Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra
HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London, SE1 9GF
This paperback edition 2008
First published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2007
Copyright © Colleen McCullough 2007
Colleen McCullough asserts the moral right to
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is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are
the work of the author’s imagination, and, while
historical characters make appearances in the book,
this is a fictionalised account.
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Source ISBN: 9780007225804
Ebook edition: September 2008 ISBN: 9780007283712
For the unsinkable Anthony Cheethamwith love and enormous respect
Antony in the East
Quintus Dellius was not a warlike man, nor a warrior when in battle. Whenever possible he concentrated upon what he did best, namely to advise his superiors so subtly that they came to believe the ideas were genuinely theirs.
So after Philippi, in which conflict he had neither distinguished himself nor displeased his commanders, Dellius decided to attach his meager person to Mark Antony and go east.
It was never possible, Dellius reflected, to choose Rome; it always boiled down to choosing sides in the massive, convulsive struggles between men determined to control – no, be honest, Quintus Dellius! – determined to rule Rome. With the murder of Caesar by Brutus, Cassius and the rest, everyone had assumed that Caesar’s close cousin, Mark Antony, would inherit his name, his fortune, and his literally millions of clients. But what had Caesar done? Made a last will and testament that left everything to his eighteen-year-old great-nephew, Gaius Octavius! He hadn’t even mentioned Antony in that document, a blow from which Antony had never really recovered, so sure had he been that he would step into Caesar’s high red boots. And, typical Antony, he had made no plans to take second place. At first the youth everyone now called Octavian hadn’t worried him; Antony was a man in his prime, a famous general of troops and owner of a large faction in the Senate, whereas Octavian was a sickly adolescent as easy to crush as the carapace of a beetle. Only it hadn’t worked out that way, and Antony hadn’t known how to deal with a crafty, sweet-faced boy with the intellect and wisdom of a seventy-year-old. Most of Rome had assumed that Antony, a notorious spendthrift in desperate need of Caesar’s fortune to pay his debts, had been a part of the conspiracy to eliminate Caesar, and his conduct following the deed had only reinforced that. He made no attempt to punish the assassins; rather, he had virtually given them the full protection of the law. But Octavian, passionately attached to Caesar, had gradually eroded Antony’s authority and forced him to outlaw them. How had he done that? By suborning a good percentage of Antony’s legions to his own cause, winning over the People of Rome, and stealing the thirty thousand talents of Caesar’s war chest so brilliantly that no one, even Antony, had managed to prove that Octavian was the thief. Once Octavian had soldiers and money, he gave Antony no choice but to admit him into power as a full equal. After that, Brutus and Cassius made their own bid for power; uneasy allies, Antony and Octavian had taken their legions to Macedonia and met the forces of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. A great victory for Antony and Octavian that hadn’t solved the vexed question of who would end in ruling as the First Man in Rome, an uncrowned king paying lip service to the hallowed illusion that Rome was a Republic, governed by an upper house, the Senate, and several Assemblies of the People. Together, the Senate and People of Rome: Senatus Populusque Romanus, SPQR.
Typically – Dellius’s thoughts meandered on – victory at Philippi had found Mark Antony without a viable strategy to put Octavian out of the power equation, for Antony was a force of Nature, lusty, impulsive, hot-tempered and quite lacking foresight. His personal magnetism was great, of that kind which draws men by virtue of the most masculine qualities: courage, an Herculean physique, a well-deserved reputation as a lover of women, and enough brain to make him a formidable orator in the House. His weaknesses tended to be excused, for they were equally masculine: pleasures of the flesh, and heedless generosity.
His answer to the problem of Octavian was to divide the Roman world between them, with a sop thrown to Marcus Lepidus, high priest and owner of a large senatorial faction. Sixty years of on-again, off-again civil war had finally bankrupted Rome, whose people – and the people of Italia – groaned under poor incomes, shortages of wheat for bread, and a growing conviction that the betters who ruled them were as incompetent as they were venal. Unwilling to see his status as a popular hero undermined, Antony resolved that he would take the lion’s share, leave the rotting carcass to that jackal Octavian.
So, after Philippi, the victors had carved up the provinces to suit Antony, not Octavian, who inherited the least enviable parts: Rome, Italia, and the big islands of Sicilia, Sardinia and Corsica, where the wheat was grown to feed the peoples of Italia, long since incapable of feeding themselves. It was a tactic in keeping with Antony’s character, ensuring that the only face Rome and Italia saw would belong to Octavian, while his own glorious deeds elsewhere were assiduously circulated throughout Rome and Italia. Octavian to collect the odium, himself the stout-hearted winner of laurels far from the center of government. As for Lepidus, he had charge of the other wheat province, Africa, a genuine backwater.
Ah, but Marcus Antonius did indeed have the lion’s share! Not only of the provinces, but of the legions. All he lacked was money, which he expected to squeeze out of that perennial golden fowl, the East. Of course he had taken all three of the Gauls for himself; though in the West, they were thoroughly pacified by Caesar, and rich enough to contribute funds for his coming campaigns. His trusted marshals commanded Gaul’s legions, of which there were many; Gaul could live without his presence.
Caesar had been killed within three days of setting out for the East, where he had intended to conquer the fabulously rich and formidable Kingdom of the Parthians, using its plunder to set Rome on her feet again. He had planned to be away for five years, and had planned his campaign with all his legendary genius. So now, with Caesar dead, it would be Marcus Antonius – Mark Antony – who conquered the Parthians and set Rome upon her feet again. Antony had conned Caesar’s plans and decided that they showed all the old boy’s brilliance, but that he himself could improve on them. One of the reasons why he had come to this conclusion lay in the nature of the group of men who went East with him; every last one of them was a crawler, a sucker-up, and knew exactly how to play that biggest of fish, Mark Antony, so susceptible to praise, flattery and the fleshpots.
Unfortunately Quintus Dellius did not yet have Antony’s ear, though his advice would have been equally flattering, balm to Antony’s ego. So, riding down the Via Egnatia on a galled and grumpy pony, his balls bruised and his unsupported legs aching, Quintus Dellius waited his chance, which still hadn’t come when Antony crossed into Asia and stopped in Nicomedia, the capital of his province of Bithynia.
Somehow, every potentate and client-king Rome owned in the East had sensed that the great Marcus Antonius would head for Nicomedia, and had scuttled there in their dozens, commandeering the best inns or setting up camp in style on the city’s outskirts. A beautiful place on its dreamy, placid inlet, a place that most people had forgotten lay very close to dead Caesar’s heart. But, because it had, Nicomedia still looked prosperous, for Caesar had exempted it from taxes, and Brutus and Cassius, hurrying west to Macedonia, had not ventured north enough to rape it the way they had raped a hundred cities from Judaea to Thrace. Thus the pink and purple marble palace in which Antony took up residence was able to offer legates like Dellius a tiny room in which to stow his luggage and the senior among his servants, his freedman Icarus. That done, Dellius sallied forth to see what was going on, and work out how he was going to snaffle a place on a couch close enough to Antony to participate in the Great Man’s conversation during dinner.
Kings aplenty thronged the public halls, ashen-pale, hearts palpitating because they had backed Brutus and Cassius. Even old King Deiotarus of Galatia, senior in age and years of service, had made the effort to come, escorted by the two among his sons whom Dellius presumed were his favorites. Antony’s bosom friend Poplicola had pointed out Deiotarus to him, but after that Poplicola admitted himself at a loss – too many faces, not enough service in the East to recognize them.
Smilingly demure, Dellius moved among the groups in their outlandish apparel, eyes glistening at the size of an emerald or the weight of gold upon a coiffed head. Of course he had good Greek, so Dellius was able to converse with these absolute rulers of places and peoples, his smile growing wider at the thought that, despite the emeralds and the gold, every last one of them was here to pay obsequious homage to Rome, their ultimate ruler. Rome, who had no king, whose senior magistrates wore a simple, purple-bordered white toga and prized the iron ring of some senators over a ton of gold rings; an iron ring meant that a Roman family had been in and out of office for five hundred years. A thought that made poor Dellius automatically hide his gold senatorial ring in a fold of toga; no Dellius had yet reached the consulship, no Dellius had been prominent a hundred years ago, let alone five. Caesar had worn an iron ring, but Antony did not; the Antonii were not quite antique enough. And Caesar’s iron ring had gone to Octavian.
Oh, air, air! He needed fresh air!
The palace was built around a huge peristyle garden that had a fountain at its middle athwart a long, shallow pool. It was fashioned of pure white Parian marble on a fishy theme – mermen, tritons, dolphins – and it was rare in that it had never been painted to imitate real life’s colors. Whoever had sculpted its glorious creatures had been a master. A connoisseur of fine art, Dellius gravitated to the fountain so quickly that he failed to notice that someone had beaten him to it, was sitting in a dejected huddle on its broad rim. As Dellius neared, the fellow lifted his head; no chance to avoid a meeting now.
He was a foreigner, and a noble one, for he wore an expensive robe of Tyrian purple brocade artfully interwoven with gold thread, and upon a head of snakelike, greasy black curls sat a skullcap made of cloth of gold. Dellius had seen enough Easterners to know that the curls were not dirty greasy; Easterners pomaded their locks with perfumed creams. Most of the royal supplicants inside were Greeks whose ancestors had dwelled in the East for centuries, but this man was a genuine Asian local of a kind Dellius recognized because there were many like him living in Rome. Oh, not clad in Tyrian purple and gold! Sober fellows who favored homespun fabrics in dark plain colors. Even so, the look was unmistakable; he who sat on the edge of the fountain was a Jew.
‘May I join you?’ Dellius asked in Greek, his smile charming.
An equally charming smile appeared on the stranger’s jowly face; a perfectly manicured hand flashing with rings gestured. ‘Please do. I am Herod of Judaea.’
‘And I am Quintus Dellius, Roman legate.’
‘I couldn’t bear the crush inside,’ said Herod, thick lips turning down. ‘Faugh! Some of those ingrates haven’t had a bath since their midwives wiped them down with a dirty rag.’
‘You said Herod. No king or prince in front of it?’
‘There should be! My father was Antipater, a prince of Idumaea who stood at the right hand of King Hyrcanus of the Jews. Then the minions of a rival for the throne murdered him. He was too well liked by the Romans, including Caesar. But I dealt with his killer,’ Herod said, voice oozing satisfaction. ‘I watched him die, wallowing in the stinking corpses of shellfish at Tyre.’
‘No death for a Jew,’ said Dellius, who knew that much. He inspected Herod more closely, fascinated by the man’s ugliness. Though their ancestry was poles apart, Herod bore a peculiar likeness to Octavian’s intimate Maecenas – they both resembled frogs. Herod’s protruding eyes, however, were not Maecenas’s blue; they were the stony glassy black of obsidian. ‘As I remember,’ Dellius continued, ‘all of southern Syria declared for Cassius.’
‘Including the Jews. And I personally am beholden to the man, for all that Antonius’s Rome deems him a traitor. He gave me permission to put my father’s murderer to death.’
‘Cassius was a warrior,’ Dellius said pensively. ‘Had Brutus been one too, the result at Philippi might have been different.’
‘The birds twitter that Antonius also was handicapped by an inept partner.’
‘Odd how loudly birds can twitter,’ Dellius answered with a grin. ‘So what brings you to see Marcus Antonius, Herod?’
‘Did you perhaps notice five dowdy sparrows among the flocks of gaudy pheasants inside?’
‘No, I can’t say that I did. Everyone looked like a gaudy pheasant to me.’
‘Oh, they’re there, my five Sanhedrin sparrows! Preserving their exclusivity by standing as far from the rest as they can.’
‘That, in there, means they’re in a corner behind a pillar.’
‘True,’ said Herod, ‘but when Antonius appears, they’ll push to the front, howling and beating their breasts.’
‘You haven’t told me yet why you’re here.’
‘Actually, it’s more that the five sparrows are here. I’m watching them like a hawk. They intend to see the Triumvir Marcus Antonius and put their case to him.’
‘What’s their case?’
‘That I am intriguing against the rightful succession, and that I, a gentile, have managed to draw close enough to King Hyrcanus and his family to be considered as a suitor for Queen Alexandra’s daughter. An abbreviated version, but to hear the unexpurgated one would take years.’
Dellius stared, blinked his shrewd hazel eyes. ‘A gentile? I thought you said you were a Jew.’
‘Not under Mosaic law. My father married Princess Cypros of Nabataea. An Arab. And since Jews count descent in the mother’s line, my father’s children are gentiles.’
‘Then – then what can you accomplish here, Herod?’
‘Everything, if I am let do what must be done. The Jews need a heavy foot on their necks – ask any Roman governor of Syria since Pompeius Magnus made Syria a province. I intend to be King of the Jews, whether they like it or not. And I can do it. If I marry a Hasmonaean princess directly descended from Judas Maccabeus. Our children will be Jewish, and I intend to have many children.’
‘So you’re here to speak in your defence?’ Dellius asked.
‘I am. The deputation from the Sanhedrin will demand that I and all the members of my family be exiled on pain of death. They’re not game to do that without Rome’s permission.’
‘Well, there’s not much in it when it comes to backing Cassius the loser,’ said Dellius cheerily. ‘Antonius will have to choose between two factions that supported the wrong man.’
‘But my father supported Julius Caesar,’ Herod said. ‘What I have to do is convince Marcus Antonius that if I am allowed to live in Judaea and advance my status, I will always stand for Rome. He was in Syria years ago when Gabinius was its governor, so he must be aware how obstreperous the Jews are. But will he remember that my father helped Caesar?’
‘Hmm,’ purred Dellius, squinting at the rainbow sparkles of the water jetting from a dolphin’s mouth. ‘Why should Marcus Antonius remember that, when more recently you were Cassius’s man? As, I gather, was your father before he died.’
‘I am no mean advocate, I can plead my case.’
‘Provided you are permitted the chance.’ Dellius got up and held out his hand, shook Herod’s warmly. ‘I wish you well, Herod of Judaea. If I can help you, I will.’
‘You would find me very grateful.’
‘Rubbish!’ Dellius laughed as he walked away. ‘All your money is on your back.’
Mark Antony had been remarkably sober since marching for the East, but the sixty men in his entourage had expected that Nicomedia would see Antony the Sybarite erupt. An opinion shared by a troupe of musicians and dancers who had hastened from Byzantium at the news of his advent in the neighborhood; from Spain to Babylonia, every member of the League of Dionysiac Entertainers knew the name Marcus Antonius. Then, to general amazement, Antony had dismissed the troupe with a bag of gold and stayed sober, albeit with a sad, wistful expression on his ugly-handsome face.
‘Can’t be done, Poplicola,’ he said to his best friend with a sigh. ‘Did you see how many potentates were lining the road as we came in? Cluttering up the halls the moment the steward opened the doors? All here to steal a march on Rome – and me. Well, I don’t intend to let that happen. I didn’t choose the East as my bailiwick to be diddled out of the goodies the East possesses in such abundance. So I’ll sit dispensing justice in Rome’s name with a clear head and a settled stomach.’ He giggled. ‘Oh, Lucius, do you remember how disgusted Cicero was when I spewed into your toga on the rostra?’ Another giggle, a shrug. ‘Business, Antonius, business!’ he apostrophized himself. ‘They’re hailing me as the new Dionysus, but they’re about to discover that for the time being I’m dour old Saturn.’ The red-brown eyes, too small and close together to please a portrait sculptor, twinkled. ‘The new Dionysus! God of wine and pleasure – I must say I rather like the comparison. The best they did for Caesar was simply God.’
Having known Antony since they were boys, Poplicola didn’t say that he thought God was superior to the God of This or That; his chief job was to keep Antony governing, so he greeted this speech with relief. That was the thing about Antony; he could suddenly cease his carousing – sometimes for months on end – especially when his sense of self-preservation surfaced. As clearly it had now. Alocus he was right; the potentatic invasion meant trouble as well as hard work, therefore it behooved Antony to get to know them individually; learn which rulers should keep their thrones, which lose them to more capable men. In other words, which rulers were best for Rome.
All of which meant that Dellius held out scant hope that he would achieve his goal of moving closer to Antony in Nicomedia. Then Fortuna entered the picture, commencing with Antony’s command that dinner would not be in the afternoon, but later. And as Antony’s gaze roved across the sixty Romans strolling into the dining room, for some obscure reason it lit upon Quintus Dellius. There was something about him that the Great Man liked, though he wasn’t sure what; perhaps a soothing quality that Dellius could smear over even the most unpalatable subjects like a balm.
‘Ho, Dellius!’ he roared. ‘Join Poplicola and me!’
The brothers Decidius Saxa bristled, as did Barbatius and a few others, but no one said a word as the delighted Dellius shed his toga on the floor and sat on the back of the couch that formed the bottom of the U. While a servant gathered up the toga and folded it – a difficult task – another servant removed Dellius’s shoes and washed his feet. He didn’t make the mistake of usurping the locus consularis; Antony would occupy that, with Poplicola in the middle. His was the far end of the couch, socially the least desirable position, but for Dellius – what an elevation! He could feel the eyes boring into him, the minds behind them busy trying to work out what he had done to earn this promotion.
The meal was good, if not quite Roman enough – too much lamb, bland fish, peculiar seasonings, alien sauces. However, there was a pepper slave with his mortar and pestle, and if a Roman diner could snap his fingers for a pinch of freshly ground pepper, anything was edible, even German boiled beef. Samian wine flowed, though well watered; the moment he saw that Antony was drinking it watered, Dellius did the same.
At first he said nothing, but as the main courses were taken out and the sweeties brought in, Antony belched loudly, patted his flat belly and sighed contentedly.
‘So, Dellius, what did you think of the vast array of kings and princes?’ he asked affably.
‘Very strange people, Marcus Antonius, particularly to one who has never been to the East.’
‘Strange? Aye, they’re that, all right! Cunning as sewer rats, more faces than Janus, and daggers so sharp you never feel them slide between your ribs. Odd, that they backed Brutus and Cassius against me.’
‘Not really so odd,’ said Poplicola, who had a sweet tooth and was slurping at a confection of sesame seeds bound with honey. ‘They made the same mistake with Caesar – backed Pompeius Magnus. You campaigned in the West, just like Caesar. They didn’t know your mettle. Brutus was a nonentity, but for them there was a certain magic about Gaius Cassius. He escaped annihilation with Crassus at Carrhae, then governed Syria extremely well at the ripe old age of thirty. Cassius was the stuff of legends.’
‘I agree,’ said Dellius. ‘Their world is confined to the eastern end of Our Sea. What goes on in the Spains and the Gauls at the western end is an unknown.’
‘True.’ Antony grimaced at the syrupy dishes on the low table in front of the couch. ‘Poplicola, wash your face! I don’t know how you can stomach this honeyed mush.’
Poplicola wriggled to the back of the couch while Antony looked at Dellius with an expression that said he understood much that Dellius had hoped to hide: the penury, the New Man status, the vaunting ambition. ‘Did any among the sewer rats take your fancy, Dellius?’
‘One, Marcus Antonius. A Jew named Herod.’
‘Ah! The rose among five weeds.’
‘His metaphor was avian – the hawk among five sparrows.’
Antony laughed, a deep rich bellow. ‘Well, with Deiotarus, Ariobarzanes and Pharnaces here, I’m not likely to have much time to devote to half a dozen quarrelsome Jews. No wonder the five weeds hate our rose Herod, though.’
‘Why?’ asked Dellius, assuming a look of awed interest.
‘For a start, the regalia. Jews don’t bedizen themselves in gold and Tyrian purple – it’s against their laws. No kingly trappings, no images, and their gold goes into their Great Temple in the name of all the people. Crassus robbed the Great Temple of two thousand gold talents before he set off to conquer the Kingdom of the Parthians. The Jews cursed him, and he died ignominiously. Then came Pompeius Magnus asking for gold, then Caesar, then Cassius. They hope I won’t do the same, but they know I will. Like Caesar, I’ll ask them for a sum equal to what Cassius asked for.’
Dellius wrinkled his brow. ‘I don’t – ah …’
‘Caesar demanded a sum equal to what they gave Magnus.’
‘Oh, I see! I beg pardon for my ignorance.’
‘We’re all here to learn, Quintus Dellius, and you strike me as quick to learn. So fill me in on these Jews. What do the weeds want, and what does Herod the rose want?’
‘The weeds want Herod exiled under pain of death,’ Dellius said, abandoning the avian metaphor. If Antony liked his own better, so would Dellius. ‘Herod wants a Roman decree allowing him to live freely in Judaea.’
‘And who will benefit Rome more?’
‘Herod,’ Dellius answered without hesitation. ‘He may not be a Jew according to their lights, but he wants to rule them by marrying some princess with the proper blood. If he succeeds, I think Rome will have a faithful ally.’
‘Dellius, Dellius! Surely you can’t think Herod faithful?’
The rather faunlike face creased into a mischievous grin. ‘Definitely, when it’s in his best interests. And since he knows the people he wants to rule hate him enough to kill him if they get a tenth of a chance, Rome will always serve his interests better than they will. While Rome is his ally, he’s safe from all but poison or ambush, and I can’t see him eating or drinking anything that hasn’t been thoroughly tasted, nor going abroad without a bodyguard of non-Jews he pays extremely well.’
‘Thank you, Dellius!’
Poplicola intruded his person between them. ‘Solved one problem, eh, Antonius?’
‘With some help from Dellius, yes. Steward, clear the room!’ Antony bellowed. ‘Where’s Lucilius? I need Lucilius!’
On the morrow, the five members of the Jewish Sanhedrin found themselves first on the list of supplicants Mark Antony’s herald called. Antony was clad in his purple-bordered toga and carried the plain ivory wand of his high imperium: he made an imposing figure. Beside him was his beloved secretary, Lucilius, who had belonged to Brutus. Twelve lictors in crimson stood to either side of his ivory curule chair, the axed bundles of rods balanced between their feet. A dais raised them above the crowded floor.
The Sanhedrin leader began to orate in good Greek, but in a style so florid and convoluted that it took him a tediously long time to say who the five of them were, and why they had been deputed to come so far to see the Triumvir Marcus Antonius.
‘Oh, shut up!’ Antony barked without warning. ‘Shut up and go home!’ He snatched a scroll from Lucilius, unfurled it and brandished it fiercely. ‘This document was found among Gaius Cassius’s papers after Philippi. It states that only Antipater, chancellor to the so-called King Hyrcanus at that time, and his sons Phasael and Herod, managed to raise any gold for Cassius’s cause. The Jews tendered nothing except a beaker of poison for Antipater. Leaving aside the fact that the gold was going to the wrong cause, it’s clear to me that the Jews have far more love for gold than for Rome. When I reach Judaea, what will change from that? Why, nothing! In this man Herod I see someone willing to pay Rome her tributes and taxes – which go, I might remind you all, to preserve the peace and wellbeing of your realms! When you gave to Cassius, you simply funded his army and fleets! Cassius was a sacrilegious traitor who took what was rightfully Rome’s! Ah, do you shiver in your shoes, Deiotarus? Well you should!’
I had forgotten, thought the listening Dellius, how pungently he can speak. He’s using the Jews to inform all of them that he will not be merciful.
Antony returned to the subject. ‘In the name of the Senate and People of Rome, I hereby command that Herod, his brother Phasael and all his family are free to dwell anywhere in any Roman land, including Judaea. I cannot prevent Hyrcanus from titling himself a king among his people, but in the eyes of Rome he is no more and no less than an ethnarch. Judaea is no longer a single land. It is five small regions dotted around southern Syria, and five small regions it will remain. Hyrcanus can have Jerusalem, Gazara and Jericho. Phasael the son of Antipater will be the tetrarch of Sepphora. Herod the son of Antipater will be the tetrarch of Amathus. And be warned! If there is any trouble in southern Syria, I will crush the Jews like so many eggshells!’
I did it, I did it! cried Dellius to himself, bursting with happiness. Antonius listened to me!
Herod was by the fountain, but not suffused with the joy that Dellius expected to see. His face was pinched and white – what was the matter? What could be the matter? He had come a stateless pauper, he would leave a tetrarch.
‘Aren’t you pleased?’ Dellius asked. ‘You won without even needing to argue your case, Herod.’
‘Why did Antonius have to elevate my brother too?’ Herod demanded harshly, though he spoke to someone who wasn’t there. ‘He has put us on an equal footing! How can I wed Mariamne when Phasael is not only my equal in rank, but also my older brother? It’s Phasael will wed her!’
‘Come, come,’ said Dellius gently. ‘That’s all in the future, Herod. For the moment, accept Antonius’s judgement as more than you had hoped to gain. He’s come down on your side – the five sparrows have just had their wings clipped.’
‘Yes, yes, I see all that, Dellius, but this Marcus Antonius is clever! He wants what the far-sighted Romans all want – balance. And to put me alone on an equal footing with Hyrcanus is not a Roman enough answer. Phasael and I in one pan, Hyrcanus in the other. Oh, Marcus Antonius, you are clever! Caesar was a genius, but you are supposed to be a dolt. Now I find another Caesar.’
Dellius watched Herod plod off, his mind whirling. Between that brief conversation over dinner and this audience today, Mark Antony had done some research. That was why he’d hollered for Lucilius! And what frauds they were, he and Octavian! Burned all Brutus’s and Cassius’s papers, indeed! But like Herod, I deemed Antonius an educated dolt. He is not, he is not! thought Dellius, gasping. He’s crafty and clever. He will put his hands on everything in the East, raising this man, lowering that man, until the client-kingdoms and satrapies are absolutely his. Not Rome’s. His. He has sent Octavian back to Italia and a task so big it will break so weak and sickly a youth; but, just in case Octavian doesn’t break, Antonius will be ready.
When Antony left the capital of Bithynia, all of the potentates save Herod and the five members of the Sanhedrin accompanied him, still declaring their loyalty to the new rulers of Rome, still maintaining that Brutus and Cassius had duped them, lied to them, coerced them – ai, ai, ai, forced them! Having scant patience for Eastern weeping and wailing, Antony didn’t do what Pompey the Great, Caesar and the rest had done – invite the most important among them to join him for dinner, travel in his party. No, all the way from Nicomedia to Ancyra, the only town of any size in Galatia, Mark Antony pretended that his regal camp followers didn’t exist.
Here, amid the rolling grassy expanses of the best grazing country east of Gaul, he had perforce to move into Deiotarus’s palace and strive to be amiable. Four days of that were three too many, but during that time Antony informed Deiotarus that he was to keep his kingdom – for the moment. His second most favored son, Deiotarus Philadelphus, was gifted with the wild, mountainous fief of Paphlagonia (it was of no use to anybody), whereas his most favored son, Castor, got nothing, and what the old King should have made of that was now beyond his dwindling mental faculties. To all the Romans with Antony, it meant that eventually drastic changes would be made to Galatia, and not for the benefit of any Deiotarid. For information about Galatia, Antony talked to the old King’s secretary, a noble Galatian named Amyntas who was young, well-educated, efficient and clear-sighted.
‘At least,’ said Antony jovially as the Roman column set off for Cappadocia, ‘we’ve lost a decent percentage of our hangers-on! That gushing idiot Castor even brought the fellow who clips his toenails. Amazing, that a warrior like Deiotarus should produce such a perfect pansy.’
He was speaking to Dellius, who now rode an easy-gaited roan mare and had passed the grumpy pony to Icarus, previously doomed to walk. ‘You’ve lost Pharnaces and his court too,’ said Dellius.
‘Pah! He ought never to have come.’ Antony’s lips curled in contempt. ‘His father was a better man, and his grandfather much better still.’
‘You mean the great Mithridates?’
‘Is there any other? Now there was a man, Dellius, who almost beat Rome. Formidable.’
‘Pompeius Magnus defeated him easily.’
‘Rubbish! Lucullus defeated him. Pompeius Magnus just cashed in on the fruits of Lucullus’s labors. He had a habit of doing that, did Magnus. But his vaingloriousness got him in the end. He began to believe his own publicity. Fancy anyone, Roman or otherwise, thinking he could beat Caesar!’
‘You would have beaten Caesar with no trouble, Antonius,’ said Dellius without a trace of sycophancy in his tone.
‘I? Not if every god there is fought on my side! Caesar was in a class all his own, and there’s no disgrace in saying that. Over fifty battles he generaled, and never lost a one. Oh, I’d beat Magnus if he still lived – or Lucullus, or even Gaius Marius. But Caesar? Alexander the Great would have gone down to him.’
The voice, a light tenor surprising in such a big man, held no resentment. Nor even, reflected Dellius, guilt. Antonius fully subscribes to the Roman way of looking at things: because he had lifted no finger against Caesar, he can sleep at night. To plot and scheme is no crime, even when a crime is committed thanks to the plotting and scheming.
Singing their marching songs lustily, the two legions and mass of cavalry Antony had with him entered the gorge country of the great red river, Halys, beautiful beyond Roman imagination, so rich and ruddy were the rocks, so tortured the planes of cliffs and shelves. There was ample flat ground on either bank of the broad stream, flowing sluggishly because the snows of the high peaks had not yet melted. Which was why Antony was marching overland to Syria; winter seas were too dangerous for sailing, and Antony preferred to stay with his men until he could be sure they liked him better than they had Cassius, to whom they had belonged. The weather was chilly, but bitter only when the wind got up, and down in the bottom of the gorge country there was little wind. Despite its color, the water was potable for men as well as horses; central Anatolia was not a populous place.
The settlement of Eusebeia Mazaca sat at the foot of the vast volcano Argaeus, white with snow, for no one in history remembered its erupting. A blue city, small and impoverished; everyone had looted it time out of mind, for its kings were weak and too parsimonious to keep an army.
It was here that Antony began to realize how difficult it was going to be to squeeze yet more gold and treasure out of the East; Brutus and Cassius had plundered whatever King Mithridates the Great had overlooked. A realization that put him severely out of sorts and sent him with Poplicola, the brothers Decidius Saxa and Dellius to inspect the priest-kingdom of Ma at Comana, not far distant from Eusebeia Mazaca. Let the senile King of Cappadocia and his ludicrously incompetent son stew in their denuded palace! Perhaps at Comana he would find a hoard of gold beneath an innocent-looking flagstone – priests left kings for dead when it came to protecting their money.
Ma was an incarnation of Kubaba Cybele, the Great Earth Mother who had ruled all the gods, male and female, when humanity first learned to tell its history around the campfires. Over the aeons she had lost her power, save in places like the two Comanas, one here in Cappadocia, the other north in Pontus, and in Pessinus, not far from where Alexander the Great had cut the Gordian knot with his sword. Each of these three precincts was governed as an independent realm, its king also serving as high priest, and each lay within natural boundaries like Pontic cherries in a bowl.
Scorning an escort of troops, Antony, his four friends and plenty of servants rode into the beguiling little village of Cappadocian Comana, noting with approval its costly dwellings, the gardens promising a profusion of flowers in the coming spring, the imposing temple of Ma rising atop a slight hill surrounded by a grove of birches, with poplars down either side of a paved avenue that led straight to Ma’s earthly house. Off to one side was the palace: like the temple, its Doric columns were blue with scarlet bases and capitals; the walls behind were a much darker blue, and the shingled roof edged in gilt.
A young man who looked in his late teens was waiting for them in front of the palace, clad in layers of green gauze, a round gold hat upon his head, which was shaven.
‘Marcus Antonius,’ said Antony, sliding from his dappled grey Public Horse and tossing its reins to one of the three servants he had brought with him.
‘Welcome, Lord Antonius,’ said the young man, bowing low.
‘Just Antonius will do. We don’t have any lords in Rome. What’s your name, shaveling?’
‘Archelaus Sisenes. I am Priest-king of Ma.’
‘Bit young to be a king, aren’t you?’
‘Better to be too young than too old, Marcus Antonius. Come into my house.’
The visit started off with wary verbal fencing, at which King Archelaus Sisenes, even younger than Octavian, proved a match for Antony, whose good nature inclined him to admire a master of the art. As indeed he might have happily tolerated Octavian, had not Octavian been Caesar’s heir.
But though the buildings were lovely and the landscaping good enough to please a Roman heart, an hour on the water clock was quite enough time to discover that whatever wealth Ma of Comana might once have possessed had vanished. With a ride of only fifty miles between them and the Cappadocian capital, Antony’s friends were fully prepared to set out at dawn of the following day to rejoin the legions and continue the march.
‘Will it offend you if my mother attends our dinner?’ the Priest-king asked, tone deferential. ‘And my young brothers?’
‘The more the merrier,’ said Antony, good manners to the fore. He had already found the answers to several vexed questions, but it would be prudent to see for himself what kind of family had produced this intelligent, precocious, fearless fellow.
Archelaus Sisenes and his brothers were a handsome trio, with quick wits, a thorough knowledge of Greek literature and philosophy, and even a smattering of mathematics.
None of which mattered the moment Glaphyra entered the room. Like all the Great Mother’s female acolytes, she had gone into service for the Goddess at thirteen, but not, like the rest of that year’s intake of pubescent virgins, to spread her mat inside the temple and offer her maidenhead to the first comer who fancied her. Glaphyra was royal, and chose her own mate where she wished. Her eye had lighted upon a visiting Roman senator, who sired Archelaus Sisenes without ever knowing that he had; she was all of fourteen when she bore the boy. The next son belonged to the King of Olba, descended from the archer Teucer, who fought with his brother Ajax at Troy; and the father of the third was a handsome nobody guiding a team of oxen in a caravan from Media. After that, Glaphyra hung up her girdle and devoted her energies to bringing up her boys. At this moment she was thirty-four and looked twenty-four.
Though Poplicola wondered what drove her to appear for dinner when the guest of honor was a notorious philanderer, Glaphyra knew very well why. Lust did not enter the picture; she who belonged to the Great Mother had long ago abrogated lust as demeaning. No, she wanted more for her sons than a tiny priest-kingdom! She was after as much of Anatolia as she could get, and if Marcus Antonius was the kind of man gossip said he was, then he was her chance.
Antony sucked in his breath audibly – what a beauty! Tall and lissome, long legs and magnificent breasts, and a face to rival Helen’s: lush red lips, skin as flawless as a rose petal, lustrous blue eyes between thick dark lashes, and absolutely straight flaxen hair that hung down her back like a sheet of hammered silver-gilt. Of jewels she wore none, probably because she had none to wear. Her blue, Greek-styled gown was plain wool.
Poplicola and Dellius were shoved off the couch so quickly that they were hard put to land on their feet; one huge hand was already patting the space where they had reclined.
‘Here, with me, you gorgeous creature! What’s your name?’
‘Glaphyra,’ she said, kicking off her felt slippers and waiting until a servant pulled warm socks over her feet. Then she swung her body onto the couch, but far enough away from Antony to prevent his hugging her, which he showed every sign of wanting to do. Gossip was certainly right in saying that he wasn’t a subtle lover, if his greeting was anything to go by. Gorgeous creature, indeed! He thinks of women as conveniences; but I, resolved Glaphyra, must exert myself to become a more convenient convenience than his horse, his secretary or his chamber pot. And if he quickens me, I will offer to the Goddess for a girl. A girl of Antonius’s could marry the King of the Parthians – what an alliance! As well that we are taught to suck with our vaginas better than a fellatrix can with her mouth! I will enslave him.
