It was a summer of glorious triumph for the mighty Roman Republic. Her invincible legions had brought all foreign enemies to their knees. But in Rome there was no peace. The streets were flooded with the blood of murdered citizens, and there were rumors of more atrocities to come. Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger was convinced a conspiracy existed to overthrow the government-a sinister cabal that could only be destroyed from within. But admission into the traitorous society of evil carried a grim price: the life of Decius's closest friend...and maybe his own.
About the Author
John Maddox Roberts is the author of numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his successful historical SPQR mystery series. SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion was published in 2010. He lives in New Mexico with his wife.
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SPQR II: The Catiline Conspiracy
By John Maddox Roberts
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
That summer we received the news that Mithridates was dead. It was hard to credit at first. Mithridates had been a thorn in our side for so long that he seemed like a force of nature, as immutable as sunrise. Only the oldest citizens could remember a time when Mithridates had not been there to plague us. He died old and friendless, somewhere in the Cimmerian Bosphorus, plotting yet another sally against Rome, this time an invasion of Italy by way of the Danube. He was the most consistent of enemies and we would miss him.
The news came in the midst of a splendid summer, one of the finest in living memory. It was a time of peace and prosperity. The civil wars of Marius and Sulla were fast fading from memory, the horrors of their murders and proscriptions seeming to belong to another age. Everywhere, Rome was victorious. In the East, Pompey was the overwhelming victor. He had smashed the Mediterranean pirates and then he had gone on to subdue Asia, Pontus and Armenia, robbing Lucullus of the final glory for which he had fought so long and so honorably. Crete had been subdued after a long and desultory campaign. Who was left to threaten Rome? Carthage had been exterminated generations before, its ruins plowed under and sown with salt so that nothing would grow there. The East, from Cilicia to Palestine, was under the Roman heel, only remote Parthia remaining independent. To the south, Egypt was a joke, fat and indolent as an overfed crocodile. Africa and Numidia were muzzled. In the west, Spain was a taxpaying province. To the north were some Gallic tribes that had not yet been civilized, wearing long hair and trousers and providing the comic playwrights with good material for laughs.
The answer, of course, was that we Romans would ourselves provide the enemy. We were poised on the brink of yet another series of civil wars, convulsions so vast that they would be fought all over the world. The wars were still years in the future, but as I look back upon it, that was the last summer of the old Republic. It died in the fall.
None of that was apparent at the time, though. There are those who would argue that it never truly died, that our esteemed First Citizen actually restored the Republic. That is the talk of fools and toadies. I am now too old to care what the First Citizen thinks of me, so I will describe these events as I lived them. If his ancestor, the Divine Julius, comes out looking less than godlike, it is because I knew Caius Julius back then and the First Citizen didn't. Hardly surprising, considering that the First Citizen was born that year. Fitting, in a way.
None of these weighty matters troubled us that summer. The most serious political controversy of the day was the action of the Praetor Otho. Four years before, as Tribune of the People, he had introduced a law reserving fourteen rows of seats in the theater for the equites, the moneyed-but-not-noble class. Now, as praetor, he upheld it. There were no riots, but he was hissed every time he went to the theater.
The great event of the season was the triumph of Lucullus. He had returned to Italy almost four years earlier and had petitioned the senate for permission to celebrate a triumph in recognition of his victories over Mithridates and Tigranes. Pompey had manipulated the Tribunes to block this, but Lucullus had finally been granted permission. Until that time, he had been compelled, by ancient custom, to dwell outside the walls of Rome, where he had company. Quintus Marcius Rex, the victor of Cilicia, and a kinsman of mine, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, victor of Crete, were likewise blocked by Pompey's adherents from celebrating their hard-earned triumphs. Pompey had a simple interpretation of natural law: all the glory in the world belonged to him, and anybody else who got any was guilty of thieving.
The triumphal procession was a splendid one, for Lucullus had smashed some great armies and had taken immense booty at Tigranocerta and Artaxata and Nisibis. I watched this triumph wind its way into the Forum, from my place atop the Rostra, so I had a good view. First came the trumpeters, sounding shrill, snarling blasts on their instruments. Behind them came the standard-bearers of Lucullus's legions. These, like all soldiers in the procession, wore only their military boots and belts in token of their status. Armed soldiers were forbidden to enter the city by ancient law. After the standard-bearers came a float bearing a colossal reclining image of Jupiter with white sacrificial bulls in tow. Then there were more floats carried by soldiers, bearing great paintings of the battles. Then came more soldiers, all in snowy new tunics, gilded wreaths on their heads, palms of victory in their hands, draped with flower wreaths, showered with flower petals by pretty slave girls, accompanied by drummers and flute-players who kept up a shattering din.
