81 BCE - Spring, Rome
Year of the consulship of
Marcus Tulius Decula and Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella
Over the next several months a change came over the house. Many profited by it, others suffered. I refer, you understand, to everyone excluding the family. Crassus, his wife and children never faced anything more troublesome than a boring houseguest or a hangnail. Both the start and the culmination of this transformation were each marked by an absence. The first was cause for celebration; the second spurred me to an unthinkable confrontation. It all began with Nestor’s bed.
Some days life was easier to bear than others. This had been one of the difficult ones. It was near the end of Martius and Livia had been reclaimed by Boaz that morning. After a week’s stay helping to prepare for and then cleaning up after the festivities surrounding little Marcus’s fourth birthday, we were just getting used to having her around. I’m not much of a drinker, but that night I had four cups of lora. I might have shown more restraint had not the mistress herself set two pots of honey out for us, surplus from the party. With this nectar, the wine was made less bitter, but not I. Euripides said “wine is the happy antidote for sorrow,” yet I retired both foul of mood and stomach. I doubt a libation as insipid or as astringent as lora had ever passed the playwright’s lips.
So it was that late that night I rose to relieve myself and perhaps find a scrap of bread to sop up the choppy seas of my gut. Nestor was snoring lightly. Down the hall in the opposite direction from Pío’s room lay the female servant’s wing. Midway between, running at right angles was the short hallway leading to the men’s latrine on the right, women’s on the left. A trench four inches wide and almost as deep ran down the middle of that floor; you could hear the gurgle of fresh water from the aqueduct running through it as you approached. Crassus’ Palatine villa was richly appointed: normally such luxury was reserved for the master suites.
Sleeping in a sitting position on his small cushioned bench at the intersection of the two hallways was our young guard. An oil lamp stanchioned in the wall flickered above his head. Malchus had a room to himself, but when he wasn’t patrolling he preferred to rest here. The hallway was so narrow no one could get past without stepping over him. He woke at my approach.
“Salve, Malchus,” I said quietly so as not to wake the rest of the house.
The lanky soldier wiped his mouth and looked up at me appraisingly. “Too much lora,” he said. It wasn’t a question. I nodded. “I’ll join you if you promise you won’t puke.” I told him life held few guarantees. He shrugged, stood up and took the lamp out of its holder. Stretching and yawning, he left his short sword by the bench and followed me to the toilets. The small room was divided by the fresh water channel and fed from a spout extending a foot off the floor of the far wall. On either side of the trench were two benches with hinged lids; each had two holes on top for sitting and two smaller openings on the front for cleaning. On the floor were two large covered buckets and two taller, narrower ones with long handles protruding from their open tops. Malchus lifted each covered bucket by its handle to test its weight.
“This one’s full,” he said, tapping it with his foot. He opened the other one and we urinated into it together. I finished first; when Malchus was done I closed and latched the lid. Malchus reached up under his tunic, pulled down his subligatum and took a seat on the bench nearest him. “So what’s troubling you, translator?”
I sat down across from him, letting my bad leg stretch out before me. The limp was barely noticeable now. “Why should anything be troubling me? Troubles are for adults; children need only obey. I am a carefree child.”
“You know, my friend, your face won’t shatter if you manage a smile once in awhile. I see you, don’t think I don’t, moping around the house all day. That’s not going to make things any better.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” I said, smacking my forehead. “I simply have to look happy to be happy. Genius.”
“Think about it – your lot could be a lot worse.”
“Really?” I felt myself beginning to mope, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing it. The best I could manage was a crooked, tepid smile.
Malchus, however, was the type who would grasp at any sign of encouragement, even a false one. “That’s better,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the place in time. Crassus is a good man. I’ve been with him since he came back from Hispania, going on three years now. Betto and I joined up when he passed through Perugia, our village.”
“He’s never around. Do you think he even knows what goes on in his name?”
“Oh, so that’s it. Can’t you just stay out of Prick Pío's way?”
“As easily as I can avoid the air. It’s not just for me, you know ...”
“Dominus owes Pío a debt of honor. Hang on.” Malchus’ face glazed with concentration, then relaxed. There was a soft, wet thud beneath him. “Ahhh ... a thing of beauty. Where was I. Pío. Yes. Unless he murders someone, my friend, Crassus will never give him up. Pass me the spongia, will you?” I pulled the dripping sponge stick out of the cask of fresh water and gave it to Malchus, handle first. He turned it around, inserted it through the small hole between his legs and cleaned himself.
“You could help us, if you’d a mind to.”
“No chance. Pío’s shit, my friend, if you’ve ever had the luck to be in here when he’s about the business of making one, smells like mountain laurel and columbine. And he knows it. I’m not saying I’d do the same as him in his place, but you know the old saying: swing a big cock and somebody’s gonna get fucked. That’s just how it is.”
“So you do see how he treats us, then?”
“I see it. And do you see it’s got nothing to do with me?” Malchus stood, dropped the spongia back in its receptacle and rearranged his clothes. He saw the look on my face and said, “Look, it’s rotten luck, but let me tell you something my father taught me. The world is always changing, right under our noses, even if you think it’s not. Most of the time it happens so slow you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention. That’s the trick, see. You’ve got to pay attention so you know when something’s changing.”
