The great man lived in ostentatious simplicity. No silken drapes, no sloe-eyed slave girls, none of the eastern opulence he could easily have commanded. The only statuary Marcus could spot was a bust of Homer in the atrium. It was chipped and faded enough that he suspected it was a Greek original and not a modern copy, but that was the kind of detail few people would know enough to appreciate. Only the loitering presence of some suspiciously well-armed freedmen really betrayed the fact that this modest mansion on the Capitoline was the true heart of power in Rome. There were no private bodyguards in the Senate these days. No one there was important enough to need them.
“I am afraid there is a meeting going on,” said the secretary. He was a prim fussy little man with ink stains on his fingers. A Greek, Marcus thought. “If you’d like to leave your name and business and perhaps return at a more convenient hour –“
“I was sent for,” growled Marcus. “I’ll wait.”
The secretary faltered. “Ah, certainly. If I might just take your name, then…”
“Marcus Tullius Cicero,” said Marcus.
The secretary looked as startled as if he’d claimed to be Mithras risen. After a moment of awkward silence one of the freedmen – Marcus didn’t see which – hissed, “The younger.”
Marcus crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling so he didn’t have to watch comprehension dawn on the secretary’s face. “I didn’t know he had a – of course, of course,” the man said. “If you’d care to wait in the library, sir. This way. The slaves can bring you refreshments if you wish.”
The library was at the end of the corridor with the Homer bust. “Get me some wine,” Marcus said, tossing down his cloak across the back of a couch. He’d been drinking before he came, sure he was going to need it, but here among the musty-smelling scrolls, with another Greek original gazing benevolently down on him – one of the tragedians, he thought – he felt suddenly certain that he hadn’t drunk enough.
“Right away, sir,” said the secretary nervously. “And I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“Don’t rush,” said Marcus.
It took long enough for wine to appear that he got bored and started inspecting the shelves. Most of it was in Greek – Marcus’ Greek these days was up to polite conversation but not much more – but there was a shelf of Latin scrolls. Marcus pulled out three at random and got Ennius, Lucretius, and Catullus. He snorted. The great man apparently liked his poetry. He put them back, picked another, and read the first line.
My dear son Marcus, you have now been studying a full year under Cratippus, and that too in Athens, and you should be fully equipped with the practical precepts and the principles of philosophy…
Marcus scowled and dropped the scroll on the table. When the slave came in with the wine he waved her away and poured it himself, unmixed.
He had to wait an hour or so before his host appeared, and he got through plenty of wine in the time. When the great man entered Marcus took in the thinning hair and thickening waist and felt his surprise showing on his face. He had probably now drunk too much. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to him that he wasn’t the only one getting older.
“Good evening, Tullius,” said his host. “Thank you for waiting.”
“If your cellar’s good enough I’ll wait forever,” Marcus said. “Good evening to you too, Octavius. Wait, what are you calling yourself these days? Is it Caesar? Augustus?”
A slight smile. “Augustus will do.”
Marcus only just resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It took a special kind of person to answer to a title like Augustus with a straight face. But then Octavius had always been a prick.
“You enjoyed your time in Spain?” Augustus said. “I’ve heard good reports.”
“I’m sure you have,” Marcus said, and bit his tongue. It was hard to know how far to acknowledge what the man really was. The official reports of Marcus’ actions as governor went, of course, to the Senate. “No need for small talk, Augustus. You summoned me, I came. We all wait on your pleasure these days anyway. Something I can do for you?”
Augustus didn’t answer the question. He had noticed the scroll abandoned on the table. “You’ve been reading, I see,” he said. “The Moral Duties… of course, you’ve read it before.”
Marcus looked away. “He didn’t really write it for me,” he said. “It was just another one of his literary conceits. He liked letters.”
“As you say. I still treasure the letters I had from him,” Augustus said, taking a seat. He poured himself some wine. “He was a man of great culture above all.”
Marcus reached blindly for his cup and drained it.
“Moral Duties,” Augustus said thoughtfully. “It’s a remarkable book. A useful book. I first read it thirteen years ago -”
“Twelve,” corrected Marcus without thinking about it.
“No, I had the chance to see an early draft,” Augustus said. “He began work on it almost as soon as you left for Athens, you know. I remember he gave me the first section on Greek philosophers to read. He was constantly advising me to keep up with my Greek.”
“He was constantly advising everyone to keep up with their Greek,” Marcus said.
Augustus chuckled. “Well, I’ve tried. I’m sure he saw to it you had a good tutor, at least.”
“You could say that. He taught me himself,” Marcus said.
Augustus raised his eyebrows. “I’m surprised he had the time.”
“He didn’t, really.” Marcus poured himself more wine. He felt he deserved it. “My Greek is terrible.”
It was strange how clear every detail of those first lessons was in his memory. Three decades gone but if Marcus closed his eyes he could still see the white walls of the holiday house in Antium, himself five years old and waiting for Tiro to come and fetch him to the study. Gods, Tiro had still been a slave. He remembered his father’s study perfectly too, the window angled to catch the last of the day’s sun, the two desks - his father’s and Tiro’s - along with the piles of books, the elegant collection of scribing tools, the smell of papyrus and wax. The greatest treat of all was sitting on his father’s lap to add his signature to the bottom of a letter to Atticus while his father corrected his spelling: kappa iota kappa epsilon, the pen slipping in his chubby hand, rho omega nu. Cicero the younger sends his greetings to Titus the Athenian.
Augustus was regarding him with polite, benevolent interest. “He sent me to Athens later when he realised just how sloppy I was,” Marcus added. “I got the trick of memorisation early, so I could quote Homer and Hesiod with the best of them, and it wasn’t until the year he took me and my cousin to Cilicia that he noticed I couldn’t read worth a damn. I was fifteen. Took him a while to forgive me.”
