SPQR I: The King's Gambitby John Maddox Roberts
In this Edgar Award nominated mystery, John Maddox Roberts takes readers back to a Rome filled with violence and evil. Vicious gangs ruled the streets of Crassus and Pompey routinely preying on plebeian and patrician alike. So the garroting of a lowly ex-slave and the disembowelment of a foreign merchant in the dangerous Subura district seemed of little consequence to the Roman hierarchy. But Decius Caecilius Metellus the Youngerhigh-born commander of the local vigiles was determined to investigate. Despite official apathy, brazen bribes and sinister threats, Decius uncovers a world of corruption at the highest levels of his government that threatens to destroy him and the government he serves.
Author Biography: John Maddox Roberts has written numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his successful SPQR mystery series. His latest book in the series, SPQR VI: Nobody Loves a Centurion will be published later this year. He lives in New Mexico with his wife.
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SPQR I: The King's Gambit
By John Maddox Roberts
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1990 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
I received the captain of the ward vigiles in my atrium, as I had on every morning since my election to the Commission of Twenty-Six. I am not an early riser by nature, and the office had no more onerous duty for me. It was still dark and even my few clients had not yet begun to arrive. The squad of vigiles sat sleepily along a bench against the atrium wall, their leather buckets at their feet, while my aged janitor served them cups of watered, sour wine, hot and steaming. "No fires in the night, Commissioner," the captain reported. "At least, not in this ward." "May the gods be thanked," I said. "Anywhere else?" "There was a big one over near the Circus. We could see it clearly from the crest of the Viminal. It may still be burning."
"Which way is the wind blowing?" I asked, alarmed. If it was one of those oil warehouses between the Circus and the river, the fire could be all over the city by noon. "From the north."
I let out a relieved sigh and vowed a goat to Jupiter if he would keep Boreas blowing today. "Anything else?" "Two householders reported break-ins" — the vigile stifled a yawn — "and we found a body in the alley between the Syrian apothecary and Publius's wineshop."
"Murdered?" I asked.
"Strangled. With a bowstring, it appeared. We rousted Publius out and he said the man was named Marcus Ager, and he'd been renting a room above the wineshop for the last two months."
"Freeborn or freedman?" I asked.
"Must be freedman, because a couple of my men said they recognized him as a Thracian daggerman who used to fight under the name of Sinistrus. He hadn't fought in the last two years, though. Maybe he saved enough to buy his own freedom."
"Small loss, then. Was he with Macro's gang, or one of the others?"
"Not as I know," the vigile said, shrugging.
"Just more trouble for me. Now I'll have to search the dole rolls to verify his residence in the district, then try to track down his former owner. He may wish to take charge of the body." I don't approve of manumitting gladiators, as a general thing. A man who has spent several years as a licensed killer is not likely to settle into the role of responsible citizen easily. Usually, they squander their savings within a few months of manumission, enroll on the grain dole, then drift into one of the gangs or hire on as a strong-arm man for some politician.
Still, I was grateful that there had been only one murder to investigate. After a night when the gangs were restless, it was not unusual to find a dozen or more bodies in the back alleys of the Subura. We had just celebrated the Plebeian Games, and the city was usually quiet after a big festival. For a day or two, at any rate.
You must understand, whoever you are, that in those days Rome, mistress of half the world, was a place as savage as a village of Nile pygmies. Roman soldiers kept the peace in hundreds of cities around our sea, but not a single soldier patrolled the streets of Rome. Tradition forbade it. Instead, the city was controlled by street gangs, each under the protection of a powerful family or politician for whom it performed tasks liable to criminal prosecution.
I dismissed the vigiles to their long-awaited sleep, then hastily received my clients. This was at the very beginning of my career, you understand, and my clients were few: a couple of family freedmen, a discharged soldier from the legion I had served in briefly, and a householder from a rural plebeian family traditionally under the protection of the Cae-cilii. I might have had none at all, but my father had insisted that a man starting out in public life had to have a few clients dogging his steps in the morning to lend him dignity. They saluted me as patron and inquired whether I required any services of them that day. It would be several years before I should actually need an entourage of clients, but it was customary.
My janitor brought them small gifts of food which they wrapped up in their napkins, and we all set off to visit my patron. This was my father, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Elder, bearer of a proud and ancient name, but known to all and sundry as Cut-Nose because he had taken a Cimbrian sword across his face at Raudine Plain while serving under General Marius. He never stopped talking about the campaign and took a good deal of credit for the great victory. Sometimes, after a few cups of wine, Father would admit that Marius deserved some recognition.
Father, old Roman to the core, kept his janitor chained to the gatepost, although anyone could see that the chain link attached to the man's ankle-ring was just a hook, which the fellow could detach at any time.
"Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger," I announced, "and his clients, to pay our respects to the patron."
