The sun was shining fitfully through the scattered clouds as the Praetorians took up their positions around the stage that had been set up for the Emperor to address his summoned guests. Most of the senators and their wives had been carried out on litters to the side of the Albine Lake. The lower ranks of Roman society had made the short journey in carts, on horseback or on foot, and were to stand behind the seating areas that had been arranged for the senators. March was coming to an end and the ground was firm and free of the glutinous winter mud that had hampered the work of the engineers. They were tasked with digging the channel that would drain off most of the lake, and the surrounding marshes, into a tributary of the Tiber.
Centurion Lurco’s men were footsore after the previous day’s march from Ostia, and the march to Ostia from Rome two days before that. Claudius had made a quick inspection of the progress on the new harbour and gave a series of short speeches around the town to reaffirm his love of his people and to promise them the rich rewards that would flow from the increase of trade passing through the port. The Emperor had also provided a banquet for the leading politicians, merchants and administrators of the port. Having appeased the people of Ostia, he and his court had moved on to the engineering works at the Albine Lake to attempt to win over the people of Rome. Claudius was due to make a public announcement and the men of his escort had been speculating on its nature all morning.
‘Has to be a spectacle,’ said Fuscius. ‘That or a distribution of food. Maybe both.’
‘As long as he doesn’t reduce our rations to supply the mob,’ Macro grumbled. The Praetorian Guard had been on half rations for three days and his stomach was beginning to growl. Despite the imperial order for other towns and cities to send their food reserves to the capital, only a handful of wagons were entering the city each day and most of the stock was bought by those wealthy enough to pay the premium prices demanded. Supplies earmarked for the public granary were diverted by corrupt officials and pilfered by those entrusted with guarding what little grain remained. Many of the poorest and weakest had already starved to death and as the supply wagons rumbled into the capital they passed the carts carrying the dead to the open graves outside the walls of Rome. The cries and wails of lamentation echoed through the narrow streets of the slums and Macro wondered how long it would take for the grief to turn once more to anger. When that happened, only the Praetorians and the urban cohorts would stand between the Emperor and the mob.
Cato had been listening to the exchange. ‘If there’s no bread then Claudius is going to have to depend on circuses to keep the mob happy. If he is going to stage a gladiatorial event then he’ll have to do something special. Even then, he may have satisfied their bloodlust but their bellies will still be empty.’
Fuscius shrugged. ‘I suppose. But it might buy him a few more days in which to find some food. Just as long as he doesn’t take any more of ours. If he does, then there’ll be consequences,’ the young Praetorian added darkly.
‘Consequences?’ Macro spat on the ground with contempt. ‘What consequences? Claudius is the bloody Emperor. He can do what he likes.’
‘You think so?’ Fuscius cocked an eyebrow. ‘He’s Emperor just for as long as the Praetorian Guard says so. We made him. We can just as easily put someone else in his place, if he forces us to.’
‘Who’s this “we” you’re talking about? You and a few disgruntled mates?’
Fuscius looked round and lowered his voice. ‘Not so few of us, judging from word going round the barracks. If the time comes, I’d make sure you’re on the right side, Calidus.’
‘Maybe, but until then, I’d keep my mouth shut if I were you. You’re talking treason, lad.’
Cato smiled thinly. ‘You know the saying, treason is just a question of timing. Fuscius has a point. Best to see how things work out before you pick a side.’
Macro shook his head in disgust. ‘Politics … Good soldiers should never get involved in it.’
‘Oh, I agree with that, sure enough,’ Cato replied. ‘Trouble is that sometimes politics can’t help getting involved with soldiers. Then what’s a man to do?’
As he asked the question, Cato watched Fuscius for his response. The younger Praetorian was silent and his expression suddenly became fixed and unreadable as he glanced over Cato’s shoulder.
