I woke the next morning with a ringing head and a mouth that told me the final course in last night's banquet must have been Egyptian mummy. My aged slaves, Cato (no relation to the Senator) and Cassandra, were not sympathetic. They never were when it came to my excesses, and I could not explain to them that I had only been pursuing my public duties.
We have a tradition of allowing ourselves to be tyrannized and bullied by old domestics. It is certain that I got no respect from these two. Having raised me from infancy, they had no illusions about me. They stoutly refused to accept manumission. They could no more have fended for themselves than a pair of old plow-oxen, but as long as they could make my life miserable, they had a purpose.
"That's what you get, master!" Cato shouted cheerily, throwing open the shutter and letting in a horrid, searing beam of morning sunlight, the vengeance of Apollo. "That's what you get for being out to all hours, carousing with those foreigners, then coming home to wake your poor old retainers that have given up their whole lives to your service and acting as if they didn't deserve a little rest."
"Peace, Cato," I croaked. "I am going to die soon, and then what will you do? Go back to my father? If he could stand to have you around, he wouldn't have given you to me in the first place." Suppressing a groan, I lurched to my feet, steadying myself on the little writing-table by my bed. Something unfamiliar shifted on it and I saw that it was a roll of something white. Then I remembered accepting my guest-gift before leaving the previous night's banquet. Lisas, knowing that I was a public official with much correspondence to carry out, had given me a truly useful gift. It was a great scroll of the very finest Egyptian papyrus. For a fat Alexandrian pervert, Lisas was a most thoughtful man.
"Are my clients outside?" I asked.
"Already gone, master," Cato said, "and it's been ages since you paid your morning call on your father."
"He does not require that duty while I am in office," I reminded him.
"Yes, but today is a market day," Cato reminded me. "Official business is forbidden, and it should be only good manners to pay your salutatio when you don't have to go to the temple. Too late now, though."
"A market day?" I said, cheering up a little. That meant a chance to prowl the city and see what I might turn up. Rome was the mistress of the world, but it was still, in most aspects, a small Italian hill-town. It thrived on gossip and market days were relished almost as much as public holidays. I splashed water in my face, threw on my third-best toga and left my house, not bothering with breakfast, which I could not have faced.
At that time, markets were still held in the forum boarium, the ancient cattle-market. It was in full roar when I arrived, with farmers' stalls everywhere. The larger livestock were no longer sold there, but poultry, rabbits and pigs were slaughtered on the spot for customers, and they were raising their usual clamor. The farming season had been exceptional, so that even this late in the year the stalls were heaped with fresh produce.
Besides the farmers, all manner of small merchants and mountebanks had set up shop. I availed myself of one of these, a public barber. While he scraped my bristled face smooth, I watched the bustling scene. The fortune-tellers' booths were well attended. Fortunetellers were expelled from the city regularly, but they always came back. Near the barber's stool, an old woman sat on the ground, selling herbs and philters from a display laid out on a blanket.
"Look at those two," the barber said. I followed the direction of his nod and saw a pair of young men going into a fortune-teller's booth. Both wore full beards, a fashion ordinarily affected only by barbarians and philosophers, but enjoying something of a vogue among the city youth.
"Disgusting to see Roman youths bearded up like so many Gauls. Bad for business, too," he added.
"Gauls wear mustaches, not beards," I said. "Anyway, at that age, they're just enthralled with being able to raise a beard."
"They're all troublemakers," the barber asserted stoutly. "Those bearded ones are the brawlers and drunks. They come of decent families, mind you. You can tell that by the quality of their clothes. But then, that's why they wear the beards, so they won't look respectable."
I paid the barber and made my way among the stalls, being careful where I stepped. Since the barber called it to my attention, it seemed that I could not look anywhere without seeing bearded young men. There were not really that many of them, but once a thing impinges itself on my consciousness, I tend to seek it out without conscious volition. It was unlikely to be a sign of mourning, for none of the youths wore the shabby clothes one wears while mourning, going unshaven and unshorn in the process.
