Authors: Lindsey Davis
ODE TO A BANKER
A Novel of
To Simon King (another of my 'Dear Simon' notes .. )
On your retirement from Random House. With thanks for your friendship, patience, and loyal support for Falco - And in memory of the smoked eel.
I hereby assert strenuously that the scroll-shop of Aurelius Chrysippus in the Clivus Publicius bears no relation to my publishers - who are models of editorial judgement, prompt payment, fair dealing, strong marketing, and lunch-buying.
(NB: the dedication of this book is to a most excellent man, who was one of them.)
The views of M. Didius Falco on the characters and habits of authors are his views only; clearly, he has not met my delightful colleagues.
The Golden Horse is certainly not my bank.
Jurisdictions of the Vigiles Cohorts in Rome:
Coh I Regions VII VIII (Via Lata, Forum Romanum)
Coh II Regions III V (Isis and Serapis, Esquiline)
Coh III Regions IV VI (Temple of Peace, Alta Semita)
Coh IV Regions XII XIII (Piscina Publica, Aventine)
Coh V Regions I II (Porta Capena, Caelimontium)
Coh VI Regions X XI (Palatine, Circus Maximus)
Coh VII Regions IX XIV (Circus Flaminius, Transtiberina)
M. Didius Falco/Dillius Braco/Ditrius Basto - a well-known Roman
Helena Justina -a heroine (a loyal reader)
Ma (Junilla Tacita) -a canny depositor
Pa (Gerninus) -a chipped old block
Maia Favonia (a sister) -a late-developing job-seeker
Junia (another sister) -a skilled staff manager
Rutilius Gallicus - a high profile spare time scribbler
Anacrites - a low lyer with variable interests;
A. Camillus Aelianus - an ill-equipped aristocratic trainee;
Gloccus and Cotta - invisible bathhouse contractors;
Numerous children, dogs, pregnancies and pups;
The World of the Arts
Aurelius Chrysippus -a patron of literature (a swine) a scroll-seller (a good critic) (a what?)
Euschemon - an old hand with attitude
Avienus - a historian with writer's block
Turius - a utopian with allergies (to work) the Shakespeare (Bacon?) of his day
Urbanus Trypho - a dramatist?
Anna, Trypho's wife - who may have a way with her
Pacuvius (Scrutator) - a bad-mouthing satirist (extinct species)
Constrictus Blitis - a love poet who needs to be dumpedfrom a writers' group (not writing at present)
Nothokleptes - a thieving bastard (a banker)
Aurelius Chrysippus (him again) - a secretive businessman
Lucrio - a personal banking executive (unsafe deposits)
Bos - a big man who explains bank charges
Diomedes - a very religious son with artistic hobbies
Lysa (first wife of Chrysippus) - a maker of men and their businesses (hard feelings)
Vibia (second wife of ditto) - a keen home-maker (soft furnishings)
Pisarchus - a shipping magnate who may be sunk
Philomelus - his son, a drudge with a dream
Domitian - a Young Prince (a hater)
Aristagoras - an Old Man (a lover?)
An old woman - a Witness
Perella - a Dancer
ROME: MID JULY-12 AUGUST AD74
A book may be defined... as a written (or printed) message of considerable length, meant for public circulation and recorded on materials that are light yet durable enough to afford comparatively easy portability.'
[The creditor] examines your family affairs; he meddles with your transactions. If you go forth from your chamber, he drags you along with him and carries you off; if you hide yourself inside he stands before your house and knocks at the door.
If [the debtor] sleeps, he sees the moneylender standing at his head, an evil dream... If a friend knocks at the door he hides under the couch. Does the dog bark? He breaks out in a sweat. The interest due increases like a hare, a wild animal which the ancients believed could not stop reproducing even while it was nourishing the offspring already produced.'
Basil of Caesarea
POETRY SHOULD have been safe. 'Take your writing tablets up to our new house,' suggested Helena Justina, my elegant partner in life. I was struggling against shock and physical exhaustion, acquired during a dramatic underground rescue. Publicly, the vigiles took the credit, but I was the mad volunteer who had been lowered head first down a shaft on ropes. It had made me a hero for about a day, and I was mentioned by name (misspelled) in the Daily Gazette.
'Just sit and relax in the garden,' soothed Helena, after I had rampaged about our tiny Roman apartment for several weeks. 'You can supervise the bathhouse contractors.'
'I can supervise them if they bother to turn up.'
