Authors: John Maddox Roberts
Color---1--2--3--4--5--6--7--8--9-Text Size--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--23--24The Catiline ConspiracyByJohn Maddox Roberts
It was a summer of glorious triumph for the mighty Roman Republic. Herinvincible legions had brought all foreign enemies to their knees. But in Rome,there was no peace.The streets were flooded with the blood of murdered citizens and there wererumors of more atrocities to come. Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger wasconvinced a conspiracy existed to overthrow the governmenta sinister cabalthat could only be destroyed from within. But admission into the traitoroussociety of evil carried a grim price: the life of Decius's closest friend...andmaybe his own.Contents
Chapter IChapter IIChapter IIIChapter IVChapter VChapter VIChapter VIIChapter VIIIChapter IXChapter XChapter XIChapter XII
SPQR books by John Maddox Roberts
The King's Gambit
The Catiline Conspiracy
The Temple of the Muses
Nobody Loves a Centurion
The Tribune's Curse
The River God's Vengeance
The Princess and the Pirates
A Point of Law
Oracle of the DeadChapter I
That summer we received the news that Mithridates was dead. It was hard to credit at first. Mithridates had been a thorn in our side for so long that he seemed like a force of nature, as immutable as sunrise. Only the oldest citizens could remember a time when Mithridates had not been there to plague us. He died old and friendless, somewhere in the Cimmerian Bosphorus, plotting yet another sally against Rome, this time an invasion of Italy by way of the Danube. He was the most consistent of enemies and we would miss him. The news came in the midst of a splendid summer, one of the finest in living memory. It was a time of peace and prosperity. The civil wars of Marius and Sulla were fast fading from memory, the horrors of their murders and proscriptions seeming to belong to another age. Everywhere, Rome was victorious. In the East, Pompey was the overwhelming victor. He had smashed the Mediterranean pirates and then he had gone on to subdue Asia, Pontus and Armenia, robbing Lucullus of the final glory for which he had fought so long and so honorably. Crete had been subdued after a long and desultory campaign. Who was left to threaten Rome? Carthage had been exterminated generations before, its ruins plowed under and sown with salt so that nothing would grow there. The East, from Cilicia to Palestine, was under the Roman heel, only remote Parthia remaining independent. To the south, Egypt was a joke, fat and indolent as an overfed crocodile. Africa and Numidia were muzzled. In the west, Spain was a taxpaying province. To the north were some Gallic tribes that had not yet been civilized, wearing long hair and trousers and providing the comic playwrights with good material for laughs.
The answer, of course, was that we Romans would ourselves provide the enemy. We were poised on the brink of yet another series of civil wars, convulsions so vast that they would be fought all over the world. The wars were still years in the future, but as I look back upon it, that was the last summer of the old Republic. It died in the fall.
None of that was apparent at the time, though. There are those who would argue that it never truly died, that our esteemed First Citizen actually restored the Republic. That is the talk of fools and toadies. I am now too old to care what the First Citizen thinks of me, so I will describe these events as I lived them. If his ancestor, the Divine Julius, comes out looking less than godlike, it is because I knew Caius Julius back then and the First Citizen didn't. Hardly surprising, considering that the First Citizen was born that year. Fitting, in a way.
None of these weighty matters troubled us that summer. The most serious political controversy of the day was the action of thePraetorOtho. Four years before, as Tribune of the People, he had introduced a law reserving fourteen rows of seats in the theater for theequites, the moneyed-but-not-noble class. Now, aspraetor, he upheld it. There were no riots, but he was hissed every time he went to the theater.
The great event of the season was the triumph of Lucullus. He had returned to Italy almost four years earlier and had petitioned the senate for permission to celebrate a triumph in recognition of his victories over Mithridates and Tigranes. Pompey had manipulated the Tribunes to block this, but Lucullus had finally been granted permission. Until that time, he had been compelled, by ancient custom, to dwell outside the walls of Rome, where he had company. Quintus Marcius Rex, the victor of Cilicia, and a kinsman of mine, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, victor of Crete, were likewise blocked by Pompey's adherents from celebrating their hard-earned triumphs. Pompey had a simple interpretation of natural law: all the glory in the world belonged to him, and anybody else who got any was guilty of thieving.
The triumphal procession was a splendid one, for Lucullus had smashed some great armies and had taken immense booty at Tigranocerta and Artaxata and Nisibis. I watched this triumph wind its way into the Forum, from my place atop theRostra, so I had a good view. First came the trumpeters, sounding shrill, snarling blasts on their instruments. Behind them came the standard-bearers of Lucullus's legions. These, like all soldiers in the procession, wore only their military boots and belts in token of their status. Armed soldiers were forbidden to enter the city by ancient law. After the standard-bearers came a float bearing a colossal reclining image of Jupiter with white sacrificial bulls in tow. Then there were more floats carried by soldiers, bearing great paintings of the battles. Then came more soldiers, all in snowy new tunics, gilded wreaths on their heads, palms of victory in their hands, draped with flower wreaths, showered with flower petals by pretty slave girls, accompanied by drummers and flute-players who kept up a shattering din.
Then there were trophy floats bearing the captured arms of the defeated enemy. These were artfully constructed to resemble the impromptu trophies set up on the battlefields in the old days, when the soldiers lopped the limbs from a nearby tree and hung it with captured weapons. Each of these floats bore such a tree, glittering with swords and spear-points, brilliant with polished armor and colorful with painted shields. Plumed helmets were scattered about among sheaves of arrows. Seated all around the bases of the trophies were dejected prisoners, bound and haltered. Considering the lapse in time between the victories and the triumph, these prisoners may have been hired stand-ins. After the trophies came yet more prisoners, more sacrificial animals, a whole train of musicians, and then the spectacle everyone was waiting for: the loot.
The gasps and cheers that greeted the plunder of Tigranocerta drowned out even the racket of the musicians. There were platters of solid gold, jeweled cups, chains of silver, carvings of ivory, chests decorated with amber, precious vases, crowns, scepters, fabulous works of art taken by the eastern monarchs from the Greek colonies. There were even signs painted on white wood giving the figures for ransoms and the sale of prisoners as slaves. There were bolts and heaps of brightly dyed silk, a fabric worth far more than its weight in gold. There were plain gold and silver bars, as large as building bricks and enough of them to build a medium-sized temple. All this was greeted with ecstatic outcries of Bacchic intensity. Say what you will about Romans as conquerors, we have always taken an honest delight in plunder, theft and rapine. It is one part of our souls that hypocrisy has never touched.
Finally, almost last in line, came the man of the hour, Lucius Licinius Lucullus Ponticus himself. The soldiers had already marched out of the city and had the gates shut behind them, because by yet another ancient law, a general and his soldiers could not be in the city at the same time. He looked like an Etruscan statue, dressed in a triumphal robe of Tyrian purple. Below his wreath of gilded laurel, his face was painted red, as were his hands which held a scepter and an olive branch. He rode in a gilded chariot drawn by four white horses and behind him stood a slave who, from time to time, whispered in his ear: "Remember, thou art mortal."
Last of all came one man, the most distinguished of the prisoners. Since Lucullus had not captured Mithridates, and Tigranes had made a deal with Pompey, this honor fell to one of the generals of Tigranocerta. The chariot rounded theRostraand began its climb to the Capitol. At that time, the final prisoner was led away to the prison below the Capitol, where he was strangled. I could feel some sympathy for the man. I was clapped in the prison once, and it was an unpleasant place to occupy, much less to die in.
Only one thing marred the proceedings, and that was the condition of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, where Lucullus was to sacrifice a bull upon being told of the prisoner's death. Two years before, lightning had struck the temple, and theharuspiceshad been consulted concerning the omen. They had pondered and duly proclaimed that the old statue of Jupiter must be replaced by a new, larger statue, this one facing east, toward the Forum. Once in place, this would aid the Senate and People in detecting plots against the state. On the day of Lucullus's triumph, the statue still stood outside the temple, where a huge hole had been made in the wall. Carefully and painfully, an inch at a time, it was being moved toward the hole.
The reason for my privileged position atop theRostrawas my office. I wasquaestorthat year, the lowest of the elected officials. Otherquaestoresacted as personal assistants to the Consuls, or traveled about Italy and even the overseas Roman holdings conducting inquiries and investigations, or at least got to go to Ostia to oversee the grain shipments. Not I. I, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, was assigned to the treasury. This meant that I spent my days in the Temple of Saturn overseeing the public slaves and freedmen who did the actual work. They would have a lot of work to do, after the triumph. Lucullus was to donate a handsome proportion of the plunder to the treasury and the military standards would be returned to their place of honor in the temple, until such time as those legions should be reactivated.
As I descended from theRostrato the pavement, I had only pleasant prospects before me, always excepting my dismal duties in the treasury. As a public official, I was invited to the great banquet Lucullus would host that evening, following which he would sponsor several days of games in gratitude to the gods and in honor of his ancestors. There would be plays and races and combats and feasting, with an extra dole of grain, oil and wine to the public. Lucullus would dedicate a new temple to Minerva, which was his gift to the city.
And, it was a beautiful day. Rome was not a beautiful city, but the Forum with its magnificent public buildings and temples was the most majestic setting in the world, and that day it was draped in huge wreaths of flowers and was carpeted with the petals that had been strewn by the slaves and cast down upon the procession by people standing on balconies and rooftops. Everywhere, the city smelled of flowers, of incense rising from the temples, of the perfumes lavishly splashed on everyone at these celebrations.
It was with a light heart that I crossed the Forum to see to the storing of the gold and the standards. Official business was forbidden on a day of triumph, but an exception was naturally made in this case. I passed the Temple of Janus, that most Roman of deities whose two faces gazed out through the open front and back doors of his temple. The doors were shut only when no Roman soldiers were at war anywhere in the world. I did not know what the temple looked like with its doors shut, since they had never been closed in my lifetime. They had not been closed, in fact, since the reign of King Numa Pompilius, who had built the temple more than six hundred years before. There was a legend that the doors were closed for a few days during his reign. With a history like that, it is no wonder that we grew so adept at warfare.
At the Temple of Saturn I pretended to supervise while an old state freedman named Minicius, who had spent most of his life in the temple, performed the actual task. My own contribution had been to unlock the doors, since I was thequaestorentrusted with the keys that day. While the endless, sweating procession of slaves carried the loot into the treasury chambers below the temple, I watched the soldiers carefully and reverently place the standards in their holders, to be watched over by the age-blackened image of Saturn.
One of the soldiers, satisfied that he had placed a gleaming eagle properly, walked unsteadily over to me. He was very young, slightly drunk, and flower petals stuck to his sweaty arms.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, his voice thick with Gallic accent. "Could you tell me why the old gentleman there"--he jerked his chin toward the image of Saturn--"is wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy?"
I contemplated the statue. I had known it all my life, and it had never occurred to me how strange it must look to someone who had never before been to Rome, wrapped as it was in woolen bands.
"They are supposed to prevent him from leaving Roman territory," I informed the youth. "They are only loosened during Saturnalia."
"Might as well," the boy said. "Everybody else gets pretty loose then."
Just then Minicius came up from the basement, a scandalized look on his face. "You men should be back in your camp!" he said. "Soldiers aren't supposed to be in the city while thetriumphatoris within thepomerium!"
"Easy, old fellow," said a hard-faced veteran. "These are the sacred emblems of the legions and we have to see them stored properly."
"We promise not to overthrow the state while we're here," said another.
"Let it go, Minicius," I said. "Our soldiers deserve a little license on their day of triumph." The men saluted and left, respecting my aristocratic grammar if nothing else.
"Thoseare soldiers of Rome?" Minicius said. "I didn't hear a City accent among the lot."
I shrugged. "Except for officers, the legions are all provincials now. They've been that way since Gaius Marius. What City man ever takes service with the eagles any longer?"
"You need to sign for this next load,Quaestor," he reminded me. As we walked back toward the basement stair, a group of slaves came in through the front portal and, confused by the sudden dimness, went to the right, toward a low doorway in the wall.
"Not that way, you idiots!" Minicius shouted. "The treasury's this way!" He pointed to the stair that lay almost beneath Saturn's wool-wrapped feet.
"What's through that door?" I asked. I was not terribly familiar with the temple, except for the parts open to the public during festivals.
"Just stairs leading down to some old storerooms," Minicius told me. "Probably haven't been used in a hundred years. We ought to brick it up."
We went down into the basement and I watched while the treasure was put away and then signed for it. When everyone was gone except for Minicius, I locked the iron doors and we went back up the stairs.
Outside, evening was coming on. But the days of summer are long, and it was still bright. The city was still rollicking with its holiday cheer. It was almost time for the banquet to begin, and my stomach was reminding me that I had not eaten all day in anticipation of the feast.
The banquet was to be held in the beautiful garden adjoining the new temple Lucullus was to dedicate the next day. I descended the steps and turned in the direction of the garden. I saw a man walking toward me through the rejoicing throng. He wore a purple-striped senator's tunic and his feet were bare. I groaned. A Senator's tunic coupled with bare feet meant one thing: Marcus Porcius Cato, the most formidably boring man in Roman politics. He attributed all the ills of the day to our failure to live as simply as had our ancestors. He regarded himself as the exemplar and embodiment of antique virtue. The early Romans had not worn shoes, so he didn't either. He had just won election as Tribune for the next year, hinting all the way that it would be unpatriotic and an insult to our ancestors not to vote for him. He gave me a good old-Roman salute.
"Hail,Quaestor! It is good to see an official who is ready to look after his duties even on a holiday."
I jerked a thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the temple. "There are about fifty millionsestercesin there with my name on them. When I'm out of office next year, some fool is sure to prosecute me for embezzlement if I can't account for every last copperas."
"Most conscientious," Cato said, utterly immune to irony. "I am on my way to the banquet of Lucullus. Will you accompany me?"
With no graceful way out, I agreed, keeping pace with him in my decadent, degenerate sandals. He stepped out at the standard legionary pace, which was decidedly more vigorous than my customary urban amble.
"It was a splendid triumph, splendid!" Cato said. "I fought tirelessly in the Senate to obtain this honor for Lucullus."
"Your efforts have been an inspiration to us all," I assured him.
"Pompey's supporters have grown insufferable. Did you know that Balbus and Labienus are trying to push through a law that will allow Pompey the right to wear the garments and attributes of atriumphatorat all public games?"
Hardened cynic that I was, I stumbled at this news. "Are you serious?"
"I am always serious," he said seriously.
"This is going a bit far," I admitted. "Of course, you can expect something like this from a man who named himself 'the Great' when he was barely in his twenties."
"A bit far? It is impious! An affront to the immortal gods! What next? A crown, perhaps?" Cato's face had gone quite red. It looked as if apoplexy might snatch him from our midst, a prospect I was prepared to accept with philosophical resignation.
"Now Lucullus," he said, calming, "is a general of the old Roman type. I cannot condone his taste for luxury, but the way he disciplines his legions is exemplary. His administration of the Asian cities was a model of honesty and efficiency."
I had to agree with that. It was also merciful, but that was not something Cato would have perceived as virtuous. We were walking downhill, toward the river. While Lucullus had waited in his villa outside the city, his agents had purchased a piece of unused, marshy ground that had never produced anything but mosquitoes. They had drained it, laid out and planted the lovely garden, and erected the fine temple to the goddess of wisdom and patroness of craftsmen. At that date, she had not yet fully taken on the attributes of the Greek Athena, to become a patroness of war.
Images of all the state gods had been set up at the entrance to the garden, along with an altar to the unknown god. Cato insisted on stopping before each to toss a pinch of incense onto the coals glowing in braziers beneath them. As we walked into the grove, a leather-lunged herald announced us.
"Senator Marcus Porcius Cato and theQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus the Younger!" he bellowed. I tipped him and complimented him on his splendid volume.
"You're the second Decius Metellus I've announced, sir," he said.
"Oh, my father is here?"
"Yes, sir, and several of the Quintuses."
Perhaps I should explain here. I come of a pestilentially numerous family, distinguished beyond words, one of the most important families in politics, but dreadfully unimaginative in the way of names. For generations, most of the males have been named Quintus. In that particular year, there were no fewer than five in public life, all named Quintus. Of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, waiting outside the walls for his triumph, I have already made mention. He was not granted permission until the next May. There was thePraetorQuintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. ThePontifex MaximusQuintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, under whom I had served in Spain, lay on his deathbed; and his adopted son, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, was also apontifex. Rounding out the lot was Pompey's legate, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, who had that year returned from Asia and, like Cato, had won election to the next year's Tribunate. For purposes of clarity, I shall henceforth refer to them as Creticus, Celer, Pius, Scipio and Nepos.
I took my leave of Cato and made my way into the crowd. All the most distinguished men in Rome were there, even Lucullus's enemies. A triumph was, after all, a gesture of gratitude to the gods of the state, so it was not considered hypocritical to have a good time at your enemy's victory banquet. Long tables had been set up between the rows of fragrant trees, some of them almost full-grown, that had been brought up the Tiber in barges, their roots balled in great masses of dirt. The planting of this garden had been a logistical feat on a par with building a pyramid.
A large number of women were there as well, many of them as important in the affairs of the city as their husbands, some merely infamous. It was a great time for infamous women. A troop of stately Vestals lent dignity to the occasion, one of them my aunt.
I made no attempt to greet the guests in any orderly fashion, as would have been expected at an ordinary gathering. I did seek out the Consuls. A junior official was expected to be able to find them in any size of crowd. The Consuls for that famous year were, as everyone remembers, even now, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Caius Antonius Hibrida. I found them with Lucullus, greeting some of the throng of foreign ambassadors who always were honored guests at this sort of affair. It was thought a good idea to impress upon foreigners how inevitably preeminent we Romans were in war, and how magnanimous we could be. Some of the guests were former enemies who had surrendered on good terms, rather than prolonging their foolish resistance.
Cicero had achieved the height of his dignity. He was a man who had come from nowhere (that is to say, he was not from Rome but from Arpinum, a town that had enjoyed Roman citizenship for a mere 125 years), and had risen through the world of Roman politics with the speed and force of a stone hurled from a catapult. He was what we callednovus homoin those days, a "new man" not belonging to one of the old political families. This did not sit well with a good many of his contemporaries, but few men win the consulship without acquiring enemies along the way.
His colleague, Hibrida, had been last among the candidates, but had won through Cicero's support. This was the sort of political deal that went by the wonderfully apt name ofcoitio. As an Antonine, Hibrida had all that family's famous combination of geniality and vicious-ness, of astuteness and childish impulsiveness. This dichotomy was even more pronounced in Caius Antonius than in most of his family. His oddcognomen, which refers to the offspring of a domestic sow and a wild boar, was bestowed in recognition of his half-savage nature.
He was in a good mood that evening and took my hand heartily. His face was flushed and he was well on his way to drunkenness, even at that early hour, another Antonine characteristic.
"Good to see you, Decius, my boy. Splendid triumph, today, eh?" I could see that the sight of all that gold had done him good. The Antonines were also famously greedy, although by way of compensation they spent as freely as they stole. They were fearsomely violent and rapacious, but nobody ever said they weren't generous.
"A glorious occasion," I agreed, "and well earned by thetriumphator." I nodded toward where Lucullus stood, in a plain toga now and with the red paint washed off, amid a crowd of well-wishers.
"It makes me eager to accomplish something of the sort myself," Hibrida admitted. This, I thought, did not bode well for Macedonia, the proconsular province he would govern after his year in office.
Cicero greeted me as warmly, although with somewhat more formality. We had always got along well together, but at this time he had achieved the peak of public service and I was at the bottom. By this time he had acquired the vanity and self-importance that marred his otherwise admirable character. I had liked him better when he was younger.
The smells of the feast-in-preparation made my stomach grumble and I fought down the urge to grab one of the cups being passed so freely about. Brawny slaves strolled about with heavy amphorae balanced on their shoulders, making sure that the cups stayed full. If I were to start drinking too soon, I might not remember the banquet at all.
Standing beneath a lovely cypress was a very unlovely man. A great scar crossed his face, nearly halving his nose. This was my father, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Elder, but known to all and sundry as Cut-Nose, for obvious reasons. He was dressed in a snowy toga and immense dignity. He had recently returned from his proconsular province of transalpine Gaul, and had not yet recovered from the godlike status of that office. I went to speak to him and he greeted me in his usual fashion.
"Still sober, eh? Responsible office must have improved you. How goes it at the treasury?" He took it as a sign of my ineptitude and unpopularity that I hadn't been given one of the better quaestorial assignments. He was right.
"Lucullus should have built us a new temple to Saturn," I replied. "We'll be stacking the loot on the roof soon."
"You'll find out soon enough that it flows out as fast as it comes in. Faster, more often." His look was even more sour than usual, probably because he had never celebrated a triumph and now would probably never have the chance. His proconsulship had been without a decent war. He was scowling at a strange-looking group of men who stood by an ornamental pond, admiring the carp, drinking heavily and appearing uncomfortable. A few were decently shorn and togaed, but most had long hair and mustaches and wore tunics with trousers, vividly colored in patterns of stripes and checks.
"Who are those?" I asked Father.
"Allobroges. They're a pack of savages from the northern part of my former province. They've come to town to complain about extortion on the part of Roman officials. They'll probably get some ambitious lawyer to bring me up on charges."
"Complaining of Roman extortion has become a minor branch of philosophy," I noted. "Any justice on their side?"
"They're just born troublemakers who can't stand to pay their taxes," Father said. "Oh, I won't say the local publicans haven't turned the thumbscrews a bit too tight from time to time, but that's to be expected. It's nothing compared to what their old chiefs used to put them through. They're just sulking because we won't let them fight each other anymore."
"Well, Father, now that you're home," I said, bored with the subject, "what do you plan to do?"
"Do? Why my usual duties as patron and friend, what else?" he said innocently. He looked as innocent as a man with a bloody dagger in his fist.
"There will be an election of Censors next year," I reminded him, as if he needed it. "The office used to be a family tradition. No Metellan has held it in ages."
"And why should I not stand for Consul again?" he said. "I will be eligible in seven years."
"Father," I said, finally taking one of the winecups being offered by the servers, "in seven years, all of our generals will be fighting for that office. They'll have their armies camped outside the gates to remind the citizens how to vote. That's no time for a moderate like you to be standing for Consul. The censorship, now, is the capstone of a political career. How many men have ever held every office, including that one?"
Father nodded as if he hadn't been thinking the same thing for years. "True," he grumbled. "And itisa family tradition."
