This story is set during the Republic age, 150 BCE, when Carthage was growing figs so large they competed with the trade, leading up to a war with Carthage and a Carthaginian slave rebellion in Rome. At the same time, the story and novel follow young people in their teens as they set out on an adventure, a quest, and what so-called proper parenting might have been like in ancient Rome, before the Empire took hold. It was a story that evolved into a novel.
The novel is titled, Proper Parenting in Ancient Rome: A Time-Travel Novel of Love as Growth of Consciousness and Peace in the Home by Anne Hart (Feb 13, 2007). The story begins 150 years before the Common Era. Alexandria is the greatest center of Hellenistic and Hebrew culture. The Dead Sea Scrolls are beginning to be written. The ‘modern’ Hebrew alphabet, derived from Aramaic cursive letters is coming into use, and for a wealthy, young Roman aristocrat, traveler, and historian, Quintus Cincinnatus Aemilianus, returning home means adult responsibilities begin.
Quintus has one mission in life: to maintain peace in the home. He believes family harmony is a microcosm of all that exists. Quintus is out to prove it by traveling in time throughout his known world. Also, you may want to see the article, "How to write historical fiction." Or you may wish to check out the site, Writing Historical Novels | Facebook.
The young man arrives at his family estate in the Etruscan-farmed countryside an hour’s ride from Rome. He learns his father, a man with Etruscan enemies, is missing. After a childhood spent learning Greek, Latin, and Aramaic from diverse sages in Alexandria, seeking proper, holistic parenting is no problem. He owns the Antikythera device, a mechanism of complicated gears physically representing the Callippic and Saros astronomical cycles. It’s not only gears he wants to mesh. It’s the human condition.
Quintus, the architect-engineer also is a Roman senator-in-training who believes (as it has been said) in “deeds, not creeds.” He is a builder of dreams. He is so far ahead of his century, that he finds time travel a gift of destiny. For Quintus, the explorer and observer of comparative thought, the only way to study the human condition is to gawk at his collected works of art and reflect (or pray).
So begins proper (holistic) parenting in ancient Rome. See any similarity in this proper pagan parenting to modern parenting values? The theme is deeds, doing good deeds. Look at the main character's deeds. Art shows us the human condition. And peace in the home feeds the growth of consciousness.
Often, as a proper Roman boy of ten years I, Quintus Cincinnatus Aemilianus spent nights on special feast days at the house of Salonius, most senior scribe to Cato. At those times my five-year-old playmate, Octavia and I lied awake, well protected, I thought, close to Octavia and to her rotund mother, Cornelia. As chaperoned children, we slept in the roped, rutted wool and feathered torus next to Cornelia.
The theme of this book is deeds, not creeds. Dialogue and tag lines can be used to jostle the words to supporting characters such as Cornelia without understanding their impact. For example, an excerpt from the novel reads, “Our Roman family time travels only to study and understand the human condition for inner peace. And you can only learn about the human condition by studying what is in the art galleries of all peoples. Our goal is peace in the home.
You have to practice it in every room if you ever want to grow world peace.” Dialogue continues with speech described with tag lines denoting emotions and behavior with gestures described by the 'tag' lines such as the following the supporting character's eye direction such as whether the person looks up, down, or sideways.
“You grow peace, like a vine or a tree?” Cornelia looked up in surprise, grinning crookedly, but not smiling with her eyes.
“That’s right. You pray yourself into peace in an art gallery, not in a pantheon. Otherwise you’re talking to yourself. Don’t you know that the purpose of life is to understand the human condition?”
“You certainly can’t do anything about it.” Cornelia huffed with impatience. You’re only a ten-year old boy…a very wealthy and smart boy. Maybe you can fix some of the broken furniture around this house. What’s more of a human condition than that torus I sleep on arriving back from repair full of vermin?
“My father told me that the purpose of life is to take care of one another.”
“So that’s how you repair what’s broken,” Cornelia laughed, admonishing me. “That’s a lot of strange information from a ten-year old Roman boy. Learning architecture might not be a useless plan after all.”
“My tutor from Alexandria told me the purpose of life is to repair.”
“Repair the stench of life with what healing unguent or spice your tutor brought you from Alexandria? What’s in that sack?”
“Watch how he stretches his body in a dance.” The Mau kitten I pulled from a perforated goatskin pack leaped from my hands, scattering across the mosaic floor. “Octavia will find that he is a good listener.”
I watched the slaves overstuff Cornelia’s torus with swans down. They placed it upon the lectus so it would be high enough from the flagstones to be free from vermin and covered it with goat hide.
Cornelia had coarse, yellowed linens that scratched my arms and made me itch, and her bleached wool coverings reeked of the urine used to bleach it. The stench of sweat, roses, and myrrh still couldn’t mask the bleaching with stale urine, no matter how many times the slaves beat the fabric underwater.
Even when dried in the sun, the damp coverings smelled rancid. Fresh air couldn’t erase what secrets those covers witnessed.
I watched in Salonius’s villa as the carpenters made the first woodcut on the sopha and applied its moldings to match the room. Above, the ceiling murals of clouds on faded blue-green skies lulled me to sleep.
I had my tenth birthday the day Octavia had her fifth, and we celebrated so that I was invited to sleep in the house of Salonius, chaperoned by Cornelia so that little Octavia, skinny me, and rotund Cornelia all shared and slept upon the same, soft torus on this enormous lectus full of wormholes. Cornelia even allowed Octavia to hold the kitten in the folds of her tunic.