“An interesting theory, but what use is it to me?”
“I wish I could help you, translator, but I’m just a sword for hire. I’ve got a skill and I get paid to use it. You’re smart, you’ll think of something. Hey, it’s the ones who can think that come up with most of the change, right? Just make sure when you go mixing things up you leave me out of it. I like my job; Things are fine just the way they are.”
In the servants’ kitchen, I found half a loaf of something under the breadbox. It was fresh enough for me to tear off two chunks, one of which I chewed upon thoughtfully as I padded barefoot back to our sleeping quarters. I turned into our wing, passed Pío’s and my room and found Malchus back at his usual post on the bench in the hall. He had covered himself with his cloak; his head was tilted back against the wall and his mouth hung open. I dropped the other hunk of bread into his lap. He opened one eye, grinned and said, “You’re a good man, translator. From now on, I’ll ignore what everyone says.”
“It heartens me,” I replied, “to know we are so well protected by the alert and ever-vigilant Malchus. Brigands, blackguards and thieves beware!”
“Don’t let this come as a shock,” Malchus said, his mouth well-stuffed, “I’m not guarding you, I’m guarding you, if you follow.”
“You’re doing a superlative job either way,” I said, heading back to my room. When I turned aside the curtain and slipped into bed I realized that I was alone. Nestor was gone.
Indeed, over the coming weeks it seemed as if I had the room to myself at night. Nestor continued to behave as if our recent paths were not literally chained together, as if his claim to this place was somehow greater than mine. If it were mine to give, he’d be welcome to it. I would have welcomed his friendship, but that tree was obviously not going to bear fruit.
There was, however, a direct correlation between Nestor’s absence and Pío’s demeanor. Dare I say it? The man’s disposition was becoming almost sunny! The more time they spent together, the less the Spaniard preyed upon the rest of us. Food rations were no longer withheld, sexual blackmail vanished and the household in general brightened several shades. It was spring, and Pío and Nestor were in love.
But no good thing comes without a price, and it was Sabina and her daughter who paid it. With the house settled back into a normal routine, there was no need for extra help; Pío refused the “coin” with which Sabina had paid him so that she and Livia could be together as much as possible. True, happiness had tamed his more repulsive habits, but it had also made him faithful. And as bad luck would have it, Crassus took Pío to task over the house accounts. Not that there was any lack of funds, but to the master, “more” was always better than “enough.” Livia came to us no more.
I could not bear the sight of frustration and heartbreak in Sabina’s eyes. While I lacked the courage to stand up for myself, it welled up of its own accord on behalf of my friend. Malchus had said something about being a sword for hire; that gave me the kernel of an idea. And so it was I found myself standing alone before the master in his tablinum.
“You wished to see me?” Crassus chose an apple from a bowl and offered it up to me. I declined gracelessly, only able to manage a grunt and a head shake. He shrugged and bit into it himself. What was I doing here? Was I mad? Before I could get my vocal chords to function he saved me by asking, “How are you settling in?”
“Well,” I managed.
“And how goes it with Marcus? Give us a progress report.”
“Well ...” I repeated. Do I tell him the truth? I don’t see what choice I have. “He’s keen on mathematics. At least, that is, he understands that when I take two blocks away from three he is left with only one. It, uh, is easier for him to grasp the ... conceptual aspects once he stops crying.”
I had no choice but to forge ahead. “He’s quite entertained by some sections of The Iliad. I’m afraid his favorite part - I’ve had to repeat it to him almost every day this month – is the death of Hector.” Crassus smiled at that. “He’s learning his Latin letters, but truth to tell, dominus, Greek is as yet beyond him.” I waited, but Crassus was silent. “We’ve started with a little history, the Punic wars, but forgive me, lord, I cannot hold his attention for more than a few minutes.”
Crassus stroked his chin. He let out a long breath and I could have sworn he was about to send me to the mines. Instead, he said, “I suppose, then, we’ll have to leave oratory and the Epicureans till he’s four.”
“That might be, I mean to say, four is perhaps ...”
“I am in jest, Alexander. Let him play.”
“I was wrong to start him so young. Does he like you?”
“I think he tolerates me. He loves his mother, and Sabina. And you, of course.”
“Alexander!” he snapped. My sandals almost left the floor. “You are not a client. And I am not your patron. Patronize me again at your peril.”
“You’re a good man, Alexander,” he said with softer tone. “I know, because my son knows. You cannot fool a child. I note you have omitted Marcus’ progress with his riding lessons.”
“Your hands and knees must be raw, from what he tells me.”
“Oh indeed. Continue as you see fit. He’d miss his time with you were I to postpone his “lessons” for another year. Now what’s this you say about Sabina?”
“My experience with children is quite limited, dominus. Limited, indeed, to myself. An only child. No playmates to speak of. Sabina has been a great help with Marcus. Which, if I may ....”
“What is it?”
