Face claimNathalie Emmanuel
Late February 75CE
Augustus – the original Augustus, the one with the jug ears who used to go by the name Octavianus – had been a humble man. Or, rather, he had made a great show of being a humble man. Romans respected humility. So, when you had cast down your enemies and almost literally had clawed your way to the top over a pile of blood-soaked bodies and could now stand on the summit and proclaim yourself the most powerful man in the world, you had every reason to give off a good show of being humble - particularly because everyone knew you didn’t actually have to be. In this way the first Princeps, self-proclaimed son-of-a-god and restorer of the Republic, ensured that his house should keep the trappings of a respectable, private dwelling atop Rome’s premier hill, the Palatine. If he was looking down from Elysium now he might rightly be bemused at what had become of his sedate, understated house. Since his passing, his successors had thrown that Augustan understatement to the four winds. Now the Domus Augustorum was only a fractional part of a monolithic, sprawling palace complex that, like some marble and gold beast, had devoured the Palatine and made it its own. It was in this labyrinth of luxury that the current Augustus and his family (not to mention the sprawling, seething mass of state officials and functionaries) lived, loved, worked and, often, died.
The traffic ascending the Palatine hill was – as always first thing in the morning – an ordeal. When the Augustus was in Rome he, like any other prominent citizen, would hold his own salutatio. Except, unlike everyone else, the salutatio of the world’s most important man was one that everyone else was expected to attend as…well…everyone was his client! Of course not everyone attended every day. Well, not unless you really, really wanted to see the Augustus or were some Royal Family nut. However, not going at least several times was noted by the relevant authorities and seen as a distinct mark of disrespect. Now comfortably settled back in the capital, Sestia was very much aware of her duty to make an official attendance at the Augustus’ salutatio not only for the benefit of her and her sons (who she had brought with her, dressed in their best) but also as she was under direct orders to do so from her father. Her father was one of the Augustus’ oldest generals and had supported him through the civil war. Rewarded with a comfortable proconsular governorship and a bride with Imperial blood for his son, Sestius Vaticanus had every reason to rejoice in being an official Amicus Caesaris, a friend of Caesar. He had made sure his daughter was fully aware that he would expect her to attend on the Augustus and convey his respectful wishes to her in a more social context than his official missives would do. The latter were probably only read by civil servants anyway and likely never got anywhere near the gaze of the Princeps.
As her litter had slugged painfully slowly through the traffic jam Sestia had become more and more fretful of the upcoming event. Likely there would be so many people there she would not be seen but their names would still be enrolled and she could consider he duty done. Her sons were doing their level best to drive her to madness, forever squabbling and hitting each other. Several sharp words had been needed to restore order, together with the threat of a thrashing if they did not behave. It was an honour if the boys were to be noticed and could do wonders for them in the long term. Yet if they messed around and showed themselves to be nothing more than mischievous boys it would be a huge black mark on Sestia’s social reputation and would surely be the gossip of the city for days. She considered chucking them out of the litter and proceeding alone but suppressed the urge.
The sight of the palace up close shocked them into a better behaved silence. Vaticanianus huddled protectively close to the skirts of his mother’s light pink stolla. As was to be expected, she had donned her finest clothing for the trip – an elaborate and expensive stolla complemented by a palla of eastern silk in a lighter pink, delicately laced with floral patterns and its hem hung about with silver discs suspended from small pearl chains. She held her palla in place as she craned her neck up to look at the top of the huge structure, where flocks of pigeons rested on elaborately carved lintels soaring above.
Already a great crowd of toga-clad men and elegantly dressed women were being officiously (and none too politely) pressed into an orderly line by Praetorians in full dress uniform. Her sons stared at them with the fascination of boys for military gear. The queue of people progressed slowly through a side entrance which led directly into the Praetorian Guardroom where all visitors to the Palace had to come through. A series of desks were set up and the queue, once it reached the head, was then split up: when an official behind a desk became free you were called over to them.
“Name?” the Imperial freedman behind the desk asked in a gruff manner, probably the hundredth time he’d asked it that morning. He didn’t even bother looking up. His stylus was poised ready to add the name to a growing list on a roll of papyrus.
