Title: A Beautiful Heart
Character: Maximus Decimus Meridius “Gladiator”
Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
Historical Note: Lucius Septimius Severus became Caesar after the civil wars that followed Commodus’ assassination in 192AD. For the purpose of this story, I placed that event on an earlier time, i.e. 182AD, to fit the movie timeline. Severus’ wife, Julia Domna, noted for her beauty, intelligence and love for arts, truly had a sister named Julia Maesa (who in turn had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea), while Julia Bassiana is my invention.
Trujillo, Hispania, 185AD
From Julia Bassiana to her sister Julia Maesa, salutem dicit!
My dear sister, forgive me for the delay with which I reply to your letter, but it took time to have it delivered here to Hispania from the address in Rome where you originally sent it. It was not your fault that you did not know I had moved- indeed it is unpardonable that neither I nor our sister thought to inform you about my marriage and my transfer to Lusitania. I still cannot believe none of us did it in the two and a half years that have elapsed since my nuptials, and I cannot find the words to apologize and ask for your pardon. But I hope you will forgive me all the same, for I love you dearly and I would be devastated if a quarrel between us should result from this.
Regarding your letter, I was delighted to read you have now two daughters. Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Oh dear sister, our family certainly lacks fantasy when it comes to name girls. I wonder what would happen if we should all gather in the same room and someone called “Julia!”. It would be funny to see six heads turn around in unison!
I suppose you are now wondering who is the sixth Julia of the group, along with us three sisters and your girls… It is my daughter, Julia Decima. Yes, my dear, the incredible has happened, I am a mother now! I have a baby girl of my own, a little dark haired, blue-eyed, thirteen months old beauty. She is my pride and joy- along with the man that sired her, of course, my most loved husband. He is ecstatic about Julia Decima and dotes on her very much. Indeed I have never seen a man being as sweet and gentle with a child, and he is so proud of her!
All of this makes me even sadder when I read that your husband is not pleased with your girls because he wants a male heir. I am so sorry about it. Julius seemed such a good match when you married him! I cannot believe he has become so cold with you. But, Julia, you must not lose the hope things might improve, for I am the proof miracles do happen. Think about me: who would ever have believed that one day I was going to find a husband and, more importantly, someone that loves me for what I am, scars and limp included? Who would have predicted that I, the family disgrace, the girl that barely survived her wounds and was still a maiden at twenty-seven years, would one day bear a beautiful child? Nobody in their right minds would ever have done so. And yet it happened- but in the beginning, when I first married, the future looked everything but bright. I will tell you more now, in the hope it might cheer you up and give you the strength you need- and also to fill you in about what has happened in my life since the last time we met. I hope I will not bore you and that you will not resent me, but truly I feel so happy I have to tell you, dear sister…
It all started in March of 182.
Julia’s husband, Septimius Severus, had just been hailed Caesar by the Senate and made his great entry in Rome. As you know, I had been living with Julia and her family since her marriage, for our father had been more than happy to free himself from the burden of a daughter he could not marry off as he had done with you and our sister. I liked my new situation. Julia had always been very protective with me, and living in her household allowed me to have contacts with the artists and philosophers she gathered around her. I was thrilled to live in Rome, the jewel of the Empire, where I could soak in the best arts and culture she had to offer. Yes, I know what you are thinking, that Julia and I spend too much time over the books but, truly, dear sister, what else could I do to busy my time in a constructive way back then? I was already twenty-six, unmarried and, I believed then, had no chance at all to become a wife and a mother. I had no beauty to show off at the races or to care for and improve. I had not a pretty face and grace of movement that would enchant men as yours and Julia’s. I had only my mind and I tried to put it at good use. I surrounded myself with young talents and older tutors, enriching my culture and my spirit with their help- but don’t worry, I won’t bore you to death with a detailed account of what I learnt!
In the meantime, Severus’ position as Caesar was not as solid as he would have liked, for Pescennius Niger – hailed emperor by his army – was a thorn in his sides in the East and Clodius Albinus was causing trouble in Britannia. There were also many senators that did not digest well the idea of an African emperor, while others still hoped to carry out the late Caesar Marcus Aurelius’ wishes to restore the Republic.
But not all the senators were against Severus. Many of them had understood they could not change the situation and that they could only try to derive some personal advantage from the new order, by trying to ally themselves with the new imperial family. Perhaps you can surmise how they tried to reach their target: they “courted” me. Oh yes, dear sister, suddenly I, who had never been looked at twice by men, for once was more than enough for them, was more sought after than the Queen Berenice, the famous beauty of Vespasian’s times. Every unmarried senator – or their sons – came to visit me and I received more presents in those few months than in all my life.
But each new “suitor”, each new gift, was like a stab into my heart, for I knew all those men did see me only as a way to get close to Severus and his influential wife, nothing more. Some of them told me false words about the beauty of my eyes and the gentleness of my heart. Others, and I appreciated them more than the former, did not even try to lie and made clear I was a tool for them, not a person, not trying to dissimulate their disgust or pity. At least they were honest, something I treasure very much, although I was deeply hurt when a young boy – I think he was barely nineteen – practically bolted from the room after he saw my face, under the gaze of his father.
The old senator tried to apologize, but I had seen the naked disgust in the boy’s eyes, and there was nothing he could say to lessen the blow. I excused myself and called an end to the encounter, before retiring into my rooms and crying myself to sleep, as it had not happened since the days immediately following the incident that had ruined me.
When Julia was informed of what had happened, the visits ceased and nobody searched for me again. It suited me fine – I did not ask for all that attention and it had created more problems for me than anything else. A lot of time had passed since I had laid at rest my childhood dreams of love and the idealistic concept that real beauty is that of the soul, not of the body. I was resigned to live and die alone, so what sense did it have to delude myself?
And then, about two months later, Julia burst into my rooms, giving me the incredible news a marriage had been arranged for me!
I will remember that day for the rest of my life. It was early afternoon and I had been engrossed in Plato’s writings, when the door of my rooms slammed open. I raised my eyes from the scroll, fully expecting to see our nephews Geta or Bassianus, and instead it was our composed, quiet older sister, standing on the threshold with a hand pressed on her breast.
Fearing something might have had happened to her sons, I let go of the scroll and stood up. “Julia!” I exclaimed, “Are you all right? How are the boys?”
“The boys? Oh, Bassiana, this has nothing to do with my sons; it regards you, my dear girl.” Julia stepped further into the room, closed the door behind her and walked to me. “I have great news for you, little sister. You are going to marry- nine days from now you will be a wife.”
I stared at her, stunned, not believing I heard her right.
“What did you say?”
“That Septimius has found a husband for you.”
“Oh.” It was the only thing I was able to utter as my shocked brain tried to digest the fact.
“Oh? You have nothing more to say? This is wonderful news- a dream came true.”
“Really? And for whom? For the senator who will ally with Caesar? For your husband, who will find more support?” I could not help but feel bitter, for I had hoped to have settled any marriage issue forever.
“For you! You would not believe who your husband to be is!”
“I don’t really care.” I replied, matter-of-factly. In that moment I was badly resenting that, of the many things I had once desired to have in common with you and Julia, now I could share the fact I had been sold into marriage. Not by our father, but by our brother-in-law, whose rise to the throne was going to turn my life upside down – forever. “Which senator has been able to convince Severus?” I asked, as the images of some of my “suitors” flashed into my mind.
“None! There is no old, pompous man awaiting you, Bassiana.” Julia smiled broadly and took me by the shoulders, “Your husband is going to be General Maximus Decimus Meridius, “The Saviour of Rome” himself!”
“Yes! The one and the only General Maximus! The general turned gladiator that killed Commodus. You have heard of him, have you not?”
I nodded. Of course I knew about him- who did not in Rome? His story was so well known I believe even the stones would be able to repeat it, had they been able to talk. I suppose you too know about him, but in case the news have not travelled as far as Syria, I will give you a brief resume here.
Maximus was Marcus Aurelius’ most trusted general and the late Caesar had wanted him to succeed him and restore the Republic. Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, had not taken the news well, killing his own father and condemning Maximus and his family, whom he was said to love very much, to death. The general had been able to escape his fate, and had then tried to save his wife and son, but he had arrived at his home too late, finding them already slaughtered. He had then been captured, enslaved and forced to combat as gladiator, first in Africa, then in Rome. Once in the Capital, he had made clear he wanted revenge against Commodus, and he had been able to gather around him all the people that opposed the emperor, including his own sister Lucilla. In the end Commodus had been forced to fight against him in the Colosseum- wanting to kill him in front of the crowd to regain his hold over it. But, despite having stabbed Maximus before the duel, Commodus’ plan failed and he was killed.
The general himself became seriously ill because of the wound inflicted on him, and by the time he was well enough, the Empire had fallen into a complete chaos, with the various legions having hailed their commanders as Caesars, as it happened to Severus himself. There was no way for General Maximus to make people respect Marcus Aurelius’ last wishes but, even if he had not made any move to support this or that candidate, he was still seen as a dangerous obstacle for the ambitions of many a man. Indeed I was surprised that Severus, who had been quite ruthless in his quest for power, had not yet eliminated him, as he had done with some of the senators and military leaders that had opposed him most. He had not even sent the general into exile, as he had done with Lucilla and her son, but let him live in Rome, merely keeping an eye on him.
