Between a Rock and a Hard Bargain
Outside the office of the Imperial chamberlain Castor, in the praetorium and interim palace of Eboracum, a thoroughly wretched Lucius Sabius Niger waited for his interview, nervously twitching the green braid trim on his tunic around and around, and wishing, not for the last time, that he had had time for a good hefty slug of something before leaving his lodgings that morning.
Lucius had a lot of good reasons to be nervous. About a million and a half reasons, or sesterces, to be exact. And he had been so careful to cover his tracks, down to bribing stevedore guilds and cargo handlers from Britannia to Berenice. Still, somehow, Castor had managed to find out what even his own unctuous boss Euphanus didn’t know. Cacat!
Out of thin air, a man in Imperial livery appeared at his side. He eyed Lucius, the green braid on his fourth best tunic, his well worn sandals with bronze fasteners, and his unruly mop of curly black hair. He sniffed. No precious malabathrum oil or attar of roses on Lucius Sabius, but at least he had gone to the baths first, and his tunic was clean.
“The chamberlain will see you now.”
Lucius wiped off his sweaty palms on his tunic front and walked through the double doors of Castor’s office, wondering if he’d get out alive.
For the office of an Imperial chamberlain, Castor’s was modest, a small airless cubbyhole tucked away in an easily overlooked corner. Probably, thought Lucius rather viciously, nothing like his digs at the Palatine in Rome, but then again, this was nothing like Rome. Well, it wasn’t, it was Eboracum, the temporary center of the Empire, as long as Severus was there. Calm down, Niger, he thought to himself, calm down. You’re not entirely dead. Yet.
At a small desk sat Castor, his freed bottom firmly planted on a nondescript chair looking, for all Lucius could tell, like a cat that had just swallowed a thoroughly tender dormouse. His ancestry had been Greek at some point, that was obvious from the precision of his haircut to the beautifully manicured hands, but in all that mattered, Castor was a product of the Palatine, an Imperial – former – slave born and bred.
Castor folded his hands on his desk and looked up.
“Please, Lucius Sabius, do sit down.” He gestured toward the chair on the other side of his makeshift desk, the consummate chamberlain.
“Would you care for some ale, wine or mulsum at this early hour of the morning?”
Lucius’ throat was as parched as the Egyptian desert.
“Wine would be wonderful, please.”
Castor waved out the underling who had ushered Lucius in.
“Well, then Lucius Sabius, I trust you had a safe journey from Puteoli?”
“Yes, yes I did. I made it here in 24 days from Puteoli, straight from the Pillars to Rutupiae. I left as soon as I received your summons.” Who cares how fast I got here, thought Lucius, since I’m a dead man anyway? Oh, Father, if you only knew…
“Good. Now…I regret to say this, Lucius Sabius, but you are in some serious trouble. The Emperor does not look favorably on tax evasion, or indeed on evading any kind of civic duty.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Lucius wiped his palms again. Soon, he wouldn’t have any skin left.
“I rather doubt that, but never mind.” Lucius was used to dialect and vernacular from all ends of the Empire, but Castor’s precise Palatine diction and mellifluous voice would have put most senators to shame. It was very unnerving, and he was already a wreck. He folded his hands tightly in his lap.
The underling appeared with a tray carrying two Samian carafes and two matching cups. Castor leaned back in his chair and waited until the slave had set down the tray on a side table, poured wine and water into the cups, handed one to Castor and the other to Lucius, left and closed the doors behind him.
Lucius buried his burning face in his cup. It wasn’t Chian, but it would do. He might even live for another ten minutes.
Castor reached for a scroll on his desk and unrolled it.
“Now then, Lucius Sabius…according to my informant in Puteoli, you work as a shipping agent for the Alexandrian Euphanus who specializes in the Indian luxury trade, is that correct?”
“Yes.” Another draught of wine. Too much water, in Lucius’ opinion. Typical of that cheapskate Severus!
