Lindsey Davis

Poseidon s Gold


March-April, AD72


A dark and stormy night on the Via Aurelia: the omens were bad for our home-coming even before we entered Rome.

By that time we had covered a thousand miles, making our journey from Germany in February and March. The five or six hours on the last stint from Veii were the worst. Long after other travellers had tucked themselves up in wayside inns, we found ourselves alone on the road. Electing to press on and reach the city tonight had been a ridiculous option. Everyone in my party knew it, and everyone knew who was responsible: me, Marcus Didius Falco, the man in charge. The rest were probably expressing their views fractiously, but I couldn't hear. They were in the carriage, thoroughly damp and uncomfortable, but able to see that there were colder and wetter alternatives: I was on horseback, completely exposed to the driving wind and rain.

Without warning, the first dwellings appeared-the tall, crowded apartments that would line our way through the unsavoury slums of the Transtiberina district. Run-down buildings without balconies or pergolas stood pressed together, their grim ranks broken only by black alleys where robbers normally lay in wait for new arrivals to Rome. Maybe tonight they would prefer lurking safe and cosy in their beds. Or maybe they would be hoping the weather would put travellers off guard; I knew the last half-hour of a long journey can be the most dangerous. In the apparently deserted streets our hoofbeats and rattling carriage wheels announced our presence resonantly. Sensing threats all around us, I gripped my sword pommel and checked the knife hidden in my boot. Sodden thongs were trapping the blade against the swollen flesh of my calf, making it difficult to extricate.

I wound myself deeper into my waterlogged cloak, regretting it as the heavy folds constricted me clammily. A gutter collapsed overhead; an icy sluice doused me, frightened my horse and knocked my hat askew. Cursing, I fought to control the horse. I realised I had missed the turn that would have taken us to the Probus Bridge, our quickest route home. My hat fell off. I abandoned it.

A single gleam of light down a side-street to my right marked what I knew to be the guard-post of a cohort of the Vigiles. There were no other signs of life.

We crossed the Tiber on the Pons Aurelia. In the darkness below I could hear the river at full surge. Its rushing water had an unpleasant energy. Upstream it had almost certainly overflowed its banks on to all the low ground around the foot of the Capitol, yet again turning the Campus Martius-which could be spongy at the best of times-into an unhealthy lake. Yet again turgid mud the colour and texture of sewage would be oozing into the basements of the expensive mansions whose middle-class owners jostled for the best waterfront views.

My own father was one of them. At least thinking of him having to bale filthy floodwater out of his entrance hall cheered me up.

A huge gust of wind stopped my horse dead in its tracks as we tried to turn into the Cattle Market Forum. Above, both the Citadel and Palatine Hill were invisible. The lamplit Palaces of the Caesars were drowned out of sight too, but I was now on familiar ground. I urged my horse past the Circus Maximus, the Temples of Ceres and Luna, the arches, fountains, baths and covered markets that were the glory of Rome. They could wait; all I wanted was my own bed. Rain cascaded down a statue of some ancient consul, using the bronze folds of his toga as gullies. Sheets of water swept off pantiled roofs whose gutters were quite unable to cope with this volume. Cataracts tumbled from porticoes. My horse struggled to press under the sheltered walkways against the shopfronts, while I pulled his head round to keep him on the road.

We forced a passage down the Street of the Armilustrium. Some of the undrained side-lanes at this lower level looked knee-deep in water and quite impassable, but as we turned off the high road we were going steeply uphill-not flooded, but treacherous underfoot. There had been so much rain sluicing the Aventine lanes today that not even the normal stinks rose to welcome me home; no doubt the customary reek of human waste and unneighbourly trades would be back tomorrow, steamier than ever after so much water had swilled around the half-composted depths of middens and rubbish tips.

A gloomy throb of the familiar told me that I had found Fountain Court.

My street. This sour dead end looked bleaker than ever to a stranger returning. Unlit, with shutters barred and awnings furled, the alley had no saving grace. Unpeopled even by its normal throng of degenerates, it still ached with human grief. The wind whooped into the cul-de-sac, then came straight back in our faces. On one side my apartment block reared like some faceless republican rampart built to withstand marauding barbarians. As I drew up, a heavy flowerpot crashed down, missing me by no more than a digit's width.

I dragged open the carriage door to shepherd out the exhausted souls for whom I was responsible. Swathed like mummies against the weather they stiffly descended, then discovered their legs as the gale hit them and fled into the quieter haven of the stairwell: my girlfriend Helena Justina, her waiting woman, my sister's young daughter, and our carriage-driver, a sturdy Celt who had been supposed to help guard us. Hand-picked by me, he had trembled with terror for most of the way. It turned out that he was as timid as a rabbit off his home ground. He had never been out of Bingium before; I wished I had left him there.

At least I had had Helena. She was a senator's daughter, with all that entails, naturally, and more spirited than most of them. She had outwitted any mansio-keepers who tried to withhold their most decent rooms from us and made short work of villains claiming illegal bridge tolls. Now her expressive dark eyes were informing me that after the last hours of today's journey she intended to deal with me. Meeting those eyes, I did not waste effort on a cajoling smile.

We were not home yet. My rooms were six floors up.

We tackled the stairs in silence and in the dark. After half a year in Germany where even two storeys were a rarity, my thigh muscles were protesting. Only the fit lived here. If invalids in financial straits ever hired an apartment over Fountain Court, they were either cured rapidly by the exercise or the stairs killed them. We had lost quite a few that way. Smaractus the landlord ran a profitable racket selling off his dead tenants' effects.

At the top, Helena pulled a tinder-box from under her cloak. Desperation gave me a firm hand, so I soon struck a spark and even managed to light a taper before the spark died. On my doorpost the faded tile still announced that M. Didius Falco practised his trade here as a private informer. After a short, hot quarrel while I tried to remember where I had stowed my latch-lifter and failed to find it, I borrowed a dress pin from Helena, tied it to a piece of braid ripped from my own tunic, dropped the pin down the hole and waggled.

For once the trick worked. (Normally you just break the pin, earn a swipe from the girl and still have to borrow a ladder to climb in.) This time there was a reason for my success: the latch was broken. Dreading the outcome, I pushed open the door, held up my taper and surveyed my home.

Places always look smaller and scruffier than you remember them. Not normally this bad, though.

Leaving home had carried some risks. But the Fates, who love picking on a loser, had thrown every lousy trick at me. The first invaders had probably been insects and mice, but they had been followed by a particularly filthy set of nesting doves who must have pecked their way in through the roof. Their excrement spattered the floorboards, but it was nothing to the filth of the vile human scavengers who must have replaced the doves. Blatant clues, some several months old, told me none of the people to whom I had been giving houseroom had been nicely brought up citizens.

'Oh my poor Marcus!' Helena exclaimed in shock. She might be tired and annoyed, but faced with a man in complete despair she was a charitable girl.

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