It was the glory of the city long before the Emperor laid the first stone with his golden trowel. Sightseers regularly came and stood around it. This was the place in Rome to spend a peaceful hour, or several, watching someone else at work. The site of the Flavian Arena had to be the biggest- and best-ever hole in the ground.
I had last stood here looking at it in the company of the centurion Laurentius. After the waiter's death at Flora's Caupona, Petronius and I had sought him out. Rather than talk at his sister's house, amidst the clamour of her young children, we had walked through Rome until we ended up at this building site. Here we had told Laurentius what had happened to Epimandos, and of our belief that Epimandos must have murdered Censorinus.
Laurentius had been prepared for it. Recognising the runaway had already suggested the whole story. Nevertheless, its confirmation, and hearing about the waiter's lonely end, had made us all dispirited.
Laurentius was a sensible type, but even he began to philosophise gloomily.
'Look at those, for instance!' he had exclaimed, as we passed a group of Eastern prisoners. They were digging foundations, though not very busily. Construction sites have their moments of frantic activity, but this had not been one of them. 'We legionaries flog ourselves in the burning sun with our brains boiling in our helmets,' Laurentius complained bitterly, 'while this lot calmly get captured and take their ease in Rome… What's it all for?' he demanded. The old cry.
That was when I had asked him about Festus. He had not been present at Bethel. 'I was off with a detachment under Cerialis, in bandit country further south. We were clearing the ground around Jerusalem in preparation for the siege, while the old man himself tackled the towns in the hills-' He was referring to Vespasian. 'Is there a problem, Falco?'
'Not really. ' I felt obliged to show some diffidence. To criticise a campaign hero is to take issue with the whole conduct of the campaign; nailing Festus as less than glorious would diminish the survivors too. 'I did wonder what exactly happened.'
'Did you not receive a report?'
'Who believes reports? Remember, I've been in the army myself!'
'So what are you thinking?'
Somehow I had laughed, almost dismissively. 'Knowing what I do now, I wonder whether when Festus overstretched himself commercially, your own syndicate might have chucked him off the ramparts in disgust at their financial loss?'
'Not an issue!' replied the centurion. He was terse. 'Trust the report…' There was nothing else I would learn from him.
Yet as he turned away, in the act of leaving us, he threw back over his shoulder, 'Believe the story, Falco.' Those hard bright eyes glared at me from that quiet, trustworthy face. 'You know what happens. These things are all the same when you get down to it-what took Festus off was probably some stupid accident.'
He was right, and if so, he was right that we all had to forget it. I could believe that angle. Yet it was not enough. For my mother there had to be more than mere belief.
I could go to Pannonia. I could find people who had been present-the men from my brother's own century who had followed him on to the battlement. I already knew what they would tell me. They would say what the army had said.
I could get them very drunk, and they would then tell me another story, but that would be because drunken soldiers all hate the army, and while they are drunk they blame the army for a lot of lies; those lies become truths again as soon as they sober up. His comrades had a vested interest in my brother's official fate. Dead men have to be heroes. Nothing else applies.
Dead officers even more so.
The Judaean campaign was now famous: it had produced an emperor. That was an accident which nobody had expected in the months when Festus died. Festus was lost in March or April; Vespasian was not hailed emperor anywhere until July, and it had taken him a great deal longer than that to complete the process of gaining the throne. Until then, the Jewish Rebellion was nothing. Just another political foul-up in a terrible spot where we pretended to be taking the gifts of civilisation to the wild men, in order to keep a toe-hold in a lucrative trade arena. Unlike most of his colleagues, Festus at least knew at firsthand about the dyes and the glass and the cedar wood, and the links with the silk and spice routes which we needed to protect for ourselves. But even with that knowledge, nobody would fight there-not for a baking desert full of nothing but goats and squabbling religious zealots-unless they could believe at least the promise that their corpse would achieve some glory. Being first man over the battlement of some faded hill town had to count.
It had to count for the mother he had left behind in Rome too.
So since she had asked me, I did what I could. This niggle had been dogging us all for three years now, and the time had come to settle it.
The Flavian Arena was to be built by a workforce which the conquests of Vespasian and Titus had conveniently provided: captured Judaean slaves.
I had come to see them.
It was late afternoon when I started my search. I had to tackle one after another of the grisly gang foremen, whose demeanour was worse than the prisoners they guarded. Each passed me on to some other filthy lout with a whip. Some expected money just for saying no. Most were drunk and all of them were nasty. When I finally found the right group of prisoners, talking to them was quite pleasant by comparison.
We spoke in Greek. Thank the gods for Greek-always there to help an informer dodge paying the price of an interpreter.
'I want you to tell me a story.' They stared at me, anticipating violence. It was giving me bad memories of a time I once disguised myself as a hard-labour slave. I found myself scratching reminiscently.
These were prisoners of war, nothing like the millions of nice, clean, cultured fellows Manlius and Varga had ranted about, the secretaries, stewards, toga-folders and wine-mixers who filled the streets of Rome looking just the same as their kempt masters. These were the few male survivors of various Judaean massacres, hand-picked to look good in Titus Caesar's Triumph. Most of the thousands of prisoners had been sent to forced labour in Egypt, the imperial province, but these shaven-headed, dirty, sullen youths had been carried off to Rome first to be paraded as a spectacle, then to rebuild the city in Vespasian's 'Roma Resurgans' campaign.
They were fed, but thin. Building sites start work at dawn and pack up early. It was late afternoon. They were sitting around braziers now, outside their crowded bivouacs, their faces dark and hollow in the firelight as the winter darkness fell. To me they looked foreign, though I dare say I myself was being regarded by them as an exotic from a culture where everyone had dark jowls, unsavoury religious beliefs, strange culinary habits and a big hooked nose.
'Bear up,' I consoled them. 'You're slaves, but you're in Rome. It may seem hard for hill-farmers to find themselves brought here for endless mud-shovelling, but if you survive this hard labour through to the stonecutting and construction work, you're in the best place in the world. We Romans were hill-farmers once. The reason we clustered here among our theatres, baths and public venues is quite simple-we noticed that hill-farming stinks. You're alive, you're here-and you have access to a better life.'
Jests were not required. Even well-meant stoicism failed. They were desolate and dreaming of their goats.
They let me talk, however. Anything different is welcome to men on a chain-gang.
I knew from their foreman that these hailed from the right area. I explained what I wanted. 'It happened about this time of year, and about three years ago. There had been a hiatus since the autumn before, after Nero died; you may remember a period of uncertainty when hostilities ceased. Then came spring. Vespasian decided to revive his campaign. He climbed into the hills-where you come from-and he occupied your towns.'