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The Gardener’s Son
Within his mother’s womb he floated, having no comprehension of sight, sound or smell, aware only of a sudden commotion outside. His entire universe was measured in inches now. His umbilical cord was his only mooring to his world. Frequently, in the midst of labor, he would rock to and fro like a tiny boat bobbing in dark waters. In spite of such commotion, however, he felt safe and secure. He was at peace with himself in the confines of his tiny home, without conflict or the knowledge of fear or pain.
Buoyed in his feral thoughts, he was, for the last time in his life, alone. The matron, to whom he was moored, carried the blood of Caesar. She was, despite her past, a Julio-Claudian: the daughter of Germanicus and the sister of the emperor of Rome. It would be worthwhile for her, if he were not a bastard, to give birth to a son. Aside from old uncle Claudius and Caligula, himself, he would have an excellent claim on the throne. She was, in spite of her adulteries and because of her mad brother’s elevation, a princess now, and yet, as far as her unborn infant was concerned, she could have been a tavern winch. If it was up to him, he would while away eternity in the ambience of her womb. But something was happening this hour that would forever change his life. Something was terribly wrong!
On the eighteenth day before the Calends of January, 790 A.U.C.*, as dawn broke upon Antium’s shore, there was commotion from within his world, as well as without. The very cavity in which he had lived for so long jiggled violently now, causing his first flicker of dismay. In anticipation of the dark days ahead, his face drew into its characteristic pout. Already, before his eyes had opened, he began sucking his tiny thumb. His twig-sized legs stirred and squat body trembled as the commotion worsened and something touched him from beyond. A familiar shrieking followed, but much louder and of longer duration than before. Not only was he being tossed about, but something was reaching right into his chamber, touching the bottom of his foot and causing the frightful noise and movement from without to worsen, until he thought his world would collapse.
Inexplicably now, at the height of the storm, he felt a numbing sensation, which made him feel sleepy and momentarily unconcerned. The movement ceased. The noise stopped. After a long pause, however, the terrible touching continued. A voice, from a long dark tunnel now reached his ears: “… It’s aimed the wrong way. I feel its heel!”
A more terrible commotion and screaming followed in which he thought he would be torn from his mooring and set adrift in this dark sea. Very soon, however, the feeling of numbness increased. The movement and sound ceased, and a long period of silence settled over his home.
After this interval, something incomprehensible began happening. For the first time in his predawn life, he was, in spite of the recent numbness, feeling pain. He was also experiencing anger at being torn from his nest. Something was clamped securely onto his legs. He began descending, quickly at this point, into the birth canal, his entire universe collapsing around him as he moved.
Into the shadowy world of his dynasty, he was drawn from darkness into light. Toward its cold glow, as a fading candle, the phenomena would reverse itself, his soul growing darker and darker after he emerged and grew into a man. For only a brief moment now, he remained unblemished, without sin, untouched by the outside world.
The second voice he would hear, a sweet lilting noise, which grew louder and louder as he was pulled out, was saying “there-there little fellow, it’s not so bad being born!”
Upside down now, after the first dark journey of his life, with his bloodied head crowning her womb, the boy, who would one day be called Nero, uttered his first cry.
Agrippina, who had been drugged heavily to lessen her pain, lie there sleeping soundly after he was extracted from her womb. The umbilical cord was cut by Minerva, and the afterbirth was placed into a jar. A special offering would be made to Juno if the mother and baby survived. To insure the boy’s health, the afterbirth would then be ceremoniously burned in the Temple of Hercules. A handsome sum would be given to its priests for offering prayers throughout the year.
At this stage, as he looked around the room, Nero was almost blind, his pale blue eyes discerning only light, shadows, and the motion of bodies, which he attached to particular sounds. The incoming voices remained unintelligible to him but no longer muffled. Each voice displayed a characteristic pattern, which could be matched to a certain speaker in the room. There were four shapes moving about: the physician Flavius Magnus, his apprentice Felix, and Claudia and Minerva (the two midwives assisting in the birth). Unless he could a focus upon a particular voice, however, they remained, as their physical shapes, a mental blur, having no more meaning to him than the commotion and gyrations felt before.
Having successively delivered Agrippina’s child, Flavius Magnus, her family’s physician, hastily sewed up her wound. Felix, at his coaxing, now placed him in Minerva’s arms.
“No deformities.” she chimed, inspecting him carefully. “… No strange markings or evil signs… He has red hair, though, and a slight cast in one eye!”
As a preview of things to come, little Nero’s voice now rose to a nerve-shattering squeal. As a consequence, the physician again signaled to his apprentice, this time to place the infant on his mother’s breasts. Almost immediately, as his mother slept, came his primal urge to nurse. A warm, tasty fluid flowed miraculously into his mouth, causing him to fall gradually asleep.
After a short nap, he perceived, though could not comprehend, a long period in which he was cleaned, powdered, and placed into a gown. Bloated with milk as he was, he then uttered his first belch. Soon afterwards, he soiled his diaper. Hastily Minerva wiped his bottom, put him into a new diaper, and placed him back onto his mother’s breasts.
While Nero was fed, Felix inspected his mother’s womb. Claudia delicately removed the bloody linen beneath, as Flavius, as gently, examined her pupils and began checking her pulse.
For only a short period of time the boy slept, roused by the delirious movements of his mother’s arms. When he had awakened again, he found himself back in the same hostile, noisy, and constantly moving world. A great bellow escaped his lungs, as his mother elbowed him in his face.
“My son,” she groaned suddenly “... let me see my son!”
“Flavius,” Felix whispered into his ear “barely an hour has passed and she’s awake!”
“Minerva,” Flavius directed the freedwoman “take him into your arms a moment until he stops crying. Make him be quiet!”
“Oh look at him mistress,” the old woman held him over her chest “isn’t he beautiful! You’ve given birth to a fine, strapping son!”
“No Minerva,” Agrippina shook her head weakly. “I’m not nursing him; it’ll ruin my breasts! I just want to see him, and make sure he’s ours!”
Raising their eyebrows in surprise, the two men exchanged dubious looks. Concern also registered on the midwives faces when Agrippina refused to nurse her child. To oblige the mistress now, a slave was summoned to find Dora, who would act as a wet nurse, since her own son had just been weaned. So she could be sure he was Domitius’ son, Flavius’ told Minerva to hold the boy up to the light. The boy’s crying only worsened as he was positioned by the lamp. Oblivious to his cries, however, Agrippina inspected him carefully as she might a piece of merchandise, not yet satisfied with what she saw.
At that very moment, as Felix drew back the curtain, dawn’s light broke through the window, flooding Agrippina’s room. As the boy was dazzled by the glow, he grew momentarily silent. Entering phantom-like, as if on cue, was also a warm sea breeze, startling the infant as it blew into his face. The final shock for Nero came when the lamps were blown out by the breeze. For several seconds, the sun’s glow seemed to set the walls on fire. A collective gasp could be heard, as the physician and his team tried interpreting what they saw.
For Claudia, who was an Etruscan, dawn’s rays were harmful for infants just born. For Minerva, however, an Egyptian freedwoman, it meant good luck, especially since he was a boy. Felix, whose father had been Druid priest, saw it as a mystery and nothing more, while Flavius, more than anyone else in the room, was visibly disturbed. Even in his logical, Greek mind, it seemed as if something supernatural had occurred. But for him, the problem was not the child. It was Agrippina’s silence and the expression on her face. She appeared to be unsure about her son. After what she said, none of them, including Minerva, could help wondering if he was, in fact, Domitius’ child.
As the old woman held him up to the light, Flavius shuddered, Claudia held her mouth, and Felix continued staring dubiously at the boy. Many citizens in Antium knew about Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus’ faithless wife. In Roman tradition, the physician recalled, a bastard, even a royal bastard, could be disposed of after birth. Flavius knew he would be responsible for this task.
The boy, they could plainly see, had the reddened, wrinkled look of all infants. The only handsome thing about him that his mother could find was his father’s red hair. Otherwise, he had a short neck, appeared bowlegged, and had a sniveling expression on his face. The infant, who seemed to be laughing at them but was in fact having a screaming fit, now filled the midwives with dread. Next to the breached birth, itself, and the ominous dawn, this was the most evil of signs. He shouldn’t be laughing so soon after birth. It might, as sunrise, bring misfortune to the boy. For the physician and his apprentice, who had seen Domitius up close, however, it was more than omens or signs. Domitius, it was true, had red hair, but so did Agrippina’s gardener and the wine merchant in town. Like her infant, Domitius also had a thick neck and appeared bowlegged when he walked, but this was true for many overweight men who rode horses and drank heavily all day.
As she lie there inspecting her son, Agrippina glanced self-consciously around the room, hoping to win approval for the boy. Fortunately for her attendants, Nero’s tantrum drowned them out. Because of this distraction, she failed to read their expressions and hear them murmuring under their breaths. The effect of the drug lingered, and Agrippina’s skin, Flavius noted with alarm, was becoming flushed. A feverish look, partially of desperation, grew on her face.
Now, as dawn waxed gold, something dark moved across the child, creeping as a phantom on the floor. It could have been the shadow of a limb blowing in the wind, but its effect was immediate in the room. Minerva closed her eyes and Claudia made a sign, as Flavius and Felix stood their groping for words.
This phenomena frightened everyone in the room, including the physician, himself. A cloudy premonition now formed in the old man’s mind as he looked from mother to child. He stood there alongside of Felix for several moments, staring into space, recalling a soothsayer in Rome:
Lo! A prodigy from the house of Julian will one day darken the world!
When he awakened from his daydream, Minerva was again changing Nero’s diaper, and Claudia was combing Agrippina’s hair. In place of the wet nurse, who had not yet arrived, Minerva used her finger as a pacifier in his mouth. With his eyes shut tightly and lips quivering, however, Nero continued bawling, his peculiar expression remaining fixed upon his face. It seemed to the midwives that he was possessed. Surely an evil spirit inhabited this boy!
For Flavius, who was not easily shaken, the greatest evil would be infanticide: a loathsome Roman custom which allowed putting infants to death. Fortunately for Agrippina and her son, neither Domitius nor any of her family members were here. In the next few days, however, they would arrive in Caligula’s entourage so the emperor could bestow his blessing upon her son. They would meet the child, hear the rumors, and see the evidence for themselves. There was no telling how Domitius might act or what her unpredictable brother would do. Caligula’s recent illness had changed him greatly. The emperor’s physician had called it a fever of the brain. When he awakened, his personality was more unpredictable than ever. He might, out of caprice, bless the child or order Domitius to run him through. He could, as emperor, do anything he wished.
Because of the facts, not the signs, Flavius felt threatened by this birth. The omens, if he could believe them, were bad enough for the boy, but used as proofs of his illegitimacy, they could seal his doom, if not by his hands, by another physician or the father himself. Unless he was acceptable in his father’s eyes, he could either be suffocated or left out in the open to die, if Caligula didn’t order Domitius to personally kill the child. The ultimate decision, of course, depended upon the emperor’s mood. According to rumors, he was quite mad. Everything would be influenced by what happened in the next few days. Agrippina must be well enough to defend herself or put on a good show. The child must act normal, and his similarities to Domitius must be glowingly apparent. Their dilemma therefore hinged on the unknown... .Was Agrippina’s child, in fact, Domitius son? If not, could she fool him into believing he was? Could Flavius, in good conscience, assist in an innocent child’s death? Would his conscience, for that matter, be worth risking his career and, quite likely, he and his assistants’ very lives just to save one misbegotten child?
As if to underline his concern, the boy began howling again, in an unnaturally loud, screeching voice. The noise stirred his mother and grated on everyone’s nerves. But the worst effect was when it disappeared entirely in breathless, inexplicable rage. He began, with a gaping mouth, to turn blue, thrashing about wildly in Minerva’s arms. A terrible gurgling followed her finger, as it retreated out of his mouth, as he struggled for breath. Quickly, to protect herself from the evil eye, she made a sign on his forehead and mumbled “Juno! Hercules! Vagitanus!” under her breathe.
At that point, as if rising from the dead, Agrippina sat up sluggishly in her bed. Her eyes were at half mass, and there was a hammering inside her head. Though she focused upon Minerva now, she was talking to everyone in the room.
“I know what you’re thinking!” she cried accusingly. “You think he’s a bastard! You don’t believe he’s Domitius’ son!”“
“No mistress.” Minerva shook her head fearfully. “I merely said a prayer, ... an old woman’s superstition, nothing more!”
“Agrippina!” Flavius held out his hands “Please lie down!”
“Yes mistress, lie down before you start bleeding!” Claudia came forward now. “Your son’s crying so hard, he’s choking on his own spit. He could have an upset stomach, maybe a little gas. He might also need a mother’s embrace. Please mistress, take him into your arms.”
“No!” she shook her head petulantly. “He wants more milk, but he’s had enough! He’s throwing a tantrum. Give him a swat! That’s right Minerva, now give him another. If that doesn’t work, give him some wine!”
As if trying to convince herself he was legitimate, Agrippina marveled at her infant’s hair: her one sure proof he was Domitius’ son. It was, she explained, a bronze color of red like his father, characteristic of Ahenobarbi men. “Just wait”, she crowed, “until he sees the evidence on his head!”
After taking turns rocking him, singing to him, and blowing air into his face, the midwives handed the infant to Dora, the designated wet nurse, who glided gracefully into the room. The slave, who had found Dora, gasped, signed against the evil eye, then hastily departed from the room. Almost immediately, though, as Dora placed her nipple in his mouth, the boy grew silent, ravenously sucking on her teat.
For several moments, in what struck Flavius as a goddess-like pose, the beautiful auburn-headed Dora nursed the child as if he were her own. Neither the physician, apprentice nor the midwives had ever seen such an appetite in one so young. Personality traits, which were already apparent in Nero, included a piercing voice, a gargantuan appetite, and the desire to have everything his own way.
“Flavius, Felix, and Claudia!” Agrippina managed to laugh. “Here’s solid evidence for you! My son, like his father, is a glut!”
