Lindsey Davis

The Iron Hand of Mars



September, AD 71

'My official career owed its beginning to Vespasian, its progress to Titus: I have no wish to deny this.'

- Tacitus, Histories


'One thing is definite,' I told Helena Justina; 'I am not going to Germany!'

Immediately I could see her planning what to pack for the trip.

We were in bed at my apartment, high up on the Aventine. A real sixth-floor bughole-only most bugs grew tired of walking upstairs before they ever got this far. I passed them sometimes, flaked out on halfway landings, with droopy antennae and tired little feet:

It was a place you could only laugh about, or the squalor would break your heart. Even the bed was rocky. And that was after I had pieced in a new leg and tightened the mattress webs.

I was trying out a new way of making love to Helena, which I had devised in the interests of not letting our relationship go stale. I had known her a year, let her seduce me after six months of thinking about it, and had finally managed to persuade her to live with me about two weeks ago. According to my previous experience of women, I must be right on target to be told I drank too much and slept too much, and that her mother needed her urgently back at home.

My athletic efforts at holding her interest had not gone unnoticed. 'Didius Falco: wherever did you: learn this trick?'

'Invented it myself:'

Helena was a senator's daughter. Expecting her to put up with my filthy lifestyle for more than a fortnight had to be pushing my luck. Only a fool would view her fling with me as anything more than a bit of local excitement before she married some pot-bellied pullet in patrician stripes who could offer her emerald pendants and a summer villa at Surrentum.

As for me, I worshipped her. But then I was the fool who kept hoping the fling could be made to last.

'You're not enjoying yourself.' As a private informer, my powers of deduction were just about adequate.

'I don't think:' Helena gasped, 'this is going to work!'

'Why not?' I could see several reasons. I had cramp in my left calf, a sharp pain under one kidney, and my enthusiasm was flagging like a slave kept indoors on a festival holiday.

'One of us,' suggested Helena, 'is bound to laugh.'

'It looked all right as a rough sketch on the back of an old rooftile.'

'Like pickling eggs. The recipe seems easy, but the results are disappointing:'

I replied that we were not in the kitchen, so Helena asked demurely whether I thought it would help if we were. Since my Aventine doss lacked that amenity altogether, I treated her question as rhetorical.

We both laughed, if it's of interest.

Then I unwound us, and made love to Helena the way both of us liked best.

'Anyway, Marcus, how do you know the Emperor wants to send you to Germany?'

'Nasty rumour flitting round the Palatine.'

We were still in bed. After my last case had staggered to what passed for its conclusion, I had promised myself a week of domestic relaxation-due to a dearth of new commissions, there were plenty of gaps in the schedule of my working life. In fact, I had no cases at all. I could stay in bed all day if I wanted to. Most days I did.

'So:' Helena was a persistent type. ': You have been making enquiries then?'

'Enough to know some other mug can take on the Emperor's mission.'

Since I did sometimes undertake shady activity for Vespasian, I had been up to the Palace to investigate my chances of earning a corrupt denarius from him. Before presenting myself in the throne room, I had taken the precaution of sniffing round the back corridors first. A wise move: a well-timed exchange with an old crony called Momus had sent me scurrying home.

'Much work on, Momus?' I had asked.

'Chicken-feed. I hear your name is down for the German trip?' was the reply (with a mocking laugh that told me it was something to dodge).

'What trip is that?'

'Just your sort of disaster,' Momus had grinned. 'Something about investigating the Fourteenth Gemina:'

That was when I had pulled my cloak round my ears and scarpered-before anyone could inform me officially. I knew enough about the Fourteenth Legion to put quite a lot of effort into avoiding closer contact, and without going into painful history, there was no reason why those swaggering braggarts should welcome a visit from me.

'Has the Emperor actually spoken to you?' insisted my beloved.

'Helena, I won't let him. I'd hate to cause offence by turning down his wonderful offer:'

'Life would be much more straightforward if you just let him ask you, and then simply said no!'

I gave her a smirk that said women (even clever, well-educated daughters of senators) could never understand the subtleties of politics-to which she replied with a two-handed shove that sent me sprawling out of bed. 'We need to eat, Marcus. Go and find some work!'

'What are you going to do?'

'Paint my face for a couple of hours, in case my lover calls.'

'Oh, right! I'll go, and leave him a clear field:'

We were joking about the lover. Well, I hoped we were.


In the Forum, life was proceeding much as normal. It was panic season for lawyers. The last day of August is also the last day to bring new cases before the winter recess, so the Basilica Julia was humming. We had reached the Nones of September and most barristers-still rosy from their holidays at Baiae-were scurrying to settle a few hasty cases to justify their social standing before the courts closed. They had the usual noisy touts out all round the Rostrum, offering bribes for cheerleaders to rush into the Basilica and barrack the opposition. I shouldered them aside.

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