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Cleopatras daughter, p.22
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.22

           Michelle Moran
 

  He stepped down from the podium, and Julia watched with wide-eyed fascination. “What happens now?” she whispered.

  “That’s it,” Tiberius said.

  “What? No more arguing?” Marcellus asked.

  The crowd began to disperse, and Juba started walking. “No more until tomorrow.”

  “But how many days will it go on?” Julia asked.

  “As many as it takes.”

  She regarded Juba crossly. “But that could be a month. Even two months.”

  “It can’t be two months,” Tiberius retorted. “Courts shut down in November and December.”

  “So who decides when it’s over?” I asked.

  “The judices,” Gallia replied. Until then, she had been silent. Now she added quietly, “Those poor little children.”

  The next day, no one complained about going to the Forum. Even my brother and Julia were more interested in the fate of the two hundred slaves than in the races at the Circus Maximus. I could hear the people on the streets talking about Gaius Fabius’s slaves, and there seemed to be outrage, not at his murder, but at the trial. “Fifty-three children,” a woman said in the crowd. “It isn’t right.” Though we had arrived at the same time we had before, word had spread throughout Rome and more than a thousand people swelled around the podium and the judices’ seats.

  “Look how angry the people are! The judices have to set them free!” I exclaimed.

  “They don’t have to do anything,” Juba replied, leading us to the space behind the podium reserved for honored guests. This time, several senators were already there, watching the lawyers arguing. “The judices will make their decisions based on the principles of justice as they see them, not on the wishes of an angry mob.”

  “Then you agree with this?” I exclaimed.

  Juba looked at the miserable chain of slaves fettered by heavy iron shackles. Among them was a little brown-haired girl, who smiled when Juba met her gaze. “I agree with justice.”

  The lawyer for Gaius Fabius was at the podium, banging his fist against the wood. “Would you like to see the murderer?” he demanded, and the crowds cheered. “Bring him forth!”

  The guards stepped forward with a slave who was being held separately, and I whispered to Julia, “Is that one of the boys Fabius was beating at the temple?”

  “Who knows? All Gauls look the same.”

  I noticed Gallia shaking her head.

  Fabius’s lawyer pumped his fist in the air. “This is the slave responsible for the murder, and he doesn’t even deny it!” he cried. “Which of you thinks that a boy of fourteen could have done it on his own? Strangled his master, stabbed his master, then dumped his master’s body into the atrium pool?” There was a general shaking of heads, and the slave looked down at his feet. Like the kitchen boy, he knew he was lost. Then the lawyer inhaled, dramatically. “Who here believes that slaves are blind?” A few members of the crowd laughed, and I felt a familiar twisting in my stomach. “Then no one here believes that a murder could take place without anyone hearing. Without anyone suspecting. Without anyone ever seeing this filius nullius drag his master’s body away from his chamber! There are accomplices,” he promised. “And we must teach them Roman justice!” He strode away from the podium with the air of a man who knows he has won.

  The lawyer for Fabius’s slaves looked beaten before he even opened his mouth. His thin shoulders were hunched in his heavy toga, and he looked as if the heat of the day was draining him of color.

  “There is no knowing,” he began, “who saw or heard Gaius Fabius die. There is no one in this crowd who can tell me which of these slaves is an accomplice. Perhaps it was early morning, and while the elder slaves worked, it was the children who witnessed this terrible crime. I do not deny that this slave is responsible.” He flicked his wrist, and the guards took the boy away, holding him near the other slaves. I saw the boy look at an older woman, and felt certain from her tears that this was his mother.

  “But who here wishes to punish the innocent?” the lawyer went on. “The children who have never learned right from wrong?” There was an uneasy shuffling in the crowd, and the men who had laughed wore serious faces now. “It’s true that if you allow these slaves to be put to death, you are sending a message across Rome. But the message is that we are no different from barbarians!” I could see that he had been arguing all afternoon, and the strain was beginning to show. “Look at these faces,” he implored. “This one.” He stepped back and held up the chin of the beautiful girl who had smiled at Juba. “She can’t be more than six years old. What has she done to deserve death? She hasn’t even lived life!”

