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Somewhere behind the huge pile of wax tablets and a pyramid of scrolls sat Tiberius Claudius Philo. All these documents demanded his attention and they all required Icelus' signature; only Icelus was not around as usual. Luckily Philo had a workaround, having fashioned a copy of Icelus' signet ring which he used to stamp into the wax. This saved him the chore of searching the endless entertainment suites of the new palace trying to locate his boss.
It should be stressed that this was no fraud since Philo had put the idea to Icelus himself as a time-saving efficiency. Anything that enabled Icelus to spend more time with his masseur was warmly welcomed and Galba's official had eagerly embraced this innovation.
Quiet and studious, Philo had risen through the scribe ranks by sheer efficiency and intelligence to his current post as the emperor's private secretary's secretary. He'd worked briefly for Nymphidius Sabinus and before that far more happily for Epaphroditus, Nero's wily and devious advisor, a man whom he respected and admired above all others. Of Icelus, Philo, ever fair, was reserving judgement. The delights offered by the hospitality team had often turned men's minds from their duties. Icelus, he felt, would soon grow bored of all that banqueting and run out of fan boys to pleasure him.
It did not occur to him that some people will always prefer pleasure to duty and will wheedle out of any work given the opportunity, particularly if they have a very efficient and capable assistant. Philo's pleasures were few. He liked tidying things, he liked reading, and he was very fond of the spiced almond cakes his landlord's daughter Teretia baked for him each day.
He was nibbling at one of her cakes now, catching the crumbs in his cupped hand as he scanned the document stating Galba's progress. According to the author the emperor was now approaching the Alps. Philo swung round to check the map tacked to the wall behind his chair. He stood and traced his finger along Gaul until he located the town mentioned in the scroll.
"Hmm," he murmured, his mouth full of Teretia's delicious cake.
Two days riding perhaps? Nearer even. Time to check on the progress of Code Purple.
Code Purple was Philo's master plan for the arrival of Galba in Rome. Icelus, perplexed by the imperial court protocols, was more than happy to leave all of the arrangements to Philo. These dictated everything: the standing positions of slaves in alternately shaped rooms; the seating at every meal, be it a supposedly informal breakfast or large banquet; all the varied and particular greetings for the many ranks of slaves, servants, officials, and courtiers. Philo had applied his customary meticulousness to the task. He had spent days in the musty archives reading up on every previous ascension to emperor and the resulting grand events of thanksgiving.
He'd quizzed Icelus thoroughly on Galba's character in order to match his ceremonies to the new emperor's temperament. As he suspected, Galba was no Nero in his tastes. Code Purple was to be a dignified, official welcome. A show of loyalty from the palace staff to their new emperor.
Philo tucked his papers away in his battered leather satchel, his most prized and practical possession, swinging the strap over his head as he trotted off with his tick list.
The small antechamber that served Philo's office was located in what was generally referred to as the old palace. This was the palatial residence built by Emperor Tiberius, improved upon by Caligula, and then near burnt to the ground under Nero.
The destruction of the imperial family's living quarters had given the flamboyant Nero the excuse to build a new home. This residence, known to the staff as the new palace, to the plebs as the golden house, and to the senate as an unjustifiable waste of funds, took up one hundred acres of the city and was spectacular in its design. Yet it lay unfinished and indeed unpaid for, as demonstrated by the builders' huts still standing on the Oppian Hill side of the new palace grounds.
Such a grand scale of a project made it an irritatingly long walk from the old palace. Still, it was a trek Philo enjoyed since it allowed him time to formulate his thoughts. His concern was one particular paragraph in his Code Purple master plan. This detailed the movements of the empress, Statilia Messalina, and her attendants. They were to attend Galba's welcome banquet, involving a short walk from the empress' apartments in the new palace to the octagonal dining room in the summer pavilion where the feast was being held. However, to Philo's over-analytical mind this short passage was fraught with potential mishaps and he wanted to drill the attendants again. Really this should involve the empress and this was the point which was causing Philo a knot of anxiety in his stomach.
Empress Statilia Messalina was a very spiky woman. The fact she was still referred to as empress despite being merely Nero's widow attested to this. Nobody dared to address her by anything else. In a high fury that noble woman was known to fling her footwear at the source of her displeasure. When sanguine she was haughty to the point of rudeness and could reduce the most stoic of patricians to gibbering apologies by one hard glare from those wide-set eyes.
Her apartments, a rich array of rooms, lay in one of the new palace buildings. A separate building, it should be noted, from the emperor's suite which Icelus was minding. They were placed on opposite sides of the lake with their own gardens and private courtyard, a colonnaded walkway leading back to the main palace complex. Philo nipped along this path wondering whether he dared suggest to Statilia Messalina that she partake in his drill.
