"I hate this course," Jesse said. She closed her textbook with a snap. "Roman history is a confusing mess."
"You mean it is not like current political history?" Kalliste Periakes said. She was standing at the stove in the back of the Women's Co-op, a graduate student in archaeology of indeterminate age. She had lustrous black hair, a pert, up-turned nose and a generous mouth. Today she was cooking a dish from her native Crete.
"Current politics seems simple," Jesse replied. "I have to take this Roman History course so I can get that job I want, and I don't know why."
"Which job is that?" Anna asked. She was a young woman with the hard-eyes of one who had seen too much of the ugly side of life. She ran the Women's Co-op, though today you wouldn't know it; she was peeling potatoes just like two other women.
"I had a recruiter from the CIA talk to me," Jesse said. "Oh, they're not recruiting spies or anything like that, they want analysts who are fluent in reading foreign languages. You should talk to them, Kalliste, they'd like you."
Kalliste shared an amused look with the woman who was tending the stove with her. "I don't think so. I'll stick with archaeology. What about you, Kit? Interested in being a spy?"
Kit shook her head. "Life as a spy is too complicated for me." She looked at Jesse. "You'll do well. You're the kind of person they're looking for." She went back to browning the meat in the griddle. "This is almost ready."
"What am I supposed to learn from this course?" Jesse asked. "There's not one shred of evidence that Suetonius was right, you know. It's all just gossip."
"Always pay attention to gossip," Kit said. "If you do you'll go far." She glanced at Kalliste. "Why don't you tell them that story about spying in Rome."
"Oh, no, I couldn't--"
"A story?" Jesse brightened up. "Why not? It's got to be better than this textbook."
"A story." Kalliste put down her ladle and wiped her hands. She and Kit shared a smile before Kalliste poured herself a cup of tea and settled in a chair. "Spying and Rome. It wasn't so much being a spy as being a servant."
"They're much the same thing," Kit said. "The one I'm thinking about is a good one."
Kalliste chuckled. "Sure. I know one, and it even tells you why history is important."
The Romans prided themselves on their Republic. They prided themselves on it under all the Caesars from Augustus to Hadrian. They believed the fiction that they had a say in the way their lives were run. They thought this even when the legions were dictating who wore the purple and the Senate was competing to see who could lick Caesar's boots. This fiction helped keep Rome strong as she reached for the entire world.
The strains of the wars with Carthage had rent the social fabric of Rome; it did not need a genius to see that. But only a genius like Octavian could mend it in the only way that would work if Rome were not to collapse on itself in an orgy of blood and fire. It was not his fault that everything he seized was sitting there for the taking. Octavian was not the only man who saw the opportunity, but he was the only one who had the courage and the brains to seize it.
I was living in Egypt, in Alexandria, in the center of the city just a few squares away from Cleopatra's palace. I had a set of rooms above an olive merchant, which I found ironically appropriate in ways I could not tell him.
My life was busy from dawn to dusk. In the previous few years I had made a living sending cargoes to India, trading oils and unguents for silks and spices It was a profitable trade, and I had stashed away a great deal of silver.
Others had gone broke trusting to trade in the Middle Sea; what with the civil wars and other unrest this struck me as too risky. Instead I concentrated on things that earned the Ptolemeys huge profits with low risks. As such I was known at Court, at least in the lower circles. The Ptolemeys did not inquire too closely where their wealth came from, nor did they seek to tax it to death for an immediate gain. For all of this I was suitably grateful--in cold cash, of course.
The Court itself had been up to its collective eyeballs in intrigue with the Romans. Cleopatra was walking a very fine line between independence and sufferance. The Romans coveted Egypt for its food and wealth, but they knew enough to recognize fighting over it could destroy the very thing they were after. And so they approached this conquest the way an experienced man approaches a virgin bride, carefully, cautiously, and with many flattering words and gestures. Cleopatra tried to play one side against the other in the Roman civil war. At first she seemed successful, but years of being dragged around by the Diadochi taught me something of military affairs, and I soon saw that no matter how Cleopatra twisted and schemed, Egypt was going to be Roman. The only thing that had not been determined was the price Egypt would pay.
