In Venus in Copper, Falco is exposed to corruption in Rome. Well, Rome was corrupt, anyway, say many, and some would not enter Rome without fear and trembling. Others chanted the Gayatri Mantra for protection. Corruption, you ask? Just look at the property and real estate industry … houses burn, houses fall down, houses are under multiple mortgages. There has been no change, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. So we venture carefully into Venus in Copper, wherein Falco meets landlords and their thugs.
AD71, our man Falco is back in Rome, in prison. His arch-enemy Anacrites, the Chief Spy of Rome has him thrown in prison for filching the income from the sale of imperial lead. Let’s read a bit of Chapter 1:
He had tripped me up over a minor accounting error: he claimed I stole some imperial lead – all I did was borrow the stuff to use in a disguise. I had been prepared to pay back the money I took in exchange for the metal, if anyone ever challenged me. Anacrites never gave me the chance; I was flung into the Lautumiae, and so far no one had bothered to book a magistrate to hear my defence, Soon it would be September, when most of the courts went into recess and all the cases were held over until the New Year…
That’s interesting. Falco in prison contemplating rats. Injustice, no charge, no evidence, and forgotten about. Jealousy and the tyranny of the ego. This paragraph in the first chapter captures the essence of what is to follow in this novel. Greed, jealousy, avarice, trumped up claims and counter-claims, and thuggery. He is being held without a court appearance, illegal, underhand pettifoggery. We will see similar underhand chicanery and violence abetted as the novel unfolds.
Home. An apartment to live on the Aventine Hill, one of the seven hills Ancient Rome was built on. Can you get into your own house without being beaten up by the landlord’s thugs? Can you live in an apartment without the place falling down on you? What is a home, what does it signify? Is it a place of love, rest, welcome and peace? Certainly, some of that is there for Falco, as Helena Justina, daughter of the Senator Decimus Camillus Verus and love interest of Falco, is always there for him, unless he takes her elsewhere for her own safety. Note that, safety first for Falco.
The Property Market and Slum Landlords
Woven through the narrative is the behaviour of landlords and property moguls. (Think magnate, mandarin, baron, tycoon. Those sorts of big wheels and big noises, the captains of the property industry; we are going to meet some more.) Falco has a seedy, bare apartment in Fountain Court. While he was doing durance vile in Lautumiae prison, his mother has paid three months rent in advance on the apartment, six floors above the cut-price clothes-stealing wash shop run by Lenia, aka Eagle Laundry. His landlord Smaractus, has rent-enforcers (ex-gladiators Asiacus and Rodan who are little more than brutish bully boys) who rough Falco up when he returns to Fountain Court, after having been sprung from prison ~ even though his rent is paid in advance.
Falco is engaged by the Hortensii, former slaves who are flaunting their new-found respectability and riches. They are property landlords who are tipped to merge operations with another Roman land baron, Appius Priscillus.
On his way to visit the Hortensii sisters who have engaged his services, Falco witnesses how lagging tenants are reminded to pay their rent:
Something had distracted me. While I was waiting for Severina a lout on a donkey had ridden up to speak to the fruit-seller, the one with the Campagna orchard to whom I had spoken yesterday. The old chap had come out from behind his counter and appeared to be pleading. Then, just as the lout appeared to be riding away from the lock-up, he backed his donkey savagely against the counter. Destructiveness was the creature’s party trick; it swung its rump as accurately as if it were trained to entertain arena crowds between gladiatorial fights. All the careful rows of early grapes, apricots and berries spilled into the road. The rider snatched up an untouched nectarine, took one huge bite, laughed, then tossed the fruit contemptuously into the gutter. (p.117)
Falco intervenes, but realises quickly that his intervention has done the fruit-seller no favour. Falco explains his hatred of landlords by narrating the tale of his great Uncle Sarco who allowed a neighbour to keep a pig in a shack on his land, for up to 20 years … when the neighbour prospered he offered an annual fee. The neighbour then insisted that the shack be re-roofed. The great uncle was so horrified he returned the rent money. So the seven year old Falco was warned of the pitfalls of being a property owner.
