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Roman Blood A Novel of Ancient Rome
By Steven Saylor
Minotaur Books Copyright © 2008 Steven Saylor
All right reserved.
The slave who came to fetch me on that unseasonably warm spring morning was a young man, hardly more than twenty.
Usually, when a client sends for me, the messenger is a slave from the very lowest rung of the household--a grub, a cripple, a half-wit boy from the stables stinking of dung and sneezing from the bits of straw in his hair. It's a kind of formality; when one seeks out the services of Gordianus the Finder, one keeps a certain distance and restraint. It's as if I were a leper, or the priest of some unclean Oriental cult. I'm used to it. I take no offense--so long as my accounts are paid on time and in full.
The slave who stood at my door on this particular morning, however, was very clean and meticulously groomed. He had a quiet manner that was respectful but far from groveling--the politeness one expects from any young man addressing another man ten years his elder. His Latin was impeccable (better than mine), and the voice that delivered it was as beautifully modulated as a flute. No grub from the stables, then, but clearly the educated and pampered servant of a fond master. The slave's name was Tiro.
"Of the household of the most esteemed Marcus Tullius Cicero," he added, pausing with a slight inclination of his head to see if I recognized the name. I did not. "Come to seek your services," he added, "on the recommendation of--"
I took his arm, placed my forefinger over his lips, and led him into the house. Brutal winter had been followed by sweltering spring; despite the early hour, it was already far too hot to be standing in an open doorway. It was also far too early to be listening to this young slave's chatter, no matter how melodious his voice. My temples rolled with thunder. Spidery traces of lightning flashed and vanished just beyond the corners of my eyes.
"Tell me," I said, "do you know the cure for a hangover?"
Young Tiro looked at me sidelong, puzzled by the change of subject, suspicious of my sudden familiarity. "No, sir."
I nodded. "Perhaps you've never experienced a hangover?"
He blushed slightly. "No, sir."
"Your master allows you no wine?"
"Of course he does. But as my master says, moderation in all things--"
I nodded. I winced. The slightest movement set off an excruciating pain. "Moderation in all things, I suppose, except the hour at which he sends a slave to call at my door."
"Oh. Forgive me, sir. Perhaps I should return at a later hour?"
"That would be a waste of your time and mine. Not to mention your master's. No, you'll stay, but you'll speak no business until I tell you to, and you'll join me for breakfast in the garden, where the air is sweeter."
I took his arm again, led him through the atrium, down a darkened hallway, and into the peristyle at the center of the house. I watched his eyebrows rise in surprise, whether at the extent of the place or its condition I couldn't be sure. I was used to the garden, of course, but to a stranger it must have appeared quite a shambles--the willow trees madly overgrown, their hanging tendrils touching tall weeds that sprouted from dusty ground; the fountain at the center long ago run dry, its little marble statue of Pan pocked with age; the narrow pond that meandered through the garden opaque and stagnant, clogged with Egyptian rushes growing out of control. The garden had gone wild long before I inherited the house from my father, and I had done nothing to repair it. I preferred it as it was--an uncontrolled place of wild greenness hidden away in the midst of orderly Rome, a silent vote for chaos against mortared bricks and obedient shrubbery. Besides, I could never have afforded the labor and materials to have the garden put back into formal condition.
"I suppose this must be rather different from your master's house." I sat in one chair, gingerly so as not to disturb my head, and indicated that Tiro should take the other. I clapped my hands and instantly regretted the noise. I bit back the pain and shouted, "Bethesda! Where is that girl? She'll bring us food in a moment. That's why I answered the door myself--she's busy in the pantry. Bethesda!"
Tiro cleared his throat. "Actually, sir, it's rather larger than my master's."
I looked at him blankly, my stomach rumbling now in competition with my temples. "What's that?"
"The house, sir. Bigger than my master's."
"That surprises you?"
He looked down, fearing he had offended me.
"Do you know what I do for a living, young man?"
"Not exactly, sir."
"But you know it's something not quite respectable--at least insofar as anything is worthy of respect in Rome these days. But not illegal--at least insofar as legality has any meaning in a city ruled by a dictator. So you're surprised to find me living in such spacious quarters, as ramshackle as they may be. That's perfectly all right. I'm sometimes surprised myself. And there you are, Bethesda. Set the tray here, between me and my unexpected but perfectly welcome young guest."
