SPQR X: A Point in Law

Overview

Being under suspicion of murder did not hamper my freedom. This is because Romans are civilized people and don't clap suspects into prison like barbarians do. It would take an order of a lawfully convened court even to place me under house arrest.

That's Decius Caecilius Metellus speaking—-Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus, please. He is at an outdoor rally in Rome where he is campaigning for election to the praetorship. It looks like a shoo-in, until a man named Fulvius, of ...

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Overview

Being under suspicion of murder did not hamper my freedom. This is because Romans are civilized people and don't clap suspects into prison like barbarians do. It would take an order of a lawfully convened court even to place me under house arrest.

That's Decius Caecilius Metellus speaking—-Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus, please. He is at an outdoor rally in Rome where he is campaigning for election to the praetorship. It looks like a shoo-in, until a man named Fulvius, of whom Decius has never heard, arrives at the preelection proceedings with a small army of hoodlums and begins to shout to the assembled voters that Decius is a thief and worse. While this is not an unknown effort used to ruin a candidate's chances, it is enough to have Decius's father call a meeting of family and friends—a meeting that ends with the participants going home determined to find some answers to stop Fulvius's efforts to ruin Decius's chances.

Early the next morning, however, as Decius and his friends are on their way to the trial, Fulvius's body is found slashed to death on the steps of the basilica, where the court will be sitting. And that doesn't look good for our hero.

For those readers who have met Decius before, the next step is clear: the man is a brilliant detective, and he is certainly now in a position where that skill is needed. So it's doubly important for Decius, with the help of his wife, Julia, and the ex-slave Hermes, to find the solution to the most personal—-and possibly most difficult—-puzzle that has come his way.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The death throes of the Roman Republic are a worthy setting for a thriller, and Roberts displays his usual deftness in making the period come to life."

Publishers Weekly

 

"Layers of intrigue slowly unfold, along with a meticulously detailed glimpse of ancient Roman society ... A wry first-person narrative."—Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The political turmoil that precedes Julius Caesar's return to Rome serves as the compelling backdrop for Roberts's 10th historical to feature nobleman Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger (after 2005's The Princess and the Pirates). Decius is standing for election as praetor, a judicial position that's viewed as a stepping-stone to a governorship. On the eve of the vote, an unknown man, Marcus Fulvius, accuses Decius of corruption, threatening what had seemed like a sure thing. Still reeling from the charges, Decius finds himself in deeper trouble after Fulvius turns up dead. Aided by family members and friends, Decius teases out the competing powers with a stake in his defeat. The death throes of the Roman Republic are a worthy setting for a thriller, and Roberts displays his usual deftness in making the period come to life. Those more interested in the murder's solution may be disappointed by the Perry Mason-like device employed to expose the culprit. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Roman senator turns sleuth once more to clear himself from suspicion of murder. Recently returned from military success in Cyprus, circa 66 b.c., Decius Caecilius Metellus is poised to announce his decision to run for a praetorship. Out of the blue, wealthy but little-known Marcus Fulvius rains on Decius' nascent candidacy by publicly accusing him of extortion and plundering. Momentarily stunned, Decius prepares to mount a vigorous defense while finding out everything he can about his nemesis. He's buoyed by his highly practical wife Julia, the niece of Julius Caesar. On the morning of the trial, however, Fulvius is found dead on the steps of the Forum. Far from easing Decius' troubles, this development makes it more urgent to learn the truth and find the killer. His freedman Hermes proves an able, bantering sidekick. Fulvius was the sister of Fulvia, one of the most dangerous and promiscuous women in Rome, and one who's unfortunately crossed paths with Decius before. The key to the crime lies in the complex political maneuvering of the time, with Pompey and Caesar at the center of a huge power struggle. Layers of intrigue slowly unfold, along with a meticulously detailed glimpse of ancient Roman society. Roberts's tenth Roman mystery (SPQR IX: The Princess and the Pirates, 2005, etc.) benefits from a wry first-person narrative.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312337254
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/16/2006
  • Series: SPQR Series , #10
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

John Maddox Roberts is the author of numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his historical SPQR mystery series. He and his wife live in New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Rome at election time! Can there be any prospect more pleasant? Is it possible for any place to be more wonderful? For any activity to be more agreeable? Certainly not for me, and not that year. I was just back from Cyprus after a successful, mildly glorious, and none-too-bloody campaign to suppress a recent outburst of piracy. I had found their base, destroyed their fleet, and, best of all, captured a good part of their loot. The captives I had returned to their homes and had restored a part of the loot to the people from whom it had been stolen.