Thus it was that Antony lingered in Comana for the rest of winter, and when, early in March, he finally set out for Cilicia and Tarsus, he took Glaphyra with him. His ten thousand infantrymen hadn’t minded this unexpected furlough; Cappadocia was a land of women whose men had been slaughtered on some battlefield or carted off to slavery. As these legionaries could farm as well as they soldiered, they enjoyed the break. Originally Caesar had recruited them across the Padus River in Italian Gaul, and, apart from the higher altitude, Cappadocia wasn’t so very different to farm or graze. Behind them they left several thousand hybrid Romans in utero, properly prepared and planted land, and many thousands of grateful women.
They descended a good Roman road between two towering ranges, plunging into vast aromatic forests of pine, larch, spruce, fir, the sound of roaring water perpetually in their ears; until at the pass of the Cilician Gates the road was so steep it was stepped at five-pace intervals. Going down, a comb of Hymettan honey; had they been going up, the fragrant air would have been polluted by splendid Latin obscenities. With the snow melting fast now, the headwaters of the Cydnus River boiled and tumbled like a huge swirling cauldron, but once through the Cilician Gates the road became easier and the nights warmer. They were dropping rapidly toward the coast of Our Sea.
Tarsus, which lay on the Cydnus some twenty miles inland, came as a shock. Like Athens, Ephesus, Pergamum and Antioch, it was a city most Roman nobles knew, even if from a fleeting visit. A jewel of a place, hugely rich. But no more. Cassius had levied such a massive fine on Tarsus that, having melted down every gold or silver work of art, no matter how valuable, the Tarsians had been forced to sell the populace gradually into slavery, starting with the lowest born, and working their way inexorably upward. By the time that Cassius had grown tired of waiting and sailed off with the five hundred talents of gold that Tarsus had thus far managed to scrape together, only a few thousand free people were left out of what had been half a million. But not to enjoy their wealth; that had gone beyond recall.
‘By all the gods I hate Cassius!’ Antony cried, farther than ever from the riches he had expected. ‘If he did this to Tarsus, what did he do in Syria?’
‘Cheer up, Antonius,’ Dellius said. ‘All is not lost.’ By now he had supplanted Poplicola as Antony’s chief source of information, which was what he wanted. Let Poplicola have the joy of being Antony’s intimate! He, Quintus Dellius, was well content to be the man whose advice Antony esteemed and, right at this dark moment, he had some useful advice. ‘Tarsus is a big city, the center of all Cilician trade, but once Cassius hove in view, the whole of Cilicia Pedia stayed well away from Tarsus. Cilicia Pedia is rich and fertile, but no Roman governor has ever succeeded in taxing it. The region is run by brigands and renegade Arabs who get away with far more than Cassius ever did. Why not send your troops into Cilicia Pedia and see what’s to be found? You can stay here – put Barbatius in command.’
Good counsel, and Antony knew it. Better by far to make the Cilicians bear the cost of victualling his troops than poor Tarsus, especially if there were bandit strongholds to be looted.
‘Sensible advice that I intend to take,’ Antony said, ‘but it won’t be anything like enough. Finally I understand why Caesar was determined to conquer the Parthians – there’s no real wealth to be had this side of Mesopotamia. Oh, curse Octavianus! He pinched Caesar’s war chest, the little worm! While I was in Bithynia, all the letters from Italia said he was dying in Brundisium, would never last ten miles on the Via Appia. And what do the stay-athome letters have to say here in Tarsus? Why, that he coughed and spluttered all the way to Rome, where he’s busy smarming up to the legion representatives. Commandeering the public land of every place that cheered for Brutus and Cassius when he isn’t bending his arse over a barrel for apes like Agrippa to bugger!’
Get him off the subject of Octavian, thought Dellius, or he will forget sobriety and holler for unwatered wine. That snaky bitch Glaphyra doesn’t help – too busy working for her sons. So he clicked his tongue, a sound of sympathy, and eased Antony back onto the subject of where to get money in the bankrupt East.
‘There is an alternative to the Parthians, Antonius.’
‘Antioch? Tyre, Sidon? Cassius got to them first.’
‘Yes, but he didn’t get as far as Egypt.’ Dellius let the word ‘Egypt’ drop from his lips like syrup. ‘Egypt can buy and sell Rome – everyone who ever heard Marcus Crassus talk knows that. Cassius was on his way to invade Egypt when Brutus summoned him to Sardis. He took Allienus’s four Egyptian legions, yes, but, alas, in Syria. Queen Cleopatra cannot be impeached for that, but she didn’t send any aid to you and Octavianus either. I think her inaction can be construed as worth a ten-thousand-talent fine.’
Antony grunted. ‘Huh! Daydreams, Dellius.’
‘No, definitely not! Egypt is fabulously rich.’
Half listening, Antony studied a letter from his warlike wife, Fulvia. In it she complained about Octavian’s perfidies, and described the precariousness of Octavian’s position in blunt, graphic terms. Now, she scrawled in her own hand, was the time to rouse Italia and Rome against him! And Lucius thought this too: Lucius was beginning to enlist legions. Rubbish, thought Antony, who knew his brother Lucius too well to deem him capable of deploying ten beads on an abacus. Lucius leading a revolution? No, he was just enlisting men for big brother Marcus. Admittedly Lucius was consul this year, but his colleague was Vatia, who would be running things. Oh, women! Why couldn’t Fulvia devote herself to disciplining her children? The brood she had borne Clodius was grown and off her hands, but she still had her son by Curio and his own two sons.
Of course, by now Antony knew that he would have to postpone his expedition against the Parthians for at least another year. Not only did shortage of funds render it impossible; so did the need to watch Octavian closely. His most competent marshals, Pollio, Calenus and trusty old Ventidius, had to be stationed in the West with the bulk of his legions just to keep that eye on Octavian. Who had written him a letter begging that he use his influence to call off Sextus Pompeius, busy raiding the sea lanes to steal Rome’s wheat like a common pirate. To tolerate Sextus Pompeius had not been a part of their agreement, Octavian whinged – did Marcus Antonius not remember how the two of them had sat down together after Philippi to divide up the duties of the three Triumvirs?
Indeed I remember, thought Antony grimly. It was after I won Philippi that I saw as through crystal that there was nowhere in the West to reap enough glory for me to eclipse Caesar. To surpass Caesar, I will have to crush the Parthians.
Fulvia’s scroll fell to the desk top, curled itself up. ‘Do you really believe that Egypt can produce that sort of money?’ he asked, looking up at Dellius.
‘Certainly!’ said Dellius heartily. ‘Think about it, Antonius! Gold from Nubia, ocean pearls from Taprobane, precious stones from the Sinus Arabicus, ivory from the Horn of Africa, spices from India and Aethiopia, the world’s paper monopoly, and more wheat than there are people to eat it. The Egyptian public income is six thousand gold talents a year, and the sovereign’s private income another six thousand!’
‘You’ve been doing your homework,’ said Antony with a grin.
‘More willingly than ever I did when a schoolboy.’
Antony got up and walked to the window that looked out over the agora to where, between the trees, ships’ masts speared the cloudless sky. Not that he saw any of it; his eyes were turned inward, remembering the scrawny little creature Caesar had installed in a marble villa on the wrong side of Father Tiber. How Cleopatra had railed at being excluded from the interior of Rome! Not in front of Caesar, who wouldn’t put up with tantrums; but behind his back it had been a different story. All Caesar’s friends had taken a turn trying to explain to her that she, an anointed queen, was religiously forbidden to enter Rome. Which hadn’t stopped her complaining! Thin as a stick she had been, and no reason to suppose she’d plumped out since she returned home after Caesar died. Oh, how Cicero had rejoiced when word got around that her ship had gone to the bottom of Our Sea! And how downcast he had been when the rumor proved false. The least of Cicero’s worries, as things turned out – he ought never to have thundered forth in the Senate against me! Tantamount to a death wish. After he was executed, Fulvia thrust a pen through his tongue before I exhibited his head on the rostra. Fulvia! Now there’s a woman! I never cared for Cleopatra, never bothered to go to her soirées or her famous dinner parties – too highbrow, too many scholars, poets and historians. And all those beast-headed gods in the room where she prayed! I admit that I never understood Caesar, but his passion for Cleopatra was the biggest mystery of all.
‘Very well, Quintus Dellius,’ Antony said aloud. ‘I will order the Queen of Egypt to appear before me in Tarsus to answer charges that she aided Cassius,’ Antony said. ‘You can carry the summons yourself.’
How wonderful! thought Dellius, setting off the next day on the road that led first to Antioch and then south along the coast to Pelusium. He had demanded to be outfitted in state, and Antony had obliged by giving him a small army of attendants and two squadrons of cavalry as a bodyguard. No traveling by litter, alas! Too slow to suit the impatient Antony, who had given him one month to reach Alexandria, a thousand miles from Tarsus. Which meant Dellius had to hurry. After all, he didn’t know how long it was going to take to convince the Queen that she must obey Antony’s summons, appear before his tribunal in Tarsus.
Chin on her hand, Cleopatra watched Caesarion as he bent over his wax tablets, Sosigenes at his right hand, supervising. Not that her son needed him; Caesarion was seldom wrong, and never mistaken. The leaden weight of grief shifted in her chest, made her swallow painfully. To look at Caesar’s son was to look at Caesar, who at this age would have been Caesarion’s image: tall, graceful, golden-haired, long bumpy nose, full humorous lips with delicate creases in their corners. Oh, Caesar, Caesar! How have I lived without you? And they burned you, those barbaric Romans! When my time is come, there will be no Caesar beside me in my tomb, to rise with me and walk the Realm of the Dead. They put your ashes in a jar and built a round marble monstrosity to accommodate the jar. Your friend Gaius Matius chose the epitaph: VENI · VIDI · VICI etched in gold on polished black stone. But I have never seen your tomb, nor want to. All I have is a huge lump of grief that never goes away. Even when I manage to sleep, it is there to haunt my dreams. Even when I look at our son, it is there to mock my aspirations. Why do I never think of the happy times? Is that the pattern of loss, to dwell upon the emptiness of today? Since those self-righteous Romans murdered you, my world is ashes doomed never to mingle with yours. Think on it, Cleopatra, and weep.
The sorrows were many. First and worst, River Nilus failed to inundate. For three years in a row, the life-giving water had not spread across the fields to wet them, soak in and soften the seeds. The people starved. Then came the plague, slowly creeping up the length of River Nilus from the cataracts to Memphis and the start of the Delta, then into the branches and canals of the Delta, and finally to Alexandria.
And always, she thought, I made the wrong decisions, Queen Midas on a throne of gold who didn’t understand until it was too late that people cannot eat gold. Not for any amount of gold could I persuade the Syrians and the Arabs to venture down Nilus and collect the jars of grain waiting on every jetty. It sat there until it rotted, and then there were not enough people to irrigate by hand, and no crops germinated at all. I looked at the three million inhabitants of Alexandria and decided that only one million of them could eat, so I issued an edict that stripped the Jews and Metics of their citizenship. An edict that forbade them to buy wheat from the granaries, the right of citizens only. Oh, the riots! And it was all for nothing. The plague came to Alexandria and killed two million without regard for citizenship. Greeks and Macedonians died, people for whom I had abandoned the Jews and Metics. In the end, there was plenty of grain for those who did not die, Jews and Metics as well as Greeks and Macedonians. I gave them back the citizenship, but they hate me now. I made all the wrong decisions. Without Caesar to guide me, I proved myself a poor ruler.
In less than two months my son will be six years old, and I am childless, barren. No sister for him to marry, no brother to take his place should anything befall him. So many nights of love with Caesar in Rome, yet I did not quicken. Isis has cursed me.
Apollodorus hurried in, his golden chain of office clinking. ‘My lady, an urgent letter from Pythodorus of Tralles.’
Down went the hand, up went the chin. Cleopatra frowned. ‘Pythodorus? What does he want?’
‘Not gold, at any rate,’ said Caesarion, looking up from his tablets with a grin. ‘He’s the richest man in Asia Province.’
‘Pay attention to your sums, boy!’ said Sosigenes.
Cleopatra got up from her chair and walked across to an open section of wall where the light was good. A close examination of the green wax seal showed a small temple in its middle and the words PYTHO · TRALLES around its edge. Yes, it seemed authentic. She broke it and unfurled the scroll, written in a hand that said no scribe had been made privy to its contents. Too untidy.
Pharaoh and Queen, Daughter of Amun-Ra,
I write as one who loved the God Julius Caesar for many years, and as one who respected his devotion to you. Though I am aware you have informants to keep you apprised of what is going on in Rome and the Roman world, I doubt that any of them stands high in the confidence of Marcus Antonius. You will of course know that Antonius journeyed from Philippi to Nicomedia last November, and that many kings, princes and ethnarchs met him there. He did virtually nothing to alter the state of affairs in the East, but he did command that twenty thousand silver talents be paid to him immediately. The size of this tribute shocked all of us.
After visiting Galatia and Cappadocia, he arrived in Tarsus. I followed him with the two thousand silver talents that we ethnarchs of Asia Province had managed to scrape together. Where were the other eighteen thousand talents? he asked. I think I succeeded in convincing him that nothing like this sum is to be found, but his answer was one we have grown used to: pay him nine more years’ tribute in advance, and we would be forgiven. As if we have salted away ten years’ tribute against the day! They just do not listen, these Roman governors.
I crave your pardon, great Queen, for burdening you with our troubles, and our troubles are not why I am writing this in secret. This is to warn you that within a very few days you will receive a visit from one Quintus Dellius, a grasping, cunning little man who has wormed his way into Marcus Antonius’s good opinion. His whisperings into Antonius’s ear are aimed at filling Antonius’s war chest, for Antonius hungers to do what Caesar did not live to do – conquer the Parthians. Cilicia Pedia is being scoured from end to end, the brigands chased from their strongholds and the Arab raiders back across the Amanus. A profitable exercise, but not profitable enough, so Dellius suggested that Antonius summon you to Tarsus and there fine you ten thousand gold talents for supporting Gaius Cassius.
There is nothing I can do to help you, dear good Queen, beyond warn you that Dellius is even now upon his way south. Perhaps with foreknowledge you will have the time to devise a scheme to thwart him and his master.
Cleopatra handed the scroll back to Apollodorus and stood chewing her lip, eyes closed. Quintus Dellius? Not a name she recognized, therefore no one with sufficient clout in Rome to have attended her receptions, even the largest; Cleopatra never forgot a name or the face attached to it. He would be a Vettius, some ignoble knight with smarm and charm, just the type to appeal to a boor like Marcus Antonius. Him, she remembered! Big and burly, thews like Hercules, shoulders as wide as mountains, an ugly face whose nose strove to meet an upthrust chin across a small, thick-lipped mouth. Women swooned over him because he was supposed to have a gigantic penis – what a reason to swoon! Men liked him for his bluff, hearty manner, his confidence in himself. But Caesar, whose close cousin he was, had grown disenchanted with him – the main reason, she was sure, why Antonius’s visits to her had been few. When left in charge of Italia he had slaughtered eight hundred citizens in the Forum Romanum, a crime Caesar could not forgive. Then he tried to woo Caesar’s soldiers and ended in instigating a mutiny that had broken Caesar’s heart.
Of course her agents had reported that many thought Antony was a part of the plot to assassinate Caesar, though she herself was not sure; the occasional letter Antony had written to her explained that he had had no choice other than to ignore the murder, forswear vengeance on the assassins, even condone their conduct. And in those letters Antony had assured her that, as soon as Rome settled down, he would recommend Caesarion to the Senate as one of Caesar’s chief heirs. To a woman devastated by grief, his words had been balm. She wanted to believe them! Oh, no, he wasn’t saying that Caesarion should be admitted into Roman law as Caesar’s Roman heir! Only that Caesarion’s right to the throne of Egypt should be sanctioned by the Senate. Were it not, her son would be faced by the same problems that had dogged her father, never certain of his tenure of the throne because Rome said Egypt really belonged to Rome. Anymore than she herself had been certain until Caesar entered her life. Now Caesar was gone, and his nephew Gaius Octavius had usurped more power than any lad of eighteen had ever done before. Calmly, cannily, quickly. At first she had thought of young Octavian as a possible father for more children, but he had rebuffed her in a brief letter she could still recite by heart.
Marcus Antonius, he of the reddish eyes and curly reddish hair, no more like Caesar than Hercules was like Apollo. Now he had turned his eyes toward Egypt – but not to woo Pharaoh. All he wanted was to fill his war chest with Egypt’s wealth. Well, that would never happen – never!
‘Caesarion, it’s time you had some fresh air,’ she said with brisk decision. ‘Sosigenes, I need you. Apollodorus, find Cha’em and bring him back with you. It’s council time.’
When Cleopatra spoke in that tone, no one argued, least of all her son, who took himself off at once, whistling for his puppy, a small ratter named Fido.
‘Read this,’ she said curtly when the council assembled, thrusting the scroll at Cha’em. ‘All of you, read it.’
‘If Antonius brings his legions, he can sack Alexandria and Memphis,’ Sosigenes said, handing the scroll to Apollodorus. ‘Since the plague, no one has had the spirit to resist. Nor do we have the numbers to resist. There are many gold statues to melt down.’
Cha’em was the high priest of Ptah, the creator god, and had been a beloved part of Cleopatra’s life since her tenth year. His brown, firm body was wrapped from just below the nipples to mid-calf in a flaring white linen dress, and around his neck he wore the complex mixture of chains, crosses, roundels and breastplate proclaiming his position. ‘Antonius will melt nothing down,’ he said firmly. ‘You will go to Tarsus, Cleopatra, meet him there.’
‘Like a chattel? Like a mouse? Like a whipped cur?’
‘No, like a mighty sovereign. Like Pharaoh Hatshepsut, so great that her successor obliterated her cartouches. Armed with all the wiles and cunning of your ancestors. As Ptolemy Soter was the natural brother of Alexander the Great, you have the blood of many gods in your veins. Not only Isis, Hathor and Mut, but Amun-Ra on two sides – from the line of the pharaohs and from Alexander the Great, who was Amun-Ra’s son and also a god.’
‘I see where Cha’em is going,’ said Sosigenes thoughtfully. ‘This Marcus Antonius is no Caesar, therefore he can be duped. You must awe him into pardoning you. After all, you didn’t aid Cassius, and he can’t prove you did. When this Quintus Dellius arrives, he will try to cow you. But you are Pharaoh; no minion has the power to cow you.’
‘A pity that the fleet you sent Antonius and Octavianus was obliged to turn back,’ said Apollodorus.
‘Oh, what’s done is done!’ Cleopatra said impatiently. She sat back in her chair, suddenly pensive. ‘No one can cow Pharaoh, but … Cha’em, ask Tach’a to look at the lotus petals in her bowl. Antonius might have a use.’
Sosigenes looked startled. ‘Majesty!’
‘Oh, come, Sosigenes, Egypt matters more than any living being! I have been a poor ruler, deprived of Osiris time and time again! Do I care what kind of man this Marcus Antonius is? No, I do not! Antonius has Julian blood. If the bowl of Isis says there is enough Julian blood in him, then perhaps I can take more from him than he can from me.’
‘I will do it,’ said Cha’em, getting to his feet.
‘Apollodorus, will Philopator’s river barge sustain a sea voyage to Tarsus at this time of year?’
The Lord High Chamberlain frowned. ‘I’m not sure, Majesty.’
‘Then bring it out of its shed and send it to sea.’
‘Daughter of Amun-Ra, you have many ships!’
‘But Philopator built only two ships, and the ocean-going one rotted a hundred years ago. If I am to awe Antonius, I must arrive in Tarsus in a kind of state that no Roman has ever witnessed, not even Caesar.’
To Quintus Dellius, Alexandria was the most wondrous city in the world. The days when Caesar had almost destroyed it were seven years in the past, and Cleopatra had raised it in greater glory than ever. All the mansions down Royal Avenue had been restored, the Hill of Pan towered lushly green over the flat city, the hallowed precinct of Serapis had been rebuilt in the Corinthian mode, and where once siege towers had groaned and lumbered up and down Canopic Avenue, stunning temples and public institutions gave the lie to plague and famine. Indeed, thought Dellius, gazing at Alexandria from the top of Pan’s hill, for once in his life great Caesar had exaggerated the degree of destruction he had wrought.
As yet he hadn’t seen the Queen, who was, a lordly man named Apollodorus had informed him loftily, on a visit to the Delta to see her paper manufactories. So he had been shown his quarters – very sumptuous they were, too – and left largely to his own devices. To Dellius, that didn’t mean simple sightseeing; with him he took a scribe, who jotted down notes using a broad stylus on wax tablets.
At the Sema, Dellius chuckled with glee. ‘Write, Lasthenes! “The tomb of Alexander the Great, plus thirty-odd Ptolemies in a precinct dry-paved with collector’s-quality marble in blue with dark green swirls … Twenty-eight gold statues, man-sized … An Apollo by Praxiteles, painted marble … Four painted marble works by some unidentified master, man-sized … A painting by Zeuxis of Alexander the Great at Issus … A painting of Ptolemy Soter by Nicias …” Cease writing. The rest are not so fine.’
At the Serapeum, Dellius whinnied with delight. ‘Write, Lasthenes! “A statue of Serapis approximately thirty feet tall, by Bryaxis and painted by Nicias … An ivory group of the nine Muses by Phidias … Forty-two gold statues, man-sized …”’ He paused to scrape a gold Aphrodite, grimaced. ‘“Some, if not all, skinned rather than – ah – solid … A charioteer and horses in bronze by Myron …” Cease writing! No, simply add, “et cetera, et cetera …” There are too many more mediocre works to catalogue.’
In the agora, Dellius paused before an enormous sculpture of four rearing horses drawing a racing chariot whose driver was a woman – and what a woman! ‘Write, Lasthenes! “Quadriga in bronze purported to be of a female charioteer named Bilistiche …” Cease! There’s nothing else here but modern stuff, excellent of its kind but having no appeal for collectors. Oh, Lasthenes, on!’
And so it went as he cruised through the city, his scribe leaving rolls of wax behind like a moth its droppings. Splendid, splendid! Egypt is rich beyond telling, if what I see in Alexandria is anything to go by. But how do I persuade Marcus Antonius that we’ll get more from selling them as works of art than from melting them down? Think of the tomb of Alexander the Great! he mused, a single block of rock crystal almost as clear as water; how fine it would look inside the Temple of Diana in Rome! What a funny little fellow Alexander was! Hands and feet no bigger than a child’s, and what looked like yellow wool atop his head. A wax figure, surely, not the real thing – but you would think that, as he’s a god, they would have made the effigy at least as big as Antonius! There must be enough paving in the Sema to cover the floor of a magnate’s domus in Rome – a hundred talents’ worth, maybe more. The ivory by Phidias – a thousand talents, easily.
The Royal Enclosure was such a maze of palaces that he gave up trying to distinguish one from another, and the gardens seemed to go on forever. Exquisite little coves pocked the shore beyond the harbor, and in the far distance the white marble causeway of the Heptastadion linked Pharos Isle to the mainland. And oh, the lighthouse! The tallest building in the world, taller by far than the Colossus at Rhodes had been. I thought Rome was lovely, burbled Dellius to himself; then I saw Pergamum and deemed it lovelier; but now that I have seen Alexandria, I am stunned, just stunned. Antonius was here about twenty years ago, but I’ve never heard him speak of the place. Too busy womanising to remember it, I suppose.
The summons to see Queen Cleopatra came the next day, which was just as well; he had concluded his assessment of the city’s value, and Lasthenes had written it out on good paper, two copies.
The first thing he was conscious of was the perfumed air, thick with heady incenses of a kind he had never smelled before; then his visual apparatus took over from his olfactory, and he gaped at walls of gold, a floor of gold, statues of gold, chairs and tables of gold. A second glance informed him that the gold was a tissue-thin overlay, but the room blazed like the sun. Two walls were covered in paintings of peculiar two-dimensional people and plants, rich in colors of every description. Except Tyrian purple. Of that, not a trace.
‘All hail the two Pharaohs, Lords of the Two Ladies Upper and Lower Egypt, Lords of the Sedge and Bee, Children of Amun-Ra, Isis and Ptah!’ roared the lord high chamberlain, drumming his golden staff on the floor, a dull sound that had Dellius revising his opinion about thin tissue. The floor sounded solid.
They sat on two elaborate thrones, the woman on top of the golden dais and the boy one step beneath her. Each was clad in a strange raiment made of finely pleated white linen, and each wore a huge headdress of red enamel around a tubular cone of white enamel. About their necks were wide collars of magnificent jewels set in gold, on their arms bracelets, around their waists broad girdles of gems, on their feet golden sandals. Their faces were thick with paint, hers white, the boy’s a rusty red, and their eyes were so hedged in by black lines and colored shapes that they slid, sinister as fanged fish, as no human eyes were surely intended to.
‘Quintus Dellius,’ said the Queen (Dellius had no idea what the epithet ‘Pharaoh’ meant), ‘we bid you welcome to Egypt.’
‘I come as Imperator Marcus Antonius’s official ambassador,’ said Dellius, getting into the swing of things, ‘with greetings and salutations to the twin thrones of Egypt.’
‘How impressive,’ said the Queen, eyes sliding eerily.
‘Is that all?’ asked the boy, whose eyes sparkled more.
‘Er – unfortunately not, Your Majesty. The Triumvir Marcus Antonius requires your presence in Tarsus to answer charges.’
‘Charges?’ asked the boy.
‘It is alleged that Egypt aided Gaius Cassius, thereby breaking its status of Friend and Ally of the Roman People.’
‘And that is a charge?’ Cleopatra asked.
‘A very serious one, Your Majesty.’
‘Then we will go to Tarsus to answer it in person. You may leave our presence, Quintus Dellius. When we are ready to set out, you will be notified.’
And that was that! No dinner invitations, no reception to introduce him to the court – there must surely be a court! No Eastern monarch could function without several hundred sycophants to tell him (or her) how wonderful he (or she) was. But here was Apollodorus firmly ushering him from the room, apparently to be left to his own devices!
‘Pharaoh will sail to Tarsus,’ Apollodorus said, ‘therefore you have two choices, Quintus Dellius. You may send your people home overland and travel with them, or you may send your people home overland and sail aboard one of the royal ships.’
Ah! thought Dellius. Someone warned them I was coming. There is a spy in Tarsus. This audience was a sham designed to put me – and Antonius – in our places.
‘I will sail,’ he said haughtily.
‘A wise decision.’ Apollodorus bowed and walked away, leaving Dellius to storm off at a hasty walk to cool his temper, sorely tried. How dared they? The audience had given him no opportunity to gauge the Queen’s feminine charms or even discover for himself if the boy was really Caesar’s son. They were a pair of painted dolls, stranger than the wooden thing his daughter dragged about the house as if it were human.
The sun was hot; perhaps, thought Dellius, it would do me good to paddle in the wavelets of that delicious cove outside my palace. Dellius couldn’t swim – odd for a Roman – but an ankle-deep paddle was harmless. He descended a series of limestone steps, then perched on a boulder to unbuckle his maroon senatorial shoes.
‘Fancy a swim? So do I,’ said a cheerful voice – a child’s, but deep. ‘It’s the funnest way to get rid of all this muck.’
Startled, Dellius turned to see the boy King, stripped down to a loincloth, his face still painted.
‘You swim, I’ll paddle,’ said Dellius.
Caesarion waded in as far as his waist and then tipped himself forward to swim, moving fearlessly into deep water. He dived, came up with face a curious mixture of black and rusty red; then under again, up again.
‘The paint’s soluble in water, even salt,’ the boy said, hip-deep now, scrubbing at his face with both hands.
And there stood Caesar. No one could dispute the identity of the father after seeing the child. Is that why Antonius wants to present him to the Senate and petition it to confirm him King of Egypt? Let anyone in Rome who knew Caesar see this boy, and he’ll gather clients faster than a ship’s hull does barnacles. Marcus Antonius wants to unsettle Octavian, who can only ape Caesar with thick-soled boots and practiced Caesarean gestures. Caesarion is the real thing, Octavian a parody. Oh, clever Marcus Antonius! Bring Octavian down by showing Rome Caesar. The veteran soldiers will melt like ice in the sun, and they have so much power.
Cleopatra, cleansed of her regal make-up by the more orthodox method of a bowl of warm water, burst out laughing. ‘Apollodorus, this is marvelous!’ she cried, handing the papers she had read to Sosigenes. ‘Where did you get these?’ she asked while Sosigenes pored his way through them, chuckling.
‘His scribe is fonder of money than statues, Daughter of Amun-Ra. The scribe made an extra copy and sold it to me.’
‘Did Dellius act on instructions, I wonder? Or is this merely a way of demonstrating to his master that he’s worth his salt?’
‘The latter, Your Majesty,’ said Sosigenes, wiping his eyes. ‘It’s so silly! The statue of Serapis, painted by Nicias? He was dead long before Bryaxis first poured bronze into a mold. And he missed the Praxiteles Apollo in the gymnasium – “a sculpture of no great artistic worth,” he called it! Oh, Quintus Dellius, you are a fool!’
‘Let us not underestimate the man just because he doesn’t know a Phidias from a Neapolitan plaster copy,’ Cleopatra said. ‘What his list tells me is that Antonius is desperate for money. Money that I, for one, do not intend to give him.’
Cha’em pattered in, accompanied by his wife.
‘Tach’a, at last! What does the bowl say about Antonius?’
The smoothly beautiful face remained impassive; Tach’a was a priestess of Ptah, trained almost from birth not to betray her emotions. ‘The lotus petals formed a pattern I have never seen, Daughter of Ra. No matter how many times I cast them on the water, the pattern always stayed the same. Yes, Isis approves of Marcus Antonius as the sire of your children, but it will not be easy, and it will not happen in Tarsus. In Egypt, only in Egypt. His seed is spread too thinly, he must be fed on the juices and fruits that strengthen a man’s seed.’
‘If the pattern is so unique, Tach’a my mother, how can you be sure that is what the petals are saying?’
‘Because I went to the holy archives, Pharaoh. My readings are only the last in three thousand years.’
‘Ought I refuse to go to Tarsus?’ Cleopatra asked Cha’em.
‘No, Pharaoh. My own visions say that Tarsus is necessary. Antonius is not the God out of the West, but he has some of the same blood. Enough for our purposes, which are not to raise up a rival for Caesarion! What he needs are a sister to marry and some brothers who will be loyal subordinates.’
Caesarion walked in, trailing water. ‘Mama, I’ve just talked to Quintus Dellius,’ he said, flopping on a couch while a clucking Charmian hurried off to find towels.
‘Did you, now? Where was that?’ Cleopatra asked, smiling.
The wide eyes, greener than Caesar’s and lacking that piercing quality, creased up in amusement. ‘When I went for a swim. He was paddling. Can you imagine it? Paddling! He told me he couldn’t swim, and that confession told me that he was never a contubernalis in any army that mattered. He’s a couch soldier.’
‘Did you have an interesting conversation, my son?’
‘I led him astray, if that’s what you mean. He suspected that someone warned us he was coming but, by the time I left him, he was sure we’d been taken by surprise. It was the news that we’re sailing to Tarsus made him suspect. So I let it slip that late April is the time of year when we pull all the ships out of their sheds, go over them for leaks, and exercise them and their crews. What a fortunate chance! I said. Ready to go instead of struggling for ages to mend leaky ships.’
And he is not yet six years old, thought Sosigenes. This child has been blessed by all of Egypt’s gods.
‘I don’t like that “we”,’ said the mother, frowning.
The bright, eager face fell. ‘Mama! You can’t mean it! I am to go with you – I must go with you!’
‘Someone has to rule in my absence, Caesarion.’
‘Not I! I am too young!’
‘Old enough, and that’s enough. No Tarsus for you.’
A verdict that ruptured the essential vulnerability of a five-year-old; an inconsolable sorrow welled up in Caesarion – that pain only a child can feel at being deprived of some new and passionately wanted experience. He burst into noisy tears, but when his mother went to comfort him, he shoved her away so fiercely that she staggered. He ran from the room.
‘He’ll get over it,’ Cleopatra said comfortably. ‘My, isn’t he strong?’
Will he get over it? wondered Tach’a, who saw a different Caesarion – driven, split, achingly lonely. He’s Caesar, not Cleopatra, and she doesn’t understand him. It wasn’t the chance to strut like a child king that made him hunger to go to Tarsus, it was the chance to see new places, ease his restlessness at this small world he inhabits.
* * *
Two days later the royal fleet was assembled in the Great Harbor, with Philopator’s gigantic vessel tied up at the wharf in the little annex called the Royal Harbor.
‘Ye gods!’ said Dellius, gaping at it. ‘Is everything in Egypt larger than in the rest of the world?’
‘We like to think so,’ said Caesarion who, for reasons known only to himself, had developed a habit of following Dellius around.
‘It’s a barge! It will wallow and sink!’
‘It’s a ship, not a barge,’ said Caesarion. ‘Ships have keels, barges do not,’ he went on like a schoolmaster, ‘and the keel of Philopator was carved from one enormous cedar hewn in the Libanus – we owned Syria then. Philopator was properly built, with a kelson, and bilges, and a flat-bottomed hull. It has loads of room below deck, and see? Both banks of oars are in outriggers. It’s not topheavy, even from the weight of the outriggers. The mast is a hundred feet tall, and Captain Agathocles has decided to keep the lateen sail on board in case the wind’s really good. See the figurehead? That’s Philopator himself, going before us.’
‘You know a lot,’ said Dellius, who didn’t understand much about ships, even after this lesson.
‘Our fleets sail to India and Taprobane. Mama has promised me that, when I’m older, she’ll take me to the Sinus Arabicus to see them set out. How I’d love to go with them!’ Suddenly the boy stiffened and prepared for flight. ‘There’s my nursemaid! It’s absolutely disgusting to have a nursemaid!’ And off he ran, determined to elude the poor creature, no match for her charge.
Not long after, a servant came for Quintus Dellius; time to board his ship, which was not the Philopator. He didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry; the Queen’s vessel would undoubtedly lag far behind the rest, even if its accommodations were luxurious.
Though Dellius didn’t know, Cleopatra’s shipwrights had made changes to her vessel, which had survived its seagoing trials surprisingly well. It measured 350 feet from stem to stern, and 40 feet in the beam. Shifting both banks of rowers into outriggers had increased the space below deck, but Pharaoh couldn’t be housed near laboring men, so below deck was given over to the hundred and fifty people who sailed in Philopator, most of them almost demented with terror at the very thought of riding on the sea.
The old stern reception room was turned into Pharaoh’s domain, large enough for a spacious bedroom, another for Charmian and Iras, and a dining room that held twenty-one couches. The arcade of lotus-capital columns remained in place, ending forward of the mast in a raised dais, roofed with faïence tiles and supported by a new column at each corner. Forward of that was a reception room, now somewhat smaller than of yore in order that Sosigenes and Cha’em might have rooms of their own. And forward of that again, cunningly hidden in the bows, was an open cooking area. On river cruises most of the food preparation was done on shore; fire was always a risk on a wooden ship. But out to sea, no shore to cook on.
