"There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favours for friends. Don't work with relatives. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive.
"Will I never learn?"
In Ancient Rome, the number of slaves was far greater than that of free citizens. As a result, often the people Romans feared most were the "enemies at home," the slaves under their own roofs. Because of this, Roman law decreed that if the head of a household was murdered at home, and the culprit wasn't quickly discovered, his slavesall of them, guilty or notwere presumed responsible and were put to death. Without exception.
When a couple is found dead in their own bedroom and their house burglarized, some of their household slaves know what is about to happen to them. They flee to the Temple of Ceres, which by tradition is respected as a haven for refugees. This is where Flavia Albia comes in. The authorities, under pressure from all sides, need a solution. Albia, a private informer just like her father, Marcus Didius Falco, is asked to solve the murders, in this mystery from Lindsey Davis.
About the Author
LINDSEY DAVIS is the author of The New York Times bestselling series of historical mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Even before I started, I knew I should say no.
There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives. Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive.
The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?
* * *
One warm, starry June night in the city of Rome, burglars invaded a ground-floor apartment on the Esquiline Hill. A large quantity of fine domestic silverware was taken, which people assumed was the primary target. The middle-aged couple who rented the fashionable suite had married only recently, which made what happened to them more poignant. After the robbers left, their bodies were found on the marital bed, amid signs of violent struggle. Both had been strangled.
The dead couple were wealthy enough to merit an investigation, a privilege that was generally thought too good for the poor, though it was normally available to victims who had left behind influential friends, as was the case here. Inquiries were first assigned to a vigiles officer, Titianus of the Second Cohort. In fairness, Titianus was no more inept than most vigiles. He knew that two plus two made four—unless he happened to be preoccupied with watching a good cockfight, when he might inadvertently say five. But he had a decent record of arresting pickpockets in the Market of Livia. For about two hours he even thought that trying to solve a double murder was exciting. Then reality set in.
Titianus found it impossible to identify the thief or thieves. After asking around a bit, he turned his attention to the household, declaring that this must be an inside job. Inevitably his gaze fell on the owners’ freedmen and slaves. The freedmen were mature, articulate and well organized; that was how they had managed to gain their liberty and how they now bamboozled Titianus. The slaves were more vulnerable: younger and naive, or else older and plain dim. Nobody ever said any of them had threatened their master and mistress, but to a law officer in Rome any culprits were better than none and with slaves no real proof was necessary. They could be accused, tortured, prosecuted and executed on simple probability. Titianus put on a clean tunic to look good, then went and announced to his cohort tribune that he had the answer. The slaves did it.
The slaves got wind of their plight. They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.
The good thing about such systematic capital punishment, occurring in public of course, was that it helped make other slaves, of whom there were hundreds of thousands in Rome, more well behaved. The proportion of masters to slaves was very small, so nobody wanted this big slave population to get the idea of staging a rebellion. In our city it had been decided not to dress slaves in any distinguishing way, because then they might realize the power of their own numbers.
Many owners lived in constant fear of slaves turning against them. You cannot batter loyalty into a sullen, captive foreigner and neither can you even guarantee that kindly treatment will gain their gratitude. In Rome, executing slaves who betrayed their masters was therefore extremely popular. At least it was among the slave-owning classes.
* * *
Terrified, and with good reason, some of the accused slaves bolted from the elegant Esquiline house and took refuge a distance away at the Temple of Ceres. By tradition, this monument on the Aventine Hill offered a haven for refugees. They could claim sanctuary, be kept safe and even hope to be fed.
In theory, the authorities fostered the great temple’s famous role as a focus of liberty and protector of the desperate. However, nobody wants to take fine ideals too far.
In a swift, panic-stricken meeting just after dawn, the issue of how to get rid of the fugitives was handed to a magistrate whose duties gave him close connections to the temple. His name was Manlius Faustus, one of that year’s plebeian aediles, and I knew him. I liked his methods. He always stayed calm.
Charged with solving the problem, Faustus solemnly agreed with the Temple of Ceres authorities that it was important to take the correct action. This situation could easily turn ugly. They wanted to avoid censure. The public were shouting for a solution, preferably bloody. The Daily Gazette had already asked for a quotable comment and was about to feature the story in its scandal section; publication would fire lurid Forum gossip. The unseen eye of the emperor was probably on the Temple. Faustus had been handed a rather hot platter here.
As this dutiful man tried to come up with ideas, he walked to a bar called the Stargazer. There, while he pondered the meager choice for breakfast, he ran into me.
Copyright © 2014 by Lindsey Davis