Bond Exchange Part 2
The two Considii sat on the living quarters of the barbershop, avoiding each other’s stares and languishing in awkward quietude - or at least Gaius did; Marcus had put hands behind his back, fingers rubbing each other as he paced back and forth around the room.
“If you keep at that you gonna dig up a hole all the way down to Dis Pater.” Gaius jested; Marcus sneered.
“I am not in the mood for your jokes. That was definitely something that I did not miss.” The barber waved around. “Last time I saw you, you were leaving Rome with all my saving, a bunch of loans and a partnership binding us to the Bassii. Today I find you hiding in a hole, amid alcohol and piss, more worried about some rags than how your family has been doing.”
“Some rags? This cloak is full of secret pockets and treasures.” Gaius shuffled and pulled out a beautiful flower-like brooch of divine blue. “This little wonder is made from the woven tears of Corsican Sirens. And there are many more like this.”
An irated barbed struck his irresponsible sibling’s hand, the delicate piece of jewelry landing underneath a cupboard.
“I don’t want to hear about dumb trinkets, do you think they can fix anything?”
“It is money, good coin.” Gaius waved his hands as apology. “It is a start.”
“We are way past the point of solving our issues by throwing silver at it.” Marcus’ voice cracked; his brother looked down in embarrassment.
“I knew something was off. So I take they are not back on the farm…”
The eldest Considii turned around. Gaius covered his face with both hands.
“They are suffering the fate you were so cowardly trying to avoid.”
“Be reasonable, brother.” Gaius defended himself. “What good will my enslavement do? Will it set them free? Will it return them to you?”
He had a point, but the barber was not going to admit it.
“It is about holding yourself accountable for your actions.”
“I am trying to hold myself as better than that!” Gaius put his right hand over his heart. “I heard about the rebuilding efforts up North and the commissions being offered. I can pay back the family for believing on me all these years - and if I can do some good while at it, even better.”
“Oh, such nobility on your part, Gaius, so big of you. You are really going to change people’s life, flip everyone’s life upside down! That always works out great; your business must be going great for you to be here.”
“What we were buying was quite different from what they been selling at the Urbe.”
Concern seizing over fury, Considius face softened.
“How come?” He poured some water, salted it with a softening mix and shared it with his sibling.
“Imperialism was sold to us as everyone getting laid, when it actually is everyone getting fucked over.” Gaius growled. “These publicani will ruin all of us, what they are doing is just wrong. I have seen it on the provincies; I saw it on my way back Rome.”
“Calm down.” The older Considius suggested, his brother nodding and drinking from the cup. “Then tell me everything.”
A tale of ambition and greed, woven by layers of intermediaries and enabled by the disowning of all responsibility.
“Lucius is still there, working between and across the islands. Buying cheap and selling high, always undercutting everyone involved.” A deep sigh. “We got there filled with loaned pockets and unimaginative ideas, thinking we were so much clever and deserved to scam everyone; the moment you leave the Greek and Punic towns you can only see the brown and gold of vast fields of the grain, ready to be plucked.”
“That is not weird, is it?” Marcus questioned, his heart ever that of a city boy. “I think every village up and down Italia is a bit like that. Dis, it is much worse with the in-laws in Campania, with the assignment of public land and what not.”
“So I thought, and it all went fine for the first weeks. Up to the point when I wondered why I never saw any of the locals, why I was always dealing with intermediaries that were just as stranger to these isles as I was. We needed to get some shipping contracts from Corsica, so I volunteered - a nice excuse to do some exploration; it was the same there. That was when I realized that any locals had been pushed away, literally into the dangerous forests and hills of the interior or figuratively into debt and servitude.”
“How things turned out so bad?”
“It became this bad, Marcus? It has been this way for a few generations, even before the Senate and People gained stewardship of the archipelago. Everyone that works those fields is enslaved, one way or other; their work belongs to foreign publicani or a local aristocracy that sold their own compatriots for a share of the profits. Make no mistake, there are some wild fortunes, this arrangement is impressive at creating wealth but is even more effective at entrusting it into as few hands in possible.”
“If it is how things are done, it is not that how things are done. The point of the provincial system is, afterall, to preserve local autonomy and culture while integrating them slowly as a sister republic. It might be nasty now, but it should improve. We should not be rushing and forcing our way in; at least this cautious approach reveals the Senate has learned a thing or two from Iliria.”
