THE TOWN OF SMOKE AND FIRE
I know how both Owongus and Mirumtia felt as they trundled on their cart, towed by a half-dead mule, into the seaside town of Pompeii because I was taken to the seaside as a boy and felt very much the same. Pompeii, though, would have been better than a Roman version of Skegness. Owongus and Mirumtia, you will recall, were distant ancestors of mine and were, at the time, the latest is a rich retinue of my forebears to have graced these pages.
Pompeii was a town in which the rich and famous and not so rich and not so famous had villas or second homes in which to enjoy the long Italian summer months and paddle in what would one day be known as the Bay of Naples. The two slaves looked around them as they passed by a majestic collection of smart buildings and smarter people. Sceptus kept his face stony and unreadable. He clearly didn't like the idea of being a poor relation in a rich town. Back in Rome he'd been a well-known servant of the Temple, and as such had been respected even if he had spilt fish-soup down his toga in the morning and still gave off a a whiff of the stuff as night fell.
At the end of the street, and in the distance, loomed a mountain. It would have been an awesome sight even if it hadn't been wreathed by a smoky cloud that can only have been created by the mountain itself. It's sides were verdant with the product of vineyards, for the rich volcanic soil was a perfect medium for the growing of grapes.
“That's Vesuvius,” muttered Sceptus, “and they say it's a pretty sight in the evenings, against the dark of the sky, but I don't trust it.”
“Why, sir?” asked Owongus. Since he had been threatened with two sound floggings on their return to Rome he was trying to be as sycophantic as possible, not that he liked bowing and scraping before men like Sceptus, but he did treasure his own skin and wanted it to stay in place.
Sceptus didn't reply immediately but looked around him frowning. Slaves were everywhere, made evident by their plain tunics and purposeful gaits. The rich may not have hurried, but taken their time going along exciting and vibrant streets, pausing every so often to laugh and joke with an acquaintance, but the slaves were invariably in a hurry. Theirs was to bustle whilst their owners laughed and teased each other, fat men stroked the backsides of fine ladies who blushed and cooed in response, and made suggestive gestures whether anyone was looking or not. Everywhere the dichotomy was painfully obvious, and had it not been for his Temple robes Owongus thought that his own Master Sceptus resembled more the slave class than the Citizens.
“The damn mountain's a volcano,” replied Sceptus after a pause. “They say it's safe enough, that it's never so much as grumbled in living memory, but every time I come here it troubles me. It's not natural, and that's a fact. It makes the ground shake, which is part of the reason we're here: to repair its mischief at the Temple. We're to get to the damned place, do what we can to shore it up, and get home to Rome where, my young miscreant, you will be flogged to within an inch of your life - twice. I haven't forgotten even if you think I have!”
Owongus scowled at the back of his Master and felt like comparing the compassion of the god they were supposed to serve with unwarranted floggings, but then he remembered there was little about Janus that was compassionate, and he said nothing. After all, that particular god presided over endings, even the endings of lives, and was often quoted at many of the executions by which the authorities maintained control. Fear of death, of a personal ending, is a great moderator when it comes to thoughts of rebellion.
“That's cruel,” murmured Mirumtia.
Sceptus turned and scowled at her. “You got something to say?” he barked.
“Flogging poor Owongus. He works so hard... he deserves better.” she said, almost defiantly.
Sceptus' face turned almost puce.
“Listen, slave-bitch!” he hissed, his attitude towards her undergoing a huge metamorphosis in the most fleeting of instants, changing from a pervert wanting to touch her flesh to a Master with power over life and death. “Owongus is a slave. He is my property. Temple funds paid for him. He will work that debt off, and be flogged if I say so. His life, and yours don't forget, both of your lives are in my hands!”
Mirumtia was shocked by the outburst. She knew that, as a female, she was in a better position than was Owongus, especially when under the control of a man like Sceptus, but maybe she had pushed any privilege offered by her gender too far.
“You will be flogged too!” snapped Sceptus. “But first, Miss Prim Britannia, you will be shagged! Thoroughly and by as many servants of Janus willing to expose their parts to you that I can find! Think on that, young bitch, and despair!”
© Peter Rogerson 22.07.12