Luckily for me, a great deal of the loot had been impossible to trace, so it belonged to me. I had split up some of it with my men, made a handsome donation to the Treasury, and with the rest had cleared my considerable debts. I now had reached the proper age and had accumulated the requisite military experience to stand for the office of praetor. Perhaps best of all, I was a Caecilia Metella, and the men of my family expected automatic election to the higher offices by right of birth.

To top it all off, the weather was beautiful. It seemed that all the gods of Rome were on my side. As usual, the gods were about to play one of their infamous jokes on me.

The morning it all began I was at the Porticus Metelli on the Campus Martius, across from the Circus Flaminius, presiding over the consecration of my monument. This porticus, a handsome rectangle of colonnades surrounding a fine courtyard, had been erected by my family for the convenience of the people and to our own glory, and we paid for its upkeep. Some of my pirate loot had bought it a new roof. A monument in the Forum might have been more prestigious, but by that time the Forum was already so cluttered with monuments that one more would not have been noticeable. Besides, mine was not very large.

But in those days the City was spilling outside its old walls and the formerly rustic Campus Martius, the assembly place and drill ground for the legions of old, was now a prosperous suburb, growing full of expensive businesses and fine houses. And my monument wasn't just a statue, it was a naval trophy: a pillar studded with the bronze rams of the ships I had captured.

Actually, the pirate ships had had small, unimpressive rams, since pirates usually tried to board rather than sink ships, and mostly they raided shore villages so their ships had to be able to beach and escape quickly: not an easy task when you have a large ram sticking out in front. So I had had big, fearsome-looking rams cast, one for each pirate ship. Atop the pillar was a statue of Neptune, raising his trident in victory. A little grandiose for a campaign against scummy pirates, but that year all the real military glory was Caesar's so I took what I could get.

I was dressed in my toga candida, specially whitened with fuller's earth, to announce my candidacy for the praetorship. This surprised nobody. My friends and clients applauded as the trophy was unveiled and priests of Bellona and Neptune pronounced the consecration. They were both relatives of mine and glad to help out. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, my father's old friend, now grown old and portly, took the auguries and pronounced them favorable in his incomparable voice.

Many of Rome's dignitaries were there. Pompey was there to offer his congratulations, as was the tiresome Cato. I would have liked to have Cicero in attendance, but he and his brother were off in Syria putting down a Parthian incursion. My wife, Julia, and many of her relations attended, providing perhaps an excessively large Caesarian contingent. Far too many people already considered me to be one of Caesar's flunkies. My good friend Titus Milo could not attend as he was in exile for killing Clodius and had not long to live, although I could not know that at the time.

Still, the morning was glorious, the monument was fine, my future was bright. At last I would hold an office of real power instead of one with endless responsibilities and duties and costing a fortune to support. I would have imperium and would be attended by lictors. With luck, when I left office I would be given a province to govern, one that was at peace, where I could get rich in relative safety. Most politicians wanted a province at war where they could win glory and loot, but I knew that any such position would put me in competition with Caesar and Pompey. I knew far too much of both men to want any part of that.

My father, ailing and leaning on a cane, had managed to attend. He swore he'd live to see me elected consul, but I feared he would never make it that long. Indeed, it depressed me to look at the knot of my senior kinsmen who accompanied him. All the great Metelli were dead or too elderly for political significance. Dalmaticus and Numidicus had died with my grandfather's generation, the generation of Marius. My father's generation had included Metellus Celer, now dead; Creticus, there that day but also growing old and very stout; Metellus Scipio, a pontifex, a Caecilian by adoption; and Nepos, closer to me in age but Pompey's man, and Pompey was a has-been if only his supporters would realize it. They had all been Sulla's supporters, and Sulla had been dead for more than twenty-five years. The Metelli of my own generation were still numerous, but they were political nonentities. I included myself in this category.

