Vespasian's ascent to power continues in the sixth installment of Robert Fabbri's epic series
Rome, AD 51: Vespasian brings Rome's greatest enemy before the Emperor. After eight years of resistance, the British warrior Caratacus has been caught. But even Vespasian's victory cannot remove the newly-made consul from Roman politics: Agrippina, Emperor Claudius's wife, pardons Caratacus. Claudius is a drunken fool and Narcissus and Pallas, his freedmen, are battling for control of his throne. Separately, they decide to send Vespasian East to Armenia to defend Rome's interests. But there is more at stake than protecting a client kingdom. Rumors abound that Agrippina is involved in a plot to destabilise the East. Vespasian must find a way to serve two masters—Narcissus is determined to ruin Agrippina, Pallas to save her. Meanwhile, the East is in turmoil. A new Jewish cult is flourishing and its adherents refuse to swear loyalty to the Emperor. In Armenia, Vespasian is captured. Immured in the oldest city on earth, how can he escape? And is a Rome ruled by a woman who despises Vespasian any safer than a prison cell?
About the Author
Robert Fabbri has worked in film and TV for 25 years. He is an assistant director and has worked on productions such as Billy Elliot, Hellraiser, Hornblower, and Patriot Games. His life-long passion for ancient history inspired him to write the Vespasian series.
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Rome's Lost Son
By Robert Fabbri
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2015 Robert Fabbri
All rights reserved.
Persistent and shrill, the cry echoed around the walls and marble columns of the atrium; a torment to all who endured it.
Titus Flavius Vespasianus gritted his teeth, determined not to be moved by the pitiful wail as it rose and fell, occasionally pausing for a ragged breath before bellowing out again with renewed, lung-filled vigour. The suffering that it conveyed had to be borne and Vespasian knew that should he not have the stomach for it he would lose the ongoing battle of wills; and that was something that he could not afford to do.
A new cacophony of anguish emitted from the writhing bundle in his wife's arms, its movements caught in the flickering glow of the log fire spitting and crackling in the atrium hearth. Vespasian winced and then held his head high and crooked his left arm before him as his body slave draped his toga over and around his well-muscled, compact frame, watched by Titus, Vespasian's eleven-year-old son.
With the heavy woollen garment eventually hanging to his satisfaction and the howls showing no sign of abating, Vespasian eased into the pair of red leather, senatorial slippers that his slave held out for him. 'The heels, Hormus.' Hormus ran a finger around the back of each shoe so that his master's feet fitted snugly and then stood and backed away with deference, leaving Titus facing his father.
Doing his best to remain calm as the din reached a new level, Vespasian contemplated Titus for a few moments. 'Does the Emperor still come every day to check on his son's progress?'
'Most days, Father; and he also asks me and the other boys questions, as well as Britannicus.'
Vespasian flinched at a particularly shrill bawl and strove to ignore it. 'What happens if you get them wrong?'
'Sosibius beats us after Claudius has gone.'
Vespasian hid his less than favourable opinion of the grammaticus from his son. It had been Sosibius' fallacious allegations at the Empress Messalina's behest, three years earlier, that had set in train a series of events that had ended up in Vespasian bearing false witness against the former Consul, Asiaticus, in order to protect his brother, Sabinus. Using Vespasian as a willing tool, however, Asiaticus had had his revenge from beyond the grave and Messalina had been executed; Vespasian had been present as she shrieked and cursed her last. But Sosibius was still in place, his fabricated charges corroborated by Vespasian's false testimony. 'Does he often beat you?'
Titus' face hardened into a strained expression, startling Vespasian by its similarity to his own, older version. The thick nose not so pronounced, the earlobes not so long, the jaw not so heavy and with a full head of hair rather than his semi-wreath about the crown; but there was no mistaking it: Titus was his son. 'Yes, Father, but Britannicus says that it's because his stepmother, the Empress, has ordered him to.'
'Then deny Agrippina that pleasure and make sure that Sosibius has no cause to beat you today.'
'If he does it'll be the last time. Britannicus has thought of a way to have him dismissed and at the same time insult his stepbrother.'
Vespasian ruffled Titus' hair. 'Don't you get involved in any feud between Britannicus and Nero.'
'I'll always support my friend, Father.'
'Just be sure that you don't make it too public.' Vespasian took the boy's chin in his hand and examined his face. 'It's dangerous; do you understand me?'
Titus nodded slowly. 'Yes, Father, I believe I do.'
'Good, now be off with you. Hormus, see Titus out to his escort. Are Magnus' lads waiting?'
As Hormus led Titus away the bawling continued. Vespasian turned to face Flavia Domitilla, his wife of twelve years; she sat staring into the fire doing nothing to try to soothe the babe in her arms. 'If you really want my clients to mistake you for the wet nurse when I let them in for the morning salutio, my dear, then I suggest that you plug little Domitian onto one of your breasts and sing Gallic lullabies to him.'
Flavia snorted and carried on staring at the flames. 'At least then they'll think that we can afford a Gallic wet nurse.'
