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Gaius Julius Gratianus

Old Bones

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June 75 CE

Gardens of Sallust

It was no fun getting old. True, it was undeniably better than being dead but, in fairness, there were no dead people to ask about the nature of their current state, so his theory was based purely on assumption and not fact. If, after death, you still felt all the aches and pains you had carried with you in your life then the Gods were absolutely terrible indeed to visit that sort of fate on mankind. Years ago he would not have thought at all about the mechanics of sitting down. It was just something you did. You did it without thinking. These days, however, it was akin to watching masons lowering keystones into a vault with their treadmill cranes. A slow, deliberate and painstaking process.

The warm weather was meant to ease his aches. If it did, it did so only in the most fractional way as to be barely noticeable. His knees stung and clicked as he lowered himself onto a polished stone bench and a spasm of pain shot up his back. Two children ran along the gravel path in front of him, their nurse slowly following behind paying them scant attention, lost in her own thoughts. He envied them their youth and lack of cares.

He did not want to be here. He was no boor but he had little time for gardens. Ordinarily, in fact, he had very little time for anything save for work. However, on the orders of his doctor, he was now to take two hours off in the afternoon every other day and engage - he was ordered - in something outdoors that was not work. What, did the Greek fool expect him, at his age, to suddenly take up boxing or long distance running? Honestly, considering the consultancy fees he was paying this quack he expected much better than that. At least you could almost believe that some remedy like applying the liver of a dead lamb to the small of his back might actually work. The only thing which gave any relief was his daily massages but - again, on doctor's orders - use of a bath-house, or at least using them more than once a day, was forbidden. Something to do with the steam. He had not quite followed the logic.

He had his own private garden at home and, if he had the choice, he would much rather be there. Unfortunately, he did not have a choice. Any peace he may have hoped to find there would be ruined by his family who seemed adamant to drive him to an early grave. He and his wife got on very well - when they were not together. When they happened to be in close proximity familiarity acted as a perfect reminder of decades' worth of mutual dissatisfaction. Years ago they would have been content to silent seethe in silence and grow old in measured bitterness. Advancing age had, instead, loosened the bonds of their tongues and years' worth of biting them had given them the sharpest of edges.

His children were different but no better. When you had a child you did not necessarily expect it to take after you fully. You did not expect them to be a genius or a prodigy or anything like that. However, if you had several and all of them turned out to have all the appearance of not having a single, fully formed brain between them you either had to wonder whether the Gods were deliberately mocking you or whether your wife was having an affair. As all of his children bore a resemblance to him in looks (if not in temperament) he had to face the fact that somehow he must have offended the Gods. None showed any interest in hard work or anything beyond finding new and expensive means of scratching itches of a material and/or sensual nature. At first he had fought against these, tried to impose some thrift and traditional Roman virtues in them. His campaign, in this regard, had been about as successful as that of General Varus across the Rhine. Initial tastes of defeat had tempered any desire to continue the struggle. As with his wife, he found his children much more acceptable when they were in his memory and not in his presence.

So, for those reasons, the possibility of allowing himself a brief bit of respite in the comfort of the home he paid for and was nominally in charge of was denied to him. So much for the respect due to a Roman father. Instead, he was now forced into the ridiculous situation of having to kick his heels in various public spaces around the city, simply killing time until he could return to his offices on the Palatine. Presumably his doctor, with all his learning, assumed that the administration of the Empire could just be put on hold for a few hours? He, of course, did not run it but if there was no one to take charge of the army of scribes then he could only imagine what chaos would ensue. If he was honest with himself, this was now the third week of his new regime and he was oddly disappointed that the department had run itself, with no discernable issues, in his absence. He was forced to face the fact that he was not a keystone or an otherwise necessary component in the edifice of the Imperial bureaucracy. It had functioned before him. It would function long after him. His legacy, it would seem, would ultimately be a non-descript tomb on the Appian Way and three grown children who shared none of the values he had worked hard to preserve all his life and had learned at the knee of his father.