The slave let us into the atrium, which was already crowded with Father's other clients, of which he had a prodigious mob. He was an Urban Praetor that year, an office of great dignity. He would be standing for the Consulate in two years, and a man who must make innumerable long-winded speeches needs a sizable cheering section. Many of the men present that morning had permanently hoarsened their voices by cheering every point made and every clever turn of phrase during Father's career as a lawyer pleading before the court. This was a court day and Father's lictors were there, leaning on their rod-bundled axes. At least, this year, Father would be presiding rather than pleading; a relief to every ear and larynx present.
The room was abuzz with the usual city gossip; the lowborn chattered of races and swordsmen, the better-bred concentrating on politics and foreign affairs and the deeds of our over-adventurous and squabbling generals. Everybody traded the latest omens, and applied them to the doings of charioteers, gladiators, politicians and generals. There was much talk of the fire near the Circus. All Romans live in mortal terror of fire.
Eventually, the great man appeared. His toga was as white as a candidate's except for its broad purple stripe. Unlike most modern politicians, Father was not accompanied by a bodyguard of riffraff such as the late Marcus Ager. He said it demeaned the dignity of a Senator to walk as if in fear of his fellow citizens. On the other hand, he had few political or personal enemies, so he was in no real danger. After greeting a few of his more prominent clients, he signaled for me to approach him. After we exchanged greetings, he clapped me on the shoulder.
"Decius, my son, I've been hearing good reports of your work on the Commission of Twenty-Six." The old man had been most disappointed in my lack of aptitude and interest in a military career. I had served the bare minimum necessary to qualify for public office and used a minor wound as an excuse to go back to Rome and stay there. Now that I was embarked on my civil career, though, Father was willing to acknowledge me again.
"I try to do my duty. And I find that I have a flair for snooping."
"Yes, well" — Father waved a hand as if dismissing my comment — "you have subordinates for that sort of thing, you know. You really should confine your activities to those commensurate with your rank: arresting those who are a danger to the community and making a report of your investigation to the Senate."
"Sometimes wealthy or highborn people must be questioned, Father," I explained. "Often I find that such persons will talk to a noble in a way they would never do with some state freedman."
"Don't try to gull me, young man," Father said sternly. "You enjoy it. You've never overcome your taste for low company and disreputable pursuits." I shrugged in acknowledgment.
Perhaps I should explain something here: In this modern age of blurring social distinctions, the significance of this exchange might be lost. We Caecilii Metelli are an ancient and incredibly numerous family of great distinction, but our ancestor arrived in Rome just a bit too late to qualify for patrician status. We are of the plebeian nobility, which to my taste is the most desirable status: qualified to hold the highest public office without the ceremonial restrictions endured by patricians. In practical career terms it meant only that we were barred from certain priesthoods, which was all to the good. Sacerdotal duties are the bane of public life, and I never held a priesthood I didn't loathe.
Still standing, Father ate his breakfast from a tray held by a slave. Breakfast consisted of a crust or two of bread sprinkled with salt and helped down with a cup of water. This is a custom rich in staunch old Roman virtue, no doubt, but deficient in the fortifying nourishment required by a man who will spend a full day on the work of the Senate. It was my own practice to have a far more substantial meal in bed. Father always assured me that this was a barbaric practice, fit only for Greeks and Orientals, so perhaps I played an unknowing part in the downfall of the Republic. Be that as it may, I still have my breakfast in bed.
Luckily, since this was a court day, Father did not require us all to accompany him to the levee of his patron, the advocate, great orator and thoroughgoing scoundrel, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. Instead, we merely accompanied him to the Basilica, preceded by his lictors, and made sure that his entrance was properly solemn and dignified before the day's uproarious litigation began. As soon as he was ensconced in his curule chair, I made my way back out to the Forum for my customary round of meeting and greeting prior to embarking upon the business of the day. This could be time-consuming. As a junior civil servant, I was of little personal importance, but my father was a praetor who might well be Consul someday, so I was sought out by many.
In all of the great and varied city of Rome, I love the Forum best. Since childhood, I have spent part of nearly every day there. During my few and unwilling absences from the city, it was the Forum that I longed for most. At the time of which I now write, the Forum was a marvelously jumbled mass of temples, some of them still wooden; market stalls; fortune-tellers' booths; speakers' platforms; monuments of past wars; dovecotes for sacrificial birds; and the general lounging, idling and gossiping-place for the center of the world. Now, of course, it is a marble confection erected to the glory of a single family instead of the ancient tribal gathering place and market that I loved. I am happy to report, though, that the pigeons decorate the new monuments just as they did the old.
Remembering my vow of the morning, I made my way to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. Word had it that the fire was under control, so I had downgraded my sacrifice to a dove. My personal income was small, and my office was not one which attracted many bribes, so it behooved me to take care with my expenditures.