Also beside me was my freedman Hermes, still uncomfortable in his citizen's toga, a garment to which he had been entitled for only a few months. Of course, for official purposes his name was Decius Caecilius Metellus, but that was for his tombstone. He elected to keep his slave name, even though it was Greek. Well, it was a god's name after all, and many citizens of my generation went by Greek nicknames, some of which were quite indecent and for which there were no Latin equivalents.

With the dedication ceremony done, we all trooped to the Forum, past the temples of Apollo and Bellona, through the Carmentalis Gate in the old wall, around the base of the Capitol, and into the northwestern end of the great assembly place. It was even more thronged than usual, with the elections coming up and everyone who counted for anything in from the country. It was the season for parties and politics, for intrigue, bribery, and coercion.

At this time most of the Senate had split into two factions: pro-Caesarian and anti-Caesarian. Caesar was overwhelmingly popular with the plebs at Rome and hated violently by a large part of the aristocratic faction. As usual, such polarization led to strange juxtapositions. Men who, a few years previously, had reserved their greatest scorn for Pompey, now courted him as the only viable rival to Caesar. Theirs was a short-sighted policy, but desperate men will grasp at anything that promises respite from the thing they fear. I tried to keep my distance from all such factions, but my family connections made that difficult. One of the year's consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, was among the most rabid of the anti-Caesarians and had not attended my little unveiling ceremony. The other consul, Sulpicius Rufus, congratulated me ostentatiously. Such were the times.

Doing the usual round of meeting and greeting, we made a leisurely progress toward the foot of the Capitol, near the old meeting place of the comitia, where all the year's candidates were accustomed to congregate, stand around, preen, and generally proclaim their willingness to serve Senate and People. Here our friends and well-wishers would drop by, take our hands, and trumpet loudly to anyone who would listen what splendid fellows we all were. It was one of our less dignified customs and a constant source of amazement to foreigners, but we'd always done it that way and that was a good enough reason to continue.

As a candidate for an office with imperium, it was my first order of business to greet the candidates I was supporting for the junior offices in order to take each by the hand and tell everyone what a splendid fellow he was.

First to get my hand was Lucius Antonius, standing for quaestor that year. Accompanying him was his brother Caius, who was himself serving as quaestor and would be standing down with the upcoming election. These were the brothers of the famous Marcus Antonius, who was serving with Caesar in Gaul. I had always gotten on well with these brothers, who were bad men but good company.

"Best of luck, Lucius!" I exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder and raising a cloud of chalk dust. There was always a temptation to overdo it with the chalk when standing for office.

"And to you, Decius," the younger brother said, his eyes slightly unfocused and his voice a bit unsteady. At the wine already, I thought. Typical Antonian.

"I suppose you have your purple-bordered toga already ordered," Caius said, referring to my aforementioned certainty of election.

"As luck would have it, there was some Tyrian dye among the items I acquired in Cyprus," I said. No harm in reminding everybody who'd missed my monument dedication of my latest distinction. "Julia wove me a new toga and dyed the border herself. It's on the drying rack right now. A very handsome garment, I might add." Well, my wife had supervised her women while they did the actual weaving, and, of course she had called in a professional dyer to do the border. That purple dye is the most expensive substance in the world, even more dear than saffron or silk.

"Some people have all the luck," said Lucius. "By the time our brother gets through with Gaul there won't be any gold, wine, or good-looking women left to steal."

"It'll be another ten years before there's more pirate loot to pick up," Caius said tipsily. "If Pompey conquers Parthia, there'll be nothing left for the rest of us."

"I suppose there'll always be India," I said, not really serious. I had no ambitions to be a conqueror so I didn't take the problem as seriously as those two dedicated thieves.

