Face claimKatherine Jenkins
Now that was interesting, Aelia thought. Tutor to the children of a proconsul. She kept up with politics only in so far as it was helpful to know who was on the way up and who on the way down and whether any of those going upwards might be in need of a mistress. Often many an aspiring politician took one or several as status symbols which was perfectly fine with her as they were only too happy to bestow on her decent gifts which would, if nothing else, help pay the rent for a few months at a time. Land a suitably big fish and she could leave the lower Esquiline forever and set herself up like some of the better members of her class, with grace and favour flats and houses in pleasant, upmarket districts of the city.
“Oh, now that is interesting!” she said, “what is his family like? Does he have many children for you to teach? Any brothers? Senatorial families can be so very strange it always fascinates me to know what is going on with them and how they live.” She did not need to add the obvious “how very differently from the way we live…” to it.
Reaching the end of the pavement of one block, they hurried across the road and reached the safety of the other side, managing to avoid being run over my handcarts or litters that were thronging the street in both directions. Carefully using the blocks of stone set up as stepping stones, they avoided having to navigate the filth of the street. The government slaves in charge of the old, sacred right of keeping the crossroads clean and its gods appeased, were nowhere in sight. Due to budgetary cutbacks they had probably been culled and drafted into something altogether more unappealing like cleaning the Cloaca. The shops lining the street were doing a busy pre-lunch trade. The smells of cooking meat drifted out, mixing with freshly cooked bread and the acid, pungent assault of fish sauce. It made Aelia’s stomach churn and not in a good way. A group of children ran past them, barging them aside as they whooped and hollered off round a corner. An old blind man sat on a stool outside a shopfront, slowly weaving a basket. How he could tell the different coloured straws to use Aelia could not tell but somehow he had managed to create a beautiful, vibrant pattern.
Her other question was a funny one. The official party line, of course, was “yes.” Aelia, the pin-up girl for the Whites, was a true, blue Roman rose. The sort of proper Roman woman that – had she not been an actress, of course, and therefore outside the pale of polite society – you would happily bring home to meet your mother and then have raise a large brood of strong, sturdy Roman sons to fill the legions and conquer the world. The fact that she was actually not from Rome at all was hastily covered up by herself and Proculus, both because it was very bad for business. The Roman Rose actually a Greek! How shocking and disgusting!
That said, her profession was all about the dichotomy between reality and deceit. On stage people knew the parts she played were fictional, the emotions counterfeit, yet they still lapped it up. Most of her lovers knew that her ardour was probably feigned but they overlooked it. When people flocked to the promotional events to see a true Roman floosy they probably knew, as well as she, that she (like most of the other famous low-life women of the city) were only Roman in their current address and certainly not in their heritage. It was one of those secrets that is no not-secret that no one ever bothers to point it out.
Dodging a man staggering down the street, carrying a tray of dubious-looking pies, she saw no harm in being honest with her new acquaintance.
“Nah,” she said, still adopting the slang and slurred tone of the Aventine, “I’m from Greece originally. My dad was from Athens, not that I knew him much and not that I’ve ever been there. But the people here prefer to think I’m from Rome and it’s better for business if I am so if I’m asked then, yeah, sure I can tell you a lie about how I was born up here on the Esquiline and my family is so old and Roman that my great-great-great whatever grandmother gave a saucy smile to Sulla. Sometimes I forget myself what my actual story is!”
“You get out to plays much?” she asked. She wondered what sort of woman she was. Seemed like a bit of a bruiser. One not unused to a brawl or two. Women from her part of the world seemed to be like that. She was probably a blood-sports aficionado then but she thought she’d sound her out.
Aelia was always too paranoid for her own good. It was not necessarily her fault. The fact that she was always one step away from a possible disaster had bred in her a highly string defence mechanism, like it probably did for all females in this line of work. As she had thought only moments ago, it was not unknown for one or two bad words to whip up a frenzy of righteous indignation against the morally-defunct harlots – as people saw her type. Whilst some might have thought that there was no point crying over spilt ale, so to speak, she happened to think differently.
There was a growing rumble which became a steadily building roar from the crowd in the stands, rising live the swell of a great ocean wave, as a new pair of fighters entered the sands below. A gaudily painted man dressed as Charon had strutted onto the sand accompanied by some equally fantastically dressed assistants. The new fighters waited whilst this troupe elaborately and acrobatically danced their way on, walking over to the slowly groaning and partially mangled remnants of those unfortunates who had engaged in the beast fights and – shall we say – not come out of it very well. The people in the stands about her were now stood on their feet hooting and pumping their fists, they knew what was coming.
The wounded bestiaries lay on his back, his chest and stomach a torn mess from getting far too close to the bear he had been – until the last moment – expertly goading. Seeing the cortege approaching he lifted his head then slumped back, raising a shaking, blood encrusted hand in a plaintive gesture. The hooting from the stands got louder and louder. Charon got closer, he and his team clowning about and playing up to the stands. In his hands the figure playing Hades’ doorman was holding a thick, lead-headed mallet, which he was bouncing menacingly in his hand. He stood over the prostrate figure and looked to the crowd. The noise was like something from a cattle market, a deafening cacophony of wild, bestial screams. Charon did a little twirl and – smack – brought down the mallet on the injured man’s head. Any crack that would have carried up from it was lost in the sickeningly pleasured screams of the crowd. The fallen man was definitely dead now. Continuing his macabre, blood stained dance, Charon twirled away whilst his assistants sunk hooks into the corpse and started dragging it away, leaving a sickening, bloody trail on the sand in its wake.
