In the year of the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus, fifty-nine years before the birth of Christ, there lives a prostitute in Rome named Nemo.
I hope I shall be forgiven for the conceit of naming my protagonist: “Nobody”. That is not her birth name, of course, nor is it the alias she provided to the aedile when she registered her profession. Indeed, I have not fully concluded any details about her or her life. There is much about her that remains mysterious to me, and so the duty falls to me to paint upon the blank canvas of her existence.
Now there were many classes of prostitutes in the twilight days of the Republic, though I suppose she is rather more successful than the common sort, for she eats well keeps quarters of her own upon the Aventine, perhaps keeping a slave or two. There are so many possible backgrounds from which to choose, each offering such a surfeit of narrative potential that I am loath to choose just one. Perhaps she is a foreign slave, a woman from Pontus captured by the legions of Crassus when he vanquished Mithridates. No, that will not do: she must be a Roman, well-educated and literate, as many of her profession were. She needs to be of gentle birth, from a well-to-do family, a patrician gens of great antiquity that has fallen on hard times in the tumult of the Republic’s death throes- perhaps they were reduced to poverty by the proscription of the tyrant Sulla, and this poor dove must now endure the infamy of harlotry if she is to survive in an uncaring world. Yes. There is pathos to her plight that I find most appealing. Perchance her family is a famous one, and she is a hitherto anonymous descendant of Brutus the Regicide, or Cato the Censor, or an unknown cousin of Tully. I wonder what other great scions of Rome could trace their ancestry to my Nemo: it is within my power to make her the progenitrix of Agrippina, Honoria and Theodora. Perhaps she is my own ancestress, and her blood calls to me across the abyss of time and space.
It is past midday, a fine spring morning. Nemo is waiting for someone in the Forum Romanum. Ironically, she is standing next to the Temple of Vesta. Most common harlots would avoid the Forum, but Nemo is a woman of taste and distinction, able to simply imitate the manners of a respectable Roman maiden so that she move effortlessly among the upper crust of society without attracting attention.
She listens to three senators of some small importance whose names have been lost to history. They discuss their misgivings over some plot or other between Crassus, Pompey and Caesar. I deem that Nemo is an intelligent and engaged young woman who believes that Crassus is too good a man to need the support of butcher Pompey and philanderer Caesar. One of them turns and sees her, and she smiles. He is one of her clients, an overweight man who refers to his wife as “that frigid shrew”, and orders Nemo to call him Domine! and Taure! and other such nonsense to compensate for his lack of vigour. Last time he was inside her he lasted two minutes and eighteen seconds, though he demanded that she attend to him for another hour, since he is a rather miserly soul who demands his money’s worth in all things. He flushes as he sees her, and then wanders off, leaving his colleagues bewildered. Nemo laughs.
An hour passes. Nemo watches the pigeons defecate on the curia. Then she spies a young man in the distance and waves to him to attract his attention. He is a client of hers, a man of equestrian rank and therefore still eats well enough to afford my Nemo. He is younger than the fat senator, and handsome, after a fashion, though his hair is prematurely thinning to reveal an oversized forehead, and he tends too much towards the skinny. He is a poet, by inclination and vocation, and though I would dearly like to believe that my Nemo is not so shallow as to be swayed by such frivolity, I must conclude that she is somewhat smitten with the young man. If her heart were easily won then it would not be worth winning, but I must allow her some small weakness. It would only add to her charm.
She greets him, Salve, Gaius Valerius. It is not entirely proper for her to address him so without his cognomen, but alas! I cannot bring myself to name the undeserving wretch who has so easily swayed her heart.
The poet responds. Salve, Nemo. He remarks that it is a fine day, today, and suggests that he walk with her a while. She agrees, and they promenade about the forum. They hear a nuncio announce from the Rostra that Calpurnia Pisonis is engaged to marry Gaius Julius Caesar, to general indifference from the crowd. The impertinent youth is in favour of the marriage, since he is an ignoramus who does not realise that the marriage will founder upon the rocks of childlessness and Caesar’s dalliance with the last of the Ptolemies.
