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memento mori

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Martial had made an effort to arrive early at his patron’s salutatio: waking up in the dark splashing frigid water over himself while his slave held a tremulous lamp close enough to his face that he breathed in rancid smoke but not close enough to see properly. After gulping a mouthful of stale bread and washing it down with sour wine while snapping at the boy as he draped his toga (patched, but -- gods be thanked -- reasonably clean) and fastened his sandals, he had begun the trudge down the Aventine, through the Suburra, and up the Esquiline in the damp cold dark, Archilochus stumbling to keep pace with the torch before him. A stupid name, Martial thought as he walked, for the slave of a scribbling invective poet. But a patron had suggested it, and he was hardly in a position not to laugh like a fool at his patron's jokes and then pretend they were good ideas. At least the great man he was off to pay his respects to this morning had -- if not better taste -- the grace not to inflict it upon hungry poets. Perhaps that was simply because C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus was only partway up the great cursus, but Martial would appreciate what he could get.

After a laborious journey one wanted a quick reward, so he was not in the best mood to find Pliny's atrium crowded with petitioners already. A glance around confirmed they included no one he knew or wanted to know, so he made his way to the best-dressed knot of men.

"It’s an Imperial freedman," a thin man was saying in an accent so pure that Martial would bet more than a little he had to be putting it on. The man's mouth twisted for a moment, as if he were about to spit away a hateful name, but then he glanced at Martial coming up to them and evidently thought better of it. "Of course he was taken in directly, and the rest of us put out to cool our heels like the little fish we are." It was something about the this man’s world-weary tone, Martial decided, and the way the others nodded knowingly as if he had said something clever, and not repeated a hackneyed platitude, that made him instantly dislike him.

Just to needle the man, therefore, he shrugged and exaggerated a sigh of relief. "Well, that's all right then."

Master Pretentious stared for a split second, and then sneered.

Martial smiled kindly at him, and made his tone even sweeter. "There are only two reasons why one of Caesar's freedmen comes insisting on a private meeting with a senator like our patron, you know. And one of those, my friend, means you and I have picked the right man to grovel for crumbs before.”

Haughty brows drew together. "And how do you know it isn't the other one.”

Martial leaned against the wall. “No soldiers. And you haven't run off, milord knight."

The thin man wasn’t wearing a ring, but he had guessed correctly, he thought, because he drew himself up even a little bit more, like an offended bird fluffing its plumage.

“You know the times, I’m sure,” he said finally. “A Roman knight can hardly let a few louts with swords keep him from groveling for his daily crumbs--even if I have to snatch them from the suspiciously bright teeth of a little Spaniard.”

He had heard that one before. Oh, so you’ve read a bit of Catullus after all. Bravo. “Better crumbs in our purses than spiders, my friend,” he said lightly, drawling his Iberian accent at its fullest.

Before the supercilious knight could respond, the imperial freedman bustled out with his train, and they all had to jostle around to form the queue of clients again.

"Ah, Martial, my friend," said Pliny heartily when they finally made their way through the doors and into the atrium of the great man’s townhouse. Their patron sat behind a long table, placed so that he glowed in a stream of morning sunlight. His slaves kept their bustling and to-ing and fro-ing of scrolls and baskets well out of the way. "It's been an age!"

"Greetings, Gaius Plinius," he said politely, "O shield to the weak in the claims-court,/ and of Cicero's speech the defender."

Pliny laughed, as he was meant to do. "And the whetstone to hone your flattery, you rascal." But he could tell that he was pleased -- also as he was meant to be. The good thing about Pliny was that he didn't take himself so seriously that he couldn't appreciate the absurdity of the whole thing: a trifling versifier fawning on his patron with a flipped-off couplet, as if it meant anything other than payment for his dinner.

"Guilty as charged, sir: I am practicing," he answered lightly. "I have an idea I might send my next book to august Caesar, to honor his new triumphs and Dacian victories. But I want to be sure I'm not too fulsome in my praise -- you know how modest he is, and how best to approach him."