For thoroughness he felt it was necessary: Statilia's independent mind might have the whole party walking in the wrong direction. Her slaves would be unable to correct their mistress and they could wander the corridor all evening trying to locate the banquet. That wouldn't do. That would, thought Philo, be just awful.
He entered the building by a side door, passed the Praetorians on guard with a nod, and had just navigated round a corner towards the entrance to the empress' suite when he spied a large shape in a sludge-coloured tunic standing outside. Philo walked briskly back round the corner and pressed his back against the wall.
Straton. What was Straton doing in the empress' apartments? He was the last person Philo would have expected to encounter on this particular route; in fact he had taken this particular route to avoid bumping into the slave overseer.
He felt a familiar race to his heart and a tremble begin in his hands. He dared a darting glance round the brickwork in the forlorn hope that he had imagined Straton's presence, the result of the long hours he was putting in at work. But no, it was definitely the overseer. A man as large as Straton could not be imagined. A good six feet of bulk with huge muscled arms and a chest broader than three average-sized men. He was less of a man and more of an outbuilding: a granary or a summer house. Bristled hair matched the whiskers on his chin and beneath that a thick neck with a raised, white scar which dissected his throat. This injury had sliced at Straton's vocal cords and left him with impaired speech.
Philo, in common with everyone else in the imperial household, owned a healthy terror of Straton. It was not just his fierce exterior that frightened. As a slave overseer Straton had complete command over the imperial slaves: they were but his toys to amuse himself with. Philo, unfortunately for him, amused Straton more than anybody else.
If Philo had thought that his newly purchased freedom would save him from Straton's enforced embrace he'd been cruelly disillusioned. Free will, Philo had discovered, was harder to practise than he'd anticipated, especially when faced with Straton's black eyes boring into him.
He had only one method of dealing with this unpleasant situation: avoidance. A tactic that was wearing on his nerves as well as being generally ineffective, for Straton seemed to possess some strange inner homing signal that located Philo wherever he was.
Oh gods, thought Philo, daring another glance round the corner and noting Straton's immovable form patrolling outside the door, holding his cudgel on his shoulder like a spear. He had to see the empress; he needed to test her on her role in Code Purple. But there was no other way to get to her rooms without passing Straton. This set off a flutter of anxiety in Philo's chest. He leaned back against the wall, paralysed with indecision.
He jumped a clear foot in the air.
"Gods, Philo, what's got into you?" asked Mina, approaching with a pile of towels in her arms; the tools of her tradeas one of the empress' bathroom attendants. "You look like Europa surprised by a randy bull."
Philo managed a polite but rather squeaky, "Hello." Before pulling himself together and stating more professionally, "I'm here to see the empress in regards to Code Purple."
Mina groaned, "Juno! We're all Code Purpled out."
"Nevertheless," insisted Philo, thinking that if he could get Mina to escort him to the empress Straton could not touch him. He pulled his satchel round and rummaged within, producing the tablet that contained his master plan. "There are a few details that need clarification."
"We're only walking down the corridor. I can see the door from here."
A head popped round the corner, large and bristled. "Hey," growled Straton in his usual hoarse whisper.
The tablet flew out of Philo's hands and hit the wall opposite, slamming onto the floor. He scurried to collect it, taking care to retrieve it without turning his back on the overseer.
"You're very skittish today," observed Mina.
Philo hugged the retrieved tablet to his chest. "I need to see the empress," he said, avoiding Straton's black eyes.
"Awright, awright," soothed Mina. "We're being purpled again," she said for Straton's benefit. "Thirteen times we've pootled down the corridor for his benefit," she moaned. "We could do the thing blind, we could do it drunk, we could do it blind drunk! In fact I may suggest that to the mistress, it might enliven the event for her." She smiled wickedly at Philo's horrified expression.
"There is no alcohol until the banquet," he stressed.
Statilia Messalina was abrasive enough sober; drunk she could give the Dacians a run for their money. "And then it will be properly rationed."
Mina rolled her eyes at Straton. To her surprise the overseer took Philo's side, emitting a hoarsely insistent, "Code Purple big deal. Should practise." He nodded at Philo who hugged his tablet tighter and took a step towards Mina, asking, "Take me to the empress, please."
"Fine, fine. Let us be purpled again." And then to Straton, "You on for later?"
Straton gave a grin, "Yerrr."
"Excellent," she clapped. "Come on Philo, stop gawping like a fish and let's go get purpled again. Though I should warn you that the empress is about to take her bath and so will probably be naked."
