Chapter 2. The Paullian Baths

 

 

Polydius trailed Tiberius by a few paces, quiet in the wake of his preoccupied master. Behind Polydius came the house slave Lysis, who carried a bag slung over his shoulder containing Tiberius’s gear for the baths. Tiberius absent-mindedly stepped around the refuse and waste in the street, no doubt deep in thought about the upcoming meeting with his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher. He had spent the morning with his business manager, trying to grasp how he could ring out a few more sestertii from a very small holding north of the city. Towering in the background, Polydius shook his head imperceptibly as he listened to his master ply the foreman with question after question. Plant more crops; the land will be worn out and yield nothing after five years. Rotate to pasture; your current yields will be halved. Make up the difference by raising more livestock; you can’t grow enough to feed more animals.

Polydius knew that there was only one solution to his master’s troubles, more land. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the capital to purchase more land, and he couldn’t generate it because of the tight budget mandated by the modest earnings from the farm. Polydius sighed to himself, Tiberius had been an excellent student, an enthusiastic explorer of the aesthetic of austerity. But, now he was a practitioner out of necessity. The only thing that would change this dynamic was the Roman way, war, conquest, tribute. Tiberius needed to go to war, which is why he would meet with Appius today.

They made their way out of the shadows of the large apartment buildings flanking the narrow street into an open space, the front of a large plaza with a grand facade of brightly colored columns, different hued, marbled walls, with three arched entryways, the middle one a third larger than the flanking two, signifying it as the main entrance to the Paullian Baths. Tribute from the first Macedonian War 30 years ago had funded the impressive building complex, sponsored by one of the consuls at the time, Lucius Amelius Paullus Macedonicus. Paullus’s natural son Scipio Aemilianus also distinguished himself at his father’s side in the war. Thereafter, Scipio Africanus adopted him, making him Tiberius’s cousin, while his ensuing marriage to Sempronia made him his brother-in-law as well.  Ah, the tortuous lineage of the Romans, Polydius laughed to himself.

Of course, Macedonia always had been generous to Rome, he mused ironically. Twenty years later, the new Roman conqueror Quintus Caecilius Metellus triumphed again in Alexander’s native land, which earned him the honorific Macedonicus as well. Not to be outdone by Paullus, Metellus used some of his spoils to fund Rome’s first ever temples constructed entirely out of marble, one for Jupiter and the other for Juno. He decorated them with statues of Alexander’s generals on horse, also procured from Greece.

The three men headed toward the main entrance, past vendors with sweet cakes and hot meat on sharp sticks, others selling hot water and honey, or wine if preferred. Street prostitutes beckoned from near the grand doorway, kept at a distance by the private guards, who simultaneously accepted regular bribes from high-priced courtesans for access. Tiberius usually headed to the apodyterium to change, and then to the paleastra to train, but this time he sped directly to the hot pool where he knew that his father-in-law would be lounging, no doubt his feet dangling in the hot waters. Lysis took his place in the changing room to guard Tiberius’ belongings, while Polydius followed the young scion down the passageway toward the caldarium. The walls of the arched hallway displayed cheerful murals of family life, and athletes boxing or throwing the javelin. One wall presented a vivid depiction of a lively boar hunt. As they reached the doorway for the hot baths, Tiberius patted a stone phallus on one of the columns for luck.

They peered through the rising steam, searching for Appius among the dozen or so men sitting in and around the rectangular pool. “Tiberius,” Polydius said, pointing to a corner where Appius Claudius Pulcher sat wrapped in a white linen sheet, his feet indeed soaking in the soothing water of the pool. Flushed from the heat, Appius naturally was as brown as a nut, his black hair just barely touched by grey. A handsome man in his day, he shaved regularly to show off his fine features, now lined somewhat by the creases of time and experience.

Tiberius marched over and Appius slowly raised his eyes and opened his arms. Tiberius stepped into the water to embrace the older man, kissing his cheeks as he said, “Dear Father-in-Law.”

“Tiberius, my son,” responded Appius, who kissed him heartily in turn. Tiberius then greeted the other men grouped around Appius: the two brothers, Publius Lincinus Crassus Dives Mucianus, lean and craggy with something of a hangdog face, a princeps senatus like Appius who embraced fastidiousness both in fashion and in political deliberations. His older step-brother Publius Mucius Scaevola impressed in exactly the opposite way, a short, arrogantly handsome and sleekly muscled man who whenever possible enjoyed displaying his physique in short tunics. He also possessed an attraction to money, even though the Crassus family owned one of the great fortunes in Rome.