I had been through this in Assyria. With that in mind I made certain preparations so I would not lose no matter how fared the rest of the land. In short, I made myself indispensable. I did not ask that my own goods be given preferential treatment as others did. Drawing attention to my business was only certain to excite some greedy Roman like Lepidus. My price was assurances that the Romans would respect Her house, and that was all. Both Lepidus and Octavian agreed to this price--the former because he was Pontifex Maximus, the latter because he desired that post to consolidate his power. In the end the Romans took control of Egypt, as I saw they would, Cleopatra killed herself, and Octavian seized control of the city of Alexandria.
I had been useful to the Romans. Very useful, in point of fact, and a month after Octavian seized control, he commanded my presence. I weighed the advantages of how I should present myself. I had no clue as to his character. To the plebs he appeared as a dynamic, hard driving leader, not as charismatic as his famous uncle, nor was he as militarily gifted as Marcus Antonius. Everything I could learn told me that here was a man of force and presence. I pondered what that meant, and finally presented myself as a demure young woman, modest of manner and dress. It fooled him not at all.
"So you are the one who aided us," he said by way of introduction. He sat behind his desk, a man in his mid-30's, modest in appearance and demeanor. His office was plain, a desk, a table piled with papyri, and a single window behind him for light. There was no touch of Them about him, which left me slightly at a loss. If one of Them had aided him I would have known how to act. Instead I was faced with a man of talent who had parlayed a fortunate adoption into the transcendent power in Rome.
"I am she," I admitted. I did not bow, I stood before him, meeting level gaze with level gaze.
A smile ghosted across his lips. "My generals did not know why I would trust a woman," he said. "In Rome women do not play as active a role as you have."
"What a loss for Rome." I nodded toward a stool. "May I sit?"
He nodded and rang for a slave. The man brought a small flagon of chilled wine and two plain cups. "Your health," Octavian said, filling both cups and raising one to me. I returned the salute. "You are wondering why I asked you here," he said without preamble.
"I did not think I would meet you in person," I said. "Nor did I try gain admittance."
"I believe in rewarding my supporters," he said as if I hadn't spoken. "And your aid was considerable."
He waited, clearly waiting for me to name my price. I shifted uncomfortably. Guards were posted outside the only shrine I was interested in. Looters, every army has some, had taken one look at those men and gone elsewhere. And I did not want to have Octavian in my debt. I had known men like him to unburden themselves of their debts by unburdening themselves of their debtors. But he waited as patiently as a cat guarding a mouse hole.
Finally I cleared my throat. "I had asked your servants, as a favor, to arrange a guard on the shrine by the west harbor gate to discourage looters."
"And that was all?"
"For me it was."
He studied me intently, his chin slowly lifting, his face blank. "As a rule," he said, "I do not care to meddle in the affairs of the Gods. Nor do I seek to humble or cast down any of Them. I posted guards at all of the shrines and temples in Alexandria just as a matter of course."
"Then any debt you perceive you owe me is discharged," I said, rising. "With your permission I will withdraw."
"You are... Greek?" He shook his head. "Normally I can tell where someone is from, and I can also usually tell what they want. Creta?" He tilted his head slightly, studying me. "Yes, Creta. And I would say, the old stock, the ones who live in the back country and hills, not the ones who fill the coastal cities."
"Either you are very perceptive," I said, "or your spies are very good."
His smile was thin. "My few spies are not that good," he said. "So what is an unmarried woman from Creta doing in Alexandria? Besides the obvious things."
"I serve Her," I said. "She sent me here. I am the priestess of the shrine I asked to be guarded."
"You had so little love for the city that you sold it out?"
"I thought a politician did not inquiry into the motives of treachery, you only learned to use it."
"In this case I want to know what was in your heart. It may be that I can use it."
"If the city gates were not opened there would be severe fighting before the city was taken," I said. "I have seen that happen before and I did not want that to happen here."
.... There is more of this story ...