A Point of Law (SPQR X)

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9780312337254: A Point of Law (SPQR X)

Being under suspicion of murder did not hamper my freedom. This is because Romans are civilized people and don't clap suspects into prison like barbarians do. It would take an order of a lawfully convened court even to place me under house arrest.

That's Decius Caecilius Metellus speaking---Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus, please. He is at an outdoor rally in Rome where he is campaigning for election to the praetorship. It looks like a shoo-in, until a man named Fulvius, of whom Decius has never heard, arrives at the preelection proceedings with a small army of hoodlums and begins to shout to the assembled voters that Decius is a thief and worse. While this is not an unknown effort used to ruin a candidate's chances, it is enough to have Decius's father call a meeting of family and friends--a meeting that ends with the participants going home determined to find some answers to stop Fulvius's efforts to ruin Decius's chances.
Early the next morning, however, as Decius and his friends are on their way to the trial, Fulvius's body is found slashed to death on the steps of the basilica, where the court will be sitting. And that doesn't look good for our hero.
For those readers who have met Decius before, the next step is clear: the man is a brilliant detective, and he is certainly now in a position where that skill is needed. So it's doubly important for Decius, with the help of his wife, Julia, and the ex-slave Hermes, to find the solution to the most personal---and possibly most difficult---puzzle that has come his way.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

John Maddox Roberts is the author of numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his historical SPQR mystery series. He and his wife live in New Mexico.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
Rome at election time! Can there be any prospect more pleasant? Is it possible for any place to be more wonderful? For any activity to be more agreeable? Certainly not for me, and not that year. I was just back from Cyprus after a successful, mildly glorious, and none-too-bloody campaign to suppress a recent outburst of piracy. I had found their base, destroyed their fleet, and, best of all, captured a good part of their loot. The captives I had returned to their homes and had restored a part of the loot to the people from whom it had been stolen.
 
Luckily for me, a great deal of the loot had been impossible to trace, so it belonged to me. I had split up some of it with my men, made a handsome donation to the Treasury, and with the rest had cleared my considerable debts. I now had reached the proper age and had accumulated the requisite military experience to stand for the office of praetor. Perhaps best of all, I was a Caecilia Metella, and the men of my family expected automatic election to the higher offices by right of birth.
 
To top it all off, the weather was beautiful. It seemed that all the gods of Rome were on my side. As usual, the gods were about to play one of their infamous jokes on me.
 
The morning it all began I was at the Porticus Metelli on the Campus Martius, across from the Circus Flaminius, presiding over the consecration of my monument. This porticus, a handsome rectangle of colonnades surrounding a fine courtyard, had been erected by my family for the convenience of the people and to our own glory, and we paid for its upkeep. Some of my pirate loot had bought it a new roof. A monument in the Forum might have been more prestigious, but by that time the Forum was already so cluttered with monuments that one more would not have been noticeable. Besides, mine was not very large.
 
But in those days the City was spilling outside its old walls and the formerly rustic Campus Martius, the assembly place and drill ground for the legions of old, was now a prosperous suburb, growing full of expensive businesses and fine houses. And my monument wasn't just a statue, it was a naval trophy: a pillar studded with the bronze rams of the ships I had captured.
 
Actually, the pirate ships had had small, unimpressive rams, since pirates usually tried to board rather than sink ships, and mostly they raided shore villages so their ships had to be able to beach and escape quickly: not an easy task when you have a large ram sticking out in front. So I had had big, fearsome-looking rams cast, one for each pirate ship. Atop the pillar was a statue of Neptune, raising his trident in victory. A little grandiose for a campaign against scummy pirates, but that year all the real military glory was Caesar's so I took what I could get.
 
I was dressed in my toga candida, specially whitened with fuller's earth, to announce my candidacy for the praetorship. This surprised nobody. My friends and clients applauded as the trophy was unveiled and priests of Bellona and Neptune pronounced the consecration. They were both relatives of mine and glad to help out. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, my father's old friend, now grown old and portly, took the auguries and pronounced them favorable in his incomparable voice.
 
Many of Rome's dignitaries were there. Pompey was there to offer his congratulations, as was the tiresome Cato. I would have liked to have Cicero in attendance, but he and his brother were off in Syria putting down a Parthian incursion. My wife, Julia, and many of her relations attended, providing perhaps an excessively large Caesarian contingent. Far too many people already considered me to be one of Caesar's flunkies. My good friend Titus Milo could not attend as he was in exile for killing Clodius and had not long to live, although I could not know that at the time.
 