This set my mind at ease. He was not seriously considering a run for the consulship. The censorship, on the other hand, carried noimperiumand thus was not coveted by generals. What it did carry was the power to purge the roll of Senators deemed unworthy. I was sure that Father was already at work on his list.
The wine, an excellent Caecuban, struck my senses with inspiration. "Father, why wasn't I named Quintus?"
"Eh? Why, because you were named after me, idiot!"
"It's just that it seems every other male in the family is named Quintus except for the odd Lucius."
"Your grandfather, whose mask you pass every time you enter my house, was visited by the Dioscuri in a dream. They promised him victory over the Samnites the next day if he would name his firstborn son Decius, a name never before used ingensCaecilii."
"Did he win?" I asked.
Father glared at me. It was something he did well. "This is a rather large banquet. I am sure there are many fools who would relish your company and conversation. And get a wreath."
I went in search of more congenial company. Heeding Father's warning, I took a wreath and a garland from a slave girl. Vine leaves, guaranteed to forestall drunkenness. In the center of the garden had been set up the paintings of Lucullus's battles that had been carried in the triumph. I went to examine them while the light held. Soon the torches would be lit, providing excellent illumination for intrigue or seduction, but not the best for appreciating art.
These huge panels had been commissioned from the best studios of Athens and Rhodes. They depicted, with wonderful liveliness and detail, the greatest battles of the campaigns against Mithridates and Tigranes. Lucullus was always shown slightly outsized, in the middle of the action. The foreign kings were likewise larger than life, but were always depicted in terrified flight. In their usual fashion, the Greek artists had depicted the Roman soldiers armed like the warriors of Alexander's day or even earlier, in muscled breastplate, high-plumed helmet and great, round shield and bearing a long pike. But the dead and dismembered barbarians littering the bottom of each panel were painted most realistically.
"Nicely executed, don't you think?" The man who spoke was an old friend, the physician Asklepiodes, who treated the gladiators of the Statilian school. He had become famous for his writings about the human body and how to treat its wounds.
"Beautiful," I said. "But the artists ought to take the trouble to find out what Roman soldiers look like before they try to paint them."
"It would make no difference," he said. "Greek artists are taught to revere the ideal and paint what is beautiful. Roman military equipment is ugly and functional, so they go back to the graceful designs of antiquity." He leaned forward and peered at a picture of Lucullus. "You see, the general is shown here as a handsome young man, which is not how he looked when I spoke to him a few minutes ago."
I leaned closer to see for myself. "You are right. He didn't look that good in red paint and a purple robe." I straightened and strolled down to another painting. "How goes your work?"
"I may remove to Capua for a while. The Statilian school in Rome will close down temporarily, until a new one is built."
"Closing down? Why?"
"Haven't you heard? General Pompey has bought the property. He plans todemolish the school and its anciliary buildings to erect a magnificent new theater with an attached meetinghouse for the Senate. It will be a permanent building of stone, in the Greek fashion."
"Leave it to Pompey to come up with something outrageous like that," I commented. About a century before this time, somebody had begun a permanent, Greek-style theater, but the Censors had ordered it demolished before it was completed in order to combat encroaching Greek laxness of morals. We had only had temporary, wooden theaters since that time, complete, now, with their fourteen infamous rows reserved for theequites. As it turned out, Pompey forestalled criticism by building his tremendous theater with a little temple to Venus Victrix atop it, so that he could say that the seats were actually steps to a temple. He was not without a sense of humor.
A bellow from the heralds announced the beginning of the feast, and I sought my place eagerly. A servant guided me to the central table, at the head of which reclined Lucullus himself. A single, long couch ran the length of the table, beyond which was a narrow space for the servers, and then a lovely pool at one end of which stood a statue of Juno with one of Venus at the other. In the water, performers costumed as Tritons and Nereids frolicked. This was the most distinguished table, with the Consuls andpraetores, along with proconsuls andpontifices, further down theaedilesandquaestores. As the least of these, I was well down toward the foot of the table, but it was nonetheless a great honor to lie at his table on such a day. I could almost have hit his couch with a javelin.
A slave took my sandals and I sprawled on the couch just as the servers began to set platters before us. Lucullus had always been noted for his taste for luxury, but this was the first of the banquets for which he became even more famed than for his victories. These were noted not only for the excellence of the food, but for their theatrical effects. The first platter set before me and the diners near me, for instance, consisted of hard-boiled and baked eggs of many species of birds in a framework of pastry, ascending tier upon tier, forming a model of the great Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria. Perfumed oil burned in a bowl at its crest.
The succeeding dishes continued the nautical theme. A trireme sailed by rowed by roast suckling pigs, which slaves dressed as sailors transferred to the table. Roast fowl were brought, with their feathers replaced so that they appeared to be alive, but they had been cunningly joined to the bodies and tails of mullets, so that they looked like mythical, hybrid sea creatures.
Lest we starve between these imaginative servings, the tables were heaped with more prosaic eatables: breads, cheeses, nuts, olives, tiny grilled sausages and so forth. All of this was washed down with excellent wines, any one of which would have been the showpiece of an ordinary banquet. Besides the noble Falernian, Lucullus served the finest wines of Gaul and Judea, the Greek islands, Africa and Spain. For the adventurous, there were novelties such as date wine from Egypt and berry wines from Armenia, taken at the siege of Tigranocerta. One of the best was from nearer home; an unusually fine vintage from the slopes of Vesuvius.
"I think our host is confused," said someone to my left. I twisted around so I could see who it was.
"Confused?" I said.
"Yes," said a red-haired, red-faced man who examined the beautiful embossed figures decorating the bottom of his cup. Instantly, a slave filled it. "I think he should have built that temple to Bacchus, not Minerva."
"Hello, Lucius," I said. "I've been so busy gorging myself I didn't notice who was near me."
"We can always socialize. How often do we get a chance to eat like this?" He reached out and seized a grilled rib of a wild German aurochs. The whole rack of ribs had been formed into the likeness of Neptune's crown.
This was Lucius Sergius Catilina, a man I knew slightly. He had sought the consulship more than once and the most recent time had come close to winning. There had been such hard feelings that Cicero had worn armor to the elections. Catilina could put up a jovial front, but inwardly he was consumed with envy for all who were richer and more successful.
"I never thought to see you at the same table as Cicero, even at such a distance." It was not the most diplomatic thing to say, but I had been loath to waste all that splendid wine. Luckily, he took it with good humor.
"Even the sight of that face won't spoil my appetite for a feast like this. Here, boy," he called, holding up his cup, "more of that Judaean."
"Too bad Cato doesn't share your delight in this bounty," I observed. Several places up from me, Cato was restricting himself to bread, cheese, olives, and occasional bits of grilled meat or fish. He drank as much as anyone else, though.
"Do you know why Cato drinks so much while he rails against all other forms of indulgence?" Catilina asked.
"Why is that?" I tore into a roast kid that had been part of theArgo'screw just moments before. The ship made its stately way along the table as the slaves reduced its crew at each place.
"It's because it hurts so much the next morning." We both found this extremely funny and laughed immoderately. Catilina could be good company when he put himself out, and he was putting himself out that evening.
"Someday, Decius," he said, pouring a bit of wine on the ground in token of a vow, "I'll be able to give a banquet like this."
"The way Pompey's going," I said, "there won't be anybody left to triumph over."
"There will always be plenty of enemies," he assured me. "At least men like Pompey and Lucullus have earned their places of honor. What is Rome coming to when a jumped-up lawyer reaches the highest position over men who have given their lives in service to the state? Men who are of the highest birth?" That was more like Catilina. He was a patrician and, like most such, thought his birth entitled him to office. Then he changed direction again.
"Ah, don't listen to me. I can talk like that every day. This is an occasion for rejoicing. Hard to believe, isn't it, old Mithridates dead, I mean? He was causing us grief back in the consulship of Claudius and Perperna, back when Sulla was stillpropraetorin Cilicia." He took on a nostalgic look as the next course was served; lark's tongues in caper sauce, as I recall. Catilina had been one of Sulla's more bloodthirsty supporters during the proscriptions and had done well out of them. He had good cause to be nostalgic, for the newer generation of politicians, men like Cato and Caesar, were pushing for prosecution of Sulla's executioners as his old supporters faded from power.
Thinking of this, I looked around to see where Caius Julius might be. He and his brother Lucius were not in office that year, but they had been given a praetorian appointment under a bill introduced by the Tribune Labienus to try theequesand financier Rabirius for the murder, almost forty years before, of the Tribune Saturninus. Considering what the times had been like, this was rather like prosecuting a gladiator for his victories, so the obsolete charge ofperduelliohad to be brought against the old man, relating to the semi-sacred status of the Tribunes of the Plebs. Oddly, his son later became a fervent supporter of Caesar, but then, sons and fathers often do not agree, I have noticed.
Finally, I spotted Caius Julius at another table, keeping company with that gaggle of Allobroges. This struck me as odd, because I never knew Caius Julius to socialize with anybody unless he had a political motive, and those long-haired barbarians certainly had no votes in the assemblies. All I could imagine was that he had arrived late and that was the only place left.
Trained slaves appeared, white-robed and carrying lyres, their brows wreathed with laurel leaves. These began to stroll among the tables, declaiming Homer and the odes of Pindar. This was a signal for the first break in the banquet. Most of us pushed heavily to our feet, put on our sandals and staggered off to let some of our intake settle. There was a public bathhouse next to the garden, and this was being kept open, manned and luxuriously equipped for the whole night.
The light of hundreds of lamps shimmered off the agitated water as I entered. I put off my admiration until later, for I had more urgent business to transact and made a straight line for the privy. That facility had more than a hundred seats, but there was still some jostling, as a few of the feasters had to be helped onto their seats by slaves. Elsewhere, others, even more overcome by their overindulgence, vomited in prolonged, roaring convulsions. I ignored these with a superior air. I was proud of my absorptive capacities in those days.
Intensely relieved, I reentered the main room, which in this house contained a swimming pool in which a number of the younger guests disported themselves. Respectable women did not mingle promiscuously with men at the public baths, but there were a few decidedly nonrespectable women circulating, some of them quite highborn. I recognized at least two senator's wives and the sister of apontifex. As I made my way toward the steam bath, a feminine voice hailed me. I looked to see who it was but the crowd had grown dense.
"Down here, in the water." I walked to the lip of the pool and knelt by a damp, brown-locked head. It was my cousin Caecilia who, since all of my female cousins are named Caecilia, we called Felicia, not because she was happy but for her catlike looks and temperament. She was the daughter of that Creticus who waited outside the walls of Rome, and had recently wed Marcus Crassus, eldest son of the ex-Consul who had defeated Spartacus.
"This is naughty for a lady so recently married in so respectable a ceremony," I chided.
She rested her chin on crossed forearms and kicked her pretty feet in the water. "Don't be silly. I was married off because our family and the Crassi wanted to mend fences after being at odds for so long and with Pompey coming back soon. I am just a knucklebone on the great game board of politics."
"Knucklebones are hard and knobby, which scarcely describes you, cousin. Where is your fortunate husband, by the way?"
"Snoring on the couch, when I left him. I have no intention of missing any part of an occasion like this, so I came here to refresh myself. Why don't you join me?"
I stood. "Some other time, Felicia. Dignity of office, and so forth."
"Quaestor?" she snorted. "That's not an office, it's a sentence!"
I winced at her cruel but accurate assessment of my place in the scheme of things, and took my leave. In the exercise yard, a troupe of gladiators were going through a series of mock duels, using blunted weapons but wearing their most splendid armor. I passed their clash and clatter and found the steam room. There I gave my clothes and wreaths to an attendant, took a pile of towels and went into the muggy heat. In the dimness, I found a bench and sat. In moments, I was sweating like a legionary at the end of a long day.
Anyone seriously dedicated to the joys of feasting knows that it is essential to take an occasional break and purge oneself of the more heroic excesses. I fully intended to see the sun come up on this one. Even here, though, Lucullus had seen to our comfort. In the center of the steam room was a huge basin in which pitchers of wine sat packed in snow hauled down from the Alps in wagons.
An extraordinarily handsome young man came in, followed by a group of youths of similar age. He was about nineteen, with black, curly hair and a smile that would have shamed Apollo. He squinted through the steam, then walked up to me and held out his hand.
"TheQuaestorMetellus?" he asked.
"The same. And you are...?"
"Marcus Antonius." I had thought the family look was familiar.
"The Consul's son?" I asked. A companion handed him a cup of the chilled wine.
"His nephew. My father is the elder Marcus." He sat next to me, while his friends, whom he clearly dominated, found places for themselves. "Your father presided asaugurat my manhood ceremony a few years ago."
"Then this must be your first triumphal banquet," I said. "There hasn't been one since Afranius and Calpurnianus celebrated theirs seven years ago."
"I've heard those were nothing like this one." His eyes gleamed with youthful enthusiasm. "Lucullus knows how to throw a banquet."
I agreed that this was so. His father, the elder Marcus Antonius, had been an incompetent and a criminal even by Antonine standards. Sent out to destroy the Mediterranean pirates, he had instead gone plundering in the provinces. He attacked Crete on the pretext that they were allied with the pirates. On that island he had accomplished the truly extraordinary feat of being utterly defeated by the Cretans. He was nicknamedCreticusin derision and had died in Greece, unmourned, about ten years before this memorable banquet. One had to pity this splendid young man his paternity.
"Do you know what I love about the baths?" he said. "They're the only places in Rome where you can go and be sure of never running into any Gauls." His friends laughed loudly at this, although he laughed even louder. He had a fine, infectious laugh that made his weakest witticisms seem brilliant.
"Do you mean those Allobroges over there at the banquet?" I asked.
"Who else? They've been calling on my uncle nearly every morning. That means I have to endure them when I makemymorning calls." Men that young think that all of life's vexations are aimed solely at them.
"It could have been Germans," I said consolingly. Then one of the youths challenged him to a wrestling match and they all ran out to the exercise yard. A plunge into the cold pool almost completely cleared my head. After being vigorously toweled and pummeled by the attendants, I felt ready to face the next few courses of the banquet.
On the street outside the bath, a great crowd of citizens had gathered. Facing the garden, they chanted praises and congratulations to thetriumphator. Some of the chants were so ancient that nobody knew what the words meant. I was about to push my way into the crowd when I saw a single, lonely figure standing on the pedestal of a statue of Flora that stood in an alcove between the public bath and the new Temple of Minerva. The man was strangely erect and dignified, and even in the gloom of the alcove he seemed familiar. Curious, walked over to the pedestal and looked up.
"Consul?" I said.
Cicero looked down. "Is that Decius Metellus? Come up and join me."
Mystified, I went behind the statue where there were steps to mount the pedestal. It was almost four months past theFloralia, but the statue of the goddess had been freshly draped with flowers in honor of the occasion. The smell was almost overpowering.
Gripping a fold of the goddess's gown to steady myself, I rounded the statue and found Cicero gazing upward. He was very still, and did not seem at all like his usual, public self.
"Here, out of the torchlight," he said, "it is a good night for observing the stars. I spend a part of every night in contemplating the stars."
"My father taught me to take the auguries," I said, "but except for the falling sort, those don't take great account of the stars. I'm afraid he considers stargazing to be Oriental mummery."
"Many Romans think that, but they are wrong. I have studied writings from Egypt and Persia, the Greeks, even the wild Druids agree that the stars exert great influence on us. Especially that one." He pointed and it was plain which one he meant. It was by far the brightest and the reddest, hanging like a brilliant drop of blood amid the jewellike points of white.
"Even I know that one," I said. "Sirius, the Dog Star,Canicula, the little dog, and a few other names. Patron of these very days, the dog days of late summer."
"What you say is what everyone knows. But why do we fear that one? What makes it a star of evil reputation?"
"I thought it was because the dog days are the time of pestilence and the beginning of the season of storms." This seemed an odd subject to be discussing at such a festive time.
"That is true, but there is more. At the festival of this gentle goddess"--he patted the knee of the statue--"at theFloralia, we sacrifice red dogs to appease that star.
We do the same at theRobigaliawhen we honor her male counterpart. Why do we do that?"
I shrugged, longing for some more of that Caecuban wine. "These are very ancient deities," I said. "We perform a good many rituals we no longer understand."
"That is true. It is also true that never in living memory has Sirius been as red as it has been this summer."
In the distance, faint over the chanting of the crowd, we heard the heralds proclaim the resumption of the feast. With great relief I descended and helped Cicero down. He did not need help because he was feeble. He was only forty-three at the time, astoundingly young for a Consul. He needed aid because of the awkwardness of his formal toga, which was so white that he almost glowed in the darkness of the alcove.
As we made our way through the crowd, I thought about what he had said. Even more than most people, Romans live by signs and portents. I know of no other people who maintain two separate priesthoods to interpret omens. We take no public and few private actions without consulting the auguries and the haruspices. When all else fails, we will consult the Sibylline Books, for which we maintain a college of fifteen men who are empowered to look into them in times of national danger. Besides these more serious matters, the people of Rome, from Consuls to slaves, are mad for omens, which they will find in every imaginable place and circumstance.
Birds, lightning, storms, odd things falling from the sky, monstrous births, all are noticed, remarked upon and interpreted to signify something or other, from the loss of one's lover to a military disaster overseas. When these natural phenomena are not enough, fabricated omens must suffice. Statues speak or turn their heads, nanny goats give birth to lion cubs, gods appear to shepherds on hillsides, voices come from the sea, dead snakes prophesy from within golden eggs--the list is endless.
And yet, in all my life I had never encountered definite evidence that any of this was true. Any time I have spoken of this, I have been told that it is churlish to expect anything so mundane as evidence or proof in matters of this sort. A few philosophers have told me that certain of the Greeks had a belief that one arrived at the truth by examining evidence and drawing conclusions therefrom, but these had never gained much of a following. Even so, I have always been impelled to look into things, to examine evidence and find the truth. To snoop, as my father used to say when he was displeased with me. It got me into a great deal of trouble, and it was about to again, soon after this memorable night.
Back at my place at the long table, I saw that the servers had brought out a concoction that was meant to depict the sea monster Scylla reaching for the ship of Ulysses. After some consultation with Catilina and the diner to my other side, aquaestornamed Vatinius, who was in charge of preventing precious metals from leaving Italy, we decided that it was made of lampreys boiled in squid ink. I decided to restrain myself and wait until the next course. I have never been hungry enough to enjoy lampreys, in or out of ink.
It was not a long wait. To my great delight, the next course consisted of African gazelle, grilled over charcoal made from the thorn wood of its native land (the server assured us of this). The nautical reference in this case was an obscure one, concerning a Babylonian god or perhaps goddess. I have never been able to make much sense of the eastern mythologies, nor ever seen much sense in attempting to. Whatever the divine connection may have been, the meat was delectable. Catilina spoke with great authority on the subject of this animal, its habits and the best ways to cook and eat it, claiming to have learned these things asPropraetorin Africa three years before. We were pleasantly, tipsily engaged in discussing this creature and how best to devour it when I saw Catilina turn pale beneath his red complexion, his eyes turning to agate. I followed the direction of his alarming gaze and saw, weaving among the tables, servers and entertainers, none other than Publius Clodius. He hadn't always been Clodius, naturally. He had started out as Publius Claudius Pulcher, scion of one of the noblest of the patrician families. But he had chosen to throw in his political lot with thepopulares, and so had decided to use the plebian form of his family name.
"He must be incredibly drunk to show his face here," I noted. As Lucullus's legate in Asia, Clodius had stirred up a mutiny among the general's own legionaries. Then he deserted and joined the army of Marcius Rex, who waited outside the walls along with Creticus.
"Who knows?" said Vatinius. "He might have been invited. He's thetriumphator'sbrother-in-law, after all. And another sister is married to thePraetorMetellus Celer. I hear Celer's wife is calling herself Clodia now, like her brother."
"Another knucklebone," I said.
"What's that?" Vatinius asked.
I was distracted by Catilina, whose face had gone positively insane with rage. His hand went into his toga and beneath his tunic, closing around something that seemed suspiciously like a dagger hilt. I twisted around and gripped his wrist firmly.
"You can't do that here!" I hissed. "Every priest and magistrate in Rome is here tonight! It's sacrilege to carry arms within thepomeriumand murder is frowned upon! Keep that thing hidden and calm yourself, Lucius.' Gradually, his face calmed and his eyes cleared. He snatched up his cup and emptied it in one long swallow then held it out for more.
"I've longed to kill that sewer rat for ten years. Since he came back to Rome, he's gone nowhere in public without his gang of bravos." His voice shook, but he had it under control. "It seems a shame to lose the opportunity, but I thank you, Decius. It would have been impolitic."
"Think nothing of it," I said. "We've all wanted to kill Clodius from time to time. He's even set his men to kill me, in the past. Just politics." With Catilina, it was understandably more personal. Ten years before, Clodius had accused him of an illicit affair with the Vestal Fabia. The two had been cleared of all charges and there had been deadly hatred between Clodius and Catilina ever since.
Vatinius, who had carefully taken no notice of the little drama, now distracted us by violently shoving away a dish that a server had placed before him, his face twisted with disgust. I looked to see what it was: wild hare cooked with broad beans.
"Anyone who can bear to look at boiled lampreys night to be able to face hare and beans," I said.
"Beans are unclean food," he informed me. "Eating them is contrary to the teachings of Pythagoras."
"I didn't know you were a Pythagorean," I said. There were few things that interested me less than the teachings of Pythagoras, or any other philosopher, for that matter, but it was a safe subject.
By the time gray streaks appeared in the eastern sky, I knew that I would never want to eat again and I had heard all I wanted to hear about the teachings of Pythagoras. Before departing, each of us was given a guest-gift. Mine was a massive gold ring set with a garnet, smoothed and ready for the jeweler to engrave my seal. Like everyone else, I had brought along my largest napkin to carry away leftovers for my slaves. Some of these napkins were the size of a boy's toga and we looked like a pack of drunken legionaries leaving a sacked town with our booty on our backs.
I was joyful as I walked home. It is difficult to be sad at such a time. There were days of celebrations and public games ahead, and no work for me. Yet there was sadness too. Once again we had rejoiced in Rome's increasing power and glory, but I had a feeling of something coming to an end.
With a small group of revelers, I made my way to my home in the Subura. We trod on heaps of flower petals and bawled old victory-songs, as if we had done all the fighting ourselves. They left me at my gate, but I stood outside for a while, as the street grew quiet.
