A turbulent frontier province, rotten with corruption and seething with hatred of Rome—a barbarian god whose devotees may include a murderer —a clever and unscrupulous faith healer who knows everyone’s secrets—a boy who struggles toward manhood though stricken with the Sacred Disease: these are the elements in a mystery that Pliny, newly appointed governor of Bithynia, confronts when a high Roman official is found murdered on a desolate hillside, miles from the capital. But as Pliny pursues one baffling lead after another, he is being betrayed where he least expects it: his beautiful wife, neglected and lonely in an alien city, falls desperately in love with a handsome young provincial—an affair which threatens to bring not only pain but ruin to Pliny’s career. All these threads come together in a surprising and tragic finale.
About the Author
Bruce Macbain holds degrees in Classics and Ancient History and has taught Greek and Roman history at Vanderbilt and Boston Universities. His special interests are ancient medicine and religion in the Roman empire. He brings these together in his fictionRoman Games (2010) and The Bull Slayer (2013). He lives with his wife in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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The Bull SlayerA Plinius Secundus Mystery
By Bruce Macbain
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2013 Bruce Macbain
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE TENTH REGNAL YEAR OF THE EMPEROR TRAJANUS AUGUSTUS, CONQUEROR OF GERMANY, CONQUEROR OF DACIA, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, HOLDING THE TRIBUNICIAN POWER, CONSUL FOR THE FIFTH TIME, FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, BEST OF EMPERORS
The province of Bithynia-Pontus
Through long weeks of instruction, the Father had taught him the rituals, the star-lore, and the incantations that he must pronounce when the moment came. All that study had made his head hurt; but he had a purpose that drove him. For the past week he had abstained from sex, meat, and bathing. And now at last he was drawing near to the cosmic cave, to a confrontation with the beautiful young god in his fiery splendor. He would see the mystery of the bull's death, he would be baptized with water from a living spring, his soul would soar up through the seven planetary spheres to the starry firmament where one day it would dwell forever. He would share bread and winethe flesh and life-giving blood of the bullwith his brethren and be born again for eternity.
They emerged finally from the dark woods at the foot of a craggy upthrust of bare rock and, just as they did so, the sun broke over its top and bathed them in its rays. The Unconquered Sun. All-powerful Mithras. Lord and Savior.
No casual traveler could have stumbled upon the entrance to the cave; it was low and only some six paces wide and well concealed by brush. While the mystae busied themselves clearing this away, the Father, a frail old man with infinitely wrinkled skin, turned to him, grasped his hand in fellowship, and smiled at him. "Are you ready, my son?"
Following the Father, he ducked under the rocky overhang and descended the seven stone steps, worn smooth by the feet of the blessed, down into the earth's dark womb. The damp subterranean chill made him shiver. The stale air smelled of dripping stone and burnt pine. Now the mystae moved here and there in the cave, igniting incense and lighting the pine torches that stood in niches along the walls. He gazed around him in the guttering light. The cave was no ordinary one; it had been reshaped by men's hands. It wasn't largeforty paces long, fifteen across. Twenty men filled it full. A narrow nave ran the length of it with stone benches along each side where they would recline for their meal. The low ceiling was arched, painted midnight blue, and sprinkled with golden stars; the signs of the zodiac ran around the walls. The nave ended in an apse where curtains hung before the altar. The crash of a bronze thunder sheet shattered the silence and unseen hands drew the curtains back. Then he gazed for the first time upon the mystery of his new faith. Suddenly he thought his heart would burstthe intensity of his feeling took him by surprise. Sculpted in high relief from the living rock, the figure of Mithras, a serene and handsome youth dressed in a billowing blue cloak and red Phrygian cap, straddled a kneeling bull, holding it down with his knee, pulling its head backward with one hand, and plunging his dagger into its throat. A dog and a serpent licked the bloody wound, a scorpion attacked the bull's testicles, and from the bull's tail sprouted ears of wheat.
Bells chimed and the hollow eyes of the god blazed with sudden fire. The mystae began to chant the Nama Mithras. They raised their hands, each one holding the emblems of his rankcup, spear, sickle, whip, thunderbolt. The torchlight threw their shadows huge against the wall.
Now hands removed his clothes, blindfolded him, and guided him down the nave toward the altar. Hands on his shoulders forced him down, pressing his forehead painfully against the cold stone. Other hands pulled his arms behind him and bound them with the hot guts of a chicken. The sharp point of an arrow pricked his neck.