“As his representative, you have traveled all over the Empire, and indeed well beyond it, to India and Arabia, trading our wine and coins and so on, for everything that these places have to offer?”
Definitely a cat, thought Lucius, because he nearly licked his chops, and that tender, juicy dormouse is me and my Sabine hide…oh, Gods! What do you think I am, Castor, a complete idiot? You think it was easy, trading in those places? A walk on the Pincian Hill in an April breeze, to get to Berenice from Alexandria, never mind to India, just so our venerable Empress can wear pearls around her neck? Are you crazy?
Instead, Lucius replied “Yes.”
“Let’s see…” Castor went on, “you’ve been working for Euphanus now for…six years, is it? Six years, where you have worked your way up from a simple shipping office grunt into becoming what amounts to Euphanus’ agent and representative, yes?”
Lucius tried very hard not to roll his eyes. “Yes.”
“All right then, as Euphanus’ representative then surely you must have been informed about the 25% luxury goods tax on that trade?”
“Indeed I was, and if your informant ever looked at our accounts, you can see that they were in perfect order…” Lucius interjected.
Castor finally unsheathed his claws.
“In perfect order! But of course they were! Euphanus said as much himself several times, and who were we to argue with such a respected shipping agent as Euphanus?” Castor downed his cup of wine after adding more water. “However, Lucius Sabius, something didn’t quite add up here. It seems there were discrepancies between the cargo listed in the accounts, and the cargo the ships actually carried, so my informant began to make enquiries around Puteoli, and met a very interesting man, a Greek captain named Simonides…”
Cacat! Lucius thought. How in Hades did they find out about Simonides? There was no trace, nothing at all…And remind me, some day, never to trust a Greek, no matter how much I pay him! Then, he realized something else.
“Forgive me for asking, Castor…” Lucius spoke in his most persuasive voice, the voice that had sweet-talked locals from Gades to Muziris into parting with far more than they had originally intended, and for half of the agreed-upon price. He even crossed one leg over the other, and folded his hands over his knees, the picture of perfect sincerity.
“But why is it that a man of such vast influence as you, who has such enviably direct and familiar access to the Emperor, the very Imperial chamberlain himself, would take such an interest in one humble shipping agent out of all the hundreds in Puteoli?”
Castor shrugged, a nonchalant movement of his shoulders that gave him away for Greek. Attican, probably, thought Lucius, and why am I not surprised?
“You don’t have this from me, you understand…”
Castor leaned forward.
“Severus will never leave Britannia alive, and you understand, as a freedman, I have to protect my own interests. We all know what will happen once he’s dead…”
“His sons will head straight for each others throats-” Lucius continued the thought.
“And whoever survives – my money’s on Antoninus – will head straight for the rest of us…”
“Ah.” It explained a lot.
“So, then, Lucius Sabius, I have sought to use my influence while it still counts for…something. Antoninus is so dense, he doesn’t care to look at where the money of the Empire goes, at least not so it matters. With so many Roman funds locked up in trade, and the luxury trade with India in particular, it was an obvious choice.” Castor leaned back, the intimate tone of a moment before totally gone, the feline look returning.
“I have to admit, you’re very good at what you do, Lucius Sabius. If I hadn’t thought to look at Euphanus’ accounts, you would very likely never have been found out at all. Even now, he doesn’t know about your…little sideline, but he is in a bit of a panic about being audited by Imperial tax collectors.” Castor had another sip of wine.
“Back to you, Lucius Sabius. Oh, it was so easy, so ingenious, so…elegant! You made the cargo logs, so you always knew exactly, down to the last pearl and peppercorn, just how much any ship was loading at one time. From there, it was simple, really, to deduct just an amphora of peppercorns here, a tiny cask of jewels there, a bundle of cinnamon sticks, one sack of cinnamon leaf, a length of silk or Indian cotton…and only declare to the Customs officials in Berenice what Euphanus thought he was declaring, while you…you sold off your ill-gotten goods, little by little, a tiny amount at a time, and stashed off the proceeds from the sale in your account in Balbus’ bank in Gades. Easy…you were in and out of Gades all the time, and it was very conveniently very far away from either Alexandria or Puteoli, and certainly far away from Berenice.”