"Too far," Caius said. "You have to march for a year just to get there. Now Egypt—"

"Forget it," I said. "The Senate will never let even an Antonius take Egypt." This was a statement fraught with great portent, had I but known it.

"Yes, just getting elected quaestor is problem enough for now," Caius said. "And, Decius, don't worry about Fulvius. You know how to handle people like him."

"Yes," said Lucius, "the man is nothing. Don't let him distract you from the election."

"What? Fulvius?" But they were already turning away to return the greetings of the latest batch of well-wishers.

I walked away wondering at this enigmatic advice. Which Fulvius did they mean? There were ten or twelve senators of that name known to me, and any number of equites. Which of them had it in for me?

I took up my place with the other candidates for the praetorship. After an hour of loud hailing and greeting, I was approached by one of my least favorite Romans, Sallustius Crispus. The year before he had been Tribune of the People, and in that powerful office had established himself as Caesar's champion. Upon the death of Clodius, he had tried to fill those vacated sandals. Since he considered me Caesar's man, too, he acted as if we were great friends.

Sullustius fancied himself a historian, and for twelve years he had tried to weasel from me everything I knew about the sorry Catiline business. He was an insinuating, sleazy wretch with overlarge ambitions. Actually, I suppose he was a typical Roman politician of the day and no worse than many others I knew. I just couldn't help disliking him.

One thing was for certain: with his love of gossip, Sallustius would know who this Fulvius might be and what sort of grievance he had.

"Fine day for politicking, eh, Decius Caecilius? I'd have been at your monument dedication, but I was seeing my brother off." His younger brother, surnamed Canini for some reason I never learned, had been another of the year's quaestors.

"Where is he bound?" I asked, waving heartily to a band of my Subura neighbors who were there to support me and others of our district standing for office that year.

"Syria. He's to be proquaestor for Bibulus."

"He'll be safe, then. Bibulus is a cautious man. He's doing as little fighting as possible and leaving what there is to his legates." Bibulus had been careful to arrive late to take up administration of his province. Young Cassius Longinus, a mere proquaestor who had survived the debacle at Carrhae, had been successfully driving the Parthians back until he arrived. The boy deserved a triumph for it; but with the tiny forces at his command he had been unable to score a decisive victory, and he was considered too young and too low-ranking for such an honor. So little praise for so much accomplishment may well account for his later hostility toward Caesar—but I get ahead of myself.

"Just as well," Sallustius was saying. "The talents of my family lie in the literary field, not the military." I would have said neither, but I didn't.

"A little while ago I was told to ignore somebody named Fulvius. Who is he and why should I ignore him?"

"You haven't heard?" he said gleefully. Sallustius loved to be the bearer of bad news. "This morning one Marcus Fulvius denounced you before the extortion court for corruption and plundering in Cyprus and adjacent waters."

"What!" At my shout heads turned so violently that you could hear vertebrae popping all over the Forum.

"Calm yourself, Decius." He smiled. "The man's just an aspiring politician out to make a name for himself. Prosecuting a successful man for corruption is how it's usually done. It's how Cicero made his reputation, you know."

"Yes, but Verres really did plunder Sicily with legendary thoroughness. I did nothing of the sort in Cyprus!"

"What difference does that make?" he asked, honestly puzzled. "You should be glad it's an accusation of extortion and plunder. It might've been for screwing a Vestal Virgin, and think how undignified the trial would've been then."

"I'm to take it that his accusation contained more than just a lot of noise and wind?"

"He says he has a number of witnesses to back him up."

"Cyprians? He'll be laughed out of Rome if he hauls a pack of half-Greek mongrels before a Roman jury."

"He claims he has Roman citizens ready to swear before the gods what a bad boy you were."

"Damn!" I had offended a number of Romans during my stay on Cyprus. Most were businessmen and financiers, who were profiting handsomely from the pirates' activities. "Who is this man and where is he from?" I suspected Sallustius would know, and he didn't disappoint me.

