The dinner party was, as expected, jaw-achingly tedious: the host, a wealthy senator, monopolised the conversation with his very dull wit, his jowls waggling aggressively as he held forth on the iniquities of the youth of today. His tensely smiling, anxiously sycophantic guests, uncomfortable in their heavy blanched togas and formal matronly robes, greeted each majestically delivered pronouncement, each laboured jest with a dutiful chorus of appropriate responses.
Tiberius noted how the senator’s lady wife, perched on the end of his couch, (did anyone expect their wives to sit up at dinner, like a child or a slave, these days?) reacted to her husband’s more fatuous comments by twisting her fingers in a fold of her stola till her knuckles showed white. He must drive that poor woman absolutely crazy; she must lie awake at night, plotting his death by poisoning or strangulation. Still, it’s a very nice dress and a very nice villa: one way or the other, we’re all whores here.
As newly appointed manager of a small troupe of actors, Tiberius was anxious to secure a booking for his company in the theatrical performances of the Ludi Megalenses and hoped to persuade this senator to use his considerable influence to that effect. The man had pretensions to being something of a connoisseur and dilettante in the arts. Supposed testament to this were the priceless ancient Greek artefacts that crammed the occasional tables and display cupboards that lined the triclinium. Images of the gods, clearly ripped from temple niches, were jumbled together with fancy Athenian tableware and funereal lekythos’ in a loveless incongruity that was irksomely disrespectful.
“Do you reckon I could get away with stuffing that statue of Hermes into a fold of my toga on the way out? I feel it needs rescuing.”
The voice close by his ear chimed startlingly with his own thoughts.
Tiberius turned his head to look at the young man on the adjacent couch who had been almost silent, hitherto, but was now smiling at him with shy mischief, his eyes bright. His hair was a tumble of fair locks, his casually draped toga daringly silken and diaphanous, delineating a strong, elegantly sturdy torso; his eyes were a limpid green. He was cute.
“Shush”, Tiberius replied in laughing response, “that slave nearly heard you; you could get yourself in trouble.”
“Anything’s got to be better than listening to this windbag; I’m getting out of here, the moment I can sneak away without being too blatant.”
“Can you afford to offend him?” Tiberius lowered his voice considerably, hoping the young man would take the hint and do the same; people on either side were glancing over curiously.
The boy shrugged, looking a little bemused as though he didn’t quite grasp Tiberius’ point, “Why not? I certainly don’t want to be invited to another of these dinner parties.”
“Most of us are here because we require his patronage: people queue up in his atrium, in their best and stuffiest togas every morning for months, hoping to get an invitation to dinner; then we recline here, choking on his jokes and his servants’ leftovers and, all the while, weeping inside. The lucky ones, then, might get their lawsuit settled, their debts wiped, state contracts – he’s a powerful man.”
“Oh, I just got an invitation because my uncle used to know his dad. I came along because I thought there would be interesting people here, writers, poets, that there would be talk about books and new ideas. I didn’t know it would be like this.”
The boy was forlorn.
“How long have you been in Rome, might I ask?”
The young man flushed slightly, frowning down at his plate; he had revealed himself as naïve, lacking in urbanity.
“A month or so. I was in Greece for three years before that. I did lots of travelling and then I went to study at Rhodes, for a while.”
“Ah, yes, Rhodes. Are you hoping to embark on a political career?”
A grimace was the response, “you sound like my uncle. I get letters from him all the time, asking if I’m going to stand for this or that office.”
“And are you? A lot of distinguished politicians began their career by studying rhetoric at Rhodes.”
“I’m not bothered with all that. I studied the poets and the thinkers because I want to write poetry and think, not because I want to hustle and bustle with boring people about boring things, chasing after honours and offices – why would I?”
Tiberius shrugged, “Most men do.”
“As it happens, I don’t come from such a distinguished background that a political career would be really open to me, but no, to be honest, politics has no great appeal or interest. So, you’re a poet, are you?”
“Yes, I came to Rome to write poetry and to meet poets and other people dedicated to the Muses, to be at the centre of things.”
“You don’t find the quiet and rustic charm of the countryside more inspiring?”
“Oh, no, I’ve had quite enough of that.”
Tiberius smiled at the boy’s heartfelt shudder.