He stopped. It was a long time since he’d talked this much about his father. It was a long time since anyone had tried asking. Marcus looked down into his wine – when had the cup gotten empty again? – and avoided Augustus’ eyes.
The Cicero family villa at Tusculum.
“I don’t want to go to Cilicia!” Marcus said. He tried to gesture grandly but he’d forgotten again that he’d grown and knocked his elbow against the wall by mistake. Being fifteen was terrible. “Why do I have to? It’s miles away from everything. I like it here. I like Italy. I don’t see why he needs me trailing around after him while he’s busy governing.”
Tullia lifted her head from her contemplation of the still pool of the impluvium. She’d left her long dark hair unbound like a little girl’s, knowing there would be no more visitors today. It didn’t change the fact that she was looking older and older, Marcus thought. Nearly twenty-six now and still no children, divorced twice, and everyone would know that so it was going to be hard to find her another husband. She knew it too. There were hard sad lines coming in around her eyes that made her look like their mother.
“You might enjoy Cilicia,” she said in her low rich voice. Tullia had a woman’s version of their father’s voice, compelling even when it was soft, unnervingly easy to listen to. “It’s a great opportunity for a young man to be part of a gubernatorial staff. And Asia’s supposed to be a fine place, you know, full of beauty and splendour. You’ll have the chance to see the Greek coastal cities. I’m envious.”
Tullia was always calm and thoughtful and well-bred and generally sickeningly nice about things. It was one of the most annoying things about her, Marcus thought, placing a silent curse on the whole race of older sisters. “You don’t understand,” he said. “He’ll be busy all the time, just like here, except there he’s going to be busy all the time and there’ll be nothing else to do. Hardly anyone there will even speak Latin, no one of our class. And I’ll have to be on my best behaviour the whole time. It’s going to be awful.”
“You do know our uncle’s going too? He’s bringing Quintus,” Tullia said. “You’ll both be in the same position, you can keep each other company. I was sure you’d be over the moon about it. You were always such good friends.”
“Yes - I mean - that’ll be all right, having Quintus around. We get on all right,” Marcus said.
He didn’t explain that being friends with Quintus had been easy when he was seven and Quintus was eight and both their fathers were far away overseas. Marcus hadn’t even really understood whatexile meant when his father had been exiled; his cousin, a year older and full of worldly knowledge, had been the one to explain it to him. He’d been the one to promise that Marcus’ father would come back, too. My uncle is working on it, he’d said.
So? What good is that? said Marcus.
My uncle is Titus Pomponius Atticus, said Quintus, and everyone knows that when Atticus starts calling in favours owed there’s no limit to what he can do.
He must have been repeating something he’d overheard the grown-ups say. Marcus hadn’t quite understood, but he’d been comforted all the same. And Quintus had been right; the bill of exile had been overturned.
What Tullia didn’t understand was that it was much harder being friends with Quintus when their fathers were actually home. Aunt Pomponia and her husband fought all the time, which everyone knew but no one talked about, and lots of their fights were about how Uncle Quintus was always running around after Marcus’ father and doing what Marcus’ father wanted him to do. These days Quintus was firmly on his mother’s side, and that meant his conversations with Marcus were peppered with swift stinging barbs, like little wasps. Your father must be proud of you, that was a favourite of his. Whenever Marcus won at anything, footraces or riding or even stupid things like knucklebones, Quintus would give him a sharp-angled smile and say Your father must be proud of you.
Marcus knew he was no good at any of the things his father actually cared about. Quintus didn’t have to rub it in.
“He doesn’t even want to go,” he said, instead of trying to explain the Quintus problem. “I heard him telling a client. He never wanted to govern a province at all, that’s why he turned it down after he was consul.”
“It’s the law, he doesn’t have a choice,” Tullia said. “It’ll be a wonderful experience. I wish I were going with you.”
“I wish you were going instead of me.”
“Marcus, you don’t mean that.”
“At least he loves you,” Marcus said, knowing he sounded childish and sulky but not caring.
“I don’t think he does, really,” said Tullia thoughtfully. At the look on Marcus’ face she added, “I mean, of course he does. But, you know.”
“What?” said Marcus.
“Well, you know,” said Tullia again, diffidently. “He’s – he doesn’t think much about some things. I was born the year he came back from Athens. He’d been abroad for three years thinking and planning and studying, and then he came back to Rome to begin his career in earnest and there was me.”
She stood, pushing her thick hair back over her shoulders, and went to the arched doorway. Looking out over the garden she said, “You weren’t born in those years, Marcus, and I was only a little girl, but I remember the feeling there used to be, the excitement. The air in the house used to hum like being out in a thunderstorm whenever he was home. I was too small to understand that he was doing things no one else had ever done. He was so young and rising so fast, taking quaestor and praetor the first year he was eligible, easily, as if he weren’t just some nobody from the sticks. He was winning the elections and he was winning everyone’s respect, even aristocratic old monsters like Catulus, he was forcing them to see him. And he’d come home from the courts and pick me up and swing me around and start joking to make Mother smile.” Tullia turned and made a wry face. “You know Mother never smiles. But she did then. And finally you were born, and that was the year he ran for consul, and he did it, he won. Everything he’d worked for those whole thirteen years, and a healthy son. Everything he’d ever wanted. He blazed with it. He was like a god.”
“Tullia!” said Marcus, shocked.
“You know what I mean. It’s not that he doesn’t love me,” Tullia said. “He does, he does, but… it was after he was consul that things got difficult. Complicated. I think to him I’ll always be those thirteen years. When he looks at me he sees the time when he knew exactly what he wanted and he worked for it and he got it. He doesn’t even know me now. I’m twice divorced. I got married for the first time when you were two. I’m a woman grown, but to him I’m still his sweet Tulliola and all his ambitions coming alive.”
