Ostia, January, AD 51
The rough sea was grey, except where the strong breeze lifted veils of white spume from the crests of waves as they rolled in towards the shore. Above, the sky was obscured by low clouds that stretched out unbroken towards the horizon. A light, cold drizzle added to the depressing scene and soon soaked Centurion Macro’s dark hair, plastering it to his scalp as he gazed out over the port. Ostia had changed greatly since the last time he had been there, a few years earlier on his return from the campaign in Britannia. Then the port had been an exposed landing point for the transhipment of cargo and passengers to and from Rome, some twenty miles inland from the mouth of the River Tiber. A handful of timber piers had projected from the shore to provide for the unloading of imports from across the empire. A somewhat smaller flow of exports left Italia for the distant provinces ruled by Rome.
Now the port was in the throes of a massive development project under the orders of the Emperor as part of his ambition to boost trade. Unlike his predecessor, Claudius preferred to use the public purse for the common good, rather than absurd luxuries. Two long moles were under construction, stretching like titanic arms to embrace the waters of the new harbour. The work continued without let up through every season of the year and Macro’s gaze momentarily rested on the miserable chain gangs of slaves hauling blocks of stone across wooden rollers out towards the end of the moles where they were pitched into the sea. Block by block they were building a wall to protect the shipping from the water. Further out, beyond the moles, stood the breakwater. Macro had been told by the owner of the inn where he and his friend, Cato, were staying that one of the largest ships ever built had been loaded with stones and scuttled to provide the foundations of the breakwater. More blocks of stone had been dropped on to the hull until the breakwater had been completed and now the lower levels of a lighthouse were under construction. Macro could just make out the tiny forms of the builders on the scaffolding as they laboured to complete another course.
‘Sooner them than me,’ Macro mumbled to himself as he pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders.
He had taken this walk along the shore every morning for the last two months and had followed the progress of the harbour construction with less and less interest. The port, like so many ports, had its complement of boisterous inns close to the quays to take advantage of the custom of freshly paid sailors at the end of a voyage. For most of the year there would have been plenty of interesting characters for Macro to enjoy a drink with and swap stories. But few ships put to sea in the winter months and so the port was quiet and the inns frequented by only a handful of characters in need of drink. At first Cato had been willing enough to join him for a few cups of heated wine but the younger man was brooding over the knowledge that the woman he intended to marry was a day’s march away in Rome and yet the orders they had received from the imperial palace strictly forbade Cato from seeing her, or even letting her know that he was staying in Ostia. Macro felt sympathy for his friend. It had been nearly a year since Cato had last seen Julia.
Before arriving in the port, Macro and Cato had been serving in Egypt where Cato had been obliged to take command of a scratch force of soldiers to repel the invading Nubians. It had been a close-run thing, Macro reflected. They had returned to Italia in the full expectation of being rewarded for their efforts. Cato had richly deserved to have his promotion to prefect confirmed, as Macro deserved his pick of the legions. Instead, after reporting to Narcissus, the imperial secretary, on the island of Capreae, they had been sent to Ostia to await further orders. A fresh conspiracy to unseat the Emperor had been uncovered and the imperial secretary needed Macro and Cato’s help to deal with the threat. The orders given to them by Narcissus had been explicit. They were to remain in Ostia, staying at the inn under assumed names, until they were given further instructions. The innkeeper was a freedman who had served in the Emperor’s palace in Rome before being rewarded with his freedom and a small gratuity which had been enough to set him up in business in Ostia. He was trusted by the imperial secretary to look after the two guests, and not ask any questions. It was imperative that their presence was kept secret from anyone in Rome. Narcissus had not needed to name Julia Sempronia. Cato had taken his meaning well enough and contained his frustration for the first few days. But then the days stretched into a month, then two, and still there was no further word from Narcissus and the young officer’s patience was stretched to the limit.
The only information that Narcissus had volunteered was that the plot against the Emperor involved a shadowy organisation of conspirators who wanted to return power to the senate. The same senate which had been responsible for leading the Republic into decades of bloody civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Macro thought bitterly. The senators could not be trusted with power. They were too inclined to play at politics and paid scant regard to the consequences of their games. Of course there were a few honourable exceptions, Macro mused. Men like Julia’s father, Sempronius, and Vespasian, who had commanded the Second Legion in which Macro and Cato had served during the campaign in Britannia. Both good men.
