There is a saying in Rome: As many slaves as you have enemies. Claudius’s generosity went beyond decency. It was a coded message of defiance aimed at his opponents. The emperor, I was to learn, kept many slaves.
After freedom had been bestowed upon me the manacles that bound my feet and hands were removed. There was great cheering from the crowd as Claudius rose from his dias to acknowledge their favour. Not wanting to miss out, Agrippina also stepped forward along with a scowling, coddled boy who, I soon discovered, was her son, Nero.
The warriors, nobles, and other captives who had accompanied me as prisoners were unchained. Overwhelmed at having cheated death they fell to their knees before the emperor. I found this distasteful. Within a few minutes their loyalty towards their king and tribe had been discarded like a torn and filthy garment and given over to Rome. They were told they would be given the status of freedmen with the ability to work and reside within the empire. I waited to be offered similar status. Claudius, though, was in a generous mood. Nobility was conferred. Ralla and Claudia were also elevated to the status of noblewomen. There was no expectation for me to kneel before the emperor. Indeed, I would have refused had there been so. We were given robes and jewellery. I was presented with gold and my pension. The crowd gasped at these unexpected and overly benevolent turn of events.
The reasoning behind Claudius’ grand demonstration of clemency was difficult for me to understand. I could only imagine it would be used as propaganda in Britain. If so, it was a clever move. I would be portrayed as a traitor and worse – a king who traded freedom for gold. I could hear the contempt of my people on the streets of Camulodunum. Soon, my very existence would be forgotten.
As the crowds dispersed and the emperor returned to the Palatine, my family was installed in a villa on the eastern bank of the Tiber. The house had once belonged to Varia, a wealthy praetor and former associate of Claudius. In his will, as a mark of affection, he’d left the residence to Caesar to dispose of as he wished. Varia had been well known for his extravagance. The walls were ablaze with mirrors, the bathroom edged with Thracian marble. The front boasted an artificial grotto and an elaborately patterned reception hall resplendent with mosaic. Claudius had originally announced to the senate that the house would be auctioned, the funds deposited in the city purse. Now he retracted that statement. Instead he decided it should be given over to a barbarian king and his peculiar wife.
Under the terms of my release I was required to stay within Rome’s city walls, an arrangement that would be reviewed at a later date in accordance with my standing. At first I found life in Rome burdensome, despite my comfortable home. On the occasions that I ventured out (always under escort, another irritating prohibition organised by the emperor) the city oppressed me. I found the noise intolerable. The traffic in the streets, and the anger it engendered, made me yearn for the forests and green fields of my homeland. Yet Claudius had stipulated that I should familiarise myself with the city. He was also eager for me to be introduced to certain households for no other reason than they might help ‘educate and civilise’ the barbarian king.
Rome’s chattering classes, meanwhile, were awash with rumour. It was said that I had the emperor’s ear. Why else should such favours have been given ? And the nobility were naturally curious about the king of the Britons – a race of people whose industry and courage is held in high regard.
Like the gladiators who fight to the death in the city’s arenas, I became an irresistible decoration at any dinner party. Not only had I escaped death by the length of the emperor’s thumb but I still had the intoxicating aroma of the battlefield about me. I found myself much sought-after by the nobility, attending many gatherings in the palatial villas that dotted the Esqualine. I was under no allusion as to my status: I was an exotic appendage, no more, no less, earning my supper by recounting my days as an outlaw in the Black Mountains. But through my attendance I soon became privy to political gossip. And the gossips were certain of one thing: that my mentor, Claudius, was soon to be deposed.
It was common knowledge that two separate camps had emerged within the imperial palace: on one side Seneca, Agrippina and the former army commander Burrus supported Nero while Claudius, Narcissus and Paulinus - two Greek freedmen - were engaged in their own project, the nature of which intrigued my wealthy hosts no end. They spoke of how Seneca – ‘that low-born Spaniard’ – demanded that if, as was likely, Claudius was nursing a pretender to the throne then he should show his hand. They spoke of how Nero feared Claudius’ son, Brittanicus, and how Nero’s doting mother Agrippina petted him, whispering in his ear that a prophesy had foretold that he would take the crown. They spoke of how Claudius loathed the very sight of Brittanicus, seeing failure in the boy’s resemblance to himself, as well as deceit inherited from the boy’s mother, the slut Messalina. Britannicus, said the gossips, was too sensitive and weak. Meanwhile, Agrippina was busy convincing Nero that he was strong and wise. Finally, these purveyors of intrigue would recount how the empress would kiss her son at night and purr: ‘There, there, my golden pet. Why fear somebody who is already dead ?’
