The Tour Begins
I have taken to recording the names of each of the villages, towns
and cities to which our train arrives, that I may access my list
and refresh my memory when I sit down to compose to you these intermittent
So it was that from Rome we travelled the Via Appia south-eastward
across the hills of Italia, passing through the villages of Terracina,
Fundi, Formiae, Minturnae, Capua, and Caudium, to arrive at last
at Beneventum. ‘Twas there we dined with one Ennius Firmus,
a long-time acquaintance of Hadrian, whom the emperor had made curatore
of the town. Upon my introduction, Firmus gazed at me for several
indulgent moments and then with a smile looked back to Hadrian.
“His renown is well-deserved,” said Firmus, and Hadrian
most readily agreed. Over dinner that night they spoke of many things,
including the baths whose construction Firmus had recently overseen,
and Hadrian announced that he would sample from them after the meal.
It was a spontaneous decision that caused Firmus to set in motion
a flurry of instructions to his attending slaves. And so it was
that several of us bathed by lamplight that evening, and Hadrian
was satisfied that the building project was a success. As an additional
benefit, we both felt remarkably refreshed that night as we crawled
into bed together, and our exchange of pleasures was therefore particularly
energetic and enjoyable.
The following morning we were off again, this time along the Via
Traiana. Hadrian paid particular attention to the state of repair
of the road, which was generally good, and thus as we passed through
Aecae, Canusium, and Barletta, he made his approval known to its
officials, who beamed with pride. Our reception along the entire
route was uniformly enthusiastic, and I must admit that the cheering
of the nameless multitudes, punctuated by the lofty words of not-so-nameless
magistrates, has already become a rather mundane spectacle to my
eyes. If this is how we are to be greeted at every town’s
gate, I may as well say here and now that such is to be assumed
as a standard feature of our travels, and I’ll never again
mention it unless a particular reception somehow differs from the
From Butonti we took the coast road to Barium, and from there boarded
a ship and sailed out onto the fat and sparkling Adriatic. Actually,
I ought to clarify: we boarded several ships. For the entourage
is amazingly large, encompassing a broad range of names and faces.
There travels with us Phlegon (naturally) and the Caesarnii (double
naturally), as well as Commodus, Fuscus, Favorinus, Polemo, Fronto,
and a fellow named Pancrates, of whom I know little. Among Sabina’s
women are her three friends I have mentioned previously: Parthenia,
Melino, and Balbilla. There are XIV pages among us, drawn from the
ranks of both the Palatine and the Villa, including Vitalis to Keep
the Personal Horse, and Carisius (alas!) to Keep the Purple Robes.
Turbo commands a substantial Praetorian detachment, of which Decentius
is a ranked fellow on account of his personal mission to me. There
is also a wide assortment of lictors and slaves to round out the
procession which numbers, according to Phlegon’s latest count,
We docked for the night in Cyllene, and then spent the next morning
aboard ships once again sailing deeper into the Gulf of Corinth.
(I have become quite a geography expert by the side of Hadrian,
who, seemingly on a daily basis, looks upon one of many maps of
the world that are brought before his eyes.) We landed at Panormos
next, spent a very pleasant night, and then the following day set
sail once more. We arrived in Corinth just past noon, to the cries
of a cheering throng. (Okay, so I lied. It has been mentioned yet
And so have I been here, in the heart of Achaia, for these past
several days. True to its reputation, Corinth is indeed a bold,
brazen, and bacchanalian town. Boats like sea-birds flock to its
many ports, and some, like turtles, even make the arduous journey
on the backs of slaves over the isthmus to reach its opposite waters.
I saw no evidence of those notorious cruelties for which the residents
of Corinth are often expected to answer, but then again, they very
likely scrubbed their faces prior to our arrival. Most are all smiles,
all the time.