‘What’s all this then?’ Tigellinus barked. ‘Gossiping like old ladies? Fall in, the Emperor’s coming.’ He jerked his thumb in the direction of the tents further along the side of the lake. The German bodyguards were stirring and the slaves hurried forward with the imperial litters. The men of Lurco’s century raised their shields and javelins and began to form up around the stage. Half of the men stood either side of the approach to the rear of the stage while the others, including Cato and Macro, provided a loose screen around the sides and front. Meanwhile the last of the senatorial families had arrived to take up their seats.
‘Shit …’ Macro muttered and Cato glanced sharply at him.
‘To the right, close to that red litter, see that party of hooray Horatios. Try not to be obvious.’
Cato casually turned his head to survey the Emperor’s audience until he saw the party that Macro had indicated – twenty or so young aristocrats in expensive tunics beneath their rather more austere togas. They seemed to be gathered around one individual. He was a tall but manifestly overweight individual whose jowls shook as he talked. At first Cato could not recognise him from that angle, but then the man slapped his thigh and laughed loudly enough for the sound to carry clearly over the hubbub of the other senatorial guests, several of whom turned in his direction with expressions of disapproval. The man turned and glanced towards the stage and Cato felt a chill seize his heart.
‘By the gods,’ he muttered. ‘Vitellius … Bastard.’
‘Who is he then?’ asked Fuscius.
Cato shot a warning glance at Macro before the latter replied. ‘He was senior tribune in the Second Legion a few years back.’
Fuscius made a wry smile. ‘Doesn’t sound like you approve of him.’
‘He nearly got us killed,’ Cato said flatly, as he considered how much it was safe to say. He was cross with himself, and Macro, for their reaction to seeing Vitellius again. The former tribune had been involved in a plot to assassinate the Emperor while Claudius was in Britannia. Even though Cato and Macro had foiled the attempt, Vitellius had managed to deftly exculpate himself. ‘Vitellius is the kind of man who puts himself first, above all other considerations. A word of advice, Fuscius. Never step in his way. You’d be crushed under his heel with no more regard than if he had trod on an ant.’
‘I see.’ Fuscius stared towards the loud group of aristocrats for a moment. ‘Still, seems like a popular lad.’
‘He has charm,’ Cato admitted, recalling all too painfully how the tribune had seduced Cato’s first love, and then killed her when there was a danger that she might expose his plot to kill the Emperor. ‘Bastard,’ he repeated.
‘I just hope he doesn’t see us,’ said Macro. ‘We didn’t exactly part on good terms, Fuscius,’ he explained.
Cato watched as Vitellius turned away again, engrossed in conversation. ‘We should be all right. He can’t possibly recognise us under all this kit.’
A brassy blast cut through the air to announce the approach of the Emperor. The Praetorians quickly snapped to attention, shields held in and spears grasped perpendicular to the ground. The public fell silent and stood respectfully. Behind Cato the imperial litters made the short trip from the tents and then their occupants waited until the German bodyguards had taken their place at the very foot of the platform. The Emperor and his coterie of close advisers climbed out and advanced down the short avenue of Praetorians, and up on to the stage. Out of the corner of his eye Cato could see that Claudius was doing his best to disguise his limp and suppress his tic and look dignified before his guests. He made his way up on to the dais and sat on the gilded throne. There was a pause as he surveyed the audience with an imperious tilt to his head and then he waved those that had them back to their seats. Narcissus and Pallas stood discreetly behind the dais, as befitted their status. Though they wielded far more power than any senator, consul or proconsul, as freedmen they technically ranked lower than the poorest freeborn Roman citizen presently starving to death in the most squalid districts of Rome.
‘Remember, sire, keep it clear and keep it short,’ Cato heard Narcissus say.
‘I kn-kn-know,’ Claudius replied tartly out of the corner of his mouth. ‘I’m no fool, you know.’
He cleared his throat with a rather unpleasant guttural sound and drew a deep breath.
‘My friends! Rome has endured much hardship in recent months. Our b-b-b-beloved city is troubled by social unrest. The failure of the grain supply has vexed our p-p-people. I have done all in my power to scour Italia for food to feed the capital. However, I believe we are close to solving the g-g-gr-grain shortage.’