There was nothing, really, that Marcus could say to that. “I still don’t want to go,” he said instead.
Tullia rolled her eyes. “Be a man, Marcus,” she suggested tartly. “Believe me, you don’t know how lucky you are.”
The palace of King Deiotarus, Cilicia.
The petty king who was putting them up was the most disgustingly unctuous man Marcus had ever met. He showered the Roman gubernatorial party with gifts, threw open his house for their benefit, sent his most expensive and beautiful slaves to wait on them. He positively crawled to Marcus’ father, whom he claimed to have admired ever since he first heard of his famous exploits at Rome. The worst part was the way that his father preened under the attention.
No, thought Marcus after a moment, the worst part was the amused look on Quintus’ face while the whole song and dance was going on.
When he’d finally escaped to a bedroom on an upper floor – the palace had three floors - he threw himself down on the staggeringly luxurious bed and stared up at the ceiling. His skin was still crawling with second-hand embarrassment. His whole life he’d looked up to his father, admired him, wished to be more like him. Before this tour of Asia he’d thought Cicero was a great man. It was a surprise -
No. It was a shock.
It was a shock to discover that his father did as little work as possible as governor, that he left the natives to judge their own disputes and moved on from city to city as quickly as he could. It was a shock to discover that everyone knew Uncle Quintus was the true military commander of their party and was only pretending to take orders from his older brother about the legions. It was a shock to realise that the great man he’d looked up to was just - was just -
“Evening,” said Quintus from the doorway.
Marcus sat up quickly and tried to scrub his thoughts off his face. “Hello,” he said.
Quintus was slouching against the doorframe. Quintus always slouched, like he was trying to disguise his lanky height. He grinned at Marcus and his grin had a nasty twist in it. The two of them had barely had a proper conversation since their journey to the province began, and Marcus was fine with that. “Tired so early?” Quintus said.
“A bit,” said Marcus.
Quintus came into the room properly and leaned against the wall. “They’re going to leave us here, you know,” he said. “Practising our Greek with old Dionysius. Do you good.”
That stung. The memory of the blistering tongue-lashing Marcus had received from his father after their tutor Dionysius’ first report was still fresh. It had only been a couple of months ago. Quintus’ Greek, of course, was nearly perfect. “They’re not going to leave us behind,” he said. “They’re going on campaign next.”
Quintus laughed. “You dummy, that’s why they’re leaving us behind. They’re hardly going to risk both their heirs out where wild hillmen might attack any moment.” He shook his head. “I forgot you haven’t been to the provinces before.”
Marcus heart sank. He’d been looking forward to the campaign. He’d pictured himself in camp with the soldiers, running errands for the officers, helping with the horses… and in his daydreams, snatching up a sword and saving the day when some nebulous assault demanded action. Everyone knew Pompey the Great had only been a year or so older than Marcus the first time he commanded an army. Even Marcus’ father admired Pompey, sort of, though he said Pompey’s speeches were terrible.
Quintus laughed, which made Marcus flush angrily. He obviously knew what Marcus was thinking. “Nope, it’s Deiotarus and diplomacy for us. By the time the campaign’s done you’ll be able to say all possible variations of indeed, your majesty and very interesting, your majesty in exquisite continental Greek. Cheer your old man up no end.”
“Great,” said Marcus. He could picture it too, mornings spent slogging away at verbs with Dionysius while Quintus yawned, evenings doing the delicate dance of good manners and disdain required between the son of a Roman and an eastern kinglet. No one for company except Quintus with his barbed remarks. “If that’s all, I’m going to sleep.”
Quintus cocked his head. “They’ll be fine, you know,” he said. “Pater’s not a Pompey or a Caesar but he’s solid. He can handle a few gangs of Cilician bandits.” He didn’t even pretend that Marcus’ father would be doing any of the work of commanding the legions.
“Can you just go away?” Marcus said.
“Well pardon me,” said Quintus. “Gods. You never used to be such a little shit, Marcus. Just because you’re all cut up over something every man and woman in Rome has known for years -”
Marcus stood up, clenching his fists. “Am I? What’s that, then?”
Quintus lifted his eyebrows. “That Marcus Tullius Cicero is a vain pompous windbag who only got where he did because he’s a master of telling the electorate exactly what they want to hear. Honestly, Marcus, you -”
Marcus didn’t wait to hear any more. He launched himself at Quintus bodily, shouting something he couldn’t hear himself over the roaring in his ears. He saw Quintus’ eyes go wide right before Marcus’ fist smashed into his nose with a satisfying crunching sound. Quintus howled and struck back, finally, a proper fight and Marcus had been wanting to hit something for months, since the ship to Cilicia, since before that - maybe, he thought wildly, all his life. He grappled Quintus to the floor, raging. Marcus was shorter but he was stronger and faster, he’d always won when they raced or wrestled, and he ignored Quintus cursing at him and ignored the bursts of pain that were his cousin’s blows landing and hit and hit and hit until strong arms locked around his waist and dragged him up and off. “Marcus, enough!” his uncle was roaring in his ear. “Enough!”
Marcus breathed deep, shaking, and shrugged angrily away from his uncle’s hold. Quintus sat up slowly, holding his hands over his nose, which was bleeding. Marcus looked around and saw his father watching them all coolly from the doorway. King Deiotarus, whose fancy embroidered robes and golden crown couldn’t disguise the fact that he was a dumpy little man with a naturally cheerful face, was standing beside him and looking on with the avaricious interest of the born gossip. Marcus felt his rage drain slowly away, leaving a chilled absence inside him.
