Read an Excerpt
Clouds clotted the morning sky over Roma, their shadows bruising the buildings in their passing. In the Forum Romanum, such things were ignored; the Forum was alive with farmers driving their animals to the market-stalls just beyond the impressive buildings, their hogs, calves, sheep, goats, and stacked cages of chickens ready for sale. All manner of customers, from well-born women in sedan chairs accompanied by slaves to young men of rank in bigae, their horses on show as much as they themselves, to shopkeepers’ wives selecting the meat for prandium, as well as Praetorian Guards, minor politicians, idlers from the baths, the curious, entertainers, speakers of all kinds, a handful of foreigners in outlandish clothing, a sprinkling of criminals and petty gamblers, slaves, and those with business to do added to the noisy confusion. The babble was loud, enhanced by the marble walls of the buildings surrounding the Forum.
Ragoczy Germainus Sanct-Franciscus strolled the edge of the Forum, his double-woven black trabea and high Persian boots in red leather marking him as a foreigner as much as the winged pectoral device he wore on a collar of heavy silver links. His dark, wavy hair was cut fashionably, and his beard was short and meticulously trimmed; he squinted in the occasional bursts of light, all the while trying to keep clear of the milling crowd. “The Swine Market is always—”
“Chaotic? Overflowing?” asked his companion, Septimus Desiderius Vulpius. “I could not agree more.” He was in a good mood, enjoying himself and anticipating better to come; his toga virilis was a fashionable terra-cotta color, complementing his red-blond hair and short beard. Around his neck on a braided leather thong he wore a small silver sandal with wings, evoking the help of Mercury in today’s endeavors. At twenty-nine, he was the head of his own household, well-married to Filomena Dionesia Crassens, Domina Vulpius, the father of three healthy children, and finally coming into the fortune of his uncle, which had been left to him as his uncle’s only heir. In spite of everything, he thought, life was good.
“Dynamic,” Sanct-Franciscus amended. “And filled to capacity. Still, it is exciting, and apparently removed from all the other problems that have weighed so heavily upon the city.”
“And the Empire; our borders are beleaguered, you mustn’t forget,” added Vulpius, not willing to let these misfortunes mar his day.
“Yes. The Empire has not had an easy time of it,” agreed Sanct-Franciscus, stepping around a group of youngsters engaged in an improvised cockfight; the two combatants were ruffling their feathers and making their first sallies at each other, to the noisy approval of their audience.
Vulpius looked around uneasily. “Caracalla did much damage.”
“Yes, he did,” said Sanct-Franciscus, thinking that Macrinus might not prove much better at ruling the Roman Empire than Caracalla had been.
“The Senate is divided and has done nothing to help the people,” Vulpius declared.
“That is hardly surprising, given the tenor of the times.” Sanct-Franciscus glanced around him at the impressive public buildings. “What would you expect the Senate to do?”
“I don’t know,” Vulpius admitted. “But for most Romans, the choice of Caesar is out of their hands, as it is out of so many.”
Glancing at the marketplace again, Vulpius added, “And no matter who is Caesar, people need to eat.”
“That they do; and judging by the crowds at the market, they will,” said Sanct-Franciscus, and started up the stairs to the massive building where the law courts of the city were currently held, the Basilica Julia, distinguished by its triple colonnade and slightly old-fashioned façade.
“This should not take long; the decuriae have to earn their keep, I suppose,” Vulpius said, a touch of nervousness pinching his voice.
“I have the commoda,” said Sanct-Franciscus, indicating the wallet that hung from his broad belt of black leather.
Vulpius forced a laugh. “It is the merest formality, you know, for his Will was recorded four years ago without qualifications, while my uncle was still alive to endorse all the terms in it. My father-in-law vouched for it before his death.”
“As you say, it is a formality,” Sanct-Franciscus said calmly, nodding to the footman who stood by the door of the building to remind all those arriving to cross the threshold with their right feet. The interior was impressive, the lobby rising three stories above them at the back of the long, triple row of columns, galleries on each floor joined by wide staircases. It was as busy a place as the Forum outside, but without the livestock, and it roared like the sea from the echoes of conversations.
Vulpius went inside right foot first, and smiled. “Our success is assured.”
