Aventine Avenger (I)

The Aventine Hill, the most nauseating ditch in the sewage of Romulus. It was cramped, it was filthy, it was a pain to navigate. However, no proper Roman would move outside the walls of the City and compromise the civic duties and pleasures of urban life. As confusing and dangerous as the Aventine was, it allowed the poor to be truly Roman. The Hill was the only parcel of land dispensed by the State 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.

I would not trade it for any other place 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 always attempted everything within their power to keep the patricians away from our foul Hill, supporting our over-indebted rather than have them carted away as slaves, organizing funerary clubs, maintaining and consecrating small sanctuaries for our gods that had not gained the favour of an august patron, some of the most ambitious Considii even securing enough money to represent the plebeian Rome as Tribunes of the People.

You could not mistake me for one of the great among the 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 civic service. My father was a barber, as was his mother before him; I learnt my trade in the streets, in 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 could live my life and I’m confident the Aventine cannot imagine itself without me. At the Hill, violence is more common than grain or olive oil. Slaves and freedmen have money and common sense in abundance and give 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 shut or broken fingers to bind, there are always beards to shave and gossip to be shared; visiting the barber gives colour and meaning to life in the Hill.

Not every guest was welcomed. The double chins of Titus Annius accompanied his balding head across the threshold of my door as I was discussing whom to bet on with one of the Red drivers; a dozen ruffians from his clientela followed behind him.

“No, please, do go on” Annius delivered a toothless smile as reply to the sudden silence. “It is after all, to my interest that you make some money on the races. Nothing sweet as the sound of silver repaying debts.”

“Once again you haunt my property with your sorry tales of usury, Annius? I am going to pay the interest this month as I have always done. And by Trivia, before the year is over I will clear all my debts. Go away, we do not need your ugly mug scaring off clients.”

The usurer replied with a cruel smile.

“I would not be so confident, Marcus Tonsore. Between the new legions in Sardinia and the rumours of unrest up North, I do not think it will be long before we have conflict once again 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 an excuse. However, do not despair, my good man. I have friends that are interested in your propriety as well of your wife’s; if all fails, I believe we can find an alternative form of payment?”

Was it a bluff? Perhaps. However, 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 when I have my shop open, how about you grow some hair?

“Far from me not 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 with a torrent of insults.

The driver broke the silence that overtook the shop after his departure.

“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 and cannot have someone like me challenge you. I will talk with your boss tomorrow, I believe we may still solve this peacefully.

 

*

 

At dawn, I made my way to the Tiberis island where Albus Pomponius Bassus had built his domus. I took 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 the way from the provinces, waiting for Bassus’ attention in a considerable queue. Horse breeders, racers, a few actors, some prostitutes and many professional louts. I was just the barber from the Aventine, which deserved now more than curt greetings.

The Sun was already high when Pomponius Bassus received me. His body was typical of an athlete that retired to a decadent lifestyle, heavy set muscles bloated by fat and skin perpetually redness by pleasures and vices; limping from a broken leg that never healed proper, constant reminder that he would never again drive a quadriga like during his good old days. Glory moments long past were celebrated in the decoration of his house, mosaics and sacked Gaulish jewellery, drawing attention to the greatest of his prizes: a Corinthian bronze vessel that he claimed to have won racing in Greece.

Ave Marcus Considius! It is good to see you with my own eyes!” He rose with some effort, hugging me. “Is that what I think it is? Have our good-for-nothing brothers finally sent news, you having wisely decided to share good tidings with wine? Tell me, what reason we have to celebrate?

Questions and assumptions made sense, as our siblings had left together for Sicilia, trying for months to secure lucrative contracts for grain transport and tax collecting; we remained in Rome, anxiously waiting for news. Any news.

“Unfortunately, no. However, I do come at you with a request that relates with this joint initiative between our families. I need to see some dividends from this investment, for I fear what the usurers might do if I do not pay them off. I cannot continue to have them shadowing my every step.”

“Cheer, Marcus!” Bassus tried to appease me, even if worry transpired all across his rotund face. “I have managed to scrap some monies from what Gaius sends back on our ships, but everything has been reinvested. You have to understand, Considius, it was not enough for us to cut our losses. However, if I buy new horses for the Reds and running for office, we might make a profit long-term. I’m sure word has reached you in your shop?”

“Of course, even the Blues supporters of the Aventine support you.” Speaking of the topic cheered Bassus but did little to improve my own mood. I knew of this endeavour, and that was why I avoided approaching him before, aware of the futility of asking for money from someone crash and burning through a political campaign. “You are running for Tribune next year, finally we will someone in that position that really wishes to bring change to the City.”