Bethesda obeyed, but not without a sidelong glance and a quiet snort of disdain. A slave herself, Bethesda did not approve of my keeping informal company with slaves, much less feeding them from my own pantry. When she had finished unloading the tray, she stood before us as if awaiting further instructions. This was merely a pose. It was obvious to me, if not to Tiro, that what she chiefly wanted was a closer look at my guest.
Bethesda stared at Tiro, who seemed unable to meet her gaze. The corners of her mouth drew back. Her upper lip compressed and curled itself into a subtle arc. She sneered.
On most women, a sneer implies an unattractive gesture of disgust. With Bethesda one can never be so certain. A sneer does nothing to spoil her dark and voluptuous allure. In fact, it may increase it. And in Bethesda's limited but imaginative physical vocabulary, a sneer may mean anything from a threat to a brazen invitation. In this case, I suspect it was a response to Tiro's genteel lowering of the eyes, a reaction to his shy modesty--the sneer of the wily fox for the comely rabbit. I would have thought that all her appetites had been quenched the night before. Certainly mine had been.
"Does my master require anything more?" She stood with her hands at her sides, her breasts upraised, shoulders back. Her eyelids drooped, still heavy with paint from the night before. Her voice carried the sultry, slightly lisping accent of the East. More posing. Bethesda had made up her mind. Young Tiro, slave or not, was worth impressing.
"Nothing more, Bethesda. Run along."
She bowed her head, turned, and made her way out of the garden and into the house, weaving sinuously between the hanging branches of willow. Once her back was turned, Tiro's shyness receded. I followed his gaze, from its origin at his wide-open eyes to its focal point, somewhere just above Bethesda's gently swaying buttocks. I envied him his modesty and shyness, his hunger, his handsomeness, his youth.
"Your master won't allow you to drink, at least not to excess," I said. "Does he allow you to enjoy a woman now and again?"
I was unprepared for the full depth and ruddy richness of his blush, as blood-red as a sunset over the open sea. Only the young with their smooth, soft cheeks and foreheads can blush that way. Even Bethesda was too old ever to blush like that again, assuming she was still capable of blushing at all.
"Never mind," I said. "I have no right to ask you such a question. Here, have some bread. Bethesda makes it herself, and it's better than you might expect. A recipe passed down from her mother in Alexandria. Or so she says--I have my suspicions that Bethesda never had a mother. And though I bought her in Alexandria, her name is neither Greek nor Egyptian. The milk and the plums should be fresh, though I can't vouch for the cheese."
We ate in silence. The garden was still in shadow, but I could feel the sun, palpable, almost menacing, edging along the scalloped tile roof like a burglar planning his descent. By midday the whole garden would be suffused with light, insufferably hot and brilliant, but for now it was cooler than the house, which still retained yesterday's heat. The peacocks suddenly stirred in their corner; the largest of the males gave a shrill call and broke into a strut, displaying his plumage. Tiro glimpsed the bird and gave a start, unprepared for the spectacle. I chewed in silence, wincing at the occasional twinges of pain that flickered from my jaw to my temples. I glanced at Tiro, whose gaze had abandoned the peacock for the empty doorway where Bethesda had made her exit.
"Is that the cure for a hangover, sir?"
He turned to face me. The absolute innocence of his face was more blinding than the sun, which suddenly broke over the rooftop. His name might be Greek, but except for his eyes, all his features were classically Roman--the smooth molding of the forehead, cheeks, and chin; the slight exaggeration of the lips and nose. It was his eyes that startled me, a pale lavender shade I had never seen before, certainly not native to Rome--the contribution of an enslaved mother or father brought to the empire's heart from gods-knew-where. Those eyes were far too innocent and trusting to belong to any Roman.
"Is that the cure for a hangover?" Tiro was saying. "To take a woman in the morning?"
I laughed out loud. "Hardly. More often it's part of the disease. Or the incentive to recover, for the next time."
He looked at the food before him, picking at a bit of cheese politely but without enthusiasm. Clearly he was used to better, even as a slave. "Bread and cheese, then?"