The youth is nervous, and stumbles over many of his words. Nemo finds his awkwardness charming, and takes it as a compliment, for he is clearly in awe of her. I do not blame him, for it goes without saying that she is beautiful, since that is a basic requirement of her employment, or least for its success. Moreover, it is not the insipid beauty of emaciation and ultraviolet bombardment favoured in the twenty-first century, but a classic, Roman beauty. She is full figured: her hips are broad and sensual, her thighs firm, toned. Her skin is fashionably pale, though I suspect it would have to be painted with cosmetics, since maintaining a natural pallor would be difficult when one must endure the Mediterranean sun every day. It is a great shame, for she doesn’t need to paint her face to be beautiful: her face is a perfect heart shape, framed delicately by her long, iridescent tresses. Her hair is dark, a shade of midnight black that reflects the light of the world. She reminds me of a comely young lady I knew once, an enchanting maiden with whom I was enamoured until she laughed at me and rendered me a cuckold.
The couple speaks for a while about pleasant irrelevances. The price of wine. The difficulty of finding a good tailor. They would not be out of place in a Victorian novel or a fashionable Sunday night drama. Comfortable civility fills the air between them. He recites a poem about a girl playing with her sparrow. She smiles at that. She thinks it is about her, poor thing!
They wind their way out of the forum and up towards the Palatine, which in my own day is pleasantly forested. I would like to imagine it was also so in that charming afternoon in 59 BC, before Nero inflicted his monstrously gaudy palace upon it, so that Nemo and her unworthy suitor may spend a while in the shade, away from the heat, and talk about nothing in particular.
Twilight falls on the Eternal City. Nemo looks about the hill, to ensure there is no one else about. There isn’t. They are alone beneath the awakening stars. She moves in close to the boy –and be assured, whatever his age, that he is still a boy! – and brushes against his thigh with long, delicate fingers. She runs her hand up his chest, his neck, and cups his face just below his ear, and kisses him. Gently at first, then with greater passion.
She feels the urgency start to grow deep within her, in the tingling of her chest, the warmth between her legs. The boy is slow to respond, of course, so she reaches down to his groin, begins to stroke him. Slowly, he starts to stir. He moans a little, bites his lip. She unties the girdle around her waist, lifts up her skirts, lowers herself onto him, starts to rock gently back and forth.
She sighs as she rides him, and for once her pleasure is not feigned. He begins to caress her breasts, to kiss her neck. Then he turns her around, violently, pushes her onto her hands and knees, enters her from behind, mounts her. He whispers a name, but it is not hers. Lesbia. Over and over, faster and faster, he says the name. Lesbia. Lesbia. Lesbia.
Ungrateful swine! Most wretched of sinners! You have before you the most exquisite woman in the Seven Hills, a jewel among pebbles, all yours to take delight in, and you profane her so with the name of another woman! You will not even look upon her perfect face and see her sighs of pleasure for yourself. You cannot see her face, her bright-eyed desire that she has only for you, unworthy Catullus! Even here, even now, in the presence of this goddess, you cannot forget your adulteress and her fucking sparrow! You long for a mere girl who is beyond your grasp when you could have a woman, willing and expectant! No shame, no ignominy is too great for you!
But I am the author of your tale, Catullus: this is my realm, and I am more powerful than Jove and Apollo and Hercules combined. You shall not escape my retribution! You reach your pinnacle too soon, leaving dear, sweet Nemo unsatisfied. She employs her powers in an effort to rouse you, only to be rewarded with flaccidity. She sighs and whispers falsehoods in your ear, that it happens to all men, that you lasted for far, far longer than most, that she enjoyed it nevertheless and reached the plateau of her own pleasure several times. But you and I know better, O Catullus. We know the truth: that when called upon to perform you have failed as a lover and as a man.