My hosts laughed at these stories, especially those concerning Agrippina, who was despised by everyone I met. Rome was awash with wine, gluttony, and gossip. And I, the fallen British king, was at its heart.
Piran was a frequent visitor to my villa. I supported him financially, of course, securing for my friend a ground floor dwelling in a house near the northern city wall. Piran, though, was soon functioning independently. He began importing hunting dogs from Gaul and purchased a small plot of land on which he built a dwelling of his own. He filled the rooms with Greek families, charging a high rent. After a few months a fire swept through the building causing some loss of life. It was re-built with an extra storey for good measure and the rents increased. The builders were sued in the law courts and Piran came out of the business with a healthy profit. Another dwelling was built and then another. He soon realised, though, that painted boys and women of the most debauched nature were better paying tenants than poor Greek families, converting both new dwellings into brothels. His ruthlessness on the field of battle had been transformed into the exercise of supply and demand.
One day I met him in the palaestrae of the baths he frequented. We sat together for a while, watching a wrestling bout. Then we retired to a quiet area of the thermae.
‘I have a message for you’ he said, ‘from someone who is intimate with the royal household.’
At first I thought he was jesting. ‘Since when have you been employed as the emperor’s messenger boy ?’
‘My king - Half of all business done in Rome is conducted here in the thermae. The other half takes place in the city’s brothels. States have been known to rise and fall because of careless pillow talk.’
He smiled and I saw him in a new light. My friend and comrade had built a network of informers.
‘Claudius wishes to meet with you’ he said. ‘I have the feeling he wants to sound you out.’
‘About what ?’
A wrestler entered and undressed. Two slaves began scraping his body with a strigil.
‘Let me put it this way - you’re perceived as an ally. Perhaps he thinks it’s time you re-paid him for your freedom.’
‘Your freedom too’ I said.
‘An honourable thought. But let me say this: I’d advise against siding with the emperor if you value your existence.’
The wrestler went into the frigidarium and Piran fell silent. Then he whispered: ‘I’ve heard that Claudius’ days are numbered.’
‘All our days are numbered.’
‘Just don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Otherwise we’ll find another sort of freedom - from the top of the Tarpean rock.’
He got up and I watched him follow the wrestler. There was a splash as Piran jumped into the cold pool. And then wild laughter.
I closed my eyes and caught the smell of eucalyptus. There was a time when Piran and I frowned on homosexual behaviour – or Greek Love as it’s called here in Rome. As boys we saw men in our tribe endure the most vile punishments for coupling with their own sex. Andocos said it was unnatural. Here, though, things are different: a man is allowed to find pleasure where he can. And yet I found the ease with which Piran had adapted to Roman customs disconcerting. Unlike him a substantial part of me continued to abide by the codes of my homeland – I was unable to re-fashion myself so effortlessly.
My thoughts turned to Claudius. Piran’s information, if it was accurate, didn’t surprise me. I had long speculated about the remittance I would have to pay on behalf of his clemency. I wasn’t offered wealth and feted on the Esqualine for no reason. I hadn’t escaped the grisly fate of other captured leaders who had dared to resist Roman rule because of my defiant speech alone. Claudius had spared me in order to put me to good use. His false air of benevolence was beginning to wear thin.
You will say that I was indebted to Claudius and I would agree. But you must remember – in Rome honour is subservient to political necessity. Roman honour is not hard and immutable, like metal – it is fluid and impermanent. Heat it and it will evaporate into thin air. Can I be blamed if, in the concealed anger of defeat, I convinced myself that I owed the emperor nothing ? Claudius’ actions had taken my island home, killed my son, and made prisoners of my family. My daughter Claudia - only ten years old when she was paraded through Rome’s streets - never forgot her humiliation, forced as she was to accompany her mother in a wooden cart, a target of rotten fruit thrown from the hand of every filthy Roman beggar. And she attributed blame for her dishonour not with Claudius but with me, her barbarian father. Was I to sink to my knees and thank the emperor for that ? Was I to risk my life further in order to be a political counter ?
And I thought of Ralla, who had slipped into silent despair. She remained during those first years locked within our home, a lonely creature given over to anguish and darkness. Sweet Ralla, my queen, who I had grown to love more than I ever thought possible. Because of Claudius’ political necessity I had lost her too.
No – I began to despise the wealth and stature that Claudius had thrust upon me. And what’s more I continued to see Rome for what she really is – not the eternal, great suckling-mother of myth but a stinking, back-street whore.