The first of the Pliny mysteries was published in 2002. The title had occurred to me some time before that, and I had been thinking about using Pliny as a detective for a while, so I knew the first book had to take place while Pliny was traveling somewhere. From inscriptions and from references in his letters, we can establish some dates in Pliny's life with a fair degree of confidence. He (and Tacitus) both held minor offices in Syria in the early 80s. In the mid- to late 80s we know less about their activities. I have tried to be accurate in placing them chronologically and geographically.
Setting a mystery novel in the ancient world does pose some problems. There was no forensic science—no fingerprints, no DNA matches, no microscopic examination of cloth fibers—and travel was slow and laborious. One thing I use to get around these limitations is the 160 scrolls—“written on both sides in a minute hand”—which Pliny says his uncle left behind. No one knows what was in those scrolls, but I assume that the scrolls contained scientific observations which his uncle did not have the time, or the inclination, to publish. So, for example, Pliny knows that when a person dies the blood settles to the lower side of the body, the side on which the person lies, producing what we today call lividity.
All Roads Lead to Murder (2002)
Pliny makes his debut as a detective, along with Tacitus, in this novel, set in the spring of 83 A. D., as the two of them are returning from government service in the eastern provinces of the empire. As anyone would have done, they are traveling in a caravan. One of the men traveling in the company is murdered in a gruesome fashion on an overnight stop in Smyrna. Since there are no Roman magistrates in the town, Pliny finds himself trying to maintain order in the group until the governor of the province can be summoned. Several people in the group prove to be something other than what they first appear, including Pliny’s slave Damon and Chryseis, the beautiful blond slave girl of the murdered man.
To read a sample chapter from this book, click here.
“. . . a wonderful book.” Barbara D'Amato, author of the Cat Marsala series and past president of the Mystery Writers of America
The Blood of Caesar (2008)
Pliny and Tacitus are back in Rome in the summer of 83. They are summoned to dinner by the emperor Domitian. That in itself is surprising, but even more startling is Domitian’s appearance at Pliny’s door the next morning. The emperor is afraid that there might be a surviving relative of Nero, supposedly the last of the dynasty founded by Augustus. Such a person would have a stronger claim to rule Rome than Domitian does. Pliny soon realizes that, if he does find a descendant of Augustus—someone with Julius Caesar’s actual bloodline—Domitian will kill him.
To read a sample chapter, click here.
“. . . a masterpiece of the historical mystery genre.” Library Journal. One of Library Journal’'s 5 Best Mysteries of 2008
The Corpus Conundrum (Sept. 2011)
In the spring of 84 Pliny is enjoying some rest and relaxation at his favorite spot, his villa at Laurentum. While he and his servants are out hunting they find a body in the woods. With his limited forensic knowledge, Pliny cannot determine what killed the man, or even be certain he’s dead. He takes the body back to his estate for further examination. But the next morning the man has disappeared from a locked and guarded stable. Odd people start appearing on Pliny’s estate, claiming that the missing man was related to them. One even claims that the man was a 700-year-old immortal and that drinking his blood will make others immortal. The case challenges every rational principle on which Pliny bases his life.
To read a sample chapter, click here.
“Bell’s choice of protagonists . . . is inspired. His writing is clear and crisp. His use of the historical sources is ingenious.” Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series
Death in the Ashes (2013)
In the fall of 84 Pliny is asked to help defend Calpurnius, the husband of a friend of his, who has been accused of murder in Naples. With his eyewitness memories of the eruption of Vesuvius five years earlier still vivid, Pliny is not eager to return to that area. But Calpurnius won’t defend himself, and his pregnant wife sees nowhere else to turn. To solve the case Pliny will have to swallow his fears and go into the ruins at the foot of Vesuvius. Kelli Stanley, author of the Roman Noir series, calls it a "scintillating mystery . . . suspenseful and riveting." John Maddox Roberts, author of the SPQR series, calls it "an intriguing and involving tale."
To read a sample chapter, click http://www.albertbell.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=26
The Eyes of Aurora (2014)
In the summer of 85 Pliny tries to help a woman whom his servant Aurora has befriended. The woman says her husband and son have gone missing, but the situation proves to be much more complicated than that. Pliny also has problems on the personal front. His marriage has been arranged, but his relationship with Aurora is becoming more involved. In some sections of this book Aurora speaks in her own voice. Here are some sample chapters:
Voconius Romanus, a friend since my school days, raised his cup in a toast to the bust of my uncle. We were standing next to the pedestal on which the bust sits in my favorite corner of the garden in my house on the Esquiline Hill on the east side of Rome. “The old man would have been proud of you, Gaius Pliny.”
I allowed myself a modest smile. “I would like to think so. For winning the case, but even more, for beating Regulus.”
“You didn’t just beat him, my friend.” Voconius, a thin, wiry man, clapped me on the shoulder. “You utterly humiliated him. If it had been a gladiatorial combat, they would have jabbed hooks into his heels and dragged his bloated corpse out of the arena.”