I wondered what was the meaning of this melancholy, the sense that I had seen the end of something. I could make no sense of it. I looked up at the sky, but gray dawn had washed out the stars and I could not see the bloody eye of Sirius gazing down.Chapter II
Father was right about the treasury. I found that the gold did indeed flow out like the Tiber in flood. Most of it went to pay the legions, since the great public works are usually given to the city as gifts by wealthy men. It seemed shocking at first, that the relatively small number of legionaries, whose pay is not high, could cost so much. But people forget that, besides the citizen legions, there are an even greater number of auxiliaries, all of whom must be paid. They must have slaves, horses and other animals, rations, tents and so forth. Forts had to be built, ships had to be purchased and manned. Since Roman citizens paid virtually no taxes, and looting opportunities such as the sack of Tigranocerta were rare and growing rarer, somebody had to be found to pay for all this.
The answer was to tax the provinces. Since the government of Rome was too august and dignified to dirty its hands on anything as base as tax collecting, this task was farmed out to thepublicani, the men who bid at auction for the public contracts, among which was the tax-collecting franchise. It was often hard on the provincials, but people who don't want to be taxed should make sure to win their wars. It had the advantage that the provincials usually hated the local publican rather than the Roman government.
Most Romans manage to live out their lives blithely ignorant of these things, but I had to learn them as part of my job. Another part was that, as aquaestor,I was expected to contribute to the paving of the high roads out of my own purse. It was a sort of poll-fee for entering the life of politics. What it meant was that I had to borrow heavily from my father, who at least wouldn't charge me usurious interest.
Even with all this, I truly had little to do at the Temple of Saturn. My days were passed amid boredom, watching the slaves and freedmen laboriously adding and subtracting. I signed for contributions and disbursements. The days passed without variety: mornings at the temple, afternoons at the baths, evenings I usually had dinner at someone's home. As an official, even a lowly one, I was much in demand as a guest.
On a morning in fall, I went to the temple in a better frame of mind than usual. The year was waning, soon I would be out of office. Some other poor office holder could take over the drudgery of the dim rooms beneath the temple. By virtue of having held this office I would be a Senator, with a purple stripe on my tunic and the privilege of sitting in theCurialistening to speeches and pretending to have influence. Perhaps I would seek an appointment as legate in one of the provinces. I always detested having to be absent from Rome, but I was ready for a change of scenery after my dismal quaestorship and it was idle to seek higher office without a consistent military record.
With these pleasant thoughts in mind, I walked from my house toward the Forum. I was not halfway to my destination when I saw a small crowd blocking my path. There is a way that people stand, grouped in a sort of elongated oval and looking downward, often on tiptoe and over one another's shoulders, that tells you they are gawking at a body. This seemed odd to me, because there had not been any large gang fights since the elections. A man in the tunic of avigilesaw me and came running.
"Quaestor, there has been a murder. Will you take charge here until we can inform apraetor?"
"Certainly," I said, delighted at this break in routine. "Any idea who the victim is?"
"Well, no, sir," the man said. "We were afraid to touch him. Not that I'mafraid of ghosts or dead men's curses, but some of the men are." It was typical.We kill people enthusiastically all over the world, and we are entertained by violent death in the amphitheater, but Romans are afraid to touch dead bodies.
"Then go to the Temple of Libitina and have a priest and some attendants sent to perform the rites. We can't just leave a body lying in the street until a relative or owner comes to claim it."
"Won't be any owner,Quaestor," thevigilesaid. "Look at him."
The crowd parted at my approach and I saw the body. The disarrayed toga covered the head, but enough of the tunic was uncovered to reveal the purple stripe that ran from collar to hem. It was not the broad stripe of a Senator, but the narrow one of aneques. It lay facedown, one hand protruding from beneath the folds of cloth to display a number of weighty gold rings glinting in the growing light of morning. In the middle of the back, a dagger pierced toga and body. A broad circle of blood surrounded the blade, marring the whiteness of the toga.
"Youvigiles," I called to the men who stood around, their fire-buckets dangling from their hands, "keep this crowd back and keep the street clear enough for people to pass." They did as I said.
I squatted by the body, careful to keep my toga clear of the filthy street and especially careful not to touch the corpse. It was not that I was afraid of ghosts or curses, but if I touched it I would be ritually unclean and then I could not enter the temple without a lot of tedious cleansing ceremonies.
The handle of the dagger was curiously carved, but in the still-dim light I could tell no more about it. I promised myself a closer look later. I could tell nothing about the dead man except his rank, and I would know nothing further until thelibitinariiarrived to turn him over. I was almost disappointed that the purple stripe of the tunic was not wider. There were a few Senators I would not have minded seeing in this condition. Even worse luck, it could not be a patrician, because then I could have amused myself by hoping it would be Clodius's face I would see.
Within a few minutes, a lictor cleared a way through the crowd, the people parting magically before hisfasces.
Behind him was a Senator I recognised. It was Caius Octavius, who had been appointed aIudex Quaestionisfor that year. I stood when he arrived.
"ThePraetorRufus has sent me to report to him on this matter," he said. "I don't suppose there were any witnesses?"
"Are there ever?" I answered.
"Who is he?"
"That is what I would like to know," I said, then: "We may know soon. Here come the corpse-takers."
Down the street came the one sight guaranteed to make Romans stand back: thelibitinarii, preceded by their priest with his long-handled mallet. With their long, red tunics, their high buskins, their pointed Etruscan beards, wide-brimmed felt hats and high, pointed false ears they are the ghastliest sight anyone could ask for so early in the morning. People jumped back with their thumbs protruding from their clenched fists or fished out tiny phallus amulets and pointed them at thelibitinarii.
Wordlessly, the priest stepped up to the body and touched it with his mallet, claiming it for the underworld goddess. An attendant carrying a box opened it and the priest began a long chant, from time to time taking liquids or powders from the box, sprinkling them on the corpse. When thelustrumwas finished, the attendant closed the box.
"Turn him over," Octavius instructed. The attendants crouched by the corpse. One of them plucked out the dagger and nonchalantly tossed it to the pavement. Grasping the corpse beneath the shoulders and knees, they rolled it over.
I did not recognize the man. He appeared to be about fifty years old, with sandy, graying hair. His mouth and eyes were open, but his face bore no readable expression. I saw that the other hand was equally beringed.
"Does anyone here know him?" Octavius asked loudly. Amid muttering and shrugs a man came forward.
"That's Manius Oppius, sir. He lives... lived not far from here. I've delivered sandals to his house a number of times. My shop's down there on the corner."
"Good. You can lead these men to his house. His family will want to claim his body." He turned to me. "Oppius. Aren't they bankers?"
"I believe so," I said. There was a commotion a little way up the street. An important man was coming, followed by a great mob of friends, clients and retainers.
"What now?" Octavius said with annoyance. Then his face registered alarm. "Oh, no! Stop him!" Then I saw who was in the lead and ran to block his way. It was Caius Julius Caesar. He smiled, puzzled, when he saw me.
"Good morning, Decius Caecilius. What is happening here?"
"There has been a murder, Caius Julius. Somebody stabbed anequesnamed Oppius. There is blood."
Caesar looked concerned. "Oppius? Not Caius Oppius, surely."
"A sandalmaker here says his name is Manius. TheIudexOctavius has taken over."
"I don't know any Manius Oppius, but Caius is friend of mine. I will make inquiries. Thank you for warning me, Decius. This could have been a terrible misfortune for the city." He drew a fold of his toga over his head as if he were offering sacrifice and he held a great fold of it draped over his arm, hiding his face from the body on the ground as he went on past, followed by his entourage. It was necessary but, being Caesar, he turned it into a broad, actor's gesture.
A few weeks before, the oldpontifex maximushad finally died. To the immense amusement of the whole city, Caesar had been elected to his place. The man known for the frequency as well as the diversity of his debaucheries had become the high priest of the Roman state. One of the restrictions of the office was that thepontifex maximuscould not look upon human blood.
"Does anyone have a coin for the ferryman?" the priest asked. Fumbling in my purse, I came up with a copperasand tossed it to one of the attendants, who placed it beneath the dead man's tongue. It was the least I could do for the unfortunate man, who had relieved the tedium of my day.
As thelibitinariilifted the corpse onto a folding stretcher, I stooped and picked up the dagger. The man's toga was ruined anyway, so I used it to wipe off the blade. Then I thought of something. "Is there any way to tell how long he's been dead?" I asked the funeral-men.
"He's not quite cold," said one. "And he hasn't gone stiff yet. I'd say he hasn't been dead more than two or three hours."
As the body was borne away Octavius and I turned our steps toward the Forum. I held the dagger up so that he could see it. "This is evidence," I said. "I call on you to witness that I am not bearing arms within thepomerium."
He laughed. "If we enforced that one, the courts would have nothing else to do. What sort of dagger is it?"
I shrugged. It was not the broad-bladedpugioof the legions, but neither was it the curvedsicamost favored by the city cutthroats. It was straight and double-edged, with a thick midrib reinforcing the blade. The hilt was of plain bronze, the grip a piece of bone with a serpent carved on it, rather crudely. Winding its long body from the hilt to the pommel, the serpent formed a raised, spiral rib that afforded an excellent grip. The pommel was a plain, mushroom-shaped cap of bronze.
"Just an ordinary sticker as far as I can see," I told him. "The kind you can buy in any cutler's shop."
"Nothing of any real use as evidence, then," said Octavius. "Not as if the blade were engraved 'Death to the enemies of King Phraates of Parthia' or something of the sort."
"That would be convenient, but my experience of life has taught me that things are seldom ordered for our convenience." I tossed the dagger in the air and caught it again.
"Why, Decius, you've become a philosopher! Will you be growing a beard and opening a school?"
"Spare me, Octavius. Do keep me informed about this, will you? I almost feel that the poor fellow was my client, since I presided over the first part of his funeral rites." He promised to do so and we parted in the Forum.
It was a clear, cool day, one of those brilliantly lucid mornings such as one only encounters in Italy during the fall. The oppressive heat of summer was past and the chill and rains of winter had not yet begun. It made me have second thoughts about seeking an appointment that would take me out of Rome. I knew that winter would cure that. I would start thinking about the Greek islands, Africa, perhaps even an embassy to Alexandria, which I had always heard was a deliciously wicked city.
The day passed like all the others, save for the brief excitement of the morning. I found the staff waiting impatiently for me to unlock the treasury and I soothed them with a lurid account of the murder. I signed for yet another consignment of silver to the legions. I walked away when the tedious task of weighing a shipment of gold from Spain began.
I left the musty interior of the temple with its reek of old incense and older sacrifices and went out into the clean air of the city. Relatively clean, at any rate. The wind wasn't off the fish market or the slaughter yards or, worst of all, the open burial pits. It blew clean from the north, off the Alps. It was a pleasant waste of time, but it had to end and I turned toward my duties. Just within the entrance, I stopped. Something seemed to be wrong or out of place. I looked about me carefully. The statue of Saturn was as always. The pigeons nesting in the rafters cooed as usual. The temple was one of the most ancient, much of it still made of wood. There seemed to be nothing different about the various alcoves and doorways. My gaze stopped at the low doorway to the right of the entrance. It was the one old Minicius the state freedman had said led only to some disused storerooms. I walked over to it to see what was wrong.
There were fresh footprints in the dust, a great many of them. Had another train of slaves taken the wrong turn and gone in there? The question might not have concerned me had I not been so bored. Or perhaps it was because my mind was on mysterious matters such as, why had the murderer of Manius Oppius not stolen those rings, which were valuable enough to keep a poor family comfortable for two or three years? Or it might have been mygeniuswhispering in my ear.Geniiare supposed to be guardian spirits, but mine always gets me in trouble.
For the second time that day, I squatted to examine the evidence. There were prints of sandals and of bare feet. The bare feet probably belonged to slaves. I could see that at least two pairs of sandals had made prints, but little more than that. I straightened and looked around to see if anyone was observing me. I felt foolish, like a boy out climbing trees when he should be at his studies. Quietly, I went to a wall niche and took a lamp from it. Then I went back to the doorway.
The footprints were on a small landing, from which steep stairs slanted downward to the right. I descended the steps slowly, allowing my eyes to become accustomed to the dimness. By the time I reached the bottom, the illumination provided by the lamp's smoky wick was perfectly adequate. The stairs ended at another tiny landing, with barely enough room for a man to stand and turn around. Three doorways opened off the landing, one to each side and one straight ahead. The last of the steps and these three rooms were actually below the foundations of the temple, carved directly into the bedrock. It felt far older than the treasury rooms. It was a strange sensation, standing on a spot where Romulus might have stood.
I decided to try the room before me first. Ducking below the lintel, I went through and found myself in a small, cramped chamber. Its walls were decorated with faded paintings of gods and demons in the Etruscan style. On one wall, a blindfolded man was being savaged by a dog or wolf held on a leash by a figure with the long nose and ears of a death-demon. On another, two naked men were locked in mortal combat while men and women in priestly raiment looked on. One combatant grasped his opponent around the neck and thrust his sword through his body while the other's sword pierced the victor's thigh. Blood gushed profusely from both wounds. On the third wall, a warrior in antique armor grasped the hair of a bound prisoner seated on the ground before him and drew his sword across the; victim's throat.
I like to think that I am not superstitious, but these ancient paintings filled me with horror. Were these long-forgotten rites of worship once demanded by Saturn? Were they scenes from the dedication of the temple? It was not the mere bloodshed,, which was a common enough sight. It was the ritual, religious nature of it. We were fond of our gods as patrons of agriculture or craft or war, but we had little liking for the blood-drinking gods of the underworld. Our ancestors had not been so squeamish.
I would have to bring Cato down here, I thought. He would probably petition the Senate for a return to human sacrifice, since it had been the custom of our ancestors.
There was a heap of something on the floor, covered by a large piece of cloth. Behind me, next to the doorway, I found a lamp-niche and placed my lamp in it. Then I stooped and drew the cloth back. The flame glittered off a great deal of metal. It was a heap of weapons. The majority were swords and short spears. I saw the stoutgladiusof the legions in many styles, some recent, others dating back as far as Scipio and the Punic wars. There was the longspathaof the cavalry and the many shapes of sword used in the amphitheater. Some of the spears were hunting weapons such as broad-bladed boar spears. Others were military, the light javelin and the heavypilumof the legions. Once again, these last were mostly of older design.
It was a strange armory, obviously gathered from many sources, but brought here for what purpose? I recovered the heap of arms and looked into the other rooms. One was empty. In the other was a small stack of shields, not the great, body-coveringscutumof the regular legions, but the small, round or oval ones carried by light-armed auxiliaries.
I went back up the steps. At the landing, I looked to see if there was anyone about who might see me leaving the basement stair. The great shrine was vacant for the moment and I slipped out, replacing the lamp in its niche. When I returned to the treasury, Minicius looked up from beneath his white brows.
"Where have you been?" he demanded. He was only a freedman, but as one of the most important freedmen in Rome, he did not have to be humble. He sat at his table, his pen racing across a scroll of papyrus.
"I had to run over the public bath and use the jakes," I said. "It must have been something I ate this morning."
"More likely something you drank last night. Here, I've a stack of things for you to sign."
I looked them over, but I really had no idea what I was signing. Only a man who works with numbers all his life can make any sense of columns of figures. I had to trust Minicius. Since every treasuryquaestorfor the last forty years or so had done the same without coming to harm, I felt fairly safe.
I said nothing to him or anybody else about what I had found. It was the sort of thing requiring a great deal of deep, serious thought. After locking the treasury in the afternoon, I did exactly that. I went to one of the smaller baths, where I was not likely to encounter anyone I would be obliged to talk to. There I sat in thecaldarium, stewed in the hot water, and thought.
Somebody had cached arms in the Temple of Saturn. It was clearly not part of an attempt to steal the treasury. Thieves avoid fighting at all costs. On the other hand, someone planning a coup would naturally wish to seize the treasury as one of his first acts.
But who might it be? The times had been tranquil for almost twenty years, since the dictatorship of Sulla. All the wars had been on foreign soil except for the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Was one of our generals planning a march on Rome and preparing for it by arming cohorts within the city? It would not be the first time.
Something did not fit that theory, though. I worried at it until I saw what was not consistent: it was the haphazardness of the weaponry. Surely a general would have supplied his confederates with arms of a uniform nature, if for no other reason than a military sense of tidiness. Whoever had done this had picked up weapons wherever he could find them, probably buying them a few at a time at widely separated places to avoid suspicion.
Of course, not all of our generals were as well fixed as Pompey. Italy was full of the veterans of a dozen wars, paid off, disbanded and settled in smallholdings up and down the length of the peninsula. Every one of them had his helmet and shield, his sword and armor hanging by the hearth, waiting for his old general to call him back to the eagles. These veterans formed one of the most unstabilizing aspects of Roman life, always a potential hotbed of rebellion. Almost any one of the highest men in political life, feeling himself cheated or insulted or thwarted in some way, might remember that he was a soldier before he was a public servant, and that he had many other soldiers ready to follow him. Such a one might very well buy up old arms to equip an urban cohort.
I tried to think who I might approach about this. The problem was that almost any of the men in high office could be the instigator of this plot, or one of his adherents. Many of the men in high office were my relatives, but I could not count on that to save my neck if one of them should turn out to be a part of a conspiracy against the state.
I could see that this matter was going to call for subtlety as well as for boldness and quite possibly for violence. I decided to pay a call upon the man who was a master of all three. I went to see Titus Annius Milo.
Milo was the best representative of a type of man who had come to prominence in Rome during the last century: the political criminal. Such men, besides their usual criminal activities, performed strong-arm tasks for politicians. They broke up rivals' rallies, made sure that the voters in their districts voted properly, provided bodyguards and rioters, and so forth. In return, their highly placed patrons provided them with protection in the courts. Clodius was another such man. But I detested Clodius, while I counted Milo as a good friend. Clodius and Milo, needless to relate, were deadly enemies.
From the bath, I walked to Milo's house, which was not far from my own, near the base of the Viminal, in a district of raucous shops that were beginning to quiet down as late afternoon sapped the vigor that had been so boundless earlier in the day. Milo had once been assistant to Macro, who had been a very distinguished gang leader. Now he ran Macro's gang and lived in the house that had belonged to Macro. Macro had died rather suddenly and Milo had produced a will that looked authentic.
A tall, gangling lout leaned against the doorpost, favoring me with a gap-toothed grin. He was a Gaul, but he must have arrived in the city very young, because he spoke without any accent. The inevitable bulge of asicahandle showed through his tunic beneath the armpit.
"Greeting,Quaestor, we haven't seen you in too long."
"No, I haven't been hanging about the criminal courts, Berbix, or we would have seen a lot of each other."
"Now, sir," he said, still grinning, "you know I'm as innocent as a little lamb. And speaking of innocence, you wouldn't be meaning my patron any harm with that sticker you've got under your tunic, would you? I know you and him is friends, but friendship only goes so far, if you take my meaning. I'm shocked, sir, you being a public official and all."
I had all but forgotten about the dagger. I had wrapped it in a scrap of cloth and tucked it beneath my tunic. He had sharp eyes to spot it through tunic and toga both.
"When did a little dagger do anyone any good against Milo?" I said.
"I won't argue with that. Come on in, I'll announce you."
The house was a fine one, which Milo had remodeled so that he had both a large courtyard and an assembly room, where he could hold mass meetings with his associates in good weather or bad. The thick, wooden door was reinforced with iron strapping and had heavy locking bars. The place was built like a fort, to withstand attack by rioting mobs led by rivals. Three streets bounded his house, and he had clearly sited the door on the narrowest street, so that enemies would have no running space to use a ram against it.
The Gaul left me in a small anteroom and sent a serving girl to search for the master, then he resumed his post by the door. It was sign of the relative tranquility of the times that Milo thought one man on the door was enough. Milo had ambitions to become a Tribune of the People, an office that had been the death of more than one Roman. Clodius likewise was angling for that office, and the inevitable collision of these two was anticipated with great glee by the idlers of the Forum. Clodius cultivated the rising fortunes of Caesar while Milo had formed an odd alliance with Cicero.
Milo arrived, his face decorated with a tremendous smile, and I took his hand. It had not grown soft despite the passage of years since he had earned his living as a rower. He was a huge man, still young, with so much energy and ambition that it made me tired just to be in his presence.
"Decius! Why have you not come to see me in so long? You look pale. That's what comes of spending your days counting money under the watchful eye of Saturn. How does it feel, being in charge of all the gold in Rome?"
"Whatever pleasure is to be had in watching it flow by is mine," I told him. "I assure you, that is very little pleasure indeed."
"Then let me cheer you up. Come with me."
He led me to a small room equipped with a single table and two small dining-couches. Next to them was a bronze basket filled with glowing-red stones that had been heated in a baker's oven. This provided heat without smoke, for which I was grateful. The afternoon had grown cool. The table was furnished with cups and a pitcher of wine and snacks of the simplest sort: olives, nuts, dates and figs. This represented not a philosopher's love of simplicity but rather a busy man's lack of time for any sort of ostentation.
We drank each other's health and passed a few pleasantries between us. Then Milo spoke in his usual, direct fashion.
"Much as we always enjoy each other's company, I take it that this is by way of being an official visit?"
"Not precisely. That is to say, it doesn't involve my present office. I've come upon evidence of a possible conspiracy against the state, and I am not sure what to do with it. I know of no one totally trustworthy in whom to confide."
"Except me." He smiled.
"You come closest," I admitted.
"Then tell me about it."
Milo was not a man with whom to prevaricate, or speak in circumlocutions or innuendo. I told him exactly what I had found and where I had found it. I told him my reasons for not going to the Consuls orpraetores. He listened with great concentration. Milo did not have the most brilliant mind I ever encountered; that laurel would have to go to Cicero. But I never knew a man who could think harder than he did.
"I can understand your urge to caution," he said when I had finished. "So you suspect a plot against the state?"
"What else could it be?" I asked.
"I know that you have fears that Pompey will make himself king of Rome, but somehow I don't see him arming a few hundred scruffy supporters to hold the gates for him. If he truly wanted to, I think he could bring his armies to Italy and walk into the city unopposed."
"There are plenty of others, besides Pompey," I pointed out. "Men who once commanded legions and know they will never have the chance to do so again. Men who have been disappointed in their bids for high office. Men who are desperate. Who else?"
"The weapons you describe would not be much use in arming soldiers for the field, but they are just the thing for fighting in a city. No heavy shields or armor, no long pikes, no bows or arrows. Theymightbe used as you fear, but there is another possibility."
"I would be glad to hear of it," I said.