Cleopatra had brought along Charmian and Iras, two fair-haired women of impeccably Macedonian ancestry who had been her companions since babyhood. Theirs had been the job of selecting thirty young girls to travel with Pharaoh to Tarsus; they had to be beautiful in the face and voluptuous in the body, but none could be a whore. The pay was ten gold drachmae, a small fortune, but it wasn’t the pay that reconciled them to the unknown, it was the clothes they were given to wear in Tarsus – flimsy gold and silver tissues, brocades glittering with metal threads, transparent linens in all the hues of the rainbow, wools so fine that they clung to the limbs as if wet. A dozen exquisitely lovely little boys had been purchased from the slave markets in Pelusium, and fifteen very tall barbarian men with fine physiques. Every male on show was outfitted in kilts embroidered to resemble peacock tails; the peacock, Cleopatra had decided, was to be the Philopator theme, and enough gold had been spent on buying peacock feathers to make an Antony weep.
On the first day of May the fleet sailed, and under sail, with Philopator scornfully showing the rest its stern cowl. The only wind that would have opposed their northerly heading, the Etesian, did not blow at this time of year. A brisk southeast breeze swelled the fleet’s sails and made life much easier for the oarsmen. No tempest occurred to force them into harbor along the way, and the pilot, aboard Philopator in the lead, recognized every headland on the Syrian coast without hesitation. At Cape Heracleia, which faced the tip of Cyprus’s tail, he came to see Cleopatra.
‘Your Majesty, we have two choices,’ he said, on his knees.
‘They are, Palamedes?’
‘To continue to hug the Syrian coast as far as the Rhosicum promontory, then cross the top of Sinus Issicus to the mouths of Cilicia Pedia’s great rivers. That will mean sand bars and shoals – slow going.’
‘And the alternative?’
‘To strike into open water here and sail almost due northwest – possible with this wind – until we fetch up on the coast of Cilicia somewhere near the mouth of River Cydnus.’
‘What is the difference in time at sea, Palamedes?’
‘That is hard to say, Your Majesty, but perhaps as many as ten days. Cilicia Pedia’s rivers will be flooding, an additional handicap if we hug the coast. But you must understand that the second choice is hazardous. A storm or a change in wind direction could send us anywhere from Libya to Greece.’
‘We will take the risk and voyage upon the open sea.’
And the river gods of Egypt, perhaps not expected by Father Neptune to appear on the broad expanses of his kingdom, proved powerful enough to keep the fleet sailing unerringly for the mouth of the Cydnus River. Or perhaps Father Neptune, a properly Roman god, had concluded a contract with his Egyptian brethren. Whatever the reason, on the tenth day of May the fleet congregated seaward of the Cydnus bar. Not a good time to cross, with the swollen stream resisting entry; now the oarsmen would earn their wages! The passage was clearly marked with painted piles; between them barges worked indefatigably to dredge the sand and mud. No ship of the fleet was deep-drafted, especially tubby Philopator, built for river voyaging. Even so, Cleopatra ordered her fleet in ahead of her, wanting Dellius to have time to tell Antony she was here.
He found Antony bored and restless, but still sober.
‘Well?’ Antony demanded, glaring up at Dellius. One big hand gestured at the desk top, awash in scrolls and papers. ‘Look at this! And all of it’s either bills or bad news! Did you succeed? Is Cleopatra coming?’
‘Cleopatra is here, Antonius. I traveled aboard her fleet, even now being assigned moorings downriver. Twenty triremes, all naval – no trade opportunities, I’m afraid.’
His chair scraped; Antony got up and went to the window, his movement making Dellius realize anew how graceful some big men could be. ‘Where is she? I hope you told the city harbor master to assign her the choicest moorings.’
‘Yes, but it’s going to take some time. Her ship is as long as three Greek war galleys of olden times, so it can’t exactly be slipped in between two merchantmen already tied up. The harbor master has to shift seven of them – he’s not happy, but he’ll do it. I spoke in your name.’
‘A ship big enough to house a titan, eh? When am I going to see it?’ Antony asked, scowling.
‘Tomorrow morning, about an hour after dawn.’ Dellius gave a contented sigh. ‘She came without a murmur, and in huge state. I think she wishes to impress you.’
‘Then I’ll make sure she doesn’t. Presumptuous sow!’
Which was why, as the sun nudged up over the trees east of Tarsus, Antony rode a drab horse to the far bank of Cydnus, a drab cloak wrapped about him, and no one in attendance. To see the enemy first is an advantage; soldiering with Caesar had taught him that. Oh, the air smells sweet! What am I doing in a sacked city when there are marches to be made, battles to be fought? he asked himself, knowing the answer. I am still here to see if the Queen of Egypt was going to answer my summons. And that other presumptuous sow, Glaphyra, is beginning to nag me in a way that Eastern women have perfected: sweetly, tearfully, larded with sighs and whimpers. Oh, for Fulvia! When she nags, a man knows he’s being nagged – growl, snarl, roar! Nor does she mind a cuff over the ear – provided a man doesn’t mind five nails raked down his chest in retaliation.
Ah, there was a good spot! He turned sideways and slid off the horse, making for a flat rock raised several feet above the bank. Sitting on it, he would have a perfect view of Cleopatra’s ship sailing up the Cydnus to its moorings. He wasn’t more than fifty paces from the river’s channel; this was so near the edge that he could see a small bright bird nesting in the eaves of a warehouse alongside the quay.
Philopator came crawling up the river at the speed of a man walking at a fast clip, setting Antony agape long before it drew level with him. For what he could see was a figurehead amid a misty, golden halo; a brown-skinned man wearing a white kilt, a collar and belt of gold and gems, and a huge headdress of red and white. His bare feet skimmed the wavelets breaking on either side of the beak, and in his right hand he brandished a golden spear. Figureheads were known, but not so massive or so much a part of the prow. This man – some king of old? – was the ship, and he bore it behind him like a billowing cloak.
Everything seemed gold; the ship was gilded from the water line up to the very top of the mast, and what wasn’t gold was painted in peacock blues and peacock greens, shimmering with a powdering of gold. The roofs of the buildings on deck were of faïence tiles in vivid blues and greens, and a whole arcade of lotus-headed columns marched down the deck. Even the oars were gold! And gems glittered everywhere! This ship alone was worth ten thousand gold talents!
Perfumes wafted, lyres and pipes sounded, a choir sang, all invisibly sourced; beautiful girls in gauzy gowns threw flowers from golden baskets; many beautiful little boys in peacock kilts hung laughing in the snow-white shrouds. The swelling sail, spread to help the oarsmen battle the current, was whiter than white, embroidered to display two entwined beast heads – a hooded serpent and a vulture – and a strange eye dripping a long black tear.
Peacock feathers had been clustered everywhere, but nowhere more lushly than about a tall gold dais in front of the mast. On a throne sat a woman clad in a dress of peacock feathers, her head burdened with the same red and white crown as the figurehead man wore. Her shoulders sparkled with the jewels in a wide gold collar, and a broad girdle of the same kind was cinched about her waist. Crossed on her breast she carried a shepherd’s crook and a flail in gold worked with lapis blue. Her face was made up so heavily that it was quite impossible to see what she looked like; its expression was perfect impassivity.
The ship passed him by closely enough to see how wide it was, and how wonderfully made; the deck was paved in green and blue faïence tiles to match the roofs. A peacock ship, a peacock queen. Well, thought Antony, inexplicably angered, she will see who is cock of the walk in Tarsus!
He took the bridge to the city at a gallop, tumbled off the horse at the door to the governor’s palace and strode in shouting for his servants.
‘Toga and lictors, now!’
So when the Queen sent her chamberlain, the eunuch Philo, to inform Marcus Antonius that she had arrived, Philo was told that Marcus Antonius was in the agora hearing cases on behalf of the fiscus, and could not see Her Majesty until the morrow.
Such had actually been Antony’s intention for days; it had been formally posted on the tribunal in the agora, so when he took his place on the tribunal he saw what he had expected – a hundred litigants, at least that many advocates, several hundred spectators and several dozen vendors of drinks, snacks, nibbles, parasols and fans. Even in May, Tarsus was hot. For that reason his court was shaded by a crimson awning that said SPQR on fringed flaps every few feet around its margins. Atop the stone tribunal sat Antony himself on his ivory curule chair, with twelve crimson-clad lictors to either side of him and Lucilius at a table stacked with scrolls. The most novel actor in this drama was a hoary centurion who stood in one corner of the tribunal; he wore a shirt of gold scales, golden greaves, a chest loaded with phalerae, armillae and torcs, and a gold helmet whose scarlet horsehair ruff spread sideways like a fan. But the chest loaded with decorations for valorous deeds wasn’t what cowed this audience. It was the Gallic longsword the centurion held between his hands, its tip resting on the ground. It reminded the citizens of Tarsus that Marcus Antonius owned imperium maius, and could execute anyone for anything. If he took it into his head to issue an execution order, then this centurion would carry it out on the spot. Not that Antony had any intention of executing a fly or a spider; Easterners were used to being ruled by people who executed as capriciously as regularly, so why disillusion them?
Some of the cases were interesting, some entertaining as well. Antony waded through them with the efficiency and detachment that all Romans seemed to possess, be they members of the proletariat or the aristocracy. A people who understood law, method, routine, discipline, though Antony was less dowered with these essentially Roman qualities than most. Even so, he attacked his task with vigor, and sometimes venom. A sudden stir in the crowd threw a litigant off balance just as he reached the point whereat he would pass his case over to the highly paid advocate at his side; Mark Antony turned his head, frowning.
The crowd had parted, sighing in awe, to permit the passage of a small procession led by a nut-brown, shaven-headed man in a white dress, a fortune in gold chains around his neck. Behind him walked Philo the chamberlain in linen of blues and greens, face painted delicately, body glittering with jewels. But they were as nothing compared to the conveyance behind them: a spacious litter of gold, its roof of faïence tiles, nodding plumes of peacock feathers at its cornerposts. It was carried by eight huge men as black as grapes, with the same purple tint to their skins. They wore peacock kilts, collars and bracelets of gold, and flaring gold nemes headdresses.
Queen Cleopatra waited until the bearers gently set her litter down, then, without waiting for assistance in alighting, she slid lithely out of it and approached the steps of the Roman tribunal.
‘Marcus Antonius, you summoned me to Tarsus. I am here,’ she said in a clear, carrying voice.
‘Your name is not on my roster of cases for today, madam! You will have to apply to my secretary, but I assure you that I will see that your name is first on my list in the morning,’ said Antony with the courtesy due to a monarch, but no deference.
Inside, she was boiling. How dared this clodhopper of a Roman treat her like anyone else! She had come to the agora to show him up as the boor he was, display her immense clout and authority to the Tarsians, who would appreciate her position and not think too well of Antony for metaphorically spitting on her. He wasn’t in the Roman forum now, these weren’t Roman businessmen (all of them had quit the area as unprofitable). These were people akin to her Alexandrian people, sensitive to the prerogatives and rights of monarchs. Mind being pushed aside for the Queen of Egypt? No, they would preen at the distinction! They had all visited the wharf to marvel at Philopator, and had come to the agora fully expecting to find their cases postponed. No doubt Antony thought they would esteem his democratic principles in seeing them first, but that was not how an Eastern cerebral apparatus worked. They were shocked and disturbed, disapproving. What she was doing in standing so humbly at the foot of his tribunal was demonstrating to the Tarsians how arrogant the Romans were.
‘Thank you, Marcus Antonius,’ she said. ‘If perhaps you have no plans for dinner, you might join me on my ship this evening? Shall we say, at twilight? It is more comfortable to dine after the heat has gone out of the air.’
He stared down at her, a spark of anger in his eyes; somehow she had put him in the wrong, he could see it in the faces of the crowd, fawning and bowing, keeping their distance from the royal personage. In Rome, she would have been mobbed, but here? Never, it seemed. Curse the woman!
‘I have no plans for dinner,’ he said curtly. ‘You may expect to see me at twilight.’
‘I will send my litter for you, Imperator Antonius. Please feel free to bring Quintus Dellius, Lucius Poplicola, the brothers Saxa, Marcus Barbatius and fifty-five more of your friends.’
Cleopatra hopped nimbly into her litter; the bearers picked up its poles and turned it around, for it was not a mere couch, it had a head and a foot to enable its occupant to be properly seen.
‘Proceed, Melanthus,’ said Antony to the litigant who the Queen’s arrival had stopped in mid-sentence.
The rattled Melanthus turned helplessly to his highly paid advocate, arms spread wide in bewilderment. Whereupon the man showed his competence by taking up the case as if no interruption had occurred.
It took his servants a while to find a tunic clean enough for Antony to wear to dinner on a ship; togas were too bulky to dine in, and had to be shed. Nor were boots (his preferred footwear) convenient; too much lacing and unlacing. Oh, for a crown of valor to wear upon his head! Caesar had worn his oak leaves for all public occasions, but only extreme valor in combat as a young man had earned him the privilege. Like Pompey the Great, Antony had never won a crown, brave though he had always been.
The litter was waiting. Pretending all this was great fun, Antony climbed in and ordered the bevy of friends, laughing and joking, to walk around the litter. The conveyance was admired, but not as much as the bearers, a fascinating rarity; even in the busiest, most varied slave markets, black men did not come up for sale. In Italia they were so rare that sculptors seized upon them, but those were women and children, and rarely pure-blooded like Cleopatra’s bearers. The beauty of their skins, the handsomeness of their faces, the dignity of their carriage were marveled at. What a stir they would create in Rome! Though, thought Antony, no doubt she had them with her when she had lived in Rome. I just never saw them.
The gangplank, he noted, was gold save for its railings, of the rarest citrus wood, and the faïence deck was strewn with rose petals oozing a faint perfume when trodden upon. Every pedestal that held a golden vase of peacock feathers or a priceless work of art was chryselephantine – delicately carved ivory inlaid with gold. Beautiful girls whose supple limbs showed through tissue-fine robes ushered them down the deck between the columns to a pair of great gold doors wrought in bas relief by some master; inside was a huge room with shutters opened wide to let in every breeze, its walls of citrus wood and marquetry in gorgeous, complex designs, its floor a foot deep in rose petals.
She’s taunting me! thought Antony. Taunting me!
Cleopatra was waiting, dressed now in filmy layers of gauze that shaded from dark amber underneath to palest straw on top. The style was neither Greek nor Roman nor Asian, but something of her own, waisted, flared in the skirts, the bodice fitting her closely to show small breasts beneath; her thin little arms were softened by billowing sleeves that ended at the elbows to allow room for bracelets up her forearms. Around her neck she wore a gold chain from which dangled, enclosed in a cage of finest golden wire, a single pearl the size and color of a strawberry. Antony’s gaze was drawn to it immediately; he gasped, eyes going to her face in astonishment.
‘I know that bauble,’ he said.
‘Yes, I suppose you do. Caesar gave it to Servilia many years ago to bribe her when he broke off Brutus’s engagement to his daughter. But Julia died, and then Brutus died, and Servilia lost all her money in the civil war. Old Faberius Margarita valued it at six million sesterces, but when she came to sell it, she asked ten million. Silly woman! I would have paid twenty million to get it. But the ten million wasn’t enough to get her out of debt, I heard. Brutus and Cassius lost the war, so that took care of one side of her fortune, and Vatia and Lepidus bled her dry, which took care of the other side.’ Cleopatra spoke with amusement.
‘It’s true that she’s Atticus’s pensioner these days.’
‘And Caesar’s wife committed suicide, I hear.’
‘Calpurnia? Well, her father, Piso, wanted to marry her to some mushroom willing to pay a fortune for the privilege of bedding Caesar’s widow, but she wouldn’t do it. Piso and his new wife made her life a misery, and she hated having to move out of the Domus Publica. She opened her veins.’
‘Poor woman. I always liked her. I liked Servilia too, for that matter. The ones I loathed were the wives of the New Men.’
‘Cicero’s Terentia, Pedius’s Valeria Messala, Hirtius’s Fabia. I can understand that,’ said Antony with a grin.
While they talked the girls were leading the fascinated group Antony had brought with him to their respective couches; when it was done, Cleopatra herself took his arm and led him to the couch at the bottom of the U, and placed him in the locus consularis. ‘Do you mind if we have no third companion on our couch?’ she asked.
‘Not at all.’
No sooner was he settled than the first course came in: such an array of dainties that several noted gourmands among his party clapped their hands in delight. Tiny birds designed to be eaten bones and all, eggs stuffed with indescribable pastes, shrimps grilled, shrimps steamed, shrimps skewered and broiled with giant capers and mushrooms, oysters and scallops brought at the gallop from the coast; a hundred other equally delectable dishes meant to be eaten with the fingers. Then came the main course, whole lambs roasted on the spit, capons, pheasants, baby crocodile meat (it was superb, enthused the gourmands), stews and braises flavored in new ways, and whole roast peacocks arranged on golden dishes with all their feathers replaced in exact order and their tails fanned.
‘Hortensius served the first roast peacock at a banquet in Rome,’ Antony said, and laughed. ‘Caesar said it tasted like an old army boot, except that the boot was tenderer.’
Cleopatra chuckled. ‘He would! Give Caesar a mess of dried peas or chickpeas or lentils cooked with a knuckle of salted pork and he was happy. Not a food-fancier!’
‘Once he dipped his bread in rancid oil and never noticed.’
‘But you, Marcus Antonius, appreciate good food.’
‘The wine is Chian. You shouldn’t drink it watered.’
‘I intend to stay sober, madam.’
‘And why is that?’
‘Because a man dealing with you needs his wits.’
‘I take that as a compliment.’
‘Age hasn’t improved your looks,’ he said as the sweetmeats came in, apparently indifferent to how any woman might take this news about her appearance.
‘My charms were never in my looks,’ she said, unruffled. ‘To Caesar, what appealed were my voice, my intelligence and my royal status. Especially he liked the fact that I picked up languages as easily as he did. He taught me Latin, I taught him demotic and classical Egyptian.’
‘Your Latin is impeccable.’
‘So was Caesar’s. That’s why mine is.’
‘You didn’t bring his son.’
‘Caesarion is Pharaoh. I left him behind to rule.’
‘Nearly six, going on sixty. A wonderful boy. I trust that you intend to keep your promise and present him to the Senate as Caesar’s heir in Egypt. He must have undisputed tenure of his throne, which means that Octavianus must be made to see that he is no threat to Rome. Just a good client-king of half-Roman blood that can be of no benefit to him in Rome. Caesarion’s fate lies in Egypt, and Octavianus must be made to realize that.’
‘I agree, but the time isn’t ripe to bring Caesarion to Rome for ratification of our treaties with Egypt. There’s trouble in Italia, and I can’t interfere with whatever Octavianus does to solve those troubles. He inherited Italia as part of our agreement at Philippi – all I want from the place are troops.’
‘As a Roman, don’t you feel a certain responsibility for what is happening in Italia, Antonius?’ she asked, brow pleated. ‘Is it prudent and politic to leave Italia suffering so much from famine and economic differences between the businessmen, the landowners and the veteran soldiers? Ought not you, Octavianus and Lepidus have remained in Italia and solved its problems first? Octavianus is a mere boy, he can’t possibly have the wisdom or the experience to succeed. Why not help him instead of hindering him?’ She gave a gritty laugh and thumped her bolster. ‘None of this is to my advantage, but I keep thinking of the mess Caesar left behind in Alexandria, and of how I had to get all its citizens cooperating instead of warring class against class. I failed because I didn’t see that social wars are disastrous. Caesar left me the advice, but I wasn’t clever enough to use it. But if it were to happen again, I would know how to deal with it. And what I see happening in Italia is a variation upon my own struggle. Forget your differences with Octavianus and Lepidus, work together!’
‘I would rather,’ Antony said between his teeth, ‘be dead than give that posturing boy one iota of help!’
‘The people are more important than one posturing boy.’
‘No, they’re not! I’m hoping Italia will starve, and I’ll do whatever I can to speed the process up. That’s why I tolerate Sextus Pompeius and his admirals. They make it impossible for Octavianus to feed Italia, and the less taxes the businessmen pay, the less money Octavianus has to buy land to settle the veterans. With the landowners stirring the pot, Octavianus will cook.’
‘Rome has built an empire on the people of Italia from north of the Padus River all the way to the tip of Bruttium. Hasn’t it occurred to you that in insisting that you be able to recruit troops in Italia, you’re actually saying that no other place can produce such excellent soldiers? But if the country starves, they too will starve.’
‘No, they won’t,’ Antony said instantly. ‘The famine only drives them to re-enlist. It’s a help.’
‘Not to the women who bear the boys who will grow up into those excellent soldiers.’
‘They get paid, they send money home. The ones who starve are useless – Greek freedmen and old women.’
Mentally exhausted, Cleopatra lay back and closed her eyes. Of the emotions that lead to murder she had intimate knowledge; her father had strangled his own daughter to shore up his throne, and would have killed her had not Cha’em and Tach’a hidden her in Memphis as a growing child. But the very idea of deliberately drawing down famine and disease upon her people was utterly foreign to her. These feuding, passionate men possessed a ruthlessness that seemed to have no bounds – no wonder Caesar had died at their hands. Their own personal and familial prestige was more important than whole nations, and in that they were closer to Mithridates the Great than they would have cared to hear. If it meant that an enemy of the family would perish, they would walk over a sea of dead. They still practiced the politics of a tiny city-state, having no concept, it seemed to her, that the tiny city-state had turned into the most powerful military and commercial machine in history. Alexander the Great had conquered more, but on his death it vanished as smoke does into a wide sky; the Romans conquered a bit here and a bit there, but gave what they had conquered to an idea named Rome, for the greater glory of that idea. And yet they could not see that Italia mattered more than personal feuds. Caesar used to say it to her all the time: that Italia and Rome were the same entity. But Marcus Antonius would not have agreed.
However, she was a little closer to understanding what kind of man Marcus Antonius was. Ah, but too tired to prolong this evening! There would have to be more dinners, and if her cooks went insane dreaming up new dishes, then so be it.
‘Pray excuse me, Antonius. I am for bed. Stay as long as you like. Philo will look after you.’
Next moment, she was gone. Frowning, Antony debated whether to go or stay, and decided to go. Tomorrow evening he would give a banquet for her. Odd little thing! Like one of those girls who starved themselves just at the age when they should be eating. Though they were anemic, weakly creatures, and Cleopatra was very tough. I wonder, he thought in sudden amusement, how Octavianus is coping with Fulvia’s daughter by Clodius? Now there’s a starved girl! No more meat on her than a gnat.
Cleopatra’s invitation to a second dinner that evening came as Antony was setting out the following day for the courts, where he knew the Queen would not present herself again. His friends were so full of the wonders of that banquet that he cut his breakfast of bread and honey short, arrived at the agora before any of the litigants had expected him. Part of him was still fulminating at the direction in which she had led the more serious conversation, and they had not broached the subject of whether she had sided with Cassius. That would keep a day or two, he supposed, but it did not augur well that clearly she was not intimidated.
When he returned to the governor’s palace to bathe and shave in preparation for the evening’s festivities aboard Philopator, he found Glaphyra lying in wait for him.
‘Was I not asked last night?’ she demanded in a thin voice.
‘You were not asked.’
‘And am I asked this evening?’
‘Ought I perhaps send the Queen a little note to inform her that I am of royal blood, and your guest here in Tarsus? If I did, she would surely extend her invitation to include me.’
‘You could, Glaphyra,’ said Antony, suddenly feeling jovial, ‘but it wouldn’t get you anywhere. Pack your things. I’m sending you back to Comana tomorrow at dawn.’
The tears cascaded like silent rain.
‘Oh, cease the waterworks, woman!’ Antony cried. ‘You will get what you want, but not yet. Continue the waterworks, and you might get nothing.’
Only on the third evening at the third dinner aboard Philopator did Antony mention Cassius. How her cooks managed to keep on presenting novelties eluded him, but his friends were lost in an ecstasy of edibles that left them little time to watch what the couple on the lectus medius were doing. Certainly not making any amatory advances to each other and, with that speculation dead in the water, the sight of those gorgeous girls was far more thrilling – though some guests made a greater fuss of the little boys.
‘You had better come to the governor’s palace for dinner on the morrow,’ said Antony, who had eaten well on each of the three occasions, but not made a glutton of himself. ‘Give your cooks a well-deserved rest.’
‘If you like,’ she said indifferently; she picked at food, took a sparrow’s portions.
‘But before you honor my quarters with your royal presence, Your Majesty, I think we’d better clear up the matter of that aid you gave Gaius Cassius.’
‘Aid? What aid?’
‘Don’t you call four good Roman legions aid?’
‘My dear Marcus Antonius,’ she drawled wearily, ‘those four legions marched north in the charge of Aulus Allienus, who I was led to believe was a legate of Publius Dolabella’s, the then legal governor of Syria. As Alexandria was threatened by plague as well as famine, I was glad to hand the four legions Caesar left there to Allienus. If he decided to change sides after he had crossed the border into Syria, that cannot be laid at my door. The fleet I sent you and Octavianus was wrecked in a storm, but you’ll find no records of fleets donated to Gaius Cassius, anymore than he got money from me, or grain from me, or other troops from me. I do admit that my viceroy on Cyprus, Serapion, did send aid to Brutus and Cassius, but I am happy to see Serapion executed. He acted without orders from me, which makes him a traitor to Egypt. If you do not execute him, I certainly will on my way home.’
‘Humph,’ Antony grunted, scowling. He knew everything she said was true, but that was not his problem; his problem was how to twist what she said to make it look like lies. ‘I can produce slaves willing to testify that Serapion acted under your orders.’
‘Freely, or under torture?’ she asked coolly.
‘For a minute fraction of the gold you hunger for more than Midas did. Come, Antonius, let us be frank! I am here because your fabulous East is bankrupt thanks to a Roman civil war, and suddenly Egypt looks like a huge goose capable of laying huge golden eggs. Well, disabuse yourself!’ she snapped. ‘Egypt’s gold belongs to Egypt, which enjoys Friend and Ally of the Roman People status, and has never broken trust. If you want Egypt’s gold, you’ll have to wrest it from me by force, at the head of an army. And even then you’ll be disappointed. Dellius’s pathetic little list of treasures to be found in Alexandria is but one golden egg in a mighty pile of them. And that pile is so well concealed that you will never find it. Nor will you torture it out of me or my priests, who are the only ones who know whereabouts it is.’
Not the speech of someone who could be cowed!
Listening for the slightest tremor in Cleopatra’s voice and watching for the slightest tension in her hands, her body, Antony could find none. Worse, he knew from several things Caesar had said that the Treasure of the Ptolemies was indeed secreted away so cunningly that no one could find it who didn’t know how. No doubt the items on Dellius’s list would fetch ten thousand talents, but he needed far more than that. And to march or sail his army to Alexandria would cost some thousands of talents of itself. Oh, curse the woman! I cannot bully or bludgeon her into yielding. Therefore I must find a different way. Cleopatra is no Glaphyra.
* * *
Accordingly a note was delivered to Philopator early the next morning to say that the banquet Antony was giving tonight would be a costume party.
‘But I offer you a hint,’ the note said. ‘If you come as Aphrodite, I will greet you as the New Dionysus, your natural partner in the celebration of life.’
So Cleopatra draped herself in Greek guise, floating layers of pink and carmine. Her thin, mouse-brown hair was done in its habitual style, parted into many strips from brow to nape of neck, where a small knot of it was bunched. People joked that it resembled the rind of a canteloupe melon, not far from the truth. A woman like Glaphyra would have been able to tell him (had she ever seen Cleopatra in her pharaonic regalia) that this uninspiring style enabled her to wear Egypt’s red and white double crown with ease. Tonight, however, she wore a spangled short veil of interwoven flowers, and had chosen to adorn her person with flowers at neck, at bodice, at waist. In one hand she carried a golden apple. The outfit was not particularly attractive, which didn’t worry Mark Antony, not a connoisseur of women’s wear. The whole object of the ‘costume’ dinner party was so that he could show himself to best advantage.
As the New Dionysus, he was bare from the waist up, and bare from mid-thigh down. His nether regions were draped in a flimsy piece of purple gauze, under which a carefully tailored loincloth revealed the mighty pouch that contained the fabled Antonian genitalia. At forty-three, he was still in his prime, that Herculean physique unmarred by more excesses than most men fitted into twice his tally of years. Calves and thighs were massive, but the ankles slender, and the pectorals of his chest bulged above a flat, muscled belly. Only his head looked odd, for his neck was as thick as a bull’s, and dwarfed it. The tribe of girls the Queen had brought with her looked at him and gasped, near died inside for want of him.
‘My, you don’t have much in your wardrobe,’ Cleopatra said, unimpressed.
‘Dionysus didn’t need much. Here, have a grape,’ he said, extending the bunch he held in one hand.
‘Here, have an apple,’ she said, extending a hand.
‘I’m Dionysus, not Paris. “Paris, you pretty boy, you woman-struck seducer,”’ he quoted. ‘See? I know my Homer.’
‘I am consumed with admiration.’ She arranged herself on the couch; he had given her the locus consularis, not a gesture the sticklers in his entourage appreciated. Women were women.
Antony tried, but the stripped-for-action look didn’t affect Cleopatra at all. Whatever she lived for, it wasn’t the physical side of love, so much was certain. In fact, she spent most of the evening playing with her golden apple, which she put into a glass goblet of pink wine and marveled at how the blue of the glass turned the gold a subtle shade of purple, especially when she stirred it with one manicured finger.
Finally, desperate, Antony gambled all on one roll of the dice: Venus, they must come up Venus! ‘I’m falling in love with you,’ he said, hand caressing her arm.
She moved it as if to brush off the attentions of an insect. ‘Gerrae,’ she growled.
‘It is not rubbish!’ he said indignantly, sitting up straight. ‘You’ve bewitched me, Cleopatra.’
‘My wealth has bewitched you.’
‘No, no! I wouldn’t care if you were a beggar woman!’
‘Gerrae! You’d step over me as if I didn’t exist.’
‘I’ll prove that I love you! Set me a task!’
Her answer was immediate. ‘My sister Arsinoë has taken refuge in the precinct of Artemis at Ephesus. She is under a sentence of death legally pronounced in Alexandria. Execute her, Antonius. Once she’s dead, I’ll rest easier, like you more.’
‘I have a better way,’ he said, sweat beading his forehead. ‘Let me make love to you – here, now!’
Her head tilted, skewing the veil of blossoms. To Dellius, watching intently from his couch, she looked like a tipsy flower vendor determined on a sale. One yellow-gold eye closed, the other surveyed Antony speculatively. ‘Not in Tarsus,’ she said then, ‘and not while my sister lives. Come to Egypt bearing me Arsinoë’s head, and I’ll think about it.’
‘I can’t!’ he cried, gasping. ‘I’ve too much work to do! Why do you think I’m sober? A war brewing in Italia, that accursed boy faring better than anyone could have expected – I can’t! And how can you ask for the head of your own sister?’
‘With relish. She’s been after my head for years. If her plans succeed, she’ll marry my son, then lop mine from my shoulders in the flicker of an eye. Her blood is pure Ptolemaic and she’s young enough to have children when Caesarion is old enough. I am the granddaughter of Mithridates the Great – a hybrid. And my son, more hybrid yet. To many people in Alexandria, Arsinoë represents a return to the proper bloodlines. If I am to live, she must die.’
Cleopatra slid from the couch, discarding her veil, wrenching ropes of tuber roses and lilies from her neck and waist. ‘Thank you for an excellent party, and thank you for an illuminating trip abroad. Philopator has not been so entertained these last hundred years. Tomorrow we sail home to Egypt. Come and see me there. And do look in on my sister at Ephesus. She’s such an absolute chuckle. If you like harpies and gorgons, you’ll just love her.’
‘Maybe,’ said Dellius, made privy to some of this the next morning as Philopator dipped golden oars in the water and started home, ‘you frightened her, Antonius.’
‘Frightened her? That cold blooded viper? Impossible!’
‘She doesn’t weigh much more than a talent, whereas you must weigh in the region of four talents. Perhaps she thinks you’d crush her to death.’ He tittered. ‘Or ram her to death! It’s even possible that you would.’
‘Cacat! I never thought of that!’
‘Woo her with letters, Antonius, and get on with your duties as Triumvir east of Italia.’
‘Are you trying to push me, Dellius?’ Antony asked.
‘No, no, of course not!’ Dellius answered quickly. ‘Just remind you that the Queen of Egypt is no longer on your horizon, whereas other people and events are.’
Antony swept the paperwork off his desk with a savage swipe that had Lucilius down on his hands and knees immediately, picking them up. ‘I’m fed up with this life, Dellius! The East can rot – it’s time for wine and women.’
Dellius looked down, Lucilius looked up, exchanged a speaking glance. ‘I have a better idea, Antonius,’ Dellius said. ‘Why not get through a mountain of work this summer, then spend the winter in Alexandria at the court of Queen Cleopatra?’
For the fourth year in a row, Nilus did not inundate. The only cheering news was that those along the river who had survived the plague seemed immune to it, as was equally true in the Delta and Alexandria. These folk were hardier, healthier.
Sosigenes had been visited by an idea, and issued an edict in Pharaoh’s name; it ordered that the lowest sections of Nilus’s banks be broken down a further five feet. If any water came over the tops of these prepared gaps, it would flow into huge ponds excavated in advance. All around the rims of the ponds stood treadmill water wheels ready to feed water into shallow channels snaking off across the parched fields. And when mid-July brought the inundation that was no inundation, the river rose just high enough to fill the ponds. This was a far easier way of irrigating by hand than the traditional shaduf, a single bucket that had to be dipped into the river itself.
And people were people, even in the midst of death; babies had been born, the population was increasing. But Egypt would eat.
The threat from Rome was in temporary abeyance; her agents told Cleopatra that from Tarsus Antony had gone to Antioch, paid calls on Tyre and Sidon, then taken ship for Ephesus. And there a screaming Arsinoë was dragged from sanctuary to be run through by a sword. The high priest of Artemis looked likely to follow her, but Antony, who disliked these Eastern bloodbath vengeances, intervened at the ethnarch’s request and sent the man back to his precinct unharmed. The head would not be a part of Antony’s baggage if and when he visited Egypt; Arsinoë had been burned whole. She had been the last true Ptolemy, and with her death that particular threat to Cleopatra vanished.
‘Antonius will come in the winter,’ said Tach’a, smiling.
‘Antonius! Oh, my mother, he is no Caesar! How can I bear his hands upon me?’
‘Caesar was unique. You cannot forget him, that I understand, but you must cease to mourn him and look to Egypt. What matter the feel of his hands when Antonius possesses the blood to give Caesarion a sister to marry? Monarchs do not mate for gratification of the self, they mate to benefit their realms and safeguard the dynasty. You will get used to Antonius.’