"He's from Baiae, been here in Rome for the last few months, making connections and learning politics from high-placed friends. I don't doubt he's had some expert advice as to how to go about it."

"I've spent so much time away from Rome these past few years it's hard to keep track of everyone. Baiae, you say?" I tried to make some sort of connection. Then it dawned on me. "Is this man Clodius's brother-in-law?"

He grinned his ugly grin. "He's Fulvia's brother."

Fulvia, the widow of my old enemy, had quite possibly the worst reputation of any woman in Rome.

"But since Clodius was killed, she's taken up with Marcus Antonius, and he bears me no ill-will. It doesn't make sense."

"You're just a convenient target, Decius. You're just back from overseas with a little glory and a lot of money, and you're standing for praetor. Why assume that it's personal?"

"You're probably right. I'll just handle him the usual way." Since a serving magistrate couldn't be prosecuted, my best tactic would be to stall until after the elections. By the time I stepped down, this pest would have found somebody else to plague.

"Like most ambitious men," Sallustius said, "he's poor. He may be amenable to a bribe to drop the charges. Would you like me to sound him out?" How like Sallustius. If I'd shown a liking for his sister, he'd have offered to act as pimp.

"No, I'll avoid the trouble if I can, but I refuse to buy my way out of a charge of which I'm innocent."

"I don't see why not. Innocence rarely exempts a man from the consequences of a false accusation. Counterattack is usually the way to go. Don't tell me you've spent all your money already?"

"Thank you for the news and advice, Sallustius. I'll deal with this my way."

I looked around until I spotted Hermes, near Vulcan's altar, talking me up to a little group of voters. One of the rules was that a candidate could not canvass for votes personally. Instead, our clients and freedmen did it for us. I caught his eye and beckoned.

"You don't want a drink already, do you?" he asked as he joined me. "It's going to be a long day." This insolence was the result of his years as my personal slave. Also, he knew me all too well.

"It's about to get longer, wretch. Go get my father and any other men of the family who may be standing around and my highest-placed supporters. There's going to be trouble."

He grinned. "An attack?" Hermes was an inveterate brawler.

"Not the kind you enjoy. A political offensive from an unexpected quarter."

"Oh," he said, downcast. "I'll find them."

My mind seethed even as I smiled and shook hands with well-wishers. How serious was this man's support? How would I counter his charges? How much support could I get behind me? How long could I stall? I was going to need legal advice. For this I would automatically have gone to Cicero, but a sea lay between us that year.

Father limped toward me, his face as grim as a thundercloud. Hortensius Hortalus was with him, as were Metellus Scipio and Creticus and even Cato. Much as I disliked Cato, I was ready to welcome anyone's support.

"We've already heard," Father said, before I could speak. "How did a worm like Marcus Fulvius set this up without us knowing of it?"

"Because we've paid him no notice at all, I don't doubt," Hortalus rumbled.

"Whose court was it?" I asked.

"Juventius," Cato said. He meant Marcus Juventius Laterensis, once a close friend of Clodius.

"Wonderful," I said. "Even dead, Clodius can cause me trouble."

"Time is on your side," Cato said. "With the election coming up, the court will be sitting for only four more days."

"If Juventius is willing to move fast," I pointed out, "four days is plenty of time to prosecute me." I didn't have to point out that a guilty verdict could prevent me from taking my place among the candidates on election day. Even if I were to be voted in anyway, I could be prevented from assuming office on the new year.

"We have to get your backside planted on that curule chair before the bugger can haul you before a court," said the eminently practical Creticus.

"Tonight," Hortalus said, "I'll go outside the walls and take the auguries. Perhaps I'll see a sign that the courts can't meet for the next few days."

"You're known as my father's closest friend," I said. "You'll be denounced before the Senate for falsifying auguries, even if you see a thunderbolt strike a night-soaring eagle."

