Novels Excerpts

Last updated VII Octobris 2012.

  1. The journey from my house on the Esquiline Hill to that of Cicero, close by the Capitoline, would take more than an hour of steady walking. It had probably taken Tiro half that time to reach my door, but Tiro had set out at dawn. We left at the busiest hour of the morning, when the streets of Rome are flooded with humanity, all stirred into wakefulness by the perpetual engines of hunger, obedience, and greed.

    One sees more household slaves on the streets at that hour than at any other time of day. They scurry about the city on a million morning errands, conveying messages, carrying packages, fetching sundries, shipping from market to market. They carry with them the heavy scent of bread, baked fresh in a thousand stone ovens around the city, each oven sending up its slender tendril of smoke like a daily offering to the gods. They carry the scent of fish, freshwater varieties captured nearby in the Tiber, or else more exotic species transported overnight upriver from the port at Ostia – mud-caked mollusks and great fish of the sea, slithering octopi and squid. They carry the scent of blood that oozes from the severed limbs and breasts and carefully extracted organs of cattle, chicken, pigs, and sheep, wrapped in cloth and slung over their shoulder, destined for their masters' tables and their masters' already bloated bellies.

    No other city I know can match the sheer vitality of Rome at the hour just before midmorning. Rome wakes with a self-satisfied stretching of the limbs and a deep inhalation, stimulating the lungs, quickening the pulse. Rome wakes with a smile, roused from pleasant dreams, for every night Rome goes to sleep dreaming a dream of empire. In the morning Rome opens her eyes, ready to go about the business of making that dream come true in broad daylight. Other cities cling to sleep – Alexandria and Athens to warm dreams of the past, Pergamum and Antioch to a coverlet of Oriental splendor, little Pompeii and Herculaneum to the luxury of napping till noon. Rome has work to do. Rome is an early riser.

    from the second chapter of Roman Blood by Steven Saylor
    Copyright © Steven Saylor

  2. "Anyway, was it really an oversight?" Helena asked sometime later – a girl not easily deflected. If she was thinking that letting me kiss her had softened me up, she was right.

    "Forgetting to mention Anacrites? Certainly. I don't lie to you."

    "Men always say that."

    "Sounds as if you've been talking to Thalia. I can't be held responsible for all the other lying bastards."

    "And usually you say it in the middle of an argument."

    "So you reckon it's just the line I use? Wrong, lady! But even if that were true, we do need to preserve a few escape routes! I want us to survive together," I told her piously. (Frank talk always disarmed Helena, since she expected me to be devious.) "Don't you?"

    "Yes," she said. Helena never messed me around playing coy. I could tell her that I loved her without feeling embarrassed, and I knew I could rely on her to be equally frank: she thought I was unreliable. Despite that she added, "A girl doesn't come this far across the world with a mere Thursday-afternoon dalliance!"

    I kissed her again. "Thursday afternoons? Is that when senator's wives and daughters have free run of the gladiators' barracks?" Helena wriggled furiously, which might have led to more playfulness had our backing rock seat not lain right alongside a well-beaten track. A stone fell somewhere. We both remembered the voices we had heard, and were afraid their owners might be coming back. I did wonder if I could take us off up the hillside, but its steepness and stoniness looked unpromising.

    I loved traveling with Helena – except for the frustrating series of small cabins and cramped hired rooms where we never felt free to make love. Suddenly I was longing for our sixth-floor tenement apartment, where few interlopers struggled up the stairs and only rooftop pigeons could overhear.

    "Let's go home!"

    "What – to our rented room?"

    "To Rome."

    "Don't be silly," scoffed Helena. "We're going up to see the mountaintop."

    My only interest in the mountaintop had been the possibilities it offered for grappling Helena. Nevertheless I put on my serious traveler's face and we continued uphill.

    The summit was announced by a pair of unequal obelisks. Perhaps they represented gods. If so, they were crude, mysterious, and definitely alien to the human-featured Roman pantheon. They appeared to have been created not by transporting stones here, but by carving away the entire surrounding rock bed to a depth of six or seven meters to leave these dramatic sentinels. The effort involved was staggering, and the final effect eerie. They were unidentical twins, one slightly taller, one flared at the base. Beyond lay some sort of strongly built building that we preferred not to investigate in case it was occupied by priests honing sacrificial knives.

