A lady in ancient Rome takes risks at a turbulent time.

By Jane Fairweather

Normally a member of a Roman senatorial family with the cognomen Rufus would have arrived at the Roman town house of his old friends, Titus and Lavinia Vesprilis, in a litter with some smartly turned out slaves in attendance and his excellent major domo, the freed man Quintus to see that everything was as it should be. Today, however, Valerius Rufus was wearing decidedly plebeian clothes and the hood of his cloak covered his head. An intelligent looking grey haired slave had let him in by the garden entrance and taken him straight to Lavinia in this small room, but the man seemed to know what was going on.

Was Lavinia wise to trust her slaves when her husband was under the proscription of death for siding with the republicans  in this weary squabble about who should succeed the murdered Julius Caesar? As far as he knew, no wife had yet paid the ultimate penalty for shielding her proscribed husband, but such a thing was certainly not impossible with the thoroughly unpleasant Lepidus as Consul in charge of Rome; and anyway Titus was still in the greatest danger.

“We got searched yesterday.” Lavinia said nervily as she sat down on a small wooden settle.

He noticed the shape of her always interesting bottom moving under her loose clothes as she did it.

“Presumably they did not find anything.”

“Luckily, no. Jupiter was with us. My slaves were superb and swore they had heard nothing of their master for weeks and they presumed he was in the countryside and still at our country villa.”

“I do hope that the slaves do not know where Titus really is?” Valerius exclaimed.

“Gaius, the one who let you in, was the one who thought of the hiding place. If we live through this, I think he has earned his freedom. And the rest are not stupid and must have a fair idea where their master is. Anyway, we were lucky. They were just checking up and did not really expect to find Titus. They, too, thought he must be in the country and somewhere near our villa, for what sane fugitive would run to Rome?” Lavinia said with a faint smile. However, she then added grimly: “But of course, there is always the next time!”

Her friend of over twenty years thought how remarkably pretty she still was. At nearly thirty, Lavinia had the slenderness and elegance of a girl five or ten years younger. She had not had any children, of course, and no doubt it helped. Her clothes were simple but stylish. You could clearly see the fastening of her woollen tunic on her left shoulder, her soft blue stola was neatly wrapped round her and her breasts were slightly but pleasantly visible through her garments. The only thing he objected to was that she had dyed her fine black hair red, but that was the fashion.

He wondered if she would like him to give her a child. But she was very loyal to Titus as he was all too well aware. It was a pity she was not like some other wives he could name, who were not above going Baiae for a holiday when they wanted a child. For that matter, in another world he might have married her. They had been friends since childhood, but the match had not occurred to their fathers. But then, would he have wanted to be known as the husband of the author of various splendid but risky epigrams that were getting quite widely known? Luckily Octavian Caesar rather liked the thoroughly naughty one about himself, but Lepidus was supposed to be less than amused.

“You really are very lucky in your slaves.” He observed.

“We look after them and they look after us. It has always been the way of my family. I have only ever got rid of one slave. He stole from us, so I had him whipped and sold. He was a Gaul, but my father christened him Pericles for some ludicrous reason. I am told he ended up with the great Lepidus, no less. He had quite a tongue. Maybe he talked himself out of his dilemma.”

“With some help from the slave master in the market, I would think.” Valerius Rufus observed dryly. “After all, what slave master wants to sell a good slave with a bad history? I would lay odds you had become a wicked and unreasonable mistress by the time our friend Pericles reached the house of our great consul Lepidus.”

“For Jupiter’s sake!” Lavinia snapped abruptly. “I stopped just short of having him crucified! More than one owner I can think of would have done it. It was not exactly a small theft. He got off lightly with a whipping and being sold.

“But enough chatter. Is there any news worth hearing? Is there any way out of this nightmare? Am I going to have a husband without a head, or not? Are they going to end this horrible proscription of men who did no more than act according to their conscience after Caesar was killed because they wished to maintain the Republic?”

“Well the news from Octavian overseas is a little more definite than last time. I have spoken to men who have seen the actual letter and there is no doubt that Octavian has written to Lepidus to say there has been enough killing of men who had the misfortune to vote the wrong way in the Senate and it is time perhaps for a little reconciliation, which is too late to save poor Marcus Cicero, though he died well, you know.”

“It was foolish. He could have got away.” Lavinia observed briskly, “Or armed his retainers and slaves as several did and seen off those that came for his head. Instead he just waited for them, stupid man! It was almost as if he wanted to die. I think he saw all his ideals overthrown and no hope for the Republic, and just wanted to die.”

