The Roman Republic, 133-121 BCE
The Roman port of Ostia was thriving again, now that the wars were over. Dozens of ships were moored off the quay, sails reefed and yards down, and the quay itself was bustling with stevedores unloading large bags of grain, or working cranes to lift heavy amphorae into the holds of ships making ready to sail off to some distant shore. Maximus could not be more pleased. His own ships had returned from Hispania and Africa so heavy-laden with grain that they almost seemed to be sinking as they tied up to the wharf. This more than made up for the decline in the Sicilian trade, disrupted as a result of Eunus’s slave rebellion.
“The trading went well,” he said, greeting his friend Quintus Fabius, who had come down to the docks from Rome upon hearing that the ships had arrived. They met under an awning, outside Maximus’s warehouse, where he sat surrounded by his account scrolls. “Three thousand bushels of grain – finest quality, too – from Hispania and Africa.”
“Excellent,” Quintus replied, and he could not help but grin. “And the return on the investment...?”
Although a patrician from a family of ancient nobility, Quintus was remarkably canny when it came to his money, and this was the primary bond between him and Maximus: the latter, a plebe merchant, handled Quintus’s fortune and made it grow, as it was unseemly – even illegal – for a member of the Senate to engage in business directly.
“If I cannot manage four to one, I do not know my business,” Maximus smiled. Nodding to the young Greek slave who attended him, he snapped, “Wine and two goblets. The Falernian, but well-watered, mind – use the strainer!” Handing Quintus one of the scrolls on his table, he added, “Your share, my friend, by my calculation, is one hundred and fifty thousand denarii.”
“A celebration is in order, I think,” Quintus laughed. “I’m certain we’ll get a good price. There are all these mouths to feed, aren’t there?” Wrinkling his nose, he added, “Rome is becoming far too crowded, in my opinion, but what can be done?” He shrugged, accepting a glass of well-watered red wine from the Greek slave boy. “Why would anyone hire a free citizen when all these foreign creatures can be had on the cheap?”
It was indeed true. The slave markets were glutted with captives – men, women, children... the victorious Roman armies, crushing Carthage and her allies, had brought them back by the hundreds of thousands. Thanks to the wars in Hispania, Mecedonia, and Syria one heard foreign languages almost as frequently as the Latin tongues.
“Speaking of which,” Maximus said, somewhat hesitantly, “when is the Senate going to put down this uprising in Sicily? One hears the most alarming stories – Roman colonists butchered, and the Sicilians who have sided with us, too.”
“Well,” Quintus said, but cleared his throat, clearly unwilling to answer. “It’s difficult. As you know, I was Praetor in Sicily just before the war with Carthage. It’s still a foreign country, in many ways, and probably always will be.” To Maximus's dismay, Quintus drained the rest of his goblet in one go and nodded to the slave, requesting another.
“It’s bad for our business, Quintus Fabius,” Maximus smiled. “Perhaps the Senate could do something? I mean, after all, aren’t these rebel slaves led by some sort of Syrian conjuror? How difficult can it be for Roman troops to stop them?”
“Have you ever been to Sicily?” Quintus laughed, accepting another goblet of Maximus’s Falernian wine, which the Greek slave mixed in their presence, for it was famously strong stuff. It was said that if you applied fire to it, the flames would flare up. “No, the problem is that it’s a slave revolt,” Quintus admitted, lowering his voice as the Greek slave withdrew. “The Senate doesn’t vote you a triumph for defeating slaves, no matter how many of them you crucify. And we’ve put thousands of the bastards up on crosses, and it still hasn’t broken them.”
“How is your brother?”
“Still in Hispania, fighting the Celtiberian tribes of Numantia,” Quintus replied. “The enemy stronghold is surrounded, and he wrote, in his last report to the Senate, that the siege was going well.”
“I heard morale was low,” Maximus remarked, sipping his own wine. “The soldiers are worried because the men who came back from Africa with your brother didn’t receive any land grants.”
“I suppose they want to be paid, too? Are we not Romans?” Quintus scoffed, saying this, and took a rather deep draught of wine. “Ever since the beginning of the Republic, men have volunteered for military service, without pay. It’s our tradition – it’s our heritage.”
“Yes, but in the beginning of the Republic, our enemies lived over the next hill, not on the other side of the sea. Wars didn’t last for years and years in the old days. Things have changed.”
Quintus merely grunted, irritably. “If you start paying soldiers,” he said, after a thoughtful pause, “they’ll expect the sun, moon, and stars. And the moment you can’t pay them, you’ll be in trouble.”
