Two For The Lions
Rome: December, AD 73-April AD 74
MY PARTNER AND I had been well set up to earn our fortunes until we were told about the corpse.
Death, it has to be said, was ever-present in those surroundings. Anacrites and I were working among the suppliers of wild beasts and gladiators for the arena Games in Rome; every time we took our auditing note tablets on a site visit, we spent the day surrounded by those who were destined to die in the near future and those who would only escape being killed if they killed someone else first. Life, the victors' main prize, would be in most cases temporary.
But there amongst the fighters' barracks and the big cats' cages, death was commonplace. Our own victims, the fat businessmen whose financial affairs we were so delicately probing as part of our new career, were themselves looking forwards to long, comfortable lives-yet the formal description of their business was Slaughter. Their stock-in-trade was measured as units of mass murder; their success would depend upon those units satisfying the crowd in straightforward volume terms, and upon their devising ever more sophisticated ways to deliver the blood.
We knew there must be big money in it. The suppliers and trainers were free men-a prerequisite of engaging in commerce, however sordid-and so they had presented themselves with the rest of Roman society in the Great Census. This had been decreed by the Emperor on his accession, and it was not simply intended to count heads. When Vespasian assumed power in a bankrupt Empire after the chaos of Nero's reign, he famously declared that he would need four hundred million sesterces to restore the Roman world. Lacking a personal fortune, he set out to find funding in the way that seemed most attractive to a man with middle-class origins. He named himself and his elder son Titus as Censors, then called up the rest of us to give an account of ourselves and of everything we owned. Then we were swingeingly taxed on the latter, which was the real point of the exercise.
The shrewd amongst you will deduce that some heads of household found themselves excited by the challenge; foolish fellows tried to minimize the figures when declaring the value of their property. Only those who can afford extremely cute financial advisers ever get away with this, and since the Great Census was intended to rake in four hundred million it was madness to attempt a bluff. The target was too high; evasion would be tackled head-on by an Emperor who had tax farmers in his recent family pedigree.
The machinery for extortion already existed. The Census traditionally used the first principle of fiscal administration: the Censors had the right to say: we don't believe a word of what you're telling us. Then they made their own assessment, and the victim had to pay up accordingly. There was no appeal.
No; that's a lie. Free men always have the right to petition the Emperor. And it's a perk of being Emperor that he can twitch his purple robe and augustly tells them to get lost.
While the Emperor and his son were acting as Censors, it would in any case be a waste of time to ask them to overrule themselves. But first they had to make the hard-hitting reassessments, and for that they needed help. To save Vespasian and Titus from being forced personally to measure the boundaries of estates, interrogate sweaty Forum bankers, or pore over ledgers with an abacus given that they were simultaneously trying to run the tattered Empire after all-they were now employing my partner and me. The Censors needed to identify cases where they could clamp down. No emperor wants to be accused of cruelty. Somebody had to spot the cheats who could be reassessed without causing an outcry, so Falco Partner had been hired-at my own suggestion and on an extremely attractive fee basis-to investigate low declarations.
We had hoped this would entail a cozy life scanning columns of neat sums on best quality parchment in rich men's luxurious studies: no such luck. I for one was known to be tough, and as an informer I was probably thought to have slightly grubby origins. So Vespasian and Titus had thwarted me by deciding that they wanted the best value for hiring Falco Partner (the specific identity of my Partner had not been revealed, for good reasons). They ordered us to forget the easy life and to investigate the grey economy.
Hence the arena. It was thought that the trainers and suppliers were lying through their teeth-as they undoubtedly were, and so was everybody. Anyway their shifty looks had caught the attention of our imperial masters, and that was what we were probing on that seemingly ordinary morning, when we were unexpectedly invited to look at a corpse.
WORKING FOR THE Censors had been my idea. A chance conversation with the senator Camillus Verus some weeks before had alerted me that tax reassessments were being imposed. I realized that this could be properly organized, with a dedicated audit team looking into suspect cases (a category into which Camillus himself did not fall; he was just a poor coot with an unlucky face who fell foul of an assessor and who could not afford the kind of smooth accountant who might have dug him out of it).
Putting myself forward to direct the enquiries proved tricky. There were always scores of bright sparks in their best togas running up to the Palace to suggest wonderful ruses that would be the salvation of the Empire. Court officials were adept at rejecting them. For one thing, even wonderful ideas were not always welcome to Vespasian, because he was a realist. It was said that when an engineer described how the huge new columns for the restored Temple of Jupiter could be hauled up the Capitol very cheaply by mechanical means, Vespasian rejected the idea because he preferred paying the lower classes to do the job and earn themselves money to eat. Certainly the old man knew how to avoid a riot.
I did go up to the Palatine with my suggestion. I sat in an imperial salon full of other hopefuls for half a morning, but I soon grew bored. It was no good, anyway. If I wanted to make money from the Census I had to start quickly. I dared not wait in a queue for months; the Census was only supposed to take a year.
There was another problem at the Palace: my current partner was an imperial employee already. I had not wanted Anacrites to attach himself to me, but after eight hard years as a solo informer I had bowed to pressure from everyone close to me and agreed that I needed a colleague. For a few weeks I worked in harness with my best mend Petronius Longus, who had been temporarily suspended from the vigiles. I'd like to say it had been a success, though in fact his approach had been opposite from mine on virtually everything. When Petro decided to clean up his private life and was reinstated by his tribune, it had been a relief to us both.
That left me with a meagre choice. Nobody wants to be an informer. Not many men have the necessary qualities of shrewdness and tenacity, or decent feet for slogging the pavements, or good contacts for supplying information particularly information that by rights ought to be unobtainable. Among the few who qualified even fewer wanted my company, especially now Petro was trumpeting all around the Aventine that I was a picky swine to share an office with.
Anacrites and I had never been soulmates. I had disliked him on principle when he was Chief Spy at the court and I was a backstreet operator with only private clients; once I started hacking for Vespasian myself: my dislike was soon enhanced by first hand knowledge that Anacrites was incompetent, devious, and cheap. (All these accusations are leveled at informers too, but that's just slander.) When, during a mission to Nabataea, Anacrites tried to have me murdered I stopped pretending to be tolerant.
Fate took a hand after he was attacked by a would-be assassin. It was not me; I would have made a thorough job of it. Even he knew that. Instead, when he was found unconscious with a hole in his skull, I somehow ended up persuading my own mother to look after him. For weeks his life hung in the balance, but Ma dragged him back from the shore of the Lethe using sheer determination and vegetable broth. After she had saved him I came home from a trip to Baetica to find a bond between them that was as strong as if Ma had fostered an orphaned duck.