Julia seemed to read the thought running in my mind for she said, “Septimius has known the General for a long time: not only did he serve under him while posted in Pannonia but, more importantly, Maximus saved his life during an ambush. That’s why Septimius is not going to do anything against him, as many have suggested. Indeed he wants to have the General on our side, tied to us – and your marriage with achieve this end.”
“I see,” I murmured. Dear sister, I had no illusions there could be more than politics behind my arranged wedding, but still it was painful to hear it said aloud. “And what will the General gain by marrying me?”
“The permission to retire from the army for good and to return to his homeland.”
“His homeland? One moment, he is a Spaniard! Do you mean he will return to Hispania? And that I will have to go with him?”
Julia had the decency of looking embarrassed, but still she pressed on. “It would not be a great show of support to Septimius if he went to his home alone while his wife remains here.”
“But Julia! We have just arrived! I want to spend more time here. And, more importantly, how can you ask me to cross half the Empire with a man I don’t even know?”
“I am sure everything will be fine. Septimius told me General Maximus has a great respect for women, to the point that he never allowed rapes while he commanded the legions in Germania. And you will agree with me only a very honourable man would have done what he did. I am sure he will treat you well- among other things it would not be good for him to mistreat Caesar’s sister-in-law.”
“Of course.” I nodded, a bit of sarcasm in my voice. I could see everything had been already settled and decided and I could not say or do anything to change the situation. That day, dear sister, I learnt that the gentle, compassionate Julia can be as ruthless as her husband. She likes power – not merely because of the wealth and the prestige – but because it allows her to pursue her passion for arts more freely and that day she was determinate to secure her and Severus’ position, not to mention their son’s.
“All right,” I finally said, bowing my head. “I will marry the General and go to Hispania with him.”
“Good.” Julia smiled. “I must go to Septimius to tell him you agreed and he can begin to organize the ceremony, when I will be back. There are so many things to do and so little time! Quick, call your servants, they must begin to pack all your things and books. I hope the General’s house is big enough!” She laughed and I smiled, then watched her go away.
Once alone, I sat back at my desk and thought about the last turn of events. I was going to be wed to a man who had even refused the Augusta Lucilla – one of the most beautiful women in Rome – because, it was rumoured, he was still in love with his late wife. I had no doubt he had agreed to marry me only because he wanted to return home and I was his “safe-conduct” for his journey. I could only hope he would never come to resent the price he had to pay for it.
The next nine days passed in a flurry of activities and I collapsed in bed every night, blessedly too tired to torment myself with the thousands of worries that were whirling through my mind during the day. Julia and I had to organize the details of the marriage: choose the guests, send out the invitations, select a dress. Julia and some of my maids were really excited about the matter, while I remained very calm: my husband-to-be never found a moment to come and visit me before the wedding day, and it was a very sobering thought for me. It made more than evident that I was only a clause in a deal he had to honour, nothing more. I even wondered if he was already resenting me, for he was forced to bring me to the house where he had lived happily with his late family.
Yes, my dear sister, I was sure he was obeying, as the soldier he had been for much of his life- as I would obey, as the little, useless daughter I have always been, at least for our father. On the bright side, my servants made me a wonderful surprise. The General had made known that he did not want slaves in his house – because of his experience as gladiator – and thus I decided to free all my own, leaving them the choice to keep on serving me and come to Hispania with me, or to go on their own. And almost all of them decided to remain at my service- which meant I would not be truly alone in my new residence. The news helped to calm my strained nerves, but not very much. I tried not to think about what would soon happen, and to be a Stoic, accepting what I could not change and hoping to make the best out of it. I am sorry to say it did not work. I know that it is irreverent, dear sister, but sometimes I think philosophers elaborated their ideas and doctrines about how to deal with the problems life throws at us while actually not having to confront them. Seneca himself could not have remained calm and detached in my situation, of that I am sure!
Then, finally the wedding day arrived and my agony came to an end.
The day had dawned sunny and pleasantly warm, a perfect setting for a ceremony.
In the early hours of the morning Julia came to supervise the maids as they coiled my hair and dressed me with the customary saffron-coloured stola and veil. It was the first time since the incident I had chosen a dress to underscore what little beauty I still had, instead of trying to cover and conceal my disfigurement. I did not really know why I did so- perhaps because, while not having illusions about the event, I still believed the wedding day was one of the more important ones for a woman.
When my dressing was complete, Julia came in front of me and gave the finishing touch to my veil. It was a diaphanous thing that covered my face too, although it allowed me to see.
“You look wonderful,” she then commented, and I smiled, but did not reply to her kind lie. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I was- as much I could ever be, that is.
Julia took my hand and we walked to the door. Just before we left, I turned around to look at the rooms that had been my home for the past months. I knew I would not see them again, for I would spend the night in my new husband’s Rome house, before leaving for Hispania with him the next day.
The ceremony was held in one of the Palace’s big halls, and it was already crowned by senators, eques and military leaders when Julia and I stepped in there. All the people Severus wanted to witness the alliance between his household and the Saviour of Rome.
As soon I was there, my eyes scanned the hall until they stopped on the man standing near the altar. Maximus- my future husband. I had never seen him before and my breath almost left me when I realized he was indeed a very handsome man, as I had heard in the people’s talks. He was tall and broad-shouldered; his arms and what I could see of his legs were strong and tanned and his hair and beard were dark and short. He was wearing his military uniform and he looked more majestic and imposing than Septimius Severus. Oh dear sister, even now my heart starts to gallop as I recall those moments!
My steps faltered at his sight and Julia had to help me to avoid a fall, as I tried to control my limp, to make it less noticeable as we advanced between the two wings of the crowd. Once in front of the altar, Julia took my hand and pressed it in General Maximus’, before stepping aside and joining her husband. The general bowed to me and, tugging slightly at my hand, brought me closer to him. I stumbled, my nervousness causing my limp to get worse, and concern flashed into his beautiful blue-green eyes. Maximus is one of those persons for whom the old saying that claims the eyes to be the mirror of the soul, is true. From the beginning I have been able to clearly read his emotions and the concern I saw in that moment warmed my heart, for it was not the kind of worry that meant “My gods, I have been given a lame woman,” but the apprehension I might feel unwell. Then we turned together to face the priest and the ritual started.
I don’t remember much of the ceremony, for my mind was acutely aware of only one thing: Maximus’ warm, calloused hand gripping mine in a hold that was both strong and delicate. I knew he could have crushed my bones with ease, and yet I felt safe with him. It was a very pleasant sensation, and concentrating on it, I was even able to block out the images of the priest performing the ritual sacrifice and reading good auspices in the poor beast’s interiors. Then we exchanged the customary vows, and I discovered Maximus had a beautiful voice to match his looks: it was low and rumbling, and it sent a shiver down my spine.
Then it was over. I turned to face my husband, as he let go of my hand and raised his arms to free me from the veil. In the precise moment the light barrier was removed, I understood nobody had alerted Maximus about the sight that would welcome him. I saw his eyes widen upon seeing the scar that runs from my right temple, down my cheek and stops near my mouth. But beside the surprise, there was no disgust or pity in his gaze. I just read sadness and perhaps compassion- the understanding of the pain that mark must had given me.
Dear sister, I think that was the instant when I began to think he was different from any other man I had met in my life. Then he bent forward to give me the customary kiss, and he posed his warm, soft lips just over my scarred cheek- another demonstration he was not repulsed by me. My heart almost skipped a beat and he had to steady me when we turned around to face the guests and then walked together to the nearby room where the banquet was awaiting us. My limp was very evident while I proceeded along the marble covered pavements, conscious only of the solid forearm on which my hand was posed on. The skin was so warm, so soft…I was excited by my husband’s nearness, but also by the hope and the expectation that his reactions had raised in me…
But unfortunately, the feeling was short-lived and I was brought back with my feet on the ground just a few hours later.
Night had already fallen on Rome, as I was combing my hair sitting on a bed in my new husband’s house. It was not a villa, but a small apartment Maximus had rented on a insula, and where he had lived for the past months with a manservant called Claudius. The room assigned to me was small and impersonal and I could not tell if this was where he used to sleep. While I looked around, I kept on combing my hair, the methodical strokes having a calming effect on my nerves, as I continued to wonder when, and with what intentions, my husband would come to visit me. During the banquet and the procession to the apartment, Maximus had been courteous and respectful with me. We had exchanged words about the food and the players Severus had hired to entertain the guests, and I had discovered myself very at ease in my husband’s presence. He had a charismatic, powerful aura, and exuded confidence. I could understand well why he had been such a great leader of men and why Severus’ advisors feared him: during the procession, many common people joined the guests, and their voices hailed the “Saviour of Rome”, not the Emperor who was walking with us.
Once we arrived, Maximus had shown me the room where I was, and left me in the care of my maid, telling me he would soon come to visit me.
“Visit me…” Oh dear sister, you don’t know how many times I repeated those words in my mind! Was it possible he wanted to claim his marital rights with me, the scarred woman nobody had ever looked at twice? Was it possible I was going to lose my virginity, not in the arms of a slave forced to indulge me, as some “friends” (I won’t tell you their names) had suggested me to do, but with the handsomest man I had ever seen?