  I saw Gallia blinking back tears.

  “And this child,” the lawyer said. He touched the shoulder of a boy who was not more than ten. “What might he become if we let him live? He might serve another master well, he might buy his freedom. He might become as wealthy and powerful and useful as Caesar’s consul Agrippa!” There was an eager murmur in the crowd, and the lawyer fixed his gaze on the seven rows of judices. “Have pity,” he demanded. “Place blame on the shoulders it should rest on. Not upon the innocent!” He left the podium, and for several moments no one said anything.

  “Do you think a decision will be made tomorrow?” Marcellus asked.

  “It appears that way,” Juba said quietly, and I wondered whether he had been moved by the public lawyer’s plea.

  As we walked through the Forum, Julia said brightly, “Who would have thought a trial could be so interesting? Perhaps we should place bets.”

  For the first time, I saw Marcellus recoil in disgust.

  “What?” she said. “It’s no different from the arena.”

  “Perhaps I should not have bet there, either,” he said shortly, and Julia gave me a puzzled look.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  THE CROWD that came to witness the fate of Gaius Fabius’s two hundred slaves filled the Forum all the way from the courtyard of the Carcer to the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. We had been allowed to skip our time on the Campus Martius to hear the judices pronounce their verdict, and even Octavian came, with Livia and Agrippa.

  “Where are your sisters?” I asked Marcellus. “And why isn’t your mother here?”

  He stepped forward to get a better view. Although we were standing behind the raised wooden platform, hundreds of senators jostled around us. “Trials of this sort upset her,” he said. “And she’d never allow my sisters to come. They saw a man sentenced to death once and have never stopped talking about it.”

  “So you think they’ll be found guilty?” I worried.

  “Certainly the slave who killed Fabius. The others….” He hesitated. “I don’t know. It would be unfair to send them to their deaths.”

  “And what could the children possibly have done?” my brother added.

  “If the Red Eagle were here,” Marcellus whispered, “there would be acta on every temple door decrying this.”

  “Perhaps he’s waiting,” I suggested, “to see what the judices do.”

  Although Octavia had chosen not to come, the rest of Rome appeared to be in attendance. And because Octavian was with us, the lawyers spoke swiftly. Their last arguments were the most moving. Gaius Fabius’s lawyer pled for justice, pointing to Fabius’s wife in the crowd, who dabbed at her eyes. But the lawyer for the slaves begged for reason, reminding the judices of the children and old women who could not have taken part in a murder. I watched Octavian’s face as each judex stood to announce his verdict, and when all of them pronounced the slave boy guilty, he nodded, as if in agreement. There was a deafening cheer from the crowd, and the boy cast a fearful glance at his mother, who buried her face in her chained hands.

  “This is it,” Julia said. “I wonder what they’ll do.” She brushed a stray black curl from her forehead and stood on tiptoe to see the faces of the judices.

  The first judex stood and announced his verdict for the two hundred slaves. “Guilty,” he said, and I looked to O
ctavian, whose face was an expressionless mask. The second judex rose, and when he, too, pronounced a verdict of guilty, the people began to grow restless.

  “Perhaps we should leave,” Juba suggested as the third and fourth judex announced their verdicts of guilty.

  “Marcellus,” Octavian called sharply. “Tiberius. We’re leaving.”

  “But we haven’t even heard the verdict,” Julia complained.

  “Perhaps you would rather stay here and be killed?” Livia demanded.

  The crowd was growing increasingly discontent, and as more judices pronounced their verdict of guilty, some of the freedmen began the chant of “Red Eagle.”

  “Go!” Octavian shouted to us. “Go!”