The spectators around her were laughing. One handed his neighbour some coins with a sullen expression. “Told ya,” his friend said with a smirk, “bears don’t like Gauls, makes em fight better!” Whatever his sullen friend replied, Aelia did not hear what with all the hubbub. She shuddered slightly. When people were this blood drunk they could do almost anything.
She looked back at the man she was speaking with. He must surely have been caught up with all that but now was looking at her expectantly.
“Yes,” she stammered a little but then restored herself to her normal voice. “I prefer the professional bouts, though, there’s more skill in them, although I can’t say I recognise any of the names on the programme?”
The drunken cheers of the crowd continues, with the steady drumming of applause, as the actors retreated from the stage. Theatre slaves were already rushing forwards, goaded on by sweating freedmen, with shouted orders flying round to have the stage cleared of backdrops and props. Others stood ready to wash the stage down. The crowd, a riotous Friday night one, had taken great pleasure at hurling bits of food and general rubbish at the villain. The immediate backstage area was packed with stacks of ropes, miscellaneous props and painted scene backdrops. Several baskets of gaudily painted masks were mounted precariously on bales of well-worn costumes. A slave hurried forward with a tray, bringing classes of wine to the thirsty performers, who fell on him like vultures.
The play itself was a new piece. One of the cheap pieces that two-sestercii hacks churned out in prodigious quantities to slake the thirst of the lower orders for bawdy farce. The playwrite was one of several the Proculus Players worked with. His membership of the Guild of Writers was probably tenuous and he was certainly unlikely to be winning laurels to have his work set alongside Terence, Plautus and Sophocles. Yet his work was the sort of rot-gut, mass appeal nonsense that the plebs lapped up as it had a little bit of everything. She had noticed that it wasn’t just the plebs who were coming to see it either. The equites and senators might think themselves to be grand and superior – and they probably were when they had to be all solemn and well behaved around their wives and families – but the menfolk were just as bad as their lower order neighbours: they wanted to see flesh on show, hear cheap jokes and enjoy a traditional sing-song.
The plot was utter bilge. It was highly unlikely that the writer had been in any way sober when he had written it. If he had been, then he should have been, because what he had created was enough to shame someone with even a modicum of talent. The piece rejoiced under the unnecessarily elaborate title of Ptolemy’s Ptroubles. Set in Aegypt, as the name suggests, and in the fantastical days before its conquest by Rome, it centred on the taboo and frankly ridiculous habits of the decadent dynasty and mysterious, ancient land. Good, honest, hardworking Romans liked to laugh at the ridiculous mannerisms of be-nighted foreigners. The Aegyptians of old posed a perfect basket of things to mock. There was much made in the play about worshipping cats and dogs, always guaranteed to get a laugh. What produced more bawdy titillation was the close-to-the-line-indecency of the Ptolemaic habit of incestuous intermarriage. Couple this with your standard identity swapping, mistake-laden farce standard tropes and you had a recipe for a bed-hopping round of tortured jokes. They became more amusing the more the audience drank. The theatre manager had ensured that there was enough wine on hand to ensure almost none of the audience were not at least partially tipsy.
Aelia had played Berenice, married to an uncle-who-was-also-a-grandfather-but-never-explained-how called Ptolemy (as were all the male characters for “humour’s” sake), played by Scylus. The actor had brought the house down with his brilliant portrayal of a miserly old dotard, avaricious of money, looking to cheat Roman merchants (boo hiss boo), jealous of his young wife whilst busily trying to seduce his sister-who-was-also-his-aunt-but-never-explained-how called Cleopatra, played by Maxima. Scylus’ make-up was spot on, with long grey wig and a tie-on beard. He played the part pretending to be almost stone deaf which the audience loved thanks to the mistakes that engendered. Grumio and Dromon played eunuch priests of Cat-God and Dog-Goddess, fleeces stuffed under their magical robes to make them look grossly overweight. Their asides focused on a series of over the top duels between the powers of their respective animal god to beat the other. Romans, who hated the concept of effeminate eunuchs, had a good cheer and pelted the stage with rubbish as the pair engaged in magical incantations designed to restore their manhood and seduce Berenice and Cleopatra respectively.
Then, enter stage left in Act Two, the swaggering figure of “The Legate”, played by Cleander. Playing the part of a visiting Roman legate, always attired in full military fancy dress (complete with oversized sword), he represented the very epitome of brash, Roman masculinity. Scylus’ Ptolemy and the clowns’ priests were busy telling the audience how they would cheat this boorish fool of his money whilst, unbeknownst to them, The Legate was busy giving Berenice and Cleopatra what for. The play ended in Act 5 (by which point most of the audience was stone drunk) with The Legate returning to Rome, taking off with him the temple treasure and leaving the Aepytian women about to bear Roman sons, who the cuckolded respective Aegyptian men would be forced to look after. After a big sing-song of a popular tavern tune about Anthony and Cleopatra the show was done. It was certainly not the Theatre of Pompey or Marcellus and a highbrow audience but the pay wasn’t bad.