How strange and dangerous is the human mind. Years of lessons learnt the hard way forgotten in the course of just a few hours! Where had my resignation gone? Where had my stoic acceptance of destiny ended up? They had disappeared, and I felt again like the girl I had been at thirteen, before that wild dog had ruined me forever. I was full of hopes and dreams-but reality crushed over me very soon.
I almost jumped when I heard a knock on the door.
“May come in, my lady?”
I let go of the brush, stood up and looked down at myself to see if my gown and robe covered me modestly. They did.
“Of course, my lord.” I called, lacing my hands in front of me, and willing my heart to calm its wild beating.
The door opened and Maximus stepped slowly inside. His eyes swept the place and I saw relief wash over his features when he saw I was standing and not lying in bed. That was the first indication that alerted me things were not going to proceed as I had foolishly hoped.
My husband cleared his throat and looked at the room. “I am sorry it is so small. You will have larger accommodations when we are in Hispania.” He seemed embarrassed and ill at ease.
I nodded, not really knowing how to say to this almost perfect stranger the size of my rooms did not matter to me, that I was the kind of woman used to looking more at the substance of things, not their form.
Maximus stroked his beard from his jaw down to his neck, in a gesture I would later learn meant he was tired and thoughtful. Then he pointed to a chair standing near the wall and murmured, “Please sit down, my lady. We need to talk.”
I did as he asked, as he lowered himself to sit on the farthest corner of the bed, and I could not help but notice how the mattress gave in under his massive frame. In truth he looked even more imposing now that he was out of his armour and wore only a wine-red tunic. In spite of everything, I could only wonder about how it would be like to lie beneath his body…
His deep voice broke my daydreaming. “My lady, I am not sure about what you know regarding the circumstances of our marriage.”
I swallowed hard and replied, “I know Septimius Severus wanted to tie you to our family, to show the mob you support him, my lord.” I had decided to be honest, for I had the feeling he was a man who appreciated sincerity.
“Yes, that’s true. Caesar thought it was the best way to achieve this goal and I did not have any better ideas. I am just sorry you were dragged into this, my lady.”
Sorry? Dragged into this? What did he mean? “Excuse me, my lord, but I am not sure I understand.” Why was he apologizing for? Every day, in every corner of the empire, girls were given in marriage to cement political or financial alliances. It was and is a common fact, a normal part of a woman’s life.
Maximus sighed and again his hand ran over his beard. “My lady, I am sorry you have been forced into a marriage with a man who could never be your true husband. Our joining won’t be… consummated, if you understand me.”
All my hopes and dreams shattered at those calm words. “Is it because of my scars?” I found the strength to ask. Before putting on my gown and robe I had taken the time to examine my body in front of a mirror, observing again the scars that pitted my belly, flanks and face and touched the deep indentation in my left calf, in the place where the dog had almost ripped away a part of the muscle. In the dimly lit room, and with my mind full of the hopes Maximus’ behaviour had raised in me, those blemishes had seemed less bad than usual, but now I was again conscious of them.
“No!” He hasted to reply, shaking his head with energy. “It is not because of your scars, my lady. It is not your fault, but mine.” Another sigh, “Perhaps you know what happened to my family?” I nodded and he went on, his eyes looking straight at me, liquid and full of pain. “I- my heart still belongs to my wife and son. I wanted to die and join them in Elysium, but the gods decided otherwise, and I am not brave enough – or coward enough – to kill myself. I must go on living, and I want to do it on my lands… where I lived with my family. Can you understand me? Forgive me?”
I nodded again, blinking away a few tears. Tears for myself and my broken hopes. Tears for the good and brutally honest man in front of me, who, in the desire not to hurt me – a woman he could have easily resented for he had been forced to break his vows to his late wife to marry me – had bared his heart in front of a stranger. I sensed it was not something he did often and, despite the blow I had just received, his consideration warmed me.
I took a deep breath and murmured. “I understand, my lord. And there is no reason to ask for my pardon. It is not your fault. I am sorry you had to go through so much pain and then to be obliged to marry me. I know it must be hard for you.”
“Yes- but it does not matter now.” Maximus leant forward and stared at me with solemnity, “I just want to assure you won’t lack anything. I will do my best to make you feel at home in Hispania. I will leave you plenty of freedom to pursue your interests, and never impose on you. I will always give you the respect you deserve and make sure you are treated as is befitting the sister of the Empress of Rome and… my wife. I will protect you and let no arm happen to you. I swear it.”
“Everything you just said is valid for me too, my lord. I will not cause any problems for you, I promise to you.”
He nodded. “I am sure of it.” An uneasy silence fell on the room as we did everything but look at each other, embarrassed and probably both needing to stay alone. In the end Maximus broke it. “I think it is time to retire. We will have to rise early tomorrow morning.” He stood up and I tried to imitate him, but he stopped me. “Please, stay as you are my lady, there is no need to rise.” I did as he asked and I watched him move to the door.
“Good night, my lady.”
“Good night, my lord.”
A last bow and Maximus was gone, leaving me alone to contemplate my despair and my fate. But I felt no anger in his regards. He had told the truth and, just like me, he had been forced into this situation by Severus, to whom it had probably seemed too good to be true that he was able to kill two birds with one stone: he had got rid of me, whom he, superstitious as he is, had always considered a bad omen, and in the meantime tied to his house a man I am sure he feared a lot. I found it comforting that it was not me who was the cause of his refusal to be a real husband- I had seen the desperation in his eyes and I knew he would act the same had I been beautiful and sound. It was a little consolation and a balm for my pride. It was not much, but it had to do. So, dear sister, I took the broken pieces of my dreams, brushed them away as I had done before with other disappointments, and went to sleep.
We left Rome for Hispania the following morning. We boarded a ship from Ostia to Tarraco, then crossed almost all the Iberian peninsula by land. I loved it. The landscape was completely different from everything I had seen till that moment, both in Syria and in the Eastern areas of the Empire I had crossed during my journey to Rome. There were no rocky mountains, but shapely hills. The sandy deserts were replaced by large grassy lands, and luxuriant trees could be seen everywhere. I busied myself during the slow trip by asking the names of the trees and other plants from the driver of my wagon, writing them down on my tablets, often accompanied by a brief description. I did the same with the villages, towns, rivers and heights we met along the way. It was a good way to occupy my time and not to think too much about my situation and about the relationship with my husband. Or, I should say, to the lack of it. It was as if we were two strangers travelling with the same caravan. We exchanged polite greetings in the mornings – Maximus never failing to enquire about my well-being and comfort – then he practically disappeared from my sight till the evenings, when we raised a camp or stopped to sleep in some inn along the way, and I met him at dinner, which was mostly eaten in silence.
He always rode in front of the column of soldiers that Severus – or, more probably, Julia – had sent to escort us, while my much slower wagon followed in the back. Sometimes I watched Maximus launch his mount in wild runs in the fields that stretched along the roads, and I could not help but being fascinated by his ease on the saddle, by the communion between him and his steed. And every time I saw him, I wished my left leg still allowed me to ride. Dear sister, you know how much I love horses, and I would give everything to be still able to mount them and gallop in the fields, feeling the wind caress my face and ruffle my hair and experiencing again that sensation of freedom and might only a horse running can give you. But I could no longer do it, the closest thing I had been able to learn being to drive a cart. Father had let me drive back to our estate in Syria and I wondered if Maximus would allow me to do the same on his lands.
The first thing I noticed when the door of the wagon was lowered to allow me to step down in the main yard of Maximus’ house, was not the size of the building or the numerous servants lined in front of it – there were also my freed-people, who had preceded us travelling with my belongings – but a big, fierce-looking dog. It was grey and it stood in the middle of the yard, surveying it as if it was its domain. It looked to be more a wolf than a dog- a monster reappearing from long buried memories and nightmares. As I stood immobile- unable to still my trembling and searching for Maximus with my eyes – the beast moved a few steps forward, straight in my direction and in my mind I saw again the dog that had attacked me years ago. I panicked. I screamed with all my strength, with the result that the beast growled at me, causing me to cry even louder.
“My lady!” Maximus was at my side in a flash. “What is it? Are you unwell?”
Without thinking, I pressed myself against his broad chest, and his arms rose to enfold me, one big hand caressing my hair.
It took me some time to calm down enough to realize where I was – and how good it felt to have a man’s arms wrapped around me. I could not help but wish it could always be so.
“What is it?” Maximus asked again.
“It is- it is that monster…”
“Yes… that dog. I want it to go away- I cannot stand its sight.”
I noticed at once I had committed a terrible mistake. Maximus’ body tensed and his arms left me, as he pulled back.
“That monster is called Felix and he is going to remain here. This is his home. I am afraid you will have to get used to him, my lady.” His face was hard, stony, and for the first time I got a glimpse of the great commander and fierce gladiator he had been. He stared at me for a while longer, making clear he would not tolerate further discussions, then added, “Your servants will now help you to get settled.” And after a quick bow, he walked away, the dog at his heels.
My eyes followed him till he disappeared behind the corner of the house, and when I turned my head again, I found myself face to face with Helia, my favourite maid.
“Are you all right, domina?” she enquired, looking at me with concerned eyes.
“Yes.” I forced a smile. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, my friend.”
“It is the same for me, mistress. Now, please, let me help you to step down. I am very anxious to show you how we have arranged your rooms.”