"Food helps, if one can keep it down. But the true cure for a hangover was taught to me by a wise physician in Alexandria almost ten years ago--when I was about your age, I suspect, and no stranger to wine. It has served me well ever since. It was his theory, you see, that when one drank in excess, certain humors in the wine, instead of dissolving in the stomach, rose like foul vapors into the head, hardening the phlegm secreted by the brain, causing it to swell and become inflamed. These humors eventually disperse and the phlegm softens. This is why no one dies of a hangover, no matter how excruciating the pain."
"Then time is the only cure, sir?"
"Except for a faster one: thought. The concentrated exercise of the mind. You see, thinking, according to my physician friend, takes place in the brain, lubricated by the secretion of phlegm. When the phlegm becomes polluted or hardened, the result is a headache. But the actual activity of thought produces fresh phlegm to soften and disperse the old; the more intently one thinks, the greater the production of phlegm. Therefore, intense concentration will speed along the natural recovery from a hangover by flushing the humors from the inflamed tissue and restoring the lubrication of the membranes."
"I see." Tiro looked dubious but impressed. "The logic flows very naturally. Of course, one has to accept the starting premises, which cannot be proved."
I sat back and crossed my arms, nibbling at a piece of crust. "The proof is in the cure itself. Already I'm feeling better, you see, having been called upon to explain the mechanics of this cure. And I suspect I shall be entirely cured in a few minutes, after I've explained what you've come for."
Tiro smiled cautiously. "I fear the cure is failing, sir."
"You've mistaken your pronouns, sir. It's I who am to explain my coming to you."
"On the contrary. It's true, as you could tell from the look on my face, that I've never heard of your master--what was the name, Marcus something-or-other Cicero? A total stranger. Nonetheless, I can tell you a few things about him." I paused, long enough to make sure I had the boy's full attention. "He comes from a very proud family, a trait of which he himself has a full share. He lives here in Rome, but his family originally comes from somewhere else, perhaps to the south; they've been in the city for no more than a generation. They are something more than comfortably wealthy, though not fabulously so. Am I right so far?"
Tiro looked at me suspiciously. "So far."
"This Cicero is a young man, like yourself; I suppose a little older. He's an avid student of oratory and rhetoric, and a follower to some extent of the Greek philosophers. Not an Epicurean, I imagine; perhaps he's a Stoic, though not devoutly so. Correct?"
"Yes." Tiro was beginning to look uncomfortable.
"As for your reason for coming, you are seeking out my services for a legal case which this Cicero will be bringing before the Rostra. Cicero is an advocate, just starting out in his career. Nevertheless, this is an important case, and a complicated one. As for who recommended my services, that would be the greatest of Roman lawyers. Hortensius, of course."
"Of...course." Tiro mouthed the words, barely whispering. His eyes were as narrow as his mouth was wide. "But how could you--"
"And the specific case? A case of murder, I think...."
Tiro looked at me sidelong, his astonishment frankly revealed.
"And not just murder. No, worse than that. Something much worse..."
"A trick," Tiro whispered. He looked away, jerking his head, as if it took a great effort to tear his gaze from mine. "You do it somehow by looking into my eyes. Magic..."
I pressed my fingertips to my temples, elbows akimbo--partly to soothe the pressure of my throbbing temples, but also to mimic a mystic's theatrical posing. "An unholy crime," I whispered. "Vile. Unspeakable. The murder of a father by his own son. Parricide!"
I released my temples and sat back in the chair. I looked my young guest straight in the eye. "You, Tiro of the household of Marcus Tullius Cicero, have come to seek my services to assist your master in his defense of one Sextus Roscius of Ameria, who stands accused of killing the father whose name he bears. And--my hangover is completely gone."
Tiro blinked. And blinked again. He sat back and ran his forefinger over his upper lip, his brows drawn pensively together. "It is a trick, isn't it?"
I gave him the thinnest smile I could manage. "Why? You don't believe I'm capable of reading your mind?"
"Cicero says there's no such thing as second sight or mind reading or foretelling the future. Cicero says that seers and portents and oracles are all charlatans at worst, actors at best, playing on the crowd's credulity."
