Warning: The book takes takes place during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Then, as unfortunately now, torture was used both for personal pleasure as well as government policy. There are vivid descriptions of rape; torture; brutal battle scenes; and even consensual sex! In short, this is a book only for the mature reader.
TIME’S WINDOW: ROME, 192 A.D.
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, more simply titled Emperor Commodus, had three hundred charming girls in one harem, and three hundred pretty boys in another. His favorite concubine was named Marcia; he had no favorites among the boys, for he seldom saw their faces.
Commodus fancied himself a gladiator: set up on a raised platform mounted in the center of the Coliseum, he killed lions, leopards, even elephants with arrows from his powerful bow. Other gladiators, of course, dealt with the wild beasts (and each other) in single combat on the bloodstained earth of the amphitheater. Commodus, being a god, never descended to their level, and so never had to test his immortality.
The Emperor had been discontented of late: Marcia was with child, and she wanted his love; his chamberlain Eclectus had served his master too well during the Emperor’s recent bout with dysentery, and thus had had the misfortune to see the god in suffering human form; and finally the Praetorian Prefect, Laetus, had dared to suggest that Commodus should stop having Senators murdered on the grounds that the people might revolt. As if the people would revolt against their god!
Still, Commodus had not ruled for fifteen years without being careful, and so he determined that these three who were closest to him would have to die.
He wrote their sentence down on a sheet of papyrus marked with the imperial eagle, and sought out one Priscus, a captain of the Praetorian guard, a man with several Senatorial assassinations to his credit.
Something Commodus did not realize, as he set out on his errand, was that it was the middle of the night. Within the Imperial Palace there was neither day or night: flaming lamps lit every room with their warm glow, huge fireplaces kept every room warm at all times (even on this December night) and so, unless one ventured outside, there was no way or reason to note the time.
Soldiers, however, unlike Emperors, report according to schedules, and Priscus was off duty in his quarters, the way barred by sentries.
Commodus did not wish to attract undue attention by making his presence known to these sentries, and so he folded his papyrus sheet, held it crushed in his palm, and wandered back through the palace to his harems.
The eunuchs with their whips drew back the curtains that barred the first entrance, and so he entered the haven of women. Instantly they became aware of him; those who were sleeping brushed their hair back prettily, and half-opened their eyes, and slowly smiled with sensual languor. Those who had been awake, hoping, smiled boldly (as they had been practicing) and caressed a bare breast, and parted their legs slightly to offer their god a glimpse of heaven. Even the girls who had been engaged in loving each other turned their lambent eyes to him, and continued their caressing, hoping he would order them both to his chambers, and reward them with what they did not possess.
They all wanted him too much.
This was the problem with women, Commodus thought: they desire your strength, and take it into themselves, and leave you weaker. Worse, they want to see you weaken: he had caught them before—Marcia had done this—looking into his eyes as he lost himself, glorying in what they took from him. He was not always sure they saw a god in that moment.
No, he would not have a woman.
He turned, left their sighs behind, and soon found himself among the boys. Now the mood was different: they turned sullenly, as they had been trained, thus presenting their buttocks barely covered by short filmy robes. Commodus didn’t see their eyes, for which he was grateful; they bent obediently when he touched them, and suffered his fondling hand and probing fingers (the eunuchs kept the boy’s nether passageways moist and prepared at all times).
Commodus chose a boy of twelve for his rounded bottom and his white patrician skin: a eunuch took the boy’s hand and marched him roughly ahead of the Emperor to the imperial bedchamber.
The eunuch stripped the boy and arranged him facedown on the Emperor’s pleasure mat (certainly not on the regal bed), salaamed in the eastern style (in the days of his manhood the eunuch had been a Turkish warrior), and exited the room.
Commodus started to loosen his imperial purple garments—tightened his grip on the papyrus death sentence—smiled with satisfaction, freed his stiff weapon with the other hand, and lowered himself upon the boy, who pressed his face against a silken pillow and tried not to cry.