“It seems a shame, though, that men are fighting for Rome for years at a time, only to come home to financial ruin,” Maximus sighed. “No wonder no one’s volunteering for this Numantine War. Why on earth would they?”
“Love of country?”
“You can’t eat patriotism....” He had heard that raising troops was more and more difficult, since so few commoners now met the minimum property requirement for military service. “Well,” Maximus said, at last, “paupers really are not my concern. I’ve a business to run. If I don’t mind my expenses, I’ll soon be out of business, and that won’t do anyone any good, will it? As it is, I give thanks to the gods that the profit I bring in more than makes up for what I’m asked to pay in taxes.”
Quintus looked morose for a moment. “I sometimes wonder: what’s happening to Rome? Where does this end, eh? Our forefathers didn’t live like this, with such a great division between the rich and the poor.”
Maximus smiled. Quintus Fabius was a sentimental old fool in many ways, fond of imagining a golden past that had never existed. Of course, he believed his own tales, being a patrician. It couldn’t possibly be the fault of his own class that things now were as bad as they were.
“Here’s a thought,” Maximus said, according his friend a wry look, “why don’t you take your estate down in Campagna and share it out equally to all these poor, shiftless hayseed bumpkins, as a service to Rome, and then we’ll see what comes of it.”
Quintus sipped his wine thoughtfully and, after a moment of serious thought, nodded, “They’d all be right back here in the blink of an eye, wouldn’t they, clamouring for handouts? Someone would just go in there and buy them all out. They can’t really make a go of it, can they, the small farmers?”
“Not really. Now, I don’t know anything about farming, but I know business. A large farm employs labor more efficiently than a family farm: the end result is a more abundant, cheaper, marketable product. And one of these latifundia, stocked with slaves? Well, labor doesn’t get any cheaper than free, does it? Throw them some second-hand rags and a few handfuls of parched grain and there you go.”
Quintus nodded, “Well, you can’t divide up an estate equally. Every acre of land is different. It’s not as if the gods saw fit to make all our land the same.”
“See,” Maximus snorted, allowing himself a generous gulp of wine. “Even the gods are against equality. Nature herself is opposed to equality.”
“Perhaps you should buy yourself a farm,” Quintus snorted. “Or even rent some of the Ager Publicas – the public lands – from the state. No, I mean it. Your ships could be plundered by pirates, or sunk by a storm, and then where would you be? You might consider diversifying your investments, Maximus. Not unlike the way I invest my profits from the Campagna estate in your business. Just a thought.”
* * *
Maximus’s profit was indeed four-to-one, and Quintus was paid one-third of the net income of the venture. Quintus celebrated his windfall. He invited Maximus and his wife, Clodia, to a banquet at his mansion in Rome, adding that his cousin, Publius, also would be present. Maximus did not really follow politics closely, but he knew – as did everyone – that Publius was Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest. In Rome, however, this office had a distinctly political odor to it, rather than one of sanctity. It was an appointment like any other, with its share of emoluments and influence.
While the men reclined around the circular tables, their wives sat opposite them, in chairs, attended by slaves who either stood, awaiting orders, or rushed back and forth, bringing anything that might be desired. The banquet began with small dishes – Egyptian lentils, salted kale, olives, and pickled carrots, asparagus, and radishes. Salted and stewed snails, raw clams, and sea urchins also were brought to the tables.
“Maximus!” Quintus exclaimed, rosy-cheeked after perhaps too many goblets of wine. “I must introduce you to my cousin, Publius.”
“Quintus tells me you’ve come into a considerable fortune?” Publius asked – remarkably businesslike for a priest.
“The gods smile upon my affairs,” Maximus replied, eyeing the special purple-bordered toga that only the Pontifex Maximus could wear.
“Tell me,” Publius said, “as you are a Plebeian, do you support the new Tribune of the Plebes, Tiberius Gracchus?”
“I attend to my business,” Maximus said. “However, I understand Tiberius Gracchus is related to you, sir.”
“My cousin, Scipio, married his sister,” Publius laughed. “She’s over there....”
“Oh,” Maximus blushed, glancing now at Sempronia, a rather thin and plain-looking woman in her thirties, who was sitting next to his own Clodia. “I am more interested in business than in politics,” Maximus said as Quintus filled his glass with the excellent wine of Campagna. “The machinations of the Plebeian Assembly have little bearing on the grain trade.”
“So you say, but now that the wars are over, they are the same, surely,” Publius remarked. “The politics of Rome is now the politics of property, taxes, wages, and immigration. What they call urban development – aqueducts and what-not. Roads. Tiberius Gracchus says he wants to seize the latifundia, in Campagna, and distribute the land to the soldiers fighting with my cousin in Hispania. He’s already making plans to survey the Ager Publicus, to dole that out to the veterans of the war in Africa. What will it be next? Free grain, doled out by the state?”