Nero’s feeding frenzy required both of Dora’s breasts. When he was sound asleep, she placed him hastily into his crib before collapsing into a nearby couch. As the boy slept, Agrippina slumbered less peacefully in her bed. Flavius took this opportunity to check her pulse, stitches, and the swelling around her womb. Felix, Claudia, and Minerva likewise kept watch, hoping that the mistress would remain sleeping and give them all some peace. A slight fever followed her delivery, but other than the discomfort of her stitches and an occasional groan, she slept soundly while the physician, apprentice, and midwives held their vigil around her bed. They knew that, in Caligula’s state of mind, they might be blamed if she died. It therefore caused them great dismay when the mistress grew delirious and began muttering in her sleep.
For several intense moments, her lips moved and eyelids twitched. Flavius began working frantically to cool her down. Minerva, as directed, sponged her body with cold water. Claudia placed a cold rag on her forehead and assisted the doctor in pouring his remedy down her throat. All they could do for the time being, however, was stabilize Agrippina and make her as comfortable as possible, hoping that the potion would take effect.
As they stood watch, Nero began to stir. Flavius asked Dora to nurse him again, while he listened to Agrippina’s chest. He needed absolute quiet. Fluid had collected in her lungs, and her heart beat erratically as she breathed. Strange sounding words and sometimes whole sentences poured out of her mouth as the fever peaked, causing her attendants to perk up their ears.
“No Domitius!” she murmured, as they crowded around her bed. “Please stop!… I carry you’re son... It’s not Caligula’s or Aemilius’... They don’t have red hair. It must be yours... Don’t your remember?… You raped me, you filthy beast!”
At this point, Felix made a whistling sound under his breath and broke into a grin. “Did she do it with her own brother?” he muttered to Flavius. “Is that what Agrippina means?”
The midwives, though scandalized, also smiled as the physician dragged his apprentice into the hall.
“Listen, you young fool,” the old man said as he shut the door, “that woman is Germanicus’ daughter, a princess of Rome! She’s unconscious now, in the throes of delirium. I don’t know if she’ll survive. At any moment, however, she could awaken to catch a trio of eavesdroppers around her bed. You must at all times remain professional Felix. When you’re in this part of the house, talk only of medicine or the weather in Rome. When you’re in her room, never linger by her bed or involve yourself in her moods. Never loiter in the hall, as we’re doing now. You must always keep yourself busy here. During her early years, family intrigue and perversities occurred in this house.”
“Really?” Felix’s eyes widened.
“Yes,” he said, gripping Felix’s shoulder. “Many people know about Agrippina’s affairs. Adultery with Amelius is, in itself a scandal, but incest with her brother Caligula is quite another. What would she do if she awakened and saw you grinning like an ape? It’s bad enough she’s not sure whether or not the boy’s Domitius’ son. This is one of those dark secrets haunting her in her sleep. Agrippina was speaking from her dream world Felix! It wasn’t intended for our ears. She might have our heads for what we know!”
As they looked in on Agrippina, Minerva was sponging off her body again. Claudia had placed another rag on her forehead and began pouring Flavius’ remedy down her throat. As the age-old method of fever reduction continued, the physician motioned his apprentice back into the corridor and quickly shut the door.
“Felix,” he touched the young man’s arm “you’ve been like a son to me!”
“Yes,” Felix returned a tired smile “we’ve been together a long time.”
“I’m afraid” Flavius confessed sadly “I’ve placed your life in jeopardy by bringing you into this house!”
“Flavius,” Felix replied in wonder “before I became your apprentice, I had no life. I was a slave. You’ve been like a father to me. Because of you, I’m free, and one day, the gods permit, I’ll become a physician too!”
“Listen,” Flavius shook his head “you don’t understand! You’d be a better off at this point if you were somewhere else! You’d be safer if you had a different profession, especially this close to Rome!”
“I’m old.” he shuttered at the thought. “... Until I came to this family, I had a simple life. I trusted in the gods. My main goal was to be a great physician like Hippocrates and yet serve mankind. Instead I became a good businessman by serving the house of Julian. As I watched Agrippina and her brother Caligula grow up during Tiberius’ reign, I saw and heard things which I’ve kept locked in my soul: sick, foul, and unnatural things. I pretended not to notice them or care. Until you came along Felix, it didn’t matter what I heard or saw. I was an island in a world gone mad!”
“Now,” he looked deeply into the young man’s eyes “I’m no longer an island. I feel as if I’m in the center of a storm. It’s no longer just my neck I put on the block but yours as well. I wanted you, whom I love like a son, to one day take my place. Your life is still beginning, and yet the dark cloud, which fell over me, is upon us both.
“A storm is gathering in Rome.” the old man seemed to digress. “The sun shines brightly over Antium... but it’s the cold light of dawn!
“Claudia and Minerva thought they saw the evil eye in Agrippina’s son. That may be true. I was not present at the birth of Germanicus’ older boys. Agrippina, who I delivered in Germany, caused no trouble when she arrived. But I remember the day Caligula was born. It was in this house and in that same room. First the sun came out and then it touched him as it did today. Afterwards, for his mother, just like Agrippina, everything went wrong. The child, who was coming out feet first, had to be removed by incision. Though he didn’t have red hair, he had the same awful expression, the same pale, pitiless eyes, and the same nerve shattering bawl... He, too, laughed at the sun!
“A soothsayer, I heard in the market, predicted that a prodigy from the house of Julian would one day darken the world. He would be a singer, an actor and a poet, he claimed. He would bring us a gilded age in which a new Rome, based upon foreign influences, would be built upon the ashes of the old. I’m not sure Felix, which prodigy he meant: Caligula or Agrippina’s son. He spoke in the future tense, saying he would one day darken the world’, and yet Caligula’s shadow is already here. More importantly, I believe, are the details of his prophecy. Caligula, although crafty and glib, is not a singer or actor; he is, in fact, tone deaf and has two left feet.
“As a physician and man of science, I should ignore superstition, but here I am repeating what the soothsayer said. I was never very superstitious Felix, and yet, after all the years of service in this madhouse, I’m afraid for my life and also afraid for yours.
“That dirty blight of a man” Flavius closed his eyes “singled me out of the crowd with his staff, as if I had control over Julio-Claudian affairs. I’ll never forget his long silver-streaked beard, gray eyes, and the way he talked. I’m half convinced he was talking about Agrippina’s son!”
After watching Felix’s face break into a smile, he felt the warmth of the young man’s hand neutralizing the cold and darkness he felt inside. “Tell me,” he heard him ask gently “what frightens you most now? Caligula? Agrippina? . . Or the infant born in that room?”
“... Until this morning,” Flavius answered hesitantly “it was Caligula... I still can’t believe he’s emperor of Rome. Today, after delivering Agrippina’s son, I’m not sure. I dread the prospect of him not being Domitius son. We both know what that means... He could be killed outright, but so could we Felix for what we’ve learned. It may be a lot more lethal for us, in fact, if he lives! ... Considering he’s legitimate, can I honestly expect Caligula to thank me for delivering another rival to the throne? ... For that matter, will Agrippina, in spite of our aid, destroy us for what we know?”
“This morning” the old man confessed wryly “I found myself frightened by Germanicus’ daughter... I allowed myself to be intimidated even by her son! In spite of all my medical knowledge, I felt the same evil eye that bewitched the midwives and the slave who brought Dora to Agrippina’s room! From a mere babe Felix, barely out of the womb!
“I don’t believe that Caligula’s good behavior will last.” the physician shook his head. “He is, in spite of his play-acting, not a Caesar. It’s hard to believe he’s even Germanicus son. Like his predecessor Tiberius, he’s a beast. He appears to be mad. But other fears weigh on me Felix, growing each hour I linger in this house. I wonder if Agrippina will live. I wonder what will happen to her baby if he’s not accepted as Domitius’ son... With the same feeling I had when Caligula was born, I also wonder, as I look down at her infant, if I’ve brought another monster into the world!”
While her son slept, Agrippina waged a war in her sleep. Armed with Flavius’ remedy, her will to live battled with her affliction, while a nightmare played inside her head. This, her first life and death struggle, was unseen by the world, and yet it was fought with the same dauntless, ironclad will that had allowed her to survive Tiberius’ reign. Reluctantly, she had born a son and, without knowing it yet, given birth to her life’s greatest cause: Nero, who for the time being, remained nameless, fatherless, and unwanted by the princess giving him life.
Agrippina had suffered much because of him. From the moment she discovered she was pregnant, her life had become a living nightmare, which was worsened by her brother’s elevation to the throne. The dream she was now having was therefore filled with both childhood themes and pent-up fears for what lie ahead. She began to relive the most unpleasant episodes of her life, from her mistreatment at the hands of young Caligula, through the terror of Tiberius’ reign, up to the present week of expectation and dread.
Presently, as the midwives looked down with concern at her, her eyelids fluttered and lips trembled. Memories, disguised as dream imagery, had replaced the murky and muted landscape in her mind. A familiar anxiety filled her as the nightmare unfolded in her brain.
The characters in her dream were drawn from various periods of her life. The plot was a blend of historical events in a setting that included scenes from her childhood in Germany and Syria and those terrible years in Antium and Rome during Tiberius’ purge. The same themes of torment, guilt, and grief would be dealt with again. Central to her dream, as it had been throughout her pregnancy, would be Caligula, Tiberius, and her husband Domitius: the dark trilogy of both her past and present, which always began and ended with Caligula, who continued to torment her even as she slept.
Suddenly, as if her ears had been unstopped and vision restored, the fog cleared and a surreal patchwork of buildings and scenery from her past appeared. Mental impressions of Germany, Syria, Antium, and Rome, forever stored in her memory, loomed all around her, making it impossible to know where she was.
She could see the toga clad bodies of both friends and enemies moving toward her in a grand procession. They had spotted her. Even at a distance she could discern Tiberius at the forefront. Walking next to him, beside his favorite horse Cincinnatus, was Caligula. Behind them were members of the Julian, Claudian, and Ahenobarbi houses, including Augustus, who walked arm-in-arm with his wife Livia, Augustus long dead son Postumus (executed after his father’s death), Tiberius’ son Drusus, who, like Augustus, had been poisoned by his wife, her own parents (Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder) and older brothers—all murdered during Tiberius’ purge, and the living representatives of the Ahenobarbi approaching on opposite ends of the field: her husband Domitius (in his chariot) and his sister Domitia Lepidus (being escorted by two Nubian slaves).
Claudius walked alongside of his wife Messalina but was busily looking through one of his scrolls. All around these aristocrats were several famous senators and knights, who had been victims of Tiberius purge, including the emperor’s henchmen, himself, Sejanus, and countless patricians whose faces Agrippina could not yet place.
Living and dead, friend and foe alike mixed happily together in a great multitude of faces and bodies, the light-hearted hum of their voices disturbed at times by the mad laughter of Caligula, cackle of Livia, and demented guffaws of Tiberius as he led the way.
She stood on top of a hill that overlooked her past. Although the surrounding landscape reminded her of Germany, a distant shaft of sunlight fell on the Circus Maximus and Forum of Rome. There were dark trees the color of the Black Forest as a backdrop. The sky was overcast as it often was on the Rhine, and she could see the wooden fortifications built by Roman legions on the frontier. But there was also a volcano, very much like Vesuvius, spewing an ominous trail of smoke and, in addition to scenes from Germany and Syria, several other strange unRoman settings she had seen in Egypt, Africa, and Spain.
The blend of Eastern, barbaric, and Graeco-Roman architecture and scenery was made all the more confusing by the images popping up randomly in her dream. Camels browsed in wheat fields alongside of elephants, sheep, and goats. Pyramids were silhouetted in the horizon beside a monolith, which looked like the Colossus of Rhodes. A fanciful mixture of long necked peacocks, giant dormice, and multicolored apes also appeared in her dream.
Normally this would have intrigued Agrippina, but her main concern now was the crowd. Marching toward her, in a great sea of humanity, were the people from her past. At least half of them, she estimate, had been murdered during Tiberius’ reign. Many of these ghosts, including her own family, floated ethereally over the ground, while others, such as the deceased Tiberius behaved as he had in life. Most of the patricians seemed mildly curious or laughed and pranced like children across the field.
Several members of the crowd, she had already noted, were doing what they loved best. Domitius was cracking his whip and riding his chariot, a vehicle he had once used to run down a child. His sister Domitia, while eating from a cluster of grapes, was suddenly stripped to the waste, allowing her slaves to fondle her breasts.
Claudius, her favorite uncle, was, of course reading while his immature bride scampered beside him, his nervous tick in full motion as he followed the crowd.
Livia, who Claudius believed, poisoned Augustus, was berating him about something he said, while Tiberius had found a young girl to caress, and the emperor was in an animated discussion with his horse.
It might have been amusing to Agrippina if she had been in a different frame of mind. With the memory of her son’s birth in her mind, however, she looked around expectantly at this scene, her ear craned and eyes scanning, as if searching for a certain voice and face.
As always, the meaning of her dream escaped her. She could not fathom its symbolism or understand its plot. The flora, fauna, and geography were constantly changing. Even the people, the only constants in her dreamscape, changed noticeably from time to time: Caligula transformed back and forth into a child, adolescent, and young adult; Augustus appeared at times the dashing image of his statues, while Livia grew even older into a toothless, crotchety old hag.
By the time the crowd had come any closer, Domitius had ran over several pedestrians, Domitia had fornicated with her slaves, and Tiberius’ victim had escaped.
A stream, which was the color of blood, now flowed around the hill and into the valley beyond, barring passage to the crowd, but inspiring members to stand at the water’s edge and beckon her to cross.
“Come over! Join us!” Caligula called.
“Yes,” Tiberius and Livia cried simultaneously “Join us child!”
“Absolutely not!” she screamed. “Why can’t you leave me alone? I know what you want. You want someone to laugh at. You’d do anything for sport. You watch men and wild animals kill each other in the arena while eating fine foods and drinking expensive wines. Blood doesn’t bother you, and yet natural love between a man and a woman outside of a degrading marriage does!” “Shame on you! All of you!” she wrung her finger, not daring to call out names.
“You, who have no shame, dare look down on me?” she pointed to Domitia and several of her friends. “You’re hypocrites, all of you, for what you say about me! You, who fondle young boys and girls or those of the same sex, criticize me for indiscretion.” “You,” she flashed Caligula and then her husband a frown “who talks to his horse, dare question my judgment? And you who bedded his own sister dare act as my judge?”