“I had never any doubt,” said Sanct-Franciscus, looking along the long lobby to the first corridor, noticing that although the people within the Basilica Julia were busy, there were fewer of them than he had expected. “It is the third door on the left, I believe?”
“So I was told,” said Vulpius.
“Then ‘the sooner begun, the sooner ended,’” Sanct-Franciscus reminded him. “Do you agree?”
“That old aphorism has haunted me most of my life,” Vulpius admitted as he tagged after Sanct-Franciscus.
They reached the door and looked for the slave to admit them, but no one was in place to tend to that courtesy. Sanct-Franciscus made a quick scrutiny of the corridor, then shrugged. “Shall we knock?”
“I suppose we’d better,” said Vulpius, and reluctantly tapped on the door. He paused and repeated the summons.
The door opened a bit, revealing a dark, wrinkled face and a slave’s collar. “Your pardon, Citizen of Roma. I forsook my post.” He lowered his head as if for a blow.
“If you will admit us, there is no harm done,” said Sanct-Franciscus before Vulpius could speak.
“Certainly, certainly,” said the slave, his accent identifying him as a native of Carthago on the north coast of Africa as much as the color of his skin. “Mind your step.”
Again Sanct-Franciscus and Vulpius crossed into the room on their right feet, and Vulpius looked around, noticing the low rail that bisected the chamber, with the three writing tables on the far side of the rail. Just at present, no one occupied the tables, and that struck Sanct-Franciscus as odd, and he was about to mention this to Vulpius, when he spoke. “I am expected. Septimus Desiderius Vulpius, heir of Secundus Terentius Vulpius.”
“You are expected?” the slave repeated, sounding puzzled; before Vulpius could answer, “You received a notice from this office?” the slave pursued.
“Yes. I have it with me, if you need to see it, along with my copies of the Will and letter of disposition,” said Vulpius, his increasing tension making him haughty.
“No, that is hardly necessary. I shall inform Telemachus Batsho that you are here,” said the slave. “If you will remain in this room?”
“Certainly,” said Vulpius. “I am more than willing to wait.”
“No need to be nervous,” said Sanct-Franciscus in a lowered voice as the slave left them, going through a small door near the far wall. “This is only a matter of form. The Senate upheld the Will and there is just the matter of recording the transfer of titles. This man Batsho is simply a clerk with an elegant title, and an expectation of commoda for his service.”
“I know; I know,” said Vulpius, snapping his fingers.
“So you need not fret.” Sanct-Franciscus held up his hand.
“Truly,” said Vulpius with a transparent lack of conviction.
“You, yourself, Desiderius, have said that all is settled,” Sanct-Franciscus reminded him; he decided not to mention the absence of clerks, assuming that the afternoon recess began early in these offices, an increasing practice in the law courts of Roma.
“No doubt,” said Vulpius, and shook his head. “Pay no notice to me. I am in a state of anxiety, as you say. I am often thus when dealing with officials, even petty ones like this decuria.” He cleared his throat and touched the silver winged sandal talisman. “It will pass as soon as our waiting is ended.”
“Very good,” said Sanct-Franciscus, and went to the nearest bench where he sat down patiently.
Vulpius began to pace, whistling softly and tunelessly between his teeth. “It was generous of my uncle to provide so well for me.”
“You are his heir. It is fitting,” said Sanct-Franciscus.
“My father would agree; he was the elder brother, which is why his wealth was seized by Caracalla. Fortunately, my uncle was left the vineyards, and flourished when my father was removed from office and exi— Never mind. I’m babbling, and you’ve heard this before.” Vulpius sighed. “I will have to assume responsibility for my two cousins, of course.”
“You knew you would have to,” said Sanct-Franciscus, thinking of the many discussions he and Vulpius had had on this point since January, when the Will was upheld.
“I should do my best to find husbands for them, and dower them as my uncle would have wished. I know what my responsibilities are toward them.” Vulpius was talking as much to himself as to Sanct-Franciscus. “They will want to marry, don’t you think?”
Sanct-Franciscus thought back almost two centuries to the time when women owned property in their own right, requiring no husband, father, brother, or son to control their money and lands. When the first change had come, Sanct-Franciscus had received a flurry of outraged letters from Atta Olivia Clemens, upbraiding the Senate for depriving the women of Roma of their autonomy, and predicting that this would not be the last erosion of women’s position in Roman law. “I would suppose your cousins would want to have access to their legacies however it may be accomplished.”
