By: Mackenzie Patel
Esteemed Writer and Blogger
“And can any of you young scholars tell me who the first five emperors were?” The sharp voice of Julia Livilla, my private tutor, was expectant at she peered at the three students in her ‘classroom’ (AKA our peristyle garden). I was sitting next to my older sister, Faustina, and my younger brother, Iulius, sizing them up and wondering if they dared to answer the prudish hawk.
And of course, my snobbish and entitled sister answered confidently, “Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.” She smiled smugly, thinking herself superior to her younger, brutish siblings. I rolled my eyes, wondering why in name of Jupiter Faustina worked so hard in school. My family was part of the noble patrician class, which basically meant that all females had nothing to do except get married at 17, and the males became pompous orators in the Forum. Faustina was 16 years old, and her time of youth and carefree frivolity was slowly slipping away. If I was her, I wouldn’t spend so much time studying; I would be out, exploring every nook and cranny of Rome by myself, climbing over the ancient ruins on the Palatine hill, and sneaking in the fire rooms under the caldariums in the Baths of Diocletian to observe the slaves toiling away. Why? Because children could do nearly anything here without anyone questioning us. We are prized, treasured, and coddled beyond belief until the official titles of ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood’ transform us from curious firebrands to resigned adults. I, Aelia, was only 14 years old, which was infuriating because I was too young to explore on my own and too old to simply follow my parents around.
“Correct!” gushed Julia, looking fondly at Faustina like a master does its puppy. Her Latin was rough because technically, she was a Greek slave. Greek slaves have been the tutors of privileged Roman children since the beginning of the Empire simply because they were cultured and educated.
“One more question and then you rascals can do as you please,” she looked pointedly at Iulius and I, slightly upturning her nose. “How long has the Roman Empire officially existed? Remember, I specifically stated the Empire, not the monarchy.” I rolled my eyes. We had been over the distinction between the hated monarchy, the free Republic, and now the semi-mythical Empire hundreds of times. I did the quick math in my little noggin; if the empire was founded in 27 BCE and it was now 2014, that meant the empire was….
” 2,041 years old!” I said confidently. I may be terrible at sucking up and being an obedient lapdog, but my math skills were definitely as sharp as father’s sword in his Vestibulum.
“Yes–that is actually correct,” Julia gave me a shady look, as if I somehow cheated her. I would desperately love to be an engineer here in Rome and construct grand buildings that would rival the Coloseum, Markets of Trajan, and the Pantheon. However, I cannot, and I never will.
“It’s fortunate for us today that the Roman Empire did not collapse with the battle of Adrianople in 378 CE.” What? I thought we were done for the day? Leave it to the Greeks to lie to people in order to make themselves heard.
“You see, the Empire was on the brink of collapse, the Goths were crossing the border like a swarm of naval vessels, and the Emperors were completely incompetent. But thanks to the ingenuity and resurgence of the Flavian clan, the same family that founded the dynasty that rules us today, we are still united under the banner of SPQR.” She finished passionately, and for being an imported slave who was ripped away from her hometown of Corinth, she was incredibly gung-ho about Rome. I shot Iulius a bemused look, subtly inquiring where we would scamper off to next after Julia finally stopped blabbing on about something she didn’t even belong to. His cocked black eyebrow was enough of a clue–his small, thin body wanted to go to the Pantheon and snoop around for clues.
We got up quickly, uttering a hasty ‘goodbye’ to Julia and Faustina. Iulius and I raced through our magenta-colored atrium with a reflecting pool filled to the brim with water from the last tempestuous storm. I quickly washed my face, attempting to look presentable, but who really cared? I was a kid for goodness sakes, not a stuffy old Senator (who didn’t really hold any power anyway) or freaky underground Pagan priestess.
Iulius and I ran through the streets of Rome, crooked and dirty, and exactly the same ones that Cicero and Augustus and Julius Caesar walked on. It’s funny how nothing has changed in over 2,000 years. Well, nothing except the money supply.