Lucius concentrated his gaze on the red dado behind Castor that went from the tiled floor to halfway up the wall all around the room. Just a red dado, with a black Grecian key pattern above it, and a simple whitewashed wall above. For the first time in his life, he didn’t trust his voice enough to make his usual snappy denials.
“So, in six years you’ve managed to stash away the tidy sum of one and one-half million sesterces, skimmed off the best of Euphanus’ imports, and it never even cost you an as…I’m impressed, Lucius Sabius. Not so bad for the only son of an estate manager in Cumae…planning on buying a seat in the Senate any time soon?”
Lucius’ entire body sagged on his stool. He was so dead, he knew it in his bones. He dragged out his voice from the hollow pit in his stomach where it had been hiding.
“No, not at all, just…to have enough stashed away to lead a comfortable life…” He was whispering now.
Castor leaned forward again and smiled his chilly feline smile.
“That’s what we all want, Lucius Sabius, especially in these uncertain times. Do you know, I do believe I’ve found a way you can redeem yourself…”
Not too eager, now, Niger, not too eager…
“Really?” asked Lucius.
“Ever heard of a man called Marcus Afranius Musa? He’s a one-man operation, doesn’t even work the Nabataeans, so far as I know, but he does operate out of Alexandria, I thought you might have heard about him. They say he’s a hard man to miss…black as night and about as large…”
“Musa…Musa…” Lucius ransacked his brain. There were so many traders in Alexandria, but not too many Nubians …Ah!
“The man who used to work for Chryses Diodorus?”
Castor smiled again, but this time, he looked like a man rather than a replete, self-satisfied cat.
“The very same.”
“Well, if it’s that giant that I knew in Alexandria, and who used to work for Diodorus, then yes, I know him, but not very well, and I haven’t heard anything about Musa in years. Although there were a few strange rumors a couple of years ago… ”
“With some justification.” Castor let that remark hang in the airless room, and Lucius, who moments before had feared for his life, now looked his question.
“You see, Lucius Sabius, Musa has slowly but surely building his very own monopoly on trade these past few years…in Hibernia.”
“Jupiter! Hibernia!” Lucius spluttered, spewing a mouthful of watered wine all over his tunic. “But there’s nothing there! What could those barbarian Hibernians possibly have to trade?”
“More than you think; grain, when the harvests are good, and the last few years have been good ones, superbly tanned furs and hides, miles better than anything they can do here in Britannia, for starters, excellent woolen cloth, some rather finely woven linen the Britons are fond of buying and wearing, woad in vast quantities, slaves…you’d be surprised. Here –” Castor handed him the napkin on the tray, and Lucius dabbed at the stains on his tunic. Castor refilled their wine cups, and again, added quite a bit of water.
Lucius prudently ignored it.
Castor settled back in his chair and continued.
“As for being barbarians, well – the fact is, the XX have been dealing with them for years and years. On occasion, Hibernian raiders will pillage Britannia’s west coast, for lack of anything else to do I’m thinking, and for that reason, we’ve been paying them not to since the days of Agricola.”
“That strategy doesn’t seem to be working with the Maeatae and the Caledonians,” Lucius interrupted. There had been a lot of talk about the recent campaign last night at his mansio, and Lucius had been too scared – and too sober – not to listen in.
Castor sighed and gave another Greek shrug.
“I know. If the people north of the Wall had their way, this conflict would never end. They’ll fight down to the last man, woman and child standing to keep their wretched land, but I’m beginning to think we won’t for much longer.” He sipped his wine. Castor made it his business to know everything, and two days ago when Postumianus had returned from Vindolanda with his celebrated prisoner, it was all the officers of the II Augusta had talked about.