Salonius, in the next bedroom slept with his 20-year old son in two separate lectus and torus far apart at opposite ends of the room. In the darkest hours of the early morning pouring rain chilled the room yet soothed the scraping of the crickets like nails on dry pumice stone and the erudite screams of the night.
“Remember when we played 'Suffering’? And I’d rub your belly, and your doll would be delivered like a baby?" Cornelia laughed and whooped her perpetual hacking cough from years of inhaling the dust of granite in her father’s sculpture and stone mason industry. I rolled over, pulling my short dark hair from my eyes. Next to me five-year old Octavia soundly slept.
My mouth and nose felt paper-thin and raw as I trembled against the roar of thunder and the wintry rain pounding the roof tiles. Salonius tiptoed out of his sleeping chamber and crawled into bed with his wife.
"What are you doing here?" I provoked him.
Salonius shed his tunic at the foot of the too-soft torus and climbed under the covers to have coitus with his wife. I knew about those acts at ten from enough spying through billowy curtains on Salonius’s older son and one of the kitchen slaves.
Octavia woke with a start, rubbing her eyes. "Get out!" She raged in her five-year old, screeching voice.
"Are you kicking me out?" Salonius hesitated for a moment and stared at Octavia, his dark eyes bulging with unbridled anger.
"Look what you did,”" frightened, beaten-down Cornelia interrupted with a whine. “You woke dragon dumpling.”
"Shut up, you Etruscan whore."
"Don’t call my little girl a whore."
"Better you should be crippled. You should have been born a boy. I’ll kill you, you piece of garbage."
Salonius hurried his tunic back on and stormed out looking for something to smash. He found a hammer in the living room and began to smash Octavia’s musical instruments—first her turtle lyre. Octavia’s birthday and mine today--I had almost forgotten.
Cornelia had saved a few sesterces from the pittance she told me that Salonius gave her each morning and bought Octavia two stringed musical instruments for her fifth birthday. I hadn’t been home to look at the presents my loving father bought me, but that surprise could wait. I spent the night after Octavia’s birthday party simply because Cato was close friends with his most important scribe, Salonius, and my father had work to discuss with Cato. We all spent the night in the house of Salonius.
And now rage overtook Salonius as if possessed by an angry bull. We Romans don’t worship animals, nor do we let them pollute our households. Once in a while our Egyptian slaves let their kittens ransack the kitchens to scare off rats and buzzing insects. Yet the look on Salonius’s face was that of a mad, starved animal charging his prey.
Normally he was a charming man to Cato, or in public, but at home, I’ve seen him change in an instant before the eyes of his wife and children. And an hour later, he denied anything was amiss.
When Salonius finished smashing the smaller turtle lyres, he went for Octavia’s wooden kithera with its special echoing sound box, and then for her larger, barbitos lyres. These were presents my father brought Octavia for her birthday.
Then Salonius shouted in pain as he kicked his bare foot through the thick and solid arms of the eleven-stringed phorminx lyre and the array of extra sheep-gut strings that Cornelia purchased for her older son’s seventh birthday.
After a year or two of lessons, he gave it up. For years it had stood among her son’s undusted toys, forgotten, until Cornelia asked me if I wanted it and told me the story of how Hermes invented the lyre and how many years it remained in her family. I did want it at first, until I realized that Octavia wanted it more. So I made sure it stayed with Cornelia’s family. I told my father not to bring it to our house, even if Cornelia offered it to us once more.
Salonius put his foot through the paintings and other instruments brought for Octavia’s birthday. Finally, he grabbed the Egyptian kitchen slave’s striped kitten that lost its way and wandered into Cornelia’s room and held its belly against the hot pipes being installed in the new indoor bathhouse, until it stopped meowing.
I looked in on Octavia’s mother, but Cornelia didn’t move or respond to my presence. She laid there, one arm over the sobbing Octavia crouching against her mother. Cornelia gazed unblinking at the ceiling, and Octavia had told me many times that her mother said she had given up all effort. I would never give up trying to find a life, an identity, a self, or a sense of belonging. I ran into the peristyle and Octavia jumped up and followed me, clinging to me for protection, a protection Cornelia didn’t try to give to Octavia or to me as a guest in Salonius’s home.
"Not my birthday presents. Don’t smash my presents." Octavia cried, but now Salonius had spent his rage and returned, exhausted to his own room, but the respite didn’t last for long.
The louder the sounds of her voice grew, the more angry Salonius became. He began to chase Octavia first and then both of us all over his house waving this fasces—a set of rods bound in the form of a bundle which contained an axe. Salonius’s cousin, the bodyguard of a magistrate, carried the fasces. He must have left it with Salonius for safekeeping when he went to visit his son’s new baby in the countryside. Now he separated the axe from the rods and swung the axe over his head like a madman.
"If I catch you, I’ll cripple you." Heads will roll before you’ll become a tramp." He went for the axe in his private closet, putting the hammer away.
Octavia and I scampered under a table and crouched there, sobbing. I didn’t know how to defend myself or protect Octavia, being a scrawny boy scared beyond uttering a sound. Salonius seemed like a raging giant, a belching volcano spewing his poisonous gases at me and waving an axe.