Vulpius laughed, the edgy echoes lingering in the room. “Husbands protect their wives and daughters. That is expected. Juliana and Caia deserve the care marriage will make possible.” He paced another dozen steps. “A pity my uncle chose to keep them with him for so long.”
“How old are they?” Sanct-Franciscus asked.
“Juliana is twenty-three and Caia is twenty; they’re pretty enough and not overly clever. Not too old, either, but far from as young as many men prefer their wives to be. They like to live in the country, so I do not have to house them with my family; that might be difficult, given the plans Dionesia has for our children.” Vulpius rocked back on his heels, the thongs of his sandals groaning with the strain. “Fortunately, my daughter is still too young for such arrangements, although Fulvius Eugenius Cnaens has spoken to me of the possible union of Linia to his son Gladius.”
“How old is Linia?” Sanct-Franciscus pictured the child in her tunica and palla, hair tangled, running through the Vulpius’ house.
“Nine; I have permitted her until eleven to decide for herself,” said Vulpius. “The contract cannot be settled for another two years, of course, but—” He broke off as the slave returned.
“Telemachus Batsho will be with you in a moment, and bids me tell you that he will not delay you very long. He is looking for the documents you will need to sign and seal.” The slave was apparently impressed with Batsho’s importance, for he lowered his head respectfully as he spoke Batsho’s name.
Almost without thought, Vulpius fingered the cylinder ring on his index finger. “I am ready.”
“Very good,” said the slave. “And your companion will serve as witness?”
“I will,” said Sanct-Franciscus.
“You are a resident foreigner owning property in Roma?” The slave rattled off the question in a manner that suggested he had asked such things many times before.
“Not within the walls, but three thousand paces beyond them,” said Sanct-Franciscus. “I, and those of my blood, have held the land since the days of Divus Julius. Many generations.”
“Hardly a god, was Gaius Julius,” muttered the slave; then, more loudly, “A goodly time. Two centuries, at least.”
“So I have reckoned,” said Sanct-Franciscus.
“The new law will not allow you to reside at your estate if it is outside the walls of the city. By the end of summer, you must have a residence within the walls or your lands beyond them will be subject to partial confiscation,” said Batsho smugly as he came into the room. He made his gesture of respect in an off-handed way, with no attempt to hide his sizing up of the two men before him.
“A little more than a year ago the Roman state almost took my land because I was living in Egypt and ordered that I reside on my Roman lands for three years out of five in order to keep them,” Sanct-Franciscus told the decuria. “I have complied with that order, have I not?”
“This is a honing of that provision,” Batsho said in a manner that closed the subject.
Vulpius stepped closer to the slave. “Is there a problem? I was informed he is a satisfactory witness.”
“That he is, so long as there is record of his property and his family’s claim to it.” The slave moved back from Vulpius.
Telemachus Batsho had been one of the decuriae for nearly a decade and was growing comfortably rich on the commodae he received for doing his job. He was a very ordinary man, in a very ordinary sage-green pallium, with a soft belt of braided, multi-colored wool, and two leather wallets attached to it, one for food and money, one for the badge of his office. His hair was a bit longer than fashion, of a medium-brown color that almost matched his eyes, and he was clean-shaven. He nodded to Vulpius and Sanct-Franciscus, saying as he did, “I believe you have had notification of these signings? I recall that a notice was dispatched to you? Do you have it with you?”
“That I do,” said Vulpius, his chin angled upward. “It is regarding my uncle’s Will. I have my copy with me.”
“Oh, yes; I remember now. The official transference, without reservation, so long as the taxes are paid, and his daughters provided for,” said Telemachus Batsho as if he had a long line of petitioners waiting, all of them unknown to him, all desperate for his services, and all having his four percent commoda to pay for them. “I have the Will among my pigeonholes, if you will permit me to fetch it?” He turned as if to leave, then swung back to look at Sanct-Franciscus with sudden suspicion. “And you are? I need your full name to find the proper records, since it is obvious you are not a relative of Vulpius’.”
“Ragoczy Germainus Sanct-Franciscus,” he answered promptly. “I have a villa beyond the city, on the northeast, some distance from the Praetorian Camp. My title to the land is of long standing, my taxes are paid, and so is my Foreigner’s Fee.”