Though I detest the games, I liked that image. “I have to admit I was surprised by the margin of victory, even though I was confident that my speech was good.”
“Good? No. It was superb. How could you have doubted yourself?”
“You don’t have to flatter me to get your dinner.” Although I didn’t mind hearing a bit of praise. Who does? “When I was working on it these last two days I felt something I might even call inspiration.”
Voconius gave his throaty laugh. “Watch out. If you don’t believe in gods, you can’t believe in Muses who are the daughters of a god.”
“You’re right. That’s a logical impossibility.”
“And I’ve never known you to be guilty of such a thing. Will you send me a copy of the speech?” Voconius, a native of Spain, had moved to Comum with his family when we were in school. We still exchange our writings for criticism and revision.
“I certainly will. My scribe will make a fresh copy.”
“I noticed him scribbling furiously.”
“Yes, with the Tironian notation he can capture any changes I make while speaking.”
“Tironian notation can be deadly.”
I looked at him in bewilderment.
“Remember that Augustus had a fellow stabbed to death on the spot for transcribing one of his speeches.”
And Augustus was one of the good emperors. “I’m didn’t say anything politically provocative. There were a few spontaneous moments. Although I won’t call them inspired, I do like to have them preserved.”
Voconius threw his head back and laughed. “I just wish there was some way we could preserve the image of the veins swelling in Regulus’ temples and neck, his face getting redder and redder. And he just kept getting louder.”
“As Cicero says, ‘Orators are most vehement when their cause is weak.’”
I closed my eyes and called up the vision of the end of the trial this morning in the Centumviral Court, a scene I hope I will still be able to see if I live to be an old man. Marcus Aquilius Regulus was acting on behalf of Quintus Vibius, whom I was prosecuting for embezzling 200,000 sesterces from the widow Pompeia Celerina, cousin of my uncle and mother and the mother of my bride-to-be.
Other trials had ground to a halt as participants and spectators turned their attention to Regulus and me. The prosecution is often at a disadvantage because the defense speaks last, but when the iudex called for the vote, thirty-five of the jurors stepped to my side and only ten to Regulus’. The crowd erupted in applause.
“So now your future mother-in-law adores you,” Voconius said.
Back to harsh reality. I stepped away from my uncle’s bust and sat on the bench beside it, under a trellis that supported an ornamental vine. Voconius joined me.
“Yes,” I said dispiritedly. “She sent a message an hour ago that the money Vibius embezzled has been returned to her house, along with the fine imposed by the court.”
“So quickly? Didn’t the fellow spend it?”
“Oh, I’m sure Regulus paid it and I pity Vibius. Regulus will extract a painful repayment, with heavy interest, probably in the form of bits of his flesh.”
“I suspect he’s not done with you either.”
I nodded slowly. “How he’ll get his revenge on me, I can only guess. You know he’s been waging a war against my family for over twenty years. It drags on like Rome and Carthage. Losing one battle will just make him more determined to win the next one.”
“Well, enjoy this victory as long as you can.” Voconius drained his cup. “Nothing lasts forever. This wine, for instance, isn’t staying with me for long, so I’m going to stop in the latrina before we have dinner.”
When Voconius left I had the moment of repose for which I had come into the garden. The last two days had passed in a blur that was only now beginning to clear, like a fog lifting off a bay.
Yesterday morning Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of my dear friend Cornelius Tacitus, had appeared at my door with a hundred of his veterans. Agricola and his men live on estates and farms of various sizes to the north and east of Rome. Tacitus’ wife, without his knowledge, had sent a message asking her father to come and support me in court. His men camped out in my atrium and garden and whatever empty rooms we could find in the house. This morning I was accompanied to the Forum by my own clients and Agricola’s century. Even without their weapons, it was an impressive procession. No one even tried to stay on the sidewalks in front of us. Regulus went pale when we walked up to the steps of the Basilica Julia, where the trial was held.
The whole crowd in the Forum buzzed when they realized Agricola was there. I could hear his name flitting from one person to the next, like a rumor buzzing through the marketplace. No one had seen him in several months. His popularity has only risen since Domitian recalled him from Britain and sent him into a sort of genteel exile. Everyone knows Agricola could be princeps if he chose to. Agricola knows it, and so does Domitian. What makes me nervous is that Domitian also knows that Agricola’s son-in-law is my closest friend.
I took a sip of wine and shivered slightly. The weather’s changing, that’s all, I assured myself. It is the middle of October, and the linen dinner robe I’m wearing is lighter than a tunic or a toga. It’s made for indoor wear, not for musing in a garden on a fall evening.
I believe my speech was good enough in its own right to win, but it certainly helped that Regulus’ supporters were far outnumbered and shouted down every time they tried to express their approval of their patron. Agricola’s men had even brought small pieces of wood which they clapped together. Most importantly, he did a good job of keeping his men under control, ignoring provocations from Regulus’ clients. An outbreak of violence would have been a disaster for him as well as for me. Agricola and his men departed immediately after the case was settled. I hadn’t asked him to do that, but he knew his continued presence in the city would provoke some reaction from Domitian.