"I’m sorry. I’m sorry, daddy," Octavia cried.
"Better you should be crippled than to be born a girl and make trouble for me. I should have flushed her out into the Tiber. Better she wasn’t made or born," Salonius ranted.
I sneaked back into Cornelia’s sleeping quarters dragging Octavia by the hand. And we saw that Octavia’s mother began to stir and shout to Salonius who still hunted us down from the next room.
“If I have to get up…you two fighting make me sicker.” She began to cough again. "Leave the kid alone." I shoved Octavia under the lectus and sidled under it myself. As children, both of us could crouch there, but a giant like Salonius would never be able to squeeze in that space.
Salonius, now angrier with Cornelia, took a swing at Octavia and me with the hammer, and missed because we moved deeper into the dark under the lectus. Salonius ran out of the room to retrieve his axe and in the instant of time I had to flee, Octavia and I darted from the kitchen and dashed out of the atrium into the garden. There was a deep hole dug for an outdoor as well as an indoor privy and also a partially built storage room under construction. The workers had left for the night, and the hole in the garden soil was deep enough with enough dirt to cover us.
In the darkness, Salonius chased his daughter and me, gaining on me as I disappeared into the hole in the garden. We squeezed our small bodies into a partially filled dung pit, hiding inside back of an old barrel left there as it was still too new and unfinished to be used by anyone.
We covered ourselves with garden soil. I had a small space for air there in the barrel, and there was enough sawed out of it for me to see the lamp Salonius held high as he looked around for a few seconds, wild-eyed, wiping the beaded sweat on his upper lip on his forearm. "If I catch you, I’ll kill you," he shouted in a tremulous tone.
From between the wide slats of the broken barrel, I watched as he swung his axe overhead. As he passed a work table, Salonius slapped the ax against his thigh a couple of times. Then he sighed and left it on the table. Finally, exhausted, he plodded back into the atrium.
The next afternoon, Salonius denied anything happened out of the ordinary the night before—at least in front of my father, his architect and physician friends, and the construction workers in Salonius’s garden. In fact my father had paid for the new addition as Cato was noted for his thriftiness and Salonius for his dutiful long hours as Cato’s scribe.
I had to stay another day while my father finalized business ledgers with poorly paid Salonius, Cato and the architects. Salonius kept grumbling about me eating him out of house and home as I sat eating some cheese and figs from the kitchen slave’s hands.
I watched Salonius stalk into the kitchen pawing after the Egyptian slave girl who kept looking for her missing kitten. I told her what I saw Salonius do to the kitten as I sneaked after him trying to hide in the room where the pipes heated the new pool. Suddenly, Cornelia, in her best shrill, let him have her words as if they were daggers.
"No sooner did I put the baby on your lap then you told me to take her off because she gave you a stiff ache between your thighs."
"You keep hounding me just because your step father came into your room to ask you whether or not you wanted to copulate with him when you went to visit your mother."
"I told him don’t even think of it and ordered him to get out. He’s your rich brother and insisted I couldn’t tell him what room to go to in his own house.”
“You could have told your mother.”
“I didn’t want to upset her. She had enough meeting me for the first time as a grown woman after giving me away to my father and step mother when I was two.”
“What was wrong with you that your own mother kept the boys and gave away the only girl? When she married for the second time, she kept the girl she had then and gave her all the inheritance, didn’t she?”
“Yes. She said because I made her look old.”
“Why did your father divorce your mother?”
“He wanted to marry that redhead.”
“So why didn’t you kick your step father out of your room?”
“I did. I insisted he get out. Then I told him I expected to be treated as a guest while visiting my own mother. Don’t you understand or believe me?”
Cornelia pleaded. “I threw him out, but you don’t see him grabbing an axe or a hammer and chasing innocent children, scaring them for life. Would you want your daughter to marry a man exactly like you?"
"Girls only make trouble. You know how many times I asked the that old hag who delivered you to check to make sure—maybe she made a mistake—maybe Octavia was a boy?"
"Is that why you never held a conversation with your daughter or even smiled at her? Why do you distance yourself from your daughter? Not once in your whole life did you ever talk to the girl or show her that she’s more than human garbage in your eyes."
"What about you going into your grown son’s room to massage his feet every morning and comb the lice out of his hair?
"I’m a Roman mother."
"He’s twenty, and he tells me you’re overbearing, you Etruscan harlot."
"I married you as a virgin. Don’t you ever brand me with that name.”
“There was no blood.”
“My skin stretches. I’m going back to bed."
"You have an answer for everything. I’ve run out of words, something I’ll never do as Cato’s scribe, but for speaking, you have to have the last word, just like a woman. And one of these days, you’ll pay for that run-on mouth of yours with your life. Heads will roll. Where is Octavia?"
"In the garden again.”
“Let her rot down there. Lower your voice. We have guests."
Salonius didn’t even notice I sat at the back of the kitchen in a corner eating my figs and cheese, watching him, following him as he staggered back to bed. Cornelia spent the rest of the day at her distaff spinning wool and following the slaves around, envying them, probably.
My father finished his business with Cato at Salonius’s house. By the next day
The litter arrived for me to leave, and I felt a droopy feeling at letting Octavia go back to that ambiance while I returned to my father, Tertius’s home. If only I could take my little friend with me.