Gaius Blossius, the philosopher from Cuma, who had studied with the Stoic Antipater of Tarsus, greeted Tiberius warmly in turn. The only one sporting a beard, its reddish tinge and his pale eyes caused Romans to wonder if Blossius’s family blood hadn’t been tainted somewhere along the line by barbarians from the north. Being fair-skinned with black hair, Tiberius was more than familiar with such speculation, though speculation about his origin centered on the Hispancic tribes located in the Alps.

They all took their seats around the pool, Tiberius sitting in the middle next to Appius, noticing that only Diophanes, the rhetorician exiled from Mitylene, had yet to appear. Polydius assumed a standing position just behind his master.

“Your arrival is timely, Tiberius,” said Appius. “We were just discussing the situation in Numantia, and how best to address

Scipio’s obvious ambition.”

Tiberius nodded.

“It’s a difficult matter,” Crassus leaned in to say “since Scipio’s reputation casts the longest shadow in Rome.” The gangly senator’s few remaining strands of hair clung to his skull from perspiration. Still, it was all brown hair, and the hollows in his cranium plainly had little to do with the sharpness of his wit.

“Yes, but we have resources of our own,” Appius said. A robust man in his day, Appius wore his pedigree with elan, comfortable in the spread of his body from the good life that accompanied age. No one doubted the iron within this man’s soft exterior, or his will to prevail. But, the grey of his hair and the laugh lines at his eyes proposed a gentle demeanor, too, a promise of mercy that would temper his power.

“Now, we expect that blowhard Rufus to set the stage for Scipio, raging on about the Numantine transgressions, the need to subjugate them, and so forth. Thereafter, another stooge will stand up for a resolution, followed by the cry for Scipio. That’s when we must interject our own man’s name.”

“All well and good,” said Scaevola, “except how will we persuade the others that our man is more of a general than the Hero of Carthage?”

“We have the Hero right here,” Appius said, slapping Tiberius on the knee.

“Please, Father-in-Law,” Tiberius said, “I’m hardly a hero. Some would say I left before the job was done.”

“Before the butchery was done, you mean.”

“Yes,” said Scaevola, a slight, dark man with dark, corkscrew hair over all of his body, his head capped by an equally dark crown of curls. His fitness belied his profession, explained better by the intensity of his black eyes when he spoke.  “But Tiberius is right. He won honor in Africa, but he has never run a campaign.”

“No, but his father did, successfully, in Numantia. He is his father’s son and should follow in his footsteps to tame today’s rebellious Numantines.”

“Certainly, we all are in agreement on that,” Crassus said impatiently, “but how do we deflect Scipio from being chosen?”

Just then Diophanes arrived, gliding in as though he floated rather than walked. Without a word, he sat at the far end of the pool next to Scaevola.

“Ah, Diophanes,” Appius said, turning to the small man, “you’ve arrived at last. We are discussing the disposition of Numantia. Do you have a stratagem to put forth?”

Diophanes wore a dark blue robe with an even darker, squared-off border, and simple sandals. His grey-streaked hair had been pulled back hard from his crown and bound at the back of his head like a thick shuck of wheat. Despite the heat of the pool, he seemed cool compared to the others.

“My words shape thought, not worlds. It seems I’ve come at an inopportune juncture. Thus, I take it, it is time to take my leave.”

The others chuckled, “Your leave-taking accomplishes nothing except perhaps the departure of the best mind in the room,” Appius said.  “But, we wouldn’t want you indicted by thoughts of ours that you have not shaped. If you could be so kind, and also have Tiberius’s man Polydius accompany you?”

Tiberius frowned, but Polydius nodded and walked with Diophanes back toward the front of the building.

“So,” said Appius resumed, “how do we stop Scipio from marching to Numantia?

The men drew closer together to speak in low voices, the steam from the pool obscuring their features as they planned.

 

Tiberius found Diophanes and Polydius sitting on a wooden bench that encircled a large, shady elm tree, sipping a fish broth from fired-clay bowls.

“Your breakfast, or an early midday meal?” Tiberius asked.

“Nourishment, no matter when,” replied Diophanes without raising his eyes. “Although my beard does seem to be dining better than the rest of my body. And how went the skullduggery?”

“There is a plan in place.” Tiberius shook his head no at the bowl proffered by Polydius. “And, its execution begins today.”

Polydius put down his bowl without finishing, and began to rise, but Tiberius stopped him, “No, no, finish, finish! We still have a few hours before the Senate convenes. I’m going back inside to train. I have to do something to keep my mind occupied.”

Polydius stood up with Diophanes, who said, “I’ll be going home then, Tiberius.”

