The Aventine Hill: the most nauseating ditch of the sewage of Romulus. It was cramped, it was filthy, it was a maze. However, no proper Roman would move outside the walls of the City and abandon the civic duties and pleasures of urban life. As confusing and dangerous as the Aventine was, it allowed the poor to be fully Roman. The Hill was the only parcel of land for plebeian housing, pierced by serpentine and cluttered streets, laden with houses layered one over the other, complex labyrinths of tiny rooms whose exterior walls were ever-stained by excrement and mud. Ah, the dispensations of State
I would not trade the Hill for any other neighbourhood in the world.
Few families of the Aventine are as ancient as the gens Considia; an extended tree of long branches and rooted in a prestigious past. Generally humble, our people have always done everything within their power to keep patricians away from our foul Hill, supporting the indebted and forsaken rather than allow them to be taken as slaves, organizing funerary clubs, maintaining and consecrating small sanctuaries for gods that did not warrant the favour of an august patron; some of the most ambitious Considii had even secured enough money to represent the plebeians of Rome as Tribunes of the People.
You could not mistake me for one of the great Considii. My name is Marcus Considius and I am a simple barber, too worried with keeping my shop open to take part in the world of politics or active civic service. My father was a barber, as was his mother before him; I learnt my trade in the streets, on front of the very same shop where I now work. There were no shortcuts; I got inside through costly mistakes and sheer dedication. I cannot imagine any other way I would live my life and I’m confident the Aventine cannot picture itself without me. Violence is more common than grain or olive oil at the Hill. Freedmen have money and common sense in abundance, giving the place a wide berth; this makes me the only one here that knows anything about Eastern medicine - the only chance many have to live through the night. Even when there are no wounds to sew or broken fingers to bind, there are always beards to shave and gossip to be shared. Visiting the barber gives color and meaning to life in the Hill - or so I like to believe.
Not every guest was welcomed. The double chins of Titus Annius and his balding head crossed the threshold of my door as I discussed gambling with one of the Red drivers. A dozen ruffians from his clientela followed behind him.
“No, please, do go on.” Annius replied to the sudden silence with a toothless smile. “It is, after all, to my best interest that you make some money with the races. Nothing sweet as the sound of silver coins repaying debts.”
“You haunt my property once again with your sorry tales of usury, Annius? I am going to pay the interest this month - as I have always done. And I swear to Trivia, before the year is over I will clear all of my debts. Go away, we do not need your ugly mug around here. You will scare the clients.”
An usurer and his cruel smile.
“I would not be so confident, Marcus Tonsore. Between the new legions in Sardinia and the rumours of unrest up North, I think conflict will soon be banging at Janus Pacificator’s door. The tax farmers are already rubbing their hands and licking their lips in anticipation; it is only a question of time until someone starts a fight. They will descend like birds of prey and fleece into every little shop from here to the Palatinate - all they need is a half-decent excuse. But do not despair, my good man. I have friends that are interested in your propriety as well as your wife’s. I believe we can find an alternative form of payment.”
Was it a bluff? Perhaps. But it was not part of my character to concede a point in public. Even the humble have their pearls of pride.
“See you next week, Annius. If you want my attention during work hours, how about growing some hair?”
“Oh, how I wish to contribute for the economy of my beloved Aventine! How about you shave my crotch next time?
Vale!” Bidding farewell with rude groin trusts, the
clientela that accompanied the usurer cheered him out with a torrent of insults.
The driver broke the silence that befell the shop.
“This is awful. I can have some words with a few fans and put some fear into that fellator. A bump in the night might bring us calmer days.”
“Bad idea, escalation of force will only worsen the situation. If you deal with money, you need a healthy mix of fear and respect; you and cannot have someone like me challenging your standing in the community. I will talk with your boss tomorrow. I believe we may still solve this peacefully.”
I made my way to the Tiberis island where Albus Pomponius Bassus had built his domus. With me, an amphora of the Sicilian wine that he so much appreciated. The door of his house was open wide, as the man welcomed his visiting clients. Many had come all across Italia, waiting for Bassus’ attention in a considerable queue. Horse breeders, racers, a few actors, some prostitutes and many professional louts started they day this way. I was just the barber from the Aventine, which deserved only curt greetings
The Sun was already high when I was received by Pomponius Bassus. His body was typical of an athlete that had retired to a decadent lifestyle, heavy set muscles bloated by fat, skin perpetually marred by pleasures and vices. The limping was the legacy of a broken leg that had never healed proper, a constant reminder that he would never again drive a quadriga.