“If the state pays me a good price for the grain, why should I care?” Maximus asked. “If that happens, any taxes I pay will go out one door and come right back in at the other. However, I would prefer to see things remain as they are.”
Maximus was fully aware that both Quintus and Publius – like most patricians – rented thousands of iugera of public land, which they let out to tenant farmers or farmed more profitably with small armies of slaves. However, he knew that it was important, in business negotiations, to make it clear to potential partners that he, for one, had other options.
“The problem is this,” Quintus explained. “Appius Claudius Pulcher is Princeps Senatus right now – that means he controls the agenda of the Senate. Now, his daughter, Claudia – a former Vestal Virgin – is married to Tiberius Grachchus.”
“Who is the radical Plebeian reformer?” Maximus smiled. “I begin to understand – oh, well, families....” He chuckled. “I s’pose I should pay more attention to politics, but I’m rather busy trying to keep Rome fed....”
“Well, let’s make it absolutely clear to you, Maximus,” Publius said, firmly. “Tiberius wants to seize the whole of the Ager Publicus – all the public land in Italia – and distribute it to the veterans. He wants his brother, Gaius, to head the commission that’s going to divide up these lands. And he wants to set a limit on how much land anyone can let or own.”
“Well,” Maximus smiled, “that will be interesting.”
Clodia, listening to her husband’s evasive words, shut these exchanges from her mind and devoted her attention to Quintus’s wife, Domitia, who was saying:
“I can just see you now as the mistress presiding over a country villa, Clodia – you simply must prevail upon Maximus. Really, my dear, are you to while away your days among the fishwives of Ostia? No, no – I mean look at what’s becoming of Rome....”
“I like Rome well enough,” Clodia replied.
“Oh, nonsense – how can you? It’s filthy. Why, the smoke is so bad, now, one can hardly draw breath, and you can’t even see the sea from the Roman hills most of the time. Look at how the soot and dust covers everything. And now they’re putting up all these elevated aqueducts, to block out the sun. And all these insulae that are being built – six, seven storeys, even, with families stacked on top of each other like I don’t know what. And they’re built out of concrete? What on earth is that – sand, water, and a little mud? No, no – you must insist, my dear. I know Quintus has broached the subject, but the fact is, if you don’t invest in land now, very soon there won’t be any left. If Gracchus doesn’t give it away, someone else will buy it. So, it’s take while the taking’s good.”
“D’you really think so?”
“Absolutely,” Domitia replied. “Right now, you could afford to buy a mid-sized estate just with this year’s profits.”
Roast pork drenched with little dishes of mackerel sauce was served up for the main course, and in general their conversation revolved around the subject of land. Publius extolled the virtues of the Etruscan lands – excellent for growing wheat, he said. Quintus favoured the vineyards of Campagna, while Maximus – although out of his depth – remarked that he had heard the Po Valley was ideal. Anything could be grown there, although it was rather far from Rome.
“There are aesthetic considerations, gentlemen,” Domitia interjected. “The seaside has much to recommend it.”
“Aesthetically, yes, but not from an agricultural point of view,” Quintus said, gently. “You want your estate to be a little ways inland, but not entirely out of the hills.”
“At the bottom of a hill is best,” Publius added. “At the bottom of a hill, but on the edge of a plain. The hill ought to be positioned to protect the farm from the north wind... but you also want the rains to carry the fertile earth from the hillside down onto your farm, so – if you can – find a parcel adjoining a well-wooded hill. It improves the fertility.”
At the sound of the word ‘fertility,’ Sempronia squirmed. She had said nothing, and seemed rather morose.
“Mind the drainage, though,” Quintus added. “You don’t want to end up with a swamp. And there ought to be some trees, too, for firewood and withies and so forth.”
“Oh, and make sure the manager has a wife – buy him one if you have to, but be careful she’s not too pretty,” Domitia interjected. “No man – no workingman, that is – labours hard enough if his wife’s too good looking. And there are always problems when a slave-girl is too pretty.” She winked at Clodia, saying this. “She ought to be plain, but a good cook. That’s the thing. You want her to tempt the manager, not the master.”