Cato’s ears pricked and he sensed Macro stir beside him. Finding a reliable supply of food was the key to ending the strife in the city. Once that was dealt with, the people would be grateful to their Emperor and his enemies would no longer be able to exploit the discontent. Claudius had better be right, Cato thought. If he raised hopes only to dash them, it would only inflame the anger of his people.
The Emperor was about to continue when Narcissus leant forward slightly and spoke in an undertone. ‘Remember, pause for effect.’
Claudius nodded, staring at the audience for long enough for a few uncertain coughs to break out. Then he launched back into his prepared speech. ‘Until the people’s bellies are filled again, it is only ri-ri-right that the Emperor offers Rome the com-comfort of entertainment to help them through the c-cri-crisis. If their stomachs are empty, then let their hearts b-be-be filled instead!’ He thrust his arm into the air with a dramatic rhetorical flourish.
‘Pause for applause,’ Narcissus prompted and there was a brief delay before those in the audience who had been primed clapped their hands. The sound quickly spread and swelled and Narcissus smiled cynically, while his master bathed in the adulation of his audience. Narcissus allowed it to go on for a while and then made a cutting action with his hand. The applause died away, rather too soon for the Emperor’s taste and his brow creased into a frown before he continued, with a gesture towards the channels and dams that had been constructed to link the lake with the Tiber’s tributary.
‘By the end of next month, my engineers will have completed their work here and once the lake is dr-drained, we will, b-b-before the end of the year, have increased the farmland close to R-r-rome by several thousand iugerae. More land means more grain. Never again will Rome go h-hun-hungry!’
This time Narcissus did not need to prompt the applause. It was freely given by those who were relieved at the prospect of pacifying the mob.
‘Before the lake is dr-dr-dr-drained,’ the Emperor continued, ‘it is my intention to use the natural arena of the Albine lake to stage the gr-gr-greatest gl-glad-gladiatorial spectacle in history.’
The current of excitement that swept through the crowd was palpable and it was a while before the muttering died away enough for Claudius to resume.
‘Two fleets, crewed by ten thousand gladiators, will fight on the lake, b-be-before the eyes of the entire pop-population of Rome! For generations to come, people will remember the reign of Cl-cl-claudius not because of food riots but because of our gladiators and the spectacular N-nau-naumachia they provided. Our heirs will look on us with envy. Th-thin-think on that, and pass the word into every street and alley of Ro-rome!’
Claudius thrust out his arms, as if to embrace the thousands who stood cheering before him. Cato caught a look of smug gratification on the face of Narcissus as he turned to Pallas. The latter looked furious, but held his position, and a moment later forced himself to join in the celebration with muted applause.
‘Bloody hell.’ Macro shook his head and muttered to Cato, ‘Where’s he going to find ten thousand gladiators? He’s mad.’
‘No,’ Cato responded quietly. ‘Just desperate.’
Claudius turned away from his audience and arched an eyebrow at his two closest advisers. ‘Well?’
‘A fine speech, sire!’ Narcissus clapped his hands together. ‘The Naumachia is just what your people need.’
‘Indeed,’ Pallas agreed. ‘Your speech was so good that one grieves over its brevity.’
Narcissus glanced daggers at the other freedman and then smiled brilliantly at the Emperor. ‘Ah, yes! But brevity is an art that few in history have mastered as well as you, sire.’
‘Yes, quite.’ Claudius nodded vigorously. ‘And when w-word of the games reaches the vulgar mo-mo-mob they’ll forget that they were ever h-h-hungry. Speaking of which, it’s time to return to the palace. I need to eat. I have a craving for mush-mushrooms.’
With a last gracious wave to his audience Claudius left the dais and limped down from the stage back to his litter. Pallas followed quickly, trying to steal a lead on his rival. Narcissus let him go and then, as he passed by Cato and Macro, he seemed to catch his boot and trip over his toga. His arms flailed as he fell against Cato. Cato felt the imperial secretary’s hand thrust something into the palm of his shield hand.
‘Are you all right, sir?’ Cato asked, as he helped Narcissus back on to his feet.