Then there were trophy floats bearing the captured arms of the defeated enemy. These were artfully constructed to resemble the impromptu trophies set up on the battlefields in the old days, when the soldiers lopped the limbs from a nearby tree and hung it with captured weapons. Each of these floats bore such a tree, glittering with swords and spear-points, brilliant with polished armor and colorful with painted shields. Plumed helmets were scattered about among sheaves of arrows. Seated all around the bases of the trophies were dejected prisoners, bound and haltered. Considering the lapse in time between the victories and the triumph, these prisoners may have been hired stand-ins. After the trophies came yet more prisoners, more sacrificial animals, a whole train of musicians, and then the spectacle everyone was waiting for: the loot.
The gasps and cheers that greeted the plunder of Tigranocerta drowned out even the racket of the musicians. There were platters of solid gold, jeweled cups, chains of silver, carvings of ivory, chests decorated with amber, precious vases, crowns, scepters, fabulous works of art taken by the eastern monarchs from the Greek colonies. There were even signs painted on white wood giving the figures for ransoms and the sale of prisoners as slaves. There were bolts and heaps of brightly dyed silk, a fabric worth far more than its weight in gold. There were plain gold and silver bars, as large as building bricks and enough of them to build a medium-sized temple. All this was greeted with ecstatic outcries of Bacchic intensity. Say what you will about Romans as conquerors, we have always taken an honest delight in plunder, theft and rapine. It is one part of our souls that hypocrisy has never touched.
Finally, almost last in line, came the man of the hour, Lucius Licinius Lucullus Ponticus himself. The soldiers had already marched out of the city and had the gates shut behind them, because by yet another ancient law, a general and his soldiers could not be in the city at the same time. He looked like an Etruscan statue, dressed in a triumphal robe of Tyrian purple. Below his wreath of gilded laurel, his face was painted red, as were his hands which held a scepter and an olive branch. He rode in a gilded chariot drawn by four white horses and behind him stood a slave who, from time to time, whispered in his ear: "Remember, thou art mortal."
Last of all came one man, the most distinguished of the prisoners. Since Lucullus had not captured Mithridates, and Tigranes had made a deal with Pompey, this honor fell to one of the generals of Tigranocerta. The chariot rounded the Rostra and began its climb to the Capitol. At that time, the final prisoner was led away to the prison below the Capitol, where he was strangled. I could feel some sympathy for the man. I was clapped in the prison once, and it was an unpleasant place to occupy, much less to die in.
Only one thing marred the proceedings, and that was the condition of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, where Lucullus was to sacrifice a bull upon being told of the prisoner's death. Two years before, lightning had struck the temple, and the haruspices had been consulted concerning the omen. They had pondered and duly proclaimed that the old statue of Jupiter must be replaced by a new, larger statue, this one facing east, toward the Forum. Once in place, this would aid the Senate and People in detecting plots against the state. On the day of Lucullus's triumph, the statue still stood outside the temple, where a huge hole had been made in the wall. Carefully and painfully, an inch at a time, it was being moved toward the hole.
The reason for my privileged position atop the Rostra was my office. I was quaestor that year, the lowest of the elected officials. Other quaestores acted as personal assistants to the Consuls, or traveled about Italy and even the overseas Roman holdings conducting inquiries and investigations, or at least got to go to Ostia to oversee the grain shipments. Not I. I, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, was assigned to the treasury. This meant that I spent my days in the Temple of Saturn overseeing the public slaves and freedmen who did the actual work. They would have a lot of work to do, after the triumph. Lucullus was to donate a handsome proportion of the plunder to the treasury and the military standards would be returned to their place of honor in the temple, until such time as those legions should be reactivated.
As I descended from the Rostra to the pavement, I had only pleasant prospects before me, always excepting my dismal duties in the treasury. As a public official, I was invited to the great banquet Lucullus would host that evening, following which he would sponsor several days of games in gratitude to the gods and in honor of his ancestors. There would be plays and races and combats and feasting, with an extra dole of grain, oil and wine to the public. Lucullus would dedicate a new temple to Minerva, which was his gift to the city.
And, it was a beautiful day. Rome was not a beautiful city, but the Forum with its magnificent public buildings and temples was the most majestic setting in the world, and that day it was draped in huge wreaths of flowers and was carpeted with the petals that had been strewn by the slaves and cast down upon the procession by people standing on balconies and rooftops. Everywhere, the city smelled of flowers, of incense rising from the temples, of the perfumes lavishly splashed on everyone at these celebrations.
It was with a light heart that I crossed the Forum to see to the storing of the gold and the standards. Official business was forbidden on a day of triumph, but an exception was naturally made in this case. I passed the Temple of Janus, that most Roman of deities whose two faces gazed out through the open front and back doors of his temple. The doors were shut only when no Roman soldiers were at war anywhere in the world. I did not know what the temple looked like with its doors shut, since they had never been closed in my lifetime. They had not been closed, in fact, since the reign of King Numa Pompilius, who had built the temple more than six hundred years before. There was a legend that the doors were closed for a few days during his reign. With a history like that, it is no wonder that we grew so adept at warfare.