“Sestia Vaticana, daughter of Sestius Vaticanus, Proconsul of Africa; and my sons Lucius Afinius Gallus and Gaius Afinius Vaticanianus.”
The notary huffed, clearly expecting a shorter answer. Sestia noticed him quickly scratch down “Saffia Laticana & others” before he waved her aside imperiously. A Praetorian guardsman beckoned her and her boys forwards and, with more diligence than was necessary, proceeded to frisk her and her sons for concealed weapons. He, of course, spent more time ensuring there was nothing in the folds of her dress than was decent but she couldn’t do anything other than glare at him the while. Smirking, he too waved her on and she and the boys joined the river of people carried on by press of humanity up a vast marble staircase into the Aula Regia.
Sestia had been here before but it never failed to make her feel star-struck and terrified in equal measure. Her sons – this being their first visit – could do nothing but gawp.
It was almost impossible that such a structure could have been built by man. The Aula was a vast rectangular room, much like a basilica, with an apse at the far end. Its walls rose 30 metres (98 feet) upwards where a coffered ceiling hid a pitched roof higher still. The coffered ceiling was set into painted squares, gilded with gold and made to look like a star-spangled sky. The ceiling was supported by a large number of columns made from single pieces of purple porphyry, traced with veins of white into their otherwise dusky, molten complexion. The floor was a sheet of shining marble, set in beautiful geometric patterns. The light, from windows high up, hit it and made the floor shine as if it had been made of burnished gold. The walls were set with yet more marble. In places this was carved with friezes of historic or mythological scenes. Niches in the wall held colossal statues of gods and Emperors past and present. There was that jug-earned Octavian again, frozen in finest Carrara marble, six or seven times life size, holding a winged victory in the palm of an outstretched hand that was about the same size as her youngest son. Evenly dispersed around the periphery of the room were palace slaves and Praetorians.
The hall frankly hummed with the noise of hundreds of persons all talking together. Their voices carried up to the ceiling and were amplified by the cavernous interior of the magnificent surroundings. Sestia grabbed hold of her boys’ hands firmly to ensure they did not wander off and pushed her way through the press. It seemed like half of the Senate must surely be here this morning. There were faces from all corners of the Empire and beyond. Ambassadors too. Barbarians from the north, with thick gold torques, tattooed limbs and thick woven cloaks and trousers. Emissaries from the eastern kingdoms, faces made up with kohl and swirled up in flowing robes. Ebony coloured Nubians, skin shining in the light. Even faces from races Sestia could not even guess where they were from. Swarthy men with red dots on their heads and bushy grey whiskers. Surely the entire world must be represented here? Generals, senators, businessmen, princes. Some clutched armfuls of scrolls, clearly hoping to hand their petitions to the Augustus directly. She passed a group of angry looking Judeans, dressed in black, angrily disputing with an Imperial official who continually tried to push back into their hands a number of such written petitions. A veteran soldier stood in faded, slightly dated parade uniform. When he turned Sestia noticed he was missing his left arm and left eye. Presumably he was chasing a pension or other preferment now he had been invalided out. There were old persons, children, single women and groups of men. The press of people was oppressive.
As she pushed her way further forward the press of people ahead of her soon formed a natural wall and she couldn’t go on. She was stood a few metres back from the monumental apse under which sat the Augustus on an oversized curule chair. To his side stood his senior Praetorian officers, perhaps the Prefect or some of his deputies. The Augustus’ chief freedmen and advisors also stood to one side. The official nomenclator a respectful distance behind his master, able to whisper in his ear the names of persons who came into the Imperial vision. A cordon of guards kept a vacant space in front of the apse. If you were summoned by the Augustus you would be ushered through into this openness where you would not only be under the gaze of the Mighty Personage but also under the scrutiny of hundreds of pairs of jealous eyes from behind you.
The Augustus was busy talking with a man Sestia did not know. This man’s audience was clearly at an end, although he clearly did not think so and had more to say. A firm hand on his shoulder from a Praetorian made it clear that if he decided to say more, he would be doing so from a cell.
