Authors: Lindsey Davis
THE SILVER PIGS
A Novel of Marcus Didius Falco
Rome: AD 70.
A city in confusion, as the death of Nero ended the ruling dynasty founded by Augustus Caesar.
A city which governed a vast Empire: most of Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. The Emperor Claudius (aided by an unknown young general called Vespasian) had even gained a foothold in a wild location which Romans regarded with unrelieved horror: Britain! Thirty years later it was Vespasian who had emerged triumphant from the struggle for power after Nero.
This had cost Rome a bitter civil war. The Empire was in chaos. The Treasury was bankrupt. Vespasian urgently needed to convince his critics that he and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, represented the best hope of good government and peace.
Meanwhile in Britain, which was slowly recovering from Queen Boudicca's Rebellion, Nero's slack administration had taken its toll. Important mineral rights were leased out to local contractors, including management of the main imperial silver mine in the Mendip Hills. The mines were badly run: four stolen ingots franked at Charterhouse in the First Century AD have been discovered hidden beneath a cairn of stones. Who stole them and hid them so carefully, then never returned? And how did this faraway local fraud affect the new Emperor Vespasian, struggling to maintain his position in Rome?
Marcus Didius Falco, who disapproved of Emperors but who served the state in his own private way, knew the truth...
Summer-Autumn, AD 70
When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.
It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddle plate People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.
I was standing in the Forum. She was running. She looked overdressed and dangerously hot, but sunstroke or suffocation had not yet finished her off. She was shining and sticky as a glazed pastry plait, and when she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me, I made no attempt to move aside. She missed me, just. Some men are born lucky; others are called Didius Falco.
Close at hand, I still thought she would be better off without so many tunics. Though don't misunderstand me. I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. If they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or, in my line of work, they are usually dead. This one was vibrantly alive.
Perhaps in a fine mansion with marble veneers, fountains, garden courtyards deep in shade, a leisured young lady might keep cool, even swaddled in embroidered finery with jet and amber bangles from her elbow to her wrist. If she ran out in a hurry she would instantly regret it. The heat haze would melt her. Those light robes would stick to all the lines of her slim figure. That clean hair would cling in tantalizing tendrils against her neck. Her feet would slip against the wet soles of her sandals, runnels of sweat dash down her warm throat into interesting crevices under all that fancy bodice work...
"Excuse me" she gasped.
She veered around me; I sidestepped politely. She dodged; I dodged. I had come to the Forum to visit my banker; I felt glum. I greeted this smouldering apparition with the keenness of a man who needs troubles taking off his mind.
She was a slight thing. I liked them tall, but I was prepared to compromise. She was wickedly young. At the time I lusted after older women but this one would grow up, and I could certainly wait. While we sashayed on the steps, she glanced back, panic-struck. I admired her shapely shoulder, then squinted over it myself. Then I had a shock.
There were two of them. Two ugly lumps of jail-fodder, jelly brained and broad as they were high, were pushing through the crowds towards her, just ten paces off. The little lass was obviously terrified.
"Get out of my way!" she pleaded.
I wondered what to do. "Manners!" I chided thoughtfully, as the jelly brains came within five paces.
"Get out of my way sir!" she roared. She was perfect!
It was the usual scene in the Forum. We had the Record Office and Capitol Hill hard above us on the left; to the right the Courts, and the Temple of Castor further down the Sacred Way. Opposite, beyond the white marble rostrum, stood the Senate House. All the porticos were crammed with butchers and bankers, all the open spaces filled with sweaty crowds, mainly men. The piazza rang with the curses of strings of slaves crisscrossing like a badly organized military display. The air simmered with the reek of garlic and hair pomade.
The girl pranced to one side; I slid the same way.
"Need directions, young lady?" I asked helpfully.
She was too desperate to pretend. "I need a district magistrate." Three paces: options fast running out... Her face changed. "Oh help me!"
I took charge. I hooked her away by one arm as the first of the jelly brains lunged. Close to they looked even larger, and the Forum was not an area where I could count on any support. I planted the sole of my boot on the first thug's breastbone, then vigorously straightened my knee. I felt my leg crunch, but the draught-ox staggered into his evil friend so they teetered backwards like faltering acrobats. I looked around frantically for a diversion to cause.
