Face claimNathalie Emmanuel
She smiled at the kind interest both were paying. "Oh, please don't imagine that it is all on my shoulders, I wouldn't want to give that impression!"
In reality, the majority of the work she had to do came in the form of forcing herself into the decision making circles of the men entrusted with running the estate. All the words of her late husband's will might have given her the right to manage the Afinius Gallus estate for her sons until her eldest came of age, but it did not seem to confer on her the authority of a woman to tell men what to do. Even in life her husband, like many of his class, did not manage his estate in a hands on fashion. He held lands across the Empire: Italia, Africa, Gaul and Hispania. Each of these individual estates ran in their own microcosm with their own hierarchies and, in the most part, ticked over with very little external input required. The family hired a bureau of professional estate managers who then took an upper level of management, collating the returns from the individual units and condensing them into consolidated accounts so you could see the net worth of the family fortunes. The upper management would send out agents to keep an eye on the lesser parts and invest here and there but, on the whole, this nebulous network was run through mountains of parchment and floods of ink, with control kept by the lawyers, the estate managers and the stewards in their committees in Rome.
It had been a running battle ever since her husband had breathed his last to struggle to have these "wise, older men" condescend to so much as tell her what was going on - Gods forbid that they actually include her in the decision making processes! It had become a battle of wills. Eventually she had been allowed to attend their meetings but under sufferance and, at almost any occasions, was subjected to lengthy, patronizing lectures about why she was incapable, by virtue of her unfortunate gender, to simply not understand the intricacies of running an international property concern.
Then there was the army of her husband's freedmen with whom he had conducted business. Or, more specifically (because senators were forbidden to engage openly in commerce), had them as the front-men and general managers for the financial investments besides land that he had engaged in. There was the freedman who ran the landlord and tenant relationships across Rome - essentially, a slum lord, and this man looked the part. There was the freedman who dealt in importing oil from Leptis Magna. Another who fronted a company which dealt with freight by sea. There was a dizzying number of such small time investments that required management too. With her husband in the grave, the men felt as though their residual bonds of loyalty to their patron family were less strong and the temptation to cheat sometimes too enticing.
In all honesty, most of the time Sestia felt she was herding cats and not doing a particularly great job at it.
Throw into the mix the need to keep an eye on her father's estates in Italy too (or, rather, ensure his steward was on the straight and narrow) and you had a recipe for much stress.
"Most of it is trying to force my presence on groups of men who do not think it appropriate or necessary for me to be there - no offence to you, of course, senator! The general theme seems to be that it is unhelpful for me to add my input and that matters would be safely and appropriately handled if I was simply to restrain myself to traditional occupations. Someone, however, has to check to make sure the numbers add up and ensure that the managers do not decide to - oh, you know, for example - unilaterally increase their salary or the like."
There was no slap.
At first Sestia let herself be kissed. It was passive. She was surprise. Or, rather, she was as surprised as she could be when she could have sensed the way the wind was blowing for a while now. Yet despite this she was still taken aback. It was as if it had all been a game but now had become quite real. She had not been kissed properly for...for such a long time now. Those of her late husband were fleeting and functional, with nothing behind them. Further back, deeper into her youth, she remembered being kissed by a neighbour's son, shortly before her marriage. There had been a teenage urgency in it but it was fumbling and, with she and he novices in this field, it was memorable only for its life milepost significance rather than for any joy in and of itself.
Now, however, she was warming to her theme. She felt her heart racing and was about to return the kiss with emphasis of her own when there came a clatter from outside and Lucius broke off. There was no privacy, nor any expectation of it, in a Roman household.
He sat there looking sheepish yet roguish. In her mind, a fine mix.
Taking hold of the folds of his upper tunic she pulled him back and kissed him herself, as she had meant to before the interruption. There was an urgency in it this time. An injection of passion. However, after a full few moments of this she stopped and broke off.
"I suppose you are not solely guilty now, are you? Although if whoever that was talks then my reputation is likely gone."
As her sons retreated the few steps back to her she could see them giving wide eyed looks at each other in excitement. For all their usual bickering, in a moment they had put all that fraternal fighting aside to join together in the simple excitement of not only being spoken to by Caesar but also because they were going to be tutored by the imperial tutor himself!