Still, the morning was glorious, the monument was fine, my future was bright. At last I would hold an office of real power instead of one with endless responsibilities and duties and costing a fortune to support. I would have imperium and would be attended by lictors. With luck, when I left office I would be given a province to govern, one that was at peace, where I could get rich in relative safety. Most politicians wanted a province at war where they could win glory and loot, but I knew that any such position would put me in competition with Caesar and Pompey. I knew far too much of both men to want any part of that.
 
My father, ailing and leaning on a cane, had managed to attend. He swore he'd live to see me elected consul, but I feared he would never make it that long. Indeed, it depressed me to look at the knot of my senior kinsmen who accompanied him. All the great Metelli were dead or too elderly for political significance. Dalmaticus and Numidicus had died with my grandfather's generation, the generation of Marius. My father's generation had included Metellus Celer, now dead; Creticus, there that day but also growing old and very stout; Metellus Scipio, a pontifex, a Caecilian by adoption; and Nepos, closer to me in age but Pompey's man, and Pompey was a has-been if only his supporters would realize it. They had all been Sulla's supporters, and Sulla had been dead for more than twenty-five years. The Metelli of my own generation were still numerous, but they were political nonentities. I included myself in this category.
 
Also beside me was my freedman Hermes, still uncomfortable in his citizen's toga, a garment to which he had been entitled for only a few months. Of course, for official purposes his name was Decius Caecilius Metellus, but that was for his tombstone. He elected to keep his slave name, even though it was Greek. Well, it was a god's name after all, and many citizens of my generation went by Greek nicknames, some of which were quite indecent and for which there were no Latin equivalents.
 
With the dedication ceremony done, we all trooped to the Forum, past the temples of Apollo and Bellona, through the Carmentalis Gate in the old wall, around the base of the Capitol, and into the northwestern end of the great assembly place. It was even more thronged than usual, with the elections coming up and everyone who counted for anything in from the country. It was the season for parties and politics, for intrigue, bribery, and coercion.
 
At this time most of the Senate had split into two factions: pro-Caesarian and anti-Caesarian. Caesar was overwhelmingly popular with the plebs at Rome and hated violently by a large part of the aristocratic faction. As usual, such polarization led to strange juxtapositions. Men who, a few years previously, had reserved their greatest scorn for Pompey, now courted him as the only viable rival to Caesar. Theirs was a short-sighted policy, but desperate men will grasp at anything that promises respite from the thing they fear. I tried to keep my distance from all such factions, but my family connections made that difficult. One of the year's consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, was among the most rabid of the anti-Caesarians and had not attended my little unveiling ceremony. The other consul, Sulpicius Rufus, congratulated me ostentatiously. Such were the times.
 
Doing the usual round of meeting and greeting, we made a leisurely progress toward the foot of the Capitol, near the old meeting place of the comitia, where all the year's candidates were accustomed to congregate, stand around, preen, and generally proclaim their willingness to serve Senate and People. Here our friends and well-wishers would drop by, take our hands, and trumpet loudly to anyone who would listen what splendid fellows we all were. It was one of our less dignified customs and a constant source of amazement to foreigners, but we'd always done it that way and that was a good enough reason to continue.
 
As a candidate for an office with imperium, it was my first order of business to greet the candidates I was supporting for the junior offices in order to take each by the hand and tell everyone what a splendid fellow he was.
 
First to get my hand was Lucius Antonius, standing for quaestor that year. Accompanying him was his brother Caius, who was himself serving as quaestor and would be standing down with the upcoming election. These were the brothers of the famous Marcus Antonius, who was serving with Caesar in Gaul. I had always gotten on well with these brothers, who were bad men but good company.
 
"Best of luck, Lucius!" I exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder and raising a cloud of chalk dust. There was always a temptation to overdo it with the chalk when standing for office.
 
"And to you, Decius," the younger brother said, his eyes slightly unfocused and his voice a bit unsteady. At the wine already, I thought. Typical Antonian.
 
"I suppose you have your purple-bordered toga already ordered," Caius said, referring to my aforementioned certainty of election.
 
"As luck would have it, there was some Tyrian dye among the items I acquired in Cyprus," I said. No harm in reminding everybody who'd missed my monument dedication of my latest distinction. "Julia wove me a new toga and dyed the border herself. It's on the drying rack right now. A very handsome garment, I might add." Well, my wife had supervised her women while they did the actual weaving, and, of course she had called in a professional dyer to do the border. That purple dye is the most expensive substance in the world, even more dear than saffron or silk.
 
"Some people have all the luck," said Lucius. "By the time our brother gets through with Gaul there won't be any gold, wine, or good-looking women left to steal."
 