I wanted to leave so much, and yet, reluctantly, I sat one more afternoon with my friends and watched tiny Octavia, much too young for me to play with as a friend.
I turned to bid farewell to Cornelia who wore the same stained and disheveled dark stola she wore the day before. But it covered her shortness and rotundity well, her flapping ham-hock upper arms and her enormous belly. Octavia’s older brother by fourteen years had a short temper like his father’s.
"My older son had a fight with me over you and Octavia making too much noise," Cornelia said.
“Me?” I shouted. “I didn’t do anything to spoil Octavia’s fifth birthday party.”
"If you think Salonius shouted and smashed all of Octavia’s birthday presents—fine musical lyres, some of them gifts from your father, my oldest son broke a lamp over my arm. I dared him to do it. Octavia saw everything. She crouched under the table to hide. She was whining, complaining for her brother to show her how to play trigon with the boys. He told her to go away, and she cried."
"Does Salonius know your son broke a lamp over your arm?"
"I had to tell him. So now he smashed Octavia’s brother’s educational tools and tore up his scrolls he needed to study to become an advocate."
"I’m too tired to go to school today." I shuffled into the atrium passing the dead canary in the green bird cage. Cornelia and Octavia followed me.
"It caught a cough. You’ll have to take it down to the garden, make a pyre and burn it. Octavia is too young to light fires, and the kitchen slaves have their hands busy with food."
I ran, sobbing, into the bedroom. "Listen, you little mouse. Want to go shopping with Octavia? I’ll go with you today." Cornelia took a plate of pickled eggs from the kitchen slave and offered me a heel of bread.
I had to stop at my house first. Since my father had paid for the litter, I asked Cornelia and Octavia to join me on the way home because it wound through the shopping district. Between the modest house of Salonius and my father, Tertius’s villa on the Palatine hill, the morning refreshed me. Businesses opened their shutters. Bankers seemed to pose like gossiping statues on the steps of the temples. Beggars hid in the recesses and shadows in back of the doors of open shops.
I wondered what all the trade gossip meant and realized at ten that only accomplishments, benefits, and advantages were pondered. At the end of the day, everyone would probably do the same thing, relieve themselves, wash, and visualize what pleasure and treasure awaited as the sun drowned below the seven hills.
Cornelia, Octavia, and I walked through the dusty shops looking at the baubles and silken wisps of cloth, the sweet, sickly stench of distinctive odors, spices, incense, and unguents.
On her way I watched Octavia watch her mother, Cornelia steal from the vendors and shops lapis broaches, Scythian wolf earrings, a white stola so small it could never fit her rotundity, and tunics already woven and sewn for babies. When no one looked, she’d stuff clothing under her stola.
"I don’t want any of the beads or perfume," Octavia whispered from the communal public privy. “They’re cursed. You’ll get bad luck.”
Cornelia banged the shutter of each bakery we passed. "Your father only gives me grain for bread and a few lentils. How else can I live? He rewards the kitchen slaves with more than he’s ever given me for spending. Can’t you see he’s in charge of who selects all the food in this house? I get a few asses for spending, but not enough even for a moldy dried fig."
I passed no judgment, stood silent, and only observed—in fear of my father finding out. I had no coins to pay, even though my father is the richest man in Rome. In my mind I blurted out. I’ll pay for everything. Eat what you wish. I must repay you for inviting me to Octavia’s birthday feast. All I could do is stand so that my body blocked the view of the litter.
"I don’t want to wear that evil bracelet, "Octavia cried. Cornelia, the Etruscan, would lay that green-eyed curse on Octavia when she misbehaved, at least in my presence, and then I would punish myself by having an accident. It seemed the tiny girl had lifted herself up so she could fall as a release of the tension and terror.
Laying the fear on Octavia with Cornelia’s palms caused the fear, and later she sought relief by getting hurt, getting the accident over with. I realized that by the time I became old enough to don the manly toga. When Octavia and I were children, only the curse, the evil eye stood forth, and the punishment she inflicted on herself fired from deep within her like a cold well of sensibilities.
"Here, stuff this stola in the belt of your tunic and put this outer tunic over it."
"No! I won’t."
In my home, a seamstress came to sew the tunics. We only bought the finest fabrics from the weavers. Here in the market place, cheap tunics fluttered in the breeze I the midst of a sunlit square.
Cornelia dragged whining me into a dimly lit shop. The old couple who ran the shop brought out some fabric remnants, and when their backs turned for a moment, the longer of the remnant ended up inside Cornelia’s stola.
She waddled into the street to see the shoemaker. Cornelia and daughter sat down on a cushion before the shoemaker’s shop.
"Give me that skinny foot," said the shopkeeper, trying to shove one of the new little sandals on Octavia’s dirt-caked foot.
“The soles are too thin,” Cornelia complained.
"Leave me alone!" Octavia whined, storming out of the shoe section. Octavia shouted a horrible obscenity at the shop keeper, the same word I heard her father call her last night as I looked over my shoulder at the shopkeeper’s expression.
"That filthy rat," he stammered.
Breathless Cornelia caught up to her daughter in front of the public cistern where a line of slaves and poor citizens, all women, waited their turn to bring water into the small rooms they occupied around the market district called the Subura.
