HERMOGENES WAS ALMOST ASLEEP BYTE time the carriage stopped.
He'd hired the vehicle that morning in Ostia: a four-wheeled cart with a canvas awning, drawn by a team of four mules and driven by a villainous-looking muleteer with a knife scar on one cheek. It had a bench seat along each side: Hermogenes sat on one side, the slaves sat on the other, and the luggage went in the middle. They traveled for nearly four hours, rattling slowly through the town of Ostia and then on along the main road. At first Hermogenes had stared eagerly at everything--the streets and houses of Ostia; the market gardens and vineyards of the Tiber plain; the cypress trees, the blue hills in the distance--but it was a hot day, and the mules plodded steadily along a good road. The rumblingsway of the carriage was soporific, and he hadn't slept well for months. Gradually he slipped into a daze.
When the movement stopped, though, he sat up abruptly and looked around. They'd pulled into a large stableyard, and the driver was just tying the reins to a post. There seemed to be buildings around them again, but he was pretty certain that they hadn't gone through any city gates, and he was absolutely certain that this wasn't the place to which the driver had been paid to take them.
He leaned forward. "Why do we stop?" he demanded sharply--then wondered if he'd got the Latin quite right. Would "Why are we stopping?" have been better?
The driver grinned back at him, showing stubby brown teeth, and jumped down from the cart. He waved an arm expansively at a pair of stone towers just up the road. "That's the Ostian Gate." He said it loudly: he didn't seem to believe that a Greek really might be able to understand Latin unless he shouted. "We're here. Rome. This is where we stop."
Hermogenes glanced at the towers. They did look like a city gate, but if there had ever been a wall to go along with them, the city had swallowed it up. Shoddy houses of mud brick, and even shoddier tenement blocks, cramped and darkened the road. The livery stables where they had pulled in was the most substantial building around. He looked back at the mule driver with a frown. "This is the Via Tusculana?" He very much doubted it.
The muleteer shook his head. "No. This is as far as I can take the raeda. Understand? No carts are allowed into the city during the day." He said the last slowly as though he were speaking to a child. "No carts"--he slapped his vehicle--"in the city"--he pointed up the road--"during the day." He indicated the bright June sun, which stood just past noon.
Hermogenes gave him a flat stare. "You agreed that you would take myself, my slaves, and my luggage, as far as the Via Tusculana."
"No, no!" the mule driver protested with another stump-toothed grin. "I agreed to take you to Rome, and here we are. I can't take the raeda into the city. No wheeled traffic is allowed into the city during the day, understand?"
"How much further is it to the Via Tusculana?
The man shrugged.
Some distance, then. Hermogenes looked at the road which led onward into Rome. Narrow, and ankle-deep in dung and dirt. There were no carts or carriages to be seen on it, so probably the man was telling the truth about wheeled traffic; most big cities had traffic regulations. He was still annoyed. The driver hadn't seen fit to mention this detail back in Ostia: instead he'd said that yes, he knew the Via Tusculana, and yes, he could take them there. That was why Hermogenes had hired him rather than one of his fellows.
He sighed. Menestor and Phormion, the slaves, were both watching him anxiously: neither of them spoke any Latin. "He says he can't go any further," Hermogenes informed them in the Greek native to all three of them. "He says that carts aren't allowed into Rome during the day. He probably has an arrangement for porterage at this livery stables." He turned back to the driver, reminding himself that this might, still, be an honest misunderstanding. "How do we reach the Via Tusculana?" he asked politely.
"You can hire porters and a sedan chair here." The muleteer waved negligently toward the livery stables. "They'll bring you right to your friend's door. I can arrange it for you."
"Ah. And their charge is included in the fare we agreed to pay you?"
The driver pretended surprise at the very idea. His knife scar suddenly became more prominent. "No, no, you pay them separately--after you've paid me."
It couldn't be pushed too hard, Hermogenes told himself. The driver would have friends around--the stable workers, and any fellow muleteers in the vicinity as well. It would be lunacy to risk life and luggage in a brawl over a porter's fee. On the other hand, Hermogenes had no intention of allowing himself to be cheated any more than he absolutely had to--and he'd been careful to refuse the muleteer's demand for full payment in advance.
"Very well," he told the driver mildly. "Will you go and find me two porters?"
The muleteer's grin returned, and he swaggered off toward the stable. Hermogenes snapped his fingers. Menestor and Phormion obligingly took hold of the big chest and dragged it out of the carriage. Hermogenes hopped down after them, then turned to take out the two baskets. Now at least the driver couldn't drive off with the luggage still on board.
Phormion flexed a hand he'd banged hauling the trunk out of the cart. "We don't want to carry this far," he said, eyeing the heavy wood-and-leather chest with dislike.
Hermogenes nodded. Phormion and Menestor werecapable of carrying the chest if they had to, but the local neighborhood didn't look the safest, and he would prefer them to have their hands free to deter any would-be robbers. The chest contained vital business documents and most of his funds for the journey: he could not afford to lose it.
"Take it on to the stables," he ordered. "I'll hire porters."
A couple of men lounging in front of the stables eyed them hopefully as they came up. The muleteer, however, had gone into the building, and was speaking to somebody just inside the door--not a porter, by the look of that fine red tunic, possibly the head groom. Of course: the stable had an arrangement with drivers to take passengers out of the city, and with porters to take them into it. Hermogenes cast an assessing eye over the hopeful casuals: they looked strong and reasonably presentable. "I need porters," he told them.
The muleteer glanced round in surprise, then hurried from the stable with the other man in his wake. Hermogenes smiled at them politely. The head groom, if that was what he was, gave an oily smile back. "Sir," he began, ignoring the casual laborers, "Gallio says you need porters and a sedan chair ..."
Hermogenes raised his eyebrows. "No. I did not ask for a sedan chair. Only for porters to carry these things here to the house of Fiducius Crispus on the Via Tusculana."
The groom smirked again. "Sir, it's long walk, a couple of miles, and a gentleman such as yourself ..."
" ... has spent too much time sitting already today," said Hermogenes, with another false smile. "How much for two porters to the Via Tusculana?"
The groom grimaced reproachfully. "Two sestertii."
He was undoubtedly expecting to get a cut of that very handsome fee. "Too much," Hermogenes said calmly. "My slaves will carry the luggage. Gallio, here is the remainder of our fare." He opened his purse, took out two small bronze coins, handed them to the mule driver, then turned away, snapping his fingers for Menestor and Phormion to pick up the chest again.