"Decius, you have allowed these fears of overambitious generals to dominate your thinking. Those men have learned from what happened in the days of Marius and Sulla. I think that, in the future, they will do most of their fighting outside of Italy. But there are other men who have no ambition to command great armies and lord it over the provincials. These men want to control Rome itself, just the city. Such a cache as you describe would be of great use to one of those."
"And who," I said, "might this person be?"
"Clodius Pulcher comes immediately to mind," he said.
"And you would be another. No, it is tempting, and that makes me even more skeptical. There is nothing in the world I would love more than to impeach Clodius before the Senate. It would rid the Republic of a despicable cur and, incidentally, make my name in politics. For that reason, I can hardly believe that the gods have dropped this opportunity in my lap. I will not, of course, suggest that you might have had anything to do with this."
"Give me credit for greater subtlety. Then let us go back to the idea of a malcontent itching for a coup. It wouldn't be just one malcontent. They have a way of finding one another and talking about how unjustly they have been treated."
"Why the Temple of Saturn?" I asked him.
"It is a good location, near the Forum. It has, as you found out, disused storerooms nobody ever looks into. The treasury is always securely locked but the temple itself is open. It will only be one of several caches, you know. Keep an eye on the one in the temple and see if there are more deposited there in the next few days. But don't let anyone see you do it. I would hate to hear that you were found dead in the street one morning, like poor Manius Oppius." He would have known of the murder within minutes of the body's being found. I only hoped that he had not known of it before.
"I passed by the murder scene this morning," I told him. "I took charge until theIudexOctavius arrived. Do you know anything about the man?"
"He was a banker, like a lot of that family. I didn't know him, but I know plenty of people who owed him money."
"There will be no shortage of suspects, then," I said.
I took the dagger from beneath my tunic and un-wrapped it. "This is what he was killed with. Have you ever seen one like it?"
He turned the knife over in his hands, ran his thumb along the carved serpent. Then he shook his head. "It's no national type I know of. Not even very good work. If I were going to murder a man, I'd probably go to a market, pick up a thirdhand weapon like this from a junk dealer, use it once and leave it where it was or toss it into the nearest storm drain." He handed it back to me. "Sorry. I suspect that whoever used this picked it because it could not identify him."
I rose. "I thank you, Milo. I still haven't decided what to do, but you have given me some things to think about."
"Stay for dinner," he urged.
"Alas, I am having dinner with the Egyptian ambassador. Ptolemy the Flute-Player is in trouble again and is cultivating every official in Rome for support. He comes here so often we ought to make him a citizen."
"Well, I won't try to keep you from a good party." He rose as well and put his hand on my shoulder as he walked me to the door. "You recall what I said about how malcontents find each other?"
"If you really want to find out if some of them are plotting to overthrow the state, let them find you. They are always looking for others like them. Don't be too obvious, but let fall a few comments about how no good offers forpost-quaestorappointments have come your way, how your highly placed and jealous enemies are thwarting your ambitions for higher office. You know how they talk. But let them think that it is they who are suborning you." He thought for a while. "You might drop some of these words where Quintus Curius may hear them."
At the door I took my leave and thanked him again. As usually happened when I had discussed something with Milo, I felt that I had been vouchsafed a special insight, making simple what had seem a thorny, difficult problem. He had a way of cutting through the dross and the distractions to reach the core of the matter. He was not bothered by the useless fears, the ethical considerations, the nonpertinent inconsequentialities that cluttered my own mind. His fixation on the acquisition and exercise of power was as intense and single-minded as those of Clodius, Pompey, Cicero, Caesar and the rest, but he was far more likable than any of them, even Caesar, who could be incredibly likable when he wanted your support.
For instance, why had I not thought of Quintus Curius? He was a penurious malcontent of the first order, a man known to have committed half the crimes on the law tables and suspected of the rest. If anything truly villainous was being plotted in Rome, he would be involved. A few years previously, the Censors had expelled him from the Senate for outrageous behavior. He came of an old and distinguished family, and so naturally thought that he was entitled to wealth, high position and public esteem. He was one of those men who simply could not understand how a new man like Cicero could have become Consul.
I went to my home in the Subura to put on my best toga, thinking of how I might establish a link with Curius. It should not be difficult. The social life of Rome, like its political life, was dominated by a rather small group of men and women. Since I was dining out almost every evening, it should not take me more than a few days to make the necessary connections. The opportunity was to come far sooner than I had hoped.
The house of the Egyptian ambassador was located outside the city walls, on the Janiculum. This gave it almost the aspect of a country villa and allowed the ambassador to lavish his guests with entertainments restricted or forbidden within the walls. The politics of Egypt formed a source of endless entertainment for Romans. The huge, rich nation of the great river was ruled, to use the term loosely, by a Macedonian family that had adopted the quaint Egyptian custom of legitimizing one's reign by marrying one or perhaps more of one's close female kin. This family had an almost Roman paucity of names, all the men being named Ptolemy or Alexander, and all the women Cleopatra or Berenice. (There was an occasional Selene, but that was usually a third daughter. By the time you were down to marrying a Selene, your claim to the throne was shaky, indeed.) At least one of them, named Ptolemy, deposed his older brother, also named Ptolemy, married his brother's wife, Cleopatra, who was also sister to both of them, and then, just to make clean sweep of it, married her daughter and his niece), also named Cleopatra.
The last of the legitimate Ptolomaic line had been Ptolemy X, a Roman client, who claimed the throne by marching his troops into Alexandria and marrying his elderly cousin and stepmother, Berenice, whom he assassinated within twenty days. The Alexandrians, who had been fond of that particular Berenice, promptly killed him. Needing a Ptolemy, lest the natural order of things be shaken, they found a bastard, Philopater Philadelphus Neos Dionysus, better known asAuletes, the flute-player, for his realm of greatest competence. At the same time, for incredibly complicated dynastic reasons comprehensible only to Egyptians, they made his brother king of Cyprus. Since that time, several cousins had laid claim to the throne of Egypt. Since it was generally understood that the legitimate king in Egypt was the one who had Roman support, all of them, cousins, ambassadors and frequently the Flute-Player himself, were in Rome, passing extravagant bribes and entertaining lavishly. This was a source of great fun and profit for us Romans, and I was a frequent guest there, as was every man likely to reach high office.
The villa itself was a wonderful mishmash of architectural motifs, with Greek sculptures, landscaping in the Roman fashion, Egyptian lotus and papyrus pillars, shrines to the Roman gods, to the Divine Alexander, to Isis and a horde of animal-headed Egyptian divinities. There was a beautiful fishpond in the gardens with a huge obelisk in its center, and another pond full of crocodiles, presided over by a loathsome crocodile-headed god named Sobek. There was a rumor in the city that the Egyptians fed these huge reptiles on un-claimed corpses they obtained by bribing the attendants at the public burial pits, but I never saw any proof of this.
The ambassador at that time was a fat old degenerate named Lisas, an Alexandrian. Alexandria was virtually a nation in itself, the most cosmopolitan of cities, and Lisas was typical of its inhabitants: a nameless mixture of Greek, Egyptian, Nubian, Asiatic and Jupiter alone knows what else. It is a blend of races that produces exotically beautiful women and some of the ugliest men to blight the face of the earth. Of Alexandria it is said that few cities are so beautiful, but it must be viewed from a distance.
Lisas greeted me in his usual fashion, all smiles and oil. "My friend, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger! How your presence brightens this house of the king! How generous of you to look with favor upon my humble invitation! How splendid of you..." He went on breathlessly in this vein for some time.
"And most pleased I am to be here," I assured him. The smells drifting from within almost made up for the scent in which he was drenched. Effusively, he led me inside and announced me to the guests, of which there were some thirty or so. Since large-scale currying of favor was the whole purpose of the embassy, Lisas did not restrict himself to the Roman custom of inviting no more than nine guests for dinner--"not fewer than the Fates, nor more than the Muses," as some wit or other once said.
The gathering ran the gamut of social and political life, with as many elected officials as he could persuade to come, some fashionable poets and scholars for dignity, and a sprinkling of clowns for levity. There were a number of women noted for beauty and social graces and for less reputable accomplishments. It looked like a good party.
The musicians played exotic instruments such as harps and sistra, garbed in pleated Egyptian linen, while dancers, clad in less of the same material, clapped and gyrated, swinging their weighted braids orgiastically. The servitors were all black Nubians dressed in animal skins and paint. Many of them were carved with ritual scars and had their teeth filed to points. These offered the thick, sweet wines of Egypt as well as the more palatable vintages of the civilized world.
These evenings were always leisurely, beginning early and running far later into the night than was the Roman custom. The thoughtful Lisas maintained a whole corps of linkboys and guards to escort his guests safely to their homes.
The atrium where the guests assembled was a large, circular room, drawn from no architecture with which I was familiar. Its floor mosaics depicted a menagerie of Egyptian fauna, with crocodiles and hippos disporting themselves among water and reeds, ostriches, cobras and lions frolicking in the desert, vultures and hawks soaring through the skies. The wall paintings depicted Nile pygmies fighting a battle with long-beaked cranes. Travelers insisted that these tiny folk actually existed, somewhere near the source waters of the great river, but I never saw any.
I did see one thing that interested me. The beautiful Sempronia was present. She was one of those infamous women of whom I made mention earlier. That is to say, she was educated, outspoken, independent, intelligent and rich enough to carry it all off. She was of matronly years but still one of Rome's great beauties, combining a fine-boned, aristocratic face with that arrogance of bearing that Romans find most admirable. Her husband, Decimus Junius Brutus, was a busy drudge who took no interest in his wife's doings, and the two had not lived together in years. She was also on the best of the terms with Rome's lowest and most prodigal reprobates, finding them far more stimulating company than her husband's respectable friends.
"Decius!" she said, when I approached her. "How good to see you again!" She offered me her cheek, which I kissed, amazed to find that it bore no makeup. Her complexion was adornment enough. She held me by the shoulders at arm's length. "You are even handsomer than you were last week, although I shouldn't say it, having a son near your age."
"Please," I said, taking her hand, "say it as often as you like. And you exaggerate the disparity in our years, since young Decimus is surely no more than seven years old."
She laughed her wonderful, honking laugh. "How good of you to say that!" With a fingertip she traced the ragged scar that decorates my face. "You never told me how you got that. Most men brag about their scars."
"Spanish spear," I said. "That was when I served with Metellus Pius, during Sertorius's insurrection. I don't brag about it because I acquired it very foolishly. It embarrasses me to this day."
"It's good to find a Roman who doesn't think getting cut up is a fine idea." She surveyed the room. "Isn't this a delightful gathering?"
"After spending my days at the treasury, a gathering of cobblers would look inviting." I tried to sound petulant, an attitude that does not come naturally to me.
"Oh, that sort of work doesn't suit you, Decius?" She sounded honestly solicitous.
I shrugged. "Everybody knows it's the job given to thequaestoreswho lack influence in high places."
Her eyebrows went up. "Withyourfamily?"
"That's just the problem. There are so many of us that one more Metellus at the bottom of the political ladder scarcely rates a pat on the back. If you want to know the truth, the old men of the family think the high offices are theirs by right and they don't want to see any ambitious young kinsman coming along to challenge them."
She flashed me a brief, calculating look, then took a cup from a passing slave to cover it. "And I suppose you've gotten yourself into debt fulfilling your duties?" This seemed an odd comment, but it sounded promising. I had only borrowed from my father, but many penurious politicians ruined themselves trying to support the requirements and dignity of office.
"Head over heels," I told her. "Paving the high roads isn't cheap, I've found. I'm not certain I'll even be able to run foraedilewith all the cost that entails."
"But surely," she said, "you've been offered a good posting when you leave office, someplace where there are opportunities for a bright, wellborn man? Many aproquaestororlegatuscomes home rich and ready to stand for the higher offices even if he wasn't born wealthy." She watched me closely.
"That's what I was hoping, but nothing's been offered me so far, and it will be many years before a profitable war comes along. Pompey's cronies have all the good postings sewn up." I thought I might be laying it on too thick and changed the subject. "But who knows? Something may well turn up. Now, Sempronia, who is here aside from the usual hangers-on?"
"Let me see..." She scanned the room. "There is young Catullus. He's recently arrived in the city from Verona."
"The poet?" I said, having heard the name. He was supposed to be the leading light of the "new poets." I preferred the old ones.
"Yes, you must meet him." She took my arm and dragged me over to the young man's side. I was amazed to see that he could not have been older than nineteen or twenty. Sempronia made the introductions. He was slightly diffident, still obviously a little overwhelmed at being in the high life of the great city and trying to cover it with a confident pose bordering on arrogance. "I hear great things about your work," I said. "Meaning you haven't read them. Just as well, I feel that my best work is ahead of me. I am embarrassed to look at my earlier writing now."
"What are you working on now?" asked Sempronia, knowing that poets rarely like to talk about anything except their art.
"I am laboring over a series of love poems in the Alexandrian fashion. That is one reason why I was happy to be invited here tonight. I have always admired the Alexandrian school of Greek verse." The other reason was a chance for a free meal, I thought. I was not being disparaging in this, having been in the same position many, many times myself. Before we turned him over to his literary admirers, he asked me a question.
"Your pardon, but are you a relative of Metellus Celer, thepraetor?"
"He is a cousin of my father, but that doesn't mean I know him well. Throw a rock into theCuria, and chances are good that you'll hit a Metellus." He laughed at the witticism, and I could see him filing it away for use in a political lampoon. That was all right with me. I had stolen it from an acquaintance.
"Why was he curious about Celer?" I asked Sempronia when we were alone in a garden. She leaned close and spoke conspiratorially.
"Didn't you know? He's in love with Clodia!"
"Really? She and Celer have only been married for eight months. Isn't it early for an intrigue?"
"Well, you know Clodia." Indeed I did, all too well. She was a woman about whom I had decidedly mixed feelings. "Actually," Sempronia went on, "I think he just worships her from afar, writes love lyrics to her, that sort of thing. She's flattered, as who wouldn't be?"
"But you think it's nothing more than that?" I said, cursing myself for even caring. She shot me another evaluating glance.
"Dear Clodia hasn't let marriage interfere with her social activities," she said, "she's as wild as ever. But since she has married, she has been extremely discreet where men are concerned. I think she is being faithful, within her limits."
Well, how could I blame a sensitive young poet for being in love with Clodia? I certainly had been, at one time. We were strolling by a rather graceful shrine to Isis when we encountered a man surrounded by the Egyptian staff, including Lisas. He wore the tunic of aneques, but they treated him with the fawning deference usually reserved for kings. He saw Sempronia, smiled, and walked from his circle of Egyptians, who parted for him as if he were preceded by a hundred lictors. He was a tall, fine-looking man of middle years whose clothes were of a quality I could only envy, although he wore no jewelry except for the plain gold ring of his rank. This, I learned, was Caius Rabirius Postumus, a famous banker and son of that elderly, distinguished Senator whom Caesar had tried to prosecute for a crime almost forty years past. I now understood the deference of the Egyptians. Although I had never met him, it was known that Postumus had lent huge sums to Auletes.
"Decius Caecilius," he said after we had exchanged the usual pleasantries, "did I not hear that you discovered the body of my friend Oppius this morning?"
"I merely happened by. He was your friend?"
"We had a number of business dealings. He was a part of the banking community. I was terribly shocked when I heard of the murder."
"Did he have enemies?" I asked him.
"Just the ones that bankers always have. He was a quiet family man, no political ambitions or intrigues I ever heard about."
"Then it was probably a debtor," I said.
"That would make little sense," Postumus said. "He had heirs, business associates, others who will surely assume any outstanding accounts. Believe me, if the death of a creditor canceled debts, none of us bankers would be alive tomorrow. Not all debtors are as reasonable as King Ptolemy."
"How is that?" Sempronia asked.
"He has named me minister of finance to the kingdom."
"He can use one," I noted. "I have never been able to understand how the king of the richest nation in the world can be so poor."
"It's amazing, isn't it?" he agreed. "Perhaps it's because Egypt hasn't been a true nation since the days of the pharaohs, hundreds of years ago. Nothing but conquerors since then. The Macedonians are just the most recent."
"There hasn't been a worthwhile Macedonian since Alexander," I opined, the wine sharpening my wit. "And he didn't amount to much. What does it take to beat Greeks and Persians, after all? Still, they were perfectly good barbarians while they were up in their mountains. A couple of generations after Alexander, what are they? Lunatics and drunkards, growing more degenerate with each inbred generation."
"Shame on you two!" Sempronia said. "Speaking that way about the man whose wine you are drinking."
"When Alexander was romping all the way to India," I said, "Rome was a little Italian town fighting other Italian towns. Now we're master of the world, and we didn't need any boyish god-king to accomplish it, either."
She took my arm and steered me toward the dining room. "It's time to get some food into you, Decius. I believe I hear dinner being announced."
That sounded good to me. All this learned discourse had sharpened my appetite. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly, but something nibbled at the edges of my admittedly sodden consciousness like a mouse nibbling a crust of bread. It was something Postumus had said, but I could not bring it into full clarity. The party was too full of attractions to let it bother me for long.Chapter III
I woke the next morning with a ringing head and a mouth that told me the final course in last night's banquet must have been Egyptian mummy. My aged slaves, Cato (no relation to the Senator) and Cassandra, were not sympathetic. They never were when it came to my excesses, and I could not explain to them that I had only been pursuing my public duties.
We have a tradition of allowing ourselves to be tyrannized and bullied by old domestics. It is certain that I got no respect from these two. Having raised me from infancy, they had no illusions about me. They stoutly refused to accept manumission. They could no more have fended for themselves than a pair of old plow-oxen, but as long as they could make my life miserable, they had a purpose.
"That's what you get, master!" Cato shouted cheerily, throwing open the shutter and letting in a horrid, searing beam of morning sunlight, the vengeance of Apollo. "That's what you get for being out to all hours, carousing with those foreigners, then coming home to wake your poor old retainers that have given up their whole lives to your service and acting as if they didn't deserve a little rest."
"Peace, Cato," I croaked. "I am going to die soon, and then what will you do?Go back to my father? If he could stand to have you around, he wouldn't havegiven you to me in the first place." Suppressing a groan, I lurched to my feet,steadying myself on the little writing-table by my bed. Something unfamiliarshifted on it and I saw that it was a roll of something white. Then I remembered accepting my guest-gift before leaving the previous night's banquet. Lisas, knowing that I was a public official with much correspondence to carry out, had given me a truly useful gift. It was a great scroll of the very finest Egyptian papyrus. For a fat Alexandrian pervert, Lisas was a most thoughtful man.
"Are my clients outside?" I asked.
"Already gone, master," Cato said, "and it's been ages since you paid your morning call on your father."
"He does not require that duty while I am in office," I reminded him.
"Yes, but today is a market day," Cato reminded me. "Official business is forbidden, and it should be only good manners to pay yoursalutatiowhen you don't have to go to the temple. Too late now, though."
"A market day?" I said, cheering up a little. That meant a chance to prowl the city and see what I might turn up. Rome was the mistress of the world, but it was still, in most aspects, a small Italian hill-town. It thrived on gossip and market days were relished almost as much as public holidays. I splashed water in my face, threw on my third-best toga and left my house, not bothering with breakfast, which I could not have faced.
At that time, markets were still held in theforum boarium, the ancient cattle-market. It was in full roar when I arrived, with farmers' stalls everywhere. The larger livestock were no longer sold there, but poultry, rabbits and pigs were slaughtered on the spot for customers, and they were raising their usual clamor. The farming season had been exceptional, so that even this late in the year the stalls were heaped with fresh produce.
Besides the farmers, all manner of small merchants and mountebanks had set up shop. I availed myself of one of these, a public barber. While he scraped my bristled face smooth, I watched the bustling scene. The fortune-tellers' booths were well attended. Fortunetellers were expelled from the city regularly, but they always came back. Near the barber's stool, an old woman sat on the ground, selling herbs and philters from a display laid out on a blanket.
"Look at those two," the barber said. I followed the direction of his nod and saw a pair of young men going into a fortune-teller's booth. Both wore full beards, a fashion ordinarily affected only by barbarians and philosophers, but enjoying something of a vogue among the city youth.
"Disgusting to see Roman youths bearded up like so many Gauls. Bad for business, too," he added.
"Gauls wear mustaches, not beards," I said. "Anyway, at that age, they're just enthralled with beingableto raise a beard."
"They're all troublemakers," the barber asserted stoutly. "Those bearded ones are the brawlers and drunks. They come of decent families, mind you. You can tell that by the quality of their clothes. But then, that's why they wear the beards, so they won't look respectable."
I paid the barber and made my way among the stalls, being careful where I stepped. Since the barber called it to my attention, it seemed that I could not look anywhere without seeing bearded young men. There were not really that many of them, but once a thing impinges itself on my consciousness, I tend to seek it out without conscious volition. It was unlikely to be a sign of mourning, for none of the youths wore the shabby clothes one wears while mourning, going unshaven and unshorn in the process.
Among the stalls of the craftsmen I found what I was looking for: a cutlery merchant. I did not want one who sold only his own wares, but one who traveled, buying and selling the wares of others. The one I found sold edged implements from a number of display cases, the sort that stand up, with doors that swing wide and are themselves lined with racks. These cases glittered with kitchen knives, butcher's cleavers, scissors and shears, awls, sickles and pruning knives and other farm implements, and a few daggers and short swords.
"Are you looking for anything in particular, sir?" the merchant asked. "I have some elegant military weaponry still packed away. A gentleman of your evident rank must spend time with the legions. I have swords decorated with gold and silver and parade pieces inlaid with carved amber, some with hilts of ivory. This is a largely rustic crowd, so I did not take them out. However, if you are interested, my slave can--"
"Actually," I interrupted, "I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this." I took out the snake-hilted dagger and handed it to him. His look of disappointment was so piercing that I thought it best to brighten his day.
"I am theQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus and I am investigating a murder. This is the murder weapon." Actually I had no authority whatever, but there was no need to tell him that.
"A murder!" He examined the dagger eagerly. People are always willing to lend you their expertise if they can feel important by doing so. He turned it over in his hands, admiring the discolorations left where the blood had been wiped off.
"Can you tell anything about it?" I asked impatiently.
"Well, it's African. You see this kind of heavy central spine on blades made there. And I've seen this kind of serpent carving before. They had some sort of serpent-god in Carthage, and they still make hilts like this around Utica and Thapsus."
"Do you see them very often?"
"Just the occasional souvenir brought back by a soldier. There were a lot of them brought back after the war with Jugurtha, but that's getting on toward fifty years ago, so you don't see many of those left. There's no demand for them here, since better knives are made here in Italy, and in Gaul."
"I thank you. This may turn out to be very valuable information."