Unbeknownst to Falco, he has been retained by the wives of Roman property magnates to investigate a gold digging widow who has three recently deceased husbands. She has taken up with one of the Hortensii, Novus, and there are plans for marriage. At a lunch, Novus shares his response to Falco’s run in at the fruit-seller’s stall: “The tenant must have been owing; you cannot be sentimental about debt”.
The Burning Buildings
After resolving his imprisonment by Anacrites with Titus Caesar, Falco witnesses a house fire and witnesses a tycoon jump out of a sedan chair and offer to buy the burning property. Falco reflects that it was the oldest fiddle in the world. He reflects on how the legendary Crassus came by his millions – touring Rome looking for fires and then preying on people while they were still in shock, paying a pittance for the smouldering ruins and redeveloping at a profit as soon as the ashes cooled. The lure of cash in hand is obviously too much for those in shock. Walking along the street, he discovers a tinderbox. The fire had been arson without any doubt.
Falco continues his investigations into the gold-digger widow’s past; Novus is poisoned, and the cook at the Hortensii household dies shortly after.
The Multiple Mortgage
The Hortensii Brothers are poor landlords who neglect their tenants and their dangerous structures. In fact, sometimes, (before the dangerous leaseholds collapse) they raise the value of the building with multiple mortgages. When the leasehold collapses the multiple-pledge is subject to hypothec, and the creditors are paid off in strict order of precedents. Many lose out. Thus the former slaves manumitted to freedom by their deceased owner Paulus, acquired their riches.
The Collapsing Leaseholds
Falco annoys Priscillus and is beaten senseless by his Phrygian thugs. After attention from Petronius and Helena Justina and some rest, Falco returns to work. He returns from the Hortensii to see the apartment block in which he and Helena Justina are living collapse. He digs frantically with the assembled neighbours and crowd, and they discover the batty lady upstairs. Just when all seems lost, Helena Justina appears.
Mob Justice, and other solutions
Enter Cossus, Falco’s letting agent, whom one of the Hortensii slaves had put Falco onto. Crossus admits he worked for Novus, the intended husband of the former slave Zotica, whom the Hortensii wives had engaged Falco to investigate. Novus being dead, Falco discovers from Crossus that Zotica ordered the engineering of the ‘building collapse’. The crowd outside discover the bodies of children and babies in the rubble and crucify Cossus.
Falco visits the Hortensii and suggests some civic projects to salvage their character and public profile. (The school Helena Justina proposes is the sting in the tail); Priscullus is urged to flee town as retributive justice will be on his tail forthwith. Falco reflects that all landlords are bullies and returns to Fountain Court with his beloved.
Home, in any other word
And we’ll leave this page here with some observations on Homes, since dwelling places occupied so much of the narrative. Priscillus had a bare, skint home, for he was unmarried, and lived for lust of money. The Hortensii had a joint home, for these freed slaves were bonded by their history; the couples lived downstairs, with a new wing to be added for Novus after his marriage to Zotica. Their home was patently flash, for they surrounded themselves with signs and symbols of their new wealth. As such, it really meant nothing, for their security was in their surroundings. Note how Pollia’s child was watched over by parents and guards in the daily trek to school.
Camillus Verus has a home where his growing children are simply using it as a base, more so Helena Justina, as she has committed her life to Falco. It is interesting to note Camillus’s response to the poem on married life cited by Falco at one point; he shudders at the mention of the wife making a lovely home. He is henpecked.
But it is Falco’s home on the Aventine Hill that is mentioned the most. Home is where the hearth is, and the hearth is really, a heart filled with love. We see the bare, ramshackle sixth-floor abode called Fountain Court, on the Aventine, above Lenia’s Eagle Laundry. We know of the neglect by Cossus of the short-lived apartment, and Ma’s place, all places where Falco experiences belonging, care, affection, bonds, and love. Even in the rat infested Lautumiae Prison, which mother springs him from, Ma daily brings food; Falco has few cares. Falco and Helena retire at the end to Fountain Court, a place where there is love.
Money can’t buy love, and money cannot create a home filled with love.
Truth is what we speak,
Right Conduct is what we practise,
Love is what we live,
Peace is what we give,
Non-violence is the fruit.
Go to the next page, were we examine some of the values displayed in Venus in Copper.
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Carving of Roman House
Carving of Roman House