The play’s fast paced jokes and over the top bawdy rumpus required a large degree of stamina and almost acrobatic flexibility. Tired, Aelia downed the first cup of wine quickly and reached for another. Her “dress” could barely be called that. Two thinnish strips hung over her shoulders and protected her modesty (barely), which gathered around her waist and fell into a short skirt in an all-in-one ensemble. Long laced sandals ran up her calve. Scylus wandered by, throwing his wig and beard aside. “Another night of fine art,” he scoffed. The clowns staggered past. Grumio walked and few paces further than Dromon. Then both ran at each other and, thanks to their bulky fat-suit padding, bounced off each other and landed in sprawled heaps on piles of curtains and drapes, laughing.
“Oh, poor me,” Dromon chirped, putting on an impression of Scylus’ voice “I’m a real actor, don’t you know!”
Grumio picked up on it and carried on, in the same voice “I just didn’t like it because it was too close to home and, you know, I can’t get it up anymore.”
The bystanders laughed. Scylus looked daggers at them and wandered off, grumbling. Maxima flounced past, looking wistful. “There were some right propa’ people of quality in the stands though, did you see that?” she said with her Aventine, fish-wife drawl.
Suddenly the larger than life figure of Gaius Julius Proculus entered the bustle. Clad in a toga unnecessarily, he was this evening sporting a huge auburn curled wig that clashed in a ghastly fashion with his bushy grey eyebrows and the make-up he had plastered his face with like an old trollop. The rings on his fingers clinked as he gave elaborate and effusive greetings. “Darlings, sensational! They loved it! Such good work! All of you, angels, all of you!” His foppishness was natural. His exuberance was intrinsic. You had to listen to him and then dial whatever he said down by about ten times. If he was happy it was only because of the high turnout and, thanks to his contract, this meant a handsome sum for him for their work that evening.
He clapped his hands, chivvying them along. “Come, come; quick, quick, you know the drill,” he said as he flapped at them to move into the theatre’s atrium. At the end of opening night it was traditional for the cast to be invited to an after-party. They were often quite wild affairs. Other actors would be there as well as the better elements of the audience. Local worthies who didn’t mind being seen at such thing. Many high class men liked to come along for rough and tumble fun. The criminal classes always liked these too. In short, they were a fine melting pot of the high and the low all doing a good job of wanting to be bad.
Dutifully, they followed Proculus through towards the door between backstage and the atrium. Always one to make an entrance, Proculus thrust it open and, in a loud force, declaimed: “ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Cast!”. Sighing, Aelia decided that she might as well get drunk if only to make the time pass quicker.
Despite herself (and despite her splitting headache), Aelia gave a loud, unexpected, trilling laugh. Fun? Yes, it could be fun. Great fun. Yet it also came at a very large price to oneself, no matter whether the coin was good or bad. She looked at this Aia quizzically but still smiling broadly. “Yes, I suppose it can be fun. I am my own domina. My money is mine. My time is mine. I enjoy acting and music. But – well – you’ve just seen what it can be like. Lowest of the low,” she giggled, waving her free hand airily. “Might not need a man to validate myself but I still need one or two to keep me from harm. Likely to get some form of abuse when out and about.” She clicked her tongue. “It is as it is.”
It was, however, reassuring to be speaking to someone who didn’t mind. Truth was that a large part of the population didn’t really care about nefas status. The problem was that the part which did tended to be both vocal and violent. Some actors and actresses had achieved fantastic wealth and power, regardless of their status. Many had thoroughly middle of the road lives. Not destitute. Finding a wealthy enough knight or freedman to become a mistress or even wife of. It wasn’t truly bad. She wasn’t a slave. She’d hate that. She was a citizen and possessed a degree of rights, no matter what the traditionalists may like to think otherwise.
A Gaul, then. Being a non-Roman would probably explain her pragmatic approach to actresses. The native Gauls probably didn’t even have professions of that type. It would explain her auburn colouring and the light splay of freckles on her face. She had mentioned a mistress. The term could be quite loose. Was she a slave or did she just have an employer? Some slaves were hired out by their owners as tutors. Make some extra money for the masters as well as for themselves. Aelia was forever a nosy and inquisitive person, hungover or not.
“Who is your domina?” she asked. It may be that she had heard of her. The good thing about being a regular item of city gossip was that you naturally kept abreast of all other gossip at the same time from those scurrilous sources. “You have your own classes then? Teaching children I’m guessing or is it tutoring adults?”
Aelia still looked a little put out. She was going to go into full ‘fish-wife’ mode and start a scene when she made an effort to stop herself. The reality was that she was not angry at this man. She was just tired and more than a little stressed out by her constant worry about the crowd and a sense of boredom at not being as drunkenly engaged with the day as her friends were. The frustration she felt was with herself and not with this man. For the Gods’ sake, accidents happened, especially up here in the wind-swept upper bleachers when they were as crammed as they were. It was probably more of a miracle that she had not been completely dowsed in spilled drink or fish sauce or the grease of cooked meats.
