His two years of aedileship over, Decius is ready for his next adventure. He would rather do anything than join the war with Caesar, so he and Hermes find themselves on a mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. They set off with shoddy ships and sailors to the island of Cyprus, where a young Cleopatra is staying. Between her impressive crew and the ex-pirate Ariston providing insider knowledge of that cutthroat occupation, Decius thinks he stands a good chance of bringing himself some glory.
That would be too simple though. The ruler of the island is murdered and Decius has a sacred duty to find and punish the guilty party. As he investigates world trade, the island history, and the new kind of piracy plaguing the waters, he is finding connections more menacing than he had ever imagined possible.
Roberts crafts another skillful mystery, this one fervently pulsing with the collision of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian interests.
About the Author
John Maddox Roberts is the author of numerous works of science fiction and fantasy in addition to his well-loved SPQR mysteries. He and his wife live in New Mexico.
Read an Excerpt
SPQR IX: The Princess and the Pirates
By John Maddox Roberts
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
Let me say at the outset that Cleopatra was not beautiful. People of deficient wit fancy that only a woman of the most extravagant beauty could have bagged both Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, the most powerful Romans of their day. It is true that both men had a taste for beauty, but men of great power and wealth have their pick of beautiful women and it took far more than mere beauty for the queen of Egypt to enthrall that pair of jaded old warriors, each of them a long-service veteran of the campaigns of Venus as well as those of Mars.
Of course, it didn't hurt that she was heiress to the most fabulously wealthy nation in the world. For the riches of Egypt even the most discriminating connoisseur of lovely women might overlook an extra half inch of nose, eyes a little too close set, a receding chin, or protruding front teeth, or, for that matter, a hunched back, bowed legs, and lion-faced leprosy.
Not that Cleopatra was ugly. Far from it. She was quite attractive. It was just that the qualities for which great men loved her were not entirely those of the flesh nor even those of her great wealth. The simple fact was that any normal man who stood in her presence for a few minutes loved her desperately if she wanted him to. No woman ever had greater control over men's feelings toward herself. Whether it was grand passion, fatherly fondness, doglike loyalty, or fear and trembling, if Cleopatra wanted it from you, she got it.
And love for Cleopatra was not the infatuation of a youth for some shapely, empty-headed girl. When Cleopatra wished a man to love her, he loved her as Paris loved Helen, without limits and forsaking all judgment, all sense of proportion or decency. It was a serious illness from which even the gods could not deliver him.
But I get ahead of myself. That was years later. When I first encountered Princess Cleopatra she was just a child, although a remarkable one. That was back during the consulship of Metellus Celer and Lucius Afranius, when I was an envoy to the court of Ptolemy Auletes at Alexandria.
The second time was a few years afterward on Cyprus.
"Why," I asked, "can I not stand for praetor immediately? I've served as aedile for two full years, which is unprecedented, and for which the people of Rome owe me not just a praetorship but the best propraetorian province on the map. Everybody loved my Games, I got the sewers scoured out, I fixed the streets, rooted out corruption in the building trades —"
"You are not going to stand for praetor just yet," Father said, "because we are already supporting our candidates for the next elections, as we agreed before we knew your aedileship would be prolonged for an extra year. Besides, the people prefer their praetorian candidates to have put in more time with the legions than you can boast."
"You're just trying to put off returning to Gaul," Creticus said. He was perfectly correct.
"And why not?" I answered. "Nobody is getting any glory out of that war except Caesar. You'd think he was fighting all alone up there to read his dispatches to the Senate."
"The people don't require glory," Father said. "They require service. They're not going to hand imperium to a man who has no more than five or six years with the eagles to his credit."
"They elected Cicero," I muttered.
"Cicero is a New Man," said my kinsman Nepos. "He reached the highest offices on his reputation as a lawyer because he's a novelty. From a Metellus the people expect what we've given them for centuries: leadership in the Senate and on the battlefield."
It was, as you might have guessed, a family conference. We Metelli got together from time to time to plot strategy. We fancied ourselves the greatest power bloc in the Senate and the Popular Assemblies and we did control quite a few votes, although Metellan power had declined from its peak of a generation previously, just after the dictatorship of Sulla.
