On the first day of Julius Caesar’s month, early in the morning before the heat grew unbearable and ruined the ceremonies with sweat-soaked clothing and wilted plumes, Junius Annaeus Gallio rode his white stallion through the gates of Corinth. He was preceded by six lictors, marching single file, bearing the symbols of Gallio’s imperium—the fasces. These bundles of rods wrapped around an axe, symbolized the proconsul’s absolute authority—in matters civil and military—over the entire province. Trailing after him were his body guards—twenty burly legionaries chosen as much for their formidable bulk as their martial skills. His quaestor, legates, and advisors brought up the rear.

The streets were lined with cheering throngs. The poorer among them cheered in anticipation of an act of gubernatorial largess—coins and bags of grain thrown to celebrate the arrival of the new governor. The more prominent citizens were present to see and be seen by the man upon whose favor they would depend for the coming year. All of them had gathered to witness a show, for the changing of governors was a momentous occasion for any Roman colony.

Gallio rode straight-backed and aloof, a sour expression on his face. He was not looking forward to a year in the provinces. Rome was his proper milieu. Rome was where he wanted to be. But the proconsular duty was a necessary step in his political ambitions, an important climax to the cursus honorum, and a potentially lucrative opportunity for his shriveled purse. So the sour expression he wore was part homesickness, part grim determination, and part predatory greed.

But mostly, his face was contorted by the roiling of his bowels. The farther he traveled from Rome, the more his body rebelled at the distance. It was as if Rome emitted some ether that kept his ailments in check. Taken away from the seven hills, Gallio suffered from a variety of debilitating ailments. His digestion deteriorated. His gout flared. His skin peeled and flaked. His personal physician—Curse his eyes—could find no explanation for Gallio’s condition. He’d balanced a lack of diagnosis with a regimen that ran the gamut of remedies—bleedings and leechings, foul-tasting potions and foul-smelling ointments.

Corinth, Gallio was thinking, may prove to be a very difficult posting indeed.

The procession turned south on the Lechaion Road, towards the heart of the city, and the crowds suddenly pressed close. People hung from upper story windows or stood pressed against the shops that lined the way by a cordon of soldiers from the Fifteenth, the legion garrisoned in Corinth against any kind of unrest in the Achaean Province.

Gallio eyed the crowd warily, looking for any sign of malcontents or troublemakers. Not on my watch, Gallio swore to himself, shifting his attentions to the soldiers. No trouble, no hint of controversy while I am Governor. He wanted a quiet, profitable year, and then back to Rome where he belonged.

He interrupted HHhwehis bad mood on occasion to acknowledge the shouts of the crowd, waving listlessly from time to time, flashing a rare smile at a particularly attractive girl. The Propylon—a massive and ornate arch which opened onto the agora and proclaimed by sheer size and artistry that Corinth was no backwater—caught his attention and took his mind off his bowels momentarily. Now that’s a fine piece of work! His steed stepped daintily up the steps leading to the Propylon, taking him through the arch and into the agora.

The shouts there hit him with an almost physical force, and Gallio grabbed nervously at his pommel to secure his seat. People were everywhere, all of them screaming at once as they caught sight of their new Governor. They were packed into every square foot of the agora pavement, standing ten-deep under the stoas, hanging from columns, sitting on statues. He’d not imagined so many people in all Achaean Province, much less in Corinth. A smile softened his features as he began to reassess his impressions of the city. Where there were this many people, there had to be most of the refinements he’d come to appreciate, to depend on, in Rome—good wine, fine art, theater performances, willing women, a boy on occasion. And, where there were this many people, there had to be a goodly number of fools waiting to be fleeced.

Yes, he thought, his mood brightening. Things are definitely looking up.

His lictors led the way, through the barricades holding back the hordes, to the center of the agora, where the group came to rest between the Bema and a large statue of Venus. Claudius Varus, the out-going governor, stood with his entourage on top of the Bema, waiting impatiently for Gallio to dismount and get on with the exchange of power. But Gallio was in no hurry. He sat astride his mount, taking in the shouts of the crowds, the magnificent buildings and temples, the hulking presence of AcroCorinth rising up before him.

Not bad duty after all.

But then he took a good look at Varus’s face. And the sour expression he saw there matched the worst of his own. He was immediately suspicious. If Corinth is such a good posting, why does Varus look like he can’t wait to be rid of the city? Gallio felt his bowels rumble again, and decided it was time to dismount and have a long talk with his predecessor.

He took his position at the foot of the raised Bema, looking up at Varus to mumble a few polite words which Varus could not hear over the noise of the crowds. One of Varus’s legates stepped forward and lifted his hands above his head, a signal for quiet. At once, the din of the masses subsided to a low rumble.

Varus stepped forward himself. “Junius Annaeus Gallio!” he bellowed for the crowd to hear. “Do you present yourself here with the mandate of the Roman senate, duly authenticated by the proper papers and witnesses, to relieve me of my command as proconsul of the Achaean Province?”

“I do, Claudius Varus,” Gallio bellowed back, reaching into his toga to pull out a scroll impressed with the seal of the Senate. “I hereby relieve you of your imperium and tender Rome’s thanks for your good service on her behalf.”

A brief smile passed over Varus’s face. And then, with a nod to his legates and lictors, he turned and made his way down the steps to the paving stones of the agora, taking up station in front of Gallio. Taking the scroll from his hand, Varus examined the seal carefully and then broke it open to skim the official proclamation. The crowd fell silent.

As he read, in those quiet moments, he spoke a few personal words to Gallio. “I hope you enjoy your stay, Proconsul. More than I did.”

“What does that mean?” Gallio countered.

“Oh, Corinth is not without its compensations,” he said over the top of the scroll. “Every pleasure of the flesh.” He lifted his eyebrows. “And a relatively peaceful province. You shouldn’t have many problems on that account.” He lowered the scroll and stepped closer. “But don’t imagine you’ll enrich yourself greatly during your time here. This is the miserliest, sestertius-pinching, tightfisted bunch of thieves outside of the Senate itself. You can count on a few bribes, of course. And there are some who will pay you handsomely to secure public offices. But no skimming the public funds. No levies and tariffs to put in your own pocket rather than sending on to Rome. These people know their numbers. They can add—a curse on them all.” Varus smiled hugely. “You’ll be lucky to leave with your toga.”

He stepped back. “Your papers are all in order,” he shouted for the benefit of the crowd. “Welcome to Corinth, Proconsul. May your service be a credit to Rome.”

Gallio, who was feeling distinctly ill again, managed to follow his lictors up the steps to stand atop the Bema. “Claudius Varus! You are dismissed! May the gods speed your journey home.” He tried to shout these lines. But the words came out as a strangled bleet. Suddenly and in a panic, Gallio realized his bowels would not wait for him to deliver the transition speech he’d crafted so carefully.

Thrusting his notes at one of his legates, he whispered urgently to another, “Find me a toilet!”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]