I remember three years ago looking into the entrance pool of Julia’s stately domus1 and finding I was beautiful. I hoped my hostess would think I was admiring her fish mosaic shimmering underneath the fountain waters if she came out to ask me to enter, and I told myself such an old patron of the door was certainly not interested in the number of times a senator’s daughter turned again to see her own face. Still, had they both been in arm’s reach and given me their full audience, I could not have kept myself from looking one last time. Certainly, I’d seen my face before. Although if you asked, Selina would laugh that back then I never looked in the mirror while she attended my hair. If she has the gift of heart reading, as I’ve so often accused her, she would also tell that my reticence was not modesty, but embarrassment: not only of a lady before a handmaid, but of an ugly woman before a pretty one. Girl, I guess I should say. To call myself a woman, even now, conjures up images that I am sure (and almost glad) I’ll never fulfill. But this image was a surprise, and I reviewed it again and again like a man admiring someone else’s art. Why had I never thought of myself as beautiful before? My father has been claiming it since my infancy, often enough to send me to the mirror looking and, like most girls in their adolescence, not finding.
But it was not always like that. I remember innocence, a body that existed as little as my awareness of it, except on days Nana’s nieces came. On those mornings I could barely sit still as the ornatrix2 braided my hair, pinned and dressed me, for the whole delightful day was waiting for me. My favorite memory (or is it Nana’s?) is of our three curly heads bobbing around in the wildflower field beyond the back portico.3 That was, of course, at Venetiae. Imagine, wildflowers surviving in Carthage! The seeds would not only fail to root, they would be crushed underfoot the moment they fell. I wonder if I’ll always miss Venetiae, or if a better one is waiting for me. That old country villa of Father’s constantly beckoned me as a child.
Cold days were given to the library, but warm ones belonged to the patterned fields of wheat and their ancient secret, Oleatiae, as I named it. That whimsy was known only to the girls and me. Parents and servants staidly called it the old olive press. In any event, it was a lyrical place, and the stories I made up in my mind while I laid there could last for days. I worried then that Father might know from my eyes how caught I was in my far away life and be displeased. But I loved his books too, with their real mariners and soldiers and philosophers living lives more exciting than anything my imagination could produce. The exploits of Julius Caesar terrified me, and I thanked the gods every time I read them that I’d not been born a man. Perhaps that is why this beautiful reflection so pleased me. My stories when I was young usually centered around a lovely woman, in flowing soft draperies of white, who lived in ancient palaces, was captured and rescued countless times, and for whom men were given in battle against enemies and beasts. Reality never intruded until I grew old enough to see the mirror not reflect the beauty I felt. When it finally did, I was stunned. I’d taught myself in those few long years of adolescence that although I did not look like the heroine to others, although my playmates might not see the noble Penelope in my brow, I was the one true and beautiful soul among them. I had to be. To now indeed be, frightened and thrilled. This was possibly my first lesson taken consciously at God’s knee, although I didn’t know Him at the time. As I was finally able to turn my attention to enter my hostess’ domus, my mind retreated inward, and I observed the evening and my soul as if from a secret room in silence.
“Selina!” My amictus4 crumpled gently over the chair as I lifted my hands to press the white tunic underneath against my body. My eyes followed its curves in the mirror until Selina’s dark head appeared in the doorway to her chamber. “Help me.” She smiled as she silently removed the trinkets from my wrist and watched my eyes wander over the reflection of my own face. “Aelius and his wife stage the most dramatic cenae5,” I complained. “We already know he is the wealthiest landowner in Carthage. They flaunt it like plebians6.”
“Was there something special for Mistress Aelius’ birthday?”
“Of course not, Selina! Aelius’ taste is far too fine to make a public spectacle of Julia’s age,” I mocked. “We only had the normal seven courses of your average man’s evening cena. It was horrible! Drag me to the amphitheater’s floor if I ever become so ostentatious. You should have seen the second roast—a wild pig with little simnel cakes around in the shape of piglets nursing. And of course they had Marius perform scenes from his newest play between each course. I was planning to attend the theater next Dies Saturni7. I can stay home now.” As my eyes rolled they caught Selina’s concerned frown. I babbled on, “If they’re going to act like Nero’s court, they might as well go all the way and end with a full orgy.” Her eyes flinched, so I added, “I’m sure half the guests would have been willing enough. You should have seen the Spanish maidens dance. They were sailed across the middle sea solely for this evening, I’m sure.”
My body wanted to move in imitation of their erotic dance and my heart caught the impulse with a surprised beat. Quickly I glanced in the mirror. She was intent on my pendant’s clasp. But she lifted her head then, and I covered my widened eyes with a yawn. Her silence as she watched me sped my introspection.
I slipped a lighthearted voice over my thoughts and quickly assured, “Silly Selina! Of course I wouldn’t have participated. I was exaggerating.” Had the lack of opportunity been all that kept me from the debauched life so common in the empire’s great cities? Perhaps I was not so good as I’d thought. My first season out from the watchful eyes of Homer, Virgil, my father …
“You made me beautiful tonight, Selina.” Was this what had started it? “I gave the credit to my dear ornatrix.”
“I cannot help but produce beauty when I am given beauty to work with, Perpetua,” she teased, relieved.
“Claudia’s eyes have never turned so green.” I savored the image again—the way her jealousy flashed across the marbled room without causing a ripple in Lupus’ steady gaze toward me. “Do I seem changed to you?” She began to answer, but I cut her off. “Do I look different from last week, or last month?”
“You’ve grown some, and your skin ...” she mused. “Little details come together and—well, they harmonize. Like a fine mosaic when it’s finally edged. It was beautiful in its parts before, but now it’s one, and it stands out.”