    We climbed on, reaching the ceremonial area by a steep flight of steps. This brought us out onto a windswept promontory. On all sides the high, airy rock offered staggering views of the circlet of harsh mountains within which Petra lies. We had emerged on the north side of a slightly sunken rectangular court. Around it had been cut three benches, presumably for spectators, like the triple couches in a formal dining room. Ahead of us lay a raised platform on which were display offerings that we tactfully ignored. To the right, steps led to the main altar. There a tall column of black stone represented the god. Beyond him lay another, larger, round altar like a basin cut from the living rock, connected by a channel to a rectangular water tank.

    By now my imagination was working at a hairy pace. I hoped I was impervious to awe-striking locations and sinister religions, but I had been to Britain, Gaul, and Germany; I knew more than I wanted about unpleasant pagan rites. I grasped Helena's hand as the wind buffeted us. She walked fearlessly out onto the sunken court, gazing at the spectacular views as if we were on some balustraded vista provided for the convenience of summer tourists above the Bay of Surrentum.

    I was wishing we were. This place gave me a bad feeling. It aroused no sense of reverence. I hate ancient sites where creatures have long been slain for the grim delight of monolithic gods. I especially hate them when the local populace like to pretend, as the Nabateans did with great relish, that some of the creatures they sacrificed could have been human. Even at that point I felt alert, as if we were walking into trouble.

    There was trouble at Dushara's shrine all right, though it did not yet directly involve us. We still had time to avoid it – though not for much longer.

    "Well, this is it, my darling. Let's go back now."

    But Helena had spied some new feature. She pushed her hair back out of her eyes and dragged me over to look. To the south of the ceremonial area lay another rectangular reservoir. This one apparently drained the summit to provide an ample supply of fresh water for the ties of sacrifice. Unlike the rest of the High Place, this cistern was occupied.

    The man in the water could have been taking a swim in the sunlight. But as soon as I spotted him I knew that he was not floating there for pleasure or exercise.

    from the sixth chapter of Last Act in Palmyra by Lindsey Davis
    Copyright © Lindsey Davis

  3. I
    Among Titius Sabiuns the Senator's clients was a young Greek sculptor of great promise named Callianax, and he attended in his patron's audience hall one morning in obvious distress of mind. After speaking to him, Sabinus sent for Sollius, his famous slave.

    "Do your utmost for this good client of mine," he commanded. "He will tell you the trouble himself."

    Sollius led Callianax to a retired path between cypresses in the garden.

    "What is it, O Callianax?"

    "I am like to be ruined," signed the young sculptor. "I pray the gods you can help me, Slave Detective."

    "I am under my master's command," smiled Sollius, "to do my best for you. But you must tell me everything and hide nothing."

    "I promise you that," replied Callianax, "for only the discovery of the truth will help me. Do you know a village, not too far from Rome, named Tres Aquae?"

    "Very well," said Sollius. "I had a case there once."

    "At Tres Aquae there is a large farming estate belonging to a man named Tenantius. After three or four disastrous years of blight and other troubles, which reduced him almost to bankruptcy, his luck suddenly changed, and he – or, rather, his wife, a superstitious woman – put it down to the direct intervention of the goddess Pomona to whom the wife had secretly sacrificed. Tenantius himself believes in neither gods nor goddesses. Nevertheless, he was persuaded by his wife, for he is an uxorious man and she a very beautiful woman, to set up an altar, with a figure of Pamona [sic] upon it, in his garden. For this purpose he invited three or four of us sculptors in Rome to submit designs. I was one of those who competed. But the winner was a rival of mine, Melantios from Sicily."

    Callianax paused a moment, and Sollius saw his hands were clenched in his emotion.

    "Now, this altar and figure of Pomona," Callianax went on, "were smashed to pieces three nights ago. They had been set up only two days previously. I am accused of their destruction, and Tenantius is suing me for their value. It will ruin me, and I am innocent."