Mina kept one eye on Philo and noted with amusement the tension in his jaw. Still, Mina thought, that was surely an advantage. For naked, the empress had no footwear to fling at Philo when he suggested yet another run through of Code Purple.CHAPTER 2
here lay beyond the Viminal Gate into the city a large wall, several feet high. It was a compact square of brick with sharpened stakes discouraging any would-be intruder. Discouragement was not needed; anyone scaling this particular wall had to be insane or suicidal or had reached an extraordinary scale of drunkenness. For beyond this wall lived 8,000 heavily armed men: they were the Praetorians and this was their camp.
The Praetorian Guard was the emperor's elite troop of bodyguards, as they saw themselves. Or whoremongering bully boys, as everyone else saw them. At any one time there was a single cohort of 800 men on duty at the palace; another cohort might be on duty keeping the crowds under control at the games or theatre or circus. Had this been a military legion, the remaining guards would no doubt have been out building bridges across rivers, mending roads, and having a good old march about. However, the river Tiber was already well bridged, the roads were maintained by an army of public slaves, and the city streets were far too narrow and crowded to enable any serious marching.
Thus there were 6,400 men with an awful lot of time on their hands. Inevitably this led to trouble and everyone knew to avoid the Viminal bars from the kalends to the ides, which was all the time it took the guards to drink and whore away their inflated wages.
They had in recent years been stamped into a near respectable force by their dictatorial but energetic prefect Nymphidius Sabinus. However, since they hacked him to pieces back in the summer after he made a foolhardy attempt to declare himself emperor, they had fallen back into their usual louche ways with the added arrogance of having saved the throne for Galba.
Today on a bright September morning two guards were leaning against the wall by the main barrack gates. They were on official guard duty but their attitude was casual as if they had personally decided to put on their uniforms and gather there. One was big and beefy and went by the name of Lucullus. The other, Proculus, was slimmer with a red diagonal line that ran from his forehead, across his nose and onto his jaw, the result of a run-in with Straton some months back. These two were viewing the passing citizens with lax diligence, searching the crowds for any pretty girls they could leer at or any passing citizen whose appearance was worth insulting.
A few feet away from them tottered a large litter with green tasselled curtains borne upon the shoulders of eight Ethiopian slaves. Though they trotted along easily enough, the precarious bending of their poles suggested a great weight within. Proculus looked at Lucullus and raised one eyebrow; it arched high and was accompanied by an angling of his narrow head. Lucullus gave a snort and then a nod. As the litter approached Proculus slipped out a leg.
The first Ethiopian stepped over it. His colleague behind was less fortunate and stumbled. He automatically threw his arms out to break his fall, thus releasing his grip on the pole. The litter lurched violently to the left, the remaining slaves frantically trying to right it, yelling commands between themselves. Alas, the weight within was too much and the litter slipped further to the left depositing a rather startled man on the cobbled street. Sat on the ground, he was immediately surrounded by the desperate apologies of his bearers and a dozen of his other slaves vying with each other to help him up.
Proculus and Lucullus doubled up with laughter, Lucullus slapping a palm against the wall in merriment. The man was now on his feet, the grimy remnants of the type of substances that fell onto the Viminal streets quickly removed by his wardrobe slave who rushed forward with his clothes brush at the ready. He was tall with a protruding belly, which made him near spherical, hidden beneath a green tunic. No doubt in previous years his height had masked his increasing waistline. Now there was no hope unless he took to walking on stilts. Red fleshy lips and hooded eyes lay beneath heavily oiled black hair which was slickly reflecting the morning light. Recovering himself from his unexpected descent he approached the still-snickering guards.
"And you two are?" he asked lightly in a well-bred accent, surrounded by his slaves who seemed far more indignant than he was from his recent experiences.
Lucullus recovered himself into an upright position, pointing his spear straight at the stranger and replying, "What's it to you?" The man, unfazed, clicked his fingers and a slave shot forward with a scroll. He played with the scroll in his hands, rolling it round so they could both see the seal. Imperial.
Seeing the bravado slip from the guards, the man smiled and told them, "His Imperial Majesty Galba has sent me. My name is Cornelius Laco and I am your new Praetorian prefect."
A greater contrast to the last could not have been found.
The Praetorian tribune Antonius Honoratus was a seasoned veteran of the legions and a great organiser; it was he who had assisted Nymphidius Sabinus in the reform of his guards. It was also Honoratus who had ordered the murder of the insane Sabinus. That he had no choice in the matter did little to alleviate his conscience. He was a haunted man, lacking his previous drive. His one joy in life was Alex, a young imperial slave who acted as his messenger and to whom Honoratus had formed a great, and wholly innocent attachment.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Galba's Men"
Copyright © 2018 L. J. Trafford.
Excerpted by permission of Aeon Books Ltd.
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