"I'll take Claudius Marcellus with me. Nobody will question his auguries." He did not refer to the Claudius Marcellus who was one of that year's consuls, nor to the Claudius Marcellus who was to be one of the next year's consuls, nor yet to the Claudius Marcellus who was consul the year after that, but rather to yet a fourth Claudius Marcellus, who was the oldest member of the College of Augurs and trusted the way we always trust men who are too old to do much harm.

I looked out over the Forum crowd. No uproar yet. I didn't really expect one. Scurrilous accusations against candidates were among the more common entertainments of any election. Strolling entertainers and vendors were everywhere, doing a great business as always when the voters thronged the City. I wished that I could consult with Julia, whose political acumen exceeded even that of my own family. But she had gone back home. In any case, it would have been a scandal beyond redemption had I been seen discussing politics with my wife right out in public.

"Here he comes!" It was the excited voice of Sallustius. He was still standing close by, eager to pick up gossip from the Metellan faction.

I followed his pointing finger and saw a commotion within the crowd. In the sea of scalps I detected a motion heading our way, the way a shark's fin cuts the water. As it got closer, the motion resolved itself into a little knot of men striding along purposefully in our direction. In their lead was a tall, light-haired man who had the look of a Forum warrior—the sort who does all of his fighting in the courts. I recognized some of the men behind him as old followers of Clodius. The others were strangers to me.

"Decius Caecilius Metellus!" the man cried as he reached us.

"That's me," Father said. "What do you want?"

For an instant the man was nonplussed. His timing had been upset. "Not you! I meant your son." He leveled a skinny finger toward me.

"Then why didn't you say so, you whey-faced buffoon? Until I croak, he's Decius the Younger." Our faction whooped and clapped. People began to pack the already crowded area, sensing a good show.

"He's talking to your whelp, you bald-headed old fart!" shouted one of the man's flunkies.

Father squinted in the man's direction. "Who's that? Oh, I remember you. I had your mother flogged from the City for whoring and spreading disease." Of course, he had no idea who the man was, but he would never let a trifling detail like that stop him.

I was maintaining a dignified silence, which the light-haired man duly noted.

"Can't you speak Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger? I accuse you of bribery, corruption, oppression of Roman citizens, and collusion with enemies of Rome during your naval operations on Cyprus!"

"And you would be—?" I inquired.

"I am Marcus Fulvius." He drew himself to his full height, adopting an orator's pose.

My mouth dropped open. "Not the Marcus Fulvius? The Marcus Fulvius who is renowned in Baiae for public fornication with goats? The Marcus Fulvius who took on an entire auxilia cohort of Libyan perverts until the oil supply ran out? To think Rome has been graced with such a celebrity." Now the whole Forum was laughing. The man's face reddened, but he held his ground. He was about to shout something when Cato stepped forward, seized his hand, and turned it palmside up.

"Here's a hand that never held a sword," he said with withering scorn, and nobody could pour on the scorn more witheringly than Marcus Porcius Cato. "Listen to me, you small-town nobody. Go put in some time with the legions, distinguish yourself in arms before you dare come to Rome and accuse a veteran of Gaul and Iberia, the crusher of pirates and exposer of a score of traitors."

This was making a bit much of my military and court record, but the words were deadly earnest and nobody was laughing now. I doubt that it was affection for me speaking. Cato despised men who came from out of town to make their reputations in Rome.

"Any Roman citizen may bring suit against any other in public court," Fulvius said. "As you know well, Marcus Porcius."

Hortensius Hortalus came forward. "That is very true. In fact, it was my impression that you made this very accusation this morning in the extortion court of Marcus Juventius Laterensis. Wherefore do you now, Marcus Fulvius, repeat these charges here in the ancient and sacred gathering place of the comitia, thus bringing disturbance to the grave deliberations of the citizens of Rome as they partake in the most venerable of our Republican institutions, the choosing among candidates for the highest offices?"

This speech would sound stilted and awkward in my mouth, but it was always a joy to hear Hortalus speak. The sonorous vowels of his old-fashioned Latin flowed over the crowd like honey.

