All of humanity seemed to be flowing by Publius Scipio Longus’ house along the Via Sacra enroute to the Forum. Here and there, slaves bore litters containing hefty senators. Slaves also carried dignified matrons, who remained hidden, carefully shielded and protected by lacy curtains. A few men rode horses. There were several donkeys as well as carts pulled by men. They mingled easily with fathers walking with their wives and several children, young men and women, and occasional teenagers, all clad in their finery. Even peasants had donned their cleanest tunics, which gleamed white in the September sun.
There, they would join thousands more gathered around the high altar in the center of the rectangular field. In a short time, the new Emperor was going to conduct a sacrifice to officially take command of Rome and the Empire. Longus smiled confidently at the many people passing his front door. They did not know him now; they soon would.
Longus detected no haste or a sense of fear in the faces of those marching along the traditional road. In the past, transitions from one Emperor to another could be hectic, accompanied by mass killings and rampant vendettas. Officials of the old regime faced prosecution and execution. Private wealth would vanish into the public treasury. In his two days in power, Nerva had done none of these things nor given any indication he would turn Rome’s streets red, unlike Galba, Otho and Vitellius who had succeeded in turn and dispatched opponents in the few months they had seized the throne after Nero committed suicide. Even Vespasian, the eventual true successor, had proscribed some of his opponents after besieging Rome. Longus had only been a child then, but remembered the intense turmoil and the smell of blood in the air.
In contrast, this transfer of power had been calm. One or two announcements had been sent out from the palace and posted on the wall in the Forum, but no one had hastily sped from the city or committed suicide in a bath. The old emperor, Domitian, had few friends. He had cowed most of the Senate and killed many who seemed a threat. As a result, his assassination had seemed inevitable and, in many ways, welcomed. Even those who seemingly supported him were instantly forgiven, their behavior blamed on frightful coercion.
The only ones bothered by the transfer of power had been Jews, since one of them had been thought to have knifed Domitian. They had been rounded up, a process which hardly disturbed anyone, even Longus after his long-time slave, Perspectus, had been seized. Perspectus had been with him for more than two decades, but slaves had no standing in Rome. Longus planned to replace him, as soon as he figured out a way to get some money. For him, it was a simple matter of placing one imperial sponsor for another.
There were plenty of Jews anyway. New Jewish slaves kept arriving from the troubled Syrian province on a regular basis. There seemed to be no end of them. Their arrests locally had opened new opportunities. Longus had noted some empty houses nearby. They had been occupied by some of the few prosperous Jewish families in Rome. He would wait a day or two to see if anyone claimed the contents. If not one showed up, he saw no reason why he wasn’t entitled to them.
He particularly had his eye on a fancy home not more than a quarter mile away. The owner had some fine wooden furniture that would fit perfectly in his otherwise-empty house. He couldn’t wait to confiscate it. Once his home was properly furnished, any of the numerous bill collectors who regularly harassed him would be naturally overawed and leave him alone.
With overweening confidence, Longus walked calmly, head erect, toward the Forum amid the large crowd, but not part of them. Many had preceded him, encircling the altar, which had been piled high with wood and straw. A pitcher and a small bowl sat on the edge. Longus paid no attention to those already there, but with the calm assurance of those nobly born, inched staunchly forward to be near the front. Most of those in the crowd gave way either to his persistence or sheer bulk.
He saw a familiar face and sidled next to a litter carrying Marcella Cato Aeillus Fatillius Gorgada Nimoni Salaca, the oft-married, much-desired member of the clan that boasted of the great censor who in the distant past had continually called for the destruction of Carthage. Marcella had a long, graceful neck and a very pleasing appearance, augmenting an enticing shape with suitable gems and a delicious scent. She had accumulated great wealth both from her relatives and from multiple marriages. Her attraction lay both in her beauty and her family connection.
Unfortunately, to Longus’ dismay, however, she had also inherited the austere attitude of that heroic relative of another century and had refused his petition of marriage. The idea of joining to great families appealed to him, as did her ample treasury, but she would not be moved. He had wasted two dinner parties trying to impress her. She did not decline the invitation, food or wine, just the marriage proposal.
Her slaves had stopped a few feet short of the processional path, but at her elevation, she was able to see clearly. She had poked aside the curtains and was peering around her.
Longus smiled at her. She turned slightly and eyed him with a cold stare. She then raised her head slightly and turned away. Longus was sure he heard a slight cough.
“Salve,” he greeted her in the traditional matter.
She sniffed at him in her personal traditional manner.
“This is exciting,” he said, trying to continue a conversation.