“Mater, I can’t see, I want to see Caesar!” Vaticanianus whinged, tugging at the hem of her stolla.
Was it wrong that Sestia was taken aback and almost a little excited by the young girl’s father’s reaction? You could tell that the legate was a man much used to authority given the quick and draconian orders he was willing to give, even to his own daughter. There really was not much harm done. Such urns were ten a penny at the river-side warehouses. It was not some priceless antique. If it had been it would have been foolish of her to leave it out, particularly when there were children around. Although the girl had taken responsibility for the accident she wouldn’t have put it past her youngest son to have had more than a passing involvement. It would not have been the first “accident” he had been involved in that he had let another take the blame for.
However, she did not want to undercut Lucius Cassius’ parenting. It was a shocking faux-pas of parenting generally to either discipline the child of another or else undermine the discipline placed on a child by their own parent. She knew that Lucius Cassius and his daughter must have a strained relationship at present. Men who spent long periods commanding others in theatres of war tended to forget that not everyone was a soldier. Children were to follow commands, yes, but they rarely did so with the obedience of an indentured legionary.
She stooped down and took the little girl’s hand, lifting her head up so they were looking eye to eye. “That was very kind and brave of you to say sorry but, honestly, please do not worry, there is nothing to forgive. Accidents happen! You are not in trouble at all.”
She kept hold of the girl’s hand as she stood back up again and turned to her father. “All good generals should allow themselves to be swayed by some mercy. I don’t think this young lady should have to tidy all this mess up, especially when she is a guest under my roof. Now, I am not trying to interfere with the rights of a father, only I would hope you would do me the favour of overlooking this little accident, too. Especially when she is dressed up so nicely it would be a shame to have it messed up. There is a time and a place for disciplining young women, I think, and this is not one of them?”
There were, in her experience, many ways to try and soothe the hot-headedness of men. Distraction almost always succeeded. With men like her father, getting him onto the “good old days” derailed him for hours. With her late husband, an appeal to his belly would always overturn the dictates of his head. Others were distracted by feminine wiles. So, her final comment with its double meaning – although verging dangerously into the territory of harlotry (in the eyes of the prudish and chaste) – might hopefully have the appropriate effect.
Besides, she had been a young girl not that long ago and had had a stern, disciplinarian soldier for a father. His punishments had been severe, if not brutal. A caning at times, on other occasions the punishment was more psychological – being made to stay in her room with no company, sometimes for days on end. Whilst she did not think anything of the sort were taking place here, she would hate for the girl to remember always the time she had been forced to clean up shards of pottery and piles of soil when slaves looked on. Sestia could appreciate the likely intention in Lucius Cassius not to create a pampered princess but, in her experience, often the more you tried to prevent something, the easier you brought about the feared result unexpectedly.
She led the girl over to her father and, once close enough, heard him make the offer of a reciprocal visit.
“I would be happy to accept. I have clearly set the bar very low, so you ought not to have trouble in finding means of entertaining me to better effect?”
She smiled as the woman was able to throw out the names of ancient authorities with the ease of someone wholly comfortable with the subject matter. Sestia could not think whether she had ever, in an off hand manner, been able to reference Hesiod. She was not even sure whether she was able to reference Hesiod full stop. The woman clearly knew what she was talking about and possessed the depth and breadth of literary culture that she was deeply envious of.
“Yes, the person I was speaking with has just returned from the legions in Britannia and he was saying just how war like those people are. Some paint themselves blue which is most peculiar. And blue of all colours! How odd. But also how strange if they worship Apollo too? I’ve heard it said somewhere that all the Gods of all the peoples are pretty much the same at heart, they just have different names, just like some flowers and animals are called different things in different places but are still the same, really.” She stopped for a moment, thinking that over. Yes, she had heard it said before but she wasn’t so sure it was right. How the Olympians compared with the animal headed Gods of Aegypt she didn’t know. “Except for the Jews,” she said slowly. “They only have one God. I don’t know how he gets it all done if everything is left to him.”
Her smile grew. Whilst it sounds very bizarre, Sestia had never actually met a twin before, at least not to her knowledge. She found it strange how two people could look almost exactly alike as twins were meant to. “How interesting, a twin!” she giggled. “Are you the type which look alike even if, by the sounds of it, your interests differ?”