“I thought I would find you here.” Tacitus, whose friendship I’ve come to cherish over the last two years, emerged from the shadows and sat down on the bench beside me. He is almost a head taller than I am. Most men of that size intimidate me, but an air of friendliness and good humor emanates from Tacitus as soon as you meet him. And yet I’ve learned that his perception of people is keen and deep.
I slid over to make room for him. “Since I was a child this has been the place I’ve retreated to when I needed to be quiet for a while, to renew my strength.” I put my head back against the wall and looked up. The reddening sky was clear. It would be a chilly evening. “This day has been exhausting.”
“It won’t get any more peaceful, I’m afraid. The rest of your guests have arrived.”
I let out a long sigh as my shoulders sagged.
“Be prepared,” Tacitus said. “Pompeia is kissing and embracing everyone. She may be all over you like a cheap whore this evening. All she can talk about is how brilliant her son-in-law is.”
“Future son-in-law,” I snapped. “How many times do I have to remind people? Future son-in-law.”
Tacitus shook his head like a man delivering bad news. “That’s not how your mother and Pompeia see it. Livilla, your blushing bride-to-be, is going to be reclining on the couch next to you tonight, with her mother on the other side of her.” He used the diminutive form of Livia’s name, as is common for the younger sister in a family.
“Livilla? Next to me? That’s not . . . not proper. She and her mother belong on the middle couch.”
“Your mother says Livilla is family now—even closer than just a cousin—not a guest, so she should recline next to you.”
“Damn that woman!”
“She could have done worse by you, you know. She could have gotten you engaged to the older daughter. At least you get the pretty one.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the older girl.”
“You would remember her, if you had. She’s a year older than you and, the last time I saw her, well on her way to becoming the image of her stumpy, heavyset mother. And a nagging shrew into the bargain.”
“Where does she live?”
“She’s been in Spain for the last two years. Her husband, Liburnius, is serving on the staff of the current governor. He and I were quaestors together a few years ago, right after the eruption of Vesuvius. I was at his wedding.”
“Well, I guess ‘my’ Livilla is going to be reclining beside me for some time to come, so let’s go face the inevitable.”
Tacitus wagged a finger at me. “You know, if we had kept up the traditions of the old Republic, the women would be sitting in chairs behind our couches. That would solve this problem—and many others.”
“For once I’m inclined to approve of your devotion to the ideals of the Republic.” I raised my cup to my uncle’s bust again. “We who are about to die salute you.”
* * * *
Tacitus and I were crossing the darkening garden toward the front part of the house when I heard a woman crying behind the shrubbery. It had to be a servant, since my mother is the only woman in the house who’s not a servant, either slave or freedwoman, and she would not vent her tears behind a bush. Normally I don’t concern myself when my female servants become upset—a problem better left to my mother or my steward to deal with—but I was eager for any excuse to stay out of the triclinium for even a few more moments. I put my cup on a bench.
“Who is that?” I asked, taking a step toward a form huddled between the shrubbery and the garden wall. “Show yourself.”
Like Venus rising out of the ocean foam, Aurora emerged from the bushes, her eyes red from weeping. Her mother, Monica, had been my uncle’s slave and mistress. Aurora and I have known one another since she arrived in this house when we were both seven. She has always enjoyed a privileged status in my familia and has gone from being my playmate to being my personal attendant—and has become the woman I love but cannot have. My mother deeply resented her brother’s relationship with Aurora’s mother and, since Monica’s death, has turned that animosity toward her daughter.
I put a hand on Aurora’s shoulder. “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you in the triclinium?” Aurora always waits on me at dinners of this sort, sitting on a stool behind my couch. The touch of her hand on my foot—just my awareness that she’s nearby—can help me endure the most tense or most tedious evenings. From the way she was dressed, in a green gown with yellow trim and a necklace that had belonged to her mother, I knew she was planning on waiting on me.
“Your mother sent me away. She said Pylades would wait on you.”
“Damn that woman again! How far does she think she can go in arranging my life?” I took Aurora’s hand and started toward the triclinium.
“Gaius, wait.” She pulled back. We have an understanding that she may address me by my praenomen when no one else is around, as she did when we were children. This was the first time she’d done so in Tacitus’ presence. I heard his quick intake of breath, but he didn’t say anything.
“What is it?” I asked impatiently.
“Maybe it would be better if I were not there tonight. Your mother is so upset she even called me Monica. With Livilla next to you and your mother so . . . determined to be rid of me, it will make everyone uncomfortable.”
“I don’t care about everyone. The fact that Livilla’s going to be next to me is all the more reason I need you there. I’ll be uncomfortable.”
“Yes, my lord. As you wish.” Aurora lowered her eyes, her soft brown eyes. She and her mother came from the area around Carthage, so there is something Punic in her—the thick brown hair and long slender face, but especially the eyes. Sometimes I wonder if those eyes were what Aeneas saw when he gazed on Dido’s face. It took a direct command from Jupiter to drag him away from them. What would it take--
“Gaius Pliny, your guests are waiting,” Tacitus reminded me.
