Private Investigator Flavia Albia is back in Lindsey Davis’s next gripping and witty mystery set in Ancient Rome, The Grove of the Caesars. Publishing in April 2020, we are delighted to share a sneak-peek extract of the prologue and first chapter:
Rome: the Transtiberina December AD 89
I want to make a complaint. Poets are wrong about gardens. Your average poet, scratching away to impress his peers in the Writers’ Guild at their dusty haunt on the Aventine, the Temple of Minerva, will portray a garden as a metaphor for productive peace and quiet. In such secluded places, poets will say, men who own multiple estates engage in happy contemplation of weighty intellectual matters, while acquiring a glow of health. These landowners, idiot patrons of ridiculous authors, take pleasure from topiary cut in the shape of their own names, yet they avoid the slur of self- indulgence, simply because their box-tree autographs have roots in the earth.
When garden-owners step indoors, it is no better. Every wall in their houses adds to the lie, with pictorial herbage cluttering up frieze and dado; sometimes branches and garden ornaments even dangle from ceilings. For most Romans, growing a shrub in an urn reminds them of their agricultural forebears quite enough, while the landscaped panoramas they gaze upon indoors are a symbol of the leisured life in a civilised city, where the natural world can be permanently tamed without the intervention of worms.
Both poets and landowners live in a dream. These fellows couldn’t plant a seed, or if they did it would damp off. Art and literature are wrong. A gardener keeps his grounds tidy by inflicting death; he sees living things as weeds and pests, so he kills them. Horticulture calls for a shed that is cram-full of poisons and very sharp tools. Do not be fooled. Any walk through a garden will take you past amputated branches, torn-up beds, desiccated trees, mould, blight, fungi, smells, and dead rodents with bedraggled fur that expired last night in the middle of your path. Crows flying overhead will have dropped bloody entrails they snatched at the meat market. The elegant ivy winding itself up that tree is strangling it.
You yourself are in danger. As you recoil from the carnage that greets you on all sides, take care: you may slip over, tumble down a slope or turn your ankle in a hole. Watch out for wasps. Make sure you do not step on a rake. That’s a common route to a cracked skull and sepsis. You may enter a garden on foot, but you will probably leave it in a barrow, carried like a sack of trimmings. The man wheeling you is whistling, while you are moaning with pain.
Gardens are regarded as places to be solitary. Don’t believe it. Naiads are raped by randy satyrs. Gods chase after girls, who must be turned into trees for their own good. People you wouldn’t want as neighbours bring obscenely stuffed bread rolls, then play shrieking games at picnics. Grass-mowers who look as if they are planning to stab someone edge too close then if you dare to catch their eye, they talk to you interminably. Everywhere there are isolated spots where bad things happen. That predator rustling unseen in the undergrowth may not be a snake, but something much worse. Public gardens are favourite places to dispose of murdered corpses.
In all of this, the sacred Grove of the Caesars was no different. I would never have ventured within its pesky railings, except that my husband had had to rush away to the country because a relative was dangerously ill.
When the letter arrived, Tiberius was feeling tired. Everyone in our house was the same that morning, because yesterday had been the Emperor’s triumph. Last night my family had decided a feast must be hosted by Tiberius and me. We were newly wed: we hadn’t yet quarrelled with enough people to be off limits. Besides, since we owned a building firm, we had a big yard. My family welcomed that with glee. So, a firepit for roasting meats was dug there, men knocked together trestle tables, women decorated our courtyard with garlands, then scads of relatives turned up, led by dippy aunts with trays of suspiciously dog-eared pastries. The words ‘Don’t worry, we’ll bring food’ can be a double-edged promise.
Today, as the aunts came to ask for their trays back, even our cook was tired. Anyone who could face breakfast had to fend for themselves. My elegant new steward was wandering about like a man who had tidied up the wine flagons last night by drinking all the dregs in the bottom. Dromo, the slave who looked after Tiberius, was sound asleep; Suza, my maid, ditto. The dog was hiding. My husband could be seen sitting in the courtyard, as motion-less and silent as a man who was wondering how the universe began; a beaker of herb tea had gone cold on the bench beside him.
I was awake. Someone must stay on duty. The place was a wreck. I tried some gentle clearing up. Soon I stopped bothering.
Two messengers came that morning and were admitted by me when everyone else ignored their knocks. The first was a soldier bringing an invitation for Tiberius to attend what would subsequently be known as the Emperor’s Black Banquet. I quickly penned regrets: my husband the aedile had recently survived a lightning strike; on medical advice he could not yet socialise. I added ‘as reported in the Daily Gazette’, because when you are refusing a chance to be poisoned by your emperor, it is best to sound factual.