“No doubt,” Valerius replied. “But this means that you and Titus are, to say the least, in a most odd situation. I am sure Octavian will be with us soon and Octavian is powerful enough to tell Lepidus to end the killing. And I am sure that is precisely what Octavian will do. However, he could well be detained, in which case Octavian will send much firmer comments to his fellow Triumvir, Lepidus, which will eventually be obeyed. However, if that happens it will be at least a few weeks before Titus and you are safe, and it could be longer.”

“But we cannot wait weeks and possibly months!” Lavinia exclaimed desperately. “I have already told you, Titus has a fever. It is getting worse. He needs to be out of his hiding hole, which is too hot in the day and damp and cold at night. He needs the care of a good doctor and even then I am by no means sure that we can save him.”

Valerius thought to himself that it sounded as if Titus must be hidden in the roof space, but he felt it tactful not to say it.

Instead he observed: “Well in that case, you will just have to have him in the house and nurse him and pray no one notices.”

“No!” Said Lavinia decisively. “He would not last a week before they came for him. Do you think if I went down on my knees before Lepidus he would listen?”

“He is a mean, nasty man, even if I do find myself in the same party as him!” Valerius Rufus replied. “I very much doubt it. It would be much better to wait for Octavian to come and enforce his will.”

“There is no time! I will go tomorrow morning when Lepidus meets his clients and make my appeal.” Lavinia stated with the calmness of a martyr. “And if there are consequences for me and Titus, so be it. It could not be worse than it already is and we have no children to suffer.”

“You were always stubborn. Do you remember when you told old Diodorus there was no reason we should learn Greek, even if you were the best of us at it, and he asked you three times to take it back. And then out came the ferulae?” Valerius asked, laughing in spite of the seriousness of the situation. “That was when you were ten and I will swear you are three times as bad now you are thirty.”

He tactfully did not say anything about a ten year old Lavinia suspended from the back of one slave while another held her feet and the schoolmaster Diodorus applied the long lengths of leather known as Ferulae with considerable ferocity to the bare posterior of his favourite pupil. He suspected it was not Lavinia’s most treasured moment.

“Twenty-eight please!” Said Lavinia laughing in her turn. “And that was quite a whipping, wasn’t it? And all the worse because I would not give in and say I was wrong. Still, in case you have not noticed I have a room with a country scene with Hippolytus charging about hunting, and I look at the odd Greek scroll, Euripides not least, which my husband thinks a fearful waste of money. Perhaps Diodorus won, after a fashion.”

It crossed Valerius’s mind that Lavinia was surprisingly proud of this childish moment of defiance and agony. What would this lovely woman want to do in bed? Would she like being patted hard? He had known other women who had enjoyed it. He could not imagine Titus having the imagination to do it. It was a pity he could not put himself forward as Lavinia’s lover, but he respected her genuine affection for her husband; it was quite a rare thing.

However what he actually said aloud was: “Well I cannot say I take much notice of any Greek now, and if you were my wife you’d be lucky to get the money for Greek scrolls. And you’d be lucky not to get whipped for showing off. Husbands need to assert their authority, you know.”

Valerius said this tongue in cheek and, for a moment, thought he had said the wrong thing, but then to his relief he realized that Lavinia was rocking with laughter and looking at him rather fondly. No doubt his bad joke had broken the awful tension that had enveloped them both.

But then he turned serious and said: “But you won’t get off with a whipping this time, you know. They may well come and do a more thorough search if you do make this mad appeal. It is Titus’s head we are talking about, and just possibly yours, though women’s heads usually stay on their shoulders in this situation.  But you might well be reduced to penury. Please think before you do it.”

“Of course I will think about it.” Lavinia said very seriously. “But come on, you’d better go. It would not be good for you to be caught up in our troubles.”

Valerius Rufus went, wondering what on earth was going to come of all this.

*          *          *

According to the custom, the great gates of the house of the consul, Lepidus, had been opened and numerous of the people who owed him favours, besides a number who Lepidus himself was indebted to in some way, and various people seeking favours or justice crowded in to the great man’s audience room. Rather like Valerius Rufus, the great consul had a freedman in charge of his establishment and he was briskly and self-importantly moving round the room trying to determine who really needed to talk to his master, who could be dealt with in another way and who was there just to pay homage by their presence. Lepidus rather wearily appeared, for he was not overwhelmingly fond of these occasions, and was immediately hailed by everyone there. He gave the appropriate reply and sat down.