"Take three deep breaths," spoke the Father close to his face. "You will rise into the air, you will look upon the face of our god, you will taste immortality."
And so he did, or thought he did at any rate, for a brief moment. And then it was over. His new brothers raised him up, removed his blindfold, clothed him. They pressed around him, shaking his hand. The Father beamed. The Sun-Runner, second in rank to the Father, hailed him in his rich baritone.
"You're a Raven now, my good friend, and soon to rise still higher in our ranks. You honor us with your patronage, a man of your rank and power. And now let us eat and drink to your good fortune. I should say to our good fortune."
The new-made Raven looked from face to face and was answered with smiles all around. Indeed, fortune was the word.
Chapter TwoNicomedia, capital of Bithynia-Pontus. Two years later. The 13th day before the Kalends of October
Clerks bustled back and forth in the great hall, carrying armloads of scrolls, making a great to-do of hunting for the missing documents, accomplishing very little. Gaius Plinius watched them with growing exasperation. The chaos of the archives, the slovenly habits of the staff he had inherited from his predecessor, the ruinous state of the old royal palace in which they were housed. Day three in his new post. He had expected bad: this was worse.
"Patrone." His freedman Zosimus touched his shoulder. "It's past midday. You'll want to eat something and then rest for a bit. Doctor's orders."
"What? It can't be so late already. No, just have a tray brought in." Zosimus frowned. "It's all right, my boy. I'll rest later, I promise."
What would he do without Zosimus? Secretary, companion, nursemaid at times. Friend. He had a head of yellow hair like an untidy haystack and the innocent, earnest face of a foolbut he was far from being a fool.
"See if you can't find Suetonius out there somewhere and ask him to step in. And stop looking so worried." Pliny waved him off. While confusion reigned around him, he busied himself arranging the objects on his deskink stand, styluses, sheaves of parchment, a carafe of watered wine, a bronze bust of Epicurus the philosopher inherited from his learned uncle, a cameo of his darling Calpurnia painted by her own hand. There was comfort in orderliness, even in small things. His passion for order amused his more exuberant friends.
Lately he had begun to be aware of his own mortality. He was nearing a half century of lifemore than three-quarters of his allotted span. A half century that had seen the enlargement of the empire while rot set in at the center. By the grace of the gods they had survived Caligula, Nero, and Domitian and come at last to the present happy state of affairsthe reign of a sane and benevolent emperor who respected their liberty. He prayed it would endure at least as long as he did.
Pliny knew that others saw in him only a rather plump, rather domesticated, rather fussy man. He made no apologies. It was a lifetime of hard work, reliability, attention to detail that had won him, at long last, this extraordinary appointment: Governor of Bithynia-Pontus with overriding authority to clean up the most corrupt, mismanaged, seditious, and turbulent province in the Empire. The province had been a backwater for too long; a place for second-raters, governors from whom little was expected. That would all change now. Only a few people knew it, but Bithynia was to be the staging area for an invasion of the Persian empire. Restoring order and sound finances was now a top priority. Trajan, Best of Emperors, had entrusted this to him. And he would not fail him. Bithynia was a graveyard of governors. Pliny knew he had enemies who would relish his downfall. What man of importance didn't? He was determined not to give them the chance.
"There's a line of people out into the street waiting to see you. All clutching petitions in their sweaty hands." Suetonius, pink-cheeked and pink-scalpedat forty he was already losing his hairedged through the mob of clerks, accountants, and messengers, and dropped into an armchair beside Pliny's desk. "Shall I send them all away?"
"On the contrary, I want you to interview themunless you're otherwise engaged?"
"I was about to be. Research, you know. But it can wait."
"Ah, and which of your many works-in-progress are you researching today? Greek Terms of Abuse? Famous Whores? Physical Defects of Mankind?"
"Well, one never knows what will turn up, does one?"
They laughed easily together. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was one of Pliny's literary protégés: a talented writer, a man of restless curiosity, a bottomless repository of rude anecdotes, a tireless collector of backstairs gossip, a lover of the odd fact, fascinated by the grotesquein short, an extremely useful man to have along in this hellhole of sedition. He was vain, too, and combatted his baldness with concoctions of horseradish, cumin, and worse thingsall to little avail. No sooner had he arrived in the province than he'd exchanged his white Roman tunic with an eques' purple stripes for a colorful Greek outfit of sheer linen. The better to blend inyou learn more. He had jumped at the chance to come to Bithynia on Pliny's staff.
