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SPQR XI: Under Vesuvius
By John Maddox Roberts
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
It was a good year for me, even if it was a bad one for Rome. Caesar's actions had everyone on edge and the City was full of talk of civil war. It was getting difficult to accomplish anything, whether in the way of business or pleasure, so nervous was everyone. Luckily for me, I didn't have to stay there.
It was the year of my praetorship. Had I been elected praetor urbanis, I would have had to stay within the walls for the whole year, but it had been my good fortune to be elected praetor peregrinus, in charge of cases involving foreigners, and all Italy was my province. So I had cleared my City docket in short order and prepared to travel. My first destination was Campania. With my wife, Julia, a gaggle of slaves, friends, and freedmen, and preceded by my lictors, we set out for Italy's most popular resort district.
After the endless duties and tedium of the junior magistracies, the praetorship was like a vacation with duty hours. You got to lounge around in a curule chair while somebody else did all the organizing, arguing, and pleading; and when you'd heard enough you rendered judgment and nobody could dispute with you. Plus, since there were so many days on the calendar when official business was forbidden, there was plenty of time to socialize.
And socialize we did. A serving praetor was always in demand as a guest, so we dined out almost every evening. With my lictors clearing the way for our litter, we could negotiate Rome's crowded streets with ease. The prestige of the office was tremendous. A praetor held imperium and was qualified to lead armies in the field, although it had been a few generations since sitting praetors had done so. At last, Julia had the social standing to which she knew she was entitled.
To cap it all, I could look forward to a splendid provincial governorship when my year in office ended. Even an honest man could get rich as propraetor.
Thus, we felt ourselves specially favored by the gods as we made our stately way along the Via Appia, that oldest and most beautiful of the Roman highways, lined with majestic cedars and pines, straight through the richest farmland on the peninsula. Julia shared a litter with two friends, Antonia and Circe. Antonia was a sister of the famous Marcus Antonius, one of Caesar's most loyal supporters. Circe was one of Julia's cousins, also named Julia, but nicknamed Circe because, so my Julia claimed, "she reduces men to quadrupeds."
I rode a splendid chestnut from my new stables. Julia had insisted that my dignity now forbade using hired mounts. Beside me rode my freedman Hermes. Around us was my staff of secretaries, assistants — many of them sons of friends just starting on their careers — and all the general hangers-on needed to support the dignity of a senior magistrate. In the rear of the procession were a couple of wagons full of household slaves, most of them Julia's personal attendants.
We traveled in leisurely fashion. I felt no compulsion to rush, and I was savoring the advantages of my new status. At each town along the road we were banqueted like visiting royalty; and as we passed each grand villa, a slave came running out, bearing his master's invitation to dinner. As often as not, I accepted.
After the previous twenty years of my career, it was a welcome change.
But, eventually, we came in sight of Vesuvius. The beautiful if somewhat ominous mountain raises its conical bulk near Italy's most splendid bay, a faint plume of smoke drifting lazily from its peak, its sides carpeted with green, steep vineyards planted on nearly every accessible patch of its incomparably fertile soil.
"Do you think it could erupt?" Julia said, her lovely patrician head poking out of the litter's expensive hangings, another praetorian extravagance.
"It hasn't in living memory," I assured her.
Southern Campania is home to many delightful towns, such as Cumae, Stabiae, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Baiae, and many others, but I was not just yet ready to visit them. Instead, we took a little road that branched from the Appian and cut through the countryside surrounding the jewellike Bay of Baiae.
Here the serene fields were tended by slaves who were industrious but not overworked, their labors overseen by benign herms that stood at intervals along the road. In time we came to another road, this one little more than a paved path, that led to a splendid villa.
"Here we are, my dear," I said.
"Stop!" Julia ordered the litter slaves: eight matched Libyans who had cost me dearly and ate voraciously whether they were engaged in transportation or not. Julia and the other two emerged from the litter and stood gazing upon the estate, squealing with delight.
And it was worth a squeal or two. There were at least twenty buildings on the place, big and small. The main house was an imposing structure — white walled, roofed with red tiles — that stood atop a low stone platform. Its simple design complemented the far older Greek temple, Doric in style and beautifully maintained, that stood nearby. Everything in sight was laid out and constructed in the most exquisite taste.
"Oh, wonderful!" Julia exclaimed. "And this is truly to be ours?"
"Nothing set in stone so far, my dear, but at least we have the use of it for now."
"It will be ours," she stated with great finality.