Caesar was far more affable that the nervous Sestia had expected. He talked of her father in a way which seemed quite alien to her, to the point when she had to wonder whether he was actually talking about the same man! Stronger and faster! Well, he had had a life before she was born, after all, but still. It did not seem to tally much with the Sestius Vaticanus she had left in Carthage several weeks ago. Age and lack of active service had caused what had probably once been muscle to tend more to fat. There was the usual quasi-comic rigmarole whenever he had to wear full uniform when he had to be pushed and shoved and tightly laced into his cuirass to the point where it seemed to her that either the armor or he would burst. Perhaps no Hercules now, he did still have a sort of bullish strength, she supposed. An ox rather than a bear. As for speed - well - age numbs the vigor of any man, especially one who has taken a perhaps unhealthy penchant for drink. She recalled how easily he would fall asleep these days, even during dinners or (worse) during meetings of his consilium or in public at games or when receiving public speeches.
So, as she heard Caesar joke with her sons about a man alien to her, she wondered how much she actually knew of her father. Parents are like coins. They have two sides but, unlikely coins, one rarely sees both sides of them. There was Sestius Vaticanus the stern, strict, sometimes-brutish father and then there was the Sestius Vaticanus the soldier, the friend of Caesar, the man who had lived a full and eventful public life.
She smiled when Caesar did not go so far as to say he was smarter because he her father was certainly not smarter than he. After all, Caesar was the one in the curule chair. A smart man does not have to be the fastest, the strongest, the bravest or such similar if he can find and use those who are to his benefit.
"You honor our family, Caesar, we are most grateful," Sestia said, bowing her head in a gesture of gratitude and supplication. And it was an honor too. Her sons would receive a fine finishing education and, Gods willing, he able to come to know the children of Caesar himself. Forge the sort of invaluable bonds that could serve them an entire lifetime. It was a great mark or favor and distinction and, whilst she was sure the offspring of many noble families ran through the halls of the Palatine in similar fashion, it was still a privileged clique to be part of. Her father would be so pleased when he heard that she could imagine him thumping the desk with his fleshy fists in manly joy and calling for wine.
It would be prudent to now make further marks of gratitude and dissolve back into the crowd. However, the niggling promise she had made to her father to properly "remember him" to Caesar played on her mind. She was not a fool. She knew that her father felt he had perhaps been side-lined and forgotten in his African posting. As Caesar had said, Sestius Vaticanus was not the smartest. He was a fanatically loyal, safe pair of hands, who had the sort of bovine plodding dependability that made him a valuable person to have as a lieutenant because he would be guaranteed to do as he was told, to the letter and display a lack of originality that let superiors sleep safely in the beds at night. Her father did not see that this was probably where his value to Caesar lay. Although he was getting on in years and perhaps his best days may be past, he still fancied himself (as he was stuffed into his armor) leading legions against barbarians or usurpers, siting camps, leading sieges, clashing swords on shields and leading the eagles to glory. The stuff of old men's dreams, maybe so.
"My father will be overjoyed at the favor you have shown our family - to my father, my brother, and now to me and my children. Before I left Carthage, my father urged me to remember him to you fondly. He misses the days of his youth and looks forward to being able to see you again and serve you and the Empire whilst he still draws breath. Hopefully you will still recognize him although he has been baked nicely by the African sun!"
Dangerous waters called for a skilled pilot and Sestia knew she was far from that. The pace of her heartbeat quickened a little. Nerves, anticipation and a hint of well-meaning fear of the unknown. She knew she ought to move her arm away but didn't, finding the slow, rhythmic touch soothing, sending a light tingle up her arm. She kept it where it was even as she felt his hand exploring slightly higher with each caress.
"Dear Lucius, I wouldn't think that you did it for that reason partly...I would assume you did it for that reason wholly," she challenged in a joking way.
She felt as though she were the topic of some scurrilous poem by Ovidius or Catullus. The thought oddly encouraged her.