I pulled a fold of my toga over my head and entered the dim, smoky interior of the ancient building. In this temple I could almost believe myself in the presence of the old Caecilii who had lived in the wood-and-thatch village of Roma which had stood on these hills, and had performed their rituals in this temple. I speak, of course, of the temple as it was before the present restorations which have turned it into a second-rate copy of a Greek temple to Zeus.
I gave my dove to the priest on duty and the bird was duly killed to the presumed satisfaction of Jupiter. While the brief ritual was performed, I noticed a man standing next to me. With his toga pulled over his head, I could see only that he was a youngish man, perhaps about my age. His toga was of fine quality, and his sandals had the little ivory crescent of the patrician fastened at the ankles.
As I left the temple, the man hastily followed, as if he wanted to speak to me. Outside, on the broad portico which has the finest of all views of the city, we uncovered our heads. His face seemed familiar, but it was the thinning hair above his still-youthful face which jogged my memory.
"I greet you, Decius of the illustrious Caecilii," he said, embracing me and bestowing upon me the kiss which all Romans in public life must endure. It seemed to me that this normally perfunctory salute was given with more warmth than was absolutely necessary.
"And I greet you, Caius Julius Caesar." Even through the veil that separates us, I can detect your smile. But the most trumpeted name in Roman history was not famous then. In those days, young Caesar was known only for the astonishing number and variety of his debaucheries, and for his extravagant debts. However, to everyone's amazement, he had suddenly displayed a civic conscience and was standing for a quaestorship as a champion of the common man.
His new democratic ideals raised no few eyebrows, since the ancient Julian gens, although it had produced no men of public distinction in many generations, had always been of the aristocratic party. Young Caius was breaking with family tradition in siding with the Populares. True, his uncle by marriage was Marius, that same general in whose service my father had earned his nickname. That murderous old man had terrorized Rome in his last years as Consul and leader of the Populares, but he still had many admirers in Rome and throughout Italy. I also reminded myself that Caesar was married to the daughter of Cinna, who had been Marius's colleague in the Consulate. Yes, young Caius Julius Caesar was definitely a man to watch.
"May I inquire after the health of your esteemed father?" he asked.
"Healthy as a Thracian," I answered. "He's in court today. When I left him, the Basilica was packed with Senators suing to get back their property confiscated by Sulla."
"That's a business that'll take years to sort out," Caesar said wryly. When he had been a very young man and Sulla was Dictator, Sulla had ordered him to divorce Cornelia, Cinna's daughter. In a rare moment of personal integrity, Caesar had refused and was forced to flee Italy until Sulla's death. That act of defiance had made him celebrated for a short time, but those had been eventful days in Rome, and most of the survivors had nearly forgotten him.
We descended the Capitoline, and Caesar asked my destination. He seemed oddly interested in my affairs. But then, when he was running for office Caius Julius could be as amiable and ingratiating as a Subura whore.
"Since I'm so near," I answered, "I might as well look in on the Ludus Statilius. I have to investigate the death of a man who may have come from there."
"A gladiator? Does the demise of that sort of trash really rate the time of a public official?"
"It does if he's been freed and is a citizen on the grain dole," I said.
"I suppose so. Well, let me accompany you, then. I've been meaning to make the acquaintance of Statilius for some time. After all, you and I will one day be aediles, in charge of the Games, and we'll need these contacts." He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder, as if we had been dear friends for life instead of virtual strangers.
The Statilian training school consisted of an open yard surrounded by barrack-buildings arranged in a square. There were three tiers of cells for the fighters, and the school maintained nearly a thousand at any one time. The Statilian family was devoted to the sports of the amphitheater, and the school was run so tightly that even during the slave rebellion of the three previous years, the school had remained open, supplying a steady stream of expert swordsmen for the public Games.
We stood for a while in the portico, enjoying the practice of the fighters in the yard, where the beginners fought the post and the more experienced fought each other with practice weapons. The veterans fenced with real swords. I have always been a devotee of the amphitheater and the Circus, and I had even taken some sword instruction myself at this school, before my military service. The Ludus Statilius stood where the Theater of Pompey now stands, and it now comes back to me, after all these years, that we must have been standing that morning almost on the spot where Caius Julius died twenty-six years later.
The head trainer came to greet us, an immense man in a coat of bronze scales with a helmet the size of a vigile's bucket under his arm. His face and arms bore more scars than the back of a runaway slave. Obviously, a champion of years past.
"May I help you, my masters?" he asked, bowing courteously.
"I am Decius Caecilius of the Commission of Twenty-Six. I wish to speak to Lucius Statilius, if he is here." The trainer shouted for a slave to run and summon the master.
Excerpted from SPQR I: The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 1990 John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
John Maddox Roberts has written numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his successful historical SPQR mystery series. SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion was published in 2010. He lives in New Mexico with his wife.
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