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“To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.”-Psalm LXI.

As the day wore on, trade became more brisk and the work of the lictors more arduous, for the crowd was dense and the bargain-hunters eager to push to the front.

Now a bronze-skinned artisan with slender limbs and narrow tapering hands was attracting attention.  He was standing on the platform, passive and indifferent, apparently unconscious alike of the scorching sun which bit into his bare flesh, as of the murmurs of the dealers round him and the eloquence of the African up on the rostrum, who was shouting himself hoarse in praise of his wares.

“A leather worker from Hispania,” he thundered with persuasive rhetoric, “his age but two dozen years, his skill unequalled on either bank of the Tiber ...  A tunic worked by him is softer than the fleeciest wool, and the sheath of a dagger becomes in his hands as hard as steel....  Good health and strength, two thousand sesterces were a poor price to pay for the use of these skilled hands....  Two thousand sesterces....  His lordship’s grace, the censor Arminius Quirinius paid four thousand for him....”

He paused a moment whilst a couple of Jews from Galilee, in long dark robes and black caps covering their shaggy hair, turned critically round this paragon from Hispania, lifted his hands and gazed on each finger-tip as if trying to find traces on these of that much-vaunted skill.

“Two thousand sesterces, kind sirs, and you will have at your disposal the talent of a master in the noble art of leather working; pouches and coverings for your chairs, caskets and sword-hilts, nothing comes amiss to him....  Come! shall we say two thousand sesterces?”

The Jews were hesitating.  With a rapid glance of their keen, deep-set eyes they consulted one with the other, whilst their long bony fingers wandered hesitatingly to the wallets at their belts.

“Two thousand sesterces!” urged the auctioneer, as he looked with marked severity on the waverers.

He himself received a percentage on the proceeds of the sale, a few sesterces mayhap that would go to swell the little hoard which ultimately would purchase freedom.  The scribes stilet in hand waited in patient silence.  The praefect, indifferent to the whole transaction, was staring straight in front of him, like one whose thoughts are strangers to his will.

“One thousand we’ll give,” said one of the Jews timidly.

“Nay! an you’ll not give more, kind sirs,” quoth the auctioneer airily, “this paragon among leather workers will bring fortune to your rival dealers....”

“One thousand,” repeated one of the intending purchasers, “and no more.”

The African tried persuasion, contempt, even lofty scorn; he threatened to withdraw the paragon from the sale altogether, for he knew of a dealer in leather goods over in Corinth who would give two fingers of his own hand for the exclusive use of those belonging to this Hispanian treasure.

But the Jews were obstinate.  With the timid obstinacy peculiar to their race, they stuck to their point and refused to be enticed into purposeless extravagance.

In the end the wonderful worker in leather was sold to the Jew traders from Galilee for the sum of one thousand sesterces; his dark face had expressed nothing but stolid indifference whilst the colloquy between the purchasers and the auctioneer had been going on.

The next piece of goods however was in more pressing demand; a solid German, with massive thorax half-hidden beneath a shaggy goatskin held in at the waist by a belt; his hairy arms bare to the shoulder, his gigantic fists clenched as if ready to fell an ox.

A useful man with plough or harrow, he was said to be skilled in smith’s work too.  After a preliminary and minute examination of the man’s muscles, of his teeth, of the calves of his legs, bidding became very brisk between an agriculturist from Sicilia and a freedman from the Campania, until the praefect himself intervened, desiring the slave for his own use on a farm which he had near Ostia.

Some waiting-maids from Judaea fetched goodly money; an innkeeper of Etruria bought them, for they were well-looking and knew how to handle and carry wine jars without shaking up the costly liquor; and the negroes were sought after by the lanistae for training to gladiatorial combats.

Scribes were also in great demand for copying purposes.  The disseminators of the news of the day were willing to pay high prices for quick shorthand writers who had learned their business in the house of Arminius the censor.

In the meanwhile the throng in the Forum had become more and more dense.  Already one or two gorgeously draped litters had been seen winding their way in from the Sacra Via or the precincts of the temples, their silken draperies making positive notes of brilliant colour against the iridescent whiteness of Phrygian marble walls.

The lictors now had at times to use their flails against the crowd.  Room had to be made for the masters of Rome, the wealthy and the idle, who threw sesterces about for the gratification of their smallest whim, as a common man would shake the dust from his shoes.

Young Hortensius Martius, the rich patrician owner of five thousand slaves, had stepped out of his litter, and a way being made for him in the crowd by his men, he had strolled up to the rostrum, and mounting its first gradient he leaned with studied grace against the block of white marble, giving to the common herd below the pleasing spectacle of a young exquisite, rich and well-favoured-his handsome person carefully perfumed and bedecked after the morning bath, his crisp fair hair daintily curled, his body clad in a tunic of soft white wool splendidly worked in purple stripes, the insignia of his high patrician state.

