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A Roman Death: Book Excerpts

Excerpt 1: pp 138-9

At dawn, Marcus Scaurus was woken by his head slave with such urgency that Scaurus struggled up.

‘Domine!’ The man’s voice was husky with fear. ‘The young master … come quickly.’

‘What’s that? What …’

‘Master!’ The man wrung his hands. ‘Master, he is dead. Dead, dead in his sleep!’

Was he still dreaming, Scaurus wondered. But the flickering lamp, the ghastly face of the man, the cold marble dolphins on the black and white of the floor underfoot, the pale oblong of the dawn sky from the half-shuttered window — these were reality. Dragging his bad foot, he lumbered after the slave.

Lucius was lying twisted on his bed, with half-closed eyes, one open palm upturned as though seeking help.

‘Get the doctor quickly. Get Mucia — she knows where to find him. Not Mucia, you fool — I mean Papiria. She knows.’

‘I have already summoned the doctor, domine.’ The slave trembled with fright.

Scaurus knelt down and felt the boy’s pulse, put his head down to his heart. Then hard long-drawn sobs shook him. He sat up on the bed and cradled Lucius’ head in his arms, groaning with horror. Finally he set him down and shouted like a madman for the doctor … for anyone, for some reason for his boy to … oh, but it could not be …

Slaves ran to and fro, achieving little, until finally the doctor arrived, a clever old Greek who had attended the family for years. He examined Lucius carefully and shook his head.

‘There is nothing to be done for him now,’ he said to Marcus Scaurus. ‘I fear poison.’


Excerpt 2: pp 184-7

‘Oh judges, I tell you that this woman — intelligent, wilful and passionate — is far from being the conventional and trustworthy Roman matron she appears to the world. I have already underlined her implacable opposition to her husband’s wishes. Not for her to conform, oh no! Nor in other ways does she conform. Not for Helvia the devotion to her household gods, not for her the religious observance that is the duty of women and the strength of our society. I regret to tell you, gentlemen, that Helvia is a devotee of that Egyptian goddess, that Isis, whose worship has so many times been banned from our city — was forbidden, indeed, as recently as four years ago.’

The advocate paused, glancing at the judges, singling out L. Aemilius Paullus in particular. ‘You will remember how one of your numbers, when Consul, once tore off his toga and drove an axe through the temple doors to set an example to the workmen who had been told to demolish the Iseum. Anyone will applaud such an example, who is a true Roman and faithful to the gods who protect our state.’

The speaker could ignore the waves of muted protest rising from angry spectators now, so many of whom were humble folk. None of the judges, all coming from that comfortably enshrined noble or knightly class, upheld such worship. All the same, he was on delicate ground. Caesar was in power and Caesar had reinstated Isis.

‘Imported worship which deals not in solemn rites owed to traditional gods, but in mysteries and frenzies and incited enthusiasms,’ rumbled the advocate ominously. ‘Why would a lady of Helvia’s class and background have recourse to such practices?

‘I do not ask you what can happen in the temple of linenclad Isis, gentlemen,’ he went on ironically. ‘I do not care to ask you — nor, judges, would you particularly wish to know. But we do know that in other towns the shrines of that goddess are generally not too far from the brothels, and we are content to remain in ignorance of those who give their devotion to bulls and monkeys and reptiles and birds of all sorts, and,’ Messalla paused delicately, his face a study in lofty distaste, ‘those who are said to indulge in practices erotic or magical …

‘Helvia’s resort to Isis worship, to magic, is alien to women of her status. Who can trust a woman who covertly enlists the forces of darkness and evil? She who does so is clearly capable of any deed. But this is not all …’

Messalla paused again.

‘As we all know, the great bulwark of our community, its whole strength, is the family, by reason of its natural and human ties. As we all know, the greatest merit of all from the family is this union of man and woman for the procreation of children.

‘I do not argue that Helvia was not a devoted mother.’ Another pause. Messalla looked round for absolute quiet now and waited until he got it. ‘I do not argue that, iudices. I argue only that Helvia was, as well, too devoted a sister. This woman, married to the honest Fufidius for almost twenty years now, since she was fifteen years old, has for long had a most delightful relationship with her brother. With her brother Cinna, the poet, who is now also Tribune. I regret, however, that it is a most unnatural relationship, as well. I speak, gentlemen, of an incestuous relationship.’

A long collective sigh rose from the audience. This was better than any theatre. Helvia sat as if turned to stone, her mature beauty etched in the band of light that fell on the bench. Aghast, Fufidius rose to his feet, but was motioned down by Cicero.