"Sir," the groom began, but Gallio interrupted with an indignant cry of "This is only two sestertii!"
Hermogenes turned back to him. "Your charge was two denarii. I paid one in Ostia, and agreed to pay the second when we reached our destination. The cost of carrying the luggage to that destination is another two sestertii, it seems, so I have subtracted that from your fee."
The muleteer's face darkened and the scar stood out again. "Don't cheat me, Greekling!" he said loudly.
Hermogenes was aware of Phormion and Menestor setting down the chest again, and saw the groom's eyes flick to them uneasily. Menestor was nothing to worry him--seventeen years old, a valet and clerk--but Phormion was another matter. Big and dark, with a broken nose and cauliflower ear, he looked like the bodyguard he was. This was not going to end in blows, however: Hermogenes was determined on that.
He pretended surprise. "Cheat you?" he repeated. "No! At home if a mule driver agreed to take me from Canopus to my house near the harbor, he would not expect full fare if he set me down at the Canopic Gate. I would be entitled to subtract not merely the porters' fee, but something for theinconvenience as well. You do things differently in Rome, do you?"
The two casual laborers had been watching with close attention; at this one of them laughed. The muleteer's face darkened further.
The head groom intervened. "You must have misunderstood something, sir. If you agreed a price with Gallio, you must pay it. In Rome we pay the price agreed."
"Even when you do not deliver the service agreed?" Hermogenes asked him. "Ah, well. I am a Roman citizen myself, as it happens: I will remember that." He waited just a moment to let his citizenship register, saw the looks of uncertainty, then dug another coin out of his purse. "I will split our difference with you," he offered. "Here is another sestertius."
He'd judged it right: cheating a Roman citizen--particularly one with a dangerous-looking bodyguard--was more trouble than one sestertius was worth. The muleteer snatched his coin, spat emphatically, and strode off to see to his team. Hermogenes nodded politely to the groom and signaled for Menestor and Phormion to pick up the chest.
One of the casual laborers stepped forward. "Sir," he said eagerly, "Quintus 'n me'd carry your things to Tusculana f'ra sestertius." At least, that was what Hermogenes though he said. The accent was so thick that he had trouble following it.
"You don't want to hire men off the street!" exclaimed the groom, glaring at them.
"It is true, I hired Gallio that way," said Hermogenes, smiling slightly. "And he promised to take me to my destination,then set me down two miles short of it. However, I hope these men will be more honest."
"Sir, sir, sir! Gallio wasn't cheating you! You're a for-eigner--"
"Yes. A 'Greekling,' as he put it."
"--you probably you don't know how things are in Rome. Gallio couldn't take you to the Via Tusculana: carriages aren't allowed into the city during the day."
"It is true, I did not know that. All the more reason Gallio should have explained it when I hired him."
"You must have misunderstood--"
"I assure you, I did not misunderstand. I have been doing business with Romans since I finished school, and I cannot afford to misunderstand. Tell Gallio that he has lost custom by this. I might have hired him again, had he been honest. Good health." He turned to the porters. "I accept your offer. I will pay you when we reach our destination."
The porters grinned. The groom swore, then shrugged and went off back to his work. Menestor and Phormion stepped away from the heavy chest with expressions of relief.
The pair of porters turned out, in fact, to be sedan-chair bearers. Their chair was propped up against the stable wall, a simple wooden seat slung between two stout poles: presumably they'd carried a passenger out to the livery stables, and had been hoping for someone to pay them to make the journey back. They now turned the chair upside down, heaved the traveling chest onto it, and secured it with a piece of rope. When the burden had been lifted and securely balanced on their shoulders, each man picked upone of the additional baskets. The leader looked expectantly at Hermogenes.
"The Via Tusculana," Hermogenes ordered, and they set off.
In spite of his tiredness and the lingering sourness from the confrontation with the muleteer, Hermogenes felt his heart speed up as he followed. He was treading the streets of Rome! He had been hearing about this city all his life.
All the years that he was growing up, his native Alexandria had been full of Roman troops--Roman allies, they'd been then, supporters of the queen. That hadn't made them respectful toward the citizens, of course: the city had been perpetually full of angry whispers about what one soldier or another had done, though the queen had been happy enough. Then had come that strange, hot summer when Hermogenes was eighteen, and Roman "enemies" completed the conquest of his homeland and its Roman "allies." The final stages of the war had been played out amid the familiar landmarks of Alexandria. He had stood on the city wall with his father, and listened as an old veteran pointed out the standards of the different legions encamped around the hippodrome, naming the campaigns each had fought in before. Iberia, Gaul, Africa, Armenia ... it had seemed as though all the world belonged to Rome, apart from the doomed stones beneath their feet.
Alexandria joined the rest of the world only a few days later. For a little while no one had known whether or not the city would be given over to pillage. He remembered a dreadful day of waiting in the stifling dining room where the household had gathered, listening to the drone of the fliesand the crying of the cook's baby. The older slaves of the household had all been silent, sick with fear. If the city was handed over to the victorious legions, everyone would suffer, but slaves would suffer more, and their masters would be unable to protect them. He had never felt so helpless, or so angry.
Caesar had spared Alexandria, thank the gods. "Why shouldn't he?" Hermogenes' father had asked in relief. "He's just acquired the right to tax our trade: if he let his soldiers ruin that, he'd lose money."
Even taxed, Alexandrian trade had flourished in the new Roman peace, and the household had flourished with it. Five years after the conquest, Hermogenes' father had been able to afford the investment that brought the Roman citizenship to himself and his son. That had been satisfying, though also oddly unsettling. Hermogenes remembered how uncomfortable he had felt when he first saw the diploma with his new Roman names written on it: Marcus Aelius Hermogenes. It was as though he had suddenly acquired a ghostly Roman as a twin. He had wondered how you could be a citizen of a city you had never seen, a faraway place you knew as bullying ally, conquering enemy, and powerful ruler, but never as a friend. Still, he had been proud and glad of his new citizenship. It had meant that he was an equal of the conquerors, entitled to the same rights and privileges.
He had wondered, though, if he would ever come to Rome. And now, ten years later, here he was. Walking along a street in the city that ruled the world, finally seeing withhis own eyes the place where the ghostly "Marcus Aelius" was a citizen.
