October 15, 2013


by Susan Phillips

Now, when it is too late to do anything—too late to act, too late to regret—now I wish that I had been guilty of even half the wicked acts that I was accused of. I would have interesting things to think about now, reliving wild pleasures I have never known. As it is, although I am not a pure woman—and what matron of Rome is these days?—I find myself wondering. Could any woman have done all that they said I did? How could anyone sneak off, unseen, night after night? Why would anyone perform those horrid acts? Although I have been married three times, there is much I never learned. And I will never learn it now.

My childhood was innocent and happy enough. My father, the Emperor Augustus, did all he could to protect me from real and imagined harms. I have since learned about the scandal of my infancy: my father Augustus divorced my mother Scribonia the very day I was born. He then insisted that Tiberius’ father divorce Livia. Three months after their marriage, Livia gave birth to Drusus. Despite great longing, she never did get pregnant by Augustus. I was lucky to be a girl. Otherwise, I might not have lasted Livia’s stepmothering.

I grew up in a noisy household, full of children—Livia’s sons, Augustus’ nephews and nieces. We all learned philosophy and rhetoric; we girls also learned the arts of spinning, weaving and sewing. For years I thought this work a waste of time. But now, with little else to do, the old womanly arts keep me occupied. I wonder sometimes what will happen to all my piles of cloth when I am gone.

Augustus was strict with us. Our food was simple, our surroundings plain, our clothes undistinguished. I suppose he meant us to grow up humble and pure. Instead, I grew up envying the daughters of senators and other rich men, who dressed so beautifully and wore different jewels every day. My life has turned full circle. I live now even more simply than in my young girlhood.

Despite the plainness of my dress, I had admirers, although Augustus discouraged them. Once at Baiae, Lucius Vinicius, a perfectly nice young man from a respectable family, came to pay his respects to me. He was charming and handsome, and I dreamed about him for weeks on end. But I never saw him again. My father wrote to him, calling his visit immodest. That reproof was enough to keep Lucius far away from me.

But it was also enough to make my father realize that, at fourteen, I was becoming a woman. So quickly, in consultation with Livia and his sister Octavia, Augustus decided that I should marry my cousin Marcellus, a sweet but shy boy, not much older than I.

We were happy for a time. We had our own suite of rooms, in a quiet section of Augustus’ palace. There we discovered, though awkwardly at first, love. We spent hours talking to each other—of what, I no longer remember. But I do know that at the time every conversation was important—more important than anything else around us. My father hoped that Marcellus, his favorite nephew, would one day succeed him. We must have talked of that. We must have planned our future, the great works we would provide Rome together, as a team—much like Augustus and Livia themselves. Had he lived, Marcellus would have been the greatest of all Roman emperors. But he did not live. Two years after our marriage, my beloved Marcellus died—and part of me, I now believe, died also.

Oh, I wept—how I wept for weeks and weeks, crying myself to sleep at night, my nightmare sobs waking me in the middle of the night. I had never known loss before, and it frightened me. I feared that I would just keep crying, day after day, night after night, for the rest of my life.

My father was sorry, too, for the loss of his favorite nephew. But already he had other plans for me and for the future of Rome. Had I been asked—even before my marriage to Marcellus—I would have said that I wanted to marry Tiberius, Livia’s elder son. He was so handsome then—tall and straight, with skin so smooth any woman would long to touch it His red-gold hair grew in perfect curls around his beautiful face and down his neck. I suppose I had always been in love with Tiberius, from the time I was first aware of him. I used to follow him around when I was a little girl, longing to do anything, everything that he did. And Tiberius tolerated me more than the other boys in the household did. But he did not love me. He played with me, as children do, but he did not say anything when my marriage with Marcellus was arranged or when I became a young widow.

In fact, Tiberius only loved two people in his life—his brother Drusus and his first wife Vipsania, the daughter of Augustus’ old friend Marcus Agrippa.

I tried to like Vipsania for Tiberius’ sake. I hoped that I could become closer to him if I were closer to her. But she had no use for me. That may have been because I was so besotted with Marcellus and later so overcome with grief at his death.

But my father—who had listened so carefully to my childhood prattle, who had urged me to keep daily diaries, who had taken such pride in my youthful sewing that he wore whatever I made, even the first, ill-fitting garments I produced—my father stopped listening to me. And so he decided—probably in consultation with Livia, who seemed to dislike me more the older I got—that I should marry Agrippa. At forty, he was old enough to be my father. In fact, he was Augustus’ age. But no one considered that a problem or considered my feelings. Ever since my marriage to Agrippa I have felt, even when I was happy, that I was a pawn—like the small coins that my cousins used to collect and trade for hours on end. “I’ll give you this if you give me that,” they would go on for hours. I never understood the game or its fascination for them. Just as I never really understood why marriage to this one or that one was so important to my father that he—who divorced my pregnant mother to marry the pregnant Livia—felt compelled to manipulate my life completely, even down to my bedroom.