Commodus needed both hands to prepare his invasion—the papyrus impeded his grasp—he tucked the note under the pillow, thought of the boy resting his face on a god’s decree, spread the haunches with one hand, guided himself with the other, found the opening, pressed, the boy’s face crushed now against the pillow, biting the silk, the power of life and death over him, in him, death under the pillow a piquant fillip to pleasure, ah, so satisfying to a god, Commodus drove in deeply, imagining, picturing the death of Eclectus, and Laetus, and especially Marcia—
He exploded—yes, he was a god, the boy couldn’t see him…
Afterwards, Commodus moved to the next room where an ever heated bath awaited him. He waved off the slave girls who waited to attend him; he luxuriated in the warm water, all satisfied, nearly asleep …
The boy was crying. Now that the Emperor was gone, he let the tears pour down his cheeks—but he was a brave boy, his father had been a Senator (mysteriously assassinated one night, the rest of the family—mother, two daughters, and the boy—had been taken into slavery by brutal imperial soldiers) and so he did not make a sound.
He heard the faint crackle of the creased papyrus under his pillow; he reached under it and drew out the note. At first all he could recognize through his tears was the Imperial eagle; then he dried his eyes with one hand, and saw the names (being a patrician boy, he could read and write), and saw the words in what could only be the Emperor’s own hand: “Priscus—take care of them.”
The boy had heard that name before.
He remembered the captain of the soldiers who had come for his family—
Suddenly the boy understood far more than a twelve year old should have to grasp—he shuddered, twisting on the mattress, the pain in his mind greater than the pain between his buttocks—he wanted to shriek, but he did not—
He made himself get up.
When Commodus, freshly toweled and powdered (feeling cheerful after his relaxing doze, he had called for the slave girls after all), returned to his bedchamber, he saw before him Marcia, entirely naked.
Her breasts were full, her nipples erect; the round mound of her pregnant belly seemed aggressive, pointing at him.
She smiled, showing her teeth.
He looked at her eyes; he remembered his note, and looked for the silken pillow, but it was still in place.
The boy was gone.
Marcia beckoned him closer.
With a sudden thrill he thought he could do it himself: a god does not need assistance.
He smiled, and stepped forward, thus letting Laetus and Eclectus spring on him from either side—their hands struck at his neck, his eyes, and Marcia slashed forward with her teeth as her fingers clawed at his genitals—
The ‘gladiator’ had never actually fought before. He would have liked to be up on a tower looking down on the fray; it was always entertaining to see a victim torn to pieces.
They kept tearing at him.
He tried to say, “I’m a god,” but Laetus had his hands on his throat now, and no sound came out.
Laetus applied greater pressure; Eclectus sat back, not normally being a man of violence; Marcia leaned over her Emperor’s face; Commodus tried to close his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see her, but the strangling pressure forced his eyes open, forced them to bulge against their lids, Marcia was swimming before him, her eyes on him—
He thought, Don’t look at me, and then his own eyes retreated upwards, rolling back into his skull, leaving only whites for his lover to contemplate—then the blood vessels burst, his eyes went red, his world went black, and Marcia was staring down into the face of a corpse—
A corpse who had once been a god.
Thirteen centuries and some years after Commodus’s death, or rather more precisely, on a Tuesday, May 4, 1527, inside the walled city of Florence…
On this day a group of rich young gentlemen, partisans of the ruling Medici family, were gathered in the famed Oricellarii Gardens. This splendid arbourarium was owned by one of their number, a certain Gianni Ruccelai who fancied himself a poet and patron of the arts. His friends had come for political discussion, to be led by his guest, a man officially exiled from their city. Gianni’s connections (his cousin was Alessandro de Medici) had made the conclave possible. Now, as Gianni looked around at the uneasy gathering, he began to regret his own efforts.
The young men were shaking like schoolboys, though they were all past twenty and their formal schooling had long since ended: the fact was they were frightened by the old man, the disgraced exile who, assuming the role of teacher, had just asked them a question.
Why was this man frightening to these privileged aristocrats?
He might instead seem a creature to be pitied. After all, they were rich and he had had to beg relief from a tax bill of nine florins (less than the price of a book). They were young and healthy; he moved with grimaces and stifled groans, a legacy of the imprisonment and torture he had suffered. They had political power; all his former influence was gone. The gates of Florence opened for them at the least sign; he entered the city only on their sufferance.