I smiled again at her enthusiasm and desire to please, and accepting her hand, I let her help me down the wagon and then lead me inside the lovely, pink-stoned building.
My rooms were extensive and located at the ground floor of the two-storied house. In truth they were even larger than the ones I had occupied at the Palace. I was surprised by it, for I had not expected a country villa to be so big, and it made me realize Maximus was indeed a very wealthy man- not that I was interested in it. I had my share of the money mother had left us, plus the dowry Severus had given me and that my husband had left at my complete disposal.
My private accommodations included a large antechamber where I could receive guests, the bedroom, a bathroom, a study and a small cubicle where a maid could sleep, in case I needed assistance during the night. I walked around, getting acquainted with the layout and thinking how those rooms were just right for my belongings. Each of my pieces of furniture, each of my chests had found its exact place.
“Do you like it, domina?” Helia finally asked, as I returned to the antechamber.
“Oh yes, you and the other girls have done a wonderful job.”
She beamed , then added, “May I help you in some way? Do you wish to take a bath? I can have hot water taken to the tub here- or you can go to the bathhouse behind the villa. It is small, but lacks nothing.”
“No, that would not be necessary. I bathed this morning at the inn where we stopped and I am still fine. I just wish to change dress and put on something lighter. Then I will dedicate myself to the exploration of the house.”
“Of course.” Helia smiled. “I will be your guide.” She disappeared in the bedroom and returned with a grey stola. “What do you think of this, mistress?”
As I removed my dusty clothes, allowing Helia to wash my face and neck with a wet sponge, the girl asked, “So, domina, how did the wedding go? I hope everything was fine.”
“It was.” I did not want to delve deeper into the matter, but the maid suddenly stopped her ministrations to look at me excitedly. “Forgive me my lady if I am too bold but… how is your husband? Is he as good as he is handsome?”
Another woman would probably have slapped her for such a straightforward question, for I knew what she really meant with “good”. But, dear sister, Helia had been with me since she was a child, and I could not be stern with her, also because I knew her curiosity was well intended. So I simply smiled and replied, “Yes, he is a very gentle and caring man.”
“Great! Just what you need, mistress. You deserve to be loved and cared for.” She looked so happy, I had not the courage to tell her things were not how she believed them to be. I decided to leave her to her romantic dreams- the time she understood the truth would come soon enough.
In that moment a loud barking filtered inside the room from the open windows and, caught unaware, I almost jumped at the sound.
Helia noticed it and hurried to reassure me. “You don’t have to be afraid, mistress! This is Felix, the General’s dog. He is like a big puppy. It seems almost incredible to think he was a war dog.”
“A war dog?”
“Yes. He used to fight near his master when he went into battles- indeed he is named after the General’s old legion, the Felix VII. The General lost him when he was enslaved, but his soldiers cared for Felix and gave him back to their commander when his misfortunes ended. Felix has travelled with us from Rome and I can assure you he is a very gentle beast.”
I nodded, and walking to the window, I looked outside in the back yard, where Maximus was throwing sticks to his dog, who ran to retrieve them. Every time Felix went back, he was patted and caressed by his master. The affection Maximus had for the beast was clear and palpable, but somehow I felt it was not the only thing tying him the dog. Felix was also a symbol for him. He was probably the only being still connected with his past life- a life when Maximus had been a happy husband and father. No wonder he had been so cold when I had called the dog a “monster” and said I did not want it around! I just hoped he would forgive me and understand I had not meant to offend him. His opinion was so important for me… I looked out again and my eyes almost popped out when I saw Maximus disrobe and walk to a little pond situated down a light slope behind the house with only his loincloth on. I had never expected him to do such a thing! Perhaps the customs were somehow looser in Hispania? My eyes swept over his strong naked back, drinking in the sight of his muscles moving under his tanned skin. He was so handsome, dear sister! The most attractive man I had ever seen! Almost unconsciously, my hand reached out, as if I was trying to caress him. But of course I could not, for more than mere distance separated us. My hand fell, as a deep sigh escaped me. Turning around, I faced Helia with another forced smile on my lips.
“I think it is time you show me the house, Helia. Soon it will be dinner time, and I don’t want to get lost.”
The maid grinned. “You are right mistress. Please, come with me.” She moved to the door and I followed her, but not before casting a last glance at the man swimming in the pond, a bout of longing washing over me. A lot of years had passed since I had last felt something like that and it was as desperate like that time, for I was beginning to fall in love with a man who loved another, a woman against whom I could never compete.
That evening, after a dinner during which Maximus had been polite but cold, I took a tour of the villa’s garden. I knew Felix had been closed into the barn for the night, and I felt safe enough to go out alone. The air was warm and jasmine-scented, and I found a stone bench, sitting there, looking around at the sleeping fields and listening to the sounds of the nocturnal birds. As I was there, hidden by the darkness, I saw Maximus leave the house and cross the garden to the big poplar that stood in the opposite corner. Once there he knelt down near two small grass-covered mounds and bowed his head, as if in prayer. I took me a few moments to realize he was kneeling at the graves of his family and because I felt as if I was spying on him, I stood up and went away, retiring into my bedroom.
I had Helia prepare me for bed, then I told her to leave me alone, as my thoughts insisted to wander to Maximus’ late wife. She must have been a wonderful lady to hold the love of such an extraordinary man in this way. I hoped she had known how lucky she had been, for I was sure very few women came to know such love. I stopped my musings when I realized I was feeling envious of a woman who had been murdered in an atrocious way. How could I be so mean? I was so lucky compared to her and I had to make the best out of my life, as I had always done since my accident. I know that many times disfigured or mutilated persons become resentful or spiteful but, aside the very few months after the attack, when I had raged against everything and everyone and resented other people’s presence, I discovered that negative feelings are useless. They don’t improve the situation and repulse the others more than the scars do. A gentle heart is always appreciated and that was why Helia and my other servants had decided to remain with me even after being granted their freedom. I just hoped one day Maximus would see it and allow me to become at least his friend.
But despite my hopes, the situation between Maximus and me did not improve. As it had been during the journey to Hispania, we continued to be two strangers sharing the same accommodations. In truth, dear sister, it was even worse than during the travel, for now there were days I did not see my husband at all. If I was lucky, I would be able to exchange a few words with him at breakfast, before he disappeared in the fields until the evening. Other days he was already gone when I woke up, and I could count on the fingers of one hand the evenings we dined together. He usually sent me word to eat alone for he had been delayed by some matter requiring his attention, but it did not take me long to understand it was an excuse, that he did not want to eat with me. Probably that time of the day had a great meaning for Maximus when his family was alive. I could imagine him very well reclining on a couch and listening to his son as the child told him about his day, while exchanging proud glances with his wife, telling her with his eyes what would happen as soon as they were alone. Oh yes, I could picture it all too well, as I dined alone in the big triclinium, with just Helia to keep me company. The good girl was even sadder than me about the situation, now that she knew the truth about my marriage.
As for myself, I tried to cope with my loneliness in the usual way: I found things to do. First of all, now I had a house to govern and a household to direct. It was the first time for me, and now I could put in practice what I had been taught when marriage to a powerful man was still seen as my most likely future. I soon established a good relationship with all the house servants, based on mutual respect. Maximus rarely commented on what I did or how things were done, and the only time he disagreed on something – I had ordered the servants to throw away some old bed covers, not knowing my husband used them as blankets for the horses – he told me in private, in order not to make me feel uneasy in front of the servants. He might not have liked to have me around, perhaps even resenting my presence in his house – although it was not the same building where he had lived with his family but a rebuilt one -but he was nevertheless respectful and courteous with me, which was more than I had received from other men in my life.
The rest of my time was spent reading, studying and writing. I had books shipped in with ease from Emerita Augusta, the most important town of the area, which was several miles away, while it was much more difficult – let’s say impossible – to find people with whom to share my passion for maths and philosophy. Trujillo, the village near the farm, was a small place, in which life seemed to revolve around the big market. It did not have a theatre, a library or even a real school. The rich landowners hired private tutors for their children, as probably Maximus himself had done for his son, while the field workers’ progeny had to content themselves with sporadic lessons held by passing teachers. I found it very, very sad and I decided to take the matter into my hands and since I could not change my life, I decided to try to improve that of other people less fortunate than me.
Helped by the fact I was the Emperor’s sister-in-law – for once that position turned out to be useful! – I established a small, permanent and completely free of charge school at the villa. I went to visit all the farms scattered around the village and encouraged the parents to send their children to me. It worked and soon I had twenty- eight students. I loved it. You know I had always liked children, even those two little demons of Bassianus and Geta, and, even if at that point of my life I had resigned myself to my fate, it was especially bitter to accept I could never have the child I longed for. Teaching those country kids would help to soothe at least a bit of the craving in my heart, as in the meantime I hoped to give them the tools to improve their position in life when they were older.
I suppose, dear sister, you are now wondering what Maximus said about my initiative. The answer is: practically nothing. He gave me the permission to use the inner porch as a classroom and wished me luck. You could say it was fortunate he left me so much freedom – after all he might not have liked to have more than twenty dirty peasant children around his house – but to me, it was not liberty: it was indifference. He did not enquire about what I planned to teach nor did he show curiosity for any aspect of the matter. That saddened me, not only because of his lack of interest for something I cared a lot about, but also for his total refusal to have some kind of “real” contact with me- or with other people, mind you. Maximus kept everyone at arm’s length, not allowing anyone to come close to him. It was as if he was afraid to become fond of someone, as if he associated care and love with pain. He did not want to let his guard down for fear he would suffer again as it had happened with his family. He seemed to be fond only of Felix and I was afraid of what would happen when the dog, who was already advanced in his age, was going to die. Then Maximus would be left utterly alone, even more so than me.
