Chapter 39 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
After our third visit to the docks, I had turned up nothing in the way of a clue or sign for our next investment. In the privacy of the little house on the Aventine, I grasped my token in both hands and formed the question: Which of these ships should I select? At last I felt an answering warmth. The Goddess replied Not the ship, but the man.
When she heard this, Dru said that it would be best if she gathered news of the ship-masters who were due to sail in the next few weeks and brought it back to me. Time was running short; soon the opportunities would dry up, for voyages were much curtailed in the winter months. We needed to make a selection by early September.
“What if I want to meet these shipmasters face to face?” I asked. I felt the mental nudge, the tiny postive signal that this was the key to the selection.
Dru frowned. “You can’t—not in the ordinary way of things. They aren’t used to dealing with women.”
“A woman’s money is as good as a man’s, isn’t it? What if we say that I am a rich widow and you’re my guardian? I am the investor and I want to meet these shipmasters in person before I make my decision.”
She looked skeptical, but agreed to broach the subject of meetings with a few of the masters. Many of them had dealt with “Drusus” as an investor, and it was plausible enough that he might persuade his ward to hazard some of her money in the same way. A few days later, Dru reported that several masters had turned her down, but three had agreed to meet. These men were told that I was unwilling to receive them in my home, for I did not wish it known that I was dabbling in trade. In order to preserve my matronly modesty from the eyes of their crews, neither would we meet aboard the ships. Instead, Dru suggested a spice shop with a back room where discreet meetings could take place.
“I know the owner, and he’s a decent sort,” she assured me. For the first meeting, I dressed in finery purchased for the occasion with Romalian silver—a fine tunic in saffron yellow, the most expensive color after purple, and a rust-colored overdress. Lydia, a former lady’s maid from First Region, styled my hair in an elaborate pile atop my head. It was held in place by a gilt bronze diadem to which a translucent dark-red veil was attached. The finishing touch was my pearl and coral necklace, which I had retrieved from the vault. It felt odd to dress in such grand clothing after four years in simple, undyed Romalian tunics and wraps, and my scalp ached from all the pulling and twisting of my hair. I called myself Lutatia Clara, widow of Gaius Vettius Novus.
Two hired men carried me to the spice shop in a litter, and Dru walked beside me. The owner was a small wiry fellow, a Syrian who bore the Greek name Irenus. He solicitously ushered us into the back room, where the chair intended for me had been (so I thought) hastily supplied with a cushion and draped with a worn but finely-embroidered cloak. In a moment he returned with a jug of wine for the men, and an infusion of mint with honey for me.
I arranged my veil so that it fell (gracefully, I hoped) from the back of my head, and sipped some of the mint tea. The space was a store-room, with a barred window to let in light from a small courtyard shared by the buildings on this block. Though much of the stock was secured in locked chests, the air was perfumed with turmeric and cinnamon and cloves. “The homes of the gods in heaven must smell like this,” I marveled. The fragrance calmed my ragged nerves.
Five minutes later, the shipmaster appeared and Dru stood to meet him. He was a big man, tall enough that he needed to stoop when coming through the door. My first impression when he raised his head was of keen grey eyes, a neat black beard, and a row of white teeth which flashed as he smiled. His skin was a lovely bronze color.
“Sestius Drusus,” he said, greeting Dru with a handclasp. He turned to me with a nod and a polite “Mistress.” I saw the surprise, quickly suppressed, as he registered my age. In that year, I was twenty-three, but this is not so very young for a widow, for husbands may die at any age. Still, he must have been expecting someone more formidable and matronly.
“Clara, this is Shipmaster Azdrubal Mago,” said Dru.
“Shipmaster,” I inclined my head, trying for the gracious patrician style of Caesar’s mother Aurelia.
“Call me Azdrubal—or Az,” he said, accepting a cup of wine from Dru. He was Punic, then, a member of the seafaring nation which Roma had destroyed in the bitter wars a century and a half past. Carthago had been turned into a Roman colony, as had their other territories in Sicilia and Africa and Hispania, but the Punic people had by no means been annihilated. Still, I had never before met one. I suppressed my curiosity, thinking that his background might be a sore subject.
“Thank you for meeting me, Azdrubal,” I said. “I trust that your ship is sound. What can you tell me of your route and your cargo?”
Again, he looked surprised, and so did Dru. No doubt they had both assumed that I would allow my guardian to conduct the conversation. But if I was to select the man, I needed to speak with him myself. Azdrubal recovered quickly and replied, “Mistress, I sail to Alexandria. From Roma we pass between Italia and Sicilia, by the city of Messana, yes?” Here he paused, lowering his chin a little and looking me in the eye to see if I was following him. His Latin was flawless, and I detected only a slight accent.
“Messana,” I mused. “Where Polyphemus the Cyclops met Ulysses?”
“Yes! That is, I myself believe that Polyphemus dwelled a little south of Messana, but every town on that coast claims him. From there we sail southeast to Cyrene…”
I interrupted him. “Cyrene—the nymph who wrestled a lion! And when Apollo saw her strength, he fell in love with her. That Cyrene?”
Azdrubal laughed. “Yes indeed, Mistress Clara. The city has a beautiful, gleaming temple of Apollo, and many statues of the nymph herself. Drusus, you did not prepare me for such a learned lady! Had I known, I would have reviewed my Homer and Pindar before the meeting.”