She coloured a little at his words. Maddeningly beautiful. She had never been called that before. Well, not quite true, people had told her she was beautiful but never in this sort of context. His hand brushed her soft cheek and rested there as he said that. He breath caught in her throat. This gesture alone was enough to damn her in the eyes of society if it got out. She did not know how to react. Her upbringing screamed at her to stop this...frivolity…now. Reputation was something a person could spend a lifetime creating but could be irrevocably destroyed in a moment's foolish touch or thoughtless word. But still she made no move to stop him. Oddly, she instinctively drew her legs closer up under her as she sat reclined on the couch.
"Maddeningly?" she asked in almost a whisper, "then I suppose you are not responsible for your actions?"
She laughed. "Well, there are times when the gift of making your own choice should have strings attached. That is probably one of them."
His attitude towards a younger wife was refreshing. Many of the men she had come across had gone out of their way to find much younger brides. Various reasons: lechery, status symbols, totems of virility in declining years, and the like. During her early widowed years in Carthage she had received some speculative interest from men. Most were local dignitaries of an age with her father or thereabouts. The younger officers and administrators from Rome were too scared of her father to show any interest themselves. Those suitors she had had, she had rejected gently. She was unsure whether any had actually brought their suit to the attention of her father as he had never queried her about these. He would certainly have been willing to see her passed off into the authority of another promptly.
Yet all this talk of marriage was both interesting and somewhat heavy. Both he and she had had difficult marital experiences. She in a loveless marriage to an older man and now left a widow with young children. He to a woman who seemed to have not been the most compatible and who had now died leaving him too with the care of a child. They may jest about such things now but she was sure that there was a well of sadness well drawn from in both of them on this topic.
"I may have a few, but I am no matchmaker," she said airily.
"But all this talk of husbands and wives is a little heavy, isn't it? Isn't one of the very few positives of being widowed that there is an element of freedom bestowed on you so that you don't have to rush straight back under the yoke of matrimony? If the scurrilous writers and poets are anything of an authority on the subject it seems that it is almost expected of people in that situation to enjoy some...leeway...in the usual social conventions?"
Sestia took a moment to look around. What had once been quiet was now a riot of activity. She had missed this. Yes, well, fair enough - Carthage was hardly some barbarian village in the back of beyond. It was a metropolis in its own right (on a smaller scale) and you got crowds there too. Only there was something missing in them. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. She supposed it must simply be because Rome was home and so everything here was bound to feel somehow different, somehow more familiar, than the same thing anywhere else.
"Precious few so far," she said in response to Horatia's question. It was not that she was a recluse, only that she had not properly developed the time yet to go track down faces from long ago. And, truly, there was a great range of time between now and when she had seen many last. So many had been scattered to the various winds. Of the men she knew (who had been barely out of their boyhood years when she had gone) several had met their end in the complicated years of the Civil Wars. Others, like Longinus, had started their careers and travelled the Empire. Few were now back in Rome, most still flew the flag in some foreign outpost. Of the women, those who had not passed away naturally or in childbirth had married and started lives of their own. If they had not followed their respective spouses on their tours of duty, they were now comfortably ensconced in their own social circles and Sestia didn't know where to find them.
"It is hard to pick up the reins of your old life when you have been away for so long. Many of the people I knew in my youth have grown up and gone their own ways. Most - like today and with Lucius Cassius the other - tend to be from chance encounters along the way. But I intend to make more of an effort. Naturally, there is a settling in period. There is my late husband's estate to tend to and my father has me keeping an eye on his here. Too much of my time is taken up with stewardship or, rather, trying to keep an eye on the honesty of stewards which is a different matter altogether!"
Well, that had rather upped the stakes. Sestia watched as the few slaves filed out and left the pair of them alone. She hadn't expected him to do so and felt oddly nervous, not that another person's slaves exactly made much in the way of a suitable chaperone. Once they were gone he made no immediate moves on her and she relaxed. What exactly had she expected? That she would be ravished if they left? Foolish woman!
Instead, Lucius gave vent to some very probing, very open and very personal questions. She knew that he meant them - or, rather, she hoped that he meant them - in jest and good nature but she still felt herself bridling a little, especially at the mention of her father's...habits. She was hardly a "daddy's girl" and Gods know her relations with her were strained (to be polite) but no one liked seeing their family's dirty linen aired in public. She felt herself colouring a little.