There was a strangled sound (a very quick strangle) from behind him.

"Would you look some of my little trifles over, Pliny? You have such a good sense for these things-- and you are always dining with the best people: would you see how they go off?"

"Of course, of course, it would be my pleasure. My friends will be delighted to hear the latest of your epigrams before anyone else."

A secretary took charge of the book and handed over a discreet purse, and he exchanged few more meaningless pleasantries with the man himself, determining that Pliny indeed had no need of his attendance that day. However, he assured Martial, he looked forward greatly to when they might dine together again: "it's been so long since I've been able to have a party with truly literary people, Martial. You know how I miss that. But I must arrange something one of these days: you, and my dear friend Cornelius Tacitus (the famed orator, you know) and Caecina Severus the philosopher -- don't frown like that; he's not that sort of philosopher, but he makes delightfully funny diatribes -- and there's a new declaimer in town, Junius Juvenal, whom I've been helping make his way into the courts...ah the man himself. Come come Juvenal, have you met Martial the poet? -- I'm sure you know his name, his poems are everywhere."

"We've met," said Juvenal stiffly, flashing a covert glare at Martial.

"Yes, just now." Martial made his tone as bright as possible. "You always do have the most fascinating people at your house, Pliny. I'll be sure to ask for Juvenal when next I need to defend myself against disinheritance for rescuing my impoverished uncle from pirates."

"Or the next time you're hauled up for violating the law of the Twelve Tables against libel." Juvenal's tone -- surprisingly -- was a bright as his own. "I'm told you poets can often find yourself in need that way when you rely more on wit than on wisdom."

Archilochus -- the poet, not the slave -- said it was better to throw away your shield than to fight to exhaustion and be carried home dead, and Martial followed his example.

 

In fact, the gracious Pliny Secundus did him even better than he had promised. Within a day, an invitation had arrived from the emperor himself to a select convivium of notables and literary lights, to honor the fallen and celebrate the triumphs in Dacia. It was exactly the setting in which to put out his newest poems, bless the man! So Martial was only slightly disgruntled to find himself waiting in the Emperor's receiving hall with none other than Junius Juvenal.

The skinny Italian rhetorician had scraped together two slaves -- one with some real muscle on him -- and a torchboy. He wore the gold ring of an Eques and a narrow-stripe toga that would have been the height of fashion in the reign of Deified Claudius. Martial's own, by contrast, would have been a bit old-fashioned even for thrifty old Cato -- Archilochus had folded it to hide the most obvious patch, and as a result it was even skimpier than usual. Well, he told himself, a poet had to look as poor as he actually was in order to tempt even an imperial patron to exert himself with largesse. Cold comfort. Literally, at this time of year. He could see his reflection in the mirror-bright mica paving, but the God and Master of Rome saw no reason to heat his reception rooms in December. His paternal Italian thriftiness, no doubt. Martial filed that away (the old-fashioned thrift, not the inhospitable reception) for later.

"How did you get an invitation, Spaniard?"

"I might ask the same about you, Schoolman. Caesar Germanicus has been graciously amused by my latest little book of trifles. I've told you before -- I'm not too proud to sing for my supper, especially not when it's the lord and father of the whole world who puts the request so kindly. But what about you, my rhetorical friend? Will you be giving us the defense of the man who at the command of an oracle slept with and then murdered his niece-- I meant to say, his sister?"

Juvenal's scowl turned to pallor. "Shut up, you fool! Don't you have any sense?"

"Oh, no one pays attention to what puny little Iberian poetasters say -- isn't that right?"

The other man drew himself up. "If you must know, our mutual friend Gaius Plinius put a word in certain ears. As a special favor to me. He thinks I have a good prospect for a post in the secretariat."

"Ah." Martial couldn't resist needling him. "Yes, the independence you value so highly."