“Forgive me; I didn’t catch your name.”
“My name is Gaius Manlius Torquatus.”
Tiberius raised his eyebrows; this charmingly odd, earnest youth belonged to one of the oldest and noblest families in Rome.
“And who are you?” The boy spoke softly, fixing his lovely, mysterious eyes on Tiberius.
“My name is Tiberius Gallus Fadius; my father is a Tuscan schoolmaster. I came to Rome myself, almost ten years ago, to pursue my love of theatre, first awakened when some travelling players stopped at our village during a festival when I was eight years old and put on some sort of rustic farce. No doubt, I would cringe at it now, but at the time, I was entranced. I currently have the honour of managing a small company of mime actors for whom I write and produce plays.”
“You’re a playwright?”
Tiberius told himself that he was enjoying the fascinated, awestruck look in the boy’s eyes far too much. He was hardly Euripides.
The florid senator had got to his feet, his right arm describing rhetorical flourishes.
“In just a moment, I will have the honour of reading to you from book nineteen of my epic ‘the Defeat of Hannibal’.”
There was a ripple of enthusiastic applause.
“I can’t face this – quick – while he’s looking for his place in the scroll, come on, I dare you!”
They had both been placed at the lower end of the dining room with the less important guests, half concealed behind an ornate pillar. Somehow, in the face of all prudence and decorum, Tiberius allowed the young man to seize his hand and tug him to his feet. Together, they sneaked round the back of the pillar and out through the open doorway of the triclinium. Tiberius fervently hoped that their host was too absorbed in the glories of his own performance, the guests too committed to their unhappy role as enraptured spectators to notice their exit. Gesturing for a slave to fetch their shoes, they strolled through the atrium, past the raised eyebrows of the disapproving doorkeeper and into the street outside.
Gaius was laughing, meeting Tiberius’ eyes with shy triumph, delighted to have gained a conspirator.
Tiberius shook his head at him, “I can’t believe you made me do that. I really can’t afford to piss him off. Oh well.” he shrugged.
“He didn’t notice, I’m sure of it – it will be fine.”
Already, the boy was looking round him, restless as though suddenly aware that the night was young, “What shall we do now?”
Tiberius regarded him for a moment, “You wanted to meet interesting, artistic people?”
The boy nodded, solemn now, eager.
“My friend Acte is holding a soiree, tonight. I had been cursing at missing it to attend the dinner of that buffoon, but it will really only just be getting started. We could drop in; if you like, I could introduce you?”
Just then, Tiberius’ slave Felix came hurrying out of the house, bearing a light. He was accompanied by another young man also carrying a torch, which he grasped in one hand, and a heavy cloak folded over his other arm. They both pulled up at the sight of Tiberius and Gaius.
While Felix simply came silently to stand at his master’s side, holding aloft the torch essential for the unlit streets, the other young man approached Gaius and began addressing him in a familiar, almost scolding tone.
“You didn’t tell me Master, that you were planning to leave early. Luckily, the doorkeeper remembered I was with you and came to fetch me.
“Sorry, Geta – it was rather an impulse – I forgot all about you! Oh, did I drag you away from your drink?”
“They never offered us a drink! Just shoved us in a dark cubby hole off the atrium and warned us to keep the noise down.”
“Bastards.” Gaius took the cloak from his slave ane shrugged it on as the night was not too warm.
“Will I be escorting you home now, Master?”
“No, I will be going on to another party with this gentleman. Geta, have the rest of the night off; I can see to myself. Don’t get too drunk and try to stay out of trouble.”
“Thank you Master, the same to you. Good night.”
Tiberius smiled to himself. This boy was not too subtle and neither was his slave. Neither of them seemed to be envisaging that, at the end of the evening, Gaius would be making his way home alone through the dark and dangerous streets.
“Come on then”, he offered the young man his arm.
Acte turned out to live in a smart villa on the Caelian Hill. A young woman of about Gaius’ age, a professional courtesan of cultivated manner, Acte was beautiful, perfumed and dressed in shimmering silks. She greeted Tiberius with a mannered effusiveness, beneath which the astute might detect a genuine affection. Gaius too, she greeted warmly when Tiberius introduced them, looking at him in a way that made him feel as though he were a wonderfully interesting person whom she was delighted to meet.