“Shall I have doctors summoned?” the king asked in his strongly accented Latin.
“I think not, your majesty,” said Marcus’ father. He turned to the king and the cool look fell off his face, replaced in an instant with easy, apologetic amusement. Marcus couldn’t follow the string of quickfire Greek that came out of his mouth next, but it made his uncle snort while Quintus stared at the ground. King Deiotarus threw his head back and laughed. The easy, amused look stayed on Cicero’s face until the man had taken himself off back to the banqueting hall, still laughing. Then it vanished as if it had never been.
“A shame, I think you’ll agree,” he commented, looking from Marcus to Quintus and back again, “that a backwater king of no particular importance should be given the chance to laugh at the sons of Rome.”
“Easy, brother, they’re only boys,” said Uncle Quintus.
“You surprise me,” said Marcus’ father. “I had the impression they were wild beasts. Is that nose broken?”
Quintus’ voice was stuffy as he answered, “No, sir.” Marcus couldn’t help noticing that he looked a lot more frightened of Cicero than he looked of his own father.
“Anything serious wrong with you?”
Marcus startled when he realised he was being addressed. “No, sir,” he managed.
“I’ll leave you to discipline yours as you see fit, my dear fellow,” said Cicero to Uncle Quintus. “You,” this to Marcus, “I will see in my apartments in the morning. I expect that black eye will be a sight to see by then. I am going back downstairs, where I shall work on encouraging Deiotarus to forget this little incident. Reflect, both of you, that my time could have been better spent.”
Marcus didn’t look at his cousin as Uncle Quintus herded him out of the room with a dark expression on his face. He went back to the bed. His bruises hurt, and he could feel his eye swelling up. He didn’t cry. After a while he got under the covers.
The Anatolian morning dawned bright and early and already appallingly hot, and Marcus went to his father’s rooms, where his father pointedly made him wait while he finished a letter to the Senate. One of Deiotarus’ slaves was there waiting to take it down to the courier, and Marcus was conscious of the boy’s interested expression the whole time he was waiting.
“There,” said Marcus’ father at last, and passed the boy a coin along with the sealed letter. “Quickly now.”
Marcus squared his shoulders and waited while the slave left. His father still took a moment before looking at him. “I see I was right about that black eye,” he said at last.
Marcus didn’t say anything, though the silence stretched so horribly he wanted to. It was a lawyer’s trick, this, making someone uncomfortable so they’d blurt out idiocies that could be turned against them afterwards. His father did it all the time and it didn’t work on Marcus anymore. You couldn’t be the great Cicero’s son your whole life without learning something about when to shut up.
“Would you care to tell me,” said Cicero eventually, “why it is you have taken so violently against your cousin’s company in the last few months? I was under the impression you were friends.”
“It wasn’t anything,” Marcus said. “It was my fault, I lost my temper. I’m sorry.”
Cicero put his head on one side. “That is not what I asked.”
Marcus kept quiet.
Cicero sighed. “I am a busy man, Marcus, but I can hardly avoid noticing when two members of my very small entourage can barely look at each other. Pompey and Crassus were politer when they passed in the street, and I never knew two men loathe each other more. What has Quintus done to offend you?”
“Nothing,” Marcus said.
“Have you done something to offend him?”
“No!” said Marcus, annoyed by the injustice of the idea.
He realised as soon as he said it that he’d given himself away. “He offended you, I see,” said Cicero. “How? What were you fighting about last night?”
“Nothing,” tried Marcus again, but he could see his father wasn’t convinced. “Something he said,” he admitted unwillingly. “He’s always saying things. I don’t like it.” He shut up abruptly. Too much.
“What did he say?” asked Cicero, but Marcus couldn’t tell him that. He couldn’t. The silence stretched and after a moment his father said, “Never mind. I can guess.” He looked tired.
“He’s always saying things,” Marcus said again, feeling the stirrings of anger deep down. "He's always -" Marcus Tullius Cicero is a vain pompous windbag who – "He just doesn't stop, and I can't talk like he does so I can't make him shut up, and -"
"Marcus," said his father, but Marcus kept going.
"You don’t understand," he said. “I can’t bear him, he’s always just… picking at things. He doesn’t respect anything, anyone, he thinks he’s so clever and he’s really just vile, nasty, shrewish, the things he says. He sounds like Aunt Pomponia – ”
“Marcus!" said his father.
"As far as I can tell, he sounds like me,” Cicero said.
"What?" said Marcus blankly.
Cicero sighed and rubbed his hand across his face. “Marcus, you can ask anyone you please - your uncle, Atticus, even Tiro - and they will tell you that when I was your age, your cousin’s age, I had such a vicious tongue in my head that the great jurist Scaevola told me I’d never make an advocate because I lacked the manners of a gentleman.” He smiled crookedly at Marcus and added, “Plenty agreed with him. Some still do.”
Marcus had never seen his father smile like that at him. It was conspiratorial, man to man. “But you’re a famous wit, sir,” he said.
“Oh yes. They call me the Jester,” Cicero agreed. “They don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment, though. I’ve learned to make it work for me - there’s a lot of goodwill to be won by making people laugh. But the fact is that there is a streak of what a generous person might call wit and what most people would call cruelty in our family. I am, on the whole, glad that it seems to have passed you by. Scaevola was right. It doesn’t suit a gentleman.”
“And you’re saying Quintus has it?” said Marcus after a moment.
“Your Aunt Pomponia is not a happy woman,” said his father instead of answering. “She has not been for a long time, and it saddens me, truly it does. My brother, though he hides it well, is no happier.”
There was a moment of quiet. Marcus looked down at his hands.
