BOOK I: SLAVE
“Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.” — Marcus Aurelius.
A slave is not a piece of furniture, though there are similarities. If you bump into a chair you would not apologise, nor would you if you bumped into a slave. If you break wind in front of a table it is not worthy of an apology in just the same way as a slave might be considered unworthy. I knew this deep inside, but it suited me to live in denial.
I find it strange how all of one’s existence can hinge upon the events of one single day, but that is what happened to me in my life as a Roman domestic fixture.
I had lived in the household of the Praetor, Gaius Licinius Piso, from the age of about six. He bought me himself at the slave market. He was not a man to let even his wife choose his slaves. He often said within my hearing that choosing a slave requires an awareness of particular qualities that lie deep beneath the surface. ‘Potential’ he called it. With the benefit of hindsight, I think he was right.
When I was about ten, they sent me to the country estate to work in the stables where I discovered a lasting love of horses. The stableman was one of the few people with whom I came into contact who was not a slave. He was the only person there whom I would have considered kind. His own son had died of a fever two summers before. By kind, I mean he never beat me and he taught me about grooming, feeding, and stabling a horse. If no one was looking, he taught me how to ride when we exercised the horses. His tutelage included how to talk to a horse and when riding, to guide it with gentle little movements of my feet and legs. Most important of all, he taught me how to stay on a horse at speed — a vital skill for any warrior.
By the time I reached adolescence, they sent me back to Rome as a house-slave. I spent my time waiting at table and standing around. Endless standing. I seldom left the house unless Piso took me with him to the Forum Romanum where he judged his various court cases. I waited in wooden silence behind the curule chair to be at his instant disposal. I never understood the application of Roman law. They stood and debated all day and the cleverest speaker always won whether the defendant was guilty or not. They called it Lex Romanum, I called it unjust.
My Master socialised with a Praetor called Cassius Severus, whom I often saw at the courts. They enjoyed drinking wine together in the Master’s peristylium, a large colonnaded garden. In very hot weather, the Master permitted me to stand in the shade of the colonnade.
On one sweltering summer’s day, my Master and his friend sat in the peristylium, shaded by an awning, enjoying a drink. I stood to attention under the colonnade. My new sandals chafed where the dry leather ties gripped the pale skin of my muscular calves. My tunic was also new. The Master insisted slaves were like ornaments — they should always be well presented and clean. The rough wool of it rubbed me raw around the armpits, but such was my life then, I put up with such discomfort without demur.
Cicadas droned a soporific tune all around. Sweat trickled down my back as the Master and his friend drank their watered wine. They discussed matters beyond my understanding, for they often lapsed into a foreign language I assumed was Greek. To my surprise, the Master turned to me.
‘Sextus, come here.’ He gestured a place in front of him and his guest. ‘Quickly now.’
He turned to the Praetor and said, ‘Cassius, this is the slave I was talking about. A fine specimen of German Barbarian youth, don’t you think?’
‘I see what you mean. What muscles!’ the man said.
Severus was small and plump with a clean-shaven face and fashionable sandals. His tunic was white with a red border, a sign of rank. On his left hand was a large gold ring sparkling in the sunlight. His eyes were small and dark and they darted as he sweated in the heat.
‘He is a typical Barbarian,’ my Master said. ‘Unadulterated German stock. They are all tall and blonde, but fierce as wounded boars unless tamed from an early age like this one.’
Severus placed a sweaty hand on my leg and moved it upwards, feeling my buttocks.
‘Nice, very much a Paphos not a Galatea at all, wouldn’t you say?’ he said.
‘Cassius, I said unadulterated.’
‘As you wish,’ he said withdrawing his hand. ‘What in the name of Juno made you buy him?’
‘To be honest I admire their purity. They have a capacity for simple ferocity that makes them interesting.’
‘How old is he?’ Severus said.
‘Difficult to say really. I think he would be about fifteen or sixteen years old. Do you know your age Sextus?’
‘I suppose you wouldn’t.’
They studied me in silence. I shifted from one foot to another, uncomfortable in the hot sunshine.
Presently Piso said, ‘Sextus, we have been having a discussion about a Greek myth. You do know what a myth is, don’t you Sextus?’
I felt discomfited by my owner addressing me because he spoke to me only on rare occasions, unless it was to give an instruction.
‘A myth is a story one cannot verify.’
‘As I said, we were talking about a Greek myth. It is a story about a sculptor called Pygmalion.’
Severus sniggered. He said, ‘Pygmalion created something out of nothing. Are you nothing Sextus?’