Among the stalls of the craftsmen I found what I was looking for: a cutlery merchant. I did not want one who sold only his own wares, but one who traveled, buying and selling the wares of others. The one I found sold edged implements from a number of display cases, the sort that stand up, with doors that swing wide and are themselves lined with racks. These cases glittered with kitchen knives, butcher's cleavers, scissors and shears, awls, sickles and pruning knives and other farm implements, and a few daggers and short swords.
"Are you looking for anything in particular, sir?" the merchant asked. "I have some elegant military weaponry still packed away. A gentleman of your evident rank must spend time with the legions. I have swords decorated with gold and silver and parade pieces inlaid with carved amber, some with hilts of ivory. This is a largely rustic crowd, so I did not take them out. However, if you are interested, my slave can-"
"Actually," I interrupted, "I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this." I took out the snake-hilted dagger and handed it to him. His look of disappointment was so piercing that I thought it best to brighten his day.
"I am the Quaestor Decius Caecilius Metellus and I am investigating a murder. This is the murder weapon." Actually I had no authority whatever, but there was no need to tell him that.
"A murder!" He examined the dagger eagerly. People are always willing to lend you their expertise if they can feel important by doing so. He turned it over in his hands, admiring the discolorations left where the blood had been wiped off.
"Can you tell anything about it?" I asked impatiently.
"Well, it's African. You see this kind of heavy central spine on blades made there. And I've seen this kind of serpent carving before. They had some sort of serpent-god in Carthage, and they still make hilts like this around Utica and Thapsus."
"Do you see them very often?"
"Just the occasional souvenir brought back by a soldier. There were a lot of them brought back after the war with Jugurtha, but that's getting on toward fifty years ago, so you don't see many of those left. There's no demand for them here, since better knives are made here in Italy, and in Gaul."
"I thank you. This may turn out to be very valuable information."
He preened. "Always ready to be of service to the Senate and People, sir. Sure I can't interest you in a fine parade gladius? One worked with jet and coral, perhaps?"
"Thank you, but my arms have a few campaigns left in them."
"Well, sir, keep me in mind should you need any. And I hope you catch the murderer. Is it about that eques I heard about this morning?"
"Yes. A banker named Oppius."
He looked puzzled. "I thought it was a building contractor named Calenus."
I thanked him again and hurried away. All government offices were closed on a market day and free men did not have to work, but slave work went on as always. I decided that the quickest way to locate a contractor was through the great brick manufactory owned by the Afer family. It was located near the river, not a long walk from the forum boarium.
I felt the heat from the huge kilns while I was still a hundred paces away from the brickyards. A slave took me to an overseer who sat behind a table in an open shed, writing on wax tablets. He stood when I came in and identified myself. "How many I help you, sir?"
"Do you have dealings with a contractor named Calenus?"
"Certainly, sir. He is involved with a number of large public projects. We supply all his bricks within the urban area."
"I must locate his house. Can you tell me where it is?"
"I will lend you one of our messengers to guide you there, sir. Hector!" he bellowed.
"That would be most helpful," I assured him. The heroically named slave appeared, a boy of about twelve.
"Hector, guide this gentleman to the home of Sextus Calenus, and then come back without delay."
I followed the boy, who was obviously delighted to be away from the brickyards, if only for a short time. "It's simple to find Calenus's house, master," he assured me. "You start by the Ostian gate and head up the alley just off the fountain with the statue of Neptune. You follow that alley to the shrine of Mercury and then you go up the steps between the fuller's and the tavern with the picture of Hercules painted on the front. At the top of the steps, you go left along the little courtyard and you pass three doors and then go up some more stairs to where there's a mill turned by a blind donkey. Calenus's house is right next to the mill."
"Why don't you just guide me?" I said. Unlike the new, provincial cities we had built, Rome was an un-planned sprawl where it was difficult to find any given house without a guide. Once in a while, some reform-minded Senator would propose instituting a system for naming or numbering the streets, but Romans are far too conservative for anything so sensible. If you wanted someone to come to your house, you sent a slave to fetch him. If you could not afford a slave, it was unlikely that anyone would want to visit you anyway.