Dru answered drily, “There is no repressing her. I only hope she doesn’t start quizzing you, like a schoolmaster.”
“Perhaps I would enjoy that,” said Azdrubal cryptically, “but come, I must complete the itinerary. From Cyrene, we follow the coast of Africa all the way to Alexandria. There we sell what is left of our cargo, and buy goods to carry back to Roma.”
Beneath my tunic, my token pouch hung on a cord fastened about my waist. Now I felt the knucklebone warming. The heat of it began to spread through my pelvis. I returned my attention to Azdrubal, who was speaking of his cargo. “Pepper,” he said. “You Romans love it above all spices. Myself, I prefer cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and the best turmeric—a brilliant orange turmeric that is rich and sweet.”
“Mmm—and pleasingly warm, not bitingly hot like pepper,” I agreed, inhaling deeply. The atmosphere in the room seemed intoxicating.
“Excellent value for its weight,” remarked Dru repressively.
“Indeed. That is why I favor spices,” replied the shipmaster. “We shall also take on some ebony, and elephant tusks. Bolts of the finest Aegyptian linen. A few other odds and ends, for which I have regular buyers in Roma.”
“Do you ever buy books in Alexandria?” I asked. The knucklebone in its pouch was nearly burning me now, and the heat had spread through my long bones.
The Goddess said, Him.
Azdrubal turned back to me. He neither raised an eyebrow, nor felt it necessary to comment on my interest; he merely answered the question. “Books? Yes, sometimes. Not long ago, I carried out a commission for a public man of a scholarly bent. He wished me to find books of Aegyptian magical spells rendered in Greek.”
Probably Nigidius Figulus, I thought to myself, nodding. Figulus was a friend of Cicero, who dabbled in magic. Azdrubal continued, “There are booksellers in Alexandria who have copies of most anything you desire—tragedies, comedies, histories…love poems.” He paused and locked eyes with me, his expression speculative. It was almost as though he could tell what I was feeling.
Dru broke in on this intriguing conversation, clearing her throat. “How much do you need, and what’s the outbound cargo?”
“Sixty thousand sestertii. We’ll carry finished luxury goods from the workshops here: textiles, perfumes, sculptures, arms and armor, maybe some furniture. I have my eye on two hundred amphoras of the best Falernian wine. Most of the market for that is Italian, but a dealer in Cyrene has asked for it and promised me a good price. When we get to Alexandria, we’ll buy pepper and silk. Alabaster, porphyry, red granite. Maybe even some books,” he added, glancing at me with a smile.
Sixty thousand was a substantial sum, about half the price of a small house in an unfashionable part of Roma. A year’s salary for a Roman legionary was only about five hundred sestertii, although there were rumblings in the Senate about raising their pay. Caesar supported this idea and his friends spoke in favor of it. Naturally, Cato’s friends denounced it.
After a polite exchange of good wishes, the shipmaster rose and departed , leaving Dru and me to talk it over. “He’s the one,” I told her. “My token is burning into my lower belly.”
She eyed me disapprovingly. “Is that just because you want to sleep with him?”
“What makes you think I want to sleep with him?” I was indignant, even though she was right. The desire was different from what I felt for Caesar: less complicated, less freighted with questions of authority and risk.
Dru rolled her eyes. “I can tell. I’m sure he could too.”
I felt no shame about the matter. In fact, the idea that Azdrubal knew was even more arousing. “And if I desire him, is that so terrible?” I asked.
Dru surprised me by shaking her head. “No. You are a free woman of Romalia. But this is a big change in our methods. Thana almost never met with the shipmasters. I have to be sure that you know what you’re doing.”
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I replied tartly, “but I do know that Azdrubal Mago has been chosen by Our Divine Lady. Still, I’ll meet with the other shipmasters if you like, just to see if they also have her approval.”
“Save us from that,” sighed Dru, but she arranged two more meetings at the spice shop. Both the shipmasters were polite, but clearly less comfortable talking business with me than Mago had been. Neither one produced the same effect on my token (or the rest of me), so after consulting with Thana, Dru gave Azdrubal Mago the money.
“Do these men ever take your money and then run off with it, never to be heard from again?” I asked her.
“That is not unheard of, but it’s rare. No shipmaster can behave that way if he wishes to continue doing business in Roma, or elsewhere on the regular sea lanes. Word travels fast. More often they try to underpay their investors, claiming that they didn’t make the expected profit.”
“Do you think Mago will do that?” I asked curiously.
“No. If he falls short, he absorbs the loss,” said Dru. “He has sworn by his Goddess, whom he calls Tanith. Besides, he knows that he’ll have no chance of bedding you if I suspect that he has cheated us.”
“Bedding me? I haven’t yet thought about it going that far.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The Romans fought a dire series of wars with Carthage during the third and second centuries BCE. These were called the Punic Wars (from the word “Punicus” which means “Phoenician”), for Carthage was a Phoenician colony. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy and brought elephants over the Alps. He terrorized the Romans and nearly destroyed them. Hannibal’s brothers were Hasdrubal and Mago. Hasdrubal’s name means “Help of Ba’al,” referring to the Phoenician god. My character Azdrubal bears a less obviously Latinized version of the name, plus Mago, which he uses as a surname. Like his ancestors, he is a seafaring man.