'Take the baby. I may come too - we have so many friends abroad nowadays, I ought to work on The Collected Letters of Helena Justina.'
'Authorship?' What - by a senator's daughter? Most are too stupid and too busy counting their jewellery. None are ever encouraged to reveal their literary skills, assuming they have them. But then, they are not supposed to live with informers either.
'Badly needed,' she said briskly. 'Most published letters are by smug men with nothing to say.'
Was she serious? Was she privately romancing? Or was she just twisting the rope on my pulley to see when I snapped?
'Ah well,' I said mildly, 'You sit in the shade of a pine tree with your stylus and your great thoughts, fruit. I can easily run around after our darling daughter at the same time as I'm keeping a check on a bunch of slippery builders who want to destroy our new steam room. Then I can dash off my own little odes whenever there's a pause in the screaming and stonecutting.'
Every would-be author needs solitude and tranquillity.
It would have been a wonderful way to pass the summer, escapingfrom the city heat to our intended new home on the Janiculan Hill - except for this: the new home was a dump; the baby had embarked on a tantrum phase; and poetry led me into a public recital, which was foolish enough. That brought me into contact with the Chrysippus organisation. Anything in commerce that looks like a safe proposition may be a step on the route to grief.
I MUST HAVE been crazy. Drunk too, maybe. Why had I received no protection from the Capitoline gods? All right, I admit Jupiter and Minerva might feel I was their most insignificant acolyte, merely slave to a sinecure, a placeman, a careerist, and a half-hearted one at that. But Juno could have helped me out. Juno really should have bestirred herself from leaning on one elbow, playing Olympian board games of hero-baiting and husband-tracking; the Queen of Heaven could have stilled the dice just long enough to notice that the new Procurator of her Sacred Geese had an unworkable glitch in his otherwise smooth-running social life. In short: I had stupidly agreed to be the warm-up act at someone else's poetry show.
My fellow author was a senator of consular rank. Disastrous. He would expect his friends and relatives to be seated on the comfortable benches while mine squashed into a few inches of standing room. He would grab most of the reading time. He would go first, while the audience was still awake. What's more, he was bound to be a bloody awful poet.
I am talking about Rutilius Gallicus. That's right. The same Rutilius Gallicus who would one day be the Urban Prefect - the Emperor's law and order chief, Domitian's strong-arm boy, that great man who is nowadays so greatly loved by the populace (as we are told by those who tell us what to think). Twenty years ago, at the time of our reading together, he was just any old ex-consul. Then, we still had Vespasian on the throne. As his legate in Tripolitania, Rutilius had recently solved a boundary dispute, for what that was worth (not much, unless you had the misfortune to live in Lepcis Magna or Oea). He had not yet become eligible to govern a province, was not yet famous for his German exploit, and nobody would ever have expected him to be the subject of heroic poetry himself. A celebrity in waiting. I thought him a pleasant mediocrity, a provincial just about holding up to wearing his senatorial purple.
Wrong, Falco. He was my friend, it seemed. I viewed this honour with great caution as I had gained the impression even then that he was also cosying up to Domitian, our least loveable imperial prince. Rutilius must think there was advantage in it. I chose my pals more carefully.
At home, with the matronly wife who hailed from his own town of origin - Augusta Taurinorum in northern Italy - and with whatever they possessed of a family (how should I know? I was just a newly- promoted equestrian; he might have befriended me as a fellow exile when we first met in faraway Africa, but in Rome, I would never be taken home to meet his noble kin), at home the gladsome Gallicus would be known as Gaius or whatever. I did not qualify to use his private name. He would never call me Marcus either. I was Falco; for me, he would remain 'sir'. I could not tell if he knew there was mockery clothing my respectful tone. I was never too obvious; I like to keep my record clean. Besides, if he did become Domitian's crony, you never know where toadying may lead.
Well, some of us know now. But then you would never have marked down Rutilius Gallicus for favour and fame.
One advantage of sharing a platforin with a patrician was that he hired a grand venue. Our stage was in the Gardens of Maecenas, no less - those luxurious walkways laid out at the back of the Oppian Hill, smashing through the old republican walls, and planted on the ancient burial grounds of the poor. (Lots of manure in situ, as Helena pointed out.) Now the Gardens lurked in the lee of the more recent Golden House; they were less well hoed and watered, but they still existed, owned by the imperial family since Maecenas himself died seventy years before. There was a belvedere nearby, from which Nero had supposedly watched the Great Fire rampaging.
