Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome - By Steven Saylor



The Lightning Reader

* * *

A.D. 14

Lucius woke with a start.

He had been dreaming. In his dream there was no earth, only a dark, empty sky, and beyond the sky, unimaginably vast, the crystalline firmament in which the stars shone brightly. No clouds obscured the stars, and yet there was lightning in the dream, lightning without thunder, random flashes of blinding light that illuminated great flocks of birds that suddenly filled the dark sky. There were vultures and eagles, ravens and crows, every sort of bird imaginable, soaring and flapping their wings, yet making no more sound than the silent lightning. The dream had filled him with a sense of urgency and confusion.

Awake now, Lucius heard a faint rumble of thunder in the distance.

He heard other sounds from elsewhere in the house. The slaves were up and beginning to stir, stoking the kitchen fire and opening shutters.

Lucius jumped from his bed. His room, with a small balcony looking west, was on the upper floor of the house. Below him was the slope of the Aventine Hill. The nearer houses, along the crest of the hill, were large and well made, like his family’s house. Farther down the hill, humbler houses and tenements and artisans’ workshops were crowded close together, and farther yet was a flat expanse with large granaries and warehouses close to the Tiber. At the river the city ended. On the far side of the Tiber, woods and meadows were divided into the private estates of the rich, which extended to the far horizon of hills and mountains.

How his mother hated this view! Born into a wealthy branch of the Cornelius family, she had grown up in a house on the other, more fashionable side of the Aventine Hill, with a view of the vast Circus Maximus below, the Capitoline Hill crowned by temples off to one side, and, directly opposite, the opulent Palatine Hill, where the emperor lived. “Why, from our rooftop, when I was a girl,” she would say, “I could see the smoke from sacrifices on the Capitoline, watch the chariot races below, and even catch a glimpse of the emperor himself, strolling on one of his terraces across the way.” (“All at the same time, Camilla?” Lucius’s father would say, gently mocking her.) But this was the view Lucius had grown up with. For twenty-four years this had been the Roma seen from his room, a jumble of the rich and poor—mostly the poor—where slaves labored endlessly in vast storehouses to accommodate all the goods and grain that arrived day after day, carried up the river from the great world beyond, the world that belonged to Roma.

The month of Maius had been overcast and rainy so far, and this day promised to be no different. By the dim light of dawn beneath an overcast sky, Lucius saw the towering cypress trees along the Tiber sway this way and that. The blustering winds were warm and carried the smell of rain. In the far distance, black storm clouds roiled on the horizon, bristling with lighting.

“Perfect weather for an augury!” whispered Lucius.

His room was sparsely furnished with a narrow bed and a single backless chair, a small pigeonhole bookcase filled with scrolls left over from his childhood education, a mirror on a stand made of burnished copper, and a few trunks to accommodate his clothing. He opened the most ornate of the trunks and carefully removed the special garment it contained.

Ordinarily, he would have waited for a slave to help him dress—arranging the folds correctly was a complicated task—but Lucius could not wait. The garment was not simply a toga, such as the one he had put on when he became a man at the age of seventeen. It was a trabea, the special garment worn only by augurs, the members of the ancient priesthood trained to divine the will of the gods. It was not white but saffron with broad purple stripes. Except for the fitting, when the tailor had made it for him, this was the first time Lucius had even touched the trabea. The never-worn wool was soft and thick and had a fresh smell of murex dye.

He put on the garment and did his best to pull the hanging folds into a proper arrangement. He glanced at himself in the copper mirror, then reached into the trunk again. He picked up a slender ivory wand that ended in a little spiral. The lituus was a family heirloom and a familiar friend; Lucius had