“I have two sons,” she continued. “I have always found it rather upsetting that they have had a better education that I have but my father was not one to believe in the benefits of educating a daughter. I am glad to see that not all men have the same view,” she said, indicating towards her. “Both my sons are mad keen on military history and, if their spelling was better and they had more patience, I am sure they could write books of their own on it!”
Fortunately the fracas was soon past. She sighed, relieved. “It is the problem with public games,” she said in measured tones, “gives the plebs an excuse for a day off and the opportunity to drink for free. What do people expect? I imagine the Watch will have a busy night ahead of them.” She was just grateful it was nothing more serious. The mixture of blood-filled games and free flowing drink was rarely a mix designed to placate people. Not for the first time she wondered whether the government’s policy was really correct? Did these spectacles really placate the masses? It was a thin line between keeping them happy and instead riling them up. The events just now showed how quickly petty criminality could spring up when people were pumped up and drunk.
“Oh, I wouldn’t waste their time on Fronto,” she said, smiling along with the joke, “if he has any sense then knowing the trouble he will be in he will now be halfway to Ostia to board the next ship for Syria. Sadly I am no stranger to this. I am sure he will slink home later tonight, hoping I am asleep and then will bother me with abject wailing and excuses in the morning until I relent. He plays off the fact I am too lazy to find another to replace him and demote him to somewhere more appropriate like one of our rural estates…or sell him off to the mines.”
She was conscious of saying nothing further, knowing how quickly the boy picked up on words and ideas, as evidenced by him repeating of the previous faux-pas.
“Dacia,” she said, “how wild! Now that is properly untamed country, so I hear?” One of the Empire’s more recent conquests, this mineral rich province formed a dangerously exposed salient of territory, thrust like a spear into the belly of the frozen, forested vastness inhabited by ferocious barbarians. Not just the bearded, brutal Germanic savages found along the Rhine frontier but the more mysterious and equally brutal Sarmatian steppe horsemen. From what she had read, the Dacians themselves had been a tough nut to crack. Bull necked savages, armed with fearsome flaxes, they fought half naked with only drunken valour to protect them. Even defeated they still posed a threat to the Empire and showed a distinct reluctance to be civilised. The province was held down more with force of arms than any other, save perhaps Britannia. Few were the cities and wonders of civic life that had grown up there. “Was it not awfully dangerous?”
She thought back to her meeting with Governor Praetextatus earlier that day. His province of Rhaetia had been set back from the frontier. Calmer. Enjoying the fruits of civic virtue and progress. A place he had felt happy bringing his family to. She thought also of her father in the long-owned province of Proconsularis. It was so pacified that it was seen as an extension of Italia. Funny, considering it had once been the heartland of Rome’s greatest enemy. “I assume you did not bring your family there?”
She couldn’t imagine the Valeria she knew being willing to abandon the luxurious trappings of the capital for a berth in a wind-swept Dacian barracks with icicles hanging off the bedposts and nothing to do but count trees.
“How is Valeria,” she finally asked outright, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Do you have any more children besides this adorable one?”
She coloured in a pleasing way at his comments. She felt a little butterfly of excitement fluttering in her stomach. This was the sort of thing she read about in the more trashy scrolls that she pretended she didn’t actually read but in fact devoured them voraciously. Of course her parameters were not so stringent that no one could fit the bill. Some nights, lying alone in the large bed of the house and listening to the unending stream of night-time traffic below, she wondered whether she might in fact take anybody to husband. Many widows, she knew (although she didn’t know any personally) used the licence afforded to them by lack of immediate male authority to entertain a troops of no-strings callers, or even in a reversal of the usual order of things, start poaching from their own male slaves. She blushed at the thought. Whilst it had its appealing aspects, it was a sure fire means to natural opprobrium. She could only imagine the wrath of her father if he ever thought that she was dallying with a boyfriend for personal sport, as it were. There was probably some arcane law in the Twelve Tables that he would rely on to slaughter the boyfriend and then cast her into the Tiber, presumably tied in a sack along with a snake, a monkey and a chicken in the manner of the nutty Romans of old who seemingly had little to do but concoct bizarre punishments for various things.