* * * *
Tacitus and I entered the triclinium side by side, with Aurora following us, her hands demurely folded in front of her and her head down. All conversation stopped, as abruptly as though someone had slammed a door. The room, the smaller of two indoor dining rooms in my house, has a mosaic floor with sea creatures worked in it and frescoes of several mythological banqueting scenes, standard fare for a triclinium, but nicely done by my uncle. I’ve seen no reason to redo it, as I did the atrium. Tonight it was set up with only three couches, with a table for each couch and a central table where the servants would present the dishes and cut up those that needed it.
I already knew who was going to be on the high couch with me. From the way everyone was standing, I deduced that my mother was to have the middle couch between Voconius Romanus and another friend of our family, Calestrius Tiro. Tacitus and his wife Julia were relegated to the lower couch.
Voconius and Tiro happened to be in Rome on business and I had invited them to dinner before I even knew this would be a celebration. They had also been in court this morning. Despite my mother’s objections, I had insisted that Tacitus and Julia be invited because of Agricola’s role in our victory. My mother’s recent antipathy toward Tacitus, demonstrated to all by his placement in the least prestigious place at the table, was one more stone in a wall that she seems to be raising between herself and me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, friends,” I said, spreading my hands in a gesture of greeting, “it is my pleasure to welcome you to my house and my table. Please, take your places and let’s begin.”
I walked around to the position reserved for the host and was met by Pompeia, who grabbed my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks. “Thank you so much, Gaius Pliny. You were brilliant.”
“I’m glad things turned out so well,” I said, prying her off me and guiding her to her place on the couch.
Once she was settled, I snapped my fingers at Pylades and sent him out, daring him with the set of my jaw to look at my mother for a counter-order. Then I reclined in my own place as the host, and Aurora took her accustomed place, removing my sandals, wiping my feet with a wet cloth, and letting her hand rest on my foot a moment longer than necessary before she withdrew it. I didn’t need to look at my mother to feel the waves of anger rolling off her.
“Good evening, Livilla,” I said. Her black hair was piled on top of her head and toward the front in what I assumed was the latest fashion. A strand of pearls ran through it. Her gown was lilac with a silver border. Her perfume, I had to admit, was enticing.
“It’s nice to see you, Gaius,” she responded, glancing unhappily over her shoulder at Aurora, who kept her eyes down. She was reclining on both elbows, so she could talk with me more easily.
Livilla will make a charming wife for some man. She is small, delicate, with a high forehead, blue eyes, and smooth, alabaster-like skin that needs little cosmetic enhancement, and she is wise enough to know that. She must resemble her deceased father, whom I never knew. Her mother is a stout woman with eyebrows that would grow together over her nose like a hedge if she didn’t pluck them assiduously. She seems to apply her cosmetics with a mason’s trowel. If her older daughter does truly resemble her, I had to wonder how she had found a husband.
My mother had assigned servants to wait on Voconius and Tiro. Tacitus and Julia had brought a handful of their own, as had Pompeia and Livilla. Mother’s closest companion, the slave Naomi, sat behind her, with another, younger girl to assist her.
A hired auloi player seated in one corner of the room took up her instrument, accompanied by a woman softly plucking a lyre. I have musicians in my household, but Mother said she especially wanted these two, who were gaining renown all over Rome.
The music was the signal for the servants to bring in the gustatio—lentils from Egypt, kale cooked in vinegar and salt, pickled broccoli and carrots, and snails, stewed and salted. The snails were served with our silver cochlearia. Guests could use the spoon end to scoop up the snails or the thin sharp handle to spear them.
I’ve often thought the handle of a cochlearia would make a fine murder weapon. Being so sharp and as long as a man’s hand, it would penetrate deeply—straight into the heart, for instance—with very little effort. Even if the person was as thick and heavy as Pompeia.
Before my musing could turn any darker, a final dish was placed on the tables—dormice, fattened in clay pots and roasted. Mother had outdone herself.
“There was a conversation going on when I came in,” I said, in an effort to break the tension that made the room feel as tightly wound as one of the lyre player’s strings. “What was the topic?”
“We were talking about the October Horse,” Voconius said. “I’ve never been in Rome at this time of year before, so it was my first chance to see it.”
“Wasn’t it every bit as barbaric as I told you it would be?” Tiro asked. Like most of my compatriots from the north of Italy, he has dark hair and frank, open features. One of the most jovial men I know, he’s a few years older than Voconius and I, already thickening a bit in his waist and chest.
“Oh, it was all that and more,” Voconius said, popping a piece of broccoli in his mouth. “We see animals sacrificed all the time, but I’ve never seen one fight like that horse did.”
“Sheep and oxen are docile by comparison,” Tacitus said. “Oxen have their horns to fight with, but nothing is quite as deadly as a horse’s hooves. Oxen can’t rear like a horse. A blow to the head drops them.”
“I suppose any male animal would resist,” Voconius said, hiding a smile behind his cup, “if he had any suspicion about what was going to be cut off.”
