legendary Egyptian Queen Cleopatra to keep her beauty from aging. Whether it helped or not, it was hard to say, but it definitely helped her feel self-confident in her powers over her husband. It usually felt like the mystic powers of the legendary queen flowed inside her, giving her an influence to start wars and destroy empires.
Today, it did not feel as good. Amusingly enough, the reason for that, not to mention the husband, was her old friend named Cleopatra. Named after the queen, she was the one who told Poppaea the ancient rejuvenating secret of the milk baths. Cleopatra was only a few years older than Poppaea. She was married to a relatively insignificant and short-tempered man of a not very good origin named Gessimus Florus. He also had a reputation of being greedy and grubby in his deals, but, well, so was Tigellinus, Poppaea thought with a sneer. Not much harm for the imperial family reputation anyway.
As ill luck would have it, the culprit of her sad thoughts, Cleopatra, entered the room. She often accompanied Poppaea in the morning so the servants let her in without any questions. In fact, occasionally Poppaea allowed her friend to use the milk bath after she finished with it. Maybe that’s why my philanderer spent last evening looking at her, she thought.
“Salve, Poppaea. It’s a good morning outside,” Cleopatra said with a simple-minded, friendly expression on her face. She took off her stola, a long tunic worn by Roman matrons, and submerged into the warm water pool.
“Outside, maybe,” Poppaea answered.
“Oh, dear, is anything wrong?” Cleopatra asked.
“You,” Poppaea said, looking at her friend’s white neck, graceful shoulders, and tight, full breasts. Yes, this may be a danger, she thought. She already was accustomed to her husband having occasional sex with any woman he chose to. However, it’s one thing to have an occasional “hit and run”; having a woman who is accepted in the house and can build her influence over time is much more serious. “Yesterday my goat spent the whole evening staring at you.”
“Oh, my!” Cleopatra tossed her hands against her mouth. “I thought it only looked so to me. Poppaea, you know, I’d never think of such things. What can I do?”
“Get out of his sight for a while,” Poppaea said. Or I will get you out of his sight, she added mentally.
“Oh, my, I will,” Cleopatra said. “You know, I am not fit for politics, I simply will not survive it. They will kill my husband, and then me, when the emperor gets bored with me. Poppaea, will you help me?”
“Yes, you remember? You promised to ask the emperor if he could give my husband a good place somewhere,” Cleopatra said. “Could he give Gessimus some province? Then my husband will have to leave Rome and I will follow him and we all will be safe.”
“Yes, I remember,” Poppaea said. She really wanted to ask for this favor, but she did not want to let Cleopatra go – she was such a good companion. But now, she thought, it may be a good time. I am not cruel by nature, not more cruel than many others, she noticed mentally while starting to relax in the bath. Besides, today Cleopatra, tomorrow it could be somebody less cooperative and more dangerous. Poppaea raised her arms from the bath and looked at her white, clean skin and elegant hands. I am still very attractive and I can hold him for quite a while, she thought, but it may be really nice to have a governor of some province owe me. Just in case I have to flee the city for my life. And to have a governor whose wife owes me is even better, she concluded.
“Will you?” Cleopatra asked.
“Yes, I will,” Poppaea said. “I’ll talk to him today if he is in the right mood.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” Cleopatra said. “What do you think I should do, meanwhile? Should I go to my villa outside the city?”
“No, don’t. If you run, he will try to catch you,” Poppaea said. “Just try to be more bland, put less ceruse on your face, make a simpler hairdo. He thinks he is a great artist, so he would not pursue an artless person out of fear of being considered artless himself. And for gods sake, show some affection to your own husband. Mine thinks that’s so vulgar, he’ll walk away from you like you have plague. And in case you have other ideas…” She looked at Cleopatra and paused.
“Oh, no, I will not,” Cleopatra said. “I’ll do everything you say. Just, please, try to get this place for Gessimus. You know,” she waved her hands, “how long can I show affection for him?”
Poppaea and Cleopatra laughed in an instant. Gessimus was clearly not a dream husband for a Roman woman. He was not ugly, but almost as faded and dull as a man can be. His grubbiness in deals brought him a bad reputation, and that was not good for a career. The blunt and greedy martinet had one more serious defect that a man can have – he was neither rich nor influential.
“Did you see Grecina yesterday on the Forum,” Poppaea asked. “The old hen made a hairdo like she was trying to seduce Jupiter himself.”
“Yes, I saw her.” Cleopatra waved her hands and laughed again. “People say their nephew came to live with them for a while. He is a nice boy, no doubt, but does she have to be so obvious?”