“Shame on you and you and you!” she glared at Tiberius, Livia, and old Augustus, who gave her a startled look. “You should have cleaned up your own houses before looking into mine!” “Over yonder is the Circus Maximus.” She pointed angrily. “I’m sure you can find plenty of entertainment there! I’m not coming over this time. Leave me in peace! I’m through playing this game!”
“Come to us Agrippina!” She heard her husband Domitius’ voice.
“I’ll protect you!” she heard Ursos, her gardener call.
It was as if they had not heard a word she said. After listening to several more calls, Agrippina turned her back on the multitude and folded her arms. In an attitude of defiance, when she heard dozens more voices asking her to cross, she put her fingers in her ears and shut her eyes.
“I won’t cross over! I won’t!” she stomped her foot and began racing toward the other side of the hill. “Not this time! Not ever! I’m a princess now. If my father was emperor, I could have you all put to death!”
It had almost become a ritual for Agrippina, spoken each time she was asked to cross. She never once took her role as imperial princess seriously. But this time, due perhaps to her fever, she felt a greater rush of power. She didn’t have to escape. The hill on which she stood was her domain. They could not cross the stream or they would have done so by now. Dashing back to top of the hill, she began hurling insults directly at Tiberius now, whom she called a pederast and murderer. She also attacked her husband’s infamy, her sister-in-laws lechery, but stopped short of calling the living emperor Caligula, himself, an infamous murderer and lecher too.
She was also irritated with her parents. They both just stood there glumly beside their two dead sons, as others beckoned her to cross, as impotent to help her in death as they had been in life. As always, she waited for the protective hug from her mother that had rarely ever come. Equally, she missed the embrace of a father she never got to know. In spite of her frustration with them, she paused briefly to flash them a smile.
Directing her insults to all those patricians who had wronged her in her life, she made a sweeping motion with her arms.
“My friend Seneca said you’ve become a race of perverts and sycophants. Look at you!” she shouted with disgust. “I would rather have been born a plebeian, with their honest, forthright values, than be part of this bunch. You’re all liars, cheats, and hypocrites. None of you, except my Uncle Claudius and parents, have ever done an honest day’s work in your life!”
Across the water, as she babbled, the same wooden bridge appeared. But this time to her wonder, a red-haired boy ran passed her, running down the hill, and over the bridge, calling “Mother! Mother! Come over! Join us! Our destiny waits!”
Agrippina’s angry expression now changed to slack-jawed awe.
“Destiny!” she marveled at his claim. “What destiny is this?”
In previous dreams, he had been featureless, a cloudy blur, always disappearing into the crowd. She had hated him for shattering her peace of mind. But this boy, who had plagued her for nine months, ran in slow motion. She saw his face and body up close. He was tall, fair skinned, and had red-hair like his father Domitius, the gardener Ursos, and the wine merchant from Rome. Even her dour-face parents and older brothers turned in amazement as he passed.
The change in theme was like the rays of light on the Forum. Into this surreal setting, he radiated: a clarion call in a mindless chatter of voices, a bright visage in a mad, fuzzy dreamscape that, up until now, made no sense at all.
The stream, she now told herself, had been a reminder of Tiberius bloody reign, a dynasty in which she was trapped. Perhaps, Vesuvius, which like Germany, was geographically misplaced, implied trouble ahead.
The boy, who had been her unborn son, had again passed over the bridge to become lost in the crowd, stabbing her conscience each time he appeared in her dream... But now, as the “red-haired boy”, he now had an identity. It was up to her to seek him out, as she had before. Perhaps this time she would her from his own lips learn who had fathered her son. Now, however, the field had been reduced to three men: Domitius, Ursos, or the wine merchant from Rome.
Gone as quickly as it came was her caution and resolve.
“Little red-haired boy! Come back!” she cried belatedly, running recklessly toward the bridge.
As though her face was close by, she could hear her mother’s voice whisper sternly into her ear “Let him be child. Let him find his destiny on his own!”
As before, her mother’s warning went unheeded, as she ran down the hill, crossed the stream, and plunged into the crowd on the other side.
As the crowd parted, Agrippina whooped with joy. Her initial happiness at seeing the color of her son’s hair, flooded like tonic back into her mind. She knew she was fortunate to have a red-haired boy. Her husband had red hair. Everyone would see this and, in spite of Domitius’ doubts, believe he was their son... Everyone, that is, except the people that counted. Her husband, her sister-in-law Domitia, and her demented brother may not be so easily fooled.
At this point, as she ran through the crowd, she felt more confident than she ever had before. The rumors she suffered before would not become accusations. With such evidence before their eyes, they would have to accept the red-haired boy as her child... At least, this is what Agrippina believed as she continued searching the crowd.
An ornate Roman fountain, similar to one they owned in Syria, appeared directly in front of her, spouting a sparkling geyser of water from the central fount. Several members of the audience reached out to her, pulling at her dress and hair. Though they had been unable to cross the stream, she was on their side now. With the fountain blocking her passage, they closed ranks around her, making it impossible for her to retreat.
Something dreadful was happening to her now. She was moving into a little girl phase of her nightmare. She could feel herself shrinking before their eyes. She found herself looking up into their leering faces. Everyone, except her parents, Ursos, and her Uncle Claudius, who stood forlornly in the background, were waiting for the show.
“Let me pass. Let me find my son!” she demanded in a high-pitched child-like voice.
Many of them laughed at her brashness. A few even reached down and patted her head.
She knew, without knowing how she knew, what to expect. They would, as she began reliving episodes from her childhood, laugh and point at her as she asked about her son. She was an outcast and pariah in her dream and the center of everyone’s jokes.
“Oh look,” Calpurnius Piso, one of her father’s enemies, exclaimed, “There’s little Agrippina. What would Germanicus think of his daughter now?”
“The gods’ know,” Piso’s wife tittered. “Perhaps he’d cut off her head!”
In the real world, Agrippina would have responded to such an affront. But this was not the real world; it was a dreamscape, based upon Agrippina’s conscience and inhibited fears. Here, she could not hide or manipulate the truth. At this point, trapped in a child’s body, she felt confused. Despite the indignation she carried even as she dreamed, she also felt vulnerable. In her nightmare, she was either a naughty, willful child, a spoiled teenager, or a reprobate adult. At times, as shown by Piso and his wife, she might be looked upon as all three.
In this dream, however, the cycle of moving back and forth from a youngster, to a promiscuous teenager, and then an adult still pregnant with her son, had been broken. Her son had been born. Her moment of truth had come. She felt somehow liberated, but also more afraid because of the greater scrutiny in the crowd.
The “pregnant adulteress” theme had been replaced with the “bastard son” theme, which she experienced as both an adult and a child. The plot, which had been predictable in the past, was changing before her eyes. Her own parents, normally staring blankly into space, were frowning disapprovingly at her now. Not only was she a social outcast, but so was her child, who, at this point, didn’t even have a name. He was simply the “red-haired boy”. His very presence was both an indictment against her and yet, she wanted to believe, irrefutable proof that he was Domitius son.
Finally, amidst the amused expressions of her audience, she again saw the face of the red-haired little boy. He had blue eyes like Domitius but also like Ursos and the wine merchant Archelaeus, who all had the same color of hair. Beyond the circle of spectators, sitting in his chariot and holding his whip, was her husband Domitius, who had an angry scowl on his face.
In spite of her previous euphoria, a familiar fear gripped her now, as she spotted her husband in the distance and then Caligula standing in the crowd.
“There she is Caesar,” she heard Domitius Lepida’s nasally voice “Agrippina, the mother of whores!” “Tell me dear,” she was looking down at a diminutive Agrippina, who had just wet her pants. “How are you going to explain this to Caligula and Domitius? Do you really think they’re going to let your bastard live?”
“No! No!” she wept, rubbing her eyes. “I didn’t do anything wrong! It’s Domitius child; it’s not the gardener’s son!”
Suddenly, from the outside world, Agrippina heard voices.
“What did she say?” Agrippina heard Felix, the physician’s apprentice, ask.
“Felix, I heard Felix,” she cried hopefully, looking passed Domitia into the crowd.
“She’s delirious. She’s talking nonsense now. We must disregard what she says!” Flavius was heard to reply.
“Flavius! Dear Flavius!” she cried.
She also heard the comforting voices of her midwives, cooing to her, offering encouragement, and attempting to allay her fears. Unable to see these comforting links to the outside world, however, she remained trapped in her dream.
A golden haired little boy, whom her father’s troops had affectionately called Little Boots (Caligula), now stepped forth into in her dreamscape, as he had those many years ago in Germany and Syria. But this time Caligula did not sneak up on her or lie in wait behind a bush, as he had in previous dreams. This time he did it out in the open. He had an audience watching from all sides, as if a play was being presented on stage.
Augustus and Tiberius who had hated each other in life, stood cheerfully side-by-side. Not far away from them stood her parents, Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus, and her two older brothers Nero and Drusus—all of which Tiberius had either directly or indirectly put to death. Mingling into this ghostly entourage was that same mixture of living and dead patricians, including Tiberius’ mother Livia, her husband Domitius, his sister Domitia, and, last but not least, the grown-up emperor Gaius (Caligula), who was laughing at this reenactment of his life.
In spite of the fever wracking her body, she felt chilled by these people. Most of them were her enemies. Despite her subconscious urge to reach out to the voices of Flavius and his staff, she was unable to awaken this time. She would have to play her part until the end.
As her physician and his staff looked on, helpless to rescue her from her dream, Agrippina hovered in a coma, her high fever further altering its plot.
Caligula began to do in public, to the applause of her enemies, what he most often did when no one was around: torment Agrippina. This time, she sensed, no one would protest or intervene. They had another spectacle to watch.
There had been a limitless range of tortures inflicted upon Agrippina when their parents were gone. Now, during this bizarre nightmare, she was experiencing a combination of several ordeals.
First, Caligula ran at her with noose in his hand, with the notion to hang her on a nearby tree. He had tried before, she recalled, but this time, he actually got it around her neck and began yanking on the rope.
Not knowing that, in her illness, she was suffering congestion, and the sensation of being hanged was actually fluid collecting in her lungs, Agrippina kicked her little legs and thrashed her arms wildly, managing, despite Caligula’s persistence, to pull the rope from her neck, drop to the ground, and flee.
She had not been frightened this time so much as outraged that no one would help. For some reason her sisters, Livilla and Drusilla, always supportive in her dreams, were not in this episode. The deceased members of her family had deadpan looks on their faces, behaving very much like what they were: ghosts, from the land of the dead. Augustus, who normally hung back with a scowl on his face and looked upon his grandson with disdain, was grinning approvingly this time. Tiberius, who was also a ghost, seemed almost demented, giggling sadistically at her plight.
Among the living were her sister-in-law Domitia and her husband Domitius, who continued to look on supportively as the emperor egged little Caligula on.
Next, after a series of petty acts of mischief and mayhem, she began to have a replay of the day he tried setting fire to her hair, but this time, she could feel the flames on her gown, as she dove into the fountain nearby. There was no pain, not even the sensation of heat. There was only a terrible anguish now, especially since her mother, father, and older brothers would not intervene.
“I’m glad you’re dead!” she cried bitterly. “You never supported me while you were alive!” “And you” she pointed accusingly at her father “where never there!”
“Mother’s little mistake!” Little Boots began chanting, after trying unsuccessfully to dunk her in the fountain. “You don’t even look like our father or mother. You’re a bastard. So’s your son!”
“That’s a lie!” she cried, breaking free and running into the crowd.
“Mother’s little mistake!” the audience chimed.
“No-o-o-o!” Agrippina mumbled aloud from her dream world. “Domitius has red hair. So does our wine merchant Archelaeus. You can’t prove he’s the gardener’s son!”
“Shut up!” She heard Flavius cry. “Merciful gods, Agrippina, shut up!”
It was one of her voices again. She looked up to the darkened surreal sky, as if commuting with the gods. For Agrippina who was confronting her worst fears and fighting for her life, however, the voice of Flavius and the sounds of the apprentice and midwives asking him what she meant were far faraway.
In the period following, she relived later chapters of her life, including her family’s voyage to Syria, which was, in itself, a painful ordeal. Caligula was especially naughty aboard their ship, playing several pranks on she and her sisters, until they reached port. For some reason, as they disembarked, Agrippina took a magical detour from this episode and wound up back in Rome.
There, as a young budding women, she relived portions of her life, a smile breaking her fevered face. In her delirium, she spoke the names of many of her lovers one by one, but it was still too muffled for anyone to hear. Then she called out Ursos name, as one particularly delightful tryst filled her mind
By now the physician, apprentice, and midwives realized that the gardener, wine merchant, or anyone else in Agrippina’s shady past could have fathered her son. As the others craned their ears, however, only Flavius knew of the sheer magnitude of her adulterous and sordid past. For him her ill-timed confessions came as no surprise.
In her dream, as a young adult, she experienced imagined rather than historical terrors, such as a fictitious episode in which her husband Domitius beat her after catching her with Ursos, the gardener with red hair. Afterwards, her grandmother Livia, who had always hated her, cackled madly as Domitius laid on his whip. Soon, as Domitius’ hand grew tired, all of her relatives, living and dead, watched as Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula (Rome’s first three emperors) took turns beating her with her husband’s whip.
In spite of the sound of the lash as it connected with her flesh, she could not feel physical pain. She had also not felt pain when she was being hung and after being set on fire. This time it was almost humorous, as the ends of the whip fell on her bare skin like wet seaweed, breaking off after each encounter and falling onto the floor.
Also hovering comically throughout her dream were the disembodied and leering heads of Domitius, Ursos, and Archelaeus, the wine merchant—reminders of both her adulteries and resulting pregnancy—any one of which could have fathered her son
Finally, in a new dreamscape, just when her uncle Tiberius and grandmother Livia had bound her hands and feet and were ready to throw her off a cliff, her mother Agrippina the Elder appeared. Reaching out to her in what seemed to be a protective embrace, her mother appeared to be rescuing her from her attackers, until a frown grew on her face.