In fact, Cleopatra’s greatest worry that summer and autumn was Caesarion, who hadn’t forgiven her for leaving him behind in Alexandria. He was irreproachably polite, he worked hard over his books, he read voluntarily in his own time, he kept up his riding lessons, his military exercises and his athletic pursuits, though he would not box or wrestle.
‘Tata told me that our thinking apparatus is located inside our heads and that we must never engage in sports that endanger it. So I will learn to use the gladius and the longsword, I will shoot arrows and throw rocks from slings, I will practice casting my pilum and my hasta, I will run, hurdle and swim. But I will not box or wrestle. Tata wouldn’t approve, no matter what my instructors say. I told them to desist, not to come running to you – does my command count for less than yours?’
She was too busy marveling at how much he remembered about Caesar to hear the message implicit in his last words. His father died before the child turned four.
But it was not the argument over contact sport or other small dissatisfactions that gnawed at her; what hurt was his aloofness. She couldn’t fault his attention when she spoke to him, especially to issue an order, but he had shut her out of his private world. Clearly he felt an ongoing resentment that she couldn’t dismiss as petty.
Oh, she cried to herself, why do I always make the wrong decisions? Had I only known what effect excluding him from Tarsus would have, I would have taken him with me. But that would have been to risk the succession on a sea voyage – impossible!
Then her agents reported that the situation in Italia had deteriorated into open war. The instigators were Antony’s termagant wife, Fulvia, and Antony’s brother, the consul Lucius Antonius. Fulvia snared that famous fence-sitter and side-switcher Lucius Munatius Plancus and bewitched him into donating the veteran soldiers he was settling around Beneventum – two full legions – for her army; after which she persuaded that aristocratic dolt, Tiberius Claudius Nero, whom Caesar had so detested, to raise a slave revolt in Campania – not an appropriate task for one who had never in his life conversed with a slave. Not that Nero didn’t try, just that he didn’t even know how to start his commission.
Having no official position save his status as Triumvir, Octavian slid in careful Fabian circles on Lucius Antonius’s perimeter as the two legions that Lucius himself had managed to recruit moved up the Italian peninsula toward Rome. The third Triumvir, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, took two legions to Rome to keep Lucius out. Then the moment Lepidus saw the glitter of armor on the Via Latina, he abandoned Rome and his troops to a jubilant Fulvia (and Lucius, whom people tended to forget).
The outcome actually depended upon the ring of great armies fencing Italia in – armies commanded by Antony’s best marshals, men who were his friends as well as his political adherents. Gnaeus Asinius Pollio held Italian Gaul with seven legions; in Further Gaul across the Alps sat Quintus Fufius Calenus with eleven legions; while Publius Ventidius and his seven legions sat in coastal Liguria.
By now it was autumn. Antony was in Athens, not far away, enjoying the entertainments this most sophisticated of cities had to offer. Pollio wrote to him, Ventidius wrote to him, Calenus wrote to him, Plancus wrote to him, Fulvia wrote to him, Lucius wrote to him, Sextus Pompey wrote to him, and Octavian was writing to him every single day. Antony never answered any of these letters – he had better things to do. Thus – as Octavian for one realized – Antony missed his great chance to crush Caesar’s heir permanently. The veterans were mutinous, no one was paying taxes, and all Octavian could scrape up were eight legions. Every main road from Bononia in the north to Brundisium in the south reverberated to the rhythmic thud of hobnailed legionary caligae, most of them belonging to Octavian’s avowed enemies. Sextus Pompey’s fleets controlled both the Tuscan Sea to Italia’s west and the Adriatic Sea to Italia’s east, cutting off the grain supply from Sicilia and Africa. Had Antony hoisted his bulk off his plush Athenian couch and led all these elements in an outright war to squash Octavian, he would have won easily. But Antony chose not to answer his letters and not to move. Octavian breathed a sigh of relief, while Antony’s own people assumed that Antony was too busy having a good time to bother with anything beyond pleasure.
But in Alexandria, reading her reports, Cleopatra fretted and fumed, considered writing to Antony to urge him into an Italian war. That would really remove the threat from Egypt! In the end she didn’t write; had she, it would have been a wasted effort.
Lucius Antonius marched north on the Via Flaminia to Perusia, a magnificent town perched high on a flat-topped mountain in the middle of the Apennines. There he inserted himself and his six legions within Perusia’s walls and waited to see not only what Octavian would do, but also what Pollio, Ventidius and Plancus would do. It never occurred to him that the latter three wouldn’t march to his rescue – as Antony’s men, they had to!
Octavian had put his spiritual brother Agrippa in command – a shrewd decision; when the two very young men concluded that neither Pollio and Ventidius nor Plancus were going to rescue Lucius, they erected massive siege fortifications in a ring all the way around Perusia’s mountain. No food could reach the town and, with winter coming on, the water table was low, and lowering.
Fulvia sat in Plancus’s camp and railed at the perfidy of Pollio and Ventidius, clustered miles away; she also railed in person at Plancus, who put up with it because he was in love with her. Her state of mind was alarmingly unstable: one moment frenzied tantrums, the next bursts of energy recruiting more men. But what ate at her most was a new hatred of Octavian. The supercilious pup had sent his wife, Fulvia’s daughter Clodia, back to her mother still virgo intacta. What was she going to do with a skinny girl who did nothing but weep and refuse to eat? In awar camp? Worst of all, Clodia insisted that she was madly in love with Octavian, and blamed Octavian’s rejection on her mother.
By late October, Antony likened himself to Aetna just before an eruption. His colleagues felt the tremors and tried to avoid him, but that was not possible.
‘Dellius, I’m going to winter in Alexandria,’ he announced. ‘Marcus Saxa and Caninius can stay with the troops at Ephesus. Lucius Saxa, you can come with me as far as Antioch – I’m making you governor of Syria. There are two legions of Cassius’s troops in Antioch, they’ll be enough for your needs. You can start by making the cities of Syria understand that I want tribute. Now, not later! Whatever a place paid Cassius, it will pay to me. For the moment I’m not changing my dispositions elsewhere – Asia Province is quiet, Censorinus is coping in Macedonia, and I can’t see the need for a governor in Bithynia.’ He stretched his arms above his head exultantly. ‘A holiday! The New Dionysus is going to have a proper holiday! And what better place than at the court of Aphrodite in Egypt?’
He didn’t write Cleopatra a letter either. She knew that he was coming only through her agents, who managed to give her two nundinae of notice. In those sixteen days she sent ships out in search of fare that Egypt did not stock, from the succulent hams of the Pyreneae to huge wheels of cheese. Though it wasn’t usually on the menu, the palace kitchens could produce garum for flavoring sauces, and several breeders of suckling pigs for Roman residents of the city found their entire piggeries bought out. Chickens, geese, ducks, quails and pheasants were rounded up, though at this time of year there would be no lamb. More importantly, the wine had to be as good as plentiful; Cleopatra’s court hardly touched it, and Cleopatra herself preferred Egyptian barley beer. But for the Romans it must be wine, wine, wine.
Rumors floated around Pelusium and the Delta that Syria was restless, although no one seemed to have concrete evidence as to the nature of the problem. Admittedly the Jews were in a ferment; when Herod had returned from Bithynia a tetrarch, there were howls from both sides of the Sanhedrin, Pharisee and Sadducee; that his brother Phasael was also a tetrarch didn’t seem to matter as much. Herod was hated, Phasael tolerated. Some Jews were intriguing to spill Hyrcanus from the throne in favor of his nephew, a Hasmonaean prince named Antigonus; or, failing success, at least to strip Hyrcanus of the high priesthood and give that to Antigonus.
But with Mark Antony due to arrive any day, Syria didn’t get the attention from Cleopatra that it deserved. It was a matter of some urgency only because Syria was right next door.
What preoccupied Cleopatra most was a crisis that hinged on her son. Cha’em and Tach’a had been instructed to take Caesarion to Memphis and keep him there until Antony left.
‘I will not go,’ Caesarion said very calmly, chin up.
They were far from alone, which annoyed her. So she answered curtly. ‘Pharaoh orders it! Therefore you will go.’
‘I too am Pharaoh. The greatest Roman left alive after my father was murdered is to visit us, and we will receive him in state. That means Pharaoh must be present in both incarnations, male and female.’
‘Don’t argue, Caesarion. If necessary, I’ll have you taken to Memphis under guard.’
‘That will look good to our subjects!’
‘How dare you be insolent to me!’
‘I am Pharaoh, anointed and crowned. I am son of Amun-Ra and son of Isis. I am Horus. I am the Lord of the Two Ladies and the Lord of the Sedge and Bee. My cartouche is above yours. Without going to war against me, you cannot deny me my right to sit on my throne. As I will when we receive Marcus Antonius.’
The sitting room was so silent that every word mother and son uttered rang around the gilded rafters. Servants stood on duty in every inconspicuous corner; Charmian and Iras were in attendance on the Queen, Apollodorus stood in his place, and Sosigenes sat at a table poring over menus. Only Cha’em and Tach’a were absent, happily planning the treats they were going to give their beloved Caesarion when he arrived at the precinct of Ptah.
The child’s face was set mulishly, his blue-green eyes hard as polished stones. Never had his likeness to Caesar been so pronounced. Yet his pose was relaxed, no clenched fists or planted feet. He had said his piece; the next move was Cleopatra’s.
Who sat in her easy chair with mind spinning. How to explain to this obstinate stranger that she acted for his own good? If he remained in the Royal Enclosure he was bound to be exposed to all manner of things beyond his ken – oaths and profanities, crudeness and coarseness, vomiting gluttons, people too hot with lust to care that they coupled on a couch or against a wall; goings-on that carried the seeds of corruption, vivid illustrations of a world she had resolved her son would never see until he was old enough to cope with it. Well she remembered her own years as a child in this selfsame palace, her dissolute father pawing his catamites, exposing his genitals to be kissed and sucked, dancing about drunkenly playing his silly pipes at the head of a procession of naked boys and girls. While she cowered out of sight and prayed he would not find her and have her raped for his pleasure. Killed, even, like Berenice. He had a new family by his young half-sister; a girl by his Mithridatid wife was expendable. So the years she had spent in Memphis with Cha’em and Tach’a lived in her memory as the most wonderful time of her whole life: safe, secure, happy.
The feasts in Tarsus had been a fairly good example of Mark Antony’s way of life. Yes, he himself had remained continent, but only because he had to duel with a woman who was also a monarch. About the conduct of his friends he was indifferent, and some of them had disported themselves shamelessly.
But how to tell Caesarion that he wouldn’t – couldn’t – be here? Instinct said that Antony was going to forget continence, play the role of Neos Dionysus wholeheartedly. He was also her son’s cousin. If Caesarion were in Alexandria, they couldn’t be kept apart. And obviously Caesarion dreamed of meeting the great warrior, not understanding that the great warrior would present in the guise of the great reveler.
So the silence persisted until Sosigenes cleared his throat and pushed his chair back to stand.
‘Your Majesties, may I speak?’ he asked.
Caesarion answered. ‘Speak,’ he commanded.
‘Young Pharaoh is now six, yet he is still under the care of a palace full of women. Only in the gymnasium and the hippodrome does he enter a world of men, and they are his subjects. Before they can talk to him, they must prostrate themselves. He sees nothing odd in this: he is Pharaoh. But with the visit of Marcus Antonius, young Pharaoh will have a chance to associate with men who are not his subjects, and who will not prostrate themselves. Who will ruffle his hair, cuff him gently, joke with him. Man to man. Pharaoh Cleopatra, I know why you wish to send young Pharaoh to Memphis, I understand—’
Cleopatra cut him short. ‘Enough, Sosigenes! You forget yourself! We will finish this conversation after young Pharaoh has left the room – which he will do now!’
‘I will not leave,’ said Caesarion.
Sosigenes continued, visibly shaking in terror. His job – also his head – was in peril, but someone had to say it. ‘Your Majesty, you cannot send young Pharaoh away, either now to finish this, or later to shield him from the Romans. Your son is crowned and anointed Pharaoh and King. In years he may be a child, but in what he is, he is a man. It is time that he associated freely with men who do not prostrate themselves. His father was a Roman. It is time he learned more of Rome and Romans than he could as a babe during the time when you lived in Rome.’
Cleopatra felt her face afire, wondered how much of what she experienced was written on it. Oh, bother the wretched boy, to take his stand so publicly! He knew how servants gossiped – it would be all over the palace in an hour, all over the city tomorrow.
And she had lost. Everybody present knew it.
‘Thank you, Sosigenes,’ she said after a very long pause, ‘I appreciate your advice. It is the right advice. Young Pharaoh must stay in Alexandria to mingle with the Romans.’
The boy didn’t whoop with glee or caper about. He nodded regally and said, gazing at his mother with expressionless eyes, ‘Thank you, Mama, for deciding not to go to war.’
Apollodorus shooed everyone out of the room, including young Pharaoh; as soon as she was left alone with Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra burst into tears.
‘It had to happen,’ said Iras, the practical one.
‘He was cruel,’ said Charmian, the sentimental one.
‘Yes,’ said Cleopatra through her tears, ‘he was cruel. All men are, it is their nature.’ She mopped her face. ‘I have lost a tiny fraction of my power – he has wrested it from me. By the time he is twenty, he will have all the power.’
‘Let us hope,’ said Iras, ‘that Marcus Antonius is kind.’
‘You saw him in Tarsus. Did you think him kind then?’
‘Yes, when you let him. He was uncertain, so he blustered.’
‘Isis must take him as her husband,’ said Charmian, sighing, eyes misty. ‘What man could be unkind to Isis?’
‘To take him as husband is not to yield power. Isis will gather it,’ said Cleopatra. ‘But what will my son say when he realizes that his mother is giving him a stepfather?’
‘He will take it in his stride,’ said Iras.
Antony’s flagship, an overlarge quinquereme high in the poop and bristling with catapults, was bidden tie up in the Royal Harbor. And there, waiting on the wharf under a golden canopy of state stood both incarnations of Pharaoh, though not clad in pharaonic regalia. Cleopatra wore a simple robe of pink wool and Caesarion a Greek tunic, oatmeal trimmed with purple. He had wanted to wear a toga, but Cleopatra had told him that no one in Alexandria could show the palace seamstresses how to make one. She thought that the best way to avoid giving Caesarion the news that he wasn’t allowed to wear a toga because he wasn’t a Roman citizen.
If it had been Caesarion’s ambition to steal his mother’s thunder, he succeeded; when Antony strode down the gangplank onto the wharf, his eyes were fixed on Caesarion.
‘Ye gods!’ he exclaimed as he reached them, ‘Caesar all over again! Boy, you’re his living image!’
Knowing himself tall for his age, Caesarion felt suddenly dwarfed; Antonius was huge! None of which mattered when Antony bent down and lifted him up effortlessly, settled him on a left arm bulging with muscles beneath many folds of toga. Behind him Dellius was beaming; it was left to him to greet Cleopatra, walk at her side up the path from the jetty, looking at the pair well in front, the boy’s golden head thrown back as he laughed at some Antonian jest.
‘They have taken to each other,’ Dellius said.
‘Yes, haven’t they?’ It was spoken tonelessly. Then she squared her shoulders. ‘Marcus Antonius hasn’t brought as many friends with him as I expected.’
‘There were jobs to do, Your Majesty. I know Antonius hopes to meet some Alexandrians.’
‘The Interpreter, the Recorder, the Chief Judge, the Accountant and the Night Commander are eager to attend on him.’
‘They are just names, Quintus Dellius. To be one of those five men is to be of pure Macedonian stock going back to the barons of Ptolemy Soter. They are the Alexandrian aristocrats,’ Cleopatra said, sounding amused. What, after all, was Atticus if not an accountant, and would any Roman of patrician family scorn Atticus? ‘We have not planned a reception for this evening,’ Cleopatra went on. ‘Just a quiet supper for Marcus Antonius alone.’
‘I’m sure he’ll like that,’ said Dellius smoothly.
When Caesarion couldn’t keep his eyes open, his mother firmly packed him off to bed, then dismissed the servants to leave her alone with Antony.
Alexandria didn’t have a proper winter, just a slight chill in the air after sunset that meant the breeze walls were closed. After Athens, more extreme, Antony found it delightful; could feel himself relaxing as he hadn’t in months. And the lady had been an interesting dinner companion – when she managed to get a word in edgeways; Caesarion had bombarded Antony with a staggering variety of questions. What was Gaul like? What was Philippi really like? How did it feel to command an army? And on, and on, and on.
‘He wore you out,’ she said now, smiling.
‘More curiosity than a fortune-teller before she tells your fortune. But he’s clever, Cleopatra.’ A grimace of distaste twisted his face. ‘As precocious as the other Caesar heir.’
‘Whom you detest.’
‘That’s too mild a verb. Loathe, more like.’
‘I hope you can find it in you to like my son.’
‘Much better than I expected to.’ His eyes traveled over the lamps set around the room, squinting. ‘It’s too bright,’ he said.
In answer she slid from the couch, picked up a snuffer and quenched all save those flames that didn’t shine in Antony’s face. ‘Have you a headache?’ she asked, returning to the couch.
‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’
‘Would you like to retire?’
‘Not if I can lie here quietly and talk to you.’
‘Of course you can.’
‘You didn’t believe me when I said I was falling in love with you, but I spoke the truth.’
‘I have silver mirrors, Antonius, and they tell me that I am not the kind of woman you fall in love with. Fulvia, for example.’
He grinned, his small white teeth flashing. ‘And Glaphyra, though you never saw her. A delectable piece of work.’
‘Whom clearly you did not love, to say that about her. But Fulvia you do love.’
‘Used to, more like. At the moment she’s a nuisance, with her war against Octavianus. A futile business, badly conducted.’
‘A very beautiful woman.’
‘Past her prime, at forty-three. We’re much of an age.’
‘She’s given you sons.’
‘Aye, but too young yet to know what they’re made of. Her grandfather was Gaius Gracchus, a great man, so I hope for good boys. Antyllus is five, Iullus still a baby. A good mare, Fulvia. Four by Clodius – two girls, two boys – a boy by Curio, and mine.’
‘The Ptolemies breed well too.’
‘With only one chick in your nest, you can say that?’
‘I am Pharaoh, Marcus Antonius, which means that I cannot mate with mortal men. Caesar was a god, therefore a fit mate for me. We had Caesarion quickly, but then –’ she sighed – ‘no more. Not for want of trying, I can assure you.’
Antony laughed. ‘No, I can see why he wouldn’t tell you.’
Stiffening, she lifted her head to look at him, her big, golden eyes reflecting the light of a lamp behind Antony’s close-cropped curls. ‘Tell me what?’ she asked.
‘That he’d sire no more children on you.’
Surprised, he too lifted his head. ‘Lie? Why should I?’
‘How would I know your reasons? I simply know that you lie!’
‘I speak the truth. Search your mind, Cleopatra, and you’ll know that. Caesar, to sire a girl for his son to marry? He was a Roman through and through, and Romans do not approve of incest. Not even between nieces and uncles or nephews and aunts, let alone brothers and sisters. First cousins are considered a risk.’
The disillusionment crashed upon her like a massive wave: Caesar, of whose love she was so sure, had led her a dance of pure deception! All those months in Rome, hoping and praying for a pregnancy that never happened – and he knew, he knew! The God out of the West had deceived her, all for the sake of some stupid Roman shibboleth! She ground her teeth, growled in the back of her throat. ‘He deceived me,’ she said then, dully.
‘Only because he didn’t think you’d understand. I see that he was right,’ said Antony.
‘Were you Caesar, would you have done that to me?’
‘Oh, well,’ said Antony, rolling over to come a little closer to her, ‘my feelings are not so fine.’
‘I am destroyed! He cheated me, and I loved him so much!’
‘Whatever happened is in the past. Caesar’s dead.’
‘And I have to have the same conversation with you that once I had with him,’ Cleopatra said, furtively wiping her eyes.
‘What conversation is that?’ he asked, trailing a finger down her arm.
This time she didn’t remove it. ‘Nilus has not inundated in four years, Marcus Antonius, because Pharaoh is barren. To heal her people, Pharaoh must conceive a child with the blood of gods in its veins. Your blood is Caesar’s blood – on your mother’s side you are a Julian. I have prayed to Amun-Ra and Isis, and they have told me that a child of your loins would please them.’
Not exactly a declaration of love! How did a man answer such a dispassionate explanation? And did he, Marcus Antonius, want to commence an affair with such a cold-blooded little woman? A woman who genuinely believed what she said. Still, he thought, to sire gods on earth would be a new experience – one in the eye for old Caesar, the family martinet!
He took her hand, lifted it to his lips, and kissed it. ‘I would be honored, my Queen. And while I can’t speak for Caesar, I do love you.’
Liar, liar! she cried in her heart. You are a Roman, in love with nothing beyond Rome. But I will use you, as Caesar used me. ‘Will you share my bed while you are in Alexandria?’
‘Gladly,’ he said, and kissed her.
It was pleasant, not the ordeal she had imagined; his lips were cool and smooth, and he didn’t shove his tongue inside her mouth at this first, tentative exploration. Just lips against lips, gentle and sensuous.
‘Come,’ she said, picking up a lamp.
Her bedroom was not far away; these were Pharaoh’s private quarters, on the small side. He pulled his tunic off – no loincloth underneath – and untied the bows that held her dress up at the shoulders. It fell in a puddle around her as she sat on the edge of the bed.
‘Skin is good,’ he murmured, stretching out beside her. ‘I won’t hurt you, my Queen. Antonius is a good lover; he knows what kind of love to give a frail little creature like you.’
As indeed he did. Their coupling was slow and amazingly pleasant, for he stroked her body with smooth hands and paid her breasts delightful attention. Despite his assurances that he would not, he would have hurt her had she not given birth to Caesarion, though he teased her into torment before he entered her, and knew how to use that enormous member in many ways. He let her come to climax before he did, and her climax astonished her. It seemed a betrayal of Caesar, yet Caesar had betrayed her, so what did it matter? And, greatest gift of all, he didn’t remind her of Caesar in any respect. What she had with Antony belonged to Antony. Different, too, to find that within moments of each climax he was ready for her again, and almost embarrassing to count the number of her own climaxes. Was she so starved? The answer, obviously, was yes. Cleopatra the monarch was once again a woman.
Caesarion was thrilled that she had taken the great Marcus Antonius as her lover. In that respect he was not naive. ‘Will you marry him?’ he asked, dancing about in glee.
‘In time, perhaps,’ she said, profoundly relieved.
‘Why not now? He is the mightiest man in the world.’
‘Because it is too soon, my son. Let Antonius and I learn first if our love will bear the responsibilities of marriage.’
As for Antony, he was bursting with pride. Cleopatra was not the first sovereign he had bedded, but she was by far the most important. And, he had discovered, her sexual attentions lay halfway between those of a professional whore and a dutiful Roman wife. Which suited him. When a man embarked upon a relationship destined to last for more than a night, he needed neither one nor the other, so Cleopatra was perfect.
All of which may have accounted for his mood on the first evening when his mistress entertained him lavishly; the wine was superb and the water rather bitter, so why add water and spoil a great vintage? Antony let go of his good intentions without even realizing that he had, and got happily, hopelessly drunk.
The Alexandrian guests, all Macedonians of the highest stratum, looked on bewildered at first, then suddenly seemed to decide that there was much to be said for dissipation. The Recorder, an awesome man of huge conceit, whooped and giggled his way through the first flagon, then seized a passing female servant of beauty and began to make love to her. Within moments he was joined by the other Alexandrians, who proved that they were any Roman’s equal when it came to participating in an orgy.
To Cleopatra, watching fascinated (and sober), it was a lesson of a kind she had never expected to need to learn. Luckily Antony didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t join in the hilarities; he was too busy drinking. Perhaps because he also ate hugely, the wine didn’t reduce him to a helpless fool. In a discreet corner Sosigenes, somewhat more experienced in these matters than his queen, had placed chamber pots and bowls behind a screen where the guests could relieve themselves through any orifice, and also put out beakers of potions that rendered the next morning less painful.
‘Oh, I enjoyed myself!’ roared Antony the next morning, his rude health unimpaired. ‘Let’s do it again this afternoon!’
And so began for Cleopatra two months and more of constant, remorseless revels. And the wilder the goings-on became, the more Antony enjoyed them and the better he thrived. Sosigenes had inherited the task of dreaming up novelties to vary the tenor of these sybaritic festivities, with the result that the ships docking in Alexandria disgorged musicians, dancers, acrobats, mimes, dwarfs, freaks and magicians from all over the eastern end of Our Sea.
Antony adored practical jokes that sometimes verged on the cruel; he adored to fish; he adored to swim among naked girls; he adored to drive chariots, an activity forbidden to a nobleman in Rome; he adored hunting crocodile and hippopotamus; he adored pranks; he adored rude poetry; he adored pageants. His appetites were so enormous that he would roar that he was hungry a dozen times each day; Sosigenes hit on the bright idea of always having a full dinner ready to be served, together with vast quantities of the best wines. It was an instant success, and Antony, kissing him soundly, apostrophized the little philosopher as a prince of good fellows.
There wasn’t much Alexandria could do to protest against fifty-odd drunken people running up and down the streets in torchlit dances, banging loudly on doors and skipping away with bellows of delighted laughter; some of these annoying people were the chief officials of the city, whose wives sat at home weeping and wondering why the Queen permitted it.
The Queen permitted it because she had no choice, though her own participation in the capers was half-hearted. Once Antony dared her to drop Servilia’s six-million-sesterces pearl into a goblet of vinegar and drink it; he was of that school that believed pearls dissolved in vinegar. Knowing better, Cleopatra did as dared, though drinking the vinegar was beyond her. The pearl, quite unharmed, was around her neck the next day. And the fish pranks never stopped. Having no luck as a fisherman, Antony paid divers to go down and attach live fish to his line; he would pull up these flapping creatures and boast of his fishing skills until one day Cleopatra, tired of his bombast, had a diver attach a putrid fish to his line. But he took the joke in good part, for that was his nature.
Caesarion watched the antics with amusement, though he never asked to go to the parties. When Antony was in the mood the pair of them would vanish on horseback to hunt crocodile or hippopotamus, leaving Cleopatra in anguish at the vision of her son mangled by massive trotters or long yellow teeth. But, give Antony his due, he protected the boy from danger, just gave him a wonderful time.
‘You like Antonius,’ she said to her son toward the end of January.
‘Yes, Mama, very much. He calls himself Neos Dionysus, but he is really Herakles. He can balance me on one hand, can you imagine that? And throw the discus half a furlong!’
‘I am not surprised,’ she said dryly.
‘Tomorrow we’re going to the hippodrome. I’m going to ride with him in his chariot – four horses abreast, the hardest!’
‘Chariot racing is not a seemly pastime.’
‘I know, but it’s such fun!’
And what did one say to that?
Her son had grown in leaps and bounds during the past two months; Sosigenes had been right. The company of men had freed him from that touch of preciousness she hadn’t noticed until he lost it. Now he swaggered about the palace trying to roar like Antony, gave very funny imitations of the Accountant in his cups, and looked forward to every day with a sparkle and a zest he had never before displayed. And he was strong, lithe, naturally good at warlike sports – cast a spear with deadly accuracy, shot arrows straight into the center of the target, used his gladius with the verve of a veteran legionary. Like his father, he could ride a horse bareback at full gallop with his hands behind his back.
For herself, Cleopatra wondered how much longer she could tolerate Antony in revel mode; she was tired all the time, had bouts of nausea, and couldn’t be far from a chamber pot. All signs of pregnancy, albeit too early to be wearisome or noticeable. If Antony didn’t cease his gyrations soon, she would have to tell him that he must gyrate on his own. Strong she might be for a small woman, but pregnancy took a toll.
Her dilemma solved itself early in February when the King of the Parthians invaded Syria.
Orodes was an old man, long past war in person, and the intrigues natural to a succession of such magnitude taxed him. One of his ways of dealing with ambitious sons and factions was to find a war for the most aggressive among them, and what better war than against the Romans in Syria? The strongest of his sons was Pacorus, therefore to Pacorus must this war be given. And for once King Orodes had a loaded set of dice to throw; with Pacorus came Quintus Labienus who gave himself the nickname of Parthicus. He was the son of Caesar’s greatest marshal, Titus Labienus, and had chosen to flee to the court of Orodes rather than yield to his father’s conqueror. Internal strife at Seleuceia-on-Tigris had also brought forth a difference of opinion as to how the Romans could be defeated. In previous clashes, including the one that had resulted in the annihilation of Marcus Crassus’s army at Carrhae, the Parthians had relied heavily upon the horse archer, an unarmored peasant trained to retreat at the gallop and let fly a murderous rain of arrows over his horse’s rump as he twisted backward – the famous ‘Parthian shot’. When Crassus fell at Carrhae, the General in command of the Parthian army had been an effeminate, painted prince named the Surenas, who devised a way to ensure that his horse archers did not run out of arrows: he loaded trains of camels with spare arrows and got them to his men. Unfortunately his success was so marked that King Orodes suspected the Surenas would aim next for the throne, and had him executed.
Since that day over ten years in the past, a controversy had raged as to whether it had been the horse archers who won Carrhae, or the cataphracts. Men clad in chain mail from head to foot, the cataphracts bestrode big horses also clad in chain mail. The source of the argument was social; horse archers were peasants, whereas cataphracts were noblemen.
So when Pacorus and Labienus led their army into Syria at the beginning of February in the year of the consulship of Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus and Gnaeus Asinius Pollio, its Parthian content consisted solely of cataphracts. The nobles had won the struggle.
Pacorus and Labienus crossed the Euphrates River at Zeugma and there separated. While Labienus and his mercenaries drove west across the Amanus into Cilicia Pedia, Pacorus and the cataphracts turned south for Syria. They swept all before them on both fronts, though Cleopatra’s agents in the north of Syria concentrated on Pacorus, not Labienus. Word flew to Alexandria.
The moment Antony heard, he was gone. No fond farewells, no protestations of love.
‘Does he know?’ asked Tach’a of Cleopatra.
No need for clarification; Cleopatra knew what she meant. ‘No. I didn’t have a chance – all he did was bellow for his armor and apply the goad to men like Dellius.’ She sighed. ‘His ships are to sail to Berytus, but he wasn’t sure enough of the winds to risk a sea voyage. He hopes to reach Antioch ahead of his fleet.’
‘What doesn’t Antonius know?’ Caesarion demanded, most put out at the sudden departure of his hero.
‘That in Sextilis you’ll have a baby brother or sister.’
The child’s face lit up, he leaped about joyfully. ‘A brother or a sister! Mama, Mama, that’s terrific!’
‘Well, at least that’s taken his mind off Antonius,’ said Iras to Charmian.
‘It won’t take her mind off Antonius,’ Charmian answered.
Antony rode for Antioch at a grueling pace, sending for this or that local potentate in southern Syria as he passed through, at times issuing his orders to them from horseback.
Alarming to find out from Herod that among the Jews opinion was divided; a large group of Judaic dissenters actually seemed avid to be ruled by the Parthians. The leader of the pro-Parthian party was the Hasmonaean Prince Antigonus, Hyrcanus’s nephew but no lover of Hyrcanus or the Romans. Herod neglected to inform Mark Antony that Antigonus was already dickering with Parthian envoys for the things he coveted – the Jewish throne and the high priesthood. As Herod was not very interested in these furtive dealings or the Sanhedrin mood, Antony continued northward ignorant of how serious the Jewish situation was. For once Herod had been caught napping, too busy trying to cut his brother Phasael out for the hand of the Princess Mariamne to notice anything else.
Tyre was impossible to take except from within. Its stinking isthmus, fouled by hills of rotting shellfish carcasses, gave the center of the purple-dye industry the protection due an island, and no one would betray it from within; no Tyrian wanted to have to send purple dye to the King of the Parthians for a price fixed by the King of the Parthians.
In Antioch, Antony found Lucius Decidius Saxa striding up and down nervously, the watchtowers atop the massive city walls lined with men straining to see into the north; Pacorus would follow the Orontes River, and he wasn’t far away. Saxa’s brother had come from Ephesus to join him, and refugees were streaming in. Ejected from the Amanus, the brigand king Tarcondimotus told Antony that Labienus was doing brilliantly. By now he was supposed to have reached Tarsus and Cappadocia. Antiochus of Commagene, ruler of a client-kingdom that bordered the Amanus ranges on the north, was wavering in his Roman allegiance, said Tarcondimotus. Liking the man, Antony listened; a brigand, maybe, but clever and capable.
After inspecting Saxa’s two legions, Antony relaxed a little. Once Gaius Cassius’s men, these legionaries were fit and very experienced in combat.
More upsetting by far was the news from Italia. His brother Lucius was immured inside Perusia and under siege, while Pollio had retreated to the swamps at the mouth of the Padus River! It made no sense … Pollio and Ventidius vastly outnumbered Octavian! Why weren’t they helping Lucius? Antony asked himself, entirely forgetting that he hadn’t answered their pleas for guidance – was Lucius’s war a part of Antony’s policy, or was it not?
Well, no matter how grave the situation in the East was, Italia was more important. Antony sailed for Ephesus, intending to go on to Athens as soon as possible. He had to find out more.
* * *
The monotony of the first stage of the voyage gave him time to think about Cleopatra and that fantastic winter in Egypt. Ye gods, how he had needed to break out! And how well the Queen had catered for his every whim. He truly did love her, as he loved all the women with whom he associated for longer than a day, and he would continue to love her until she did something to sour him. Though Fulvia had done more than merely sour, if the fragments of news he had from Italia were anything to go by. The only woman for whom his love had persisted in the teeth of a thousand thousand transgressions was his mother, surely the silliest woman in the history of the world.
As was true of most boys of noble family, Antony’s father had not been in Rome overmuch, so Julia Antonia was – or was supposed to be – the one who held the family together. Three boys and two girls had not endowed her with a scrap of maturity; she was terrifyingly stupid. Money was something that fell off vines and servants people far cleverer than she. Nor was she lucky in love. Her first husband, father of her children, had committed suicide rather than return to Rome to face treason charges for his bungling conduct of a war against the Cretan pirates, and her second husband had been executed in the Forum Romanum for his part in the rebellion led by Catilina. All of which had happened by the time that Marcus, the eldest of the children, had turned twenty. The two girls were so physically huge and Antonian-ugly that they were married off to rich social climbers in order to bring some money into the family to fund the public careers of the boys, who had run wild. Then Marcus ran up massive debts and had to marry a rich provincial named Fadia, whose father paid a two-hundred-talent dowry. The goddess Fortuna seemed to smile on Antony; Fadia and the children she had borne him died in a summer pestilence, leaving him free to marry another heiress, his first cousin Antonia Hybrida. That union had produced one child, a girl who was neither bright nor pretty. When Curio was killed and Fulvia became available, Antony divorced his cousin to marry her. Yet another profitable alliance; Fulvia was the richest woman in Rome.
Not precisely an unhappy childhood and young manhood; more that Antony had never been disciplined. The only person who could control Julia Antonia and her boys had been Caesar; he wasn’t the actual head of the Julian family, just its most forceful member. Over the years Caesar had made it plain that he was fond of them, but he was never an easy man, nor one whom the boys understood. That fatal lack of discipline combined with an outrageous love of debauchery had finally, in the grown man Mark Antony, turned Caesar away from him. Twice had Antony proven himself not to be trusted; to Caesar, one time too many. Caesar had cracked his whip – hard.