"And do you believe everything master Cicero says?" Tiro blushed. Before he could speak I raised my hand. "Don't answer. I would never ask you to say anything against your master. But tell me this: Has Marcus Tullius Cicero ever visited the oracle at Delphi? Has he seen the shrine to Artemis at Ephesus and tasted the milk that flows from her marble breasts? Or climbed the great pyramids in the dead of night and listened to the voice of the wind rushing through the ancient stones?"
"No, I suppose not." Tiro lowered his eyes. "Cicero has never been outside of Italy."
"But I have, young man." For a moment, I was lost in thought, unable to pull free from a flood of images, sights, sounds, smells of the past. I looked around the garden and suddenly saw just how tawdry it was. I stared at the food before me and realized how dry and tasteless the bread was, how sour the cheese had gone. I looked at Tiro, and remembered who and what he was, and felt foolish for expending so much energy to impress a mere slave.
"I've done all those things, seen all those places. Even so, I suspect in many ways I'm an even greater doubter than your skeptical master. Yes, it's merely a trick. A game of logic."
"But how can simple logic yield new knowledge? You told me you had never heard of Cicero before I came here. I've told you nothing at all about him, and yet you're able to tell me exactly why I've come. It's like producing coins out of thin air. How can you create something out of nothing? Or discover a truth without evidence?"
"You miss the point, Tiro. It's not your fault. I'm sure you're able to think as well as the next man. It's the sort of logic that's taught by Roman rhetors that's the problem. Retrying ancient cases, refighting ancient battles, learning grammar and law by rote, and all with the point of learning how to twist the law to the client's advantage, with no regard for right or wrong, or up or down for that matter. Certainly with no regard for the simple truth. Cleverness replaces wisdom. Victory justifies all. Even the Greeks have forgotten how to think."
"If it's only a trick, tell me how it's done."
I laughed and took a bite of cheese. "If I explain, you'll have less respect for me than if I leave it a mystery."
Tiro frowned. "I think you should tell me, sir. Otherwise, how will I cure myself in the event that I'm ever lucky enough to be allowed to have a hangover?" A smile showed through the frown. Tiro was capable of striking poses no less than Bethesda. Or myself.
"Very well." I stood up and stretched my arms over my head and was surprised to feel hot sunshine bathing my hands, as palpable as if I had immersed them in steaming water. Half the garden was filled with light. "We'll take a walk around the garden, while it's still cool enough. Bethesda! I will explain my deductions, Bethesda will take away the food--Bethesda!--and order will be restored."
We walked slowly, circling the pond. Across the water Bast the cat was stalking dragonflies, her black fur gleaming in the sunlight.
"Very well, how do I know what I know about Marcus Tullius Cicero? I said he comes from a proud family. That much is obvious from his name. Not the family name Tullius, which I've heard before, but the third name, Cicero. Now the third name of a Roman citizen generally identifies the family branch--in this case the Cicero branch of the Tullius family. Or, if no branch name exists, it may be unique to the individual himself, usually describing a physical feature. Naso for a man with a large nose, or Sulla, the name of our esteemed and worthy dictator, so-called for his florid complexion. In either case, Cicero is a most peculiar-sounding name. The word refers to the common chick-pea and can hardly be flattering. What exactly is the case with your master?"
"Cicero is an old family name. They say it comes from an ancestor who had an ugly bump on the tip of his nose, clefted down the middle, something like a chick pea. You're right, it does sound odd, though I'm so used to it I hardly think of it. Some of my master's friends say he should drop the name if he means to go into politics or law, but he won't hear of it. Cicero says that if his family saw fit to adopt such a peculiar name, then the man who first bore that name must have been quite extraordinary, even if no one remembers why. He says he intends to make all Rome know the name of Cicero and respect it."
"Proud, as I said. But of course that would apply to virtually any Roman family and certainly to any Roman lawyer. That he lives in Rome I took for granted. That his family roots are to the south I assumed from the name Tullius. I remember having encountered it more than once on the road to Pompeii--perhaps in Aquinum, Interamna, Arpinum--"
"Exactly," Tiro nodded. "Cicero has relatives all through that region. He himself was born in Arpinum."
"But he did not live there past the age of, oh, nine or ten."
"Yes--he was eight when his family moved to Rome. But how do you know that?"
