Authors: Simon Hawke
THE CLEOPATRA CRISIS
Time Wars: Book Eleven
by Simon Hawke
Rome, January 10, 49 B.C.
The house of Gaius Cassius Longinus was surrounded by a wall, as were the homes of all wealthy Romans, for the city had been growing at an alarming rate. Every day, more and more refugees arrived from the provinces. It was no longer safe to travel alone at night. The streets were choked with thieves and cutthroats who wouldn't hesitate to kill for a few measly denarii. The gatekeeper opened the heavy wooden door, admitting Marcus Brutus and his slaves, whom he had brought along for protection. Each of them was armed with a
, the Roman short sword, and Brutus himself wore a parazonium, the bottle-shaped, foot-long dagger that no Roman male went without these days.
The times had grown perilous. He took off his cloak and handed it to the gatekeeper.
"See to it that my slaves are fed," he told the gatekeeper. "Have the others arrived yet?"
"They are dining in the
, Master Brutus," said the gatekeeper. "I was told to bid you join them as soon as you arrived."
"Thank you," Brutus said. He shivered in his toga, despite several layers of tunics that he wore beneath it. Unlike Cassius, who never seemed to feel the chill and tonic cold baths every day to inure himself to it. Brutus always felt the cold. Roman houses were never very warm in winter. They had no fireplaces or chimneys. What little heat there was came from a system of central heating called a hypocaust, which consisted of spaces underneath the floors and in the walls where smoke and heat from a roaring fire stoked in the cellar could circulate. However, the courtyards of the houses were open to the elements and the cold always managed to get in. All Romans suffered in the winter, huddling at night beneath their bedclothes of tapestries and carpets, with open charcoal braziers burning in their rooms, rendering the air smoky and oppressive.
In winter, they suffered from cold. In summer, there was the stench.
Slops and sewage were simply thrown out into the streets, where their stink mingled with the smells coming from the cook shops and the bakeries, many of which kept hogs to eat their refuse and the hogs, of course, left their own.
It all mingled to produce an atmosphere that choked the lungs and drove wealthy Romans out of the city, to their country estates. Winter was a time of chills; summer was a time of fevers. Brutus sometimes wondered why he bothered staying in Rome. Being governor of a province would have seemed more preferable, but then Rome was Rome and the provinces provided no society, no stimulation for the intellect. Rome was the center of the world, and these days, the center of the world was turbulent.
Brutus strolled through the atrium, with its marble columns, exquisite mosaic floors, its curtains and elegant furnishings in ivory, bronze, and rare woods. Cassius had spared no expense in the construction of his house, and every year, he refurbished a part of it. There was always some kind of construction going on in Rome. There was a shortage of housing and most of the tenements were shoddily and hastily built. There was a constant danger now from fire, or from falling buildings. But Cassius was able to employ the finest architects and builders. The atrium, a large courtyard surrounded by a series of rooms, was open to the air, with a large pool in the center that collected rainwater and which, from time to time, Cassius had stocked with carp. There were bedrooms on the second floor, but Cassius lived primarily in the second building, the
. It was built around another courtyard, a meticulously landscaped garden surrounded by columns, with fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and fish ponds. In the warm months, Cassius kept an aviary.
He was particularly fond of peacocks, though Brutus couldn't stand the strutting birds. They were beautiful to look at, but their ceaseless, raucous cawing was annoying in the extreme. Now, however, all the birds had died, as they did every winter, and the garden looked bleak, matching the disposition of the city.
Cassius and the others had already started their dinner. They were reclining on their stomachs or their sides on couches placed around the table, attended to by the slaves of the household. The stove was putting out some welcome heat and there were several braziers burning, as well as a number of oil lamps, with wicks of flax that could provide up to forty hours of light on a pint of oil. No candles were in sight. Candles were used only by the poor, who could not afford the oil. They used them very sparingly, since the tallow was often eaten when times grew lean.
Cassius, though lean himself, had never known lean times. He was fond of surrounding himself with luxuries. The sideboards were adorned with gold and silver cups and dishes, silver spoons and knives—though most food was eaten with the fingers—and elaborately carved drinking horns covered with gems and mounted in gold and silver. The money Cassius spent on murals, on tables of rare woods, or chairs of carved ivory could have kept an average Roman family fed for several years. And, as usual, he set an elegant table.
In the city, the staple food of the masses was wheat and corn, which most people ate boiled, as a sort of porridge. Few could afford meat. For most Romans, variety in diet was provided primarily by vegetables, sometimes fish or wild fowl. But Cassius dined like the aristocrat he was.
Dinner began with salads, radishes and mushrooms. Eggs and oysters, washed down with generous amounts of mulsum, a sweet brew of warm wine mixed with honey. The main course consisted of six or seven dishes— mackerel eels or prawns, boar, venison, wild goat, suckling pig, hare, stuffed dormice, geese, ostriches, pheasants, doves and peacocks, honey-sweetened cakes and fruit, all washed down with copious amounts of Greek Chian wine that was heated and mixed with water, then served in horns and bowls so that bread could be dunked into it.
Frequently, Cassius' guests would gorge themselves until they were so full, they couldn't eat another bite. Then they would stick feathers down their throats, vomit on the floor, and, while slaves cleaned up the mess, eagerly reapply themselves to the feast spread out before them. Often, Cassius staged lavish entertainments during dinner. Musicians played while his guests ate, or perhaps some popular poet recited his latest works. Sometimes there were dancing girls—Cassius was especially fond of dancing girls—and dwarf acrobats and conjurers. But there was no entertainment on this night. The mood of the diners was grim, conspiratorial.
"Ah, Brutus!" said Cassius, greeting him with a wave. "Come in, come in, we've been waiting for you."
"It seems you have begun without me," Brutus said.