So, there was that in play in her decision to calm down but also a sense of unease. The man had an intent and piercing look. He was clearly here alone. Might he be one of those aficionados of the Games who were almost obsessively attracted to the spectacles for their blood and excitement? He seemed perfectly happy to have an argument and looked like he would have no squeamishness in going easy on a female. Besides, she knew how these things went down. People loved to have a go at the actress. If he wanted to he could probably whip up the drunken louts hereabouts to have her sent packing hastily after being pelted with bits of food and told, in no uncertain terms, all manner of brutal things that ought to happen to a louche, easy-virtue performer. She was very aware that Cleander and his friends, usually on whom she could rely for muscle in such situations, was so drunk as to be more of a liability than a help.
So she simmered down. She brushed her bare shoulder and reset her hair to cover it. She tried a smile which normally worked on most men.
“Well, no harm done, was there? These things happen. Should have been grateful it wasn’t worse. I won’t let it spoil my fun,” she said with that smile.
Then, worrying in case this man was still so pumped up that he might try and start an ant-actress riot for her “audacity” (it had, alas, happened before), she tried to be friendly.
“I hope you are enjoying the day?”
Aelia hadn't wanted to come to the games. It was not so much that she didn't enjoy them but rather she was never given a chance to enjoy them. As a plebeian woman, her choice of seating was limited. As a nefas plebeian woman her choices were even slimmer. She would be forced into the rows with the other actresses and the outright prostitutes. These rows were always swarmed about with drunk, lecherous men, swirling about like carrion crows. With drink and blood running freely, something in the natural make-up of men made them more lustful; less able to keep rein on their emotions.
With their recent performances having drawn quite large crowds, and with a hectic schedule of rehearsals, public and private shows, she was exhausted. Then there were all the publicity events Proculus had contracted for her to attend. Shows and parties for investors in the Whites. What she wanted was a lie in. Several of them. Preferably ones that lasted entire days.
This is what she had told Cleander as he had badgered her over and over to come to the games with him and his friends today. Come on, you could use cheering up, have some fun, it's all courtesy of the State - things along those lines. When those didn't work he tried the usually more fertile ground of asking whether she had grown tired of watching muscular males slogging it out. "There are opportunities to meet them, you know? Well, the ones who survive anyway. Makes them super keen on life, if you know what I mean," he had giggled. Aelia knew he would never give her any peace so she gave in.
She wore her long, blonde hair loose, letting it cascade down over her shoulders like a flaxen, silky waterfall. A light pink chiton and a light matching linen wrap against the cold. Up here on the highest tiers of seating the breeze could be as stiff as that at the top of a ship's mast.
She wasn't drinking. She felt she needed to keep her wits about her in places like this. She could not even count the times she had been propositioned that afternoon. If she had a sestercius for each time... He companions, however, had been drinking and hitting it heavily. They cheered, whooped and groaned in equal measure at the comings and goings far down below on the arena sand. How they could find the animal killings appealing she didn't know. At least two professionals sparring against one another had a degree of honor. A lion versus a terrified petty thief with a wooden stick? That was just cruel yet the people hereabouts whooped and hollered in the same way they did at Grumio and Dromon's clowning.
She was thinking along these lines when she felt a cold wetness hit her bare shoulder where her wrap had slipped down. A knee knocked her in the back and jogged her forwards. She whirled round, looking petulant. "Well, excuse me, why bloody don't you!"
Aelia had intended to trudge on in grumpy silence with only her screaming hangover for company but her new companion seemed blithely unaware of this and continued to chatter away pleasantly. The city was full of cranks - the type who could witter to themselves for days, generally harmlessly but some were indeed truly mad. Aelia gave her another look as they walked along. The woman carried herself with confidence but did have a mark on her face - right on her nose - as if it had be walloped pretty hard. Abusive partner, perhaps?
She signed and knew her silent defences had been breached by the prospect of a persistent barrage of questions.
"A bit of both," she said with a shrug. The woman looked at her expectantly. Clearly she wanted more than that. She was not going to be put off with monosyllables. There was a distinct possibility that this well meaning woman would follow her all the way to the fountain and back and fire questions at her every step of the way.
"I'm an actress," she continued. As usual, she said this in an apologetic way. She had long gotten over the stigma of it but had kept the same tone of voice every time she told her job to people. It was a profession that society -well, Roman society, anyway; the Greeks were more open minded - considered nefas, putting her in the same category as prostitutes, gladiators, charioteers and even poor old butchers. Usually the admission of her profession had two outcomes. Either a disgusted frown would cross a brow and any children in the immediate vicinity would be protectively gathered back, or else she would be leered at because, in the eyes of almost every Roman male, actresses and prostitutes were one and the same.
There were plenty of actresses who did not know where the line was, she admitted. She had even been guilty of it herself.It was a hard life when you were nefas so you did what you had to do to get by.
The woman was still looking at her with a puppy like expression of general well being. It partly annoyed Aelia (highly) but also at the same time caused her to soft a little. She also realised that this unexpected companion provided her with the escort she lacked for her trip out this morning which was a happy coincidence.
"My name is Aelia," she said with a smile. "And what are you doing this morning except for loitering about public sanitation?"