And now he also had to face the fact that he would have trouble getting himself up off this bench without a degree of indignity. The Fates were, indeed, cruel.

He sighed and scuffed at the gravel, wondering if it was time to return to the garden's main gate and take his litter back to the Palatine.

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Part of Rufus' job as his master's body slave was to attend his master wherever he went, unless told otherwise. What that meant, today, was that Rufus was out and about with his master when he noticed that one of his rings had lost its stone. Which meant that Rufus was dispatched to retrace their steps and try to find said stone. He was a slave and at the same time was considered trustworthy enough not to find it and keep it for himself while claiming that he had not found it. Though whether that thought had occurred in a similar form to Rufus' master was not something he wanted to think about.

It was June and June was hot, even in the Gardens of Sallust, which was where Octavius Flavius Alexander and thus his slave had spent the morning, the senator in conversation with various friends while enjoying the cool greenness of the gardens, the slave alternately appreciating the lushness of the gardens and wishing he could have a drink. Until the senator had made some sort of gesture or something and noticed the stone had fallen from its setting in one of the two rings he was wearing.

Rufus had been able to slake his thirst at a fountain once out of his master's sight, before turning to his task and retracing their steps through the gardens, trying to spot the shine of the cut ruby on the path or in the grass beside it. If only it hadn't been seen and picked up by someone else!

There was an old man sitting on a bench where Octavius had sat earlier and as he kicked at the gravel by his feet, Rufus spotted the flash of red he'd been searching for.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, stepping closer. "I was sent to look for something, I think it's by your feet."

 

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"Hmm?"

Gaius had been settling, with minor discomfort, into one of his favorite hobbies these days: a silent reverie during which he could list everything that was wrong with his family. It certainly made the time pass quickly. He opened his eyes and looked up, seeing a red-haired young man staring back at him expectantly. His eyes adjusted to the brightness, with rays of afternoon golden sunshine shimmering through the shifting leaves of the trees overhead.

Judging by the way the man was dressed and his general demeanor, he was a slave or maybe a freedman, but certainly attached to someone of some substance. He, for example, would not have any of his slaves go about the city dressed like a ragamuffin. They may be chattels but they were chattels which acted as a moving advertisement of their master. A sloppily turned out slave meant a sloppy master. In fact, his occupation these days, was in trying to limit the sumptuary excess his wife insisted on inflicting on the slaves. They should be well dressed, yes, but there was no need to spend a fortune in kitting them out in expensive clothing with gold thread lacing and unnecessarily vibrant colors. It did not do for the slaves of an Imperial functionary to be seen to be sporting overly expensive attire.

He looked down in the direction of the young man's expectant gaze. His eyes widened in surprise as he noticed that, close by his foot, lay a blood red, cut ruby. It was quite amazing that in a public place, such as this, such a small but expensive piece had lain undisturbed. That would have made a fine windfall for someone. Like, for example, this young man...

"Ah, this?" he said, pointing down at the ruby. "You'll forgive me if I do not pick it up, it would take too long. You were sent for it, were you? I presume it belongs to your employer?"

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"Oh no, that's all right, sir." Rufus stooped to pick the ruby up - it was the one from his master's ring. That had been another reason Rufus had been sent to find it - he would recognise the thing, being the one to help his master dress and array himself in whichever jewellery he wanted to wear that day. (Which wasn't that much, as Octavius Flavius wasn't as ostentatious as some people could be, flaunting their wealth to all and sundry). He tucked the stone safely into his tunic and stepped back. "My master's - it wasn't set right in the ring or something."

Which no doubt meant a trip for Rufus to take it to get re-set, supposing Octavius Flavius chose to delegate such a task rather than going himself on his way to or from the Curia or somewhere.

"I'm sorry for disturbing you," he added.