The senior Agrippina, as had others before her, began berating her for her immoral, slothful ways. As the backdrop of potential fathers, which included Caligula himself, continued to float as spirits in her dream, her mother’s hug turned into an angry embrace. Agrippina the Elder shook her violently, spat insults into her face, and then began pummeling her with her fists. But Agrippina’s body remained numb, feeling only emotional pain, her encounter with her dead mother, as she withdrew into the darkness, leaving only sadness in her mind.
As the midwives sponged her body, the apprentice felt her pulse, and the physician poured more remedy down her throat, another chapter of her life began to untangle as she slept. Darkness began to fade as daylight slowly returned, finding her two oldest brothers lying dead on the floor, starved and emaciated, so that their skin stretched as leather over their bones. Even worse to behold was a glimpse of her mother, who, half-starved herself, appeared horribly beaten, and lie in a pool of blood.
She found herself surrounded by ghosts now. Along with countless friends and associates murdered during Tiberius’ reign, rippling amongst them as reflections in dark water, were members of her family. Germanicus, her mother Agrippina, and their two older sons reached out mutely to her, fading into black as if the candle that had radiated them had suddenly died.
A scream begin to build up in her throat. The death of her father and her brothers had been bad enough for her, but the murder of her mother had left Agrippina and her sisters Livilla and Drusilla at the mercy of Caligula for several years.
Her uncle Claudius once told her that it was Caligula who had poisoned her father. He had heard him boast that Germanicus had eaten the food of the gods. This statement, Claudius had believed, could mean only one thing: Germanicus food had been poisoned by Caligula himself, probably at the instigation of Tiberius’ agent Calpurnius Piso but most certainly on orders from the emperor, himself. With the death of Germanicus, her mother and two older brothers had been left to Tiberius’ mercy, suffering dreadful fates, all because Little Boots had placed poison in his father’s food.
A loud wail filled her dream world, ending as a mere moan in her throat. As darkness descended, she collapsed as a broken marionette, weeping piteously for herself and her family.
“There-there mistress!” Claudia’s voice lilted into her ears. “You’re just having a bad dream. Soon you’ll awaken and find you have a brand new son!”
“Poor dear! Poor sick soul!” Minerva wrung her hands.
As her Uncle Tiberius and Caligula reappeared, she saw her father point accusingly at them as they walked her way. She could hear them arguing as they turned away from Germanicus, who, as a mere ghost, could not be heard or seen. When she remembered that Tiberius was dead too, she laughed hysterically to herself as her father disappeared and her uncle and brother approached.
As if he had not murdered most of her family, Tiberius seemed delighted at seeing her again.
“Look Caligula!” he cackled. “There’s your little sister Agrippina! She’s all grown up now. Look at those melon-sized breasts! Agrippina! Agrippina! Give your grandfather a kiss!”
“Leave me be!” she whimpered, rising shakily to her feet.
“The little whore mated with one of her slaves,” Caligula informed him. “I think it’s high time we have a talk with this slut!”
“Are you pregnant Agrippina?” Tiberius frowned down at her. “We must protect the family name!”
“Oh, she’s pregnant all right dear uncle.” Caligula responded wryly. “I thought it might be mine, but then I was told he had red hair!”
“You filthy, uncouth beast!” Tiberius shook his head yet managed to laugh. “You condemn her after raping her yourself!”
“Oh, I didn’t rape her uncle!” Caligula lied, patting Tiberius’s back. “Did I Agrippina?” He reached out to her now. “Agrippina gave in. Agrippina always gives in willingly after awhile. Don’t you sister?”
“The baby’s my husband’s!” she cried out. “He has red hair, just like his father!”
“So does Ursos, your gardener.” Caligula smiled malevolently. “And, if I remember correctly Domitius was away from Italia at just about the time your slave planted his seed!”
“Caligula,” Tiberius said venomously “I think it’s time we find Domitius’ whip.”
“Whip, nothing! I think it’s time to get my sword!” Caligula swore. “I’m going to stop this disgrace once and for all! So help me uncle, I’ll kill them both!”
A sudden detour into the past now followed which found Agrippina, still a young woman, running down a long, dark corridor, opening a door, and finding herself in her own room. Her brother and cousin Aemilius had been taking turns molesting her younger sisters, but claimed they had been waiting just for her. Agrippina had, as her sister Livilla, fought to no avail as her attackers pinned her down. Rape was nothing new to her mind. Domitius had raped her often enough in the past. Caligula and Aemilius had tried to seduce her several times. But this particular ordeal, which forced she and her sisters to perform incest with her brother and cousin, would forever warp her perspective toward men.
As they withdrew as jackals after a feast, she lie there weeping alongside of Livilla and Drusilla. For some reason in the dream version of her ordeal, Messalina, Claudius’ young wife, was also on the bed, laughing sadistically at her grief. Also incredible to her in her dream state was Drusilla’s behavior. The real life Drusilla, she recalled, had enjoyed being deflowered. Although he had not been present originally, Uncle Claudius stood helplessly in the background shaking his gray head in despair.
As if some inner voice told her it was time to move, Agrippina found herself rising naked from the disheveled bed and running back down a corridor that seemed to lead nowhere, until she came to another door.
After opening the door, she had arrived in her bedroom in Antium, the city in which she currently lived. There seemed to be no place where she could hide. Quickly, as she heard commotion all around her, she threw on a robe, biting her knuckles so she wouldn’t scream.
At this time, a familiar figure from her recent past appeared, which sent another shock wave through her brain. Ursos, the gardener with red hair, wrapped in chains, was thrust into her room. Behind him she heard Caligula’s whiny voice. He was calling Agrippina an adulteress and accusing Ursos of fathering her child. From the shadows, while Ursos knelt in the light, he appeared, lifting his oversized sword into the air.
Flavius, her physician, who appeared suddenly in her dream, stood by helplessly to the side now as Caligula, with all his meager strength, whacked cut off Ursos’ head. In the outside world that same Flavius and his staff could hear Agrippina mumbling feverishly about Ursos, Caligula, and her unnamed son.
Into the picture and her dream her father Germanicus reappeared as a radiant demigod. In defense of his daughter finally, as she had hoped, he unsheathed his own sword and slew Caligula and Aemilius but let her son, the red-haired, blue-eyed youth she had seen in the crowd, escape.
“My brother! Where is my brother?” he cried, running into the orchard where Ursos worked.
Her dreamscape was filled with dubious symbolism, but now it was beginning to make sense. From the surreal panorama of the places she visited as a child, until the red-haired boy’s reference to his brother, she had encountered mostly nonsense. Bizarre animals had mingled together in a senseless hodgepodge of actual and make-believe species. A distorted yet familiar architecture filled the landscape in a jumbled mosaic of Roman, Eastern, and German forms. Egyptian Pyramids sat next to a giant colossus, while a volcano belched smoke into sky.
Playing on this strange, nightmarish stage, were the countless people who, for good or evil touched her life. At times, to her disapproval, Her ghost-like parents, uncles, aunts, and friends walked arm-in-arm with her enemies. Augustus and Tiberius, who were both deceased, and Caligula, who had been a mere toddler when Augustus died, acted like colleagues, all three emperors appearing to be ruling at the same time.
This pattern for all her dream images, in which the dead and the living mingled happily together, defied history. Time did not exist in here. Space had been warped into a geographical puzzle in which all the pieces had seemed to be scattered by the gods.
Behind her father’s shadowy figure, as if the walls to her chambers melted away with dawn, the panorama she had seen before now reappeared. Vesuvius, which had been dormant for so long, now erupted full force, and yet it had no effect upon the inhabitants of the city below.
Such symbols as the stream, which was the color of blood and the volcano erupting in the distance made her think that something evil was going to occur. There were other symbols in her dream that made no sense at all and made her wonder if she, like her brother was going mad. But the red-haired boy’s cry “Mother! Mother! Come over! Join us! Our destiny waits!” made her believe that something good was about to begin for her. Was it the birth of her son? Was it something he was going to do? ... She had felt an intuitive feeling for months now. It was as if her luck was going to change... Were their destinies really intertwined?
Now her dreamscape was bringing her up to the present, providing her with a glimpse of Ursos being murdered by Caligula, of course—who else? and the news that her red-haired son has a brother. “Splendid!” Agrippina cried, laughing hysterically in her sleep.
But the greatest image in her dream came last, when he was least expected, bringing the most dreaded portent of them all.
As she looked past her father, who stood motionless for several moments holding his sword, she saw the people from her past. A great gathering of spirits, most of them murdered during Tiberius’ reign, floating in a disembodied wave toward her villa. This time it was minus the dark prince, shadowy husband, and other ugly images of her life... At the forefront of this multitude was the red-haired boy, wearing a purple robe and wearing a golden crown.
“No, this is a joke!” she gasped with disbelief. “My son, who is a bastard, can never rule Rome. It would’ve been better had he never been born!”
“If your brother can be emperor,” Germanicus spoke for the first time “ anyone can!”
“Father!” she held out her hands.
“Beware of the red-haired boy!” he said, pointing his sword at her. “... And beware of the gardener’s son!”
Not quite understanding what he meant, she looked up fearfully at her father, who had just executed his own son, contemplating his enigmatic frown.
Looking with pity on Agrippina, who had only known him a short while, Germanicus stood there glowing in his breastplate and cape, his bloody sword dripping on the floor, saying “My poor daughter! With such a sword, your son will one day slay you!”
Upon this ominous note, Agrippina ran shrieking into the shadows, her delirium again reaching the audible range. This time, as her fever reached a peak, only unintelligible driveling poured out of her mouth.
To her attendants, she had the look of death. For several moments her lips and eyelids stopped moving, as Agrippina seemed bound for the land of the dead. Her breath flowed thinly, her chest rattled with an ominous wheeze, and she ceased mumbling under her breath. The room was deathly quiet. All movement in and about Agrippina’s body abated, as she remained trapped in the shadow of sleep.
As Agrippina slept, she embarked upon another nightmare: a vision of damnation that would become her darkest dream. As her temperature soared, darkness crashed upon her dreamscape, blotting out intelligent thought, allowing her only a vague awareness of her life as she drifted into the black void of death.
The sundial in her garden, which her father brought from Greece, moved slowly from late morning, passed noon, into early afternoon.
When the potion began taking effect and Agrippina’s temperature began to fall, she felt as if she was in a great dark tunnel, floating on the River Styx. Far away, at the end of the tunnel, there was a radiance, muffled voices, and figures silhouetted against the glow.
She could hear the Ferryman on her barge moving his oar to the right and left, as he navigated the Styx, his shadowy form moving silently in the dark.
As they came closer and closer, the bodies, which seemed so animated, appeared to be wreathing or dancing in the light. From such a great distance, she could not tell whether or not they were singing or wailing, happy or sad, but was reminded of a word she had heard recently in Rome... hell.
With the memory of this word, Agrippina remembered the circumstances in which she heard it and felt a prickling at the back of her neck.
She was at a banquet celebrating the emperor’s good health. Similar to Agrippina’s condition, he had fallen into a dark, shadowy sleep. The reason for his illness was never discovered. It was suggested by Claudius in a recent letter that it might have been a disease of the brain that caused his high fever. But his illness had been kept a secret so well that not even her own physician Flavius had known. Her uncle also claimed that Caligula had remained cloistered in the palace and would see no one except his sister Drusilla and a few close friends. No one, not even Claudius, had known of its effect upon his personality or that a banquet would be thrown when the emperor was well enough to attend.
Agrippina had left the capital during Tiberius’ reign and now an outsider in Rome. Her only news of imperial events and the latest gossip came from her uncle, sister Livilla, and friends. Her remoteness might have been the reason she was not given a formal invitation instead of the sudden escort, but it seemed more likely that her brother wanted her to squirm a little before she arrived.
Rumors overheard from her guards that Caligula was even more deranged than before, had not impressed Agrippina, who remembered her sickly brother’s theatrics when he was a child. He had been a delicate but devious youth. She couldn’t imagine him being any worse than he already was.
When they were children, he had teased her constantly no matter what the cost. He had always been a sadist and pervert. His mother had scolded and spanked him for his misbehavior to no avail. He was simply a bigger sadist and pervert now. As they grew up, though, he grew more proficient in his cruelty. He had tried drowning her, hanging her, and even setting her on fire. Not so long ago, while her husband Domitius was away, he and his cousin Aemelius had raped she and her sisters in her room. Drusilla had seemed to enjoy her experience, but Agrippina and Livilla were emotionally scarred by their ordeal. He had never treated them with the decency they deserved, not even when Agrippina was with child.
Tonight, in spite of her advanced pregnancy, she had been ordered to attend his celebration. Her escort had arrived at her villa with written orders that she leave for Rome at once.
She remembered the arduous journey north and the stony faced centurion who refused to answer her questions: “What is this all about? ... Am I being arrested? ... What have I done wrong?”
She recalled entering the great atrium, exhausted from her travel, looking around the room and feeling intimidated, but then finding herself seated next to friends. She was not alone in her fear. Several hundred other guests, all frightened by what they had heard, were much too concerned about themselves to notice her. Despite her misgivings, Caligula’s servants had managed to isolate her from her enemies by placing her with her sister Livilla, the philosopher Seneca, and several of her friends.
“I never thought I’d admit it,” she said to Livilla “but matters could be much worse!”
Domitius, her husband, who was currently unwelcome in the palace, could be sitting next to her. Her brother could have deliberately placed her in hostile company instead of with her friends. Thanks to her friend Pomponia, her pregnancy was camouflaged by a cleverly designed gown.
For a short period of time, she could forget who she was. She had not yet begun feeling like a royal princess; it was hard enough accepting the fact that her brother was Emperor of Rome. But she felt now as if she was part of something grand: a patrician and member of the nobility, sharing in the bounty of Rome. After such a troubled life, the devastating loss of her parents, being at the mercy of Tiberius and his mother for so long, she had arrived in her right mind, with few physical scars and the uncanny feeling that she had a mission in her life. She was lucky just to be alive!
Several friendly faces greeted her as a kindly dark stranger, suspecting her condition, seated her delicately onto a cushion specially designed to support her back.