“What beautiful green eyes you have,” she exclaimed as she leant forward to kiss him on the cheek.
“Hasn’t he?” Acte appealed to Tiberius for confirmation in the face of Gaius’ bashfulness.
“Yes, he has.” Tiberius nodded in a decisive way that suggested this was something he too had noticed.
Acte seemed to take it for granted that Gaius was Tiberius’ new boyfriend and the explanation that they had only just met did not seem to shift this initial impression.
She had them shown to a vacant couch, where Tiberius quickly recognized a friend of his, reclining adjacent to him, a man in his late forties with a lined, humorous face and bristling brows. His manner conveyed an ironic self assurance as though he had come to a shrewd understanding of the world and his own place in it. When Tiberius introduced him to Gaius, the young man seemed to glow with enthusiasm.
“You’re Decimus Laberius! I saw a play of yours just after I got back to Rome – the Augur and I liked it very much.”
Decimus raised his eyebrows, a little taken aback by such an artless and heartfelt tribute, in the midst of this jaded gathering, but looked pleased. “Why thank you, young man. It is always heartening to find that one speaks to the younger generation. Dare I take my pride in my hands and ask what it was about the play that you liked so much?”
Tiberius experienced a proprietary sort of pride as Gaius, forgetting his awe, began to set out his thoughts with fluidity and grace.
The atmosphere in Acte’s triclinium was very different from the one they had left. The chamber was much smaller, more intimate, the walls and ceilings painted with a warm terracotta border surrounding busy frescoes of intertwining fruit trees. A subtle perfume permeated the chamber from the grains of incense that had been cast upon the brazier.
Men and women reclined together indiscriminately round small tables laden with bowls of olives, hard boiled eggs, anchovies, sweets and other snacks. People shouted across the room to one another or migrated from couch to couch. The voluminous, formal togas worn by Gaius and Tiberius were a little out of place among the bright, loose-girdled tunics and swathes of silk. There mingled hetaerae, flute players, assorted theatricals, poets and well brought up young men and women gone astray. Greek was heard perhaps more often than Latin. Bracelets clashed and loud laughter rang out.
Tiberius, who seemed familiar with everyone there, took Gaius round the room, introducing him to various among the guests, who mostly warmed to his good looks and boyish enthusiasm.
Drawn into their chatter, Gaius lost any self-consciousness about sounding foolish in front of these sophisticates; he became expansive, letting his wit and learning show without being boastful. With equal interest and attentiveness, he talked and listened to all those he was introduced to. The opinions of Acte were considered with the same gravity of those of a bearded Greek scholar, only recently emancipated, whom he somewhat discomfited by decoding his erudite allusions he had flattered himself were impenetrable. He leant attentively over the couch of a mime-dancer of striking beauty who talked with rapid, nervous intensity while picking tremulously through a small plate of salad as though food were a dangerously seductive snare. Once or twice as they made the rounds of the couches, Tiberius received covertly approving nods and smiles over the young man’s shoulder.
As the night grew late, the guests became quieter, returning to their couches to listen as Acte took up her lyre and began to sing and play for the gathering. Her voice seemed beautiful to Gaius, the songs she sang romantic often hauntingly sad. When Tiberius slipped an arm round him, he leant back against him in response, feeling his breath warmly stirring the short hairs at the base of his scalp.
A slave paused by their table to replenish their goblets from the jug of wine he bore. He was a notably handsome boy, perhaps a year or two younger than Gaius, wearing a rather short linen tunic showing his well muscled calves.
Suppose, thought Gaius, he were to drop the jug, smashing it to fragments and spilling wine everywhere. He would have to be punished – would be bent over this table, that tunic lifted, to show his lovely arse. They would whip him with a leather belt till he moaned, but he’d stay still, taking his punishment…
Habitually polite, Gaius thanked the young man for his service and he raised his eyes to him in mild surprise, offering a smile of unaffected sweetness. Gaius’ stomach tightened, his mouth sour with the familiar bile of guilt and confused self-hatred. Why would anyone wish that nice, harmless young man to be hurt or humiliated? He must be a cruel, naturally vicious person to have such thoughts. It was a horrible thing when slaves were punished, something he avoided ever being party to.
