Work keeps piling up, which is good and bad. I love to keep busy – but I also need time (lots of time) for ‘moi’. I love to play golf, which is a time-consuming sport, and I love to read, and I love to write. I love working in my garden, and I adore spending time with my friends and family. But all that is ‘in between’ stuff, because of work.
The ancient Romans (the citizens of Rome – not the slaves, who made up easily a fifth of the population sometimes) worked until noon, then knocked off for the rest of the day. The afternoon could be spent at the baths (imagine a huge spa complete with gym, swimming pools, and massage parlors…) evening was spent at some sort of entertainment like the races or a play. And at night there were dinners and galas. They ancient Romans would regard us all as slaves, I’m afraid. They would also probably have loved golf. I’m surprised they didn’t invent it.
I love imagining Rome, and how it would have been at its apogee. In one of my Iskander books, Alexander and Ashley find themselves in Rome. They take a guided tour…
“Roman citizens in this line, barbarians over there,” called out a man in a strong voice as we got in line to buy tickets to the show at the coliseum.
“Barbarian? I’m Greek,” sputtered Plexis.
“And I’m…” He got no further. I clapped my hand over Alexander’s mouth.
“We want to see the show, not star in it,” I said, shaking my head and whispering fiercely. “Can you imagine what would happen if anyone got wind of who you were? How much do you think you’re worth? Don’t you know that there are some that would pay a fortune to see you in the arena? It’s big business here. The charioteers and gladiators are almost all professionals. They are both extremely successful and rich beyond belief, or dead. So don’t, I beg of you, don’t breathe a word to anyone about your identity.”
“What about the papers we filled out in the customs building?” He asked, a glint in his blue eye.
“No one really ever reads official documents. They just get stored. The only ones who pour over them are archeologists who find them thousands of years later and go into ecstasies over all that useless information. Now get into the barbarian line and be quiet.”
Plexis bit back a laugh as Alexander glared at him, but the glare lacked conviction, and I thought he was strangely quiet for the remainder of the afternoon.
“What do you suppose he’s thinking of?” I asked Plexis, drawing him aside as we toured the palace behind a quiet group of Egyptians, two large, hairy Gauls, and a rowdy bunch of Iberians.
“I don’t know, but I heard him muttering, ‘barbarian indeed’ a couple times. I don’t like the look in his eyes.” Plexis whispered back. “Wow, did you see that staircase? A whole regiment could march down it abreast. I think the statues are creepy, especially the eyes. In Greece we don’t make them look so life-like. Granted, we paint the marble pillars and the robes, but we don’t do eyes like that.” Plexis leaned towards a statue and would have touched it but the tour guide barked at him and he drew back.
“I hope he’s not going to do anything foolish,” I said to Plexis worriedly. “Alexander is acting strangely.” He was unnaturally silent, preoccupied, with his head tilted and a far away look in his eyes. I bit my lip. He used to look like that when I’d first met him. When he was in the midst of battle plans against his biggest enemy, Darius, or when he was dreaming up some impossible scheme. Although to do him credit it usually worked. I sighed and turned to Paul. “What do you think of Rome?” I asked my son.
“Amazing,” he said, “really eely.”
“Really eely?” I asked.
“Everyone who’s anyone says that,” he explained. “Scipion’s cousins told us that.”
“Maybe they were just teasing,” I said. But then again, young people had always had their own slang, even in these times. Really eely?
We passed a gymnasium where women in bikinis were exercising. The women were just visible if you peered through the arched doorways. The bikinis they wore were rather interesting I thought, made of what looked like suede or knitted material. The women were jumping rope, playing with a large inflated ball, or jumping in unison in a sort of aerobics class. Afterwards they could swim in the heated pool inside the gymnasium. There was a women’s side and a men’s side, and I kind of wanted a glimpse of the men but Alexander took my arm and pulled me away.
“We’re losing the tour group,” he said.
“It’s a very nice city,” I said for the hundredth time, strolling up the main street, called Cando, which ran north to south. It was perpendicular to the second main street of Rome, called De Cumanus, and running east to west. All the streets were parallel to these two streets, creating perfectly square or rectangular city blocks, called insulae. It was quite hilly, and we hiked up and down, with alternating views of the river and city.
