Tue
Feb 13 2018 10:00am

Steven Saylor Excerpt: The Throne of Caesar

Steven Saylor

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor is the 16th Novel of Ancient Rome, which turns to the most famous murder in history: It’s Rome, 44 B.C., and the Ides of March are approaching (available February 20, 2018).

Julius Caesar, appointed dictator for life by the Roman Senate, has pardoned his remaining enemies and rewarded his friends. Now Caesar is preparing to leave Rome with his legions to wage a war of conquest against the Parthian Empire. But he has a few more things to do before he goes.

Gordianus the Finder, after decades of investigating crimes and murders involving the powerful, has been raised to Equestrian rank and has firmly and finally decided to retire. But on the morning of March 10th, he’s first summoned to meet with Cicero and then with Caesar himself. Both have the same request of Gordianus―keep your ear to the ground, ask around, and find out if there are any conspiracies against Caesar’s life. And Caesar has one other matter of vital importance to discuss. Gordianus’s adopted son Meto has long been one of Caesar’s closest confidants. To honor Meto, Caesar plans to bestow on Gordianus an honor which will change not only his life but the destiny of his entire family. It will happen when the Senate next convenes on the 15th of March.

Gordianus must dust off his old skills and see what plots against Julius Caesar, if any, he can uncover. But more than one conspiracy is afoot. The Ides of March is fast approaching and at least one murder is inevitable.

DAY ONE: MARCH 10

I

Once upon a time, a young slave came to fetch me on a warm spring morning. That was the first time I met Tiro.

Many years later, he came to fetch me again. But now he was a freedman, no longer a slave. The month was Martius, and the morning was quite chilly. And we were both much older.

Just how old was Tiro? My head was muddled by last night’s wine, but not so muddled that I couldn’t do the math. Tiro was seven years younger than I. That made him … fifty-nine. Tiro—nearly sixty! How was that possible? Could thirty-six years have passed since the first time he came to my door?

On that occasion, Tiro was still a slave, though a very well-educated one. He was the private secretary and right-hand man of his master, an obscure young advocate by the name of Cicero who was just starting his career in Rome. All these years later, everyone in Rome knew of Cicero. He was as famous as Cato or Pompey (and still alive, which they were not). Cicero was almost as famous as our esteemed dictator. Almost, I say, because no one could ever be as famous as Caesar. Or as powerful. Or as rich.

“There was a dictator ruling Rome on that occasion, too,” I muttered to myself.

“What’s that, Gordianus?” asked Tiro, who had followed me through the atrium, down a dim hallway, and into the garden at the center of the house. Nothing was blooming yet, but patches of greenery shimmered in the morning sunlight. Crouching by the small fishpond, Bast—the latest in a long line of cats to bear that name—stared up at a bird that sang a pleasant song from a safe perch on a roof tile. I felt the faintest breath of spring in the chilly morning air.

I wrapped my cloak around me, sat on a wooden bench that caught the morning sunlight, and leaned back against one of the columns of the peristyle. Tiro sat on a bench nearby, facing me. I took a good look at him. He had been a handsome youth. He was still handsome, despite his years. Now, as then, his eyes were his most arresting feature. They were an unusual color, a pale shade of lavender, made all the more striking by the frame of his meticulously barbered white curls.

“I was just saying, Tiro…” I rubbed my temples, trying to soothe the stabbing pain in my head. “There was a dictator ruling Rome on that occasion, too. How old were you then?”

“When?”

“The first time I met you.”

“Oh, let me think. I must have been … twenty-three? Yes, that’s right. Cicero was twenty-six.”

“And I was thirty. I was recalling that occasion. It wasn’t at this house, of course. I was still living in that ramshackle place I inherited from my father, over on the Esquiline Hill, not here on the Palatine. And it was a warm day—the month was Maius, wasn’t it? Then, as now, I answered the knock at the door myself—something my wife insists I should never do, since we have a slave for just that purpose. And … seeing you today at my front door … I had that feeling…”

“A feeling?”

“Oh, you know—we all feel it now and again—that uncanny sensation that one has experienced something before. A shivery feeling.”

“Ah, yes, I know the phenomenon.”

“One experiences it less as one grows older. I wonder why that is? And I wonder why we have no word for it in Latin. Perhaps you or Cicero should invent one. ‘Already-seen,’ or some other compound. Or borrow a word from some other language. The Etruscans had a word for it, I think.”

“Did they?” Tiro raised an eyebrow. There was a mischievous glint in his lavender eyes.