“Why thank you.” She flashed him a look of surprise.
“A princess should really be sitting in a place of honor, not this far from the throne,” he replied boldly, signaling for a server to bring her wine.
“Humph!” a patrician lady turned up her nose. “Caligula’s slaves are as arrogant as himself!”
“I’m not a slave.” he bowed to the lady across the table, winking back at Agrippina as she began sipping her wine. “I’m a freedman in the service of the Emperor of Rome.”
“Well, you’re working for a madman then.” the woman replied petulantly. “This so-called celebration is a sham!”
“What is you name?” Agrippina asked, searching the man’s olive-skinned face. Finding no expression while he was looking at the lady, she noticed the faintest smile when he turned his attention to her. The man didn’t even blink, however. He was either very controlled, she decided, or very cold.
“My name is Pallas,” he answered after a pause. Bowing again, then looking down into her dark eyes, he extended a bejeweled hand.
“You wear too much jewelry for a Roman.” The patrician lady, who was obviously drunk, snarled. “You must be a Greek or one of those eunuchs whom Caligula calls a friend.”
“I’m at your services,” he murmured to Agrippina, motioning with the toss of his head the front of the hall. “... Things will go badly now in Rome with a mad Emperor on the throne!”
Agrippina uttered a nervous laugh, still hoping for a dramatic performance by her brother tonight. But she had heard first hand from a member of Caligula’s staff as well as from the aristocracy... The emperor was mad!
Agrippina had been impressed with Pallas. He had been unaffected and unmoved by the basest of insults. She had always felt she was a great judge of men, most of whom, she believe, were good for only one thing. But this man was not like those brash and reckless warriors, such as her husband, who cluttered up her life.
She had been delighted that her sister had brought her new suitor Seneca with her to the celebration. In spite of his relationship with Livilla, Seneca seemed attracted to Agrippina, comforting her with his fine words. She even enjoyed hearing Uncle Claudius’ stammer now, despite Messalina’s presence by his side, and was comforted by Pomponia Graecina and her husband Aulus Plautius, who had known Caligula as a child and had been her parents’ best friends. They were among the remaining links to her past, which Tiberius could not destroy: members of a tradition her father Germanicus fought to preserve.
A deepening, inexplicable calm fell over her, followed by euphoria when she felt the child move in her womb. Until now, she had hated this thing growing in her body. It seemed to be destroying what was left of her short life. Now, as she looked over at Seneca and also thought about her new friend, she felt a bizarre association between the philosopher and her unborn child. In a letter, that may have been inspired by Livilla, he had counseled her not to abort her son. Why had he cared so much, this total stranger, when she had always thought her pregnancy to be a misfortune? Why had he called it a son and not a daughter, when she, herself, had always thought of her child as an it?
And then there was Pallas, who had also offered his services... Was he merely testing his charm on her? What need would such a man have with a pregnant women, who hiding her disgrace. How did this enigmatic man fit into her future, now that her brother’s shadow had taken the place of her grandfather’s shadow in Rome?
As the festivities began, she reached out, in a gesture of appreciation, to embrace all their hands and tell them how glad she was they were here. Messalina, the one eyesore in her path, also took her hand as was customary but refused to meet her gaze.
The arrangement of an imperial banquet was suppose to convey the hierarchy of Roman nobility: from the emperor, himself, down to the lowliest knight. Everyone, no matter what his or her station, was suppose to receive hospitality and respect. But the new emperor had deliberately altered the natural order of things and given his guests different grades of food.
There were two lines of guests in descending order of importance on each side of a low-lying table of food, drink, and delicacies. This order, unlike imperial banquets in the past, had nothing to do with rank or nobility. Not far from the emperor was a prostitute who had serviced him in his youth. A lowborn tribune sat across from Caligula, next to the sickly Gemellus, Tiberius son, and a man wearing a costume covered with spun gold and silver thread. Following down the table were an assortment of knights, senators, generals, and Caligula’s boyhood friends, who sat next to their wives, concubines, or alone enjoying the very best cuisine and wine.
In between these places of honor and those being punished for misdeeds, was a vast array of aristocrats and high born patricians, like herself, who were puzzled by their shabby treatment, and yet, like herself managed to take it in stride.
Beyond the midpoint, indicated by a garland of thorns, without benefit of servants or even wine, the “undesirables” sat. The cuisine had changed gradually from dishes such as roast pork, stuffed mushrooms, and marinated peacock into lessening grades of food and drink until reaching the zone of questionable meats, rancid cheese, and a range of victuals unfit for a pig.
Close to the garland, but sharing some of the fine food, where his sisters: Agrippina and Julia Livilla, while Drusilla, Caligula’s youngest sister, sat at the most honored place by his side. Aulus and Pomponia, who also came from noble families, were sitting even more closely to the midpoint, as were Uncle Claudius, and Messalina, whose elbow was only inches from the thorns.
Caligula, while not being totally cruel in their cases, had made his point clearly. They had better watch their step. They could fall from grace too.
Knowing Caligula’s perversity, his own family was satisfied with their spots. Although they weren’t served peacock or honeyed dormice, they were allowed to eat a passable roast and at least drink wine. Many unfortunates down the line, who discovered unappetizing meats and uncooked vegetables on their plates, saw this as punishment for something they had done wrong. But Agrippina, Livilla, and Claudius had not slighted the emperor. Nor had many of the other guests who were served inferior grades of food.
Caligula had been especially hard on those failing to applaud his accession. It was, Agrippina explained to Pomponia, his way of putting them in their place. The venerable Senator Thrasyllus, who, after being seated at the very end of the table, discovered table scraps and half-chewed beef on his plate. Scribonius Proculus, who like Thrasyllus failed to show proper respect, was served fried dog. In her brother’s irrational mind, Thrasyllus, Scribonius, and their “accomplices” were being taught a lesson in humility. It didn’t matter that he was making life-long enemies of these men. Caligula, however insane it seemed to others, had to prove his point. That is why he poisoned his father, Claudius believed. That is why he would kill anyone that stood in his way.
Everyone must earn Caligula’s respect, including the royal princesses of Rome. This was how the young tribune Massala, a notorious profligate, won his place. This was also how Agrippina and her sister, who would not willingly follow Drusilla’s example, won theirs.
Domitia Lepida and Agrippina’s husband had not even been invited to the feast. Numerous notables of Rome, who were left off the list entirely, were given written warnings to change their ways. A list of consequences for their continued misbehavior included demotion in rank, exile, and even death.
In Claudius’ opinion, Caligula erred greatly in offending these men. He had been especially foolish in threatening so many senators and knights.
Leaning craftily over Seneca’s lap, Claudius had explained to them that Men such as Macro and Massala didn’t matter. They were pigs and louts, just the sort of men Caligula understood. Nor were those patient adversaries, such as Thrasyllus or Scribonius, a threat to him now.
“It will be someone out of nowhere,” Pomponia announced boldly, “when he’s least expecting it, over a slight to a patrician’s wife or a personal insult to a supposed friend. One day one of his subjects will end this charade!”
“Pray to the immortal gods, it happens soon,” Agrippina followed Pomponia’s toast “before he grows any madder and before my son is born!”
Caligula had, as the night passed, broken too many rules of etiquette and custom to be taken seriously even by his friends.
He was an aberration for most respectable Romans, such as Thrasyllus, Aulus, and Pomponia. To reprobates like Macro and Massala, he was an eccentric who could be manipulated and cajoled.
As the banquet progressed or digressed, Caligula was seen fondling his youngest sister Drusilla in a most unbrotherly way. Drusilla’s low-cut Eastern gown exposed her breasts. Her long blond hair was braided in the German fashion, and she wore a barbarian’s necklace of bears’ teeth around her neck. For several moments, Caligula’s exhibitionist performance with his scantily clad sister occupied all his attention.
He seemed to enjoy shocking everyone with his newfound behavior.
“Surely,” a man next to Pomponia whispered to his wife “Caligula’s illness has affected his mind. This is no way for an emperor to behave!”
“It must be true then,” she could here his wife reply “... the emperor’s insane... He’s indeed mad!”
Surrounding the banquet table were countless servers and attendants, pouring wine, serving food, and wiping messy hands. She could see her new acquaintance Pallas talking to a group of entertainers lined up on the steps leading into the hall. At his signal, a male and female dancer, pantomiming Tiberius being berated by his mother Livia, began performing to a disinterested audience, while the guests sat mumbling anxiously among themselves.
Plainly a man of authority here, Pallas, himself, was not one of the guests. As if destiny had meant for her to see his departure, she could see his tall leonine form disappear into the shadows of the columns. An inexplicable constriction in her throat was followed a flutter in her chest as she contemplated the mysterious stranger.
In the background, as he exited through their ranks, waiting anxiously for their turn to perform, were jugglers, who would toss burning torches, a pair of wrestlers, and a trio of dwarfs holding shields and wooden swords.
Clearly no one was paying attention to the satire of the past emperor. Their nervous murmuring and darting glances demonstrated to Agrippina the fear they felt for her brother: the new Emperor of Rome. No one knew what to expect. Was he as bad as the last emperor? Or was he, after his dreadful illness, worse? For most of them, who had only heard rumors about Caligula’s eccentricities, he was an unknown quantity. No one could possibly know yet, as did Agrippina, Claudius, and her sisters, how dangerous he truly was. This was, she thought, catching her breath, his first official appearance in front of the aristocracy, and Caligula, who had insulted half the nobility of Rome, was too interested in his own sister to care.
While the emperor remained distracted, quiet conversation seemed in order. Gradually now that it appeared he might leave them alone, those, who were allowed to drink wine and not merely water, began to talk freely amongst themselves about the games, the price of wheat, and the latest rumors circulating in Rome.
Agrippina wondered fleetingly if they would begin talking about her. Only a few people had known about her pregnancy until she arrived at the banquet. Now, thanks to Caligula, everyone knew. Back then, however, only her husband Domitius and his sister suspected the child she was caring might not be his. And they were absent.
The unlikely irony in her brother’s decision not to invite these two now caused Agrippina to laugh giddily into her wine.
“Caligula,” she said, curling her lip “my hero!”
Slowly, as Caligula, himself grew drunk, the occasion graduated from a subdued and untypical Roman banquet to a feast, with laughter, camaraderie, and toasts.
To divert attention to himself now, Macro, the praetorian prefect, who sat only a few places above her own, began telling bawdy jokes, while slurping greedily from his cup. This foul-mouthed, evil-smelling man, who seemed out of place at the in the palace, was now the second most powerful man in Rome. Most of his listeners, however, who were not sure if the emperor would find his vulgarity amusing, pretended not to hear him or remained focused on their plates.
Messalina, Uncle Claudius’ bride, had also grown talkative that night, but what she was about to say would awaken the mad prince and set in motion a bizarre dialogue among the emperor and his guests.
A rumor she had heard was now mentioned as idle gossip to her friends. The words “a new religious sect in Rome” and “a new god” caused Caligula’s ears to perk up like a dog’s. Messalina’s source of information, she announced smugly, was Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Aulus Plautius, who had told it in confidence to a vestal virgin, who happened to be Messalina’s friend. To Pomponia’s dismay, all Messalina remembered of her report was that they were cannibals and drank human blood.
As she elaborated on this theme, the emperor’s eyes widened, he motioned for silence, and cupped his good ear. Pomponia, of course, shook her head at her friend Agrippina, and made a face, while Messalina gave them lured details of human sacrifice and bloody, orgiastic rites.
“Why, that’s not what I told her at all.” she sputtered, bending over the banquet table to whisper in Agrippina’s ear. “She deliberately twisted the words I told the vestal virgin—the deceitful little bitch! The followers of Christus believe that eating meat is symbolic of Christus’ body and drinking wine is symbolic of his blood. They don’t eat people and drink their blood!”
“Perhaps, its a form of symbolic cannibalism.” Agrippina offered thoughtfully. “Why else would they want to eat their god?”
“No! No! You don’t understand either!” Pomponia cried, as her husband pulled her gently back to her seat. “They’re not eating their god. They’re celebrating Christus’ death and resurrection from the dead!”
Agrippina frowned at this abstraction but patted Pomponia’s head.
“Poor dear Pomponia.” Livilla laughed softly. “Too much reading has softened her brain!”
“C-Christus th-that’s Greek, isn’t it?” Claudius looked away from his wine. “Was C-Christus from Greece?”
“No, indeed not!” Pomponia shook her head emphatically. “Christus was a Jew!”
“Oh dear me!” Claudius sighed. “A troublesome lot, those Jews!”
“Wait!” Messalina raised a pretty hand. “She said was, not is. The vestal virgin told me he’s alive, not dead, which doesn’t make sense does it, if he was killed!”
“Listen, you little nincompoop.” Pomponia growled challengingly. “I said that he was a Jew, who was crucified and then resurrected from the dead!”
“Resurrected? What does that imply Pomponia?” Agrippina could not help asking. “Is he a ghost or in a celestial form? Is he or is he not a Jew?”
“He’s universal now.” Pomponia answered cryptically. “He’s the son of God.”
“God? ... What God?” Livilla asked, sipping her wine. “Jupiter? Zeus? Neptune? Now he’s only the son of a god. Was he demoted along the way?”
“He has no name.” Pomponia explained with exasperation. “He has no race... They say that he is both the father and the son. He is also a ghost... Yet he is god!”
She shrugged helplessly. Everyone, except Seneca, shook their heads and sat there staring at their plates.
“Interesting!… Quite fascinating!” he murmured to Agrippina. “... A universal god, without a name, who is both father and son, corporeal and incorporeal... who is also a Jew!”
“Shut up, all of you!” Agrippina blurted, as a servant poured her more wine. “Pomponia is entitled to her beliefs!”
Agrippina could not comprehend a god who died, rose from the dead, and was eaten symbolically or any other way, especially if he was both a father and a son and started off as a Jew. But she was irritated by her sister’s remark and the argument that ensued. Pomponia deserved sympathy for her foolishness not scorn.
“Poor dear, foolish Pomponia.” she whispered to Livilla.
“... Maybe she is growing soft in the head!”
