Ah, so he could. That was good. It would have been much harder otherwise. Well, the lad had a good berth, he was unlikely to wish to give that up for the bizarre prospect of spending his days burning the midnight oil scribbling letters for dispatch across the length and breadth of the Empire.
"I will be quite right here, young Rufus, quite right indeed. Thank you for your help this afternoon. It has been appreciated. And the company too, yes, of course, don't forget that. You do you master a great service. Now, you can go on your way, no need to linger round an old chatterbox like me when there is likely the world of things to be doing. But, like I said, if you ever have the desire or ability to have a change of scene, do let me know. I can always talk with your dominus. Or even if you just want to see the scriptorium. The administration needs lively and honest young fellows. There are worse paths than that in life, young Rufus."
Gaius laughed, "if you really are a thief, young Rufus, you are either a very good one or a very bad one, I can't quite make up my mind! No, no, of course it is. You are an honest fellow. My slaves could learn a thing or two from you. The ones my wife purchases are nothing but habitual liars."
Well, you found conversation in the most strange places, he thought, as Rufus disappeared to search out his litter. His wife would be scandalized if she knew he had spoken so freely and conversationally with a slave. That was just her class based prejudice. Many of the greatest in the city had slaves who - even if they were their property - could almost be called friends. They were, after all, people too.
If he saw Rufus' master he would have to compliment him on the honesty of his staff. He wondered if the man could read and write. The odd thought crossed his mind that he was in want of a protégé. His sons didn't care. Very few in his department had even a modicum of respect from Gaius. He thought them all insipid, talentless braggarts. Few could have spoken with such honest simplicity. A fool's idea, but if the young man were ever minded to move, he would speak to his master. The Empire always had need of people with talent. And honesty was a talent. One in short supply in the wheels of the administration, too!
He saw the slave returning. He started the laborious process of hoisting himself up.
"Tell me, Rufus, can you read and write?"
"Yes, yes that it quite a good idea yes. I shall take a seat."
Gods, he wasn't even that decrepit but nevertheless even that sort of exertion these days made his knees and back ache. A curse on this affliction! He eased himself down onto another bench and wondered how long it would take him to get up this time. Ordinarily, once in his office, he rarely moved from his desk all day to avoid the embarrassment of being seen by his workers hobbling around.
The slave was looking at him expectantly and quizzically.
"Oh," he said, waving his hand in a nonchalant fashion, "I suppose I ought to but, as the son of a slave myself, I have an odd awkwardness around slaves of my own. I often think that this or that one must have been doing what my father did and may one day themselves be someone's father and it just makes me feel very odd so I prefer to do what I can. Then again, as you see, these days that does not seem very much so perhaps I should swallow my scruples as few enough seem to share them. I often find it is freedmen who own the most slaves and become the worst masters."
He chuckled dryly.
"Yes, that would be good of you if you could flag one down. You will have earned your ruby, eh?"
"Hmmm...oh, what? Well, yes, many are that is true but not all. It is a funny place the Palatine as I suppose you are now realizing."
It was a veritable grab bag of persons, nationalities and statuses. Gaius' father was a fine example of the nebulous state of the Imperial administration. He had been bought by the Palatine Palace as a boy as a slave. He had risen up through the ranks of the domestic staff, still as a slave, before his talents were spotted and he entered the epistularum, again as a slave. The money he was able to amass in this from fees (fair and foul) had allowed him to buy his freedom and he remained in his post, now as a salaried freedman, like the majority of the clerks. Finally, by the end of his career, he had amassed enough wealth through his salary, promotions, fees and investments to be enrolled as an equestrian in the census. An impressive career path but by no means unique. Gaius, as his son, had entered the same body as an equite. He worked alongside slaves, freedmen and men from far more established equite families than his own. The administration was one of the rare places were meritocracy actually worked, to a degree anyway. All that mattered was skill and loyalty.
"There are all sorts. My father was a slave when he started, bought his freedom, ended his days a knight. The same was true of many of his colleagues. A cursory look around our board table would give you mostly freedmen, a handful of knights and a fair number of slaves. Funnily enough it is the latter who often have the most power due to their relationship of proximity to those at the top. A strange place but not a bad one. Like I said, if it ever appeals, do consider it."
They were by now approaching the entrance to the Gardens where, somewhere outside, his litter would be waiting to jolt him back to his office.