The house of Calenus was crowded when I got there. I gave the boy a copper as and he ran off happily, doubtless planning where he was going to spend it. I doubted that the overseer at the brickyard would see him anytime soon. I pushed through a crowd of household slaves until I found a group surrounding a body laid out in the atrium. The designator was there with his assistants, standing well back, by the walls of the room. They would prepare the body for burial when the initial viewing of the body was over. I saw that they had already dressed him in a new toga. He was a balding man of about fifty years and his face had been artfully set with an expression of serenity.
A group of young men-sons, I guessed-stood comforting a sobbing, middle-aged woman. Other women and slaves wept loudly and bitterly, but with none of the verve the professional mourners would show at the funeral. Among those who had come to view the body were several men in senatorial tunics. I looked for a familiar face and found one: a friend of my father's named Quintus Crispus. I caught his eye and he came to join me.
"Isn't this terrible, Decius?" he said. "Who would want to murder a man like Sextus Calenus? He hadn't an enemy in the world, that I ever heard of."
"He was a friend of yours?" I asked. We spoke in low voices, the way one usually does in the presence of the dead, although nobody could have heard us over the wailing.
"A client. His family have been clients of mine for generations, since before they gained equestrian status."
"How did it happen?" I asked him.
"It was late last night. I saw him yesterday afternoon, on a matter of business. As his patron, I have always worked to secure him public contracts. From there he went to have dinner with friends and didn't leave for home until well after dark. He was waylaid and killed right outside the door of his house. Robbed, so I hear."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"He had a slave linkboy with him, borrowed from the house where he had dinner. The fellow's around here someplace. He was clouted over the head and gashed a bit, but he wasn't badly hurt. Are you investigating?"
"Yes, I am." Well, I was investigating. I just had no authority to. "I'll question the slave presently."
I went to the designator, a skeletal man whose face had the lugubrious solemnity of one whose task it is to prepare corpses for burial. I identified myself and asked about the nature of the wound that had killed Calenus.
"The murder weapon was not left with the body, Quaestor," he said. "The gentleman was stabbed five times. I think that the murderer tried three times, but the blade struck ribs and failed to penetrate. Then he stabbed twice beneath the rib cage and one of these thrusts pierced the heart."
"Have you any idea what type of weapon was used?" I inquired.
"The stab wounds were wide, about four fingers. It was either a very broad-bladed dagger or a short sword, perhaps a gladius."
I went in search of the slave and found him in the kitchen, seated on a stool, his head bandaged and holding a compress to his neck. The compress was soaked through with blood. He was perhaps sixteen, with sandy hair and an intelligent if somewhat pained face. His tunic, now much stained, was of excellent quality and bespoke a rich owner. I asked him to describe the events of the previous night.
"My name is Ariston, and I belong to the house of Marcus Duronius. Last night I was given a torch and assigned the task of walking Master Sextus home. My master is out there with the family, he will confirm that. We'd just got to the door out there, and I hadn't even time to knock when two men jumped out of the shadows. I saw one grab Master Sextus from behind and that was when the other one hit me alongside the head with his sword hilt. I don't think I was quite knocked out, but I don't remember getting this." He took away the compress and showed an ugly gash in his neck. It was still seeping blood, but it did not look dangerous. "I think this was all that saved me." He touched a narrow copper ring that encircled his neck. "I ran away once and my master put this on me."
I leaned close and studied it. As usual with such rings, it gave the slave's name, the master's, and a promise of reward if the runaway were apprehended and returned. It bore a deep gouge where a point had dug in and then skittered off, gashing the boy's neck. I pushed his hair back and saw that his forehead had not been branded with an F for fugitivus, so the ring was just for temporary discipline.
"Tell your master you need a new ring, his name has almost been obliterated on this one. Then keep it as a lucky piece for the rest of your life. Now, what else can you tell me?"