“This will only bring good things for both of us, and soon we will be riding on this success and coup 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 as long as I stand behind you. The Red supporter and the youngest of that old goose Sergius have quite the poisonous bite. No moneylender would be that foolish, and above all, their sort wants to be paid. They gain nothing by making us miserable.

“I still have to pay him up, otherwise he will start to believe this is a lost cause and will try to seize my propriety.” I riposted. “I came to you because I need another way to fulfil my debts; I cannot count that Lucius and Gaius will pay us back in time. Sure, you have no money, I understand that you can do about that. However, I heard they are paying nicely for naval commissions and a barber is always well sought at sea. I ask that you have your clientela take care of my shop and my family? Keep the place safe while I am outside of the peninsula?

“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. 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, all lived and worked together. Their hard work got us enough food to subsist and a small profit from medicinal herbs.

Necessity keep 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 forsake the plebeians and the Aventine. Reluctantly, Camilla has learned to make peace with our personal sacrifice, growing to appreciate how our separated lives safeguarded the future of the many.

She would hate me for what I was going to ask her to do.

“I will call Camilla and the children back. She is an experienced obstetrix and can use the saw and medicines as well as I do. Sure, long hair will have to become fashionable, however, nobody will die at the feet of my closed door.

Valere, Marcus. Neptune favours my horses and I will make sacrifices on your behalf, so that he may also protect you during your voyages. I swear before the Lares to treat Camilla as my daughter until you return. Go in peace, friend.”

 

*

 

I was not exaggerating about my training with Greek medicine, although such knowledge was not grained from an erudite patron, the sponsorship of a collegia, nor the generosity of a captive Greek pedagogue. My unorthodox education started on the port of Ostia, between sailors and captains from Sicilia or Magna Graecia; not even the maritime ventures of the Punic War were enough to make the Romans love the sea, forcing them to rely on allies and foreigners to crew their ships.

Or the poor and despairing plebeians that had no other option.

I never liked Ostia. A permanent aura of despair clinging to the place and to the vacant eyes of those that lived there. Citizens that used to have hopes and dreams, before they resigned themselves to the fact that without training or education, their only option was becoming loaders and feed the insatiable maw of Rome in exchange for salaries and subsides. The port did not improve over the years I was away, metaphoric shadows replaced by quite real ones: enormous apartment blocks rose, hastily built and seemingly ready to crumble if someone stared at them for too long. Insulae, they called these aberrations, these eyesores, these islands of piss and misery. With optimism, many declared these as a test, an answer for Rome’s growing population.

I beseeched Jupiter and Quintius to keep this trend from the City. Anything else, another solution, please.

In one of the many taverns in which the locals drowned their woes in watered wine, I found old companions from my last nautical commission - the surprisingly calm and fortunate Illyran expeditions that had pacified the pirates of the Adriaticum. Some hours of jokes, insults, drinks and jubilation earned me the position of barber aboard a ship that served none other than the elect consul Gaius Atilius Regulus.

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, me and Camilla would regain control of our lives.

I should have known it was too good to be true.

The auspices predicted storms that soon made themselves known, 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 stormy and hurried return to Sardinia. The news that waited for us in the island broke my heart.

The Gauls had invaded Etruria. The Gates of Janus had been opened. Rome once again knew only war.

I could barely get any sleep, my concerns shared my many of the crew; everyone dreading about what might happen to their families and cities. The fear of the Celt was ubiquitous, savage giants that had accomplished what no Greek or Punic managed: break Rome. Legions and fleet gathered and advanced to rescue Pisae, a brave attempt to stop the Gaulish Terror before they reached the City.

The gods were good and after a tense voyage, we left Regulus in Pisae, departing as soon as we could in an attempt to chase away pirates that sought to carry the Gaulish spoils for a share of the ill-gotten loot. We followed them almost to the Long-Haired Gaul and back to Regium, where we lost sight of them and were forced to return to Ostia.

Anxiety dominated our return, as we wondered if the gods had favoured the consul in battle.

Back in the City, I found that a very different Aventine Hill awaited me. The constant bustle of the streets and the littered roads had given way to closed houses and improvised barricades, strays foraging between mud and rotten vegetables a more common sight than people. A clearly better class of folks had moved in, hiding their obvious wealth inside their closed doors and protected by unfriendly bodyguards. Provincial Latins and Etruscans, for the look of them; the locals kept themselves hidden in the shadows and only dared to move around by night.

That by itself was an indicator of how dire the situation was.

My heart almost stopped when I reached my shop. The entire place had been wrecked and the placed had been abandoned by weeks.

- Camilla…

I ran between the open tabernae and pressured the shopkeepers for answers, something, anything. Nobody dared to meet my gaze, guilt stuck on their throat, regret for what they allowed to happen weighting heavily upon their chest.