Macro took a last look at the slaves working on the breakwater and then pulled up the hood of his military cloak. He turned and made his way back along the coastal path towards the port. There, too, was evidence of the redevelopment of Ostia. Several large warehouses had sprung up behind the new quay and yet more were under construction in the area where the old quarter of the port had been razed to make way for the new building projects. Macro could see that it would be a fine modern port when the work was done. Yet more proof of Rome’s wealth and power.
The path joined the road leading to the port and the iron studs on the soles of Macro’s army boots sounded loudly on the paved surface. He passed through the gate with a brief exchange of nods with the sentry who knew better than to demand the entrance toll from a legionary. One of the perks of being a soldier was exemption from some of the petty regulations that governed the lives of civilians. Which was only fair, Macro thought, since it was the sacrifice of the soldiers that made the peace and prosperity of the Empire possible. Apart from the idle tossers in cushy garrison postings in quiet backwaters like Greece, or those preening twats in the Praetorian Guard. Macro frowned. They were paid half as much again as the men in the legions, yet all they had to do was dress up for the odd ceremony and see to the efficient disposal of those condemned as enemies of the Emperor. The chances of any active service were slight. That said, Macro had seen them in action once, back in Britannia during the Emperor’s brief trip to claim credit for the success of the campaign. They had fought well enough then, he admitted grudgingly.
The blocks of apartments lining the street, three or four storeys high, crowded the already wan daylight and imposed a chilly gloom along the route leading into the heart of the town. Reaching the junction where the streets radiated out to the other districts of Ostia, Macro turned right into the long thoroughfare that ran through the heart of the port where the main temples, plushest baths and the Forum crowded upon each other as if jostling to be the most prestigious establishment. It was market day and the main street was busy with merchants and municipal officials hurrying about their business. A line of slaves, chained at the ankle, on their way to the holding pens of the slave market shuffled along the edge of the street under the watchful eye of a handful of burly guards armed with clubs. Macro passed through the Forum, which extended across both sides of the street, and then turned into a side street where he saw the imposing columned facade of the Library of Menelaus where he had agreed to meet Cato. The library had been gifted to Ostia by a Greek freedman who had made his fortune importing olive oil. It was well stocked with an eclectic range of books that were arranged on shelves in an equally eclectic manner.
Macro eased his hood back as he stepped up from the street and ascended the short staircase to the library’s entrance. Just inside the doorway a clerk sat at a plain wooden desk, warmed by the flames of a brazier. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at the sight of a soldier.
‘May I be of any assistance, sir?’
Macro wiped the moisture from his brow and nodded. ‘Looking for someone. A soldier, like me.’
‘Really?’ The clerk arched an eyebrow. ‘Are you certain this is the place, sir? It is a library.’
Macro stared at him. ‘I know.’
‘Might I suggest, sir, that you would have better luck looking for your comrade in one of the inns close by the Forum. I believe that those sorts of establishments are more popular with soldiers than this library.’
‘Trust me, my friend arranged to meet me here.’
‘Well, it’s not where soldiers usually meet, sir,’ the clerk persisted, tersely.
‘True, but then my friend is not your usual military man.’ Macro smiled. ‘So, have you seen him? Just answer the question, eh? No need to look down your nose at me, not if you like it the way it is.’
The clerk realised that this stocky, tough-looking visitor was not going to be fobbed off. He cleared his throat and reached for a stylus and waxed slate, as if to imply that he had been interrupted in the process of carrying out some complex and vital bureaucratic task. ‘I only came on duty a short while ago, sir. If your friend is here, he must have already entered because I have not seen him and have no idea where he might be. I suggest you go and look for him.’
‘I see,’ Macro replied evenly. He stood his ground for a moment and then leant forward across the desk and let the hem of his cloak drip down on to the clerk’s tablet. The clerk froze, then looked up anxiously.
