SPQR VII: The Tribune's Curse

SPQR VII: The Tribune's Curse

by John Maddox Roberts

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I was happier than any mere mortal has a right to be and I should have known better. The entire body of received mythology and every last Greek tragedy ever written have made one inescapable truth utterly clear: If you are supremely happy, the gods have it in for you. They don't like for mortals to be happy, and they will make you pay.

In his extensive series featuring the detecting feats of Decius Caecilius Metellus the younger, set in the Rome of 70 BC, Roberts achieves a very believable modern feeling with his well-researched description of the stories' background. This seventh episode, however, combines a familiar view of the demands office-seeking makes on a candidate with a situation that is impossibly bizarre to us today. An entire city, versed in literature, music, and the other arts, ruled democratically, for its time, is thrown into panic by an enraged man's curse.

The Consul Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, frustrated by the Senate's vote against his leading Rome in a war against Parthia, plans to march his private army to invade the country himself. Almost all of Rome turns out to watch him carry out his threat and lead his troops out of the city. But before he can, a t powerful tribune called Ateius leaps to the top of the city's gate and invokes all the gods to put a curse on Crassus and his army.

Rome is terrified. Ateius has called down a forbidden curse — the worst and most frightening blasphemy ever perpetrated. It seriously threatens the entire populace, and drastic steps to propitiate the gods must be taken immediately. Worse even, someone kills Ateius - perhaps in the vain hope that this will lighten the curse? It will not.

After joining the other men of the city in a daylong cleansing ritual that left every able-bodied male citizen, Decius included, in a state of half-collapse, Decius learns that he has been chosen to uncover the person responsible for the murder. The culprit must be found in order to complete the cleansing, and there is no one better equipped to do that than Decius.

Roberts skillfully blends the playboy and the serious sleuth in Decius just as he combines what we see as contradictions in the Rome of 80 BC. He spices his story with humor and suspense, with characters charming and wise and foolish and very much like we are today. And he presents readers with a look into another world that has them eagerly awaiting more.visits.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312304898
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/14/2004
Series: SPQR Series , #7
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

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. Minotaur has issued trade paperback editions of the previous books in the series. Roberts and his wife live in New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

SPQR VII: The Tribune's Curse

By John Maddox Roberts

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0835-1


I was happier than any mere mortal has a right to be, and I should have known better. The entire body of received mythology and every last Greek tragedy ever written have made one inescapable truth utterly clear: If you are supremely happy, the gods have it in for you. They don't like mortals to be happy, and they will make you pay.

The reason for my happiness was that I wasn't in Gaul. Nor was I in Parthia, Greece, Iberia, Africa, or Egypt. Instead, I was at the center of the world. I was in Rome, and for a Roman there can be no greater joy than to be at home, where all roads famously lead. Well, if you can't be in Rome, Alexandria isn't a bad second choice, but it just isn't Rome.

Not only was I in Rome, but I was in the Forum, where all those roads converge near the Golden Milestone. It really isn't golden, just touched up with a bit of gilding, but I'll take it over any gaudy barbarian monument any day. And it was a beautiful day, which always helps. And I was standing for office, which I was going to win. I knew I was going to win because, when we men of the gens Caecilia Metella demanded high office, we got it.

There was one tiny, minute flaw in my perfect happiness. The office I was standing for was aedile. Now, constitutionally, the aedileship was not strictly on the cursus honorum, that ladder of public office one had to ascend one rung at a time to reach the highest offices of praetor and consul, where the greatest honor was, and their subsequent propraetorial and proconsular commands, where all the loot was to be had.

The aediles were loaded with responsibilities concerning the conduct and welfare of the City. They had charge of the markets, of upkeep of the streets and public buildings, enforcement of the building codes, the supervision of public morals (that was always good for a laugh), and all the other duties nobody else could be persuaded to perform.

The aediles were also in charge of the public Games, and the state provided only a ridiculously small allotment for those necessary but horrendously expensive spectacles. Which meant, if you wanted to put on really spectacular Games, you had to pay for them out of your own purse. That meant, if you weren't tremendously rich, you borrowed and ended up in debt for years.

So why, you might ask, would anybody want this onerous office if it wasn't constitutionally required? For the simple reason that the electorate had become accustomed to receiving fine spectacles from their aediles, and if your Games weren't suitably splendid, they would not elect you to the praetorship.

