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The Lightning Reader
Lucius woke with a start.
He had been dreaming. In his dream there was no earth, only a dark, empty sky, and beyond the sky, unimaginably vast, the crystalline firmament in which the stars shone brightly. No clouds obscured the stars, and yet there was lightning in the dream, lightning without thunder, random flashes of blinding light that illuminated great flocks of birds that suddenly filled the dark sky. There were vultures and eagles, ravens and crows, every sort of bird imaginable, soaring and flapping their wings, yet making no more sound than the silent lightning. The dream had filled him with a sense of urgency and confusion.
Awake now, Lucius heard a faint rumble of thunder in the distance.
He heard other sounds from elsewhere in the house. The slaves were up and beginning to stir, stoking the kitchen fire and opening shutters.
Lucius jumped from his bed. His room, with a small balcony looking west, was on the upper floor of the house. Below him was the slope of the Aventine Hill. The nearer houses, along the crest of the hill, were large and well made, like his family’s house. Farther down the hill, humbler houses and tenements and artisans’ workshops were crowded close together, and farther yet was a flat expanse with large granaries and ware houses close to the Tiber. At the river the city ended. On the far side of the Tiber, woods and meadows were divided into the private estates of the rich, which extended to the far horizon of hills and mountains.
How his mother hated this view! Born into a wealthy branch of the Cornelius family, she had grown up in a house on the other, more fashionable side of the Aventine Hill, with a view of the vast Circus Maximus below, the Capitoline Hill crowned by temples off to one side, and, directly opposite, the opulent Palatine Hill, where the emperor lived. “Why, from our rooftop, when I was a girl,” she would say, “I could see the smoke from sacrifices on the Capitoline, watch the chariot races below, and even catch a glimpse of the emperor himself, strolling on one of his terraces across the way.” (“All at the same time, Camilla?” Lucius’s father would say, gently mocking her.) But this was the view Lucius had grown up with. For twenty-four years this had been the Roma seen from his room, a jumble of the rich and poor—mostly the poor—where slaves labored endlessly in vast store houses to accommodate all the goods and grain that arrived day after day, carried up the river from the great world beyond, the world that belonged to Roma.
The month of Maius had been overcast and rainy so far, and this day promised to be no different. By the dim light of dawn beneath an overcast sky, Lucius saw the towering cypress trees along the Tiber sway this way and that. The blustering winds were warm and carried the smell of rain. In the far distance, black storm clouds roiled on the horizon, bristling with lighting.
“Perfect weather for an augury!” whispered Lucius.
His room was sparsely furnished with a narrow bed and a single backless chair, a small pigeonhole bookcase filled with scrolls left over from his childhood education, a mirror on a stand made of burnished copper, and a few trunks to accommodate his clothing. He opened the most ornate of the trunks and carefully removed the special garment it contained.
Ordinarily, he would have waited for a slave to help him dress—arranging the folds correctly was a complicated task—but Lucius could not wait. The garment was not simply a toga, such as the one he had put on when he became a man at the age of seventeen. It was a trabea, the special garment worn only by augurs, the members of the ancient priesthood trained to divine the will of the gods. It was not white but saffron with broad purple stripes. Except for the fitting, when the tailor had made it for him, this was the first time Lucius had even touched the trabea. The never-worn wool was soft and thick and had a fresh smell of murex dye.
He put on the garment and did his best to pull the hanging folds into a proper arrangement. He glanced at himself in the copper mirror, then reached into the trunk again. He picked up a slender ivory wand that ended in a little spiral. The lituus was a family heirloom and a familiar friend; Lucius had spent countless hours practicing with it in preparation for this day. But now he looked at the lituus with fresh eyes, studying the intricate carvings that decorated every part of its surface with images of ravens, crows, owls, eagles, vultures, and chickens, as well as foxes, wolves, horses, and dogs—all the various creatures from whose actions a trained augur could interpret the will of the gods.
He left his room and descended the stairs, crossed the garden surrounded by a peristyle at the center of the house, and stepped into the dining room, where his mother and father reclinined together on a couch while a slave served their breakfast.
His mother was wearing a simple stola, with her long hair not yet combed and pinned for the day. She leaped up from her couch. “Lucius! What are you doing dressed in your trabea already? You can’t eat breakfast wearing that! What if you get food on it? The ceremony is hours away. We’ll be going to the baths first. The barber must shave you and your father—”
Lucius laughed. “Mother, I did it on a whim. Of course I won’t wear it to breakfast. But what do you think?”
Camilla sighed. “You look splendid, Lucius. Absolutely splendid! As handsome as ever your father was in his trabea. Don’t you think so, dear?”
Lucius’s father, who strove always to maintain the restraint proper to a man of his standing—a patrician, a senator, and a cousin of the emperor—merely nodded. “Handsome our boy certainly is. But looking pretty is not the point when a man puts on his trabea. A priest must carry his garment as he carries his lituus, with dignity and authority, as befits the intermediary of the gods.”
Lucius drew back his shoulders, raised his chin, and held forth his lituus. “What do you think, father? Do I look properly dignified?”