‘I’m fine,’ Narcissus snapped. ‘Unhand me, soldier.’ He shook off Cato’s grip and hurried to catch up with Pallas.
‘Charming man, that,’ said Macro.
‘He’s a freedman,’ Fuscius hissed. ‘Shouldn’t be allowed to treat a Praetorian that way. It ain’t right.’
As the Emperor climbed into his litter, those summoned to hear his brief announcement began to shuffle back towards their own litters and horses, anxious to get back on the road to Rome before the route became clogged with traffic. Centurion Lurco cupped a hand to his mouth and bellowed the order to his men. ‘Sixth Century! Fall in behind the imperial litter!’
‘You heard him!’ Tigellinus shouted. ‘Move yourselves!’
The Praetorians began to hurry over to form up behind the German bodyguards surrounding the litter. Cato hung back and when he was sure that he would not be observed, he opened his hand and saw a small, neatly folded sheet of papyrus. He thumbed it open and saw a few words written in fine print. He crumpled it up and closed his fist before he took up his station beside Macro near the front of the column and muttered to his friend, ‘Narcissus wants to meet us in the safe house as soon as we return to Rome.’
The imperial secretary looked up anxiously as Septimus opened the door to Cato and Macro late in the afternoon. The shutters were open and pale shafts of light illuminated the room. Narcissus was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed. He waited until the door was shut before he spoke.
‘You’ve taken your time.’
‘We came as soon as we could,’ Cato replied.
‘Are you sure that no one saw you come here?’ Narcissus asked earnestly.
Cato nodded. ‘Tigellinus was called to headquarters to get tonight’s watchword. We left before he got back to barracks.’
‘What if the Liberators have other men watching you?’
‘We doubled back and stopped a few times to check. We’re safe.’
‘Safe?’ Narcissus laughed humourlessly. ‘No one is safe at the moment. Not you, not me, and not the Emperor.’
Macro cocked his head to one side. ‘Somehow, I think vulnerability is more of an issue for those further up the chain of command.’
Narcissus stared at him. ‘If you really think that, then you are a fool, Centurion Macro. Your fate is tied to mine. If our enemies win the day, do you really think they will be satisfied by removing just the Emperor and his immediate circle? Look what happened when Sejanus fell. The streets were running with the blood of anyone who was even remotely associated with him. So spare me your delight in the greater misfortune of others.’ He paused, as a thought struck him. ‘There really ought to be a word for that quality since so many people seem to relish the misfortune of others.’
Cato cleared his throat. ‘You sent for us for a reason.’
‘I did. What did you make of the Emperor’s announcement?’
‘About the games? Or about the improvement of the supply of grain?’
Narcissus smiled. ‘Both.’
‘I don’t see how he can possibly stage his naval spectacle. Where is he going to get so many gladiators from? I doubt there are ten thousand in the whole of Italia.’
‘There aren’t. Calling them gladiators is stretching a point. Some of them will be. But the rest will be criminals and the scrapings of the chain gangs from the mines and imperial estates. As long as the people get a spectacle they’ll remember for as long as they live then they won’t pay too much attention to the quality of the individual combats. We’ll dress them up and place a weapon in their hands and let them get on with it, with freedom for the winners. That should provide sufficient incentive to get stuck in.’
‘What about the ships?’ asked Macro. ‘How are you going to get warships up to the lake?’
‘The engineers’ barges are going to be made to look like biremes. How many people in Rome do you think can tell one end of a boat from another? It’s all about appearances, Macro.’
‘Not all,’ said Cato. ‘A spectacle does not feed its audience. What of the grain the Emperor mentioned? Where’s that coming from?’
‘That we don’t yet know exactly,’ Narcissus admitted. ‘Septimus, you’d better fill them in.’
