My face burned with humiliation as the other Senators laughed and jeered at me. The entire Senate hall, or curia, as we called it, had turned against me. And the instigator of my shame? Catiline. Who else would it be? That he, an ignorant disgrace to Rome, wished to insult my reputation was no surprise. But that my fellow senators, men of honour and distinction, valued his birth and breeding over my cold logic and flawless rhetoric was a savage blow indeed.
I had just completed a lengthy and thoroughly researched speech detailing why Catiline was completely unfit to hold the lofty office of consul and the dangers he posed to us all. I spoke of his irresponsible character, frequent drunken banquets, and rampant debt. Not to mention the many scandals that come to mind when one hears the name Catiline, including rumours that the vile monster killed his wife, brother, and even his own son.
But did Catiline tremble in fear at my words? No. He laughed. Rising to his feet, he said, ‘Senators, my dear friends, should I sit here and let this bumbling provincial insult my honour? No. Perhaps in Arpinum, it is acceptable to throw around wild accusations without a shred of evidence, but here in Rome, we follow proper legal procedure.’
I leapt up. ‘That’s a lie. I have evidence. Legal documents Catiline arranged, claiming that his brother somehow murdered himself. Obviously, this is proof of a cover-up.’
Catiline didn’t even flinch. He cocked his head. ‘And we are supposed to believe that these decades-old documents simply found their way into my opponent’s hands right before the upcoming elections? I think not. An obvious and disappointing forgery. I thought better of you, Cicero.’
‘Sit down, Cicero,’ one of the consuls, the most senior magistrates in Rome, said. ‘It is Catiline’s turn to speak.’
That was it. No evidence, no logic. Just the simple assertion that enough time has passed since he committed his crimes to prove his innocence. Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Did our noble ancestors forget the crimes of the Carthaginians or the treachery of the Greeks and Macedonians? No. They waited until the time was right to strike, as I did.
Catiline continued. ‘As for our provincial friend’s attitudes towards my lifestyle, I can only assume this comes from his humble beginnings. He clearly doesn’t understand that here in Rome, we possess great wealth and prosperity and that it is only proper to celebrate these things from time to time.’
I wanted to scream. There was so much wrong with his statement. So much I wanted to unpick. Though my family hails from Arpinum, I am a Roman citizen like him. If anything, my values and ideals are far closer to those of Rome’s ancient heroes than his. They didn’t believe in softness and luxury. Modesty and hard work were at the core of their philosophy and were, undoubtedly, the key to their success. Likewise, my family is far wealthier than Catiline’s, what with his mountain of debt. We simply use our funds wisely.
But glancing around the hall, it became clear that far too many agreed with Catiline. As I watched him basking in the approval of his crooked friends, my blood boiled. That fool, with his perfumed oils and preening good looks, stood against everything that made Rome great. I could not allow him to tear our city down. I would not allow it.
I shot to my feet. ‘You must listen to me, this man is a threat to us all. I may have been born in Arpinum, but Roman blood flows through my body as surely as it does through any of yours. If you allow Catiline to be consul, he will destroy the city we love. You must choose me instead.’
Running my eyes over the room, I desperately sought some support. But nobody would meet my gaze. Nobody besides Catiline. He chuckled. ‘I think we’ve all heard quite enough of your baseless whining for one day. Sit down, Chickpea.’
As soon as that word hit my ears, my jaw clenched. Chickpea. A cruel nickname mocking the small growth on my nose. As a wave of tittering broke out across the curia, a shudder ran throughout my body. I could bear it no longer. As soon as the consul called an end to the session, I fled, my cheeks burning.
I dashed down the curia steps, intending to rush across the forum as quickly as I could and get far away from the site of my humiliation. But my sandal slipped, causing me to drop the wax tablets which held my notes. As I crouched down to pick them up, I sensed a presence looming over me. The cloying scent of lavender oil turned my stomach. Catiline.
‘What do you want?’ I said.
He smirked. ‘To thank you, actually.’
‘Oh yes. Your shambolic display gave me the perfect opportunity to show off my rhetoric. Really, I expected better from a man of your reputation.’
I wanted to punch him in his smug little face. ‘It’s hard to win a debate when everyone already has their minds made up.’
He shrugged. ‘Yes, well. Sometimes that’s how the dice fall. You know, I actually respect you, in a way. You’re a new man, the first of your family to reach the Senate. That you’re competing for high office at all is remarkable. Unfortunately, you’ve overreached. You don’t understand how things work in the big city. Here in Rome, it’s not the strength of your words, or the righteousness of your cause, that matters. It’s the depth of your coin purse.’
I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to silence me. ‘Yes, yes. I know. Your family is perfectly wealthy, but what good does that do you if you won’t spend it?’
