They decided their need for the Poseidon was desperate.
The question of money was discreetly raised.
Apparently, in order to put young Justinus into the Senate, the illustrious Camillus would need a very large amount. 'The figure which has been mentioned,' said Cocceius in a hushed voice, like a doctor announcing a fatal disease, 'is six hundred thousand.'
Naturally the collectors offered four hundred. To which the owner replied that that was an outrage; he could not possibly settle for less than five. The deal was struck. Half a million in gold aurei (plus the commission to Cocceius) was exchanged for the unknown statue.
Two hours later people were being invited to a viewing at the private house of Cassius Carus and Ummidia Servia, who had acquired a Poseidon by Phidias.
We were even. We had got them off our backs, then retrieved our money. We had fooled them: we had sold them our fake.
We still had the Zeus. We were rich.
Father and I bought an amphora of the best well-aged Falernian. Then we bought two more.
After that, before we touched a drop but knowing we were on the verge of becoming extremely drunk, we went along together to the caupona for a fond look at our Zeus.
We went in through the back lane. The stable door had been properly locked by Orontes when he left. We opened up, amid happy exclamations. We banged the door behind us and lit lamps. Then slowly our celebrations died.
In the cleared space where I had placed the marble block for Orontes to carve still stood-a marble block. A chunk of it was missing, however. Clean stone gleamed with Parian whiteness where this piece had been removed: a neat rectangle, taken off the top. Most of the marble that was supposed to have been transformed into the Poseidon remained untouched.
We walked upstairs. By then we both knew what had happened, but we had to see the proof.
In the room where our Phidias Zeus had been left for Orontes, all that remained now was a severed arm holding a thunderbolt.
'I'm dreaming this…'
'That lazy, cheating, dissolute bastard! If I catch him-'
'Oh he'll be far away
Instead of bothering to carve a whole new statue, Orontes Mediolanus had simply adapted the existing one, giving it a new right arm. Now the Zeus had a trident instead of a thunderbolt.
Instead of a fake, we had sold Carus and Servia our genuine Phidias.
It was April, and not as far as I knew an official black day in the Roman calendar, though it would be for ever in mine. In the old republican period New Year began on the Ides of March, so this was the first month of the year. The Senate went into recess to brace itself. To tackle April, you needed to be fit. April was packed with celebrations: the Megalensis and the Floral Games, the Games and Festival of Ceres, the Vinalia, the Robigalia and the Parilia, which was the birthday of Rome itself.
I was not sure I could sustain so much civic joy. In fact, at the moment I hated the thought of any jollity.
I walked through the Forum. At his request I had taken my father to the Saepta and dumped him in his office, stunned, though sober at that point. He wanted to be alone. I, too, could not face seeing anyone. My entire family would be gathering at Mother's, including Helena. Being greeted with garlands, when in fact I was bringing them nothing but my own stupidity, would be unbearable.
I should have checked up. Orontes had told me he preferred to work uninterrupted. I had been taken in by that simple lie.
Creation is a delicate process. Deceit is a fine art.
The Fates had a fine way of deflating our arrogance. I walked through Rome, driving myself on until I could accept what I had done, the chances I had lost. I needed occupation, or I would lose my sanity.
There were still questions to pursue. In all this, I had not forgotten the original commission from my mother. We had solved a murder, and almost pulled off a vengeful coup on behalf of the whole family, but one subject remained open even now: my elder brother's reputation.
Maybe his had been a flawed judgement. Carus, with the aid of Orontes, had defrauded him. I could hardly blame Festus for that any longer, since Orontes had done the same to me. One commercial transaction had gone awry, the only one I knew about. Even without possession of the facts, Festus had been taking steps to put it right. Only his death had intervened. Only the fact that he had trusted no one-not even Father, not even me-had prevented his plans from being followed through.
Was Festus a hero?
I did not believe in heroics. I did not believe he had made some glorious, selfless sacrifice for Rome. Being honest, I had never believed it. He was romantic-but if he had ever, for some unimaginable reason, chosen that path, then he would have clinched his deals first. Festus could not have borne the thought of leaving an unfinished scheme. That Phidias, bricked up in Rome where it might never have been found; those blocks of marble abandoned on my sleepy uncles' farm; they told me absolutely: he was expecting to come back.
Did he think I would finish the business? No. I was his executor, but only because the army had forced him to make a will. It was a joke. There was nothing to bequeath formally. There had never been plans for me to adopt those transactions that were my brother's pride and joy. He had wanted to do it; he had intended to complete them himself.
My only legacy was to decide, now, what kind of name I should allow him to keep.
How could I decide?
All I could do was miss him. There was nobody like him. Anything I had ever done that was bad had had its origin in his encouragement. The same went for anything affectionate or generous. I might not believe he was a hero, but that still left plenty to believe in: that great heart, that great colourful, complicated character which even three years after he had died still dominated all of us.
I had continued for too long simply wondering. Tonight, if it existed anywhere, I was going to find the truth.
I had entered the Forum down the Gemonian Steps from the Capitol. I walked from the Rostra and the Golden Milestone, the whole length of the Basilica Julia to the Temple of Castor, where I thought about attending the baths, then abandoned the thought. I was in no mood for the attentions of slaves and conversation with friends. I passed the Vestals' House and Temple, emerging into the area the republicans called the Velia.
All of the district around me, from the Palatine behind me to the Esquiline ahead, taking in both the Oppian and Caelian hills, had been destroyed by fire and then taken over by Nero for the abomination he called his Golden House.
House was the wrong word. What he had created here was even more than a palace. Its lofty structures leapt between the crags, a feast of fabulous architecture. The interior decor was unbelievable, its richness and imagination surpassing anything artists had previously created. In the grounds, he had achieved another wonder. If the architecture was amazing, despite representing such blatant megalomania, even more dramatic was this entire landscape surrounding the halls and colonnades: a natural countryside within the city walls. Here there were parks and woodlands where wild and tame animals had roamed, all dominated by the famous Great Lake. It had been the tyrant's private world, but Vespasian, in a calculated propaganda coup, had thrown it open to everyone as a vast public park.
Smart move, Flavians! Now we had an emperor who treated his own divinity as an irony. He talked of pulling down the Golden House, though he and his sons were currently living there. The lake, however, had already been drained. It was the best-placed site in Rome, right at the end of the Sacred Way, on the main approach to the Forum. There Vespasian intended to use the cavern left by the drained lake to build the foundations and substructures of an immense new arena that would bear his family name.