Amid the laughter that went around the table, Livilla said, “They cut off the head and the tail, don’t they?”
We men all looked at one another, waiting for someone to explain a delicate subject to the child. Tacitus, being the only married man in the group, finally said, “The word ‘tail’ is a euphemism, my dear Livilla, for the part that’s cut off. Cicero says, ‘Our ancestors called the penis a tail.’”
Livilla blinked as though thinking for a moment. “But if . . . that’s what they cut off, why . . . why do they say they cut off the tail?”
Voconius chuckled. “It might be because of the way men react anytime there’s a reference to cutting off . . . that particular part.” He squeezed his thighs together and bent over. The older women lowered their eyes and tried to hide their smiles.
Because the topic of conversation was becoming repellent to me, I cast my gaze around the room, stopping at the door as my steward, Demetrius, entered the triclinium. A stalwart fellow anyway, at that moment he looked like a man with a purpose. He came to stand behind me, leaning down.
“Excuse me, my lord,” he said softly, as I looked over my shoulder at him, “but there’s someone to see you. He says it’s urgent.”
Normally I would have been annoyed with Demetrius for intruding into dinner, but I welcomed any break in this strain of conversation. My mother, though, had heard him and did not share my enthusiasm.
“Business? At this hour?” she snapped. “Can’t it wait until morning?”
Demetrius leaned closer to me and this time whispered, “It’s Nestor, my lord. He’s in the Ovid room.”
“Tell him I’ll be right there.” I raised myself up and sat on the edge of the couch. “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please excuse me?”
Livilla had heard the name. “Nestor? Isn’t he—”
“This doesn’t concern you . . . dear. I’ll be back shortly.”
From across the room Tacitus looked up with a question on his face.
“Would you come with me?” I said. Aurora slipped my sandals on and the servant behind Tacitus assisted him.
Nestor is Regulus’ steward. His real name is Jacob. He was among the prisoners taken after the fall of Jerusalem and fell to my uncle’s lot, along with Naomi and her son Phineas, now my scribe. My uncle sold a number of those slaves, including Jacob, to a dealer who, unbeknownst to him, was working for Regulus. He would never have sold any slave to Regulus, he told me with deep regret.
Because Jacob is such a good steward, Regulus has refused to sell or emancipate him, even though he is getting on in years. Behind Regulus’ back, I have had some dealings with Jacob over the past few years. I have never asked him to spy for me, and he would refuse if I did ask him, but we talk whenever we have a chance. Since Regulus and I live within sight of one another on the Esquiline Hill, it’s easy for Jacob to stop by when he’s out on an errand.
One thing I don’t understand is Naomi’s disdain for Jacob. I would think that, being of the same race and religion, taken captive at the same time and place, they would feel some camaraderie. They did not know one another in Jerusalem and Naomi, when she will speak of him at all, calls Jacob a traitor. I once asked her if he attended her synagogue or if there was another one in Rome. She said he does not attend any synagogue, but she would not elaborate. I concluded that Jacob’s experience in the war taught him that his god was of little use and Naomi feels he has betrayed their religion, to which she adheres fervently. As one who does not believe in any god, I can respect Jacob for knowing when he has outgrown childhood myths.
I wish my mother weren’t so attracted to Judaism, due to Naomi’s influence. Phineas says my mother even offers prayers for me when she goes with them to their synagogue. I can’t try to break the friendship because it obviously means so much to my mother. Both she and Naomi lost children at birth years ago and have never quite recovered. Both have lost husbands and, a few years ago, both lost a brother. They support one another in their grief. No bond is stronger among women than shared sorrow over the men and children they’ve nurtured and lost.
We found Jacob in the room decorated with frescos based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses—Pygmalion fashioning the statue that became his beloved; Pyramus and Thisbe, the lovers who could be together only in death; and Baucis and Philemon, who asked the gods that they might die at the same time so neither would have to live without the other. I had chosen those stories because they appeal to me for several reasons, one being that they are told only by Ovid, another being my attraction to any story about a man who gets to be with the woman he loves, no matter what it costs him.
I felt a bit silly receiving a guest in my dinner garb, but he was another man’s slave, not one of my peers, and the late hour excused the need for formality. Demetrius had lit some lamps and Jacob stood as Tacitus and I entered the room and closed the door. Like all of Regulus’ slaves he was dressed better than most free men in Rome, in a light brown tunic with a dark green edging around the sleeves, neck, and hem. On a strap around his neck he carried a pouch, the sort of thing in which one sends messages. The flap was closed with a seal, no doubt Regulus’.
“My lord, thank you for seeing me,” he said. “I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour.”
“It was a relief to get away from that table. Is something wrong?”
Tacitus took a seat and I gestured for Jacob to take the remaining chair, partly in deference to his gray hair and partly out of respect for a man whose nobility of character raises him above any man he might have to call his “master.”