The young man spoke with more clarity and understanding than his own sons would. That upset Gaius. His sons - if he should ever be so stupid as to talk about his work or the like - would roll their eyes at each other and swiftly set about playing silly games with each other until Gaius just gave up. Many of his peers at work were now no more. Retired or dead. Those who had remained had become Magisters of different departments and, with such positions, had become petty rivals in the ever-ongoing inter-departmental spats and conflicts which ran on and on simply because no one could ever remember them not. Those sons of his had received the best education money could buy. Yet here this slave could speak with more common sense and decorum than either of them and he doubted so much as a denarius had been spent on bettering Rufus' learning.
The thought was of such profundity that it actually served as a halter on Gaius' otherwise torrential flow of thoughts and words. He was becoming melancholic again. Feeling his age and the disappointments of life keenly. Oh, damn it all! His medicus knew nothing. These trips were the complete opposite of relaxing!#
"Should I see him, I will be sure to mention to your master that not only have you been helpful but that you willingly put yourself to great loss by listening to an old man bend your ear without good reason for far too long. If you are ever freed, or have the notion to change paths, I can warmly suggest a career in the Epistularum. We always have need of clever young men. It would be nice to see someone enter with merit, rather than because their father bought them a place."
Gaius snorted again in merriment. "You have a better grasp of what we do than most of the pampered sons of freedmen and equites that I am forced to take on in my department."
The work was hardly glamorous but was nevertheless necessary. The day to day administration of the Empire was largely handled by a number of different departments, headed by a Magister for each. The Memoriae for example dealt with all the legal affairs. The enacting and dissemination of legislation, the petitions to Caesar, etc etc etc. That department thought itself so grand and haughty. Urgh. The Epistularum dealt with the huge volume of correspondence that came in and went out each day. Letters to and from governors, agents, generals, foreign potentates, petitioners and so forth. Gaius was territorial of the remit of his office and was forever locked in petty turf wars over men, money and material with the other departments. The bureaus waged wars more bitterly than the legions did.
"It is not glamorous like you say but if you want glamour then you should sell yourself to a lanista and take to the arena sand. You will get more ovations, more women and more money. Duty, young man, is no longer glamorous. It used to be. Or, rather, it used to be it was duty that was prized over passing fashion and fame. That, I am afraid, is long dead and has been in its grave far longer than I have walked this earth. "
"You should not be afraid to set your sights high. If you want a farm at the end of your days then happily take it and, if you can sleep at night, free from all cares, you can think yourself as well to do as Caesar. If not more so for I am sure he goes to bed with nothing but trouble in his mind. If it is a farm you wish for all your hard work and you achieve it then be forever grateful. My sons - " he tutted derisively - "have no concept of hard work. It comes from them being born into money. I was too but - I don't know - somehow I avoided those pitfalls. They do little but chase their tails all day, thinking of nothing but fun and games. Neither will take after me like I took over from my father. It is a tough mantle, you see, Rufus. It is little wonder I'm now mottled and bent like a damned spider. No thanks for it, either. But that is the way with great men. They rarely praise but only require obedience. Caesar's genius be praised."
Gaius stopped in his slow walk and gave the young man a smile. "Yes, most perceptive, young Rufus. Quite right."
Gaius could be flippant about it now and speak in a jocular way about it but that was just an act. He remembered, in the closing days of Clemens' short but sanguine reign, the discovery that he had made. How would anyone feel, seeing what he had seen? Out in the streets, Praetorians and crazed citizens were stalking the streets, seeking out named men and women to murder them in cold blood. A severed head duly returned would earn the deliverer a handsome sum. The city sang with screams and sobs. Yet he, like the others, had stayed at their posts because they were loyal not to the Emperor but to something far greater and more nebulous - Roma herself. Emperors came and went but the State survived. The State was not assassinated or usurped or changed. She was immortal and men like he, in their strange way, were almost this ethereal, eternal creature's priests: serving the higher purpose.
Yes, he remembered how his hands - then not palsied with advancing age - had trembled as he had seen the list lying carelessly on the Emperor's desk. There, not at the top but roughly mid way down, was written in small, neat script "Gaius Julius Gratianus." All it would have taken was for this list to be handed to the Guard and his life would have been over in, tops, hours later.
But he and the others on that list had been lucky. They were all those that Clemens had inherited when he seized power. They, like he, were the various heads of the administration. The high level functionaries, equites and freedmen, who oversaw the mechanics of Imperial administration. The people who put the Caesar's words into practice. They had been saved, for now, only because of the administrative tedium it would take to replace them all wholesale. Instead, as the list showed, they were being struck off a few at a time. Thin lines had been struck through those already gone. The thin lines were dangerously close to his name, untouched.