* * *
Clodia did not press Maximus about buying a farm, although she could not stop imagining what it might be like to live like a proper Roman lady, out in the country. She had all the same finery that the equestrian and patrician ladies sported, and she was a very pretty young woman, but she knew that the upper class women would never acknowledge her as an equal as long as Maximus and she were so visibly connected with commerce. Business, they believed, was a low and conniving way to make one’s fortune. Indeed, Quintus’s brother, Scipio Aemelianus, had argued in the Senate, even, that business corrupted one’s morals and promoted luxury and licentiousness, with injurious results for the whole of society. Owning a farm would greatly enhance their prestige, perhaps even open doors that now were closed.
Clodia was a good Roman wife: she attended to her domestic duties and submitted to her husband in all things. For his part, Maximus was a proper Roman husband – he performed the sacrifices with due gravity, but most of all he pursued his duty with dogged determination. It was like magic, the way he would focus on a denari until one became two, or three, or four.... The profit of the grain trade he invested in a silver mine in Hispania, and the next year after that he joined a fellow merchant who was buying two insulae, as the value of rental property in Rome was rising steadily. The income from this investment was only three thousand denarii, but Maximus felt that Quintus was right: he ought to be spreading his investments across a number of different enterprises. In any event, he and his partner planned to double the rent as soon as the apartments were full of tenants. The ship sent to the east to procure Lebanese cedar, incense, silk, and Indian spices also turned a magnificent profit. The silk, he joked, was worth its weight in gold, but he allowed Clodia enough of the precious, sheer cloth to have a beautiful tunica and palla made for her wardrobe – something to wear when they went out hobnobbing with Quintus’s friends.
Publius, meanwhile, urged Maximus to stand for public office in the Plebeian Assembly, noting that the Senate, which controlled the Treasury, was keen to extend honors, awards, and special privileges to men engaged in the grain trade. However, Maximus’s instincts told him that the political arena was not for him. Indeed, when the patricians accused Tiberius Gracchus of dividing Rome by inciting the poor Plebeians to engage in class warfare, demanding land and handouts. Tiberius countered that it was his duty, as Tribune of the Plebes, to represent all the people of Rome, not just the interests of the wealthy and the aristocracy. Shortly after this speech, however, one of Tiberius’s followers assaulted a public official, and a mob of patricians and equestrians, led by Publius himself, cornered Tiberius Gracchus and two hundred of his supporters near the Forum, not far from the offices of the Pontifex Maximus, and beat them to death. It was the first time in many decades that a political argument in Rome, during peacetime, had resulted in riot and assassination on this scale.
Scipio Aemelianus’s army returned from Hispania, shortly after the murder of Tiberius. It took three days for all of his exhausted, tarnished troops to disembark from their transports, at Ostia. Scipio himself went directly to the Senate, however, to report the successful conclusion of the siege of the Numantine capital, but en route was surrounded by a crowd of people, furious that Scipio’s cousin had murdered their hero and champion in cold blood, in broad daylight, in public.
“Are you trying to intimidate me!” Scipio roared, pushing the nearest protester back into the crowd, looking huge and ferocious in his Roman military armor, with high, red-crested helmet. “I’ve faced the spears and arrows of Rome’s enemies in the field – do you honestly think I’m going to run away from you, stepsons of Italia, when you cry out like this? You all sound like bleating sheep that got out of the fold! Tiberius got what he deserved!”
The crowd dispersed, cowed.
“You see, dear,” Maximus said to Clodia, bitterly, as they discussed all the recent tumults in the city, “this is why I don’t go into politics. Things are bad, and they’re going to get worse. Perhaps we ought to think about moving to the country after all. Who knows where this is going to end?”
“Will it affect our business, d’you think?” Clodia inquired, worried, for her equestrian and patrician friends had been spreading all sorts of rumors.
“No,” Maximus smiled. “Whoever wins, they’ll still need to eat. That’s the beauty of the grain trade. Food. It never goes out of fashion. If the populist party prevails, and the Plebeian Assembly decides to dole out free grain, they still need someone to bring it in from all over the world, and we merchants simply won’t do it if they don’t pay us. We can’t do business for free, and either can the state. We have them at a disadvantage, you see.” With a laugh, he added, “They can call it free grain, if they want, but it won’t be free. Someone will have to pay for it.”
“I hope you’re right,” she frowned.
“Have I ever been wrong about business? Look, the King of Pergamum just willed his entire country to Rome, which means there will be all sorts of investment opportunities, now, in Asia Minor, maybe even in the Black Sea. And there’s talk of establishing a new province, in southern Gaul. These are exciting times, Clodia. We’re going to make a fortune – mark my words!”
* * *
Maximus sent an agent down to Campagna to make discreet enquiries into likely parcels of land. The agent, Lucius, was gone for about a month, submitting a bill for two hundred and forty denarii. Much of this, Maximus was sure, had been spent on Caecuban wine and cheap doxies at the various inns along the coastal road to Antium, but the agent returned with good news nevertheless.