He looked to where his major domo, Pericles, was beginning to shepherd someone towards him, then realized to his considerable annoyance that a slave was pushing his way through the crowd, shouting something, possibly: “Make way for…”

Lepidus realized that the Lady Lavinia Vesprilis, who was not one of his favourite people, was close behind the slave. She had a reputation for unpleasant epigrams about himself and his fellow triumvirs, Octavian Caesar and Marcus Antonius, quite apart from which her husband was under sentence of death when he could be found. And then there was the little matter of her mistreatment of his dear Pericles, probably his best slave ever, when she had owned him. Still, if the woman came to offer money, perhaps he would take it. Octavian would soon be here with his inconvenient insistence on an amnesty for the relatively few survivors of the Proscription, and Octavian usually got his way. Lepidus ground his teeth a little at that thought, but did not actually forbid this haughty female’s approach.

Lavinia, heart quaking, reached the steps up to Lepidus’s great wooden chair with its carvings and gold ornamentation. Gaius, just as she had told him, stood to one side and more or less vanished into the crowd; she did not want any harm coming to her slave. She mounted the steps and prostrated herself before Lepidus, saying she had come seeking amnesty for her husband, who had done no harm to any man and was now himself desperately ill.

Lepidus coldly considered the absence of any offer of money with considerable annoyance. No doubt these people were too poor to even offer a ransom.

The major domo was now back and standing beside Lepidus. Lavinia, lying on the steps, could barely their mutters. The major domo was Pericles, her old slave she had been forced to have whipped and sold for stealing. She would have known his odd Gaulish accent anywhere. His wiliness must have suited the dreadful Lepidus as much as it had horrified her. And her heart missed a beat when she realized that.

Then she heard Lepidus saying with real anger: “I don’t care about the niceties. I want this woman’s head cut from her shoulders. Here, on the steps, where everyone can see it. She has admitted publicly to sheltering her proscribed husband. Her execution should make a real impression, especially on other wives who have sheltered their husbands. Go and find someone to do it! I want it done now, Pericles! And I want her house searched; Titus must be there.”

For a second, Lavinia almost pleaded for her life as she wondered very seriously what Hades really looked like. Then, mercifully, in his very odd Gaulish accent Pericles was protesting that in fact this would make a very bad impression and would anyway affect Lepidus’s relationship with the important Valerius Rufus who was a close friend of the lady and well in with Octavian Caesar; and the great consul who rarely continued down the same path for very long seemed to abruptly change his mind.

“Pericles, you can have the pleasure of organising your former Mistress’s whipping for daring to approach me in such a fashion. Use ferulae and not the scourge; she is a lady of noble birth, after all, if one with a tendency to make bad epigrams against me and my fellow triumvirs. And then throw her out into the street. That should deal with her insolence very nicely, but, by the Gods, I would like to see her head roll.”

Lavinia found herself being hauled to her feet by two burly guards and marched into a small room in the house. They forcibly removed her stola and then undid the fastenings on her tunic so she was naked from the waist up. Then they held her, one on each arm, and waited.

She assumed she was going to be whipped just like a slave girl normally was on her bare back and the humiliation was intense and horrible, for she was a proud woman.

Then Pericles entered grinning all over his face, carrying the long leather strips that were called ferulae. These, Lavinia knew from her childhood, were quite bad enough, but at least she was being spared the dreaded scourging that would have covered her back with blood. She squirmed at the thought of her former slave seeing her breasts. No doubt he was revelling in his revenge!

She waited, gritting her teeth, expecting to be seized and tied by her wrists, and then there would be the sound of the leather hitting her bare back and the pain, which she had no doubt would be very considerable. Although it was true her family, on the whole, were quite gentle with their slaves, she had heard whippings and the shrieks that went with them in the distance on a number of occasions, not least when this man who was going to punish her had been scourged for theft. No doubt he was going to enjoy every second of this, but at least in the end it would be over, unless this was in fact the prelude to ‘having her head cut off her shoulders’, to quote the horrible Consul Lepidus, who had seemed by no means sure that he was not going to change his mind again and have her beheaded after all. But Lepidus with luck would stop just short of going back to his first idea; no doubt the political implications would stop him.

Then, very unexpectedly, Pericles was lowering her tunic from her waist to the floor and then was unceremoniously undoing her loin cloth.

“How dare you violate me!” She cried out, too angry to think of the dangers of protesting.

“Mistress,” said Pericles quietly in his odd accent. “I owe you my life. Most owners would have had me crucified for what I did, including your husband. You spared me. Now I am going to repay you by whipping your behind as if you were a school boy who does not know his lesson; and not striping your back.”

