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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Third Nero

A Flavia Albia Novel

Flavia Albia Series (Volume 5)

Lindsey Davis

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

I


Many people wanted to believe the Emperor Nero had never died. At least three pretenders passed themselves off as him. One had made a false claim within weeks, under his successor, Galba. Another was dealt with by Titus, and last year Domitian had to tackle a third. Pretending to be a resurrected Nero held a curious appeal. And it was simple: look like him, own a harp, pop up far away in Syria—then keep moving when the legions came to get you. As they certainly would.

One False Nero was caught at sea; two later ones tried fleeing to Parthia. Bad mistake. Devious foreigners in trousers and conical hats used any False Nero they got hold of as a political tool. But once Rome had negotiated the return of that particular fake, he soon ended his deluded existence, dead in a ditch. In this, at least, he matched the real Nero.

Beforehand, in establishing a claim, the harp needed to be mastered only loosely because Nero was at best a mediocre musician so any bum notes would sound authentic. Looking like him could be achieved by dyeing the hair yellow and plonking a wreath on top. Strong self-belief was a nice touch.

To be realistic, nowadays such impersonations were harder. People in Syria joined uprisings whenever they were asked, but even they were growing tired of failure and its horrible consequences. Rome has developed reprisals to its own fine art. Rome puts down a revolt so firmly that it lingers long in the memory. I should know. I come from Britain. We had all that after Boudicca.

In any case, two decades had passed since Nero died. Even in districts where he always drew a cult following, his mad appeal became more nebulous. New pretenders found it harder to tickle up rebellions, even among gullible people who convinced themselves that Nero was wonderful and had not cut his throat with a razor, or had had it cut for him because he was too cowardly. He went into hiding only until the moment came to reappear and conquer tyranny …

In Rome, Nero was seen rather differently, even though we had a real need for a protector who could see off tyrants. We had our tyrant. He spent a lot of time looking around for people who might want to dislodge him, then had them put to death. Pretenders made him especially nervous.

The third False Nero, the recent one, remained “shadowy.” In part, this might have been because Rome’s Daily Gazette couldn’t be bothered with him. The editors wanted new news stories, not yet another harp-twangler, with more mischievous involvement from Parthia, leading once again to the sordid death of the hopeless hopeful. If number three was dumped in that useful ditch, who cared? Failed fakes were old news.

Besides, it was overseas. Any False Nero had to compete for public interest with the nitty-gritty of our daily life: senatorial decrees, the harvest, aristocratic births, crime, scandal, wills, portents, athletics results and the so-called military successes of our all-too-living emperor, Domitian.

The Gazette’s column about amazing spectacles had a cracker this week anyway.

SHOCK NEWS MIRACLE ON AVENTINE Aedile struck by lightning on wedding day. “He is determined not to miss the Roman Games,” vows weeping bride of miracle survivor. “Manlius Faustus will appear in his official role.”

Juno. That was as preposterous as most Gazette reports. It ranked with three-headed calves being born in a village in Mauretania or a small earthquake, not many dead. I was the bride so I should know. I had had no time to weep, even though the half-killed new husband was mine. And until I was sure he was fit again, my man was damn well not going to be dragged out in public at the Games, even though it was his duty to help organize them.

The mangled report did have consequences, however. That September, the toiling bureaucrats in their vast office complex on the Palatine were still tidying up loose ends on the newest False Nero. They were making sure he remained as “shadowy” as possible. For a routine chore, they all read the Gazette to ensure compliance with official policy—where “official policy” meant “the paranoid decisions of Domitian.” The Gazette’s amazing-spectacles section was less sternly policed than others—who cared about a rain of brilliant green frogs in Thrace?—but the SHOCK NEWS MIRACLE made the bureaucrats pause. In the way of their inquisitive trade, they must have checked whom this unlucky magistrate had been marrying when the lightning bolt felled him.

The report did not specify that his allegedly tearful bride was a daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, who had once worked as imperial informer, or that I myself carried out personal inquiries for the general public. The Daily Gazette probably left this unsaid because it does not accuse magistrates’ brand-new wives of low activities—not unless they have committed adultery with actors, and even then it has to be actors the public had heard of. But the bureaucrats existed to know who people were and what they did. They had their own resources—crude spies, torturers, death squads—or sometimes, for light surveillance, they would hire freelance investigators. They kept lists of all Rome’s freelances. Whether I liked it or not, they knew what I did.

Just my luck: one of them needed a task carried out discreetly. Widows were involved, nobly born widows with élite ex-husbands. To have the usual repulsive armed men approach these matrons would be undiplomatic, even in Domitian’s Rome. So when my marriage came to their attention, the officials thought of commissioning me.

My name is Albia, Flavia Albia. I carry out work for troubled people who need answers. I am efficient and discreet. I came to Rome from Britain, which makes me mysterious and exotic. But the bureaucrats knew that, as the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, I could be passed off as a decent, intelligent woman whose mother was a senator’s daughter and her father a man of standing in Rome. Wonderfully for the palace, I had just married a well-regarded magistrate—and, as the Daily Gazette said, I would soon be seen nibbling nuts with him among people of the best quality at the Roman Games.