“However, the broad-striped tribune of the XX somehow managed to get his hands on the leader of the Maeatae some days ago, and that might be a deterrent.”
Lucius sat up straighter.
“You mean Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus?”
“You know this man?”
“Indeed I do…he’s my oldest friend and childhood companion, and we’re supposed to meet here in Eboracum in a few days.”
Castor smote his forehead. “But of course! How stupid I didn’t see that before…your father…”
“Is the estate manager of Marcus Arrius Nerva’s estate in Cumae, Gaius Arrius’ father…”
“Ah! But we were discussing Hibernia…”
“In any case, Galba of the XX has been having a boatload of trouble from the Hibernians, so that got our Emperor thinking…we can’t subdue them, the Gods only know that the Empire is big enough already and we’re already having border headaches in a lot of places, and like all the barbarians before them, the Hibernians – or at least their local kings, as they call themselves – are developing a taste for wine. Gaul has a wine glut these days, and we have to do something about it. The Empire is right in the middle of a galloping inflation, Severus has already debased the denarius to amend the problem, and…”
“And…” Lucius was beginning to get the idea, “the Treasury needs all the revenue it can get…”
Castor pointed his index finger at Lucius. “Precisely! Which is right where you come in…”
“Me?” squeaked Lucius. “But I’m just another run-of-the-mill shipping agent – what in the name of Neptune do you expect me to do?”
“Actually, with that little scheme of yours, you’re anything but a ‘run-of-the-mill’ shipping agent, Lucius Sabius. Right now, you’re facing charges of tax evasion, or you would, if Euodus knew about you, which I can assure you he doesn’t. Certainly, Euphanus would have your hide, if he only knew. So far, I’m the only one who does, or the only one who matters, anyway.” Castor folded his hands on his desk and leaned forward toward Lucius, once again the well-fed cat.
“You have connections everywhere, Lucius Sabius, from here to Berenice and Barygaza, Muziris…you’ve seen a good deal of the world, so I have reason to believe you could manage quite well in a place like Hibernia. More to the point, and more useful for my purposes, you’ve met Musa. He’s the key in all of this.”
“All of this…” muttered Lucius, “which I still have no idea what is!”
“Very well. As I said, Musa has been building a monopoly in Hibernia. It’s gotten so that no Hibernian king will even talk to anyone else, apart from a few on the eastern coast, so no one else can get a denarius in edgewise, or even a foot in the door. Musa is a scrupulous – and scrupulously fair – trader, his dues and Customs taxes are always paid up in full in Berenice and Alexandria. Can’t be corrupted, and my agent in Alexandria last year tried. Must be that Nubian blood…”
Lucius exhaled very, very slowly. Definitely a Greek! Couldn’t get right to the heart of anything in less than an hour if he wanted to, and never the straight road to anywhere, or anything!
“We have a wine glut in Gaul, we have a need of revenue in a hurry, and we have Musa in Hibernia. I need you to go to Hibernia – Musa keeps our old trading post there – to inform him that we’ll even sweeten the deal and forfeit the luxury tax – if not the shipping tax, Severus would never allow that to slip by – as long as he can palm off a few warehouses worth of passable Gaulish red that are currently sitting in Burdigala doing no good at all. The Treasury profits from those Hibernian goods we can sell at good prices here in Britannia, Musa profits from our forfeiting the luxury tax, and you and I…” again, Castor’s smile was positively tiger-like as he leaned closer to Lucius, “split the leftovers. Euphanus won’t even be involved, so he’ll be none the wiser. All you, Lucius Sabius, have to do is persuade Musa that it’s a good idea. Everyone wins.”
Go figure, thought Lucius. And here I thought I’d die…
“And if I don’t, or I can’t?”