“He is nice, isn’t he?” Tiberius murmured in his ear. “I caught you looking.”
When Gaius turned his head in flustered confusion, Tiberius captured his mouth in a kiss.
A little before dawn, the party began to break up, yawning slaves called forth to escort their masters home.
“Shall we walk you back to your villa?” asked Tiberius for the sake of form. Even though the sky was lightening pinkly, the first traders starting to set up their stalls, Rome’s streets were still not safe for any man to wander unaccompanied.
“- Or it would be an honour to offer you hospitality for the night, at my own humble dwelling.”
“That sounds nice.”
Geta would have grinned at this point if he’d been in attendance, but Felix, better trained, kept his face a careful blank.
Tiberius lived on the outskirts of the Subura, in one of the nicer ground floor apartments of a five storey block. The apartments became cheaper, the further up you went, reflecting the greater likelihood of perishing in a fire and the daily effort of hauling panniers of water up flights of stairs every day. This apartment, while spacious by the standards of the Subura, had only two rooms; an all-purpose kitchen-dining-living room area and Tiberius’ personal chamber, so while Felix made himself a supper of bread and cheese and settled himself on the battered couch before the stove, Tiberius had to show Gaius a little unceremoniously straight to the bedroom.
Once the door was closed, Tiberius offered Gaius a chair and poured him a drink before sitting down on the edge of his sleeping couch, his own cup in his hand. They exchanged smiles, eyebrows crooked, in acknowledgement of the slight awkwardness of the situation. It was almost inevitable where this would end, but they weren’t quite ready to fall into each other’s arms just yet; there was some talking to be got through.
“Did you enjoy this evening?”
“I did, very much. You know some fascinating people.”
“I’ve been very lucky, doing what I love and getting to have such a good time doing it. It took years of struggle though; there were times when I wished I’d stayed in Tusculum and taken a place in my father’s school, beating the ABC into snot-nosed kids.”
“Yeah, I worked so hard on building up my troupe, spending a fortune buying up half a dozen promising young slaves, training them, rehearsing for months, while keeping them fed and clothed. Then, for a long time, we couldn’t get any bookings; they kept going to established companies with a reputation – why should any patron risk giving unknowns a chance, when they might ruin a festival or someone’s big dinner party? It got so bad, my wife said I might as well be a slave myself, the hours I worked and the money I brought home. That was just before she moved back to Tusculum with the kid, and sent me notice of divorce. Her parents quickly found her a new husband who deals in oil – a much better proposition,”
Gaius opened his mouth, hesitated, “she took your kid?”
Tiberius nodded, “I know he’s all mine by rights, but, after all, she’s his mother and it saved me having to pay for a nurse to rear him. I see him a few times a year and my parents look in on him. He’s eight years old now – Lucius.”
“Have you thought of marrying again?”
Tiberius smiled and shook his head. “No, I find I’m enjoying the pleasures of bachelorhood rather too much for that. Do you have a marriage arranged for you yet?”
“My aunt and uncle write to me, every so often, about connections of theirs with marriageable daughters, but I keep putting them off. I’ve no wish for a woman in my bed, or to embrace the role of paterfamilias.”
“No.” Tiberius inclined his head, in agreement. “I was fifteen when I married and the family had close connections with mine, so there wasn’t a great deal for me to say about the matter. Is your uncle your legal guardian?”
“Yes, my parents both died when I was seven – some kind of fever that came up from the river in Rome that summer; I almost died myself. The slaves all fled the sickness and I was left behind, with Geta. We were both very feverish, burning up, but we tried to look after each other, taking it in turns to struggle for water from the kitchen. By the time my uncle found us, I was too weak to move. They didn’t think I’d survive, but when I did, they brought me up very quietly in the country, with tutors, rather than going to school. I was weak for a long time and they were terrified of losing me, especially as they had no children of their own. They just let me potter around and do fairly much what I liked.”
Tiberius was silent awhile, considering what Gaius told him.
“Geta is the slave who escorted you to the party earlier?”
“Yes” Gaius smiled, “he goes with me everywhere.”
“You don’t sleep with him?”
“No, Hercules, no; he’s like a brother to me.” Laughing, he added, “Besides, he only likes girls.”