To this day, leaning on the rail watching the sunlight play on the wet oars as they came out of the sea, Antony wasn’t sure whether he had meant to participate in the plot to murder Caesar. Looking back on it, he was inclined to think that he hadn’t truly believed that the likes of Gaius Trebonius and Decimus Junius Brutus had the gumption or the degree of hatred necessary to go through with it. Marcus Brutus and Cassius hadn’t mattered so much; they were the figureheads, not the perpetrators. Yes, the plot definitely belonged to Trebonius and Decimus Brutus. Both dead. Dolabella had tortured Trebonius to death, while a Gallic chieftain separated Decimus Brutus from his head for a bag of gold supplied by Antony himself. Surely, reflected Antony, that proved that he hadn’t really plotted to kill Caesar! Mind you, he had long ago decided that a Rome without Caesar would be an easier one for him to live in. And the greatest tragedy was that it probably would have been, were it not for the emergence of Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s heir. Who, aged eighteen, promptly set out to claim his inheritance, a precarious enterprise that saw him march twice upon Rome before his twentieth birthday. His second march had seen him elected Senior Consul, whereupon he had had the temerity to force his rivals, Antony and Lepidus, to meet in conference with him. What had resulted was the Second Triumvirate – Three Men to Reconstitute the Republic. Instead of one dictator, three dictators with (theoretically) equal power. Marooned on an island in a river in Italian Gaul, it was gradually borne upon Antony and Lepidus that this youth half their age could run rings around them for guile and ruthlessness.
What Antony couldn’t bear to admit to himself, even in his gloomiest moments, was that thus far Octavian had demonstrated how uncanny Caesar’s preference for him had been. Sickly, underage, too pretty, a real mama’s boy, still Octavian had managed to keep his head above water that ought to have drowned him. Perhaps a part of it was having Caesar’s name – he exploited it to the full – and another part of it was the blind loyalty of young men like Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; but there could be no denying that most of Octavian’s successful survival had to be laid at Octavian’s door, and Octavian’s door alone. Antony used to joke with his brothers that Caesar was an enigma, but compared to Octavian, Caesar was as transparent as the water in the Aqua Marcia.
When Antony arrived in Athens in May, the governor Censorinus was very busy in the far north of Macedonia fighting barbarian incursions, therefore not present to greet his superior. Antony was not in a good mood; his friend Barbatius had turned out to be no friend. The moment Barbatius heard that Antony was having a wonderful time in Egypt, he quit his post with the legions in Ephesus and went to Italia. Where, as Antony now discovered, he had further muddied the waters that Antony had neglected to clear. What Barbatius said to Pollio and Ventidius had caused the one to retreat to the Padus marshes and the other to dither ineffectually just out of range of Octavian, Agrippa and Salvidienus.
The source of most of this extremely unpalatable news from Italia was Lucius Munatius Plancus, whom Antony found occupying the chief legate’s apartment in the Athens residence.
‘Lucius Antonius’s whole enterprise was a disaster,’ Plancus said, choosing his words. Somehow he had to deliver an accurate report without putting himself in a bad light, for at the moment he could see no opportunity to switch to Octavian’s side, his only other option. ‘On New Year’s Eve the Perusians tried to break through Agrippa’s siege walls – no luck. Neither Pollio nor Ventidius would move to engage Octavianus’s armies, though Octavianus was badly outnumbered. Pollio kept insisting that – ah – he wasn’t sure what you wanted him to do, and Ventidius would follow no one’s lead except Pollio’s. After Barbatius spun his tales of your – ah – debaucheries – his word, not mine!, Pollio was so disgusted that he refused to commit himself or his legions to getting your brother out of Perusia. The city fell not long into the new year.’
‘And where were you and your legions, Plancus?’ Antony asked, a dangerous spark in his eyes.
‘Closer to Perusia than Pollio or Ventidius! I went to ground in Spoletium to form the southern jaw of a pincer strategy that never happened.’ He sighed, shrugged. ‘I also had Fulvia in my camp, and she was being very difficult.’ He loved her, yes, but he loved his own skin more. Antonius wouldn’t execute Fulvia for treason, after all. ‘Agrippa had the gall to steal my best two legions, can you believe that? I had sent them to help Claudius Nero in Campania, then Agrippa appeared and offered the men better terms. Yes, Agrippa defeated Nero with my two legions! Nero had to flee to Sicilia and Sextus Pompeius. Apparently some elements in Rome were talking of killing wives and families, because Nero’s wife, Livia Drusilla, took her small son and joined Nero.’ At which point Plancus frowned, looked uncertain how to proceed.
‘Out with it, Plancus, out with it!’
‘Ah – your revered mother, Julia, fled with Livia Drusilla to Sextus Pompeius.’
‘If I had stopped to think about her, which I didn’t because I try not to, that is exactly the sort of thing she’d do. Oh, what a wonderful world we live in!’ Antony clenched his fists. ‘Wives and mothers living in army camps, behaving as if they knew which end of a sword was which – pah!’ A visible effort, and he simmered down. ‘My brother – I suppose he’s dead, but you haven’t yet managed to screw up the courage to tell me, Plancus?’
Finally he could convey a piece of good news! ‘No, no, my dear Marcus! Far from it! When Perusia opened its gates, some local magnate got overenthusiastic about the size and splendor of his funeral pyre, and the whole city burned to the ground. A worse disaster than the siege. Octavianus executed twenty prominent citizens, but exacted no revenge on Lucius’s troops. They were incorporated into Agrippa’s legions. Lucius begged pardon, and was granted it freely. Octavianus gave him Further Spain to govern, and he left for it at once. He was, I think, a happy man.’
‘And was this dictatorial appointment sanctioned by the Senate and People of Rome?’ Antony asked, part relieved, part outraged. Curse Lucius! Always trying to outdo his big brother Marcus, never succeeding.
‘It was,’ said Plancus. ‘Some objected to it—’
‘Favored treatment for the bald-headed Forum demagogue?’
‘Er – well, yes, the phrase was used. I can give you the names. However, Lucius was consul last year and your uncle Hybrida is censor, so most people felt that Lucius deserved his pardon and appointment. He should be able to have a nice little war with the Lusitani and triumph when he comes home.’
Antony grunted. ‘Then he’s wriggled out of things better than he deserves. Utter idiocy from start to finish! Though I’d be willing to bet that Lucius just followed orders. This was Fulvia’s war. Where is she?’
Plancus opened his brown eyes wide. ‘Here, in Athens. She and I fled together. At first we didn’t think that Brundisium would let us – it’s passionately for Octavianus, as always; but I gather Octavianus sent word that we were to be allowed to leave Italia, provided we took no troops with us.’
‘So we have established that Fulvia is in Athens, but whereabouts in Athens?’
‘Atticus gave her the use of his domus here.’
‘Big of him! Always likes to have a foot in both camps, does our Atticus. But what makes him think I’m going to be glad to see Fulvia?’
Plancus sat mute, unsure what answer Antony wanted to hear.
‘And what else has happened?’
‘Don’t you call that enough?’
‘Not unless it’s a full report.’
‘Well, Octavianus got no money out of Perusia to fund his activities, though from somewhere he manages to pay his legions sufficient to keep their men on his side.’
‘Caesar’s war chest must be emptying fast.’
‘Do you really think he took it?’
‘Of course he took it! What’s Sextus Pompeius doing?’
‘Blocking the sea lanes and pirating all the grain from Africa. His admiral Menodorus invaded Sardinia and threw Lurius out, which means Octavianus has no source of grain left, save what he can buy from Sextus at grossly inflated rates – up to twenty-five or thirty sesterces the modius.’ Plancus gave a small mew of envy. ‘That’s where all the money is – in Sextus Pompeius’s coffers. What does he intend to do with it: take over Rome and Italia? Daydreams! The legions love big bonuses, but they’d not fight for the man who starves their grannies to death. Which is why, I daresay,’ Plancus went on in a reflective voice, ‘he has to enlist slaves and make freedmen admirals. Still, one day you’re going to have to wrest the money off him, Antonius. If you don’t, perhaps Octavianus will – and you need the money more.’
Antony sneered. ‘Octavianus win a sea battle against a man as experienced as Sextus Pompeius? With Murcus and Ahenobarbus as allies? I’ll deal with Sextus Pompeius when the time comes, but not yet. He spells failure for Octavianus.’
Knowing she looked her best, Fulvia waited eagerly for her husband. Though the few grey hairs didn’t show in her mop of ice-brown hair, she had made her woman painstakingly pluck every one before dressing it in the latest fashion. Her dark red gown hugged the curves of her breasts before falling in a straight sheet that showed no hint of a protruding belly or thickened waist. Yes, thought Fulvia, preening, I carry my age very well. I am still one of Rome’s most beautiful women.
Of course she knew about Antony’s merry little winter in Alexandria; Barbatius had tattled far and wide. But that was a man’s thing, and none of her business. Did he philander with a Roman woman of high estate, it would be different. Her claws would be out in a moment. But when a man was away for months, sometimes years on end, no sensible wife stuck in Rome would think the worse of him for getting rid of his dirty water. And darling Antonius had a penchant for queens, princesses, women of the high foreign nobility. To bed one of them made him feel as much like a king as any republican Roman could tolerate. Having met Cleopatra when she stayed in Rome before Caesar’s assassination, Fulvia understood that it was her title and her power that had attracted Antony. Physically she was far from the lusty, strapping women he preferred. Also, she was enormously wealthy, and Fulvia knew her husband; he would have been after her money.
So when Atticus’s steward appeared to tell her that Marcus Antonius was in the atrium, Fulvia gave a shudder to settle her draperies and flew down the long, austere corridor from her rooms to where Antony was waiting.
‘Antonius! Oh, meum mel, how wonderful to see you!’ she cried from the doorway.
He had been studying a magnificent painting of Achilles sulking by his ships, and turned at the sound of her voice.
After that, Fulvia didn’t know what exactly happened, his movements were so fast. What she felt was a crashing slap to the side of her face that knocked her sprawling. Then he was looming over her, his fingers locked in her hair, and dragging her to her feet. The open-handed blows rained on her face, no less huge and hurtful than another man’s fist; teeth loosened, her nose broke.
‘You stupid cunnus!’ he roared, still striking her. ‘You stupid, stupid cunnus! Who do you think you are, Gaius Caesar?’
Blood was gushing from her mouth and nose, and she, who had met every challenge of an eventful life with fierce fire, was helpless, shattered. Someone was screaming, and it must have been her, for servants came running from all directions, took one look, and fled.
‘Idiot! Strumpet! What do you mean, going to war against Octavianus in my name? Frittering away what money I had left in Rome, Bononia, Mutina? Buying legions for the likes of Plancus to lose? Living in a war camp? Who do you think you are, to assume that men like Pollio would take orders from you? A woman? Bullying and bluffing my brother in my name? He’s a moron! He always was a moron! If I needed any further proof of that, his throwing in with a woman is it! You’re beneath contempt!’
Spitting with rage, he pushed her roughly to the floor; still screaming, she scrambled away like a crippled beast, tears flowing now faster than the blood.
‘Antonius, Antonius! I thought to please you! Manius said it would please you!’ she cried thickly. ‘I was continuing your fight in Italia while you were busy with the East! Manius said!’
It came out in mumbled snatches; hearing ‘Manius’, suddenly his temper died. Her Greek freedman, a serpent. In truth, he hadn’t known until he saw her how angry he was, how the fury had festered in him throughout his voyage from Ephesus. Perhaps had he done as he had originally planned and sailed straight from Antioch to Athens, he might not have been so enraged.
More men than Barbatius were talking in Ephesus, and not all about his winter with Cleopatra. Some joked that, in his family, he wore the dresses while Fulvia wore the armor. Others sniggered that at least one Antonian had waged a war, even if a female. He had had to pretend he didn’t overhear any of these remarks, but his temper built. Learning the full story from Plancus had not helped, nor the grief that had consumed him until he found out that Lucius was safe and well. Their brother, Gaius, had been murdered in Macedonia, and only the execution of his killer had assuaged the pain. He, their big brother, loved them.
Love for Fulvia, he thought, looking down at her scornfully, was gone forever. Stupid, stupid cunnus! Wearing the armor and publicly emasculating him.
‘I want you gone from this house by tomorrow,’ he said, her right wrist in his hold, dragging her into a sitting position under Achilles. ‘Let Atticus keep his charity for the deserving. I’ll be writing to him today to tell him that, and he can’t afford to offend me, no matter how much money he has. You’re a disgrace as a wife and a woman, Fulvia! I want nothing more to do with you. I will send you notice of divorce immediately.’
‘But,’ she said, sobbing, ‘I fled without money or property, Marcus! I need money to live!’
‘Apply to your bankers. You’re a rich woman and sui iuris.’ He began yelling for the servants. ‘Clean her up and then kick her out!’ he said to the steward, who was almost fainting in fear. He turned on his heel and was gone.
Fulvia sat against the wall for a long time, hardly conscious of the terrified girls who bathed her face, tried to staunch the bleeding and the tears. Once she had laughed at hearing of this or that woman and her broken heart, believing that no heart could break. Now she knew differently. Marcus Antonius had broken her heart beyond mending.
Word flew around Athens of how Antony had treated his wife, but few who heard had much sympathy for Fulvia, who had done the unforgivable: usurped men’s prerogatives. The tales of her exploits in the Forum when married to Publius Clodius came out for an airing, together with the scenes she created outside the Senate House doors, and her possible collaboration with Clodius when he had profaned the rites of the Bona Dea.
Not that Antony cared what Athens said. He, a Roman man, knew that the city’s Roman men would think no worse of him.
Besides, he was busy writing letters, an arduous task. His first was curt and short, to Titus Pomponius Atticus, informing him that Imperator Marcus Antonius, Triumvir, would thank him if he kept his nose out of Marcus Antonius’s affairs, and have nothing to do with Fulvia. His second was to Fulvia, informing her that she was hereby divorced for unwomanly conduct, and that she was forbidden to see her two sons by him. His third was to Gnaeus Asinius Pollio, asking him what on earth was going on in Italia, and would he kindly keep his legions ready to march south in case he, Marcus Antonius, was denied entry to the country by the Octavianus-loving populace of Brundisium? His fourth was to the ethnarch of Athens, thanking that worthy for his city’s kindness and loyalty to (implied) the right Romans; therefore it pleased Imperator Marcus Antonius, Triumvir, to gift Athens with the island of Aegina and some other minor isles associated with it. That ought to make the Athenians happy, he thought.
He might have written more letters, were it not for the arrival of Tiberius Claudius Nero, who paid him a formal call the moment he had installed his wife and toddling son in good lodgings nearby.
‘Faugh!’ Nero exclaimed, nostrils flaring. ‘Sextus Pompeius is a barbarian! Though what else could one expect from a member of an upstart clan from Picenum? You can have no idea what kind of headquarters he keeps – rats, mice, rotting garbage. I didn’t dare expose my family to the filth and disease, though they weren’t the worst Pompeius had to offer. We hadn’t unpacked our belongings before some of his dandified “admiral” freedmen were sniffing around my wife – I had to chop a slice out of some low fellow’s arm! And would you believe it, Pompeius actually sided with the cur? I told him what I thought, then I put Livia Drusilla and my son on the next ship for Athens.’
Antony listened to this with dreamy memories in his head of how Caesar felt about Nero – ‘inepte’ was the kindest word Caesar could find to describe him. Gaining more from what Nero didn’t say, Antony decided that Nero had arrived at Sextus Pompeius’s lair, strutted around it like a cockerel, carped and criticized, and finally made himself so intolerable that Sextus had thrown him out. A more insufferable snob than Nero would be hard to find, and the Pompeii were very sensitive about their Picentine origins.
‘So what do you intend to do now, Nero?’ he asked.
‘Live within my means, which are not limitless,’ Nero said stiffly, his dark, saturnine countenance growing even prouder.
‘And your wife?’ Antony asked slyly.
‘Livia Drusilla is a good wife. She does as she’s told, which is more than you can say about your wife!’
A typical Neronian statement; he seemed to have no inbuilt monitor to warn him that some things were best left unsaid. I ought, thought Antony savagely, to seduce her! What a life she must lead, married to this inepte!
‘Bring her to dinner this afternoon, Nero,’ he said jovially. ‘Think of it as money saved – no need to send your cook to the market until tomorrow.’
‘I thank you,’ Nero said, unwinding to his full, spindling height. Left arm cuddling folds of toga, he stalked out, leaving Antony chuckling softly.
Plancus came in, horror written large upon his face. ‘Oh, Edepol, Antonius! What’s Nero doing here?’
‘Apart from insulting everyone he meets? I suspect that he made himself so unwelcome in Sextus Pompeius’s headquarters that he was told to leave. You can come to dinner this afternoon and share the joys of his company. He’s bringing his wife, who must be a terrible bore to put up with him. Just who is she?’
‘His cousin – fairly close, actually. Her father was a Claudius Nero adopted by the famous tribune of the plebs, Livius Drusus, hence her name, Livia Drusilla. Nero is the son of Drusus’s blood brother, Tiberius Nero. Of course she’s an heiress – a lot of money in the Livius Drusus family. Once, Cicero hoped Nero would marry his Tullia, but she preferred Dolabella. A worse husband in most ways, but at least he was a merry fellow. Didn’t you move in those circles when Clodius was alive, Antonius?’
‘I did. And you’re right, Dolabella was good company. But it’s not Nero gives your face that look, Plancus. What’s up?’
‘A packet from Ephesus. I had one too, but yours is from your cousin Caninius, so it ought to say more.’ Plancus sat in the client’s chair facing Antony across the desk, eyes bright.
Antony broke the seal, unrolled his cousin’s epistle and mumbled his way through it, a long business accompanied by frowns and curses. ‘I wish,’ he complained, ‘that more men had taken Caesar’s hint and put a dot over the beginning of a new word. I do it now, so do Pollio, Ventidius and – though I hate to say it – Octavianus. Turns a continuous scrawl into something a man can read almost at a glance.’ He went back to his mumbling, finally sighed and put the scroll down.
‘How can I be in two places at once?’ he asked Plancus. ‘By rights I should be in Asia Province shoring it up against attack from Labienus, instead I’m forced to sit closer to Italia and keep my legions within call. Pacorus has overrun Syria and all the petty princelings have thrown in their lot with the Parthians, even Amblichus. Caninius says that Saxa’s legions defected to Pacorus – Saxa was forced to flee to Apamaea, then took ship for Cilicia. No one has heard from him since, but rumor has it that his brother was killed in Syria. Labienus is busy overrunning Cilicia Pedia and eastern Cappadocia.’
‘And of course there are no legions east of Ephesus.’
‘Nor will there be in Ephesus, I’m afraid. Asia Province will have to fend for itself until I can sort out the mess in Italia. I’ve already sent to Caninius to bring the legions to Macedonia,’ said Antony, sounding grim.
‘Is that your only course?’ Plancus asked, paling.
‘Definitely. I’ve given myself the rest of this year to deal with Rome, Italia and Octavianus, so for the rest of this year the legions will be camped around Apollonia. If they’re known to be on the Adriatic, that will tell Octavianus that I mean to squash him like a bug.’
‘Marcus,’ Plancus wailed, ‘everyone is fed up with civil war, and what you’re talking is civil war! The legions won’t fight!’
‘My legions will fight for me,’ said Antony.
Livia Drusilla entered the governor’s residence with all her usual composure, creamy lids lowered over her eyes, which she knew were her best feature. Hide them! As always, she walked a little behind Nero because a good wife did, and Livia Drusilla had vowed to be a good wife. Never, she had sworn, hearing what Antony had done to Fulvia, would she put herself in that position! To don armor and wave a sword about, one would have to be a Hortensia, who had only done it to demonstrate to the leaders of the Roman state that the women of Rome from highest to lowest would never consent to being taxed when they didn’t have the right to vote. Hortensia won the encounter, a bloodless victory, at considerable embarrassment to the Triumvirs Antony, Octavian and Lepidus.
Not that Livia Drusilla intended to be a mouse; she simply masqueraded as someone small and meek and a trifle timid. Huge ambition burned in her, inchoate because she had no idea how she was going to seize that ambition, turn it into a productive thing. Certainly it was shaped in an absolutely Roman mold, which meant no unfeminine behavior, no putting herself forward, no unsubtle manipulating. Not that she wanted to be another Cornelia the Mother of the Gracchi, worshipped by some women as a truly Roman goddess because she had suffered, borne children, seen them die, never complained of her lot. No, Livia Drusilla sensed that there had to be another way to reach the heights.
The trouble was that three years of marriage had shown her beyond all doubt that the way was not through Tiberius Claudius Nero. Like most girls of her exalted station, she hadn’t known Nero very well before they married, for all that he was her close cousin. Nothing in him, on the few occasions when they had met, had inspired anything in her save contempt for his stupidity and an instinctive detestation of his person. Dark herself, she admired men with golden hair and light eyes. Intelligent herself, she admired men with great intelligence. On neither count could Nero qualify. She had been fifteen when her father Drusus had married her to his first cousin Nero, and in the house where she grew up there had been no priapic wall paintings or phallic lamps whereby a girl might learn something about physical love. So union with Nero had revolted her. He too preferred golden-haired, light-eyed lovers; what pleased him in his wife were her noble ancestry and her fortune.
Only how to be shriven of Tiberius Claudius Nero when she was determined to be a good wife? It didn’t seem possible unless someone offered him a better marriage, and that was highly unlikely. Her cleverness had shown her very early in their marriage that people disliked Nero, tolerated him only because of his patrician status and his consequent right to occupy all the offices that Rome offered her nobility. And oh, he bored her! Many were the tales she had heard about Cato Uticensis, Caesar’s greatest enemy, and his tactless, prating personality, but to Livia Drusilla he seemed an ecstatic god compared to Nero. Nor could she like the son she had borne Nero ten months after their wedding; little Tiberius was dark, skinny, tall, solemn and a trifle sanctimonious, even at two years of age. He had fallen into the habit of criticizing his mother because he heard his father do so and, unlike most small children, he had spent his life thus far in his father’s company. Livia Drusilla suspected that Nero preferred to keep her and little Tiberius close in case some pretty fellow with Caesarean charm tampered with his wife’s virtue. What an irritation that was! Didn’t the fool know that she would never demean herself in that way?
The housebound existence she had led until Nero embarked upon his disastrous Campanian venture in Lucius Antonius’s cause had not allowed her as much as a glimpse of any of the famous men all Rome talked about; she hadn’t laid eyes on Marcus Antonius, Lepidus, Servilius Vatia, Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, Octavianus, or even Caesar, dead in her fifteenth year. Therefore today was exciting, though nothing in her demeanor showed that: she was going to dine with Marcus Antonius, the most powerful man in the world!
A pleasure that almost didn’t happen when Nero discovered that Antony was one of those disgracefully fast fellows who let women recline on the men’s couches.
‘Unless my wife has a chair, I am leaving!’ Nero said with his customary tact.
Had Antony not already found the little oval face of Nero’s wife bewitching, the upshot of that remark would have been a roar and expulsion; as it was, Antony grinned and commanded that a chair be brought for Livia Drusilla. When the chair came he had it placed opposite his own position on the couch, but as there were only the three male diners, Nero couldn’t very well object to that. It wasn’t as if she was around a corner from him, though Nero did think it more evidence of Antony’s uncouth nature that he had relegated him to the end of the couch and put a puffed-up nobody like Plancus in the middle.
Removal of her wrap revealed that Livia Drusilla wore a fawn dress with long sleeves and a high neck, but nothing could disguise the charms of her figure or her flawless ivory skin. As thick and black as night, with the same indigo tinge to its lustre, her hair was done plainly, drawn back to cover her ears and knotted on the nape of her neck. And her face was exquisite! A small, lush red mouth, enormous eyes fringed with long black lashes like fans, pink cheeks, a small but aquiline nose, all combined to form perfection. Just when Antony became annoyed at not being able to decide what color her eyes were, she moved her chair and a thin ray of sun lit them. Oh, amazing! They were a very dark blue, but striated in a magical way with strands of whitish fawn. Like no eyes he had ever seen before, and – eerie. Livia Drusilla, I could eat you up! he said to himself, and set out to make her fall in love with him.
But it wasn’t possible. She was not shy, answered all of his questions frankly yet demurely, wasn’t afraid to add a tiny comment when it was called for. However, she would introduce no topic of conversation of her own volition, and said or did nothing that Nero, watching suspiciously, could fault. None of that would have mattered to Antony had a single spark of interest flared in her eyes, but it didn’t. If he had been a more perceptive man, he would have known that the faint moue crossing her face from time to time spoke of distaste.
Yes, he would beat a wife who grossly erred, she decided, but not as Nero would, coldly, with total calculation. Antonius would do it in a terrible temper, though afterward, cooled down, he wouldn’t rue the deed, for her crime would be unpardonable. Most men would like him, be drawn to him, and most women desire him. Life during those few days in Sextus Pompeius’s lair at Agrigentum had exposed Livia Drusilla to low women, and she had learned a lot about love, and men, and the sexual act. It seemed that women preferred men with large penises because a large penis made it easier for them to achieve climax, whatever that was (she had not found out, afraid to ask for fear of being laughed at). But she did find out that Marcus Antonius was famous for the immensity of his procreative equipment. Well, that was as maybe, when now she could discover nothing in Antonius to like or admire. Especially after she realized that he was trying his hardest to elicit a response from her. It gave her tremendous satisfaction to deny him that response, which taught her a little about how a woman might acquire power. Only not intriguing with an Antonius, whose lusts were transient, unimportant even.
‘What did you think of the Great Man?’ Nero asked as they walked home in the brief, fiery twilight.
Livia Drusilla blinked; her husband didn’t usually ask her what she thought about anyone or anything. ‘High in birth, low in character,’ she said. ‘A vulgar boor.’
‘Emphatic,’ he said, sounding pleased.
For the first time in their relationship, she dared to ask him a political question. ‘Husband, why do you cleave to a vulgar boor like Marcus Antonius? Why not to Caesar Octavianus, who by all descriptions is not a boor, nor vulgar either?’
For a moment he stopped absolutely still, then turned to look at her, more in surprise than irritation. ‘Birth outweighs both. Antonius is better born. Rome belongs to men with the proper ancestry. They and only they should be permitted to hold high offices, govern provinces, conduct wars.’
‘But Octavianus is Caesar’s nephew! Wasn’t Caesar’s birth unimpeachable?’
‘Oh, Caesar had it all – birth, brilliance, beauty. The most august of the august patricians. Even his plebeian blood was the best – mother Aurelian, grandmother Marcian, great-grandmother Popillian. Octavianus is an imposter! A tinge of Julian blood, the rest trash. Who are the Octavii of Velitrae? Utter nobodies! Some Octavii are fairly respectable, but not those from Velitrae. One of Octavianus’s great-grandfathers was a rope maker, another a baker. His grandfather was a banker. Low, low! His father made a lucky second marriage to Caesar’s niece. Though she was tainted – her father was a rich nobody who bought Caesar’s sister. In those days the Julii had no money, they had to sell daughters.’
‘Is a nephew not a quarter Julian?’ she ventured boldly.
‘Great-nephew, the little poseur! One-eighth Julian. The rest is abominable!’ barked Nero, getting worked up. ‘Whatever possessed the great Caesar to choose a low-born boy as his heir escapes me, but of one thing you may be sure, Livia Drusilla – I will never tie myself to the likes of Octavianus!’
Well, well, thought Livia Drusilla, saying no more. That is why so many of Rome’s aristocrats abhor Octavianus! As a person of the finest blood, I should abhor him too, but he intrigues me. He’s risen so far! I admire that in him because I understand it. Perhaps every so often Rome must create new aristocrats; it might even be that the great Caesar realized that when he made his will.
Livia Drusilla’s interpretation of Nero’s reasons for hewing to Mark Antony was a gross oversimplification – but then, so was Nero’s reasoning. His narrow intellect was undeveloped; no number of additional years could make him anymore than he had been when a young man serving under Caesar. Indeed, he was so dense that he had no idea Caesar had disliked him. Water off a duck’s back, as the Gauls said. When your blood is the very best, what possible fault could a fellow nobleman find in you?
To Mark Antony, it seemed as if his first month in Athens was littered with women, none of whom was worth his valuable time. Though was his time truly valuable, when nothing he did bore fruit? The only good news came from Apollonia with Quintus Dellius, who informed him that his legions had arrived on the west coast of Macedonia, and were happy to bivouack in a kinder climate.
Hard on Dellius’s heels came Lucius Scribonius Libo, escorting the woman surest to blight Antony’s mood: his mother.
She rushed into his study strewing hairpins, stray seed for the bird her servant girl carried in a cage, and strands from a long fringe some insane seamstress had attached to the edges of her stole. Her hair was coming adrift in wisps more grey than gold these days, but her eyes were exactly as her son remembered them: eternally cascading tears.
‘Marcus, Marcus!’ she cried, throwing herself at his chest. ‘Oh, my dearest boy, I thought I’d never see you again! Such a dreadful time of it I’ve had! A paltry little room in a villa that rang night and day with the sounds of unmentionable acts, streets slimed with spittle and the contents of chamber pots, a bed crawling with bugs, nowhere to have a proper bath—’
With many shushes and other soothing noises, Antony finally managed to put her in a chair and settle her down as much as anyone could ever settle Julia Antonia down. Only when the tears had diminished to something like their usual rate did he have the opportunity to see who had entered behind Julia Antonia. Ah! The sycophant to end all sycophants, Lucius Scribonius Libo. Not glued to Sextus Pompey – grafted to him to make a sour rootstock produce sweet grapes.
Short in height and meager in build, Libo had a face that reinforced the inadequacies of his size and betrayed the nature of the beast within: grasping, timid, ambitious, uncertain, selfish. His moment had come when Pompey the Great’s elder son had fallen in love with his daughter, divorced a Claudia Pulchra to marry her, and obliged Pompey the Great to elevate him as befitted his son’s father-in-law. Then when Gnaeus Pompey followed his father into death, Sextus, the younger son, had married his widow. With the result that Libo had commanded naval fleets and now acted as an unofficial ambassador for his master, Sextus. The Scribonian women had done well by their family; Libo’s sister had married two rich, influential men, one a patrician Cornelius, by whom she had borne a daughter. Though Scribonia the sister was now in her early thirties and deemed ill-omened – twice widowed was once too often – Libo did not despair of finding her a third husband. Comely to look at, proven fertile, a two-hundred-talent dowry – yes, Scribonia the sister would marry again.
However, Antony wasn’t interested in Libo’s women; it was his own bothering him. ‘Why on earth bring her to me?’ he asked.
Libo opened his fawn-colored eyes wide, spread his hands. ‘My dear Antonius, where else could I bring her?’
‘You could have sent her to her own domus in Rome.’
‘She refused with such hysteria that I was forced to push Sextus Pompeius out of the room – otherwise he would have killed her. Believe me, she wouldn’t go to Rome, kept screeching that Octavianus would execute her for treason.’
‘Execute Caesar’s cousin?’ Antony asked incredulously.
‘Why not?’ Libo asked, all innocence. ‘He proscribed Caesar’s cousin Lucius, your mother’s brother.’
‘Octavianus and I both proscribed Lucius!’ Antony snapped, goaded. ‘However, we did not execute him! We needed his money, that simple. My mother is penniless, she stands in no danger.’
‘Then you tell her that!’ said Libo with a snarl; it was he, after all, who had had to suffer Julia Antonia on a fairly long sea voyage.
Had either man thought to look her way – he did not – he might have seen that the drowned blue eyes held a certain cunning and that the profusely ornamented ears were picking up every word uttered. Monumentally silly Julia Antonia might be, but she had a healthy regard for her own wellbeing and was convinced that she would be much better off with her senior son than stranded in Rome without an income.
By this time the steward and several female servants had arrived, their faces displaying some trepidation. Unmoved by this evidence of servile fear that they were about to be burdened with a problem, Antony thankfully passed his mother over to them, all the while assuring her that he wasn’t going to send her to Rome. Finally the deed was done and peace descended on the study; Antony sat back in his chair with a sigh of relief.
‘Wine! I need wine!’ he cried, suddenly erupting out of the chair. ‘Red or white, Libo?’
‘A good strong red, I thank you. No water. I’ve seen enough water in the last three nundinae to last me half a lifetime.’
Antony grinned. ‘I fully understand. Chaperoning my mama is no picnic.’ He poured a large goblet almost to its brim. ‘Here, this should numb the pain – Chian, ten years old.’
Silence reigned for some time as the two bibbers buried their snouts in their goblets with appropriate sounds of content.
‘So what brings you to Athens, Libo?’ Antony asked, breaking the silence. ‘And don’t say my mother.’
‘You’re right. Your mother was convenient.’
‘Not for me,’ Antony growled.
‘I’d love to know how you can do that,’ Libo said brightly. ‘Your speaking voice is light and high, but in a trice you can turn it into a deep-throated growl or roar.’
‘Or bellow. You forgot the bellow. And don’t ask me how. I don’t know. It just happens. If you want to hear me bellow, keep on evading the subject, by all means.’
‘Er – no, that won’t be necessary. Though if I may continue about your mother for a moment longer, I suggest that you give her plenty of money and the run of the best shops in Athens. Do that, and you’ll never see or hear her.’ Libo smiled down at the bubbles beading the rim of his wine. ‘Once she learned that your brother Lucius was pardoned and sent to Further Spain with a proconsular imperium, she was easier to deal with.’
‘Why are you here?’ Antony said again.
‘Sextus Pompeius thought it a good idea for me to see you.’
‘Really? With a view to what end?’
‘Forming an alliance against Octavianus. The two of you united would crush Octavianus to pulp.’
The small full mouth pursed; Antony looked sideways. ‘An alliance against Octavianus … Pray tell me, Libo, why I, one of the three men appointed by the Senate and People of Rome to reconstitute the Republic, should form an alliance with a man who is no better than a pirate?’
Libo winced. ‘Sextus Pompeius is the governor of Sicilia in full accordance with the mos maiorum! He does not regard the Triumvirate as legal or proper, and he deplores the proscription edict that falsely outlawed him, not to mention stripped him of his property and inheritance! His activities on the high seas are purely to convince the Senate and People of Rome that he has been unjustly condemned. Lift the sentence of hostis, lift all the bans, embargoes and interdictions, and Sextus Pompeius will cease to be – er – a pirate.’
‘And he thinks I’ll move in the House that his status as a public enemy and all the bans, embargoes and interdictions be lifted if he aids me in ridding Rome of Octavianus?’
‘Quite so, yes.’
‘I take it he’s proposing outright war, tomorrow if possible?’
