The Secrets of a Courtesan

It was a losing battle. It didn’t matter how vigilant you were, how carefully you ate and drank, how much you applied yourself in your gymnasium, how many Greek potions, face creams and ointments and miracle cures and horrendously expensive Alexandrian cosmetics you slathered all over your face – you still… grew older.

Men grew more distinguished with age, as if time itself lent them some special patina and polish that commanded respect and dignity, whereas women…

Obviously, this was not the right frame of mind with which to greet one of her favorite clients. Iolanthe turned her hand mirror in the bright light of her bedroom this way and that, inspecting her slaves’ handiwork. It was, like the rest of her house and indeed her own self, flawless. That Indian face powder Diodorus had sent her was remarkable stuff. Her skin hadn’t broken out once.

Time to dress. The blue silk, with the silver Indian embroidery, she thought, to bring out her eyes, and oh, yes, the beryls from that strange island near Berenice, the jeweled hair pins, the necklace and the earrings, the bangles, and since it would be chilly tonight, her favorite blue shawl.

Once, twenty years ago, Iolanthe, which had not been her name in those days, had been one of the most celebrated dancers of her day. She had performed for everyone – the rich, the powerful, the famous, at the Flavian Amphitheatre, and even the Palatine for Commodus, from Gades, Rome, Massilia and Alexandria to her native Antioch, performing acts that had been both highly dangerous and dangerously erotic involving many peacock feathers, an enormous Indian python and seven curved Parthian knives. She had had numerous lovers, including senators and consulars, and had ruined several family fortunes.  She had never been registered in the prostitutes’ register, and several former lovers made certain that she never would be so long as they maintained their own political clout. Simply put, she had come to know…too much for their comfort, if not for her own. By the time she had decided it was time to retire, however, she did what she had vowed never to do – she fell in love.

The result was her son, living in Alexandria with his father, and being trained to enter into his flourishing business.

So, once she had determined he would survive childhood and she ensured he had been provided for, she had thought it prudent to invent another name and another identity, this time as a wealthy Syrian widow – the Syrian part was true enough – and to see if there weren’t profits to be made from the legions who were being deployed to Britannia to vanquish the many tribes of Caledonia that were making civilized life there such misery. But she had no interest whatsoever in merely opening up a brothel. Britannia had brothels to spare, lupanaria and cauponae and bakery shops only too willing to take on the trade of thousands of soldiers in search of relief from the endless gloom and rains of Britannia.

She wanted what she had once had – power, to live as she chose and to do as she pleased. And for that to happen, she set out to cater to the decadent tastes of Roman officials and senior officers of the legions. Not merely their sexual proclivities, but to create a home away from home, a place where they could relax, enjoy all the considerable comforts the house of Iolanthe had to offer, and momentarily forget the dismal realities of campaigning in a miserable climate.

Her house was not a brothel, and she owned only household slaves. Her girls and boys were freed slaves, since she had long ago discovered that the best way to motivate people was through money rather than intimidation. It was not an inn either, since the only way to gain entry was by personal invitation from Iolanthe herself, and she invited her “guests” only after careful – and personal– investigation.

Instead, it was like the best kind of private residence, where everyone present was concerned with one thing – to keep you happy, to keep you entertained, and to offer you a sensual experience unlike any other you had ever had before, or ever would again, except, of course, at her house.

Iolanthe was not a Syrian for nothing. Her list of sexual secrets would have made Martial blush and Ovid look like a complete dilettante, and she made sure that her girls and boys – never younger than ten, no older than twenty – knew at least as much as she herself, if not more. They were expected to master all aspects of pleasure and to know how to please all senses. They were usually, apart from being beautiful, accomplished musicians, masseurs, gifted conversationalists. Whatever it took to keep a guest happy, whatever desire, urge or fantasy that needed indulging, they did. Whatever they didn’t know on arriving, she took great care to teach them.

It wasn’t cheap, which was how Iolanthe had become very, very rich in three short years. Her money was sent back to her former Alexandrian lover and invested for safekeeping, and whatever was left she used to keep up her house to her own opulent standards. Her cook was superb, bought at enormous expense from the Palatine kitchens. Her musicians had been with her since her days as a dancer, and like everything else, they were the very best that money could buy.

As she saw it, she had been born with every disadvantage in life, including being a woman. Long ago, her face, body and her talent for dancing had been her only fortunes, and she had always known they wouldn’t last forever. It had been up to her to safeguard her future against the day her face gave out and her body began to decay.