Juvenal flushed. "As you so often say, a man must eat. Horace was not too proud to be a clerk, before Maecenas and the divine Augustus patronized his poetry.”

"Of course, of course your poetry. And when will you grace Rome with a recitation? A word of advice -- if you've got something on the recent Triumphs, better get it out soon; nothing goes stale like German wars."

The other man looked down his nose. "The verses I write are not for the ears of the present."

Martial rolled his eyes. "That, my friend, is far more foolish than anything I've said tonight."

"Surely not." Juvenal couldn't roll his eyes very well, with his nose as high-pitched as he held it, but he put an admirable amount of icy disdain into his tone.

But there were, for the moment, no more grandees with immense retinues, so the steward finally came to greet them. "Gaius Valerius Martial and Decimus Junius Juvenal, Caesar will be overjoyed that two such lights of the more modest ranks have found friends in each other as well as in him."

He didn't dare look over to see if Juvenal was showing on his face how enraged he must be internally to be made no better than Martial. Hopefully the knight had more sense.

"Where could I find a faster friend than among those whom Caesar has judged worthy of his gracious friendship" he said quickly, but, he hoped, pleasantly. "Truly it's the least of great Caesar's virtues, but the most dear,/ that with the burden of the world upon his broad shoulders, our master and god never forgets even the humblest."

The freedman looked impressed in spite of himself. Good. "Just so, just so. This way, sirs. Leave your own slaves here, with your cloaks. Caesar is pleased to provide any attendants you wish."

Juvenal looked slightly disconcerted, Martial was pleased to note, although whether it was the anxiety of being separated from a fine, probably rented, toga, or being without his muscle-men, he could not tell. But he tried to look as though he came to Caesar's house as a matter of course, and that he found it entirely natural to have a strange slave divest him of his toga and lead Archilochus away in the opposite direction, while they were led down a disconcertingly dark and rough stair -- for Caesar had evidently decided to give this dinner in the below-ground.

The hypogeum proved to be large -- at least as far as could be judged, given that ceiling, walls, and floor were all black as pitch. The only lamps were eerie little lights at each of the couches and tables -- like a row of tombs at night, Martial thought with a shudder. The emperor reclined alone on a dais with bright lamps behind him setting him in dramatic shadow-- and allowing Caesar to see even the outer triclinia clearly.

"Caesar, what an honor it is," Martial said, as brightly as he could.

A secretary -- also dressed in a dark tunic -- slithered out of the shadows to whisper their names in his master's ear. "Martial, my friend," said the emperor before he had finished. A good sign. "I hope you are well-supplied with poetry tonight."

"I was, Caesar -- but I'm dumbstruck by your presence," Martial said, as cheerfully as he could manage. As he bent to kiss the imperial hand, he dared, in a stage whisper, "And I'm afraid your divine brilliance has struck the lamps dumb as well, O Conqueror of Germany."

The emperor's laugh always had a sour edge, but tonight especially so. "None of that flattery, my friend. We're having fun of a different sort tonight. Prepare something of the tomb, if you please -- a lament or a grave-elegy."

"Of course, Caesar," he said automatically, but his insides clenched, and he made the fascinum with the hand still tucked at his side.

"And Junius Juvenal," Domitian continued, gesturing the rhetorician toward him. "The newest man in my secretariat."

Juvenal bowed punctiliously, and murmured something polite and forgettable about how much he owed to the great and generous Plinius Caecilius. Martial was pleased to note that the emperor seemed as bored by it as he was.

Thus began the most miserable and terrifying banquet of Martial's existence.

In ordinary circumstances he would have hated to be stuck on a couch with a prating snob like Juvenal. But when you are shown to stone couch carved like a tomb-marker with sirens and doves and your own name right there, you are sometimes glad enough to know the man who will be reclining next to you, even if he is a stick-up-the-ass social climber.

