Steven Saylor

The House of the Vestals


'Eco,' I said, 'do you mean to tell me that you have never seen a play?'

He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and shook his head.

'Never laughed at the bumbling slaves who have a falling-out? Never swooned to see the young heroine abducted by pirates? Never thrilled at the discovery that our hero is the secret heir to a vast fortune?'

Eco's eyes grew even larger, and he shook his head more vigorously.

'Then there must be a remedy, this very day!' I said.

It was the Ides of September, and a more beautiful autumn day the gods had never fashioned. The sun shone warmly on the narrow streets and gurgling fountains of Rome; a light breeze swept, up from the Tiber, cooling the seven hills; the sky above was a bowl of purest azure, without a single cloud. It was the twelfth day of the sixteen days set aside each year for the Roman Festival, the city's oldest public holiday. Perhaps Jupiter himself had decreed that the weather should be so perfect; the holiday was in his honor.

For Eco, the festival had been an endless orgy of discoveries. He had seen his first chariot race in the Circus Maximus, had watched wrestlers and boxers in the public squares, had eaten his first calf's-brain-and-almond sausage from a street vendor. The race had thrilled him, mostly because he thought the horses so beautiful; the pugilists had bored him, since he had seen plenty of brawling-in public before; the sausage had not agreed with him (or perhaps his problem was the spiced green apples on which he gorged himself afterward).

It was four months since I had rescued Eco in an alley in the Subura, from a gang of boys pursuing him with sticks and cruel jeers. I knew a little of his history, having met him briefly in my investigations for Cicero that spring. Apparently his widowed mother had chosen to abandon little Eco in her desperation, leaving him to fend for himself. What else could I do but take him home with me?

He struck me as exceedingly clever for a boy often. I knew he was ten, because whenever he was asked, he held up ten fingers. Eco could hear (and add) perfectly well, even if his tongue was useless.

At first, his muteness was a great handicap for us both. (He had not been born mute, but had been made that way, apparently by the same fever that claimed his father's life.) Eco is a skillful mime, to be sure, but gestures can convey only so much. Someone had taught him the letters, but he could read and write only the simplest words. I had begun to teach him myself, but the going, was made harder by his speechlessness.

His practical knowledge of the streets of Rome was deep but narrow. He knew all the back entrances to all the shops in the Subura, and where the fish and meat vendors down by the Tiber left their scraps at the end of the day. But he had never been to the Forum or the Circus Maximus, had never heard a politician declaim (lucky boy!) or witnessed the spectacle of the theater. I spent many hours showing him the city that summer, rediscovering its marvels through the wide eyes of a ten-year-old boy.

So it was that, on the twelfth day of the Roman Festival, when a crier came running through the streets announcing that the company of Quintus Roscius would be performing in an hour, I determined that we should not miss it.

'Ah, the company of Roscius the Comedian!' I said. 'The magistrates in charge of the festival have spared no expense. There is no more famous actor today than Quintus Roscius, and no more renowned troupe of performers than his!'

We made our way from the Subura down to the Forum, where holiday crowds thronged the open squares. Between the Temple of Jupiter and the Senian Baths, a makeshift theater had been erected. Rows of benches were set before a wooden stage that had been raised in the narrow space between the brick walls.

'Some day,' I remarked, 'a rabble-rousing politician will build the first permanent theater in Rome. Imagine that, a proper Grecian-style theater made of stone, as sturdy as a temple! The old-fashioned moralists will be scandalized-they hate the theater because it comes from Greece, and they think that all things Greek must be decadent and dangerous. Ah, we're early-we. shall have good seats.'

The usher led us to an aisle seat on a bench five rows back from the stage. The first four rows had been partitioned by a rope of purple cloth, set aside for those of senatorial rank. Occasionally the usher tromped down the aisle, followed by some toga-clad magistrate and his party, and pulled aside the rope to allow them access to the benches.

While the theater slowly filled around us, I pointed out to Eco the details of the stage. Before the first row of benches there was a small open space, the orchestra, where the musicians would play; three steps at either side led up to the stage itself. Behind the stage and enclosing it on either side was a screen of wood with a folding door in the middle and other doors set into the left and right wings. Through these doors the actors would enter and exit. Out of sight, behind the stage, the musicians could be heard warming up their pipes, trilling snatches of familiar tunes.


I turned to see a tall, thin figure looming over us.

'Statilius!' I cried. 'It's good to see you.'

'And you as well. But who is this?' He ruffled Eco's mop of brown hair with his long fingers.

'This is Eco,' I said.

'A long-lost nephew?'

'Not exactly.'

'Ah, an indiscretion from the past?' Statilius raised an eyebrow.

'Not that, either.' My face turned hot. And yet I suddenly wondered how it would feel to say, 'Yes, this is my son.' Not for the first time I considered the possibility of adopting Eco legally- and as quickly banished the thought from my mind. A man like myself, who often risks death, has no business becoming a father; so I told myself. If I truly wanted sons, I could have married a proper Roman wife long ago and had a houseful by now. I quickly changed the subject.

'But Statilius, where is your costume and your mask? Why aren't you backstage, getting ready?' I had known Statilius since we were boys; he had become an actor in his youth, joining first one company and then another, always seeking the training of established comedians. The great Roscius had taken him on a year before.

'Oh, I still have plenty of time to get ready.'

'And how is life in the company of the greatest actor in Rome?'

'Wonderful, of course!'

I frowned at the note of false bravado in his voice.

'Ah, Gordianus, you always could see through me. Not wonderful, then-terrible! Roscius-what a monster! Brilliant, to be sure, but a beast! If I were a slave I'd be covered with bruises. Instead, he whips me with his tongue. What a taskmaster! The man is relentless, and never satisfied. He makes a man feel no better than a worm. The galleys or the mines could hardly be worse. Is it my fault that I've grown too old to play heroines and haven't yet the proper voice to be an old miser or a braggart soldier? Ah, perhaps Roscius is right. I'm useless- talentless-I bring the whole company into disrepute.'

'Actors are all alike,' I whispered to Eco. 'They need more coddling than babies.' Then to Statilius: 'Nonsense! I saw you in the spring, at the Festival of the Great Mother, when Roscius put on The Brothers Menaechmus. You were brilliant playing the twins.'

'Do you really think so?'

'I swear it. I laughed so hard I almost fell off the bench.'

He brightened a bit, then frowned. 'I wish that Roscius thought so. Today I was all set to play Euclio, the old miser-'

'Ah, then we're seeing The Pot of Gold!'


'One of my favorite plays, Eco. Quite possibly Plautus's funniest comedy. Crude, yet satisfying-'

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