“That sounds all too familiar to what Lucius Bassus parroted, every time I voiced my concerns. “It is just how things are done here, Gaius. Do not cause trouble Gaius; we just need to make enough to pay the debts, get land of our own and maybe finance an election or two. Keep your head down and work the clients, Gaius.””
“I’m sorry I interrupted.” Marcus was feeling increasingly embarrassed. “Please continue, brother.”
“I do not believe we are making it better. I believe it is only going to get worse, and the exploitation will only breed misery; who knows what will happen when the same abuse spreads here?”
Gaius’ expression was of such a sincere horror that Marcus was stupefied.
“How can that be? We are the senior partner.”
“We are flooding the Italian market with cheap bread, Marcus. Sure, not so cheap to be readily available to anyone and just expensive enough to make the whole thing very profitable for publicani, but still cheap enough to undercut farmers.”
“Driving more and more Italian families into debt.” The inevitable conclusion was made abundantly clear to the barber.
“Or having to rent or sell family into servitude, or give up their lands, or move to the cities and hope they can join a guild or get by as independent craftsmen. The best hope for many people will be to move out of subsistence farming and into luxury crops; even that would tip towards the privileged and wealthy. Do you have an idea how ruinous it can be to plant a new vineyard or olive grove, process the harvest, ship it and still survive the first troublesome years of the initiative? I do, I looked into it. No way your typical plebeian family can afford it.”
“That would push more and more folk to the cities.” Marcus cursed under his breath. “And it will be at its worst in Rome; it would be troublesome during the best of times, but they will only find squalor and misery after the refugees of Telamon gentrified the poor neighborhoods of the Urbe.”
“Forcing more people to gamble on loans and dedicate themselves to the one thing that makes money: joining the ranks of the publicani exploiting provincials through tax collection and grain transport on alleged behalf of the Senate and People. Those that make it will invest further and further in the system; those that don’t can join the broken on the fields.”
“This is going to make slaves of us all.”
“That is what I kept telling Lucius.” “Slower, faster, one way or the other, that is the way things will end.”
The older Considius did not know what to say to that. He knew his younger brother was given to fatalism and exaggeration, but all he had seen on the last months supported these grim portents. He could not change the administration, he would not even know where to get started - not as Marcus Considius, at least.
And what happened to limiting himself to make things better on his corner of the Aventine?
Scratch that, he still had to steer the destinies of his family.
“We have debts to pay and mouths to feed. Do you think a military commission is going to keep our family afloat?”
“It worked for you.” Gaius pointed out.
“Yes, but I had to endure a lot of things that I disagreed with.” The barber made sure his younger brother remembered that. “Do you plan to desert the moment the situation becomes complicated?”
“I have to try. I know it will not be easy, but seems something I can put my hands on and help; the mess in Sardinia and Corsica is too entangled, I cannot even leave a dent on it. Let me do this, Marcus.” Gaius stretched his arms, offering his wrists. “Or do you think it is the best for the family to sell me in a vain attempt to repay our loans?”
As paterfamilias, that was his right - no, it was expected from him. To make all the decisions, to have the call of life and death, all needed for the survival and prosperity of the clan. Nonsense; it might appear to be so among the illustrious gens of the patricians and other aristocratic fools but the common people needed all hands on deck. This became all too poignant when the old Considii father died, leaving to him a legacy, oaths and no instructions. The idea of the all-knowing, ever-prepared and unhealthy-confident patriarch became a ridiculous and toxic fantasy. Who but privileged fools, too in love with their own minds and intolerant of any dissonant voices, could find that stone faced patriarch something to strive for? Who else would accept that as good?
In this house everyone’s opinion had weight; wisdom was born for that collective. Even the littlest voice deserved to be heard and respected, and no mistake was beyond an apology.
Marcus wished Camilla was here; even if his brain told him that she would not be of any help, he needed to hear her. Be with her. Bounce awful ideas back and forth with her. The two Considii boys could not get out of this hole one their own.
“I am sorry, brother. I failed you.” The barber conceded, opening the door. “I do not know what is best for you or this family. Your idea, its merits and flaws aside, is yours; I only have a bad feeling, not enough to deny you your rights and freedoms. All I ask is that you do not sneak away while I’m out.”
“Where are you going?” Gaius asked as his brother stepped outside the shop.
“To perform my auguries. Maybe closer to the gods I will find wisdom lacking in common sense.”