She was digressing, as was usual when she was flustered. The urge came again to give a witty riposte. Or why not develop the theme a little more? It was a little unorthodox and rather bold, of course, to think in such a way after only such a short return to acquaintanceship but it hadn’t prevented the thoughts from cropping up. Even before returning to Rome the idea of marrying again had planted itself firmly in her mind. Not just for her own reasons but also practically speaking for reasons of maintaining her own freedom of movement. She knew her father would probably have none of it but, with suitable distance between them and a desire to move quickly, there would not be much he could do. Her sons may be an issue but they were still in her power. But now that this had been said – even if it were a joke – it still gave her new eyes with which to look at the man in front of her.
A Cassius Longinus was a name steeped in nobility. Yes, there was the issue of the “bad” one who had had the misfortune to try to kill a man who became a God and, well, it hadn’t worked out well for him. Still, it hadn’t caused the family that much loss, besides them now having to carry that weight around with them. The family was still noble. Presumably still rich. Lucius must be very wealthy indeed. Seldom did generals return from war as paupers. Noble and properly Roman. Her family with its nouveau-riche background and Phoenician heritage could scarcely expect better than that in a match. A general too, her father would surely like that. Her sons could benefit from the connections…Then there was the personal level. How would she feel about a husband like Lucius Cassius? Running his household, attending functions as his wife, doing her wifely duties...she only realised now that she was biting her bottom lip. She immediately stopped and blushed deeper.
It was in this way fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure that their conversation was terminated abruptly by a clatter from outside. She stood up, readjusting her dress to fall properly over her curves. Brysias hurried forward and busied herself re-arranging her mistress’ hair. For once, Sestia let her. Rolling her eyes in a long suffering fashion she indicated for Lucius to follow her. She ought to see what was going on. It then occurred to her that she hoped no one had been hurt. That would really sour things. Still, she couldn’t hear any tears so, unless one, other or all of them were dead, there was presumably hope…
They reached the covered colonnade of the peristyle garden. Off from here were the doors to a number of private rooms: the study, her children’s’ bedrooms, Brysias’, hers. In the open centre was the beautifully maintained new garden, hung heavy with climbing plants and tiers beds of flowers with succulent, rich and heavy colours. The floor of the colonnade ran the full length of the square with a series of new mosaics. Split equally into four sections, each compass point’s side had a different season: Winter for the north, Spring for the East, Summer for the South, Autumn for the West. Each season had suitably topical scenes frozen in tessellated beauty. A hunt for Autumn – a boar fleeing from the hounds and spears into a forest dipped in autumnal reds, ochres and golds. Summer was a riot of leisure. Charioteers careering round a track, farmers hard at work in vineyards, women exercising in sportswear in a gymnasium, men likewise in their own. Winter was picked out in greys, blacks and whites where – unlike the other seasons which were noticeable for their abundance of images – was noteworthy for its absence of much at all.
Now, lying across the cornucopia of life in Summer, were shards of broken pottery and a great spattering of soil and tendrils of plant-life. At regular intervals along the four walls large urns had been placed on copper tripods, fashioned into the images of lions and leopards. Inside each urn were plants native to Africa – long, spikey leaves stooping and trailing down the sides. Clearly one had been –accidentally or intentionally – overturned. The result of which was an almighty smash and mess. No bodies appeared underneath it which was something…
“What on Earth is going on here?” she asked in the sort of motherly tone that strikes fear into a child caught out.
Sestia had the grace to look a little shifty as the other woman probed a little deeper. It had been foolish of her to think that her playacting would be fool-proof. She might be able to pretend to be a freedwoman companion but her voice automatically gave her away as a child of privilege. Using more rounded, careful and embellished Latin, not the more blunt, melodic urban slang and patois of the city’s lower quarters. Also, for someone who claimed to come from Africa, her accent was decidedly Italianate. If she was really choosing to be pedantic she wasn’t even doing a great impression of Brysias who was, in any event, Parthian by birth.
