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When Roman junior senator Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger has a chance to join a diplomatic mission to Alexandria, he welcomes the opportunity to temporarily elude his enemies in the Eternal City-even though it means leaving his beloved Rome. Decius is just beginning to enjoy the outpost's many exotic pleasures when the suspicious death of an irascible philosopher occurs, coinciding with the puzzling and apocalyptic ravings of a charismatic cult leader. Intrigued, Decius requests and is given permission by the Egyptian Pharaoh to investigate the heinous crime. What he discovers is beyond shocking. And when the corpse of a famous courtesan mysteriously turns up in his bed, Decius suddenly finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy far more widespread and dangerous than he ever imagined-one that threatens to bring about the downfall of the entire Empire.
John Maddox Roberts has written numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, in addition to his successful historical SPQR mystery series. He lives with his wife, Beth, in the little coal-mining community of Pound, Virginia.
Table of Contents
"Wonderful...All the wild imaginative stimulation of the best detective fiction." --Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of The Mists of Avalon
SPQR IV: The Temple of the Muses
IHAVE NEVER BEEN AMONG THOSE who think that it is better to be dead than to leave Rome. In fact, I have fled Rome many times in order to preserve my life. For me, however, life away from Rome is usually a sort of living death, a trans-Styxian suspension of the processes of living and a sense that everything important is happening far away. But there are exceptions to this. One of them is Alexandria.
I remember my first sight of the city as though it were yesterday, except that I remember nothing at all about yesterday. Of course, when you approached Alexandria by sea, you did not see the city first. You saw the Pharos.
It appeared as a smudge on the horizon while we were still a good twenty miles out to sea. We had cut straight across the sea like fools, rather than hugging the coast like sensible men. To compound the folly, we weren't in a broad-beamed merchantman that could ride out a storm at sea, but rather in a splendid war galley that carried enough paint and gilding to sink a lesser ship. On itsbows, just above the ram, were a pair of bronze crocodiles that appeared to be foaming through their toothy jaws as the flashing oars propelled us over the waves.
"That's Alexandria," said the sailing master, a weather-beaten Cypriote in Roman uniform.
"We've made good time," grunted my high-placed kinsman, Metellus Creticus. Like most Romans, we both loathed the sea and anything having to do with sea travel. That was why we had chosen the most dangerous way to travel to Egypt. It was the quickest. There is nothing afloat swifter than a Roman trireme under all oars, and we had kept the rowers sweating since leaving Massilia. We had been on a tedious embassy to a pack of disaffected Gauls, trying to persuade them not to join the Helvetii. I detested Gaul, and was overjoyed when Creticus received a special commission from the Senate sending him to the Egyptian embassy.
The galley had a delightful miniature castle erected before the mast, and I climbed to its fighting platform for a better view. Within minutes the smudge became a definite column of smoke, and before much longer the tower was visible. From so far out there was nothing to give the thing scale, and it was hard to believe that this was one of the wonders of the world.
"You mean that's the famous lighthouse?" This from my slave Hermes. He had climbed after me, unsteadily. He was even more wretchedly seasick than was I, a matter of some satisfaction to me.
"I hear that it is more impressive up close," I assured him. It looked at first like a slender column, dazzling white in the noon sunlight. As we drew nearer, I could see that the slender shaft sat atop a stouter one, and that one on one broader still. Then we saw the island itself, and I began to get an idea of how huge the lighthouse was, for it dominated utterly the island of Pharos, which was itself large enough to conceal from view the entire great city of Alexandria.
The Pharos sat upon the eastern extremity of the island, and it was toward that cape that we steered, for we were bound for the Great Harbor. Around the western end of the island lay the EunostosHarbor, the Harbor of Safe Return, where ships could enter the canal that connected the city to the Nile, or could proceed on to Lake Mareotis to the south. Hence the Eunostos was the favored commercial harbor. But we were on a government mission and therefore were to be received at the Palace, which was situated on the Great Harbor.
As we rounded the eastern end of the island, Hermes craned his neck to look up at the lighthouse. It was capped by a round kiosk from which smoke and flame billowed to the prevailing breeze.
"Itispretty tall," he admitted.