“You would think so,” Marcella said flatly, emphasizing the first word.
“Yes,” Longus said cheerily and obliviously, “I would. I pride myself …” He stopped when she shut the curtain.
The sound of trumpets echoed. Straining to see, Longus caught a glimpse of the parade slowly wending down Palatine Hill. Two men with trumpets raised walked along with two men with pipes. The music drifted toward him. Four soldiers marching side by side led the way in front of the musicians. Their helmets glistened, polished enough to reflected the golden sun and create a glare. Carrying lighted torches, they were followed by a young man in a pallium and holding a red flag emblazoned with the traditional eagle of the Roman legions. Several senators were next, broad-beamed and stony in appearance as though trying to imitate mobile statues.
Longus knew several of them, having seen them at other ritualistic gatherings. He especially concentrated on Sextus Julius Frontinus, and Tiberius Avidus Quietus, both of whom marched with affected gravitas that required them to ignore everyone else.
After them, Longus could see an older man with short-cropped hair covered with a laurel wreath. He held his breath. That had to be Marcus Cocceius Nerva, the new Emperor. Dressed in a purple toga and walking unsteadily, he was looking down at the ground instead of at the throng lined up to greet their new ruler.
Longus felt an instant thrill at the sight. Most people rarely got to see the Emperor in person. Longus had only met Domitian once, and that was at the dinner party. He had not come for the food or the host, but rather in the accompaniment of a courtesan who had drunkenly wandered inside. The reason had not bothered Longus; he touted the Emperor’s visit as thought it had been planned.
Now, he needed to impress a new Emperor, a man whom no one thought would become Rome’s leader. An aged civil servant with little public presence, he had been merely a member of Domitian’s staff, a factotum who labored behind the scenes. Then, suddenly, the Senate had elevated him to the purple. For Longus, that meant only one thing: Nerva had to be impressed enough to keep the money spigot open for him. Domitian had recognized that honored Roman families who had no longer had proper resources needed to be supported so that members could live as the gods intended. Having wantonly dissipated his family’s funds, Longus relied on such public contributions. By necessity, Nerva needed to pick up the gauntlet dropped by Domitian.
Longus smoothed his pallium and shifted his shoulders to create a more robust appearance. Nerva would only have to look at him to be impressed. He might even call Longus from the crowd. The very idea warmed Longus, who could envision such a bestowal of favor as to make Marcella envious.
A great shout rose from the crowd as the Emperor neared. Spectators waved their arms and yelled. Marcella slid open her curtains.
“That must be Emperor Nerva,” Longus said, trying desperately to keep the Emperor in sight through the thicket of raised arms. Marcella grimaced and shook her head disdainfully.
Longus sidled around the edge of the litter. The slaves there stared straight ahead, mindlessly bearing their burden. Sweat streamed down strained faces. Their presence created a little space for Longus to gain a precious foot or two closer to the walkway. He used his elbows and ample stomach to create more room as crowds pressed behind him. He needed to be on the very edge so the Emperor could see and admire him.
He tried to worm through the last block of humanity, but could make no more headway. Worse, people behind him threatened to engulf him further and lock him in place. Even Marcella’s litter was shunted several yards to one side as others filled in the space. The slaves carrying her staggered, but remained upright.
Growing more desperate, Longus tried to shove and pulled, but got nowhere. His efforts didn’t even disturb the people in front of him, who ignored even his most aggressive moves. The procession would have to come this way. How could he become more conspicuous? Where could he stand? He checked around. Many of those in front of him reeked of status: powdered faces, coiffed hair, multiple slaves. They would not move. Longus felt his energy wane. For the first time, a whiff of reality eased through his mind. He would never impress the Emperor from this distance.
Unable to accept that, he took a deep breath, sucked in his stomach and lowered his shoulder. He had to get closer. He created a wee opening in the throng, wedged through it, widening the space by his mere presence and effort.
He glanced to his right and saw a familiar face: Perspectus. Longus was startled. Hadn’t he been arrested? The old man was standing calmly, looking not to the side toward the slowly moving procession, but at a fixed spot across from him. His tunic was stained with maroon blotches, and he reeked. Longus was actually grateful for the smell. Others had edged away from Perspectus, creating a few more open inches closer to the Emperor’s pathway.
“Perspectus,” Long exclaimed.
The old man did not answer, but continued to focus on something magnetic across from him. Longus looked, but could not see anyone or anyone worth noticing. Just some people.
“Slave,” Longus said firmly, although his voice was muffled by the continual conversations that flew around him.
Perspectus turned slightly, glanced at Longus with cold, angry eyes and then resumed his stance.