Now we’d come to it. I felt as if the past few minutes had helped my cause, but I was too nervous to see anything objectively. By the Dog, curse my trembling, perspiring body. I did my best to ignore my uncooperative physical self and concentrate on my ideal, non-corporeal self. “I have a proposition, dominus.”
Crassus hoisted the semaphore of a raised eyebrow. Was this permission to proceed, or a manifestation of ‘how dare you?’ His next utterance would tell. Remember, don’t patronize. Like a barrel rolling downhill, I plunged on, waiting for the moment when my staves would explode. “It is an idea that will unite a family, bring good to many in your name and procure another able body for your house at no cost to you. I would humbly beg that you allow Sabina a peculium.”
I paused for a response. “If you are finished,” Crassus said, “then my answer is ‘no.’”
“Finished? No! Out of politeness, I merely wanted to give you the chance to voice your initial thoughts.”
“You just heard them. Never let manners stand in the way of making your case. The great orators barely take a breath between sentences to frustrate any chance of interruption. Plow on, Alexander. I don't have all morning.”
“Here it is, then.” I took a breath and expectorated my argument as quickly as my pasty tongue would allow. “Livia, Sabina’s daughter, was sold by her father to pay his gambling debts. She is owned by Boaz who on occasion leases her to this house. Sabina is a trained healer whose talents go tragically unused. Purchase Livia for the sum of 8,000 sesterces; Sabina will contribute 2,300 of the cost. The balance she will repay from the profits from her peculium – as a healer. Livia will be reunited with her mother, both will become your property and your reputation as a sage and canny patrician will increase.”
“Qualities by which I am already known. I thought you said it would cost me nothing.”
“How did she come by such a sum?”
“She sold herself to Boaz.”
Crassus nodded. “Would that all Roman mothers acted as nobly, when Roman men succumb to their failings.”
I could not help myself. “Sabina is Greek.”
Crassus eyed me. “And no less noble for it. Why does Boaz sell the girl so cheaply – she could fetch twice his asking price.”
“This I cannot explain. I think he likes the mother.”
“I will not have strangers with gods know what sores and ailments tromping through the house. I will not allow any such unfortunates near my children or my wife. She may not ply her trade here?”
“The empty apartment that faces the street could be used as a taberna. It has its own entrance and is used only for storage. It's completely separate from the main building by at least two hundred feet of garden.”
"I know where it is; it's my damn house!"
“You could charge her rent,” I said in as small and unobtrusive voice as possible.
“I would charge her rent. But tell me, Alexander, has your convoluted scheme considered this? What citizen would make the trek up the Palatine when there are plenty of doctors, male doctors, throughout the city?”
“A well-placed word or two from Crassus would push the stone from the hilltop. Word of mouth would soon cause an avalanche. In reverse, so to speak.”
“I see. More work for me. Next I suppose you will tell me that you yourself are living proof of her skills. You needn’t bother. I began looking for your replacement the moment the fever came upon you. Few survive its grip. She has a gift, without doubt.”
I held my breath. At last Crassus spoke again. “The plan has merit. Get the money from Pío and see that the girl is here by nightfall.”
“So help me, Alexander, if you fall to your knees or begin to blubber, I shall strike you. Get some backbone in you. I have no use for cowards. You belong to a noble house; best you act the part."
There is a nasty miniature of me that lives inside, a small but persistent voice that would spoil any triumph, sour any accomplishment. How it came to reside in my head is a mystery. I would excise it if I could; and yet I do enjoy arguing with it. Since coming to the house of Crassus I have given it a name. I call it Little Nestor. Well, here was a perfect opportunity for the daemon to be heard, and he did not disappoint. In that instant of my master’s acquiescence, I experienced real joy, a feeling that had eluded me since my abduction. Little Nestor could not let that go, and I heard him whisper: his words are free, but you are not. Act the part, he says. As long as you remain here, like an actor never allowed to leave the stage, you will never be yourself. So act the part. Slave.
That day, I managed to ignore him, enough to say, “Dominus, I am very pleased. And on Sabina’s behalf, I offer gratitude. There is but one thing more; actually two. Please do not tell her this was my idea. Take credit yourself, or perhaps give it to domina, whatever you think best.”
“Why would we do that? Your suggestion is an act of kindness she will not soon forget.”
“First, the act is yours, not mine. Second, she is my friend; I want no debts between us. Lastly, Sabina is proud almost beyond measure. This would sit better coming from the master of the house.”
Crassus rose from his seat. “Stay here. I must fetch my wife.” He walked back toward the atrium and I heard him call for Tertulla. In a moment, the two returned, followed by Sabina, who led a wobbly, grinning Publius by the hand.
“Columba, a word. Sabina, if you wouldn’t mind, take Publius for some air.”
“Yes, dominus.” Sabina left, looking back over her shoulder to fling a nervous ‘what’s-going-on?’ face at me. I replied with a look of feigned innocence and hoped that it appeared genuine. I was never much good at dissembling.
“Alexander! What have you gone and done now?” Tertulla took both my hands in hers and held them while she spoke. Her smile was so broad and genuine I felt my face redden. “He’s so good with Marcus, husband. How's the leg, Alexander?”