"It'll be another ten years before there's more pirate loot to pick up," Caius said tipsily. "If Pompey conquers Parthia, there'll be nothing left for the rest of us."
 
"I suppose there'll always be India," I said, not really serious. I had no ambitions to be a conqueror so I didn't take the problem as seriously as those two dedicated thieves.
 
"Too far," Caius said. "You have to march for a year just to get there. Now Egypt--"
 
"Forget it," I said. "The Senate will never let even an Antonius take Egypt." This was a statement fraught with great portent, had I but known it.
 
"Yes, just getting elected quaestor is problem enough for now," Caius said. "And, Decius, don't worry about Fulvius. You know how to handle people like him."
 
"Yes," said Lucius, "the man is nothing. Don't let him distract you from the election."
 
"What? Fulvius?" But they were already turning away to return the greetings of the latest batch of well-wishers.
 
I walked away wondering at this enigmatic advice. Which Fulvius did they mean? There were ten or twelve senators of that name known to me, and any number of equites. Which of them had it in for me?
 
I took up my place with the other candidates for the praetorship. After an hour of loud hailing and greeting, I was approached by one of my least favorite Romans, Sallustius Crispus. The year before he had been Tribune of the People, and in that powerful office had established himself as Caesar's champion. Upon the death of Clodius, he had tried to fill those vacated sandals. Since he considered me Caesar's man, too, he acted as if we were great friends.
 
Sullustius fancied himself a historian, and for twelve years he had tried to weasel from me everything I knew about the sorry Catiline business. He was an insinuating, sleazy wretch with overlarge ambitions. Actually, I suppose he was a typical Roman politician of the day and no worse than many others I knew. I just couldn't help disliking him.
 
One thing was for certain: with his love of gossip, Sallustius would know who this Fulvius might be and what sort of grievance he had.
 
"Fine day for politicking, eh, Decius Caecilius? I'd have been at your monument dedication, but I was seeing my brother off." His younger brother, surnamed Canini for some reason I never learned, had been another of the year's quaestors.
 
"Where is he bound?" I asked, waving heartily to a band of my Subura neighbors who were there to support me and others of our district standing for office that year.
 
"Syria. He's to be proquaestor for Bibulus."
 
"He'll be safe, then. Bibulus is a cautious man. He's doing as little fighting as possible and leaving what there is to his legates." Bibulus had been careful to arrive late to take up administration of his province. Young Cassius Longinus, a mere proquaestor who had survived the debacle at Carrhae, had been successfully driving the Parthians back until he arrived. The boy deserved a triumph for it; but with the tiny forces at his command he had been unable to score a decisive victory, and he was considered too young and too low-ranking for such an honor. So little praise for so much accomplishment may well account for his later hostility toward Caesar--but I get ahead of myself.
 
"Just as well," Sallustius was saying. "The talents of my family lie in the literary field, not the military." I would have said neither, but I didn't.
 
"A little while ago I was told to ignore somebody named Fulvius. Who is he and why should I ignore him?"
 
"You haven't heard?" he said gleefully. Sallustius loved to be the bearer of bad news. "This morning one Marcus Fulvius denounced you before the extortion court for corruption and plundering in Cyprus and adjacent waters."
 
"What!" At my shout heads turned so violently that you could hear vertebrae popping all over the Forum.
 
"Calm yourself, Decius." He smiled. "The man's just an aspiring politician out to make a name for himself. Prosecuting a successful man for corruption is how it's usually done. It's how Cicero made his reputation, you know."
 
"Yes, but Verres really did plunder Sicily with legendary thoroughness. I did nothing of the sort in Cyprus!"
 
"What difference does that make?" he asked, honestly puzzled. "You should be glad it's an accusation of extortion and plunder. It might've been for screwing a Vestal Virgin, and think how undignified the trial would've been then."
 
"I'm to take it that his accusation contained more than just a lot of noise and wind?"
 
"He says he has a number of witnesses to back him up."
 
"Cyprians? He'll be laughed out of Rome if he hauls a pack of half-Greek mongrels before a Roman jury."
 
"He claims he has Roman citizens ready to swear before the gods what a bad boy you were."
 
"Damn!" I had offended a number of Romans during my stay on Cyprus. Most were businessmen and financiers, who were profiting handsomely from the pirates' activities. "Who is this man and where is he from?" I suspected Sallustius would know, and he didn't disappoint me.
 
"He's from Baiae, been here in Rome for the last few months, making connections and learning politics from high-placed friends. I don't doubt he's had some expert advice as to how to go about it."
 
"I've spent so much time away from Rome these past few years it's hard to keep track...

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