The place was full of steam and very humid. The columns that divided one part of the baths from the others appeared to be sweating, as everyone else in that place. There were mostly men, as the women baths were located separately but some women came in, naked of course, and served the high-ranking men. Prostitution was forbidden in the baths but business in that field was done there anyway and the act would be performed somewhere else, so that way the owner of the baths wouldn’t have any problem with the authorities.
Many military loved the baths; especially after the long campaigns the emperor sent them too. The ones that came back, successful or not, were considered better than normal men so they received every single kind of gift and appreciation possible by the general public. For example, there was this general in one of the pools, enjoying the hot water, but also caressing a young man he had taken an interest for and eating with that boy many tropical fruits that were only accessible to the most important people in the empire.
The fruits were served cut and ripe in a large plate. This was all done by men as women were believed not to be “good enough” to serve such powerful and important people. Women were always entertainment or responsibility, never anything else. Some of them resented that and claimed that women should also be treated like gods and so on, but the response was always that women did not go to war, so they had no idea what real sacrifice was or how loyalties and strategy worked.
The baths were a men’s world.
The hand of the general went up and down the young men’s leg and the only thing he could do was to smile. His family had been the one to send him against his will to the baths. He didn’t wanted to be there but had to as the general promised a very large sum to his family in exchange for his company. This meant that the poor boy had to be around the general every single day, at every time and everywhere until the older men just decided he liked someone else or until he verbally declared the boy was not suitable anymore.
The boy knew it was cruel to think that way but he wanted another boy to appear soon and be more of the liking of the general. He didn’t cared what happened to that other boy, he just wanted to be replaced in order to go home and become a scientist as his parents had once promised him. He had only attended a few lessons with a known master of the city when he was picked up by the general in a crowded street. He had gotten lost going to class and that had been his downfall.
But not all were anxious to be rejected. In another pool, a younger man was been honored with the most delicious wine and a nice ration of roasted boar. He was the young son of a general that had become an official too in Northern Africa. He had combatted a tribe there that had tried to liberate some slaves. The man had won, making his father and the empire very proud of him. So he had chosen a boy too to accompany him but the difference was they had agreed on all of it before.
The boy was not from Rome. He wasn’t a kid with a family or with any prospects. No one really knew this, but he had been one of the many people captured in Africa to become slaves. His skin was dark but not as dark as to draw looks from everyone he encountered. He was beautiful and that was an advantage in a society were beauty was so important. The young military had seen that and liberated him with the condition that he should remain on his side as long as he desired.
Strangely but not uncommon in these exchanges, the two men formed a very tight and deep relationship. They travelled together from those far lands to the capital and in the process got to know each other and taught one another things about themselves and about their worlds. The father of the young military man was not thrilled by his company but decided not to do anything about it because he was too proud at the moment to spoil his boy’s happiness. But he felt something had to be done in the long run.
In the baths, the boy and the young military were side by side, holding hands and telling stories to the group that was around them. Everyone listened and laughed and sobbed in the right moments, asking questions and being curious in the most charming way possible. Of course, many of them were spies and others were poor trying to infiltrate the higher levels of society. But no one really cared because even there, with everyone naked in hot steamy water, people were still not fully themselves; they still hid some of their secrets and real feelings.
No one would ever see any of those men do more with the boy than touching. That was all that was permitted in the bathhouse, by law. It was in their homes, their private dwellings, were every lie was shed and only the truth remained with all these gods that dressed like soldiers. And they did believe they were gods, or almost at least. They knew that they were better than others, smarter and much more valiant. They didn’t have the necessity to do anything else than be. That way people honored them everywhere they went and applauded their every thought, word or act, just because of they were. And their companions, boys or girls or women or other military men, were glad to be there to see it all.
But not everyone was happy. In another pool, three military men cared only for the warm water and the food. They had no one tending to their needs or asking them to tell stories. That was because they had yelled away anyone who got close to them from the first day they had came back from the field. These men were a group that battled barbarians in the northern borders and had been together for many years. They knew each other from their first training and, although one could not see it, they were glad to be together and alive.
However, there was no real happiness as many of their men had been killed by the savages. It has to be understood that in that group there was a head, a men with grey eyes called Decimus, but every decision was agreed on by every single member of the group. When they left the capital, they were seven men from the best families in the empire, ready to do what was needed to defend their land. But in the process of defending that land, four had died in the hands of the enemy. Their deaths had been atrocious and laid inside the brains of the three many that steam tried to relax.
The women that brought the fruit often let some skin be seen by the men so they would initiate business with them. But the group of three man didn’t care at all about breasts or legs or anything else than their troubled memories. They weren’t seeking young boys like the others and had no mind to be thinking in romance or sexual pleasure. They just wanted to be left alone with their sore bodies and their ghosts, who were all there with them, reminding them of every single moment of the battle, again and again and again.
They had refused real medical attention and also the presence of healers that would care for their wounds right there in the bathhouse. They just didn’t want to talk to anyone. They were voluntarily sinking in their own nightmares, feeling that they did not deserve a better luck that their friends that had died in battle. They felt that real justice by the Gods would have been to kill them all on the field, leaving all with the honor of having defended the empire and all that it stood for.
Yet, they were soaking in a bathhouse, feeling the pain of something that would never happen. The pain was stronger because the bond between those seven men was too strong. It was friendship but it was also love that linked one to the other. Forever they would feel the presence of the others and the ominous feeling that something else should have happened and that their lives should have ended in a different way.
The steam of the bathhouse had that peculiarity, of making everything possible and impossible at the same time.