It wasn't much to look at--at least, not here. The streets were quiet, as was normal in most cities in the early afternoon, and the few people around were lounging in the shade. The buildings were tall hut shoddily constructed, and the road was full of dung, rotting refuse, and flies. Fortunately they did not actually have to walk in the filth: a narrow pavement ran on either side of the thoroughfare, and at every corner stepping-stones allowed a pedestrian to cross without dirtying his feet. Hermogenes noted horse and ox dung amid the rest and wondered if Gallio and the groom had been lying to him--hut no, they'd both insisted that carriages couldn't go into the city during the day, which implied that the rule was relaxed at night. Presumably carts trundled through the streets all night to deliver goods to the markets. He glanced round at the flimsy apartment blocks and wondered how well their inhabitants slept.
"Tall, eh, sir?" the lead porter remarked proudly. "Mos' foreigners, they jus' can' b'lieve their eyes, how tall the insulae are here in Rome. There's one near the forum seven stories high!"
Hermogenes shook his head. Seven stories high on how wide abase? These buildings looked as though they would fall down at the passage of a particularly heavy cart: the gods help those caught in one during an earthquake!
The porter took the head shake for an expression of amazement, and was encouraged to continue. "Mos' foreigners, they jus' can't b'lieve how big this city is, neither,"he declared. "Your home city, now, sir, with respec'--how big is she across, eh?"
Hermogenes shrugged. "Three, four miles?"
The man blinked, surprised. "Oh. Tha's ... tha's near as big." He looked sideways at Hermogenes. "That'd be Alexandria?"
"They say she's a great city, too," the porter conceded.
It was pleasing that even this ignorant man knew of Alexandria's greatness, knew that she rivaled Rome. Hermogenes smiled. "I am glad to behold the city that rules her." Even if it isn't as beautiful, he added privately. "What is your name, fellow?"
"Gaius Rubrius Libo, sir," the porter said promptly. "This here's my brother, Quintus." His partner grinned.
Taken aback, Hermogenes ran the names through his mind again: three names, all solidly Latin. Could that mean ... ? "Are you citizens?" he asked in amazement.
Gaius Rubrius grinned. "Yessir. Sons of a Roman, born and bred in Rome."
It should not have been so disconcerting, Hermogenes told himself. Obviously at Rome itself there would be ordinary Roman citizens, men of no particular wealth and importance. It shocked him, nonetheless, to discover that he'd just hired two Roman citizens to carry his luggage. In Alexandria the Roman citizenship was a thing only wealth and power could aspire to gain. He felt obscurely ashamed of the way he'd just flaunted his own citizenship.
"No' many like us, these days," Gaius Rubrius admitted. "Most'a the other fellows you find carrying things thesedays, they're freedmen or freedmen's sons if they're not slaves outright. Sons of Gauls or, gods hate 'em, Syrians like tha' bastard Helops." He spat, noticed Hermogenes' blank expression, and explained, "The fellow in the red tunic, head groom a' tha' livery stable. Has all the drivers send their fares to him, and charges the porters and chair bearers before he'll send 'em on. Makes trouble about a fellow waitin' in his courtyard to see if anyone wants a ride. Real bastard."
"You tripped him up, sir," Quintus Rubrius put in slyly, and laughed.
Hermogenes shrugged, embarrassed. He could see nothing particularly reprehensible in a livery stable groom arranging porters and sedan chairs for customers, even if he did take a cut. At least the customers would have somewhere to turn if the porters made off with their possessions. He would have been willing to pay a little more for that reassurance himself, if he hadn't been so dissatisfied with the service he'd received from the driver. He glanced back, and was reassured to find Phormion and Menestor close behind, alert, unencumbered and ready to deal with any trouble that arose. Not that he expected any: it was just better to be ready. "My quarrel was with the driver," he remarked, returning his attention to the porters.
"Gallio's a bugger, too," Gaius Rubrius assured him.
They walked on for a few minutes in silence. They had passed through the Ostian Gate now, and the tenements rose up hills to each side, one above another, quiet in the afternoon sun. In their thick shade the street seemed narrower and darker. Some of the ground-floor apartmentsseemed to have been given over to shops or cookhouses, but at this time of day they were shut, their fronts sealed with heavy wooden shutters, giving the street a blank, walled-in feeling. In dirt-paved alleys which twisted from the main road women stood talking in low voices while children played amid the rubbish. Dogs barked and babies cried. The air smelled of sewage.
A gang of boys at the entrance to one of the apartment blocks watched them go past with sullen dark eyes. One of them shouted something, the words unclear but the jeering tone unmistakable. A man at the window of another building spat, the gobbet of phlegm falling on the dirty pavement by Hermogenes' feet. It reminded him uneasily of parts of Alexandria's Rhakotis quarter. He wished he had not put on his best cloak that morning, and that he'd used a copper pin for his tunic. He'd wanted to impress the Romans as a man of substance, but he would never have walked through the Rhakotis quarter wearing Scythopolitan linen, expensively doubled-dyed gold-russet, and a tunic fastened with a gold pin. It was as good as a proclamation: "Rich man! Worth robbing!"--and here the cut of the cloak proclaimed him not merely "Rich man!" but "Rich foreigner!" which was even worse. He glanced uneasily back at Menestor and Phormion again. Even their plain tunics--clean, of good quality linen, and decorated in Menestor's case with patterned edges--would have been ill-advised in the Rhakotis quarter. And they did look foreign here, there was no denying it. Phormion was too dark, and Menestor's seventeen-year-old honey-colored grace too exotic.
"Is this a bad part of the city?" he asked at last.
"Not so bad, no," Gaius Rubrius said judiciously. "Nowhere in Rome's really safe, unnerstan', but there's worse than this. Transtibertina, fr starters: never go there after dark. Subura's had, too, and around the Via Appia beyond the Capena Gate. Via Appia itself isn' too bad in town--main roads, see, they're better than alleyways."
"it is the same in Alexandria." He had been taking some comfort from the fact that this was a main road.
"Via Tusculana, now--most of that's a good area. The top of it's up by the Sacra Via, right near the Palatine. The bottom by the Caelimontana Gate, tha's not so good, but not too bad neither. Bout like this. Which end is it you want, sir?"
Hermogenes hesitated. "Probably the better end, but I am not certain," he admitted. "I have never before been to Rome. I will ask for the house."
"It's a house? Not an insula?