“I go straight to Euodus and the Treasury with what I have on you.” Castor blinked a moment, and the tiger was gone.
“One more thing,” he added after a slight pause. “Since you and I both have a lot to lose, I think it would be best if you could arrange to get to Musa in secret. The XX frumentarius has told me that he’s in Hibernia now, and plans to remain until next spring. You have until spring. And of course it goes without my having to say so that you might find other little trading deals next sailing season, once you’re back in Puteoli, where a modest freedman such as myself might make a modest profit…”
Modest, my foot, thought Lucius. You’ll want to skim my account with Balbus for as long as you can…or at least until you have made one and a half million sesterces! He drained his cup. Poor wine was drowned in all that water. He gave a snort as he realized something.
They had been drinking Gaulish red.
“You drive a hard bargain, Castor.”
Another feline smile. “Don’t you, Lucius Sabius?”
“I try, I try, and with some of those Arab traders, I don’t have much of a choice. Actually, I don’t have much of a choice here, either. If my father found out, I’d be dead…”
“If Euodus knew, you might be even deader. Severus is a stickler for protocol and law.”
“I heard…well…” Lucius shrugged in an imitation of Castor’s eloquent shoulders and leaned forward. “What kind of guarantee can you give me that you won’t hand me over to Euodus anyway, either before or after I’ve had my chance to get to Musa? I mean, what do you have to lose?”
Castor froze where he sat. For a long time, the only sounds were those that came through the open windows of the praetorium, where the garrison was bustling after the II’s return, and from beyond the river, from Eboracum. The corridor outside was hushed and quiet. He glared at Lucius. Lucius glared right back.
“How about this?” he finally said, as Lucius began to fidget on his chair, and he reached for a small scroll on his desk and handed it over to Lucius.
It was Fannian paper, Imperial grade, and it bore the Imperial seal in purple wax, along with a holder made of gilded wood. Lucius broke the seal, taking care to preserve it, and unrolled the scroll.
It was a note from the Treasury, made out to Lucius Sabius Niger, son of Sextus Sabius Gallus of Cumae, to the sum of one and one-half million sesterces. He hastily rolled up the scroll and put it in his inside tunic pocket.
There was another, longer, more ominous pause. Outside, an insistent female voice demanded the presence of Castor immediately, but Castor didn’t stir.
Lucius did. He grabbed the wine carafe, poured a measure in both their cups, and did not add water. Instead, he poured a small libation on the floor, before he raised his cup.
“Castor…may I propose a toast – to Fortuna, so that our partnership here might have luck on its side, to Neptune, to keep our ships afloat, and to Mercury, who guards our trade…”
Castor raised his own cup in reply. Just as they were about to drink, the door finally burst open on a whole gathering of women, and first through the door was the Empress herself, wrapped in a pearl-embroidered stola and a cloud of spikenard oil.
“Castor, I do apologize, but Severus simply insists that you come…I swear, he’s becoming more and more unreasonable every day, and he says…oh!” She saw Lucius, and promptly shut up.
“Augusta…” Lucius bowed low and kissed the air over her perfumed hand. He hated the scent of spikenard with a passion.
“It doesn’t matter, Domina, this gentleman was leaving anyway…” said Castor.
Lucius let go of Julia Domna’s hand and bowed again. He moved closer to Castor and clasped his arm.
“I’ll be in touch.”
Castor gave a ghost of a wink. “Of course you will!”
The next thing Lucius knew, he was in the courtyard of the II Augusta’s headquarters, on his way to the gate and the bridge beyond, the scroll in his pocket burning a hole in his chest, his mind racing like the Blues at the Circus Maximus.
He was alive.
Now, all he had to do was wait for Gaius, whom he hadn’t seen in six years. Maybe Gaius knew, after all this time, if there was any fun to be had in this town.
Yes, after this morning, he badly needed a little fun, and where were all the best brothels hiding in Eboracum anyway?