“Not as nice as Alexandria,” he said with a shrug.
I looked at him but he was busy measuring the width of the street with his eyes, taking in the crosswalks and the garbage bin placed in the alley. “Too many policemen,” he said, shaking his head. “They are everywhere.”
“Waiting to catch someone pissing, swearing or spitting so they can fine them,” I said.
“I suppose they need funds to pay all those policemen. I wonder if they have quotas,” Alexander said.
“I think it’s a pity everything nice is reserved for the Roman citizens. Even the nicest hotels. Alexandria is much more democratic,” I said.
“I wonder how long that will last. Ptolomy is rather a snob.” Alexander stopped speaking for a while and we wandered after the group, listening to the guide as he spoke about the wonders of Rome. Paul and Axiom were paying close attention, Plexis was looking in the boutiques, and the Iberians had started to sing a loud song. A policeman was moving towards them with a determined look on his face and a wax tablet in his hands.
“No singing unless it’s praise for the Roman gods,” he said sternly, “rule number sixteen. If you continue you’ll be fined three sesterces.”
The Iberians were outraged; they’d been singing a song about good food and wine, and a very fine song it was indeed. However the policeman wouldn’t budge, so they reluctantly quieted down and went on their way, until one of them got the idea of replacing the names of the food with the names of the Roman Gods. They started again, braying in Celtibere all about delicious Junon, spicy Venus, and hot and tasty Minerve, which made more than one Roman turn and stare.
Alexander grinned and then sighed again. He looked almost melancholy.
“What is it?” I asked him. The Iberians were now kicking in rhythm, narrowly missing a matron out walking her dog. The dog barked frantically, yap-yapping as little dogs tend to do.
The Iberians all stopped and stared. Small dogs were not at all common in Iberia.
“What is this?” asked one, bending over and peering at the curly-haired pet. To get a better look, he reached down and picked up the dog by its tail, making it screech.
The others gathered around, ignoring the fuss the woman was putting up. She was nearly purple. “Put my Popsia down right now!” she cried, waving her arms.
“What is a Popsia? Is it a cat?” asked one of the big men.
“What can it be? It’s quite unique! Look, all those curls! Where did you find it?” asked another Iberian to the Roman woman.
The woman snatched her dog out of his hands and hurried down the street, muttering angrily about barbarians and how Rome was going to come to a bad end if they didn’t crush them all now, immediately, before they overran the city completely. “Get civilized!” was her parting shot to the bemused Iberians.
The tour-guide came back to get the Iberians, hastily explaining to them that small dogs were cherished pets and that they were not to bother them in the future.
“Is it in the rules?” asked the tallest Iberian, the one who’d started the singing. “Rule number thirty six, no holding cherished pets by their tails on public streets!” He mimicked the policeman perfectly, causing his friends to howl in delight.
The tour guide started to get a haunted look.
Plexis and Axiom were waiting impatiently with the Egyptians, the Gauls having abandoned the tour to find something for lunch. Paul, Alexander and I were standing nearby, watching the antics of the Iberians and wondering who would get fined first. Alexander wanted to bet, making me retort that he was getting as bad as the Roman soldiers were. Paul giggled and said he was betting on the tall fellow, and father and son put their heads together to decide how much they would bet, and what the loser would have to do.
We set out again, Plexis and Axiom listening carefully to the guide, the Egyptians walking in single file and not making any comments about anything at all, then the Iberians, Paul and Alexander, and me, bringing up the rear. I was content to walk slowly, savoring the sights and smells, listening sometimes to the guide and sometimes to the Iberians. They were wondering where they could get a good dinner and asked the guide to recommend a restaurant. We were not far from a small bar, called a thermopolia, which sold cups of wine and pickled fish and eels. There were also different sorts of bread, some cheese, and a choice of fresh fruit. We all elected to stop and have lunch, and so we ate, standing up at the counter.
That was my introduction to Rome and I thought I could probably get to like it. The city was clean and spacious, the citizens on the whole were pleasant, and the food was, well, interesting.