But I am not being fair to Agrippa. He was a kind husband. He bought me lovely dresses and jewels, such as I had never owned nor even worn before. We gave parties and attended others. We met people who were more interesting than anyone in my father’s household—men and women who admired my style and praised my beauty, who laughed at my witticisms and asked for my opinions. When Agrippa was around, life was exciting.

Unfortunately, he was not often at home. Augustus was clearly training his old friend to be his successor, which struck me as odd, as they were both the same age. So Agrippa was often away—at war or, when he was home, consulting with my father.

But he did give me what Marcellus had failed to: a family. One after another my beloved children were born—Gaius, Lucius, Julia, Agrippina. I loved all my little ones. They amused and consoled me when I was alone and kept me from overwhelming loneliness. I suppose I could have had even more children. But Agrippa fell suddenly ill and died when I was pregnant with our last child, whom I named Agrippa Postumus in honor of his father.

Strange, I did not mourn so deeply for the father of my children as I had for my youthful husband. I was shocked when he died, but I had known all along that I would outlive him, although I had not expected to be widowed so young. My children, my poor children, were overwhelmed with grief at the death of their beloved father. True, he was often away, but he always returned with gifts for them. Like Augustus, he would spend hours playing with them, telling them the thrilling exploits of his life, listening to their childish complaints and triumphs. How different it would have been had Agrippa lived longer! He would have taught our children, he would have sheltered and protected them, just as he tried to protect me.

For I needed protection. I will admit that the flattery I heard so often went to my head. Jealous women and frustrated men spread rumors about me. To his credit, Agrippa ignored them. I was clever, perhaps too clever for my own good. After hearing, over and over, surprise that all our children looked like Agrippa—when I was rumored to be having too many affairs to count—I finally retorted one day, “ Numquam enim nisi navi plena tollo vectorem; I never take on a passenger unless the vessel is already full.”

Agrippa laughed when I repeated the story to him. I am sure he repeated it also, until Roman gossips believed it to be true.

To my surprise, I found that I missed Agrippa. Unlike most of the people we knew, he always thought the best of me. Even my father was pulling away from me. One evening we all arrived at a dinner party at the same time. As soon as we entered and I had removed my cloak, I noticed Livia staring at me; her eyes traveled down and then up again until she was looking straight at me. She turned to Augustus and he, too, looked at me, frowning slightly. I could not imagine why. Unlike Livia, dowdy as ever, I had dressed properly for the occasion, in the new Roman style. I did not wish Agrippa to be tempted to stray from me. In that glittering Roman society in which we moved, women were less to be trusted than men—at least when it came to other women’s husbands.

The next day I took the children to visit their grandfather. I had dressed hurriedly, in an old frock that I had sewn myself years before. As soon as he saw me, Augustus said, “Now isn’t this dress more suited to the daughter of Augustus?” I shook my head slightly. “Today I am dressed for my father’s eyes; yesterday I dressed for my husband’s.”

With Agrippa gone, I felt lonelier than ever. He had often been away, but his homecomings had been joyous for the children and for me. Now I would have no one to hold me or love me. And my last child would grow up without a father. Poor Agrippa Postumus never knew the love of a father.

And so my father now granted me what had once been my most fervent wish: marriage to Tiberius. But what we wish for, and what we get, are not always the same things.

Tiberius was married already to Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of my late husband. I never felt I was a stepmother to her, perhaps because she was several years my elder. She and Tiberius had a son, Drusus, named after his brother, the only other person Tiberius ever loved. At the time Vipsania was pregnant again. Despite knowing of their great love and devotion, Augustus now felt it was his duty to protect me and my children before anyone else in Rome. Or perhaps he wanted to protect my eldest sons, his beloved grandsons Gaius and Lucius, whom he had by now adopted as his own, just as years before he had adopted Tiberius. So my old childhood playmate and I were, in a way, brother and sister. Who, I sometimes wondered, would protect Tiberius’ sons—Livia’s grandsons and the grandsons of Augustus’ adopted son?

But my father did not always look to the end of any road he traveled. “Festina lente,” he used to say over and over again. “Make haste slowly.” But this time he did not think out what he was doing.