"Have you found what you wanted in the files?"
Pliny pressed his fingers to his temples and rubbed, feeling the skin move on his skullfor an awful instant imagining the skull bare of flesh as it might look ten, fifteen years from now if he lasted that long, if he husbanded his strength. He drove the image from his mind. "Beyond belief, the mess he's left us with! Six former governors of this province have been prosecuted and our friend Anicius is likely to be the seventh, for sheer incompetence, if nothing worse. Transcripts of trials, minutes of meetings with the local grandeesall missing. He's taken them home with him or more likely burned them. And the people he's left behind, this lot." His glance took in the room. They come in late, they leave early, they give you sour looks when you speak to them. I'm putting you in charge of the secretariat. Whip them into shape."
Suetonius winced. "Not really my"
Pliny held up a finger. "What on earth is that racket?"
Through the open second-story window, carried on a soft September breeze, came a sudden shriek of flutes and a crash of cymbals. A parading army couldn't have made more noise.
Pliny and Suetonius looked out and, as they watched, a mob turned the corner, marching along the avenue below them, men and women together, dancing, leaping, shouting somethinga word, a name? Pliny strained to make it out but in the general din it was impossible. But there was no doubting who the focus of this adulation was. On a litter that swayed above the heads of the crowd, rode a handsome man whose hair hung down his back in long curls. He stared straight ahead, looking neither left nor right, motionless as a statue while eager hands reached out to touch his long, white garment as he passed. In his right hand he held a glittering scimitar, but what held everyone's eye was the giant python that draped itself around his chest and over his shoulder, its head swinging to and fro.
Pliny felt a stab of anxiety. Somewhere out there in this alien city was his wife.
* * *
"'Purnia, don't let go of me!"
"Hold tight, Ione!"
Calpurnia, the taller and sturdier of the two women, gripped her maid's hand as they struggled to keep their footing in this crowd of madmen that surged outside the temple of Asclepius and filled the whole marketplace alongside it. Elegant matrons pressed against greasy-aproned shopkeepers, beggars contested with merchants for a glimpse of the holy man who rode above them in his litter like a raft tossed upon a sea of eager faces and outstretched arms.
A sharp elbow hit Calpurnia in the side, knocking the breath out of her. Her knees buckled and she thought for an instant she would fall and be crushed under the stamping feet.
"Pancrates! The god returns!" The shout rose up from five hundred throats, mingling with the din of cymbals, flutes, and drums.
Calpurnia and Ione had spent the morning going round the shops and stalls and ateliers of the unfamiliar city, escorted by a retinue of slaves and local guidesall of them now lost somewhere in this seething confusion of color and noise. The palace in which she and Pliny and all their staff were housed had once belonged to the ancient kings of Bithynia. Mithridates the Greata name that could still strike fear in Roman hearts even after a century and a halfhad ruled his bloody empire from here; and so had Pompey the Great, who defeated him and made the kingdom a Roman province.
The palace, which sat on a high hill overlooking the harbor, was vast: more than a hundred rooms grouped around two great peristyle halls. Impressive in size but disappointing in detail. All the portable works of art, all the splendidly wrought furnishings had long since been looted, first by Mithridates and then by a succession of Roman governors, culminating with the wretched Anicius, who had filled a whole ship with whatever was still worth stealing. The mosaic floors were original and fine, but the statues that populated the courtyards were now mere copies of copies. The tapestries and draperies were shabby, the brass work tarnished, the frescoed walls black with soot, the rooms littered with trash, the smell of mildew heavy in the air. Calpurnia sighed for her Italian villa, swallowed hard, and determined to turn the place into a home worthy of her husband. Worthy of Rome. The last governor, who had no wife, was so parsimonious that tradesmen had stopped coming to the palace, so she must seek them out herself. In a single day she had examined fabrics, contracted with cabinetmakers and painters and silversmiths. Thank the gods she had Ione with her. Her freedwoman spoke fluent Greek, while Calpurnia's halting kitchen Greek was not up to haggling in the marketplace. That was another thing she was determined to rectify.