We began our stay with the presentation, on the first evening, of
a rousing oratory by Favorinus. His topic was “bridges,”
a subject for which he was particularly well-suited as he comes
from a place where boats themselves have been made into a permanent
bridge. He flattered the Corinthians – they who are the guardians
of the land bridge between Attica and the Peloponnese – with
the sentiment that they are also, like priests in a temple, the
bridge-builders twixt gods and men, for they administer to the glory
of both Olympians and mortals alike one of the four sacred crown
games of the Panhellenion. Such an astonishing word was that for
them to hear coined! Indeed, it was Hadrian himself who instructed
Favorinus to use it, and thus begin to seed into the minds of men
his role as their great unifier. So taken was his audience with
the hermaphrodite’s words that they immediately promised to
erect a statue of him in their forum. Fronto, who was seated beside
me in the odeon, could not help but marvel: “We have just
witnessed the most perfect confluence of rhetorical beauty and political
ends.” I looked at him with a smirk and said: “Are they
not one and the same?” And we both laughed at that.
On a more sombre note, Vitalis has recently caught ill. Although
this is cause for some worry, he is, naturally, putting on a brave
face and trying as best he can through the nausea and aching flesh
to remain lively and alert, as his name would imply. Some hours
are better than others, and, although he told me yesterday he was
improving, I did not see any evidence of that upon his face, where
the exhaustion was beginning to show. I told Hadrian of my concern
for Vitalis and he has since ordered the youth into bed, to be carried
by litter when we depart in just a few days. You can imagine how
this has upset the poor fellow, who is embarrassed to be treated
in such a sheltered and womanly way when his friends and his king
ride stoutly upon their steeds. As is right and proper, I went today
to make an offering to Aesculapius on my friend’s behalf.
May the god hear me and answer with a smile!
With regard to state business, Hadrian’s latest benefaction
upon the city was to announce the funding for a new baths complex.
This additional construction is partly to reward the Corinthians
for the speed and efficiency with which their aqueduct from Lake
Stymphalus is nearing completion. But this is hardly a surprise,
given that everyone, as far as I can tell, is eagerly (by which
I mean thirstily) anticipating the arrival of an ample supply of
freshwater, especially after this most recent summer in which the
shortages were widespread and, at times, frightening.
In acknowledgement of Hadrian’s munificence, gifts presented
to him in return included two Purple robes, a small statue of the
boy god Palaemon upon his dolphin, and, from a sorry-looking delegation
of Christians, a lecture (yes – a lecture!) on how their particular
sect manages to remain loyal to its poverty in the midst of the
cosmopolitan opulence of Corinth. I hardly need tell you that Hadrian
had a chuckle or two over that.
I suppose what he finds most amusing in regards to the Christians
is the arrogance with which they claim to be guardians of the godliest
truths. To be sure, the Jews are an impenetrable lot, and guard
among themselves their holy practice, yet at least their priests
are not so stupid as to openly declare our Roman gods untenable.
In contrast, the Christians loudly and rabidly frown upon all gods
but their Anointed One. What’s more, they openly disdain as
filthy all that is Hellenic and glorious. It is this haughtiness,
I think, which causes them to be so despised among right-thinking
men – including the sensible Hebrew priests who deem their
squabbling sects to be farcical at best and fraudulent at worst.
Indeed, ours is an immeasurable world filled with beautiful, terrible,
majestic, erotic, lovable, and unknowable gods; yet wherever stands
a Christian can be heard the proclamation of only one worth worshipping:
his own. No wonder Hadrian groans to look on them, for they are
not so much a thorn in the side of the Pantheon as they are a very
bad and embarrassing joke among insulted and unsympathetic men.
So ends my first dispatch from the road (and sea). Yet to whom shall
I hand it? Where shall I store it? I would rather that these missives
are kept apart from both myself and my life with Hadrian, for that
would most appropriately reflect my relation to you, Lysicles, who
flowered and faded upon my senses long before the world in which
I now walk was conceived. Methinks I shall therefore ask my beloved
and brawny Decentius to be my personal secretary, and keep safe
for me this and all future letters.
If he agrees, they shall have found a home in his hands. If he refuses,
then I shall plant them in the soils of the many lands over which
we trek, and imagine that one day soon they shall sprout and blossom
into an earth-spanning garden that sings only of the love I hold
for Lysicles – my most ethereal friend. A.