    "How do you come to be accused?"

    "I was found near the shattered statue. You see, I have a girl in Tres Aquae, and had been visiting her. It was a night of brilliant moon-glow and, leaving her, I had the impulse to look at my rival's completed work. I trespassed into Tenantius's garden and was horrified to see the broken beauty. I was still staring at it in shocked amazement when Tenantius himself, unable to sleep, came out on to the terrace and saw me – and accused me at once of the deed. He still will not believe my denial, and demands from me the amount that he paid Melantios. I just cannot pay it. Artists are poor men. But if I do not pay it, my portion is prison – perhaps for ever. O Sollius, only you can save me."

    "How was the statue smashed?"

    "As though by an iron mace or hammer. The altar itself was cracked in twain. I had no hammer, nor anything like one, with me. I pointed that out, but Tenantius said I could have thrown it away and that he would have the bushes about well searched. What he may have found by now, I do not know – but, by the club of Heracles, it'll be nothing of mine!"

    "Were the altar and statue of marble?" asked Sollius, and the sculptor nodded. "Well, I will go to Tres Aquae today, O Callianax."

    "Shall I come with you?" asked Callianax eagerly?

    "Stay in Rome," curtly replied the Slave Detective.


    Accompanied by Lucius, his usual assistant, Sollius arrived at the farm of Tenantius just after midday. Tenantius received him with bluff goodwill.

    "But I've done your work for you," he said. "Callianax did it. Oh, not a doubt. Why? Out of jealousy. But if it wasn't Callianax, it was someone else. If it was, find him – and I'll reward you. Burrow here as much as you need. I want the right man punished. Ah, here is my wife, Pompilia, my dear, this is the Slave Detective. Don't say you've never heard of him! He is here to find out the truth about young Callianax and your altar. Pomona may have healed my fields, but she didn't save herself, did she?" he guffawed, and then, seeing his wife's stricken face, he patted her hand and added: "There, my dear, I regret this evil deed as much as you do. To your work, Slave Detective!"

    "Lady, have you a known enemy?" asked Sollius, and her widened eyes told him that she knew of none.

    "Do you trust your slaves, O Tenantius?"

    "Every one of 'em! Truth doesn't lurk behind that door."

    "It may lurk behind any door," said Sollius sententiously. "May I see the damage"?

    "I will take you to it. I've left it exactly as I found it."

    "That is well," approved Sollius.

    The remains of the broken altar lay at the end of a long, narrow, gravelled terrace to the south of the house. It had a shapely pedestal, cracked down the centre, and the statue of Pomona lay in a litter of marble fragments about it. The strength used must, thought Sollius, have been very great or madly violent. But sculptors, he remembered, had to be men of a certain power of hand and arm. Standing by the ruins stood a tall slave. He had a long-handled smith's hammer in his grip, and as his master approached he saluted, and had a satisfied grin on his face.

    "I found it, master! 'Twere in the bushes by the pool yonder." And he pointed to an ornamental pool at a little distance among overhanging trees and bushes.

    "Well done, Dromius!"

    "I guessed 'twere this, master. 'Twere missing when I looked for it to drive in the pegs for the new fencing."

    It was a heavy weapon and Sollius had no doubt that it had been used to destroy the statue and altar. He stood starting at the fragments, subconsciously missing something. Then it came to him.

    "Where is the head?" he asked.

    "The head?" repeated Tenantius.

    They searched among the fragments.

    "There is no head – and no parts of a head, Sollius," said Lucius.

    They all looked puzzled, and Dromius stood open-mouthed.

    "Where can it be?" he gasped, and went down to his knees to make a closer search. But quite in vain, no trace of the head was found. "O risen Lord," Dromius breathed, getting to his feet again, "a miracle!"

    Sollius stroked his chin, then he turned away.

    "I must see the sculptor," he said to Tenantius.

    "He is in the house," was the unexpected answer.

    "Hercules!" exclaimed Sollius.

