The Last Stoic – Excerpt

Commodus did not notice the dusky figure lingering at the foot of the vast, marble bath, just beyond the candle glow.  He was preoccupied with the parchment that Galen had presented to him earlier that evening; he spooled and unspooled it, glancing idly at the mass of script.  Actually reading his late father’s journal, at this hour and in his condition, would take an effort he had no intention of summoning.  He’d read as far as the second line…

Existimatione et recordatione genitoris mei ad verecundiam et animum viro dignum excitari debeo.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

…and then was content to toy with it between his meaty fingers.

A scuffing of sandal leather against stone echoed through the caldarium.  Commodus hoisted his body from one side of the pool to the other, scanning the shadows, choking back the familiar reflux.  The cylinder of goatskin buckled under his tightened grip.  Tepid water, viscous with a dozen oils and perfumes, slopped unctuously between his thighs and under his buttocks as he rolled over, exacerbating the churn of his stomach.  He propped himself up on the side of the bath and squinted through the wine-coloured mist filming his eyes.     

“Who’s that?  Identify yourself!”

The man padded forward.  Candle-light flickered across his features, accentuating the lines of sinew and ridges of muscle.  He gazed toward the emperor, handsome and haughty.

“Oh!  It’s you,” sighed Commodus.  Narcissus, the Nubian slave who called himself Khaleme, the emperor’s wrestling partner.  He also provided massages, strigilings, spongings, and other bathing services.  Marcia, his concubine, sent him up as yet another exotic dish, a dessert.  He imagined how he would punish her for such presumptuousness and it caused a stir in his groin that was both faint and fleeting.

Commodus was in no mood for extras on this night.  Earlier, he had forced down more bloody portions of that very rare roast beef than he was otherwise inclined, prodded by Marcia’s urging.  It increases a man’s sexual vigour, she had effused.  And then there was the array of smelly cheeses from Belgica, olives from Apulia, the hen, quail, pigeon, peacock, and ostrich eggs, sea urchins from Misenum, mussels and clams from Ostia, potted hare and venison from the forests of Germania, pickled tuna and grilled mullet from the Hispanic coast, trout and pheasant from Britannia, broiled Egyptian flamingo stuffed with figs, roast side of Umbrian boar, sow’s udder, antelope tongue, sheep stomach, calf brains.  The five cups of undiluted Falernian wine that sluiced down dinner were just enough to numb his gouty toes, but they constituted no more than an average evening’s drinking.  Although he had vomited twice since dinner, once more than was typical, there was none of the customary reinvigoration.  At his age, stomach ache so regularly accompanied suppertime it hardly merited a mention.  But this indigestion brought with it an uncommon sharpness. 

The emperor made a sound like air escaping slowly from a bladder.

“Not tonight Narcissus.”

The slave did not withdraw. 

“Not tonight!  I’m not well!”

Narcissus moved forward noiselessly and with purpose, like a leopard.  Commodus watched, his burly jaw-hinge slackened, muted by the unprecedented insubordination.  Narcissus moved behind the emperor and he began to massage his thickly knotted shoulders.  The emperor’s shock waned as waves of pleasure rolled up his neck and down his back, tension melting under the forceful manipulations.  For a moment, the warm sensation spreading out from the kneading fingers held at bay the discomfort threatening from his abdomen.  But within minutes the nausea swelled again and Commodus was reminded of his slave’s appalling disobedience.


Quick fingers clenched around the emperor’s windpipe, treating him to the second great shock of the evening. 

 Commodus dropped the roll of parchment to the edge of the bath and clutched at the black, straining fingers pressing into his neck.  He was larger and heavier than his assailant, but in his weakened state he was unable to resist.  This was one wrestling match that the Nubian would not artfully lose.  

The smile on the emperor’s face looked more like a grimace.  He knew now why Marcia had been shoveling plate after heaping plate at him.  At the time, it had seemed peculiar how no-one else had partaken of the roast beef.  Now it was obvious.  Poison.  The extra regurgitation earlier had saved his life, temporarily.  Frustrated, Marcia had sent Narcissus to finish the job.  Commodus ground his teeth imagining her clandestine collaborations with the magnificent athlete, rutting with him like a bitch, by way of concluding the deal.  Again, most inappropriately, he was aroused.

Narcissus, disgusted, poured every ounce of reserved strength into his constricting fingers.  There was a loud pop of cracking vertebrae and tearing ligaments.  As the oxygen dissipated from the emperor’s body, his resistance abated and he began to revert to a foetal position, crunching himself into a ball.  From the emperor’s core a final chasm of fear yawned and caused an utter evacuation of his bowels.  The cooling water of the bath, originally sweet with aromatics, now darkened and muddied into a foul broth.  Through his diminishing consciousness, Commodus could see his father, standing on a distant hill, clad in gold armour, bathed in the warmth of a Mediterranean sun reflected and redoubled in its brilliance.  The emperor began to cry the pure, unrestrained tears of a baby.  In his fading reverie he called out to his father, but the distance was too great, and his words were carried away by the wind. 

 “Father,” Commodus mouthed, “forgive me.”

The emperor’s eyes closed and he was limp.  Narcissus, having completed his task, relaxed his grip, his fingers aching with the strain of their work.  He stood, bent to retrieve the crumpled parchment from the stone floor, and turned to rejoin the shadows.  The mass of the emperor’s body began to sink into the thick water until, with a soft burble, he submerged.