"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."
"And where did you see a city taken?" he asked in an amused tone. "It must have been when you were a child."
"I saw it happen when I was younger woman," I said simply. "I carry my age well."
"And so you sold out your queen?"
"I would not term it such. You may perceive it any way you choose. And she was not my queen. As you have deduced, I am not Egyptian, nor am I Greek, and I gave the queen no loyalty. Years ago I tried to do something like this when I was in a city that was being attacked. This time you wanted the city intact, you did not want to give your soldiers loot instead of pay."
He rose and walked to the window, studying the city beyond. "My problem is simple," he said at last. "Your contacts here in the city are incredible. From what I have learned you know every person of any consequence within this city, probably within all of Egypt, and, I suspect, in every trading city on the Middle Sea. From what the Harbormaster tells me you also have contacts in India and other places to the south. I cannot leave you behind unless I am assured of your unquestioned loyalty. And yet experience tells me that if you sell out once you will sell out again. What am I to do about that? How can I trust you?"
"You would not trust any assurances I gave you," I said, sitting back down. "Nor should you. You can not know what is truly in another person's heart, no matter how you try. With difficulty, and talent, you can determine what a person thinks they need to receive to be considered justly rewarded, and give it to them if it is within your power. That way it is in a person's own best interest to stay loyal to you. Thus you reward your followers. And you do not kill out of hand those who have helped you but are momentarily inconvenient. A useful tool may be useful again, and why throw it away when you can keep it handy against future need?"
"It is a good thing you were not in charge of Egypt," he said without turning. "With a mind like yours in charge I would never have taken this place." He turned back to the desk and sat, his face serious. "You are not bribable, nor would I feel safe if you were. You serve One much higher than myself. As such you could be a danger to me. So how do I turn a danger into a support?" His smile reminded me of the wolf Romans claimed to be descended from.
"I have need for someone to organize a group of people who would find things out for me." He gestured contemptuously at the papyri strewn across his desk. "People tell me what they think I want to hear, they do not tell me what I need to hear; I need someone who will tell me what I need to hear. Great empires may be built by soldiers, but they rest on information. The bravest soldier and the cleverest general can do nothing if they do not know where to strike."
"And Rome is building an empire?" He merely smiled. "And you think I could do the job."
"I think you could do the job very well," he said. "And people would not think to look at a woman as my spymaster. Besides, it is better to have you where I can watch you than have you loose in this city."
"I do not see how this would assure you of my loyalty."
"You have not met my wife," he said, as if the matter was settled. "Soldiers will accompany you to your rooms. When I sail for Rome you will go with me."
I could see no other solution to his "problem", at least not the way he put it. So I was to be a slave again, though perhaps not in the literal sense of the word. On the other hand, I had never been to Rome, and this was a good way to see it. I folded my hands in my lap and smiled. "Truly She works in mysterious ways," I said, accepting his offer.
"Indeed, They all do," he replied.
Octavian claimed he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. But he did not do it for the beauty of marble. Octavian was the most practical Roman I ever met, the most practical man in a whole race of practical men. In the next few years he worked hard to consolidate his power, and the first item on his list of things to do was how to heal the wounds of the civil wars. In previous times giant construction projects would have been carried out by slaves. Octavian used discharged soldiers released from his opponents' armies. And he paid them a fair wage raised from confiscating the loot amassed by his opponents. That pay had to be spent somewhere, and the merchants of Rome benefited immensely. Thus he ended the unrest brought about by unemployment while buying the acceptance of the middle and upper classes. He gave them stability and money, he took away the excitement of political turmoil. And Rome was the better for it, both with buildings and with her government.
Trade flourished. Piracy, rife during the civil war, diminished to nothing because suppressing it bought Octavian acceptance from the overseas governors and merchants. Rhodes was commissioned to hunt pirates far outside their waters, and soon it was not worth a pirate's life to put to sea, not that they did not try. The flow of goods to and fro across the Middle Sea drew the Roman world together, strengthening the loyalties strained by the last rounds of fighting. Octavian's strength was to organize, and he was very strong.
So many who wrought a revolution in the affairs of men could not rule, and Octavian was one. But partnered with his wife Livia he could. Octavian was the consummate politician, able to find the middle ground, able to bring all factions together, but politicians cannot rule, they can only build alliances. Livia could not have brought twins together, she could not have organized a sailor wenching in a tavern. But she could govern, she knew instinctively what had to be done, and what was needed to do it, while Octavian could figure out who should do it, and how to get them to do it. Together they dragged Rome back from chaos and shoved it into the empire it had won.