“Nonsense. Sit with Polydius, talk to him about Greece. You’ve been there most recently, you can tell him the latest about your homeland. He’ll want to return some day after his manumission.”

“You are kind,” said Diophanes flatly. “Let the gods will he lives so long.”

Tiberius frowned. “Of course he will. If he keeps to his duties, it will be sooner rather than later.”

He turned and went back into the baths.

In the palaestra, Tiberius found a small army of men exercising in various ways, some tossing the heavy ball, others running short sprints, while others practiced gymnastic maneuvers. The sun shone between the ribs of the grills on the narrow windows at the top of the stone walls, causing a ripple effect on the sandy floor. Where it fell, the sand was warm, though it remained cool in the shadows closest to the walls. As with every part of Paullus’s baths, the palaestra seemed endless in length and size, marveled Tiberius, fit for chariot races. Indeed, at intervals of fifty paces, indented alcoves housed the most exquisite copies of Greece’s most beautiful statues, Jupiter casting his thunderbolts, Mercury spiriting across the sky, Apollo shooting his bow, Diana leaping after an invisible hart, Hercules grappling with the horns of the Cretan bull.

Tiberius handed his tunic to Lysis, and began to stretch. As he did so, he heard a commotion from a circle of men a good hundred feet away. Bent over his right leg, he peered at them as they hooted and howled. Gradually, he made out who they were, young and middle-age men of affluence, plebeian and patrician alike, all vying for various positions on the cursus honorum, the highest offices on the path to prestige in Rome. One happened to turn and see him, and smiled. Marcus Octavius could smile, Tiberius thought, enough to warm up a mountain stream. Dark-haired and dark-skinned, with a shaggy black beard to boot, it was a wonder they hadn’t nicknamed him Nubius; perhaps his smile forestalled such a jibe.

He started toward Tiberius, revealing a hitch in his gait as he walked, which made Tiberius frown. In Macedonia, Marcus had caught an arrow in his calf which must have been dirty. The infection shriveled up his leg, causing him to limp. But, he never complained, and he refused to allow it to keep him from pursuing the art of combat.

“Tiberius, come save the day,” he said when he arrived. “Your cousin Nasica is destroying all competition.”

Tiberius allowed his gaze to drift over to the large circle of men. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, consul with Brutus Callicus, and also his distant cousin through Sempronia’s marriage to Scipo Aemilianus, squared off with another man in the center. A follower of the Hero of Carthage, Nasica was distant in more than one way, thought Tiberius.

“I’ve just arrived, Octavius. I’ve barely begun to warm up. And, in any case, I’m no wrestler.”

“But, he’s cutting a ruthless swathe through all of the good men of Rome! No one can stand up to him!” laughed Octavius.

“What about you, Octavius? You’re good for a throw or two.”

“He’s dropped me on my ass twice already, in less time than it took to tell you. Only you can save our honor, Tiberius Gracchus,” and he began to raise the call, “Gracchus, Gracchus, Tiberius Gracchus!”

Others in the circle heard him and turned, then joined in, smiling as they cried out his name. Tiberius pressed his lips together, and continued with his stretching, annoyed. Nasica had always been keen on athletics, winning many a laurel wreath in his youth for various sports and skills. Now, here he was, a consul of Rome, carrying on like a common tumbler, and all his sycophants lining up to roll over for him. And, Tiberius would have to lose, too, even if he had a chance to beat him. Nasica was consul.

He had no stomach for the entire farce. Let the braggart toss the others around. He would not take a fall for his fatuous cousin even if he was a consul of Rome. He began breathing in and out, swinging his arms around and into his chest. But the shouting went on and on.

The group of chanting men parted and Nasica walked through, his sun-browned body glistening from sweat mixed with oil, his curly black hair held close to his head by a leather band.  He stood as tall as Tiberius, but his shoulders were wider, while his waist was narrow. He posed with his fists on his hips and smiled as Tiberius continued with his stretching.

“Salve, cousin, are you next to submit to my might?”

“I am not, Consul Nasica. You must excuse me, but I have my routine, and it’s best for me to keep to it.”

Nasica frowned. “What, are you running from me, Gracchus? You’re acting like you did when you bolted from Carthage, just because of a little blood.”

Tiberius felt a burn begin to rise, but he forced himself to maintain his outward composure. He gestured to Lysis, who left for one of the equipment racks against the wall.

“Oh, now, you can’t say that, Consul,” Marcus admonished lightly, “Tiberius won the Mural Crown at Carthage, first over the wall.”

Nasica seemed to consider the point. “True. But, they were all starving scarecrows by then, thanks to Scipio’s brilliant strategy in cordoning off the city. They were so weak. Anyone could have been first, even you, Marcus, gimp and all.”