Glorious past events were celebrated in the decoration of his house: mosaics and sacked Gallic jewellery, banners and trophies, all drawing attention to the greatest of his prizes: a Corinthian bronze vessel that he claimed to have had won in Hellas.
“Ave Marcus Considius! Tell me, what reason we have to celebrate? It is good to see you with my own eyes!” He rose with some effort and gave me a bear-like hug. “Is that what I think it is? Have our good-for-nothing siblings finally sent news, and you wisely decided to share good tidings with wine?
Questions and assumptions made sense. Our brothers had left together for Sicilia, trying to secure lucrative contracts for grain transport and tax collecting. We in Rome anxiously waited for news about our investment. Any news.
“Unfortunately, no. However, I come at you with a request related with that initiative. I need to get some dividends from this investment; I fear for what the usurers might do if I do not pay them off.”
“Cheer, Marcus!” Bassus tried to appease me, even as worry transpired across his rotund face. “I have managed to scrap some money from what Gaius sends back on our ships. Unfortunately, everything has already been reinvested. You have to understand, Considius, it was not enough for both or that justifies the endeavour. However, if I buy new horses for the Reds and run for office, we might make some profit. I’m sure you heard, right?”
“Of course, even the Blues supporters of the Aventine would vote for you.” Speaking of the topic cheered Bassus but did little to improve my own mood. I knew of this new adventure, and that had been why I was avoiding him. It was futile to ask for money from someone crashing and burning through a political campaign. “Now that you are running for Tribune we will finally have someone in that position that actually wishes to bring change to the Urbe.”
“This will only bring good things for us. Soon we will be riding luxury and recover our losses. Do not despair, my good man! Everyone in Rome knows I am your patron; Titus Annius and his cronies will not start a war in the Aventine or drag you to court, not when I stand behind you. The Red supporters are a sanguine lot and the youngest of that old goose Sergius have quite the poisonous bite. No moneylender would be that foolish; after all, their sort wants to be paid. They gain nothing by ruining our lives.”
“I still have to pay him up, otherwise he will try to seize my propriety.” I riposted. “I came to you because I need an alternative way to fulfil my debts. I cannot hope that Lucius and Gaius will pay us back in time. Sure, you have no way to lend me money, I understand that. But I heard they are paying nicely for naval commissions and a barber is always needed at sea. I ask that you have your clientela protect of my shop and my family. Can they keep the place safe while I am away from Italia?
“You are closing your place, Considius? The Aventine and its people will suffer.”
Bassus raised a good point. When I married Camilla, her father gave us a share of his lands in Campania as dowry, a miserable and swampy lot - but our lot. These days that was all that kept us alive and my wife happy. She and my boys (Marcus and Lucius), my little Considia, my sister-in-law and nephews, they all lived and worked together. Their efforts got us enough food to subsist and filled our shop with medicinal herbs and life-saving brews.
Necessity kept us apart. No matter how much Camilla begged for me to abandon the squalor of Rome, I refused to accept the consequences of my departure. I cannot be the Considii that forsook the plebeians and the Aventine. Reluctantly, Camilla had made peace with our decisions, growing to appreciate how our separated lives safeguarded the future of many.
She would hate me for what I was going to ask from her.
“I will call Camilla and the children back. She is an experienced obstetrix and can use the saw as well as I do. Sure, long hair will have to become fashionable in the Aventine, but nobody will die at the feet of my closed door.
“Valere, Marcus. Neptune favours my horses and I will make sacrifices on your behalf. I swear before the Lares to treat Camilla as my daughter until you return. Go in peace, friend.”
I did not exaggerate about my training with Greek medicine. Such knowledge had not been gained from an erudite patron, the sponsorship of a collegia, nor through the generosity of a Greek pedagogue. My unorthodox education started at the port of Ostia, between sailors and captains from Sicilia and Magna Graecia. I had many friends between Greek seamen, and Rome still had to rely on allies and foreigners to crew their ships - not even the maritime ventures of the Punic War were enough to make the Romans love the sea.
I have always hated Ostia. A permanent aura of despair hovered over the place. The vacant eyes of those forced to live here haunted me. Citizens that used to have hopes and dreams, before they resigned themselves to the fact that, without training or education, their only option was to become loaders and feed the insatiable maw of Rome. All in exchange for salaries and subsides - rented for servitude.