I kept silent.
‘We have been discussing whether we can make something out of you,’ the Master said.
‘Cassius here believes it is impossible to change nature. If you are born a Barbarian you will always be one, whether we educate you and teach you manners or not.’
‘Well?’ Severus said.
‘I don’t know about such things, sir.’
‘Of course you don’t, you haven’t been educated yet.’ The Master looked at Severus and they laughed.
Severus said, ‘We have made a wager. I maintain that you cannot be educated however hard we try. Your Master believes one can mask the Barbarian nature with education and build a Roman from the dust of a German Barbarian.’
‘For this experiment, I will have you educated,’ Piso said.
I looked straight ahead, puzzled.
‘You will have lessons every day and learn the things we Romans value. We will arrange a suitable test of the finished product in due course,’ my Master went on, with, as it turned out, an odd prescience.
They sent me away to stand in the colonnade again for the rest of the day. Things changed for me afterwards.
They made me have lessons each day in which I learned Roman history and Greek language. A Greek slave taught me about the legal system and the history of Rome — Romulus and the wolves and all that rubbish. Had it not been for the fact they made me do it all outside my normal working time it would have been easy. I studied at night and before the household awoke in the morning. If I dissented they whipped me.
In a short time, I did learn a great deal. It was as if I was a sponge soaking up moisture after long deprivation. I thrived upon it. I enjoyed it in the end and it changed me, not in the manner my master anticipated, but in a subtler less obvious way. The more I learned of the Roman ways and their history, the more I hated them for what they did to mine and other peoples. It fostered a seething resentment beneath my usual, furniture-like exterior, which was impossible to vent. Slaves who disobeyed were whipped. I swallowed all those feelings and the educative process continued. By two years of this education I could speak Greek passably and could write well in Latin, but less well in Greek. I became an educated slave.
My house-slave duties continued despite my growing knowledge. In the daytime, I waited upon the Master and Mistress and stood in corners most of the time. I ran errands for the Master as well. He now trusted me enough to send me to the Subura. It was a maze of three and four storey tenements, many of them ramshackle and falling down, but thousands lived there. Most of the street crime in the city took place in that quarter and the Night Watch seldom entered, because gangs went around the streets robbing and on occasion killing. It shows how little esteem they held me in — my errands were at any hour of the day or night in the roughest and most lawless part of the city.
When I say errands, these were sometimes unsavoury in character. My Master liked young girls. Nothing out of the ordinary in Rome one might think, but he liked to cause pain and it was never a pretty sight. They often sent me to a whorehouse to fetch the object of the Master’s desire and bring her back to the house.
Although I think the Mistress knew what he did, no mention of it passed between them in my presence.
I often witnessed in disgust what he did to these girls. They were always of an age to understand and they always asked for extra money, which he seemed happy to pay. I stood in the corner partly obscured by a hanging drape, trying to be inconspicuous and staring into thin air. I held no illusions about what would happen if he thought I might be watching. I distracted myself by thinking about my own life. I withdrew within it as if cocooned. The scenes played out before me had a habit of breaking through the reverie but I always returned to my own thoughts and memories. It was all I could do, even though there was precious little in my life worth a daydream.
On the spring day in question, I was alone in the house apart from a kitchen slave who worked in the culina at the other end of the villa. The Master arrived home from his work with a man and a small girl. The man was her father and he seemed to be a wealthy Roman citizen judging by his clothes. The girl was dressed in a fine tunic, her auburn hair tied with a clasp at the back of her head in a rather more adult fashion than one might expect for a child, but girls, I supposed, mature early. Dark eyes shone from her pretty face. They sat down and she stared at the floor, legs crossed, arms folded.
Piso ordered me to bring wine and water, which I did. I backed away against the wall and awaited further instructions. The visitor after drinking some wine, stood to depart. As he made to leave, the girl grabbed his tunic and burst into tears saying, ‘Father please, I don’t want to! Please!’
Her pleas fell upon deaf ears however, but unlike her father I found them impossible to shut out. I questioned how anyone could treat his own child in this way. I knew what was coming. I felt hot and flushed; my head throbbed. I could feel the blood coursing through my body.
‘It will be alright, I keep telling you this nice man will look after you for a few hours and then I will come back,’ the man said as he left, but I could hear his voice tremble as he spoke.