His loneliness was apparent to me and my heart ached to make a connection with him, to show him that even if we could not be husband and wife, we could at least be friends, but I did not know how to approach the matter. So I left things as they were, suffering in silence as I was sure he also was.
But even in that seemingly desperate situation, I continued to hope and one day something happened to make me think that maybe, just maybe, there was still a chance for us.
It happened during one of the rare times we left the farm together- one of the few occasions Maximus had not been able to refuse an invitation. The just appointed governor of the province of Lusitania had held a great party, gathering all the most notable personalities of the region, and there was no way Maximus and I could avoid to participate.
So we travelled to Emerita Augusta and mingled for a few hours with the local aristocracy. I could see from the beginning it was not something my husband was used to do, for he was tense and ill at ease like me. He did not like how people stared at him, tried to get his attention or wanted to drag him into political discussions. As I said before, his eyes are very expressive and I could read in them his distaste and annoyance, as I stood at his side, trying to support him- although I don’t think he realized it. At a certain point, after a local magistrate had tried to pry from him what had really happened between him and Commodus, without any regards for his personal tragedy, Maximus led me away and said, “Forgive me, my lady, but I need some fresh air. Can I leave you alone for a while?”
“Of course, my lord. Please take all the time you need.” He nodded, bowed his head, and walked in the direction of the garden, his stance so commanding people parted to let him pass, as admiring glances followed him, mine included. He was wearing his uniform that evening, and he looked powerful and dashing, the epitome of the dominating male, and everyone in the room reacted to it.
I watched till he disappeared outside, then I searched for a quiet spot where to rest and relax for a while. I found it in a marble bench located behind an elaborate fountain. I sat down and leaned my back against the wall, closing my eyes, enjoying the silence. But the peace was short lived, for few minutes later, three young women stopped near the fountain and, thinking to be alone, began to talk to each other, with no fear to be overheard.
“So, have you seen the General?” began one of them.
“Of course! Even a blind woman would see him! He is that sort of man. Have you noticed his biceps? I bet I would not be able to circle them with both my hands.” Replied another.
I smiled at the comment- I had thought the same thing more than once, upon seeing him working around the farm wearing a sleeveless tunic.
“I wonder how he is in bed…” murmured the third one and the trio giggled together.
“We could ask his wife…” Suggested the first one, and I could hear the sarcasm in her voice.
“Wife? That scarred thing? Poor man, what a reward he got for all his troubles! I bet he blows out all the candles before having relations with her.”
“People say her wounds made her barren- so she is not only ugly, she is useless too. And more, since she cannot have children of her own, I heard she is snatching away those of other families…peasant families. She has organized a school or something like that.”
“Ah, the General should divorce and find a real woman – someone like me, for example – to give him what he needs.”
They all laughed together, the sound like a blade a stabbing my heart again and again.
“My wife gives me everything I need.” Maximus’ hard, cold voice startled both me and those women. They stopped laughing and I jumped to my feet.
“Oh, my lady, you are here. I was searching for you.” Maximus said surprised, and I realized he too had not seem me, hidden as I was by the fountain. He smiled at me and extended a hand. I circled the fountain and stood at his side, and he wrapped an arm around my waist, protectively. “It is time to go home. I am tired of this place and the company.”
I nodded; I could not agree more.
Maximus turned again to face the three women that were still staring at him and commented, “As for you ladies, before presuming too much about other women’s husbands, you should think about how satisfied your own are with yourselves.” His tone and glance were chilling, and the trio actually trembled and lowered their heads in shame.
As we walked away, Maximus looked at me. “I am sorry, my lady, for what they said.”
“It is not your fault, my lord. But thank you for having defended me.” I cast a rapid glance at the three harpies and could not help but smile at their still terrified faces. “You truly scared them for good!”
Maximus followed my gaze and laughed. “Indeed!”
It was the first time I heard him laugh and just as those women’s sound had been a stab in my heart, his rumbling one was like a healing balm. It was a beautiful sound, and I loved it. As I loved the way his cheeks moved, his eyes shone and his teeth flashed. I had the sudden desire to hear him laugh more and to be the cause of his joy. I wanted – needed – to see him happy, for I had fallen in love with him.
Yes, dear sister, that was the precise instant I understood I loved him. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment my feelings of admiration, respect and compassion had changed into something totally different. It had not been “love at first sight”, but a slow development that reached its conclusion that evening, as I walked between the governor’s guests with my husband’s arm around my waist, certain that despite the distance still separating us, he cared enough for me to defend me from malicious women and being concerned about my feelings.
However, once back at the farm, nothing changed in Maximus’ behaviour. He still continued to avoid me, and it was now more painful, for my desire to stay near him had increased, and because I knew he cared for me- but still was adamant to keep the distance between us. Yes, now I was really sure he was afraid of the pain that might result if he got fond of someone; he did not want to suffer again. And what happened a few days after the reception demonstrated he had not been totally wrong, dear sister.
One afternoon, as I was preparing the next day’s lesson for my pupils, a sudden commotion coming from outside disturbed me. Even though it was early October (I had been already married for more than six months and I had also turned twenty-seven, although only myself and Helia knew it), the climate was still pleasantly warm, and the sound of many concerned voices entered my room through the open window. The voices came nearer and rose in volume and, afraid something might have happened to Maximus or one of the workers, I ran to the window to look in the yard. I had been close enough. My husband and the other men were fine, but not so Felix. Maximus was carrying the big dog in his arms, heading for the barn. The beast’s body was limp, one of his paws seemed to hang in an unnatural way, and I saw with horror he was losing blood from his muzzle, leaving a scarlet trail on the ground. I looked at Maximus’ face: it was stony and tense, but his eyes betrayed his pain. It was a heart-breaking sight and I felt the need to be near my husband in that moment. So I left my room and walked as fast as I could out of the house. On arriving close to the barn, I exchanged a salute with the workers standing there and asked, “What happened to my husband’s dog?”
“We don’t know, mistress,” answered one of them, “He was out hunting for rabbits as usual – and then we saw the General carrying him.”
“I see. Thank you.” Silence fell on the yard, as we all waited for Maximus to come out of the barn. Time seemed never to pass, and when he finally stepped out, his light brown tunica was splattered with blood and his face was even more tense than before. He looked surprised to see me there, but bowed his head in salute.
“My lord,” I approached him, “What happened to Felix?”
“Two idiots took the main road for the Circus Maximus. They trampled him down with their chariots as they raced each other.” Maximus’ voice was seething with rage and pain.
“This is terrible!” I said with sincerity. Although I had once called him a monster, my opinion of Felix had changed in the months spent at the farm, for the beast had never tried to come near me, allowing me to forget almost all my fear. “And how is he?”
“He has a broken leg, wounds on his head, and perhaps some internal injuries. Now he is sleeping, but only time will tell if he will pull out of this. And now forgive me, my lady, but I have many things to do…” He walked away, but not quick enough for me not to hear how his voice had threatened to break or how his beautiful eyes had become unusually bright. He had wanted to be strong, in order not to show how he was suffering, but he had failed, and my heart ached for him. How I wanted to help him! To show him he could trust me, that I was there for him if he needed to talk, if he wanted to lower his guard, something that, for obvious reasons, he could not do in front of the workers. Sometimes I think the world of the men is even harder than that of the women, dear sister. They have emotions as deep and strong like ours, but they are taught not to show them from a very young age, for it is perceived as not manly enough. If a woman has an emotional outburst, it is excused and shrugged off, but if a man breaks down in front of others, he might lose the respect of his peers and his servants forever. So they must have everything bottled up inside, swallowing their emotions and hoping not to be eaten by them.
Felix’s condition did not improve during the next days. It seemed the old warrior had lost his will to live and was now waiting for death, refusing to eat. I was informed about this by the servants, and not by Maximus, who was now even more silent and solitary than before, leaving for the fields at dawn, although, with the soil getting ready for the winter, there was little to do. He spent little time with Felix, perhaps because he was already preparing himself to live without his old companion…
Then, one morning, after having spent the night tossing and turning, I stood up to drink some water and without thinking walked to the window, looking outside just in time to watch Maximus leave the barn. Even from that distance I could see him brush away tears from his eyes, after having allowed himself a brief, relieving cry. I wanted so badly to go to him so that he did not need to suffer alone, that I was there for him, that what he would say or do would be known only by me, but instead I merely watched as he headed for the fields, pondering the situation.
What could I do to help him? Buy him another dog, so that he would have something to “hold on to” when Felix was gone? I discharged the idea at once. Felix was more than Maximus’ dog- he was a memory of a past gone by. My husband was surely resentful at any attempt to “replace” him, especially by me, the almost stranger occupying the place that had been his beloved wife’s. So I searched for another solution. What about trying to help Felix himself? I had read somewhere sick animals sometimes reacted better to women for, despite being of different species, they sense the female factor and associate it to the instinctive memories they have of their mothers. The dog was not eating – could I try to convince him to do so? Could I go there and win over my fear? Go near him? Touch him? Yes- if it was necessary to try to make Maximus happy I would do it. What miracles love does, uh? What do you think, dear sister?