"More than four hundred feet, it's said," I affirmed. The old Successor Kings who followed Alexander built on a scale rivaling the Pharaohs. Their monster tombs and temples and statues weren't good for much, but they were impressive, which was the main idea. We Romans could understand that. It is important to impress people. Of course, we preferred useful things like roads and aqueducts and bridges. At least the Pharos was a truly useful structure, if a bit outsized.
When we passed between the Pharos and Cape Lochias, we came into view of the city, and it was breathtaking. Alexandria was situated on a strip of land separating Lake Mareotis and the sea, just to the west of the Nile Delta. Alexander had chosen the spot so that his new capital would be a part of the Greek world, rather than of priest-besotted old Egypt. It had been a wise move. The whole city was built of white stone and the effect was astonishing. It was like some idealized model of a city, rather than the real thing. Rome is not a beautiful city, although it has some beautiful buildings. Alexandria was incomparably beautiful. Its population was greater than that of Rome, but it had none of Rome's crowded, jumbled aspect. It had not just grown there like most cities. Instead it had been planned, laid out and built as a great city. On its flat spit of land, all the greater buildings were clearly visible from the harbor, from the huge Temple of Serapis in the western quarter to the strange artificial hill and temple of the Paneum in the east.
The greatest complex of buildings was the Palace, which stretched from the Moon Gate eastward along the sickle curve of Cape Lochias. There was even an Island Palace in the harbor, and a royal harbor attached to the Palace complex. The Ptolemies liked to live in style.
I went down to the deck and sent Hermes to fetch my best toga. The marines on deck were polishing their armor, but our mission was diplomatic, so Creticus and I would not be wearing military uniform.
Dressed in our best, flanked by our honor guard, we approached the dock nearest the Moon Gate. Above the gate was the figure of the beautiful but extremely elongated goddess Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky. Her feet stood upon one side of the gate, her long body overarched it and her fingertips rested on the opposite side. Her body was deep blue, spangled with stars, and slung beneath the arch thus formed was a huge brazen alarm gong, fashioned in the shape of a sun-disc. I was to see these reminders of Egyptian religion everywhere in Alexandria, which was otherwise a Greek city.
We sped toward the stone pier as if we intended to ram and sink it. At the last possible instant, the sailing master barked a command and the oars plunged into the water and stayed there, flinging forward a massive spray. The ship rapidly lost way and came to a gentle stop against the seawall.
"Could've tied a rose to the ram and she wouldn't've lost a petal," said the sailing master, with a certain justifiable exaggeration. The oars were shipped, lines were cast ashore and the trireme was drawn against the pier and made fast. The big boarding-bridge was lowered by its crane to the stone pavement and the marines arranged themselves along its railings, their old-fashioned bronze breastplates gleaming in the sun.
A delegation had come from the city to greet us, a mixed group, court officials in Egyptian garb and Romans from the embassy wearing togas. The Egyptian contingent had not neglected to bring entertainment. There were tumblers and trained monkeys andseveral naked girls dancing through lubricious gyrations. The Romans were more dignified, but several of them swayed on their feet, already drunk at this early hour.
"I think I'm going to like this place," I said as we descended the bridge.
"You would," Creticus said. My family did not have a high opinion of me in those days. Drums thumped and pipes shrilled and sistra rattled while boys swung censers, engulfing us in clouds of fragrant smoke. Creticus bore all this with a becoming stoicism, but it all delighted me.
"Welcome to Alexandria, noble Senator Metellus!" cried a tall man dressed in a blue gown with a lot of gold fringe. He was speaking to Creticus, not to me. "Welcome, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, conqueror of Crete!" It wasn't much of a war, but the Senate had voted him the title and the triumph. "I, Polyxenus, Third Eunuch of the court of King Philopator Philadelphus Neos Dionysus, the eleventh Ptolemy, bid you welcome and give you freedom of our city and our Palace, in recognition of the deep love and respect which has for so long existed between Rome and Egypt." Polyxenus, like the other court officials, wore a black, square-cut Egyptian wig, heavy black makeup around his eyes and rouge on his cheeks and lips.