After waiting politely for Pomponia to be resettled in her place, flashing her a dubious smile, and then bending subtly over her sister’s lap, she asked Livilla’s new suitor Seneca, who seemed to know everything, if this was all true, or was it just one of those “Jewish things”.
Just when Seneca, who was already showing great interest in the subject, was about to muster a reply and when Pomponia seemed ready to explode, something very strange occurred in the room.
The emperor, who was already drunk, was suddenly speaking yet had forgotten to demand silence from his guests. Caligula’s whiney and slightly nasal voice was distinctive. He had not even bothered rising to his feet. He, in fact, appeared to be looking down Drusilla’s gown. Nevertheless, having heard portions of Messalina’s statement and the conversation that followed, he began prying from those around him all the existing facts of the new god: his origin, his magical feats, anything that could be added to what the dimwitted Messalina just claimed.
Cupping his ear so no one but he would hear, he received several reports, causing his sallow face to register both humor and alarm. “He what?… He did what?… Nonsense, even Jupiter can’t do that!” Often they were followed by a laugh, curse, or utterance of awe. His close associates realized, with growing concern, that Caligula was impressed by these rumors. “By Jove,” the emperor exclaimed at one point, “Rome has found itself a new god!”
In what Agrippina now categorized as absolute public proof of her brother’s insanity, he announced, from a sitting position, his own divinity. It was, as everything he did lately, a totally spontaneous act, a bizarre introduction for his subjects of the madness to come.
“You’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here.” he began solemnly. “Most of you are unfamiliar with my secrets. Yet many of you, who knew me as a child and young man, suspected my nature... It’s high time for the doubters among you to acknowledge your beloved emperor for what he is. . Yes, he too, like this Christus, has become a god!”
“God? Did he just call himself a god?” Livilla whispered discretely into her Agrippina’s ear.
“Yes,” Agrippina nodded, feeling light-headed from her wine. “Our brother, who is now emperor of Rome, is now a god. He is also quite mad!”
“What else is new?” Livilla snickered, raising an empty cup.
“I don’t believe this!” Agrippina heard Pomponia’s voice. “You’re all amused by this. This is not amusing. Tiberius’ purge was not amusing! I thought Romans treated other religions with respect! Caligula is calling himself a god! What sort of thing is that for the Emperor of Rome to say?”
“Pomponia! Please shut up!” Pomponia’s husband Aulus groaned.
To Pomponia Graecina, who resented Messalina’s distortion of the facts and the cavalier attitude of this group, it appeared as if Caligula was beginning a grotesque parody of Christus’ last meal. She would explain this rite to Agrippina months later, during a visit to Antium. Although Agrippina would never understand, she had been bedridden and needed all the religion she could find.
Looking back now from the River Styx, she realized that Pomponia had been more than merely interested in the new sect. Gradually, after seeing two tyrants take the throne, she had reached out for something in her mad world. Some found wine; others, such as Agrippina, found sex. But Pomponia had found religion. It now kept her sanity intact, Agrippina believed, but made it difficult to talk to her in a sensible way. It had shocked her family to see Pomponia lapse into what her husband Aulus called Jewish mysticism, and caused her to lose favor in Tiberius’ court. Now, after being absent from the imperial court for so many years, she had selected an even more bizarre replacement for Roman religion.
But Pomponia was the only member of the patrician class who had not condemned her for her past. Her toleration of other religions, had been the same tolerance she gave her.
Those moments during Caligula’s banquet, as Pomponia showed dismay, Agrippina was therefore alarmed. Aside from her sister and Uncle Claudius, she was the only member of the nobility who showed her a modicum of respect. She had been aware of Pomponia’s interest in Eastern cults, but was surprised and dismayed then to see anger, and not fear, register on her face.
Everyone else in Caligula’s immediate vicinity was trying to gauge the emperor’s mood. Only a few of them, such as Livilla, Claudius and herself, had known he was mad. No one was sure yet, if he was even serious and if he had not said it in jest.
The further away from the emperor’s couch they sat, however, the less chance it was that they actually heard. For the vast majority of his guests, including Messalina and Claudius, who sat even further away and had not being paying attention, as they should, it was a dangerous time... Who knew what this madman might do?
Seneca, keenly aware of his low status now, felt Agrippina reach across her sister’s lap and squeeze his arm. He had not heard or suspected anything until he looked squarely into Agrippina’s eyes. “Get ready! React properly!” she was saying with her gaze. Always wary of her brother, she had heard enough of his preposterous claim to be prepared to do him homage if that is what he required. Pomponia too, who felt an angry torrent of whispers in her ear, nodded submissively to her husband and bowed her head, as if in prayer.
Many of the others, however, including Messalina, were still talking about the same topic or sitting idly on their cushions munching their food.
Finally, as she, Seneca, and Livilla fearfully clasped hands, Caligula, the mad emperor, rose up dramatically and looked quietly around the room. Uncle Claudius, who had not seen the motion, was sprinkled with wine that moment and Messalina was sprayed with the wine in Caligula’s mouth. Several guests, who sat even further away from the emperor and continued chatting or failed to look up in time, shrank in terror when his shadow fell across their plates. He began kicking them out of the way, spilling goblets and crunching fingers, and occasionally booting a senator or knight in his path. By then, he had crossed the garland, stared menacingly down at the “undesirables” on the other side, and planted himself atop an untouched tray of mutton.
After calling for silence in the room, he posed a toast to the new god Christus, whom he considered a junior partner to Jupiter and Zeus. His plan had been to place a statue of himself in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Now that this upstart god had dared show his face in Rome, it was all the more important to show these stiff-necked Jews who was in charge. It became difficult, as Caligula talked, though, to know whether he was for or against Christus, since, in spite of such threats, he appeared to admire the new god.
Several more guests added to his sketchy knowledge of the new sect. Among the claims, which Agrippina found hard to believe, was the assertion by Pomponia that he had walked on water and brought a dead man back to life. A strange glow came into Caligula’s pale eyes. At first he laughed at this and then threw his goblet at Pomponia, barely missing her head.
An excited inquiry by the emperor began, with Pomponia and her frightened husband Aulus being suddenly moved to the place of honor by his side. Macro, for his tasteless jokes, was now ordered to take their space, while his wife was allowed to stay where she was. He no longer cared that his uncle almost put Aulus to death or that Pomponia thought he was insane. Several guests, who wondered if Pomponia did not believed in this outlandish cult herself, now grumbled in amazement and dismay.
So far, in the night’s festivities, Caligula had shown an incestuous fondness for his baby sister and proclaimed himself a god. Now it appeared as if he believed in this new sect, himself.
Unfortunately, however, Agrippina later complained to Seneca, Caligula talked only about Christus’ miracles that night—feats he vowed to one day outdo. Except for the sect’s alleged cannibalism, which fascinated Caligula very much, Pomponia had not had a chance to explain what the followers of Christus believed.
According to Seneca, who talked to actual members of the sect, a band of outcasts and rabble, who worshiped a crucified Jew, claimed that they could receive eternal life if they prayed to Christus and offered sacrifices to his father, an invisible god. The misconception about their cannibalism and bloodlust, which Pomponia had tried to refute, contrasted with Seneca’s belief that they lived a purer lifestyle than his fellow stoics or the Roman Jews.
They claimed that believers who did good deeds were rewarded with paradise and evildoers were punished with damnation for their misdeeds. This notion was familiar to Agrippina, since Virgil, her favorite poet, had spoken of an afterlife too. It was how the new sect defined its afterlife that troubled her now... It was that one terrible word that had no counterpart in her life... until now.
As she listened to the slosh of his oars, she wondered where the Ferryman was taking her. Were they going to Tartarus, spoken of in Virgil’s Aeneid, where, after a thousand years, the god’s gave the sinner a second chance? Or Perhaps it would be like the Greek’s Hades or Egyptian Land of the Dead. She didn’t expect to be rewarded for her lifestyle. A certain amount of punishment seemed in order, though nothing as bad as the Christus’ hell.
In the Christus’ heaven, Seneca was told, you didn’t eat, fornicate, or own fancy clothes. It was probably a frightful bore, she imagined, but much better than Plautia’s philosophy that you live, die, and then you become either worm fodder or fine particles of ash blown in the wind.
Her grandmother Antonia claimed she had been a depraved child. It had been fortunate for her that Caligula’s misdeeds outshone her own. She had been faithless and mean-spirited. She had dishonored her parents, performed incest with her brother, and committed adultery with countless men.
But she had not committed murder nor had she ever mocked the gods or forgotten who she was... She, the daughter of Germanicus, a Julio-Claudian, and sister to the Emperor of Rome deserved no reward now that she was dead, but neither did she deserve the maximum sentence for her short, ill-spent life.
She did not relish being in an afterlife filled with criminals and outcasts, especially when it did not allow sex, riches, and fine food and drink. Perhaps, after her sentence was over in Tartarus, she would be allowed to visit Christus’ heaven. By then, it seemed reasonable to Agrippina, there should be some respectable people there and more to do. They couldn’t all be misfits, lawbreakers, and slaves. Surely, Christus wouldn’t forbid wine.
Idle thoughts diverted her mind as they moved toward the light. Was it the celestial glow of Elysium, once explained to her by her mother... Or was it from Tartarus, promised by Antonia to make her behave. What could lure the Ferryman across the Styx: destiny, ... love of adventure... the will of the gods? Was his shadowy visage unseeable, because he was a ghost, himself, permanently condemned to carry the dead... or damned
... Was his darkness cast by the lack of light or purest evil? . . Was he merely a servant of Minos, King of the Underworld, an unnamed shade serving an unknowable god... Or was he the one Seneca once said was opposite to Christus in every way: ... Lucifer, the prince of hell?
She was told by Plautia that the followers of Christus were atheists, because they did not believe in the gods. And yet, according to her friend Seneca, they placed faith above everything: wealth, children, and even love. Faith, they claimed, led to salvation, and disbelief led to a place called hell.
Reflecting back now, it seemed strange to Agrippina that someone as irreligious as Plautia would make such a claim. It also struck her as significant that Seneca, whose philosophy closely paralleled the new sect, found no fault in it at all. And yet, the same apologist said that it lacked the logic necessary for a Stoic such as himself.
Like other religions permitted by Rome, the afterlife, explained by Seneca, which she could not comprehend, was forever, and this meant that she would be forever damned. Forever, she thought with a shudder, was a long, long time.
The Christus’ heaven was beginning to sound better to her they drew closer to the light.
Anything sounded better than hell.
There, she would find no in-between state of mindless bliss, as in the Mourning Fields, or place of rehabilitation for lost souls found in Tartarus, where after a thousand year sentence, the sinner was reprieved. After death, if the soul didn’t make it to heaven, it was damned... forever... the point where she seemed headed now.
A hysterical laugh escaped Agrippina’s parched throat. She began weeping softly under her breath.
“Give her water Claudia.” Flavia directed in the outer world.
“She’s having another dream.” Felix observed, touching her hand. “She screams, she laughs, and now finally she cries. If only she could wake up!”
The memory of the new sect, which had seemed so silly to her before, now filled her with a dread greater than her fear of death. Her normally carefree mind was shaken by the vista ahead: damnation... forever and ever... with no second chance.
In her chambers, while lying on her bed, Agrippina’s lips began trembling again and she mumbled unintelligibly under her breath. The midwives began sponging her off again. Felix marveled at how beautiful she was even in the shadow of death. Flavius, who had tried everything to save her life, however, was afraid she might live. He had seen the worst of Agrippina in this house. In addition to her obvious fear, her delirious confessions, he believed, came from a guilt-ridden mind.
In her dream world, though it sounded like gibberish outside, she was speaking to the Ferryman, asking him whether the light at the end of the tunnel was shining from Tartarus or the other place... a place of fire and brimstone, pain and torment ... forever and ever and ever... Such a dreadful, unRoman word!
While looking at the glow, which now radiated warmth as well as light, she thought she saw the outline of Tiberius and Sejanus among the damned, along with many other relatives and friends. They had not been dancing but wreathing as strips of pork in Christus’ fire. She was certain that the shadowy Ferrymen was not taking her to the Roman Tartarus, Greek Hades or the Egyptian Land of the Dead, where she at least would not suffer for eternity and be given a second chance.
She felt her throat constrict with fear. She was beyond tears, and yet her mouth opened mutely in preparation for a scream. All along, she realized with horror, as she had marveled at the radiance, she had been floating toward a wall of flame. Her first impression had been right; soon she would be joining her grandfather, Plautia, and all the other Romans who defied God. A tortured and agonized scream now filled Agrippina’s chambers, as she was ferried to hell.
(Chapter Four – Caligula’s Blessing)
The sudden shriek from their mistress brought them all to their feet. For a terrible moment, as Flavius checked her pulse and listened to her chest, the nurses wrung their hands and Dora knelt again in an attitude of prayer. Felix, who had fallen asleep in his chair, stood gaping into Dora’s gown.
“Am I asleep? Is this a dream?” he began rubbing his eyes.
“Wha-what’s wrong? Will the mistress finally die?” the nurses murmured, their eyes filling with tears.
“She’s still unconscious.” Flavius observed shakily. “. . . For a second I thought she was dead!” “Felix! Wake up! The problem is over here!” he called brusquely, as Dora continued to pray. “Hand me that vile on the tray.” he directed the apprentice. “I’ll administer a drop of this—just one this time Felix, while you prop open her mouth. Check her tongue this time, make sure she doesn’t swallow it.” “You Claudia and you Minerva, get ready to sponge her off! Dora, my dear, get out the way!”
After shooing his apprentice away afterwards then looking carefully into Agrippina’s eyes, Flavius rose up slowly from the bed, a guarded smile on his face, and motioned for his staff to step into the hall. Since Agrippina was unconscious, the gesture was out of habit rather than necessity. The nurses were convinced, at this point, that Agrippina would not last through the night.
It had been a long, grueling session for everyone, and the crisis had not yet passed. With the exception of a tray of cold rolls and fruit from the kitchen and finishing off the sweet meats in Agrippina’s room, they had eaten sparsely. They would probably not find their own beds until Agrippina was out of danger, if she lived at all.
“Well,” Flavius announced wearily “if nothing else, Agrippina’s death knell woke us up!”