The port did not improve over the years I was away, metaphoric shadows replaced by quite real ones: enormous apartment blocks had been hastily built and seemed ready to crumble if someone stared at them for too long. Insulae, they called these aberrations, these eyesores, these islands of piss and misery. Many declared these a successful test, a solution for Rome’s growing population In one of the many taverns. I found old companions from my last nautical commission - the Illyran expeditions that had pacified the pirates of the Adriaticum. A couple hours of jokes, insults, drinks and general jubilation earned me the position of barber aboard a ship that served consul Gaius Atilius Regulus himself.
Easy money, safest job in the fleet, the opportunity to establish connections and clear and definitive expiration date for my commission. Once Regulus emptied the curule chair I could return to Rome, and we would regain control of our lives.
I should have known it was too good to be true.
The auspices predicted terrible storms, prolonging the voyage between Sicilia and Sardinia. Issues with the ships forced us to stay at the inadequate Corsican docks for almost a month, followed by a hurried return to Sardinia. The news that waited for us broke my heart.
The Gauls had invaded Etruria. The Gates of Janus remained close. Even as Rome once again knew only war.
I could not sleep, my concerns shared my many of the crew; everyone dreaded what might have happened to their families and communities. The fear of the Celt was ubiquitous, for they were savage giants that had accomplished what no Greek, Punic or Etruscan could: break Rome. Legions and fleets had gathered to the rescue the city of Pisae, a brave attempt to stop the Gallic Terror before it reached the Urbe.
The gods were good. After a tense voyage, we left consul Regulus in Pisae, departing to chase away pirates that sought to carry the Gallic spoils back to Gaul. We followed them almost to the Long-Haired Gaul and back again to Regium, where we lost sight of them. It was time to return to Ostia.
Anxiety dominated our return, as we wondered if the gods had favoured the consul in battle.
How did it come to pass that my patron, oath sworn before the gods, had let my family be expelled and enslaved? I found the place closed, the slaves within informing me that their master had been called to reinforce the cavalry of Papus. Crippled or not, a man of his wealth owned the State a knight, and a knight the State got. After all, it would not look good for a would-be Tribune to squirt his civic duties.
I could not do anything until Bassus and the army returned. I tried to be smart about this, tried to be wiser. It was stronger than me. I joined various skirmishes with ruffians, buying titbits of information with bruises. Annius did not escape unscathed from the first visit he paid my wife, deciding to avoid my shop and lacking the courage to seize her. He sent for someone else instead, the eccentric master of the College of Contractors “Pleuratus of Germania”, a self-declared “barbarian turned crime lord”. Leaving the hard job of taking over the Aventine to him, Annius escaped to Macedonia with his plunder.
Evading justice and leaving me utterly powerless.
Alcohol and suffering reduced my brain to a pulp, eroding my common sense and validating an awful conclusion that would only sow more woes and destruction:
Annius could not hide from the gods, even if he escaped magistrates and my vengeance. I carved various many curse plates, adding my lamentations and wrath to that of others in the Hill.
“Charon, Hecate, Mares and every spirit and demon of the Underworld, carry with you the usurer and criminal Titus Annius. Let him die in his own excrement, covered by pustules and hated by Beast and Man. Let justice be done for the people of the Aventine and that every single one of their curses and imprecations be met with immediate infernal retribution.”
News about the Roman victory reached the City ahead of army, crowds joining to receive the triumphant legions at the outskirts of Rome. Victorious but not a cheerful sight. A shadow clung to the exhausted soldiers; eight legions had left to face the Gaul and half of them have been butchered. Queries and rumors blossomed between the plebeians, everyone wondering about the fate and feats of the commanders. One of the consuls had himself installed at the villa of one of his friends in order to preserve his imperio. The other entered the city on a funerary litter.
Rome had been left with a single leader during this time of crisis.
I sent a messenger to Bassus. Smuggling himself into Rome as a civilian, we met in the darkness of his house, sharing a long silence interrupted only by the singing of wine pouring over cups. It was not easy to talk about what had happened. For either of us.
“I was called to serve Rome in battle one last time.” It was a poor apology, but an attempt at one as Bassus emptied a wine cup. “I ended up failing both your family and the City. What good are these noble illusions, if as soon decent folk depart to defend Rome, all vermin declare themselves its masters? It sickens me. Someone ought to do something.”
