Lindsey Davis


Londinium, Britannia

August, A.D. 75


It depends what we mean by civilization,' the procurator mused.

Staring at the corpse, I was in no mood to discuss philosophy. We were in Britain, where the rule of law was administered by the army Justice operated in a rough-and-ready fashion so far away from Rome, but special circumstances meant this killing would be difficult to brush aside.

We had been called out by a centurion from the small local troop detachment. The military presence in Londinium was mainly to protect the governor, Julius Frontinus, and his deputy, the procurator Hilaris, but since the provinces are not manned by the vigiles, soldiers carry basic community policing. So the centurion attended the death scene, where he became a worried man. On investigation, an apparently routine local slaying acquired 'developments.'

The centurion told us he had come to the bar expecting just a normal drunken stabbing or battering. To find a drowned man headfirst down a well was slightly unusual, exciting maybe. The 'well' was a deep hole in a corner of the bar's tiny backyard. Hilaris and I bent double and peered in. The hole was lined with the waterproof wooden staves of what must be a massive German wine container; water came nearly to the top. Hilaris had told me these imported barrels were taller than a man, and after being emptied of wine they were often reused in this way.

When we arrived, of course the body had already been removed. The centurion had pulled up the victim by his boots, planning to heave the cadaver into a corner until the local dung cart carried it off. He himself had intended to sit down with a free drink while he eyed up the attractions of the serving girl.

Her attractions were not up to much. Not by Aventine standards. It depends what we mean by attractive, as Hilaris might muse, if he were the type to comment on waitresses. Myself, I was that type, and immediately as we entered the dim establishment I had noticed she was four feet high with a laughable leer and smelled like old boot liners. She was too stout, too ugly, and too slow on the uptake for me. But I'm from Rome. I have high standards. This was Britain, I reminded myself.

There was certainly no chance of anyone getting free drinks now that Hilaris and I were here. We were official. I mean really official. One of us held a damned high rank. It wasn't me. I was just a new middle-class upstart. Anyone of taste and style would be able to sniff out my slum background instantly.

'I'll avoid the bar,' I joked quietly. 'If their water is full of dead men, their wine is bound to be tainted!'

'No, I'll not try a tasting,' agreed Hilaris in a tactful undertone. 'We don't know what they may stuff in their amphorae…'

The centurion stared at us, showing his contempt for our attempts at humor.

This event was even more inconvenient for me than it was for the soldier. All he had to worry about was whether to mention the awkward 'developments' on his report. I had to decide whether to tell Flavius Hilaris-my wife's Uncle Gaius-that I knew who the dead man was. Before that, I had to evaluate the chances that Hilaris himself had known the casked corpse.

Hilaris was the important one here. He was procurator of finance in Britain. To put it in perspective, I was a procurator myself, but my role- which involved theoretical oversight of the Sacred Geese of Juno-was one of a hundred thousand meaningless honors handed out by the Emperor when he owed someone a favor and was too mean to pay in cash. Vespasian reckoned my services had cost enough, so he settled up remaining debts with a joke. That was me: Marcus Didius Falco, the imperial clown. Whereas the estimable Gaius Flavius Hilaris, who had known Vespasian many years ago in the army, was now second only to the provincial governor. Since he did know Vespasian personally, then (as the governor would be aware), dear Gaius was the emperor's eyes and ears, assessing how the new governor ran the province.

He did not need to assess me. He had done that five years ago when we first met. I think I came out well. I wanted to look good. That was even before I fell for his wife's elegant, clever, superior niece. Alone in the Empire, Hilaris had always thought Helena might end up with me. Anyway, he and his own wife had received me back now as a nephew by marriage as if it were natural and even a pleasure.

Hilaris looked a quiet, clerkish, slightly innocent fellow, but I wouldn't take him on at draughts-well, not unless I could play with my brother Festus' weighted dice. He was dealing with the situation in his usual way: curious, thorough, and unexpectedly assertive. 'Here's one Briton who has not acquired much benefit from Roman civilization,' he had said on being shown the corpse. That was when he added dryly, 'I suppose it depends what you mean by civilization, though.'

'He took in water with his wine, you mean?' I grinned.

'Better not jest.'Hilaris was no prude and it was not a reproof.

He was a lean, neat man, still active and alert-yet grayer and more haggard than I had remembered him. He had always given a slight impression of ill health. His wife, Aelia Camilla, seemed little changed since my last visit, but Flavius Hilaris looked much older and I felt glad I had brought my own wife and youngsters to see him while I could.

Trying not to show that I was watching him, I decided he did know the dead man at his feet. As a career diplomat, he would also be aware of why this death would cause us problems. But, so far, he was not mentioning his knowledge to me.

That was interesting.


I'm sorry to drag you out, sirs,' murmured the centurion. He must be wishing he had kept quiet. He was totting up how much additional documentation he had let himself in for, and had realized belatedly that his commander would give him all Hades for involving the civil powers.

'You did the right thing.' I had never seen Hilaris back off from trouble. Strange to think that this man had served in the army (Second Augusta, my own legion, twenty years before me). He was part of the Invasion force too, at a time for pragmatic dealings with the locals. But three decades of civic bureaucracy had turned him into that rare highflying wonder, a public servant who followed the rules. Even rarer, instead of stagnating uselessly out here, he had mastered the art of making the rules work. Hilaris was good. Everyone said so.

By contrast the centurion covered his ineptitude by moving slowly, saying little, and doing even less. He was wide-bodied and short-necked. He stood with his feet planted wide apart, his arms hanging loose. His neckerchief was tucked into his armor with just enough untidiness to express contempt for authority, yet his boots were buffed and his sword and dagger looked sharp. He would be the type who sat around obsessively honing his weapons and complaining about higher offices. I doubted he grumbled at the Emperor. Vespasian was a soldiers' general.

Vespasian would know that the army is stuffed with such characters: not as good as those in charge would like, but sound enough to coast along in a far-off province where the frontiers were fairly quiet and open rebellion was no longer an issue. The legions in Britain carried no dead wood. In a real crisis, something could be made of this centurion.

We had a crisis here. Correctly, the centurion had sensed it. And to be fair, he responded properly. He had noticed the white circle around the dead man's neck where a torque had habitually sat, and he saw the grazes where the heavy twisted metal must have been wrenched off by a thief or thieves. He realized this was serious. It was not the theft itself that made for trouble, but in tribal Britain heavy gold and electrum neck torques were worn

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