 

@Lauren

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"Not at all," Gaius replied. He gave the young man a quizzical look.

He wasn't one of the vigiles, it was not his job to spot thieves or the like but he found the answer vague. The ruby wasn't Gaius' and he supposed he ought not to care whose it actually was and whether it made its way back to its legal home or not. Still, wasn't the problem with modern generation that they were only too willing to sit back and let bad things happen. In the good old days of his youth, a true Roman would have acted honorably and ensured that justice was done, regardless of where he was or what the subject matter was. It was just another symptom of the degradation of the times that people could just stroll along and scoop up rubies and no one would bat an eye.

It would not have happened under the reign of the Divine Claudius. That was for sure. In those days if you found so much as a copper as on the pavement you would have made diligent enquiries as to find its owner. In those days no one would have been careless enough to drop so much as a copper as because people back then realized the true value of money. Fancy just leaving a ruby lying around. Who would do that? No, not in his day. These damned youths.

"It is your master's, eh? Careless of the fellow to lose something of value, even if it is not so much value to him, perhaps? And who, pray tell, is this master of yours who drops rubies where-ever he goes?"

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"Octavius Flavius Alexander, sir," Rufus replied. "And honestly, it hadn't been set in the ring properly, my master only noticed it gone a short while ago." He wasn't about to volunteer any more information about his master than he needed to; one reason he had the position in the household that he had was due to his discretion. He'd been lucky to find the thing - if it had fallen out anywhere else, he was positive that someone would have scooped it up and thanked the gods for smiling on them. It was probably worth more than Rufus himself, on the open market. Or even in the back alleys of the Subura or wherever the underworld gathered.

"I don't think he'll buy from that jeweller again after this, sir." Not if this was the sort of quality of his work.

 

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"No, no, he won't I suppose," Gaius said in slow, measured tones.

You see, he was right: it is a sign of the times. When he had been a young man you could trust a jeweler to set a stone properly. Of course, when he was younger the fashion had not been to cover yourself in jewels to the same sort of extent that the young fellows did not. It had been thought more appropriate for a courtesan than a councilor to sport such finery but times had changed. Yes, times had changed. His daughter was forever bothering him to increase her allowance to buy some new frippery or other. It was not unique to his womenfolk. He remembered with disappointment how his eldest son had only the other day come home, sporting some thick golden chain necklace as if he was some sort of Aventine landlord. When Gaius was young he would not have dressed so damn foolishly. Back then money was to be spent on the appropriate things. You didn't flash your wealth. Gods, he remembered one man he had worked with when he started out. What was his name. Bassus something? Bassianus? No, not it was Gessus, wasn't it. No, that was Numerius Gessus, their old neighbor from what...fifteen years ago. He had moved to Beatica. No, Belgica.

The slave was looking at him as if Gaius was somehow wasting his time.

Slaves. They were so impatient these days.

Ah, so he was one of the Imperial family's brood, eh? No wonder this red haired youth was such a jackanapes. Claudius would not have allowed any slave in the Palace to have been so uppity. No, he reserved that right only to his freedmen!

"Ah, one of Octavius' men, eh? I work at the Palace you know? It is a good thing you found this, young man, because I don't think he would appreciate it being known that he was so flippant with his wealth that it quite literally falls off his fingers."

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"Yes, sir." One of... Rufus was proud of his position as Octavius' body slave, but not so proud that he needed to tell all and sundry exactly what his place in the household was - and anyway, if this man worked in the palace, he wouldn't appreciate Rufus giving that detail away. "I thought you looked familiar, sir."

Now he had a place where he might know this man from, coming up with a name might be easier - Rufus had slowly grown used to the sheer numbers of people that Octavius interacted with on a daily basis and begun to learn names of the people he came in contact with more frequently. Gaius Julius (that bit was easy; there were several of those among the Imperial freedmen who made up the vast majority of the clerks and other functionaries in the Palace) Gracchus? No - something like it, though. Gra...something. Gratianus, that was it.