"He..." she started, then she realized that she actually didn't know what to say. It would be dutiful to defend her father but she could not rightly lie. As she had only recently been saying to Lucius himself, Roman high society was a very small, intimate and incestuous circle. Rumours - true and false - spread quickly. Slaves talked. Wives were indiscrete. Children were too honest. In a world in which privacy was an alien concept, it was a rare secret or habit that could be kept concealed for a long time. Even the deified Augustus' unorthodox bedroom habits had been public knowledge (though few were quick to say them out loud) and, well, of his daughter and granddaughter everyone knew theirs! By Lucius' casual mention of it she assumed that he had more than a passing knowledge of her father's issues. Probably a great many people did. The life of a Proconsul was a public one, after all. She could not exactly lie and what good would it serve?
"He has his issues," she said, settling for a slightly political answer to begin with. "He finds life in a quiet posting dull. He is getting older. I think he feels put out to pasture. Like many men of his age I think he mourns for action days of youth and feels little joy in the present or promise for the future. So, yes, I suppose it is fair to say he drinks and drinks too much. You clearly know that yourself if such tittle tattle has already fed back to Rome! The ridiculous thing is that I doubt he will ever get put back on an active posting if everyone here thinks he is a drunk - talk about a vicious cycle!"
She chewed her lip as she considered his other question.
"Tell me how you think I would find it?" she asked, jokingly flippant.
Here was another paradox of her emotional life. She had not loved her late husband there was no denying that. Yet she hadn't hated him. A lot of women in her position came to hate, loathe and despise their older husbands. Trying all manner of tricks to hurt them or cheat them or mock them. She had never felt compelled to do that to him. The truth is that he was not a bad man. His fault was that she could not love him and that was not necessarily something he was solely guilty of. He had not hurt her. He had not raised a hand to her. She had not welcomed his physical attentions but, to his credit, he had not been as forceful in demanding them as others may have been. He was a traditionalist but he was also a man of his age. He had not skimped on her allowance. Freedoms she had few of, but that was true of many of her peers married to men for their own age. He had taken an interest in their children and, before his death, he had ensured that she and they were well cared for.
She gave a "tch" tutting noise and waved her hand. "He was not a bad man. He was no brute which most people just seem to assume? There was no romance or lust or anything like that but he never hurt me. I don't know...you are the father of a daughter, how will you be with her when the day comes? Will you make the decision of a husband for her on the basis of your own criteria or will you give her a say? Even if she suggests someone wholly unsuitable? I had little say in the matter and the time was short. Your late wife, I am guessing, was more of an age with you? You do not feel like finding some young heiress?"
Sestia looked back over her shoulder at the towering edifice of the Arena. It was a majestic piece of work there was no doubt about that. It wasn't just a testament to the confidence of the new regime that they could build something so bold, brash and time consuming but a mighty showpiece of Roman civic engineering. How it rose to such a height so effortlessly baffled her. It was also a little dizzying to think of all the people crammed in there, tier after tier, right up into the sky. How anyone on the upper levels could see anything she had no idea.
She turned back. "Well," she said to Aulus, "could you not poach his architect? Or, better yet, find the person who came second in running for the job. That person will probably be keen to show they can surpass the work of he who designed the Arena so will be willing to work harder and think bigger."
She gave a gentle nod, trying to seem like she was considering the programme on the table before them. As she had said before, she really had very little idea who any of the names were. Doubtless within a few weeks' time she would come to know the household names of the leading celebrity fighters. If, as the senator said, the next rounds were professionals set against prisoners, there was unlikely to be much in the way of contest. A good match between professionals could excite her - she was not immune to the blood-lust and passion that could grip you in the heat of the moment in tightly contested matches. However, if it was just a glorified execution she could take little pleasure in it. She sympathized with the senator's daughter as she too had little stomach for the animal fights. Whilst she was no particular animal lover per se, she just couldn't see the appeal in watching someone decapitate an ostrich with an arrow or spear a giraffe. Neither were exactly mortal enemies of man.
"Oh, I didn't know that," she said when it turned out that Aulus had served with Longinus previously, although it was no surprise in the staggering small world of high level military and political circles. "I often forget how small our caste is, really. From Britannia to Judea there are probably more than a gentle spattering of extended relations and former neighbours."