     D.M.           D.M.             D.M.
 C. MESTRIO PLVTARCHO    D. IVNIO D. F. IVVENALI   M. VALERIO M. F. MARTIALI

The stick-up-the-ass social climber was frowning. "My father's first name wasn't Decimus," he said calmly, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about being asked to recline on his own tomb. Perhaps he imagined that the omen didn't count if the nomen was wrong. Bold of him to imagine that anyone would bother to get it right when he did die.

The man reclining at the medius in medio of their group -- a senator, from his wide stripe and gold ring, but not, obviously, an important one, raised an eyebrow.

"Shut up," Martial hissed. But Juvenal allowed himself to be helped onto their couch and have his sandals removed by a boy covered unnervingly in white chalk. So, it was to be a funeral feast, or a parody of one. Caesar's little jokes, as always. It didn't make him feel any better, but he knew he had to at least match Juvenal's nonchalance.

"See you don't misplace those," he said when the boy got to him. "A poor poet has to replace his shoes often enough, wearing out the tiles in the atriums of the great -- and those are new." Ordinarily, the kind of boy who served at table knew to give a cheeky laugh at a joke like that and try to wheedle a coin, but this slave only looked up with dark eyes that caught the light of the oil-lamp and looked even eerier for being slightly human in that unnaturally pale face.

Not one to mourn over a joke that failed to land, Martial turned back to his companions, bracing for the jab that Juvenal was sure to make. But his neighbor had lost all his complaisance, as -- to Martial's horror as well -- slaves brought a silver skeleton, fully the size of a man's and each bone jointed together, and set him to recline in the place of honor. The senator who now found himself next to not a living man but a simulacrum of a dead one had gone very still and his face had lost the sneer.

Martial looked down -- finally -- to read the names carved on the lectus medius


D.M.
C. PLINIO C. F. CAECILIO SECUNDO

D.M.
P. CORNELIO C. F. TACITO CAECINAE PAETO

D.M.
S. CAECINAE A. F. SEVERO CLODIO PAETO

Caecina Severus was evidently as dead in reality as the emperor's funereal joke made them all. The philosopher who wasn't like that, and who wrote funny diatribes, Pliny had said. Martial had heard the name before of course: a man with some awkward family history and a politically dangerous penchant for the Cynics, but who had nevertheless been diligent enough to keep his feet on the cursus. Martial tried to remember whether he had met him, or whether he had simply decided without meeting the man that he was too likely to be a risk for too little patronage gain. But Caecina Severus was the sort of man whose death you heard about, and Martial had heard nothing. Nor, to judge from their faces, had the senator -- the Gallic orator Cornelius Tacitus, it must be, some sort of cousin to Severus -- beside him, nor Juvenal or the Greek on the other side (and you expected Greeks to have an ear for gossip), or the two senators and knight on the lectus summus. Around the room, other couches were receiving similar skeletal banqueters -- were they also serving as death announcements? But the hall was as silent as a proverbial grave, without even the usual murmur of guests being settled and greeting their dinner companions, complimenting the generosity of the host, fussing at the slaves to bring wine more quickly.

Martial told himself that no one cared about poets who didn't even rate equestrian census, that the emperor had welcomed him with reasonable warmth -- yes, and told you to have ready a 'lament or a grave-elegy'. But for himself or for-- Martial realized suddenly that there was still one place of the nine left, and his heart truly froze in his breast. The same thought was evidently occurring to the others: if Severus was missing, and to all appearances dead, where was Pliny?

Hercules and Castor-- Martial had liked the man! So his poetry was appalling and he was a pompous ass on occasion, but he was a decent sort, for a senator -- reasonably honest, served everyone the same wine at his dinners, didn't make you praise his poetry, at least. Also, Pliny had gotten them invited to this banquet. If the emperor had decided to do away with him, what would happen to his erstwhile clients?