I found difficult to censure him. Days before I would have beaten him bloody, but time revealed to me the hypocrisy of blaming him. I would have done the same if I had been the one called, in fact, I had done the same. The only difference between patriotism and financial concerns. I had abandoned Camilla before Bassus.
“Camilla can handle herself and her skills are too valuable. They will not mistreat her.” I admitted or lied to myself. “My sons and daughter are another matter. I have to find them, Bassus. No matter what.”
“This must be done properly, Considius. With honesty and dignity, before Law and Gods.” Bassus shook the cup towards me, spilling the last drops of wine over my clothing.
“The Gaul has been beaten, their people dispersed. But much remains to be done. This is an opportunity to break their power once and for all, push them from the Cisalpine Gaul and create a proper buffer region so that Italia never again has to fear a land invasion. Rule of Law will soon impose itself into the land and we cannot be in the wrong side.”
Bassus was correct in advising caution, but there was a flaw on his arguments. I would not mind becoming a bad Roman if that meant I would have my family back. I changed the subject, my only hope to regain some clarity and common sense.
“Exactly what happened up North? We departed as soon as the legions disembarked.”
“Let me tell you, Considius, I never saw such a close battle! The fighting reached the third line and it almost broke four times.” Bassus was eager to report. “Regulus sacrificed himself defending Pisae, his legions entrenched atop a hill overlooking the road to the city. Many good Romans died with the Celts. It was Papus that won the day, arriving at the right moment. I am proud to say that I was among the knights that broke the Gallic rear and relived Regulus’ army!”
“Did I get it right? Did the barbarians split their army?” I asked in my incredulity. “Facing two consuls across two fronts was doomed to fail.”
“Greed blinded them. Half stayed to protect the spoils and the rest thought they could finish off Regulus and his four legions before Papus joined the fray. They were not entirely incompetent, and once they realised the mistake, they tried to rejoin forces.” Bassus laughed. “Considius, you will not believe who led the charge that pinned the Gallic forces and kept them separated. My lawyer, Sextus Sergius! The legionnaires all agreed that if Regulus had survived, he would have bestowed the corona civica upon him; Palus granted him honourable horse trappings. I don’t care who it is that Annicus, Germanicus or their friends get to represent them at court, they do not have a chance against the man of the hour. This case has been already won.”
I wanted to be as confident as my patron.
The words sounded empty to me.
“What do you suggest I do, Bassus?”
“Come with me, Considus.” He offered. “If they think that you are too old to be a legionary, there is always need for a good capsarior.”
I shook my head, rejecting the offer.
“I will not leave Rome until I know what has happened to my family. I cannot risk being absent when we find something.”
Bassus knew that insisting was pointless.
“So be it, Considius. I ask you a favour of you: do not do anything. There will be justice once we come back.”
I compromised with silence. Making no promises I would be unable to fulfill.
Departing as stealthy as he had arrived, Bassus rejoined the rest of the consular army. He let me rest at his house and instructed his slaves to obey any of my requests.
I quickly found that my patron’s taste was too delicate and pleasurable to me; I was unable to find rest inside the walls of his house. With too much time in the wee hours, I started bothering the slaves, forcing them to send messages, summoning supporters of the Reds to secret meetings. Used to see his servants as Bassus’ faces, they complied as if the old driver himself was issuing the commands.
To my surprise, I ended up surrounded by my own gang, my message of bitterness and resentment finding fertile ground among the violent and desperate. Soon I had men patrolling Aventine on my behalf – or to be precise, on the part of the Reds and Bassus. I spent my days drinking with guests; my nights reading reports and plotting. My temper darkened and I started to ruminate illegality. Too many had lost their homes and workplaces, forced into exile or slavery. Committing one or two criminal acts in the name of common good started to sound very tempting; after all, was not Bassus’ lawyer some wondrous kid? If the patrician boy was any good, he would be able to cover up any unlawful reverie on my part.
Piece by piece I started to perceive a pattern in the evictions and apparently erratic activities of Pleuratus and his collegia. People would lose their homes, shops would lose customers, ruffians would close or vandalize those that resisted. Germanicus’ workers would then move in to fill the void, demolishing the former houses and workplaces, preserving only the façades. There was a cancer growing in the ruin and debris of the Aventine, feeding off the suffering and exploitation of its people.