“It’s not a big farm, mind – just eighteen iugera – but it’s got a lot of potential,” Lucius said.
“If it’s a good farm, why would the owners want to sell?”
“Same reason they all sell off,” Lucius replied. “Debt.”
“Who’s the owner, and why is he in debt?” Maximus asked, looking rather grave.
“Army guy, like most of ‘em – name ‘a’ Titus. His pa got the acres back when they was still givin’ out farms to veterans. Wife, couple ‘a’ kids. They lost a farm, up in Etruria, when Hannibal invaded. Took ‘em a while to get back on their feet, an’ they laid up a pile ‘a’ debt, doin’ it. They was just about paid off, though, thanks to the old man’s hard efforts, when this Titus, his son – who’s got the wife ‘an kids – got called up for the legions.”
“Carthage – yeah,” Lucius said. “The last go, when we finally burnt ‘em out. Well, three years later, he comes home, the old man’s finally kicked it, and all their savings has been run through. Ain’t got a quintari left to their name. The money-lenders want three-for-ten, on the debt – don’t hardly give ‘em enough to live on, an’ the Senate ain’t bein’ so generous, these days, as it used to be.”
“How much do they owe?”
“A couple ‘a’ years’ income, sir – maybe four thousand, but that don’t count overhead.”
“Well,” Maximus said, considering the situation. “The farm’s a good one, you say?”
“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with the farm, sir – this Titus fella’ just ain’t got the capital to work it proper, that’s all. An’ he’s got to hire a couple ‘a’ men to help ‘im, too, on account ‘a’ his wife bein’ sickly, an’ the kids still little.”
“It has everything we were looking for?”
“Oh, that and more, sir – it’s a pretty place, it is. I bet your wife would like it.”
“Well, let’s make Titus an offer of ten thousand – and give him an apartment in one of my insulae, if he decides to move to Rome... no, not ‘give’. Say, fifty a month. An ex-legionary ought to be able to find a job, you’d think. I take it he’s got all his arms and legs still? Didn’t leave anything important behind in Africa?”
Lucius looked sceptical, but said nothing. He had not noticed any free Roman citizens working anywhere near the Ostia docks, after all. Or anywhere else, for that matter. “Do I get a commission, sir?”
“One-in-ten,” Maximus replied, swiftly. “And don’t wheedle – I won’t offer a single copper more.”
“That’s alright, sir,” Lucius smiled. “Silver sounds better jinglin’ in me pockets than copper, anyways.”
“That’s the spirit,” Maximus nodded. “Now, get yourself down there and make the offer before someone else does – and no expenses, this time. That comes out of your commission, which you’ll only have if you get me this parcel.”
* * *
Maximus and Clodia travelled down to the resort town of Antium to visit Quintus and his wife, who were staying at their summer villa by the ocean. From there, they were able to visit the farm that Maximus had purchased, and make plans for its transformation.
“Well, that house puts the rustic in villa rustica, but it’s a start,” Maximus laughed, contemplating the dilapidated cottage that now stood empty at the bottom of the hill.
“Where will our villa be?” Clodia asked.
“Up there, I think, on the hillside,” Maximus replied. “I should like to have a terrace... be able to look out across these fields.”
“Can we have our own bath?” Clodia said, excitedly.
“Yes – I think we can even divert one of the streams – have a hot bath and a cold one, if you like. And we’ll need a fructuaria, next to the villa rustica, I think. I intend for this to be a working farm, after all.”
“Have you ever done anything without a profit to show for it?” Clodia laughed.
“No,” he smirked. “That’s why we have the money to do this.... And, I must say, I like the distance from Rome. Close enough, but not too close. I looked over a couple of properties out in Albani, but they just weren’t the same. You can still smell Rome from out there. And this place, Antium... it’s got real potential, property-wise. Quite a few patrician families are thinking about acquiring land around here. We got in just in time.”
* * *
The development of the villa became a pleasant diversion for Maximus and Clodia even as their business grew. With the suppression of the slave revolt in Sicily and the final pacification of Hispania, the whole of the western world was strangely at peace, and Rome turned its attention to consolidating its new acquisitions. Publius, far from being punished for murdering Tiberius, was rewarded with a lucrative posting to Pergamum, but he died soon after his arrival there under mysterious circumstances. Maximus, however, did not permit such matters to disturb his tranquillity. All that mattered to him was that Clodia had never been happier than she was, living at their new home.