The imperial secretary nodded and was silent for a moment as he collected his thoughts. ‘With that recent trouble in Egypt restricting the flow of grain, there was always going to be a shortage. That’s where the guild of grain merchants comes in. If one source of grain begins to dry up, they find another province to import it from. As far as I understand it, they had compensated for the situation by offering tenders to suppliers in Gaul and Sicilia. The cargoes were landed in Ostia and carried up the Tiber to Rome, and then put up for sale in the guild’s hall. The thing is, a handful of merchants bought up almost every shipment, bidding up well above the normal price range. There won’t be another grain fleet arriving from Egypt until late in the spring. Meanwhile there’s only a tiny trickle of grain reaching the market. Nowhere near enough to feed Rome.’
‘So,’ Narcissus intervened, ‘the pressing issue is to find those who have been buying all the grain and then find out where they have been storing it. If there’s been a plot to corner the market on grain, then I dare say the Emperor is not going to be too pleased when he discovers who is responsible. He might spare them from being thrown to the mob if they are public spirited enough to give their stocks to the Emperor to distribute to the public. In the meantime, we await a convoy of grain from Sicilia. I sent word to the governor of Sicilia a month ago to send us whatever grain he has sitting in the island’s granaries. The first convoy should reach Ostia any day. When it does, the grain will be handed over directly to a cohort of the Praetorian Guard, for escort to Rome. That will assuage the mob’s appetite for bloodshed and disorder temporarily. For now, we must discover who has been hoarding the grain.’ Narcissus nodded at Septimus to continue.
Septimus stirred. ‘It should have been an easy task, but the thing is when I questioned the merchants in whose name the shipments were purchased it turns out that they were acting on behalf of someone else and were paid generously to act as intermediaries.’
‘For whom?’ asked Macro.
‘That’s just it. They never met the final buyers, or buyer. They were funded in silver and told to deliver the shipment to a warehouse close to the Boarium. One rented out by Gaius Frontinus.’
Cato felt his pulse quicken. ‘I know it. I’ve been there. That was where I lost Cestius.’
‘Cestius?’ Naricissus sounded surprised and he exchanged a brief look with Septimus.
‘Do you know him?’ asked Cato.
‘Only by reputation. He leads one of the largest criminal gangs in the Subura, the Viminal Hill thugs, I believe.’
‘That’s right. But you also know him by sight. He was the man who led the attack on the Emperor that day we escorted him back from the camp.’
Narcissus thought a moment. ‘The big man? The one you saved young Nero from?’
‘So that’s Cestius,’ Narcissus said deliberately. ‘What has he got to do with this warehouse then?’
Cato explained how he had seen the man and followed him across Rome, and that he was known to at least one regular member of the grain merchant’s guild. ‘It’s more than likely Cestius is behind the attempt to control the grain supply.’
Narcissus stroked his chin. ‘But he’d need a fortune to do that. The street gangs do well enough, but it would take them several years at least to amass a fortune big enough to buy up the grain stocks. There’s only one likely source for that kind of sum.’
Cato nodded. ‘The stolen bullion.’
Septimus cleared his throat. ‘Which means that Cestius is working with the Liberators.’
Narcissus glanced at him with a cold expression. ‘Evidently. Cestius is another enemy we’ll have to take care of in due course. In the meantime, you two will be dealing with Centurion Lurco. What is your plan?’
‘Nothing elaborate,’ said Macro. ‘We follow him, wait until he’s alone and then have a quiet word with him, if we get the chance. If that doesn’t work, then we knock him on the head. Either way, we’ll bring him back here and turn him over to Septimus. Then it’s up to you to keep him out of circulation until our job’s done.’
The imperial secretary stared at Macro for a moment before he replied in a cutting tone, ‘Brilliantly conceived, I must say. It is a comfort to know that the army still employs strategists of the first water.’
‘It’ll work,’ Macro replied sourly. ‘That’s all that matters.’
‘See that it does.’ Narcissus sighed. ‘I fear that we are running out of time, gentlemen. There must be a reason why our enemies want Lurco to disappear. It has to be more than some kind of initiation test. They’re getting ready to make their move, I know it. And the Liberators are not the only danger facing us. The Emperor’s gladiator spectacle will distract the mob for a moment. Unless we feed them before it’s too late then the people will turn on us like ravenous wolves and tear Rome to pieces.’