Livia had a force about her that made me think she was one of Them. To stand in front of her was the same as standing too close to the door when a potter opened a kiln. She quickly let me know I was to give her copies of everything I gave Octavian. So much the better. In many ways it made my life easier. My work was unspectacular in appearance, but vital to the governance of Rome. I quizzed traders, whores, priestesses, governor's wives, and all manner of others. I had people pass on to me such minor things as the price of grain in northern Gaul and the price of shoe leather in the farmer's markets along the Appian Way. Others told me the gossip they heard in the marketplace or on the wharves in far off ports. I heard more nonsense and scurrilous rumor than any three people. As I had for Her, I took what I heard, sifted through it, compared one with another, and passed on the essentials to Livia and Octavian.
At first Livia checked the accuracy of my reports. In time she came to rely upon them. To outward appearances I was a slave Octavian had taken as his share of the loot from Egypt and given to his wife as a handmaiden. I was treated as such by most of those who hung around the palace. A few knew I advised them, but even to most of those people it appeared I did so only on spiritual affairs. A select one or two knew what I did, and they made sure I had access to Livia and Octavian day and night.
I think Livia knew I was different in some way almost from the beginning. Years passed and I carefully aged myself. I caught her looking askance at me from time to time, those terrible dark eyes trying to peer into my soul. She said nothing, but my instincts told me I should find somewhere else to go. I suppressed those instincts and did nothing, but only because I had found out Livia had another spy network running side by side with mine. Almost by habit I suborned the people in that one, which was not difficult. The Diadochi had taught me a thing or two about loyalty, how to use it, and how to maintain it. Livia was cold-blooded, but she had one flaw--she was smart and she knew it, but like so many smart people she thought she was the smartest person around. It blinded her to a few things, only a few, but my actions with her other spies was one. And my growing realization of the murders she committed was the other.
A number of historians have disagreed with Suetonius. In The Twelve Caesars he paints a picture of Livia that is unflattering, to say the least. Her poisons reached out across the Roman world bringing low any person who stood between her children and the laurel wreath Octavian wore. Her contemporaries and worshippers could not accept that she was a cold-blooded killer motivated by dynastic reasons, especially in a land claiming to be a republic. My contacts in her other network assured me of the truth, but I could not see what to do about it. Each death, taken on its own, seemed possible. To all the world it seemed as if bad luck plagued that family. Suetonius had it right, I assure you. He had two sources for his information, my own eyewitness testimony, and the other was of Livia's own blood, Claudius the Stammerer.
The slaves in the palace introduced me to Claudius when he was a young man of 15. Later he was known to the world as Caesar Claudius, but at the time he was a tall club-footed young man with a fine head, a horrible stammer, a talent for writing, and a curiosity itch that was never satisfied. He was the poor relation of the family, always being shuffled off here or there, out of sight and out of mind. A prophecy foretold that he would "save Rome", but few people minded it. Claudius himself went out of his way to claim that story was something made up by people trying to attack his grandmother Livia through him. Perhaps it worked. Claudius survived when so many didn't.
Many years after I met him Claudius made a deal with Livia. In return for deifying her in a temple, she told him the truth behind all the deaths in the family. He wrote it all down, he buried it where his wife Agrippina could not find it, and he gave me a copy for safe-keeping. A few years later I had a copy made of Claudius' writing, a copy I delivered into the hands of Suetonius.
But that was later.
Things began to come to a head three years after the Eagles were lost to the German tribes. While Augustus plotted how to recover them, Livia began looking at me with that appraising look I had seen just before an "unfortunate" death. Once or twice I saw someone following me. I had been careful to grow older, but even with my experience at acting old I might have slipped once or twice. And with Livia's suspicious mind only one slip was all it would take. I had placed people in her other net of informants, if she moved against me through them I would have warning. But Livia often kept her own counsel. I decided it was time I 'died' and got on with another life.
The only hard part of faking my own death has been the lack of a body afterwards for everyone to see. Piracy was out--the Rhodians had been even more ruthless and thorough than Ptolemy the Great. A visible shipwreck might work, but there would have to be a survivor to testify I was there, and that was not always easy to arrange. 'Dying' of a plague only had one problem--the bodies of plague victims were always burned. Disappearing was another possibility, but I knew Livia's resources. She would find me unless I left the Roman world altogether, something I was not prepared to do. Or I could ostentatiously retire and move to a small farm away from Rome; it would have to be a small farm, and a long way away from Rome. I could not think of a place far enough from Livia and still within the Roman world.