Creticus laced his fingers over his substantial paunch and studied a flight of birds overhead, as if searching for omens. "As it happens," he said, "we've really nothing to gain by sending you back to Caesar."
My political antennae stood up and quivered. "A shift in family policy, I take it?"
"Everyone feels that Caesar already has too much power and prestige," Nepos asserted. He was a longtime supporter of Pompey and detested Caesar. His "everyone" meant most people of good birth. Caesar, despite his patrician birth, was overwhelmingly popular with the commons, whereas we Metelli, though plebeian, were of the aristocratic party.
"Still," Father said, "there is important military work to be done that doesn't involve fighting the Gauls. Work that can be proclaimed to your credit when you stand for praetor and, in time, consul."
"It would be glorious to make the Parthians return the eagles they won from Crassus," I said, "but since everyone who can lift a sword is in Gaul these days, I don't see how I —"
"Forget about land warfare," Creticus said. "There has been a resurgence of piracy in the East. It must be put down, and quickly."
My hair commenced to prickle. "A naval command? But duumvir is an imperium appointment, and I haven't held —"
"You won't be duumvir," Father said, "just commodore of a flotilla of cutters. No triremes, nothing bigger than a Liburnian."
My stomach knotted at the prospect of a sea command. "I thought Pompey stamped out the pirates."
"Nobody eliminates piracy any more than they eliminated banditry," Creticus told me. "Pompey crushed the floating nation that controlled the sea in the old days. But we've been distracted in the West for some time now, and a new batch of nautical rogues are taking advantage of the fact. It's time to crush them now before they build back up to full fleet status."
I didn't have much time to think about it. I had to do something, and the prospect of fighting in the dark Gaulish forests was infinitely depressing.
"Is the command conferred by the Popular Assemblies?" I asked, resigned and now considering the votes.
"It's a senatorial appointment," Father said. "But one of our tribunes will submit it to the consilium plebis, and it will pass without resistance. You are a popular man, and Clodius is dead. It will be to your credit that you've chosen an ugly, thankless task like pirate hunting instead of a chance for glory and loot in Gaul."
"Speaking of loot —" I began.
"If you can find where they keep their hoard," Creticus said, "well, it would be a nice gesture if you returned some of it to the rightful owners. Of course, in most cases that would be impossible. A respectable contribution to the public treasury will ensure a favorable reception from the Senate. Aside from that, why not help yourself?"
"When you stand for praetor," Nepos said, "it will go all the better if you're standing beside a pillar decorated with the rams of ships you've captured." (This was the traditional way to commemorate a naval victory.)
I sighed. "I want to take Titus Milo with me."
Father slapped the table in front of him. "Absolutely not! Milo is in exile. He's in disgrace."
"He used to be a fleet rower," I said. "He knows ships and sailors, and he wouldn't need any official appointment. He'd be of enormous help to me."
"As long as he stays away from Rome there should be no problem," Scipio said. "And he'll probably be happy for a chance to get away from Fausta." This raised a chuckle. My old friend and his wife were on the outs. She was the Dictator's daughter, and much of Milo's charm in her eyes had lain in his incredible rise from street-level gangster to the praetorship. His equally precipitate fall had failed to win her approval. He had had the consulship in his grasp, and now he was twiddling his thumbs on his estate in Lanuvium.
"This is what comes of allowing the scum and riffraff of the streets to participate in politics," grumbled Father, who had helped and protected a number of such men himself when it suited him politically. After all, somebody has to do the dirty work for aristocrats who cannot afford to soil their own hands.
"Where is my base of operations to be?" I asked.
"Cyprus," said Creticus. "Consult with Cato. He can brief you on the place. He spent better than a year sorting out their political mess."
"Who is in charge there now?" I asked.
"One Aulus Silvanus," Creticus said.
"Silvanus? Isn't he one of Gabinius's cronies?" At one time Gabinius had been a rival to Caesar and Pompey for military glory, but his promising career had come to little, and he'd been tried for extortion shortly before this time. Despite a spirited defense by Cicero, he'd been found guilty and exiled. When Cicero couldn't get you off, you had to be as guilty as Oedipus.
"He is, and report has Gabinius living in comfortable retirement on Cyprus," Scipio affirmed.