"I'm afraid it might have been the other reason after all." But there was no hint of mockery in Juvenal's voice. "To both our sorrows."


"Not just ours, I th--," Martial began to mutter back, when a familiar figure was led toward them from the gloom.

"Excuse me, gentlemen, for my lateness." Pliny was speaking very quickly, a sure sign he was as unnerved as they. "I was just making my apologies to Caesar, and he graciously volunteered his opinion on a small matter concerning the inheritance tax -- in connection with the recent case of Sulpicia Argilla's will -- Caesar Germanicus cares so meticulous about these things, you know, and is so generous to grant his divine wisdom to even the smallest matters."

"Yes," said one of the knights on the opposite couch, eager to have something to say to distract from their moment of terror. "And you say it so well, of course, Gaius Plinius."

Perhaps it was the sudden shift from utter horror to the utter banality of your everyday social-climber, but it suddenly made Martial want to break into hysterical laughter. He had to look away, and in so doing, locked eyes with the knight next to him.

Juvenal also seemed to be struggling to conceal some emotion.

"You do it better," Martial whispered.

The knight scowled, but not as deeply as he had been wont. "Not as well as you do," he shot back.

But any further conversation was cut off with sudden drumbeats and a barbaric flute. Several dozen of those uncanny slave boys -- some chalked up white like their attendant, others smeared into gray shadows with ash, all brandishing long, wicked daggers -- ran in and began a wild dance. Well, in ordinary circumstances it might be called a pleasing dance, Martial thought: in a well-lit room, or -- better -- a summer dining room shaded by laurels and fragrant citron trees, with the wine flowing and pretty girls playing flutes and the dancers' limbs clean and oiled. Here, in the dim flicker of lamplight that made some of the boys look like ghouls and others like shades raised by a Thracian witch, it took all of his will not to shrink back as the circling leaping path of the dance passed his own couch. When the boys let up wild howls it was like a voice from the tomb.

Martial glanced around him. Juvenal was plainly horror-struck and the senators were not much better at hiding their fear, but the Greek to his left was looking curiously and bemusedly at the spectacle. Probably fancied himself a new Herodotus, and was already embroidering the tale to impress the folk of whatever little Asian backwater he had crawled out of. Not a bad lesson, all the same. This ought to be good for an epigram or two: something about restless shades stirred up by witches who settled back to the tomb at Caesar's nod.

These particular "shades" did not dispatch themselves back to the tomb, but, as the flute and drums ceased, began to settle themselves at the foot of couches, evidently to be the banquet attendants.

At last a cup of wine was put into his hand, and Martial downed it, barely stopping to spill a little on the floor with the others as they toasted Caesar-- and very nearly spit out his mouthful: the wine was strong, barely watered, and on top of that, flavored with perfumes and resins and something salt-bitter, like wine for a tomb sacrifice.

Juvenal gave him an ironic grimace. He had only taken a sip of his cup, but evidently found it no less palatable. "Memento mori," he whispered.

"Yes, thank you," Martial whispered back, "I'm not quite so dense as all that."

Juvenal shrugged. "Who knows what you Spaniards know and don't know." Maybe it was the whispered tone, but it almost sounded like a friendly jab rather than a hostile one.

"What a marvelous spectacle, Caesar," someone called, with a voice that, Martial noticed, quavered just a little. "Your eye for talent is exquisite."

"The sons of Dacian chieftains," the Emperor replied, "all of 'em. It's one of their barbaric rituals, you know, one we learned of only during our recent campaigns. A sort of rite of passage, like taking up the man's toga. All the prisoners taken during the year and the criminals are saved up and brought into a great hall and served a final meal, and then the noble boys of age take up their daggers and slaughter them all. The sacred banquet, they call it."

The room was silent, so silent that you could almost hear the shiver go down every guest's spine at once.

"What a fascinating custom, Caesar," said the original speaker, this time with a distinct quaver in his voice. Everyone joined in the agreement on that.