“You sound a very considerate master.”
“Are you seeing anyone else at the moment?”
“No, I had a boyfriend at Rhodes for a while, but it was nothing too serious. We were sad at parting, when I came back to Rome, but after a couple of letters we just lost touch. What about you?”
“I broke up with my last serious boyfriend nearly a year ago. Since then, it’s just been the odd casual fuck. One of my actors is a ready and willing partner, when I’m so inclined. He’s a sweet enough boy but, essentially, it’s just fucking.”
“Is that mostly what you’re looking for?”
Tiberius met Gaius’ eyes, held the gaze smiling, “I’m open to possibilities – what about you?”
“I’m always open to possibilities.”
“I suspect that’s very true.”
As Gaius was the one sitting on the basket chair, it was up to him to take the initiative. He stood up and unwound himself from the confining toga, finally flinging it in triumph over the chair. Now wearing only a thin, short under-tunic, Gaius stepped over to the bed, sitting down close to Tiberius, who pulled him hard against his body. Their mouths sought each other, tongues thrusting and lips hungry. Somehow, Tiberius had expected Gaius to be more yielding, to let him take charge at once, but the younger man was equally passionate and demanding.
Presently, once Tiberius too had disengaged himself from his toga, they were lying pressed together full length on the bed, still exchanging fierce kisses and caresses. Gaius’ tunic was rumpled and hitched up to his waist. Speculatively, in a half-playful bid for dominance, Tiberius dealt Gaius a resounding slap across the buttock. The boy froze, then half-sat up shaking back his hair, his face filled with confusion and shock.
“I’m sorry, didn’t you like that? I won’t do it again then.”
Gaius licked his lips, “why…”
Tiberius shrugged, “Some men like it, it excites them – not you obviously; I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You, you just startled me.”
Something was on the verge of clicking in Gaius’ mind, some new connection made between this and a half-remembered thought from earlier that evening.
“Come here.” Tiberius’ voice was soft and coaxing now. Gaius let him draw him back into a close embrace, kiss his mouth delicately while stroking his shoulders, trying to win back his trust. Gaius responded warmly, still bemused, but satisfied that Tiberius intended him no harm or insult.
After a short interval, just as Tiberius was about to murmur a question along the lines of how he felt about being fucked, Gaius said in a small voice, “Tiberius, do you think you could try slapping me like that again?”
“Yeah? You sure? Okay, then.”
Once again, he brought his hand down on Gaius’ firm flesh, perhaps not quite so hard as before. When Gaius responded by pressing his face into Tiberius’ shoulder, tightening the embrace, Tiberius slapped him again, and again.
As his blood raced and his cock hardened under the stinging onslaught, a dark cloud, always present somewhere in Gaius’ mind as long as he could remember, showed some signs of dispersing, broken by a glimmer of comprehension. Tiberius was clearly enjoying hurting Gaius, having power over him, but he was not being cruel, brutal or wicked. Although part of him knew that he’d much rather be dealing out this treatment than receiving it, Gaius was finding the pain arousing, was discovering some curious emotional satisfaction in letting this be done to him by a man he was attracted to and trusted. Maybe his own desires were not of abuse or savagery; maybe he could find someone who would receive treatment such as he had briefly wished upon the handsome young slave with pleasure and glad acceptance. Gaius felt overwhelmed by the new thoughts and sensations that flooded him.
The spanking was over and Tiberius was now reflectively stroking Gaius’ neck and back.
“You’ve gone very quiet; did you enjoy that?”
“I did but…” Gaius looked up into Tiberius’ attentive eyes, saw that he was being listened to and decided to risk sharing his confusion, “but I think it is something I have always wanted to do myself, to men I fancied – I thought I was just a horrible person, who wanted to hurt people, but you’re not like that.”
Tiberius raised his eyebrows in ironical doubt.
“You’re not – you cared about whether I was okay and if this was what I wanted. I’d like to be able to be like that with someone.”
Tiberius thought about this a little, his hand now absently tugging gently at Gaius’ fair, messy locks damp with sweat, then he grinned, eyes alight with enthusiasm for a new project.
“You need training”, he declared and gave his new boyfriend one last hearty smack, for good measure.