The decuria studied him carefully, his hands resting on the low rail. “You fully own the villa, or have you some other arrangement for your tenancy?”
“I own it and the land around it,” said Sanct-Franciscus promptly. “It has been held by those of my blood for several generations, as I have said.”
“There are no monies owing on the land, either to the state or private parties?” Batsho asked.
“I own it outright, as did my predecessors.”
Batsho nodded. “I see,” he said flatly. “Very well. I shall ascertain your status and return with the Will and any other documents requiring signing and sealing. It is not a lengthy process, but it has to be done properly. Tuccu, go bring the sealing wax so we can attend to this.”
The slave ducked his head. “At once,” he said, and scurried off.
“If you will give me a moment, I will return with the Will and the Writ of Transfer, and your entitlement document.” Batsho ducked out of the room, a meaningless smile smeared on his lips.
“Officious,” said Vulpius quietly as soon as Batsho was gone.
“He has a high regard for his position,” Sanct-Franciscus agreed. “A small man who enjoys using the power he has. He knows full well why we are here, but it pleases him to make us wait.” He had encountered the type before, and had grown wary of them.
“I’ll be glad when we’re done.” Vulpius fumbled with the buckle on his belt in order to keep his hands busy. “This is a most aggravating procedure.”
“But it is in accord with Roman law,” Sanct-Franciscus reminded him.
“I know, and I know it is necessary. Still, I don’t like it,” said Vulpius.
“It will not last long,” Sanct-Franciscus soothed. “Think of the festivities this evening, when you celebrate this moment.”
Vulpius opened his mouth, but said nothing as Telemachus Batsho returned, three large scrolls of papyrus tucked under his arm. “Here we are. If you would step around the rail, we will go to the second table. I think the light is best there.”
“I will do so,” said Vulpius promptly, relieved to have something to do at last. “What shall I sign with?”
“If you will use that ink-cake?” Batsho pointed to the lipped tray on which it was laid. “We have styluses for you to choose.” He indicated a container of tarnished brass writing implements. “And Tuccu will prepare the wax for your seal.” He nodded toward the slave. “Prepare a lamp, Tuccu, and have the wax ready. The honoratus is not to be kept waiting.”
“My father was honoratus,” Vulpius pointed out. “I am honestiorus.”
“Your pardon, Patronus,” said Batsho. “I had assumed the title was also yours for courtesy if not service.”
“How could it be?” Vulpius asked. “I have not governed anything beyond a provincial town.”
Sanct-Franciscus watched the two with a growing sense of unease; now the lack of other decuriae in the office no longer disconcerted Sanct-Franciscus, for he realized that Batsho was pursuing his own purpose; if a witness were not required for the signatures and seals, Sanct-Franciscus was convinced that Batsho would find some reason to exclude him from this meeting, and the recognition of ulterior motives made him apprehensive.
“Be good enough to ready your seal,” said Batsho.
“If this is what you wish,” said Vulpius, wanting to get on with it. He removed his cylinder ring.
Batsho spread out one of the scrolls. “Read this—it is your acceptance of the conditions and terms of your uncle’s Will.”
“I have a copy of it,” Vulpius reminded him.
“Of course, of course,” said Batsho unctuously. “But it is required that you read the one on file here in my presence.”
Vulpius gave a single, jerky nod. “I understand.” He started to read.
“This is where you sign and seal. Foreigner, if you would—?” He motioned to Sanct-Franciscus. “Come and read this and then sign and seal below this noble man’s signature and seal.”
Sanct-Franciscus saw Batsho’s eyes narrow as he looked at him, and he had a moment’s disquiet as he rose and came around the end of the railing. “Shall I stand by Vulpius, or wait until he has finished, then take the scroll to another table to read and sign?”
“Choose another table, if you would,” said Batsho, as close to dismissing Sanct-Franciscus as he dared to venture.
Sanct-Franciscus selected the smaller of the two, and waited to be handed the scroll. The smell of hot wax caught his attention, and he watched as Vulpius rolled his seal through the dollop of wax on the bottom of the sheet.
“There,” said Vulpius, and handed the scroll to Batsho. “What next?”