With much anguish, as he later told me over and over again, Tiberius divorced the pregnant Vipsania and married me. He saw her again only one more time. Like a lovesick boy, he followed her on the streets for hours, weeping as he walked. When Augustus heard the story, he quickly arranged another marriage for her. They moved away, and we heard no more about them. They were probably happy together. Vipsania was always a calm, simple woman, who made a point of listening carefully to whatever another person said to her, always trying to understand the other. Or perhaps it was her coolness that Tiberius found so intriguing. Had I been walking in the marketplace, followed by my weeping, adored and adoring ex-husband, I would have run to him and consoled him, any way I could. Surely, if Vipsania had loved Tiberius half as much as he loved her, she would have known, would have sensed his presence and said something to him.

Or maybe she, like I, was used to being told marry this one, marry that one. Perhaps she had forgotten that both men and women could love.

I should have been happy then. And for a time I was. Once I realized that my old dreams had come true, I fell joyously in love with Tiberius once again. My love for him burned within me. After a while, I realized that fire cannot melt every substance. There I was, a woman in her prime, in love with her husband. In those days in Rome, that was in itself an oddity. I did my best every day to seduce him into loving me. I remembered how Marcellus and I had come to love each other through our long talks. And Agrippa had shown his love me in other, more intimate ways. Tiberius seemed content for a while, though never really happy. He listened to my chatter, nodded solemnly when I spoke of rhetoric or the latest literature or read to him the newest works of my friend Ovid. He followed my lead in our bedroom; I was only teaching him what I had learned from Agrippa.

But after a while, nothing worked. He began by being bored with my talk and my friends. He would doze off whenever I began a conversation, no matter what the subject. When our only child died in infancy, he accused me of neglect, as if it were my fault that I was so sickly after the birth. When I wished to assume marital relations with him, he called me ugly names, asking which of my lovers had taught me this or that trick. Although I had a sharp tongue and quick wit in those days, I felt it immodest to point out that his former father-in-law had taught me well in the art of love.

For Tiberius, there was no art in love, at least not with me. It is possible he saw or thought of Vipsania when he was with me. I tried—I tried every ploy, every womanly art I knew. I consulted friends but this, I later realized, was a grave mistake. When I innocently asked questions of how to kindle love in a man, they all assumed was asking how to seduce a new lover. So I stopped asking. Besides, whenever I would try a new trick I heard about, Tiberius assumed I learned it from another man. Never did I imagine that marriage to a man I had loved all my life would end up being so difficult and so sad.

Our problems grew. Instead of growing closer, we drifted farther and farther apart. And then he left. First he left my bed, then our home; soon he had left Rome altogether and retired, so he said, to Rhodes. I have not seen him since.

For a long while I waited and hoped that Tiberius would return to me. Weeks, months went by, and I received no letter. He never even sent a message. I grew lonely—as what woman would not? I was still beautiful then and much admired by many men. Soon I found myself falling in love with Iullus Antonius, Mark Antony's grandson. As always, I hoped for the best.

And why not, I thought. My father Augustus and stepmother Livia decided that Tiberius and I should divorce—and so it happened. I was not told of the event until after it happened when Livia showed me a letter that Tiberius sent Augustus, suggesting that I keep my share of any inheritance.

When I read that note, I felt utterly destroyed. I thought of pleading with my father, with Tiberius, but my pride would not allow it. Instead I fell into the arms of Iullus. He was kind and gentle, and I thought he loved me. But I was sadly mistaken.

By now I had learned much of philosophy, rhetoric, art and literature. I read late into the night and listened carefully to conversations at dinner. There was, however, one subject that bored me—politics. How foolish I was! That was a subject I should have paid the most attention to.

And so, I fell for the charms of Iullus and believed him loving and faithful to me. He had other things in his mind, however. He and other friends of his, calling themselves the Lovers of Julia, were plotting against Augustus. Livia heard of the conspiracy and immediately told Augustus. As it turned out, Iullus and his band had told vicious lies and stories about me, which Livia also told Augustus.

Without asking me what had happened, my father took serious action against me. I do not know which betrayal hurt me the most. I was not surprised by Livia’s; by then she was a bitter woman, capable of loving only Augustus. But to learn on the same day that my lover had used me as a political pawn and that my father believed every filthy lie he heard about me made me lose any spirit or will to fight back that I might have had. For days I took to my room, not even crying, just sitting there, alone. No one but my freedwoman Phoebe visited me. She told me the news and urged me to disguise myself and flee the city. But I lacked the energy to do anything. “All of this will blow over soon,” I told her. “My father will beg my pardon for even listening to these cruel lies.”