This unpleasant necessity of public life had been turned to unexpected advantage by Caesar, who, as aedile, incurred such tremendous debts that everyone assumed he had foolishly ruined himself in order to win favor with the mob. Then, much to their astonishment, some of the most important men in Rome woke up to discover that, if they were to have any hope of recovering their loans, they had to push Caesar into higher office so he could get rich. It worked neatly for Caesar, but it meant that the voters were now accustomed to an even more lavish standard in Games: more days of races, more comedies and dramas, more public feasts, and, most important, more and better gladiators. Where once a showing of twenty pairs from the local schools had been considered a good show, people now expected four or five hundred pairs of the best Campanian swordsmen tricked out in plumes and gilded armor. None of this was cheap.

But all such dismal prospects were far from my mind as I stood in the Forum on a perfect day in early fall when Rome and all of Italy are at their most lovely. The sky was cloudless; the smoke from the altars ascended straight toward the heavens; there were flowers blooming everywhere. The oppressive heat of summer was past, and the rains, clouds, and chill of winter were still far away. With the other office seekers I wore a specially whitened toga, the candidus, so everyone would know who we were, just standing there like fools and saying nothing.

By ancient law, a candidate was forbidden to canvass for votes. He had to stand in one spot and wait for someone to come up and speak to him, at which time he could wheedle for all he was worth. Of course, each candidate was accompanied by his clients, who acted as a sort of cheering section, always gazing admiringly at him, accosting passersby, and telling them all about what a fine fellow their patron was.

I suppose it all looked rather ludicrous to foreigners, but it was an agreeable way to spend your time when the weather was good, especially if you had just escaped Gaul and Caesar's huge and bloody war there. Caesar had granted me leave of absence so that I could come home to stand for office, with the agreement that I would return as soon as I had served my year. Well, we would see about that. Caesar could be dead before then, the war a disaster. This was the result for which his enemies prayed and sacrificed daily to Jupiter Best and Greatest.

But the war was far away, the weather was fine, I was fulfilling my Caecilian heritage by standing for office, it would be months before I had to present my feasts, my ludi and my munera, and all was right with the world. I was relatively safe from the mobs of my old enemy, Clodius, because he was Caesar's flunky and I was newly married to Caesar's niece, Julia. I should have seen the trouble coming — not that it would have made much difference if I had. And the day started out rather well, too.

The first man to approach me was my distinguished but tediously named kinsman, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica. With that much name you would have expected a bigger man, but he was rather slight, and a Caecilian by adoption, not that this meant much. All our great families were so intermarried that we all bore much the same degree of consanguinity, whatever name we happened to bear.

"Good morning, Scipio," I said as he walked up to me. "Are you on support duty today?" It was understood that, since I was standing for office, the most distinguished men of the family would show themselves in my company from time to time. Scipio was one of that year's praetors, but he was not accompanied by his lictors. He was also a pontifex, and that morning he wore his pontifical insignia, so I knew he was on his way to a formal religious event.

"A meeting of the Pontifical College has been called," he said. "I thought I would stop by and lend you an aura of much-needed respectability." My reputation in the family did not stand high.

"Will a ruling by the Pontifex Maximus be required? He's out of town, you know." The holder of that ancient office was, of course, Caesar himself, and he was off on his extraordinary five-year command in Gaul.

"I certainly hope not. It's a difficult question under discussion. We may have to call a conclave of all the priestly colleges in Rome." He didn't look as if he were looking forward to it.

"The flamines, the Arval Brotherhood, the quinquidecemviri, and the Vestals and all the rest? But that's only been done in times of grave emergency. Has something happened the rest of us haven't heard about yet? Have Caesar and his legions been annihilated, and are the Gauls marching on Rome?"

"Keep your voice down, or you'll start rumors," he cautioned. "No, it's nothing like that. A matter of religious practice, and I'm not permitted to talk about it."

Throughout this we grinned at one another like apes, so that anyone watching would see in what high esteem the distinguished pontifex held the lowly but dutiful and conscientious candidate who, in the best tradition of the Republic, sought to assume the heavy burdens of office. This was being repeated, with variations, all over the end of the Forum where the office seekers congregated.

