A Dying Light in Corduba

Book Cover, Last Act in Palmyra

Falco is inveigled by the Chief Clerk Laeta into attending a dinner for the Society of Olive Oil Producers in Baetica. This is just a front for select persons to eat well, drink well, rub shoulders with the top echelon and watch titillating dancers. Falco is aware that Laeta is setting him up. However, there is an unexpected problem with violence towards some attending. One is killed, the other, well, he is close to Hades, and as Falco puts it, lying on his pallet with his fare for Charon in his hand. (Charon took the newly dead across the river Acheron or Styx if they could pay for the ride.)

Upon discovery that one of the attacked is now deceased and an informer, (the other is his nemesis, Anacrites), Falco becomes involved, never mind that Helena Justina is heavily pregnant and expecting their first born (after a miscarriage previously). There is some exploration of the tools midwives use, birth chairs, and the various strategies employed by women to deal with birth, all ugly.

Falco and Helena Justina sail and ride to Baetica, to Camillus Verus’ recently acquired property in Corduba, a property managed by one Marius Optatus, a tenant with a grievance against his former landlord. Thereafter, courtesy of Nux (a malodorous mongrel) Falco is introduced to the art of growing olive trees, and pressing of olives, which are exported to Roma in amphorae loaded onto barges.

Rome is a delicate city at the hub of an empire. Much of Rome’s needs are imported, placing the citizens of Rome at the mercy of exporters, pirates, thieves, and those who would seek to throttle the city by denying staples such as corn and olive oil. Corn is a state owned commodity and imported from Egypt. Vespasian, when he was Governor of Egypt, was thought to tacitly threaten the corn supply as part of his strategy to become emperor. There is a corn dole for the pensioned, and for all Romans in hard times.

Olive oil (labelled viscous gold by Laeta) has many uses, both on food and in lamps. Good oil burns with steady clarity and no smell. Falco tells that it is a staple of cultured life – it is any cook’s master ingredient, lights the best homes and public buildings. The military consumed vast quantities of olive oil, and it was utilised as a base for perfumes and medicines. There would not be a bath nor athletic-gymnasium in Rome that could exist without oily body preparations, according to Falco.

So any threat to the olive oil supply, or a cartel to force prices up leaves Rome at the mercy of the producers and anyone who took control of oil and its production. Enter Quinticus Attractus, one of the biggest landowners and big noises in Baetica, busily inviting and entertaining oil producers at his expense in Rome. Suspicions appear to be well founded and so Titus Caesar (or is it the petty clerical ambitions of Laeta?) commissions Falco to investigate. Problem is, there are others trampling around the clues and, perhaps, the perpetrators in Baetica and Hispania.

Nepotism in public offices can produce good public officers, but more often produces useless and (usually selfish) incumbents who have no intention of completing the task but simply desire office for the status that accompanies it. Such individuals often have no capacity for leadership and are simply pawns of those with influence who arrange their appointments. Such are often called Golden Haired fellows. Other types are born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

One such fellow is described in this narrative, the up and coming quaestor and senator elect, T. Quinctius Quadratus. Placidus, the procurator of Hispalis describes golden boys (among which he places Quadratus) like so:

Quinctius Quadratus is the worst kind, Falco. We’ve had them all. We’ve had them rude and over confident. We’ve had debauched young tyrants who live in the brothels. We’ve had fools who can’t count or spell, or compose a sentence in any language, let alone in correspondence-Greek. But when we heard that Quadratus had been wished upon us a quaestor, those of us in the know nearly packed up and left.

What makes him so bad?

You can’t pin him down. He looks as if he knows what he is doing. He has success written all over him, so its pointless to complain. He is the sort the world loves — until he comes unstuck.

Procurators, legates and provincial governors send such types on hunting leave. That is to say, they are sent out to entertain themselves and stay out of the office until their time is up.

Falco’s time in Baetica is very much curtailed by Helena Justina’s forthcoming delivery. Arrangements are made to get Helena Justina home as her term comes towards its end, and Falco quickly brings his work in Hispania and Cartuso to an end and rejoins his beloved, all full of fear and trembling. At every town, Falco stops to check at the temples if there are messages from Helena and her travelling companions; he eventually traces them to Barcino, whereupon entering their clean lodgings, he encounters a protracted labour, and wailing women in the room bemoaning that the child’s head is too large. Falco lets out a roar, clears the room of women and calls for olive oil, slightly warmed.

In the ensuing fracas of childbirth Falco is called a bastard, and receives both a black eye and a broken finger … somehow… and the baby is safely delivered.

Imago Roma

ancient roman amphorae

Ancient Roman Amphorae

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