For that alone I liked the girl. Unfortunately Octavian turned the Caesarium into a shrine to his own dreadful family, which spoiled it. It was guarded by enormous old red granite obelisks, which we were told he had brought from elsewhere in Egypt. That was one advantage of this province. Exotic outdoor ornaments littered the place. Had these obelisks not been such dead weights, Augustus would undoubtedly have shipped them off to Rome. They were begging to be used in trendy landscape gardening.

We gazed at the Caesarium, and felt the pang of standing next to history. (Trust me; it is extremely similar to the pang of badly wanting a sit-down and a drink of cold water.) We found a giant sphinx against whose lion paw we could lean weakly until guards chased us off. Helena was at pains to assure me that Cleopatra’s mystique had derived not from beauty but from wit, vivacity and vast intellectual knowledge.

‘Don’t disappoint me. We men imagine she bounced about on scented satin pillows, wildly uninhibited.’

‘Oh Roman generals like to think they have seduced a clever woman. Then they can fool themselves they have done it for her own good,’ Helena mocked.

‘Anything less frigid than the average general’s wife would have seemed hot stuff to Caesar and Antony. An hour of Cleo throwing her sceptre at the ceiling and doing erotic back-somersaults would pass pretty pleasantly.’

‘And the Queen of the Nile could tickle their fancies while simultaneously showing off how she had read natural philosophy and was fluent in foreign languages.’

‘Linguistic ability was not the kind of kinky taste I meant, Helena.’

‘What - not even to shriek, “More! More, Caesar!” in seven languages?’

We went home for a rest. We would need energy that evening. We had to endure a formal dinner with a dignitary. That was nothing.

Before it began, according to my uncle’s house rules, we had to persuade Julia and Favonia to go to bed much earlier than they wanted to -and stay there.


Cassius had thrown himself into the evening. Most of it worked. The decorations and some of the dishes were superb.

He served grilled fish in Sauce Alexandrian. Although Cassius saw it as a compliment to Egypt, I reckoned any local guest was bound to feel this recipe fell short of his mother’s cherished version. Cassius was asking to be informed that stoned damsons were now a cliche and everyone who was anyone used raisins in their sauces . . . On the other hand, Cassius whispered that he could never have trained the cooks in time to do fine Roman cuisine. He was afraid that the pastry chef would knife him, if asked to try. Worse, he suspected that the chef had sensed the possibility of being asked to change his repertoire, and might already have poisoned the fried honey cakes. I suggested Cassius should eat one to check.

The Librarian did come, though he was late. We had to endure an hour of Fulvius getting agitated as he thought he had been snubbed. Then, while the man shed his shoes and was made comfortable, Fulvius pretended to us that arriving late was a custom here, a compliment that implied a guest was so relaxed he felt time was of no consequence ... or some such waffle. I could see Albia staring, wide-eyed; she had already been startled by my uncle’s outfit, which was a loose dining-robe of the type called a synthesis, in vivid saffron gauze. At least the Librarian had brought Fulvius a gift of potted figs, which would solve the dessert problem if Cassius keeled over after my pastry test.

His name was Theon. He looked acceptable on the surface but his clothes were a fortnight overdue at the laundry. They had never been stylish. His workaday tunic hung on a thin frame as if he never ate properly and his beard was sparse and straggly. Either he was too poorly paid to live up to his honourable position, or he was a natural slob. As a natural cynic, I presumed the latter.

At dinner, Cassius hung us all with special garlands then positioned us carefully. It was intended we should have three formal courses, though service was curious and distinctions became blurred. Still, we ploughed diligently through the correct rota of conversation. The appetisers were given over to my party’s voyage. Helena, acting as our spokesperson, gave a humorous oration on the weather, the mercenary ship’s captain and our stop- off in Rhodes - with its highlight of looking into the gigantic pieces of the fallen Colossus and seeing the stone and metal framework that would have held it upright, but for the earthquake.

‘Do you suffer many earthquakes here?’ Albia asked Uncle Fulvius in extremely careful Greek. She was learning the language and had been instructed to practise. Nobody would think that this grave and neat young girl had once roamed the streets of Londinium, an urchin who could spit ‘get lost, you pervert!’ in more languages than Cleopatra elegantly spoke. As adoptive parents we viewed her proudly.

Helena had created a Greek phrasebook for our foster-daughter, including the question on which Albia had sweetly ventured as an icebreaker. I regaled the company with further examples. ‘The next continues the volcanic theme: Please excuse my husband farting at the dinner table; he has a dispensation from the Emperor Claudius. A footnote reminds us this is true; all Roman men enjoy that privilege, courtesy of our frequently maligned ex-Emperor. There was a good reason why Claudius was deified.’

Albia dragged back decorum into the conversation: ‘My favourite phrase is Please help; my slave has expired from sunstroke in the basilica!’

Helena smiled. ‘Weil, I was particularly proud of: Can you direct me to an apothecary who sells inexpensive corn-plasters? which then has a follow-up: If I need anything of a more delicate nature, can I trust him to be discreet?’

Uncle Fulvius displayed unexpected good nature, informing Albia in slow phrases, ‘Yes, there are earthquakes in this country, although fortunately most are mild.’

‘Do they cause much damage, pray?’

‘It is always a possibility. However, this city has existed safely for four hundred years . . .’ Albia was having trouble with Greek numbers; she started panicking. The Librarian had listened inscrutably.

When the main dishes came, of course we switched topics. I applied myself politely to local questions. Hardly had I broached how hot was the weather likely to be during our stay, when Aulus interrupted, launching into how he had fared that morning at the Museion. Aulus could be crass. Now the Librarian would assume he had been invited tonight so we could beg a place for Aulus.

Theon glared at the would-be scholar. What he saw would not impress: a truculent twenty-eight-year-old, overdue for a haircut, with so few social graces anyone could see why he had not followed his father into the Senate. No one would guess Aulus had nonetheless done a routine stint as an army tribune and even spent a year in the governor’s office in Baetican Spain. In Athens he had grown a beard like Greek philosophers. Helena was terrified their mother would hear about it. No honest Roman wears a beard. Access to good razors is what singles us out from the barbarians.

‘Decisions about admissions are taken by the Museion - it is out of my hands,’ warned Theon.

‘Not to bother. I used my charm.’ Aulus smiled triumphantly.’ I was accepted straight away’

‘Olympus!’ I let slip. ‘That’s a surprise!’

Theon appeared to think the same. ‘And what do you do, Falco? Here for education or commerce?’

‘Just a trip to visit family and put in some gentle sightseeing.’

‘My nephew and his wife are intrepid travellers,’ beamed Uncle Fulvius. He was no slouch himself at touring, though he kept to the Mediterranean whereas I had been to more remote areas: Britain, Spain, Germany, Gaul . . . My uncle would shudder at those grim provinces, with their heavy legionary presence and absence of Greek influence. ‘Your activities are not unconnected with imperial business, eh, Marcus? And I heard you were involved with the Census not so long ago? Falco is very highly regarded, Theon. So tell us, nephew, who is due for a penetrating audit here?’

Had Cassius not placed himself between us on the dining couches I could have kicked Fulvius. Trust relatives to open their mouths. Up until that point, the Librarian had viewed us as the usual ill-read foreigners wanting to look at pyramids. Now, of course, his gaze sharpened.

Helena helped him to pork-stuffed-two-ways and dealt with it briskly. ‘My husband is an informer, Theon. He did carry out a special investigation into Census avoidance two years ago, but his work in Rome is mainly background checks on people’s intended marriage partners. The public have the wrong perception of what Falco does, though in fact it is commercial and routine.’

‘Informers are never popular,’ Theon commented, not quite sneering.

I wiped sticky fingers on my napkin. ‘Mud sticks. You will have heard about the crooked ones among my

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