  The Praetorian cleared a path through the Forum, but as the last judex announced his verdict, the freedmen and slaves became uncontrollable. I could hear the sounds of rioting behind us: statues being shattered, and soldiers clashing with the people. A wave of angry men rushed toward us, and Livia cried shrilly, “It’s Spartacus all over again!” Octavian took her arm, then the guards surrounded us and began to run. The angry slaves didn’t need weapons. All they needed was fire and stones.

  When we reached the Palatine, Octavia rushed from her portico. “What happened?” she cried.

  “Guilty,” Gallia replied, and Octavia went pale.

  “All two hundred will be put to death?” She looked at her brother.

  “That was their verdict.”

  “But don’t you think—?”

  His look silenced her. We followed him to the platform he had built to watch the races and saw a column of smoke rising from the Forum.

  “So the plebs are rioting again,” Tiberius remarked.

  Octavian clenched his jaw. “This will not be tolerated.”

  “It’s these slaves that are the problem,” Livia exclaimed. “They have to be controlled! Why not have them all wear one color. Or brand them?”

  “A third of Rome’s population is in servitude,” Juba reminded her. “Do you really want three hundred thousand slaves able to identify one another in the streets?”

  Octavian pursed his lips. “That’s right. They cannot be branded.”

  I stole a glance at Gallia, but her face was impossible to read.

  “What about a leniency in the laws?” Octavia asked.

  “And that would make these slaves less violent?” her brother shouted.

  Octavia stepped back. “Yes.” I could see that she was holding back tears. “If they feel that they have a place in court to challenge abusive masters, then perhaps it will.”

  Octavian looked to Marcellus. “And what would you do?” he asked suddenly. It was a test, and Marcellus glanced uneasily at his mother.

  “I would bring fewer slaves into Rome,” he said.

  Tiberius snorted. “And who would till the fields? Romans aren’t having children. The men don’t want to spend the denarii and the women don’t want stretch marks.”

  Marcellus laughed. “And how would you know that?”

  Tiberius flushed. “I … I listen.”

  “It’s true,” Octavia said quietly. Behind her, the thick column of smoke was widening. “Women don’t want the risk or the disfiguration.”

  Octavian clenched his jaw. “Then perhaps they need incentives.”

  “Such as what?” Tiberius asked under his breath. “A Festival of Fornication?” At Octavian’s look, he immediately fell silent.

  “Monetary incentives,” Agrippa said.

  “For having children?” Marcellus exclaimed.

  “There will be dangerous times,” Octavian warned darkly, “when there are more slaves than Romans.”

  “Then we should banish the Columna Lactaria,” Tiberius suggested. “Those children all become slaves. Imagine them all rising up—”

  “And tomorrow will be the real test,” Agrippa warned. He didn’t explain further, but when Gallia and Juba escorted us to the ludus the next morning, I realized what he’d meant.

  Julia covered her mouth with her hand, and Gallia made a poor attempt at suppressing a smile.

  “I don’t believe it,” Tiberius said.

  At every temple door, at every crossroads, crowds gathered to read the latest actum. Even on the doors of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, the Red Eagle and his men had nailed their pieces of papyrus. Juba clenched his jaw, and as soon as the plebs saw him approach, one of the acta was immediately torn down. The other one he ripped away himself.

  “I don’t understand,” my brother said. “Why aren’t the priests taking them down?”

  “They’re afraid to anger the plebs,” Julia whispered. “And even if the acta are taken down, people are probably copying them as we speak.”

  When Juba returned with the crumpled actum, Marcellus asked eagerly, “What does it say?”

  “Nothing you need to know about.”

  “But we’re going to read it anyway,” Tiberius argued as we crossed the Forum. “If not now, then at some other point.”

  “We just want to be aware of what’s happening in Rome,” Julia pleaded. “Magister Verrius is always telling us to pay attention.”

  Juba smiled. “I doubt that reading treachery was what he meant.”

  “But these are all over,” Marcellus argued. “There’s dozens of them. Do you want us to be the only people in Rome who don’t know what the Red Eagle is saying?”