Maecenas had been Augustus' notorious financier: funder of emperors, friend to famous poets - and an all-round truly disgusting pervert. Still, if I could ever find an Etruscan nobleman to buy my dinner and encourage my art, I would probably stomach him fingering pretty boys. Presumably he bought their dinners too. All patronage is pimping of some kind. I ought to be wondering what grateful actions Rutilius would demand of me.
Well, ours was a different situation, I told myself. My patron was a well- behaved Flavian prig. But no prig is perfect, at least when viewed from the Aventine stews where character flaws proliferate like hot-room mould, doing their desperate damage in rowdy plebeian familieslike mine and bringing us into conflict with the pristine elite.
Why am I raving? Because Gallicus' big moment in Tripolitania had been ordering the public execution of a drunk who had blasphemed against the local gods. Too late, we discovered that the luckless loudmouth being eaten by the lion was my brother-in-law. Rutilius must be funding our joint recital out of guilt towards me, his house guest at the time.
Uneasily I wondered if my sister would enliven her widowhood by attending tonight. If so, would she work out the Rutilius connection? Maia was the bright one in our family If she realised that I was reading alongside her late husband's trial judge, what would she do to him - or to me?
Best not think about that. I had enough worries.
I had previously tried giving a public performance, but due to some misadventure in advertising, nobody came. There must have been a riotous party the same night. Everyone I invited abandoned me. Now I was dreading yet more shame, but still determined to prove to my intimate circle that the hobby they sneered at could produce good results. When Rutilius had confessed that he too wrote poetry and suggested this recitation, I had expected him perhaps to make his own garden available, for a small gathering of trusted associates, to whom we would murmur a few hexameters at twilight, accompanied by sweetmeats and well-watered wine. But he was so all-round ambitious that instead, he went out and hired Rome's most elegant hall the Auditorium in the Gardens of Maecenas. An exquisite site, haunted by literary echoes of Horace, Ovid and Virgil. To compliment the place, I learned that my new friend's personal guest-list was topped by his other dear friend, Domitian.
I was standing on the outer threshold of the Auditorium, with a very new scroll tucked under my arm, when my associate proudly broke this news. According to him, it was even rumoured that Domitian Caesar might attend. Dear gods.
There was no escape. All the hangers-on in Rome had heard the news, and the crowd pressing in behind me blocked any chance of bunking off.
'What an honour!' sneered Helena Justina, as she propelled me forward down the prestigiously tiled entrance ramp with the flat of her hand between my suddenly sweating shoulder blades. She managed to disguise her brutality by adjusting her fine, braid-edged stole at the same time. I heard delicate music from the massed gold disks of her earrings.
'Cobnuts.' The ramp had a steep gradient. Wound like a corpse in my toga, I had no freedom of movement; once pushed, I skittered down the long slope like a descending sycamore seed as far as the huge doorway to the interior. Helena steered me straight inside.
I found myself reacting nervously: 'Oh look, my love, they have erected a modesty curtain, behind which women are supposed to hide themselves. At least you can fall asleep without anybody noticing.'
'Cobnuts twice,' responded the well-brought-up senator's daughter whom I sometimes dared to call my wife. 'How old- fashioned! If I had brought a picnic, I might be in there. Since I was not warned of this abomination, Marcus, I shall sit in public smiling rapturously at your every word.'
I needed her support. But nerves aside, I was now gaping in astonishment at the beauteous location Rutilius Gallicus had bagged for our big event.
Only a stupendously rich man with a taste for mingling literature with slap-up banquets could have afforded to build this pavilion. I had never been inside it before. As a venue for two amateur poets it was ridiculous. Vastly over-scale. We would be echoing. Our handful of friends would look pitiful. We would be lucky to live this down.
The interior could have housed half a legion, complete with siege artillery. The roof soared high above a graciously proportioned hall at the end of which was an apse, with formal, marble-clad steps. Maecenas must have run his own marble yard. The floor and walls, and the frames and ledges of numerous niches in the walls were all marble- clad. The half-round stepped area at the apsidal end had probably been intended as a regal lounging point for the patron and his intimates. It was even perhaps designed as a cascade - though if so, Rutilius' funds had not run to paying for the water to be turned on this evening.