He passed a languid eye over the bundle of humanity spread out for sale at his feet and gave courteous greeting to the praefect.

“Thou art early abroad, Hortensius Martius,” quoth Taurus Antinor in response; “’tis not often thou dost grace the Forum with thy presence at this hour.”

“They told me it would be amusing,” replied young Hortensius lazily, “but methinks that they lied.”

He yawned, and with a tiny golden tool he began picking his teeth.

“What did they tell thee?” queried the other, “and who were they that told?”

“There was Caius Nepos and young Escanes, and several others at the bath.  They were all talking about the sale.”

“Are they coming hither?”

“They will be here anon; but some declared that much rubbish would have to be sold ere the choice bargains be put up.  Escanes wants a cook who can fry a capon in a special way they wot of in Gaul.  Stuffed with ortolans and covered with the juice of three melons-Escanes says it is mightily pleasing to the palate.”

“There is no cook from Gaul on the list,” interposed the praefect curtly.

“And Caius Nepos wants some well-favoured girls to wait on his guests at supper to-morrow.  He gives a banquet, as thou knowest.  Wilt be there, Taurus Antinor?”

He had spoken these last words in a curious manner which suggested that some significance other than mere conviviality would be attached to the banquet given by Caius Nepos on the morrow.  And now he drew nearer to the praefect and cast a quick glance around him as if to assure himself that the business of the sale was engrossing everyone’s attention.

“Caius Nepos,” he said, trying to speak with outward indifference, “asked me to tell thee that if thou wilt come to his banquet to-morrow thou wilt find it to thine advantage.  Many of us are of one mind with regard to certain matters and could talk these over undisturbed.  Wilt join us, Taurus Antinor?” he added eagerly.

“Join you,” retorted the other with a grim smile, “join you in what? in this senseless folly of talking in whispers in public places?  The Forum this day is swarming with spies, Hortensius Martius.  Hast a wish to make a spectacle for the plebs on the morrow by being thrown to a pack of tigers for their midday meal?”

And with a nod of his head he pointed up to the rostrum where the dusky auctioneer had momentarily left off shouting and had thrown himself flat down upon the matting, ostensibly in order to speak with one of the scribes on the tier below, but who was in reality casting furtive glances in the direction where Hortensius Martius stood talking with the praefectus.

“These slaves,” said Taurus Antinor curtly, “all belong to the imperial treasury; their peculium is entirely made up of money gained through giving information-both false and true.  Have a care, O Hortensius Martius!”

But the other shrugged his shoulders with well-studied indifference.  It was not the mode at this epoch to seem anything but bored at all the circumstances of public and private life in Rome, at the simple occurrences of daily routine or at the dangers which threatened every man through the crazy whims of a demented despot.

It had even become the fashion to accept outwardly and without the slightest show of interest the wild extravagances and insane debaucheries of the ferocious tyrant who for the nonce wielded the sceptre of the Caesars.  The young patricians of the day looked on with apparent detachment at his excesses and the savage displays of unbridled power of which he was so inordinately fond, and they affected a lofty disregard for the horrible acts of injustice and of cruelty which this half-crazy Emperor had rendered familiar to the citizens of Rome.

Nothing in the daily routine of life amused these votaries of fashion-nothing roused them from their attitude of somnolent placidity, except perhaps some peculiarly bloody combat in the arena-one of those unfettered orgies of lust of blood which they loved to witness and which have for ever disgraced the glorious pages of Roman history.

Then horror would rouse them for a brief moment from their apathy, for they were not cruel, only satiated with every sight, every excitement and luxury which their voluptuous city and the insane caprice of the imperator perpetually offered them; and they thirsted for horrors as a sane man thirsts for beauty, that it might cause a diversion in the even tenor of their lives, and mayhap raise a thrill in their dormant brains.

Therefore even now, when apparently he was toying with his life, Hortensius Martius did not depart outwardly from the attitude of supercilious indifference which fashion demanded.  They were all actors, these men, always before an audience, and even among themselves they never really left off acting the part which they had made so completely their own.

But that the indifference was only on the surface was evidenced in this instance by the young exquisite’s scarce perceptible change of position.  He drew away slightly from the praefect and anon said in a loud tone of voice so that all around him might hear: 

“Aye! as thou sayest, Taurus Antinor, I might find a dwarf or some kind of fool to suit me.  Mine are getting old and dull.  Ye gods, how they bore me at times!”

And it was in a whisper that he added: 

“Caius Nepos specially desired thy presence at supper to-morrow, O Taurus Antinor!  He feared that he might not get speech with thee anon, so hath asked me to make sure of thy presence.  Thou’lt not fail us?  There are over forty of us now, all prepared to give our lives for the good of the Empire.”