‘A parting thought,’ Macro growled. ‘There’s no need for the surly treatment, my lad. You try it on again and I might mistake your nice neat little library for a very rough and ready inn, if you take my meaning.’
The clerk swallowed. ‘Yes, sir. My apologies. Please feel free to enjoy the facilities of the library as you wish.’
‘There!’ Macro leant back with a pleasant smile. ‘Just as easy to be polite as to act like a complete cunt, eh?’
The clerk nervously glanced about to see if any of his colleagues were in view, but he was alone. He looked warily at the soldier in front of his desk. ‘Yes, sir. As you say.’
Macro turned away and rubbed his hands together to warm them up. He had an abiding hatred of the petty officials of the world who seemed to serve no other purpose than to hinder those who actually had useful acts to perform.
The library had a large entrance hall with two doors leading off either side and another directly opposite the entrance. After a brief pause, Macro made for the middle way, his footsteps echoing off the high walls. He entered a long room lined with shelves which were filled with scrolls. The ceiling, rising some thirty feet from the tiled floor, had been painted with nautical scenes which were lit by narrow windows high up in the walls. A line of tables and benches ran down the centre of the library’s main room and since it was still early on a cold morning, there were only three men present, two older men hunched over a scroll as they engaged in a muted discussion, and the unmistakable slender figure of Cato in his military cloak. He sat at the far end of the room, where a faint shaft of light provided barely adequate illumination for the broad sheets of papyrus that lay before him.
The loud clatter of Macro’s boots caused the two old men to break off their discussion and look up with a frown at the new arrival who had disrupted the usual quiet of the library. Although Cato must have heard the sound of his friend’s boots, he continued reading until Macro was almost upon him and then placed his finger on the papyrus to mark his place and looked up. His face was gaunt and he regarded Macro without a flicker of expression as he sat down on the bench opposite Cato. The younger officer had received a severe wound to his face while they were in Egypt and now a white line of scar tissue stretched from his forehead, across his brow and down his cheek. It was quite a dramatic scar but it had not really disfigured his features. A mark to be proud of, Macro thought. Something that would distinguish Cato from the other fresh-faced officers serving the Emperor, and one that would single him out as the seasoned veteran he had become since joining the Second Legion as a weedy recruit some eight years earlier.
‘Found what you’re looking for?’ Macro nodded at the sheets in front of Cato, then gestured to the laden shelves lining the walls. ‘More than enough reading matter to keep you busy, eh? Should help to pass the time.’
‘Until what, I wonder.’ Cato raised his spare hand and lightly rubbed his cheek where the scar ended. ‘We’ve heard nothing from Narcissus for nearly a month now.’
Cato had sent a message to the imperial secretary via the innkeeper, requesting to know why he and Macro had to remain in Ostia. The reply had been terse and simply told them to wait. Cato’s boredom at the enforced stay in the port alternated with acute anger that he was being kept from seeing Julia. Even so, he was tormented by the prospect of her reaction to his scar. Would she accept it and take him into her arms again? Or would she recoil in disgust? Worst of all, Cato feared that she would pity him and offer herself to him on that basis. The thought sickened him. Until he saw her again he could not know her response. Nor could he prepare her for the encounter since Narcissus had forbidden him from contacting her.
‘What are you reading there?’ Macro broke into his thoughts.
Cato focused his mind. ‘It’s a copy of the gazette from Rome. I’ve been catching up on events in the city over recent months to see if there’s any hint of what it is that Narcissus needs us for.’
‘Nothing that springs out. Just the usual round of ceremonies, announcements of appointments and births, marriages and deaths of the great and good. There was a mention of Senator Sempronius. He was commended by the Emperor for putting down the slave revolt in Crete.’
‘No mention of our part in that, I suppose,’ Macro mused.
‘Well, there’s a surprise. Anything else of note?’
Cato glanced down at the sheets in front of him and shook his head. ‘Nothing significant, unless …’ He shuffled through the sheets, scanning them briefly, then pulled one out. ‘Here. A report dated two weeks ago announcing that one of the Guard’s officers had been waylaid by brigands and killed near Picenum. The brigands have not been found … He leaves behind a grieving widow and young son, et cetera.’ Cato looked up. ‘That’s all.’