Jacob’s wrinkled face betrayed his agitation. “I thought I should warn you, my lord. Regulus is in an absolute rage because you won that case so handily today. He’s blaming everyone but himself. He’s threatening to withhold the donative from all his clients for the rest of the month because the ones who were in court didn’t make enough noise to sway the jury.”
“Well, they were up against some strong opposition,” Tacitus said.
Smiling, Jacob turned to Tacitus. “They certainly were. Thank you, my lord, and please convey my thanks—and the thanks of many in our household—to Julius Agricola.”
His face became somber as he directed his attention back to me. “But I’m afraid that Regulus is devising some plan to get revenge on you, my lord. In all the years I’ve known him, I have never seen him so consumed by anger. He’s sending word through his whole network of spies. You will be watched wherever you go and attacked whenever they perceive an opening. In addition, he has sent me out tonight with a message for Domitian.” He patted the leather pouch.
My breathing quickened. “Do you have any idea what’s in it?”
“No, my lord. He sealed both the message and the pouch.”
“Why is he sending you to deliver it?” Tacitus asked. “Meaning no offense, but he must have younger and faster slaves.”
“He certainly does, my lord, and I take no offense. But I am the only servant in his house whom he does not suspect of being a spy for someone else.”
“The only one he can trust not to break the seals,” I said.
Jacob put a hand on the pouch. “But I am willing to do so, my lord, if it means saving your life.”
I shook my head. “No. It would cost you yours, and I can’t have that on my conscience.”
Jacob sat back in his chair. “I would expect no other answer from you, my lord.” Relief washed over his face. Until that moment I guess he wasn’t entirely sure whether I valued my life more than his.
“Perhaps it’s just as well I’m planning to be out of town for a few days.”
“Will you be far away, my lord?”
“No, just down the Ostian Way. While Tacitus and I were on the Bay of Naples, Aurora befriended a woman who was trying to find her lost husband. She put the woman and her son up at an inn and has asked us to go down there and see what we can do for her. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days.”
“A true good Samaritan,” Jacob said with the smile of a man who has a deeper understanding than you do of something you’ve just said.
“A what?” I knew Samaritans lived north of Judaea, but they had no particular reputation for goodness, as far as I knew.
“Nothing, my lord. I was just reminded of a story I once heard, about a man who befriends someone who is bereft, puts him up at an inn, and pays for his expenses. It’s of no consequence. I’m glad you’ll be away, but I doubt that mere distance will prevent Regulus from striking. And he will hit at your family and your friends—anyone connected with you. Even without knowing what’s in this message, I fear for your safety just walking on the streets of Rome. For the safety of anyone in your familia, for that matter. I could not rest tonight until I warned you.”
“I appreciate the risk you’ve taken,” I said.
“I’m happy to do what little I can, my lord, for someone who has been so kind to those I love.” He stood with some difficulty and touched the pouch. “Now I must finish my errand and get back before I’m missed.”
“Let me see you out,” I said. “Cornelius Tacitus, please tell the others that I’ll be back in the triclinium in just a moment.”
When we reached the door and I was sure no one was in earshot, I leaned in close to Jacob. “What do you hear from Nomentum?” I had given a piece of property in that area, northeast of Rome, to Valerius Martial and a woman named Lorcis, a former slave of Regulus’ who had helped me save my mother during the eruption of Vesuvius. I’d given the farm to Lorcis, really, but I needed a man’s name to put on the deed. Martial just happened to be the father of her child and her husband, more or less.
“I was out there at the beginning of the month, my lord. Everyone is doing well.”
“Erotion is about three now, isn’t she?”
“Yes, my lord. And the prettiest, most charming child one can imagine. A little love, indeed.”
I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for them.”
Closing the door behind Jacob, I turned to look for Demetrius. I found him in the atrium, keeping a respectful distance but obviously curious about my whispered conversation with another man’s slave, at this late hour, and my gesture of friendship. I motioned for him to join me in a quiet corner.
“Is something wrong, my lord?”
“I’m not sure. Do you have any idea why my mother is acting the way she is right now? You see her and deal with her as much as I do, perhaps more. Why is she so set on me getting married?”
I can’t remember a time when I did not know Demetrius. We are usually as comfortable in one another’s presence as an older and a younger brother, but tonight he seemed not to know what to do with his hands.
“She does seem anxious lately, my lord. And I’ve noticed that she sometimes forgets things. Naomi might be able to help you understand what’s happening. If I may say so, I think she has chosen an ideal wife for you. Livilla is a lovely girl, quite demure. And her family is a good match for ours.”
“But I don’t understand why it has suddenly become so important to her that I get married. My uncle never married. You didn’t marry until you were thirty.” Demetrius had married another of my uncle’s slaves, an Egyptian, and they have two darling little girls who call me “Uncle Gaius.”
Demetrius took a deep breath. “My lord, if I may be so bold, I think you do understand. You just don’t want to admit the reason to yourself, like a man who’s blinded by the sun rising at dawn but says he can’t see it. At dawn, my lord.”
In all the years that Demetrius has served me and my family I had never felt so strong an urge to strike him. I clutched my robe to keep my hands at my sides. “You are going beyond bold. You are downright impudent.”