“Yes, I am from Rome originally,” she said quickly. “I grew up with my mistress’ family on the Esquiline. When she moved to Carthage, I went with her. Now she is back, so am I,” she said, almost as an explanatory fait accompli.
The bath was now filling up with other bathers, leaving the two no longer alone. The babel of different voices, languages and accents all barrelled up into the great vault of the room and echoed back. The pipes feeding the warm water into the pool gushed merrily and the pleasing gentle steam continued to rise off the surface of the water. Sestia took a moment to rest her back against the edge of the pool and look around. Although this was not one of the city’s premier establishments, the owners had still gone to quite some considerable lengths in beautifying the place. Plinths in the wall houses (knock off) replicas of famous statues. As befitted a female bath-house, the statues were of female subjects – goddesses in elegant poses, most in a state of undress, showing off enviable figures, still taut and firm in the correct places yet sensuously curved in others. Idealised figures of traditional female beauty. Or, rather, what the male sculptors presumably imagined their ideal female pin-ups to look like. A brief look around at the occupants of the room gave the lie to that – women came in all shapes and forms and very few adhered to the marble stereotypical perfection of these statues.
Around them, the walls were painted in pleasing pastel colours in various matching patters and designs. Quotes from ancient poets ran around a strip at the top. Sestia wondered whether anyone actually took notice of any of these. A female attendant was shuffling along the periphery of the room, mopping up the larger pools of water shed by passing bathers in a bid to minimise slips. Despite the noise, some of the grunts and slaps from the nearby massage rooms could be heard, where clearly overzealous staff were taking out frustration at low wages on the fleshy limbs of their unfortunate clients.
“Lusitania, that is an awfully long way to come,” Sestia said quietly as she soaked. She did not know much about it save that it was further West than the Spains and, beyond it, was the great expanse of ocean that ran to the very edge of the world. Only recently(ish) pacified, it had been home to a ferocious Celtic people who had held the Romans at bay for many years, and the Carthaginians before them.
“What is it that you do then? You don’t seem to speak of it with any resentment, it is something you enjoy?”
Sestia could feel a pair of dark brown eyes boring into the back of her head, sending a concentrated beam of pure judgment and disapproval at her. She was in many ways frankly surprised that the uppity Brysias had not caused some minor scene in a bid to derail the conversation. Well, there was still time. Even her minder got bored and day dreamed from time to time. She doubted she was making eyes at Longinus’ attendant across the room.
“Ah, the lot of an only child can be a difficult one,” she commiserated. She had a brother, one whom she loved greatly, if only because he had been her only true and proper companion in her childhood. Her father had placed a huge burden on his shoulders, expecting him to become a younger version of himself, wanting him to take to command seamlessly and become another great general in his turn. When her brother turned out to be a very different breed indeed, her father’s wrath and anger had never simmered down to this day. Her brother preferred a quiet life and had no interest in politics or military matters. He had been very lucky in managing to be given the hand of a daughter of the late Imperial house by whom he now had a sizeable brood of children in whose veins Imperial and Sestius blood intermingled. Perhaps the knowledge of this helped cause him and his wife to keep away from Rome as often as they could.
“I have a brother who I esteem greatly but he prefers to keep himself and his family away from Rome when he can.”
She felt girlishly embarrassed all of a sudden at the final question he posed. It was her fault, for her careless, cheerful talk had taken this turn and he had only picked up on it. She felt the conflicting pressures of wanting to retain a proper decorum yet at the same time feeling the need to throw out a witty rejoinder. With regards to the disapproval she already likely had from her attendant she felt there was little danger in adding a little more to it. As they say, you might as well be killed for a sheep as for a lamb.
“Hmmm, a good and valid point. Young, rich and indulgent is a tricky trinity but I can’t imagine that it is impossible. Perhaps I should have my steward go out and post an advert in the Saepta, requiring all eligible men who fit the above criteria to present themselves at the Domus Afinii Gallii for appraisal.”
A sharp intake of breath from behind her demonstrated that her shadow was reaching breaking point on the biting of her tongue. Any more and she risked shearing it clean off and probably shattering her teeth too in stress.