Bast, having given up on catching dragonflies, was rubbing herself against my ankles. "Think, Tiro. Ten is the age for a citizen's formal education to begin, and I suspect, given his knowledge of philosophy and your own erudition, that your master was not educated in a sleepy little town off the road to Pompeii. As for the family not having been in Rome for more than a generation, I assumed that from the very fact that the name Cicero is unfamiliar to me. Had they been here from the time I was young, I would surely have at least heard of them--and I wouldn't forget a name like that. As for Cicero's age and wealth and his interest in oratory and philosophy, all that is evident simply from observing you, Tiro."
"A slave is the mirror of his master. Your unfamiliarity with the dangers of wine, your modesty with Bethesda, these indicate that you serve in a household where restraint and decorum are of utmost concern. Such a tone can only be set by the master himself. Cicero is clearly a man of rigorous morals. This can be indicative of purely Roman virtues, but your comment about moderation in all things indicates an appreciation of Greek virtue and Greek philosophy. There is also a great emphasis on rhetoric, grammar, and oratory in the house of Cicero. I doubt that you yourself have ever received a single formal lesson in these fields, but a slave can absorb much from regular exposure to the arts. It shows in your speech and manner, in the polished tones of your voice. Clearly, Cicero has studied long and hard in the schools of language.
"All of which, taken together, can mean only one thing: that he wishes to be an advocate and present legal cases before the Rostra. I would have assumed so at any rate, from the very fact that you came to ask for my services. Most of my clients--at least the respectable ones--are either politicians or lawyers or both."
Tiro nodded. "But you also knew that Cicero was young and just beginning in his career."
"Yes. Well, if he were an established advocate, I would have heard of him already. How many cases has he presented?"
"Only a few," Tiro acknowledged, "and nothing you would have heard about."
"Which further confirms his youth and inexperience. As does the fact that he sent you at all. Would it be fair to say that you're Cicero's most trusted slave? His favorite servant?"
"His personal secretary. I've been with him all my life."
"Carried his books to classes, drilled him in grammar, prepared his notes for his first case before the Rostra?"
"Then you are not the sort of slave that most advocates send when they wish to call upon Gordianus the Finder. Only a fledgling advocate, embarrassingly ignorant of common custom, would bother to send his right hand to my door. I'm flattered, even though I know the flattery is unintentional. To show my gratitude, I promise not to spread the word that Marcus Tullius Cicero made an ass of himself by sending his best slave to fetch that wretched Gordianus, explorer of dung heaps and infiltrator of hornet's nests. They'd get a bigger laugh out of that than they ever will out of Cicero's name."
Tiro wrinkled his brow. The tip of my sandal caught on a willow root. I stubbed my toe and stifled a curse.
"You're right," Tiro said quietly, sounding very earnest. "He's quite young, just as I am. He doesn't yet know all these little tricks of the legal profession, the silly gestures and empty formalities. But he does know what he believes in, which is more than you can say for most advocates."
I gazed down at my toe, surprised to see that it wasn't bleeding. There are gods in my garden, rustic and wild and unkempt like the garden itself. They had punished me for teasing a naive young slave. I deserved it. "Loyalty becomes you, Tiro. Just how old is your master?"
"Cicero is twenty-six."
"A bit older than I would have guessed, both of you. Then I'm not ten years older than you, Tiro, but only seven. Still, seven years can make a great difference," I said, contemplating the passion of young men out to change the world. A wave of nostalgia passed through me as gently as the faint breezed that rustled through the willow above our heads. I glanced down into the pond and saw the two of us reflected in a patch of clear water sparkling in the sunlight. I was taller than Tiro, broader in the shoulders and heavier in the middle; my jaw was more prominent, my nose flatter and more hooked, and my eyes, far from being lavender, were a staid Roman brown. All we seemed to have in common were the same unruly black curls; mine were beginning to show strands of gray.
"You mentioned Quintus Hortensius," Tiro said. "How did you know that it was he who recommended you to Cicero?"
I laughed softly. "I didn't know. Not for certain. That was a guess, but a good one. The look of amazement on your face immediately confirmed that I was right. Once I knew for a fact that Hortensius was involved, everything became clear to me.