He lowered his head. “Forgive me, my lord. You know how much I love you and your family and how grateful I am to be able to raise my own family here. But there comes a time when some things must be said. Is that all?”
“No.” I took a deep breath to throttle my anger. “There is one more matter I need to discuss with you.”
* * * *
I’m sorry Gaius didn’t ask me to come with him and Tacitus. I feel like everybody in this room is staring at me. His mother could more accurately be said to be glaring at me. I know she despised my mother, but why do I have to inherit that hatred?
When I was younger I wrote about some adventures that Gaius and I had, watching what people were doing in the streets of Rome and around his uncle’s estates. Several times we helped his uncle investigate people’s misdoings because no one ever suspects a child of being a spy. No one will ever read those accounts, of course, and I’ve stopped doing such a childish thing. Those scrolls are locked away in a box my mother left me.
I wish I could write about how I feel about Gaius now. I can’t tell anyone, but the simple act of putting the words on a piece of papyrus would be almost as good as sharing them with another person. I have to keep my feelings a secret, and there are no secrets in a house like this. You’d think in a house so large and with so many nooks and crannies that you could hide something, but it’s not possible. Someone would find anything I wrote, and then his mother would probably insist that he sell me to a brothel. That’s where she thought my mother belonged. She never did understand how much my mother and the old man—as Gaius and I called him—loved one another. I never quite understood it, either. Gaius’ uncle was fat and snored awfully. But, like Gaius, he was a gentle man who always treated my mother with respect and love.
My feelings for Gaius have always been there, but they have been brought into sharp focus in recent days by the announcement of his engagement to Livilla. There she lies on the couch right now, her hand on the spot still warm from Gaius’ body. I can’t hate her. I have no right to hate her. I’m only a servant.
I could get up and leave—excuse myself and go to the latrina perhaps—but I won’t give his mother the satisfaction and I want to be here when Gaius returns.
* * * *
“Well, at last,” my mother said when I returned to the triclinium. “What sort of ‘business’ kept you so long at this hour?”
I reclined on the couch next to Livilla. Spearing a snail with the handle of her cochlearia, she offered it to me with a smile and I let her slip it into my mouth. Swallowing it and wiping my lips, I said, “I was making some plans.”
“Plans for the wedding, I hope,” Mother said with a smile. “I was just asking Lavinia whom we should invite.”
From the end of the couch Pompeia said, “Plinia, dear, my daughter’s name is Livilla, not Lavinia.”
Mother looked confused, even a bit frightened. “What did I say?”
“You called her Lavinia.”
“Yes, you did.” Pompeia’s voice rose in irritation. “And that’s the second time this evening you’ve done it. What’s the matter, dear?”
“I’m sorry. I know her name. Of course I do . . . . I don’t know—”
“The wine may be too strong,” I said. “With older women in attendance, I should have been more careful about that. I hope no one else is bothered.”
The arrival of the main course relieved me from saying anything else. Roasted capons, newborn rabbits, and bread were brought to the table and cut up by a servant. Dishes of garum sauce were placed where they could be reached from each couch. I saw sadness in my mother’s eyes as she picked at her food, a look of fear and confusion I had never seen before.
* * * *
I was never more relieved to see a dinner come to an end. Even with two long-time friends and my newest friend for company, with an excellent selection of dishes, and with delightful, soothing music, the evening was an ordeal. When I had bid good night to Tacitus and Julia and cautioned Tacitus to be especially watchful on his way home, I returned to the triclinium, where Mother and Naomi were supervising the cleaning up. Aurora hung behind me in the doorway.
I waved the other servants out. “Mother, I need to talk with you. In private.”
Naomi made no movement to leave. Mother nodded toward Aurora. “Does ‘in private’ mean that she’s going to be here?”
“If Naomi stays, then Aurora stays.”
Mother set her jaw. “That’s the way it will be then.”
When the others were gone, I said, “I’m going to be away for a few days, along with Aurora and Tacitus.”
Mother crossed her arms. “Humph! Of course with those two. Where are you going this time?”
“We have some unfinished business on the road to Ostia. It’s no concern of yours. By the time I return I expect you to be in Misenum, at least until the new year. Demetrius has been instructed to oversee your packing.”
The dismay on her face pained me. If it had not been for the specter of Regulus, I would have sent her to Laurentum, a place closer to Rome and one I know she loves. Now, if I owned any more distant property, I would be sending her there. There had to be some outer limit to Regulus’ web of spies.
“I hate Misenum,” she said. “The volcano. I won’t go.”
“If you refuse, I’ve instructed Demetrius to tie you up and throw you in the back of a wagon.”
She looked like she wanted to laugh.
“I’m not joking, Mother. Those were my direct orders to him.”
She clutched the front of my robe. “Why are you doing this, Gaius? If you want to throw me out, why can’t I go to Laurentum?”
“I’m not throwing you out, Mother. I need for you to be someplace safe for a while.”
“Why do I need to be safe? Has your meddling into other people’s affairs endangered us?”