Batsho passed the scroll to Sanct-Franciscus, and said, “Witness this, foreigner.”
“I will need wax,” Sanct-Franciscus reminded him.
“Tuccu will attend to you,” Batsho said, snapping his fingers in the direction of the elderly slave.
“Thank you,” said Sanct-Franciscus. “Is there an ink-cake—”
Batsho took the one from Vulpius’ writing table and handed it to Sanct-Franciscus. “Use this and give it back. The patronus has need of it.”
“May I take a stylus?” Sanct-Franciscus asked.
“Go ahead,” said Batsho with a burdened sigh.
“Decuria,” said Vulpius in a cautionary tone, “my witness was born the son of a king. It is improper to treat him as one of the humiliora.” This admonition was delivered with a faint smile. “He is one of the honestiora, as well you know.”
“Son of a foreign king, who has had to seek refuge here,” said Batsho, settling the matter with a mendacious smile. “His records say he is an exile.”
“Do you suppose you could show me which scroll I am to sign next?” Vulpius offered Sanct-Franciscus a slight shrug behind Batsho’s back.
“Of course, Patronus.” His obsequiousness was so obvious that Vulpius had to choke back a laugh.
“This is the accounting of your uncle’s fortune, a compilation of his lands and other holdings, and the makeup of his households. Please review the addition before you sign, and put your seal at the total, to show you acknowledge the amounts as the basis of taxes.” Batsho had moved so that his shoulder was between Vulpius and Sanct-Franciscus.
“And your commoda,” said Vulpius. “Four percent—for every signature.”
“That is the custom,” said Batsho, working to suppress a smile.
“I am prepared, assuming your amounts coincide with my own records,” said Vulpius, another implied warning in his comment.
“And why should they not?” Batsho asked, then went silent as Vulpius held up his hand while he reviewed the various figures on the page. “Is all in order?”
“All but this,” said Vulpius, pointing to the number of slaves listed for the Bononia estate. “There are three more slaves than listed here—two are coopers and one is a vine-man. I have acquired them since this Will was filed with you.” His edginess was growing worse.
“Three more, and all with skills,” said Batsho, making a note on his records.
“The transaction took place ten days ago. I can tell you what I paid: nine aurei and four denarii for each of the coopers and eight for the vine-man.”
“A goodly sum, even for skilled workers,” said Batsho. “I have made a correction, you will sign next to it, as well as at the foot of the scroll, and when you have the transfer in hand, you will provide me with an authenticated copy within a week, or face penalties for such failure. I believe you would like to avoid the penalties.” He nodded once, as if concurring with himself.
“I agree,” said Vulpius. “Sanct-Franciscus will testify to it.” He signed where he was supposed to, and fixed his seal where Batsho pointed. “Another one for you, Sanct-Franciscus,” he said, holding out the sheet.
“Should I sign and seal at the bottom only?” Sanct-Franciscus asked Batsho.
“Of course. Unless you think the addition is incorrect.” He waited, an avaricious light shining at the back of his eyes.
“I am certain Vulpius calculated the sums accurately,” said Sanct-Franciscus, being deliberately more formal.
“Then sign under his final signature, and set your seal under his.” Batsho was already opening the third scroll. “This is your verification to the Senate of your family and its position, as well as your position within it, so that your status as your uncle’s heir cannot be later disputed. It sets out the validation of your claim and your heritage. Any misrepresentation is punishable as fraud.”
“Should I review it?” Vulpius asked.
“If you would. If you have anything to add, append it to the foot of the page; remember each alteration has its own commoda; the law provides for it.” Batsho rounded on Sanct-Franciscus. “Foreigner: is there any record of your family on file in this office?”
Sanct-Franciscus would not be goaded to a hasty reply. “If you mean in this immediate office, I cannot say, for I am not privy to the methods of you decuriae.”
“You mock me,” Batsho said darkly, watching Sanct-Franciscus with an expression of distaste.
“No; I proclaim my ignorance,” said Sanct-Franciscus.
“Do not make light of us,” Batsho said critically. “The courts depend upon our labors.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” said Sanct-Franciscus, aware from his manner that Batsho had taken him in dislike. “There are records of my blood’s titles and lands going back more than two centuries, and I assume they are somewhere in this building,” he said as he held out the second page with his signature and seal drying on it.