They could afford the very best, and Maximus spared no expenses – very soon, a splendid mansion appeared on the hillside, with a terrace, interior atrium, baths, and all the other features and appointments of a proper Roman villa. The architect worked wonders, and delighted Clodia with his lengthy, detailed explanations about why each room ought to be oriented toward a particular direction – how important light and air were, and how one ought to take the seasons into account. He made every window, every roof tile, seem special. As for the villa rustica and the fructuaria, these also were given due attention by the architect, all the more so because the estate was a working farm.
“You want the ceiling in the kitchen to be really high,” the architect explained. “If there’s a fire, in the kitchen, you don’t want it reaching right up to the beams, do you? Now... given that Maximus wants to acquire additional property, I think we ought to plan ahead. Cells, adjoining the kitchen, first of all, for the unfettered slaves – they ought to be able to get around to their various working areas easily, but you want them to have full sunlight at the equinox. As for the fettered slaves, their cell needs to get some sunlight, too, or it’ll get all manky, but the windows should be high enough that they can’t look out or reach them with their hands.”
Clodia found it all fascinating – there were so many details to keep track of, but the architect was brilliant. It all fit together like a great puzzle. She was especially amazed by the furnaces, both those that fed hot air under the bath, and the one used for parching grain. Only slightly less impressive were the vats and presses that Maximus had built for the vineyard. It would take six years, he said, for the new vines to yield, and nearly twenty for the olive orchard to mature, but in their old age they would never want for anything.
The acquisition of Titus’s farm, moreover, was like a chink in the armor of the local community – soon enough, other indebted veterans settled in the area approached Maximus, and he began to snap up their land. Year by year, his estate grew as he acquired parcels, and since many of these had been bought up by money-lenders anyway, it was not even a matter of persuading the farmer to sell. He simply bought the farm from the absentee owner and doubled or tripled the rent: that usually got rid of the occupants in short order. One by one, the little farm houses became empty, and one by one they were knocked down. It was as if they had never existed.
* * *
Servilia sometimes cried, when Titus was not around, remembering their little farm. She never let her husband see her weep, though, because she did not want to break his heart. He was a proud, strong man, and she knew that their new life in Rome was killing him, too. The first year had not been so bad, since they had money from the sale of the farm, but Rome was expensive, and although he wandered the streets, door-to-door, from sunrise to sunset, Titus could not find work anywhere. He even looked up his old army buddies, but most of them were out of work, too. As for the officers, they either pretended not to know him or said they had nothing to offer. But that wasn’t true: they all owned slaves – thousands and thousands of slaves. It angered Titus, pushing his way home through crowds of babbling foreigners he couldn’t understand, seeing how the slaves, even, were better dressed and fed, a lot of them, than Roman men who had spent the best years of their lives in the legions, fighting for Rome’s glory, only to come home to this... this world turned upside down. They lived frugally, minding their savings, but everything in Rome was so costly, and then their rent was doubled, from fifty denarii to one hundred a month. They had no choice but to move up to the top of the insulae, where the rooms were cheaper, even though this meant more steps to climb, and a horrible slog when there was water to be hauled up. Poor Servilia, with her crooked spine and cough, could barely manage it.
Servilia often sat by the open window, gazing out over the city, wishing she could enjoy the view, but how could she? Most of the time, Rome looked like some vision of Hades anyway – the perpetual brown pall of smoke overhead, and as far as she could see an unbroken sea of tenements, rust-colored or grey concrete, smeared with soot, packed so closely together that the lanes between them were dark chasms. Somewhere, something always seemed to be on fire. These insulae, she thought, were all death traps, waiting either to burn or fall down if it rained too hard. And the noise! They were packed into these insulae like sardines in a fish market – the walls were paper-thin, just slats and a little plaster; you could hear every argument, every screaming baby, every splash of vomit when the young single fellow next door had drunk too much, and – just about every night – all sorts of giggling and moans from the neighbours, a newly-wed couple. Listening to them, in the middle of the night, Titus often chuckled and said, “I dunno what’s worse, love, this racket or the screamin’ baby they’re gonna make if they keep that up.”
“We never should have come to Rome,” Servilia sighed, closing her eyes against the shadows of their little concrete box of a room.
“Did we have any choice, really?” Titus asked, but he was sad himself. “If I don’t find work soon, I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”
“This city is going to drive me mad,” Servilia said. “It’s making me old, Titus, and I’m not old. I never used to be this tired. The sickness... it’s worse, I think. I can’t breathe, here. The food just doesn’t taste as good, and the water! Can’t we leave? Do we have to live here?”
“There’s nowhere else for us to go,” Titus said, although he often wondered if they might be better off living in a small town.
