Roman Games (Plinius Secundus Series #1)by Bruce Macbain
Rome: September, 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected.
Pliny is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games, have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If/i>
Rome: September, 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected.
Pliny is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games, have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can't identify the murderer in that time, Verpa's entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena.
Pliny, a very respectable young senator and lawyer, teams up with Martial, a starving author of bawdy verses and denizen of the Roman demimonde. Pooling their respective talents, they unravel a plot that involves Jewish and Christian 'atheists,' exotic Egyptian cultists, and a missing horoscope that forecasts the emperor's death.
Their investigation leads them into the heart of the palace, where no one is safe from the paranoid emperor. As the deadline approaches, Pliny struggles with the painful dilemma of a good man who is forced to serve a brutal regime—a situation familiar in our own age as well.
The novel provides an intimate glimpse into the palaces and tenements, bedrooms and brothels of imperial Rome's most opulent and decadent age.
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Roman GamesA Plinius Secundus Mystery
By Bruce Macbain
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Bruce Macbain
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE SIXTEENTH REGNAL YEAR OF THE EMPEROR TITUS FLAVIUS DOMITIANUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS CONQUEROR OF GERMANY, CONQUEROR OF DACIA CONSUL, CENSOR FOR LIFE OUR LORD AND GOD
The eleventh day before the Kalends of Germanicus [formerly September]. The sixth hour of the day. The island of Pandateria in the Bay of Naples.
A brassy sun beat down on the barren rock that for six weeks and four days had been Flavia Domitilla's prison. She hurried along the path that wound down from the house to the black volcanic beach and, squinting into the sun, searched the haze for sign of a fishing boat coming over from Pontia. But the youth was here before her and was already waiting at the water's edge. He gave a low whistle.
She glanced up over her shoulder to the white-washed cottage, far from the harbor, where she lived under the eye of her jailers. They dozed through the noonday heat. She reached into her bosom for the small packet wrapped in a square of silk cut from the hem of her gown. Her jailers would not allow her writing materials, but Flavia Domitilla had been very clever. She had trimmed scraps of papyrus from a volume of poetry which she had brought with her into exile, and by wetting the edges and pressing them together she had made two half-sheets large enough to print a message in tiny script using lamp black mixed with water for ink.
"The letter marked with an 'S'—this one, it curls like a snake, you see? Think of the 'sss' of a snake. Deliver it to Stephanus—sstephanus—my house-steward. Our villa is on the Via Appia at the third milestone. Ask for the house of Flavius Clemens, my husband, I mean—was my husband. After you've done that, then deliver the letter marked with a 'V' to Sextus ... Ingentius ... Verpa." She pronounced the name slowly to the youth, as though she were speaking to an idiot. "Look how the V is shaped like your hand when you raise it to say 'vale' to your friends; the same sound—vale, Verpa. He lives in Rome, in a big house with red columns near the east end of the Circus Flaminius. Anyone can show you. Give it to no one but him, you understand?"
The boy nodded.
"And when you've delivered both letters, come back here and describe Verpa to me exactly so that I know you haven't cheated me and I will give you the other pearl earring."
She needn't have given up her pearl earrings, which were worth more than all the fish this boy could catch in a year. To help a cruelly imprisoned lady, to see Rome and go inside a rich man's house, the youth would have done it for nothing.
He extended a brown and muscular arm to take the packet from her. "This man Verpa, he's your kinsman? Your friend?"
"Not exactly. I need his help."
"My father wants to know how long I'll be away."
"Seven, eight days if you have to walk the whole way from Naples, but I expect you'll get a ride in some lady's coach, a good-looking boy like you."
He flashed her a white-toothed smile: "If the lady's as beautiful as you, I won't mind."
"Off with you."
She turned and went up the path again, thinking it not the least of her miseries that the grand-daughter of the Deified Vespasian and the niece of Emperor Domitian must suffer the impudence of a peasant. As beautiful as you? Her mirror told her how this furnace of an island was already ravaging her beauty. Fear etched its mark upon her too. Fear of withering and dying here, forgotten and alone. Fear that the emperor, who had ordered her husband strangled, might turn his wrath on their helpless children, too. Did he have them now? What would that monster not sink to?
Ingentius Verpa, the informer, had denounced her and her husband to Domitian on charges of "atheism" and following Jewish practices. Atheism meant refusing to worship the gods of the official state religion, with the emperor and his deified forebears among them. And an attraction to Judaism was tantamount to sedition. Even after the crushing of the revolt, hatred of the Romans still smoldered in Judaea. Not even kindred blood—she, Clemens, and the emperor were all of the Flavian clan—had sufficed to save them. After all, an emperor who believes himself to be a god is bound to resent atheism!
She sat down in the shade of her doorway and the goats came up to nuzzle her. She wasn't as brave as the other God-fearers. She was ready to bargain for her freedom and her children's lives with the one thing of any value she still had. And Verpa would help her because there was profit in it. If she must betray her friends, she thought, where else should she turn for help but to her enemy?