It was the end of a long and productive morning. Hunger and the hot sun overhead urged that they return to the palace for a bathat least the plumbing workedand a meal with their overworked husbands, Pliny and Zosimus. And then suddenly they had found themselves swamped in this sea of frenzied celebrants.
"Long life to Pancrates! Oracle of Asclepius!"
The crowd surged forward as the object of their adulation was helped down from his litterhe and the astonishing snake. At that point she lost sight of him as he passed within the bronze doors of the temple. But a herald stood on the topmost step and cried out, "The god has returned to his house. Present your questions and they will be answered to your heart's desire for the fee of one drachma."
The crowd was mostly male but there were women too, Greek women modestly veiled as their custom was. But then, to her surprise, Calpurnia saw Roman faces too, unveiled and elaborately coifed like herself. One towering hairdo atop a whitened face and fat neck forced its way toward her through the press of bodies.
"You remember me, Lady Calpurnia? Last nightthe reception such an honor ..."
"Yes, of course," Calpurnia murmured. What was the woman's name? "So many new facesAtilia, isn't it?"
"Philomela, you stupid little bitch, where are you?" The woman looked around angrily as a little slave girl, who couldn't have been more than ten, struggled after her, fighting with both hands to hold up a large parasol.
The woman turned back to Calpurnia. "Impossible to find decent slaves in this country. But isn't it wonderful, he's returned at last!"
Calpurnia looked at her blankly.
"Pancrates, of course. Our oracle."
Chapter ThreeThat night. The villa of Marcus Vibius Balbus
Balbus snapped his fingers. Thick fingers covered with coarse hairs. Fingers that in their day had gripped a centurion's vitis, bringing it down hard across the shoulders of any legionary who didn't jump to attention quick enough. Fingers that lately wielded nothing heavier than a stylusbut even a stylus was a weapon in those fingers. Marcus Balbus snapped his fingers and a young slave boy ran up to refill his goblet.
"More wine, Governor?"
Pliny, reclining beside him in the place of honor, hastily covered his cup with his hand. He'd drunk too much already. Balbus preferred his wine unwatered and forced his guests to do the same.
"Another bite of turbot?" He held out the morsel dripping with sauce on the point of his knife. Eat." It was very nearly a command. Balbus' face, square, brown, and hatched as a chopping block, leaned close, smiling unpleasantly. He was a man made entirely of bone and gristle, a man who kept himself fit, with big-knuckled hands and a shock of stiff red hair speckled grey. Gaulish blood there somewhere, Pliny imagined, or even German.
Pliny waved the food away. The dishes were all too sauced and spiced for his frugal tastes. And he would not allow this man to bully him. After a long moment, Balbus withdrew his hand and shrugged.
Excerpted from The Bull Slayer by Bruce Macbain Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Macbain. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This mystery is the second in a series, the first being Roman Games. The main character, Plinius Secundus, has just been sent by Roman Emperor Trajan to serve as Governor in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus. This particular province is not a great place and you have to feel for this Governor as he is charged with cleaning up corruption in many high places. Most of the local population is comprised of Greek citizens, some Persians, and also a cult that has a cave in the woods where they meet to worship a Barbarian God who will remind readers of the mighty Minotaur. Readers follow a murder mystery involving the theft of money committed by two men in the government. When the new Governor begins his investigation into this crime the story goes from good to grand as everything odd about Ancient Rome is unveiled. The mysterious religious cult that meets in a cave comes along with a cast of characters that will confuse and delight - a young boy with epilepsy which the Romans refer to as the sacred disease, a beautiful Persian who runs the local brothel and a group of Roman wives who resemble the ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey.’ As the criminals come forth and the suspects mount up, readers will find themselves pulled in and rooting for the Governor who may be in way over his head. Even though this book takes place in ancient times, the reality of it is that the plotlines are very familiar. Researched beautifully, this author knows his subject and adds some scenes that bring out the true history of that time. It also presents ancient governments that will remind one and all of the mess current governments are in and how they are run. The Governor is a really nice guy who takes good care of his people and tries very hard to govern by doing his job and not offending anyone. He is a hard worker and pays attention to his duties even though sometimes it’s very difficult, as people do not respect him or his office. (Sound familiar?) Quill says: Although the story is a bit difficult to get into, once you are in – you’ll never get out as the Godfather so rightly said. It was a fantastic read, utilizing fact and fiction where the reader will not be pleased with the Romans who took over the world but, if you remember, couldn’t keep it.