I set a creative-writing exercise for my first-year Martial seminar today, but then ended up thinking it'd only be fair if I made myself have a go at it as well. The following came to me on the walk into work, and was a welcome distraction from proper work I should have been doing this afternoon instead. It mashes up Martial with a modern pop-cultural icon, and the students laughed in all the right places:
The night brings a cool breeze to the terrace of the Villa Martialis, perched high above the City on the Janiculan ridge. The slaves are sweeping up the remains of this evening’s dinner – just a few close friends for once. It would not do for Julius Martialis, playboy billionaire, to dine alone or in anything less than excellent style. Little feathers of figpeckers cooked in pepper jostle with crumbs of couscous, Picene olives, and a stray slice of Lucanian sausage, sticky with porridge. The dogs will eat well tonight. My own hunger is not so easily sated. I descend the hidden stair. Only Alfenus knows of it; my faithful butler. He guards my secret. I emerge into the cave, kick off the red slippers, shed the fistful of rings and purple-edged toga – the costume of the carefree young aristocrat. Julius Martialis is a name honoured in the rolls of our patrician order, but the public man is the disguise; he is a hollow shell that I wear. Naked, I see myself in the copper mirror only for a moment. Then I don my other mask. It is time.
As Marcus Valerius, I descend into the City. A city slowly dying, choking on the cruelty and hypocrisy of its masters. I have studied its crimes and now I turn them against their perpetrators. A dark alley; callous laughter and the smell of urine. I reach beneath my threadbare toga to the utility belt. The little scroll of papyrus is swiftly posted up –
Tongilianus, mightn’t people think you’ve torched your own house? –
and I slip back into the shadows, taking a circuitous route by the Tiburtine Column as I make for my dead-letter drop on the Esquiline. The cobbles of the steep climb from the Subura are filthy and run with moisture but my feet are sure. I lift the loose paver and it’s there – Rufus has come through for me again. Fresh dirt on the man at the top, the kingpin. Domitian squats atop his empire of crime, perched obscenely like some ungainly bird from farthest Arctic poles. He owns this City; its police and army are in his pocket. His word is law. Gordonius is a good urban prefect, he shares my anger but can do nothing; the law confines him. I do what he can’t.
Another alley, another poster – Apicius, rumour has it you’re bad-mouthing.
Nothing on Domitian; not yet. I must play the long game. ‘Martial’ the cute satirist butters him up: Lord and God; Censor-in-Chief; Rome has you to thank because her morals are clean. When I do come for him, I will come with every weapon of satire at my disposal. Rufus – the first Rufus – will be avenged. Puer Mirabilis, I called him: my Boy Wonder… until Cappadocia. A sudden illness, they said, these things happen; but I knew. Another bears the name now. He is a good soldier. He honours me. I will not fail him again. And if I fall, another will take my place. There are rumours of a new crimefighter from Aquinum: Juvenal, they are calling him. Like me, he works alone.
Fifteen years now since I began my war. The shock news from Spain: my parents dead; and then Erotion. So young; so brilliant. Her eyes missed nothing. This girl, father Fronto and mother Flacilla, I commit to your care… Five years old and the message could not have been plainer. A man in your position has so much to lose. Think of your family, your clan. You have people who care about you. We can get to them any time. And it was then I knew I had to assume the mask – the mask of satire. My persona protects those close to me. As ‘Martial’, I can do what Julius Martialis never could. I slip invisibly into the great houses of my enemies, men who would bow to me at the emperor’s court but who cannot see past the thin, worn toga of a sleep-deprived client. And everywhere I gather my evidence: Galla put seven husbands in the ground, and then she married you, Picentinus; I guess she wants to follow them.
Fifteen years since I found the cave beneath the library of the villa, and realised what I had to become:
My parents are dead; Erotion is dead; Julius is dead. I must disguise my terror. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. My disguise must strike terror. I shall become a creature. I shall become a satirist.
I move silently into the Forum of Caesar, reach for another little scroll:
You send presents to old folks and widows, Gargilianus, and for that you want me to call you a big benefactor?
Something tells me to stop with the first couplet. I don’t listen to it. And then I am away into the shadows. The torchlight is gone and the dark night returns.