"What's a Third Eunuch?" Hermes asked me in a low voice. "Do Eunuchs One and Two have one ball each or something?" Actually, I'd been wondering that myself.
"On behalf of the Senate and People of Rome," Creticus said, "I am empowered and privileged to extend the great esteem which we have always cherished for King Ptolemy, the nobles and the people of Egypt." The courtiers clapped and twittered like so many trained pigeons.
"Then please accompany us to the Palace, where a banquet has been laid in your honor." That was more like it. No sooner had I felt solidity beneath my feet than my appetite had returned. To the accompaniment of drum and flute, sistrum and cymbal, we passed through the Moon Gate. Some of the Roman contingent fellin around us and I recognized a familiar face. This was a cousin of the Caecilian gens nicknamed Rufus for his red hair. He was not only red-haired but left-handed. With that combination he had no future in Roman politics, so he was always being sent out on foreign service. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and breathed wine in my face.
"Good to see you. Decius. Make yourself unwelcome in Rome again?"
"The old men decided it would be a good time for me to be away. Clodius finally got his transfer to the plebs and he's standing for the Tribuneship. If he gets it, that means I won't be able to go home next year either. He'll be too powerful."
"That's rough," Rufus said. "But you've just found the only place in the world where you won't miss Rome."
"That good?" I asked, brightening at the prospect.
"Unbelievable. The climate is wonderful all year, every debauchery in the world is to be had here cheap, the public spectacles are superb, especially the races, the high life doesn't stop just because the sun goes down, and, Decius my friend, you have absolutely never had your bottom kissed until you've had it kissed by Egyptians. They think every Roman is a god."
"I'll try not to disappoint them," I said.
"And the streets are clean. Not that you'll have to walk much if you don't want to." He gestured to the litters that awaited us just inside the Moon Gate. I gaped like a yokel who has just caught his first sight of the Capitol.
I had been carried around in litters before, of course. The sort we used in Rome were carried by two or four bearers and were a slow but dignified alternative to tramping through the mud and garbage. These were somewhat different. To begin with, each of them was carried by at least fifty black Nubians who shouldered poles as long as ships' masts. Each had seating accommodations for at least ten passengers which we reached by climbing a flight of stairs. Seated and hoisted, we were higher than the second-story windows.
The chair I was led to was made of ivory-inlaid ebony, draped with leopard skins. Overhead, a canopy protected me from the sun while a slave armed with a feather fan cooled me and kept the flies at bay. This was a definite improvement over Gaul. To my relief, Creticus and the eunuchs took the other litter. The musicians ranged themselves on the lower levels of the litters while dancers and tumblers frolicked along the poles, somehow managing to avoid the bearers. Then, like images of the gods carried in a sacred procession, we were off.
From my point of vantage, I saw immediately how such huge vehicles could traverse the city. The streets were broad and absolutely straight, a thing unknown in Rome. The one we were on ran right through the city, north to south.
"This is the Street of the Soma," Rufus told me, hauling a pitcher of wine from beneath his seat. He poured a cupful and handed it to me. "The Soma is Alexander's tomb. It's not really on this street, but it's close." We passed a number of cross streets, all of them straight but not as wide as the one we were on. All the buildings were of white stone and all of them of the same high quality, unlike Rome, where mansions and slums occupy the same block. I was later to learn that all the buildings in Alexandria were built completely of stone, with no wooden frames, floors or roofs. The city was all but fireproof.
We came to a cross street that was even wider than the one we were on. Here the litters turned east like ships tacking into the wind. The throngs in the streets cheered our little procession, all the louder, it seemed, when they saw the distinctive Roman garb. There were exceptions. The soldiers who seemed to be on every street corner regarded us sourly. I asked about these.
"Macedonians," said Rufus. "Not to be confused with the degenerate Macedonians of the court. These are barbarians right out of the hills."
"Macedonia's been a Roman province since Aemilius Paullus," I said. "How is it they have an army here?"
"They're mercenaries in the service of the Ptolemies. They don't much like Romans."
I held out my cup for a refill. "No reason why they should, considering how many times we've beaten them. They're still in rebellion, last I heard. Sent Antonius Hibrida packing."