She smiled at Horatia. It had indeed been a long time but that was true of almost all her connections in the city from "the old days." Her company was infinitely more preferable to the dour clique of aged widows she had moved with until recently. She was willing to do so under the guise of making friends for her sons when really she was probably more concerned in sorting out her own social circle rather than anything else!
"Well, it is settled then, you must call on me and that is that!"
“I am not a particularly talented artist so I would perhaps not go that far. One would hope that graffiti along those lines doesn’t yet exist or are you already aware that you have a reputation amongst the wall-based satirists?” she asked.
His question almost caused her to cough a little on her drink but she hoped she had covered that surprise as well as she could. Answering her question with another question, his parry had been – on the face of it – nothing inappropriate although it carried a charged subtext which was not only bold but particularly challenging to answer. Challenging on a number of levels. If she was bold, bawdy or crass, it would be highly unbecoming to a woman of her class and, perhaps more importantly, wasn’t the sort of person she was. She felt uncomfortable being so brazen. Yet, at the same time, she could hardly be a cold fish about it. After all, the situation itself was one which a woman who valued virtue and propriety above all else would have been happy with. If that were the case then the horse had already bolted. She was enjoying Lucius’ company and the freedom of speaking openly and she would not want to ruin that by giving a particularly frigid response.
Whilst there was only the two of them at dinner they were, of course, not alone. Lucius’ principle body slave was close by, as were a number of other table hands and such like. Many people of their class made the simple mistake of believing that slaves, as property, were like other items of property such as tables, chairs and lamps, in that they were dumb, silent objects incapable of interacting with the world around them. She had been amazed how, at some events she had been to over the years, people would say such wild, open or dangerous things, believing themselves to be surrounded by just their intimate companions and somehow forgetting that there were at least five or more slaves in the room. They were persons just like them. They had ears, eyes and tongues. What they heard and saw they were like as not to repeat in the slaves’ quarters, or gossip about in the forum with others. Nothing, or at least very little, was ever truly private in a Roman household. No doubt what she had said and done this evening would be dissected by the slaves later on behind closed doors and, equally likely, would be bandied about and probably grown in the telling, creeping like a tendril of inflated misinformation through the whispers of society gossip.
“Well, I am not sure how best to answer that seeing as we are certainly not alone. An audience is perhaps best suited to actresses?”
It was, of course, not an answer to the question and mainly because she did not know what the answer should be. Talk of politics and families was interesting up to a point but was the sort of conversation one might have with a great-aunt or a person of mild acquaintance in the baths. It was run of the mill. What was he expecting her to say? Was he expecting her to say that she would like him to take her now, here, in front of the household now she had been fed and watered? Whatever his level of gallantry she suspected that that would certainly be a possible answer he would like, albeit be unlikely to expect. She wasn’t even sure if that was what she wanted – she was attracted to Lucius but it had been such a long time that she felt nervous about even thinking about it. She wasn’t exactly an actress or courtesan who knew how to do more of the act than partake in it solely for the purposes of procreation.
“Or is that something perhaps that you have no problem with?”
Sestia continued to be impressed with the young lady’s easy capacity to reel off information. The shop-keeper appeared to take her orders in the manner of a dutiful soldier and hustled off to look for the copies of the items she had suggested. Sestia had to wonder when – if she was soon to be furnished with all this reading material – she would actually get the chance to familiarise herself with it. For, after all, it was one thing to have a mountain of scrolls on a topic; it was quite another thing to read them and, more importantly, understand them. Well, she was sure she could spare a few moments every now and again to browse through a few chapters. After all, it was not as though her time was often at a premium.
“I will have to say thank you for your assistance somehow. You must let me know what you will accept!” she said as the girl continued to scan the shelves. She seemed so deep in thought that Sestia wondered whether she was actually even listening. She knew people like that – who, once they had given themselves a task, completely lost themselves to it. She, to her discredit, was not one of those people. She had a dilettantish manner of flitting from one thing to the next, rarely able to settle on something for particularly long.
“You really ought to open your own bookshop, or run your own library,” she said, “you seem to have such a command of literature!”