    "He is in bed," said Tenantius gravely. "He was set upon last night and severely knocked about. He had come to see the damage done to his work, and was attacked just down the lane when he left to return to Rome. Dromius, by luck, heard his cries and rushed out to his help. The assailant ran away. Melantios is pretty sorry for himself. I'll take you to him."

    Melantios was bandaged round the head, but appeared not to be seriously hurt.

    "This," announced the farmer, "is the Slave Detective. He has come to discover the truth about your altar. He seems to think that Callianax is not the man."

    "If it was not the jealous Callianax, who was it?" grumbled Melantios. "He was eaten up with jealousy when you preferred my design, O Tenantius."

    "Where there no other sculptors who submitted designs?" Sollius asked.

    "A few," Tenantius replied, "but Melantios and Callianax were ahead of them all. It lay between them – and they knew it. I still suspect Callianax."

    "Was it Callianax who attacked you, O Melantios?"

    "I did not see the man – he struck me so quickly – but he was about his height and bulk."

    "If Callianax can prove he was in Rome last night," pursued Sollius, "who else would come to your mind as a possible assailant?"

    "I can think of no one else," replied Melantios.

    Sollius questioned him no more, and presently left the farm to return to the city. He was ruminative all the way in.

    "Do you think that Callianax did it?" Lucius ventured to ask him as they neared Sabinus's great mansion on the Esquiline.

    "I have a certain suspicion concerning the whole matter," the Slave Detective replied, "but before I make up my mind, there is a lot to find out. I cannot fit in the attack on Melantios. Come, we will not return to our master's house yet, but go to visit Callianax."

    They changed direction towards Callianax's flat near the heart of Rome in a high, tiled building that abutted on to a stone-mason's yard which the sculptor used as his studio.

    "Who is it you suspect?" asked Lucius.

    "Not so fast, my lad. But you heard and saw everything that I did. I am not going to be laughed at for a bad guess – and at present it is only a guess. Still . . ." And his voice rumbled into silence.

    They found the sculptor at work in his yard, a burly slave assisting him to move a block of marble.

    "A few questions, Callianax..." began Sollius.

    "As many as I can answer!" replied the sculptor.

    "Were you here in Rome last night?"

    Callianax hesitated.

    "I was with my girl at Tres Aquae," he answered at last.

    "I feared so," said Sollius.

    "Why do you say that?"

    Sollius told him of the attack on Melantios.

    "It was not I!" And Callianax swore it by a dozen Gods.

    "Has Melantios a particular enemy?"

    "Only myself," answered Callianax grimly.

    "Which confession does not help me," sighed Sollius. "And there is the mystery of the head," he pursed, and then, seeing the young Greek's puzzled glance, related how the head of Pomona was missing from among the fragments.

    The slave working near by came and tugged at Callianax's tunic.

    "What is it, Rufus? I am busy now."

    "Master, you've forgotten Aulus Regulus."

    "Castor and Pollux, I had!" exclaimed Callianax. "Listen, Slave Detective; if the head of Pomona is missing you will not have seen its features. But Melantios had found the most beautiful girl in Rome – by the Gods so! – for his model. She is a young dancing-girl named Dulcia, and she is the particular friend of Aulus Regulus, the son of a rich merchant. I know that Regulus resented the girl sitting to Melantios."

    "Where can I find this Aulus Regulus?" asked Sollius.

    "No doubt at his father's house near the Palatine Bridge. Anyone about there will direct you."

    Sollius and Lucius found the house without difficulty. The porter handed them on to a domestic slave, who took them to the apartment of his young master. Aulus Regulus was a handsome man of just over twenty.

    "What do you want with me?" he demanded haughtily. "You are both slaves, as far as I can see. Do you bring me a message from your master – whoever he may be?"

    "I am the slave known as the Slave Detective," replied Sollius urbanely, "and I would ask you one or two questions, lord."

    Regulus had started at the revelation.

    "I cannot understand what the famous Slave Detective can want of me," he said, still haughtily, but he had paled a little.

    Sollius had been gazing round the room, his eyes suddenly gleamed.

    "That is a fine piece of sculpture, lord," he said, pointing to a small head in white marble placed upon a table of polished bronze.