‘But our ancestors—’
‘But our ancestors,’ he mocked. ‘Yes, our ancestors didn’t flaunt their wealth. They didn’t buy silks and spices from the East or elaborate metalwork from Gaul. They kept their coins invested in the land, nice and safe. But that’s boring. The world moves on, my dear Chickpea, and so must we.’ He leaned in so close that his warm breath tickled my cheek. ‘I can’t wait for you to see the changes I have planned.’
‘Master, master. You must wake up.’
I ignored the voice, keeping my eyes clenched firmly shut as I rested on the couch. A searing pain shot through my head.
‘Master,’ the voice came again.
‘Go away, Tiro,’ I said. ‘I wish to be left alone.’
‘I’m sorry, master, but we have a visitor.’
I opened my eyes, frowning. ‘A visitor? I wasn’t expecting company.’
‘I invited them, master.’
‘What possessed you to do such a thing?’ Though a loyal servant, Tiro, my faithful secretary, possessed the same wild energy as all young men. On occasion, this led him to take rash, unfortunate decisions. This was one of them. After my humiliation at the curia earlier, I had no desire to speak to anyone.
But Tiro was not cowed by my irritation. ‘Please, master. It’s important. I believe it will make you feel much better.’
‘I very much doubt that,’ I said. Then again, I had learned long ago to trust Tiro’s judgement on such matters. He was almost always proved right in the end. I sighed. ‘Very well. Bring them to my study.’
As Tiro strode off to fetch our guests from the atrium, I shuffled into my study and slumped into a chair. I usually loved that room, filled with my scrolls and papers. But on that occasion, I could only think I had spent my whole life working hard for nothing. Thanks to their birth and connections, men like Catiline would always have the better of me.
I was thus in a sombre mood when Tiro returned, accompanied by a rather rough-looking man, his weathered skin marked by scars. My breath caught in my chest. I wasn’t used to receiving visitors from members of the plebian class.
‘Master, I would like to introduce you to Pax. He works for you,’ Tiro said.
Tiro nodded. ‘I hired him to look into Catiline’s affairs.’
My mood changed in an instant. Leaning forwards, I said, ‘And did he find anything?’
‘He certainly did. I think it best he explains.’ Tiro gestured for Pax to step forward and speak.
‘Master Cicero, sir. Me and my boys been following this Catiline fellow for a few weeks now. He gets up to all sorts of mischief and visits places men of his class have no business being.’
My heart fell. Is that it? I thought. ‘I’m aware that Catiline is hardly a model senator. I sincerely hope you have more for me than that.’
Pax nodded eagerly. ‘I do, sir. I do. Last night, we was following Catiline as usual, and we saw him meeting with some real dangerous types. We followed them and ended up at a secret weapon stash. They had the usual daggers and clubs, of course, but also swords, shields, javelins, even armour. Quality stuff, too, like the legions have.’
I froze, my mind reeling. I knew Catiline was shady, but this… this was something else. To be hoarding such a cache within the city limits of Rome itself was deeply disturbing indeed.
‘By the Gods,’ I said. ‘He’s raising a private army.’
Tiro placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘Your mistake wasn’t attacking Catiline, master, but the manner of your attack. In this day and age, many senators are no strangers to scandal or excess. We need something earth-shaking, and I think this might be it.’
‘He said earlier that he couldn’t wait for me to see the changes he planned to make. I hoped it was an empty boast, but it seems he really does have some sort of evil plan.’
‘He does. You were right, master. Catiline is a threat to us all.’
I was right. Yes. I was, wasn’t I? When I tell the Senate—
I pursed my lips. ‘This is all well and good, but we need concrete proof. Nobody will listen to me otherwise.’
Tiro grinned and nodded at Pax. ‘I think that can be arranged.’
That night, I pulled my hooded cloak tight around me as I followed Tiro and Pax through the streets of Rome. They led me far away from the safety of the Palatine hill with its large manors and into the dense labyrinth of the subura. The slums.
I wrinkled my nose at the stench of cheap wine and human excrement. ‘How much further?’
‘Not far,’ Tiro replied. Seeing the look on my face, he added, ‘You could go home, master. We can manage this without you.’
I shook my head. ‘No, I want to see it with my own eyes.’
I could get used to the smell, and I wasn’t truly in any danger. Several of Pax’s men, armed with sturdy clubs and sharp daggers, trailed along behind us. Pax assured me there were more than enough of them to deal with any trouble from Catiline’s people.