Aelia looked up, squinting a little at the light. It made a change not to be accosted in the street by a man looking for a good time or else some crazed fan. Instead, she was faced with a young red-headed woman, presumably a Celt dragged off to Rome, presumably against her will. Aelia looked at her warily. If you thought that the thieves, toughs and criminals in the city were all men you were wrong. In fact, in her experience, some of the worst and most violent of the city’s criminal class were women. That said, she was in a busy street and had nothing worth taking so she let herself calm a little. Even after all these years her nerves still got the better of her when she had to go out on her own, even during the day. It was as tiresome as it was sad.
She smiled. “No more so than usual. I must be getting older, I used to handle it better than this.”
A queue was starting to form around the fountain. The usual gaggle of tutting wives, lecherous men and – today, the worst – screaming children. Aelia let a spasm of pain crease her brow as two little girls nearby shrieked in laughter, the loud noise echoing through her sore, delicate head.
The thought of having to schlep even a few blocks away was unappealing. However, it was starting to look like a necessity. The fountain’s spout was giving off a distinctly worrying gurgling noise, sputtering and coughing like a sick old man. Aelia was about to politely decline when a commotion broke out, getting closer. A wheeled vehicle was groaning along the street, barging people out of the way. Wheeled vehicles were forbidden in the city during daylight hours unless they were on government business so this didn’t bode well. A freedman with grease-stained tunic and a thick gold torque around a bull-like neck pushed his way through the queue at the fountain. In his wake followed a gang of city slaves, their arms tattooed with the mark of the Urban Prefect. Several of their number were pushing along a wagon piled with wooden poles and lead pipes, bags full of tools and sacks of lime.
“That’s it, come on, clear off, the lot of you,” the bovine freedman shouted in an officious voice. He shoved an old woman to the side to make room for three of the slaves who rushed forward with wooden barricades who busily started setting these up in front of the trough. “Fountain’s closed. Orders of the Aedile. You dirty bastards have clogged the pipes, so hop it, go on, bugger off.”
The crowd began to grumble, most shuffling off to head to other pumps and fountains in the district. One of the slaves reached in and grabbed the bucket, tossing it aside.
“Hey!” Aelia exclaim, whirling away from the red-head for a moment, “that’s mine, give it back!”
The freedman stopped, looking at her in a creepy way. “Well, look here, boys, if it isn’t that tart for the Whites!” The slaves stopped what they were doing and laughed, grinning gap-toothed leers in off-putting manners. “Come on, darling, you want your bucket back maybe you show me what makes you so popular?” The men laughed as he dangled the bucket in front of him at waist level, suggestively. In no mood for this sort of humiliation – which was an annoying and repeat regularity in her line of work – Aelia snatched the bucket back and turned her back on him. The slaves laughed at cat called as they went back to blocking off the pump.
“A judgmental beggar sounds much better and I think I can handle that, lead the way,” she said, her voice heavy with anger, expecting the red-headed woman to lead on. She seethed angrily but her new companion seemed nonplussed and looked happy to talk away regardless.
Water. Gods, water.
A sharp shard of morning sun slipped through the uneven slats of her bedroom window and, with agonising exactness, managed to pierce her closed eyes and draw her from sleep. Her body, as a courtesy, offered her several seconds before it made her painfully aware of the presence of a firm and well entrenched hangover. The sort that would not be remedied easily by fresh air and exercise. The sort that would linger and nauseate you for the rest of the day. Her tongue was dry and her throat ached. Gods, water.
Bracing herself, Aelia – with expert slowness, no stranger to the sensation – swung her legs off the mattress. 4, 3, 2, 1…she gingerly lifted her head up, wincing as the pain in her head made her senses swim and her stomach lurch. Gods, would she ever learn? Looking around, through half open eyes, still heavy with uneasy sleep, she scanned the state of her room. Another person may have sat upright, aghast, thinking they had been burgled for there were clothes thrown everywhere, a stool overturned, several cheap drinking cups lying in a cheap, chipped pile. This, however, was the general state of her room and, if one ever was forced to describe it, it would be best summed up by the phrase “there appears to have been a struggle…”
Memories of the night before flickered back to her in disjointed pieces. There had been no specific reason – that she could recall, anyway – for a house-party. They had had a good performance that evening, nothing spectacular – a standard, run of the mill farce by Terence for the usual crowd of quasi-interested theatre goers. Grumio and Dromon had expectantly come into possession of a sum of ready coin (which they did not explain how) and – in a bout of thoroughly untraditional generosity – offered to stand the troupe several rounds of drinks at The Mermaid, an artsy drinking establishment for the liberal minded on the Caelian. Asking the Proculus Players for a drink was not a question. The question was when and where. So off there they had all headed and, with standard practice, one drink before an early night became…hmmm…well, from memory, at least 6 or 7. Cleander’s current boyfriend had turned up: he was the main singer in a band of stringed instrument and flute players – very popular with the youth of the working class districts and even with a following amongst the edgy, arty, rebellious equite and senatorial band of teenagers. Naturally, it was then straight from The Mermaid to an underground concert his band were playing in a disused grain warehouse on the waterfront. After Gods know how many more, and as the first streaks of dawn were slipping through the clouds, they slipped drunkenly but with inherent skill past patrols of vigiles, dodged the influx of last minute early morning traffic and slipped back to their flat in an insula on the Esquiline. Then…well…not quite sure but here she was, with throbbing head and a sense of self-loathing.