"It heals," Crassus answered for me, sounding slightly irritated. He bade Tertulla sit in his chair and began to recount the details of my proposal. He stood next to me, so close I could smell his perfume. I hoped that my own scent did not offend. If only I could step further away unnoticed. I am most comfortable on the outskirts; being at the center of anything unnerves me, the center of attention in particular. To endure, I composed my features into one I hoped gave the impression of self-abasing, modestly proud interest. No mirror presented itself, so I attempted to breathe normally and instead let the vision of my mistress consume me.
Tertulla’s hair was long in those days, and as black as any Nubian’s. She wore it piled at the back of her head, held with gold butterfly pins. Two long tresses escaped this binding and fell down either side of her neck. It was a style that made her look regal, yet utterly feminine. Her sleeveless peplos, pinned at the shoulders with more gold butterflies, was pale blue, a foil to the darker seas of her eyes. She left one shoulder bare by draping her palla as a long, diagonal sash. Her toenails were painted to match her peplos and her long-laced sandals were gold. She was nineteen, five years younger than I; precisely the sort of girl who wouldn’t give me a second look or a first chance back in Athens. She was as beautiful as Phaedra, my youthful infatuation at the Academy, but where Phaedra was a siren, Tertulla was Venus.
Putting the final touches on the book trailer. As always, when it arrives, your comments and criticisms will be received graciously and almost without rancor. Just kidding. If I don't have a Sally Fields moment, I'm going to do some serious pouting.
82 - 81 BCE - Winter, Rome
Year of the consulship of
Gaius Marius the Younger and Gnaeus Papirius Carbo
Later that day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, we were to stand outside the villa’s entrance, eleven of us plus two house guards, Betto and Malchus, shivering in the cold to greet the paterfamilias and his wife. Everyone who was not free wore the pileus, a brimless, conical felt cap traditionally presented to newly manumitted freedmen in a ceremony that included, for some nonsensical reason, head shaving. This was supposed to represent the freedom dangled before us during the Saturnalia season. A cruel joke. The little cap was optional for freedmen only; servants owned by Crassus were forced to wear it. Pío chose to wear his proudly, unaware how ridiculous it looked atop his rockpile of a head. The pate of Ludovicus the handyman was bare. We Greeks celebrated the autumn planting as well, but at least in my family’s house we had never made such fools of ourselves or such a mockery of those who served us. The hat was yet further proof that cultural distinction was sadly deficient in Romans; they stole everything from everyone: culture, gods, clothing. The pilos had been worn by Greek sailors for centuries. It is a marvel to me that a people so successful in subjugating all they encountered could at the same time be so vacant of any original idea that did not in some way assist in those conquests. Roads, bridges, engines of war, I grant them those.
But I digress. In any event, Sabina had told me that later in the week there would be gifts, games, a suspension of work, and general revelry. The household would even sit at a banquet served by our masters; the meal, however, would be prepared by us, the table cleared by us and the dishes cleaned by us.
As usual in those first days after my injury, I was late getting to where I was supposed to be. I limped through the vestibule, trying to get my pileus placed securely while struggling with the staff. It had been a bad day for my leg: I had already been on my feet too long. Pío was not about to let me shirk my duties, and I was not about to ask for any favor that might put me in his debt. I leaned up against the wall to catch my breath and peered out at the group huddled outside. My glance fell on Sabina standing behind the soldier Malchus, her hands lightly resting on Livia’s shoulders.
They were both wearing the pileus.
Somehow, three-year old Marcus escaped the far side of the carriage even before it had stopped. With delighted screams he came racing around the back and right into the young senator’s entourage of six armed horsemen. Pío stepped forward with surprising speed. He placed his left hand on the snowy chest of our owner’s horse (the beast came to an immediate halt) and with his right arm whisked the kicking bundle of male energy into the air. Only when Crassus had leapt from his white stallion did the chief of staff put Marcus down. The little treasure turned and kicked his savior in the ankle as hard as he could before rushing past his father to get back to the carriage.
Crassus was even more intent on reaching Tertulla than his son. As the door opened, he scooped the boy up, hung him upside down by his own ankles (an apt punishment until I saw how hard it made little Marcus laugh) and dropped him, gently, back into Pío’s arms. Marcus began to struggle; Pío whispered something to him and the boy lay still. The senator grasped the big man’s shoulder in gratitude, then with a whoop, turned and leaned inside the open door. There sat Tertulla, young and elegant, a wide-eyed baby boy in her lap. Crassus reached underneath his wife with both hands, and accompanied by her shouts of delighted protestations, gathered both mother and son up in his arms. He spun twice round in the gravel, the two parents laughing so hard we who watched could not help but smile.
“Welcome Tertulla,” Crassus cried, “queen of this house, of our assembled familia, and most assuredly of me!” He set his wife down as we cheered, then reached for the baby. She whirled away from him, her ice blue eyes on fire. Realization dawned on the master and he apologized deeply, with only his enthusiasm to blame. She turned once again to face him, standing an arms-length apart, formally erect. All became terribly still as Tertulla bent and placed the baby at his feet. It squirmed uncomfortably, its swaddling picking up bits of gravel, but did not cry out.