* * *
Eventually, things became so bad in Rome that the Senate passed a decree prohibiting all immigration into the capital from the Italian cities: new migrants had to prove their Roman citizenship. Even so, this was not a solution to the problems that were besetting the metropolis. Now that both Publius and Scipio Aemelianus were dead – and both men, it was suspected, had been murdered in their sleep – the populist faction returned to power, this time led by Gaius Gracchus. As Plebeian Tribune, Gaius promised sweeping reforms – the decent life, the dream that the Roman commoners had fought for, he declared, would finally be theirs. After all, how could the Roman upper classes seriously expect these men, who had conquered the whole Western World, to come home and not only receive nothing, but have what little they possessed taken away from them?
* * *
Sempronia, the widow of Scipio Aemelianus, also moved to Antium, distressed by the persistent rumors that she had murdered her husband to avenge the murder of her brother. Sempronia sometimes visited Clodia, as Maximus’s villa was not far away, and the two women became friends despite the difference in their ages.
“I was never happy with Scipio, not the way you are with Maximus,” she confessed one afternoon. They were enjoying the sea breeze on the terrace, shaded by an awning, for it was not thought proper for Roman ladies to be sun-browned, like peasants.
“I am so sorry to hear that,” Clodia replied. “I know Tiberius’s death was a terrible blow.”
“What really worries me is what Gaius is doing,” Sempronia sighed. “I’ve warned him: just because Scipio and Publius have both gone to Hades doesn’t mean the conservatives aren’t powerful. These reforms he wants to implement go far, far beyond anything Tiberius ever wanted.”
“But surely the Lex Frumentaria is a good thing?” Clodia asked. “And the new roads – that’s good, as well. Men will be able to find work, and it’ll be easy, soon, to go up to Rome and back.”
It was odd, she thought, but being around Sempronia she had become quite interested in politics. Indeed, she often knew more about what was going on in Rome than Maximus did, although her husband could tell you the latest grain prices in Egypt, or the price of a Cilician slave down to the last quintari.
“How does Maximus feel about the new law?” Sempronia inquired, looking rather serious.
“Oh, he has no problem with it at all,” Clodia smiled. “The Senate buys grain to feed the poor; we get paid. Why should that bother us? As for the roads, well, Maximus is already looking into obtaining some very lucrative contracts from the state. But Maximus often wonders where the money’s going to come from.”
“Gaius’s plan is to make the conquered provinces pay for Rome’s free food,” Sempronia replied. “And the new roads, I suppose.”
“Well, Maximus has always said it wouldn’t be free – nothing is.” Looking out over the fruitful vineyards and the olive trees, which were coming along nicely, she said, “Isn’t this place beautiful?”
“Yes – you should be proud of it, Clodia,” Sempronia smiled. “And you really need to push Maximus into the political arena. You know, he does qualify to be raised to the Equestrian class. He could hold one of the new magistracies. I could mention it to Gaius. We need a few sound men of business on board if the new welfare state is going to work properly. Bread and circuses are one thing, but your husband’s right: we need to figure out how to pay for all this.”
“We’re quite happy as we are, I think,” Clodia replied, gently. “To be honest, we moved out here to get away from all that. Don’t you find it depressing, Sempronia, how vicious people are becoming? There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground anymore. You’re either this faction or some other faction.”
“It makes me angry, to be sure, but not depressed,” Sempronia replied, a fierce spark in her eyes. “I do miss the excitement of Rome, though. I miss the parties....”
“But you never used to talk,” Clodia chided.
“Oh, but I listened.”
“Ah... but isn’t Rome – well, it’s filthy. It’s a constant stampede. And the people are so impatient, so rude. Even the slaves are rude, in Rome. It’s annoying.”
“I enjoy all that, if you must know,” Sempronia admitted. “And I must admit to a guilty little secret... gladiators.” She made a lunatic face, but added, “Perhaps it’s just my age, but I enjoy watching a good fight between two monstrous men like that. There’s something about watching some giant covered in sweat and dust beat another man into bloody shreds that turns me on. Now that Gaius has permitted the commoners to watch the contests for free, they’ve become very popular. I just love the energy of the crowds – everyone screaming and yelling. It’s almost as fun as the Lupercalia, only it happens more often.”
Clodia smirked, hearing this, and decided to change the subject. “I am surprised, really, that you and Scipio were so unhappy.”
“Scipio was as passionate as a brick wall,” Sempronia scoffed. “In fact, I bet there are brick walls that are more passionate. But the real problem was his contempt. He said we couldn’t have babies because I was sterile. Well, my family never had to adopt boys, like his. He never liked me – he never said I was pretty, not ever. And now, to his shade languishing in the Netherworld, I will say this: do not expect me to mourn you, vile man. Good riddance, to you. I am free and happy to be so.”