"They're a tough lot," Rufus said. "Best to steer clear of them."
Aside from the sour-faced soldiers, the citizenry seemed to be a cheerful and cosmopolitan lot. I never saw such a combination of skin, hair and eye color except at a slave market. Greek dress predominated, but there was garb from every land under the sun, from swathing desert robes to jungle skins and feathers. The effect of all the white stone was somewhat softened by the masses of greenery that hung from balconies and rooftop gardens. Vases were filled with flowers and festal wreaths hung lavishly.
There were a great many temples to deities Greek, Asian and Egyptian. There was even a Temple of Roma, an example of that fundament-kissing at which the Egyptians excelled. The chief deity of the city, though, was Serapis, a god invented specifically for Alexandria. His temple, the Serapeum, was one of the most famous in the world. While the architecture was predominantly Greek, Egyptian decoration was much in evidence everywhere. The extraordinary Egyptian hieroglyphs were lavishly employed.
Ahead of us came a sound of musicians setting up an even louder racket than our own. From a side street emerged a frenzied procession, and the litter bearing the court faction halted to give it the right-of-way. A mass of ecstatic worshippers erupted across the great boulevard, many of them dressed only in brief goatskins, their hair unbound and whirling wildly as they beat tambourines. Others, less demented, wore gowns of white gauze and played harps, flutes and the inevitable sistra. I watched all this with interest, for I had yet to visit the Greek parts of the world, and the Dionysiac celebrations had long been forbidden in Rome.
"Them again," Rufus said disgustedly.
"In Rome they'd be driven from the city," said an embassy secretary.
"Are they Maenads?" I asked. "It seems an odd time of year to be holding their rites." I noticed that a number of them were brandishing snakes, and that now there were a number of young men among them, shaven-headed youths with the expression of one who has just been struck sharply at the base of the skull.
"Nothing so respectable," Rufus said. "These are followers of Ataxas."
"Is that some local god?" I inquired.
"No, he's a holy man out of Asia Minor. The city's full of his kind. He's been here a couple of years and acquired a great horde of these followers. He works miracles, foretells the future, makes statues speak, that sort of thing. That's another thing you'll find out about the Egyptians, Decius: They've no sense of decency when it comes to religion. Nodignitas, nogravitas; decent Roman rites and sacrifices have no appeal to them. They like the sort where the worshippers get all involved and emotional."
"Disgusting," sniffed the secretary.
"They look like they're having fun," I said. By now a great litter was crossing the street, even higher than ours, carried by yet more of the frenzied worshippers, which couldn't have done much for its stability. Atop it was a throne on which sat a man who wore an extravagant purple robe spangled with golden stars and a tall headdress topped by a silver crescent moon. Around one of his arms was wrapped a huge snake and in the other he held a scourge of the sort one uses to thrash recalcitrant slaves. I could see that he had a black beard, a long nose and dark eyes, but little else. He stared slightly ahead as if unaware of the churning frenzy being staged on his behalf.
"The great man himself," Rufus sneered.
"That's Ataxas?" I asked.
"The very same."
"I find myself wondering," I said, "just why a procession ofhigh officials gives way to a rabble that would have been chased from Rome with Molossian hounds at their heels."
Rufus shrugged. "This is Alexandria. Under this skin of Greek culture, these people are as priest-ridden and superstitious as they were under the Pharaohs."
"There is no shortage of religious charlatans in Rome," I pointed out.
"You'll see the difference before you've been at court for very long," Rufus promised.
When the frantic procession was past, we resumed our stately progress. I learned that the street we were on was the Canopic Way, the main east-west thoroughfare in Alexandria. Like all the others, it was straight as a chalk-line and ran from the Necropolis Gate in the west to the Canopic Gate in the east. In Rome, it was a rare street where two men could pass each other without having to turn sideways. On Canopic two litters such as ours could pass easily, while leaving plenty of room for pedestrian traffic on either side.
