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In 304 c.e. Aelius Spartianus, officer and historian at the court of Diocletian in Dalmatia, is writing the biographies of past Roman rulers, including Hadrian, who has been dead for nearly 175 years. Aelius's particular charge is to investigate the unsolved mystery of the drowning death in the Nile of Hadrian's favorite, young Antinous.
Soon his duty turns twofold: the hunt for Antinous's grave, supposed to conceal proof of a conspiracy against Rome, and the murder of a wealthy army supplier and his servant. The mystery thickens as deaths multiply; scholarly work turns into a race against time and into a confrontation with risk, lies, and half-truths at the hands of priests, authorities, and former colleagues. While the trials against Christians (later known as the Great Persecution) inflame Egypt, Aelius gathers clues in odd places until his road leads inescapably to Rome.
Joined in his search by a blind retired soldier who is well experienced in counterespionage, Aelius scavenges for evidence in a world capital in decline. From Rome his breathless trail takes him to Hadrian's country estate, which is now acres and acres of monumental ruins in the wilderness. In the haunted stillness of roofless halls and overgrown gardens, Aelius deciphers the great plan of the villa, an astronomical chart confirming how the danger against Rome is clear and imminent. But who is behind it all? How deadly close is danger? In order to save the state and himself, Aelius must solve not only the puzzle of Antinous's drowning, but also the murders that have marred his path.
Internationally renowned and critically acclaimed author Ben Pastor brings her thematic skill to bear in this new historical mystery. International Praise for the Works of Ben Pastor
"History blends with absolute perfection to personal story, and the novel is like an orchestral score, with pages of rare evocative power. It is narrative one reads with admiration and even devotion."
---La Stampa Turrolibri on Kaputt Mundi
"The mystery plot develops within a perfectly wrought historical milieu. . . . A novel of great emotional impact."
---Il Giorno on The Horseman's Song
"Along with Margaret Doody and Elizabeth George, Ben Pastor is considered one of the strongest female voices of today's mystery writing. Her investigative tales show a breathless rhythm, a perfect blend of action thriller and authorial narrative."
---La Repubblica on The Dead in the Square
"Pastor's plot is well crafted, her prose sharp."
---Publishers Weekly on Lumen
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Ben Pastor was born in Rome, but her career as a college teacher and writer requires that she divide her time between the United States and Italy, where she is now doing research. Author of the internationally acclaimed Martin Bora war mysteries, she begins with Aelius Spartianus a new series of thrilling tales. In addition to the United States, her novels are published in Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One Aspalatum, Dalmatia, 15 May (Ides), Monday, a.d. 304 The pounding of mattocks and mallets followed Aelius Spartianus as he entered the compound, so much like a military camp that he wondered whether all of them, from the emperor to the last recruit, were so shaped by their duties as to think exclusively in those terms. The foursquare shape, secure and solid, to be multiturreted in the end no doubt, enclosed him with the old safety that held in without dwarfing, although its perimeter must be a mile and half at least. At once the impeccable seaside sky was locked into a rectangle of sun-filled brightness above, run by swallows and quarrelsome gulls. "Your credentials, Commander." A noncommissioned officer held out his hand, and when Aelius obliged, he saluted and let him pass. Against the massive perimeter walls, some of the apartments in the imperial compound had been built already, and from what it seemed, a series of arched courtyards would dissect the floor plan soon. Freshly hewn limestone cornices, pedestals, and steps lay orderly according to their kind, numbered and ready to be fitted. "Commander, may I see your credentials?" Same uniform, another face, another proffered hand. "Here." Aelius was curious to see that every square piece of land not specifically taken up by the workers or their tools, was carefully tended and watered, and even without much familiarity with gardening, he could tell it was cabbage that grew in neat, pale green rows. "Soldier, who put these here?" "His Divinity." "The cabbage, I mean." "His Divinity planted it." Having presented his credentials to a third guardsman, Aelius walked past the vegetables and between heaps of ground pumice stone, lime, and sand, smelling cement being mixed. Columns lay side by side just ahead, more stacked stone. For the past twenty miles--that is, from the turnoff from the main road, where a path led to the quarries--he'd overtaken ox carts laden with squared and dressed blocks, local tufa, and a cream-colored stone meant perhaps to highlight the facings of the court. Bricks were arriving, too, by the thousands, and Aelius had asked the soldiers escorting the mule pack how far they'd come. "Aquileia," they'd answered, though of course they must have picked up the loads at the harbor of Salonae up the road, if not immediately across from the building site. In what would likely become the second courtyard, a matter-of-fact, balding secretary halted his progress. His Divinity was inside, he said, overseeing the laying of pipes in the baths, so he should wait here. "Just get in line." He handed him a chalk disk with a number. "When I call your number, follow me inside." Aelius looked at the number, which read a discouraging 36. "Very well. Is there a place where I can spend the night?" he asked. "You can check with the barbers outside the gate. They rent cots on the side." It was common knowledge that Diocletian did not care for curls and bangs, so that barbers within the environs of whatever imperial residence he happened to be in, made a small fortune by promptly shearing off the locks of those who