He preened. "Always ready to be of service to the Senate and People, sir. Sure I can't interest you in a fine paradegladius? One worked with jet and coral, perhaps?"
"Thank you, but my arms have a few campaigns left in them."
"Well, sir, keep me in mind should you need any. And I hope you catch the murderer. Is it about thatequesI heard about this morning?"
"Yes. A banker named Oppius."
He looked puzzled. "I thought it was a building contractor named Calenus."
I thanked him again and hurried away. All government offices were closed on a market day and free men did not have to work, but slave work went on as always. I decided that the quickest way to locate a contractor was through the great brick manufactory owned by the Afer family. It was located near the river, not a long walk from theforum boarium.
I felt the heat from the huge kilns while I was still a hundred paces away from the brickyards. A slave took me to an overseer who sat behind a table in an open shed, writing on wax tablets. He stood when I came in and identified myself. "How many I help you, sir?"
"Do you have dealings with a contractor named Calenus?"
"Certainly, sir. He is involved with a number of large public projects. We supply all his bricks within the urban area."
"I must locate his house. Can you tell me where it is?"
"I will lend you one of our messengers to guide you there, sir. Hector!" he bellowed.
"That would be most helpful," I assured him. The heroically named slave appeared, a boy of about twelve.
"Hector, guide this gentleman to the home of Sextus Calenus, and then come back without delay."
I followed the boy, who was obviously delighted to be away from the brickyards, if only for a short time. "It's simple to find Calenus's house, master," he assured me. "You start by the Ostian gate and head up the alley just off the fountain with the statue of Neptune. You follow that alley to the shrine of Mercury and then you go up the steps between the fuller's and the tavern with the picture of Hercules painted on the front. At the top of the steps, you go left along the little courtyard and you pass three doors and then go up some more stairs to where there's a mill turned by a blind donkey. Calenus's house is right next to the mill."
"Why don't you just guide me?" I said. Unlike the new, provincial cities we had built, Rome was an un-planned sprawl where it was difficult to find any given house without a guide. Once in a while, some reform-minded Senator would propose instituting a system for naming or numbering the streets, but Romans are far too conservative for anything so sensible. If you wanted someone to come to your house, you sent a slave to fetch him. If you could not afford a slave, it was unlikely that anyone would want to visit you anyway.
The house of Calenus was crowded when I got there. I gave the boy a copper as and he ran off happily, doubtless planning where he was going to spend it. I doubted that the overseer at the brickyard would see him anytime soon. I pushed through a crowd of household slaves until I found a group surrounding a body laid out in the atrium. Thedesignatorwas there with his assistants, standing well back, by the walls of the room. They would prepare the body for burial when the initial viewing of the body was over. I saw that they had already dressed him in a new toga. He was a balding man of about fifty years and his face had been artfully set with an expression of serenity.
A group of young men--sons, I guessed--stood comforting a sobbing, middle-aged woman. Other women and slaves wept loudly and bitterly, but with none of the verve the professional mourners would show at the funeral. Among those who had come to view the body were several men in senatorial tunics. I looked for a familiar face and found one: a friend of my father's named Quintus Crispus. I caught his eye and he came to join me.
"Isn't this terrible, Decius?" he said. "Who would want to murder a man like Sextus Calenus? He hadn't an enemy in the world, that I ever heard of."
"He was a friend of yours?" I asked. We spoke in low voices, the way one usually does in the presence of the dead, although nobody could have heard us over the wailing.
"A client. His family have been clients of mine for generations, since before they gained equestrian status."
"How did it happen?" I asked him.
"It was late last night. I saw him yesterday afternoon, on a matter of business. As his patron, I have always worked to secure him public contracts. From there he went to have dinner with friends and didn't leave for home until well after dark. He was waylaid and killed right outside the door of his house. Robbed, so I hear."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"He had a slave linkboy with him, borrowed from the house where he had dinner. The fellow's around here someplace. He was clouted over the head and gashed a bit, but he wasn't badly hurt. Are you investigating?"
"Yes, I am." Well, Iwasinvestigating. I just had no authority to. "I'll question the slave presently."
I went to thedesignator, a skeletal man whose face had the lugubrious solemnity of one whose task it is to prepare corpses for burial. I identified myself and asked about the nature of the wound that had killed Calenus.
"The murder weapon was not left with the body,Quaestor," he said. "The gentleman was stabbed five times. I think that the murderer tried three times, but the blade struck ribs and failed to penetrate. Then he stabbed twice beneath the rib cage and one of these thrusts pierced the heart."
"Have you any idea what type of weapon was used?" I inquired.
"The stab wounds were wide, about four fingers. It was either a very broad-bladed dagger or a short sword, perhaps agladius."
I went in search of the slave and found him in the kitchen, seated on a stool, his head bandaged and holding a compress to his neck. The compress was soaked through with blood. He was perhaps sixteen, with sandy hair and an intelligent if somewhat pained face. His tunic, now much stained, was of excellent quality and bespoke a rich owner. I asked him to describe the events of the previous night.
"My name is Ariston, and I belong to the house of Marcus Duronius. Last night I was given a torch and assigned the task of walking Master Sextus home. My master is out there with the family, he will confirm that. We'd just got to the door out there, and I hadn't even time to knock when two men jumped out of the shadows. I saw one grab Master Sextus from behind and that was when the other one hit me alongside the head with his sword hilt. I don't think I was quite knocked out, but I don't remember getting this." He took away the compress and showed an ugly gash in his neck. It was still seeping blood, but it did not look dangerous. "I think this was all that saved me." He touched a narrow copper ring that encircled his neck. "I ran away once and my master put this on me."
I leaned close and studied it. As usual with such rings, it gave the slave's name, the master's, and a promise of reward if the runaway were apprehended and returned. It bore a deep gouge where a point had dug in and then skittered off, gashing the boy's neck. I pushed his hair back and saw that his forehead had not been branded with an F forfugitivus, so the ring was just for temporary discipline.
"Tell your master you need a new ring, his name has almost been obliterated on this one. Then keep it as a lucky piece for the rest of your life. Now, what else can you tell me?"
"Not much. I only saw them for an instant. I couldn't recognize them if I saw them again. It only took a few seconds, because I remember thejanitorcoming out to see what the commotion was. I won't have to testify in court, will I, sir?" He was frightened because slaves can only testify under torture.
"Don't worry," I said, patting his shoulder. "Since you are not suspected of any wrongdoing, it would only be a matter of form. They just pour a little water up your nose."
"But I don'tlikewater up my nose!" He winced at the pain in his neck. It almost did me good to see someone who felt even worse than I did.
"There's nothing else you can tell me? Did the torch go out?"
He though a moment. "As I said, I didn't see much, but I remember the torch was still burning on the street when thejanitorcame out and helped me get up." He rubbed his sore head with his free hand. "Of course, he dropped me when he saw his master lying there like a sacrificial ram." He thought a while longer. "I think they were foreigners, sir, Greeks or maybe Asiatics."
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Well, who else wears beards?"
I walked back to my house pondering. I felt that the two murders must be related, but there was nothing to connect them save the rank of the victims. Theequiteswere a large class, and Rome was a populous city, where murder was not uncommon. I doubted that anyone else shared my belief that there was a connection. One victim had been a banker, the other a building contractor. One had been stabbed in the back by someone using an African dagger, the other run through the body from in front by someone using a sword and working with a confederate.
It was clear that the killers of Calenus had not been professionals. Thesicariiwho infested the city used curved knives and their preferred technique was throat cutting. An experienced swordsman, an ex-soldier or gladiator, would have killed him with one clean thrust, even in the dark. This one, with a friend to hold the victim and torchlight to see by, had required five clumsy thrusts to dispatch the victim and had even bungled killing a slave who lay semiconscious on the street. They had robbed the body, but that may have been to disguise what was actually an assassination, something the killer of Oppius had not thought to do, another amateur mistake. The meaning of the beards? There my ponderings failed to enlighten me.
The day was still young, although I felt old. After forcing down some lunch I felt marginally better and went to the baths, where I sweated out the last of the excesses of the night before.
From the baths I went to the Temple of Saturn. It was nearly deserted, since there was no work done that day in the treasury and there were no rites to be performed. An elderly priest nodded to me as I entered and I pretended to be examining the racked military standards until I was alone. Then, taking the same lamp I had used the day before, I went into the storerooms. The room with the shields now contained another forty or so shields and a sheaf of javelins. The previously empty room now contained a small heap of swords. This batch was as mismatched as those in the other room, but two attracted my attention and I slid them from the heap for a closer look. Both were short swords of a rather antiquated design. The handle of one was of horn, the other of wood. Both were crudely carved with serpents wound spirally. I slid them back into the heap and ascended the stairs.
Was this a coincidence? The cutlery merchant had said that such weapons had been common in Italy after the Jugurthine war, and these two swords looked as if they might have been that old. But that I should encounter such oddities on two successive days in connection with two different offenses smacked of more coincidence than I was prepared to accept.
I knew that I had to do something, but I needed more information. Perhaps more important, I needed some sort of semi-legal status for what I was doing. Of the Praetors of that year who were empowered to grant me such status, only one was a kinsman I knew fairly well. This was Metellus Celer, who since the death of Metellus Pius was the virtual head of our family. His prestige in Rome was great, so that, when Cicero for reasons of his own had turned down the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul upon the end of his term of office, Celer had been given the province. It was rare for apraetorto receive a proconsular appointment, but Celer was of sufficient prestige.
Taking my courage in both hands, I presented myself at his gate. It was not Celer who made me nervous, but rather his wife, Clodia, a woman with whom I had a rather tangled relationship. I doubt that Clodia ever had an uncomplicated relationship with anyone. She was suspected of a number of murders in her scandalous lifetime, and I know that she was guilty of some of them.
"TheQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus to see thepraetor," I said to thejanitorwho guarded the gate. He summoned a majordomo who then ushered me into the atrium.
My fears were realized when Clodia came in. "Decius we haven't seen you in far too long!" She was as beautiful as I remembered her, and her smiling face showed no hint of the demon I knew to lurk there.
"My work prevents me from circulating," I told her. "It didn't keep you from the party at the Egyptian ambassador's residence last night," she said. I felt an immediate stab of alarm that she might be having me followed. "Young Catullus told me that he met you there." I sighed with relief.
"That young man seems quite smitten with you," I said. "Dare I speculate that his new cycle of love poems is addressed to you?"
"Oh, well, you know these new poets. They prefer to address their verses to living women rather than the mythological sort. He has been living as a guest in my sister's house and he pays me extravagant court when I visit, as I did this morning."
"Which sister is that?" I asked, wishing Celer would show up.
"Lucullus's wife. Dear Lucius has decided to leave public life altogether to be a patron of the arts." She could not hide a certain tone of contempt. Clodia was interested only in men who strove for ultimate power. "Have you seen their new mansion? It's the size of a small town and Lucius is building a country house even bigger."
"All the more room for poets," I said. By the glaze in her eyes I could see that she was already growing bored with me, an attitude I much preferred to an excess of interest.
"Well, we have dinner guests arriving soon, Decius, and I must see to the dining room. Will you stay for dinner?"
"Alas," I said hastily, "I have another obligation this evening. Another time, perhaps." She smiled and left and I commenced breathing easier. A few minutes later, Celer arrived. He was a short, bald-headed man with a froglike face. He was blocky and compact, with hairy legs showing beneath his casual tunic.
"Good afternoon, Decius," he said. "I trust your father is well?"
"In the best of health," I assured him.
"That is good to hear. I shall be backing him for the Censorship in next year's elections. If necessary, I'll send alegatusfrom my post in Gaul to represent me here in the city. I am sure that he will be one of the two elected."
"He is very grateful for your support."
That took care of the social amenities. "Now, Decius, how may I help you? I have a few minutes before my guests begin to arrive."
"I apologize for coming to you on a noncourt day, but this is a matter requiring discretion."
"There's no such thing as a nonbusiness day for a public official," he said, "any more than there's a non-duty day for a soldier. What is this mysterious matter?"
"You know of the two murders of theequitesOppius and Calenus?"
"Naturally. Rome is not a safe place, but then it never was. I've known mornings when there were forty men of senatorial or equestrian rank dead in the streets, and nobody bothered to count the lesser corpses."
"That was in rougher times," I said. "That was when the gang and faction fighting was at its height, when Sulla published his proscription lists and when Marius led mobs of cutthroats in the streets. Times have been settled lately."
"Even so, there are always robbers and jealous husbands. Theequitesare involved in business and money-lending. Business rivals can be as ruthless as the political kind."
"Even so, I think that these two murders are connected, and I fear that there will be more." I did not yet want to tell him about the arms cache in the temple. "I want you to appoint me investigator for these murders. In secrecy, of course, but I wish to have some sort of legal footing when I have enough evidence to bring forth charges."
"Hmm. I think you are making something out of nothing, Decius. You have always had this propensity for snooping."
"It has paid off in the past," I reminded him. "I have ferreted out crimes and conspiracies no one else suspected."
"And gotten yourself into a great deal of trouble thereby," he said. "Your father and I and your uncles have all had to exert ourselves to preserve your young hide when you have troubled powerful men."
"For which I am exceedingly grateful. Even so, I would ask for your support in this. I have reason to believe that the murders are only a part of a far greater conspiracy, one that threatens the public order and possibly the security of the state."
"This is a lot to infer from two wretched murders," he grumbled. Then, "Oh, very well. I appoint you special investigator into these murders. You are to report to me before you go haling anyone into court and you are to bring to me any evidence you turn up. And I do not want you going over my head and consulting with the Consuls without my permission, is that clear?"
"It is. What I discover will redound solely to your credit," I promised.
"Very good. But if you do something disgraceful, I will try to pretend I'm not even related to you. The times are perilous now and it is difficult for us to steer a middle course. It is easier than usual to make enemies. Now, Decius, I must prepare for my guests."
I thanked him profusely and left his house. I was all too aware of what his warning meant. Romans were growing dangerously divided along faction lines. We Metelli were moderates by the standards of the times, but we had historically backed the aristocraticoptimatesand had supported Sulla, the champion of that party. In fact, for the past twenty years, nearly all the men in power had been Sulla's supporters while his Marian enemies were mostly in exile.
Now, though, Sulla's men were growing old, the sons of the old Marians were trickling back into Rome and into Roman politics, and the power of thepopulareswere reviving. Sulla's constitution had stripped the Tribunes of the People of most of their old powers, but legislation of the past few years had restored the greater part of it. Many new politicians had arisen to challenge the ascendancy of theoptimates. Caesar was the nephew by marriage of Gaius Marius, and he used that connection to curry favor with the populace, who still revered the name of the old tyrant.
The time was fast approaching when there would be no space in the middle for anyone who had no wish to align himself with either faction. The Senate was primarilyoptimate. The moneyed class of theequiteshad long been at odds with the Senate, but was, as a group, beginning to coalesce into theoptimatecamp. The Centuriate Assembly was closely tied to the senatorial class by clientage and patronage while the Popular Assemblies were, naturally overwhelminglypopulate.
Pompey was the darling of thepopulates. The Senate had once supported him, but now it feared him. He used the power of the Tribunes to block other generals' triumphs. He was popular with the veterans in their settlements throughout Italy.
Two years before, Caesar, asaedile, had put on public games more lavish than anyone had ever seen before. He had bought and trained so many gladiators that the Senate had hastily put through legislation limiting the number a citizen could own, for fear that he was building his own army. He had subsidised the people's housing for his year in office, and given free doles of grain above what was already allotted. In doing this, he had gone into debt to such an extravagant degree that many believed him to be mad. In this Caesar proved himself to be the shrewdest politician of all time. He had bought popularity with the masses at the expense of moneylenders. Besides the professional financiers, he had borrowed from friends, from Senators, from provincial governors, from anyone with money to lend. Now those men were beginning to realize that the only way they were ever going to collect on those loans was to push Caesar's career, to make sure that he received lucrative commands where there was loot to be had, high offices where rich bribes would come his way, and the governorship of wealthy provinces. He had built a spectacular political future for himself with other people's money.
The great and rich Crassus had tried to steer clear of faction politics, but he was drifting into thepopulatecamp. Like Pompey, he had been a supporter of Sulla, but he saw the future belonging to the rising politicians. Like the other financiers, he had been hurt by Lucullus's magnanimous cancellation of the Asian debt, but he was too rich to be truly hurt by anything.
It must be said in all honesty that none of these men had the good of the Roman people at heart. Theoptimatesspoke of saving the Roman state from would-be tyrants, but they merely wanted to perpetuate aristocratic privilege. The leaders of thepopularesclaimed to be on the side of the common man, but they sought only to aggrandize themselves. It was a struggle for raw power by two groups of self-seeking men. The only truly enlightened men of the times, Lucullus and Sertorius, had done their good work outside of Italy, in places where the corruptions of Roman Government had not yet taken hold.
And me? Sometimes I wonder myself. I fondly believed that I was trying to save the Republic in something like its old form, even though my own cynicism told me that it had never been as good and just as we liked to think it was. I did not want to see our whole empire fall into the hands of men like Caesar, or Pompey, or Crassus or, most unthinkable of all, Clodius.
But I was soon to find that there were even more ominous developments in store.
When I arrived at my house I found a slave messenger waiting for me. He gave me a tiny scroll tied with a ribbon, my name written on its outside in a feminine hand.
The Lady Fulvia, it said,requests the company of theQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus the Younger for dinner tomorrow evening. If you can come, as I pray you will, please send your reply by this slave.
I promptly sat and wrote out my acceptance and gave it to the slave. Things were looking up. Fulvia was a beautiful young widow of excellent family, as lively and accomplished as Sempronia. She was also, as everyone in Rome knew, the mistress of Quintus Curius.Chapter IV
A Greek slave woman conducted me into the atrium, where other slaves were hanging flower chains and fussing with plants in huge Persian vases. As was common with women who were mistresses of their own households, Fulvia owned a staff made up largely of women. Hers were quiet, efficient and well educated, almost all of them Greek. The lady of the house was more than fluent in that language.
It was an oddity of the times that the women of the better classes were often better educated than the men, who were usually so busy with business, politics and war that they had little time for the gentler arts of civilization. Beyond the necessities of war, politics and estate management, a man was expected to be proficient in public speaking and rhetoric, subjects of limited interest outside the political arena.
Women like Fulvia and Sempronia knew more about poetry, history, drama, painting and sculpture and so forth than almost any man in Rome. For men, proficiency in these subjects was suspect, a sign of Greek decadence and probable effeminacy. Many men did not like their women carrying on in such a fashion. After all, if one wanted to have educated persons in one's home, one simply bought them.
Truth to tell, there was little for a highborn woman to do in the home anymore. There was no point in sitting and spinning and weaving like Penelope. The slave staff took care of the house and nurses raised the children. No woman could practice law or enter politics or, join a legion. The alternatives were to become scholars or behave scandalously; there were some who did both.
Fulvia came to greet me dressed in a gown that did little to stop the passage of lamplight. Her hair, like that of many Roman ladies, was a mass of elaborate blonde curls. Unlike most, hers had not been shorn from the scalp of a Gallic girl. We exchanged the usual greetings and compliments.
"I am so happy you could come, Decius. It was thoughtless of me to expect you to accept an invitation on such short notice."
"Nothing could have prevented me," I assured her. "I would have canceled an appointment with a Consul to attend one of your famous gatherings." This was only moderately insincere. Fulvia was famed for having varied and interesting guests at her entertainments. Poets and playwrights, philosophers, noted wits and women of questionable antecedents. Neither wealth nor high birth were necessary, but one had to be amusing. Fulvia was one of the first highborn Romans to allow actors into her house as guests rather than as performers. There were those, of course, who considered this the very nadir of degeneracy, but invitations to her evenings were much sought-after.
Her taste in men was more questionable. Her long liaison with Quintus Curius was a matter of much city gossip. He had been a Senator, but was expelled by the Censors for scandalous behavior. When one considers what a Senator could get away with and remain in the Senate in those days, some idea of the enormity of his transgressions may be formed. By all accounts, his courtship of Fulvia had been stormy, including threats against her life. Politically, he was of no consequence, a mere hanger-on of greater men, whose favor he cultivated in hopes that they would help defray his crushing debts.
I could never understand how a woman like Fulvia could dote on a loathsome, worthless parasite like Curius, but then there is much about women I have never understood. Philosophers tell me that women and men do not properly belong to the same species, and therefore can never understand each other. This may well be true. I have noticed that the finest women are often drawn to the very worst men, while my own fortune in that area has not been of the best.
The man in question had already arrived, and Curius greeted me as if we were long-separated friends. I expected a touch for a loan before the night was over.
"Decius! How good to see you! I hear great things of your work." How he could have heard any such thing was beyond me. "And in less than three months you will take your place in the Senate. Richly deserved, my friend." I am not averse to flattery, but I prefer it from a more savory source.
"You must miss that august body of men," I said.
He shrugged. "What is done by one Censor may be undone by another." That sounded ominous. He took me to a pair of men who had also arrived early. "Decius, I believe you know Marcus Laeca and Caius Cethegus?" I did, slightly. They were Senators by virtue of having held, like me, the quaestorship, and were unlikely to rise any higher in office. We exchanged small talk for a few minutes. It seemed that this gathering was going to be entirely political. Dull as the company was, it looked promising as far as my investigation was concerned. Low-level functionaries with no prospects for higher office form the classic breeding ground for rebellion. Neither Curius nor Laeca, though, seemed to me to be either desperate or courageous enough for any truly violent enterprise, however great the rewards. Caius Cornelius Cethegus Sura, on the other hand, was a notorious firebrand and a well-known scatterbrain, just the sort to be involved in something sublimely violent and stupid.
Sempronia arrived, accompanied by a matched pair of Nubian slaves dressed in feathers and zebra skins. She was explaining to Fulvia that the two were gifts from Lisas, the Egyptian ambassador. They were twins and therefore a great rarity, because the Nubians usually smothered twins at birth for some barbaric reason of their own. I wondered what favor Sempronia had done for Lisas to earn such a gift.
Soon after, the last guests arrived. They were a man and a woman. I instantly recognized the red hair and ruddy face of Lucius Sergius Catilina. The way the others fell silent and turned toward him, I knew that he was the reason for this night's gathering. I shuddered to think that Catilina might be behind the matter I was investigating. He was a dangerous man. He went around the room greeting and clasping hands. When he reached me he brought the young woman forward.
"Decius, have you met my stepdaughter, Aurelia?"
