Robert Colton
 


Augury of Theft

                                                               Rome, 108 AD

 

The city of Rome had long ago lost its charm to me. I preferred the quiet life of my estate in Litermum. However the Capitol city had a way of summoning me from time to time. Emperors are more trustful of wealthy old men when they are within reach, favors are more often repaid upon closer proximity and truth be told, I knew that personally distributing my latest history meant a better chance of it being read, rather than discarded. My name, Sempronius Gracchus Marcellus, has never quite carried the sufficient weight to bring about the readership of Tacitus or Suetonius, despite the fact they started their literal works well after I. 


  As it were, on the occasion that comes to mind, I had recently completed a rather scandalous accounting of the life of Tiberius. What made it scandalous was the fact that I ignored much of the gossip and innuendo that tainted his reputation and I attempted to cling to the facts, as best as I could.  


  After calling on an old friend, with the complete collection of scrolls containing my work on Tiberius, placed smartly in a splendid cedar chest, inlaid with bronze and semi-precious stones, I returned to my house on the Quirinal Hill.


  The home had passed from generation to generation among my family. While I was an exile, the home was usurped by my stepmother before eventually falling into my hands.


 The Quirinal Hill had long been dotted with fine homes, however as the wealthy were gradually evicted from the Palatine Hill to make room for the growing Imperial Palace, our little hill became more coveted. New homes, larger and finer than mine, rose atop the foundations of the more humble dwellings nearby. Still, my home, dating back to the days of Republic, held a certain grandeur difficult to replicate.


  Despite the location, or perhaps because of, a number of dubious shrines crowded the corners of the crossroads. Soothsayers, oracles and priests of all religions claimed the various niches, or erected little kiosks close to the numerous water fountains about the way. Egyptian gods, Persian gods, and perhaps even a few imagined gods all had a representative perched along some thoroughfare within the city. These seemed to me to be unofficial franchises of the countless temples which served the gods of Rome and her citizenry. For example, if I wished a minor favor of Apollo I need not trek to his Temple. No, I could go down the street and surely find a man or woman keeping up with constant prayers to the Deity and keeping maintenance to a shrine dedicated to the God. A few coins or some such offering would do to have my request added to the litany and I would be on my way home.  

      

  Of course the crowed sidewalks and the various hawkers of religious products could also be a nuisance. And so, I was reminded of my distaste for the city as we passed a priest yelling at a dirty boy that he had grasped by the collar of the rag he wore.


  Traveling by sedan, at a moderate pass, I could hear much of the man's rant. He was accusing a street urchin whom he favored as an assistant of stealing coin from the offering plate. The boy protested, and at that, the priest struck him in the face with the back of his hand.


  My sedan lurched to a stop, and I was nearly tossed to the road as my companion bounded from his seat beside me toward the disgruntled priest.


    I seldom recover my dignity in instances when Tay robs me of it, but thank the gods the litter bearers recovered their balance and I wasn't ejected from the conveyance.


   In my mid-sixties, there was little chance that I would repeat Tay's quick exit of the litter, while he was six months my senior he somehow remained rather cat like in his movements. "Lower." I called out to the slaves. The sedan was set to the ground and I was then helped onto my feet, as if I was drunk and might stumble over myself. Displeased to be coddled by the servants, I waved them away.


   Age had done nothing to mellow my steadfast companion. If anything he was quicker to point out the wrongs of others, and just as quick to pull me into the episode.


  The dirty youth had been quickly extricated from the priest's clutches. The man was rightfully intimidated by the well-dressed stranger, who had placed a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. No doubt he had assumed that Tay was the noble, out with six slaves at his bidding and I, the tag along companion. 


  Thank the gods my ego is really rather slight. I had realized in my youth that while others fixed their attention on my friend as he was the more commanding presence, I had the better opportunity to study them. As the ignored observer, it was easier to determine if a man was lying or telling the truth, just or unjust, genuine or a fraud. But of course Tay, while in the thick of the matter was just as keen to make out the truth and often his assessment was even more accurate than my own.


   "My good noble man, the boy, who I feed and protect, steals from me day after day." The priest pleaded.


   Tay looked down at the grimy lad, "You've done a poor job of feeding him, and striking a child across the face is a far thing from protecting him."


    I can't say that I had a premonition, that would be inaccurate, but after forty or so years spent in his company, I suspected Tay's next statement.


    "Come along child, I'll find a place for you where you’ll be taken care of."


    I am unable to recall the names of the countless dogs, cats, and various birds that have occupied my home at Tay's insistence, and this poor young boy would not be the first two legged stray to be taken in either.


