This is a sneak preview of the unedited draft of The Grain Merchant. Changes may be made after editing is complete.
Argolicus opened opened the door of the big stone house to memories and seventeen years of dust. He peered into the atrium in the early morning light as if childhood never left, hoping to hear his father’s voice. Dust motes floated above the stagnent impluvium, the pool in the middle of the hall, coated with green moss. No wonder his mother never came here. The house was full of his father, in spite of the dust and years.
Workmen marched past him into the room in a group. The foreman started calling instructions. And men went off to other rooms leaving Argolicus alone in the room. The early August sun coming through the roof seemed to light up history. Argolicus business conversations in his father’s study and office and somewhere his mother’s laughter echoed from another room. Those sounds were in his head. He pushed them away as he strode across the atrium toward the big study.
The big table, draped with a cloth, stood in the middle. It looked smaller than he remembered. Had it diminished with time? Or was he seeing it as a man rather than a boy?
“Master,” Nikolaos, his boyhood tutor and lifelong companion, interrupted his thoughts. “I’ll prepare a room for you. Which one?”
“The main bedroom. If I’m taking over my father’s house, I might as well move in as the master.”
Nikolaos nodded and went off toward the rear of the big town domus, calling to one of the workmen to follow him.
Argolicus wandered through the house. Town. I’m in town. No more leisurely country villa life. Time for him to act as a responsible citizen and throw off the pretence of running a country estate.
The rooms filled with dust as workers swept, shook out cloths, and dusted alcoves and shelves. The workers covered their faces with cloth to avoid breathing the dust. Argolicus decided to go outside, reacquaint himself with the town of Squillace just miles from his country villa estate. Now that the family town house was open and people were working, he wasn’t needed.
When he stepped out of the vestibule into the street, the summer sun blinded him. He took a few moments to let his eyes adjust. When he blinked a man in magisterial robes, all silk, stood in front of him. Medium height, but with a carriage that implied importance. He met Argolicus’ blinking with unreadable eyes. His perfume seemed to expand in the summer air.
“Sura,” he said in a resonant voice. “Caius Larcius Sura, surely you remember me.” Sura. He remembered a gawky, petulant adolescent, full of pretension and ready to latch on to anyone with a good name.
“Sura, I do remember you. It’s been years. You look well.” His eyes took in the fleshed out face with a hint of jowls, squinting eyes that hinted at poor vision, and wrinkles beside his mouth that would soon turn into permanent scowl lines. The man looked ten years older than his early thirties.
“Elected magistrate and chosen civil curator of Squillace just this year. Keeping the town in peace. At least I try.” He glanced at the street, where streams of people were filling the street headed in the direction of the harbor. “Lately, we’ve had this problem.” He nodded toward the people in the street. “We’re having a council meeting tomorrow. You should come. You’ve been up in the hills too long. It’s time you joined us.”
There was no excuse for it. Argolicus had made a decision to enter town life, and here it was, an opportunity open to him on the very first day. One of the marching men in the street shouted, “What about us?”
“I’ll be there. You can all fill me in on the unrest. I see the people are agitated.”
“It’s about the grain harvest.”
“What about it? It was a good year. No rain.” He thought of his own fields up at the estate where the rain harvest had ended just two weeks ago. The crop had been excellent.
“You’re right about the harvest. But most of it is going north, to Rome and Ravenna. The estate owners and the grain merchants made money. The poor people made none. And since the grain is leaving, there isn’t enough for the people who don’t own land. Not that it would make a difference. They have no money so they can’t afford bread, even if there were plenty of grain here.”
“When is the meeting? I’ll be there.”
“At the normal hour. It’s good to see you back in town. I hear you went to Rome.”
Argolicus nodded his head.
“And served as praefectus urbis?"
Argolicus nodded again. This time a bit irked. If Sura already knew, why was he asking? Then he understood, an appointed magistrate of Rome was a much more powerful title than the elected magistrate in Squillace.
“Yes, it’s true. But I retired to come back here. This is my home.”
“Ah, it is beautiful here.” Sura waved his hand toward the ocean and then up toward the mountains. “People still remember your father. A wise man I hear. We need men like that.” Then, as if he were late for an appointment he said, “Well, I’m off. Good to see you back. I look forward to seeing you at the council meeting.” He headed up the street in a swirl of silk and perfume.
It might be smaller here, but politics was the same. Men who jockeyed for position and measured others they met in relation to themselves. Argolicus sighed. Inside the house behind him a workman was singing as he cleaned. He closed the door to the house and started down the street in the direction away from Sura.
It was still early enough for the shops to be busy. Cooks and slaves bartered with butchers, fruit sellers, and millers. A smith was hammering over an open fire while small boys watched. Restaurants open since before sunrise were feeding their last morning patrons.