arrived fashionable, but had to enter the precinct dismally traditional. Even here, one could tell by the pale swatches of skin on their necks, how the fair Batavians and Swabians serving on this or that general's staff had had to submit to shearing. As in Aelius's case, they were here for official business, and waited their turn in the courtyard alone or in small groups, talking under their breath in their native language, or the army Latin familiar to all. The round felt army cap, dark red, common to all ranks but for the quality of its knit, stood planted like a cork on the head of some, pushed back from the forehead on others, slightly cocked to the side on most, as the song went: You'll know us by our jaunty caps Tipped to the side, eià eià You'll know us by the steely swords Hung at our side, eià eià! Spotted dogs--they were the emperor's own, bred at Nicomedia--ran freely on the grounds, sniffing and playing, collar-free and friendly. The story was that Diocletian had trained them to smell perfume on his visitors (another of the things he did not abide), but even though Aelius knew it to be a tale, still there were those officers who stopped by the closest facility before walking in, and washed their faces and necks to remove the reek of scent and bath oil. Aelius was about to retrace his steps to inquire about lodgings when, by the way the men in the courtyard turned and stood at attention, he could tell the imperial retinue was in sight. Indeed, Diocletian himself was looking out from an unfinished doorway to the side. "Ha!" He called out. "My historian--come, come! Let him through, boys; he's my historian, just in from Nicomedia. Aelius, how are you coming along with the drowning of the Boy?" The words were shouted, which created an effect. Aelius knew what Diocletian meant, but was surprised that he should recall the subject of their last correspondence. The death of an imperial favorite nearly two centuries earlier was hardly of interest to anyone but a researcher. He said apologetically, passing between the rows of frowning officers who'd have to wait even longer now, "It's the least clear episode in the life of the deified Hadrian, Your Divinity." "Well, you'll have to say something about it. If it was an accident, you have to say that. If it was murder, then you have to say that, too." "The sources are ambiguous, Your Divinity." Having come within a few steps of the emperor, Aelius greeted him showing the palms of his hands, slightly cupped, resting his forehead against the fingertips. "The sources might be, but the Nile is not." Diocletian laughed at his own joke, waving him closer. "It happened there, so you'd be well advised in traveling to Egypt, all the more since there are things I want you to look immediately into." This was altogether news. Within moments they were walking toward the other end of the compound, far from the waiting visitors. Diocletian looked well, carrying his bull-necked and tanned sixty years on a solid pair of legs. "Well, I figured it was high time for me to have a house," he was saying. "After all, a house I have never really had. A palace is not a house, and as for Rome, the whole damn thing is a palace! You may quote me, for all this calling me domine, a 'lord of the house' I have not in fact become until now. And as you can see, bad habits die hard. The military camp follows me in my own house; I had to design it in a way that was comfortable for me." That this was the same man in the presence of whom one adored the Sacred Purple was difficult to believe. Diocletian had an old tunic on, threadbare at the elbows and stained here and there. On his head, as in his old military days, hair stood short and straight, an enlisted man's haircut. Even his boots were army boots, scuffed and worn, and the left leg of his trousers hung out while the other was tucked in. "Palaces are not efficient. In the army, it's all square angles: no fumbling about, no wondering where it's at. It's either here, or there. So, as the imperial pensioner I aim to be eventually, I get to have my own kind of quarters at last. They tell me diplomats and such will look down on the vegetable patch, but if I want to grow cabbages by the window, by God, I will." Aelius agreed promptly. "There's a lot to be said for growing one's own." "That what I think. Have you seen the north gate? You have to see it. I'm showing it to everyone who comes. All the gates are going to be beautiful, but the north gate is special, my golden gate. I'm going to have four statues on top of it--me and the three others--and cornices and consoles and plinths and niches and all that. It all looks big but it isn't, you know. You could fit it six times or so inside a full-sized legionary camp." The sightseeing continued, and as he listened to the emperor, Aelius Spartianus discovered that traveling here held its own melancholy for him. He'd gone around with the army so much, he, too, hungered for a place to call home, though he had no clear idea of what "home" might be, since army camps and officers quarters were really all he'd known. In that sense, being requested to start his book with a biography of the deified Hadrian intrigued him, because that ruler had done nothing but travel for years on end. And, having come to the only place that--as far as Aelius's readings to date showed--he could call "home," he'd named its many buildings after the many places he'd visited. As if, even at home, he needed to feel that he traveled. Which of course might also mean that, everywhere Hadrian had journeyed to, he'd been thinking of his Tiburtine home. It was this disquietude and this longing that allowed him to discern Hadrian's nature, which in every other sense--its cruelty, its fickleness, its obsessive love for the Boy who'd drowned during a pleasure trip along the Nile--was so different from his own. Ever the soldier, he made ready for the travel as soon as he left the emperor's palace. Antinoe, also known as Antinoopolis, Heptanomia Province, Egypt (Aegyptus Herculia), 6 Payni (1 June, Thursday), 304 In the eight years of his absence,...
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