"Let me explain. One of Hortensius's men was here, perhaps ten days ago, sounding me out about a case. The one who always comes to me when Hortensius needs my help--just thinking of the creature makes me shudder. Where do men like Hortensius find such abominable specimens? Why do they all end up in Rome, cutting one another's throats? But of course you wouldn't know about that side of the legal profession. Not yet.
"At any rate, this man from Hortensius comes to my door. Asks me all sorts of unrelated questions, tells me nothing--lots of mystery, lots of posing, the sort of wheedling these types engage in when they want to know if the opposition has already approached you about a case. They always think the enemy has gotten to you first, that you'll go along and pretend to help them anyway, then stab them in the back at the last moment. I suppose it's what they themselves would do in my place.
"Finally he goes his way, leaving a smell in the foyer that Bethesda can't eradicate with three days' scrubbing, along with only two clues as to what he was talking about: The name Roscius, and the town of Ameria--did I know the one, had I ever been to the other? Roscius is the name of a famous comedian, of course, one of Sulla's favorites, everybody knows that. But that's not whom he meant. Ameria is a little town up in the Umbrian hill country, fifty miles or so north of Rome. Not much reason to go there, unless you want to take up farming. So my answer was no, and no again.
"A day or two passed. Hortensius's handyman didn't come back. I was intrigued. A few questions here and there--it didn't take much checking to uncover what it was all about: the parricide case upcoming at the Rostra. Sextus Roscius of the town of Ameria stands accused of plotting the murder of his own father here in Rome. Odd--no one seems to know much about the matter, but everyone tells me I'm better off staying clear of it. An ugly crime, they say, certain to be an ugly trial. I kept expecting Hortensius to contact me again, but his creature never reappeared. Two days ago I heard that Hortensius had withdrawn from the defense."
I gave Tiro a sidelong glance. He kept his eyes on the ground as we walked, hardly looking at me, yet I could almost feel the intensity of his concentration. He was an excellent listener. Had he been other than a slave, what a fine pupil he would have made, I thought; and perhaps, in another life, in another world, I might have made a fine teacher of young men.
I shook my head. "Hortensius and his creature and this mysterious trial--I had put it out of my thoughts completely. Then you showed up at my door, telling me I'd been 'recommended.' By whom? Possibly, I thought, by Hortensius, who seems to have thought it wiser to pass along the parricide case to someone else. To a younger advocate, probably, someone less experienced. A beginning lawyer who would be excited at the prospect of a major case, or at least a case with such a harrowing penalty. An advocate who wouldn't know any better--who wouldn't be in a position to know whatever it is that Hortensius knows. Once you confirmed that it was Hortensius who'd recommended me, it was simple to proceed to the final pronouncement, steered along at every turn by the reactions on your face--which, by the way, is as clear and easy to read as Cato's Latin." I shrugged. "To some extent, logic. To some extent, a hunch. I've learned to use both in my line of work."
We walked along in silence for a moment. Then Tiro smiled and laughed. "So you do know why I've come. And you know what I was to ask you. I hardly have to say a word. You make it very easy."
I shrugged and spread my hands in a typical Roman gesture of false modesty.
Tiro furrowed his brow. "Now if only I could read your thoughts--but I'm afraid that will take some practice. Or does the fact that you've treated me so well already mean that you agree--that you'll lend your services as Cicero needs them? He understands from Hortensius how you work, the fees you'll expect. Will you do it?"
"Do what? I'm afraid my mind reading stops here. You'll have to be more specific."
"Will you come?"
"To Cicero's house." Seeing the blank expression on my face, Tiro searched for a clearer explanation. "To meet with him. To discuss the case."
This stopped me so abruptly that my scraping sandals actually raised a small cloud of dust. "Your master truly is ignorant of decorum, isn't he? He asks me to his house. Asks me, Gordianus the Finder? As a guest? How strange. Yes, I think I very much want to meet this Marcus Tullius Cicero. Heaven knows he needs my help. What a strange one he must be. Yes, of course I'll come. Just allow me to change into something more appropriate. My toga, I suppose. And shoes, then, not sandals. It will only take a moment. Bethesda! Bethesda!"
Excerpted from Roman Blood by Steven Saylor Copyright © 2008 by Steven Saylor. Excerpted by permission.
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