Argolicus followed the street until he reached the city center. The forum was crowded with more shops all selling wares to housekeepers and tradesmen. Citizens gathered in small groups ready to trade gossip. Behind the forum, the town council building loomed over portico columns in front of the entry door. Argolicus briefly wondered why Sura had gone in the other direction and wasn’t installed in the city council performing his duties.
He had a sense that Squillace was a normal town, thriving on trade and hearsay. It was his town and he would find his place here. He turned around to head back to the house, his house. Walking back on another street, the stalls were busy with locals, but fewer discontents marched. His childhood haunts returned. There was the milk stall where they’d given him cream when he was a boy. But the man in the stall was not the same.
“Argolicus? Young Argolicus? Is that you?” a voice called from across the street. “It’s me Rufus. Rufus the One-Eyed.”
Argolicus would recognize that gravel voice anywhere. The best fruit in all of Squillace. “Rufus, yes, it’s me. A bit larger now,” he said, laughing. “What do you have today?”
“Look at these figs. Oh, no, they’re not good enough. Hold on.” He bent down under the stall table and pulled out a golden peach. “The last of the harvest, but ripe and very, very tasty.” He handed the fruit to Argolicus.
“Rufus, you’re still the same. Always a cheerful word for everyone and a surprise for the boys. You do still give treats to the boys, yes?”
Rufus chuckled. “Of course. They grow up to be men who are willing to pay, just like you.” He chuckled and then asked, “Have you moved into town? Come down from the hills?”
“Yes, I’m opening up the house. The men are there now blowing dust around, but soon it will be liveable.”
“And Nikolaos? That feisty tutor, is he still with you?”
“Nikolaos is still with me. Feisty as ever and just as wise.”
Rufus nodded. He handed the peach to Argolicus.
Argolicus asked, “Are you content here in this stall?” And before he could thing, he added, “Would you consider moving?”
Rufus paused, “Moving?” Then his face broke into a smile. “You are inviting me to take up my old stall at your domus?
“Yes, the stalls are empty. The house is open.”
“I pay for my space here. Let me think about it,” Rufus said. “My old spot.” He grinned. “I’ll see what I can do. Who is your housemaster?”
Argolicus realized he was not ready, and laughed. “I don’t have one yet. It’s time I found a staff for the house. In the meantime, you can talk to me.”
Argolicus cradled the peach in his palm and started back to the house.
The afternoon August sun beat down on the slave market as Argolicus and Nikolaos entered the crowd. Some people were eyeing the slaves, others were bidding on the men and women on display. Several slave masters lined up their goods on platforms proclaiming strength, or youth, or beauty depending on the slave.
Suddenly Nikolaos stopped as if frozen. Argolicus turned to him. “What is it?”
“Joram!” Nikolaos said under his breath, nodding his head toward the farthest platform. “He is not a good man.”
The slave master, large man whose powerful muscles are now hidden by the flesh of overindulgence was describing a pubescent girl standing naked in the blazing sunlight. “…she will grow into a delightful companion or a sturdy worker.” He brought his arms down defining imaginary curves. “Turn around. Let them see all of you,” he said to the girl. Tears ran down the girl’s cheeks as she turned. An involuntary shiver ran down her back as she turned on the platform.
Argolicus saw nothing different about this slave master from the others but he saw Nikolaos’ distress. “There are plenty to choose here. We don’t have to deal with him.”
“He was…,” Nikolaos started. He tried again, “When your father bought me. It was from him.”
Argolicus thought of the young Nikolaos, imported from Greece. A 15-year-old in the large man’s stable of slaves.
“I was treated well,” Nikolaos said as if reading his master’s thoughts. “I was educated and valuable. But girls like her had rough treatment with only enough food to keep them alive. They slept crowded in tiny rooms. Look at that girl there, probably fresh from the farm. The way things are these days her parents probably sold her to make ends meet.” “We’ll find a housemaster, a doorman, and a cook from someone else,” Argolicus said.
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Argolicus slid onto a bench in the council hall amid nods from fellow town members. The long stone bench was one of two that edged the side walls of the meeting hall. The town principals sat in chairs arranged against the far wall on a slightly raised stone dais. He saw Sura in deep conversation with a greying man with squinting eyes. Argolicus tried to remember the man’s name but couldn’t.
In the years he had been away at Rome it seemed as though the membership had dwindled. There should be close to a hundred men here. As he did a quick head count, he realized there were less than 50 men in the hall, including the principals up on the dais. Wide spaces on the benches testified to members who were not there. He understood now why Sura had invited him.
Sura was waving at Argolicus, gesturing for him to come up to the principals’ dais, mouthing, “Come, come.”