If the paterfamilias walked away, the child would be taken to the outskirts of the city and abandoned. A father could legally do this if the babe were female, deformed, or if the idea of another screaming mouth in his house were just too tiresome to bear. The practice was the same in Athens.
No such thing would happen to this child. Crassus swept him up in his arms, lifting him high over his head. “I give you Publius Licinius Crassus!” he cried. “Io Saturnalia!”
“Io Saturnalia!” we all shouted in response, I less enthusiastically than most of the others. I mean, honestly, it was freezing. Truth to tell, Pío returned little Marcus to his mother’s arms with remarkable tenderness. I would be moved, if I cared a whit for these strangers. What were they to me?
I looked over at Sabina. She had removed her cap. We began to follow the family back into the house. I waited for Sabina to pass but when I tried to speak to her, with eyes averted she mumbled that she was needed by the master and hurried past.
One son of Marcus Crassus would marry and grow old with little to remark his passing. There was, however, one disturbing exception: he became, for a time, quaestor to Julius Caesar. It was one of life’s small, ironic blessings that Crassus did not live to see his progeny in the service of his enemy.
The other child was doomed to die a hero’s pointless death.
Before I could reenter the domus, I was waylaid by Ludovicus. He was five years younger than Sabina, a hard man with a soft center. I always liked him. Except on that day, when he threw an extra cloak over my shoulders and led me into town. Somehow he had come by the knowledge that when it came to women, I had none. He had taken it upon himself, in a festive, holiday mood, to rectify what was, in his opinion, a dreadful oversight. I don’t care how smart you are, he told me cryptically, you’ll never understand how little you really know till you’ve had a woman.
I do not wish to speak of the incident, only to tell you that it was a failure of less than spectacular proportions. By which I do not mean to employ a double negative, nor to imply that it was in any way a success. We arrived at a house with which Ludovicus was well-acquainted and his custom well-received and appreciated. My guide through these dark waters even supplied the coin to tip the ferryman. Which only made matters worse: is a man who does not pay for his whore less of a man? If he is twenty-three, terrified, and the cerebral sort who cannot help but take this simple, single string of reasoning and obsess about it till he has built a smoking Vesuvius, then yes, he is less of a man. And being thus diminished, by definition, therefore, he is less capable of performing this manliest of acts. Why couldn’t we just go home? I looked in vain for Ludovicus, but he had already paired and departed for the bounteous paradise of his favorite Ligurian, leaving me to my personal Hades.
The longer you keep your virginity, the harder it is to get rid of it. If you are male and past a certain age, the more concerned you become that nobody wants to relieve you of it. Which makes it more difficult to perform when given the opportunity. Which confirms your original supposition. Which makes you still more afraid that nobody wants it. And so on.
For a young boy who has not spilled his first seed, sex is a frightful and abhorrent thing to contemplate. As a young teen, it is the only thing worthy of prolonged consideration. A visit to the brothel or an early marriage quickly dissolves both tension and ignorance. But what if chance, lack of opportunity or becoming a spoil of war interrupt the natural progression into adulthood? Then, the difficulty of the mathematics of prolonged virginity rises exponentially with age. Until you solve this equation, it will remain a barrier between you and the rest of the world of men.
The girl was sweet enough, the room relatively clean and quiet. She took my hands, guided me to her pallet and bade me sit. Standing before me, she slipped from her tunic, her oiled breasts and thighs bronzed by the lamplight. She began touching herself, hardening her nipples between thumb and forefinger and making little animal sounds, either of pain or appreciation. Her facial expressions indicated the former, but I could not be certain. Her hips moved in ways that no man could mimic. Was it arduous practice or some differential physiognomy that enabled such gyrations? Her movements and her hands began to converge about the darkness between her legs. What did she expect of me? Was I supposed to sit and watch or wait for an invitation to become an active participant? And what was I to do exactly? I had no idea and was too embarrassed to ask. I did not know where to look; my eyes darted about, dragonflies flitting over an exotic pond where no resting place promised a safe landing free of humiliation. My confusion was compounded when of a sudden her ankle bracelet began to jingle; she pivoted, dancing in a slow semi-circle till her glistening buttocks gyrated just inches from my face. The oiled dimples of her taut lower back were shining eyes, pleading with me to do I knew not what. Finally, since it was easier to find courage when direct eye contact was not a further dissuasion, I gathered what little I could salvage from my trembling core and in a small voice spoke to her undulating backside, admitting my lack of experience and need for guidance.