She staggered to her feet, unsteady like a new-born foal. The spinning in her head fuelled the churning in the pit of her stomach. That bloody sunbeam was somehow still lancing her eye. Shuffling across the room, treading over the detritus of her chattels, she pushed the creaking shutters asides, flakes of chipped paint falling off in the process. Bad idea. The full force of the day hit her senses like a runaway horse. She grabbed the lintel as she hunched over and gave several spasmodic retches, dumping the contents of her stomach outside the window and down three storeys to land in the street below which was already alive with pedestrians, being as it was nearly noon. Shouts of abuse carried up from the affronted folk below but she snapped the shutters closed and stagger back into the half-gloom of the room.
Water. Yes, she needed a drink. Not the other sort of drink. No, at least not yet, anyway. The thought of wine turned her now empty stomach. Still unsteady, she pushed through the curtain that separated her room from the main living area of the flat. Their flat in the insula was not bad, as flats go. A previous tenant had obviously had some means and had convinced the landlord to allow him to knock through and make two smaller flats into a single, larger one. The array of couches and chairs in the centre of the living area were in a ubiquitous state of disarray. Someone she didn’t know was sprawled comatose across one. Dromon lay snoring on another, no sign of his partner Grumio anywhere. Aelia shuffled across to the area which passed for a kitchenette. Not a proper one, of course, the landlord would not allow anything more than a basic stove in his building to decrease the chance of fires. Mostly they just used the counter as a place to leave packets of take-out food they had swiped on the hoof. The woman they hired to clean twice a week kindly removed the dirty wrappings on each visit. There was, however, an amphora they usually kept filled with water for general thirst quenching. Grabbing a ladle, Aelia scooped inside but found nothing. She gave a huff of frustration.
Through his partition curtain she could hear Cleander’s snores. Looking around she could see no one else up. “Fine,” she huffed, “I suppose I shall have to do it myself!” Grabbing a bucket, she set off on the walk down three flights of stairs and through the bustling noontime crowds to reach the nearest common fountain – a drab and quasi-dirty affair, a thin spout sticking awkwardly out of a poorly carved lion’s jaws, trickling water out to piddle into a chipped, shell-shaped trough. She set the bucket under the spout. At this rate it would take an age to fill the damn thing. Hand on hip, she stood there, exasperated. She screwed her eyes shut against the light that was stinging her eyes. “Oh hurry the fuck up,” she muttered.
32 | 7 August 43CE | Plebian | Actress/Musician | Bisexual | Original | Katherine Jenkins
There are two Aelias. You meet first the Aelia that the world sees. This is what 99.9% of people will only ever see. They will see the gorgeous, outgoing, arty, flirtatious and scandalous actress and musician; the poster girl of the White Faction; the Roman Nightingale with a voice like honey; the sensual symbol of luxury and lust. A figure people will cheer in the auditorium but speak of in the lowest terms elsewhere. A figure from the edges of society. People will be happy to flock to her shows and dream of her but be happy to call her a whore and imagine she has no feelings. Knowing that the professions fate has pushed her into has left an indelible mark on her like a brand she can never rid herself of, she has no choice but to live with this and make the most of it. She revels in the passionate excesses and tries not to get attached. She loves having money and spending it because she remembers what it was like to be destitute. Does it hurt that she is shunned by society? Yes. Does it make her scared that she cannot go about alone? Of course. In short, the outer Aelia is Aelia the Celebrity. A closed off, fun-loving party girl, quick with a joke and rushing from scandal to scandal. A person you love to hate and hate to love. A bauble for rich, powerful men; a figure of contempt to respectable wives.
Then there is the inner Aelia. This is the one few have ever got to know. This is the damaged Aelia. The one on whom the wounds of Fate still bleed. The one who craves a quiet life. A life free of scandal. Where she can go down a street without being hooted at or bothered. A life in which she can find a husband who loves her for her. Where she can raise a family who will be untainted with the stain of nefas from their mother’s life. Anyone knowing the Outer Aelia would never believe that she would be content to grow old quietly in the countryside. But she would.
Whilst a large part of what she does is unpalatable, there are aspects of her job that she loves. She knows most people come to the shows to laugh at bawdy jokes, ogly at the skimpy dresses and enjoy cheap thrills at the titillation. However, she is an artist. She has a beautiful voice and loves music. She is skilled at several instruments. She enjoys making music privately as well as in her public shows. She likes pretty things because, when she was a girl, she did not have them. Despite her adult (in both senses) profession, the Inner Aelia is remarkably childlike.
She can be bitchy, catty and cruel. These are just results of the fact that she is treated so cruelly often for no reason by others. She is avaricious and loves money. She will bleed you dry. Most of her patrons don’t care. At least not until it’s too late.
Aelia has been blessed with a pleasing face and form, there is no doubt. Most people would probably not believe it for a second if they ever heard her say that beauty can be a curse but, in many ways, it is true. Her looks, coupled with her occupation, make the default position of those interacting with her to either jump straight to judgment of her or seek to possess her, objectify her. Generally forget that there is a person underneath. She has, however, long since come to terms with this although that is not to say that it does not hurt. She worries that she may never be seen for the real person behind the persona she has to wear to just get by.