The villa belonged to my father's good friend and patron, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the great orator, jurist, and scoundrel. The old villain was then on his deathbed, and had summoned me to his side when he learned of my election. I found the once-imposing old man wasted away to almost nothing, his incomparable voice reduced to a whisper. I had fallen afoul of him more than once and had even tried to prosecute him for criminal acts upon occasion, but he had always regarded this as mere politics and never held it against me. Now, seeing him in such a pitiful condition, I could summon up no hostility against him. A whole era of Roman political life would die with him.
"Congratulations, my boy," he croaked out. "Imperium at last, eh?"
"It comes to most of us if we live long enough," I told him. "But thank you anyway."
He managed a croupy laugh. "You haven't changed. And praetor peregrinus, at that. That's good. You'll get to travel about, let the people see your face. They'll remember, and that will be of value, when the time comes. Listen, my boy, I wish I had time for chitchat, but I don't. I have a villa in Campania, near Baiae."
"It is famous," I said.
"Yes, well, nobody's in it right now, and you will need a place to live when you're in the district, and accepting the hospitality of a local grandee would be a bad idea. Sure as Jupiter is randy, that man will have a case before your court and he'll expect favorable treatment. Believe me, I know how it works. Why not use my villa?"
"That is most generous," I said fervently. The very thing he had mentioned had been on my mind as well.
"Good, good." He mused for a while. "You know, I've no one worth willing the place to, so — well, just see if you like it."
Now all my old hostilities disappeared completely. At any other time I would have been suspicious, the prospect of an inheritance being a classic means of control. But he was clearly dying and had nothing to gain from me. I babbled my thanks and made my exit. Half the important men of Rome were outside waiting to pay what would almost certainly be their final respects to a man who had been one of the most distinguished senators of the age. But he stopped me before I reached the door.
I turned. "Yes, Quintus Hortensius?"
"Hang on to that wife of yours."
"You mean Julia?" I said, astonished.
"Who else would I mean? Besides being a charming woman, she's a Caesar, and her uncle Julius is the coming man. Forget the rest, no matter what your family says. Being married to his niece could save your neck someday."
"I intend to keep her," I said. Already, he was drowsing. Even dying old men talked of Julius Caesar.
Now we made our way toward the big house and I allowed myself to believe that this could be mine. All along the path fresh garlands had been strung between the herms in honor of our arrival. I had sent a runner ahead to advise the staff of our approach. It is always a bad idea to drop in on such a place unannounced. Then you just get to see what the place really looks like when the master's not around.
There were at least a hundred people awaiting us before the house. At such an establishment, this was a mere skeleton staff. A man as wealthy as Hortalus could easily have five hundred household slaves alone when he was in residence, with several thousand more tending the fields.
"Welcome, welcome, Praetor!" chorused the well-drilled staff. "Most happy and gracious Senator and Lady, thrice welcome to the Villa Hortensia! All honor to the Praetor Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger! Evoi! Evoi!"
"Goodness!" Julia said. "I wasn't expecting this."
"Old Hortalus had the most important men in Rome calling on him," I told her, "not to mention foreign kings and princes. He probably has a Greek chorus master to drill his slaves in these little ceremonies." Nonetheless, I was flattered.
A tall, dignified man came forward, a staff of authority in his hand. "Praetor, my lady, I am Annius Hortensius, freedman of the great Hortensius Hortalus and steward of the Villa Hortensia. I bid you welcome. Please regard this house as your own and myself as your personal servant. All that may be done to render your stay pleasant will be performed with utmost diligence."
He introduced us to the housekeeper, a formidable woman belted with keys and graced with a face of iron, and the principal servants, most of them freedmen and -women. The rest would be known to us only by their occupations.
While our own slaves and the villa's made our quarters ready, we were given a tour of the place. We Metelli were not exactly paupers, but there were too many of us to concentrate so much wealth in one place. In truth, only a handful of men could match the splendor of Hortalus's properties, of which this was only one. The collection of Greek sculpture was breathtaking, and most of it was displayed in formal gardens landscaped especially to provide a setting for them. He had no fewer than three originals by Praxiteles, including a stunning sculpture of the Graces. You see copies everywhere, but this was the original.
We saw the huge fish ponds that had been Hortalus's passion. He had written long books on the subject and for many years had engaged in a rivalry with his friend Phillipus, who was afflicted with the same mania. The ladies of our party were delighted with the grotesquely fat fish, who gathered at our approach to be fed, mouths agape like baby birds. Urns of fish food stood by for the use of anyone inclined to this activity. Julia and her friends tossed out enough food to founder a pride of lions. Then the tour continued.