"Not much. I only saw them for an instant. I couldn't recognize them if I saw them again. It only took a few seconds, because I remember the janitor coming out to see what the commotion was. I won't have to testify in court, will I, sir?" He was frightened because slaves can only testify under torture.
"Don't worry," I said, patting his shoulder. "Since you are not suspected of any wrongdoing, it would only be a matter of form. They just pour a little water up your nose."
"But I don't like water up my nose!" He winced at the pain in his neck. It almost did me good to see someone who felt even worse than I did.
"There's nothing else you can tell me? Did the torch go out?"
He though a moment. "As I said, I didn't see much, but I remember the torch was still burning on the street when the janitor came out and helped me get up." He rubbed his sore head with his free hand. "Of course, he dropped me when he saw his master lying there like a sacrificial ram." He thought a while longer. "I think they were foreigners, sir, Greeks or maybe Asiatics."
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Well, who else wears beards?"
I walked back to my house pondering. I felt that the two murders must be related, but there was nothing to connect them save the rank of the victims. The equites were a large class, and Rome was a populous city, where murder was not uncommon. I doubted that anyone else shared my belief that there was a connection. One victim had been a banker, the other a building contractor. One had been stabbed in the back by someone using an African dagger, the other run through the body from in front by someone using a sword and working with a confederate.
It was clear that the killers of Calenus had not been professionals. The sicarii who infested the city used curved knives and their preferred technique was throat cutting. An experienced swordsman, an ex-soldier or gladiator, would have killed him with one clean thrust, even in the dark. This one, with a friend to hold the victim and torchlight to see by, had required five clumsy thrusts to dispatch the victim and had even bungled killing a slave who lay semiconscious on the street. They had robbed the body, but that may have been to disguise what was actually an assassination, something the killer of Oppius had not thought to do, another amateur mistake. The meaning of the beards? There my ponderings failed to enlighten me.
The day was still young, although I felt old. After forcing down some lunch I felt marginally better and went to the baths, where I sweated out the last of the excesses of the night before.
From the baths I went to the Temple of Saturn. It was nearly deserted, since there was no work done that day in the treasury and there were no rites to be performed. An elderly priest nodded to me as I entered and I pretended to be examining the racked military standards until I was alone. Then, taking the same lamp I had used the day before, I went into the storerooms. The room with the shields now contained another forty or so shields and a sheaf of javelins. The previously empty room now contained a small heap of swords. This batch was as mismatched as those in the other room, but two attracted my attention and I slid them from the heap for a closer look. Both were short swords of a rather antiquated design. The handle of one was of horn, the other of wood. Both were crudely carved with serpents wound spirally. I slid them back into the heap and ascended the stairs.
Was this a coincidence? The cutlery merchant had said that such weapons had been common in Italy after the Jugurthine war, and these two swords looked as if they might have been that old. But that I should encounter such oddities on two successive days in connection with two different offenses smacked of more coincidence than I was prepared to accept.
I knew that I had to do something, but I needed more information. Perhaps more important, I needed some sort of semi-legal status for what I was doing. Of the Praetors of that year who were empowered to grant me such status, only one was a kinsman I knew fairly well. This was Metellus Celer, who since the death of Metellus Pius was the virtual head of our family. His prestige in Rome was great, so that, when Cicero for reasons of his own had turned down the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul upon the end of his term of office, Celer had been given the province. It was rare for a praetor to receive a proconsular appointment, but Celer was of sufficient prestige.
Taking my courage in both hands, I presented myself at his gate. It was not Celer who made me nervous, but rather his wife, Clodia, a woman with whom I had a rather tangled relationship. I doubt that Clodia ever had an uncomplicated relationship with anyone. She was suspected of a number of murders in her scandalous lifetime, and I know that she was guilty of some of them.
"The Quaestor Decius Caecilius Metellus to see the praetor," I said to the janitor who guarded the gate. He summoned a majordomo who then ushered me into the atrium.
