A Byzantine Trade

Submitted into Contest #192 in response to: Set your story at an antique roadshow.... view prompt

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Historical Fiction

Being in a traveling antique roadshow, one learns to keep a close eye on the competition. Especially the Greens, they organize this roadshow, but have been against me from the beginning.


Across the aisle, a young man looks disappointed with whatever Isaac had to offer him, and heads my way. There’s a good chance Isaac—not as educated as I—might not have discerned the cultural nuance of the historical antiquity the young man is trying to sell.


When he approaches, he shyly avoids my gaze yet looks hopeful. “My grandfather says this is valuable.”


The look on his face is that of so many that bring their scraps of ceramic and flaking paintings in, hoping a sudden windfall could change their lives. He holds out his hand, fingers clenched around something. 


“Show it to me.” I nod.


He shudders as if struggling to find the will to unclench his fingers. When he does, a whitish sparkle of a silver coin shows itself.


”Let me have a look.”


“No tricks,” he says, hesitating, still uncertain. His eyes show a hint of green that match his Macedonian features.


I confirm again there will be absolutely no trickery, then, finally, he hands it to me to have a look.


I barely contain my excitement. “That is a Magnus Maximus on the front, and the goddess Britannia on the back! This is a coin from the 300s!”


“Magnus, who?”


“Magnus Maximum, the last Roman ruler of Britannia. These coins were minted to commemorate his rule. But he got too big for his boots, took his army to Italy to usurp the throne, and that was the ens of him. Cut down by Emperor Valentinian II in 387 AD.”


Perhaps I let on too much of my excitement, the Green party merchants eye me warily. Better to keep one's cards hidden in the antique business.


I pay more for than I should for the Britannia coin to an uneducated village boy. But I’ll be able to sell it back home for 5x as much.


Later that night, sitting next to the fire, I show the coin to Isaac. It sparkles in the light of the fire.


“It's amazing to think they had the technology to produce coins with these portraits on them more than a hundred years ago.”


Isaac lights a bronze oil lamp and takes a closer look. “A Magnus Maximum. And yes, we are lucky to have been born in the 500s, when everything is much more advanced than back then.”


“When I get back to the capital, this coin should get some attention. I might even be able to have it assessed it by one of Justinian courtiers for the Imperial Collection.”


“Good luck with that.” 


“What?”


Isaac smirks. “Do you really want to know? I thought you Blues know everything.” 


Any chance Isaac gets, he gets in a dig at my political affiliation back home. Just about everything in life at the capital is a debate between the Blues and the Greens. Our sporting teams, celebrities, music, even the way we button our tunics. 


“Everything goes back to me being a Blue for you. Just because my father is a landowner doesn’t make me an idiot.”


“The Greens,” he says, pointing at himself. ”We’re the one that do the real work.”


“You’re on that track again,” I say. ”The coin. What’s up with the coin?”


“It’s probably a fake. The villagers told me that boy isn’t from this area, his accent is different.”


“They talk to you?”


“It’s all about paying the right people.” He mimes holding a coin in his fingers.


That’s something I wouldn’t do. Bribe villagers to turn each other in.


I look at the silver coin in my hand. It looks real. Maybe I can prove Issac wrong. I scratch the edge of the coin with my knife. The silver rubs off and underneath I see the dull gray of tin.


“They baited you. Timor deesse foras,” he says in Latin. “That boy and whoever his master is out there.” Isaac waves his dinner knife into the darkness of the woods.


It’s like a stab to my heart.


“So, you thought a guy like me doesn’t know some Latin?” Isaac says, “Timor deesse foras. FOMO. They knew a little country squire like you, just couldn’t stop but falling for a Britannia coin. And in Macedonia? How could you ever believe that?” Issac slaps his thigh and laughs uproariously. 


My face burns red. I want to strangle him, slit his throat. But I’ll never survive that. All the Greens here will stick a knife into me in seconds. I have to swallow my pride. “I’m going to strangle that boy!”


“The boy is long gone,” Isaac says. Seeing where I’m going with this, he adds, “And you can’t take on the whole village.”


Even though I hate Isaac and all the other Greens, I need them. The villagers would happily rob us and throw all of us merchants into a ravine, if we aren’t willing to fight to protect each other.


In the city, it's blues versus greens. In the countryside, it's city folk versus country folk. Where there’s slaves, it’s all freemen versus slaves. And when the barbarians of the north attack, it’s all of us: blues, greens, slaves, city folk and country folk, against them.


I tell Isaac, “All we have is each other,” and chuckle from the bitter irony. 


“Don’t feel so bad. Your dad can give you a hundred of those coins, the real ones, with his land and earnings.”


“Ha ha. Like you know so much about my Dad. I won’t get any of that until he’s dead. And that could be a long wait. Everyone is living a lot longer in the 500s, with modern medicine, than they did in the 400s. Some people even make it up to 40.”


The next day we set up the market in town again. I’ve lost a third of my savings buying the fake coin but I still have my pride. I stand tall and welcome every visitor in their local dialect. I’ll never admit it to Isaac–he may be onto something–but perhaps I should be more humble. Connect to the people. I need to work my way out of this. 


I buy a Macedonian samian vessel from the 490s. Then a few of the 460s blue mosaics that are trending in Constantinople. Surrounded by Greens–commerce being their occupation–I have to hear dirty jokes and vulgarity all day. I daydream how I’ll find my holy grail and get a step ahead of them someday.