"You'd think, sir, that a jeweller working with valuable gems would ensure his work didn't fall to pieces merely in the course of being worn, though," Rufus replied. It was hardly his master's fault that the gem had parted ways with the ring!

 

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"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!"

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Rufus stepped back over as soon as it became clear that the old man could not rise on his own, and assisted him to his feet. He was sure that Octavius would not mind the other borrowing Rufus' services for a little while; he'd been sent to try to find a small object and who knew how long that search would take, after all, so there had been some flexibility in his expectation of when Rufus would return in the first place.

"Yes, sir," he said, when he could fit a reply in sideways - he knew he was lucky in his master, and had ample experience of that. "My name's Rufus, sir - the hair, you see." A completely unimaginative name for a redhead, but his old master could not be accused of having any sort of imagination whatsoever. It was the first time anyone had said that Rufus did not look like someone from Britannia - the red hair was the first thing anyone noticed of him, and most people were astonished to find that he spoke Latin with not the slightest trace of any accent other than that of Campania. "My mother was from Britannia, sir, but I was born in Campania."

He had to hide a smile as the other carried on talking without paying the slightest heed to him. "I don't suppose it was made by a Roman craftsman at all, sir - there are so many people who have come here from other places, just because they want to be associated with the greatest city in the world." That would probably produce another diatribe, but Rufus didn't mind; the other seemed to be a decent sort of person, overall, and who knew what this small good turn might lead to in the future? Having a master like Octavius Flavius Alexander was one thing, but having his own acquaintance and connections could not be a bad thing.

 

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"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."

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"Oh, it wasn't Octavius who chose my name, sir - my old master named me and Octavius Flavius kept it," Rufus said cheerfully when he could - this old gentleman could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Not that Rufus was at all averse to it; he probably didn't get anyone to talk to from one day to another.

"I suppose it must be easier to teach a Syrian Latin than for a Roman to learn Syrian or Parthian or whatever," he added. And he couldn't recall seeing one Syrian, never mind a pack of them - although he could well have seen one without knowing he was Syrian, of course. Always possible!

The Augustus was, as far as Rufus knew, an Emperor somewhat in the mode of Octavian, the Divine Augustus.

"I suppose you must have seen a great deal of change in your time, sir?" he said once it seemed that the other had run out of steam for a moment.

 

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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?"

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It was a slow stroll through the gardens, a very easy pace indeed, and one that allowed Rufus to properly enjoy the scents of the place. He honestly didn't mind lending an arm to keep the old gentleman steady, and the chatter was pleasant enough - he had been talked at enough in his life, but this was different because the gentleman was treating Rufus as a person in a way that few people had before (free people, anyway; it was always different among slaves themselves, of course).

Rufus had been all of about eleven or twelve during the civil war, and had no real knowledge of it; his old master had been an equite and not really involved in any of it - his slaves certainly hadn't been.

"Ah. Um. He knew that he couldn't run the Empire without you, sir?" It was a guess; Rufus had managed to piece together that this was one of the Imperial freedmen who ran so much of the bureaucracy that his current master decried (while relying on it) - and even that hadn't taken much guesswork because he'd outright said he worked at the Palace, and he was definitely not a slave, not if he was head of some sort of government department. Men like that had slaves working for them, they weren't slaves themselves - even though Rufus was perfectly well aware that there were Imperial slaves who did have slaves of their own, which was the sort of recursion that just made his head ache when he tried to figure out how all that worked. He ended up feeling sorry for the poor bastards who knew their masters were slaves themselves.

 

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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."

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"It must have been quite a shock to see that, sir," Rufus said. If the truth were known, he was quite enjoying this diversion from the usual run-of-the-mill stuff that made up the bulk of his daily work. Attending a man like Octavius Flavius was far more interesting than his old life as a house slave, and then there were days like this. "The head of the... emperor's scribes, sir? Something important, anyway - and the most important stuff isn't glamorous, but it's needed, and how would things run without the less glamorous work getting done?"