    "I collect sculpture," said Regulus.

    "An antique? I see it is broken at the neck."

    "I found it in Athens – when studying there last year."

    "I think not, lord; but at Tres Aquae last night."

    "You insolent fellow! How dare you doubt my word?"

    "Was it you, lord, who struck down Melantios – the carver of it?"

    Regulus raised his hand to slap Sollius across the face, but Lucius caught at the young man's arm and twisted it.

    "You rat, let me go!" cried the angered Regulus.

    "I am only requesting your answer, lord," said Sollius quietly. "But the City Prefect – at a word from me – will compel it. Release him, lad! Well?"

    Regulus covered his face with his hands and swayed a little on his feet.

    "If it must come out, it must," he muttered, and began pacing about the chamber. "Melantios – the Gods rot him! – dared to use my girl as his model for the statue of Pomona in the garden of Tenantius. It was against my wishes. But stubborn vanity is the true heart of a girl, and Dulcia disobeyed me. I bore it as a proud man should. But report speaking of the statue as having a remarkable beauty, I could not resist my curiosity. Tres Aquae is not too far for an evening's excursion, and last night being a night of so brilliant an aspect that I could see the statue as well as in full daylight, I drove out – and secretly entered Tenantius's garden to take a look. What I found was beyond amazement: the whole altar and statue in fragments. You must believe me when I say that I had nothing to do with that."

    "I do believe you, lord."

    "Suddenly I noticed," Regulus went on, "that its head had fallen intact except for its breaking at the neck. I picked it up and examined it. Dulcia is very beautiful, and the head was hers to the life. I could not resist the impulse and brought it back; I am not repentant."

    "Lord, but Melantios?"

    "I am equally unrepentant. It chanced that he came out of Tenantius's farm gate as I passed by to my chariot. I could not resist the temptation to pay him out for making my girl his model against my expressed will. I let fly with my fist, and if he fell more heavily than I had meant. Well, I assume he is not killed."

    "He is not killed, lord."

    "Have I explained everything?' laughed Regulus, patting Sollius on the back in recovered good humour.

    "I have heard, lord, what I expected to hear," replied Sollius, and he and Lucius departed.

    "You are no nearer, Sollius, to discovering who smashed the statue," said Lucius as they trudged along.

    "There are many strange people in the world," the Slave Detective replied, "and they have strange reasons for doing what they do. Ask yourself, Lucius, why the statue and altar were destroyed. Tomorrow we go to see Tenantius again."

    They presented themselves next day once more at the farm of Tenantius, and found him supervising the new fencing of which Dromius had spoken when finding the long-handled hammer. Most of the stakes had by now been driven deep into the ground, and Dromius and three or four other slaves were at work on the last few.

    "Is Callianax not yet in prison?" Tenantius called out as soon as he saw Sollius and Lucius approaching.

    "Callianax is innocent," returned Sollius with certainty in his voice.

    "But who would attack Melantios if not he?"

    "Another man altogether. I have found him – a Roman whose girl Melantios had used to model for Pomona, a man maddened by jealousy."

    "Well, I suppose," grumbled Tenantius, removing his wide-brimmed straw hat and ruffling his scanty hair, "I must believe the word of the Slave Detective. But if you know so much, do you know more? Do you know who did destroy my statue?"

    "It will help you little to know, O Tenantius!"

    "I can be compensated."

    "Not by this culprit," said Sollius.

    "By any culprit who walks on two legs," cried Tenantius. "No man shall cheat me and go unpunished. The law protects a man's property."

    "Nothing can restore a destroyed work of art, O Tenantius."

    "I do not expect that. But I am due for compensation."

    "I think you will not be compensated, but you may take revenge. Will you summon your household? All should hear the truth together, so that rumour shall not lay too many eggs."

    "The fencing must be finished," grumbled the farmer.

    "Many of your slaves are here," replied Sollius. "Let the rest of them – with your wife and family – assemble with them."

    Irritably Tenantius sent one of the slaves working with him into the house, and presently all his slaves and servants, together with his wife and two sons, aged fifteen and thirteen, stood in a semicircled before the Slave Detective. With them came a pale Melantios, not yet fully recovered.