The elder Lucius Pinarius looked at his son and raised an eyebrow. To him, young Lucius often still looked like a boy, and never more so than at this moment, dressed up in priestly finery but with the folds of his trabea tucked and draped haphazardly, like a child in grown-up costume. Twenty-four was very young for a man to be inducted into the college of augurs. The elder Pinarius had been in his forties before the honor came to him. With his black hair mussed from sleeping, his broad smile, and his smoothly handsome features, young Lucius hardly fit the standard image of the wrinkled, gray-haired augur. Still, the young man came from a long line of augurs, and he had shown great aptitude in his studies.
“You look very fine, my son. Now, go change into a nice tunic. We shall have a bite to eat, then be off to the baths for a wash and a shave, then hurry back home to get ready for the ceremony. Hopefully, the storm will hold off and we won’t be drenched with rain.”
Having a slave arrange the trabea certainly made a difference, Lucius had to admit, as he studied himself in the copper mirror later that day. The sight of himself freshly groomed and properly outfitted in his trabea filled him with confidence. Of course, he was not an augur quite yet. Preceding the induction ceremony there would be a final examination in which Lucius would be called upon to demonstrate his skills. Lucius frowned. He was a little nervous about the examination.
This time, when he descended from his room, his mother almost swooned at the sight of him. His father, now dressed in his own trabea and carrying his own lituus, gave him a warm smile of approval.
“Shall we be off, father?”
“Not quite yet. You have a visitor.”
Across the garden, a young man and a girl were seated on a bench beneath the peristyle.
“Acilia!” Lucius began to run to her, then slowed his pace. A trabea was not made for running, and it would not do to catch the soft wool on a thorn as he passed the rose bushes.
Acilia’s older brother rose to his feet, nodded curtly, and discreetly withdrew. Looking over his shoulder, Lucius saw that his parents had also disappeared, to allow him a moment of privacy with his betrothed.
Lucius took her hands in his. “Acilia, you look beautiful today.” It was true. Her honey-colored hair was worn long and straight, as befitted an unmarried girl. Her eyes were bright blue. Her cheeks were as smooth as rose petals. Her petite body was largely hidden by her modest, long-sleeved tunica, but during the year that they had been betrothed she had definitely begun to acquire the contours of a woman’s body. She was ten years younger than Lucius.
“Look at you, Lucius—so handsome in your trabea!”
“That’s what my mother said.” As they strolled across the garden, he suddenly felt self-conscious about their surroundings. Lucius was acutely aware that the house of Acilia’s father was far grander than that of the Pinarii, more lavishly furnished, tended by more house hold slaves, and located on the more fashionable side of the Aventine Hill, near the Temple of Diana. The Acilii were plebeians, descended from a family far less ancient than the patrician Pinarii, but the Acilii had a great deal of money, while the fortunes of the Pinarii had dwindled in recent years. Lucius’s late grandfather had owned a fine mansion on the Palatine, but his debts had forced the family to move to their current accommodations. To be sure, the vestibule of their house contained the wax masks of many venerable ancestors, but that was not the sort of thing to impress a girl. Had Acilia noticed how overgrown and untended the garden was? Lucius remembered the perfectly trimmed hedges and topiaries, the marble walkways and expensive pieces of bronze statuary in the garden at Acilia’s house. The roof of the peristyle behind Acilia was missing more than a few tiles, and the wall was unsightly with peeling plaster and water stains. The slave who was supposed to tend the garden was already overworked with other duties, and there was no money to repair the roof or the wall.
Lack of money: that was the reason they were not yet married. Acilia’s father, after the initial excitement of betrothing his daughter to the patrician son of a senator and a cousin of the emperor, had since found one excuse after another to postpone setting a date for the ceremony. Obviously, having discovered more about the Pinarii’s finances, Titus Acilius had grown dubious about Lucius’s prospects in the world. From the moment Lucius first saw her, at a meeting arranged by their fathers, Lucius had liked Acilia; since then he had fallen hopelessly in love with her, and she seemed to feel the same. But that counted for nothing unless her father could be swayed to approve the union.
Acilia said nothing about the state of the garden or the unsightly wall. She gazed admiringly at the lituus he carried.
“Such ornate carvings! What is it made of?”
“From the tusk of an elephant?”
“So they say.”
“It’s very beautiful.”
“It’s been in the family a long time. You can tell the ivory is very old, because of the color. Many generations of Pinarii have been augurs, taking auspices at state ceremonies, on battlefields, at temple dedications. And at private events, as well, like … weddings.”
Acilia seemed duly impressed. “And only men from the ancient patrician families can become augurs?”
“That’s right.” And I can give you a patrician son, he thought. Yet even as he basked in her admiration, he heard a scurrying noise and looked up to see a rat running along the roof of the peristyle behind her. With a flick of its long tail, the rat dislodged a loose tile. Hearing Lucius gasp, Acilia look around just in time to see the tile fall and shatter on a paving stone. She jumped and uttered a little cry. Had she seen the rat?
To distract her, he seized her shoulder, spun her around to face him, and kissed her. It was only a quick kiss, but still she looked astonished.
“Lucius, what if my brother should see?”
“See what? This?”
He kissed her again, not as quickly.