His own work wasn't visible, in the main, or glamorous, yet if it wasn't done, Octavius Flavius wouldn't be presentable when standing in the Senate or receiving clients who must be important in their own spheres to be clients to the Imperial Family.

"If I do get my freedom, I'm not likely to end up with a big house anywhere unless I get very lucky," he added with a smile. "A small farm somewhere would be nice, though."

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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."

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"I'll happily settle for a quiet life, me," Rufus replied. "There's too much danger in anything else. And I'm my master's body slave, which is higher than I ever expected. My old master was an equite and nobody famous, and the master I have now is the Emperor's brother. Not many slaves can say that much - well, I'm sure the Emperor as a lot of slaves, but there are more whose masters aren't part of the Imperial family - and now I sound like an idiot!"

He shrugged. "I don't know about praise, I think most slaves would settle for an occasional thank you from their masters." He shrugged; if the old gentleman chose to report him to his master, well, it would be his own fault for allowing himself to be drawn into this conversation so easily. Of course the man did not think of slaves like that, as people who would like a word of thanks for a thankless task. They were meant to be obedient and do as they were told without complaint - one rule for the free men of the world and another for those who served them. It would always be thus.

 

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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."

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There was something melancholic in the old man's expression now, and Rufus couldn't say for the life of him why. He'd probably said something wrong, or something.

"Thank you, sir," he said - it was not often, really, that anyone offered to commend him to his master, for any reason. He did his duty well enough and most slaves preferred not to come to the master's attention for anything. Rufus served in close proximity to his master, though, and Octavius Flavius probably knew his merits already, which didn't mean that Rufus didn't appreciate the offer. Anyway 'for no good reason' was wrong - Rufus was there, the old gentleman wanted to talk, and even if Rufus had not been a slave and thus unable to stem the conversation, good manners meant listening. And it had been an interesting conversation anyway.

"I will keep that in mind, sir," he said. "Though I thought most people working in that part of the Palace were slaves? Obviously not people like you, who run it, I mean, sir. But everyone else?"

 

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"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.

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"I will, sir, if I'm ever in a position to choose a career." Rufus supposed that his master would help him if he did want something like that - patrons helped their clients with business and career decisions all the time, after all, and his master would know all the right people for something like that. And probably his being in that sort of position would help his master, too, which would be even more reason for Octavius Flavius to help him get into such a career.

"Would you like to sit down while I find your litter for you, sir?" he asked as they approached the gates at a snail's pace. There were benches just inside the wall of the gardens where he could sit if he wanted; Rufus was fairly sure that he was not entirely steady enough for Rufus to simply abandon him while he went for the man's litter, although he had got into the gardens and to the other bench on his own (well, Rufus presumed it was on his own; he hadn't had a slave attending him that Rufus had seen.)

"You should consider bringing a slave with you, sir - someone in your position ought to be attended, after all." And even a house slave could do the job, and would probably appreciate being out of the house to do so, as well. Who knew how long he would have spent sitting on that bench if Rufus had not been there to help him get to his feet.

 

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"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?"

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"Well, you don't have to be the same sort of master as them," Rufus said, a little amused that the old gentleman was more concerned about his father's condition when it was the mother's that determined the condition of the child, backed up by the paterfamilias. He supposed there might have been some freeborn children condemned to servitude if there was doubt as to the paternity. 

"Everyone has slaves, and most people would be quite capable of doing for themselves the things they have their slaves do." He helped the gentleman to sit, thinking that any slave he had would surely end up one of the most spoilt slaves in Rome. 

He asked whose litter he was looking for, and had his suspicions confirmed: this was Gaius Julius Gratianus. "I'll be back in a moment, sir - and it really is my master's. You could ask him, if you want."

 

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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?"

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