“I do not think your cousin is especially happy either,” said Cicero at last. “In the days when I was a young man with more brains than sense and more ambition than either, I was fortunate beyond measure to be blessed with friends who stood by me and kept me steady when any reasonable man would have fled. Your uncle was one. Atticus, Pomponia’s brother, was another. My cousin Lucius, who died before you were born, was a third.”
Marcus managed to meet his father’s eyes. “You’re orating at me,” he accused weakly.
Cicero chuckled. “You don’t say,” he said. “My son, you are under no obligation to offer your cousin Quintus any more of your company and your friendship than you owe him as kinsman and fellow-citizen.”
"Nothing more,” said Marcus' father. "But the friendship of a cousin is not a small thing to an unhappy boy. Or it was not to me."
“Sir,” said Marcus after a moment. He could think of nothing else to say.
Quintus was waiting outside the study when the interview was over. His nose was still a mess. "How bad was it?" he asked. "Mine ripped into me."
Marcus stiffened automatically, and then relaxed. "It was all right, actually," he said. "Want to play a game?"
"No," said Quintus. "You always win."
Marcus, with not a little effort, offered, "Want to do some Greek, then?"
Quintus looked at him, and then smiled a small thoughtful smile. He said, "No, not at all. Let's go exploring."
“I had no idea you and Quintus were ever at odds,” Augustus said. “You were the closest of friends when I met you.”
You dare say his name, you son of a bitch, Marcus nearly said, which was the wine talking. “Well, you know boys,” he said instead, drowning his flash of temper in another gulp of sweet Gaulish red. He’d gotten good at that over the years. “Our fathers went off to campaign and we had a grand old time with Deiotarus, and by the end of it we were inseparable. Best friends. We worked out a system to get around our tutor, drove him mad, he knew Quintus was feeding me the answers but he could never figure out how. We took care of each other.” He poured himself another drink and sipped it a little more slowly. He’d lost track of how much he’d drunk. “Quintus got very protective. Or territorial, I suppose. He always thought my father bullied me, said I shouldn’t have to bother with studying or politics or any of the rest of it if I didn’t want to. Back then I was mad for the army.”
“Military service is a noble calling. You fought at Pharsalus, I believe,” Augustus said.
“The year after, yes. The war broke out while we were sailing home, we heard about the Rubicon the minute we made port in Italy.” Marcus drank. “At Pharsalus I was seventeen years old and shitting myself with terror. Some cavalry lieutenant I made. No wonder we lost. Of course the divine Julius,” Marcus couldn’t help it, he did roll his eyes, and to do that in front of the adopted son of a god was a beheading offence, but Augustus didn’t even twitch, “was a commander and a half, and so was Antony, may he rot in hell, so the Caesareans had three commanders to our one. Pompey was good but he was old and scared even if he hadn’t had the Senate hanging around his neck like a millstone. Maybe if we’d had a few more good young men and a few less old tired ones.” He laughed, and the laughter felt harsh in his throat. “I suppose several thousand fanatically devoted veteran soldiers would also have helped,” he added. “Even Antony never had old Julius’ touch with the legions.”
Augustus nodded gravely, as if he hadn’t even heard the implied compliment to his old enemy Antony. “Quintus was at Pharsalus too?” he said.
“Of course he was. My uncle was one of Pompey’s best commanders – though he didn’t have much to choose from, I suppose. Quintus went straight over to the Caesareans as soon as the amnesty was declared. Infuriated my father, but I don't think he really minded having a Cicero inside the enemy camp. Well, not the enemy camp. You know what I mean.” Marcus sighed. “Plenty of us young ones admired Caesar. I did. It was hard not to.”
“I envy you. I never really had much chance to know him,” said Octavius – Augustus, no, got to remember he was Augustus now, but it was harder when he said things like that. Marcus put down his cup and then picked it up again. Octavius-Augustus said, “Were you never tempted to join Caesar’s staff yourself?”
“Oh yes,” Marcus said. “But that was when my father packed me off to Athens. Had to content myself with Quintus’ letters.”
He remembered the letters, full of excitement and adventure and Caesar Caesar Caesar, Caesar’s cleverness, Caesar’s clemency, Caesar’s gambling and women and wine, Caesar’s men who seemed to divide their time exclusively between attending orgiastic parties and fighting daring battles against the hold-out Republican rebels. Quintus had even mentioned Antony – takes his wine unmixed like a barbarian, Marcus, and throws it back like it’s water, but he’s the kind of man you can’t help liking really, he laughs so loud. Funny how some things stuck in your head. Marcus usually drank his wine unmixed these days. It was faster.
He couldn’t think what had become of the letters. If he’d known then that he would never see Quintus again, perhaps he would have tried harder to keep them safe.
When he got the letter about Tullia Marcus went out and got drunk.
It was a cold blustery evening, February winds blowing along Athens’ narrow streets. The letter was from his mother, not his father. Apparently his father was too overwhelmed by grief to write. Terentia had dictated a few clipped, crabby lines to a secretary and Marcus had read them over several times. They always said the same thing. The child had lived this time, apparently. Marcus tried hard to call to mind his older sister’s pale face, wide mouth, the sound of her smooth hypnotic voice, but it had been too long since he’d seen her. She’d been thirty-three.
“…scuse me. Excuse me!” said the person standing next to him at the bar, and it took Marcus a bleary minute or two to realise he was speaking Latin – not just Latin, but clipped, precise, urban Latin, proper upper-class Roman accent.
“What?” he said.
“You’re standing on my cloak,” said the young man – boy, really, he looked barely old enough to shave – who’d taken exception to him. Marcus groaned and looked around for someone else to deal with this. Gorgias – no, he remembered, his father had made him drop Gorgias for being too fun or too Greek or too something. There’d been a letter. Something about how much money Marcus was spending too.