None of that mattered. They bowed their heads and refused to meet his eyes.
This was the question he had just asked: “What mistake did the Emperor Commodus make, or rather, what should he have done differently so as to preserve his life and power?”
The teacher—the exile—surveyed their bowed heads and smiled. He was a thin upright man who one day previously had celebrated his fifty-eighth birthday. His head was a bit small in proportion to his broad shoulders, while his eyes were too large for his head. His hair had vanished or gone to gray; what was left made a rough circle low on his skull like a monk’s tonsure. His nose was thin, aggressively pointed; his narrow lips often showed a cynical smile. His clothes had been in fashion fourteen years before; they were made of the finest Florentine wool, they had been lovingly mended and patched uncounted times; if not for his unquenchable dignity he might have appeared to be an ancient beggar.
His dark eyes shifted slowly over the group of young men. He could see them squirming. None of them wanted to admit that the past lived in the present.
Finally Gianni (as a host saving his guests from embarrassment) bravely raised his head.
“Tell us, what was Commodus’s sin?” the teacher asked.
“He shouldn’t have been buggering boys,” Gianni said with such seriousness that his friends tittered in nervous relief.
One wag couldn’t resist his opportunity: “Girls, now, that’s another matter!”
A third, Luigi, caught the allusion and cracked, “And if you do it to a girl you’ll beat the rap!”
Now the men guffawed into their hands, for it was common knowledge that their teacher, back in his glory days, had once been arrested for sodomizing one of his mistresses; though the punishment for such a crime even in enlightened Florence was death, their teacher’s case had been dismissed before trial.
The older man waited until the laughter had nearly ended; he observed how even in their enjoyment the students refused to meet his eyes. The teacher had a dry cutting voice when he wanted, a voice that had commanded armies and condemned men to death; he used it now as he said, “Luigi: Know that I speak of politics, not love. I speak of Commodus, not of my own passions; I ask you to explain, young friend, exactly what the Roman Emperor should have done to avoid his fate, and the disaster that ensued for Rome. I should remind you that within three months of Commodus’s murder, the city of Rome had sunk into civil warfare, and the office of Emperor itself was shamefully auctioned to the highest bidder.”
The teacher looked hard at the frightened youth. “What should Commodus have done?”
Luigi swallowed, tried to meet those dark eyes, couldn’t manage it, and then in a low voice said, “I agree with my friend Gianni. The mistake that Commodus made was giving in to his base and unnatural lust. He should have stuck to his concubines!”
The teacher looked at Luigi sadly, as if at a young lad who as yet understood nothing; he shook his head in a gesture that included all of them; and then he spoke.
“It may be praiseworthy indeed for a Prince to be virtuous. But if his nature is such that he cannot be, then he must at least indulge himself in such a way as not to lose the state.
“If Commodus had strangled the boy after sodomizing him, he would have safeguarded the knowledge of the note. The assassinations would have gone off cleanly, and the continuity of Roman government would have been maintained.
“There were two hundred ninety-nine other boys, you see. A replacement could easily have been supplied.”
“Are there any questions?”
The young men looked at their teacher in silent horror.
Only Gianni made a sound, and that only a whisper to himself: “You are the devil. I shan’t invite you again, Niccolò Machiavelli.”
The holy city of Rome, inside the fortress of Popes known as the Castello Sant’Angelo, under the protection of the Archangel Michael…
As Niccolò Machiavelli shocked young Florentine aristocrats with dark political realities, in Rome Pope Clement VII’s Swiss Guards were acting on their master’s orders. They had already escorted their charge, a seventeen year old blindfolded virgin, across the drawbridge over the Castello’s double moats, showed a document and obtained entry to the fortress itself—now after marching her forward twenty paces they opened a heavy internal door, ducked into a low corridor (shoving their prisoner’s head down), dragged her down twelve steps, bandied with a fellow Guard, showed again their document with Papal seal affixed, were passed through a barred door, dragged their burden down eleven more low slippery steps, accosted a jailer, helped him haul a shrieking cell door open, yanked the blindfold off and flung the girl inside.
Her knees hit the floor and skidded on slippery straw hard packed on dirt—her head hit the far stone wall with a crack—her consciousness fluttered out and she never heard the heavy door scraping shut behind her.