Marcus grinned, pulling himself up straight, “Oh so, Consul? Then, we must wonder why you weren’t first at Carthage? How did a seventeen-year-old like Tiberius beat you to the Mural Crown?”

Nasica scowled, raising his head as if to look further down at Marcus. “I attended Scipio as ordered. Otherwise, Marcus, I assure you I would have been first over the wall and first into the Citadel. The latter was an opportunity lost to Gracchus because of his too fastidious nature when faced with the realities of war. But, let’s not stray too far from the matter at hand, Romans. Gracchus refuses a match,” he said, gesturing to Tiberius, who had begun throwing the heavy ball back and forth with Lysis. “So, I guess I must subdue you, again, Marcus. Are you ready?”

Marcus smiled and said, “Oh, yes, Consul, this time I’m ready to upend you.”

He charged at Nasica, who met him with his chest, grappling his arms under Marcus, then rolling his back sideways to lift the smaller man off of his feet. Nasica threw him hard to the sand, and stumbling, stepped on his bad leg. Marcus’ head snapped back as he cried out, almost in rage at the pain. The others rushed to him as Nasica stood, looking down at him.

“Sorry, Marcus,” Nasica said, “I lost my footing.”

Tiberius tossed the ball hard to Lysis, who stepped back to keep his balance before lobbing it back.

“If you’re all right, Marcus, come, get up and I’ll throw you again.”

Marcus exhaled, and said, “All right, but I won’t be that easy again.”

Girding himself, Marcus stood, his face set hard, until he lurched to one side.

“Are you sure? You look a little drunk on your feet,” said Nasica, and the other men laughed.

“Come, do your worst,” said Marcus.

“Seems I already have,” Nasica said, bringing more laughter from the men.

“Attack, Consul!”

But before Nasica could close, Tiberius broke in. “Enough wrestling, Consul, you’ve clearly swept the field. Why don’t you play catch with me instead?”

Nasica turned to Tiberius and looked him up and down. “You’ll make a fabulous lawyer, Tiberius. All right, do your best. Throw the ball.”

Tiberius nodded to Lysis, who heaved the ball to him, then moved out of the way. Tiberius raised the ball and lobbed it to Nasica, who caught it easily, then half-turned and catapulted it back. Tiberius took the full brunt of the heavy ball in his midsection. It doubled him over and sent him staggering backwards, nearly falling to the sand. The men around them shouted their surprise, then clapped and cheered as they saw Tiberius regain his balance.

Nasica laughed, then said, “I guess it’s your turn again, cousin. I suppose now you’ll do your worst. Very well,” he said, crouching with his arms spread, “send it.”

Tiberius paused, frowning. Abruptly, he lifted the ball above his head and charged, roaring. Nasica blinked as he saw the crazed man rushing down on him. He put his hands over his head to take the brunt of the coming blow. Still screaming, Tiberius closed with him brandishing the ball high up, until suddenly, he stopped, and said, “Here,” gently placing the ball on Nasica’s outstretched hands. Nasica fumbled, trying to control the ball’s weight at the awkward angle; he lost his footing, and fell back sitting in the sand.

The group of men stilled themselves, and Tiberius held his breath, ready for anything without being ready at all. Nasica peered up at Tiberius looming over him, and quietly laughed, almost a giggle. The rest of them broke into a howling wave of laughter, almost hysteria of mirth.

“By the gods, cousin,” Nasica said, “you are a slippery one. Remind me to stick to wrestling next time.” Tiberius stretched out his hand, and Nasica reached up. He made a sudden stabbing move with it, “Hah?” and Tiberius pulled back. “Hah!” said Nasica, holding his hand out again. Tiberius pulled him up, and they embraced as the other men applauded and cheered.

They kissed each other on each cheek, and broke. “Good Romans, it’s time to prepare for the afternoon session,” said Nasica. “You’ll join us soon; I’m sure, Tiberius, in a few years. Vale,” and he strolled away with the other men.

Marcus hung back. He threw an arm around Tiberius’ shoulder, and squeezed, whispering, “Slippery indeed. More like a fox than a snake, I’d say.”

“I’m faint,” Tiberius said, “I need a nice, long soak in the caldarium myself.”

“But, surely you’ll be attending the Senate today? They will debate the Numantine problem without question.”

Tiberius. “I’ve had enough excitement,” Tiberius said, turning to walk away, his head down. “I’m sure I’ll learn soon enough about Numantia, just like everyone else. Lysis, to the tepidarium. I need a good scraping and a glass of wine.”