For a man who had not seen battle, this was a true taste of fear. It was only through the blind actions of goddess Fortuna that the blood-soaked tyrant had died and Gaius was thereby saved.
"That is the problem with the system, you see. Not that it is really a problem as it saved my life but that's by the by. The way things work mean persons like me become fixtures. We sit in the same places and it soon becomes the way that things are much harder to do if we're not there. Not, of course, that we will live forever but there is such a thing as "legacy planning." You can't just get rid of me or any of the other Magisters just like that! No, that would be madness! We are like the heads on chickens. Cut off the head and the chicken will run around for a while - but it will run into a wall and sooner or later stop moving altogether. No more chicken, eh? You see?"
He started his slow, supported walk again. It was refreshing to be able just to talk. He didn't mind that the slave was probably bored to tears.
"I'm the Magister Scrinium Epistularum, you see. You know what that is, young man? Perhaps not. I would forgive you if not. It is not exactly if me, or any of the other Magisters for that matter, get much credit for the sort of things we do. Not as glamorous as the Praetorians or as public as the senate."
"My father was born a slave, did you know? Ended his days free and an equite. Big house on the lower Palatine. But born a slave, just like you."
Gaius scoffed. The noise was like a choking on an acorn. A guttural chortle.
"Change, young Rufus? I have seen nothing but change. Some say that change is the only constant. Some Greek sophistry, I think. Beyond me. But yes, I have seen change."
They continued to shuffle along at a pace which Gaius considered quite brisk but which, in reality, was torturously slow. So much had happened in the course of his tenure in the administration. There were the heady days of his youth under Claudius. The Empire had been vigorous then. It had momentum. Drive. There were men alive who could remember the early days of the Divine Augustus, when he came into his power like a whirlwind; finding Rome brick, he had left it in marble. The same was true for its systems and establishments too. Yes, men then had been proper men. There was no frippery. Solid and dependable virtues. It was not uncommon for him to arrive in the Palatine scriptorium before dawn and not leave the room - not even to relief himself - until only a few hours before the next sunrise. He and his peers had lived for their work because they believed in what they were doing. They were necessary conduits - keeping the Emperor in touch with all corners of the Empire. For a young man it was intoxicating work. Close to the seat of power, seeing how things were run, hearing everything from the very distant corners of far-flung postings.
Now, however, it seemed to him that that old vigor now lay limp. Chief of the department where he had all those years ago started off, it seemed to him that the new recruits were silly, foppish fellows. They took lunch breaks. Extended ones. He caught them gossiping at their desks. The arranged "after work social events." They expected to have the right to take time off for this or that nonsense. Some of them, if you gave them work, they looked at you as if you had dropped a pile of dung on their desk. What, exactly, were they being paid for, hmm? How could the Empire function if people like these were one day to take the helm?
"Claudius, Honorius, yes, those were strange days. And then Clemens. Gods, that I should have lived to see that. You know he had my name on a list of prescriptions he was saving for a rainy day? They found it after he died. Nicely written out too. Whoever had done it had the most beautiful script I have seen in a long time. Neat and crisp. Much better than most of my scribes. Yes, yes, anyway, yes, my name was on a list. But you know why he didn't do away with me and the other department heads? Eh? Go on, have a guess, young Rufus? That madman did away with a great many folk including many of your dear master's family, blessed is their memory. Go on, take a guess?"
"Ah, Rufus, well, yes...That is traditional. Good, sturdy stuff. Your hair? Oh yes, red, isn't it. Your name is Rufus and your hair is red. A truthful statement. Means you aren't a liar."
Well not all slaves had outlandish names. It was good to see that there were some traditional values alive and well.
"I wouldn't have thought Octavius would have gone in for the new fad of naming his staff like some Hellenistic kinglet. The Augustus would never have allowed that. Good head on his shoulders. He spent a long time in the East, though, Rufus, although you're probably too young to remember all that, of course. No, no. He wouldn't have his family going about waving their whatnots in people's faces and flashing their money like a newly freed charioteer. It's not seemly. Some things have to be kept so-so, do you follow?"
Ahh, it was refreshing to have an audience. When he was at home - those rare occasions when he was - he usually immured himself in his study and rarely left it until the next day dawned. His slaves kept themselves scarce too. There was therefore a great dearth of people to talk at.
He nodded and hummed sagely. "I feared as much, I feared as much indeed from the moment you said it had fallen out. I did, indeed. The craftsman was probably not a Roman. No discourtesy to your mother, young man, but those who are not Roman cannot appreciate the value of proper work. It is not that they do not work. Not the case. They work to live, as do we all. But few take that step and use their work not as just subsistence but also art. That, Rufus, is the great difference. Gods, I recall back in...Dis, when was it? It was the same year as there was that affair with the Misenum fleet. Oh, no, no, that is wrong. It was the year poor Aufidius was killed in Thrace. Poor fellow. Brigands. His family didn't find out for years. Just thought he had gone. A strange affair..."