An island? Hermogenes thought, then remembered that the apartment blocks were called insulae; Rubrius had even used the term to him before. "I believe it is a house," he said cautiously. "Crispus is a businessman., like myself." He used the term Crispus had always employed for himself: negotiator.
"Sacra Via end, then," the porter said confidently. "I'd'a looked there first anyway, seein' as how you're a gentleman."
Well, the cloak had impressed someone, anyway. He hoped the porters had him down as a man who could reward helpfulness generously, and perhaps provide more custom in future--that they would work to please him.
"Is y'r friend expectin' you?" Rubrius asked.
"Yes," Hermogenes said at once, although he wasn't certain that was true. He had sent Crispus a letter before setting out from Alexandria, but there was no way to know whether Crispus had actually received it--and of course, even if Crispus was expecting him, the vagaries of ships and winds meant he couldn't know when his guest might arrive. A foreigner adrift in a strange city, however, was a foreigner who could be robbed with impunity, and he wouldn't appear any more vulnerable than he had to--particularly not with those valuables in his trunk.
"Sacra Via end f'r sure," Rubrius repeated.
They came out from between the hills, and to Hermogenes' relief, the neighborhood improved. The wood-and-brick bleachers of what Rubrius said was the Circus Maximus--Rome's main racecourse--towered above them to their left. To their right, the tenements gave way to more substantial apartment blocks faced with plaster painted to resemble marble, punctuated by the occasional private house. The roadway curved about the end of the Circus Maximus, then ended in a small public square. Ahead of them rose another hill, this one covered with large houses set amid fine gardens. Marble gleamed white against the green of leaves.
"Tha's the Palatine," said Gaius Rubrius, nodding at it. "Where the emperor an' his friends live, when they're in the city. The Sacra Via goes past it on the other side. This is the end of the Via Ostiensis, but we'll jus' nip across by the lanes. No' too much further now."
"Jus' as well," muttered his brother, Quintus. "This thing's heavy."
"Isn't the emperor in the city now?" Hermogenes asked with interest, gazing up at the Palatine.
"Na," Gaius said with resignation. "He's off in the West, and his friend Agrippa's off in the East. Nothin' happenin' this summer. There haven' been no games since the beginnin' of the month, and the circus has been empty even longer. It'll kill me with boredom; I love the games. You'd think Taurus would put on some games--he's prefect of the city right now, Statilius Taurus the general, and he loves the games himself; built the big amphitheater for 'em over in the Campus Martius. But everythin's been dead."
They crossed the square at the entrance to that deserted circus, and followed another street right, then left about the foot of the Palatine. The neighborhood became richer still. Now the apartment blocks were faced with real, rather than imitation, marble, and their entranceways were decorated with mosaic titles, while the wooden shutters of the closed shops were painted in bright colors. They joined another road which Rubrius said was the beginning of the Via Appia: here there were no apartments at all, only private houses, large ones with facades of polished stone, doors of carved oak, and torches set in ornamental iron brackets along the road front. The occasional portico of shops or small temple made columned gaps in a sweep of plaster-work and marble. The pavements had been swept, and even the street was cleaner. The scent of sewage was replaced by that of cook fires, herbs, and stone pavement in sunlight.
On the other side of the Palatine, as Rubrius had promised, they reached a crossroads with another major thoroughfare.
"Tha's the Sacra Via," said Gaius Rubrius, gesturing left down a wide, marble-lined avenue. "It goes to the forum. An' tha's the Via Tusculana." He jerked the basket of luggage right. "Y' can start askin' fer yer friend's house, sir."
The first man Hermogenes asked--a water vendor on the corner--had never heard of Fiducius Crispus. They had to go another six blocks along the Via Tusculana, to a point where the houses were far less grand and had been joined by insulae again, before they found someone who knew his house.
"Crispus the moneylender," said the old woman, grimacing. "On the right, three blocks north. A big place with a door all studded with iron and dolphin torch brackets. But if you're thinkin' to borrow money, think again. It's always better to sell than to borrow."
Hermogenes thanked her and started on. Gaius Rubrius followed more slowly, frowning. "A moneylender, sir?" he asked hesitantly. The word, faenerator, was far less respectable than the negotiator Hermogenes had used.
Hermogenes shrugged, slowing his own steps to keep beside the porter. "He lends money at interest. So do I. Large sums, mostly, at moderate interest, and only to those who can repay me. Not small sums to poor men, at extortionate rates which are extracted with violence."
"Oh," said Rubrius. His expression, however, said he was not convinced. Moneylenders were cruel and disreputable men.
Hermogenes sighed, wondering whether to say more or just leave it. Say more, he decided. Gaius and QuintusRubrius seemed reasonably honest and helpful, and they appeared to know the city well: he might want to hire them again, and if he did he would want their goodwill. "It isn't always better to sell than to borrow," he said quietly. "What would you do if your sedan chair broke, and you didn't have enough saved to buy a new one?"
"Gods avert the omen!" exclaimed Rubrius.
"Would you just carry things on your back until you had enough for a new chair?" Hermogenes went on.
"You'd have a hard job tryin' to buy a new chair tha' way," Quintus Rubrius put in contemptuously. "You don' make half as much carryin' sacks as you do wi' a sedan chair."
"Well, then, would you sell your wife's jewelry, or your winter cloaks, to pay for one?"
Rubrius shook his head. "Wouldn' be worth the grief from my wife, and if I sold the cloak I'd have to buy a new one or shiver all winter. New cloaks cost a lot more'n I'd get for the old one. Y'r right, sir, to think that me 'n Quintus'd borrow the money."
"And so the man who lent you that money would be providing you with a service that benefited you. If he was a dishonest man who made loans to those who could not repay him, and who sent in bailiffs to seize their goods or their children when they were overcome by debt, you would be right to despise him--but if he was an honest man who never did those things, why should you think ill of him? Carrying luggage is also a useful service. Some porters steal from their customers, or damage or lose their goods. Should I despise you because of them?"
There was a silence, and then Quintus Rubrius laughed. "Greeks c'n prove that black is white!"
"All I am saying is that moneylending is an honest trade, even if some who practice it are dishonest."
Gaius Rubrius looked at him sideways. "But you don' give loans for sedan chairs, do you, sir?"