Forget the British angle. The scroll-beetles were eager to overlook any rumors that I was a bad-tempered, straight-talking Druid. For tricky interviews with highly placed widows, I was ideal.

II

Many a bride wakes on the morning after her wedding feeling full of dread that her new husband may not be the man she had thought. In our case, if I had made a mistake, it was not his fault. The gods had struck him down and caused a great change in him; I must hope it was temporary. They were not my gods, or if they had been (if I had any gods), the whole Olympian pantheon would be answering to me.

Tiberius Manlius Faustus, a sweet and serious person, had wanted us to have the full marriage ceremony, with a big public procession from my father’s house to his. He believed a show was needed. He was committing himself to an informer, a bad move socially. Even I admitted that. My father swears informing is all aboveboard, but he is also an auctioneer, so false claims come easily to him. Besides, people knew I had come from Britannia, that peculiar province at the end of Europe. Britain fascinates everyone in Rome—none of whom would want any son of theirs to set up home with a British orphan. So, while the full marriage procedure is not a legal requirement, Faustus and I went through it as a public gesture.

During my bridal procession, a huge thunderstorm broke above the Aventine Hill. A bolt of lightning felled my new husband. Nobody had yet dared to suggest this was his punishment for marrying me, although I knew people thought it.

Three other men were killed outright. At the time I could barely take in what had happened to them, but despite the rain pouring down on us, I noticed a smell of smoke. At the second of impact, I glimpsed flashes from weapons they had been carrying. I then saw agitated helpers shake their heads, gesturing to me that I should not look at the corpses, which had been stripped by the blast, leaving their clothing in shreds and their shoes blown off.

Tiberius survived. He was thrown to the ground, briefly unconscious. Family members worked frantically to revive him; they put him on his feet again, although they had to drag him to our house for he could not walk. At first he was unable to swallow or to speak, but then he bravely managed to croak an approximate bridegroom’s welcome to his new wife. I wanted to shoo everyone away but felt I must allow the formalities, because they meant so much to him.

As soon as I could, I put him to bed. It was hardly a normal wedding night. Tiberius seemed to pass it reasonably well. I did not sleep. Terrified for him, I was in anguish. We had been so full of happiness and hope. I knew how nearly I had lost him and realized from the start that he might be significantly altered.

At first, he showed few physical marks. Next morning, a huge bruise appeared on his chest. My father was to confess eventually that he must have caused it when he thumped Tiberius with a double fist because his heart had stopped. Father knew that, by horrible coincidence, I had been widowed once before in a freak street accident; Falco could not bear it to happen twice, especially right in front of me. His action saved Tiberius’ life, though he would always remain rather quiet about just how hard he had whacked him.

“Try to hang on to this one, chuck. You attract disaster. I can’t see any other man being brave enough to take you.”

“Oh, thanks, Pa!” No orphan could have been adopted by anybody better. He was deeply upset; I could tell by his making a joke of the chance to beat up his new son-in-law.

Examining Tiberius further, I discovered strange spreading red ferny marks, which had developed upward from his feet to his torso. By then Mother had sent us a doctor, who told me these patterns on the skin were typical. He reckoned the lightning had made a direct hit on the other three men; it had killed them, then bounced along the ground in lessened strength before it sprang into Tiberius. That had spared his life, although I was warned that my poor man would suffer unpredictable after-effects, probably forever. Different people were affected in different ways, and even if he seemed unharmed, serious damage might show itself even in many years’ time.

Still shocked, he was in pain and extremely withdrawn. He let me tend him, though he hurt all over and had panic attacks. Apart from his uncle, who looked in on him briefly, I barred visitors. Most of our relatives were interested only in finding out whether our marriage had been consummated (what in Hades did they think?). Fortunately, quite a few were still too drunk to leave their houses.

The event attracted strangers. People stood outside our house and stared. Other members of the medical profession scrambled to call on us, cadging fees. I picked their brains on the doorstep, then sent them packing. Mother’s man prescribed mild sedation, while he advised letting time take its course. He was a doctor I approved of.

We had planned various parties, which I canceled. Normally, socializing for days is compulsory for new couples, but I’d had enough at the wedding. I did consult Tiberius, who agreed we had made our point. We had announced our union in spectacular style—then when the Daily Gazette reported the event, our families told us people paid good money for this kind of recognition. Father’s secretary was sent to the Forum to write down full details, which he brought and read to Tiberius, leaving the copy for us. I tossed it into a chest. I knew what had happened. I relived it every time I tried to rest.

I kept busy.

We had come to live in a house that Tiberius had bought to renovate for us. He was supposed to be running a building firm from a yard alongside; he intended to finance our own property out of his earnings on new contracts—but when would he be fit to work again? While he remained bedridden, I did not even discuss it with him. But I had to think about the situation.

We had a bare plastered house, empty of furniture, except for a beautiful entrance hall and our own bedroom, which Tiberius had completed as his marriage gift to me. Until the morning after our wedding I had never seen them. Now I finally managed to look properly, in daylight, at the exquisite wall frescos, the elegant floors, the fielded doors with their crisp architraves and new bronze handles, the carefully repaired ceiling coves; going around alone I was very upset. If I lost him, I could never live here. He had worked so hard, intending me to enjoy this house with him. Today, he ought to have been showing me everything himself.