"It sounds cozy. When do I depart?"
"As soon as the proper senatorial documents can be drawn up. The Tribunician vote will follow automatically so you needn't wait for that." Father was as abrupt as usual.
"Very well," I said, sourly. "I'll begin making arrangements."
As I Walked back through the city, my mood was moderately elevated. This appointment did not displease me nearly as much as I pretended. Like most Romans I abhorred the very thought of sea duty, but this was one of the rare occasions when I was looking forward to getting away from Rome.
My aedileship had won me great popularity, but it had been incredibly burdensome and expensive. I was heavily in debt and would be for years if I didn't do something about it. Caesar had offered to cover all my debts, but I would not be indebted to him. He had covered a portion of them, ostensibly as a gift to his niece, Julia, but in reality because I had extricated him from some difficulties, so we were even there. I owed him no political favors. A quick, profitable campaign against these pirates might just solve all my fiscal problems, if I could avoid drowning or death in battle in the course of it.
And I was tired of Rome. The place was quiet for the first time in years. With the death of Clodius and the exile of Milo, the powerful gangs that had enjoyed aristocratic support were leaderless. During his near-dictatorial sole consulship Pompey had scourged the City of its disorderly elements, setting up courts of savage disposition. The thugs quickly heeded the attractions of faraway places or took refuge in the gladiatorial schools from which most of them had come in the first place. The ones too slow to take the hint found themselves testing their pugnacity unarmed against lions, bears, and bulls in the Games.
Almost for the first time in my memory, Romans walked the streets in safety and nobody went armed. People went about their business in an orderly fashion, obeyed the rulings of the curule aediles, and were even polite to one another. Foreign merchants arrived in unprecedented numbers, knowing their lives and goods would be safe.
For years I had complained of the disorder of the City, and now that it was gone, I found that I missed it. All the peace and quiet seemed unnatural. I did not expect it to last. My fellow citizens were, after all, Romans; and we have always been an unruly, obstreperous lot. Forget the pretty myths about Aeneas and the brothers Romulus and Remus. The sober fact is that Rome was founded by outcasts and bandits from a dozen Latin tribes, with a few Etruscans, Sabines, and Oscans thrown in for good measure if the names of some of our older families are anything to go by. Our power and fortunes have waxed mightily, but time has done little to improve our disposition.
Getting across the City was a slow process for me because I was extremely popular and had to stop and exchange greetings from citizens every few steps. Romans felt no awe toward their ruling classes in those days, and some of the more old-fashioned sort were liable to run up and plant a big, garlicky kiss on your face if they were especially fond of you. This was a major failure of the well-known Roman gravitas.
I was pleased to note that the last signs of the rioting that had followed the funeral of Clodius were gone. The fires had been extensive, and the whole City was smudged and stank of soot for months afterward. Rome wasn't to see its like again until Antonius delivered his famous rabble-rouser over the corpse of Caesar many years later. Roman funerals were livelier than most peoples.
My mind was occupied with the usual problems that came with a foreign posting: what to take, what business to settle, how to break the news to my wife, that sort of thing. She should be happy enough about this, I thought hopefully. I wasn't going to a province at war, so I could take her along. Cyprus was reputed to be a beautiful place. It had, until recently, been home to a royal court, so she would find company congenial to her patrician station. Surely Julia would be happy with this posting.
Julia was not happy.
"Cyprus?" she cried, with a mixture of incredulity, scorn, and disgust. "After all you've done, they've sent you chasing pirates in Cyprus? They owe you better than that!"
"An ex-aedile is owed nothing at all. Technically, the office isn't even on the cursus honorum."
She made an eloquent gesture of dismissal. "That old political fiction! Everyone knows the aedileship makes or breaks a political career. Yours should have earned you a dictatorship! Cyprus! It's an insult!"
We were so alone in the triclinium you'd never have guessed that the house was packed with slaves, hers and mine. They knew to keep their distance when she was in one of these moods. She was a Julian and a Caesar, and at times like this it showed.
"If you can't stand immediately for praetor, you ought to return to Gaul. It's there that reputations are to be made."
"Caesar's officers tend to get killed for the sake of Caesar's reputation," I pointed out.
"Caesar likes you. He would make you a legatus."