Fulvius yanked his hand away from Cato. "I speak forth boldly because I want Rome to know it is a degenerate criminal who demands that the citizens grant him imperium. This man"—Once again he extended the skinny, slightly dirty-nailed finger toward my face, this time shaking with ill-bridled wrath—"laid hands on crucial naval stores, public property, citizens! And sold them for his own profit! He set his slaves to break into the houses of honest Roman citizens, to beat and torture them until they bought their lives with gold! He took great bribes from foreign merchants who trafficked with the very pirates he was sent to suppress. This is the man who wants to preside over a court that will try Roman citizens. This is the man who would go forth to govern a propraetorian province and command legions, no doubt to plunder our provincials and betray our allies!"

"Wasn't there something about collusion with enemies of Rome?" I asked.

"Beyond all this," he said, scarcely pausing for breath, "he consorted with the notorious slut Princess Cleopatra, daughter of the degenerate Ptolemy the Flute Player, that disgusting tyrant of Egypt."

At this time not one Roman in a thousand had ever heard of Cleopatra, who was barely seventeen years old. But her father, Ptolemy, was a worldwide joke.

"King Ptolemy," said Metellus Scipio, "has been recognized by the Senate of Rome as the lawful king of Egypt and has been accorded the status of Friend and Ally of the Roman People. Not only do you bring frivolous charges against a blameless servant of the Senate and People, but you slander the daughter of an allied prince. I've a mind to haul you into court for it."

"Everyone knows old Ptolemy bribed half the Senate to get that title!" shouted one of Fulvius's toadies. It was perfectly true, but hardly to the point.

I held up a hand for silence, and in a few seconds the hubbub calmed. "Marcus Fulvius, you bring serious charges against me, and your slanders are worthless. Bring out your witnesses."

"You will see them in court."

"Then why are you yammering at me here?" Of course, I knew perfectly well. The man was an unknown, a nobody. He wanted all of Rome to know his name, and by nightfall it surely would.

"I am here," Fulvius announced grandly, "to invite every citizen of Rome to witness my prosecution of the mighty Caecilius Metellus, whose loathsome guilt I shall prove through the testimony of Roman citizens wronged. The gods of Rome themselves will call for his exile!" This brought cries of admiration for his eloquence, at which he preened.

Hortalus spoke again. "You've learned rhetoric from a good master, Fulvius. That last turn of phrase was from Junius Billienus's prosecution of Minucius, one hundred and sixty-five years ago"—Hortalus's knowledge of the law was truly comprehensive, admired by Cicero himself, but he paused for effect and let fall a telling addendum—"in the consulship of Paullus and Varro."

Half unconsciously, everyone there made some gesture to ward off evil, making apotropaic hand signs, fishing out phallic amulets, or reciting protective cantrips. Those lucky enough to be standing near an altar or statue of a god kissed their hands and pressed them to the sacred object. This we always do when that ill-starred year is mentioned, for it was in the consulship of Paullus and Varro that Hannibal met the greatest Roman army ever assembled and annihilated it at Cannae.

At that point a pair of lictors, their fasces shouldered, pushed their way through the crowd and stopped in front of me.

"Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger," said one of them, "you are summoned to appear before the court of the praetor Marcus Juventius Laterensis at dawn tomorrow." They looked a bit uncomfortable carrying out this commonplace duty. If I should be elected praetor they might be assigned to me, and they feared I would remember them with disfavor.

"Why wait?" I said. "Let's go see him now." I left my spot and began to walk toward the basilica with my whole crowd behind me. I couldn't accomplish anything at court until my trial began, but I didn't want to give Fulvius anymore free publicity at my expense.

One of Fulvius's men, an ugly, scar-faced thug, pushed toward me. "Hey! You can't—" He got that far when Hermes stepped up to him and punched him in the face. The boy could hit as hard as any professional boxer, and the man went down like a sacrificial ox. My father clouted another over the head with his cane, and the rest fell back before us.

Had something like this occurred just a few years before, there would have been real bloodshed, but Pompey had finally set the city in order, expelled the gangs that had made elections so uproarious, and restored a little of our dignity. In consequence, everybody was bored and ready for a fight.