"No," I said, "but I am happy to say that she greatly favors her mother." Orestilla, Catilina's second or perhaps third wife, was a famous beauty. Her daughter was about nineteen or twenty, but she had as much poise as Sempronia or Fulvia. She was not as brazenly clad as the older women, but she was so lavishly endowed by nature that she needed nothing artful to call attention to her figure. Her chestnut hair was short, set in tight ringlets. She had huge gray eyes, startlingly direct.
"Your mother and mine were close friends," she said. "She still speaks often of Servilla." The young face was beautiful but solemn, as if she did not smile frequently. I did not remember my mother mentioning Orestilla, but she had died when I was very young.
"Young Decius is marked out for a remarkable career," Catilina said heartily. He looked at me searchingly. "I suppose you have a good position lined up when you leave office?"
"I'd expected a decent offer from one of the Consuls orPraetores," I said, playing the role, "but nothing so far."
"Incredible!" Catilina said. "Why, a staff appointment should come almost automatically to a young man of your birth and experience."
"So you would think," I said. Aurelia was giving me disturbingly close attention. She did not wear the rings, bracelets, necklaces, tiaras and other jewelry that adorned the other women. To make up for it, she wore the longest rope of pearls I had ever seen. It looped behind her neck, crossed between her breasts and circled her waist three times. I did not know whether it was intended to emphasize the shapeliness of her neck, the size of her breasts or the slenderness of her waist, but it did all three and damaged my concentration. It must have been worth a small city.
"Disgraceful that our officials do so little to advance the careers of deserving young statesmen." I must admit that this was much better than being flattered by Quintus Curius. Catilina could at least sound as if he meant it.
"There is little I can do about it," I said. "Junior officials have little enough power, and soon I'll be an ex-junior official."
"Perhaps there is something you can do," Catilina said. "We must speak more of this."
At that moment the female majordomo announced dinner and we filed into the dining room. To my great delight, I found myself reclining next to Aurelia. This should have been an irrelevance, since I was supposed to be uncovering a seditious plot, but I saw no reason why I should be deprived of pleasant feminine company while I pursued my duties. I was still very young.
I will not bore you with a recitation of the wines and dishes served, although my memory for this sort of detail improves as the years advance. More important was the company. Each of the men present, saving myself, had been prosecuted at some time or other for corruption, although it was a rare politician in those days who escaped that charge. The traditional way for a newly arrived Senator to make his name was to prosecute somebody for corruption, the usual charges being graft, bribe taking and extortion. These men, however, had been proven guilty on every count with overwhelming evidence. And all of them were deeply in debt.
Catilina was the same sort, only to a far higher degree, and the crimes imputed to him were not all political. His bloodthirstiness in carrying out Sulla's proscriptions was legendary, but that had typed him as merely one of the more opportunistic young men of a rough time. I have already made mention of his alleged illicit liaison with the Vestal Fabia, a charge brought against him by Clodius. Even in the usually gentle realm of courtship, Catilina's behavior had been more than ordinarily violent. When he had wished to marry Orestilla, his grown son by a former marriage had objected. Rumor had it that Catilina had then murdered his son. True or not, he was the sort of man around whom this sort of story grew. More recently, each time he had announced himself a candidate for Consul, charges of extortion had been brought against him, barring him from candidacy. At the time of the last election, charges of more direct criminal activity had been brought against him. Cicero had charged him with plotting against his life and had surrounded himself with bodyguards, contributing to Catilina's already bad reputation. I cannot say how many of these charges may have been true. Catilina always complained bitterly that he had many enemies in high places. But then, few men have deserved enemies more.
I was more interested in who his friends were. Boisterous as he was, I could not believe that Catilina, unaided, represented a credible threat to the state. He was too profligate, too headstrong, too heedless of future consequences. And he was notoriously poor. He was not as intelligent as Caesar, who could turn indebtedness to his own advantage. Even less threatening were his lackeys. But just being in their company made me suspect, and I was glad that I had gone to Celer for semi-official status. If Catilina was truly behind a conspiracy against the state, then someone was behind Catilina.
"Do you know my stepfather well?" Aurelia asked. All the diners were conversing among themselves in low voices.
"Lucius Sergius and I have met from time to time, mostly under informal circumstances, such as this. We haven't had much call to meet officially. He was apraetorlong before I was even eligible to stand forquaestor."
"I was wondering." Her voice was languorous, her eyes hooded and inward-looking. "He is always surrounded by younger men these days." That was a statement open to various interpretations. I said nothing. "You don't look like them, though."
"Oh. They run to a type, then?" I asked. I was truly interested to learn what type of men I had thrown in with.
"Wellborn and worthless," she said succinctly. "Greek tutors, good clothes, no money, old enough for the legions but never served." She looked at my scar. "You've been with the legions. And you've taken the trouble to actually stand for office. And you don't wear a beard."
The back of my neck prickled and I took a sip of lightly watered wine to cover my excitement. "They wear beards?"
"Yes." She looked puzzled. "Most of them. It's their way of being unconventional, I think. It may be the only gesture within their capabilities. Surely you've noticed them?"
"My work keeps me underground most days," I said. "But I've seen them here and there around the city. I thought it was some horrid outbreak of philosophy."
"Far from it. Some are from old Marian families. At least, that's their excuse for being kept out of power. I think it more likely to be good taste on the part of the assemblies."
"Am I to take it that you do not admire your stepfather's friends?" I asked.
"It's sufficient that they admire him." She shrugged, a difficult gesture when reclining, and one which she performed to perfection, causing those superb breasts to roll enticingly. "There are always only a few to lead, and a great many cattle."
"I trust I am not one of the cattle," I said.
She looked me over coolly. "That may be," she said after she had surveyed me, presumably for bovine qualities.
"Why are these impecunious young men so drawn to Lucius?" I asked ingenuously.
"Who would not be? He's like Sulla. He can raise men from obscurity to the highest rank. That is a great attraction to men who could never accomplish such a thing on their own."
"If you will forgive my observation," I said, "he has thus far been in no position to raise anyone from obscurity."
"For the moment," she said, holding out her cup for refilling. "But that was the way it was with Sulla, once. He fought the battles and he captured Jugurtha, but old Marius took the credit. But the men who supported Sulla did well out of it in the end."
That was shrewdly put. My own family had done well out of Sulla's reign as dictator. They had thought a man of intelligent, calculated violence preferable to a crazed old loon like Gaius Marius. At least, I had always accepted the accounts of men like my father that that had been their reasoning. Perhaps they just wanted to be on the winning side.
"So does Lucius plan to stand for Consul yet again?" I asked.
"I think it's something like that," she said, her expression unreadable as she raised her winecup and the rim obscured her face.
"Decius," Catilina said. He lay on the couch opposite me so we were separated by several feet and he had to speak loudly. "What is your opinion on the consulship of Cicero? We have just been discussing him."
"He is the best orator in Rome," I said. "Perhaps the best who ever lived. He writes wonderfully and his grasp of the niceties of law and legal practice is legendary."
Catilina snorted. "In other words, he governs like a lawyer. Is this what Rome needs? Where are the soldiers who made us great? When did Cicero ever win glory in the field?"
"Antonius is no lawyer," I reminded him. Catilina looked sour. He had sought acoitiowith Antonius for the election of the previous year, but something had gone wrong and Antonius had thrown in with Cicero instead.
"Yes, well, he's no soldier either, and I predict the Macedonians will have a rough time of it when he gets there next year." Catilina lacked military distinction himself but, like most such men, he conceived of himself as a glorious general. His mediocre record he attributed to lack of opportunity. "I confess I was surprised that Cicero turned down the proconsular governorship of Macedonia," I said, giving him an opening.
He pounced. "It's because Cicero is a coward! He knows that it will mean fighting and he has no stomach for it. He would rather stay here in Rome and be a nuisance, troubling better men with his piddling legal tricks."
"If his last accusations against you are true," I said, "he hasn't been very safe here in Rome either."
Catilina laughed uproariously and, I think, honestly, "He sees plots against his life everywhere. That is simply the way it is with cowards. Believe me, Decius"--now he looked at me very seriously and directly--"if I were to commit myself to desperate action, I would not confine myself to murdering the likes of Marcus Tullius Cicero." He pronounced the name as if it were some rare disease.
"I doubt our Decius has the nerve for truly desperate action," said Cethegus, with precisely the same look and intonation as a ten-year-old bully. He was a dark man, with a saturnine face and a mouth that turned down at the corners. He was an easy man to hate.
"I do suffer from an excess of intelligence," I told him. "Only the truly stupid hazard their lives and fortunes without a chance of victory."
"Men like you can afford to be patient," Cethegus said, contemptuously. "Not all of us have illustrious families to support us and push our careers." Catilina was watching us both carefully. For some reason he was letting his flunky have his head.
"Isn't the curuleAedileLentulus Spinther a close kinsman of yours?" I asked.
"And what does that amount to?" he said hastily, as if it were a disgrace to be related to a high official.
"I think I know what Decius means," Laeca said. I had the distinct impression that some sort of signal had passed between him and Catilina, telling him to take my part. "There are so many Caecilii Metelli that one of many young men, just beginning public life, does not sit high in family councils, am I right, Decius?"
I forced a good malcontent's scowl. "I won't deny it."
"And," Laeca continued, "I daresay that the expenses of your office have been painful. When I wasquaestor, it seemed as if thequaestoresof the past decade had neglected the highways. I had to go deeply into debt to see to their paving." He was a fat man, who spoke smoothly and agreeably.
"How about it, Decius?" Catilina asked. "Have the expenses of the office sent you to the moneylenders?"
I saw an opportunity. "Expenses! Do you think it is just a matter of paving the roads? No longer!" I tried to act slightly drunk, which, I swear, I was not. "Next I must stand foraedile. Since Caesar's games two years ago, the people expect such entertainment from theaediles. That means I must borrownowto support that office. A few years ago, people thought that twenty pairs of gladiators was a fine show. Caesar has taught them to expect five hundred pairs at a single set of games! Not to mention the lions and bears and aurochs and so forth."
"Very true," Laeca said. "Not just gladiators, butCampaniangladiators, from the best schools. Not just a public banquet after the games, but fresh meat and fish and foreign fruits for every last bricklayer in Rome. Who can compete with that sort of profligacy?" His fat face creased in a rueful, mock-sympathetic smile. "But surely your family will defray some of your expenses?"
"They would for some of us," I said, frowning. "My father has been helpful, but we're not among the really rich Metelli, and none of the Metelli have wealth like Crassus or Lucullus. We are spread too thin for wealth to concentrate." This last made a very neat wordplay in the Latin still in use at the time, and was applauded. The ladies applauded with special warmth, and it occurred to me that Fulvia and Sempronia had said nothing, a very suspicious circumstance. It was clear that Catilina was directing this conversation, and had forbidden them to speak until he was satisfied about something.
"And have you been so fortunate as to find financial backers?" Laeca asked solicitously.
"One is never sufficient," I said a little stiffly. "Unless you have Crassus behind you."
"Crassus has recently forged ties with your family," Catilina pointed out.'
"As I have said, there are a great many Metelli, and we are not held in equal esteem by Crassus, who considers me a personal enemy." In this age of the First Citizen, people may have forgotten how great a man Crassus was in those days. Suffice it to say that for a merequaestorto think that Crassus took enough notice of him to consider the wretch a personal enemy was the height of presumption. It was exactly the sort of thing men like these would find endearing.
"And you can't very well go to Pompey," Laeca said, "if the rumors of a few years ago are true. He had you exiled."
"I found it expedient to leave the city for a year or two," I said cryptically. What was true of Crassus was doubly true of Pompey. In truth, I was never more than a nuisance to Pompey. At this time, he might have had difficulty remembering me. He had more important things on his mind.
"Your family," Laeca said, "while famed for moderation, generally oppose the ambitions of Pompey. Yet your cousin, Metellus Nepos, is Pompey's faithful legate. He has been elected Tribune of theplebsfor next year and will be pushing legislation to further Pompey's ambitions."
"A wise family always keeps a few members in every camp," I said. "That way, you don't lose everything if you've backed the wrong side. And Nepos, will accomplish nothing as Tribune, because Cato will be his colleague and Cato will block every piece of pro-Pompey legislation he introduces. Cato stood for the tribunate just to oppose Nepos."
"There is always Lucullus," Cethegus said, making it sound sarcastic. Everything he said sounded sarcastic.
"Lucullus and I have never been at odds," I said, "but I would not approach him. He is married to one of the sisters of Clodius, and Clodius hates me more than Pompey and Crassus combined."
"You have a rare knack for making enemies," Catilina said, laughing. Taking their cue, the others laughed as well. Aurelia didn't. "Well, any man Clodius hates is a friend of mine. So you've had to go to the professional moneylenders, then?"
"Why all this curiosity about my financial affairs?" I asked.
"Every man with ambition who was not born rich is in debt by definition," Catilina said, "but any man indebted to one of the three we mentioned is in that man's purse and cannot be trusted."
"Trusted?" I said. "Trusted in what fashion?"
"We are all ambitious men," Catilina said quietly, "and we know who stands between us and the power we are qualified to wield, the honors we deserve. They sequester to themselves every high office and command while keeping better men crushed beneath a burden of debt. Surely you don't think that it is some form of accident that for the last twenty years the expenses of holding office have risen so tremendously?" His face was growing redder. "Is it any coincidence that we are pushed into the grasp of the moneylenders? How did it come about that highborn men, whose families have produced Rome's Consuls and generals for centuries, are beholden to baseborn cash-breeders our ancestors would not have considered worthy to be spat upon?"
"Freedmen, most of them," Cethegus said, "men who should have stayed slaves, even if they pretend to be citizens andequites."
"It is convenient for our higher officeholders," I allowed.
"It's more than convenient," Catilina insisted. "It is the result of plotting by a tiny clique of powerful men who will never willingly relinquish power. Who among us can live with such infamy and still call himself a man?" He was getting warmed up now, and the others were hanging on every word. I glanced at Aurelia and she was looking at him with adoration, but I detected something else in her expression. Was it mockery?
"And now," Catilina went on, "what sort of man assumes the leadership of Rome? Marcus Tullius Cicero! A lawyer! A man who has no qualification for office save a facility for bending words to his will. And there are more just like him. Such men could never bring themselves to make the sort of hard, quick, ruthless decisions a real Consul must make. They believe only in words, not deeds."
"So what sort of man does Rome need?" I asked him.
"A man like Sulla," Catilina said, surprising me. "Sulla took power when all had fallen into chaos. He sought neither the fawning favor of the mob nor the patronage of the aristocrats. He purged the Senate, proscribed enemies of the state, reformed the courts, gave us a new constitution and then, when he was done, he dismissed his lictors and walked from the Forum a private citizen, to retire to his country house and write his memoirs. That is the sort of man Rome needs."
There was much in what he said, but Catilina had left out a few details for rhetorical effect. For instance, that Sulla had been the cause as well as the queller of political chaos. Also, he could well afford to retire after his dictatorship, since he had killed or exiled all his enemies and left behind him his own partisans, firmly in power. There was no doubt of the identity of this putative new Sulla. I stared frowningly into my winecup, as if pondering, finally coming to a momentous decision.
"I think," I said solemnly, "that I could follow such a man. Twenty years ago, the Metelli were among the foremost supporters of Sulla. Why should I be less bold than they?"
"Why, indeed," Catilina said. He seemed to be satisfied, for now the women began to join the conversation. There was no more said of power or of cabals preventing worthy men from gaining office. I paid much attention to Aurelia, who seemed to be warming to me.
As the wine flowed, the dice and knucklebones came out and we began to gamble. I joined in, although I ordinarily confine my betting to races or fights, where I flatter myself that I have some skill in predicting the outcome. I have little taste for wagering on pure chance.
Although I did not lose heavily, I was a bit alarmed to see the sums the others were betting. For self-proclaimed poor men they seemed inordinately well furnished with cash. Although they all shouted loud, traditional curses when they lost, none of them seemed overly upset.
"Are you a lucky man?" Aurelia asked as the dice cup made its way back around to me.
"I wouldn't be alive if I weren't," I said. "But when it comes to dice and knucklebones, I have never been lucky."
"Let me lend you some luck," she whispered as I took the cup. She leaned toward me, as if watching the play over my shoulder, and I felt one prodigious breast pressing into my back. Through the cloth of my tunic and her gown, I could feel the hardness of her nipple. Almost as intimate was the softness of her breath on my ear. A surge of lust flooded me and I knew that it would be some time before I would be able to stand up without making a raucous spectacle of myself. To cover my discomfiture, I shook the leather cup with great vigor and smacked it down loudly upon the table, then jerked it back.
"Venus!" Aurelia breathed, making it sound almost like a prayer. Indeed, it was venus, the highest score. Each of the knucklebones showed a different surface.
"It will take some luck to match that," Catilina said, taking the cup. "But I have always been a lucky gambler." He shook the cup and slammed it down. He jerked the cup back and cursed, loudly and sincerely. I did not think it was because of the money he had lost. The knucklebones each showed the same surface, and it was the surface given the value of one. It was the lowest score,canicula, the little dog.Chapter V
Over the next week, there were four more murders. All the victims wereequites. Even for Rome, this was something unusual and the city was abuzz. One was bludgeoned, one had his throat cut, one was stabbed and the fourth was found floating in the Tiber, drowned. This last may have been accidental, but after five clear murders, nobody was ready to believe that.
The usual wild ideas made the rounds. Soothsayers offered murky revelations. But the city was not really alarmed. In fact, the general attitude was one of quiet satisfaction. Theequiteswere not popular. They lacked the prestige of thenobilesand the senatorial class and they did not have the numbers of the commons. Too many people were in debt to them. They had wealth and comfort and thus were envied. There was still much hard feeling over thePraetorOtho's infamous action in reserving for theequitesthe fourteen rows of theater seats behind those traditionally reserved for the Senators and the Vestals. Overall, the general feeling in the city was that a few murders were just what that upstart class needed.
One of the murdered men, named Decimus Flavius, was a director of the Red faction in the circus. I decided to investigate him first, for no better reason than that the Caecilii were traditionally members of the Red faction, although the rest of the Metelli were Whites. Both of these factions were dwindling as the Blues and Greens came to dominate the races. The Greens had become the faction of the common man, while the Blues were the faction of the aristocraticoptimates, their clients and supporters. Most of theequiteswere also Blues. These two factions would occupy facing sections of the circus and engage in great shouting matches before the races. Riots were still rare at that time, though.
The logical place to find out about Flavius was the Circus Maximus, and so on the morning after the murder was reported I made my way down from the Forum to the ancient Valley of Murcia between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Here was where Tarquin the Old had laid out Rome's racecourse when the city was still little more than a cluster of villages atop the seven hills. The place was so ancient that nobody could remember why its Temple of Consus was underground.
The Circus Maximus was the largest structure in Rome, a huge building complex housing everything necessary for getting four chariots, each with four horses and a charioteer, onto the sand in time for the race. This is not as simple as one might think. Horses were brought from as far away as Spain, Africa and Antioch. They were trained for a minimum of three years. The charioteers began their training in childhood and losses were high, so there had to be a steady supply of them. Chariots were made as light as possible to make them faster, so they had to be replaced constantly. Charioteers and horses needed a special diet. There were slaves to care for the chariots and harness, slaves to care for the charioteers, and immense numbers of slaves to care for the horses, cleaning out their stalls, seeing to their exercise, grooming them and doctoring them. There were even slaves who did nothing but talk to the horses to keep them contented and run alongside them on the way to the races, cheering them and raising their spirits.
Wherever Rome went, the circus went, and the factions maintained headquarters wherever there was a circus. It was not unusual for a single faction to maintain a stud of eight or ten thousand stallions to keep a single, small province supplied. In short, the circus was the largest institution in our empire. And the Circus Maximus was the largest such building in the world. Its lowest courses of seats were of stone, but the rest of the building was wooden. When filled to capacity with more than 200,000 spectators, the timber superstructure emitted the most alarming squeaks and groans, although it had never collapsed. There was always talk of building a permanent structure of stone, but no steps had been made in that direction. I think the populace just liked the rickety old place, even if it was the most significant fire hazard in the city. The arches beneath the stands constituted a minor forum, with shops and stalls selling everything from sausages to the services of inexpensive prostitutes. It was said in Rome that, should anything be stolen from you, all that you had to do was loiter around the Circus Maximus for a while and someone would offer to sell it to you. The citizenry had never conceived quite as much affection for the Circus Flaminius, which lay outside the old city walls. It was not as large and was only a little more than 150 years old.
When I arrived at the circus, it was bustling with activity. There would be races in just a few days, and those who were to participate in the preliminary procession were rehearsing. The slaves who bore the images of the gods practiced hoisting the platforms to their shoulders and marching in step to the music of horn, lyre and flute. Small, gilded chariots drawn by tiny ponies bore images such as thunderbolts, owls, peacocks and so forth, the attributes of the gods. These charming vehicles were driven by children who, for some reason, had to have both parents living. These white-robed little boys put their ponies through their paces with great seriousness. The musicians set up a great din and wild-haired women with tambourines danced like maenads in honor of Bacchus. A group of men in plumed helmets and scarlet tunics, bearing spear and shield, went through a slow, solemn war dance while behind them a pack of men dressed as satyrs, with goat tails attached to their rumps and huge, red phalluses to their loins, performed a bawdy parody of the same dance. All that was missing was the crowd in the stands.
On the sand, horses were being exercised, allowing them to grow accustomed to the racecourse and its immense environs. I walked along the whole length of the course, beside thespina, which had not yet acquired the crowd of statues that graces it now. At each end were the spikes tipped with seven gilded eggs marking each of the seven laps of a race, one egg being removed to mark each lap. This was before the water-spitting dolphins were added to aid the spectators in keeping track of how fast they were losing their money.
The sand, specially imported from Africa, was continually raked smooth after each batch of chariots rattled by. I was gladdened to see that the sand was its accustomed tan. When Caesar wasaedile, he had spread green-tinted sand in the circuses, the color of his faction. He had achieved this remarkable effect by mixing pulverized copper ore with the sand. Past thespina, and careful not to be trampled by the practicing charioteers, I crossed the track and passed out through the open end of the great stadium where the starting gates stood open.
Beyond these gates was the stable area, almost as large as the circus itself. Since White and Red were the oldest factions, their stables and headquarters were nearest the circus. Red headquarters was a six-story building the size of a tenement built directly above their brick stables. The stables themselves were three-storied; two above ground and one below, connected by ramps broad enough for a pair of four-horse chariots to pass. The timber and plaster building above was painted, naturally enough, red. Outside were statues of famous horses from the stables, and the facade was decorated with plaques bearing the names of hundreds of others, listing the victories of each. The smell of horses was overwhelming, but it was more agreeable than many scents the city had to offer.