    "Ah, Melantios," grunted Tenantius, "this Slave Detective is about to tell us who smashed your statue and cracked your head."

    "The same mad wretch, I suppose," said Melantios.

    Suddenly Tenantius straightened himself and glared at Sollius.

    "By Pan – and Pomona herself – are you telling me that one of my own household did it? Be careful, Slave Detective!"

    "Callianax," replied Sollius firmly, "is the client of my master, Titius Sabinus the Senator, and I am here to establish his innocence."

    "It was a crime of jealousy," Melantios insisted, as though he took pride in the fact. "Do you dispute it?"

    "It was a deeper crime than that," the Slave Detective replied, "and when I bring it into the light it will be found no crime of malice or envy."

    Both Melantios and Tenantius stared at him, and the former made a contemptuous gesture as he said" "Nevertheless I was attacked!"

    "I speak of the crime of which Callianax is accused," answered Sollius. "The attack on you was over a girl – your model for Pomona."

    "But if not Callianax – burst out Tenantius.

    "One in your household is a Christian," announced Sollius.

    "It is I!" cried Dromius boldly. "I admit the deed. In the name of my Lord, I destroyed a heathen idol."

    "I heard you call upon your Lord," said Sollius quietly.

    Tenantius had Dromius whipped nigh to death, but if the slave was a martyr, the Church has never kept his day.

    from "The Case of the Missing Head" by Wallace Nichols
    Copyright © Wallace Nichols

  4. "Have you lost your minds completely?" Xantippus snapped at his pupils. "By Jupiter and all of the immortal gods, what am I supposed to do with a slave? After contending with you the whole day long, I'm glad at last to be alone and have a little peace when evening comes. Or maybe you want to play a trick on me. A thousand cats on your backs!" he threatened, and cast a suspicious look at the slave cowering, motionless, on a chair in the background.

    The boys were hurt. They thought Xantippus would be delighted with a slave. Instead, he was snarling at them. So that was their thanks for having saved their pocket money for months to give their teacher something extra nice for his fiftieth birthday!

    Xantippus's real name was Xanthos. A well-known mathematician, he was in great demand as a tutor for the sons of rich Roman patricians. Because he was expensive and exclusive, he had at present only seven pupils. These were Mucius, Caius, Publius, Julius, Flavius, Rufus, and Antonius. They all lived on the Esquiline Hill, where many rich senators kept luxurious villas. The boys had given Xanthos the nickname Xantippus because he reminded them so much of Xantippe, the wife of the world-renowned Greek philosopher Socrates, who is said to have soured her husband's life with her ceaseless nagging. Xantippus soured his pupil's lives. He was a crabby, hard taskmaster, and he was rarely satisfied. Today once again he was showing his blackest side. They boys had been so proud of their slave idea that they had brought him along to school this morning. They had even gone so far as to buy him a new tunic. The lessons began before sunrise, and now they were sitting at their desks tired and confused and not knowing what to say.

    Outside, dawn was glowing faintly. The streets were empty. A few carts pulled by mules and stacked high with lemons and oranges rumbled over the bumpy cobblestone streets in the direction of the farmers' market at the Tiber River. Somewhere in the Subura, the district where the poor lived, a rooster crowed. From a distance, behind Viminal Hill where the Praetorian Guard had their barracks, the provocative call of a military reveille blared form a trumpet. Then it was still again. Only the wind could be heard, rustling in the cypresses on the Field of Mars.

    from the fourth chapter of Mystery of the Roman Ransom by Henry Winterfeld
    Copyright © Henry Winterfeld

  5. As we neared my house the two "drunks" behind us began to walk more quickly, losing their wobbly gait in the process. The moment we passed the corner shrine, Hermes broke into a sprint and I hurried after him, considerably hampered by my toga. I would have cast it aside, but a good toga is ruinously expensive. Besides, the cumbersome garment is not without its uses in a brawl. I almost made it to my gate before they caught up to me. When I sensed they were within arm's reach, I whirled, unwilling to risk a knife in my back as I went through the gate.