"Well, I must be going, Decius. Good luck." He clapped me on the shoulder, raising a cloud of the fine chalk with which my toga had been whitened. It settled all over him, making him sneeze.

"Careful, there, Scipio," I said. "People might think you're standing for office, too." He went off to his meeting, snorting and brushing at his clothes. This put me in an even more cheerful mood. Then I caught sight of a man I was far happier to see.

"Greetings, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger!" he shouted, striding toward me with a great mob of hard-looking clients behind him. His voice carried clear across the Forum, and people parted before him like water before the ram of a warship. Unlike Scipio he was accompanied by his lictors. By custom they were supposed to precede him and clear his way with their fasces, but it took a fleet-footed man to stay ahead of this particular magistrate.

"Greetings, Praetor Urbanus!" I hailed. Titus Annius Milo and I were old friends, but here in public only his formal title would do. Starting as a street thug newly arrived from Ostia, he had somehow leapt ahead of me on the cursus honorum, and I never understood exactly how he did it. Whatever the means, nobody ever deserved the honor more. He was living proof that all you needed was citizenship to make something of yourself in Rome. It helped that he had energy to match his ambition, was awesomely capable, inhumanly strong, handsome as a god, and utterly ruthless.

He embraced me expertly, never actually touching me and thus saving himself from a chalking. His crowd of toughs made a ludicrous attempt at looking dignified and respectable. At least he kept them reined in out of respect for his office. He was the deadly enemy of Clodius, and everyone knew that in the next year, when neither of them held office, it would be open warfare in the streets of Rome.

"On your way to court?" I asked him.

"A full day's schedule, I'm afraid," he said ruefully. If there was one thing Milo hated, it was sitting still, even when he was doing something important. On the other hand, he had a trick of making everybody involved in a suit extremely uneasy with the way that, at intervals, he rose from his curule chair and paced back and forth across the width of the praetor's platform, glaring at them all the while. It was just his way of working off his abundance of nervous energy, but he looked exactly like a Hyrcanian tiger pacing up and down in its cage before being turned loose on some poor wretch who got on the wrong side of the law.

"How are the renovations coming along?" I asked him.

"Almost finished," he said, looking pained. He was married to Fausta, the daughter of Sulla's old age and possibly the most willful, extravagant woman of her generation. For years Milo had lived in a minor fortress in the middle of his territory, and Fausta had made it her first order of marital business to transform it into a setting worthy of a lordly Cornelian and daughter of a Dictator.

"If you'd like to admire them," he said, brightening, "we want you and Julia to come to dinner this evening."

"I'd be delighted!" Not only did I enjoy his company, but Julia and Fausta were good friends as well. Plus, I was in no position to turn down a free meal. My share of the loot from Caesar's early conquests in Gaul had made me comfortably welloff for the first time in my adult life, but that wealth would vanish without a trace in the next year, inevitably.

"Good, good. Caius Cassius will be there, and young Antonius, if he bothers to show up. He's been with Gabinius in Syria, but there's been a lull in the fighting, and he got bored and came home. He never stays still for long."

He was referring, of course, to Marcus Antonius, one day to be notorious but back then known mainly as a leading light of Rome's gilded youth, an uproarious, intemperate young man who was nonetheless intensely likable.

"It's always fun when Antonius is there," I said. "Who else?"

He waved a hand airily. "Whoever strikes my fancy today, and Fausta never consults me, so it could be anybody." Milo never kept to the stuffy formality of exactly nine persons at dinner. Often as not, there were twenty or more around his table. He politicked tirelessly and was liable to invite anybody who might be of use to him. At least his was one house where I knew I would never run into Clodius.

"As long as it's not Cato or anyone boring like that."

Milo went off to his court, and I went back to my meeting-and-greeting routine. About noon things livened up when two Tribunes of the People ascended the rostraand began haranguing the crowd. Strictly speaking they were not supposed to do this except at a lawfully convened meeting of the Plebeian Assembly, but feelings were running high just then, and at such times the tribunes ignored proper form. Since they were sacrosanct, there was nothing anyone could do except yell back at them.