For answer, she turned round and smiled with a knowing coyness that gave me credit in an account that was pitifully empty. I was less than bankrupt, for bankruptcy connotes there is something of value to lose. Lying down on her back, she raised her arms behind her neck and interlaced her fingers amongst the tousled thickness of her hair. She raised her knees, planted her feet flat on the orange bedsheet and let her legs fall open. Her hips began a slow rise and return to the bed, over and over, requiring quite a good deal of abdominal strength. Now what? There was no doubt as to my objective: there it beckoned, a miniature cavern whose secret entrance the girl was even now unveiling with painted fingernails. What is it with these women? Do they think that such a log jam of disuse such as I, presented with a scented, lithe and willing female is enough to unleash a lusty and adept Priapus. Was I to touch it, massage it like a sore muscle, plumb its depths with the pitiful limp thing between my quaking legs? Gods awaken! Was I supposed to kiss that moistened, bearded mouth?!
She did not love me. Most likely she did not even like me. Why should she when we had met only moments before? This was all an act; there was no genuine feeling here. Even when she took me in her oiled hands to bring life to the dead, I could not stop thinking that the only reason my prick was in her hands was the coin Ludovicus had placed in it earlier. Then I began thinking about Ludovicus touching her hand, and her hand touching me, and the oaky lengths she was beginning to coax from my staff quickly began to shrivel. Yes, I understand there was far too much thinking going on in that tiny room, but that is my curse. I thanked her with another small coin and retreated to the lobby. There I sat waiting for the lusty Ludovicus to reappear, as comfortable as a failing student sent before his favorite teacher. I supposed I would just have to wait until I came across some understanding woman who found my obsessions a blessing. And that is all I wish to say about the matter.
It was late by the time we returned, Ludovicus conciliatory, myself dejected and consigned to a still deeper pit of virginity out of which it seemed I would never climb. The feast was over and the last guest had departed, content and full by the look of the domestic disarray. Crassus and his wife had long ago retired. My wouldbe benefactor and I pitched in to help clean the house and restore its pristine opulence. An hour later we were about to retire to our respective quarters when there came a knock at the front entrance. The soldier Betto admitted a dark, bearded man wearing one gold earring and long robes striped blue and purple. He was followed by two of his own protectors. Rome was not a safe place to be out and about at night.
Livia, a small bag slung over her shoulder, came running up to her mother. Sabina hugged her daughter fiercely and would have remained till dawn in that embrace had not Livia gently broken free. “Good night, mother. Will I see you soon?”
Sabina’s chin trembled and her eyes widened in that trick we use to keep the tears from falling. “Soon,” she managed. Livia turned toward the strangers, but Sabina reached to trace her hand down the full length of her daughter’s outstretched arm. As Livia moved away Sabina let the fabric of her daughter’s tunic pass through her hand, then the softness of her child’s arm till at last only their hands touched, fingers intertwining. Finally, fingertips shared the last brief spark of connection. Livia giggled at this little game, then ran to the stranger.
“Can we not keep her,” Sabina asked, “at least till the end of the Saturnalia?”
“She is promised elsewhere,” the dark man said with a compassionate tilt of his head. His accent was strange. He smiled down at the girl and held out his hand. She took it. They stepped back out into the night. As the front door was being barred shut Livia began to whistle. In a few moments the sound receded into silence.
Dumbstruck, I stood staring at the closed door. “What just happened?” I turned toward Sabina, but she had fled. Betto, the young door guard was standing at his post, fussing with a strap on his leather breastplate. “Who was that?” I asked.
“Boaz. A Jew,” he said, his head bent in concentration over the lacings. As if that explained anything.
Betto looked up at me, irritated. “He has a contract with the house.” I had no idea what he was talking about. “Boaz is our slave merchant,” he said as if talking to one of those pitiful god-touched souls wandering aimlessly through the stalls of the Subura market. He spoke in sharp-edged barbs of rising inflection. “He owns the girl. She was only here on a rental.”
Earlier in the day Sabina had shown me where I would be sleeping from now on. It was near the end of the servants’ hallway; a small room right next to Pío’s much larger quarters. I limped there now, stung, numb and so very tired. It was very dark and I had to feel my way. Pulling the curtain aside I saw absolutely nothing. I had to stand there for a few moments until my eyes regained some of their sight. There was a shape on one of the two sleeping couches. Nestor faced the wall; I could not tell if he was asleep or feigning; either way I doubt he wanted to engage in conversation. Fine by me. A narrow table stood between the beds; trunks sat at the foot of each. That was all. There was barely a foot between the two couches. No window. No ornamentation. Home.
I undressed and slipped beneath the heavy blanket. Sleep would not come. I tossed like a beached fish, stared at the ceiling and replayed all that had transpired that day. Finally, I decided my foul mood needed company. “Nestor,” I whispered. No response. I tried again, louder this time. And a third, louder still.
He whipped around to face me. “What do you want?” he hissed. “Are you crazy? Do you know the time?”
“To talk. No. Yes.”
“Leave me alone.” His tone sounded more frantic than was called for by the occasion.
“You are insane. The master should lock you away and make you eat hellebore leaves till you come to your senses.”
“Why did you not acknowledge me earlier today? I thought you would be happy to see me.”
“This is my home. My position. I asked for it first. I don’t need you.”
“Well, we won’t go into the manner of your ‘asking,’ beyond acknowledging that shoving me out of the way was a rude and inelegant gesture from one Greek compatriot to another. Be resigned, Nestor, I am here. I am not your enemy. We can help each other.”