Of Greek blood, she has luscious long blonde hair. She has a very full figure and most men are automatically drawn downwards rather than to her eyes. This, in many ways, is a shame for her eyes are crystal blue and are worthy of praise in their own right. She is tall for women of the era. A little over 5 foot 8. To her natural height she often adds further inches by wearing heeled footwear or wearing her hair up in elaborate styles. She aids her natural complexion with a range of cosmetics but tries not to overdo it in the manner of the worst sort of call girl. She accentuates her natural curves with tight fitting clothes and eye-catching jewelry.
Most respectable women would call her trashy and lacking in class. That would be a little unfair. She cannot compete on breeding – she knows she is on the periphery of acceptable society at best, kept within the bounds of it (only just) by her fame. If she is labelled trashy because she likes to spend what she has on bright, wild clothing and trinkets then that is her own choice. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Father: Lucius Naevius Diophoros (20CE – 50CE), bankrupt, actor.
Mother: Theodora (? – 43CE), water-organ player, little known about her.
The Proculus Players
Branded as a “multi-disciplinary entertainment troupe” this band of actors and musicians are an unlikely and eclectic group of professional artists, loosely cobbled and held together by the wild Gaius Julius Proculus (showbiz manager and entertainment promotor “extraordinaire”, offices round the back of the Saepta Julia, meetings by appointment only, no liability is accepted for personal injury, theft of death…). The group perform in all public and private spheres at affordable and competitive rates. No job is too large, too small or too bizarre. Experienced with animals. Licenced to perform across the Empire. Specialisms include (but are not limited to) mimae, farce, classical Roman and Greek drama, musical performances, dance and acrobatics. Their performance of Plautus’ “The Rope” in 74CE was reviewed as a “must see” by the Roman daily news crier.
The current roster includes, amongst its more popular members:-
Aelia – actress, dancer, musician. The leading lady.
Titia – actress, animal handler, dancer. Despite the name, is a willowy Celt.
Maxima – actress, dancer, musician. Refuses to talk about her past.
Pretends to be a Palatine runaway from a noble family. In reality, a fisherman’s illegitimate daughter from the Aventine.
Scylus – actor, believes himself to be a proper “traditional” actor just knocking around with this troupe because he needs the money… Cleander – actor, dancer. Aelia’s room-mate and best friend. Known familiarly as “Andy.” A Greek with a Spartan build, he is more fond of his own gender than the opposite.
Grumio – a clown. Co-dependent, passive aggressive, forever arguing comedy partner of Dromon.
Dromon – a clown. Co-dependent, passive aggressive, forever arguing comedy partner of Grumio.
Basil – a dwarf, multi-purpose for all dwarfery. Highly skilled at the water-organ. Long-suffering on account of his short stature.
First thing’s first – a shocking admission. Her real name isn’t Aelia. Shocker! No surprises that it is, in fact, a stage name that is now so prevalent that it has taken the place of her actual name. She was born as Artemisia (“Missy”) in 43CE in Athens, Grecia. Her father, Diophoros, was likewise born in the city although he maintained that he had Roman citizenship and regularly used the Roman names “Lucius Naevius” in front of his Greek one. If pushed, it became incredibly shady as to whether his family did indeed have Roman citizenship. Fortunately it was never tested. In later life, it suited Missy to be thought of as a true, Roman darling and so she used the name Aelia which, for the avoidance of all doubt, we shall call he going forwards.
Her father was the youngest of seven sons. In his early teenage years he ran away from home, determined to make his fortune – by what means, he assumed he would decide on the hoof, as it were. He spoke little to nothing about his family so, to all intents and purposes, Aelia knows no more about it than that. Her father went through a variety of ill advised professions and money making schemes, none of which bore fruit. Eventually, and failing all else, and with debt claims against him leaving him bankrupt, he fell in with a troupe of itinerant actors. This band made an annual tour of the main Greek cities and performed the traditional canon of old Greek greats. In the course of this he met and struck up a casual liaison with a water organ player of Thracian stock, known solely by the name the troupe gave her, Theodora. She never revealed her real name. She never really learned any Latin or Greek. What we know of her is barely more than this. All that is left to say is that she fell pregnant and, in 43CE, gave birth to Artemisia/Aelia and, contracting fever from a difficult birth, died three days later.
There is no need to go into the psychological effect of growing up without a mother on a young girl. You don’t have to be a genius to guess the feelings of loss, emptiness and yearning for comfort that this brings. Her father was completely incapable of looking after his now-motherless daughter and so she became a common problem of the troupe. A succession of women took care of her needs as her father slowly but surely drank himself to death, always lamenting (like a good Greek character in a play) of how great he could have been. He died in 50CE. His death made little actual difference to Aelia save for that she was no categorised as an orphan, rather than just motherless. Adopted almost as common-property of the troupe, her bed and board was covered by the fact she became one of their number, apprenticed to learning the craft of an actress and musician which, unlike her father, she found she had a natural propensity for.