“Yes, it will come to me. Or was it the Carthaginians? A pity we made Punic a dead language before plundering all the useful words. Oh, but my head is such a muddle this morning.”

“Because you drank too much last night.”

I looked at him askance. “Why do you say that?”

“The way you look, the way you walk. The way you sat down and leaned back against that column so gingerly, as if that thing on your shoulders were an egg that might crack.”

It was true. My temples rolled with thunder. Spidery traces of lightning flashed and vanished just beyond the corners of my eyes. Last night’s wine was to blame.

Tiro laughed. “You had a hangover on that morning, all those many years ago.”

“Did I?”

“Oh, yes. I remember, because you taught me the cure for a hangover.”

“I did? What was it? I could use it now.”

“You must remember.”

“I’m an old man, Tiro. I forget things.”

“But you’ve been doing it ever since I got here. Asking questions. Trying to think of a word. Thinking—that’s the cure.”

“Ah, yes. I seem to have a vague recollection…”

“You had a very elegant explanation. I remember, because later I wrote it down, thinking Cicero might be able to use it in a speech or a treatise someday. I quote: ‘Thought, according to some physicians, takes place in the brain, lubricated by the secretion of phlegm. When the phlegm becomes polluted or hardened, the result is a headache. But the actual activity of thought produces fresh phlegm to soften and disperse the old. So the more intently one thinks, the greater the production of phlegm. Therefore, intense concentration will speed along the natural recovery from a hangover by flushing the humors from the inflamed tissue and restoring the lubrication of the membranes.’”

“By Hercules, what a memory you have!” Tiro was famous for it. Cicero could dictate a letter, and a year later Tiro could quote it back to him verbatim. “And by Hercules, what a lot of rubbish I used to talk.” I shook my head.

“And still do.”

“What!” Had Tiro still been a slave, such a remark would have been impertinent. He had acquired a sharp tongue to match his sharp wits.

“I call your bluff, Gordianus.”

“What bluff?”

“About that Etruscan word, the one that just happens to escape you. I don’t believe any such word exists. I wish I had a denarius for every time I’ve heard someone say, ‘The Etruscans had a word for it.’ Or that the Etruscans invented this or that old saying, or this or that odd custom. Such assertions are almost invariably nonsense. Things Etruscan are old and quaint, and hardly anyone speaks the language anymore except the haruspices who perform the fatidic rites, a few villagers in the middle of nowhere, and a handful of crusty old dabblers in forgotten lore. Etruscan customs and words are therefore mysterious, and exert a certain mystique. But it’s intellectually lazy to impute a saying or custom to the Etruscans when there’s no evidence whatsoever for such an assertion.”

“Even so, I’m pretty sure the Etruscans had a word—”

“Then I challenge you, Gordianus, to come up with that word by the last day of Martius—no, sooner, by the day you turn sixty-six. That’s on the twenty-third day of the month, yes?”

“Now you’re showing off, Tiro. But as for this word, I suspect it will come to me before you leave my house—and if you continue to vex me so, that may be sooner rather than later.” I said this with a smile, for I was actually quite glad to see him. I had always been fond of Tiro, if not of his erstwhile master—on whose behalf, almost surely, Tiro had come to see me. Lightning again flashed in my temples, causing me to wince. “This ‘cure’ seems not to be working as well as it did when I was younger—perhaps because my wits are not as sharp as they used to be.”

“Whose are?” asked Tiro with a sigh.

“Or perhaps I’m drinking more than I used to. Too many long winter nights at the Salacious Tavern spent in dubious company—to the dreaded displeasure of my wife and daughter. Ah, wait! I remember now—not that elusive Etruscan word, but the little game of mental gymnastics I played with you the first time we met, which not only cured my hangover but quite impressed you with my powers of deduction.”

“That’s right, Gordianus. You correctly deduced the exact reason I had come to see you.”

“And I can do the same thing today.”

Tiro folded his arms across his chest and gave me a challenging look. He was about to speak when he was interrupted by Diana, who stepped from the shadows of the portico into the sunlight.

“I can do likewise,” said my daughter.

Tiro looked a bit flustered as he stood to greet the newcomer. He cocked his head. “Now I’m the one who’s having that feeling—that eerie sensation we need a word for. Because on the morning we first met, Gordianus, surely this very same ravishing female appeared from nowhere and took my breath away. But how can that be? Truly, it’s as if I’ve stepped back in time.”