‘Doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with our being here,’ Macro said.
‘I suppose not.’ Cato sat back and stretched his arms out as he yawned widely. When he had finished, he leant on his elbows and stared at Macro. ‘Another day in the wonderful town of Ostia then. What shall we do for entertainment? Nothing on at the theatre. It’s too cold to go to the beach and swim. Most of the bathhouses are closed until trade picks up in the spring and our friend, Spurius the innkeeper, refuses to light a fire to warm his place until the evening.’
Macro laughed. ‘My, you are in a miserable mood!’ He thought a moment and then his eyebrows rose. ‘Tell you what. According to Spurius there’s some new stock at that brothel down by the Baths of Mithras. Want to go and see what’s on offer? Something to keep us nice and warm. What do you say?’
‘It’s tempting. But I’m not in the mood.’
‘Bollocks. You’re saving yourself for that girl, aren’t you?’
Cato shrugged. The truth was he did not relish the prospect of visiting the disease-riddled whores who served the townsmen and passing sailors. If he caught anything off them then it would ruin his prospects of any happy union with Julia. ‘You go, if you really want to. I’m heading back to the inn for a bite, then I’m going to settle down for a read.’
‘A read,’ Macro repeated blankly. ‘What have you got in your veins, lad? Blood, or thin soup?’
‘Either way, I’m staying in our room and reading. You can do what you like.’
‘I will. Just as soon as I’ve eaten something to get my strength up.’
The benches scraped back as the two soldiers rose to their feet. Cato swept the gazettes together and returned them to a shelf before he and Macro marched out of the library, their footsteps disturbing the other two men once again.
‘Shhh!’ One of them raised a finger to his lips. ‘This is a library, you know!’
‘Library!’ Macro sneered. ‘It’s a whorehouse of ideas, that’s what. The only difference is that a library will never leave you with a nice warm glow inside, eh?’
‘Shocking!’ the man expostulated. He turned to Cato. ‘Sir, please be so good as to remove your companion from the premises.’
‘He needs no urging, believe me. Come, Macro.’ Cato tugged his arm and steered his friend towards the doorway.
Spurius’s cook, an antique sailor who had lost his leg in an accident, served them a thin stew of barley and chunks of meat that might have come from a highly seasoned lamb shank, but it was hard to be certain as it had lost any flavour it had once had and was the texture of damp tree bark. But it was warm and managed to assuage the soldiers’ appetite. When Cato asked for some bread, the cook scowled, stumped off, and returned with a stale loaf which he set down on the table with a thud.
‘Here! Spurius!’ Macro bellowed, startling the four other customers of the inn. Spurius was at the bar arranging his cheap clay cups on the shelves behind the counter. He turned round irritably and hurried over to the table.
‘What is it? And do you mind keeping your voice down?’
Macro gestured towards the bowl of stew, which was still a third full. ‘I may be hungry enough to eat this swill but I draw the line at bread that I would not even force a bloody pig to eat.’ He picked up the loaf and slammed it down on the table top. ‘Hard as a rock.’
‘So soak it in the stew. It’ll soften up soon enough,’ Spurius suggested in a helpful tone.
‘I want good bread,’ Macro replied firmly. ‘Freshly baked. And I want it now.’
‘Sorry, there’s none available.’
Macro eased his stool back. He continued in a lower voice to make sure that the other customers would not overhear. ‘Look, you’ve been told to look after us and no doubt you’re being paid well enough to put us up and feed us.’
‘I’m being paid a pittance for the pair of you,’ Spurius grumbled. ‘Or at least I will be when you leave and Narcissus settles up. Meanwhile you’re eating into my profits.’
Macro smiled. ‘That snake Narcissus never gives up more than he has to and is as likely to cheat you as he is to honour his word, as we’ve found out to our cost on more than one occasion.’
‘Macro, that’s enough,’ Cato warned him. ‘We don’t talk about our business.’
Macro turned to stare hard at him, and then his expression softened. ‘All right. But I don’t take kindly to being left high and dry in Ostia with only this dive for food and shelter. It ain’t right, Cato.’