Argolicus hesitated, thinking he would just watch and observe in this meeting. But, Sura was right, he was a principal of the township and belonged on the dais. He rose and went to Sura. As he mounted the step up to the dais, all eyes followed him as he made his way to Sura. Not the beginning at the council he had imagined. He was in the thick of politics. All his misgivings from his time in Rome as Praefect swirled inside his stomach. Father would not have been hesitant. But, Father had not experienced the Senate in Rome. And now he was his father's replacement heir and it was time to take his place.
Sura a smiled. “You remember Donicus. he was our taxman before you left.”
Argolicus now remembered the man who was greyer and squinted more than before. “Donicus,” he said, “Keeping track of everyone and everything?”
Donicus looked up, squinted, and said, "Argolicus, has your wisdom grown in Rome? Did you bring back knowledge you can share? I'm the last to hear any stories. Tell me you are here now in Squillace.”
“I am. I am. As you can see this is my first time at the council since I left. Today I'm here to observe and learn. I have years to catch up. But I’m wondering, why are so many seats empty in the benches?”
Donicus shook his head. “Too comfortable in their country villas to come into town for business. Almost everything is left to us to decide.” He waved at the group of principals on the dais.
“Everyone's role seems different now,” Argolicus said.” Look at Sura, he's a magistrate.” Sura expanded under his silks. Then he motioned for Argolicus to sit in an empty chair next to Donicus.
Donicus nodded his head. “Indeed. We need strong leaders. This year we have, Vespasianus.” He nodded his head toward the central chair on the dais. A tall man in a fine linen tunic sat with pomp surveying the room. He turned his head, covered with dark, almost black, hair, cut in a fashionable Roman style cap, to survey the room, frowning at the empty spaces on the benches.
Donicus continued, “You see we have leaders but now we have…”
He was cut off as Vespasianus rose with pomp from the chair to begin the session. “Citizens, we have several issues to discuss today. I’m hoping we can get through them all with a minimum of discord. Vopiscus Aurius Macro, our treasurer, will explain the new tax levies and how they will be paid to our governor, Venantius as well as the funds to improve the warehouses and ongoing maintenance of our city streets.”
Donicus, pulled out several vellum sheets and began reviewing columns of figures. Vespasianus continued, Caeso Rabirius Donicus, our curator civitatis, will report on the success of the markets in general and the success of the grain harvest this year. We can all be grateful for our harvests.”
Donicus gathered several sheets of vellum and prepared to rise, but Vespasianus continued. “Missing from us for several years on his appointment by the king in Rome, we welcome back Gaius Vitellius Argolicus.” Heads turned toward the dais searching for the new face. “The town of Squillace is grateful for the leadership of his father, Gaius Vitellius Maximinus, and look forward to continued guidance from Argolicus.”
Men nodded in agreement and then burst into a brief but hearty applause. Argolicus rose and then sat.
A man swathed in silks rose from the benches and walked toward the dais to address the principals. Argolicus recognized his neighbor Bartholomaeus, a man of strict principle and growing wealth. He nodded toward Donicus and Macro and then addressed the room, standing with defiant widespread legs.
“We have an urgent situation that must be addressed today. More immediate than warehouse improvements or even taxes. I am speaking of the unruly rabble disturbing our streets, defacing property, and causing civil unrest. In spite of our king, we have our eternal Roman laws.”
Argolicus saw some heads nodding agreement along the benches. But the principals on the dais seemed inured to tirades like this. Bartholomaeus continued his impassioned rhetoric.
“We need the town warden to keep peace in the streets so we can go about our business undisturbed.”
A few calls of agreement murmured on the benches.
“Most importantly, we need to hear from the arbiters of grain supply like Pompeius Severus Quintinus. We need to know why the town is short of grain when the harvest was good. Not only good, one of the best in years. Why are we short of grain? Who will quell the hungry mob? Where can we get grain now? I call on Quintinus to speak.”
The heads on the benches turned toward the dais. There was a hum of voices, and then silence. Argolicus realized the empty chair was not for him but for the missing town principal Quintinus.
Around him the principals muttered and exclaimed in sotto voce . “Where is Quintinus?” “Not like him to miss a town meeting.” “Just when we need him.”
While the principals flustered, Argolicus knew that he might see Quintinus this very afternoon. This afternoon he had an appointment at his house. He would ask him then about the grain and why he wasn’t at the town meeting.
A scrawny man stood on the dais. His angular face held the trace of Greek ancestry not uncommon here in the south. “Perhaps I can give a brief explanation.” Vespasianus waved his hand for the man to continue.
“Citizens, Vibius Horatius Bartholomaeus, I am not Quintinus but I speak with him often about these matters. The grain harvest was plentiful this year. The weather was kind to the fields. There was suspicion about normal shipments to Ravenna and Rome from Egypt. Quintinus stepped in. He brokered almost all the grain from here in the south to meet that demand in the north.”
Men grumbled on the benches. Several stood up to speak.
