The Kingdom of the Wicked

 Extracts from The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985)

I take my title from the name the Jews have traditionally given the Roman Empire. You may expect to meet all manner of wickedness in what follows – pork-eating, lechery, adultery, bigamy, sodomy, bestiality, the most ingenious varieties of cruelty, assassination, the worship of false gods and the sin of being uncircumcised.

‘You served here how long, Cornelius?’ ‘Long enough to learn about what they believe. Not long enough to learn to speak their language well enough to get their confidence. Not long enough to learn how to read their books. Now I’ve three years before retirement and a measure of spare time for getting down to it.’ ‘This, you know,’ Marcellus said, ‘is all wrong. You’re not here to get their confidence or read their books. They’re a colonized people. We’re here to give orders. ‘They’d rather die than obey some of the Roman orders. Besides, it’s laid down that their religion is inviolate…’

God, say some philosophers, manifests himself in the sublunary world in particular beauties, truths and acts of benevolence; properly, the values should be conjoined to shadow their identity in the godhead, but this happens so infrequently that one must suppose divinity condones a kind of diabolic fracture or else, and perhaps my book is already giving some hint of this, he demonstrates his ineffable freedom through contriving at times a wanton inconsistency. If this is so, we need not wonder at Messalina’s failure to match her beauty with a love of truth and goodness. She was a chronic liar and she was thoroughly bad. But her beauty, we are told, was a miracle. The symmetry of her body obeyed all the golden rules of the mystical architects, her skin was without even the most minuscule flaw and it glowed as though gold had been inlaid behind translucent ivory, her breasts were full and yet pertly disdained earth’s pull, the nipples nearly always erect, and visibly so beneath her byssinos, as in a state of perpetual sexual excitation, the areolas delicately pigmented to a kind of russet. The sight of her weaving bare white arms was enough, it is said, to make a man grit his teeth with desire to be encircled by them; the smooth plain of her back, tapering to slenderness only to expand lusciously to the opulence of her perfect buttocks, demanded unending caresses.

‘….There was a good deal of drunkenness – … There was lechery, nakedness. It was a warm afternoon,’ he added, as if to excuse the nakedness….. ‘I saw the ceremony between the Empress and Gaius Silius and I assumed it was all a game. There was a great deal of laughter and little solemnity. Then the marriage or mock marriage was …. consummated at once and in public. And, in sympathy as it were, the other guests – A great mass of naked bodies. Men and women. Fornication for them. There were boys there too, Ganymedes. …. ‘And when does Gaius Silius think he can strike the blow that will secure him the imperial c -’ I do not think,’ Narcissus said, ‘that Gaius Silius has such an ambition. He is a weak man besotted by the erotic, no more.’

…whereas the vices of Messalina were in themselves venial, being mostly a passion for sensual gratification which subordinated all things to its encompassing, Agrippina lived solely for power, frightening enough in a man but terrifying in a woman….she would sleep with anyone, though not for physical pleasure, only for political advantage. She was cursed or blessed with a certain sexual coldness, knowing as much as a temple prostitute about the arousing of male passion and the procurement of its ecstatic release but keeping herself aloof, despite an occasional simulation of desire and the odd false orgiastic shudder and scream of fulfilment, from a process she found distressingly bestial when it was not frankly comic.

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