“Do you mind,” said the stranger, and Marcus said, “Sorry, sorry, moving.”
Instead of leaving the stranger peered at him closely. “You are a Roman, aren’t you? I thought you must be, you don’t look Greek. You look terrible, in fact. Are you all right?”
Marcus said, “My sister’s dead.”
“Oh,” said the stranger, eyes widening slightly.
“I just heard,” said Marcus.
“Oh,” he said again. An expression of pity settled on his face. “I’m sorry.”
The stranger paused a moment and then seemed to make a decision. “I’m Octavius,” he said. “Gaius Octavius Thurinus.”
“Don’t care,” said Marcus, hating him.
“Obviously not,” said the boy, “but you can’t just sit here getting blind drunk, come on. If nothing else people are staring. Think of Rome. You can come with me, I’m staying nearby.”
Marcus was too drunk and heartsore to protest that he had a place of his own – a place that actually belonged to Atticus where he was extremely lucky to be living rent-free – so he let himself be led back to Octavius’ rooms near the harbour. He drank the water Octavius ordered fetched for him and washed his face. “Sorry,” he said. “Thanks. I would probably have ended up passed out in a gutter if you hadn’t dragged me out of there.”
“I’m sorry about your sister,” Octavius said.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Marcus, and scrubbed his hand across his damp face. “She was… I saw her right before I left home, she’d just gotten married again. Gods. It’ll kill my father.”
“I’m sorry,” said Octavius again. The room was spinning a little. Marcus shut his eyes.
He was extremely embarrassed when he woke up with his head pounding the next morning and realised he’d passed out on top of his young host’s bed. He’d managed to place the boy, finally – Quintus would have done it right away – he was one of the Palatine Octavii, probably a Caesarean. In fact, definitely a Caesarean, Marcus remembered as he wincingly examined his surroundings (comfortable, neat, apparently plain but almost definitely not cheap); there was some sort of family connection.
“Not passed out in a pool of vomit, then?” said Octavius, appearing in the doorway.
“No,” said Marcus. “Thanks.”
“Well, I could hardly leave you there drinking yourself into a stupor,” said Octavius.
“Suppose not,” agreed Marcus, too hungover to get annoyed at his tone. Might as well check. “You’re some sort of relation of the dictator’s, aren’t you?”
Octavius went a little red around the ears. “Great-nephew,” he said, with a good attempt at lordly indifference. “And heir, actually.”
“Good grief,” said Marcus. “And you’re all on your own out here?” There were plenty of people around who wouldn’t mind sticking a knife into any relation of Caesar’s. Gods, Marcus’ own father – probably wouldn’t do it, actually, but he’d cheer if he heard someone else had. Marcus felt a moment of chill. “What are you, sixteen?”
“Eighteen,” said Octavius indignantly, which made Marcus at twenty-one feel positively ancient. “I can take care of myself. I’m on my way to Rhodes.” It was said with a faint bravado air. Marcus didn’t feel like noticing that.
“Good for you,” he said. “Rough time of year for sailing, though. When’s your ship leave?”
“Not for a week,” said Octavius. “The captain said he wouldn’t sail until the weather turned.” He sounded irritated that the seasons hadn’t arranged themselves for his convenience. Brat. Out of nowhere Marcus was strongly reminded of Quintus.
Maybe that was what made him throw caution to the wind. Nothing wrong with Caesareans. Quintus was one. If Marcus’ father objected to every Greek friend he made he could hardly complain when Marcus took up with well-connected young Romans instead. “Listen, are you renting this place?” he said. “You should come and stay with me while you're here. I could use the company.”
Octavius hesitated. “I ought to be studying.”
“There’s a library,” Marcus offered. “Pretty good one, I’m told. Barely touch it myself. Not my house.”
It took a little more persuasion, but Octavius agreed to move in with him for the week with the air of one bestowing a great favour. Marcus spent most of that week unable to decide if he liked the boy or not. Without his ever exactly saying so, Octavius seemed to have decided he was some sort of distant relative of Atticus’ – pretty close to true, Marcus thought with slightly hysterical amusement – and Marcus’ casual mention of his year spent as a municipal aedile in Italy (a job his father had arranged for him) had apparently cemented Octavius’ opinion of him as a well-heeled bumpkin.
He proceeded to be a patronizing little shit the entire time, in a way that was so obviously and utterly unconscious that Marcus could hardly stop himself from laughing. He found out quickly about Marcus’ half-hearted dreams of military service – less dramatic and heroic since Pharsalus, but still there – and promptly promised to wangle introductions to Caesar, to Antony, to Lepidus over in Africa. “Are you sure you can actually do that?” Marcus said, amused despite himself. His father could have made him all of those introductions and more if he’d felt like it.
“Well, my uncle I can,” admitted Octavius. “And the others I will. Just wait. Who’s that from?” Marcus had come in with a letter just brought up from the harbour.
“My cousin Quintus,” Marcus said. “He’s in Spain. It’s condolences, for Tullia.” It was only a short note, scribbled fast; Quintus was on the move and said he didn’t have time to write properly. We will miss the sharpness of her intellect as much as the warmth of her heart, he’d written. Not many people in this world can claim to have both.
“Quintus – wait, your cousin is Quintus Tullius Cicero?”
“Told you I was one of the Tullii,” said Marcus, a little amused, mostly resigned. Here it was, then.