What an innocent I was then! Too foolish and trusting to live, one might say. Augustus did not apologize; he has not spoken to me since. Instead, he banished me to the island of Pandateria, off the Campanian coast. A more barren place you have never seen. It was all rocks and stumpy bushes. The fog was thick and heavy, and I rarely saw the moon or stars or even the sun. My father forbade me wine, which I missed because I could not sleep well. I would have liked to have drunk enough to fall into a deep sleep.

He also made sure that no young man would ever talk with me. But that was a blessing to me. When a woman is betrayed by as many men as I have been, she loses all desire for any man’s company. And so, once again, I took up my old womanly arts. To keep the old men who guarded me from resenting me too much, I wove them warm blankets and cloaks and sewed them tunics and togas. I left the gifts where the guards could easily discover them.

I heard no words of love or comfort from anyone, but Livia was sure to write me whenever disaster struck. So I heard that Iullus Antonius was forced to commit suicide, and that the other “Lovers of Julia” were exiled. If Livia thought that news would sadden me, it only proved how little she knew me.

But the other news she sent—oh, that hurt bitterly. Poor Phoebe, afraid for her life or her reputation, hanged herself. When my father heard the news, he declared that he would have preferred being Phoebe’s father to mine.

Livia made sure to tell me when my beloved sons Lucius and Gaius died. Augustus banished my daughter Julia and even my poor fatherless Agrippa Postumus. How it hurt to learn this news—only a mother truly knows.

No matter how often the Senate or the common people themselves begged for my recall, Augustus refused to even hear of it. Each time, Livia wrote me a long letter, describing in detail what the people had asked and how my father always replied, “If you mention this matter again, may the gods curse you with daughters as lecherous as mine; or let your wives turn out that way also.”

I don't know why I continued to read her letters. Perhaps to remind myself that I was safer and better off on this barren island than in Rome.

My mother, Scribonia, absent through much of my life, joined me in exile. For that I was grateful. While she lived, I had a companion. We wove and sewed together and told each other the stories of our lives. If I had lived with her when I was young, I would have learned much that might have protected me. But it is useless to wish for the impossible. Being with her as I was—grown woman to grown woman—at least with her help I have been able to make sense of my life.

And so these years of my exile have passed. Had Livia died first, I am sure my father would have come to his senses and recalled me from exile. But when I heard that he died, so died my hope. Tiberius, now Emperor himself after my father became a god, will never forgive me for the humiliation he suffered. A stronger man or perhaps a less ambitious man would have fought for his first marriage, I now believe. A man with more love and passion inside him would have appreciated his second wife. I have heard that he did not remarry after our divorce. Once I overheard the guards gossiping about Tiberius and his life first in Rhodes and then back in Rome. From what they said, I wondered if both his marriages had been shams after all.

But it is best not to think about that now or wonder about what could have been. Tiberius made only one acknowledgment of my exile—and that was to have me moved to Rhegium. If it is not exactly a pleasant spot, it is at least less barren and cold and larger than Pandateria. For this I was at first grateful.

Lately, however, I have become lonely again. I eat less and less each day, and my fingers work my wool more and more slowly. I tire easily and cannot say that anything interests me any longer. I rarely hear news of Rome, but actually I am grateful for that. I do not trust what Tiberius has done or will do to my daughter Agrippina or to any of my beloved grandchildren. I doubt I will survive another year here. Although the breeze is more pleasant here than the stiff, cold winds of Pandateria, I feel every bit of coolness as chilling.

When I realized finally that Tiberius would never forgive me, that he would let me live out my days in exile, I began to lose all hope. And what, after all, could he forgive me for? For loving him too well and too long.

Fear not, Tiberius. Your actions have long since killed the love that I ever felt for you.

* * *

Susan Phillips is a Boston area writer, photographer and teacher, whose work has been published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed in over ten literary magazines, including Poetica Magazine, Living Text and Wild Violet. In addition, two stories were published in the anthology All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on an historical novel about King Agrippa I and three collections of short stories: women in the Hebrew Bible, Talmudic figures and fairy tales.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

For me, the characters and the history have to be logical, have to make sense, have to fit together somehow. When I read historical fiction, I want to know what happened when and why. And I want the characters to be believable, even when that means that I don’t like a protagonist. I try to write what I like to read.


smart-cuss said...

Ms. Phillips' prose is compelling. Her narrator quickly came to life, reminding me of the grip that "I, Claudius," the TV portrayal of that era, had on me.

Poignant and revealing . . .

smart-cuss said...

the narrator leaps to life in Susan's skillful language: brilliant snapshot of a difficult life!