‘Of course not, but there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Cato turned to the innkeeper. ‘Now then, I know you resent us being foisted on you. We don’t like it either. But in the interests of us getting on with each other and not causing any trouble, I suggest you do something to improve our rations. To start with, I suggest you get my friend the fresh bread he asked for.’
Spurius took a calming breath and nodded slightly. ‘I’ll see what I can find. If you promise not to cause any trouble with the other customers.’
Cato nodded. ‘We promise.’
The innkeeper returned to the counter and had a quiet word with his cook. Cato smiled sweetly at Macro. ‘See what a little bit of reason can achieve?’
Macro sniffed. ‘It has its place. But then I have to say that I have found that the application of force can be equally effective at producing results from time to time.’
‘Not if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.’
Macro shook his head. ‘I could do with a little attention, Cato. This place is driving me mad. It’s bad enough that we have to sit and wait at Narcissus’s pleasure. But the bastard hasn’t advanced us more than a fraction of the back pay we’re due and we can’t even afford decent food or more comfortable lodgings.’
Cato was silent for a moment. ‘No doubt that’s intended to help make us compliant.’
Before Macro could respond there was a rattle of cart wheels in the street outside and then the sound died away abruptly as the vehicle drew up outside the inn. Spurius hurried to the door, eased it open a fraction, then quickly ducked outside, shutting the door behind him. Macro and Cato heard a brief muted exchange before the cart continued round the building to the rear where there was a small yard with stalls for the horses of travellers stopping at the inn.
‘New customers for this dump,’ Macro mused. ‘Do you think we should warn them off?’
‘Just leave it,’ Cato said wearily. He stared down into his bowl for a moment before reluctantly picking up his spoon to consume some more of the stew. Shortly afterwards, the cook reappeared, looking flustered as he limped over to the table and presented them with a fresh loaf. Macro sniffed and looked at Cato in surprise. ‘Freshly baked!’
He picked it up, tore it in half and thrust a chunk towards Cato before tearing into the warm doughy mass with relish. From the back rooms of the inn came the sound of voices and the scrape of furniture and it was a short while before Spurius emerged through the low door behind the counter. He glanced round at the other customers and then crossed the room to Macro and Cato’s table.
‘What now?’ Macro muttered. ‘I’ll bet the bastard wants to move us out of the room to make way for his new guest.’
‘I don’t think so.’
Spurius leant towards them and spoke very quietly. ‘Follow me.’
Cato and Macro exchanged a quick glance before Cato responded, ‘Why?’
‘Why?’ Spurius frowned. ‘Just come with me, sir. It’ll be clear enough in a moment. I can’t say anything else.’ He made a slight nod towards his remaining customers. ‘If you understand me.’
Macro shrugged. ‘No.’
‘Come on,’ said Cato. ‘Let’s go.’
They left what remained of their meal and rose to follow the innkeeper across the room towards the door that led to the back. The other people in the room could not help eyeing them curiously as they passed by, Cato noted with a faint smile of amusement. Spurius went first, followed by Macro, with Cato last, who had to stoop under the door frame. There was a narrow room beyond, lit by a single oil lamp. By its weak glow Cato could see that the walls were lined with jars of wine and baskets of vegetables, and a net of fresh bread hung from a hook, close to two joints of cured meat. Clearly the innkeeper ate well, even if his customers didn’t. At the far end of the room a door stood slightly ajar and the frame was brightly lit by a fire burning in the next room. Spurius entered the room, followed by Macro who immediately uttered a curse. The room was generously proportioned with a wide table at its centre. A freshly stoked cooking fire crackled beneath the iron grill and provided the room with a rosy light. Seated on the far side of the table was a slender figure in a plain cloak. He looked up from the cheese and bread that had been laid before him and smiled as he saw Macro and Cato.
‘Greetings, gentlemen. It is good of you to join me!’ Narcissus waved them towards the bench opposite him. ‘Or rather, it is good of me to join you.’
‘What are you doing here?’ asked Macro. ‘I had begun to fear that you were going to keep us sitting on our arses forever.’
‘It is a pleasure to see you too, Centurion,’ Narcissus responded smoothly. ‘The waiting is over. Your Emperor needs you again. Now more than ever …’