"There are my jewels."
Miseno, ? BCE.
A thin wisp of ash escapes from the small stake and spirals upward. I follow it with my eyes until the wind gets hold of it and carries it away in the open sky. The remainder of my personal archive burns in front of me and I warm myself in the chill of the morning before the fire on my terrace.
I would not be surprised if the ash came from a letter to one of my Greek friends in which I had described an intimate incident in Rome. Several years after the death of my husband, I returned late in the evening from a dinner. It was still sweltering hot and I left the curtain of my litter a little open. A touch of wind blew the drape aside, revealing more than appropriate. I looked straight into the face of a man in a passing litter. Our eyes met and in the light of the torches, I beheld the beautiful face of a young Etruscan prince. A refined, white face with sparkling dark eyes, gracefully framed with red, curly hair; his eyebrows, mustache and pointed beard as thin as brushstrokes. He was as surprised as I was and with a slight smile, he made a light bow, courteous but not without a hint of mischief. The incident stirred up a physical sensation in my hips that I had not had for years and the sweet tremble inspired a nightly dream that I described in the letter to my friend.
On the pile before me burn more dreams and secret thoughts than even my most intimate friends would not have imagined. Doubts about my husband and our forthcoming wedding. Heart cries to the lovers I have known since the death of my husband. Testimonies of my love for my mother and anger over her restrictive rules. Epistles full of rage and admonitions to my sons. Pleas for mercy to my nephew Serapio and my son-in-law Aemilianus. Consoling words for my daughter and frolicsome trivialities to my granddaughter.
The stake signifies a true bonfire. I have commenced clearing my personal archive after I received a message two days ago. I have made the pre-selection myself and you will find in these pages below the remainder of my diaries deemed worthy of preservation.
They are from my hand. Many have commented on my writings, often telling me they preferred something written by the daughter of Cornelius Scipio Africanus, or the wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, or the mother of the Gracchi brothers. But although I have played all these roles with love, these musings are mine, Cornelia Africana!
A courier brought me the news the Roman people had secretly commissioned two statues of my sons and installed them two days ago in the Forum. He also told me, breathless and with shining eyes, they had proclaimed the site where my son Tiberius was murdered as sacred and offered fresh fruits during a massive ceremony as if it were a holy shrine. It did not bother me that I visibly embarrassed the messenger by embracing him and letting the tears run freely down my cheeks.
I welcome his message in the liberating thought, I can join finally my husband and my children. In advance of my final departure, I have cast my bulla and crystal jewelry into the sea. The rainbows captured in the sparklers belong now to Neptune. I will not need a crystal in the twilight of Hades and none of the Fates can harm me there. All the damage is done and I know already the image, I will carry in my mind's eye when I descend into the underworld.
Years ago, a friend visited me at home. In line with the spirit of our times and prompted by stories about my father's wealth, she was eager to view my jewelry. I recall I laughed aloud and later in the day after they had returned from an excursion, I showed her my two sons, exclaiming, "There are my jewels!" The expression on her face told me, she did not believe me and she left my house convinced my wealth was so enormous that I must have been ashamed and unwilling to show it. I remember this incident so well because I had, much to my annoyance, a hard time finding my sons. I finally located them in the second atrium. As two young, mad dogs, snarling and biting, they were romping around and the look in their eyes instantly softened me; the ebullient glance of two young people loving to be alive.
Direct sources (Loeb Classical Library, London and Universal-Bibliothek, Stuttgart).
Latin: Plautus, Lucilius, Livius, Gellius, Accius, Cicero, Plinius, Cato, Martialis, Valerius Maximus, Cornelius Nepos, Frontinus, Fronto, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Tacitus, and Varro.
Ancient Greek: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximnes, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedokles, Democritos, Leukippos, Zenon, Polybius, Plutarchos, Pindar, Thucydides, Callimachus, Theophrastus, Aristoteles, Aristophanes, Plato, Isocrates and Appian.
Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman world. Roma Antica, Il Centro Monumentale. A new Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Richardson. The Gracchi, Boren. The Gracchi, David Stockton. The Roman Republic, Boren. Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Jerome Carcopino. Athenian Democracy, Jones. Griechische Geschichte, Bengston. Engineering in the Ancient World, Landels. The Lex Repetundarum and the Political Ideas of Gaius Gracchus, A. N. Sherwin-White. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 72 (1982), pp. 18-31, published by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Author: Joost Douma
Joost Douma is the founder of the Dutch National Science Center in Amsterdam, NeMo. His extensive research for Betrayal of a Republic was conducted over a nine-year period, in relevant sites covering Spain, Italy, and Turkey. This is his first novel. He is currently working on a second.