Hermogenes smiled. "On the whole, no. Most of my money--tike most of the money of my friend Titus Fiducius Crispus--is in shipping. The building and equipping of ships for trade is costly, and the risks they meet on the seas are great. It's customary to defray both by spreading them among syndicates of investors, who may make a great profit on a successful voyage, or lose money on an unsuccessful one: trade benefits either way. I--and Titus Fiducius--also have money invested in buildings, and in some loans to private individuals. But neither of us can rightly be termed a moneylender. If a man handles large sums, he terms himself a businessman. I agree, though, that the principle is the same. We charge for the use of our money as you do for the use of your chair."
Gaius Rubrius looked down. He shifted the poles of the sedan chair on his shoulder, then smiled. Hermogenes, assessing that smile, decided that the porter was not convinced that moneylending might be an honest trade, but that he was flattered that a rich Greek thought him worth conciliating. Hermogenes sighed: he should have kept his mouth shut. He never could seem to manage to look after his dignity as he should.
Not that Romans, from all he had ever seen, allowedmuch dignity to Greeks in the best of circumstances. Dignity, as far as he could make out, was supposed to be a purely Roman attribute: Greeks were supposed to be clever. It was odd, the way they always exclaimed over Greek cleverness while treating it as somehow inherently dishonest: Greeks can prove that black is white! If you actually asked them about their own tradesmen, merchants, or politicians, they had no hesitation in telling you that some were thieves and liars; likewise, they'd readily agree that such-and-such a Greek banker or ship captain was an honest man--but somehow or other this never dented their assurance that Romans were honest and Greeks weren't.
He'd met the attitude often enough in Roman merchants. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised to see that it went right to the bottom of Roman society.
"Is that y'r friend's house?" asked Quintus Rubrius.
It was, unmistakably: the only house in a block of insulae. It was a large, fine house, with a wrought-iron torch bracket in the shape of a dolphin on either side of the iron-studded double door. Gaius and Quintus Rubrius set down the sedan chair with the luggage in front of that door, and Gaius knocked. Menestor abruptly hurried forward from his place at the back of the procession and edged the porter aside. Dealing with the slaves of his master's associates was his job, and he was always very protective of his position. He rapped smartly on the iron-studded oak.
There was a long silence, but at last a window in the lodge swung open, and a hideous face looked out--a shiny white mask of scar tissue from which two red eyes blinkedsuspiciously. It was hairless, and the ears were no more than stumps. A fire, Hermogenes thought, wrestling with his shock: the poor fellow was burned in a fire.
"What d'you want?" growled the doorkeeper suspiciously.
Menestor hesitated, then asked hopefully, "Do you speak Greek?"
The doorkeeper merely blinked at him. Hermogenes sighed and stepped forward: it was undignified to negotiate with Crispus's slaves himself, but it seemed he had to do it. "Is this the house of Titus Fiducius Crispus?" he asked politely.
The doorkeeper blinked again. "Yes," he admitted. "But the master isn't in. Try again tomorrow morning."
"He has invited me to be his guest. He should be expecting me. I am Marcus Aelius Hermogenes, of Alexandria."
"He never said he was expecting nobody," the doorkeeper objected.
Hermogenes firmly squashed his rising anger and embarrassment. Letters could easily miscarry, or instructions from a master could fail to reach the person responsible for carrying them out--neither of which was a doorkeeper's fault. "Your master has invited me," he repeated calmly, "and I believe he is expecting me. If he is out, will you check whether he's left any instructions about me?"
The doorkeeper blinked at him some more. "Marcus Aelius Hermokrates of Alexandria, you said?"
The doorkeeper grunted and disappeared, closing his window behind him.
There was a silence, then a snigger from Quintus Rubrius.
Young Menestor turned a dusky red and glared at the porter. Then he gave his master a look of angry apology. "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "You shouldn't have had to deal with a freak like that. He was rude, wasn't he?
"No," Hermogenes told the boy soothingly, "merely abrupt in his manner. He said that his master is out, and that no one had told him to expect us. I should have sent a letter from Ostia yesterday. It had been dusk by the time they'd disembarked from the ship the previous day: he hadn't wanted to search the streets and taverns for someone willing to carry a letter through the dark, and most likely wouldn't have found anyone if he had--but still, he should have tried to send a letter.
"I should have learned Latin," said Menestor unhappily.
"We've been busy." Hermogenes comforted him. He looked at Gaius Rubrius, who was watching with an expression of amusement. "As you see, there is some confusion," he told the man, in Latin. "If my friend has forgotten to leave instructions for my reception, do you know of an inn nearby where owe could--"
"My dear Hermogenes!"
Hermogenes turned back to the door, and found the sweating, pink-cheeked face of Fiducius Crispus himself beaming from the lodge window.
"Titus Fiducius," Hermogenes said formally, "greetings!"
"And to you, dear fellow!" replied Crispus. He turned from the window and snapped "Dog! What are you standing there for? Let him in!"
A bolt squealed on the inside of the door, and then the iron-studded oak swung open. The scarred doorkeeper pushed open its mate, then stood aside. Crispus pushed past him--a fat man in his late forties, rumpled in an unbelted tunic and no cloak, barefoot as though he'd been asleep. He reached for Hermogenes' outstretched hand with both his own and clasped it in two moist meaty palms.
"What a pleasure to see you here in Rome!" he exclaimed, still beaming. "Come in, come in; welcome to my house!"
"I thank you," Hermogenes said, smiling. He extricated his hand and went on, "I must first pay the porters--"
"Let me!" Crispus interrupted.
Hermogenes shook his head and turned to the Rubrius brothers, who had just finished removing the chest from the sedan chair. He took two sestertii from his purse and handed one to each man. The porters' looks of surprise gave way to wide grins.
"Thank you for your assistance," Hermogenes told them. "You seem to know the city well. If I wish to hire you again, where should I look for you?"
"Thank you, sir," said Gaius Rubrius at once, still grinning. "You can send word to us at the Cattlemarket, at the foot of the Aemilian Bridge. We could come by here for you whenever you want, if we're not on another job. We charge a denarius n' a half the day, sir, if you want the chair for longer. Half a denarius after noon."
"I may send for you, then, once I know more about how I should conduct mv business here in Rome. Good health to vou both."
"Good health to you, sir!" chorused the Rubrii, and set off down the street, their empty chair dangling from one pole between them.
Crispus tut-tutted. "You shouldn't be so polite to rabble like that," he informed his guest. "It makes them greedy--and you paid those fellows too much, too."