    The priest objected, "No, no my good noble man. You can't take my sister’s boy, he's all the family I have.


   Both Tay and I were taken back by this revelation. Finally I joined the conversation, "Your nephew …and you keep him in rags, covered in filth..."


    Spreading his arms wide, he groveled, "My income is a mere trifle..." anger returned to his voice, "and then he steals and squanders what we do have!"


   Tay turned the boy about to face him. I believe the lad was just as frightened of the manicured stranger as his uncle. In a commanding, yet kind voice, Tay asked, "Do you steal from the offering plate? Now tell me the truth."


   The boy licked his dry, cracked lips, and earnestly replied, "I have, but only food, never coins."


  I believed the combination of confession and denial and asked the priest, "Couldn't someone else be stealing from you?"


   "I'm never away from this place!"


   I forced a guffaw and asked, "Now who is lying? You go off to the public latrine, you wander about the street..."


    "And it is always him, who is to stay and guard the plate and the statue!" He pointed at the crude image of Hermes, the god he represented. It was Hermes’ duty to guard the flocks, apparently he’d let his attention wane.


    Tay looked again to the boy, "Do you know who it is that steals from your uncle?"


   Both responded in unison; the lad replied excitedly while his uncle’s voice mocked him, "The birds!"


    As the priest let out a sigh, his nephew explained, "They sit up there," he pointed to my neighbor's home just across the avenue, "Then they swoop down here and pick up a coin and take it back to the roof!"


    Tay patted the boy on the shoulders, and looked to the priest, "You blame him, when he has the answer?"


    "Birds! What answer is that? If he told me they stole the bread or slices of fruit, that I would believe...but bronze and copper, I am no fool."


   I chuckled, "Oh, but you are. Wait here…and watch that roof." I thought perhaps Hermes’ priest had forgotten an important aspect of the god, for not only was he a messenger, and caretaker of animal husbandry, Hermes was also known to be a trickster.

 

     Tay and I crossed the street. The large outdoors of the house stood open and the porter greeted us.


     "Please let Aelius know that his neighbor, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus Marcellus, has a favor to ask of him." I told the doorkeeper.


    When a known friend of the emperor comes calling for a favor, even the dullest slave knows to act quickly. We were invited into a lavish sitting room and only a moment later Aelius joined us.


    Our host was a least a decade younger than I, and a member if the Senate. While I spent little time under the roof of the house just two doors away, we were on friendly terms. Entering the room, Aelius made no attempt to conceal his surprise but was unable to mask his concern. I greeted him pleasantly and apologized for my spontaneous arrival. After explaining the incident that occurred across the street, I came to my favor. He was only too happy to oblige me.


    Tay I returned to the street corner, both grinning as the priest eyed us with questionable skepticism.


    We took our places beside uncle and nephew and looked towards Aelius’ roof. After a startled flock of starlings took flight, a young man's head appeared as he scaled the roof’s incline concealed by the outer wall. At the summit, he steadied himself and then began to toss pieces of bronze and copper toward us.


   The priest could not contain his laughter. He reached out to his nephew and drew him away from Tay. "Never shall I doubt your word again."


   Tay looked rather pleased by the priest’s new found respect for the lad, and gave the man a friendly pat on his back.


     I clapped my hands and the rain of coins came to an end. Shortly after, Aelius’ servant joined us on the street with a sack of the coins he'd collected from the roof top.


    "There was a small fortune up there!" The young man exclaimed. "Not just on our roof either, but that house too." He point to the home between his master's and my own.


    I offered to speak to my other neighbor as well, what's another favor for Hermes?


   Upon returning home, we had our own roof inspected. A small sum was found and I was instructing my servant on delivering the coinage to Hermes’ priest when Tay made a typical quip, "There are other shrines at the various corners of the neighborhood, it's quite possible that we've made a mistake by not dividing the money."


   I nodded my head and gave a little sigh, "True, but it was Hermes who had the good sense to let his minions collect the offerings.” Of course I was interpreting the work flock rather loosely  “Our involvement in the recovery of the coins is in part thanks to Tiberius, what a shame he wasn't deified, I could offer it to him."


  Tay chuckled, "According to your history, he was a miser. He would have kept the money for himself."

 

   "You’re not suggesting..."


    "Never." And with that Tay took the coins and told my servant, "I'll see to these."


   On the next occasion that I saw the priest and his nephew, I instantly knew what had become of the coins found on our roof. The lad we'd mistaken for a street urchin was clad in a fresh green tunic and wearing new sandals. Only Tay would have troubled to the boy’s wardrobe. And only Tay would have done so with the flock of starling's coins.