“Yes! We are fellow countrymen. Does that not count for something?”
“Did it count for anything when we were in chains? Did we ever pass so much as a word between us in all those many months? No, it doesn’t count for anything, not then, not now.”
I was not expecting such chastisement. All the more scathing for its accuracy. “Forgive me, Nestor. You are right. Those were difficult times.”
“The only difference now is a bit more food and a bit less mud. Now let me be.”
I awoke some time later lying on my side facing Nestor’s bed. It was empty. From the room next door came again the sound that had roused me – a couch scraping on the floor. There it was again, then two men talking. No, not talking. I rolled over and tried to wrap the long, narrow sleeping pillow over both my ears.
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82 - 81 BCE - Winter, Rome
Year of the consulship of
Gaius Marius the Younger and Gnaeus Papirius Carbo
Two days later, the morning rose surly and bitter, wrapping itself in a thick cloud blanket against the cold. Crassus had left early for the senate. From there he would ride to surprise his wife on the Via Laurentina as she returned to Rome from Lavinium with her two children, one of which Crassus had never set eyes upon. As the morning progressed, I quickly discovered that when the cat is off in search of other game, the mice in this house had better keep their mouths shut and their whiskers well hidden if they didn’t want them plucked out one by one.
I was owned by Crassus, but my quotidian fate rested with the Spaniard, Pío. He was the kind of man whose features are difficult to describe: the moment you set eyes on any one of them you are struck with the need to look quickly away. I do not make a practice of such thoughtless prejudice: just because he looked like an unwashed, overfed barbarian did not necessarily mean he wasn’t the sweetest of men. So to be clear as an Alpine lake, let me set your mind at rest: Pío was not the sweetest of men. Crassus had found him during the months he had been forced to flee the city. Publius, Crassus’ father, had been governor of Hispania Ulterior, and his fair and prosperous rule had gained him many friends. Vibius Piciacus was among them. When the disheveled son of his murdered comrade sought refuge, Piciacus did what he could to keep young Marcus safe from the spies of Cinna and Marius. There was a large cave by the sea on Piciacus’ estate, and there Crassus and his few retainers hid for the better part of a year. Piciacus, fearing reprisals should his generosity be discovered, would not visit his guest himself, but sent his manservant Pío there each day with food and anything else Crassus might require, including the company of two young women paid well for their silence and their service. When news of Cinna’s death reached Hispania, Crassus came out of hiding. As a reward for his constant and discrete care of his charges, Pío was given his freedom. He chose to return with Crassus to Rome; Piciacus must have been glad to see the last of him.
My first encounter with Pío occurred in the dining room. Appropriate, considering his capacity for consumption. He had stripped the meat off a roast leg of goat and was absentmindedly gnawing the bone to splinters. With his free hand he held a serviette beneath the machinery of his mouth to catch the falling detritus. From this visage of dainty gluttony my eyes fled to his feet, but the sight of those broad, hirsute plains sloping to the grimy boulders of his toes gave them no shelter. I know he wore a belt; I could see the leather escaping his sides to find sanctuary across the broad expanse of his back, but head-on there was no sign of it: the sagging lozenge of flesh had overwhelmed and smothered the sweat-stained band. Crassus had not employed the man as his atriensis - an archaic term for the manager of his household which Crassus still favored - for his good looks. Was it the Spaniard’s talent or my owner’s sense of obligation that had moved him? If talent, it was well-hidden.
The house was preparing a feast for the masters’ return that would double as the start of the seven days commemorating the Saturnalia, the most raucous of Roman holidays. I limped into the room on my own with Sabina by my side, who watched my progress closely. She had furnished me with a staff, but warned that I should use it as little as possible if I wanted to strengthen my wounded leg. I did indeed want that, but more immediately wanted not to lose my balance and fall crashing to the ground. I clasped the crutch like a lover.
Livia came in, carrying a small tripod table which she carefully set down near one of the couches. She waved at us, then ran back to the kitchen, skidding to avoid a servant heading the other way. A little bird chittered after Pío picking up verbal crumbs. Pío spit directions that were barely Latin at the bustling servants who were mostly Greek, and this little man translated. I didn’t recognize him at first for he was washed, shaved and healed of all his sores and bruises. But then another serving girl got in his way and he elbowed her aside to regain his position near his master. The familiar rudeness also jostled free a memory: a bedraggled chain whose links could barely be called men, trudging without will toward whatever unplanned future the auction block held in store. Here was my bilingual companion-in-misery, saved from a choiceless fate (almost at my expense) and thrust into one of his own making a lifetime ago. I hobbled to him with one arm outstretched, but to my surprise he backed away and Pío’s giant hand came down between us.
“This is Alexandros,” Sabina said. “He is the second translator for the house. You know Nestor?”
“So that is your name,” I said, peering over Pío’s flattened palm. Nestor gave me a look that would freeze the Kephisos in summer.
“Keep him away from me,” Nestor said with a mixture of pleading and revulsion. “He’s insane, Pío.”