"I know," said Hermogenes, turning back to his host. "In a strange city, I try to acquire every potential asset I meet." Besides, he thought to himself, it was worth a bit extra, to have a pair of Roman citizens carrying my luggage.
Crispus laughed. "Asset? A ragamuffin pair of sedan-chair bearers? If you need a chair, my friend, you are welcome to borrow mine. But come in, come in! Are these men yours?"
"My slaves," Hermogenes agreed. "Young Menestor here is may valet and secretary." He snapped his fingers for them to pick up the luggage.
"Dog!" snapped Crispus to the scarred doorkeeper. "Do I have to tell you everything? Help them!"
The doorkeeper went silently to the traveling chest and took one end of it. Hermogenes realised that Crispus had called the man "dog" in Greek, even though the rest of the conversation was in Latin. "Does your doorkeeper speak Creek?" he asked in confusion. The man had not appeared to understand Menestor.
Crispus giggled and shook his head. "Not a word of it. But I give all my slaves Greek names; it's the fashion. His isKyon." He giggled again. "Good name for a doorkeeper, don't you think?"
Hermogenes tried to keep his feelings from his face. The idea of renaming slaves to fit a current fashion was repulsive, and the thought of obliging one to answer to Dog made him queasy. He didn't like the idea of a fashion for giving slaves Greek names, either.
His attempt at concealing his emotions obviously hadn't succeeded, because Crispus cried, "Oh, dear! You're offended. I assure you, this fashion for Greek names is only because we admire Greek culture so much, not because ... obviously we don't think of Greeks as naturally servile!"
Hermogenes forced himself to smile understandingly. Inwardly he wondered if staying with Crispus was really such a good idea. It had seemed the obvious thing to do: Crispus was an old business associate of his father, after all, and had been a guest in Alexandria on several occasions. He had always declared himself eager to return the favor. It was very much the done thing to stay with guest-friends if you had any, much more respectable than a public inn ... but now that he was here, he was remembering that he'd never actually liked Fiducius Crispus much.
Too late to do anything about it now. Besides, he needed advice, and Crispus could give it to him. He followed his host into the house.
The street door opened onto a wide entrance corridor decorated with a mosaic picture of a barking dog; the doorkeeper's lodge was a tiny cell to the right of it. Through the entranceway was a vaulted atrium, with a pond in the centerto catch the rainfall from the open circle of the impluvium in the ceiling. An archway beyond revealed a small courtyard with a garden.
An anxious-looking man of about Hermogenes' own age hurried in through the archway. He wore a tunic of plain bleached linen and a heavy leather belt through which was pushed a short leather whip. He bowed to Crispus and cast Hermogenes a worried look from mild blue eyes. "They're getting the Nile rooms ready, master," he informed Crispus in a hoarse whisper. His voice was so strained that Hermogenes wondered if there was something wrong with it. "And I've had wine sent to the dining room."
Crispus nodded. "That's something, then." He smiled at Hermogenes. "I told my slaves to get a room ready for you as soon as I received your letter--but, of course, the lazy things did nothing about it, and the place is perfectly squalid. Come and have something to drink while they do what should have been done days ago. Stentor, see my friends slaves and his luggage to his room."
Stentor, thought Hermogenes, looking at the hoarse-voiced man incredulously. Named after the brazen-voiced herald in Homer.
Stentor gestured for Menestor. and Phormion to pick up the trunk again; both at once looked to Hermogenes. Menestor's expression held a touch of panic. Hermogenes couldn't blame him: the prospect of being led off into a strange household by a man with a whip would frighten any slave, and the young man couldn't even understand what that croaking voice said to him. Hermogenes touched hisarm lightly. "They are getting my rooms ready," he explained in Greek. "This man will show you where to put the luggage. I will ask if--"
"Ah, yes!" exclaimed Crispus. "I should have said, shouldn't I? Stentor here is my steward. If you want anything during your stay, ask him."
The worried blue eyes of the steward blinked. Hermogenes smiled at him in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. "Stentor," he said, "these are my valued attendants, Menestor and Phormion. They are tired and thirsty from our journey, and I would be grateful if you could ensure that they are looked after. Unfortunately, neither of them speaks Latin."
"I speak some Greek, sir," the steward volunteered. There was something wrong with his voice. "And so do some of the others in the household. Our master is a man of culture--but I'm sure you know that." He turned to Menestor and said in accented, hoarse, but acceptable Greek, "Put the things in your master's room, and then I will give you to drink."
"Moderation," Hermogenes reminded Phormion. The big bodyguard, who was fond of drink, rolled his eyes and nodded.
The slaves followed Stentor through the archway and to the left. Hermogenes allowed Crispus to escort him through and to the right, into a large room facing into the courtyard. It was decorated with garish red panels, augmented by rondels depicting exotic animals--elephants, tigers, and giraffes. A girl and a boy were busy with cups and mixing bowls at the sideboard, but they turned andbowed as the two men entered. Crispus flopped onto the nearest of the three couches and put his feet up on the red leather upholstery. Hermogenes sat warily on the next one. He glanced at his sandals: they were dirty. The girl hurried over, unfastened the guest's sandals, and wiped his feet with a damp towel. The boy followed with a pitcher and two red Arretine-ware cups, but Crispus stopped him with a gesture before he could pour.
"What's the wine?" he demanded.
"The Sabine, master," quavered the boy. "Mixed half and half with water, Stentor said."
"Ah!" Crispus nodded approvingly. "Good, good! One of our local Italian vintages, Hermogenes; I hope you like it. Go on, Hyakinthos. pour it for him!"
"Please, I do not want it so strong," Hermogenes said hurriedly. "I have just walked from the Ostian Gate, and I would like more of water."
The boy filled the guest's cup halfway before turning to pour wine for his master. The girl hurried back to the sideboard, dropped the towel, and came over with a second pitcher, this one containing cold water. She topped up the guest's cup.
"Your health!" Hermogenes said, raising his cup, and Crispus returned the toast.
The wine was a harsh, rather sour red, but deliciously wet after the hot carriage and the walk across the city. Hermogenes drained his cup, and the boy instantly refilled it. Hermogenes wondered how the lad felt about being called Hyakinthos. The myth of the beautiful boy loved by the god Apollo was routinely invoked by pederastie poets, and itseemed very likely that other boys would greet the name with knowing sniggers. Then he remembered that Crispus liked boys: during one visit there'd been some trouble over one he'd picked up in the marketplace. Hyakinthos was probably well aware of the implications of his name.