The praefect made no reply this time; his attention was evidently engrossed by some close bidding over a useful slave, but as Hortensius now finally turned away from him, his dark eyes under the shadow of that perpetual frown swept over the figure of the young exquisite, from the crown of the curled and perfumed head to the soles of the daintily shod feet, and a smile of contempt not altogether unkind played round the corners of his firm lips.

“For the good of the Empire?” he murmured under his breath as he shrugged his broad shoulders and once more turned his attention to his duties.

Hortensius in the meanwhile had spied some of his friends.  Gorgeously embroidered tunics could now be seen all the time pushing their way through the more common crowd, and soon a compact group of rich patricians had congregated around the rostra.

They had come one by one-from the baths mostly-refreshed and perfumed, ready to gaze with fashionable lack of interest on the spectacle of this public auction.  They had exchanged greetings with the praefect and with Hortensius Martius.  They all knew one another, were all members of the same caste, the ruling caste of Rome.  Young Escanes was now there, he who wanted a cook, and Caius Nepos-the praetorian praefect who was in search of pretty waiting-maids.

“Hast had speech with Anglicanus?” asked the latter in a whisper to Hortensius.

“Aye! a few words,” replied the other, “but he warned me of spies.”

“Will he join us, thinkest thou?”

“I think that he will sup with thee, O Caius Nepos, but as to joining us in -”

“Hush!” admonished the praetorian praefect, “Taurus Antinor is right.  There are spies all around here to-day.  But if he comes to supper we’ll persuade him, never fear.”

And with a final significant nod the two men parted and once more mixed with the crowd.

More than one high-born lady now had ordered her bearers to set her litter down close to the rostrum whence she could watch the sale, and mayhap make a bid for a purchase on her own account; the rich Roman matrons with large private fortunes and households of their own, imperious and independent, were the object of grave deference and of obsequious courtesy-not altogether unmixed with irony, on the part of the young men around them.

They did not mix with the crowd but remained in their litters, reclining on silken cushions, their dark tunics and richly coloured stoles standing out in sombre notes against the more gaily-decked-out gilded youth of Rome, whilst their serious and oft-times stern manner, their measured and sober speech, seemed almost set in studied opposition to the idle chattering, the flippant tone, the bored affectation of the outwardly more robust sex.

And among them all Taurus Antinor, praefect of Rome, with his ruddy hair and bronzed skin, his massive frame clad in gorgeously embroidered tunic, his whole appearance heavy and almost rough, in strange contrast alike to the young decadents of the day as to the rigid primness of the patrician matrons, just as his harsh, even voice seemed to dominate the lazy and mellow trebles of the votaries of fashion.

The auctioneer had in the meanwhile cast a quick comprehensive glance over his wares, throwing an admonition here, a command there.

“That yellow hair-let it hang, woman! do not touch it I say....  Slip that goatskin off thy loins, man ...  By Jupiter ’tis the best of thee thou hidest....  Hold thy chin up girl, we’ll have no doleful faces to-day.”

Sometimes his admonition required more vigorous argument.  The praefect was appealed to against the recalcitrant.  Then the harsh unimpassioned voice with its curious intonation in the pronouncing of the Latin words, would give a brief order and the lictor’s flail would whizz in the air and descend with a short sharp whistling sound on obstinately bowed shoulder or unwilling hand, and the auctioneer would continue his perorations.

“What will it please my lord’s grace to buy this day?  A skilled horseman from Dacia?...  I have one....  A pearl....  He can mount an untamed steed and drive a chariot in treble harness through the narrowest streets of Rome....  He can ...  What-no?-not a horseman to-day?... then mayhap a hunchback acrobat from Pannonia, bronzed as the tanned hide of an ox, with arms so long that his finger-nails will scrape the ground as he runs; he can turn a back somersault, walk the tight-rope, or ...  Here, Pipus the hunchback, show thine ugly face to my lord’s grace, maybe thou’lt help to dissipate the frown between my Lord’s eyes, maybe my lord’s grace will e’en smile at thine antics....  Turn then, show thy hump, ’tis worth five hundred sesterces, my lord ... turn again ... see my lord, is he not like an ape?”

My lord was smiling, so the auctioneer prattled on, and the deformed creature upon the catasta wound his ill-shapen body into every kind of contortion, grinning from ear to ear, displaying the malformation of his spine, and the hideousness of his long hairy arms, whilst he uttered weird cries that were supposed to imitate those of wild animals in the forest.

These antics caused my lord to smile outright.  He was willing to expend two thousand sesterces in order to have such a creature about his house, to have him ready to call when his guests seemed dull between the courses of a sumptuous meal.  The deal was soon concluded and the hunchback transferred from the platform to the keeping of my lord’s slaves, and thence to my lord’s household.