“No, no, money doesn’t bother me,” she said, taking another sip of her drink. “My late husband left me quite well off. Besides, in my experience, a balance sheet is not the best bedrock of a marriage. As for my preferences, well, I should think that they are actually nothing too unachievable. A husband who does not complain his joints hurt in the cold. One who does not believe the evening over at sunset. One who has teeth and so can still leave a mark…on his food,” she added mischievously after a tiny but pregnant pause.
Sestia was happy for the help and gratefully accepted. The shopkeeper had by now finished his unexpected clearing up and had returned to his central position, although he now was clearly keeping an eye on her – giving her a looks as if to say “I know you’re trouble!” She ignored him and stood back as her new helper busied herself scanning the shelves with a quick and practiced eye. She read through the labels with fantastic speed, mouthing to herself the titles and authors as she ran through them, slightly pulling out any which may be of use so she could return to them later. All Sestia had to do was stand back and look grateful.
“Land beyond the north wind,” she repeated. “That is a pretty name for it. Could it be that it is so far north that it is actually beyond the wind?” she could not conceive of something that far north. The furthest north she had ever gone was to one of her late husband’s estates in what had once been Cisalpine Gaul, now incorporated into the province of Italia. She remembered looking up at the towering huge peaks of snow capped mountains in awe. She knew land lay beyond this but still could not help but wonder if structures like this formed a wall around the known world. Mountains so high that no one could climb or cross them. On the other side would just be nothing – the edge of eternity. “I have heard that it is very misty there, like the clouds sleep on the earth, maybe that is because there is no wind?” she said, just wondering aloud. Yet again this week she found herself wondering what this strange land was like. It sounded quite terrifying. Untamed. Cut off from the rest of the Empire by sea. Strange coloured natives baying for blood. So far north that there must be nothing but snow and ice. What on earth was there for the Empire there? What did it actually benefit anyone? Did the Empire just want it because it was there? A universal imperium? Even the Deified Augustus had seen the sense of setting fixed limits. The thought crossed her mind of her sons being sent off there for their first, upcoming military postings. It made her shudder.
“Well, thank you never the less Sept – I mean, Clio. That is a nice name. Is it a nickname? It is the name of one of the Muses, isn’t it?”
Sestia made no move to slink off his hand. Well, things had taken a strange turn so one further lack of propriety would not a disaster make, she thought to herself. She smiled gently at his words. In many ways she was in no position to complain but, concurrently, in many ways she had ample grounds to. Raising children without a paternal figure was not impossible. Even in homes untouched by tragedy, more often than not a father may be away soldiering or administering provinces without his family for years at a time. Wives back home just got on with it. In cases when mortality had claimed the spouse it was still not an impossibility. How many poor women on the Aventine struggled to raise large broods of children without a man? Could she then really complain at the intermittent stresses her children occasioned her when – unlike those poor women – she had an army of slaves to take them off her hands and a comfortable income to mean she did not always have to look over her shoulder. Thinking like this reassured her but at the same time also made her feel somewhat selfish for stressing in the first place.
However, behind the smile she did still worry. Her eldest was now soon, legally, to be a man and – knowing him – would expect to take the administrative reins of his family and his patrimony without guidance. Longinus may have seen such young men many times before, and so had she, but that did not mean that legions of them did not spring up with sad regularity. None were as blind as those who would not see and few people saw less far than those flushed with the first tastes of freedom and youth. She might make light of it and joke but there was a kernel of actual worry – no, fear, even – at what her son may do with his position. Oh, not that he would hurt her or anything, don’t be silly. Rather, as the head of the family she, and her activities, were to a large degree dependent on what degree of leniency he would show her. Once he was a man he would take charge of the finances. If he wanted to lessen her allowance or cut her off completely he could. He would also have charge over the slaves and the bulk of the clients he had inherited from his father. If he ordered his slaves not to let Sestia out of the house then they were obliged, for fear of their lives, to follow his orders. Whilst she hoped it would never even come close to this, she knew that the fact he knew he could do that rested in the back of her son’s mind. She let out an involuntary shiver. She briefly creased her brow in silent frustration, again fuming at the sour turn the evening had taken.
