SO, YOU SAY, WE NEED A DISASTER
Chapter I, where the prefect of Praetorian Guards has a problem and the emperor finds a solution
Ancient Rome, early spring A.D. 64, alternate universe…
Some history-literate readers will say that the story does not reflect true historic events. “Hey, Rome did not depend on olive oil from Greece! And anyway, how can oil prices get an empire into economical trouble? D’oh!... Not that oil!”
The answer is simple: this is an alternate universe, where anything is possible. And if you don’t see a connection with our world, maybe it’s because there is none. Or maybe it’s because you just don’t see it.
But let’s get to the story, in which the prefect of Praetorian Guards has a problem and the Emperor finds a solution.
* * *
Roman nights are chilly in the early spring, but it did not bother the guests in the sumptuous imperial palace on Palatine Hill. Hot air from the basement warmed every room including a large triclinium filled with noble guests and some lesser folk. To tell the truth, not all the guests were so noble. O tempora, O mores! The dinner had just started so their garments still were clean, but there was no clean soul, no noble man, no unsoiled woman in the room. How had they become the emperor’s guests? Who cares? Certainly, that’s not the emperor who just left his guests for the privacy of his tablinum, the study room.
Right after him, another guest left the room. Albeit “guest” was not the right word for Ophonius Tigellinus. The prefect of Praetorian Guards was almost as much the master in the palace as the emperor himself.
These two had a good reason to neglect food, wine, and guests. Praetorian Guards represented both the intelligence and the secret police of the vast empire, and the emperor wanted a report.
“Should I start with the best or with the worst?” Tigellinus asked.
“Worst,” the emperor said firmly and waved his hand toward the door. “I can get good news from those jesters in the triclinium.”
Tigellinus chuckled with content and said, “The worst news is that Greek olive oil prices went up.”
“Why should I care about olive oil prices?” the emperor asked. “What am I, a poor shoemaker?”
“You should not,” Tigellinus agreed. “But you should care about shoemakers and the rest of the plebs. They care about olive oil, because that’s what they eat every day with their bread.”
The emperor shrugged his shoulders and said, “Fine, and why did the price go up?”
“First, the Greeks had bad weather last year,” Tigellinus said. “Second, they hate us. So for them overpricing us is like killing two Persians with one arrow.”
“Can’t we just send a few legions there?” the emperor asked.
“We already have several legions in Greece, Caesar,” Tigellinus said, “but it does not make them love us. Besides, you cannot wage a war over a few lousy sesterces. Great minds like you understand the importance of olive oil prices, but would patricians understand it? You’ll be laughed at by the people of Rome. They will say that you bring an olive branch of war.”
“You’re right,” the emperor agreed. “It’s so disgusting to rule over people who only think of oil and bread. Speaking of bread, at least it’s coming to Rome uninterrupted, right?”
“Yes, Caesar,” Tigellinus said. “Egypt sees us dead every night in their dreams, but they are too afraid to disobey.”
“Yes, I’ve got it,” the emperor said. “So who else likes us a lot?”
“Everyone,” Tigellinus said. “Gauls, Germans, Numidians, Jews… Speaking of Jews, we are not on top of their tetrarchs’ agenda.”
“How sweet!” the emperor said sarcastically. “So who has topped us on their hate list?”
“Christians,” Tigellinus said. “That’s their new sect. Jewish tetrarchs feel threatened by them. Granted, Christians don’t like Rome either. They say you are the essence of evil and that soon you will be beaten by their good guy.”
“And who would that be?” the emperor asked, sniffing scornfully.
“Some guy we crucified by decision of their own court about 30 years ago,” Tigellinus said indifferently. “They also say that Rome is the Capital of Evil and that Rome will be destroyed. They also deny your divine nature.”
“That’s what all Jews do, right?”
“Kind of,” Tigellinus agreed. “Strange, I never thought about that before. I guess regular Jews don’t deny you so annoyingly as those Christians. Except for their other sect, those zealots. They are calling for a revolt. Poor things...”
“Whatever,“ said the Emperor with a dismissive wave. “So what else is going well?”
“We’ve caught and executed the head of the Sicilian pirates,” Tigellinus answered.