Vespasianus turned his regal head from one side of the hall to the other. He held up his hand. “Let Sextus Gabinius Pennus continue.” Bartholomaeus frowned. The men at the benches sat down.
Pennus continued. “Quintinus knows best where the grain comes from. He is in communication with the growers - the large estates and the small farms. We’ll need to wait for him to let us know if more grain is available.”
Bartholomaeus interrupted. “We can wait. Meanwhile something must be done. If we can’t appease the people…the hungrier they are the more they will turn to disruption. I call on the principals to settle this matter as quickly as possible.”
All the men on the benches stood. Cries of “Now” and “Stop them!” rang through the large hall. Some raised their fists in anger others ran toward Bartholomaeus and stood next to him in front of the dais. On the dais the principals began whispering questions and shaking their heads.
Thoughts and questions ran through Argolicus’ head. Was Bartholomaeus doing this as a play to become a principal? He was richer than some of the men on the dais, like Pennus the wine merchant. But he was not from an established family. Although he had property, much of his wealth stemmed from slave trade. And, this crisis in the council. He had never seen the citizens of Squillace so out of order. They were as disruptive as the people in the streets. Just in a different way. It seemed as if the entire town was erupting in chaos.
Vespasianus rose from his chair and raised his hands. As he turned his head to look out over the town membership, the men on the floor grew quiet. Those at the benches lowered their fists and hung their heads. One by one the men around Bartholomaeus returned to their places. Finally, Bartholomaeus walked to take a place on a bench.
Vespasianus lowered his arms and said, “Citizens, nothing will be solved without order. We can discuss our situation rationally and reach our conclusions. Grain distribution cannot be solved until we hear from Quintinus. Let us, for the moment, continue with the other issues of today’s meeting.” He turned around and motioned toward Donicus.
Argolicus stood. “I have an interim proposal.” Donicus tugged at his tunic, waving his sheets of numbers in his other hand. Argolicus turned, “In a minute,” he said.
Vespasianus frowned, sure that Argolicus wanted to prolong the discourse. Men on the dais looked on with shock. On the benches, men murmured and furrowed brows.
“Citizens,” Argolicus continued, speaking to everyone in the hall. “In the matter of the grain shortage, I will speak with Quintinus. I have an appointment at his home later today. I recently returned from Rome where I settled disputes on a regular basis. Correct information is the basis of sound decisions. Let me gather facts from Quintinus, our grain merchant. I will report back to the magistrate Vespasianus. If we need to confer with other principals of Squillace we can do that once I have the facts. Then we can set up a grain dispersal for the people. Once they know they have food, I am sure their fractious behavior will subside.”
The men on the benches settled back. Heads nodded. Everyone on the dais turned to Vespasianus. Bartholomaeus frowned but finally nodded in agreement.
“A reasonable solution,” Vespasianus said. “Once we calm the populace, we can return to regular town affairs and the prosperity of Squillace. We look forward to your answers.” He nodded to Argolicus. “Now let us turn to the matter of the tax levies…”
Argolicus listened with half a mind through the tax levies, dickering over the warehouse improvements, and Donicus’ explanation of the markets. He was focused now on how to approach Quintinus about the lack of grain for the region when his main purpose in being at the house was to meet Quintinus’ daughter. His mother had arranged with the woman’s mother for the two to meet. It wasn’t quite an arranged marriage since both of them were adults, but a manoeuvring to unite two families. The wealthy grain merchant without old Roman family ties and the established principal family whose representation was Argolicus.
His biggest concern was how to approach Quintinus. If the merchant had oversold the local harvest leaving no grain for the town, then the council would be pressed to find grain. Would they pressure their biggest merchant to make arrangements? Would Quintinus make good to the citizenry for his zealous bargaining? Was the local shortfall truly due to the merchant’s over selling the entire harvest? So much of southern Italy’s grain went through the warehouses of Squillace. Even if Quintinus was to blame, how would the town provide for the people? The grain came here from all over the South. It wasn’t as though the town could call on the next valley over to provide grain.
Vespasianus was bringing the council meeting to a close. Donicus turned to Argolicus. “Congratulations on your resolution. That Bartholomaeus causes a stir at every council meeting.”
“Well,” Argolicus said, “it’s not resolved yet. I don’t know how the town will make up for the shortfall. It seems that Quintinus is the one who brought us all to this dilemma.”
“Remember that Quintinus is a bargainer. You will have a hard time getting a straight answer from him, especially if what you ask costs him.” Donicus squinted into the emptying hall. “You can trust only his prices, nothing else.”
“I’ll keep your words in mind,” Argolicus said, putting his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Thank you for your warning.” He left the hall nodding to those who were still in the big room. Men grouped in clusters of two or three talked in low voices. Some nodded back while others ignored him. Ah, politics. Always the same. And he had voluntarily stepped into the middle. As he headed back toward his house, he hoped he would maintain his father’s good name.