My father rarely brought us to the Subura to shop. It’s stench of dried blood, moldy fruit, rotting meat, sweat, urine, and manure is remarkable. To find it you enter the valley between the southern end of the Viminal and the western end of the Esquiline, or Oppius. I’ve seen it once before because the Subura is connected with the forum by the Argiletum. It continues eastward between the Oppius and the Cispius by the Clivus Suburanus, ending at the Porta Esquilina.
Our litter brought us through this district by moving across the Via Cavour and the Via dello Statuto. We ended up in the bakery district where we paused to sit in the litter to find some shade.
Cornelia chastised Octavia with a pointed finger. "Horse face, why by Jupiter did you say that?"
"He didn’t have to call me skinny like in ugly," Octavia insisted, standing up for her reason for shouting an obscenity at the shoemaker.
Cornelia threw her hands in the air out of frustration, or maybe she wanted to give up at that moment.
"Why did you have to wear that torn article of clothing outside the house? You’re beginning to stink just like your father who’s never taken a bath in years. The old stinker washes the bottom of his feet, his face and hands so Cato will think he’s clean. He’s afraid of water, says it makes his legs itch.”
I listened in silence, then blurted. “Why doesn’t he rub some oil on his skin if water makes it itch?”
Cornelia shook her head. While I observed but did not participate, she spent the day teaching Octavia how to steal clothing none of us needed from poor, old merchants who were overwhelmed with business or had no customers at all. These merchants were too poor to own a slave to help them in their little shops, and most had sons who were killed in the wars. I felt sorry for them, but Cornelia only wanted this sensation she must have received from taking anything that didn’t belong to her, and mostly nothing her size or Octavia’s that she could use at home.
I hurried back to the litter, wanting to part of Cornelia’s torment. Another depression extended from the Subura northward between the Viminal and the Quirinal, and a third north-east between the Cispius and the Viminal that was marked by the vicus Patricius.
We finally arrived at the entrance to the Subura, called the primae fauces near the Praefectura Urbana. Everything anyone can buy from a shop could be found here. My eyes feasted on the sweets from the shops, but I had no coins with me.
I knew at any time my father left me a bag of coins I could have my bodyguards arrange for a litter and slaves to do the shopping for me. I knew Cato was a miser, as my father always joked, but I never realized that his wife had to stoop to stealing to get a thrill or a variety of raisin cake, or a ream of fabric to sew Octavia her basic clothing.
"Where’s your father, where’s the bastard?" Cornelia whispered to Octavia.
"Probably doing scribe work for Cato. Or maybe Cato treated him to one of his flower shows."
“How brilliant of you to use grown-up words, Octavia,” I said.
Cornelia had to get her words in. "Some men go straight home after work. Salonius, he has his flower shows. Did you know he caught a brothel disease when Octavia’s brother was five?"
"What’s a brothel disease?" I asked Cornelia.
"Caught it from a Cappadocian harlot, he confessed to his Egyptian kitchen slave. I overheard them. He told me it came back from his soldiering days. He thinks I have my mother’s head."
"See this scar on my face?" Octavia grimaced.
"So?” I said. “It’s ugly. Now no man will want to marry you with that wide, red scar on your face."
"That’s because you cursed me last year.” Octavia cried as she looked up at Cornelia’s frowning face. “Did you think your curse would give me eight stitches?"
My father, with his physician’s skills, sewed Octavia’s chin together after she fell over the fence around her house a few months ago.
"Where by Hercules is your father? He’s never home, the bastard. "
Tears ran down Octavia’s sallow cheeks. "I told you that stuff you steal brings me bad luck. I always end up falling over fences and getting stitches."
"Shut up! The market’s crowded with gossip. You’ll be overhead, and it will get back to Salonius, Cato, or Tertius."
"Everybody calls me crazy,” Octavia sobbed, taking great gasps of air. “When I grow up nobody nice will marry me."
“Just ask anyone you want to marry,” I teased. “If you wait for someone to ask, no one will. Ha, ha. But you’d better have a lot of money to bribe them.”
Perhaps I teased Octavia too much when she was five and I was ten. It stopped when I became a man and we saw little of each other.
I sighed and pulled out her drawing tablet and stylus from the litter. She began to draw a grotesque face with pointy fingers on her small art tablet. Poor Octavia. Her entire world found solace in music and art, painting, playing the lyre, and sculpting. Now I watched the face she drew with her childish, but skilled fingers. The face was contorted with gaping month and reptilian.
"What kind of happy face is that?"
"I don’t know. But it makes me happy to do it."
Cornelia watched her daughter draw. “Quintus,” she sighed to me. “Last week my son took Octavia on a trip. She told me that as they strolled together on a path, her brother stopped at the highest point on the bridge to gaze at the view. Suddenly my son gave his sister a shove and then pulled her back to safety before she could let out a wail.
“That’s right,” Octavia squealed. “He has no right to scare me like that."
Cornelia scratched her head. “He denied it just like his father denies doing cruel acts. He started to sing to her. Then he lifted and dangled her as if to throw Octavia in the Tiber. She told me that she lashed out, flailing, screaming in terror. A passerby saw them horsing around, and she said he put her down harshly.
“I asked him why he did that,” Octavia said, tossing her curls back like a rag doll. “And he said it was because I was his baby sister.”