The steps were crowded with the usual illegal touts and overpriced market stalls. I considered upending some melons but smashed fruit meant a diminished livelihood for their market gardener. I had a diminished livelihood myself so I settled on the tasteful copperware. Tilting it with my shoulder, I keeled over a complete stall. The stall holder thin cry was lost as bouncing flagons, ewers and urns sped at a denting pace down the Temple steps, followed by their despairing owner and numbers of righteous passers-by all hoping to stroll home with a nice new fluted fruit bowl under one arm.
I grabbed the girl and hared up the Temple steps. Scarcely pausing to admire the dignified beauty of the Ionic portico, I pulled her through the six columns and into the inner sanctum. She squeaked; I kept going at speed. It was cool enough to make us shiver and dark enough to make me sweat. There was an old, old smell. Our footsteps rang fast and sharp on the ancient stone floor.
"Am I allowed in here?" she hissed.
"Look pious; we're on our way!"
"But we can't get out!"
If you know anything about temples you will realize they have a single imposing entrance at the front. If you know anything about priests, you will have noticed they usually have a discreet little door for themselves somewhere at the back. The priests of Saturn did not disappoint us.
I brought her out on the racecourse side, and set off south. The poor girl had wriggled out of the arena straight into a lion pit. I cantered her through dark alleys and pungent back doubles to home ground.
"Wherever are we?"
"Aventine Sector, Thirteenth District. South of the Circus Maximus, heading for the Ostia Road." As reassuring as a shark's grin to a flounder. She would have been warned about places like this. If her loving old nurses knew what they were doing, she had been warned about fellows like me.
I slowed down after we crossed the Aurelian Way, partly because I was on secure home ground, but also because the girl was ready to expire.
"Where are we going?"
She looked relieved. Not for long: my office was two rooms on the sixth floor of a dank tenement where only the dirt and dead bedbugs were cementing together the walls. Before any of my neighbours could price up her clothing I wheeled her off the mud track that passed for a highroad, and into Lenia's distinctly low-class laundry.
Hearing the voice of Smaractus my landlord, we wheeled smartly back out.
Fortunately he was leaving. I stowed the girl in a basket weaver portico while I crouched down behind her and fiddled with the straps of my left boot.
"Who is it?" she whispered.
"Just a blotch of local slime," I told her. I spared her my speech about property-magnates as parasites on the poor, but she took the point.
"He's your landlord!" Smart!
She confirmed it. Taking no chances, I asked, "Five or six skinny gladiators at his heels?"
"All black eyes and dirty bandages."
"Come on then!" We pushed through the wet garments Lenia was allowing to dry out in the street, turning our faces away as they flapped back at us, then went in.
Lenia's laundry. Steam billowed out to flatten us. Washerboys stamped the clothes, sploshing up to their cracked little knees in hot tubs. There was a great deal of noise slapping the linen, thumping and pounding it, clanging cauldrons all in a close, echoing atmosphere. The laundry took up the whole ground floor, spilling out into the courtyard at the back.
We were greeted with derision by the slipshod proprietress. Lenia was probably younger than me, but she looked forty, with a gaunt face and a slack stomach that rolled over the edge of the basket she was carrying. Wisps of frizzled hair escaped from a colourless ribbon around her head. She cackled with throaty laughter when she saw my honey cake
"Falco! Does your mother let you play with little girls?"
"Ornamental eh?" I adopted a suave expression. "Bargain I picked up in the Forum."
"Don't chip her pretty glaze!" Lenia scoffed. "Smaractus left a hint: pay up, or his fisher boys will be poking their tridents up your delicate parts."
"If he wants to wring out my arm-purse, he should render a written account. Tell him-"
''Tell him yourself!"
Lenia, whose instinct must have been to favour me, kept well clear of my tussle with the landlord. Smaractus paid her certain attentions which at present she was resisting because she liked her independence, but as a good businesswoman she kept her options open. He was foul. I thought Lenia was mad. I had told her what I thought; she had told me whose business I could mind.
Her restless gaze flickered again towards my companion.
"New client," I boasted.
"Really! She paying you for the experience or you paying her for the treat?"
We both turned to survey my young lady.
