Chapter 12: The Mission

Gaius Titius Justus strolled down the street in the early morning, calling greetings to friends and strangers alike, swinging his cane in that care-free, master-of-the-world manner he cultivated so carefully. He felt good this morning. Most mornings. He felt generous with the world, and why not? Generous feelings cost nothing and opened a man to unforeseen opportunities. It was early, but already Gaius was eager to seize whatever advantage the day might bring.

He was a third-generation Corinthian—the son of the son of a soldier who had retired to Corinth, applying his meager severance to the purchase of bowls and vases and cups crafted from Corinthian bronze. These he shipped to an old comrade in Rome who, in turn, sold the pieces to wealthy patricians quite mad for the stuff. Gaius’s grandfather astonished himself by doing very well as a merchant, an occupation and aptitude he passed on to his offspring.

Gaius was the latest recipient of that aptitude, and of the family business through which it expressed itself, and of the accumulated wealth earned over the decades by the familia Titius. Though by no means the richest man in Corinth, Gaius had known privilege all his life. It showed itself in the fabric of his tunic and the softness of his hands. It was evident in the fleshiness under his chin and around his waist. Even the cane he used to propel himself through the streets of Corinth, beautifully worked in gold and polished wood, proclaimed his status as a man to be watched.

The only hunger Gaius had ever experienced was the hunger a man of his station and talents would naturally feel—the hunger for advancement among his peers; the hunger to exert the influence and receive the honor that were his due.

Though, in regard to that particular hunger, Gaius Titius Justus was ravenous.

He walked along a familiar path, making his way to the barber. A shave. A trim for his thick locks. A dab of fragrant perfume. A subtle line of stibium below his lashes. Personal grooming was a passion in Corinth. So was gossip. The barber’s chair was the place where Corinthians satisfied both.

“Greetings, Gaius,” his barber called as Gaius took his place among waiting customers and those freshly shaved men who could not tear themselves from the conversation. The barber—apronned, a leather strop draped over his shoulder—stood in the middle of the road, taking advantage of the sun’s morning glow. Since straight razors and flickering candle light did not mix well, barbering was largely an outdoor activity.

“Greetings everyone,” Gaius looked around genially. “What news this fine morning?” They rehearsed the topics of interest—the latest scandals from Rome, market and war news, happenings on the political front both at home and abroad. With the retelling, of course, the stories grew and were embellished. Still Gaius listened carefully. The customers who frequented this swarthy little chin-scraper were the best connected in the city. Roman to the core, prominent and well-placed, these men could be counted on for timely news and colorful commentary on every aspect of Corinthian life. Even embellished, their stories provided more useful information than Gaius could get from any other source. Information is power, said the wise ones. So, of course, Gaius walked the extra blocks and took the precious time to sit among these people with open ears.

“Have you heard about the symposium Scipius Felix hosted last night?” one of their number asked, leaning forward and hoping earnestly they had not. Few things were as satisfying as being the bearer of outrageous news. “I have it on good authority that the usual suspects were invited—Decumius, the old profligate; Pudens and Dexter Oppius.”

Now the rest of the group leaned forward. With that list of names, the story was bound to be good.

“Excess!” the gossip squeaked—delighted with himself and their attentions and the juicy story he had to relate. “Romans outdoing the Greeks at food, wine, and women! I tell you, it’s enough to warm the heart of every son of Romulus.”

“Hmmph! Nothing new there!” Listeners elbowed and poked each other, giggling in anticipation of a bawdy story. “Since when could any Greek out-eat, out-drink, or out-whore a Roman?”

“No, no,” their tale bearer held up his hands in mock earnestness. “Let’s give the Greeks their due. While we’ve been out conquering the world, they’ve been in their symposiae developing their palates, destroying their livers, and discovering they prefer boys to women!” The group dissolved into hooting laughter.

The narrator shook his head and held up his hand again. “I have it on good authority that Scipius has grown bored with the ordinary symposium—conversation and dinner, polite drinking and pointless entertainments. So last night, he invited seven companions to his home, seven men of large and notorious appetites. And he set before them this challenge. He provides the finest foods, the strongest wines, the most desirable courtesans. Each of them is served the same number of plates and cups and women. And the man left standing at the end, the man who doesn’t hurl his food or pass out from drink or fail to rise to the persuasions of the hetaerae, is announced the winner!”

The men looked at each other with rounded eyes. “No!” was the breathless response.

“Yes!” was the smirking rejoinder.

The barber just smiled—a good story was always good for business.