  “My father wouldn’t care,” Julia promised as we reached the ludus. “He never keeps these things from us.” It was true. In the triclinium, there was nothing Octavian wouldn’t discuss, from banishing lupanaria from Rome to prosecuting adulteresses. “This is how we learn.”

  Juba handed the scroll to her. “I’ll be interested in hearing what this teaches you.”

  Everyone gathered around Julia. There was no harm in reading, only in speaking, and the five of us read in low voices. It began with a stern warning against murder.

  There are a thousand other ways to get revenge. While I cannot advocate stealing from your masters, thievery comes in many different forms. Your lives have been stolen from you. Why, then, should you break your backs attempting to meet the demands of your masters? If it’s a farm you work on, be slow with the wheat. If it’s a lender you work for, make your records faulty. You cannot be punished for stealing time, or for simple accidents with the reed pen. And if you fear death at the hands of your enslavers, remember, death can come even when you are innocent. Do not forget the two hundred slaves who will die tomorrow with no blood on their hands. Women, children, infants still too young to walk.

  The actum went on to list the name of every slave who would be executed at dawn.

  “This is terrible,” I whispered.

  “How did he find out the name of every slave?” Alexander wondered.

  “Are we finished?” Juba demanded. “Or would we like to go on discussing this in the open Forum?”

  Inside the ludus, Magister Verrius was waiting at his desk. He didn’t stand to greet us, and he looked as though he’d had very little sleep.

  “Did you hear about the Red Eagle?” Julia asked eagerly.

  “Yes,” Magister Verrius said curtly. “And I presume he is the reason we’re all late this morning?”

  “But we had to read it!” Marcellus protested.

  Magister Verrius held up his hand. “I don’t want to know. Just take your seats and begin your work.”

  Tiberius hesitated in front of his desk. “There’s not going to be a contest today?”

  Magister Verrius shook his head firmly. “No.”

  That evening, Octavian’s mood was sour as well.

  “What’s the matter with everyone?” Julia asked.

  Although a harpist’s music filled the triclinium, Marcellus lowered his voice. “What do you think? Tomorrow, two hundred innocent slaves are to be executed.”

  She broke open an oyster and dipped it in garum sauce. “So how does that affect my father?”

  Octavian had invited his favorite
poets to entertain him. Livy and Maecenas dined next to Horace and Vergil, but even their humor couldn’t make him laugh. I saw Terentilla reach for a glass bowl, and when her hand brushed Octavian’s, he still didn’t smile.

  “He thought he had crucified the Red Eagle,” Marcellus guessed, “and now that the rebel has returned, he’s nervous about what might happen tomorrow.”

  “I don’t see how he can free them,” my brother said practically. “They’re chained inside the Carcer.”

  “And they’ll be taken by more than a hundred soldiers to the Esquiline Gate for crucifixion,” Julia added. “There isn’t any hope.”

  But Marcellus wasn’t sure. “He’s managed it before.”

  “Without his own soldiers, he’ll never manage this,” my brother said.

  At the table next to us, Livia rose and addressed the diners. “Shall we hear the first poem of the night? Horace, give us something triumphant.”

  A balding man stood up from his couch and took his place in the center of the chamber. “Triumphant,” he said musingly. “But which one of Caesar’s many triumphs?”

  “The Battle of Actium,” Livia said. “Or Kleopatra’s death.”

  Horace smiled. “An ode, then, to Queen Kleopatra.”

  Marcellus looked from me to Alexander.

  “We should leave,” I said immediately, but Julia put her hand on my arm.

  “Livia wants my father to be upset with you. Don’t risk it,” she whispered.

  “His mood is already dark,” Marcellus warned quietly. “Just stay, and try not to listen.”

  But it was impossible to ignore the lies that Horace twisted into a poem.

  When Horace was finished, my brother looked at me. Although the poem had begun by portraying our mother as a “drugged” queen, the last three stanzas praised her as a warrior who accepted her death unflinchingly. Horace bowed his head respectfully in our direction, and Octavian stood up from his couch to applaud.

 
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