There were strict rules regarding how far balconies could protrude from the facades of buildings, and clotheslines over streets were forbidden. This in its way was refreshing, but one raised in Rome acquires a taste for chaos, and after a while all this regularity and order became oppressive. I realize that it seems a good idea at first, laying out a city where no city has been before, and making sure that it does not suffer from the ills that afflict cities that just grew and sprawled like Rome. But I would not care to live in a city that was a veritable work of art. I think this lies at the heart of the Alexandrians' reputation for licentiousness and riotous living. One forced to live in surroundings that might have been devised by Plato must seek relief and an outlet for the human urges despised by philosophers. Wickedness and debauchery may not be the only answers, but they are certainly the ones with the widest appeal.
In time we turned north along a great processional way. Ahead of us were several clusters of impressive buildings, some of them within battlemented walls. As we proceeded northward, we passed the first of these great complexes on our right.
"The Museum," Rufus said. "It's actually a part of the Palace, but it lies outside the defensive wall."
It was an imposing place, with wide stairs ascending to the Temple of the Muses, which gave the whole complex its name. Of far greater importance than the Temple was the cluster of buildings surrounding it, where many of the world's greatest scholars carried on their studies at state expense, publishing papers and giving lectures as they pleased. There was nothing like it in all the world, so it took its name from its temple. In later years, other such institutions, founded in imitation, were also called museums.
Even more famous than the Museum was the great Library attached to it. Here all the greatest books of the world were stored, and here copies were made and sold all over the civilized world. Behind the Museum I could see the great pitched roof of the Library, dwarfing all surrounding structures. I commented upon its immensity, and Rufus waved a hand as if it were a trifle.
"That is actually the lesser Library. It's called the Mother Library because it's original, founded by Ptolemy Soter himself. There's an even bigger one, called the Daughter Library, attached to the Serapeum. It's said that, between them, they contain more than seven hundred thousand volumes."
It seemed unbelievable. I tried to picture what 700,000 books must look like. I imagined a full legion plus an extra auxiliary cohort. That would be about 7,000 men. I imagined such a body of men, having looted Alexandria, filing out, each man carrying 100 books. Somehow, it still did not convey the reality. The wine probably didn't help.
Once past the Museum, we passed through yet another gate and were within the Palace itself. The Palace of Alexandria displayed the by-now familiar urge of the Successor Kings to build everything bigger than anyone had built before. Its lesser houses were the size of ordinary palaces, its gardens were the size of city parks, its shrines were as big as ordinary temples. It was a veritable city within a city.
"They've done well, for barbarians," I said.
We were set down before the steps of a sprawling stoa that ran the length of an apparently endless building. A crowd of court functionaries appeared at the top of the steps. In the middle of them was a portly, pleasant-faced man I recognized from his previous visits to Rome: Ptolemy the Flute-Player. He began to descend the Palace steps just as Creticus descended from his towering littler. Ptolemy knew better than to await him at the top of the steps. A Roman official climbs stairs to meet no one but a higher-ranking Roman official.
"Old Ptolemy's fatter than ever," I noted.
"Poorer than ever, too," Rufus said as we made our unsteady way to the mosaic pavement. It was a matter of constant amazement to us that the king of the world's richest nation was also the world's most prominent beggar. Not that we failed to take advantage of the fact.
The previous generation of Ptolemies had assassinated one another nearly out of existence, and an irate Alexandrian mob had finished the job. A royal bastard, Philopator Philadelphus Neos Dionysus, who was, in sober fact, a flute-player, had been found to fill the vacant throne. For more than a century Rome had been the power broker in Egypt, and he appealed to Rome to help shore up his shaky claim and we obliged. Rome would always rather prop up a weak king than deal with a strong one.
On the pavement Ptolemy and Creticus embraced, Creticus making a sour face at the scent Ptolemy wore. At least Ptolemy did not affect the Egyptian trappings so favored by the court. His clothing was Greek, and what remained of his hair was dressed in the Greek fashion. He did, however, make lavish use of facial cosmetics, to disguise the ravages of time and debauchery.
While Creticus and the king went into the Palace for the formal reception, I sneaked off with Rufus and a few others to the Roman embassy, where we would be staying. The embassy occupied a wing of the Palace and came complete with living quarters, banqueting facilities, baths, a gymnasium, gardens, ponds and a mob of slaves who might have staffed the biggest plantation in Italy.I found that my own quarters were far more spacious than my house in Rome and that I was to have twenty slaves for my personal service.