‘This relationship may have been suspected by a few, but it was well hidden by the incestuous pair. As you know, slaves cannot testify against their masters except in one instance — in a case of incest…


Excerpt 3: pp 196-8

‘And then there was supposed to be some mumbo-jumbo of magic and a husband shouting at his wife. We were never shown the mumbo-jumbo. Are we to believe, gentlemen, that a woman of refinement and education, the sister of an honoured poet, would have descended to making spells! To dealing in dead animals! Not a shred of proof backs up this assertion. And again, gentlemen’ — Cicero laughed with gentle deprecation — ‘who amongst us has not shouted at his wife? Is a wife who provokes a husband to shout at her thereby proved to have murderous intentions? No, the usual disagreements between husband and wife cannot be blown up into an indication of her moral delinquency. To suggest it is enough to see the absurdity.

‘Gentlemen, have you ever seen pictured in a still pool of water the definite formation of the hills and the sky surrounding it? How permanent such a picture looks. Yet interrupt the pool only slightly, question the durability of the picture with a tossed pebble and the whole picture breaks up and disappears. In the same way, my few gentle questions, tossed at the prosecution picture of motives bring the same result — the picture disappears.’

Murmurs of appreciation of this verbal deftness could be heard from the audience, which by now had so increased that people were standing far down the nave. Fortunately, no other trials were being held in the Basilica at that time, so the speaker was clearly audible.

‘And now, opportunity,’ Cicero continued in the same conversational tone. ‘Yes, it does seem that Helvia had opportunity. As the prosecution rightly observed, she as hostess was continually moving among her guests and she must have been within reach of Lucius Scaurus a number of times. So, I suppose, must a number of the guests also. Impossible, of course, that one of these could have harboured a grudge against the unfortunate young man! Or that one of the slaves could have been bribed by someone not even present to slip poison into his wine?’ Cicero’s voice hardened. ‘I have heard that the young man made enemies as enthusiastically as he made love. So you must concede that the hostess of a banquet after which a guest dies must not necessarily be held responsible.’


Excerpt 4: pp 220-2

Down in the Forum Marcus Antonius, who had been Caesar’s right-hand man, forthright and open, declaimed over Caesar’s dead body. Cinna pushed his way through the jostling, excited multitude.

‘Anger did not brutalise Caesar,’ Antonius’ deep voice rang out with conviction, ‘nor good fortune corrupt him. Power did not alter him, nor authority change him. He has well been called the father of his country. Yet this father, this high priest, this inviolable being, this hero and god is dead! Dead, alas, not by the violence of disease, nor wasted by old age, nor wounded abroad in war, nor caught up by some supernatural force — but dead within the walls of Rome! This man, who safely led an army into Britain, has been cut down in the city; this man, bravest of warriors, has been killed while unarmed and defenceless. This man, whom no enemy succeeded in killing, has been done to death by his comrades, to whom he so often showed mercy.

‘Of what avail, Caesar, was your humanity?’ cried Antonius. ‘Of what avail your laws? You lie dead in the Forum through which you have so often led a triumph. Ah woe, for the bloodspattered grey locks, alas for the torn robe, which you assumed, it seems, only that you might be slain in it —’

At this the throng, excited and inflamed, rushed to seize Caesar’s body. They wanted to burn it in the place where he had been slaughtered. But the soldiers, fearing for the theatre and temples, fought them off and placed Caesar’s body upon a pyre there in the Forum.

The tumultuous scene swam before Cinna’s eyes. All about him men cursed and threatened death to the conspirators. In the grip of mass hysteria, they were capable of anything. The enraged faces bewildered him, the bestial roars deafened him. Weak and dizzy, his body had turned to water. Close by, someone called his name. ‘Cinna! Cinna!’

He turned. ‘Who calls me? I am Cinna.’ A man shouted. ‘It’s Cinna! One of the conspirators!’ A private furore struck those immediately around him. ‘Cinna! Cinna!’ rose the shout. Someone reached for him. ‘Cornelius Cinna! One of the murderers of our great Caesar. Kill him! Kill!’

‘I am not the Praetor Cornelius Cinna! I am Caius Helvius Cinna!’ he cried frantically, but his voice was lost in the roaring, collective bloodlust of the crowd.

‘Cinna, Cinna, kill him! Kill him!’ The chant gathered volume, enveloping all.

A crazed and brutal face closed on him. Hands went around Cinna’s throat, throttling out the life. Frenzied in their hatred, the crowd knew no mercy. They tore at his limbs.

‘Get back, get back, let me at him,’ shouted someone. ‘We’ll have his head …’


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