“Jupiter!” She thought. “And I so nearly had him crucified!”

“You take her on your back; and you hold her legs straight.” Pericles was saying briskly to the two guards.

She felt herself being seized and held on the back of the burlier of the two burly guards. Then her legs were being held by the ankles. As she waited for it to begin, she wondered dryly if Valerius still harboured memories of her only whipping at school; she certainly remembered several punishments that Valerius had undergone.

At first she was almost nonchalant. She had always been rather proud of how well she had performed in her encounter with Diodorus over the value of learning Greek, and she assumed she could take this just the same. And at first perhaps that experience of twenty years before did make this very severe punishment easier. However, it did not stop, as she had expected, after a dozen or so lashes; and gradually it dawned on her that Pericles had every intention of going on till he got a reaction and was concentrating relentlessly on the top of her thighs and the lower part of her bottom, which seemed on fire. The flame seemed to get hotter and hotter till she had to make it stop, but even then she still had to consciously lower herself to whimpering and wailing and pleading desperately. Eventually she managed to make it convincing enough, or her former slave grew bored, and the whipping stopped.

“Better than losing your head anyway, Mistress.” Pericles observed as she was bundled out of the house into the street, still naked but with her tunic in her hand.

Gaius found her wandering in a state of bewilderment, still trying to put her tunic on, and led her home almost like a child.

Here she found Valerius Rufus, together with his personal physician who produced a herbal ointment for her red hot thighs and bottom. Then she went with her two maids and they washed her, put the ointment on and dressed her.

She stoically re-joined her old friend, despite still feeling incredibly shaken and genuinely reluctant to sit down, though just as she had done twenty years before she made herself do it. After some faintly flirtatious chit chat they both had to struggle to produce, but seemed necessary to the occasion, she finally thought to ask him why he was there.

“I heard in the night that Octavian’s galley was off Ostia.” He said. “I went down and met him and he gave me a pardon for Titus without a murmur. It is quite terrible! You need not have gone through this. Titus is down from his nest in the roof and asleep in his own bed, and my doctor is here to care for him. But I shall see that Octavian hears of this abuse of power by his fellow Triumvir; and after that we shall see what we shall. Was Gaius right in saying you were threatened with summary execution and you were only whipped as an afterthought? It sounds horrific.”

“I am afraid it is true.” She murmured, wondering why the insistent throbbing in her bottom was becoming almost pleasant. “I thought I was about to enter Hades. It was a very strange experience. I don’t know if I would have been brave about losing my head, when it came down to it, or not, but at least I did not plead for my life. Actually it must be worse for slaves before they are crucified. That must be dreadful. The scourging and the wait to have the nails driven in; it must be awful. At least I was not threatened with that. But I must mention that my old slave Pericles, who is now, would you believe it, Lepidus’s major domo, saved my life, despite my having him soundly whipped and sold five years ago. He really ought to be commended, but I don’t know how to do it. Do you know, I nearly had him crucified. I had my mouth open to say it and I just could not do it.”

“Why did they not whip your back? They obviously didn’t, judging by how much you are wriggling on your bottom in a most unladylike fashion, and indeed the alarming scarlet of your posterior when you returned.” Valerius asked, trying not to embarrass her, so speaking flippantly, and wondering why the thought of Lavinia’s lovely behind being soundly whipped was exciting him so much, when he ought to be furious.

“The people who did it thought they should spare me being whipped like a slave girl because I am a lady of noble birth, so they decided to deal with me as if I was a naughty child. No doubt it was with half an eye on their own skins, but I suppose I should be grateful, but it was incredibly humiliating.”

“I suppose in a way I should be grateful too.” Said Valerius Rufus darkly. “But if I ever find out who did this I will deal with them. I don’t suppose you have any idea who they were? I don’t suppose the Major Domo of the great Lepidus deigned to be involved in it. No, he would have been much more interested in keeping his nose clean, I imagine.”

She decided she would not mention that it was Pericles who had carried out her punishment. Valerius and Titus would want to do something; and she did not want that, she was genuinely grateful to Pericles.

“I did not know my executioners.” She said with a shiver, realizing she had used the wrong word, but then thinking how close to having her head cut from her shoulders she had been and beginning to form an epigram about her escape in her head.

Then it suddenly struck her that she was talking to Rufus as if he was her husband or lover, which was very curious and she found herself wondering just where this was leading.

The End

© Jane Fairweather 2017

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