Every culture has its wild entertainment, but the Roman Saturnalia is looked upon as the granddaddy of them all.
Roberts's vivid fictional account of the annual event takes place in first century Rome is a historically correct picture of excess, with the city's ordinary life shut down, all rules and most laws inoperative, and even slaves permitted to celebrate without restraint. At the same time, the noted family of Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger have reluctantly summoned the young playboy, banished to the island of Rhodes for his wild ways, to seek his help in solving a crime that touches them directly and dangerously. They need him to use his investigative talents to look into the poison death of a politically powerful relative and the suspicion that it is the man's wife who administered the dose. Decius, convinced she is innocent (of this murder, at any rate) looks further for the killer-a quest that leads him to a secret, banned cult of witchcraft being practiced by highborn Romans of both sexes. With the witches at his heels, Decius plunges into the maelstrom of Rome at the height of Saturnalia, and barely escapes with his life.
About the Author
John Maddox Roberts is the author of several works of science fiction and some modern mysteries. There are eight books already published in hardcover in the series featuring the Roman Decius Metellus, and they are being reissued in this paperback format. The author and his wife have recently moved from Virginia to a home in New Mexico.
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I SET FOOT IN ITALY ONCE MORE on a filthy day in December. The wind blew cold rain in my face as the little naval cutter pulled up under oars to the dock at Tarentum. It was an evil time of year to be at sea, months past the good sailing season. Of course, as far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a good sailing season. We had left Rhodes in similarly foul weather and hopped among the tedious string of islands, then up the ragged coast of Greece. From there we hopped across the strait that separates Greece from Italy, then around the southern cape and into the relatively sheltered waters of the Tarentine Gulf.
I went up the gangplank and stepped ashore with my usual sense of profound relief. I didn't quite get down on my knees and kiss the ground, but only from a sense of decorum. Immediately, my stomach began to settle. But it was still raining.
"Land!" Hermes cried with intense, heartfelt relief. He was carrying the bundles of our belongings beneath both arms. He hated the sea even more than I did.
"Enjoy it while you can," I advised him. "You're about to exchange a heaving stomach for sores on your backside."
"You mean we have to ride?" He disliked horses almost as much as he hated the sea.
"Did you think we were going to walk to Rome?"
"I think I could stand it. How far is it?"
"Almost threehundred miles. Luckily, all of it is over first-class roads. We'll take the Via Appia at least as far as Capua, then we'll either continue on the Appia to Rome or take the Via Latina, depending on the conditions. About the same distance either way. The Latina may be a little drier this time of year."
"That far?" Hermes asked. As my slave he had traveled a good deal farther than most boys his age, but he was still a little hazy about geography. "But we're in Italy!"
"There's more of Italy than you would think. Now go get the rest of our luggage."
He went back to the ship grumbling to fetch my chest and a few other belongings. As he did this, an official-looking man came down the pier, accompanied by a secretary.
"Quintus Silanus," he said, "Master of the Port. And you would be ... ?"
"Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger," I told him.
"The Censor's son, eh? We were told you might be landing here or at Brundisium. Welcome back to Italy, Senator. We've made provision to get you back to Rome as quickly as possible."
I was impressed. I had never before been considered that important. "Really? What sort of provision?"
"Let's get in out of this rain," Silanus said. I followed him to an office just past the naval dock, where we ducked beneath the portico and shook the rain from our clothes. Then we went inside his office, a cramped cubicle, its walls honeycombed with cubbyholes for documents.
"Here, have something to settle your stomach," Silanus said. A slave poured me a cup of pale wine. It was a decent Bruttian, not excessively watered.
"I have horses waiting for you at the municipal stable near the Appian Gate, and somewhere here I have requisition chits for you, so you can get stabling and fodder for them between here and Rome. Fresh horses, too, if you need them." He rummaged around in the cubbyholes for a minute until the secretary smoothly brushed him aside and reached into one of them and came out with a leather sack full of little scrolls.
"Who arranged for all this?" I asked.
"The Censor," Silanus said. "Weren't you expecting it?"
"Well, no," I admitted. "I got his summons on Rhodes and jumped on the first ship headed for Italy, but I thought I'd have to make my own way to Rome. Ordinarily, when I come home my father doesn't come running out the gate to greet me, arms open and toga flapping, if you know what I mean."
"Well, fathers are like that," Silanus said, pouring himself a cup. "You can't really expect them to behave like your old Sabine nurse."
"I suppose not. What's the countryside like these days?"
"Uncommonly quiet. You can leave your arms in your baggage for a change."
"What about the city?" I asked.
"That I couldn't say. I hear it's been rough lately."
"Clodius?" This was the year Clodius was standing for tribune. In most ways it was the most powerful office in Rome at the time: and if Clodius was elected, he would for a year be both immensely powerful and sacrosanct, untouchable by the law or his fellow citizens. The very thought gave me stomach twinges. It was generally agreed that he would win his election easily. The Claudians were patricians, barred from the office, and Clodius had campaigned hard to get transferred to the plebs. Finally, with the influence of Caesar and Pompey, he had achieved his wish through adoption by an obscure plebeian relative named Fonteius. Everyone who had fought against his transfer had much unpleasantness to look forward to in the coming year.
"He's Caesar's dog," Silanus said, "but word has it that the Consul doesn't keep him on a tight leash." Silanus, like everyone else, spoke of Caesar as if he were the only consul. His colleague in office, Bibulus, was such a nonentity that Romans ever since have referred to that year as "the consulship of Julius and Caesar." I took my chits and gathered up my slave and my belongings, and I trudged through the rain to the Appian Hate.