"You walked from the Ostian Gate?" Crispus asked genially. "You didn't even use that sedan chair you paid so much for?"
"That was for the luggage. In truth, I had not intended to walk, Crispus. I had intended to come all the way by carriage, but ..." He shrugged, gave a deprecating smile. "I did not know that carriages are not allowed into Rome."
"Call me Titus," offered Crispus. "That's right, this is your first visit, isn't it? I'm pleased that I can finally offer you some hospitality in exchange for all the kindness you and your father have shown to me." There was a pause, and then he added solemnly, "I was very sorry to hear of your father's fate. I pray the earth is light upon him."
Hermogenes bowed his head. The first time anyone had prayed that the earth was light on his father's grave, he had shouted furiously, "How could it be? He drowned at sea!" The grief then had been raw, savage, and unwieldy. It had seemed impossible that the father who had shaped his own life so entirely, could so suddenly and absolutely vanish from it. Sometimes he had woken up convinced that it had been a mistake, that his father's ship had not sunk but merely been driven off course, and his father would soon be home. It had been more than half a year now, though, and he knew that Philemon was never going to return from the deep salt water. He had learned to hide his pain, to wear apolite mask over his smoldering rage. He had even learned to accept condolences gracefully.
"And you are his sole heir?" Crispus continued. "It must have been some comfort to him to know that he left his affairs in capable hands."
Hermogenes took another sip of wine and murmured that it was kind of Crispus to say so.
"Oh, I don't say it from kindness!" the Roman protested. "It would be a comfort to me, I promise you, if I had an able son instead of a worthless nephew to inherit all my hard work." He took a swallow of wine and went on, "Of course, these days a man's made to feel like a traitor to the state if he's a bachelor. We've all been told that it's our duty to marry and breed Romans. You've heard about the Julian laws?"
Hermogenes had indeed heard of the new laws to encourage marriage and punish adultery. "You're thinking of getting married Because of them?" he asked, amused. He remembered, vividly, how Crispus had once told him that marriage was a trap to enslave men. and that any man of spirit should thank the gods if he escaped it. The speech had been intended to comfort him for the death in childbirth of his own wife, and it hadn't seemed funny at the time.
Crispus sighed deeply and gazed into his wine. "I think about it. Then I think again. How could I live without boys--or with the grief a wife would give me over keeping them? What about you? Have you remarried yet?"
Hermogenes suppressed the grimace of disgust. He heard far more than he wanted on the subject off remarriagefrom all his father's associates. At least Crispus didn't have a daughter. "Not yet," he said mildly.
"You ought to. Get yourself a son and heir. Your first wife didn't give you any children, did she?"
"She gave me a daughter."
Crispus dismissed female offspring with a negligent wave, then straightened with a look of mock alarm. "Gods and goddesses, I'd forgotten that! Shouldn't have mentioned that I was thinking of marriage myself, should I? Any man with a daughter is looking to buy her a rich husband."
Hermogenes thought of his daughter, who had informed him that she intended to be an acrobat when she grew up ("With a costume all made out of red leather with gold on!"), who was always in trouble at school for dirtying her clothes, whose luminous grin could persuade her respectable father to such feats as climbing the garden wall and sneaking into a neighbor's shed to see a nest of young kittens. He looked at the fat man sweating on his red-upholstered couch and thought I'd see you dead first. He smiled, and said, "She is only ten years old, Cris--Titus, I am not looking yet. Besides, I am sure you can find yourself a wife here in Rome, if you decide you want one. How is business?"
Crispus told him, at length, about his interest in a new shipping syndicate and some building work in Rome. Hermogenes listened attentively, occasionally making a mental note of something that might be useful. At last his host exhausted the subject and looked at his wine cup. It was empty, and he snapped his fingers to fetch the cupbearer.
"What about you?" he asked, as Hyakinthos refilled it."In your letter you said that you had some important business in Rome, but you didn't say what it was."
Hermogenes refused a top-up of his own cup. Important business. He was uncomfortably aware that the powerful impulses which had driven him to leave his home and family and come to Rome had little to do with business. Oh, there was money at stake as well, but it wasn't what mattered to him. He did not want to admit to Titus Fiducius that what he was really hoping to find in Rome was that elusive and impractical thing: justice. Any businessman would find that suspect and disturbing. Justice could well end up being far more expensive than even the worstjudged commercial transaction.
"I am here like a bailiff, to collect a debt which is overdue," he declared, smiling as though it didn't matter to him. "I would welcome any advice you have to give me on how I should go about it."
Crispus laughed. "Whose furniture are you looking to seize?"
"I will not 'seize' anything. The debtor is a wealthy and powerful man. What I want advice on is how to approach him tactfully."
"Who is it?"
"Lucius Tarius Rufus." In Alexandria he had once written that name out on a wax tablet, then scored it over with the stylus so deeply that he had taken all the wax off and gouged the wood beneath. He was pleased that he could utter it now with such casual calm.
Crispus sat up straight and stared in amazement. "The general? Jupiter! He's consul!"
"Is he?" Hermogenes asked in surprise. "Surely, the consuls this year are"--he recalled the date on his most recent Roman business contract. It was agreed during the consulship of--"Domitius Ahenobarbus and Cornelius Scipio?"
"Tarius Rufus replaced Scipio at the beginning of the month," Crispus told him. "It happens a lot these days. The nobles expect the consulship by right of birth; the new men think they've earned it, and they end up having to share. Scipio's blue blood undoubtedly boiled at having to step down for a farmboy from Picenum, but step down he did. Rufus is a friend of the emperor, and Augustus trusted him to command the army of the Danube. You don't argue with a man like that." He got to his feet, carried his cup to the sideboard, then turned around still clutching it. "I can see why you're eager to be tactful. He owes you money? I never knew he had any business in Egypt."
Hermogenes swirled the wine round his half-empty cup. "He doesn't, as far as I am aware. However, twelve years ago he was proconsul of Cyprus--an island which, as you know, has always had the closest ties with Egypt, since it used to belong to the kings. My father's sister married a prominent businessman there, a man by the name of Nikomachos--he of the shipping syndicate, yes! Rufus borrowed half a million sestertii from him at five percent per annum."
"He signed a contract?"