"Here, take a place by me," said Cassius, moving over on the couch. "Don't worry, there is plenty more. Here, have some wine. You look cold."
"I am cold," said Brutus, gratefully accepting the steaming cup.
“You should immerse yourself in the frigidarium," said Cassius. "I've told you time and time again, one must fight the cold with its own weapons."
"I prefer to fight it with steam, thank you," Brutus said.
"You know everyone, of course."
"Of course," said Brutus, nodding to Casca, Cimber, Ligarius, and Labeo.
They were all influential citizens of Rome. Powerful and ambitious men. He sipped the wine and was gratified to feel its warmth spreading through him. A good night to get drunk, he thought.
"We were discussing Caesar” Cassius told him. He picked up a radish and popped it into his mouth, crunching on it noisily.
"What else?" said Brutus, allowing the heat of the wine cup to warm his hands. "All Rome is discussing Caesar. One hears of little else."
"The man's a dangerous rebel against the traditions of Rome," said Ligarius, a portly, balding man who always spoke as if he were uttering grave pronouncements. He was known as "the soporific of the Senate."
"Caesar's entire life has been a history of rebellion," Brutus replied wryly.
"Yes, that is true enough," said Cimber, a young man with dark, curly hair and deep-set eyes that gave him something of a haunted look. "They still talk about how, as a boy, after he was nominated to a priesthood at the temple of Jupiter, he flouted convention by breaking his engagement so that he could wed a young woman of more noble birth. And when Sulla ordered him to divorce and honor his original engagement. Caesar refused! Can you imagine refusing Sulla?"
"I can well imagine Caesar doing it," said Brutus with a smile.
"I recall that story," Labeo said as He licked his fingers and wiped them on his tunic. "He was stripped of his priesthood, his wife's dowry, and his own inheritance. Sulla was so angry with him that Caesar was forced to go into hiding."
"Yes, but Sulla pardoned him" said Brutus.
"Only because Caesar had influential friends who interceded for him," said Casca with disgust. Casca had never been a man who troubled to conceal his feelings. Wiry, dark, and foxlike, his sharply chiseled features gave him a predatory look, he was one of Caesar's most vocal critics. Perhaps too vocal. His friends frequently cautioned him, yet he paid them no mind.
"Caesar has always had influential friends," said Brutus. "He goes to a great deal of trouble to secure them."
"I hear he sometimes secures them in the bedchamber," said Labeo with a grimace of distaste. "Be careful, you oaf!" he shouted, hurling a piece of venison at the slave who had leaned over to refill his goblet. "You almost spilled that on me!"
"I had heard that, too" said Cimber adjusting his tunic and getting grease stains on it in the process. He wiped at them absently, spreading them still farther. "During his assignment as aide to the governor of Bithynia, weren't there rumors of a homosexual relationship between Caesar and King Nicomedes?"
"Malicious gossip," Brutus said.
"Perhaps, but where there's smoke, there's fire," Cassius said, giving them all a knowing look. "And there has always been such gossip about Caesar. He swims in a veritable ocean of scandalous rumor. When the revolt broke out following Sulla's death, did he not immediately hurry home, anxious to take opportunity of any chances to advance himself?"
"Are you speaking of the alleged conspiracy with Lepidus?" said Brutus, reaching across the table for some fruit. “The way I heard it he chose to stay well out of it."
"Only because he knew that Lepidus would fail," said Casca. "He was afraid to take the chance of throwing in with him."
"Afraid?" said Brutus. "
?" He chuckled. "The man is absolutely fearless."
"Yes, that is true enough," Cassius conceded. "He is courageous to the point of foolishness. Such as that time when he was captured by Cilician pirates while en route to Rhodes. They held him for ransom for over a month, during which time it's said he often told his amused captors that he would pay them back by crucifying them. They doubtless found his youthful braggadocio vastly entertaining. However, they were not quite so entertained after the ransom money had been borrowed and Caesar was released. He raised a fleet to pursue them, captured them, and did exactly as he'd promised. Then he seized their booty as his prize and used it to raise a force so he could join the campaign against King Mithridates, for which he was voted the rank of tribune on his return to Rome. No. Brutus is right. If there is one thing you cannot say about Caesar, it is that he has ever been afraid of anything."
"Have you heard the story of when he was sent to Spain, as quaestor?" Labeo asked. "Supposedly, he saw the statue of Alexander in the Temple of Hercules and became quite upset. The thought that by the time Alexander was his age, he had already conquered the world while Caesar himself had done nothing nearly so significant caused him to quit his post and return to Rome, from where, presumably, world-conquering could be more easily accomplished."
"And there followed rumors of Caesar being involved in several conspiracies for revolution, most notably with Crassus," Cimber added. "Even then, he lusted after power."
"I've heard those rumors, too," said Brutus, "but nothing ever came of such plots. lf, indeed, they ever existed."
"Oh, they existed, you can be sure of that," said Cassius, tearing off a piece of bread and dunking it into his wine. As he chewed on it, some wine dribbled down his chin and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.
"If nothing came of those plots, it was only because the moment was not right or the other participants in the conspiracies were hesitant," said Labeo with his mouth full. "But did that stop Caesar? No, he went on angling for higher office and making a reputation for himself as a prosecutor, one who was not above bribing witnesses to bring charges against his enemies."
"He also shamelessly curried favor with the public by staging elaborate entertainments," Ligarius added between gulps of wine, "which placed him heavily in debt. Yet it paid off. Eventually, he managed to secure the office of Chief Priest. They say he bought the votes."
"What about when Catiline was brought up before the Senate on charges of conspiracy?" asked Cimber. "The entire House was in favor of the death penalty. Caesar alone argued against it. Perhaps he was mindful of his own aborted conspiracy with Crassus."