    My move was unexpected and they checked their pursuit, almost skidding on the cobbles. Even so, the one on the right barely escaped impaling himself on the dagger I held out at full extension. Both men had knives in their hands, short sicas curved like the tusk of a boar. While the two stood disconcerted, I whipped off my toga and whirled it, wrapping my left forearm with a thick pad and leaving a couple of feet of it dangling below.

    "What will it be, citizens?" I asked. "Shall we play or would you rather walk away in one piece?" As usual, frustration and puzzlement had put me in just the right mood for brawl. Sometimes I am amazed that I survived those days.

    They hadn't been expecting this, which meant they didn't know my reputation. Both men wore short tunics, the exomis that leaves one shoulder and half the chest bare. Both had identical scrubby beards and pointed, brimmed felt caps. In a word: peasants.

    "Leave off this snooping, Metellus," said the one on the right, waving his blade at me.

    "Get out of Rome and leave be," said the other. They had an accent I had heard before but could not quite place. But then, every village in Latium, even those within a few miles of Rome, spoke its own distinctly accented brand of Latin.

    "Who sent you?" I asked. The one on the left tried to slide in, but I snapped a corner of my toga at his eyes and took advantage of the distraction to cut the other one, nicking him lightly on the hand. The left-hand peasant got over his surprise and took a cut at me. He was creditably skillful, but not quite fast enough. I blocked with my impromptu shield and punched him in the nose with my wool-wrapped fist. The other slashed toward my flank, but I jumped back and evaded the stroke. They weren't as unskilled as their appearance suggested. If they got their attack coordinated, I knew, they would get to me soon.

    "Back off, you louts!" The cry came from behind me and a second later Hermes was beside me, my army gladius in his right hand, the moonlight gleaming along its lethal edges. "You two may be terrors in your home village, but you're in the big city now!" He grinned and twirled the sword in his hand, an excellent act, considering he had no slightest knowledge of swordplay. But he loved to hang around Milo's thugs, and he knew their moves.

    Now thoroughly disconcerted, the two backed away. "Stop poking into things as don't concern you, Metellus," said one of the rustic gemini. "If you don't, there'll be more of us back soon. Leave Rome now, if you want to live." With that, the two backed to the end of the block, then turned and darted around the corner and were gone.

    "That was well done, Hermes," I said, as we walked the few steps to my gate. "I really must get you enrolled in the ludus. I think you'll do well.
    We went inside and barred the gate. Cato and Cassandra stood there, blinking, wakened by the commotion from a sound sleep, "What is it, Master?" Cato asked shakily.

    "A couple of cutthroats," I told him, holding my toga out to Cassandra. "There may be some cuts in need of reweaving."

    She took it, yawning. "I hope there aren't any bloodstains this time. That's always the hard part, getting the blood out."

    "None of mine," I assured her. "But I punched one of them in the nose and he may have bled on it."

    "Who cares whose blood it is?" she grumbled. "Blood's blood."

    Yes, my tearful welcome home was definitely a thing of the past.

    from the sixth chapter of Saturnalia by John Maddox Roberts
    Copyright © John Maddox Roberts

  6. He wiped the sweat from his eyes on the sleeve of his tunic. Such shimmering, feverish heavens they had here in the south! Even this close to daybreak, a great hemisphere of stars swept down to the horizon. He could see the horns of Taurus, and the belt and sword of the Hunter; there was Saturn, and also the Bear, and the constellation they called the Vintager, which always rose for Caesar on the twenty-second day of August, folowing the Festival of Vinalia, and signaled that it was time to harvest the wine. Tomorrow night the moon would be full. He raised his hand to the sky, his blunt-tipped fingers black and sharp against the glittering constalleations – spread them, clenched the, spread them again – and for a moment it seemed to him that he was the shadow, the nothing; the light was the substance.

    From down in the harbor came the spalsh of oars as the night watch rowed between the moored triremes. The yellow lanterns of a couple of fishing boats winked across the bay. A dog barked and another answeroed.

    from the first chapter of Pompeii by Robert Harris
    Copyright © Robert Harris

Published since June 1994.