So I dressed, stepped down to the kitchen, heated some milk, put it in a bowl, and went to the barn.
I had been inside only few times, but I knew where Felix’s cot was. I walked straight to it, talking softly as I advanced to alert the dog of my presence.
Felix was lying on his side on a thick bed of clean straw, with a blanket lovingly tucked over his body. He pricked up his ears when he saw me approach and even tried to raise his head, before letting it fall back on the straw, too weak to keep it upright. I watched him for a while, lying there so defenceless, then I took a deep breath to steel my nerves and lowered myself on the hay. I sat near the animal’s head and carefully stretched out a hand near his scarred muzzle, so that Felix could sniff me easily. He did, pushing his too dry nose against my palm, his breath tickling my skin.
I took it as a good sign, and pulling together all my courage, I placed the bowl with the milk on the ground, and reached out with my free hand to scratch his ears. It was the first time I touched a dog since the attack and I found it a pleasurable experience. As you perhaps can remember, dear sister, I used to like dogs, and in that moment I realized how much I had missed petting them, especially near the ears, which are always so soft… After a while, I pushed the blanket away and I extended my caresses along Felix’s flanks, feeling the softness of his fur, careful not to touch his injured leg. He seemed to like it – or at least he did not give any signs of not liking it – and I found the rhythmic moves soothing and relaxing. Almost without noticing I began to talk to the animal.
“You must get well, dear Felix. Your master is very worried and sad for you. He cares for you, do you know? Of course you know, you are such a smart dog. It must be beautiful to have someone that loves you so much. You are very lucky. Oh yes Felix, you are even luckier than me.” I sighed and, in the calm presence of that intelligent beast, who really seemed to listen to me, I continued to speak, albeit more to myself than to him. “You know what happened to me? I was attacked by a dog- a big one as you… but it was nothing like you. That’s why I was so afraid of you and I called you a monster. Forgive me. My life has never been the same from that day. From being Bassiana, “the most beautiful of the three sisters”, I became the monster, the one who should not be seen to much in public, the disgrace of the family. As if it was my fault that I had been attacked. I wanted to die back then, wanted to be spared all that suffering- but I pulled out of it. As you must do, Felix. Fight! Don’t give up! Do it for Maximus if not for yourself.”
I immersed my index finger into the milk and coated the dog’s lips with the white liquid, willing him to lick it away. “Come on, Felix, taste it, it is good.” And finally he did so, his pink, long tongue sticking out to lick the drops from his whiskers. Encouraged, I formed a little cup with my hand and poured milk into it. Felix lapped it clean. I repeated the gesture again and again, fighting the urge to laugh in relief as the dog continued to drink every drop of the milk I put under his nose. Then suddenly, Felix’s attention was dragged away from me and he wagged his tail. I turned to look at where the dog was pointing and found Maximus standing near a wooden pole, leaning against it with a shoulder. I stared at him for a long while, unable to speak. How had he arrived so close without us noticing him? For how long had he been there? How much had he heard of my words? His eyes told me he had heard enough. We continued to look at each other, until Felix whimpered.
“I think he wants more milk,” Maximus commented softly, a smile on his lips.
I nodded and turned to concentrate on the dog, my heart beating wildly as I sensed my husband come closer and kneel at my side. He watched in silence as Felix drank all the milk, then patted him on the big head. “Well done, my old boy, well done.” Then he turned his gaze on me, a look of pure gratitude in his eyes. “Thank you, Bassiana. I had already lost all hope.”
I stared at him stunned. It was the very first time he had called me by my name.
“Is there something wrong?” He asked.
I shook my head. “No. It’s just that…you had never used my name before, and I liked the sound of it on your lips.” I told him the truth, blushing and lowering my head, embarrassed like a young girl- which, in a certain sense, I was, for I had never had any experience on dealing with men.
“Then it means I will have to use again. And besides, it is a beautiful name.”
I raised my head to meet his smiling face, shyly replying in the same way. “Thank you, Maximus.” This too was the first time I called him so and his smile widened in approval. We stared at each other in silence for a while, then Maximus reached out a hand to push away the hem of my palla and have a better look at the scar on my cheek.
“This must have hurt very much,” he commented softly.
I nodded. “Yes.”
“How old were you?”
“How did it happen?”
“One afternoon, while I was walking along a road with my friends, a big dog jumped out from the bushes and attacked me.”
“Point blank? Without any provocation?”
“Indeed. It almost killed me before a soldier came to my help and stabbed the beast. I was hurt very badly to my face, torso and leg.”
“My gods!” Maximus’ face seemed pale and I could see that he, the veteran warrior, had been shaken by my tale. “You were lucky it was not rabid.”
“That was what the surgeon kept telling my father, but he did not agree.” I murmured, those painful memories still fresh in my mind. “He said he was now left with a disfigured daughter nobody would ever want to marry.” I looked away, and swallowed hard.
“He was stupid, Bassiana.” Maximus’ voice was quiet but decisive. “And a very bad father to treat you so.”
“I know.” I sighed, “He always resented the fact he had no males and he used me to unleash his frustrations.”
My husband shook his head. “I am sorry you had to suffer so much, and at such an early age. But you recovered very well- your spirit is so strong…” Was admiration what I heard in his voice? “You are a great lady, Bassiana.”
Maximus was staring at me with his blue-green eyes boring at me, as if he was truly seeing me for the first time, and I could only stare back, wondering about what he would do or say. But a sudden noise of approaching steps interrupted us.
“Are you here, mistress? Breakfast is ready.” It was Helia.
Maximus and I exchanged a glance, then he stood up and offered his hand to me, helping me to raise on my feet.
“Here we are, Helia.” He called, “We are coming.”
And we did so, leaving the now sleeping Felix alone, walking side by side with his arm wrapped around my waist.
In the days that followed, Felix’s health took a determinate turn for the better, and so did the relationship with my husband. We started to spend more time together, both during the day and the evening. In the morning we had breakfast together, before we went to the barn and took care of Felix, who had taken such a liking for me, he wanted to be fed only by me. I was afraid Maximus might resent it, but he simply laughed at it, happy to see his old friend regain his strength.
When Felix felt better, Maximus began to “exercise” him, carefully bending and stretching the dog’s back and legs, while I soothed the big beast when it became painful.
The time we spent concentrating on Felix not only gave me the satisfaction to see the animal improve each day – until the morning he limped out of the barn under our happy gazes – but it also allowed me to see what an extraordinarily kind man Maximus was in his heart. He was so delicate in the way he moved his hands or whispered encouraging words to Felix, it was almost incredible to associate him with the deadly warrior he had been, both on the battlefields and the arena. He was gentle with all the animals and the workers, and every time I saw him caress a horse’s muzzle or pat some man’s back in approval, I could not help but wonder how his hands would feel over me… I even dreamed about him, dear sister – imagining him coming to my rooms and loving me, as I had once had seen one of our male servants do with one of our mother’s maids. I had been sixteen back then, but the image was burnt into my mind, and now they returned to haunt my sleep, only that Maximus had replaced that slave, and I was at the receiving end of his passionate attention. The dreams became more frequent after we had started to spend our evenings together, dining and then retreating to the library to talk.
In the beginning our conversations were about neutral topics, such as our favourite books or authors, and I discovered Maximus to be well educated, despite having been brought up in the countryside and the army. Then, as we got more comfortable with each other, the talks became more serious, and we spoke about our lives, about the past. And it surprised me – and Maximus too, for he commented on it – how two private people like us could open up so much. But perhaps it was just that we needed badly to do so, after keeping our feelings bottled inside us for so long.
I cannot tell you much about those conversations, dear sister, for many of the things we said to each other were meant to remain private. However I can tell you I spoke to him about the insults and the humiliations I had to bear after the incident. How father had forbidden me to leave my room when he had guests. How my so called friends, the ones that had been with me the day of the attack, never visited me again. How Julia’s marriage to Severus had turned to be a blessing, allowing me more freedom.
In turn Maximus told me about his childhood in Trujillo, about his life as a soldier and a gladiator. You would not imagine what kind of brutality he had to witness and to suffer! He also told me about the heart-breaking pain of discovering his wife’s and son’s corpses, and about how time – The Great Healer – was slowly beginning to mend his wounds.
My heart leaped with joy the evening I heard him say so, for I firmly believed he deserved some happiness- to look at the future with hope and a sense of purpose. To live, not merely exist- just as it was for me.
Those conversations were my most treasured moment of the day, when I let the warmth of Maximus’ friendship fill me. Oh yes, for we were now friends, real ones, not like those hypocrites back in Syria. Maximus saw me and liked me for what I was, not letting my looks come in the way of his judgment. And, of course, all of this made me love him even more: how could it have been otherwise with a man like him?
There are so many moments I remember of that late autumn- winter when life returned to smile at me…
The morning when Maximus offered to take me on a tour of the farm on a small cart. I agreed, of course, and he took me everywhere in the property, showing and explaining things to me, even letting me drive the cart when I told him I was able to. I remember how exciting it was to push the horse to gallop, watching the road being swallowed by its hooves, feeling the air on my face, wanting to laugh out aloud at the beauty of it, then smiling with no restrain at Maximus’ praise, my heart thundering when he caressed my cheek as he pushed away a strand of my hair, which had escaped my palla, he too smiling broadly.
