Once inside, Verus quietly closed the door behind them. They were in a stone vault. Narrow slits set high in the walls admitted bright beams of sunlight. Even before his eyes adjusted to the dimness that swallowed most of the room, Lucius saw that it was lined to the height of his waist with wooden cabinets, and atop the cabinets were objects that shone with bright points of coloured light.

“This is the jewel room,” Verus whispered.

Surrounding them was a vast collection of gemstones. Most were stored inside the cabinets, but some of the more spectacular examples were displayed on stands or hung on the wall or simply lay atop the cabinets, left there by Hadrian or Sabina or whatever courtier was allowed to handle such precious objects. Some were cut into cameos. Some were faceted and set as jewels into necklaces or bracelets of silver and gold. Some were in their natural state. There were rubies and sapphires, emeralds and lapis lazuli, amethyst and jasper, carnelian and agate, tiger’s-eye and amber.

“Hadrian didn’t acquire all these in his travels, did he?” whispered Lucius.

“Oh, no. These have been collected by generations of emperors. Nero ended up in such dire straits that he sold off most of the gems he inherited, but Vespasian and his successors managed to recover many of them. Do you see that carnelian necklace? Queen Cleopatra was wearing it the day she died. Augustus was furious that she killed herself, and took it off her with his own hands, as a trophy.”

“I never imagined such a collection existed.” Lucius was astounded by the treasure. He had seen the emperor’s sprawling villa go up at Tibur. He had stood beside his father at the dedications of the Temple of Venus and Roma and of the Pantheon, the largest and grandest buildings ever constructed. That the wealth of Hadrian was immense he had always known, but now, gazing at the splendours that surrounded him, he realized that the emperor’s fortune surpassed all reckoning.

“Very few people have ever seen this room,” said Verus. “Even fewer have seen this.” He opened a cabinet and pulled out a stone that he held between two fingers, thrusting it into the nearest beam of sunlight.

To Lucius, it seemed that the stone must have come from a world of dreams. It was octahedral and as large as a walnut. The stone was transparent yet captured the light and cast it back again in a dazzling array of colours. Lucius had never seen anything like it.

“It’s called a diamond,” said Verus. “This is by far the largest and most perfect specimen ever found. It’s not only beautiful but indestructible. Fire will not burn it. No blade can cut it.”

“Where did it come from?”

“We think Domitian acquired it. He had such a penchant for secrecy that no one knows its history, but it must have come from India, which is the source of all true diamonds. Nerva presented it to Trajan as a sign of his favour. Trajan presented it to Hadrian as a reward for leading the First Legion Minerva. It’s the rarest jewel in all the collection, which means in all the world.”

“It’s amazing,” said Lucius.

“I myself have little interest in gemstones,” said Verus, “or in any of the other trappings of wealth. Material objects possess no intrinsic value, only that which men assign to them. And yet, when I gaze upon a thing as beautiful and perfect as this, I think it must in some way be a manifestation ofthat which Apollonius called the Divine Singularity.”

“I could stare at it for hours,” said Lucius. “Thank you for showing it to me.”

Verus smiled. “And yet, the most precious thing in this room is not this diamond, but that object you wear upon your breast.”

“Do you really think so?” Lucius looked down at the fascinum, which seemed to him a fragile, crudely fashioned thing compared to the adamantine perfection of the diamond. He could scarcely believe that Verus was serious, but it was not like his friend to joke about such a thing.

“I truly think so. I speak not just as Marcus Verus, your friend, but as Verissimus, who loves Truth above all else.”

AD 138

The month of Junius had been uncommonly hot. The month of Julius promised to be even hotter. Wearing his toga and wiping sweat from his brow, Marcus Pinarius made his way to the imperial palace in answer to the emperor’s summons.

He was sweating because the day was hot, he told himself; a man in his fifties should be carried in a sedan on such a day rather than travel on foot. But in fact, Marcus was also quite nervous. He had not seen the emperor for months, and these days, a summons to the palace was a cause not for celebration but for grave misgivings. Hadrian was now sixty-two. His health was rapidly declining, and his illness had brought out a dangerous, even murderous side of his personality. The vow he had made more than twenty years ago to kill no senators had fallen by the wayside. An atmosphere of gloom and fear had settled over everyone who had dealings with the emperor.

Marcus was conducted not to a reception hall but to the emperor’s private quarters. The courtier left him in a room with a balcony perched above a garden. The bright sunlight from the balcony at first blinded Marcus to the contents of the room; only gradually did he perceive the sumptuous furnishings, the elegant statues, the paintings on the walls – and the fact that he was not alone. A figure in silhouette was seated on a couch with his back to the sunlight. For a moment, Marcus mistook the man for Hadrian – his hair and beard were much the same – but the man’s posture was that of a younger man. Marcus gasped, thinking for just an instant that he was seeing Ceionius, who had died on the Kalends of Januarius. It was rumoured that the man’s lemur still lingered in the palace, held back by the anguish of Hadrian’s mourning.

But this man was older than Ceionius had been, and younger than Hadrian – perhaps in his forties – and he appeared to be in the best of health, despite the strained look on his face. “You must be Marcus Pinarius,” he said quietly. “I’m Titus Aurelius Antoninus. I don’t think we’ve met, but I believe you’re acquainted with my nephew, young Marcus Verus. Or rather, my son, as I suppose I should call him now.”

So this was the man whom Hadrian, bitterly disappointed at the death of Ceionius and pressed by the imminence of his own death, had named to be his successor. Determined to control the succession even after his own death, Hadrian had required Antoninus to adopt as heirs the son of the late Ceionius and also young Marcus Verus. Verus had taken his new father’s name and so was now Marcus Aurelius, third in the line of succession.

The forced adoptions had not been Hadrian’s only gambit in his bid to control the future. He seemed determined to move or remove numerous people around him, like tokens on a game board. In his depressed, bedridden state, obsessed with protecting the succession, he had resorted to executing or forcing suicide on a number of men he considered too ambitious. The latest and most scandalous of these deaths had been the forced suicide of his ninety-year-old brother-in-law, Servianus, whom Hadrian suspected of seeking to advance his grandson. The death of the empress Sabina had also sparked a scandal: some of her relatives dared to whisper that Hadrian had poisoned her.

“I was told that Caesar asked for me,” said Marcus.

Antoninus nodded. “It was the first thing he requested when he woke this morning.”

“I pray that I may find Caesar in better health than when I last saw him,” said Marcus.

“I presume that’s your tactful way of inquiring about his condition. You’ll see for yourself soon enough. Try not to be shocked at his appearance. His entire body is swollen with fluid. His face is so bloated you may hardly recognize him. They say something similar happed to Trajan, near the end.”

“May I inquire about Caesar’s state of mind?”

Antoninus gave him a piercing look. “You’ve known him a very long time, so I won’t lie to you. In recent days, he’s tried several times to take his own life. First he ordered a slave to stab him. When the slave refused, he tried to stab himself, but he was too weak. Then he sought poison from a doctor. ‘Caesar asks me to be his murderer,’ said the poor man, and Hadrian quoted Sophocles to him: ‘I ask you to be my healer, the only physician who can cure my suffering’ – the words of Hercules from The Women of Trachis, dying in agony and begging his son to set him afire. The doctor refused to give him poison, whereupon Caesar ordered that the man should be executed, along with everyone else who had thwarted his suicide attempts.”

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