Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Coin's Tale

Author’s Note: This story was my first venture into the genre of historical fiction. It was also my first substantial publication.

“Clang! Clang!” went the double strike of the hammer against the die. Then the “plop” sound as a freshly minted denarius sank to the bottom of a bucket of cold water. The pile was high enough the Malleator thought and, after the Suppostor had laid down his tong’s he drained the bucket and began to pour the coins into a sack. One of the denarii jumped the sack and rolled across the floor.

“Get it,” the Malleator shouted “or it will be a whipping!”

The slave rushed across the floor of the Temple of Juno Moneta hunched over and dodging the other workers at their task’s, oblivious to the shiny silver circle gliding past their feet. It finally rolled through a chink in the door and came to rest outside in the knoll of the Arx.

A member of the Urban Cohorts on policing duty noticed it glinting in the sun and picked it up. As he held it up to the light the slave who had been on it’s tail came rushing up to him in a panic and did not notice whom he was approaching. He was almost about to snatch it from his hand’s when it came upon him what he was. The solider clasped the handle of his sword in its scabbard and grunted at the slave who was so impudent. The slave jumped, begged his apology, and then ran as fast as he could back into the sacred enclosure.

The solider smiled at his good fortune. He would not be paid for several more days and was eager to buy a new cloak to keep out the cold at the night watch. His rounds took him through the Forum of Caesar, passed the Temple of Venus Genetrix, and he looked about through the wares for sale there.

An Arab, seeing his interest, almost accosted him shoving a bolt of cloth into his face.

“Looking for a tunic?” the merchant said, “We have the finest linen from Egypt, the softest fleece from Asia.”

“Cloaks.” the solider replied matter-of-factly.

“Oh we have many fine cloaks sir, look and see.” the Arab opened a chest to the side of him and started pulling out a range of cloaks of various materials. The solider found one to his liking and a price was set. The denarius sealed the deal.

After another hour or so the Merchant decided his luck was going to get no better and closed up shop. He placed his day’s earnings into the purse on his belt and started for home.

“Oh no.” the Merchant said to himself under his breath. Marcus Statius a knight to whom he owed money was coming in his direction. The Merchant thought to duck for cover, but it was too late, he had been spotted.

“I see you there Philippus.” Marcus cried out.

“Thought you were going to get away from me did you. Come come man let’s have it.”

Philippus took the purse from his belt and handed it to Marcus with his eyes closed, like a mother giving up her child. Marcus snatched it up and poured its contents into the palm of his hand.

“That’s it?” said Marcus. “You owe me five times this. What do you do all day, sit and twiddle you thumb’s?”

“I’ve had a hard month Marcus, that’s all, things will pick up.” Philippus replied, as though he were prostrated before the Emperor himself.

“Well it had better, a man ought to pay his debts Philippus otherwise he’s a fool to borrow money.”

“Especially if he borrows it from you.” Philippus thought.

“I expect every as back plus interest. You knew my term’s before you made the deal you can’t blame me if you haven’t lived up to your end of the bargain.” Philippus nodded in assent.

“Go on then, but you had better have it all next time.” Marcus admonished. Philippus, feeling lucky to get off so easily took his offer and made good his escape while he still could. Marcus looked at the little pile in his hand again and noticed the denarius looking up at him. The newness of it brought a smile to his face as it shined in the sunlight. He shuffled them all into his own purse and then headed for home himself.

Marcus Statius entered the atrium of his home and immediately flung off his stuffy toga, which was then picked from the floor by a slave. He walked straight to the altar of the household god’s and made a libation before taking up some petitions that another slave then handed to him. He grunted as he ran through each one.

“How easily they find it to beg,” he remarked of his client’s letters. “Dogs do not do it so well.”

“Where is Quintus?” he asked an attendant.

“Here I am father.” shouted the boy as he ran to embrace him.

“Have you been good today?” Marcus asked.

“Very good.” Quintus replied. Marcus then looked to his son’s tutor who nodded cheerfully in assent.

“Then you shall have a treat. Nicias” he said to the tutor, “why don’t you take him down to the Coliseum to see a fight. There’s nothing better for hardening a Roman youth than a good slaughter.”

“Very well Master.” Nicias replied and they started for the door.

“Oh, and Nicias,” Marcus said suddenly thinking. “take this.” He handed him a fist full of coins and as the old tutor opened his hand to look at them there was the denarius in the center. “Buy him something nice in the Forum.”

Child and tutor then departed. They passed barbers and bakers and the great rabble of the streets rushing to and fro without pause. Finally they came to the Forum Romanum. Someone was making a speech on the Rostra and the tutor and his charge stopped to listen. Out of the corner of his eye Nicias noticed an old acquaintance in the distance sitting in the shade of the Basilica Julia.

“Good day to you Zeno.” Nicias said as man and boy walked up to him. “I have not seen you in a great while; are you still instructing Lucius’s boy on the finer points of logic?”

Zeno looked up at him. “Lucius junior died not three months past. I have been ‘let off’ as they say.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” replied Nicias.

“I’m not.” said Zeno with a grin. “Now I have time to truly put that most respected principle of philosophy into practice---learning to be happy with nothing.”

Zeno was quite serious and Nicias knew it but it was beyond him to understand such wisdom. He had been cursed with that greatest of misfortunes, to have a good master, a fate worse than death the old philosopher might say.

Nicias, feeling pity for him sifted through the coins Marcus had given him and plucked out the denarius. He picked up the unsuspecting Zeno’s hand and laid it down in his palm. Zeno didn’t understand the gesture at first until he looked at his hand and saw it lying there. He raised it up to the sunlight and mused upon its luster, as it seemed to glow, the profile of the recently deified Vespasian in high relief almost as though he were present at this meeting. Doubtless the old mule driver would have understood the fickleness of fortune.