As we returned home, Maximus suddenly asked. “Do you ride?”
I shook my head, saddened. “I used to, but now my leg has not enough strength to grip the horse’s barrel and avoid a fall.”
“Would you like to try to ride with me?”
“You mean on the same horse?”
“Yes.” He smiled, his teeth flashing, and my heart almost skipped a beat. “Would you like it?”
I nodded with energy at the prospect of feeling again a horse under me- and a beautiful stallion sitting behind me. My cheeks flushed red at that naughty thought and I turned my head away so Maximus would not notice, as we continued our trip home.
The next morning I tried not to appear too eager when I stepped down the yard, but I think I failed miserably: I had spent a restless night anticipating the ride, and my excitement was written plainly on my face.
Maximus was waiting near a dappled grey horse and he greeted me with a smile. I walked to him and when I was near enough, he said “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I approached the horse and patted its neck, as Maximus moved behind me and put his hands on my hips. “I am going to help you get in the saddle. You know how it is done, don’t you?”
I nodded, and positioned myself with one of my hands on the horse’s neck and one on the saddle, ready for his signal to give me a push.
“We will move when I’ve counted to three, all right?”
I did as he said and a few moments later I found myself sitting astride a horse for the first time in years. Maximus checked that I was comfortable, then jumped up and settled behind me, circling my waist with his arms as he took hold of the reins.
“Ready to go?” He breathed into my ear and a shiver ran along my spine.
“Yes,” I whispered, and he nudged the horse forward, as we left the yard for the gravel-covered road that led to the fields.
We proceeded in silence for a while, letting the rhythmic clip-clop of the horse lull us, as I looked at the landscape around me as if I had never seen it before. You look at the world with different eyes on the back of a horse- especially if you have the man you love embracing you and can feel his warmth behind you.
When we reached a long, thin, flat strip of grass lining sowed field, Maximus asked, “Would you like to trot? I will support you, don’t be afraid.”
“Yes, I would like to try.”
He took both reins in his left hand and tightened the grip of the right one around my waist, before spurring our mount. The horse started to trot and I grabbed its mane, finding the two-beats gait very uncomfortable. Maximus saw my predicament, but instead of slowing the animal, he pushed it to a controlled gallop, which I found much more comfortable. My grip on the mane relaxed and I let myself enjoy those long-dreamed sensations: the horse moving powerfully beneath me, the wind on my face, Maximus’ arm around my waist, his broad palm resting just under my left breast…I wondered if he could feel the thundering of my heart. It was beautiful and I wanted it to never end, but of course it had to, for Maximus seemed to sense my muscles were starting to cramp and slowed down the horse to walk.
“Did you like it?” he enquired.
“Oh yes, very much. Thank you.” And to show him my gratitude, I posed my hand over his, and squeezed.
“I am glad you enjoyed it. We could do it again, if you wish.”
If I wished? Oh dear sister, how I wished for it! If it were for me we would do it again the next day- but unfortunately the rain and then my leg came to ruin my plans, although another occasion came in which Maximus showed me how much he cared for me.
When my left leg cramped up very badly because of the weather – it had been raining for five days – and the local doctor was not able to do anything to help me, Maximus left the villa in the middle of one night, galloping to the nearest military camp, bringing its surgeon back with him. It turned out the man had served under Maximus in Germania and was used to dealing with muscle problems caused by wounds and damp climate- that was why my husband had gone to fetch him. I remember Maximus pacing back and forth in the room as the doctor visited me, looking very worried, then sitting by my bed and squeezing my hand as the pain got worse before the medication finally acted. I fell asleep still grabbing his hand and woke up to find him slumbering on the chair, still at my side, thinking how young and innocent he looked in his sleep…
When my leg got better, Maximus decided we needed to celebrate and since he had plenty of time at his disposal, he took me to Emerita Augusta, to attend a theatrical play – or rather, two plays. Not sure about what I liked more, he got tickets for both a comedy and a tragedy. After the two plays, he seemed anxious to know if I had liked them, and smiled in a pleased way when I told him I had enjoyed both very much. I later learned they had been the first time he had stepped into a theatre, for he had never had the time for it in the past. So it was my turn to ask him if he had found the experience to his liking and to smile with joy when he nodded and promised me we would do it again.
A few days later, after our return to the farm, Maximus knocked on the open door of my rooms, “May I come in?”
“Of course!” I smiled and stood up from my desk to meet him. “Can I do something for you?”
“Yes… no…” He seemed strangely embarrassed and ill at ease, twisting a wooden box he had in his hands. “Some time ago I asked Helia when your birthday was and she told me it has already passed. So well… even if I am late… Here, this is for you.” He put the box in my hand. “I hope you will like them.”
I opened the box trying to control the trembling of my hands, letting out a gasp when I saw the gold and emerald earrings and necklace laid on the silk in front of my eyes.
“Oh,” I commented, picking up one of the earrings to admire its exquisite design, watching how the sunlight coming from the window made the emeralds shine. “They are beautiful.”
Maximus smiled. “I thought they would look great with that green and golden stola you wore in Emerita.” He was staring at me with a strange expression on his face- as if he was expecting something.
Of course- I had still to thank him. “Thank you so much, Maximus, it is one of the best birthday presents I ever received.” I smiled and he replied in the same way, but I could not help but think he looked somehow disappointed.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked, puzzled.
“No!” He hasted to deny. “Everything is fine. Now I must go. Please excuse me.” And before I was able to say anything, he had bowed to me and disappeared from the room, leaving me behind to wonder why he had looked so uncomfortable.
I can almost hear a very un-ladylike groan come from you, dear sister, and yes, I too would like to kick myself for not having understood what was happening. I still cannot believe I did not see Maximus was courting me, that he wanted to make our marriage a real one and had been disappointed by what he probably perceived as lack of enthusiasm and interest in him. Probably he had expected – or hoped for – a warmer thank you… But, on the other hand, I had never been courted for real before and Maximus was a very reserved man, delicate in his advances. I knew nothing of the love games between men and women and I believe, had I ever thought he was courting me, I would almost certainly have attributed the idea to my imagination and longing. After all, why should a man like Maximus – handsome, famous and rich- who could have anybody he chose, have been courting me? True, I was his wife, but only by law, and we know having a consort has never stopped men – or women – from taking lovers.
But luckily, Maximus was not put off by my lack of response and soon something happened to open my eyes, showing me that my dreams and my hopes had come true – all of them.
It was mid-afternoon and I was concluding my daily lesson, trying to explain to the children the basic concepts of geometry without boring them too much, when I felt the distinctive sensation someone was staring at me. My first urge was to look around to see who it was, but I restrained myself and pressed on: if it turned out to be one of my pupils’ father or mother, I wanted to show him or her that I was doing a good job, that the time their child spent with me was not wasted. So I completed my explanation, asked some questions around to see if my students had understood everything, then I let them go. The children hurried to pick their writing tools, then burst in excited cries and ran away from the porch, happy for the next day was a holiday- but not before stopping to salute me and to even give me a couple of sloppy kisses on my cheek. I watched them go with amusement, but also with a bit of sadness. That day the longing I had for a child of my own, for someone I could care for, to love, and help to grow up for more than a few hours per day, was stronger than usual. Sighing, I began to put away my scrolls, when the sensation of someone watching me returned. This time I turned around and saw it was Maximus: he was leaning against a column, his arms crossed over his impressive chest, a gentle smile on his lips that widened when our eyes met.
I smiled back, rose from my stool and walked to him. “Did you enjoy the lesson?”
“Oh yes, geometry was never so interesting when I was a child.” Another smile, before he turned serious. “You are really good at this. I could see how much passion you put into your teaching- and I think the little ones know it. They love you.”
I looked in the direction where my students had disappeared. “As I love them.” My melancholy hit again and I said aloud, “I love children, but the gods decided I could never have my own, and so I try to make the life of these little ones, as you called them, better.” I sighed and fell silent, aware I had just confessed him one of my best kept secrets – the other, of course, was the love I felt for him. As I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat, I expected Maximus to make some comments and, when he failed to do so, I turned around to face him again.
He was staring at me in a strange way that almost gave me goose bumps. Then he looked away and said, so softly I had to strain my ears to hear him. “Listen Bassiana, I have been thinking… there is no reason why you should not have your own baby… I could try to give you one…”
I was stunned – and sure I had misunderstood. He certainly did not mean…?
“What?” I squeaked out.
“I said… that if you wish for a baby so much, I could try to make you pregnant… We are married, after all.”
I stared at him open-mouthed. He was not joking. He was absolutely serious and he expected an equally serious answer. And he did not look at all like someone sacrificing himself for the good of another. Indeed he seemed a bit nervous and anxious… and eager.
“Why?” It was everything I was able to babble.
Maximus stared hard at me for a few seconds, then he spoke, “Because you wish for one – and because I desire you.” Quiet, decisive and to the point.