His fresco painter turned up as soon as he heard what had happened, anxious about his bill. I snapped that it was thoughtless to harass a man who had so nearly died, and told him to return in a few days. If Tiberius was no better, I would arrange payment myself.

Other creditors were making inquiries of our clerk-of-works, next door. Larcius came from the building yard and mentioned this quietly, saying he, too, was putting people off. I reassured him that we did have funds; it was true, though I was reluctant to dig into my own investments in case we used up all our money too soon. In the short term, Tiberius and I both had wealthy relations. We could swallow our pride, put up with their teasing, and call on my father and his uncle to pay urgent bills. That is how things are done in Rome. We would never be destitute.

I did not at this point visit my banker, a cunning Greek woman who believed all savings must be hidden from your husband. Alternatively, you should grab any money that belonged to him—after poisoning his dinner.

I liked her, but I knew Arsinoë would see the lightning-strike as the gods’ wedding gift to me: husband lost, so wife achieves wealth and independence. She had yet to learn that, if Tiberius recovered, my investments would be called in to finance our intended business. All bankers assume your money is theirs to play with. The idea that you might one day want to use it yourself is blasphemy.

Tiberius and I were planning to be a family partnership, with me fully involved in our affairs. So now I had to tackle our debts. Not for me placidly weaving at a loom in the atrium, claiming that my husband always dealt with money matters while I didn’t understand that kind of thing … I would never possess a home loom. For heaven’s sake, I was an informer, not a weaver.

I needed to organize our affairs, starting with staff in the house. So far I only had one slave belonging to Tiberius, Dromo, to assist me with nursing the patient and everything else. Dromo, a dim lad, always had a one-track mind: who looked after him? Shaken by what had happened, he became needy and anxious. If his master died, Dromo would lose his provider. There would be no more cakes, no more sleeping half the day on his mat. He might even be sold to someone who would make him work. Or they might cruelly beat him …

I said unless he stopped mithering, I would beat him myself. If he wanted Tiberius to survive, he must help me look after him. Grumbling, he took himself off to brew up a spiced drink for his master. I had given him a recipe, though teaching Dromo anything was hard.

I sat down to plan. We must have someone to answer the door. After years of run-ins with the foul-mouthed, eager-for-bribes incompetents who serve as door-keepers in Rome, I now reluctantly needed one myself. Tiberius was a magistrate and my own work attracted dubious types. Face-to-face with a stranger (or, worse, some idiot you already know), you lose your options. I had to obtain an intermediary. I could not use Rodan, the elderly ex-gladiator from my old apartment: he was sordid and filthy, not to be trusted in sensitive situations. Dromo was hopeless too. He could answer the door and take basic messages, but then he would forget to tell us.

Someone to run the household was urgently needed. I couldn’t help Tiberius with his business, deal with my own clients, then also shop, clean, cook and make beds, let alone carry out that housewifely task of chatting to visitors politely even if they were persons I despised (most people). I might manage to sit in the courtyard handing around almond biscuits, but someone had to buy in dainties and bring them on a tray. Organizing a home was not for me. I can do it. Helena Justina, my adoptive mother, had made me a knowledgeable, capable woman. But it was not what I wanted to do—any more than she did. So I had to find a good steward or housekeeper, and find them fast. Then I’d supply whatever staff they needed.

I could give instructions. I had always been good at appraising situations then expressing an opinion. Tiberius even pretended to like me for it. The housekeeper would answer to me, and would know the position. Anyone who crossed me would be kicked out.

The first addition to the steward’s staff must be some biddable slave for everything Dromo refused to do.

You may think, why didn’t I dump Dromo? Bad idea. Dromo belonged to Tiberius. I would tolerate the boy patiently, as he did. I did not intend Tiberius Manlius ever to blame me for dismissing his adored favorite slave.

No, of course he did not adore him. Dromo wore him down and drove him mad. But I was keeping out of that.

I did know what I was starting here. I was a wise bride, and in choosing me Tiberius Manlius had shown he was a clever man. I was not some fifteen-year-old virgin, who had never been in charge of the keys before. I was nearly thirty and had lived on my own for years. Besides, I had been married in the past.

So had he. As far as I could see, what he had learned from it was next time to choose someone different. Having met the ex-wife, I knew he had certainly done that. A crucial difference between me and Laia Gratiana was that I had my own career. A good informer can stay solvent; my earning power gave me reassurance. However long Tiberius stayed bed-ridden, I would pay our bills. I felt lonely while he was unable to share my concerns, but I stayed calm.

I was to receive my next commission sooner than I’d thought. A new visitor arrived. Dromo let him in, shouting across the courtyard that he was too busy to keep looking after people. He went back to doing nothing. The man found his own way out to me. I knew him: it was Claudius Philippus, a bureaucrat from the palace. Although he said he was bringing official good wishes for my husband, from the start I guessed there was more to it.


Copyright © 2017 Lindsey Davis