Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
an online journal of literature and the arts
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A Certain Epicharis

First the facts, which have, like the footpaths leading away from Rome,
their own pathos.

Epicharis was a freedwoman.

Like most women of antiquity, she survives through her death.
A self-hanging.

We know this from Tacitus.

His rhetoric,
some say, flawless.

It is not known precisely where he was born but for him
Rome was an exacting tutor—revered,
at times reviled.

Like most history, this is unverifiable.

Before his death, Tacitus was finishing his work on Nero.
There are omens
one only perceives after the fact.

Then there are omens like nine days of fire.

Nine days of fire
and most of city singed.

Rome feared the trumpets of premonition.

But no one foresaw this Epicharis.

Even Tacitus, he is baffled by her presence in his book.

He has learned how to diagnose “without either bitterness or partiality”
the lunge of empire, kings to consuls, the brief decemvirs, history written
under the thumb of terror.

He hasn’t, however, been taught how to read her.

Epicharis, Greek for charming.

Which is one way a woman can be assumed to live
in the shadows. A foreign woman skirting the baths.

Or the name a slave is given
for a small paradoxical thrill, calling her
from the bedchambers.
What would she ever know of Greece?

“A certain Epicharis”—this
is Tacitus’s derision. What gives her away.

She is, as we say, a minor figure.

“As she had never before had a thought
of anything noble.”

How she discerned the plot of noblemen, there are only rumors.
How some women learn secrets at night.

But her life begins, in history, here—in the throes
of conspiracy, assassination.

The men that were to sink into Nero a dozen daggers,
in the capital, at the circus, a spectacle he was known to enjoy,
divulged to her their plan. Piso, its conductor, careful. Well respected,
no motives beyond the life of Rome.

But he delayed. Dithered.
Feared the splash of blood on his mansion walls. The echo.
That it would repulse the finer gods.

Rome feared the trumpets of premonition.

It was a year of constant lightning above the city alone.
A calf was born, in a minor district, head
sprouting from its leg.

Meanwhile Epicharis
was already south, insinuating
herself into the Misenum Fleet.

She had tired of the stalling. (How the moon off the Apennines
seems a faceless coin.) The rehearsed rationales.
If she heard Lucanus recite one more time
the poems Nero proscribed . . .

So she befriended a captain
heard cursing the emperor—she wanted only
to speed things up. “The Senate had no power left,”
she explained. She explained
how it could happen, should he convince his soldiers.

Like someone who foresees
the future banquet of tragedy already set, seated, she provides
no significant details.

A minor figure, her. Certain.

When the captain betrays her to Nero, his story is thin. Epicharis named
no names.

Still, Nero has seen the children born with two heads, the comet
flashing the sky green.
Has read the entrails’ counsel.

He detains her.

Tacitus means silent. One of history’s many ironies.

He had a habit
of stalling a story to pan out, widen the lens. He wanted a moment
complete before leaving it behind.
You can feel it, his terror of death. The mark
of the moralist.

It troubles him.

How, as Nero grows suspicious, each conspirator, each patrician
falls. Like the bear hide, tied to a man fleeing the circus hounds.
Like winter leaves.

It takes little.

A promise of immunity. An employer
is fingered, a friend.
Cousins. Lucanus, the poet, gives up his mother
to go free.

Meanwhile the empire simmers.
Nero will not leave his palace. He dreams
a flood of serpents carries his bed to sea, wakes drenched.
He hears, somewhere, a minor chord, remembers Epicharis
in irons.

Law permits any means to make a freedwoman talk.

In general, Tacitus has no taste for gruesome particulars.

But we see Epicharis “torn on the rack.” We see flames and whips.
The praetorian fury increasing when she names, still,
no names.

He is beginning to grasp her, Tacitus. She is teaching him how.

As he consults his sources, as he presses again into the page,
imagines her, near Campania, approaching the captain
alone (how the moon off the Apennines illumines
her face), Epicharis steps from the margins.
It takes him fifteen books, fifty-seven chapters to arrive here.

But he arrives. Certain now.

When he describes her being carried to the rack, again,
the following morning, on a chair, her joints largely dislocated,
he is revealing the cowardice of men. And then—

All the nobler was she. She, stalwart. Certain.

Do you think she loved the bright edges of morning any less?

It’s like he’s asking us this.

When she removes, somehow, her girdle, when she loops it
around the back of the chair, her neck, slides off the edge,
she shuts her mouth forever.

A minor figure, a minor chord.

It is as if she saw it clearly, all her life, how her countrymen would turn
against each other, how Rome
would thaw. As if, binding her chest each morning,
she knew the final wager a life becomes.

As if she were staring, even then, at the pen
of Tacitus, daring,
Is it so dreadful a thing, then, to die?

A minor chord, unwavering.

Lucanus, sculpting the last line of a panegyric on Caesar.
Handsome Piso bathing in wine.

Do you think a certain Epicharis did not like the taste?

Or a certain turning down of song, how bells hung
from the necks of small animals in the market?  

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