It is, of course, a crime for any of us to profiteer while on foreign service; commit parricide; rape a vestal virgin; conspire to assassinate the Emperor; fornicate with another man's slave; or let amphorae drop off our balconies so as to dent fellow citizens' heads. For such evil deeds we can be prosecuted by any righteous free man who is prepared to pay a barrister. We can be invited before a praetor for an embarrassing discussion. If the praetor hates our face, or merely disbelieves our story, we can be sent to trial, and if the jury hates us too we can be convicted. For the worst crimes we can be sentenced to a short social meeting with the public strangler. But, freedom being an inalienable and perpetual state, we cannot be made to endure imprisonment. So while the public strangler is looking up a blank date in his calender, we can wave him goodbye.

In the days of Sulla so many criminals were skipping punishment, and it was obviously so cheap to operate, that finally the law enshrined this neat dictum: no Roman citizen who was sentenced to the death penalty might be arrested, even after the verdict, until he had been given time to depart. It was my right; it was Petro's right; and it was the right of the murderous Balbinus Pius to pack a few bags, assume a smug grin, and flee.

The point is supposed to be that living outside the Empire is, for a citizen, a penalty as savage as death. Balbinus must be quaking. Whoever thought that one up was not a travelling man. I had been outside the Empire, so my verdict was not quite that of a jurist. Outside the Empire can be perfectly liveable. Like anywhere, all you need to survive comfortably is slightly more cash than the natives. The sort of criminals who can afford the fare in the first place need have no qualms.

So here we were. Petronius Longus had convicted this mobster of heinous crimes and placed him under sentence of death – but he was not allowed to apply a manacle. Today had been set for the, execution. So this morning, while the greybeards from the Senate were tutting away over the decay of public order, Balbinus Pius would stroll out of Rome like a lord and set off for some hideaway. Presumably he had already filled it with golden chalices, with rich Falernian to slosh into them, and with fancy women to smile at him as they poured the happy grape. Petro could do nothing except make damn sure the bastard went.

Petronius Longus was doing that with the thoroughness his friends in Rome would expect.

Linus, the one dressed as a sailor, had been listening in more closely than the other members of the squad. As his chief started listing for me the measures he was taking, Linus slewed around on his bench and joined us. Linus was to be a key man in enforcing the big rissole's exile.

`Balbinus lives in the Circus Maximus district, unluckily -' Petro began.

`Disaster! The Sixth Cohort run that. Have we hit some boundary nonsense? Does that mean it's out of your watch and you can't cover his house?'

`Discourteous to the local troopers…' Petro grinned slightly. I gathered he was not deterred by a bit of discourtesy to the slouchers in the Sixth. `Obviously it's had to be a joint operation. The Sixth are escorting him here -'

I grinned back. `Assisted by observers from your own cohort?'

`Accompanied,' said Petro pedantically. I looked forward to seeing what form this might take.

`Of course you trust them to do the job decently?'

`Does he heck!' scoffed Linus, only half under his breath.

Linus was a young-looking thirty, dressed for his coming role in more layers of tunics than most sailors wear, crumpled boots, a floppy hat his mother had knitted, and a seaman's knife. Below the short sleeves of the-tunics his bare arms had a chubby appearance, though none of Petro's men were overweight. Level eyes and a chin square as a spade. I had never met him before, but could see he was lively and keen. A typical Petro recruit.

'So the Sixth carry the big rissole here, then he's handed over to you?' I smiled at Linus. `How far does this slave-driver want you to go with him?'

`All the way,' answered Petro for himself.

I shot Linus a look of sympathy, but he shrugged it off. `A lad likes to travel,' he commented. `I'll see him land the other side. At least the esteemed Petronius says I don't have to shin up rigging on the journey back.'

`Big of him! Where's the rissole going?' 'Heraclea, on the Taurica peninsula.'

I whistled. `Was that his choice?'