After a few more minutes of trudging through the muck, we arrived at a rowdy taverna. Pax led us to a small yard out the back, where we hid in the rafters of a stable. We waited there for about an hour until another group approached. Most of them were of a similar breed to Pax. Hard men. Killers. But one was different. Ringed fingers poked out from the folds of his fine hooded cloak, and he crossed the yard carefully, avoiding any piles of animal muck. Though I couldn’t see his face, I knew. This was the man we wanted.
The group leader pulled the lids off a series of large crates in the yard, gesturing for the well-dressed man to take a look.
‘This is the stuff. Swords, javelins, shields. It’s all there.’
The well-dressed man nodded. ‘Excellent work. My cousin will be pleased.’
‘About that. Did he say how long he wants us to hide it for? My lads are getting jumpy. If we get caught with this sort of gear, Jupiter himself wouldn’t be able to stop the storm of cac coming our way.’
‘It won’t be long now, don’t you worry about that.’
Perfect, I thought. He knows Catiline’s plan, just as we hoped. I glanced around to signal Pax, but there was no need. He’d been listening just as closely as I had.
It happened in a flash. Pax and his men leapt down from the rafters, brandishing their weapons. They charged at the opposing group, taking them completely by surprise. Given this, and our numerical advantage, it took only seconds for Catiline’s men to fall. All but one. The well-dressed man.
Gingerly and with no small amount of help from Tiro, I climbed down from the rafters before crossing the yard to join my men. I grinned as Pax pulled back the well-dressed man’s hood, revealing the pale face of Catiline’s cousin. ‘Hello Fulvius, I heard you might be here.’
He blanched. ‘Ci-Cicero. What are you doing here?’
‘Oh, I think I’ll be asking the questions.’ I pointed at the weapons. ‘What does your cousin intend to do with these?’
Fulvius trembled but shook his head.
‘Come now, Fulvius. It will be much better for you to talk.’
‘Can’t. Catiline would kill me.’
‘Your cousin is the last of your worries right now, believe me. Besides, you shouldn’t feel any loyalty to him. He’s the one that got you into this mess. Where is he, anyway? Why did he send you in his place?’
Again, Fulvius shook his head.
I shrugged. ‘Very well. Perhaps you’d prefer to talk to Pax?’
My hired thug leered at Fulvius, flexing his knuckles.
‘I assure you,’ I said. ‘He can be very persuasive.’
Fulvius’ trembles turned into full-blown spasms. ‘Alright. I’ll talk, I’ll talk. He’s at the temple of Vesta.’
I frowned. ‘The temple of Vesta? What on earth is he doing there?’
As Fulvius explained, the frown on my face turned into the biggest grin of my life.
‘What’s the matter, Cicero? Come to complain that Catiline stole your honey cakes?’
With a smirk on my face, I gazed across the curia at the speaker, one of Catiline’s friends. ‘Laugh now if you wish. I guarantee you won’t be laughing once I’m finished.’ That shut them up.
Turning my attention to the rest of the hall, I said, ‘I apologise for taking up your time so soon after my last speech. But fresh evidence has come to light.’ I brandished a scroll. ‘I have in my hands a declaration made by Catiline’s cousin, Fulvius. It states that Catiline has been stockpiling weapons in preparation to launch an attack against our city.’ The senators erupted at that, forcing me to raise my voice to be heard. ‘Apparently, his debts have gotten so out of control that he sees no choice but to burn Rome to the ground in order to erase them.’
As the consuls called for silence, Catiline sprang to his feet and jabbed a finger at me. ‘Lies. Outrageous lies. You’ve clearly concocted some elaborate scheme to discredit me. Really, Cicero, this is all getting rather pathetic.’
I beamed at him. ‘Do you think so? Perhaps you’d prefer we asked Julia for her testimony?’
Catiline’s face fell.
It turned out that his visit to the temple of Vesta the previous night involved a crime almost as heinous as his plan to burn Rome. He was engaged in an affair with Julia, one of the Vestal Virgins. Except she was a virgin no more, not after Catiline had his way with her. Defiling one of Vesta’s servants was punishable by being buried alive. I had him, and he knew it.
Before I could press home this advantage, however, the consuls called on me to present my evidence. I soon lost myself in describing the details of Catiline’s plot. Nobody laughed this time. They hung on my every word.
In my distraction, I didn’t notice Catiline leave the hall. I only found out later when a breathless messenger dashed in, saying that he had fled the city and was raising an army of debtors and criminals. Wasting no more time for debate, the Senate summoned the legions, and Rome marched to battle.
It didn’t take long for us to secure victory. Catiline’s rag-tag bunch of down-and-outs were no match for the might of Rome’s professional army. However, had I not warned the Senate early of his wicked intentions, things could have turned out oh so differently. That’s a fact I intend to make sure everyone remembers for a very, very long time.