Vespasian pushed his head forward, frowning, unable to credit what he had just heard. 'What are you talking about, woman? We've got a Gallic wet nurse; it's just that this morning you've chosen not to call for her and instead you seem to be intent on starving the child.' To emphasise the point he picked up a piece of bread from his recently abandoned breakfast, dipped it in the bowl of olive oil and then chewed on it with relish.
'She's not Gallic! She's Hispanic.'
Vespasian suppressed a sigh of exasperation. 'Yes, she is from Hispania but she is a Celt, a Celtiberian. She's from the same race of huge tribesmen that all the finest women in Rome choose to have breastfeed their sons; it's just that when her ancestors crossed the Rhenus they didn't stop in Gaul, they carried on over the mountains into Hispania.'
'And therefore she produces milk so thin that a kitten wouldn't survive on it.'
'Her milk is no different from any other Celt's.'
'Your niece swears by her Allobroges woman.'
'How Lucius Junius Paetus chooses to indulge his wife is his own affair. However, to my mind, allowing a baby to go hungry because its wet nurse isn't from one of the more fashionable Celtic tribes is the act of an irresponsible mother.'
'And to my mind dragging a wife to live in the squalor of the Quirinal Hill and then not allowing her to purchase the staff that she needs to look after the family is the act of an uncaring and heartless husband and father.'
Vespasian smiled to himself but kept his face neutral now they had got to the nub of the matter. Two and a half years previously Vespasian had used his good standing with Pallas, as the freedman had manoeuvred himself to the most powerful position in Claudius' court, to remove Flavia and their children from the apartment in the imperial palace where they had lived for most of Vespasian's four years as legate of the II Augusta in Britannia. The accommodation had been offered by Claudius ostensibly so that their two sons could be educated together and also so that Messalina, Claudius' then wife, would have a companion in the palace. However, Vespasian knew that the Emperor had been manipulated into making the offer by Messalina's brother, Corvinus, so that his old enemy could have the power of life and death over Flavia and their children. After Messalina's violent end, Pallas had kept his word to persuade Claudius to allow Vespasian to move his family to a house in Pomegranate Street, on the Quirinal Hill, near to that of his uncle, the senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo.
Flavia had resented this.
'If you call protecting my family from the ravages of imperial politics uncaring; and if you call being prudent with money so as not to be subject to the fripperies of the ladies of fashion heartless, then you've understood my character perfectly, my dear. It is bad enough that Titus goes to the palace each day to share Britannicus' education but that was Claudius' price for allowing me to move you out; having executed the boy's mother he didn't want his son to be deprived of his little playmate as well. Surely our son being educated alongside the Emperor's is enough to satisfy your vanity, despite the danger that puts him in; surely that makes up for all this squalor?' He indicated with a lazy hand the good-sized atrium around them. Although he would freely concede its decoration was not up to the standards of the palace – it having been built 150 years before, during the time of Gaius Marius – what it lacked in splendour with the mosaic floor's geometric black and white motif or the faded pastoral frescoes, designed to fool the beholder into thinking that they were looking through windows, it made up for with his wife's extravagance. It was filled with furniture and ornaments that Flavia had acquired during her lavish spending sprees while under Messalina's profligate influence.
Vespasian still shuddered every time he surveyed the room's décor surrounding the impluvium, the pond with a fountain of Venus at its centre: low, polished-marble tables on gilded legs covered with glass or silver ornaments, statuettes of fine bronze or worked crystal, couches and chairs, carved, painted and upholstered. It was not because of its vulgarity – he could cope with that even though it offended his country-born taste for the simple things in life – it was because of the amount of wasted money that it represented. 'Surely having all the other women jealously arguing amongst themselves as to whether Agrippina will kill Titus along with Britannicus as she clears the way for her son Nero to succeed his stepfather is enough to make you feel special and the centre of attention; like any self-respecting woman would wish for?'
Flavia clutched the bundle of their two-month-old son so tightly that for a moment Vespasian was worried that she would do him some damage. Then she relaxed and stood, holding the child to her breast with tears in her eyes. 'After all that I've done for you, for us, you should accord me a little respect, Vespasian. You are one of the sitting Consuls; I should be able to deport myself as the wife of a consul and not some lowly equestrian upstart ...'
'Which, when you consider the matter, is what we both are.'
Flavia's mouth dropped open but no sound emerged.
'Now, my dear, I'm going to open the door to all this squalor for my clients; they will greet me not only as the master of this squalor but also as the Consul of Rome who can do great favours for them and they will ignore the fact that I come from a Sabine family that can only boast one member of the Senate before me and my brother, just as they will ignore my rough Sabine accent. And then, having dealt out private patronage, I shall, as Consul of Rome, publicly deliver one of Rome's greatest enemies to the Emperor for punishment. If you like, you and our daughter may come to watch, along with all the other women, and you can enjoy the false compliments that they give you. Or perhaps you're too afraid to show your face because your husband bought you a wet nurse who belongs to a tribe that is so out of fashion that she cannot even produce decent milk.'
Vespasian turned and signalled to his doorkeeper to open up; it was with some relief that he heard the brisk clatter of Flavia's retreating footsteps over the mewling of his youngest son.