`Someone made a very strong suggestion,' came Petro's dry response. `Someone who does have the right to feed him to the arena lions if he fails to listen to the hint.' The Emperor.

`Someone has a sense of humour then. Even Ovid only had to go to Moesia.'

The world had shrunk since emperors sent salacious poets to cool their hexameters on the lonely shores of the Euxine Sea while other bad citizens were allowed to sail to Gaul and die rich as wine merchants. The Empire stretched far beyond Gaul nowadays. Chersonesus, Taurica, even further away on the Euxine than Ovid's bleak hole, had vivid advantages as a dump for criminals: though technically not a Roman province, we did have a trading presence all along its coast, so Balbinus could be watched – and he would know it. It was also a terrible place to be sent. If he wasn't eaten by brown bears he would die of cold or boredom, and however much money he managed to take with him, there were no luxuries to spend it on.

`It's no summer holiday for you either,' I told Linus. `You'll never get home this side of Saturnalia.'

He accepted the news cheerily. `Someone needs to make sure Balbinus doesn't nip off the ship at Tarentum.' True. Or Antium, or Puteoli, or Paestum, Buxentum or Rhegium, or Sicily, or at any one of scores of seashore towns in Greece, and the islands, and Asia, that would lie on our criminal's way into exile. Most of these places had an ambiguous form of loyalty towards Rome. Some were run by Roman officials who were only looking for a rest. Many were too remote to be supervised even by officials who liked to throw their weight about. Petronius Longus was rightly distraught about making the penalty stick. Linus, however, seemed to take his responsibility placidly. `This is my big chance to travel. I don't mind wintering at some respectable town in Bithynia, or on the Thracian coast.' Petro's stooge had looked at a map, then.

`Will you get your lodging paid, Linus?'

`Within the limits,' Petronius uttered sombrely, resisting any frivolous suggestion that Linus might be heading for a spree at the state's expense.

`Anything for a bit of peace!' said Linus. Evidently there was a woman involved.

Well, we were all henpecked. Not that most of us would have entertained four or five months beyond the Hellespont at the worst time of year simply to avoid having our ears battered. Linus could not have mastered the gracious art of sloping off to the public baths for half a day (a set of baths you are not known to frequent).

Martinus appeared in the doorway. He gave Petronius a signal that was barely more than a twitch.

`They're coming! Scram, Linus.'

With a grin I can still remember, Linus slid from his bench. Keyed up for adventure, he was out of the wine bar and off back to the Chersonesus bound ship while the rest of us were still bringing our thoughts to bear.

We had paid for the wine. We all left the bar in silence. The landlord closed the door after us. We heard him fasten it with a heavy log, pointedly.

Outside the darkness had altered by several shades. The wind freshened. As we regained the quay Fusculus shook a shin that must have had cramp, while we all adjusted our swords and freed them from our cloaks. Nervously we strained to listen for the sound we really wanted to hear above the creaks of ropes and boards, and the plashing of wavelets under buffers, floats and hulls.

We could make out a movement on the harbour road, though still only faintly. Martinus must have honed his ears for this mission if he had heard something earlier.

Soon the noise clarified and became brisk hoofbeats, then we picked out wheels as well, somewhere in their midst. Almost at once a short cavalcade clattered up, the iron shoes of the horses and mules ringing loud. At the centre was an exceptionally smart carriage of the type very wealthy men own for. comfortable summer visits to their remote estates – big enough to allow the occupant to eat and write, or to try to forget being shaken by potholes and to sleep. Balbinus was probably not napping on this journey.

A couple of freedmen who must have decided, or been persuaded, that they could not bear to leave their master hopped off the top and began unloading a modest selection of luggage. Balbinus had lost all his slaves. That was part of stripping him of his property. What his freedmen did now was up to them. Soon they would possess more civic rights than he did – though they might still feel they owed familial debts to the master who had once freed them. Whether they saw it that way would depend on how many times he had kicked them for nothing when they were still slaves.

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