The office of the directors took up most of the second floor of the timber structure. It was spacious and rather luxuriously appointed, for a place of business. Entering this building was like stepping into another world. There were shrines to gods I had never seen before, and the walls bore enigmatic inscriptions and decorations, all having to do with the rites of the racing guild. Slave, freedmen and freemen, they all belonged to the guild and took part in its rituals. Within the guild, the various specialists had their own subguilds, shrines and even temples. That of the charioteers was especially fine and they got the most splendid, as well as the most frequent, funerals.
As I entered the office, slaves were setting up a crudely carved statue of a woman seated sideways on a horse, holding a key. The man supervising the work wore the clothes of anequesand noticed my interest.
"Epona," he said. "A Gallic horse-goddess. Some of our breeders in transalpine Gaul sent her as a gift."
"What is the key for?" I asked.
"It's a stable key, I think." He turned to me and introduced himself. "I am Helvidius Priscus, one of the directors of the Reds. How may I be of service to the Senate and People?"
I have often noticed this quality in Romans; an ability to recognize a public official. As a merequaestorI had no lictors and no insignia of office and I dressed like a private citizen, but this man knew that I was some sort of official. I did not flatter myself that he remembered my face from the election. In that great mob it would take a twenty-foot statue of Jupiter to register a memorable impression. I was elected because I had announced my name in candidacy and the clients of the Metelli outnumber any other voting bloc. The lower offices are our birthright. The higher ones we have to fight for like everyone else.
"I am here to inquire into the murder of Decimus Flavius. I am Decius Metellus."
"Thequaestor! Welcome, sir, you honor our establishment. I apologize for the clutter and rush, but we are getting ready for the next races, as well as picking the stallions to run in the festival of the October Horse. Please, come this way." I followed him into a broad room, one wall of which was mostly open to a balcony overlooking the circus gates. In the wide esplanade between, grooms from every nation walked their horses, talking to them in languages the beasts understood.
There was a broad table in the room, heaped with scrolls and sheets of papyrus. There were stacks of bronze plates upon which were inscribed the pedigrees of horses, some of them going back centuries. Around the table were seated severalequites, a few freedmen secretaries, and a distinguished man who wore the strange, spindle-topped cap and other insignia of aflamen. This, as it turned out, was Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Niger, theFlamen Martialis. He was here in his capacity as high priest of Mars to oversee the choosing of the horses to run in the race of the October Horse. It was rare to encounter aflamenaway from his home except when he was performing his sacerdotal functions because theflamineswere so surrounded by ritual taboos that life was difficult for them. The highest priesthood of them all,Flamen Dialis, had been vacant for twenty-four years because nobody wanted it.
"Decimus Flavius was a most energetic director of the company," said one of theequites. "It came as a great shock to us all when he was so foully murdered."
"Under what circumstances was he found?" I asked.
"A cleaner found him over there in the circus," said Priscus. "He left here yesterday evening, just before dark. His home is just on the other side of the circus and he usually walked home that way."
"Would you be so good as to summon the cleaner?" I requested. A slave was dispatched to find the man. "Was the murder weapon left at the scene?"
"Yes, it's right here," said one of the directors. He reached into a box and rummaged among scraps of papyrus, ribbons and broken wax seals, and withdrew a knife, handing it to me. It was an unusual weapon, with a blade about eight inches long, straight for most of its length, then curving abruptly near the tip, doubling back to form a hook. It was keen on both edges. Someone had wiped the blade clean. There was no cross guard and the grip was of plain horn.
"This is a charioteer's knife, is it not?" I asked. Since a charioteer's reins are knotted around his waist, he has only a few seconds to cut himself loose after being thrown. Thus he may avoid being dragged to death or dashed against the arena wall or against thespina. If he succeeds in this, he need only fear being trampled by the other horses.
"It is," Priscus affirmed.
"Might he have been killed by a charioteer, then?" I asked.
"Charioteers only carry these knives when they are racing," said a director. "A dresser tucks one in the driver's body bindings just before he gets into his chariot."
"There are hundreds of them in our supply rooms," Priscus said. "But there must be thousands out in the city. The race enthusiasts beg them from victorious drivers and carry them for luck. They bribe track attendants to get them knives that charioteers have successfully freed themselves with. You know how superstitious those people are." This seemed to be another dead end as far as the murder weapon was concerned.
"Do any of you know if Flavius was in the business of lending money at interest?"
"I know that he was not," Priscus said. "At least, not in recent years. He made his fortune breeding horses, and here at the circus. He lost heavily after Lucullus's cutting the debt of the Asian cities, and swore he'd never lend money again." Thus was my theory that moneylenders were being systematically eradicated further undercut.
The cleaner arrived and, thanking the directors, I excused myself. I kept the knife and tucked it into my tunic belt. I was acquiring quite a collection of these sinister souvenirs. Its shape was highly specialized, which made it seem an odd choice for a murder weapon. A straight dagger or asicamade far more sense. Perhaps this murder had been unplanned.
"It was over here, master." The slave was a middle-aged man with a Bruttian accent. The Bruttians are worthless people, as all Romans know. Bruttium surrendered to Hannibal without a fight. They make adequate slaves, though. "I was taking some trash to this heap that's going to be hauled away sometime around Saturnalia."
We were walking beneath the wooden arcades of the circus. The great structure above us creaked and groaned as the morning sun warmed it. Despite that, the gloom belowstairs was deep. Some light came in through the arches, but the nearby buildings allowed little light to reach them. We turned from the main arcade into a short tunnel that ended at a great heap of trash of the sort that only a circus accumulates: broken spokes and other wreckage of the flimsy racing chariots, wax tablets recording bets flung down and smashed by enraged losers, polishing rags discarded by handlers, straw packing left by vendors and a multitude of other trash, probably a year's worth of it.
"He was right here," the slave said, pointing to a large, dark stain at the foot of the trash heap. It seemed an odd place for a prosperousequesto die. The others seemed to have been murdered in places that made some sense. Might he have been killed outside, in the arcade, and dragged in here? But there was no trail of blood, as there surely would have been in such a case. He must have been killed right on that spot. Perhaps he had been waylaid outside and forced into this tunnel.
"Who works in this area at night?" I asked the slave.
"Nobody. When it's not a race day, the circus is empty by late afternoon. We slaves must be in our barracks by dusk and there is no cause for freemen to be here. Maybe a few whores are here after dark."
I knew it would be worse than useless to canvass the area, asking if anyone had happened to notice a murder being committed. Few people are out of their homes after dark in the fall, and those who are seldom like to cooperate with the authorities.
I dismissed the slave and stood there for a while, pondering. My perplexity only deepened. I turned and walked out of the short tunnel and all but collided with a pair of young men, both of whom were bearded.
My hand slid beneath my toga and I gripped the handle of the charioteer's dagger. They stared at me, as astonished as I was. Then a woman pushed in front of them. In the poor light I had not noticed her standing behind the two.
"Is it Decius Metellus?" The light was poor but I knew the voice.
"Aurelia?" I said. It was she. Even in her heavy woolstolaand in dim light, her luxuriant form was unmistakable. She had drawn her palla over her head, and I could not make out her expression.
"Decius, how odd to meet you here! Let me introduce my companions, Marcus Thorius and Quintus Valgius. They are friends of my stepfather. Gentlemen, this is Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger,quaestorof the treasury." There was a slight edge to her voice as she addressed the two, as if reminding them to be on their best behavior.
"I am always happy to encounter you," I assured her, "any time and under any circumstances. Gentlemen, good day to you." They nodded rather churlishly. Both seemed to be about twenty years old. With their identical stubbled scalps and bushy beards they looked like a pair of Greek wrestling instructors.
"What brings you to the circus on a dull morning, Decius?" she asked.
"One of those murders that the city is so enthralled with," I said. "I had to come down here to make some inquiries. The victim was a director of the Reds. I came here to see the murder site."
"Oh, was it here?" she said, peering past me into the dark tunnel.
"There's nothing to see," I said. "Just a rather large but ordinary bloodstain. What brings you here?"
"We came to see Silverwing exercise," she said. "Paris will be racing him for the Whites in the next races. Quintus knows everything about the White stables."
"Silverwing has raced as inside trace horse for six years," Valgius said. "He has won 237 races." He recited this with a fanatical gleam in his eye. I knew the type. He would know the records and pedigrees of hundreds of horses. I have always loved the races, but there are limits. People like Valgius could be as boring as Cato.
"Would you care to join us?" Aurelia asked. The two men looked sour-faced but I was a long way from caring what they thought.
"Most certainly," I said. I fell in beside her as we walked toward one of the galleries that gave access to the stands.
"What do you think,Quaestor?"Thorius asked. "About the murder, I mean?"
I shrugged. "Probably just another murder and robbery. I think he was knocked on the head when he walked home and was dragged back there and had his throat cut. That's where all the blood is."
"Doesn't it seem to you that a lot ofequitesare being murdered lately?" Aurelia asked.
"Who has more money?" I replied. "There's little gain to be had in robbing a poor man. Anyway, I'm not here to investigate the murder, just to clear up some questions about the man. Treasury business." I told the lie on a sudden impulse, and it seemed to me that a little of the tension left the shoulders of the two hirsute youths.
The gallery opened into the stands about twenty rows up, and directly above theloggia, where the giver of the games or the presiding magistrate in charge would sit on race days. A loose group of men stood there that morning, observing the horses and the charioteers as they practiced. It was a beautiful morning, and on the slopes of the Aventine above the Circus the beautiful Temple of Ceres gleamed as if carved from pure alabaster. Here and there were the shrines of other, even older deities. Now that we have all become imitation Greeks, we have forgotten that once our gods were purely Italian. They lingered here in the Valley of Murcia, once a myrtle-draped site of our harvest festivals, when the circus had been a mere dirt track. The sanctuaries of Seia, Segesta, Tutilina, and other half-forgotten goddesses of the harvest stood nearby. The goddess Murcia herself, for whom the valley was named, was already being confused with Venus, who was in turn being absorbed by the Greek Aphrodite. For a people in love with our religious ceremonies, we Romans are remarkably confused in our attitudes toward the gods.
"What a glorious morning!" Aurelia exclaimed, rousing from her usual half-somnolent abstraction. We descended the steps to theloggiaand she strode to the marble railing and stood beside the statue of Victory that crowned one of its corners. Below, the chariots roared by, the charioteers garbed in their tunics of red, white, blue or green, their heads encased in close-fitting leather helmets, some of them wearing padded leather leg-guards, their bodies harnessed in the complicated system of leather straps and thongs intended to protect them in case of a fall and relieve the tremendous strain of the four-horse reins.
"Silverwing!" Valgius cried, pointing, his eyes gleaming like those of a man who has seen a vision.
Silverwing was, indeed, a beautiful animal. All racehorses are beautiful, but Silverwing stood out like a god even among these. He belonged to that rare, ancient breed of striped horses, now all but bred out of existence. He was deep gray, with white stripes, brightest on his shoulders and withers and from these he was named. That morning he was not pulling a chariot, but was instead being ridden by one of the Numidian handlers. With only the slight, brown man for a burden, the beast truly seemed to fly.
Near us two men argued in low but heated voices. One had his back to us, and the other I did not recognize. The other people on theloggiastood well away from them, as men do when they do not wish to be noticed by someone who is both angry and important. Aurelia, it seemed, was not so overawed.
"I need to talk to him," she said, walking over to the two men. Not wishing to give up her company so easily, I followed. The one with his back to us turned at her approach and I wished that I had not been so eager to stay with Aurelia. It was Marcus Licinius Crassus.
The anger swept from his face and he smiled. "Aurelia! You make the morning twice as beautiful." He bestowed a properly chaste kiss upon her cheek and looked at the rest of us. "Let me see, I know Decius Caecilius, of course, but I don't believe I've met your other companions." Aurelia introduced Thorius and Valgius. Crassus's blue eyes were as cold as always, but he displayed no particular hostility toward me. He introduced the man with whom he had been arguing, and who also had regained his composure.
"This is Quintus Fabius Sanga, who is here to see his horses run." I glanced at the man's sandal and saw the small, ivory crescent fixed at the ankle, the mark of a patrician. I took his proffered hand.
"My father has spoken of you," I told him. "He says that your estates in Gaul produce the finest horses in the world."
Sanga smiled. "I did business with Cut-Nose when he was proconsul. He has a sharp eye for horseflesh. He insisted on personally inspecting every horse bought for theauxilia." Farming and livestock raising are among the few businesses that patricians are allowed to practice, but nobody ever said you couldn't get rich that way. "If it weren't for thelupercalia, I'd be up in Gaul with my horses right now." The Fabian and Quintilian gens had charge of that very strange and ancient festival.
"But it is more than four months untillupercalia," I pointed out.
"But that would mean crossing the Alps or traveling by sea in January, and who wants to do that? Besides, some of my Gallic clients are here in the city and need my guidance." He looked out onto the track. "There are some of mine now." I looked to see aquadrigaof four splendid Gallic bays thundering from the gates, cutting swiftly to the left to put the chariot in the best position next to thespina. It was beautifully done, but in a real race it was a dangerous maneuver, because all four charioteers would be trying for that position. More smash-ups happen during the initial scramble for thespinaposition than at any other time in a race. The charioteer was a handsome youth with long, yellow Gallic hair streaming from beneath his helmet. There was something familiar about him, but in the moment it took him to flash by us I could not pin it down. We all praised Sanga's horses and then Aurelia brought up her business with Crassus.
"Marcus Licinius, I belong to the college of priestesses of Ceres. Our temple"--she pointed at the beautiful structure on the hill--"is in need of repair. Will you undertake the needed restorations?" It was customary for rich men to do these things.
"Haven't the market fines been sufficient this year?" he asked. The plebeianaedileshad their offices in the temple, and the fines they collected in the markets were supposed to pay for its upkeep.
"I'm afraid not. Themundusshows signs of collapsing. It could bring down the whole temple."
"That does sound serious," he admitted. Themunduswas very important to us because it was the only passageway into the underworld. There are others in Italy, but only one in Rome. All those offerings and messages had to reach the underworld gods and our dead somehow, so we couldn't just let ourmunduscollapse.
"Restorations are so tedious and complicated," Crassus said. "Perhaps I should just build you a new temple." He was not joking. Crassus used to say that a man could not claim to be rich unless he could raise, equip and pay an army out of his own purse. He was that rich.
"Absolutely not!" Aurelia exclaimed. "We want to keep our old temple. Restorations only, if you please, Marcus Licinius." In this I heartily concurred. I hated the way people were always tearing down our ancient temples so they could build something modern and carve their name all over the pediment in letters three feet high. Not that the Temple of Ceres was all that ancient. It was a bit under four and a half centuries old, making it respectably venerable. At least, when the great Temple of Jupiter had burned twenty years before, Sulla had had the good taste to restore it to its original design and condition. They don't make tyrants like Sulla anymore.
"Then it shall be done. Report to your sisters that I will send my architect and building manager to make a preliminary survey and report tomorrow."
She clapped her hands delightedly. "Thank you, Marcus Licinius! The goddess thanks you. Now, you must do me the further favor of accepting an invitation to a reception I am giving for the Parthian ambassador tomorrow evening."
"I accept with great pleasure," Crassus said.
"You must come too, Decius," she said. Attending any sort of event with Crassus was far from my idea of a pleasant evening, but I was willing to endure it for a chance to spend more time with Aurelia.
"You may depend on it," I told her. "I haven't met the Parthian ambassador yet."
"He is a savage, but barbarians are far more amusing than most Roman politicians," she said.
"I couldn't agree more," Crassus put in.
"Excellent. At my mother's house tomorrow, then." Catilina and Orestilla had been married by the casual practice ofusus. Once, patricians had only married byconfarreatio, but marriage customs had broken down in the previous generation. Divorce was far easier withususand it allowed the woman to keep her property.
I took my leave and hastened away, anxious to be out of Crassus's sight. There was much that was puzzling about this latest murder, and I did not want to go investigate one of the others just yet, so I walked down to the to the great pound beyond the starting gates where the horses were walked to cool them after running. I got there just as the young Gaul was descending from his chariot. The attendants loosened the reins from his waist and he pulled off his leather helmet, letting his extravagant hair fly free. Except for his downy mustache, a facial disfigurement I have always considered an abomination, he was an extremely handsome youth, and now I remembered where I had seen him before. He was one of the party of Allobroges who had been hanging about the city for months, complaining of Roman extortion and rapaciouspublicanisqueezing them for tax debt.
"That was splendid driving," I told him as he was stripping off his leg-pads. He looked up and flashed a big-toothed smile.
"Thank you. My patron's horses only understand Gallic. These Italians and Numidians and Greeks can never get the best out of them. I saw you up on theloggiaspeaking with my patron." Now I remembered that Fabius Sanga was of the branch of the Fabii who were surnamed Allobrogicus. An ancestor of his had soundly thrashed their ancestors and that family of Fabians had thereby become the hereditary patrons of the Allobroges. The worse you beat Gauls and Germans, the more loyal they are to you. At least they are sincere about it. Asiatics, once defeated, kiss your sandals and protest loyalty, then do something treacherous.
"Have you raced in Rome before?" I asked him.
"Not yet. I've raced in the circus of Massilia and the one at Cartago Nova. My name is Amnorix, but I race as Polydoxus."
"I expect to hear great things of you. How do you happen to be with the Allobrogian party?"
"My uncle was chosen by the tribe to come here with the grievance party, and I got him to bring me along for a chance to race in the Circus Maximus."
"What do you think of it?" I asked.
"I've never seen anything so big, but the circuses in Gaul and Spain are built better, and they aren't cluttered with all this gear for the wild beast fights. It's the track that counts, though, and this one is well kept. The African sand is the best. But it's the stables here that are greatest. It seems like half the horses in the world must be here."
"This is the first circus ever built," I told him. "The circus has grown as Rome has grown. That's why it seems rather ramshackle and unplanned. Wait until you see it on a race day."
"Oh, I've attended the races here, although not from the sand. I would not have believed that so many people could be assembled in a single place. The noise is incredible." He laughed. "They are well behaved compared to a Gallic crowd, I must admit."
"You've never seen a good circus riot, then. Pray you never do." Now that we had established a sort of friendship between us, I decided to take advantage of it. "When I arrived, your patron and Crassus were arguing about something. Any idea what that was about?"
He frowned. "I don't know. Crassus has called on the patron several times, lately. Last time he was with that man Valgius. I saw him up on theloggia, too. They meet privately, but the patron always looks upset after Crassus has left."
This startled me. "Valgius? Are you sure he was with Crassus?"
"He was last time. He stayed out in theatriumwith the rest of the clients while Crassus and the patron conferred. He would only talk about the circus, so I held some conversation with him, but he could not hide how much he despises Gauls."
"I don't much like him myself. Did you recognize the other bearded man, or the lady who was with me?"
"Never saw either of them before," he admitted. "She was very beautiful, in the Roman fashion."
"You see a lot, for a man flashing by in a chariot. I would have thought thequadrigawould require all your attention."
"It was not as if I was racing," he said. Then his eyes narrowed. "You ask a lot of questions, sir."
"It is my duty. I am theQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus and I am on official business."
"Oh, I see. Is there any other way I may be of service?" Barbarians think that all Roman officials have infinite authority. This is because the ones who show up in their lands seem to act like gods.
"Was there anyone else with Crassus and Valgius?"
He thought for a moment. "No. But later, I think it was a day or two after, a man came up to us in the Forum. He spoke to my uncle and the elders. Then they were taken to the house of Decimus Brutus and we younger men were told to return to the house where we are quartered. That seemed strange to me."
"Do you know the name of this man?" I asked.
"Umbrenus. Publius Umbrenus. I heard that he is some sort of businessman who has interests in Gaul. I don't like all this secrecy. We came here to petition the Senate openly, not to conspire."
"I am glad to hear it. The politics of Rome can get very rough, and you people should not try to get involved. Keep your eyes open and if you see anything suspicious, let me know. I am to be found at the Temple of Saturn, most days."
"I shall do as you say," he said. He seemed to be an intelligent and well-spoken youth, for a barbarian. His accent was quite tolerable.
I hurried off to the Forum, where I knew my father was sure to be. He was already canvassing for the next year's censorship election. I found him standing in thecomitium, just about equidistant between theCuriaand theRostrain the midst of a knot of men and speaking, no doubt, with nobility and rectitude. As I went closer I saw that most of the men were important officers of the centuriate assembly, men who would have great influence over the outcome of the upcoming elections. I saluted him as father and patron and he looked at me with his usual expression: annoyance.
"Why aren't you in the treasury?" he demanded.
"I've been out on official business," I said. "I need some advice involving your recent tenure of office in Gaul." The other men drew aside to let us speak privately.
"Well, what is it?" Father asked, impatiently. He never liked to be interrupted while politicking.
"What do you know of a man named Publius Umbrenus?"
"Umbrenus?" He glanced at me sharply. "That's not advice. That's information."
"It involves official business on behalf of the UrbanPraetor."
"Celer? What have you to do with him?" He looked disgusted, never much of an effort for him. "Don't tell me. You're out conspiracy-hunting again, aren't you?"
"I have done the state some small service in that capacity before, Father," I pointed out.
"And come close to being killed doing it."
"Now, Father," I chided, "a Roman is not supposed to fear death, only disgrace." His face grew red, so I appealed to his ever-dominant sense of duty. "There have been murders, Father."
"Eh? Of course there have been murders. What of it? When did a fewequitesmore or less ever make any difference?"
"Quite aside from obvious criminal activity, I think a very real danger to the state is involved, and Celer concurs. Now, what do you know of Publius Umbrenus?"
"Well, you're a fool, but Celer isn't, so maybe there's something to this after all. Umbrenus is a publican who had sizable dealings in the Gallic communities: horses, slaves and other livestock, grain, that sort of thing. He belonged to a consortium of investors here in Rome and he was their traveling agent in Gaul. The last I heard, they were bankrupt. Like most, they were hurt when Lucullus cut the Asian debt, then they speculated heavily in grain and were wiped out when the Egyptian and African harvests were the best in years and the price of grain plunged. Served them right." Father detested capitalists. Like most aristocrats, he thought that only income from landed estate was honorable. As long as someone else is doing the farming it suits me too.
"Did he have dealings with the Allobroges?" I asked.