"Twenty?" I protested when I was presented with my staff. "I already have Hermes, and the little wretch hasn't enough to do as it is!"
"Oh, take them, Decius," Rufus insisted. "You know how slaves are; they'll find something to do. Do the quarters suit you?"
I surveyed the lavish suite. "The last time I saw anything like it was when I visited Lucullus's new town house."
"It is a bit better than being a junior official back home, isn't it?" Rufus said with satisfaction. Obviously, he had found the best possible dead end for his career.
We went into a small courtyard to sample some of the local vintages and catch each other up on the latest doings in our various spheres. It was delightfully cool beneath the palms, where tame monkeys gamboled among the fronds. In a marble-bordered pool, bloated carp swam up to be fed, their mouths gaping like the beaks of baby birds.
"Did you stop by Rome on your way here?" the secretary asked eagerly.
"No, we came by way of Sicily and Crete. Your news from the Capitol is probably more recent than mine."
"What of Gaul, then?" Rufus asked.
"Trouble. The Helvetii are making warlike noises. They resent the Roman presence and they're talking about taking back the Roman Province."
"We can't let them do that!" someone said. "It's our only overland connection to Iberia!"
"That's just what we were trying to prevent," I said. "We called on a number of tribal leaders and reminded them of our old friendships and alliances and we passed a few bribes."
"Do you think they'll stay peaceful?" Rufus asked.
"You can never tell with Gauls," I said. "They're an emotional people, and they do love to fight. They could jump either way. Whenwe left, most of them seemed to be content, but tomorrow some fire-raiser could make a speech accusing them of being women for accepting Roman authority, and the next day all Gaul could be in revolt just to prove their manhood."
"Well, we've beaten them many times before," said the secretary, who was a safe distance from Gaul.
"And they've whipped us a few times," I reminded him. "A tribe or two at a time, they're no danger. But if every tribe in Gaul decides to throw us out, I don't see that we could do much about it. They outnumber us about fifty to one, and they're on their own home ground."
"We need another Marius," someone said. "He knew how to handle Gauls and Germans."
"He knew how to handle Romans, too," I said sourly. "Mainly by massacring them."
"Only people of senatorial rank," the obnoxious little secretary pointed out. "But then, you Metelli were Sulla's supporters, weren't you?"
"Pay no attention to him," Rufus said affably. "He's a freedman's son, and the common herd were Marians to a man. But seriously, when does the proconsulship for transalpine Gaul change?"
"It will be one of next year's Consuls," I said, "which means some amiable dolt will undoubtedly be on the spot when the Gauls finally rise up and start wiping out every Roman citizen they can lay hands on." If I could have known what was happening back in Rome that year, I would have been far more alarmed. We faced something a great deal worse than a trifling military disaster in Gaul. But I was blissfully unaware of it, as was Rome in general.
"Now what of Egypt?" I asked. "There must be some problem, or the Senate wouldn't have ordered Creticus all the way from Gaul."
"The situation here is a chaotic shambles, as usual," Rufus told me. "Ptolemy is the last living male adult of the line. The question of the succession is growing urgent, because he will drink himself to death before long and we must have an heir to supportor we'll have a whole civil war to sort out, and that could take a number of years and legions."
"Who are the contenders?" I asked.
"Just one, an infant born a few months ago, and sickly at that," the secretary said.
"Let me guess. Would his name be Ptolemy?" The only other name they used was Alexander.
"However did you get that idea?" Rufus said. "Yes, another little Ptolemy and one in for a lengthy minority, from the look of things."
"Princesses?" I asked. The women of that line were usually more intelligent and forceful than the men.
"Three," Rufus said. "Berenice is about twenty and she's the king's favorite. Then there's little Cleopatra, but she's no more than ten, and Arsinoe, who is eight or so."
"No Selene in this generation?" I asked. That was the only other name bestowed on the Ptolemaic daughters.