It is dark now. Nemo leaves for her quarters. She sleeps pleasantly, though she must attend to herself first to finish what Catullus could not. She does not think of him. But another fate awaits the poet when he returns home. For I am already waiting for him, lurking behind his door with the knife in my hand, ready to inflict the same fate upon him that Caesar will endure scant years from now. Once the scoundrel has laid down his head, I make my move. I stand over his sleeping form with my blade drawn, and then…
I realise that death would be too easy for him to endure, and that it is within my power to inflict a far greater doom upon this wicked bastard. I lean into his ear, and I smile as I echo his own words back to him:
I shall bugger you and fuck you in the face,
Faggot and shirt-lifter Gaius Catullus,
You who think that because your little poems
Are rather girly, you have a trace of shame.
For a true poet should exercise virtue
Himself, but you have never practiced any.
Your poems are witless, without any charm
They mistake sensitivity for passion
Useful only when they arouse some small itch
In hairless youths and little rich buggers who
Suffer from acute erectile dysfunction.
Since you cannot escape the throes of cliché
You are worthless as a man and as a poet.
I shall bugger you and fuck you in the face
I shall use the power at my disposal, far beyond the cretinous imaginings of this human sputum. I shall send him somewhere cold and distant- perhaps to Bithynia- where he shall know the company of no woman. I shall curse him so that his precious Lesbia never loves him, and spurns his every advance. I shall ensure he dies young and unremarked, and condemn him to centuries of obscurity. The greater lights of Horace, Virgil and Juvenal shall eclipse him: no one shall ever ask Gaius Valerius Catullus to be their guide through the Inferno! Finally, many centuries later, when he is rediscovered, he shall little more than a figure of fun amongst English grammar schoolboys, who shall delight in his childish vulgarity and mock him for his failure to win the heart of his beloved. His obscene words shall be better known than the sensitive ones he is so fond of, and the entire world will know that I am the better man!
I take my leave of him. There is only one thing left for me to do. When dawn awakens, fresh and rosy-fingered, I go to Nemo’s home and take her into my arms. I kiss her. She tastes of pomegranates and full summer days. She tells me that wants to know only me, that she would refuse the embrace of Jupiter himself over mine. We make love, over and over again, until every nerve is numb with the sweet, desperate ache for each other. The days melt together. How much time has passed? Every morning I cover her with kisses, more kisses than there are grains of Libyan sand in salty Cyrene. Every time, I watch the light of her eyes as she climaxes. Sing, O Venuses and Cupids, for we have triumphed over Catullus and his accursed sparrow!
I realise that she deserves better than this, my queen, my Nemo. She deserves better than to live in an age of squalor, war and uncertainty. And I realise that it is within my power to grant her every happiness. I could ensure that she lives a long and happy life, that she will never want for anything, but shall eat with finest meals and keep the finest servants. Of course, I shall have to make it so that she never knows the touch of another man: for she must be mine, and mine alone. I could have her join a priesthood- not the Vestals, of course, since she must remain free for me to enjoy. I can make it so that she keeps her beauty for many years, so that folk wonder how she remains so radiant, fresh, perfect, until at last she comes to an end in the year 4 AD, so that she may now peace under the reign of Augustus. She shall be forgotten by history and known only to me. My world. My love. My Nemo.
Yes. It shall be so. Tomorrow.
When morning comes I wake up, and turn to face my beloved. She isn’t there. I search every room in the house, desperate, feverish, aching for the touch of her fingers, the warmth of her breath. She isn’t there. I head out into the street and I interrogate everyone who might have seen her. Blank stares. I call her name- her true name, the name I didn’t give her- until my throat is coarse. For days and days I search, from the catacombs to the Capitol, from the Esquiline to Tiber Island. In all the streets and caponae, in all the bathhouses and temples, mansions and slave-markets, there is not the slightest sign of my darling.
Where has she gone?
Who has taken her?
Has she left me?
Why would she leave me?
How could she leave me?
I hate her, and I love her. One may ask why I would do that to myself.
I do not know, but I feel it, and I am tormented!