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John Maddox Roberts

Under Vesuvius

1

It was a good year for me, even if it was a bad one for Rome. Caesar's actions had everyone on edge and the City was full of talk of civil war. It was getting difficult to accomplish anything, whether in the way of business or pleasure, so nervous was everyone. Luckily for me, I didn't have to stay there.

It was the year of my praetorship. Had I been elected praetor urbanis, I would have had to stay within the walls for the whole year, but it had been my good fortune to be elected praetor peregrinus, in charge of cases involving foreigners, and all Italy was my province. So I had cleared my City docket in short order and prepared to travel. My first destination was Campania. With my wife, Julia, a gaggle of slaves, friends, and freedmen, and preceded by my lictors, we set out for Italy's most popular resort district.

After the endless duties and tedium of the junior magistracies, the praetorship was like a vacation with duty hours. You got to lounge around in a curule chair while somebody else did all the organizing, arguing, and pleading; and when you'd heard enough you rendered judgment and nobody could dispute with you. Plus, since there were so many days on the calendar when official business was forbidden, there was plenty of time to socialize.

And socialize we did. A serving praetor was always in demand as a guest, so we dined out almost every evening. With my lictors clearing the way for our litter, we could negotiate Rome's crowded streets with ease. The prestige of the office was tremendous. A praetor held imperium and was qualified to lead armies in the field, although it had been a few generations since sitting praetors had done so. At last, Julia had the social standing to which she knew she was entitled.

To cap it all, I could look forward to a splendid provincial governorship when my year in office ended. Even an honest man could get rich as propraetor.

Thus, we felt ourselves specially favored by the gods as we made our stately way along the Via Appia, that oldest and most beautiful of the Roman highways, lined with majestic cedars and pines, straight through the richest farmland on the peninsula. Julia shared a litter with two friends, Antonia and Circe. Antonia was a sister of the famous Marcus Antonius, one of Caesar's most loyal supporters. Circe was one of Julia's cousins, also named Julia, but nicknamed Circe because, so my Julia claimed, 'she reduces men to quadrupeds.'

I rode a splendid chestnut from my new stables. Julia had insisted that my dignity now forbade using hired mounts. Beside me rode my freedman Hermes. Around us was my staff of secretaries, assistants- many of them sons of friends just starting on their careers-and all the general hangers-on needed to support the dignity of a senior magistrate. In the rear of the procession were a couple of wagons full of household slaves, most of them Julia's personal attendants.

We traveled in leisurely fashion. I felt no compulsion to rush, and I was savoring the advantages of my new status. At each town along the road we were banqueted like visiting royalty; and as we passed each grand villa, a slave came running out, bearing his master's invitation to dinner. As often as not, I accepted.

After the previous twenty years of my career, it was a welcome change.

But, eventually, we came in sight of Vesuvius. The beautiful if somewhat ominous mountain raises its conical bulk near Italy's most splendid bay, a faint plume of smoke drifting lazily from its peak, its sides carpeted with green, steep vineyards planted on nearly every accessible patch of its incomparably fertile soil.

'Do you think it could erupt?' Julia said, her lovely patrician head poking out of the litter's expensive hangings, another praetorian extravagance.

'It hasn't in living memory,' I assured her.

Southern Campania is home to many delightful towns, such as Cumae, Stabiae, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Baiae, and many others, but I was not just yet ready to visit them. Instead, we took a little road that branched from the Appian and cut through the countryside surrounding the jewellike Bay of Baiae.

Here the serene fields were tended by slaves who were industrious but not overworked, their labors overseen by benign herms that stood at intervals along the road. In time we came to another road, this one little more than a paved path, that led to a splendid villa.

'Here we are, my dear,' I said.

'Stop!' Julia ordered the litter slaves: eight matched Libyans who had cost me dearly and ate voraciously whether they were engaged in transportation or not. Julia and the other two emerged from the litter and stood gazing upon the estate, squealing with delight.

And it was worth a squeal or two. There were at least twenty buildings on the place, big and small. The main house was an imposing structure-white walled, roofed with red tiles-that stood atop a low stone platform. Its simple design complemented the far older Greek temple, Doric in style and beautifully maintained, that stood nearby. Everything in sight was laid out and constructed in the most exquisite taste.

'Oh, wonderful!' Julia exclaimed. 'And this is truly to be ours?'

'Nothing set in stone so far, my dear, but at least we have the use of it for now.'

'It will be ours,' she stated with great finality.

The villa belonged to my father's good friend and patron, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the great orator, jurist, and scoundrel. The old villain was then on his deathbed, and had summoned me to his side when he learned of my election. I found the once-imposing old man wasted away to almost nothing, his incomparable voice reduced to a whisper. I had fallen afoul of him more than once and had even tried to prosecute him for criminal acts upon occasion, but he had always regarded this as mere politics and never held it against me. Now, seeing him in such a pitiful condition, I could summon up no hostility against him. A whole era of Roman political life would die with him.

'Congratulations, my boy,' he croaked out. 'Imperium at last, eh?'

'It comes to most of us if we live long enough,' I told him. 'But thank you anyway.'

He managed a croupy laugh. 'You haven't changed. And praetor peregrinus, at that. That's good. You'll get to travel about, let the people see your face. They'll remember, and that will be of value, when the time comes. Listen, my boy, I wish I had time for chitchat, but I don't. I have a villa in Campania, near Baiae.'

'It is famous,' I said.

'Yes, well, nobody's in it right now, and you will need a place to live when you're in the district, and accepting the hospitality of a local grandee would be a bad idea. Sure as Jupiter is randy, that man will have a case before your court and he'll expect favorable treatment. Believe me, I know how it works. Why not use my villa?'

'That is most generous,' I said fervently. The very thing he had mentioned had been on my mind as well.

'Good, good.' He mused for a while. 'You know, I've no one worth willing the place to, so-well, just see if you like it.'

Now all my old hostilities disappeared completely. At any other time I would have been suspicious, the prospect of an inheritance being a classic means of control. But he was clearly dying and had nothing to gain from me. I babbled my thanks and made my exit. Half the important men of Rome were outside waiting to pay what would almost certainly be their final respects to a man who had been one of the most distinguished senators of the age. But he stopped me before I reached the door.

'Decius.'

I turned. 'Yes, Quintus Hortensius?'

'Hang on to that wife of yours.'

'You mean Julia?' I said, astonished.

'Who else would I mean? Besides being a charming woman, she's a Caesar, and her uncle Julius is the

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