He was quite wrong. There was nothing nice about my Master and I knew it. I could feel my pulse rising. The previous objects of my Master’s sexual attention always seemed willing, though I suppose no one offered them a choice. This girl was terrified and it was obvious. I noticed a choking feeling and I clenched my fists to keep myself still. I dug my fingernails into my palms hoping the pain would distract me. I could not understand why I felt like this. I supposed it was because of the faint memories of how the legionaries killed my mother when I was a child, but it seemed also to stem from some deeper almost innate sense of injustice. What was about to transpire should have been a mere repetition of many such scenes I had already witnessed in Piso’s house, but this time it was different.
The girl was about ten or twelve years old. As soon as she was alone with my Master, he proceeded to try to undress her. She cried and he slapped her face saying, ‘Be quiet, I have paid your father a lot of money for this. Without it, you and he will be in the street. You would do well to do as he told you.’
My distress became as intense as if I urgently needed to pass water. It tore my heart to hear her sobbing. I could say nothing. If I even made my presence felt, I knew the Master would have me whipped; he owned me after all.
Piso’s hands moved, kneaded, rubbed. The tension rose in my neck and my back. Breathing became a struggle. I knew there was nothing I could do for the girl. Her snivelling and whimpering were like a stabbing in my ears, a torture and violation of its own, but directed at me. I felt useless, degraded by my own indecision and fear of punishment.
‘Coward!’ I thought, ‘coward!’ as I witnessed him pulling the gown over her head.
It was like some old and cracked witch’s voice in my brain. It goaded me; it stoked the fires of my anger and drove me to the brink of a precipice of action from which I knew there could be no return.
This is where the similarity ends between slaves and furniture. Ash and pine do not feel. Only men — men of flesh and blood are intolerant of evil. I experienced a profound and burning fury so intense it was beyond my understanding. It was beyond my control.
My Master stood over the girl. He pushed her onto the low couch. She used one arm to cover her tiny immature breasts, and the other hand guarded her groin. He stepped back to disrobe. His tunic covered his head as he struggled in haste to pull it off.
I seized a heavy oil lamp. He never knew what hit him. I laid into him hard. I struck him so many times I lost count.
Blood ran in rivulets across the floor. It splashed all over my tunic, my face, my arms. The rage was unquenchable. I had never felt such pure unbridled emotion before but would feel it again many times in my life. It consumed me; it possessed me and it felt good. In that momentary state of exhilaration I could have killed a dozen magistrates, a hundred if they had been there.
Then breathless and all-consuming calm.
A finch singing in the peristylium interrupted the hush, oblivious of the Praetor’s departing shade. I looked up at the little girl. The smell of blood was rank in my nostrils. I was spattered with it and breathless. I had trouble believing it, but she smiled.
Unperturbed and in singsong tones she said, ‘They’re going to crucify you.’
It began to dawn on me she was right. The punishment for a slave who killed his Master was indeed nailing to a wooden cross and to be displayed to all. I was scared now. None of the other slaves would help me, for if I ran away the law demanded their crucifixion in my place.
I stood up and paddled through the pool of blood on the floor. Turning to the smiling girl, I said, ‘Wait here. Don’t run away, remember I helped you.’
She reached for her tunic with no apparent urgency.
I left the room, my heart beating like thunder beneath my ribs.
I washed with haste at the fountain in the peristylium and went to my quarters. There I changed my clothes as if in a dream. Still in a daze, I stole some of the Master’s sandals from his room and took a knife from the chest by his bed. I found some gold coins in a small pouch and returned to the triclinium where the half-dressed corpse of my former Master lay. I noticed he no longer sported an erection; it gave me a cold gratification.
The girl was still there, but she was now dressed. I took her hand in mine and led her around the gruesome mess on the mosaic-laid floor. The mosaic was of Hercules, clubbing the Nemean lion. It seemed ironic but apt.
‘I’d better get you home,’ I said as we walked out of the front gate.
‘I live near the Quirinal.’
‘Come, you will have to show me. If I ask a favour will you help me?’
‘Depends,’ the child said, her little face a picture of guile.
I looked at her with curiosity; she was not behaving as I expected, but it is a fact Romans bring up their women seeing death and blood in the arena. It makes them hard. I wondered if perhaps she was not the innocent I at first imagined her to be.
‘Can you tell them I said I was getting out of Rome to go to Thurii?’
‘They’ll catch you anyway, you know.’
My Master’s experiment had reached its conclusion. Severus was right. Deep inside me, I realised who I was. I wondered with vague humour whether I had passed the Master’s test or failed it.
I think he lost his bet.
The hunt was on.