By general agreement, I wasn't supposed to return to Rome until Clodius was safely out of office and, by preference, out of Rome. But then, Metellus Celer wasn't supposed to die, either. My father's summons had been peremptory, to say the least.
Our kinsman, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer is dead: it is believed by poison. The family is convening for his obsequies. You are to return to Rome immediately.
It seemed a bit extreme. Granted, Celer was the most distinguished Caecilian of the time, but ordinarily only his immediate family and any members of the gens who happened to be in Rome at the time of his death would attend his funeral and see to the other observances surrounding the passing of a prominent man. To call in Caecilians from as far away as Rhodes suggested that a political crisis was in the offing.
We Metelli were political creatures down to our bones, but I was the one member of the whole family whose presence in Rome was considered to be a political liability. My knack for making enemies was remarkable in a man devoid of political ambition. People with things to hide were nervous around me.
At the city gate Hermes and I picked up our horses and packed our skimpy belongings on a third beast. As we trotted away Hermes bounced on his saddle in a way that was painful to watch. Naturally, I laughed heartily at this. I rode passably well. When I was very small I rode gentle mares on our rural estates; and when I assumed my manhood toga, my father sent me to the circus to be trained by the riders who gallop alongside the chariots, urging on the four-horse teams. This practice served me well in Spain, for much of the guerilla chasing we engaged in among the hills was done by cavalry. Still, horses were never a passion with me, and I always preferred to see professionals doing the riding and driving from the ease of the stands. Still, it beat walking or sailing. Anything beat sailing.
Like all our roads, the Appia was beautifully kept. It was the oldest of our major highways, the stretch between Capua and Rome having been begun by Appius Claudius Caecus nearly three hundred years before, and the rest of it almost as elderly, so that the poplars and cedars planted along its length were stately and mature. The tombs built by the side of the road were for the most part of a pleasingly simple design reflecting the taste of a bygone era. Every thousand paces stood a milestone, inscribed with the distances to the nearest towns and, as always, the precise distance to the Golden Milestone in the Forum Romanum. That way, anywhere in our empire, a Roman citizen knows exactly how far it is to the center of Roman communal life. We find this comforting for some obscure reason. Perhaps it is because, when wandering among barbarians, we find it difficult to believe that Rome exists at all.
There is no finer or more enduring testament to the power and genius of Rome than our roads. People gawk at the Pyramids, which have no purpose except to contain the corpses of long-dead pharaohs. People the world over can use Roman roads. Barbarians seldom bother to pave their roads. Those who do are satisfied with a thin layer of cut stone, perhaps laid over a thin layer of gravel. A Roman road is more like a buried wall, sometimes going down fifteen feet in alternating layers of rubble, cut stone, and gravel to rest solidly upon bedrock.
The center of every Roman road is raised slightly to allow water to drain off. They span the world as straight as so many tight-stretched strings, crossing valleys and rivers upon bridges of prodigious ingenuity, tunneling through mountain spurs too large to be conveniently moved. What other people ever conceived of such roads? They are the pure expression of the uniqueness that is Rome.
All right, we learned road building from the Etruscans, but we build them better than they ever did. We certainly build them in places the Etruscans never dreamed of.
I was occupied with such pleasant thoughts as we rode toward Venusia. I had been too long among foreigners and I yearned to be in the great City again, even if Clodius was there.
Three days of riding brought us to Capua. The beautiful city, finest in Campania, was situated amid the richest farmlands in all of Italy. As we drew near we could hear the clatter of Capua's famed bronze works. There were foundries and smith's shops all over the city, and the din of hammering was incessant. Everything crafted from bronze, from lamps to parade armor, was made in Capua.
There was also a clatter of arms. This was not the result of war, but of training. Outside the walls of the city were a score or so of gladiator schools, for Campania was always the heartland of the sport. Romans were fond of gladiators, but in Campania they were something of a cult. As we rode past one of these, I think it was the school of Ampliatus, an idea came to me.
"Remind me when we get to Rome to enroll you in the Statilian school."
"You aren't going to sell me?" Hermes asked, alarmed.
"Of course not, idiot, although the idea has its attractions. But if you're going to be of any use to me, you'd better learn to defend yourself. You're old enough to train now." Hermes was about eighteen at the time, a handsome youth and accomplished in all sorts of criminal rascality. It was perfectly legal to train slaves to fight and as yet there were no laws forbidding a slave to bear arms, as long as he was outside the City and accompanying his master.
"The gladiator school, eh?" I could see that he liked the thought. He had no idea how rough the training would be. Like most young boys, he thought the gladiator's life was exciting and glamorous, unaware that a few splendid moments in the arena, dressed in plumes and gilded armor, was the result of years of bone-crunching work beneath the beady eyes of brutal overseers who enforced discipline with whips and hot irons. Of course I had no intention of having him trained for the arena, but he had to learn enough to stay alive in the sort of street fighting and midnight ambush that had become norms of Roman political life.
The Latina proved to be the wiser choice for the final stretch from Capua to Rome. Along the way we stayed at inns or at the villas of friends and relatives. Nine days of travel, with frequent changes of mounts, brought us, sore and bedraggled, within sight of the walls of Rome.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
SPQR V. Decius is back in Rome, but there is no rest for the weary -- his family has instructed him to solve the murder of a powerful connection, and to solve it in a way that will avoid any damage to the Metelli. On top of that, it's Saturnalia, and on top of that, he's getting more and more involved with Julia, the niece of Julius Caesar. A rewarding read.