“Are you ill?” Longus whispered.
“Inflamed,” Perspectus answered.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Longus said.
“I am not,” Perspectus replied. “I was beaten, Master, and then released.”
“Leave,” Longus ordered. If the slave vacated the spot, he could actually stand in the front row.
Automatically, Perspectus tried to turn. The rear of his tunic was laced with blood oozing from wounds on his back. However, there was no way for him to exit. People hemmed him in. Nor could he step into the street. A cohort of soldiers had taken up positions to hold back the crowd. In a moment, the slave gave up.
“I will deal with you later,” Longus hissed.
Perspectus did not answer.
Trumpets sounded again. Heads swiveled to watch the small procession. Walking slightly in front of three priests, Nerva stepped slowly, the weight of his years heavier than his toga. He watched the ground. Longus wanted to wave or anything, but all around him, people stood in respectful silence. He hesitated, hoping his illustrious presence would be enough to catch the Emperor’s glance. Nerva, though, seemed unaware of anyone.
He trudged slowly through the narrow opening in the crowd, eyes forward, face stern, ignoring the thousands of eyes upon him. Longus thrust out a hand, hoping the sun bouncing off his rings might attract some interest, but he really could not extend into the actual path and only managed to bump into a young man and got no further. His bracelet, which he hoped would be the final signal, lay hidden on his wrist.
In only a moment, the Emperor had moved on. Longus watched the old man’s back with growing despair. He turned his attention to the priests. Perhaps one of them would acknowledge him, bring him to the Emperor’s attention. They showed no such inclination. The three men, no younger than the Emperor, marched in tandem, eyes fixed straight ahead.
Next came six men walking on each side of a large, black bull with a flickering tail. They walked beside and behind the beast; two held the end of a rope that wrapped around the animal’s muzzle. They stared as well. The bull, however, glanced at the faces of those lined up along the road. It seemed to gaze at Longus, watching him as it neared and then passed in front.
Worse, there was Hyperion, Nerva’s distant cousin and Longus’ nemesis. They hated each other. Longus long disdained the parvenu who made his living repairing burned-out apartments and renting them back to the former occupants. Rumor was that he set the fires himself. Just the mere idea that such a low-class upstart would obtain some lofty position in society was enough to make Longus ill. Always seeking status, Hyperion did not appreciate Longus’ openly condescending attitude.
Hyperion trailed the procession yet was clearly part of it. Dressed in a toga with a flowery hem, e walked with a measured step. Behind him, two more soldiers marched with lances held high. The crowd surged and filled in the area behind the soldiers, leaving only an island of space amid the mass of humanity.
The Emperor, his entourage and the bull stopped not more than 10 yards away from Longus in front of the large white marble altar. They may as well have been in another city as far as Longus was concerned.
“The Emperor must see me,” Longus thought aloud.
Perspectus managed a smile. “God sees all,” he said. Perspiration dripped down his thin cheeks as the sun rose higher.
The members of the procession gathered around the altar. Nerva took a position with his back to the sun. The priests stood to his right, the bull and handlers to his left. The soldiers stepped back to create a human barricade on all four sides.
The trumpets blew again. For a moment, there was nothing but that sound echoing over the temples and across the hills, rolling across the heads of the multitude. The pipers then began to play softly, creating a backdrop to the ritual. The crowd stilled. Those in the back could not see or hear, but waited in respectful silence. Behind them, more people continually arrived. Some stopped on high ground to watch. Others simply filled in spaces in the rear.
One garlanded priest took a step to the altar, placed his hand upon the marble and spoke out loudly. “There is no doubt the immortal gods, favorable as always to the Roman name, will be pleased in the future if we living now follow the rules ordained by our forefathers,” he intoned. “The immortal gods are disposed and to arrange matters through their foresight so that such transitions that are good and true are approved and fixed by the wisdom and constant deliberation of the many eminent and wisest of men.”
With that, he offered a formulaic prayer, asking that the gods smile kindly on Marcus Cocceius Nerva Augustus. Overhead, a few cumulus clouds drifted by. The warm midday, the absence of any storm and the benevolence of the sky heralded a new era with the gentlest of omens.
Longus continued to try to get closer. He was almost tempted to wave at the Emperor, who was staring straight ahead and not at anyone to his side. However, he contained himself. Frustration gnawed at him, but he could not do anything. Roman rituals, as he well know, must follow the exact requirements. That guaranteed the gods would respond favorably. Any disruption meant the entire ritual had to be started from the beginning to ensue everything was correct. Longus did not want to be responsible for casing a rerun. He may not survive to enjoy it.