She tried to shrug it off with a fresh smile and a resetting of her composure. “Ah, so you have one of those mothers, do you?” she asked, wryly. “I find them oddly intriguing. Shows me how I ought not to be!” she joked. Her own mother was hardly protective. Fiery in her earlier days, years of relentless passive aggression and outright fights with her ill-suited husband had tempered her ardour and cooled her manner, honing the edges off until she now acted with glum, morose acceptance to much of what came her way. It was not that she did not love her children but she seemed to take less interest in them than she might otherwise. Since leaving Carthage she had heard nothing from her, whereas she had been bombarded with authoritative letters from her father. Even whilst she had lived with them in Africa she had seen little of her mother. She busied herself with her own affairs – engaging in Gods know what religious sect or other – or otherwise immuring herself in her suite of rooms with only her body slaves for company. She wondered whether her mother would care much if she wrote to her saying she had remarried, even if she wrote to say she had remarried the Augustus himself. Very little could pierce the dark veil of depression.
“Gallus takes the toga virilise next year and then I am reprieved as head of the household. I suppose I am free then, subject to his decision of my future. Oh, there is still my youngest to concern myself with but he is following hot on his brother’s heels. You’ve seen what he’s like. If it wasn’t because he is still too short to mount a horse without help he would already be off, run away to join the legions, I imagine. I don’t see him hanging around long after he is able to make his own way. My eldest won’t be one to wait for decades before marrying, like his father. He will prefer to get on with it, I’m sure, and so a new woman will appear and complete my displacement. I hope that brings liberation rather than resentment. I have seen it go both ways in others.”
She tapped her finger against her chin, as if in thought.
“Hmmm…how would I rather occupy myself? Now that is difficult. A rich indulgent husband would be, I suppose, ideal. I have dealt with a husband far older than me, perhaps I should go to the other extreme and find one much younger” she teased.
For all her foregoing emotions, Sestia now felt her hackles rising slightly in the way they really ought to have done sooner. This Safinia had seemingly not taken her apology – which she had no requirement to have given in the first place, she felt – with any form of grace but instead a sort of lumpen sullenness. If it has been the real Brysias talking to Sestia in this sort of manner she would have boxed her ears for her presumption. Then flung several items at her for good measure as she ran for cover. She appreciated that those of the lower classes had different codes of behaviour, morals and etiquette but she had not thought they were wildly different from those of the senatorial class. They were all Roman after all, weren’t they?
Safinia’s question was not much of a question. It was blunt and curt, the verbal equivalent of being hit with a bat. Where are you from could be read in a myriad of different ways but it was probably not the sort of social pleasantry that she might otherwise have expected if this encounter were perhaps being replayed at a dinner party. Her skin colour marked her out as being certainly not from the capital. However, there were so many faces of different colours in Rome that it was not as though she were some sort of oddity. African had reached high positions in the senate and the equestrian order since their incorporation as provinces from the days of Scipio Africanus through until Augustus. Besides, whereas she and her kind has the dusky hue of the ancient Phoenicians mark on them, it was not as though she were an arresting jet black like the numerous Nubian and Axumite slaves one saw ten-a-penny these days as fashion symbols.
Yet to proper Romans of Rome their circle of “proper” people ended at the limit of the city. Beyond the pomerium everyone was just a different sort of barbarian and existed either to be laughed at, exploited or condescended to.
She was about to get on her figurative high horse and say that, most recently, she had come fresh from the Proconsular Palace of Carthage and that if dear Safinia were a slave she ought to be more polite because she would find her owner, buy her herself, and then make her life miserable. She was about to say something along these lines when she realised that it would only likely make her sound like she was deranged, given as she had just held herself out as being her own lady’s maid – in, it should be pointed out, a misplaced bid to be nice.
Well, there were ways of getting around it, she supposed. “Yes, she can be quite nice when she wants to be,” she said with a smile. “We have just moved back from Carthage…that is in Africa,” she added. The other woman probably knew it perfectly well so it was a silly and pathetic barb but she was now feeling stroppy so she said it anyway. “Have you been given the same luxury or are you lucky enough to make your own hours?”