But Octavius didn’t make the expected leap. “Gods, I’d like to meet him. Well, no, I’d like to meet his uncle – you know who his uncle is, right? There are plenty of his speeches in the library here – he’s a brilliant, brilliant man, finest consul Rome ever had. And he writes like one of the Greek masters – no, better – he makes Latin sound as fine as Greek does.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Marcus dryly. Cicero certainly never hesitated to tell people how brilliant he was; Marcus could hardly have missed it. “His poetry is terrible, though.” Cicero’s dreadful epic about his own consulship had been quoted to great hilarity all over Rome when he’d published it.
“Yes, well –” Octavius laughed. “Granted. No one can be a genius in every genre, I suppose.”
So Octavius was less of a snotty brat when he was excited about something. He hadn’t been lying about the studying – he spent hours in the library every day, reading and writing. He made Marcus read some of his poetry on the second day, a tragedy he was working on. Marcus said politely that it was very nice, which it wasn't.
He dragged the boy out drinking every night; he’d said he wanted company and he’d meant it. It turned out that Octavius was less of a snotty brat when he was drunk, too. By the end of the week Marcus was coming around, only a little grudgingly, to actually liking him.
He wasn’t all that surprised when two nights before he left Octavius – tipsy on barely three cups of wine, the lightweight – pressed his nose into Marcus’ throat and licked a little sloppily over the hollow where neck met shoulder. “We’re in Athens,” he said petulantly when Marcus snorted and shoved him off.
“I’m not drunk enough yet to play Plato with you,” said Marcus.
Octavius apparently only heard the yet, because he proceeded to systematically get Marcus very drunk indeed, drunker than he’d been since he’d dropped Gorgias. Midnight came and went between the third bar and the fourth, and Marcus leaned heavily on Octavius’s shoulder in an attempt to stay upright as they meandered down the street. It occurred to him that it maybe wasn’t such a bad idea as all that. Octavius wasn’t exactly good-looking, but he was hardly repellent, and his arm around Marcus’ waist, steering his steps, felt good, solid. So did his giggle – and it was a giggle, not a manly chuckle, which would make him cross if Marcus told him – in Marcus’ ear. It had been a while since Marcus had been with anyone, boy or woman. Octavius’ apparent determination was certainly flattering.
Octavius’ determination, Marcus found himself thinking slightly more soberly as evening shaded into morning and he panted for breath among the stained sheets, was not so much flattering as overwhelming. Octavius sprawled on his back beside him and said, “I thought that would be good.” He sounded irritatingly pleased with himself.
“Shut up,” said Marcus.
“You liked it too.”
“I was drunk.”
“Not that drunk,” said Octavius complacently.
“Go to sleep,” said Marcus, and pretended to do just that himself.
Octavius didn’t take the hint. He turned over and pressed his face into Marcus’ shoulder instead. “I will introduce you to my uncle,” he said. “He’d like you, probably. You’d be a good soldier and he likes good soldiers.”
Marcus said nothing, watching the early morning light come in through the window and creep across the floor.
“He likes me too. I did something – something a bit daring, risky, I mean, a gamble, I – anyway, now he thinks I’m like him. That’s why I’m his heir. But I only did it so he’d think that. I’m good at things like that. I’m not really like him at all.”
“Go to sleep, Octavius,” Marcus said.
“I’m not like any of them,” Octavius said, ignoring him. “No, I want you to know. No one knows. I’m not like my uncle or Antony or Lepidus or anyone, all the warring military bastards. They’re just dice-players gone mad, playing with bigger dice, and there’ll be another war eventually. They enjoyed the last one too much to stop. And they think I’m one of them. They don’t know I’m one of me.” He snuffled into Marcus’ shoulder. “You don’t know what it’s like, Marcus, everyone expecting you to grow up to be someone who’s really nothing like you at all.”
Marcus couldn’t help it. He started to laugh.
“What?” said Octavius. “What?” But he wasn’t stupid, after all; he was snotty and overbearing and an arrogant brat but he wasn’t stupid. “Oh – oh fuck you –” and Marcus kept laughing, the laughter feeling sharp-edged and painful in his throat, while Octavius said, “You’re his son, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Stop laughing, tell me -”
Octavius went on to Rhodes the next day, his ship finally sailing at dawn. He’d forced Marcus to promise to recommend him to his father. “I don’t need to, you know,” Marcus had said. “Just tell him you like his speeches and he’ll love you.”
“I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” said Octavius sulkily.
“You’re a lot like him,” Marcus said. “Your poetry is terrible too.”
Octavius pulled a face. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Don’t make my father’s mistake,” Marcus advised. “Burn it.”
He didn’t write, of course. Marcus didn’t expect him to. He still heard regularly from his father and from Quintus. It was from his father he learned about the fateful assassination, a year later. People were already calling it the Ides of March, with audible portentousness, almost as soon as it happened. His father told him to stay in Athens for now, until he knew the lay of the land. The game is changing, he wrote. We shall see what comes.
It was from Quintus, though, that Marcus heard about Octavius’ return to Rome. Caesar’s heir has decided to take up his political inheritance as well as his estate, Quintus wrote. Your father has seized on him as a possible counterweight for Antony – he’s seriously worried about Antony, and against all odds I’m starting to agree with him. The new Gaius Julius, as he’s calling himself, is only nineteen, a pawn, really. I feel sorry for the boy.
In another letter: Caesar the younger and our esteemed mutual relative have taken to each other like Achilles and his centaur. The boy is less of a nonentity than I thought; I had the chance to talk to him the other day and I found myself reluctantly impressed. Consular material for sure. Uncle Marcus loves him; they talk literature and philosophy and politics, politics and literature and philosophy, and to make a change sometimes they discuss philosophy and politics and literature. Happy as clams, both of them.
Much later: So our Octavianus wins his battles! Antony beware! Uncle Marcus thinks he’s holding the leash still; I begin to wonder. We shall see when Antony comes to Italy…
And the last letter of all: They have written up our names. Hide. Trust no one. Father says we can make it to Greece. Wait and we’ll come to you.
