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Hunting the Phoenix

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It was a long time before I accepted any of it. I believed I was born to better things. Call that arrogance or premonition, I don’t care. it’s the place of the beloved to demur, to give his hunter a chase. The easily won prize is never valued. You may wrap and embalm me in platitudes as you will, but the truth is still that I never wished for any of it.

I was nine years old when a great procession overflowed the streets of Nicomedia, where I had been sent to take my lessons among other boys of my age.

I strayed close, from curiosity, and all too quickly I was drawn into the expositions - games, races, recitals, and marvels all performed for the benefit of the emperor, Publius Aelianus Hadrianus Augustus.

I cared little for that. Bythinia was all I knew. I had written in the same sand as Catullus, I had played in Pliny’s vineyards, and I was a proud rustic. I could not have been more a creature of the woods and the wild waters if I were a satyr. What were emperors to me? I wrestled, and ran, and chanted poems aloud, and stared at the two-headed snake they brought; and I admit I stared again at the Emperor from afar. There was something leonine in him, those broad cheekbones and flat nose amidst russet curls, and I thought it very impressive that he was so like the face upon my coins. But he did not long catch my eye, nor - lying poets set aside - did I catch his.

But I did catch another’s, and that is what bent my fate, from pastoral lover to urban beloved.

I knew my Catullus better than all the other boys and I paid mind to what he meant, and how it was to be said. I was best, a preening little starling. So I thought it only my due when a stringy stick of an old man came to question me on matters of poetry and rhetoric. I thought perhaps he was a tutor looking for a job. It was not until he questioned my family and I trotted out the accustomed lies that I realized he was acting as a procurer, and not until later that he was personal secretary to the Emperor. My invitation to join that august entourage came that evening, directly to my guardians, and my protests of ‘my father, my father’ fell on deaf ears. One did not decline the Emperor’s request, no matter how modestly and tentatively it was issued. My family, or at least that part of it, was timorous, obedient, gods-fearing.

I have never been those things. My first night among the other boys so recruited, I took immediate steps to unbend what I thought of as my destiny. I seized the knife used to carve joints from the roast and held it untrembling against the dimple where jaw and cheek and throat meet. I would, I promised, disfigure myself before I would submit, and I demanded at once to see the man who had brought me. Or bought me, I supposed, not with coine but with supple, gloved threat and effulgent promise.

He came, bemused, and we negotiated, with my face as hostage. I asked to go home, and he declined. I said I would serve as a stable-boy or a shepherd instead. He told me the Roman Legions needed no Bythinian Edymions.

I was to be Ganymede.

A page-boy, then, I said. But not to the Emperor, and no more than a page-boy. I would not submit. I made obscure appeals, including one in the name of Pliny, who had been a friend of my family, and others, using other family names.

He made murmur about heroic temperament, and smiled his narrow, homely smile, and accepted. So, for some few months, I became household page to Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.

It was not to last, but it was… what is the best word? It was an education to me in qualities I lacked. Quiet. Restraint. Tact. Surrender.

In eleven weeks I went from a fulminous young bacchante, a proud and intemperate savage, to a mock-Roman. No virtue they hold higher than the skill and discipline to drive the chariot of one’s emotions, rather than being madly dragged through life by them, as Phaethon (or so many of the Olympians who gave license to their passions.) I learned to hold my peace and to see what was before me, and not what I feared or desired.

Suetonius was not intemperate, but it was not from him, always occupied by his stylus, that I learned this art. Instead, I gathered its seeds from the most frequent visitor to his quarters.

Vibia Sabina was yet beautiful in her thirties, as headstrong as the Empress Plotina who had raised her, and - like Plotina with Trajan - independent of her husband.

No other could so alternate caustic and demure, striking and bland, as suited the moment and its purposes. For his learning, his dedication, his humane reserve and his dry utterances, I admired Suetonius. But it was Sabina who was my model for myself; it is an irony not lost on my, I assure you.

It has been said that Suetonius seduced her, or that he fascinated her until she seduced him. It has been said that he derided her, or that he spoke too candidly of the Emperor’s disregard for her. What I will tell you is that they argued passionately, memorably. Their crime against Hadrian was primarily that they refused to be defined by him - and when he became aware of it, they declined to reveal their mysteries to him, much like Secundus the Silent did. Like I would decline, I thought.

Affair or insult, as you like. Suetonius was dismissed with but an hour’s warning, escaping with his scrolls and with his head. Then, I suppose, I could have fled, or sought dismissal, or in one of many ways shaped my life’s cometary trajectory.

But I was ten, and nervous, and far from home, and I did hunger for the luxuries that surrounded me, as my due - benedictions I had never before known but always felt entitled to. I attached myself to Sabina’s stables. A little Greek page was an undesired bucolic novelty, but a firm voice and a soft hand with a horse being virtues no Roman would decline.

I grew. I was a beautiful boy. I have implied that, if not said it outright, and years of sun and travel were kind to me - even years of hay and manure. I stole moments to read, or to idle in the shadows outside the Empress’ salons, growing wise, I thought, by the reflected light of her poets’ grace. maybe. But as young men who are denied anything will, I grew sullen and melancholy. I was paranoid of omens. I was wary, and feral, and only slowly did age and proximity to luxury tame me, for I was beautiful, and I knew what that meant.

At eighteen, with my sideburns growing in, and the dangers of boyhood falling behind me, when the court ventured once more toward Athens, I grew incautious.

What a terrible mixed joy my moments of incaution have been.