“That’s rather cold,” Clodia observed.
“Well, cold feelings for a cold man. Say, d’you have any of that Egyptian liqueur – the stuff with the dates in it? I know it’s early, but I’d just love a little tipple.”
* * *
Maximus travelled back from Rome as swiftly as he could, and Clodia had never seen him look so shaken, so pale, so visibly terrified.
“What happened?” she cried as he stumbled into the villa, gratefully receiving a cup of water offered by one of their slaves.
He could not speak at first, but quenched his thirst, and at last, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic, said, “There was a riot in Rome – a big one, this time. Much worse than when they killed Tiberius.”
Clodia regarded him, wide-eyed, and asked, “What was it?”
“Gaius Gracchus,” Maximus said, taking a deep breath as he tried to calm himself down. “He... well, the Senate ordered his arrest. There was a protest, it got violent. Some archers fired into the crowd. Gaius fled... they say he tried to take refuge in the Temple of Diana, but then left the city. He was found, poisoned, in a grove on the other side of the Tiber. The Senate – the patricians – they’re on a rampage. I saw them throwing bodies into the river with my own eyes – thousands.... It’s a bloodbath. Anyone even remotely connected with the Gracchii are under a ban. They’re seizing their property, right and left. They’ve even decreed that Gaius’s wife is not allowed to mourn him.”
“That’s horrible,” Clodia exclaimed. Indeed, it was barbaric. Such a decree went against everything Rome stood for, the most deeply-held values. It was the worst possible insult that could be inflicted on any family.
“Look,” Maximus said, finding some resolve, “I don’t want that woman Sempronia coming here ever again. Forget you ever knew her. I don’t know how far this backlash is going to extend, but I don’t want us dragged into it. The patricians mean to liquidate everyone they think might be against them.”
“Do we need to be worried?” Clodia asked.
“No,” he sighed, collapsing into a chair beside the atrium. “I’m a businessman. I’ll be acceptable to whoever takes power.”
Clodia held her hands to her temples and blinked her eyes. Sometimes the world was just too much. “What’s happening to Rome?” she asked.
“Who cares?” Maximus groaned. “I mean, seriously: what is Rome to us? We’ve got each other. We’re making a profit and we’re not dead: that’s really all that matters. And let’s not delude ourselves, Clodia, into thinking that the old patrician families will ever let go of power. The only reason they allow men like me to become as rich as we can is because, like good Plebes, we don’t challenge their right to rule.”
“Do you ever wonder what happened to that soldier and his wife, the people who used to live here?”
“No,” Maximus replied, irritably. “Why bring that up? Gods, it’s been years, now. They’re probably dead by now, or else they’re doing just fine.”
“Oh... nothing, dear,” Clodia said, at length. “You’re had a terrible fright. I think a nice bath, and a jug of wine, and off to bed with you.”
“That sounds lovely – maybe after a jug of wine I can forget what I saw....”
* * *
The background of this story is the attempted reforms of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus following the Third Punic War between Rome and Carthage. The story begins in 133 BCE, eleven years after the fall of Carthage. Much of the Mediterranean had come under Roman rule in recent decades, and Roman society was struggling to adjust to these new conditions, in particular the influx of hundreds of thousands of foreign slaves into what had once been a somewhat ethnocentric peasant-based society. The formation of large estates and the displacement of indebted farmers, who had no choice but to move to Rome, was a key theme underlying the political strife of this period, which ended with the brutal destruction of the reform movements through political violence. This marked the beginning of the long, increasingly violent break-down of the Roman Republic.
In this story, the only fictional characters are Maximus, Clodia, Lucius, Titus, and Servilia. The other characters are all historical. However, the sub-plot about the development of the villa and the sort of life Titus and Servilia face, in Rome, is based on a number of primary and secondary sources, in particular the many Roman writers who penned treatises on agriculture and estate management. Antium, already a “get-away” town for wealthy Romans, was to continue to evolve into an elite resort, reaching its height during the early Imperial period. In modern times, it is better known by its Italian name, Anzio.
Questions for Discussion
1. What are some of the ethical issues that come up in this story?
2. Do you think Maximus’s refusal to become involved in Roman politics is morally justifiable?
3. Do you think the conservative patrician senators were right to attack Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus? Conversely, do you think the Gracchi brothers were doing the right thing?
4. What do you suppose happened to Titus and Servilia and their children?
5. How would you have solved Rome’s problems, working within the social and technological constraints of the period?
Copyright William Lailey, 2012