She fell on her knees then and prayed to the One God to forgive her for what she—a weak and sinful daughter of Eve-was about to do.
* * *
The seventh day before the Kalends of Germanicus. The eleventh hour of the day. Rome.
... I despise you. But if I must betray my friends where else shall I turn for help but to my enemy?
Verpa set the letter down, barked at a slave to bring him chilled wine, wiped his lips with a thick hand and wiped the hand on his thigh. Though the sun had sunk below the housetops, still the heat was insufferable; the fountains that leapt and splashed in his spacious garden did nothing to relieve it. He took a sip of wine and returned to the letter.
... I dare not write directly to the emperor. Too many eyes see his correspondence. Go to our house. Stephanus expects you and will show you where to dig. Take the horoscope that you will find under a paving stone in the garden. It predicts that my husband will sit on the imperial throne. What a cruel joke! Clemens rests with the Patriarchs now, better than any earthly throne.
There was a second horoscope—I don't know who has it, though I could guess—that predicts the date of the emperor's death, not many weeks from now. I don't doubt that the plotters by now have chosen another candidate for the throne.
Bring my husband's horoscope to the emperor with this letter. It will convince him that I am not lying. But tell him I will give him the other names only in return for my freedom, my children, and my property.
Do not try to deceive me, Verpa—I will answer no communication that doesn't bear his seal. I've no doubt he will reward you for your trouble; he pays his informers well, as who should know better than you? Farewell.
Verpa allowed himself a smile of astonishment. It was seldom that he felt himself at a loss, but this—this had taken him completely by surprise. All the time he was preparing to denounce them for atheism, the two of them had been involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor and replace him with his cousin Clemens! It was easy to imagine how the plotters must have flattered Clemens, the last surviving male member of the dynasty, and he, that amiable sheep, had allowed himself to be persuaded despite the warnings of his hard-headed wife.
And who were these other conspirators that Domitilla was now so anxious to betray? Verpa had not spent thirty years as a Roman senator, courtier, and spy for four emperors without forming some shrewd opinions as to who some of them, at least, were. And what should he do with this information? His civic duty? Warn the emperor? No doubt he would be rewarded. But was there not perhaps a greater reward to be had if he played a different game?
* * *
Since the execution of his master and the banishment of his mistress, Stephanus, the house-steward, had taken to carrying his left arm in a sling, telling people that he had broken it in a riding accident. The sling concealed a narrow-bladed dagger. Now, with his right arm, he held a lamp over the three Syrian toughs as they grunted, putting their weight on the pry bar to move the stone. Verpa, hovering behind them, mopped his glistening face and cursed at them to hurry. The lamplight threw their shadows huge against the columns of the portico. Finally, the stone came loose, and Verpa shouldered the men aside, reaching for the oilskin packet that lay beneath it. Even a hand as steady as his shook with excitement. He was holding a fortune.
After they had gone and Stephanus was alone in the dark, deserted villa, he unslung his arm, massaging the stiffness out of it, and ran his thumb along the edge of his dagger. He thought about what he should do.
Oddly enough, while Ingentius Verpa was digging in the traitor's garden, somebody was digging in his own. The lady Turpia Scortilla, his mate of seventeen years, crouched in a shadowy corner, trowel in hand, excavating a hole in the ivy bed that bordered the wall. It only needed to be a small hole to hold the object that she intended to bury—a tablet of lead, covered with incised letters and wrapped around an iron spike. She had paid the witch a great deal of money for this thing; to possess it was a capital offense.
As she tamped the earth over it and pulled the ivy tendrils back into place, the clouds parted and a full moon cast its rays upon her. Isis, who is also Diana and Hecate, blesses me, she thought, and her heart beat harder. In a whisper she recited the words of the curse:
"I entrust this spell to you,
Pluto and Proserpina,
Ereschigal and Adonis,
And Hermes-Thoth Phokensepsou Erektathou
And Anubis the powerful, who holds the keys of Hades,
And to you divine demons of the earth.
Do not disregard me, but rouse yourselves for me.
Destroy Sextus Ingentius Verpa—
Bind him, blind him, kill him.
Pierce his heart, O gods.
Pierce his liver, O gods.
Pierce his lungs, O gods.
I conjure you by Barbartham Cheloumbra
And by Abrasax
And by Iao Pakeptoth.
Let him not live another day!"
The lady Turpia Scortilla struggled to her feet and walked unsteadily into the house.
* * *
Ten days after he had left, the handsome youth returned. Flavia Domitilla flew down to the beach to meet him.
"Did you find him—Verpa?"
But the youth would rather tell of his adventures: he had gone to the Circus, but there were no races that day, but then he had gone to the Colosseum and watched men die amid the jeers of the crowd, and afterwards he had eyed the whores who plied their trade under the arches there.
His expression turned serious. "I found him. He's a big man with a fringe of white hair, thick lips, a jaw that juts out like a boulder on a hillside. Muscle underneath the fat."
"Not a nice man. I would have to be desperate, Lady, before I asked that man for a favor."
She half-smiled; no words were needed.