“You want me to what?”
“Be my running mate,” Augustus repeated patiently. “For consul.”
“I’m five years too young,” Marcus began, and then stopped. Augustus had been twenty years too young the first time he’d been consul. This would be his fourth or fifth time in office. Running alongside him was a guaranteed victory. “Never mind. Tell me why.”
“Why not?” said Augustus. “We’re old friends, aren’t we? And you’re a man of proven talents, not to mention an honourable name.”
Marcus set down his cup - wine slopped out onto the table - and narrowed his eyes. “My name. My honourable name. This is about him,” he said. “This is about my father.”
“Why would it be about your father?”
“Because you feel guilty.”
“Don’t be ridic –"
“You feel guilty.”
Augustus’ breath caught. For once, for a wonder, he was silent. And for the first time in years – perhaps for the first time in his life – Marcus found he had the right words.
“You proscribed him,” he said flatly. “You made truce with Antony and you proscribed them all. My father, and my uncle, and my cousin. My whole family. He was your ally and your adviser and your friend and you wrote his name up on the deathlists.”
“You charge me with betrayal?” the emperor said, recovering his poise, and Marcus was very conscious, suddenly, that this was an emperor he faced, that the snotty teenager Octavius had been had always contained the seeds of this terrible man.
If he’d been sober, he wouldn’t have said it. If he’d been sober, he would have wet himself by now.
“You handed him over to Antony, you spineless treacherous prick!”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Of course I did,” said Augustus at last. “Do you have any idea what a dangerous man your father was?”
Marcus couldn’t speak.
“He was practically in retirement, he claimed he’d had enough of politics –“
“My father never had enough of politics,” Marcus muttered.
Augustus quirked an eyebrow and went on, “and then he makes one speech, one speech, and Rome falls into line behind him. Antony goes from being the new Alexander to being the new Philip, his entire base collapses, people are spitting when they say his name. One speech! And your father was everything the historians are saying he was, without a doubt, he was pompous and hypocritical and cowardly and vain. But when he believed in something, when he truly believed, Rome listened. Rome had no choice but to listen. I studied in Rhodes, you know that. I’ve been to Alexandria. I’ve seen all the great professors of rhetoric go through their paces, all these latter-day sophists, and on top of that I have heard more toadying senatorial speeches than I care to remember – but I have never heard anyone speak like your father. I don’t think I ever will.” There was a faintly wistful note in Augustus’ voice, but he smothered it and went on relentlessly. “Of course he had to die. We needed peace, we needed time, and nothing else would ever shut him up. Cicero believed in the old Republic even as it crumbled to pieces around him, he was sure it was the only right way. He was its voice, and when he spoke people heard the thunder of the past.”
“And my uncle? My cousin?” Marcus managed.
Augustus shrugged. “Your uncle was loyal to a fault. He would never have served Rome once his brother was dead.”
“Would never have served you, you mean,” Marcus said. His head was on the block anyway. It didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered now. He said it. “What about Quintus?”
Augustus closed his eyes for a moment. “I liked Quintus, you know. He was good,” he said eventually. “Talented. Clever. Ambitious, too.”
It still hurt to hear it, even years later, even after a lifetime of resigning himself to it. Marcus had never been the son his father wanted, but clever, brittle, sharp-tongued Quintus might have been, and they’d all known it. Marcus said, “He was better than you.”
“Probably not, as it happens,” said Augustus easily. “But I was nineteen, my position was unstable, and I couldn’t afford the risk.”
“You let me live,” Marcus said. He hadn’t understood, at the time, why no one had come for him, after Quintus died, after his uncle, after his father, and he’d waited, and no one had come, and no one had come - “My name wasn’t on the lists. You let me live –”
Augustus’ voice was almost kind as he answered, “You were never a threat.”
Marcus’ eyes fogged. He abruptly tried to stand up and staggered. Augustus came to his feet and caught him with an arm around his waist, which made Marcus think of a week in Athens thirteen years ago. He shook the emperor off violently, not caring any more, not caring about anything. “Marcus, for the gods’ sake,” Augustus said, his voice full of worry, making him sound young.
“I can’t be consul. I’m too young. I’m not good enough.”
“Of course you’re – ”
“I’m a terrible politician, most of Rome has no idea who I am, I spend all my time in minor foreign commands, I was never any good at speeches. I can’t be consul.”
“Marcus – ”
“I can’t,” Marcus said. He sat down again, his rage abruptly drained away. He’d lost all his rage long ago. He’d drowned it in wine. “I'm not like him. He wanted a son who was like him,” he said at last.
Augustus looked at him. “You are a citizen of great talent and proven ability,” he said slowly. Almost carefully. “Trusted by your Augustus, admired and respected by all good men, and your father’s superior in military achievement. You could certainly be his equal in civic honour – ”
Marcus laughed. When he stopped the room was silent.
“I would have liked a father like him,” Augustus said quietly, after a while. He sounded more like the old Octavius than he had since the audience began, and Marcus had always hated him, hated him. “Truly, I would.”
I shall not deny that sometimes I would give even to the unworthy, out of respect for others; as, for instance, in competition for public offices, some of the basest of men are preferred on account of their noble birth, to industrious men of no family, and that for good reasons; for the memory of great virtues is sacred, and more men will take pleasure in being good, if the respect felt for good men does not cease with their lives. What made Cicero's son a consul, except his father?
Seneca the Younger, On Benefits
Already I think your greatness and glory is and will be a great feather in my cap. In short, you relieve me of anxiety.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, in a letter to the younger Caesar
Of all the persons in the world you are the only one whom I should wish to excel me in all things.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, in a letter to his son