After we rested, the litter my father paid for without even bothering Cato to ask about his scribe, took us across the square, past a wine shop, and finally with enough shopping and stealing done, back home. I didn’t say anything to my father. Not only because I did not steal or have ever had to fret about wealth, but I vowed to find a way to help Octavia to a better life without adding more problems. I felt the responsibility to help Cornelia in any way I could.
At ten, this became a heavy burden for a boy to take with him each day to his lessons. I knew somehow when Octavia would be old enough to be married that I would do my best as a family friend to find her a husband slow to anger.
Kindness and peace in the home brings out a healthy glow and sweetness in any woman wherever she may be present. In a way, I felt responsible to do a good deed for Octavia and her mother. I feel now at a loss that Cornelia succumbed, eaten by her resentment, and Octavia quickly had been signed away by Salonius, now honored by miserly Cato’s insistence of having Octavia’s hand in marriage. Some cannot help themselves. I thought about the striped silvery kitten.
Nearly ten years had passed, and today I gazed fondly at the spitfire bride, Octavia, forged in the fires of her father’s perpetual pool of anger, her mother’s weak, hacking cough, persistent complaints of resentment, and growing frailty.
"No, I don't track slaves," I told Cato's new bride, Octavia. Cato's eldest sons wife, Livia, sat silently spinning in the spinning room at the west wing, pleading her newly pregnant belly and disdain for the wafting scents of Octavia’s wedding breakfast.
"I'm looking for several prominent men: Antonius, your husband's youngest nephew, for one, and my two brothers, Lucius and Marcus. Several young men have been missing lately, the wealthiest men in Rome, all from first families, their memories wiped clean, and then taken by slave traders."
"Yes, I've heard. You're here to ask me which potions wipe the memory, and your physician father couldn’t tell you because he’s being held by Scipio. Oh, I can tell you all right. The plants came from the King of Numidia."
"I've tracked the plants to Scipio's galley," I informed Octavia. "Does your herb collection tell you whether the memory erasure is permanent?" Her lids half closed as if in a deep well of thought.
Octavia tilted her chin and moved her knuckles to her lips. "No plant permanently erases the mind." She looked older than her fifteen and three quarter years. I can tell you one thing, Quintus. Roman friendship is hard to gain. Ask the King of Numidia. I’ll bring you to him this evening at dinner."
Octavia was suddenly talkative, which drew attention to her exquisitely rare beauty--eyes azure as blue-green seaweed, and long but tightly curled hair of a light brown hue streaked with sun-kissed golden strands all done up in peach-colored ribbons. That particular combination of darkly tanned skin and golden brown hair reminded me of the fishermen of Sicily. She wrapped herself in her palla and ordered the braziers to be brought closer to her, walking like a newlywed.
"You must meet Masinissa, king of Numidia. Octavia's full, pouting lips expanded in a smile. "I've had a special Numidian feast prepared, and tonight we will all dine in the African fashion. Have you ever eaten their richly spiced ground nut soup with roots and millet dumplings?"
"No, but I've heard in the forum that Numidia is now a close Roman ally."
"Yes," she sighed. We've all suffered with Carthage's woes. It seems like yesterday we made peace with Carthage, and now Masinissa is clawing away land, menacing the borders, and demanding that Rome do something. It seems he's here to convince everyone at our house that the territories under his peace treaty with Carthage belong to Numidia and to him and not to Carthage any longer. Imagine what would happen if another war breaks out after we’ve worked so long for the peace."
"You mean for Scipio's defeat of Carthage," I laughed. "Masinissa signed a peace treaty after the Roman defeat of Carthage at Zama. A defeat by Scipio," I emphasized.
Just than Marcus Porcius Cato, the elder Cato, entered the well-lit atrium where his wife and I were chatting while his elder son was taking the baths at the east wing of the villa.
"So I've heard you two speaking of what I've just bellowed about in the forum."
Cato made a face, and I could see my reflection in his watery eyes as he pulled away tersely. I observed a great tide of worry in his body gestures, and a salty cold pool of sanity in his gaze. Cato had the furrowed forehead of a man who owed the whole world land or gold.
"With Masinissa coming here tonight, there's danger,"
Cato insisted gruffly. "The red dust his horsemen kicked up is within striking distance of the southward caravan routes of Carthage. Do you know what that means to Rome?"
"The bottom line payment for the Roman army and food for the Republic, naturally. The trade routes between Carthage and Rome will be halted as usual again." I answered Cato's look of quizzical exasperation. "Yes, I’ve heard you at the forum each time Carthage increased its complaints to Rome."
"So you want to find your brothers, Lucius and Marcus and my nephew, Antonius? I'll show you how to find them. Slave traders? No. The last secret word to me from your father, again in disguise, was that the all three of these young men were taken months ago by a Roman commission of inquiry. And now another commission is to be sent to Africa to find a solution to the problem between Carthage and Numidia."
"Where is my father now?"
"He was sent with the first Roman commission of inquiry to Africa to sort matters out."
"And your nephew and my two brothers?"
"I've just been asked to lead the second commission. We are departing for Numidia with Masinissa tonight."
"Why are you being sent to Africa?"
Cato's eyes lit up. "My hatred and fear of Carthage is known well in Numidia."
"And in Rome," Octavia added as she arranged deeply scented long-stemmed red petals around a wafting blue cloud of myrrh in a vase of lapis. "Quintus, have you noticed how the tight noose of sanctions and conditions imposed on Carthage by Rome is causing slave revolts? Carthage is rising again with blood in its eye, poised to unleash its mad dogs on Rome."