Nicias gave him a crooked smile of pity and Zeno returned the smile not even making an attempt to give back the gift; then the tutor and the lad walked off. Zeno rolled the coin about in his hand for a few moments in reflection then began walking away himself. There was a young boy looking longingly at the wares for sale in the Forum. Zeno tapped the boy on the shoulder, plucked up his arm and, with a grin dropped it into the boy’s cupped hand, then walked away without a word. The boy could not believe his good fortune and ran as fast as he could out of the Forum and down the street to his home. He galloped up several flights of stairs until he came to the top most apartment where he lived with his mother, and occasionally, his older brother.

“Mother! Mother!” the boy shouted. His mother did not even bother to raise her head from her sewing but asked in an almost disaffected manner:

“What is it this time Remus, has your brother been in a brawl again?”

“No Mother, look!” He held out the coin under her nose. She looked up almost in disbelief and took it from his hand.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“A strange beaded man gave it to me in the Forum.” His mother gave a look of alarm:

“He didn’t ask you to go anywhere with him did he?”

“No, he just picked up my arm and handed it to me. He was very odd-looking; I think he was a Greek. Then he just walked away into the crowd with his hand’s behind his back.”
His mother gave a sigh of relief.

“Thank the gods for that. I don’t want you running around so far from home from now on, it’s not safe, not even in the day time.”

She walked over to a large bench and pulled it out from against the wall. Underneath one of the legs was a hole in the floor. She stuck her hand into it and retrieved a leather pouch into which she dropped the coin, and then returned everything to its place.

“Now perhaps we can get a decent meal. I need to take this sewing to the lady down stairs; if she likes it it may mean more work in the future. If your brother shows up don’t let him know about the money.” she said wagging her finger. “If he knew we only had a single as to keep us from the street he’d filch it to bet on the races.” His mother then closed the door behind her.
After several minutes the door slowly opened again to a crack.

“Pisst! Remus.” a voice whispered to him. It was his brother. He stuck his head in a little more.

“Is mother about?”

“No, she went down stairs, but only for a moment.” Remus said quickly nervous.

“Oh good.” said Phyrrus now entering the room in confidence. He walked over to the cupboard and helped himself to whatever he could find. Drinking from a pitcher of wine he backed up and knocked against the bench where the hoard was secreted. Remus let out a gasp and Phyrrus looked up at him from the pitcher with surprise.

“Something’s not quite right here. Why are you so nervous Remus? Did mother get paid?” Quickly he started up and moved the bench from its place. Remus attempted to stop him but was no match for his elder brother, and was pushed out of the way. Phyrrus reached in and, picking up the pouch emptied it into his hand. There among several small bronze coins was the denarius. He left the small change but flipped the silver coin in the air like it was his lucky day.

“Tell mother I said hello and I’ll pay her back later.” he shouted as he went out. He had made that promise many times before.

Remus sat down and buried his face in his hands. He knew how angry his mother would be when she came back and tempered himself for the flogging.

Out on the street Phyrrus started to head for the Circus. It had been a long time since he had anything to bet on the races and he was eager to place a wager before the next one could begin. He was entirely consumed by his gambler’s daydreams, the big score and the winnings he would reap, and did not notice the gang of toughs who were now forming up around him.

“Hello there Phyrrus.” a voice spoke in his ear accompanied by a strong hand upon his shoulder. “Why do you look so cheerful today, I hope it’s because you have the money to pay me for our little loan.” Phyrrus stopped dead in the street suddenly going pale.

“Hello Manista. No, I don’t have an as to my name. I’ll get it to you though, don’t you worry about that.”

“I’m not the one who should be worried Phyrrus.” That was the signal for two of his men to push Phyrrus against a wall and give him a closer inspection. At last one of them pulled out the denarius from Phyrrus’s clenched hand.

“Please don’t take that!” Phyrrus shouted. “It’s all I have. I’ve got a sure thing at the Circus today, then I can get it all back for you.”

“What, so you can just throw more of my money away? I don’t think so.” One of Minista’s hired men then turned to hand it over. Phyrrus in desperation kicked his retainer in the shin and managed to get free of his grip. He darted for and grabbed the coin then began running down the street with Manista and his henchmen right behind. He found a dead-end alley to duck into and catch his breath, then began looking about wildly everywhere for a place he might hide his treasure. There was none. In the distance he could hear Manista and his men returning. He had to think of something quick or all would be lost. Finally, in one movement, he snatched up the coin and swallowed it.

“I am tired of these games Phyrrus.” came Manista’s voice echoing in the narrow alley. He gave a look to his men and they closed around him proceeding to pummel him with fists and clubs. When they had finished Phyrrus was bowed and bloody, but still alive. Two of his attacker’s lifted him from the ground.

“I will let you live this time but when next we meet you will not be so lucky.” Manista gave another look to the men and they dropped him groaning, and left him to the darkness of the alley. After lying there for some time Phyrrus finally dragged himself to his feet. At the baths he was able to clean himself and assess his wounds. It was while doing this that he came across an old friend and fellow gambler. He had recently had a bit of luck and, at his insistence, treated him to a tour of the taverns.

They drank well into the night talking about old times. By afternoon of the following day Phyrrus had slept off the wine of the night before. He walked across the street to a public latrine to relieve himself. Settling down upon the cold stone of the bench he began to reminisce about the events of the day before, thinking with especial fondness of the tales they had told between themselves, most especially the one Phyrrus told of his run in with Manista and the ingenious way he had hidden his prize.

At that moment all his smiling self-satisfaction left his face as he heard the splash in the wastewater below. He jumped up immediately and stared down into the darkness. All that he could see was the shine of a little silver circle glinting up at him, so close and yet so far away.

. . .


Published in The Celator, October 2003.