"There was one, but she died," Rufus said. "Now, if no other girls are born, Cleopatra is probably the one little Ptolemy will marry, if he should live that long. There's already a court faction supporting her." The Ptolemies had long ago adopted the quaint Egyptian custom of marrying their sisters.
"On the other hand," said the secretary, "should the king turn toes-up any time soon, Berenice will probably marry the infant and rule as regent."
"Would that be a bad idea?" I asked. "On the whole, the Berenices and Cleopatras have been a pretty capable lot, even if the men have mostly been clowns."
"This one's a featherbrain," Rufus said. "She falls into every loathsome foreign cult that comes along. Last year there was a Babylonian revival and she devoted herself to some Asiatic horror with an eagle's head, as if the native Egyptian gods weren't disgusting enough. I think she's over that one, but if so, she's just found another even worse."
Courts are never simple, but this was getting truly dismal. "So who supports Berenice?"
"Most of the court eunuchs favor Berenice," Rufus said. "The satraps of the various nomes are divided, and some of them would like to see an end to the Ptolemies altogether. They've become like little kings on their estates, with private armies and so forth."
"So we must pick somebody to back so that the Senate can vote on it, and then we'll have a constitutional justification should we have to intervene on behalf of our chosen heir?" I said.
I sighed. "Why don't we just annex this place? A sensible Roman governor would do it a world of good."
That evening there was a magnificent banquet, at which the centerpiece was a whole roast hippopotamus. I put the same question to Creticus, and he set me straight on a few matters.
"Take over Egypt?" he said. "We could have done that any time in the last hundred years, but we haven't and for good reason."
"I don't understand," I said. "When did we ever turn down a chance for a little loot and some more territory?"
"You aren't thinking it through," he said as a slave spooned some elephant-ear soup into a solid gold bowl supported by a crystal stand sculptured as a drunken Hercules. I dipped an ivory spoon into the mess and tried it. It would never replace chicken soup in my esteem.
"Egypt doesn't represent just a little loot and territory," Creticus explained patiently. "Egypt is the richest, most productive nation in the world. The Ptolemies are always impoverished only because they mismanage things so badly. They spend their wealth on frivolous luxury, or on projects that bring them prestige rather than prosperity or might." The Flure-Player was already snoring gently at Creticus's elbow, and so did not resent these comments.
"All the more reason for some good Roman reorganization," I said.
"And just who would you trust with this task?" Creticus asked. "Let me point out that the general who conquers Egypt will become,instantly, the richest man in the world. Can you imagine the infighting among our military gentry should the Senate dangle such a prize before them?"
"There's more. Egypt's grain production surpasses that of all other nations by a factor so huge that it staggers the mind. The Nile obligingly delivers a new load of silt every year and the peasants work far more productively than our slaves. Two crops a year in most years, and sometimes three. In a time of famine for the rest of us, Egypt can feed our whole Empire, by stretching the rations a little."
"So the Roman governor of Egypt could have a stranglehold on the Empire?"
"And be in a position to set himself up as an independent king, with the wealth to hire all the troops he needs. Would you like to see Pompey in a position of such power? Or Crassus?"
"I understand. So this is why it's always been our policy to back one degenerate weakling after another for the crown of Egypt?"
"Exactly. And we always help them: with loans, with military aid, with advice. Not that they take advice very well. Caius Rabirius is working heroically to sort out Ptolemy's financial problems, but it could be years before he makes much progress." Rabirius was a famous Roman banker who had lent huge sums to Ptolemy, who in turn had named him minister of finance for Egypt.
"So who do we back this time?" I asked.
"It'll have to be the infant," he said, lowering his voice even further. "But no need to let that be known too soon." He favored me with a conspiratorial grin. "The other parties will court us lavishly as long as they think they have a chance to win Roman favor."
"The princesses are out of the question?" I said. I had yet to see these ladies. They were living at country estates at that season.
"The Senate has never favored the support of female rulers, and these are too surrounded by predatory relatives and courtiers.I suppose the brat will have to marry one of them, but that's for the benefit of his Egyptian subjects. As far as the Senate is concerned, he can marry one of the sacred crocodiles."
"That having been decided," I said, "just how do we occupy ourselves here?"
"Like all the other Romans here," he said. "We have a good time."