Dramatis personae – The Emperor's Servant

“Coin – Denarius, Emperor Augustus, Ancient Roman Empire, 19-18 BC” by Rodney Start is licensed under CC BY 4.0 

Famous people

Augustus Caesar, aka Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, divi filius, Princeps, etc etc. (63BCE – 14CE) Augustus was a fairly distant relation of the great Julius Caesar – his mother Atia was Caesar’s niece. However by the time of Caesar’s death, the young Octavius was his heir, and he immediately started calling himself “Caesar” so that nobody could forget this. After leading the fight against Caesar’s assassins and getting rid of all rivals, he got himself renamed “Augustus” and acquired the respectful if unofficial title “Princeps” as he was now the Leading Citizen. Adept at acquiring power through unconventional means, Augustus also chose his supporters very wisely: Agrippa was his military man, Maecenas was his PR guru and Livia was the unimpeachably-high-born wife who would be his supporter and adviser for the rest of his life. She also brought two sons (by her first husband) to the marriage which was handy, as Augustus had very bad luck when it came to male heirs of his own blood. Even his nephew Marcellus, who marries Augustus’ only child, Julia, doesn’t make it, though it is unlikely that he die as a result of poisoning by Livia.

Maecenas (70 BCE-8 BCE) was an important member of “Team Augustus” from the very start. Charming and occasionally dismissed by some as effete, Maecenas was nevertheless trusted by Augustus: we find him left in charge of Rome (unofficially) when Augustus goes off to fight Antony and Cleopatra, and he puts down a conspiracy efficiently. He gained his fame through his patronage of poets: his name is used in many languages to mean one who inspires or encourages new writers and artists.

The Sestius Family

The family have changed a lot in twenty years and have lost a couple of very important members – Publius senior (died 24 BCE of cancer) and his second wife Cornelia (died in the plague of 30 BCE). Given how little is in the sources about them all, I have built a fictional Sestius universe around them, and the following is practically all made up by me.

Albinia Sestia – the eldest of the Sestius siblings, nearly fifty years old. Once married to Apuleius, she now lives in comfortable widowhood. I liked Apuleius but Albinia is a much better character on her own. This is also a time in which a great many young Roman men of the upper classes lost their lives in war, and Apuleius’ loss reflects this. Albinia’s poetry is still an important element in the book, and I did wonder if she could become famous for it in the same way that Horace or Virgil did. Reluctantly, I decided that this was unlikely and that Albinia herself did not write for fame but for her own satisfaction. Female poets undoubtedly existed but would not have gained fame: for one thing, it is unlikely that many would have chosen to get published, or been able to afford to pay for publishing or their families’ approval.

Lucius Sestius Quirinalis is about forty-five years old and is now paterfamilias, head of the family, and veteran of several rather nasty battles. In the war that was waged upon Caesar’s assassins Lucius fought for Brutus and Cassius and survived the grim Battle of Philippi in 42. Along with other famous people such as Marcus Cicero, son of the orator, and the poet Horace, Lucius gained a pardon from Augustus and came back to Italy. All this is in the sources, and Lucius is reported as being unwilling to reject his Republican principles altogether: he was known for having busts of Brutus and Cassius in his study at a time when more sensible people quietly got rid of such reminders. In the fictional Sestius universe, he kept faith with his friend Quintus Caecilius by marrying Quintus’ sister Caecilia upon his return from exile after the Battle of Philippi, and had two children with her before she died in the winter of 30 BCE in the same wave of illness that killed Cornelia.

Tia is the youngest in the Sestius family, and the only one not attested in a source somewhere. Now about forty, she has never married – highly unusual for a Roman woman, but understandable considering that she lost her beloved fiance at the start of a decade of serious civil strife across the Roman world: many young men of Tia’s age and status would simply not have been available in the traditional marriage market. Living in her paterfamilias’ household would have been obligatory for a woman in Tia’s position.

