Robert Harris: Lustrum

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Robert Harris Lustrum
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Robert Harris



63 BC

O condicionem miseram non modo administrandae verum etiam conservandae rei publicae!

The preservation of the republic no less than governing it

– what a thankless task it is!

Cicero, speech, 9 November 63 BC


Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the River Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet.

Such a discovery, though tragic, would not normally have warranted the attention of a consul-elect. But there was something so grotesque about this particular corpse, and so threatening to civic peace, that the magistrate responsible for keeping order in the city, C. Octavius, sent word to Cicero asking him to come at once.

Cicero at first was reluctant to go, pleading pressure of work. As the consular candidate who had topped the poll, it fell to him, rather than his colleague, to preside over the opening session of the senate, and he was writing his inaugural address. But I knew there was more to it than that. He had an unusual squeamishness about death. Even the killing of animals in the games disturbed him, and this weakness – for alas in politics a soft heart is always perceived as a weakness – had started to be noticed. His immediate instinct was to send me in his place.

'Of course I shall go,' I replied carefully. 'But…' I let my sentence trail away.

'But?' he said sharply. 'But what? You think it will look bad?'

I held my tongue and continued transcribing his speech. The silence lengthened.

'Oh, very well,' he groaned at last. He heaved himself to his feet. 'Octavius is a dull dog, but steady enough. He wouldn't summon me unless it was important. In any case I need to clear my head.'

It was late December and from a dark grey sky blew a wind that was quick enough and sharp enough to steal your breath. Outside in the street a dozen petitioners were huddled, hoping for a word, and as soon as they saw the consul-elect stepping through his front door they ran across the road towards him. 'Not now,' I said, pushing them back. 'Not today.' Cicero threw the edge of his cloak over his shoulder, tucked his chin down on to his chest and set off briskly down the hill.

We must have walked about a mile, I suppose, crossing the forum at an angle and leaving the city by the river gate. The waters of the Tiber were fast and high, flexed by yellowish-brown whirlpools and writhing currents. Up ahead, opposite Tiber Island, amid the wharfs and cranes of the Navalia, we could see a large crowd milling around. (You will get a sense of how long ago all this happened by the way – more than half a century – when I tell you that the Island was not yet linked by its bridges to either bank.) As we drew closer, many of the onlookers recognised Cicero, and there was a stir of curiosity as they parted to let us through. A cordon of legionaries from the marine barracks was protecting the scene. Octavius was waiting.

'My apologies for disturbing you,' said Octavius, shaking my master's hand. 'I know how busy you must be, so close to your inauguration.'

'My dear Octavius, it is a pleasure to see you at any time. You know my secretary, Tiro?'

Octavius glanced at me without interest. Although he is remembered today only as the father of Augustus, he was at this time aedile of the plebs and very much the coming man. He would probably have made consul himself had he not died prematurely of a fever some four years after this encounter. He led us out of the wind and into one of the great military boathouses, where the skeleton of a liburnian, stripped for repair, sat on huge wooden rollers. Next to it on the earth floor an object lay shrouded in sailcloth. Without pausing for ceremony, Octavius threw aside the material to show us the naked body of a boy.

He was about twelve, as I remember. His face was beautiful and serene, quite feminine in its delicacy, with traces of gold paint glinting on the nose and cheeks, and with a bit of red ribbon tied in his damp brown curls. His throat had been cut. His body had been slashed open all the way down to the groin and emptied of its organs. There was no blood, only that dark, elongated cavity, like a gutted fish, filled with river mud. How Cicero managed to contemplate the sight and maintain his composure, I do not know, but he swallowed hard and kept on looking. Eventually he said hoarsely, 'This is an outrage.'

'And that's not all,' said Octavius. He squatted on his haunches, took hold of the lad's skull between his hands and turned it to the left. As the head moved, the gaping wound in the neck opened and closed obscenely, as if it were a second mouth trying to whisper a warning to us. Octavius seemed entirely indifferent to this, but then of course he was a military man and no doubt used to such sights. He pulled back the hair to reveal a deep indentation just above the boy's right ear, and pressed his thumb into it. 'Do you see? It looks as if he was felled from behind. I'd say by a hammer.'

'His face painted. His hair beribboned. Felled from behind by a hammer,' repeated Cicero, his words slowing as he realised where his logic was leading him. 'Then his throat cut. And finally his body… eviscerated.'

'Exactly,' said Octavius. 'His killers must have wanted to inspect his entrails. He was a sacrifice – a human sacrifice.'

At those words, in that cold, dim place, the hairs on the nape of my neck stirred and spiked, and I knew myself to be in the presence of Evil – Evil as a palpable force, as potent as lightning.

Cicero said, 'Are there any cults in the city you have heard of that might practise such an abomination?'

'None. There are always the Gauls, of course – they are said to do such things. But there aren't many of them in town at the moment, and those that are here are well behaved.'

'And who is the victim? Has anyone claimed him?'

'That's another reason I wanted you to come and see for yourself.' Octavius rolled the body over on to its stomach. 'There's a small owner's tattoo just above his backside, do you see? Those who dumped the body may have missed it. “C. Ant. M. f. C. n.” Caius Antonius, son of Marcus, grandson of Caius. There's a famous family for you! He was a slave of your consular colleague, Antonius Hybrida.' He stood and wiped his hands on the sailcloth, then casually threw the cover back over the body. 'What do you want to do?'

Cicero was staring at the pathetic bundle on the floor as if mesmerised. 'Who knows about this?'




'What about the crowd outside?'

'There's a rumour going round that there's been some kind of ritual killing. You above all know what crowds are like. They're saying it's a bad omen on the eve of your consulship.'

'They may be right.'

'It's been a hard winter. They could do with calming down. I thought we might send word to the College of Priests and ask them to perform some kind of ceremony of purification-'

'No, no,' said Cicero quickly, pulling his gaze away from the body. 'No priests. Priests will only make it worse.'

'So what shall we do?'

'Tell no one else. Burn the remains as quickly as possible. Don't let anyone see them. Forbid anyone who has seen them from disclosing the details, on pain of imprisonment.'

'And the crowd?'

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