“She certainly has powerful lungs!” Felix exclaimed, standing as close to Dora as he could.
“Her breathing remains ragged, and she’s feverish. But she’s young.” the physician looked into the wet nurse’s eyes. “Her heart’s strong, and her pulse has slowed down. If the gods are generous and listen to our Dora’s prayer, she will live!”
“The gods are good!” Minerva bowed.
“She’s suffered enough.” Claudia clasped her hands.
“I prayed for her soul, not her health.” Dora said faintly.
“At any rate, whichever god is protecting our mistress,” Flavius raised his palms to the ceiling “Agrippina’s still alive! She’s too spirited too die! But I wish, for all our sakes, she had been born mute!”
“We all heard what she said.” he now looked into the nurses’ eyes. “The question are ‘who else knows?’ and ‘whom are you going to tell?’ Was the nosy cook Astra or feebleminded chamberlain Didymus eavesdropping in the hall? If it turns out that Ursos or Archelaeus, and not Domitius, fathered her son, Agrippina’s in trouble. If Caligula or Domitius find out, it could mean Agrippina and her infant’s life. Most importantly for you the nurses, wet nurse, apprentice, and myself, it would mean death or at the very least self-imposed exile until Domitius, himself, is dead and a new emperor sits on the throne. There’s no telling what her demented brother or sadistic husband might do!”
“Enough!” he waved his hand. “Claudia and Minerva, I want you to take a break now. Get a little rest and something more to eat, but stand alert until I send Gracchus to fetch you back for your turns. Above all keep this to yourselves! Don’t say a word!”
“Mums the word!” Minerva said, pinching her lips.
“You can trust us sir!” Claudia sounded out of breath.
In a fatherly way, he gave each of the woman a pat, motioning for Dora to accompany them down the hall. He did not trust the nurses to keep a secret, especially Claudia, whose husband ran a tavern in town. As they both departed, however, the wet nurse shook her head, her fulsome lips drawing into a smile. He noticed, as he followed Felix and Dora back into the room that the two nurses broke into excited murmurs as they scurried down the hall, and he wished that the wet nurse could have acted as his spy.
“Let us hope” he whispered to Felix “Claudia doesn’t tell Proculus, that loudmouthed Gaul, because he will tell his patrons, who will tell all their friends in Antium and Rome!”
“Can it be,” he murmured to Dora then, “that I’m making too much out of Agrippina’s babbling? You’ve seen that boy up close.” “Tell me my dear” he touched her lovely arm “did he not look just like his father’s son?”
“Yes, like Domitius a little. . . but also a little like Ursos and his son Romulus too.” She answered, self-consciously dropping her gaze.
“Romulus?” Flavius gasped, pulling them both back into the hall. “Ursos’ has a red-haired son?”
“He was born shortly before Agrippina went into labor.” Dora explained softly. “I found out from Linus, my brother, who was sneaking in late last night.”
“Merciful gods!” Flavius cried, covering his eyes. “They might as well be twins! Why wasn’t I told? I could have helped!” “Tell me” he ventured, peeking through his fingers “What do they look like, mother and child. . . Is it a close match between the two? Brown eyes or blue eyes? Roman, Eastern, or barbarian features?”
“Well,” Dora admitted reluctantly “. . . Lydia’s my friend. . . Her parents were from Palestine. . . She has black hair and brown eyes like Agrippina, and, like the mistress, is tall. She doesn’t look anything like her son!”
“Most of the women in this house have black hair!” Felix said with a frown. “What does being tall prove?”
Flavius, after shaking his head at Felix, studied the expression on Dora’s face. He remembered the anxiety in Claudia and Minerva’s eyes. Felix, who could care less about Agrippina’s state of mind, was merely irritated with this line of questioning, but Dora, as had been the nurses, was becoming alarmed by what she heard.
“The more alike are the two sets of parents,” he explained gravely “the greater the danger for Ursos and his family and everybody else.” “. . . I was wondering” he followed, lost a moment in Dora’s gaze “You said he has red hair, like the other infant, but does Ursos’ child look like Agrippina’s son?”
“Well,” she bit her lip, her green eyes unblinking, a nervous smile playing on her face “they’re both very wrinkled sir. You know how newborn infants are. But Romulus appeared to have blue eyes. I never thought to examine his neck and limbs or look at the exact shape of his nose. Would you like me to ask Gracchus to find out?”
“No, no! Great Zeus no!” he shook his head in horror. “I don’t want to know, not yet! What would I do if Gracchus confirmed my fears? Flee like a rabbit? Quiver like a dormouse?” “Don’t worry my dear,” he tried to sound calm “I’m making too much of this. I’m just very tired! I wish Agrippina would wake up and clear up all our doubts!”
“I will pray for her sir.” she mumbled, as she reached down into the baby’s crib. “. . . I will pray for us all!”
As Dora’s cleavage lent itself to his view, Flavius
marveled at this vision of loveliness, who worried about Agrippina’s soul.
“When exactly, my dear, did this disaster unfold?” he found himself whispering, as the wet nurse took her place.
“Well, . . . I`m not sure.” she again paused. “If he was born only a short while after midnight, which is when Agrippina went into labor, that would make it the same day!”
“There I go again,” Flavius chided himself “acting like an old fool!”
Visibly shaken by this news, the physician motioned for silence in the room, although he had been the last one to speak. “This information must never enter Agrippina’s ears”, he whispered into Felix’s ear.
Felix, who was too tired to care, felt only mild concern. Exhaustion had dulled his senses so much he just stood there now smiling and blinking at Flavius as if the physician had just exchanged some gossip or told him to perform a task.
Felix, who was only seventeen years old (the same age as Dora), had much to learn about Agrippina. He was still a child, thought Flavius, protected by himself as Germanicus once protected him, but without the power his long dead friend once had against jackals such as Caligula and Domitius, men who would have been put in their places if Germanicus had ascended the throne.
Stabbed with this thought, Flavius watched abstractedly as the wet nurse settled onto a couch. On one side of the room sat Dora, who had been a mere scullery maid, a slave who had barely known her parents and whose common law husband abandoned her with a child. On the other side of the room, lie another young woman, having everything at her beck and call, whose father could have been the emperor of Rome. If only Agrippina had turned out like her! Flavius could not help wondering now how the noble Germanicus could be the father of such a brood. Both Nero and Drusus, his two oldest sons, had been incorrigible throughout their short lives. Caligula, who Claudius told him in confidence had poisoned his father’s food, had grown up to be a thoroughly depraved man. Among the three daughters—Agrippina, Drusilla, and Julia Livilla, only Germanicus’ youngest child Livilla, whom he had never known, seemed to be normal. Both Agrippina and Drusilla had unnatural sex with Caligula and had been caught by Claudius’ mother Antonia several times sneaking out of his room.
Though the children of slaves themselves, the saintly Dora and mild-mannered Felix were everything a daughter and son should be.
“Poor Germanicus!” he spoke mutely to himself “What did your virtue avail you! We live in such a crooked age!”
Running trembling fingers through his prematurely graying hair, Flavius sank forlornly down beside Agrippina’s bed. Staring blankly into space, he continued to murmur under his breath. “Agrippina. . . Agrippina. . . In saving you and your son, we might have condemned ourselves and everyone in this house!”
Even though it would prove to be a serious problem for the child, he had half hoped she would die. Although he felt guilty for such thinking, he still had misgivings about what lie ahead. In many ways, he now believed, Agrippina was, as much as her brother and husband, a threat to everyone attending her infant’s birth.
Over the years, he recalled, Agrippina had shown the typical flaws of her dynasty: avarice, self-love, perversity, and an inability for normal relationships with other human beings. But there was a reason for her behavior, Flavius had to admit. She had not simply been spoiled to death as had her older brothers or born mentally deranged as Caligula. She and her younger sister Drusilla had suffered greatly after their mother and father’s deaths. Agrippina had grown so bitter over their parents’ murders that she trusted no one, while Drusilla, who had adapted to Caligula’s madness, was now a member of his court. Agrippina’s ordeals, under Antonia’s harsh care and in the shadow of Tiberius reign, had shaped her personality and made her strong, while driving Caligula and Drusilla insane. Her treatment by her brother and her husband Domitius had forever warped her perspective toward men. And yet Flavius found it difficult now to excuse or even pity the princess, considering the danger she had placed them in. Livilla had also suffered such losses and felt the same pains. Dora had been a wretched slave all her life. Had he not been abused as a slave and had not most Felix’s tribe been massacred by Rome. . . Where is the warping there?, he wondered. . . Where is the depraved personality, unable to share wholesome love or perform an unselfish act?
Agrippina had always been selfish and self-serving, but lately she had become paranoid, even neurotic about her well-being. Several times during her pregnancy, she had begged him shamelessly to help her abort her child. Flavius, like Seneca, however, did not believe in infanticide and had an old fashion disdain for abortion as well. In light of her previous behavior, he had not been shocked at her persistence, only disgusted. He knew that deep down in Agrippina’s craven heart, she was simply afraid. Doubting the bloodline of her son, she had good reason to be, with a suspicious husband and Caligula on the throne!
Now, Flavius thought grimly, too make matters worse, her son might have a red-haired stepbrother who was born on the same day!
Felix, his carefree apprentice, had no such misgivings. He trusted his mentor for everything. After seating himself as close to the wet nurse as possible, he began napping fitfully in his chair. The chance that he might watch her pull her lovely breasts out to nurse kept him in a twilight state of sleep. That’s all that seemed to matter to him right now.
For the physician, who had been awake since Agrippina’s messenger tapped on his chamber door, sleep would not come until Caligula had blessed her child. This morning, after Agrippina had talked in her sleep, he had that much more reason to stay alert. No one knew for sure when the emperor would arrive. And yet he, too, in the midst of it all and for his own reasons, was drawn to Dora. She was a balm for his frayed nerves and a constant delight, lighting up this dreary room each time he looked at her or heard her speak. After all these months, he had finally spoken to her. Her voice, he fancied, was like an Aegean breeze in this dreary room. Her eyes, like the blue waters off his native Greece, were timid as most slaves and yet they seemed filled with a mysterious light.
Dora, he had learned, had lost her parents during Tiberius’ reign. There was no telling where she was from. She could be of royal blood or the daughter of a whore. Unlike himself, she had been too young to remember. Her husband, soon after her son was born, had ran off, never to be seen again. Born into freedom as he once was, she had nevertheless been spared the agony of remembering all she had lost. But she had also been robbed of her childhood—that period in Flavius’ life that gave meaning to his feelings now. The fact that an orphan, who never knew her parents and had been forsaken by her spouse, was such a natural mother, filled the physician with awe.
In spite of her drudgery and the added burden of nursing Agrippina’s son, she never complained. She seemed to contain a natural buoyancy that even Agrippina could not stir. Nothing bothered her, and she acted as if she loved this wretched world, in spite of her plight. He could see it in her eyes and the way she smiled: an inner peace and secret joy.
Dora, he was also aware, believed in Christus, a god mostly of slaves and criminals, who forgave men’s sins and offered eternal life to the world. Perhaps this was the mystery he felt in her presence. It could very well be the serenity he saw in her gaze.
He wondered if such a god could forgive him for what he was thinking now. His pity for his mistress was tempered by doubt, distrust, and dismay. As he looked down at her, he was reminded of his dilemma as a physician. . . What would he do if the infant was not Domitius’ son? . . . More importantly what would Domitius do? In spite of her husband’s reputation, however, it was not Domitius who worried Flavius most; it was Caligula, Agrippina’s insane brother, who might want to perform the infanticide himself!
Against his sense of duty now, his desire to abandon Agrippina grew as he watched her sleep. Did this woman, who wouldn’t comfort her newborn son, deserve better? Her troubled past, much of which was her own fault, was leading her into an uncertain future. Not only was it coming back to haunt her, but it was threatening her life and everyone else sharing her secrets in this room.
In spite of the silence in Rome, he knew the storm would come. As it had come in Tiberius’ reign, it would come during Caligula’s reign too. The new emperor, if he remained true to form, would be devious and cunning like a serpent, while remaining hopelessly deranged. Already, during these critical hours, there could be a spy reporting from her house. With Caligula on the throne, there would be, he must explain to the complaisant Felix, a bleak future here for them even if she lived, especially after what they found out in her room.
Everyone, including Dora, the new wet nurse, could be in danger if Ursos, the gardener or Archelaeus, the wine merchant, both of whom had red hair, had fathered Agrippina’s son. It would be better if it was Archelaeus, since he was usually out of town. But it was also far less likely that it was him, especially with all the slaves at Agrippina’s command. Ursos, who had been acting strangely, was not only one of her slaves, but he was also husband to Lydia, a cook in Agrippina’s kitchen, who, like Agrippina, had given birth to a red-haired son.
To make matters more worse to Flavius was the fact that Romulus parent’s had the same coloring as Agrippina and Domitius, and both babies were born the same day.
The more that Flavius thought about these facts and Dora’s own misgivings, the more frightened he became. What if the emperor saw Ursos or—the gods forbid!—his newborn son and, knowing his sister’s behavior, summed it all up himself? Could it be possible that the capricious Caligula might consider this all a great joke? It would, after all, remove an imagined threat to his throne. On the other hand, the emperor might become enraged at having a slave for a brother-in-law, especially with a look-a-like son, and have them all put to death.
“Why,” Flavius whispered to himself “did she have to talk in her sleep? Why couldn’t she have dreamed of a less controversial subject in her life? . . . Why did the gardener and Agrippina’s sons both have red-hair?”
As Dora broke into a gentle smile, the physician was beguiled by her charm, and his thought were not just for himself. What a match this would be for Felix he told himself: that handsome, golden headed youth coupled with that auburn-haired goddess across the room! Frivolous though it seemed, it appeared to be a perfect match. He didn’t want his apprentice to wind up a bachelor like himself. He would, after all his years of procrastination, adopt him, make him his heir, and arrange for Dora to be Felix’s wife. He would someday have grandchildren and a family. He would not end his life as a lonely, unhappy old man. . . He might even, if Felix is not interested, marry her himself!