We could manage without. There was plenty to distract our audience. The decor was entrancing. All the rectangular wall niches were painted with glorious garden scenes - knee-high cross-hatched trellises, each with a recess in which stood an urn, a fountain, or a specimen tree. There were delicate plantings, perfectly painted, amidst which birds flew or sipped from fountain bowls. The artist had an astonishing touch. His palette was based on blues, turquoise and subtle greens. He could make frescoes that looked as real as the live horticulture we could see through wide doors which had been flung open opposite the apse to reveal views over a lush terrace to the distant Alban Hills
Helena whistled through her teeth. I felt a prickle of fear that she would want this kind of art in our own new house; sensing it, she grinned.
She had positioned me to greet guests. (Rutilius was still hovering in the outside portico, hopeful that Domitian Caesar might grace our gathering.) At least that saved me having to calm my companion. He looked cool, but Helena reckoned he was churning with tenor. Some people throw up at the very thought of public speaking. Being an ex-consul did not guarantee lack of shyness. Pluck went out of the job description in the days of the Scipios. All you needed now was to be someone to whom the Emperor owed a cheap favour.
Friends of the favoured Rutilius began to arrive. I had heard their loud, high-class voices chaffing him before they ambled down here. They poured in and strolled past, ignoring me, then headed automatically for the best seats. Amongst a group of female freedwomen, came a dumpy woman whom I identified as his wife, stiffly coiffed with a crimped tower of hair and well dressed for the occasion. She seemed to be wondering if she ought to speak to me, then she decided to introduce herself to Helena.
'I am Minicia Paetina; how very nice to see you here, my dear... .' She eyed the respectability curtain and was roundly advised by Helena to reject it. Minicia looked shocked. 'Oh, I may feel more comfortable out of the public gaze . .'
I grinned. 'Does that mean you have heard your husband read before, and don't want people seeing what you think?'
The wife of Rutilius Gallicus gave me a look that curdled my stomach juices. These northern types always seem rather cold to those of us who are Roman-born.
Do I sound like a snob? Olympus, I do apologise.
My own friends came late, but at least this time they did come. My mother was first, a beetling, suspicious figure whose first action was to stare hard at the marble floor, which in her view could have been better swept, before she showed her affection for me, her only surviving son: 'I do hope you are not making a fool of yourself, Marcus!'
'Thanks for the confidence, Ma.'
She was accompanied by her lodger: Anacrites, my ex-partner and arch-enemy. Discreetly smart, he had treated himself to one of the snappy haircuts he favoured and now flourished a knuckle-crushing gold ring to show he had reached the middle class (my own new ring, bought for me by Helena, was merely neat).
'How's the snooping trade?' I sneered, knowing he preferred to pretend nobody knew he was the Palace's Chief Spy. He ignored the jibe, leading Ma to a prime seat in the midst of Rutilius' snootiest supporters. There she sat bolt upright in her best black gown, like a grim priestess allowing herself to mingle with the populace yet trying not to let them contaminate her aura. Anacrites himself failed to find space on the marble perch, so curled up at Ma's feet, looking as if he was something unsavoury she had caught on her sandal and could not shake off.
'I see your mother's brought her pet snake!' My best friend Petronius Longus had failed to wangle himself a night's leave from his duties as enquiry chief of the Fourth Cohort of Vigiles, but that had not stopped him bunking off. He arrived in his working clothes - sturdy brown tunic, brutal boots and a night-stick - as if he was investigating a rumour of trouble. That lowered the tone nicely.
'Petro, we're planning to read love poems tonight, not plot a republican coup.'
'You and your consular pal are on a secret list as potential rioters.' He grinned. Knowing him, it might even be true. Anacrites had probably supplied the list.
If the Second Cohort, who ran this sector of town, discovered him moonlighting on their ground, they would thump him. It did not worry Petro. He was capable of thumping them back good and hard.
'You need an invigilator on the doors,' he commented. He stationed himself on the threshold, unwinding his stick in a meaningful manner, as a flock of strangers crowded in. I had already noticed them, due to their curious mixture of unattractive haircuts and misshapen footwear. There were some effete vocal accents, and a whiff of bad breath. I had invited none of these odd chanters, and they did not look as though they would appeal to Rutilius Gallicus. In fact, he came scuttling after them with an annoyed expression, helpless to intervene as they gatecrashed.
Petronius blocked the way. He explained this was a private party, adding that if we had wanted the general public, we would have sold tickets. At the crude mention of money, Rutilius looked even more embarrassed; he whispered to me that he thought these men belonged to a circle of writers, who were attached to some modern patron of the arts.