The crowd in the Forum falls silent as the Consul comes down the hill, towards the Speaker’s Platform. He looks at the ground as he walks, a thoughtful expression wrinkling his brow, as if he imagines posing for a statue of himself at this critical moment. The young slave, who has been posted near the Senate House steps, straightens up and shifts nearer to the platform, along with everyone else, and tiny noises of movement swell to a whisper that runs through the crowd then dies away as the Consul faces the people of Rome and opens his mouth to speak. Torches – for it is nearly dark now –hiss and spit and light individual faces which seem to spring out of the crowd, eyes narrow with concentration or wide and frightened. The Consul seems about to speak but checks himself and takes a deep breath.
The slave is now at the front of the crowd and hopes that everyone will keep calm. He wishes the Consul would get on with it, instead of dramatising the occasion still further. He watches the lines across the Consul’s brow as they deepen slightly, and waits, wondering briefly how the Great Man could possibly deliver yet another memorable speech at the end of this year of speeches. He knows what news the Consul has to deliver – everyone knows it. It is a question of how he says it, and the slave concentrates, knowing that he will have to repeat as much as he can remember when he gets home.
“Vixerunt,” says the Consul very clearly, and pauses. The crowd sigh, and then hush again, and the slave shivers. But the Consul is turning, going down the steps once more. The crowd begin to talk excitedly and the slave feels his mouth open in surprise. “They have lived!” A single word – didn’t the occasion demand more? Surely Marcus Tullius Cicero, greatest orator in Rome, could have dredged up a few florid phrases to commemorate the most important day in his career? No – so perish all enemies of Rome and not even their epitaphs are allowed to commemorate their deeds.
It takes the slave a long time to get out of the Forum, because of the numbers of people moving slowly, as if no one wants to leave. Once on the road up the Caelian Hill, however, he moves quickly and even runs along the little side street leading to the Sestius house. Young Lucius is waiting in the atrium, of course, and so, to his surprise, is the master’s new wife, Cornelia. They both run up to him – there isn’t much unnecessary ceremony in the Sestius household.
“Decius!” cries Cornelia. “Is it...?”
“Are they dead, Decius?” says Lucius, looking very serious.
“Come into the study,” says Cornelia. “There’s some water there for you.”
The woman and child lead him in and fuss around him, making sure that he is comfortable. They sit patiently while he drinks, the only sign of their eagerness the fierce way in which the five-year-old Lucius swings his legs as he sits on a couch that is too high for him.
“They’ve just been executed,” reports Decius. “Cicero has just announced it in the Forum.”
“What did he say?” demands Lucius.
“He just said, “Vixerunt,” says Decius.
“They have lived? That’s a funny thing to say when you’ve just executed someone,” says the boy scornfully.
“It’s the traditional way of announcing an execution,” says Cornelia. “It’s bad luck to mention death itself.”
“Only for Lentulus and the others,” says the boy cheerfully. “And they deserve it for plotting against us all. That’s what Father would say.”
“I’m not sure that your father would say that – not quite. And anyway, you mustn’t think about it anymore,” says Cornelia. “They were wicked men, but now they’ve gone, so we don’t have to worry.”
“But Catilina’s not gone, is he? And Father will have to fight him before he goes,” says the boy. “My tutor says there will be a big battle. Do you think there’ll be a battle, Decius?”
“Yes, I do, Master Lucius,” says Decius. “But I don’t think your father will enjoy it. It isn’t a glorious thing, Romans fighting Romans.”
“I don’t think Father would enjoy any battle,” says Lucius sadly. “He’s not really a fighting sort of person, is he?”
“Your father will do his duty, and that’s what matters,” says Cornelia. “Now you have heard the news, have something to eat – only a snack, mind – and go to bed.”
Obediently, Lucius jumps down from the couch and takes Decius’ hand.
“Have you ever seen Catilina, Decius? Is it true that he really looks monstrous?”
“He is certainly not a monster,” says Cornelia, firmly. “He’s an ordinary man, just like your father, except that Catilina wants to take over the country, which is wrong. Now go to the kitchen and tell Melissa I said you could have a snack. And I don’t want to hear that you’ve been pestering Decius with questions.”
The boy and the slave leave, and their voices and the light patter of their sandals die away as they go off to the kitchens. Cornelia puts her hand on her belly, and sighs. What a time to be having a baby! She thinks of her husband, who has spent the last three months patrolling down in Capua and returned to Rome a week ago only to set off immediately for Etruria where Catilina and his troops are mustering. She crosses to the small shrine in the corner and puts a pinch of incense into the burner, whispering a prayer that the gods will protect Publius Sestius and bring him safely home to his family.