I smiled. “That was Bethesda, who joined us that morning. This is her daughter—our daughter—Diana.”

Diana accepted Tiro’s compliment without comment. And why not? She was ravishing—breathtaking, in fact—just as her mother had been, with thick, shimmering black hair, bright eyes, and a shapely figure that even her matronly stola did little to conceal.

She raised an eyebrow and gave me a disapproving glance. “Did you answer the door yourself, Papa? You know we have a slave for that.”

“You sound like your mother, too!” I laughed. “But you were just saying that you could deduce the reason for Tiro’s visit. Do proceed.”

“Very well. First, who sent Tiro?” She peered at him so intently that he blushed. Tiro had always been shy around beautiful women. “Well, that’s easy. Marcus Tullius Cicero, of course.”

“Who says that anyone sent me?” objected Tiro. “I’m a free citizen.”

“Yes, you could have come to visit my father on your own initiative—but you never do, though he invariably enjoys your company. You contact him only when Cicero asks you to.”

Tiro blushed again. A red-faced youth is charming. A red-faced man nearing sixty looks rather alarming. But his laugh reassured me. “As a matter of fact, you’re right. I came here at Cicero’s behest.”

Diana nodded. “And why has Cicero sent you? Well, almost certainly it has something to do with the Dictator.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Tiro.

“Because anything and everything that happens nowadays has something to do with Julius Caesar.”

“You are correct,” conceded Tiro. “But you’ll have to be more specific if you want to impress me.”

“Or if you want to impress me,” I added. Diana was always seeking to demonstrate to me her powers of ratiocination. This was part of her ongoing campaign to convince me that she should be allowed to carry on the family profession—my father and I had both been called ‘the Finder’ in our respective generations—to which my invariable response was that a twenty-five-year-old Roman matron with two children to raise, no matter how clever she might be, had no business sorting out clues and solving crimes and otherwise sticking her nose into dangerous people’s business. “Go on, daughter. Tell us, if you can, why Cicero sent Tiro to fetch me this morning.”

Diana shut her eyes and pressed her fingertips to her temples, elbows akimbo, as if channeling some mystic source of knowledge. “The first time you met my father was in the second year of Sulla’s dictatorship. You came to ask for the Finder’s assistance to help Cicero uncover the truth behind a shocking crime—an unholy crime. Vile. Unspeakable. The murder of a father by his own son. Parricide!”

Tiro made a scoffing sound, but in fact he looked a bit unnerved by Diana’s mystic pose. “Well, it’s no secret that the defense of Sextus Roscius was Cicero’s first major trial, remembered by everyone who was in Rome at the time. Obviously, your father has told you about his own role in the investigation—”

“No, Tiro, let her go on,” I said, captivated despite myself by Diana’s performance.

Her eyelids flickered and her voice dropped in pitch. “Now you come again to ask for my father’s help, in this, the fifth year of Caesar’s dictatorship. Again, it’s about a crime, but a crime that has yet to be committed. A crime even more shocking than the murder of Sextus Roscius—and even more unholy. Vile. Unspeakable. The murder of another father by his children—”

“No, no, no,” said Tiro, shaking his head a bit too insistently.

“Oh, yes!” declared Diana, her eyes still flickering. “For hasn’t the intended victim been named Father of the Fatherland—so that any Roman who dared to kill him would be a parricide? And hasn’t every senator taken a vow to protect this man’s life with his very own—so that any senator who raised a hand against him would be committing sacrilege?”

Tiro opened his mouth, dumbfounded.

“Isn’t this the reason you’ve come here today, Tiro?” said Diana, opening her eyes and staring into his. “You want the Finder to come to Cicero and reveal to him whatever he may know, or be able to discover, regarding the plot to murder the Dictator, the Father of the Fatherland—the conspiracy to assassinate Gaius Julius Caesar.”

 

Copyright © 2018 Steven Saylor.

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Steven Saylor is the author of the acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mystery novels featuring Gordianus the Finder, beginning with Roman Blood, as well as the internationally bestselling historical novels Empire and Roma. He has appeared on the History Channel as an expert on Roman politics and life. He divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas.

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2 comments
1. Diesel Estate
I have to admit to disappointment with this excerpt. My own fault for having expectations, I suppose... The writing is stilted; somewhat sterile, without anything to really light a fire, to keep my interest alert. It seems as though the author has been reading a textbook, from which he then simply reworked the passages, in order to make them his own. I'm not suggesting that's what actually happened. I'm merely saying that the excerpt read like that, to me.
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