My fears were realized when Clodia came in. "Decius we haven't seen you in far too long!" She was as beautiful as I remembered her, and her smiling face showed no hint of the demon I knew to lurk there.
"My work prevents me from circulating," I told her. "It didn't keep you from the party at the Egyptian ambassador's residence last night," she said. I felt an immediate stab of alarm that she might be having me followed. "Young Catullus told me that he met you there." I sighed with relief.
"That young man seems quite smitten with you," I said. "Dare I speculate that his new cycle of love poems is addressed to you?"
"Oh, well, you know these new poets. They prefer to address their verses to living women rather than the mythological sort. He has been living as a guest in my sister's house and he pays me extravagant court when I visit, as I did this morning."
"Which sister is that?" I asked, wishing Celer would show up.
"Lucullus's wife. Dear Lucius has decided to leave public life altogether to be a patron of the arts." She could not hide a certain tone of contempt. Clodia was interested only in men who strove for ultimate power. "Have you seen their new mansion? It's the size of a small town and Lucius is building a country house even bigger."
"All the more room for poets," I said. By the glaze in her eyes I could see that she was already growing bored with me, an attitude I much preferred to an excess of interest.
"Well, we have dinner guests arriving soon, Decius, and I must see to the dining room. Will you stay for dinner?"
"Alas," I said hastily, "I have another obligation this evening. Another time, perhaps." She smiled and left and I commenced breathing easier. A few minutes later, Celer arrived. He was a short, bald-headed man with a froglike face. He was blocky and compact, with hairy legs showing beneath his casual tunic.
"Good afternoon, Decius," he said. "I trust your father is well?"
"In the best of health," I assured him.
"That is good to hear. I shall be backing him for the Censorship in next year's elections. If necessary, I'll send a legatus from my post in Gaul to represent me here in the city. I am sure that he will be one of the two elected."
"He is very grateful for your support."
That took care of the social amenities. "Now, Decius, how may I help you? I have a few minutes before my guests begin to arrive."
"I apologize for coming to you on a noncourt day, but this is a matter requiring discretion."
"There's no such thing as a nonbusiness day for a public official," he said, "any more than there's a non-duty day for a soldier. What is this mysterious matter?"
"You know of the two murders of the equites Oppius and Calenus?"
"Naturally. Rome is not a safe place, but then it never was. I've known mornings when there were forty men of senatorial or equestrian rank dead in the streets, and nobody bothered to count the lesser corpses."
"That was in rougher times," I said. "That was when the gang and faction fighting was at its height, when Sulla published his proscription lists and when Marius led mobs of cutthroats in the streets. Times have been settled lately."
"Even so, there are always robbers and jealous husbands. The equites are involved in business and money-lending. Business rivals can be as ruthless as the political kind."
"Even so, I think that these two murders are connected, and I fear that there will be more." I did not yet want to tell him about the arms cache in the temple. "I want you to appoint me investigator for these murders. In secrecy, of course, but I wish to have some sort of legal footing when I have enough evidence to bring forth charges."
"Hmm. I think you are making something out of nothing, Decius. You have always had this propensity for snooping."
"It has paid off in the past," I reminded him. "I have ferreted out crimes and conspiracies no one else suspected."
"And gotten yourself into a great deal of trouble thereby," he said. "Your father and I and your uncles have all had to exert ourselves to preserve your young hide when you have troubled powerful men."
"For which I am exceedingly grateful. Even so, I would ask for your support in this. I have reason to believe that the murders are only a part of a far greater conspiracy, one that threatens the public order and possibly the security of the state."
"This is a lot to infer from two wretched murders," he grumbled. Then, "Oh, very well. I appoint you special investigator into these murders. You are to report to me before you go haling anyone into court and you are to bring to me any evidence you turn up. And I do not want you going over my head and consulting with the Consuls without my permission, is that clear?"
"It is. What I discover will redound solely to your credit," I promised.
"Very good. But if you do something disgraceful, I will try to pretend I'm not even related to you. The times are perilous now and it is difficult for us to steer a middle course. It is easier than usual to make enemies. Now, Decius, I must prepare for my guests."