Whatever were the plans of Pleuratus, they could not be good for the Hill or Rome. Nobody would take issue if I brought them to a halt.
Law be damned.
Red supporters started causing small incidents, throwing roof tiles and excrement at workers. The College of Contractors responded predictably, sending ruffians as bodyguards. Unable to keep provoking the workers, the clientela of Bassus turned their attention to the wagons that carried building materials and cleared debris. An arms race descended upon the Hill, the situation derailing into open warfare. Without scruples holding me back and intoxicated by my initial success, I decided it was time to deliver Germanicus and friends a blow they would not be able to ignore and hopefully, recover from.
A provincial noble whose countryside house was torched by the Celts was building a magnificent urban estate on the most unlikely of places – the Aventine. The College had just finished cleaning the site and was preparing to start the labour, guards stationed day and night around its expensive building materials. The perfect target.
After a day of tense racing at the Circus Maximus, the right missives brought many frustrated supporters to the construction site, where well-positioned slaves were generous with Bassus’ wine. After some token resistance, the guards knew better than to stand against the inebriated mob.
By dawn the site was utterly destroyed.
I celebrated in seclusion, looking forward to the inevitable realization from Pleuratus that they would not be able to continue without suing for peace. He would come to the table and I could ask for the return of my family.
I assumed that Pleuratus was like the typical criminals of the Aventine. His mindset was something else.
He surprised us in the middle of the night, accompanied by twenty or so of his men. Silent as cats, they extinguished all lights and captured the slaves. Pulled from bed by four pairs of arms, I was thrown at his feet.
Impressed upon me was how ungermanic Germanicus was. Tall and well-built, olive skin, curly hair and green eyes, he had much more in common with Greeks than with the giants of the savage North. Physical attributes aside, he dressed the part: fox skins, hair and beard dirty and long, an animalistic demeanour as he moved around the room.
The maniac was playing a character. And he was good at it.
“Go to the stables and break the legs of every single horse you find.” He growled. “Do not touch anything else. I do not want a speck of dust displaced unless I say otherwise.”
“This brutality is unnecessary.” I babbled, still groggy from sleep and wine. “Bassus and the Reds are innocent. I am the one responsible for all your troubles.”
That stare. Utterly crazed, clear in its message:
I know and I do not care for a second.
“Rome thinks that the Reds are responsible for ruining my interests in the Hill. Accept it, barber. I am the only thing keeping some measure of order in this cesspool and I will only do so as long as Rome fears me. Will I let the City think that a charioteer’s team can defy me? No.”
Two of the men brought to us the bronze vessel that Bassus loved so much. Pleuratus grinned ear to ear.
“This will be perfect.” He grabbed a heavy iron bar as if it was nothing, unceremonious dismantling the beautiful Corinthian; soon a pile of deformed metal. “Have you ever seen anything this marvelous, tonsore? Form and art crying itself into nothing. The best of all musical compositions.”
“There is no need for violence between us!” I offered. “Everyone has a place in the Aventine, if there is anything good about the Hill is that. I only want my family back; it is that easy to settle things between us.”
“In case you have not noticed, the Aventine has changed.” Pleuratus ignored me, turning his back and preparing to depart. Bassus was dangerous, a nasty combination of influence, money and loyal fans. I was a nobody. Everything about this situation consumed me with unspeakable rage. I had fallen so low, all to learn nothing about Camilla and barely able to get the attention of their captors.
I was a Roman of the gens Considia and here stood a foreign imposter, acting as master of our Hill and our people. Confident that I had read Germanicus’ character well, I did something that he could not ignore.
Reaching towards the nearest source of light, I grabbed an oil lamp and threw it against Pleuratus’ back, burning him. He halted, clenching his fists and appreciating the pain as flames spread and died across his pelts.
I did not see him move.
His smoking form towered above me, pulling back a fist from my stomach and rising it against my chin. Drunk and inconsolable, I did not even attempt to dodge, accepting all the violence he dispensed. Grabbing me by the neck, Pleuratus whispered at my ear.
“You seem to have got your wish, old man. Send my regards to Sisyphus.”
I was used to tavern brawls, but I never faced someone like this. I was not fighting against a human being, facing instead a brick wall that kept crumbling on top of me. Laying in a pool of my own blood, the last thing I heard before losing consciousness was a threat.
“If you or anyone else intervenes with our plans, your wife will be the first to suffer. You can be sure that your children will not be the last.”