"If you would be so good, Praetor," Annius said solemnly, "how did you last find my patron?" We were making our way toward the temple.
"In a very bad way, I fear," I told him. "You and the rest must prepare yourselves for the worst. However," I added with some satisfaction, "I have reason to believe that he has made excellent provision for you all."
"What temple is this?" Julia asked. "It is so lovely!"
"This is the Temple of Campanian Apollo," the steward said proudly. "It is the oldest Greek sacred structure in Italy, founded by colonists more than four hundred years ago. The great Hortensius has made its maintenance and enrichment his dearest project. All the decayed old marble he replaced with the finest Parian. The tile roof he restored with glittering bronze. Where the trees of the sacred grove had died, he brought in and had planted full-grown trees from the holy precincts of other temples."
"He's never been one to do things by halves," I acknowledged.
"Is there still a priest in residence?" Julia wanted to know. "Are ceremonies still performed here?"
"Oh, yes. Southern Campania has a large Greek community, and they have always supported this temple. The priests of Apollo hold a hereditary office, and the current one is a direct descendant of the founding priest, who was a citizen of Athens. His name is Diocles."
At this moment a lovely young woman emerged from the temple accompanied by two slave girls who bore long ivy wreaths. She wore a simple, elegant gown of dazzling white belted with gold. Under her careful direction, the girls began to drape the wreaths around the altar.
"And this is Gorgo, daughter of Diocles," the steward said.
"We must meet her," Julia insisted.
As we crossed the well-kept lawn one of the slave girls caught sight of us and spoke to her mistress. The young woman in white crossed to the top of the stairs and awaited us there, her hands folded modestly before her. When we drew near, she inclined her head gracefully.
"The Temple of Campanian Apollo welcomes the praetor and his lady," she said in beautiful Attic Greek. Julia answered in the same language, which she spoke as perfectly and as naturally as she did Latin. All upper-class Romans learned Greek, but with the Caesars it was something of a mania.
"So you knew we were coming?" I said after the steward formally introduced us.
"The whole district has anticipated the arrival of the distinguished Senator Metellus and Lady Julia."
Meaning that everyone wanted to meet Julius Caesar's niece. One more praetor wasn't likely to cause much of a stir.
"Here comes part of the district now," I noted.
A little party of horsemen was approaching along the paved road leading to the temple, their mounts clopping along on unshod hooves. Hermes gave a low whistle. It was meant for the horses. They were superb, far more splendid than my own. The riders were an exotic lot. Four were tawny-skinned, bearded men with their hair dressed in numerous plaits. They rode bareback, each controlling his mount by a single rope halter looped around the animal's muzzle. Each wore a brief, white tunic and carried a sheaf of javelins in a quiver across his back.
Their leader was an extraordinarily handsome young man who sat a Roman saddle and wore Greek dress, but whose skin was the same desert color as his followers'. His mount was draped with an elaborate caparison that trailed hundreds of tassels of scarlet and gold.
"Numidians," I observed, "horses and men both. What brings them here?"
"That is Gelon, the slaver's boy," the steward informed us. "I will get rid of him."
I cocked an eye toward Julia. She was watching Gorgo, and the priest's daughter was watching the handsome young horseman. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed, her mouth a bit open, as if she were about to speak. Uh-oh, I thought.
"No need, Annius Hortensius," I told the steward. "He may have business with me. I am praetor of the foreigners, after all."
"His sort belongs in court, all right," the man sniffed.
It has always seemed a little odd to me that, while we all make use of slaves and can hardly imagine life — much less civilization — without them, we harbor a great contempt for slavers, as if our own slaves appeared in the house by magic. Of course, the steward had been a slave once and doubtless had little love for the breed.
"I want to meet him," Circe said. She was a brown-haired beauty who had spurned the suits of Marcus Antonius, Gnaeus Pompey the Younger, Catullus the poet, Marcus Brutus, Cassius Longinus, King Phraates of Parthia (really!), and many others less illustrious.
"He's too far beneath you," Antonia told her. "We Antonii, on the other hand, are known for our low tastes."
"Rein yourselves in, ladies," Julia advised. She was eyeing the boy, too. He alit gracefully, kicking one leg over the saddle and sliding down, catching himself with no trace of awkwardness. He strode toward us, smiling. He even had beautiful teeth. However stingily the gods may have dealt with him in the matter of pedigree, they made it up handsomely in physical attributes.
Excerpted from SPQR XI: Under Vesuvius by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 2007 John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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