"My wife is right, Cato nodded. I'm probably the only man in Rome who swears to this. Do you know how many Carthaginians and their slaves are being held hostage here in Rome as prisoners of war? I've seen the slaves of the Carthaginian prisoners being sold off to Romans, thousands of them, mostly near here in Setia.
"Those Carthaginian slaves plotted to free themselves and have entwined their former slaves in their scheme, promising them freedom if they band together as Carthaginian prisoners of war.
“The slaves are rioting against their masters because their former Carthaginian slave owners need their help to return to Carthage. If we go off to Africa to search for our loved ones, I have heard from my own loyal slave that at the games in a few days, the Carthaginian prisoners of war and their own Carthaginian slaves, now in the hands of new Roman owners will rise up and slaughter the townspeople of Setia."
"What should we do?" I shuddered icily. "Rome is losing more men from sickness by camping out in the stagnant, fetid, insect-infested marshes than it will ever lose by fighting the Carthaginians in the clean, sun-baked desert."
Cato pulled out a huge Carthaginian fig from under his cloak. "That's one big piece of fruit," I said. "You won't find figs this plump in Rome."
Cato twisted the fig by its stem and threw it across the flagstone floor of the atrium. "I did the same to the floor of the senate, and I'll warn you, too Quintus. If you don't join my commission to Numidia tonight, the land where that big fig came from is only three days from Rome by Sea. In order for you to find your brothers and my nephew and your father, Carthage must be destroyed! Delenda Carthago!"
But my father's favorite disguise is of a Carthaginian when he's not imitating a Syrian from Antiochus. He might have used one of these disguises to escape from Scipio. He’s a man of a thousand disguises and speaks eight languages.
"The way to your father is to find favor in Masinissa. If Numidia's horsemen continue to attack Carthage, your father will be out of luck. There's no way he can disguise himself as a Numidian. Carthaginians are remnants of the Phoenician colonies. What we deal with now is Carthaginian impatience. They are fighting us on their own territory."
"And their prisoners of war and slaves will be fighting in Rome soon," I added.
It's what I hoped for," Cato said sternly--Rome's embarrassment. The raiding horsemen have breached the contract signed by Carthage after its defeat in the last war. The terms stated that Carthage was not to take up arms unless it asked the permission of Rome first to carry weapons of destruction. The other reason why I'm here is to inform you that the senate voted for war."
"No," I said. "Not a third war with Carthage."
"What are you going to do about it?" Cato ranted. "Trail a Greek chlamys over your shoulders and march carrying a sign outside the steps of the senate ranting we will not be Carthagized?"
Cato arched one bushy black eyebrow and stared me down hotly, cocking his lips in a crooked grin. "March with me, Quintus. I'll have 80,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry to rescue our loved ones and raze Carthage to the virgin soil beneath its structures."
"I thought you wanted a son right away," Octavia interrupted. "Rome wasn't populated in a day, and you leave tonight without consummating our wedding. The wedding guests are arriving for the last supper before my metamorphosis from a girl to a matrona. I must emerge from my cocoon as a butterfly, but you are walking out on a caterpillar, you worm. After one day of marriage, it’s hardly appropriate to take your leave without even carrying me over the threshold."
"Quite a spitfire, isn't she--the way she talks to old Cato as if she too belongs in the senate? Coincidentally, she showed me her precocious classification of herbs right after I insisted that women should be barred from owning property. Salonius was right. She is too Roman to handle. But I leave her in good hands."
Cato turned to his wife, winking. "So, adopt one, like one of Rome's best matrona." Cato stifled a yawn. "I don't have time to even limp near the torus of the marriage bed, let alone carry her tiny frame over the room's threshold. I should have wed one of Apollodorus's statues. Let's go. I must save my strength for Carthage and Numidia.
Please, no argument before a meal," insisted Cato. "It curdles the dream of hunger."
"Wait," Octavia shouted. "You haven't even untied the knot of Hercules. The only person who can untie the knot is my husband. She lifted her skirt in front of all of us to reveal an under-tunic of thick, dark wool with a frayed rope tied around her narrow waist of a fancy-laced girdle. Don't you even have a moment for the marriage to be recognized under Roman law?"
Cato steeled himself to look at Octavia's smiling face. She receded with stunning speed, and he followed her, drew his jeweled dagger, and swiftly cut the complex knot in an instant. I'm an impatient man," he said. I know I'm supposed to spend hours untying that knot, but I don't think like a woman."
"It's not how a woman thinks," Octavia argued with precision. "Taking time to untie the knot reveals the virtues of Rome, the first one being patience and the second dexterity, and in the Roman household it shows the groom is slow to anger and does not grow weak and infantile under pressure. To a new bride, the knot of Hercules reveals a groom's inner strength and maturity, and his love for his home and family. What need have I of a Fortuna teller, when the knot rewards me with the character of a man when he cannot profit by the way he treats another? It tells me how he treats others when he is pushed to his limits, whether he will be weak or strong, and whether he is in love."
Cato began to laugh. "A man in love is a joke," he cackled. "Yet, look at me, married in my oldest age--me, a widower for years with a grown, married son who rides on my victories. Tell me, Quintus. Are these the words of a fifteen-year old wife?"