“Well, first came the food—the rarest, the richest, the tastiest dishes imaginable. Eel and cuttle-fish, sea bass and mussels. Grouper and mullet and tuna. Whole-baked thrushes and hares stewed in milk. Sow’s womb and meat pastries. The tables were groaning under the weight of it all.” A groan escaped the lips of two or three of the listeners as well. The menu was a gourmand’s fantasy.

“Now, every man has his strengths and weaknesses.” The narrator interrupted his story long enough to share a little edifying philosophy. “One man is tempted by a slender ankle. Another by a fat cup. Another by a book or a fresco or a fragrant orchard. We must not judge others for their weaknesses.” His tone was lofty but his eyes twinkled.

“We can laugh at them, however!”

His listeners urged him on, eager to do just that.

“Well, as we all know, Oppius has a fondness for food. He began the meal with good intentions, determined to be a model of moderation. ‘I’ll have just a sliver of that eel and perhaps the thinnest slice of hare.’” Their story teller imitated the glutton’s jowly growl. “Only the slice soon became the hare—all of it!” He laughed. “The sliver of eel became the entire plate. He kept holding out his dish for more, completely ignoring the rules of Scipius’s game. I’m told that, by the end, he was actually taking food off the plates of the other guests. ‘Well, if you aren’t going to finish those mussels …’” They were all laughing hard—imagining Oppius’s thick, greasy fingers stuffing anything within reach into his busy mouth.

The speaker wiped his eyes. “I’m pleased to tell you that even Oppius’s appetite has limits. They were into the third course when he had to excuse himself to throw up in the garden. And when he came back,” the speaker shoved a fist against his mouth to suppress a guffaw, “when he came back, he told Scipius, ‘I know I’ve lost the contest, but I’m feeling better now. Could I have just a taste of that beautiful cuttle-fish?’” And the wave of laughter that overwhelmed the group was so raucous, the barber had to put aside his razor momentarily, afraid that humor might cause the death of a convulsing customer.

He gestured Gaius to the chair, bypassing several others who had arrived earlier and waited longer. This barber, possessing a finely tuned sense of status, was part politician. He would never require a man like Gaius to wait his turn.

“By the time the food was cleared away and the wine set out, there were six men left. Scipius poured a libation to the gods and explained the next round of his contest.” The speaker adopted the high, pinched voice, the affected cadences, of Scipius the snob. “’The wine tonight is the finest Thasian vintage. We will be drinking it unmixed, of course—why the Greeks ruin perfectly good wine with water, I’ll never understand! And we’ll use the kantharoi, the deep cups. I am well aware that a decent symposium would limit the quantity of wine to three flagons—one for health, a second for love, and the third for sleep. But since I have no interest in decency this evening, we will forego the limit. Tonight, we are not testing our temperance but our tolerance!’”

The listeners could hardly believe their ears. Only in Corinth, their eyes seemed to say. They urged the teller on with their greedy attention while the barber clipped a stray lock of Gaius’s hair and dragged the razor across his upturned chin.

“I’m told the first three flagons went well enough. The toasts were respectful. There were even speeches, though Scipius insisted they be short enough not to interfere with the drinking. But then came a fourth round—and the insults started. And a fifth—and the shouting began. And a sixth—when the fighting broke out. The toasts became rude and then obscene. The speeches rambled. Decumius and another man collapsed in their cups and had to be carried from the room by their slaves. Nestorius took offense at something Pudens said and knocked the poor man unconscious. Out he was carried! There were only three of them left by then—Scipius, Nestorius, and some degenerate named Claudio.”

The barber wiped soap from Gaius’s face and shook out a few drops of the perfume the young merchant favored.

“Scipius had each of them stand on the couch, feet together, and recite a passage from Homer to prove they were sober enough to continue. And when the three succeeded—although the shade of Homer must have howled to hear his words so mangled and slurred—the servants ushered the hetaerae into the room.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Three of them. Hideously expensive. So beautiful, I’m told, that Claudio took one look, fell from his couch, hit his head on the floor, and lay senseless. Three gorgeous and willing women, and only two men left!” He waggled his eyebrows wickedly and every man in the group went silent, dry-mouthed to hear details.

“Well, gentlemen,” Gaius stood up and placed a coin in the barber’s hand. “It has been a pleasure ’til now.” He shot a withering look at the gossip. “However, I have an appointment with the gods. This tale is about to sink to a level not fit for the ears of pious men.” He shook his head in mock disgust. “Surely you have better things to do than sit around listening to dirty stories?”

They looked back at him with blank stares. Not particularly.

He walked away, calling back over his shoulder, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, talk about it. Enjoy your story, gentleman!”

A chorus of insults followed him down the street.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.