I was too far away to make out what they were saying, but I already knew the gist of it. Marcus Licinius Crassus, triumvir and by reputation the richest man in the world, was preparing to go to war against Parthia, and a number of the tribunes were very put out about the whole project. One reason was that the Parthians had done nothing to provoke such a war — not that being inoffensive had ever kept anyone safe from us before. Another was that Crassus was unthinkably rich, and a victorious war would make him even richer, and therefore more dangerous. But a lot of people just hated Crassus, and that was the best reason of all. The tribunes Gallus and Ateius were especially vehement in their denunciations of Crassus, and it was these two who bawled at the crowd in the Forum that day.

All their yowling was to no avail, naturally, because Crassus intended to pay for hiring, arming, and equipping his legions out of his own purse. He would make no demands on the Treasury, and there was nothing in Roman law to prevent a man from doing that, if he had the money, which Crassus did. So Crassus was going to get his war.

That was all right with me, as long as I didn't have to go with him. Nobody objected, because they actually thought he might be defeated. In those days we thought little of the Parthians as fighting men. To us they were just more effete Orientals. Their ambassadors wore their hair long and scented; their faces were heavily rouged and their eyebrows painted on. As if that weren't enough, they wore long sleeves. What more evidence did we need that they were a pack of effeminate degenerates?

The proposed war was so unpopular that recruiters were sometimes mobbed. Not that there was great recruiting activity in Rome. The citizenry by that time had grown woefully unwilling to serve in the legions. The smaller towns of Italy supplied more and more of our soldiers.

Caesar's war in Gaul made no more sense, but it was immensely popular. His dispatches, which I had helped him write, were widely published and added luster to his name, and the plebs took his victories as their own. People liked Caesar, and they didn't like Crassus. It was that simple.

The City was full of Crassi that year. Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives was, for the second time, holding the consulship with Pompey. His elder son, the younger Marcus, was standing for the quaestorship. So it was a great year for Crassus, despite the unpopularity of his proposed war. He and Pompey were being amazingly amicable for two men who hated each other so much. Crassus was insanely envious of Pompey's military glory, and Pompey was similarly envious of Crassus's legendary wealth.

Friction had been mounting between the members of the Big Three, but, the year before, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus had met at Luca to iron out their differences, and all had been cooperation since. Crassus and Pompey agreed to extend Caesar's command in Gaul beyond the already extraordinary five years, were raising more legions for him, and had given him permission to appoint ten legates of his own choosing. In return, Caesar's people in the Senate and, more important, the Popular Assemblies would give Crassus his war and Pompey the proconsulship of Spain when he left office. Spain had become a rich money cow, peaceful enough in those years that Pompey wouldn't actually have to go there but could let his legates handle the place and send him the money.


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"Delightful ... Through the engaging, humorous voice of Decius, the author portrays such prominent figures of the Roman Republic as Cato and Cicero, while bringing to life the ancient city with its sights and smells, manners and customs, politics and religion.... Readers will surely look forward to Decius's future adventures."—Publishers Weekly "Smart, brisk writing and abundant historical color."—Kirkus Reviews

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SPQR VII: The Tribune's Curse 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another fascinating view of ancient Rome and Roman life, though this time the novelistic underpinning seemed a little lax to me. Decius, however, is always good company, and the book is well worth reading.
harstan More than 1 year ago
After fighting the Gauls for a year under Julius Caesar, Decius Cecilius Metellus, the black sheep of the powerful and wealthy Metellus clan, is glad to be home again in his beloved Rome. Married to Caesar¿s niece Julia and running for political office that could lead to bigger and more powerful positions, Decius is a very happy man. The populace is not in favor of Tribune Marcus Licinus Craessus going to war against the Parthians. On the day he is to depart, the fanatical opposition leader, the tribune of the people Caius Ateius Capito delivers a curse on Marcus, daring to speak the secret name of Rome. Decius is ordered to find out how he learned such a sacred name but before he gets very far in his investigation, the mauled body of Ateius is found. Decius must get answers and soon otherwise the frightened populace will start rioting. John Maddox Roberts, through the use of the first person narration of his protagonist, gives the reader a glimpse into the mindset of the citizens of the Roman Empire on the subject of slavery, magic, politics, and war. The story line is colorful allowing readers to feel as if they have gone back in time to Ancient Rome. THE TRIBUNE¿S CURSE is an exciting, well-researched historical mystery. Harriet Klausner