She drew back, blushing but looking pleased. Directly in front of her was the amulet on the necklace that Lucius was wearing. It had slipped from inside his trabea and lay nestled amid the saffron-and-purple folds.
“Is that part of your augur’s outfit?” she said.
“No. It’s a family heirloom. My grandfather gave it to me when I ten years old. I wear it only on special occasions.”
“May I touch it?”
She reached up to touch the little lump of gold, which was vaguely cruciform in shape.
“I remember the day my grandfather gave it to me. He showed me the proper way to wear a toga, and then took me all around the city, just the two of us. He showed me the exact spot where his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, was murdered. He showed me the Great Altar of Hercules, the most ancient shrine in the city, which was erected by the Pinarius family in the days before Roma even existed. He showed me the fig tree on the Palatine where Romulus and Remus and their friend Pinarius climbed among the branches. And finally he showed me the Temple of Venus that Caesar built, and that was the first time I saw the fantastic golden statue of Cleopatra inside. My grandfather knew Cleopatra very well, and he knew Marcus Antonius, too. Someday … someday I want to have a son, and take him to see all those things, and tell him about his ancestors.”
Acilia still held the amulet. As he spoke, she had drawn closer to him, until her body pressed gently against his. She gazed at the amulet, then looked up into his eyes.
“But what sort of amulet is this? I can’t make out the shape.”
Lucius shook his head. “It’s funny, my grandfather made such a fuss about giving it to me, but even he wasn’t sure what it’s supposed to represent or where it came from. He only knew that it had been in the family for many generations. The original shape must have worn away over so many lifetimes.”
“There’s nothing like that in our family,” said Acilia, clearly impressed. She was so close that Lucius felt an urge to put his arms around her and hold her tightly against him, no matter that her brother might appear at any moment. But the sky above them suddenly opened and pelted the garden with rain. The raindrops were warm, and Lucius would have been happy to stand there, holding her, both of them getting soaking wet, but Acilia dropped the amulet, seized his hand, and with a shriek of laughter pulled him through the peristyle and into the house.
They found Lucius’s father and Acilia’s brother sitting next to each other in a pair of matching ebony chairs with inlays of lapis and abalone. It was no accident that his father had guided their guest to the best two pieces of furniture in the house.
Marcus Acilius was only a few years older than his sister and had the same golden hair and bright blue eyes. “But it’s been five years since the disaster that took place in the Teutoberg Forest,” he was saying, “and still nothing has been done to settle the score with the Germanic tribes. They’re laughing at us. It’s a scandal!”
“So, the rain has driven you inside.” Lucius’s father looked up at the couple and smiled warmly at Acilia. He wanted the marriage to take place as badly as Lucius did. “Marcus and I have been talking about the situation in the north.” He turned his attention back to Acilia’s brother.
“You’re a young man, Marcus. Five years seems to you a very long time. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s no more than the blink of an eye. This city was not built in a day, nor was the empire conquered in a lifetime. To be sure, for a long time, Roma seemed unstoppable. Ever outward our legions pushed the limits of the empire, and all obstacles fell before us. To the north, my father’s great-uncle Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and set the stage for our cousin Augustus to push beyond the Rhine and conquer the Germans. The wild tribes were pacified. Their leaders were won over with the privileges of Roman citizenship. Cities were built, temples were dedicated to the gods, taxes were collected, and Germania became a province like any other.
“And then came Arminius, or Hermann as the Germans call him, a German who was trained to fight by Romans, who was given all the benefits of Roman hospitality, and who repaid us by the most despicable treachery. On the pretext of stamping out a small uprising, he lured three Roman legions into the Teutoberg Forest—then staged an ambush. Not a single Roman escaped. Arminius’s men weren’t satisfied with simple slaughter. They desecrated the corpses, chopping them into pieces, hanging their limbs from trees and mounting their heads on stakes. A thoroughly disgusting business, to be sure—but not the end of Roma’s interests in Germania. The massacre in the Teutoberg Forest took place because of the ambitions of one man, Arminius, who wants to turn the province we have built into his personal kingdom. The man is nothing more than a thief. I hear he dares to call himself ‘Augustus of the North,’ if you can believe such effrontery!
“But never fear, young Marcus. Our efforts so far to punish Arminius and bring the situation under control have been thwarted, but not for much longer. As a senator I can assure you that the emperor’s attention to this matter is unwavering. Not a day passes that he does not take some action to correct it. And what Augustus sets out to do, Augustus does.”
“But the emperor is seventy-five years old,” said Marcus.
“True, but there are younger, more vigorous members of his family with military expertise. His stepson Tiberius is a very fit commander; it was Tiberius’s late brother, Drusus Germanicus, who conquered the province in the first place. And there’s Germanicus’s son, who’s eager to earn the name his father handed down to him by his own victories. Never fear, Marcus. It will take time and effort and no small amount of bloodshed, but the province of Germania will be pacified. Ah, but listen to me, rambling on about warfare and politics in the presence of one with such tender sensibilities.” He smiled again at Acilia.
Excerpted from Empire by Steven Saylor.
Copyright © 2010 by Steven Saylor.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.