"He pinched me and tried to make me go into his bedroom, the youth continued, "but when I wouldn't he hit me and threw me down the stairs. His slaves stood by and did nothing except for one old fellow with a broken nose and crumpled ears, who picked me up and helped me out the door."
The youth shrugged. "It's nothing."
"But did he give you a message for me?"
The boy looked down. Flavia Domitilla asked him again, feeling a sudden coldness in her belly. It was plain that he did not want to answer, but she dragged it out of him.
"He said he hoped the climate on Pandateria agrees with you."
"Ahh!" She sank down on the stones. "That filth! He has abandoned me! O God of Abraham!" And she wept with her hair hanging over her face.
The sound of her wailing brought two of her jailers bounding down the path toward them, drawing their swords as they ran.
The youth leapt into his boat, rowed quickly away, and never went back again.
Chapter TwoThe third day before the Nones of Germanicus. The first hour of the day.
Rome. The great city woke up as early as any country village. The sun was not yet above the house tops and already the streets rang with the chatter of half a dozen languages, the rumble of carts, the cries of hawkers, the shouts of schoolteachers in their curb-side classrooms bawling at sleepy pupils. Why then was Master still in his bed? His dutiful clients already crowded his atrium to wish him a good morning and receive their hand-outs: the obligatory morning salutatio. Elsewhere in the house, slaves sponged glittering mosaic floors with a clatter of buckets, polished red-veined marble walls till they shone like mirrors, and dusted the countless statues that populated the wide corridors of this princely mansion.
But the four bedroom slaves—each ready to perform his assigned part in the morning ritual of getting Master up, shaved, fed, and dressed—stood hesitating before his door. Old Pollux, the night-guardian of the bed chamber, touched the bronze handle, drew back his hand, knocked again, and listened. A doubtful look came over his battered face. "Fetch Master's son," he ordered the young slave who carried the razor and mirror. The boy dashed off down the hall and around the corner to young master Lucius' bedroom.
Presently, Lucius appeared, his eyes swollen with sleep and in no good humor. Shouldering the others aside, he gave the door one smart rap, then pushed it open and stepped inside with Pollux and the others at his heels.
The single narrow window was a rectangle of pearl gray in the dark wall, and one guttering lamp hanging from its stand threw an uncertain circle of light over the bed. There a motionless shape, dark with blood, lay face down in a tangle of sheets.
Lucius sucked in his breath, leaned close over his father's body, touched it with a finger. Then, in a swift instant, he bolted from the room and down the staircase to the ground floor and through a colonnade to the atrium. "Someone has murdered my father! You," he shouted at one of the astonished clients, "run to the city prefect's office. The rest of you, man the doors and windows. Quickly! The killer may still be in the house."
With expressions of horror, the obsequious clients raised their hands to heaven and demanded angrily of each other who could have committed such an atrocity on this great and good man, their patron?
To the slaves gathered round the corpse upstairs, the sight of their dead master stirred a mixture of emotions. Joy that their tormentor was dead; but then dawning terror. They raced down the stairs after Lucius, shrieking their innocence.
By this time other slaves and freedmen were running from distant parts of the house to see what was the matter. A woman, overcome by shock, backed out of Verpa's bedroom door screaming, and all of them together set up a wail. The slaves understood what danger they were in. They were as good as dead.
* * *
In another mansion, across the city, the same obligatory morning ritual was in progress.
Gaius Plinius Secundus, Roman senator, lion of the court of probate, currently acting vice-prefect of the city, arose well-rested from his bed and took his breakfast: the bread dipped, not drowned, in wine, the pear neatly sectioned, a few figs, and all arranged on the tray with his napkin folded just so, the way he liked it.
This small repast over, a slave buckled on his red leather senatorial shoes while another, an elderly man of dignified bearing, commenced to wrap him in a dazzling, purple-striped toga, not releasing him until he was satisfied that every fold was perfect. This was the man's single job and he performed it with great state. Even on a sweltering September morning like this one, the ridiculous garment was mandatory for Romans at the salutatio. So the mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors, commanded: those ancient, grim shepherd-warriors who could think of no more fitting badge of citizenship than to wrap themselves in a woolen blanket from neck to ankle and damn the weather. Already, his clients gathered, in the atrium, were itching and sweating in their own togas, and all, patron and clients alike, would have to endure this for an hour.
What an inexpressibly tedious chore, thought Pliny to himself, not for the first time, as one by one the family freedmen together with a clamorous multitude of flatterers, place-seekers, seedy literary gentlemen, and the merely hungry, bustled forward with hearty looks to kiss his hand and receive their food basket and a few coins.
As though from a great distance, Pliny heard himself murmuring inanities: "What a fine young fellow! Do you go to school?" He smiled benignly on a squirming boy thrust at him by an eager father.
Excerpted from Roman Games by Bruce Macbain Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Macbain. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bruce Macbain holds a BA in Classics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Greek and Roman history at Vanderbilt University and Boston University. His special interest is religion in the Roman Empire. He enjoys travelling and was one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Borneo. He lives with his wife in Brookline, MA. This is his first novel.
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