Poppaea relaxed. At last the bath started to work as it did before. She felt self-confident and in control now. Who cares that the emperors rule the empires? As long as their wives rule the emperors, she thought with a smile. I may even allow Cleopatra to use the jennet milk bath after myself today. She is a good gal, obedient and nice. She will have a good use for her young skin among the wild Gauls, the unrefined Thracians, or the fierce Nubians, Poppaea grinned mentally. Or wherever her husband is sent, as long as it is far from Rome.
* * *
The emperor rehearsed his singing for the evening. Today was the last day of Vinalia, the six day wine-drinking festival, and he decided to treat the guests tonight with his singing. It was the middle of the day. He ordered everybody out of the garden and tried to sing a new poem, he wrote yesterday, in complete seclusion. Or almost complete. Poppaea took an active part in driving everybody out of the garden, and that left her the only privileged and benevolent spectator of the rehearsal.
The poem was terrible. He blended together the pieces of poetic exercises of his guests, who were not quite sober when suggesting the pieces. Then he connected them with clumsy verses, making the whole thing look like a Babylonian tower devoted to everything and nothing in particular. The singing was not much better either. The emperor exerted himself, hissed, produced hoarse sounds, hit sour notes, but continued.
“Splendid! Beautiful!” Poppaea exclaimed after each verse and accompanied that by exalted applause with her miniature, fine-molded palms. “Maginificent!” She looked at him with her large, lustrous eyes so sincerely that nobody would have guessed that she did not actually listen. She applauded not the singer, but the emperor. Her Emperor. The man who ruled the world and put her on the top of it together with himself. Isn’t it really splendid and magnificent? Occasionally she thought about how he would sing tonight, and how the people around him would have to praise and applaud his singing. Then she laughed so sincerely that the emperor felt like it was the highest praise an artist could get.
After a bit, he got tired and stopped.
“Beautiful! Excellent!” Poppaea applauded, with her eyes shining with joy. “You should definitely sing for the guests today. I don’t know if they deserve that, but you’re so generous.”
The emperor, red and sweaty from the effort, sat in the chair near her.
“I’ll dedicate this poem to you,” he said, trying to breathe normally. “By the way, about the guests… is your friend invited? I think her name is Cleopatra, like the former Egyptian queen, right?”
“Yes.” Poppaea put herself on guard. “I think she is. Speaking of her, could you give her husband, Gessimus Florus, a province for a couple of years?”
“Gessimus?” the emperor asked. “Why?”
“She is my friend. We talk a lot about each other’s lives, share our little secrets. She is my very good friend,” Poppaea said. She noticed with satisfaction how her husband’s face pulled at the mention of her friendship and confidence in each other’s affairs.
“I don’t know,” the emperor said. “If she goes with him, whom will you entrust your secrets?”
“You!” Poppaea said with a smile. “Of course, she will go with him. She loves him so much. She may be one of the most devoted matrons in whole Rome,” Poppaea stressed ‘matron’ as if the speech was about some elderly housewife. “Besides, they are a perfect match to each other. She is so bland and artless, and he is blunt and rude. She is a good friend, but you know…” She smiled, letting her husband finish the sentence by himself. “Of course, you know, with your taste for elegance. She is artless, such a simpleton. Oh, don’t tell me you are interested in her!”
“Sure,” the emperor said. He noticed the jealous notes in his wife’s voice, and he was not willing to admit an interest in an artless person either. “I’ll talk to Ophonius to see if we have something around for him.”
“My hero,” Poppaea said, sat at his feet, embraced his legs, and put her head on his knees.
* * *
In the evening he sang the new poem. Applause and praises were loud and continued almost as long as the poem itself. Then the emperor left the room to drink warm milk with honey to soften his overworked throat. Tigellinus accompanied him as usual.
“Ophonius,” the emperor said, coughing slightly to clear his throat. “Do you think they liked it?”
“Oh, for sure,” Tigellinus said. “You’ve heard them praising you. Only I don’t think they got why you dedicated it to Poppaea.”
“That’s my poem,” the emperor said. “I can dedicate it to whoever I want to.”
“Speaking of Poppaea, do you think we can give Gessimus Florus some province to rule for a couple of years?”
“Gessimus?” Tigellinus asked. “Why? He is grubby, thievish, and insignificant. Besides he is blunt and arrogant. He’ll make any province revolt in two years. Not that this is much of a problem, but not a reason either.”
“His wife is a good and confident friend of Poppaea. She asked me today,” the emperor said. “Besides, I just want that. Who is Caesar here?”
“Both are quite good reasons,” Tigellinus agreed without even a slight sign of mockery. “I foresee only one problem with that.”
“What’s the problem?”
“If you want to actually give something to Gessimus, you may need a province that you won’t miss,” Tigellinus said.
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