Next came a worrying letter from his aunt Valeria about his sister. I nearly kept that until Tiberius was feeling more himself, but he called out to ask what it was. The aunt, poor old dearie, liked to steep herself in misery, but I could tell as he read it that her news was worse than normal.
She thought Tiberius ought to come urgently to Fidenae. That was where he grew up and a few family members still lived. Valeria warned darkly it might be his last chance to see his sister.
We knew Fania Faustina was pregnant. She was married to a Fidenae man called Antistius; they already had three young sons. Tiberius and I found Antistius uncouth: we had witnessed him trying to be unfaithful with a barmaid, although even that grubby working girl rebuffed him. Fania must always have realised what he was like, but when they visited Rome for our wedding this autumn, she began to admit his inadequacy. She wept and spoke of leaving him. That plan failed because she was having a new baby – perhaps it was an attempt to save their marriage. Misguided, we thought privately. Aunt Valeria agreed in principle but reckoned that, after three sons, her niece wanted a daughter.
Valeria, who lived near the couple, had been keeping a sharp eye out. She so much enjoyed being a snoop she could have spied for the Emperor. Fania was typical of the clients I worked for as an informer: a pleasant, sad soul who felt her life might be better. Too right, unhappy sister-in-law! She needed to shed the louche louse she was shackled to. I had attempted guidance, but Fania was soft dough. She believed she must stay married for the children’s sake. I last encountered those little boys holding my hands with sticky fingers in my bridal procession: not my favourite nuptial memory. Fania really ought to have told Antistius that legally the boys were his problem, then left him with it.
Despite their difficulties, now Fania was bringing another unfortunate into the world. But the aunt wrote that Fania was experiencing terrible pain. I had no idea whether Valeria herself had ever borne children, but Fania would know if this pregnancy was going wrong. The husband was useless; the rat just went out and left her to suffer.
Valeria, who had brought up Fania Faustina after she and Tiberius were orphaned, told us she had stepped in. She took Fania back into her own house, with her own doctor looking after her. But the doctor looked grim and Valeria was so nervous she wanted Tiberius to come.
When I read this letter, I thought he should take it seriously. Aunt Valeria liked to exaggerate, but she had a kindly nature and was no fool. She loved her niece. I even detected anxiety for her nephew; if anything happened to Fania and he hadn’t reacted soon enough, he would blame himself. They lost their parents in their teens, so given her husband’s conduct, Tiberius felt he still had head-of-household responsibilities.
Tiberius wanted to believe that his sister was in no real danger, but he decided to see for himself. He sent Dromo to hire a horse, which would be the fastest way to get there.
‘I hope nobody expects me to ride him, Master!’
‘That would be too unkind to the horse. I’m travelling light, Dromo. If I need to stay for long, you can bring more stuff for me in a cart.’
‘I can’t go in a cart all by myself.’
‘Noted. Now shut up, please.’
Even Dromo finally saw that Tiberius was worried. The plan was for me to stay in Rome. I never said it but, like Dromo, nothing would entice me onto a hired horse for a ten- or twelve-mile journey. But there was no need to stress. With his magistracy due to end, my man had bought a moribund building firm to keep him occupied. Its revival was still in the start-up phase, with Tiberius wanting to branch out from remodelling backstreet food shops to more ambitious projects where he wouldn’t keep finding rats in old food bins and skeletons in back gardens. He had a clerk of works, who verged on fairly reliable, plus workmen who had sometimes been known to build a wall that stayed up. He could safely leave them, but he liked the idea of me acting as his deputy. His team were scared of me. That might be because of what I had said to them last night, when their fooling in the roasting pit had nearly set the yard on fire.
Just words. Those men were wimps.
Tiberius threw a few things into a luggage roll, while giving me details of projects to monitor. I nodded. He was too upset about his sister for me to say, ‘Don’t fuss.’ I gravely promised to make sure all the snagging at the Triton was finished this week, then send an invoice. Yes, I would chase up the marble order for Fullo’s. I love you, darling, fear not, I know how you like to do things. Yes, if I am unsure about anything at all, I shall put it on hold until you come back . . . Tiberius reckoned I could trust Larcius, the clerk of works, to progress their big nymphaeum rebuild in the Nemus Caesarum. When he mentioned that scheme, I barely noticed how – as if simply to save me any trouble – he murmured, ‘Don’t go to the Grove.’
Of course, if I had noticed, it would have been a certain way to send me scurrying over there.