‘Come, come, Marcus Antonius, all the world can see that you and Octavianus must eventually come to blows! Since between you – I discount Lepidus – you have imperium maius over nine-tenths of the Roman world and you control its legions as well as its incomes, what else can happen when you collide than full-scale war? For over fifty years the history of the Roman Republic has been one civil war after another – do you honestly believe that Philippi was the end of the final civil war?’ Libo kept his tone gentle, his face serene. ‘Sextus Pompeius is tired of outlawry. He wants what is due to him – restoration of his citizenship, permission to inherit his father Magnus’s property, the restitution of said property, the consulship, and a proconsular imperium in Sicilia in perpetuity.’ Libo shrugged. ‘There is more, but that will do to go on with, I think.’
‘And in return for all this?’
‘He will control and sweep the seas as your ally. Include a pardon for Murcus and you will have his fleets too. Ahenobarbus says he’s independent, though as big a … pirate. Sextus Pompeius will also guarantee you free grain for your legions.’
‘He’s holding me to ransom.’
‘Is that a yea or a nay?’
‘I will not treat with pirates,’ Antony said in his usual light voice. ‘However, you can tell your master that if he and I should meet upon the water, I expect him to let me go wherever it is I’m going. If he does that, we shall see.’
‘More yea than nay.’
‘More nothing than anything – for the time being. I do not need Sextus Pompeius to squash Octavianus, Libo. If Sextus thinks I do, he’s mistaken.’
‘If you should decide to ship your troops across the Adriatic from Macedonia to Italia, Antonius, you won’t welcome fleets in the plural preventing you.’
‘The Adriatic is Ahenobarbus’s patch, and he’ll not hamper me. I am unimpressed.’
‘So Sextus Pompeius cannot call himself your ally? You will not undertake to speak for him in the House?’
‘Absolutely not, Libo. The most I’ll agree to do is not to hunt him down. If I did hunt him down, he’d be the one crushed to pulp. Tell him he can keep his free grain, but that I expect him to sell me grain for my legions at the usual wholesale price of five sesterces the modius, not a bronze farthing more.’
‘You drive a hard bargain.’
‘I’m in a position to do so. Sextus Pompeius is not.’
And how much of this obduracy, wondered Libo, is because he now has his mother around his neck? I told Sextus it was not a good idea, but he wouldn’t listen.
Quintus Dellius entered the room, arm in arm with yet another sycophant, Sentius Saturninus.
‘Look who’s just arrived from Agrigentum with Libo!’ Dellius cried delightedly. ‘Antonius, have you any of that Chian red?’
‘Pah!’ spat Antony. ‘Where’s Plancus?’
‘Here, Antonius!’ said Plancus, going to embrace Libo and Sentius Saturninus. ‘Isn’t this nice?’
Very nice, thought Antony sourly. Four servings of syrup.
Moving his army to the Adriatic coast of Macedonia hadn’t begun as anything more than an exercise designed to frighten Octavian; having abandoned all thought of contending with the Parthians until his income improved, Antony had at first wanted to leave his legions in Ephesus, but his visit to Ephesus had changed his mind. Caninius was too weak to control so many senior legates unless cousin Antony was nearby. Besides, the idea of frightening Octavian was too delicious to resist. But somehow everyone assumed that the war they expected to erupt between the two Triumvirs was finally going to push ahead, and Antony found himself in a dilemma. Ought he crush Octavian now? As campaigns went, it would be a cheap one, and he had plenty of transports to ferry his legions across a little sea to home territory, where he could pick up Octavian’s legions to supplement his own, and free up Pollio and Ventidius – fourteen extra legions from them alone! Ten more once Octavian was defeated. And whatever was in the Treasury to put in his war chest.
Still, he wasn’t sure … When Libo’s advice about Julia Antonia proved correct and he never saw her, Antony relaxed a little. His Athenian couch was comfortable and the army content in Apollonia – time would tell him what to do. It didn’t occur to him that in postponing this decision, he was telling his world that he lacked resolution about his future course of action.
Octavian in the West
She looked so old and tired, his beloved Lady Roma. From where he stood at the top of the Velia, Octavian could see down into the Forum Romanum and beyond it to the Capitoline Mount; if he turned to face the other way, he could look across the swamps of the Palus Ceroliae all the way along the Sacra Via to the Servian Walls.
Octavian loved Rome with a fierce passion alien to his nature, which tended to be cool and detached. But Goddess Roma, he believed, had no rival on the face of the globe. How he hated to hear this one say that Athens outshone her as the sun does the moon, hear that one say that Pergamum on its heights was far lovelier, hear another say that Alexandria made her look like a Gallic oppidum! Was it her fault that her temples were decayed, her public buildings grimy, her squares and gardens neglected? No, the fault lay with the men who governed in her name, for they cared more about their reputations than they did about hers, who made them. She deserved better, and if he had anything to do with it, she would receive better. Of course there were exceptions: Caesar’s glorious Basilica Julia, the masterpiece that was his Forum, the Basilica Aemilia, Sulla’s Tabularium. But, even on the Capitol, temples as grand as Juno Moneta were in sad need of fresh paint. From the eggs and dolphins of the Circus Maximus to the shrines and fountains of the crossroads, poor Goddess Roma was shabby, a gentlewoman in decline.
If we only had one-tenth of the money Romans have squandered on warring against each other, Roma would be unparalleled for beauty, Octavian thought. Where does it go, all that money? A question that had occurred to him often, and to which he had only an approximate answer, an educated guess: into the purses of the soldiers to be spent on useless things or hoarded according to their natures; into the purses of manufacturers and merchants who took their profits from warmongering; into the purses of foreigners; and into the purses of the very men who waged the wars. But if that last is true, he wondered, why did I not make any profit?
Look at Marcus Antonius, his thoughts went on. He has stolen hundreds of millions, more of them to keep up his hedonistic lifestyle than to pay his legions. And how many millions has he given away to his so-called friends in order to look like a big man? Oh, I have stolen too – I got away with Caesar’s war chest. If I had not, I would be dead today. But, unlike Antonius, I never give a brass farthing away. What I disburse from my hidden treasure-trove I expect to see put to good use, as in paying my army of agents. I cannot survive without my agents. The tragedy is that none of it dare I spend on Roma herself. Most of it goes to pay the legions’ massive bonuses. A bottomless pit that perhaps has only one real asset: it distributes personal wealth more equally than in the old days when the plutocrats could be numbered on the fingers of both hands, and the soldiers didn’t have enough income to belong even to the Fifth Class. That’s not true anymore.
The vista of the Forum blurred as his eyes filled with tears. Caesar, oh, Caesar! What might I have learned if you had lived? It was Antonius enabled them to kill you – he was a part of the plot, I know it in my bones. Believing that he was Caesar’s heir and urgently needing Caesar’s vast fortune, he succumbed to the blandishments of Trebonius and Decimus Brutus. The other Brutus and Cassius were nothings, mere figureheads. Like many before him, Antonius hungers to be the First Man in Rome. Were I not here, he would be. But I am here, and he’s afraid that I will usurp that title as well as Caesar’s name, Caesar’s money. He’s right to be afraid. Caesar the God – Divus Julius – is on my side. If Rome is to prosper, I must win this struggle! Yet I have vowed never to go to war against Antonius, and I will keep that vow.
The zephyr breeze of early summer stirred his mass of bright gold hair; people noticed it first, then noticed the identity of its owner. They stared, usually with a scowl. As the Triumvir present in Rome, it was he who got most of the blame for the hard times – expensive bread, monotonous supplementary foods, high rents, empty purses. But to every scowl he returned Caesar’s smile, a thing so powerful that the scowls became answering smiles.
Though even in Rome Antonius liked to strut around in armor, Octavian always wore his purple-bordered toga; in it he looked small, slight, graceful. The days when he had worn boots with platform soles were gone. Rome now knew him as Caesar’s heir beyond doubt, and many called him what he called himself – Divi Filius, the son of a god. It remained his greatest advantage, even in the face of his unpopularity. Men might scowl and mutter, but mamas and grannies cooed and gushed; Octavian was too clever a politician to discount the impact of mamas and grannies.
From the Velia he walked through the lichen-whiskered ancient pillars of the Porta Mugonia and ascended the Palatine Mount at its less fashionable end. His house had once belonged to the famous advocate Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, Cicero’s rival in the courts. Antonius had blamed the son for the death of his brother Gaius, and had him proscribed. Which didn’t worry young Hortensius, dead in Macedonia, his corpse thrown on Gaius Antonius’s monument. Like most of Rome, Octavian was well aware that Gaius Antonius had been so incompetent that his demise had been a positive blessing.
The domus Hortensia was a very big and luxurious house, though not the size of Pompey the Great’s palace on the Carinae. That, Antonius had snaffled; when Caesar learned of it, he made his cousin pay for it. Upon Caesar’s death, the payments stopped. But Octavian hadn’t wanted a house ostentatious enough to be called a palace, just wanted something large enough to function as offices as well as residence. The domus Hortensia had been knocked down to him at the proscription auctions for two million sesterces, a fraction of its real value. That kind of thing happened often at the proscription auctions, when so much first-class property was sold at one and the same moment.
At the fashionable end of the Palatine, all the crowded houses vied for views of the Forum Romanum, but Hortensius hadn’t cared about outlook. He cared about space. A noted fish fancier, he had huge ponds devoted to gold and silver carp, and grounds and gardens more usual in villas outside the Servian Walls, like the palace Caesar had built for Cleopatra under the Janiculan Hill. Its grounds and gardens were legendary.
The domus Hortensia stood atop a fifty-foot cliff overlooking the Circus Maximus, where on days of parades or chariot races over a hundred and fifty thousand Roman citizens jammed its bleachers to marvel and cheer. Sparing the circus no glance, Octavian entered his house through the garden and ponds behind it, proceeding into a vast reception room that Hortensius had never used, so infirm was he when he added it on.
Octavian liked the house’s design, for the kitchens and the servants’ quarters were off to one side in a separate structure that contained latrines and baths for servile use. The baths and latrines for the owner, his family and guests were inside the main pile and made of priceless marbles. Like most such on the Palatine, they were situated above an underground stream that fed into the immense sewers of the Cloaca Maxima. To Octavian, they were a main reason for his purchasing this domus; he was the most private of persons, especially when it came to voiding his bowels and bladder. No one must see, no one must hear! As was true when he bathed, at least once each day. Thus military campaigns were a torment only made bearable by Agrippa, who contrived to give him privacy whenever possible. Quite why he felt so strongly about this, Octavian didn’t know, as he was well made; save that, without properly arranged clothes, men were vulnerable.
His valet met him, signalling anxiety; Octavian hated the slightest mark on tunic or toga, which made life hard for the man, perpetually busy with chalk and clear vinegar.
‘Yes, you can have the toga,’ he said absently, shed it, and walked out into an internal peristyle garden that had the finest fountain in Rome, of rearing horses with fish’s tails, Amphitryon riding a shell chariot. The painting was exquisite, so lifelike that the water god’s weedy hair glimmered and glowered greenish, his skin a network of tiny, silvery scales. The sculpture sat in the middle of a round pool whose pale green marble had cost Hortensius ten talents to buy from the new quarries at Carrara.
Through a pair of bronze doors bearing scenes of Lapiths and centaurs in bas relief, Octavian entered a hall that had his study to one side and the dining room to the other. Thence he passed into a huge atrium whose impluvium pool beneath the complu-vium in the roof shimmered mirrorlike from an overhead sun. And finally through another pair of bronze doors he came onto the loggia, a vast open-air balcony. Hortensius had liked the idea of an arbor as shelter from strong sun, and erected a series of struts over part of the area, then planted grapevines to train over them. With the years they had festooned the frame into a dappled haven, pendant at this season with dangling bunches of pale green beads.
Four men sat in big chairs around a low table, with a fifth chair vacant to complete the circle. Two jugs and a number of beakers sat on the table, of plain Arvernian pottery – no golden goblets or Alexandrian glass flagons for Octavian! The water jug was bigger than the wine one, which held a very light, sparkling white vintage from Alba Fucentia. No connoisseur of oenological bent would have sniffed contemptuously at this wine, for Octavian liked to serve the best of everything. What he disliked were extravagance and imported anythings. The produce of Italia, he was fond of telling those prepared to listen, was superlative, so why play the snob by flaunting wines from Chios, rugs from Miletus, wools dyed in Hierapolis, tapestries from Corduba?
Cat-footed, Octavian gave no warning of his advent, and stood in the doorway for a moment to observe them; his ‘council of elders’, as Maecenas called them, punning on the fact that Quintus Salvidienus, at thirty-one, was the oldest of the group. To these four men – and to them alone – did Octavian voice his thoughts; though not all his thoughts. That privilege was reserved for Agrippa, his coeval and spiritual brother.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, aged twenty-two, was everything a Roman nobleman ought to be in looks. He was as tall as Caesar had been, heavily muscled in a lean way, and possessed of an unusual yet handsome face whose brows beetled below a shelf of forehead and whose strong chin was tucked firmly beneath a stern mouth. Discovering that his deep-set eyes were hazel was difficult thanks to the bristling brows obscuring them. Yet Agrippa’s birth was so low that a Tiberius Claudius Nero sneered – who had ever heard of a family named Vipsanius? Samnite, if not Apulian or Calabrian. Italian scum at any rate. Only Octavian fully appreciated the depth and breadth of his intellect, which ran to the generaling of armies, the building of bridges and aqueducts, the invention of gadgets and tools to make labor easier. This year he was Rome’s urban praetor, responsible for all civil law suits and the apportioning of criminal cases to the various courts. A heavy job, but not heavy enough to satisfy Agrippa, who had also taken on some of the duties of the aediles. These worthies were supposed to care for Rome’s buildings and services; apostrophizing them as a scabby lot of idlers, he had assumed authority over the water supply and sewerage, much to the dismay of the companies that the city contracted to run them. He talked seriously of doing things to prevent the sewers backing up whenever the Tiber flooded, but feared it would not happen this year, as it necessitated a thorough mapping of many miles of sewers and drains. However, he had managed to get some action on the Aqua Marcia, the best of Rome’s existing aqueducts, and was constructing a new one, the Aqua Julia. Rome’s water supply was the best in the world, but the city’s population was increasing and time was running out.
He was Octavian’s man to the death, not blindly loyal but insight-fully so; he knew Octavian’s weaknesses as well as his strengths, and suffered for him as Octavian never suffered for himself. There could be no question of ambition. Unlike almost all New Men, Agrippa truly understood to the core of his being that it was Octavian, with the birth, who must retain ascendancy. His was the role of fides Achates, and he would always be there for Octavian … who would elevate him far beyond his true social status: what better fate than to be the Second Man in Rome? For Agrippa, that was more than any New Man deserved.
Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, aged thirty, was an Etruscan of the oldest blood; his family were the lords of Arretium, a busy river port on the bend of the Arnus where the Annian, Cassian and Clodian roads met as they traveled from Rome to Italian Gaul. For reasons best known to himself, he had dropped his family name, Cilnius, and called himself plain Gaius Maecenas. His love of the finer things in life showed in his softly plump physique, though he could, when push came to shove, undertake grueling journeys on Octavian’s behalf. The face was a trifle froglike, for his pale blue eyes had a tendency to pop out – exophthalmia, the Greeks called it.
A famous wit and raconteur, he had a mind as broad and deep as Agrippa’s, but in a different way; Maecenas loved literature, art, philosophy, rhetoric, and collected not antique pots but new poets. As Agrippa jokingly observed, he couldn’t general a bun fight in a brothel, but he did know how to stop one. A smoother, more persuasive talker than Maecenas no one had yet found, nor a man more suited for scheming and plotting in the shadows behind the curule chair. Like Agrippa, he had reconciled himself to Octavian’s ascendancy, though his motives were not as pure as Agrippa’s. Maecenas was a grey eminence, a diplomat, a dealer in men’s fates. He could spot a useful flaw in a trice and insert his sweet words painlessly into the weakness to produce a wound worse than any dagger could make. Dangerous, was Maecenas.
Quintus Salvidienus was a man from Picenum, that nest of demagogues and political nuisances that had bred such luminaries as Pompey the Great and Titus Labienus. But he hadn’t won his laurels in the Forum Romanum; his were earned on the battlefield, where he excelled. Fine-looking in the face and body, he had a thatch of bright red hair that had given him his cognomen, Rufus, and shrewd, far-sighted blue eyes. Inside himself he cherished high ambitions, and had tied his career to the tail of Octavian’s comet as the quickest way to the top. From time to time the Picentine vice stirred in him, which was to contemplate changing sides if it seemed prudent to do so. Salvidienus had no intention of ending on a losing side, and wondered sometimes if Octavian really had what it took to win the coming struggle. Of gratitude he had little, of loyalty none, but he had hidden these so successfully that Octavian, for one, did not dream that they existed in him. His guard was good, but there were occasions when he wondered if Agrippa suspected, so, whenever Agrippa was present, he watched what he said and did closely. As for Maecenas – who knew what that oily aristocrat sensed?
Titus Statilius Taurus, aged twenty-seven, was the least man among them, and therefore knew the least about Octavian’s ideas and plans. Another military man, he looked what he was, being tall, solidly built and rather beaten around the face – a swollen left ear, scarred left brow and cheek, broken nose. Yet he was, withal, a handsome man with wheat-colored hair, grey eyes, and an easy smile that belied his reputation as a martinet when he commanded legions. He had a horror of homosexuality and would not have anyone so inclined under his authority, no matter how well born. As a soldier he was inferior to Agrippa and Salvidienus, but not by much; what he lacked was their genius for improvisation. Of his loyalty there was no doubt, chiefly because Octavian dazzled him; the undeniable talents and brilliance of Agrippa, Salvidienus and Maecenas were as nothing compared to the extraordinary mind of Caesar’s heir.
‘Greetings,’ said Octavian, going to the vacant chair.
Agrippa smiled. ‘Where have you been? Making eyes at Lady Roma? Forum or Mons Aventinus?’
‘Forum.’ Octavian poured water and drank it thirstily, then sighed. ‘I was planning what to do when I have the money to set Lady Roma to rights.’
‘Planning is all it can be,’ said Maecenas wryly.
‘True. Still, Gaius, nothing is wasted. What plans I make now don’t have to be made later. Have we heard what our consul Pollio is up to? Ventidius?’
‘Skulking in eastern Italian Gaul,’ Maecenas said. ‘Rumor has it that shortly they’ll be marching down the Adriatic coast to help Antonius land his legions, which are clustered around Apollonia. Between Pollio’s seven, Ventidius’s seven and the ten Antonius has with him, we’re in for a terrible drubbing.’
‘I will not go to war against Antonius!’ Octavian cried.
‘You won’t need to,’ said Agrippa with a grin. ‘Their men won’t fight ours, on that I’d stake my life.’
‘I agree,’ said Salvidienus. ‘The men have had a gut-full of wars they don’t understand. What’s the difference to them between Caesar’s nephew and Caesar’s cousin? Once they belonged to Caesar himself, that’s all they remember. Thanks to Caesar’s habit of shifting his soldiers around to plump out this legion or thin down that legion, they identify with Caesar, not a unit.’
‘They mutinied,’ Maecenas said, voice hard.
‘Only the Ninth can be said to have mutinied directly against Caesar, thanks to a dozen corrupt centurions in the pay of Pompeius Magnus’s cronies. For the rest, blame Antonius. He put them up to it, no one else! He kept their centurions drunk and bought their spokesmen. He worked on them!’ Agrippa said contemptuously. ‘Antonius is a mischief maker, not a political genius. He lacks any subtlety. Why else is he even thinking of landing his men in Italia? It makes no sense! Have you declared war on him? Has Lepidus? He’s doing it because he’s afraid of you.’
‘Antonius is no bigger a mischief maker than Sextus Pompeius Magnus Pius, to give him his full name,’ said Maecenas, and laughed. ‘I hear that Sextus sent tata-in-law Libo to Athens to ask Antonius to join him in crushing you.’
‘How do you know that?’ Octavian demanded, sitting upright.
‘Like Ulysses, I have spies everywhere.’
‘So do I, but it’s news to me. What did Antonius answer?’
‘A sort of a no. No official alliance, but he won’t impede Sextus’s activities, provided they’re directed at you.’
‘How considerate of him.’ The extraordinarily beautiful face puckered, the eyes looked strained. ‘As well, then, that I took it upon myself to give Lepidus six legions and send him off to govern Africa. Has Antonius heard of that yet? My agents say no.’
‘So do mine,’ Maecenas said. ‘Antonius won’t be pleased, Caesar, so much is sure. Once Fango was killed, Antonius thought he had Africa in the sinus of his toga. I mean, who counts Lepidus? But now that the new governor is dead too, Lepidus will walk in. With Africa’s four legions and the six he took there with him, Lepidus has become a strong player in the game.’
‘I am aware of that!’ Octavian snapped, nettled. ‘However, Lepidus loathes Antonius far more than he loathes me. He’ll send Italia grain this autumn.’
‘With Sardinia gone, we’re going to need it,’ said Taurus.
Octavian looked at Agrippa. ‘Since we have no ships, we have to start building some. Agrippa, I want you to doff your insignia of office and go on a journey all the way around the peninsula from Tergeste to Liguria. You’ll be commissioning good stout war galleys. To beat Sextus, we need fleets.’
‘How do we pay for them, Caesar?’ Agrippa asked.
‘With the last of the planks.’
A cryptic reply that meant nothing to the other three, but was crystal clear to Agrippa, who nodded. ‘Planks’ was the codeword Octavian and Agrippa employed when they spoke of Caesar’s war chest.
‘Libo returned to Sextus empty-handed, and Sextus took—er—umbrage. Not sufficient umbrage to plague Antonius, but umbrage nonetheless,’ Maecenas said. ‘Libo didn’t like Antonius any better in Athens than he had in other places, therefore Libo is now an enemy dropping poison about Antonius in Sextus’s ear.’
‘What particularly piqued Libo?’ Octavian asked curiously.
‘With Fulvia gone, I think he had rather hoped to secure a third husband for his sister. What cleverer way to cement an alliance than a marriage? Poor Libo! My spies say he baited his hook with great variety. But the subject never came up, and Libo sailed back to Agrigentum a disappointed man.’
‘Hmmm.’ The golden brows knotted, the thick fair lashes came down over Octavian’s remarkable eyes. Suddenly he slapped both hands upon his knees and looked determined. ‘Maecenas, pack your things! You’re off to Agrigentum to see Sextus and Libo.’
‘With what purpose?’ Maecenas asked, misliking the mission.
‘Your purpose is to make a truce with Sextus that enables Italia to have grain this autumn, and for a reasonable price. You will do whatever is necessary to achieve that end, is that understood?’
‘Even if there’s a marriage involved?’
‘She’s in her thirties, Caesar. There’s a daughter, Cornelia, almost old enough for marriage.’
‘I don’t care how old Libo’s sister is! All women are the same from the waist down, so what does age matter? At least she won’t have the taint of a strumpet like Fulvia on her.’
No one commented upon the fact that, after two years, Fulvia’s daughter had been sent back to her virgo intacta. Octavian had married the girl to appease Antony, but had never slept with her. However, that couldn’t happen with Libo’s sister. Octavian would have to sleep with her, preferably fruitfully. In all things of the flesh he was as big a prude as Cato the Censor, so pray that Scribonia was neither ugly nor licentious. Everyone looked at the floor of tessellated tiles and pretended to be deaf, dumb, blind.
‘What if Antonius attempts to land in Brundisium?’ Salvidienus asked, to change the subject a little.
‘Brundisium is fortified within an inch of its life; he won’t get a single troop transport past the harbor chain,’ Agrippa said. ‘I supervised the fortification of Brundisium myself, you know that, Salvidienus.’
‘There are other places he can land.’
‘And undoubtedly will, but with all those troops?’ Octavian looked tranquil. ‘However, Maecenas, I want you back from Agrigentum in a tearing hurry.’
‘The winds are against,’ Maecenas said, sounding desolate. Who needed to spend any part of summer in a cesspit like Sextus Pompey’s Sicilian township of Agrigentum?
‘All the better to bring you home quickly. As for getting there – row! Take a gig to Puteoli and hire the fastest ship and the best oarsmen you can find. Pay them double their going rate. Now, Maecenas, now!’
And so the group broke up; only Agrippa stayed.
‘What’s your latest count on the number of legions we have to oppose Antonius?’
‘Ten, Caesar. Though it wouldn’t matter if all we had were three or four. Neither side will fight. I keep saying it, but every ear is deaf except yours and Salvidienus’s.’
‘I heard you because in that fact lies our salvation. I refuse to believe I’m beaten,’ Octavian said. He sighed, smiled ruefully. ‘Oh, Agrippa, I hope this woman of Libo’s is bearable! I haven’t had much luck with wives.’
‘They’ve been someone else’s choice, no more than political expedients. One day, Caesar, you’ll choose a woman for yourself, and she won’t be a Servilia Vatia or a Clodia. Or, I suspect, a Scribonia Libone, if the deal with Sextus comes off.’ Agrippa cleared his throat, looked uneasy. ‘Maecenas knew, but has left me to tell you the news from Athens.’
‘News? What news?’
‘Fulvia opened her veins.’
For a long moment Octavian said nothing, just stared at the Circus Maximus so fixedly that Agrippa fancied he had gone away to some place beyond this world. A mass of contradictions, was Caesar. Even in his mind, Agrippa never thought of him as Octavianus; he had been the first person to call Octavian by his adopted name, though now all his adherents did. No one could be colder, or harder, or more ruthless; yet, it was plain to see, looking at him now, that he was grieving for Fulvia, a woman he had loathed.
‘She was a part of Rome’s history,’ Octavian finally said, ‘and she deserved a better end. Have her ashes come home? Does she have a tomb?’
‘To my knowledge, no on both counts.’
Octavian got up. ‘I shall speak to Atticus. Between us, we will give her a proper burial, as befits her station. Aren’t her children by Antonius quite young?’
‘Antyllus is five, Iullus is two.’
‘Then I’ll ask my sister to keep an eye on them. Three of her own aren’t enough for Octavia, she’s always got someone else’s children in her care.’
Including, thought Agrippa grimly, your half-sister, Marcia. I will never forget that day on the heights of Petra when we were on our way to meet Brutus and Cassius – Gaius sitting with the tears streaming down his face, mourning the death of his mother. But she isn’t dead! She’s the wife of his stepbrother, Lucius Marcius Philippus. Another one of his contradictions, that he can grieve for Fulvia, while pretending that his mother doesn’t exist. Oh, I know why. She had only donned her widow’s weeds for a month when she began an affair with her stepson. That might have been hushed up, had she not become pregnant. He’d had a letter from his sister that day in Petra, begging him to understand their mother’s plight. But he wouldn’t. To him, Atia was a whore, an immoral woman not worthy to be the mother of a god’s son. So he forced Atia and Philippus to retire to Philippus’s villa at Misenum, and forbade them to enter Rome. An edict he has never lifted, though Atia is ill and her baby girl a permanent member of Octavia’s nursery. One day it will all come back to haunt him, though he cannot see that, anymore than he has ever laid eyes on his half-sister. A beautiful child, fair as any Julian, for all that her father is so dark.
Then came a letter from Further Gaul that put all thought of Antony or his dead wife out of Octavian’s mind, and postponed the date of a marriage Maecenas was busy arranging for him in Agrigentum.
‘Esteemed Caesar,’ it said, ‘I write to inform you that my beloved father, Quintus Fufius Calenus, has died in Narbo. He was fifty-nine years old, I know, but his health was good. Then he fell down dead. It was over in a moment. As his chief legate, I now have charge of the eleven legions stationed throughout Further Gaul: four in Agedincum, four in Narbo, and three in Glanum. At this time the Gauls are quiet, my father having put down a revolt among the Aquitani last year, but I quail to think what might yet happen if the Gauls get wind of my command and inexperience. I felt it right to inform you rather than Marcus Antonius, though the Gauls belong to him. He is so far away. Please send me a new governor, one with the necessary military skills to keep the peace here. Preferably quickly, as I would like to bring my father’s ashes back to Rome in person.’
Octavian read and reread the rather bald communication, his heart fluttering in his chest. For once, happy flutterings. At last a twist of fate that favored him! Who could ever have believed that Calenus would die?
He sent for Agrippa, busy winding up his tenure of the urban praetorship so that he could travel for long periods; the urban praetor could not be absent from Rome for more than ten days.
‘Forget the odds and ends!’ Octavian cried, handing him the letter. ‘Read this and rejoice!’
‘Eleven veteran legions!’ Agrippa breathed, understanding the import immediately. ‘You have to reach Narbo before Pollio and Ventidius beat you to it. They have fewer miles to cover, so pray the news doesn’t find them quickly. Young Calenus isn’t his father’s bootlace, if this is anything to go by.’ Agrippa waved the sheet of paper. ‘Imagine it, Caesar! Further Gaul is about to drop into your lap without a pilum raised in anger.’
‘We take Salvidienus with us,’ Octavian said.
‘Is that wise?’
The grey eyes looked startled. ‘What makes you question my wisdom in this?’
‘Nothing I can put a finger on, except that governing Further Gaul is a great command. Salvidienus might let it go to his head. At least I presume that you mean to give him the command?’
‘Would you rather have it? It’s yours if you want it.’
‘No, Caesar, I don’t want it. Too far from Italia and you.’ He sighed, shrugged in a defeated way. ‘I can’t think of anyone else. Taurus is too young, the rest you can’t trust to deal smartly with the Bellovaci or the Suebi.’
‘Salvidienus will be fine,’ Octavian said confidently, and patted his dearest friend on the arm. ‘We’ll start for Further Gaul at dawn tomorrow, and we’ll travel the way my father the god did – four-mule gigs at the gallop. That means the Via Aemilia and the Via Domitia. To make sure we have no trouble commandeering fresh mules often enough, we’ll take a squadron of German cavalry.’
‘You ought to have a full-time bodyguard, Caesar.’
‘Not now, I’m too busy. Besides, I don’t have the money.’
Agrippa gone, Octavian walked across the Palatine to the Clivus Victoriae and the domus of Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor, who was his brother-in-law. An inadequate and indecisive consul in the year that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, Marcellus was the brother and first cousin of two men whose hatred of Caesar had been beyond reason. He had skulked in Italy while Caesar fought the war against Pompey the Great, and had been rewarded after Caesar won with the hand of Octavia. For Marcellus the union was a mixture of love and expedience; a marriage tie to Caesar’s family meant protection for himself and the massive Claudius Marcellus fortune, now all his. And he truly did love his bride, a priceless jewel. Octavia had borne him a girl, Marcella Major, a boy whom everyone called Marcellus, and a second girl, Marcella Minor, who was known as Cellina.
The house was preternaturally quiet. Marcellus was very ill, ill enough that his ordinarily gentle wife had issued iron instructions about servant chatter and clatter.
‘How is he?’ Octavian asked his sister, kissing her cheek.
‘It’s only a matter of days, the physicians say. The growth is extremely malignant, it’s eating up his insides voraciously.’
The large aquamarine eyes brimmed with tears that only fell to soak her pillow after she retired. She genuinely loved this man whom her stepfather had chosen for her with her brother’s full approval; the Claudii Marcelli were not patricians, but of very old and noble plebeian stock, which had made Marcellus Minor a suitable husband for a Julian woman. It had been Caesar who hadn’t liked him, Caesar who at first had disapproved of the match.
Her beauty grew ever greater, her brother thought, wishing he could share her sorrow. For though he had consented to the marriage, he had never really taken to the man who possessed his beloved Octavia. Besides, he had plans, and the death of Marcellus Minor was likely to further them. Octavia would get over her loss. Four years older than he, she had the Julian look: golden hair, eyes with blue in them, high cheekbones, a lovely mouth, and an expression of radiant calmness that drew people to her. More importantly, she had a full measure of the famous gift meted out to most Julian women: she made her men happy.
Cellina was newborn and Octavia was nursing the babe herself, a joy she wouldn’t relinquish to a wet nurse. But it meant that she hardly ever went out, and often had to absent herself from the presence of visitors. Like her brother, Octavia was modest to the point of prudishness, would not bare her breast to give her child milk in front of any man except her husband. Yet one more reason why Octavian loved her. To him, she was Goddess Roma personified and, when he was undisputed master of Rome, he intended to erect statues of her in public places, an honor not accorded to women.
‘May I see Marcellus?’ Octavian asked.
‘He says no visitors, even you.’ Her face twisted. ‘It’s pride, Caesar, the pride of a scrupulous man. His room smells, no matter how hard the servants scrub, or how many sticks of incense I burn. The physicians call it the smell of death and say it’s ineradicable.’
He took her into his arms, kissed her hair. ‘Dearest sister, is there anything I can do?’
‘Nothing, Caesar. You comfort me, but nothing comforts him.’
No use for it; he would have to be brutal. ‘I must go far away for at least a month,’ he said.
She gasped. ‘Oh! Must you? He can’t last half a month!’
‘Yes, I must.’
‘Who will arrange the funeral? Find an undertaker? Find the right man to give the eulogy? Our family has become so small! Wars, murders … Maecenas, perhaps?’
‘He’s in Agrigentum.’
‘Then who is there? Domitius Calvinus? Servilius Vatia?’
He lifted her chin to look directly into her eyes, his mouth stern, his expression one of subtle pain. ‘I think that it must be Lucius Marcius Philippus,’ he said deliberately. ‘Not my choice, but socially the only one who won’t make Rome talk. Since no one believes that our mother is dead, what can it matter? I’ll write to him and tell him he may return to Rome, take up residence in his father’s house.’
‘He’ll be tempted to throw the edict in your teeth.’
‘Huh! Not that one! He’ll knuckle under. He seduced the mother of the Triumvir Caesar, Divi Filius! It’s only she has saved his skin. Oh, I’d dearly love to cook up a treason charge and serve that as a treat for his Epicurean palate! Even my patience has its limits, as he well knows. He’ll knuckle under,’ Octavian said again.
‘Would you like to see little Marcia?’ Octavia asked in a trembling voice. ‘She’s so sweet, Caesar, honestly!’
‘No, I wouldn’t!’ Octavian snapped.
‘But she’s our sister! The blood is linked, Caesar, even on the Marcian side. Divus Julius’s grandmother was a Marcia.’
‘I don’t care if she was Juno!’ Octavian said savagely, and stalked out.
Oh dear, oh dear! Gone before she could tell him that, for the time being at any rate, Fulvia’s two boys by Antonius had been added to her nursery. When she went to see them she had been shocked to find the two little fellows without any kind of supervision, and ten-year-old Curio gone feral. Well, she didn’t have the authority to take Curio under her wing and tame him, but she could take Antyllus and Iullus as a simple act of kindness. Poor, poor Fulvia! The spirit of a Forum demagogue cooped up inside a female shell. Octavia’s friend Pilia insisted that Antonius had beaten Fulvia in Athens, even kicked her, but that Octavia just couldn’t credit. After all, she knew Antonius well, and liked him very much. Some of her liking stemmed out of the fact that he was so different from the other men in her life; it could be wearing to associate with none but brilliant, subtle, devious men. Living with Antonius must have been an adventure, but beat his wife? No, he’d never do that! Never.