I started to protest, but upon reflection could not argue; with what Little Nestor knew of me, even I was forced to credit his opinion. He was, after all, witness to my botched attempt at suicide before the great Sulla. Pío’s voice matched his countenance: its assault on the ears made one want to retreat a step; two would be better. Stalwart, I held my ground as he said, “You love your father?”
Now that was unexpected. “I beg your pardon?”
“You love your father,” Pío insisted. “I love my father. When he with my mother fifteen years, master Piciacus allow him bring carpenter to build fine cabinet to hold my mother’s clothes which he bought. Twelve years I had. Every day this man come to work on cabinet. My father work in fields. My mother spread her legs for this man. My father killed him. Slow. Then they killed my father. More quick. The carpenter’s name was Andros. I do not like this name. I do not like your name. Here you will be ... Alexander. Like the famous one. I think maybe you will not be so famous? This name I like - Alexander. Sabina, show him to kitchen and let him see that cook’s meanings are pure. No mistakes like last week. You, Nestor, you will speak for everything but kitchen? Good.”
With a word from that Hispanic grotesquerie another chip from my old life fell to the tiled floor. I am certain he had no idea how cruelly this arrow had hit the mark. At home in Greece, no human property was allowed to keep his or her own name – new ones were always assigned by their owner. It was purposefully dehumanizing, and completely sustainable, in my opinion. I never dreamed it would be happening to me, and not for any practical reason, but on a whim, because Pío didn’t like the sound of it! How absolutely rich! The sting of it burned as deeply as the wound in my leg. Well, that is an exaggeration, to be honest. But it did hurt; you need only imagine it happening to you. Sabina barely took notice, accepting the tyrant’s ruling without comment. “He is well enough to take quarters,” she said. “Where do you want him?”
“Who has empty bed? You, Nestor,” he said, pointing a fat finger, “you have empty bed. Translators share room.”
“No!” Nestor protested.
“I’ve an empty bed,” offered a servant wearing the tunic of the wine steward.
“No,” said Pío. I sensed he was the kind of man who believed thoughtful reconsideration to be a sign of weakness. “Translators together.”
Fuming impotently over the theft of my name, I wanted to lunge at Pío. I, however, am the kind of man who believes thoughtful reconsideration to be a sign of manliness and strength. In any case, before Sabina could lead me out of the triclinium, others had performed what pride and fear were about to suppress. Oh, I was scathingly articulate and brutally eloquent when complaining about someone to someone else, even if that meant talking to myself. Given the opportunity to actually vent directly to the object of my anger, I was as ferocious as a puppy, as outraged as an oyster.
A young, be-freckled woman with honey hair, tied in fraying braids intertwined with daisies marched into the dining room, her bare and muddied feet marking her determined passage. No one had dared remind her to don a pair of indoor sandals, six of which, in varying sizes, lined every entrance to the house. Her face, as flushed from the sun as her tunic and knees were begrimed by yard work, was set and grim. She walked straight up to Pío and knocked the napkin out of his hand, bits of goat and bone, so fastidiously gathered, now littering the floor. With her other hand she slapped him as hard as she could, and before he could make a grab for her was out the way she had come.
Medusa would have applauded the frozen and stony silence caused by this performance, and a second was just beginning. Keening rose from the direction of the baths, a flooding river of sound that crested with the arrival of another woman, her face streaked with tears. Pío spun to face her, comical with rage and discomfiture. She was upon him, spearing his eyes with a look that needed no translation. Looking up at him, she paused for the barest of moments, then spoke her terse jeremiad with hoarse and indignant fury: “How could you?”
Rhetoric at its finest, for it demands, nor permits reply. Pío, of course, did not know the rules.
She turned to leave, but he caught her by the wrist. “I owe you nothing,” he said, spoiling the purity of her lament. She yanked free of him. “Not even the explanation,” he called after her. The woman’s sobs grew, then receded till they became not-so-faint reverberations echoing from the chamber of the baths.
“Pío controls the slave larder,” Sabina said in response to my raised eyebrows. We spoke Greek as we walked to the kitchen through the atrium. The chill air swirling down from the open compluvium made us quicken our pace. “There’s enough for everyone, unless he wants something from you. Then you find less on your plate.”
“You must go to the master,” I cried. Take note how quick I was to say ‘you’ and not ‘we.’ Sabina cocked her head, taking her own turn to raise an eyebrow. “Oh,” I said, chastised. “A foolish question. Pío is favored for an old debt. He cannot be touched. And even if the paterfamilias should have him punished, he would find ample opportunity to take his vengeance.” Sabina nodded. “But how then,” I asked, “could that first woman slap him with impunity?”
“Tessa? Oh, it’s just part of her little act. She likes to be the center of attention, and she’s a little carefree with her charms, if you take my meaning.” She paused. “And, besides, I think he likes it.”
We entered the crowded kitchen filled with the pungent smell of garum and baking acorn bread. Sabina introduced me to the Roman cook and his three Greek assistants. She turned to go but I stopped her in the doorway. “What about you? Are you safe?”
“Pío is a bully,” she said, dismissively. As if that answered the question.