It was a very short walk to the basilica where Juventius had his court. The lictors had to hold the mob back while we stormed in, interrupting some case he was hearing. Juventius looked up, his face furious.

"I will hear your case tomorrow! Get out of my court!" He was a hard-faced man of no real distinction. Like most, he had done no more than put in the requisite civil and military time and had spent enough on his games as aedile, and so he got his year in the curule chair. Of course, some would say the same of me.

"Tomorrow!" I yelled. "This malicious wretch has had who knows how many months to put his plot together, to rehearse his perjurious witnesses, to bribe and suborn the testimony he needs to prove his false accusations, and I have until tomorrow to prepare my case! Citizens!" I smote my breast dramatically and almost choked on my own cloud of chalk dust. "Is this justice?" I was shouting loud enough to be heard outside and sounds of a gratifying agreement came back to me.

"Lictors!" Juventius shouted. "Throw these trespassers out!" Since his lictors were outside trying to hold the crowd back, they were in something of a quandary.

"What's all this unseemliness?" The voice was not terribly loud, but all disorder quieted instantly. Pompey entered the basilica, preceded by his twelve lictors. Technically, he was proconsul for Nearer and Farther Spain, but he also had an extraordinary oversight of the grain supply, so he remained in Italy to keep everyone from starving while his legates attended to both Spanish provinces. It was an unheard-of arrangement for a proconsul with full imperium to remain in Italy; but in this, as in everything else, Pompey was a law unto himself.

"Proconsul," Juventius said, "I've summoned Metellus the Younger to appear before me tomorrow, and he has shown up instead today, interrupting court business."

"You gave him short enough notice. Why should he do less for you?" Then he turned to me. "Decius, you've been provoked, but I'll not have disorder in Roman courts. Go home and get your defense ready. I'm sure you'll have a good one."

"Naturally," I said to him. "I have hundreds of witnesses to my activities, and they're all on Cyprus! If I were, at great expense, to dispatch a fast cutter I could bring a few dozen here in about a month. At least I could if it were the sailing season, which it isn't."

"You'd better think of something," Pompey advised, "because if your case is carried over into the next year, you can't be elected praetor."

He turned around, strode to the entrance, and bellowed, "This matter is to be settled tomorrow! I want you all to go about your business. There are to be no unlawful assemblies or disorderly demonstrations."

Meekly, the whole crowd did his bidding. Pompey was acting as if he were sovereign of the City. Since the City was well-supplied with his veterans in those days, he might as well have been.

"We'll meet at my house this evening," Father said. "Summon our highest-ranking supporters. We have some serious planning to do."

Copyright © 2006 by John Maddox Roberts

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    fascinating look at Ancient Rome

    Nobleman Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger knows that the fame and acclaim he recently received when he fought pirates in the Mediterranean (see IX: THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATES) coupled with the influence of his politically connected family make him a sure shot at being elected to the office of Praetor. He envisions beyond that of rather quickly becoming a governor. --- However, just prior to the election, the unthinkable occurs when an apparent stranger publicly proclaims that Decius is corrupt and has the proof. Decius and his family quickly regroup to try to figure out the best course to overcome the accusation of Marcus Fulvius, who seems to have had no motive except ¿altruistically¿ exposing him. Facing a trial on the charges of public corruption, Decius arrives at the courthouse only to find the corpse of Fulvius awaiting him on the stairs. While Rome believes he or his associates killed the accuser, Decius investigates seeking the truth to regain his tarnished reputation. --- As always the incredibly fascinating look at Ancient Rome makes this a worthy reading experience as the whodunit though clever takes a back seat to the tour of the city at an era when the Republic is collapsing. Decius is at his best as he turns from arrogant victor (before the vote has happened) to beleaguered victim struggling to prove his innocence when even his family assumes he is corrupt and probably a killer. Fans of the series or anyone who appreciates a historical mystery with the emphasis on the history will enjoy the tenth SPRQ tale. --- Harriet Klausner

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