Publius Sestius Quirinalis and his sister exist only in my imagination. At the opening of the novel, Publius is getting used to the fact that he is no longer called “the Younger” now that his grandfather of the same name is dead. Born in 35 BCE, Publius has always enjoyed his studies and is into philosophy, which makes him patronising whenever his younger sister is around. He also likes living at Cosa rather than Rome, and has secret ambitions to be a mighty hunter roaming the hills and fighting wolves.

Sestia Caecilia (Celi) was born in 33 BCE and is the spoiled darling of the whole estate. She is fearless because she has never had occasion to feel unsafe. She cannot remember her mother, loves her father, Aunt Tia, Helice and her brother in that order, and is a kind little girl despite being so indulged. She wishes her Aunt Albinia wouldn’t keep giving her books, but realises that it is an advantage to have someone like her aunt living in Rome and keeping in touch with society.

Decius Sestius Quirinalis, the faithful secretary of Rome’s End is now a freedman and as such has acquired some extra names along with his citizenship. Needless to say, he has stuck with the family through their troubles and as a freedman is part of the family group in a way which is alien to modern Western family values. I have made him about ten years older than Lucius. There is just one reference to Decius in the sources – Cicero calls him a librarius, a secretary, in a letter to Publius Sestius.

The staff

As paterfamilias, Lucius is now in charge of two establishments and so we learn about more slaves, freedmen and free men who work for him. I went through the list and couldn’t find any freeborn women who work for him – sorry. Unless you count Tia… I should make it clear that all the staff in this book are part of my fictional Sestius universe.

At the villa estate at Cosa:

Sergius is overall in charge at Cosa – villa and farm, and all their staff. He is a middle-aged man, born into slavery on the estate and picked out to be educated to a high level. He has of course been freed years before this novel begins – the Sestii believe in freedom for key slaves.

Titus is the farm’s vine and wine specialist and cares for little else. He is free as is his wife, Marcella, and they have two sons and a cottage on the estate.

Gallio is the children’s tutor , although naturally he concentrates on young Publius. He is a Greek freedman, recommended to Lucius by Marcus Cicero junior. He gets on very well with Publius by always taking him seriously, possibly the only person to do this.

Helice has been the children’s nurse since Publius was a baby. She was born a slave and was trained in working with children in the house where she grew up in Capua. Once her family there found out that the Sestii would be needing a nursemaid, they recommended her. After Celi was born, Lucius freed Helice on condition she stay with them, and this has turned out beneficial for all. Helice has had no luck getting Gallio to notice her, but is confident that when Celi marries, there will be a place for her in that household.

In Rome, in the house on the Caelian Hill:

Paulus, who was a boy in Rome’s End is now running the skeleton staff in Rome. Lucius and the family prefer to live at Cosa for most of the year, so the household in Rome comprise Paulus and those slaves who have been freed and deserve a quiet life. Many freed slaves would have chosen to stay if possible with a family who had treated them well. So Melissa is still the cook, and while Phoebe is no longer lady’s maid she finds enough to keep her busy. They are helped out by a couple of maids and a handyman. For those of you asking where Mico is, he was freed soon after the events of Rome’s End and moved to Ostia where he works in the port and has an enormous family. He is onto wife number three.

Friends

Gnaius Calpurnius Piso is Lucius’ co-consul in 23 BCE, and probably around Lucius’ age. Like many, Piso was not first choice as consul but as the chosen official died just before taking office, Piso got his chance at promotion. He was an interesting choice, with fairly Republican background, meaning he isn’t the first person you would think of as supporting Augustus. But Augustus knew the propaganda value of promoting people who has once fought against him, and many Romans were practical and saw no point in going against a regime once it was clearly going to stay. Piso has a really interesting background, making him worthy of a book all to himself one day: his father supported Catiline in a notorious rebellion in 63 BC, but Piso did not follow in his father’s revolutionary footsteps. He chose the losing side in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, and then fought under Brutus and Cassius the assassins of Caesar. Like Lucius and Horace and many others, Piso was pardoned and returned to Rome under a widespread amnesty. He and Lucius therefore have a lot in common when they find themselves co-consuls.

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