Hermogenes nodded. "Signed, sealed, and witnessed. In fact, during the first five years after he borrowed it he did make regular repayments--all the annual interest, and a hundred thousand of the principal. Then, however, the paymentsceased. Rufus was in Illyria at the time, with the army of the Danube, and at first Nikomachos thought that he had simply failed to authorize his man of business in Rome to release the money. However, when he pursued the matter, he was unable to obtain anything more than another forty thousand of the interest. The default began to place a strain on his own affairs, and he pursued it more urgently, but received only threats from Rufus's secretary and no reply at all from the man himself, even after he left the Danube and went back to Rome. Last autumn Nikomachos died, leaving his estate heavily in debt. The heir to the estate--and the debt--was my father."
Hermogenes took a sip of wine and swilled it round his mouth. "Nikomachos's creditors were threatening to seize his house and turn his widow, my father's sister, out into the street, so my father decided to go to Cyprus himself to set things right, even though it was late in the year."
He made himself have another swallow of wine, and was able to continue in a more-or-less normal voice, "He never arrived there. There was a storm, and his ship went down. In the spring I went to Cyprus myself, liquidated the estate, paid off the most pressing creditors, and persuaded my aunt to come back to Alexandria with me. Now I am, as you have mentioned, sole heir to my father's estate, and that includes the debt he inherited from Nikomachos. Lucius Tarius Rufus owes me five hundred and twenty thousand sestertii." And the lives of my father and my uncle. He met Crispus's eyes. "I presume he does have the money."
Crispus shrugged. "I'm sure he does, my friend, I'm sure he does. As you said, he's a very wealthy and powerfulman. But he may well be a bit short of cash in hand. The consulship is an expensive proposition. You are not going to be a welcome visitor."
Hermogenes shrugged. "He borrowed the money." He paused, considering, then went on, "It could be lucky for me that he is consul right now. He will not want the embarrassment of a summons for debt while he actually holds the supreme magistracy of Rome."
Crispus stared at him, aghast. "Oh, Jupiter!" He began to laugh. "You're not going to tell him you'll do that?"
"I hope to settle the matter quietly. I do, however, hold a valid and binding contract--and, unlike Nikomachos, I am a citizen and entitled to use the Roman courts."
Crispus laughed again. "Oh, gods and goddesses! Imagine it! A Roman consul summoned for debt by an Egyptian moneylender! He'd be the laughingstock of the city for the rest of his life!"
Hermogenes looked up in surprise and indignation. "I am not an Egyptian!"
Crispus flapped a hand in concession. "I know, I know--but in Rome, nobody cares whether you're an Alexandrian Greek or an Egyptian Greek or a plain ordinary Egyptian Egyptian. You come from Egypt: you're Egyptian."
"I am a Roman citizen."
"Hermogenes, you're an Alexandrian to your fingernails! Your father lent money to Aelius Gallus when he was governor of Egypt, and accepted the citizenship in lieu of payment. That isn't the same as being a real Roman."
"I am Roman enough to take Rufus to court."
Crispus stopped laughing. "You're serious? No, myfriend, don't do it. Don't even threaten it. A man like that, sitting there in the curial chair--do you know what the consulship means?"
"Probably not," Hermogenes admitted. "I thought the consuls had very little real power, these days."
Crispus looked uncomfortable. Of course: the emperor boasted that he had restored the republic, which ought to mean that the consuls were once again the supreme governors of the Roman state. To admit that they were merely figureheads was to disagree with the emperor, and that was not wise. "It's not a question of power," Crispus declared, skirting the issue. "It's the honor. I'm equestrian class, as you know; I'm not a noble, I don't run after magistracies--in fact, I think they're a waste of time and money!--but even I feel awe when I look at the consulship. You can go into the forum and read the names of every man who's held the office, two of them every year, all the way back to the founding of the city--all the most famous names in history. Once a man has sat down in the curial chair he's a noble, whatever he was before, and what's more, all his sons after him are noble. The consulship is the summit of any man's achievements. Tarius Rufus ... he's a nobody by birth, he's scrambled his way up through the army to get where he is now, but he's there, he's made it. If you came in, at his hour of triumph, and threatened to make him a joke ... he'd kill you! And who could stop him? He's a general and a friend of the emperor."
Hermogenes met his eyes and saw the boundaries of the other man's hospitality. Crispus would not keep in his house a man who threatened a Roman consul with disgrace--notbecause he supported the consul but because he feared the consequences for himself.
Hermogenes wondered, not for the first time, how bad those consequences could be. Crispus had implied they might even include death. It would be a terrible thing to die far from home, for nothing, leaving a household headless and a daughter orphaned. Nothing he could gain here was worth that.
Was that extreme consequence very likely, though? Tarius Rufus was a powerful man, yes, but he was not an emperor: he was still subject to the ordinary laws of Rome. Surely even a Roman consul would find it difficult to murder a Roman citizen just because he was a creditor? Rufus was undoubtedly able to pay his debt if he wanted to. Confronted with a creditor who was a citizen, able to summon him in a Roman court, surely he would find it easier to give in and pay up?
Rufus had chosen not to pay his debt before, and Hermogenes' uncle and father had died because of it. To abandon the struggle before it was even begun would be a betrayal of their memory. No: Crispus was merely being timid in the face of consular authority. Hermogenes would press his claim--but he would try to involve his host as little as possible.
He bowed his head. "Titus, I already told you that I want your advice on how to approach him tactfully. I do not want to offend him in any way. I want to settle this as quietly and peacefully as I possibly can." It was all true, as far as it went. "Thank you for your warning."
"Good," replied Crispus, relaxing. He noticed that hiscup was empty again and held it out to the boy. When it was full he sat down on his couch again and gulped some. "I don't see why he wouldn't agree to pay you," he said after a minute, wiping his mouth, "He might not give you all the money at once, but it isn't as though he can't afford it, after all. It may well be that he never even saw your uncle's letters, and has forgotten all about the debt. Maybe he even thinks it was all paid off long ago. It's entirely possible that his secretary has been taking the payments from his master's estate and putting them in his own purse."He frowned. "It might be better if you didn't mention your uncle's name when you make an appointment with the consul. That way the secretary, if he has been thieving, won't try to stop you seeing him. And it would definitely be a good idea to take your contract, and any papers relating to the debt, and get them stored and registered at the public records office, so that nobody can interfere with them."
"As you say," Hermogenes said meekly. "How does one make an appointment to see a consul?"