For once I found the courage to shake my finger in her face. “No, Mother. The assistance I rendered Pompeia—at your request—has infuriated Regulus. I’m not sure how he’s going to retaliate, and I need time to sort through some things. You’ve put me in an . . . awkward position by arranging this marriage.”
“But you need to get married before it’s too late.” It was as though she hadn’t even heard the first part of what I’d said.
“Too late for what?”
“For you to have children.” Her voice rose with an edge of desperation.
“There’s plenty of time for me to have children, Mother. Most men my age are just beginning to think about getting married. Tacitus was the only man at dinner who’s married.”
“Oh, and a fine example he is.” She turned her head and spat. “You need to be getting married. Having a child can be difficult. You know I lost my first one, and Tacitus’ wife lost hers. Even when the child is healthy, the birth can be taxing on the mother, sometimes even fatal.”
“Mother, I fully expect to get married and produce an heir, just not yet and, preferably, not with Livilla.”
“You need to be married before you become . . . distracted.” She looked straight at Aurora. “Lavinia is an excellent choice.”
“Mother, her name is Livilla. Why do you keep calling her Lavinia?”
She rubbed her hand over her forehead. “Did I say that? You must be mistaken.”
“We all heard you.”
Mother looked for confirmation to Naomi, who nodded slowly, reluctantly. “I don’t know, dear. I guess I’m worried that you won’t go through with this marriage.”
“You’ve made the promise. I’ll fulfill it.” I knew that I could simply refuse, but, since the eruption and the death of her brother, my mother has been frail. I didn’t want to cause her any more anguish. “I just wish you had let me have some choice in the matter.”
“Why don’t you want to marry . . . her?” She waved her hand at the door where Livilla had departed.
“She’s your choice, Mother, not mine.”
She locked her eyes on mine. “And who would your choice be?”
I managed to hold her gaze without flinching. “The ‘who’ is not the issue. I simply don’t want anyone forcing me to choose right now.”
“Do you hate me because of this, Gaius? Is that why you’re sending me away?”
“No, Mother, of course not. How could I hate the woman who bore me and loves me? I just need time to think. You do too. I’ll come down to Misenum for the Saturnalia. Perhaps by then we’ll both see things more clearly.”
Mother threw her hands up in surrender. “I’m going to the latrina. Naomi, are you coming?” She started for the door.
“I’ll join you at your room in a moment, my lady.”
Naomi stepped close to me and I knew she wanted to say something I would not be happy to hear. “My lord, your mother—”
“Now, Naomi!” Mother snapped from the doorway.
Naomi looked from my mother to me and back, her loyalty split between her legal owner—whom she was bound to obey—and her closest friend. “We need to talk, my lord.”
“I will not discuss it any further. She’s going to Misenum, and I guess that means you’ll be going as well.”
“I will not leave her side, my lord. You know that.”
“Yes, I do, and I thank you for it.”
* * * *
I wish I were not the cause of so much dissension between Gaius and his mother. She is as kind and forbearing to the other servants as any Roman matron could be. She and Naomi are as close as sisters, but she has disliked me since the day my mother and I were brought into this house as slaves when I was seven.
She has never liked the close relationship that Gaius and I have shared. When I came here, I did not speak enough Latin or Greek to understand her, but I knew she didn’t like me. Through my friendship with Gaius I learned the languages. He insisted that I have lessons from his tutor along with him. Sometimes I forget that he lost his father when he was even younger than I was. Even though his uncle and several other men have raised him well, I believe he missed that bond with his father, just as I did.
But his father merely died. He didn’t sell his wife and child into slavery, as my father did.
For as long as I’ve been in this house I have tried to be a loyal servant, to return the kind treatment I have—for the most part—received. I know I have special privileges. Gaius allows me the liberty of a free person. Our steward, Demetrius, is not permitted to inspect my belongings, as he does with the other servants, nor is Gaius’ mother. I do not have to share a room with anyone, as most of the other servants do.
By the time I started my monthlies I assumed Gaius and I would eventually have the kind of relationship his uncle had with my mother. The old man never married. He and my mother were content to live as man and wife, in spite of snide comments from his friends and especially from his sister, Gaius’ mother. Her dislike of my mother has been shifted onto me. Lately she sometimes even calls me Monica. I can endure that, as long as I have the assurance that I will be with Gaius.
But now plans are in progress for a wedding, possibly soon after the Saturnalia. Gaius has told me he doesn’t want to marry the girl, but his mother is insisting, more adamantly than seems necessary. He’s a good son, so he’ll do what she wants. I don’t know what that means for me. It has made me think about being a slave in ways that I never have before. I didn’t have to because I never felt like a slave the whole time I was growing up here.
And then, five years ago, Vesuvius erupted and Gaius’ uncle died. In a single day Gaius became a man and my master, no longer my childhood friend and the nephew of my master. He inherited me along with the rest of his uncle’s property. Most of the time I don’t think of myself in those terms, but I am his property, in the same way as his lyre or the scrolls in the library.