But after nearly forty years and meticulous care, that day had not happened just yet. Now, they didn’t even matter, except it made business that much easier. She had discovered that men would agree to anything at all if you knew what to do with them and when and how to do it and she made them more than happy to pay dearly for the privilege of her company.

There. Perfection. Not for her that dowdy hairstyle the Empress had made so fashionable. She preferred keeping her black, curly hair in a simple chignon, pinned with her beryl hairpins. Not a touch of gray. Sage water and walnut shells made sure of it. She adjusted her long earrings, gave the mirror one final look and wrapped her shawl just a bit tighter.

So, then. She looked at the list of tonight’s clients. It was going to be a slow night. Marra, an officious visiting senator at the Palace, who liked to be whipped. Nereis would be happy to oblige, and he would be far too grateful not to pay her asking price of four thousand sesterces. Castor, the Imperial chamberlain. He preferred boys, usually two or three at a time. In the privacy of her bedroom, Iolanthe rolled her eyes. Pederasts were so boring and predictable. But catering to Castor served one very important purpose – he kept the Caesars Antoninus and Geta away from her house, and made certain they did not even know of her. Brutes, both of them, nowhere refined enough or old enough to appreciate the pleasures her house had to offer.

Finally, her absolute favorite. Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, in Eboracum for his final report and discharge. He was bringing a friend, one Lucius Sabius Niger, whom she had never met, and strictly speaking, that violated one of her iron-clad principles to vet every man who walked through her door. Then again, Gaius Arrius was leaving Britannia for Rome, and he was…special. Not just for the thousands he had spent, not for his status and his future political connections that would keep her out of the public eye and that cursed register. Not for his lively personality or his easy laugh. No. It was none of those things. He had become Iolanthe’s favorite for a very private, personal reason.

In the course of her career, Iolanthe had known more than her share of senators, wealthy business men, powerful and influential freedmen. Nearly to a man, they were all older, balding, corpulent and sagging, expecting their pasty, flabby bodies to be the equal of any current Adonis causing a sensation in Rome and rousing any woman to the very heights of ecstasy. In order to survive, Iolanthe had done what any woman would have done in similar straits, what many women always did. She thought about the young men she saw, at the games, on the streets, at the baths. Young men, preferably fair and tall, men like the Germans who stood guard at the Palatine in Rome, men with easy smiles, broad shoulders and firm, young bodies. Dark, swarthy Syrians left her cold. She had had enough of them, and more than enough. And the very finest example of her private fantasy, the one who embodied all that she found desirable in a man had been – Gaius Arrius.

Another look at her reflection in the hand mirror. Perhaps, she thought, a dab of honey at the center of her mouth, so flattering…

But Gaius – she was one of the few allowed to call him by his first name – was…beautiful. He was built like one incomparable statue she had seen, made by the famous Praxiteles, and Greek sculptors certainly knew a thing or two about celebrating male beauty. He was her favorite for no other reason that she felt privileged to just be in the same room with him and ogle to her heart’s content, and Iolanthe was not often contented. Men just did not understand. To appreciate the wide lines of a perfectly proportioned shoulder, the elegant curve of back and leg, to comprehend the meaning of that wonderful Greek word, callipygian, the great v-shaped contour from hip to…

No, they would never understand. That took a connoisseur like herself, to realize that merely looking at beauty sometimes had rewards of its own that mere possession never did. He wasn’t particularly vain, and that had been a surprise. Most men of his position usually were. Best of all, he was fun to be around. He always made her girls laugh, and that was another thing she loved about him. She cared about those girls, and cared for them. Not so very long ago, she had been one of them herself. Besides, she had always been partial to the scent of malabathrum. Malabathrum reminded her of the only other man she had ever loved apart from her son.

Nestor, her majordomo, appeared at the door. Nestor had been with her since she had been a young girl in Antioch, and without him, she would never have become what she was. He knew most of her secrets, and all of her moods. Tonight, there was a twinkle in his eye.

“Domina, Gaius Arrius is at the door, with his friend, Lucius Sabius Niger. Marra sent a message that he would be delayed – some dinner at the Palace, the slave said, so don’t expect him until later. Castor has already been shown to the blue suite with his usual boys.”

“Good. Prepare the red suite, I think, for Gaius Arrius, and inform Helena, Chryseis and Boadicea to be ready after supper. I shall be down in a moment.”

Nestor closed the door behind him.

Iolanthe reached for a small clay pot on her dressing table and added a dab of Hymettan honey to her lips. Another dab or two, this one an attar of roses so true to their scent that immediately, the whole room was filled with their perfume.

One last look at her hand mirror.


Gaius Arrius appreciated nothing less.