Adolescence smoothed off the early childish blemishes and, from the chrysalis of youth, she blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Her striking blonde hair, cool blue eyes and ample figure (to put it politely) caught the attention. Audiences (or parts of it) loved her. The problem was that so did members of the troupe. Their attentions were innocent at first but soon turned menacing. These early years are not worth thinking about too much. The blanks can be filled in by the astute. With little recourse but to try and “go along with it” she learned the hard way the darker side of show business.
By the time she reached 18 she had had enough of it. She met a farmer’s son, Helios, living in a village near Pella, who fell in with the troupe as they headed towards the ancient capital of Macedonia for a series of shows. Falling in love, the pair’s romance burnt fierce and fast. They agreed to run away and, in fairness, they did avoid the predations of the troupe. Fleeing to Piraeus, they took ship for Syria and moved to Antioch with no actual clue as to what to do. Exposed to the unsanitary and new climate of a foreign metropolis, Helios died, leaving Aelia alone and destitute. With no other way to survive, she managed to avoid the clutches of slavery by working long hours for low pay in a laundry. Fortunately for her, her health and beauty survived what could have been an irreversible ordeal by one of the chance encounters that the Fates litter in our paths and which, if we are but careful enough to pick them up, can change the course of a life forever.
One day a tall, recently freed, distinctly odd looking Roman arrived with a bundle of cleaning, needing done quickly. Bald as a coot, this fellow sported an array of frankly bizarre hairpieces which fooled no one. He rejoiced in the name of Gaius Julius Proculus and, with a legacy left by the doting old bat he had been freed by after years as a house slave, had decided to work doing what he loved: in the entertainment business. Proculus had a vision: he believed in bringing to Rome a band of artists, with a varied repertoire, that was representative of the variety of the Empire. As a promotor, he would then showcase these wonders in the capital with a view to making himself rich and famous. Simple, really. That plenty of others were doing so too was by the by. Proculus knew that his band would be better. How? None of the other bands had him as a manager.
In the course of the transaction about the cleaning, Aelia spoke about her experience in the past. Proculus (although no lecher) noticed her charms and – in a bout of inspiration seemingly sent by Apollo himself – claimed he saw an aura of light about the young laundress. This was actually a perfectly natural phenomenon occasioned by her being silhouettes against a window but this is show business, darling, don’t let facts get in the way of a good story! In such a way Aelia became a contracted member of the Proculus Players and we can skip forward to Rome.
As of 75CE, Aelia has lived in Rome for over a decade. All that time she has been a member of the Proculus Players and has risen from being a third-rate supporting actress to becoming undeniably its leading lady. A gifted singer and musician, she is famous for her melodic, sweet and sensuous voice. Song writers rush to her to sing their pieces and often what you hear from her first one day is sung by women in the street or people humming in the course of their business the next day. She would like to be known for her musical talents alone but that is sadly not to be. The Roman audience find actresses bizarre. Most, like she, become sensuous symbols of public lust yet, at the same time, the same audiences can despise her as an outcast under traditional morality. The mob don’t care how realistic her acting of Niobe is – her tears real and her emotions cascading out in a manner that could melt the iciest heart. No, what they prefer is flesh on show and bawdy jokes. The sort of thing you would never want your daughter to do but find it ok in an actress. This, in fairness, Aelia owns. She is beautiful and voluptuous and works it. She is good at the banter needed for comedic acting as well as the more serious tropes of classical drama. Through this, she quickly became one of the leading lights of the acting scene – in contest with the other leading ladies of other acting bands.
The rivalry between these prima donnas is one of the bedrocks of the Roman “tabloid” gossip news-sheets and tavern talk. People have their favourite pin up and argue over the virtues and vices of rivals. Comments one starlet makes about another are repeated over and over again and grow in the telling. Guess who wore what to such and such’s party? Guess who wasn’t invited? You’ll never guess who has taken up with so and so’s ex-boyfriend? This type of talk can be heard all the way from the halls of the Palatine to the fish markets of the Aventine.
Proculus, like other promotors, has capitalised on his leading lady’s partisan celebrity to milk money by using her for publicity purposes. Are you opening a new bar? What better way to get punters in than by having Aelia come to the opening night? Is your bread the best on the Caelian?
Pay us enough and Aelia will be seen eating it. Is your drapery business in the doldrums? Why not consider becoming an official wardrobe sponsor to Aelia and the Proculus Players? You see how it goes?
In this manner, Aelia has come to be linked heavily with the White team chariot racing circles. One of the official “poster girls”, she can be seen on most race days in some manner of eye-catching white ensemble, lingering around the official merchandise stalls and whipping up support in the stands. A few highly publicised (and stage managed) affairs with White team drivers helps keep the rumor mill going. It is not unknown for her and her main rival, the Celtic beauty, Aemilia of the Appius Entourage, pin up of the Greens, to have set-to slagging matches on race day.
She takes her pleasures where she can find them. Such is one of the benefits of falling outside the traditional bonds of acceptable moral society. She longs for a real connection but is realistic enough to know how unlikely that may come to be. So, in the meantime, she enjoys courting scandal and making money. She lives in a flat in an insula on the Esquiline – nothing fancy but not rock bottom – flat-sharing with her best friend and co-troupe member, Cleander.
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