At the Temple of Saturn I pretended to supervise while an old state freedman named Minicius, who had spent most of his life in the temple, performed the actual task. My own contribution had been to unlock the doors, since I was the quaestor entrusted with the keys that day. While the endless, sweating procession of slaves carried the loot into the treasury chambers below the temple, I watched the soldiers carefully and reverently place the standards in their holders, to be watched over by the age-blackened image of Saturn.
One of the soldiers, satisfied that he had placed a gleaming eagle properly, walked unsteadily over to me. He was very young, slightly drunk, and flower petals stuck to his sweaty arms.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, his voice thick with Gallic accent. "Could you tell me why the old gentleman there" — he jerked his chin toward the image of Saturn — "is wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy?"
I contemplated the statue. I had known it all my life, and it had never occurred to me how strange it must look to someone who had never before been to Rome, wrapped as it was in woolen bands.
"They are supposed to prevent him from leaving Roman territory," I informed the youth. "They are only loosened during Saturnalia."
"Might as well," the boy said. "Everybody else gets pretty loose then."
Just then Minicius came up from the basement, a scandalized look on his face. "You men should be back in your camp!" he said. "Soldiers aren't supposed to be in the city while the triumphator is within the pomerium!"
"Easy, old fellow," said a hard-faced veteran. "These are the sacred emblems of the legions and we have to see them stored properly."
"We promise not to overthrow the state while we're here," said another.
"Let it go, Minicius," I said. "Our soldiers deserve a little license on their day of triumph." The men saluted and left, respecting my aristocratic grammar if nothing else.
"Those are soldiers of Rome?" Minicius said. "I didn't hear a City accent among the lot."
I shrugged. "Except for officers, the legions are all provincials now. They've been that way since Gaius Marius. What City man ever takes service with the eagles any longer?"
"You need to sign for this next load, Quaestor," he reminded me. As we walked back toward the basement stair, a group of slaves came in through the front portal and, confused by the sudden dimness, went to the right, toward a low doorway in the wall.
"Not that way, you idiots!" Minicius shouted. "The treasury's this way!" He pointed to the stair that lay almost beneath Saturn's wool-wrapped feet.
"What's through that door?" I asked. I was not terribly familiar with the temple, except for the parts open to the public during festivals.
"Just stairs leading down to some old storerooms," Minicius told me. "Probably haven't been used in a hundred years. We ought to brick it up."
We went down into the basement and I watched while the treasure was put away and then signed for it. When everyone was gone except for Minicius, I locked the iron doors and we went back up the stairs.
Outside, evening was coming on. But the days of summer are long, and it was still bright. The city was still rollicking with its holiday cheer. It was almost time for the banquet to begin, and my stomach was reminding me that I had not eaten all day in anticipation of the feast.
The banquet was to be held in the beautiful garden adjoining the new temple Lucullus was to dedicate the next day. I descended the steps and turned in the direction of the garden. I saw a man walking toward me through the rejoicing throng. He wore a purple-striped senator's tunic and his feet were bare. I groaned. A Senator's tunic coupled with bare feet meant one thing: Marcus Porcius Cato, the most formidably boring man in Roman politics. He attributed all the ills of the day to our failure to live as simply as had our ancestors. He regarded himself as the exemplar and embodiment of antique virtue. The early Romans had not worn shoes, so he didn't either. He had just won election as Tribune for the next year, hinting all the way that it would be unpatriotic and an insult to our ancestors not to vote for him. He gave me a good old-Roman salute.
"Hail, Quaestor! It is good to see an official who is ready to look after his duties even on a holiday."
I jerked a thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the temple. "There are about fifty million sesterces in there with my name on them. When I'm out of office next year, some fool is sure to prosecute me for embezzlement if I can't account for every last copper as."
"Most conscientious," Cato said, utterly immune to irony. "I am on my way to the banquet of Lucullus. Will you accompany me?"
With no graceful way out, I agreed, keeping pace with him in my decadent, degenerate sandals. He stepped out at the standard legionary pace, which was decidedly more vigorous than my customary urban amble.
"It was a splendid triumph, splendid!" Cato said. "I fought tirelessly in the Senate to obtain this honor for Lucullus."
Excerpted from SPQR II: The Catiline Conspiracy by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 1991 John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The second adventure of Decius Caecilius Metellus, and a terrrific read. In the course of an investigation that starts to look a lot bigger than it was starting out, Decius worms his way into the circle of the traitor Catalina. Interesting to contrast this to another version of the same conspiracy by another writer of Roman mystery novels -- Stephen Saylor. This one is much, much dryer, and (not surprisingly) funnier.
Good for fans of Roman history, not so much for mystery lovers