“Ooooooh and then Livinius said to Trajan ‘I want to be just like you and conquer the world. I will have mines even richer than the ones in Dacia!’” An actor on the street with concrete-thick makeup continued squawking on about history as Iulius and I passed him. Street actors were common in Rome, especially ones that satirized the present leaders. One thing HAD changed since the ancient days of the Empire–our territory had expanded enormously. Once, the Romans merely controlled the landmasses bordering the Mare Nostrum, or the ‘Mediterranean Sea’ to commoners. However, after a few hotheaded and hubris-infected leaders, Rome had swelled like an infected cut, and our vast land now included much of Africa and nearly all of Asia. My clothes, a simple dress tied at the shoulders, were made completely out of silk imported from the Far East and my brown sandals were made of the most buttery leather from the northern Sahara. I knew I was extremely privileged and lucky, but when most of the citizens of a city were rolling in cash from never-ending conquests, one more grand than the last, nobody seemed too pretentious or out of the ordinary. After rushing past a doctor’s office and monumental aqueduct (also from the ancient days, but hey! The Patricians here have enough money to keep repairing it, so why not?), Iulius and I finally stopped dead in front of my favorite building in all of Rome, the Pantheon. It was a wonder the architectural giant was still standing—all of the Roman Empire, from Hibernia to that small, crescent shaped island north of China, was staunchly Christian. Most temples had converted to churches long ago, but this one, the greatest and most awe-inspiring mecca of Paganism, had not been demolished. Instead, in the 500s, it had been used as a slaughterhouse for chickens. Not exactly glamorous or respectful to the ancient deities of Jupiter, Neptune, and Minerva, but at least the building itself was maintained.
These days, anyone could walk in, so Iulius and I ran across the columned front porch and under the highly faded words “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” Some things in Rome, despite the increased trading and a funny phenomenon called ‘globalromanization’ that all the old orators were talking about, never changed and the Pantheon was the ultimate relic from antiquity.
“Shall we walk in?” I asked Iulius rather nervously. I hadn’t been inside the Pantheon for years, at least since I was seven years old. A mischievous look appeared on his boyish features–a cropped haircut like Julius Caesar, a small, round nose, and large red ears that protruded from his jet black hair–and he replied, “Of course. I am determined to find a chicken feather and bring it home.
The Pantheon hadn’t been used as a slaughterhouse for over 200 years, yet legend had it that if one managed to find a lost chicken feather from ages past, it was good luck. We ambled through the huge bronze doors, at least five times the height of me. Engineers these days had molds and machines to melt and shape the bronze, but back in the ancient days? All those men had was their calloused hands and primitive wooden pulleys.
I gasped aloud. I had forgotten how strange and unsettling the interior of this once holy structure looked–there was of course the characteristic green and white marble, alternating square and round pediments, and the majestic coffered ceiling, but all these antiquated features were obscured by lines and streaks and violent dashes of blood. In a roman revolt in 1813, a group of plebeian rabble-rousers came in here in the dead of night and slaughtered all the chickens, intending to starve the Roman elite into submission. The evidence of those beastly attacks was still manifest today–it was almost artful, the way the bloodstains, almost black with age, colored the walls and marble like an abstract painting from Pompeii. The blood arced across the ceiling as gracefully as a court dancer, thin as a gossamer string. The floor was dotted with blood, forming a pattern that looked like a children’s hopscotch game. The only feature that wasn’t marred by violent history was the oculus, the beautiful and spectacular hole in the ceiling that looked like a gaping mouth about to devour the small slice of blue sky.
“Iulius, come here,” I breathed quietly, yet the beckon echoed throughout the entire blood-bathed room because no one else was here, not even a solemn drawer or senile plebeian who just lost a patron.
Iulius, with a look of timidity and fear painted across his face, followed me to the dead center of the interior sphere, directly underneath the oculus. I breathed in the scent of dead chickens, of ages past, and of the change to come. It could almost be peaceful here, if one closed their eyes and nose, or forgot the Pagan persecutions and ancient revolts that used the Pantheon as their stronghold.
“And what are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.” The sharp voice woke me out of my stupor, and I turned around, surprised. I instinctively shoved Iulius behind me; a man, about 25 years old had just entered the room, and he was brandishing a long, curved bloody knife. It reminded me of the time I cut my nail bed on my third finger, and the blood gushed out on my curled fingernail.