A moment later she was back in her body, awakened by the fresh pain in her forehead, tasting blood that had run down her face—but all that was nothing against the primitive terror that gripped her when she realized she was awake and the blindfold was gone and there was no image on her eyes.
She screamed—tried to scream—but the sound exited through such a raw and pained throat (she had screamed before, during her flogging, for so long) that she could only make aching gasps—
What have they done to my eyes?
She turned her face up to God—
Nothing. Or was there…?
The girl closed her eyes tight, breathed deeply, fought down her panic—and then she prayed. Finally she opened her eyes again and looked up.
Not everything was dark.
There was a tiny crack in the ceiling of her cell. This crack let in an almost—but not quite—imagined zephyr of light.
I can see!
She stood up to go toward the light—and cracked her head again on stone. She spun backward, dizzily reeling, then sank, weeping, to the safety of the floor.
Sitting, the pain—all the pain—came back. Her forehead throbbed from two contacts with unyielding stone. The welts on her back ached—some still oozed blood that collected over her spine and dripped down the cleft between her buttocks. With the skirt of her borrowed silk dress (torn open all the way down her back, and yet the only garment she wore) she dried the blood and tears on her face.
She didn’t try to touch her back.
Overhead the zephyr of light flickered like a treasonous mirage. She closed her eyes—opened them again, and raised one hand over her head, between her eyes and the light. She could just make out her dark fingers when she spread them to admit the light.
She could see. Then how had the wall struck her that second time? She knew—her life had taught her well—not to cry for help. Pressing her lips together, well accompanied by her pain, she began to explore.
First she crawled on her knees with one hand on the thin straw and one hand scraping the stone wall. She soon discovered the cell was circular—then realized she couldn’t tell how large, because she couldn’t tell where she had started. She tore a loose piece off her already torn dress, laid it carefully by the wall, and began the circuit again: scrape her right hand on the wall, reach forward six inches with her left hand, move both knees forward—one step.
This time the circuit seemed to take forever, her mind kept shutting off, flashing images of the Pope’s purple, the woman, the whip … Head hanging down, she fought with consciousness, fought to remember the number: twenty crawling steps; forty crawling steps; eight crawling steps brushing steel reinforced wood—the door—so forty-eight; fifty-five; sixty; sixty-one. Her left hand brushed the cloth, she drew it through her fingers, and then sat carefully back on her haunches. Sixty-one steps: the circumference of her cell was about thirty-one and a half feet. She had studied geometry along with writing and history, so she knew the diameter of her little prison was a bit less than ten feet.
She looked up again at the zephyr of light. It was fainter now: somewhere above her the sun was setting. Time to stand up while there was still any light.
If I stand the wall will strike my head.
My hands will lead the way.
The girl knelt before the wall, and put both hands on the rough stone. Slowly she started to rise. The posture strained her back; her welts screamed. She kept on, gaining inches. More strain as she was forced to arch backwards—suddenly she understood. The cell’s wall tapered upward in an ever narrowing circle. That was why she had struck her head when she had stood up straight near the edge.
She dropped back to her knees, crawled backward to what she judged was the center of the cell. She lowered her head and prayed, then looked up at the wisp of fading light—and stood up.
Nothing touched her.
She reached out carefully with her hands, found the wall closing in above her—but there was room to stand, room to take two steps in any direction. Standing tall, straining her eyes, she saw the ceiling above her some three feet out of reach: a smaller circle about four feet in diameter, a circle with a tiny crack offering fast fading light.
The girl slowly sank to her knees again, her investigation complete.
She did not let herself think of the soldier she had seen—yesterday—O so long ago.
She did not dream of her mother, or curse her father.
She only thought of what was now, what was as real as the stone around her.
I am imprisoned in the Castello Sant’Angelo.
My cell is an inverted cone, with the top cross sectioned off.
I can move a few feet in any direction.
My injuries are not mortal, and my eyes still function.
I have all that is required for a slave.
A savage smile twisted her bitten lips—but then her expression softened, for the vicious abuse of her body had not destroyed her identity—she whispered her own name with a loving silent breath: “Siena.”