Steven Saylor

The Triumph Of Caesar


'I heard that you were dead.'

Such a brusque comment from Caesar's wife might have offended me had I not heard it already from so many others since I returned from Egypt to Rome, where everyone had apparently given me up for dead.

Having sent a slave to summon me, Calpurnia had received me in an elegant but sparsely furnished room in her house not far from mine on the Palatine Hill. There was only one chair. She sat. I stood and tried not to fidget while the most powerful woman in Rome looked me up and down.

'Yes, I'm sure one of my agents told me you drowned in the Nile,' she said, gazing at me shrewdly. 'Yet here you stand before me, Gordianus, as alive as ever-unless those Egyptians have learned to bring the dead back to life, not just mummify them.' She fixed her chilly gaze on my face. 'How old are you, Finder?'


'No! Have the Egyptians found a way to restore a man's youth? You look very fit for a man your age. You're ten years older than my husband, yet I daresay you look ten years younger.'

I shrugged. 'Great Caesar carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. His enemies have been destroyed, but his responsibilities are greater than ever. The worries and cares of the world's master must be endless. My humble life has taken a different course. My obligations grow less, not more. I've had my share of strife, but now I'm at peace with the world and with myself. For the time being, at least…'

Having been summoned by Caesar's wife, I had to wonder if the tranquillity of my life was about to be sorely disrupted.

'When did I last see you, Gordianus?'

'It must have been almost exactly two years ago, just before I left for Egypt.'

She nodded. 'You went there because your wife was unwell.'

'Yes. Bethesda was born in Egypt. She believed that she could be cured of her illness only by bathing in the waters of the Nile. The cure apparently worked, because-'

'Yet you spent most of your time in the city of Alexandria, along with my husband,' she said, showing no interest in Bethesda's cure.

'Yes. I arrived in the midst of the civil war between Queen Cleopatra and her siblings. During the siege that confined Caesar to the royal palace for several months, I was trapped there as well.'

'Where you became quite friendly with my husband.'

'I had the privilege of conversing with him on numerous occasions,' I said, evading the topic of friendship. My feelings toward Caesar were more complicated than that.

'Eventually, my husband was victorious in Egypt, as he's been victorious in every other campaign. He put an end to the civil strife in Alexandria… and installed young Cleopatra on the throne.'

She spoke the queen's name with a grimace; Caesar's adulterous love affair with Cleopatra, who claimed to have borne his child, was a favorite topic of every scandalmonger in Rome. The grimace deepened the wrinkles on her face, and Calpurnia suddenly looked much older than when I had last seen her. She had never been a beautiful woman; Caesar had not married her for her looks but for her respectability. His previous wife had embarrassed him by falling prey to gossip. 'Caesar's wife,' he had declared, 'must be above suspicion.' Calpurnia proved to be hardheaded, pragmatic, and ruthless; Caesar had entrusted her to run his network of spies in the capital while he fought his rivals on distant battlefields. There was nothing frivolous in either her manner or her appearance; she made no effort to flatter her face with colorful cosmetics or her figure with elegant fabrics.

I looked about the room, which reflected the taste of its occupant. The walls were stained deep red and somber yellow. Instead of depicting an image from history or Homer, the impeccably crafted mosaic floor displayed an array of interlocking geometric patterns in muted colors. The furnishings were exquisite but few-woolen rugs, bronze lamp holders, and the single backless chair made of ebony inlaid with lapis tiles in which my hostess sat.

It was not the reception hall of a queen; those I had seen in Egypt, bright with gold and dripping with ornaments, their dazzle intended to intimidate all who entered. And yet, in fact if not in name, Calpurnia was now the queen of Rome; and Caesar, having defeated every rival, was its king, though for now he preferred the venerable title of dictator, the office our ancestors created so that a strong man could rule the state in times of emergency. But if rumors were true-that Caesar intended to make the Senate declare him dictator for life-how was he any different from the kings of olden days, before Rome became a proud republic?

'Caesar is in danger,' Calpurnia said abruptly. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. Her face was taut. 'Great danger. That's why I've called you here.'

The statement struck me as so peculiar that I laughed out loud, then checked myself when I saw the look on her face. If the most powerful man on earth, the victorious survivor of a brutal civil war that had wreaked havoc across the whole world, was in danger, what could Gordianus the Finder do to protect him?

'I'm sure that Caesar can look after himself,' I said. 'Or if he wants my help, then he can ask me-'

'No!' Her voice rose sharply. This was not the dispassionate, coldly calculating Calpurnia I knew but a woman touched by genuine fear. 'Caesar doesn't realize the danger. Caesar is… distracted.'


'He's too busy preparing for his upcoming triumphs.'

I nodded. There were to be four triumphal processions in the days to come. The first, to celebrate Caesar's conquest of Gaul, would take place three days hence.

'Caesar is consumed with the planning and arrangements,' she said. 'He intends to give the people a series of spectacles such as they've never seen before. Small things fall below his notice. But small things can grow to be great things. They say the Nile crocodile begins life as a creature hardly bigger than my little finger.'

'Yet it very quickly it grows into a monster that can bite a man in two.'

'Exactly! That's why I've called you here, Gordianus-you have a nose for danger and a taste for finding the truth.' She raised a finger. The gesture was so slight I barely noticed it, but an alert slave standing just outside the doorway hurried to her side.

'Bring Porsenna,' said Calpurnia.

The slave departed without a sound. A few moments later, a gray-bearded man entered the room. He wore the yellow costume of an Etruscan haruspex. Over a bright tunic was a pleated cloak fixed at his shoulder with a large clasp of finely wrought bronze. The clasp was in the shape of a sheep's liver marked into numerous sections, with notations in the Etruscan alphabet etched into each section-a diviner's chart for locating omens amid the entrails. On his head the haruspex wore a high conical cap, held in place by a strap under his chin.

Haruspicy was the Etruscan science of divination. From ancient days, Rome's neighbors to the north worshipped a child-god called Tages, who had snakes for legs. Long ago, Tages appeared to an Etruscan holy man in a freshly plowed field, rising from the dirt and bearing books filled with wisdom. From those books the science of haruspicy was born.

Even before Rome was founded, the Etruscans were examining the entrails of sacrificed animals to predict every aspect of the future, from the outcome of great battles to the next day's weather. They were also adept at interpreting dreams and at finding meaning in various phenomena. Lightning, freakish weather, strange objects fallen from the sky, and the birth of monstrously deformed animals were all attempts by the gods to communicate their will to mankind.

Haruspicy had never become a part of Rome's official state religion. To determine the will of the gods, Roman priests consulted the Sibylline Books and Roman augurs observed the flight of birds. (Roman priests sacrificed animals, to be sure, and offered the blood and organs to the gods, but they did not presume to predict the future from this pious activity.) Nevertheless, despite its unofficial status, the ancient Etruscan art of divination persisted. Believers consulted haruspices for guidance in personal and business affairs, and in recent years even the Senate

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