She wore a fine white under tunic fixed along the sleeves with blue enamel clasps, and over it a sleeveless gown so generous in length it was bunched up over her girdle of woven gold threads. Apart from the wide bands of patterned embroidery at her neck, and hem, and in broad stripes down the front, I could tell from the narrowing of Lenia's watery eyes we were admiring a quality cloth. My goddess had wire hoops threaded with tiny glass beads in each neat little ear, a couple of chain necklaces, three bracelets on her left arm, four on her right, and various finger rings in the form of knots, serpents or birds with long crossed beaks. We could have sold her girlish finery for more than I earned last year. It was best not to consider how much a brothel keeper might pay us for the pretty wench.
She was blonde. Well, she was blonde that month, and since she was hardly from Macedonia or Germany, dye must have helped. It was cleverly done. I would never have known, but Lenia informed me afterwards.
Her hair had been curled into three soft fat ringlets tied in a clump with a ribbon at the nape of her neck. The temptation to untie that ribbon niggled me like a hornet bite. She painted her face of course. All my sisters turned themselves out spanking with colour like newly gilt statues, so I was used to that. My sisters are amazing, but blatant works of art. This was much more subtle, invisibly achieved, except that running in the heat had left one eye very faintly smudged. Her eyes were brown, set wide apart, and sweetly without guile.
Lenia tired of looking long before I did.
"Cradle snatcher!" she told me frankly. "Tinkle in the bucket before you take her up!"
This was not a request for a medical sample because cradle snatching made Lenia diagnose me as unwell; it was a straight hospitable offer, with business overtones.
I shall have to explain about the bucket and the bleach vat.
A long time afterwards I described all this to someone I knew well, and we discussed what launderers use for whitening cloth.
"Distilled wood ash,'' my companion suggested doubtfully.
They do use ash. They also use carbonate of soda, fuller's earth, and pipe clay for the brilliant robes of election candidates. But the pristine togas of our magnificent Empire are effectively bleached with urine, obtained from the public latrines. The Emperor Vespasian, never slow to light on brisk new ways of squeezing out cash, had slapped a tax on this ancient trade in human waste. Lenia paid the tax, though on principle she increased her supply for nothing whenever she could.
The woman I had been telling the story to commented, in her cool way, "I suppose in the salad season, when everyone's eating beetroot, half the togas in the Forum are a delicate hue of pink? Do they rinse it out?" she enquired.
I shrugged in a deliberately vague way. I would have skipped this unsavoury detail but as it turned out eventually, Lenia's bleach vat was critical to the tale.
Since I lived six floors up in a block that was no better equipped than any other slum in Rome, Lenia's bucket had long been my welcome friend.
Lenia offered my visitor, not unkindly, "Girlies go behind the carding rails, dear."
"Lenia, don't embarrass my dainty client!" I was blushing on her behalf.
"Actually I left home rather suddenly."
Dainty but desperate, my client shot behind the rods where the dried clothes were hung on poles through the shoulders to be scratched down with teasels to bring up the nap. While I waited, I topped up my usual bucket and talked to Lenia about the weather. As one does.
After five minutes I ran out of weather.
"Get lost, Falco!" a carding-girl greeted me as I peered around the rails. No sign of my client.
Had she been less attractive, I might have let her go. She was extremely attractive and I saw no reason to part with that sort of innocence to anybody else. Cursing now, I barged past the giant screw clothes-presses and out to the laundry yard.
There was a furnace heating the well water used in the wash. There were garments spread over wicker frames above braziers of burning sulphur, which through some mysterious chemistry smokes in additional whiteness. There were several youths scoffing at my fury, and there was a dreadful smell. There was no client. I hopped over a handcart and set off fast down the lane.
She had scampered past the dyer's lampblack ovens, braved the midden, and was halfway along the poultry cages where some footsore geese and a drooping cerise flamingo rested for market the next day. As I approached she pulled up short, her way blocked by a rope maker who was unbuckling his belt from his eighteen stone girth, to ease the task of raping her with that casual brutality which passed in these parts for appreciation of the female form. I politely thanked the rope maker for looking after her, then before either of them could haggle I brought her back.
This was one client whose contract would need to be enforced by tying her to my wrist with a long piece of string.