As the legions of Papus departed East, Titus Annius entered the Hill. Accompanied by various criminal and thuggish collegii, they seized many abandoned proprieties while their owners were busy defending them from the Gaul.

The few decent people that remained escaped into the countryside instead of organizing some form of resistance, emboldening Annius. Over the course of the following days they increased their grip across the Hill, banging at doors and demanding the payment of all standing debt – at an extraordinary sixty percent interest rate. As if the tax farmers that had fleeced the entire population of Rome as part of an emergency effort to raise two consular armies had left anyone able to pay even the regular rates. Unable to afford this level of usury, homes and shops were taken from their rightful owners; entire families had bondage inflicted upon them.

My Camilla. Marcus. Lucius. Considia.

Consumed by a rage, I went to the house of Aulus Pomponius Bassus. How come that my patron, oath sworn before the gods, had left my family be expelled and enslaved? I found the place closed, the slaves tending to it 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. It would not look good for a would-be Tribune to squirt on his civic duties.

I could not do anything until Bassus and the army returned. I tried to be smart about this, tried to be wise. 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 avoide my shop and lacking the courage to seize her. Instead, the responsible for her capture was 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 all his money.

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 to more woes and destruction:

Annius could not hide from the gods, even if he kept evading magistrates and my vengeance. I carved various leaden curse plates, adding my lamentations and wrath to that of many others of 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 before the army, crowds joining to receive the triumphant legions at the outskirts of Rome. Victorious the army was, even if they were 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 rumours 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, while the other entered the city in a funerary litter.

Rome had a single leader during this time of crisis.

I sent a messenger to Bassus, to which I got a reply late at night. Smuggling himself into the City as a civilian, we met in the darkness of his house, sharing long silence interrupted only by the singing of wine pouring over cups. It was still not easy to talk about what had happened. For either of us.

“I was called to once again serve Rome in battle.” 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 illusions, if at the first moment decent folk depart to defend Rome, all vermin declare themselves its masters? It sickens me.”

I found difficult to censor him. Days before I would have beaten him bloody, however, time revealed to me the hypocrisy of blaming him. I would have done the same if I was the one called, in fact, I did the same. The only difference was that instead of patriotism, I did so because of financial concerns. I abandoned Camilla before Bassus.

“Camilla can handle herself and her skills are too valuable to have them 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. Honestly, before Law and Gods.” Bassus shook the cup towards me, spilling the last drops of wine over my clothing. “The Gaul has been beaten and their people dispersed, however, more has 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 we never again have 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, however, for me there was a flaw on his arguments. I would not mind becoming a bad Roman if that assured 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.”

“I 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 into the city that the Celts were taking. Many good Romans died with them, but we bled them hard. It was Papus that won the day, arriving at the right moment, and I am proud to say that I was among the knights that broke the Gaulish rear and freed 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 just handing us the victory.”

“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 Gaulish 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 and 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.”

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 suggestion.

“I will not leave Rome until I know what happened to my family. I cannot risk being absent when we find out something.”

Bassus knew that it was pointless to insist.

“So be it, Considius. I ask a favour of you: do not do anything while we are in Cisalpine Gaul. There will be justice once we come back.”

I compromised with silence. Making no promises I would be unable to fulfil.

Departing as stealthy as he had arrived, Bassus rejoined the rest of the consular army, letting me rest at his house and ordering his slaves to obey any of my requests.

I quickly found that my patron’s taste was to delicate and pleasurable to me; I was unable to sleep and 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 fans and supporters of the Reds to secret meetings. Used to see his servants as the faces for Bassus’ communications and requests, they complied as if the old driver himself was issuing the commands.

To my surprise, I quickly ended up surrounded why 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 started to spend my days drinking with guests and my nights reading reports and plotting. My temper quickly darknened 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 on 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. Then, Germanicus’ workers would 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. Like an avalanche an arms race descended upon the Hill, the situation derailing into open warfare. Without scruples holding me back and intoxicated by my 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 labours, 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 peace between us. He would come to the table and I could ask for the return of my family in exchange for an end to the hostilities.

I miscalculated.

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 immediately 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.

“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. “Bassus and the Reds are innocent. I am the one responsible for all your troubles.”

That stare. Utterly crazed, clear on 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 hear.

“This will be perfect.” He grabbed a heavy iron bar as if it was nothing, unceremonious dismantling the beautiful Corinthian; within moments a pile of deformed metal. “Have you ever seen anything this marvellous, tonsore? The form and art crying themselves 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 in 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 almost nothing about Camilla and the kids and barely able to get the attention of their captors.

I was a Roman of the gens Considii 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 just 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.

When I finally noticed him, his smoking form towered above, 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, and even 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.”