Batsho took the scroll and glared at it. “I will have to look into what you’ve said,” he vowed, his muted-brown eyes seething.
“Can’t we get on with this?” Vulpius complained.
Batsho turned back to Vulpius, all accommodating and exuding spurious good-will; when he handed the last scroll to Sanct-Franciscus, he glowered for an instant, then lost all expression as Sanct-Franciscus reached for the sealing-wax and lamp. “Yes, foreign exile, I will look into you.”
Text of a report from Rugeri in Alexandria to Ragoczy Germainus Sanct-Franciscus at Roma, written in Greek, and carried by the merchant ship Minerva; delivered twenty-four days after it was written.
You have no doubt heard that the Emperor’s campaign is not doing well. Everywhere the streets are full of rumors, that Roma will fall, that Caesar is doomed, that the times are evil. We have heard such things in the past, but in this instance, I am fairly certain that there is some basis in fact for all the tattling making the rounds. I should add that Hebseret, the present High Priest of Imhotep, concurs. and not for any reason of omens or alignment of stars, but because of the diminished Roman garrison farther up the Nile, whose Legionaries have been called into Mesopotamia. Hebseret has only just been elevated by his fellows, replacing Mateheb, who died a month after your departure, to his position, and is being especially careful to guard his remaining followers from any harm or discovery. Priests of Imhotep are not much valued by the Romans—you know their distrust of Egyptians—but the Romans are not the most pressing problem they face: there are groups of Christians in this region who are becoming most zealous, and they dislike the old Roman gods as well as the older Egyptian ones.
As you have requested, I have donated fifty aurei to the priesthood to enable them to continue their duties of treating the sick and injured. They have had to reduce their services due to lack of funds, and your gift will restore their temple once again. Hebseret has expressed his gratitude repeatedly, and I am charged with reporting such to you; he has made one journey downriver to Alexandria for the purpose of acquiring certain herbs in the market that are difficult to grow in their temple, nine thousand paces beyond Luxor.
Trade continues brisk, and I anticipate that the Fair Wind and the Polaris will soon arrive at Ostia with ample cargo as well as valuable information. They say all the signs are good for an abundant wheat harvest later in the year, so you may want to assign another ship to the Ostia-Alexandria-Ostia route come August, for we should be able to fill all holds with grain, and I will by then have the latest shipment of Syrian wine to send along. I have been informed that their harvest this year is ample, so in two years there should be many more amphorae of wine to import.
I have acquired a new slave to deal with the records at dockside, for I am not satisfied with the accuracy of the customs agents, and rather than bribe four officials to be precise in their records, I will provide my own tally-maker. The slave is an eastern Greek from Antioch, well-versed in the skills required to do the work properly. His name is Perseus, he is twenty-three, or so he claims, and he is able to read Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Syrian. He was formerly slave to a Byzantine merchant who lost four ships and their cargo to pirates and who, therefore, had to reduce his household. He seems able enough, and not so eager that I suspect his motives for coming to me. I have given him quarters in the second house, with two chambers for his use, and access to our shipping records.
The local decuriae have started to demand five percent instead of four for their services. Since the livelihoods of the decuriae was taken from the hands of the honestiora and put in the hands of the decuriae themselves, it is folly to assume that the decuriae will not do their utmost to ensure their position in the world. If it is happening here in Alexandria, it is likely to happen in Roma, and sooner rather than later, for I do not suppose the Senate is willing to resume the cost of keeping the decuriae at their various posts, and the courts cannot work without them.
When you write to Domina Clemens—as I assume you must do shortly—if you will, include my good wishes to her. I think it is wise that she remain away from Roma, at least until the scramble for the purple is over, and she could return without the risk of being drawn into one faction or another. If you decide to occupy her house near the Temple of Hercules, send me word. I believe it would be a wise move, not only for you, since the house is in good repair and staffed, but it would benefit Olivia as well, for it could not then be taken from her on the excuse that she has no male relatives to manage it for her. I would suppose she would be pleased to have you there, but you know what is apt to be the best disposal of your time and money in that city just now, and so you will weigh my remarks against your own observations, for they have brought you across the centuries, and should continue to do so.
on the 29th day of March, in the 971st Year of the City of Roma, by my own hand
Copyright © 2006 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro