Authors: Gillian Bradshaw
The pair of porters turned out, in fact, to be sedan-chair bearers. Their chair was propped up against the stable wall, a simple wooden seat slung between two stout poles: presumably they'd carried a passenger out to the livery stables, and had been hoping for someone to pay them to make the journey back. They now turned the chair upside down, heaved the traveling chest onto it, and secured it with a piece of rope. When the burden had been lifted and securely balanced on their shoulders, each man picked up one of the additional baskets. The leader looked expectantly at Hermogenes.
“The Via Tusculana,” Hermogenes ordered, and they set off.
In spite of his tiredness and the lingering sourness from the confrontation with the muleteer, Hermogenes felt his heart speed up as he followed. He was treading the streets of Rome! He had been hearing about this city all his life.
All the years that he was growing up, his native Alexandria had been full of Roman troopsâRoman
they'd been then, supporters of the queen. That hadn't made them respectful toward the citizens, of course: the city had been perpetually full of angry whispers about what one soldier or another had done, though the queen had been happy enough. Then had come that strange, hot summer when Hermogenes was eighteen, and Roman “enemies” completed the conquest of his homeland and its Roman “allies.” The final stages of the war had been played out amid the familiar landmarks of Alexandria. He had stood on the city wall with his father, and listened as an old veteran pointed out the standards of the different legions encamped around the hippodrome, naming the campaigns each had fought in before. Iberia, Gaul, Africa, ArmeniaÂ â¦ it had seemed as though all the world belonged to Rome, apart from the doomed stones beneath their feet.
Alexandria joined the rest of the world only a few days later. For a little while no one had known whether or not the city would be given over to pillage. He remembered a dreadful day of waiting in the stifling dining room where the household had gathered, listening to the drone of the flies and the crying of the cook's baby. The older slaves of the household had all been silent, sick with fear. If the city was handed over to the victorious legions, everyone would suffer, but slaves would suffer more, and their masters would be unable to protect them. He had never felt so helpless, or so angry.
Caesar had spared Alexandria, thank the gods. “Why shouldn't he?” Hermogenes' father had asked in relief. “He's just acquired the right to tax our trade: if he let his soldiers ruin that, he'd lose money.”
Even taxed, Alexandrian trade had flourished in the new Roman peace, and the household had flourished with it. Five years after the conquest, Hermogenes' father had been able to afford the investment that brought the Roman citizenship to himself and his son. That had been satisfying, though also oddly unsettling. Hermogenes remembered how uncomfortable he had felt when he first saw the diploma with his new Roman names written on it:
Hermogenes. It was as though he had suddenly acquired a ghostly Roman as a twin. He had wondered how you could be a citizen of a city you had never seen, a far-away place you knew as bullying ally, conquering enemy, and powerful ruler, but never as a friend. Still, he had been proud and glad of his new citizenship. It had meant that he was an equal of the conquerors, entitled to the same rights and privileges.
He had wondered, though, if he would ever come to Rome. And now, ten years later, here he was. Walking along a street in the city that ruled the world, finally seeing with his own eyes the place where the ghostly “Marcus Aelius” was a citizen.
It wasn't much to look atâat least, not here. The streets were quiet, as was normal in most cities in the early afternoon, and the few people around were lounging in the shade. The buildings were tall but shoddily constructed, and the road was full of dung, rotting refuse, and flies. Fortunately they did not actually have to walk in the filth: a narrow pavement ran on either side of the thoroughfare, and at every corner stepping-stones allowed a pedestrian to cross without dirtying his feet. Hermogenes noted horse and ox dung amid the rest and wondered if Gallio and the groom had been lying to himâbut no, they'd both insisted that carriages couldn't go into the city
during the day,
which implied that the rule was relaxed at night. Presumably carts trundled through the streets all night to deliver goods to the markets. He glanced round at the flimsy apartment blocks and wondered how well their inhabitants slept.
“Tall, eh, sir?” the lead porter remarked proudly. “Mos' foreigners, they jus' can' b'lieve their eyes, how tall the insulae are here in Rome. There's one near the forum seven stories high!”
Hermogenes shook his head. Seven stories high on how wide a base? These buildings looked as though they would fall down at the passage of a particularly heavy cart: the gods help those caught in one during an earthquake!
The porter took the head shake for an expression of amazement, and was encouraged to continue. “Mos' foreigners, they jus' can't b'lieve how big this city is, neither,” he declared. “Your home city, now, sir, with respec'âhow big is she across, eh?”
Hermogenes shrugged. “Three, four miles?”
The man blinked, surprised. “Oh. Tha'sÂ â¦ tha's near as big.” He looked sideways at Hermogenes. “That'd be Alexandria?”
“They say she's a great city, too,” the porter conceded.
It was pleasing that even this ignorant man knew of Alexandria's greatness, knew that she rivaled Rome. Hermogenes smiled. “I am glad to behold the city that rules her.”
Even if it isn't as beautiful,
he added privately. “What is your name, fellow?”
“Gaius Rubrius Libo, sir,” the porter said promptly. “This here's my brother, Quintus.” His partner grinned.
Taken aback, Hermogenes ran the names through his mind again: three names, all solidly Latin. Could that meanâ¦? “Are you citizens?” he asked in amazement.
Gaius Rubrius grinned. “Yessir. Sons of a Roman, born and bred in Rome.”
It should not have been so disconcerting, Hermogenes told himself. Obviously at Rome itself there would be
Roman citizens, men of no particular wealth and importance. It shocked him, nonetheless, to discover that he'd just hired two Roman citizens to carry his luggage. In Alexandria the Roman citizenship was a thing only wealth and power could aspire to gain. He felt obscurely ashamed of the way he'd just flaunted his own citizenship.
“No' many like us, these days,” Gaius Rubrius admitted. “Most'a the other fellows you find carrying things these days, they're freedmen or freedmen's sons if they're not slaves outright. Sons of Gauls or, gods hate 'em, Syrians like tha' bastard Helops.” He spat, noticed Hermogenes' blank expression, and explained, “The fellow in the red tunic, head groom a' tha' livery stable. Has all the drivers send their fares to him, and charges the porters and chair bearers before he'll send 'em on. Makes trouble about a fellow waitin' in his courtyard to see if anyone wants a ride. Real bastard.”
“You tripped him up, sir,” Quintus Rubrius put in slyly, and laughed.
Hermogenes shrugged, embarrassed. He could see nothing particularly reprehensible in a livery stable groom arranging porters and sedan chairs for customers, even if he did take a cut. At least the customers would have somewhere to turn if the porters made off with their possessions. He would have been willing to pay a little more for that reassurance himself, if he hadn't been so dissatisfied with the service he'd received from the driver. He glanced back, and was reassured to find Phormion and Menestor close behind, alert, unencumbered and ready to deal with any trouble that arose. Not that he expected any: it was just better to be ready. “My quarrel was with the driver,” he remarked, returning his attention to the porters.
“Gallio's a bugger, too,” Gaius Rubrius assured him.
They walked on for a few minutes in silence. They had passed through the Ostian Gate now, and the tenements rose up hills to each side, one above another, quiet in the afternoon sun. In their thick shade the street seemed narrower and darker. Some of the ground-floor apartments seemed to have been given over to shops or cookhouses, but at this time of day they were shut, their fronts sealed with heavy wooden shutters, giving the street a blank, walled-in feeling. In dirt-paved alleys which twisted from the main road women stood talking in low voices while children played amid the rubbish. Dogs barked and babies cried. The air smelled of sewage.
A gang of boys at the entrance to one of the apartment blocks watched them go past with sullen dark eyes. One of them shouted something, the words unclear but the jeering tone unmistakable. A man at the window of another building spat, the gobbet of phlegm falling on the dirty pavement by Hermogenes' feet. It reminded him uneasily of parts of Alexandria's Rhakotis quarter. He wished he had not put on his best cloak that morning, and that he'd used a copper pin for his tunic. He'd wanted to impress the Romans as a man of substance, but he would never have walked through the Rhakotis quarter wearing Scythopolitan linen, expensively doubled-dyed gold-russet, and a tunic fastened with a gold pin. It was as good as a proclamation: “Rich man! Worth robbing!”âand here the cut of the cloak proclaimed him not merely “Rich man!” but “Rich foreigner!” which was even worse. He glanced uneasily back at Menestor and Phormion again. Even their plain tunicsâclean, of good quality linen, and decorated in Menestor's case with patterned edgesâwould have been ill-advised in the Rhakotis quarter. And they did look foreign here, there was no denying it. Phormion was too dark, and Menestor's seventeen-year-old honey-colored grace too exotic.
“Is this a bad part of the city?” he asked at last.
“Not so bad, no,” Gaius Rubrius said judiciously. “Nowhere in Rome's really
unnerstan', but there's worse than this. Transtibertina, f'r starters: never go there after dark. Subura's bad, too, and around the Via Appia beyond the Capena Gate. Via Appia itself isn' too bad in townâmain roads, see, they're better than alleyways.”
“It is the same in Alexandria.” He had been taking some comfort from the fact that this was a main road.
“Via Tusculana, nowâmost of that's a good area. The top of it's up by the Sacra Via, right near the Palatine. The bottom by the Caelimontana Gate, tha's not so good, but not too bad neither. 'Bout like this. Which end is it you want, sir?”
Hermogenes hesitated. “Probably the better end, but I am not certain,” he admitted. “I have never before been to Rome. I will ask for the house.”
“It's a house? Not an insula?”
Hermogenes thought, then remembered that the apartment blocks were called insulae; Rubrius had even used the term to him before. “I believe it is a house,” he said cautiously. “Crispus is a businessman, like myself.” He used the term Crispus had always employed for himself:
“Sacra Via end, then,” the porter said confidently. “I'd'a looked there first anyway, seein' as how you're a gentleman.”
Well, the cloak had impressed
anyway. He hoped the porters had him down as a man who could reward helpfulness generously, and perhaps provide more custom in futureâthat they would work to please him.
“Is y'r friend expectin' you?” Rubrius asked.
“Yes,” Hermogenes said at once, although he wasn't certain that was true. He had sent Crispus a letter before setting out from Alexandria, but there was no way to know whether Crispus had actually received itâand of course, even if Crispus was expecting him, the vagaries of ships and winds meant he couldn't know
his guest might arrive. A foreigner adrift in a strange city, however, was a foreigner who could be robbed with impunity, and he wouldn't appear any more vulnerable than he had toâparticularly not with those valuables in his trunk.
“Sacra Via end f'r sure,” Rubrius repeated.
They came out from between the hills, and to Hermogenes' relief, the neighborhood improved. The wood-and-brick bleachers of what Rubrius said was the Circus MaximusâRome's main racecourseâtowered above them to their left. To their right, the tenements gave way to more substantial apartment blocks faced with plaster painted to resemble marble, punctuated by the occasional private house. The roadway curved about the end of the Circus Maximus, then ended in a small public square. Ahead of them rose another hill, this one covered with large houses set amid fine gardens. Marble gleamed white against the green of leaves.
“Tha's the Palatine,” said Gaius Rubrius, nodding at it. “Where the emperor an' his friends live, when they're in the city. The Sacra Via goes past it on the other side. This is the end of the Via Ostiensis, but we'll jus' nip across by the lanes. No' too much further now.”
“Jus' as well,” muttered his brother, Quintus. “This thing's heavy.”
“Isn't the emperor in the city now?” Hermogenes asked with interest, gazing up at the Palatine.
“Na,” Gaius said with resignation. “He's off in the West, and his friend Agrippa's off in the East. Nothin' happenin' this summer. There haven' been no games since the beginnin' of the month, and the circus has been empty even longer. It'll kill me with boredom; I love the games. You'd think Taurus would put on some gamesâhe's prefect of the city right now, Statilius Taurus the general, and he loves the games himself; built the big amphitheater for 'em over in the Campus Martius. But everythin's been dead.”
They crossed the square at the entrance to that deserted circus, and followed another street right, then left about the foot of the Palatine. The neighborhood became richer still. Now the apartment blocks were faced with real, rather than imitation, marble, and their entranceways were decorated with mosaic titles, while the wooden shutters of the closed shops were painted in bright colors. They joined another road which Rubrius said was the beginning of the Via Appia: here there were no apartments at all, only private houses, large ones with facades of polished stone, doors of carved oak, and torches set in ornamental iron brackets along the road front. The occasional portico of shops or small temple made columned gaps in a sweep of plasterwork and marble. The pavements had been swept, and even the street was cleaner. The scent of sewage was replaced by that of cook fires, herbs, and stone pavement in sunlight.