"Where was I?"
"Oh, yes, of course. Yes, back then, in whatever year it was, I can't remember, but it was a while ago, I could walk through the Saepta Julia and every stall holder I would meet would be a Roman. Ones from the old tribes too. True Romans. There was a man - his shop was near the Boriarum, I can see it now - he would gut a fish like he was wooing a woman. I saw him cry once when he boiled a lamprey. He just loved his work that much. Cried for boiling a lamprey. I wonder what became of him? Tch!"
He waved his hand dismissively.
"It is not the done thing these days to cling to those good, old values that made Rome what she was. The Augustus does a good job, mind you. Still, someone has to make Rome great again. The problem is the influx of barbarians. They settle here and do not conform to the old ways. The way a Rhaetian makes a tunic is not the same way a Campanian would. It is true of my department too. When I first joined, all the scribes were from Italia. No one further away than - Jupiter - no one further away than Mediolanum. It was that devilishly funny fellow - Marcus Trebonius, that was his name! Could impersonate anyone! But basically a barbarian, Rufus. Basically a savage. These days though, half the scriptorium hails from Jupiter knows where. There is even one Herodian looking Syrian fellow from Nisibis. Does all the Parthian translations. My father would groan from his grave if he saw that. A Roman, if not too lazy, could learn the language and do the job. But no. They prefer their actresses and baths and so Syrians run the correspondence hall. Well, there is only one. But where there is one, more will follow. Have you ever just seen one Syrian, Rufus? No. They move as a pack, mark my words."
"That is true, that is very true, young man..." Gaius said. He was limbering himself to get up but the knot of pain in the small of his back had tightened like a vice. He winced and the initial attempt to rise was aborted. He looked to the young man and beckoned him closer. "Come on now, do give me a hand. It is indecorous to struggle like a landed fish in this matter. Chop, chop, lad!"
The slave hurried across and helped him up. Gaius had still not quite got used to the lack of dignity involved in these circumstances. As a man who had considered himself quite self-sufficient his entire life, it was a form of torture to find himself progressively becoming more dependent on others for such inanely simple routine tasks. He knew of some men who did not care at all. Monstrously fat senators who had slaves roll them over as if they were great barrels of oil. They had no shame. Oh, for the ease of youth again.
Now stood up he brushed himself down and adjusted the folds of his clothing, knocking off the dirt of the bench. "Come on, lad, your master will not begrudge me borrowing you services for a few minutes to get me back to my litter. Chop, chop, now, look lively."
One of the prerogatives of age was an ability to be domineering in a cantankerous way which people were often so at a loss with that they just followed. Besides, he was sure that Octavius would not miss the man for a few hours more. As a fixture in the administration, Gaius was a regular face with most of the Flavians.
"You are lucky in your master, young man. What is your name by the way? Slaves these days have such outlandish names it is quite hard to know how to pronounce half of them. It is the Britannic Wars I blame for that. Glut of slaves, you see. With so many to name you run out of names. Have to start making them up. You don't look like you are from Britannia, though, but maybe I am wrong."
This was all well intentioned and had no hint of prejudice in it. He simply could not fathom half of the garish names that slaves these days had. Hard to tell if they were slaves or just Greeks. So many "-thenes'" or "'-cles" doing the rounds. The slaves in his house had - until recently when his wife had brought a glut more back - had been given simple and perfectly memorable names. Primus. Secundus. Tertius. And so on. The more recent the arrival the unfortunately more lengthy there name but it could not be helped.
He carried on with his monologue anyway.
"It is a symptom of carelessness, you see. These jewelers. These days Rome is so rich they do not seem to mind losing jewels here and there. Their workmanship is therefore the worse for it. Now, when I was a boy, any craftsman would not so much wish to lose a single ounce of their product. That was the way business was done then, you see? Commodities were more scarce so craftsmen had to make them last. Their products, you man, were made to last. I have a belt at home that was made when Sejanus was Prefect. It still functions just as well now as the day my father bought it. It has not frayed, young man, mark my words. I would warrant you could hang a hefer from it and it would not snap. That is proper Roman work. Proper work. Chop, chop, lad, this is not a funeral march we can attempt a bit of speed in this walk I am suffering the effects of age but I am not decrepit yet!"