A priest held up his hands. The entire Forum finally seemed to quiet. The Emperor stepped forward. He took a pitcher of wine on the altar and poured a few drops into a dish on top of the altar. The sound of the liquid hitting the bowl actually resounded amid the eerie serenity.
A second priest then read a prayer written on a piece of parchment. The second priest watched to see no mistakes were made. The third priest watched the crowd for any sign of noise. There was nothing.
Then, he, too, said a prayer as the priests shifted duties.
One of the handlers went in front of the bull. With a knife, he swiftly cut off a small amount of fur draped across the animal’s forehead. The bull seemed to lower its head as if nodding. Emperor Nerva then poured more wine, filling the bowl. As he carefully tilted the pitcher, the largest of the handler walked to the front of the bull with a large hammer and struck the animal with a fierce blow across its head. It instantly collapsed. The handlers then laboriously hefted the inert animal onto the altar.
A priest with a knife cut its throat. Blood gushed across the white marble and the kindling, splashing onto the ground. The animal kicked its legs, but could not move. After only a moment, it stilled.
The second priest recited, “The recent troubles right ordains us to give thanks to Furtuna for our public decorum,” he said. “Together, with our immortal gods, we can maintain the tranquil state of the world in the embrace of most profound peace. For the surety of peace, majesty and dignity demand that we, with the benign favor of our gods, who have stifled the ravages of barbarian nations and evil people, maintain the peace founded for eternity with the proper foundations of justice.”
The priest then cut open the bull, exposing the entrails. They glistened red. The priest poked at them. He pressed on the liver and pushed several other organs. Then, he nodded his head.
“The augurs are good,” he announced.
The four soldiers turned and touched their lighted torches to the pyre. Within seconds, the altar erupted in flames. The crackling logs sent clouds of smoke billowing skyward while the smell of charred meat spread through the crowd.
“Stop,” Perspectus shouted. His voice echoed like thunder. Startled, Longus looked at his slave. Welts created a pattern along his back. The crisscrossed lines oozed, causing blood to seep through the linen.
The priests turned. The one with red hands gaped while the faces of the others filled with anger. The Emperor seemed stunned, unsure what to do.
“I despise your solemn feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies; though you offer me your burnt-offerings, and your meat-offerings I will not accept them; neither will I regard the thank-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy trumpets. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” Perspectus yelled.
He turned. His face was triumphant. People backed away, pushing against the bulwark created by so many others behind them. Cries of panic began to echo as the pipers continued their simple tunes.
“No, no, no,” Longus yelled at his slave. “Don’t do that.” He struck Perspectus’ left shoulder. His blow had no effect. The old man seemed filled with iron, as solid as any column.
“I delight not in the blood of bulls,” Perspectus continued as those near him continued to struggle to get away from him. Longus looked around wildly. He was becoming deserted. The litters were being carried away on a surging tied ebbing away from the altar. The priests were staring. One, hands carmine and flecked with intestines, looked deflated. The fire raged amid the confusion. The smell of burning meat carried in all directions, wafting in the breeze created by the fleeing spectators.
Desperately, Longus tugged at Perspectus, pleading with him. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Perspectus was unaffected. The old man was rigid, a tree unyielding to the threatening storm.
“God does not delight in the sacrifices of these creatures, as offered by such wicked hands and without faith in the blood and sacrifice of Christ. You have been superseded by Christ as the apostles have foreordained,” he screamed toward Nerva, who gazed back with a dazed expression.
“What are you doing?” Longus sobbed in desperation. The ritual was not over. It would have to be repeated. His slave had caused this disaster. “My god, my god,” he moaned. “No, no, no.” He sank to his knees as if kneeling before Perspectus. He saw only blackness. All was lost. His inspired dreams were nothing more than the ashes now drizzling around him. Longus felt so empty and lost.
The soldiers sprung forward and grabbed Perspectus. They pinioned his arms.
“My God is with me,” he shouted. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of death, thou art with me,” he continued. “Shema…”
A soldier took his lance and ran it through the slave’s chest. Perspectus stared down at the shaft. A smile eased across his face, and he slumped forward. One soldier grabbed his long hair, jerking the body upright. With a sword and a powerful swing, another soldier cut off the old man’s head.
Bent over, splashed with blood, Longus could only stare at the ground. He could smell the bull being consumed by the flames. He heard the sound of the pipes playing a dirge. He felt complete emptiness as he slumped, isolated and exposed next to a dead body of his slave and four panting soldiers. He saw sandals in front of him and lifted his eyes to see Hyperion’s fierce glare.
“I knew you would grovel before me,” Hyperion said. “I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”