"He must have. They're the most powerful tribe in the North so he would have had to deal with them. What's this all about? No, don't tell me. Bring me hard evidence and keep your foolish suspicions to yourself. Now go be a nuisance somewhere else."
I visited the baths and returned to my house. There was to be little rest for me, though. Before long, I was interrupted in my letter writing when a delegation of my neighbors called on me. I received them in myatriumand feared the worst when I saw who it was: a collection of shopkeepers, guild officers and free artisans, the typical inhabitants of the extremely raffish district that was my home. Their spokesman was Quadratus Vibius, owner of a bronze foundry and president of a district funeral and burial society. By Subura standards, he was a pillar of the community.
"QuaestorMetellus," he said, "we your neighbors call upon you as the most distinguished resident of the Subura." It didn't take much to be the most distinguished resident of Rome's greatest slum.
"And I greet you as my friends and neighbors." This they were. I truly liked living in that slum.
"Sir, as you know, in a few days, on the ides of October, the whole city will be celebrating the festival of the October Horse. We would like for you to represent the Subura, as our leader in the contest after the race."
My heart sank. "Ah, gentlemen, my friends, I cannot tell you how deeply appreciative I am of the honor you do me. However, the press of office--"
"The dwellers of theVia Sacrawon last year, sir," said a baker who lived down the street. "As a result, no one in the Subura's had good luck all year. We need our luck back."
"Truly. But the Subura wins most years, does it not? Because we are better people, as everyone knows. However, my duties--"
"Nobody'll think much of us if ourquaestordoesn't lead us," said my tailor, a man who could make my old tunics look almost new. "You're a man destined for the highest office and the great army commands, sir. Who else should be our representative?"
I could feel my thread being stretched tight on the loom of the Fates. "But surely--"
"Sir," said a burly water-carrier, "theVia Sacrapeople are to be led by Publius Clodius this year."
"Clodius?" I choked out.
The waterman grinned. "Yes, sir. Clodius."
They had me trapped. If I backed down from a meeting with Clodius, I might as well leave the city for good and go to Rhodes or some such place and study philosophy.
"I shall, of course, be most honored to be your leader on the ides, and we shall return with theSubura'sluck." At this they all cheered and pounded me on the back and dragged me out to a wineshop where we stuffed ourselves and I got drunk enough to look forward to the festival.Chapter VI
Parthia was a problem for us, and it was sure to become a greater problem now that Mithridates and Tigranes were both out of the picture. One of several kingdoms squabbling over control of the old Persian empire, Parthia was in the happy position of sitting smack astride the silk route, and had grown rich thereby. Silk was a great mystery to us. It was the most prized of fabrics, indeed the most prized of substances, more valuable than gold. Light, strong, its dyes unfading, it was so esteemed that from time to time the Censors forbade its wear as an Oriental extravagance. Men and sometimes even women were subject to fine if caught wearing silk in public. Both sexes sometimes took to wearing a silksubligaculumbeneath the garments. If one could not have the ostentation of flaunting silk publicly, one could at least enjoy the lubricity of wearing the sensuous fabric in a more intimate fashion.
The kingdom of Parthia was not a central monarchy in the old Egyptian or Persian sense. It was far too primitive for that. Rather, it was a loose confederation of quarreling chieftains, the strongest of whom called himself King of Kings, like the old Persian monarch, and lorded it over the others. In the usual Eastern fashion, the royal families indulged in mutual homicide. The kings bred innumerable sons, which they then felt compelled to murder. If one or more survived to manhood, one of them would sooner or later kill his father unless the old man managed to eliminate him first. At this time, the king was one Phraates III, who had not one but two grown sons in rebellion against him.
They were little more than primitive tribesmen recently arrived from the great eastern grasslands, and this was the source of their single strength, for they had a most unique method of waging war. Alone of all peoples in the world, the Parthians fought entirely from horseback, and their only weapon was the bow. Devoid of armor and swift as birds, they darted about the battlefield, raining shafts on enemies confined to the speed of a man on foot. They might have been truly formidable had they possessed any sort of organization. It was our own intent to supply them with good Roman organization, whether they wanted it or not. With the rest of the East pacified, Parthia remained as the only decent realm for further conquest.
Pompey had formed an alliance with Parthia when fighting Tigranes, but treaties were never more than a convenience for him, and he had offended Phraates by concluding a treaty with Tigranes without consulting the Parthian. Undoubtedly, this little problem would constitute the greater part of the ambassador's business in Rome. Much good would it do him.
It offended us that a contemptible pack of horse-eating savages should control so important a commodity as silk. It especially offended us that they should have grown so rich doing it. The answer to all this offense, naturally enough, was to conquer the place, and even now we were searching for an excuse. When we should have conquered Parthia, of course, it would only mean that the next nation to the east would become the one controlling the silk route. There seemed to be quite a lot of land between us and the land of the Seres, where the silk was made. But then, that was how we had built our empire: one nation at a time. Eventually, we would reach the land of the Seres and conquer them as well. We knew nothing about them except that they made silk, but being Asiatics they couldn't amount to much.
First, though, we would conquer Parthia. If only we had known at the time what a struggle that would entail.
But I was not thinking of these things when I presented myself at the door of Orestilla's house. I was thinking of Aurelia. I had been doing far too much of that lately. So much so that, when thejanitoradmitted me, I thought that it was Aurelia whom I saw coming to greet me, but I was mistaken. The woman crossing theatriumwas her mother, Orestilla. She was still a great beauty, and with none of Aurelia's abstracted air. For the moment, I could well sympathize with Catilina. I might have murdered a son or two myself for such a woman.
"QuaestorMetellus, welcome to my house." Her smile was dazzling and she took my hands in both of hers. She was constructed just like her daughter, with a few extra pounds that did nothing to distract from her beauty. "Did you bring any friends?"
I looked around to make sure. "No. Should I have?"
"It's just that everyone else this evening has shown up with someone in tow, so we're having to move the dining tables and couches out to theperistylium. Our little dinner reception has turned into a minor banquet. It will be a fine affair, but please forgive me if things don't happen exactly according to schedule." She was a woman of infectious gaiety, as her daughter was one of brooding melancholy.
"I promise only to be overwhelmed by your hospitality and your equally renowned beauty. Speaking of which, that is a most spectacular gown." She was wearing a sheerstolamade of what appeared to be pure silk, emerald-green in color. The thought of its cost was un-settling.
"Isn't it amazing? It's a gift from our guest of honor. I never expected anything so splendid. He brought another for Aurelia. She's off somewhere trying hers on and admiring her reflection, no doubt. Come along, everybody's out in theperistyliumand getting in the way while the house slaves are trying to set up." She took my hand and all but towed me out into the open colonnade. Herperistyliumhad an unusually largecompluvium, transforming it into a virtual courtyard. Instead of the usual central pool, it had a grated drain running around the base of the columns, making it possible to use the enclosure for large parties such as this one. There were at least thirty people there already, and it seemed that more were to arrive. They stood about on a floor of exquisite mosaic. Mosaic floors in private houses were still rather new in Rome, except for the tessellated kind made of squares and rectangles of colored marble, making abstract designs. This was a genuine picture-mosaic, made of tiny bits of colored stone, glass and even fragments colored with gold or silver leaf. It depicted a pastoral scene of gods and goddesses, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs and such amid vines and cedar-clad hills. Gods and fabulous creatures danced, feasted and flirted among mortal shepherds and the occasional hero. Quite aside from its breathtaking beauty and artistry, the design was perfect for an area intended for entertainment and I strongly suspected that Orestilla had deliberately arranged for the unexpected guests so that she could get everyone out here to admire her mosaic.
The evening was wonderfully warm and clear for October, almost like a fine summer evening. There was still plenty of light, because it was still considered disgraceful for an entertainment to run on after dark, so we usually got started during the hours of daylight. As for calling it quits with the onset of darkness, nobody paid any attention to that nonsense anymore.
I saw that all the most beautiful, scandalous and best-bred ladies were there: Sempronia, Fulvia, Orestilla herself, of course, Clodia and a few others who were quite famous at the time but whose names have faded from my memory. Aurelia had not made her appearance yet,
The men were as distinguished, by notoriety if not by beauty. Catilina and Curius were there, and Lisas, the Egyptian ambassador. Crassus had not arrived yet, but Caesar was there, forpopularesandoptimatesmingled freely at this sort of affair. He had won a praetorship for the next year and was therefore a bit more aloof than when actually standing for election. He was chatting amiably with Catilina. They were both patricians, after all, and that was a more binding connection than mere political convenience. Indeed, except on the floor of the Senate and on the public speaking platform, it was very difficult to tell one party from the other. Politicians always denied belonging to any faction at all, claiming to act only from disinterested motives of statesmanship. It was their enemies who belonged to parties, they claimed.
There were three men dressed in exotic garb: short jackets with long sleeves, trousers and soft boots. These were the Parthians. As heirs to the Persian empire, they claimed to be civilized and we humored them, as if people who wore trousers could be considered anything but barbarians. They also wore headgear indoors, something done by no Roman except theFlamen Dialis.
I forgot about them when Aurelia appeared. She wore a gown like her mother's, but hers was of flame-colored silk. The material was so thin that it clung when she moved and floated free when she was still. To my great amazement and delight, she ignored the other guests and came to me first. We exchanged formal greetings and then got down to serious dalliance.
"The ambassador's gift is most becoming on you," I said.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she said, her eyes alight. "I'm so glad I got the red one. It suits my coloring much better than the green would have."
"I can only agree."
"Mother looks wonderful in hers, don't you think?"
"Yes, but not as stunning as you." I was enjoying this.
"That's because she hasn't yet realized the possibilities of the material." She smoothed the silk downward, drawing it taut. "For instance, she's wearing astrophiumandsubligaculumunder hers. Well, I suppose when I'm her age I'll need astrophiumtoo, but what's wonderful about a pure silkstolais that it combines the advantages of being decently clad with those of being naked."
I cleared my throat needlessly. "Truly, a marvelous fabric."
"I hear that you will be captain of the Suburrans the day after tomorrow. How exciting."
"Well, one must uphold the honor of the district. I am amazed that you've heard about it so soon. I only accepted the honor yesterday evening."
"It's all over the city. I think it's terribly brave." Her look of adoration almost made up for my fear.
"Oh, the danger is greatly exaggerated. I'm looking forward to it." I could lie with the best of them, in my youth.
"I'll be watching," she promised. "From a safe spot. Now, have you met our guests of honor? I suppose you haven't, the way Mother's been fluttering about. Come along with me." She took my hand and towed me to the group of Parthians. "Ambassador, this is theQuaestorDecius Caecilius Metellus the Younger. Decius, his Excellency, the ambassador Surena."
The Parthian smiled and bowed slightly, his fingertips extended and touching his chest, then his lips and brow. He wore a pointed chin-beard and his long hair was dressed in scented, oily ringlets. The Parthians followed the disgusting Oriental practice of wearing cosmetics. His face was dusted with white powder, with scarlet rouge on lips and cheeks. His eyebrows had been augmented by kohl into a single, black line, high-arched over the eyes and drawn down into a point over the bridge of the nose, so that they resembled a gull in flight, as seen from a distance. More kohl outlined his large, brown eyes. What a prize fop, I thought.
"I bring the greetings of King Phraates," he said. It was a practiced formula and his accent indicated that he was not comfortable with Latin.
"And the Senate and People of Rome extended their warmest greetings to his envoys," I said in Greek, which was spoken everywhere in the East and which, like all wellborn Romans, I was forced to learn in childhood. I longed for the day when we would be able to beat the Greek out of these barbarians and teach them a decent language.
"I think I hear Crassus arriving," Aurelia said. "Excuse me for a moment, gentlemen." I was grieved to see her go, but it gave me an opportunity to admire her shapely bottom as the silk gown performed exactly as she had indicated.
Surena did not seem to be as enthralled with the sight, but then easterners have strange tastes. "Wonderful stuff, silk," I muttered. Surena's eyes brightened within their rings of kohl. Apparently he liked silk better than what it contained.
"It is the gift of the gods. You must come to Parthia some time, and see the great silk bazaar at Ecbatana. It arrives by the camel-load from the Far East."
I was always intrigued by tales from far places. "Are the caravans manned by the Seres?"
He shook his head. "No one in the West has ever seen those people. The silk is many months, even years on the trails before it arrives in Ecbatana. It is traded from one caravan to another and as far as I know nobody has ever traveled the entire route. The Seres are said to be a small, yellow people with tilted eyes, but that could be fable."
"And what is the origin of silk?" I asked him. "One hears the most unlikely theories."
"Then you hear as much as we do," he admitted. "Some think it comes from a plant, like flax, others say that it is spun by giant, domesticated spiders. There is a belief that it is hair from the heads of women, which seems most unlikely, and some maintain that it is produced by tiny worms that eat the leaves of the mulberry bush. Whichever, it makes the lightest, the strongest, the most beautiful fabric in the world." He was wearing a good deal of it himself. "I delivered many bolts, a present from my king, to your General Pompey when we concluded our alliance against Mithridates and Tigranes."
"You were acting as envoy at that time?" I asked.
"No," he said, smiling, "as general of the Parthian forces."
The idea of this overdressed, bedaubed, effeminate foreigner leading an army seemed faintly ludicrous and I assumed that, as in so many monarchies, he received rank through his family relationship to the king. I did not know, of course, that I was speaking to the most powerful man in the Parthian empire. The kings of Parthia were just figureheads selected by the great families of Scythian descent, of which the house of Surena was the greatest. Ten years after this evening, he was to show Crassus and Rome that silk and cosmetics had done nothing to soften Parthia's warlike ferocity.
Then Aurelia and Orestilla arrived, towing Crassus. He exchanged fulsome greetings with the ambassador and, as soon as he could, took me aside. The recent marriage alliance of our families had made him benevolent toward me. Temporarily, at any rate.
"Decius, assure your father that he has my support for next year's censorship election," he said.
"He will rejoice to know it," I told him. "Your support is as good as an assurance of election." This was not much of an exaggeration.
"Getting elected is only the half of it," he reminded me. "I hope he has better luck in his colleague than I did." Two years before, Crassus had had a notably unsuccessful censorship. He and his colleague, the great Catulus, could agree on nothing and each had undone the other's work. Finally, they had both abdicated without even completing the census of citizens, which was their primary duty in office.
"You know my father," I said. "He gets along with nearly everybody. He wants Hortalus to come out of retirement and stand for Censor. They would work well together, but Hortalus has lost his taste for public office since Cicero has risen so high."
"I'll speak with Hortalus," Crassus assured me. "He'll never be able to resist wearing thetoga praetextaone more time, if he can be assured of working with a cooperative colleague."
"That would be a great favor, sir," I said.
He leaned close. "Can you believe these Parthians? They're more contemptible than the Egyptians! Mark me, Decius, as soon as they give us an excuse, I'm going to demand a command against that nation if I have to pay for the whole campaign myself. I'll be looking for legates then. It'll be a good place for a young man to make his military reputation."
"I'll keep it in mind, and I'm honored by the offer." Inwardly, I made a vow to have nothing to do with the East, nor any military adventure led by Crassus, a decision I have never regretted.
He clapped me on the shoulder. "Good lad. And good luck at the festival."
No sooner had Crassus left my side than Catilina sought me out. "Decius, I heard about your captainship of the Subura. Congratulations!"
"Lucius, these constant reminders of my fate are stealing the pleasure from my evening."
He grinned and chuckled. "Think it might get rough, eh? But that's the fun of it. Excitement and honor, that's what life is all about." And there you have Lucius Sergius Catilina: a big twelve-year-old boy who never grew up. Young Marcus Antonius was to become the same sort of man. The two had many qualities in common.
"Have you ever acted in that capacity?" I asked.
"Of course. I captained theVia Sacrawhen I was about your age. That was in the consulate of Carbo and Cinna. I was laid up in bed for a month afterward, but the glory was worth it."
"As it occurs, I have a special hazard this year," I pointed out.
"Right. Clodius represents theVia Sacrathis year. That little--" He looked around. "Clodia's not within hearing, is she? I'll never understand how a woman like that could be sister to a slimy little reptile like Publius." He lowered his voice, conspiratorially. "Look, Decius, I'm going to assign a few of my lads to look out for you. Not all of them live in the Subura, but who's to know, eh?"
I was willing to trust in the protection of my neighbors, but anything that might get me closer to Catilina's doings would be welcome. "Thank you. Ordinarily, it would just be a roughhouse, but I suspect that Publius and his boys may take the opportunity to murder me."
"Just what I was thinking. Never fear, my men will watch out for you. And"--he paused dramatically--"after the festival, I am holding a little get-together here. Only the really important men to attend, if you get my meaning. It'll mean great things for your future, I can promise you."
This was what I had been hoping for. "If I am in any shape to go anywhere at all, I shall be here without fail."
"Good, good. And"--he all but nudged me in the side--"Aurelia's quite taken with you. And that, in turn, pleases Orestilla no end." At that moment, the lady in question appeared at his side and he placed an arm around her shoulders, a sight that would have been shocking in a less sophisticated gathering. At this time, about the only thing that was still regarded as perverted was a public display of affection toward one's wife. It was not as if they were out on a street or in the Forum, but even at a gathering like this it was rather daring. Cato would have called for his exile. Somehow, I found this simple gesture almost ennobling. Even the worst of men have their little affections and redeeming loves, and Sergius Catilina was far from the worst of men, despite what was said about him later.
"We are finally set up," Orestilla told us, slipping an arm around his substantial waist. "Come and let's get dinner started, everyone is starving."
Through the meal, I wondered whether I was just kindly disposed toward Catilina because of what he had said about Aurelia. Could he just be dangling her before me as bait? I did not want to think so, but the very fact that I was willing his words to be true made my own judgment suspect. I could take little pleasure in the banquet. I was couched close enough to a Parthian to smell his perfume, which ruined my appetite, and I dared not drink any wine, since I had to be ready for the ordeal of the festival in two days' time. The conversation was uninspiring as well, for I remember little of it, even though I was sober.
When the dinner was over and the hired acrobats were performing their contortions, I rose from the table and took a walk in the garden, which was rather large for a house within the city walls. To take best advantage of the limited space, it was a labyrinth of hedges high enough to block the sight of nearby buildings, so that one could wander among the plantings and imagine that they were on the grounds of a country estate. Here and there, lamps and small torches provided illumination and fountains played musically in little fishponds.
For the moment, all was serene. Intrigues and horse festivals seemed far away. In the dark nooks and on the other sides of hedges, I could hear whisperings and other, more intimate sounds. I had not been the only one to steal away from the party for a bit of privacy. A voice called my name quietly and I turned to see a shadowy form with a dim light shining behind it.
"Aurelia?" I said, my mouth gone dry. She came closer until I could feel the warmth from her body.
"I'm so glad I found you here," she said, barely whispering. "I wasn't expecting such a crowd tonight and I thought we would have some time together. I have to go back in a few minutes, but you'll be here after the festival, won't you? Sergius said you would."
"Depending upon my condition," I said. I desperately wanted her to stay. "Surely, you don't have to--"
She came even closer. "Oh, I am sure you will come through it gloriously! Just stay behind after everyone else returns home two nights from now, and--then I can treat you as a hero should be treated."
"If I am going to emerge from the festival a hero," I said, "then perhaps you could lend me some more of your luck."
She came into my arms and pressed herself against me, her arms winding around my neck and pulling my head down, first kissing me, then drawing my face into the valley between her breasts. My hands slid over her and the silken gown was like a coating of oil. Voluptuous as she was, her flesh was as firm as that of a young racehorse. My hands tested the firmness of her thighs and buttocks, the rocklike points of her nipples as her tongue played with mine. Then, much too soon, she broke away.
"I must go back. Later, Decius. In two nights, we will have all the time we need." Then she turned and was gone.
I was trembling like a boy who has just had his first, inconclusive experiment with a slave girl. My pulse pounded in my ears and I was sure that my breathing could be heard on the other side of the hedges. I had to readjust mysubligaculumbefore I could return to the house and take my leave. I must have looked a bit wild-eyed and disheveled, but everyone else was far the worse for the wine, so my condition was not remarked upon.
As I made my way home through the dark streets, 1 tried to analyze the things I had seen and heard in the last few days, but Aurelia kept intruding on my thoughts. I was sure that I was missing some terribly obvious things, but my mind never worked properly when I was obsessed with a woman. This may not have been solely a personal failing, as other men have reported similar afflictions.
Whatever my frailties may have been, when I got home I collapsed on my bed in a fever of lust and confusion.Chapter VII
That year, we held the festival of the October Horse in the Forum. In other years, it was usually held in theCampus Martius, but the augurs had seen signs that were unfavorable to theCampus Martins. Mars wanted the festival held within the city walls this year. In earliest times, the festival had always been in the Forum, but in those days the Forum had been an open field. With its present clutter of public buildings, temples, monuments and speakers' platforms it was a rough place to hold a horse race. But by that time the city was spilling out onto theCampus Martiusas well, since it had grown too crowded for the old walls to contain any longer. The old mustering-field for the army was quickly growing as urbanized as the rest of the city.
Holding the race in the Forum was favorable to me in one respect: If it had been in theCampus Martins, the race would have been run in chariots. I was a competent rider, but a wretched charioteer. The chariot has been obsolete for centuries, except for races and ceremonial processions, so I never saw any point in acquiring the skill, although I had taken some lessons out of curiosity. Clodius, on the other hand, was known to practice regularly at the stables of the Greens (he had switched from Red to Green upon becoming a man of the people). It would have been unthinkably disgraceful for any wellborn man to race publicly, but many race-crazed young men practiced assiduously to learn a skill they would never be able to use.
To my further advantage was Clodius himself. He was a bit shorter than I, but of stocky build and he weighed a good many pounds more. Much would depend on the respective strength of the horses we drew. Since they would have been chosen from among the best race-horses of the stables, it was probable that their power would be nearly equal, giving me the advantage.
With half the Subura behind me, I entered the Forum amid thunderous cheers. The whole city seemed to be packed into the ancient city center, or on the balconies and atop the gates and rooftops overlooking it. People had climbed onto the monuments for a better view. Beside me were two other men who would ride for the Subura. They were both handlers for the Circus, expert riders.
Mars in those days was still an extramural god, and had no altar within the city except for a shrine in the house of thePontifex Maximus, so a temporary altar had been erected in front of theRostra, similar to the permanent altar on theCampus Martins. There stood theFlamen Martialisand his attendants, ready to conduct the ceremony. Behind the priest, on theRostra, stood the magistrates of state and the otherpontificesandflamines, the augurs, and a few privileged foreigners.