She went back to the nursery, there to weep quietly, taking care that Marcella, Marcellus and Antyllus, old enough to notice, didn’t see her tears. Still, she thought, cheering up, it would be wonderful to have Mama back in her life! Mama suffered so from some disease of the bones that she had been forced to send little Marcia to Rome and Octavia; but in the future she would be just around the corner, able to see her daughters. Only when would brother Caesar understand? Would he ever? Somehow Octavia didn’t think so. To him, Mama had done the unforgivable.
Then her mind returned to Marcellus; she went to his room immediately. Aged forty-five the year he had married Octavia, he had been a man in his prime, slender, well kept, erudite in education, good-looking in a Caesarish way. The ruthless attitude of Julian men was entirely missing in him, though he had a certain cunning, a deviousness that had enabled him to elude capture when Italia went mad for Caesar Divus Julius, had enabled him to make a splendid marriage that brought him into Caesar’s camp unplucked. For which he had Antony to thank, and had never forgotten it. Hence Octavia’s knowledge of Antony, a frequent caller.
Now the beautiful, twenty-seven-year-old wife beheld a stick man, eaten away to desiccation by the thing that gnawed and chewed at his vitals. His favorite slave, Admetus, sat by his bed, one hand enfolding Marcellus’s claw, but when Octavia entered Admetus rose quickly and gave her the chair.
‘How is he?’ she whispered.
‘Asleep on syrup of poppies, domina. Nothing else helps the pain, which is a pity. It clouds his mind dreadfully.’
‘I know,’ said Octavia, settling herself. ‘Eat and sleep, do. It will be your shift again before you know it. I wish he’d let someone else take a turn, but he won’t.’
‘If I were dying so slowly and in so much pain, domina, I would want the right face above me when I opened my eyes.’
‘Exactly so, Admetus. Now go, please. Eat and sleep. And he has manumitted you in his will, he told me so. You will be Gaius Claudius Admetus, but I hope you stay on with me.’
Too moved to speak, the young Greek kissed Octavia’s hand.
Hours went by, their silence broken only when a nursemaid brought Cellina to be fed. Luckily she was a good baby; didn’t cry loudly even when hungry. Marcellus slept on, oblivious.
Then he stirred, opened dazed dark eyes that cleared when they saw her.
‘Octavia, my love!’ he croaked.
‘Marcellus, my love,’ she said with a radiant smile, rising to fetch a beaker of sweet watered wine. He sucked at it through a hollowed reed, not very much. Then she brought a basin of water and a cloth. She peeled back the linen cover from his skin and bones, removed his soiled diaper, and began to wash him with a featherlight hand, talking to him gently. No matter where she was in the room, his eyes followed her, bright with love.
‘Old men shouldn’t marry young girls,’ he said.
‘I disagree. If young girls marry young men, they never grow or learn except tritely, for both are equally green.’ She took the basin away. ‘There! Does that feel better?’
‘Yes,’ he lied, then suddenly spasmed from head to toes, a rictus of agony tugging at his teeth. ‘Oh, Jupiter, Jupiter! The pain, the pain! My syrup, where’s my syrup?’
So she gave him syrup of poppies and sat down again to watch him sleep until Admetus arrived to relieve her.
Maecenas found his task made easier because Sextus Pompey had taken offense at Mark Antony’s reaction to his proposal. ‘Pirate’ indeed! Willing to agree to a fly-by-night conspiracy to badger Octavian, but not willing to declare a public alliance. ‘Pirate’ was not how Sextus Pompey saw himself – ever had, ever would. Having discovered that he loved being at sea and commanding three or four hundred war ships, he saw himself as a maritime Caesar, incapable of losing a battle. Yes, unbeatable on the waves and a big contender for the title of First Man in Rome. In that respect he feared both Antony and Octavian, even bigger contenders. What he needed was an alliance with one of them against the other, to reduce the number of contenders. Three down to two. In actual fact he had never met Antonius, hadn’t even managed to be in the crowds outside the Senate doors when Antony had thundered against the Republicans as Caesar’s tame tribune of the plebs. A sixteen-year-old had better things to do, and Sextus was not politically inclined, then or now. Whereas he had once met Octavian, in a little port on the Italian instep, and found a formidable foe in the guise of a sweet-faced boy, twenty to his own twenty-five. The first thing that had struck him about Octavian was that he beheld a natural outlaw who would never put himself in a position where he might be outlawed. They had done some dealing, then Octavian had resumed his march to Brundisium and Sextus had sailed away. Since then, allegiances had changed; Brutus and Cassius were defeated and dead; the world belonged to the Triumvirs.
He hadn’t been able to credit Antony’s short-sightedness in choosing to center himself in the East. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence could see that the East was a trap, gold the bait on its terrible barbed hook. Dominion over the world would go to the man who controlled Italia and the West, and that was Octavian. Of course it was the hardest job, the least popular, which was why Lepidus, given Lucius Antonius’s six legions, had scuttled off to Africa, there to play a waiting game and accumulate more troops. Another fool. Yes, Octavian was to be feared the most because he hadn’t balked at taking on the hardest task.
If he had consented to a formal alliance, Antony would have made Sextus’s grab for First Man in Rome status easier. But no, he refused to associate with a pirate!
‘So it goes on as it is,’ Sextus said to Libo, his dark blue eyes stony. ‘It will just take longer to wear Octavianus down.’
‘My dear Sextus, you will never wear Octavianus down,’ said Maecenas, turning up in Agrigentum a few days later. ‘He has no weaknesses for you to work on.’
‘Gerrae!’ Sextus snapped. ‘To start with, he has no ships and no admirals worthy of the name. Fancy sending an effete Greek freedman like Helenus to wrest Sardinia off me! I have the fellow here, by the way. He’s safe and unharmed. Ships and admirals – two weaknesses. He has no money, a third. Enemies in every walk of life – four. Shall I go on?’
‘They’re not weaknesses, they’re deficiencies,’ said Maecenas, savoring a mouthful of tiny shrimps. ‘Oh, these are delicious! Why are they so much tastier than the ones I eat in Rome?’
‘Muddier waters, better feeding grounds.’
‘You do know a lot about the sea.’
‘Enough to know that Octavianus can’t beat me on it, even if he did find some ships. Organizing a sea battle is an art all its own, and I happen to be the best at it in Rome’s entire span of history. My brother, Gnaeus, was superb, but not in my class.’ Sextus sat back and looked complacent.
What is it about this generation of young men? wondered the fascinated Maecenas. At school we learned that there would never be another Scipio Africanus, another Scipio Aemilianus, but each of them was a generation apart, unique in his time. Not so today. I suppose the young men have been given a chance to show what they can do because so many men in their forties and fifties have died or gone into permanent exile. This specimen isn’t thirty yet.
Sextus came out of his self-congratulatory reverie. ‘I must say, Maecenas, that I’m disappointed that your master didn’t come to see me in person. Too important, is he?’
‘No, I assure you,’ said Maecenas, at his oiliest. ‘He sends his profuse apologies, but something has come up in Further Gaul that made his presence there mandatory.’
‘Yes, I heard, probably before he did. Further Gaul! What a cornucopia of riches will become his! The best of the veteran legions, grain, hams and salt pork, sugar beets … Not to mention the land route to the Spains, though he doesn’t have Italian Gaul yet. No doubt he will when Pollio decides to don his consular regalia, though rumor has it that won’t be for some time. Rumor has it that Pollio is marching his seven legions down the Adriatic coast to assist Antonius when he lands at Brundisium.’
Maecenas looked surprised. ‘Why should Antonius need military help to land in Italia? As the senior of the Triumvirs, he’s free to come and go as he pleases.’
‘Not if Brundisium has anything to do with it. Why do the Brundisians hate Antonius so? They’d spit on his ashes.’
‘He was very hard on them when Divus Julius left him behind there to get the rest of the legions across the Adriatic the year before Pharsalus,’ said Maecenas, ignoring the darkening of Sextus’s face at mention of the battle that had seen his father crushed, the world changed. ‘Antonius can be unreasonable, never more so than at that time, with Divus Julius breathing down his neck. Besides, his military discipline was slack. He let the legionaries run wild – raping, looting. Then, when Divus Julius made him Master of the Horse, he took out a lot of his spleen at Brundisium on Brundisium.’
‘That would do it,’ said Sextus, grinning. ‘However, it does look a bit like an invasion when a Triumvir brings his entire army with him.’
‘A show of strength, a signal to Imperator Caesar—’
‘Imperator Caesar. We don’t call him Octavianus. Nor does Rome.’ Maecenas looked demure. ‘Perhaps that’s why Pollio hasn’t come to Rome, even as her elected junior consul.’
‘Here’s some less palatable news for Imperator Caesar than Further Gaul,’ Sextus said waspishly. ‘Pollio has won Ahenobarbus over to Antonius’s side. Won’t Imperator Caesar love that!’
‘Oh, side, side,’ Maecenas exclaimed, but without passion. ‘The only side is Rome’s. Ahenobarbus is a hothead, Sextus, as you well know. He “belongs” to nobody save Ahenobarbus, and he revels in roaring up and down his little patch of sea playing at being Father Neptune. No doubt this means you’ll be having more to do with Ahenobarbus yourself in future?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Sextus, looking inscrutable.
‘More to the point, that busy bird rumor says that you’re not getting on well with Lucius Staius Murcus these days.’
‘Murcus wants the co-command,’ Sextus said before he could put a brake on his tongue. That was the trouble with Maecenas, he lulled his listeners into a cosy rapport that somehow turned him from Octavian’s creature into a trusted friend. Annoyed at his indiscretion, Sextus tried to pass it off with a shrug. ‘Of course he can’t have the co-command, I don’t believe in them. I succeed because I make all the decisions myself. Murcus is an Apulian goatherder who thinks he’s a Roman nobleman.’
Look at who’s talking, thought Maecenas. So it’s goodbye to Murcus, eh? By this time next year he’ll be dead, accused of some transgression or other. This haughty young reprobate brooks no equals, hence his predilection for freedmen admirals. His romance with Ahenobarbus won’t last any longer than it takes Ahenobarbus to call him a Picentine upstart.
All useful information, but not why he was here. Abandoning the shrimps and the fishing for news, Maecenas got down to his real business, which was to make it clear to Sextus Pompey that he had to give Octavian and Italia a chance to survive. For Italia, that meant full bellies; for Octavian, that meant hanging on to what he had.
‘Sextus Pompeius,’ Maecenas said very earnestly two days later, ‘it is not my place to sit in judgement upon you, or upon anyone else. But you cannot deny that the rats of Sicilia eat better than the people of Italia, your own country from Picenum, Umbria and Etruria to Bruttium and Calabria. Home of your city, which your father adorned for such a long time. In the six years since Munda you’ve made thousands of millions of sesterces reselling wheat, so it isn’t money you’re after. But if, as you insist, it is to force the Senate and People of Rome to restore your citizenship and all its attendant rights, then surely you must see that you will require powerful allies inside Rome. In fact, there are only two who wield the power necessary to help you – Marcus Antonius and Imperator Caesar. Why are you so determined that it be Antonius, a less rational and, if I dare say it, a less reliable man than Imperator Caesar? Antonius called you a pirate, wouldn’t listen to Lucius Libo when you made the overtures. Whereas now it is Imperator Caesar making the overtures. Doesn’t that shout his sincerity, his regard for you, his wish to help you? You’ll hear no aspersions about pirates from Caesar Imperator’s lips! Cast your vote for him! Antonius is not interested, and that’s unarguable. If there are sides to choose, then choose the right one.’
‘All right,’ Sextus said, sounding angry. ‘I’ll cast my vote for Octavianus. But I require concrete guarantees that he’ll work for me in the Senate and Assemblies.’
‘Imperator Caesar will do that. What evidence of his good faith will satisfy you?’
‘How would he feel about marrying into my family?’
‘He has no wife, I understand?’
‘None. Neither of his marriages was consummated. He felt that the daughters of strumpets might become strumpets themselves.’
‘I hope he can get it up for this one. My father-in-law, Lucius Libo, has a sister, a widow of the utmost respectability. You can take her on approval.’
The pop-eyes widened even more, as if the news of this lady came as a thrilling surprise. ‘Sextus Pompeius, Imperator Caesar will be honored! I know something of her … eminently suitable.’
‘If the marriage goes through, I’ll let the African grain fleets go through. And I’ll sell all comers from Octavianus to the smallest dealer my wheat at thirteen sesterces the modius.’
‘An unlucky number.’
Sextus grinned. ‘For Octavianus, maybe, but not for me.’
‘You never can tell,’ said Maecenas softly.
When Octavian set eyes on Scribonia he was secretly pleased, though the few people present at their wedding would never have guessed it from his unsmiling demeanor and the careful eyes that never gave away his feelings. Yes, he was pleased. Scribonia didn’t look thirty-three, she looked his own age, twenty-three next birthday. Her hair and eyes were dark brown, her smooth skin clear and milky, her face pretty, her figure excellent. She had not worn the flame and saffron of a virgin bride, but chosen pink in gauzy layers over a cerise petticoat. The scant words they exchanged at the ceremony revealed that she wasn’t shy, but was not a chatterbox either, and further conversation afterward told him that she was literate, well read, and spoke much better Greek than he did. Perhaps the only quality that gave him qualms was her sense of the ridiculous. Not owning a well-developed sense of humor himself, Octavian feared those who did, especially if they were women – how could he be sure they weren’t laughing at him? Still, Scribonia was hardly likely to find a husband so far above her station as the son of a god humorously or peculiarly funny.
‘I’m sorry to part you from your father,’ he said.
Her eyes danced. ‘I’m not, Caesar. He’s an old nuisance.’
‘Really?’ he asked, startled. ‘I’ve always believed that parting from her father is a blow for a female.’
‘That particular blow has fallen twice before you, Caesar, and each time it falls, it hurts less. At this stage, it’s more a pat than a slap. Besides, I never imagined that my third husband would be a beautiful young man like you.’ She giggled. ‘The best I was hoping for was a spry eighty-year-old.’
‘Oh!’ was all he could manage, floundering.
‘I heard that your brother-in-law Gaius Marcellus Minor has died,’ she said, taking pity on his confusion. ‘When should I go to pay my condolences to your sister?’
‘Yes, Octavia was sorry not to be able to come to my wedding, but she’s overcome with grief, quite why I don’t know. I think emotional excesses are a trifle unseemly.’
‘Oh, not unseemly,’ she said gently, discovering more about him by the moment, and a part of her dismayed at what she learned. Somehow she had envisioned Caesar as in the mold of a Sextus Pompeius – brash, conceited, callow, very male, somewhat smelly. Instead she had found the composure of a venerable consular laid atop a beauty that she suspected would come to haunt her. His luminous, silvery eyes honed his looks to spectacular, but they hadn’t gazed on her with any desire. This was his third marriage too, and if his behavior in sending his two previous wives back to their mothers untouched was anything to go by, these political brides were accepted from necessity, then placed in storage to be returned in the same condition as they came in. Her father had told her that he and Sextus Pompey had a bet going: Sextus had laid long odds that Octavian wouldn’t go through with it, whereas Libo believed that Octavian would go through with it for the sake of the people of Italia. So if the marriage was consummated and issue resulted to prove that, Libo stood to win a huge sum. News of the bet had made her rock with laughter, but she knew enough of Octavian already to know that she didn’t dare tell him about it. Odd, that. His uncle Divus Julius would have shared her mirth, from what she knew about him. Yet in the nephew, not a spark.
‘You may see Octavia at any time,’ he was saying to her, ‘but be prepared for tears and children.’
That was all the conversation they managed to hold together before her new serving maids put her into his bed.
The house was very large and made of gloriously colored marbles, but its new owner hadn’t bothered furnishing it properly or hanging any paintings on the walls in places clearly designed for that purpose. The bed was very small for such a huge sleeping room. She had no idea that Hortensius had abhorred the tiny cubicles Romans slept in, so caused his own sleeping room to be the size of another man’s study.
‘Tomorrow your servants will install you in your own suite of rooms,’ he said, getting into the bed in pitch darkness; he had snuffed out the candle in the doorway.
That became the first evidence of his innate modesty, which she would find difficult to overcome. Having shared the marriage bed with two other men, she expected urgent fumbling, pokes and pinches, an assault that she assumed was structured to arouse her to the same degree of want, though it never had.
But that was not Caesar’s way (she must, must, must remember to call him Caesar!). The bed was too narrow not to feel his naked length alongside hers, yet he made no attempt to touch her otherwise. Suddenly he climbed on top of her, used his knees to push her legs apart, and inserted his penis into a sadly juiceless receptacle, so unprepared was she. However, it didn’t seem to put him off; he worked diligently to a silent climax, removed himself from her and the bed with a muttered word that he must wash, and left the room. When he didn’t come back she lay there bewildered, then called for a servant and a light.
He was in his study, seated behind a battered old desk loaded with scrolls, loose sheets of paper under his right hand, which held a simple, unadorned reed pen. Her father Libo’s pen was sheathed in gold, had a pearl on top. But Octavian – Caesar – clearly cared nothing for those kinds of appearances.
‘Husband, are you well?’ she asked.
He had looked up at the advent of another light; now he gave her the loveliest smile she had ever seen. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Did I displease you?’ she asked.
‘Not at all. You were very nice.’
‘Do you do this often?’
‘Um – ah – work rather than sleep?’
‘All the time. I like the peace and quiet.’
‘And I’ve disturbed you. I’m sorry. I won’t again.’
He put his head down absently. ‘Goodnight, Scribonia.’
Only hours later did he lift his head again, remember that little encounter. And thought with a sense of enormous relief that he liked his new wife. She understood the boundaries and, if he could quicken her, the pact with Sextus Pompey would hold.
Octavia was not at all what she had expected, Scribonia discovered when she went to pay that condolence call. To her surprise, she found her new sister-in-law tearless and cheerful. It must have shown in her eyes, for Octavia laughed, pressed her into a comfort able chair.
‘Little Gaius told you I was prostrate with grief.’
‘Caesar. I can’t get out of the habit of calling him Little Gaius because that’s how I see him – as a dear little boy toddling around behind me making a thorough nuisance of himself.’
‘You love him very much.’
‘To distraction. But these days he’s so grand and terribly important that big sisters and their “Little Gaiuses” do not sit well. However, you appear to be a woman of good sense, so I trust you not to tell him what I say about him.’
‘Dumb and blind. Also deaf.’
‘The pity of it is that he never had a proper childhood. The asthma plagued him so dreadfully that he couldn’t mix with other boys or do his military exercises on the Campus Martius.’
Scribonia looked blank. ‘Asthma? What is that?’
‘He wheezes until he goes black in the face. Sometimes he nearly dies of it. Oh, it’s awful to watch!’ Octavia’s eyes looked at an old, familiar horror. ‘It’s worst when there’s dust in the air, or around horses from the chaff. That’s why Marcus Antonius was able to say that Little Gaius hid in the marshes at Philippi and contributed nothing to the victory. The truth is that there was a shocking drought. The battlefield was a thick fog of dust and dead grass – certain death. The only place where Little Gaius could find relief was in the marshland between the plain and the sea. It is a worse grief to him that he appeared to be avoiding combat than the loss of Marcellus is to me. I do not say that lightly, believe me.’
‘But people would understand if only they knew!’ Scribonia cried. ‘I too heard that canard, and I simply assumed it was true. Couldn’t Caesar have published a pamphlet or something?’
‘His pride wouldn’t let him. Nor would it have been prudent. People don’t want senior magistrates who are likely to die early. Besides, Antonius got in first.’ Octavia looked miserable. ‘He isn’t a bad man, but he’s so healthy himself that he has no patience with those who are sickly or delicate. To Antonius, the asthma is an act, a pretext to excuse cowardice. We’re all cousins, but we’re all very different, and Little Gaius is the most different. He’s desperately driven. The asthma is a symptom of it, so the Egyptian physician who ministered to Divus Julius said.’
Scribonia shivered. ‘What do I do if he can’t breathe?’
‘You’ll probably never see it,’ said Octavia, having no trouble seeing that her new sister-in-law was falling in love with Little Gaius. Not a thing she could avert, but understandably a thing that was bound to lead to bitter sorrow. Scribonia was a lovely woman, but not capable of fascinating either Little Gaius or Imperator Caesar. ‘In Rome his breathing is usually normal unless there’s drought. This year has been halcyon. I don’t worry about him while he’s here, nor should you. He knows what to do if he has an attack, and there’s always Agrippa.’
‘The stern young man who stood with him at our wedding.’
‘Yes. They’re not like twins,’ Octavia said with the air of one who has puzzled a conundrum through to its solution. ‘No rivalry exists between them. It’s more as if Agrippa fits into the voids in Little Gaius. Sometimes when the children are being particularly naughty, I wish I could split myself into two of me. Well, Little Gaius has succeeded in doing that. He has Marcus Agrippa, his other half.’
By the time that Scribonia left Octavia’s house, she had met the children, a tribe whom Octavia treated as if all of them were born of her own womb, and learned that next time she came, Atia would be there. Atia, her mother-in-law. She also dug deeper into the secrets of this extraordinary family. How could Caesar pretend that his mother was dead? How great were his pride and hauteur, that he couldn’t excuse the understandable lapse of an otherwise unimpeachable woman? According to Octavia, the mother of Imperator Caesar Divi Filius could have absolutely no failings. His attitude spoke volumes about what he expected from a wife. Poor Servilia Vatia and Clodia, virgins both, but hampered by having morally unsatisfactory mothers. As he did himself, and better Atia was dead than living proof of it.
Yet, walking home between two gigantic and fierce German guards, his face filled her thoughts. Could she make him love her? Oh, pray she could make him love her! Tomorrow, she resolved, I will offer to Juno Sospita for a pregnancy, and to Venus Erucina that I please him in bed, and to the Bona Dea for uterine harmony, and to Vediovis just in case disappointment is lurking. And to Spes, who is Hope.
Octavian was in Rome when the news came from Brundisium that Marcus Antonius, accompanied by two legions, had attempted to enter its harbor, but been rebuffed. The chain had been cranked up, the bastions manned. Brundisium didn’t care what status the monster Antonius enjoyed, the letter said, nor did it care if the Senate ordered it to admit him. Let him enter Italia anywhere he liked: just not through Brundisium. Since the only other port within the area able to land two legions was Tarentum, on the far side of the heel, a foiled and furious Antonius had had to land his men in much smaller ports around Brundisium, thus scattering them.
‘He should have gone to Ancona,’ Octavian said to Agrippa. ‘He’d have been able to link up with Pollio and Ventidius there, and by now would be marching on Rome.’
‘Were he sure of Pollio, he would have,’ Agrippa replied, ‘but he isn’t sure of him.’
‘Then you believe Plancus’s letter tattling of doubts and discontent?’ Octavian waved a single sheet of paper.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘So do I,’ Octavian said, grinning. ‘Plancus is in a cleft stick – he’d prefer Antonius, but he wants to keep an avenue open to me in case the time comes to hop the fence to our side of it.’
‘You have too many legions around Brundisium for Antonius to band his men together again until Pollio arrives, which my scouts say won’t happen for at least a nundinum.’
‘Time enough for us to reach Brundisium, Agrippa. Are our legions placed across the Via Minucia?’
‘Perfectly placed. If Pollio wants to avoid a fight, he’ll have to march to Beneventum and the Via Appia.’
Octavian put his pen in its holder and gathered his papers together in neat piles that comprised correspondence with bodies and persons, drafts of laws, and detailed maps of Italia. He rose. ‘Then it’s off to Brundisium,’ he said. ‘I hope Maecenas and my Nerva are ready? What about the neutral one?’
‘If you didn’t bury yourself under a landslide of papers, Caesar, you’d know,’ Agrippa said in a tone only he dared use to Octavian. ‘They’ve been ready for days. And Maecenas has sweet-talked the neutral Nerva into coming along.’
‘Why is he so important, Caesar?’
‘Well, when one brother elected Antonius and the other me, his neutrality was the only way the Cocceius Nerva faction could continue to exist should Antonius and I come to blows. Antonius’s Nerva died in Syria, which left a vacancy on his side. A vacancy that saw Lucius Nerva in a lather of sweat – did he dare choose to fill it? In the end, he said no, though he would not choose me either.’ Octavian smirked. ‘With his wife wielding the lash, he’s tied to Rome, therefore – neutrality.’
‘I know all that, but it begs the question.’
‘You’ll have an answer if my scheme succeeds.’
What had jerked Mark Antony off his comfortable Athenian couch was a letter from Octavian.
‘My very dear Antonius,’ it said, ‘it grieves me sorely to have to pass on the news I have just received from Further Spain. Your brother Lucius died in Corduba not very long into his tenure as governor. From all the many reports I have read of the matter, he simply dropped dead. No lingering, no pain. The physicians say it was a catastrophe originating in the brain, which autopsy revealed was full of blood around its stem. He was cremated in Corduba, and the ashes were sent to me along with documentation sufficient to satisfy me on all counts. I hold his ashes and the reports against your coming. Please accept my sincere condolences.’ It was sealed with Divus Julius’s sphinx ring.
Of course Antony didn’t believe a word of it beyond the fact that Lucius was dead; within a day he was hurrying to Patrae and orders had gone to western Macedonia to embark two legions from Apollonia immediately. The other eight were put on stand-by for shipment to Brundisium as soon as he summoned them.
Intolerable that Octavian should have the news first! And why had no word come to him ahead of that letter? Antony read the missive as a challenge thrown down: your brother’s ashes are in Rome – come and get them if you dare! Did he dare? By Jupiter Optimus Maximus and all the gods, he dared!
An informative letter from Plancus to Octavian sped off from Patrae, where the enraged Antony was obliged to wait until his two legions were confirmed as sailed. It went (had Antony only known of its contents, it would not have) together with Antony’s curt order to Pollio to get his legions moving down the Via Adriatica; at the moment they were in Fanum Fortunae, where Pollio could move on Rome along the Via Flaminia, or hug the Adriatic coast to Brundisium. A quailing Plancus begged a place on Antony’s ship, judging his chances of slipping through the lines to Octavian easier on Italian soil. By now he was desperately wishing that he hadn’t sent that letter – could he be sure Octavian wouldn’t leak its contents back to Antony?
His guilt made Plancus an edgy, anxious companion on the voyage, so when, in mid-Adriatic, the fleet of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus hove in sight, Plancus soiled his loincloth and almost fainted.
‘Oh, Antonius, we’re dead men!’ he wailed.
‘At the hands of Ahenobarbus? Never!’ said Antony, nostrils flaring. ‘Plancus, I do believe you shit yourself!’
Plancus fled, leaving Antony to wait for the arrival of a rowboat heading for his ship. His own standard still fluttered from the mast, but Ahenobarbus had lowered his.
Squat, dark and bald, Ahenobarbus clambered neatly up a rope ladder and advanced on Antony, grinning from ear to ear. ‘At last!’ the irascible one cried, hugging Antony. ‘You’re moving on that odious little insect, Octavianus, aren’t you? Please say you are!’
‘I am’ was Antony’s answer. ‘May he choke on his own shit! Plancus just shit himself at sight of you, and I would have put his courage higher than Octavianus’s. Do you know what Octavianus did, Ahenobarbus? He murdered Lucius in Further Spain, then had the gall to write and inform me that he’s the proud owner of Lucius’s ashes! He dares me to collect them! Is he mad?’
‘I’m your man through thick and thin,’ Ahenobarbus said huskily. ‘My fleet is yours.’
‘Good,’ said Antony, extricating himself from a very strong embrace. ‘I may need a big warship with a solid bronze beak to break Brundisium’s harbor chain.’
But not a sixteener with a twenty-talent bronze beak could have broken the chain strung across the harbor mouth; anyway, Ahenobarbus didn’t have a ship half as large as a sixteener. The chain was anchored between two concrete piers reinforced with iron pieces, and each of its bronze links was fashioned from metal six inches thick. Neither Antony nor Ahenobarbus had ever seen a more monstrous barrier, nor a population so jubilant at the sight of their frustrated attempts to snap that barrier. While the women and children cheered and jeered, the men of Brundisium subjected Ahenobarbus’s battle quinquereme to a murderous hail of spears and arrows that finally drove it offshore.
‘I can’t do it!’ Ahenobarbus yelled, weeping in rage. ‘Oh, but when I do, they’re going to suffer! And where did it come from? The old chain was a tenth this one’s size!’
‘That Apulian peasant Agrippa installed this one,’ Plancus was able to say, sure he no longer smelled of shit. ‘When I left to seek refuge with you, Antonius, the Brundisians were quick to explain its genesis. Agrippa has fortified this place better than Ilium was, including on its land sides.’
‘They won’t die quickly,’ Antony snarled. ‘I’ll impale the town magistrates on stakes up their arses and drive them in at the rate of an inch a day.’
‘Ow, ow!’ said Plancus, flinching at the thought. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Wait for my troops and land them wherever we can to north and south,’ said Antony. ‘Once Pollio arrives – he’s taking his sweet time! – we’ll squash this benighted place from its land side, Agrippa’s fortifications or no. After a siege, I suppose. They know I won’t be kind to them – they’ll resist to the end.’
So Antony withdrew to the island off Brundisium’s harbor mouth, there to wait for Pollio and try to discover what had become of Ventidius, curiously silent.
Sextilis had ended and the Nones of September were gone, though the weather was still hot enough to make island living an ordeal. Antony paced; Plancus watched him pace. Antony growled; Plancus pondered. Antony’s thoughts never left the subject of Lucius Antonius; Plancus’s ranged far and wide on one subject too, but a more fascinating one – Marcus Antonius. For Plancus was seeing new facets in Antony, and didn’t like what he saw. Wonderful, glorious Fulvia wove in and out of his mind – so brave and fierce, so … so interesting. How could Antony have beaten a woman, let alone his wife? The granddaughter of Gaius Gracchus!
He’s like a small child with its mother, Plancus thought, brushing at tears. He should be in the East fighting the Parthians – that’s his duty. Instead, he’s here on Italian soil, as if he hasn’t the courage to abandon it. Is it Octavianus who eats at him, or is it insecurity? At his core, does Antonius believe he can win future laurels? Oh, he’s brave, but generaling armies doesn’t demand bravery. It’s more an intellectual exercise, an art, a talent. Divus Julius was a genius at it, Antonius is Divus Julius’s cousin. But, to Antonius, I suspect that fact is more a burden than a delight. He’s so terrified of failing that, like Pompeius Magnus, he won’t move unless he has superior numbers. Which he has here in Italia, between Pollio, Ventidius and his own legions just across a small sea. Sufficient to crush Octavianus, even now Octavianus has Calenus’s eleven from Further Gaul. I gather that they’re still in Further Gaul under the command of Salvidienus, writing to Antonius regularly in an attempt to switch sides. One little item I didn’t tell Octavianus.
What Antonius fears in Octavianus is that genius Divus Julius had in such abundance. Oh, not as a general of armies! As a man of infinite courage, the kind of courage Antonius is beginning to lose. Yes, his fear of failure grows, whereas Octavianus starts to dare all, to gamble on unpredictable outcomes. Antonius is at a disadvantage when dealing with Octavianus, but even more so when dealing with foes as foreign as the Parthians. Will he ever wage that particular war? He rants about lack of money, but is that lack really the sum total of his reluctance to fight the war he should be fighting? If he doesn’t fight it, he’ll lose the confidence of Rome and Romans; he knows that too. So Octavianus is his excuse for lingering in the West. If he drives Octavianus out of the arena, he’ll have so many legions that he could defeat a quarter of a million men. Yet, with sixty thousand men, Divus Julius defeated over three hundred thousand. Because he went about it with genius. Antonius wants to be master of the world and the First Man in Rome, but can’t work out how to go about it.
Pace, pace, pace, up and down, up and down. He’s insecure. Decisions loom, and he’s insecure. Nor can he embark upon one of his famous fits of ‘inimitable living’ – what a joke, to call his cronies in Alexandria the ‘Society of Inimitable Livers’! Now here he is, in a situation where he can’t binge his way to forgetfulness. Haven’t his colleagues realized, as I have, that Antonius debauched is simply demonstrating his innate weakness?
Yes, concluded Plancus, it is time to change sides. But can I do that at the moment? I doubt it, in the same way as I doubt Antonius. Like him, I’m short on steel.
* * *
Octavian knew all this with more conviction than Plancus, yet he couldn’t be sure which way the dice would fall now Antony had arrived outside Brundisium; he had staked everything on the legionaries. Then their representatives came to tell him they would not fight Antony’s troops, be they his own, or Pollio’s, or Ventidius’s. An announcement that saw Octavian limp with relief. It only remained to see if Antony’s troops would fight for him.
Two nundinae later, he had his answer. The soldiers under the command of Pollio and Ventidius had refused to fight their brothers at arms.
He sat down to write Antony a letter.
My dear Antonius, we are at an impasse. My legionaries refuse to fight yours, and yours refuse to fight mine. They belong to Rome, they say, not to any one man, even a Triumvir. The days of massive bonuses, they say, are past. I agree with them. Since Philippi I have known that we can no longer sort out our differences by going to war against each other. Imperium maius we may have but, in order to enforce that, we must have command of willing soldiers. We do not.
I therefore propose, Marcus Antonius, that each of us chooses a single man as his representative to try to find a solution to this impasse. As a neutral participant whom both of us deem fair and impartial, may I nominate Lucius Cocceius Nerva? You are at liberty to dispute my choice and nominate a different man. My delegate will be Gaius Maecenas. Neither you nor I should be present at this meeting. To attend it would mean ruffled tempers.
‘The cunning rat!’ cried Antony, screwing up the letter.
Plancus picked it up, smoothed it out and read it. ‘Marcus, it’s the logical solution to your predicament,’ he faltered. ‘Consider for a moment, please, where you are and what you face. What Octavianus suggests may prove a salve to heal injured feelings on both sides. Truly, it is your best alternative.’
A verdict echoed by Gnaeus Asinius Pollio several hours later when he arrived by pinnace from Barium.
‘My men won’t fight, nor will yours,’ he said flatly. ‘I for one can’t change their minds, nor will yours change theirs; and from all reports Octavianus is in like straits. The legions have decided for us, so it’s up to us to find an honorable way out. I have told my men that I will arrange a truce. Ventidius has done the same. Give in, Marcus, give in! It’s not a defeat.’
‘Anything that enables Octavianus to wriggle out of the jaws of death is a defeat,’ Antony said stubbornly.
‘Nonsense! His troops are as disaffected as ours.’
‘He’s not even game to confront me! It’s all to be done by agents like Maecenas – ruffled tempers? I’ll give him ruffled tempers! And I don’t care what he says, I’m going to his little meeting to represent myself!’
‘He won’t be present, Antonius,’ Pollio said, eyes fixed on Plancus, rolling his eyes skyward. ‘I have a far better scheme. Agree to it, and I’ll go as your representative.’
‘You?’ Antony asked incredulously. ‘You?’
‘Yes, I! Antonius, I’ve been consul for eight-and-a-half months, yet I haven’t been able to go to Rome to don my consular regalia,’ Pollio said, exasperated. ‘As consul, I outrank Gaius Maecenas and a paltry Nerva combined! Do you really think I’d let a weasel like Maecenas dupe me? Do you?’