"The Senate has to approve legati, not that Caesar cares much about Senate approval these days. And it would make me an enemy of Labienus, which I don't need. He's an unforgiving man."
"Labienus is nothing. Caesar is a far greater man, and soon he will be the only man who counts for anything. You should be with him."
I didn't like the way this conversation was going. "In Cyprus," I said, "there's an opportunity to accumulate some real wealth."
"That would be nice for a change," she admitted. "We could clear off all our debts." Her brow unfurrowed as the advantages began to sink in. Like all her family she was intensely political, but the charms of solvency made a powerful lure. "And Cyprus does have a famed social life."
"And with this service behind me, with a tidy treasure to boot, I'll stand for praetor next elections, You'll be a praetor's wife for a year, then I'll be posted to a really valuable province like Sicily or Africa. Wouldn't you like that?" Plus I'd be staying out of the legions. But I didn't say that. She would have thought it unworthy of a Roman official.
"Well, if it's unavoidable." Then she turned to the practicalities. "How are we to arrange travel? I'll need to take my personal servants, no more than five or six, and my wardrobe, and —" this went on for some time.
"I'll take a fast Liburnian as soon as I can," I told her. "That means I'll have such luggage as I can wrap up in a spare toga and sleep on deck. I'll take Hermes."
"I am not sleeping on any deck," she said.
"The grain fleet sails for Egypt next month. Those ships are huge, and they have plenty of passenger space. They always stop at Cyprus before proceeding on to Alexandria."
"And what will you be doing for a month?" she asked ominously. "Why, chasing pirates," I answered, innocence oozing from every pore. Somehow, rumors of that German princess had reached her. We weren't even married at the time, but that made little difference to Julia.
"Does your family have any hospitium connections in Cyprus? I'm sure mine don't."
"I doubt it," I said, "but I'll look through my tokens just in case. We have hospitia just about everywhere else in the Greek world, but I don't believe any of my family have ever visited Cyprus. Of course, it's the birthplace of your ancestress, so the place must be littered with your cousins."
"I've warned you," she said, ominously. The Caesars traced their descent from the goddess Venus who was, of course, born on Cyprus, just off the coast of Cyprus at any rate. Her uncle Caius Julius traded heavily on this supposed divine connection, to much mirth from the Romans. It infuriated Julia when I tweaked her for this bit of Caesarian bombast, but anything to get her mind off that German princess.
While she was busy with her preparations, I called in Hermes. He was just back from the ludus, where he trained with weapons most days. I was training him in all the skills of a politician's assistant, which in those days included street brawling.
Excerpted from SPQR IX: The Princess and the Pirates by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 2005 John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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What People are Saying About This
"Gripping ...longtime fans and those interested in the Roman Republic will enjoy this crafty puzzle."Publishers Weekly
"Colorful characters led by Cleopatra and historical tidbits add entertainment."Kirkus Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the weaker entries in this very impressive series, for two reasons. First, Decius is out of Rome, and Decius does best when in Rome -- much of the interest of the series lies in its vivid recreation of Roman life. Second, most of the stories are arranged around actual history, and the plots seem reasonable in context. This one feels less so, though it could have happened, which makes it harder to stick with the story.
In the year 703 Rome, Decius Metellus wants to know why after serving two years as an aedile during which his popularity rose to unprecedented heights because he did so much good works, he can¿t be elected predator. The answer is simple: Politics. The Metellus family has different candidates they want to run for office this year and they think Decius needs more seasoning in the military arena...................... Rome has recently annexed Cyprus from Egypt resulting in a resurgence of piracy in the area. Decius is sent there to break up their operation but when he arrives he finds a teenage Cleopatra there who gladly lends her vessel to his three ship armada. Although he is not certain he can trust the princess, he accepts her help and once he starts investigating, he realize there is a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of the Cyprian government. Trapping and catching the conspirators will prove to be the most difficult assignment of his life........................ John Maddox Roberts has the gift to describe a bygone era so perfectly that readers actually believe they are there. The author keeps his series fresh by constantly changing the location from Rome so although the protagonist remains the same, the far flung Roman Empire is described in exquisite meticulously researched detail. As usual, SPQR IX is a vivid and well designed historical mystery................... Harriet Klausner