Now, dear sister, I was really sure I was imagining everything. How was it possible a man like him could want me?! But I was not able to utter a single word, and he went on, “I am sorry if I am embarrassing you, but this the truth. I know I told you our marriage was only for the law… but things have changed. Everything has changed and I fell in love with you, Bassiana.” Maximus was looking at me and there was such honesty, such longing in his eyes I could not help but believe him and his wondrous revelations. And that was the precise moment I understood he had been courting me for the past month or so… taking me to the theatre, giving me presents…
“Oh Maximus!” I exclaimed, overcome by my emotions, “I love you too… for a long time. Perhaps since the day we married.” I was aware I was crying with joy, but I could not care less.
It was his turn to look surprised. He moved a step forward. “But you did not say anything… did not respond to me…gave me no signals…”
“How could I, Maximus? You had made it clear you still loved your wife and I thought you wanted us to be friends, nothing more. As for your courting,” I took a deep breath and gestured with my arms, “I did not recognize your advances for what they were… nobody had ever done that to me before…” I blushed and lowered my head.
Maximus took my chin in his fingers and gently tilted my head up until I was looking at him. He was smiling. “There is no need to feel ashamed. I love your innocence. It is so refreshing, so natural…” His voice died in a throaty murmur as his hand moved to cup my cheek and his face moved closer and closer to mine…
It was the first time a man kissed me and I did not know what to do. My first instinct was to tense and back away, but Maximus’ arm was quick to surround my waist and stop me. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered against my skin, before he returned to claim my mouth.
Tenderly and gently, in the beginning, then the tip of his tongue probed my lips, coaxing them apart. He did not force me: my mouth opened willingly, as my arms rose to embrace him. Was it so for you too, dear sister? That sudden feeling of relaxing mixed with excitement? I felt completely in his power, as his tongue entered my mouth again and again, teaching me how to respond to him. We kissed for several minutes, gaining in ardour and passion, moaning in each other’s mouths, until Maximus finally stepped back, a smile on his well-kissed lips. “You certainly are a quick leaner, my love…”
I blushed to the roots of my hair, but I replied with a smile, for I knew my eagerness was appreciated. I caressed his bearded jaw, and he caught my hand, bringing it to his lips, where my fingers were softly kissed.
“Would you like to make love?” He asked then, as he reinforced his hold around my waist and pressed his hips against mine, making me feel the proof of his desire. It caused a shiver to run along my spine, as I felt my belly tighten in a strange way.
“Now?” I asked. It was still afternoon and we were supposed to have other things to do- weren’t we?
Maximus sensed my hesitation and smiled ruefully. “Forgive me. I am rushing you too much, am I not? It is just that I have been without the comfort of a woman for so long, and I love you so much… But I can wait till you are ready, till it is right for you. I don’t want to force you in any way.” He tried to step back, but I stopped him.
“No, you cannot wait… just as I cannot. I have already waited far too long.” I had been hoping for this since our wedding night, when he was a stranger to me. Why should I delay this now, after he had confessed to love me and taught me to kiss and be kissed? I took a deep breath and pressed on, feeling sure of myself as never before since the attack, “Take me to bed, my husband, make me a real woman…”
Maximus groaned aloud – a sound I found very arousing – and after another ravishing kiss, he scooped me into his arms. I was surprised by his speed and by his strength, and laced my arms around his neck as he took me to his rooms. Just before we were about to enter his chamber, I saw Helia turn a corner, look at us with wide eyes, then smile in understanding and approval, before she disappeared along the corridor and Maximus slammed the door shut, closing the world outside.
Once inside his rooms – I had been there only a couple of times to supervise the servants’ work – Maximus walked straight to his bed and sat down on it. He freed his neck from my arms, put me on the mattress, then stood up again and walked to the window, closing the shutters and leaving us in the dark, but for the lamps he lightened at the sides of the bed.
Then he stopped in front of me and began to disrobe, slowly, giving me time to get used to the sight of a man without clothes. My man. I watched with breathless anticipation as one by one his garments were unceremoniously thrown on the floor and gasped in awe when finally his loincloth fell, and he remained standing naked in front of me.
As I told you, dear sister, I had already seen a bare and aroused man before, but even that experience had not prepared me for the sight of my husband’s body. Broad, sloped shoulders gave way to a wide, muscled chest, lightly dusted by sun-bleached hair that became thicker and darker on his lower abdomen. His thighs were strong and well shaped as were his arms, and between them sprouted his manhood, aroused and pointing at me. I could not help but stare at him.
“Is there something you like, my wife?” Maximus’ husky voice asked and I nodded still looking at the size of his member. But I was not afraid, just intrigued. How would it feel under my hands? Inside me? I snapped out of my reverie when Maximus moved and sat down at my side on the bed, bending forward to kiss me.
Then his hands moved to untie the sash of my stola; I remained still and my breathing quickened, as my nose filled with Maximus’ manly, aroused scent. He then unfastened one of the pins at my shoulders that kept my tunic in place, before moving to the other. I knew the dress would fall leaving me bare when he freed that pin too, and I suddenly felt self-conscious of my looks. For the first time since our initial kiss, I tensed and my hand ran to cover and stop Maximus’, before his fingers could unfasten the pin.
“Don’t.” I whispered.
He cocked his head, waiting for further explanations.
“Blow off the lamps before you do it… I don’t wish to be seen.”
“Have you forgotten? I am scarred, Maximus- badly.” I tried to lower my eyes, but he prevented me from doing so, raising my chin.
“So am I.” He tilted his head to indicate the puckered marks on his left shoulder.
“This is not the same. You were a soldier- you are supposed to be scarred. I am a woman, and women are supposed to be smooth skinned, unblemished and beautiful…”
“As you are.” He firmly said, caressing my neck and the top of the shoulder he had already bared with his calloused fingertips. “You are so smooth …and you are beautiful to me, no matter what you think or believe. You are beautiful in the places that count more: here,” and he touched my left breast, just over my heart, “and here.” And he kissed my brow. “A pretty look lasts for only a few years before time and age come to mar it… but a beautiful heart is forever. Never forget it.” I nodded, not trusting my voice, so tight was my throat.
“Now trust me,” Maximus added in a whisper, and let me love you as you deserve to be loved…” He looked intently into my eyes and I felt myself drown in the depth of his aquamarine pools. My hand lowered and he lost no time to unfasten the pin. The fabric fell, baring my chest, and Maximus pushed my shoulders, making me lay back on the mattress. He peeled the stola away from me and reclined at my side, and gently caressed me, the scars that pitted my belly and flanks too. Slowly but inexorably his fingers became bolder, more inquisitive, and soon I found myself completely bare under his stare, my linens discharged on the floor like the rest of our clothes. I watched him closely, afraid to notice disgust in his eyes, but I saw only burning desire. And so I relaxed, and let myself go, and I abandoned myself in Maximus’ arms, embracing him back. “I am yours my husband,” I breathed into his ear, “Love me…”
What happened next, my dear sister, was too beautiful to be adequately described with words. Maximus loved me with his hands, his mouth, his body and taught me how to love him back. I cried out when he entered me, not because of the slight pain, but for the sheer beauty of having him inside me. Then he began to move and the world disappeared – I never imagined such pleasure could exist. Even now, when I close my eyes and think back to that day, I feel long shivers run along my spine… Everything was so perfect.
When I recovered my senses, I found Maximus lying at my side, looking anxiously at me. He smiled when my eyes finally focused on him, and kissed me slowly and languorously, his hand caressing my hair, my neck and my side.
“Did I hurt you?” He whispered, concern in his gaze.
“A little. But it was worth it.” I pulled at his head, and kissed him with ardour- sated by our love, and yet still hungry.
Maximus then rolled onto his back and made me rest with my head over his chest. We did not talk for a long while, with him caressing my hair and me stroking his muscles and listening to his heart beat under my ear. Then I broke the silence by saying. “Do you think I will be really able to bear a child?” The question had been prompted by the sensation of his warm seed deep inside me. “I am already twenty-seven.”
“My mother was twenty-nine when I was born,” Maximus replied quietly, “so yes, I really believe you still have plenty of time to get pregnant. And I promise to do everything in my power to help you to acquire this much- wished status…” He concluded in a suggestive whisper, before rolling me back beneath him…
Maximus kept his promise, dear sister, to my great delight, and our daughter was born exactly ten months after we made love for the first time. As I said before, he is a doting father, and he is completely smitten by his little lady. As for me, I am totally captured by him. I love him so much, and I know he loves me back with equal intensity. It is almost incredible to think we were two strangers when we married- I seem to have known him for my whole life… perhaps because my life really began when I met him? I know this is the kind of philosophical questions you don’t like, dear sister, so I will stop here, also because I realize I wrote a poem, not a letter!
I hope not having bored you too much, and having shown you the need of keeping your hopes alive. You must believe things can get better- always.
Now I leave you. Decima needs to be changed and then I have to hold my lesson for, yes, I continue to teach the local children. I like to do it and I am lucky enough to have plenty of time to dedicate to it.
So now I salute you, my dear Julia Maesa, and I pray to the gods that we will see each other again soon. Until then, be well my little sister.
Julia Bassiana Meridia.
Post Scriptum: my memory leaves much to be desired! I forgot to tell you I just discovered to be pregnant again. I have yet to tell it to Maximus. I hope very much this time I will bear him a boy, someone who will carry and perpetuate his proud name…a little boy with his eyes, his hair and more importantly, his beautiful heart…