“Those contrabandists who avoid paying customs and fill Rome with cheap Greek wine and Eastern opium?”
“The same and the only, Caesar,” Tigellinus confirmed. “Of course, now all their families have sworn to kill you, me, and destroy Rome… some day, but what can they do? They are lucky enough to get past my guards into the city, only it would not be wise for them to push their luck too far.”
“So what happened between you and him?” the emperor asked, narrowing his eyes at the prefect. “Just the truth, Ophonius, all I need is the plain truth. I can invent lies myself. I know he paid you for years so that you would let him go on with his little business.”
Tigellinus’ eyes betrayed his confusion, but he pulled himself together and said quietly, “He skipped several payments. I warned him, but he did not listen.”
The emperor shrugged his shoulders indifferently and said, “So, what else?”
“Same old, same old,” Tigellinus said. “Barbarians attack our northern borders, Mauritanian Berbers occasionally rob trade ships, Parthians don’t want to give Armenia back, but overall nothing much to worry about. Nobody outside can really challenge us, Caesar, though many try.”
“So many provinces, so many satellites, and all of them wish us dead.” The emperor sighed.
“What do you want? We are the greatest empire on Earth, Caesar. Empires have provinces, empires have satellites, and empires have other enemies. Empires never have friends – none but ourselves.”
“I wonder why they have not burned Rome yet,” the emperor said.
“Keeping in mind what we are going to discuss next,” Tigellinus answered with a chuckle, “I wonder why you have not burned Rome yet.”
The emperor looked at him with a calm surprise.
“Domestic affairs,” the prefect said.
“What about them?” the emperor asked.
“Starting from small stuff,” Tigellinus said, “this Jewish sect gets a lot of followers in Rome. You know, the ones who deny you and want to see Rome destroyed. The Christians.”
“So? Don’t tell me you cannot handle them.”
“There are too many,” Tigellinus said. “Massacre will not make you more popular, Caesar. Granted, they are just a little annoyance, but they poison the public with all the hate tales about you.”
“Public?” the emperor asked, raising a brow.
“The public is nothing, but it can be used against you, Caesar,” Tigellinus answered, “And the public is not very fond of you. People talk about Agrippina and Octavia—”
“She was conspiring against me, you know that!” the emperor said.
“I know,” Tigellinus said apologetically. ”But still, Agrippina was your mother, and the public did not like what you did.”
“Why can’t they just shut up and get over it?” the emperor asked.
“They would, but you know, that price of olive oil makes them look for a reason to dislike you,” Tigellinus answered. “And somebody can try to use that.”
“Who? The public does not matter, and I can execute any patrician just on suspicion,” the Emperor said.
“Say, Gaius Calpurnius does not look very happy. And what about your teacher, Seneca? Did he really retire, or did he just take some time to make new plans? And what about Petronius, that Arbiter Elegantiae of yours?”
“What about them?” the emperor asked scornfully. “Three emperors in a row – Claudius, Caligula, and Tiberius – were killed by Praetorian Guards, and you are backing me up. What can those patricians do?”
“What about Julius Caesar?” Tigellinus asked. “Don’t give your enemies a weapon against you. Don’t let them feed on public opinion. We can’t even execute them on the spot, because then the public would turn on you even more, and you would only get more enemies.”
“Fine, so what are you getting at?” the emperor asked.
“Two things,“ Tigellinus said. “We need to make you popular, and we need the people’s attention off the current problems. And this must be big. Say, if you’d save the city from some imminent danger or catastrophe, then everything would be different. I’d be able to execute any of your enemies on the spot, and the crowd would cheer up. You’d be able to send legions wherever you want, and everybody would applaud you.”
“But what can I save the city from?” the emperor asked. “All these enemies inside and abroad haven’t done anything serious yet.”
“You almost wish their wishes would come true,” Tigellinus said. Then he chuckled and looked at the emperor. A soft silence filled the room broken only by voices coming from the triclinium. Both men were thinking.
“So, you say we need a disaster,” said the emperor at last, quietly.
* * *
Modern history is certain that early Christians had nothing to do with burning Rome in A.D. 64. Many historians also agree that Emperor Nero had nothing to do with it as well.
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