Vespasian sat on his curule chair in front of the impluvium at the centre of the atrium; the gentle spatter of the fountain, issuing from a vase on Venus' shoulder, remained constant as the dawn light grew, adding a steely tinge to the lifelike, painted skin tones of her naked torso basking in the oil lamps' glow. Hormus stood behind him making notes on a wax tablet. To either side of him were posted the twelve lictors who would accompany him, as consul, everywhere in Rome, carrying the fasces, the axes bound with rods, as a symbol of his power to command and execute. However, it was not civic power that Vespasian was exercising now but, rather, personal power as the last and least important of his two hundred or so clients greeted him.
Vespasian nodded his acknowledgement to the man. 'I have no use for you today, Balbus, you may return to your business once you have escorted me to the Forum.'
'An honour, Consul.' Balbus adjusted his plain white citizen's toga and withdrew to one side.
'How many waiting for a private interview, Hormus?' Vespasian asked, looking around the room filled with respectful men talking in murmurs as they waited for their patron to leave the house.
Hormus had no need to consult his tablet. 'Three that you asked to stay and then a further seven who requested an audience.'
Vespasian sighed; it would be a long morning. However, as the Senate was not due to sit that day it was one of the few occasions that he had the time to deal with personal business before his public duties would call him away; and it was with great interest that he was looking forward to his public duties.
'And then there's a man who is not your client asking for an interview as well.'
'Really? What's his name?'
Vespasian was none the wiser.
'He's a client of the imperial freedman Narcissus.'
Vespasian raised his eyebrows. 'A client of Narcissus' here to see me? Is it a message or is he trying to ingratiate himself with me?'
'He didn't say, master.'
Vespasian digested this for a few moments before rising to his feet; formality dictated that he would have to see this man last, after his own clients, so it would be a while before his curiosity would be satisfied.
But first, business.
Followed by his slave, he walked with the slow dignity of the leading magistrate in Rome, past the men awaiting his favour, to the tablinum, the room curtained off at the far end of the atrium, and seated himself behind the desk. 'I'll deal with the three that I need favours from, first, Hormus; in order of precedence.'
'What the Emperor did while he held the office of censor, four years ago, cannot be undone, Laelius,' Vespasian said, having heard the final plea for favour from a balding citizen wearing a very finely woven crimson tunic under his plain white toga. A heavy gold chain glinted around his neck.
'I understand that, patronus; however, the situation has changed.' Laelius produced a scroll from the fold of his toga and stepped up to the desk to hand it to Vespasian. 'This is a receipt from the Cloelius Brothers' banking business in the Forum Romanum. It is for exactly one hundred thousand denarii, the financial threshold for admittance to the equestrian order. When Claudius stripped me of equestrian rank four years ago he was perfectly right to do so as, owing to a series of unwise investments, my combined wealth in property and cash had fallen well below the limit. But now, thanks to your brother, at your behest, securing me the contract to supply chickpeas to the Danuvius Fleet, I've reversed my fortunes and am now financially eligible for readmittance.'
Vespasian glanced at the receipt; it was genuine. 'The Emperor may not revise the rolls for a few years yet.'
Laelius wrung his hands; there was a hint of desperation in his voice. 'My son is now seventeen; only as an eques can I hope to secure him a post as a military tribune and start him on the Cursus Honorum. In two or three years it'll be too late.'
For all his client's outward appearance of confidence Vespasian could perceive that Laelius was just another middle-aged man dogged by the spectre of impending old age with nothing to show for his life. But, if he could get his son started upon the succession of honours, the military and political career that could lead to a seat in the Senate, then he could justifiably claim to have done honour for his family by bettering it. Vespasian could understand his position well; it had been his parents' ambition for their family that had driven Vespasian and his brother Sabinus to the highest office that a citizen could achieve – barring, of course, becoming emperor; that was the prerogative of one family alone. 'Do I take it that there are two favours that you are asking me: firstly to use my influence with the imperial household to have Claudius enrol you in the equestrian order, and then to ask my brother to get your son a post as a military tribune in one of his two Moesian legions? Having already got him to award you the chickpea contract.'
Laelius winced and produced another scroll from his toga. 'I know I ask a lot, patronus, but I give a lot in return. I know that senators are forbidden to conduct trade; however, I know of no reason why a senator should not benefit from trade that is conducted by someone else. This is a legal document that would make you a sleeping-partner in my business with an interest of ten per cent of the profits.'
Vespasian took the scroll, perused it and then handed it over his shoulder to Hormus standing behind him. 'Very well, Laelius, if you make it twelve per cent I'll see what I can do.'
'Have Hormus make the alteration in the contract, patronus.'
'It will be his pleasure.'
Laelius bowed his head repeatedly in thanks and gratitude while rubbing his hands and calling down the blessings of all the gods onto his patron as Hormus escorted him out through the curtains.
Excerpted from Rome's Lost Son by Robert Fabbri. Copyright © 2015 Robert Fabbri. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Rome, December AD 51,
Part II: Macedonia and the Roman East, February AD 52,
Part III: The Parthian Empire, AD 52,
Part IIII: Rome, October AD 54,
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