“It’s a good feeling.” Pleasure made me generous. “I wondered when I was going to be as beautiful as my sweet maid.”
“Oh, Perpetua. I am not …”
“Andrew would definitely disagree, my dear,” I teased. “And plus,” with an exaggerated drawl, “how would us poor men folk feel without some pretty girls to beautify this here city?” Her giggle was too spontaneous to silence.
“You don’t make a very good Libyan peasant, ‘My Dear.’”
“Shh. Father might come.” Our stifled laughs were probably audible across the courtyard anyway. The breeze was finally cooling my flushed cheeks, and I didn’t want to close the heavy shutters. I considered her in the mirror, patiently undoing what she had created only hours before. Her lips puckered in concentration, pushing together like plump rosy petals of a new bud.
“Before you fell in love with Andrew, did you walk with other boys?”
“Did they touch you? Did you let them?”
“Didn’t you want to know … ?”
“You’re too one-syllabled. Marius and Apuleius wanted to see me home, but finally Father’s litter arrived and I was spared the decision.”
“Were they drunk?”
“Of course. What respectable patrician8, besides Father, leaves a banquet sober?”
“It wouldn’t have been wise.”
With space to think, and Selina’s persuasive goodness silent behind me, all Father’s antiquated morals crowded around. She was right. Marius was a corrupt, licentious old actor, to whom I wouldn’t entrust a child. Apuleius, too handsome and strong and young to be expected to obey anything but his instincts. “Wisdom” was not a word I wanted to consider. The air was hot and my bearings hard to find. Selina spoke again.
“Do you know them well?”
“No, I know of them. Apuleius is slightly older than my set, and Marius is ancient.”
“Do you think they were interested in you because they knew you have a lovely soul inside this body?” She smiled gently behind me in the mirror.
“I suppose they weren’t.” I countered with an argument I didn’t believe myself: “But is that wrong? The gods made love.”
“Would it satisfy you? The purely physical?”
I let the silence stay while she brought water for my hands and face. There was no way for me in one night to argue myself out of something I’d believed for years. I shuddered, thinking of the brief blindness my vanity had brought to the evening.
“Why are you always right, Selina? It’s annoying.” Fear mixed easily into anger. I fell quiet again. Aelius’ domus was magnificent—the sort where one found a novel luxury behind every curtain—his wife tantalizingly beautiful, his banquet worth the estates of three suffetes.9 The night air, flowing wine, attentive slaves, and a host of senatorial men not less so, flickered back across my closed eyelids. I was shocked by the excitement the Spaniards had aroused in me—shocked at how open it had left me to Lupus’ advances. He was so bold. I suppose he thought that being Aelius’ son … The lingering feel of his hand tingled through my stomach.
“I hate Lupus!” She was surprised as she turned my head toward her to remove my diadem. Ringlets were already cascading out where the night had loosened combs and ribbons. It was a look I enjoyed more than the perfection of early evening.
“You hate him?”
“Selina, why can’t you do my hair like this at the first? I like natural, it’s wild.”
“He used to only bore you.” Her strong fingers massaged my scalp as the tresses came down and hung heavy. The pain of wearing it up was always worth the pleasurable aching when it was finally freed.
I relaxed under her massage and responded, “ … until his obsession with women expanded to include me tonight. He’s a pig. I’d like to see him be the second roast some day. Who’s ignored me for years, but now that he sees breasts and a waist can’t contain his great interest in my thoughts … my family …. I’m not simply being sarcastic. Ask Claudia. Oh, don’t stop, Selina, my head aches.”
“Why don’t you lie on your bed so you can fall asleep.” She led me to the lectuli10 and helped me climb under its silky cover.
“Who would want a man who doesn’t care about the real you at all? After he’d had you for a year he’d probably write a divorce and move on to the next pair of hips!”
“Perpetua, not all men are like that.”
“Yes, when he earns enough to buy a farm, your sweet Andrew will marry you, and then rejoice forevermore. But I’ve yet to meet a patrician like him.” I sighed and snuggled deeper into the damask. “Maybe I should I throw my birth to the wind and find some faithful slave to marry. Would I make a good slave’s wife?” I smiled.
“You wouldn’t like it,” Selina laughed. “Go to sleep, Turtura-Tua11.”
“Turpificata-Tua12” would be more accurate, I thought to myself as she extinguished the lamps and returned to her chamber. Long after the open door brought her rhythmic breathing to my ears I laid awake, fighting the eagerness my body still felt for his touch. I hoped Nana was not a spirit by my bed that night.
“Nana,” I apologized, “I am not like your niece.” Images of Selina’s old-maiden auntie filled my mind from childhood Venetiae days. “Selina,” I moaned under my breath, “I am not good. Odysseus, Penelope, I am not ...” and my body twisted as I tortured my soul with the knowledge of good and evil, until sleep suspended being and I had rest.
1. Domus. House, home, household.
2. Ornatrix. A personal lady’s maid.
3. Portico. A porch or covered walk consisting of a roof supported by columns. A colonnade.
4. Amictus. The outer garment.
5. Cena(e). Dinner/supper, principle Roman meal (evening).
6. Plebian. A member of the common people, the lower class.
7. Dies Saturni. Saturday.
8. Patrician. A member of the nobility.
9. Suffete. Native magistrate.
10. Lectuli. Bed or couch.
11. Turtura-Tua. A nickname taken from the word for turtle-dove and the ending of Perpetua’s name, “tua,” which standing alone is a familiar form of “you” in Latin.
12. Turpificata-Tua. Perpetua has changed the initial word of her nickname to mean “corrupted.”