I HAD BEEN an informer for over a decade when I finally learned what the job entailed.
There were no surprises. I knew how society viewed us: low-born hangers-on, upstarts too impatient for honest careers, or corrupt nobles. The lowest grade was proudly occupied by me, Marcus Didius Falco, son of the utterly plebeian rogue Didius Favonius, heir to nothing and possessing only nobodies for ancestors. My most famous colleagues worked in the senate and were themselves senators. In popular thought we were all parasites, bent on destroying respectable men.
I knew how it worked at street level-a hotchpotch of petty investigative jobs, all ill-paid and despised, a career that was often dangerous too. I was about to see the glorious truth of informing senatorial-style. In the late summer of the year that I returned with my family from my British trip, I worked with Paccius Africanus and Silius Italicus, two famous informers at the top of their trade; some of you may have heard of them. Legals. That is to say, these noble persons made criminal accusations, most of which were just about viable, argued without blatant lies and supported by some evidence, with a view to condemning fellow senators and then snatching huge proportions of their doomed colleagues' rich estates.
The law, ever fair, makes decent compensation for selfless application to demeaning work. Justice has a price. In the informing community the price is at least twenty-five percent; that is twenty-five percent of all the condemned man's seaside villas, city property, farms, and other investment holdings. In abuse of office or treason cases, the Emperor may intervene; he can bestow a larger reward package, much larger sometimes. Since the minimum estate of a senator is a million sesterces-and that's poverty for the elite-this can be a nice number of town houses and olive groves.
All informers are said to be vile collaborators, currying favor, contributing to repression, profiteering, targeting victims, and working the courts for their personal advantage. Right or wrong, it was my job. It was all I knew-and I knew I was good at it. So, back in Rome, after half a year away, I had to stick a dagger down my boot and make myself available for hire.
It started simply enough. It was autumn. I was home. I had returned with my family, including my two young brothers-in-law, Camillus Aelianus and Camillus Justinus, a pair of patrician wild boys who were supposed to assist me in my work. Funds were not flush. Frontinus, the British governor, had paid us only rock-bottom provincial rates for various audit and surveillance jobs, though we did secrete away a sweetener from a tribal king who liked the diplomatic way we had handled things. I was hoping for a second bonus from the Emperor but it would take a long time to filter through.And I had to keep quiet about the King's gift. Don't get me wrong. Vespasian owed me plenty. But I wanted to stay out of trouble. If the august one called my double bonus an accounting error, I would retract my invoice to him. Well, probably.
Six months was a long time to be out of the city. No clients remembered us. Our advertisements chalked on walls in the Forum had long since faded. We could expect no meaty new commissions for some time.
That was why, when I was asked to handle a minor documents job, I accepted. I don't generally act as someone else's courier, but we needed to show that Falco and Associates were active again. The prosecutor in a case in progress had an affidavit to be collected, fast, from a witness in Lanuvium. It was straightforward. The witness had to confirm that a certain loan had been repaid. I didn't even go myself. I hate Lanuvium. I sent Justinus. He obtained the signed statement without bother; since he was inexperienced in legal work, I myself took it to court.
On trial was a senator called Rubirius Metellus. The charge was abuse of office, a serious offense. The case had apparently been going on for weeks. I knew nothing about it, having been starved of Forum gossip. It was unclear what part the document we fetched had to play. I made the deposition, after which I suffered uncalled-for abuse from the filthy defense lawyer, who made out that as an informer from a plebeian district I was an unfit character witness. I bit back the retort that the Emperor had raised my status to equestrian; mentioning Vespasian seemed inappropriate and my middle-class rank would just cause more sneers. Luckily the judge was eager to adjourn for lunch; he commented rather wearily that I was only the messenger, then he told them to get on with it.
Copyright © 2003 by Lindsey Davis
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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