"Her father, Salonius, is your favorite scribe," I said. No doubt he put the words in her ears.
A freshly bathed, but simply clothed table slave slinked in with his blond head bowed. He gazed at the floor announcing the soldiers had given him word that the praetor finally had arrived to speak with Cato.
Two guards preceded the praetor. Even the guards had bodyguards just to walk in the street. One guard whispered in Cato's ear. "Two of the Carthaginian slaves betrayed the conspiracy to the praetor here in Rome."
"What conspiracy?" Cato began to sneeze, one right after the other.
The praetor walked in with his entourage for the wedding breakfast. "The Carthaginian prisoners of war and their own slaves banded together to rise up against their new Roman masters and help the Carthaginians sail back home. The plot was to rise up and slaughter everyone in Setia as soon as the games started there next week. The two slaves who betrayed their masters and came to me were freed and rewarded with twenty-five thousand pieces of bronze."
"And what happened to all the Carthaginian prisoners of war and their own slaves who banded with their masters?" I asked.
"I'm a generous praetor and a river to the Romans. The rebellious leaders were slaughtered. Many of the slaves were recaptured, but many were not. There was a flight of slaves out of Setia like a storm of thunder the likes you have never seen. Most are headed now for Rome and spreading destruction in their path and murder all the way between Setia and Rome.
"Those with Roman masters have stolen their clothing and property and disguised themselves as Romans or other foreigners on our shores as merchants. The trouble is not over yet. Even though I had only a few days to gather my force and storm Setia, with two thousand Romans, I couldn't stop all those slaves from unleashing the bowels of Hades on our Republic. What we have on our hands is a large body of organized slaves forming sleeper cells in Rome waiting for the right time to pounce, spreading terror among us.
"These Carthaginian slaves have had Roman masters for years. They can mix with us, live among us, and we'd never be able to track them down and tell them from foreign merchants on our shores or from the old Greek cultures in Italia or our own peoples to the south in Sorrentum or Herculaneum. And their old masters, the Carthaginian prisoners of war should have never been brought to Rome in such large numbers and with their slaves. Banded together, they are a torrent, an army of terror right here in Rome."
Cato paced back and forth. He led the praetor and his guards to the upper floor of his villa, near the southeast wing as we followed, all but Octavia who retired to her scrolls. Windows opened onto views of the Palatine. Cato's well-scrubbed coterie of table slaves rushed out of the room like a ribbon of fire. The lamp bearers whose dwindling oil flames in clay lamps shone perched on yesterday's silver platters trembled as they cleared the room for the wedding breakfast.
The praetor knew me from childhood. He looked skeptical. "Your father has taken the wrong disguise to help us. Yes, he was on an errand for me, and so were your brothers. Something went wrong. I tried to throw up a smoking curtain to make everyone think they were taken by slave traders. No, he's mixed in among the Carthaginian slaves on their rampage, dressed as one of their kind, and they've disguised themselves as Romans.
"What a mix-up. I shouldn't have started the rumor burning that memories were erased by certain plants from Numidia. Now their king is here to march against Carthage once more, to incite a war, and the slaves are wreaking havoc between Setia and Rome. Why did we bring so many captured Carthaginians to Rome?"
"Booty is booty," I interjected. "Up for sale to the senate and the Roman people. I guess you have to convince the former slaves of the Carthaginian prisoners of war that once they help their former masters get back to Carthage that they won't be freed after all, but will end up slaves as they were before, and not with Roman masters, but Carthaginian ones."
"Isn't that what they prefer?" Octavia asked, entering the room briefly to pass through and remove her materials from one of the tables as the men moved into the library of scrolls in the next room for privacy. The door was gently closed.
"Thanks to Minerva, we have these scrolls," Cato added with a grimace. A ginger cat entered the balcony and strode across the library, curling up in the corner to leap at a flying insect. "Speak of Minerva, here she is," Cato smiled, lifting the cat. "This is Minerva." He waved the cat away, and it leapt back onto the sunny balcony to chase a bird that flew away.
"The remaining slaves that are loose will undoubtedly set upon the games in Setia that start in a few days," said the praetor. You're to sail to Numidia with its king tomorrow, Cato, with the best of the Roman army. And you, Quintus. I don't know what to do with you. That situation about your father and brothers."
"My nephew, Antonius, we must not forget," Cato looked at the praetor dubiously. What's the big secret that you couldn't have told me these men weren't taken by slave traders with their memories vanished? Why were we told that rumor? Where are they? What has Scipio done with Quintus's father all tied up in that galley?"
"Spies, my friend. Three Roman spies," the praetor smiled, tapping me emphatically three times on the chin. "Your father escaped Scipio again, this time in the garb and manner of Carthaginian masters on the loose, the young ones placed strategically by me in Setia like ivory pieces on a fancy board. Let the games begin."
And my father? I insisted. "Where is he now?"
"Physician in disguise somewhere among the Carthaginians," I suppose. I've lost track, I'm afraid. Only he's not here in Italia. He's in Numidia. That's why you're all going to Africa. I've arranged to have my family care for your new bride, Cato, until you return. My summer villa in Misenum is a good choice. Or she might prefer the larger one my wife will help her run in Cumae." The praetor thought for a moment. "I trust the volcano nearby as a better protector of Roman women than a slave rebellion on the loose."