I thanked him profusely and left his house. I was all too aware of what his warning meant. Romans were growing dangerously divided along faction lines. We Metelli were moderates by the standards of the times, but we had historically backed the aristocratic optimates and had supported Sulla, the champion of that party. In fact, for the past twenty years, nearly all the men in power had been Sulla's supporters while his Marian enemies were mostly in exile.
Now, though, Sulla's men were growing old, the sons of the old Marians were trickling back into Rome and into Roman politics, and the power of the populares were reviving. Sulla's constitution had stripped the Tribunes of the People of most of their old powers, but legislation of the past few years had restored the greater part of it. Many new politicians had arisen to challenge the ascendancy of the optimates. Caesar was the nephew by marriage of Gaius Marius, and he used that connection to curry favor with the populace, who still revered the name of the old tyrant.
The time was fast approaching when there would be no space in the middle for anyone who had no wish to align himself with either faction. The Senate was primarily optimate. The moneyed class of the equites had long been at odds with the Senate, but was, as a group, beginning to coalesce into the optimate camp. The Centuriate Assembly was closely tied to the senatorial class by clientage and patronage while the Popular Assemblies were, naturally overwhelmingly populate.
Pompey was the darling of the populates. The Senate had once supported him, but now it feared him. He used the power of the Tribunes to block other generals' triumphs. He was popular with the veterans in their settlements throughout Italy.
Two years before, Caesar, as aedile, had put on public games more lavish than anyone had ever seen before. He had bought and trained so many gladiators that the Senate had hastily put through legislation limiting the number a citizen could own, for fear that he was building his own army. He had subsidised the people's housing for his year in office, and given free doles of grain above what was already allotted. In doing this, he had gone into debt to such an extravagant degree that many believed him to be mad. In this Caesar proved himself to be the shrewdest politician of all time. He had bought popularity with the masses at the expense of moneylenders. Besides the professional financiers, he had borrowed from friends, from Senators, from provincial governors, from anyone with money to lend. Now those men were beginning to realize that the only way they were ever going to collect on those loans was to push Caesar's career, to make sure that he received lucrative commands where there was loot to be had, high offices where rich bribes would come his way, and the governorship of wealthy provinces. He had built a spectacular political future for himself with other people's money.
The great and rich Crassus had tried to steer clear of faction politics, but he was drifting into the populate camp. Like Pompey, he had been a supporter of Sulla, but he saw the future belonging to the rising politicians. Like the other financiers, he had been hurt by Lucullus's magnanimous cancellation of the Asian debt, but he was too rich to be truly hurt by anything.
It must be said in all honesty that none of these men had the good of the Roman people at heart. The optimates spoke of saving the Roman state from would-be tyrants, but they merely wanted to perpetuate aristocratic privilege. The leaders of the populares claimed to be on the side of the common man, but they sought only to aggrandize themselves. It was a struggle for raw power by two groups of self-seeking men. The only truly enlightened men of the times, Lucullus and Sertorius, had done their good work outside of Italy, in places where the corruptions of Roman Government had not yet taken hold.
And me? Sometimes I wonder myself. I fondly believed that I was trying to save the Republic in something like its old form, even though my own cynicism told me that it had never been as good and just as we liked to think it was. I did not want to see our whole empire fall into the hands of men like Caesar, or Pompey, or Crassus or, most unthinkable of all, Clodius.
But I was soon to find that there were even more ominous developments in store.
When I arrived at my house I found a slave messenger waiting for me. He gave me a tiny scroll tied with a ribbon, my name written on its outside in a feminine hand.
The Lady Fulvia, it said, requests the company of the Quaestor Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger for dinner tomorrow evening. If you can come, as I pray you will, please send your reply by this slave .
I promptly sat and wrote out my acceptance and gave it to the slave. Things were looking up. Fulvia was a beautiful young widow of excellent family, as lively and accomplished as Sempronia. She was also, as everyone in Rome knew, the mistress of Quintus Curius.