‘I suppose not,’ Antony said, beginning to yield. ‘All right, I’ll agree to it. With some conditions.’
‘That I am free to enter Italia through Brundisium, and that you be permitted to go to Rome to assume your consulship without any impediments put in your way. That I retain my right to recruit troops in Italia. And that the exiles be allowed to go home immediately.’
‘I don’t think any of those conditions will be a problem,’ said Pollio. ‘Sit down and write, Antonius.’
Odd, thought Pollio as he rode down the Via Minucia toward Brundisium, that I always manage to be where the great decisions are made. I was with Caesar – Divus Julius, indeed! – when he crossed the Rubicon, and on that river isle in Italian Gaul when Antonius, Octavianus and Lepidus agreed to divide up the world. Now I’ll be presiding over the next momentous occasion – Maecenas is not a fool, he won’t object to my assuming the chair. What extraordinary luck for a writer of modern history!
Though his family had not been prominent until his advent, Pollio owned an intellect formidable enough to have made him one of Caesar’s favorites. A good soldier and a better commander, he had advanced with Caesar after Caesar became Dictator, and never had had any doubt where his loyalties lay until after Caesar was murdered. Too pragmatic and unromantic to side with Caesar’s heir, he had only one man left to whom to hew – Marcus Antonius. Like many of his peers, he found the eighteen-year-old Gaius Octavius farcical, couldn’t begin to fathom what a peerless man like Caesar could see in such a pretty boy. He believed too that Caesar hadn’t expected to die so soon – he was as tough as an old army boot – and that Octavius had been a temporary heir, just a ploy to exclude Antony until he could judge whether Antony would settle down. Also to see what time would make of the mama’s boy who now denied his mama’s existence. Then Fate and Fortuna had exacted the ultimate penalty from Caesar, allowed a group of embittered, jealous, short-sighted men to murder him. How Pollio rued that, despite his ability to chronicle contemporary events with detachment and impartiality. The trouble was that at the time Pollio had no idea what Caesar Octavianus would make of his unexpected rise to prominence. How could any man foresee the steel and gall inside an inexperienced youth? Caesar, he had long realized, was the only one who had seen what Gaius Octavius was made of. But, even when Pollio had come to understand what lay within Octavian, it was already too late for a man of honor to follow him. Antonius was not the better man, he was simply the alternative pride permitted. Despite his failings – and they were many – at least Antony was a man.
As little as he knew Octavian did Pollio know his principal ambassador, Gaius Maecenas. In all physical respects Pollio was a medium man: height, size, coloring, facial appeal. Like most such, particularly when high intelligence was a part of the package, he mistrusted those who were definitely not medium men in any respect. Had Octavianus not been so vain (boots with three-inch soles, for pity’s sake!) and pretty, he would have fared better in Pollio’s estimation right after Caesar’s assassination. And so it was with Maecenas, plump and plain of face, pop-eyed, rich and spoiled. Maecenas simpered, steepled his fingers, pursed up his lips, looked amused when there was nothing to be amused about. A poseur. Detestable or annoying characteristics. Yet he had volunteered to treat with this poseur because he knew that once Antony simmered down, he would choose Quintus Dellius as his delegate. That could not be allowed to happen; Dellius was too venal and hungry for such delicate negotiations. It was possible that Maecenas was equally venal and hungry but, as far as Pollio could see, Octavianus hadn’t made many mistakes when he selected his inner circle. Salvidienus was a mistake, but his days were numbered. Greed always antagonized Antony, who would feel no compunction at striking him down as soon as his usefulness was at an end. But Maecenas had made no overtures, and he did own one quality Pollio admired: he loved literature and was the enthusiastic patron of several promising poets, including Horace and Virgil, the best versifiers since Catullus. Only that inspired any hope in Pollio that a conclusion satisfying both parties could be reached. But how was he, a plain soldier, going to survive the kind of food and drink a connoisseur like Maecenas was bound to provide?
‘I hope you don’t mind ordinary food and well-watered wine?’ Maecenas asked Pollio the moment he arrived at the surprisingly modest house on Brundisium’s outskirts.
‘Thank you, I prefer it,’ Pollio said.
‘No, thank you, Pollio. May I say before we get down to our real business that I enjoy your prose? I don’t tell you that in a spirit of sycophancy, because I doubt you’re susceptible to the fine art of sucking up; I tell you because it’s the truth.’
Embarrassed, Pollio passed the compliment off tactfully but lightly by turning to greet the third member of the team, Lucius Cocceius Nerva. Neutral? How could such a neutral man be anything else? No wonder his wife ruled him.
Over a dinner of eggs, salads, chicken and crunchy fresh bread, Pollio found himself liking Maecenas, who seemed to have read everybody from Homer to Latin luminaries like Caesar and Fabius Pictor. If there was one thing lacking in any army camp, he reflected, it was an in-depth conversation about literature.
‘Of course Virgil is Hellenistic in style, but then, so was Catullus – oh, what a poet!’ said Maecenas with a sigh. ‘I have a theory, you know.’
‘That the most lyrical exponents of poetry or prose all have some Gallic blood. Either they come from Italian Gaul or their ancestors did. The Celtae are a lyrical people. Musical too.’
‘I agree,’ said Pollio, relieved to find no sweeties on the menu. ‘Leaving aside “Iter” – a remarkable poem! – Caesar is typically unpoetical. Exquisite Latin, yet bald and spare. Aulus Hirtius had been with him long enough to do a fair imitation of his style in the commentaries Caesar didn’t live to write, but they lack the master’s deftness. However, Hirtius does give some things away that Caesar never would have. Like what drove Titus Labienus to defect to Pompeius Magnus after the Rubicon.’
‘Never a boring writer, though.’ Maecenas giggled. ‘Ye gods, what a bore Cato the Censor is! Like being forced to listen to the maiden speech of a political hopeful mounting the rostra.’
They laughed together, at ease with each other, while Nerva the Neuter, as Maecenas had named him, dozed gently.
On the morrow they got down to business, in a rather bleak room furnished with a large table, two wooden chairs with backs but no arms, and an ivory curule chair. Seeing it, Pollio blinked.
‘It’s yours,’ said Maecenas, taking a wooden chair and directing Nerva to the other, which faced it. ‘I know you haven’t assumed it yet, but your rank as junior consul of the year demands that you chair our meetings, and you should sit on ivory.’
A nice and very diplomatic touch, thought Pollio, seating himself at the head of the table.
‘If you want a secretary present to take the minutes, I have a man,’ Maecenas went on.
‘No, no, we’ll do this alone,’ Pollio said. ‘Nerva will act as secretary and take the minutes. Can you do shorthand, Nerva?’
‘Thanks to Cicero, yes.’ Looking pleased at having something to do, Nerva put a stack of blank Fannian paper under his right hand, chose a pen from among a dozen, and discovered that someone had thoughtfully dissolved a cake of ink.
‘I’ll start by summarizing the situation,’ Pollio said crisply. ‘Number one, Marcus Antonius is not satisfied that Caesar Octavianus is fulfilling his duties as a Triumvir. A, he has not ensured that the people of Italia are well-fed. B, he has not suppressed the piratical activities of Sextus Pompeius. C, he has not settled enough retired veterans on their portions of land. D, Italia’s merchants are suffering through hard times for business. E, Italian landowners are angry at the draconian measures he has adopted to separate them from their land in order to settle the veterans. F, more than a dozen towns throughout Italia have been illegally stripped of their public lands, again in order to settle veterans. G, he has raised taxes to an intolerable height. And H, he is filling the Senate with his own minions.
‘Number two, Marcus Antonius is not satisfied at the way Caesar Octavianus has usurped the governance and legions of one of his provinces, Further Gaul. Both governance and legions are at the command of Marcus Antonius, who should have been notified of the death of Quintus Fufius Calenus and allowed to appoint the new governor, as well as dispose of Calenus’s eleven legions as he sees fit.
‘Number three, Marcus Antonius is not satisfied at the waging of a civil war inside Italia. Why, he asks, did not Caesar Octavianus solve his difference of opinion with the late Lucius Antonius in a peaceful way?
‘Number four, Marcus Antonius is not satisfied at being refused entry to Italia through Brundisium, its major Adriatic port, and doubts that Brundisium defied Italia’s resident Triumvir, Caesar Octavianus. Marcus Antonius believes that Caesar Octavianus issued orders to Brundisium to exclude his colleague, who is not only entitled to enter Italia, but also entitled to bring legions with him. How does Caesar Octavianus know that these legions have been imported for the purposes of war? They might as easily be going to retirement.
‘Number five, Marcus Antonius is not satisfied that Caesar Octavianus is willing to allow him to recruit new troops inside Italia and Italian Gaul, as he is lawfully entitled to do.
‘That is all,’ Pollio concluded, having said every word of that without reference to notes.
Maecenas had listened impassively while Nerva scribbled away – to some effect, apparently, since Nerva didn’t ask Pollio to repeat any of what he had said.
‘Caesar Octavianus has faced untold difficulties in Italia,’ Maecenas said in a quiet, pleasant voice. ‘You will forgive me if I do not tabulate and enumerate in your own succinct style, Gnaeus Pollio. I am not governed by such merciless logic – my style inclines toward storytelling.
‘When Caesar Octavianus became the Triumvir of Italia, the Islands and the Spains, he found the Treasury empty. He had to confiscate or buy sufficient land upon which to settle over one hundred thousand retired veteran soldiers. Two million iugera! So he confiscated the public lands of the eighteen municipia that had supported Divus Julius’s killers – a fair and just decision. And whenever he acquired any money, he bought land from the proprietors of latifundia, on the premise that these individuals were behaving exploitatively by grazing vast areas once under the plough for wheat. No grower of grain was approached, for Caesar Octavianus planned to see a great increase in locally grown grain once these latifundia were split up as allotments for veterans.
‘The relentless depradations of Sextus Pompeius had deprived Italia of wheat grown in Africa, Sicilia and Sardinia. The Senate and People of Rome had grown lazy about the grain supply, assuming that Italia could always be fed on grain grown overseas. Whereas Sextus Pompeius has proved that a country relying on the importation of wheat is vulnerable, can be held to ransom. Caesar Octavianus doesn’t have the money or the ships to drive Sextus Pompeius off the high seas, nor to invade Sicilia, his base. For that reason he concluded a pact with Sextus Pompeius, even going as far as marrying Libo’s sister. If he has taxed, it is because he has no alternative. This year’s wheat is costing thirty sesterces the modius from Sextus Pompeius – wheat already bought and paid for by Rome! From somewhere, Caesar Octavianus has to find forty million sesterces every month – imagine it! Nearly five hundred million sesterces a year! Paid to Sextus Pompeius, a common pirate!’ cried Maecenas so earnestly that his face reflected a rare passion.
‘Over eighteen thousand talents,’ said Pollio thoughtfully. ‘And of course the next thing you’re going to say is that the silver mines of the Spains were just beginning to produce when King Bocchus invaded, so now they’re closed again and the Treasury beggared.’
‘Precisely,’ said Maecenas.
‘Taking that as read, what happens next in your story?’
‘Rome has been dividing up land on which to settle first the poor and then the veterans since the time of Tiberius Gracchus—’
‘I’ve always thought,’ Pollio interrupted, ‘that the worst sin of omission the Senate and People committed was to refuse to give Rome’s retiring veterans a pension over and above what’s banked for them out of their pay. When consulars like Catulus and Scaurus denied Gaius Marius’s propertyless Head Count soldiers a pension, Marius rewarded them with land in his name. That was sixty years ago, and ever since the veterans have looked to their commanders for reward, not to Rome herself. A terrible mistake. It gave the generals power they should never have been allowed to have.’
Maecenas smiled. ‘You’re telling my story for me, Pollio.’
‘I beg your pardon, Maecenas. Continue, please.’
‘Caesar Octavianus cannot free Italia from Sextus without help. He has begged that help from Marcus Antonius many times, but Marcus Antonius is either deaf or illiterate, for he doesn’t answer those letters. Then came internal war, a war that was not provoked in any way by Caesar Octavianus! He believes that the true instigator of Lucius Antonius’s rebellion – for so it seemed to those of us in Rome – was a freedman named Manius, in the clientele of Fulvia. Manius convinced Fulvia that Caesar Octavianus was – er – stealing Marcus Antonius’s birthright. A very strange accusation that she believed. In turn, she persuaded Lucius Antonius to use the legions he was recruiting on Marcus Antonius’s behalf and march on Rome. I don’t think it’s necessary to say anymore on the subject, save to assure Marcus Antonius that his brother was not prosecuted, but allowed to assume his proconsular imperium and go to govern Further Spain.’
Fishing through a number of scrolls near him, Maecenas found one, and flourished it. ‘I have here the letter that Quintus Fufius Calenus’s son wrote, not to Marcus Antonius, as he should have, but to Caesar Octavianus.’ He handed it to Pollio, who read it with the ease of a highly literate man. ‘What Caesar Octavianus saw in it was alarming, for it betrayed Calenus Junior’s weakness and lack of decision. As a veteran of Further Gaul, Pollio, I’m sure I do not have to tell you how volatile the long-haired Gauls are, and how quick they are to scent an uncertain governor. For this reason and this reason alone, Caesar Octavianus acted swiftly. He had to act swiftly. Knowing that Marcus Antonius was a thousand miles farther away, he took it upon himself to travel immediately to Narbo, there to install a temporary governor, Quintus Salvidienus. Calenus’s eleven legions are exactly where they were – four in Narbo, four in Agedincum, and three in Glanum. What did Caesar Octavianus do wrong in acting thus? He acted as a friend, a fellow Triumvir, the man on the spot.’
Maecenas sighed, looked rueful. ‘I daresay that the most truthful charge that can be laid against Caesar Octavianus is that he found himself unable to control Brundisium, which was ordered to allow Marcus Antonius to come ashore together with as many legions as he cared to bring to their homeland, be it for a nice vacation or retirement. Brundisium defied the Senate and People of Rome, it is as simple as that. What Caesar Octavianus hopes is that he will be able to persuade Brundisium to cease its defiance. And that is all,’ Maecenas concluded, smiling sweetly.
At which point the arguments began, but not with passion or rancor. Both men knew the truth of every matter raised, but both men also knew that they had to be loyal to their masters, and had decided the best way to do the latter was to argue convincingly. Octavian for one would read Nerva’s minutes closely, and if Mark Antony did not, he would at least pump Nerva about the meeting.
Finally, just before the Nones of October, Pollio decided he had had enough.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘it’s clear to me that the way things were arranged after Philippi was slipshod and ineffective. Marcus Antonius was full of his own importance, and despised Octavianus for his conduct at Philippi.’ He rounded on Nerva, beginning to scribble. ‘Nerva, don’t you dare write down a word of this! It’s time to be frank, and as great men don’t like frankness, it’s best we don’t tell them. That means you can’t let Antonius bully you, hear me? Spill the beans about this, and you’re a dead man – I will kill you myself, understand?’
‘Yes!’ squeaked Nerva, dropping his pen in a hurry.
‘I adore it!’ said Maecenas, grinning. ‘Proceed, Pollio.’
‘The Triumvirate is ridiculous as it stands at the moment. How did Antonius ever think he could be in several places at once? For that’s what happened after Philippi. He wanted the lion’s share of everything, from provinces to legions. So what emerged? Octavianus inherits the grain supply and Sextus Pompeius, but no fleets to put Sextus down, let alone transport an army capable of taking Sicilia. If Octavianus was a military man, which he is not, nor ever claimed to be, he would have known that his freedman Helenus – obviously a persuasive fellow – couldn’t take Sardinia. Mostly because Octavianus doesn’t have enough troop transports. He’s shipless. The provinces were allocated in the most muddle-headed way imaginable. Octavianus gets Italia, Sicilia, Sardinia, Corsica, Further and Nearer Spain. Antonius gets the entire East, but that isn’t enough for him. So he takes all the Gauls as well as Illyricum. Why? Because the Gauls contain so many legions still under the Eagles and not wishful of retiring. I know Marcus Antonius very well, and he’s a good fellow, brave and generous. When he’s at the top of his form, no one is more capable or clever. But he’s also a glutton who can’t curb his appetite, no matter what it is he fancies devouring. The Parthians and Quintus Labienus are running amok all over Asia and a good part of Anatolia. But here we sit, outside Brundisium.’
Pollio stretched, then hunched his shoulders. ‘It’s our duty, Maecenas, to even things up and out. How do we do that? By drawing a line between West and East, and putting Octavianus on one side of it, and Antonius on the other. Lepidus can have Africa, that goes without saying. He’s got ten legions there, he’s safe and secure. You’ll get no arguments from me that Octavianus has by far the harder task because he has Italia: impoverished, worn out and hungry. Neither of our masters has any money. Rome is close to bankruptcy, and the East so exhausted it can’t pay any significant tributes. However, Antonius can’t have things all his way, and he has to be made to see that. I propose that Octavianus be given a better income by governing all the West – Further Spain, Nearer Spain, Further Gaul in all its parts, Italian Gaul, and Illyricum. The Drina River is a natural frontier between Macedonia and Illyricum, so it will become the border between West and East. It goes without saying that Antonius will be as free to recruit troops in Italia and Italian Gaul as Octavianus. Italian Gaul, incidentally, should become a part of Italia in all respects.’
‘Good man, Pollio!’ Maecenas exclaimed, smiling broadly. ‘I couldn’t begin to say it as well as you just have.’ He gave a mock shiver. ‘For one thing, I wouldn’t have dared be so hard on Antonius. Yes, my friend, very well said indeed! Now all we have to do is persuade Antonius to agree. I don’t foresee any arguments from Caesar Octavianus. He’s had a terrible time of it, and of course the journey from Rome brought on his asthma.’
Pollio looked amazed. ‘Asthma?’
‘Yes. He almost dies of it. That’s why he hid in the marshes at Philippi. So much dust and chaff in the air!’
‘I see,’ Pollio said slowly. ‘I see.’
‘It’s his secret, Pollio.’
‘Does Antonius know?’
‘Of course. They’re cousins, he’s always known.’
‘How does Octavianus feel about letting the exiles come home?’
‘He won’t object.’ Maecenas seemed to consider something, then spoke. ‘You ought to know that Octavianus will never go to war against Antonius, though I don’t know whether you can convince Antonius of that. No more civil wars. He’ll hew to it, Pollio. That’s really why we’re here. No matter what the provocation, he won’t go to war against a fellow Roman. His way is diplomacy, the conference table, negotiations.’
‘I didn’t realize he felt so strongly about it.’
‘He does, Pollio, he does.’
Persuading Antony to accept the terms Pollio had outlined to Maecenas took a full nundinum of ranting, punching holes in walls, tears and yells. Then he began to calm down; his rages were so devastating that even a man as strong as Antony couldn’t sustain that level of energy for more than a nundinum. From rage he plummeted to depression and finally to despair. The moment he landed at the bottom of his pit, Pollio struck; it was now or never. A Maecenas couldn’t have dealt with Antony, but a soldier like Pollio, a man Antony respected and loved, knew exactly what to do. He had, besides, the confidence of some stalwarts back in Rome who would, if necessary, reinforce his strictures.
‘All right, all right!’ Antony cried wretchedly, hands in his hair. ‘I’ll do it! You’re sure about the exiles?’
‘I insist on some items you haven’t mentioned.’
‘Mention them now.’
‘I want five of Calenus’s eleven legions shipped to me.’
‘I don’t think that will be a problem.’
‘And I won’t agree to combining my forces with Octavianus’s to sweep Sextus Pompeius from the seas.’
‘That’s not wise, Antonius.’
‘Ask me do I care? I don’t care!’ Antony said savagely. ‘I had to appoint Ahenobarbus governor of Bithynia, he was so furious at the terms you’ve drawn up, and that means I don’t have enough fleets to fall back on without Sextus’s. He stays in case I need him, that has to be made clear.’
‘Octavianus will agree, but he won’t be happy.’
‘Anything that makes Octavianus unhappy makes me happy!’
‘Why did you conceal Octavianus’s asthma?’
‘Pah!’ spat Antony. ‘He’s a girl! Only girls get sick, no matter what the sickness. His asthma is an excuse.’
‘Not conceding Sextus Pompeius may cost you.’
‘Cost me what?’
‘I don’t quite know,’ Pollio said, frowning. ‘It just will.’
Octavian’s response to the terms Maecenas brought him was very different. Interesting, thought Maecenas, how much his face has changed over this last twelve-month. He’s grown out of his prettiness, though he’ll never not be beautiful. The mass of hair is shorter, he doesn’t care about his prominent ears anymore. But the major change is in his eyes, quite the most wonderful I have ever seen, so large, luminous and silvery-grey. They have always been opaque, he has never betrayed what he’s thinking or feeling with them, but now there’s a certain stony hardness behind their brilliance. And the mouth I’ve longed to kiss, knowing I will never be permitted to kiss it, has firmed, straightened. I suppose that means he’s grown up. Grown up? He was never a boy! Nine days before the Kalends of October, he turned a whole twenty-three. While Marcus Antonius is now forty-four. Truly a marvel.
‘If Antonius refuses to aid me in my battle against Sextus Pompeius,’ said Octavian, ‘he must pay a price.’
‘But what? You don’t have the leverage to exact one.’
‘Yes, I do, and Sextus Pompeius gave me my lever.’
‘And that is?’
‘A marriage,’ Octavian said, face tranquil.
‘Octavia!’ Maecenas breathed. ‘Octavia …’
‘Yes, my sister. She’s a widow, there’s no impediment.’
‘Her ten months of mourning aren’t over.’
‘Six of them are, and all of Rome knows she can’t be pregnant: Marcellus suffered a long, agonizing death. It won’t be hard to get a dispensation from the pontifical colleges and the seventeen tribes the lots throw up to vote in the religious comitium.’ Octavian smiled complacently. ‘They’ll be falling all over each other to do anything that might avert a war between Antonius and me. In fact, I predict that no marriage in the annals of Rome will prove so popular.’
‘He won’t agree.’
‘Antonius? He’d copulate with a cow.’
‘Can’t you hear what you’re saying, Caesar? I know how much you love your sister, yet you’d inflict Antonius upon her? He’s a drunkard and a wife beater! I beg you, think again! Octavia is the loveliest, sweetest, nicest woman in Rome. Even the Head Count adore her, just as they did Divus Julius’s daughter.’
‘It sounds as if you want to marry her yourself, Maecenas,’ Octavian said slyly.
Maecenas bridled. ‘How can you joke about something as – as serious as this? I like women, but I also pity them. They lead such uneventful lives, their only political importance lies in marriage – about the most you can say for Roman justice is that the majority of them control their own money. Relegation to the periphery of public affairs may irk the Hortensias and the Fulvias, but it doesn’t irk Octavia. If it did, you wouldn’t be sitting here so smug and certain of her obedience. Isn’t it time she was let wed a man she truly wants to wed?’
‘I won’t force her to it, if that’s what you’re getting at,’ said Octavian, unmoved. ‘I’m not a fool, you know, and I’ve attended enough family dinners since Pharsalus to have realized that Octavia is more than half in love with Antonius. She’ll go to her fate willingly – gladly, even.’
‘I don’t believe it!’
‘It’s the truth. Far be it from me to understand what women see in men but, take my word for it, Octavia is keen on Antonius. That fact and my own union with Scribonia gave me the idea. Nor do I doubt Antonius when it comes to wine and wife beating. He may have attacked Fulvia, but the provocation must have been severe. Under all that bombast he’s sentimental about women. Octavia will suit him. Like the Head Count, he’ll adore her.’
‘There’s the Egyptian queen – he won’t be faithful.’
‘What man on duty abroad is? Octavia won’t hold infidelity against him: she’s too well brought up.’
Throwing his hands in the air, Maecenas departed to stew over the unenviable lot of a diplomat. Did Octavian really expect that he, Maecenas, would conduct these negotiations? Well, he would not! Cast a pearl like Octavia in front of a swine like Antonius? Never! Never, never, never!
Octavian had no intention of depriving himself of these particular negotiations; he was going to enjoy them. By now Antony would have forgotten things like that scene in his tent after Philippi, when Octavian had demanded Brutus’s head – and got it. Antony’s hatred had grown so great it obscured all individual events; it was enough in and of itself. Nor did Octavian expect that a marriage to Octavia would change that hatred. Maybe a poetical kind of fellow like Maecenas would assume such to be Octavian’s motive, but Octavian’s own mind was too sensible to hope for miracles. Once Octavia became Antony’s wife, she would do exactly as Antony wanted; the last thing she would do was to attempt to influence how Antony felt about her brother. No, what he hoped for in achieving this union was to strengthen the hopes of ordinary Romans – and the legionaries’ – that the threat of war had vanished. So when the day came that Antony, in the throes of some new passion for a new woman, rejected his wife, he would go down in the estimation of millions of Roman citizens everywhere. Since Octavian had vowed that he would never engage in civil war, he had to destroy not only Antony’s auctoritas – his official public standing – but also his dignitas, the public standing he possessed due to his personal actions and achievements. When Caesar the God crossed the Rubicon into civil war, he had done it to protect his dignitas, which he had held dearer than his life. To have his deeds stripped from the official histories and records of the Republic and be sent into permanent exile was worse than civil war. Well, Octavian wasn’t made of such stuff; to him, civil war was worse than disgrace and exile. Also, of course, he wasn’t a military genius sure to win. Octavian’s way was to corrode Mark Antony’s dignitas until it reached a nadir wherein he was no threat. From that point on, Octavian’s star would continue to rise until he, not Antony, was the First Man in Rome. It wouldn’t happen overnight; it would take many years. But they were years Octavian could afford to concede; he was twenty-one years younger than Antony. Oh, the prospect of years and years of struggling to feed Italia, find land for the never-ending flood of veterans!
He had Antony’s measure. Caesar the God would have been knocking on King Orodes’s palace door in Seleuceia-on-Tigris by now, but where was Antony? Laying siege to Brundisium, still in his own country. Prate though he might about being there to defend his entitlements as a Triumvir, he was actually there so he couldn’t be in Syria fighting the Parthians. Prate though he might about single-handedly winning Philippi, Antony knew he couldn’t have won without Octavian’s legions, composed of men whose loyalty he couldn’t command, for it belonged to Octavian.
I would give almost anything, Octavian thought after he had written his note to Antony and sent it off by a freedman courier, I would give almost anything to have Fortuna drop something in my lap that would send Antonius crashing down for good. Octavia isn’t it, nor probably would his rejection of her be it, did he decide to reject her once he tired of her goodness. I am aware that Fortuna smiles upon me – I have had so many close shaves that I am always beardless. And every time, it has been luck that yanked me back from the abyss. Like Libo’s hunger to find an illustrious husband for his sister. Like Calenus’s death in Narbo and his idiot son’s petitioning me instead of Antonius. Like the death of Marcellus. Like having Agrippa to general armies for me. Like my escapes from death each time the asthma has squeezed all the breath out of me. Like having my father Divus Julius’s war chest to keep me from bankruptcy. Like Brundisium’s refusing Antonius entry, may Liber Pater, Sol Indiges and Tellus grant Brundisium future peace and great prosperity. I didn’t issue any orders to the city to do what it has, anymore than I provoked the futility of Fulvia’s war against me. Poor Fulvia!
Every day I offer to a dozen gods, Fortuna at their head, to give me the weapon I need to bring Antonius down faster than age will inevitably do it. The weapon exists, I know that as surely as I know I have been chosen to set Rome on her feet permanently, to achieve lasting peace on the frontiers of her empire. I am the Chosen One whom Maecenas’s poet Virgil writes about and all Rome’s prognosticators insist will herald in a golden age. Divus Julius made me his son, and I will not fail his trust in me to finish what he started. Oh, it will not be the same world as Divus Julius would have made, but it will satisfy and please him. Fortuna, bring me more of Caesar’s fabled luck! Bring me the weapon, and open my eyes to recognize it when it comes!
Antony’s reply came by the same courier. Yes, he would see Caesar Octavianus under a flag of truce. But we are not at war! Octavian thought, breath taken away by something other than asthma. How does his mind work, to think that we are?
Next day Octavian set out on the Julian Public Horse – it was a small one, but very handsome with its creamy coat and darker mane and tail. To ride meant he couldn’t wear a toga, but as he didn’t want to appear warlike, he wore a white tunic with the broad purple stripe of a senator down its right shoulder.
Naturally Antony was in full armor, silver-plated, and with Hercules slaying the Nemean lion worked on its contoured cuirass. His tunic was purple, so was the paludamentum flowing from his shoulders, though by rights it should have been scarlet. As ever, he looked fit and well.
‘No built-up boots, Octavianus?’ he asked, grinning.
Though Antony had not, Octavian held out his right hand so obviously that Antony was obliged to take it, wring it so hard he crunched fragile bones. Face expressionless, Octavian endured it.
‘Come inside,’ Antony invited, holding the flap of his tent aside. That he chose to inhabit a tent rather than commandeer a private home was evidence of his confidence that the siege of Brundisium would not be a long business.
The tent’s public room was generous but, with the flap down, very dark. To Octavian, an indication of Antony’s wariness. He didn’t trust his face not to betray his emotions. Which didn’t worry Octavian. Not faces but thought patterns concerned him, for they were what he had to work on.
‘I’m so pleased,’ he said, swallowed by a chair much too big for his slight frame, ‘that we have reached the stage of drafting out an agreement. I felt it best that you and I in person should thrash out those matters on which we haven’t quite reached accord.’
‘Delicately put,’ said Antony, drinking deeply from a goblet of wine he had ostentatiously watered.
‘A beautiful thing,’ Octavian remarked, turning his own vessel in his hands. ‘Where was it made? Not Puteoli, I’d wager.’
‘In some Alexandrian glassworks. I like drinking from glass, it doesn’t absorb the flavor of earlier wines the way even the best ceramic does.’ He grimaced. ‘And metal tastes … metallic.’
Octavian blinked. ‘Edepol! I didn’t realize you’re such a connoisseur of something that merely holds wine.’
‘Sarcasm will get you nowhere,’ Antony said, unoffended. ‘I was told all that by Queen Cleopatra.’
‘Oh, yes, that makes sense. An Alexandrian patriot.’
Antony’s face lit up. ‘And rightly so! Alexandria is the most beautiful city in the world; leaves Pergamum and even Athens shivering in the shade.’
Having sipped, Octavian put his chalice down as if it burned. Here was another fool! Why rave about a city’s beauty when his own city faded to nothing from lack of care? ‘You may have as many of Calenus’s legions as you wish, that goes without saying,’ he lied. ‘In fact, nothing about your conditions fazes me save only your refusal to help me rid the seas of Sextus Pompeius.’
Frowning, Antony got to his feet and pulled the tent flap wide open, apparently deciding it was necessary to see Octavian’s face properly after all. ‘Italia is your province, Octavianus. Have I asked for your help in governing mine?’
‘No, you haven’t, but nor have you sent Rome’s share of the Eastern tributes to the Treasury. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, even as Triumvir, the Treasury is supposed to gather in the tributes and pay Rome’s provincial governors a stipend, out of which they fund their legions and pay for public works in their provinces,’ Octavian said blandly. ‘Of course I understand that no governor, least of all a Triumvir, simply collects what the Treasury demands – he always asks for more, keeps the surplus for himself. A time-honored tradition I have no quarrel with. I too am a Triumvir. However, you’ve sent nothing to Rome in the two years of your governorship. Had you, I would be able to buy the ships I need to deal with Sextus. It may suit you to use pirate ships as your fleets, since all the admirals who sided with Brutus and Cassius decided to become pirates after Philippi. I’m not above using them myself, were it not that they grow fat picking at my carcass! What they’re busy doing is proving to Rome and all Italia – the source of our best soldiers – that a million soldiers can’t help two ship-less Triumvirs. You should have grain from the Eastern provinces to feed your legions right fatly! It’s not my fault that you’ve let the Parthians overrun everywhere except Bithynia and Asia Province! What’s saved your bacon is Sextus Pompeius – as long as it suits you to stay sweet with him, he sells you Italia’s grain at a modest price – grain, may I remind you, bought and paid for by Rome’s Treasury! Yes, Italia is my province, but my only sources of money are the taxes I must squeeze from all Roman citizens living in Italia. They are not enough to pay for ships as well as buy stolen wheat from Sextus Pompeius for thirty sesterces the modius! So I ask again, where are the Eastern tributes?’
Antony listened in growing ire. ‘The East is bankrupt!’ he shouted. ‘There isn’t any tribute to send!’
‘That’s not true, and even the least Roman from end to end of Italia knows that,’ Octavian countered. ‘Pythodorus of Tralles brought you two thousand silver talents to Tarsus, for instance. Tyre and Sidon paid you a thousand more. And raping Cilicia Pedia yielded you four thousand. A total of one hundred and seventy-five million sesterces! Facts, Antonius! Well-known facts!’
Why had he ever consented to see this despicable little gnat? Antony asked himself, squirming. All he had to do to gain the ascendancy was remind me that whatever I do in the East somehow leaks back to every last Roman citizen in Italia. Without saying it, he’s telling me that my reputation is suffering. That I’m not yet above criticism, that the Senate and People of Rome can strip me of my offices. And yes, I can march on Rome, execute Octavianus and appoint myself Dictator. But I was the one who made a huge fuss out of abolishing the dictatorship! Brundisium has proved that my legionaries won’t fight Octavianus’s. That fact alone is why the little verpa can sit here and defy me; be open about his antagonism.
‘So I’m none too popular in Rome,’ he said sullenly.
‘Candidly, Antonius, you’re not at all popular, especially after laying siege to Brundisium. You’ve felt at liberty to accuse me of putting Brundisium up to refusing you entry, but you’re well aware I didn’t. Why should I? It profits me nothing! All you’ve actually done is throw Rome into a frenzy of fear, expecting you to march on her. Which you cannot do! Your legions won’t let you. If you genuinely want to retrieve your reputation, you have to prove that to Rome, not to me.’
‘I won’t join you against Sextus Pompeius, if that’s what you’re angling for. All I have are a hundred warships in Athens,’ Antony lied. ‘Not enough to do the job, since you have none. As matters stand, Sextus Pompeius prefers me to you, and I’ll not do anything to provoke him. At the moment, he leaves me alone.’
‘I didn’t think you would help me,’ Octavian said calmly. ‘No, I was thinking more of something visible to all Romans from the top of the heap to the very bottom.’
‘Marriage to my sister, Octavia.’
Jaw dropped, Antony stared at his tormentor. ‘Ye gods!’
‘What’s so unusual about it?’ Octavian asked softly, smiling. ‘I’ve just concluded a similar kind of marital alliance myself, as I’m sure you know. Scribonia is very pleasant – a good woman, pretty, fertile … I hope tying myself to her keeps Sextus at bay, for a while at any rate. But she can’t begin to compare with Octavia, can she? I am offering you Divus Julius’s great-niece – known and loved by every stratum in Rome as Julia was, beautiful to look at, enormously kind and thoughtful, an obedient wife, and the mother of three children, including a boy. As Divus Julius expected of his
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