“We were just looking around in here. What are you doing?” My voice was high and shrill, despite the attempt at confidence and swagger.
“You must leave and go home now! It is not safe for children–you do not know what has happened. The emperor Livinius has just been murdered in his palace by a coalition of plebeian workers!”
My head whirled; although I was young, father had taken me to the Forum enough times so I was familiar with Roman politics. But an Emperor murdered in cold blood? The last time that happened in the West was with Julius Nepos, and then Livinius’ ancestor took over, established his dynasty, and it has been stable ever since.
“No, no, this cannot be,” I exclaimed, wondering what this could mean for my family, a noble patrician one from royal lineage.
“Yes–and the rebels are congregating here in the Pantheon! You must leave; they are talking about democracy and power sharing and common wealth for all. Go!”
I took Iulius by the hand and flew past the knife man, perhaps my savior. We crashed through the doors and onto the porch, surveying the debacle in front of us. People were screaming, women were crying by their windows, and the sound of cheap leather sandals marching on the cobblestoned streets was fast approaching. I jumped off the porch dramatically with Iulius, and we skirted around the back of the Pantheon, jumping into the opening of a deserted street. Democracy? Power-sharing? It was true; Rome had been undergoing economic and ideological changes in the past few years, but a complete overthrow of the regime?
“Aelia, we have to go home. Mother and Father will be worrying about us. What if the plebeians got to them first!” Iulius sounded scared out of his wits; I hadn’t realized I stopped in the middle of the still empty street, my hands clutching my kneecaps.
“Yes, let’s go home, but the back way!” We flew down more deserted streets; everyone seemed to have gone indoors and put bars on their windows. We only met the sad looking actor from before, except this time, his makeup was badly smeared and he was nursing a cut above his left eyebrow.
“You better get home, kitties. I wouldn’t want to see the poor ones cut you to pieces…” His hypnotic voice trailed off as he turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
“Iulius, don’t listen to him–we’re going to make it home alright.” I tried to be reassuring, but at that same exact moment, we hit a dead end. There was no way out, except up. I could hear the menacing sound of footsteps barreling down the street behind us. Could we really do this?
“Iulius, step on top of me and grab that bar. Do you see it up there?” I pointed to a bar covered in emerald green vines snaking up the side of a small building. Iulius did as I said, and I followed him, shimmying my way up the thin bar to the roof of the building. ‘Please don’t break, please don’t break,’ I prayed in my head, waiting for some assurance from someone, somewhere. We made it to the top of the terracotta building, and from this view, we could see the entire skyline of Rome. For a split second, I forgot about everything, about the violence, and about the large volumes of blood I had seen today.
“I can see everything from here,” Iulius whispered, the awe in his voice reflecting the sentiment painted across my face. The Column of Trajan, the new futuristic aqueduct featuring a purification pump, the numerous gargantuan churches built in the era of Constantine and Theodosius, the new mega-churches that could hold 15,000 worshipers at one time and that had indoor pools–everything was visible. Everything one could ever hope to know or discover about Rome–all was right here, on the roof of some restaurant or the house of an old, weathered Latin lady.
“Come on,” I said, ripping my eyes away from my city, my impenetrable, long-lasting, and mutating city. “Let’s find our way home.”
We continued hopping on top of roofs, following the natural contours of the streets. I knew which way we were roughly going, and I had an idea of where our house was. Beneath us, the rioters were proclaiming their ideology, screaming it to the fast approaching dusk. Phrases such as “freedom,” “liberty,” “down with the tyranny of the majority,” “emulate Solon,” and “Rome will be free” went in one ear, but didn’t go out the other. They remained lodged in my brain like sticky saltwater taffy made from Mediterranean salt stuck on the bottom of my sandal. Perhaps liberty and power sharing wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it was time for Rome to finally move on and allow the poor masses some freedom.
“Aelia, I think this is our house,” said Iulius. I could hear the glee in his voice; we were safe and in one piece; we even had the best seat for a full panoramic of Rome, my beloved city. We slid in through the open back window and landed with a thud in the steamy kitchens. The slave who usually cooked our meals wasn’t there.
“So Iulius, did you get your chicken feather?”
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