"Oh, indeed," the emperor continued. "And, you know, the youths are said be exceedingly wild until they've had their first blood. These ones haven’t, of course -- otherwise they'd have been fighting in the lines. They say the dance drives ‘em mad with bloodlust, until they've killed their man and mixed his blood into their cups. All Dacians are like that --they sacrifice men before their battles, you know, drink their blood to give them strength."

Another shudder as every man in the room turned instinctively to look at his cup and the grinning boy at his feet and wondered, presumably, how long before that shining dagger would be plunged into his heart, and what he had just drunk. The Greek still looked curious, the Gallic senator faintly skeptical, but Pliny was as appalled as Martial was sure he himself appeared.

 

Martial was thinking fast, and in another minute he had it. He raised himself a bit higher on his elbow for better projection, then thought better and hoisted himself up so that he could face the dais. The light behind Domitian really was blinding, after you had grown accustomed to the dimness and those stupid funeral lamps. Nevertheless: recite to the most important person in the room. No reason to ignore that old rule now. “Dacian princelings raise a mortal shriek and toss their swords--/--harmlessly. For Vengeance herself would kneel to Caesar's mercy.”

Another impossibly long moment of silence, broken by Caesar's laugh. "Well said, well said. Now, which of my slaves will I have to crucify, Martial, for whispering about the secrets of my dining room? Got the second book of Spectacles already composed, hm?"

Time stopped fully. The dangerous laugh rang in Martial's ears, taking over too quickly to give him even a moment of the pleasure that came from knowing you had lobbed a good line. And it had been a good line -- too good for a paranoid emperor. Oh, the irony there!

There was another laugh from beside him, high pitched and forced. "Caesar - Your Greatness is both too modest, and too demanding of a poor poet. Too modest in that you pretend that the marvels you provide do not give divine inspiration; too demanding in that you ask a mere poetaster to be inspired to write a whole book when he has had not a quarter of the evening to bask in your glorious majesty. Grant him, we beg you, at least the indulgence of until the end of the evening to produce his new libellus!"

Someone -- Tacitus? -- began to applaud. "Well said" called someone else, hoping, for the anonymity of the edge of the hall. "Yes, have mercy, Caesar!" called a few others, in forcedly jocular tones.

"A week then," said Domitian, acceding to the spirit of the thing. "And there must be at least as many marvels contained therein as you did for my brother!"

"Far more and far greater, Caesar." Martial bowed from his seat. "Inspired by your bountiful kindnesses.

The Lord and Master of the World nodded graciously, and turned away. Never had a patron’s dismissal been more welcome. Now that he had started, however, the lines were coming into Martial’s head practically unbidden: …most merciful Caesar/ Jove's nod quells Boreas, yours bloodthirsty Dacians. Yes, that should work for the last line and a half of something.

 

The slaves began to bring around platters of funeral cakes and meats done up to look like sacrificial innards. Martial turned to his neighbor. "Did you really have to call me a 'mere poetaster'?"

"Oh come, you're just jealous you didn't get to say it yourself."

"Well, you certainly know how to use a man to climb to Caesar's notice." Martial couldn't help looking over at the skeleton reclining in Caecina Severus' place. The Gallic senator had resolutely turned his back to it and was head to head with Pliny and the young knight in the summus of the next couch.

Juvenal shrugged. "I told you that you'd need a lawyer someday."

"And you definitely need a poet -- that was the most awkward piece of flattery I've ever heard."

"Some of us aren't as practiced at the niceties."

Oh you will be, Juvenal. Martial thought. Soon you will be. But he held up his cup anyway. "Well, I'll drink to your quick thinking all the same, my rhetorical friend."

"And to yours, Versifier."

The resined wine still turned Martial’s stomach, and who knew what bizarre horrors Caesar yet planned for them this evening. But a man who could turn a peril into an imperial commission -- that was someone worth keeping around.