The mosquitos are biting. Most of the local people who travelled to Ethios for the market have already went home. Maybe having found whatever they were looking for. Without the smoke from their fires, it's been a long day battling against the mosquitos.


I scratch and itch at dinner time. Isaac is covered in bites, but suffers quietly. 

A horseman arrives with a message. It’s for Isaac. He’s an ignorant thug, but well-connected. 


“I have a favor to ask.” He hands me the scroll and a bronze coin.


In the light of the oil lamp, I begin to read it aloud:


Isaac, I’m sending you this letter in case I don’t survive the night. Justianian has been useless at resolving the differences between the Blues and the Greens. It got so bad, the crowd started the palace on fire, And appointed a new Emperor. It’s a wild time to be alive! But then the Emperor paid gold to whoever was willing to leave and go home, which was mostly the blues…But, two hours later the Imperial Guard came out and slaughtered everyone left outside the palace no matter what their color. Blues and greens. Another thing, because of all fires, half the capital has burned down. Your father’s home still stands, but Regio 5, 8 and 9 are all gone. I’m thinking it’s about time we all forget about this color business and our petty differences, it won’t mean anything five years from now anyway. 18th January 532 AD.


My hands shake, wondering what this means for our future. “The capital burnt to the ground?”  


“Umm.” Isaac stares at the ground, lost in thought. 


I think about my family, and recall that my father’s estates are outside the city walls, probably safe.


Isaac mumbles, “The ones that have money probably need new home furnishings if everything has been burned.”


“Yes, and gold doesn’t burn.”


“No, it doesn’t. You are catching on.” 


I propose a suggestion, “How about we take a swing through the Southern provinces and pick up furniture before we head back to see what’s left of Constantinople?”


“That’s a smart idea.” Isaac scans the twenty merchants sitting around the fire with us, “Let’s get all of them on board.” 


“After a big payday, maybe next year, I could get out of this,” I say. “I think I’m stuck in a rut.”


“Trade will never be your thing because you are a…” he bites his tongue. “Sorry. You do like to spend your mornings reading those scrolls. After this, you should use your father’s connections, land a job in the capital. Maybe someday, you could write about our history, so people of future generations will know what happened.”


“I'd like that.”

April 08, 2023 02:22

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10 comments

Richard E. Gower
14:17 Apr 10, 2023

Humanity hasn't changed a great deal in almost 1500 years, has it? 😀 This was a terrific allegorical piece, beautifully executed. Not to mention that it meets the prompt in a walk. -:) Cheers! RG

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14:29 Apr 10, 2023

Yes, I think every generation thinks we're the special ones. I'm sure they thought the same way back then. Too bad I didn't catch all the typos in this but happy you enjoyed it.

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Richard E. Gower
14:48 Apr 10, 2023

We'd all like to catch the typos that sometimes hide there in the weeds, but, to me, they're like the little stone one occasionally finds in a package of dried beans, You don't throw out the whole package...-:)

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Martin Ross
19:00 Apr 09, 2023

You’ve practically created a new crossover subgenre — the economic crime/fantasy/historical story. The impact of currency and economic systems across eras and cultures, with the tangy flavor of roguery, would make for an awesome collection. The colloquialisms and tone here underline how universal the profit incentive, greed, and the sociopolitical ramifications of them are.

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14:31 Apr 10, 2023

Thanks for reading, when I saw the prompt, I immediately thought there must have been antique roadshows... in antiquity. Happy you picked up on how I didn't try to distance the past with old-timey language as most historical fictions does, I'm sure every new generation in history felt just as modern as we do.

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Lily Finch
04:04 Apr 08, 2023

Hey Scott, a great tale. In the historical past and then an earlier historical past. Nicely done. The old trick with the antiques at the Roadshow routine. They stood a better chance back then than now of fooling people out of their money for valuable treasures. There was a lot of repetition of the Blues and the Greens in this story. I get it. it's been a long day battling with the mosquitos. - battling against? The historical references scattered throughout the story are excellent milieu. Your idea is interesting - a boy takes advanta...

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05:25 Apr 08, 2023

Thanks for reading, needed to put the draft up before the deadline, will see if I can smooth it out a bit, I don't really like the having those two colors pop up constantly either as they don't have a lot of depth in the story.

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Lily Finch
12:54 Apr 08, 2023

Maybe mention them as enemies and them other names for opponents. Otherwise good. LF6.

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Michał Przywara
20:39 Apr 10, 2023

Great take on the prompt. Of course, what an antique is, is entirely relative. And the irony is, a counterfeit silver coin used to defraud a 500 CE Roman merchant probably *would* have historical value today :) As others have pointed out, some universal truths here. We'll chase the dollar and maintain our petty squabbles, until a cataclysm forces us to acknowledge the bigger picture - even if only temporarily. And then we'll find a way to make a buck off that too :)

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03:47 Apr 08, 2023

An antique 'antique roadshow' based during the time period of the 532 AD Nika Riots in Constantinople, in which opposing "blue" and "green" sporting fans fell into a riot, with then turned into a 5-day revolution, and left half of the capital burned to the ground and almost ended the Byzantine Empire nine hundred years early. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nika_riots

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