I find it surprising more people are not killed over dinner at home. In my work we reckon that murder is most likely to happen among close acquaintances. Someone will finally snap after years of being wound up to blind rage by the very folk who best know how to drive them to distraction. For once it will be just too much to watch someone else eating the last sesame pancake—which, of course, was snatched with a triumphant laugh that was intended to rankle. So a victim expires with honey still dribbling down their chin—though it happens less often than you might expect.
Why are more kitchen cleavers not sunk between the fat shoulders of appalling uncles who get the slaves pregnant? Or that sneaky sister who shamelessly grabs the most desirable bedroom, with its glimpse of a corner of the Temple of Divine Claudius and almost no cracks in the walls? Or the crude son who farts uncontrollably, however many times he is told …
Even if people do not stab or strangle their own, you would expect more to rush out into the streets and vent their frustration upon the first person they meet. Perhaps they do. Perhaps even the random killing of strangers, which the vigiles call ‘a motiveless crime’, sometimes has an understandable domestic cause.
It could so easily have happened to us.
I grew up in a large family, crammed into a couple of small, sour rooms. All around our apartment were other teeming groups, too noisy, too obstreperous and all packed together far too close. Perhaps the thing that saved us from tragedy was that my father left home—his only escape from a situation he had come to find hideous, and an event which at least saved us from the burden of more children. Later my brother took himself off to the army; eventually I saw the sense of it and did the same. My sisters moved out to harass the feckless men they bullied into marriage. My mother, having brought up seven, was left alone but continued to have a strong influence on all of us. Even my father, once he returned to Rome, viewed Ma with wary respect.
As she continually reminded us, mothers can never retire. So, when my wife went into labour with our third child, in came Ma to boss everyone about, even though she was becoming frail and had eyesight problems. Helena’s own mama rushed to our house too, the noble Julia Justa rolling up her sleeves to interfere in her genteel way. We had employed a perfectly decent midwife.
At first the mothers battled for dominance. In the end, when they were both badly needed, all that stopped.
My new son died on the day he was born. At once, we felt we were living in a tragedy that was unique to us. I suppose that is how it always seems.
The birth had been easy, a short labour like our second daughter’s. Favonia had taken a week to seize upon existence but then she thrived. I thought the same would happen. But when this baby emerged, he was already fading. He never responded to us; he slipped away within hours.
The midwife said a mother should hold a dead baby; afterwards she and Julia Justa had to wrestle to make Helena give up the body again. Helena went into deep shock. Women cleaned up, as they do. Helena Justina stayed in the bedroom, refusing comfort, ignoring food, declining to see her daughters, even distant with me. My sister Maia said this day would be black in Helena’s calendar for the rest of her life; Maia knew what it was to lose a child. At first I could not believe Helena would ever come out of it. It seemed to me, we might never even reach that point where grief only overtook her on anniversaries. She stayed frozen at the moment when she was told her boy was dead.
All action fell to me. It was not a legal necessity, but I named him: Marcus Didius Justinianus. In my place many fathers would not have bothered. His birth would not be registered; he had no civic identity. Perhaps I was wrong. I just had to decide what to do. His mother had survived, but for the moment I was alone trying to hold the family together, trying to choose what formalities were appropriate. It all became even more difficult after I learned what else had happened on that day.
The tiny swaddled bundle had been placed in a room we rarely used. What was I to do next? A newborn should receive no funeral rites; he was too small for full cremation. Adult burials must be held outside the city; families who can afford it build a mausoleum beside a highroad for their embalmed bodies or cremation urns. That had never been for us; ashes of the plebeian Didii are kept in a cupboard for a time, and then mysteriously lost.
My mother revealed that she had always taken her stillborns to the Campagna farm where she grew up, but I could not leave my distraught family. Helena’s father, the senator, offered me a niche in the tumbledown columbarium of the Camilli on the Via Appia, saying sadly, ‘It will be a very small urn!’ I thought about it, but was too proud. We live in a patriarchal society; he was my son. I don’t give two figs for formal rules, but disposal was my responsibility.
Some people inter newborn babies under a slab in a new building; none was available and I jibbed at making our child into a votive offering. I don’t annoy the gods; I don’t encourage them either. We lived in an old town house at the foot of the Aventine, with a back exit, but almost no ground. If I dug a tiny grave among the sage and rosemary, there was a horrendous possibility children at play or cooks digging holes to bury fish bones might one day turn up little Marcus’ ribs accidentally.
I climbed up to our roof terrace and sat alone with the problem.
The answer came to me just before stiffness set in. I would take my sad bundle out to my father’s house. We ourselves had once lived there, up on the Janiculan Hill across the Tiber; in fact, I was the idiot who first bought the inconvenient place. I had since worked a swap with my father but it still seemed like home. Although Pa was a reprobate, his villa offered the baby a resting place where, when Helena was ready for it, we could put up a memorial stone.
I wondered briefly why my father had not yet come with condolences. Normally when people wanted time alone, he was a first-footer. He could smell tragedy like newly cooked bread. He was bound to let himself in with that house key he would never give back to me, then irritate us with his insensitivity. The thought of Pa issuing platitudes to shake Helena out of her sadness was dire. He would probably try to get me drunk. Wine was bound to feature in my recovery one day, but I wanted to choose how, when and where the medicine was applied. The dose would be poured by my best friend Petronius Longus. The only reason I had not sought him out so far, was delicacy because he too had lost young children. Besides, I had things to do first.
My mother was staying at our house. She would continue to do so, as long as she believed she was needed. Perhaps that would be longer than we really wanted, but Ma would do what she thought best.
Helena wanted no part in the funeral. She turned away, weeping, when I told her what I planned to do. I hoped she approved. I hoped she knew that dealing with this was the only way I could try to help her. Albia, our teenaged foster daughter, intended to accompany me but in the end even she was too upset. Ma might have made the pilgrimage but I gratefully left her to look after little Julia and Favonia. I would not ask her to see Pa, from whom she had been bitterly estranged for thirty years. If I had asked, she might have forced herself to come and support me, but I had enough to endure without that worry.
So I went alone. And I was alone, therefore, when the subdued slaves at my father’s house told me the next piece of bad news. On the same day that I lost my son, I lost my father too.
Excerpted from Nemesis by Lindsey Davis.
Copyright © 2010 by Lindsey Davis.
Published in September 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.