Today, I have walked five thousand steps to see
The depravities of Tiberius,
The haunted cliffs above the boutiques of Capri
So well described by Suetonius
With my mother, of all people, in attendance.
She can’t believe what the old historian
Wrote about the Emperor’s proclivities.
She can’t believe we stand in the old goat’s garden
Where depraved boys and girls led orgies
Dressed as Pans and nymphs. Analists and tiddlers.
We walk the lane of the Imperial Quarters.
Here the bowers, here the bedrooms, here the lair
Of Thrasyllus, the astrologer—who foresaw his own murder
And thus was pardoned and kept. The sea-air
Bore a butterfly. And, here, the dreaded cliff.
Here, I tell her, the Emperor stood—each guest
Was brought, after being tortured, by the guard
And told they could leap from a thousand-foot crest
So sheer they might swim, after hitting the water hard.
(Marines with oars made sure that none lived.)
I invite you to throw yourself down.” It strikes us,
And we both stagger back from the railing.
She swoons from vertigo. Am I dreaming?
I hear—in the voice of the god-like Tiberius—
The words and then watch the body, falling.
I feel his power, his madness—which is to say,
The irresistible force of his mere whim—the impulse
To grab my mother’s wrist should she turn away.
I invite you to throw yourself down . . .”—I convulse
And say to her, I say to myself—“or else.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 9, on page 28
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