As he savored such a thought, more delicious to his mind than Falernian wine, just when the nurses were tiptoeing back into the room, the child let out a bleat that brought both the wet nurse and apprentice to their feet. Slowly now, Flavius rose up from Agrippina’s bed, rubbing his overwrought eyes, a smile still fixed on his haggard face. He had begun to doze off while planning Dora’s life.
Agrippina’s eyes were open. She did not even ask where her infant was. She watched, in a bland mood, as Dora suckled him awhile, changed his diaper, and then placed him in her arms. Agrippina seemed happy just to be alive and murmured her thanks to the haggard team. Soon, as Flavius expected, after a quiet reunion with the living, she lapsed into a healthy torpor and resumed her slumber throughout the night.
Her fever had broken. She would not die. But a long convalescence lie ahead, during which Caligula, her brother, must find it in himself to bless her child.
For another twelve hours, Flavius and his staff took turns monitoring Agrippina’s health. Her pupils, heartbeat, and pulse were checked periodically, as were her stitches and the swelling
remaining in her womb. There was definite improvement. The danger had passed as had the shadow this morning in the room. Occasionally, she would awaken for a few sips of water or a slurp of broth. Then she would fall back asleep, a faint smile on her face.
Dora was totally responsible for the infant, whose only interest it seemed was to suckle her fulsome breasts. Felix had become envious of the child, his fondness for the wet nurse growing by the hour. Both Minerva and Claudia had worked tirelessly to bring her temperature down, while Flavius potion was given credit when her fever actually began to plunge.
Agrippina’s progress was also due to her ironclad will and the state of her health before her pregnancy began. According to the physician, it was Caligula who had always been the sickly one in Germanicus’ household. Agrippina’s robust, Mediterranean pallor always had a healthy tan on it. Her promiscuous lifestyle, Flavius had told Felix in confidence, far from making her idle and lazy, had kept her in shape. It had made her energetic and kept her voluptuous anatomy supple and lean. But now, in spite of her strong constitution, she looked haggard and pale. Her long black hair, matted with perspiration had to be washed and combed, her sweaty body had to be perfumed and placed in a new gown in order to be presentable for the guest arriving that afternoon.
Finally, after round-the-clock observation, Agrippina was beginning to exhibit her old self. She was demanding, and she was rude. For most of the morning, her slaves attempted to make her especially presentable, and even Flavius and his staff were
ordered to tidy up her room.
Ultimately, worn out by her newfound energy, Agrippina decided to take a nap. Soon afterwards, as her attendants dozed on couches around her bed, the word came to Flavius by special courier that the emperor and his entourage were arriving to greet the new member of the Julio-Claudian gens.
“There here!” Flavius whispered to Felix and the others. “Stand lively boy! Claudia, gently awaken the mistress. You Dora, hold the child until they enter her door.
Dispensing with the usual custom of first laying the child before his father on the floor, Dora, now permanently assigned as Agrippina’s wet nurse, stood by her bed with the child swaddled in her arms. Because Agrippina refused to nurse her own child, Dora had been elevated from a mere scullery slave to an important position in her house. Not only would she act as a source of constant nourishment for the child but she had begun to forge a bound with him that would last the rest of his life.
Flavius now joined Minerva and Claudia in shaking Agrippina awake. Meanwhile, as Felix looked nervously on, Claudia went looking for Agrippina’s husband and sister in the hall. Almost immediately as if the young nurse had seen a ghost, she ran back into the room, motioning frantically behind herself toward the door.
“There here already!” she cried, out of breath.
“. . . Caligula! Domitius! Drusilla! The entire court!”
Hearing them all gasp now, just when she opened her sleep-drenched eyes, Agrippina’s benumbed mind wondered if there something wrong. When she looked up at her visitors that moment, she almost passed out.
There, beside her half-witted uncle Claudius, stood none other than her brother, emperor Caligula, himself. Behind him stood her husband and her sisters Drusilla and Livilla, while poor frightened Claudia was lost somewhere in the room. Felix had also disappeared from view, while Flavius, her faithful physician, stood by her bed, his medical bag ready, a dour look on his face.
Suddenly, as if protocol outweighed even her own life, the older woman pulled the infant from Dora’s arms, and placed him in a basin on the floor.
“It’s the custom.” she said lamely as Agrippina’s family looked on.
“I’m sorry mistress,” Flavius whispered into her ear “I wanted to warn you before they all came into the room! I know you want him to behave, but Minerva wants you to look good in Caligula’s eyes!”
“It’s all right Flavius.” she said to the physician. “You and Minerva must follow Roman custom, especially with the emperor in our house.”
“Well, well!” Caligula grinned down at the child. “what’s the little bastard’s name?”
“Begging your pardon Caesar.” Agrippina’s eyes narrowed to slits. “He has his fathers hair and eyes. We must wait for nine days for the child to be named!”
“Nonsense,” Caligula cackled “all babies have blue eyes, and anyone can have red hair. As the emperor, I can name him any time I want!”
“Very well, my emperor-brother.” Agrippina said, as Flavius placed a pillow under her head. “Let us ignore tradition, but let his father give him his name. He won’t deny his own flesh!”
After waiting for the emperor to move out of his way, Domitius, the infant’s bronze bearded father stepped forward, wiped his mouth, and stood there at a distance looking down at the child.
“Closer, my husband.” she motioned feebly. “You accused me of adultery, remember? You even had my freedman Marcus Quintillus put to death. . . But this little monster is yours, not his. No one on earth has that shade of red on his head, except the beast who planted his seed in my womb!”
“I hope my sister is speaking in jest.” Livilla uttered boldly. “It’s not the baby’s fault his father’s a pig!”
“Look at the little beast!” his Aunt Drusilla exclaimed, daintily cupping her mouth. “He looks like an ape!”
As the nearsighted uncle Caligula peaked around his brother-in-law, he motioned for the others to come close.
“No my sisters,” he broke into guffaws “he looks like Marcus Quintillus, not Domitius. He’s too ugly to resemble an ape!”
“But look at his hair!” Agrippina challenged them. “Look at his arms, legs, and eyes!”
“Yes,” Livilla nodded thoughtfully. “I see what you mean.”
“His legs are bowed.” Drusilla giggled. “His neck it too thick. He looks nothing like a Julian or even a human being!”
“Now-now,” Caligula said through his laughter “let’s be fair. . . Ho! Ho! Let’s let the father decide. As a beast, himself, he’s got an eye for such things.” “If he be your son,” he directed Domitius slyly “pick him up in accordance with Roman custom and acknowledge him at once!”
Fearing that Agrippina’s infant was falling victim to another one of the emperor’s traps, Claudius felt compelled at last to speak. Unfortunately, for Agrippina and Domitius, it only made the event more humorous in Caligula’s mind.
“Th-th-there’s n-n-no m-m-mistaking th-th-that n-n-nose and th-th-th-those h-h-handsome l-l-limbs.” he managed to say. “He-he-he’s D-D-Domitius’ n-n-natural s-s-son!”
As Domitius stood there making up his mind, everyone, except Agrippina and her husband began to laugh. Even grim faced Flavius could not help breaking into snickers awhile.
“W-w-well D-D-Domitius?” the emperor mimicked Claudius, slapping his brother-in-law’s back. “What’s it to be? Is he a bastard? Or am I looking at the real thing?”
“Yes, . . he’s my son.” Domitius admitted finally. “I’ve made a terrible mistake!”
“Mistake? You call this a mistake?” Agrippina spat angrily. “You almost beat me to death! You never wanted a son!”
“I think apologies are in order.” Caligula gave Domitius a menacing look. “My sister needs a beating every once in awhile, but I think you’ve gone too far!”
Domitius’ face turned ashen now, his knees shaking so badly he thought he would collapse. “She’s delirious.” he said in a croaking voice. “I never beat her Caesar. I swear by the gods, I wouldn’t harm my wife!”
“All right, stop groveling.” Caligula motioned magnanimously. “Pick up the little ape. That’s right adoptive father, give her little bastard a smooch!” “You uncle Clau-Clau-Claudius” he added defiantly “shall give him his name!”
A gasp arose from the group. Not only was the emperor suspending the traditional waiting period, he was actually suggesting that Claudius, the stammering imbecile, provide his name! At this point, Agrippina, herself, managed to laugh. Flavius and Minerva, who had tried sticking to tradition, threw up their hands in despair.
As Domitius bent down, fastened his monstrous hands around Nero’s sides and lifted him up into the air, he admitted again for Caligula’s benefit, as if he were shouting it to the gods, that he was the boy’s father and that the child was, in spite of his ugliness and ape-like features, his rightful heir. Recalling from the past now his father’s booming voice, Nero let out a squeal that startled everyone in the room. He cried so furiously, in fact, that Agrippina, Claudius, and Livilla feared for his life. Caligula, they remembered, recently had Tiberius’ own grandson Gemellus beheaded for his nighttime coughs. The emperor hated sharp and unnatural sounds and the look on his face told Agrippina that her son’s bleating cries had pushed him close to the edge.
“Dora, take back the child.” she whispered, yanking the wet nurse’s sleeve. “I’ll give you a hundred sesterces if you can make him be quiet!”
“Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus!” Claudius suddenly cried with inexplicable clarity. “That shall be his name!”
With that outburst and Dora’s nipple in the infant’s mouth, the mad emperor’s attention was diverted: first to Dora’s lovely bust and then to Claudius’ frightened face.
“I meant his personal name, you idiot!” he growled beneath his breath. “We still have to wait for his Purification Rites. How dare you give him all three!”
“B-b-but I-I-I th-thought y-you sus-suspended pro-protocol.” Claudius replied miserably.
“I was jesting!” he thumped his uncle’s head. “Even my stupid sisters could see that! I meant something like Priapus or Agamemnon—not real names, but silly names, you fool! The child is a bastard, can’t you see? He doesn’t deserve a title or three names! I don’t want another heir to my throne!”
Claudius sighed deeply. As a scolded puppy, he looked unhappily at the floor. For a brief moment, Livilla, who stood next to Claudius, pitied her poor uncle, wondering what her brother might do. But as with all mad emperors, Caligula’s anger faded as he looked around the room. Rarely could he concentrate on just one thing. For a moment, he yawned expansively then watched Dora suckle the child. A hideous grin now spread across his impish face. Once again, however, he refocused on the child as if it were an object of scorn, saying venomously to himself “He’s too ugly for such a name!”
“Marcus has a good sound.” Drusilla offered sweetly.
“This is nonsense” Livilla frowned. “and in very bad taste! Poor Marcus was dark; Lucius is fair. Marcus had black hair and eyes, while Lucius looks splotchy and pale. Lucius’ ears, nose, and chin make him look almost Greek!”
“Livilla’s right, my pet, Marcus won’t do.” Caligula looked over at Claudius. “Perhaps a Greek merchant or philosopher has shared her bed. At any rate, my uncle has dared give my sister’s son all three of his names. So on his ninth day, let it become official: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Let this ill-omen triad be registered as one of the Julian family names!”
Turning to an attendant now, Caligula sent for his guards. It would be learned later from Agrippina’s servants that an entire cohort had accompanied he and his entourage to Antium. Her brother had placed great hopes in Nero’s illegitimacy, and yet he and his sisters, as a sign of contempt, stayed in one of Caligula’s summer villas last night to avoid being under her roof. In spite of their outrageous behavior, however, Agrippina felt satisfaction. Her husband had, with his last shred of decency, acknowledged her son. She had convinced at least one of her sisters that her son was legitimate. Although she had disliked Agrippina as much as Drusilla, Livilla had displayed her characteristic fairness. For that matter, Claudius, her favorite uncle, in spite of his muddled efforts, remained a true friend.
Added to her husband’s acknowledgement, the recognition given by Livilla and Uncle Claudius would make her son’s registration as a citizen secure. And yet not for a moment did Agrippina take Caligula’s blessing seriously or feel triumphant for today. She had much work to do. There would be a long and fearful road ahead, as long as her brother Caligula lived. She must strengthen her ties to Livilla and never underestimate poor uncle Claudius again.
As the noble entourage filed out, both Claudius and Livilla flashed worried looks at the infant. Their courage had helped saved Lucius’ life. Caligula, arm in arm with his favorite sister, turned to his brother-in-law then, wagged a bony finger in front of his face, and spoke in the gravest tone:
“You Domitius, for penance to my sister, shall forfeit to my nephew one third of your estate, even though he’s not your rightful heir!”
“And you Agrippina,” his tone grew whimsical “behave yourself, and don’t bring any more bastards into this house! I still think he resembles Marcus Quintillus, although Drusilla thinks he resembles an ape. Nevertheless, with great reluctance, I leave my blessing on you. In spite of everything, you, if not little whats-his-face, are a Julian!” “Therefore, on behalf of your son,” he motioned again to Domitius “your husband shall draw up a contract to provide him with one third of his estate!”
“As for you uncle,” she heard him say to Claudius in the hall “I plan to teach you the art of jesting. In front of such riffraff, if you ever second guess me again, I’ll have you thrown to the lions!”
Turning her attention back to her son, Agrippina motioned for Dora to place the infant in her arms.
“I’m sorry they treated you badly mistress.” Dora spoke to Agrippina for the first time.
“The important thing” Agrippina looked imperiously around the room “is that Lucius, in spite of the insults we suffered today, is alive. We all are alive. But heed my words Flavius, Felix, Claudia, and Minerva! As you might already suspect, my brother Caligula is mad. He didn’t appreciate your efforts today—not one bit! He will never forgive you for bringing Lucius into the world. He will never forgive Domitius, Claudius or my sister Livilla for acknowledging my son. . . He called my son a bastard. . . and a beast. He’s convinced I’m a slut!” “But my son is not a bastard!” she clutched Nero to her breast. “Caligula, my brother, is the bastard and the beast—the most illegitimate excuse for an emperor I’ve ever known! . . So be careful Minerva and Claudia, least an assassin approach my son. And be watchful Flavius and Felix, least someone poison our food. Until someone puts that mad dog to sleep, even you Dora, are suspect. Great things are in store for my son and his friends. But I will destroy anyone, including you, who threatens my son or interferes with my plans. Someday, mark my word, when Caligula is dead and forgotten, he will set upon the throne. My son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, will one day be Emperor of Rome!”
* December 15, 37 A.D.